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Review of ROAD TO UTOPIA (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
1945, 90 min., Black & White
Adventure-Comedy
Not rated (would be PG for adult elements)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Road to Morocco, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour’s fourth “road” picture, Road to Utopia, received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay—one reason why both of the musical comedies are considered the best of the bunch. There’s more plotting, more clever lines, and a more ambitious narrative arc in each of them.

The action takes place in Seattle and Alaska shortly after the Klondike Gold Rush around the turn of the century, making Road to Utopia (1945) the only road picture with a historical backdrop. It’s also the only road picture to use a frame device that takes full advantage of the audience’s familiarity with other road pics. This time it’s made clear that Hope, not Crosby, got the “girl,” as the film opens with a made-to-look-old Hope and Lamour as a married couple who get a surprise visit from their old friend, Duke, and they reminisce about the adventure that led to their separation.

In Utopia, Hope and Crosby play two vaudeville performers (what else?) who are working a scam called “Ghosto,” in which audience members are urged to wager money by placing it in a box to see if the “spirit” (Hope, as Chester, curled up underneath) will take the money and replace it with a larger bill. Duke (Crosby) wears the swami getup and solicits the cash, and all goes well enough until two murderers evading police chase through the theater. When the Ghosto table is overturned and the crowd sees it’s a scam, they take after Chester and Duke (Crosby), who scram with the money. After Duke swipes all of it and Chester follows him aboard the boat to get it back, the steamer horn sounds and they find themselves bound for Alaska.

It’s when Duke and Chester lose their money, stowaway, and are caught that the plot really kicks into high gear and never downshifts. Forced to clean cabins, the boys stumble onto the gold mine map that everyone is looking for. Then, confronted by the murderers Sperry and McGurk, they somehow manage to subdue the men, shave off their beards, and swap clothes. Assuming their identity, they disembark in Skagway and learn in short order just how feared Sperry and McGurk really are. The fun, of course, comes from watching the cowardly Chester and mild-mannered Duke masquerade as tough guys (“I’ll have a lemonade,” Chester says to the bartender, adding, after realizing he’s broken character, “in a dirty glass!”). Some of the action takes place in a saloon, where there’s drinking and smoking and chewing tobacco, but the jokes and the boys’ trying to act tough take center stage.

In the chain of events that follows, Lamour plays Sal, whose father was murdered for the map. She thinks saloon owner Ace Larson (Douglass Dumbrill) and his gal Kate (Hillary Brooke) are going to help her get the mine back, but really they want it for themselves. And of course Sperry and McGurk, once they get loose, are also hot on the trail of the map and the men who are impersonating them.

All of the road pictures have moments where the fourth wall is broken, but in this one it’s done in a way that some might find more annoying. Former New Yorker columnist and humorist Robert Benchley introduces the film and interrupts the film occasionally in a freeze-frame insert of himself, commenting on what “we’re seeing.” When the film was made, the interruptions themselves would have seemed funny to audiences, but that’s no longer the case. And frankly, Benchley’s running commentary isn’t funny. It’s something to be tolerated or ignored.

Thankfully the banter between Hope and Crosby is nearly as good as it was in Road to Morocco, and the plot is fun and fast-paced enough to where Benchley is easy to ignore. Though the music isn’t as catchy as Morocco, Johnny Mercer’s rendition of the song “Personality” hit #1 on the music charts, and Hope and Crosby’s “Put It There, Pal” is a pretty good BFF tune for the times.

Older family members will appreciate this comedy of character and one-liners, while the action and the dogs and dogsledding—especially one Saint Bernard that “adopts” the boys—should keep the younger ones interested. If this were a race, Road to Morocco still finishes first, but Road to Utopia comes in a strong second.

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Review of ON THE BASIS OF SEX (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2018, 120 min., Color
Biography, Drama
Focus Features
Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Though it’s rated PG-13 mostly for strong language in a single scene, On the Basis of Sex might be a hard film for parents to talk everyone into watching. The title makes it sound racier than it really is (which might be off-putting for some, misleading for others), while telling children it’s based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems even less enticing.

To get our daughter to watch, we told her, “It’s basically Legally Blonde without the comedy.” And that’s not an unfair comparison. Both films are about a young woman who attends law school with her male love interest, both find sexism alive and well, both fight the system to prove themselves worthy, and both ultimately triumph . . . though Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) doesn’t wear pink or have a dog small enough to carry in her purse.

Directed by two-time Emmy winner Mimi Leder (ER), On the Basis of Sex is a feel-good David and Goliath story that for a time also turns on the relationship between Ruth and husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Martin is considered a legal golden boy who just happens to be married to this curiosity, this woman everyone seems to think of as a pretender or an intruder pounding on the door of the Good Ol’ Boys Club. But one of the film’s fascinations is the way in which each person navigates the reality of those waters while still being supportive of the other. Resentment doesn’t triumph—persistence does. She persisted. And that makes this film a must-see for all your daughters old enough to sit through a leisurely paced drama and understand the stakes.

Sam Waterston is spot-on as a Harvard professor intent on keeping the glass ceiling in place while pretending to be open to change, while Kathy Bates nails it as a savvy progressive crusader. An interesting difference between Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde and this Ginsburg biography is that Ginsburg is fighting to break through while she has a teenage daughter who is far more liberated than the previous generation, with much higher expectations for equal rights. Like Martin, Jane Ginsburg (Cailee Spaeny) becomes not only a sounding board but also a litmus test for Ruth.

Without giving too much of the dramatic plot away, let’s just say that the film mixes one part medical drama with one part workplace drama, two parts romance, and three parts investigative-courtroom drama. It tracks Ginsburg from her first year as a Harvard Law School student and her transfer to Columbia Law School because of family circumstances, to her inability to find a law firm who would hire a woman, her tenure as a Rutgers Law School Professor teaching “Sex Discrimination and the Law,” and the case that finally helps her prove her mettle and launch a legal arm of the women’s rights movement.

On the Basis of Sex is well acted, and the story itself is inspirational. Apart from a brainstorming session where an f-bomb and other language flies in one of Ginsburg’s Rutgers classes, there really isn’t much to earn that PG-13 rating. So when that scene comes on, just send that impressionable young girl of yours to the kitchen to fetch a snack for you if you’re disinclined to let her listen to the way people talked in the early ‘70s.

And yes, our daughter liked the movie, though she’s not usually a fan of dramas.

Language: Other than that f-bomb, there are lesser swearwords (“shit,” etc.) but most are concentrated in one scene

Sex: A married couple is suggested to have sex when the lights dim, but that’s it

Violence: None whatsoever

Adult Situations: There is period drinking and smoking, some drug references, but no intoxicated behavior

Takeaway: Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Supreme Court Justice is so iconic and recognizable that she even has her own action figure, but once you get that image of a short bespectacled old woman out of your mind, it’s easy to become transported into her fascinating past

Review of ROAD TO MOROCCO (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
1942, 82 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG for drinking, smoking, innuendo, and some peril)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Of all the “Road” pictures, Road to Morocco is tops for family viewing—especially those families with older children who can appreciate the chemistry that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby bring to the screen as drifters and small-time grifters. Hope and Crosby brought their A game to this picture, and their banter with each other may well have inspired all of the buddy cop pictures that would come decades later, and their on-screen love interest, Dorothy Lamour, said that the guys ad-libbed so much that she had a hard time figuring out when she was supposed to say a line.

Turkey (Hope, seeing the desert for the first time): This must be the place where they empty all the old hourglasses.

Jeff (Crosby): We must storm the place!
Turkey: You storm. I’ll stay here and drizzle.

Turkey: The dead have a way of coming back you know.
Jeff: Get out. When they’re dead, they’re dead.
Turkey: Not Aunt Lucy. She was a Republican.

Road to Morocco was released in 1942 following Road to Singapore and Road to Zanzibar, and the third time was the charm. Audiences wanted pleasant diversions from the war, but Morocco was even more fun than usual. It also holds up the best for contemporary audiences—starting with the music. More

Review of AQUAMAN (2018) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes (parental judgment required)
2018, 143 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1 and 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: A-/B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Critics at Rotten Tomatoes only gave Aquaman a 65 percent “fresh” rating, but I think maybe they’ve got a trident stuck somewhere. What do they want from a superhero movie? It can’t possibly be the same things my family wants, because this 2018 action-adventure starring Jason Momoa checked all our boxes.

Epic story? Check. At 143 minutes it might be around 10 minutes too long, but we get a wide sweeping origin story that begins when the Queen of Atlantis washes ashore and is taken in by a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), with whom she eventually falls in love and has a son—a little demigod they name Arthur. The Queen (Nicole Kidman) had been fleeing an arranged marriage with the King of Atlantis, and there’s no running from a guy like that. She sacrifices herself so her son and earthbound husband can live—but not before instructing her trusted advisor, Vulko (Willem Dafoe), to secretly teach her son how to become a powerful warrior well schooled in the ways of the ocean and its people. There are plenty of complications, but not so many that they get tangled up with each other and end up tripping the narrative. At some point this turns into a quest story, with Arthur searching to find the powerful Trident of Atlan that would allow him to triumph over his half-brother and take the throne he’s destined to occupy because as half-man and half-Atlantean he’s in a position to unite the two worlds—or at least stop an Atlantean-led invasion of the “surface” people. More

Review of FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 134 min., Color
Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+ (includes extended cut)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital (extended cut included)
Trailer
Amazon link

Our whole family loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But we were split on Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

My wife, who had read the screenplay and all the Harry Potter books and has a good memory, thought it was a really good movie, somewhere in the B+ range. The only thing she didn’t like was a plot point that’s already been so widely discussed on the Internet that it’s not much of a spoiler: Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, turns out to be an enchanted woman.

Meanwhile, my son, who didn’t read the screenplay but still has a good memory and grasp of characters in complicated plots, thought it was a B- at best. And my daughter and I, who found ourselves confused throughout much of the movie, gave it a B-/C+. In other words, I agreed with critics who slammed J.K. Rowling for creating an unnecessarily complicated but relatively low-stakes plot.

Naturally, I assumed that the more you know going into the film, the more you’ll like it—until I read how überfans criticized Rowling for confusing even herself by violating her own timeline. I didn’t notice. I was too confused.

For me, it was like watching an action movie with terrific special effects in a foreign language with no subtitles. It was like listening to an opera sung in German where you kind of know what’s going on, but not really. More

Review of ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1941, 91 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS mono
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

Road to Zanzibar was the second of seven Crosby-Hope-Lamour musical comedy adventures, released in 1941 at a time when Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and safari pictures were popular. There wasn’t even supposed to be a second “Road” picture, but Paramount had bought the rights to a story that was so similar to Darryl f. Zanuck’s 1939 safari pic Stanley and Livingstone that the project was dead in the water . . . until someone decided that maybe they could do a parody of safari movies instead. In no time, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour were on the road again.

The Road pictures were always innocuous fun, spotlighting Crosby’s crooning, Lamour’s singing (and sometimes dancing), and Hope’s second-banana one-liners. This outing, writers Frank Butler and Don Hartman upped the quips between Hope and Crosby, and with the pair ad libbing as well there emerged a crackling comic energy.

The plot is a little more complex than Road to Singapore (1940), and that’s also a good thing for contemporary audiences. Along with Road to Bali (the only color film of the bunch), this is one of the recommended “starter” Road pictures for families with small children. Kids immediately pick up on the fact that Hubert “Fearless Frazier” (Hope) is constantly getting the short end of the stick as the one who has to do the dirty or dangerous work in their rotating carnival acts. The film begins with Frazier as the “Human Cannonball.” But instead of himself being shot through a flaming hoop, he hides in a secret compartment and substitutes a dummy. When that dummy sets the tent and half the town on fire and all the animals are released, they skedaddle, trying different carnival scams in different towns. Next up: Frazier wrestling a live octopus in a tank, except that plan never happens because they meet a man at a restaurant who’s a diamond baron. He buys them expensive champagne and even bails them out the next day after the night gets out of hand. So naturally Chuck Reardon (Crosby) falls for the diamond mine version of magic beans. Instead of buying two tickets back to America on a steamer, he buys a “lost” diamond mine map from a rich baron who turns out to be so crazy that his children won’t let him make decisions anymore. More

Review of Creed II (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 130 min., Color
Drama
MGM/Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

If there were an Energizer Bunny Award for movie franchises, I’d nominate the Rocky series. How many times can you go with a familiar formula and still crank out some pretty effective films? Well, Elvis Presley films not withstanding. As the aggregate fan/critic site IMDb.com attests, there’s really only one stinker in the original bunch:

Rocky (1976)—8.1 out of 10

Rocky II (1979)—7.2 out of 10

Rocky III (1982)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky IV (1985)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky V (1990)—5.2 out of 10

After that last disappointment, sixteen years later the franchise picked itself up off the mat and scored another TKO, though it would seem the producers weren’t comfortable counting higher than five in Roman numerals. Rocky Balboa also marked a change in direction for the franchise and star Sylvester Stallone, who was coaxed out of retirement for one last fight before turning to managing fighters—specifically, the son of his old friend and foe, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers)—in the two films to follow:

Rocky Balboa (2006)—7.2 out of 10

Creed (2015)—7.6 out of 10

Creed II (2018)—7.4 out of 5

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