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Review of MURDER BY DEATH (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (13 and up?)
1976, 94 min., Color
Mystery-comedy
Shout! Factory
Rated PG for some language and crude/sexual references
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s not often that you hear of a TV comedy writer who goes on to become one of his generation’s most successful playwrights, but that’s what happened with Neil Simon, who started by writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and became the toast of Broadway for two decades, during which he produced such long-running plays as Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park, and, most famously, The Odd Couple.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Murder by Death has a very staged feel to it, with many of the scenes performed in a single dining room at a neogothic mansion. Typical of Simon, the humor is also the gentle kind, with plenty of verbal and conceptual jokes that make you smile . . . and occasionally laugh out loud. But this murder-mystery comedy was produced in 1976, two years after fellow Sid Caesar writer Mel Brooks amused audiences with the irreverent Blazing Saddles. You could do things like that back in the ‘70s, when Archie Bunker was TV’s undisputed king of non-political correctness. Now? Not so much.

Simon’s clever Murder by Death pokes fun of the mystery genre and also lampoons the great detectives in pop literature and movies. The premise is simple: an eccentric named Lionel Twain who lives at 22 Twain, invites the world’s best detectives to “dinner and a murder.” Once they get past the blind butler (Alec Guinness) and deaf-and-dumb cook (Nancy Walker) and are seated in the dining room, Twain announces that at midnight there will be a murder—someone in this very room will die, and he challenges them to crack this case. His motive? Twain wants to prove that he’s more brilliant than the world’s most brilliant detectives.

James Coco is Milo Perrier, a character obviously that’s based on and pokes fun of Hercule Poirot, while Peter Falk plays hardboiled Sam Spade clone Sam Diamond, Elsa Lanchester is Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple), David Niven and a very young Maggie Smith are Dick and Dora Charleston (The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles), and Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), who’s accompanied this time by an adopted Number 3 son from Japan. It’s the Chan character—with a Caucasian playing an Asian speaking in pidgin English and offering up fortune cookie advice—that contemporary audiences might find cringe-worthy, as are the original Charlie Chan B-movies in which European-Americans always played the Chinese detective. But like a good satirist or caricaturist, Simon identifies the prominent traits of each detective and plays them for laughs—including stereotypes.

“Why do I do all the dirty work, Pop?” Willie Wang asks his adoptive father. “’Cause your mother not here to do it,” the detective responds.

When Wang says, “What meaning of this, Mr. Twain?” their flustered host loses it. “I will tell you, Mr. Wang, if YOU can tell ME why a man who possesses one of the most brilliant minds of this century can’t say his prepositions or articles. ‘What IS THE Mr. Wang. “What IS THE meaning of this?” And Wang counters, “That what I said! What meaning of this?”

Then there’s the hardboiled Sam Diamond. When the female assistant who accompanies him (Eileen Brennan) says, “I’m scared, Sam. Hold me,” he responds, “Hold yourself. I’m busy.” When Dick and Dora arrive, Dick points, “Up there, Dora, look: a blind butler!” and Dora responds, “Don’t let him park the car, Dickie.”

Even the butler gets into the act. When he announces that Mrs. Twain murdered herself in her sleep, Dick says, “You mean suicide?” The butler continues, deadpan, “Oh, no, it was murder all right. Mrs. Twain hated herself.”

There are so many one-liners that Murder by Death isn’t dependent upon viewers’ knowledge of these famous fictional detectives. But there are a lot of jokes that will fly past unless you’re familiar with the tropes of the mystery genre and the individual styles of the detectives. Some of the jokes are innuendo, but subtle enough that smaller children won’t really catch them. That said, because most of the jokes are verbal and the action is restricted to few hours in a mansion, Murder by Death is probably for 13 year olds and up.

Language: Pretty mild, though there is some racist language (“Jap,” “slanty”) and references to “caca” and “Number 2”

Sex: Mostly innuendo, with the only onscreen sexuality being a man grabbing his wife’s clothed bottom; there are also jokes about necrophilia, homosexuality, and groping

Violence: Only a few instances of attempted violence that are so mild they’re hardly worth mentioning.

Adult situations: Mostly the aforementioned innuendo

Takeaway: As a parody of classic detectives and mysteries, Murder by Death is both clever and fun

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Review of SMALLFOOT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
2018, 96 min., Color
Animation
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

You’d think that with Expedition Everest in play, Disney would have been the ones to create a movie about Yetis. But this 2018 animated feature comes from Warner Bros.

Smallfoot may have been inspired by the children’s book Yeti Tracks, by Sergio Pablos—creator of the Despicable Me stories—but writer-director Karey Kirkpatrick also owes a debt to the original Planet of the Apes movie.

Just as the leaders of the ape society preached that men were dumb animals that had not evolved yet, hiding the truth that man had been a highly advanced creature that had destroyed their society and were a threat to ape existence, the Stonekeeper of a Yeti village high above the clouds in the Himalayas preaches that humans (or “smallfeet”) are legendary, not factual creatures. All of the Yeti laws are written on small stone tablets that are worn by the Stonekeeper, who hides the fact that humans, thinking the Yetis monsters, had tried to kill and destroy them, driving them high up in the mountains where they found refuge. And the cloud layer that hides the top of the mountain where the Yetis live? It’s generated by a giant machine that is Yeti-powered, allowing the Stonekeeper to preach that there is nothing underneath those clouds.

Ignorance is bliss and curiosity is the enemy, the Stonekeeper of this religion-based society maintains—all in a patriarchal effort to protect the Yetis from the outside world. His own daughter, though, cannot stifle her curiosity, and Meechee (Zendaya) starts the secretive Smallfoot Evidentiary Society.

Smallfoot’s message will sail right over the heads of young viewers, who will be swept away by the music and visuals. There are some pretty catchy tunes here, and this Blu-ray comes with a “Yeti Set Go Sing-Along” way to watch the film. Musically, Smallfoot gets an A-, and it’s pretty hard to find fault with the animation as well. It’s when we get into the concept and story that a few negatives seep in. Then again, your age will determine whether you see those as negatives or positives. More

Review of THE NUN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No
2018, 96 min., Color
Horror
Warner Bros.
Rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

The Nun ends right before The Conjuring begins, but you don’t have to have seen that film, The Conjuring 2, or the related Anabelle and Anabelle: Creation to understand what’s going on. This horror prequel is a stand-alone film set decades before the hauntings from the other films in the popular franchise.

Eighty percent of the scenes in The Nun are dark and/or dreary, and location filming in Romanian Transylvania castles and manors adds to the atmosphere, creating a look and feel that will remind horrorphiles of the old Hammer gothic horror flicks from the late ‘50s and 1960’s. In those B movies, atmosphere was everything, and the mood was so thick you could cut it with a scream. Light on plot and characterization, those old films were also dependent upon the occasional jump-scare—a trick that Nun director Corin Hardy relies on a bit too much. It’s like walking through a Jaycees Haunted House and having something pop out at you every 10 minutes. But that’s what appeals to young horror fans today, and it’s also why my teenage daughter gave this one a higher grade than I did. She gave it a B; I gave it a C+, with B- the compromise grade. More

Review of ALL THE CREATURES WERE STIRRING (DVD)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No (13 and older)
2018, 80 min., Color
Horror
RLJE Films
Unrated (would be PG-13)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo
Bonus features: C-
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

This Christmas horror anthology touts Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh off the Boat) and Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls) as headliners of an ensemble cast that’s composed of unfamiliar faces except for Maria Olsen, whom movie-lovers may recognize from her appearances in Paranormal Activity 3, Reunion, and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.

People wanting to see Wu and Kite will have to be patient, though, because their sketch is the last of five in All the Creatures Were Stirring. Connecting them is the clever device of a man and woman on what appears to be a first date (“Is this a date? Should I even ask that?”) who decide to ease the tension by going into a small theater to take in a live show on Christmas Eve. Onstage are three performers who, it’s implied, act out each of the sketches that are introduced by a stone-faced director (Olsen) whose hair and attire can best be described as clown-like. The exaggerated seriousness and the performances all scream “hipster,” but instead of watching the actors do their thing, once their performance begins the camera fades them out and a filmed segment featuring totally different actors fades in.

There’s an admirable self-consciousness at work here, because after watching the first sketch—“The Gift”—the man tries to stifle his laughter, while the woman says, “What the hell was that?” He responds, still trying to control himself, “I have no idea.” There’s also playful confirmation that the material might not exactly be high drama because a few more people in an already small audience leave the theater after each sketch, until there’s just three left in the audience at the end: the awkward daters and a man who keeps staring at them.

But the sketches themselves are a mixed bag. Not surprisingly, the one with Wu and Kite is the best of the bunch, while others showed some promise and still others were dull, strained, or lacking in something—originality, quality of acting, etc. More

Review of CRAZY RICH ASIANS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Almost (10 and older?)
2018, 120 min., Color
Romantic comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com that’s heavy on the rom and lighter on the com. There are plenty of amusing moments, mind you, but this 2018 film by Jon M. Chu has more in common with splendiferous romances like Pride and Prejudice than it does the old Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies that depended mostly on farcical misunderstandings and mistaken identities. The plot is pretty straightforward: it’s a variation on the old meet-the-parents theme, with a couple’s future on the line.

Based on the international best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians features Fresh off the Boat’s Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, the serious girlfriend of Nick Young (Henry Golding) who flies to Singapore to be his plus-one for his country’s wedding of the century. When they fly in an airline suite, she learns for the first time just how rich Nick’s family is, and that’s the main complicating factor. She may be an American success story—the daughter of a hardworking single mom who made Mom proud by becoming an economics professor—but in Singapore she has two strikes against her: she’s comparatively poor, and she’s Chinese American rather than Chinese. Nick’s family, meanwhile, is like the Singapore version of the Kennedys—old money who built Singapore and who now draw paparazzi to them as if they were royalty.

As the tagline says, “The only thing crazier than love is family,” and the humor derives more from characters and their mannerisms and quips than from situations. Awkwafina is pretty hilarious as Rachel’s old college roommate who is unabashedly flamboyant and lives with her mother in a Singapore mansion, while Nico Santos is equally funny as a gay friend of the Young family. Ken Jeong makes an appearance as Rachel’s old roommate’s wealthy father, but he isn’t given nearly as much screen time as the younger generation. More

Review of ROBIN WILLIAMS: COMIC GENIUS (DVD Collection)

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Grade: A-/B+
1978-2018, 1086 min. (22 discs), Color
Entire family: NO!!!
Comedy
Time Life
Not rated (would be R for language and some sex jokes)
Aspect ratio: Varies (mostly 1.33:1)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features:  n/a (the whole set is “extras”)
Includes:  DVDs, booklet
Trailer
RobinWilliams.com

Time Life is known for their sets and collections, and this four-volume, four-DVD, 22-disc set featuring Robin Williams: Comic Genius is thankfully uncensored. Except for 11 episodes of Mork & Mindy, it’s one for the parents to watch after the kids are in bed, or for families with older teens—especially the ones who have ambitions of pursuing a career in entertainment. You walk away with an appreciation for how Williams went all out and wasn’t afraid of a joke or an impression bombing. He just quickly went on to another one and hoped for better results. He did his own thing.

Anyone who’s watched Williams perform knows that his 100-mile-an-hour mind and manic improvisations can’t be bridled. He says whatever comes to mind at such a rapid clip that to try to censor his performances would be like trying to stop a runaway truck with foam blocks.

Time Life has compiled a wonderful tribute to the talented comedian, who began in stand-up comedy, found instant fame playing Mork on episodes of Happy Days and the spinoff series Mork & Mindy, and showed he could act in both comedies and dramas by starring in such films as Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Morning, Vietnam. Included here are more than 50 hours of Williams that spans 40 years on television, including all five of his HBO stand-up specials, never-before-released performances and backstage footage, talk show and late-night appearances, archival family clips, and new interviews with the people who knew him best: Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Martin Short, Pam Dawber, Lewis Black, and son Zak Williams. Williams was a once-in-a-generation talent, and this set really does him justice. Note, though, that it’s only available through RobinWilliams.com. More

Review of THE MEG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (10 and up?)
Action thriller
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Trailers for The Meg made it look like another nature’s monsters film of the exploitative Gila! or Lake Placid sort, so our family was pleasantly surprised that it played out more like a less sophisticated cousin of Jaws. It was a much higher quality film than we expected in terms of production values, screenplay, acting, and special effects.

There isn’t the same level of character development as there was in Steven Spielberg’s original shark tale, nor were there as many iconic scenes, or those fabulously frightening John Williams musical cues. But The Meg delivers a plot that makes more sense than most disaster/monster flicks, and it doesn’t skimp on the outrageous action sequences that cause you to gasp or react with nervous laughter. CHOMP! There it is!!

Here’s how Warner Bros. describes the film: “Five years ago, expert sea diver and Naval Captain Jonas Taylor encountered an unknown danger in the unexplored recesses of the Mariana Trench that forced him to abort his mission and abandon half his crew. Though the tragic incident earned him a dishonorable discharge, what ultimately cost him his career, his marriage and any semblance of honor was his unsupported and incredulous claims of what caused it—an attack on his vessel by a mammoth, 70-foot sea creature, believed to be extinct for more than a million years. But when a submersible lies sunk and disabled at the bottom of the ocean—carrying his ex-wife among the team onboard—he is the one who gets the call. Whether a shot at redemption or a suicide mission, Jonas must confront his fears and risk his own life and the lives of everyone trapped below on a single question: Could the Carcharodon Megalodon—the largest marine predator that ever existed—still be alive … and on the hunt?” More

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