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Review of LA LA LAND (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2016, 128 min., Color
Musical
Rated PG-13 for some language
Summit
Aspect ratio: 2.55:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m glad that Summit decided to wait a few months before making La La Land available on home video. It’s good to take a step back and approach a film like this fresh, especially after all the hype-turned-hate that swirled around it. I frankly can’t think of another film that had so many Oscar nominations (14) and was so praised initially as the surefire Best Picture winner, then derided in a backlash as the biggest overrated film of the year:

—It’s a slick film . . . maybe too slick.
—Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are amazing . . . or maybe just Stone.
—It was pure Hollywood! (they gushed) . . . It was pure Hollywood (they dismissed).
—First Whiplash and now this? Damien Chazelle is a genius . . . or not.

In retrospect, La La Land lands closer to the bulls-eye of praise, though it’s not a perfect film, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone insists. That’s clear already from an opening freeway number that’s visually a big musical showstopper but has a sound that’s not so big. Kind of like the singing we get from the two stars, which is soft and slightly raspy and muted—a throaty rather than full-bodied sound that comes from the diaphragm. There are times when the musical accompaniment even threatens to overpower Gosling’s voice. But it’s easy to ignore that when Gosling and Stone are so cute and so charming together. Plus, they handle the flirtatious choreography and dance numbers like a couple of pros, and seem to actually enjoy it.

For me (and for my teenage daughter) the film’s only real shortcoming is the ending—and that’s a matter of taste. This loving homage to Hollywood musicals from the ‘50s is a feel-good movie for 120 minutes, with a 180-degree ending that feels overly clever and totally changes the mood. My daughter didn’t appreciate that kind of manipulation, and I didn’t appreciate that the homage seemed to slide off-track at the end.

But boy, did Chazelle nail the look and feel of those old Gene Kelly movies. You find yourself admiring the choreography and the mise en scene of the song-and-dance numbers because they so lovingly replicate scenes from musicals past. La La Land revives the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals even if only for a short time. Though Oscars went to Chazelle (Best Director), Stone (Best Actress), and Justin Hurwitz (Original Score, Original Song), the one that feels most deserving is the production design by David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Without it, there isn’t much of an homage, and that they were able to achieve a retro look and feel is even more impressive when you consider that most of it was done not on a soundstage but at a range of Hollywood-area interior and exterior locations that reinforce the tribute—as does an opening where curtains part to reveal a screen that says presented in CinemaScope (a retro ultra-widescreen format).

La La Land tells a typical Hollywood story. Stone plays Mia, a would-be actress currently working the counter at an eatery on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Her dream is to become a star. Sebastian’s passion is jazz, and his dream is to open a jazz club of his own. They meet cute on a Hollywood freeway, with her flipping him off for driving around her. They meet cute again . . . and again . . . until they finally start to determine that maybe they’re meant to be together. Viewers who saw Stone and Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love probably will wonder what’s taking them so long. As both of their careers take off, which passion will win out? The Hollywood dream, their romance, or both?

Like Singin’ in the Rain, that other musical tribute to Hollywood, their are a few standouts in supporting cast. Singer John Legend is engaging as a techno-jazz enthusiast who makes a convincing argument for jazz needing to evolve . . . or die, while J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) gets a brief moment in the spotlight as a club manager who insists on a mundane play-list, and Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, and Jessica Rothe play Mia’s roommates and shine in one song, “Someone in the Crowd.”

“That’s L.A.,” Sebastian says. “They worship everything and they value nothing.” There’s critical commentary here as well as tribute, and hype or hate aside, La La Land is a bit like its Oscar-winning song, “City of Stars”: it may seem slight, but in the end, it’s the little things you remember most.

Language: One f-bomb, two uses of the middle finger, and a handful of milder swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: n/a
Adult Situations: Not much here, really
Takeaway: Part tribute, part social commentary, and part romantic comedy, La La Land is the strongest musical we’ve seen in years

Review of SING (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 108 min., Color
Animated musical-comedy
Rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: ATMOS Dolby True HD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

When I saw the trailer for Sing I thought, Could there possibly be a less imaginative premise than to build a film around a concert? Whether it’s original oldies like the Broadway Melody films and White Christmas or more recent variations, the concept has been done so many times you pretty much have to watch for the performances. Any plot will be just enough to string those tunes together.

That’s what viewers get in Sing, a film from Illumination Entertainment (The Secret Life of Pets). But here’s the crazy thing: somehow the film holds your attention and works as family viewing. The difference, I think, is in the animation. The art form allows filmmakers to be more playful in the build-up and in the details as they bridge those musical numbers. Though Sing is still no Pitch Perfect, it also helps to have a cartoon koala as the lead “actor.” Cute, right?

Matthew McConaughey gives voice to Buster Moon, a dreamer who thought he’d be much bigger in the theatrical world than he is. Put it this way: he’s no Ziegfeld. To save his theater he decides to mount a production that is guaranteed to pack the seats: a singing competition, to which all the friends and relatives of the entrants will come. Yep. It’s basically an extended animated animal version of The Voice or America’s Got Talent.

Failure hangs on Buster like a cheap suit, so he coaxes his friend Eddie (John C. Reilly), a sheep who isn’t afraid of going against the flock, to ask his retired legendary singing grandmother, Nana Noodleman (Jennifer Saunders), to sponsor the competition. She won’t do that, but she agrees to see a preview of the show. As in Nativity! disasters threaten to cancel the show, but hey, the show must go on, and it does.

A sequence that emulates a fast-moving drone camera introduces us to the contestants and prepares us for a narrative that will shift from character to character. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is this film’s Miss Piggy, a housewife who has a brood of 25 piglets and a dream of making it in music; Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a gorilla whose criminal dad wants him to follow in his footsteps instead of pursuing a career in entertainment; Ash (Scarlett Johansson), is a porcupine rocker who splits with her boyfriend in order to prove she can do it on her own; Gunter (Nick Kroll) is a German piggy who seems trapped in the age of disco; Mike (Seth MacFarlane) is an old-school crooner of a mouse who plays guitar on the street for spare change; and Meena (Tori Kelly) is an extremely shy elephant who has more stage fright than talent, and her talent is considerable.

All of the characters are fun, but the scene-stealer is Buster’s elderly lizard assistant, Miss Crawly (“Has anyone seen my glass eye?”), voiced by the film’s writer-director, Garth Jennings. Miss Crawly’s eye plays a big role too, as it’s responsible for adding a few zeroes to the amount of prize money advertised on fliers—the main complicating factor in this otherwise thinly plotted film that’s really all about the performances.

Sing features snippets and extended renditions of 65 different songs, some of them performed by the actors, and the rest of the soundtracks covering a wide range of styles and talents, including Maino, Cat Stevens, Dave Brubeck, Crystal Stilts, Dennis de Laat, Ennio Morricone, Boomish, Carly Rae Jepsen, Major Lazer, Cyndi Lauper, Kanye West, Luciano Pavarotti, David Bowie & Queen, Katy Perry, Spencer Davis, Drake, Gipsy Kings, Wham!, Stevie Wonder, and Ariana Grande. The music is one reason this film works; animation is the other.

For decades Disney has been the absolute best at creating a world, but Illumination pays just as much attention to background details and small jokes and gets it right. They bring to life a world that gives pleasure just to look at it and to appreciate those details. If this were live-action, I think it would be a yawner. Even Glee had more plotting. But the animation sells it and makes it entertaining for all ages, despite the tired premise. And for children, the message is as hopeful as The Voice: if they can pursue their dreams, so can we!

Language: “fart” and “hell” are uttered, but that’s it
Sex: Except for a reference on “cheating,” nothing here
Violence: A building is demolished but there are no casualties; other than that, porcupine quills shoot people accidentally
Adult situations: Johnny is involved in robberies, his father is imprisoned, and Mike is pursued by bear gangsters
Takeaway: Time for Disney to blaze new trails, because Illumination Entertainment and other studios are starting to catch up

BOB HOPE: HOPE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (DVD)

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bobhopexmascoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1993 & 1950, 110 min., Color & B&W
Time Life
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B-/C+
Clip: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Forever”
Amazon link

There’s an episode of Friends where an out-of-work Chandler takes an internship and, surrounded by twentysomethings, confesses that he feels old . . . though, he quips, he’s not exactly Bob Hope. “Who?” they say. “You know. Bob Hope. USO . . . ” to which one of them responds, “Uh, USA.” A year before Friends launched, an already old Bob Hope hosted a Christmas special that would turn out to be one of his very best. But if young people had no idea who Bob Hope was back in the nineties, they certainly won’t now.

They should, though. Hope, who lived to be 100, was one of America’s iconic entertainers—an ironic fact, considering he was born in England. Although he appeared in 70+ films, he’s most known for teaming up with crooner Bing Crosby and singer-dancer Dorothy Lamour in a series of “Road” pictures that cracked up audiences during the forties. And he’s known for entertaining America’s men and women in the Armed Forces, making 57 tours abroad for the USO (United Service Organizations) over a course of 50 years. He also did four decades of television specials, always beginning and ending with the theme song “Thanks for the Memory.”

Well, that’s what this Christmas special provides: memories. Those who will be able to appreciate it most will be those who actually grew up watching Hope on television. But the nostalgic tone, family emphasis, and structure of Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays are such that the show would also work as a watch-together holiday special at the grandparents’ house. Hope made dozens of TV specials, and this one rises to the top because it gives people a nutshell, composite portrait of a Hollywood legend.

I’m a big Hope fan, so I made it a point to introduce my children to some of my favorite movies of his, all comedies: The Princess and the Pirate (Color, 1944), Monsieur Beaucaire (B&W, 1946), The Paleface (Color, 1948), Fancy Pants (Color, 1950), The Lemon Drop Kid (Color, 1951), Son of Paleface (Color, 1952), Casanova’s Big Night (Color, 1954), The Seven Little Foys (Color, 1955), and, of course, the road pictures, the first of which was The Road to Singapore (B&W, 1940), followed by Road to Zanzibar (B&W, 1941), Road to Morocco (B&W, 1942), Road to Utopia (B&W, 1945), Road to Rio (B&W, 1947), Road to Bali (Color, 1952), and The Road to Hong Kong (B&W, 1962). I started them off with the first film and then the only road picture in color, and after that they wanted to watch the others. I say all this because it does help to have a context and a “history” with Hope in order to appreciate this holiday DVD—though it’s not absolutely necessary.

bobhopexmasscreenThe structure is similar to The Nutcracker ballet. A 90-year-old Hope is trimming the tree and singing with his wife, Dolores, when the “guests” for their holiday party begin to arrive. It’s a neat way to introduce the cast and guest stars for this special, and as clips of previous Christmas specials are deftly inserted throughout the hour-long variety show, you realize why they were invited: most of them had appeared with Hope in earlier specials or on his USO tours. It was an honest-to-goodness reunion for them, and Hope’s advanced years underscore the fact that you never know, as people age, when a gathering like this might be the last. That won’t be lost on even the youngest viewers who watch this with extended family.

But it’s not a downer, that’s for sure. The overall feeling is one of holiday warmth. Once Loni Anderson (WKRP in Cincinnati), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), country singers Wynonna and Naomi Judd, Joey Lawrence (Blossom, Disney voiceovers), former football player Ed Marinaro (Hill Street Blues), former football player Lynn Swann (The Last Boy Scout, The Waterboy) and Charena Swann enter the house, the rest of the evening is a very fluid blend of stories, comedy routines, songs, and clips from Hope’s 40 years of holiday specials.

It all works extremely well, but what stood out for me is how wonderfully the production is edited. It’s the best clip show I’ve seen, because it all seems so organic, so well integrated into the main structure of a holiday party, and nostalgia is the key. Thanks to the clips, viewers also get to enjoy such stars as Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Macaulay Culkin, Phillis Diller, Redd Foxx, Emmanuel Lewis, Lee Marvin, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Brooke Shields, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, and John Wayne. Call it a Best of Bob Hope’s Christmas Specials show, because that’s ultimately what this 1993 special becomes. There are too many highlights to mention, it’s that good. It’s also old-fashioned, and the hosts are probably older than most grandparents of today’s families. But if children will give it a chance, they’ll find plenty of moments to entertain them.

This DVD is billed as a “compilation,” even though the only other show is an old black-and-white Christmas Eve installment of The Comedy Hour that, for the purposes of this review, I’m considering another bonus feature. The sketches here are not all that funny, but the show does have value as a cultural-historical document. The then-mayor of New York makes an appearance at the beginning, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reads an inspirational 1776 message to the nation from George Washington. Today’s viewers will be struck by the level of language and thought and engagement required of audiences back then. This is heady stuff, and in today’s world of dumbed-down voters with limited political knowledge it doesn’t play well at all—except to remind us that back in 1950 viewers were apparently more intelligent and more politically astute. Now it’s only of value as a time-capsule item, not for current entertainment. If you buy this DVD, buy it for the 1993 special, which is well worth the price.

HONEY 3: DARE TO DANCE (Blu-ray combo)

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Honey3coverGrade: C
Entire family: No
2016, 97 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for some sensuality
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s almost a given that dance movies exist to feature dance moves, with usually just enough plotting to get you from performance to performance. And if those performances are exceptional, the target audience—dance lovers, would-be dancers, and teens still looking to find their passion or their identity—will be happy to overlook the bad acting and scenic construction that strings those dance numbers together.

The problem with Honey 3: Dare to Dance is that the dancing isn’t exceptional. It’s uneven, with decent hip-hop routines mixed in with some very mundane ones that inexplicably have the other dancers on the set “oooing and “ahhhing,” even though the moves and level of excitement aren’t as good as what viewers saw on Glee. For me, the saving grace was that the film was both shot and set in Cape Town, South Africa, and the backgrounds and locations were fascinating. There’s some gorgeous time-lapse photography as well, which looks terrific in HD. Then again, this is a dance movie, not a documentary.

Our 14-year-old daughter is part of the target audience. She’s a serious dancer who also watches every PG and PG-13 dance movie that comes out. But she was bored mid-way through Honey 3—a film she said she’d grade a C. After it was over she needed to watch a good dance movie to set her world right again.

Honey3screen1I would give it a similar grade, though I’m not a dancer. Neither, unfortunately, is the female lead. Cassie Ventura is a hip-hop singer who has the look of a leading lady but not the dance chops to be the focus of a film like this. Both supporting actresses are better dancers and have more stage presence. Dena Kaplan (whom viewers may recognize as Abigail from the popular Australian television series Dance Academy) is a joy to watch, and she was actually born in South Africa. Why not cast her as the lead? Or Sibongile Mlambo, who was a contestant on America’s Got Talent and appeared as a dancer in the 2013 family dramedy Felix? It seems like a waste to relegate Kaplan to the role of “best friend,” while Mlambo, who has more raw stage presence, is cast as Ishani, the street-tough hard case Melea has to win over. Another problem is that Ventura doesn’t have any chemistry with the lead male dancer (Kenny Wormald, Footloose). We don’t buy them as Romeo and Juliet, and we don’t buy them as a couple off-stage.

The first Honey (2003) starred Jessica Alba and was set in New York but shot in Toronto. The plot? Find a place to put on a show to raise money to build a community center. In the tradition of unimaginative dance movies, that’s what happens here too—although there’s also some nonsense about Melea being kicked out of college for not paying tuition and we think the show is going to be all Honey3screen2about her getting back into school again. Instead, that “plot” line just withers away, forgotten by all, while her focus shifts to honoring her dead mother by seeing her thesis project through and producing a modern version of Mom’s favorite play, Romeo and Juliet. And that focus expands to trying to establish a dance center in honor of Ishani’s slain brother.

When they finally get around to producing this hip-hop R&J, we’re not supposed to think too hard about how Melea was able to “borrow” costumes from the college she was kicked out of, or why there isn’t more violence when South Africa is rampant with violent crime. Or how, for that matter, Melea is able to rent an old theater with no money. But of course this is a dance movie, which means none of those questions are supposed to be asked. Viewers are expected to get caught up in the music (which sounds great on a DTS-HDMA 5.1 soundtrack, by the way), watch the moves on this direct-to-video movie . . . and “ooo” and “ahhh” like the extras on set.

Language: Surprising, very clean
Sex: Nothing here to offend either
Violence: Some pushing and posturing and that’s it
Adult situations: We’re told that Ishanti’s brother was killed over a necklace
Takeaway: In a way it’s too bad bad director Bille Woodruff spent his budget on a trip to South Africa; he could have used more money to pay for a little better choreography and dancers

THE COMMITMENTS (25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray)

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CommitmentscoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
1991, 118 min., Color
RLJ Entertainment
Rated R for language throughout
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), who auditions people in his home for a band he fantasizes will be the next big musical act to come out of Dublin, director Alan Parker listened to a non-stop parade of raw home-grown talent: 64 bands, 1500 individuals at an open casting call, and another 1500 audition tapes. Not coincidentally, they both came up with the same people to form The Commitments—one of the great movies about rock ‘n’ roll . . . or, more precisely, soul, of the Wilson Pickett, Mary Wells, James Brown, Otis Redding variety.

Parker was famous for directing Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), and The Commitments is his light side of the moon tribute to rock ‘n’ roll—a love letter to American soul music and the gritty side of urban Ireland.

Commitmentsscreen1Like Almost Famous and This Is Spinal Tap, The Commitments is one of the classic behind-the-scenes movies about the life of a band. It’s funny, it’s raw, it’s energetic, it’s authentic, and it’s filled with wall-to-wall music and images of Dublin that tourists never see. But don’t expect much in the way of plot. We see a little where-they-are-now before Jimmy does his auditioning, and after that the band rehearses, performs, rehearses, performs, and gradually gets on each others nerves so you can see why, by movie’s end, they will eventually break up—though they sound so good you want them to stay together.

In a six-page booklet that comes with the 25th Anniversary Blu-ray, Parker writes, “It was pointed out to me that there were as many as 1200 bands playing in Dublin, which is extraordinary in a city of just over a million people. . . . I think the film captures a little of the spirit and spunk of the working-class kids in Dublin’s Northside.” It looks great on Blu-ray and Parker’s commentary track and additional bonus features are well worth watching.

Though rated R, The Commitments has just pair of minor incidents of violence and one bedroom instance of implied coupling innocent enough to be included on the trailer. There’s really nothing that would make it inappropriate for young teens except the language, which is non-stop. And hey, all the characters are Irish, so it’s tough to understand half of those swear words anyway—so much so that RLJ Entertainment felt the need to provide a glossary on the inside cover.

Commitmentsscreen2The Commitments practice and perform a lot during the film, and at least three songs are complete. They’re so entertaining that you’re glad of that, and glad that Parker made the decision to go with near-constant music. By the end, you’ve absorbed so much that you really feel as if you’ve experienced the band and not just witnessed it. Along with a later cover by Buddy Guy, their rendition of “Mustang Sally” could be one of the best I’ve heard. And the shots of Dublin’s “mean streets” and alleyways are mesmerizing, almost lyrical, given the musical backdrop.

For many viewers, Colm Meaney will be the only recognizable cast member. Meaney plays Mr. Rabbitte, whose reverent obsession with Elvis is illustrated by the fact that a painting of Presley hangs just above a portrait of the Pope. But you’ll also see two people whose names were not familiar then but are well-known now: Glen Hansard (“Once”) as one of the band members, and Andrea Corr (The Corrs) in a non-singing role as Jimmy’s sister. And that’s okay. Not knowing any of the actors adds to the realism to where it almost feels like a guerilla-shot documentary—especially with Jimmy doing imaginary press interviews about the band throughout the film.

Both of our teens liked it a lot, and The Commitments remains a gem of a movie even a quarter century after it was filmed. Crank up the volume and enjoy!

Language: F-bombs dropped by characters of all ages, plus lesser swearwords and Irish variations; it’s pretty much nonstop
Sex: It’s implied that one “player” has been intimate with three women, but nothing is shown
Violence: One band member is beaten up and bloodied, and another bar fight emerges
Adult situations: Lots of smoking and drinking, plus a bar brawl
Takeaway: The Commitments still feels fresh because it has always felt honest and a word that’s often used today:  immersive

THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN (Blu-ray)

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UnsinkableMollyBrowncoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
1964, 135 min., Color
Warner Archive Collection
Not rated (would be PG for some adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Trailer
Amazon link

You know the movie that you remember liking enough as a child to want to share it with your family, but then you fire up the popcorn popper and after 15 minutes none of them wants to watch it with you?

The Unsinkable Molly Brown is that kind of movie. As you view it again, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, you can feel their pain. Maybe years ago you overlooked the flaws because of a few catchy songs and a warm-hearted story that offered a happy tear-jerking payoff. But watching it again through their eyes, you can certainly understand why the family left the TV room one-by-one.

Despite her energy and a Best Actress Oscar nomination, Debbie Reynolds is frankly annoying as Molly Brown, the real historical character that inspired a 1960 Broadway musical and this 1964 film adaptation. She has a beautiful voice, but in The Unsinkable Molly Brown she doesn’t sing as much as she shouts or growls like an angry animal, and her portrayal of a poor uneducated Colorado tomboy will remind some families of Shelly Winters’ performance as the hillbilly mother in Disney’s animated live-action Pete’s Dragon. She’s brassy and she’s grating, so blustery that Winnie the Pooh would never even peek his head out of his hollow-log home if she were out there storming about.

In this film, Molly is the vinegar to Jonny Brown’s oil, but while singer Harv Presnell is so gosh-darned nice as the miner who would do anything for his Molly that it’s impossible for audiences not to like him, his singing is another story. Presnell, the lone holdover from the Broadway cast, is terrific, but the actor’s stand-and-belt operatic style can seem overwrought to contemporary viewers—something that’s not helped at all by two underwhelming songs he’s given, one of which (“Colorado, My Home”) is remarkably weak considering it came from Meredith Wilson (The Music Man).

The real Margaret Brown was raised dirt-poor in Leadville in a two-room log cabin. In actuality she met and married J.J. Brown, an equally poor man who became rich after his engineering led to a rich strike for his employer and he was given 12,500 shares of stock and also made a director on the mining company board. In reality, they bought a mansion in Denver and Margaret became socially active in the Denver Woman’s Club. The “unsinkable” tag came after she was already separated from J.J. and Mrs. Brown was returning from France aboard a new luxury ship—the Titanic. She gained notoriety after passengers told the press how she helped others into lifeboats and tried to convince the crew in her own to return to the site to look for more survivors.

UnsinkableMollyBrownscreenThat’s a great story in itself, isn’t it? But for the Broadway version Richard Morris made a few key changes. In the play and in this film, JJ is a poor miner who strikes it rich not once but twice, and Molly is the unrefined new-money ladder-climber desperate to be accepted into Denver society. Responsible for her rejection is neighbor Gladys McGraw (Audrey Christie), who is so concerned about social acceptance that she keeps her unrefined mother, Buttercup (Hermoine Baddeley), away from her circle of friends and the charity galas she throws.

The first 30 minutes of The Unsinkable Molly Brown can be rough, because it’s all Molly and her adoptive Pa (Ed Begley) drinking and singing and her “wrassling” with brothers and getting a job in a saloon. It’s like watching the hillbilly channel. The next 20 minutes are all about her spurning JJ’s advances until he finally wears her down. It’s when the two move to Denver and Molly becomes slightly less grating that interest picks up, and things get even more interesting when JJ and Molly go to Europe and meet all manner of royalty.

Molly yearns to be something she’s not, and she places such a premium on social acceptance that she would jeopardize her marriage to the one man who really loves her. And she’s not above using people. So really, her character isn’t exactly lovable. But while you do feel for her, it’s JJ who earns your sympathy. The film reaches its moral plateau at a ball where JJ welcomes their old unrefined friends from Leadville with a song (“He’s My Friend”) that Molly eventually embraces. It’s one of three songs that you’ll have in your head for days afterwards.

Is there anything here that families can’t see? Not really. It’s all pretty wholesome, and those who like musicals will still appreciate The Unsinkable Molly Brown. But Reynolds’ performance might be a bit too much for the younger generation to take.

Language: Euphemistic cussing, mostly
Sex: Women dressed like prostitutes do a “dance off” with Molly, JJ watches Molly dress, and there’s talk of Molly’s wedding night
Adult situations: Drinking and brawling, including the catchy song “Belly Up, Belly Up to the Bar Boys”
Takeaway: Critics called The Unsinkable Molly Brown big and bold and brassy when it was first released, and it’s still all that . . . though now those adjectives have a more negative connotation

CAROL + 2: THE ORIGINAL QUEENS OF COMEDY (DVD)

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Carolplus2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes (Once Upon a Mattress)
1963-1972, 277 min., Color and black-and-white
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (Once would be G, the others PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

The Carol Burnett Show aired from 1967-78, making it one of the last yet longest running of the old vaudeville-inspired variety shows that combined song and dance with sketch comedy. Burnett broke into TV as a regular on The Garry Moore Show and in 1966 was given her own TV special. The network wanted her to ask Lucille Ball to guest star, as well as the Tony Award-winning Zero Mostel, who was currently appearing on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both said yes, and the result is Carol + 2, a one-hour special that all but set the format for The Carol Burnett Show to follow.

Carol + 2 is a part of television history, and for general fans it will be the gem on this DVD, which (sorry, Mr. Mostel) is being marketed as Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy. But it’s not the big draw for families with children. The reason to buy this DVD, if you have children, is the colorful TV movie version of the beloved Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” starring Burnett as the princess.

Burnett got her big break in 1959 as a 26 year old when she was cast by the legendary George Abbott to star in the off-Broadway production of a new show based on that fairy tale, and Once Upon a Mattress quickly moved on Broadway for a total run of 244 performances. Burnett earned a Tony nomination for her role as Princess Winifred the Woebegone, and as a TV personality she would star in three special televised productions of Once Upon a Mattress: in 1966, 1972, and 2005, the latter in which she would play the queen rather than the unconventional princess. The version on this DVD is the 1972 special, which is indeed special because Jack Gilford and Jane White reprise their original off-Broadway roles as King Sextimus and Queen Aggravain.

Carolplus2screen1Once Upon a Mattress is aimed at families, which is made clear from the beginning as Burnett reads and shares an abbreviated picture-book version of the fairy tale, after which we’re told we’re about to see the “adult version” of what really happened. Don’t be alarmed. Even your four year old can watch and enjoy this production, which sports outrageous and colorful costumes and lines that are delivered slowly enough that the smallest children won’t need much in the way of narrative summary. Once Upon a Mattress is an engaging 90-minute romp that showcases Burnett’s talents as a physical comedienne and also features verbal comedy, singing, and dancing.

The plot is simple, yet, like so many fairy tales, timeless. Queen Aggravain is so domineering that her husband, the king, has been rendered unable to speak. Communicating only in pantomime, he’s like the fifth Marx Brother. Their son, Prince Dauntless (Ken Berry), is also dominated by the queen, yet this mama’s boy, despite being in his mid-thirties, yearns to marry. Trouble is, he can only marry a true princess, and Mama devises a different test each time so devious that none of the princesses who visit the castle are ever able to pass. When a rain-drenched Princess Winifred (who prefers to be called “Fred”) turns up on the doorstep, the vetting process begins anew. Children will especially get a kick out of a “dance off” in which Fred instantly masters the silliest local folk dance and outlasts everyone else in the kingdom. The Queen tells the princess that she needs to get her sleep because the big test will be tomorrow, when in fact the test is whether she can detect a tiny pea placed underneath a stack of 20 mattresses. The “adult version” is that this happily-ever-after tale didn’t come about because Fred was indeed able to detect that pea. She had a little help. Bernadette Peters stars as Lady Larkin, while Carol Burnett Show regular Lyle Waggoner appears as Sir Studley, and Wally Cox (who gave voice to the TV cartoon Underdog) narrates as The Jester. Look closely and you’ll even see a cameo by Kermit the Frog. All in all, it’s a highly entertaining 90-minute TV musical special.

Carolplus2screen2Carol + 2 is geared more for adults than families, and while it’s great to see two of television’s First Ladies perform together and Zero Mostel is as wild-eyed and manic as ever, the sketches and performances are a mixed bag. The funniest might be the opening sketch featuring Burnett and Mostel as a married couple grown spiteful of each other who find out briefly that a mistake means they’re not married after all . . . and that changes the way they see each other. Close behind is “Goodbye Baby,” in which Ball plays an older sister who drops in for a visit on her way to her annual vacation. Burnett is the younger sister with a baby buggy in the park who insists that her sister not leave until she hears the little guy say “Goodbye.” Of course, as with all sketch comedy, things escalate, and while the ending might be a little far-fetched it’s the progression that’s fun to watch. Some of the other sketches are less successful, but Ball and Burnett sing a spirited song about “Chutzpah” as Hollywood charwomen, and this one-hour color special gives contemporary audiences a chance to see three legendary talents at work.

Thrown in as a bonus feature is the very first black-and-white Charwoman sketch that Burnett performed as part of her first special, An Evening with Carol Burnett. It was a character that, animated, would become part of her long-running TV show’s title credits. This 1963 sketch is more of a historical artifact than a family entertainment, though Burnett’s introduction to it, as with her introductions to the two TV specials included on this DVD, is nice to have.

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