‘Dumbo’ soars, ‘War and Peace’ revitalized

By Tom Von Malder | Jun 30, 2019
Photo by: Walt Disney Home Entertainment The family that takes care of Dumbo in the film of that name is played by Colin Farrell, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins.

Owls Head — Dumbo (Disney, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 111 min.). Director Tim Burton makes all the right choices and Danny Elfman’s music helps the live-action “Dumbo” soar. The film reunites Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton, who were the two main characters in Burton’s “Batman Returns” (1992), but the core of the film centers on the Farrier family, children Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Molly (Nico Parker) and their father, Holt (Colin Farrell), who discover and help protect baby Dumbo, with the over-sized ears and the ability to fly. There are many nods to the original 1941 animated film, also from Disney, but Burton expands things to create a Dreamland amusement park that includes a Nightmare Island of caged dangerous creatures.

The time is 1919 and Holt Farrier is returning to the Medici Bros. Circus, where he has been a trick horse rider, part of the Stallion Stars with his wife. However, the influenza took her away during the previous year, when Holt was serving overseas in the first world war, during which he lost his left arm. Also, his 16 horses and most of his equipment has been sold by the circus’ owner, Max Medici (DeVito), who only offers Holt the position of manager of the elephants. One new elephant is about to give birth and that big-eared baby becomes Dumbo. However, Medici sells the mother elephant and relegates Dumbo to the clown act. Holt’s two children, however, have seen Dumbo fly, when provoked by a feather.

Businessman V.A. Vandevere (Keaton acting a bit over-the-top as the role requires) has learned of Dumbo’s flying ability and offers to make Medici a partner and hire everyone in the circus so Dumbo can become the star attraction at Dreamland. He pairs the baby elephant with aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green of “Casino Royale,” “The Dreamers”), the latest beauty he has “collected.” Of course, in an expected twist, Vandevere has Dumbo’s mother caged on Nightmare Island.

In addition to making a baby elephant fly, the special effects team manages to make it convey emotions as well, with a larger head and eyes. The children relate very realistically with it. Burton does a good job with some of the circus performance moments, including a Busby Berkeley type choreography of 54 female dancers and the clowns’ fireman act, of which Dumbo takes part. Other than strong man Rongo (Deobia Oparei) and ill-fated bad guy Rufus (Phil Zimmerman) most of the other circus members barely get a notice.

The true wonder I found in the film was Dreamland, which seems a very Burton mix of the futuristic, the awesome and the commercial. Even at Dumbo’s first performance, Dumbo toys are being sold at concession stands. The Nightmare Island portion is a nod to Burton’s darker moments, such as “Corpse Bride” and “Sleepy Hollow.” I found Elfman’s score – this is the 17th film of Burton’s that he has scored, starting with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” -- to be emotionally correct and wonderfully soaring at times. Another musical highlight is the closing credits version of “Baby Mine,” performed by Arcade Fire. It has a very Beatles-esque start. The music video of the song (2:54) can be found among the extras.

Other extras include Burton talking about the story and the cast, with the cast members also discussing their characters (8:20); a look at the creation of the onscreen Dumbo, including Dumbo performer Edd Osmond, who helped give the actors something to react with (5:50); a look at the costumes and Dreamland, which was built in an old blimp hangar (7:40); nine short deleted scenes, with formulating the escape plan the longest (7:47); a look at the Easter egg nods to the 1941 film (3:52); and a gag reel (1:57). A digital exclusive centers on the Dreamland parade sequence, from script to final scene. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Cinderella: Walt Disney Signature Collection Anniversary Edition (1950, Disney, Blu-ray + DVD, G, 75 min.). This Disney classic, which is part of the prestigious National Film Registry, comes with a new trivia and fun facts, hosted by Ruth Righi and Ava Kolker from Disney Channel’s “Sydney to the Max” (4:48); and an “In Walt’s Words: Enhanced Edition,” a recreated commentary that uses picture-in-picture technology to show storyboards, archival photos, thumbnail sketches and transcripts throughout the film. Otherwise, the release is much like the Diamond Edition (2012) with more than an hour of classic bonus material on the animation, music, long-lasting impact, the core group of Disney animators, the art of Disney legend Mary Blair, the original demo recording of the film’s title song and Cinderella’s iconic glass slipper.

The animated film is an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairytale of a poor, but beautiful young woman who is hounded by her stepmother and stepsisters. However, her fairy godmother appears and grants her wish to attend the Prince’s ball, with the understanding that the magic will only last until midnight. As Cinderella flees the ball as midnight strikes, she leaves behind one of her glass slippers, which the Prince then uses to find his true love. Grade: film and extras 4 stars

War and Peace (1966-67, Russia, Criterion Collection, 2 Blu-rays, NR, 422 min.). Directed by Sergey Bondarchuk, who also plays Pierre Bezukhov, this seven-hour Soviet epic was initially presented in theaters in four parts and it won the 1968 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, as well as the Golden Globe in that category. As the supplements talk about, the film was made in response to King Vidor’s 1956 Hollywood version that starred Audrey Hepburn as Natasha and Henry Ford as Pierre. The latter, and particularly Hepburn’s performance, were big hits in Russia, but Bondarchuk felt it was disgraceful that the Soviet Union had not created its own adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s class 1869 novel. The timing of the film was to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino.

The epic production’s four parts are mostly character driven: “Andrei Bolkonsky” (played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov, who was only hired three months after production had started); “Natasha Rostova” (played by ballerina and film newcomer Lyudmila Saveleva); “The Year 1812”; and “Pierre Bezuukhov.” The film was produced from 1961 to 1967 and was the most expensive Soviet film ever made. During the production, Bondarchuk had two heart attacks, but nonetheless carried on to create a masterpiece. The production team traveled between locations with 150 wagons of equipment. More than one of the battle scenes involved the use of 3,000 Soviet soldiers as extras. The Battle of Borodino was recreated using 13,500 soldiers and 1,500 horsemen. The film has some 300 speaking parts.

The film centers on three main characters: blundering, good-hearted Pierre, an intellectual who is trapped into a disastrous marriage with Helene, after inheriting Count Bezukhov’s estate, even though he was an illegitimate son; the heroically tragic Prince Andrei, who initially goes to war against Napoleon and the invading French forces while his friend Pierre stays home, but comes to sour on war (also the believed lost-in-combat Andrei returns home in time to see his wife die in childbirth); and the radiant, tempestuous Natasha, who would earn the affections of both men.

Bondarchuk used an array of innovative camera techniques and is particularly fond of dissolves. Scenes of stately balls and large dinners are present in slow, almost tableau style, while the battle scenes often show an almost 270-degree view of the thousands of actors arranged in the valley below. This was a time of hand-to-hand combat, along with cannon fire, some rifles and horsemen. Bondarchuk turns more expressionistic with nature shots, particularly of fields and cloud-filled skies, as the  narration delves into the more philosophical thoughts of the characters.

The extras include a 1966 German documentary on the making of the film and an introduction to the work of director Bondarchuk (48:36; it is called “Woina I Mir”); new interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritski and filmmaker Fedor Bonarchuk, the director’s son; a second documentary from 1969 about the making of the film; a 1967 television program on actress Savelyeva, featuring Sergei Bonarchuk; and a new program with historian Denise J. Youngblood, author of “Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic,” that details the cultural and historical contexts for the film. The poster pamphlet enclosed contains an essay by critic Ella Taylor.

The film has never looked better or brighter as this is a new 2K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Grade: film 4.5 stars; extras 3.75 stars

The Running Man (1963, England, Arrow Academy Blu-ray, NR, 104 min.). Directed by the great Carol Reed (“The Third Man,” “Trapeze,” “Oliver!,” “Our Man in Havana”), this noir stars Laurence Harvey (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Alamo”) as Rex Black, a man who successfully stages his death in a glider ocean crash for the insurance money. In two flashbacks, we see he had a previous grievance against the insurance company because it denied him payment when his Dove airplane crashed as his monthly premium payment was two days overdue. (This film has no connection to the 1987 “Running Man” that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Rex forces his wife Stella (Lee Remick of “Anatomy of a Murder,” “The Omen”) to be part of his scheme. The film opens with a memorial service for Rex and then a reception at Stella’s flat. After the guests leave, Stella has two visitors: one is her “dead” husband; and the other is insurance investigator Stephen Maddox (Alan Bates of “Women in Love,” “Nijinsky,” “Far from the Madding Crowd”), who is finishing the paperwork of her claim. Before he sneaks off the next morning, Rex tells Stella how to contact him in Malaga, Spain, after she receives the insurance money.

While in Spain, Rex meets a tipsy Australian sheep farmer and decides to take over his identity, after discovering the man’s passport, which he had left behind. Rex dies his hair blond, grows a mustache and adopts a very bad accent as he be4comes Jim Jerome. He is living life to the fullest when Stella joins him in Spain. Soon after, Stella runs into Stephen and while she cannot quite place him, Stephen certainly remembers her. When Rex and Stella take a trip south toward Gibraltar, Stephen, who constantly is writing in a little insurance company notebook, appears to follow them.

The whole movie hinges on whether Stephen is investigating them for the insurance company or if he is only on vacation and Stella is a woman he would like to romance. Things seem to twist a bit when Rex becomes sharper with waiters and even Stella, who starts to find Stephen’s personality appealing.

Extras include audio commentary by Peter William Evans, who wrote a book on director Reed; an isolated music and effects track; and a new making-of feature (24:41) with interviews with script supervisor Angela Allen; second assistant director Kits Browning, who recalls that Remick and Harvey did not get along and some of the film had to be shot in Ireland because Harvey was a British tax exile; assistant accountant Maurice Landsberger; and draughtsman Tony Remmington (a 2012 interview bit). There also is a sort-of audio commentary, consisting of an interview Remick had on Oct. 25, 1970 at the National Film Theatre. Finally, there is an image gallery, with the stills going by very fast. Grade: film and extras 3.5 stars

Night of the Creeps: Collector’s Edition (1986, Scream Factory, 2 Blu-rays, R/NR, 88/90 min.). This forgotten comedic horror film is actually quite good, although it apparently was about five years ahead of its time. Both the theatrical and director’s cut versions are included, each on its own disc, and most of the extras are on the director’s cut, including an audio commentary by writer-director Fred Dekker, and an actors’ commentary with Tom Adkins (Det. Ray Cameron), Jason Lively (college student Chris Romero), Steve Marshall (Chris’ roommate JC) and Jill Whitlow (Cynthia Cronenberg, the sorority girl Chris is attracted to). As one can already tell, Dekker names the college and characters after famous horror movie directors.

The film has a black-and-white vintage opening, set in 1959. Aliens battle above the Earth, with a capsule containing an alien experiment crashing to Earth near Sorority Row at Corman College. Johnny, who is out with Pam, decides to investigate and ingests an alien parasite, while Pam, back in the car, is being killed by an escaped ax murderer. As the film, now in color, jumps to 1986, we eventually learn the alien parasite has kept Johnny’s body preserved and it is being kept frozen while a university scientist (David Paymer of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) conducts basement experiments.

It is Pledge Week on campus and, pushed into action by JC (Marshall has to perform on crutches throughout), Chris decides they should pledge a fraternity so he can possibly date Cynthia. They are given a task of liberating a corpse from the medical school, but instead accidentally bring Johnny back to life. Johnny goes around killing and infecting people, with the parasites basically turning college students into zombies. Det. Cameron is able to help Chris, as he knew Pam from the deadly incident in 1959.

While some moments are scary, and not everyone makes it out alive, there is a lot of fun here too. Highlights include a sick-looking horror cat, a zombie killer using an ax to break through the floor and a fun ending, as all the girls’ dates have been turned to zombies, leading Det. Cameron to say, “The good news is your date is here. The bad news is he’s dead.”

In the five-part making-of feature (about an hour), we learn the film was shot at USC, where actors Lively and Marshall actually rushed two fraternities. Ninety-percent of the film was shot at night, and paper masks were handed out during the opening theater engagement. In addition to those on the audio commentary, producer Charles Gordon, special makeup effects creator David B. Miller and special makeup effects artists Howard Berge and Robert Kurtzman are interviewed. Disc one also has a look at Tom Atkin’s career (19:55; conducted in Pittsburgh in 2009) and seven deleted scenes (7:39).

In addition to the two audio commentaries, disc two’s all-new extras include an episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds that looks at the film’s locations with host Sean Clark, joined by Dekker and Lively (10:56); an interview with Lively (10:46; he first tried out for the role of JC and was initially bummed when he did not get it); an interview with Allan Kayser, who played Cynthia’s stuck-up boyfriend (7:42); an interview with Ken Heron, who played Johnny (10:12); an interview with Vic Polizos, who played the always-eating coroner Jake (6:28; he also was appearing in TV’s “St. Elsewhere” at the same time the film was made); an interview with Suzanne Snyder, who played Lisa and also was in “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (4 min.); and an interview with editor Michael N. Knue (11:21). Film and extras 3.5 stars

The Dark Side of the Moon (1990, Unearthed Classics/MVD Visual Blu-ray, NR, 91 min.). Not every revived film is a classic, but Unearthed Films gives this space horror the extras a greater film would deserve. From director D.J. Webster (known for music videos by Amy Grant and others) and writers Cary and Chad Hayes (the first two “Conjuring” films), the film has the crew of a repair spaceship, when near the dark side of the moon, hook up with a Discovery shuttle that sank into the Bermuda Triangle 30 years earlier. Apparently, the devil had something to do with it.

In the film, the year is 2022 and Spacecore 1 is a maintenance ship whose crew repairs nuclear-armed satellites, which is called “refabbing.” (At this point, I have to point out the film makes the usual mistakes of letting one hear rockets in the vacuum of space.) Suddenly, all the electronics in the ship start sparking and Spacecore 1 is left floating towards the dark side of the moon on which it will crash with a dead crew as life support is down as well. Then the Discovery shows up and docks with Spacecore 1.

Hoping for supplies and equipment needed for repair, the Discovery is boarded only to find dead astronaut Michael C. Gotier (Ken Lesco); however, it turns out his body at least is not really dead. The entity that possesses him –possibly thee devil himself – soon possesses and kills members of the Spacecore 1 crew. That crew includes some familiar faces, including pilot Flynn Harding (Robert Sampson of “Re-Animator”), Lt. Giles Stewart (Will Bledsoe of TV’s “Fame,” “Alien Nation”), Dr. Dreyfuss Steiner (Alan Blumenfeld of “WarGames,” TV’s “Heroes,” “Brooklyn Bridge”), Phillip Jennings (John Diehl of TV’s “The Shield,” “Point Pleasant”), Paxton Warner (Joe Turkel of “The Shining,” “Blade Runner” in his final film) and Alex McInny (Wendy MacDonald of “Mayhem”), mostly there to scream. There also is a female artificial intelligence (Camilla Moore as Lesli).

Bonus features include an interview with Blumenfeld (39:43; conducted by computer with his side often echoed); an interview with stuntman Chuck Borden (20:58); an interview with FX artist R. Christopher Biggs (35:19; he also worked on “Critters”); audio commentary by executive producer Paul White (his first ever) and Stephen Biro of Unearthed Films; a budget breakdown sheet; a photo gallery (1:36); and a vintage audio mix. There also is a 24-page color booklet with background on the film and actors. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Patrick Melrose (Acorn, 2 Blu-rays or 2 DVDs, NR, 302 min.). The miniseries, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch (“Avengers” films, TV’s “Sherlock”) as a flawed and not-too-sympathetic character, earned five Emmy nominations and won 2019 BAFTA Awards for Best Miniseries and Best Leading Actor. The five-episode series is based on the acclaimed novels by Edward St. Aubyn and tracks the title character (Cumberbatch) from a privileged but deeply traumatic childhood in the south of France through severe substance abuse in his 20s in New York and finally towards recovery back home in Great Britain. Hugo Weaving (the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) plays his elusive and abusive father, while Jennifer Jason Leigh plays his neglectful mother. In Later years, Patrick has his own family that he tries to support as he battles to stay sober.

Cumberbatch is quite brilliant, while Weaving’s character is despicable. The set comes with a 5-minute behind-the-scenes featurette and a 36-page booklet of cast and crew interviews. Grade: series 3.5 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Killing Eve: Season Two (BBC, 2 Blu-ray or 2 DVDs, NR, 360 min.). The Peabody Award-winning series brings more chaos in season two, as Emerald Fennell (“Call the Midwife”) takes over as executive producer and lead writer. There are new, quirky characters, romantic European destinations and fashionista inspiration, compliments of Villanelle. The cat-and-mouse game continues between Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), a suppressed MI 6 operative, and Villanelle (Jodie Comer), the beautiful, psychopathic assassin. The pair are bound by a mutual obsession and one brutal act. Season two begins only 30 seconds after the final episode of season one, which left Eve reeling and Villanelle disappeared.

Eve does not know if she has killed her opponent, so she needs to find Villanelle before someone else does. However, others already are looking for her. Extras include looks at the characters Eve, Villanelle and MI 6’s Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw); the show’s costumes; filming on location; bringing the script to screen; and new characters. Grade: season 3.5 stars; extras 2 stars

Magnum P.I.: Season One (CBS/Paramount, 5 DVDs, NR, 14 hours). This is the remake series that stars Jay Hernandez of “Suicide Squad” as Thomas Magnum, a decorated former Navy SEAL who, upon returning home from Afghanistan, decides to use his military skills as a private investigator. Magnum, who has the charm of a rogue and is a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan, settles in a guest cottage on Robin’s Nest, the luxurious estate where he works as a security consultant to supplement his private eye work. The majordomo of the property is Juliet Higgins (Perdita Weeks of “Ready Player One”), a disavowed MI 6 agent whose second job is to keep Magnum in line, with the help of her two Dobermans.

If Magnum needs backup, he turns to his trusted buddies and fellow POW survivors Theodore “TC” Calvin (Stephen Hill of “Widows”), a former Marine chopper pilot who runs a helicopter tour business, and Orville “Rick” Wright (Zachary Knighton of “The Hitcher”), a former Marine door-gunner-turned-impressario of Oahu’s coolest nightclub and the most connected man on the island. Local Det. Gordon Katsumoto (Tim Kang of “The Forgotten”) is suspicious of Magnum, but the two are really alike. Magnum is supported by Teuila “Kumu” Tuileta (Amy Hill of “50 First Dates”), the unofficial “house mom” and cultural curator of Robin’s Nest. Magnum also is known for his vintage Ferrari.

The set includes all 20 episodes, which include guest appearances by Ken Jeong, Jamie Lynch-Sigler, Domenick Lombardozzi, Jordana Brewster, Elisabeth Rohm and Carl Weathers. There are more than an hour of special features, including a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the pilot episode; a look at highlights of the season, including interviews with writers, producers, cast and crew; a glimpse at how the iconic theme song was scored and recorded with a live orchestra; interviews with Hill and Kang; a magazine shoot with Hernandez; deleted and extended scenes; and a gag reel.

A Star Is Born: Encore Edition (Warner Bros., Blu-ray + DVD, R, 147 min.). This new edition of the film, which stars Bradley Cooper as a singing star in decline and Lady Gaga as his discovery and new love who is a rising star, adds nearly 12 minutes to the run time on the Blu-ray disc, including extended performances of the songs “Black Eyes,” “Alibi” and Ally’s impromptu a cappella performance of “Shallow.” “Shallow,” of course, won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Also new is Ally singing to Jack “Is That Alright?” in the wedding sequence; Jack singing “Too Far Gone” in his studio; and Jack and Ally writing a new song together that is called “Clover.”

This edition also includes the theatrical version of the film on Blu-ray and standard DVD, as well as all the previously-released special features.

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