Saturday, November 26, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the Movie, not the Book)

Last night I watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the latest cinematic installment based on the wildly successful series of books. Besides Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith and King Kong, it was easily the most anticipated movie of the year. And I rather think most Harry Potter fans will not be disapponted with this film.

As Harry Potter fans already know, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire centres on the Triwizard Tournament, a 700 year old contest between wizardry schools which takes place every five years. The Tournment consists of a series of tasks, each rather dangerous, which the contestants must overcome. To be considered for the Tournament, individuals must submit their entires in the Goblet of Fire, a powerful artefact responsible for ultimately deciding who is to compete. Under the current rules, only students over seventeen are allowed to submit their names to the Goblet of Fire. Nonetheless, Harry founds himself chosen as one of Hogwart's champions....

Like the book upon which it was based, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is much darker and more violent than its predecessors. Anyone considering taking very young children to this film are strongly cautioned, as it is rated PG-13 for a reason. The movie begins with an innocent Muggle stumbling upon He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and his cohorts, complete with large, slithering snake. The horrors don't stop there, as the climax is truly the most intense of any of the movies.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire also differs from the previous movies in another respect--it is the first to be directed by an English director. Mike Newell, director of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Pushing Tin For this reason this movie seems more essentially English than the other, previous three. Indeed, this is the first time in any of the movies that I can remember hearing genuine, British slang. But the Englishness of the film does not stop there. Newell's interest is not in the wonders and horrors that fill the Harry Potter books, but in the characters and their interactions. It is the emotional impact of the other characters and the events around them on the heroes which interests Newell, not the Gothic atmosphere or spectacular magic. Perhaps becuase of this, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire comes closest to capturing the spirit of the books.

Indeed, it must be pointed out that in this movie Harry, Ron, and Hermione seem so much older than they were in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Harry not only worries about the return of Voldemort, but getting a date to the Yule Ball. The relationship between Ron and Hermione heats up in this movie and, for those who have not read the books, there can be no doubt that the two have some very deep seated, if repressed, feelings for each other.

That is not to say this movie is all about violence, dark magicks, and teen angst. Like the book it has its share of humour. One of the funniest scenes takes place in the study hall as Snape keeps disciplining Harry and Ron for talking. Another hilarious scene invovles Harry and the ghost Moaning Myrtle in the Prefects' Bath (this is the most uncomfortable I think I have ever seen Daniel Radcliffe...). And, of course, Weasley twins Fred and George provide a good deal of comic relief throughout the film.

Harry Potter fans will probably debate the choices of what to inlcude in the movie and what not to include in the movie as far as the material in the book. Personally, I think screenwriter Steven Kloves and Mike Newell made the right choices, with the possible exception of one subplot (I won't name it here as not to spoil the book for those who haven't read it or the movie for those who haven't seen it). To me the movie has all the essentials of the book and nothing that is gratuitous. I guess I shouldn't point out that if the book were adaped literally and loyally, we would probably have a six hour movie on her hands....

In my humble opinion Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the best so far in the series. While it is perhaps not as loyal an adaptation as the first two movies, it captures the spirit of the books better than any of the other movies. Except for the staunchest purists, I think most Harry Potter fans will be pleased with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Pat Morita and George Best Pass On

Two well known individuals in their respective fields have died recently. One was Pat Morita, best known for his roles as Arnold on Happy Days and Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid movies. Norita died yesterday in Las Vegas of natural causes at the age of 73.

Morita was born in California to migrant fruit pickers. As a child he had spinal tuberculosis and as a result was in hospital for much of his early life. His life did not get any easier when he recovered. With World War II under way, Morita, like many Americans of Japanese descent, was sent to an internment camp in Arizona. Following World War II he opened a restaurant. There he discovered a gift for comedy. For a time he both worked as a comic and in computers at Aerojet General before taking up comedy full time.

Morita's big break came with appearances on The Hollywood Palace in 1964, 1965, and 1966. He would go on to make many guest appearances on such TV shows as Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and The Courtship of Eddie's Father, as well as small parts in such movies as Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Shakiest Gun in the West. He also had a recurring on role on Sanford and Son. Racism against Asians being common in Hollywood at the time, many of the roles Morita played were demeaning at best.

It was in 1975 that Morita landed the role of Arnold, the owner of the local drive in restaurant, on Happy Days. The role brought Mortia to national attention for the first time and he was eventually rewarded with his own short lived series, Mr. T and Tina. Though the series did not last long, it is historic as one of the few American shows on which an Asian played a lead role. Following Happy Days and Mr. T and Tina, Morita worked regularly, appearing in many movies and TV shows. Besides The Karate Kid, Morita appeared in Midway, When Time Runs Out, Slapstick, Honeymoon in Vegas, and Spy Hard. He provided the voice for the Emperor in Mulan. On television he was a regular on Blansky's Beauties and played the lead on Ohara. Ohara is historic as it is one of the few times in which an Asian played a lead role on an American TV series (a police drama at that).

Morita never won any awards, although he was nominated for a few. He was nominated for the Best Oscar for an Actor in a Supporting Role for his part in The Karate Kid, a Golden Globe for the same, an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Special for his role in Amos, and a Golden Globe for that same part.

For many Pat Morita will always be Arnold, but arguably his legacy in television and movies goes farther than that. He was one of the first visible Asian actors and comedians in Hollywood. And while many of his early parts could be considered racist, many of his later roles broke the racial barriers that Hollywood had constructed long ago. As pointed out above, both Mr. T and Tina and Ohara are historic as being among the earliest shows to have an Asian in the lead. Although not often recognised as such, Morita was a pioneer.

The other well known person to die was George Best. Now I realise many Americans may be saying "Wasn't he the fifth Beatle? (no, that was Pete Best)" but Best was famous outside the States. He was a football (as in soccer) legend who played for Manchester United and Northern Ireland.

Best is considered one of the greatest soccer players of all time. Over a period of twelve yeas he scored 180 goals for Manchester United. He also played in the States, where he scored a phenomenal 54 goals in 139 goals for the Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Jose Earthquakes. He was only 17 when he began his career with Manchester.

In the Sixties Best''s fame was equal to rock stars of the era and, sadly, he chose to live the same lifestyle. He drank heavily and womanised. Reportedly he had slept with seven Miss Worlds, although Best claimed it was only four. Eventually his alcoholism would lead to liver disease and the need for a transplant in 2002. It was the years of drinking which killed him; he died from mulitple organ failure as a result of years of abuse.

While Best's lifestyle was nothing to admire (alcoholism and womanising not being traits desirable even in footballers), his achievements on the field were amazing. Few soccer players have matched him and even fewer have surpassed him. Sadly, it seems to me that he could have achieved even more greatness had he not made the choices he did. Regardless, many will mourn his passing.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Growing up my typical Thanksgiving began by watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on KOMU. Afterwards we would have Thanksgiving dinner (always served at noon). I really have no idea when I first saw the parade, although I seem to recall watching it when I was three. Given that my parents also watched the parade, it seems to me that they must have started watching it before I was born. Of course, as a kid one the biggest attraction in the parade were the giant balloons. Actually, I have to confess that they still are (well, besides the Rockettes anyhow...).

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924 as "Macy's Christmas Day Parade," even though it took place on Thanksgiving. By 1927 it was officially renamed "the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade." Both the 1925 and 1926 parades featured such live animals as lions, elephants, tigers, and so on. After those two prades Macy's concluded that the animals scared many children. The decision was then made to replace the animals with balloons. The task of designing those balloons fell to Tony Sarg. Sarg was a theatrical designer employed by Macy's to design their Christmas windows. Those first balloons were not filled with helium and hence they were not airborne. They were simply filled with air and supported by handlers on sticks. Regardless, those first four balloons would set the pace for many of the balloons to come in the parade's 81 year history. They were a dragon, an elephant, the first of many toy soldiers, and the parade's first balloon based on an animated character, Felix the Cat. The following year the balloons were filled with the mixutre of helium and air that has been used ever since.

At the end of that 1928 parade, the balloons were released in the air. Because helium expands as it goes higher in the atmosphere, the balloons all exploded before they reached the top of the Macy's building. For that reason they added safety valves to the balloons in 1929. The balloons were again released aand there was a $25 reward for anyone who captured one and returned it to Macy's. In 1931 famous aviator Clarence Chamberlain actually captured a giant pig balloon. In 1932 a woman learning to fly tried to capture a giant cat balloon. Instead she collieded with the balloon. She and her instructor survived, but the cat did not. From then on, Macy's stopped releasing the balloons after the parade. While I suppose some may have been disappointed that the balloons would no longer be released in the air, it did allow for old favourites to return to the parade again and again.

For literally decades the balloons were made by Goodyear's Aviation Products Division. They went out of the business of making balloons in 1981. The balloons would begin as a sketch, which Goodyear's engineers would inspect to insure that they would be able to fly. A scale, clay model would then be made of the balloon with attention paid to the character's likeness (it wouldn't do to have a Spider-Man balloon that doesn't look like Spider-Man) and such concerns as the necessary volume of helium to insure flight. A second model is then made and painted. Following this the balloon would be assembled and test flown on the airfield at Akron. The balloon would go through a number of test flights in early November. On top of all of this balloon handlers must be trained how to support and pilot the balloons. Each balloon requires about 50 to 60 handlers to fly.

Starting with Felix the Cat, balloons based on characters from pop culture have been a part of the parade. In the beginning such balloons were rare, although this would change. In 1934 Tony Sarg teamed up with Walt Disney to create balloons based on the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, Pluto, and Mickey Mouse (the first of many). The first of three Superman balloons made its appearance in 1939. Unfortunately, it would not survive. The advent of World War II saw the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parde cancelled in 1942, 1943, and 1944. The balloons were donated to the government to help in the war effort (rubber was in high demand). Besides the Superman balloon, the Uncle Sam balloon was also sacrificed to help our armed forces.

It was after World War II that the Golden Age for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade began. Although I have no data to back this up, looking at pictures it seems to me that the balloons grew in size Even if they didn't, it was during this period that some of the parade's best known and longest running parades made their debut. Mighty Mouse (1951-1972), Smokey Bear, Popeye (1957-1969), Bullwinkle (1961-1983), Underdog (1965-1984), and Snoopy (1968-1985) all first appeared during this period. And all of them had particularly long runs. Ironically, perhaps none were more durable than Linus the Lion Hearted. He was the animated spokesman for Post Crispy Critters Cereal. He even had his animated cartoons on Saturday mornings starting in 1964. Even after his series was removed from the air over FCC concerns about a commercial character appearing in a children's cartoon and even after Post stopped making Crispy Critters, his balloon continued to appear in the Macy's parade. In fact, it was last flown in 1991! Of course, among many of my generation the all time favourite balloon was Underdog. The Underdog balloon flew for 19 years, long after his series had left network airwaves. I don't know what the longest running balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was, but I suspect Underdog is in the top ten longest running.

Of course, the parade has had its share of balloons based on advertising icons. I am not sure what the first one was, but it could have been Dino, Sinclair Oil's allosaurus mascot. He made his debut in 1963 parade and continued to appear in the parade well into the Seventies. Since then there have been balloons based on Honey Nut Cheerios Bee, the Snuggles Bear, and Jeeves of Ask Jeeves fame (the first balloon to be based on an internet character).

Unfortunately, the balloons have not always had it easy. Nineteen fifty six saw particularly high winds that grounded Mighty Mouse before he had even hit Columbus Circle. Other balloons, the War Between the States themed Observer, and Gobbler (a giant turkey) also fell victim to the winds that year. In 1958 a helium shortage forced Macy's to fill the balloons with air and carry them through New York on cranes. In 1971 the balloons were grounded entirely because of high winds. In 1975 the Underdog balloon collided with a light pole. It seems to me that such incidents increased dramatically in the Nineties. In 1993 the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon knocked over a lamppost, while that same year a balloon based on the character Rex from We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story split in two when it hit another lamppost. In 1997 there was a balloon mishap in which someone was seriously injured. The Cat in the Hat balloon actually knocked a lamppost into a crowd of spectators and injured a woman. I think it may have been that same year that Bart Simpson hit a tree. As a result of these mishaps the City of New York passed laws restricting balloons to a size of 70 feet high, 78 feet long, and 40 feet wide and requiring more handlers.

Sadly, while balloon accidents have decreased since these laws were put in place, they have not stopped them from happening entirely. Today two people were injured when the M & Ms balloon crashed into a light pole. I must say that this disturbs me. First, I don't like the idea of anyone being injured, especially when they are simply enjoying a parade. Second, I worry about the future of the balloons in the parade. It seems possible to me that either Macy's or New York City could simply stop having the balloons in the parade. I cannot say I would blame them, given the various mishaps and injuries over the years. That having been said, it seems to me that such accidents did not start occuring until the Nineties, meaning that in previous years Macy's must have been doing something which made flying the balloons safer. Perhaps a few more regulations are needed to insure that the balloons are safer. At any rate, I don't want to see the parade without the balloons.

Anyhow, it seems to me that for some time after 1980 the appeal of the giant balloons went downward. Throughout the Eighties and the Nineties I can say that there have been only been a few balloons that have appealed to me: Spider-Man, Bart Simpson, Clifford, the new Bullwinkle balloon, and, of course, Spongebob Squarepants. I do think this years' crop of new balloons have improved slightly. Although I am not a big fan of the cartoon, I do like the new Scooby-Doo balloon.

Giant balloons have been a part of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade since 1928. It is hard to say what their future will be given today's incident, but one thing can be said. Many people have watched the parade over the years for the balloons and many have fond memories of various balloons from over the years. I know I do.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith on DVD

In a year when the most widely anticipated movie was not the latest Harry Potter, a big budget adaptation of C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or a remake of King Kong (by Peter Jackson, no less), it could only mean one thing: the final chapter of the first trilogy of Star Wars had come out. Being the most widely anticipated movie of the year, Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith was naturally also the most widely anticipated DVD release of the year. Fortunately, the DVD release has also proven to be worth the wait.

I've already reveiwed Revenge of the Sith (you can read that review here), so I am not going to talk about the film itself. I will say that Revenge of the Sith could possibly be the best transfer of a film to DVD in the short history of that medium. The picture is clear and crisp. The details are sharp and easily seen. The sound also made the transition to DVD very well. Indeed, one can hear Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX or Dolby Surroudsound. And in English, Spanish, or French at that. While many films fare poorly when transferred to DVD, Revenge of the Sith did not.

The Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith DVD set would be a "must buy" even if it only contained the movie alone. Fortunately, Lucasfilm saw to it to provide some truly sterling bonus materials. There are naturally the expected movie trailers and TV spots (my favourite--"In Three Days...Sith Happens...."). And there is also the expected audio commentary. In this case, we not only hear from director and creator George Lucas, but from producer Rick McCallum, animation director Rob Coleman, visual effects supervisors Jack Knoll, and Roger Guyett. Between the five men the audio commentary provdies insights into the film ranging from character development to the inspiration behind various scenes to the many techinical aspects from the film (from animating Yoda to creating the various special effects). Unlike many audio commentaries, it is truly entertaining and a must for any Star Wars fan to listen to.

As might be expected, the Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith DVD set also contains the expected "Making of..." documentary. That "Making of..." documentary is anything but expected, however, as it takes a completely different track than most. Rather than documenting the making of the entire film, it instead focuses on one pivotal sequence--the climatic battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader (I think he had pretty much ceased being Anakin by that point...) and just how many people were involved in the making of that sequence. Within a Minute further breaks away from the traditional "Making of..." documentary in not only discussing such aspects of film making as acting, special effects, cienmatography, and editing, but even discussing such members of the crew as the caterers, accountants, and production staff. Anyone who has ever wondered how films are made would be well educated by this documentary. There are also two other featurettes. "The Chosen One" discusses Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader and his final redemption at the end of the Star Wars trilogies. "It's All for Real" discusses the stunts that went into the making of Revenge of the Sith.

The Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith DVD set also features six deleted scenes, with introductions by George Lucas and Rick McCallum. Among the most interesting are two scenes which involve the beginnings of the Rebel Alliance and a discussion between Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Mace Windu regarding Chancellor Palpatine.

The Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith DVD also has web doucmentaries and a preview of the Xbox game Star Wars Battlefront. Not owning a PC equipped with a DVD-Rom drive or an Xbox, I couldn't view either of these.

The Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith DVD set is one that befits a movie some have considered the best of the series (or at least the second or third best...). Even if they had only released the movie alone, with no bonus materials, Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith would be worth getting. That they provided the DVD set with the bonus materials they did makes it all the better.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sheree North

Blonde bombshell and character actress Sheree North has passed on. She died Friday, November 11 of complicatoins from surgery. She was 72.

Sheree North was born Dawn Bethel to to Edward and Ethel Bethel in Los Angeles, California. North began her career in entertainment early, dancing for the USO at age 10 and later dancing in Carroll’s variety shows. Her big break came with with the Broadway musical Hazel Flagg in 1953. Having appeared as an extra in the 1951 movie Excuse My Dust, her big break on the big screen came as a dancer in the film version of Hazel Flagg, Living It Up, the following year.

North was signed by 20th Century Fox as a possible replacement for the unreliable Marilyn Monroe that same year. She tested for two of Marilyn's more famous roles, those in Girl in Pink Tights and There's No Business Like Show Business. When Monroe turned down the lead in How to Be Very, Very Popular, it was North who got the part. Despite this, North was not destined for big screen greatness. She would appear in many films throughout her career, among them The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, Madigan, The Trouble of Girls, The Organization and The Shootist. Her bigget impact, however, would be on the small screen.

Throughout the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, North guest starred on such series as Playhouse 90, Bonanza, The Loner, Kung Fu, and Matlock. She is probably best known for playing Lou Grant's girlfriend on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Kramer's mother, Babs, on Seinfeld.

North continued to appear on stage for much of her career. She appeared in the 1962 Broadway production I Can Get It for You Wholesale. She also toured with productions of Bye, Bye, Birdie, Irma La Douce, and Can-Can.

That Sheree North was beautiful there can be no doubt. She was also a talented dancer, and I rather suspect that if she had been born earlier she could have had a successful career in Hollywood musicals. One thing I have to admire about North is that she insisted on aging naturally, refusing to remain pegged as a blonde bombshell. This allowed North to make the move from mere window dressing in films to character roles. Indeed, if she is remembered best as Lou Grant's saloon singer girlfriend and as Kramer's mother, it may be because those roles were much more interesting than her earlier roles in Hollywood pictures. Very few actresses have ever made this transition successfully (the only other actress I can think of who did it was Shelley Winters). Groomed to be a glamour girl, North will forever be remembered as a character actress.