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‘Hidden Figures’ on Home Video

The movie almost everyone loves, last year’s popular Hidden Fgures, debuts on home video today.

When I saw it last year, I enjoyed it so much that I thought maybe I may have missed something; that it might have been too polished for me to notice any shortcomings. So I asked for a second screening, which is something I rarely do and only in an extreme effort to be objective. I liked it better on a second viewing, even as I became more aware of its flaws, such as some overacting.

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Why is this Oscar-nominated movie so universally well liked by audiences? I think it’s because, like any serious, goal-driven project, Hidden Figures keeps perspective and keeps its topic rooted in reality. So, while the story of three individuals of ability, who happen to be Negro women at a time when blacks and women were prejudged and unjustly treated, takes injustice seriously, the movie co-written and directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) also takes its higher aim seriously: to depict the achievement of excellence. The women’s accomplishments were not overdramatized; they were properly depicted as an important and integral part of a whole which led to an act of outstanding, and uniquely, inextricably American, progress.

The struggle was portrayed with realism, not sugarcoated or diminished. But so, too, the byproduct of the ladies’ productiveness was depicted and Melfi and company did so without minimizing the achievements of the NASA (actually, pre-NASA) engineers, scientists and astronauts. Too often, movies about overcoming adversity and injustice oversimplify facts, drop context and present a false dichotomy, lacking in depth and nuance. Hidden Figures, whatever its limitations, dramatizes the hard work of real progress, social and scientific, the simplicity of being appreciated for one’s ability and the power of unifying to achieve a grand and noble goal.

This is a rare and desperately needed depiction, and, sometimes, these points are obscured or lost in press tours, but that’s what makes this upbeat, uplifting movie appealing—it shows everyone that being one’s best is the perfect defense of every persecuted individual, especially the persecuted person of ability. I’ve added my exclusive interview with the film’s director, Ted Melfi, to the archive. Read the interview, read my review of Hidden Figures and buy the movie.


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Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Interview: Theodore Melfi on Hidden Figures

Robert Osborne

Though I had known he was ill and he hadn’t been hosting Turner Classic Movies (TCM), yesterday’s news that Robert Osborne died hit me hard. I read the sad news in an e-mail subject line from TCM as the screening room lights went down before opening credits rolled for a new Warner Bros. movie, an irony I think he would have appreciated (Warner Bros. and TCM are owned by the same company).

Robert Osborne

We met years ago when I started writing about film and Robert O., as he called himself on TCM, encouraged me to cover classic movies, which I did. Over the years, I interviewed him about several TCM programs, movie stars and topics. We talked about his work, career and life, mostly for this blog and for other sites, too. Those are fond memories. Of course, we talked about Hollywood’s Golden Age—read transcripts of our interviews about Lizabeth Scott, John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn—and we talked about Ernest Borgnine, Liza Minnelli and Robert Redford. We celebrated Barbara Stanwyck during an event he hosted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—I interviewed him about Stanwyck for the centenary of her birth, which I plan to publish—and we talked about Hollywood, New York, Atlanta, TCM, the motion picture press and the Hollywood Reporter, Ayn Rand and the Oscars. I always found him to be candid and unpretentious.

Robert Osborne was a treasure. Readers often asked what he was like and I always answered with the truth; that he was exactly like he is on Turner Classic Movies. He didn’t self-censor, conceal or soften his thoughts as so many people do. He had a command of the facts about movies and he knew it. He spoke and acted like he knew it, too. This, more than anything else, including his work as an actor and as a journalist, explains his success as host of Ted Turner’s channel for uncut and commercial-free classic movies. The man who was a seasoned reporter, actor and confidante to the stars, including Olivia de Havilland and Lucille Ball, was foremost one who loved movies and knew that life is and ought to be as it is in the movies. This I know firsthand.

Passion did not scare him as it scares so many working these days in journalism, especially movie journalism, movies and television. Passion stirred and invigorated him. He wrote that way, strong, clear and simple, every month in TCM’s Now Playing and in books about the Oscars. Robert Osborne had studied and mastered facts about movies since he was a farm boy in the Pacific Northwest. He nourished that knowledge as a young man. He fed and kept it active and never let it go until, when TCM debuted in 1994, he traded on a lifetime of insights and introduced TCM’s first motion picture, Gone With the Wind—which he embraced without equivocation—the 1939 epic based upon Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant novel, a deep, serious movie which was revered by TCM’s creator, a larger than life figure himself, a capitalist who’d once bought billboards emblazoned with black letters on white space asking “Who is John Galt?”, founded CNN, married a movie star and lived on a ranch in the West.

Robert Osborne had a connection to that movie, too; he was friends with the actress who’d played Melanie. But being well connected alone wasn’t what gave Robert O. the confidence, command and mastery that viewers noticed and relished for 20 years. Nor is his ability merely a byproduct of the sum of his movie knowledge. He was much more than a charming ex-actor who ingratiated himself to Hollywood legends, more than a man with vast knowledge. He spoke as if he was as in love with the movies as you are. Robert Osborne’s mastery of TCM’s archive was richer than stately charm through an assuring voice, manner and gray hair conveying a grasp of facts. Robert Osborne mastered TCM with an enduring series of short, sharply crafted words enticing viewers before pictures because he had been the child who dreams. He had been the kid who works in the movie theater—the college student who stays in the library—the actor who studies his lines—the writer who thinks before he writes—the observer who dares to make the objective observation—and, above all, Robert O. was the gentleman who insists on living large and with glamor—just like life in classic movies.

This is what Robert Osborne brought to each introduction or interview—the ability to identify the movie’s ideal and a sense that one should bridge the real and romantic and realize the dream—and this is what he added to Ted Turner’s showcase for classic movies. It’s the greatest compliment I can give: that Robert O. affirmed the sense that wanting your life to be grand, larger than life and sublime is perfectly natural and fabulous. By framing each film with an upward glance, not a downward tone, by stressing the essential as the to-be-expected, the host made what happens in movies look wonderful, important and easy—and fully accessible to you.

As one who had the privilege of knowing Robert Osborne, I know that he lived with grace, passion and vitality. He was a marvelous host and, like one of his favorite movies, he left the audience satiated, enticed and wanting more. I hope for his sake and for those he leaves behind that his was a happy ending.

Zootopia on Home Video

If you want to know why Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Zootopia (read my review here) delighted audiences and broke worldwide box office records, earning over $900 million, watch it on home video and see at least some of the bonus material. The Blu-ray edition shows how much thought, artistry and hard work were expended to make one of the most enjoyable movies this year.

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Available today on Digital HD, Blu-ray, Disney Movies Anywhere, DVD and on demand, Zootopia in these various incarnations includes an alternate opening, deleted characters and scenes and some clever, interesting tidbits. On the Blu-ray disc I reviewed, the most informative parts are what Disney calls a series of 10-minute “roundtables” (they’re not really) introduced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who voiced the lead character Judy Hopp. One of the interesting disclosures here is that her character wasn’t always the lead.

In fact, the creators originally had Jason Bateman’s fox character as the lead in a whole other plot involving a jaded, dystopian world with electronic animal collars. Well into production, studio screenings—this is one of those movies in which the movie studio apparently improved the final cut—apparently demonstrated that the cynicism drained the motion picture and Goodwin’s rabbit wannabe cop took the lead. The differences are discussed, explored and shown in several spots on the extras, including a humorous deleted alternate scene in the elephant-run ice cream shop.

Another piece shows hidden Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters, icons and designs. Frozen pops up in the ice cream shop, too, though these really amount to Disney plugs. Still, the extras are not as thin and wispy as they usually are and behind the scenes features are more relaxed, less formal and more open to scrutiny, too. The creators reveal a consistency error in the train scene that runs through Tundratown, for instance.

Viewers learn about complexities in creating an all-animal world, including making characters’ fur and clothing, the logic and impetus for Tundratown, Sahara Square and the Rainforest District and old-fashioned field research conducted—and, I suspect, doubling for water drinking scenes in The Jungle Book, too—in Africa. It’s there that filmmakers traveled to gain knowledge for Zootopia‘s variety of distinctive animal characters. Of course, they also visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida, but the African savanna trip proved useful for developing Zootopia looks, behaviors and plot points.

A piece on the score features Academy Award®-winning composer Michael Giacchino demonstrating how percussionists added to the movie. Directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons) introduce bits with dry humor. One clip involves Bateman’s fox character, Nick, pitching his start-up idea to Zootopia’s bankers for funding his money-making vision of an amusement park made exclusively for predators. Maybe a sequel if there is one (who am I kidding?) will explore Nick’s entrepreneurial spirit and mark a Disney Animation Studios return to portraying capitalism as a positive for the first time since The Princess and the Frog.

Shakira’s can-do-themed single “Try Everything”, which accompanies the end credits, too, is included as a stand-alone pop music video. Unfortunately, Bateman and other cast members, are not. I would have liked to have seen and heard from Idris Elba (Thor, BBC’s Luther) on voicing Chief Bogo, Jenny Slate’s thoughts on her character, Bellwether, Nate Torrence doing Clawhauser, Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake as the parents, J.K. Simmons (Oscar® winner for Whiplash) as Mayor Lionheart and Octavia Spencer (Black or White, Oscar® winner for The Help) as Mrs. Otterton. I would have liked to hear from the story writers, too, on the plot twist, which is part of what makes Zootopia unique, and I do wonder what artists were planning to do with one of the deleted characters, Zootopia’s female pig mayor.

But this one disc package with the 108 minute movie (1080p High Definition/2.39:1, DVD Feature Film = 2.39:1 aspect ratio; subtitles in English, French & Spanish/English SDH, French & Spanish) is a good home video package for a terrific little movie.

Blu-Ray Review: Cinderella

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Coming to home video for the first time, the leading contender for the year’s best picture, Cinderella, debuts today on Blu-ray and other formats (read my review here). I reviewed the two-disc Blu-Ray version with digital HD/SD, Blu-ray combo pack & Disney Movies Anywhere (DMA).

The DVD features a short feature on the movie’s animals, such as horses, chickens and mice, and the animated short that preceded Cinderella during its theatrical release, Frozen Fever. The Blu-ray includes these and also the 20-minute A Fairy Tale Comes to Life with brief interviews with major cast members and director Kenneth Branagh, writer Chris Weitz and producers David Baron, Simon Kinberg and Allison Shearmur in addition to other designers and production crew. The feature is alright, though it does not sweep over the whole picture as it should. I do not think Disney appreciates this picture for its full value.

Mr. Branagh himself downplays the film, which caused some controversy among feminists when it was released, as a light and enjoyable indulgence. There is no mention here, too, of the wonderfully romantic score by Patrick Doyle (read my review of the soundtrack here) among the features. A costume bit involves classical music from The Nutcracker which isn’t used in the 105-minute Cinderella.

The best Blu-ray extra—the best of the whole package besides the movie—is the 11-minute Staging the Ball, which breaks down one of the most breathtaking scenes in Cinderella. The two leading actors, Lily James as Cinderella and Richard Madden as the Prince, comport themselves to the palace filmmaking and so does everyone else who comments on the ballroom scenes, with adoring angles, gestures and framing. Relishing details, Kenneth Branagh and company explain every aspect from lighting the candles and building the set on the James Bond lot to the gown’s 10,000 Swarovski crystals and dance rehearsals. James describes the aura as “lightness and elegance” and it is beautifully deconstructed here. An alternate opening, which forges a stronger bond between the farm animals and the girl’s family before the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) moves in, is very good. Disney restricts the rest of Mr. Branagh’s five deleted scenes to its Disney Movies Anywhere exclusive, the code for which is included on the box.

This is a movie to get lost—even become immersed—in, as Walt Disney might say, and those inclined should do so without reservation. Boys and girls alike should see it with the whole family. Cinderella is that good and that rare and unusual among today’s pictures. Its grand, romantic style is suited to its warm, intelligent script. Despite the denial and modesty with which it is presented, Cinderella is lovely, moving and magnificent all at once and its transfer to Blu-ray delights in high-definition.


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Related links

Movie Review: Cinderella

Music Review: Cinderella soundtrack

Cinderella Coming this Fall to Home Entertainment

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: The World According to Garp (1982)

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George Roy Hill’s 1982 adaptation of John Irving’s breakthrough 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, is better than its reputation. The Warner Bros. picture was a critical and commercial failure. Above all, this serious-themed movie—out this month on Blu-Ray—is seeded with ideas.

That the ideas involve sex, collectivism and death make The World According to Garp a culturally significant motion picture. With Hill (Hawaii, The Sting, The Little Drummer Girl) directing and a taut script by Steve Tesich (Breaking Away), the novel’s puritanical feminist mother to Garp (Robin Williams in his first major movie), portrayed by Glenn Close with perfection, sets the tone. The plain, Yankee frankness of seriously horrifying ideals mixed with perfectly reasonable ideals plays across Garp’s lifetime.

Garp’s mother is a rapist who compares sex with disease and, when her own son expresses the desire to gain new knowledge by asking questions, she cuts him down with a snap: “I’m tired of your questions.” She is both mother and monster. Garp’s mother violates his privacy, rescues him from danger and buys him sex from a prostitute and thus enmeshes Garp in the crazy making of her life. This is Irving’s absurdism but it is also the stuff of life. From a former top athlete who becomes a transsexual (John Lithgow) to Garp’s starch grandparents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) and a reckless driver (Matthew Cowles), colorful characters depict various contradictions of our time.

Accordingly, the result is, and this fits the movie’s theme, an adventurous life. Garp’s lonely, sorrowful struggle to find happiness is strangely larger than and true to life. Garp, named after a crippled tailgunner his nurse mother raped in the hospital, wrestles the vicious dog that bit him as a boy during fellatio in order to recover his first manuscript. He becomes, of course, a writer and a wrestler. The act of fellatio reprises in his life with devastating impact, too. The World According to Garp is relentless in such audacious details and rich in symbolism. Williams is adept in every scene, playing the suppressed energy of an emasculated New England male caught in the 20th century’s rapid descent into feminist dogma and ripped apart by sexual liberation.

The story is brilliantly anti-sexual in a fundamental sense, though it is captured in a way which, thanks to Robin Williams and his co-star Mary Beth Hurt as his college professor wife Helen, is compelling. Their troubled marriage thoughtfully comes undone amid conflicting career goals and frustrations, as each wrestles with anxiety over kids, fear of death and balancing love, work and life. Living with the insecure writer, or the academic constantly tempted by youth, and making “the kids” a rationalization for denial, are all dramatized with skill and humor. From the hilarious definition of “gradual school” to an uncomfortable scene between the babysitter and Garp, in which he salivates at her being 18 while she salivates at his being 30, Garp is honest, clear and insightful.

It makes the audience think.

But Garp is best in its anti-sex theme showing the mass contradiction of feminism, a collectivist offshoot defining one’s identity as based on one’s sex, an idea which was widely accepted and only spread after the bestselling novel was adapted. The women’s-only coastal compound where Garp’s evangelistic mother nurses her adherents back to health, from the tough-but-kind, and notably unsatisfied, transsexual to the man-hating women who mutilate themselves as martyrs for the feminist faith, is both prison and sanctuary. The place is peaceful, decent and it’s where Garp goes to heal, thanks to his mother in a final act of enlightenment.

Garp’s Kennedy-like compound is a transient place of irrationalism, where the wicked and the wounded alike are housed, granting refuge to the absurd and tolerance to society’s most vulnerable victims. The World According to Garp co-habits the 20th century’s worst ideas, including pragmatism, fatalism and self-sacrifice, and thus reflects the United States of America. That the practitioners are women seeking to rule men is especially astute.

This is not to say that Garp is explicitly anti-feminist, as Irving and Tesich merely send feminists up for the sake of humor. In one transition, Roberta Muldoon is maiden to Garp’s boys during child’s play. In the next scene, Helen capitulates to playing maiden in need of rescue for real to one of her students. Sexual stereotypes self-perpetuate; Garp’s women, even his stubborn mother, have a point.

Faith breeds force, as Ayn Rand once wrote, and brute force takes its toll, though Irving probably does not intend this as the meaning of Garp. The subtext is there, however, instilled in dark, strange and almost surrealistic plot points, which are possibly too serious and tragic for most, except the most damaged. It calls out life’s absurdities, such as the iconic plane striking the house, and beckons the weird to face the strange, as David Bowie sings in “Changes”, and embrace the byproduct of mixed ideas: the unusual, even the painful, hard and terrible.

In the character Pooh Percy, the archetypical arch-feminist, who is also a sociopath, one sees the full arc of Garp‘s clearly dramatized sub-theme that, while life should be lived as an adventure, which in this context means embracing uniqueness including any contradictions, ultimately man is doomed by the irrational. Whether this is true (I think it’s false), one can take it, even on Garp‘s terms, to mean that man’s only doomed to self-terminate to the extent he sanctions the irrational. Pooh Percy is a feminist in glasses and pigtails taken to the logical application of her ideals. A line early in the movie indicates that Pooh’s mother implants the child with hatred of her own sex and life and one wonders what else might have happened to this child, especially since her father is a malignant if minor character. Pooh is like an Islamic fundamentalist trained from scratch to be like a laser-guided missile to destroy sex, love and life. To Pooh, values are poison; she is like an automatonic assassin programmed for death. Watch Pooh for a lesson in what happens when decent people refuse to think, judge and speak up about the judged.

Garp is not, contrary to some assertions, flat, terrible and deadly. Certainly, Garp is mixed. The theme is not positive. Yet intelligent ideas about writing permeate the movie. From the gloves in a story Garp writes and the role of the piano in his self-recovery to the sound of a typewriter’s keys at Christmastime, this is an involving depiction of the writer’s life in stark, dramatic detail. It is possible to live a meaningful life in The World According to Garp, with the richest rewards coming in the most surprising places, times and gestures. Garp’s greatest literary achievement finally comes as a result of Garp’s greatest risk. His payoff comes in a most unwelcome context with a character played by Amanda Plummer. It’s a poignant moment which captures Irving’s brand of misfit individualism. Taking the tragic as a metaphysical primary, Garp proposes that one’s life soars only before the downfall.

This makes The World According to Garp a timely, thoughtful movie not without merit which is thoroughly modern, and prophetic, in its malevolence.