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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 And don’t worry about outdated cultural jungle stereotypes.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

Review of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) (Blu-ray)

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

If your family enjoyed Knives Out, you also might be entertained by an early entry in the self-conscious light mystery genre.

In The Cat and the Canary (1939)—based on a 1921 stage play by the same name—comedian Bob Hope plays it mostly straight, an actor without the ham in this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a dash of horror. A year later, hitting the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope would develop his famous persona as a bumbling coward of a second banana to Crosby’s straight man, but in this one he’s less goofy and more believable as a love interest for Paulette Goddard. Hope is a considerably more suave and in control than later characters he’ll play, and as a result viewers find themselves focused more on the atmosphere and plot.

The Cat and the Canary was so popular that Hope and Goddard would team up for a second haunted house picture in 1940—The Ghost Breakers, which isn’t recommended for family viewing because of offensive outdated cultural stereotypes. The sets and gimmicks from both films would provide the inspiration for Disney’s popular Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.

There are revolving bookcases, secret panels, and a Louisiana bayou mansion that wasn’t exactly prime real estate even before it fell into decrepit disrepair. Why would anyone visit now, especially when you have to be paddled there by various canoeists? As it turns out, all are relatives and named parties to attend the ceremonial reading of the will, according to instructions left by a reclusive millionaire who died 10 years ago. The deceased specified that his will must be read exactly at midnight, of course. One more thing: worried that insanity might run in the family, the eccentric recluse specified that the one bearing his surname (Norman) will inherit everything. But there’s a catch. If the named heir, Joyce Norman (Goddard), goes crazy before 30 days have passed, then a second replacement heir will be read from a second sealed envelope.

Kind of makes you want to run the other direction, right? Except that the canoe paddlers don’t operate late at night (they must have a strong union). But how else can you ensure that everyone has to spend the night in this spooky place? More

Review of LUCKY GRANDMA (Blu-ray)

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

Timing matters, and this first full-length feature from director Sasie Sealy comes to Blu-ray at a time when Bong Joon-Ho’s surprising Oscar-winning Parasite is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Like that South Korean film, Lucky Grandma, set in New York’s Chinatown, is a black comedy that veers into thriller territory. It’s a mash-up of genres that also carries an unspoken social message. With Bong it was class inequity; with the New York-based Sealy, it’s aging. And her main character, the recently widowed Grandma Wong, refuses to go gently into that good night, or even move in with her son and his family.

Don’t bother looking up Sealy’s Wikipedia page, because she’s so new she doesn’t even have one yet. So far her big push to get on the film world’s radar has come from her participation in Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival, which twice honored her with Student Visionary Awards (Elephant Garden, 2008; Dance Mania Fantastic, 2005). But with a first feature that’s as solid as Bong’s own black comedy debut (Barking Dogs Never Bite), she’ll be getting that Wikipedia page and probably more awards soon enough.

If your family liked Parasite, you’ll like Lucky Grandma. It’s a film for families that like to push their entertainment boundaries. Children who enjoy it will be old enough to handle the mixed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese voice track with English subtitles, because when it comes right down to it that’s the biggest factor. There’s violence, but not nearly as much as what’s shown in the average superhero movie. There’s language, but again nothing compared to what Hollywood has been producing lately. And there’s smoking, but it’s more of a comic device than anything else. More

Review of THE PALEFACE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Over a 60-year film career, comedian Bob Hope starred in 54 features, but the former vaudevillian was also known for the USO shows he emceed from 1941-91, performing for American military personnel in times of war and peace. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1962 and also received the Medal of Merit from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson, the Medal of Liberty from President Ronald Reagan, the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton, and the Spirit of Hope Award (named for him) from the U.S. Department of Defense.

In other words, Bob Hope, who died at age 100 in 2003, is a national treasure. Since only one of his films (Road to Morocco) has been included in the National Film Registry, the public is dependent upon studios like Kino Lorber to preserve and release the old classics that are worth watching and rewatching. And The Paleface is a good one.

Of Hope’s films, the historical costume comedies are as much fun as the Road pictures he did with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. While The Princess and the Pirate is the best of the powdered wig era comedies, The Paleface is tops among the Westerns that Hope made. In it, we see Hope at the height of his career, both as an actor and as a comedian. The hard-working comic had appeared in four feature films in 1947, and a year later The Paleface teamed him with Jane Russell—the WWII pin-up “girl” who famously debuted five years earlier in Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw and had only appeared in one other soapy drama. Surprisingly, the two play well off each other, with Russell the straight man, of course.

It’s good to finally get this title on Blu-ray, though the timing is probably unfortunate. As monuments are being toppled and even Mount Rushmore has come under fire, this film’s title and treatment of Native Americans is racist—there’s no other way to put it. But this was the ‘40s, and all of America was thinking along the lines of what talented writer Frank Tashlin incorporated into the screenplay. No one thought anything of having just two Native Americans playing Indians and the rest played by Caucasians, and no one bristled when Native Americans were depicted as stern-faced chiefs (“How!”) or wacky medicine men. Wrong as we now know it to be, it was all part of the stereotypical humor of the era.

So where does that leave us? I personally think that it’s wrong to deny or erase history. Instead, America needs to own up to that history, and you don’t do that by burying it and forgetting it. America needs to learn from the past and learn to appreciate artwork and cultural artifacts from previous eras for what they are. You can enjoy a film for its performances and comedy and also be aware that what you’re seeing is no longer appropriate. And Hope’s historical comedies—the Westerns especially—are a good place to start if you want to teach your children about racism and racial stereotypes. They’ll find the films amusing, but then you can also talk about what you just saw and educate them on the reality of Native Americans in the U.S.

Hope plays “Painless” Peter Potter, who picks a peck of trouble when he pulls the wrong tooth and has to skip town. As he’s leaving, Calamity Jane (Russell) hops aboard his wagon following a shootout. She’s a government agent on secret assignment: discover who’s supplying weapons and explosives to the Indians and stop them before they start another war. And what better way to blend in than by joining a wagon train with a “husband” who’s as clueless as they come?

Even the violence (and that includes people shot to death) is played for laughs in The Paleface. Some of the gags involve several Indians clueless as Potter as well as laughing gas that Potter uses to numb patients, but the bulk of them revolve around his bumbling ineptitude and cowardice—especially compared to his rough-and-tough sharpshooting “wife.” There’s a surprising amount of character development in this comedy, which also stars American Indian actors Iron Eyes Cody and Chief Yowlachie, and frequent “heavy” Jeff York.

Hope often found a way to sing in his films, and in The Paleface he’s in peak form performing “Buttons and Bows,” which won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song. Mostly, though The Paleface is just good old-fashioned slapstick and one-liner fun, with a plot that’s strong enough to pull the whole wagon.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 91 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for hints of innuendo and comic violence)

Language: 0/10—Nothing here of consequence

Sex: 2/10—Women in pantaloons, repeated hints of romance, comic kisses and one passionate one

Violence: 3/10—All violence is comic, including fistfights, shootings, and running gags of being dragged by horses and the number of Indians killed by a proclaimed hero

Adult situations: 0/10—Nothing not already mentioned

Takeaway: Kino Lorber did an excellent job on the transfer, with crisp audio and Technicolor presentation sharp and vivid as can be. Would it be too much to hope for The Princess and the Pirate, Monsieur Boucaire or another Hope Western, Fancy Pants (with Lucille Ball) next?

 

Review of EMMA (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Drama-comedy
Rated PG

Director Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 reincarnation of Jane Austen’s Emma feels like a throwback to early PBS series, where everything and everyone was measured, staid, proper, understated, ever-so-subtly clever, and wrapped in beautiful cinematic finery. In other words, Emma 2020 is for Austen and period costume enthusiasts who like their classics rendered in classical fashion, and that includes the speech (“Husband, comport yourself”).

When it comes to family viewing, the early 19th-century language can be a minor stumbling block, but so can the plot and characters. Emma Woodhouse isn’t the most likable person. A woman of means, she’s not desperate to find a husband to support her. Instead, like the bored young woman she is, she banters with servants and friends and keeps herself entertained by playing matchmaker—or matchbreaker, as the case may be. In this game, others are pawns.

But the thing is, the pacing is so leisurely and the camera so intimately focused on Emma’s non-verbal as well as verbal communication that a good 30 minutes passes before anything really happens. And one of the most interesting characters, Emma’s widowed father (Bill Nighy), doesn’t get as much screen time as fans might like. When our family tried watching Emma together, our college-age kids found it tough going. My wife and I, normally fans of costumed classics, also found it slow—something that, for me, was compounded by the sound mix on this Blu-ray release. Though the featured audio is the standard DTS-HDMA 5.1, most of the sound is dialogue on the center channel that feels contained rather than projected. Add that to the archaic language and British accents, and it can make the dialogue difficult to follow at times.

And this film is mostly dialogue and long lingering reaction shots, plus pastoral shots that showcase the English countryside where it was shot in Tetbury, Lewes, Wiltshire, Surrey, Godalming, Hitchins, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Cheltenham. Like PBS series and movies of old, this Emma is absolutely stunning to look at, and the costume and set design are every bit as eye appealing as the natural settings. More

Review of THE CAPER OF THE GOLDEN BULLS (Blu-ray)

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

Heist or “caper” movies surged during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, with no fewer than 40 of them made. The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Ocean’s 11 and The Pink Panther inspired remakes, and films like The Sting and How to Steal a Million continue to get a lot of love. But a forgotten heist film, The Caper of the Golden Bulls, deserves at least a little love.

Unlike today’s heist movies, there’s practically no violence in this 1967 entry that’s just been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Shot during the decade James Bond debuted on the big screen, Caper was made at a time when keeping it suave and clever was a priority. Russell Rouse had written the screenplay for Pillow Talk, and as director he brought a light touch to Caper, bolstered by a bright and cheery Vic Mizy soundtrack that came out of the “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” era but would be just as at home in an Austin Powers score.

Stephen Boyd (best known for playing Ben-Hur’s chariot-racing nemesis in the 1959 epic) stars as Peter Churchman, who’s no choirboy. But he’s still a heck of a nice guy. He and his fellow flyboys got into the bank robbery business after the war, but they’ve been retired and waiting out the statute of limitations so they can carry on with their lives without fear of discovery. Churchman owns a club in a small Spanish town and has a relationship with local law enforcement that will remind viewers of Casablanca. His old military pals are married, as Peter hopes to be. Then one of the gang—a “waif” the group enlisted because she had certain skills (Giovanna Ralli)—blackmails Peter so that he’ll agree to get the group together for one last job: to steal the jewels of the statues of the Virgins that have been brought to Pamplona for the Feast of San Fermin. More

Review of ALASTAIR SIM’S SCHOOL FOR LAUGHTER: 4 CLASSIC COMEDIES (Blu-ray)

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

Alastair Sim (best known for his portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol) is the common denominator in this Blu-ray quartet of old black-and-white British comedies: The Belles of St. Trinian’s, School for Scoundrels, Laughter in Paradise, and Hue and Cry.

The most interesting of the four is Hue and Cry (1947),which gets its title from a 1285 British statute decreeing that any private citizen who witnesses a crime must make a “hue and cry” and doggedly pursue the criminal until the offender can be taken into custody. If you ever watched Gomer Pyle shout “Citizen’s arrest” on the old Andy Griffith Show, you get the idea. It’s a fun premise when the one doing the hueing and crying is a naïve bumpkin like Gomer or a teenager who recruits his “gang” to help catch the criminals.

The film was shot less than two years after WWII ended, and it’s fairly incredible for American teens and tweens to see what life was like in England immediately after the war. There are blocks and blocks of bombed-out buildings, some of which become haunts and clubhouses for young people, with heaps of rubble that spread like sand dunes to be climbed. It looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape, and yet here’s this “gang” of boys who are all wearing schoolboy shirts and ties and sportcoats and being just as proper as can be when they address adults.

Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) reads from The Trump comics magazine (seriously—that’s the name of it) but discovers a page is missing. To find out how funny-page detective Selwyn Pike solves the crime he runs off to buy a copy. But while reading the newest installment he looks up and sees two men carrying a crate into a furrier’s shop and the men are using a truck with the exact same license plate as in the comic. Coincidence? Joe thinks not. He tries to investigate and gets caught, with Inspector Ford telling him essentially to go back to school and stop coming up with these wild ideas. It’s almost the reverse situation of the pickpocket gang in Dickens’ London, with these urchins of all ages joining forces to try to prove that there really is something going on, and it’s somehow connected to the author of the comics (Sim). In him they find a believer, but also someone who cautions that this gang might be too ruthless for them to tangle with. And so it goes, with a climax that looks as if director Charles Crichton asked every boy in London to be extras in a memorable battle royale. As I said, once you can get accustomed to the boys’ British slang and rapid speech it’s one of the strongest in this collection because it’s also a vivid glimpse of history that textbooks don’t show us. Like two other films in this collection it’s more clever than funny, but there’s something to be said for cleverness. B More

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