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Review of FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS (2021) (DVD)

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

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” St. Augustine wrote way back in the 4th century. Travel broadens your world. It increases your understanding, gives you perspective, and, if you’re able to see the world through the emotions of people whose lives are incredibly different from yours, travel also develops your sense of empathy.

If you can’t travel, film is the next best thing. Consider this: if all you and your family watch on your home theater are Hollywood-made formulaic action films and comedies, you’re “reading” just a few pages of the human experience. So I’m going to suggest, as I have in the past, that families with children old enough to manage subtitles should agree to watch a foreign film once a month, then hopefully talk about it afterwards. You could even make it a themed affair, with movie snacks or food from the culture.

Fire in the Mountains is a film in Hindi that offers plenty of possibilities for discussion, starting with the film’s background, which children can research on the Internet. This Indian film debuted in 2021 at Sundance, but for director Ajitpal Singh it was the culmination of many years of work to become a self-taught filmmaker. That’s right. No film school, no mentor—just the spark that came from seeing Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which Singh says really touched him, enough to where he kept at it and finally created his first full-length feature at age 43.

“I connected so deeply with that film. And then I suddenly realized that cinema can be so much more than Bollywood,” he told No Film School. “I realized, I don’t need to know any language. I can just learn this visual language, and I can make films. What I didn’t know at that time, it would take me another 10, 15 years to learn that language.” But he did. First he tried imitation, and it didn’t work. Finally he realized that he needed to film a subject close to his own experience. When he did that, “Suddenly the framing changed, editing changed. Everything changed because this time, I knew what I’m trying to say.” That kind of passion and persistence is certainly worth talking about with children.

The idea for Singh’s debut feature film stemmed from a cousin’s sister who died because her husband wouldn’t take her to the hospital, thinking instead that she was possessed by a ghost. It was a clash of convictions that was personal for him and set up the basic premise of this drama. Set in a remote village in the Indian Himalayas, Fire in the Mountains tells the story of a family that struggles to get ahead. They run a home-stay for tourists, but it’s quite a hike from the village bus stop and taxi stand up the mountain to where their house stands—not just for the guests, but for Chandra (Vinamrata Rai), who has to carry her crippled son down the mountain and back up again to get medical care. It would be easier if there were a road, and she saves money to pay for it. Her husband objects. Dharam (Chandan Bisht) thinks the problem is an evil spirit that put a curse on the family, and they fight over where their money should go. Meanwhile, every day finds wheelchair-bound Prakash (Mayank Singh Jaira) dealing with local bullies, and the couple’s daughter Kanchan (Harshita Tiwari) is obsessed with making social media videos of herself singing, dancing, or posing—all of which her parents see as problematic.

The film generates more questions than answers. Could the boy be faking the extent of his disability? If so, why? What about those bullies? Why is it always a group instead of a single one? How do these bullies act compared to ones in the U.S.? Is the wife or the husband right about the way their money is spent, or are they both right or both misguided? What are the parents’ concerns about their daughter spending so much time on her phone? How is technology treated in the film? Does Singh seem to sympathize with the old way of life or the new? Voiceover “news” reports proudly proclaim that India is becoming a nuclear power, one of the “advanced” countries, but what viewers see onscreen is far from advanced. Does this gap exist in the U.S. as well? Does an “advanced” country have any responsibility to bring its people into a more advanced state? Or will there always be people living in remote situations? What about the belief in ghosts and evil spirits? How do your family members feel about such things? And what about family life and roles, or how hard or easy daily life might be?

Don’t look for a neat and tidy ending. Life is messy. And don’t expect a standard plot. Fire in the Mountain strives to capture images and scenes that suggest the drama of this family’s life. It’s a visceral film that all but invites you into the world of this family to imagine yourself in their position. Considering that Fire in the Mountain is the debut feature of a self-taught filmmaker, that’s especially impressive.

As of this posting, Amazon has it for 52 percent off: $9.52.

Entire family:  No (6th grade and older?)
Run time: 82 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  Hindi Dolby 5.1 Surround
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link
Trailer
Not rated (would be PG-13 for language and some violence)

Language:  6/10—A handful of f-bombs are thrown early in the film, but even that might spark conversation: is it more shocking to hear this word in a film or to read it?

Sex:  1/10—The daughter tries to emulate sexy poses she’s seen on social media

Violence:  4/10—There isn’t much violence, but what’s here could be considered extreme: an animal is sacrificed, a woman is beaten, and a boy is physically bullied

Adult situations:  4/10—There is brief drinking, smoking, and partying, intended to show a contrast between husband and wife

Takeaway: Singh’s first feature leaves you feeling enriched for having watched it, though some of the bigger unanswered questions might be unsettling to some

Review of THE LOST CITY (2022) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
Adventure-comedy
Rated PG-13

Sandra Bullock is at her comic best when she plays a character that would seem more comfortable in a drama than a comedy—someone who gets swept up reluctantly in the narrative events, but learns something about herself and others in the process. Including how to lighten up a bit. She excels at being the equivalent of a vaudevillian “second banana,” who plays it tongue-in-cheek straight while the other person is more ostensibly funny. It happened that way when she played opposite Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal and opposite Melissa McCarthy in The Heat, and it works the same way in The Lost City as she reacts to Channing Tatum.

The 2022 adventure-comedy fared well at the box office and with most critics, with the Rotten Tomatoes bunch giving it a 79 percent “fresh” rating, while the audience score was 83 percent. That’s a pretty high ranking, considering that the screenplay itself is nothing really new—just a mash-up of Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones/Allan Quartermain adventures.

You’ll recognize similarities in a number of scenes, as when a ruined car forces them into a jungle gully and bad guys start shooting at them. But mostly the influence is made obvious when the film opens and former academic-turned-romance-novelist Loretta Sage (Bullock) is imagining a scene with her long-haired dashing hero who’s humorously named Dash McMahon (Tatum). Because Tatum’s character, Alan Caprison, is a model who was hired for a previous book cover and ended up being even more a fan favorite as Dash than the author herself, he’s part of a tour to promote her new book, The Lost City of D. But his flamboyance annoys Loretta and a first-event fiasco leads her to withdraw from the tour.

As good as Tatum and Bullock are together, they’re almost upstaged by Daniel Radcliffe and Brad Pitt in supporting roles. Radcliffe plays Abigail (more cheeky naming) Fairfax, a billionaire who realizes Loretta’s latest book was based on research she did with her late husband. When she refuses Abby’s offer to join his expedition to recover the Crown of Fire, he chloroforms her and kidnaps her. And like any self-respecting romantic hero, Alan decides he has to save her, with a little help from a man he once took self-awareness and flexibility lessons from:  Jack Trainer (Pitt), a former Navy SEAL and CIA operative who meets him on the island and proceeds to grab the spotlight in hilarious fashion. If you enjoyed Pitt’s dramedic talents in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you’re going to love how he manages to be more over-the-top yet still understated and deadpan as can be.

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Review of DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA (4K UltraHD, Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Drama
Rated PG

It’s almost a cliché that in Hollywood (and presumably everywhere else films are made) there are two main plots:  something comes into the heroes’ world, or the heroes leave their world. Either way, they encounter the sort of challenges, adventures, or drama that come from a disruption of routine.

The first Downton Abbey movie (2019) was about something coming into the world of the Crawley family and their servants. It revolved around a visit to Downton from King George V and Queen Mary, and the only exit was one of the staff, who went to New York to visit parents and got arrested at an underground gay nightclub. Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022) seems more richly plotted because there is a balance between the coming and going, with heftier plotlines that are equally intricate and dramatic. 

Robert and Mary

On the home front, a film company requests permission to shoot a silent film at Downton, and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) is opposed . . . until oldest daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) convinces him that the income would pay for the new roof they so desperately need. She assures her father that she will supervise the affair and keep a close watch. Naturally, the staff gets as excited about a movie being made at Downton as they did when the King and Queen visited—except, of course, for the ever-so-grumpy Mr. Carson (Jim Carter)—but their excitement is tempered by a less-than-congenial leading lady (Laura Haddock) and the disappointing announcement that funding for the movie is being pulled because only “talking pictures” are making money. Of course, shades of Singin’ in the Rain, they decide to improvise in order to make a film with sound, and even the staff gets into the act. Literally.

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Review of WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Rated G

Coming-of-age juvenile novels, especially ones documenting life below the poverty line, have spawned an awful lot of films. Where the Lilies Bloomis part of that informal tradition, adapted for the big screen in 1974 after the success of another poor sharecropper story, Sounder (1972).

Where the Lilies Bloom is based on a book by Vera and Bill Cleaver and tells the story of a dirt-poor family living pretty much off the grid in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The mother of the family, still known in the area as the best root and herb doctor there ever was, died four years before the action of this film begins, and the father has that telltale cough and the kind of “spells” that suggest poor Roy Luther (Vance Howard), isn’t far behind.

That puts the focus on the children—in particular, on the second oldest daughter, Mary Call (Julie Gholson), because the oldest is a bit of a dreamer like her father and not the take-charge doer that their mother had been. With the father more and more out of the picture, Mary Call takes on the responsibility of leading the family . . . at the age of 14. That includes following her father’s wish that she keep neighbor Kiser Pease (Harry Dean Stanton) away from her older sister Devola, because Kiser is living in the family’s old house that he got “legal like” by paying the taxes that Roy had allowed to lapse—presumably because of grief following the death of his wife. Although Kiser is a persistent suitor, Mary Call is a bulldog that won’t let him near the place, even though he legally owns the sharecropper’s shack they now call home. Mary Call also has to raise younger brother Romey (Matthew Burril) and baby sister Ima Dean (Helen Harmon).

The story is narrated from Mary Call’s point of view, and like her more famous rural counterpart, John Boy Walton, she is good at writing and encouraged by a teacher to make something “more” of herself by leaving the hill country. But that’s the future. Mary Call is more concerned with the present. To earn a living, the children trudge up the mountain as generations of Luthers before them had done, pulling and pushing their wagon. Using their mother’s notebook as a guide, they pick all sorts of mountain herbs and roots to sell to the local pharmacist in a town far from their shack. And the focus of this film is as much on the family’s daily lifestyle as it is on plot.

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Review of HOT SHOTS! and HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+ and B-
Comedy
Rated PG

With Maverick raking in close to $600 million in total gross and drawing praise from critics and viewers, many fans have started re-watching the original Top Gun. But if you’re also a fan of silly parodies, why stop there? You might as well add the Top Gun parody to your home video library. It’s available with the sequel (Hot Shots! Part Deux) on both domestic and imported Blu-rays.

Hot Shots! (1991) was the first parody Jim Abrahams directed without Jerry and David Zucker after the three parted ways following silly successes like Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Top Secret! As far as parodies go, you should be warned that none of the three found the same level of success as when they worked as a team. But there are still some laughs to be had. Many of the laughs here come from Lloyd Bridges’ performance as Admiral Tug Benson, who is hilariously clueless and never present, though he’s standing right there. Hot Shots! is mostly a takeoff on Top Gun, but other films that get spoofed include An Officer and a Gentleman, 9 1/2 weeks, Dances with Wolves, Superman, and The Fabulous Baker Boys. And Bridges plays a version of a character fans will recognize from Airplane!

Charlie Sheen does a pretty good job of deadpanning the leather-jacketed, bike-riding role Tom Cruise made famous, with Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) serving as his main fighter-pilot rival, Kent Gregory. The film follows Harley’s reluctant return to flying—reluctant because, like his father before him, he was responsible for another flier’s death. And things don’t bode well for his new partner, “Dead Meat” (William O’Leary). When things heat up “somewhere in the Mediterranean,” Harley and Kent are picked to join the mission to knock out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons factory, with secondary targets being an accordion factory and a mime school (one of the funnier lines from co-writers Pat Proft and Abrahams). Complicating matters? Harley’s fragile psychological state and an evildoer of the capitalist kind (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) who is trying to sabotage the planes for personal gain.

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Review of THE NAKED SPUR (Blu-ray)

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

Some people consider classic Westerns to be paint-by-numbers, but the numbers are pretty darned good for Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann. Of the 18 Westerns that Stewart appeared in, five were made with Mann, and four of those rank among Stewart’s top eight. Not bad, considering that Stewart also made four Westerns with the legendary John Ford and one with genre wizard Delmer Daves. The Naked Spur (1953) was the third film that Stewart and Mann made together, following Winchester ’73 (1950) and Bend of the River (1952) and preceding The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955).

Winchester ’73 is the best of the bunch, but The Naked Spur isn’t far behind. Mann got some great performances out of Stewart because he encouraged him to play characters that went against type. Sure, they’re basically nice guys, but they’re not meek, they’re not befuddled, and they’re not so darned goody-goody sure of themselves all the time. Under Mann’s direction, Stewart played characters with a tormented past that is kept tightly lidded, with occasional breakthroughs—rougher, rawer, darker characters than people were used to seeing, yet still one that’s likable, whom you root for and want to see win.   

Mitchell and Stewart

In terms of storytelling, Mann manages to have it both ways. He showcases the raging rivers and formations of the Rocky Mountains and San Juan Mountains, while also zeroing in on five characters who, because they are together the whole time, feel as if they could be on a stage, the drama is so contained and psychological. The assist for making the scenery feel like a sixth character goes to cinematographer William C. Mellor, who won Oscars for his black-and-white work in A Place in the Sun and The Diary of Ann Frank and captures both the stage-like intimacy on the trail and also the grand location scenery in glorious Technicolor.

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Review of WINCHESTER ’73 (1950) (Blu-ray Import)

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Grade:  B+
Western
Not rated (would be PG)

One of Anthony Mann’s most highly regarded Westerns, Winchester ’73 feels like the perfect film for this year’s Fourth of July celebration. Not only does it take place around the Fourth and show a 100-year celebration in that most fabled of American towns, Dodge City, but it also helps to explain the paradox of America’s gun-crazy culture.

The 1950 film stars James Stewart in one of his best Westerns . . . and that’s saying something, because he’s made quite a few good ones. Winchester ’73 was the first that Stewart made since 1939’s Destry Rides Again, and it started a string of Westerns he would star in over the next half-decade:  Broken Arrow, Bend of the River, Carbine Williams, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie. Five of those films were with director Anthony Mann, whom The Guardian called a “master of the genre.”

Winchester ’73 is set just after the battle that was popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. Indians now have repeating rifles, thanks to gunrunners who have no qualms about selling weapons that will be used on settlers and U.S. Cavalry . . . as long as they can make a tidy profit. The Indians that wiped out Custer and his command had better rifles than the cavalry, and America was just learning about Little Bighorn shortly before the nation’s big Centennial celebration. It threw a damper on celebrations in the East, but not in Dodge City, where a genial Wyatt Earp confiscates the guns of newcomers Lin McAdam (Stewart) and Frankie “High-Spade” Wilson (Millard Mitchell, who would play the big studio boss in Singin’ in the Rain). Lin is tracking down Dutch Henry Brown, with whom he has a personal beef—one that will result in gunplay. As they reluctantly hand over their weapons, the audience is shown the inside of the lawmen’s office that’s completely packed with rifles and handguns and gun belts full of ammunition. Earp explains, it’s impossible to keep law and order in a wild town like Dodge if they allow people to keep their guns. “You’ll get them back when you leave town,” he says.

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Review of THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET: COMPLETE SEASONS ONE & TWO (DVD)

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Grade:  B-/B
TV Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

Until It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pushed past them in 2021, with its 14 seasons The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet held the record for longest-running live-action television sitcom. And it still holds the record for most live-action sitcom episodes, with 435 filmed between October 1952 and April 1966. 

That’s pretty amazing, considering that the rival family sitcom I Love Lucy got all the love back in the day. Lucy earned 25 Primetime Emmy nominations and eight wins, while Ozzie and Harriet got justthree nominations and no wins. Lucy became the most watched TV show in America for four out of its six seasons, while Ozzie and Harriet managed to crack the Nielsen Top 30 just once (in 1963-64).

Call it another case of slow-and-steady wins the race. Lucy relied on manic, slapstick situations and comedy of character, while Ozzie and Harriet offered the kind of gentle everyday situational family-life comedy that made The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet a popular radio show from 1944-54. Looking back, it was as close as early classic TV programming came to the kind of loosely scripted reality shows that are popular now. Almost all of the episodes were scripted variations of real incidents from the lives of the Nelson family:  father Ozzie, mother Harriet, and sons David and Ricky. The opening title shot of a home exterior was actually the Nelsons’ home, and though interior shots had to be filmed on a soundstage, producers meticulously recreated the look of the interior of the Nelsons’ home. Ozzie was a stickler for realism, and the plots that viewers watched were often reenactments of family incidents or situations, with Ozzie directing 382 episodes and also writing 261 of the show’s scripts. The boys were 16 and 12 years old when the TV show began, so America watched David and Ricky grow up.

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Review of SWASHBUCKLER (1976) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Action-Adventure/Comedy
Rated PG (see below)

Pirates of the Caribbean fans who are looking toward the future and wincing at the prospect of Margot Robbie replacing Johnny Depp might find some comfort in looking backwards. I didn’t know it until I watched this all-region Blu-ray import, but the 1976 pirate movie Swashbucker was an obvious influence on Disney’s theme-park-ride-turned-film-franchise. 

The first third of Swashbucker has the same comic tone and breakneck action of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. The basic premise for the opening scene is here too:  Drums beat as a pirate is about to be hanged. But then a pirate ship comes around the corner, a pirate captain swings onto the hanging platform to rescue his second in command, and as they escape you almost expect one of them to say “You will always remember today as the day you almost caught . . . Nick Debrett, who sails with Captain Ned Lynch.”

Elements of the basic premise and structure are here, too. The kindly and fair governor of Jamaica has been deposed by an ambitious man and now is imprisoned. His daughter would have been as well, had she not fought and escaped. After that the three main characters who interact and drive the film are Jane Barnet (Genevieve Bujold), Nick Debrett (James Earl Jones), and Ned Lynch (Robert Shaw)—just as Disney’s films would depend upon the triangle of Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, and Jack Sparrow.

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Review of TURNING RED (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Animation
Rated PG

Turning Red is film that can seem uncharacteristically strident for Disney-Pixar. You’ve already heard the complaints: it deals with a young girl’s first menstruation, it “glorifies” juvenile disobedience, and the main character can be a bit much to take.

The first period criticism is way overblown, because it’s really just a mother’s assumption that briefly pops up. When Meilin “Mei” Lee is embarrassed, she does what many kids do:  she turns red. But her red is a giant version of the red panda.  It confuses her. It frightens her. She tries to hide it, especially from her over-protective and aggressive mom. That’s when Ming assumes her daughter is having her first period, but quickly learns it’s an animal transformation instead. 

So the “period” thing is nothing more than a brief blip on the radar screen. Parents worried about young children “getting an education” prematurely can relax. It’s subtle enough that the very young ones won’t even pick up on what’s happening, and those old enough to perceive what Meilin’s mother is talking about are old enough to ask their parents about it. Or maybe the parents would prefer to do things the old-fashioned American way and refrain from talking about something until it actually happens? You know, like Stephen King’s Carrie in the shower, who loses her mind thinking she’s dying?

I personally think any film that give families the chance to talk about important life changes and events is a good thing, and that includes the minutiae. In Turning Red, for example, Meilin has a crush on a boy, and that might be a conversation-starter for parents to talk to their children about crushes.

As for glorifying juvenile disobedience, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Meilin isn’t the first adolescent to sneak out of the house. I mean, even Disney’s Pollyanna did that, and her name is always equated with a goody-goody attitude.

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