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How Tim Burton and John Landis lent a hand to "The Muppet Movie"
Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 16 2013 by Greg

When Jim Henson wanted every Muppet in the grand finale of his first feature film to be operated by a person, rather than being static or electronic (there was no CG in 1979), the call went out for performers to converge on the studio where it was filming. Among them were a young animator (Burton) and a fledging filmmaker (Landis).

And while The Muppet Movie was the first feature for the Henson crew, it was the last for legendary ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whose Charlie McCarthy character was a forerunner for figures that transcended their technology. It didn’t matter that Bergen’s lips moved, or that he when he was on radio there was no visual, Charlie McCarthy was a living breathing soul, just as Kermit and Miss Piggy are, regardless of whether you can see the puppeteer.

When you see The Muppet Movie, you are seeing the cutting edge in puppetry and an endless procession of celebrities. Even though both are still impressive and make many current billion dollar special effects extravaganzas of today pale in comparison, what stands out is the clever script, the music and the unearthly talent of the Muppet performers.

Even though The Muppet Movie was a major release in 1979 and a huge hit, it has a gentle smallness, almost an underground film feel. Though it looks better than I’ve ever seen it on Blu-ray, there is a marked difference between this film’s image and sound quality and that of the Muppet films that followed.

If you’re a Monkees fan, The Muppet Movie is helmed by the same director of much of that series, a nice blend of the fourth wall breaking style of Monkee and Muppet.

This new “Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition” includes Frawley’s test footage of The Muppets in natural settings a feature well worth the price of the package that was left off the 2005 DVD edition.

Perhaps the major stars of the film is not seen but heard the musical score and songs by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. “The Rainbow Connection” has become a standard, while the song that took its Oscar, “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, is largely forgotten. Ah well, such is also like it goes with many awards and their ultimate meaning...

“Adele” twists on “Tintin”...or “Indiana Jones” meets “Mary Poppins”
Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 15 2013 by Greg
Like the Belgian comic book series "The Adventures of Tintin," "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec" is a beloved comic book series in France. "Tintin" became two animated series and a 2011 Steven Spielberg motion-capture Hollywood spectacular, while "Adele" was adapted into this more modest (though certainly flashy) French live-action feature in 2010.

This new DVD of "Adele," directed by Luc Beeson ("The Fifth Element"), includes an English dubbed version as well as the original subtitled French language version. The bonus features are in French with English subtitles. Usually it’s not recommended to watch the bonus features first, but in this case, if you’re not familiar with the Adele character or the comics, it actually enhances watching the film and gaining excitement for the experience.

Some have compared "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec" to an Indiana Jones movie, and there are indeed some scenes that resemble the first in the film series (Adele runs through a pyramid from an explosion much as Indy ran from the giant ball), but it’s a different kind of narrative. Right from the opening narration, "Adele" is a highly polished satirical farce, consistently poking fun at pompous types. There’s a bumbling duo in this film that are reminiscent of the spies in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

But there were no pterodactyls or mummies in "Chitty." And even though you’ll see them in "Adele", they may surprise you.

Adele herself, as played by Louise Bourgoin, is a bit of a smart aleck. In her turn-of-the-century posh frock, Adele nay resemble Mary Poppins or Truly Scrumptious, but with a more irreverent attitude.

Beeson apparently cast Bourgoin because of her talent for mimicry and ability to play multiple roles. She was also primarily a TV rather than a movie presence so the most audiences would accept her as Adele and not as a big name movie star.

Though the film rambles at times (it’s based on two graphic novels), "Adele" is a jaunty romp that never takes itself as, say, the recent "Adventures of Tintin," which had humor but had anything but a light touch. The most serious and heartrending moments in "Adele" concern her disabled sister, the freak accident that caused it and how it motivates Adele in her various quests and gives the story a thread.

Speaking of Adele’s sister, there are a few deleted scenes in the bonus features that showcase the zany side of the two trouble-prone young ladies in their earlier days.

There’s also a feature about Bourgoin’s singing of the end title song, a peppy tune that has a very European sound, very unlike pop in the U.S., at least of recent years. It’s very catchy stuff.

James Franco, Mila Kunis--and Walt Disney--journey to Oz
Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 10 2013 by Greg

No film has ever been completely successful, financially or critically, in revisiting the Land of Oz--with that grand shadow of the 1939 classic still strong in our hearts. The fact that Oz The Great and Powerful has done so and become an international hit, is no small accomplishment.

Garland's Oz is indelibly inscribed in the popular culture, one of the greatest of all films. Rather than foolishly try to replace it in our minds, or reinvent it, Oz the Great and Powerful builds on that fondness, expands the story in a remarkably skillful way. You can literally watch this film and the other in succession and it won’t seem like a break in continuity, visually or otherwise.


There is no feeling that anyone behind the scenes of this new film had the misguided notion to make you forget what came before. You can love this movie and also still hold the MGM one in the highest regard. This is a prequel, so you can watch the ‘39 film after it and they’ll both fit together nicely.


On Blu-ray, Oz the Great and Powerful glows like the Emerald City. And though it might have seemed overlong to some in theaters, it does not seem that way in the home environment. Like MGM’s Oz, I think this film will become a home re-watching favorite.


Since Oz the Great and Powerful seems to have been a big international success, the best thing is that sequels might give us more glimpses into an Oz that has usually been only in Baum’s 14 books. More, more, more!


I would love to have heard an audio commentary by director Sam Raimi among the bonus features, but features are still in abundance, especially on the Blu-ray.


These bonus features are on the DVD and the Blu-ray:


Walt Disney and the Road to Oz

Original Mouseketeers Doreen Tracey and Bobby Burgess, along with historians Les Perkins, Howard Green and myself trace the story of the Disney connections with Oz from the ‘30s to today, particularly focusing on the film spectacular that Walt never completed: The Rainbow Road to Oz, using rare artifacts seen publicly for the first time here.



A good feature for parents of small children who might be frightened at the Wicked Witch, since this shows how they are all actors pretending and can act silly in costume.


Blu-ray Exclusive Features


Mr. Elfman’s Music Concoctions

Danny Elfman takes you through the process of scoring Oz the Great and Powerful, which he calls one of the best experiences of his career.


Mila’s Metamorphosis

Another way to show children that the Witch is make believe and the lady playing her is really still a nice person.


China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief

I loved the China Girl! She had a nice Rankin/Bass and Bil Baird look, and an attitude much like our little five year old cousin Lydia. Also, the China City is one of several sections in Baum’s book that never made it to the big screen.


Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz

Production Designer Robert Stromberg shows how the film is done in classic Hollywood style with real sets and effects in addition to green screen, and most importantly, how his enthusiasm for such Disney classics as Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio and Bambi infused the look of Oz the Great and Powerful.

Other features, depending on which package you choose:

Second Screen

Follow Finley and the magic tricks through the entire movie with select iPads.


Digital Copy

Using the enclosed code, you can add points to your Disney Movie Rewards and download a complimentary copy of the movie to your computer or smart phone.

"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.

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