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
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.

Previous Kong films seem to have been bound by the 1933 Fay Wray original, and while we inevitably watch the big ape pick up a lady in his gigantic hand, this 2017 reboot departs so significantly from the whole Kong concept that it almost feels like a totally different animal. In addition to that iconic scene, we do see Kong fight an aerial squadron (helicopters, rather than planes) but he’s on level ground. There’s also a photographer, a native village living behind a big wall, and creatures other than Kong.

Though the creatures aren’t dinosaurs forgotten by time, but rather demonic ones that come from below the earth through a portal, Kong: Skull Island still has as much in common with adaptations of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island and Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Land That Time Forgot, while at the same time there are elements that link it to the radiated monster films of the Nuclear Age. And there are times when you’ll also have flashbacks to Jurassic Park.

Set in Southeast Asia in 1973 when soldiers are still fighting in Vietnam, Kong: Skull Island takes a cue from another Vietnam War movie—Apocalypse Now—and adds a Heart of Darkness dimension to it. As a jerry-built boat made out of a downed airplane chugs upriver, it’s hard not to think of Joseph Conrad’s classic study in the dark depths of human nature—especially when the main character, a master monster tracker, is named Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and the owner of the boat in this film is named Marlow (John C. Reilly), who was the protagonist in Conrad’s novel.

This film not only breathes new life into the Kong films, but also resurrects the trope of a marooned WWII soldier on an island so isolated that he doesn’t know the war has ended. Reilly really has fun with the character—who, when the full “scaffolding” is revealed, ends up being one of the three main characters, along with photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and Conrad. Second-tier characters include U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman), who works in the gigantic creatures division and sets the plot in motion when he hires Conrad and talks a senator into green-lighting his mission to Skull Island to check out images of strange life that their satellites have detected, and Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who heads up military support for this Predator-style mission.

Watch the bonus footage about location filming and you’ll develop a new appreciation for the film’s combination of traditional stunt work and CGI. One scene in particular stands out, where a man is violently jerked off the boat and is whisked high into the air via a system of pulleys and wires. You’ll also see how they were able to make this Kong the most real looking of them all, and that, after all, is what sells a film like this. Does it look real? You bet. And the crazy level of action and humor makes for a great support system. It feels as much like the old-time serials as the Indiana Jones movies—all action, but all in good fun.

Readers at the Imdb.com only gave this film a 6.8 out of 10, which would be a B- on the Family Home Theater scale, while the average rating by readers at Rotten Tomatoes was 7.4 out of 10 (B+). We liked it a lot more than that, and make no apologies!

Language: Surprisingly, two f-bombs (thought they could only get away with one for PG-13!), and handful of “shit”s plus another handful of lesser ones, but the action moves so quickly you don’t have time to react
Sex: n/a
Violence: Pretty much nonstop once the film gets rolling: a giant spider leg impales a man through his mouth, people get gobbled up by creatures, Kong pulls out a lizard’s tongue and everything connected to it, a man is ripped apart in the air by prehistoric-looking birds, people are stomped; you name it, it happens
Adult situations: One bar fight in the early going, and one brief instance of smoking
Takeaway: Kong: Skull Island proves that the key to breathing new life into a series like this is not sticking too close to the original and not taking it too seriously

Review of THE LEMON DROP KID (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1951, 91 min., Black and White
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.

When the Kid is arrested and realizes he needs a legitimate charity to work that scam, he starts the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls” and gets every known Broadway hustler to help him raise money, because don’t they all love Nellie? So did audiences of the time. Nellie was played by Jane Darwell, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and might be familiar to a later generation as the “Feed the Birds” woman in Mary Poppins.

Will the Kid come through for Nellie? Will he end up at the bottom of the East River? Will he complete the scam, repay the money and beat it back to Florida? Viewers don’t really know, and we’re not so sure the Kid does either. All we know is that the Kid’s desperate plan involves dressing like a little old lady.

Directors Sidney Lanfield and Frank Tashlin don’t give Hope the same long leash to improvise and mug for the cameras as he normally has, but that’s in keeping with the spirit and tone of the Damon Runyon tales. The closest the film gets to bad schtick or goofy slapstick is when we see Sam the Surgeon (Harry Bellaver), Moran’s “persuader,” in full operating-room dress as he tries to extract a dime that someone was holding out. Or when Hope acquires his dress from a store window display in full view of a crowd . . . and a beat cop.

Small children may need to shake a few presents while they watch, but if older children can get past the black and white there’s a lot here to entertain. And fans of I Love Lucy will enjoy seeing William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, as Broadway hustler Gloomy Willie. Most of the humor is situational—a clever line here, or a wry remark there. But there’s something in The Lemon Drop Kid that’s endearing enough to make it a nice alternative to the usual Christmas movies that families watch together every holiday season. After all, it’s the film that introduced the song “Silver Bells.”

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).

The Road movies are famous for breaking the fourth wall, and the asides in this picture include Hope telling the audience, “He’s going to sing now, so it’s a good time to go out and get popcorn.”

My teenage son (who loved this film when he was 5 or 6—all the Road pictures are family-friendly) liked it enough to give it a B+, but I think if he saw other Road pictures he might agree that it’s more of a B. Road to Bali is directed by Hal Walker, who directed Road to Utopia and was assistant director on Road to Morocco and Road to Zanzibar. This Blu-ray transfer is superior to the DVDs that have been floating around for this title, with only a few brief moments where the film loses its crispness. What’s more, film historians Michael Schlesinger and Mark Evanier provide an informative and sometimes funny commentary track which, along with a Bob Hope promo, constitute the release’s only bonus features.

Is it worth adding to your family’s Blu-ray library? Absolutely. And let’s hope that the other Road movies aren’t far behind. Kino Lorber did a nice job on this release.


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Grade: B+
Entire family:  Heck no
1976-91, 499 min. (9 full shows), Color
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.

Johnny Carson wasn’t the first host of The Tonight Show (he followed originator Steve Allen and Jack Parr) nor the last. But he was popular and his 30 years as host stand as a record that will probably never be broken. He was accompanied by sidekick announcer Ed McMahon (“He-earrrrrrs Johnny!”), band leader Doc Severinson, substitute band leader Tommy Neusom, and a parade of guests, most of them promoting movies, books, and record albums. There are several installments of “Stump the Band” that aren’t as funny as others, and a completely dead “Might Carson Art Players” sketch that flops. But two segments that Carson does from his desk are very funny, and his opening monologues continue to be a study in stand-up comedy delivery.

Time Life already released all of these episodes on larger collections of Johnny and Friends, but fans of Martin, Williams, and Murphy will enjoy seeing three episodes each from the many appearances they made on the show. The earliest episode is from 1976, Carson’s 14th season as host of the popular talk-variety show. Here’s what’s included:

Steve Martin
Original Show Airdate: 07/21/76
Steve Martin, Jimmy Stewart, Karen Black
—Original Show Airdate: 05/21/82
Steve Martin, Sylvester Stallone
—Original Show Airdate: 12/19/91
Steve Martin, Cathy Ladman, Leon Redbone

Robin Williams
Original Show Airdate: 04/3/84
Robin Williams, Phyllis Newman
—Original Show Airdate: 01/10/91
Robin Williams, Steve Lawrence
—Original Show Airdate: 09/19/91
Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters

Eddie Murphy
Original Show Airdate: 01/1/82
Eddie Murphy, McLean Stevenson
—Original Show Airdate: 02/10/82
Eddie Murphy, Wayne Rogers, Albert Hague
—Original Show Airdate: 07/30/82
Eddie Murphy, Randall “Tex” Cobb, Angela Bofill

Williams is the funniest and Murphy holds his own—especially when he shocks TV viewers by proposing to lead the audience in a soul-cleansing shouting of the “n” word. It could have been a drumroll countdown to disaster, but with Carson’s permission Murphy went for it and it made his routine based on race uncomfortably but spot-on funny. The only weak link on this set is Martin, who is surprisingly unfunny. You find yourself wishing they had included another comedian instead. Even Sylvester Stallone and Jimmy Stewart are more amusing, and fans of It’s a Wonderful Life will enjoy hearing Stewart talk about the film. But it is interesting to see film clips from the comedians’ “coming to theaters” movies that we’re now well familiar with.

If your family is like mine, they may actually enjoy the commercials as much as the show. It’s fun seeing commercials from 35-40 years ago, and viewers have the option of watching the nine shows with or without original commercials.

But remember, this is late-night viewing . . . for “weird families” only.


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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
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.

Let’s talk about the positives, first. The cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister is exquisite and, coupled with Terence Davies’ brooding direction, creates a moody, atmospheric film that mirrors poet Emily Dickinson’s inner landscape: more trapped by societal limitations than freed by her own rebellions, more able to think than to feel, more dolorous than full of delight, and more plagued by doubt than most women her age—doubt over her writing, her attractiveness, her religious convictions, and her ability to overcome a shyness so extreme that she won’t even speak with non-family callers face to face.

Davies, who is such a fan of poetry that he memorized T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and rereads them every few months, wrote the screenplay based on biographies he read and decided to showcase the poetry. One of the film’s strengths is that we hear the poems read in voiceover after an event that likely inspired them, or at least is thematically compatible. The poems lend a richness to the production that would have been lacking had Davies gone another direction, and a nice bonus feature is an assortment of those poems read by Davies and lead actress Cynthia Nixon.

Nixon, of Sex and the City fame, is another of the film’s strengths. Casting her as the older Emily Dickinson was nothing short of inspired. Nixon is the Dickinson we think we know after reading the poems, and she manages to convey most of the poet’s complex and often conflicted feelings.

That’s quite a contrast from the outgoing teenager we meet in Young Emily (played by Emma Bell), who seems perky and contemporary. How can someone so normal seeming at that age turn so reclusive and even paranoid? The film never gives a clue, so it seems instead like a contradiction. So is the invented best friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), whose inflections seem as modern as can be rather than something out of the Civil War era, though she speaks in the same sort of archaic prose as all the other characters. It’s like listening to Fonzie doing Shakespeare, and about as believable as a scene in which a publisher comes to the Dickinson Homestead and growls at her because she won’t come down to talk to him.

Then there’s Terence Davies’ direction, which seems influenced by the old Masterpiece Theatre series before shows like I, Claudius and Downton Abbey reinvigorated the format—which is to say, it’s ponderously slow-moving and celebrates austerity the way the old Alistair Cooke-introduced series did. Family audiences will find it painfully slow-moving. Meanwhile, the rapid-fire dialogue—as witty as it may be—is unconvincing, sounding like the transcripts of actual letters rather than speech. As Twain proved with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is a difference between the way people write and the way people speak.

Several deaths occur in the novel, and Dickinson rebuffs attempts to coax her to come downstairs or to leave the house and actually live life rather than writing philosophically about it. The characters in this film don’t smile a lot, and because there’s so much in the way of sickness and death and Dickinson’s growing orneriness, instead of Pride and Prejudice it feels like Death and Disagreeableness. There are more family-friendly writer biographies out there, but for lovers of literature it’s still a good film to watch—especially since the crew began shooting in Belgium with interiors reconstructed from the Dickinson Homestead, then shifted to America to actually film at the Emily Dickinson Museum and Dickinson Homestead. There are a lot of good things happening here—just not for the typical family wanting to enjoy a film together.

Language: Nothing offensive
Sex: Two fully clothed people kissing in an implied adulterous situation
Violence: A character has seizures
Adult situations: Nothing objectionable
Takeaway: Dickinson was a terrific poet, and Nixon really brings her to life, however dismal that life was

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
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.

That said, the 3D-animated Smurfs: The Lost Village is a step up from the live-action nonsense the franchise labored through in 2011 and 2013. The water is as good as anything Disney has done, and the animation and colors are really quite vibrant and lovely. If only the plot were something other than a hackneyed mindless ride for children. If only the filmmakers decided to be more ambitious and plant a few things for older family members to enjoy. Or, as they did with The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow (2013), work with a familiar narrative framework so part of the fun is watching the variation unfold. As is, this new film is strictly for the young ones.

Demi Lovato gives voice to Smurfette, while Rainn Wilson (The Office) is the voice of Gargamel and Mandy Patinkin is Papa Smurf, the patriarch of the bunch. In this film, Smurfette, who was formed by clay and created by Gargamel for an evil plan that didn’t quite work, starts to have an identity crisis because every other Smurf is named for an action or personality trait that defines them. There’s Brainy Smurf, Grumpy Smurf, Nerdy Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, Winner Smurf, Loser Smurf . . . think of a trait or tendency and there’s a Smurf for it. But what’s a Smurfette?

When Smurfette discovers evidence of Smurf life outside the village, she and a small group set out to find that lost village before Gargamel does . . . and of course, Smurfette finds her identity in the end. Along the way Gargamel cranks up his Smurf-rendering apparatus to siphon “power” from the Smurfs (odd, considering none of these troll-like little people, androgynous save for Papa Smurf and Smurfette, are just ordinary little creatures.

For a franchise that just keeps cranking these out, there are at least some bonus features that kids will enjoy, including one on Demi Lovato and Smurfette, a Lost Village Dance Along, a way to “Smurfify your nails,” a “Baker Smurf’s Mini Kitchen” demonstration, a “Draw Your Favorite Smurfs” exercise, and a Meghan Trainor “I’m a Lady” music video. In the end, though this earns an objective rating of C+, young children will like it enough to give it a solid B. If they liked the last Smurf movie, this one is almost on the same level.

Review of MONEY FROM HOME (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
1953, 100 min., Color

Not rated (would be PG for adult drinking and smoking)
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Internet quizzes are fun, right? Okay, then, take this one—and I mean that literally. Just one question:

How do you feel about Jerry Lewis?

A) Love him
B) He annoys me
C) Who?
D) Depends on the movie

How you answer will pretty much determine how you’ll feel about Money from Home, a 1953 comedy starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin—the first film the duo made in color. If you answered

A—You’re probably French
B—You saw enough clips or movies to know Lewis’s goofball slapstick style of comedy isn’t for you, and nothing I can say will convince you
C—You’re a Millennial or part of the generation that hasn’t been named yet
D—You probably remember just as many bad films as you do some of the better Martin-Lewis and solo Lewis films

I’m not sure how families today will respond to a Damon Runyon comedy starring Dean Martin as the smooth-talking and smooth-singing crooner and Jerry Lewis as a comic manchild, but the second half of this racetrack nags-and-mobsters film really starts to gallop after a slow set-up that mostly introduced audiences to the typical Runyon stable of prohibition-era Broadway “guys and dolls.” In fact, if you like any of the film versions of his stories—Guys and Dolls, Little Miss Marker, or The Lemon Drop Kid—you’ll probably like Money from Home in spite of Lewis’s antics. Of interest, the film was made in 3D, which accounts for the lively action and some of the in-your-face shots in the third act.

The characters may be as plentiful as in a Russian novel, but the plot is simple. Martin plays gambler “Honey Talk” Nelson, who can sweet talk just about anyone (women especially) but hasn’t had a lucky streak for a long time. In fact, he’s into bookie “Jumbo” Schneider (Sheldon Leonard) big-time, and Schneider gives him a choice: either fix a horse race in Maryland by making sure the “nag” doesn’t run, or else get fitted for a pair of cement shoes and find himself at the bottom of the river. Naturally he chooses to fix the race, especially since he has a dimwitted cousin named Virgil Yokum (Lewis) who is an animal lover studying to become a veterinarian that he’s sure he can con into helping him.

Typical of Hollywood comedies from this period, the males and females are “paired off,” with Honey Talk falling for the owner (Marjie Millar) of the horse he’s supposed to take out of commission, and Virgil getting sweet on the horse’s veterinarian (Pat Crowley). Complicating matters, the English jockey (Richard Haydn) isn’t exactly a teetotaler, and so the plan is to keep him drunk enough to make sure he never gets on that horse. The minute you see how well Virgil and the horse get along, you know what’s going to happen. But there’s also a Poojah (Romo Vincent) who is going to buy the winning horse and brings his whole harem with him, making for additional comic opportunities.

Like most comedies from the fifties, Money from Home is corny and depends on sight gags, slapstick, and a few good one-liners for comedy, but once the characters are introduced you find yourself getting caught up in the action. Apart from adult drinking and the drunkenness of the jockey it’s a pretty tame film, suitable for families. What age group will like it? That depends. What age group likes Jerry Lewis?

As for Martin and Lewis, this entry started them on an upswing. After Money from Home they made some of their most successful films: Living It Up (1954) and You’re Never Too Young and Artists and Models (1955). Most of the Martin-Lewis films fall in the 6 out of 10 range, which makes this film a B-/C+ or vice versa—depending on whether we’re talking about the first half of the film or the second. Watch the clip above and you’ll have a pretty good idea of whether this film is for you and your family. I think the second half is well worth putting up with a slower start.

Language: Pretty clean
Sex: n/a
Violence: Lots of threats but no real violence
Adult situations: A jockey is drunk, Martin always has a cigarette in hand, and there’s some innuendo that will go over kids’ heads
Takeaway: Money from Home isn’t the best Martin-Lewis film, but it’s a solid entry from one of Hollywood’s legendary comedy teams, and the horse-racing angle will pull younger viewers in more easily than some of their other films

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