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Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 01 2012 by Greg
There are certain types of films that provide a good excuse to buy them on Blu-ray. Maybe not something like Paul Blart, Mall Cop (though it is available), but spectacles of scope, color and detail.

Animated features by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki fit this category. As new features are released, you can see them on Blu-ray, and eventually the previous releases will surely be available too.

Three have just been released: one brand new feature, The Secret World of Arriety; a lesser known Studio Ghibli release, Whisper of the Heart; and one renowned Miyazaki landmark, Castle in the Sky. All three are introduced by Disney and Pixar creative chief John Lasseter, perhaps Miyazaki's biggest fan and artistic disciple.

Fans of Pixar who haven't discovered these films should take note of their emphasis on character and story, as well as a flair for visual stylization and detail.

1986's award-winning Castle in the Sky, also known as Laputa, is the most epic of the three and follows most closely the Miyazaki themes of environmental protection, loyalty, gadgetry in a period setting, mythology and brave young protagonists who partner with older characters.

Cloris Leachman steals the film as the voice of Dola, a sort of "Popeye meets Wirchiepoo," who, to quote the movie Network, is "crusty but benign." The young characters follow an arc of confidence and courage and, as in all three films, virtually every scene is a masterpiece of design and detail. (See my earlier DVD review here.)

Whisper of the Heart is somewhat of a departure for those used to the fantastic and bizarre nature of most Ghibli films. Written but not directed by Miyazaki, this is a coming of age story of middle school aged kids and puppy love set in modern day Tokyo.

The city setting is a character in itself. Even though there's no Wonderland-like surrealist environments in Whisper, the nooks and crannies of twisting and turning alleys, meandering streets and urban sprawl take on the feel of a wild labrynth. Urban grime and well-worn living space looks alternately cluttered and somehow breathtaking in their stylized complexity.

The story is, in effect, a variation on The Shop Around the Corner, or if you prefer, You've Got Mail, except in this case, the boy and girl are connected by books rather than letters. What's especially interesting for this and all the Disney/Ghibli releases, are how the English language scripts differ in tone from the Japanese.

Many purists insist on subtitled original language versions because they capture the original tone of the actors, while the English version actors, excellent as they are (outstanding, actually), cannot duplicate the performances exactly when they have a changed script and mouth movements to match. And since translations vary also, you really notice subtle differences if you watch both versions one after the other, as my family did.

The Secret World of Arriety, also adapted by Miyazaki, is the first feature-length animated version of Mary Norton's first book in The Borrowers series. I recall fondly the first version, a live videotaped adaptation for NBC in 1973 starring Eddie Albert and Tammy Grimes with music by Rod McKuen. It's quaint by today's standards, but it is still charming and can be found easily on budget DVDs.

Because I had read the book several times and seen the NBC show even more, the characters and settings were etched in my mind. This animated version, for the most part, adheres to the original.

There are only major changes. One in the more comical take on the housekeeper, named Haru in this version, with a spot-on voice performance by Carol Burnett (who also promoted the film in the media). Her ability to get the most out of a line, while still matching the mouth movements, reminds us of what a peerless master she is.

The other change is in the persona of Pod, Arriety's father -- who is a  plump, generally merry dandy in the book and in Eddie Albert's version -- becomes a rugged Clint Eastwood type. It's an interesting approach but an odd match for the unchanged mother character, Homily. It's as if Race Bannon married Miss Grundy.

A simple household, because of the size and scale of the small Borrowers, is as big as a city, and the artists make full use of it. On the Blu-ray, you can see every leaf yard and almost every molecule in the house.

The Secret World of Arriety is probably the most accessible of the Ghibli features, at least to the uninitiated, and especially recommended for first time viewers of the extraordinary artistry of Miyazaki and his fellow artists.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 01 2012 by Greg
The recent reissue of both The Princess Diaries: 10th Anniversary Edition and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement on a new Blu-ray/DVD package may have been due to nothing more than the titles coming up on the "to be Blu-rayed" list. It may only be coincidental that producer Whitney Houston passed not long ago -- or that Princess Mia, in the second film, wields a bow and arrow (suggesting the upcoming Brave), but that's probably reaching.

According the the generous audio commentaries on both discs (recorded several years ago on previous DVD issues), The Princess Diaries book was purchased by Houston's company and brought to Disney. The wisdom of casting Julie Andrews as the Queen (her first Disney film since Mary Poppins) and Garry Marshall (he of the modern-day Pretty Woman fairytale rom-com) cannot be underestimated.

Marshall has a talent for talent -- casting Anne Hathaway while she was still in her late teens and then a movie unknown. Marshall's movies have a stock company that stretches back as far as his days with The Dick Van Dyke Show, not to mention Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy. His commentary on the first film, likely supplemented by copious notes, is a wall-to-wall comic monologue of moviemaking technique.

Julie Andrews, ironically, takes the My Fair Lady Henry Higgins role in transforming awkward Mia into a princess (ironic because she never played the Eliza Doolittle role on film). To me, she's really training Hathaway to be Julie Andrews, since Dame Julie has made a fine art of presenting herself as the gracious magical movie icon that she is. The first film was also shot at what is now the "Julie Andrews Stage" -- Stage 2 on the Disney lot, the same one where Mary Poppins soared.

Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway share a high tea in their previously-released commentary on the first film. It's especially interesting to hear Hathaway's ambivalence to film acting and her reluctance to wear a swimsuit -- little did she know what stardom (and movie love scenes) were ahead for her.

The second film is perhaps not as cohesive as the first, but how can it be -- how do you follow up a Cinderella story? With a courtship and wedding, in this case, with another "newcomer," Chris Pine, as the garden-variety rom-com guy.

Julie Andrews returns with Garry Marshall for the commentary on the second film, also from an earlier issue. Marshall is less meticulous in his spoken details about this film, but no less enthusiastic. Princess Diaries 2 seems more of a pure children's film (not necessarily a negative thing), with more scope than the first in its fictional Genovia setting, an extended "stair slide" sequence and even a song sung by Dame Julie!

Marshall's directing skills and his ability to surround himself with some of the best production people in Hollywood is evident as you savor the fine photography and staging made more clear on Blu-ray. While both films are frothy confections, they're also beautifully rendered and a joy to experience again.

Blog, TV, Records
Posted on Jun 01 2012 by Greg
Tim Hollis and I met Dick Beals several years ago at a Lum and Abner convention in Arkansas, which featured a radio show reenactment in which he did his famous Speedy voice.

We share his loss with his friends, family and the many fans of his enormous body of voice work for commercials, cartoons and records -- for us, it was especially records.

Dick wrote a book called "Think Big" in which he chronicles his attitude to life and career, and the various "angels" who always seemed to come along to help him when he needed it. Dick was a little person who loved sports perhaps more than anything else, and was proud to call games for his college.

He was low-key and formal, yet very open to answer questions. I asked him about a particularly disturbing Suspense radio show in which he played a person who stayed a child throughout his life. He said he just took a script and did the work and didn't think about it. Professionalism was tantamount to him.

Like many boomers, I also grew up with his voice work on Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but particularly the HBR records: "Pixie & Dixie and Mr Jinks Tell the Story of Cinderella," "Winsome Witch in It's Magic," "Doggie Daddy Tells Augie Doggie the Story of Pinocchio," "The Story of GI Joe" and especially as the singing voice of Jack in "Jack and the Beanstalk" with Gene Kelly.

Recalling Jack and the Beanstalk, the 1967 Hanna-Barbera live action/animated TV special, he wrote that, even though young Bobby Riha sang the Cahn/Van Heusen songs for the capably, it was decided that Dick could sing them better and he looped them after the filming. Riha's stage mother was apparently incensed when Dick went public with that fact, since she was marketing her son as a triple-threat performer. He also wrote that he did initial voice work for Peanuts animation and no one realized he was adult, but when it was discovered, Charles Schulz insisted that the actors be children, nonetheless.

Dick also did a lot of work for Disney, including stints as Chip and/or Dale and Donald's nephews for records and cartoons.

If the voice of Dick Beals brings back memories for you, look for a multi-CD set called Peter Absolute on the Erie Canal in which he plays the lead.

Blog, Movies, TV
Posted on May 06 2012 by Greg
Saw Marvel's The Avengers over the weekend and don't have to even look at the box office -- if it's not #1, it will be very surprising. The whole family enjoyed it thorougly, especially since we've been watching how the other recent Marvel films weave the storylines together. (Don't miss the very last scene after the end credits!)

But as every baby boomer knows, there was another Avengers. It was the only imported TV series to ever become a major primetime hit without being recrafted for American TV (like, say, The Office or All in the Family). The British producers of The Avengers, starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, made the show specifically to appeal U.S. audiences by presenting an England that Americans imagined, from James Bondian fantasy/adventure to dotty eccentrics, quaint villages and sweeping countrysides.

This version of the TV show was actually the third version. The first was a live crime drama starring Ian Hendry as a crimefighting doctor with Macnee in a more mysterious incarnation of secret agent John Steed. Hendry left the show to pursue movies and instead of replacing him with another man, the producers created a landmark icon by bringing in Honor Blackman as a strong, feminine crimefighting sidekick for Steed.

If that kind of female character seems commonplace today, that's because it was done many times since then. But The Avengers did it first. Even ABC's Honey West was the result of a American TV bigwig seeing the British series and doing an American "tribute" to it a year before it hit the states.

Honey West lasted a season. The following year, Britain's shiny, colorful Avengers came across the pond and was a sensation -- and a breakout for Blackman's replacement (she had gone into movies, too).

Diana Rigg was -- and still is -- a Shakespearean actor of extraordinary talent and astonishing beauty. Every actor who's donned a catsuit since Dame Diana owes her a curtsey. Some of these performers have done quite well (including, I must say, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow).

Some don't quite reach the heights of Ms. Rigg as the unforgettable Emma Peel. And I don't mean to slight her successors: I adore the wonderful Linda Thorson (who is too often unappreciated) and the infinitely versatile Joanna Lumley (who had a hit series of her own with Absolutely Fabulous).

The Avengers was also made into a movie. Although there were plans to film a feature with Rigg and Macnee, it never happened, but an unsuccessful film with Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes came and went in 1988.

There's room in this world for two Avengers and we're all the more fortunate to enjoy both.

But of course, there's only one Steed.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Apr 13 2012 by Greg
War Horse started as a children's novel in 1982 that more recently became an acclaimed stage show, a BBC radio drama and of course, it gets the full Steven Spielberg treatment in this Best Picture Oscar nominated epic. It's a DreamWorks film, and all of the studio's live action films are released by Walt Disney Pictures.

The film combines elements of the book and the stage production, but unlike the other versions, it is not told completely from the viewpoint of Joey, the horse, whose literal narration would not work as well in a film -- but the skill of the trainer, horse and director bring out remarkable "acting" in the lead equestrian

War Horse the movie is perhaps the most Disneyesque motion picture to come from director Spielberg. Especially in its opening segment, taking place in the rugged, breathtaking landscape of Devon, suggests the Disney sagas of yore such as The Three Lives of Thomasina, Darby O' Gill and especially the films Walt Disney produced entirely in the U.K.

It's very intense at times, since it is a war film, but the war scenes are heavy on spectacle and light on gore. The most difficult scene to watch, at least in our house, was the fate of the two very young German soldiers, which takes place on camera (and shot in a very evocative way at sunrise in the face of a windmill).

Every shot of War Horse is an experience in expert composition, art direction, authenticity and often understated acting. Spielberg, as seen in the very generous bonus materials, is an extremely collaborative filmmaker and knows how to best utilize the best talent in front and behind the lens, from the superb cast to the stirring music of longtime collaborator John Williams.

Rather than have an audio commentary or a simultaneous online compliment to the film itself, the second disc in this four-disc combo is loaded with background material, including a feature length documentary about the making of the film and several shorter items about specific collaborators. Spielberg himself hosts a short round table on camera with members of the cast and crew.

Storywise, War Horse suggests an earlier British children's classic, Black Beauty, in that is chronicles the various owners, friends and foes of one particular horse, with a grand coincidence to tie it together. I have to say -- without a trace of irony or sarcasm -- that it also reminds me, in part, of the song "Snoopy's Christmas," in which the WWI Flying Ace and the Red Baron suspend their deadly battle for a brief time because of a shared affinity (you'll know which scene I'm referring to if you saw the film already).

Since Spielberg and his creative team has meticulously crafted such a sweeping, magnificent film, it follow that it's particularly nice to see it on Blu-ray, which brings out every crag in the rugged countryside and the sheer size of the battle scenes, as well as some very lovely moments at a French country home.

This is the kind of movie that folks say isn't made anymore and can be a rich experience to share with family and friends.

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