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TV: Glee

Glee: The Complete First SeasonHalf-naked cheerleaders, electric guitars from nowhere, terrible jokes about the deaf, Nazis and O.J. Simpson, a stereotypically butch female athletic coach as a villain and themes about confidence, regret, and betrayal…the first season of Fox’s hit musical television show, Glee, is available on DVD and the show is a mashup of styles, songs, and classic stories. After hearing endlessly about this show, which I did not watch in first run, I can attest that Glee is irresistible. While there is plenty to improve upon, the one-hour dramatic musical comedy is humorous, thought-provoking, and poignant. The series is enormously entertaining.

Cashing in on its high school and musical predecessors, ABC’s Room 222, the movie and NBC series Fame, and Disney’s cable movie franchise, High School Musical, and many others in film and television, Glee is centrally the story of a white male authority figure named Will. Gussied up as an egalitarian band of misfits who join the Midwestern William McKinley High School’s glee club, complete with tokens of every politically correct type, it’s relatively wholesome, which is the key to its overwhelming success. Spanish teacher Will instructs the students, each of whom yearn to be treated as an individual. His shrill, shallow, low-down wife calls them “dancing delinquents” and their asinine relationship is the only thing that is pure fantasy in this otherwise reality-based show. With multiple soap opera storylines about true love, teen pregnancy, and budding sexuality, Glee casts a wide net and always roots itself in American middle class pop music.

It works wonderfully. With arena rock staple Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” at its heart and soul, an idealistic counterpoint to the vacant nihilism of HBO’s Sopranos, with its horrible take on the same triumphant song, the glee club travels from formation to the final episode’s competition with reverence for the ideal. The songs, performances, and dance routines are overproduced, overly structured, and they lack pathos at key intervals, but each episode expresses a positive view of life and, sometimes, something unusual to think about, such as envy of those of ability, racism against whites, and what it feels like for a girl, or to be gay, pregnant, or mentally or physically handicapped. Each student shines at his or her best, in clothes, lines, and melodies that capture the possibility, not just the pain, of youth. And not just the young. Will’s love interest with another member of the faculty is the most interesting part of the show and his ongoing power struggle with the masculine cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester, is the funniest. Whether riffing on the empowerment of music by Madonna, a heart-wrenching fantasy sequence to “The Safety Dance” (originally performed by Men Without Hats), or working in enjoyable appearances by Olivia Newton-John as herself, the musical approach is clean, honest and respectful.

Yet the playful Glee is unabashedly daring in its own way. In an age of cynicism, with sneering television personalities testifying before Congress, it takes courage and imagination to showcase tunes such as “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, “Heartbreak Beat” by the Psychedelic Furs, or “The Lady is a Tramp” to express the idea that the good is possible here on earth and one ought to pursue one’s goals if based on reality and do it with passion, drive, and integrity. Wiping off the cultural slime (or slush) that engulfs us, Glee is gleeful about all of that. Whether in Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” or Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”, each performance is a step toward competition; an expression and a progression in revolving narratives of distinctively original characters. Every aspect of the production, including the cast, is excellent.

The premiere season DVD is a good product, if nothing sensational. As usual, extras without much substance appear on the box for marketing purposes, and much of the material is more fan-oriented than informative or entertaining. Bits include a video jukebox to play performance scenes, video diaries, tidbits, and features on fashion, choreography, and the final episode’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen) performance. Nothing lasts longer than 15 minutes and most are not worth watching twice, though some bonus bits are fun. On one feature, co-creator Ryan Murphy says he hopes the audience at least feels Glee‘s love for each song. After watching the first season, I do.

The Princess and the Frog on DVD

The Princess and the Frog

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New on DVD (and Blu-Ray) is Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which I briefly recommended when it was released in theaters. There are some things about this hand-painted feature film, which depicts an interracial romance, that I find troubling, such as the aimless prince, the fact that the only biracial character is evil, and a minimization of the heroine’s capitalist mentality. But there is much to enjoy about this animated musical fantasy adventure about Tiana, a black girl in New Orleans, who sets a goal of owning her own business, saves her money, works hard, focuses on her aims, and falls in love along the way.

The movie is delightful and the DVD, recently reviewed and available, is worth owning for repeat viewings. I could watch and listen to Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) “dig a little deeper” over and over and the best song, “Almost There”, which is too short, is a wonderful tribute to the virtue of productiveness. The DVD’s extras are satisfactory, with a music video by a young male vocalist named NeYo that tells a story in a forgettable tune, games, and other bonus bits. Lacking a narrative feature, the DVD provides what it calls deleted scenes, which are hand drawings pieced together and they don’t add much to the whole story. It’s a shame that co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid) decided against sharing a peek at what they talk about in the film’s audio commentary; a cut scene in which the trumpet-playing alligator, Louis, is pursued by an amorous lady on the steamboat. The commentary, loaded with too many scores to settle, is nevertheless the finest feature on the disc, with interesting information about this enjoyable movie, which is based on The Frog Prince fairy tale by the brothers Grimm.

Apparently, southpaw actress/singer Anika Noni Rose, who voices Tiana, insisted that the character be depicted as left-handed. I also learned that my favorite part of the movie, the “Almost There” number with Tiana singing about opening her restaurant, with minimally styled scenes of dancing waiters in black, white, orange and gold, was created based on drawings by renowned Harlem artist Aaron Douglas. The Princess and the Frog is too timid in expressing its theme of a morally ambitious girl for true Disney greatness, but it’s one of last year’s best movies and a little treasure for home entertainment.

New on DVD: ‘The Barbara Stanwyck Show’

The Barbara Stanwyck Show

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From her early screen performances in Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933) to her career-topping turn as Australian business tycoon Mary Carson in ABC’s 1983 adaptation of Colleen McCullough’s epic, The Thorn Birds, Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990) sizzled. I have continued to discover and enjoy her work over the years and I’m amazed at her remarkable range, powerfully vulnerable presence, and the depth of her talent. In fact, at the end of my run at Box Ofice Mojo, I had planned to run a series of reviews and interviews to mark her centenary. For now, I’m delighted to have made a new discovery which I hope you will enjoy, too: The Barbara Stanwyck Show. The 1960-1961 television anthology series, which aired before her colorful Western series, The Big Valley,  features Miss Stanwyck in silhouetted gowns and white gloves introducing each weekly 30-minute dramatic episode. The plots depict her in various roles and different stories.

This DVD edition of the recently recovered black and white program does not present the full season (the top-rated series was inexplicably cancelled, though she won a Best Actress Emmy), nevertheless, she is magnificent. The episodes are the equivalent of short stories, with the star of Double Indemnity at her peak as escaped murderer Vic Morrow’s hostage, a philanthropist wife and mother, and, in two excellent pieces, as Jo Little, a Chinese-born trader who tries to rescue a child refugee from Communism while trying to survive the U.S. government’s restrictions on business in Hong Kong. The best episode so far is “Size 10”, a dramatic cousin to her brilliantly pro-capitalist Executive Suite with the petite actress as a high-maintenance fashion designer in a tightly plotted business mystery with the independent woman as its central theme. The 3-disc DVD is handsomely packaged with a reference booklet which includes an episode guide and thoughtful comments from Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), who recounts seeing Miss Stanwyck in costume as a nun on the Desilu lot. Though the show’s glamorous introductions may or may not work, there’s much to appreciate here on this rare television classic, including unaired bonus material in a durable, well-designed box. And, of course, the best part is seeing Barbara Stanwyck in 16 episodes on a product the manufacturer tantalizingly labels Volume I. When it comes to Stanwyck, who personally helped launch the careers of William Holden and Ayn Rand, more is more.

New on DVD: ‘We the Living’

We the LivingAs I reported in May, a film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s 1936 novel We the Living, is available on DVD. It is also on sale through the production company.

The 1942 motion picture was recut from a pirated Italian adaptation and released in fascist Italy and Europe as two separate pictures. I’m planning an interview series about Ayn Rand’s breathtaking literary achievement and the outstanding movie version, which was theatrically released in 1988, for publication on the site.

While the film is also excellent, there is no substitute for the superior experience of reading We the Living, which was recently reprinted with an urgently relevant introduction by Leonard Peikoff, in this new trade paperback edition.

Movie Review: ‘The Lives of Others’

With the rising threat of an American government-controlled society, I’m adding my 2006 Box Office Mojo review of the most powerfully accurate film about totalitarianism in recent years: The Lives of Others. I am including my DVD notes.

Read the review here.