Expert Witness: “Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary”

Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary” (Blu-ray+DVD Combo) (Disney)

Alice down the rabbit hole of HD

Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation of both of Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels (“The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”) streamlines the story for a trippy bounce down the rabbit hole. A flop upon release, it was rediscovered by the drug generation in the sixties and finally embraced as a Disney classic-lite by subsequent generations. You could see it as a juvenile acid trip: innocent little Alice imbibes strange food and drink which makes her grow and shrink, talks with a cat that has a tendency to dissolve in front of her eyes and takes advice from a caterpillar puffing on a water pipe. But let’s not get too far down that path.

Like most of Disney’s animated features, it gets rolled out every seven years or so in a new edition. This year it bows on Blu-ray in a brilliant new master. For this look, I turn to the experts for guidance.

“Quite a massive jump in color saturation and vibrancy in the new 1080P transfer of Disney’s 51′ classic Alice in Wonderland,” writes Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver, a site that specializes in measuring and surveying the technical quality of the discs under scrutiny. “Reds, blues and yellows are notable improvements, there are no unseemly jaggies – as well as a dramatic improvement – it looks flawless – almost as if it were brand new.” A gallery of screen shots from the new Blu-ray edition and the previous DVD releases contrasts the visual quality and the palette, with the Blu-ray indeed brighter, sharper and more cleanly saturated.

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DVDs for 11/09/10 – The Archers on The River Plate and Rediscovering John Cazale

Life and romance plays out like a series of videogame challenges by way of a comic book fantasy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal), which I review at MSN. It’s based on a series of graphic novels and director Edgar Wright, whose love of popular culture bounces through his films and TV projects with creative abandon, celebrates the graphic qualities of the comic book origins in a playfully cinematic manner. Also new is Neil Marshall’s Romans-versus-Barbarians warrior epic Centurion (Magnolia), a survival thriller of a lost Roman legion in 2nd Century Britain that I reviewed as part of my SIFF coverage here, and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (Criterion), which I review on my blog here.

The rich Technicolor of The Archers' Naval drama

The Battle Of The River Plate (aka The Pursuit of the Graf Spee) (Hen’s Tooth) – The penultimate collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the filmmaking team known as The Archers, is a World War II military drama with an unusual approach. The British campaign to stop German pocket battleship Graf Spee, a fast, well-armed ship wreaking havoc on British transports in the South Atlantic, was the first major British victory of the war. The Archers frame the conflict as a battle of wits between two brilliant naval minds (Peter Finch commanding the Graf Spee, Anthony Quayle conducting the British ships).

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DVDs for 09/14/10 – My Son, some Pirates and the Crippled Avengers

Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (Disney) and Letters to Juliet (Summit) are both covered by fellow MSN critics, while I review Princess Kaiulani (Lionsgate) at MSN and Starcrash, the 1978 Italian Star Wars knock-off, on my blog here. That covers the big ticket releases and the cult item of the week. As for the rest…

Sit down, my son, my son

My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done (First Look / Absurda) – “David Lynch Presents a Werner Herzog Film,” reads the credits of this weirdly deadpan drama, based on the real-life matricide perpetrated by an unstable actor who reenacts a Greek tragedy in his own life and played out as a surreal police procedural. It’s hard to tell if Herzog adopted some of Lynch’s sensibility along with some of his acting company, or if the juxtaposition merely makes their compatibility more apparent, and honestly, I’m not sure I get the film, but it burrowed into me nonetheless.

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DVDs of the Week Ponyo, Totoro and the Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki is one of Japan’s living treasures, a beloved filmmaker whose animated films number among the most beautiful and most enchanting productions ever drawn by hand. In this day of CGI productions, the aging artists still personally draws his key frames and defining characters, with a love and craft that comes through every frame. They may seem old fashioned and perhaps too sweet for American audiences—his films, while loved by many, have never found the huge audiences that flock to the more knowing and culturally savvy Pixar films and Shrek sequels—but the lovely fables, epic adventures, ecologically-minded dramas and modern fairy tales are all treasures.

Ponyo: Below the waves

His most recent film, Ponyo (Disney), is released this week by Disney, which—despite the great voice line-up of their English language adaptations—treats his films more like exotic imports than mainstream movies. Part Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, part ecological fable and part children’s fantasy come to life, this gentle storybook film is a simple, sweet tale animated with a delicacy unique to animated features. Ponyo is a water sprite, a curious undersea creature and daughter of the sea gods who gets swept to the shore, trapped in the pollution of the human world and rescued by a human boy, with whom she falls in love. This isn’t the romantic type of love of Disney’s The Little Mermaid but the unconditional affection of young kids and she takes human form to join him on land, which upsets the balance of nature so carefully kept in check by her wizard father (voice of Liam Neeson) and elemental mother (Cate Blanchett).

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DVDs for 12/29/09 – Perfect Paranormal Getaway Activity: Facing Ali

The release week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day is traditionally an off week for DVD, usually with just a couple of minor releases. Not so this year. TV releases this week include Glee: Season 1: Road To Sectionals (Fox) and United States Of Tara: The First Season (Paramount) (see TV on DVD here), and there are some substantial film releases debuting this week.

David Twohy’s A Perfect Getaway (Universal) is a deft piece of genre filmmaking, which is no backhanded compliment. In a film culture where B-movie plots are routinely executed with budgets in excess of $100 million in place of intelligence and thrown into thousands of theaters, the well-tuned genre piece is an increasingly rare breed. A Perfect Getaway is a type of film we’re used to seeing in myriad variations: an urban couple leaves the comfort of civilization for a vacation isolated in the wilds, where there just so happens to be a killer on the loose and no end to suspicious characters.

A Perfect Getaway: Trouble in paradise

Twohy delivers everything we expect—attractive performers in paradise (Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich as cute urbanites fumbling through the jungle, Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez as rather more prepared trail companions), breathtaking landscapes and lush scenery, ominous tensions and plenty of action—and something you likely did not: suspense, surprise and sheer fun. In a film culture where genre storytelling all too often boils down to the stock gimmicks used over and over again with special effects or high concept twists to hide the familiarity, this is so refreshingly old school smart that it feels almost new. For more on the film, read my feature review here. The DVD features both the theatrical cut and a “Director’s Cut,” which runs about ten minutes longer, but no other supplements. The Blu-ray features an alternate ending, which isn’t all that different but is significantly shorter. I prefer the original.

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TV on DVD 11/24/09 – Back to the Golden Age and a side trip to the seventies

The Golden Age Of Television (Criterion) – The title is no hyperbole: For a brief period in the 1950s, as television was coming of age, a handful of showcase anthology shows turned live television theater into the vibrant center of original American drama. It came from New York rather than Los Angeles, where ambitious producers pushed young writers to writer dynamic contemporary teleplays and drew casts from a new generation of hungry young actors (many of them trained in the Actor’s Studio) and New York stage veterans alike. And in the days before videotape and before filmed programs were the norm, these were all performed and broadcast live, partly because of the attitude that live TV was not just a program, it was an event). (The accompanying booklet, written by TV historian and Paley Center for Media curator Ron Simon, gives a much more complete background to the culture of live TV.) The production realities of live multi-camera shoots were both a restriction and an opportunity for creative solutions: an expressive visual language was born and evolved for a brief period, until film became the TV drama standard and brought a more conventional style with it. But it was only when the focus shifted from adaptations of classic novels and plays to original contemporary stories, written by a new generation of writers who watched the evolution of American society in the years after the war and wanted to get their observations into their stories, that everything came together: stories that viewers could relate to, scripts that inspired the best from the directors, drama that rose to the levels of the most gripping contemporary stage plays and actors who devoured the roles in a one-night-only performance.

Patterns: Ed Begley, Everett Sloane and Richard Kiley

This collection features eight landmark productions from that short-lived era, from the original Marty (1953), written by Paddy Chayefsky and starring Rod Steiger as the lonely working class butcher, to the original Days of Wine and Roses (1958), directed by John Frankenheimer (the most fluid, dense and dynamic of live TV directors) and starring Cliff Robertson. Both of these production were expanded into acclaimed feature films, as were many other productions featured in this set: Rod Serling’s dissection of corporate culture Patterns (1955) and his poignant Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), the bumpkin comedy No Time for Sergeants (1955) that made Andy Griffith a star (in both versions), and Bang the Drum Slowly (1959), with a pre-stardom Paul Newman learning his craft in front of the camera. Because they were live and unseen since their original broadcast (at least until 1980s revival on PBS), these original were largely forgotten next the polish of the feature film adaptations, but live TV brought out something unique to these dramas: an intensity, an urgency, an intimacy, and an expressive storytelling language combining theater conventions and film technique with the intimacy of the small screen and the creative solutions to production limitations. “It was live,” explains Keenan Wynn in the introduction to one drama. “Not perfect, but live.” A Wind from the South (1955) starring Julie Harris and Rod Serling’s searing show-business drama The Comedian (1957) fill out of the collection. The Comedian is a perfect illustration of these limitations turned into strengths, with its feral performance by Mickey Rooney and the almost claustrophobic intensity created by director John Frankenheimer, who fills the screen with a density of background detail and a flurry of action while zeroing in on the dramatic center with laser-like precision. It couldn’t be more different from Marty only four years earlier, where Delbert Mann pulled the camera back to show characters almost isolated in their drab environments, rarely going in for the close-up, letting Steiger’s body language communicate not just his loneliness but his resignation to living out his life as “a fat, ugly little man.” You can see the evolution of language and technique in four short years, but also just how defining the director’s eye can be on live television.

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DVDs for 11/10/09 – Going Up with Pixar and back to Earth with a little Ballast

The most tender, touching and deftly told love story of the year is in the opening few minutes of Up (Disney), a wordless survey of a lifelong romance that plays out between the meeting of two adventure-hungry children and the lonely sunset years of the widowed husband decades later, the happiness gone with the death of his wife. That’s just the prologue but it communicates the depth of emotion and devotion and need that will continue to reverberate behind the comic comments and outlandish fantasy adventure, a mix Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, the romance of explorers from thirties lore and Boy’s Own Adventures, the bubble-gum colors of a children’s picture book and a bouncy humor, all stirred with memories of childhood dreams.

A room with a view
A room with a view

I review the film, which is another wonder from Pixar (this one directed by Pete Docter, of Monsters, Inc. fame), in detail on my blog here. As for the DVD and Blu-ray release, it’s another excellent Disney disc with well-produced supplements designed to appeal to adults and children alike. There are two animated shorts—Partly Cloudy, which preceded the film in theaters, and Dug’s Special Mission, an affectionate Looney Tunes-esque piece featuring the affectionate and overexcited pup that slowly reveals itself as a prequel of sorts—and a real-life adventure featurette. “Adventure is Out There” follows the production crew’s own trip to South America and the real-life table-top mountains that will become the film’s destination, and it’s a wonderful trip for us. Like the travelers themselves, we marvel at how much the amazing and unreal the actual formations look, and that personal connection makes this documentary into a adventure of sorts for the filmmakers. There’s also commentary by director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson and the featurette “The Many Endings of Muntz,” where the writers and creators discuss how and why they settled on the final exit for the film’s villain and reveal so much about the Pixar storytelling process along the way. There’s a reason they are best storytellers working in animation (and some might say all movies) today.

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TV on DVD for 11/10/09 – Sunny Days on Sesame Street and Dawson’s Creek

Sesame Street: 40 Years Of Sunny Days (Genius) celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the longest running children’s television show in history with a combination video scrapbook and greatest bits compilation. After an intro that eases us into the cultural flashback with snapshots from each season we join Gordon leading a child onto Sesame Street, promising that it’s a street like no other, for the show’s debut episode. Ernie sings “Rubber Ducky” and Kermit sings “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” there’s an orange Oscar the Grouch (he went green later; apparently, it was easier for Oscar to be green, the color of mold), and Alistair Cookie (Monster) introduces Monsterpiece Theater’s production of “Me Claudius,” all in the first half hour.

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street
Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street

There’s a greatest hits of musical guests from Diana Ross and James Taylor to Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keyes (plus the crazy quilt of guest stars imploring Ernie to “Put Down the Ducky”) and Muppet skits (spotlighting the great comedy chemistry of Ernie and Bert and the surreal humor of Jim Henson’s crew) sprinkled through the programs. Pop culture flashbacks—R2D2 and C3PO help Big Bird to count, The Fonz teaches us the difference between on and off in his own inimitable way and the Cookie Monster discos—place the show unmistakably in its various eras. And touchstone moments of the street portion of the show are revived, including the day the grown-ups finally see the Snuffleupagus, the marriage of Maria and Luis and the birth of their daughter, and most touchingly the discussion with Big Bird as they try to explain the death of Mr. Hooper (after the real-life actor, Will Lee, passed away). That’s the draw this show has for baby boomers who grew up on the show. For the current crop of tots, we get closer to the present with the first appearances of Elmo and Abby Cadabby and the contemporary guest stars, from Robert DeNiro explaining his own brand of method acting to Elmo to Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing as The Shoe Fairy. The nostalgia factor is pretty irresistible for adults and playful approach of education and gentle tenor of its skits makes it perfect of children of any generation, making it one of the few kids DVDs that adults may enjoy just as much as (if not more) than their kids. The two-disc set also includes a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews (which can be accessed while watching the show or viewed as a separate supplement), an optional pop-up trivia track and a few bonus bits.

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New review: Up

The most tender, touching and deftly told love story of the year is in the opening few minutes of “Up,” a wordless survey of a lifelong romance that plays out between the meeting of two adventure-hungry children and the lonely sunset years of the widowed husband decades later, the happiness gone with the death of his wife.

That’s just the prologue but it communicates the depth of emotion and devotion and need that will continue to reverberate behind the comic comments and outlandish fantasy adventure, a mix Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” the romance of explorers from thirties lore and Boy’s Own Adventures, the bubble-gum colors of a children’s picture book and a bouncy humor, all stirred with memories of childhood dreams.

A home away from home
A home away from home

The latest from Pixar, directed by Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.) and written by Bob Peterson (“Finding Nemo”), is another journey movie, but this one is undertaken by a senior citizen determined to complete that odyssey into the unknown he was never able to give to his wife.

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