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by Bill Gibron

30 Sep 2009


There’s no true middle ground with The Wizard of Oz. Either you love its overflowing sentimentality and sugar-coded Technicolor dreamscape or you despise its sugary, saccharine schmaltz. You beam whenever champion child star Judy Garland belts out “Over the Rainbow” or run in terror during those ominous opening strains. It’s hard to be ambivalent, the movie’s moxie making it difficult to ignore its earnest desire to entertain and yet it’s that very hyperbolic happiness that drives many modern audiences to dismiss the movie as antique, artificial, and aggravating. Well, perhaps Blu-ray can help turn the tide. After seeing the sensational 70th Anniversary edition of the film, fully restored to a high gloss HD sheen, few will ever view it as an amiable artifact from a bygone era. Instead, it will be seen as the masterpiece it is.

Everyone knows (or should know) the story by now - little Dorothy Gale, desperate to save her dog Toto from the evil clutches of local busybody Miss Almira Gulch, runs away from home, leaving her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and handyman Hunk, Hickory and Zeke to worry about her. Thanks to the wise words of flim flam man fortune teller, Professor Marvel, she decides to return. As a twister descends on her Kansas farm, she is caught up in the maelstrom. Her house is blown into the whirlwind, ending up in the merry old land of Oz.

There, she meets the Munchkins, learns that she’s killed the Wicked Witch of the East, and has to follow the Yellow Brick Road to find the local wizard and get back home. With advice from Glinda, The Good Witch of the North, she heads to the Emerald City. Along the way she meets a Scarecrow who’d like some brains, a Tin Man who lacks a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who’d love some courage. She also incurs the wrath of the Wicked Witch of the West, an equally evil woman who wants her sister’s magical ruby slippers. It just so happens that Gilda gave them to Dorothy for safe keeping.

So what if it doesn’t follow the classic L. Frank Baum book to the letter? Who cares if then superstar Shirley Temple lost the lead to up and coming MGM diva supreme Garland? Does it matter that Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Man, but then begged producers to give him Buddy Epson’s role of the Scarecrow? Or that the future Jed Clampett would eagerly change parts with his co-star, only to suffer a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum dust in the make-up and have to leave the production permanently? Outside of what’s up on the screen, the missing musical numbers (including the oft cited “Jitterbug”) and multitude of creative coincidences only increase the films legacy and longevity.

Indeed, many of the stories surrounding the making of this amazing movie are just as compelling as the film itself, and Warner Brothers has seen fit to fill out this astonishing four disc set with as many of them as possible. There is so much added content here - early silent film versions of the Oz stories (including one helmed by Baum himself), TV movies based on the material, documentaries and full length features discussing the film’s creation and lasting impact, as well as numerous critical, scholarly, and specialty (F/X, music) overviews - that we get wrapped up in the history. About the only thing not addressed here are the numerous urban legends and conspiracy theory rumors surrounding the final product.

And what a magnificent movie it is, a true endeavor of the human spirit that seems to resonate through every pore of your being down deep into the very core of your sunny, sated soul. It’s almost impossible to watch Garland, in her first major starring role, and not fall in love with her cherub cheeked cheeriness. When she cries, it’s like Heaven itself is weeping, and when she sings, the angels step aside so that her gorgeous voice can eclipse the very power of song itself. She is matched well by Bolger, Jack Haley (as the Tin Man), Margaret Hamilton (as Gulch and the Wicked Witch) and Henry Morgan (as the kindly Wizard himself). Burt Lahr’s Lion might be a bit much for those not familiar with such scenery chewing vaudevillian shtick, but his buoyant personality is so pervasion you simply stop carrying and start laughing.

The look of the film is also a supporting superlative, a day-glo dimension of plastic, paint, and imaginative persuasion. The opening sequences with their sepia tone nostalgia set us up for the sudden explosion of rainbow brightness. Munchkinland is so eye-popping a spectacle that it’s almost impossible not to be moved to tears of happiness and the various locations created for the film resonate with real authority and artistic power. Though Victor Fleming finds his name on the top of the director’s credits, myth tells us that as many as five other filmmakers had a hand in the final cut. You’d never know by looking at the lyrical vistas and stunning production numbers offered. It’s all so perfect and cinematically sublime.

From a special effects standpoint, The Wizard of Oz was also ahead of its time. This is 1939 after all. Several scenes, including most with Margaret Hamilton’s Witch are wonderful in their sense of supernatural intrigue. The times when our intrepid heroes interact with the omniscient Oz also offer excitable “how’d-they-do-that?” eye candy. From the costumes and careful make-up designs to the overall Golden Age of Hollywood sheen, you would be hard pressed to truly age the film. Indeed, when they invented the term “timeless”, The Wizard of Oz was probably part of the defining determination. And now Blu-ray has turned it into something even more magnificent.

This new transfer is awe inspiring. You can actually see the carefully created burlap sack lines in Ray Bolger’s face, painted on in a slight suggestive manner so that the rest of the fabric façade blends right in. When a close-up captures Lahr’s lion head, you’d be hard pressed to find where the appliances end and the human being begins. From details so crisp you can read the wording on various Oz documents and decrees to a field of poppies so ripe and red you can also smell their poisoned pleasantness yourself, there has never been a better version of The Wizard of Oz available on home video ever. If The Matrix made VHS consumers beg to switch over to the new digital domain, the Blu-ray of this classic will convince to make the leap into the new 1080p format pronto.

Even better, seeing The Wizard of Oz this way, in the most flawless and fleshed out way possible, should provide enough ammunition to cynical and smug of their anti-Dorothy sentiments. Unlike other mandatory motion pictures declared treasures by time, unclear consensus, and endless obsessive tirades, Oz maintains its long term defensibility for one important reason - it works. It entertains. It soars. It splashes across the screen in big fat sugar frosted hugs and emotionally honest kisses. For nearly two hours, we are whisked away to a world where no one is unloved, everyone is caring, and the dreams of a little girl find their final resting place in a small Kansas farmhouse among family and friends. Who needs winged monkeys when you can discover that there’s no place like home? That’s why The Wizard of Oz endures. That’s why it is one of the greatest films of all time. 

by Bill Gibron

27 Sep 2009


The search for enlightenment is part of the human experience. It’s the reason for religion, the basis for a billion self-help guides, and the excuse for so much of our own inner turmoil. We want to believe there is some purpose to life, that within a realm of a million minor difficulties and rewards, there’s a big picture plot as to why we exist. Of course, many would argue that faith is the opiate of the masses, that organized belief has done more damage than good, and that within a time frame encompassing thousands of years, priests and prophets have provided very little to further our understanding.

Now, two new DVDs from Alive Mind Media (a copy whose ad copy stresses their commitment to releasing “specialty documentary programming in the areas of enlightened consciousness, secular spirituality and culture”) hope to dispel some myths while making the mysteries of spirituality a whole lot less enigmatic. So…Help Me God centers on Simon Cole and his cross-country quest to discover the power and glory of a Higher Authority. His genial, 52 minute road trip takes him all across America, exposing both theological acceptance and fundamentalist rage.

Meditate and Destroy focuses on former bad boy turned author and Buddhist teacher Noah Levine. As much a teaching tool as a mini-biography, we learn of the drug addled and crime filled life that transformed this self-proclaimed punk into a force for good in the realm of spiritual guidance. While Levine’s story has much more dramatic punch, it is frequently compromised by director Sarah Fisher’s desire to hard sell the man’s ‘ministry’ and teachings. Cole, on the other hand creates a Religulous like experience in which questions of dogmatic inconsistency provide fodder for humor - and occasional insight.

Indeed, So…Help Me God accomplishes the basic tenets of its set-up. Cole comes across as good natured and genuine, never openly confronting his hosts like HBO pundit Bill Maher did during his documentary. Certainly he lets the subjects spewing hate hang themselves with obvious clarity (a family of rabid homosexual hating zealots are exposed for the robot minding morons they are), but he also wants to understand and experience the substance of religious devotion. After speaking with all manner of types - Muslim, Jew, Hindi, Buddhist, etc. - he decides to confront his quandary head on. Setting up a tent in the desert, he explores the reasons and the need for faith. His last act revelation falls in line with the rest of So…Help Me God‘s direct designs.

Cole also does a great service to those who truly feel the need for God without all the organized and ritualized trappings. The doubters deliver arguments just as compelling as the converted, while hot button topics like choice, sexual orientation, and Biblical interpretation also receive a fair and balanced treatment. The only downside here is the length - at 52 minutes, Cole just scratches the surface. He puts across a fairly flawless preamble to what could be a much longer and more sophisticated overview (Satanists, Wiccans, and Atheists are left out of the mix, for example). Still, by shining a light on the need for answers within a world striving to complicated and confuse, So…Help Me God becomes a telling individual explanation.

Oddly enough, Mediate and Destroy does the same thing, only in a far less compelling manner. No doubt about it - Levine is a persuasive presence. Taking after his noted father (both have a marvelous gift for gab and the prescient application of same) we see him speaking to various groups and gatherings, all the while focusing on the journey through Hell he put himself through as a youth. In between are talking head interviews that expand on what Levine teaches while supporting his updated dynamic. The biographical elements are a bit scattered, our subjects tales of youthful indiscretion and crack fueled violence supposedly showcasing how far he’s come. While they offer such sustenance, they often become unnecessary reminders.

His entire persona, from the punk rock patina to the amazing body art, suggests the entire battle without getting into every detail. Even better, when Levine starts counseling a specific group of individuals, his examples and heart-felt anecdotes deliver the message loud and clear. During these specific scenes, when others explain their pain and suffering, Meditate and Destroy really finds its purpose. We can see how Levine’s words move and inspire these people and the battles scars they all carry just beneath the surface makes them just as compelling as their teacher. Sometimes, the backstory blinds us to the teachings inherent in Buddhism, but as a way of getting the too hip and the too insular into spirituality, this is a fascinating film.

Indeed, what both So…Help Me God and Meditate and Destroy do best is remove the smug, self-important aura off of faith. They argue that people don’t have to be part of some centuries old community to get in touch with their own inner light. Cole specifically shows that forging your own path, investigating and dissection the various approach to religion might just be the best way to discover what’s really important to you. On the other hand, Levine has clearly found something that works for his always tenuous sobriety. And since he comes across as both serious and enthusiastic to share, we fall into his words and thoughts with ease. While So…Help Me God is the much more pleasurable experience, Meditate and Destroy goes deeper into the question of belief and its halting, healing power.

Still, one can see a viewer sitting through each of these films and finding fault with many issues. Indeed, for someone living in the pragmatic and the practical, the notion of turning over any control, even a small amount of metaphysical or psychological, would seem specious. And when Cole discovers the truth about his quest, we often wonder if that’s the reality behind the various versions of faith. Still, as Noah Levine points out over and over again in his teaching, life is not about unqualified happiness. It’s about suffering, and learning how to confront and defeat said struggle on a daily basis. For most, religion is a plausible panacea. As So…Help Me God and Meditate and Destroy disclose, there may be better ways toward achieving peace outside of such strict convictions.

by Bill Gibron

26 Sep 2009


In the hierarchy of horror, Lucio Fulci usually falls somewhere between the post-modern macabre of Dario Argento and the creepshow classicism of Mario Bava. He’s not as nauseating as Bava’s son Lamberto, yet never achieved the artistic aplomb of Argento apprentice Michele Soavi. In fact, Fulci is loved more for his appreciation of violence and brutality than anything artistically substantive. From The Beyond to The City of the Living Dead, he’s created classic ‘double dare’ movies, the kind of gruesome, offal-filled freak outs that had fans cringing in their seats (and hurling in their barf bags). But there was an even sleazier side to the director, something clearly seen in The New York Ripper. While he still piles on the pus, everything else here is drowning in debauchery.

After a dog discovers a decomposing hand near the Hudson river, police detective Fred Williams learns that the victim had recent contact with a strange man speaking in a deranged, duck like voice. Soon, another body is discovered on the Staten Island ferry. With the help of psychological profiler Dr. Paul Davis, Williams starts to rundown a list of suspects. In the meantime, a high society woman with a penchant for rough trade and live sex shows makes intimate recordings for her perverted husband. Elsewhere in the city, a young lady named Fay has a run in with a man with two fingers missing on his hand. Suddenly, this deformed individual is the prime person of interest in the case. As Williams hunts for clues, the killer calls him, taunting him in that silly, sickening way. If he’s not careful, this New York Ripper will destroy everything he knows…and loves.

It goes without saying that if you’ve seen one Fulci giallo, you’ve seen The New York Ripper (recently rereleased on Blu-ray by Blue Underground). As far back as his infamous Don’t Torture a Duckling, he meshed borderline boring police procedurals with momentary lapses into splendiferous gore. Fulci is truly the father of non sequitor sluice. Give him a standard situation - police firing on a suspect - and you’ll see the person’s head literally explode in a stunning array of arterial ambivalence. It doesn’t matter if it fits the tone of what he’s attempting. As long as he can paint the screen red, Lucio likes. Perhaps that’s why New York Ripper is so much mean spirited fun. While the vast majority of the movie plays like a lampoon of serial killer shockers (the murderer speaks like Donald Duck with a disease), the frequent lapses into outright nastiness more than makes up for the unintentional laughs.

What’s different here though is the reliance on repugnant sexuality and decadent NY-seediness. Any film that has a main character getting a foot job inside a skuzzy dive bar, that perpetrates a horrendous vivisection on a completely nude victim - Heck, almost any Fulci fantasy that explores the corporeal with the cadaverous - is bound to throw fright fans for a loop. We expect a little T&A with our scares, but the disturbed way in which The New York Ripper delivers this material is mind-numbing. If Fulci ever wondered why he wasn’t taken more seriously, the sleazoid subtext here should have been all the proof he needed. This really is a repulsive little reject. 

It’s this deranged dichotomy that works both for and against The New York Ripper. This is a movie where half of what’s onscreen truly satisfies, while the other part seems purposefully set on destroying everything that came before. The mystery is mangled in a series of false leads, ridiculous red herrings, narrative u-turns, and any other perplexing plot pointing the script can offer. On the other hand, the performances win us over, Fulci mixing his cast between accomplished Americans (Jack Hedley, Howard Ross) and Italian imports (Andrea Occhipinti, Paolo Malco). As with most of his films, his female leads are rather weak, passive in their ability to stand on their own. Almanta Suska, as Fay, has a hard time balancing the demands of the role with the reality of the situation. She’s supposed to be a prime suspect, yet never comes across as anything other than whiny and confused.

Sadly, Fulci left us in 1996, meaning that most home theater content must rely on experts and other so-called scholars to fill in the filmmaker’s many creative blanks. That being said, Blue Underground does very little with this release, simply providing some basic information and leaving it at that. The image upgrade is startling, definitely worth the investment. The 1080p, 2.35:1 widescreen image is crisp and clean, with minimal grain and lots of tacky early ‘80s coloring. The new HD mix, offered in dynamic 7.1 DTS, also opens up the film, allowing for more metropolitan ambience and big city atmosphere.

As for bonus features, we get a look at the New York locations (then and now), and an interview with actress Zora Kerova. Toss in a trailer and that’s it. Certainly, there is someone out in the fright fan ether that can comment on how the filmmaker came to helm this particular project (he had been on an international roll ever since Zombi in 1979). While always a journeyman, Fulci did hold some particular ambitions, and it would be interesting to learn where The New York Ripper fit into these crazy career plans.

Of course, as the years go by, and as the ‘Net expands in the appreciation of the wrongfully marginalized, Lucio Fulci may yet find his place among the horror beloved. Of course, you have to get past all the cheesy comedies, weirdo westerns, and other genre jumps the director created over his decades in the industry. The New York Ripper doesn’t help or hurt his cause, mostly because blood blots out the substantial shortcomings. Still, if you really want to see what this director is all about, take a gander at his straight ahead horror romps. They are much more satisfying from a fright and filth standpoint. Films like this one are not really an anomaly. But they do underscore the reason why Fulci remains a valued, if underappreciated auteur.

by Bill Gibron

25 Sep 2009


For most audiences in America, anime arrived in the ‘80s. In celebrated titles like Akira and Grave of the Fireflies, the new highly stylized animation taught unaware Westerners the value of the ethereal Eastern approach. It was an aesthetic carried over to popular cartoon series like G-Force and Robotech catching on quickly with the underage demo. But for those of us old enough to remember local kids shows and syndicated cartoon packages, our first exposure to the artform was probably the spunky Speed Racer. Arriving in the late ‘60s, the Mach 5’s main man and his supportive family unit offered an ideal so surreal that many of us early fans weren’t sure if we were watching moving images, or some mock transmission from a faraway planet.

A few years before, however, an NBC executive named Fred Ladd had seen the future of pen and ink entertainment, and decided to retrofit it for waking Western audiences. He took a pair of Japanese imports, redressed them with English dubs and significantly less violent scripts, and unleashed them on a clueless grade school clientele. Astro Boy was one of his famous revamps. The other was the space age robot Gigantor. Both have since become legends in the world of hand drawn amusement. With the former hitting the big screen in Fall in an epic CG experiment, E1 Entertainment is releasing the second of its two volume DVD set featuring the mighty machine that was quicker than quick and stronger than strong.

For anyone interested in seeing the original Japanese version of Gigantor - known as Tetsujin 28-go or Iron Man #28 upon initial release - this set is not for you. Instead, this is a work of heady nostalgia, an occasionally exasperating, always enlightening look at how violent, sovereign-ccentric storylines built to bring the island nation out of the post-World War II malaise were reimagined as a big-eyed boy’s adventure tale. Tetsujin 28-go‘s main narrative saw the development of a metal giant to help Japan maintain its Pacific superiority during the international conflict. When all aggressions cease, the robot is redeployed to help stop criminal and other enemies. Based on manga creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama life as a child refugee, the entire project was supposed to suggest the immeasurable destructive power of mindless military policies.

In America, everything was shifted to the future. Little Jimmy Sparks, the 12 year old in charge of the remote unit that operates Gigantor, lives in the year 2000. His father invented the mighty machine, but Jim has since been orphaned (?) and lives with his Uncle Dr. Bob Brilliant on a remote island. Another resident is inept police inspector Ignatz J. Blooper. Ladd only mined 52 of the Japanese episodes for his own purposes, chopping them up and censoring content to create the beloved series we know today. First and foremost on the cutting room floor was the excessive violence inherent in the Asian version. With its post-War setting and frequent espionage themes, there were lots of underhanded activities and deadly consequences. Also gone was a lot of the seriousness, replaced with a sense of silliness and slapstick deemed more “appropriate” for American kids.

As a result, the 26 episodes offered here present a curious balancing act. On the one hand, there is a real sci-fi specialness to what the original Tetsujin was offering. The notion of a humungous protector giving the Japanese a sense of peace remains part of the production. But as with any Westernized work, it gets buried in a burlesque that sees many of the villains as comic and several of the storylines as borderline surreal. The first three discs contain seven episodes each. The last offers five, as well as a few fascinating bonus features. With so many titles to discuss, it’s impossible to address each individual installment separately. What’s interesting overall is how prevalent the Cold War themes are. Even in simple or straightforward storylines, the Communist threat is omnipresent.

Of particular note are segments like “10,000 Gigantors” (multiple copycat robots are built to overrun a far off planet), “The Robot Olympics” (Gigantor battles Taurus of Bulba for gold medal superiority), “The Space Cats” (complete with aliens from the planet Magnapus) and “The Insect Monsters!” (featuring such Jay Ward-esque pun names like Dr. Buzz Bugaboo and Brany Mantis). They match well with other standouts such as “Mangaman from Outer Space” and “Battle of the Giant Robots” (part of a long running reliance on other oversized machines to clash with out heroes), as well as “The Evil Robot Brain” and “Danger’s Dinosaurs”. Ladd definitely saw something more juvenile in the Japanese original, and it’s the sense of wonder and excitement he brings to the material that really sells it to a less than prepared fanbase.

After all, even to this day, Gigantor looks like nothing in late ‘50s/early ‘60s animation.  With their early comic strip influences (Little Nemo was a clear reference point) and the comic book like reliance on panel type reactions shots (lots of electrical sparks, lightning bolts, and energy lines here), these fuzzy, foggy black and white beauties represent the growing pains of anime. The added content present on the DVD also emphasizes the novelty and initial reaction to the show. It also showcases Yokoyama’s contribution, including his use of his own memories as part of the creative process. In conjunction with the original volume, which brought the first 26 shows to viewers, these box sets cement the status of Gigantor as an innovative and true original.

And yet one wonders how the fanboys will react to this obvious blast from the past. Anime has grown by leaps and bounds since the days of Tetsujin 28-go and its forerunners, and by today’s standards, this obviously tinkered with title looks positively primitive. It can’t hold a future shock illustration to something like Appleseed. And yet that’s also part of Gigantor‘s charms. Like the roots of rock and roll, or the foundations of film itself, the beginnings of the Japanese cartoon format are fascinating in their stylized shortcut mentality. Unlike Disney who sweated every detail, the Asian aesthetic was one of punch and power. Getting to the meat of a situation was far more important than languishing over a beautifully painted backdrop. Gigantor gets massive kudos for clearing the way to this new and important genre. That it also stands on its own, beyond said novelty, is a very nice surprise indeed.

by Bill Gibron

24 Sep 2009


Is there a director providing a better balance between cartoon light and dark than Nick Park? Oh, you can have your Tex Averys and Tim Burtons, but the genial little Brit behind the stop motion behemoth Aardman continues to find clever ways of mixing the merry with the macabre, taking his Oscar winning creations Wallace (the bumbling inventor) and Gromit (his faithful, far more sensible watchdog) with him. Over the course of four sensational shorts, several specialty clips, and one amazing full length motion picture, our daring duo, these beloved believers in the power of positive tinkering have endeared themselves to a fanbase fed up with cookie cutter clichés and standard cartoon claptrap. And it’s all because of Park’s perfect combination of wit and worry, anarchy and anxiety. 

This is especially true of the latest installment in the Wallace and Gromit juggernaut, the drop dead brilliant A Matter of Loaf and Death - new to DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate. Featuring yet another wacky business venture by our persistent pair (as the title suggests, they’re bakers) and a love interest for our nerdy hero who may not be what she seems, we get the standard “veddy English”-ness of Aardman’s approach meshed with all manner of horror movie Hitchcock moves. As they have done throughout the previous three installments in the series - A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave - the claymation masterminds turn a seemingly sweet scenario into something quite sinister - and sensational.

As the proprietors of Top Bun Bakery, Wallace and Gromit find business is booming. Unfortunately, that’s because all the other pastry chefs in town are dying under mysterious circumstances. With orders up and output increasing, the duo needs to focus if they are to have any hope of making their daily quota. Out of the blue, Wallace runs into Piella Bakewell, the former face of Bake-a-Lite breads and cakes. The two begin a whirlwind romance, much to Gromit’s chagrin. Soon, the candle in his owner’s wind starts imposing her oppressive will on their perfect partnership. Our canine companion starts to suspect something odd about Wallace’s newfound love, and with a little investigation, uncovers something that make cost all of them dearly - professionally, and perhaps, even their lives.

Either separately, or as part of the new Wallace and Gromit: The Complete Collection, A Matter of Loaf and Death is a treasure, a treat for the eye and ambrosia for the imagination. Just watching the opening sequence, seeing our familiar faces with their big teeth and expressive eyes interact with a Chaplin-like building-sized bread baking machine is a marvel of technology and talent. One of the best things about the four short compendiums offered here is that you can watch the growth of Aardman’s aesthetic. From the very beginning, when you can make out the actual fingerprints on Wallace’s shirt sleeves to the latter day polish and high production values, the company has always strived to take their titles to the next level, to never rest on their laurels and constantly endeavor to be bigger, better, and braver.

This is certainly true of Loaf and Death. The set-up is stellar, leading to a wonderful cockeyed chase sequence where deliveries are balanced out with a mad dash to catch up with Piella and her prissy poodle, Fluffles. Our amiable antagonist’s house is also a Victorian nightmare suitable for several Hammer films. The scope here is very broad, picking up where the clever feature film Curse of the Were-Rabbit left off and Park pays particularly close attention to our mongrel emotions as well. Gromit gets his far share of heroics, but he is also hurt by Wallace’s abrupt change of heart and friendship about face. When Piella wants to put him out, to take his place so to speak as man’s best friend, the dog’s hurt reaction is devastating.

But Loaf and Death is also a wonderful bit of slapstick, Park proving he learned a great deal from the masters of the silent screen. This has always been true of Aardman’s efforts - from the voiceless Moon robot of Grand Day and the mute penguin boarder of Trousers to the Modern Times contraptions of Shave. The Wallace and Gromit films definitely take the whole mad scientist/absent-minded professor/wacky inventor concept to new, heretofore unexplored heights, never looking down when our duo fails to achieve perfection. Instead, the unkempt nature of their engineering, the very upbeat innocence in what they hope to achieve counterbalanced by the frequent disappointments makes these characters easy to root for.

As part of either the new Loaf DVD or the even better Complete Collection Blu-ray, Lionsgate (who has taken over distribution of these titles) gives us the opportunity to sneak a peek behind the scenes, and it’s a jolly, often sentimental journey. Park discusses with growing embarrassment how it took almost seven years to bring Grand Day to life. He goes on to use his compelling commentary tracks to highlight frustrations, discuss the unreal expectations of his next effort post-Oscars, and why he believes Wallace and Gromit have endured. In conjunction with Making-of featurettes for each film, a compendium of “Cracking Contraptions” (clever blackout skits involving Wallace’s bumbling machinery, and Gromit’s reaction to same) and a gorgeous image remaster (the Blu-ray is stellar in its detail and dimension), we really feel like we’ve come to a greater appreciation of Park’s humble craft.

When one imagines the amount of work it takes to realize one scene in a standard stop-motion animated film (we hear stories of one sequence taking several MONTHS to finish), the wonderful world of Wallace and Gromit becomes even more compelling. Aardman has avoided CG for the most part - the forgettable Flushed Away being the sole exception - and is meticulous in how it controls and cares for its legacy. As a result, quality is part of the principle involved, a desire to never let the audience or the artists down.

Such collaboration confirms Aardman’s status as one of the premiere animation houses in the world, sitting right alongside Warner Brothers and Disney for artform bragging rights. And since they balance their always intriguing efforts with a clever combination of light and dark, twee and slightly terrifying, they’ve also secured their own specialized space. As their latest (and previous greatest) illustrate, no one does this kind of crazed cartooning better than Park and his patented production mavericks. A Matter of Loaf and Death definitely earns its place alongside the other gemstones in Aardman’s cinematic crown. 

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