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Review of WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Rated G

Coming-of-age juvenile novels, especially ones documenting life below the poverty line, have spawned an awful lot of films. Where the Lilies Bloomis part of that informal tradition, adapted for the big screen in 1974 after the success of another poor sharecropper story, Sounder (1972).

Where the Lilies Bloom is based on a book by Vera and Bill Cleaver and tells the story of a dirt-poor family living pretty much off the grid in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The mother of the family, still known in the area as the best root and herb doctor there ever was, died four years before the action of this film begins, and the father has that telltale cough and the kind of “spells” that suggest poor Roy Luther (Vance Howard), isn’t far behind.

That puts the focus on the children—in particular, on the second oldest daughter, Mary Call (Julie Gholson), because the oldest is a bit of a dreamer like her father and not the take-charge doer that their mother had been. With the father more and more out of the picture, Mary Call takes on the responsibility of leading the family . . . at the age of 14. That includes following her father’s wish that she keep neighbor Kiser Pease (Harry Dean Stanton) away from her older sister Devola, because Kiser is living in the family’s old house that he got “legal like” by paying the taxes that Roy had allowed to lapse—presumably because of grief following the death of his wife. Although Kiser is a persistent suitor, Mary Call is a bulldog that won’t let him near the place, even though he legally owns the sharecropper’s shack they now call home. Mary Call also has to raise younger brother Romey (Matthew Burril) and baby sister Ima Dean (Helen Harmon).

The story is narrated from Mary Call’s point of view, and like her more famous rural counterpart, John Boy Walton, she is good at writing and encouraged by a teacher to make something “more” of herself by leaving the hill country. But that’s the future. Mary Call is more concerned with the present. To earn a living, the children trudge up the mountain as generations of Luthers before them had done, pulling and pushing their wagon. Using their mother’s notebook as a guide, they pick all sorts of mountain herbs and roots to sell to the local pharmacist in a town far from their shack. And the focus of this film is as much on the family’s daily lifestyle as it is on plot.

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Review of THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET: COMPLETE SEASONS ONE & TWO (DVD)

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

Until It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pushed past them in 2021, with its 14 seasons The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet held the record for longest-running live-action television sitcom. And it still holds the record for most live-action sitcom episodes, with 435 filmed between October 1952 and April 1966. 

That’s pretty amazing, considering that the rival family sitcom I Love Lucy got all the love back in the day. Lucy earned 25 Primetime Emmy nominations and eight wins, while Ozzie and Harriet got justthree nominations and no wins. Lucy became the most watched TV show in America for four out of its six seasons, while Ozzie and Harriet managed to crack the Nielsen Top 30 just once (in 1963-64).

Call it another case of slow-and-steady wins the race. Lucy relied on manic, slapstick situations and comedy of character, while Ozzie and Harriet offered the kind of gentle everyday situational family-life comedy that made The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet a popular radio show from 1944-54. Looking back, it was as close as early classic TV programming came to the kind of loosely scripted reality shows that are popular now. Almost all of the episodes were scripted variations of real incidents from the lives of the Nelson family:  father Ozzie, mother Harriet, and sons David and Ricky. The opening title shot of a home exterior was actually the Nelsons’ home, and though interior shots had to be filmed on a soundstage, producers meticulously recreated the look of the interior of the Nelsons’ home. Ozzie was a stickler for realism, and the plots that viewers watched were often reenactments of family incidents or situations, with Ozzie directing 382 episodes and also writing 261 of the show’s scripts. The boys were 16 and 12 years old when the TV show began, so America watched David and Ricky grow up.

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Review of TURNING RED (Blu-ray)

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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 a 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.

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

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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.”

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

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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.

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Review of LUCA (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

Since Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006, the look and sensibility of the studio’s films have changed to the point where you have to read the credits to tell if it’s a Pixar or Disney film. Cases in point? Brave had all the earmarks of a Disney princess film set in Ireland, but it was produced by Pixar.  Coco (2017) and Encanto look like they were cut from the same cloth, but Pixar did the scissoring on the former title and Disney the latter. Wreck-It Ralph (2012) felt like a Pixar film, but it came out of Disney animation studios. 

Now we get Luca, a 2021 film that, under the direction of Enrico Casarosa, does for the Italian Riviera what Pixar’s Ratatouille did for Paris:  it celebrates the landscape and the culture in a loving tribute, while focusing on a duo that hides a secret and goes against the social grain. Fans of the 1984 live-action Splash—starring Tom Hanks as a young man who has a close encounter with mermaid Daryl Hannah—might also see a few similarities.

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Review of ENCANTO (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

While most of the country was complaining about COVID, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) had an amazing 2021. He directed the bio-musical tick, tick . . . BOOM!, co-wrote the screenplay for the film version of his college project In the Heights, and composed the music for Netflix’s Vivo and Disney’s Encanto. It’s the big-production soundtrack, songs, and visuals that wow you immediately in Disney’s 60th full-length feature. Awash with bright colors and vibrant music, Encanto is a celebration for the eyes and ears.

Maybe that’s why I felt the plot by comparison was less striking. It’s almost a Hollywood convention that something has to be done or the magic will be lost, whether it’s a teenage boy going Back to the Future to fix things or Encanto’s Mirabel needing to trust her premonition that the magic of the candle that created their living house that bestows special gifts on the Madrigal family will be lost unless she can follow her instincts to save the Casita.

Set in Colombia—home of Nobel Prize-winning magical realist writer Gabriel García Márquez—Encanto is the first Disney animated feature to spotlight a Latinx family and hero. Stephanie Beatriz gives voice to 15-year-old Mirabel, who is cheerful and upbeat despite being the only family member not to have received a special power from the house. It’s a mystery to everyone—especially Mirabel’s grandma/abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero)—why the house didn’t bestow a gift on her, but they choose to forget about it. Mirabel goes about her business despite not having superhuman strength like older sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow), or the ability to make flowers out of nowhere like oldest sister Isabela. Aside from Mirabel, everyone in the family has a special gift that enriches the community, which honors and celebrates the family as a result.

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Review of CRUELLA (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Comedy-Drama
Rated PG-13

I did not expect to like Cruella as much as I did, because the two previous times Disney tried live-action versions of the popular 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians they produced doggie doo. That’s not just my opinion. While the original animated film got a 98 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close as villainess Cruella De Ville earned just a 41 percent rating, and the 2000 sequel did even worse (31 percent).

But RT critics awarded this new origin story Cruella a 74 percent “fresh” rating, while 97 percent of the audience gave it high marks. After watching it, I can see why. It’s smartly written and full of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. Emma Stone has fun with the titular role without going over-the-top campy—and that’s a tough tone to pull off. Close didn’t even come close.

Stone received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and it was well deserved because of the pressure she faced. Essentially Cruella—like Disney’s Maleficent before it—is similar to a superhero origin story. As the lead performer goes, so goes the film.

Disney is trying to tell the stories of their villains with some sympathy, but isn’t that a risky business? Disney villains are notorious and gigglesnort popular because they are villains of a gigantic sort. Maleficent was the fourth highest grossing film of 2014, and Cruella was 15th in 2021 box office revenue. Since Maleficent was also a bit more sinister than Cruella, might that account for the difference? Do audiences still prefer villains to be more villainous than misunderstood?

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Review of WHERE THERE’S LIFE (Blu-ray)

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

Throughout their careers, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby had a rivalry that extended beyond their onscreen personas in the “Road” pictures they made with Dorothy Lamour. In 1946, Crosby had the upper hand. His Bells of St. Mary’s was the top grossing film that year, while his Blue Skies placed #3, just ahead of their Road to Utopia picture. Meanwhile, Hope’s Monsieur Beaucaire lagged at #26. 

A year later Hope made Where There’s Life and couldn’t resist a dig at both of them, as on-the-lam radio personality Michael Valentine (Hope) runs through a narrow street past a movie poster of Blue Skies and does a turned-up-nose double-take.

In fairness, Hope’s nose was always turned up, and that self-proclaimed “banana nose” was also a running gag from picture to picture. Where There’s Life is one of several Cold War spy comedies that Hope made, and it falls somewhere in the middle of the comedian’s film catalog. It’s pleasantly entertaining, but we feel as if we’ve seen it all before. I mean, how many times can you make a film about an innocent average Joe who gets caught up in intrigue and finds himself intrigued as well by a femme fatale?

As it turns out, three others—My Favorite Blonde (1942), They Got Me Covered (1943), My Favorite Spy (1951)—but it seems like more because there’s not enough variation to the plots. You begin to realize as much when you find yourself delighted by little things in the film—like that Blue Skies dig or William Bendix, who plays a cop in this one, saying “What a revoltin’ development this is!” Audiences familiar with The Life of Reilly radio series starring Bendix would have laughed to hear him repeat his famous catch-phrase, one he’d continue to use as Reilly on the TV sitcom version in the fifties.

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