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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 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 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 LICORICE PIZZA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Comedy-Drama
Rated R

Sometimes hype can be the kiss of death. It was for me, as far as Licorice Pizza was concerned. All the way through this self-consciously quirky film from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), I kept getting wannabe Almost Famous vibes but found myself thinking, when is this going to end?

That’s not the reaction I expected, given that the coming-of-age film Licorice Pizza, even at a sprawling 133 minutes, was the darling of the 2022 awards season. It earned Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay and won Best Screenplay at the BAFTAs. Licorice Pizza was also touted as the first MGM picture produced and distributed since Rain Man to earn a BP Oscar nod. Smaller film critics associations loved it too, but I kept wondering if maybe that was proof of how starved everyone has been for another small pebble to make a big splash, as Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, and Juno did.

I didn’t find myself as engaged by the characters or their situation as I wanted to be, and the quirkiness level was ramped up so high that it all felt absolutely contrived. As for the plot, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and Juno all had strong narrative trajectories, by comparison. Licorice Pizza felt meandering, but not in a way that seemed terribly organic. Small annoyances kept popping up, like why was one character arrested but then quickly released? Why was one character’s world so random? And why wasn’t the developing “love” more perceptible in its development?

Ninety-one percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics loved the film, as did critics on the aggregate site Metacritic, which scored it a 90 out of 100. In other words, just about every critic out there says I’m wrong. If I am, so is the rest of my family, who also wanted more than the quirkiness Licorice Pizza had to offer. More humor, maybe. Or more believable attraction. Or a plot that seemed less aimless. Or a more tightly edited story.

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Review of FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE 7 FILM COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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

If you’re receptive to older black-and-white movies, this wonderful new Francis the Talking Mule 7 Film Collection from Kino Lorber will strike you as surprisingly entertaining. The three-disc set features all of the Francis movies that were popular in the ‘50s, with an audio commentary for each film. I’ve reviewed thousands of films since 2000, and it says something that I could binge-watch the first five of these light comedies without wanting to skip ahead or quit.

There’s a formula at work here, but it’s still fun seeing it play out:  Francis only talks to Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor), unless Peter is really in a jam. Then Francis will speak to others, reminding them that if they say anything about it to anyone he’ll remain quiet and they’ll end up in the “psych” ward with Peter, who is such a gosh-darned honest guy that he has to give credit where credit is due. Which is to say, Francis doesn’t just talk. He’s a know-it-all, whether it’s the location of the enemy, the time of a planned raid, which horses will win at the racetrack, or who killed Cock Robin. 

Francis

Like the Smithsonian Institution, “America’s attic,” there’s a surprise to be found at almost every turn. Maybe the biggest surprise is O’Connor, who’s most famous for being the third wheel to Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. As the likable Peter he plays everybody’s best friend, modeling character traits like honesty (to a fault), earnestness, humor, loyalty, decency, and dependability. He also displays a refreshing naiveté that makes him sometimes innocent or clueless but never stupid. “Did they take x-rays of your head?” “Yes Sir.” “And what did they show?” “Nothing.” O’Connor stars in all but the seventh film, which features Mickey Rooney—Universal’s first choice for the lead. But seeing them both in the role, I think Universal was fortunate that things turned out as they did. As much as the mule, O’Connor is responsible for the series’ success.

People who served in the military, fans of classic television, and children young enough to be tickled by the situations a talking mule can get into (and out of) will be especially delighted by the Francis films.

Four of the seven films have a military backdrop and were filmed with the cooperation of the Army, Navy, and Women’s Army Corps. Veterans and military enthusiasts will appreciate seeing vintage shots of military academies, bases, training, and mishaps. The word “SNAFU” is an acronym for “situation normal all f***ed up,” a description and attitude that has been used by generations of service men and women to describe the military. Veterans will smile at some of the subtle jokes about military protocols and officers, because Francis was based on a book of stories written by David Stern while he was at Officer Candidate School in Hawaii. In these stories, which were published in Esquire, he created a talking mule—a “jackass” that allowed him to use the pejorative to satirize the people in the Army who were running things. “Francis is afraid to talk. He’s worried if the Army finds out they’ll send him to officer’s candidate school.”

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Review of TOP SECRET! (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Comedy
Rated PG (but more like PG-13)

In 1987, when I interviewed David Zucker—one of the trio responsible for inflicting non-stop gags on movie audiences in such zany satires as Airplane! and The Naked Gun— Zucker, brother Jerry, and Jim Abrahams were basking in the success of Ruthless People. But they were also thinking a great deal about what made Airplane! a run(a)way success and wondering why Top Secret!and their short-lived Police Squad TV series weren’t as popular with audiences.

Cult favorite
“The problem with Top Secret! was that the story wasn’t strong enough, even though the jokes were probably funnier than Airplane! or Ruthless People, and many of the scenes were far more clever,” Zucker said.  “We were very much in tune with the jokes, but the characters weren’t very well-developed. We just used them to spout these jokes. The other thing is, it really wasn’t a readily identifiable concept.  The idea of a rock ‘n’ roll singer who goes to East Germany to fight what seem to be Nazis is kind of an esoteric concept. It was surrealism, and intended to be surrealistic”—which is why Top Secret!, though not a mainstream hit, has achieved a kind of cult status among comedy fans who relish the trio’s mind-boggling juxtapositions and the way the actors somehow manage to maintain deadpan faces as they deliver those deliciously funny lines. As Zucker explained, “With our style, the writers are the funny characters. When people watch our movies, they’re aware that somebody had to write this stuff.”

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Review of BELFAST (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A/A-
Drama, comedy
Rated PG-13

I love movies. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. It was that way in 2018 when I first saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and it happened again a year later with Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Now I feel the same way about Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and it makes perfect sense: Belfast feels like a cross between those two films.

Like Roma, Branagh’s film is a loving, artsy, cinematic tribute to his home city. Filmed for the most part in black and white to feed the nostalgia, it begins in color with spectacular shots of Belfast that put to shame anything a tourist bureau could pay an advertising company to design. And soulful, start-to-finish songs by Van Morrison—arguably Ireland’s best export since pubs—help to create the deeply profound outpouring of love you feel when you watch this film.

Like Jojo Rabbit, this 2021 film also manages to combine a serious topic with humor and quirky, endearing characters—a feat accomplished, in part, because the story is largely told from the point of view of an exuberant nine year old who doesn’t quite understand everything that’s going on. There’s a boyish fantasy, an imagination at work here too that suggests the amalgam of cultural images that’s rattling around inside his head and helping to shape his world view. That’s evident just from looking at the covers of the Blu-rays, with Waititi’s and Branagh’s young boys soaring above the ground like figures in a Marc Chagall painting. Buddy’s world view is also influenced by pop culture, including American Westerns that the boy watches with extended family—intended by Branagh as a thematic and structural parallel.

In Belfast, our first glimpse of Buddy (Jude Hill) is of him playing in the streets with the other kids as parents watch or dance in the street to a phonograph record. Some children are jumping rope or playing soccer, but others, like Buddy, are having a mock battle, with Buddy wielding a homemade gladiator-style sword and garbage-can lid shield. That play gets real really fast, as a gang of Protestant thugs shows up at the end of this cul-de-sac neighborhood—one Branagh depicts as loving and communal—and starts hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks, bashing windows, and threatening people. So much for nostalgia. So much for an idyllic childhood, as Buddy needs to be rescued by his mother (Caitríona Balfe), who uses his shield not for play but to protect both of their heads from rocks and missiles.

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Review of GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) is the kind of film that unapologetically panders to fans of the franchise. Dedicated to the late Harold Ramis, this fourth incarnation features nostalgia-inducing cameos by stars of the original 1984 smash hit:  Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver.

That original cast appeared in a slightly disappointing 1989 sequel, but was absent in the polarizing 2016 all-female reboot starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife seems aimed at an audience of both fans who have felt like the franchise owed them one and fans of child-centered mystery-drama-adventures like TV’s Stranger Things or the newer Jumanji films.

So who ya’gonna call to direct a heavily nostalgic picture that aims to please both old and young viewers? How about Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking), son of Ivan Reitman—the man who directed the first two Ghostbuster films.

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Review of CRUELLA (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Comedy-Drama
Rated PG-13

I did not expect to like Cruella as much as I did, because the two previous times Disney tried live-action versions of the popular 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians they produced doggie doo. That’s not just my opinion. While the original animated film got a 98 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close as villainess Cruella De Ville earned just a 41 percent rating, and the 2000 sequel did even worse (31 percent).

But RT critics awarded this new origin story Cruella a 74 percent “fresh” rating, while 97 percent of the audience gave it high marks. After watching it, I can see why. It’s smartly written and full of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. Emma Stone has fun with the titular role without going over-the-top campy—and that’s a tough tone to pull off. Close didn’t even come close.

Stone received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and it was well deserved because of the pressure she faced. Essentially Cruella—like Disney’s Maleficent before it—is similar to a superhero origin story. As the lead performer goes, so goes the film.

Disney is trying to tell the stories of their villains with some sympathy, but isn’t that a risky business? Disney villains are notorious and gigglesnort popular because they are villains of a gigantic sort. Maleficent was the fourth highest grossing film of 2014, and Cruella was 15th in 2021 box office revenue. Since Maleficent was also a bit more sinister than Cruella, might that account for the difference? Do audiences still prefer villains to be more villainous than misunderstood?

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Review of WHERE THERE’S LIFE (Blu-ray)

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

Throughout their careers, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby had a rivalry that extended beyond their onscreen personas in the “Road” pictures they made with Dorothy Lamour. In 1946, Crosby had the upper hand. His Bells of St. Mary’s was the top grossing film that year, while his Blue Skies placed #3, just ahead of their Road to Utopia picture. Meanwhile, Hope’s Monsieur Beaucaire lagged at #26. 

A year later Hope made Where There’s Life and couldn’t resist a dig at both of them, as on-the-lam radio personality Michael Valentine (Hope) runs through a narrow street past a movie poster of Blue Skies and does a turned-up-nose double-take.

In fairness, Hope’s nose was always turned up, and that self-proclaimed “banana nose” was also a running gag from picture to picture. Where There’s Life is one of several Cold War spy comedies that Hope made, and it falls somewhere in the middle of the comedian’s film catalog. It’s pleasantly entertaining, but we feel as if we’ve seen it all before. I mean, how many times can you make a film about an innocent average Joe who gets caught up in intrigue and finds himself intrigued as well by a femme fatale?

As it turns out, three others—My Favorite Blonde (1942), They Got Me Covered (1943), My Favorite Spy (1951)—but it seems like more because there’s not enough variation to the plots. You begin to realize as much when you find yourself delighted by little things in the film—like that Blue Skies dig or William Bendix, who plays a cop in this one, saying “What a revoltin’ development this is!” Audiences familiar with The Life of Reilly radio series starring Bendix would have laughed to hear him repeat his famous catch-phrase, one he’d continue to use as Reilly on the TV sitcom version in the fifties.

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