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"Howl" overwhelms and "Totoro" charms in new lives
Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 02 2013 by Greg
In their new lives as Blu-ray discs, two of the all-time best Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli animated features have finally arrived. It's a celebration for those of us who couldn't wait to enjoy them in the infinite detail of high def.

1988's "My Neighbor Totoro," last released on DVD in 2006, is a refreshingly gentle film with compelling characters and a deceptively simple storyline. Even though it seems to amble along, there is an undercurrent of unease -- not from any genuine threat, but from a mother's illness, unexpected adventures and most of all, the treasure of childhood innocence.

Elle Fanning voices Disney's English language version of 4-year old Mei, a very real little tot who pouts as well as laughs, radiates energy one moment and slips into weary sleep the next. (Coincidentally, she is playing Aurora in the forthcoming "Maleficent.")

I have never, ever seen a realistic child depicted in an animated film quite as perfectly as Mei. She is the essence of the joy in life's simplest things. My favorite moments aren't so much the far-flung fantasy as Mei's elation at rolling on the lawn or wiggling a rotten porch post. Everything is new and potentially magical to her.

Her older sister Satsuki, voiced by real-life older sister Dakota Fanning, is approaching what the Sherman Brothers called "The Age of Not Believing," yet she still revels in the world through Mei's eyes. Her father, voiced with warmth and restraint by Tim Daly, models the fact that adulthood need not abandon childhood fascination and fancy. Providing nuanced support is Pat Carroll as Granny.

The fantasy builds in a subtle, matter-of-fact way, becoming more of a reality as the real world becomes more complex. After a while, it seems perfectly acceptable that an invisible catbus exists, even though some cannot see it. The film is as accepting of the fantastic as the children are -- no lengthy explanations or exposition -- these things are just so, that's all.

Seeing the film on Blu-ray isn't so much an exploration of dazzle as it is a new way to see the simplicity without any interference from the limits of videotape, broadcast or regular DVD. This is sweet stuff, but sweet in a good way.

In this edition, all of the bonus features are on the Blu-ray, not the DVD.

Blu-ray & DVD include:
English version
French version
Japanese version

Blu-ray-only Bonus Features:
Original Japanese Storyboards
Creating My Neighbor Totoro
Creating the Characters
The Totoro Experience
Producers' Perspective: Creating Ghibli
The Locations of Totoro
Scoring Miyazaki
Original Japanese Trailer
Behind the Microphone

My family especially loves watching 2004's Oscar nominated "Howl's Moving Castle" over and over again. Second only to "Spirited Away," this is a household staple standing out in a sea of viewing options.

As adapted by Miyazaki from the book by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl (voice of Christian Bale) is a melancholy young wizard (considered a heartthrob by some of the book's fans) who lives in a castle with doors that open into completely different locales. A young boy and a fire spirit (Billy Crystal) are among his few companions.

Into his life comes Sophie (Emily Mortimer), a young haberdasher transformed into an old woman (Jean Simmons) by the selfish, corpulent Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall, voicing her second animated role). These are characters that all follow their own arcs with twists and turns aplenty.

"Howl's Moving Castle" is a spectacular viewing experience, rich in sweeping panoramas and astonishing detail, even for a Miyazaki film. You just cannot see it all in one sitting.

Pop in the Blu-ray and take a look at the scene in which Sophie enters Howl's chambers, infinitely adorned in glistening jewels, spinning objects and undulating formations. You can't even be sure how deep the space is -- seeing it in 3-D would only literalize it. Once the film was announced on Blu-ray, this is the scene I most wanted to see and it did not disappoint.

Blu-ray & DVD include:
English version
French version
Japanese version

Blu-ray-only Bonus Feature
Original Japanese Storyboards

Blu-ray & DVD Bonus Features

Behind the Microphone
Interview with Pete Docter (coproducer of the English version with Rick Dempsey)
Hello Mr. Lassiter: Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar
TV Spots and Trailers

DVD Review: Foodfight! misfires beyond imagination
Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 02 2013 by Greg
Foodfight! (2003)
With the voices of: Charlie Sheen, Hilary Duff, Eva Longoria, Wayne Brady, Christopher Lloyd, Ed Asner, Chris Kattan, Larry Miller, Christine Baranski, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Lawrence Kasanoff

But it's too easy to take a production like Foodfight! and lob snarky comments at it. Okay, just one. The characters in this film over-move, like Ed Grimley on that Saturday Night Live sketch when he found out he was going to meet Pat Sajak.

Snark is too easy. Figuring out how it happened is almost unfathomable. Let's start with the premise, which is something like those Warner cartoons in which a grocery store came to life after hours and the products sang and danced on the shelves.

In this case, the aisles become like multi-national city streets. The lead character (voiced by Charlie Sheen either within a very short one-take recording session or deliberately to sound cool and detached) is a cross between Indiana Jones and McGruff the Crime Dog.

All of the primary characters are fictional product icons, while a procession of actual food and grocery item characters, including Mister Clean, Charlie the Tuna and Mrs. Butterworth make cameos. Endless images of real logos and packages make appearances throughout. Perhaps the idea was to have the product placement cover the budget.

But the budget and the whole production were apparently a total bust. The film was eventually put up for auction and got a limited release overseas, even though it was finished in 2003.

Much of it doesn't even look finished -- characters and objects shake, overlap and often don't look anchored in their settings. The characters don't seem in scale with each other, nor from scene to scene.

The creepy villains look grotesque, but so do some of the "nice" characters -- like the evil Mister X and the grocery store manager. Even the copyrighted characters are mere shadows of their former selves as we saw them in commercials. All seem made of PVC and have eyes like marbles.

There are moments in which one might glimpse at what could have been. The premise is kind of clever and there are some amusing moments, like an army of ketchup tanks, along with some spectacular graphics of the cityscape. The concrete objects far exceed the "living ones" in design and execution.

But the script is splattered with lines like "What the fudge!" "You cold-farted itch!" and famous tag lines that might have worked if used more judiciously. And you can look forward to flatulence and a long-playing belch.

I don't like to dump on movie misfires when they're often the product of hard work by good people. And some of these films are fascinating, even likable, despite how the don't, or didn't, work. Often there's more to learn from misses than from hits.

The credits for Foodfight! include some of the best talent in the business. I cannot imagine everyone who was brought into this project had any idea what might have been going on behind the scenes, nor how the "final" film would turn out.

The DVD itself, with a picture image showing quite a bit of contrast, does not include any bonus features, except for some trailers -- including one for Top Cat - The Movie.

Getting a great reception for "Perception"
Blog, TV
Posted on May 31 2013 by Greg

One of the things television has done best is give us some of the smartest, snappiest mystery series in any form. Like good  page turners, they don't change the world, but they're infinitely entertaining when everything falls into place -- the mysteries and the series components.

This is true of "Perception," an ABC Studios series that airs on TNT. It isn't the first show of its kind, nor will it be the last, but it's among the best thanks to its cast, writing and production values. Filmed in Canada (as many cable shows are, but perhaps also so that star Eric McCormack can go home nights), you can spot familiar Canadian TV favorites in various shows, like SCTV's Dave Thomas.

McCormack is spot-on in a role that calls for his blend of familiarity and complexity. Though he works with a fine supporting cast, this is his show to carry on his own and he runs with it. When his Dr. Daniel Pierce is teaching his college students, coming to a "I know who did it" moment or getting on one of his soapboxes about big companies and secret conspiracies, he's the stage-trained Shakespearean.

When his character is grappling with his mental difficulties in connecting with people, hiding from group events or chatting with imaginary people, he's subtle and introspective. He's never goes full up Shatner nor downward to Michael J. Pollard.

He's also the kind of actor that is perfect for television, like Bill Bixby is his heyday, who always seemed to have a major or moderate series success. He makes a difficult character likable and relatable. Pierce won't take his meds, or really open up to Kate, or accept himself, or etc., yet the integrity of McCormack invests him with hope, charm and humor.

Rachael Leigh Cook plays the daughter of a retired cop who was a student of Pierce's. She's doesn't play Moretti too hard or overly assertive just because of what she does for a living, as is commonly shown on TV and movies. She has strength without losing her sense of irony, she can focus on the job (and has the most difficult expositional lines to deliver) and come across as a whole person.

LeVar Burton, who cannot be anything less than excellent, is a delightful blend between Linda Edelstein's Cuddy on "House" and David White's Larry Tate on Bewitched. He seizes opportunities to promote his campus -- and Pierce -- yet has to deal with the challenges inherent in the system and his most distinguished faculty member. Having attended colleges, I can believe a Daniel Pierce can exist, while it's a bit of a stretch that Dr. Gregory House kept his job as long as he did (though I loved that show, too).

You might chuckle at some of the tried and true TV whodunit standby lines and how this show, like most fantasy mystery shows, play hard and fast with the real rules of general behavior, business decorum, legal issues and medical procedures.

After watching a few shows it's difficult to avoid getting captivated by the arc of the show, in the same manner as House and Monk drew viewers in. And like "Columbo," it's a blast to follow the clues and enjoy the twists.

The show also plays with your head the way Hitchcock did. Pierce's condition finds him interacting with people who aren't there. Some scenes resemble Dean Jones arguing with an invisible Peter Ustinov in "Blackbeard's Ghost." But we as viewers aren't always sure if we're seeing real people or even real events.

The only way it falls short of "Columbo" is that it is more explicit in its treatment of violence, and occasionally sex, its present day need to be contemporary. Perhaps "Columbo" might have had to be like this if it were on today.

My wife, 13-year-old son and I watched all ten shows, some twice -- which is unusual for a mystery series. Can't wait for Season 2 to start on June 25.


1. Pilot (July 9, 2012)
Superb liftoff for the series, establishing the characters of Dr. Pierce, Kate Moretti, Max, Haley and others; not an easy task because there's a lot to set up in addition to a crisp corporate pharmaceutical mystery to solve.

2. Faces (July 16, 2012)
A trail of deception and mistaken identity is connected with a witness who is unable to distinguish faces.

3. 86'd (July 23, 2012)
A brain damaged victim who perpetually lives the same day in 1986 is the key to a unsolved serial killer case that resurfaces after over two decades.

4. Cipher (July 30, 2012)
Daniel follows a challenging trail of puzzling codes to locate a killer bent on revenge for corporate manipulation.

5. The Messenger (August 6, 2012)
Skillfully written and acted episode about a young man who believes he can talk to God, while nonbeliever Daniel thinks it's really a life-threatening brain condition.

6. Lovesick (August 20, 2012)
This episode is probably the closest this generally cerebral cable series comes to network style voyeurism; the victim is a controversial therapist whose treatments have dramatically affected the lives of his patients and those in their lives, so parental discretion advised.

7. Nemesis (August 27, 2012)
Daniel thinks the FBI has incorrectly identified a schizophrenic as the prime suspect in a murder, putting Moretti at odds with a stern new administrator, whom she wants to impress. Daniel also tells Moretti about his condition in this episode.

8. Kilimanjaro (September 3, 2012)
A brain-damaged football player, a mysterious troubled student, and one of the former stars of the Narnia films figure into the murder of a young coed.

9. Shadow (September 10, 2012)
Daniel can't verify the reality of a source who sets him on the trail of a murder connected to a rigged election and an ambitious secret society. Nice to see SCTV legend Dave Thomas in a small role, but Stephen plays hallucinated JFK more like a somber Regis Philbin (but maybe that's how Daniel perceives him).

10. Light (September 17, 2012)
Daniel, now committed to an institution, learns that he is right about the murdered informant but also meets a doctor who resembles his closest companion, Natalie.

Walt Disney reference in latest Mickey Mouse DVD
Blog, TV
Posted on May 28 2013 by Greg
The nicest thing about the new "Quest for the Crystal Mickey" DVD collection of episodes from "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" is that Disney fans might notice a little nod to Walt himself.

I won't give it away, but I will give a clue that it has something to do with Walt's early career and Mickey's name in the signature episode.

"Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" is a preschooler CG series along the lines of "Blue's Clues" and "Dora the Explorer." Regular cast Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy and Pluto share a basic storyline with visits from other Disney favorites like Ludwig Von Drake, Chip 'n Dale, Clarabelle Cow and Pete, who serves as a villain or just a misguided soul.

"The Quest for the Crystal Mickey" epsode boasts probably the most intricate of all the plots, but that's okay since kids love the repetition and parents can catch the mild in-jokes (it's not quite as edgy as Sesame Street).

A friendly gadget called Toodles provides objects in each episode that help solve the problem. There's always a mystery tool that is revealed near the end. Kids can follow Mickey and the gang and help them figure things out, also doing some counting, colors, shapes, concepts and things like that.

One of two original songs highlight each episode. There's also a nice soundtrack album on CD or download on amazon and iTunes.

Some may find this a watered-down version of Mickey, but it's a great way for very young children to get to know the characters on an everyday TV basis rather than waiting for the occasional cartoon (as it was in my day).

Mickey Mouse should mean more to kids than just being a corporate icon and theme park greeter. For a long time, that's pretty much what he was, though that's okay for some. Children saw him in merchandise and his basic shape clearly appeals to them. But I like that kids are relating to him as a character, he same way they do to other preschool TV characters.

The overall theme seems to be grand adventures in faraway lands, but each episode was obviously chosen to focus on a different learning skill as well.

Episode 60 (Season 2)
Goofy's Coconutty Monkey
October 5, 2009
Goofy's monkey friend wants to have a party but first everyone helps find the missing coconuts.

Episode 74 (Season 3)
Goofy's Giant Adventure
May 9, 2011
Willie the giant (from the "Mickey and the Beanstalk" segment of the Disney animated feature "Fun and Fancy Free" needs help from the gang in this story.

Episode 75 (Season 3)
Donald of the Desert
May 8, 2010
Donald finds a genie lamp and learns the wisdom of the old phrase, "be careful what you wish for."

Episode 98 (Season 3)
Donald the Genie
October 18, 2010
Donald becomes a genie himself in this story.

Episode 121 (Season 4)
Quest for the Crystal Mickey
March 8, 2013
Pete has stolen the Crystal Mickey in the this episode from the most recent season and its disappearance threatens to make the Clubhouse disappear.

Curious thing about the opening words at Disney's Haunted Mansion...
Blog, TV, Parks
Posted on May 23 2013 by Greg
Through sight and sound and faceless terror
Through endless corridors by trial and error
Ahead a blazing light does burn
And one door leads to the point of return.

These are the opening words at the Haunted Mansion at Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, right?

No, these are the words the Ghost Host (Paul Frees) speaks:

When hinges creak in doorless chambers
And strange and frighening sounds echo through the halls
Whenever candlelights flicker and the air is deathly still
That is the time when ghosts are present
Practicing their terror in ghoulish delight.

What about the other words? They seem so similar.

Dark Shadows fans will immediately recognize the verse as part of the infamous Dream Curse, one of the story arcs in the popular ABC daytime horror/fantasy soap opera. It's not considered one of the best storylines in the series, as it's a pretty cheesy plot (and I really like the show). The dreams are kind of funny rather than terrifying and they begin on Volume 7 of the Dark Shadows Collection DVD series.

The first time viewers heard these words were on April 24, 1968. The Haunted Mansion opened on August 9, 1969. Could the Disney Imagineers been influenced by a hit TV show that a lot of people were watching over a year before the attraction opened?

I couldn't say, but it's pretty interesting, no?

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