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DVD REVIEW: The Legend of Korra, Book One
Blog, TV
Posted on Sep 24 2013 by Greg

It's kind of nice that The Legend of Korra breaks its seasons out as "books," because that really describes the way the series unfolds. It also points up how a TV series, when done well, can do something even the most spectacular, multi-million-dollar, star-studded tent pole movie cannot do.


TV series can take advantage of serialization. There is no way that all of the story arcs, character arcs and "small" moments could fit into even an overlong big screen epic. It's an advantage that the creative team relishes. These characters grow, change and - most importantly - stop and think. An action series sometimes is best judged on what happens between the arena games, battles and explosions. If you can't get invested in the stakes involved and the character's issues, it can become a cacophonous video arcade.


The series, created and executive produced by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, is a paean to anime, though it's production originates in the U.S. Because of that, the voice work is done before the animation and you get to watch the lips movement synch to the words, rather then being crafted to fit after the fact.




Judging from the DVD audio commentaries, the voice actors are having a ball with their meaty roles. Janet Varney sounds sincerely elated at the opportunity to play Korra and work alongside actors she has long admired.


And clearly, Konietzko and DiMartino work hard to see their vision through. They even mention being challenged about the whole idea of Korra being female and whether quiet, pensive music should be used in a specific battle scene.


"One of the biggest inspirations for the entire Avatar universe was the work of Hayao Miyazaki," said Bryan Konietzko on the commentary of the first episode. "I just remember at a time in my career when I was particularly disenchanted with working on American animated sitcoms which, you know, obviously millions of people love. Just as an artist, it really didn't speak to me and the kind of stuff I wanted to put out there in the world. It was usually just really sarcastic, insincere, mostly parodies and things and I just wanted to make something really earnest and kind of heartfelt and sincere. 


"So when I saw Princess Mononoke, it was like, there are really no clear-cut good guys and bad guys. It was just people with conflicting agendas, interests and philosophies. [Miyazaki] set up the villain, but then you realize that she's just taking care of these lepers and what not.


"It's not the first time I'd seen a story like that but it hit me at a time in my career when I needed to see that. That's the kind of stuff that really resonates with me. The older you get you realize that there really are no absolutes, most of life is just this grey area. It's not 'good versus evil,' kids. the only 'good versus evil' is inside of you."








DVD REVIEW: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow
Blog, TV
Posted on Sep 18 2013 by Greg

Who would have thought that the years-long discourse about the relative positives and negatives between CG and traditional animation would be so sharply delineated by The Smurfs? Scoff not - check out this new DVD.

On the surface, Sony Pictures Animation The Legend of Smurfy Hollow is a half hour Halloween special (actually 22 minutes). The basic story - fitting neatly into its brief duration rather than being padded for an hour or for feature length - finds Narrator Smurf telling a scary story to Hefty, Panicky and Clumsy.

The story is based loosely on Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, only this time, Brainy Smurf’s chances of winning a Smurf berry competition is being threatened by kilt-rocking Gutsy Smurf.

In "Brom Bones" fashion, Gutsy does the same thing Scooby-Doo villains do to get the berries. What follows must have been, at least in part, inspired by the Disney version of Sleepy Hollow, with a visual tribute to the climactic scene.

Almost all the Smurf voices are performed by the same actors as in the feature film. In addition to Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) as Gutsy, Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) reprises his role as Brainy, as do Tom Kane (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) as Narrator, Anton Yelchin as Clumsy, John Oliver (The Daily Show) as Vanity, Gary Basaraba (Mad Men) as Hefty, Adam Wylie (Peter Pan on Jake and the Never Land Pirates) as Panicky and Frank Welker (Garfield and almost everything else) as Azreal. Hank Azaria, who appeared on screen as Gargamel in the two Smurf movies, provides his voice in Smurfy Hollow.

Papa Smurf is voiced by Jack Angel (Toy Story 3) rather than the late Jonathan Winters, who played the character in the features. Melissa Sturm (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2) voices Smurfette instead of Katy Perry. Both actors did the same in the direct-to-video A Smurfs Christmas Carol).

What can be perceived as having an undeniable impact, especially to animation buffs, is the radically juxtaposed animation transition. There have been CG films with cel-animated segments (more commonly CG made to look like cel). Rankin/Bass has even included some cel animation in their stop-motion specials, like Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. I just can't remember ever seeing what amounts to a side-by-side comparison within the same production. Maybe it’s because "CG vs. traditional animation" is still such a lively discussion topic.

The CG animation in the bookend sequences certainly looks as rich and detailed as they did in the last Smurf feature (and most likely were made from elements carried over from that production into this one). These segments are dimensional and seem to be the “real world,” as it were. 

But when the cel-animation bursts onto the high-def screen, it has a luminescence that reminds you why this technique is unique unto itself. The blazing primary color, stunning backgrounds and varied angles seem to be "making a case" for traditional animation. It's unlikely that this comparison was not the intent. And it doesn’t necessarily suggest one approach is better than another, just that they are dramatically different.

The CG was done by Sony Pictures Imageworks; the cel animation was made domestically by Duck Studios (with such artists as Tony Bancroft and Phil Nibblelink), with additional cel animation produced in Spain by The Sergio Pablos Animation Studios (aka The SPA Studios, formerly Animagic). The hand-drawn line textures lack the variances of Peyo's artwork (and to a degree, Hanna-Barbera's), but the fluid movement and character draftsmanship are consistent throughout, unlike those in many made-for-video films. 

The disc is low priced, and has no bonus features - just trailers for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (coming to theaters), Hotel Transylvania (already released on Blu-ray and DVD) and The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale (a future CG direct-to-video feature).








Three more Disney animated features on Blu-ray
Blog, Movies
Posted on Sep 08 2013 by Greg

New Blu-rays of three more Disney animated features have just been released, bringing you three important (but not necessarily "classic") films with bright, clear imagery. All three are entertaining, feature top-notch animation by master artists and have a key place in the journey of Disney animation along its bold but bumpy road.

THE SWORD IN THE STONE 50th Anniversary Blu-ray & DVD

I'm guessing that, in the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks, we might get a glimpse of what Walt Disney's circumstances were when The Sword in the Stone was being made. In the early '60s, Disneyland was firing on all cylinders and the studio was producing TV shows, movies and tons of merchandise.

There were some truly great movies and shows during this period, the biggest hits were potboiler comedies starting with The Shaggy Dog, which was a box office smash in 1959 - the same year Sleeping Beauty underperformed. 1961 megahit 101 Dalmatians surely influenced the lighter direction and more modest scope of Disney animated features for the next decade.

This is where The Sword in the Stone comes along. At first glance, you might have expected the film to be a grand epic with some comedy. Instead, it's largely a comedy with some serious moments. This is the first feature completely scored by the Sherman Brothers, but they were new to the staff and were not as much a part of the story process as they later became. Their songs are delightful but they're not "book musical" songs.

Sword is the last Disney animated feature in which the voice actors were not well-known celebrities (though Alice in Wonderland had a few). Even Sebastian Cabot, who appeared in lots of TV shows in the late '50s/early ¿½¬¿½60s, had not yet become the popular "Mr. French" on TV's Family Affair. Radio comedy and drama still offered Disney a sufficient number of capable character actors to do voices.

The odd thing about The Sword in the Stone is that it doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts. I love a lot of things about this movie, including the songs, the "Higitus Figitus" sequence, the way Merlin blasts off and of course, the wizard's duel. I even noticed how much Wart, as a fish, looks like Nemo.

It¿½¬¢s easy to armchair quarterback, so why not? I might have made Madam Mim a more constant presence in the story, rather than just stealing the film in one sequence.  She could have sent the Wile E. Coyote-like wolf after Wart and the wizard¿½¬¢s duel could have come after Wart became king. As the story stands now, there is no real villain when Mim is out of the picture and Wart¿½¬¢s triumph doesn¿½¬¢t seem very triumphant. In fact, I can¿½¬¢t think of many Walt Disney films in which the resolution was shown to be kind of a drag.

But I quibble. The film pops on Blu-ray, the Xerox lines have a wonderful vibrancy to them, the color design and art direction is magnificent. The Sword in the Stone has also taken on a life beyond the film, through Merlin¿½¬¢s Disney Parks appearances and lots of cool merchandise that came out with each re-release (including the first Disney StoryRama vinyl LP with a pop-up diorama book). Even Madam Mim became a viable villain in Disney books and comics.

Note on Bonus Features

"Disney Song Selection" allows you to choose specific places in the disc where songs are located, playing them with lyrics. "Sing Along With the Movie" is a setting that plays the entire film but adds lyrics when the songs occur (you have to go to ¿½¬“settings¿½¬¿½ to make the words go away). "Disney Sing-Along Songs" are isolated songs with lyrics upon which a Mickey shape bounces on the words (these are from the VHS Sing-Along Series).

Bonus Features

THE SWORD IN THE STONE 50th Anniversary Blu-ray (2013)

Alternate Opening: Where Wart Meets Merlin

Sing Along with the Movie

"All About Magic"" (EXCERPT from Walt Disney Presents TV episode) (7:00)The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook

Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers

Bonus Shorts - Goofy in A Knight for a Day (1946), Mickey Mouse in The Brave Little Tailor (1938)

THE SWORD IN THE STONE 40th Anniversary DVD (2008) & 50th Anniversary DVD (2013) (identical)

Game: Merlin¿½¬¢s Magic Academy

"All About Magic" (EXCERPT from Walt Disney Presents TV episode) (7:00)

Disney Song Selection: "Higitus Figitus," "That¿½¬¢s What Makes the World Go 'Round," "The Legend of the Sword in the Stone," "A Most Befuddling Thing"

The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook

Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers

Film Facts

Bonus Shorts - Goofy in A Knight for a Day (1946), Mickey Mouse in The Brave Little Tailor (1938)

THE SWORD IN THE STONE Gold Classic Collection DVD (2001)

"All About Magic" (COMPLETE "Walt Disney Presents" TV episode) (38:00)

Disney Song Selection: "Higitus Figitus," "That¿½¬¢s What Makes the World Go 'Round"

The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook

Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers

Film Facts

Bonus Shorts - Goofy in A Knight for a Day (1946), Mickey Mouse in The Brave Little Tailor (1938)


ROBIN HOOD 2013 Blu-ray

Robin Hood gets more than its share of flack for its use of recycled animation (most famously Maid Marian¿½¬¢s Snow White dancing), sitcom storyline and episodic nature. Oh, and casting Phil Harris again, this time as Baloo in forest green (I always wait for the part in which he yells "Hey-yo!" like Ed MacMahon on the Johnny CarsonTonight Show.

But like The Sword in the StoneRobin Hood's issues spring primarily from the period in which it was produced. Walt had been gone for over five years, the studio was starting to repeat itself in live action as well as animation. The Vietnam war had not ended and escapism was still bringing in audiences. The energy crisis was on the rise and it was starting to affect attendance at Disneyland and the recently opened Walt Disney World Resort.

Clearly risk was not a consideration for the major investment in an animation feature, so Robin Hood built on what worked in The Jungle Book - a huge hit, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks - not so much of a hit but with an extremely strong animated sequence. It had to have influenced quite a bit of Robin Hood's look and character design.

Another influence on Robin Hood (and The Aristocats) was the surreal TV sitcom, Green Acres. Apparently feudal England was populated with several former Hooterville residents, as was 1910 France. But Robin Hood isn't a history lesson, it's a jaunty, beautifully animated series of very funny set pieces that remain effective, perhaps more so to younger audiences unfamiliar with the strong personalities doing the voices.

Chief among the voices is Peter Ustinov, a true renaissance man who could take a line and maximize every syllable. Hearing him say "Squeeeeeeeeze" alone makes Robin Hood worth checking out.

Okay, Robin Hood presents virtually the same wedding scene as Cinderella and George Bruns¿½¬¢s music for the fire scene sounds a lot like the Prince battling Maleficent as a dragon in Sleeping Beauty (you can hear it in The Sword in the Stone too, when a fire occurs in that film). But it works as a home video, its sequential quality making it something you or the kids can start and stop without losing story momentum.

Robin Hood also has "Love," an Academy Award-nominated song that was performed on the Oscar telecast by Johnny Whitaker and Jodie Foster. The winner that year was "The Way We Were," which of course, was "like buttah."

Bonus Features

ROBIN HOOD 2013 Blu-ray

Deleted storyline: Love Letter

Storybook

Alternate Ending

Disney Song Selection: "Oo-De-Lally," "Love," "The Phony King of England"

Art Gallery

Sing Along with the Movie

"Oo-De-Lally" Disney Sing-Along Song (from Sing-Along VHS video series)

Bonus Short: Mickey Mouse in Ye Olden Days (1933)

ROBIN HOOD DVD (2013) & Most Wanted Edition DVD (2006) (identical)

Alternate Ending

Disney Song Selection: "Oo-De-Lally," "Love," "The Phony King of England"

Art Gallery

Sing Along with the Movie

Oo-De-Lally Disney Sing-Along Song (from Sing-Along VHS video series)

Bonus Short: Mickey Mouse in Ye Olden Days (1933)


OLIVER AND COMPANY 25th Anniversary Blu-ray & DVD

It's fascinating to watch Oliver & Company knowing about the animation history that came after it. In the mid-'80s, both Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as freshly minted Disney executives, had been wondering if animation was even an viable option for where they felt the Walt Disney Company was going. Fortunately Oliver & Company was a substantial enough success in its initial release to generate a reissue - and more animated features.


Oliver & Company was the first Disney animated feature with a pop-radio-ready musical score that is almost entirely of its time period (unless we go back to the package features of the '40's like Make Mine Music). The soundtrack album was also the very last vinyl LP record in wide release on the Disney label.  

The exceptions in style are the lovely "Good Company" and the campy "Perfect Isn't Easy," a Broadway style number co-authored by Barry Manilow. It is performed by his old friend Bette Midler as the "Sharpay/Veronica Lodge/Snoopy's girlfriend"-like poodle, Georgette (though I somehow felt that character could have been even broader considering the comic talent behind it).

There are also several instances where the emerging computer technology was used as a technical boost to the animation. The lines are solid black, resembling neither the toned inks of the classic days nor the "stretchy lines" of early Xerox cels. And there's even some product placement - including Ryder Trucks and USA Today¿½¬€perhaps another first for a Disney animated feature.

With voice talents like Midler, Joel, Ruth Pointer, Cheech Marin and Huey Lewis, it was clear that this was the "new" Disney, with a cast largely from the Touchstone stable (including a young Joey Lawrence as Oliver, who would "whoa" his way to hunkdom on Blossom and subsequent TV series). Oliver & Company plays out like a Disney/DreamWorks hybrid before there was a DreamWorks, right down to the characters rocking out together in the finale.

You can also spot differences in the animation, as if some of the masters and the best apprentices did some, and some of the newer artists were just getting their feet wet. There is some truly outstanding character animation here, yet the film is not widely recognized for it, nor is it acknowledged for its role in bridging and sustaining Disney feature animation before The Little Mermaid initiated the second "Golden Age." The credits are overflowing with artists who have gone on to many other amazing projects.

What is apparent, though, is that Oliver & Company holds up nicely, especially for today¿½¬¢s kids and young parents. There are tinges of ¿½¬¿½80s style in the songs, but they still work. The overall look, slightly edgy tone and brisk pace fits right in with much current animation, whether cel or CG.

Bonus Features

OLIVER AND COMPANY 25th Anniversary Blu-ray (2013)

Sing Along With the Movie

The Making of Oliver & Company

Disney¿½¬¢s Animated Animals

Bonus Shorts: Pluto in "Lend a Paw" (1941) (Best Animated Short Film Oscar Winner); Pluto in "Puss Cafe" (1950)

Publicity Materials

OLIVER AND COMPANY 20th Anniversary DVD (2009)

& 25th Anniversary DVD (2013) (Identical)

Disney Song Selection: ¿½¬“Why Should I Worry?¿½¬¿½ ¿½¬“Streets of Gold¿½¬¿½

Game: Oliver¿½¬¢s Big-City Challenge

Disney¿½¬¢s Animated Animals

Oliver & Company Scrapbook "Lend a Paw" (1941) (Best Animated Short Film Oscar Winner); Pluto in "Puss Cafe"








Maybe it should be called "American Idol" Maker?
Blog, Movies
Posted on Aug 30 2013 by Greg
The 1980 musical drama The Idolmaker, reissued on Blu-ray, crackles with relevance in today's overnight success-promised marketplace. The main difference between what Ray Sharkey's character, Vinny, does in this film and they do nowadays on TV talent shows is that it was on a much smaller scale back then. Today, the stakes are higher, the rise is more lucrative and the fall can be more precipitous.



The Idolmaker
is based on the real-life impressario Bob Marcucci, who masterminded the careers of Frankie Avalon and Fabian. This is an amazing process to watch, as the unknowns are trained, designed and marketed by the Henry Higgins-like Svengali.

Sharkey, whose tragic tailspin of a personal life imploded with an untimely death, saw Idolmaker as his big breakout movie. As the director explains on the commentary (probably recorded previously as he mentions laserdiscs), Sharkey took the film's lack of success as a devastating blow, and even though he got a lot of attention later on TV's prestigious Wiseguy, he never really recovered.

It would have been interesting to see how Sharkey might have developed beyond this film, which is so close to his own background and so steeped in his personal pain, he draws a little too intensely on inner demons and leaves little room for subtlety. If he had dialed it down, he might have been another DeNiro or Pacino, which seemed to be his goal.

The director makes a point of setting the record straight about how Sharkey took credit for the iconic scene in which Vinny duplicates Paul Land's stage moves while standing in the wings. He told Jane Pauley he just made it up on the spot, while it was really storyboarded all along. It was this relentless nature that might have contributed to his highly destructive path.

The wonderful Tovah Feldshuh, so often versatile and inventive when given the opportunity, starts out as the savvy executive in this story but becomes little more than the archetypical adoring lady friend, not allowing her to make more of her talents.

The stars that really emerge in Idolmaker are the legendary songwriter Jeff Barry, one of the all time greats of the pop music days from the "Brill Building" stable of hit makers to The Monkees and The Archies to TV theme songs that we will never get out of our heads, like "Movin' On Up." For The Idolmaker, Barry wrote a stack of songs that could have been hits. It's a fresh approach rather than taking the less risky route of playing records over the soundtrack.

The other star is a super young Peter Gallagher, who dominates the film in each of his scenes, not by emoting, but by becoming someone he really wasn't: a less-than-gifted, terrified, naive busboy who Vinny gives the Eliza Doolittle treatment. Since this film, his career trajectory has been substantial indeed, yet you could see the possibilities even in this role.

The bonus features include the aforementioned commentary and a trailer. If you love classic pop, popular culture, or want to see how they did it back then, take a look.










Star of the "other Avengers" conquers time and space--and looks sensational, too
Blog, TV
Posted on Aug 30 2013 by Greg

How could I, as a self-respecting fan of The Avengers (the Patrick Macnee TV classic, not the comic book entity) resist 34 half hour episodes of a different sci-fi/fantasy series in which Joanna Lumley appears, solves mysteries of time and space and appears decked out in one wondrous style after another?



To me, Joanna Lumley is the whirling warrior of bizarre crime in 1977's The New Avengers, the fourth partner of John Steed on his various quirky quests. Others know her best from Absolutely Fabulous or even James and the Giant Peach, in roles that were broader and less flattering, but prove she's a actor with no fear.


Her smooth, deep voice also graces many an audio book. She sounds like the caramel inside a Cadbury Bar if it could speak.


Sapphire shows little fear either. Steel is well, Steely. David McCallum is generally not known for his zaniness. In his two American series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Invisible Man, his persona is stern as it is here, though Steel is even more dour.


Sapphire and Steel is a TV recipe blending a few slices of time travel from Doctor Who, a helping of serial format similar to that of Dark Shadows and a dash of Upstairs, Downstairs (particularly in Assignment 5). There's even a little of Land of the Lost here, in that the scripts are far more ambitious than the visuals, but they do the best they can and hope you'll let your imagination fill in the rest. (The premise of a "rip in time" is not unlike the 2005 Doctor Who episode, "Father's Day.")


Shot on videotape, the series has sparse special effects that appear quickly and carefully to obscure their modest nature. The sets, nice as they are, become really, really familiar to you as the actors spend lots of time on them.


Each of the six untitled "Assignments" are  clusters of episodes that make up individual story arcs. An Assignment can run anywhere from four to six half-hour episodes.


My favorite is the fifth one, which features the largest cast and the most dry wit. A millionaire throws a 30's party in which nothing contemporary is allowed. When such anomalies occur, there are these "rips in time" and that means it's time for Sapphire and Steel to crash the party, get bossy when murders seem to occur and even give one of the guests their power of telepathy.


A few caveats, I'm a fan of the musical director, Cyril Ornadel, who did a number of fine recordings I grew up with, as well as the Original Cast Album of My Fair Lady. But don't let theme music and the stentorian announcer make you think the show is campy. It's actually very serious, highly ethereal and ambiguous.


Also don't expect the pace and panache of the recent Doctor Who episodes that began in 2005. The stories are leisurely paced and require focused attention as they can be serpentine and puzzling (some never really make sense by their own design).


My advice is to avoid binge-viewing Sapphire and Steel, but to watch one or two at a time and return to it fresh. Otherwise it seems to wander and so does your concentration. Savor each episode.


Approach Sapphire and Steel as a collection of imaginative teleplays, not mini-movies. Let the series unfold before you on its own fascinating terms.










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