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Review of MY FAVORITE BLONDE (Blu-ray)

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

Comedian Bob Hope received a record five honorary Oscars and also has a record four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But those awards are dimmed by the Congressional Gold Medal he received, the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him, the Medal of Liberty he got from Pres. Ronald Reagan, the National Medal of Arts he received from Pres. Bill Clinton, the knighthoods he received from two Popes, and the honorary knighthood that Great Britain bestowed upon him. In fact, Hope has almost as many high honors as he does films—and he starred in 54 of them during a career that spanned nearly 80 years.

Yeah, you’re probably thinking, but are his films any good? For the most part, Hope’s films fall in the three-star category (out of four). And speaking of stars, five-star Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Hope with the Medal of Merit “in recognition of his wartime contributions to morale on the homefront as well as on virtually every war front.” Which is to say, besides entertaining the troops, as he did his entire life starting in 1941, Hope also starred in a number of wartime films that both entertained audiences and reinforced patriotic themes.

My Favorite Blonde is one of those WWII-era films. This 1942 black-and-white comedy features Hope in a familiar role: a vaudevillian who unwittingly finds himself in the middle of an adventure or intrigue. This time Larry Haines (Hope) and his trained roller-skating penguin Percy are headed for Los Angeles, where the movies want to sign the penguin—not his trainer. But that was before he ran into British secret agent Karen Bentley, or rather she planted a scorpion brooch on him containing the flight plans for 100 American bombers. Back then Americans weren’t as paranoid as they are now, but there was still a sense that a “fifth column” might be operating as underground spies in the U.S.A. German agents (led by screen veteran Gale Sondergaard) are in pursuit, and as irrational as it seems for plans for a European war to start out in New York City, move to Albany, then Chicago, and finally L.A., what entertains about Bob Hope movies is less the plotting than it is Hope’s character, antics, and interaction with a woman that he eventually gets—if Road picture crooner-crony Bing Crosby isn’t co-starring.

Hope was known for his self-deprecating humor, a bumbling “cowardice” that reluctantly turned to bravery, snappy comebacks and one-liners, improvisations and impersonations, and his banter. My Favorite Blonde is a gentle kind of comedy that has more cleverness than laughs, but Hope sells it with a warm and winning personality. And you can’t find a better second banana than Percy the Penguin. When all is said and done, it’s a lighter version of espionage thrillers, though curiously, “British agents” or “German agents” are never mentioned by name, and neither is Germany, World War II, or Nazis. The closest the film comes is when Hope’s character calls the bad guys “nasties.” Audiences back then would have gotten the joke, but back then they also knew that there was as much at stake on the homefront as well as overseas. They were willing to suspend belief and think that agents operating clandestinely on American soil was a real possibility.

My Favorite Blonde was popular enough that Hope was enlisted to immediately make My Favorite Spy as a follow-up that very same year, and revived the idea two years after the war ended with My Favorite Brunette. Hope fans disagree whether the best of the three is “Blonde” or “Brunette,” but if you and your family like old movies either one is worth your time, and this Kino Lorber Blu-ray is worth adding to your home movie collection.

I will admit to having a Hope bias. I like his persona and like his quips and ad-libs. At one point Larry tells spy Karen Bentley (Madeleine Carroll) that he’s going to call his agent. “Do you think he’ll help?” “He’d better. If I get the electric chair, he gets 10 percent of the current.” Later, when they commandeer a biplane—yes, you could call this film an early rendition of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—he asks her, “You sure you know how to run this thing?” She says, “Sure, my brother’s a British ace.” “Yeah, well my uncle’s a dogcatcher, but I can’t bark.”

Hope’s characters never took themselves too seriously, and his films were always pleasant diversions rather than films that made you feel tense or anxious. They were escapist fare, entertainments that were intended to take people’s minds off whatever ailed them. And Hope lived to be 100, proving that laughter may indeed be the best medicine.

Entire family: No (under age 10 might find it slow going and not worth the penguin antics)
Run time: 78 min., Black-and-White
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for mild violence, smoking, and drinking)

Language: 1/10—Nothing caught my attention, but there may have been a few lesser swearwords that slipped past

Sex: 0/10—Squeaky clean on this front, unless you consider a kiss from fully clothed people sexual

Violence: 3/10—For a parody of spy thrillers this one is pretty tame, with some fisticuffs, some shooting, a conk on the head, a kick in the pants, and some crashes—the latter, really, the most startling

Adult situations: 3/10—A man and woman who aren’t married travel together and pretend to be married at one point

Takeaway: The Princess and the Pirate remains the most family-friendly Bob Hope picture, but older children might enjoy this minor blast from the past

Review of THE COURT JESTER (Blu-ray)

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

The Robin Hood legend gets a makeover and a different focal character in The Court Jester (1956), one of Danny Kaye’s best. Along with Bob Hope’s The Princess and the Pirate, it’s also one of the classic costume comedies from the Technicolor era.

Once you get past a slightly corny title-sequence song sung onscreen by Kaye, this medieval musical comedy-adventure is full of pageantry and fun. Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a minstrel among merry men who hide in the forest and serve a Robin Hood figure known as The Black Fox. Aside from providing entertainment, Hawkins’ main job is to attend to the true king of England—a baby that somehow escaped the slaughter ordered by King Roderick the Tyrant (Cecil Parker) by his henchman, Lord Ravenhurst. That includes changing diapers and pulling said diaper down to reveal a “purple pimpernel” (a takeoff on The Scarlet Pimpernel) to each subject, who then kneels.

Despite his own timidity, Hawkins yearns for a more active and manly job. He finally gets his chance when he’s ordered to team with the swashbuckling Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) and take the child to safety after the group’s forest lair had been discovered. What follows is a clever plot with more twists than a French braid and running gags involving mistaken identity, slapstick, tongue twisters, and snappy catch-phrases.

At $4 million, The Court Jester was the most expensive comedy filmed to date, and it has a lot of elements that still make it appealing for family viewing. Colorful costumes by Edith Head really pop in high definition and bring to life the grandeur of Hollywood’s romantic vision of castles and courtly intrigues. There’s a petulant princess (Angela Lansbury, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) who refuses to marry a blustery Scotsman just so her father can form a political alliance. That princess has an attendant (Mildred Natwick) who is also a sorceress capable of hypnotizing people. And there is a troupe of little persons (billed as Hermine’s Midgets) that perform acrobatics and clever stunts that factor heavily in the family-friendly action. The American Legion Zoaves from Jackson, Michigan even make an entertaining appearance in a sequence where a knighthood ceremony is comically rendered. More

Review of MISTER ROBERTS (1955) (Blu-ray)

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

Mister Roberts (1955) is set during the waning days of World War II, but it’s not a war movie. There are no battles, no strategic planning sessions, and no missions. That’s a problem for Chief Cargo Officer Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda, reprising his Broadway role), who desperately wants to see action. Stuck on a cargo ship stationed off a small island in the Pacific far away from the fighting, Roberts’ serves his country by procuring and delivering such commodities as toilet paper and toothpaste to other ships that are headed for combat.

It’s not like he’s itching to become a hero or put his life in danger. He just feels like he ought to be serving in the “real” war instead of being anchored where on one side he watches a task force slipping by under the cover of darkness, and on the other side his men aboard the appropriately named Reluctant discover some excitement one morning by training their binoculars and spyglasses on a group of nurses who just landed at the local hospital.

In addition to fighting tedium, Roberts and the crew have to deal with a tyrannical captain (James Cagney) who prizes the palm tree he received from the admiral for delivering the most cargo in the Pacific. But the captain has his sights set on something more: a big promotion. Like the factory boss who refuses to give his line workers a break because they’re so productive the company would lose money, he keeps his crew on the ship. Always. No leave. No shore liberty. And the time off they get for good behavior? Ten minutes of swimming.

If the crew collectively feels like the exaggerated characters we met in the musical South Pacific without the songs, it’s no coincidence. Joshua Logan had a hand in writing the screenplays for both of the cinematic adaptations. Tonally Mister Roberts isn’t all that different either. It’s a light story with mostly comic moments and several serious ones. More

Review of TEXAS ACROSS THE RIVER (Blu-ray)

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

In his 1966 review of Texas Across the River, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “Trying to make fun of Westerns is an aberrant Hollywood stunt that’s as fraught with folly and possible disaster as challenging John Wayne to draw. Either you score a clean hit on that first shot or it’s goodnight you. Well, they do not score a clean hit with Texas Across the River. . . .”

Not that it can’t be done, mind you. Wayne himself starred in two successful Western comedies—North to Alaska (1960) and McLintock! (1963)—but both of those were comic Westerns that still leaned heavily on Western conventions. Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway had a runaway hit with Little Big Man (1970), a comic epic of the Old West that fell into the revisionist category because of its more favorable treatment of Indians. Then Jerry Paris and Mel Brooks scored bulls-eyes with Evil Roy Slade (1972) and Blazing Saddles (1974), but those were true parodies that poked fun of the genre while also clearly admiring it. And likable TV everyman James Garner charmed audiences with his Maverick-style antics in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969).

But when members of the Rat Pack tried their hand at the comic Western, the screenplays they were given leaned more toward farce than fans of the genre seemed to prefer. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin teamed up in 4 for Texas (1963), while Martin paired with Joey Bishop in Texas Across the River (1966). Neither film was successful, though the latter is the stronger one—the kind of gentle farce that appeals to children and people in the mood for something silly because of the level of humor—even though some of the material is very slightly risqué. It’s the plot that’s fun because it’s a little different from the standard Western fare. More

Review of THE OPENING ACT (Blu-ray)

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

As a college English professor I’ve run across a surprising number of students who want to be stand-up comics. Some of them started a comedy club on campus, some did open mics in local comedy clubs, and one even asked for my opinion on a stand-up routine he was filming to send to an Ivy League school for his grad school admissions essay. Even if they’re not aspiring to grab the microphone themselves, college students love stand-up—which is why so many comics do the college circuit. So a passionate movie about stand-up comedy ought to be a hit with college and high school students who have secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions of being a stand-up comic.

The Opening Act is also plenty fun for the rest of us who have no plans to quit our respectable jobs, as Ken Jeong did (he was a doctor), to become stand-up comics. But as you watch how passionate everyone is about stand-up you begin think, on some level, maybe I could do this too—and that’s because this 2020 film feels like a love letter to stand-up comedy. It’s written and directed by stand-up comic Steve Byrne, it stars stand-up comic Jimmy O. Yang, and all but four of the remaining cast members are stand-up comics. Even guys playing a heckler (Butch Bradley), a cop (Tom Segura), and a taxi driver (Felipe Esparza) are stand-up comics. The only pure actors among the rest of the cast are Debby Ryan (The Suite Life on Deck), Jackie Tohn (GLOW) and two minor roles. Surrounded by so much comedic talent, I can picture them trying to pick up pointers, as The Opening Act‘s main character does throughout the film. More

Review of TWINS (1988) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action comedy
Rated PG

Bodybuilder turned actor turned governor Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as a straight-up action hero in most of his films, but he also appeared in four comedies: The Kid and I (2005), Jingle All the Way (1996), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Twins (1988). Of those, two are stinkers and the ones shot within two years of each other fall into the category of guilty pleasures—though audiences that first saw Twins in theaters weren’t feeling guilty at all. Twins grossed $216 million worldwide and provided Schwarzenegger and co-star Danny DeVito with a financial windfall, as the two had agreed to take 20 percent of the profits in lieu of their usual fees. Twins was also popular enough on home video releases that a sequel—Triplets—is now in preproduction.

The comedy’s basic premise easily could have been one that drove a sinister conspiracy film instead: research doctors seeking to create the perfect human recruited a woman to father a child that was the DNA-engineered product of six men. When the baby was born, doctors were surprised that the embryo had split somehow and a second baby followed. One (Schwarzenegger) had all the desirable elements of the six fathers’ DNA, while the other (DeVito) was the product of genetic leftovers.

The mother (Bonnie Bartlett) was told her baby died in childbirth, when really the boy had been shunted to a tropical island to be raised by one of the scientists. And the other? He was given to an orphanage, and turned out to be as the nuns predicted: a small time criminal whom you could most likely find in jail.

The plot starts in motion when the scientist raising the near-perfect Julius finally tells him about his brother, and Julius instantly sets out in a rowboat across the ocean to find him some 30 miles away in L.A. Meanwhile, our introduction to brother Vincent comes when we see the diminutive balding man with a pony tail rolling out of a second story window after the husband of a woman he’d been sleeping with came home unexpectedly and caught them. Apparently Vincent had seduced a nun when he was 12 and has had some sort of power over women ever since—which is harder to believe than the film’s basic premise. Get past that, though, and the plot plays out with the kind of light amusement you’d expect from a guilty pleasure, with a surprising amount of action involving two sets of bad guys that are after the twins. Some of them are loan sharks, while others are thugs hired to deliver some illicit merchandise that is inadvertently “detoured” by Vincent.

Twins relies on the contrast between brothers for its humor and interest. Julius has the kind of strength (and body, which we see bare-chested several times) needed to protect his ne’er-do-well brother, but Vincent has the street smarts. Not surprisingly, there’s a double character arc, with one brother so naïve that he has to learn about the basics of life (including sex), and the other so cynical and unscrupulous that he has to learn that family and people in your lives are worth being good for. Chloe Webb and Kelly Preston play two sisters that share the twins’ journey, and fans of old TV Westerns will also enjoy seeing an older but fit-as-Arnold Hugh O’Brian as one of the twins’ fathers. O’Brian played Wyatt Earp and still looks like he could handle whatever bad guys might jump him. More

Review of GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (1997) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Rated PG

Not long ago Disney Movie Club released an exclusive Blu-ray version of the live-action adventure-comedy George of the Jungle, and even if you’re not a member there are copies to be had on eBay—many of them reasonably priced and still in shrink-wrap

Popular when it debuted in 1997 ahead of the original Jay Ward cartoon’s 30th anniversary, George of the Jungle grossed close to $175 million worldwide. It features a rare blend of comedy: humor that appeals to kids, but also humor that’s clever enough for adults. Fans of the cult-classic ‘60s TV series will appreciate that director Sam Weisman got the tone and treatment right. It’s one the most entertaining live-action film versions of an animated TV series—though admittedly that’s kind of a backhanded compliment, given such feature-length disappointments as The Flintstones, Casper, Dudley Do-Right, Fat Albert, and Inspector Gadget.

Still, I wouldn’t pay attention to the 5.5 out of 10 rating that close to 80,000 readers gave it at the Internet Movie Database, and I’d ignore the 56 percent “rotten” critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Legendary reviewer Roger Ebert was more on the money when he pronounced George of the Jungle a three-star movie (out of four). As he wrote when it was first released, this live-action film starring Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) “tries for the look and feel of a cartoon,” with the results being that it’s “sort of funny some of the time and then occasionally hilarious.”

It’s true. George of the Jungle is amusing throughout, but then you get these surprise laugh-out-loud moments—so many that I’d have to say the film borders on being consistently funny. There are clever one-liners, pop-culture allusions, running gags, pratfalls and physical comedy (even a banana peel joke), and yes, some mild scatological humor. And don’t worry about outdated cultural jungle stereotypes. They’re met head-on, and it’s the “native bearers” and super-intelligent talking Ape who get the last laugh.

After an animated title sequence that features the theme song and establishes the backstory of how George came to be raised by apes—and is a little clumsy when it comes to vine-swinging (“Watch out for that tree!”)—the film switches to live action, melding Jay Ward’s original characters, theme song and concepts with the Tarzan/Greystoke legend. More

Review of MR. TOPAZE (Blu-ray)

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

The British Film Institute called Mr. Topaze “essential viewing for all Sellers fans,” and I agree. For one thing, I Like Money, as this 1961 film was later retitled, was the first theatrical feature directed by comedian Peter Sellers . . . and also his last, because he was so stung by its failure and critics’ barbs.

It’s of interest for that fact alone, but more importantly, Mr. Topaze gives viewers an interesting glimpse into an evolving dynamic between Sellers and actor Herbert Lom that began with The Ladykillers (1955) and continued with this film, The Pink Panther (1963), and four more Inspector Clouseau comedies: A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). Fans of those detective comedies especially will enjoy seeing Sellers and Lom play off of each other in Mr. Topaze as a kind of warm-up for their later rivalry as Clouseau and Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus.

Like Clouseau, Mr. Topaze is French, earnest, a little naïve and awkward, easily manipulated, slightly clumsy, seemingly feckless, and totally meek compared to most of the males he encounters. Topaze, whose prize possession seems to be a stuffed skunk he keeps on his desk, doesn’t have a commanding presence or one that inspires respect—not even among his students, who prank him without fear of repercussions. But he’s a genuinely nice guy with scruples, a dedicated teacher who loves his profession and hangs inspirational mottos all over his classroom—including one that cautions how money is a test of friendship. “I see you take my kindness for weakness,” he tells one of the pranksters. “I may look like a complete fool,” he says, “but I am not, I assure you.”

That’s debatable, of course. He leads the kind of quietly dull life that prompted James Thurber’s Walter Mitty to escape into fantasy. In love with the daughter of his school’s headmaster (Michael Gough), Topaze makes little headway, partly because of his personality and partly because of hers. As Ernestine (Billie Whitelaw, who looks a bit like Janet Leigh) tells her father after he learns that she got Topaze to grade a huge stack of her papers for her, “If I can find a man who’s fool enough to do my homework for me,” what’s the harm? More

Review of THE DANCING DOGS OF DOMBROVA (DVD)

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

It’s not uncommon to take a chance on a CD or movie based on the title. But don’t be misled by this one. The “dancing dogs” in The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova is singular—a memory embedded in the mind of an old Jewish woman we never see onscreen, except for a brief cellphone video. Dombrova itself, as depicted in the film, is a desolate wintry place populated with characters and scenes that the Coen brothers might have concocted, had they decided to make an indie film abroad. The Coens specialize in films for mature audiences, and The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova, from director Zack Bernbaum, follows that same road, but with far less violence or language. His third and most accomplished full-length feature would probably merit a PG-13 rating instead of an R.

There’s a little bit of a Fargo feel to this Canadian film in English and Polish, with English subtitles. Shot in Romania, it follows an estranged adult brother and sister who have traveled from Canada to Poland in order to fulfill their dying grandmother’s wish: that they should find the house in Dombrova where she lived before she was herded off to the concentration camps and dig up the bones of the beloved dog she left behind. The dog could dance, she tells them.

We first meet recovering alcoholic Sarah Cotler (Katherine Fogler, from TV’s Suits, Murdoch Mysteries) and her prissy, superior brother Aaron (Douglas Nyback, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, TV’s Hell on Wheels) when they land at an isolated train station late at night. Told that there are no taxis, they wait on the platform until less cautious Sarah walks toward a car in the shadows that has a driver sitting in it. And so the adventure begins: with a sullen, peasant-stock female driver who understands English but never speaks and drives a car with a leaky gas tank that has to be constantly refilled.

That’s the level of quirkiness viewers encounter on this understated, dark-comedy road-trip, where you’ll meet:

—Two local “mafia” types that sit in lawn chairs in the snow outside a food truck in the middle of nowhere

—The proprietor of the only B&B in town, who’s subbing for parents that just up and left

—The young son of the taxi driver, who keeps taking notes because he’s an aspiring “human detective”

—A rabbi whose synagogue seems as empty as the rest of Dombrova

—A clerk at the local town hall for whom it takes three months to find a local street address

—Revelers at a local wedding reception held in next to the parking lot of a convenience store

—A peasant farmer with a scythe who curses and shoots her German Luger at trespassers

—A priest who also has something to confess

Quirky characters make an indie film fun to watch, and when the sequence of events and tone smack of the original theatrical Fargo, but without the extreme violence and language, it becomes even more appealing for families wanting to push their own cinematic boundaries—even if the underlying premise of estranged family members finding each other again is one we’ve seen before.

The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova won Best Feature at the 2019 Canadian Film Fest and the Canadian Filmmakers’ Festival, and Fogler was voted Best Actress at the Albuquerque Film & Music Experience. But really, people, it should be The Dancing DOG of Dombrova.

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 102 minutes (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Omnibus / Film Movement
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: 5.1 Surround Sound (English, with some Polish)
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for language and adult situations)

Language: 4/10—There’s one f-bomb and fewer than a dozen lesser swearwords

Sex: 3/10—Nothing is shown, but an unmarried woman talks about having “buns in the stove” and there’s an argument over her “bastard child”

Violence: 2/10—A gun is fired and someone is shot

Adult situations: 4/6—The wintry landscape is bleak and vodka is the social drink of choice, offered often, and there is some smoking 

Takeaway: Quirkiness is a tightrope, but director Bernbaum manages to walk it nicely from beginning to end, with pacing that’s indie leisurely but not indie dragging

Review of THE HARD WAY (1991) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Crime comedy
Rated R

It’s usually not a good sign when you haven’t heard of a film starring two well-known actors—especially when it was released almost 30 years ago. How good can it be, this film that somehow sank into cinematic obscurity? As it turns out, The Hard Way, starring Michael J. Fox and James Woods, is surprisingly entertaining. It’s a keeper, especially if you’re a fan of buddy cop crime comedies.

The premise reminds you a bit of Ride Along (2014), with its familiar trope of good cop / bad cop referring, as it often does in the genre, to one good cop who’s forced to partner with someone that drives him guano crazy. Sometimes the ride-along is a wannabe cop, as in Ride Along, and sometimes it’s a geeky and clueless desk jockey, as in The Other Guys (2010). Most fans of the buddy cop movies trace the genre to 1987’s Lethal Weapon, which paired a dedicated about-to-retire cop with a loose cannon of a partner who had a death wish. But while most of the buddy cop films that have been made since then have carried a PG-13 rating to keep them more solidly in the realm of family viewing, The Hard Way followed Lethal Weapon’s lead and went with an R rating. There’s some moderate serious violence and some heavy realistic language here.

In this crime comedy from John Badham (WarGames, Short Circuit, Saturday Night Fever), a no-nonsense, anger-management challenged, borderline-rogue New York City detective (Woods) is forced to partner with a naïve Hollywood action hero (Fox) who pulled some strings to arrange the ride-along experience he needs in order to research a serious role he so desperately wants.

If you can get past the hard-to-swallow (but intentionally absurd) clip scenes of the diminutive and baby-faced Fox as an Indiana Jones’ style hero, and if you can believe that he can walk the streets of New York—where giant billboards featuring his face promote his latest movie—and not be recognized, this film has a lot to offer. There are taut action sequences, a solid plot, and a pairing that, however unlikely it seems, still makes you laugh out loud in a quite a few places. It’s every bit as good as films like Ride Along and Running Scared, better than Central Intelligence and Ride Along 2, and nearly as good as other films in the genre. More

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