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Review of ROAD TO UTOPIA (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
1945, 90 min., Black & White
Adventure-Comedy
Not rated (would be PG for adult elements)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Road to Morocco, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour’s fourth “road” picture, Road to Utopia, received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay—one reason why both of the musical comedies are considered the best of the bunch. There’s more plotting, more clever lines, and a more ambitious narrative arc in each of them.

The action takes place in Seattle and Alaska shortly after the Klondike Gold Rush around the turn of the century, making Road to Utopia (1945) the only road picture with a historical backdrop. It’s also the only road picture to use a frame device that takes full advantage of the audience’s familiarity with other road pics. This time it’s made clear that Hope, not Crosby, got the “girl,” as the film opens with a made-to-look-old Hope and Lamour as a married couple who get a surprise visit from their old friend, Duke, and they reminisce about the adventure that led to their separation.

In Utopia, Hope and Crosby play two vaudeville performers (what else?) who are working a scam called “Ghosto,” in which audience members are urged to wager money by placing it in a box to see if the “spirit” (Hope, as Chester, curled up underneath) will take the money and replace it with a larger bill. Duke (Crosby) wears the swami getup and solicits the cash, and all goes well enough until two murderers evading police chase through the theater. When the Ghosto table is overturned and the crowd sees it’s a scam, they take after Chester and Duke (Crosby), who scram with the money. After Duke swipes all of it and Chester follows him aboard the boat to get it back, the steamer horn sounds and they find themselves bound for Alaska.

It’s when Duke and Chester lose their money, stowaway, and are caught that the plot really kicks into high gear and never downshifts. Forced to clean cabins, the boys stumble onto the gold mine map that everyone is looking for. Then, confronted by the murderers Sperry and McGurk, they somehow manage to subdue the men, shave off their beards, and swap clothes. Assuming their identity, they disembark in Skagway and learn in short order just how feared Sperry and McGurk really are. The fun, of course, comes from watching the cowardly Chester and mild-mannered Duke masquerade as tough guys (“I’ll have a lemonade,” Chester says to the bartender, adding, after realizing he’s broken character, “in a dirty glass!”). Some of the action takes place in a saloon, where there’s drinking and smoking and chewing tobacco, but the jokes and the boys’ trying to act tough take center stage.

In the chain of events that follows, Lamour plays Sal, whose father was murdered for the map. She thinks saloon owner Ace Larson (Douglass Dumbrill) and his gal Kate (Hillary Brooke) are going to help her get the mine back, but really they want it for themselves. And of course Sperry and McGurk, once they get loose, are also hot on the trail of the map and the men who are impersonating them.

All of the road pictures have moments where the fourth wall is broken, but in this one it’s done in a way that some might find more annoying. Former New Yorker columnist and humorist Robert Benchley introduces the film and interrupts the film occasionally in a freeze-frame insert of himself, commenting on what “we’re seeing.” When the film was made, the interruptions themselves would have seemed funny to audiences, but that’s no longer the case. And frankly, Benchley’s running commentary isn’t funny. It’s something to be tolerated or ignored.

Thankfully the banter between Hope and Crosby is nearly as good as it was in Road to Morocco, and the plot is fun and fast-paced enough to where Benchley is easy to ignore. Though the music isn’t as catchy as Morocco, Johnny Mercer’s rendition of the song “Personality” hit #1 on the music charts, and Hope and Crosby’s “Put It There, Pal” is a pretty good BFF tune for the times.

Older family members will appreciate this comedy of character and one-liners, while the action and the dogs and dogsledding—especially one Saint Bernard that “adopts” the boys—should keep the younger ones interested. If this were a race, Road to Morocco still finishes first, but Road to Utopia comes in a strong second.

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Review of ON THE BASIS OF SEX (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2018, 120 min., Color
Biography, Drama
Focus Features
Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Though it’s rated PG-13 mostly for strong language in a single scene, On the Basis of Sex might be a hard film for parents to talk everyone into watching. The title makes it sound racier than it really is (which might be off-putting for some, misleading for others), while telling children it’s based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems even less enticing.

To get our daughter to watch, we told her, “It’s basically Legally Blonde without the comedy.” And that’s not an unfair comparison. Both films are about a young woman who attends law school with her male love interest, both find sexism alive and well, both fight the system to prove themselves worthy, and both ultimately triumph . . . though Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) doesn’t wear pink or have a dog small enough to carry in her purse.

Directed by two-time Emmy winner Mimi Leder (ER), On the Basis of Sex is a feel-good David and Goliath story that for a time also turns on the relationship between Ruth and husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Martin is considered a legal golden boy who just happens to be married to this curiosity, this woman everyone seems to think of as a pretender or an intruder pounding on the door of the Good Ol’ Boys Club. But one of the film’s fascinations is the way in which each person navigates the reality of those waters while still being supportive of the other. Resentment doesn’t triumph—persistence does. She persisted. And that makes this film a must-see for all your daughters old enough to sit through a leisurely paced drama and understand the stakes.

Sam Waterston is spot-on as a Harvard professor intent on keeping the glass ceiling in place while pretending to be open to change, while Kathy Bates nails it as a savvy progressive crusader. An interesting difference between Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde and this Ginsburg biography is that Ginsburg is fighting to break through while she has a teenage daughter who is far more liberated than the previous generation, with much higher expectations for equal rights. Like Martin, Jane Ginsburg (Cailee Spaeny) becomes not only a sounding board but also a litmus test for Ruth.

Without giving too much of the dramatic plot away, let’s just say that the film mixes one part medical drama with one part workplace drama, two parts romance, and three parts investigative-courtroom drama. It tracks Ginsburg from her first year as a Harvard Law School student and her transfer to Columbia Law School because of family circumstances, to her inability to find a law firm who would hire a woman, her tenure as a Rutgers Law School Professor teaching “Sex Discrimination and the Law,” and the case that finally helps her prove her mettle and launch a legal arm of the women’s rights movement.

On the Basis of Sex is well acted, and the story itself is inspirational. Apart from a brainstorming session where an f-bomb and other language flies in one of Ginsburg’s Rutgers classes, there really isn’t much to earn that PG-13 rating. So when that scene comes on, just send that impressionable young girl of yours to the kitchen to fetch a snack for you if you’re disinclined to let her listen to the way people talked in the early ‘70s.

And yes, our daughter liked the movie, though she’s not usually a fan of dramas.

Language: Other than that f-bomb, there are lesser swearwords (“shit,” etc.) but most are concentrated in one scene

Sex: A married couple is suggested to have sex when the lights dim, but that’s it

Violence: None whatsoever

Adult Situations: There is period drinking and smoking, some drug references, but no intoxicated behavior

Takeaway: Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Supreme Court Justice is so iconic and recognizable that she even has her own action figure, but once you get that image of a short bespectacled old woman out of your mind, it’s easy to become transported into her fascinating past