(*homocinematically inclined)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Dinosaurs Rule

Even though they’ve been extinct for 65 million years, dinosaurs still hold a fascination for us like few other creatures past or present.  Our only real reference points for them, however, are skeletal remains in museums and movies such as the Jurassic Park series (a fourth chapter of which is reportedly coming soon).  There have also been a handful of animated dinosaur-themed films, including The Land Before Time and Disney’s Dinosaur, that feature cuddly, talking depictions of the beasts.

Enter Dinotasia, now available on Blu-ray and DVDcourtesy of Flatiron Film Company.  Its multiple animated vignettes that span nearly 200 million years provide a more naturalistic, often visually-stunning view of how Earth’s reptilian ancestors may truly have lived.  In the process, co-directors Erik Nelson and David Krentz (Krentz served as lead character designer of the prior Disney-made feature) and narrator Werner Herzog (yes, the auteur responsible for Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man and last year’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, among many other acclaimed films) make the creatures’ varied plights unexpectedly amusing and disarmingly moving.

The first story, which opens with a tired mother irritated by a noisy ostrich-like contemporary and culminates with one of her injured offspring seeking payback for the damage done to it, gives an indication of the film’s unusual tone.  The primeval segment of Fantasia or your standard Animal Planet documentary, Dinotasia is not.  These dinos don’t have to speak dialogue or be drawn with human-like features to strike viewers as eerily like us.  Other segments adapt time-honored scenarios like a mother bird teaching its young ones how to fly, parents trying to protect their children from predators, and the results of unintentionally ingesting hallucinogenic substances to the dinosaur era in novel ways.  The best is “Herd,” in which an orphaned triceratops finds temporary refuge with an elder who is on a significant journey.  If the ending doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, you’d better check to make sure you aren’t cold-blooded.

Herzog’s introductions to each story are at once welcome and unnecessary.  Also, the CGI quality runs hot and cold and generally isn’t as convincing during daytime scenes as it is in darker, nighttime settings.  Still, Dinotasia is gripping, droll and poignant in equal measure, and will give one a new appreciation of the scaled and feathered giants that once roamed our world.

Many people also think of silent movies as being extinct, but last year’s Oscar-winning hit The Artist was dialogue-free until its very end.  Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, just released on Blu-rayin a beautifully restored edition, tells the twisted tale of a faded silent-film star who is desperate for “a return” (not a comeback) and the down-on-his-luck screenwriter who falls into her trap.

Gloria Swanson, who plays Sunset Boulevard’s psychotic yet tragic Norma Desmond to unforgettable perfection, was herself a largely forgotten veteran of the silent era by the time Wilder cast her.  William Holden co-stars as the hapless object of her self-obsessed affection.  Both actors were nominated for the Academy Award for their performances here.  The film itself was nominated as Best Picture but lost to the belovedly catty backstage drama, All About EveSunset Boulevard, though, has proven to be the better-regarded movie, currently ranking #16 (twelve steps above All About Eve) on the American Film Institute’s 2007 revised list of the greatest American films.

Alternately classified as an industry-insider drama, film noir, horror film and even as a comedy — all of these accurateSunset Boulevard is awash in an embarrassment of riches.  Most notable are the razor-sharp dialogue contained in the knowing, Oscar-winning screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.; Swanson’s fellow silent-film vets Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson as Norma’s wordless “waxworks” friends; an appearance by Hollywood gossip maven Hedda Hopper as herself; and the film’s exquisite art direction.  Best of all perhaps are the acting turns by director greats Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim.  Both directed Swanson in some of her early films, and this professional as well as more personal, intimate history between them makes their scenes together all the more believable.

Holden’s voiceover strikes me as particularly dated by today’s standards, but it is probably Sunset Boulevard’s only weakness.  It is truly iconic and a film for the ages.  Recommended extras on the Blu-ray are a deleted scene with a very funny song entitled “The Paramount-Don’t-Want-Me Blues,” numerous documentary shorts about the film’s production and cultural impact, biographies of Swanson and Holden, and an insightful look at the work of celebrated costume designer Edith Head while she was under contract at Paramount.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Dinotasia: B+
Sunset Boulevard: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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