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MAD MEN's Final Episode: The tone arm lifts off the record...
Blog, Reviews, TV, Music
Posted on May 18 2015 by Greg


While I still reacted to the last scene of Don with a "Wha--?" it somehow made sense. Like the entire series -- and like life, like art -- it's ambiguous and open to interpretation. You almost don't want to have a solid answer with Don, just with everyone else.

 

If I regress to my college film analysis days (and just I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here) Don's whole existence was advertising, marketing and especially branding. People compare Jon Hamm ("I am Hamm") to Cary Grant, who was a self-created brand of suave sophistication, reborn from a life of squalid poverty as Archie Leach.

 

Many actors, politicians and other famous people are brand. We live in a brand society that advertising taught us. We send it and we receive it.

 

Hillary Clinton is refining her brand. Eventually Miley Cyrus will put her pants back on and be a serious artist who laughs at her past silliness but is proud of it. In twenty years she'll be singing jazz with Tony Bennett on the New Year's TV special. Madonna made marketing and branding an art form and career path.

 

That's Don Draper. "Hey hey we are the Monkees/And we are here to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies."


Whether Don went back and created the commercial, or called Peggy to give the idea to her, all of it is possible. But on a college-class "read stuff into it" "What words can you see in the ice cubes" sense, Don was advertising in human form and he literally faded into a commercial. A very successful one. The only commercial to generate such a big hit song and cultural anthem.

 

Don found peace, he found way for people to need him -- that's what made him ultimately break down -- no one really needed him (just like a bottle of Coke or a Coke commercial, which we want but don't need).

 

Pithy. Lots of pith. But my favorite aspect of the ending was that the last voice you heard was that of Ron Dante of The Archies, one of the most successful jingle singers ever, who fronted a band that did not exist yet had the number one hit of 1969. Am I digging too deep to connect Ron Dante literally to the ending? Maybe. But he's an icon of the '60s and of advertising.

 


And his real name is Carmine Granito.


• Yes, Sally deserved more. Yet she emerged as the solid rock of the family, such as it was. Betty was smoking her life away, dying the way she wanted, and there's Sally doing what needs to be done, canceling her trip, being the adult her parents were not. You're right, no need to worry about Sally or anyone lucky enough to be in her life.

 

• The show ended, but life goes on. The endings (or new beginnings) for each group of characters were not fairy tales in the literal sense, because there would be troubles ahead, along with a fulfillment none of them had before. A satisfying close for a series should offer its viewers some closure.

 

• I felt that Elisabeth Moss's phone scene was thankless and must have been hard to write. They only partially succeeded. When Stan declared himself, it was something he might have done at any point in the show. In Peggy's case, having her transform from angry to Lollipops and Roses was not fair to the actress. I don't think Meryl Streep could have made it any more believable, but she should not have been put in that performance position. It was like Jan getting a date on the phone with the boy she thought didn't know she was alive.

 

• Joan. Yes, she has deserved to run the place since she took over media and made it hum, only to have to train a bozo to do it and go back to her desk. I've been there -- a lot. No question of her success. Like Marlo Thomas or Gloria Steinem and heading right into the decade where she can rock, or at least, start to rock.

 

• Roger and bat-crazy mama – Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in Gigi. A match made in Dewar's. I guessed he was going to die after he played the creepy organ (why was that in the office?), but he's gonna go out, as my dad used to say, "Spoo-ja-dooin'". Don doesn't know who he is, Roger knows himself too well.

 

• Very glad Ken was a catalyst for Joan (and maybe Peggy in the future) after his scene where he was being "spoo-ja-dooed" by Roger and his "friends" after the merger. (I've been there too.) He was forbidden to write books on his own time, mostly because he was so good at it but it wasn't "his place". His talent was slowly marginalized by those who had no real reason to beyond their own insecurity. (Hmmm?) Ken was one of the few who had matured and realized things about life that the others either found out too late or just recently.

 

• Don wanted to be needed by someone and did, in his way, try to help people, over the course of the series. He mentored Peggy, most of all. When he hugged "chair guy", he finally have someone something only he could give, as he was looking at a mirror of himself. Back to college analysis: Matthew Weiner resembles Chair Guy and I have a feeling Weiner was baring his soul completely in that scene. Don, who is Weiner's alter ego (one of them), is everything that, on the surface, Weiner is not, yet the two connected as one and the same.

 

It's not money, it's not fame, not power, success. Those can be nice within perspective (from what I hear). It's really about finding out who you are, how you can gain contentment with what you're doing (or changing it), seeking balance, connecting with others in a deeper way, and things like that there (I'm getting 'way too pretentious now. Sorry.)

 

I still miss Suzanne Pleshette.






BLU-RAY REVIEW: Into the Woods
Blog, Movies, Music
Posted on Apr 21 2015 by Greg


Gene Kelly was once asked why musicals were no longer a staple of modern movies and he said something to the effect that “no one knows how to make them anymore.” (This was a short time after he appeared in Xanadu. Today, only a precious few know how to do it: the producers and director of Into the Woods.

 

This is as close as any contemporary movie has come to making a musical that most audiences can see—the caveat being that Into the Woods is a mature twist on fairy tale characters and not for the purist or the very young. Disney toned down the sequences with Red Riding Hood and the Wolf as well as the Baker’s Wife and Prince Charming to the point that things are very obtuse.

 

That all said, Into the Woods has a lot of comedy, one of Sondheim’s most melodic scores and a brisk pace (kudos to director Rob Marshall for that). And to be fair to the subject matter, one can watch the network series Once Upon a Time and see the evil Queen pulling hearts out of her victims and a naked-under-the-sheets Show White and Prince Charming interrupted in the middle of, as my dad used to call it, “spoo-ja-doo,” only to exuberantly resume after their company leaves.

 

A lot of attention has been awarded to the biggest stars of the film, so let’s focus on others who also deliver remarkable performances—no mean feat in a musical film, especially one with the challenging music and lyric structure of Sondheim.


James Corden is the emotional center of the film and the character with whom the audience most connects; Christine Baranski makes every syllable and gesture count as always as one of the big screen’s best evil Stepmothers and Tracey Ullmann brings superb comic timing to a somewhat thankless role (she and Baranski could have played any number of roles in this musical). As one of the stepsisters, the astonishing Tammy Blanchard makes one forget she also played Karen Carpenter and Judy Garland. Even Hagrid’s girlfriend turns up as the Giant’s Wife.

 

Once again, a modestly-budgeted movie proves that less money and tight time frames (and less indulegence) can result in fine, profitable films. The art direction and costuming has a painterly quality, very much as if it came from an Arthur Rackham book.

 

What Into the Woods is not is cozy and comfy. Yes, there are songs like “No One is Alone” that offer solace and reassurance, it’s almost an anti-fairy tale in the familiar sense (the original fairy tales were quite dark). Many, many messages flow out of the lyrics: “Life can be unpleasant you should know,” “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” and “Nice doesn’t always mean good.”


 

The Blu-ray contains an audio commentary (thank you!) and several interesting behind-the-scenes vignettes, making this a fine package, especially when combined with the deluxe edition of the soundtrack (with all the songs and music).








DVD REVIEW: Paddington Bear Collectors Edition
Blog, Reviews, TV
Posted on Feb 13 2015 by Greg


With the popularity of Paddington in movie theaters, Mill Creek must have struck gold by releasing this DVD set of the little bear's two fine TV series set. The good news is that great value with excellent content.

The complete 1975 stop-motion British animated TV series is presented, along with three specials. It was produced by Filmfair, which also made the clever short cartoon series, "Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings" that you may remember as a Captain Kangaroo cartoon segment or a Saturday Night Live spoof with Mike Myers.


Each of the 56 episodes of this series runs about five minutes and is unique in that Paddington and his immediate props are three-dimensional puppets while the other characters are "replacement animation" cutouts that had been draws in various poses, then cut out, positioned and replaced for each of its movements, which are minimal. The background all have a papery hand-drawn look as well, very much as if the book has come to life.

While these are very low-budget cartoons and the catchy theme music tends to become overused, they're not short on charm. The short length allows for very simple stories that are very faithful to the books but not necessarily word-for-word adaptations. Legendary British actor Michael Hordern (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Slipper and the Rose) is perfection as the narrator.

The three specials are about 20-25 minutes each. The highlight -- and reason alone to check out this set -- is the first special, Paddington Goes to the Movies, in which the little bear duplicates Gene Kelly's dance from "Singin' in the Rain" as the soundtrack plays!



The third disc contains 13 episodes from the 2008 Canadian/ French cel-animated series, previously aired on PBS and various cable channels. This series is more contemporary than the earlier one, with light jazz music that includes a larger variety of themes and several amusing songs. Each half hour show contains two segments that take several of Michael Bond's stories and expand upon them. Perhaps not as traditional at the 1975 series, this version is more akin to what currently runs on TV for young children.



This is a wonderful way to gear up for the day when the recent hit movie hits the store shelves.







BLU-RAY REVIEW: Three Studio Ghibli Blu-ray Premieres
Blog, Reviews, Movies
Posted on Feb 03 2015 by Greg
Ghibli Blu-rays are always an event, especially because if we haven't seen the films on the big screen, it's the best way to enjoy the majestic artistry.



Two of the titles have been especially long-awaited. Porco Rosso is a spectacular adventure with humor and a touch of fantasy. Porco is a dashing fighter pilot who has been cursed and is now a pig, but still very human is every other way. Unabashedly Bogart-like, he is voiced by Oscar nominee Michael Keaton. My favorite English language performance, though, belongs to Susan Egan, who was also heard in Spirited Away. She gets to sing in French, and plays the classic tragic beauty, desperate to give her heart away but trapped by circumstance and the dysfunction of her lover.

This is an adult story, but not in the sense of material inappropriate for children. There are, actually, many kids in the story, one of whom forms the backbone of the story. The film has never sounded better in home video.



Pom Poko is the most quirky of the trio -- a fantasy steeped in reality with lots of ironic humor. The English narration by Maurice LaMarche (Pinky and the Brain) is crisp and brilliant in its seamless waver from serious to coy. The entire cast is superb. This is not a movie-star-based cast like other Ghibli films from Disney, this is a cast of great Hollywood voice actors, all of which prove that, while there's nothing wrong with well-cast stars in voice roles and they provide a marketing angle, the voice actors earn their place as seasoned pros in the art form.

One note to parents: The "sack" of these creatures is not actually a sack, but another part of the male anatomy, though it should not as obvious to youngsters because of the English script's obtuse treatment of it, which is to make it seem like a kangaroo's pouch.



The most eye-filling Ghibli film on Blu-ray is clearly Tales from Earthsea, a sword-and-sorcery epic based on the Ursula LeGuin books. One could watch the film purely to focus on the artwork and become completely lost in its richness.

The story is a challenge, probably because of difficulties in adaptation from books of this nature into a nearly two-hour film. It starts off with lots of action and plot, presented with such rapidity that it might require running the disc back to keep track. Then the film becomes largely a mood piece in which characters pensively reflect. At the climax, the pace picks up and the loose ends tie together, though it is one of those "Iron Man 3" battle sequences that tend to inspire the "let's just vanquish the villain and get on with it" feeling.

As villains go, though, this one is especially vile and creepy, voiced perfectly on the English soundtrack by Willem DaFoe. An androgynous warlock obsessed with his power and longevity, he is far from a one-note baddie.

This is one Blu-ray for which the word "watch" means literally to "look and enjoy what you see."







DVD Review: THE HERO OF COLOR CITY
Blog
Posted on Dec 02 2014 by Greg


If you don't follow animation very closely -- and even if you do -- you have to be a discerning consumer nowadays when choosing some animated films on DVD and Blu-ray. Even the shoddiest animated features can have celebrity voices and might look good based on their packaging.

That's not to say that low-budget features are not worth considering, however. Some high-budget features can emanate fumes, too.The thing to consider is how the filmmakers were able to maximize with what they had.

Such is the case with THE HERO OF COLOR CITY, a new animated feature made by industry veterans that enjoyed a limited run before arriving on video today. It's a warmhearted, entertaining feature with modest pretentions that, like TOY STORY, anthromorphothizes a beloved household plaything: crayons.

"Well, then it's just TOY STORY with crayons, right?" Yes and no. There were several animated films about living toys before TOY STORY, so to call it a rip-off would be hasty without seeing it.

While THE HERO OF COLOR CITY does focus on the familiar theme of "facing your fears" (which also worked nicely in TOY STORY OF TERROR!), COLOR CITY offers a new "box" of characters and a new magical land of colors, in which the bad guys are seeking to add color to themselves at any cost.

What the film has going for it is a story line just absorbing enough to sustain a feature (not an easy nor always successful task), well-cast voices -- including (Owen Wilson, Christina Ricci and the always interesting Craig Ferguson as well as voice acting vets like Jess Harnell, Tara Strong and David Kaye), a pleasant musical score and peppy songs.

This feature does not go for the satiric bite of THE LEGO MOVIE, nor does it make an embarrassing attempt (as a few unfortunate films do). This is a lovely movie for families and kids. And to quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, "All the rest is talk."



One Christmas morning when I was a kid, my Dad gave me a huge box of crayons with activity books. It paled next to the flashier toys and I'll always feel a little bad because I made very little fuss about it upon unwrapping it. But in the ensuing months, that became the gift that kept on giving long after the other gifts lost their luster.

So crack open a 64-pack (with sharpener), open a huge pad of drawing paper and color along.









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