Now in Theatres: Only Lovers Left Alive An Incredible Jarmusch Product

Call him an eccentric filmmaker, call him a fringe director, call him what you like; after much success at Cannes and great word of mouth at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, The Only Lovers Left Alive takes the vampire genre and turns it on its head.

Theatrical One-Sheet for ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics, 2013

Theatrical One-Sheet for ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics, 2013

(Note: This film was screened at last year’s TIFF 2013)

What is The Only Lovers Left Alive All About?

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a reclusive immortal vampire whose life experience is a veritable slice of human history — having inspired and influenced scientists, philosophers and writers for centuries — but whose current existence is that of an obscure but cult-like rock star whose anonymity is part of his mystique. Getting sick of human corruption and humanity’s taste for self-destruction, Adam plans to end it all with the help of a custom-made wooden bullet, but a video call from eternal lover Eve (Tilda Swinton) dissuades him from his final purpose, leading the pair to reunite and wax nostalgic about eons of co-existence, discourse about love, life and the pleasures of accumulated experiences.

What Does Only Lovers Left Alive Compare To?

The film is heavy on philosophy in the most creative way, think Interview with the Vampire meets Forrest Gump, without the comedy and the famous onscreen encounters with historical figures.

"Did I ever tell you I invented the guitar in 1268? Ha, just kidding, I'm NOT a vampire..." Tom Hiddleston and Anton Yelchin in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics, 2013

“Did I ever tell you I invented the guitar in 1228? Ha, just kidding, I’m NOT a vampire…” Tom Hiddleston and Anton Yelchin in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics, 2013

 

The Pros

The film does away with much of the vampire film genre artifice — special effects, flight, mind control, etc., — and instead focuses on the nature of immortal existence, specifically the wisdom acquired from centuries of friendships, failures, dangers and the need for hidden identities. Hiddleston is mesmerizing as a cautious but erudite bloodsucker with a taste for creativity, passing off his brilliance as the work of others, shunning interaction after so many centuries of disappointments. Tilda Swinton offers a perfect counterbalance as the emotional and passionate half, a woman driven by beauty, books and long-standing friendships with other secretive vampires, namely the allegedly late playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (John Hurt), revealed to have written the works of Shakespeare after all.

Jarmusch spends very little time on artifice but rather many a scene on the meatier, psychological aspects of immortality, making for a captivating subject matter featuring two very capable actors immersed in an uncommon tale. Hollywood, take note. THIS is how you make a great vampire film. No sparkles.

The Cons

Despite a great script and impeccable pacing and editing finesse, some cuts could have benefited the final product. I found the latter-half inclusion of fellow vampire upstart Eva (Mia Wasikowska) rather useless and futile, delaying the story which held well enough on its own with the lead pair. Also, a last reel sequence featuring a Lebanese singer was quite pleasant to watch but was utterly superfluous, having very little connection to the plot and felt like filler.

"Do you hear their song, my love? What beautiful music they make..." Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics, 2013

“Do you hear their song, my love? What beautiful music they make…” Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics, 2013

 

Treasure Trove?

Ironically, the film originally contained some more vampire-heavy action scenes, however when pressed on the issue, Jarmusch pulled a 180 and decided to strip the film of all such nonsense, preferring to focus on their mindset rather than their ability to move faster than the eye can see, etc… Good call, sir.

The Final Word on Only Lovers Left Alive

This is definitely a piece for those vampire lovers out there more interested in their history, longevity and mentality rather than their paranormal abilities, super-strength and other popular culture attributes. Sure, those are fun too, but once in a while it’s quite enjoyable seeing how a writer-director can incorporate immortal life with human history, all the while adding that much needed spice of life spawned from such a timeless existence: an elegant, artistic portrait of a couple, albeit one who has shaped our civilization here and there, by nudging history in the direction it has taken us today.

Personally, I’m hoping for a sequel.

Score: 5 out of 5

Now on Blu-Ray: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a Flawed Masterpiece

Blu-Ray Cover Art for THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2013

Blu-Ray Cover Art for THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2013

By Dominic von Riedemann, Pop Culture Landscape Contributor

 

What is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug All About?

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his 12 dwarf companions reach The Lonely Mountain and confront the dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch).  However, tensions threaten the group: Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is obsessed with the fabled Arkenstone, and Bilbo’s magic ring has a malevolent effect on the Hobbit’s otherwise gentle personality.

Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) – having split from the group – learns that an ancient enemy is once again preparing for war.

What does The Desolation of Smaug compare to?

Most of us born in the 20th Century know J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s novel and its sequel The Lord of the Rings, which director Peter Jackson filmed over a decade ago.

In a controversial decision, Jackson decided to film The Hobbit in three parts, linking it more closely to subsequent events in Lord of the Rings.  This means showing what Gandalf was up to after bailing on the Dwarves, plus padding the plot with some new, and familiar, faces.

"Wait...how are we in THIS book?" Evangeline Lilly and Orlando Bloom in THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2013

“Wait…how are we in THIS book?” Evangeline Lilly and Orlando Bloom in THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2013

My Preciousss

Those who were bored by the previous film, An Unexpected Journey, will love the action here.  Whether it’s Bilbo and company fighting giant spiders, a three-way battle between barrel-riding Dwarves, Orcs and Wood Elves (filmed by Andy Serkis) or Gandalf taking on the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, there’s plenty of mayhem to keep adrenaline junkies happy.

Jackson and his writers embellish Tolkien’s tale, adding elements that bind it more closely to Lord of the Rings.  This means a heavily CGI’ed Orlando Bloom returns as Legolas, the true nature of Bilbo’s ring gets more play (an idea Tolkien never explored until he started writing LotR) and Thorin’s obsession with the Arkenstone has more resonance.

Peter Jackson rarely screws up his casting choices and he makes some great ones here.  Evangeline Lilly kicks ass as the Elven warrior Tauriel (making up for Liv Tyler’s limp Arwen) while Lee Pace plays the arrogant King Thranduil to perfection. Luke Evans is appropriately stoic as the heroic Bard of Laketown, a nice contrast to Stephen Fry’s flamboyant Master.  But they pale in comparison to the menace unleashed by Cumberbatch as Smaug. Jackson ramps up the Wyrm’s conversation with Bilbo, toying with Bilbo’s awareness of his mission and the “Preciousss” he carries.

We Hates It Forever!

Unfortunately, this movie has serious flaws (SPOILER ALERT!).  It feels long, and filled with excess weight.  Several scenes could have been easily trimmed, and Gandalf’s battle against the Necromancer hearkens back to his confrontation with Saruman in Fellowship of the Ring – if the Eagles save Gandalf again in the third flick, I’m throwing something heavy at the screen.

Tauriel is a great addition to the otherwise Boy’s Own atmosphere of The Hobbit, but Jackson shoehorns a love triangle between her, Legolas and the handsome dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner).  It feels tacky and the interracial angle makes little sense.

However, there’s one monster plot hole at the climax (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!): when Smaug guesses the Ring’s true identity, why doesn’t he incinerate Bilbo on the spot and take it for himself?

"Mmmm, delicious Hobbit morsel..." Smaug spots Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2013

“Mmmm, delicious Hobbit morsel…” Smaug spots Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2013

 

Treasure Trove

There’s plenty value-added here, as Peter Jackson takes you through the sets and details the movie’s many challenges.  You can also see the various production videos that were used to pump up fan interest during filming, Finally, there’s another New Zealand travelogue.

Those with Elf-like eyesight will be able to spot Peter Jackson in the opening scene as the same fellow in Bree we saw in Fellowship of the Ring, while others will realize that, yes indeed, that’s Stephen Colbert you see in a cameo, “blink and you miss it” appearance in Laketown, during the third act of the film.

The Final Word on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The big question for fans is whether you want to snap up this relatively bare-bones Blu-Ray, or hold off for the more lavish Extended Edition that’s sure to follow. Ultimately, that’s your call to make but either version is a satisfying experience.

I don’t deny this movie has flaws but they pale next to the brilliance of Peter Jackson’s vision.  He’s telling a much larger tale than what Tolkien hinted at in his original book, and that gamble mostly pays off.  Jackson brings Middle Earth to life in a way no one thought possible, and that is an incredible accomplishment.  This film isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to enter my permanent collection.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug / Le Hobbit : la désolation de Smaug (Bilingual) Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet

Now on Blu-Ray: 47 Ronin a Fairly Bland and Stoically Acted Mythical Samurai Tale

Blu-Ray Cover Art for 47 RONIN, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2014

Blu-Ray Cover Art for 47 RONIN, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2014

 

What is 47 Ronin All About?

The umpteenth film based on the real life masterless samurai who sought revenge against their master’s dishonor in 18th Century Japan, 47 Ronin utilizes fantasy elements to focus on the half-breed Kai (Keanu Reeves), a half-Japanese, half-British slave raised by mythical warriors only to run off towards normal humans. He gets taken in by a noble master whose life is forfeit after a devious warrior (Tadanobu Asano, from the Thor movies) utilizes supernatural agents to frame him for attempted murder.

Allowed to perform seppuku to retain his honor, the noble master ends his life, and the visiting Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) forbids the samurai group led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) from seeking revenge.

Realizing that witchcraft was to blame for their master’s disgrace, Oishi and his men, along with Kai, seek out adequate weapons to mount an attack against their enemy and his otherworldly henchmen (including Rinko Kikuchi as a shape-shifter) before they take control of the land and ruin their homeland forever.

What Does 47 Ronin Compare To? 

Think of Shogun meets The Matrix, whereas Keanu once again plays the odd man out, albeit one with some secret moves no one else could ever have mastered. Otherwise think of any other revenge story, but with swords. Whoa.

"I never get around to taking down these Halloween decorations...." Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada in 47 RONIN, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2014

“I never get around to taking down these Halloween decorations….” Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada in 47 RONIN, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2014

The Pros

Artistically speaking, the film is a well crafted piece of escapist history, a retelling of the true story of dishonored men, with a fantasy element added for the sake of adventure. The visual effects are inclusive without being intrusive and serve the movie adequately. Keanu Reeves keeps his dialogue down to a minimum, preferring the quiet, brooding approach rather than the talkative path. This leaves the mostly Japanese cast of actors and actresses with many chances to shine without being overshadowed by their American co-star.

This film will make you crave more works by actor Hiroyuki Sanada, whose portrayal of the Ronin Oishi is the highlight of this film. Whereas the movie could have solely focused on Reeves’ role as a loner half-breed, it instead splits its time between Oishi’s plight and Kai’s quest to reunite with his forbidden lover, Mika (Ko Shibasaki). An unassuming film to be taken as such, unpretentious and pretty straight forward.

The Cons

Reeves isn’t exactly known for his stellar emotive style, and it’s plainly obvious again in this film. Sure, his stoicism helps his character’s status as a silent loner warrior, but it would have been nice of him to, I don’t know, look angry, happy or at least smile at a joke once.

Rinko Kikuchi comes close to chewing the scenery in her handful of scenes as a mystical witch with multicolored eyes. Her dialogue is silly at best, and distracting at its worst. A subplot about the supernatural people who raised Kai is introduced but swept away as swiftly, with very little explanation as to why. The plot itself is rote and as predictable as the sun rises in the East.

"Am I losing my mind, or did we just pass a futuristic telephone booth back there, with two guys playing air guitar?" Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada in 47 RONIN, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2014

“Am I losing my mind, or did we just pass a futuristic telephone booth back there, with two guys playing air guitar?” Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada in 47 RONIN, courtesy Universal Home Video, 2014

Treasure Trove?

Uhm, not exactly. Most of the features are mere minutes at best, the more interesting being the short clip about actor training in learning swordplay. There is also the arbitrary cast and crew interview segment, but it feels rehearsed and reheated from too many junkets.

The Final Word on 47 Ronin

Listen, folks: this isn’t a game changing film. There’s very little chance this project will be remembered for anything other than its extremely high price tag and the resulting lack of box office. As far as swashbuckling films go, it’s pretty standard fare, with decent visuals and some interesting elements of Japanese mysticism. Otherwise, it’s a color-by-numbers revenge tale, with a stone-faced Reeves in the lead playing a variation of the same character he’s espoused in the last 20 years.

Except with a sword, dude.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

Now on Blu-Ray: Anchorman 2 Treads on Heavily Beaten Path, For Giggles

Blu-Ray Cover Art for ANCHORMAN 2, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2013

Blu-Ray Cover Art for ANCHORMAN 2, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2013

 

What is Anchorman 2 All About?

Actually dubbed Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, this sequel reacquaints us with legendary San Diego anchorman Ron Burgundy, the charismatic but absolutely clueless titular anchorman as he faces a new decade: the 1980s. When Ron breaks up with Veronica (Christina Applegate) over a squabble regarding job advancement, he seeks out his three old buddies Brian (Paul Rudd), Champ (David Koechner) and Brick (Steve Carell) to help him out when he gets approached by a network exec to help launch the first ever 24-hour news station.

With many rivals fighting for prime time spots and an ever-changing news cycle, can Ron Burgundy stay on top of breaking events, remain relevant and please the ladies at the same time? Time will tell.

What Does Anchorman 2 Compare To?

Think the first Anchorman film with drawn out scenes, very flat jokes and plenty of deadpan retorts, courtesy of Rudd, Carell, Koechner and Ferrell.

"We're BACK!" David Korchner, Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell and Steve Carell in ANCHORMAN 2, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2013

“We’re BACK!” David Koechner, Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell and Steve Carell in ANCHORMAN 2, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2013

 

The Pros

The format hasn’t changed from the original film, with emphasis on clever dialogue, witty repartee with nonplussed supporting cast members and an overall lack of structure, save for the fact that much of the plot helps Ferrell and friends come up with as many improvised one-liners as possible. Ferrell is a pro at the art of deadpan replies, and this works in his favor more often than not, though Paul Rudd clearly has an easier time at it without making it seem forced.

Steve Carell’s absolutely silly non-sequitur remarks are absolutely brilliant, as are the comparable nonsensical replies by Kristen Wiig as Brick’s new love interest. Also, the film boasts more cameos than you can throw a Scotch snifter at. Think of this sequel as an easy cash grab, with extra jokes thrown in to sweeten the deal.

The Cons

David Koechner’s Champ is a one note character, and Ferrell’s replies, while numerous, don’t always hit a home run. The entire plot line has all the feel of a vanity project stuffed with senseless filler, begging the question as to why a perfectly hilarious original film from the early 2000s had to be expanded and fleshed out. I call shenanigans, or “pointless sequel project”, if we’re going to be specific about it.

"That's right, America: The Truth Hurts..." The men of ANCHORMAN 2, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2013

“That’s right, America: The Truth Hurts…” The men of ANCHORMAN 2, courtesy Paramount Home Video, 2013

 

Treasure Trove?

Folks, it feels like this entire Blu-Ray is a Bonus Features-based project. If you’re a fan of both films, then this is your lucky day. Aside from literally hours of additional and alternate takes, this blu-ray set offers multiple versions of the film, including the super-sized edition which was released in February 2014, running about two hours and change. Not a better version if you ask, me, and didn’t really bring anything worthwhile to an already threadbare arbitrary sequel.

Considering this gang’s ability to crack each other up, head right to the gag reel and watch them try to keep their cool, in vain.

Oh, by the by, this film is replete with cameos, so keep an eye out for several celebrities in the last chapter of the movie during an all-out journalistic battle in the park.

The Final Word on Anchorman 2

This is a film designed for fans of the first film and no one else. Its specific story line will not appeal to mass audiences, since most of the jokes are tailored around the characters’ previous behavior patterns and actions. Sure, a handful of scenes will make you chuckle based solely on visual gags and over exaggerated pratfalls, but otherwise it’s a pretty repetitive attempt at capturing lightning in a bottle a second time in a row. It fails at that, pretends it did, then spends another hour assuming that audiences want to see stretched scenes with similar humor.

Here’s hoping Will Ferrell develops new characters soon, lest he find himself in the same boat as Mike Myers, with a once popular character whose sequels only got worse by the numbers. Think of how much fun Austin Powers International Man of Mystery originally was, compared to Goldmember. I rest my case.

Score: 2 out of 5

 

Now in Theatres: Captain America The Winter Soldier Adds Cold-War Era Intrigue to Marvel Universe

Theatrical Poster for CAPTAIN AMERICA THE WINTER SOLDIER, courtesy Disney/Marvel, 2014

Theatrical Poster for CAPTAIN AMERICA THE WINTER SOLDIER, courtesy Disney/Marvel, 2014

 

What is Captain America: The Winter Soldier All About?

Very much like the events in Thor: The Dark World last fall and Iron Man 3 before it, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes place in the year following Loki’s Chitauri-assisted invasion of New York City as seen in Marvel’s The Avengers. Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, still works as a weapon for truth, justice and what passes for the modern American way, taking orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., alongside Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) aka Black Widow.

When signs of an internal plot to overthrow the secret organization emerge and Fury gets sidelined by a new and dangerous cybernetic opponent known as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), top ranking security Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) declares Fury the source of the conspiracy and declares Rogers and Romanoff fugitives and treacherous abettors. With the help of military flight specialist Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) aka Falcon, the trio tries to clear Fury’s name, stop the return of dormant organization Hydra to the forefront and save the world while at it. Just your basic superhero workday.

What Does Captain America: The Winter Soldier Compare To?

Think of the first Captain America film, mix in some 70s conspiracy thrillers à la The Star Chamber, Three Days of the Condor with a bit of Ludlum thrown in, and you’d be hitting it pretty close to the mark.

"Oh, apologies, Comrade, this is your Vibranium shield, Da?" Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier in CAPTAIN AMERICA THE WINTER SOLDIER, courtesy Disney/Marvel, 2014

“Oh, apologies, Comrade, this is your Vibranium shield, Da?” Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier in CAPTAIN AMERICA THE WINTER SOLDIER, courtesy Disney/Marvel, 2014

 

The Pros

The folks over at Disney and Marvel Films (since the former owns the latter) know how to draw upon decades of material, utilizing some of the more obscure characters from the Cap’s canon of villains going back to the 1940s. In order to appeal to some of the newer readers, the introduction of the Winter Soldier (whose true identity is sort of obvious to seasoned Marvel fans) is a fitting element in the continuation of the Captain America mythos. Ditto the inclusion of Sam Wilson, a Cap sidekick from the 70s whose ability to glide using mechanical wings is excellently displayed in this sequel without seeming like a needless add-on.

I won’t bother commenting on just how excellent Samuel Jackson is, returning as spymaster Nick Fury, but I will tip my hat to the writers and directors of this fine Marvel product by praising the choice casting of Robert Redford, a decision which adds gravitas to an already high profile project. His participation in 1970s conspiracy films (not to mention All the President’s Men) gives him the background and ability to help this sequel acquire the same sense of dread and threat to national security, albeit with a super soldier doing the investigating this time around.

The Cons

I’m sad to realize that Johansson’s Black Widow will never likely live to see her own standalone film, having played second fiddle in both Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. Her character’s background is rich enough to warrant a thriller of her own, since she is Marvel’s closest thing to a Jason Bourne-type assassin with issues. Here she has a juicer part, but still isn’t given her own story, instead coming off as Fury’s lethal assistant more than anything else. Ditto Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, in a similar role. Great to see them back but an otherwise arbitrary choice.

The only other downside to this latest installment is the overuse of many obscure secondary characters clearly thrown in for the sake of the hardcore fans. As much as I’m a more discerning follower of the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, unlike myself Joe Average may not be as enthused with with inclusion of Batroc the Leaper, Arnim Zola (sort of) and other fringe figures from the immense character catalog.

"You know, Natasha, I don't think Director Fury enjoyed my one-eyed pirate reference. What do you think?" Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in CAPTAIN AMERICA THE WINTER SOLDIER, courtesy Disney/Marvel, 2014

“You know, Natasha, I don’t think Director Fury enjoyed my one-eyed pirate reference. What do you think?” Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in CAPTAIN AMERICA THE WINTER SOLDIER, courtesy Disney/Marvel, 2014

 

Treasure Trove?

Look for a handful of trivial tidbits, such as Agent Sitwell mentioning Stephen Strange (aka Doctor Strange, possibly referencing an upcoming film?) as well as an inside joke featuring a popular biblical passage by another famous Sam Jackson character from a certain Tarantino film.

The Final Word on Captain America: The Winter Soldier

A solid, action-packed Marvel thriller with an impressive minimalist approach mostly free of CGI (except when absolutely called for), this film is both a fitting tribute to 1970s genre films as well as another obvious ‘thank you’ to the millions of Marvel fans who poured over a billion dollars into Disney’s coffers after the release of the Avengers movie. It’s always great to see familiar faces returning in popular roles; Winter Soldier is a perfect example of this.

I strongly suggest that interested parties do their homework and watch the Phase I films from the Marvel canon, if only to get a better perspective on the overall mega story arc. There’s plenty of material drawn from modern versions of the comics (including the Ultimates series) while offering nods to the classic stuff.

All in all a thoroughly entertaining film, hopefully the first in a busy summer with equally grandiose titles lined up. Good job, Marvel!

Score: 4 out of 5

Now on Blu-Ray: Saving Mr. Banks a Nostalgic Trip Back to Making of Mary Poppins

Blu-Ray Cover Art for SAVING MR. BANKS, courtesy Disney Home Video, 2013

Blu-Ray Cover Art for SAVING MR. BANKS, courtesy Disney Home Video, 2013

 

What is Saving Mr. Banks All About?

The movie chronicles the back and forth between Australian-British author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the Mary Poppins series of books, and studio magnate Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), as the difficult and irascible former is unsuccessfully wooed by the latter over buying the rights to the character and the novels in order to turn them into a popular family movie.

Alas, the stubborn writer is set in her ways, and is unwilling to budge on helping develop the film and goes on to criticize the process, which also means berating the movie’s composers The Sherman Brothers, Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Bob (BJ Novak) and the producer (Bradley Whitford), as they write what become classic songs for the movie. It’s up to them (and Walt) to try and work some of the Disney magic on Travers, unaware that her cold demeanor hides a very troubled and painful past which went on to feed the Poppins subject matter.

What Does Saving Mr. Banks Compare To?

Pretty much any other film made about the making of a popular movie, such as Hitchcock (about the making of Psycho) or Ed Wood, instances where the camera looks at the people behind the camera, exploring the behind-the-scenes angle of very high profile projects that have gone on to become screen classics.

"Now, smile, Pamela, you're freaking out the children..." Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P.L. Travers in SAVING MR. BANKS, courtesy Disney, 2013

“Now, smile, Pamela, you’re freaking out the children…” Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P.L. Travers in SAVING MR. BANKS, courtesy Disney, 2013

 

The Pros

A case can certainly be made that Mary Poppins is one of the studio’s most successful classics, having now endured a half-century as one of the most beloved family films in Hollywood. It’s not that hard to understand why the studio would want to explore the difficult process behind getting the books turned into a film that would meet the very minimum of approval by its author.

Emma Thompson is just brilliant as the curmudgeonly author, a complicated woman whose childhood was marred by tragedy, disappointment and trauma, seeing her father disintegrate over joblessness and liquor, making her distrustful of men and people in general and preferring solitude over the platitudes of social interactions. Tom Hanks counterbalances this by playing Walt Disney as the generous and congenial filmmaker and entertainer determined to buy the rights to Mary Poppins over a promise to his daughters.

Any fan of the classic film will marvel at the development of memorable songs like “Chim-Chim Cheree” and “Feed the Birds”, with Jason Schwartzman getting most of the screen time in those scenes, while BJ Novak pops up for a few words every now and then.

The Cons

As vital and central as the childhood flashback scenes are, the Australian turn-of-the-century sequences showing a young Travers (in fact, Helen Goff, the writer’s birth name) are brutally honest and may turn off some viewers who were hoping for a bubbly comedy and who may be sorely disappointed. I also question the inclusion of Disney minutiae within the plot, especially some foreshadowing moments like Disney’s secretary trying to stop Travers from entering, so to hide the fact that Walt is sneaking a quick cigarette. Knowing Disney died of lung cancer in 1966, it unnecessarily brings the movie down a notch, rather than stick to the main plot, that of the quest for book rights.

The film boasts a handful of humorous moments, but overall the tone is rather grim, despite attempts to remind us that Mary Poppins and later books weren’t created in a void. I’d have loved to have seen some recreation of classic Poppins scenes with actors cast as Andrews and Van Dyke, however the film skips right over that part, dashing to the film premiere instead.

"These are the Sherman Brothers, but we like to call them 'The Boys' " Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak, Bradley Whitford and Emma Thompson in SAVING MR. BANKS, courtesy Disney Home Video, 2013

“These are the Sherman Brothers, but we like to call them ‘The Boys’ ” Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak, Bradley Whitford and Emma Thompson in SAVING MR. BANKS, courtesy Disney Home Video, 2013

Treasure Trove?

Along with a small handful of deleted scenes, the highlight of the bonus features lies within “From Mary Poppins to the Present”, a look at Walt Disney Studios from the 1940s to today. Watch as Richard Sherman visits his old office and recounts his last encounter with Disney, unaware the legendary filmmaker was dying of cancer. A very moving look at some wonderful studio history.

The Final Word on Saving Mr. Banks

This is definitely a film made for Mary Poppins fans and Disney aficionados alike. It recreates some of the most creative live-action work done by the studio, with the film that endured as one of Disney’s favorites. Beautifully acted, incredibly sad at times, yes, but respectful of the people involved and the genuine quest to bring the magic of Travers’ first novel to children everywhere by way of the silver screen.

I give you fair warning: there’s a pretty strong chance you’ll reach for your film shelf after seeing this film, to watch this and Poppins sequentially, so to get a fresh perspective on the plot, paired with Travers’ childhood, bringing you new understanding of the meaning of this film’s title, an imaginary quest to save one flawed man who meant everything to his daughter. Truly, a touching, moving quasi-biopic.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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Saving Mr. Banks Blu-ray + Digital Copy (Bilingual) Saving Mr. Banks (Limited Deluxe Edition Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

 

Now on Blu-Ray: American Hustle Revisits the Great Con Game

Blu-Ray Cover Art for AMERICAN HUSTLE, courtesy eOne, 2013

Blu-Ray Cover Art for AMERICAN HUSTLE, courtesy eOne, 2013

 

What is American Hustle All About?

It’s an excellent drama loosely based on the late 1970s infamous Abscam scandal, in which a great number of American politicians and businessmen were found guilty of bribery and several other charges, when they planned to accept money to help a Sheikh (in fact a federal agent posing as such) invest millions in the renovation and restoration of Atlantic City’s gambling Boardwalk district. Two con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) find themselves forced to assist an overly ambitious Federal Agent on the rise (Bradley Cooper) who may have bitten a bit more than he can chew in the con game, especially when the real-life Mob comes knocking, looking to get in on the action.

What Does American Hustle Compare To?

It’s a mixture of what you’d get if you watched an episode of TV’s Leverage, had it been set in the late 70s and had been directed by Martin Scorsese.

If Lois Lane, Rocket Raccoon, Hawkeye, Batman and Mystique lived in the 70s. Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in AMERICAN HUSTLE, courtesy eOne, 2013

If Lois Lane, Rocket Raccoon, Hawkeye, Batman and Mystique lived in the 70s. Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in AMERICAN HUSTLE, courtesy eOne, 2013

 

The Pros

With this kind of cast and an excellent script to boot, there are very few ways this film can go wrong. Christian Bale loses himself in the Irving Rosenfeld role, both physically and mentally, affecting a Bronx accent which reminds you of a young Robert De Niro, without resorting to cliché or pantomime. Amy Adams excel in their respective roles as Irving’s mistress/partner in crime and wife, respectively, while Bradley Cooper really shines as the overzealous agent so hellbent on career advancement that he forgets the importance of paying attention to details. Finally, Jeremy Renner packs on a few pounds and plays a convincing city mayor with the best of intentions but the worst luck in his choice of friends.

The Cons

There’s very little in the way of cons (no pun intended) with this project, aside from the lack of familiarity most younger viewers will have with the details of the real-life Abscam scandal. Otherwise, the music is great, the photography is impressive and Russell’s direction is excellent. Don’t go hunting for flaws in this movie.

"It's okay, Lois, no one in the Justice League, especially Clark, can love you the way I can..." Christian Bale and Amy Adams in AMERICAN HUSTLE, courtesy eOne, 2013

“It’s okay, Lois, no one in the Justice League, especially Clark, can love you the way I can…” Christian Bale and Amy Adams in AMERICAN HUSTLE, courtesy eOne, 2013

 

Treasure Trove?

The blu-ray disc boasts very few extras, with extended or deleted scenes which quickly become self-explanatory in their absence from the final cut, and a very brief seven minute “making of” bit that will leave you unsatisfied.

Try really hard not to think about the fact that nearly the entire lead cast of the film has been or is involved with films based on either DC or Marvel Comics: Amy Adams (Lois Lane in Man of Steel), Bradley Cooper (voice of Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye in Marvel’s The Avengers), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique in X-Men First Class and X-Men Days of Future Past) and Christian Bale (Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy).

And yes, that is Robert De Niro making a cameo appearance as a Mob representative, and that is also your favorite comedian Louis C.K. in the role of Cooper’s superior at the FBI.

The Final Word on American Hustle

This is the kind of production the Academy loves to root for: actors out of their comfort zone, excellent chemistry, great production values, a well-chosen soundtrack of 70s standards and a script to die for, all under the control of a director who last brought us another Oscar darling, Silver Linings Playbook. Alas, despite ten nominations, the film received no love from voters, but it remains an incredibly strong piece, not quite a heist film but an ode to the inventiveness of con artist and their ability to plan three moves ahead.

Score: 5 out of 5

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American Hustle / Arnaque américaine Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy (Bilingual)

Now on Blu-Ray: Disney’s Frozen a Return to Classic Form

Blu-Ray Cover for FROZEN, courtesy Disney, 2013

Blu-Ray Cover for FROZEN, courtesy Disney, 2013

 

What is Frozen All About?

Set a few hundred years ago in a nondescript European land of some sort (dubbed Arendelle, likely a Scandinavian land, as it’s all inspired from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”), young Queen-to-be Elsa (voice of Edina Menzel) hides a terrible secret: her touch causes things to freeze, having led her to a childhood of isolation. With her impulsive and happy-go-lucky kid sister Anna ( voice of Kristen Bell) having had her memories of a near-death injury from Elsa’s powers removed by trolls, the young princess is shocked to find out about her sister’s plight when the newly minted queen’s long-standing curse is accidentally revealed during the Royal ceremony, unleashing her terrible frosty abilities and sending the usually sunny and warm kingdom into a permanent winter.

With no end to sub-zero temperatures in sight and Elsa having fled into the mountains to exile herself from those she loves, Anna must locate her older sis and find a way to help her reverse the weather, all with the help of a rugged but handsome ice deliveryman named Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff) and a magically animated snowman (voice of Josh Gad).

What Does Frozen Compare To?

Actually, it’s a pretty standard Disney plot, but with a much cleaner outline, great songs and a lack of a distinct villain, making the film that much more interesting, as it lies in a gray area rather than resorting to obligatory Disney villain archetypes.

"Okay, so I remember dropping my house keys right around here, so this is gonna get complicated..." Princess Anna, snowman Olaf and Kristoff in FROZEN, courtesy Disney, 2013

“Okay, so I remember dropping my house keys right around here, so this is gonna get complicated…” Princess Anna, snowman Olaf and Kristoff in FROZEN, courtesy Disney, 2013

 

The Pros

I daresay this is the most sustainable and entertaining Disney film since The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, with the perfect mixture of great songs, humor, clever visuals (now CGI, replacing classic animation) and a feel good story. The movie focuses on the sibling rivalry between Anna and Elsa, without turning the latter into an Ursula-like megalomaniac baddie. Yes, there’s still a moral lesson embedded into the plot, but it’s a harmless, wholesome story with plenty of clever puns, witty one-liners and great comic relief by Josh Gad as the clueless snowman Olaf.

The Cons

The plot could have been a little tighter, whereas whatever dastardly goings-on happening back at the Royal Castle really seem irrelevant while all of the good stuff is happening up in the mountains for the better part of the feature. Subplots about hostile takeovers and usurping of the throne end up taking a back seat and are easily ignored.

"The downside to my Ice Palace: All the walls are transparent. No privacy." Queen Elsa in FROZEN, courtesy Disney, 2013

“The downside to my Ice Palace: All the walls are transparent. No privacy.” Queen Elsa in FROZEN, courtesy Disney, 2013

 

Treasure Trove?

There’s a few nuggets of Disney trivia in this film. During the pre-coronation scenes, look for a cameo by Flynn Rider and Rapunzel (post haircut) from Tangled. Also, don’t look now, but Elsa is actually the very first Disney Princess ever to ascend to the throne before the end credits.

Got a keen eye? Keep your peepers focused on Oaken’s store shelves, and you might spot a stuffed character fashioned after a certain Mouse.

The Final Word on Frozen

I challenge anyone watching this film not to walk away humming either “Do You Want To Build a Snowman?” or the Oscar-winning “Let It Go”. While lighter on plot than one might expect from a well crafted Disney classic, it’s still a pretty pristine project, one that’s as sleek as the ice it shows on the big screen. Bell reveals herself to be quite a musical talent, keeping up with the more seasoned songstress, Broadway icon Edina Menzel (Wicked, Rent, etc…)

Safe for all ages, captivating without being too preachy, Frozen benefits from good humor and a deliberate lack of character flaws.

Score: 4 out of 5

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Frozen Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy (Bilingual) Disney's Frozen: Music From The Motion Picture

Now in Theatres: Veronica Mars a Fitting Follow Up to Cult TV Hit Show

Theatrical Poster for VERONICA MARS, courtesy Warner Bros., 2014

Theatrical Poster for VERONICA MARS, courtesy Warner Bros., 2014

 

What is Veronica Mars All About?

It’s a made-for-the-fans-by-the-fans, Kickstarter-fueled film follow-up to the cult hit TV show which ran on the old UPN (now CW) network from 2004 to 2007. In this film version, the story picks up 9 years after former intrepid teen sleuth Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) left her small burg of Neptune, California, in search of a career as an FBI agent or, as it turns out, a lawyer in the Big Apple.

When Mars hears news of her former beau Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) being arrested for the murder of his pop star girlfriend, she hops on a plane Westbound to try and find enough evidence to exonerate him. This means coming home to everything she left, including former schoolmates, good friends she’d lost touch with as well as her no-nonsense father, still a private investigator.

While back in Neptune, Mars discovers just how corrupt her hometown has become, and sets out to multitask her way into finding clues towards the pop star’s real killer as well as use said evidence to expose the police force for their willingness to ignore important information when it doesn’t suit their ambitious needs.

What Does Veronica Mars Compare To?

Well, it looks, sounds and feels exactly like the TV show, except it has that “two-hour special episode” vibe to it, with a much larger and layered mystery to solve.

"Ohhh, sweetie, please tell me you didn't make a sex tape with your girlfriend, those are hard to get off the Internet..." Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring in VERONICA MARS, courtesy Warner Bros., 2014

“Ohhh, sweetie, please tell me you didn’t make a sex tape with your girlfriend, those are hard to get off the Internet…” Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring in VERONICA MARS, courtesy Warner Bros., 2014

 

The Pros

This project has everything going for it: fans willing to pitch in financially in order to get another dose of their favorite show from the last decade, a returning creator and director (Rob Thomas) with a solid grasp of his original material, its characters and the particular blend of suspense and humor which brought that magic sparkle to the original series. Most of all, a cast of actors willing to take a massive pay cut in order to have one more go at the story for the sake of their beloved fans.

The result is excellent. While no extraordinary action pieces are thrown in, much of the story was modestly shot using available resources and careful planning so to not waste any of the hard earned fan cash amassed to turn this project into a viable release. The plot is fun enough, the mystery interesting without being too simplistic or too convoluted, allowing for downtime between discoveries to reunite characters who meshed very well on the small screen for three fun seasons.

The Cons

Not too many cons here, save for the fact that Warner Bros. could easily have helped finance this project without the showrunners having to resort to calling out to fans to raise money for a project such as this. With so many crappy content on television right now (not to mention reality shows, which should be banned or at least forced to raise fan money for production), it boggles the mind that this series was cancelled in the first place.

"Wow, is THAT what we used to look like on the UPN? Dammmmn." Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III and Tina Majorino in VERONICA MARS, courtesy Warner Bros., 2014

“Wow, is THAT what we used to look like on the UPN? Dammmmn.” Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III and Tina Majorino in VERONICA MARS, courtesy Warner Bros., 2014

 

Treasure Trove?

Not too many surprises here, with most of the cast back and a pretty familiar setting to settle back into like a comfy and warm sweater. Look for Dax Shepard, Bell’s real-life husband, making a cameo appearance as an overeager bar patron looking to hit on Veronica.

The Final Word on Veronica Mars

With a nifty narrative recap right from the start of the film, viewers who’ve never had a chance to watch the show won’t feel too lost by jumping into this feature feet first. While the story is much stronger in its first half, with fans (and cast members) reuniting with their favorite characters onscreen, the movie hits a snag in its latter portion, resulting in a bit of a dense climax and denouement. All the same, this is one iconic character from the past decade we’re happy to reconnect with, in the hope of other installments.

Now, to get started on that Firefly Kickstarter campaign…paging Mr. Whedon?

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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Veronica Mars Movie Blu-ray + Ultraviolet Veronica Mars: The Complete Seasons 1-3

Now in Theatres: Need for Speed has More Racing, Less Story than Competitors

Theatrical Poster fofr NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Dreamworks SKG, 2014

Theatrical Poster for NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Dreamworks SKG, 2014

 

What is Need for Speed All About?

Based on the highly addictive driving game by Electronic Arts, Need for Speed follows the misadventures of Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul, of Breaking Bad fame), a gifted but down-on-his-luck driver and car designer about to lose his late father’s car shop due to late payments on loans. When a childhood rival (Dominic Cooper) comes home with an offer to restore and complete construction of a unique Mustang Shelby to be sold at a high profit, Tobey jumps at the chance to earn some money and save the family business. Things don’t go according to plan, though, and when one of his buddies crashes and dies during a quick race, the beleaguered driver is framed for the crime and sent away.

Upon his release, Tobey vows to track down his old rival and seek revenge for his fallen friend, by following the nemesis and enrolling in the country’s most notorious illegal street race, created by an eccentric car nut (Michael Keaton.)

What Does Need for Speed Compare To?

Well, duh, much of this film looks, smells and tastes like any of the Fast and Furious films, except for its utter lack of team chemistry or back story. Think of it in terms of The Really Fast and the Rather Upset.

 

"Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu..." Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) goes airborne to evade authorities, in NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Dreamworks SKG, 2014

“Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu…” Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) goes airborne to evade authorities, in NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Dreamworks SKG, 2014

 

The Pros

The film boasts a very diverse set of race and chase scenes, all of them kinetic and pulse pounding. Also, the movie doesn’t waste time with superfluous montage edits of scantily clad girls dancing in slow-mo around high performance vehicles, à la Fast and Furious. Instead, expect some tight shots of cars drifting around corners, racing down opposite traffic and evading authorities while trying to get to where they’re going (be it the finish line or a race they need to reach by a certain date.)

For levity, expect some goofy zingers courtesy of Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) as Aaron Paul’s eyes in the sky in this movie.

The Cons

The plot and dialogue are minimal at best, with a cardboard cutout villain (Dominic Cooper) who does little more than glower and squint; a couple of female characters are introduced, but to very little effect. Imogen Poots appears as Paul’s unlikely car mate, bringing little more than a pretty face to an otherwise threadbare revenge story.

The plot is a bit all over the place, with some squandered moments of humility drowned out by machismo and posturing. The movie even jumps the shark by having a one-of-a-kind Mustang Shelby jump over traffic, seemingly undamaged by the hard landing. Cool to watch? Yes. Plausible? Not even for K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider.

 

“Yo, did that car just talk to us?” Aaron Paul and his cohorts in NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Dreamworks SKG, 2014.

Treasure Trove?

Here’s a fun fact: uber-producer Steven Spielberg opted to cast Aaron Paul as the protagonist, after going on a binge watch of all episodes of Breaking Bad. Lucky break, sir!

The Final Word on Need For Speed

This movie is a mixed blessing. It’s refreshing to finally see Aaron Paul play high profile lead outside of his usual white boy gangsta persona from his hit TV show, though this movie doesn’t quite give him the tools needed to expand his thespian range. For a better example of his skills, I recommend you see his work in Smashed, a decent drama about alcoholism.

This movie is clearly designed to leech off of the popularity of the Fast and Furious franchise as well as fans of the game. Well, good luck with that. Despite impressive visuals, the plot is so transparent you’re left with the impression of sitting on the couch while watching a friend of yours play a game without giving you a chance to jump in. Potentially fun, but only if you enjoy being a backseat player.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

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Need for Speed: Rivals