Spirited Away (Studio Ghibli/Disney, 2002) D: Hayao Miyazaki. Two discs. Rating: NNNNN
Kiki's Delivery Service (Studio Ghibli/Disney, 1989) D: Hayao Miyazaki. Two discs. Rating: NNNN
Castle in the Sky (Studio Ghibli/Disney, 1986) D: Hayao Miyazaki. Two discs. Rating: NNNN
Except for their freshly minted Oscar winner, Spirited Away, Disney's had these in the can for a while. Phil Hartman, who died almost four years ago, voices Gigi the cat in Kiki's Delivery Service. Rumour has it that Disney disliked its contractual obligation to release Studio Ghibli productions without altering a frame. There are also whispers that John Lasseter of Pixar, who "presents" the films here, pressured Disney to finally release them. Whatever the truth, it's wonderful to finally have these beautiful films in first-rate transfers.
And they are beautiful. Miyazaki loves profusion and frames jammed with things happening everywhere. One of the problems with lesser anime is what's called the dead frame -- long exposition scenes where nothing moves. (See the recent Cowboy Bebop feature for some annoying examples.)
Miyazaki, who took four years between Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, launches his young heroines into fully realized worlds of fantasy and adventure. Even the sweet-toned Kiki's Delivery Service offers the cultural oddity of a setting where everyone speaks Japanese but the characters are polyglot European and the setting seems to be a French coastal town.
These three discs present the Japanese versions of the films intact, with parallel English-language versions if you don't want to make your kids read subtitles. The English versions are quite good, and the discs provide an interesting subtitle option: you can watch the English version while running the subtitles for the Japanese version and see how they differ.
Disney didn't stint on voice talent. Kiki includes Kirsten Dunst and Janeane Garofalo; Castle has Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill and Mandy Patinkin; and Spirited Away, produced in English by Lasseter and directed by Kirk Wise (Beauty And The Beast), features Suaznne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers and Daveigh Chase, who voiced Lilo on Disney's Lilo & Stitch.
Kiki's Delivery Service, the story of a 13-year-old witch who leaves home to study and finds herself using her ability to fly to run a delivery service, is the most kid-friendly of the group, a touching comedy about being true to yourself and following your dream. (Miyazaki is more akin to Disney than he'd probably like to think.)
Castle In The Sky, a big adventure story with explosions and battles, most closely resembles what we think of as Japanimation and may be a little scary for younger children. It does have eye-popping action sequences, giant robots and a whole lot of Star Wars echoes in the plot, with the heroine, Sheeta, as Princess Leia and the villain having certain Vaderesque echoes and, on the English track, Mark Hamill's voice.
The one flaw in the earlier films (Kiki and Castle are both from the late 80s) is that they occasionally cheat on detail in long shots. That never happens in the astounding Spirited Away, in which a young girl finds herself in an alternate dimension inhabited by witches and spirits where she must rescue her parents and find her way back to the human world. Even if the story isn't demanding, Miyazaki's endless flow of imagery is so transfixing in its beauty and energy that you dare not look away from the screen.
DVD EXTRAS Introductions by John Lasseter, original Japanese trailers, Behind The Microphone featurette with American voice talent, Japanese- and English-language versions. Complete storyboards for Kiki and Castle. Storyboard-to-scene comparisons and Nippon TV making-of for Spirited Away.
the singing detective (BBC/Warner Home Video, 1986) D: Jon Amiel, with Michael Gambon, Joanne Whalley. Three discs. Rating: NNNNNthe late dennis potter's master-piece tells the story of a writer named Marlow who's locked into hospital with a horrifying chronic case of psoriasis. Even worse, he's trapped inside his mind, endlessly churning through fantasies, memories and detective stories (hence the title).Like Pennies From Heaven, it's a musical where all the numbers are staged but the songs come from old records. A dizzying blend of medical melodrama, genre games and autobiography (all the childhood stuff in the Forest of Dean comes out of Potter's life), The Singing Detective is an astonishing seven hours of television, not least because of the fulminating bitterness of Michael Gambon's performance.
The transfer -- which presented interesting challenges because the miniseries was shot on film (the detective story) and video (the hospital scenes) -- is good. Some good extras include a full commentary from Amiel (who 16 years later is in theatres with The Core) and producer Kenith Trodd (who had collaborated with Potter since Oxford) and extensive supporting materials on the third disc.
In one of the interviews, Potter claims that The Singing Detective is his least autobiographical work. In another, a friend of his tells us that Potter liked to point out that "writers are liars."
DVD EXTRAS Director/producer commentary, Dennis Potter: Under The Skin, Arena: Dennis Potter and Point Of View, a series of letters to the BBC that plays like a Monty Python script. English captioning, booklet essay by David Bianculli, photo gallery.
the transporter (20th Century Fox, 2002) D: Cory Yuen, w/ Jason Statham, Shu Qi. Rating: NNN
here's the future of expensive, brain-dead action movies: bullet-headed star, extensive car chases, gasoline-fuelled explosions and martial arts fights, with some semblance of a plot to hang it all on. The Transporter, written by Luc Besson and directed by Corey Yuen, has even less plot than the Besson-penned Kiss Of The Dragon. A thematic remake of Walter Hill's The Driver (itself a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï), The Transporter stars Jason Stathan of Snatch as an ex-SAS man now driving fast cars and carrying goods around some of the most spectacular locations in the south of France. The car chase staged along the Cannes Croisette is the first ever shot there.
DVD EXTRAS If you like this sort of thing, the DVD is worthwhile. A good anamorphic transfer, commentary by Stathan and the English producer, a short making-of featurette, theatrical trailer and some extended versions of the fight scenes. Wide-screen and full-screen versions. English, Spanish and French versions, English and Spanish subtitles.
big shot's funeral (Columbia Home Entertainment, 2001) D: Feng Xiaogang, w/ Donald Sutherland, Rosamund Kwan. Rating: NNN
this comedy features donald Sutherland as an arrogant and insecure legendary director who's remaking The Last Emperor but can't figure out his point of view on the subject and suffers a nervous collapse. Arrangements for his funeral are put in the hands of Ge You, the guy doing the making-of for his film. His artistic legacy, such as it is, falls into the hands of his assistant, Rosamund Kwan. The picture is a clever satire on multinational filmmaking, the cult of the director and the commercial unrealities of the new China. Ge You and his promoter friends try to reap a commercial extravaganza from the funeral of a man who's not dead yet -- and may recover. It's a bit hit-and-miss but certainly worth renting. Sutherland is very funny, as he often is in roles that don't have many obvious laugh moments.
DVD EXTRAS Theatrical trailer, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.