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Review of GUNDALA (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Action
Not Rated (would be PG-13)

With the U.S. being the center of the Marvel and D.C. universes, it’s easy to think of superheroes as being an American thing. But Superman, “born” in 1938, debuted seven years after Japan’s Ogon Bat (“Golden Bat”), which is generally acknowledged to be the world’s first comic book superhero—that is, a hero with at least one super power.

Marvel and D.C. films are recognizably formulaic, so it’s fascinating to see how other countries “do” superhero films. Gundala is a 2019 cinematic origin story of the most popular superhero comic in Indonesia, a character created by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata in 1969. And there are some striking differences.

For one thing, American superheroes, even before they fully develop their powers, appear in almost every scene. That’s not the case with Gundala, which offers a complex web of characters that get plenty of screen time without the hero present. That’s one big difference. Another is that Gundala has terrific fight sequences and plays more like a martial arts film with all characters on equal footing than it does a superhero flick—at least for four fifths of the film. Yet another difference is that the actual superpower and how it works is murkier than an American superhero film. And the filmmakers aren’t interested in traveling the shortest distance between two points to explain it. They get there eventually, but they’re in no hurry. You can pinpoint at least three moments in the film when an American superhero would have pivoted and hit that moment of discovery or resolve earlier than our Indonesian hero, because Hollywood likes to keep it simple.

What’s immediately striking is that Gundala has strong production values and seems to have been made with subtitles in mind. Though the film is fast-paced, subtitle texts don’t speed by and the dialogue is short enough to enable non-Indonesian viewers to read them comfortably. More than any non-English film I’ve watched over the past several years, this one required no conscious effort to juggle the “reading” of images and reading of text.

Gundala is pretty gritty for a superhero movie, though. An entire family dies, workers battle factory guards with the ferocity of Gangs of New York, people are thrown off buildings, and others are stabbed, sliced, punched, bludgeoned, blown up, or electrified. You notice this more because Gundala doesn’t have the same campy feel of an American superhero film—at least not until a zany Batman-worthy plot surfaces where the bad guys want to infect the fetuses of pregnant women with a drug that will render the offspring incapable of making moral judgments. There’s a twist, of course, and I won’t spoil it, but until those third-act antics Gundala plays out like a straight martial arts film about survival on the mean streets of Jakarta and the big gangs that seem to be under the control of a powerful  mob boss.

Is it entertaining? Yes indeed, though one page that director Joko Anwar did take out of the Hollywood superhero playbook was to end the film with an obvious finger pointing to a forthcoming sequel. But he does a lot right, from the fast (but not break-neck) pacing, fight sequences, and special effects to the art, costume, and character design. Things aren’t spelled out as much in terms of character relationships, yet that too feels fresh.

The performances are also solid. Muzakki Ramdhan is likable as young Sancaka, who is virtually orphaned after his father is killed in a factory riot and his mother abandons him to seek work in another part of Indonesia, never to return. Abimana Aryasatya feels like a logical extension of the boy as grown-up Sancaka, who will become Gundala without the same kind of fanfare as an American superhero. Along the way there are guide figures and people who enter his life, ranging from a streetwise hustler to an older sage and a young woman who would have been a love interest if Hollywood had their hand in it. And there’s that mob-boss villain who feels like the lone nod to western characters—a disfigured antagonist who has the looks of a Batman baddie, the external calm of a Bond villain, but the inner turmoil of someone ready to explode at any moment.

Superhero movies often come with a side order of super clichés, but that’s not the case with Gundala. It feels like a fresh take on superhero movies. How much of that is cultural and how much of it is the result of creator Suraminata or director Anwar is for an Indonesian to say. All I know is that my oldest son and I enjoyed this film and didn’t feel it sagged at all, despite a 120-minute run time.

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 120 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Well Go USA
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Indonesian and English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Subtitles: English
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for violence)

Language: 5/10—An average number of lesser swearwords

Sex: 0/10—Nothing here

Violence: 9/10—Lots of fighting, lots of threats, lots of violence as specified above 

Adult situations: 7/10—This is all about a street kid trying to survive a particularly violent period in Jakarta’s history

Takeaway: It will be interesting to see what direction and what tone this budding franchise takes; as a superhero origin tale, it’s a solid B

Review of ORCA, THE KILLER WHALE! (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C
Drama
Rated PG

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

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

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

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

Review of ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action-Adventure
Not rated (would be PG)

“Open Sesame!”

Who hasn’t heard that phrase before, or immediately recognized it as the voice of Ali Baba? For that we can thank French translator Antoine Galland, who in the 1700s added “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to One Thousand and One Nights. Over time it became one of the collection’s most popular tales, but it gets a revisionist spin in this 1944 color film starring Jon Hall, who’s best known to Baby Boomers as Ramar of the Jungle and the director-star of the campy ‘60s sci-fi flicks The Beach Girls and the Monster and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters.

In the original tale, Ali is a common woodsman who happens upon a thieves’ hideout, discovers the secret of gaining entrance, and sneaks a bag of gold coins. But his sister-in-law learns about it and forces Ali to reveal where he got the gold from, so his brother can follow suit. That brother is killed, but with the help of a slave girl Ali gets revenge and emerges victorious.

In this film version, Ali is the rich son of the Caliph of Baghdad who escapes being killed with his father after Mongols seize the kingdom. Ali is taken in by the thieves and becomes the adopted son of their leader, Baba. Instead of a plot revolving around thievery and wealth, Ali and his band are freedom fighters dedicated to killing the Khan (Kurt Katch) and retaking Baghdad for their people.

Though it’s the kind of solid-but-generic sword-and-sandal film that Hollywood loved to make during the Golden Age, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves also has a campy feel to it because of the presence of veteran character actor Andy Devine, who made a career out of being the Western hero’s sidekick and delivering comic relief. It’s hard to see his rotund frame in Arab garb and hear his familiar raspy high-pitched voice without thinking of him in buckskin as Jingles in TV’s Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, or Cookie from the Roy Rogers feature films. Others will recognize him as the driver in John Ford’s Stagecoach, but regardless, seeing him in a different costume adventure or seeing him for the first time is enough to make you smile. More

Review of THE PALEFACE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Over a 60-year film career, comedian Bob Hope starred in 54 features, but the former vaudevillian was also known for the USO shows he emceed from 1941-91, performing for American military personnel in times of war and peace. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1962 and also received the Medal of Merit from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson, the Medal of Liberty from President Ronald Reagan, the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton, and the Spirit of Hope Award (named for him) from the U.S. Department of Defense.

In other words, Bob Hope, who died at age 100 in 2003, is a national treasure. Since only one of his films (Road to Morocco) has been included in the National Film Registry, the public is dependent upon studios like Kino Lorber to preserve and release the old classics that are worth watching and rewatching. And The Paleface is a good one.

Of Hope’s films, the historical costume comedies are as much fun as the Road pictures he did with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. While The Princess and the Pirate is the best of the powdered wig era comedies, The Paleface is tops among the Westerns that Hope made. In it, we see Hope at the height of his career, both as an actor and as a comedian. The hard-working comic had appeared in four feature films in 1947, and a year later The Paleface teamed him with Jane Russell—the WWII pin-up “girl” who famously debuted five years earlier in Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw and had only appeared in one other soapy drama. Surprisingly, the two play well off each other, with Russell the straight man, of course.

It’s good to finally get this title on Blu-ray, though the timing is probably unfortunate. As monuments are being toppled and even Mount Rushmore has come under fire, this film’s title and treatment of Native Americans is racist—there’s no other way to put it. But this was the ‘40s, and all of America was thinking along the lines of what talented writer Frank Tashlin incorporated into the screenplay. No one thought anything of having just two Native Americans playing Indians and the rest played by Caucasians, and no one bristled when Native Americans were depicted as stern-faced chiefs (“How!”) or wacky medicine men. Wrong as we now know it to be, it was all part of the stereotypical humor of the era.

So where does that leave us? I personally think that it’s wrong to deny or erase history. Instead, America needs to own up to that history, and you don’t do that by burying it and forgetting it. America needs to learn from the past and learn to appreciate artwork and cultural artifacts from previous eras for what they are. You can enjoy a film for its performances and comedy and also be aware that what you’re seeing is no longer appropriate. And Hope’s historical comedies—the Westerns especially—are a good place to start if you want to teach your children about racism and racial stereotypes. They’ll find the films amusing, but then you can also talk about what you just saw and educate them on the reality of Native Americans in the U.S.

Hope plays “Painless” Peter Potter, who picks a peck of trouble when he pulls the wrong tooth and has to skip town. As he’s leaving, Calamity Jane (Russell) hops aboard his wagon following a shootout. She’s a government agent on secret assignment: discover who’s supplying weapons and explosives to the Indians and stop them before they start another war. And what better way to blend in than by joining a wagon train with a “husband” who’s as clueless as they come?

Even the violence (and that includes people shot to death) is played for laughs in The Paleface. Some of the gags involve several Indians clueless as Potter as well as laughing gas that Potter uses to numb patients, but the bulk of them revolve around his bumbling ineptitude and cowardice—especially compared to his rough-and-tough sharpshooting “wife.” There’s a surprising amount of character development in this comedy, which also stars American Indian actors Iron Eyes Cody and Chief Yowlachie, and frequent “heavy” Jeff York.

Hope often found a way to sing in his films, and in The Paleface he’s in peak form performing “Buttons and Bows,” which won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song. Mostly, though The Paleface is just good old-fashioned slapstick and one-liner fun, with a plot that’s strong enough to pull the whole wagon.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 91 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for hints of innuendo and comic violence)

Language: 0/10—Nothing here of consequence

Sex: 2/10—Women in pantaloons, repeated hints of romance, comic kisses and one passionate one

Violence: 3/10—All violence is comic, including fistfights, shootings, and running gags of being dragged by horses and the number of Indians killed by a proclaimed hero

Adult situations: 0/10—Nothing not already mentioned

Takeaway: Kino Lorber did an excellent job on the transfer, with crisp audio and Technicolor presentation sharp and vivid as can be. Would it be too much to hope for The Princess and the Pirate, Monsieur Boucaire or another Hope Western, Fancy Pants (with Lucille Ball) next?

 

Review of THE LAST VALLEY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Historical war-adventure drama
Rated PG

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

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

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

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

Review of POLICE SQUAD!: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
TV comedy
Rated TV-PG

All right, I’ll talk: I’m a big Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker fan. I think Airplane! and Top Secret! are hilarious, and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! gets my vote for funniest laugh-out-loud movie ever made (sorry, Mel Brooks).

This trio of high school friends from a Milwaukee suburb specializes in visual puns, sight gags, “triples,” and running gags that expand with every repetition. David Zucker once told me they gravitated toward rapid-fire jokes out of self-defense. When they first created Kentucky Fried Theater they borrowed money from their parents and couldn’t afford actors, so they had to do all of the skits onstage themselves. They hated not getting laughs and went the rapid-fire route because they discovered it was easier to keep audiences laughing than it was to get them to laugh in the first place.

Police Squad! aired in 1982, with the trio pitching it as Airplane! but with the police genre. The title and opening sequence pays tribute to M Squad, a popular ‘50s cop show staring Broderick Crawford. There are some funny jokes here, but as with SNL or other sketch comedy shows there are some misfires as well. Police Squad! ran just six episodes, maybe because the trio’s brand of rapid-fire gags hang better on a model that’s full length.

That said, once you get past a first episode that’s not quite as funny as The Naked Gun, the others have their share of laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of smiles and groans. Groans? Yeah. Baseball announcer Steve Stone said it best: “Puns are like children. You love your own, and can’t stand anyone else’s.” You can almost create a drinking game out of predicting what visual pun will splash across the screen next after you hear a familiar expression that can be taken more than one way. A few of the gags are off-color, which is why this short-lived TV series carries a TV-PG rating. More

Review of ONWARD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Animation
Rated PG

So what happens to a “shire” when centuries of technology make magic obsolete, and the closest to it for modern-day elves and other residents in the city of New Mushroomton is some version of fantasy role-playing games? In Onward we find out, as a timid elf receives a time capsule present from his father, who apparently died of cancer years ago: a wizard staff.

Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is unimpressed, but older obnoxious brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who’s totally into role-playing games, is delighted that his father was also into wizardry. Then they read a letter that was part of the parcel and discover a “visitation spell” that can bring their father back for one day, so Ian can meet him for the first time. But what happens when unconfident Ian botches the job and brings back only Dad’s bottom half? The elves have less than a day to find a gemstone that, added to the staff, will be powerful enough to bring back all of their father.

That’s the premise of Onward, which is directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), and I found myself thinking of Back to the Future and Marty’s limited time to set things right, or else his family, the top halves of which are slowly vanishing on a photo he frequently looks at, will cease to exist. And of course there’s been no shortage of wizard-quest films with a single high-stakes prize the goal and all manner of obstacles en route, so Onward feels a bit commonplace in its premise and plotting. More

Review of EMMA (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Drama-comedy
Rated PG

Director Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 reincarnation of Jane Austen’s Emma feels like a throwback to early PBS series, where everything and everyone was measured, staid, proper, understated, ever-so-subtly clever, and wrapped in beautiful cinematic finery. In other words, Emma 2020 is for Austen and period costume enthusiasts who like their classics rendered in classical fashion, and that includes the speech (“Husband, comport yourself”).

When it comes to family viewing, the early 19th-century language can be a minor stumbling block, but so can the plot and characters. Emma Woodhouse isn’t the most likable person. A woman of means, she’s not desperate to find a husband to support her. Instead, like the bored young woman she is, she banters with servants and friends and keeps herself entertained by playing matchmaker—or matchbreaker, as the case may be. In this game, others are pawns.

But the thing is, the pacing is so leisurely and the camera so intimately focused on Emma’s non-verbal as well as verbal communication that a good 30 minutes passes before anything really happens. And one of the most interesting characters, Emma’s widowed father (Bill Nighy), doesn’t get as much screen time as fans might like. When our family tried watching Emma together, our college-age kids found it tough going. My wife and I, normally fans of costumed classics, also found it slow—something that, for me, was compounded by the sound mix on this Blu-ray release. Though the featured audio is the standard DTS-HDMA 5.1, most of the sound is dialogue on the center channel that feels contained rather than projected. Add that to the archaic language and British accents, and it can make the dialogue difficult to follow at times.

And this film is mostly dialogue and long lingering reaction shots, plus pastoral shots that showcase the English countryside where it was shot in Tetbury, Lewes, Wiltshire, Surrey, Godalming, Hitchins, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Cheltenham. Like PBS series and movies of old, this Emma is absolutely stunning to look at, and the costume and set design are every bit as eye appealing as the natural settings. More

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

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Grade: B/B-
Rated PG
Adventure-Drama

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

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

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

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

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

Review of THE CAPER OF THE GOLDEN BULLS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)
Crime comedy-drama

Heist or “caper” movies surged during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, with no fewer than 40 of them made. The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Ocean’s 11 and The Pink Panther inspired remakes, and films like The Sting and How to Steal a Million continue to get a lot of love. But a forgotten heist film, The Caper of the Golden Bulls, deserves at least a little love.

Unlike today’s heist movies, there’s practically no violence in this 1967 entry that’s just been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Shot during the decade James Bond debuted on the big screen, Caper was made at a time when keeping it suave and clever was a priority. Russell Rouse had written the screenplay for Pillow Talk, and as director he brought a light touch to Caper, bolstered by a bright and cheery Vic Mizy soundtrack that came out of the “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” era but would be just as at home in an Austin Powers score.

Stephen Boyd (best known for playing Ben-Hur’s chariot-racing nemesis in the 1959 epic) stars as Peter Churchman, who’s no choirboy. But he’s still a heck of a nice guy. He and his fellow flyboys got into the bank robbery business after the war, but they’ve been retired and waiting out the statute of limitations so they can carry on with their lives without fear of discovery. Churchman owns a club in a small Spanish town and has a relationship with local law enforcement that will remind viewers of Casablanca. His old military pals are married, as Peter hopes to be. Then one of the gang—a “waif” the group enlisted because she had certain skills (Giovanna Ralli)—blackmails Peter so that he’ll agree to get the group together for one last job: to steal the jewels of the statues of the Virgins that have been brought to Pamplona for the Feast of San Fermin. More

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