The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements, John Musker, 1989) – Animation, like any industry, is cyclical, and in 1989 for then surprisingly fledgling Walt Disney Studios, The Little Mermaid couldn’t have come at a better time, ushering in a new era of blockbusters for a once great production house in desperate need of a hit.
The 1980s weren’t kind to the Mouse House. By the start of the me-decade their last profitable film was 1977’s The Rescuers, with revenues mostly coming in from back catalogue releases from their vault for matinee runs in theatres. 1981’s underrated The Fox and The Hound and 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective both underperformed. 1985’s more adult and teen pitched The Black Cauldron was a wildly ambitious but riotously costly dud. Then studio chair Jeffrey Katzenberg, still stinging from those trio of duds had put all his efforts into trying to make Oliver & Company in time for 1988 (which did mixed business) and a sequel to The Rescuers for 1990 just to get anything going. Sandwiched between those, and the ultra-powerful success of the animated-live action hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit, was this initially slept on project that had been gestating at Disney since the Snow White era. Once Oliver & Company was in the can, Katzenberg took a closer look at this property that had just gotten a polish from Great Mouse Detective co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, and immediately decided to go for broke, devoting more cash and manpower to the project than any project since Fantasia in 1940.
It was a gamble that paid off astoundingly well, as history would show, but thematically it was a great movie that retains the surprisingly humane scars of the studio that made it. It’s a work so genuine, thoughtful, and in hindsight surprisingly progressive, that it could only have come through hardship and a wealth of boundless imagination. In 2011, Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss would call The Little Mermaid one of the 25 best animated films of all time, and while he isn’t wrong, it would be more accurate to say that it’s easily one of the best family features of all time and deserving a spot on the AFI Top 100 master list outside of constant appearances in the organization’s more niche listings. It’s a film that time will only be kinder and kinder towards, and it gets a brand new Diamond Edition Blu-Ray to give its best packaging yet outside of the big screen.
The story of a young mermaid and daughter of the sea’s ruler King Triton who wants more out of life and wishes to live like a human for a while, certainly dulls the downer nature of the film’s Hans Christian Andersen source material, but in doing so it actually fleshes out the morality and struggle at the heart of the classic narrative like never before. Instead of simply acting as a morality tale designed to keep youngsters in line, the Disney version turns it into a story that’s equal parts wish fulfilment and a tale of deeper consequence. Ariel gets exactly what she wishes for – life on dry land, a chance to meet the man of her dreams – but it comes at a dreadful cost at the hands of wish granter and all around evil Octopus woman Ursula, one of the most memorable screen villains of all time. It’s beautiful, not only in its moments of terror and anguish – of which the film pulls no punches – but also in how it’s a story of how love, family, and most importantly self-respect can conquer anything.
Featuring the best all around score and song list of any Disney production from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and some of the sharpest hand crafted animation the studio ever produced, the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray treatment of the film serves as an absolute revelation. The picture quality has been restored to such a degree that I can’t even recall if the film had ever looked that good in any format prior. The sounds mix cleans up even the traditional mix, as well as offering a remastered DTS track that particularly brings the music to new life. (Note: A 3D Blu-Ray version of the film exists, but was not reviewed. A theatrical re-release of the film was supposed to happen this past September, but was scrapped after diminishing returns of several other Disney and Pixar films that were given the 3D once over.)
The special features include everything that came on the film’s original DVD release (commentary from Clemens, Musker, and Menken, 9 featurettes ranging from formal to silly, 25 minutes of alternate and deleted sequences in various stages of completion, some games for the kids, and a focus on the music, replete with a now dated feeling reprise of “Kiss the Girl” from Ashley Tisdale. The new features don’t add a heck of a lot of new material, but the old stuff still comes in handy. There are new looks behind the scenes at Disney Animation, a look at how this production used sort of a precursor to motion capture to get movement just right, karaoke tracks for the songs, a Carly Rae Jepsen updating of “Part of Your World” that’s kinda forgettable, a look at a deleted character, and best of all a look at the late Ashman, who passed away two years after the film’s release from AIDS complications. It’s not as good a look at the man as the independently produced documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty was, but it’s still a fitting tribute.
Without The Little Mermaid being a success, there would never have been Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, or anything that followed in its wake, and it’s equally of little surprise that Musker and Clemens would be called on four more times since (Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog) and that they have another project (this time a CGI hybrid) in production for Disney in 2018. It was a film that came at the perfect time, delivering a shot of much needed energy and creativity when it was needed the most. (Andrew Parker)
The Look of Love (Michael Winterbottom, 2013) – It’s always a pleasant surprise when a bio pic actually ends up having a heart. The Look of Love is a glance at one of the more powerful and wealthy men in England that changed the cultural landscape of a country while forever searching for that one thing he could never quite get a handle on: love.
The Look of Love is a portrait of British adult magazine publisher, night club owner and theatre impresario Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan). The man was the symbol of the Soho district in London when the blend of sex and sophistication ruled the day from the swinging 60s when he opened the first strip club in England through to the decadent nature of the 1980’s as he bought up almost all the properties in the area. Raymond almost single-handedly rewrote the cultural history of the UK with an empire of topless theaters and soft-core magazines that would eventually make him the richest man in the country, but subsequently alienated his multiple wives (Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton) along with his only daughter (Imogen Poots) in his quest for success.
From director Michael Winterbotton, The Look of Love is told in a fairly straight forward type of way, but the film still manages to generate some genuine sympathy and likability for these characters that aren’t always the most likeable bunch you would ever see. Winterbottom keeps the visual feel and flair of the times as he jumps from black and white all the way to vibrant colour whenever he feels the need, following our subjects rise from a nightclub owner all the way to publishing magnate and media giant. The script from Matt Greenhalgh who wrote the wonderful Ian Curtis bio picture Control as well as the look at the early formative years of John Lennon Nowhere Boy, certainly knows his way around telling a good story about a true to life character. While some of the facts may have been changed and rearranged, the narrative moves at a healthy pace while this story of a rags to riches for taking off your rags story is held together by a very strong performance from our leading man.
Steve Coogan as Paul Raymond got to tear into the skin of the man, as he seemingly embraced playing a hedonistic cad at every turn. With multiple marriages and illegitimate children (some of whom he didn’t even acknowledge or recognize) he was not the nicest man at times, but Coogan infused him with a certainly sleazy, let likeable charm that made any tragedy that hit his life all the more tragic. Coogan ran the gamut and gave us every look in his arsenal and it all added up to some truly stellar work. Sadly the supporting cast was a little under written as the normally wonderful Anna Friel and Imogen Poots just didn’t get a lot of material to work with. In that respect the film really is a Paul Raymond story as they all looked beautiful, but much like his stage shows and magazines never really had all that much to say. Had the film added a little more depth to the man’s family life it could have been something truly interesting, instead it just stayed on the surface with Coogan’s dazzling performance leading the way.
Ultimately, The Look of Love is more than worth a watch based on Coogan’s performance alone, but a story about the life and times of Paul Raymond had the potential to be something truly interesting, instead of just flashes of skin and marquee lights as it never really gave us the whole story, just the one it wanted us to have.
Special features on the DVD include Deleted Scenes, Interviews with the Cast & Crew and the Original Theatrical Trailer. (Dave Voigt)
The Heat (Paul Feig, 2013) – The Heat is a decently entertaining, if entirely formulaic, genre comedy that had somewhat astoundingly never been made to this point in this decent of a fashion. Few buddy cop comedies have ever dared to cast two women in the leading role (maybe none this notable since the box office dud Feds back in 1988), but with Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids) directing the likes of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, it all goes down relatively easy, hitting the sweet spot for those nostalgic for the likes of Beverly Hills Cop and the Tom Hanks/Dan Aykroyd Dragnet reboot. It’s not a great film, but it serves its purpose with a great deal of energy, wit, and love for its target audience.
Straight laced NYC FBI agent Ashburn (Bullock) is a workaholic hated by her co-workers. She doesn’t swear, lives relatively clean, seeks solace in her neighbours’ cat for company, and when she’s right about something she can’t help but throw it back passive aggressively in the faces of those around her. She’s sent packing to Boston by her superior (Demian Bichr) not only to track down a ruthless drug kingpin that’s been offing snitches and the competition in disgusting, grisly fashion, but to also prove she’s worthy of a promotion. Almost immediately, Ashburn runs afoul of curse spitting, slovenly vice squad officer Mullins (McCarthy), who doesn’t take kindly to the feds snooping around her neighbourhood. Mullins refuses to back down thanks to the case having a connection to her own family, and eventually the mismatched duo has to put their laundry list of differences aside to work together.
It sounds like, and indeed is, pretty standard stuff, but Feig and company work in some nice bits of genre subverting subtext without changing the playbook. It never once matters that the leading ladies are women except when they’re badgered by a rival (and albino) DEA agent who can dish out misogyny, but can’t take a ribbing himself. There’s even a token assistant to Ashburn (played by Marlon Wayans) that in other films would be the token, stereotypical female role amid all the machismo. Mullins also gets to play the protective sisterly role opposite of a pretty great Michael Rapaport, making sure he doesn’t backslide into a life of crime again. Feig and writer Katie Dippold (best known for her work on Parks and Recreation) are clearly just having a good time and not concerning themselves too much about making a statement or being self-conscious about the material.
Bullock has essentially played variations on this character before in the Miss Congeniality films and Demolition Man, but she seems to be having fun easing back behind a badge. Despite her obvious comedic and dramatic gifts, it’s kind of a shock that she never really got offered roles like this more often. Maybe she just doesn’t get material and this level of talent to surround her.
McCarthy is the perfect foil for Bullock and their chemistry is positively off the charts. Her Mullins might think she’s a badass, but she’s really just an asshole that’s passionate about her neighbourhood. Take away the badge and she’s practically just a sarcastic vigilante. With a spot on Boston accent and an acid tongue, she commands the screen so much that it’s of little surprise that the only thing Mullins and Ashburn can agree on is a shared love of guns and ammo.
Bullock and McCarthy put the film under their arm and run with full effort even through some of the films more forced gross out gags (including a bizarre, left field stop to give someone a tracheotomy) and some choppy editing that suggests a considerable amount of reshoots and cuts were necessary at some point in the production. It all holds together, and fans of the genre that have been waiting for something like this won’t be disappointed.
The film arrives on a heavily stacked Blu-Ray that’s certainly thorough, but possibly even a tad bit of overkill. There are tons of deleted and extended sequences, several behind the scenes featurettes, several commentary tracks (one from Feig, one from McCarthy, one in character from the actresses playing Mullins’ sisters, an audience laugh along track, and best of all, the original Joel Hodgson line-up of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 making fun of the movie as best they can). There are also a few hidden Easter Eggs, an unrated version of the film (that’s not all that distinguishable in quality or tone), and you should be sure to watch Feig’s “warm” welcome to the film’s special features menu. In one strange complaint, the menus (especially when accessing the commentary tracks) are a bit buggy, but that might have just been my copy. (Andrew Parker)
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (Alex Gibney, 2013) – With the impending release of The Fifth Estate, it only makes sense that we look back on the events that fueled the fire of that upcoming film. With We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks a famed documentarian turns his keen eye on to events that captivated a planet and are still unfolding today.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks details the creation of Julian Assange’s controversial website, which facilitated the largest security breach in U.S. history. Hailed by some as a hero of free-speech and believer in the freedom of information, while others consider him to be a traitor and terrorist, the enigmatic Assange’s rise and fall are paralleled with that of PFC Bradley Manning. This troubled yet brilliant young soldier downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from classified U.S. military and diplomatic servers, revealing the behind-the-scenes workings of the government’s international diplomacy and military strategy. This multi-layered story about two very different men and their quest for transparency and truth and the digital and information presents us with a unique debate as a world where secrets can be kept is crumbing around people and governments alike.
Writer/Director Alex Gibney, who outputs documentaries like Pez coming out of a Pez dispenser, manages to assemble a compelling documentary on the subject despite having very little time with Assange and none at all with Bradley Manning. Gibney wisely runs the story of Assange and Manning side by side and while we track Assange at the early stages of his career, Gibney who is a master of documentary storytelling slyly positions Assange as a revolutionary and hero. However when more of the story of Manning and the personal life and tendencies of Assange creep into the story, Gibney allows the audience to have both sides of the coin. While his ideas and principles are brilliant and excellent in theory, they don’t necessarily translate in practice and as Gibney talks to Assange’s former associates, people he’s worked with, and even people who are accusing him sexual misconduct, there is still a sense of admiration for the ideal while acknowledging that the ideal quickly devolved into an ego trip.
Even though most people know the story pretty well, Gibney successfully takes our focus off of Assange, and lets us sympathize with Manning, going deep into his personal issues surrounding his sexuality and gender identity, but it at the same time demonized Assange and highlight the faults in the US Military structure. Gibney fails in some respects as he tries to put a halo on Manning, but he falls flat as some overwhelming questions still loom pretty large in this story. The question of why someone so unstable had access to such sensitive documents is still glossed over by the various subjects in the military and espionage structure that Gibney interviews, but if anything there is one point that our filmmaker manages to have come across loud and clear. That when you think about it, everyone is to blame as the system that is in place to attempt to control and regulate information is just as flawed as the men who tried to bring it down.
At the end of the day, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks suffers because of the lack of perspective from both Assange and Manning. While the film does illuminate and makes some events and points a little clearer, the one that it illuminates most of all is how truth and transparency in the modern age are still pretty damn complicated.
Special features on the DVD include some deleted scenes and audio excerpts from the Bradley Manning trial where he gives testimony about what happened. (Dave Voigt)
Detention of the Dead (Alex Craig Mann, 2013) – The month of October brings all the offerings that the cinematic gods of horror have to offer, often wrapped with some odes to other classic flicks. Detention of the Dead is a goofy and by the numbers entry into the zombie genre that’s equal parts comedy and gore, providing only half way decent results.
Detention of the Dead starts off like any high school comedy trying to ape The Breakfast Club would, as six stereotypical oddball students (Jacob Zachar, Alexa Nikolas, Christa B. Allen, Jayson Blair, Justin Chon and Max Adler) show up for detention at 3PM after school. All hell breaks loose when this love sick dork, goth-chick, stuck up cheerleader, her meathead boyfriend, a stoner and a dumb jock have to deal with something they never expected: the zombie apocalypse and the end of the world, which looks easy compared to high school.
A unique blend of John Hughes and George A. Romero, Detention of the Dead is a little simplistic at times, but it has enough going for it thanks to a loving blend of coming of age story and zombie shenanigans. Adapted from the play by Rob Rinow, writer/director Alex Craig Mann lovingly mashes together genres, and while some moments are too blunt and clunky, it still works as a tender ode to both, even if it lacks some subtlety. It still unfolds a bit like a play, and that is both a positive and a negative, with the dialogue often very focused instead of natural, but some of the jokes still hit surprisingly well. However, next to no time is spent on the setup, and character development conforms only to stereotypical high school moulds. A little extra development would have been nice, but that’s OK, as this is less a film about the characters and more about the journey.
The ensemble running from the zombie horde is fresh faced, with Max Adler of Glee fame and Justin Chon from 21 and Over as the most recognizable faces in the cast, but everyone fit their parts well. This could have easily fallen off a cliff if the entire ensemble doesn’t embrace the nature of the story, but to their credit they ride the narrative and the jokes (both good and bad) through to their logical conclusion.
There have been far worse entries into the zombie genre then Detention of the Dead and while its adaptation from the stage is far from perfect, it’s still a fun little movie that has its heart in the right place.
The special feature on the DVD is a rather extensive behind the scenes/making of look at the film. (Dave Voigt)