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Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 21 2011 by Greg
There hasn't been a whole lot of fanfare, but for fans of Dave Stevens' graphic novels and Joe Johnston's 1991 Disney big-screen spectacular, the appearance of The Rocketeer on Blu-ray is somewhat of an event.

On the package is a sticker proclaiming, "From the director of Captain America." Clearly this release is piggybacking on the successful 2011 film -- and the two films seem, at least to me, inextricably linked by their setting and their director.

But why did The Rocketeer run out of propellant while Captain America blasted the box office? The most obvious reason is that the Marvel character has had more mainstream visibility, though the '60s cartoon and '70s live-action series incarnations of Captain America were not exactly stellar. It's also a tricky matter to set a film in WWII, or during the '40s and make it resound with younger audiences.

Just because The Rocketeer wasn't a smash, it isn't fair to dismiss it as some did back in the '90s. Actually, it's quite a fine film, with a likable cast led by Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly and Alan Arkin, as well as a scene-chewing tour-de-force performance by Timothy Dalton -- clearly having a grand old time playing a thorough rotter.

The Rocketeer has very good effects for its time, superb art direction and photography, and one of the best background scores of the last several decades. I highly recommend the soundtrack album of James Horner's sweeping score. You can also hear this music as the Epcot fountains dance regularly, as well as in countless movie trailers for other releases.

Hopes were just a little too high for The Rocketeer. Disney was looking for a huge franchise, so a well-done, nicely received film wouldn't cut it. Even though Johnston only mentions The Rocketeer once briefly in his Captain America commentary (alas, he did not do one for The Rocketeer Blu-ray -- there are no extras to speak of), clearly the director learned and developed over the years.

Perhaps the main issue between the two films is tone. The Rocketeer is highly stylized and inconsistently campy with a hero who's a little too cocky for his own good, while Captain America is a hybrid between retro, comic book and contemporary action movie style, with a much more sympathetic hero.

But if you haven't seen The Rocketeer in Blu-ray, prepare for a treat. The spot-on animated sequence, the lavish nightclub scene, and even the sarcophagus-like dwelling of the villain are as vivid as can be. You just have to approach The Rocketeer as a jaunty romp and enjoy the ride.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 16 2011 by Greg
I'm sure I cannot add more to what has already been said in praise of the book and the movie versions of Kathryn Stockett's The Help, except perhaps to note that once I met a group of people in a restaurant and the film came up. They brought up Minnie's "terrible awful" incident and I asked, "Haven't you wished that just once you could do that to someone, sometime?" The reaction was unanimous amid riotous laughter.

The Help takes place in 1963 -- the same as season two of Mad Men -- but this is set in the deep south, as the civil rights movement was gaining national notice, violence was on the rise> And while some thought the injustices would never end, others were either unaware of them or looked the other way.

Emma Stone, as Skeeter, discovers far more than she really thought about. It simply wasn't discussed. When she embarks what seems to be a simple story idea, it grows to a living, breathing work that attacks the social and political abyss to a more personal, more identifiable level. Not only are the two ladies who are her narrativer touchstones (played to Oscar perfection by Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis) real "iron chefs" in courage, endurance and moral integrity, they're people with faults, wounds and talent. And a sense of humor -- perhaps the best survival tool of all.

While the institutionalization of bigotry depicted in The Help is a experience too heinous to be understood fully except by those who suffered through it, most of us at some time has been wronged by a boss, a co-worker, teacher, parent or any person who held sway over our fate (or made us feel that they held sway). You can't help root for Abileen and Minnie, as well as cheer when the most loathsome character (played to the glorious hilt by Bryce Dallas Howard) is taken down more than a few notches.

To me, The Help is also a story about the power of the written word. Yes, it's a movie, and the visuals are superb, but Skeeter's book is the catalyst that finally sets so much in motion. While we now live in an age of high tech and endless visuals, words can still change history, especially when those words bring issues to the personal attention of those who might be otherwise unaware of them.

There is no audio commentary on the discs, which is unfortunate, but the behind the scenes featurette is among the best of its kind.   The Help is the work of mutual friends who somehow were allowed to create this great work together despite the obstacles of the publishing and film businesses. I have never heard of a similar story quite like it.

The Help -- and the story behind The Help -- are never to be forgotten.

Blog, TV, Music, Records
Posted on Dec 14 2011 by Greg
I have to admit to being more than a little misty-eyed after finally getting a chance to watch the original, live 1956 musical, The Stingiest Man in Town, now on DVD. I had first seen the Rankin/Bass animated remake in 1978, then found the 1956 Columbia cast album and listened to it for 30 years, never expecting to actually see the live show itself -- unless maybe I got to visit the Paley Center and they had it in their library.

To my delighted amazement, Video Artists International located an astonishingly nice-looking kinescope with excellent sound -- and that sound is largely due to a certified Disney Legend: Tutti Camarata.

Tutti was the conductor of this special 90-minute live presentation on The Alcoa Hour. His ear for acoustics surely influenced how distinct the instrumentation come across, even in this vintage kinescope. In 1956, Disneyland Records had just begun, with Tutti as artists and repertoire director. You can hear his style in The Stingiest Man in Town, as well as what was likely some arrangements by Maury Laws, whom Tutti told me could have likely done some chart work for the special (the soaring violins in "An Old Fashioned Christmas" are just like the ones Laws created for such Rankin/Bass specials as Rudolph and Frosty).

You have to get a feel for the temporal context to fully appreciate how ambitious this live show truly was for its period. This was the day of Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and other vaudeville-type live variety shows, as well as legendary live dramas on Playhouse 90 and Studio One. Walt Disney's filmed series was less then two years on the air, Mickey Mouse Club was in its second season and Howdy Doody was still an NBC staple.

Mary Martin's TV tradition of Peter Pan had begun a year earlier (as live shows until it was taped in 1960) and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella would premiere a year later (live with Julie Andrews, then taped in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren). I can't confirm this for sure, but that makes The Stingiest Man in Town very likely the first -- or at least one of the first -- original musicals created especially for television.

Director Dan Petrie (A Raisin in the Sun, Sybil, Eleanor and Franklin) worked with in what appears to be a very limited space, with tight, elemental, movable sets. (Notice the clever transitions, such as Basil Rathbone sinking off camera in the graveyard while a "stand-in" hand grasps the tombstone, enabling Rathbone to race back to the bedroom set for his next scene.)

The cast, crew and orchestra clearly had a short rehearsal time to perform a show of this scope -- and that's what makes live TV so amazing. The cast, orchestra and chorus are right there, and if the singer misses a cue or changes tempo, the accompaniment has to keep up. Keeping all of this in mind, what unfolds is a remarkable achievement that was largely forgotten for decades, unless you happened to have the cast LP -- or this superb CD reissue.

Young audiences may not sit still, at first, for the black-and-white, low-def, leisurely paced kinescope experience of the original Stingiest Man -- more akin to a filmed stage show than a modern recorded and edited production. But if you can impress upon them the importance of these programs, how they paved the way for what we take for granted today (especially technical advances) and just enjoy the pure talent involved, they may find themselves beguiled.

These are some of the greatest Broadway talents of their day, top popular singers and of course, the great Rathbone, with a truly memorable musical score conducted by one of the most respected names in the music industry.

It might be fun if you watch this along with the Rankin/Bass animated remake (available in the above 2008 DVD set) and listen to the cast album. In an ocean of Dickens Christmas Carol adaptations, this particular version is one of the all-time finest.

Blog, TV
Posted on Dec 02 2011 by Greg
Have you ever heard someone refer to Remy as "Ratatouille?" I haven't but I've overheard it. But I must confess that I have had trouble remembering that "Prep and Landing" is the name of this recent addition to the holiday TV season, but the lead characters are named "Lanny" and "Wayne." (Maybe I get it from my Mom, who calls one of her favorite TV shows "Bad Men" starring "Don Hamm."

John Lasseter and the Pixar artists have often expressed their fondness for the work of the Rankin/Bass production company, who still hold the record for the highest number of holiday specials, and the highest-rated ones, too. Prep and Landing is inspired by the perennial joy of seeing favorite specials every Christmas season, yet it wisely does not try, as others have with varied success, to emulate the Rankin/Bass model. There are loads of little nods -- including the distinctive lettering that has become ubiquitous yet began with Anthony Peters' work for Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Paul Coker, Jr.'s designs for other Rankin/Bass shows and numerous greeting cards.

Thought it was created through Walt Disney Animation, Prep and Landing is bears the fruit of collaboration with Pixar. The half hour show even seems like a Pixar short film,or Monsters, Inc.  The amusing extra features are much in the style of Pixar, with cute training films (though without the spot-on acerbic edge of the Krusty Krab Training Film episode of Spongebob Squarepants), news reports and commercials. I love this kind of clever stuff and I hope they keep doing it.

Blog, TV
Posted on Nov 30 2011 by Greg
Made-for-video Disney sequels can be a polarizing subject for Disney fans for many reasons, but one positive way to look at them I share with you courtesy of  beloved Disney enthusiast and merry, magical artist Stacia Martin, who looks at video sequels as "what if's" that may or may not have happened -- much like the comic book and Little Golden stories extended characters into new adventures. If you look at it that way, you can dismiss an inferior sequel with a simple, "Oh well, it never really happened anyway." I choose to believe that about the dreadful Superman 3.

Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Enchanted Christmas, which premieres this year on Blu-ray, is nice enough to resist dismissal, however. With a wonderful musical score by Rachel Portman and Don Black, and the original voice cast, this is a worthy video-level successor.

One cannot expect quite the detail or consistent animation of the theatrical Beauty, but a lot of effort went into making this film something that would hold up with every holiday season. If you still have your DVD and do not have Blu-ray, some of the bonus features, including an animated "fireplace," have made their way only over to the Blu-ray on this new edition.

Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World shows us what a regular television series might have been like had it happened. The film is comprised of four individual stories with little connection except that the all take place after Belle arrived and before the happy ending. Having read quite a few storybooks and comics with the same plot restriction, it's got to be a challenge for the writers to come up with premises that cannot advance the situation too much, but also take the characters to some new point at the same time.

The four stories are pleasant, the songs -- by the wonderful Patty and Michael Silversher, who wrote so many great Disney songs for TV and recordings -- are delightful, but the animation falls a bit short of Enchanted Christmas. Perhaps that is why this title was not released on Blu-ray.

Both Belle's Magical World and Enchanted Christmas include one half-hour episode of a former Disney Channel children's series called Sing Me a Story, in which a live-action Belle on videotape sits in her nice library/living room with two children, some puppets and visiting human characters and retell two stories using footage from vintage Disney cartoons.

This is not unlike the 1972 syndicated series, The Mouse Factory. Purists will be taken aback by the editing and redubbing of the cartoons, but it's wasn't the first time this happened and it won't be the last. The most interesting thing about these shows is that they were produced when Disney's Hollywood Studios was Disney-MGM Studios and actual TV and movie production was in full swing there. Both Los Angeles and Orlando actors appeared in the series -- some who worked in the Parks one day and did TV appearances on other days.

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