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HAIL, CAESAR! (Blu-ray combo)

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HailCaesarcoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2016, 106 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve often thought that there are two main types of comedy: joke- and gag-filled ones that go for nonstop laughs, whether high brow or low, and the more subtle offbeat satires that make you smile with recognition, whether dark or infused with the positive energy of nostalgia and homage. The latter is the preferred style of people like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, so don’t be misled by a Hail, Caesar! trailer that was edited to showcase all the laugh-out-loud moments in the film. People who see the term “comedy” and think ha-ha funny, be warned: Hail, Caesar! isn’t as much LOL as it is a gentle satire and loving tribute to the final years of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the genre films that were mass produced on big-studio back-lot sound stages.

That means, for families wondering if this PG-13 movie is just the ticket for home movie night, the answer is yes—but only if your kids are older and have an intellectual curiosity that delights in seeing flawed individuals making their way through a life that offers moments of absurdity. It’s a yes, too, if your children can appreciate period films and the stories they tell that differ so much from our contemporary world. Tonally, Hail, Caesar! is like Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel with less quirkiness, and visually it’s like watching movies made in the early 1950s. That makes for a winning combination unless your kid thinks old movies (and facsimiles like this) are boring.

As they did with Barton Fink (1991), Ethan and Joel Coen revisit the world of Hollywood unmasked, where left-leaning intellectuals and powerful desk jockeys are funny in themselves, as politicians were in Daumier’s time—so much so that the 19th-century political cartoonist had only to draw them as they were and trust that it would be enough to make his audience smile. Hail, Caesar! operates along the same lines.

HailCaesarscreen1Trailers and the title make Hail, Caesar! look more Roman epic than it is. This film isn’t about the making of a single picture, as we saw in Hitchcock or My Week with Marilyn. The plot follows a day in the life of studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures whose main job, it seems, is “fixer”—the troubleshooter who keeps the cameras and publicity juggernaut rolling. Eddie has been approached by Lockheed Corporation to take an executive position with them, but he clearly loves being a part of the movie business—enough to make him stay? That’s the $50,000 question.

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AGENT CODY BANKS (Blu-ray)

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AgentCodyBankscoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No, but darned close
2003, 102 min., Color
Olive Films
Rated PG for action violence, mild language, and some sexual content
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

If you’re expecting Agent Cody Banks to be a cheap knock-off of Spy Kids ratcheted up a notch for the hormone-heavy teen set, director Harald Zwart’s first action outing may surprise you. Banks, Cody Banks, has the gadgets, the girls, the villains, the chases, the pyrotechnics, and the outstanding special effects to keep pace with middle-of-the-pack Bond flicks. Except that the sexual innuendos are tame by comparison, and the only consummation is a good-bye kiss at the end. It is, after all, rated PG, though there are more than a few scenes of peril and one graphic body-eating scene reminiscent of the face-melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Besides action there’s plenty of humor in this film (a driver’s ed scene is classic), and the premise itself is fun. Parents who think their darlings are off at summer camp have no idea that a group of them are really being trained as junior secret agents. When a scientist (Martin Donovan) develops “nanobots,” microscopic robots that can be programmed to eat pretty much anything, the evil organization ERIS, led by the swaggeringly sinister Brinkman (Ian McShane), cons and bullies Dr. Connors into working for them. To find out what’s going on and to thwart them, the CIA assigns its first teen agent to get close to the scientist’s daughter, Natalie (Hilary Duff).

AgentCodyBanksscreenFans of the old TV series Malcolm in the Middle may be surprised at how natural TV star Frankie Muniz seems as a junior agent with one main problem: he doesn’t know how to talk to girls. As a teen Everyguy and reticent, almost painfully shy hero ala Timothy Dalton’s James Bond, he’s absolutely believable. But it was inspired casting to give The Mummy a part as Brinkman’s scarred and shaven henchman. As Molay, Arnold Vosloo is as memorably menacing as Jaws, Odd Job, or the best of the Bond villains. And Angie Harmon, the adult “handler”/partner who dresses retro in skin-tight clothes and acts unabashedly Emma Peel-like, has surprisingly good chemistry with Muniz. When the doctor disappears, then his daughter, it’s up to those unlikely partners to save them . . . and, of course, the world.

Zwart really manages to tap into the heart of teenage angst with Agent Cody Banks. Aside from the awkwardness around girls, there’s the importance of driving, encounters with bullies, chore-avoidance, the teasing siblings and friends, overly protective parents, and an ensemble of extras that makes us believe that world. Layer a spy plot on top of that, and you’ve got an entertaining blend of teen life and spy life, much more believable than the hard-to-fathom TV world of Scarecrow and Mrs. King, where a housewife was the agent and her kids the clueless ones. In Agent Cody Banks, the action never sags, and maybe that’s because Zwart was influenced by so many good films.

Astute viewers will spot homages to Dr. Strangelove, Austin Powers, Our Man Flint, Die Hard, Back to the Future, Spy Kids, and, of course, a number of the Bond films. It’s a good film for families who think their kids aren’t quite ready for Bond—even the tamer Sean Connery and Roger Moore films.

Language: Pretty mild, actually, with around a dozen lesser obscenities mouthed, often muted
Sex: An adult woman pulls the towel off a boy in a locker room, and the same woman covers herself when Cody tries on his X-ray glasses and stares at her chest
Violence: A man is eaten inside out by nanobots, a young boy is imperiled inside a runaway car, and there’s typical action violence (martial arts, fighting, explosions)
Adult situations: No smoking or drinking, which makes this ride Bond with training wheels
Takeaway: The Bond films never feel dated, and neither does Agent Cody Banks. It still plays well, and for that credit the special effects that compare favorably to today’s films and the fact that high school never seems to change.

ZOOLANDER NO. 2: THE MAGNUM EDITION (Blu-ray combo)

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Zoolander2coverGrade: C
Entire family: No
2016, 102 min., Color
Paramount
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS: X, DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Fifteen years after Zoolander (2001) registered somewhere around the B- range on the cult comedy scale, along comes the sequel that fans never thought would happen. Yet Zoolander No. 2 feels like an uninspired knockoff rushed into production to take advantage of the first film’s popularity.

Oh, there are a few wickedly funny gags—as when Justin Bieber is hunted down and machine-gunned to death by an assassin who, like a true dis-Belieber, keeps firing much longer than necessary. And Bieber, in cameo, provides the punch line: using his dying moment to Instagram a photo of himself. But for the most part the jokes fall flat, and even the comedy of character seems cramped by the script’s far-fetched plot and pedestrian dialogue.

The original Zoolander probably worked as well as it did because the outrageous characters were balanced by a satiric plot that at least made some sense. Egotistical male model Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) lost his top male model crown to the upstart Hansel (Owen Wilson), and lost his marbles in the process. Enter the evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell), who, teamed with modeling agent Maury Ballstein (Jerry Stiller), act on behalf of the entire fashion industry, which will collapse if they can no longer obtain cheap child labor in Malaysia. And that’s just what could happen after a new progressive Prime Minister wins election in that Asian country. They decide to program a brainless assassin, and who’s more vacuous, and, since his rapid decline, more ripe for manipulation than Derek Zoolander?

Zoolander No. 2 begins with both former top male models in seclusion following the collapse of a building that Derek built with “popsicle sticks and glue,” during which Derek’s beloved wife Matilda (Christine Taylor) was killed and Hansel, who had just been hanging out, was horribly, facially disfigured. Many years afterwards both receive a visit from Billy Zane, who Zoolander2screenpersuades them to attend a House of Atoz fashion show. For Derek, the added incentive is to resume living a productive life so he can regain custody of Derek Jr., whom he lost because of parental neglect (he couldn’t make spaghetti sauce—seriously). But someone is also systematically killing the world’s pop stars, and an apparent Interpol agent (Penélope Cruz as Valentina) asks for their help. Meanwhile, Mugatu has been in a special prison, and somehow Derek waltzes in and Mugatu waltzes out. And new models like the androgynous All (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the hipster Don Atari (Kyle Moody) have taken over the runway.

Stiller, who directed and produced this sequel, has a lot of friends, and almost all of them make an appearance. Yet even the cameos, which are normally a source of delight, seem to be more of a “huh” moment, again because the whole sequel seems to fall flat. Appearances by Katie Couric, Jim Lehrer, Christiane Amanpour, Jane Pauley, Justin Theroux, Mila Jovovich, Matt Lauer, Kristen Wiig, Susan Boyle, Andy Dick, Olivia Munn, Naomi Campbell, Ariana Grande, Willie Nelson, Katy Perry, Sting, M.C. Hammer, John Malkovich, Tommy Hilfiger, Kate Moss, and a host of fashion icons don’t seem to add any effervescence. And there’s no hilariously stupid-but-energetic scene to match the one from the first film, in which Derek’s equally dim-witted male model friends have a gasoline war at a gas station, frolicking as if for a photographer, only to explode when someone decides to light a match.

Is Zoolander No. 2 bad enough to take the second half of its title as an ironic appraisal? No, because there are still a few scenes that will make you smile, and if you’re a fan of the first film there’s still Wilson and Stiller in character that are fun to watch. But laugh-out-loud moments are harder to come by in the sequel, and for that you can thank the writers: Stiller, Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg. For whatever reason, their “wouldn’t it be funny if” gauges were malfunctioning.

Language: one muttered f-bomb and milder swear words (bitch, bastard, damn, hell, whore) used throughout
Sex: Talk of orgies and masturbation, a woman puts a man’s hands on her breasts
Violence: Bieber’s gun-down, several stabbings
Adult situations: In addition to what’s been mentioned, just a weird everybody’s pregnant in Hansel’s family scene
Takeaway: You’d think after 15 years they could come up with something a little funnier. As is, Zoolander No. 2 is really really really ridiculously average at best.

CAROL + 2: THE ORIGINAL QUEENS OF COMEDY (DVD)

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Carolplus2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes (Once Upon a Mattress)
1963-1972, 277 min., Color and black-and-white
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (Once would be G, the others PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

The Carol Burnett Show aired from 1967-78, making it one of the last yet longest running of the old vaudeville-inspired variety shows that combined song and dance with sketch comedy. Burnett broke into TV as a regular on The Garry Moore Show and in 1966 was given her own TV special. The network wanted her to ask Lucille Ball to guest star, as well as the Tony Award-winning Zero Mostel, who was currently appearing on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both said yes, and the result is Carol + 2, a one-hour special that all but set the format for The Carol Burnett Show to follow.

Carol + 2 is a part of television history, and for general fans it will be the gem on this DVD, which (sorry, Mr. Mostel) is being marketed as Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy. But it’s not the big draw for families with children. The reason to buy this DVD, if you have children, is the colorful TV movie version of the beloved Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” starring Burnett as the princess.

Burnett got her big break in 1959 as a 26 year old when she was cast by the legendary George Abbott to star in the off-Broadway production of a new show based on that fairy tale, and Once Upon a Mattress quickly moved on Broadway for a total run of 244 performances. Burnett earned a Tony nomination for her role as Princess Winifred the Woebegone, and as a TV personality she would star in three special televised productions of Once Upon a Mattress: in 1966, 1972, and 2005, the latter in which she would play the queen rather than the unconventional princess. The version on this DVD is the 1972 special, which is indeed special because Jack Gilford and Jane White reprise their original off-Broadway roles as King Sextimus and Queen Aggravain.

Carolplus2screen1Once Upon a Mattress is aimed at families, which is made clear from the beginning as Burnett reads and shares an abbreviated picture-book version of the fairy tale, after which we’re told we’re about to see the “adult version” of what really happened. Don’t be alarmed. Even your four year old can watch and enjoy this production, which sports outrageous and colorful costumes and lines that are delivered slowly enough that the smallest children won’t need much in the way of narrative summary. Once Upon a Mattress is an engaging 90-minute romp that showcases Burnett’s talents as a physical comedienne and also features verbal comedy, singing, and dancing.

The plot is simple, yet, like so many fairy tales, timeless. Queen Aggravain is so domineering that her husband, the king, has been rendered unable to speak. Communicating only in pantomime, he’s like the fifth Marx Brother. Their son, Prince Dauntless (Ken Berry), is also dominated by the queen, yet this mama’s boy, despite being in his mid-thirties, yearns to marry. Trouble is, he can only marry a true princess, and Mama devises a different test each time so devious that none of the princesses who visit the castle are ever able to pass. When a rain-drenched Princess Winifred (who prefers to be called “Fred”) turns up on the doorstep, the vetting process begins anew. Children will especially get a kick out of a “dance off” in which Fred instantly masters the silliest local folk dance and outlasts everyone else in the kingdom. The Queen tells the princess that she needs to get her sleep because the big test will be tomorrow, when in fact the test is whether she can detect a tiny pea placed underneath a stack of 20 mattresses. The “adult version” is that this happily-ever-after tale didn’t come about because Fred was indeed able to detect that pea. She had a little help. Bernadette Peters stars as Lady Larkin, while Carol Burnett Show regular Lyle Waggoner appears as Sir Studley, and Wally Cox (who gave voice to the TV cartoon Underdog) narrates as The Jester. Look closely and you’ll even see a cameo by Kermit the Frog. All in all, it’s a highly entertaining 90-minute TV musical special.

Carolplus2screen2Carol + 2 is geared more for adults than families, and while it’s great to see two of television’s First Ladies perform together and Zero Mostel is as wild-eyed and manic as ever, the sketches and performances are a mixed bag. The funniest might be the opening sketch featuring Burnett and Mostel as a married couple grown spiteful of each other who find out briefly that a mistake means they’re not married after all . . . and that changes the way they see each other. Close behind is “Goodbye Baby,” in which Ball plays an older sister who drops in for a visit on her way to her annual vacation. Burnett is the younger sister with a baby buggy in the park who insists that her sister not leave until she hears the little guy say “Goodbye.” Of course, as with all sketch comedy, things escalate, and while the ending might be a little far-fetched it’s the progression that’s fun to watch. Some of the other sketches are less successful, but Ball and Burnett sing a spirited song about “Chutzpah” as Hollywood charwomen, and this one-hour color special gives contemporary audiences a chance to see three legendary talents at work.

Thrown in as a bonus feature is the very first black-and-white Charwoman sketch that Burnett performed as part of her first special, An Evening with Carol Burnett. It was a character that, animated, would become part of her long-running TV show’s title credits. This 1963 sketch is more of a historical artifact than a family entertainment, though Burnett’s introduction to it, as with her introductions to the two TV specials included on this DVD, is nice to have.

THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 5 (DVD)

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WonderYears5coverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No, age 10 and older
1992-93, 721 min., Color
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Rated TV-PG for smoking, drinking, and some adult situations
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Season 5 opening
Amazon link

The Wonder Years is a rarity among TV sitcoms because it’s both original and authentic. You’ll find few familiar or recycled sitcom plots here, and a voiceover narration by an adult Kevin replaces a laugh track because in addition to being funny The Wonder Years also provides a poignant account of one boy’s coming of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The focus may be on Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), and the time period may be nostalgic for some and mythic for others who watch, but the situations, emotions, and outcomes are universal. It’s why the show still works, even though it aired from 1988-1993.

You don’t have to have seen the first four seasons to appreciate Season 5, which offers the added bonus for Friends fans of featuring David Schwimmer in four episodes as the serious boyfriend of Kevin’s sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo)—both of whom appear in bonus feature interviews.

Though The Wonder Years six-season arc charts the on-again-off-again relationship between childhood friends and sweethearts Kevin and Winnie (Danica McKellar), they’re on “break” Season 5, which finds a 15-year-old Kevin experimenting with other girls. Though the series remains as innocent as ever, this age pushes the writers into territory that includes never-used condoms hopefully carried in wallets. This season Kevin gets his driver’s license, but that episode is followed by one in which Grandpa Arnold needs to give up his license because of aging. The writers for this show have always looked for ways in which a single idea could resonate or how a simple concept could be expanded into the kind of complex situation that most often mirrors “real life.”

WonderYears5screenThis season Kevin crushes on a young smoker while on a family vacation, he endures a first day of high school that turns into his worst nightmare, he wrestles with a first job and first boss, he gets in the middle of a Grease-style high school couple’s problems, he and three friends talk an older boy into trying for his driver’s license so they can all go “cruising” for girls, he finds himself kissed by his older brother Wayne’s (Jason Hervey) girlfriend, he joins a losing soccer team, he tries to treat his father to a dinner that’s ruined by Dad’s (Dan Lauria) annoyance with his sister, he tries to get out of attending the annual Christmas party his family throws for the neighborhood, his family friendship with Paul’s (Josh Saviano) family is threatened when the latter comes into money, a popular black teacher gets in trouble for her unorthodox methods, Wayne decides to join the Army, Kevin becomes friends with the school’s basketball star, he stumbles through dates with different girls, he and friends plan to sneak into an R-rated movie, he hosts a poker party when his parents leave town for the weekend, and the whole family is drawn into Karen’s pre-marital drama. By season’s end, Kevin is thinking hard about getting back with Winnie.

This four-DVD set (single sided discs on plastic non-overlapping “pages”) features 24 episodes, and there isn’t a single one I’d rate lower than a B-. Most fall in the A- range, and this season the series, known for its vintage music, features music by The Archies, Frankie Avalon, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Joan Baez, Bread, James Brown, The Byrds, Canned Heat, Patsy Kline, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, The Platters, Linda Ronstadt, Sly & the Family Stone, Sonny & Cher, Ringo Starr, The Stylistics, Traffic, The Turtles, Muddy Waters, and Andy Williams.

THE SUM OF US (Blu-ray)

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SumofUscoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1994, 100 min., Color
Olive Films
Rated R for language, sex talk and sexual situations
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Russell Crowe’s first appearances in feature films came in 1990, when the New Zealander began working in the Australian film industry. Just two years later Crowe would be cast to star as a tough skinhead in Romper Stomper, while in 1994 he would show his sensitive side playing a dutiful gay son in The Sum of Us—the last Australian film he would make before taking his talents to Hollywood.

For that reason alone, The Sum of Us will be of interest to movie-lovers—though it would be an unusual and unlikely choice for family viewing, unless the family wanted to face issues like sexual orientation and elder care head-on. David Stevens adapted his own play for the screen, and he and directors Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling are absolutely clear about what message they want audiences to take away from the film: Life is short; love people for who they are, as they are not an aberration, but the sum of family members who passed on their DNA or helped shape them in other ways.

The Sum of Us is a study in contrasts. Widower Harry Mitchell (Jack Thompson, The Man from Snowy River) lives with his adult gay son, Jeff (Crowe), and Harry is the poster child for unconditional parental love. He not only accepts his son for who SumofUsscreenhe is, but he tries to understand what it means to be gay—yes, that includes going to clubs with his son—and he encourages his son to talk openly about his relationships. However, when Jeff brings his latest boyfriend-to-be home, Greg (John Polson) is shocked by Harry’s openness. Greg’s parents don’t even know he’s gay, and when they find out, the father wants nothing more to do with his son and the mother is so shocked into dumb silence that she can’t stop the father from kicking the young man out of the house. It’s clear which way is right, if for no other reason than Harry himself is a likeable, blunt force of nature. He loves life and makes it clear how much he loves his son and accepts him and everything he does. The film’s other main contrast comes from a woman that Harry meets through a dating service. Joyce (Deborah Kennedy) got divorced after her husband left her and she’s ready for love again. With Harry, she seems to have found it. But like Greg’s parents, she has a hard time dealing with homosexuality. Will it get in the way of her happiness and Harry’s? Will Greg and Jeff get together despite Greg’s discomfort over Harry’s full knowledge of what they do in the sack?

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RICH KIDS (1979) (Blu-ray)

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RichKidscoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
1979, 97 min., Color
Olive Films
Rated PG for mild language and sexual situations
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Clip
Amazon link

Though it’s decades old, Rich Kids ought to be the kind of film that would interest families with adolescent children. It stars two engaging young actors (Trini Alvarado, Jeremy Levy) who play upper-crust offspring of Upper West Side parents who are either divorced or in the process of divorcing. It’s a kids’ point-of-view film with very few scenes that don’t feature the young characters. And the focus—an opposite gender friendship that leads to some innocent experimentation—would seem to be timeless.

Unfortunately, the pacing of ‘70s films is a liability for many of today’s young viewers, who will also find this character-driven coming-of-age drama relatively plotless compared to today’s movies. Your not-so-rich kids might reach for their cell phones or hand-held gaming systems to “multitask” during this one.

RichKidsscreen1That’s too bad, because the acting is superb, and older viewers will delight in seeing a very young-looking 34-year-old John Lithgow as the father of 12-year-old Franny, who knows her father sneaks home at 5 a.m. every day to hide that he spends the night elsewhere. Precocious and left on her own a lot, Franny has somehow picked up a copy of The Joy of Sex, which she studies and keeps hidden behind her childhood books. Her mother (Kathryn Walker) has her own preoccupations, and because that includes another man we suspect that Franny’s racy reading isn’t just the result of sexual curiosity, but perhaps self-guided “homework” to try to understand what’s happening to her parents and their family unit.

At school Franny has bonded with Jamie, whose parents are already divorced and caught up in their new lives, leaving him on the periphery or bouncing back and forth between houses. The plot is simple, though it stretches the limits of belief. Franny wants to have a sleepover with Jamie and asks her workaholic mother when she’s half asleep. Later, when Mom learns that Jamie is a boy, she and her husband still allow her daughter to go to Jamie’s house because “she said it was okay.” Meanwhile, Jamie’s dad leaves the kids alone in his bachelor pad while he goes off in his sports car with his latest conquest, despite assuring Franny’s parents that the kids would be supervised. That’s the plot in a nutshell, and the illogical and irresponsible parental behavior that puts the two rich kids in a position to experiment may bother older viewers as much as the plotless narrative might turn off the kids. Still, the performances are worth watching, and if young viewers are warned in advance that Rich Kids is a slower-moving character-driven film they might be able to enjoy them and the read-between-the-lines nuances of the film.

Language: Some mild swearwords
Sex: Two children in a bubble bath, perhaps innocent, perhaps not; two children in pajamas play wrestling with each other and sexual tension
Violence: None
Adult situations: None, apart from talk of affairs and that bachelor pad
Takeaway: Wes Anderson did a better job of exploring similar territory in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), a PG-13 rated adventure-comedy-drama.

A ROYAL NIGHT OUT (DVD)

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RoyalNightOutcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2015, 97 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief drug elements
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

Here are four words you have to keep in mind when watching A Royal Night Out: “Inspired by True Events.” In Hollywood, that means a wholesale revision of the facts, if not a pure fiction. So this 2015 historical comedy-romance-adventure is truthful when it says it’s only inspired by the story of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret being allowed to venture incognito outside the gates of Buckingham Palace on V.E. Day to listen to their father’s speech from the other side of the fence. Twentieth Century Fox quite accurately describes it as “a fanciful tale about two real-life princesses who long to feel normal on the most extraordinary night of their lives.” While critics have taken this WWII-era film to task for its blatant historical inaccuracies and eyebrow-raising plot, I feel compelled to say, Relax. This isn’t The King’s Speech. It’s Adventures in Babysitting meets Roman Holiday.

RoyalNightOutscreen1The action takes place on a single night in which all of London is euphorically celebrating Hitler’s demise and the end of the war in Europe. After the king (Rupert Everett) countermand’s the queen (Emily Watson) and gives his daughters permission to leave the palace on the condition that they report back to him what the “real” people have to say about him and his speech, the sensible Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and her wild younger sister Margaret (Bel Powley) leave the gates with two military chaperones. They think they’re headed for a night on the town, but at the king’s orders the escorts drop them off at a stuffy hotel ballroom celebration with England’s upper-crust old fogies the only ones in attendance. But, tempted by women and liquor, the chaperones decide to leave their post at the closed door and watch from afar.

Of course Margaret manages to slip out first, and then Elizabeth, with the latter’s entire night spent trying to track down and take care of her wild but naive sister, who drinks her way across London with a group of naval officers that has no idea she’s the princess. To catch up with her RoyalNightOutscreen2Elizabeth boards a bus and, having no money for fare, is about to be tossed off when a young R.A.F. bomber seated next to her offers to pay. From that point on, he becomes her reluctant, unwilling, and finally devoted accomplice as the two of them continue their pursuit of Margaret . . . and of course draw closer to each other in the process.

A Royal Night Out is fast-paced fun if, like the princesses, you allow yourself to get swept up in the manic euphoria of one of history’s biggest celebrations. Director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited) and his set and costume designers do a fine job of selling the period atmosphere, and the cast is perfectly charming. It’s the kind of film that princess-crazy daughters would love, if their own kings and queens would let them watch. Be aware, though, that there’s celebratory drinking, drunkenness, some brawling, hookers, opium dens, and overly aggressive military men.

Language: Surprisingly little, and when it’s used it’s British
Sex: One topless woman with pasties is shown the background, a man sleeps between two women, and another man, though fully clothed, is in a coital position
Violence: Several fistfights
Adult situations: A den of iniquity, hookers, and lecherous behavior
Takeaways: Surprisingly fun. Hollywood loves to project the longing that royalty has for a “normal” life, but I’d bet it’s nothing compared to the longing that “normal” people have for leading a life of leisure and luxury. Just sayin’.

DORIS DAY AND ROCK HUDSON ROMANTIC COMEDY COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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DayHudsoncoverGrade:  B+
Entire family: No
1959-64, 310 min., Color
Universal
Not Rated (Would be PG-13 for drinking, smoking, and innuendo)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1, 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Trailer (Pillow Talk)
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Back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the romantic comedy was synonymous with two names: Doris Kapplehoff and Roy Sherer Jr., better known to audiences as Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Though the pair only made three films—Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers, all included on this Doris Day and Rock Hudson Romantic Comedy Collection—they helped define the genre for a generation.

Are the films dated? Of course. These are sex romps without the sex, innuendo without the indecency. One of the funniest quips ever made about Doris Day came from comedian-pianist Oscar Levant, who remarked, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” Her onscreen performance was virginal, even in Send Me No Flowers, when she and Hudson played a married couple. The writers and directors changed, but all three films followed a tradition that dates back to Shakespeare by incorporating double entendre, confusion over disguises, mistaken identities, or misunderstandings, and minor characters whose job it is to prod and push the main characters toward a chaotic quasi-screwball climax. The colors are deliciously oversaturated compared to today’s color films, and the lifestyles and the moral values are pure ‘50s. Yet, as my teenage son said—and he gave all three films high marks for entertainment value—“These are great!”

Pillow Talk (1959) A-
DayHudsonscreen1The one that started it all is still the best, but the concept might take some explaining. An interior decorator (Day) who shares a party line with a womanizing songwriter (Hudson) ends up being romanced by him as he pretends to be a shy Texan, first to have fun at her expense, and then to seduce her. But of course love and decency win out. As Brad begins to fall for her and realizes he has no chance with her if she finds out his true identity, the plot twists even more so.

It helps to know that in the age of rotary dial phones there were only so many private phone lines available. As a result, many people had to share a line—a party line—and sometimes work out use patterns between them, while others opted for the party line to save money.

The script is clever and all of the actors have a lot of fun with it. Tony Randall is hilarious as a rich client of Day’s who also happens to know Hudson’s character and serves as his confidante, while Thelma Ritter plays Day’s maid, the obligatory hungover heavy drinker that turns up in almost every ‘50s and ‘60s comedy. TV’s Johnny Yuma, The Rebel, appears as an all-hands college boy, while Hayden Rorke (who played Dr. Bellows on TV’s Bewitched) also has a small role. In 2009 Pillow Talk made it into the National Film Registry because of its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.”

Lover Come Back (1961) B+
The formula returns in this follow-up, with Day and Hudson playing rival Madison Ave. ad executives competing for accounts. Always the wholesome one, she pitches ideas, while he uses women and booze to DayHudsonscreen2win accounts and has plenty of “conquests” himself. To keep one of them from going to the ethics board he invents a product (VIP) and keeps her in line by telling her he’ll make her the VIP girl. When Day’s character gets wind of the new product, she tries to find out more about it and goes to a Nobel Prize-winning chemists that she suspects her competitor has hired. Here’s where the mistaken identity comes in: Day walks in just as the chemist went into the back room, leaving Hudson in his lab coat. And Hudson decides to play the part, again to have some fun at her expense and to keep her occupied so she can’t cause him any trouble.

The bonus for fans of classic TV is that Donna Douglas (Ellie Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies) appears as the secretary of the CEO (Tony Randall again) at the firm Hudson’s character works for, while Ann B. Davis (Alice on The Brady Bunch) plays Day’s secretary, and other familiar faces also turn up, like Joe Flynn (McHale’s Navy) and Jack Albertson (Chico & the Man). Lover Come Back is slightly more risqué (though nothing is shown) insomuch as the two main characters wake up in bed together after a wild party. There’s more drinking and smoking in this one than in the first, but the mistaken identity formula works just as well, and in the end, it’s awfully tame compared to today’s movies, yet just as entertaining.

Send Me No Flowers (1964) B+
DayHudsonscreen3Universal decided to switch it up for the third outing. In this one, Hudson plays a hypochondriac who, after overhearing his doctor talk about the x-rays of a dying man, thinks he has only two weeks to live. His first thought is, of course, for his wife, and after talking to his best friend and neighbor (Tony Randall) he decides the best thing to do is to try to find another husband for her, so she won’t be all alone after he’s gone.

There are plenty of twists and allusions in this one, with TV’s Cheyenne (Clint Walker) riding on a horse to save Day from a runaway golf cart. It turns out that he’s her old college sweetheart, and a little too familiar with her for the jealous Hudson, who nonetheless reminds himself that he is, after all, looking for a replacement husband. Norman Jewison (Moonstruck, Fiddler on the Roof) directed this one, which also offers a fun amount of familiar faces. The acerbic Paul Lynde plays a cemetery director, while veteran character actor Edward Andrews (who guest starred in so many TV sitcoms it’s hard to name them all) also appears.

All three of these films share the same winning formula, and while there are dated elements, the core ingredients are timeless. Families with older teenage children should enjoy these together. They’d probably merit a PG-13 rating today, for their use of tobacco and alcohol and sexual innuendo—though again, it all seems so tame compared to today’s movies. But all three of these romantic comedies still work. Fans might hope that the next “collection” Universal releases will be the Doris Day and James Garner Romantic Comedy Collection. Though the pair only did two films together (The Thrill of It All, Move Over Darling) they’re as much fun as the Day-Hudson romps.