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Review of FLOWER DRUM SONG (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Musical
Not rated (would be PG)

I am not Asian or Asian American, so I’m not in a position to comment on what has lately been called “outdated cultural stereotypes” or “depictions.” But I can spot a song in this overlooked Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that feels more like it came out of South Pacific than San Francisco’s Chinatown, where this film version of the Broadway play is set. And I can look up who’s singing and see that, surprise, it’s the same woman who played Pacific Islander Bloody Mary in that earlier R&H musical. And that actress was of African and Irish American descent—not Asian American. 

Hollywood has a history of casting white. Marlon Brando as Japanese? That’s what audiences were supposed to believe when he played one of the leads in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). From 1957-58, TV’s The New Adventures of Charlie Chan featured Irish American actor J. Carrol Naish as the Chinese American detective. Of the 12 billed actors in The World of Suzy Wong (1960), only five in that “world” were Asian. In 1965, a remake of Genghis Khan replaced the laughably cast John Wayne from an earlier film with Omar Sharif in the title role—but Sharif was Egyptian. Even as late as 1980, British actor Peter Sellers starred as Fu Manchu in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). All of which is to say, Hollywood may have experienced a come-to-Jesus revelation when it came to casting whites as Native or African Americans, but they have been much slower to do so with Asian roles.

So it must have come as a pleasant shock to audiences that Flower Drum Song (1961), apart from Juanita “Bloody Mary” Hall, featured all Asian actors in the main roles—especially since that same year Breakfast at Tiffany’s presented Mickey Rooney as a buck-toothed nearsighted Asian caricature worthy of a WWII propaganda film. Also to its credit, Flower Drum Song was based on a novel by Chinese American C.Y. Lee. But while the film gets one thing right—telling an Asian American story from an Asian American perspective and using mostly Asian American actors—it lapses into the kind of flat characterizations that tend to accompany any attempt at humor. Often, unfortunately, that translates into outdated cultural stereotypes. Veteran character actor Benson Fong, who was forced into that straitjacket when he played Charlie Chan’s “Number 1 son,” is called upon for such service. And an outdated and corny routine featuring the children ends up in a See, hear, speak no evil pose.

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Review of WEST SIDE STORY (2021) (4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-
Musical
Rated PG-13

In 1961, the average American couldn’t go to see a Broadway show. But they did go to movie theaters in droves, and West Side Story was a blockbuster of a movie that surprised audiences with gang members who danced and sang in an updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in then-contemporary New York City and featuring two warring gangs instead of feuding families. The Robert Wise-directed film received 11 Oscar nominations and won 10 of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress.

So why would anyone even consider remaking a film so lauded and beloved? On one of the 90 minutes of bonus features on this 4K/Blu-ray release, Spielberg provided an answer—several of them.

First, Spielberg said he was not remaking a film. He was making a second film version based on the 1957 Broadway play. He reasoned that if West Side Story has been performed all over the world with different casts, why couldn’t there be a second film version?

Second, he was personally motivated. Spielberg said West Side Story was the first Broadway music he was exposed to at age 10, and that he basically “commandeered” the album his parents had bought. He loved it, and it spawned in him a love of musicals. As a result, Spielberg said that all his life he’s wanted to make a musical version of West Side Story.

A third and most compelling reason didn’t come from Spielberg. It came from my college-age daughter, who, since the film’s release, has been re-watching it and playing the songs constantly. She and many of her friends liked the music and some of the dancing from the first film version, but they weren’t exactly crazy about the characters or the narrative.

Enter Spielberg, who pinpointed the biggest difference between his new film version and the original:  the 1961 film was a hybrid—part cinematic and part theatrical. He wanted to create a film that was more fully cinematic, and to do that he had to push it away from the theatrical and make it more realistic. He had to push it away from the moist-eyed spotlight solos sung in private or in closed spaces and open it up to where they were sung with active movements (and reactions) on the streets of New York. He also added small touches of realism throughout the film and created a narrative based on logic rather than the limitations of stage.

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Review of ROCKETMAN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: No (just families with older teens)
2019, 121 min., Color
Musical drama
Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content
Paramount
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen (enhanced)
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

A year after Rami Malek channeled Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and introduced a new young audience to Queen we get Rocketman, which attempts to do the same for Elton John.

Make that Sir Elton John, a musician whose first smash hit (“Your Song” in 1970) propelled him to a career so successful that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, inducted into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, and named Billboard’s most successful male solo artist of all-time. In other words, he’s more than deserving of a biopic.

Make that a hybrid biopic—one that combines the rise (and stumble) of a musician with Broadway-style big production song-and-dance numbers that are imaginatively intercut into the film’s narrative, along with a backward-looking frame with younger alter ego that will remind some viewers of Birdman. Especially given the plume-like costume that Elton (Taron Egerton) wears to his therapy group as he recalls his former self. Is he really dressed that way, or is it a symbol or metaphor? There’s a surreal, glam-bam-thank-you-ma’am element to the film that seems very much in keeping with the real Elton John’s out-of-this-world performance persona—though the musician’s sexual orientation is treated matter-of-factly. More

Review of ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1941, 91 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS mono
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

Road to Zanzibar was the second of seven Crosby-Hope-Lamour musical comedy adventures, released in 1941 at a time when Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and safari pictures were popular. There wasn’t even supposed to be a second “Road” picture, but Paramount had bought the rights to a story that was so similar to Darryl f. Zanuck’s 1939 safari pic Stanley and Livingstone that the project was dead in the water . . . until someone decided that maybe they could do a parody of safari movies instead. In no time, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour were on the road again.

The Road pictures were always innocuous fun, spotlighting Crosby’s crooning, Lamour’s singing (and sometimes dancing), and Hope’s second-banana one-liners. This outing, writers Frank Butler and Don Hartman upped the quips between Hope and Crosby, and with the pair ad libbing as well there emerged a crackling comic energy.

The plot is a little more complex than Road to Singapore (1940), and that’s also a good thing for contemporary audiences. Along with Road to Bali (the only color film of the bunch), this is one of the recommended “starter” Road pictures for families with small children. Kids immediately pick up on the fact that Hubert “Fearless Frazier” (Hope) is constantly getting the short end of the stick as the one who has to do the dirty or dangerous work in their rotating carnival acts. The film begins with Frazier as the “Human Cannonball.” But instead of himself being shot through a flaming hoop, he hides in a secret compartment and substitutes a dummy. When that dummy sets the tent and half the town on fire and all the animals are released, they skedaddle, trying different carnival scams in different towns. Next up: Frazier wrestling a live octopus in a tank, except that plan never happens because they meet a man at a restaurant who’s a diamond baron. He buys them expensive champagne and even bails them out the next day after the night gets out of hand. So naturally Chuck Reardon (Crosby) falls for the diamond mine version of magic beans. Instead of buying two tickets back to America on a steamer, he buys a “lost” diamond mine map from a rich baron who turns out to be so crazy that his children won’t let him make decisions anymore. More

Review of ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes, but….
1940, 85 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG for drinking, smoking, and innuendo)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Today’s parents may have grown up watching some of the old Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour “Road” pictures on television. If so, there’s a good chance they might want to share them with their children.

A showcase for Crosby’s crooning, Lamour’s singing and dancing, and Hope’s second-banana wisecracking, the Road pictures were pure escapism for an America that was weighed down by WWII. Hope and Crosby, two vaudevillians who rose to become popular stars of their own radio shows, had made the leap to film, and the genius who paired them deserves a medal. The first of the Road pictures, The Road to Singapore, became the highest grossing film of 1940. Though it’s not the best—that honor goes to Road to Morocco (1942) and Road to Utopia (1945)—it lays the foundation for the films to come, though it was originally only intended as a one-and-done film. But the public wanted more, and Road to Zanzibar followed in 1941, and Road to Rio (1947), Road to Bali (1952, the only color release), and the Cold War entry The Road to Hong Kong (1962). All of the films were made during a time when Hollywood (and the rest of the world, really) was not terribly educated about or sensitive to issues of race and gender. So you’re going to have to overlook some period-typical dialogue and characterizations, as well as “natives” that seem a blend of big Hollywood musical dancers and a bag full of different cultures. Thankfully, Hope and Crosby make that easy to do.

In all of the Road pictures, they play a couple of ne’er-do-wells who are either petty con men and womanizers seeking to stay one step ahead of the law or world-traveling vaudeville-style entertainers . . . and womanizers seeking to stay one step ahead of the law. That might not sound like family entertainment, but the pictures truly are escapist fare with an emphasis on the one-liners, ridiculous plots, and the inevitable romantic tussle over Lamour (with Crosby always getting “the girl”).

For families with younger children, a good place to start might be the only color release, Road to Bali, which is slightly faster paced than The Road to Singapore and features a squid-wrestling sequence. Despite some racist elements, The Road to Zanzibar, with its safari-centered plot, is another good option if the kids are smaller. The two best are best because of the one-liners, so they’re recommended as good starting points for families with older children. More

Review of THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE (2015) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2015, 119 min., Color
Musical comedy-drama
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Stereo
Bonus features: B+
Sizzle reel
Amazon link

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in 1959, starring Mary Martin as a nun-in-training who falls in love with a widower after taking a job as his children’s governess. The musical won five Tony Awards. Then in 1965, when Julie Andrews took over the role of Maria for the lavish 172-minute film adaptation, the film earned five Oscars. That film is one of our family’s favorites, so a remake seems almost sacrilegious. Why even attempt it?

Though I was surprised to learn that there’ve been nearly a dozen film and television versions of The Sound of Music, all I knew about was the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic and The Sound of Music Live, a 2013 mistake featuring singer Carrie Underwood. So it’s probably an understatement to say that my wife and I began watching this 2015 live British television production expecting to be disappointed—especially since we’ve seen our share of lackluster filmed stage performances. While you may get a better view than if you were sitting in Row 20, it’s still a filmed version of a live performance with cameras positioned unobtrusively off-stage, creating an odd distance and dislocation. There may be three or four cameras to give you different angles, but gone is the excitement of sitting in Row 20.

As it turns out, we liked The Sound of Music Live nearly as much as the 1965 movie, partly because it’s a quality production and partly because of the very nature of the production. As one of the actors says, it’s a script-to-stage theatrical production that’s filmed on three soundstages for television, but shot in cinematic style using 17 different cameras. It feels like a movie, but it also has the look of a live performance. Instead of the bright three-point lighting that’s a film-industry standard, what’s here comes closer to stage lighting. In this version, cameras are everywhere and they follow the actors with medium shots and close-ups, but because characters go behind pillars and such and we see angles that would be denied a theatrical audience, it feels as if we’re right there on the set with the characters. It’s a strangely exhilarating feeling. More

Review of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 105 min., Color
Musical drama
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Moulin Rouge! (2001) and La La Land (2016), The Greatest Showman is a musical that was written and produced especially for the big screen. It wasn’t adapted from a Broadway show nor based on a book. The lone inspiration was the curious life of P.T. Barnum, who is most famous for having founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1871 and, through deft promotion, raising the status and popularity of the circus in America.

Barnum is erroneously credited with saying “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but a line that he was confirmed to have said as a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives in later life is more reflective of the positive direction that writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon took for this film: “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab, or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”

Anyone who watched this year’s Oscar’s knows from watching the performance of Best Song nominee “This Is Me” (which earlier won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song) that one central message of The Greatest Showman is the unfair treatment of “freaks” and marginalized members of society.

As regular readers of Family Home Theater know, I am a Tomatometer Critic at RottenTomatoes.com, but I frankly don’t know what my fellow critics’ problems are with this rousing 2017 film. Only 113 out of 205 critics thought The Greatest Showman “fresh,” with the average rating just 6/10—a C+ or B- at best. Meanwhile, 88 percent of the 21,657 RottenTomatoes audience members who responded gave it an average score 4.4 out of 5—in the B+/A- range.

What more could these people want out of a musical?

No film is perfect, but The Greatest Showman grabs you from the beginning and holds you with high-energy choreography and singing, great cast performances, and a tent full of positive messages that stand in sharp contrast to what today’s children are reading in the newspapers. Our family loved it. More

Review of PITCH PERFECT 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C
Entire family: No
2017, 93 min., Color
Comedy, Music
Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, and some action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio:
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Good music, not-so-good movie.

That just about covers it, unless you happen to be an Anna Kendrick, Hailee Steinfeld, or Rebel Wilson fan.

The original Pitch Perfect was a perfect combination of a cappella performance and competition drama, with plenty of romantic sideplots to add interest. Hitting theaters just three years after Glee captured fans’ hearts and imaginations, the 2012 film had fans begging for more. In Hollywood, of course, that means sequels, and sequels, especially with dance, cheerleading, and vocal music movies, almost always illustrate the law of diminishing returns. Each movie seems to get a little worse, until finally fans can’t take it any more.

Pitch Perfect was a strong B+, and while Pitch Perfect 2 wasn’t as successful, it was still fun because the sideplots and international flavor were enough to compensate for the plot being pretty much the same. And when it came right down to it, the other groups that the Bellas competed against had enough personality and interest to make you care about the competition.

Pitch Perfect 3 proves, if nothing else, that screenwriter Kay Cannon is running out of ideas. Now the Bellas are so desperate (this should have been the first warning sign) that they jump at a chance to perform in a USO show that’s touring Europe. That in itself could have led to all sorts of different plots. I mean, how hard would it have been to look up some of the old Bob Hope TV specials to find inspiration? And when you set a film in Spain, Italy, and France, you’d think that even more opportunities would present themselves. More

Review of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (1966) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: No
1966, 87 min., Color
Musical romantic comedy
Not rated: Would be PG-13 (for smoking, drinking, drunkenness, fighting, and suggestive scenes)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
“Frankie and Johnny” clip
Amazon link

Three Elvis Presley movies were released in 1966—two of them contemporary (Paradise, Hawaiian Style and Spinout) and one of them, Elvis’s 20th film, a costumed period musical in which Elvis plays a riverboat entertainer and inveterate gambler.

Though there are “11 great songs” advertised for Frankie and Johnny, only two of them are true Elvis tunes where The King actually gets into it: “Shout It Out,” a typical nightclub performance number that gets him smiling, clapping, and gyrating with the Jordanaires backing him up, and “Hard Luck,” a blues he sings accompanied by a shoeshine boy on harmonica. The rest are hokey period or vaudeville-style numbers that make Presley look straitjacketed and uninterested. In fact, the 1890s costumes in this musical make him look so uncomfortable that you can tell he’s feeling out of his element.

So are we. It’s not your typical Elvis movie. If it seems plot-starved (and it does), that’s because it’s basically an expansion of the popular story song “Frankie and Johnny,” which appeared in various forms from the late 1890s through 1912. As the song goes, Frankie and Johnny were lovers, but when Frankie caught Johnny two-timing her and “doing her wrong,” she shot him with her .44.

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Review of CLAMBAKE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1967, 99 min., Color
Musical comedy-romance
Not rated: Would be PG (for smoking, drinking, and some suggestive scenes)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B- (an audio commentary from Videodrome video rental store)
“Clambake” clip
Amazon link

It started with Jailhouse Rock (1957), the film that established the Elvis film character as a brooding James Dean, often with a chip on his shoulder, but with a good guy hiding under the facade. That character would appear with only minor alterations in most of his 23 films made between 1962 and 1969. By comparison, during that same period John Wayne made 17 films. Both were box-office giants.

Many of the films from this period are “a-go-go” films, and if you’re a fan of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof Top Secret! you’ll see in the formula Elvis movies what they were making fun of. Today’s families will find these lightweight musical comedy-romances fun to watch, but also fun to make fun of. Some of the dancing, some of the clothes, some of the antics are just plain hilarious now, though they were intended, like the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello “beach” movies, to be campy and fun even back then. They feature plenty of mod and mini-skirted and bikinied women and goofy guys doing the swim, the frug, the monkey, the jerk, and all those dances that were so cool then but look so silly now. What will seem even sillier to modern audiences are the backgrounds that were clumsily and unapologetically used (like the mountains in the background of this film set in Miami), or the far-fetched ways in which the writers sought to bring Elvis in contact with children.

Yes, children. You see, the Elvis film persona was meant to be everything to women: a bad boy, a nice guy, a singing romantic, a tough guy when he had to be, a clean-living guy who usually refrained from alcohol and tobacco, and a good-looking guy who was so good with kids that women saw him as father material. Despite the attitude, Elvis was the kind of guy you could bring home to meet Mom and Dad.

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