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Posted on Aug 06 2009 by Greg

There have been so many Pooh-related feature films, direct-to-video films and television series that it's getting difficult to keep track of them (word is that there is another theatrical feature in the works). To the best of my recollection, The Tigger Movie was produced by the television division but was very successful in its theatrical release and was followed up with Piglet's Big Movie.

This is actually quite a nice film. The amazing thing about these characters is how flexible they are for so many stories. The plot here revolves around Tigger's family background and his search for his "family tree." The animation, apparently done in Japan, is very fluid and suggestive of the earlier films -- and the domestic artists behind it are among the best in the business, including Floyd Norman and Toby Bluth.

John Fiedler, as Piglet, is the one remaining cast member from the original films, with Jim Cummings voicing Pooh and Tigger and none other than John Hurt taking over the narration from Sebastian Cabot.

It sure is nice to see "Songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman" in the credits. This was technically their last film for Disney, though its success surely should have resulted in others. My favorite of their songs is "Round My Family Tree," but they all have the delicate charm of their other Pooh songs. They also collaborated with Kenny Loggins on "Your Heart Will Lead You Home," which got a lot of airplay.

The DVD offers a handful of bonus features -- several games, mostly, plus a storybook version read by the great Corey Burton and a digital copy. But it is particularly good to see two short episodes from the Emmy-winning New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh series. Each episode relates to the plot of the feature. Wouldn't it be great if the series was packaged season-by-season on DVD? Hmm?

Posted on Jun 25 2009 by Greg

I have to confess that I really enjoyed Confessions of a Shopaholic. My daughter said the whole family would, and while there was some language, here is a contemporary romantic comedy pretty much as squeaky clean as a Doris Day movie -- maybe more so, since some of those hinted more than this one did.

Isla Fisher (Borat's real-life fiancee) channels Lucille Ball in a story improbable enough for Mr. Peabody, about a young woman who searches not so much for romance, but for a way to get more credit cards for the endless temptation in New York shop windows (sporting cleverly animated mannequins who are know her only too well).

Like Lucy Ricardo, she schemes to meet not Cornel Wilde, but the editor of a chic fashion magazine. Oopsy-daisy, she gets a job by mistake with a business publication that just happens to be edited by the guy who played British-accented Prince Char in Ella Enchanted. She weaves a web of complications that involve a marvelous supporting cast including John Goodman as his warmhearted best as Dad and Joan Cusack at her lovably kooky best as Mom.

Fred Armisen, known to Saturday Night Live viewers as President Obama's doppleganger, basically plays Larry Tate with John Lithgow as a McMann & Tate, re-create the business dynamic of almost any Bewitched episode (and all-too-commonly, real corporate life).

Confessions is as much a fairy tale comedy as Enchanted was, with Fisher looking like remarkably like Amy Adams and leading man Hugh Dancy as a less robust Patrick Dempsey. It's all very entertaining, candy-colored and gentle in its message of What Really Counts In Life.

My only issue is the lack of an audio commentary among the sparse bonus extras. To make up for it, you're invited to click here for a bonus video that is not on the DVD about designer Patricia Field, and enjoy this interview with Isla Fisher:

Are you a Shopaholic?
No I am not a Shopaholic, I don’t shop very well at all. I tend to buy things which end up not being quite right – whether it is a clothing item that does not match anything in my wardrobe, or some cooking apparatus that is utterly useless. I am just not that good at it.

Are you an impulse buyer?
I usually go into a store with a mission. My idea of a fun thing to do would not be to go to a mall and shopping.

In what way did you identify with the character in “Confessions of a Shopaholic”?
I identified with her in the sense that I would like to think that I am optimistic and energetic like she is. I would also like to think that I have a big heart, like Rebecca has. I don’t need to always identify with all the characteristics of my character, sometimes it is the differences that help you to lose your inhibitions when you are performing.

How did you make Becky so funny?
Becky can be a goofball and very funny and I have always felt comfortable tapping into my inner idiot. I have a side of me that doesn’t care. I really enjoy physical comedy, thinking of an idea and pitching it to the director.  For example there is one scene in the movie in which I do a fan dance with Hugh. I thought of that years ago, I always imagined how funny it would be to have a scene in a movie where a girl seduces a guy by dancing.  She thinks she is really sexy but actually she is repulsive. So I went to [director] PJ [Hogan] and suggested it to him and he said ‘oh I always have a dance in my movies, ok let’s do it.’

How tricky was it to do the scene when you dive across the boardroom table?
The scene was quite well planned…where my knees were going to go, where the props are…it was very specific. I slid safely and I wore kneepads. I made it look more dramatic than it was.

Jerry Bruckheimer describes you as the next Lucille Ball, what is like getting compliments like that? 
That is very nice of Jerry to say that and also slightly terrifying to fill those shoes. But wow, I love her, she is very funny and fantastic.  I grew up watching “I Love Lucy.

You seemed to have no trouble with the American accent for “Confessions of a Shopaholic”?
I was given a dialect coach on the film, which was a great luxury.

What was your favorite outfit in “Confessions of a Shopaholic”?
I liked the purple dress that Rebecca wears on the TV show – I thought it was classy. But I am not too into fashion because I am more of a jeans and T-shirt girl. Thanks to Patricia Field I have become more confident about the way I dress. But I am more comfortable in trainers or Ugg boots.

Is it true you requested five-inch stilettos for this part?
I did. I thought there's something funny about a Shopaholic impractically buying ridiculously high heels and tottering throughout the stores. I thought it would be amusing. But it was less amusing, of course, when I was actually doing it! Walking in them was tricky but they were so great for the character. They put her off balance and Rebecca is off balance because she doesn’t have a sense of who she is. At the start of the movie she does not know where she is going to end up.

Did your feet ache at the end of each day?
Yes! My feet ached constantly, they really did! In my every day life I would not wear shoes like those.

You do a lot of physical comedy in the role, so how was that?
The great thing about doing physical comedy for film is that if it doesn't work you're not exposed. It ends up on the editing room floor, so it gives you a lot more room to experiment I guess. But I really enjoy doing it. I'm very comfortable tapping into my inner idiot.

What was the most embarrassing thing to shoot?
It's interesting but when I'm in character I don't really feel any embarrassment. In real life I'm obviously a lot more shy, but once I'm on set and in costume and I'm hidden behind the person I'm playing I feel quite free to experiment. Except for Hugh [Dancy] probably, when I slapped him in the face with a fan.

Playing journalists seems to be quite a popular career choice for actors. How much did you enjoy it and what kind of research did you do?
My girlfriend from high school is a journalist so I spoke to her. But I also researched the shopping end of the character by visiting some overspend/under earner groups who essentially are Shopaholics and who, rather sadly, their lives have essentially become unmanageable because of their shopping addiction. But I don't want to focus on that side of it because the film is supposed to be escapist fun.

How was working with costume designer Patricia Field on your wardrobe?
She's incredibly imaginative. She's not married to any designers and she's open minded. Every single look tells a story. I really enjoyed working with her. I'm not a Fashionista. I don't have much experience in that world, but I felt I was kind of educated in the end and that even my own fashion style is now sort of braver. I enjoy dressing a lot more.

What are your shopping temptations?
Books... and more recently cook books. I think its wish fulfillment. I never have time to cook, so I just look through the books and imagine the dishes I would make if I wasn't going out for a business dinner.

You're part of a very famous comedy couple [with fiancé Sacha Baron Cohen], so how advantageous is that in terms of advising or testing each other? Or do you keep work separate?
Well actually Sacha was the reason I got into comedy. I was actually auditioning for a lot of dramatic roles and having no success at all. I was losing confidence in my abilities when he recommended that I do comedy. He felt I was really funny, so when someone as funny as him recommends that I listened and actually auditioned for “Wedding Crashers”, which ended up being my big break.

Which one of the two of you will be the first to do a dramatic role?
Oh gosh, I have no idea. I don't know. He's definitely a lot funnier than me.

Did it feel like you were actually taking on a novel hero with this. She obviously has a big fan base already and were you worried about the reaction from fans?
Extremely worried. When you're in the lead of a movie suddenly you're more responsible for the tone of the film and there's obviously the added pressure of taking on such a beloved character. But I was so fortunate in that I was truly the biggest fan of Sophie Kinsella's books. It's going to sound pretentious, but I'd had the vibrations of that character since I'd read it in my imagination. When I met with Jerry and discussed the role, I was so lucky he chose me, and then I just thought about it every day, in everything I did, whether I was driving my car, or cooking. Whatever I was doing, I was thinking about Becky Bloomwood and what she would be thinking. So, that's how I began.

What are you doing next?
I'm working on an animated movie that Gore Verbinski is directing, called “Rango” with Johnny Depp. It has a really nice schedule and a very creative experience. Normally with an animated movie you are in a booth and it is very sterile but Gore has us all acting out the scenes and he films it and then you go into the booth while the performance is still fresh in your mind and you repeat it. I have also been working on ideas for a couple of projects…Cookie Queen and Groupies. Groupies is about two girls who are in love with a rock band but the band has a restraining order out on them. Cookie Queen is a girl who sold the most Girl Scout cookies and built her entire adult life round that. Then a nine year old girl overtakes her record and the woman descends into madness as she starts selling cookies again to get her crown back. I sold Girl Scout cookies in Australia, but, as I recall, I ate most of my box. My mom had to bail me out.

You have traveled a lot. Do you think it is in your genes since you were born in Oman?
That is probably fairly accurate because we traveled a lot when I was a kid and I have probably always lived a nomadic existence and I am comfortable doing that.

Posted on Jun 18 2009 by Greg
Yes, it's 'way too groovy for it's own good but the original 1970 movie version of PUFNSTUF got a kicky Charles Fox score and shotgun editing that puts Moulin Rouge to shame. Plus a performance by Billie Hayes as Witchiepoo with such total unbridled abandon that little of the scenery is left without teeth marks.

It was produced at a breakneck pace by the Kroffts themselves for less than a million dollars and made a profit. While it's as technically cheesy as their TV shows, the movie benefits from a few more dollars for sets, costumes and casting. And it's actually very amusing, especially during the witch's convention.

It's interesting to compare Martha Raye's performance as Boss Witch to that of her Benita Bizarre character on the TV series THE BUGALOOS. On the latter, she plays is much more broad since she's the lead villain and essentially the "Witchiepoo" of that show. In "Pufnstuf," watch the experience of a seasoned pro as she underplays and gives the floor (and the rest of the set) to Billie Hayes. The two have great comic chemistry even though they only have a few scenes together. Hayes and Mama Cass Elliot are fun as witchy rivals, too.

Being stuck in 1970, the feature's camera work has more zooms than a whole season of THE JEFFERSONS, lots of jump cuts, processed negatives and moving frames, used to much more subdued effect in other movies of the same period like A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN (the baseball sequence), WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (several Oompa Loompa songs) and even BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (the flight scenes) that were infuenced by the pop art styles of the day. Ironically the editing that seemed so jarring then seems more timely now.

One question I have always had about the movie though: does Jimmy get home at the end or not? He sings a reprise of "A Friend in Me" and we see a shot of him on a rope swing from the "real world" for an instant before we see the cast sing the finale of "Living Island." Wha---? Maybe they were counting on a sequel. Or maybe Jimmy was imagining the whole thing and never left the real world at all so the two worlds co-existant. Hmm, I even asked Marty Krofft himself and he didn't seem to know or wouldn't tell me.

You have to take Krofft productions for what they are, very quickly made with minimal budgets by lots of hard working artists and casts, and appreciate them on their own level. Pufnstuf is their crown jewel -- as a TV show it was lavish, as a movie, well, not so much, but still lots of kiddie matinee fun. Somehow I wonder, if a new big-screen, multi-million-dollar version of Pufnstuf comes around, if it will have the charm.

By the way, the wonderful musical soundtrack album is on CD here, but be warned that there is some strange editing that makes some short sections repeat, I guess to lengthen the album. Might be better to find a vinyl version on eBay.

Posted on Jun 10 2009 by Greg

Who would have thought, back a few years ago, when there was much ado going on at the top of the Disney Organization, that the above words would actually appear on a Walt Disney Pictures release?

Morning Light is the true chronicle of a hand-picked team of young people who are given the chance to train and compete in the Transpac sailing event, which has been Roy E. Disney's passion since the mid-seventies.

I'm not a sailor but I have run marathons and triathlons and know the feeling of those comparably small triumphs (though I'll never win -- in fact one year i was passed by a man walking his dog!) The character of the individuals chosen, their work ethic and team spirit is very sincere and a far cry from the preening, backstabbing types that infect many TV reality shows. This follows a reality show format with lots of comments from the participants as well as a selection process where several are eliminated and are left to send messages from the mainland (where the food seems to be really good).

I found it much more compelling then the current crop of Hollywood sports movies in which a ragtag bunch of can't-possibly-win team members somehow come together under a down-and-out coach and eventually win as music swells... you know what I mean. The crew in Morning Light are a very likable group of people who you find yourself routing for (parent's note: there are a handful of words that earned this film a PG rating, but not nearly the kind of language also common on many reality shows).

The photography is stunning, especially the night shots, which I'm hoping are not computer generated since they are so breathtaking (say it ain't so, Roy).  The score is good too, with contemporary music, songs and even a number by members of the crew at the end of the film. Where's the soundtrack album?

There are only two extras but both are rich in rounding out the full scope of this project. Hannah Montana's Jason Earles hosts one feature about the film's production itself, which sheds more light on the camera work, training and other elements. An ESPN special focuses on the elimination, showing more of the earlier hopefuls and clearly how some with "attitudes" were wisely given a polite dismissal.

In a sea of poor role models, kids can certainly do worse then getting to know this group of youths who not only worked hard and showed integrity but also went on to promising futures in careers or continuing education.

Posted on Apr 13 2009 by Greg
It sure used to seem like being Catholic was a whole lot more fun back in the '60's, when nuns sang, flew, outwitted Nazis and even shopping for "binders." They all had a guitar handy when extra musical spunk was needed.

In the movie Doubt, adapted and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer Prize winning play, none of the nuns fly, except occasionally off the handle. This is not to say that I took Doubt as a Hollywood shot at Catholicism.

But when you're a practicing Catholic, you always approach a drama about priests and nuns with caution. Let's face it, the Church has become the side of a barn in the past decade, but it's not easy for anyone to have to deal with a mean-spirited attack on one's beliefs -- but Doubt was not that sort of experience at all. You could have replaced the characters with police, schoolteachers, etc. because this is about much more than only the trappings of any specific religious order.

Doubt is like a Hitchcock film, right down to the Hermann-like musical score by Howard Shore. It also reminds me of Sleuth, in the viewers find themselves changing allegiances as the characters duel. It's riveting, powerful drama, but it's also rip-roaring entertainment. In the words of Willy Wonka, "The suspense in unbearable -- I hope it lasts."

In the truly outstanding director's audio DVD commentary, Shanley recounts a parade of distinct, detailed memories of his Catholic youth in 1964 Brooklyn. Many of the kids did things he did; many adults were drawn from real life. There is a fondness and affection for the people and the attributes of the Church -- as well as a bemused puzzlement about some things, which it highly identifiable. It was really shot in Brooklyn (and also in Riverdale, Archie fans!)

The film was dedicated to a real nun, and members of the Sisters of Mercy were on hand for extensive interviews to assist the cast and crew with technical and interpersonal matters (Meryl Streep was amazed at their candor, only underscoring how even an actress as brilliant as she is finds them mysterious and indefinable). Streep naturally is amazing. Listen to Shanley's commentary about her in the vary last scene, after which Amy Adams told the director, "Now I now why she's Meryl Streep."

Adams is excellent, as always, in the kind of role she absolutely nails in film after film -- the somewhat displaced elfin fairy princess who finds herself in a harsh, real world and struggles with its effect on her astonishingly sincere innocence, not unlike her roles in Junebug and Enchanted (she even has a "Oh my goodness, I'm getting angry, what's happening to me?" scene very much like Giselle). Her position between two intense superactors mirrors her character perfectly.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman
goes head to head with Streep in incredible scenes that the director made every possible effort to keep kinetic, with interruptions, windows and furniture plus canted angles that reminded me of Batman because I'm such a child of the '60s.

And speaking of the 60's, I had to wonder if people jumped to the same conclusions about "inappropriate behavior" as quickly back then as they do now because it is so much more discussed and reported upon. On the recent Howdy Doody DVD set, Buffalo Bob would pick up a child and put him or her on his lap and nothing would be thought of it; but today that would invite much alarm and action.

But that seems to part of the magnetism of this particular drama: every viewers colors it with his or her personal viewpoint and it invites lively discussion. The DVD includes a short doc about the story from stage to screen, a panel discussion with the cast (including the electrifying Viola Davis), a look at the musical scoring, and fascinating profile of the Sisters of Mercy (which you can see right here).

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