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Review of THE CROODS: A NEW AGE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Animation
Rated PG

They say you’re only tall or short compared to who’s standing alongside you, and the Croods seem a little cruder in The Croods: A New Age.

When this prehistoric family meets the Bettermans, who live a better existence that feels like a cross between the Garden of Eden and The Flintstones’ Bedrock, the Croods’ lack of couth really stands out. Kind of like the Clampetts in swanky Beverly Hills. In fact, what could have been a clever commentary on evolution instead becomes more of a familiar poor/rich, rural/urban comedy.

DreamWorks animators have produced another visual feast, with typically stellar animation. But, as is often the case with full-length features that come from big studios who don’t have a mouse and a history of animation evolution that traces back to the beginning of cartoon time, there’s something just slightly off.

It’s not a bad movie, mind you, and the kids actually will love this one because of the bright colors, the crazy characters, and the manic antics that tend to dominate. There are some fun creatures and thrill-ride sequences. But adults may find themselves trying to put their finger on what’s missing—what keeps this okay-to-good movie from being a truly good one.

Endearing characters? Maybe. I don’t know if it’s the way they’re drawn, the dialogue, or the way the actors were directed, but everyone seems to be overwrought this outing and there’s as much constant jabbering and conflict as there is in a typical Real Housewives episode.

Heart? Possibly. There’s a touching family-first love-who-you-are message embedded here, but sometimes the decision to DO EVERYTHING BIG AND LOUD AND MANIC short circuits the feelings that those messages are intended to create. The warm-and-fuzzy moment feels tacked on when everything else is 50 Shades of Crazy.

Creative vision? Definitely. The Croods: A New Age is like the TV ads for boring department store chains that offer wild colors, people dancing, hip music, and a message that screams “We’re a happening place!” Whether the filmmakers didn’t trust the narrative or just felt obliged to insert different comic-book style animations interrupti into the mix, the result feels a bit like a kitchen-sink approach to animated features. The intercut sections don’t really add anything . . . except to contribute more energy and craziness. And that’s one thing The Croods: A New Age doesn’t lack. Adding more just makes it seem like it’s trying way to hard to be a “happening place.”

That’s my opinion, and my family shares it. So, apparently, do the collective Metacritics that gave it a 56 out of 100, and the Metacritic readers who awarded it a 6.6 out of 10. But in fairness, I have to note that The Croods: A New Age got a 77 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with 94 percent of that audience giving it high marks.

Competing opinions aren’t very helpful, I realize, but maybe it’s useful to consider that when I reviewed the original 2013 film, The Croods, I gave it a B+. I wrote that the “first act may be a little slow, but once this animated comedy gets rolling, it’s a rollicking good family movie with upbeat messages and a happy ending—with enough eye-popping peril to interest even the most jaded of your teen video gameplayers. It’s a nice combination of action, humor, and interesting ‘prehistoric’ creatures.” The sequel has the same combination of elements, but the balance just seems off this time.

It’s possible to watch The Croods: A New Age without having seen the original. It begins with a flashback that shows how Guy (Ryan Reynolds) was urged by his dying parents to seek a better tomorrow. En route he ends up joining the Croods—a cave clan led by Grug (Nicolas Cage) that consists of his wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), daughter Eep (Emma Stone), son Thunk (Clark Duke), tiny daughter Sandy (Kailey Crawford), and Ugga’s mother Gran (Cloris Leachman, in her third-to last film, as feisty as ever).

One day they stumble upon a giant wall, and after entering this paradise they are caught in a net . . . but released when Phil Betterman (Peter Dinklage) and his wife, Hope (Leslie Mann) realize they’re fellow humans. As the Bettermans flaunt their better way of living, a romantic triangle develops between Guy, Ugga, and the Betterman’s daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), and tensions mount between the “evolved” Bettermans and the crude Croods. Things get even worse when Eep and Dawn become friends and jump the wall to have an adventure that Dawn’s helicopter parents have been keeping her from. Somehow both families end up having to deal with “punch monkeys” and some goofiness surrounding bananas as the coin of the realm. And then there are multiple-eyed wolf spiders, and other dangers that push the two families closer together. You know, a common enemy and all that . . . and an uncommonly hard to believe ending. But as I said, the kids will love the creatures, and the animation really pops in HD.

The readers at IMDB.com gave the original a 7.2/10 and the sequel a 7.0, but I’m not feeling it. As visually spectacular as the sequel is, the two movies seem farther apart then that—almost a full grade, even. That makes this one a B-/C+, which still makes it a good choice for family movie night, especially if the kids are young.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 96 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: DreamWorks/Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+ (two cartoon shorts, a recipe, a prank book, how to draw caveman style, etc.)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG for peril, action, and rude humor

Language: 1/10—If you think “sucks” is bad language, that’s about all you’ll find here

Sex: 1/10—Several characters wear clothing that reveals cleavage or a bare back and such, and we see a woman in a bra, but that’s it

Violence: 3/10—Most of the violence is comic or near-comic, and even though characters are in peril the source of the peril and the treatment of material makes it seem more exciting than truly perilous

Adult situations: 1/10—After one character gets stung by a prehistoric bee, the venom seems to have an intoxicating effect on her, but again that’s it

Takeaway: DreamWorks animators do such a fantastic job of bringing an animated world to life, it’s a shame that director Joel Crawford (Rise of the Guardians, Kung Fu Panda, Kung Fu Panda 2) felt he had to go the full-manic-jacket route, because sometimes understatement can be more powerful and effective

Review of ONCE UPON A RIVER (DVD)

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Grade: B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief nudity and adult elements)

Thus far in her career, Chicago-born musician-actress-filmmaker Haroula Rose is probably best known for her soundtrack contribution to American Horror Story and her involvement as an associate producer for Fruitvale Station. Like the latter, her first directorial feature, Once Upon a River, also tackles a serious subject and endemic problem.

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, with one out of six women the victim of an attempted or successful rape. Youths between the ages of 12 and17 are the most vulnerable. Fifty-five percent of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s home, and it isn’t usually “stranger danger”. More often it’s a friend of the family, a neighbor, or even a family member. And in an average year, it’s estimated that there are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 million runaway and homeless youths in the U.S.

So yeah, this film deals with serious subjects that can be especially relevant for American teens and their parents. While it treats the material in a frank way, there’s nothing gratuitous or sensationalized. Maybe that’s because Once Upon a River has a strong female presence, both behind the camera and onscreen. In addition to directing, Rose wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell and also shared a producing credit. The film was shot by cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby (Hair Wolf), the production design, set decoration, costume design, and makeup were all done by women, and the casting director was also a woman. Onscreen, New York-trained actress Kenadi DelaCerna carries the film with her strong presence as a biracial 15 year old—younger than her usual range.

NPR called the novel’s main character, Margo Crane, “the most realistic underage runaway in modern fiction,” and that’s true for this 2019 film adaptation as well. Margo has been raised by her Native American father (Tatanka Means), who gave up drinking the day the girl’s mother left them to “find” herself (which people were doing in the sixties). The film is set in 1977 in the small fictional town of Murrayville in rural Michigan, where prejudice against Native Americans and the class inequity are apparent. Margo appreciates her father and the skills he taught her—she carries around a book about Annie Oakley and has become a crack shot herself—but she clearly misses having a mother in the house and like any teen wants more than life is currently giving her. More

Review of THE COURT JESTER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Adventure Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

The Robin Hood legend gets a makeover and a different focal character in The Court Jester (1956), one of Danny Kaye’s best. Along with Bob Hope’s The Princess and the Pirate, it’s also one of the classic costume comedies from the Technicolor era.

Once you get past a slightly corny title-sequence song sung onscreen by Kaye, this medieval musical comedy-adventure is full of pageantry and fun. Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a minstrel among merry men who hide in the forest and serve a Robin Hood figure known as The Black Fox. Aside from providing entertainment, Hawkins’ main job is to attend to the true king of England—a baby that somehow escaped the slaughter ordered by King Roderick the Tyrant (Cecil Parker) by his henchman, Lord Ravenhurst. That includes changing diapers and pulling said diaper down to reveal a “purple pimpernel” (a takeoff on The Scarlet Pimpernel) to each subject, who then kneels.

Despite his own timidity, Hawkins yearns for a more active and manly job. He finally gets his chance when he’s ordered to team with the swashbuckling Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) and take the child to safety after the group’s forest lair had been discovered. What follows is a clever plot with more twists than a French braid and running gags involving mistaken identity, slapstick, tongue twisters, and snappy catch-phrases.

At $4 million, The Court Jester was the most expensive comedy filmed to date, and it has a lot of elements that still make it appealing for family viewing. Colorful costumes by Edith Head really pop in high definition and bring to life the grandeur of Hollywood’s romantic vision of castles and courtly intrigues. There’s a petulant princess (Angela Lansbury, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) who refuses to marry a blustery Scotsman just so her father can form a political alliance. That princess has an attendant (Mildred Natwick) who is also a sorceress capable of hypnotizing people. And there is a troupe of little persons (billed as Hermine’s Midgets) that perform acrobatics and clever stunts that factor heavily in the family-friendly action. The American Legion Zoaves from Jackson, Michigan even make an entertaining appearance in a sequence where a knighthood ceremony is comically rendered. More

Review of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Adventure
Rated PG (but see below)

Rudyard Kipling adventures have always been popular with Hollywood and its audiences. The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, Soldiers Three, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Wee Willie Winkie, and Kim were a part of every youngster’s coming of age in the last half of the 20th century. But filmmakers ignored Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King until the legendary John Huston took up the challenge in 1975.

Maybe that’s because “The Man Who Would Be King,” one of the stories published in Kipling’s The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (1888), is a little more adult than this film’s PG rating would suggest. The heroes are amoral at best, and in addition to adult situations there are a few grisly elements.

If your family saw and enjoyed The Road to El Dorado, that 2000 animated adventure was also based on “The Man Who Would Be King,” but softened for family audiences. This feature from the director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and The Misfits stays pretty close to Kipling’s original tale.

The story follows the exploits of two former British soldiers who had fought in India and Bharat and now crave adventure more than a return to England, retirement, or respectability. They’re rogues, really, who seem nice enough yet don’t give killing a second thought. They’re also motivated by greed and self-interest—not exactly the kind of heroes that Hollywood gravitated towards. But the anti-hero that had become popular in the late ‘60s paved the way for audiences to watch Peachey Carnehan (Sir Michael Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Sir Sean Connery) with fascination, if not admiration. More

Review of MISTER ROBERTS (1955) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Comedy-Drama
Not rated (would be PG)

Mister Roberts (1955) is set during the waning days of World War II, but it’s not a war movie. There are no battles, no strategic planning sessions, and no missions. That’s a problem for Chief Cargo Officer Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda, reprising his Broadway role), who desperately wants to see action. Stuck on a cargo ship stationed off a small island in the Pacific far away from the fighting, Roberts’ serves his country by procuring and delivering such commodities as toilet paper and toothpaste to other ships that are headed for combat.

It’s not like he’s itching to become a hero or put his life in danger. He just feels like he ought to be serving in the “real” war instead of being anchored where on one side he watches a task force slipping by under the cover of darkness, and on the other side his men aboard the appropriately named Reluctant discover some excitement one morning by training their binoculars and spyglasses on a group of nurses who just landed at the local hospital.

In addition to fighting tedium, Roberts and the crew have to deal with a tyrannical captain (James Cagney) who prizes the palm tree he received from the admiral for delivering the most cargo in the Pacific. But the captain has his sights set on something more: a big promotion. Like the factory boss who refuses to give his line workers a break because they’re so productive the company would lose money, he keeps his crew on the ship. Always. No leave. No shore liberty. And the time off they get for good behavior? Ten minutes of swimming.

If the crew collectively feels like the exaggerated characters we met in the musical South Pacific without the songs, it’s no coincidence. Joshua Logan had a hand in writing the screenplays for both of the cinematic adaptations. Tonally Mister Roberts isn’t all that different either. It’s a light story with mostly comic moments and several serious ones. More

Review of LOVE AND MONSTERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-/B+
Sci-fi/Fantasy Adventure
Rated PG-13

Love and Monsters has a lot in common with 2009’s Zombieland, except that the post-apocalyptic plague that threatens surviving humans in this 2020 film consists of mutated monster-size insects and toads and such, rather than a viral-induced plague of zombies. Both are post-apocalyptic coming-of-age films.

Instead of an unproven and unsure-of-himself teen trying to get to his family in Ohio, Love and Monsters features an unproven and unsure-of-himself young adult (Dylan O’Brien)—more sensitive artist than warrior. After everyone in his survivor group had paired off romantically, Joel decides to leave the bunker and trek the “surface” for seven days to find the girlfriend he had acquired just as the catastrophe had struck seven years ago.

Instead of meeting and joining forces with a mentor who was an expert zombie killer in search of the last Twinkies on Earth (as Jesse Eisenberg’s character did), Joel meets up with a grizzled survivor (Dan Ewing) who has been living on the surface with an adopted young girl called Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). One quester learned the secrets of zombie killing and survival in a zombie world, while the other learns how to stay alive in a world filled with monsters that can attack at any moment.

Although Zombieland and Love and Monsters are both quest/survival stories involving a likable young male character, there is one important difference for families to note: Zombieland was rated R for horror violence/gore, while Love and Monsters is rated PG-13 for action/violence, language, and some suggestive material. The latter feels like a hero’s journey through a fantasy land filled with the kind of fantastic creatures one saw in films based on J.K. Rowling books, while the former features humans turning into zombies and then having to be killed. But visually they’re still humans, and as a result it feels more like killing than it does to eliminate an enormous and enormously fantastic monster. Plus, Zombieland was all about finding creative (and graphic) ways to kill zombies. It had a Whack-a-Mole feel to it, having more in common with slasher-horror movies than anything else. But the focus in Love and Monsters is more on Joel’s own survival and his quest for love. Love and Monsters feels like a fun monster movie, with a scarier Alice in Wonderland feel to it, which makes Love and Monsters more suitable for a younger audience—say, 8 years and up? More

Review of TEXAS ACROSS THE RIVER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Western comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

In his 1966 review of Texas Across the River, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “Trying to make fun of Westerns is an aberrant Hollywood stunt that’s as fraught with folly and possible disaster as challenging John Wayne to draw. Either you score a clean hit on that first shot or it’s goodnight you. Well, they do not score a clean hit with Texas Across the River. . . .”

Not that it can’t be done, mind you. Wayne himself starred in two successful Western comedies—North to Alaska (1960) and McLintock! (1963)—but both of those were comic Westerns that still leaned heavily on Western conventions. Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway had a runaway hit with Little Big Man (1970), a comic epic of the Old West that fell into the revisionist category because of its more favorable treatment of Indians. Then Jerry Paris and Mel Brooks scored bulls-eyes with Evil Roy Slade (1972) and Blazing Saddles (1974), but those were true parodies that poked fun of the genre while also clearly admiring it. And likable TV everyman James Garner charmed audiences with his Maverick-style antics in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969).

But when members of the Rat Pack tried their hand at the comic Western, the screenplays they were given leaned more toward farce than fans of the genre seemed to prefer. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin teamed up in 4 for Texas (1963), while Martin paired with Joey Bishop in Texas Across the River (1966). Neither film was successful, though the latter is the stronger one—the kind of gentle farce that appeals to children and people in the mood for something silly because of the level of humor—even though some of the material is very slightly risqué. It’s the plot that’s fun because it’s a little different from the standard Western fare. More

Review of THE OPENING ACT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG-13)

As a college English professor I’ve run across a surprising number of students who want to be stand-up comics. Some of them started a comedy club on campus, some did open mics in local comedy clubs, and one even asked for my opinion on a stand-up routine he was filming to send to an Ivy League school for his grad school admissions essay. Even if they’re not aspiring to grab the microphone themselves, college students love stand-up—which is why so many comics do the college circuit. So a passionate movie about stand-up comedy ought to be a hit with college and high school students who have secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions of being a stand-up comic.

The Opening Act is also plenty fun for the rest of us who have no plans to quit our respectable jobs, as Ken Jeong did (he was a doctor), to become stand-up comics. But as you watch how passionate everyone is about stand-up you begin think, on some level, maybe I could do this too—and that’s because this 2020 film feels like a love letter to stand-up comedy. It’s written and directed by stand-up comic Steve Byrne, it stars stand-up comic Jimmy O. Yang, and all but four of the remaining cast members are stand-up comics. Even guys playing a heckler (Butch Bradley), a cop (Tom Segura), and a taxi driver (Felipe Esparza) are stand-up comics. The only pure actors among the rest of the cast are Debby Ryan (The Suite Life on Deck), Jackie Tohn (GLOW) and two minor roles. Surrounded by so much comedic talent, I can picture them trying to pick up pointers, as The Opening Act‘s main character does throughout the film. More

Review of THE FLINTSTONES: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Animated TV Series
Rated G

Crab lawn mowers, a dinner of roast pterodactyl leg, triceratops wheelbarrows, birds using their wings to cover red and green stoplights to coordinate traffic—it’s all part of an average day in Bedrock, the pre-historic community where one of TV’s most famous animated families lived from 1960-66. Fred Flintstone was a blue-collar working stiff, the operator of a dinosaur-powered crane at the Rock Head & Quarry Cave Construction Co. Like everyone else, when the end-of-day whistle blew, he hurried home in a foot-powered car so he could be with his wife, their pet “dog” that was really a small dinosaur, and later, a baby girl named Pebbles who would inspire a fruity breakfast cereal.

As the first prime-time animated TV series, The Flintstones was both beloved and wildly profitable through six seasons and two spin-off full-length movies. All six seasons, both films, and the original pilot and bonus features are included in this Complete Series set that really has a lot of visual pop because of the high-def transfer to Blu-ray. It makes all the small details even more pleasurable—like the paintings hanging in the home that are in the style of cave drawings.

Fans of the all-time most popular cartoon, The Simpsons, will recognize that the show about America’s “nuclear family” owes a debt to The Flintstones, which TV Guide named the second all-time most popular cartoon—one that earned a primetime Emmy nomination in 1961 for outstanding TV comedy. Simpsons fans will get déjà vu from the beginning as they watch a work-to-home title sequence that ends with a garage door closing and a character heading for the furniture in front of the TV. The Flintstones was also big on pop-culture allusions and celebrity guest stars—all staples of the later Matt Groening series. Instead of Cary Grant, Ann-Margret, Tony Curtis, and James Darren, audiences encountered Cary Granite, Ann-Margrock, Stony Curtis, and Jimmy Darrock. TV’s Bewitched stars make an appearance, and the Hanna-Barbera writers had fun spinning versions of shows like My Favorite Martian (with the appearance of a little spaceman called The Great Gazoo) and The Munsters and The Addams Family (with their bizarre family The Gruesomes).

The Flintstones also trailblazed the half-hour animated cartoon that took its format from TV sitcoms and would be the lifeblood of The Simpsons years later. The stone-age gadgets were fun for the kids, but adults also enjoyed seeing the Rube Goldberg contraptions that were a part of daily life for this “modern Stone Age family.” Even more fun for adults was the but even more fun was Hanna-Barbera’s riff on the classic ‘50s sitcom The Honeymooners.

The Honeymooners starred Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as the Cramdens, a New York City couple who palled around with their neighbors, the Nortons (Art Carney and Joyce Randolph). Here we get Fred and Wilma Flintstone, whose neighbors and best friends are Barney and Betty Rubble. As with The Honeymooners, many an episode revolves around a mild battle of the sexes and mishaps that Ralph Cramden and Fred Flintstone get themselves into. Like Ralph, Fred is a bully and a loudmouth, but he’s easily put in his place. In the #MeToo era it’s probably important to mention that the beefy and blustery Ralph, a bus driver by trade, was forever shouting and often threatened to sock his wife. He never did, of course, because Alice knew, as Wilma Flintstone did, that her husband was all bark and no bite. If there’s any hitting that happens, it’s more often the wife or someone else that administers the blow, all for comic effect, of course. The Flintstones softened the gender sparring of The Honeymooners for family audiences, but the sitcom formula was still apparent in every half-hour episode. More

Review of TWINS (1988) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action comedy
Rated PG

Bodybuilder turned actor turned governor Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as a straight-up action hero in most of his films, but he also appeared in four comedies: The Kid and I (2005), Jingle All the Way (1996), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Twins (1988). Of those, two are stinkers and the ones shot within two years of each other fall into the category of guilty pleasures—though audiences that first saw Twins in theaters weren’t feeling guilty at all. Twins grossed $216 million worldwide and provided Schwarzenegger and co-star Danny DeVito with a financial windfall, as the two had agreed to take 20 percent of the profits in lieu of their usual fees. Twins was also popular enough on home video releases that a sequel—Triplets—is now in preproduction.

The comedy’s basic premise easily could have been one that drove a sinister conspiracy film instead: research doctors seeking to create the perfect human recruited a woman to father a child that was the DNA-engineered product of six men. When the baby was born, doctors were surprised that the embryo had split somehow and a second baby followed. One (Schwarzenegger) had all the desirable elements of the six fathers’ DNA, while the other (DeVito) was the product of genetic leftovers.

The mother (Bonnie Bartlett) was told her baby died in childbirth, when really the boy had been shunted to a tropical island to be raised by one of the scientists. And the other? He was given to an orphanage, and turned out to be as the nuns predicted: a small time criminal whom you could most likely find in jail.

The plot starts in motion when the scientist raising the near-perfect Julius finally tells him about his brother, and Julius instantly sets out in a rowboat across the ocean to find him some 30 miles away in L.A. Meanwhile, our introduction to brother Vincent comes when we see the diminutive balding man with a pony tail rolling out of a second story window after the husband of a woman he’d been sleeping with came home unexpectedly and caught them. Apparently Vincent had seduced a nun when he was 12 and has had some sort of power over women ever since—which is harder to believe than the film’s basic premise. Get past that, though, and the plot plays out with the kind of light amusement you’d expect from a guilty pleasure, with a surprising amount of action involving two sets of bad guys that are after the twins. Some of them are loan sharks, while others are thugs hired to deliver some illicit merchandise that is inadvertently “detoured” by Vincent.

Twins relies on the contrast between brothers for its humor and interest. Julius has the kind of strength (and body, which we see bare-chested several times) needed to protect his ne’er-do-well brother, but Vincent has the street smarts. Not surprisingly, there’s a double character arc, with one brother so naïve that he has to learn about the basics of life (including sex), and the other so cynical and unscrupulous that he has to learn that family and people in your lives are worth being good for. Chloe Webb and Kelly Preston play two sisters that share the twins’ journey, and fans of old TV Westerns will also enjoy seeing an older but fit-as-Arnold Hugh O’Brian as one of the twins’ fathers. O’Brian played Wyatt Earp and still looks like he could handle whatever bad guys might jump him. More

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