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Review of THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
1954, 97 min., Color
Western
Not rated (would be PG for some violence, drinking, smoking, and adult situations)
Arrow Video
Aspect ratio: 2.00:1, 1.85:1
Featured audio: LCPM Mono
Bonus features: B-
Includes: two Blu-ray discs, booklet
Trailer
Amazon link

When people think of James Stewart they think of the pictures he made with Frank Capra, or, in later years, Alfred Hitchcock. But in the early 1950s Stewart teamed with director Anthony Mann on eight films that made his screen persona edgier and more ambiguous. Five of those films were Westerns—Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955)—and all five were both critical and commercial successes.

Sixty years later those Westerns remain so similar in quality that it’s a matter of preference. The slight edge may go to The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie, then Bend of the River and The Far Country—the latter an enjoyable “Northern” along the lines of John Wayne’s North to Alaska.

In The Far Country, Stewart plays a cowboy who had driven a herd of cattle from Montana to Seattle, then boards a steamship to take them to the gold fields in Skagway, where the price of beef is sky high. But as the ship is leaving, a sheriff shouts to the captain to take the cowboy into custody because he’s said to have killed two people. In short order, Jeff Webster goes from wrangler to fugitive, dodging the crew thanks to the help of a woman (Ruth Roman as Ronda Castle) who invites him to get under the covers with her as the crew unlocks and checks every stateroom. And that’s just the start of the action.

Jeff isn’t the only character straddling good and evil, either. Ronda has a saloon and may or may not be in cahoots with Skagway’s self-appointed law, Judge Gannon (John McIntire), who has a whole gang of gunslingers and thugs to help him “keep order.” His first order of business when we meet him is a public hanging that’s disrupted by Jeff driving his cattle through the center of town. And suddenly he’s the judge’s next order of business, with a ruling that the court is confiscating the whole herd for “damages.”

Set in 1896 during the Klondike gold rush, the film’s main theme is that where there’s an honest fortune to be made, close behind are dishonest people looking to take it away—whether that means cheating someone, bullying them, running them off, or eliminating them. And Jeff Webster finds himself caught in the middle—even between Ronda and a young French girl he calls “Freckle Face” (Corinne Calvet), though he doesn’t seem to have any interest in them. Like the other miners, he’s just interested in making a score.

Famed character actor Walter Brennan is in top form as Ben Tatum, Jeff’s partner, but there’s a whole parcel of familiar faces in this film, as Mann was inclined to use the same actors over and over. Harry Morgan and Jay C. Flippen are here, along with Jack Elam, Robert J. Wilke, Chubby Johnson, and Royal Dano—all instantly recognizable, even if their names are not.

But the real star, as is often the case with a Mann Western, is the wilderness. Many of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, with its dramatic snowy mountains, icy glaciers, and big sky, showcased to perfection by Oscar-winning cinematographer William H. Daniels. This Arrow Academy Blu-ray features two discs and two ways to view the film: with the “alternate original aspect ratio of 2.00:1 and the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 2.00:1 is the way to go, because it captures detail lost on the “original” release. There’s a decent bunch of bonus features here too, featuring a six different film scholars—though a little “scholar” goes a long way. The best of the extras is probably “American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal,” which is a nice overview of the director’s Universal films, many of which he did with Stewart.

Language: Nothing to speak of

Sex: Other than seeing a woman in underclothes pretending to be in bed with a man, there’s nothing much here

Violence: It’s a Western, so there are the usual fistfights and shootings, though there are a lot more ambushes here than usual, and characters are killed 

Adult situations: There are competing saloons in Skagway and Dawson, and so there’s drinking, smoking, and gambling 

Takeaway: This is a pretty decent transfer from Arrow, and hopefully that bodes well for future releases

DEADLINE (1959-61) (DVD)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
1959-61, 1006 min. (39 episodes), Black & White
Drama
Not rated (would be PG for some adult situations)
Film Chest Media
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

It’s almost hard to remember, but before unfair cries of “fake news” journalists were widely respected. From the ‘20s through ‘50s they were even considered heroic because they did whatever it took to get a story, whether it involved immediate danger or possible repercussions. Crusading editors and reporters were the frequent subject of films and featured such stars as James Stewart (Call Northside 777), Humphrey Bogart (Deadline —U.S.A.), Kirk Douglas (Ace in the Hole), Clark Gable (Teacher’s Pet), Cary Grant (His Girl Friday), Fred McMurray (Exclusive), Alan Ladd (Chicago Deadline), and Joel McCrea (Foreign Correspondent).

The short-lived Deadline(1959-61) TV series takes viewers back to those simpler times when journalists worked alongside police and the public trusted and relied on them.

Paul Stewart, the series host and frequent “guest actor,” played a reporter in the film Deadline – U.S.A., but he doesn’t have what it takes to carry an anthology series like this. Assuming the role of various reporters from real newspaper stories across the nation, he goes about that reporter’s business with the stiff formality of Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday. In fact, Dragnet is a good comparison.

Dragnet had Friday’s voiceovers, while Deadline has Stewart’s in almost every episode. Like Dragnet, the Deadline investigations are pretty facile and stagey, which was typical of TV crime shows from the ‘50s. The “dramatizations” are, like most TV reenactments, a little hokey and decidedly melodramatic. A situation is quickly set up, there’s a brief investigation with questions asked of various people involved, and by the end of every 30-minute episode there’s a resolution. Guest stars include Peter Falk, Diane Ladd, Robert Lansing, Telly Savalas, George Maharis, and Simon Oakland, but for the most part these are unknown actors and fresh faces, because most of their careers never took off.

Thirty-nine episodes were produced, and all of them are included in this three-disc DVD set from Film Chest Media. The timing couldn’t be better, and you get the feeling that Film Chest is doing a little crusading of their own, thinking perhaps that the mainstream media have been systematically and unfairly maligned the past three years. More

Review of BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Entire family: No
Drama
2019, 118 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language, including ethnic slurs
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Just as you’d better like Abba if you’re going to enjoy Mamma Mia!, you almost need to be a Bruce Springsteen fan (or willing convert) to appreciate this music-filled drama from director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice).

Set in a small British town in 1987, Blinded by the Light features wall-to-wall Springsteen, with only a few exceptions. Included here are The Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark,” “The River,” “Badlands,” “Cover Me,” “Thunder Road,” “Prove It All Night,” “Hungry Heart,” “Because the Night,” “The Promised Land,” “Born to Run,” “I’ll Stand by You,” and the film’s title song. The soundtrack is meant to feel like an extended Springsteen play list that takes us into the mind of a Pakistani teenager as he listens to his Walkman throughout much of the film. But it’s not just the music. The lyrics also appear onscreen in numerous scenes, artfully arranged in superscript to emphasize the impact that Springsteen’s words have on a main character who wants to become a writer and struggles under the burden of a strict, controlling father and hostile community.

It’s no secret that music has a transformative power, capable of inspiring, soothing, even redeeming listeners, and Javed’s story resonates because of that. Based on co-writer Sarfraz Manzoor’s life, Javed’s struggles are also uncomfortably familiar.

Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s British nationalism sparked a white nationalist backlash against immigrants—Pakistanis especially—and it’s difficult if not impossible to watch Blinded by the Light and not think of the current state of affairs in America. Because Luton is a very small town, Pakistanis feel the white nationalist anger more acutely. “Pakis go home” graffiti is everywhere. Neighborhood children urinate through the mail slot of one family’s door. White nationalist demonstrators walk the streets and pummel counter-protesters, and the main character, Javed (Viveik Kalra), is threatened by a menacing white male, forcing him to seek refuge in the home of a white male friend who shares his love of music.

That’s the milieu complicating the life of a teenager who has it hard enough just trying to negotiate typical teen dramas—like the halls and lunchroom of his school, school activities, and encounters with the opposite sex (including a major crush). His life changes when the only other South Asian student in his class befriends him and loans him two Springsteen tapes. His life also takes an upturn because of an English teacher (Hayley Atwell) who champions him and his writing—which he does in relative secret from his parents. In his father’s eyes, if he’s not spending his time earning money to help them get through tough times, he’s not spending his time wisely.

In a way, we’ve seen this story before in films like Billy Elliott, where dance, not writing, was the boy’s dream and his journey was also entwined with one his father had to make, from resistance to acceptance. Still, Blinded by the Light is a solid film, and one that can lead to a lot of discussion. As with so many things, though, a strength can turn into a weakness. There comes a time when the whole “inspired by Springsteen” and “must live my life like Springsteen” gets a little old, which leads me to wonder if the film might have been stronger if it had been edited to clock in at 98 minutes instead of 118. Just sayin’.

Language: Mild compared to most movies today, with Brit versions of swearwords (wanker, crap, fricking, shite, etc.) and a repeated racial slur (Packis)

Sex: Nothing here except a kiss

Violence: A character is bruised on the head, and there are other instances of bullying, but not much in the way of actual physical violence

Adult situations: Teens throw a party that’s seen from the outside, while inside we see suppressed teens letting it all hang out at a rave; later Javed is poured wine though the host knows it’s against his Muslim religion

Takeaway: It’s good to get another film from Chadha, who isn’t afraid to explore emotion in her stories and has a knack for detailing cross-cultural experiences without getting too preachy or maudlin

Review of THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
Drama
1945, 126 min., Black & White
Not rated (would be G)
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Digital Mono
Bonus features: B
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

Bing Crosby played a priest in two gentle warm-hearted films, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)—the latter of special interest because it paired the crooner with the legendary Ingrid Bergman. She’s the no-nonsense Sister Superior of an urban Catholic school run by nuns and he’s the school’s new easy-going pastor-administrator with a totally different attitude about how to handle problems with children. They really play off each other nicely, and as old-fashioned as this film is, it should interest families who enjoy old black-and-white classics like Miracle on 34th Street. It’s as wholesome a slice of American life as a Norman Rockwell painting that, with age, seems just as quaint.

Like other films from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, The Bells of St. Mary’s depicts an America that’s long gone, where everything seemed slower paced and children’s problems were limited to trouble with their parents, studies, or classmates. In this film two children’s problems are on the periphery, while the featured character “bout” is a gentle and very subtle rivalry between Father O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict. The main plot thread involves Sister Benedict’s stubborn hope that a cranky business developer (Henry Travers, who played Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) will donate his new building so that it can serve as a new school. He, meanwhile, is angling for St. Mary’s to sell out so he can tear it down and turn it into a parking lot.

Though Father O’Malley arrives in the fall and the story spans the winter months, there is a long scene where students rehearse a Christmas play, and a few other scenes shot in front of decorated trees. So if Diehard is a Christmas movie, so is The Bells of St. Mary’s. More

Review of THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 97 min., Color
Sony / Columbia
Rated PG for rude humor and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

The Angry Birds Movie 2 (which should have been simply “Angry Birds 2”) is a colorfully manic CGI animated feature that’s full of feathery little fluffballs and cutesy antics that are obviously aimed like a big giant slingshot at young children, rather than gamers.

At one point a bird is reading Crazy Rich Avians, and there are enough smartly written lines and movie allusions to make it fairly painless, even amusing for older siblings and parents to watch along with youngsters. And that includes the curmudgeons who say they’ll only watch such films “when pigs fly” . . . because in this movie, they do. This time around, it’s a classic tale of enemies—pigs and birds—who put their prank war on hold so they can work together when an outside force threatens their separate island paradises. The same cast returns from the 2016 original, and if your family liked that one they’ll like this sequel. It’s a stronger film, and the feather and effects animation is noticeably superior.

Jason Sudeikis once again gives voice to Red, the hero of the first film who has since developed a bit of an arrogant “only I can do this” attitude. So while the two sides learn to work together, Red is relearning how to be humble and realizing, as well, that it takes teamwork to succeed. An all-star cast features the additional voice talents of Rachel Bloom, Leslie Jones, Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Awkwafina, Sterling K. Brown, Eugenio Derbez, Peter Dinklage, Nicki Minaj, Maya Rudolph, Tony Hale, and others.

The plot is set in motion when a large iceball falls out of the sky, swamping Piggy Island and leading the pigs to seek out a truce with their Bird Island counterparts. Pigs, birds, and viewers later learn that, like a James Bond villain, Zeta, the head of Eagle Island is launching iceballs from her volcano cannon in an all-out attack. Her plan? Tired of living on a frigid island, she wants to acquire warmer territory for herself and her army of Eagles. Meanwhile, in a cute-as-a-button side plot, three hatchling birds play with a mother’s eggs but end up watching them drift out to sea. How will they ever get them back? More

Review of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (older teens and up)
Crime comedy-drama
1974, 115 min., Color
Rated R for brief nudity, profanity, and violence
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is an offbeat heist film that also fits the buddy cop/criminal mold, so it holds strong appeal for fans of those genres. Just be aware that the R rating isn’t only for language that now would be considered relatively tame. There’s also one brief scene of full female frontal nudity and another instance where a naked man and woman are shown tied up together with minimal body parts showing—though both scenes are comedic.

This 1974 light drama from director Michael Cimino featured Clint Eastwood at the height of his Dirty Harry popularity, playing opposite a young and perpetually smiling Jeff Bridges, who had already received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show and would earn another one for his work on this film. Eastwood, meanwhile, would have to wait nearly 20 years for his first acting Oscar nomination (Unforgiven) . . . but he would take home the statue.

A chance meeting pairs an infamous heist mastermind hiding from some of his disgruntled gang (Eastwood, as The Thunderbolt) with a young drifter looking for adventure (Bridges, as Lightfoot). As Thunderbolt’s problems become his own, Lightfoot suggests they do something audacious: partner with the gang to repeat the celebrated heist, step by step. Hit that Montana bank again, using the same anti-tank gun that the gang did initially. More

Review of GOOD BOYS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
Comedy
2019, 90 min., Color
Rated R for crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout—all involving tweens
Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Good Boys was so heavily advertised on TV that I felt compelled to let Family Home Theater readers know whether it’s another Stand by Me classic that’s well worth the amount of R-rated material, or if it’s just an ironically titled companion to Bad Grandpa or Bad Teacher.

This much seems true: if you’re going to make a raunchy comedy about American boys, it had better be funny. Otherwise, the raunchiness feels like a cement overcoat that drags it down into the muck. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, if it doesn’t make the film funnier, why even include it? When the lines aren’t funny, it just gives viewers an uncomfortable feeling to be watching sixth graders talk the way these kids do about sex (they have no clue), drugs (even more clueless), and beer (don’t get me started).

There’s maybe a dozen laugh-out-loud moments when the R-rated material is funny. Otherwise, the f-bombs and confused sex talk coming out of tweens’ mouths isn’t as hilarious as writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky seem to think it is. What’s worse, given the precociousness of kids these days, their naivete is hard to believe. Even a younger sister recognizes a sex toy and tells them about it, which all but draws attention to how difficult it is to believe the boys are that clueless.

The first half of this “adventure comedy” is flat, dull, and, for the most part, devoid of laughs. The three main characters are played by actors who seem stiff and self-conscious—though when the second half finds them working with better material, audiences can see that the problem lies mostly with the writing. Writer-director Stupnitsky also penned the screenplay for Bad Teacher, and if you know that in advance, you pretty much know what you’re going to get with Good Boys. More

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