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Blog, Movies
Posted on Apr 07 2010 by Greg
When my wife and I married almost 15 years ago, I became more acquainted with very unique world that is New Orleans -- particularly the food. I had not seen very many flattering portrayals of the city in movies and TV (Live and Let Die springs to mind) but it is truly an amazing city with lots of rich history, wonderful people and did I mention food?

Food figures prominently in The Princess and the Frog, since Tiana, the lead character, dreams of opening a great restaurant and fulfilling the wishes of her father. There are more than a few scenes devoted to cooking and cuisine. One scene in particular uses the proper dicing of vegetables for gumbo as a way to bond Tiana and Prince Naveen.

Music is also a core component to both the city and the film and Randy Newman delivered a full "book" score that touches each musical style of the region and add much-needed songs to the recent Disney catalog. My particular favorite is "My Evangeline," a stunningly beautiful ballad sensitively sung by the amazing Jim Cummings (also the voice of Pooh, Tigger, Darkwing Duck and many others). By the way, every speaking actor also sings his or her songs.

There have been those who have expressed comments about what The Princess and the Frog is not, rather that what it is. Perhaps the hopes for Disney's return to hand-drawn animation created overly high expectations, but it's wonderful to see this style executed in such exquisite, classic style. I think it will hold up to the test of time and become a Disney staple.

Don't miss the audio commentary by the directors because they are very generous in their background information as well as generous in giving credit to those involved in the film. It's interesting to note their story about how, when faced with creating an animated feature after the division was all but shuttered, were looking for animation desks and were led to a secret "stash" collected by Christopher (son of Disney Legend Winston) Hibler -- somehow he knew they would be needed.

The Blu-Ray not only offers a more detailed and brilliant image and sound, but there almost a dozen features there that are not included on the regular DVD. Plus you get a download disc so you can watch it on your iPod. Who would have thought such things were possible only a few years ago?

Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 29 2010 by Greg
Released a year after My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service is among the most cheerful and lighthearted of Hayao Miyazaki's Ghibli features. A tween-age witch leaves home for a journey on her own as part of her training, settling in a small fictional town that is somewhat Germanic in look. The storyline is not as intricate as, say, that of Spirited Away, but the characters are no less charming or memorable.

In this Disney-produced English translation (you can watch it subtitled in Japanese at once), Kirsten Dunst's earnest performance reminds me of Pamelyn Ferdin, the go-to young actress of late 60s/early 70s TV and animation. Debbie Reynolds has a small role as a kindly old woman, partnered with Edie McClurg as her housekeeper.

But the scene-stealing role is that of the late Phil Hartman as Jiji, the cat who accompanies Kiki on her journey, making acerbic comments along the way. It only serves to underscore the great loss of a gifted performer and the potential never realized.

One of the most interesting things about Kiki's Delivery Service is the way the general populace reacts to her magical gifts. She belongs to a group of individuals that are not feared, hidden or scorned, but instead treated matter-of-factly. A prime example is a scene in which Kiki's takes off on her broom and a village lady looks on with a "well, what do you know, how interesting" reaction. She doesn't go all "Gladys Kravitz."

This Special Edition issue of the movie is accompanied with a series of short bonus documentaries and an interactive "world of Ghibli" feature.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 28 2010 by Greg
As writer/director Hayao Miyazaki explains on the the new subtitled documentary material on this new Special Edition DVD, he was growing dissatisfied with the creative limits of working in television animation, he wanted to create a gentle, enchanting family feature regardless of the potential for commercial success.

My Neighbor Totoro apparently did not smash box office records on the big screen in 1988, but subsequent TV airings made it one of the most popular and beloved films in Japan (not unlike what happened with the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

Totoro is on the Studio Ghibli movies, an icon status comparable to Mickey Mouse with Disney and Luxo, Jr. with Pixar. But it all started in this film, which in a its second DVD release in the revised Disney English version, which was preceded by an earlier English version released by Fox.

Each Miyazaki feature boasts a voice cast of marquee names as well as top Hollywood voice artists. The "name" talent is seen in brief "behind the microphone" bonus features -- in which you can sometimes also glimpse the strong supporting casts.

Dakota and Elle Fanning turn in superb performances as the young sisters in Totoro, a very crucial element in making the English version work. Also in the cast are Tim Daly as the dad, Lea Salonga as the mom and the wondrous Pat Carroll as the warmhearted Nanny, a sharp constrast to her Ursula character in Disney's The Little Mermaid.

The extraordinary Frank Welker growls as the Totoro himself. Welker, a gifted impressionist who entered voice work as the one and only Fred on Scooby Doo, is perhaps the most heard voice in film and TV today.

The film itself is, to borrow from the Sherman Brothers, lovely and lyrical, filled with breaktaking landscapes and rich characters in a simple, pleasant tale that is a welcome break from the frenetic pace of most current entertainment.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 12 2010 by Greg
Be warned, the theme song of this fanciful epic by the renowned Hayao Miyazaki, who won an Best Animated Film Oscar for Spirited Away (reportedly, even the directors of Lilo and Stitch voted for that film even though their film was in the same competition.

Ponyo, a.k.a. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is perhaps the most innocent and wondrous of Miyazaki's films. It's said to be loosely based on The Little Mermaid (even the DVD package suggest this) but it really only bears a passing resemblance to either the Andersen or Disney versions. Like other Miyazaki films, it tells its own story by its own rules and requires that you allow yourself "into" an almost alternate universe that coexists with a realistic world. Sorry to be so pithy, but it's hard to describe these films adequately. They need to be experienced.

Big name stars perform the dubbed English version and most of them agreed because of their love for the director's previous work.

Among these is Liam Neeson, who appears on camera on one of the bonus features on the two disc set. Tina Fey says she was channeling the movie moms she grew up with. We see the cherished Betty White in recording sessions (she plays one of three ladies in a nursing facility, the other two voiced by Lily Tomlin and Cloris Leachman). Especially remarkable are the performances of young Noah Cyrus (Miley's sister) and Frankie Jonas (the Jonas Brothers' little brother) as the two leads. It's difficult enough to match the voices in an overdubbed foreign language film, it's quite another to add emotion and depth.

My children loved this film. It was their first introduction to Miyazaki, which can be an acquired taste for some. If you enjoy and admire the work of Pixar, you can't deny the extreme (and eagerly credited) influence of Miyazaki on Pixar character development and storytelling in particular.

The two DVD discs also include a storyboarded version of the film and lots of short features about the music, voices, characters and setting of Ponyo.

My only question -- where was the U.S released soundtrack album, including the Cyrus/Jonas version of the song?

EVERYBODY'S FINE...except me, I'm a little verklempt
Blog, Movies
Posted on Feb 16 2010 by Greg
Everybody's Fine is a "people" movie, a study of characters -- both central and peripheral. It's a drama with some comedic elements, heavy on emotion but low on over-the-top histrionics. And depending on where it might hit you in your own life, it can be a real tearjerker, in that good way that makes you think about the important things and discuss them with the important people in your life.

Robert DeNiro gives an understated performance as a father who would not or could not realize he was expressing lifelong disappointment with his children if they were less than "the best." They had spent years hiding any flaws from him and sharing their struggles only with their mother, who had passed several months earlier.

Their stories come together as he travels the country to reconnect. Along the way, British director Kirk Wise (Waking Ned, Nanny McPhee) presents snapshots of interesting characters and fascinating faces, both genial and malevolent.

The part that touched my wife and me most was the technique using children to speak for their grownup counterparts in key sections of the film. DeNiro's character still sees them as school age kids and, through his reveries, so do we. It's not a new technique but it seems to work effectively here and often hits hard in ways that standard confrontational scenes could not. Since our kids are school age and we have parents we want to please too, it made my wife and I think about our own parent/child relationships.

One of the messages of the movie seems to be that it's not too late to pick up the pieces, but you can suffer great losses if you get too distracted and wait too long -- and we all need to take a breath and be more accepting of one another's choices. It's not so much that we should "settle" but rather that there are better ways to measure true success.

My only criticism of the DVD is that there is NO AUDIO COMMENTARY. There are a few extended scenes and a short look at Paul McCartney's involvement in creating a song for the film. A commentary was sorely missed.

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