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Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 04 2010 by Greg
Before he started making movies with Hollywood names and geting known for the breakneck editing techniques of Moulin Rouge, Australian director/co-screenwriter Baz Luhrmann gained international acclaim and a shelf of awards for Strictly Ballroom, a quirky, highly stylized light drama about a young dancer who apparently isn't allowed to improvise and the young plain Jane who becomes his partner.

Filmed with a marvelous Aussie cast, Luhrmann made up for a clearly limited budget with flashy lighting, dynamic color and a an eclectic mix of musical styles. Though referred to as musical, there is no on-camera singing and the songs are used as dance background for the most part. Doris Day's hit, "Perhaps" is referred to by Luhrmann as a "pricey" acquistion for the film but very much worth it.

Disney fans will want to listen for "Os quindines de ya ya" which serves as the key music for the father's dancing past. "Ya ya" was the big number in Walt Disney's The Three Caballeros in which the produce lady danced with Donald Duck, the townspeople and an animated dancing city. Another song, "No Other Love," was a '50s pop tune adapted from Chopin which was a hit for Jo Stafford and was one of the handful of Disney songs that were not created for movies but just as pop hits, like "Shrimp Boats" and "Mule Train."

I never could quite cotton to the whiplash pace of Moulin Rouge, so even though Strictly Ballroom sometimes has a Howard Hawks rate of speed, it's not all in the editing but rather in the performances, which are uniformly excellent. The opening scenes were so raucously done that they reminded me, of all things, of an episode of The Monkees.

Parents should take note that, although this film has a PG rating and is not as gritty as it might have been, there is some strong language and one scene in which a dance judge and and a young woman are seen in bed, vigorously engaged what my dad used to call "spoo-ja-doo."

This special edition DVD includes an audio commentary from 2002 with Luhrmann, Choreographer John "Cha Cha" O'Connell and Production Designer Catherine Martin and a new half-hour chronicle of the story behind the film, which was a Cinderella story in itself, from a student musical to a plucky little film with a first-time director and star to a dubious opening with a negative review, all the way to a Cannes Film Festival award win. This film was quite a change of pace in its day, many years before the dawn of popular TV dance competition shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.

Have to add, though, that the first time Antonio Vargas and Paul Mercurio begin the pivotal paso doble dance, it can't help now but conjure up an image of Buzz Lightyear's Spanish mode in Toy Story 3.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 03 2010 by Greg
When Disney announced a live action adventure feature based on The Sorcerer's Apprentice, at first it was met with disbelief. When it became clear that it was a action/fantasy more in the manner of a modern day Harry Potter, the general reception improved. However the box office did not yield results as spectacular as the resulting film.

It's a shame because my family and I enjoyed it in the theather and again seeing it at home on this DVD/Blu-Ray release. Nicolas Cage plays the mentor sorcerer Balthazar in the manner of his performance in National Treasure, a crowd favorite, and Jay Baruchel (who scored much higher, box-office-wise, in How to Train Your Dragon) does a creditable job as a likable young nerd who learns the apparent connection between science and magic.

The cast appears to be having a ball. The always entertaining Alfred Molina delights in yet another larger-than-life villain role, much more rich than the one he was given in Prince of Persia.

There are some deleted scenes as bonus features (more on the Blu-Ray than the DVD) and making-of feature, but no commentary, which might have been welcome. However there is that thoughtful narrative description feature for the sight impaired and those of us who might like to listen to the movie without watching -- like the classic Disneyland Storyteller LP series of days past.

The film's centerpiece of course is the iconic broom sequence made so famous by Mickey Mouse's definitive Fantasia performance and Paul Dukas' masterful music. It's cute and brilliantly executed (as one of the bonus features prove) but hardly the same as the animated version. However, these moments of sheer magical whimsy put me in the mind of Bedknobs and Broomsticks and made me yearn for a all-out family fantasy in the classic Disney tradition. Maybe someday...

Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 02 2010 by Greg
It's been said that there are only seven basic storylines for westerns. The same might be said for Christmas movies and The Search for Santa Paws is no exception. This one leans a bit toward Miracle on 34th Street, but as Santa's magic bag of story ideas started to run low, it clearly was time to "pay tribute" to Mister Magorium's Wonder Emporium and about eight gallons of Annie.

The interesting thing is that, of the many entries in the "Buddies" series, including last year's Santa Buddies, this film is less about the cute talking puppies and more about an amnesiac Santa, several adorable orphans and warm hearted yuppies.

No kidding, the little orphan girls sing a song in their room just like "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile"  and the youngest orphan sings her version of "Maybe." Actually the whole film is largely a musical with on-camera singing with both the orphans in New York and the elves at the North Pole. The songs and the lavish musical score are nice, though, and I'm looking for a soundtrack CD (last year, you had to buy Santa Buddies at Target to get a soundtrack) but can't seem to find one this time around.

There's even a Miss Hannigan type who burns toys, bans singing and "is a strict home schooler." Okay, why did that line have to be there? Especially when countless home schooling parents might be part of the buying public. I know she's really lying and making the girls work for her, but the line's not necessary nor nice.

What's most interesting for holiday movie buffs is that the special effects, particularly Santa's sleigh flying over New York, must be more rudimentary and certainly less cumbersome to create for this modestly budgeted direct-to-DVD movie than it was back when 1985's Santa Claus the Movie used quite a bit of its multi million dollar budget on doing pretty much the same thing without the benefit of today's technology.

Disney Channel watchers will recognize a lot of actors from various shows, including Madison Pettis (who's grown up a bit since Cory in the House), John Ducey (the JONAS dad) and G. Hannelius (of Sonny with a Chance). Voicing the lead puppy is Mitchel Musso of Hannah Montana and Pair of Kings.

It's pleasant going but isn't likely to replace Dickens. But then, it isn't intended to. It's kind of like one of those store bought holiday cookie making kits. The cookies are kinda tasty, very colorful, the kids enjoy them. But they're not the same as those cookies you waited all year for to arrive from Aunt Marge.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Nov 28 2010 by Greg
Three must-have Disney documentaries make their DVD debut on Tuesday, Nov. 30: The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story (watch this blog for an upcoming interview with the Sherman cousins), Walt and el Grupo (more about that on my Nov. 21 blog) and Waking Sleeping Beauty, the story of the tumultuous though successful second golden age of Disney animation.

Waking Sleeping Beauty, of the three films, has received the most notice in the press because it involves the most current high-profile films and some of the highest rollers in entertainment. It is a major work, not only because it reveals more about the goings-on behind the Disney scenes, good and bad, than any Disney-released film before it, but also because it shows what it was like to have those "dream jobs" of being a Disney animator during it most explosive period since Walt's days.

The DVD adds a detailed audio commentary by filmmakers Don Hahn and Peter Schneider and a generous supply of bonus features like deleted scenes and informative segments that build on the film itself. I wish the film could have continued the story beyond the resignation of Jeffrey Katzenburg, but as one animator in a deleted scene does comment, things were never the same when Katzenburg left. The same is said for Howard Ashman, Frank Wells, Joe Ranft and most recently, Roy E. Disney. History has proved it true in the ensuing years though things are certainly looking up since the end of the contentious period described in the book "Disney Wars".

Take a look at the Waking Sleeping Beauty Bonus Features, and in a section called Studio Tours, you'll enjoy three informal romps through the animation halls with animator/director Randy Cartwright (filmed by none other than John Lasseter, just before he started doing that "computer stuff.") A young Tim Burton appears in the 1980 segment, but that's not the surprise.

In the 1990 segment, Randy visits director John Musker's office as he is reading the latest Animation Magazine. John holds up the magazine and there is the great big name of renowned animation historian JIM KORKIS right in our astonished faces!
Imagine that!

Jim was a regular columnist for Animation and his exquisite anecdotes, little-known and never-known facts helped him amass his legion of fans worldwide.

You probably know that Jim's latest book, The Vault of Walt, is the talk of every animation enthusiast, Disney fan and noted expert this season. It's probably on your amazon wish list. Jim took his columns and blogs and updated them with even more information. It's a treasure trove. No one could possibly read this and say, "Oh I already knew everything in there!" Even Diane Disney Miller herself, who wrote the forward.

And with all that Jim has done for Disney executives, cast members, enthusiasts and friends on both coasts, surely no one person will be able to forever keep him from continuing to inspire and help others in his neverending quest to unearth more knowledge and share it with a wider audience than ever before.

Hey if it's good enough for John Musker, right? After all, he co-wrote and co-directed The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog and lots more. You ain't never had an expert like Jim, nor a book like The Vault of Walt.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Nov 21 2010 by Greg

[Award winning documentarist Ted Thomas (and son of one of Walt's legendary "nine old men," Frank Thomas) talked to me about the extraordinary, evocative, lyrical feature length film,
Walt and el Grupo, coming to DVD on Nov. 30.]

GREG: Let's start with the chicken-or-the-egg thing. Was this  project ignited by J.B. Kaufman's book, South of the Border with Disney, or did it originate with Diane Disney Miller and The Walt Disney Family Museum?

TED: Kind of all of the above. Diane was interested in having stories told about her father that would bring his life story back to center stage. J. B.  had been working on the idea for a book on the entire "Good Neighbor" film project, which was at least a decade. In the course of that, I came across what I call it "the magical shoe box" of photographs that Norm Ferguson’s daughter had given to J.B.--travel snapshots that were taken throughout the trip. When I was introduced to J.B. and Diane, she said, "You ought to take a look at JB’s shoe box," which I did.

Immediately I began to look at each photo and think, "Where was this taken? When was this? Who are they with? What’s the story here?"  Those, to me, are all things that I turn over in my head when beginning a project and deciding whether or not there is a film to be told.

GREG: Diane surely was pleased that so many of the clips and photos showed Walt having fun and being a "regular guy."

TED: Yes.  I am very happy we were able to do that.  I think that, outside of the Disney family films, there is more footage of him in this project than any film I know of.

GREG: Would you say that, percentage-wise, that a lot of what we see in Walt and el Grupo has never been seen by the general public before?

TED: Oh yes, oh yes.  I would definitely say that is the case.  Both for the photographs and the sixteen millimeter Kodachrome footage.

GREG: In the DVD audio commentary with you and J.B., it is mentioned that the group actually traveled in two parts for insurance reasons. It is edited to give the impression they are all going on the same flight? 

TED: Yes.  One of our bonus features covers this. The footage of them boarding the plane in Burbank it is not "verite" documentary footage.  It was reconstructed several months later once they realized that they needed shots like that in Saludos Amigos. There are a few other documentaries that have used this basic idea, but I would like to think that we finessed it a lot more than has ever been done before. 

GREG: Walt and el Grupo is particularly entertaining because of a special three dimensional process in which the vintage photos are manipulated to create the illusion of depth. Can you explain how this was done?

TED: You start out by finding a photograph that is composed so it has a natural foreground, middle ground and background. If everybody is lined up in the background it doesn’t work. But if it is something that already has an inherent depth to it, then you can use Photoshop to splice those three planes apart to create a foreground, middle ground and background. Then, using a program called "after effect," you can create your own version of a multiplane camera.

GREG: Also impressive were the shots of the studio that Walt and the artists set up in a hotel penthouse that were blended with current images of the same room today.

That is one of my favorite shots in the picture actually is when they "vanish." Everybody has left town and is going off different points of the compass. We faded away the studio and then we are left with the room today.

GREG: And then there's that rooftop dance scene, which you recreated for the film with people who had been there in the '40s. For those of us who watched Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros countless times, and seeing the people doing the traditional dances, it was fascinating to discover who some of the people actually were.

TED: Yeah. And to me, on some level, that makes a difference because now they no longer seem anonymous. They are people with lives, families and histories and a connection.

GREG: On a larger scale, I've always felt that, the South America Walt Disney films accomplished a lot in an era long before diversity was a corporate initiative or a big buzz word.People generally didn't know much about other cultures in those days. Walt Disney, probably more than any other filmmaker, was most instrumental in bringing the artwork and especially the music to America and to this day, we're benefiting from it.

TED: Absolutely!  I couldn’t have said it better.  I agree completely and I think it was indicative of the kind of homework that was done on every single film. That what they observed and what they put through their own prism and made into their films is much more sympathetic to the cultures they came from than any other films that were being made at the time.

GREG: And "Aquarela de Brasil" and "Tico Tico" were not known at all in the U.S. and became standards.

TED: They became international standards, along with "Magic is the Moonlight". And "You Belong to My Heart" ["Solamente una vez"] became big hit. It is an incredible song.

GREG: I loved James Stemple's new musical score. Is there going to be a soundtrack album?

TED: We are still working on that.  With the different parties involved there is a lot of sorting out that has to be done.  Number one just get approval for that idea and number two convince people that in today’s climate people would want it.

GREG: The new score captured the mood of the period yet was very contemporary.

TED: Plus I wanted the music to give audio signposts about where we were geographical.  It was a real tough assignment on an independent film to say "Okay, I want to be geographic specific.  I want it to feel like we are in Brazil or feel like we are in Chile," but you can’t hire a separate musical ensemble for each place.

GREG: You also mentioned in the commentary that there were a lot of, to quote the Sherman Brothers, "happy happenstances" in making the film. Certain things just fell into place -- like finding the handmade dolls that Walt had brought back from South America as gifts for Diane and Sharon.

TED: The dolls were found on the day of shooting! That really is serendipity.  Diane had talked about them but hadn’t been able to locate them. When we showed up on that day, she arrived and said, "I am so sorry. It would have been really nice if I had found them but I just don’t know where they are." Then Michael Labre, the curator, said, "Diane, we have been cataloging this stuff, do you have any idea what these are?" And it was the dolls.  It was literally like that.

GREG: And they've held up very well over the years.

TED: Considering. They are in very good condition.

GREG: There was another image that was very striking to me, and I'm sure to those who love these "Good Neighbor" Disney films. At the end of Saludos Amigos, we see the lighted URCA sign flashing and never really knew much about it, just figured it was some famous place and that's it. But in Walt and el Grupo, it becomes part of one of the most touching sequences because of how you combines images of then and now. It's very haunting.

TED: Yeah, I'm glad it touched you because it did me also. When we went on the scouting trip and saw the exterior, from that moment on I wanted to go inside.  We worked very hard and very long and got turned down many times before we got permission to go in there. The neat thing about it is that in addition to being able to film inside this "temple of pleasure," as it was called, was the fact that the city government had taken an interest in renovating part of it which since we made the movie has been done. Part of it has been renovated as a design school. That is the seaside, the side that faces the water.  The side with the grill room and that stage is still a ruin.

GREG:  That must have been gigantic underneath too, because that stage moved and closed and opened.

TED: And dropped. It was. When the stage went down it must have been pretty low overhead, pretty low ceiling, but you could see pullies and different mechanisms left and you could also go back and see where some of the dressing rooms were. Nothing palatial, believe me, but what shows they put on there!

A lot of these encounters took a couple of hours and, with some people, even longer periods of time.  But the impression that was left [by the Walt Disney visit] and the stories that were told lasted for generations. It's been sixty years yet people would talk about it as though it happened last week. I found that quite remarkable.

GREG:  Since the film has been in limited theatrical release and more people have learned about this moment in cultural history, have you learned about any contemporary Hispanic performers? Have some artists come to realize or were they impacted by the fact that so much music came to this U.S. as a result of these efforts and that it has sort of grown from that?

TED: Well, like many things between the Americas, there is more awareness of that in Latin American than there is here. Like the huge popularity of songs like "Brazil," "Tico Tico" and "Solamente una vez." They're huge worldwide hits, but what might not be known is the fact that it was a Disney film that made it popular around the world.

Maybe you already know this from J.B.’s book, but the fascinating thing was that they did recording sessions in Rio during this trip but the miking of it wasn’t satisfactory. So the only one of the tracks recorded in Rio that was usable was a flute improvisation that ends up over the little train that goes to Baia in The Three Caballeros.

And when Walt's musical director, Charles Wolcott, heard the pan pipes in Lima he then composed a melody for the Donald Duck "Lake Titicaca" section.  Of course, he couldn’t get the authentic instruments when they recorded it, so he got two soprano recorders, had them tuned slightly differently and had them played in unison so that they had just the right degree of dissonance. 

GREG: You also mention in your commentary that you feel your films are as much about politics as they are about art, because the two intertwine. On November 30, Disney will release Walt and el Grupo on DVD at the same time as two other major films about two other pivotal times in Disney history -- and it seems that while Walt and el Grupo is about art and the politics of government, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story is about art and family politics and Waking Sleeping Beauty is about art and corporate politics.

TED: That's a great observation. It is a fascinating that politics and art are about the same thing. It is all about interpreting life. Politics is about setting up guidelines and rules that bring order and art is about democracy or starting a conversation or exploration. They both have a really interesting dynamic tension.

GREG: What would you most like viewers to take away with them when they see Walt and el Grupo,  especially young people?

TED:  I would love it if they would be inspired to see Walt Disney as a man -- as a human being. The mythology that has grown since his death is all well, but I think that it is very exciting to see him as a creative individual, as an artist, because it reminds us about the role of art in the world and how each of us can to contribute to it.

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