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THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW: SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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AndyGriffithShow1coverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1960-61, 820 min. (33 episodes), black and white
CBS Home Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for adult drinking and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby digital Mono
Bonus features: B
CBS restoration trailer

It’s no secret. Kids today are turned off by black-and-white movies and television shows. They’re so BORING, is the common refrain. But there are exceptions, and The Andy Griffith Show is one of them. This series, which ran on CBS from 1960-68, was ranked #9 on TV Guide’s list of 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. Now Season 1 is out on Blu-ray, and that’s good news for fans and families wanting to watch a wholesome, timeless, homespun comedy together.

How wholesome is it? Well, the Town of Mayberry, North Carolina is a sleepy little backwater where folksy sheriff and justice of the peace Andy Taylor (Griffith) doesn’t wear a sidearm, doesn’t drink, doesn’t use harsh language, and seldom raises his voice. With an aw-shucks demeanor, a bushel full of aphorisms, and a smile that could disarm all but the most hardened criminals, Andy spends most of his time dispensing common-sense advice to family, friends, and residents of Mayberry, and also proving to “big city” law enforcement officers and visitors that small town residents have a wisdom all their own. Heck, they were smart enough to choose that pace and lifestyle, weren’t they?

Our kids’ favorite black-and-white TV series is still I Love Lucy, but The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show run a close second and third. The source of the appeal is pretty easy to pin down, starting with the situation. Andy is a widower who lives with his precocious young son, Opie (Ronnie Howard) and the aunt who raised him—Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier). Those two appealing characters get into enough “pickles” that the entire show could have been based on their mishaps and Andy’s always gentle intervention.

But when you add Andy’s job, with comic genius Don Knotts playing over-eager and bumbling Deputy Barney Fife, you create a whole other range of possibilities for humorous problems that Andy can solve. Mayberry isn’t just a backdrop, either. The citizens get a lot of air time, and their stubborn, provincial ways constitute yet another group of patients in need of Sheriff Taylor’s magic tonic—always a blend of common sense, insights into human nature, and Solomon-like judgment. And Andy’s morals are within easy grasp of youngsters, too.   More

I LOVE LUCY: ULTIMATE SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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ILoveLucy1coverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1951-52, 908 min., black and white
CBS Home Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for adult drinking and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: B-
CBS restoration trailer

In 2002, TV Guide named the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. On May 6, CBS Home Entertainment will bring three of the Top 10—at least the first seasons—to Blu-ray. Soon we’ll post reviews of The Andy Griffith Show and The Honeymooners: Classic 39 Episodes, but since I Love Lucy ranks 2nd behind Seinfeld on the list, it seems like the logical place to begin—though logic and Lucy have little in common.

Lucille Ball set the gold standard for physical comedy and character comedy playing opposite real-life husband and band leader Desi Arnaz in a sitcom that revolved around only four characters: Ricky Ricardo (Arnaz), his wife Lucy, and their neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance). That is, two housewives prone to get into trouble, one fuddy-duddy who wore his pants up to his chin, and a Latin lover whose love for Lucy was sorely tested in just about every episode.

This past school year my ‘tween daughter would start her morning with an episode of I Love Lucy, which, remarkably, is still in syndication more than 60 years after Season 1 was first broadcast. Even more remarkable is that she enjoys the show as much as I did when I watched it on days I was home from school, “sick.” What makes it so timelessly appealing? The slapstick and the situations. Things that happened to Lucy on a quiz show are still happening to unsuspecting kids on a Nickelodeon game show, for example, and while the writing was decent, it was really the four stars that made the show work.

I Love Lucy was one of the early TV series that made the leap from vaudeville and radio to television. It began as My Favorite Husband, a radio program starring Ball and Dick Denning. But Lucy suggested that her TV husband be played by her real husband, who was then appearing as a panelist on the game show What’s My Line? The rest is TV history. I Love Lucy was an immediate fan favorite, finishing #3 in the Nielsen ratings its first year, and #1 seasons two through four, #2 their fifth season, then back to #1 again for the sixth.

Season 1 includes one of the all-time greatest I Love Lucy episodes, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” in which she plugs a tonic called Vitameatevegamin. The only trouble is, the commercial requires multiple takes, and the product is 23 percent alcohol. Other memorable episodes include ones in which Lucy gets locked in a walk-in freezer, goes to great lengths to convince Ricky that growing bald isn’t so bad, and, with Ethel, tries to make it as “Pioneer Women” by not using any modern conveniences.   More

COWGIRLS ‘N ANGELS 2: DAKOTA’S SUMMER (Blu-ray)

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CowgirlsnAngels2coverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, though some boys might resist
2014, 91 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer

Competition TV series are popular now, but they’re mostly dance-, song-, or pageant-related. I can’t think of a single series or film that uses the rodeo as a backdrop for light family drama, and there is something mesmerizing about watching horses move—especially the mini-horses that appear in this sequel, ones that scamper rather than gallop, and that are not much taller than an adult’s waist. They’re just so darned CUTE.

Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer is a Dove-approved sequel that features an all-new cast and is aimed mostly at girls ages six through 16. But the acting is solid, the trick riding captivating, and the situation interesting enough to where it might appeal to the whole family.

Dakota’s Summer stars Haley Ramm (X-Men: The Last Stand) as a teen who’s teamed with her more talented sister in a trick-riding duo for Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Early in the film she wonders aloud why the granddaughter of a famed rodeo trick rider would have such a hard time with it, compared to her sister. It’s like we’re totally different, she says. “You don’t know the half of it,” her sister remarks, and that leads to Dakota’s discovery that she is really adopted.

Now, everywhere across America there are adopted children who wonder who their birth parents are, and it’s never as easy as leaving your family to go to stay with Rodeo Grandpa, who was behind the adoption, and finding the names of the parents in a clearly marked file in his desk drawer. And finding birth parents is never as easy as just going to the address on the form, and there they are.

When Rodeo Grandpa (Keith Carradine) uses his mini-horse ranch for a program to benefit troubled children in foster care, not one of those children appears genuinely troubled. No one tests the boundaries of authority or pushes to see whether an adult will reject him/her again, and when one of them leaves with a mini-horse and buggy and Dakota arrives on the scene where there are flashing lights and an ambulance, the cart is trashed but neither the runaway girl (Jade Pettyjohn, American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars) nor the little horse are in any way harmed. The whole foster care/adoption cycle is also less than realistic.

But realism isn’t the goal here. Dakota’s Summer is a feel-good family film that doesn’t pretend to be anything more—and it’s tough to walk away with a good feeling when the same old garbage that happens in real life happens as well in the movies. My daughter likes happy films, and she liked this one. I did too, and so did my wife.  But I am perplexed as to why this earned a PG rating. It’s as wholesome as can be. More

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (Blu-ray combo)

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WalterMittycoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
2013, 114 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for some crude comments, language, and action violence
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: B
Trailer

Literary purists won’t like it that director-star Ben Stiller strayed so far from the plot of James Thurber’s original short story, or the 1947 film adaptation starring Danny Kaye. Meanwhile, fans of action comedies may think Thurber’s fantasy elements the weakest part of this film. But somehow, out of a no-win situation, Stiller manages to make a likable movie that entertains while also providing a little get-out-of-the-basement inspiration.

Thurber’s Walter Mitty was a meek and mild-mannered proofreader who lived a life so dull that he was prone to daydream elaborate scenarios in which he would always emerge the hero—the guy who gets the girl. As a child, I remember liking the film in spite of those fantasy sequences, and apparently some things never change. Even though Stiller severely dialed back on the number and length of the daydreaming episodes, inventively passing them off as Mitty’s propensity for “spacing out,” my teen and pre-teen still hated those parts, as I once did. What’s more, our world has become so much more aggressive that they also didn’t care much for the Mitty character—even though he isn’t nearly as bumbling or hapless as Kaye once played him.

Stiller’s Mitty is more of a work-a-day schlepper who toils in the negative archives of Life magazine and really has no life outside of that. In fact, a dating site he joined recently keeps checking up on him to see if he’s actually done something to add to his blank and not terribly appealing or effective profile.

Adam Scott is entertaining as the “terminator” who bluntly tells Life staffers that this next issue will be the magazine’s last, and that most of them will be let go as they downsize to an online-only format. It’s a nice situational updating that lends new credence to Thurber’s story, actually.   More

MAYBERRY R.F.D.: SEASON 1 (DVD)

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MayberryRFD1coverGrade: C+
Entire family: Yes, but most kids will think it dull
1968-69, 667 min. (26 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not Rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: none
1968 fall preview 

The Andy Griffith Show ranks #9 on TV Guide’s List of 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, and it’s easy to see why. Like I Love Lucy, another Top 10 series and perennial favorite of parents AND children, it featured comic situations and characters that were as endearing as they were funny. Plus, the show had the added attraction of a Norman Rockwell, small-town wholesomeness and Griffith’s folksy manner as Sheriff Andy Taylor.

But the series changed when it went from black-and-white to color. New writers took over and the emphasis shifted from laugh-out-loud comedy to gentler humor and small-town folksiness—an emphasis that continued with Mayberry, R.F.D., which aired from 1968-71.

The first episode of Season 1 will be of interest to fans of The Andy Griffith Show because it provides closure. Andy and longtime sweetheart Helen Crump (Aneta Corset) finally get married, and Barney is at his goofy best as Best Man. While they’re on their honeymoon (yes, Barney too), back in Mayberry widowed farmer-turned-councilman Sam Jones (Ken Berry) and his son Mike (Buddy Foster) manage to convince Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) to move in with them and cook and clean and mother them, as she had done for Andy and his son Opie (Ron Howard) in The Andy Griffith Show.

The structure and tone are the same, with Millie Swanson (Arlene Golonka) providing the romantic interest for Sam, but Mayberry just isn’t the same without Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts). Despite a carryover of minor characters like Goober (George Lindsey), who inexplicably rises from grease monkey to lawman, and handyman Emmett (Paul Hartman) or perennial shy-guy Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), the show just doesn’t have the same personality and pizazz of the original. There are no mountain folk like Ernest T. Bass, no town drunk like Otis Campbell, and no gossiping Floyd the Barber to liven things up and give Andy something a little more extreme than the mundane to react to.   More

THE GABBY DOUGLAS STORY (DVD)

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GabbyDouglascoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  Yes
2014, 86 min., Color
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Rated G
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  F
Trailer

The Gabby Douglas Story seems tailor-made for families with little girls who have big dreams.

This biopic about Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, who quickly rose from obscurity to compete in the 2012 London games, aired on Lifetime and has that golly G-rated Lifetime feel to it—maybe a little too direct in its plotting, and a little too ready to tug at the heartstrings. But darn it, teenage role models for little girls aren’t all that easy to come by, so it’s easy to overlook a cultivated wholesomeness when the underlying message is so positive.

Besides, Lifetime or not, this 86-minute drama is a good one. It proves that it’s possible to create a successful film that doesn’t have smart-mouthed kids, sex, drinking, drugs, or swearing. There’s only a little mean-spirited talk from some of the gym rats, but even that’s mild. Meanwhile, the virtues showcased here are as clear and crisp as Douglas’s phenomenal routines: hard work, dedication, sacrifice, family togetherness, perseverance, and a toughness that enables you to play through the pain and get past your own self-doubts. In that respect, it’s like so many other athlete biopics. The hurdles may look different, but the track is essentially the same, which is why this film will appeal to more than just little girls.  More

THE LITTLE RASCALS SAVE THE DAY (Blu-ray combo)

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LittleRascalsSavecover

Grade: C
Entire family: No (only small children will like it)
2014, 98 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: C
Trailer

The original Little Rascals movies were comedy shorts created during the ‘20s and ‘30s. Like The Three Stooges shorts, The Little Rascals installments from Hal Roach Studios were driven by character interaction and antics, with the kind of exaggerated effects and outcomes that would drive TV comedies for many years to come.

You’ve seen them on countless shows: oven doors that pry open with monstrous, Blob-like balls of dough after the Rascals added too much yeast; suds that also grow out of control when too much soap is added to the laundry or bath; or the Rascals’ Rube Goldberg contraptions that almost always misfired—like a dog-washing machine that went loco. The plots were simple cases of misunderstanding, attempts to raise money, attempts to impress or behave, challenges to one of them, visiting relatives, or various family mini-crises.

When the original short comedies were made and shown in theaters, the Rascals appealed because these were Depression-era kids trying to make it as best they could, whether improvising with play or attempting to do the same thing with work. Often they tried to help the adults, and just as often things got messed up. People whose lives seemed to run the same gamut could identify, and the cute factor made viewers smile. It was the transposition of the adult world onto children’s.

Two decades later, when the Rascals were a fixture on American television, that connection of identification was gone, but kids from the ‘50s found it interesting to go back in time and see what it took to live through the Depression. The Rascals’ inventions were ingenious, and they were cute as the Dickens.

But the Rascals can’t seem to make the leap into the contemporary era. A 1994 attempt failed, and this one from Alex Zamm, whose previous films are mostly sequels, doesn’t fare any better. Small children might find their antics funny, but those who remember the Rascals will see hit-or-miss moments that either capture the spirit and characters or miss the mark entirely.   More