Home

Review of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 129 min., Color
Family musical fantasy
Disney
Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

We seem to have entered a new era of live-action Disney remakes of animated classics.

After a 2014 revisionist Sleeping Beauty story of Maleficent that divided critics, a trio of remakes—Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Pete’s Dragon (2016)—fared nearly as well with reviewers as they did at the box office. More live-action remakes are in the works: The Sword and the Stone, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Alice and Maleficent sequels, Cruella (an attempt to improve on the 1996 101 Dalmatians flop), Winnie the Pooh, Mulan, Tink (a Peter Pan spinoff), Prince Charming (a Cinderella spinoff), Genies (an Aladdin prequel), and Night on Bald Mountain (a Fantasia adaptation). It other words, it’s getting real.

Predictably, not everyone is a fan. More audience members (83 percent) liked 2017’s Beauty and the Beast than critics (71 percent), but if you read between the lines you’ll see that the naysayers are mostly purists who think that nothing can compare to the 1991 film many consider to be the high point of Disney animation—one that, like The Lion King, inspired a Broadway version. Additional objections came from closet homophobes who took exception with the slightly flamboyant performance that Josh Gad (Olaf, in Frozen) gave of La Fou, sidekick to the film’s egotistical, intimidating villain. But hey, he’s a musical theater guy, this is musical theater, and children will see in his performance the same kind of second-fiddle comedy as his cartoon counterpart provided.

Our family watched Beauty and the Beast separately—my son, on his college campus; my wife and daughter, at a local theater; and me, when it finally came out on Blu-ray this week—but we all had the same reaction: We loved it.

Disney excels in creating movie worlds, and to create this one they decided against straight live-action and incorporated 1700 visual effects using both old and new technology. Watch a bonus feature and you’ll see Dan Stevens, who plays the beast, decked out in a full-body motion-capture suit, and you’ll see Emma Watson as Belle sitting at a table full of objects—the only actor in the room, because all of the other characters were CGI. But you’ll also see green screen work and matte backgrounds, and the combination of old and new techniques fashion a world that’s live-action but still altered reality—timeless, fantastic.

Gad says that everyone brought their “A” game and you can see it on the screen. That A-game began with a romping, boisterous “table read” that included dancing, singing, pretend swordfights—everything we see in the film. It was clear that Disney meant to pull out all the stops and really nail this, and our family thought they did just that.

The project must have felt both new and strangely familiar to Watson, since Disney filmed at Shepperton Studios in England—the same studio where she and her young castmates shot Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Watson was a perfect choice to play Belle, as her “fantasy cred” is already high and it’s easy to believe her as the fairytale Beauty. Her singing voice is pleasant, too, though the best singer of the bunch is musical theater veteran Luke Evans, who plays a Gaston every bit as robust, menacing, and self-absorbed as the animated version.

Stevens, meanwhile, makes for a convincing Beast, and both are helped by a screenplay that sought to quell any Stockholm Syndrome talk and answer the big question: Why would Belle fall for the Beast? What was in each of their pasts and personalities that might serve as common ground for mutual attraction? Providing backstories for each and answering those questions are the main deviations from the animated version.

Otherwise, apart from incorporating additional songs, Disney follows the same path as the original: Belle wishes for more than “this provincial life,” but in requesting her father bring her back a rose from his travels she inadvertently sets the plot in motion. After being attacked by wolves and seeking refuge in a nearby castle, he’s sentenced to life in the castle prison for stealing a rose. When his horse returns and Belle tracks him down, she offers herself in his place. Meanwhile, her father returns to town and tries to get them to rescue his daughter, but they think he’s crazy. But Gaston, eventually, will lead armed peasants in an assault on the castle. As Watson says, it’s a musical, it’s a fantasy, it’s an action movie, and it’s a drama—four genres in one.

Small children will find the wolfpack attack even more frightening in live action, but the Beast is toned down a bit from the animated original—or maybe it just seems that way since his transformation begins more immediately and there is greater depth in the Beast’s character that makes him seem more instantly likable. Then again, director Bill Condon—who was behind the camera for two of The Twilight Saga films—knows a thing or two about bad-boy, good-girl teen attraction. Ultimately, the Beast isn’t as bad as he appears, and the sorceress (Hattie Morahan) who pinned that curse on him has a bigger role in the live-action version.

Some critics have groused about weak links, but we didn’t see any. The whole cast was remarkable—energetic, “animated,” and wholly believable—whether we’re talking about Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline), Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), or Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci). Ultimately, while the story is the same, it feels like a completely different movie from the 1991 animated classic. And as long as that feeling persists, Disney can remake animated films as much as they want.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: The wolf attack can be frightening, as can the Beast’s initial rage and a climactic scene when one character dies and another appears dead
Adult situations: A pub scene, but the music distracts from anything adult
Takeaway: Empowered by advances in CGI special effects, Disney seems to have found their live-action stride again

Review of A MERMAID’S TALE (DVD)

Leave a comment

Grade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes (technically)
2016, 92 min., Color
Family drama
Rated G
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

You could argue that Daryl Hannah revived Hollywood’s fascination with mermaids in the live-action 1984 romantic comedy Splash, which contained so much adult female nudity that it’s now really only appropriate for adults. Then came the engaging Australian TV series H20: Just Add Water, featuring three young women in their late teens that find themselves transformed into mermaids. Now we get a 12 year old who has her own mermaid encounter in the live-action film A Mermaid’s Tale. And if you remember the rule of thumb for movies aimed at children, the heroes are always slightly older than the intended audience. That means the 6-10 age group finally gets a live-action mermaid film to feed their fantasy side.

From a critic’s perspective, A Mermaid’s Tale is a C- at best. But young Caitlin Carmichael is likable as the female lead and the playful relationship she has with her father (Jerry O’Connell, who was the fat kid in Stand by Me) is more like the one Miranda Cosgrove had with her TV brother (Jerry Trainor). Because of that, and because the production values are surprisingly good, I think young girls in the target age group will probably find this movie entertaining enough to grade a B or B-. Considering that the film was made with them in mind, I’m comfortable giving A Mermaid’s Tale a compromise grade of C/C+.

Carmichael plays Ryan, a 12-year-old girl who moves with her father to a tiny California fishing town in order to help her aging grandfather, whom she hasn’t seen since she was very tiny. Even this early in the film, adults who watch with their daughters will be thinking, Really? I mean, if you don’t see someone for 10 years it usually implies that you’re estranged, and yet the only thing that seems strained in their relationship is their insistence on “caring” for the older man and forcing him to take it easy, since apparently his doctor put him on an aspirin regimen for his heart. If you care enough about a relative to relocate, why didn’t you care enough to visit over the past decade?

Then too, we’re told the fish left a LONG time ago, but everything in this quaint little town looks freshly painted and picturesque as a thriving tourist destination, not a depressed fishing village. The only remotely ramshackle thing is Grandpa’s boat, which has one panel on the hull that’s been primed but not painted. In the early going the plot will remind you a bit of the Flipper remake, in which an isolated boy forced to live someplace different finds a best friend in a dolphin. Only here, Ryan encounters a mermaid named Coral (Sydney Scotia) who had become briefly entangled in a net hanging inexplicably close to the dock. Though she keeps the mermaid business to herself, even more inexplicable is that Grandpa (Barry Bostwick) admonishes her for going to the docks alone. Someone her age shouldn’t be doing that, he and his son chide. Really? I mean, it’s not as if she’s so small she could fall in and drown, and the docks in this quaint little town aren’t exactly full of rough-and-tumble sailors, fishermen, or longshoremen. It’s a pier, basically, with a few boat slips, and an easy walk to cute little bakeries and cafes. Yet, just one day later when Grandpa insists that his son come with him on a two-day fishing trip, he suggests leaving Ryan on her own because “she’s old enough.” That’s not inconsistent at all, right?

The point is, if you’re an adult and you think too much, you’ll find plenty to criticize. If you’re a girl in the target age range, you’ll get caught up in the BFF giggling that a young girl and a young mermaid enjoy together. Grandpa blames the mermaids for chasing away the fish and now he’s determined to catch them to bring the fish back, and the queen of the mermaids (yes, there is such a thing) has warned her people to NEVER have contact with humans. So you basically have a situation where both girls are taking a walk on the wild side because they found a best friend—something that will certainly appeal to rule-following and friend-needy adolescents.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but most young viewers’ hearts will beat with excitement when Ryan is surprised to learn she’s able to hold her breath under water for a whopping 10
minutes! I can’t predict how a young audience will react when Coral takes Ryan to mermaid island, but people who saw the old Power Rangers TV series or grew up watching the campy Lost in Space episodes will recognize in the set and costumes an Irwin Allen hokeyness and smile. Try to ignore the continuity error where Coral is still wearing her own necklace in a scene after she and Ryan traded jewelry, or that near the end Ryan’s dad and his old-now-new girlfriend show up on the island, though we have no idea how they got there. Or that we see a Coast Guard cutter bearing down on the island and Dad mentions the Coast Guard, but they never arrive and the scene ends. If you can put aside those inconsistencies and the campy Power Rangers turn that the film suddenly takes, it’s a cute-enough family film. But really, A Mermaid’s Tale—a film that’s as wholesome as can be—is for young girls no older than age 10.

Review of A COWGIRL’S STORY (DVD)

Leave a comment

Grade:  C
Entire family:  Technically, yes
Family drama
Rated PG for thematic elements
Sony/Samuel Goldwyn
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve asked this before but it bears repeating: why are wholesome religious family films so often sabotaged by a weak script and less-than-stellar acting? It’s happened again with A Cowgirl’s Story, a 2017 manipulate-you-to-feel-good movie starring Bailee Madison (Brothers, TV’s Good Witch).

Madison, who co-produced the film, is saddled with a script that’s by turns corny, wooden, and cliché-ridden. And on top of all that, this message film doesn’t trust the audience enough to attempt some measure of subtlety. Then again, the audience for the film—God-fearing, military-supporting, small-town America—might be forgiving enough to overlook the many flaws.

Dance Mom fans will like seeing Chloe Lukasiak as something other than a whipping girl for taskmaster Abby Lee Miller. In A Cowgirl’s Story she plays “bad girl” Savannah Stocker, whose father was killed while deployed in Afghanistan and whose mother has withdrawn and (we think—this is the film’s only subtle part) turned to drink. But Lukasiak is a far better dancer than she is an actress—at least at this stage in her career. She’s a bit too rigid and doesn’t have a very convincing range of facial expressions or body language. In fact, she even looks stiff and awkward while performing in a group line dance that the end credits say she choreographed. But in the weak acting department she’s not alone. The other recognizable name, Pat Boone, also disappoints.

Boone never really had the acting chops of that other, more famous singer who went Hollywood. He was good enough as a young man in April Love and State Fair, in which he could sing, and came close to holding his own in the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, where there was enough excitement to distract. But here he’s a grandpa who’s more doddering than doting and whose interactions with granddaughter Dusty Rhodes (Madison) and son (James C. Victor) are almost painfully unconvincing. As a result, Boone seems inserted for one reason: to deliver Bible-based advice and to lead everyone in prayer (which, with “The Lord’s Prayer,” he actually does quite well). Unfortunately, other actors also don’t come close to the performance that Madison delivers.

All that said, the biggest problem with A Cowgirl’s Story is that everything is too far-fetched, familiar, or unbelievably easy. First of all, what group of teenage girls would drink on-campus sitting in bleachers right near the school by passing a bottle inside a paper bag, wino-style, back and forth? I mean, wouldn’t they be sneakier, so as not to get caught? And when new girl Dusty overhears the principal telling troubled teen Savannah (Lukasiak) that this was her last chance and she’s out, is there anyone watching who doesn’t expect Dusty to do what we’ve seen a gazillion times since Jack Lemmon helped out Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and claim the bottle was really hers?

Then, when Dusty is pushing a library cart with books on what is still presumably her first week and a few books fall, could it be more clichéd than to have a boy (Aidan Alexander as Trevor) pick up that book as their “meet cute”? What’s unexpected, though, is to have them become instant boyfriend-girlfriend, just as Savannah is quickly paired up with a boy named Jason (Froy Gutierrez). It’s just too easy, as anyone currently in high school will attest. Once dance and they’re acting like three-month steadies.

It’s also unreasonably easy for Dusty to get permission to start an equestrian club, and when the principal says “it’s over” because no one has registered to join after an hour or so, the high schoolers (even the ones who ridiculed her) have an “I’m Spartacus” moment, following Savannah’s lead as she joins to even the score. Characters are arrested but promptly released, and though this story takes place in a small town there are students who inexplicably make fun of a girl for wearing cowboy boots. Really? A number of characters either have quick turnarounds or else moments where they behave quite out of character. Part of the problem is that the passage of time isn’t well defined in this film. In what seems like only days or, at best, a few short weeks, teens who never even rode a horse before are suddenly performing at a rodeo event.

The film’s resolution is abruptly convenient, with characters making some pretty major turnarounds based on either one quick moment in church, an equally quick talk, or a visit from Grandpa. And darned if God or fate or the screenwriter doesn’t intervene at the most predictable (yet far-fetched) times. Faith is one thing, but a three-act screenplay is another, and everything in A Cowgirl’s Story is too remarkably easy for it to be believable drama.  A Cowgirl’s Story presents a girl who has a mild crisis of faith after a death —a crisis we don’t necessarily believe because she goes about her business so cheerily, whether it’s helping Savannah or spending time with her equestrian group. And this, despite the trauma of her father leaving (and quickly returning wounded—again, time frame seems ill defined) and her mother MIA in Afghanistan.

A Cowgirl’s Story is directed by Timothy Armstrong, who also directed Cowgirls ‘n Angels (2012) and Cowgirl’s ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer (2014). I reviewed Dakota’s Summer and gave it a B, but apart from Madison, Armstrong doesn’t have the same level of talent to work with here, and the script he came up with is just too facile. Horse-lovers will wish there were more equestrian scenes, and the target audience—many of whom agree with Trump’s policies on immigration and Muslims—may wonder why there is a scene castigating people for spraypainting “Go Home” on the car of a teen who wears a hijab.

In the end, A Cowgirl’s Story is the kind of film that young girls ages 8 to 10 might like, but teens will find it just too eye-rolling . . . and many parents will join them. That’s too bad, because there was potential here for it to be a family movie as good as Dakota’s Summer.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: n/a; even the “bad” kids are wholesome
Adult situations: Brief teen drinking (though it doesn’t even look like there’s a bottle in that bag) and a breaking-and-entering arrest
Takeaway: It’s not the infusion of religion that drags this film down; it’s that everything is just too easy, too unrealistic, and, ultimately, too unbelievable

Review of HEIDI (2015) (DVD)

Leave a comment

Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 111 min., Color
Family
Not rated (would be G)
StudioCanal
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German), Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Walmart exclusive

Victorian-age literature is full of orphans. Dickens’ gave us David Copperfield, Pip, and Oliver Twist; Twain created Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; L. Frank Baum introduced readers to Dorothy in his Oz books; and Rudyard Kipling wrote about Kim and Mowgli. But the literary orphan who lived the most satisfying life was probably Swiss writer Johanna Spyri’s character, Heidi.

Since 1937, when Shirley Temple played the little Swiss orphan who bounces from place to place in picturesque Switzerland and Germany, there have been more than 20 different film and TV adaptations. But no one captures the spirit of the original 1881 children’s novel better than director Alain Gsponer and his team of German and Swiss filmmakers.

Shot on location in Germany and the Swiss Alps, this most recent and faithful adaptation—available exclusively at Walmart—does the most spectacular job of exploiting the scenery and Heidi’s natural capacity for unbridled joy. With a feel-good default that tends to rub off on most of the people around her, Heidi is a bit like a later American orphan made famous because of the Disney film by the same name: Pollyanna. But instead of playing a “glad game,” it’s Heidi’s positive attitude, helpful nature, and ever-present smile that win her friends. Then again, when your journey goes from living a rather idyllic existence in the Alps with your goatherd grandfather, then boarding with a rich German family in Frankfurt in order to keep their invalid daughter company, and finally back again to be reunited with Grandpa, it’s easier to stay positive than if you’re Dickens’ heroes slogging it out in the dirty and dangerous disease-filled streets of London.

The Alpine scenes in this StudioCanal film are a feast for the eyes, and Heidi is family-friendly with just one disclaimer: the film was made in German with English subtitles, so you have to do a bit of reading or else watch in dubbed English. That might not prove to be too big of a negative, since younger children accustomed to partially animated cartoons probably won’t be bothered by words and lips slightly out-of-synch, and children old enough to read well may find this version of Heidi the perfect first subtitled movie to tackle. It’s an easy-paced film with mostly short exchanges rather than long monologues, and none of the characters talks very rapidly.

It’s well cast, too, with Anuk Steffen radiant as the mop-haired Heidi, Bruno Ganz appropriately grouchy and initially standoffish as the grandfather, and Katharina Schüttler as the curt Frankfort governess. In the sixties, WGN-TV aired a series of movies called Family Classics with Frazier Thomas, and this 2015 film has a throwback feel to it. It’s as wholesome as can be, and that means the cutoff for kids is probably junior high age. This film feels older because it’s a costumed affair set in Victorian times, and that means junior high school students will think it too corny (or whatever the current vernacular is). But young children ought to enjoy Heidi.

Part of the appeal is that the story speaks to every child’s fantasy . . . not to be orphaned, of course, but to have an adventure that includes living in the mountains with animals and few rules, relatively free to enjoy your days as the goats graze. Forks? Napkins? What are those? You pick up your wooden bowl with two hands and you drink whatever’s in it. What child hasn’t dreamt of living in such a mountain paradise? Or being rich? If you’re going to be sent away as an orphan, there are worse fates than becoming a part of a rich household where you’re well cared for and treated like a guest rather than a servant.

Especially if you’re a girl, what’s not to like about having a friend your own gender and approximate age living in a big house where the mother is dead and the father travels most of the time, leaving servants to tend to your needs? And when your wheelchair-bound new friend expresses a desire to leave the house and break the overprotective bonds of her governess and father, what young girl wouldn’t secretly love to help her escape . . . even if it’s only for a few hours? It’s not exactly the prison Little Orphan Annie lived in, either. When the servants are occupied, Heidi simply pushes her friend out the front door to the nearby marketplace.

In the original novel, Heidi got her grandfather to pray again, but the religious element is downplayed in this lavishly produced adaptation. The emphasis isn’t on the grandfather’s redemption, but on Heidi finally finding a home. Feel-good classic? Yes, please.

THE BFG (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

bfgcoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes (with a caveat)
2016, 117 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for action, peril, some scary moments, and brief rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Decades from now, film historians may refer to 2016 as a milestone year for Disney—the year the studio entered a new age in producing live-action/animated fantasy adventures, with The Jungle Book coming out in April, The BFG premiering in July, and Pete’s Dragon debuting in August. All three films are impressive for kicking it up a notch in creating convincingly realistic CGI creatures that seamlessly interact with actors in real-life settings.

But the films aren’t equally successful. The runaway leader of the pack was the remake of the 1967 Kipling adaptation of Mowgli’s adventures, with the remake of the 1977 live-action/animation musical-comedy featuring Elliot the dragon close behind. Less bfgscreen1successful is The BFG, which producer-director Steven Spielberg adapted from the Roald Dahl book. Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T.) chose to stay reasonably close to the structure of the original book, trusting that the special effects and the magical world described by Dahl and rendered by them would be enough to sustain audiences. And it is . . . until a talky first act with a giant dose of giant gibberish starts to get a little old. Interest picks up mid-way when the giant and child companion offer to help the Queen solve Britain’s disappearing children problem, but a third act pushes toward a tidy fabulist ending that almost feels anticlimactic. In other words, E.T. it’s not.

This is a PG-rated family film, though in true Fee-fi-fo-fum fashion a gang of bully giants bigger than the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) apparently EAT children, which they call “beans.” Not the BFG, though. He likes children, which is why he grabs young orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and transports her from London to the land of giants. It’s also why he shares with her his dream collection and takes her with him to harvest new dreams.

As gentle as this giant is, the whole giants-eating-kids thing and what amounts to a kidnapping might be upsetting to some children, especially since the giants look so gosh-darned real. bfgscreen2Their skin, their movement, their hair and facial expressions all look as palpable as anything in the actual world. Though Disney has been making blends of animation and live action since The Reluctant Dragon was released in 1941, this year really does mark a new level of CGI achievement . . . or maybe usage is the more appropriate word. Walt Disney used to let perfection be his guide, not cost, and it’s in that spirit that today’s Disney studio operatives have applied CGI techniques normally reserved for sure-fire summer blockbusters to lesser films, so that they are now the new norm. The exception has become the rule, and what was once clearly an animation is now sometimes difficult to tell.

With The BFG, it helps to be a Dahl fan. The average person may be momentarily charmed by the fabricated language the giant speaks—things like “Troublehumper,” “Skitter scatter, boys,” “How absolutely squiffling,” “My little frogglefrump,” and “Bugwinkles!”—but it can grow old. Same with the relentless whimsical background score by John Williams, the overly long sequences and the characters themselves. I suspect that younger viewers—the main audience for this one—will wish for more action scenes with the gang of giants and fewer sequences with just the girl and the BFG. It’s when more characters are involved that this film perks up.

Even then, as my teenage son said, any Disney film that resorts to gibberish and farting humor (in Disney’s defense, it’s in the book!) doesn’t deserve a good grade. The BFG falls in the cracks somewhere between a C and a B. It’s the kind of film you appreciate for its technical wizardry but maybe don’t like as much as you think you should.

YOURS, MINE AND OURS (1968) (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

yoursmineandourscoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1968, 111 min., Color
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for mild language and innuendo)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

In 1968, a year before The Brady Bunch charmed television audiences, two blended family movies played in theaters: With Six You Get Eggroll, starring Doris Day and Brian Keith, and Yours, Mine and Ours, with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as the parents. The latter was popular enough to spark a less successful 2005 remake (with Rene Russo and Dennis Quaid). Of them all, the original Yours, Mine and Ours is the best—partly because of a decent script by committee, partly because of the stars’ steady performances, and partly because it’s based on a real story.

yoursmineandoursHelen North was a Navy wife whose husband was killed in an air crash when she was 30 and pregnant with their eighth child. When she married Navy Warrant Officer Frank Beardsley in 1961, her eight children were blended with his 10. And a year later, when each of them legally adopted the others’ brood, they made headlines for the largest group adoption in California history and ended up as guests of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Yours, Mine and Ours is based on her memoir, Who Gets the Drumstick.

Only a fraction of her story is recounted in the film, which focuses on the courtship between Helen and Frank, their marriage, and their attempts to raise 18 children together in the months leading up to that adoption. Though dated (what sixties’ movie isn’t?) Yours, Mine and Ours is still cute —and “cute” is the word that came to my wife and myself as we watched and sometimes laughed out loud.

It’s a little bit of a stretch to accept 57-year-old Ball and 63-year-old Fonda as fertile parents of these combined families, but the casting makes sense when you realize that Ball’s Desilu Productions bought the movie rights. Though the two of them are old enough to be the children’s grandparents, they still make for believable parents once you get over the initial shock. Fans of the old I Love Lucy series will find it interesting to watch Ball in a mostly seriocomic role, with only two scenes that feature slapstick/physical comedy—things that Ball did best. There’s a funny scene at a crowded bar, and later, when Frank brings Helen home to meet his children, the teenage boys (among them Tim Matheson of Animal House fame) put a little extra booze—make that a lot extra—in her drink. Ball, in that scene, evokes a few memories of her Season 2 episode “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” in which Lucy takes a little too much of the alcohol-based elixer Vitameatavegimin.

yoursmineandoursscreen2Fans of vintage TV will also smile seeing another TV dad, Tom Bosley (Happy Days) playing a doctor. If you’re a Brady Bunch fan, you’ll realize how many of the blended family situations came from this movie. The level of realism and believability is enough to offset anything corny or quaint comes from Yours, Mine and Ours being so wholesome and nearly 50 years old. It’s still enjoyable family fare, and because it is so dated looking it’s going to provide a nice touchstone for children to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same when it comes to family dynamics.

Aside from Matheson, the actors who play the children are believable but unremarkable, while the same could be said of the film’s minor characters—except for Van Johnson, a leading man who gets to play the sidekick this outing. Directed by Melville Shavelson—who got his experience shepherding stepparents and stepchildren in the Oscar-nominated romantic comedy Houseboat, starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren—Yours, Mine and Ours is a wholesome, cute family movie. And age hasn’t diminished its cuteness one bit.

Age has, however, affected the print, which is a little rough in the opening. But the graininess gradually becomes less after the title sequence. Like the stars’ ages, once the film gets rolling you it all smoothes out, and the colors especially look rich in this HD presentation.

Language: Nothing here except literally a handful of “damns” and “hells”
Sex: Nothing here either, apart from a few phrases (“sex maniac”), a boy reading a Playboy, mild innuendo, and references to a boy who expects a teenage girl to “prove her love”
Violence: Just one scuffle and an implied schoolyard fight with a black eye to prove it
Adult situations: Aside from the innuendo, a few fertility jokes, and the drinking/drunkenness, nothing offensive
Takeaway: As old as Ball and Fonda seem at the beginning of the film, you quickly forget their ages and appreciate two professionals—two Hollywood legends—at work

FISHES ‘N LOAVES: HEAVEN SENT (DVD)

Leave a comment

Fishes'nLoavescoverGrade: C
Entire family: Yes
2016, 103 min., Color
Lionsgate
Rated PG for brief suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Fishes ‘n loaves aside, I’m a sucker for fish-out-of-water stories, and the promotional description for this 2016 “comedy” made it sound promising:

“When his parish closes, a big-hearted California preacher is dispatched to a church in tiny Eufala, Arizona (pop. 4,521), a land of rodeos, square dances, love-struck-goats, and amateur musicals. Can Pastor Randy (Patrick Muldoon) and his loved ones keep their sanity long enough to inspire a community that’s gone astray?”

So I was primed and ready to experience Fishes ‘n Loaves: Heaven Sent, “a comedy of biblical proportions,” as the tagline described it. My wife thought it sounded cute, and my daughter was along for the ride.

But it wasn’t long before we started giving each other sidelong glances.

Funny how you don’t give casting a second thought until it seems wrong. And from the minute that Patrick Muldoon stood in front of a sparsely populated but really impressive church and delivered his sermon, I wasn’t believing him as a minister. He had the vibe of a business executive leading a team-building exercise, not someone who felt it his calling to tend to God’s flock. Dina Meyer also seemed far from what we think of when we think of preacher’s wives—a little too glam, a little too worldly, maybe. Their children were fine, though we all laughed that the family’s refrigerator is covered with alphabet magnets and the kids are in their teens. But details like that make a difference, and we had a hard time swallowing the “reality” that Fishes ‘n Loaves was serving. Stiff lines of dialogue didn’t help, nor did situational lines that seemed totally unbelievable. I mean, what teenage guy, upon meeting a teenage girl with his family standing right there next to him, would gush, “Gee, you’re pretty”?

Fishes'nLoavesscreen1So here’s where we’re at: Pastor Randy is told that they’re closing his parish—though the building is huge and in pristine condition, so there’s obviously money—and they want him to go to a tiny town in Arizona. His wife, meanwhile, wants him to work for her brother at his pizza place (something else I’m not buying, given the casting) and give up this preaching stuff. Really? One minute Pastor Randy is trying to decide how to tell his family they’re moving, and the next minute he’s mopping the floor of the pizza joint and looking like a mope. I just wasn’t believing his crisis of faith or the way they dealt with decisions in their relationship—at least the way that it was presented here. Did he really need a heavy-handed push from a homeless man named (wait for it) DeAngelis (Michael Emery), who basically explains to him the cliché that when God closes one door another one opens, or that God wants him to go to Arizona? No, but he (and we) get it anyway, and it adds an unnecessary layer of hokiness that even the normally ebullient Bruce Davison, as Pastor Ezekiel, can’t penetrate once the film relocates to its primarily rural setting.

But really, it all keeps coming back to casting. Even in Eufala, the assortment of characters lacks the charm and presence to make this city fish feel enough out of water to where it flops and squirms the way it needs to in order to make for successful comedy. Same with the hackneyed “talent auditions” that pop up in way too many movies.

Bottom line: for a comedy,  Fishes ‘n Loaves: Heaven Sent just isn’t that funny. What’s more, it falls short of being inspirational because the film’s trajectory is an overly simplistic line from Point A to Point B. (“You’ve taught us city folk the true meaning of how to love one another”). Even a similarly uncomplicated film like Miracles from Heaven does a better job of inspiring because of nuance, better writing, and (here’s that word again) casting.

Language: Squeaky clean
Sex: Same here
Violence: n/a
Adult situations: Some mild suggestive material
Takeaway: The only fish out of water in this film are the actors

Older Entries