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Review of WILDCATS (1986) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B/B-
Comedy
Rated R

One of my guilty pleasures recently came out on Blu-ray:  Wildcats, starring Goldie Hawn. You know, Kate Hudson’s mom?

Back in the day, Hawn was a huge star, and it didn’t take her long to get there. After a failed TV series (Good Morning World) and two minor roles in films, she landed a plum role opposite Walter Matthau in Cactus Flower and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Piece of cake, right? Except that after that she was cast in a succession of make-a-buck films that tried to capitalize on her popularity and personality in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Along with Private Benjamin (1980), Seems Like Old Times  (1980), and Overboard (1987), Wildcats is one of the better formulaic light comedies that Hawn made. In it, she plays the daughter of high school football coach who finally gets the chance to realize her own dream of coaching football . . . at an inner city school.

Right . . . to use the catch-phrase of comedian Nipsey Russell, who plays the principal at that school.

Wildcats wouldbe fun viewing for the entire family if it wasn’t rated R for language (F-bombs included), teen drinking and drunkenness, and brief nudity, because the whole high-school setting and fish-out-of-water, win-them-over storyline is meant to be as upbeat and warm-hearted as it is humorous. It’s hard not to root for Molly as she endures sexism in the workplace, resentment and disrespect from her players, and meddling/bullying from an ex-husband en route to trying to coach a bunch of losers into lovable winners.

Hawn is at her best when she’s immersed in reactive comedy, and there are plenty of talented actors for her to play off of, including veteran actor Bruce McGill (Rizzoli & Isles). McGill plays the obnoxious varsity coach at a well-off school who takes delight in demeaning others and, in the case of Molly, setting her up for failure as a practical joke. But of course the joke is on him, and you know almost from the beginning that this guy is going to get his comeuppance, and that the third act will probably turn on a David and Goliath match-up between Coach Darwell’s “haves” and Coach Molly’s “have nots.”

Predictable? You bet—but still enjoyable, especially when we get to see a young Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as two of her players, while Forrest Gump fans might recognize a younger, cooler “Bubba” as another of the young and cocky athletes, played by Mykelti Williamson (Fences, Chicago P.D., Justified). Wildcats was released just a year after the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl and legions of fans with their trophy case full of quirky personalities. So it’s almost a no-brainer that we would get a William “The Refrigerator” Perry character—in this case, Tab Thacker as Finch, who only plays for money, and it doesn’t matter which team pays him. Hawn further alludes to the ’85 Bears with a video of Coach Molly and her players singing, “It’s the sport of kings, better than diamond rings . . . football.”

Wildcats isn’t just a comedy of character. There are also some very funny laugh-out-loud lines. Unfortunately, most of those LOL lines are R-rated, which makes this comedy suitable for older teens only. Call it a more adult version of The Bad News Bears or a comic riff on Hoosiers. . . . and the kind of lighthearted romp that defined Hawn’s acting career.

Entire family: No
Run time: 106 min. (Color)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Stereo
Studio/Distributor: Shout! Factory
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated R for language, brief nudity, rude humor

Language:  6/10—Around 6 or so f-bombs, including mother*cker, but in all cases they’re used for comic effect, as are the lesser profanities

Sex:  5/10—Hawn’s breasts are briefly shown in the bathtub, and her players appear nude with helmets strategically placed; there are also a handful of sexual references, and one couple is implied to have been caught “doing it” on the couch (but they are fully clothed and nothing is shown)

Violence:  3/10—People get punched, but aside from football players doing their thing that’s about it

Adult situations:  4/10—There is drinking at player parties, and an underage girl gets drunk

Takeaway:  Wildcats will seem tame by today’s standards, but the R rating still applies and the movie remains a guilty pleasure for yours trulyand I’m sure I’m not the only one

Review of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

Some twelve weeks after its theatrical debut, Raya and the Last Dragon is the third highest grossing film in the U.S., behind Spiral and Wrath of Man. With a domestic box office of $49.3 million and another $60.6 million international box office revenue, it’s exceeding expectations, and I’d like to suggest one reason why:  Disney animators always seem to up their game, and they did so again with Raya.

The martial arts swordfights in this 59th full-length feature from Disney are the most accomplished I’ve seen so far in the world of animation—presented at a speed you’d normally encounter in the best Ip Man, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan movies. Combine that with gorgeous backgrounds and character animations, and Raya and the Last Dragon is another solid effort from the House of Mouse—though the plot itself can seem a bit familiar.

Set in a dystopian fantasy world, Raya and the Last Dragon begins with the backstory of a fictional land (Kumandra) where dragons and people once thrived together until evil spirits (that look a bit like the smoke monster on Lost)terrorized the land and turned dragons and people to stone—except for some people and one dragon, who focused the magic she and other dragons had on a single gem. But you do the math: one gem and five tribes? Of course they fight over it, and the pieces are eventually scattered among those tribes. Hundreds of years later, the Druun return and wreak havoc on the now-separate sections of what was once Kumandra. Raya is the daughter of Chief Benja of the Heart tribe, while her once friend and now rival, Namaari, is the princess of the Fang tribe. But like any fantasy, the story itself seems more complicated than the visual action. Relax and enjoy this simple quest story, as Raya tries to find the last dragon, recover the jewel pieces, and defeat the Druun once and for all. Unless Namaari beats her to it.

Give Disney credit, though, for creating strong female characters without drawing attention to it, without adding a Prince or love interest, and for not making a big deal out of adding two more princesses to the merchandising Pantheon. Give them credit, too, for giving Asians and Asian Americans feisty princesses that look like them—even if Disney took a little flak (what else is new?) for not featuring enough South Asian actors among the voice talents.

Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker) gives voice to Raya, while Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) plays the dragon Sisu and Gemma Chan (Doctor Who, Crazy Rich Asians) is the voice of Namaari. But Disney depends on supporting characters as much as they do those high-profile princesses, and Raya has some unique ones:  a likable 10-year-old named Boun (Izaac Wang), who runs a floating shrimp restaurant in Tail land; Little Noi (Thalia Tran), an infant con artist from Talon land; and Tong (Benedict Wong), a warrior giant from Spine land. And in case you hadn’t gathered as much, all of the lands are named for parts of a dragon, so that when joined, Kumandra is shaped exactly like a dragon.

Disney fans always look for the next Big Cute, the next animal sidekick to capture their hearts and prompt them to buy a stuffed likeness at one of the Disney stores and resorts, and this one is a doozy:  a fantasy creature that looks like a cross between an armadillo and a pill bug that’s large enough for Raya to ride, and which rolls like the Star Wars robot BB-8 with her astride it. So Tuk Tuk is cute, indispensable and appropriately named, because the Tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorized mini-taxi that’s a common form of transportation in Southeast Asia and other subtropical nations.

Put everything together, and this PG-rated martial arts fantasy makes for a nice addition to your Disney collection—and a film that has plenty of replay value.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  107 min. (Color)
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  7.1 DTS-HDMA
Studio/Distributor:  Disney
Bonus features:  B+ (includes short film)
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG for some violence, action, and thematic elements

Language:  0/10—Squeaky clean

Sex:  0/10—No sex, no romance, no love interest

Violence:  6/10—No graphic detail or blood, just lots of acro-jousting and fantasy action and very little in the hurt department; other than an arrow to a dragon that has us wondering, demons turning people to stone is the big outcome—and we’re told early that there’s a possibility for revival, so it’s really like freeze tag

Adult situations:  4/10—No booze, no butts, just peril

Takeaway:  Disney did an admirable job with their first fantasy-world foray in quite some time.

Review of THE MARKSMAN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Action thriller
Rated PG-13

From the first scene where an aging Arizona rancher (Liam Neeson) stumbles onto a cartel “situation” and ends up with a bag full of money, to a scene that’s the equivalent of the Coen Brothers’ “coin toss scene,” The Marksman feels like a cheap knockoff of No Country for Old Men.  And with a little Hunt for the Wilderpeople added for good measure.

What cheapens it isn’t Neeson’s performance, but rather a formulaic approach to ticking off the boxes rather than concentrating on creating characters and relationships with any individuality or depth.

For one thing, first-time director Robert Lorenz spends too much time in the early going just establishing a few facts that could have been hinted at more subtly: 

—Jim Hanson was a Vietnam War veteran who earned a medal for marksmanship

—Jim Hanson is lost and lonely because his wife died of cancer

—Jim Hanson is going to lose his ranch unless he can come up with a lot of money to pay for back mortgage payments

The film is also marred by characters that push past stereotypes into caricature country.

Javier Bardem has nothing to fear from the cartel bad ass that Lorenz gives us here. Mauricio—called “Heffe” and played by Juan Pablo Raba—is too cartoonish to be chilling. He’s just a bad guy who sneers a lot and stares a lot in lingering close-ups. Oh we believe him when he says he’s going to kill the old rancher who drove away with the son of a Mexican woman he already killed at the border. And we believe he’s determined to recover the drug money that the boy’s (now deceased) uncle had taken from him and given to his (now deceased) mother. But Bardem as Anton Chigurh was a one-and-done, just as Heath Ledger’s lizard-tongued Joker was a one-time affair. Try to duplicate it and you’re doomed to fall short.  

The film’s most chilling scene is actually understated. After a brief shoot-out at an isolated stretch of border fence, Jim takes off with the boy Miguel (Jacob Perez), whom he was asked to take to relatives in Chicago in exchange for the contents of the bag. Later in the film, Jim (and the audience) think they might be in the clear when the bad guys try to follow them into the U.S. and pull up at a customs station. Heffe’s driver rolls his arm so the border agent can see his tattoo. When the officer asks to see a passport and is handed a stolen passport of a Anglo-American woman whose likeness is about as far removed from a Mexican male as it gets, we expect such arrogance to be rewarded with detainment or containment . . . especially when the officer calls for the back of the vehicle to be searched. Yet after a token search of the cargo area and an “All clear,” the officer waves them into the country. Welcome to the U.S.

Yikes. Of course the cartel drug trade is so lucrative and large that they would have U.S. law officers on their payroll. But you don’t think about it until you see a scene like this.

Though The Marksman is billed as an action thriller, it’s almost a head-snapper when a vehicle explodes and dramatically flips, because you find yourself thinking that aside from frequent shooting there isn’t as much action as you’d expect. There also isn’t as much growth or depth to the relationship between the crusty old man and the boy as we saw in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or even the relationship between Clint Eastwood’s grumpy old white guy and the Hmong teenager he befriended in Gran Torino. It’s almost as if the screenwriters didn’t know what to do with the old man and boy once they got them in the car together. Same with a subplot involving Jim’s stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), a border agent that really doesn’t seem to do much.

But what Lorenz and co-writers Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz get right is the third act. It’s not just Jim who finds redemption in the end . . . it’s the filmmakers as well. And no, you’ll get no spoilers from me. Is the ending enough to make up for that plodding and excessively (and redundantly) informational first act or the sense of missed opportunities that dominate the second? Probably not. Fans of Neeson will embrace this as another go-it-alone high-stakes maverick venture along the lines of the Taken trilogy or Cold Pursuit, but if they’re honest with themselves The Marksman doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Entire family:  No
Run time: 108 min. (Color)
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Universal
Bonus features:  C-
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and brief strong language

Language:  5/10—One f-bomb and a dozen or so lesser swearwords

Sex:  0/10—No sex, no nudity

Violence:  7/10—Shooting, shooting, and more shooting; people get shot, several at close range, and blood is shown often; some violence happens off-screen

Adult situations:  6/10—Jim drinks often and carries a flask, but it’s not clear whether he’s passing out from the alcohol or tiring because of his age

Takeaway:  Qui-Gon Jinn once said, “Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts,” and you can’t help but wonder how much better this film might have been had it veered more sharply away from Hollywood formulas

Review of MAMBO MAN (DVD)

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Grade: B/B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG)

Good art of any kind expands your world or your mind—often both. And films that show us a way of life, a way of perceiving life in another region or country can be more than fascinating. They can be instructional on a subliminal level. If you’re the kind of person who drives through a small town and looks in the windows of houses and shops wondering what it would be like to live there, the fictional Mambo Man is your kind of movie. And if you loved Buena Vista Social Club because it was awash with Cuban music, well, Mambo Man is your kind of movie too.

This 2020 Cuban film is full of fantastic images of life as it’s lived in in mostly rural Cuba, and the wonderful cinematography by Luis Alberto and Gonzalez Garcia is further enhanced by near-constant non-diegetic Cuban music that, along with several performances written into the screenplay, really capture the essence of life on this Caribbean island just 105 miles from Key West.

Edesio Alejandro and Mo Fini co-directed this film, which was shot mostly in the southeastern cities of Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba. Fini is the founding director of Tumi Music, which has produced more than 300 Latin CDs and videos, so it’s no wonder that music plays as much of a role in Mambo Man as the scenery and cinematography. Some scenes include live music performed by such legendary Cuban musicians as Candido Fabre, Maria Ochoa, Alma Latina, David Alvarez, and Arturo Jorge. The soundtrack features members of the Buena Vista Social Club—among them Grammy winner Eliades Ochoa, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Omara Portuondo, and many others that fill the screen with a rich tapestry of songs.

I absolutely loved the cinematography, soundtrack, and featured performances, and I’m not alone. Mambo Man won Best Cinematography at the Anatolia International Film Festival and Best Score at the Beloit International Film Festival, with other wins coming from the Ciudad de Mexico International Film Festival, Crown Wood International Film Festival, Festigious International Film Festival, Florence Film Awards, Hollywood Gold Awards, Marina Del Rey Film Festival, Montreal Independent Film Festival, New York Cinematography Awards, Open World Toronto Film Festival, Panamanian International Film Festival, Rome International and Rome Prisma Independent Film Awards, Scorpiusfest, South Film and Arts Academy Festival, IndieFest Film Awards, Next Level International Film Festival, Thinking Hat Fiction Challenge, and World Premiere Film Awards.

Although the film is in Spanish with English subtitles, I highly recommend it for family viewing because of the music and cinematography. The plot, dialogue, and acting are considerably less accomplished. Loosely based on a true story, Mambo Man follows dream-big entrepreneur JC (Héctor Noas), who works hard enough to buy two farms, but then has various disasters cancel out any success he envisioned. He likes to think of himself as an important man, and has “associates” to help him. A musician himself with all sorts of contacts, he promotes concerts and tries to find rich European investors to back his musical enterprises, wooing them with performances and a feast that includes a whole roasted pig. But like any get-rich-quick schemer, he is ripe for a fall, or at least a stumble. When he finds himself going up against another get-rich-quick schemer, his latest gambit is threatened. It sounds dramatic enough, but the plot and acting and dialogue really can’t compete with the music and the visuals.

There are a number of children in this realist film—one that uses many non-actors—and young family members no doubt will be fascinated to see how Cuban children play and pass the time, whether it’s Hopscotch, slingshots, or “fruit toss” trying to knock down more fruit out of trees. Set in 2017, the film shows the ways that Cubans get by with a little and still enjoy life and each other—though the U.S. Embargo has obviously hurt their economy. There’s mention of Cubans going to Miami, as well as scenes showing mechanics working on engines and old American cars to keep them going.

A number of films have been set in Cuba, but this one really stands out because it depicts not Havana but a vibrant smaller city and rural life on the island. There’s life here pulsing underneath and on the surface of an otherwise pedestrian story.

Directors Alejandro and Fini couldn’t have created a more alluring travel film if that had been their goal. Mambo Man manages to “sell” viewers on Cuba without whitewashing or withholding information. What we see is an unvarnished, un-romanticized view of the country that’s closest to the U.S. without bordering it—a country we should get to know better.

Entire family: No (Age 8 and up—younger ones may be distracted by subtitles)
Run time: 82 min.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Digital Stereo (Spanish w/English subtitles)
Studio/Distributor: Corinth Films
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for social drinking and smoking)

Language: 1/0—Nothing stood out, but there might have been a lesser swearword or two

Sex: 1/10—It’s not that kind of movie—a husband even kisses his wife on her forehead rather than the mouth—but there is a sequence involving Viagara jokes

Violence: 0/10—Nothing here

Adult situations: 2/10—No drunkenness, just the kind of celebrations that children can be a part of, with some social drinking and some smoking

Takeaway: It’s not often that we see a Cuban film, and that rarity factor adds to the novelty of what is already a unique movie about music and life in southeastern Cuba

Review of MY FAVORITE BLONDE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Comedian Bob Hope received a record five honorary Oscars and also has a record four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But those awards are dimmed by the Congressional Gold Medal he received, the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him, the Medal of Liberty he got from Pres. Ronald Reagan, the National Medal of Arts he received from Pres. Bill Clinton, the knighthoods he received from two Popes, and the honorary knighthood that Great Britain bestowed upon him. In fact, Hope has almost as many high honors as he does films—and he starred in 54 of them during a career that spanned nearly 80 years.

Yeah, you’re probably thinking, but are his films any good? For the most part, Hope’s films fall in the three-star category (out of four). And speaking of stars, five-star Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Hope with the Medal of Merit “in recognition of his wartime contributions to morale on the homefront as well as on virtually every war front.” Which is to say, besides entertaining the troops, as he did his entire life starting in 1941, Hope also starred in a number of wartime films that both entertained audiences and reinforced patriotic themes.

My Favorite Blonde is one of those WWII-era films. This 1942 black-and-white comedy features Hope in a familiar role: a vaudevillian who unwittingly finds himself in the middle of an adventure or intrigue. This time Larry Haines (Hope) and his trained roller-skating penguin Percy are headed for Los Angeles, where the movies want to sign the penguin—not his trainer. But that was before he ran into British secret agent Karen Bentley, or rather she planted a scorpion brooch on him containing the flight plans for 100 American bombers. Back then Americans weren’t as paranoid as they are now, but there was still a sense that a “fifth column” might be operating as underground spies in the U.S.A. German agents (led by screen veteran Gale Sondergaard) are in pursuit, and as irrational as it seems for plans for a European war to start out in New York City, move to Albany, then Chicago, and finally L.A., what entertains about Bob Hope movies is less the plotting than it is Hope’s character, antics, and interaction with a woman that he eventually gets—if Road picture crooner-crony Bing Crosby isn’t co-starring.

Hope was known for his self-deprecating humor, a bumbling “cowardice” that reluctantly turned to bravery, snappy comebacks and one-liners, improvisations and impersonations, and his banter. My Favorite Blonde is a gentle kind of comedy that has more cleverness than laughs, but Hope sells it with a warm and winning personality. And you can’t find a better second banana than Percy the Penguin. When all is said and done, it’s a lighter version of espionage thrillers, though curiously, “British agents” or “German agents” are never mentioned by name, and neither is Germany, World War II, or Nazis. The closest the film comes is when Hope’s character calls the bad guys “nasties.” Audiences back then would have gotten the joke, but back then they also knew that there was as much at stake on the homefront as well as overseas. They were willing to suspend belief and think that agents operating clandestinely on American soil was a real possibility.

My Favorite Blonde was popular enough that Hope was enlisted to immediately make My Favorite Spy as a follow-up that very same year, and revived the idea two years after the war ended with My Favorite Brunette. Hope fans disagree whether the best of the three is “Blonde” or “Brunette,” but if you and your family like old movies either one is worth your time, and this Kino Lorber Blu-ray is worth adding to your home movie collection.

I will admit to having a Hope bias. I like his persona and like his quips and ad-libs. At one point Larry tells spy Karen Bentley (Madeleine Carroll) that he’s going to call his agent. “Do you think he’ll help?” “He’d better. If I get the electric chair, he gets 10 percent of the current.” Later, when they commandeer a biplane—yes, you could call this film an early rendition of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—he asks her, “You sure you know how to run this thing?” She says, “Sure, my brother’s a British ace.” “Yeah, well my uncle’s a dogcatcher, but I can’t bark.”

Hope’s characters never took themselves too seriously, and his films were always pleasant diversions rather than films that made you feel tense or anxious. They were escapist fare, entertainments that were intended to take people’s minds off whatever ailed them. And Hope lived to be 100, proving that laughter may indeed be the best medicine.

Entire family: No (under age 10 might find it slow going and not worth the penguin antics)
Run time: 78 min., Black-and-White
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for mild violence, smoking, and drinking)

Language: 1/10—Nothing caught my attention, but there may have been a few lesser swearwords that slipped past

Sex: 0/10—Squeaky clean on this front, unless you consider a kiss from fully clothed people sexual

Violence: 3/10—For a parody of spy thrillers this one is pretty tame, with some fisticuffs, some shooting, a conk on the head, a kick in the pants, and some crashes—the latter, really, the most startling

Adult situations: 3/10—A man and woman who aren’t married travel together and pretend to be married at one point

Takeaway: The Princess and the Pirate remains the most family-friendly Bob Hope picture, but older children might enjoy this minor blast from the past

Review of THE CROODS: A NEW AGE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Animation
Rated PG

They say you’re only tall or short compared to who’s standing alongside you, and the Croods seem a little cruder in The Croods: A New Age.

When this prehistoric family meets the Bettermans, who live a better existence that feels like a cross between the Garden of Eden and The Flintstones’ Bedrock, the Croods’ lack of couth really stands out. Kind of like the Clampetts in swanky Beverly Hills. In fact, what could have been a clever commentary on evolution instead becomes more of a familiar poor/rich, rural/urban comedy.

DreamWorks animators have produced another visual feast, with typically stellar animation. But, as is often the case with full-length features that come from big studios who don’t have a mouse and a history of animation evolution that traces back to the beginning of cartoon time, there’s something just slightly off.

It’s not a bad movie, mind you, and the kids actually will love this one because of the bright colors, the crazy characters, and the manic antics that tend to dominate. There are some fun creatures and thrill-ride sequences. But adults may find themselves trying to put their finger on what’s missing—what keeps this okay-to-good movie from being a truly good one.

Endearing characters? Maybe. I don’t know if it’s the way they’re drawn, the dialogue, or the way the actors were directed, but everyone seems to be overwrought this outing and there’s as much constant jabbering and conflict as there is in a typical Real Housewives episode.

Heart? Possibly. There’s a touching family-first love-who-you-are message embedded here, but sometimes the decision to DO EVERYTHING BIG AND LOUD AND MANIC short circuits the feelings that those messages are intended to create. The warm-and-fuzzy moment feels tacked on when everything else is 50 Shades of Crazy.

Creative vision? Definitely. The Croods: A New Age is like the TV ads for boring department store chains that offer wild colors, people dancing, hip music, and a message that screams “We’re a happening place!” Whether the filmmakers didn’t trust the narrative or just felt obliged to insert different comic-book style animations interrupti into the mix, the result feels a bit like a kitchen-sink approach to animated features. The intercut sections don’t really add anything . . . except to contribute more energy and craziness. And that’s one thing The Croods: A New Age doesn’t lack. Adding more just makes it seem like it’s trying way to hard to be a “happening place.”

That’s my opinion, and my family shares it. So, apparently, do the collective Metacritics that gave it a 56 out of 100, and the Metacritic readers who awarded it a 6.6 out of 10. But in fairness, I have to note that The Croods: A New Age got a 77 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with 94 percent of that audience giving it high marks.

Competing opinions aren’t very helpful, I realize, but maybe it’s useful to consider that when I reviewed the original 2013 film, The Croods, I gave it a B+. I wrote that the “first act may be a little slow, but once this animated comedy gets rolling, it’s a rollicking good family movie with upbeat messages and a happy ending—with enough eye-popping peril to interest even the most jaded of your teen video gameplayers. It’s a nice combination of action, humor, and interesting ‘prehistoric’ creatures.” The sequel has the same combination of elements, but the balance just seems off this time.

It’s possible to watch The Croods: A New Age without having seen the original. It begins with a flashback that shows how Guy (Ryan Reynolds) was urged by his dying parents to seek a better tomorrow. En route he ends up joining the Croods—a cave clan led by Grug (Nicolas Cage) that consists of his wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), daughter Eep (Emma Stone), son Thunk (Clark Duke), tiny daughter Sandy (Kailey Crawford), and Ugga’s mother Gran (Cloris Leachman, in her third-to last film, as feisty as ever).

One day they stumble upon a giant wall, and after entering this paradise they are caught in a net . . . but released when Phil Betterman (Peter Dinklage) and his wife, Hope (Leslie Mann) realize they’re fellow humans. As the Bettermans flaunt their better way of living, a romantic triangle develops between Guy, Ugga, and the Betterman’s daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), and tensions mount between the “evolved” Bettermans and the crude Croods. Things get even worse when Eep and Dawn become friends and jump the wall to have an adventure that Dawn’s helicopter parents have been keeping her from. Somehow both families end up having to deal with “punch monkeys” and some goofiness surrounding bananas as the coin of the realm. And then there are multiple-eyed wolf spiders, and other dangers that push the two families closer together. You know, a common enemy and all that . . . and an uncommonly hard to believe ending. But as I said, the kids will love the creatures, and the animation really pops in HD.

The readers at IMDB.com gave the original a 7.2/10 and the sequel a 7.0, but I’m not feeling it. As visually spectacular as the sequel is, the two movies seem farther apart then that—almost a full grade, even. That makes this one a B-/C+, which still makes it a good choice for family movie night, especially if the kids are young.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 96 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: DreamWorks/Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+ (two cartoon shorts, a recipe, a prank book, how to draw caveman style, etc.)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG for peril, action, and rude humor

Language: 1/10—If you think “sucks” is bad language, that’s about all you’ll find here

Sex: 1/10—Several characters wear clothing that reveals cleavage or a bare back and such, and we see a woman in a bra, but that’s it

Violence: 3/10—Most of the violence is comic or near-comic, and even though characters are in peril the source of the peril and the treatment of material makes it seem more exciting than truly perilous

Adult situations: 1/10—After one character gets stung by a prehistoric bee, the venom seems to have an intoxicating effect on her, but again that’s it

Takeaway: DreamWorks animators do such a fantastic job of bringing an animated world to life, it’s a shame that director Joel Crawford (Rise of the Guardians, Kung Fu Panda, Kung Fu Panda 2) felt he had to go the full-manic-jacket route, because sometimes understatement can be more powerful and effective

Review of ONCE UPON A RIVER (DVD)

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Grade: B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief nudity and adult elements)

Thus far in her career, Chicago-born musician-actress-filmmaker Haroula Rose is probably best known for her soundtrack contribution to American Horror Story and her involvement as an associate producer for Fruitvale Station. Like the latter, her first directorial feature, Once Upon a River, also tackles a serious subject and endemic problem.

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, with one out of six women the victim of an attempted or successful rape. Youths between the ages of 12 and17 are the most vulnerable. Fifty-five percent of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s home, and it isn’t usually “stranger danger”. More often it’s a friend of the family, a neighbor, or even a family member. And in an average year, it’s estimated that there are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 million runaway and homeless youths in the U.S.

So yeah, this film deals with serious subjects that can be especially relevant for American teens and their parents. While it treats the material in a frank way, there’s nothing gratuitous or sensationalized. Maybe that’s because Once Upon a River has a strong female presence, both behind the camera and onscreen. In addition to directing, Rose wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell and also shared a producing credit. The film was shot by cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby (Hair Wolf), the production design, set decoration, costume design, and makeup were all done by women, and the casting director was also a woman. Onscreen, New York-trained actress Kenadi DelaCerna carries the film with her strong presence as a biracial 15 year old—younger than her usual range.

NPR called the novel’s main character, Margo Crane, “the most realistic underage runaway in modern fiction,” and that’s true for this 2019 film adaptation as well. Margo has been raised by her Native American father (Tatanka Means), who gave up drinking the day the girl’s mother left them to “find” herself (which people were doing in the sixties). The film is set in 1977 in the small fictional town of Murrayville in rural Michigan, where prejudice against Native Americans and the class inequity are apparent. Margo appreciates her father and the skills he taught her—she carries around a book about Annie Oakley and has become a crack shot herself—but she clearly misses having a mother in the house and like any teen wants more than life is currently giving her. More

Review of THE COURT JESTER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Adventure Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

The Robin Hood legend gets a makeover and a different focal character in The Court Jester (1956), one of Danny Kaye’s best. Along with Bob Hope’s The Princess and the Pirate, it’s also one of the classic costume comedies from the Technicolor era.

Once you get past a slightly corny title-sequence song sung onscreen by Kaye, this medieval musical comedy-adventure is full of pageantry and fun. Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a minstrel among merry men who hide in the forest and serve a Robin Hood figure known as The Black Fox. Aside from providing entertainment, Hawkins’ main job is to attend to the true king of England—a baby that somehow escaped the slaughter ordered by King Roderick the Tyrant (Cecil Parker) by his henchman, Lord Ravenhurst. That includes changing diapers and pulling said diaper down to reveal a “purple pimpernel” (a takeoff on The Scarlet Pimpernel) to each subject, who then kneels.

Despite his own timidity, Hawkins yearns for a more active and manly job. He finally gets his chance when he’s ordered to team with the swashbuckling Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) and take the child to safety after the group’s forest lair had been discovered. What follows is a clever plot with more twists than a French braid and running gags involving mistaken identity, slapstick, tongue twisters, and snappy catch-phrases.

At $4 million, The Court Jester was the most expensive comedy filmed to date, and it has a lot of elements that still make it appealing for family viewing. Colorful costumes by Edith Head really pop in high definition and bring to life the grandeur of Hollywood’s romantic vision of castles and courtly intrigues. There’s a petulant princess (Angela Lansbury, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) who refuses to marry a blustery Scotsman just so her father can form a political alliance. That princess has an attendant (Mildred Natwick) who is also a sorceress capable of hypnotizing people. And there is a troupe of little persons (billed as Hermine’s Midgets) that perform acrobatics and clever stunts that factor heavily in the family-friendly action. The American Legion Zoaves from Jackson, Michigan even make an entertaining appearance in a sequence where a knighthood ceremony is comically rendered. More

Review of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Adventure
Rated PG (but see below)

Rudyard Kipling adventures have always been popular with Hollywood and its audiences. The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, Soldiers Three, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Wee Willie Winkie, and Kim were a part of every youngster’s coming of age in the last half of the 20th century. But filmmakers ignored Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King until the legendary John Huston took up the challenge in 1975.

Maybe that’s because “The Man Who Would Be King,” one of the stories published in Kipling’s The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (1888), is a little more adult than this film’s PG rating would suggest. The heroes are amoral at best, and in addition to adult situations there are a few grisly elements.

If your family saw and enjoyed The Road to El Dorado, that 2000 animated adventure was also based on “The Man Who Would Be King,” but softened for family audiences. This feature from the director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and The Misfits stays pretty close to Kipling’s original tale.

The story follows the exploits of two former British soldiers who had fought in India and Bharat and now crave adventure more than a return to England, retirement, or respectability. They’re rogues, really, who seem nice enough yet don’t give killing a second thought. They’re also motivated by greed and self-interest—not exactly the kind of heroes that Hollywood gravitated towards. But the anti-hero that had become popular in the late ‘60s paved the way for audiences to watch Peachey Carnehan (Sir Michael Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Sir Sean Connery) with fascination, if not admiration. More

Review of MISTER ROBERTS (1955) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Comedy-Drama
Not rated (would be PG)

Mister Roberts (1955) is set during the waning days of World War II, but it’s not a war movie. There are no battles, no strategic planning sessions, and no missions. That’s a problem for Chief Cargo Officer Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda, reprising his Broadway role), who desperately wants to see action. Stuck on a cargo ship stationed off a small island in the Pacific far away from the fighting, Roberts’ serves his country by procuring and delivering such commodities as toilet paper and toothpaste to other ships that are headed for combat.

It’s not like he’s itching to become a hero or put his life in danger. He just feels like he ought to be serving in the “real” war instead of being anchored where on one side he watches a task force slipping by under the cover of darkness, and on the other side his men aboard the appropriately named Reluctant discover some excitement one morning by training their binoculars and spyglasses on a group of nurses who just landed at the local hospital.

In addition to fighting tedium, Roberts and the crew have to deal with a tyrannical captain (James Cagney) who prizes the palm tree he received from the admiral for delivering the most cargo in the Pacific. But the captain has his sights set on something more: a big promotion. Like the factory boss who refuses to give his line workers a break because they’re so productive the company would lose money, he keeps his crew on the ship. Always. No leave. No shore liberty. And the time off they get for good behavior? Ten minutes of swimming.

If the crew collectively feels like the exaggerated characters we met in the musical South Pacific without the songs, it’s no coincidence. Joshua Logan had a hand in writing the screenplays for both of the cinematic adaptations. Tonally Mister Roberts isn’t all that different either. It’s a light story with mostly comic moments and several serious ones. More

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