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BOOKS AND COMICS

BOOK REVIEW: "The Spongbob Squarepants Experience"
Blog, TV, Books
Posted on Feb 05 2014 by Greg


To my knowledge, this is the first “serious” book on Spongebob, in the sense that the cartoon is being treated as a considerable work of modern culture. Hopefully it won’t be the last.

 

For gift giving, the timing couldn’t be better—a high-end coffee table treatment of the world’s most popular cartoon sponge. The book is nestled cleverly in a semi-transparent slipcase and really lights up a room. Visually, the book is a treasure for Spongebob fans, especially the older ones (a small child would tear out the little storyboards; a Little Golden Book would do just fine).

 

With the book’s Hendrix-like moniker, The Spongbob Squarepants Experience, rather than “Happy Birthday” or “15 Years,” the book has to cut a wide swath beyond congratulation and commemoration. It does do that and much more.

 

Like an “Art Of” book, it’s loaded with spectacular color reproductions and vibrant sketches. Like a “Treasury” book it has lots of stuff to open, unfold and otherwise marvel upon. Among the tchotchkes are a comic book, storyboards and gag sketches. When you see the work and artistry behind Spongebob Squarebob as a massive body of work, it transcends its well-earned “funny cartoon” reputation and is seen as a huge effort by eminently talented animators, background painters, layout people and voice artists (who all get a profile as each character is discussed).

 

It’s rare today to find an all-around cartoon property like Spongebob, who isn’t as seen largely as a sitcom, “adult” cartoon or kid’s show, that is standing the test of time. Spongebob and his fellow characters have the flexibility, potential and staying power of Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. It’s about time it is recognized in this way

 

Jerry Beck’s text acknowledges the history and impact of Spongebob and his friends on the world over the last fifteen years. It is not simply “decoration” in a pretty book, but of course Jerry’s copy could never be that, even in its most abbreviated form (I love that little Flintstones book). To keep things interesting, the pages have sidebars and running categories like and “favorite lines” and whimsical “little known facts.”

 

Like Oliver Twist, I want some more. Do another one, Jerry.








2013 HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE, PART TWO
Blog, Reviews, Movies, TV, Music, Downloads, Records, Books
Posted on Dec 20 2013 by Greg

BLU-RAY/DVD

MARY POPPINS 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION



No home should be without a copy of Mary Poppins to watch. If you've seen it many times, just leave it on and go about your business, it adds an element of fun to every job that must be done.



This is the first time Mary Poppins is on Blu-ray, much anticipated by all its fan. The picture is overall superb, but there is a bit of a contrasty quality that I'm guessing to due to Herculean efforts to spruce up some special effects that were state-of-the-art 50 years ago. The matte lines and grains are much less noticeable now and the animated sequence (I'm just as sorry as I can be, Mrs. Travers) glows with color. Mary Poppins, by the way, has finally been added to The National Film Registry (somebody must have told them, "Spit-Spot! Get to it!"

THE GENE AUTRY SHOW: THE COMPLETE SERIESCOLLECTORS EDITION




Gene Autry was not only King of the Cowboys in the mid-20th century, he also is still one of the best selling recording artists of all time. He recorded the original "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman," "When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter" and "Here Comes Santa Claus," which he co-wrote. This series is just a part of his entertainment empire, which you can glimpse in one of the many bonus features (and see momentos of at LA's Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage. The Gene Autry Show is a lot like Scooby-Doo: there are only a handful of plotlines, but who cares because you just want to watch him and his sidekick (Pat Buttram) bring baddies to justice. Some stereotypes are on a very few episodes (amazing considering its age), but overall it's a cozy slice of Americana. Some are even in color and remarkably well preserved.

IRON MAN & HULK: HEROES UNITED




For Marvel fans impatient for the next movie, this nicely constructed animated adventure is an exciting adventure. The action is virtually non-stop, but when there is a brief respite, Hulk and Iron Man bicker like Martha and Gertrude at the Automat. There are a few bonus features, including the very funny re-voiced "Marvel Mash-Ups" that make gentle but ridiculous sport of earlier Marvel TV cartoons.

THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS /
NESTOR, THE LONG-EARED CHRISTMAS DONKEY




It isn't really the holiday season without squeezing in as many Rankin/Bass specials as you can. The first special in this Warner Archive release, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, is based on the book by Wizard of Oz scribe L. Frank Baum. It's a fitting way finale to the Rankin/Bass canon of stop-motion animated specials, as it combines the whimsy of Rudolph with the mystical fantasy of The Hobbit, drawing both aspects of R/B together (the voice cast is also that of ThunderCats). Nestor is based on another song by Gene Autry (see above), with a very amusingly caricatured Roger Miller telling and singing the story of a misfit who triumphs over his "non-conformity." The animation for this special is especially smooth, (SPOILER) but be warned that there is a sad, Bambi-like moment.

THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER /
MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND




My favorite of the early Muppet films, The Great Muppet Caper was Jim Henson's feature directing debut. The score by "Bein' Green" composer Joe Raposo is the old-school Hollywood extravaganza type, with some major production numbers including a mammoth Esther Williams tribute that actually topped Mel Brooks' similar number the same year in his History of the World, Part 1. Plus it's got Diana Rigg. 'Nuff said. Muppet Treasure Island was the second feature after Jim Henson passed and though very entertaining with the dependable comic chops of Tim Curry, The Muppets were starting to chew their cabbage more than twice here. Both look spiffy on Blu-ray.

KUKLA, FRAN & OLLIE: THE FIRST EPISODES, VOL. 3




First of all, the first two volumes of this priceless DVD series are required if you love The Muppets, clever comedy timing, imaginative use of limited resources and pure talent. Burr Tillstrom's puppets stop being puppets after only a few minutes, thanks in large part to the golden-voiced Fran Allison, who makes us all believe. Forget the picture quality and little cramped stage: Burr and Fran turn it into the Tardis.

MUSIC

DOCTOR WHO: SERIES #7 TV SOUNDTRACK



Speaking of Tardises (or is it "tardi?"), you can't go wrong with Murray Gold's magnificent music for the current crop of Doctor Who series that have really taken the world by storm in a way I can't recall since The Muppet Show. Gold's score for season seven (and also several Christmas episode scores, also on CD) are varied, ethereal, dramatic and as "big" as the galaxy.

SAVING MR BANKS SOUNDTRACK



The Deluxe Edition Soundtrack Album of this very special film not only contains Thomas Newman's masterful score -- weaving his own compositions with interpolated Sherman songs -- but also includes several Sherman Brothers song demos and what is, in effect, Poppin's Greatest Hits. Plus, you can hear Colin Farrell's lyric read from the film's opening and the three memorable song pitch scenes with Emma Thompson, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak. Tom Hanks does not appear on the album, but then, Walt himself only recorded one album for his record company (Walt Disney Takes You to Disneyland).

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS SOUNDTRACKS



First of all, know that there are actually TWO sound track albums for the Chuck Jones/Boris Karloff animated TV special. The first one was released in 1966 by MGM Records and combines Karloff's sound track narration with a re-created version of the music and singing. It's quite wonderful, won a Grammy Award and is the only one of the two that is in stereo. You can get it on CD on the Mercury label.



Warner/Rhino released the actual TV soundtrack on another CD many years later. You'll notice a few seconds of additional music at the beginning and end, because they originally had sponsor mentions over them. A brand-new green vinyl disc of the Grinch was just released this year as well.

BOOKS

THE BOOK OF MOUSE



Few if any of even the most knowlegable Disneyphiles can read any book by longtime Disney Historian Jim Korkis and not say "I did not know that!" It's a testimony to the infinite nature of Disney's legacy that factual tidbits keep on coming, and it's also a testimony to Korkis' careful research and easygoing writing style that we get to enjoy it. This time, Jim takes on the life and times of the most iconic of animated characters, so much of a "real" being that he often transcends being a cartoon.

ANIMATED LIFE



If I were writing a book about my career, it wouldn't be nearly as amazing as Floyd Norman's but it would have the same conversational tone, candid without being tattletale-ish, respectful of both the subjects in the story and the reader. As you read, you're seeing the Walt Disney Studios through his eyes as he wanders the hallways where cool stuff is everywhere. The first half of the book chronicles Floyd's journey through his Disney career; the second half is a series of observations, advice, wisdom and fascinating anecdotes. What a joy that we are able to share in all this wonder with a Disney Legend in his own words.

THE ART OF JAY WARD PRODUCTIONS




In addition to animation veteran Darrell Van Citters' gotta-have tome about Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, this is a must-have too. While doing research for the Magoo book, he uncovered a treasure trove of artwork, sketches, layouts and more that really drive home the talent of the artists behind the Ward cartoons. You're only seeing the tip of the iceberg if you've only seen the shows themselves.

EVERYTHING'S COMING UP PROFITS



Longtime Late Night with David Letterman writer Steve Young (who was the mastermind behind "Dave's Record Collection") reveals a heretofore undiscovered side of musical theater, some of which is fantastic, some that might have been better left covered. Industrial musicals were common in the postwar era, all the way up to the '80s. Some soon-to-be Broadway musical powerhouses (like Bock and Harnick, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof) started their careers with these shows, which were surreal ways to get sales people excited about everything from cars and household notions to toilets and tractors. If you ever saw a live corporate sponsored show at a World's Fair, you get the idea. 







BOOK REVIEW: "Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells and Silent Nights"
Blog, Music, Books
Posted on Dec 15 2013 by Greg


TThis book is scholarly without being in the weeds and provides an intelligent examination of how Christmas evolved through its pop culture and musical progression. It certainly goes into an analytical depth that other books of this kind do not. Which is why there is a hole in it through which you could drive a truck.

I realize that the throwaway mention of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as a TV special is within the context of a treatise of the American family and yes, Santa and Rudolph's dad are negatively depicted. But what is astonishingly ignored is that it is the single longest running network special in TV history and has much more to it thematically. How could one overlook that Johnny Marks wrote eight additional songs for the special -- one of which, "Holly Jolly Christmas" is also a standard?

The author mentions the often deleted verse of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," yet overlooks the verse as it was written for the TV special based on that song. There's discussion of how the lyrics for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" were changed for Judy Garland. Shouldn't special lyrics for Fred Astaire also be mentioned?

How can one write a book about some of the greatest songs ever written yet briefly and arbitrarily dismiss the films they inspired -- particularly the musical aspects of these films? As an author, I know there are only so many pages in a work. However, one can limit extensive descriptions in one area to allow space for another.

No book can contain every song and that's why there are often follow up volumes. But the songs that are included should have benefited from having their cultural context more fully delineated by acknowledging the major and highly ubiquitous Rankin/Bass productions in which they still are seen and heard. We're talking generations of viewers (and listeners to their musical soundtracks) on TV, records and home video. More than a passing glance is needed.



This book really is well-written and it stacks up well against other books on the subject -- but because it aims a little higher, the omission becomes more glaring.







BOOK REVIEW: "Must Kill TV" by Emmy winner Ken Levine
Blog, TV, Books
Posted on Dec 12 2013 by Greg
Only a seasoned TV pro could have dreamed up this deliciously scathing dark comic journey through the labyrinth of the TV biz.

Ken Levine draws upon untold thousands of real-life jaw dropping moments he has encountered in the social, business and creative arenas of TV, and delivers a crisp satirical thriller that, while it may suggest other works along the same lines, is a fresh creation in itself.

The lead protagonist, over-promoted TV executive Charles Muncie, is not so much a character with whom the reader identifies as a set of eyes through which we peek behind the scenes and in the boudoir, where characters may not be what they seem and twists are as serpentine as they can really be in the creative and corporate world. Wait until you read how the sitcom -- upon which Charles' biggest success and his biggest moral dilemma -- got on the schedule. Let's put it this way. He took the credit -- and that's not a spoiler if you know work politics.

I could not help casting this story in my head as I read it. That was part of the fun. Levine's expertise in building characters and putting them into situations that are at once dark and yet very funny is a hallmark of his experience working on such shows as M*A*S*H, Frasier, Cheers, and the underappreciated Almost Perfect -- which gets a nod in the book, as "Blue Justice" was also the fictional TV show within that show.



Saying too much would spoil the fun and surprises of Must Kill TV. Suffice to say that I did not quite guess the "Oh NO!" moment at the heart of the book's denouement. But that's not even as much of a strange surprise as the fates that ultimately befall the major characters.

I read Ken Levine's blog every day, and based on what he has told readers about his real-life experiences, not EVERYONE in network TV is like this, nor are all the "non-pros." Just some.

Maybe a little more than just some.






2013 HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE, PART ONE
Blog, Reviews, Movies, TV, People, Music, Downloads, Records, Books
Posted on Dec 02 2013 by Greg

BLU-RAY/DVD


THE LITTLE MERMAID II: RETURN TO THE SEA / THE LITTLE MERMAID: ARIEL’S BEGINNING
Both sequels are on Blu-ray for the first time, along with two DVDs with each film. The first sequel, Return to the Sea, boasts many of the same cast members as the original film including Disney Legend Jodi Benson, but the nice songs by Patti and Michael Silversher are too few and the plot is a retread of the first story. This time we get a skinny version of Ursula and Disney’s version of Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley. Plus, Ariel and Eric are put in a situation very frustrating to the viewers as well as their daughter, Melody, but being brick walls about everything to do with Ariel’s magical past. Plus, in limited animation, Eric looks even more like the David Seville of the ‘80s.



The third Little Mermaid film (second on this set), Ariel’s Beginning, is a far superior film with a more solid storyline without delving into set pieces to extend the film length. We also get to know Ariel’s sisters better and meet a more original villain, amusingly named Marina Del Ray and superbly voiced by Sally Field, singing for the first time since The Flying Nun. Even the extras are better on this film. The animation is startlingly fluid for a direct to video production. Make the whole package worth it.


PLANES
Disney has taken a few jabs for putting what was originally planned as a direct to video feature and releasing to theaters, but Walt Disney did just that with Johnny Tremain and several other of his live-action features which either turned out better than expected or ran over budget.



In the case of Planes, the budget was upped and though the film seems to dreamily ramble a bit, it was clearly an attempt to attract more of the male sector of the audience and it succeeded tremendously. I’m not a big Dane Cook fan, but he does a creditable job as Dusty, a crop duster with a fear of heights, a character much more likable than Lightning McQueen in Cars. John Cleese turns in his usual scene stealing best as a jolly old British plane. Looks wonderful in HD on a big screen.


THE FLINTSTONES CHRISTMAS COLLECTION

It's nice to have these shows on DVD after wearing out my VHS tapes, which sometimes were recorded at EP and looked ecch. The 1977 A Flintstone Christmas special is of particular interest, coming at a time with The Flintstones and Hanna-Barbera were enjoying a resurgence in popularity.



It's also a musical special with songs that also popped up in other H-B Christmas specials. "Hope," sung by Wilma in this instance, is a cousin to "When You Wish Upon a Star" and was sung by Boo-Boo in Yogi's First Christmas. "Brand New Kind of Christmas Song" did originate in this special. Both this song and Boo-Boo's "Hope" can be heard on the Hanna-Barbera Christmas Sing Along sound track album.


The second special on this collection, A Flintstone Family Christmas, came after Turner acquired Hanna-Barbera and there was another resurgence with new merchandise and some really fine books, including a hardcover based on this special, which was nominated for an Emmy, a first for The Flintstones.


MARINE BOY – THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
Depending on where you lived, this dubbed Japanese cartoon series ran in syndication between 1967 and 1969. What’s interesting about it is that members of the Speed Racer cast does the dubbing, including Speed himself, Peter Fernandez. The music sounds to me to be composed by Billy Mure, who scored many MGM children’s records with Fernandez and the same cast.



“Marine Boy” is sort like “Jonny Quest” underwater. For some reason, even his dad calls him “Marine Boy.” But then, did Speed's parents give him that name at birth? Guess both were endearing nicknames.


The stories in Marine Boy are not as complex as some Japanese TV cartoon imports of the era, so younger kids will likely follow along nicely. The animation looks to me to be that Korean traced stuff that Warner/Seven Arts did with Porky Pig cartoons, though a little neater. I can’t confirm that as a fact, though. It’s just that the draftsmanship is not what I’ve seen in similar cartoons. But what a groovy theme song! There are actually two of them, and I like the one with the “oooooo’s.”


CDS AND DOWNLOADS


WALT DISNEY’S BABES IN TOYLAND – Original Cast Album
This is from the 1961 live action fantasy starring Annette, Ray Bolger, Tommy Sands, Ed Wynn and a very young Ann Jillian. It’s not the sound track but a “re-creation” with slightly different orchestrations, produced at Tutti Camarata’s Sunset Sound Studios.



It is not available on CD (though the Disney Parks did offer CD-R’s for a short time years ago). You can download it—with a pristine restoration by Walt Disney Records’ master producer, Randy Thorton—on iTunes.


SANTA CLAUS-THE MOVIE Original Sound Track Album
Though I love the movie and enjoyed it when it was released, not everyone does. Regardless, the magnificent score by Henry Mancini is one of the best “traditional” music and song scores of the ‘80s, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and a pop solo by Sheena Easton (“It’s Christmas All Over the World”) that should get more airplay.



Be careful when ordering this album on CD, as you’ll want the expanded edition, not the single album on CD. The expanded edition has everything the original EMI LP had plus many more pieces of music that couldn’t fit on the vinyl disc as well as alternates and deleted selections and an interesting booklet.


MARY POPPINS Special Edition Original Sound Track Album
You know that tape recorder you see taking in what happened during those meetings with the persnickety Ms. Travers and the supercalifragilistic Shermans? You can hear many of the REAL ones on disc two of this glorious sound track album.



The aforementioned Randy Thornton pretty much put the entire musical score on this album for the first time and it should be in every home.


THE SHERMAN BROTHERS SONGBOOK



Speaking of the Shermans, the landmark songs from their history making career are contained on two discs here. There's even a non-Disney film represented in this collection, with the Oscar-nominated theme from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was tthe brothers’ first outside film, done with the approval of Disney. On this collection, the great Mike Sammes Singers perform the song. Every home should have this, too.


BOOKS


JIM HENSON – THE BIOGRAPHY
A meticulously detailed portrait of the man behind the Muppets, unlike anything published before. Lengthy yet a brisk read, the book covers the length and breadth of Henson’s life and career in a matter-of-fact, clear headed way, without the armchair speculative psychology of other bios of others (you know which ones).



Few will read this and say, “I already knew ALL of that” or they’d be fibbing.

 

INSIDE THE WHIMSY-WORKS: My Life with Walt Disney Productions
Disney Legend Jimmy Johnson rose from the mailroom to merchandise and from publishing to launching what is now Walt Disney Records. He wrote this memoir in 1975 but it was never published until now.



This is one of the very first insider looks at what is was like working for Disney from the Snow White days to the opening of Walt Disney World. I know this is a blatant plug and you have to pre-order the book because it won’t be sent out until February 2014, but please consider getting a copy and wrapping up the amazon description as a lovely thing to place under the tree.










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