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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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Review of MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE (Blu-ray)

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

What do Rudolph Valentino and Bob Hope have in common?

They both played the title character in film versions of Monsieur Beaucaire, a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Booth Tarkington, but with one big difference. The legendary silent movie star nicknamed The Latin Lover played him as a swashbuckler, while the swordplay side of the character was shifted to another for this 1946 comedy.

Both during and after the “Road” pictures Hope made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, the comedian who lived to be 100 starred in a slew of solo films. For families especially, his costumed comedies and historical biographies remain the most enjoyable. Here’s how I’d rank them:

1. The Princess and the Pirate (1944)
2. Monsieur Beaucaire (1946)
3. The Paleface (1948)
4. Casanova’s Big Night (1954)
5. The Seven Little Foys (1955)
6. Fancy Pants (1950)
7. Beau James (1957)
8. Son of Paleface (1952)
9. Alias Jesse James (1959)

What makes Monsieur Beaucaire rise to the top is its plot. Unlike the Cold War spy mix-ups that Hope made, the costumed dramas have more intricate plotting.

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Review of THE PAPER TIGERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Action comedy-drama
Rated PG-13

If your family loved Cobra Kai—or even The Karate Kid films that preceded the popular TV series—and you’re looking for another martial arts offering that balances medium-intensity action, drama, and humor, you might consider The Paper Tigers. Yuji Okumoto, who appeared in the second Karate Kid film and also Cobra Kai, was the film’s producer.

This English-language 2020 martial arts film from director Quoc Bao Tran is as much in the tradition of old-guys-proving-they’ve-still-got-it tradition of films like Space Cowboys (2000) and Old Dogs (2009) as it is the kung fu movies. But don’t fear, younger viewers, there’s young martial arts action too. It’s just that the focus is on three middle-aged men whose bodies have seen better days. In other words, this isn’t your typical Asian martial arts film, though it does have an almost obligatory memorable fight scene.

The Paper Tigers features three likable guys who are just that: guys. Too many martial arts films are all action with nothing but paper characters—kung fu wizards who do little more than kick, block, and punch their way through every scene. The heroes of this film are Everymen, real flesh-and-blood people who just happen to have bonded in the youth when they were “The Three Tigers,” as their master dubbed them. One of the characters happens to be African American and the other two Asian American, but all three are treated as people because “at the end of the day, we wanted to tell a fun, entertaining story that depicted our experience honestly,” Tran told the media.

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Review of THE BRASS BOTTLE (Blu-ray)

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

The mid-‘60s gave viewers two sitcoms featuring women with magical powers: Bewitched, an ABC-TV series about a witch married to a mortal, and I Dream of Jeannie, an NBC comedy about an astronaut who splashes down near a deserted island and finds a bottle containing a beautiful genie determined to serve (and exasperate) him.

As with “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family,” audiences were split over which show was better. It’s the fans of I Dream of Jeannie who are going to want to see The Brass Bottle, because it provided the inspiration for the TV show. After Bewitched became a smash hit when it debuted in October 1964, creator-producer Sidney Sheldon wanted to develop a similar property for NBC. Sheldon had seen The Brass Bottle, which opened in theaters in May of that year, and the concept seemed perfect. All he had to do was make a few changes, and the rest was television history.

The Brass Bottle was the third film inspired by the 1900 novel of the same name, and as it turns out, British writer Thomas Anstey Guthrie was probably born in the wrong century. The fantastic elements of The Brass Bottle drew praise from none other than George Orwell, and an earlier comic novel, Vice Versa, was about a father and son who change places because of magic. That novel was made into a 1981 British TV series and a 1988 American film. It also inspired modern retellings like Freaky Friday, Big, and Seventeen Again. In other words, the old Victorian writer would have made one heck of a good screenwriter.

Though The Brass Bottle doesn’t have the madcap mayhem of slapstick or screwball comedy, the plot and dialogue are clever. The film might have played out like a fable, but there’s more complexity here and it’s fun to see how similar yet totally different The Brass Bottle is from I Dream of Jeannie. It’s equally fun to see the star of I Dream of Jeannie as a mortal in this fantasy.

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Review of THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE (2-Movie Collection Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Comedy
Rated PG-13

The Brady Bunch was one of the very last squeaky-clean family sitcoms in the old ’50s mold, airing as an anachronism of sorts during the Vietnam War years amid the chaos of Civil Rights, women’s rights, and anti-war protests. But in the Brady household, father Mike, a working architect, was still king of the castle with a den all his own, while his wife, Carol, was a stay-at-home mom who had the luxury of a servant. The children got into all sorts of minor conflicts and mischief, but none of the storylines tackled serious parental concerns of the day. Everything was sibling rivalry and innocent mix-ups. Drugs? Not here. Peer pressure to smoke? Only briefly. Teen pregnancy? Oh behave! And while other teens from the time were raiding their parents’ liquor cabinets, this group was content to raid the cookie jar. No one got into really serious trouble, and there was usually a lesson to be learned . . . from dad. When he wasn’t around, there was always mom or Alice, to help them find their way. The theme song explained the premise:

“Here’s the story . . . of a lovely lady
Who was bringing up three very lovely girls.
All of them had hair of gold, like their mother,
The youngest one in curls.

Here’s the story . . . of a many named Brady,
Who was busy . . . with three boys of his own.
They were four men, living all together,
Yet they were all alone.

Till the one day when the lady met this fellow,
And they knew that it was much more than a hunch
That this group would somehow form a family,
That’s the way we all became the Brady Bunch.”

First telecast on Sept 26, 1969, the show was a surprise hit, no doubt because it felt like comfort food to Americans who snuggled together during a turbulent era to watch and relive happier, more uncomplicated times. Divorce was becoming a widespread phenomenon for the first time, and the show about second-chance family life probably struck a chord with broken families. Plus, the range of the Brady children’s ages (7 through 14, when the show began) was broad enough for a wide range of youngsters to identify with. Airing on Friday nights, the show connected especially with children too young to have a social life, or, like the Bradys, too awkward and introverted.

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