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Studying Los Angeles

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Last year’s best movie, Lionsgate’s La La Land, debuted in certain theaters a year ago next week and, though I’ve parenthetically included the movie in my blog’s first Christmas gift guide, I have also added a link to buy the DVD. With the director, whose first film, Whiplash, garnered interest and recently announced that he’s making a new movie about the Apollo 11 landing of man on the moon, I think the musically-themed 2016 movie warrants serious consideration.

La La Land is a spirited and stimulating depiction of America’s pioneering individualism in general, and of Southern California’s productiveness, resilience and can-do youthfulness in particular, with songs by the team that composed this year’s hit musical, Dear Evan Hansen (and this month’s upcoming The Greatest Showman). Emma Stone (Aloha, Battle of the Sexes) and Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March, Blade Runner 2049) co-star as the young, ambitious artists of ability. I know others disagree whether the movie’s any good. Nevertheless, I am confident that La La Land deserves honest appraisal as a great film.

A new center for the study of Los Angeles opened this year at Occidental College in Eagle Rock. Earlier this year, I was asked by the local edition of the LA Times to report on the academy, so I went to the campus where Terry Gilliam, Ben Affleck, Jack Kemp and Barack Obama once took college classes and met and interviewed the director. I previously posted about the assignment this summer. In a wide-ranging discussion, we discussed the history of the humanities college, which was founded by Christians, the region and the ethos of Southern California. The director, a son of two college professors, told me about his own background, from a childhood in Alabama to living in downtown LA. I’ve added the article, which was published in the Los Angeles Times, to the archives here.

Next year’s Writing Boot Camp and Maximizing Social Media return to the San Fernando Valley’s Henry Mingay campus near Bob Hope Airport. Register for the course on perfecting social media here. Enroll in my writing course here.

Movie Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Neither as light nor as outrageous as it looks or might have been, the New Zealand-based Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which I watched on Apple TV over the weekend, thoroughly entertains. Recommended by writer and director Fawaz Al-Matrouk, this small film is the perfect pick-me-up. The movie’s directed by actor and Wellington, New Zealander Taika Waititi and based upon the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump.

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The setting is an older couple’s farm in New Zealand on the edge of the bush country. Seasoned Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has certain ideas about fostering a child, but the tough old farmer’s getting on and wants to get down to business, so she takes in an obese, troubled boy named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). She’s a no-nonsense guardian and caregiver, which the criminally inclined and intelligent child figures out and takes kindly to, so Ricky stays put without much fuss. For the first time in his life, he feels wanted, nourished and loved.

The story’s told with a literary flair, which suits the material neatly, because a sudden change in circumstances puts Ricky in barely plausible cahoots with Bella’s husband Hector (the always excellent Sam Neill, who is superb in these types of roles), an illiterate curmudgeon. Both husband and wife have a crusty old dog and know how to hunt with their bare hands, which shocks the portly pre-teen into a sudden alertness that both feeds the movie’s winking charm and gently, pleasantly plays against stereotypes.

As husband and foster child team against a power-lusting child welfare bureaucrat on their tails, with half the island’s police pursuing them across bush country, Ricky and Hector become fugitives by default and good humor ensues. The kid’s physicality and a quietly assimilationist subtext combine with stunning nature photography and storybook structuring to make Hunt for the Wilderpeople an enjoyably warm, man-boy adventure tale. To say more would spoil its charm, twists and innocence. But there’s enough wit and knowing brightness without sugaring the fairy tale sensibility too much to dramatize its theme that the wild and damaged soul can be tamed and soothed with knowledge, poetry and self-healing choices. Happily, color, cheerfulness and danger abounds.

TV: Jack on ‘This Is Us’

This is a post about the first episode of Dan Fogelman’s drama This Is Us, the season opener, which aired this week on NBC. I bought the show’s second season on iTunes, as I did the first season (and I’m glad I did; it’s the best new show on television as far as I’m concerned, as I explained in my review). I did what I usually do with visual media. Avoiding detailed analyses and commentary, which is nearly impossible, I first watched the episode.

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Then and only then did I read some of the feedback and reviews (I typically don’t read or listen to reviews in advance of writing my own because I want to remain objective, but I made an exception in this case and this isn’t a straight episode review). The New York Times published a commentary, which is not a review, totally focused on one aspect of the episode: a plot conflict resolution or mystery solved involving the show’s guiding force: the family’s father character-in-flashback, Jack Pearson (played by Milo Ventimiglia). The Hollywood Reporter did, too, though it was rambling, unfocused and barely readable. Both writers complained about the show’s first episode for the same reason: they asserted that it needlessly or gratuitously prolongs the puzzle of Jack Pearson’s death, a plot point revealed in the first season which remains unresolved.

Fans, too, in certain instances, focus on this aspect of the show. It’s easy to see why. Jack is an integral part of the show. He’s the head of the family. He’s the moral center, driving the This Is Us theme that the good is possible to achieve here on earth. Jack, a Pittsburgh husband and father who drinks too much and almost committed armed robbery before being diverted by love at first sight of his future wife (Mandy Moore), is an optimist. Having been the son of an abusive alcoholic, he seeks in layered, selective flashback to sort through the mess of life to forge a family with love, excellence and joy. He leads by example, admits mistakes and fathers with warmth, intelligence and love. He knows that life is like a banquet. He goes for the best for his wife and three kids — if not for himself.

This is what moves the opening episode of the second season. The ways that altruism — the moral code that living for the sake of others at the expense of your self-interest is highest — sinks into man’s soul, festers and becomes like an infectious disease. How insidious is this rotten moral ideal, altruism; how it contaminates the best within us — the part that dreams of being one’s best and showcasing it for the wonderful world. Each of Jack’s children, and certainly his wife, strives to be the best. Does Jack, the hero?

This is what the new episode of This Is Us implicitly asks and consequently dramatizes.

Though the first episode of the second season of this exceptional TV drama about ordinary people in pursuit of extraordinary goals, perfection and happiness arced through the triplets’ 37th birthday milestones of progress in love, career and family, the somber theme emerges when the wife comes to her estranged husband at a doorstep.

This is the part that took my breath away. This is the show’s dramatic pivot point; the hinge that creator Dan Fogelman, who recently spoke about the violent, sudden death of his parent in an interview with a trade publication, named when discussing how the reveal of Jack’s death is a gateway to a season of discovery, alignment and joy. This is what the episode’s critics, pseudo-fans and naysayers evade or ignore — that Jack’s admission of alcoholism is part of reality, too. That the final frame’s portrait of the wreckage of their home is not intended as an ongoing tease to melodrama but as a snapshot of the harsh, horrible facts of life which sometimes rudely intrude. That it’s whether and how you respond that shapes your character and life.

Jack is not defined by how he died. Suffering is not the point of life. Healing, fixing and remedial action — so you can be happy — is.

This is what This Is Us dramatized this week: life is finite and each life is a work in progress. That life is everything. That living means being rational, which starts with going by facts, not feelings, especially when facts are harsh. Life can be rich, rewarding and exalted — if you can earn and keep it. This is what This Is Us is about. So far, as the bright spot of a darker new season, This Is Us is showing the way.

 

TV Review: ‘This Is Us’

NBC’s new hit series This Is Us, TV’s highest-rated dramatic series since Fox’s Empire, is also TV’s best new show in years. This ingenious yet simple series combines classic television storytelling with a current Hollywood trend—the time or flashback gimmick that’s so ubiquitous it’s annoying—to create a powerful vehicle for dramatizing today’s individual in the family, often at his best. This Is Us is emotionally balanced and satisfying. It’s the best show I’ve seen in decades.

Its distinguishing quality is clarity in portraying modern life as it is and ought to be, fed by an utter lack of cynicism. It’s not about supernatural, artificial or comic book characters. There are no thrones, crowns or cartoons and there’s none of the vulgar, trashy made-you-look appeal of HBO and so-called reality TV programming. This is pure, middle class adult American fiction, so if you don’t think people can be kind, decent and complicated—while being exceptional, amazing and fallible—and live in harmony, This Is Us is not for you. For the rest of us, this show is heir to TV’s most earnest and universal family-themed series including Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Parenthood and Frasier. It is that simple, serious and good.

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Every one of its 18 episodes peels another layer in the family created by Jack and Rebecca, a young married couple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who make their own lives and family. The first and final episodes begin and end with these two characters, played with conviction by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, with thoughtful surprises in every episode in between. This Is Us defies description because its inventive approach to storytelling is integrative, so each plot development folds into the rest of the characters’ arcs, though rarely in obvious, pat or predictable ways. This Is Us is created by Dan Fogelman, who wrote Disney’s Tangled, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Last Vegas and The Guilt Trip. Fogelman also created ABC’s Galavant. Besides the parenting leads, the main characters are their three children, played as adults by Chrissy Metz as an insecure and obese twin, Justin Hartley as her handsome twin brother and Sterling K. Brown as their wealthy, adopted brother.

More thematically essential to the series, which is so carefully threaded that it’s more like an extended miniseries, subplots dovetail into deeper themes. A long-lost musician father (outstanding Ron Cephas Jones) with terminal cancer returns for an elegy on the meaning of life. A doctor, played by Gerald McRaney in one of the best supporting performances on dramatic television, imparts his hard-earned wisdom in saving, delivering and coping with the loss of life. My favorite supporting character, Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson, one of the show’s best actors), is so witty, rational and soothing that, when she hurts, it sneaks up on everyone. This is the theme of This Is Us—that this is life in America, whether you’re in Pittsburgh, Memphis, New York or LA; that this is it, here and now, and what matters is that which promotes life.

This is not one of those TV dramas that begs to be taken seriously for its own sake, however. The action, pathos and jaw-dropping drama, and the season is loaded with each, isn’t excessively somber, self-important or pretentious, like thirtysomething, Hill Street Blues or other heavy shows praised by critics that often put you to sleep. It isn’t downbeat like that. Besides light touches of humor, This Is Us is rooted in its premise that humanity is good, the universe is benevolent and problems can be solved.

Don’t take this to mean that This Is Us expresses pure romanticism (it doesn’t). Naturalism with romanticist strokes best captures its style. But, from the birth of a baby to the separation of a marriage, this program is unique in that the audience is cultivated to root for its characters to succeed, flourish and be happy. Happiness is its natural state. The characters’ conflicts, flaws and idiosyncrasies are mined for drama, not implanted for permanence. The strongest impressions are made by the exhibition of those values by which these characters seek to reach new, exciting and radical improvements, achievements and the highest goals.

For example, the panic attack that strikes a trader in weather derivatives strengthens a bond with his brother and triggers a soul-searching introspection. An actor quits at the top of his game and takes a lesser role to pursue his personal best. An artist strikes out on her own only to get pregnant and have her dreams derailed while a woman goes to what she calls “fat camp” to get thin and unlocks an emotional fury that leads to a crucial catharsis. And a husband and father delays gratification so he can be a better man, which, to him, means escaping the hell of his own family and becoming one of the good guys. That this happens with alcoholism, drug addiction, unwed motherhood, sibling rivalry, racial prejudice, body shaming and more only deepens the meaning of this rich, textured show.

This Is Us is not without flaws. Period specificity, including costumes, songs, mannerisms and the way people talk lacks credibility as the show goes on, sometimes to distraction. But intelligent writing, wisdom and sincerity, which only occasionally slips into sentimentality, overcomes its problems. It is true that This Is Us touches the audience with heartbreaking scenes (don’t judge the show by its sappy Twitter feed, which disproportionately features fans measuring impact by tears). Yet it takes wrenching problems in daily life and dramatizes realistic, practical and often enlightening solutions. It renders this with serious writing, directing and acting, leaving the audience lighter, smarter and wiser and all in the halo of its main man, alpha male, father figure, Jack Pearson, whose vision of the ideal family undergirds the show.

This Is Us plays its plot points and character arcs with idealism, not cynicism, and its protagonists’ ethics are essentially egoistic. They aim to act in their self-interest and generally try to go by reason. The show’s tightly integrated plot, theme and cast of characters play as compelling. Some may prejudge and recoil from the show’s looks and arcs. Similarly, This Is Us will not satisfy feminists, multiculturalists and other egalitarians because it makes a fundamentally strong stance for being one’s best and individualism (even, in its own way, capitalism). This is why This Is Us stands out as the most serious drama on TV. It’s a show that’s aligned with reality as it is and, while not in the largest sense, ought to be. Watch for what it’s not—cynical and spewing against everything all the time—and take it for what it is. But watch (from the start), think and enjoy.

The Bambi Articles

Three of my articles about Walt Disney’s 1942 classic, Bambi, are now archived on the site. The movie, which was based on a novel and adapted from a 900-word screenplay, made during a world war and lost the studio money for years, has a fascinating history with relevant lessons for today’s moviemakers and moviegoers alike.

My film review is based on my first viewing of the animated motion picture, which I saw for the first time when the movie debuted on DVD 12 years ago and was surprised to find I thoroughly enjoyed. I wrote about Bambi for a movie site in which I was a partner (which was sold to a database subsidiary of Amazon that no longer offers in-depth articles). Read my review of Bambi, which includes details of Disney’s 2005 Platinum edition DVD, here.

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This was one of my first themed online series. My starting point for Bambi was an essential history of Walt Disney’s wartime follow-up to Dumbo and Snow White, which includes basic facts, such as box office stats and budget, and tracks the movie’s origins, background and legacy. The editorial experiment worked, too, I’m happy to say (not all of them did) as pre-social media readers read, shared and printed the articles in high numbers, especially considering that they came to the site for statistics. I created the Bambi series to entice them to stay, read and browse other site pages. The history of Bambi and the other two articles formed the editorial model for my thematic approaches to covering film, particularly classic film, which extended to our in-depth coverage of Star Wars, classic Disney and Sony’s Spider-Man pictures, as well as films about Islamic terrorism, Alexander the Great and the Alamo. Bambi got things started. Read the Bambi history here.

As editor and writer of the movie site, and wanting to add a third article for a trilogy of rotating pieces heralding the arrival of the film on DVD, I also sought interviews with some Hollywood artists whose work I’d admired whom I had reason to think might be interested in, and possibly influenced by, Walt Disney’s Bambi. Among these were a Back to the Future screenwriter, the creator of Hollywood’s most popular animal-themed franchise since Lassie and an animator who had attended the highly regarded, Disney-made Cal Arts academy in the Santa Clarita Valley. During extensive interviews with each, their comments and insights went far beyond the usual and predictable compliments for influential movies. Read the article about artists praising Disney’s Bambi—incuding their thoughts on its most controversial scenes—here.

Twelve years after these articles were first published about the movie which basically made me an instant classic Disney fan, the Burbank, California, studio is planning to release what they call a Signature Collection Blu-Ray/DVD combination set. So, Bambi goes on sale next week (May 23) on iTunes, Amazon and all that (support the site and buy the new collection here). Bambi remains one of my favorite Disney pictures and, if you read the articles, I think it’s easy to see why. In the future, I’d like to give all the great movies, works of art and singular histories the fuller examination they deserve.


Related

Movie and DVD Review: Bambi (2005)

History of Bambi (2005)

Hollywood Remembers Bambi (2005)

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