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KUNG FU PANDA 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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KungFuPanda3coverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 95 min., Color
DreamWorks/20th Century Fox
Rated PG for martial arts action and some rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

The Blu-ray box proclaims that Kung Fu Panda 3 is “Certified Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 6.8/10 and 126 critics giving it a “fresh” rating, while 20 pronounced it “rotten.”

Fresh, rotten. With this film it’s splitting hairs.

Tomatometer critics gave Kung Fu Panda 2 an average rating of 6.9, and the original Kung Fu Panda earned an average rating of 7.2. I thought both were better than that, but while I enjoyed and found myself instantly invested in them, that wasn’t the case with the third. In the early going I was squirming like a three year old, wondering when #3 was finally going to find it’s footing and engage the audience. That’s a shame, considering all the high-powered voice talents in this animated sequel— among them, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Kate Hudson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Wayne Knight.

The opening sequence is all action and no context, and the first 29 minutes are a narrative mish-mash. Only after Kung Fu Panda master Po (voiced by Jack Black) gets a surprise visit from his biological father (Bryan Cranston) does the film finally find its trajectory so you can finally KungFuPanda3screen1start to care. Apparently discovering in previous films that he’s the Dragon Warrior isn’t enough. In this animated adventure Po still has an identity crisis when Master Shifu (Hoffman) tells him there’s more to identity that Kung Fu. He has to learn who is IS. So when his real dad shows up and tells him he will teach him the secrets if he’ll return with him to the hidden village of the pandas (which Po thought were all dead), Master Shifu agrees, and Po’s adoptive duck father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), reluctantly consents.

The new bull villain is almost Marvelesque, but the villains in the first two movies made more sense. In Kung Fu Panda (2008), a former pupil of turtle Master Oogway who chose the dark side had escaped from prison and the powerful leopard was intent on taking his revenge out on the entire Valley of Peace. In Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), a prequel, an evil peacock named Lord Shen tried to exterminate the panda population in order to negate a prophecy that a panda warrior would be his undoing. Later Po and the Furious Five Kung Fu Masters set out to stop Lord Shen from unleashing a powerful weapon that would make him the new ruler of China.

KungFuPanda3screen2Both of those scenarios were more instantly understandable than what we’re given in the third installment. Kai is an old friend of Master Oogway, and together they apparently healed the secret village of pandas after it was attacked by Lord Shen. The pandas, in return, taught the two how to use Qi. Oogway apparently defeated Kai and banished him to the spirit realm, where, confusingly, a deceased Oogway also floats around among unanchored mountains and Monument Valley formations. Meanwhile, Kai escapes from the spirit world and, using Qi, defeats the Kung Fu masters one by one and obtains their essences, their Qi, which he hangs from his belt like shrunken heads that he then can unleash like super zombies of sorts to do his bidding.

Then we get a little Magnificent Seven as Po and his father and his stowaway adoptive father reach the secret valley and learn that Kai is headed there. In really short order—not much longer than the span of a montage—Po starts to teach the panda peasants how to be Kung Fu masters, and the great defense battle is on. How much you like Kung Fu Panda 3 will depend on how much you’re willing to overlook those first 29 minutes and just watch the film and not think too much about questions and explanations.

Typically it’s adults who want more logic and character development rather than simply colorful action, cutesy characters, and physical humor. As a result, though the first two Kung Fu Panda movies were bona fide family movie night options for the everyone, this one may appeal mostly to the kids, unless you just sit back and enjoy the animation and Blu-ray quality, which is superb. The Rotten Tomatoes critics gave Kung Fu Panda 3 a 6.8, which is just below B range. It’s a B-/C+ on the Family Home Theater scale, and whether you flip that or not, it’s still the weakest entry in the trilogy.

Language: n/a
Sex: Nothing except for an androgynous panda who may be a transvestite
Violence: Everybody was Kung Fu fighting
Adult situations: n/a
Takeaway: Funny how we have idioms to cover everything: third time’s the charm or three strikes and you’re out; after this third film, I’m just not seeing where this franchise could possibly go

MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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MyBigFatGreekWedding2coverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: No, but darned close
2016, 94 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is cute enough, but as with so many sequels there seems to be a play-it-safe mentality at work: Hit those referential touchstones that remind viewers of the first film, and rely on a familiar plot that feels like comfort food.

The math doesn’t quite work out, but 14 years after longhaired Anglo Ian (John Corbett) wooed shy and awkward Toula (Nia MyBigFatGreekWedding2screen1Vardalos) away from her you-must-marry-a-Greek family, the pair has a 17-year-old daughter named Paris (Elena Kampouris) who’s facing similar pressures. But that plot is as lukewarm as microwaved food, and it turns out to undercooked.

The main plot centers on the patriarch and owner of the Dancing Zorba Restaurant, where Toula now works. Gus (Michael Constantine) notices all these years later that his and wife Maria’s (Lainie Kazan) marriage certificate isn’t signed . . . meaning they’re not legally married. And the movie tracks the tension between them after they feel themselves suddenly “single.” So basically screenwriter Vardalos turned to a standard sitcom plot, rather than trusting that a new generational culture clash could shoulder the load again.

As a result, this much-awaited 2016 sequel isn’t as entertaining as the 2002 original, but it is, as I said, cute enough. For that, credit the characters that Vardalos created—characters based on her own life. The patriarch, Gus, still thinks of Windex as a panacea, still insists the Greeks invented pretty much everything, and still seems only to tolerate his MyBigFatGreekWedding2screen2non-Greek son-in-law at best. The closeness of the Portokalos family is both celebrated and gently ridiculed to the point where they become a collective character and running joke. They’re fun to watch. Are they also a bit much? Well, in all honesty, the overly familiar main plot wears on you more than they do. I mean, we’ve seen it before on TV shows like I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gilligan’s Island, Happy Days, Scrubs, and more recently Good Luck Charlie. That’s how familiar it is. And a second underdeveloped sideplot about the romance going out of Toula and Ian’s life doesn’t help much.

So you walk away from My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 having been entertained by the characters and the competent screenplay, but thinking it could have had more laugh-out-loud moments and been more original. Such is life in Sequel Land. But you know what? Our family still liked it enough to put it on the shelf so we can watch it again some night.

Language: None at all
Sex: One brief aborted lovemaking session in a car
Violence: None—unless you call getting hit by a ball violent
Adult situations: Male genitals are referred to as “the plucky” and a teen is told to hurry and marry before her eggs dry up; drinking and one episode of drunkenness
Takeaway: Some PG-13 films could be rated R; this one could and maybe should have been PG, because it’s really pretty innocent

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (Blu-ray)

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MidnightSpecialcoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2016, 112 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and action
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

Midnight Special is a strange movie about a boy with strange powers that are never fully explained, even as the film tries to transcend its limitations to enter Steven Spielberg territory toward the second half.

In giving us a different kind of Close Encounter with a sorta-human version of E.T., writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) hovers over Sixth Sense territory as well. Yet, as much as you keep watching with interest, this 2016 sci-fi drama is uneven and kinda cops out when it comes to explanations.

You can picture Nichols’ mind at work: Okay, start with a young boy who has special powers (Jaeden Lieberher)—a boy who was taken from his parents and raised for two years by the leader of a religious cult (Sam Shepard) that thinks he’s the key to life itself. MidnightSpecialscreen1Have them be investigated by the FBI, then have his parents decide they want to rescue him, and, with the help of his best friend, have Dad (Michael Shannon) grab the kid and hits the road. Of course the kid’s powers have to be cool—Light shooting from his hands? Ability to unleash a light attack on people who would harm them?—and then bring in some alien or alternate universe elements to keep viewers guessing. But mostly run with a chase story and lean heavily on Shannon, Joel Edgerton, and Kirsten Dunst to pull off the roles of parents and friend on the run, trusting that viewers will go along for the ride and not ask too many questions.

As I watched this PG-13 rated film with my son, I found myself asking plenty of questions, starting with the title. “Midnight Special” is a traditional American folk song about a train from Houston whose light would shine on a prisoner’s cell as it passed every evening. If you know that and think about it, the title fits. But MidnightSpecialscreen2if you’re not getting the allusion, the title probably makes no sense. The pacing also makes no sense. You’ll be chugging along at a slow pace with not much happening and then WHAM! Something freaky or strange happens to make you go, huh? or wow! Sometimes it’s violence. Sometimes it’s violence that reminds you of cartoons, because characters that seem to get shot point blank just bounce up as if nothing happened. Sometimes it’s a new sci-fi wrinkle. But it’s never character development (there’s no arc to follow), and you don’t really get much in the way of why any of this is really happening. That misguided urge to understate is the film’s chief weakness.

Maybe in some perverse way it’s also the reason why Midnight Special holds your interest as much as it does. You keep watching, hoping to piece everything together. In the end, how much you enjoy this movie may be tied to how much you’re willing to accept the information you’re given and not demand more than that. But the actors also do their part to keep you hanging on, with Shannon especially turning in a fine performance. Star Wars fans will also enjoy watching Adam Driver leave the Dark Side to play a lead investigator.

Midnight Special depends on the element of surprise, so that’s all I’m going to say. I thought it was slightly better than average, but my teenage son was more into it . . . enough to shelve it and watch it again sometime.

Language: No F-words, and less than a handful of others
Sex: None
Violence: People are shot point blank, involved in violent car crashes, and bloodied
Adult situations: Nothing besides the above, plus intense pursuit
Takeaway: Sci-fi thrillers walk a fine line between telling too much and revealing too little, and you’ll either walk away from this shrugging, or you’ll be fascinated enough by the film’s unique elements to give it thumbs up

EDDIE THE EAGLE (Blu-ray combo)

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EddietheEaglecoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No, but . . . .
2016, 106 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive elements, partial nudity, and smoking
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Most of the time you can’t trust the glowing blurbs on Blu-ray and DVD boxes, but USA Today’s description of Eddie the Eagle as “delightfully feel-good” pretty much sums it up. And you don’t have to be a sports nut to enjoy this 2016 comedy-drama.

Eddie the Eagle is the latest sports biopic to celebrate the underdog who wins despite losing. It’s a movie that will remind you a lot of Cool Runnings, which told the story of a group of Jamaicans determined to enter the Olympic bobsled competition with the help of a has-been coach. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if writer Simon Kelton and director Dexter Fletcher had that 1993 Disney biopic in mind when they added a disgraced flask-carrying coach to the otherwise mostly true story of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, the Brit who was determined to represent his country in the Olympics no matter what sport, and who first took up ski jumping in his early ‘20s. Most competitors had been training since the age of six, so how is that possible? Because Great Britain hadn’t had an Olympic ski jumper since 1929, and all Eddie had to do to qualify for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary was to make a single minimum jump.

If it sounds like a sports film with no competition (and therefore, no interest), far from it. Eddie has plenty of obstacles to overcome. He may have boundless energy, enthusiasm, and dedication, but his athletic ability is
EddietheEaglescreenslightly above average, at best. Mostly, he’s competing against his own limitations, but there are subplots as well. After trying unsuccessfully to make the British Olympic downhill ski team, he thought he found the perfect loophole to allow him to fulfill his dream of competing in the Olympics. But the British Olympic Committee had ideas of their own. Then Eddie thought the battle would end after he was accepted as an Olympic participant, but next came a wave of negative reactions from “legitimate” ski jumpers. Even when he made it to Calgary, there was still the reaction from his unsupportive father to contend with.

Taking a page out of Billy Elliot, the filmmakers concoct a parallel conflict with a disapproving dad who wants his son to face facts and get a legitimate, respectable, paying job. Like Billy, whose dream was to dance rather than box, Eddie is obviously hurt by the lack of support, but undeterred. What makes Eddie such a likeable hero is that he just keeps going, eyes on the prize. While others around him drink, his beverage of choice is milk. While others have full social lives, Eddie has only a fellow outcast—the coach (Hugh Jackman) who is at first reluctant to take him on.

The real Eddie the Eagle was called “Mr. Magoo” by some journalists, and the way that Taron Egerton plays him you can’t tell whether Eddie is in some way disabled or if he’s just a simple man whose I.Q. isn’t the highest. He’s like the kid with glasses who was always picked on at school, or the mutt you rescue rather than entering him in a dog show. But in a world where winning is narrowly defined and you have people like Dance Moms’ Abby Lee Miller complaining that second place is the first loser, Eddie Edwards is a refreshing example of pursuing a dream that’s scaled down. He doesn’t dream of winning the Olympics. He dreams of participating at that level, and in following that dream he’s as inspiring as this biopic is entertaining.

The film may be rated PG-13, but I think children as young as 10 would enjoy this film, since the adult elements are understated. And the 7.1 soundtrack and glorious HD make you feel as if you’re experiencing it right there.

Language: A few mild swearwords and that’s it
Sex: The coach uses a lovemaking analogy to get his pupil to understand that at the moment of liftoff it’s corresponds to orgasm; very brief glimpse of male backside
Violence: Real footage of wicked wipe-outs are shown
Adult situations: Some smoking and drinking, with one instance where the other jumpers get Eddie intoxicated
Takeaway: Like Hoosiers and Cool Runnings, this is one underdog story that should get a lot of replay because the writing is crisp, the performances are engaging, and there are some good messages for youngsters

THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN (Blu-ray)

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UnsinkableMollyBrowncoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
1964, 135 min., Color
Warner Archive Collection
Not rated (would be PG for some adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Trailer
Amazon link

You know the movie that you remember liking enough as a child to want to share it with your family, but then you fire up the popcorn popper and after 15 minutes none of them wants to watch it with you?

The Unsinkable Molly Brown is that kind of movie. As you view it again, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, you can feel their pain. Maybe years ago you overlooked the flaws because of a few catchy songs and a warm-hearted story that offered a happy tear-jerking payoff. But watching it again through their eyes, you can certainly understand why the family left the TV room one-by-one.

Despite her energy and a Best Actress Oscar nomination, Debbie Reynolds is frankly annoying as Molly Brown, the real historical character that inspired a 1960 Broadway musical and this 1964 film adaptation. She has a beautiful voice, but in The Unsinkable Molly Brown she doesn’t sing as much as she shouts or growls like an angry animal, and her portrayal of a poor uneducated Colorado tomboy will remind some families of Shelly Winters’ performance as the hillbilly mother in Disney’s animated live-action Pete’s Dragon. She’s brassy and she’s grating, so blustery that Winnie the Pooh would never even peek his head out of his hollow-log home if she were out there storming about.

In this film, Molly is the vinegar to Jonny Brown’s oil, but while singer Harv Presnell is so gosh-darned nice as the miner who would do anything for his Molly that it’s impossible for audiences not to like him, his singing is another story. Presnell, the lone holdover from the Broadway cast, is terrific, but the actor’s stand-and-belt operatic style can seem overwrought to contemporary viewers—something that’s not helped at all by two underwhelming songs he’s given, one of which (“Colorado, My Home”) is remarkably weak considering it came from Meredith Wilson (The Music Man).

The real Margaret Brown was raised dirt-poor in Leadville in a two-room log cabin. In actuality she met and married J.J. Brown, an equally poor man who became rich after his engineering led to a rich strike for his employer and he was given 12,500 shares of stock and also made a director on the mining company board. In reality, they bought a mansion in Denver and Margaret became socially active in the Denver Woman’s Club. The “unsinkable” tag came after she was already separated from J.J. and Mrs. Brown was returning from France aboard a new luxury ship—the Titanic. She gained notoriety after passengers told the press how she helped others into lifeboats and tried to convince the crew in her own to return to the site to look for more survivors.

UnsinkableMollyBrownscreenThat’s a great story in itself, isn’t it? But for the Broadway version Richard Morris made a few key changes. In the play and in this film, JJ is a poor miner who strikes it rich not once but twice, and Molly is the unrefined new-money ladder-climber desperate to be accepted into Denver society. Responsible for her rejection is neighbor Gladys McGraw (Audrey Christie), who is so concerned about social acceptance that she keeps her unrefined mother, Buttercup (Hermoine Baddeley), away from her circle of friends and the charity galas she throws.

The first 30 minutes of The Unsinkable Molly Brown can be rough, because it’s all Molly and her adoptive Pa (Ed Begley) drinking and singing and her “wrassling” with brothers and getting a job in a saloon. It’s like watching the hillbilly channel. The next 20 minutes are all about her spurning JJ’s advances until he finally wears her down. It’s when the two move to Denver and Molly becomes slightly less grating that interest picks up, and things get even more interesting when JJ and Molly go to Europe and meet all manner of royalty.

Molly yearns to be something she’s not, and she places such a premium on social acceptance that she would jeopardize her marriage to the one man who really loves her. And she’s not above using people. So really, her character isn’t exactly lovable. But while you do feel for her, it’s JJ who earns your sympathy. The film reaches its moral plateau at a ball where JJ welcomes their old unrefined friends from Leadville with a song (“He’s My Friend”) that Molly eventually embraces. It’s one of three songs that you’ll have in your head for days afterwards.

Is there anything here that families can’t see? Not really. It’s all pretty wholesome, and those who like musicals will still appreciate The Unsinkable Molly Brown. But Reynolds’ performance might be a bit too much for the younger generation to take.

Language: Euphemistic cussing, mostly
Sex: Women dressed like prostitutes do a “dance off” with Molly, JJ watches Molly dress, and there’s talk of Molly’s wedding night
Adult situations: Drinking and brawling, including the catchy song “Belly Up, Belly Up to the Bar Boys”
Takeaway: Critics called The Unsinkable Molly Brown big and bold and brassy when it was first released, and it’s still all that . . . though now those adjectives have a more negative connotation

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (Blu-ray)

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PrideandPrejudiceandZombiescoverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2016, 107 min., Color
Sony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for zombie violence, action and brief suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

While watching Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, our college freshman groused that you can’t introduce the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and then not do much with it. “D for dumb” was the grade he said he’d give the film. Our teenage daughter, who’s more the target audience, said she thought it was a B but admitted it wasn’t as good as she had hoped. My wife, a big Jane Austen fan, agreed. She liked that, minus the zombie sequences, the historical drama stayed fairly close to the book, but she didn’t think this particular Darcy (Sam Riley) charismatic enough to sell the romantic angle. As for me, I found myself less impressed by this variation on a theme than I was by the Bollywood version, Bride & Prejudice.

If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies disappoints—and my family wasn’t alone, given that only 42 percent of Rotten Tomatometer critics liked the film—let me suggest one main reason why. It’s a romance and it’s an action-horror film, and sometimes one genre gets in the way of the other. The concept works against itself.

PrideandPrejudiceandZombiesscreen1Though the zombie premise is woven into the plot, the actual insertion of zombie scenes can sometimes feel inorganic or heavy-handed. Hearing myself say that I have to chuckle: of course when you insert battles with zombies they’re going to be jarringly head-snapping (sometimes quite literally). But it does take away from any romantic simmer, and the dramatic, romantic interludes are just enough to make people squirm and wish for more zombie action. I think my daughter nailed it when she said the characters and the historical treatment were good, but the writers could have done more with the plot and included more action. As much as she loves romance, she’s a fan of shows like Supernatural, and the action-violence in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is both tame and minimal by comparison. Disappointing, in other words.

The novel by Seth Grahame-Smith was a parody, but the comic elements seem diminished in this film adaptation from director Burr Steers. In it, Darcy is like a 19th-century version of Homeland Security. In the opening scene, he visits a rich family to expose a rumored, recently infected zombie that, if unchecked, might start another mass outbreak. Meanwhile, Mr. Bennet (the incomparable Charles Dance) sends his daughters to China to learn martial arts and better defend themselves against those pesky zombies, who seem to have no social graces—turning horseback rides and elegant balls into tests of survival.

PrideandPrejudiceandZombiesscreen2You’ll probably need to watch this film several times to grasp an appreciation of the IZS (Integrated Zombie Structure), which includes a trip to the In-Between zone outside of walled London in which zombies feed on pig brains and are somehow kept from going completely savage. Ala Austen there are proposals and good and bad manners. The handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) is here, of course, as is Parson Collins (Matt Smith), himself a suitor who indeed “settles” after being turned down by his first choice. And a soldier named Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston) turns up with a story about Mr. Darcy that he’s reluctant (but dying) to tell. And in this version, Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine, is a famous zombie killer who wears an eye patch and seems resistant to any idea of a brokered peace with zombies that haven’t gone savage. Got that?

As the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, Lily James (Cinderella) charms not only all the suitors but teenage girls who will recognize in her that rare combination of natural behavior and poise. Without her, this film would languish a lot more in the IZS.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies took in a worldwide gross of just $16 million against a reported $28 million production budget, despite plenty of advertising and social media buzz. It could be that Austen fans expect romance to be at the core of this classic, no matter what the permutation, and zombies ate away a little too much of that chest-heaving unrequited love.

Language: n/a
Sex: Apart from heaving bosoms (a Victorian trope), there’s one instance where a man and woman tear at each other’s clothes
Violence: A woman’s head is shot off, heads explode, a man’s hand is slashed off, people are stabbed, and there’s plenty of other zombie violence
Adult situations: Lots of pus and decomposing flesh and lots of wine-drinking, once to intoxication
Takeaway: Could have been funnier, could have been more romantic, and could have had more zombie action to satisfy those with a craving . . . .

THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (Blu-ray)

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TheyWereExpendablecoverGrade: B+/B
Entire family: No
1945, 135 min., Black-and-white
Warner Archive Collection
Not rated (would be PG for war action and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

War movies probably have more permutations than any other genre, but the most fascinating and family-friendly ones are probably those that were made during WWII when the Office of War Information had to approve content. Most of them were patriotic films aimed at boosting recruitment or morale back home, and as a result probably fewer than a dozen are good enough to entertain today. Some of the best? Wake Island (1942), Action in the North Atlantic, Bataan, Destination Tokyo, Guadalcanal Diary, and So Proudly We Hail! (1943), as well as Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), Objective, Burma!, Pride of the Marines, and They Were Expendable (1945).

The latter—a black-and-white John Ford tribute to the men who served on America’s flimsy plywood PT-Boats in the Pacific—stars Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed in a film that tries to capture not just the heroism of the men who fight, but also the boredom and frustration. What makes They Were Expendable doubly interesting is that it details the mostly true story of two officers who were trying to prove the worth of these Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons, as they were initially called, when they were still an experimental dream like the 1807 steamboat people called “Fulton’s Folly.”

TheyWereExpendablescreen1There are battles in these wartime films, but the violence is dimmed while the spotlight is on service and the day-to-day life of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and nurses. People back home knew their loved ones were at war and that they probably saw action. Did they want to see graphic killing? No, but they did want to get some sense of what life in the military was like and what their loved ones were going through so far from homes, families, and sweethearts. And Ford’s tribute is one of the most authentic from the era.

The stars are fine in their roles, but really it’s the story that holds our attention—though it’s a long one (135 min.). The action picks up in the Philippines, where the military learns that Pearl Harbor has just been attacked. Everyone is given orders to do their part to stop the advance of the Japanese fleet, except for the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron, which is given the token assignment of messenger and transport duty. The Navy brass can’t see value in the boats, though that doesn’t stop Lt. John Brickley (Montgomery) and Lt. Rusty Ryan (Wayne) from pushing. But even as the Japanese keep taking over more territory, it’s a fight for the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons just to get into the fight.

TheyWereExpendablescreen2PT-Boats became famous because of former Pres. John F. Kennedy, whose story is told in the movie PT-109 starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Culp. Watch this black-and-white movie first and then the color 1963 film for a decent double feature. In They Were Expendable Ford is careful to add plenty of detail about life on the small, fast plywood boats that were equipped with machine guns to battle aircraft and torpedoes to launch from the deck at heavier ships. We see the crew patching it up, dealing with boring assignments, and yes, mixing it up with the enemy. Eventually the boats’ value was proven: their small size made them a small target, and their speed and maneuverability enabled them to get in close enough to launch torpedoes and then get to safety.

War or not, the core story is one that everyone—even children—can identify with. Children’s books are full of characters who are disregarded because they’re too small, too insignificant, or too something to succeed. In the nautical vein, there’s Tuffy the Tugboat, the children’s book hero who is scoffed at by the boats who have bigger and more important jobs to do, until one day Tuffy is the only one with the skill set to save the day. That archetype is at work here too, while Reed provides a romantic interest that’s wholesome as can be and secondary to her own heroics as a nurse stationed at Manila and Bataan hospitals. The weepy-eyed sentimentality that creeps into Ford films is here too, but thankfully it’s limited. Still, young viewers not familiar with history might raise their eyebrows when “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is sung while we glimpse an actor meant to be Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And if they don’t know about his famous “I shall return” promise made to the people of the Philippines as he himself fled to safety, that’s the period of history encompassed by Ford’s mostly fascinating and sometimes stirring film.

Language: Mild swearwords occasionally used
Sex: Nothing at all, wholesome as can be
Violence: No blood or gore or glorifying violence, but boats are blown up and battles are waged
Adult situations: Some drinking and smoking
Takeaway: War movies like Inglorious Basterds and Fury try to be edgy and shocking and rattle viewers out of their complacency; war movies like They Were Expendable look to tell a story that will enlighten and inspire as much as the biopics that came out of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and They Were Expendable is among the best of that type

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (Blu-ray)

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HereComesMrJordancoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: No
1941, 91 min., Black-and-white
Criterion Collection
Not rated (would be PG for mild violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Five years before apprentice angel Clarence would try to convince George Bailey that It’s a Wonderful Life, chief angel Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) tried to make amends when an underling mistakenly snatched a prizefighter 51 years before he was supposed to die.

If there’s a more outlandish premise behind a Hollywood comedy, I haven’t come across it. Robert Montgomery (whose daughter, Elizabeth, would star in a supernatural comedy of her own 23 years later—TV’s Bewitched) is cast as boxer Joe Pendleton, whose hobbies are playing the saxophone (badly) and flying his private plane. It’s the latter that gets him into trouble, and when a prickly new angel (Edward Everett Horton) plucks him from the plane before a crash, thinking to spare him the final pain, it turns out that the boxer would really have survived. In heaven, Mr. Jordan instructs the new angel to return Joe to his body. That’s when things get outrageously complicated. It turns out that Joe’s fight manager, Max Corkle (James Gleason), had his body quickly cremated, so there’s no body for him to return to. Mr. Jordan’s solution: find him a suitable body from someone slated to die soon.

If it were a little more fast-paced and the dialogue overlapping, Here Comes Mr. Jordan would play like a screwball comedy. As is, there are plenty of scenes that feel absurdist enough to qualify, and just as much in the way of clever writing. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a surprisingly solid fantasy-comedy-romance that still entertains, despite some cheesy cloud scenes featuring an airplane transporting people to their final destinations.

HereComesMrJordanscreenMontgomery is amiable enough as Joe, a plain-talking guy set on becoming heavyweight champion of the world. He isn’t about to let some heavenly mistake get in the way of his destiny, and he isn’t about to accept any body that isn’t “in the pink.” But the film turns most interesting when Mr. Jordan convinces Joe to inhabit the body of a crooked millionaire whose wife (Rita Johnson) and private secretary (John Emery) have just drugged and drowned him in his bathtub. It adds a new wrinkle to a familiar genre, and how fun is it to see the two murderers’ faces when Joe-as-Farnsworth walks out of that bathroom? But that’s only the beginning. Complicating Joe’s drive for a championship body is the instant attraction he feels for a young woman (Evelyn Keyes) whose father Farnsworth framed to take the fall for a phony bond swindle, and Mr. Jordan’s prodding to get him to do something about it before the scheming would-be murderers strike again.

Very few films have plots that are unique, and for that reason alone families with older children (with a tolerance for black-and-white movies) may enjoy this screen version of the stage play Heaven Can Wait—also the title of a 1978 Warren Beatty remake. The angel and body-swapping do seem more charming and infinitely better suited to the Forties and black-and-white. When the film was released, America hadn’t yet entered WWII, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan was a pleasant, even hopeful diversion from the threat of war.

Joe Pendleton is blunt and unrefined, often a little slow on the uptake, but he’s also a genuinely nice guy who just wants what’s coming to him. His earnestness and honesty is infectious. When he tries to communicate his situation and gets caught up in other people’s lives, you can’ help but feel for him. That, even more than the unique plot, is what makes Here Comes Mr. Jordan resonate as an example of classic Hollywood filmmaking. It can feel slow-moving at times and the subject matter probably won’t interest children under age 14, but it’s still worth watching, even 70 years later.

ROOTS (1977) (Blu-ray)

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RootscoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
1977, 587 min. (8 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be TV-14 for nudity, adult themes, and violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Snoop Dogg recently slammed Oscar-winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave and the 2016 remake of the iconic miniseries Roots because “they just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But, guess what? We taking the same abuse. Think about that part.”

The “they” the rapper is talking about—12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and Alex Haley, the author of Roots—just happen to be black, though, and they’re coming at it from a different, “lest we forget” angle. The four-episode remake of Roots has gotten all the attention, but for my money the original 1977 series is still the best. As the box of the 25th anniversary edition proclaimed, “200 years to unfold. 12 years of research to discover. 2 years to create. 8 nights to make television history.” And that’s not hype.

When the final installment of Roots aired in January 1977, some 130 million viewers—then, roughly half the entire population of the U.S.—gathered around their TV sets to watch. Even the Las Vegas gaming tables slowed when it aired. Adapted from Haley’s novel about his search to unearth information about his African ancestors, the groundbreaking mini-series remains the most-watched dramatic show in television history. Everyone everywhere seemed to be talking about it, and the series was such a phenomenon that People’s Choice Awards were presented to every individual cast member, while Haley received a special citation Pulitzer (of which only nine have ever been awarded). Roots was the first mini-series to be aired on consecutive nights rather than a single episode per week, and at a time when there were few black actors in serious prime-time offerings, it featured a virtual Who’s Who of African-American actors.

The show pulled down nine Emmys, including Best Limited Series, acting awards for Louis Gossett, Jr., Olivia Cole, and Edward Asner, and awards for editing, writing, and directing. It also won the Golden Globe that year for Best Drama Series and top honors in the same category at the Television Critics Circle Awards. Hard as it is to imagine, few Americans thought much about their ancestors prior to Roots, and the show sparked a national interest in genealogy that continues to this day. But the show also generated controversy–and not because of the National Geographic-style bare breasts in early episodes, or because of the frequent use of the inflammatory word “nigger” that television viewers weren’t accustomed to hearing.

It was the white-on-black enslaving, rape, and mutilation scenes that caused all the fuss, and the rerelease of Roots has already rekindled those same heated debates about race and what Haley called his “faction” (a blend of fact and fiction). When it first aired in 1977, ABC executives feared it might incite race riots or that southern stations might refuse to broadcast the show. But there was just one mild incident at a single school, and the series was broadcast not just on every ABC affiliate in America, but in every country that syndicated American shows—including South Africa. Despite the “faction,” the series remains as powerful now as it was then, which is why John Amos and other African American cast members think it should be shown in every school in America, ad infinitum.

Rootsscreen1The mini-series tells the story of four generations of a single family, beginning with the birth of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton, who produced the remake), son of Omoro (Thalmus Rasulala) and Binta (Cicely Tyson), on the West Coast of Africa near the river Gambia. Just as Haley’s search for his roots began with the words “Kunta Kinte” and “gambi balongo” that he heard from his aunts, and the story they told him about Kunta’s enslavement, Episode 1 chronicles Kunta’s capture while he was seeking a log suitable for making into a drum. Viewers follow Kunta’s odyssey across the Atlantic in the holds of a slave ship captained by a Christian first-time slaver (Edward Asner) and his sadistic and seasoned mate (Ralph Waite). If it’s strange seeing Asner and Waite in those roles now, it was even stranger when the series first aired and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Waltons were still on prime time TV. Roots was an amazing production that still holds up today, but it’s even more amazing if you consider that back then miniseries were like variety shows in that recognizable TV actors from other shows were often cast. And in this one you saw a bunch of familiar faces, both black and white.

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SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (Blu-ray)

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SheWoreaYellowRibboncoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
1949, 103 min., Color
Warner Archive Collection
Not Rated (would be PG for violence and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is the second in the so-called Cavalry Trilogy of legendary director John Ford. It’s also the only one shot in color and the last of the three to finally make it onto Blu-ray—available now from the Warner Archive Collection and at Amazon.com. While it doesn’t offer the same psychological character study as Fort Apache (1948) or the classic first pairing of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara moviegoers saw in Rio Grande (1950), it still features one of John Wayne’s favorite performances, and Ford’s slow-boil of a plot keeps picking up steam once the film hits the 20-minute mark.

That might be a little late for a young generation of viewers coming to old Technicolor Westerns for the first time, but this film is part of America’s heritage. Like it or not, imperialist or not, America’s westward expansion put settlers in conflict with Native Americans, and it was up to the U.S. Cavalry to protect and serve. Ford obviously had a soft spot for the men in blue, but his treatment of the American West can sometimes seem contradictory. In Fort Apache he cast Henry Fonda as a stubborn commander obviously patterned after George Armstrong Custer—so much so that the commander forces his troops into a near-identical “last stand.” But in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a voiceover tells us that Custer and his men were just massacred and word of a massive Indian uprising was worrying even outposts in the southwest. What was treated as foolhardy in the first film is paid tribute to in the second.

Ford was a stickler for authenticity, though, and you’ll marvel at shots of horses and riders and even horse-drawn wagons going over rough terrain. The backdrop is the dramatic Monument Valley, where Ford filmed at and around the Navajo reservation, insisting on employing the Navajo as extras instead of hiring whites made to look like Indians, as was still common at the time. Ford was so respectful and appreciative of the Navajo that one harsh winter he airlifted supplies at his own expense so the people and their livestock wouldn’t perish. Yet, apart from a single scene in which Wayne’s character talks with an Indian chief, the Indians get less respect this outing.

SheWoreaYellowRibbonscreenThe situation in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is this: Capt. Nathan Brittles (Wayne in make-up that aged him 20 years) is counting down the days until he retires from the Cavalry. For his last mission he’s sent to try to contain a group of renegade Cheyenne and Arapaho that have joined forces and have attacked settlers in the area. But with danger mounting, Brittles’ commanding officer also orders him to take along his wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece (Joanne Dru) in a wagon to meet the eastbound stage to safety. The niece, meanwhile, seems more interested in toying with the affections of two young officers—the nine-year veteran 1st Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and the rich and relatively green 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.). She wears a yellow ribbon in her hair, which signifies that she has a beau in the Cavalry, but won’t say which one she’s wearing it for.

The more you know about this film, the more you can appreciate it. The Monument Valley footage is stunning, especially in 1080p, and though Winton Hoch won an Oscar for his cinematography he was constantly at odds with Ford, who at one point ordered him to keep filming as a thunderstorm approached, despite Hoch’s concerns about the equipment acting as lightning rods. The West was wild, and Ford Westerns, especially those starring Wayne, have at least one character who drinks too much and a number of them who enjoy fistfights as much as drinking. In the Cavalry Trilogy it’s the highly likable Irish Sgt. Quincannon, though the equally likable Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson) balances the scales by not taking tobacco or alcohol. But it’s all about the soldier’s life, with an emphasis on honor and sacrifice and those comic fights that relieve the tension of serving in an outpost in the middle of nowhere.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is sentimental and nostalgic, a paean to Cavalry life on the frontier, and yet there’s something rousing, still, when the soldiers sing the title song as they ride off for what might be the last time. And Wayne is himself an American classic, as much as Ford and Monument Valley. Those are three great reasons for watching this film, at least once. Another is to give families a chance to talk about such things as changing attitudes. In this Western, there’s great respect for opponents and people who fought for other causes. Those who rode with the grey in the Civil War are still given the same measure of respect . . . and the Confederate flag, now widely banned, was placed atop the coffin of a soldier in one scene. Add to that attitudes towards America’s treatment of the Indians and it should make for a provocative discussion. Even one of Brittles’ mottos—“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness”—might prompt a family debate.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: Off-camera, mostly, except for a scene where one gunrunner is shot with an arrow and another is thrown repeatedly into a fire by the Indians
Adult situations: Drinking, cigars, and chewing tobacco
Takeaway: If your children are resistant to black-and-white and The Searchers is a little too intense and intensely racist, this film is probably the best to introduce them to John Ford and John Wayne’s American West

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