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"OH, YES IT'S TRUE. IT'S TERRIBLY TRUE. ENGLAND DOES SWING LIKE A PENDULUM DO."
Blog, TV, Records
Posted on Feb 29 2012 by Greg
That's one of the strange but funny lines spoken by Davy Jones on the iconic '60s series The Monkees, a show which completely fabricated a pop band for TV yet ironically, in catching the lightning in a bottle, launched a real, albeit dysfunctional, pop legend.

One fourth of that lightning, perhaps the most assured and polished one -- aka the "cute one" -- was Davy, the Manchester-born song-and-dance man who, according to several accounts, would "do forty-five minutes if the refrigerator light went on."

Already a contract actor/singer with Columbia Pictures (he released his own album on the Colpix label before The Monkees), Davy was the first signed for the series. Another experienced young actor (and emerging singer), Micky Dolenz, was combined with musician/composers Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork. With some improv training and backed by Don Kirshner's dream-team of music writers and producers (including Neil Diamond, Carole King, Harry Nilsson and other icons), The Monkees burned up the music charts and the TV ratings right out of the gate.

In about a year, the eager young performers rebelled against Kirshner, asserted themselves as a genuine group and became one -- almost following a Beatles-like rise and fallout about half the time. Their albums went from hook-driven solid gold to eclectic, experimental head-scratching curios, but always fascinating and beguiling. Their sole movie, the free-form Head (co-written by Jack Nicholson), literally featured the "pre-fab four" leaping off a bridge to a suicidal end, symbolically drawing a curtain over the original group as it was first concocted.

But Davy Jones remained the most accessible in the ensuing years, from appearances on The Brady Bunch to in-jokes on Spongebob Squarepants. He'd always be one of whatever three or sometimes four Monkees who reunited. He wrote his biography and kept recording albums for his own label, many of which are found on his website.

I was privileged to interview Davy for various Disney Parks articles, as he was an annual fixture performer at the Flower Power Concert Series at Epcot (he was scheduled to appear this May). He was a wonderful talker, his mind moving so rapidly that his thoughts would overlap. The Epcot audience adored him and the feeling was mutual, not only during performances, but for autograph sessions at The American Adventure. Much what he told me wasn't just about himself and performing, but about his wife and his daughters.

The Monkees TV show, like the original TV Batman, still holds up astonishingly well, for sheer, fearless, brash lunacy. Even though The Monkees' show owed much to Richard Lester's Beatle films, watching a show every week, or every day in syndication, is different than watching movies, especially when you also have records to listen to between broadcasts. That was life as a kid in the mid-sixties. My friends and I sat around and listened to Monkee records, watched the show, collected Monkee bubble gum cards and so on.

Seeing them in concert for the first time in 1986 was like seeing the cast of Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie live on stage. And the songs held up a hundred times better than the show.

Davy soloed on several of the biggest hits, particularly Valleri and Daydream Believer. These and other Monkee songs have been remade by other performers, and likely will last so long that few will even realize there was a "pre-fab four" that struggled for an artistic level and peer respect that always seemed a little out of their reach. But that didn't matter to the public, who love them and always well.

Davy's career, of course, encompassed more than The Monkees (his TV appearance as Broadway's Artful Dodger in Oliver! on The Ed Sullivan Show occurred, surprisingly, on the same night that The Beatles performed). But to most of us, he'll be the one who, when asked to stand up, would say "I am standing up" as a running Monkees gag. He never seemed to mind poking fun at himself or looking silly, as long as he was entertaining.

Somewhere up above, a refrigerator light has just lit up.










HOLLYWOOD'S TOP ROMANTIC COMEDY
Blog, Movies
Posted on Feb 16 2012 by Greg
If it weren't an animated feature, and was a contemporary live action romantic comedy/drama, Lady and the Tramp could very well star, for instance, Jake Gyllenhaal or Ryan Reynolds with Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Aniston.

"She's a well-bred, meticulous looker but a little naive and a bit of a control freak! He's a sloppy, jaunty hunk who lives on a lots of friends' couches and has trouble committing to one person! Over the course of the movie, she learns to lighten up and he learns the value of a responsible relationship! A popular song plays as they head back to the city from Central Park or hop on the cable car with the Golden Gate bridge in the distance! Or any number of variations on the same story!"

Even though it was released over 50 years ago and occasionally betrays its era (the baby bottles in the window, stereotyped incidental characters that were "safer" in their day than now), Lady and the Tramp is, in many ways, more sophisticated, witty and -- dare I say -- sexier than some of today's wafer-thin incarnations.

Come on, that spaghetti scene. It predates the eating scene in Tom Jones by several years. Lady and Tramp awake in the morning after a night out, followed by a scene in which her neighbor dogs Jock and Trusty propose marriage to her. Sure, it's so she has a roof over her head (the annoying Aunt Sarah has put her outside) but it suggests they're trying to make her an honest woman.

I thought I was really stretching things by suggesting that last assumption, so you can imagine my surprise when several Disney artists and historians say just about the same thing on one of the bonus features! Movies were changing in 1955, and Walt might not have made Lady and the Tramp in quite the same way had the war not prevented it from going into production a decade or so sooner.

All underlying meanings aside, Lady and the Tramp is one of Disney's biggest consistent crowd pleasers, as is evidenced by the fact that this supposedly "old" movie is neck in neck with the latest Twilight movie for the number one sales spot (as if this writing the Blu-ray has edged out its rival). The story is brisk, relatable (the idea of being "replaced" in someone's heart worked so well for Toy Story, too) and it is visually stunning. Everything has a handsome sheen on it, capturing a Main Street, U.S.A. idyll that Walt was simultaneously creating for his Disneyland Park.



On the new diamond edition Blu-ray, this detail and color are nothing short of breathtaking -- even in seemingly simple scenes like one in which Lady walks upstairs and various carpet and wallpaper patterns go off in maddening directions, yet perfectly in perspective. It's the Alice in Wonderland look, but sane.

Perhaps no other Disney animated film features a larger cast of iconic voice talents who had shone in radio and were moving into television, including Grammy winning comedy giant Stan Freberg as the Beaver (Freberg shows us how he does the whistle voice in a bonus feature).

Alan Reed, soon to become immortalized as the original Fred Flintstone, is Boris the Russian wolfhound. Verna Felton, who would grace many a Disney feature, moving effortlessly from villainy to benevolence, would soon be Fred's mother-in-law. Dal McKennon (Gumby, The Archie Show, Epcot's American Adventure) plays several roles, one that sounds much like his Mr. Weatherbee at Riverdale High.

And doing the most voices of all, almost heard in every scene, is the underrated Bill Thompson, whose most famous voice embodied the White Rabbit and Jock for Disney, as well as Droopy for MGM and Touché Turtle for Hanna-Barbera.

This is also the first Disney animated feature with a starring lead. Before Billy Joel, Elton John or Phil Collins became part of Disney projects, pop goddess Peggy Lee was allowed to add a creative imprint unlike anything Walt had ever so graciously welcomed.

Even though Lady and the Tramp isn't a musical in the traditional sense, Lee's presence is felt throughout, either through songs she wrote with Sonny Burke or any of her four voices (the breakout being the torchy Peg, who's a cross between Mae West and Jimmy Cagney.

As per the usual custom, most of the classic DVD features from the 2006 Platinum Edition DVD have been moved to the Blu-ray. The Blu-ray now has an Audio Commentary (thank you!) and the nifty "second screen" feature that allows you to gather further behind the scenes treasures from your laptop while the disc plays on your player. There's also a deleted song that Tramp was going to sing called "Free as the Breeze."

By the way, if you're interested in such wonderful songs that were deleted from Disney classics, you'll want to check out Russell Schroeder's superb, illustrated Disney's Lost Chords, Volume One and Volume Two.








ROCK-EM, SOCK 'EM, REAL STEEL
Blog, Movies
Posted on Feb 02 2012 by Greg
"We all wanted to make the kind of movie that we loved when we were young, the kind of get-out-of-your-seat, cheer-for-the-underdog kind of movie that was going to be visually cool, but would be tonally different than you expect a robot movie to be, a tone more akin to WALL-E or Iron Giant than it is to Transformers or Terminator.

Real Steel director Shawn Levy says this on the audio commentary (THANK YOU!) on both the Blu-ray and DVD of the movie, which had a big opening weekend in theaters and also on home video sales and rentals.



Indeed, Real Steel is very much like Iron Giant in spirit, and also like a very high tech Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. It's also an update of films like The Champ, in which a child helps a former achiever to reach again for the top, as a success and as a person.

As Levy also remarks in the commentary, the choice of likable star Hugh Jackman for a role that is unlikable for a good portion of the film is a major reason for how well it succeeds. Perhaps by design, Jackman never really comes across as a believable jerk, though he is very earnest and real in the role (despite his occasional tangles between his real Australian accent with his character's "street tough" American dialect). He's ably supported by Dakota Goyo as his estranged young son (a performance that could make or break the film, but in this case "makes" it) and Evangeline Lilly, whose relatively small role radiates immense charm and appeal.

The robots and the spectacular effects are stars, of course, in this type of film, but Levy is careful to keep the real and the steel in balance. Visually, the filmmakers achieved what he calls a "retro modern" look in that takes place a few fictitious years from now. In order to make the robots more relatable to the actors, a combination of CG and full-size robots were created.

Levy also makes great use of the Michigan locations -- very stark and Blade Runner-ish without augmentation, thanks to the highly industrial look of gigantic assembly plants and scrapyards. In an early fight sequence, hundreds of extras are seen throughout a sprawling structure that was not a special comp effect, but a real place where large automobile parts where shipped in by train.

Real Steel isn't designed to be confused with The Artist. It's a popcorn cruncher that succeeds on its own terms.







THE "KANE" CONSPIRACY...WITH PUPPIES
Blog, TV
Posted on Jan 31 2012 by Greg
Never mind that stuff about William Randolph Hearst conspiring against Orson Welles' film masterpiece, Citizen Kane. There's something even more strange and unexplainable going on.

If you've been following this phenomenon with me since last fall, when Spooky Buddies was released on Blu-ray and DVD the same day as Citizen Kane, prepare for another puzzler The newest "Buddies" adventure, Treasure Buddies, was released today...

And so was Citizen Kane!



Again, America is going to have to grapple with the choice between the two -- unless America buys both. But what if America's mom or dad says, "You can only get one DVD or Blu-ray this week?" What then?

You can use this Buddies coupon, and put the savings toward Kane. Then you'll have a masterpiece AND a cute movie with puppies and kitties wearing fezzes. And a monkey.









"SEIZE THE BLU-RAY!"
Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 27 2012 by Greg
It is arguable that Dead Poet's Society can be called Robin Williams' best film, or his best performance, but doing so only diminishes much of his other impressive work on film and television (and for those lucky enough to have seen him, on stage). I would go as far as to say that Dead Poet's Society is probably the best dramatic film from the heydey of Disney's then-emerging Touchstone division.

The film's audio commentary (thank you!) is chock full of interesting facts. Screenwriter Tom Schulman talks about how several studio executives held a meeting in which they were going to go over pages of "notes" with endless comments and changes -- then Jeffrey Katzenberg glanced through the pages and told Schulman to go ahead and make the film as written.

The finished film is the subject of some discourse, because what we saw in the theaters back in 1989 is shorter than what appeared on the "director's cut" on laserdisc. Several of the edited scenes (perhaps not all, I'm not sure) are available on the special features section of the Blu-ray. You can make your own decision about whether these scenes should have stayed, but to me, the movie that I saw and never forgot in 1989 is the film as presented here.



Except that when I saw it, the film did not look or sound like it does on this Blu-ray. Director Peter Weir is a very contemplative filmmaker, prone to capturing scenery and moments that establish various moods. Many of these extraordinarily beautiful scenes of Delaware in the fall and winter are downright dazzling on Blu-ray.

Back to the movie itself, though -- it has not lost any of its impact in the ensuing years. Williams' character of Prof. Keating is not the hellbent-for-conflict hummingbird he played in Good Morning Vietnam (though in Dead Poet's Society, he gets just a few minutes to do some of his iconic shtick). There is amazing depth in his silence as well as his inspiring speech, almost an internal battle between what life can be and what life has dealt him (even though we get little hint of that in the narrative).

Every member of the cast rises to the occasion, particularly one of the best actors now on television, Robert Sean Leonard, who artfully plays the best (only?) friend of Hugh Laurie in the long-running series, House.

One of the most thankless performances in the movie is that of Kurtwood Smith, also handled masterfully: as Leonard's immovable father, brings dimension to a very unlikable role. Again, that draws attention to how different an edited film can be from a director's cut -- there is one deleted scene between Smith and Williams from the last act that, had it remained, would have made a huge difference in the perception of both characters. It's helpful that we get a featurette on the bonus materials (clearly from an earlier DVD) in which the creative people discuss how they approached the challenges.

Weir explains that he deliberately avoided clear-cut answers in the film. Keating tells young, impressionable teens to reach beyond their grasp, as did the legendary people he quotes. He doesn't warn them that those visionaries paid their prices in one way or another. When some of these teens take chances, only some succeed, just as in real life. Is it worth it? What a great discussion this opens for parents and their kids.

In its context of late-1950's McCarthyism, perched at the edge of cultural revolution in the '60s, Keating is an outspoken voice before it was cool. In today's world of extremes from one spectrum of propriety to another, as well as political correctness, one might wonder how he would fare.









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