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Review of LUCKY GRANDMA (Blu-ray)

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

Timing matters, and this first full-length feature from director Sasie Sealy comes to Blu-ray at a time when Bong Joon-Ho’s surprising Oscar-winning Parasite is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Like that South Korean film, Lucky Grandma, set in New York’s Chinatown, is a black comedy that veers into thriller territory. It’s a mash-up of genres that also carries an unspoken social message. With Bong it was class inequity; with the New York-based Sealy, it’s aging. And her main character, the recently widowed Grandma Wong, refuses to go gently into that good night, or even move in with her son and his family.

Don’t bother looking up Sealy’s Wikipedia page, because she’s so new she doesn’t even have one yet. So far her big push to get on the film world’s radar has come from her participation in Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival, which twice honored her with Student Visionary Awards (Elephant Garden, 2008; Dance Mania Fantastic, 2005). But with a first feature that’s as solid as Bong’s own black comedy debut (Barking Dogs Never Bite), she’ll be getting that Wikipedia page and probably more awards soon enough.

If your family liked Parasite, you’ll like Lucky Grandma. It’s a film for families that like to push their entertainment boundaries. Children who enjoy it will be old enough to handle the mixed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese voice track with English subtitles, because when it comes right down to it that’s the biggest factor. There’s violence, but not nearly as much as what’s shown in the average superhero movie. There’s language, but again nothing compared to what Hollywood has been producing lately. And there’s smoking, but it’s more of a comic device than anything else.

Chain-smoking Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin, The Joy Luck Club) learns in the opening sequence with a fortuneteller that October 28th is going to be a very lucky day for her, so she rebuffs her son’s pleas to move in with them so he doesn’t have to pay rent on two apartments. She’ll be able to pay her own rent soon, she tells him. To claim the fortune that fate has foretold, she boards a bus headed for a casino and ends up returning with a big bag of money. But she runs afoul of a Chinese gang trying to get that money, and after she goes to a rival gang to “rent” a bodyguard, well, one thing leads to another. Apartments get ransacked. People get roughed up. There’s shooting. And this woke Grandma wields a big wok to make her own point.

Lucky Grandma may sound a bit like Bad Grandmas (about four elderly women who accidentally kill a con artist and find themselves in hot water with the man’s partner), but the tone, the level of artistry and sophistication, and the screenplay itself locate it more in Bong territory, with one big difference: Bong’s third act goes completely off the rails as the action becomes more and more surreal, while Sealy’s takes turns that are less outrageous. She rides the brakes, while Bong lets it go Expedition Everest out-of-control. The only real negative is that, as a result, a sense of inevitability gently erodes the edges of surprise and quirkiness that Sealy had established early on with an indie-influenced quirkiness and music. That third act just doesn’t have the zip and zing of the first two. After it’s over you think, yes, of course, while after Bong’s you’re still going WTF.

There’s a little incredulity here, but it comes from watching the amazing Chin, who does have her own Wikipedia page. The classically trained actress, who earned a Master’s degree and also had a singing career in the 1960s, once played a “Bond girl” in You Only Live Twice. After her stellar stage, screen, and television career, it’s not surprising that Chin still has a compelling screen presence and is able to carry Lucky Grandma . . . until you do the math and realize that she made this film at age 86! Jack Nicholson was 65 when he made a similar-themed film, but if I had to pick only one to watch over and over, I would choose Lucky Grandma, not About Schmidt. The latter dwells on the pain of aging and loneliness; Lucky Grandma shrugs it off like a bullet that only grazes you.

Some critics have made a bigger deal about the relationship between Grandma Wong and bodyguard Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), but, really, Sealy keeps the focus squarely on the Grandma, resisting the urge to turn it into another Driving Miss Daisy. The emphasis in this film is on the action and on a feisty, stoic, and determined main character whose behavior seems ageless. What children haven’t sung Happy Birthday to a grandparent, watched them struggle slightly to blow out the candles, then wished them a warm goodbye, thinking of them only in terms of what they see? Lucky Grandma pulls back the curtain to show what the family doesn’t see: in this case, a character who’s almost as “gangster” as any of the bad guys she encounters. If you look past the crustiness, Grandma Wong is also someone who’s determination can be a lesson for anyone feeling the burden of limitations, whether those limitations are age, gender, physiology, race, or anything else. Despite her selfishness and lack of filter, there’s much to admire in this Lucky Grandma, who probably thinks that Dylan Thomas should stop whining about not going gently into that good night and instead get out there and do something about it.

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 87 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Mandarin, English, and Cantonese DTS 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for smoking, drinking, violence)

Language: 5/10—Two f-bombs, both spoken by a youngster

Sex: 1/10—One offhanded remark concerning a prostitute

Violence: 5/10—There’s shooting and some deaths, but mostly off-screen; there are also fistfights and one character dies after hitting his head accidentally; the cringiest moment actually comes when a man runs a knife across his own tongue and spits blood, but he’s unhurt

Adult situations: 6/10—There’s smoking and drinking at the casino, an uncomfortable bus ride, and Grandma’s chain smoking

Takeaway: After Snowpiercer, Bong returned to black comedy and gave movie-lovers an even stronger one than his debut film, an Oscar winner; here’s hoping this isn’t the last black comedy we see from Sealy

Review of AGAINST ALL FLAGS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Adventure-Romance
Not rated (would be PG)

Hollywood made a lot of Westerns in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, but they also made a fair number of pirate movies. Against All Flags (1952) wasn’t one of the absolute best, but it gave audiences a rare pairing of Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara—both of whom had starred in swashbucklers before.

For Flynn, who first played a pirate in Captain Blood (1935) opposite Olivia de Havilland, his best swordplay was behind him. In Against All Flags he’s less jumpy, calmer, mellowed a bit with age, and no doubt slightly slowed by his bad-boy partying lifestyle. Yet, in this film that only makes him interestingly more human and less of a cardboard Hollywood leading man. For O’Hara, who had appeared in Spanish Main costumers with Tyrone Power and John Payne, The Black Swan remains her slightly superior pirate pic, but she’s at her feistiest in Against All Flags.

Here are my Top 10 pirate movies, so you can appreciate where I’m coming from:

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)—A
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)—A
  3. Captain Blood (1935)—A
  4. The Sea Hawk (1940)—A-
  5. The Crimson Pirate (1952)—A-
  6. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)—B+
  7. The Princess and the Pirate (1944)—B+
  8. Treasure Island (1950)—B
  9. The Black Swan (1942)—B
  10. Against All Flags (1952)—B-

Growing up with Disney and Depp can spoil you, but those who are able to accept older films on their own terms will find Against All Flags pleasant escapist fare. Those used to seeing CGI or trick props will quickly realize that these are actual metal foils and swords, and they don’t have safety tips on them. Yes, there’s one camera shot that doesn’t capture the angle just right so that you can actually see a “stabbing” go several inches to the side of an abdomen. But after smiling, it occurs to you that the rest of the real-time action is fast and believable enough to require some precise stage combat skills to avoid injury. The actors did most of their own stunts, and that’s all but confirmed by the fact that Flynn broke his ankle during filming. There was only one scene where he reportedly used a stunt double for a rather extraordinary stunt.

Even O’Hara gets into the act, and she’s as good with a blade as anyone on set. In fact, O’Hara is one big reason to watch this film. She famously complained to the Mirror in 1945, “Because I don’t let the producer and director kiss me every morning or let them paw me they have spread word around town that I am not a woman—that I am a cold piece of marble statuary.” Her character, “Spitfire,” is just as defiant when it comes to men. “I kiss when I want to kiss,” she says. Not only does she fend men off as deftly as she handles a foil. She’s a feminist who also remains feminine despite her toughness, and that’s going to be of interest to young people who might be surprised to learn that there were strong female characters back in the ‘50s. Her character is all the more impressive compared to another woman, a Far Eastern princess (played by a white actress) who’s so helpless and naïve that she seeks kisses from Flynn’s character, with the running-gag request, “Again!”

Though it’s ostensibly set in the Caribbean, Against All Flags was shot almost entirely at Universal Studios and remains a pretty good example of the studio back-lot film and the inventive set designs that kept the illusions going for audiences. It has all the colorful costumes from the Technicolor era, and real-looking sets and props. It’s only apparent in several dock shots that it’s a Hollywood set, with a background that looks two-dimensional until you see people walking in the distance. And the only really glaring anachronism is a crow’s nest that appears to be made of chain link mesh, which wasn’t invented until 1844.

But this isn’t a documentary, it’s an adventure, and that adventure begins with officer Brian Hawke being flogged and publicly broken in rank aboard a ship in the Royal British Navy. We quickly learn that it was staged, and Hawke and two other miscreants are put in a longboat. Their mission? To land on an impregnable island used as a base for pirates and somehow discover and disable the cannons that have been destroying the ships of any nation that tries to catch the pirates. With a signal that the mission has been accomplished, the British warship will enter the harbor to take on the pirates.

Brasiliano and the rest of the pirate captains are wary of Hawke, but his smooth gentlemanly ways make him a favorite of “Spitfire” Stevens (O’Hara), daughter of the gun and sword smith who was responsible for designing the island’s fortifications. She inherited a ship and an honorary captain’s title, and her word largely saves the three men so they can attempt their mission—one that’s substantial enough to drive this film.

Young history buffs will take additional pleasure in recognizing the names of real pirates that appear, including Roc Brasiliano (played by Anthony Quinn), Captain Kidd (Robert Warwick), and Bartholomew Roberts (James Logan), but except for Brasiliano they’re as fleeting onscreen as seagulls . . . or whatever birds fly near Universal Studios.

As always, Kino Lorber did a fine job with this reissue, as their catalog of classic films continues to expand. The visual images are sharp and the sound, though 2.0, has a nice presence to it. Could Captain Blood or The Crimson Pirate be next?

Entire family: No (but darned close)
Run time: 84 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some violence)

Language: 0/10—Squeaky clean, mateys!

Sex: 2/10—Some forced kisses, some mutual, but that’s it

Violence: 4/10—Lots of cannon fire, swordfighting, and people doubling over and obviously dying, but the tone of the film and the bright colors can make it seem like movie action; there’s also a slap across the face, but overall far less violence than in the Pirates of the Caribbean series

Adult situations: 2/10—Drinking, swaggering, and men staked out at low tide awaiting death-by-crabs 

Takeaway: It would have been interesting to see Flynn and O’Hara paired up earlier in their careers; they don’t sizzle here, but they are darned interesting together

Review of THE LADY EVE (Criterion) (Blu-ray)

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

When BBC Culture unveiled their list of 100 greatest comedies of all time, screwball comedies fared pretty well. Topping the list was Some Like It Hot, the Billy wilder comedy produced more than a decade after the subgenre’s hey-day. But Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby turned up at #14 and #17, and closely behind them at #19 was Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve—a 1941 screwball comedy just released on Blu-ray by Criterion.

It’s an enjoyable film, but not one that I would rate so far ahead of It Happened One Night (#28 on the BBC-Culture list) or even The Philadelphia Story (#38). The film rolls along at a brisk pace for the first two-thirds. Lady Eve is the serpent in this farce about a card sharp (Barbara Stanwyck) aboard a cruise ship who sets her sights on a well-known ale heir (Henry Fonda) who just happens to be a snake researcher. But then a third-act dinner party scene goes on too long, a lost snake is all but forgotten, and Lady Eve bounces back and forth between love and revenge so abruptly you’d swear she was under a spell. Then, just as abruptly, the film rushes to an ending with a last line clever enough to rival the most famous last line in cinema (“Nobody’s perfect,” from #1 comedy Some Like It Hot).

Screwball comedies are typically farces revolving around a courtship, pursuit by a member of the opposite sex, or divorced couples still playing games with each other. Film noir has its femme fatale, but the screwball comedy version is more benign, causing the male levels of distress but nothing that can’t be overcome by the end of the film. Screwball comedies are also characterized by clever, fast-paced and often overlapping dialogue, and more often than not they include implied social commentary involving the classes (rich vs. middle class). Some films, like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, are fast-paced enough and with a plot gimmick (escaped convict, escaped leopard) that make them best suited for family viewing. Others, like The Lady Eve, are driven by a spider/fly plot and a screwball femme fatale that make it still fun but a little more sophisticated. More

Review of GUNDALA (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Action
Not Rated (would be PG-13)

With the U.S. being the center of the Marvel and D.C. universes, it’s easy to think of superheroes as being an American thing. But Superman, “born” in 1938, debuted seven years after Japan’s Ogon Bat (“Golden Bat”), which is generally acknowledged to be the world’s first comic book superhero—that is, a hero with at least one super power.

Marvel and D.C. films are recognizably formulaic, so it’s fascinating to see how other countries “do” superhero films. Gundala is a 2019 cinematic origin story of the most popular superhero comic in Indonesia, a character created by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata in 1969. And there are some striking differences.

For one thing, American superheroes, even before they fully develop their powers, appear in almost every scene. That’s not the case with Gundala, which offers a complex web of characters that get plenty of screen time without the hero present. That’s one big difference. Another is that Gundala has terrific fight sequences and plays more like a martial arts film with all characters on equal footing than it does a superhero flick—at least for four fifths of the film. Yet another difference is that the actual superpower and how it works is murkier than an American superhero film. And the filmmakers aren’t interested in traveling the shortest distance between two points to explain it. They get there eventually, but they’re in no hurry. You can pinpoint at least three moments in the film when an American superhero would have pivoted and hit that moment of discovery or resolve earlier than our Indonesian hero, because Hollywood likes to keep it simple.

What’s immediately striking is that Gundala has strong production values and seems to have been made with subtitles in mind. Though the film is fast-paced, subtitle texts don’t speed by and the dialogue is short enough to enable non-Indonesian viewers to read them comfortably. More than any non-English film I’ve watched over the past several years, this one required no conscious effort to juggle the “reading” of images and reading of text. More

Review of ORCA, THE KILLER WHALE! (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C
Drama
Rated PG

Orca: The Killer Whale! came out two years after Jaws and a year before the first Jaws sequel, so it would be natural to look at the poster art and assume we’re dealing with the same type of film. But they’re about as similar as a shark and a dolphin.

Jaws was a campy blend of adventure and horror tropes brought to the sea, with a storyline involving beach closings on the Fourth of July weekend and a hunt for a man-eating shark that was terrorizing swimmers. There was a logic to having a marine biologist paired with a shark hunter and the local police chief, and as the trio set off to kill the shark the film played out with the same kind of character attrition as we get in horror films—but with more character and relationship development.

Orca, meanwhile, takes itself way too seriously and tries to be a “message” film. It feels like a straight drama, intercut with sentimentalized footage of killer whales communicating. There are no jump scares typical of horror films (and Jaws), and no build-up of tension through music or any other means. It’s a fairly flat narrative boat ride from point A to point G, as in gee, this doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Set off the coast of Labrador, this 1977 film begins with footage of Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and his crew of two trying to capture a Great White Shark to sell to an aquarium. Never mind that the ship doesn’t seem equipped with a tank and support system large enough to accommodate a 10-foot shark. In this opening sequence they cross paths with two researchers studying Orcas, and as one of the researchers (Robert Carradine) falls into the ocean and looks like a goner, out of nowhere comes an orca that rams the shark and kills it. So what does Nolan do after witnessing this unselfish act from one of nature’s creatures? Naturally, he decides to reward such heroism by trying to capture the killer whale—despite being warned by lead researcher Rachel (Charlotte Rampling) that orcas mate for life and can be very vengeful if anything happens to their mate. More

Review of ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action-Adventure
Not rated (would be PG)

“Open Sesame!”

Who hasn’t heard that phrase before, or immediately recognized it as the voice of Ali Baba? For that we can thank French translator Antoine Galland, who in the 1700s added “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to One Thousand and One Nights. Over time it became one of the collection’s most popular tales, but it gets a revisionist spin in this 1944 color film starring Jon Hall, who’s best known to Baby Boomers as Ramar of the Jungle and the director-star of the campy ‘60s sci-fi flicks The Beach Girls and the Monster and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters.

In the original tale, Ali is a common woodsman who happens upon a thieves’ hideout, discovers the secret of gaining entrance, and sneaks a bag of gold coins. But his sister-in-law learns about it and forces Ali to reveal where he got the gold from, so his brother can follow suit. That brother is killed, but with the help of a slave girl Ali gets revenge and emerges victorious.

In this film version, Ali is the rich son of the Caliph of Baghdad who escapes being killed with his father after Mongols seize the kingdom. Ali is taken in by the thieves and becomes the adopted son of their leader, Baba. Instead of a plot revolving around thievery and wealth, Ali and his band are freedom fighters dedicated to killing the Khan (Kurt Katch) and retaking Baghdad for their people.

Though it’s the kind of solid-but-generic sword-and-sandal film that Hollywood loved to make during the Golden Age, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves also has a campy feel to it because of the presence of veteran character actor Andy Devine, who made a career out of being the Western hero’s sidekick and delivering comic relief. It’s hard to see his rotund frame in Arab garb and hear his familiar raspy high-pitched voice without thinking of him in buckskin as Jingles in TV’s Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, or Cookie from the Roy Rogers feature films. Others will recognize him as the driver in John Ford’s Stagecoach, but regardless, seeing him in a different costume adventure or seeing him for the first time is enough to make you smile. More

Review of THE PALEFACE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Over a 60-year film career, comedian Bob Hope starred in 54 features, but the former vaudevillian was also known for the USO shows he emceed from 1941-91, performing for American military personnel in times of war and peace. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1962 and also received the Medal of Merit from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson, the Medal of Liberty from President Ronald Reagan, the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton, and the Spirit of Hope Award (named for him) from the U.S. Department of Defense.

In other words, Bob Hope, who died at age 100 in 2003, is a national treasure. Since only one of his films (Road to Morocco) has been included in the National Film Registry, the public is dependent upon studios like Kino Lorber to preserve and release the old classics that are worth watching and rewatching. And The Paleface is a good one.

Of Hope’s films, the historical costume comedies are as much fun as the Road pictures he did with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. While The Princess and the Pirate is the best of the powdered wig era comedies, The Paleface is tops among the Westerns that Hope made. In it, we see Hope at the height of his career, both as an actor and as a comedian. The hard-working comic had appeared in four feature films in 1947, and a year later The Paleface teamed him with Jane Russell—the WWII pin-up “girl” who famously debuted five years earlier in Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw and had only appeared in one other soapy drama. Surprisingly, the two play well off each other, with Russell the straight man, of course.

It’s good to finally get this title on Blu-ray, though the timing is probably unfortunate. As monuments are being toppled and even Mount Rushmore has come under fire, this film’s title and treatment of Native Americans is racist—there’s no other way to put it. But this was the ‘40s, and all of America was thinking along the lines of what talented writer Frank Tashlin incorporated into the screenplay. No one thought anything of having just two Native Americans playing Indians and the rest played by Caucasians, and no one bristled when Native Americans were depicted as stern-faced chiefs (“How!”) or wacky medicine men. Wrong as we now know it to be, it was all part of the stereotypical humor of the era.

So where does that leave us? I personally think that it’s wrong to deny or erase history. Instead, America needs to own up to that history, and you don’t do that by burying it and forgetting it. America needs to learn from the past and learn to appreciate artwork and cultural artifacts from previous eras for what they are. You can enjoy a film for its performances and comedy and also be aware that what you’re seeing is no longer appropriate. And Hope’s historical comedies—the Westerns especially—are a good place to start if you want to teach your children about racism and racial stereotypes. They’ll find the films amusing, but then you can also talk about what you just saw and educate them on the reality of Native Americans in the U.S.

Hope plays “Painless” Peter Potter, who picks a peck of trouble when he pulls the wrong tooth and has to skip town. As he’s leaving, Calamity Jane (Russell) hops aboard his wagon following a shootout. She’s a government agent on secret assignment: discover who’s supplying weapons and explosives to the Indians and stop them before they start another war. And what better way to blend in than by joining a wagon train with a “husband” who’s as clueless as they come?

Even the violence (and that includes people shot to death) is played for laughs in The Paleface. Some of the gags involve several Indians clueless as Potter as well as laughing gas that Potter uses to numb patients, but the bulk of them revolve around his bumbling ineptitude and cowardice—especially compared to his rough-and-tough sharpshooting “wife.” There’s a surprising amount of character development in this comedy, which also stars American Indian actors Iron Eyes Cody and Chief Yowlachie, and frequent “heavy” Jeff York.

Hope often found a way to sing in his films, and in The Paleface he’s in peak form performing “Buttons and Bows,” which won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song. Mostly, though The Paleface is just good old-fashioned slapstick and one-liner fun, with a plot that’s strong enough to pull the whole wagon.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 91 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for hints of innuendo and comic violence)

Language: 0/10—Nothing here of consequence

Sex: 2/10—Women in pantaloons, repeated hints of romance, comic kisses and one passionate one

Violence: 3/10—All violence is comic, including fistfights, shootings, and running gags of being dragged by horses and the number of Indians killed by a proclaimed hero

Adult situations: 0/10—Nothing not already mentioned

Takeaway: Kino Lorber did an excellent job on the transfer, with crisp audio and Technicolor presentation sharp and vivid as can be. Would it be too much to hope for The Princess and the Pirate, Monsieur Boucaire or another Hope Western, Fancy Pants (with Lucille Ball) next?

 

Review of THE LAST VALLEY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Historical war-adventure drama
Rated PG

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that Shangri-La is never what it appears to be, because idylls are too close to idols and idles for comfort. Human nature always gets in the way of any Eden, and paradise seems always destined to be lost, as illustrated by this 1971 historical adventure-war drama.

Moviemakers were going different directions the year The Last Valley was released, with audiences latching onto tough-guy cops and P.I.s (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Shaft), racy literary adaptations (A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show), prostitutes (Klute, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), and the latest James Bond entry (Diamonds Are Forever). So The Last Valley was all but overlooked in America, despite its popularity in the U.K. and the pairing of Michael Caine (The Ipcress File) and Omar Sharif (Funny Girl, Dr. Zhivago).

Written and directed by James Clavell (To Sir with Love, also known for his novel Shogun that was made into a popular TV mini-series), the film raises a lot of questions about religion, war, and the very meaning and nature of existence. Mostly, though, it feels like an anti-war fable that grinds its gears toward the conclusion that conflict is futile yet, ironically, inevitable.

For an older film, it’s surprisingly compelling because it’s surprisingly fresh—well written and, except for a few melodramatic moments, superbly acted, with impressive location filming in Austria. Families who like the comedy Miss Congeniality will hardly recognize makeover artist Michael Caine decades earlier in this film as a captain who commands a group of mercenaries during Europe’s Thirty Years War. Superscript tells us at the film’s beginning that this 1618-48 war ravaged central Europe the same time as the plaque and was initially fought between Protestant and Catholic states in a deteriorating Holy Roman Empire. Then it became a fight for power and control, with wealthy noblemen and professional soldiers leading large armies of mercenaries from both religious sides as they spread across the countryside, destroying villages and raping and looting along the way. In effect, they put their religious differences on hold in order to pursue a common “bad”. A similar truce happens in The Last Valley. More

Review of POLICE SQUAD!: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
TV comedy
Rated TV-PG

All right, I’ll talk: I’m a big Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker fan. I think Airplane! and Top Secret! are hilarious, and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! gets my vote for funniest laugh-out-loud movie ever made (sorry, Mel Brooks).

This trio of high school friends from a Milwaukee suburb specializes in visual puns, sight gags, “triples,” and running gags that expand with every repetition. David Zucker once told me they gravitated toward rapid-fire jokes out of self-defense. When they first created Kentucky Fried Theater they borrowed money from their parents and couldn’t afford actors, so they had to do all of the skits onstage themselves. They hated not getting laughs and went the rapid-fire route because they discovered it was easier to keep audiences laughing than it was to get them to laugh in the first place.

Police Squad! aired in 1982, with the trio pitching it as Airplane! but with the police genre. The title and opening sequence pays tribute to M Squad, a popular ‘50s cop show staring Broderick Crawford. There are some funny jokes here, but as with SNL or other sketch comedy shows there are some misfires as well. Police Squad! ran just six episodes, maybe because the trio’s brand of rapid-fire gags hang better on a model that’s full length.

That said, once you get past a first episode that’s not quite as funny as The Naked Gun, the others have their share of laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of smiles and groans. Groans? Yeah. Baseball announcer Steve Stone said it best: “Puns are like children. You love your own, and can’t stand anyone else’s.” You can almost create a drinking game out of predicting what visual pun will splash across the screen next after you hear a familiar expression that can be taken more than one way. A few of the gags are off-color, which is why this short-lived TV series carries a TV-PG rating. More

Review of ONWARD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Animation
Rated PG

So what happens to a “shire” when centuries of technology make magic obsolete, and the closest to it for modern-day elves and other residents in the city of New Mushroomton is some version of fantasy role-playing games? In Onward we find out, as a timid elf receives a time capsule present from his father, who apparently died of cancer years ago: a wizard staff.

Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is unimpressed, but older obnoxious brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who’s totally into role-playing games, is delighted that his father was also into wizardry. Then they read a letter that was part of the parcel and discover a “visitation spell” that can bring their father back for one day, so Ian can meet him for the first time. But what happens when unconfident Ian botches the job and brings back only Dad’s bottom half? The elves have less than a day to find a gemstone that, added to the staff, will be powerful enough to bring back all of their father.

That’s the premise of Onward, which is directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), and I found myself thinking of Back to the Future and Marty’s limited time to set things right, or else his family, the top halves of which are slowly vanishing on a photo he frequently looks at, will cease to exist. And of course there’s been no shortage of wizard-quest films with a single high-stakes prize the goal and all manner of obstacles en route, so Onward feels a bit commonplace in its premise and plotting. More

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