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Blog, Movies, TV, Music
Posted on Jul 06 2015 by Greg

Before we get to Teen Beach 2, let’s go back to 1966, when there was a CBS sitcom called It’s About Time. Created by Sherwood Schwartz, the escapism-era series was about two astronauts who travel back in time meet a wacky stone age family. Later in the season, the premise was reversed, and the cave people ended up in modern times, adjusting to newfangled life in zany ways.


That sums up the twist in the sequel to the highly-successful (and highly entertaining) Teen Beach Movie, an unabashedly silly musical comedy TV movie in which two teens are transported inside a 1962 beach movie (for diehard fans of the genre, the first actual “Beach Party” film was released in 1963). They had tissue-thin romance problems and a tangle with a Vincent Price-like mad scientist.


The new sequel reverses the story and takes the two 1962 movie teens (and members of their cast, eventually) into a 2015 rendered in as gritty and cynical style as Disney Channel can muster. At the same time, our modern-day couple is having relationship issues. Things get “tense” when it becomes apparent that the 1962 movie might vanish entirely, along with the characters—and the 2015 couple will have never met and fallen in love!! Will it all turn out okay. Maybe I shouldn’t tell.


Teen Beach 2 is certainly chock full of comedy and excellent song and dance set pieces, but, perhaps because it takes place in “today’s real world”, it does not get as loose and campy as its predecessor. The songs, though, are just as good and eclectic. There is enough of all possible rock and pop tunes to satisfy kids and the parents and grandparents who love the earlier eras. The music alone is a strong reason these movies seem to work so well.


The DVD contains some rehearsal footage, and that’s about it for any bonus features. For parents concerned about questionable material, this being a Disney Channel movie, there is pretty much nothing of concern. It might be worth noting that the original beach movies, squeaky-clean as they were, had some nudge-nudge material in them. All of them are pure escapism that are so knowing about their silliness, they sometimes break the fourth wall to remind us that they’re in on the jokes with us.


Blu-ray/DVD Review: McFarland USA
Blog, Reviews, Movies, Music
Posted on Jun 15 2015 by Greg

Every year or so, there seems to be a new movie about a rag-tag group of unlikely people who are thrown together by circumstances with a mentor who sees potential in them and organizes them into a socko team that beats the smirking, overconfident opponents.

McFarland USA delivers on that cliché, but this time the mentor is a white bread coach who apparently was fired and sent with his family to his last-chance position in a Latino neighborhood. Apparently much of this was fictionalized but the overall spirit of joining into a community of seemingly disparate friends is true. The real life Jim White, who appears in a bonus feature, is very happy with the film (and how many real life people are pleased with how their lives were fictionalized?)

And therein is the reason for this movie's merit. It's about the young runners, but it's also about their families and friends, sharing cultural traditions with nary an ounce of disdain. If this comes across as too much of a Disney fable, and maybe it is, the up side is that there enough positive messages out there for young people to watch.

Kevin Costner is at his minimalist, Gary Cooper best in the role of father to his family and fish-out-of-water leader to young people with whom he seems, at first, to have little in common.

Though there is no audio commentary, which would have added tremendously, there are a few nice little extras, the best being a reunion between the real students, now grown and largely successful.

These small independent Disney films are a stark (forgive the Marvel pun) contrast to the superspectacular tentpole films of today. Though films are fine, too, but there is room for simple stories about ordinary people.

Walt Disney Records has also released a soundtrack CD of Antonio Pinto's unique score for the film.

MAD MEN's Final Episode: The tone arm lifts off the record...
Blog, Reviews, TV, Music
Posted on May 18 2015 by Greg

While I still reacted to the last scene of Don with a "Wha--?" it somehow made sense. Like the entire series -- and like life, like art -- it's ambiguous and open to interpretation. You almost don't want to have a solid answer with Don, just with everyone else.


If I regress to my college film analysis days (and just I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here) Don's whole existence was advertising, marketing and especially branding. People compare Jon Hamm ("I am Hamm") to Cary Grant, who was a self-created brand of suave sophistication, reborn from a life of squalid poverty as Archie Leach.


Many actors, politicians and other famous people are brand. We live in a brand society that advertising taught us. We send it and we receive it.


Hillary Clinton is refining her brand. Eventually Miley Cyrus will put her pants back on and be a serious artist who laughs at her past silliness but is proud of it. In twenty years she'll be singing jazz with Tony Bennett on the New Year's TV special. Madonna made marketing and branding an art form and career path.


That's Don Draper. "Hey hey we are the Monkees/And we are here to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies."

Whether Don went back and created the commercial, or called Peggy to give the idea to her, all of it is possible. But on a college-class "read stuff into it" "What words can you see in the ice cubes" sense, Don was advertising in human form and he literally faded into a commercial. A very successful one. The only commercial to generate such a big hit song and cultural anthem.


Don found peace, he found way for people to need him -- that's what made him ultimately break down -- no one really needed him (just like a bottle of Coke or a Coke commercial, which we want but don't need).


Pithy. Lots of pith. But my favorite aspect of the ending was that the last voice you heard was that of Ron Dante of The Archies, one of the most successful jingle singers ever, who fronted a band that did not exist yet had the number one hit of 1969. Am I digging too deep to connect Ron Dante literally to the ending? Maybe. But he's an icon of the '60s and of advertising.


And his real name is Carmine Granito.

• Yes, Sally deserved more. Yet she emerged as the solid rock of the family, such as it was. Betty was smoking her life away, dying the way she wanted, and there's Sally doing what needs to be done, canceling her trip, being the adult her parents were not. You're right, no need to worry about Sally or anyone lucky enough to be in her life.


• The show ended, but life goes on. The endings (or new beginnings) for each group of characters were not fairy tales in the literal sense, because there would be troubles ahead, along with a fulfillment none of them had before. A satisfying close for a series should offer its viewers some closure.


• I felt that Elisabeth Moss's phone scene was thankless and must have been hard to write. They only partially succeeded. When Stan declared himself, it was something he might have done at any point in the show. In Peggy's case, having her transform from angry to Lollipops and Roses was not fair to the actress. I don't think Meryl Streep could have made it any more believable, but she should not have been put in that performance position. It was like Jan getting a date on the phone with the boy she thought didn't know she was alive.


• Joan. Yes, she has deserved to run the place since she took over media and made it hum, only to have to train a bozo to do it and go back to her desk. I've been there -- a lot. No question of her success. Like Marlo Thomas or Gloria Steinem and heading right into the decade where she can rock, or at least, start to rock.


• Roger and bat-crazy mama – Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in Gigi. A match made in Dewar's. I guessed he was going to die after he played the creepy organ (why was that in the office?), but he's gonna go out, as my dad used to say, "Spoo-ja-dooin'". Don doesn't know who he is, Roger knows himself too well.


• Very glad Ken was a catalyst for Joan (and maybe Peggy in the future) after his scene where he was being "spoo-ja-dooed" by Roger and his "friends" after the merger. (I've been there too.) He was forbidden to write books on his own time, mostly because he was so good at it but it wasn't "his place". His talent was slowly marginalized by those who had no real reason to beyond their own insecurity. (Hmmm?) Ken was one of the few who had matured and realized things about life that the others either found out too late or just recently.


• Don wanted to be needed by someone and did, in his way, try to help people, over the course of the series. He mentored Peggy, most of all. When he hugged "chair guy", he finally have someone something only he could give, as he was looking at a mirror of himself. Back to college analysis: Matthew Weiner resembles Chair Guy and I have a feeling Weiner was baring his soul completely in that scene. Don, who is Weiner's alter ego (one of them), is everything that, on the surface, Weiner is not, yet the two connected as one and the same.


It's not money, it's not fame, not power, success. Those can be nice within perspective (from what I hear). It's really about finding out who you are, how you can gain contentment with what you're doing (or changing it), seeking balance, connecting with others in a deeper way, and things like that there (I'm getting 'way too pretentious now. Sorry.)


I still miss Suzanne Pleshette.

BLU-RAY REVIEW: Into the Woods
Blog, Movies, Music
Posted on Apr 21 2015 by Greg

Gene Kelly was once asked why musicals were no longer a staple of modern movies and he said something to the effect that “no one knows how to make them anymore.” (This was a short time after he appeared in Xanadu. Today, only a precious few know how to do it: the producers and director of Into the Woods.


This is as close as any contemporary movie has come to making a musical that most audiences can see—the caveat being that Into the Woods is a mature twist on fairy tale characters and not for the purist or the very young. Disney toned down the sequences with Red Riding Hood and the Wolf as well as the Baker’s Wife and Prince Charming to the point that things are very obtuse.


That all said, Into the Woods has a lot of comedy, one of Sondheim’s most melodic scores and a brisk pace (kudos to director Rob Marshall for that). And to be fair to the subject matter, one can watch the network series Once Upon a Time and see the evil Queen pulling hearts out of her victims and a naked-under-the-sheets Show White and Prince Charming interrupted in the middle of, as my dad used to call it, “spoo-ja-doo,” only to exuberantly resume after their company leaves.


A lot of attention has been awarded to the biggest stars of the film, so let’s focus on others who also deliver remarkable performances—no mean feat in a musical film, especially one with the challenging music and lyric structure of Sondheim.

James Corden is the emotional center of the film and the character with whom the audience most connects; Christine Baranski makes every syllable and gesture count as always as one of the big screen’s best evil Stepmothers and Tracey Ullmann brings superb comic timing to a somewhat thankless role (she and Baranski could have played any number of roles in this musical). As one of the stepsisters, the astonishing Tammy Blanchard makes one forget she also played Karen Carpenter and Judy Garland. Even Hagrid’s girlfriend turns up as the Giant’s Wife.


Once again, a modestly-budgeted movie proves that less money and tight time frames (and less indulegence) can result in fine, profitable films. The art direction and costuming has a painterly quality, very much as if it came from an Arthur Rackham book.


What Into the Woods is not is cozy and comfy. Yes, there are songs like “No One is Alone” that offer solace and reassurance, it’s almost an anti-fairy tale in the familiar sense (the original fairy tales were quite dark). Many, many messages flow out of the lyrics: “Life can be unpleasant you should know,” “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” and “Nice doesn’t always mean good.”


The Blu-ray contains an audio commentary (thank you!) and several interesting behind-the-scenes vignettes, making this a fine package, especially when combined with the deluxe edition of the soundtrack (with all the songs and music).

DVD REVIEW: Rodgers & Hammerstein's CINDERELLA starring Lesley Ann Warren
Blog, TV, People, Music
Posted on Oct 24 2014 by Greg

There is no shortage of great performances of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s only musical created for television. Of course, there is the original 1957 CBS live telecast starring Julie Andrews, the recent Broadway show, a British panto starring Tommy Steele, a touring production with Eartha Kitt and the 1997 version starring Brandy and Whitney Houston.

Each version has its own special magic, but the 1965 version (now in its 30th anniversary year) starring Lesley Ann Warren has the distinction of being smack in the middle of an era spangled with full-color, escapist entertainment still dear to baby boomers. Premiering on February 22, 1965, the CBS special came along just as musicals—like Mary Poppins—seemed to be having a resurgence in Hollywood, and before such programming became passé in the minds of many.

Pat Carroll, who became legendary as the voice of The Little Mermaid’s Ursula (and the original Mother Magoo), was an oft-welcomed presence on series TV, game and talk shows. In this production, Carroll played one of the stepsisters. The other sister was played by Barbara Ruick, who appeared as Carrie (“Mr. Snow”) Pepperidge in the movie version of Carousel. Ruick was the wife of composer John Williams, who among other projects at the time, was scoring episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Lost in Space (and that's not a diss -- his work elevated both shows). Sadly, Ruick passed away in 1972, before she could experience Williams’ colossal success with Star Wars and his other sweeping movie scores. Oscar and Tony winner Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden), properly snooty as the Stepmother, gives the suitable impression that she constantly smells  some very strong cheese.

R&H favorite Celeste Holm played the traditional fairy Godmother in 1965, in contrast to Edie Adams’ sassy fairy in the 1957 show. And the Prince was Stuart Damon, later to play Alan Quartermain on General Hospital (which included a “prince” nod in at least one script, maybe more). Damon reveals in the bonus documentary (from the previous DVD release) that Jack Jones dropped out of the show as the Prince, so he filled in at the last moment and it was a "Cinderella story" for him.

The production values, as far as the imaginative sets and costumes, is magnificent, but because TV was still relatively young, this videotaped production has some special effects that would make Electra Woman and Dynagirl sneer, especially the flying horses (from a Marx "Best of the West" playset?) and the final materialization of Holm, whose chroma-key glitch gives her have a "Max Headroom" spell.

No matter, the show is still first class and one of TV's all-time best, made back in a time when musical variety was still a major force. And the Columbia/Sony cast album is excellent, too, with a few bonus tracks on the CD/download and a great overture created just for the record by conductor Johnny Green.

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