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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

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

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.