DWTS 19 Week 5: Sadie receives top score, but Alfonso number 1

On “Dancing with the Stars” Season 19, Week 5 continues with questionable costumes and dances without real expertise.  The gimmick this week is the Partner Switch-up, but most of the dances do not have real rules so the scores are even more subjective. There was no elimination this week so the scores and votes carry over to next week.

This week head judge Len Goodman was absent again and his replacement was the 26-year old Jessie J, a London-born pop hip hop singer and songwriter. Luckily for her, there was little ballroom to be judged and we can call this another desperate move to gain younger viewers. And yet, there were no perfect scores and no tens awarded this week.

Sadie Robertson and her exchange partner Derek Hough performed a charming Charleston and received nines across the board. Lea Thompson &Valentin Chmerkovskiy and Alfonso Ribeiro & Cheryl Burke received two nines and two eights, but from different judges to be tied for second for the Monday night performances. The combined scores was a different matter. 

By introducing these non-ballroom dances at this stage, we get lifts earlier than we might, but we also get partners who aren’t used to each other performing them. Not the best situation for safety.

Sadie Robertson & Derek Hough (Mark Ballas)

Lea Thompson &Valentin Chmerkovskiy (Artem Chigvintsev)

Alfonso Ribeiro & Cheryl Burke (Witney Carson)

  • 34 (8, 9, 9, 8)
  • Flamenco
  • “Angelica”—Hans Zimmer
  • 1-800-868-3401

Janel Parrish &Artem Chigvintsev (usual partner Valentin Chmerkovskiy)

Bethany Mota & Mark Ballas (Derek Hough)

Antonio Sabato JR. &Allison Holker (Cheryl Burke)

Jonathan Bennett &Peta Murgatroyd (Allison Holker)

Tommy Chong & Emma Slater (Peta Murgatroyd)

Michael Waltrip & Witney Carson (Emma Slater)

Because there was no elimination this week, your votes from last week will be combined with your votes from this week just as the judges’ scores from last week and this week will be combined to determine who goes home.

The top three performers remain the same, but the order changes, bringing Ribeiro to the top, but only by one point over the two couples tied for second.

The low scoring three couples remain the same with Jonathan Bennett and Allison Holker moving down to be second to the last.

No doubt that race driver Waltrip should trip off the dance floor due to his uninspired disco moves.


Alfonso Ribeiro &Cheryl Burke (Witney Carson)

  • 34 + 40 = 74/80
  • 1-800-868-3401

Sadie Robertson & Derek Hough (Mark Ballas)

  • 36 + 37 = 73/80
  • 1-800-868-3411

Lea Thompson &Valentin Chmerkovskiy (Artem Chigvintsev)

  • 34 + 39 = 73/80
  • 1-800-868-3407

Janel Parrish &Artem Chigvintsev (usual partner Valentin Chmerkovskiy)

  • 33 +36 = 69/80
  • 1-800-868-3405

Bethany Mota & Mark Ballas (Derek Hough)

  • 32 + 33 =65/80
  • 1-800-868-3403

Antonio Sabato JR. &Allison Holker (Cheryl Burke)

  • 28 + 29 = 57/80
  • 1-800-868-3402

Tommy Chong &Emma Slater (Peta Murgatroyd)

  • 23 +28 = 51/80
  • 1-800-868-3413

Jonathan Bennett &Peta Murgatroyd (Allison Holker)

  • 24 + 24 = 48/80
  • 1-800-868-3406

Michael Waltrip &Witney Carson (Emma Slater)

  • 20 + 25 = 45/80
  • 1-800-868-3409

From week three until the finale, viewers may cast their votes for their favorite couples via phone on Monday nights during and up to 60 minutes after the end of the “Dancing with the Stars” broadcast in each time zone. Online voting at www.ABC.com and on Facebook at https://apps.facebook.com/votedwts/ is open for 24 hours, beginning from the start of each episode on the East Coast at 8:00 p.m., ET/5:00 p.m., PT and closing at 8:00 p.m., ET/5:00 p.m., PT on Tuesday evenings.

Cary Elwes’ ‘As You Wish’ Memoir Burnishes the Warm Glow of ‘Princess Bride’

If things were as I wish, “The Princess Bride” 25th anniversary reunion two years ago  at the New York Film Festival and the launch of Cary Elwes’ memoir of the movie’s making would have been at the San Diego Comic-Con and not on the East Coast. Sure the Academy Awards failed to see Rob Reiner’s genius and the ensemble’s inconceivable chemistry, but the Burbank-based Saturn Awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror did not. The movie won the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film and Best Costumes (Phyllis Dalton), and Robin Wright was nominated for Best Actress and William Goldman for Best Writing.

If things were as I wish, I’d have gotten an in-person interview with Elwes instead of a phoner. I won’t even be in town on the one day Elwes is scheduled to sign books in Los Angeles. It’s inconceivable, considering I sat next to Elwes for the Psych cast SDCC appearance, that I still didn’t get autographs from Elwes, Dulé Hill and James Roday. At SDCC,  I had asked if there would be a Princess Bride-themed “Psych” episode. That and my other hope (a spin-off starring Elwes as Pierre Despereaux in a “It Takes a Thief” meets “Get Smart” goofiness series) was dashed when we learned Season 8 would be Psych’s final season.  Yet as the Man in Black once said, “Get used to disappointment.”

Despite those disappointments, Elwes’ “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of ‘The Princess Bride‘” written with Joe Layden is not a disappointment. If anything, it will make fans of  “The Princess Bride” cherish the movie even more. The 1987 movie crosses many genres–it’s a rom-com, it’s a family-friendly tale about a grandfather connecting with his grandson, it’s a fantasy romance. It was a movie that both Ian and I cherished although we met by dancing.

Ian even learned to fence with both hands because of this movie. While one of the DVD extras as a master swordsman proclaiming that good fencers make good dancers, you’ll be disappointed to learn that Elwes has not only dropped fencing but declares he’ll never be a contestant on a reality dance show like “Dancing with the Stars” or “Strictly Come Dancing.”

According to Elwes, “I had an idea to write it a while back, but I didn’t think anyone would be interested. My manager encouraged me and I said, ‘If you think you can get a publisher interested.'” Then at the anniversary panel, he found “There wasn’t enough time to share what I really felt. I couldn’t pick any one particular scene” that could be called his favorite memory.

Simon and Schuster was indeed interested and if you’re a real fan, you will be, too. There are no disappointing bits of ugly gossip to tarnish the film’s glow. And Elwes has incorporated the comments of his fellow actors, the director Rob Reiner and the writer William Goldman (original book and movie script).  Elwes explained, “The idea came together to have the memories almost in the margin in a way with little blocks of little snippets.” The book includes never-before-told stories, exclusive photographs, and interviews with costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, as well as author and screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner.  Reiner wrote the forward. Lear wrote the epilogue.

“The Princess Bride” was Elwes’ first Hollywood film and although he was the cast member who rented a video camera and shot some behind the scenes footage, some of which you may have already seen in the DVD extras. Elwes reviewed his cache while writing the book and some of his signings, such as NYCC, will feature screenings of never-before seen in public footage.

Some of the stories you’ll read in “As You Wish” have been told before–in previous interviews, but this book gathers them all together and puts them in chronological order. The greatest disappointment is the giant, Andre (1946-1993), wasn’t able to participate since he passed away years ago, but every effort is made to include him. The absence of Peter Falk (1927-2011) is also keenly felt but he wasn’t really part of the on-set gang.

It’s hard to believe that this movie failed to excite the public despite a rave review from Roger Ebert when it initially came out. Elwes faults the PR people who didn’t know how to sell it to the public and credits the rise of home-viewing VHS with its rise in popularity. Proof of this can be seen in the original trailer, Elwes commented, as well as the original movie posters in English and Italian.

I could tell you about all the many marvelous tales in this charming book like why Danny DeVito’s presence was felt on the set and who had to be banished from the set or just how did Elwes come about that elegant way of sitting during the Man in Black’s discourse with Buttercup just before the famous roll down the hill, but I could in no way do the stories justice. You must read the book because so much of the nuance, the many different voices piping in via grey blocked in comments would be lost in translation. An S. Morgenstern-ish abridgment wouldn’t do this slender 250-page volume justice.

The book is available officially on Oct. 14 although it has been available for pre-order for several months on Amazon.

The audiobook, also out on Oct. 14,  is 7 hours and 2 minutes, unabridged, with narration by Elwes, Christopher Guest, Carol Kane, Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, Chris Sarandon, Andy Scheinman, Wallace Shawn and Robin Wright.

In 2002, the American Film Institute listed “The Princess Bride” as number 88 on its AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions, a list of the 100 greatest cinematic love stories. The 1942 “Casablanca” tops that list, but “The Princess Bride” comes after the 1988 “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” but before the 1966 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Dirty Dancing,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Grease” and “Pillow Talk.”

At the end of the interview, after I mentioned that Ian and I both discovered “The Princess Bride” was a favorite movie before we married,  Elwes fondly noted that “The Princess Bride” is a movie that brings people together romantically and has inspired themed weddings complete with The Impressive Clergyman and “mawage” vows, except one supposes that the bride and groom actually say, “I do” and find “twue wuv.” Wish we had thought of that.

Cary Elwes will be made his first book signing appearance at New York Comic-Con (Jacob Javits Center).  For those without Comic-Con tickets, he will be making four other appearances in New York along with six other dates in three other states. Tickets may be required for some of the events listed below. If you aren’t having fun storming the castle, storm into one of these venues.

Sunday, Oct. 12: New York Comic-Con with Word Bookstore at Autographing Hall.

Monday, Oct. 13: Barnes & Noble Union Square, 33 E. 17th Street, New York, NY. 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.. Elwes in conversation with Rom Santopietro.

Tuesday, Oct. 14: Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington, NY, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. In conversation with Loren Aliperti.

Wednesday, Oct. 15: Jacob Burns Film Center, 364 Manville Road, Pleasantville, NY. 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Screening and Elwes in conversation with Janet Maslin.

Thursday, Oct. 16: Northshire Bookstore, BowTie Cinemas, 19 Railroad Place, Saratoga Springs, NY, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Screening and Elwes in conversation with Joe Layden, co-writer.

Friday, Oct. 17: Porter Square Bookstore, Brattle Street Theater, 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Screening and Elwes in conversation with David Waldes Greenwood.

Sunday, Oct. 19: Rainy Day Books, The Unity Temple on The Plaza, 707 W. 47th Street, Sanctuary, Kansas City, MO, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.  Elwes in conversation with Vivien Jennings.

Monday, Oct. 20: The Alamo Drafthouse, 1120 S. Lamar Blvd., 1120 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin, TX, 7:30 p.m. Quote-along screening and Elwes in conversation with Henri Mazza.

Tuesday, Oct. 21: Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, #2, San Francisco, CA, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Elwes in conversation with Jesse Hawthorne Ficks.

Wednesday, Oct. 22: Copperfield’s Books, 140 Kentucky Street, Petaluma, CA, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Dread Pirate Roberts Day! Elwes in conversation with Greg Sestero.

Thursday, Oct. 23: Barnes & Noble, The Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles, CA. 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Elwes in conversation with Jon Lovitz.


You can laugh at having a ‘Terrible Day’ in Pasadena

You’re name doesn’t have to be Alexander to have a bad day in Pasadena, but if you’re from Pasadena or have been living here, then watching Disney’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ will have the additional fun of trying to identify all the places in Pasadena and South Pasadena there were used for filming.

You might have even seen a very distinctive car being driven down the streets and wondered just how that could be legal. It wasn’t legal; it was Hollywood.  Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner may be the human stars, but the streets of Pasadena are prominently displayed.

The movie is based on Judith Viorst’s 1972 children’s book of the same name. Alexander Cooper is an 11-year-old boy who has bad days often. His older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) and sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) don’t seem to have bad days.  Emily is starring in the production of “Peter Pan.” Anthony has a gorgeous girlfriend and just needs to pass his driver’s exam and drive to the junior prom.

Even though Alexander’s father, Ben (Carell),  has been unemployed for several months, Alexander tells us, “Dad is a relentless optimist.” Ben’s been taking care of Baby Trevor (Elise and Zoey Vargas), but has just gotten an interview with a gaming company. His mother, Kelly (Garner), has been promised a promotion by her humorless boss Nina (Megan Mulally) if her next book event–a celebrity reading featuring Dick Van Dyke–goes well.

The day before his birthday, not only is Alexander having a bad day, his birthday party may be even worse. No one will be attending his birthday party because everyone, including his best friend are going to someone else’s party and Alexander just burned the lab notes for the girl he has a crush on. Alexander complains, “My parents say there’s no such thing as a bad day.” So he  makes a birthday wish–that his family have a bad day.

The day doesn’t start well. Emily who has a cold but today is the opening of “Peter Pan.” Anthony has an enormous zit on his forehead and his girlfriend isn’t speaking to him. The battery is dead on Kelly’s car and now Ben has to chauffeur everyone around. Ben drops the kids off at school (Marshall Fundamental High School on Allen).

While these are just normal every day glitches, things begin to go monumentally wrong as the movie poster suggests. Garner’s character cycles down Mission Street (South Pasadena) to get to Vroman’s where she unsuccessfully tries to prevent Van Dyke (as himself) from reading a children’s book full of unfortunate typos. You’ll recognize Vroman’s facade and even see the sign for Canterbury Records in the background.

Residential shots were taken on Buena Vista Street in South Pasadena, 2250 and 2001 Bridgen Drive in Pasadena, on 450-766 Villa Street and on Orange Grove between Lake and Allen.

While the story is predictable–about how families can bond during bad times as long as you keep your cool (although kicking trash cans when you’re really frustrated is allowed), there’s something reassuring and even relaxing about watching someone have a day far worse than you’ve ever had. You’re family might even be able to bond over it while trying to identify all the places in Pasadena.

And while you might not believe in bad luck, black cats and birthday wishes, to be on the safe side, wish everyone a good day, even a great day, but not terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY” opens Friday. Marshall Fundamental High School, which has been featured in movies such as “One Eight Seven,” “13 Going on 30″ (another Jennifer Garner movie), “Transformers” and “We Bought a Zoo,” will be featured in the early 2015 release “McFarland USA.”


Last Chance: Wayne Brady in ‘Kiss Me Kate’

“Kiss Me Kate” marries together Cole Porter with a modern day “Taming of the Shrew” story as the two principals are in a production of the very same play. During its day, “Taming of the Shrew,” didn’t suffer from the problematic issues of domestic violence. Considering England was recovering from the reign of a king who redefined domestic violence by divorcing both wife and religion and beheading a spouse, a few slaps and starvation might have seemed relatively tame.

The five-time Emmy Award winner Wayne Brady is the name to lure people into this lively production under the able direction of Sheldon Epps, but Merle Dandridge’s voice is the real thrill here. The conceit of having an all-black theatrical group isn’t so far-fetched. According to Epps’ research during those intense years of entertainment segregation all-black theatrical companies in the 1930s and 1940s dd do their own adaptation of Shakespeare. They came up with titles of “Voodoo Macbeth” and “Swingin’ the Dream.”

Historically, Broadway and musicals owe a lot to all-black theatrical companies who were instrumental in the formulation of musicals and bringing them to Broadway. American music can’t deny the debt to African Americans either.

In this case, the theatrical company in this play is producing “Swingin’ the Shrew,” and the divorced stars, Fred Graham (Brady) and Lilli Vanessi (Dandridge) are the leads. He has a young fling he’s working on who plays the ingenue, Lois (Joanna A. Jones) who is Bianca to Lilli’s Kate. When a gift he meant for Lois ends up in given to Lilli, trouble ensues on stage and off. As in Shakespeare, Lilli gets to growl and rage against men, but her best match, Fred, gets to tame her with a spanking that prevents her from comfortably sitting down. Funny in Shakespeare’s time when that was not as bad as being beheaded, but in today’s world, doesn’t slip so easily from our minds, particularly after that recent clamor about a football player slapping his fiancée in an elevator. Yet this is the same problem with the original play.

For those who have seen the movie, remember the movie was made in 1953 by MGM. Hermes Pan choreographed and the movie starred Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel as Lilli/Kate and Fred/Petruchio respectively. Ann Miller was Lois/Bianca. Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore were the two thugs, Lippy and Slug. Cole Porter’s lyrics were sanitized to make this musical acceptable to the censors and that includes the number “Too Darn Hot.” Miller’s version has sex appeal, but at the Pasadena Playhouse, the sexual tension is fully expressed.

At the Pasadena Playhouse, we not only aren’t at the movies, we also are post-sexual revolution 1960s so the risque lyrics are back and the costumes are flirty and dirty. Still “Kiss Me Kate” is a comedy and not meant to be an exploration of sexual themes and social politics. “Too Darned Hot” implies there are a lot of physical interactions between the chorus members off-stage, but the most suggestive song is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” which here becomes one of the best vaudeville routines between the supposed gangsters played with the required daftness by David Kirk Grand and Brad Blaisdell. We don’t believe that these two guys are really blood-thirsty, cold-blooded killers. The contrast between their thick accents and their knowledge of Shakespeare creates a comic incongruity. Yet this is still a family show and everything is tastefully done.

This is the last weekend of “Kiss Me Kate” at the Pasadena Playhouse. While the African American casting is lively and well-done (except we’re strained to believe a white general would consider marrying a black actress–no matter how beloved and famous–in that era), this is also “Kiss Me Kate” as it was meant to be done, unlike the movie. If you can overlook the aspects of domestic violence in both the Shakespeare’s “Shrew” and this musical itself, then it’s well worth seeing.


DVD Review: Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Diamond Edition

Disney gone into its vaults and brought out the Diamond edition of “Sleeping Beauty” and it’s worth getting, to remind you of the legacy of Disney, and as an education in the art of animation and story telling.

The 1959 animated feature “Sleeping Beauty” brought together the French story by Charles Perrault of “The Sleeping Beauty” and the Brothers Grimm story “Little Briar Rose.” This was the 16th movie in the Walt Disney Animated Classic series and was considered a failure due to its initial box office gross. Disney didn’t return to animation until after Walt Disney had died (1966). “The Little Mermaid” in 1989 was a success and began another tradition.

Yet the current Disney company has capitalized on the American fascination with royalty and the little girl (and sometime big girl) fantasy of being a princess. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, named Aurora, is one of the classic Disney princesses.

There were problems with both “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Briar Rose.”

Perrault’s tale involved a hundred year interval between when the princess pricks her finger and falls asleep and the prince comes and awakens her with a kiss. This is references in the Disney animation, but only because Disney’s version added something that made the romance more socially acceptable: In the Disney version the prince and princess have met before–twice. The first time, he is a smirking toddler and the second time, they fall in love at first sight. Love at first sight is one of those fairy tales we’d like to believe in today as well as that notion of The One who is mean to be.

The second problem is that the prince keeps her a secret from his mother who is an ogress. She is jealous of her daughter-in-law, imagine the kind of fun this gave future psychologists, and wants to have her daughter-in-law, her grandson and her granddaughter cooked up and served for dinner. In this case, separate meals and the queen leaves to dirty work to her cook. The good cook refuses and slaughter a lamb instead. However, the queen soon discovers this trickery and sets up another deadly means of ridding herself of her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, but in the end gets poetic justice.

In the more modern urban setting, one can’t tell children about cannibalism and slaughtering lambs. Then there’s that whole modern sentiment against arranged marriages and not actually choosing your significant other.

In the Brothers Grimm version, “Little Briar-Rose,” there are 13 fairies and only 12 fairies are invited. Disney makes it only four fairies with three good and motherly plump and one bad, who is slinky and tall. Again in the Brothers Grimm version, the whole court sleeps for 100 years and the prince just happens to be the lucky one who enters the castle 100 years later. He kisses her and she awakens and they marry.

The Disney version adds comic relief using the three good fairies who have different faces and personalities, but if that wasn’t enough they are different colors: Red, green and blue.

The good fairy threesome (Flora, Fauna and Merryweather) are guests at a grand feast the King Stefan (voiced by Taylor Holmes) and Queen Leah have given to present their daughter, Aurora, to their subjects and also to make an official betrothal between Aurora and the son of their friend King Hubert (Bill Thompson), Prince Philip. The three are giving the princess blessings but before Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) can give her blessing, the evil fairy Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) enters and curses the infant princess. On her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Merryweather softens the curse and transforms the endless sleep of death into a deep sleep that will end with true love’s kiss.

King Stefan (voiced by Taylor Holmes)  has all the spinning wheels burned and the three fairies take the infant away and hide her in a cabin in the woods where they raise her as a peasant girl. Of course, her life as a peasant seems exceedingly pleasant. She isn’t working on the farm for some king or doing any sort of menial labor. She’s only a faux peasant. In the woods while playing with her woodland friends–the owl, birds and squirrels, she sings and gathers berries. Her woodland friends spy the prince, or at least his cap and cape and conspire in having the two meet.

In love, Prince Philip (Bill Shirley) asks to meet her again and they make a promise to meet at the cottage that evening, but the fairies have other plans. They take her to the castle of her parents because she’s supposed to meet the man she’s already betrothed to. During the excitement Aurora (Mary Costa) is lured away from her protectors and Maleficent provides the spinning wheel that completes her own curse. She also finds the young prince and kidnaps him. She plans to keep him until he is old and inform and then allow him to kiss his beloved Aurora who will have remained young.

But this being Disney, he is found, released, ultimately battles Maleficent and defeats her with the help of the fairies and kisses his Aurora. Aurora and her prince marry and then dance. There’s a cute bit a magic where her dress changes colors between blue and pink. That gives girls a chance to choose either dress in their princess dreams.

The animation is high stylized and there is no comic-relief companion as later Disney animated features now require. Maleficent has her own companion, a crow, and he, too, is defeated by a good fairy. Maleficent has become an iconic character, including her transformation into a dragon for the final scene. The feature has aged well and rightfully deserves a place as a Disney masterpiece.

As a someone who loves musicals, I appreciate the care the animators took using live action references from Bill Shirley and Mary Costa. The animators drew the lips based on the action of Shirley and Cost recording the songs and dialogue.  Before the film was released, Shirley and Costa performed together at the Disney-themed Hollywood Bowl Concert. You might not realize that the song “Once Upon a Dream” came from this animated feature because it has become so much a part of American culture and, of course, Disney culture. Here you get a chance to see it as it was meant to be seen, but better. Shirley and Costa’s voices meld wonderfully and it is a treat to hear the clarity that this cleaned up soundtrack gives their magnificent voices.

The new bonus features include three deleted scenes. We get to see the new story boards and the new voice overs take us through these three segments: “The Curse,” “The Arrival of Maleficent” and “The Fair.” You can consider for yourself if these would have helped the plot or not.

Some of the new bonuses are really commercials in a Disney disguise such as the “Once Upon a Parade” which tells how a young peasant girl saves a Disney parade from Maleficent. Fans of “Modern Family” will recognize Sarah Hyland in this parade teaser.

Another bonus feature, “The Art of Evil: Generations of Disney Villains,”  highlights the creator of Maleficent, Marc Davis, and discusses the role of villains in Disney’s classic films. After all, Maleficent is so special, she got her own live-action movie and is played by Angelina Jolie.

Then there’s a short “@DisneyAnimation: Artist in Motion” which shows Development Artist Brittney Lee creating Maleficent out of paper.

And since the world has become karake crazy, there’s a sing-along music for kids and adults who love the theme song “Once Upon a Dream.”

Bonus features that were included on previous DVD releases are “The Sound of Beauty: Restoring a Class,” “Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty” and “Eyvind Earle: A Man and his Art.”

“The Sound of Beauty” is about how Disney sound engineers went back to the original multi-channel recorded elements and made a new mix which brings the sound effects and dialogue up to today’s standards.

“Picture Perfect” is about all aspects of production, from the concept to the voice casting to the art design and story development.

“Eyvind Earle” was an American artist (1916-2000) whose work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He was born in New York, moved to Hollywood in 1918. He began to paint when he was 10 and had his first solo exhibition in France at 14. His Disney work can be seen in “Paul Bunyan,” “Lady and the Tramp” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart': French steampunk animation enchants

How best to consider this French animated feature: “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart“? Is it a stand-alone animated feature? Is it an album music video that takes Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” forward?

“Thriller” was just one song. This is basically an album that tells a story written by the lead musician of the group who provides the music.

If you get the DVD/Blu-ray version, you’ll get the chance to listen to the original French lyrics and you wish the lyrics had remained in French, the native language of Mathias Malzieu. Malzieu has written a few books and this animated feature is based on his 2007 book: La mécanique du cœurAlthough this is translated as “The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart,” I think a more direct translation might be “The Mechanics of the Heart.”

Malzieu belongs to a French band called Dionysos, which is French for the Greek Dionysus, the god of rape, winemaking and wine as well as ritual madness. Formed in 1993 in Valence, Drome, they perform songs in French and English. What kind of group takes such a name. One bent on a bit of theatricality. I suspect this band which has released six studio albums would be at home in at the San Francisco Edwardian Ball (that is Edward as in Gorey and not the British king).

The 3D animation seems choppy like stop-motion and the faces are pale with large eyes and sometimes oversized hair. The boy of the title, Jack,  was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1874–during Victoria’s reign. But it was the coldest day in history and poor Jack’s baby heart freezes. To save him, the midwife replaces his heart with a cuckoo clock. Yet a cuckoo clock can’t replace a real heart–it’s not strong enough to withstand anger or the excitement of love.

Jack is adopted by the midwife and she warns him never to touch the hands of his clock, never to get angry and never to fall in love. Although she protects him by schooling him at home, Jack does go out into the town and, slipping away from his adoptive mother, he finds love with a myopic gypsy girl, Miss Acacia. She vanishes and with his limited contact with the outside world, a wistful Jack grows anxious. He finally cajoles her into letting him attend a school with other kids, but a boy with a cuckoo clock for a heart, who can’t run, who can’t get angry is going to be the target of a bully.

Miss Acacia is also beloved by the bully. She has a fondness for red roses and when her emotional state is agitated, she grows thorns which might be from the roses or from the acacia trees (which outside of Australia are quite thorny, but considered medicinal as well). Can Miss Acacia cure Jack’s problems? As Jack goes on his search to find his true, love, he meets up with the French illusionist and filmmaker George Méliès. You can always get romantic advice from the French. Together they find Miss Acacia in a circus that is part Cirque du Soleil and part Fellini. 

Of course, Jack must choose between life and love. This doesn’t end happily, but die-hard romantics will be touched by this tender love story.

The voices all sound older than the stated ages but the kids grow up and keep the same voices. This doesn’t really bother me.  This featured is directed by Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu and some of the imagery will inspired steampunk fans–expect to see cuckoo-clocks and xylophones in costumes in the near future. .

The music does from time to time play in my head so I’m inclined to consider the tunes as an important part of this package for “Jack and the Cuckoo-Cluck Heart,” and this kind of animated feature and even the band would fit in with just the right crowd–steampunk and goth, anime junkies and romantics. I would have preferred to have subtitles than the English dubbing and the French lyrics might have sounded better, at least to American ears, than the English translation. In my mind, I imagine the best possible experience would be to see the the band playing and singing the original French lyrics as this animated feature is screened behind them.


DVD Review: ‘The Siege of Leningrad’

Adolph Hitler had his megalomaniacal belief in Aryan superiority to rationalize his disregard of human life. He relegated his soldiers to cannon fodder for his ambitions and designated for death the people he labeled undesirables. Joseph Stalin also saw his own people as expendable and director/writer illustrates his documentary, ‘The Siege of Leningrad.

This 50-minute documentary reveals how desperate the war on the Russian front was. The siege began on 8 September 1941 and ended on 27 January 1944. That was almost 900 days of misery in which the Nazi army had surrounded the city and cut off its supplies of food and fuel.

Hitler’s plan was to first occupy Leningrad (now reverting back to the pre-communist name of St. Petersburg) and then march on to Moscow. The significance of the city was in its very name. The city was named after Peter the Great who moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to the city that now bore his name. St. Petersburg became Petrograd (Peter’s City) in 1914, just before World War I began. The capital was moved to Moscow in 1918. Five days after Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, Petrograd became Leningrad.

With Lenin dead, Joseph Stalin rises and by World War II, he is the leader that joins with the United Kingdom and the United States against Germany, although not immediately (See my review of “The World Wars”). If the allied nations had troubles playing nice during World War I, during World War II, things were even worse. Stalin didn’t play nice with his own.

Director/writer Michael Kloft demonstrates just how callous a leader Stalin was. Race or ethnicity wasn’t an issue in Stalin’s decisions. Using interviews with historians, eyewitness accounts, letters and diaries and files from the Soviet secret police, Kloft shows how the inhabitants survived though their humanity was challenged and how Stalin could have prevented this long period of despair. Starvation changed people. Weakness was exploited. A horse was butchered while still weakly alive. Some turned to cannibalism.

The price of resistance was high and yet we know that surrender was not likely to have been met with kindness.

The Siege of Leningrad” illuminates another facet of World War II as well as the kind of person Joseph Stalin was. There’s some indication as portrayed in the British fictional TV series “Foyle’s War,” that the other Allies were well aware of Stalins savagery and his cold calculating ways.

The Siege of Leningrad” is available from First Run Features. In color and black and white, English and German with English subtitles.


DVD Review: ‘Fuhrer Cult and Megalomania’

When I hear Nuremberg, I think of the trials at the end of World War II, but Nuremberg was the city beloved by Adolph Hitler. In Michael Kloft’s documentary, “Führer Cult and Megalomania,” Nuremberg’s position of prominence in the Nazi regime is explored and this documentary is  subtitled:  “Nuremberg: The Holy Shrine of the Nazis.” Although the DVD package states this is a 2011 release, the title is the same as the 1996 German release:  “Führerkult und Größenwahn – Das Parteitagsgelände in Nürnberg.”

Historically, Nuremberg was the location of an imperial castle and the place where the Imperial Diet and courts met during the time of the Holy Roman Empire.  There were Jews in Nuremberg and they were not kindly treated. They were killed in large numbers, sometimes burned at the stake like witches and finally were driven out in 1349. The Jewish quarter was then demolished and a marketplace was built over it.

If Nazi Germany was the Third Reich, then the Holy Roman Empire (800-1800) was the First Reich and the German Empire, which ended with the First World War (1871-1918) was the Second Reich.

Because of this connection to the Roman Empire, Nuremberg was chosen by Hitler to be the host for Nazi Party conventions, the Nuremberg rallies in 1927, 1929 and then annually from 1933 to 1938.  For most of use, what we know of these rallies comes from Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” (Triumph des Willens) which recorded the 1934 rally.

If you’ve seen the History Channel’s “The World Wars” or are up on your Adolph Hitler history, then you’ll know Hitler had a thing for architecture. By the time of the rallies, he was in full megalomaniacal swing and he was determined to leave monuments to commemorate his historical significance. With his architect Albert Speer, he set out to make the landmarks of the ancient past  seem insignificant, saying “Even the pyramids will be dwarfed by the stone and concrete masses I plan to erect.”

Kloft isn’t satisfied with what Riefenstahl has shown us of the past and brings together rare film footage of the construction and includes some amateur film shot in color.Kloft also includes interviews with eyewitnesses to the construction and rallies. The model of Nazi Germany efficiency begins to crumble as we come to understand the extend of Hitler’s ego. His will determined what was built and where, and we already see how ego was at war with reality.

At one time, as many as 1.5 million people attended a party rally, an 8-day affair of propaganda production. Yet now some 70 years later, the city that had once been the headquarters of the Nazi military district, the subcamp Flossenburg concentration camp and the site of Hitler’s most infamous rally, has mostly recovered from the humiliation of World War I, the severe damage of Allied strategic bombing and the crushing weight of Holocaust hubris revealed in the Nuremberg Military Tribunals.

Only 52 minutes long, this documentary, “Führer Cult and Megalomania,”  is a swift and eloquent documentary that ironically shows the other side of “Triumph of the Will,” the triumph of the elements and the Allies. The West Germany-born 53-year-old Kloft has made a career of creating documentaries about the Nazi regime. This is a fascinating brief history lessons from a German point of view and well worth viewing. In English with German subtitles.

First Run Features has several other films about World War II and has a DVD box set of four other Kloft documentaries.


Review: The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 2

The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 2 brings together two disparate subjects: The summer a real serial killer brought hysteria into a neighborhood and a war that brought racism to the forefront. “Miracle At St. Anna” is the more sentimental and fanciful of the two while “Summer of Sam” is a thoughtful look back at poisonous suspicions.

Summer of Sam

Instead of examining the psychology of the serial killer Son of Sam (David Berkowitz), Spike Lee with co-writers Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, look into the psychological breakdown of a neighborhood and a group of friends as suspicion turns them against each other.

To set up the situation, Lee shows a broadcast news segment and we hear a dog barking. A man, whose face we don’t see, is holding his ears and while clad only in white boxers made semi-transparent by sweat, is plunging his face into the mattress on the floor. The man is not a minor character in the lives of the main characters.

Like the inescapable heat of the summer, this man is part of the environment, the atmosphere. The soundtrack takes us back to “Boogie Nights” and a time when disco was still cool and not retro and there really was “something in the air that night.” Fear.

Taking place during the summer of 1977, the serial killer Son of Sam has already shot several women in parked cars. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a hairdresser who seduces women. Married to a waitress named Dionna, he’s fooling around with other women including Dionna’s cousin. While returning from a date, Vinny and Dionna pass a crime scene and Vinny realizes that he was very close to the victims earlier. He can’t tell Dionna because he was at that spot having sex with Dionna’s cousin at the time.

One of Vinny’s  old friends, Ritchie, has become a punk rocker and his dress and spikey hair. Vinny’s half-sister, Ruby, is the only one sympathetic to Ritchie’s punk rock ways and questionable lifestyle.

As the Son of Sam killings continue, suspicion falls upon Ritchie. Ruby has joined Ritchie’s band and although Ruby and Ritchie invite Vinny and Dionne to see them perform at CBGB, Vinny and Dionne decide the don’t like the crowd, and first attempt to get into the famed Studio 54, and on failing there, the couple goes to the newly opened swingers club Plato’s Retreat (1977-1985) where they engage in an orgy.

Driving home, Vinny angrily confronts Dionna over her participation, but Dionna fires back. She knows about his infidelities and she leaves him to stay at her parents’ house.

Lee takes us to the experience of the common man, the person who wasn’t singled out for murder but was possibly suspected of the same. In doing so, we get a look at mass hysteria, not in a small town, but in a segment of a large city. We see how easily suspicion leads to violence and wrongful vigilante action.

Miracle of St. Anna

“Miracle of St. Anna” seeks to correct the kind of mass racial hysteria that had almost erased all the accomplishments of black Americans by introducing a sentimental story about men at war and survivor guilt.

This being Spike Lee, we not only get the viewpoint of the African American soldiers, we also get racism, the kind of racism that denied the intelligence of black soldiers and put them in danger.

The story begins in 1983 with an elderly postal worker who goes postal. The man, Hector Negron, recognizes a customer and shoots him. Negron is a World War II vet and at his apartment the investigating officers discover the head of an old Italian statue that has been missing since the war.

From here, the story is told in flashback and we meet Negron as a young corporal in the 92nd Infantry Division in 1944 Italy. Their division advances farther than their commanding officer is willing to believe and the officer, Captain Nokes, orders bombing to their position as a result.

After many of their men are killed Negron ends up on the wrong side of the river with three other soldiers: Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, Sergeant Bishop Cummings, and Private Sam Train. As they move on, Train finds a little Italian boy, Angelo as the head of the statue. Train believes the head has magical powers and takes the head and the boy along.

When the soldiers then befriend people in a small Italian village, it becomes hard to tell who is the enemy–the German soldiers, the Italian villagers or the white American soldiers.

The title suggests there is a miracle and you should wait for it to happen. Unlike “Son of Sam,” this movie has a happy ending of sorts. Justice is served in a way that makes this a fairytale for adults.

Even if you feel this plot is contrived, it is one of the first movies that considers the position of the Buffalo soldiers and shows them fighting in Europe against the Axis nations as well as the American brand of prejudice. This alone makes it worth seeing, but there is more, much more in the DVD extras. Like the documentaries that I’ve been reviewing by German-born Michael Kloft, this fictional account and the DVD extras help give us a fuller understanding of the history of World War II. You can hear the passion in Lee’s voice and the earnest enthusiasm in author/screenwriter James McBride’s voice during the commentary. 

I delayed this review in light of the civil discord of Ferguson, Missouri. A black man was shot in his hometown. In “Miracle,” the black soldiers we follow survived friendly fire that occurred because they were black and thus not considered reliable sources of information. They found themselves treated better in a small foreign town. Yet if we look to “Summer,” Lee shows that skin color isn’t the only reason people will turn against you, just being different during a time of heightened emotion (and in Spike Lee’s world that seems to be any summer in New York) will suffice.

When I saw and heard Spike Lee in person, it was at Ebertfest during a screening of his “Do the Right Thing.” In that movie, Lee emphasizes how the heat transformed people, and melted away the thin veneer of civilization. Maybe that is Ferguson as well, but it is also the sad fate of the dispossessed, men like the Central Park  Five  or the more recent case of Kalief Browder, who spent three years at Rickers Island but whose case never went to trial.

These differences of race as in “Miracle” or musical and costume preferences as in “Summer” prevent monotony, the gray tedium of sameness between each person on earth, but they also can excite prejudice. Hitler’s Nazi regime began the war, but the racial prejudices weren’t his alone and they weren’t limited to Germany.

Now, in the aftermath of a heated exchanges of Ferguson and before the heat sends emotions into hyperdrive next summer is the perfect time to view these two Spike Lee movies.

DVD Review: The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 1

When I originally began this review, Ferguson, Missouri was, for most Americans, an unknown city. It didn’t break into our consciousness.  Now director/writer Spike Lee has spoken out about the events in Ferguson and in doing so, makes this a good time to examine his movies.

The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 1 includes “25th Hour” and “He Got Game.” It’s hard to go wrong with two movies that star leading men such as Edward Norton and Denzel Washington, respectively. The movies take two men in tricky circumstances with prison a great determining factor in their family relations.

The 25th Hour

David Benioff wrote the 2001 debut novel “The 25th Hour” and the screenplay for this 2002 American drama. The title refers to the impending seven-year prison term that will begin after this protagonist’s last 24 hours of freedom.

The movie begins before then when Monty (Norton) is feeling fine, driving a bright yellow Super Bee in New York City. It’s NYC. Having a car is luxury enough. Monty is with his friend Kostya (Tony Siragusa) when they find a badly mauled dog. Monty at first wants to put the dog out of its misery by shooting it, but decides to take the dog to a clinic.

Suddenly, we’re in late 2002 and Monty has named the dog Doyle. Doyle may be doing better, but Monty is about to begin the seven-year sentence for dealing drugs. He’s enjoying a day in the park with Doyle. He going to meet his childhood friends–Frank (Barry Pepper), a Wall Street Trader and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an awkward high school teacher with an inappropriate attraction to one of his young female students (Anna Paquin).

Monty didn’t just use his drug money to live high, with a spacious apartment and a cool car, he also helped save his father’s bar. His father, James (Brian Cox), is a recovering alcoholic, but this isn’t the TV show “Cheers.” James will drive Monty to prison in the morning, but he feels guilty and takes a drink. Will he backslide into a drunken stupor during the next seven years?

Yet James doesn’t know that Monty could have gotten out earlier, but he was greedy. And now he must make a decision. Although he refused to turn in the guy he worked for, Russian mobster Uncle Nikolai (Levan Uchaneishvili) , he doesn’t want to remain in his debt, but also isn’t sure how Nikolai will treat him on this last day. And what about his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson).  Monty wonders if she turned him into the police.

At times, moments seem to be put on pause as if we were taking a mental snapshot. Although everyone on the surface attempts to be positive, what do we know? Will Naturelle wait for Monty? Will Monty come out a broken man? He fears rape and he won’t have the Russian mob’s protection. While Frank and Monty joke about opening a bar, Frank feels Monty’s life is over. And certainly in seven years, Doyle will be dead, but perhaps Jacob won’t.

He Got Game

While there’s a feeling of authenticity and of fully developed characters in “25th Hour,” the same can’t be said for 1998 “He Got Game.”  The performances are all top notch in both films, but the plot feels a bit contrived and the ending has nothing to do with reality (It’s a metaphor.).

At the center is a disgraced man, Jake (Denzel Washington), who is in the slammer for manslaughter of his wife although for most of the characters the difference between manslaughter and murder is a minor quibble. By the time we learn about the actual incident, it comes as a bit of a surprise, tweaking our understanding of Jake.

Jake is given an offer by the state governor: If during a week of special furlough Jake can get his son Jesus (Ray Allen) to sign a letter of intent to attend Big State University (is that vague enough to make it universal), the governor’s alma mater, then the governor will reduce Jake’s sentence.  That might not be too easy. His son is bitter and hasn’t forgiven his father while his sister Mary (Zelda Harris) has forgiven Jake.

Everyone wants something from Jesus who was named for a basketball player. Even though that Jesus and Mary match up makes it seems so biblical, the character is named after Earl Monroe, the “Black Jesus” and also “Black Magic, ” “Thomas Edison” and “The Pearl,” who played for the Knicks. Jesus is the number one basketball prospect in the nation. He’s a good boy, but he’s not above temptation. Jesus is being pressured by the aunt (Lonette McKee) and uncle (Bill Nunn) who took the siblings in after his father went to prison, his coach and his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson).

Jake returns each night to a cheap hotel where he befriends the hooker (Milla Jovovich) next door. He pities her; her pimp beats her. He tries to help, but he’s being pressured by the two guys assigned to watch him. Jake’s not a bad guy; he’s not violent; he’s not selfish, but he’s lost his chance.

The cast includes Rick Fox as well as NBA players Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton, Scottie Pipper, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and NBA coaches Rick Pitino and George Karl in cameo appearances.  Lee was taken to task by ESPN over sports regulations and Jesus’ living arrangements, so reality didn’t limit Lee.

Allen, who was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks (He’s currently with the Miami Heat), joins Spike Lee on the commentary track.

One of the reasons to get this DVD set is the extras. I’ve heard Spike Lee speak in person about his film “Do the Right Thing.” He wasn’t very interesting then, but I think it was the company. Paired together with Ed Norton, the conversation is easy and revealing. These are two men, respected in their association with movies and equals. With Ray Allen, the circumstances are much different. Allen is a professional basketball player and perhaps Spike Lee might have wanted to be an NBA star, but for the movie, Allen was a newbie, an innocent who is put in uncomfortable situations. He’s has a sex scene. He has to hold the screen against the powerful charisma of Denzel Washington. While it might have been a greater coup for have Washington as a commentator, this pairing is more informative. We have Allen who knows about the reality of basketball and recruiting and two people who can comment on Washington, including his basketball skills.

Why I think the situation at Ferguson makes these films more important and the voice of Spike Lee vital is that both of these movies are about men who are trying to find their way, they don’t know who their friends are, they are trying to do right, but aren’t sure what that is. Norton’s character makes sacrifices for his father but he could have gotten our earlier. His father certainly feels guilt and who knows what will happen after prison. Washington’s character is a black man, who perhaps didn’t get the best deal from the legal system, tries to reconnect with his son.

Prison will change or has changed the relationships between these fathers and their sons. A high-roller rich drug dealer who is otherwise a decent guy (hey, he saved a dog) and a basketball prospect are exceptions to the rule. The drug dealer are scum rule, the black man is unimportant rule.

In this collection, Spike Lee asks us to look at how prison and men with money influence the lives of two characters. There are no happy endings in either of these movies but in both cases the men who are prison-bound aren’t the bad guys. They are just pawns and not the kings of their destinies.


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