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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.

The film opens in 1901 with Miner being released from prison after serving 33 years for robbing stagecoaches. But after watching the silent movie The Great Train Robbery (1903), which was based on an actual event, he gets the idea to rob trains, since stagecoaches are a thing of the past. Why? Maybe it’s all he knows. Maybe he can’t tolerate the oyster bed job his sister lined up for him. Maybe he’s refusing to go gently into that good night. When a “respectable” man in town hires Miner and another man to steal for him, we’re still not sure of the gentleman’s motivations. For the most part Miner keeps his thoughts pretty much to himself, leaving viewers to read his face and interpret his actions. He has passions, but never articulates them. But there’s a matter-of-fact quality to what he does that’s totally in keeping with his personality, and his character is mesmerizing, the way a quiet, strong presence can dominate a room. You find yourself rooting for him, the way you root for any underdog.

The Grey Fox feels authentic, and maybe that’s because Borsos paid so much attention to detail. The film company was the only one ever allowed to film at the British Columbia heritage site Fort Steele, and it was filmed using railroad cars run by Canadian railroads. In fact, the capture scene was shot in the same vicinity where Miner was apprehended, and close-ups of his gun were the actual gun he used, borrowed from a collector.

Although the film wasn’t on the Oscar radar, it captured Best Picture and six other Genie Awards (Canada’s Oscars). The Western Writers of America named The Grey Fox its Spur Award winner for Best Movie Script and the film also earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Foreign Film and Best Actor—Drama. Critics loved the film. It has a 100 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes (compared to a 79 percent audience score), and the legendary Roger Ebert called it “a lovely adventure” en route to awarding it 3.5 stars out of 4. It’s a quirky drama that’s not overly or ostentatiously odd, and in indie style it’s leisurely paced and character and plot seem bound together. There’s action, but it’s all reined in by the personality of this fascinating older gentleman, with a charm that’s underscored by songs from The Chieftains.

Entire family: Yes, but realistically it’s for adults and older teens
Run time: 92 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
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Rated PG for some violence and mild language and adult situations 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

Review of THE LAST VALLEY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Historical war-adventure drama
Rated PG

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that Shangri-La is never what it appears to be, because idylls are too close to idols and idles for comfort. Human nature always gets in the way of any Eden, and paradise seems always destined to be lost, as illustrated by this 1971 historical adventure-war drama.

Moviemakers were going different directions the year The Last Valley was released, with audiences latching onto tough-guy cops and P.I.s (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Shaft), racy literary adaptations (A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show), prostitutes (Klute, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), and the latest James Bond entry (Diamonds Are Forever). So The Last Valley was all but overlooked in America, despite its popularity in the U.K. and the pairing of Michael Caine (The Ipcress File) and Omar Sharif (Funny Girl, Dr. Zhivago).

Written and directed by James Clavell (To Sir with Love, also known for his novel Shogun that was made into a popular TV mini-series), the film raises a lot of questions about religion, war, and the very meaning and nature of existence. Mostly, though, it feels like an anti-war fable that grinds its gears toward the conclusion that conflict is futile yet, ironically, inevitable.

For an older film, it’s surprisingly compelling because it’s surprisingly fresh—well written and, except for a few melodramatic moments, superbly acted, with impressive location filming in Austria. Families who like the comedy Miss Congeniality will hardly recognize makeover artist Michael Caine decades earlier in this film as a captain who commands a group of mercenaries during Europe’s Thirty Years War. Superscript tells us at the film’s beginning that this 1618-48 war ravaged central Europe the same time as the plaque and was initially fought between Protestant and Catholic states in a deteriorating Holy Roman Empire. Then it became a fight for power and control, with wealthy noblemen and professional soldiers leading large armies of mercenaries from both religious sides as they spread across the countryside, destroying villages and raping and looting along the way. In effect, they put their religious differences on hold in order to pursue a common “bad”. A similar truce happens in The Last Valley. More

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 CALL OF THE WILD (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Rated PG
Adventure-Drama

Writer-slash-prospector Jack London penned his classic third novel, The Call of the Wild, in 1903, and the first of seven film adaptations and TV series was released way back in 1935. As a result, people think they know this dog story even if they haven’t read or seen it. What they typically know is that it’s a Yukon gold rush story involving a sled dog. Since the other well-known thing London wrote was “To Build a Fire,” in which a man freezes to death, they naturally assume The Call of the Wild is a sad movie.

And in places, it is. If you have family members who are especially sensitive to bad things happening to animals, this first feature from 20th Century since Disney acquired the movie division of Fox might not be for them.

Overall, though, The Call of the Wild isn’t another weepy Marley & Me or Hachi: A Dog’s Tale or Old Yeller. {Spoiler alert—skip to next paragraph] Dogs are mistreated and animals and humans die—but not Buck.

Buck is the dog whose epic/episodic journey we follow, from owner to owner and from the easy California life of a pampered pet to the harsh world of a sled dog learning how to survive in the wild. Buck is also regrettably CGI, and it takes some time to adjust to that and accept him as a character. From the moment we see him bounding around a judge’s mansion it’s painfully obvious that we’re not watching a real dog. There’s just something “off” about the movement or design. But you get used to it, and as director Chris Sanders told ComingSoon.com, the decision to go with CGI animals was pretty much made for them, because “you just could not safely put a real dog” into the dangerous situations the film depicts. That includes some pretty spectacular scenes.

Sanders also said, “In a situation where you’re using real dogs, you would have a number of dogs playing Buck. So you might have two, three, four or more dogs that are specialized in different behaviors standing in for Buck, which means you’d have a huge inconsistency with these characters. But the most important thing is that we wanted this character to act and to be a character; this is a fable about a dog. The human beings are characters that come and go in Buck’s life . . . .” 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 LITTLE WOMEN (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Rated PG
Drama

As I watched Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s Best Picture-nominated adaptation of the beloved 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel, I was struck by a great irony.

To appreciate this 2019 film—to even understand what’s going on—you really need to have read the book recently. Rather than tell the story chronologically with fully fleshed-out scenes from the book, Gerwig chops up Alcott’s narrative and tells the story out-of-sequence, bouncing back and forth in time using segments not long enough for the confused to get their bearings. The director seems more interested in scenic juxtapositions than she is telling a story she assumes everyone knows by heart—as evidenced by a scene in which young Amy’s talk with her rich aunt (Meryl Streep) immediately segues to a different location and time with an older Amy talking once again with her aunt. Numerous such examples occur throughout the film, and it’s clever. I get that. But I needed to keep asking my wife, who practically has the book memorized, who some of the characters were or what was going on.

That’s where the great irony comes in. While you had to have recently read the novel to be able to fully understand and appreciate this version, if you’re as big of a fan of Little Women as my wife is, you might find yourself annoyed that Gerwig took too many liberties with a book that was great enough not to need those extra bells and whistles.

A fragmented narration that jumps back and forth between the teenage and adult versions of the March sisters isn’t nearly as effective at conveying information as a traditional linear narrative. A non-sequential narration often puts the effect before the cause, and so viewers who don’t have the book memorized may not understand or fully appreciate what characters have been through, or what brought those characters to a certain point. As a result, you don’t feel the same emotional attachment to characters as you might have if had you been with them from the time they were pre-teens and teens through early adulthood, watching them navigate relationships with family; explore their interests in art, music, and writing; perform plays with neighbor “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Clalamet); and dabble in male-female courtships. More

Review of THEIR FINEST HOUR: 5 BRITISH WWII CLASSICS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Not rated (would be PG)
War / drama

British WWII movies were dependably good, so it’s no surprise that this collection of five black-and-white films doesn’t contain a single stinker. Every one of them is in the B range. Because of patriotic undertones and because of the era they tend to be on the melodramatic side, but they stick with you as much as those distinctive vocal harmonies from the ‘40s.

Went the Day Well? has a title that sounds stiff, and in fact all of the older women in this 1942 film seem to talk in the same proper, lilting, slightly theatrical voice as Aunt Bee from the old Andy Griffith Show. One of the strongest films in this collection, it’s a home guard movie based on a Graham Greene story about residents of a small British village who are asked to “billet” a platoon of soldiers. Some soldiers are put up at homes and others in a town hall converted into a dorm. But the residents start to suspect that some of those soldiers aren’t at all proper British. Could they be Nazi sympathizers? Or has wartime made everyone overly cautious? Like other films in this collection it’s a bit of a slow simmer but a fascinating drama that might appeal to older children because of the “what if” questions implied by the scenario and because some of the key characters are children. This one’s a B+, with the added bonus of being shot during wartime, when studios couldn’t build new sets and therefore used more location filming with available buildings. As a result, you get a pretty fair idea of what life looked and felt like in 1942.  More

Review of DARK WATERS (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Rated PG-13
Investigative legal drama

Dark Waters sounds like the title of a missing person case or murder mystery, and quite literally that’s what this legal drama turns out to be. It’s also based on a true story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, who in 1998 was a newly minted partner at a Cincinnati, Ohio law firm that specialized in defending chemical companies. But one day a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia brings a box of VHS tapes to his office. Bilott is ready to brush him off until the man says he knows Bilott’s grandmother. As a result, Billot drives to Parkersburg to investigate. There he sees a lot of unsettling things, ranging from blackened teeth to a mass burial site for cattle, close to 200 of which died after suddenly acting crazy. The farmer shows him more. Convinced there’s something going on, Bilott agrees to look into it.

This film traces his investigation into DuPont’s use of the dangerous chemical they labeled C-8 (used in Teflon) and the backlash Bilott faced, both personally and professionally. On the home front, for example, he had only been married for several years to his wife Sarah (Jane Hathaway) when he took the case, and at one point in the film, after his obsession starts to rival Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale, we see how close to the breaking point everyone is. It was no better for those in Parkersburg who came forward to testify against DuPont—the biggest employer and community benefactor in the area.

Dark Waters does a nice job of showing the dilemma that communities face: Can you really bit the hand that feeds you? Can you really choose between jobs, or health? If you do anything to sabotage the corporation, you also sabotage the community or your own family. Yet, one worker in the film tells how his brother got hired at DuPont and died two years later of testicular cancer, leaving behind three small boys. How important was his job? This film tells the stories of the victims of corporate greed and the heavier prices that they all pay. More

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