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Review of HEE HAW: PFFT! YOU WAS GONE (DVD)

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: Yes
1969-74, 191 min. (4 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G despite occasional innuendo)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C-/D
“Rindercella” clip
Amazon link

Hee Haw debuted in 1969 as the rural answer to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and while Laugh-In lasted two years longer on primetime network television, anyone who’s recently watched episodes from both shows knows that Hee Haw got the last laugh. Laugh-In’s gags were way too topical and tied to the news, or else they were silly catch-phrases that have long since lost their funniness. Either way, the show isn’t nearly as funny today, and you can bet your sweet bippy on it.

Hee Haw is another story. This show, hosted by country music stars Buck Owens and Roy Clark, was unapologetically devoted to cornball humor. Writers plumbed the depths of rural stereotypes for jokes that somehow managed to celebrate rural life while also poking fun of it. Like the Grand Ole Opry, the show had a group of talented regulars but also featured some of country music’s top stars and rising newcomers as weekly guests. It was a popular-enough series to last another 20 years in syndication, and it still plays pretty much the same now as it did then. Meaning, of course, that cornball humor never changes. The sketch comedy and rapid-fire jokes were corny then, and they’re corny now. How corny? You be the judge:

Doctor: I hate to tell you this, but your wife’s mind is gone.
Male patient: Well, that don’t surprise me. She’s been givin’ me a piece of it for the past 20 years.

Roy: Hey, you know I was in the army for three years?
Buck: Did you get a commission?
Roy: No, just a straight salary.

Cousin Clem: Junior, are you goin’ to the drawing at the movie theater in town tonight?
Junior: No, I think I’ll stay home and draw.
Lulu: Junior, you’re no artist. The only thing you could draw’d be flies.
Junior: I can’t draw no flies. They won’t hold still long enough.
Cousin Clem: I think I’ll take up finger painting.
Grandpa: What’s this family a-comin’ to? When I think of one of my kin talkin’ about paintin’ his fingers, I get real upset, I get real mad.
Lulu: I tell you what you could draw for me, Junior. Why don’t you draw the curtain?
Announcer: Be sure to tune in next time [ to”The Culhanes”], when we’ll hear Junior say:
Junior: I just drew a conclusion.

Of course, the delivery and the characters account for much of the humor, and with humor taking center stage it’s easy to forget that for a time Hee Haw was the biggest television venue for country performers.

Hee Haw: Pfft You Was Gone! is a two-disc set featuring four complete shows and two under three-minute interviews with Aaron Tippin and Moe Bandy, who performed as guests on the show, which was all about having fun. “If you made a mistake it was almost good,” said Bandy, who recalled that despite cue cards people would often muff their lines or ad lib.

Episode 2 (Season 1, 6-22-69)
Musically, Buck Owens, the Hagers, Don Rich, and Susan Raye sing “But You Know I Love You,” Merle Haggard sings “Mama Tried” and “Branded Man,” Roy Clark sings “Yesterday When I Was Young, Grandpa Jones sings “Mountain Dew,” Buck Owens and the Buckaroos perform “Happy Times,” and the Hagers chip in “With Lonely.” Among the sketches are several with The Culhanes of Kornfield Kounty, several KORN News Briefs and “Pfft! You Was Gone” mini-songs, a rhyming menu rundown of “Hey Grandpa, What’s for Supper?” and Archie at the barbershop telling the syllable-inversion story of “Rindercella.”

Episode 34 (Season 2, 10-13-70)
Special guest Marty Robbins sings “I’m So Afraid of Losing You” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” Buck and the gang sing “Sing a Happy Song,” Roy Clark performs “Black Sapphire,” Connie Eaton sings “Ring of Fire,” Grandpa Jones performs “You’ll Make Our Shack a Mansion,” Buck and Susan Raye sing “Tennessee Bird Walk,” and The Hagers perform a song that in the Trump era of rural voters seems almost hard to believe: “Everything Is Beautiful,” sung to a room full of children of all nationalities (“Everyone is beautiful in their own way; under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find a way”). The usual assortment of recurring comedy sketches include “Pfft! You Was Gone,” KORN News Briefs, The Culhanes, What’s for Supper? and Stringbean reading a letter from home.

Episode 70 (Season 3, 2-12-72)
Porter Wagoner sings “What Ain’t to Be Just Might Happen,” Dolly Parton sings “Coat of Many Colors,” and together they sing “Right Combination.” Buck and the gang sing “Old Dan Tucker,” Buck and the Buckaroos perform “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” and “”I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me),” Roy and The Sound Generation perform “Peace in the Valley,” The Hagars sing “The Cost of Love Is Getting Higher,” Guinilla Hutton sings “He’s All I Got,” and a bunch of the cast performs “John Henry.” Junior Samples turns up on his used car lot for one sketch segment, and the “Pfft You Was Gone” musical tale of woe is augmented this time by another musical sketch that would become just as popular: “Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me” (If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all . . . Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me”

Episode 111 (Season 5, 11-3-73)
Country music royalty Tammy Wynette and George Jones are the musical guests, along with Johnny Bush. Jones sings “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You),” Wynette sings “Kids Say the Darnedest Things,” together they perform “We’re Gonna Hold On,” Johnny Bush sings “Here Comes the World Again,” Buck and his Buckaroos perform “Too Much Water,” Roy and family perform “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” The Hagars “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” Roy sings “I’ll Paint You a Song,” and Buck and Susan Raye perform “I Think I’m Going to Like Loving You.” Wynette even subs for Gordie on a “Pfft! You Was Gone” segment. Among the sketches, Junior turns up on Samples Sales selling not just cars but watch dogs, and Minnie Pearl joins Grandpa Jones in the kitchen.

Hee Haw was originally intended for rural audiences and fans of country music, and that’s still the main audience for this classic show. If you don’t like country or corny jokes you might not hee-haw much. But it’s hard even for hardcore urbanites not to grin when Archie Campbell and Gordie Tapp assume an American Gothic pose and sing a ditty about a woman who left, with the deadpan, punchline chorus, “Where, oh where, are you tonight? Why did you leave me here all alone? I searched the world over and I thought I’d found true love. You met another and PFFT! you was gone.”

Review of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 129 min., Color
Family musical fantasy
Disney
Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

We seem to have entered a new era of live-action Disney remakes of animated classics.

After a 2014 revisionist Sleeping Beauty story of Maleficent that divided critics, a trio of remakes—Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Pete’s Dragon (2016)—fared nearly as well with reviewers as they did at the box office. More live-action remakes are in the works: The Sword and the Stone, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Alice and Maleficent sequels, Cruella (an attempt to improve on the 1996 101 Dalmatians flop), Winnie the Pooh, Mulan, Tink (a Peter Pan spinoff), Prince Charming (a Cinderella spinoff), Genies (an Aladdin prequel), and Night on Bald Mountain (a Fantasia adaptation). It other words, it’s getting real.

Predictably, not everyone is a fan. More audience members (83 percent) liked 2017’s Beauty and the Beast than critics (71 percent), but if you read between the lines you’ll see that the naysayers are mostly purists who think that nothing can compare to the 1991 film many consider to be the high point of Disney animation—one that, like The Lion King, inspired a Broadway version. Additional objections came from closet homophobes who took exception with the slightly flamboyant performance that Josh Gad (Olaf, in Frozen) gave of La Fou, sidekick to the film’s egotistical, intimidating villain. But hey, he’s a musical theater guy, this is musical theater, and children will see in his performance the same kind of second-fiddle comedy as his cartoon counterpart provided.

Our family watched Beauty and the Beast separately—my son, on his college campus; my wife and daughter, at a local theater; and me, when it finally came out on Blu-ray this week—but we all had the same reaction: We loved it.

Disney excels in creating movie worlds, and to create this one they decided against straight live-action and incorporated 1700 visual effects using both old and new technology. Watch a bonus feature and you’ll see Dan Stevens, who plays the beast, decked out in a full-body motion-capture suit, and you’ll see Emma Watson as Belle sitting at a table full of objects—the only actor in the room, because all of the other characters were CGI. But you’ll also see green screen work and matte backgrounds, and the combination of old and new techniques fashion a world that’s live-action but still altered reality—timeless, fantastic.

Gad says that everyone brought their “A” game and you can see it on the screen. That A-game began with a romping, boisterous “table read” that included dancing, singing, pretend swordfights—everything we see in the film. It was clear that Disney meant to pull out all the stops and really nail this, and our family thought they did just that.

The project must have felt both new and strangely familiar to Watson, since Disney filmed at Shepperton Studios in England—the same studio where she and her young castmates shot Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Watson was a perfect choice to play Belle, as her “fantasy cred” is already high and it’s easy to believe her as the fairytale Beauty. Her singing voice is pleasant, too, though the best singer of the bunch is musical theater veteran Luke Evans, who plays a Gaston every bit as robust, menacing, and self-absorbed as the animated version.

Stevens, meanwhile, makes for a convincing Beast, and both are helped by a screenplay that sought to quell any Stockholm Syndrome talk and answer the big question: Why would Belle fall for the Beast? What was in each of their pasts and personalities that might serve as common ground for mutual attraction? Providing backstories for each and answering those questions are the main deviations from the animated version.

Otherwise, apart from incorporating additional songs, Disney follows the same path as the original: Belle wishes for more than “this provincial life,” but in requesting her father bring her back a rose from his travels she inadvertently sets the plot in motion. After being attacked by wolves and seeking refuge in a nearby castle, he’s sentenced to life in the castle prison for stealing a rose. When his horse returns and Belle tracks him down, she offers herself in his place. Meanwhile, her father returns to town and tries to get them to rescue his daughter, but they think he’s crazy. But Gaston, eventually, will lead armed peasants in an assault on the castle. As Watson says, it’s a musical, it’s a fantasy, it’s an action movie, and it’s a drama—four genres in one.

Small children will find the wolfpack attack even more frightening in live action, but the Beast is toned down a bit from the animated original—or maybe it just seems that way since his transformation begins more immediately and there is greater depth in the Beast’s character that makes him seem more instantly likable. Then again, director Bill Condon—who was behind the camera for two of The Twilight Saga films—knows a thing or two about bad-boy, good-girl teen attraction. Ultimately, the Beast isn’t as bad as he appears, and the sorceress (Hattie Morahan) who pinned that curse on him has a bigger role in the live-action version.

Some critics have groused about weak links, but we didn’t see any. The whole cast was remarkable—energetic, “animated,” and wholly believable—whether we’re talking about Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline), Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), or Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci). Ultimately, while the story is the same, it feels like a completely different movie from the 1991 animated classic. And as long as that feeling persists, Disney can remake animated films as much as they want.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: The wolf attack can be frightening, as can the Beast’s initial rage and a climactic scene when one character dies and another appears dead
Adult situations: A pub scene, but the music distracts from anything adult
Takeaway: Empowered by advances in CGI special effects, Disney seems to have found their live-action stride again

Review of THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 104 min., Color
Animated action-comedy
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos True HD
Bonus features: B- (four shorts, 6 short features, 4 deleted scenes)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m curious: Is there a kid in America who hasn’t played with Legos? Since 1949 the Danish company has cranked out those distinctive, colorful plastic building blocks that really took off as a kid craze when the company began producing theme sets tied to history (knights, pirates, robots, Vikings, cowboys, dinosaurs, etc.) and movies (Batman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.). Lego stores are everywhere. At Downtown Disney in Orlando a giant Lego dragon rises up out of a manmade lake, while in a downtown Chicago Lego store an elaborate model of a downtown city block is on display. And some airports and trains have dedicated Lego sections where children can play. With Legos so culturally huge, the stage was set for The Lego Movie (2014) to do for Lego lovers what Wreck-It Ralph did for video-game lovers—and it didn’t disappoint.

In that first film, Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) was surrounded by a bevy of characters from other theme sets, though another figure was the unlikely hero. In The Lego Batman Movie the focus is totally on the Batman-Superman DC world, with guest villains popping up from other pockets of pop culture (say that three times fast). The result is dazzling, and the second film is easily as good as the first—possibly better.

The most striking thing about The Lego Batman Movie, which was computer animated in 3D, is its wide appeal.

—Young children who are just learning to stack the blocks will respond to the colors, the action, and yes, the talking characters who say things like “shoot shoot shoot” when they’re firing their toy guns, mimicking the kind of pretend play that children engage in.

—Older children who watch superhero movies and still have a box of Legos stored somewhere in their closets will love the stellar set design, the driving musical score, and the special effects that somehow manage to keep up with the breakneck pacing. It’s a pretty impressive assault on the senses.

—Teens and adults who are familiar enough with superhero movies to know all the tropes will love the wry and often egotistical and cynical running commentary by Batman (Arnett again) and the postmodernist self-consciousness that The Lego Batman Movie displays in simultaneously delivering the formula and making fun of it. There are, for example, dozens of “bat” vehicles, including a Batkayak. Chris McKay, who directed Robot Chicken (2005) and Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III (2010) knows how to have it both ways and absolutely crams this film full of pop cultural references and gags. The more you know, the more you’ll laugh—even as your wee ones are getting caught up in the action.

—Parents will love that different ages will see and appreciate different things. Like Toy Story the core message is one of family—and friends becoming a family. The Lego Batman Movie is rated PG, but the pacing is so brisk that anything close to objectionable will fly right over the heads of little ones, like this hilarious exchange:

Robin (Michael Cera): “My name’s Richard Grayson, but all the kids at the orphanage call me Dick.”

Batman: “Well, children can be cruel.”

Then again, you knew from the opening dark screen and voiceover that this was going to be a clever parody, as Batman says, “Black. All important movies start with a black screen. And music. Edgy, scary music that would make a parent or studio executive nervous.” Batman is a fast-talker, as they’d say in the Seinfeld world, and you’ve got to keep up or you’ll miss half the jokes. The plot? That’s easy:

Even as Batman hurts the Joker’s feelings by telling him he’s not as important as he thinks he is, Commissioner Gordon retires and his daughter, Barbara (Rosario Dawson), tells Batman essentially the same thing. And when the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and his fellow villains turn themselves in, Batman decides to raid Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and grab the Phantom Zone Projector to send the Joker to another dimension. Briefly Batman and Robin are jailed for their mischief, but when the Joker returns from the Phantom Zone with every single exiled villain Barbara realizes the city needs Batman after all. That’s pretty much the message, even as bad guys reconcile with good guys: that people need each other, even if it’s only being the yang to another’s yin. And as Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) tells Batman, if you lose a family, don’t brood . . . find another.

The Lego Batman Movie is funny, clever, action-packed, and rocking with music and kaleidoscopic graphics, but it’s those underlying messages that make it a great family film—especially on sparkling Blu-ray and with Dolby Atmos True-HD sound. And that’s not even counting the free kid’s ticket to Legoland that’s included with purchase.

Language: Just mild terms like “butt” or “sucks”
Sex: n/a, unless you count Robin tearing off his pants like a stripper in order to get down to the uniform we see
Violence: Lots of fighting, but it’s hard to take any of it too seriously when these are plastic figures with claw hands and clunky, Lego movements
Adult situations: Nothing here either, unless you count that running commentary
Takeaway: Pay attention, people. Warner Bros. Animation has arrived

Review of SHARK WEEK: SHARK ‘N’ AWE COLLECTION (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Possibly
2015-16, 1355 min. (32 episodes), Color
Documentary
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Teaser/trailer
No online purchase link available

Sharks are to the Discovery Channel what Mickey Mouse is to Walt Disney Studios. And every year the cable network celebrates their viewers’ fascination with all things shark with a special televised Shark Week that has all the hoopla of a Super Bowl. This past year’s theme was “Shark ‘n’ Awe,” and you can pick up the Shark Week: Shark ‘n’ Awe Collection on DVD now—but only at Walmart and only in-store, no online sales.

What you’ll get in this six-disc, 32-episode collection is the usual blend of episodes: some of them documentaries about scientific studies (including one, pictured, where scientists and shark experts devised a way to accurately measure sharks underwater), some “in search of” adventures, some of them attempts to capture certain shark behaviors on film for the first time, some spotlighting acrobatic aerial attacks, others chronicling an increase in shark attacks worldwide, others habitat-centered, and a bunch of them dealing with Great White Sharks, whose popularity skyrocketed with the summer 1975 release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. As clichéd as it sounds, there’s literally something here for everyone, and tastes will vary. I found the Mythbusters episode to be the most boring of the bunch, but that won’t be the case for everyone.

I mostly enjoyed the scientific studies, many of them focused on the tagging of sharks so they can be monitored via satellite. Such episodes were largely pure research-based, but one of them sought to pinpoint the movement of enormous Great Whites along beaches in order to alert officials to keep human-shark contact at a minimum when they’re in the area—kind of like a sophisticated cowbell. The most interesting of these may have been “Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba,” because it involved a collaboration between Cuban and U.S. shark scientists working frantically during the limited window that both governments had given them.

But the daredevil episodes were also pretty engaging, including ones where shark chasers experimented with new underwater cages and methods of goading the sharks to strike so they can study their behavior. And there’s a train wreck factor to episodes where shark attack victims are interviewed . . . or we see them go back into the water again because they’re as addicted to sharks as many viewers.

I could have done without the clip shows with their teasers, because the networks already run so many sequences over again when they return from commercial breaks that it can get a little old. Though some might want to start by watching an episode like “Sharktacular 2016” to get some idea of which episodes they want to watch first, I would imagine that most fans would just pop these in one disc at a time and watch them from beginning to end.

Best way to watch? Rig up a backyard screen and use a projector. Invite the neighbors over to a pool party where everyone floats in innertubes as you run through the most harrowing episodes!

Some episodes—like “Blue Serengeti” with its limited shark footage—may disappoint, but for sheer volume, you can’t beat this set if you’re a shark lover (or fearer). Below are the episode titles, separated according to discs:

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Review of ROCK DOG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy
Rated PG for action and language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Preferred audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Rock Dog, a Chinese-American collaboration, is a better-than-you’d-think animated feature. It’s a true family movie with the potential to appeal to a wide range of ages. The characters are engaging, the animation is top-notch, and the story . . . well, if it worked in Kung Fu Panda, why wouldn’t it here?

Rather than a Panda who hears a different drummer, this time it’s a Tibetan mastiff that can’t quite bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps as a guard dog of a village of sheep up on Snow Mountain. With a gang of hungry and opportunistic wolves ready to attack, a single dog following his ancestral tradition isn’t enough. The father (J.K. Simmons) needs his son, and he also needs “scarecrows”—a bunch of sheep dressed to look like mastiffs from a distance—in order to keep the wolves at bay.

Bodi (Luke Wilson) would rather play music, but since music was banned because it was a distraction, he defiantly breaks into the “hold” where confiscated instruments are stored and begins teaching himself how to play a traditional stringed instrument. But when a radio falls from the sky and Bodi discovers the delights of rock music, he modifies that instrument to create his own six-string acoustic guitar and finally gets his father’s reluctant blessing to head to the city to follow his dream of becoming a musician.

We’re not supposed to question why we’re unable to get radio reception driving on some roads, but high in the Himalayas everything comes in crystal clear. And we’re not supposed to wonder why character actor Sam Elliott was chosen to play the narrator Fleetwood Yak, since this is set in Asia and Elliott’s unmistakable Western drawl situates us immediately in the American West. Above all, we’re not supposed to question mastiff’s “Iron Paw” defense—a laser-cannon blast of energy that emits from the mastiff’s paws—and later, young Bodi’s musical variation of it. Director Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up) knows that if the writing and story are strong enough and the characters are strong enough, audiences will relax and just enjoy the movie.

Wilson does a fine job as the lead character, but the show-stealer is feline rock ‘n’ roll legend Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard). Almost every scene involving Bodi and Angus is shot full of energy and interest, and you can see it in their interaction that they were the most fun for writers to bring alive. Don’t expect much in the way of sideplots, though. A wannabe successful band—featuring a warm-hearted bass-playing fox named Darma (Mae Whitman), a slightly goofy goat drummer named Germur (Jorge Garcia), and an arrogant snow leapard guitarist named Trey (Matt Dillon)—has almost as little to do as TV mothers in the old father-centric sitcoms. But the real fun begins when Trey pranks Bodi into finding Scattergood and asking him to be his teacher and he leaves that group temporarily behind. Even a kidnapping involving the wolf gang led by Linnux (a mobster type who also is a fight-club owner) isn’t as much fun as the Bodi/Angus scenes—though, of course, the kids will like the infusion of action. In the end, though, it’s another tale of following your dreams and finding parental acceptance in the process.

Rock Dog is based on a graphic novel (Tibetan Rock Dog) by Chinese rock star Zheng Jun and with a $60 million production budget it ranks as the most costly animated film ever produced by Chinese. As I said, the production values are terrific, the script (though familiar) doesn’t sag anywhere, the characters are likeable, the action is sufficient, and the music is an upbeat bonus. It is, in other words, much better than you’d expect for a film that did not do well at the box office in China and drew a 39 percent “rotten” rating at RottenTomatoes.com.

Language: Some name calling and scattered use of “bloody” as a euphemistic swearword
Sex: Zero
Violence: Not much—just some wolves shot with a tranquilizer, a dog fighting a grizzly, and a cat being hit with a baseball bat, all for comic effect
Adult situations: Nothing really
Takeaway: The skills are here, but the filmmakers need an original idea and script to take it to the next level

Review of A MERMAID’S TALE (DVD)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes (technically)
2016, 92 min., Color
Family drama
Rated G
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

You could argue that Daryl Hannah revived Hollywood’s fascination with mermaids in the live-action 1984 romantic comedy Splash, which contained so much adult female nudity that it’s now really only appropriate for adults. Then came the engaging Australian TV series H20: Just Add Water, featuring three young women in their late teens that find themselves transformed into mermaids. Now we get a 12 year old who has her own mermaid encounter in the live-action film A Mermaid’s Tale. And if you remember the rule of thumb for movies aimed at children, the heroes are always slightly older than the intended audience. That means the 6-10 age group finally gets a live-action mermaid film to feed their fantasy side.

From a critic’s perspective, A Mermaid’s Tale is a C- at best. But young Caitlin Carmichael is likable as the female lead and the playful relationship she has with her father (Jerry O’Connell, who was the fat kid in Stand by Me) is more like the one Miranda Cosgrove had with her TV brother (Jerry Trainor). Because of that, and because the production values are surprisingly good, I think young girls in the target age group will probably find this movie entertaining enough to grade a B or B-. Considering that the film was made with them in mind, I’m comfortable giving A Mermaid’s Tale a compromise grade of C/C+.

Carmichael plays Ryan, a 12-year-old girl who moves with her father to a tiny California fishing town in order to help her aging grandfather, whom she hasn’t seen since she was very tiny. Even this early in the film, adults who watch with their daughters will be thinking, Really? I mean, if you don’t see someone for 10 years it usually implies that you’re estranged, and yet the only thing that seems strained in their relationship is their insistence on “caring” for the older man and forcing him to take it easy, since apparently his doctor put him on an aspirin regimen for his heart. If you care enough about a relative to relocate, why didn’t you care enough to visit over the past decade?

Then too, we’re told the fish left a LONG time ago, but everything in this quaint little town looks freshly painted and picturesque as a thriving tourist destination, not a depressed fishing village. The only remotely ramshackle thing is Grandpa’s boat, which has one panel on the hull that’s been primed but not painted. In the early going the plot will remind you a bit of the Flipper remake, in which an isolated boy forced to live someplace different finds a best friend in a dolphin. Only here, Ryan encounters a mermaid named Coral (Sydney Scotia) who had become briefly entangled in a net hanging inexplicably close to the dock. Though she keeps the mermaid business to herself, even more inexplicable is that Grandpa (Barry Bostwick) admonishes her for going to the docks alone. Someone her age shouldn’t be doing that, he and his son chide. Really? I mean, it’s not as if she’s so small she could fall in and drown, and the docks in this quaint little town aren’t exactly full of rough-and-tumble sailors, fishermen, or longshoremen. It’s a pier, basically, with a few boat slips, and an easy walk to cute little bakeries and cafes. Yet, just one day later when Grandpa insists that his son come with him on a two-day fishing trip, he suggests leaving Ryan on her own because “she’s old enough.” That’s not inconsistent at all, right?

The point is, if you’re an adult and you think too much, you’ll find plenty to criticize. If you’re a girl in the target age range, you’ll get caught up in the BFF giggling that a young girl and a young mermaid enjoy together. Grandpa blames the mermaids for chasing away the fish and now he’s determined to catch them to bring the fish back, and the queen of the mermaids (yes, there is such a thing) has warned her people to NEVER have contact with humans. So you basically have a situation where both girls are taking a walk on the wild side because they found a best friend—something that will certainly appeal to rule-following and friend-needy adolescents.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but most young viewers’ hearts will beat with excitement when Ryan is surprised to learn she’s able to hold her breath under water for a whopping 10
minutes! I can’t predict how a young audience will react when Coral takes Ryan to mermaid island, but people who saw the old Power Rangers TV series or grew up watching the campy Lost in Space episodes will recognize in the set and costumes an Irwin Allen hokeyness and smile. Try to ignore the continuity error where Coral is still wearing her own necklace in a scene after she and Ryan traded jewelry, or that near the end Ryan’s dad and his old-now-new girlfriend show up on the island, though we have no idea how they got there. Or that we see a Coast Guard cutter bearing down on the island and Dad mentions the Coast Guard, but they never arrive and the scene ends. If you can put aside those inconsistencies and the campy Power Rangers turn that the film suddenly takes, it’s a cute-enough family film. But really, A Mermaid’s Tale—a film that’s as wholesome as can be—is for young girls no older than age 10.

Review of LA LA LAND (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2016, 128 min., Color
Musical
Rated PG-13 for some language
Summit
Aspect ratio: 2.55:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m glad that Summit decided to wait a few months before making La La Land available on home video. It’s good to take a step back and approach a film like this fresh, especially after all the hype-turned-hate that swirled around it. I frankly can’t think of another film that had so many Oscar nominations (14) and was so praised initially as the surefire Best Picture winner, then derided in a backlash as the biggest overrated film of the year:

—It’s a slick film . . . maybe too slick.
—Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are amazing . . . or maybe just Stone.
—It was pure Hollywood! (they gushed) . . . It was pure Hollywood (they dismissed).
—First Whiplash and now this? Damien Chazelle is a genius . . . or not.

In retrospect, La La Land lands closer to the bulls-eye of praise, though it’s not a perfect film, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone insists. That’s clear already from an opening freeway number that’s visually a big musical showstopper but has a sound that’s not so big. Kind of like the singing we get from the two stars, which is soft and slightly raspy and muted—a throaty rather than full-bodied sound that comes from the diaphragm. There are times when the musical accompaniment even threatens to overpower Gosling’s voice. But it’s easy to ignore that when Gosling and Stone are so cute and so charming together. Plus, they handle the flirtatious choreography and dance numbers like a couple of pros, and seem to actually enjoy it.

For me (and for my teenage daughter) the film’s only real shortcoming is the ending—and that’s a matter of taste. This loving homage to Hollywood musicals from the ‘50s is a feel-good movie for 120 minutes, with a 180-degree ending that feels overly clever and totally changes the mood. My daughter didn’t appreciate that kind of manipulation, and I didn’t appreciate that the homage seemed to slide off-track at the end.

But boy, did Chazelle nail the look and feel of those old Gene Kelly movies. You find yourself admiring the choreography and the mise en scene of the song-and-dance numbers because they so lovingly replicate scenes from musicals past. La La Land revives the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals even if only for a short time. Though Oscars went to Chazelle (Best Director), Stone (Best Actress), and Justin Hurwitz (Original Score, Original Song), the one that feels most deserving is the production design by David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Without it, there isn’t much of an homage, and that they were able to achieve a retro look and feel is even more impressive when you consider that most of it was done not on a soundstage but at a range of Hollywood-area interior and exterior locations that reinforce the tribute—as does an opening where curtains part to reveal a screen that says presented in CinemaScope (a retro ultra-widescreen format).

La La Land tells a typical Hollywood story. Stone plays Mia, a would-be actress currently working the counter at an eatery on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Her dream is to become a star. Sebastian’s passion is jazz, and his dream is to open a jazz club of his own. They meet cute on a Hollywood freeway, with her flipping him off for driving around her. They meet cute again . . . and again . . . until they finally start to determine that maybe they’re meant to be together. Viewers who saw Stone and Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love probably will wonder what’s taking them so long. As both of their careers take off, which passion will win out? The Hollywood dream, their romance, or both?

Like Singin’ in the Rain, that other musical tribute to Hollywood, there are a few standouts in supporting cast. Singer John Legend is engaging as a techno-jazz enthusiast who makes a convincing argument for jazz needing to evolve . . . or die, while J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) gets a brief moment in the spotlight as a club manager who insists on a mundane play-list, and Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, and Jessica Rothe play Mia’s roommates and shine in one song, “Someone in the Crowd.”

“That’s L.A.,” Sebastian says. “They worship everything and they value nothing.” There’s critical commentary here as well as tribute, and hype or hate aside, La La Land is a bit like its Oscar-winning song, “City of Stars”: it may seem slight, but in the end, it’s the little things you remember most.

Language: One f-bomb, two uses of the middle finger, and a handful of milder swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: n/a
Adult Situations: Not much here, really
Takeaway: Part tribute, part social commentary, and part romantic comedy, La La Land is the strongest musical we’ve seen in years

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