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Star of the "other Avengers" conquers time and space--and looks sensational, too
Blog, TV
Posted on Aug 30 2013 by Greg

How could I, as a self-respecting fan of The Avengers (the Patrick Macnee TV classic, not the comic book entity) resist 34 half hour episodes of a different sci-fi/fantasy series in which Joanna Lumley appears, solves mysteries of time and space and appears decked out in one wondrous style after another?

To me, Joanna Lumley is the whirling warrior of bizarre crime in 1977's The New Avengers, the fourth partner of John Steed on his various quirky quests. Others know her best from Absolutely Fabulous or even James and the Giant Peach, in roles that were broader and less flattering, but prove she's a actor with no fear.

Her smooth, deep voice also graces many an audio book. She sounds like the caramel inside a Cadbury Bar if it could speak.

Sapphire shows little fear either. Steel is well, Steely. David McCallum is generally not known for his zaniness. In his two American series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Invisible Man, his persona is stern as it is here, though Steel is even more dour.

Sapphire and Steel is a TV recipe blending a few slices of time travel from Doctor Who, a helping of serial format similar to that of Dark Shadows and a dash of Upstairs, Downstairs (particularly in Assignment 5). There's even a little of Land of the Lost here, in that the scripts are far more ambitious than the visuals, but they do the best they can and hope you'll let your imagination fill in the rest. (The premise of a "rip in time" is not unlike the 2005 Doctor Who episode, "Father's Day.")

Shot on videotape, the series has sparse special effects that appear quickly and carefully to obscure their modest nature. The sets, nice as they are, become really, really familiar to you as the actors spend lots of time on them.

Each of the six untitled "Assignments" are  clusters of episodes that make up individual story arcs. An Assignment can run anywhere from four to six half-hour episodes.

My favorite is the fifth one, which features the largest cast and the most dry wit. A millionaire throws a 30's party in which nothing contemporary is allowed. When such anomalies occur, there are these "rips in time" and that means it's time for Sapphire and Steel to crash the party, get bossy when murders seem to occur and even give one of the guests their power of telepathy.

A few caveats, I'm a fan of the musical director, Cyril Ornadel, who did a number of fine recordings I grew up with, as well as the Original Cast Album of My Fair Lady. But don't let theme music and the stentorian announcer make you think the show is campy. It's actually very serious, highly ethereal and ambiguous.

Also don't expect the pace and panache of the recent Doctor Who episodes that began in 2005. The stories are leisurely paced and require focused attention as they can be serpentine and puzzling (some never really make sense by their own design).

My advice is to avoid binge-viewing Sapphire and Steel, but to watch one or two at a time and return to it fresh. Otherwise it seems to wander and so does your concentration. Savor each episode.

Approach Sapphire and Steel as a collection of imaginative teleplays, not mini-movies. Let the series unfold before you on its own fascinating terms.

"Mad Men" scores with its scores
Blog, Music
Posted on Aug 27 2013 by Greg

"Carbonara" is much more than a delicious pasta recipe. It’s a fine composer who contributes an enormous amount of atmosphere, dramatic impact and even ironic humor to one of the greatest series in TV history.

Creating a score for a series that captures the eclectic styles of the ‘60s and how they changed over the decade, has to have its challenges. What I like about David Carbonara’s music is that, like the sets, props and costumes on Mad Men, it’s authentic. There’s no nod to contemporizing it to make it more marketable to “today’s tastes.” What results is music that stands on its own, written and played by its own rules.

The latest album of Mad Men soundtrack scores is called Mad Men: On the Rocks. It’s a blend of new selections with some previously released tracks.

There are quite a few Mad Men albums out there, so I tried to sort them out. Basically they fall into two categories. The score albums contained instrumental background music primarily composed by Carbonara, but also a few selections by other composers that have been performed for the series soundtrack by Carbonara and the studio orchestra.

The compilations, which are not necessarily “official” Mad Men albums, are collections of hit songs and obscure gems, many sung by the original artists, from the ‘60s, which were either featured on the show or might have been.

Music Score Collections:
 Mad Men: Original Score, Vol. 1 (2009)
 Mad Men: After Hours (2010)
 Mad Men: Night Cap (2013)
 Mad Men: On the Rocks (2013)

Compilations of Classic Songs Played on the Show:
 Mad Men: Music from the Series, Vol. 1 (2008)
 Mad Men: Music from the Series, Vol. 2 (2009)
 Mad Men: A Musical Companion (2 Discs) (2011)
 The Many Moods of Mad Men:  A Musical Companion (2 Discs) (2013)

The very first album, “Mad Men: Original Score, Volume 1,” is available for download but is hard to find in CD form, at least for a reasonable price, plus you can also find some of the selections from that 2009 album on “Mad Men: After Hours.” I have not yet been able to determine if there was ever a Volume 2 of “Mad Men: Original Score.”

Volume 2 of “Mad Men: Music from the Series” is also hard to find but is not available for download.

Mad Men: On the Rocks is pure, magnificent soundtrack score music. Here is the track list with comments:

1.              Pacific Coast Highway*

Not to be confused with the 1969 Burt Bacharach instrumental, but an equally fine bossa nova that is a great way to open the album

2.              The Man With The Miniature Orchestra

Pensive piece suggesting “Moonlight Sonata”

3.              Beautiful Girls
Iconic Mad Men piece that reminds me of the theme from The Artist

4.              Betty Home and Sally’s Story

Tense, tightly wound, much like Betty and Sally

5.              Bunny’s Bop

Energetic jazz number, reminiscent of the Mannix theme

6.              Hurry Into The Far Away Places

Haunting and dark

7.              Drapers Ruse
Another iconic theme, with vibes and flutes

8.              Summer Man
Soul searching; sounds like a trek through a hot, barren wasteland

9.              The Arrival

Calm, cool, Route 66-style

10.           Hotel Bossa

What the the “smart set” hears when they stay in classy digs

11.           Lights Out

Introspective, probing

12.           For Number Four and Anna
Don is lost and alone

13.           At The Codfish Ball

Odd, disturbing waltz as if heard through a looking glass

14.           Don And Betty In Rome

Even tempered with a tense undertone

15.           Like A Good Girlfriend*

Bouncy and “Peanuts”-like

16.           First Kiss

Tender, thoughful

17.           A Little Kiss
Light bossa beat, very bachelor pad

18.           The New York Times

Impending trouble ahead

19.           Glo-Coat

Don’s award winning TV commercial

20.           Christmas Conga*

Merry music masks the forced fun

21.           Pete’s Not Talking
Music for the petulance of Mr. Campbell

22.           Betty’s Call
It’s not good news or is it someone selling aluminum siding

23.           A Beautiful Mine (Performed by RJD2)*

Extended version of the Mad Men theme

*Previously released on Mad Men: Night Cap


"I ate my boyfriend--but we can't let it stop us."
Blog, TV
Posted on Aug 26 2013 by Greg

So says Red Riding Hood, who is also a werewolf, to Dr. Whale, who is also Dr. Frankenstein.

They're two residents of Storybrooke, the New England town that wasn't there before 1983, when the Evil Queen moved the whole population. Sending fairy tale characters from their enchanted world to the modern world isn't new to ABC--a short lived, broadly played sitcom called The Charmings had a similar premise.

But Once Upon a Time is a sumptuous "theme park opera" in which the relationships and the relatives are as serpentine as Maleficent the dragon.

Season Two brought the realization to the characters that they were actual fairy tale people. They didn't believe young Henry last year, but like the existence of Mr. Snuffle-Upagus, eventually you can't keep denying the truth. So now the characters have dual essences; they remember who they were and who they are. Prince Charming (or should I say "Cool Hand Charming?") takes control and sets the town straight.

Snow White and Emma Swan realize they're mother and daughter, and are embarrassed about all the intimate talks they shared (apparently Snow had a one-night stand, but it was caused by a spell).

The season also brings us the even evil-er Queen Cora, played by Barbara Hershey (who renamed herself "Barbara Seagull" in the '70s to draw attention to the plight of the species, and then changed it back). Was the name "Cora" drawn from the character Margaret "Wicked Witch of the West" Hamilton played in hundreds of Maxwell House commercials before her passing?

The other major newcomer is the beardy, Revlon-eyed Captain Hook, played with vim and vigor (but mostly vim) by Colin O'Donoghue, who in a bonus feature seems to be shocked by the amorous attention he apparently is getting from fans. (It's not like he asked to wear the sleek leather outfit with the flowing cape and the shiny chain around his neck and the shirt open to there, ladies!)

Hook is much better in the second half of the season when he settles into a supporting role. He plays well off the other actors, who have really honed their roles and created a nice chemistry.

Moving right along to biology, what's with Snow White and the Prince doin' it on camera, as their daughter and grandson enter the bedchamber? Without being a spoiler, Snow is racked with guilt about another questionable deed, yet after being found together with nothing on but a 250-count cotton percale, she and Princey wait for their family to leave and then get back to gettin' it on.

Even Mom and Dad Dunphy of Modern Family were shocked, embarrassed and angry when their kids discovered them doing the same thing, and they're not even Disney characters.

No matter how complex the storylines get and the double crosses get double crossed this season, the standard bearers for the series remain Lana Parilla as Regina the Evil Queen (what's really magic is how she never smears that ruby red lip gloss) and Robert "Full Monty" Carlyle as Rumpel Stiltskin (but you can call him "Rumpel").

Like Dark Shadows, another ABC series, in which vampire Barnabas was racked with guilt about his murderous condition, yet slipped in and out of being a hero and a villain, so do Regina and Rumpel. Between that classic conflict and their acting skills, they're the ones upon which most of the rest of the show radiates. They can't turn nice, or you'd have no story. But you find yourself hoping they'll reform. And they do, then they don't, then they do.

Season two of Once Upon a Time looks like a movie on Blu-ray. The details of the costuming and art direction show up nicely. The special effects are mostly impressive, though the seams show once in a while. But you just couldn't do a show with the illusory sets and vistas in this series back in the day, before green screens and digital effects made such things faster and more economically feasible for TV.

And now for the bonus features (wait, let me get out my invisible chalk). This set has some of the most entertaining on any DVD set. Ariel Winter of Modern Family traces the convoluted family trees of the characters, so completely outlandish that even the cast themselves has trouble keeping it straight.

Several interesting audio commentaries add to the understanding of how stories were created and how the actors approached their roles, especially after the curse ended, and they had to be two people in one. Gennifer "Snow" Goodwin explains that "Bobby" Carlyle actually changes Rumpel's behavior based on which character he encounters. Carlyle himself has assigned numbers to the levels of Rumpel's intensities. This is why I love commentaries!

The gem of the bonus features is a spoof of Good Morning America that features funny commercials (particularly the one for Granny's Diner in which Red does her impression of SCTV's Edna Boil) and the cast gets to have fun making fun. Check out how unctuous Doctor Whale is in his segment. They're having a blast with this short video, which was played at this year's ComicCon.

Next season promises a visit to Never Land and the appearance of Ariel. Even though the best of TV's series can ebb and flow as Once Upon a Time has this season, who couldn't resist sticking with it?

How Tim Burton and John Landis lent a hand to "The Muppet Movie"
Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 16 2013 by Greg

When Jim Henson wanted every Muppet in the grand finale of his first feature film to be operated by a person, rather than being static or electronic (there was no CG in 1979), the call went out for performers to converge on the studio where it was filming. Among them were a young animator (Burton) and a fledging filmmaker (Landis).

And while The Muppet Movie was the first feature for the Henson crew, it was the last for legendary ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whose Charlie McCarthy character was a forerunner for figures that transcended their technology. It didn’t matter that Bergen’s lips moved, or that he when he was on radio there was no visual, Charlie McCarthy was a living breathing soul, just as Kermit and Miss Piggy are, regardless of whether you can see the puppeteer.

When you see The Muppet Movie, you are seeing the cutting edge in puppetry and an endless procession of celebrities. Even though both are still impressive and make many current billion dollar special effects extravaganzas of today pale in comparison, what stands out is the clever script, the music and the unearthly talent of the Muppet performers.

Even though The Muppet Movie was a major release in 1979 and a huge hit, it has a gentle smallness, almost an underground film feel. Though it looks better than I’ve ever seen it on Blu-ray, there is a marked difference between this film’s image and sound quality and that of the Muppet films that followed.

If you’re a Monkees fan, The Muppet Movie is helmed by the same director of much of that series, a nice blend of the fourth wall breaking style of Monkee and Muppet.

This new “Nearly 35th Anniversary Edition” includes Frawley’s test footage of The Muppets in natural settings a feature well worth the price of the package that was left off the 2005 DVD edition.

Perhaps the major stars of the film is not seen but heard the musical score and songs by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. “The Rainbow Connection” has become a standard, while the song that took its Oscar, “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, is largely forgotten. Ah well, such is also like it goes with many awards and their ultimate meaning...

“Adele” twists on “Tintin”...or “Indiana Jones” meets “Mary Poppins”
Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 15 2013 by Greg
Like the Belgian comic book series "The Adventures of Tintin," "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec" is a beloved comic book series in France. "Tintin" became two animated series and a 2011 Steven Spielberg motion-capture Hollywood spectacular, while "Adele" was adapted into this more modest (though certainly flashy) French live-action feature in 2010.

This new DVD of "Adele," directed by Luc Beeson ("The Fifth Element"), includes an English dubbed version as well as the original subtitled French language version. The bonus features are in French with English subtitles. Usually it’s not recommended to watch the bonus features first, but in this case, if you’re not familiar with the Adele character or the comics, it actually enhances watching the film and gaining excitement for the experience.

Some have compared "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec" to an Indiana Jones movie, and there are indeed some scenes that resemble the first in the film series (Adele runs through a pyramid from an explosion much as Indy ran from the giant ball), but it’s a different kind of narrative. Right from the opening narration, "Adele" is a highly polished satirical farce, consistently poking fun at pompous types. There’s a bumbling duo in this film that are reminiscent of the spies in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

But there were no pterodactyls or mummies in "Chitty." And even though you’ll see them in "Adele", they may surprise you.

Adele herself, as played by Louise Bourgoin, is a bit of a smart aleck. In her turn-of-the-century posh frock, Adele nay resemble Mary Poppins or Truly Scrumptious, but with a more irreverent attitude.

Beeson apparently cast Bourgoin because of her talent for mimicry and ability to play multiple roles. She was also primarily a TV rather than a movie presence so the most audiences would accept her as Adele and not as a big name movie star.

Though the film rambles at times (it’s based on two graphic novels), "Adele" is a jaunty romp that never takes itself as, say, the recent "Adventures of Tintin," which had humor but had anything but a light touch. The most serious and heartrending moments in "Adele" concern her disabled sister, the freak accident that caused it and how it motivates Adele in her various quests and gives the story a thread.

Speaking of Adele’s sister, there are a few deleted scenes in the bonus features that showcase the zany side of the two trouble-prone young ladies in their earlier days.

There’s also a feature about Bourgoin’s singing of the end title song, a peppy tune that has a very European sound, very unlike pop in the U.S., at least of recent years. It’s very catchy stuff.

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