‘The Illusionist’ Maintains Its Cinematic Magic In Its New Latest Re-Issue

Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/MVD Entertainment Group/MVD Visual

MVD Entertainment Group has added 20th Century Fox’s period drama The Illusionist to its MVD Marquee collection.  The company is scheduled to re-issue the movie, which stars Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man, 12 Years A Slave), Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk, American History X, Birdman) and Jessica Biel (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, 7th Heaven, I’ll Be Home For Christmas) in its lead roles, on June 25.  The movie itself is one of the most underappreciated movies of the 1990s, and the upcoming re-issue serves to remind audiences of exactly that.  That is due in part to the movie’s story, which will be addressed shortly.  Its bonus content,  which will be addressed a little later, adds even more interest to the re-issue’s presentation.  The collective work of the movie’s cast and crew also adds to the story and will be addressed later.  When it is coupled with the movie’s story, all of the elements together show why this latest presentation of The Illusionist is more cinematic magic.

MVD Entertainment Group’s forthcoming re-issue of 20th Century Fox’s period drama The Illusionist is a positive offering for most audiences.  That is due in part to the movie’s story.  The story — based on a short story crafted by author Steven Millhauser — is a fully-engaging and entertaining presentation that is full of magic, murder, mystery and romance.  Those elements are all expertly balanced throughout the course of the story, too.  It is set in 19th Century Vienna, Austria (but was actually filmed in The Czech Republic – this will be discussed later) and features Norton and Giamatti as Eisenheim and Inspector Uhl respectively.  Eisenheim, who was friends with the Duchess Sophie van Techen (Biel) when the pair was much younger, wants to reconnect with the Duchess.  The problem for Eisenheim is that Uhl, who is working for Crown Prince Leopold (Refus Sewell – A Knight’s Tale, Dark City, Tristan + Isolde), stands in his way.  Eisenheim and Uhl eventually develop a certain almost friendship as the story progresses while tensions between Eisenheim and Leopold increase right up to the story’s climactic conclusion.  The story’s run time is listed at 109 minutes (1 hour, 49 minutes), but because of the pacing, feels longer than that noted time.  What’s truly interesting is that usually when pacing makes a move feel longer than it is, that is a bad thing.  In the case of this story though, it is the exact opposite.  Somehow, writer/director Neil Burger, who adapted Millhauser’s short story to the screen, managed to make the story work even despite that feel.  That is a tribute to his work.  Even with the pacing seeming slow at times, the story is still able to keep viewers engaged and entertained with ease.  The movie’s twist ending gives viewers a finale that is completely fulfilling.  That fulfillment finale, and the ability of the movie’s story to keep viewers engaged and entertained creates a strong foundation for The Illusionist and gives viewers more than enough reason to watch this movie.  As much as the movie’s story does for its presentation, its bonus content adds even more to the movie’s presentation.

The bonus content featured in MVD Entertainment Group’s forthcoming re-issue of The Illusionist is carried directly over from the movie’s most recent release, its 2007 release.  That includes not just the brief making of featurette and equally brief conversation with Biel, but also the feature-length audio commentary from writer/director Neil Burger.  The commentary is listed, in this re-issue, as an audio option instead of a bonus extra, unlike the 2007 home release, as an added note, but it is still the most important of the movie’s extras.  Burger  presents a lot of information in his commentary, such as the revelation that most of the movie was recorded on site in Prague, Czech Republic and that his adaptation of the original short story The Illusionist is quite different from its literary source material.  Considering the number of differences that he addresses, it makes one want to find said story and see just how different the two stories are.  That is just some of the content revealed through Burger’s commentary. He also reveals that Norton and Biel were not the first choices for their respective roles.  Those discussions are themselves certain to generate plenty of discussion, and in turn are more proof of why Burger’s commentary should have been featured in The Illusionist’s latest re-issue.  They are certainly just the tip of the proverbial iceberg that is his commentary.  As the movie progresses, he shares far more that audiences can discover for themselves.  Keeping that in mind, Burger’s bonus commentary builds on the foundation formed by the movie’s story and strengthens it that much more.  It is still not the last of the movie’s positives.  The collective work of the movie’s cast and crew couples with the story and commentary to give audiences even more to appreciate.

The work of all four of the movie’s lead cast members is worthy of applause in its own way throughout the movie.  Burger notes in the movie’s audio commentary (along with so much more already noted) that he made Eisenheim more of a sympathetic character by using Inspector Uhl more than he was in the movie’s source material.  The thing is that Norton’s abilities as an actor did not even call for more inclusion of Uhl.  Given, Norton and Giamatii were just enjoyable on-screen together as they were on their own, but Norton’s own abilities were more than enough to make his work engaging and entertaining in its own right.  His emoting during his time on stage in front of Eisenheim’s audiences is just one example of that talent.  His tears were just as believable as he reaches out for Sophie’s hand in the final act when he is on stage.  The pain that he displays translates so well, even if it is all part of his act to trick everyone.  Much the same can be said of Giamatti that is said of Norton.  When Giamatti is set alongside Sewell, he [Giamatti] shines even more while Sewell, as more of a supporting character, makes it just as easy for audiences to dislike Leopold.  Burger discusses this, too, in the commentary. Viewers will agree with his comments here, too.  What’s more, viewers will also appreciate the discussions by Burger on the amount of research that was done to make The Illusionist look just like 19th Century Vienna in terms of costumes and even buildings.  That research clearly paid off, as the resultant work of the movie’s costume and set designers created an environment that was just as believable as the work of the movie’s cast, getting back on track.  It is even noted by Burger, that Eddie Marsan (who played Eisenheim’s manager) was in his 30s when the movie was crafted, yet he looked like he was in his 50s.  That is another tribute to the work of the movie’s crew.  If one did not know what Burger revealed in the commentary, one would in fact think Marsan was in his 50s.  Getting back on the matter of the cast and crew’s work, it couples with Burger’s work on the movie’s script and his commentary, to make the movie appealing for everyone.

MVD Entertainment Group’s upcoming Blu-ray re-issue of 20th Century Fox’s The Illusionist is a work that will entertain any true movie buff.  That is due, as noted, in part to the movie’s story.  The story expertly balances elements of magic, murder, mystery and romance to make a whole that will keep viewers engaged from beginning to end.  That is due in part to the movie’s story, adapted by writer/director Neil Burger to the screen and to the commentary provided throughout the movie as a bonus commentary.  The work of the movie’s cast and crew adds to its enjoyment, too.  Each item is important in its own way to the whole of The Illusionist.  All things considered, they show why The Illusionist is its own magical cinematic diamond in the rough.  More information on this and other titles from MVD Entertainment Group is available online now at:




Website: http://mvdvisual.com

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MVDEntertainmentGroup

Twitter: http://twitter.com/mvdentgroup




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Saving Mr. Banks Has Few Saving Graces

Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Walt Disney Studios’ recently released full length picture Saving Mr. Banks is not the worst movie that the studio has ever released. It is also, hardly the best movie that WDS has ever released. The story presented in this movie is little more than another period piece that can be tossed into the ever-growing pile of movies that are “based on actual events” and forgotten over time. It tries to make up for this by throwing in an attempt at a serious story about Travers’ attempt to reconcile her past and present that ultimately falls flat. That is thanks in large part to the glut of flashbacks and the unevenness of those transitions between the flashbacks. For all of the negatives that weigh down the story, there is at least one positive to the whole presentation. That bright shining light is the acting on the part of the movie’s largely A-List cast. Other than that sole beacon, it’s difficult to ultimately say that there is anything that truly “saves” Saving Mr. Banks.

Saving Mr. Banks is anything but one of the best movies that Walt Disney Studios has ever released. There is very little that one can argue actually “saves” this period piece. That’s because ultimately, it’s just one more movie that is “based on actual events.” Co-writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith seemed to have gotten down Travers’ persona. And veteran actress Emma Thompson brought Travers even more to life with her expert depiction of the famed author. However, one cannot deny the fact that Disney likely took a certain amount of liberties with the story of how Travers’ beloved book Mary Poppins came to life. That is just the way of movies that are “based on actual events.” Marcel and Smith had to have known that there are those—like this critic—that would know this, too. So their answer to that was to throw in a personal drama story on the part of Travers that sees her trying to reconcile her troubled childhood as she worked with Walt Disney and his people on their adaptation of her book. It’s a bit much. Add in the glut of flashbacks and the unevenness of said flashbacks, and audiences get what is one more loose brick in this movie.

The attempt on the part of Marcel and Smith to craft a dual-pronged story in Saving Mr. Banks is a major part of the movie’s downfall. It isn’t the end of the movie’s problems, either. The glut of flashbacks that Marcel and Smith toss into the story and their unevenness hurts the script even more. One doesn’t even fully realize that the pair is using flashbacks as part of the story until after about the fifth time that the transition happens. The primary reason for this is that there is little to indicate the separation of the scenes. The story constantly jumps from Travers’ present day life to her childhood growing up in Australia. And because there is no clear indicator of the jump back and forth in time, audiences are left scratching their heads at who the little girl is until again, after about the fifth or sixth time that the transition happens. There is perhaps one clear transition that finally makes it clear for audiences that they are looking into what is supposed to be Travers’ childhood. While Marcel and Smith do finally make it clear what audiences are seeing in the scene transitions, things don’t get much better. That’s because it actually starts to feel like the flashbacks in question tend to happen at an increasing pace. Even in that increased frequency of flashbacks, the transitions between past and present are still not entirely clear. They just seem to happen at random points without any clear separation. It only serves to hurt the movie even more. Thankfully for all of the problems with Saving Mr. Banks, it does have one saving grace. That saving grace is the acting on the part of the movie’s largely A-List cast.

If not for the acting on the part of Saving Mr. Banks’ cast, this movie would possibly be classified as one of the least of Disney’s movies in recent years. That being the case, Casting Director Ronna Kress deserves a standing ovation. Kress pulled in some of the biggest names in Hollywood for this movie. Actress Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction, Nanny McPhee, Nanny McPhee Returns) was an obvious choice considering her time in the role of another literary nanny named Nanny McPhee. McPhee’s character was based on the literary Nurse Matilda. Nurse Matilda’s books came years after Mary Poppins was published. But her stories are arguably far more enjoyable than that of Mary Poppins or even this semi-historical look at how the book was adapted to the big screen. Ironically enough, Thompson’s depiction of author P.L. Travers was just as spot on as that of Nanny McPhee. One can’t help but laugh at the obvious cultural differences between herself and her American hosts. And while he is in a supporting role in this movie, fellow veteran actor Paul Giamatti (The Illusionist, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Duets) is incredible as Travers’ personal driver Ralph. Ralph’s innocence makes him such a lovable character. Jason Scwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeerling Limited, Rushmore) and B.J. Novak (The Amazing Spiderman 2, Inglourious Basterds, The Smurfs 2) are just as entertaining as the famed Sherman Brothers. Anyone that knows the history of Walt Disney Studios knows that the Sherman Brothers are responsible for some of the greatest musical numbers to ever grace the big screen in Disney’s golden age. And their drive to get the songs right despite Travers’ constant refusal makes them such sympathetic characters. Not once did they ever get mad at her for her stubbornness. And their playful nature in playing their songs makes them even more lovable. Tom Hanks can’t be ignored here either, as the one and only Walt Disney. Those in the makeup department got the look of Walt Disney pretty close with Hanks. And one must agree that he expertly channels Disney, too. He worked so hard to get the part down that he even tried to get down Walt Disney’s accent for the role. It’s subtle. But it’s there. And it makes his depiction all the more enjoyable to watch. It’s one more piece of the whole of this movie that makes Saving Mr. Banks at least somewhat bearable.

The acting on the part of Saving Mr. Banks’ cast is the one shining light that makes this movie bearable. The sad reality of this movie is that despite the entertaining portrayals on the part of the cast, there is little to nothing else positive that can be noted of the film. The transitions between Travers’ childhood and adult life are far too many and nowhere near clear enough. And the dual-pronged story crafted by co-writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith ultimately combines with those scene transition issues to make Saving Mr. Banks anything but memorable. Sadly these issues together prove that other than the cast’s acting, there is little to anything else that “saves” Saving Mr. Banks.

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ESPN Films Starts Winding Down Its Latest Series With “This Is What They Want”

Courtesy:  ESPN

Courtesy: ESPN

ESPN Films’ Peabody Award-winning series 30 for 30 continues next Tuesday, October 29th with another brand new film.  Next Tuesday, ESPN and ESPN films take audiences into the tennis world in This is What They Want.  The film focuses on tennis star Jimmy Connors and his unbelievable run in the 1991 US Open.

Connors was thirty-eight years old when he entered the 1991 US Open, and was nearing his thirty-ninth birthday.  At the time, he was ranked 174th in the world.  And it had been eight years since he had earned his last Grand Slam singles title.  For those not familiar with the tennis world, this is not a good sign for someone coming into one of tennis’ biggest events.  Connors was close to being eliminated in the tournament’s first round.  But then something incredible happened.  Connors went on a tear that included a contest with Aaron Krickstein on his way to the semi-finals.  Connors’run through the tournament is richly detailed and examined thanks to director Brian Koppelman and David Levien.  The pair have been producing and directing movies since 1997.  Their list of credits includes: Rounders, Oceans Thirteen, The Illusionist, and the new hit movie Runner, Runner.  The pair included in this film, interviews with veteran tennis players John and Patrick McEnroe, Mary Carilo and Jim Courier along with Kirckstein.  Through their interviews and classic footage, This is What They Want examines not just Connors’ run but also what made him such a talked about figure in the tennis and sports worlds.  It shows how he helped make tennis the equally talked about sport that it is today.

All films in the 30 for 30 series will be available for download the day after their broadcast via iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.  The remaining films in the series are listed below.  A special six-disc collector’s edition Gift Set containing the first fifteen films from 30 for 30 Volume II will be available in stores and online Tuesday, November 26, 2013.

The remaining films of the fall slate will air as follows:

  • Tuesday, Oct. 29, 8 p.m. –This      is What They Want (Directors: Brian      Koppelman and David Levien)
  • Tuesday, Nov. 5, 8 p.m. –Bernie      and Ernie (Director: Jason Hehir)


More information on all things 30 for 30 is available online at http://www.facebook.com/espn30for30, http://twitter.com/30for30, and http://www.espn.com/30for30.  To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it.  Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment news and reviews in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.

PBS’ DUCKumentary Feathered Fun For The Whole Family

Courtesy:  PBS

Courtesy: PBS

PBS’ Nature has always been one of its best shows.  And compared to so many other shows of its ilk that are out there it is the cream of the crop.  Its latest release, An Original DUCKumentary proves yet again why Nature is the prime example of a wildlife show done right.

An Original DUCKumentary takes viewers into the lives of some of our fine-feathered friends from birth to adulthood.  This is a wonderful program for the entire family and for ornithologists and those studying aviary sciences.  General audiences will love simply watching the feature’s outstanding cinematography while those with a deeper interest in the different species of ducks will appreciate both the cinematography and the more scientific explanations of each species’ general body construction and habits.  The subtle narration by acting veteran Paul Giamatti (Sideways, The Illusionist, Cosmopolis) is a nice touch, too.  There’s something about his delivery that is perfect for just such a setting as this.  Both Lenny Williams and Chris Biondo are also to be commended in this new feature from PBS.  The pair was responsible for the music used as a bed throughout the show.  Just as Giamatti’s delivery was a perfect fit for narration, the control of the music by Biondo and Williams’ gentle musical touch added its own extra subtle nuance to the presentation.

The narration and music definitely play their own part in the success of An Original DUCKumentary as already noted.  This is something that far too often, documentarians get wrong in crafting their presentations.  Together, the pair have come together to make a presentation that will keep audiences engaged and entertained.  One example of that match comes in a scene in which a number of different species of ducks had come together at a stopping point on their migration.  Giamatti describes almost as if he were right there in person how each group actually works together in its own way to protect all of the ducks from predators while others rest and look for their mates.  There’s something oddly humorous about Giammati’s delivery as he talks about the male ducks’ attempts to lure a female.  There’s almost a certain slightly dry wit about his narration as he talks about the birds’ mating habits.

Along with the narration, music, and cinematography, there is one other aspect of An Original DUCKumentary that makes it enjoyable for both general audiences and those more deeply interested in studying ducks.  That factor is the inclusion of a listing of each duck featured throughout the feature at its end.  Audiences are presented with a collage of different ducks that is highlighted, one duck at a time, complete with its name.  It serves as one more way to get audiences who might have otherwise not had any interest in studying ducks interested for the first time.  For those who are more seasoned birders, it’s just one more bonus as it specifically highlights each species featured.  Along with the other noted aspects of this feature, it’s one more reason for any viewer of any level of experience to check out this stand out dock…er…DUCKumentary.  It’s available now on DVD and can be ordered online direct via the PBS store at http://www.shoppbs.org.

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