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Review of THE HUSTLE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
2019, 93 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content and language
MGM / Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Rebel Wilson was funny in the Pitch Perfect movies and Bridesmaids, but films like The Hustle continue to prove that she’s not well suited to play a leading role. Her schtick, let’s call it, is a comedy of character that’s not up to the fast pace of the 2010s. It’s like watching Stan Laurel wiggle and squirm and fiddle with his hat and slowly, increment by increment, try to react or explain something to a befuddled partner (or audience). At some point, you tend to lose patience because the humor, often crude or full of innuendo, is so protracted out. Instead of a bouncy spring, it’s drawn out so it becomes flat as can be.

That’s the adjective that best describes The Hustle: flat. It’s lacking energy, and features only a handful of laugh-out-loud moments where you think, gee, I wish there were more of those. And they’re all in the trailer. The plot, meanwhile, is a rehash of things we’ve seen before, which only adds to the movie’s flatness. And that’s not even getting into co-star Anne Hathaway’s “British accent,” which sounds like the kind of accent that you or I would attempt at a party to amuse folks. As a snooty Brit con artist, she just isn’t convincing enough. And Wilson, as her American counterpart, is also a bit hard to believe as a con artist who could make men part with their money.

The film is a remake or variation of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which Michael Caine and Steve Martin played two con artists with gigantic egos who decide once and for all to see who’s the best by having a contest to see who can be the first to bilk an American heiress out of $50,000. In this version, given inflation, the bet is $500,000, and the players are a small-time grafter (Wilson as Penny) and a sophisticated and very rich con artist (Hathaway as Josephine). They meet in Europe when Penny gets in the way of Josephine’s con and also turns up on the French Riviera after learning that’s where Josephine is going . . . and where the really rich people are. After competing they finally decide to team up, and that leads to scrambled egos with egg on Penny’s face, which leads to the ultimate contest over a goofy, nerdy, rich tourist (Alex Sharp as Thomas).

Maybe it’s Wilson and Hathaway, or maybe it’s the screenplay-by-committee that’s the problem. This film by Chris Addison, who’s making the leap from TV to the big screen, just doesn’t have much substance or oomph—though fans of Veep (Addison directed 13 episodes) will be delighted to see Timothy Simons (Jonah, on the show) turn up. Since Veep is so smart and this screenplay by a committee of seven is so lackluster, it would be fair to conclude that the problem is in the writing . . . and there are way too many of those scenes where Wilson does the Stan Laurel wiggle to think that showcasing her was a good idea. If we could conduct an experiment and feature Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in the con artist roles, we could pinpoint the problem a little better. My guess is that it wouldn’t help a whole lot.

There are a few plot twists, but you can see them coming, even if you never watched Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or the David Niven and Marlon Brando film that inspired it, Bedtime Story. Either one of those films is more entertaining to watch, unless of course you’re a huge Rebel Wilson and/or Anne Hathaway fan.

Language: Fairly mild, just the gamut of lesser swearwords

Sex: A little in the way of kissing and a lot in the way of innuendo and gestures, but still mild overall 

Violence: I don’t recall seeing anything in the way of violence

Adult situations: There’s plenty of drinking but no real drunkenness, with some scenes taking place inside a casino and others inside restaurants

Takeaway: These days every film like this ends up generating a sequel, but if that happens I hope Addison decides to write the screenplay himself and, in the meantime, learn that what often works on the small screen doesn’t translate well to cinema

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Review of PLUS ONE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No–parents only!
2019, 99 min., Color
Comedy-drama romance
RLJE Films
Not rated (would be R for drinking, drunkenness, drugs, language, and implied sex)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

This one is for parents only—parents who are fans of romantic comedies but also like to show a little love for indie filmmaking. For best results, save Plus One for a night after the kids have been a real handful and you’re both exhausted and secretly thinking back to how carefree everything was before the first bundle of joy arrived, or even before you got married. Watching Plus One will make you appreciate every last difficult minute you spend with your family.

If this film has an underlying social message, it’s that being single sucks, so single parents be warned. More cautionary tale than standard romantic comedy, Plus One is nonetheless totally aware of the romantic comedy conventions: boy has a meet-cute with girl, they fall in love, they lose each other and realize what they lost, and they get together again, just in time for the happy ending. Because of that genre self-awareness, you know pretty much where this film is headed, without even looking much farther than the premise: Ben (Jack Quaid, who looks a bit like Joel McHale with a beard) and his loud, force-of-nature college friend Alice (Maya Erskine, PEN15), find themselves with 10 weddings to attend over the summer—some his, some hers. To get through them, Alice gets Ben to agree to be each other’s “plus one” to avoid sitting at the singles table (a.k.a. the kids table). So yeah, you fully expect them to get together. More

Review of SHAZAM! (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (really!)
2019, 132 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

In Shazam!, a teen foster kid turns into a fully costumed adult superhero with a lightning symbol on his chest every time he shouts “SHAZAM”—the name of an ancient wizard who passed along his power to the lad because he was “pure of heart.”

Except that in the early going we watch this Philly kid trick cops into a store, lock them in, steal the cop car, and, adding insult to injury, eat the driver’s steak sandwich and fries. Needless to say, Billy (mostly played by Asher Angel) has been in and out of foster homes for many years because of such delinquent behavior. But the message here comes across loud and clear: kids who do bad things can still be good, and let’s give a shout-out to all the foster parents out there who give them a chance. At one point we even see a close-up of his new foster’s car and the bumper sticker “I’m a foster mom—what’s your superpower?” Another theme that emerges is “Fosters are family,” something that’s reinforced by a third act team effort that’s needed to beat the evil supervillain.

But you might want to pay attention to that PG-13 rating, which, these days, means children 10 and older. The film gets off to a slow start, for one thing. The first-act set-up can seem both confusing and tedious to younger viewers because it intercuts the villain’s childhood back story with current attempts by foster-kid Billy to locate the mother he lost at a carnival when he wandered off many years ago. But just as Billy has a dual identity—kid and adult—this film at times seems great for kids, while there are other times when those kids had better leave the room . . . or be traumatized.

Truly frightening things happen when the seven deadly sins are personified as real monsters that do some really monstrous things—like biting people’s heads off. And the supervillain (Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) is pretty darned menacing as the bitter adult version of a child once summoned by the wizard, but rejected . . . and by his father, as well, who blames him for a car accident that’s graphic enough that small children might fear everyone has been killed or seriously mutilated.  More

Review of ROAD TO UTOPIA (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
1945, 90 min., Black & White
Adventure-Comedy
Not rated (would be PG for adult elements)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Road to Morocco, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour’s fourth “road” picture, Road to Utopia, received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay—one reason why both of the musical comedies are considered the best of the bunch. There’s more plotting, more clever lines, and a more ambitious narrative arc in each of them.

The action takes place in Seattle and Alaska shortly after the Klondike Gold Rush around the turn of the century, making Road to Utopia (1945) the only road picture with a historical backdrop. It’s also the only road picture to use a frame device that takes full advantage of the audience’s familiarity with other road pics. This time it’s made clear that Hope, not Crosby, got the “girl,” as the film opens with a made-to-look-old Hope and Lamour as a married couple who get a surprise visit from their old friend, Duke, and they reminisce about the adventure that led to their separation.

In Utopia, Hope and Crosby play two vaudeville performers (what else?) who are working a scam called “Ghosto,” in which audience members are urged to wager money by placing it in a box to see if the “spirit” (Hope, as Chester, curled up underneath) will take the money and replace it with a larger bill. Duke (Crosby) wears the swami getup and solicits the cash, and all goes well enough until two murderers evading police chase through the theater. When the Ghosto table is overturned and the crowd sees it’s a scam, they take after Chester and Duke (Crosby), who scram with the money. After Duke swipes all of it and Chester follows him aboard the boat to get it back, the steamer horn sounds and they find themselves bound for Alaska. More

Review of ROAD TO MOROCCO (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
1942, 82 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG for drinking, smoking, innuendo, and some peril)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Of all the “Road” pictures, Road to Morocco is tops for family viewing—especially those families with older children who can appreciate the chemistry that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby bring to the screen as drifters and small-time grifters. Hope and Crosby brought their A game to this picture, and their banter with each other may well have inspired all of the buddy cop pictures that would come decades later, and their on-screen love interest, Dorothy Lamour, said that the guys ad-libbed so much that she had a hard time figuring out when she was supposed to say a line.

Turkey (Hope, seeing the desert for the first time): This must be the place where they empty all the old hourglasses.

Jeff (Crosby): We must storm the place!
Turkey: You storm. I’ll stay here and drizzle.

Turkey: The dead have a way of coming back you know.
Jeff: Get out. When they’re dead, they’re dead.
Turkey: Not Aunt Lucy. She was a Republican.

Road to Morocco was released in 1942 following Road to Singapore and Road to Zanzibar, and the third time was the charm. Audiences wanted pleasant diversions from the war, but Morocco was even more fun than usual. It also holds up the best for contemporary audiences—starting with the music. More

Review of ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1941, 91 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS mono
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

Road to Zanzibar was the second of seven Crosby-Hope-Lamour musical comedy adventures, released in 1941 at a time when Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and safari pictures were popular. There wasn’t even supposed to be a second “Road” picture, but Paramount had bought the rights to a story that was so similar to Darryl f. Zanuck’s 1939 safari pic Stanley and Livingstone that the project was dead in the water . . . until someone decided that maybe they could do a parody of safari movies instead. In no time, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour were on the road again.

The Road pictures were always innocuous fun, spotlighting Crosby’s crooning, Lamour’s singing (and sometimes dancing), and Hope’s second-banana one-liners. This outing, writers Frank Butler and Don Hartman upped the quips between Hope and Crosby, and with the pair ad libbing as well there emerged a crackling comic energy.

The plot is a little more complex than Road to Singapore (1940), and that’s also a good thing for contemporary audiences. Along with Road to Bali (the only color film of the bunch), this is one of the recommended “starter” Road pictures for families with small children. Kids immediately pick up on the fact that Hubert “Fearless Frazier” (Hope) is constantly getting the short end of the stick as the one who has to do the dirty or dangerous work in their rotating carnival acts. The film begins with Frazier as the “Human Cannonball.” But instead of himself being shot through a flaming hoop, he hides in a secret compartment and substitutes a dummy. When that dummy sets the tent and half the town on fire and all the animals are released, they skedaddle, trying different carnival scams in different towns. Next up: Frazier wrestling a live octopus in a tank, except that plan never happens because they meet a man at a restaurant who’s a diamond baron. He buys them expensive champagne and even bails them out the next day after the night gets out of hand. So naturally Chuck Reardon (Crosby) falls for the diamond mine version of magic beans. Instead of buying two tickets back to America on a steamer, he buys a “lost” diamond mine map from a rich baron who turns out to be so crazy that his children won’t let him make decisions anymore. More

Review of ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes, but….
1940, 85 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG for drinking, smoking, and innuendo)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Today’s parents may have grown up watching some of the old Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour “Road” pictures on television. If so, there’s a good chance they might want to share them with their children.

A showcase for Crosby’s crooning, Lamour’s singing and dancing, and Hope’s second-banana wisecracking, the Road pictures were pure escapism for an America that was weighed down by WWII. Hope and Crosby, two vaudevillians who rose to become popular stars of their own radio shows, had made the leap to film, and the genius who paired them deserves a medal. The first of the Road pictures, The Road to Singapore, became the highest grossing film of 1940. Though it’s not the best—that honor goes to Road to Morocco (1942) and Road to Utopia (1945)—it lays the foundation for the films to come, though it was originally only intended as a one-and-done film. But the public wanted more, and Road to Zanzibar followed in 1941, and Road to Rio (1947), Road to Bali (1952, the only color release), and the Cold War entry The Road to Hong Kong (1962). All of the films were made during a time when Hollywood (and the rest of the world, really) was not terribly educated about or sensitive to issues of race and gender. So you’re going to have to overlook some period-typical dialogue and characterizations, as well as “natives” that seem a blend of big Hollywood musical dancers and a bag full of different cultures. Thankfully, Hope and Crosby make that easy to do.

In all of the Road pictures, they play a couple of ne’er-do-wells who are either petty con men and womanizers seeking to stay one step ahead of the law or world-traveling vaudeville-style entertainers . . . and womanizers seeking to stay one step ahead of the law. That might not sound like family entertainment, but the pictures truly are escapist fare with an emphasis on the one-liners, ridiculous plots, and the inevitable romantic tussle over Lamour (with Crosby always getting “the girl”).

For families with younger children, a good place to start might be the only color release, Road to Bali, which is slightly faster paced than The Road to Singapore and features a squid-wrestling sequence. Despite some racist elements, The Road to Zanzibar, with its safari-centered plot, is another good option if the kids are smaller. The two best are best because of the one-liners, so they’re recommended as good starting points for families with older children. More

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