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Review of ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action-Adventure
Not rated (would be PG)

“Open Sesame!”

Who hasn’t heard that phrase before, or immediately recognized it as the voice of Ali Baba? For that we can thank French translator Antoine Galland, who in the 1700s added “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to One Thousand and One Nights. Over time it became one of the collection’s most popular tales, but it gets a revisionist spin in this 1944 color film starring Jon Hall, who’s best known to Baby Boomers as Ramar of the Jungle and the director-star of the campy ‘60s sci-fi flicks The Beach Girls and the Monster and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters.

In the original tale, Ali is a common woodsman who happens upon a thieves’ hideout, discovers the secret of gaining entrance, and sneaks a bag of gold coins. But his sister-in-law learns about it and forces Ali to reveal where he got the gold from, so his brother can follow suit. That brother is killed, but with the help of a slave girl Ali gets revenge and emerges victorious.

In this film version, Ali is the rich son of the Caliph of Baghdad who escapes being killed with his father after Mongols seize the kingdom. Ali is taken in by the thieves and becomes the adopted son of their leader, Baba. Instead of a plot revolving around thievery and wealth, Ali and his band are freedom fighters dedicated to killing the Khan (Kurt Katch) and retaking Baghdad for their people.

Though it’s the kind of solid-but-generic sword-and-sandal film that Hollywood loved to make during the Golden Age, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves also has a campy feel to it because of the presence of veteran character actor Andy Devine, who made a career out of being the Western hero’s sidekick and delivering comic relief. It’s hard to see his rotund frame in Arab garb and hear his familiar raspy high-pitched voice without thinking of him in buckskin as Jingles in TV’s Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, or Cookie from the Roy Rogers feature films. Others will recognize him as the driver in John Ford’s Stagecoach, but regardless, seeing him in a different costume adventure or seeing him for the first time is enough to make you smile.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is pure escapist fare, with a formulaic combination of romance and light adventure. It’s an old-time swashbuckler made more interesting because of a childhood pledge to marry and the Khan’s desire to wed the daughter of the ambitious Prince Cassim (Frank Puglia). Though there really isn’t much sizzle between Amara (Maria Montez) and either man she’s “intended” for, the romantic tug-o-war side plot adds a welcome twist of originality—especially when several climactic scenes seem to draw heavily from the 1939 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Like most films from this era, the violence is less extreme and the romance is toned down, making it more family-friendly than newer adventures. But will it play in your household “Peoria”? I’m guessing yes, because it’s in color, the plot moves along at a decent clip, the costumes are fun, and the characters are engaging enough. Though it was shot mostly on a backlot, Utah and California location filming adds touch of the desert. There’s also an easy sense of story that’s unfettered by uncertainties. That is, the tone of the film lets you know the hero isn’t going to be killed no matter what kind of fix he finds himself in, and nothing other than a single death (common in films of this period) will spoil the mood.

Hall sports the kind of “Pencil Thin Mustache” Jimmy Buffett sang about that was popular in the decade this film was made, but he’s not the only dashing hero. Turhan Bey cuts quite a romantic swath as Jamiel, the princess’s good-looking and loyal servant who also idolizes Ali Baba as a Robin Hood figure. He’s an accomplished knife-thrower and that plays a big part in the action. When you put it all together, this 1944 version of the popular Arabian Nights tale is as good as any that’s been made so far. And once again, Kino Lorber has done a great job with the transfer to HD. The Technicolor looks as rich and fully saturated as it once did in theaters.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 87 minutes, Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Trailer
Best Buy link
Not rated (would be PG for mild violence and some suggestive scenes)

Language: 0/10—Clean as a whistle

Sex: 2/10—We’re led to believe the princess is bathing naked (she’s shown bare-shouldered in the water) and isn’t shy at all about being discovered, but that’s really the extent of it 

Violence: 4/10—Swordfighting, knives and stabbings, and after the opening scene where the Caliph is killed, just one minor character we care about dies; in another scene, a man is tortured (but we later learn it was staged)

Adult situations: 2/10—Some drinking and festival-style celebrating

Takeaway: There was something comforting in the wartime and postwar movies that gave audiences a chance to escape and become emotionally involved with screen characters, but not overly stressed out

Review of THE LAST VALLEY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Historical war-adventure drama
Rated PG

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that Shangri-La is never what it appears to be, because idylls are too close to idols and idles for comfort. Human nature always gets in the way of any Eden, and paradise seems always destined to be lost, as illustrated by this 1971 historical adventure-war drama.

Moviemakers were going different directions the year The Last Valley was released, with audiences latching onto tough-guy cops and P.I.s (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Shaft), racy literary adaptations (A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show), prostitutes (Klute, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), and the latest James Bond entry (Diamonds Are Forever). So The Last Valley was all but overlooked in America, despite its popularity in the U.K. and the pairing of Michael Caine (The Ipcress File) and Omar Sharif (Funny Girl, Dr. Zhivago).

Written and directed by James Clavell (To Sir with Love, also known for his novel Shogun that was made into a popular TV mini-series), the film raises a lot of questions about religion, war, and the very meaning and nature of existence. Mostly, though, it feels like an anti-war fable that grinds its gears toward the conclusion that conflict is futile yet, ironically, inevitable.

For an older film, it’s surprisingly compelling because it’s surprisingly fresh—well written and, except for a few melodramatic moments, superbly acted, with impressive location filming in Austria. Families who like the comedy Miss Congeniality will hardly recognize makeover artist Michael Caine decades earlier in this film as a captain who commands a group of mercenaries during Europe’s Thirty Years War. Superscript tells us at the film’s beginning that this 1618-48 war ravaged central Europe the same time as the plaque and was initially fought between Protestant and Catholic states in a deteriorating Holy Roman Empire. Then it became a fight for power and control, with wealthy noblemen and professional soldiers leading large armies of mercenaries from both religious sides as they spread across the countryside, destroying villages and raping and looting along the way. In effect, they put their religious differences on hold in order to pursue a common “bad”. A similar truce happens in The Last Valley. More

Review of THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Rated PG
Adventure-Drama

Writer-slash-prospector Jack London penned his classic third novel, The Call of the Wild, in 1903, and the first of seven film adaptations and TV series was released way back in 1935. As a result, people think they know this dog story even if they haven’t read or seen it. What they typically know is that it’s a Yukon gold rush story involving a sled dog. Since the other well-known thing London wrote was “To Build a Fire,” in which a man freezes to death, they naturally assume The Call of the Wild is a sad movie.

And in places, it is. If you have family members who are especially sensitive to bad things happening to animals, this first feature from 20th Century since Disney acquired the movie division of Fox might not be for them.

Overall, though, The Call of the Wild isn’t another weepy Marley & Me or Hachi: A Dog’s Tale or Old Yeller. {Spoiler alert—skip to next paragraph] Dogs are mistreated and animals and humans die—but not Buck.

Buck is the dog whose epic/episodic journey we follow, from owner to owner and from the easy California life of a pampered pet to the harsh world of a sled dog learning how to survive in the wild. Buck is also regrettably CGI, and it takes some time to adjust to that and accept him as a character. From the moment we see him bounding around a judge’s mansion it’s painfully obvious that we’re not watching a real dog. There’s just something “off” about the movement or design. But you get used to it, and as director Chris Sanders told ComingSoon.com, the decision to go with CGI animals was pretty much made for them, because “you just could not safely put a real dog” into the dangerous situations the film depicts. That includes some pretty spectacular scenes.

Sanders also said, “In a situation where you’re using real dogs, you would have a number of dogs playing Buck. So you might have two, three, four or more dogs that are specialized in different behaviors standing in for Buck, which means you’d have a huge inconsistency with these characters. But the most important thing is that we wanted this character to act and to be a character; this is a fable about a dog. The human beings are characters that come and go in Buck’s life . . . .” More

Review of STAR WARS IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Sci-fi Fantasy

George Lucas and The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams had to be dreading the day when the last of the nine-film Star Wars franchise finally went into production—less so because a beloved series was ending, and more because fans have been notoriously hard on final installments. Just ask the Game of Thrones people. They know a little something about expectations being so high they can seldom be met.

But if you’re going to market all things Star Wars over four decades, including books about the various creatures, weapons, uniforms, and vehicles, you’ve got to expect that diehard fans are going to downgrade the film if they see inconsistencies, as überfans did. You also could have predicted that critics, who expect originality in every episode of a storied franchise like this, would also complain that there were too many scenes that seemed little more than variations on iconic scenes from previous Star Wars films.

But if you’re just a casual Star Wars fan who’s looking to be entertained, The Rise of Skywalker is a decent enough popcorn movie.

Yes, the original Star Wars trilogy— A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983)—remains the best trio of the franchise because the films stayed true to what Lucas wanted to do in the first place: make a contemporary version of the Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Commando Cody serials he grew up watching. That meant creating a slam-bang cliff-hanging adventure that was as fun as those old-time black-and-white serials. In the original trilogy, Lucas managed to perfectly capture the blend of action and tongue-in-cheek campiness that made those old-time serials fun. He created a fantasy adventure that didn’t take itself too seriously, with the actors bantering at times like those you saw in another old-time genre: the screwball comedy. More

Review of JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Fantasy Action-Adventure

Before I offer my family’s take on Jumanji: The Next Level, I’d like to point out that the Internet Movie Database readers thought it was almost as good as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (6.8 vs. 6.9/10) and 87 percent of the audience at Rotten Tomatoes rated them dead even.

Our family’s reaction came closer to the Tomatometer Critics, who gave it a 71 percent “fresh” rating compared to the 76 percent rating they had given Welcome to the Jungle. We didn’t think it was as good.

Welcome to the Jungle effectively used the Breakfast Club formula of grouping different teen personalities together so that we knew, by the time they entered the game, what they were afraid of, what they most wanted, and how they acted normally, so we could appreciate their every movement as an avatar within the game that had sucked them inside. The writing was crisp and it all made sense.

This time, though, the beginning is slow and which characters are which avatars is a bit muddled. When we watch Spencer (Alex Wolff) drag through some pre-game scenes that are supposed to explain why he goes back into the game, those scenes seem unnecessary because they don’t really offer much in the way of an explanation. They just slow the narrative. Same with the introduction of Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged business partner Milo (Danny Glover). The camera time they get feels wasted, given DeVito’s and Glover’s talents. You find yourself thinking, “Come on, get on with it.” More

Review of DRAGONHEART: VENGEANCE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
Fantasy
2020, 97 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some bloody images
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Dragonheart: Vengeance is the third direct-to-video “prequel” to the cult-favorite 1996 fantasy adventure starring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery, and the good news is that it doesn’t look like the typical slap-it-together direct-to-video release.

Aside from some noticeable green screen work in less than a handful of spots, the CGI effects and animation are strong enough to make you forget that this spawn of Dragonheart never saw the dim light of theaters. But apart from those strong production values, Dragonheart: Vengeance is a mixed bag.

On the plus side, the two main characters are instantly likeable. The more screen time they get, the more you like watching farm boy Lukas (Jack Kane) and mercenary swordsman Darius (Joseph Millson) as they set about to avenge the murder of the boy’s family and eventually take on the evil king. On the minus side, haven’t we already seen a family-less Luke hooking up with a profit-minded rogue adventurer who then take on the Emperor—albeit with a galactic rebel army? And haven’t we seen Darius’s “look” before in Aragorn?

Instead of Sean Connery’s voice, the dragon in this film is powered by Helena Bonham Carter (“You’re a girl dragon?”). Carter is always the consummate professional, and it’s a nice touch having the dragon breathe ice and not fire. But some of the lines that are written seem way too contemporary, and the script doesn’t allow for the same playful interaction as in the original film. Instead of a con game where the mercenary and dragon worked together to extort money from frightened villagers (and banter like buddy cops in the process), this dragon is a reluctant dragon—as much of a pacifist as those old-time Western heroes who need to have someone close to them threatened or die before they’ll take action. More

Review of THE WAR LORD (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
Action-Adventure, Drama
1965, 123 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG-13 for adult situations, brief nudity and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Of the dozen or so films set in medieval times that Hollywood made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, The War Lord stands out. It wasn’t another romanticized tale of knighthood like El Cid, Ivanhoe, The Black Knight, or Knights of the Round Table, and it wasn’t a dreamed-up biopic of a famous figure like Lady Godiva, Prince Valiant, Saint Joan, or Francis of Assissi. If a comparison had to be made, you’d have to say that it comes closest to The Vikings in its tone, spirit, and subject matter.

Like The Vikings, this 1965 Technicolor and Panavision feature from director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) is based on the conflicts between Normans and Frisian (Viking) raiders. But like The Vikings a good portion of the drama comes from internal conflicts unrelated to the main bouts. Unlike The Vikings or any of the films about knights, the life of a warrior is not romanticized, nor is medieval life. The castle in The War Lord is but a single tower, and it’s cold and drafty and in disrepair from previous sieges. There are no lute players or jesters, no feasts, and no life of leisure inside that small castle.

A typically wooden Charlton Heston stars not as a glamorous knight but as knight given a swampy place in the middle of Nowhere, Normandy to hold for his king. Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) relishes the appointment of Lord over all who live in this place, while the brother that accompanies him, Draco (Guy Stockwell) thinks it a mudhole fit only for pigs and heathens. Also accompanying Chrysagon is Bors (Richard Boone), a sidekick who’s fought by his side in the Crusades. More

Review of THE KNIGHT OF SHADOWS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
Action-Fantasy
2019, 109 min., Color
Well Go USA Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for crude humor and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1 Mandarin (and English dubbed) with English subtitles
Bonus features: C+ (better than the film!)
Trailer
Amazon link

If you look at the cover of The Knight of Shadows with its tagline “Martial Arts Fantasy Adventure” and see Jackie Chan and a serious-looking co-star in period garb, you’d think you’re in store for a serious adventure. You get a similar impression if you read the Imdb.com or Amazon.com description that the studio provided: “A legendary demon hunter (Jackie Chan), tracking down beasts that enter the human dimension, assisted by a lawman protégé and a motley group of friendly monsters.” Still promising, right? Even if you watch the official trailer, with its strange H.R. Pufnstuf-style characters, you never get the sense that silliness ever tries to hijack the film.

Then you watch the film and go, seriously?

Director Jia Yan tries to juggle the comedy and martial arts adventure, and if they were knives he’d still be in the emergency room getting stitched up. This is a film that lurches clumsily between Three Stooges silliness (three law enforcement officers in The Knight of Shadows do their best to ruin Moe, Larry, and Curly for future generations) and cartoonish creatures that are just poorly designed and clumsily integrated into the plot—as if Jia Yan looked at the first print and thought, “We have to do more with this film to attract small children.” Let’s put in a pig character, and a cross between a fairy and Groot, and a character whose only function is to talk about “farts” and throwing his own special brand of f-bombs here and there.

The influential Chinese website Douban gave The Knight of Shadows a 4.3 out of 10, and I’d have to say that my family and I had nearly the same reaction. I’d go ever-so-slightly higher because there are some wonderful serious action sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but make you wish that the director had chosen to go this route instead of trying to straddle the fantasy fanboy and Saturday morning cartoon audiences. More

Review of CHARLIE’S ANGEL’S: FULL THROTTLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No
Action-Adventure Comedy
2003, 106 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for action violence, sensuality and language/innuendo
Sony
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

The original Charlie’s Angels TV series (1976-81) was a campy affair that gave viewers a little female eye candy every week and some tongue-in-cheek crime-show action. What made it work were the three stars—Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Jaclyn Smith—and not the undercover situations the detectives found themselves in, which were only slightly more outlandish than other crime shows on the air.

In that original TV series, John Forsythe provided the voice of the head of the Charles Townsend Detective Agency, while David Doyle was the lovably uncool Bosley, the angels’ contact and often fourth wheel on their assignments. The never-seen Charlie gave the show a hint of mystery, while Doyle’s doddering Everyman provided comic relief and balanced the chic, ultra-hip vibe that the angels gave off. But the angels were portrayed realistically enough that fans could either identify with their favorite or wistfully lust after them. They came across as real people who managed to find themselves in unreal situations every week.

That winning formula was altered so completely in 2000 by music video director McG that the first Charlie’s Angels reboot seemed little more than an over-the-top extended music video. And McG did the same thing with Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003). The three stars—Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu—are deliberately comic, but the comedy feels clumsily inserted instead of integrated into the narrative. That makes it hard for us to care about their assignment, which gets lost in an onslaught of road-runner-and-coyote action. More

Review of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: No
Sci-Fi Action-Adventure
2019, 129 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Columbia Pictures / Marvel Studios
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Some franchises age better than others. Spider-Man, in fact, keeps getting younger as the studio aims for a youthful, social media savvy audience. In fact, 22-year-old British actor Tom Holland learned he got the role of Spider-Man three years ago via an Instagram post.

In some respects, Holland has come a long way since he played the lead in Billy Elliott: The Musical, but in other respects he’s still playing that awkward youth who struggles as much with his own self-image as any other adolescent or teen. In Spider-Man: Far from Home—his fifth film wearing the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man costume (counting appearances in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame in addition to the 2017 film Spider-Man: Homecoming)—Holland as Peter Parker is awkward around girls, unsure of himself, and as reluctant a hero as ever there was.

Director Jon Watts said that audiences responded well to the high school student excursion to Washington D.C. monuments in Homecoming, so it was a no-brainer to take those students abroad. But some parents might wish that the kids traveled with a teacher who wasn’t cut from the Disney Channel template of clueless adults, more cardboard comic relief than flesh-and-blood character. Still, I suppose if Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) wasn’t so clueless, there’d be no way to quickly and easily move the group from one part of Europe to allow Peter Parker to do his “Peter tingle” job, as his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) likes to call it. More

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