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Blog, News and Events, Movies, Parks
Posted on Jun 20 2012 by Greg

If you're a fan of the beloved 1963 Hayley Mills / Burl ives movie -- and happen to be in the Morristown, Tennessee area this weekend (it's an hour's drive north of Knoxville) -- you might get to experience the world's first musical stage adaptation of Walt Disney's Summer Magic: Flittering from Film to Footlights.


The original 1963 Summer Magic was a warm family comedy/drama highlighted by songs by Disney Legends Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. The show's creators, Jerry Maloy and Jim Hollifield, adapted it into a full musical by expanding the original score of seven tunes (including the worldwide favorite, "Ugly Bug Ball") to 24 songs, including selections from the Sherman classics, The Happiest Millionaire and The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band.


But here's the thing: after this weekend it may disappear forever! Disney Theatrical Group has granted permission to produce Summer Magic as a nonprofit, limited staging in cooperation with the Newport Theatre Guild and the Morristown Theatre Guild. So these may be the only performances.


Special events are also part of the excitement. This Friday, June 22 at 7 p.m. the Summer Magic performance will be preceded by a special panel hosted by Stacia Martin. Friday's special guests will be Disney Legend Richard M. Sherman and film star Eddie Hodges, sharing behind-the-scenes memories. Richard's lovely wife, Elizabeth, Disney Legend Mary Costa (voice of Princess Aurora), Disney author/artist Russell Schroeder and Disney author/vice president Howard E. Green are also scheduled to attend on Friday evening.


Saturday, June 23 at 7 p.m., Richard Sherman will kick off the evening with a lively Q&A session, followed by the live show.

Starring in all three weekend performances, (including a Sunday 2:30 p.m. matinee) will be Kathy Garver (Cissy of TV's Family Affair) on stage in the role of Mother Carey!

Walt Disney's Summer Magic: Flittering from Film to Footlights will appear at the Morristown campus of Walters State Community College. For ticket information, call 423-586-9260 or visit

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 19 2012 by Greg
By now most everyone knows that Disney's John Carter, after a long history of on-again, off again adaptation to the big screen that spans almost as many years as the stories themselves, was pummeled at the box office. However, as some correctly predicted, it was a big hit overseas -- and premiered at #1 on Blu-ray and DVD last week.

One must wonder how many formed their opinions about the film based on the widely reported lack of ticket sales. There has been lots of finger pointing for the losses, but perhaps the fault wasn't the film so much as with the timing. Did theater audiences want another scifi-fantasy epic franchise? Who knows?

John Carter is not a perfect film, but it is very far from a catastrophe. Visually, the stunning imagery, especially on Blu-ray, cannot be denied. The years of work and the big budget shows on screen. Meticulous details abound that make the film very rewatchable. I was struck by the clear glass in the air ships -- it was uneven, as if the glass was hand-made. The look combined high tech with the 19th century (which did remind my wife of Treasure Planet, another very good Disney feature that fizzled in theaters).

The film's shortcomings are so well-documented, you don't need me to recount them. On the positive side, there is some humor, especially the "Virginia" running gag. One of the best characters in the film is James Purefoy as Kantos Kan (yes, it's hard to keep track of the names and I had to look it up), who amusingly forces his own capture in a climactic battle scene.

The toughest roles are the leads, and Taylor Kitsch fares no better than the more well-known Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia. Neither actor can be held totally responsible when they're shouldering such a massive movie. The princess role, which proved problematic to the filmmakers, who had trouble reconciling her 100-year old persona with contemporary expectations, is handled with deft skill by Lynn Collins.

The film has some great shape-shifting villains offering lots of potential for future adaptations. There is also a fascinating parallel narrative centering on Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character in the 19th century, learning the secrets of Carter as he unknowingly dodges the bad guys (I would have liked to have seen more of this story thread).

The point is, John Carter is a rousing spectacle that is a must-see for action, scifi, fantasy and adventure movies in the Spielberg/Lucas style. Whether we'll ever see more of this world, in perhaps an animated TV version, is certainly unlikely from where the property stands today.

But the same could have been said for Tron and Newsies. Just by reading the many amazon reviews, ta lot of passionate fans are already championing the movie. Maybe more time will tell...

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 01 2012 by Greg
There are certain types of films that provide a good excuse to buy them on Blu-ray. Maybe not something like Paul Blart, Mall Cop (though it is available), but spectacles of scope, color and detail.

Animated features by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki fit this category. As new features are released, you can see them on Blu-ray, and eventually the previous releases will surely be available too.

Three have just been released: one brand new feature, The Secret World of Arriety; a lesser known Studio Ghibli release, Whisper of the Heart; and one renowned Miyazaki landmark, Castle in the Sky. All three are introduced by Disney and Pixar creative chief John Lasseter, perhaps Miyazaki's biggest fan and artistic disciple.

Fans of Pixar who haven't discovered these films should take note of their emphasis on character and story, as well as a flair for visual stylization and detail.

1986's award-winning Castle in the Sky, also known as Laputa, is the most epic of the three and follows most closely the Miyazaki themes of environmental protection, loyalty, gadgetry in a period setting, mythology and brave young protagonists who partner with older characters.

Cloris Leachman steals the film as the voice of Dola, a sort of "Popeye meets Wirchiepoo," who, to quote the movie Network, is "crusty but benign." The young characters follow an arc of confidence and courage and, as in all three films, virtually every scene is a masterpiece of design and detail. (See my earlier DVD review here.)

Whisper of the Heart is somewhat of a departure for those used to the fantastic and bizarre nature of most Ghibli films. Written but not directed by Miyazaki, this is a coming of age story of middle school aged kids and puppy love set in modern day Tokyo.

The city setting is a character in itself. Even though there's no Wonderland-like surrealist environments in Whisper, the nooks and crannies of twisting and turning alleys, meandering streets and urban sprawl take on the feel of a wild labrynth. Urban grime and well-worn living space looks alternately cluttered and somehow breathtaking in their stylized complexity.

The story is, in effect, a variation on The Shop Around the Corner, or if you prefer, You've Got Mail, except in this case, the boy and girl are connected by books rather than letters. What's especially interesting for this and all the Disney/Ghibli releases, are how the English language scripts differ in tone from the Japanese.

Many purists insist on subtitled original language versions because they capture the original tone of the actors, while the English version actors, excellent as they are (outstanding, actually), cannot duplicate the performances exactly when they have a changed script and mouth movements to match. And since translations vary also, you really notice subtle differences if you watch both versions one after the other, as my family did.

The Secret World of Arriety, also adapted by Miyazaki, is the first feature-length animated version of Mary Norton's first book in The Borrowers series. I recall fondly the first version, a live videotaped adaptation for NBC in 1973 starring Eddie Albert and Tammy Grimes with music by Rod McKuen. It's quaint by today's standards, but it is still charming and can be found easily on budget DVDs.

Because I had read the book several times and seen the NBC show even more, the characters and settings were etched in my mind. This animated version, for the most part, adheres to the original.

There are only major changes. One in the more comical take on the housekeeper, named Haru in this version, with a spot-on voice performance by Carol Burnett (who also promoted the film in the media). Her ability to get the most out of a line, while still matching the mouth movements, reminds us of what a peerless master she is.

The other change is in the persona of Pod, Arriety's father -- who is a  plump, generally merry dandy in the book and in Eddie Albert's version -- becomes a rugged Clint Eastwood type. It's an interesting approach but an odd match for the unchanged mother character, Homily. It's as if Race Bannon married Miss Grundy.

A simple household, because of the size and scale of the small Borrowers, is as big as a city, and the artists make full use of it. On the Blu-ray, you can see every leaf yard and almost every molecule in the house.

The Secret World of Arriety is probably the most accessible of the Ghibli features, at least to the uninitiated, and especially recommended for first time viewers of the extraordinary artistry of Miyazaki and his fellow artists.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 01 2012 by Greg
The recent reissue of both The Princess Diaries: 10th Anniversary Edition and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement on a new Blu-ray/DVD package may have been due to nothing more than the titles coming up on the "to be Blu-rayed" list. It may only be coincidental that producer Whitney Houston passed not long ago -- or that Princess Mia, in the second film, wields a bow and arrow (suggesting the upcoming Brave), but that's probably reaching.

According the the generous audio commentaries on both discs (recorded several years ago on previous DVD issues), The Princess Diaries book was purchased by Houston's company and brought to Disney. The wisdom of casting Julie Andrews as the Queen (her first Disney film since Mary Poppins) and Garry Marshall (he of the modern-day Pretty Woman fairytale rom-com) cannot be underestimated.

Marshall has a talent for talent -- casting Anne Hathaway while she was still in her late teens and then a movie unknown. Marshall's movies have a stock company that stretches back as far as his days with The Dick Van Dyke Show, not to mention Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy. His commentary on the first film, likely supplemented by copious notes, is a wall-to-wall comic monologue of moviemaking technique.

Julie Andrews, ironically, takes the My Fair Lady Henry Higgins role in transforming awkward Mia into a princess (ironic because she never played the Eliza Doolittle role on film). To me, she's really training Hathaway to be Julie Andrews, since Dame Julie has made a fine art of presenting herself as the gracious magical movie icon that she is. The first film was also shot at what is now the "Julie Andrews Stage" -- Stage 2 on the Disney lot, the same one where Mary Poppins soared.

Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway share a high tea in their previously-released commentary on the first film. It's especially interesting to hear Hathaway's ambivalence to film acting and her reluctance to wear a swimsuit -- little did she know what stardom (and movie love scenes) were ahead for her.

The second film is perhaps not as cohesive as the first, but how can it be -- how do you follow up a Cinderella story? With a courtship and wedding, in this case, with another "newcomer," Chris Pine, as the garden-variety rom-com guy.

Julie Andrews returns with Garry Marshall for the commentary on the second film, also from an earlier issue. Marshall is less meticulous in his spoken details about this film, but no less enthusiastic. Princess Diaries 2 seems more of a pure children's film (not necessarily a negative thing), with more scope than the first in its fictional Genovia setting, an extended "stair slide" sequence and even a song sung by Dame Julie!

Marshall's directing skills and his ability to surround himself with some of the best production people in Hollywood is evident as you savor the fine photography and staging made more clear on Blu-ray. While both films are frothy confections, they're also beautifully rendered and a joy to experience again.

Blog, Movies, TV
Posted on May 06 2012 by Greg
Saw Marvel's The Avengers over the weekend and don't have to even look at the box office -- if it's not #1, it will be very surprising. The whole family enjoyed it thorougly, especially since we've been watching how the other recent Marvel films weave the storylines together. (Don't miss the very last scene after the end credits!)

But as every baby boomer knows, there was another Avengers. It was the only imported TV series to ever become a major primetime hit without being recrafted for American TV (like, say, The Office or All in the Family). The British producers of The Avengers, starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, made the show specifically to appeal U.S. audiences by presenting an England that Americans imagined, from James Bondian fantasy/adventure to dotty eccentrics, quaint villages and sweeping countrysides.

This version of the TV show was actually the third version. The first was a live crime drama starring Ian Hendry as a crimefighting doctor with Macnee in a more mysterious incarnation of secret agent John Steed. Hendry left the show to pursue movies and instead of replacing him with another man, the producers created a landmark icon by bringing in Honor Blackman as a strong, feminine crimefighting sidekick for Steed.

If that kind of female character seems commonplace today, that's because it was done many times since then. But The Avengers did it first. Even ABC's Honey West was the result of a American TV bigwig seeing the British series and doing an American "tribute" to it a year before it hit the states.

Honey West lasted a season. The following year, Britain's shiny, colorful Avengers came across the pond and was a sensation -- and a breakout for Blackman's replacement (she had gone into movies, too).

Diana Rigg was -- and still is -- a Shakespearean actor of extraordinary talent and astonishing beauty. Every actor who's donned a catsuit since Dame Diana owes her a curtsey. Some of these performers have done quite well (including, I must say, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow).

Some don't quite reach the heights of Ms. Rigg as the unforgettable Emma Peel. And I don't mean to slight her successors: I adore the wonderful Linda Thorson (who is too often unappreciated) and the infinitely versatile Joanna Lumley (who had a hit series of her own with Absolutely Fabulous).

The Avengers was also made into a movie. Although there were plans to film a feature with Rigg and Macnee, it never happened, but an unsuccessful film with Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes came and went in 1988.

There's room in this world for two Avengers and we're all the more fortunate to enjoy both.

But of course, there's only one Steed.

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