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Review of THE LEMON DROP KID (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1951, 91 min., Black and White
Comedy
Not rated (would be G)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
“Silver Bells” clip
Amazon link

If the title isn’t a tip-off that this is a Damon Runyon story, the rest of the nicknamed character roster ought to be a dead giveaway: Brainey Baxter, Oxford Charlie, Nellie Thursday, Moose Moran, Straight Flush Tony, Gloomy Willie, Sam the Surgeon, Little Louie, Singing Solly, and Goomba.

Runyon famously wrote about colorful characters he met on Broadway and at the racetracks in Florida—guys and dolls, racketeers and henchmen, horse trainers and grooms, bookies and touts, and just plain down-and-outs.

Like Pocketful of Miracles (1961)—which was also inspired by a Runyon short story—The Lemon Drop Kid is set around Christmas, a film in which the main character wavers between being a selfish Scrooge or an unselfish giver. He’s the only character who has any kind of arc at all; the rest are stock types or foils.

Like the Shirley Temple film Little Miss Marker and the Bob Hope remake, Sorrowful Jones (both based on another Runyon story), it revolves around a debt or a bet. In this case, The Lemon Drop Kid (Bob Hope) touts a horse to a woman holding $10K, and that horse loses. What’s worse, the woman turns out to be the girlfriend of notorious racketeer Moose Moran (Fred Clark).

Naturally, Moose wants his money back, and he gives the Lemon Drop Kid until Christmas to settle the score . . . or else. So the Kid goes to New York and looks up his old girlfriend Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) and also racketeer Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) to see if he can get a loan. When that falls through, the Lemon Drop Kid gets a brainy idea of his own: seeing a Salvation Army bell-ringer dressed as Santa, the Kid decides to ring a bell in a Santa Suit with a kettle and a sign that reads “Save a Life.” Meaning, his own.

When the Kid is arrested and realizes he needs a legitimate charity to work that scam, he starts the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls” and gets every known Broadway hustler to help him raise money, because don’t they all love Nellie? So did audiences of the time. Nellie was played by Jane Darwell, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and might be familiar to a later generation as the “Feed the Birds” woman in Mary Poppins.

Will the Kid come through for Nellie? Will he end up at the bottom of the East River? Will he complete the scam, repay the money and beat it back to Florida? Viewers don’t really know, and we’re not so sure the Kid does either. All we know is that the Kid’s desperate plan involves dressing like a little old lady.

Directors Sidney Lanfield and Frank Tashlin don’t give Hope the same long leash to improvise and mug for the cameras as he normally has, but that’s in keeping with the spirit and tone of the Damon Runyon tales. The closest the film gets to bad schtick or goofy slapstick is when we see Sam the Surgeon (Harry Bellaver), Moran’s “persuader,” in full operating-room dress as he tries to extract a dime that someone was holding out. Or when Hope acquires his dress from a store window display in full view of a crowd . . . and a beat cop.

Small children may need to shake a few presents while they watch, but if older children can get past the black and white there’s a lot here to entertain. And fans of I Love Lucy will enjoy seeing William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, as Broadway hustler Gloomy Willie. Most of the humor is situational—a clever line here, or a wry remark there. But there’s something in The Lemon Drop Kid that’s endearing enough to make it a nice alternative to the usual Christmas movies that families watch together every holiday season. After all, it’s the film that introduced the song “Silver Bells.”

Review of ROAD TO BALI (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1952, 91 min., Color
Musical comedy-adventure-romance
Not rated (would be PG for mild peril and innuendo)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B-
APC teaser
Amazon link

In the 1940s, singers Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour hooked up with hook-nosed comedian Bob Hope for five “road” pictures—comedies about two erstwhile male vaudeville performers in exotic locations who end up meeting and falling for Lamour’s character. Was it a formula? Yes and no. Audiences knew exactly what to expect, but Hope and Crosby ad-libbed so much that the films had the added energy of unpredictability.

After taking the road to Singapore (1940), Zanzibar (1941), Morocco (1942), Utopia (1946), and Rio (1947), the trio took to the road again in 1952 for their first and only color excursion, Road to Bali. Crosby plays George Cochran and Hope is Harold Gridley, two entertainers forced to cut engagements in Australia short when they end up wooing one too many farmer’s daughters and are forced to find other work. The first job that presents itself is “deep sea diver,” and so they’re off on another adventure.

Though it’s not as funny as Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia, this 91-minute comedy is a good place to start for families with younger children because it is color and because Road to Bali is a kitchen sink film. Writers Frank Butler, Hal Kanter, and William Morrow throw everything into the film, including the kitchen sink, among them:

—A treasure hunt
—A South Seas princess
—A romantic triangle
—A long-lost father who turns up
—A wedding
—A battle with a giant squid
—A fight between a tiger and a gorilla
—A close call with crocodiles
—A lovelorn gorilla who decides Harold is the perfect replacement for the mate she lost
—An exploding volcano
—A “Scottish” song-and-dance routine Hope and Crosby perform in kilts
—Cameo appearances by Humphrey Bogart (in a film clip) and Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Jane Russell
—“Balinese” dancers who move to music that sounds suspiciously like jazz
—A snake-charmer takeoff in which the flute player summons not a cobra but a beautiful woman

Road to Bali may not feature the kind of breakneck pacing that young people are used to, but the film shifts gears enough times and has enough color and humor to make it fun for family viewing—if, that is, your children are open to older movies. And if your family includes a Baby Boomer or fans of vintage television shows, a bonus is that Carolyn Jones (Morticia on TV’s The Addams Family) appears in just her second career role as one of the jilted farmer’s daughters; Leon Askin (Gen. Burkhalter on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes) turns up as King Ramayana, the ruler of an unspecified idyllic island somewhere between Australia and Bali; and Michael Ansara (Cochise on TV’s Broken Arrow and the Blue Djinn on I Dream of Jeannie) is one of the guards that serve the King and Prince Ken Arok (Murvyn Vye).

The Road movies are famous for breaking the fourth wall, and the asides in this picture include Hope telling the audience, “He’s going to sing now, so it’s a good time to go out and get popcorn.”

My teenage son (who loved this film when he was 5 or 6—all the Road pictures are family-friendly) liked it enough to give it a B+, but I think if he saw other Road pictures he might agree that it’s more of a B. Road to Bali is directed by Hal Walker, who directed Road to Utopia and was assistant director on Road to Morocco and Road to Zanzibar. This Blu-ray transfer is superior to the DVDs that have been floating around for this title, with only a few brief moments where the film loses its crispness. What’s more, film historians Michael Schlesinger and Mark Evanier provide an informative and sometimes funny commentary track which, along with a Bob Hope promo, constitute the release’s only bonus features.

Is it worth adding to your family’s Blu-ray library? Absolutely. And let’s hope that the other Road movies aren’t far behind. Kino Lorber did a nice job on this release.

Review of HEE HAW: PFFT! YOU WAS GONE (DVD)

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: Yes
1969-74, 191 min. (4 episodes), Color
Variety show
Not rated (would be G despite occasional innuendo)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C-/D
“Rindercella” clip
Amazon link

Hee Haw debuted in 1969 as the rural answer to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and while Laugh-In lasted two years longer on primetime network television, anyone who’s recently watched episodes from both shows knows that Hee Haw got the last laugh. Laugh-In’s gags were way too topical and tied to the news, or else they were silly catch-phrases that have long since lost their funniness. Either way, the show isn’t nearly as funny today, and you can bet your sweet bippy on it.

Hee Haw is another story. This show, hosted by country music stars Buck Owens and Roy Clark, was unapologetically devoted to cornball humor. Writers plumbed the depths of rural stereotypes for jokes that somehow managed to celebrate rural life while also poking fun of it. Like the Grand Ole Opry, the show had a group of talented regulars but also featured some of country music’s top stars and rising newcomers as weekly guests. It was a popular-enough series to last another 20 years in syndication, and it still plays pretty much the same now as it did then. Meaning, of course, that cornball humor never changes. The sketch comedy and rapid-fire jokes were corny then, and they’re corny now. How corny? You be the judge:

Doctor: I hate to tell you this, but your wife’s mind is gone.
Male patient: Well, that don’t surprise me. She’s been givin’ me a piece of it for the past 20 years.

Roy: Hey, you know I was in the army for three years?
Buck: Did you get a commission?
Roy: No, just a straight salary.

Cousin Clem: Junior, are you goin’ to the drawing at the movie theater in town tonight?
Junior: No, I think I’ll stay home and draw.
Lulu: Junior, you’re no artist. The only thing you could draw’d be flies.
Junior: I can’t draw no flies. They won’t hold still long enough.
Cousin Clem: I think I’ll take up finger painting.
Grandpa: What’s this family a-comin’ to? When I think of one of my kin talkin’ about paintin’ his fingers, I get real upset, I get real mad.
Lulu: I tell you what you could draw for me, Junior. Why don’t you draw the curtain?
Announcer: Be sure to tune in next time [ to”The Culhanes”], when we’ll hear Junior say:
Junior: I just drew a conclusion.

Of course, the delivery and the characters account for much of the humor, and with humor taking center stage it’s easy to forget that for a time Hee Haw was the biggest television venue for country performers.

Hee Haw: Pfft You Was Gone! is a two-disc set featuring four complete shows and two under three-minute interviews with Aaron Tippin and Moe Bandy, who performed as guests on the show, which was all about having fun. “If you made a mistake it was almost good,” said Bandy, who recalled that despite cue cards people would often muff their lines or ad lib.

Episode 2 (Season 1, 6-22-69)
Musically, Buck Owens, the Hagers, Don Rich, and Susan Raye sing “But You Know I Love You,” Merle Haggard sings “Mama Tried” and “Branded Man,” Roy Clark sings “Yesterday When I Was Young, Grandpa Jones sings “Mountain Dew,” Buck Owens and the Buckaroos perform “Happy Times,” and the Hagers chip in “With Lonely.” Among the sketches are several with The Culhanes of Kornfield Kounty, several KORN News Briefs and “Pfft! You Was Gone” mini-songs, a rhyming menu rundown of “Hey Grandpa, What’s for Supper?” and Archie at the barbershop telling the syllable-inversion story of “Rindercella.”

Episode 34 (Season 2, 10-13-70)
Special guest Marty Robbins sings “I’m So Afraid of Losing You” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” Buck and the gang sing “Sing a Happy Song,” Roy Clark performs “Black Sapphire,” Connie Eaton sings “Ring of Fire,” Grandpa Jones performs “You’ll Make Our Shack a Mansion,” Buck and Susan Raye sing “Tennessee Bird Walk,” and The Hagers perform a song that in the Trump era of rural voters seems almost hard to believe: “Everything Is Beautiful,” sung to a room full of children of all nationalities (“Everyone is beautiful in their own way; under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find a way”). The usual assortment of recurring comedy sketches include “Pfft! You Was Gone,” KORN News Briefs, The Culhanes, What’s for Supper? and Stringbean reading a letter from home.

Episode 70 (Season 3, 2-12-72)
Porter Wagoner sings “What Ain’t to Be Just Might Happen,” Dolly Parton sings “Coat of Many Colors,” and together they sing “Right Combination.” Buck and the gang sing “Old Dan Tucker,” Buck and the Buckaroos perform “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” and “”I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me),” Roy and The Sound Generation perform “Peace in the Valley,” The Hagars sing “The Cost of Love Is Getting Higher,” Guinilla Hutton sings “He’s All I Got,” and a bunch of the cast performs “John Henry.” Junior Samples turns up on his used car lot for one sketch segment, and the “Pfft You Was Gone” musical tale of woe is augmented this time by another musical sketch that would become just as popular: “Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me” (If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all . . . Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me”

Episode 111 (Season 5, 11-3-73)
Country music royalty Tammy Wynette and George Jones are the musical guests, along with Johnny Bush. Jones sings “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You),” Wynette sings “Kids Say the Darnedest Things,” together they perform “We’re Gonna Hold On,” Johnny Bush sings “Here Comes the World Again,” Buck and his Buckaroos perform “Too Much Water,” Roy and family perform “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” The Hagars “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” Roy sings “I’ll Paint You a Song,” and Buck and Susan Raye perform “I Think I’m Going to Like Loving You.” Wynette even subs for Gordie on a “Pfft! You Was Gone” segment. Among the sketches, Junior turns up on Samples Sales selling not just cars but watch dogs, and Minnie Pearl joins Grandpa Jones in the kitchen.

Hee Haw was originally intended for rural audiences and fans of country music, and that’s still the main audience for this classic show. If you don’t like country or corny jokes you might not hee-haw much. But it’s hard even for hardcore urbanites not to grin when Archie Campbell and Gordie Tapp assume an American Gothic pose and sing a ditty about a woman who left, with the deadpan, punchline chorus, “Where, oh where, are you tonight? Why did you leave me here all alone? I searched the world over and I thought I’d found true love. You met another and PFFT! you was gone.”

Review of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 129 min., Color
Family musical fantasy
Disney
Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

We seem to have entered a new era of live-action Disney remakes of animated classics.

After a 2014 revisionist Sleeping Beauty story of Maleficent that divided critics, a trio of remakes—Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Pete’s Dragon (2016)—fared nearly as well with reviewers as they did at the box office. More live-action remakes are in the works: The Sword and the Stone, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Alice and Maleficent sequels, Cruella (an attempt to improve on the 1996 101 Dalmatians flop), Winnie the Pooh, Mulan, Tink (a Peter Pan spinoff), Prince Charming (a Cinderella spinoff), Genies (an Aladdin prequel), and Night on Bald Mountain (a Fantasia adaptation). It other words, it’s getting real.

Predictably, not everyone is a fan. More audience members (83 percent) liked 2017’s Beauty and the Beast than critics (71 percent), but if you read between the lines you’ll see that the naysayers are mostly purists who think that nothing can compare to the 1991 film many consider to be the high point of Disney animation—one that, like The Lion King, inspired a Broadway version. Additional objections came from closet homophobes who took exception with the slightly flamboyant performance that Josh Gad (Olaf, in Frozen) gave of La Fou, sidekick to the film’s egotistical, intimidating villain. But hey, he’s a musical theater guy, this is musical theater, and children will see in his performance the same kind of second-fiddle comedy as his cartoon counterpart provided.

Our family watched Beauty and the Beast separately—my son, on his college campus; my wife and daughter, at a local theater; and me, when it finally came out on Blu-ray this week—but we all had the same reaction: We loved it.

Disney excels in creating movie worlds, and to create this one they decided against straight live-action and incorporated 1700 visual effects using both old and new technology. Watch a bonus feature and you’ll see Dan Stevens, who plays the beast, decked out in a full-body motion-capture suit, and you’ll see Emma Watson as Belle sitting at a table full of objects—the only actor in the room, because all of the other characters were CGI. But you’ll also see green screen work and matte backgrounds, and the combination of old and new techniques fashion a world that’s live-action but still altered reality—timeless, fantastic.

Gad says that everyone brought their “A” game and you can see it on the screen. That A-game began with a romping, boisterous “table read” that included dancing, singing, pretend swordfights—everything we see in the film. It was clear that Disney meant to pull out all the stops and really nail this, and our family thought they did just that.

The project must have felt both new and strangely familiar to Watson, since Disney filmed at Shepperton Studios in England—the same studio where she and her young castmates shot Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Watson was a perfect choice to play Belle, as her “fantasy cred” is already high and it’s easy to believe her as the fairytale Beauty. Her singing voice is pleasant, too, though the best singer of the bunch is musical theater veteran Luke Evans, who plays a Gaston every bit as robust, menacing, and self-absorbed as the animated version.

Stevens, meanwhile, makes for a convincing Beast, and both are helped by a screenplay that sought to quell any Stockholm Syndrome talk and answer the big question: Why would Belle fall for the Beast? What was in each of their pasts and personalities that might serve as common ground for mutual attraction? Providing backstories for each and answering those questions are the main deviations from the animated version.

Otherwise, apart from incorporating additional songs, Disney follows the same path as the original: Belle wishes for more than “this provincial life,” but in requesting her father bring her back a rose from his travels she inadvertently sets the plot in motion. After being attacked by wolves and seeking refuge in a nearby castle, he’s sentenced to life in the castle prison for stealing a rose. When his horse returns and Belle tracks him down, she offers herself in his place. Meanwhile, her father returns to town and tries to get them to rescue his daughter, but they think he’s crazy. But Gaston, eventually, will lead armed peasants in an assault on the castle. As Watson says, it’s a musical, it’s a fantasy, it’s an action movie, and it’s a drama—four genres in one.

Small children will find the wolfpack attack even more frightening in live action, but the Beast is toned down a bit from the animated original—or maybe it just seems that way since his transformation begins more immediately and there is greater depth in the Beast’s character that makes him seem more instantly likable. Then again, director Bill Condon—who was behind the camera for two of The Twilight Saga films—knows a thing or two about bad-boy, good-girl teen attraction. Ultimately, the Beast isn’t as bad as he appears, and the sorceress (Hattie Morahan) who pinned that curse on him has a bigger role in the live-action version.

Some critics have groused about weak links, but we didn’t see any. The whole cast was remarkable—energetic, “animated,” and wholly believable—whether we’re talking about Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline), Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), or Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci). Ultimately, while the story is the same, it feels like a completely different movie from the 1991 animated classic. And as long as that feeling persists, Disney can remake animated films as much as they want.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: The wolf attack can be frightening, as can the Beast’s initial rage and a climactic scene when one character dies and another appears dead
Adult situations: A pub scene, but the music distracts from anything adult
Takeaway: Empowered by advances in CGI special effects, Disney seems to have found their live-action stride again

Review of ROCK DOG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy
Rated PG for action and language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Preferred audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Rock Dog, a Chinese-American collaboration, is a better-than-you’d-think animated feature. It’s a true family movie with the potential to appeal to a wide range of ages. The characters are engaging, the animation is top-notch, and the story . . . well, if it worked in Kung Fu Panda, why wouldn’t it here?

Rather than a Panda who hears a different drummer, this time it’s a Tibetan mastiff that can’t quite bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps as a guard dog of a village of sheep up on Snow Mountain. With a gang of hungry and opportunistic wolves ready to attack, a single dog following his ancestral tradition isn’t enough. The father (J.K. Simmons) needs his son, and he also needs “scarecrows”—a bunch of sheep dressed to look like mastiffs from a distance—in order to keep the wolves at bay.

Bodi (Luke Wilson) would rather play music, but since music was banned because it was a distraction, he defiantly breaks into the “hold” where confiscated instruments are stored and begins teaching himself how to play a traditional stringed instrument. But when a radio falls from the sky and Bodi discovers the delights of rock music, he modifies that instrument to create his own six-string acoustic guitar and finally gets his father’s reluctant blessing to head to the city to follow his dream of becoming a musician.

We’re not supposed to question why we’re unable to get radio reception driving on some roads, but high in the Himalayas everything comes in crystal clear. And we’re not supposed to wonder why character actor Sam Elliott was chosen to play the narrator Fleetwood Yak, since this is set in Asia and Elliott’s unmistakable Western drawl situates us immediately in the American West. Above all, we’re not supposed to question mastiff’s “Iron Paw” defense—a laser-cannon blast of energy that emits from the mastiff’s paws—and later, young Bodi’s musical variation of it. Director Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up) knows that if the writing and story are strong enough and the characters are strong enough, audiences will relax and just enjoy the movie.

Wilson does a fine job as the lead character, but the show-stealer is feline rock ‘n’ roll legend Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard). Almost every scene involving Bodi and Angus is shot full of energy and interest, and you can see it in their interaction that they were the most fun for writers to bring alive. Don’t expect much in the way of sideplots, though. A wannabe successful band—featuring a warm-hearted bass-playing fox named Darma (Mae Whitman), a slightly goofy goat drummer named Germur (Jorge Garcia), and an arrogant snow leapard guitarist named Trey (Matt Dillon)—has almost as little to do as TV mothers in the old father-centric sitcoms. But the real fun begins when Trey pranks Bodi into finding Scattergood and asking him to be his teacher and he leaves that group temporarily behind. Even a kidnapping involving the wolf gang led by Linnux (a mobster type who also is a fight-club owner) isn’t as much fun as the Bodi/Angus scenes—though, of course, the kids will like the infusion of action. In the end, though, it’s another tale of following your dreams and finding parental acceptance in the process.

Rock Dog is based on a graphic novel (Tibetan Rock Dog) by Chinese rock star Zheng Jun and with a $60 million production budget it ranks as the most costly animated film ever produced by Chinese. As I said, the production values are terrific, the script (though familiar) doesn’t sag anywhere, the characters are likeable, the action is sufficient, and the music is an upbeat bonus. It is, in other words, much better than you’d expect for a film that did not do well at the box office in China and drew a 39 percent “rotten” rating at RottenTomatoes.com.

Language: Some name calling and scattered use of “bloody” as a euphemistic swearword
Sex: Zero
Violence: Not much—just some wolves shot with a tranquilizer, a dog fighting a grizzly, and a cat being hit with a baseball bat, all for comic effect
Adult situations: Nothing really
Takeaway: The skills are here, but the filmmakers need an original idea and script to take it to the next level

Review of A MERMAID’S TALE (DVD)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes (technically)
2016, 92 min., Color
Family drama
Rated G
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

You could argue that Daryl Hannah revived Hollywood’s fascination with mermaids in the live-action 1984 romantic comedy Splash, which contained so much adult female nudity that it’s now really only appropriate for adults. Then came the engaging Australian TV series H20: Just Add Water, featuring three young women in their late teens that find themselves transformed into mermaids. Now we get a 12 year old who has her own mermaid encounter in the live-action film A Mermaid’s Tale. And if you remember the rule of thumb for movies aimed at children, the heroes are always slightly older than the intended audience. That means the 6-10 age group finally gets a live-action mermaid film to feed their fantasy side.

From a critic’s perspective, A Mermaid’s Tale is a C- at best. But young Caitlin Carmichael is likable as the female lead and the playful relationship she has with her father (Jerry O’Connell, who was the fat kid in Stand by Me) is more like the one Miranda Cosgrove had with her TV brother (Jerry Trainor). Because of that, and because the production values are surprisingly good, I think young girls in the target age group will probably find this movie entertaining enough to grade a B or B-. Considering that the film was made with them in mind, I’m comfortable giving A Mermaid’s Tale a compromise grade of C/C+.

Carmichael plays Ryan, a 12-year-old girl who moves with her father to a tiny California fishing town in order to help her aging grandfather, whom she hasn’t seen since she was very tiny. Even this early in the film, adults who watch with their daughters will be thinking, Really? I mean, if you don’t see someone for 10 years it usually implies that you’re estranged, and yet the only thing that seems strained in their relationship is their insistence on “caring” for the older man and forcing him to take it easy, since apparently his doctor put him on an aspirin regimen for his heart. If you care enough about a relative to relocate, why didn’t you care enough to visit over the past decade?

Then too, we’re told the fish left a LONG time ago, but everything in this quaint little town looks freshly painted and picturesque as a thriving tourist destination, not a depressed fishing village. The only remotely ramshackle thing is Grandpa’s boat, which has one panel on the hull that’s been primed but not painted. In the early going the plot will remind you a bit of the Flipper remake, in which an isolated boy forced to live someplace different finds a best friend in a dolphin. Only here, Ryan encounters a mermaid named Coral (Sydney Scotia) who had become briefly entangled in a net hanging inexplicably close to the dock. Though she keeps the mermaid business to herself, even more inexplicable is that Grandpa (Barry Bostwick) admonishes her for going to the docks alone. Someone her age shouldn’t be doing that, he and his son chide. Really? I mean, it’s not as if she’s so small she could fall in and drown, and the docks in this quaint little town aren’t exactly full of rough-and-tumble sailors, fishermen, or longshoremen. It’s a pier, basically, with a few boat slips, and an easy walk to cute little bakeries and cafes. Yet, just one day later when Grandpa insists that his son come with him on a two-day fishing trip, he suggests leaving Ryan on her own because “she’s old enough.” That’s not inconsistent at all, right?

The point is, if you’re an adult and you think too much, you’ll find plenty to criticize. If you’re a girl in the target age range, you’ll get caught up in the BFF giggling that a young girl and a young mermaid enjoy together. Grandpa blames the mermaids for chasing away the fish and now he’s determined to catch them to bring the fish back, and the queen of the mermaids (yes, there is such a thing) has warned her people to NEVER have contact with humans. So you basically have a situation where both girls are taking a walk on the wild side because they found a best friend—something that will certainly appeal to rule-following and friend-needy adolescents.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but most young viewers’ hearts will beat with excitement when Ryan is surprised to learn she’s able to hold her breath under water for a whopping 10
minutes! I can’t predict how a young audience will react when Coral takes Ryan to mermaid island, but people who saw the old Power Rangers TV series or grew up watching the campy Lost in Space episodes will recognize in the set and costumes an Irwin Allen hokeyness and smile. Try to ignore the continuity error where Coral is still wearing her own necklace in a scene after she and Ryan traded jewelry, or that near the end Ryan’s dad and his old-now-new girlfriend show up on the island, though we have no idea how they got there. Or that we see a Coast Guard cutter bearing down on the island and Dad mentions the Coast Guard, but they never arrive and the scene ends. If you can put aside those inconsistencies and the campy Power Rangers turn that the film suddenly takes, it’s a cute-enough family film. But really, A Mermaid’s Tale—a film that’s as wholesome as can be—is for young girls no older than age 10.

Review of A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Entire family:  Yes, for most
1992, 128 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG for language
Columbia/Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
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“There’s no crying in baseball!”

When it first came out, A League of Their Own was an out-of-the-park homer, and not just because Madonna’s name was on the marquee. Director Penny Marshall (Laverne, of Laverne & Shirley fame) drafted some of her old TV cronies and other pals in order to assemble an ensemble that was strong enough to go extra innings. If you isolate the performances and compare them to baseball cards, there isn’t a dud destined to be traded or clipped to the spokes of a bicycle wheel—especially when you consider that no doubles were used for the baseball action. Billed as a “family comedy,” it’s one of our family’s favorite baseball films.

AND now, here’s the line-up for YOUR Rockford Peaches:

C—Geena Davis, as Dottie Hinson. The “Queen of Diamonds” is the best player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that was formed during World War II when men’s baseball was shut down and team owners needed something to keep the sport alive. A handful of teams based at small Midwestern cities played from 1943-1954. This 1992 film is based on that true story, but focuses on two players from a farm in Oregon—Dottie, married to a serviceman stationed overseas, and her younger sister who’s “as unmarried as they come.” Davis shines as the reticent star who manages the team in the early going and makes some amazing catches behind the plate (which, we learn in the extras, were really her own!).

P—Lori Petty, as Kit Keller, a kid sister with a big inferiority complex who’s as competitive in her sibling rivalry as she is on the mound. The fiery but tantrum-prone fireballer needs to be cooled off more than once, and though Petty plays it a bit over the top at times, she makes it easy for viewers to believe the love-hate relationship she has with big sis.

CF—Madonna, as “All the Way” Mae Mordabito. This chain-smoking female Charlie Hustle, who used to be a dime-a-dance girl, offers to spice up things by “accidentally,” ala Janet Jackson, giving fans a glimpse of her “bosom.” Marshall wanted Madonna because she needed a high-energy dancer for a roadhouse scene, but first the superstar had to pass the baseball test, like all the rest. Actresses had to show they could hit, throw, and run before they were even considered for a part. After consultants from the L.A. Dodgers told Marshall the material girl was “teachable,” she was in.

3B—Rosie O’Donnell, as Doris Murphy, Mae’s tough-talking toadie-style sidekick who hits for power and doesn’t pull any punches in her performance. The stand-up comic makes you believe she’s a “broad” from the Bronx. It turns out that O’Donnell, like Petty, was a tomboy who was already a darned good ballplayer. O’Donnell was told to become Madonna’s best friend during filming, and the close relationship they developed carries over onto the screen.

2B—Megan Cavanagh, as really ugly duckling Marla Hooch. Though the league wanted “dollies” who looked good in short skirts, Hooch’s switch-hitting power was too beautiful to pass up. If you never heard of Cavanagh, that’s because she was a waitress at Ed DeBevic’s, a diner where the wait staff does outrageous things. She provides a good chunk of the comedy.

1B—Anne Elizabeth Ramsay, as Helen Haley, one of the sensible ones. That’s ironic, because most viewers will recognize her as Helen Hunt’s daffy sister on the old Mad About You TV show.

LF/P—Tracy Reiner, as Betty “Spaghetti” Horn. Before you think that Rob Reiner’s daughter got the part just because her mom happened to be director, remember, she still had to pass the baseball test. And Mom, a great baseball player herself, apparently prepped her for the role when Tracy was still a young girl. Reiner turns in a sensitive performance in the film’s single serious scene.

RF—Bitty Schram, as Evelyn Gardner, who keeps forgetting to hit the cut-off “man” with her throws, which, of course, raises the blood pressure of the manager and provides for some great comic moments—as does her delinquent little boy, whom she brings on road trips.

SS/P—Freddie Simpson, as former beauty pageant winner Ellen Sue Gotlander, in a minor role.

Manager—Tom Hanks, as Jimmy Dugan, a former major-league star destined for the Hall of Fame but who drank himself out of baseball. Hanks usually has the stage to himself, but even in an ensemble he brings great vitality to his part. When he pees in front of the girls (you don’t see anything), shuffles along in an alcoholic stupor, mistakenly kisses the team’s chaperone (Pauline Brasilsford), and constantly spits tobacco juice, he couldn’t be any more convincingly hilarious. Marshall directed him before in Big, so she knew what she was getting.

Owner—Garry Marshall, as Walter Harvey, of Harvey Candy Bars, obviously patterned after P.K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate whose name is still on the stadium of the Chicago Cubs. Part of the film was shot at Wrigley, and in one of the extras the cast says how their wide-eyed entrance into that hallowed space wasn’t faked. They were genuinely awestruck by the Friendly Confines. Marshall is the director’s brother, and sitcom fans may recall he produced Laverne & Shirley. L&S alum Eddie Mekka (Carmine) makes an appearance in the big dance scene, while David L. Lander (Squiggy) turns up in the announcer’s booth.

Scout—Jon Lovitz, as the caustic Ernie Capadino, whose put-downs of the “milkmaids” he recruits would rival Don Rickles. Lovitz provides most of the humor in the early going, and the screenwriters reveal in one special feature that Lovitz was the only one they ever wrote a part for. He’s laugh-out-loud highlight reel all by himself.

Though the frame that sets up a flashback main story tugs a little too hard at the heartstrings—kind of like Stand by Me—the main narrative is full of humor and strikes just the right tone. It gives you an atmosphere that feels baseball- and period-right, and accomplishes Marshall’s side goal of drawing attention to these women . . . who may be in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown now, but most of their memorabilia is in storage. So much for equal rights. But it does make the title (already a pun) resonate with irony. More

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