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BLU-RAY REVIEW: Three Studio Ghibli Blu-ray Premieres
Blog, Reviews, Movies
Posted on Feb 03 2015 by Greg
Ghibli Blu-rays are always an event, especially because if we haven't seen the films on the big screen, it's the best way to enjoy the majestic artistry.

Two of the titles have been especially long-awaited. Porco Rosso is a spectacular adventure with humor and a touch of fantasy. Porco is a dashing fighter pilot who has been cursed and is now a pig, but still very human is every other way. Unabashedly Bogart-like, he is voiced by Oscar nominee Michael Keaton. My favorite English language performance, though, belongs to Susan Egan, who was also heard in Spirited Away. She gets to sing in French, and plays the classic tragic beauty, desperate to give her heart away but trapped by circumstance and the dysfunction of her lover.

This is an adult story, but not in the sense of material inappropriate for children. There are, actually, many kids in the story, one of whom forms the backbone of the story. The film has never sounded better in home video.

Pom Poko is the most quirky of the trio -- a fantasy steeped in reality with lots of ironic humor. The English narration by Maurice LaMarche (Pinky and the Brain) is crisp and brilliant in its seamless waver from serious to coy. The entire cast is superb. This is not a movie-star-based cast like other Ghibli films from Disney, this is a cast of great Hollywood voice actors, all of which prove that, while there's nothing wrong with well-cast stars in voice roles and they provide a marketing angle, the voice actors earn their place as seasoned pros in the art form.

One note to parents: The "sack" of these creatures is not actually a sack, but another part of the male anatomy, though it should not as obvious to youngsters because of the English script's obtuse treatment of it, which is to make it seem like a kangaroo's pouch.

The most eye-filling Ghibli film on Blu-ray is clearly Tales from Earthsea, a sword-and-sorcery epic based on the Ursula LeGuin books. One could watch the film purely to focus on the artwork and become completely lost in its richness.

The story is a challenge, probably because of difficulties in adaptation from books of this nature into a nearly two-hour film. It starts off with lots of action and plot, presented with such rapidity that it might require running the disc back to keep track. Then the film becomes largely a mood piece in which characters pensively reflect. At the climax, the pace picks up and the loose ends tie together, though it is one of those "Iron Man 3" battle sequences that tend to inspire the "let's just vanquish the villain and get on with it" feeling.

As villains go, though, this one is especially vile and creepy, voiced perfectly on the English soundtrack by Willem DaFoe. An androgynous warlock obsessed with his power and longevity, he is far from a one-note baddie.

This is one Blu-ray for which the word "watch" means literally to "look and enjoy what you see."

Posted on Dec 02 2014 by Greg

If you don't follow animation very closely -- and even if you do -- you have to be a discerning consumer nowadays when choosing some animated films on DVD and Blu-ray. Even the shoddiest animated features can have celebrity voices and might look good based on their packaging.

That's not to say that low-budget features are not worth considering, however. Some high-budget features can emanate fumes, too.The thing to consider is how the filmmakers were able to maximize with what they had.

Such is the case with THE HERO OF COLOR CITY, a new animated feature made by industry veterans that enjoyed a limited run before arriving on video today. It's a warmhearted, entertaining feature with modest pretentions that, like TOY STORY, anthromorphothizes a beloved household plaything: crayons.

"Well, then it's just TOY STORY with crayons, right?" Yes and no. There were several animated films about living toys before TOY STORY, so to call it a rip-off would be hasty without seeing it.

While THE HERO OF COLOR CITY does focus on the familiar theme of "facing your fears" (which also worked nicely in TOY STORY OF TERROR!), COLOR CITY offers a new "box" of characters and a new magical land of colors, in which the bad guys are seeking to add color to themselves at any cost.

What the film has going for it is a story line just absorbing enough to sustain a feature (not an easy nor always successful task), well-cast voices -- including (Owen Wilson, Christina Ricci and the always interesting Craig Ferguson as well as voice acting vets like Jess Harnell, Tara Strong and David Kaye), a pleasant musical score and peppy songs.

This feature does not go for the satiric bite of THE LEGO MOVIE, nor does it make an embarrassing attempt (as a few unfortunate films do). This is a lovely movie for families and kids. And to quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, "All the rest is talk."

One Christmas morning when I was a kid, my Dad gave me a huge box of crayons with activity books. It paled next to the flashier toys and I'll always feel a little bad because I made very little fuss about it upon unwrapping it. But in the ensuing months, that became the gift that kept on giving long after the other gifts lost their luster.

So crack open a 64-pack (with sharpener), open a huge pad of drawing paper and color along.

DVD REVIEW: Sgt Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show Complete Series
Posted on Nov 14 2014 by Greg

Harvey Lembeck, Allan Melvin, Phil Silvers and Dick Van Dyke

The first person to own a personal computer was Phil Silvers.

It was in his head.

The extraordinary actor/comedian had a razor sharp sense of timing and the ability to call upon decades of skill developed in vaudeville and on stage. By the time "Bilko" came along, he could run through routines like a Rolls-Royce.

Silvers, who might also be known to audiences from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," two Disney comedies and the "Hamlet" episode of "Gilligan's Island," was as iconic to TV comedy as Lucille Ball (who has a cameo in a "Bilko" show) and Jackie Gleason.

Watching a master in action is remarkable in itself. But with Bilko, you also get scripts by such writers as Neil Simon and guest roles from Dick Van Dyke (first TV comedy appearance), Alan Alda (first TV acting job) and Oscar winner George Kennedy, who started out as a military consultant and was encouraged by Silvers to join the show in a guest role.

Other recurring roles are played by actors who went on to major series work: Fred Gwynne, Al Lewis, (both of The Munsters); Paul Lynde (Bewitched); Jane Kean (The Honeymooners);  Charlotte Rae (The Facts of Life), Larry Storch (F Troop) and Barbara Barrie (Barbara Barrie).

Bilko's main crew are composed of character actors familiar from hundreds of TV shows, movies and cartoons, like Allan Melvin (All in the Family, The Brady Bunch, Magilla Gorilla, Pufnstuf the Movie), Billy Sands (McHale's Navy) and Harvey Lembeck (the Frankie and Annette movies).

If you love cartoons, this show was a blueprint for many. Daws Butler had a field day with his spot-on Silvers impression for Hokey Wolf (and Top Cat on records). Hanna-Barbera's "Top Cat" was based squarely on "Bilko," right down to the voice of Maurice Gosfield (Doberman on "Bilko") as the voice of Benny.

Among the 142 episodes, there are some true classics among the already fine half hours. My top picks include:

The Twitch (Charlotte Rae)
The Court Martial
The Vampire
Bilko's Formula Seven (Natalie Schaefer)
The Con Men
Platoon in the Movies
The Eating Contest (Fred Gwynne)
It's for the Birds (Fred Gwynne)
Bilko the Art Lover (Alan Alda)
Bilko Presents Ed Sullivan
Bilko Goes 'Round the World
Radio Station B.I.L.K.O.
Show Segments (the cast play themselves)
Bilko Saves Ritzik's Marriage
Bilko's Big Giveaway (Morey Amsterdam)
Guinea Pig Bilko
The Weekend Colonel

Series creator (and great TV comedy writer/producer) Nat Hiken transferred the basic premise (sans Silvers) to a police precinct with his other classic sitcom "Car 54, Where Are You?" starring Gwynne and Joe E. ("ooh! ooh!") Ross, who was again teamed with the explosive Beatrice Pons as a constantly battling couple.

The series' four seasons are sold separately if you don't want to get them all at once. You can start with any season, as there are no story arcs and the characters remain consistent throughout (with the possible exception of Melvin's character of Henshaw, who suddenly becomes the voice of reason in the very last few episodes).

Some of the bonus features were carried over from an earlier DVD release of selected episodes, but this is the first time the whole series has ever been available to own. The features include commentaries by Van Dyke, Storch and Melvin and the original "You'll Never Get Rich" show and interviews with Silvers and his daughters. It's a goldmine worthy of the avarice of Sgt. Bilko himself.

BOOK REVIEW: A Mickey Mouse Reader
Posted on Oct 31 2014 by Greg

In his introduction to A Mickey Mouse Reader, Editor Garry Apgar advises readers to enjoy the book's segments at random, but I didn't follow his suggestions. I found this much more fascinating to read all the way through.

As someone who rarely lets a quality Disney book or research work go by without devouring it, I found it more fun and interesting to see how the Mickey Mouse phenomenon grew from hot new fad to artistic triumph to passť to dismissable to artistic and important over the decades.

Having read many works that have excerpted selections from many of these essays, it was nice to read them in context, because it really drives home the cultural dynamism of Mickey Mouse and the Disney empire, as well as its effect on those who lived through the various eras. Apgar created a fine assemblage of writings that are a good reference for enthusiasts and perhaps an eye-opener for those who can't understand all the fuss about Mickey.

STAGE REVIEW: Ken Levine's "A or B", Falcon Theatre, Los Angeles
Blog, News and Events, Reviews
Posted on Oct 26 2014 by Greg

Imagine watching one play that tells two stories at the same time, following one couple going down two parallel journeys that address workplace romances, human resources and gender equity, all the time keeping the two parallels clear to the audience, the characters consistently believable and identifiable, and the repetitions within the parallels always fresh and inventive.

It all came together in the premiere of a new play by Emmy-winning writer Ken Levine (M*A*S*H, Frasier, Cheers and numerous other "A" series), directed by Andrew Barnicle and starring Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert, who possess just the right timing and chemistry.

It is great experience in more ways than one. Sitting in the Falcon Theatre, founded by TV legend Garry Marshall, seeing a play written by an accomplished TV writer who was inspired by his work is mind-blowing to say the least. "A or B" is in performances now through Nov. 16.

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