Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Written by Senora Bicho

Disney was always the cornerstone for animated movies, enjoyed for many years by young and old. Then Pixar came along and set a new standard. I no longer rush out to see the newest Disney movie because the days of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King seem long gone. The Princess and The Frog is the first to grab my attention in quite a while and it rekindles that old Disney magic.

Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress who dreams of owning her own restaurant in New Orleans to fulfill her late father's dream. She is working two jobs to earn enough money to buy the building she wants and finally has enough to make an offer but Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), her mother, worries that she is working too hard and missing out on love.

At the same time Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) arrives in town after being cutoff from his parents for being too frivolous. In an attempt to improve his financial situation, he plans to marry Charlotte La Bouff (Jennifer Cody) who is Tiana's best friend and the daughter of a rich sugar-mill owner. However, Prince Naveen and his servant Lawrence first run into Doctor Facilier (Keith David), who lures them with his voodoo powers and promises of great riches. However, Dr. Facilier unveils his real plan and turns Prince Naveen into a frog. Lawrence, having been abused by Prince Naveen for too long, agrees to take on his appearance to marry Charlotte and split her money with Dr. Facilier.

Tiana is catering the party that Charlotte is hosting to welcome Price Naveen. She learns that someone has outbid her for her restaurant, and while in despair she comes across Prince Naveen who has escaped. He mistakes Tiana for a princess and promises to give her the money she needs if she will kiss him. She agrees but after the kiss she instead turns into a frog. Prince Naveen and Tiana are then set off on an adventure to become human again and set everything right.

Disney takes great care in maximizing the Blu-ray experience here. Most notable about the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer is the vibrancy of the colors. They explode off the 1.78:1 screen. Also well rendered is the sharpness of the lines are sharp and the clarity of the details. I didn't notice any artifacts in the picture. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track immerses the viewer within the movie. The many instruments in Randy Newman's New Orleans score are identifiable. The dialogue is understandable. Ambiance from many locales can be heard from the surrounds.

The extras are definitely worth watching and add value to this collection. I wasn't sure that I would ever watch it again but some of the extras actually heightened my enjoyment of the movie and I will definitely watch it again with more appreciation of the depth of the story and all of the work then went into making it.

An audio commentary by co-directors/co-writers John Musker and Ron Clements along with producer Peter Del Vecho is provided. From the first cell, they point out valuable and interesting information. There is Work-in-Progress Version that played in the upper left corner allowing viewers to compare the film's early stages with the final product. "What Do You See? The Princess Portraits Game" gives younger viewers the opportunity to pick princess out of fireflies.

The following extras are all presented in high definition. "Bringing Animation to Life" (8:08) illustrates how they used live action footage to help the animators create more real life scenes. It is really interesting to see how these techniques help the characters move more realistically. "Magic in the Bayou: Making of a Princess" (22:11), "The Return to Hand Drawn Animation" (2:43), "The Disney Legacy" (2:31), "Disney's Newest Princess" (2:51), "Princess and the Animator" (2:26), "Conjuring the Villain" (1:50) and "Return to the Animated Musical" (3:13) all provide behind the scenes information help create a stronger connection to the movie and deeper meanings. There are also Art Galleries, Deleted Scenes (11:43) and a music video for "Never Knew I Needed" by Ne-Yo (4:04).

At first I didn't think that The Princess and the Frog lived up to the old Disney glory. But after viewing the extras and pondering on it a little bit, I have changed my mind. The characters have depth and charm and the story is well developed with a good message. This is traditional fairy tale with a modern twist. The princess is a strong independent character who doesn't need to be rescued. Yes, she ends up with the Prince in the end but only because they are the perfect team who bring out the best in one another. You want them to end up together to take on the world.

As a bonus, Randy Newman works his magic and creates a great soundtrack. The songs really help to create the mood for each scene and bring the New Orleans setting to life. If you have been on the fence on giving this movie a try, jump in with both feet and be prepared to be delighted.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ripley's Believe It Or Not (1930-32) - The Complete Vitaphone Shorts Collection

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Robert Leroy Ripley was a cartoonist, writer, entrepreneur, and amateur anthropologist. A successful blending of those accomplishments is what made the man and his name famous and well known around the globe. He is the Ripley in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. What started as a newspaper panel feature with some text and a drawing of the subject became a radio show, movie shorts, numerous books, and a short-lived early T.V. series. Those movie shorts are now available on DVD for the first time from the Warner Brothers Archive Collection.

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is a two-disc collection of the 24 complete Vitaphone short films shot in 1930-31. Each episode is filled with on-location footage, photos sent by followers of his panel, and of course, his world famous drawings. Supposedly filmed as if each short took place in a different setting, such as Ripley’s office, a courtroom, on board a passenger ship, an elegant estate dinner, and so on, each appear to be just another studio set. Yet on that set there was always one person that would have some kind of trick or feat to wow the audience and give them the treat of a live "Believe It Or Not," as these presentations of facts, oddities, and tricks came to be known. Each episode features Ripley presenting the information then drawing a picture, showing some film, or merely just making a statement or answering a question put to him.

Each roughly eight-minute episode is crammed with many "Believe It Or Not"s and provides a good look at some of these oddities captured on film. Like the women who can read 200-plus words in 24 seconds, a two-headed turtle and many other odd animals with some special distinct feature or distinct patches of fur, like the cow with Mr. Lincoln on its side. Some more good tidbits of info include the fact that at the time America had no national anthem and Rip shows that that The Star-Spangled Banner was based on an old drinking song. He also presents some of his most famous drawings that include the man who had horns, the man who bored a hole in his head so he could carry a candle, and the ladies of Burma who elongate their necks by adding rings to them. And those are just a few of the treats provided.

The drawback is that some feats, as neat as they are, just aren’t very interesting. Like the lady who made the large yarn ball. Some of the footage shown is of people and places that time forgot, which consist of old hermits who lived on the same out of the way farm all their lives. Looking back at 1930s America that doesn’t seem that hard to believe. But at the time I’m sure folks were wowed by it. The information is presented quickly and at times is a bit hard to digest or get a handle on, making it a bit difficult for those that want to go and actually check Ripley’s facts. An interesting note here is that Ripley did have a fact checker, one of the best and most dedicated in a linguist named Norbert Pearlroth, who had been with Rip since his early newspaper days. So I’m sure most of the facts stand true, believe it or not.

The two-disc DVD is a good look at Ripley and the legacy he created. We see in these 24 short films the beginning of the latter-day television shows, one hosted by Jack Palance is the one I remember most, which continued to bring these odd feats, strange places, and people right to our doorsteps and into our homes. The major drawback to the two-disc set is that there are no special features at all. Not even a five-minute look at the life of Robert L. Ripley, which would have been the best part of the set, giving us a bit more information on the man and what he created. It would have been nice to further explore the T.V. shows that came later, the museums and “odditoriums” he opened and which house many of his finds and art work. If you want to know more you have to search it out which is okay but it seems like a missed opportunity to make this set even better by adding just one more short film on Ripley himself. I say rent this one for its bits of good facts, displays of oddities, and historical significant but overall not really worth the loot, especially with no extras.

Believe It Or Not.

Available to order through Warner Bros. Archive.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Written by Hombre Divertido

Sometimes it is just best to put old dogs out of their misery.

With a plot that is too contrived for adults, and contains nothing to which children can relate, there is no audience for this film. Nonetheless Disney sent this 88-minute (which happens to be about as long as it was in theatres) dog to store shelves on March 9th, 2010 in a set that includes a Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital copy, thus providing you and your family with three ways to avoid Old Dogs.

Disney somehow managed to get John Travolta, Robin Williams, Seth Green, Kelly Preston, Matt Dillon, Rita Wilson, Bernie Mac, and Ann Margret to participate in a script so thrown together and contrived, that it is a mystery how it ever got sold. It’s bad enough that Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston are in this, but to have allowed their child (daughter Ella) to participate should be considered a form of child abuse.

In Old Dogs Charlie (Travolta) and Dan (Williams) are lifelong friends and co-owners of some sort of sports-related marketing company, which like other aspects of this film, is loosely defined. Seven years earlier, Charlie had taken Dan to Florida to help him get over his divorce. One night in Florida, they get drunk, Dan gets a tattoo on his chest, meets Vicki (Preston), gets married, has sex, and gets an annulment. Vicki shows up (present day) to let Dan know that she has to go to jail for two weeks, and that he is the father of twins (Conner Rayburn and Ella Blue Travolta). Yup, it’s got Disney family film written all over it. So Dan and Charlie end up being saddled with the care of the children for two weeks while negotiating the biggest deal in the history of their company.

Since there is little introduction to the children or exploration into true childcare issues, ridiculous scenarios are introduced such as people taking the wrong medication and then dealing with the side effects. Again, a great comedic vehicle for a family film. Even more contrived is Charlie’s soliciting the help of friend and children’s entertainer Jimmy Lunchbox (a wasted Bernie Mac in what would sadly be his last film) who helps turn Dan into a human puppet so that he can better relate to his children.

One cannot help but feel for these actors as they clearly realize they are in a poorly written film and thus try desperately to breathe life into dead scenes. Unfortunately this results in what appears to be some of the worst over-acting seen on screen in years.

The bonus material includes a blooper reel on the Blu-Ray and DVD that is so poorly edited that it is impossible to appreciate, audio commentary, and deleted scenes. The audio commentary is more distracting than anything else, and the deleted scenes deserved to be deleted. The packaging indicated music videos on both the DVD and Blu-Ray, but they did not appear to be on the DVD.

Recommendation: The release of this film was delayed three times: According to Disney, the postponements were due to the death of Bernie Mac, Travolta’s son, and the health issue faced by Williams. The poor quality of the film should have been the reason, and it should have resulted in the project being scrapped long before filming began. There is nothing here worth your time or money. Wait for it to come out on television, which, based on its brief stay in theatres should not be long, and then watch something else.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hannah Montana - Miley Says Goodbye?

Written by Pirata Hermosa

To coincide with the end of the third season, Disney released the latest Hannah Montana DVD today. As the title suggests, there’s a big question that needs to be answered. Is Miley (Miley Cyrus), really planning on leaving behind her secret life as Hannah Montana and moving back to Tennessee?

Thinking back on her visit to Tennessee, which was the basis for 2009’s feature film, Miley finds herself dreaming about her horse, Blue Jeans. Longing for the country life, she talks her father, Robby (Billy Ray Cyrus) into bringing the horse to California. But Blue Jeans isn’t satisfied at just being left in the stables; he begins following her home, to school, the beach, and just about everywhere she goes. Not knowing what to do about her horse’s wandering ways, she goes back to sleep and once again dreams about Blue Jeans, who helps her realize that she wasn’t just missing the horse, but she’s missing Tennessee. And the only thing to do is to pack up her belongings and move back home.

While she struggles with her decision and how she is going to tell her two best friends, Lilly (Emily Osment) and Oliver (Mitchell Musso), that she’s leaving, her brother Jackson (Jason Earles) is busy struggling with his first apartment and the fact that it’s falling apart. To make things even more complicated, Oliver has been asked to open for the band “Tepid Funk” on their six-month world tour. This means they would both be leaving Lilly totally alone. Feeling guilty, they decide to take her out for a day of fun and adventure, so she’ll have something to remember them by. After a little more soul searching, some advice from her brother, a pinch of wisdom from her father, and a musical montage about friendship, everything works out in the end.

The DVD contains five Season 3 episodes: “You Never Give Me My Money,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Friend,” “Promma Mia,” “He Could Be the One,” and the two-part season finale, “Miley Says Goodbye?” There is also an alternate ending for “He Could be the One” and two other bonus features.

"Sister Secrets" is a look at the set with behind-the-scenes access to the cast as Miley’s sister, Brandi, interviews them and asks embarrassing questions about one another. This was actually fairly entertaining and a little silly, as it should be.

"Hannah’s Highlights" is reminiscent of watching Pop-Up videos on VH1 where interesting trivia and completely random thoughts are shown on the screen during the episode “You Never Give Me My Money”. If you’re interested in just watching the episode, it’s much better to watch without the comments because they are very distracting.

It’s hard to understand why this season finale is being marketed as it is. Granted, there is a cliffhanger, but it’s not really a good one. Not only has it already been announced that there will be a fourth season, but the suspense only lasts for a week as Part One was shown last Sunday and Part Two is on this Sunday. With the DVD dropping between the two airings, it probably won’t generate any extra purchases.

The season finale is also a little flat as it deviates from the normal formula. It spends way too much time focusing on Miley’s dreams and her talking horse. Normally, Miley would be dragging her friends in to some elaborate scheme that ultimately backfires, but instead all of the humor is left up to Jackson and his new apartment.

The other four episodes on the disc are random selections from throughout the season and don’t really have any common link between them. They are fairly typical episodes and most fans will like them.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

FlashForward: Part One, Season One

Written by Hombre Divertido

Its 11:00 a.m. Pacific Standard time, and everyone in the world passes out for exactly two minutes and seventeen seconds, during which, they all have a vision of their lives six months into the future. Once everyone awakens, there are disasters everywhere. Planes, helicopters, cars, and buses, have crashed, patients in surgery have died, swimmers have drowned, chaos reigns. A team of FBI agents in LA are assigned to figure out what happened, how it happened, will it happen again, and can it be prevented. John Q. Public tries to deal with their individual Flash Forwards (Visions). Are they real, and can the future be changed?

During the FBI investigation, videotapes are reviewed. People are seen passing out at banks, grocery stores, malls, and sporting events. One tape reveals a person walking around at a baseball game while everyone else in the world is passed out. Intrigued? Welcome to ABC’s newest science fiction anthology series Flash Forward.

The series premiered on September 24th 2009, and after ten episodes, went on hiatus. With episode eleven scheduled for broadcast on March 18th, ABC released the first ten episodes in a two-disc set on February 23rd. This would appear to be a marketing ploy to allow people who have possibly missed some of the shows to get caught up, but more importantly to draw attention to a series that has been off the air since November. One can certainly wonder how effective this will be since the episodes are available online, and people who are interested in owning the series would wait for a full season release.

Nonetheless, Flash Forward opens with two strong episodes that are sure to draw in the most skeptical and even those who don’t consider themselves science fiction fans. The characters are generally easy to relate to, and the individual stories are told effectively considering the limited time available. The introduction of the mysterious figure at the end of episode one, the discovery of a second person who apparently also was immune to that which caused mankind to blackout, and the delivery of the line “D. Gibbons is a bad man” (Which needs to be on t-shirts) by the young daughter (Lennon Wynn as Charlie Benford) of the lead F.B.I. agent (Joseph Fiennes as Mark Benford) on the case, make for some of the most enthralling writing for television in years.

Unfortunately, when you start that strong, it is hard to sustain the momentum, and the writing does begin to falter, as due some of the performances. Though it has only been ten episodes, there are still too many storylines that have gone nowhere, and though they still may, from a purely investigative perspective it seems illogical that they have not thus far. The introduction of a possible explanation to the unusual event could easily be seen as a huge error in judgment by the writers, as it clearly seemed to suck the energy out of the episode in which it occurred. Certain characters have made choices and taken action that seem obviously inconsistent with that which has been established, and other actors are simply not up to the task of playing the roles in which they have been cast. Sadly, one of the most obvious is Dominic Monaghan, who was so wonderful to watch as Charlie on Lost, but is now miscast as Simon Campos, the arrogant quantum physics genius who claims to have been responsible for the blackouts.

Whether Flash Forward can regain the excitement and mystery established in the first two episodes remains to be seen. That and the answers to many other questions are forthcoming in the next six weeks. Regardless, it would seem that a release of the first ten episodes on DVD with bonus features that include a look ahead as well as an interesting and entertaining, though all too brief, feature on how the series opening scene was created, is going to be somewhat of a hard sell.

Recommendation: Flash Forward has the potential to follow in the successful footsteps of the phenomenon that is Lost. The writing needs to get back on track, allow the characters to be more consistent in their behavior, and some of the performances need to get better. There is certainly enough pure energy and mystery in the first few episodes of the series to make them worth owning, but waiting for the entire first season to be available would seem to be a better choice in these tough economic times.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Lola Montes - The Criterion Collection

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Criterion may singlehandedly be keeping the idea of Film As Art alive today. The films they release can't appeal to the broad range of people who rent their movies from a box outside of a 7-11. But for those who are willing to put in the time, they can be memorable and rewarding in ways that I usually only get from good literature. Last year, I had the privilege of reviewing their release of a relatively current film, Brand Upon The Brain!. That film was untraditional in its narrative and told a number of stories, rewarding the viewer for repeated viewings with its depth. It was very stylized but the substance was there to be unlocked.

Criterion has now released what is considered a classic of the art/cult film genre, Lola Montès. The film from 1955 is directed by the legendary Max Ophuls. This film is my first opportunity to see one of his films but the German director is legendary for those of us who read about the classic directors. His use of cinematography and long sweeping shots were a definite influence on the works of Kubrick - you can see it almost directly in Barry Lyndon. But while this film was groundbreaking at the time of its release, what is always curious to me know is how will it resonate with audiences 55 years later. We are sophisticated viewers for the most part - and people who are going to pick up a historical film in French by a German director probably have higher expectations of their movie than anybody who pays to see anything with "Squeakquel" in the title.

The movie is told in six parts. Each forms a sort of movement in a symphony. Each part does not necessarily stand alone but they each illustrate the themes of the picture and do form different emotional beats throughout the film. Most of the story will be told through flashbacks - it's an old standard that allows the director to manipulate the story. Dishing out facts at the director's discretion often makes a movie feel forced, which is why the flashback can backfire. Here, it allows a natural progression of themes to illustrate what we see in the beginning and leading into our final scene.

The movie opens in a circus. It's here that we see the glory of all of the director's bag of tricks. It's also the place that I started to worry about the next two hours. The camera tracks back and forth across the members of the circus. There is a cacophony of movement - the camera and characters. It's hard to even know where to focus. That is until the Ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) takes over as our de-facto narrator. He's going to guide us through this early scene and direct us to where we will look in Lola's life during our flashbacks.

A circus is a great symbol for many reasons. For one, it's a little self-contained microcosm. It can represent the world in general with people and animals from all walks of life and geography. Or it can be a simple family. In Lola Montès, the circus is the world that Lola has escaped to from the "real world". But like we'll see in the "real world" - the question will become "Is Lola a prisoner (a trapped and trained animal) or is she really the one in control?" As she descends (as if from the Heavens) for her entrance, she commands the attention of the Ringmaster and the crowd of men. The power of her sex and love is palpable (beautifully portrayed by Martine Carol). That descent is also going to be symbolic of her descent in real life.

After seeing Lola as more of a commodity to the Ringmaster, we are guided to the second movement of her symphony. This is the first of many flashbacks that will be told out of order. Here we see her relationship with Liszt. This scene is Lola at one of her heights. She is at the peak of her talents as an artist - singer, dancer and actress. Dance is her calling and main talent. The colors here are so brilliant - it's amazing to think this is the director's first color film. Baz Luhrmann could only have wished for the colors in Moulin Rouge to be as brilliant or as evocative. Lola's green dress is life in all its glory.

The third movement finds us starting back at the circus - about to reach the halfway point, not at a peek but at one of her deepest valleys. Lola is filmed at such angles to appear a caged animal. The Ringmaster takes us back to her "happy childhood" but his words are juxtaposed by Lola's flashback. The scene with her mother is once again full of movement and disorientation. Lola's mother treats her like a commodity to - an asset to be married off as soon as possible. Their relationship is underscored by the fact that a young Lola is portrayed by the older actress - it shows us that she is still the same scared girl trailing after her mother.

The fourth and fifth sections are where the movie is really made. The symbolism becomes a little heavy handed - she literally bites the hand that feeds her as she escapes her first marriage. As we transition back and forth between the three rings of the circus and their activities and the three ring circus that her life becomes, we get that same dizzy feeling. We see Lola's emergence as a sexual being after leaving her husband - using her sexuality for power in ways that won't be popular in films until almost a decade after this film was released. We also get an insight into her talents as a dancer - "you give your body but you keep your soul" is advice that she gets about her dance but it applies to her sexuality also. The fourth section ends with the Ringmaster promising her money to be in his circus (can she keep her soul if she sells her body for his money?).

The fifth section revolves around her relationship with Ludwig I. It's a wonderful set of scenes that function like a microcosm of the film. Lola and Ludwig have a wonderful seduction of each other through art and dance. But once the King has Lola, he realizes that he can't keep her. This is brilliantly portrayed through a sexually charged painting of her without actually having to show the two of them together. Her power is not one that can be contained. The camera illustrates this with more gorgeous movements and various color schemes.

The last section is the coda to the symphony. The crescendo of the fifth section flows back into the climax in the circus. Lola is literally performing without a net, just as we've seen her the whole movie. Can she survive another fall - in this case, a dive from the high wire. I'll leave the final act to the viewer but once again, Ophuls can't resist taking the viewer by the hand. His final tracking shot lasts a lifetime as he backs further and further away from Lola. It feels like the viewer is being taken off the stage so the curtain can fall on the big top for another day.

So that leaves Musgo to ask the question again - does a 55-year-old movie hold up to today's viewer? In most ways it does. The themes don't mean the same as they did in 1955. The shock of Lola's emerging sexuality is precious but not shocking. In fact, her treatment by men and the Ringmaster is best revisited today as an allegory on how we treat star actresses - not a theme that would have resonated the same way when the film was released. It's hard to do just a multi-layered story justice in a review like this and that's a good sign. Multiple viewings are going to be necessary to put the different sections into the overall context.

The movie is a treasure for those with patience. The acting is flat in spots - but that has to be the direction. It's important that Lola appear to be no more important than a piece of meat or a collection of expensive clothing. As viewers, we're aware that we're watching a movie the whole time - the narration and camerawork call attention to it often. But I compare it to reading a book - every time you turn a page, you realize it's a book but your brain is able to use that time to slow down and let the story expand in your mind. That's what this film does - your brain takes what's on the screen and over time your mind fills in all the missing details. That just doesn't happen with anything described as a "Buddy" movie.

Criterion has done a wonderful restoration. The movie looks tremendous and the extras are just what you'd expect of a cult/art film. The audio commentary by Susan White is like attending a college lecture on the film - very informative. There are multiple features on Max Ophuls that makes me want to explore more films from his career. I hope Criterion finds the right audience for a film like this - someone needs to pick up this torch and continue making films like this.