Home

Review of TURNING RED (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade:  B+
Animation
Rated PG

Turning Red is film that can seem uncharacteristically strident for Disney-Pixar. You’ve already heard the complaints: it deals with a young girl’s first menstruation, it “glorifies” juvenile disobedience, and the main character can be a bit much to take.

The first period criticism is way overblown, because it’s really just a mother’s assumption that briefly pops up. When Meilin “Mei” Lee is embarrassed, she does what many kids do:  she turns red. But her red is a giant version of the red panda.  It confuses her. It frightens her. She tries to hide it, especially from her over-protective and aggressive mom. That’s when Ming assumes her daughter is having her first period, but quickly learns it’s an animal transformation instead. 

So the “period” thing is nothing more than a brief blip on the radar screen. Parents worried about young children “getting an education” prematurely can relax. It’s subtle enough that the very young ones won’t even pick up on what’s happening, and those old enough to perceive what Meilin’s mother is talking about are old enough to ask their parents about it. Or maybe the parents would prefer to do things the old-fashioned American way and refrain from talking about something until it actually happens? You know, like Stephen King’s Carrie in the shower, who loses her mind thinking she’s dying?

I personally think any film that give families the chance to talk about important life changes and events is a good thing, and that includes the minutiae. In Turning Red, for example, Meilin has a crush on a boy, and that might be conversation-starter for parents to talk to their children about crushes.

As for glorifying juvenile disobedience, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Meilin isn’t the first adolescent to sneak out of the house. I mean, even Disney’s Pollyanna did that, and her name is always equated with a goody-goody attitude.

Yes, Meilin can be “exuberant,” but you quickly acclimate and appreciate her as a character. There’s a manic tone throughout much of the film, but it’s absolutely reflective of the OH MY GOD drama that is part of the exaggerated way junior-high age children tend to speak, especially as they engage with friends. For anyone who’s spent time with that age group, Turning Red rings as true as Stand by Me did for a much earlier generation.

So “haters,” I think you got this one wrong. Rotten Tomatometer critics agree. They gave Turning Red a 94 percent “fresh” rating, while 72 percent of the RT readership gave it high marks.

Domee Shi, the first woman to be sole director on a Pixar film, said that Turning Red was inspired by her experiences growing up in Canada, and she creates the kind of richly detailed animated world that Pixar fans have come to expect. Even if you don’t happen to know Toronto or Chinese immigrant culture, the production design is brilliant enough to sell you on its believability. Especially spot-on is Pixar’s depiction of the phenomenon of boy bands and the attendant promotion, fan frenzy, and concert mania that accompanies them, whether they’re K-Pop, British, Canadian, or American. But the entire world of junior-high age adolescents is incredibly well rendered—even if the mouths of some of the characters tend to remind you a bit of the Aardman Wallace-and-Gromit faces.

Turning Red also takes some surprising turns, for a film that offers a classic Titanic-iceberg convergence. It lurches toward the positive or negative when you least expect it, as Meilin and her friends secretly raise money to secretly attend the 4*Town concert, while Meilin’s mother and other relatives plan for a ceremony that will enable the girl to control what turns out to be a family curse of sorts—a hereditary condition.

Turning Red stars voice talents Rosalie Chiang (Meilin Lee), Sandra Oh (Min Lee), Ava Morse (Miriam, one of Mailin’s best friends), Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (Priya, another “bestie”), and Hyein Park (Abby, the third best friend). And Shi, who had worked in the animation department on Incredibles 2 and Inside Out and also won an Oscar for Best Animated Short with Bao (2018), easily makes the transition to full-length feature with this entertaining entry. I think we’ll be hearing more from her.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  100 min., Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Atmos DTS-HDMA 7.1
Studio/Distributor:  Disney-Pixar
Bonus features:  B
Includes: Nothing extra, though a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Code edition is also available, and a 4K/Blu-ray edition
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG for thematic material, suggestive content and language

Language:  1/10—so mild I can’t recall anything specific

Sex:  1/10—School crushes, accusations of being “degenerate,” an admission of liking boys and “gyrating,” “Bootyllicious” playing in the background, and brief twerking

Violence:  2/10—Some small-scale Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man destruction, one brief panda-on-human attack, a near auto accident, a fall, and some bullying

Adult situations:  1/10—A single mention of drugs that I caught

Takeaway:  Anything Disney does these days seems to draw fire. Shi deserved a better fate for such an accomplished first full-length feature.

Review of LICORICE PIZZA (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

Grade:  C+/B-
Comedy-Drama
Rated R

Sometimes hype can be the kiss of death. It was for me, as far as Licorice Pizza was concerned. All the way through this self-consciously quirky film from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), I kept getting wannabe Almost Famous vibes but found myself thinking, when is this going to end?

That’s not the reaction I expected, given that the coming-of-age film Licorice Pizza, even at a sprawling 133 minutes, was the darling of the 2022 awards season. It earned Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay and won Best Screenplay at the BAFTAs. Licorice Pizza was also touted as the first MGM picture produced and distributed since Rain Man to earn a BP Oscar nod. Smaller film critics associations loved it too, but I kept wondering if maybe that was proof of how starved everyone has been for another small pebble to make a big splash, as Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, and Juno did.

I didn’t find myself as engaged by the characters or their situation as I wanted to be, and the quirkiness level was ramped up so high that it all felt absolutely contrived. As for the plot, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and Juno all had strong narrative trajectories, by comparison. Licorice Pizza felt meandering, but not in a way that seemed terribly organic. Small annoyances kept popping up, like why was one character arrested but then quickly released? Why was one character’s world so random? And why wasn’t the developing “love” more perceptible in its development?

Ninety-one percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics loved the film, as did critics on the aggregate site Metacritic, which scored it a 90 out of 100. In other words, just about every critic out there says I’m wrong. If I am, so is the rest of my family, who also wanted more than the quirkiness Licorice Pizza had to offer. More humor, maybe. Or more believable attraction. Or a plot that seemed less aimless. Or a more tightly edited story.

More

Review of UNCHARTED (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade:  C+/B-
Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13

I’m a big fan of the Indiana Jones and National Treasure movies, so I wanted Uncharted and its treasure hunt to have the same energy level and quality.

But it doesn’t. The writing isn’t as crisp, the plotting isn’t as complex-yet-understandable, and the whole film tonally just doesn’t feel as if the writers could agree on the level of tongue-in-cheekiness vs. serious adventure vs. video game style. Then there’s this nagging feeling that the stars aren’t having as much fun as they should be, all things considered. Tom Holland is engaging. Mark Wahlberg is engaging. But they feel separately engaging, and not consistently so.

When it hit theaters in 2022, Uncharted quickly became the fourth highest grossing film of 2022—which, given the mixed reviews, pretty much hints at how badly fans wanted to like this film in spite of what critics may have been saying.

I mean, when you cast Holland fresh off his latest Spider-Man success and pair his built-in naiveté and nice-guy affability with someone like Wahlberg and the world-weary cynicism he seems to drag behind him like a bag of complaints, you’d think something more fun would happen—or at least more than what the film provides.

You almost feel like the film is in trouble in the early going when the attempt to establish a backstory for Nate (Holland) feels a bit clumsy and confusing. So how is it that orphans Nate and brother Sam are somehow accomplished enough to try to steal a map from a Boston museum and can come and go as they please? And why, when the orphanage kicks Sam out and he leaves through a window, doesn’t brother Nate go with him if they’re legitimately a treasure-hunting team with that kind of capability? Whether Sam is using or protecting his brother, the sequence felt rushed and paint-by-numbers.

More

Review of FLOWER DRUM SONG (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

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.

More

Review of FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE 7 FILM COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade:  B-/C+
Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

If you’re receptive to older black-and-white movies, this wonderful new Francis the Talking Mule 7 Film Collection from Kino Lorber will strike you as surprisingly entertaining. The three-disc set features all of the Francis movies that were popular in the ‘50s, with an audio commentary for each film. I’ve reviewed thousands of films since 2000, and it says something that I could binge-watch the first five of these light comedies without wanting to skip ahead or quit.

There’s a formula at work here, but it’s still fun seeing it play out:  Francis only talks to Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor), unless Peter is really in a jam. Then Francis will speak to others, reminding them that if they say anything about it to anyone he’ll remain quiet and they’ll end up in the “psych” ward with Peter, who is such a gosh-darned honest guy that he has to give credit where credit is due. Which is to say, Francis doesn’t just talk. He’s a know-it-all, whether it’s the location of the enemy, the time of a planned raid, which horses will win at the racetrack, or who killed Cock Robin. 

Francis

Like the Smithsonian Institution, “America’s attic,” there’s a surprise to be found at almost every turn. Maybe the biggest surprise is O’Connor, who’s most famous for being the third wheel to Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. As the likable Peter he plays everybody’s best friend, modeling character traits like honesty (to a fault), earnestness, humor, loyalty, decency, and dependability. He also displays a refreshing naiveté that makes him sometimes innocent or clueless but never stupid. “Did they take x-rays of your head?” “Yes Sir.” “And what did they show?” “Nothing.” O’Connor stars in all but the seventh film, which features Mickey Rooney—Universal’s first choice for the lead. But seeing them both in the role, I think Universal was fortunate that things turned out as they did. As much as the mule, O’Connor is responsible for the series’ success.

People who served in the military, fans of classic television, and children young enough to be tickled by the situations a talking mule can get into (and out of) will be especially delighted by the Francis films.

Four of the seven films have a military backdrop and were filmed with the cooperation of the Army, Navy, and Women’s Army Corps. Veterans and military enthusiasts will appreciate seeing vintage shots of military academies, bases, training, and mishaps. The word “SNAFU” is an acronym for “situation normal all f***ed up,” a description and attitude that has been used by generations of service men and women to describe the military. Veterans will smile at some of the subtle jokes about military protocols and officers, because Francis was based on a book of stories written by David Stern while he was at Officer Candidate School in Hawaii. In these stories, which were published in Esquire, he created a talking mule—a “jackass” that allowed him to use the pejorative to satirize the people in the Army who were running things. “Francis is afraid to talk. He’s worried if the Army finds out they’ll send him to officer’s candidate school.”

More

Review of DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (Disney Movie Club Exclusive Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade:  B+
Fantasy
Rated G

Nine years after Disney got into live-action filmmaking with their 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island, the House of Mouse scored a modest success with their 17th live-action entry, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It wasn’t the box-office hit that The Shaggy Dog was that year, but solid enough now to appear on an IMDB.com list of “25 greatest films of 1959”—a list that The Shaggy Dog failed to make.

When Darby O’Gill was released, the selling point for this family fantasy-adventure was the film’s depiction of leprechauns. Now the big attraction is a very young pre-Bond Sean Connery in his first starring role in a feature film. And he sings. How’s that for a pot of gold?

Connery plays a dashing young Dublin man who finds himself in an awkward position when he is assigned by Lord Fitzpatrick to replace an old man named Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) as the caretaker for his country estate in the tiny town of Rathcullen. O’Gill is a popular man in town, even though everyone laughs at his earnest stories of leprechauns and his claim to have met their king, Brian Connors (Jimmy O’Dea).

A “city” fellow is a natural disruption to local rural life, but Michael McBride finds other challenges. For one thing, there’s Pony Sugrue (Kieron Moore), a boisterous town bully who could be the prototype for Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. A big strong man who tends to brag and mock others, Pony thinks he’s the natural choice to replace O’Gill and marry Katie, the old man’s daughter. In fact, he feels entitled. Then there’s Katie (Janet Munro), a charming young woman that Michael quickly falls for, creating a classic romantic triangle. Finally there’s O’Gill himself—a charismatic and likable old man that Michael grows fond of and would prefer not to hurt. Conflicts like these create a narrative structure that manages to entertain the adults who watch with children.

More

Review of TOP SECRET! (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade:  B+
Comedy
Rated PG (but more like PG-13)

In 1987, when I interviewed David Zucker—one of the trio responsible for inflicting non-stop gags on movie audiences in such zany satires as Airplane! and The Naked Gun— Zucker, brother Jerry, and Jim Abrahams were basking in the success of Ruthless People. But they were also thinking a great deal about what made Airplane! a run(a)way success and wondering why Top Secret!and their short-lived Police Squad TV series weren’t as popular with audiences.

Cult favorite
“The problem with Top Secret! was that the story wasn’t strong enough, even though the jokes were probably funnier than Airplane! or Ruthless People, and many of the scenes were far more clever,” Zucker said.  “We were very much in tune with the jokes, but the characters weren’t very well-developed. We just used them to spout these jokes. The other thing is, it really wasn’t a readily identifiable concept.  The idea of a rock ‘n’ roll singer who goes to East Germany to fight what seem to be Nazis is kind of an esoteric concept. It was surrealism, and intended to be surrealistic”—which is why Top Secret!, though not a mainstream hit, has achieved a kind of cult status among comedy fans who relish the trio’s mind-boggling juxtapositions and the way the actors somehow manage to maintain deadpan faces as they deliver those deliciously funny lines. As Zucker explained, “With our style, the writers are the funny characters. When people watch our movies, they’re aware that somebody had to write this stuff.”

More

Review of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES / DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN! DOUBLE FEATURE (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade:  C+
Mystery-Horror
Rated PG-13

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), are cult films—but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re not suitable for family viewing. In the case of this double feature—available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber—there’s far less violence, sex, and jump-scares than in contemporary horror films (see the trailer). But these are definitely cult classics, which is to say that they’re not mainstream popular.

For me, a cult classic is defined by a string of “usuallys”:  Usually it’s a low-budget B-movie, one that courts in-your-face difference and has an air of scandal or controversy about it, often with acting and a script that make you wonder if it’s unintentionally bad or bad for the purpose of being campy. Rarely is a cult film deadly serious, but most of the time there’s a “weird” factor. In part they’re also defined by their audiences, who celebrate “getting” the film when others don’t, and whose embrace can be exuberant, if not obsessive.

When it was first released, Dr. Phibes nudged viewers toward a cult film mindset just by featuring Vincent Price, who had built up a following as the star of campy director Roger Corman’s B-movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe horror stories. Price’s silky villainous voice and stage-actor mannerisms in those films had already earned him cult status—something that would continue throughout his career, whether he was featured in The Brady Bunch Hawaii episodes and the beach-party film Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, embraced by Tim Burton for two films (Vincent and Edward Scissorhands), enlisted by Michael Jackson (“Thriller” song/video) and Alice Cooper for musical gigs, celebrated in song by Deep Purple and ZZ Top,or parodied on The Simpsons and SNL.

More

Review of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

Grade:  A-
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13

Well, it’s out: Spider-Man’s identity and the film that almost wasn’t, now available on home video.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) almost didn’t happen because of corporate greed, but ironically ended up making more money than ever for Sony and Marvel-Disney, who couldn’t come to an agreement over future Spider-Man movies. Fan backlash sent them back to the negotiating table, and the resulting sequel to 2019’s Spider-Man: Far from Home became the highest grossing Spider-Man film and sixth-highest grossing film of all time.

No Way Home also got the highest ratings from critics and fans on Rotten Tomatoes, with 93 percent of critics and 98 percent of audience members loving it—better, even, than fan favorite Spider-Man 2 (2004) featuring Doc Oc.

See? Good things happen when you play nice and listen to fans. But it’s next to impossible to keep a secret from them. Word leaked that somehow previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would be involved.

Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers had taken inspiration from It’s a Wonderful Life, where a wish provided the basis for the plot and a domino chain of revelations. Far from Home ended with Spider-Man’s identity exposed and reputation destroyed. The writers decided to have him do what any young and still immature adult would do: wish it away. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to use his magic to make everyone forget Spider-Man’s identity so things can return to normal. But because he keeps tinkering with the spell by adding people he wants to still remember him—girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei)—the spell goes awry. The multiverse breals open, and visitors good and bad enter his universe.

McKenna and Sommers wrote the screenplay before Maguire and Garfield even agreed to participate. But their wishful thinking paid off. Fans have debated who’s the best, as they have with Bond actors. Dropping all three into the same film was pure genius—and it’s not just fan-candy or a curtain-call film. There’s actual chemistry among the three, and it’s fun seeing them not only work together as superheroes and compare powers, but also reference their own films.

There’s consistency, too, because Jon Watts—who directed the first two films starring Holland—is also behind the camera for this one. The light touch that’s been a part of his sensibilities is here in triplicate, and that’s good news for families. When the tone is light and there are moments that spark laughter, it tends to balance the fantasy-adventure violence and traumatic moments, sending a message to young viewers that this is first and foremost a fun ride. Enjoy it. Although a beloved character does die and there’s some blood, stabbing, and serious punching, the “reunion” aspect of former villains and heroes entering the current Spider-Man universe takes a little off the edge of the violence.

No Way Home earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects, and apart from a sequence involving power lines in a forested area that looks very much like it was shot using miniatures, I can see why. The complicated Tetris-like shifting of the urban landscape completely suggests a universe that is fracturing, and the portals that lead from one universe to the next are rendered convincingly. The film’s budget was estimated to be a whopping $200 million, but the opening weekend box office alone was $260 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Just one question:  When a superhero fall, lands, or finds their footing again, is it deliberately campy that every single time they assume that low-crouch, one-hand-on-the-ground superhero pose? And how long will it take Disney to realize that they can build a fun theme-park attraction for fans if they have people take turns assuming the pose in front of a green screen so they can see themselves in a finished shot with background added?

Entire family:  No (age 8 and older?)
Run time:  148 min.
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Columbia Pictures/Pascal Pictures/Marvel Studios
Bonus features:  B
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language, and brief suggestive comments

Language:  2/10—A few of the characters use the “s” word and there might be a few other lesser profanities, but no f-bombs

Sex:  1/10—Chaste as can be, with a few kisses plus an instance where a man is shown from the torso-up saying “I’m butt-ass naked”

Violence:  6/10—Punching, pummeling, explosions, and superhero-villain battling, but not much blood except for one emotional scene

Adult situations:  2/10—Really, all Marvel Universe films are adult-world films that kids have been a part of since the comic books first appeared, but in this one there are no drugs and the only scene that has anything close to drinking is an end-credit scene set in a bar

Takeaway:  The ending sets up fourth film, but thus far nothing is in pre-production

Review of MARRY ME (2022) (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

Grade:  B+/B
Romantic comedy
Rated PG-13

If you and your family are suckers for feel-good romantic comedies that follow the rom-com formula to the first 10 digits of pi, you might think about adding Marry Me to your home video collection. This far-fetched but cute 2020 movie pairs a low-key junior high math teacher with a pop superstar that’s way out of his league. 

How far out?

Jennifer Lopez plays the sexy performer Kat Valdez, who is known and loved worldwide, while Owen Wilson is meek and nerdy math teacher Charlie Gilbert, the custodial single parent of a junior-high age daughter named Lou (Chloe Coleman). The idea of a romance between a celebrity and an average person no doubt stems from those happily-ever-after fairy tales about commoners marrying a prince . . . or beauty marrying a beast. Here Wilson is the common “beast,” and that’s not just me throwing shade. There are more than a few jokes in the film about the disparity in their looks and appeal.

Instead of a “meet cute” there’s a “marry cute.” Charlie reluctantly agrees to go to a Kat Valdez concert with his best friend/co-worker (Sarah Silverman) and daughter to prove he’s a cool dad. It’s the hottest ticket in town, as the whole world is talking about the hit song that Valdez made with Latinx heartthrob Bastian (Maluma). At this concert, in front of 5000 fans and 20 million people watching on TV, the couple will perform the song live and then get married onstage.

But as Parker hands Charlie her “Marry Me” sign to hold while she takes a few photos, everyone in the room begins gasping and looking at their phones. They’re looking at film of Bastian “canoodling” (we have to bring that word back!) with Valdez’s assistant. Ouch. Valdez not only stops the concert; she talks about breaking patterns and taking a leap of faith. Seeing Charlie in the first few rows with his “Marry Me” sign she declares, “Yes. I’ll marry . . . YOU.”

More

Older Entries