TV Series & DVD Review: Parenthood (NBC)

This NBC series stimulates thought. Yet it moves the audience to experience powerful emotions. Parenthood (2010 to 2015) accomplishes this through intricate and intelligent characterization playing to an overarching theme that parenting can and ought to be both rational and rewarding.

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Family is not an end in itself, according to Parenthood. It’s a unit of unique individuals that exists primarily to serve as a rocket launch and refueling center. This is why a family can be integral to creating, making and forging the meaningful, purposeful, selfish life.

Parenthood, created and written by Jason Katims and based on the Nineties movie by Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon, Solo: A Star Wars StoryApollo 13), essentially tells the tale of four children who choose to have children. Two sons and two daughters and their parents sputter, propel and revolve in multiple relationships, professional, romantic and otherwise. They do so with humor and poignancy in each of its six seasons.

These are the characters in the Braverman family, led by Bonnie Bedelia (Sordid Lives, Presumed Innocent) and Craig T. Nelson (Coach, Poltergeist) as the parents. Favorite son Adam (Peter Krause) is a buttoned-down establishmentarian; he lives to lead. Younger brother Crosby (Dax Shepard) is the free-spirited comic relief; he strives to achieve. Julia (Erika Christensen) is the perfectionist; she thrives on striking the ideal balance. Black sheep Sarah (Lauren Graham) is the single mother mess; she seeks to create and cash in. 

Through her lens, the audience first sets sights upon this warm, intelligent and inviting family. 

Bravermans are sharp, unpretentious and intellectual. They think about what they do before they “just do it”. They use words. They talk. They also listen. But these are depictions of humans that know how to communicate through verbal means. But they not only like communicating with each other—they thrive on it. They draw strength from it. They get powered by it. They refuel. This feeds the interplay that makes Parenthood go.

Bravermans think about how to love and raise a child, as well as how to tend to themselves. They are biting, flawed and competitive—in unhealthy and healthy ways—and they can be bitches and brats behind one another’s backs. Like your family.

This is what makes Bravermans go and do. They go for the gold in life, even when there’s less and less time left to live, too much that’s been said in anger, or too much alcohol involved, or too few moments together in plain, honest talk. Mother and daughter, father and son, sibling rivalry—the pretty one, the smart one, the responsible one, the overindulged one—it’s all here wrapped inside a series of gilded parenting fables. 

With a neat timeline tie-in which pre-dates its thematically similar cousin, NBC’s excellent This Is Us, Parenthood depicts the child in the family and the inner child within each parent. It shows how each among us must guide and parent the self and it shows how parenting is properly done.

No problem goes unaddressed. No deficiency goes unnoticed.

The whole series is an enveloping, unfolding story of these Northern Californians (without the superiority complex) arcing toward a bittersweet resolution which reminds the viewer that life is finite, rich and breathtaking. But only if you choose to think first, put yourself first and go after what you want.

With baseball as a leitmotif, Parenthood’s is a distinctly American family orientation. Each Braverman works to play, plays to compete, competes as a whole person—playing more than one position—and each player aims for the grand slam. The show often hits and scores. But they are united.

This is family as it can and ought to be. Perhaps the one you’ve never had, always wanted, desperately miss, read about and long to have and hold.

Watch Parenthood for its fresh surprises. You’re likely to find yourself questioning and challenging your own ideas about parenting. The series depicts certain dilemmas, some that may be familiar and some that may not, that prompt you to think twice about your own upbringing, family and child rearing. 

Whether it’s raising a kid with Asperger’s, starting over, fielding calls from police, making time for sex or parenting the child neglected for her ability, Parenthood covers it all. There’s a memorable call for help from a truck stop in Gilroy, marital strife and a son named Jabbar (Tyree Brown as the most honest and appealing child character). 

There’s the kid that dyes her hair black, the dance audition, the hobbies, practices, rehearsals and nights climbing into windows and stumbling into sofas. There’s Craig T. Nelson hilariously memorizing and trying to remember why it’s important to invoke the line “I hear you and I see you”, the importance of getting credit and giving gratitude and saying ‘thank you’.

One of my favorite episodes occurs on Crosby’s houseboat. I like it because it dramatizes the character’s progression toward his choice to commit to being a parent. It is rare that any show tackles the abstraction of what Ayn Rand describes as man as a being of volitional consciousness.

Parenthood, filled with meaning, pathos and insight, does—from its theme that Crosby has the power to put what he loves up for sale by owner to how deftly it displays and honors the value of owning material possessions, whether a home or a piano. Other second season highlights include a character played by Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) as an alcoholic, which dovetails into an ex-husband’s alcoholism and a daughter’s drug use. 

But, whether it’s camping with Grandpa for the purpose of studying bugs at dawn, cancer, being fired, adoption or enduring Parenthood’s most irritating characters — Max, Adam and Kristina and controlling Jasmine — there’s always an organic reason for each plot point, each character arc and every plot twist. Even when Adam dresses like a rapper to get new business.

The cast is excellent. Look for all-around good casting — recurring guest stars turns include Richard Dreyfuss, Ray Romano and Jason Ritter — forethought, screenwriting and carefully crafted arcs such as Sam Jaeger as a businessman, husband and father. 

Flaws include that Sarah’s always apologizing, scenes don’t play out and overacting. Characters constantly talk over each other.

As the Bravermans’ family tale comes to a close, season five’s “Promises” episode is among Parenthood’s most profound. I’ll leave it at that. But know that this show presses every subplot into marvelous tales of redemption, letting go, dying, grieving, moving on and finding the goodness in each new day.

Ice skating with the kids—playing hooky to surf in the ocean—starting a school—opening a recording studio—running a political campaign—dating an Afghan war veteran—releasing the scream—coming out as gay—embracing moving day—leaving California—the meaning, memory and mining of road-tripping with Grandpa in a Pontiac GTO—meeting the other mother in Wyoming—accepting the marriage proposal—and, beautifully, leaving the 1972 Reggie Jackson baseball card in the rafters as a benevolent legacy for strangers, stressing the importance of chosen values over the importance of going merely by blood.

Enjoy Parenthood as a fully circular voyage of the child’s and parent’s—and grandparent’s—life. You will probably cry and laugh, often during the same episode. I did. But you almost assuredly will be provoked, if deftly and down to your core, to think. 

The DVD’s deleted scenes often fill in gaps as important action sometimes happens offscreen; the extras’ flaws include a lack for original air date stamps and music that’s too folksy.

‘Hidden Figures’ on Home Video

The movie almost everyone loves, last year’s popular Hidden Fgures, debuts on home video today.

When I saw it last year, I enjoyed it so much that I thought maybe I may have missed something; that it might have been too polished for me to notice any shortcomings. So I asked for a second screening, which is something I rarely do and only in an extreme effort to be objective. I liked it better on a second viewing, even as I became more aware of its flaws, such as some overacting.

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Why is this Oscar-nominated movie so universally well liked by audiences? I think it’s because, like any serious, goal-driven project, Hidden Figures keeps perspective and keeps its topic rooted in reality. So, while the story of three individuals of ability, who happen to be Negro women at a time when blacks and women were prejudged and unjustly treated, takes injustice seriously, the movie co-written and directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) also takes its higher aim seriously: to depict the achievement of excellence. The women’s accomplishments were not overdramatized; they were properly depicted as an important and integral part of a whole which led to an act of outstanding, and uniquely, inextricably American, progress.

The struggle was portrayed with realism, not sugarcoated or diminished. But so, too, the byproduct of the ladies’ productiveness was depicted and Melfi and company did so without minimizing the achievements of the NASA (actually, pre-NASA) engineers, scientists and astronauts. Too often, movies about overcoming adversity and injustice oversimplify facts, drop context and present a false dichotomy, lacking in depth and nuance. Hidden Figures, whatever its limitations, dramatizes the hard work of real progress, social and scientific, the simplicity of being appreciated for one’s ability and the power of unifying to achieve a grand and noble goal.

This is a rare and desperately needed depiction, and, sometimes, these points are obscured or lost in press tours, but that’s what makes this upbeat, uplifting movie appealing—it shows everyone that being one’s best is the perfect defense of every persecuted individual, especially the persecuted person of ability. I’ve added my exclusive interview with the film’s director, Ted Melfi, to the archive. Read the interview, read my review of Hidden Figures and buy the movie.


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Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Interview: Theodore Melfi on Hidden Figures

Zootopia on Home Video

Zootopia on Home Video

If you want to know why Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Zootopia (read my review here) delighted audiences and broke worldwide box office records, earning over $900 million, watch it on home video and see at least some of the bonus material. The Blu-ray edition shows how much thought, artistry and hard work were expended to make one of the most enjoyable movies this year.

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Available today on Digital HD, Blu-ray, Disney Movies Anywhere, DVD and on demand, Zootopia in these various incarnations includes an alternate opening, deleted characters and scenes and some clever, interesting tidbits. On the Blu-ray disc I reviewed, the most informative parts are what Disney calls a series of 10-minute “roundtables” (they’re not really) introduced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who voiced the lead character Judy Hopp. One of the interesting disclosures here is that her character wasn’t always the lead.

In fact, the creators originally had Jason Bateman’s fox character as the lead in a whole other plot involving a jaded, dystopian world with electronic animal collars. Well into production, studio screenings—this is one of those movies in which the movie studio apparently improved the final cut—apparently demonstrated that the cynicism drained the motion picture and Goodwin’s rabbit wannabe cop took the lead. The differences are discussed, explored and shown in several spots on the extras, including a humorous deleted alternate scene in the elephant-run ice cream shop.

Another piece shows hidden Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters, icons and designs. Frozen pops up in the ice cream shop, too, though these really amount to Disney plugs. Still, the extras are not as thin and wispy as they usually are and behind the scenes features are more relaxed, less formal and more open to scrutiny, too. The creators reveal a consistency error in the train scene that runs through Tundratown, for instance.

Viewers learn about complexities in creating an all-animal world, including making characters’ fur and clothing, the logic and impetus for Tundratown, Sahara Square and the Rainforest District and old-fashioned field research conducted—and, I suspect, doubling for water drinking scenes in The Jungle Book, too—in Africa. It’s there that filmmakers traveled to gain knowledge for Zootopia‘s variety of distinctive animal characters. Of course, they also visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida, but the African savanna trip proved useful for developing Zootopia looks, behaviors and plot points.

A piece on the score features Academy Award®-winning composer Michael Giacchino demonstrating how percussionists added to the movie. Directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons) introduce bits with dry humor. One clip involves Bateman’s fox character, Nick, pitching his start-up idea to Zootopia’s bankers for funding his money-making vision of an amusement park made exclusively for predators. Maybe a sequel if there is one (who am I kidding?) will explore Nick’s entrepreneurial spirit and mark a Disney Animation Studios return to portraying capitalism as a positive for the first time since The Princess and the Frog.

Shakira’s can-do-themed single “Try Everything”, which accompanies the end credits, too, is included as a stand-alone pop music video. Unfortunately, Bateman and other cast members, are not. I would have liked to have seen and heard from Idris Elba (Thor, BBC’s Luther) on voicing Chief Bogo, Jenny Slate’s thoughts on her character, Bellwether, Nate Torrence doing Clawhauser, Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake as the parents, J.K. Simmons (Oscar® winner for Whiplash) as Mayor Lionheart and Octavia Spencer (Black or White, Oscar® winner for The Help) as Mrs. Otterton. I would have liked to hear from the story writers, too, on the plot twist, which is part of what makes Zootopia unique, and I do wonder what artists were planning to do with one of the deleted characters, Zootopia’s female pig mayor.

But this one disc package with the 108 minute movie (1080p High Definition/2.39:1, DVD Feature Film = 2.39:1 aspect ratio; subtitles in English, French & Spanish/English SDH, French & Spanish) is a good home video package for a terrific little movie.

Blu-Ray Review: Cinderella

Blu-Ray Review: Cinderella

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Coming to home video for the first time, the leading contender for the year’s best picture, Cinderella, debuts today on Blu-ray and other formats (read my review here). I reviewed the two-disc Blu-Ray version with digital HD/SD, Blu-ray combo pack & Disney Movies Anywhere (DMA).

The DVD features a short feature on the movie’s animals, such as horses, chickens and mice, and the animated short that preceded Cinderella during its theatrical release, Frozen Fever. The Blu-ray includes these and also the 20-minute A Fairy Tale Comes to Life with brief interviews with major cast members and director Kenneth Branagh, writer Chris Weitz and producers David Baron, Simon Kinberg and Allison Shearmur in addition to other designers and production crew. The feature is alright, though it does not sweep over the whole picture as it should. I do not think Disney appreciates this picture for its full value.

Mr. Branagh himself downplays the film, which caused some controversy among feminists when it was released, as a light and enjoyable indulgence. There is no mention here, too, of the wonderfully romantic score by Patrick Doyle (read my review of the soundtrack here) among the features. A costume bit involves classical music from The Nutcracker which isn’t used in the 105-minute Cinderella.

The best Blu-ray extra—the best of the whole package besides the movie—is the 11-minute Staging the Ball, which breaks down one of the most breathtaking scenes in Cinderella. The two leading actors, Lily James as Cinderella and Richard Madden as the Prince, comport themselves to the palace filmmaking and so does everyone else who comments on the ballroom scenes, with adoring angles, gestures and framing. Relishing details, Kenneth Branagh and company explain every aspect from lighting the candles and building the set on the James Bond lot to the gown’s 10,000 Swarovski crystals and dance rehearsals. James describes the aura as “lightness and elegance” and it is beautifully deconstructed here. An alternate opening, which forges a stronger bond between the farm animals and the girl’s family before the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) moves in, is very good. Disney restricts the rest of Mr. Branagh’s five deleted scenes to its Disney Movies Anywhere exclusive, the code for which is included on the box.

This is a movie to get lost—even become immersed—in, as Walt Disney might say, and those inclined should do so without reservation. Boys and girls alike should see it with the whole family. Cinderella is that good and that rare and unusual among today’s pictures. Its grand, romantic style is suited to its warm, intelligent script. Despite the denial and modesty with which it is presented, Cinderella is lovely, moving and magnificent all at once and its transfer to Blu-ray delights in high-definition.


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Related links

Movie Review: Cinderella

Music Review: Cinderella soundtrack

Cinderella Coming this Fall to Home Entertainment

The Princess and the Frog on DVD

The Princess and the Frog

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New on DVD (and Blu-Ray) is Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which I briefly recommended when it was released in theaters. There are some things about this hand-painted feature film, which depicts an interracial romance, that I find troubling, such as the aimless prince, the fact that the only biracial character is evil, and a minimization of the heroine’s capitalist mentality. But there is much to enjoy about this animated musical fantasy adventure about Tiana, a black girl in New Orleans, who sets a goal of owning her own business, saves her money, works hard, focuses on her aims, and falls in love along the way.

The movie is delightful and the DVD, recently reviewed and available, is worth owning for repeat viewings. I could watch and listen to Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) “dig a little deeper” over and over and the best song, “Almost There”, which is too short, is a wonderful tribute to the virtue of productiveness. The DVD’s extras are satisfactory, with a music video by a young male vocalist named NeYo that tells a story in a forgettable tune, games, and other bonus bits. Lacking a narrative feature, the DVD provides what it calls deleted scenes, which are hand drawings pieced together and they don’t add much to the whole story. It’s a shame that co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid) decided against sharing a peek at what they talk about in the film’s audio commentary; a cut scene in which the trumpet-playing alligator, Louis, is pursued by an amorous lady on the steamboat. The commentary, loaded with too many scores to settle, is nevertheless the finest feature on the disc, with interesting information about this enjoyable movie, which is based on The Frog Prince fairy tale by the brothers Grimm.

Apparently, southpaw actress/singer Anika Noni Rose, who voices Tiana, insisted that the character be depicted as left-handed. I also learned that my favorite part of the movie, the “Almost There” number with Tiana singing about opening her restaurant, with minimally styled scenes of dancing waiters in black, white, orange and gold, was created based on drawings by renowned Harlem artist Aaron Douglas. The Princess and the Frog is too timid in expressing its theme of a morally ambitious girl for true Disney greatness, but it’s one of last year’s best movies and a little treasure for home entertainment.