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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.

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.

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.

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.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 26 2012 by Greg
It has been some time since I watched 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, so while a lot of it was so memorable I recognized it immediately, some things were a bit of a revelation, especially as a metaphor for today's American military presence in the Middle East.

Sure, you can make the obvious case for this to be a Hollywood anti-war movie, pure and simple, and it is at first glance. Surely making its points with individuals rather than troops is a powerful way to illustrate the effect of war on people rather than faceless masses. But Good Morning Vietnam is also a story about a relentless clash between front line creative powderkegs and front office administrators. It's also about how creative work reaches out to a lot of people that you may never meet, but to whom your work makes a difference, however big or small.

More than anything, the movie is a perfect vehicle for Robin Williams, whose now-iconic stream-of-consciousness comedy is given full throttle as he goes on the air in a highly fictionalized portrayal of radio personality Adrian Cronauer. Taken out of the context of the late 20th century, when Williams was still breaking into movies and out of his "Mork" image, this performance takes on a greater depth than ever. He may appear to basically be playing himself, or at least his persona, but there's a whole lot more to it than just riffing when the cameras roll. As a matter of fact, if you watch the "monologues" presented in the bonus features (which are the same on this new Blu-ray as they were on the 2006 DVD edition, alas, with no commentary), you can see that he honed those routines over and over until they were as perfect as possible.

It's no secret that this film does not tell the true story of Cronauer beyond his position of disc jockey in Vietnam and part time English teacher. What's also clear, especially watching it today, is that it also presents a view of 1965 through the prism of 1987 tastes and sensabilities.

When William's character and an audience of Vitemanese viilagers sits in a dumpy, fan-cooled movie theater to watch Beach Blanket Bingo, the complete irony is crystal clear as Frankie and Annette cavort in what is perhaps the penultimate beach movie. The movie seems out of place in that theater, but also in the pop culture context of 1987 and today. Actually, Beach Blanket Bingo was a new movie in 1965 and such goofy but popular films were huge hits, not the anamoly that it seems as presented in this context.

Musically, it's the same way. The Beatles were a sensation, but they had only just become such over one year. Mainstream popular radio was playing Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as well as The Supremes and the Beach Boys. In the accompanying documentary featurette, it is pointed out the Louis Armstrong's classic, "Wonderful World" (which became even more of a legendary song since the film's debut) was released after Good Morning Vietnam took place, but of course it served the story so well, it doesn't matter.

And I'm not nit-picking for anachronisms. My point is that, in 1987 as in today, some are not aware that AM radio was so diverse. The film is peppered with putdowns of Percy Faith and Mantovani, but I'll bet the real Cronauer played Faith's "Theme from A Summer Place." The sensabilities and realities of what made popular music of the mid-sixties was filtered through what became "classic rock" programming by the late eighties -- and what would sell on a soundtrack album.

Robin Williams is superb and is given fantastic support by a truly great team of actors, particularly Forrest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby and Robert Wuhl. Even the small roles are memorable -- and the faces of the local people and the soldiers are especially indelible.

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