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Blog, Movies
Posted on Nov 07 2010 by Greg

Pixar already has Hollywood dumbfounded by its unbroken track record of solid box office hits. Now Toy Story 3 has surged ahead of its sister films and become the leader. It has also done what even Coppola couldn't do: make a third sequel that arguably tops the first two films.

Much has already been said and written about Toy Story 3. While the majority of opinions have been positive, it has also been called the "darkest" of the Toy Story movies. Some have also expressed displeasure at the cruelty of the Lotso character. [Spoiler alert] One might wonder if there were some behind the scenes debates; there had to been some concern that the fluffy pink bear's misbehavior might have affected merchandising and such (though to our family's thinking, we've reconciled the plush and theme park versions of Lotso as "other Lotsos" and not the discarded, bitter bear we saw in the movie.

Toy Story 3, like all of Pixar's features and shorts, seem to have a creative vision funneled through a singular director. Even though TS3's director, Lee Unkrich, has been with the franchise since the beginning, this particular film really has Unkrich's humor and intensity.

This theory is based on the extensive and detailed audio commentary he does with producer Darla K (for Kay) Anderson, in which explains the stories behind the story decisions and even the little jokes (for instance, Michael Keaton mispronounced "library" as Ken and Unkrich left it in and overruled requests to the contrary -- and it does get a laugh in theaters). But on a larger scale, if one were to take the caricature of him literally (which you can see in a bonus feature about the crew shaving their heads), he seems to be perceived as a pretty intense fellow.

I saw the movie three times in theaters and my family saw it twice. It made me misty eyed every time, both at the beginning and especially at the end. Like Walt Disney's classic animation, these CG-generated creatures have the ability to elicit real emotion from viewers. When Andy explains each toy to little Bonnie, it's truly touching, not contrived for effect. And yet the film is laugh out loud funny in other places, such as Mr. Potato Head's makeshift "base bodies." Much of these ideas are explained in the commentary too.

Nearly every animated feature today uses celebrity voices, but to the new and carryover casts of Toy Story 3, this isn't just a pick-up-the-check-and-mention-it-to-Leno deal to any of the stars involved here. They know they are part of something special and don't take it lightly, I'm certain. My favorite performances have to be Jodi Benson as Barbie and the aforementioned Keaton as Ken. The apparently did their lines together and the timing pays off (many voice actors, especially stars, do their lines separately). It's even funny when Ken is reading the roll and, angry at his lady doll, call her name out with middle-school disdain ("BAR-bie.") Things like this make repeated viewings fun.

Most of the extras are on the 2 Blu-ray discs, though the commentary and a few of the "animatic"-style behind the scenes features are also on the single DVD. I was particularly pleased that there is also a narrative audio option for the entire film, so those with sight challenges can enjoy the film as a narrator explains the action. This is actually quite nice as a bonus feature too, because you don't have to stare at the screen and you can get a "Disneyland Storyteller" LP-type experience. Perhaps this service, produced by WGBH in Boston, will be included on future Disney and Pixar releases.

Blog, Books
Posted on Nov 02 2010 by Greg

The theme songs to Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, Love American Style, The Bugaloos, ABC Wide World of Sports, The Love Boat and many more, all icons of 70's TV, were composed by Charles Fox, who also composed hits like "I've Got a Name," "Ready to Take a Chance Again" and "Killing Me Softly with His Song."

Killing Me Softly is the name of his new memoir. You can hear him interviewed by author Ed Robertson on TV Confidential, which will be repeated three times at day througout the week on Next week, you can download the two-hour program as a podcast on iTunes or on the TV Confidential website.

Some cool things I learned: Fox chose Cyndi Grecco to sing "Making Our Dreams Come True" after hearing her perform during a day at Magic Mountain with his kids. And he has donated the prop 45 rpm record that was in the jukebox at the beginning of early Happy Days episodes to the Smithsonian, which also displays Fonzie's jacket.

My personal favorite Charles Fox score is the magnificently groovy and glorious soundtrack to the movie version of Pufnstuf.

Blog, TV
Posted on Oct 30 2010 by Greg
Mickey Rooney made a lot of TV appearances as a guest on other people's shows -- and won acclaim in the Rod Serling-scripted drama The Comedian, but like a lot of film stars, he never was able to sustain a long running regular series.

The one with the most potential for longevity was The Mickey Rooney Show - Hey Mulligan! (having two titles made things confusing right there). It ran one season in 1954-55 on NBC against The Jackie Gleason Show on CBS.

Each show began with someone shouting "Hey Mulligan!," a title format adopted over a decade later on That Girl. I don't know if those "Hey Culligan Man!" commercials had any connection or not. Anyway, Rooney played a twentysomething Andy Hardy living with his parents (played by Regis Toomey and Claire Carleton), courting a longtime girlfriend (Carla Balenda) and somehow keeping a job as a network page for a fictional TV network.

The network page idea is a great one for a sitcom, not fully realized again until 30 Rock, though Rooney plays it strictly for broad slapstick. Blake Edwards wrote many of the episodes, foreshadowing the legendary success he had with another bumbling character, Inspector Clouseau.

Guest cast members included Angie Dickinson, Guy Williams (Zorro, Lost in Space); Alan Reed (The Flintstones); Pat Carroll (The Little Mermaid, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella); and Robert Shayne (The Adventures of Superman).

One of the strongest assets of The Mickey Rooney Show was the underrated Joey Forman as his "Ethel Mertz." Forman became a favorite featured player in sitcoms and movies of the '60s (Harry Hoo of Get Smart among others) and was a very talented comic actor. This series doesn't maximize his talents as much as it could, but he and Rooney have a good chemistry and it would have been nice to see how the series progressed had it lasted.

Why didn't it last? The competition, first of all, but perhaps more than that, it was an incident in which Rooney was rude to the sponsor at a social gathering. He described it very honestly in his autobiography, Life is Too Short. He felt as if he was being pressed into service as a performer for their social amusement and chose a very off putting way to strike out at the president of the company.

Interesting series, available complete in one DVD set. Interesting book too.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 22 2010 by Greg
Walt Disney's True-Life Adventure series began with Seal Island, one of many ideas he had that seemed crazy at the time -- a genre of film in which massive amounts of nature footage was edited to tell a story. The series was a long running success, leading to an endless parade of shorts, features and, more than anything else, TV shows featuring animals.

There were also some controversies. Some animal specialists and other critics were not pleased with how these films created an "anthropomorphosis" for the animals, attributing to them thoughts and motivations created through the editing and narration rather than real life events. You know, like reality TV (so does that make Snooki the new Perri?)

However, that was part of the entertainment value of the films, and what made them so memorable. It's to the credit of those who create films either produced or released by Disneynature to acheive a similar quality with a keener eye for nonfiction.

They also have an advantage early nature documentarists never dreamed of -- high-definition photography and fascinating gadgets like remote helicopter-like cameras and deep-sea devices.

These developments and more are put to extremely effective use on both new Disneynature Blu-ray and DVD releases, Disneynature: Oceans and Crimson Wing-The Mystery of the Flamingo. These two features each offer spectacular footage never before put on film.

In place of the paternal Winston Hibler or the folksy Rex Allen, who did so much of the early Disney nature film narrations, Oceans is told with a combination of awe and matter-of-fact assertion by Pierce Brosnan. Listening to him narrate, I couldn't help wondering how many other commercials and films I had heard with his voice, but not realizing it.

Oceans is a dynamic, but fairly straightforward tour through the seas, showcasing the familiar, the strange and of course, the endangered (Disney Channel pop stars Demi Lovato and Joe Jonas add their "Friends for Change" note with a song over the end credits that is also a music video).

The bonus features examine the filmmaking techniques and also promote the Disney Corporate environmental initiatives, which might seem a bit self-serving to some but is a largely sincere and highly accomplished effort by those involved who are seriously dedicated to these issues. Disney's a big company and it's a business, but it also brings these issues into the mainstream and allows costly research to take place. And it gets films like this into the mainstream, too.

Of the two films, Crimson Wing is the most unique. Told in a lyrical style, it's more of an epic poem on film than a documentary. The images are often surprisingly abstract -- like visual puzzles that disorient the eye before revealing what they are. In one sequence, for example, the flamingos glide over a lake surface so calm you can't tell where the birds are until the ripples appear.

The narrator of Crimson Wing is Mariella Frostrup, well-known to BBC watchers and listeners. To me, her narrator conjured up memories of the original Living Seas film at Epcot ("And it rained, and rained and rained...the deluge"). The whole film has that quality. So if you're a vintage Epcot fan, you'll get a kick out of Crimson Wing in a way that the filmmakers never intended, I'm sure.

Oceans and Crimson Wing both take the viewer out of the everyday and to a larger plane of existence, a bigger picture, as it were, of our existence and that of the creatures around us. It can't hurt to be reminded that there's a lot more to the world.

Blog, TV
Posted on Oct 15 2010 by Greg
The creators of Phineas and Ferb have exactly what I always expected from watching the show --  a lot of creative freedom. The show started quietly and gained its audience on its own, not because of a business plan, but because they were largely left to make a funny, smart show.

This new DVD contains the recent PHINEAS AND FERB CHRISTMAS VACATION episode plus four more: Interview with a Platypus; Oh There You Are, Perry; Chez Platypus and Perry Lays an Egg. All are great examples of how this series weaves its storylines with grace and panache, loaded with lots of quick asides in the spirit of other great comedy cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Bullwinkle.

There's an extra episode in the Bonus Features called "Doof Side of the Moon" preceeded by a 12-minute feature about how the creative team writes and performs their original songs and how one of their favorite episodes "Spongebob"veteran Dan Povenmire,  comedy writer/performer Martin Olson, Jon Colton Barry (son of legendary songwriter Jeff Barry) and Jeff "Swampy Marsh" whose is the grandson of bandleader Les Brown.

I mention the musical connections especially because Phineas and Ferb is very music-generated and again, not just by committee-engineered pop tunes by by comic effect, from rock to big band, Broadway to Bollywood. Many of the songs written for the show have been released on CD, including a new holiday favorites album. Most of the music and songs came from the above team, with the able help of musical director Danny Jacob.

The interactive menu is really interactive, not just called by that heavily-used term. Clicking various objects results in quick appearances by characters. One in particular takes you to a video in which the show staff conspire to cover a co-workers office with post-it notes.

You can tell from the bonus features on the new PHINEAS AND FERB: A VERY PERRY CHRISTMAS DVD that the creative forces behind the show are relatively free of the interfering words: "Well, I don't get that joke and neither do my associates, so the whole world won't so therefore kill it dead and let me watch is fester, rot and bleach in the sun." Well, maybe not in those words, but I can just imagine how a song like "Squirrels in my Pants" might die in a corporate approval process.

Let's hope the recent phenomenal success of Phineas and Ferb continues to thrive in relative autonomy. But somehow even if it does happen to a degree, we can probably look forward to a sly spoof of the internal ordeal, so veiled it may pass over the tops of the Herman Miller head rests.

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