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Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 19 2011 by Greg
What makes Mars Needs Moms an unfortunate misfire isn't so much what it is, but what it could have been. The talent was there, with a fine cast, a seasoned group of artists behind the scenes and an interesting idea. I just wonder what might have happened had this been a CG or a live action movie.

Motion capture, or as it is now insistently known, "performance capture," records the actions of the actors and transfers them into what is more akin to the "rotoscoping" process in Gulliver's Travels (1939). It seems best used for non-human creatures, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or to affect a total dreamlike feeling, as in The Polar Express. Somehow it is emerging more as a tool than a medium.

When I saw Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol, I really wanted to see his own face, since he was doing such an outstanding job. I felt the same way about Joan Cusack in Mars. Why cover such artistry with a plastic sheet? Kind of like my Aunt Sadie's couch. (Sorry, that was a little harsh.)

The aliens are less disturbing and odd than the humans in Mars Needs Moms. Maybe this process will keep getting better each time, but who knows. What is a fact is that Disney is now taking the words "of Mars" off John Carter of Mars to avoid any comparison. They needn't have worried--it's not the word "Mars" that kept people away, though many of us might have thought of the B-grade sci-fi comedy Mars Needs Women when hearing the title Mars Needs Moms.

The Blu-ray looks marvelous--this is a very elaborate production, so I would not say to avoid it, actually-- and there are a few extras, including footage of the actors before the process was added, which only serves to show how much we should have seen their real faces rather than overlays.

Blog, Movies, People
Posted on Aug 19 2011 by Greg

The child actors of the '80s who voiced young Tod and young Copper in Disney's The Fox and the Hound have continued their separate careers and moved in varying directions, much as their animated counterparts. I spoke with Keith Coogan--who has had a long and successful career as an adult as well as a child--about the film, his legendary grandfather and his co-star.

GREG: Have you watched The Fox and the Hound over the years since its first release in the '80s?

KEITH: I have probably watched it once every five years or so. This one [on Blu-ray] is just unbelievably beautiful.  Sounds great, looks terrific.  Thank you Disney for my copy.  So yeah, I have watched it over the years and always from a different kind of point of view.  Just like when you watch E.T.  First you will identify with Elliot, then you will identify with the older brother, then you identify with the mom, then you wind up identifying with Peter Coyote.  Well the same with The Fox and the Hound.  I appreciated the Sandy Duncan role as I grew older, I appreciated more of the story as I matured. And when I watch, I can forget I was even a part of it because they put it together so great and it is such a strong story. Anytime I need a good cry I would pop in The Fox and the Hound!


G:  But that is a "good" kind of sad.  It is important for kids to learn compassion.

K: Yeah.  That is such a message of the movie.  When you‚€™re a kid, you are class blind, you are color blind. That innocence is what they are layering over, and that optimismÔ¿½‚€œwe will always be friends forever, won‚€™t we?‚€Ě  ‚€œYeah, forever.‚€Ě  Then it turns out not to be the case and why and that always brings a tear to my eye.


G: The production was a bit bumpy according to the history books, but The Fox and the Hound is especially noted because it blended the work of veteran and new animators.


K: I‚€™m very proud to be part of a Disney classic and I love that animators and fans alike see it as a crossover picture from the old to the new. It took a while to make and they stretched the voice recording over several years. I remember seeing the ‚€œpencil‚€Ě version of the bear attack and the waterfall.  Terrifying.  Unbelievable. They had all the sound, everything in it but they hadn‚€™t animated that sequence yet and it was still very intense, very frightening.


G: Were you and Corey Feldman (who voiced Copper) already friends?


K: They recorded us separate but I had known Corey Feldman and we had worked together. We were definitely cohorts and friends.  I would be done with my session and I would see him come in with his mom, maybe we had some on-set school together a little bit.


G: Was doing the voice a challenge as a child actor?


Not being able to act with my eyes and my body was a loss. I had never done voice over before. So the process was just they were explaining, ‚€œOkay, these are the two birds and you are really grossed out by the worm and you say ‚€ėYeecch.‚€™‚€Ě Some times I would just give a one-line reading, other times they would try a bunch of different options.  It was basically easy, probably three sessions total for a period of two years or so. Then when the film came out, I was just blown away.  You wouldn‚€™t have known that Corey and I weren‚€™t working together or in the same room.


G: In the film, you‚€™re credited as Keith Mitchell. Did you change it to honor your grandfather, Jackie Coogan?


K: My stage name is Keith Coogan. Before my grandfather passed away in 1984, my work was under Keith Mitchell, which was my birth name. When my grandfather died in 1984, I changed it to my mother‚€™s maiden name, Coogan.  I totally wanted his name to continue. You should know who Jackie Coogan was, what he did for child earnings, what he went through, his history. I wanted to honor my grandfather and also do an absolute split between my younger television work and the future film career that I was planning on at the time.


G: Of course, Jackie Coogan is legendary as the first big child star, the developer of the Coogan Law to protect young performers‚€™ earnings and Uncle Fester on TV‚€™s The Addams Family. Did he talk a lot about the early days?


K: We were very aware of that history of my grandfather. Hewould say things like ‚€œI didn‚€™t meet the Pope, the Pope met me.‚€Ě  Great quotes from Charlie Chaplin like ‚€œI only had one costar and that was Jackie Coogan.‚€Ě  He definitely lived in that past, he had great successes from age four.  There‚€™s a great biography of  him called Jackie Coogan: The World‚€™s First Boy King. Chaplin was absolutely responsible for establishing my grandfather‚€™s image, costume and then Jackie and my great-grandfather ran with it.  My great-grandfather turned into a producer, created Jackie Coogan Productions and did My Boy, Long Live the King and Oliver Twist. His first talkie was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  So, I knew about the legend really as I had grown up and I have read more and learned more. He went through so many things in his life. He married Betty Grable, fought in World War II, of course had a second career with The Addams Family.  l loved him dearly. He was the cranky, rascally old grandpa that a lot of people seem to have. 


G: Do you have advice for young performers today?


Spend very thriftily, be wise with your money.  It doesn‚€™t last very long.  The fame comes and goes, it is very cyclical, enjoy it while it is happening, really, really, enjoy it, it is over before you know it.  You can come back, America loves a great come back story.  You might find yourself just continuing on and just working if it is something you really love to do.  If you really, really enjoy being on a set, if you really enjoy acting it is a great craft, something that calls to you, you have know choice but to do it.  But, if you are going to do it, certainly get an education to fall back because you may not ever work again and you‚€™ve got to make a living.  It doesn‚€™t last forever and enjoy it while it is happening. I am very lucky to have broken into features at 16. I turned 17 on the set of Adventures in Babysitting, also for Disney. Chris Columbus was such a great director to us as kids.  He would see the story from the kids‚€™ point of view and that helps the audience see the story from the kids‚€™ point of view. Another Disney film I was very happy to do was Cheetah, which took me to Kenya and was one of the greatest times of my life.  I turned 18 on that set so just a year later.  What an unbelievable experience!


G: And now you‚€™re creating your own digital film productions.


K: Yes, and it‚€™s something almost anyone can do in their own way. You can write, you can produce and help other people out with their projects and friends and it is a different animal.  It is a different pace, you are shooting a lot more, you have a lot more room to improvise, still rolling, still rolling. I really like the way the industry is kind of changing.  It is miraculous and I took right to it.  A little combo of improvisation, a little combo of that classic structure of how to shoot a scene and how to do coverage but moving fast and light with digital and even 3D.  I did a 3D short.  It is really challenging but also a boon to the creative instinct. I love it.


G; Do you still keep in touch with ‚€œthe hound,‚€Ě Corey Feldman?


K: Yes, I love him, but you do grow apart as adults.  We are not part of our daily lives. For 36 years we have worked side by side in the industry and share some of the same beginnings.  If you look at our IMDBs from the seventies they knock up against each other. So he is definitely respected by me also the only other person I could talk to who has  been through such a similar situation as myself.  He is a great one to lean on when I need to because he is the only one who understands. You look around and think there are not a lot of us left, so I don‚€™t want to lose touch with Corey ever. I have so much respect for him and I want to see more of him of course.  But you grow up. That is the theme of Fox and the Hound.  Adult situations can kind of drive some distance between you, not in the heart. 

Corey and I will always be friends forever.


Blog, Movies
Posted on Jul 31 2011 by Greg

Just got through watching a DVD set called The Films of Morris Engel, to re-watch one of my all-time favorites and enjoy the other two in the "series." It was also nice to share with them with my family. Engel was a renowned WWII and candid "slice of life" photographer who decided to capture the same kind of little moments of New York City life he had in his photography in a feature film (apparently despite the best advice of friends and "experts").

The resulting feature, Little Fugitive, is a powerhouse in its simple and evocative capture of '50s New York, particularly Coney Island. It went from a film nobody seemed to want to one of the most acclaimed independent films of all time, cited by Francois Truffaut as a conduit for French new wave cinema and added to the National Film Registry.

Disney connection: the film was cowritten by Raymond Abraskin, who with Jay Williams (also played the pony ride man), wrote the "Danny Dunn" books, which are credited on Son of Flubber. Also, look for Will Lee -- the beloved Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street -- as a photographer.

Engel provides a delightful, wry commentary on his landmark work, along with video features by Mary Engel, daughter of the director and his wife, Fugitive editor Ruth Orkin.

Orkin directed the "female version" of Little Fugitive, a romantic dramedy called Lovers and Lollipops. Now a grownup story is added to the antics of a small girl, the musical score is more than a solo harmonica (but still supplied by session musician and children's record artist Eddy Manson). Playing an unlikely make romantic lead is Gerald O'Loughlin, best known as the crusty but benign chief on TV's The Rookies.

Engel (and Orkin's) last feature is Weddings and Babies, the most elaborate of the three, with a bonafide star in the lead -- the luminous Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors. Playing the male lead is again an unlikely choice: John Myhers, who you've seen on dozens of movies and TV shows usually as an administrative figure, most notably in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. His performance, though not quite as adroit as Lindfors', is touching and restrained. The story takes place in Little Italy during the festival and sizzles with authenticity.

In a summer blaring with special effects extravaganzas, what a refreshing change to cool down with three unpretentious gems. Sometimes a lack of budget results in special degree of creativity and ingenuity.

Blog, Movies, Records
Posted on Jun 21 2011 by Greg
The superb Sherman Brothers version of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer (a great summer movie), with Johnny Whitaker, Jodie Foster and Celeste Holm can be watched on your computer for free here, along with lots of other good (and not so good) MGM owned movies through Hulu.

If you like the musical score, the original album is available on CD, not for free, but very much worth it.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 06 2011 by Greg
It might be easy for the jaded among us to dismiss Lemonade Mouth as a TV movie attempt to launch another Hannah Montana franchise, this time with a full group, or to make the High School Musical lightning strike again. That may all be true to a degree; surely Disney Channel would welcome a new vein of gold, especially since so many of their series (Hannah, Jonas, Zack and Cody, Wizards of Waverly) are now in the rearview mirror.

But Lemonade Mouth is actually a solid little teen drama with music. The songs are more or less incidental to the story. Each of the leads has his or her own cross to bear and the film is about their journey through acceptance of their situations, not simply easy, Brady Bunch style solutions. They that also launch a successful rock band is perhaps preposterous, but their cohesion as a group is really the focus, not the showbiz glitz. It's not the dazzling Barbie-playset fantasy of Hannah or the recent Sharpay film.

And these young people are actually given roles to play, some rather complex. It is a credit to the actors and the director that they don't take the easy route of teenage overacting so common in teen dramas that it almost becomes self-parody (and was actually skewered on Sonny With a Chance, another Disney Channel series that has ended, albeit retooled as a sketch series called So Random).

I like this film much more than I expected to and so did my wife. My 13-year-old daughter adored it and watched it multiple times. But parents be warned -- this is not your usual pratfall-but-good-natured goofball Disney Channel fare. One girl is asserting her question of authority, a very natural course for the age group but still uncommon in this venue. But though these kids have fairly dark and realistic problems, it's all done with taste and restraint.

Ably heading the cast is Bridgit Mendler, skillfully carrying off a much deeper characterization than she is allowed to do on the broad sitcom, Good Luck Charlie. She reminds me of a young Audrey Meadows, or perhaps Victoria Tennant.

Christopher McDonald really should apply for a patent for the role he once again plays -- an insufferable, narcissistic glory seeking bureaucrat -- this time as a principal on wheels. His performance is a nice example of comic timing and lightens the mood as well as providing a foil.

And Mel's Lemonade looks like something I would want to buy if I could find it in a vending machine.

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