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Review of GOING IN STYLE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2017, 96 min., Color
Crime comedy
Rated PG-13 for drug content, language, and some suggestive material
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C (director’s commentary)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Money-grubbing moneylenders are evil—at least in literature and Hollywood. Whether it was Tom Joad and his fellow Okies trying to start a new life in California after banks foreclosed on them, George Bailey fighting to keep Mr. Potter from buying up the whole town and gouging tenants, or even Bonnie and Clyde becoming bank-robbing folk heroes, any act of resistance has been seen as an act of heroism.

The financial crisis of 2007-08—triggered by banks actively selling subprime mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them—only solidified the notion that banks are the con men, the bad guys. Add the corporate shipping of jobs overseas and the dismantling of pensions that workers paid into but lost, and the idea of the evil moneygrubbers grows even larger.

So how can you possibly go wrong when you cast beloved veterans Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin as 70-somethings who, victimized by the banks and their employer, decide to rob a bank? I mean, the bank and their employer cheated them, so what do they have to lose? If they get caught, they get “three squares” and better health care than they now have, and if they succeed they avoid financial ruin.

Close your eyes and picture the first-act set-up where we’ll get to know each of them, follow their routines, and come to understand what makes them decide that Going in Style is preferable to remaining law-abiding citizens.

Have you got an image of the scenes that you’d see, the situations that would be illustrated?

Good. Because then I don’t have to tell you about the first part of this film. The setup is as generic as can be, and paced so leisurely that it feels like a yawner. Their situations are clichéd, with one about to lose his house (and his daughter and granddaughter are living with him, so they too would be out on the streets), one who needs a kidney transplant and is told he doesn’t have much time left, and a third a family-less fellow who is hit-on by an elderly grocery-store employee (Ann-Margaret). There are no surprises and very few delights in the first third of the film. It’s only when they seek out a “low life” to get advice on how to rob a bank that the interest picks up, and by the third act things are rolling so well that you wish the film had started at that point.

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Review of KONG: SKULL ISLAND (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: No
2017, 118 min., Color
Sci-fi Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Best. Kong. Ever.

That was our family’s verdict, with all four members awarding an A or A- to this franchise reboot. Then again, we’re not purists. We’re just movie-lovers, and we loved this movie. The action is non-stop, the CGI monsters and battles are terrific, the location footage shot in northern Vietnam and Oahu is stunning, the characters are fun, and most importantly for an action film with lots of blood and violence and killing, this film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Tonally, it’s right there with the early James Bond films . . . if Bond was on speed and there was no time for romance.

Unlike more unimaginative monster movies, this isn’t just a game of attrition, where you end up with a slow build-up to one death, then another, and another. All hell breaks loose, and it never stops breaking loose. You can’t predict who’s going to get it and when, but how upset can you possibly get when a man falls into the mouth of the great ape and is presumably eaten, when his fall is followed by a quick match cut in which we see a close-up of a soldier taking a crunchy bite out of a sandwich? And when another character is eaten, as he looks up and notices the creature we have yet to see, his last words are “Oh shit,” you’re more prone to laugh first, then shout in release at the action that follows. Which is to say, yes, this is every bit a PG-13 movie, both in language and in violent action, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (TV’s Single Dads) tempers it with humor. As a result, what could have been a serious bloodbath is more of a popcorn movie.

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Review of THE LEMON DROP KID (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1951, 91 min., Black and White
Comedy
Not rated (would be G)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
“Silver Bells” clip
Amazon link

If the title isn’t a tip-off that this is a Damon Runyon story, the rest of the nicknamed character roster ought to be a dead giveaway: Brainey Baxter, Oxford Charlie, Nellie Thursday, Moose Moran, Straight Flush Tony, Gloomy Willie, Sam the Surgeon, Little Louie, Singing Solly, and Goomba.

Runyon famously wrote about colorful characters he met on Broadway and at the racetracks in Florida—guys and dolls, racketeers and henchmen, horse trainers and grooms, bookies and touts, and just plain down-and-outs.

Like Pocketful of Miracles (1961)—which was also inspired by a Runyon short story—The Lemon Drop Kid is set around Christmas, a film in which the main character wavers between being a selfish Scrooge or an unselfish giver. He’s the only character who has any kind of arc at all; the rest are stock types or foils.

Like the Shirley Temple film Little Miss Marker and the Bob Hope remake, Sorrowful Jones (both based on another Runyon story), it revolves around a debt or a bet. In this case, The Lemon Drop Kid (Bob Hope) touts a horse to a woman holding $10K, and that horse loses. What’s worse, the woman turns out to be the girlfriend of notorious racketeer Moose Moran (Fred Clark).

Naturally, Moose wants his money back, and he gives the Lemon Drop Kid until Christmas to settle the score . . . or else. So the Kid goes to New York and looks up his old girlfriend Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) and also racketeer Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) to see if he can get a loan. When that falls through, the Lemon Drop Kid gets a brainy idea of his own: seeing a Salvation Army bell-ringer dressed as Santa, the Kid decides to ring a bell in a Santa Suit with a kettle and a sign that reads “Save a Life.” Meaning, his own.

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Review of ROAD TO BALI (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1952, 91 min., Color
Musical comedy-adventure-romance
Not rated (would be PG for mild peril and innuendo)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B-
APC teaser
Amazon link

In the 1940s, singers Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour hooked up with hook-nosed comedian Bob Hope for five “road” pictures—comedies about two erstwhile male vaudeville performers in exotic locations who end up meeting and falling for Lamour’s character. Was it a formula? Yes and no. Audiences knew exactly what to expect, but Hope and Crosby ad-libbed so much that the films had the added energy of unpredictability.

After taking the road to Singapore (1940), Zanzibar (1941), Morocco (1942), Utopia (1946), and Rio (1947), the trio took to the road again in 1952 for their first and only color excursion, Road to Bali. Crosby plays George Cochran and Hope is Harold Gridley, two entertainers forced to cut engagements in Australia short when they end up wooing one too many farmer’s daughters and are forced to find other work. The first job that presents itself is “deep sea diver,” and so they’re off on another adventure.

Though it’s not as funny as Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia, this 91-minute comedy is a good place to start for families with younger children because it is color and because Road to Bali is a kitchen sink film. Writers Frank Butler, Hal Kanter, and William Morrow throw everything into the film, including the kitchen sink, among them:

—A treasure hunt
—A South Seas princess
—A romantic triangle
—A long-lost father who turns up
—A wedding
—A battle with a giant squid
—A fight between a tiger and a gorilla
—A close call with crocodiles
—A lovelorn gorilla who decides Harold is the perfect replacement for the mate she lost
—An exploding volcano
—A “Scottish” song-and-dance routine Hope and Crosby perform in kilts
—Cameo appearances by Humphrey Bogart (in a film clip) and Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Jane Russell
—“Balinese” dancers who move to music that sounds suspiciously like jazz
—A snake-charmer takeoff in which the flute player summons not a cobra but a beautiful woman

Road to Bali may not feature the kind of breakneck pacing that young people are used to, but the film shifts gears enough times and has enough color and humor to make it fun for family viewing—if, that is, your children are open to older movies. And if your family includes a Baby Boomer or fans of vintage television shows, a bonus is that Carolyn Jones (Morticia on TV’s The Addams Family) appears in just her second career role as one of the jilted farmer’s daughters; Leon Askin (Gen. Burkhalter on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes) turns up as King Ramayana, the ruler of an unspecified idyllic island somewhere between Australia and Bali; and Michael Ansara (Cochise on TV’s Broken Arrow and the Blue Djinn on I Dream of Jeannie) is one of the guards that serve the King and Prince Ken Arok (Murvyn Vye).

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Review of THE TONIGHT SHOW: JOHNNY & FRIENDS – STEVE MARTIN, ROBIN WILLIAMS, EDDIE MURPHY (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family:  Heck no
1976-91, 499 min. (9 full shows), Color
Talk-Variety
Not rated (would be PG for sexual innuendo, jokes)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features:  n/a
Clip of Eddie Murphy monologue (PG-rated)

On one of the nine episodes included on this three-disc installment of Johnny and Friends: Steve Martin, Robin Williams, & Eddie Murphy, guest Phyllis Newman complains that Williams is a tough act to follow, adding there’s nothing left for her to do but take off her clothes. “Please don’t do that,” Carson says. “This is a family show.”

“What family?” Williams asks. “Weird family. Weird families living in caves somewhere,” Carson says to audience laughter.

As the topic turns to Carson’s divorces, Williams intones, “Divorce—from the old Latin divorcero, which means Having your genitals pulled out through your wallet. You can kiss your assets goodbye.” Then, a few minutes later into Williams’ non-stop improvisations, “I have learned the difference between love and lust. Lust never costs over $200.” I have never seen a talk show break down into comic chaos like this episode featuring Williams and Newman.

Families who only know Williams from voicing the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin or Murphy as the voice of Donkey in Shrek and Mushu in Mulan might find it shocking the amount of sexual innuendo and sex jokes fast-talking guests were able to get away with on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. But remember: it was late-night TV. Your family doesn’t have to be weird to appreciate these nine full episodes, but your children definitely have to be in their mid-to-late teens.

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Review of A QUIET PASSION (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2016, 125 min., Color
Biographical drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material
Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a revealing statistic:  At Rotten Tomatoes, 92 percent of critics gave A Quiet Passion a “fresh” rating, while only 52 percent of readers liked it.

There have been a lot of very good films made about writers and writing—films like Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie/Peter Pan), Becoming Jane (Austen), Saving Mr. Banks (P.L. Travers/Mary Poppins), or the fictional Finding Forrester, the latter inspired by the reclusive J.D. Salinger. They make for good family dramas because unless the writer is Ernest Hemingway they’re usually pretty tame, tied to an internal drive for success and full of advice that older children can certainly glean.

A Quiet Passion—the story of American poet Emily Dickinson—had the potential to be all that plus a model of enlightened feminism. But while older fans of literature may still warm to this 2016 film despite its flaws, I don’t see it working very well with family audiences.

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Review of SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No (for a young audience)
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy-adventure
Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Sony/Columbia Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD, coupons
Trailer
Amazon link

Smurf happens.

That’s a flippant way to begin, but accurate, I think, because lately the films in this franchise really haven’t done much with the evil would-be mad scientist Gargamel and those famously blue Smurfs he chased with delicious futility in the 1980s TV series—a pairing that had the same kind of appeal as Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, or Tom & Jerry. Lately, characterization and that fun battle of wits have been overshadowed by fathomless action. In Smurfs: The Lost Village, the Smurfs encounter kissing plants and a green rabbit that looks radioactive. They’re swept along a river at breakneck speed. They are attacked by a big bird. You know. Constant action. Smurf happens.

But one scene in this new movie reminds you how much more interesting the Smurfs were with that good and evil back-and-forth: As a small group of Smurfs, en route to try to discover if there’s Smurf life beyond their tiny village, encounters Gargamel on the rapids of a river and he starts to drown, the Smurfs go back to save him. “We’re Smurfs,” they say. “It’s what we do.” After they reel him in, he reminds them that he’s evil and “This is what I do.” He knocks them off their raft and cackles his evil laugh as they head for the falls.

Parents who watched those Smurfy Hanna-Barbera cartoons on NBC Saturday mornings instead of Scooby-Doo! on rival network ABC will wish that the filmmakers had featured more Gargamel and less Smurfette. Without that perpetual Coyote/Roadrunner interplay, Smurfs: The Lost Village feels like any other children’s animated film that basically straps characters into the seat of a roller coaster and sends them on a ride. The Lost Village has none of the wink-wink over-their-heads humor that would entice adults and older children to watch. It is what it is. Smurf happens.

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