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BLU-RAY REVIEW: Into the Woods
Blog, Movies, Music
Posted on Apr 21 2015 by Greg

Gene Kelly was once asked why musicals were no longer a staple of modern movies and he said something to the effect that “no one knows how to make them anymore.” (This was a short time after he appeared in Xanadu. Today, only a precious few know how to do it: the producers and director of Into the Woods.


This is as close as any contemporary movie has come to making a musical that most audiences can see—the caveat being that Into the Woods is a mature twist on fairy tale characters and not for the purist or the very young. Disney toned down the sequences with Red Riding Hood and the Wolf as well as the Baker’s Wife and Prince Charming to the point that things are very obtuse.


That all said, Into the Woods has a lot of comedy, one of Sondheim’s most melodic scores and a brisk pace (kudos to director Rob Marshall for that). And to be fair to the subject matter, one can watch the network series Once Upon a Time and see the evil Queen pulling hearts out of her victims and a naked-under-the-sheets Show White and Prince Charming interrupted in the middle of, as my dad used to call it, “spoo-ja-doo,” only to exuberantly resume after their company leaves.


A lot of attention has been awarded to the biggest stars of the film, so let’s focus on others who also deliver remarkable performances—no mean feat in a musical film, especially one with the challenging music and lyric structure of Sondheim.

James Corden is the emotional center of the film and the character with whom the audience most connects; Christine Baranski makes every syllable and gesture count as always as one of the big screen’s best evil Stepmothers and Tracey Ullmann brings superb comic timing to a somewhat thankless role (she and Baranski could have played any number of roles in this musical). As one of the stepsisters, the astonishing Tammy Blanchard makes one forget she also played Karen Carpenter and Judy Garland. Even Hagrid’s girlfriend turns up as the Giant’s Wife.


Once again, a modestly-budgeted movie proves that less money and tight time frames (and less indulegence) can result in fine, profitable films. The art direction and costuming has a painterly quality, very much as if it came from an Arthur Rackham book.


What Into the Woods is not is cozy and comfy. Yes, there are songs like “No One is Alone” that offer solace and reassurance, it’s almost an anti-fairy tale in the familiar sense (the original fairy tales were quite dark). Many, many messages flow out of the lyrics: “Life can be unpleasant you should know,” “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” and “Nice doesn’t always mean good.”


The Blu-ray contains an audio commentary (thank you!) and several interesting behind-the-scenes vignettes, making this a fine package, especially when combined with the deluxe edition of the soundtrack (with all the songs and music).

DVD REVIEW: Paddington Bear Collectors Edition
Blog, Reviews, TV
Posted on Feb 13 2015 by Greg

With the popularity of Paddington in movie theaters, Mill Creek must have struck gold by releasing this DVD set of the little bear's two fine TV series set. The good news is that great value with excellent content.

The complete 1975 stop-motion British animated TV series is presented, along with three specials. It was produced by Filmfair, which also made the clever short cartoon series, "Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings" that you may remember as a Captain Kangaroo cartoon segment or a Saturday Night Live spoof with Mike Myers.

Each of the 56 episodes of this series runs about five minutes and is unique in that Paddington and his immediate props are three-dimensional puppets while the other characters are "replacement animation" cutouts that had been draws in various poses, then cut out, positioned and replaced for each of its movements, which are minimal. The background all have a papery hand-drawn look as well, very much as if the book has come to life.

While these are very low-budget cartoons and the catchy theme music tends to become overused, they're not short on charm. The short length allows for very simple stories that are very faithful to the books but not necessarily word-for-word adaptations. Legendary British actor Michael Hordern (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Slipper and the Rose) is perfection as the narrator.

The three specials are about 20-25 minutes each. The highlight -- and reason alone to check out this set -- is the first special, Paddington Goes to the Movies, in which the little bear duplicates Gene Kelly's dance from "Singin' in the Rain" as the soundtrack plays!

The third disc contains 13 episodes from the 2008 Canadian/ French cel-animated series, previously aired on PBS and various cable channels. This series is more contemporary than the earlier one, with light jazz music that includes a larger variety of themes and several amusing songs. Each half hour show contains two segments that take several of Michael Bond's stories and expand upon them. Perhaps not as traditional at the 1975 series, this version is more akin to what currently runs on TV for young children.

This is a wonderful way to gear up for the day when the recent hit movie hits the store shelves.

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.

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