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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

Review of LOVE AND MONSTERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-/B+
Sci-fi/Fantasy Adventure
Rated PG-13

Love and Monsters has a lot in common with 2009’s Zombieland, except that the post-apocalyptic plague that threatens surviving humans in this 2020 film consists of mutated monster-size insects and toads and such, rather than a viral-induced plague of zombies. Both are post-apocalyptic coming-of-age films.

Instead of an unproven and unsure-of-himself teen trying to get to his family in Ohio, Love and Monsters features an unproven and unsure-of-himself young adult (Dylan O’Brien)—more sensitive artist than warrior. After everyone in his survivor group had paired off romantically, Joel decides to leave the bunker and trek the “surface” for seven days to find the girlfriend he had acquired just as the catastrophe had struck seven years ago.

Instead of meeting and joining forces with a mentor who was an expert zombie killer in search of the last Twinkies on Earth (as Jesse Eisenberg’s character did), Joel meets up with a grizzled survivor (Dan Ewing) who has been living on the surface with an adopted young girl called Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). One quester learned the secrets of zombie killing and survival in a zombie world, while the other learns how to stay alive in a world filled with monsters that can attack at any moment.

Although Zombieland and Love and Monsters are both quest/survival stories involving a likable young male character, there is one important difference for families to note: Zombieland was rated R for horror violence/gore, while Love and Monsters is rated PG-13 for action/violence, language, and some suggestive material. The latter feels like a hero’s journey through a fantasy land filled with the kind of fantastic creatures one saw in films based on J.K. Rowling books, while the former features humans turning into zombies and then having to be killed. But visually they’re still humans, and as a result it feels more like killing than it does to eliminate an enormous and enormously fantastic monster. Plus, Zombieland was all about finding creative (and graphic) ways to kill zombies. It had a Whack-a-Mole feel to it, having more in common with slasher-horror movies than anything else. But the focus in Love and Monsters is more on Joel’s own survival and his quest for love. Love and Monsters feels like a fun monster movie, with a scarier Alice in Wonderland feel to it, which makes Love and Monsters more suitable for a younger audience—say, 8 years and up? More

Review of TEXAS ACROSS THE RIVER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Western comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

In his 1966 review of Texas Across the River, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “Trying to make fun of Westerns is an aberrant Hollywood stunt that’s as fraught with folly and possible disaster as challenging John Wayne to draw. Either you score a clean hit on that first shot or it’s goodnight you. Well, they do not score a clean hit with Texas Across the River. . . .”

Not that it can’t be done, mind you. Wayne himself starred in two successful Western comedies—North to Alaska (1960) and McLintock! (1963)—but both of those were comic Westerns that still leaned heavily on Western conventions. Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway had a runaway hit with Little Big Man (1970), a comic epic of the Old West that fell into the revisionist category because of its more favorable treatment of Indians. Then Jerry Paris and Mel Brooks scored bulls-eyes with Evil Roy Slade (1972) and Blazing Saddles (1974), but those were true parodies that poked fun of the genre while also clearly admiring it. And likable TV everyman James Garner charmed audiences with his Maverick-style antics in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969).

But when members of the Rat Pack tried their hand at the comic Western, the screenplays they were given leaned more toward farce than fans of the genre seemed to prefer. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin teamed up in 4 for Texas (1963), while Martin paired with Joey Bishop in Texas Across the River (1966). Neither film was successful, though the latter is the stronger one—the kind of gentle farce that appeals to children and people in the mood for something silly because of the level of humor—even though some of the material is very slightly risqué. It’s the plot that’s fun because it’s a little different from the standard Western fare. More

Review of THE OPENING ACT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG-13)

As a college English professor I’ve run across a surprising number of students who want to be stand-up comics. Some of them started a comedy club on campus, some did open mics in local comedy clubs, and one even asked for my opinion on a stand-up routine he was filming to send to an Ivy League school for his grad school admissions essay. Even if they’re not aspiring to grab the microphone themselves, college students love stand-up—which is why so many comics do the college circuit. So a passionate movie about stand-up comedy ought to be a hit with college and high school students who have secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions of being a stand-up comic.

The Opening Act is also plenty fun for the rest of us who have no plans to quit our respectable jobs, as Ken Jeong did (he was a doctor), to become stand-up comics. But as you watch how passionate everyone is about stand-up you begin think, on some level, maybe I could do this too—and that’s because this 2020 film feels like a love letter to stand-up comedy. It’s written and directed by stand-up comic Steve Byrne, it stars stand-up comic Jimmy O. Yang, and all but four of the remaining cast members are stand-up comics. Even guys playing a heckler (Butch Bradley), a cop (Tom Segura), and a taxi driver (Felipe Esparza) are stand-up comics. The only pure actors among the rest of the cast are Debby Ryan (The Suite Life on Deck), Jackie Tohn (GLOW) and two minor roles. Surrounded by so much comedic talent, I can picture them trying to pick up pointers, as The Opening Act‘s main character does throughout the film. More

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