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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 CRESCENDO (2019) (Blu-ray)

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

When this 2019 German film debuted at the Munich International Film Festival, the audience gave it a standing ovation. I’m not surprised. The film tells the story of a world-renowned German conductor who travels to Tel Aviv to assemble a youth orchestra composed of both Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a gestural stunt sponsored by a group whose next project involves a cause in Africa. But while the main message of Crescendo involves Israeli-Palestinian accord, a subtext is that all people ought to get along—including Jews and Germans, the latter whom, conductor Eduard Sporck suggests, should be forgiven for the sins of their Nazi parents and grandparents.

Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann) is warm and engaging as the fictional maestro who must work not only with the typical egos and attitudes of the artistically gifted, but also with two groups that hate each other and have stories in their families that reinforce and justify that cultural hatred. So while we see Sporck audition and rehearse his young musicians, a large portion of film time is devoted to his finding ways to broker peace, to break through the barriers with musicians at a retreat in Italy, neutral ground, rather than Tel Aviv, as originally planned.

Crescendo is multi-language, with spoken English and German and English subtitles. By American standards, it would be slapped with an R rating because an f-bomb is tossed near the beginning and again at the end. Only one is usually permitted for a film to slip into a PG-13 rating. But those two words, which come at emotional high points and are used for emphasis, are joined by only one other noticeable swearword in a film that’s otherwise PG.

If there are teens in your family who got hooked on the Australian TV-series Dance Academy, the few personal dramas that we get in Crescendo will seem familiar. There’s a romantic side plot featuring a Israeli French horn player named Shira (Eyan Pinkovitch) who quickly falls for a quiet and sensitive West Bank clarinetist named Omar (Mehdi Meskar), and there’s a competition side plot between the best Israeli violinist (Daniel Donskoy as Ron) and the best violinist from across the border (Sabrina Amali as Layla). The Palestinians’ families also appear, but for the most part Crescendo builds to its musical and thematic climaxes through Sporck’s efforts to bring them all together to work in both musical and metaphorical harmony. More

Review of SERGEANT YORK (1941) (Blu-ray)

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

Hollywood legend Gary Cooper won two Best Actor Oscars: one for his performance in High Noon (1953) as a marshal facing a showdown on the day of his marriage to a Quaker pacifist, and the other for his portrayal of a real-life conscientious objector who became an American war hero in Sergeant York. And Cooper plays York with the same kind of aw-shucks naiveté as he gives Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, a film he would make the following year.

Based on Alvin C. York’s personal diary, this 1941 black-and-white biopic was made to inspire a nation near the start of America’s involvement in WWII. But it also helped to fund an interdenominational Bible school—the main reason a reluctant York finally agreed to let Hollywood dramatize his life story and WWI heroism for the big screen.

Typical of biopics from the period, Sergeant York is wholesome, folksy, sentimental, and moralistic. But with director Howard Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo) behind the cameras, it’s also an example of compelling narrative storytelling.

Mostly set in an impoverished backwoods corner of rural Tennessee, Sergeant York spends four-fifths of its 134-minute run time showing how York, a hard-working mama’s boy, went from being a frequent hell-raising drinker to a born-again Christian opposed to killing. Like Daniel Boone, who recorded one of his exploits on a tree near the York homestead, York is a crack shot and crafty outdoorsman, and early in the film he disrupts a church service by shooting his initials into a tree.

A young but still raspy-voiced Walter Brennan plays the pastor, while Joan Leslie (Yankee Doodle Dandy) is the love interest and British actress Margaret Wycherly plays the taciturn mother who stands by her boy no matter what he does. When the announcement comes that all young men are expected to go to Europe to fight and Alvin says, “Maw, what are they a’fightin’ for?” She replies, “I don’t rightly know. I don’t rightly know.” But she knows he has to go fight, no matter what his newfound religion tells him. More

Review of THE IPCRESS FILE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Spy drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman, a name familiar to Bond fans because it was Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli who gave us Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. But don’t approach this one thinking it’s a cousin to the slightly campy and always sexy James Bond adventures. The Ipcress File has more in common with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), because it offers a more realistic view of spies and also prominently features brainwashing—a term credited to Edward Hunter, who in 1950 wrote about mind-control techniques that China used on American prisoners of war.

By “a more realistic view of spies” I mean that there are no exotic locations, no scantily clad women willing to do anything for their country, and no physical conflict, really, until we’re some 30 minutes into the film. Before that there’s a little sleuthing and surveillance and a lot of trying to find one’s place in a new post of assignment.

Based on Len Deighton’s novel, which came out the same year as The Manchurian Candidate, this 1965 film is rated #59 on the BFI list of 100 greatest British films. Instead of the peppy and campy action in the Bond films, Saltzman and director Sidney J. Furie (Iron Eagle, The Appaloosa) chose to play it low-key, concentrating instead of unique shots and camera angles to keep viewers interested.

Harry Palmer (a young Michael Caine) is assigned to investigate a series of kidnappings of leading scientists who turn up eventually with their minds completely erased. Somewhere along the way Palmer finds a clue—the word “Ipcress”—and it leads him through a tangled web of deceit, double agents, and spies keeping tabs on other spies. The latter, in fact, was something that Ian Fleming described as commonplace in the early days of Cold War spying, and it feels authentic here. But as a result of all this truth-in-spying, the pace is considerably slower than a Bond film. Takes and scenes are longer as if to suggest real time. More

Review of P.J. (1968) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
Crime drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The pandemic has prompted most major studios to delay theatrical releases and slow down the production of home theater titles. Since Covid has made shut-ins of us all, big studios have released fewer films new to Blu-ray and DVD and more titles that are rereleases in the relatively new ultra-HD 4K format. But not Kino Lorber. They continue to remaster lesser-known older films for Blu-ray that feel like pleasant surprises when you watch them.

P.J. is a good example of that. This all-but-forgotten 1968 private detective film—which has never before been released on VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray in the U.S.—has one foot in the hard-boiled PI genre, and another foot in the groovy sixties that inspired Mike Meyers to poke fun of the decade in his Austin Powers spy spoofs. In fact, there’s a club scene where two female go-go dancers do their go-go thing in a gigantic martini glass, swirling and shimmying around like a couple of human olives, and that scene feels as if it could have been shot for an Austin Powers film. Oh behave!

The music seems straight out of Austin Powers too, so fans of that parody will enjoy seeing where the inspiration came from—not this film precisely, but films like it that were produced during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Yet P.J. is also strongly evocative of other neo-noir PI films from the period, like Harper, Klute, Tony Rome, Night Moves, and the Robert Mitchum version of Farewell, My Lovely.

George Peppard (TV’s The A-Team, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) plays a down-but-not-out New York PI who takes a bodyguard job because it’s preferable to getting his legs broken by loan sharks and mob bosses. The Korean War vet is hired to protect the mistress (Gayle Hunnicutt) of the rich and powerful (and shady) William Orbison, played against type by the rotund Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, Ironsides). What P.J. doesn’t know is that the job isn’t just dangerous—somebody has already shot at her—it’s also a set-up. Who wants her dead? Who’s behind it all? Who’s using him as a pawn? And why does Orbison flaunt his affair in front of his wife, even forcing his wife to meet the “other woman”? More

Review of CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (Blu-ray)

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

A week ago, if you had asked me to name a Western that bridged genres and included vampires, I would have said, “I know, I know: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula!” That 1966 movie is famous for being so absolutely awful that it’s not even laughably bad—an insipid film that’s only known for the blending of genres that everyone thought unique. But a few days ago I became aware of another vampire Western—Curse of the Undead—and it turns out that this black-and-white 1959 film was really the first vampire Western.

What’s more—and here’s the shocker—it’s not a silly movie that takes itself seriously, thereby setting itself up for an audience that likes campy films, films that are wink-wink so bad that they’re kinda good. You need to know this, so you won’t look at the cover art and think, Oh, we’re going to have so much fun making fun of this rotten film. It’s not rotten and it’s not campy. Writer-director Edward Dein, who would go on to direct Robert Conrad in three TV series (Hawaiian Eye, The Wild Wild West, The Black Sheep Squadron), plays this absolutely straight. It’s a surprisingly good drama that treats vampires a little less like Universal monsters and more like what legend says they were. If it were shorter, it might pass for an episode of The Twilight Zone, and tonally it’s very much like the classic monster movies that Universal cranked out in previous decades.

To make the Western aspect work, it helps that one of the stars is Eric Fleming, who played Gil Favor on the highly respected Rawhide (think Blues Brothers!) TV series and also appeared in several episodes of Bonanza, that other long-running TV Western. In this vampire Western, Fleming plays Preacher Dan. Somebody has to have a cross, right?

One of the other stars is John Hoyt, who appeared in such TV Westerns as The Virginian, The Big Valley, Laredo, Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel, Maverick, Laramie, The Rifleman, Death Valley Days, and Union Pacific. All of those Westerns were popular because they were aimed at adults. They were serious dramas and not just Saturday morning formulaic shoot-‘em-ups.

In this film, even the vampire—Michael Pate—worked in TV Westerns that were played for drama, not laughs, including shows like Zane Grey Theater, Maverick, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Sugarfoot, and Broken Arrow. These guys knew how to play cowboys, and it’s both surprising and refreshing that the vampire in Curse of the Undead doesn’t transform into a bat, doesn’t say “I vant to suck your blood,” and doesn’t behave like he just got in from Transylvania. He looks and acts like the kind of gunslinger you’d encounter in the Old West: dark and menacing as a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike.

There’s always a ranch or town boss in a Western who’s the villain, but when there’s a vampire gunman in town any villain is going to seem soft by comparison—even someone like Bruce Gordon, who played Frank Nitti in the old Untouchables TV series and also appeared with Vincent Price in Tower of London. And there’s always a damsel in distress, a delectable morsel-in-waiting in every vampire movie. Here, the part is played by Kathleen Crowley, who was in her fair share of B movies and Westerns, including The Rebel Set, Target Earth, Female Jungle, and Maverick. More

Review of THE SECRET GARDEN (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Family Drama
Rated PG

There seems to be just one rule for adapting a classic of children’s literature: stay close to the book. It’s a wonder more filmmakers don’t follow that unwritten rule.

The Secret Garden is a case in point. The 1949 release starring Margaret O’Brien earned a 7.5 out of 10 from audiences at the Internet Movie Database, while a 1987 TV version and 1993 big-screen remake were equally popular (7.2 and 7.3, respectively). All three films were faithful to the book. But a 2017 steampunk treatment got the cold shoulder (4.5), and two 2000 faquels (fake sequels)—Back to the Secret Garden and Return to the Secret Garden didn’t fare much better, with scores of 5.7 and 5.3.

Is it any wonder that audiences tagged this 2020 “reimagined” incarnation with a 5.6 rating? The weight of audience expectation was dropped like a piano from a rooftop on an otherwise beautifully filmed version, most likely because it dared to change things a bit.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel followed a sickly 10-year-old girl who lived in India with wealthy parents that both ignored and spoiled her. Cared for by Indian servants, she awakened one day to find her parents dead of cholera and the staff long gone. Eventually she was sent to England to live with a hunchbacked uncle and his servants in an isolated mansion on the moors. As it happened, Archibald Craven had sealed off a private walled garden after his wife had died there. But Mary grew ever curious about the garden and also the cries she heard in the house at night. Eventually she found the key that unlocked the garden, hung out with the maid’s younger brother, and discovered a cousin she never knew she had, shuttered away in a hidden room because of a spinal illness that had kept him bedridden. He quickly became a diversion for Mary, who took him (secretly) to see the secret garden.

Writer Jack Thorne and BAFTA-winning director Marc Munden decided to mix things up a bit. They made the garden magical. Plants are ginormous, and far more tropical More

Review of THE GREY FOX (1982) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Western-drama
Rated PG

The Grey Fox is the kind of Western that holds some appeal for people who aren’t fans of the genre, because this independent Canadian film is about as far as you can get from the formula Western. Sure, there’s a little gunplay and a few robberies, but this 1982 film is a quiet Western, a character-based film—one that feels like a full-movie version of the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s a feature that feels every bit the indie film. There’s only the slightest bit of violence, sex, and language, with the focus on a grandfatherly figure that’s instantly sympathetic.

A number of revisionist Westerns—including Butch and Sundance, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, and The Wild Bunch—have embraced an elegiac tone and offered an aging hero who also stands as a symbol for the passing of a romantic Old West that’s now consigned to history. But The Grey Fox stands alone as a story that offers a character that’s stronger than the symbol he was meant to be. And it’s based on a true story, too.

Former stuntman Richard Farnsworth is compelling as the low-key, soft-spoken Bill Miner, who in Canada became as famous and oddly beloved by average people as Jesse James was south of the border. James robbed banks and Miner robbed the railroad—two institutions that were squeezing common people and were therefore resented. Miner was credited for first instructing people to put their “hands up,” and he became known as the Gentleman Bandit because of his politeness, gentility, and strict instructions that his men should never shoot or otherwise harm anyone. The Billy Miner Alehouse in Maple Ridge, British Columbiasd still celebrates this folk hero, not because he robbed from the rich to give to the poor, but because he only took from the hated Canadian Pacific Railway.

Writer John Hunter and director Phillip Borsos (who studied under Francis Ford Coppola) stay pretty close to the truthful parts of the Bill Miner story, choosing only to add their own bit of legend by giving Miner a low-key love interest (Jackie Burroughs) to match his personality—a strong, older woman who never married because she had other ambitions in life. 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 ORCA, THE KILLER WHALE! (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C
Drama
Rated PG

Orca: The Killer Whale! came out two years after Jaws and a year before the first Jaws sequel, so it would be natural to look at the poster art and assume we’re dealing with the same type of film. But they’re about as similar as a shark and a dolphin.

Jaws was a campy blend of adventure and horror tropes brought to the sea, with a storyline involving beach closings on the Fourth of July weekend and a hunt for a man-eating shark that was terrorizing swimmers. There was a logic to having a marine biologist paired with a shark hunter and the local police chief, and as the trio set off to kill the shark the film played out with the same kind of character attrition as we get in horror films—but with more character and relationship development.

Orca, meanwhile, takes itself way too seriously and tries to be a “message” film. It feels like a straight drama, intercut with sentimentalized footage of killer whales communicating. There are no jump scares typical of horror films (and Jaws), and no build-up of tension through music or any other means. It’s a fairly flat narrative boat ride from point A to point G, as in gee, this doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Set off the coast of Labrador, this 1977 film begins with footage of Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and his crew of two trying to capture a Great White Shark to sell to an aquarium. Never mind that the ship doesn’t seem equipped with a tank and support system large enough to accommodate a 10-foot shark. In this opening sequence they cross paths with two researchers studying Orcas, and as one of the researchers (Robert Carradine) falls into the ocean and looks like a goner, out of nowhere comes an orca that rams the shark and kills it. So what does Nolan do after witnessing this unselfish act from one of nature’s creatures? Naturally, he decides to reward such heroism by trying to capture the killer whale—despite being warned by lead researcher Rachel (Charlotte Rampling) that orcas mate for life and can be very vengeful if anything happens to their mate. More

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