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Review of THE SISSI COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
1955-57, 318 min. (3 films), Color
Drama, romance, biopic
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen or 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4 Blu-ray discs and 1 DVD
Amazon link

Biopics were big in the ’40s and ‘50s. Whether it was Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, Greer Garson as Marie Curie, James Cagney as George M. Cohen, James Stewart as Charles Lindberg, Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen, or any number of others, audiences enjoyed watching their Hollywood heroes playing real-life ones.

In Europe, though, one biopic towered regally over all the rest: the phenomenally popular Sissi trilogy from director Ernst Marischka, starring Romy Schneider. In Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), Schneider played Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, who went on to marry Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria. As the Empress, “Sissi” reigned alongside him from 1854-1898, and significantly helped unite Austria and Hungary.

By today’s standards, all of the postwar biopics seem sanitized and romanticized, and Sissi is no exception. The “fateful years” don’t involve a guillotine or even a significant loss of any kind, because movies from this era either stopped short of showing a historical figure’s real tragic fate or softened it by depicting it off-camera. The real Empress Elisabeth was assassinated at age 60, but this cheery blend of history, comedy, and romance only covers Sissi’s late teenage years growing up in Bavaria through her forties as Empress trying to balance the demands of government with her own needs and desires. Even that last phrase, as I write it, seems more sensational than this film or biopics from the era, which were intended as entertainments for the whole family.

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Review of CARS 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: Yes
2017, 103 min., Color
Animation
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s not all about the movies these days. Somebody at Disney must have calculated that a Cars film released roughly every five years should be enough to keep the characters alive for the public and maintain healthy sales of Cars-related merchandise. And for the first 15 minutes or so Cars 3 seems like a dash-for-the-cash affair. Then Disney does what they do best: they get viewers emotionally involved with the characters.

The animation, of course, is wonderful—even more impressive than what we saw in the first two films, with backgrounds rendered so realistically they could pass for photos. But in the early going this 2017 follow-up to Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011) feels like just another version of what we’ve seen before. In the first Cars, audiences were introduced to Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a hot-shot race car who found himself stranded in podunk Radiator Springs, where his attitude got a major adjustment and he learned that family and friends are just as important as wins. The second film was a love-it or hate-it affair—a spoof of spy films that found Lightning McQueen and his sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) going to Europe to compete in a World Grand Prix and getting involved in assassinations and international espionage. Cars dying? That’s not exactly what families signed up for.

With Cars 3 the franchise circles back to what appealed to viewers in the first place—only this time it’s like Rocky, with McQueen training for a comeback and aiming to beat a new young hot-shot named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who hit the circuit just as McQueen hit a wall so hard that everyone in racing pronounced him down for the count.

McQueen finds himself being “virtually” trained by Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), whose own dream of becoming a race car was shattered by a glass ceiling in the business, where she was put down by the male racers. Her methods are unconventional and somehow smack of tofu-and-Birkenstocks aerobics, which provides a good deal of the comedy. But writers Brian Fee (who was a storyboard artist for Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Cars) and Ben Queen (Cars 2, TV’s Powerless) wisely chose to take the characters on the road, where they can learn about themselves and each other and viewers can start to care more than if everyone just kept driving in circles or staying in a Gold’s Gym for cars.

This is Fee’s directorial debut, and it’s a solid one. Take away those first overly familiar 20 minutes and you’ve got Rocky for cars, a formula that he both follows and puts in his rear-view mirror. In the process, families get the kind of Cars they seem to prefer.

One highlight this outing is Disney’s spot-on rendition of a demolition derby and the raucous atmosphere and mud-spinning chaos of the figure-eight race. Here’s where we meet the movie’s most memorable character: Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria), a converted school bus that now spouts fire and lays waste to every car in her path, and does so with jovial menace. One of the bonus features on this Blu-ray combo pack is a mini-movie featuring Miss Fritter, but there’s also a nifty primer on demolition derby and the rules of figure-eight, and “how Pixar puts the crazy in the Thunder Hollow Crazy 8 race.” There’s a nice bundle of bonus features here, but of course it’s the film that families care most about. And if you liked this original Cars, you’ll like this as well.

Review of ROCK-A-DOODLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
1991, 77 min., Color
Animation/Live-action
Olive Films
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Don Bluth forever will be known as a talented artist who left Disney to start an animation company that produced The Secret of NIMH, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and The Land Before Time in the ‘80s under his direction. But the studio’s titles in the first half of the ‘90s struggled to connect with viewers, and Rock-a-Doodle (1991), Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994), and The Pebble and the Penguin (1994) all had disappointing box-office returns.

The problem with Rock-a-Doodle, as is so often the case with non-Disney animated features, is the concept itself—and that includes a live-action “frame” that seems gratuitous, even clunky. Bluth had been the animation supervisor on Disney’s Pete’s Dragon and obviously wanted to showcase his talents. But The Princess Bride-style frame about a boy reading a book doesn’t work because it’s introduced a little too late in the film and the whole parallel of the boy’s parents fighting a flood while he’s transformed into a cat who tries to bring a rooster back from the city to “save” the farm (and the parents’ farm) seems strained. Plus, the live-action simply doesn’t hold up as well as the animation.

As for the rest of the premise, it certainly had promise, as a rollicking opening sequence and song prove. The rooster Chanticleer (Glen Campbell) is the strutting king of the barnyard whose singing wakes up the sun every day. That story and opening musical number have all the charm that fables usually provide, and had Bluth stayed with a simpler fabulistic fabric he might have had something. Instead, he offers a villain whose motives and actions are just a little fuzzy.

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Review of EMMET OTTER’S JUG-BAND CHRISTMAS (40th Anniversary DVD)

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Grade: B+/B
Entire family: Yes
1977, 53 min., Color
Family
Sony Pictures
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

You know the old expression, “They don’t make them like they used to?”

With Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas that’s absolutely true. Jim Henson and his Muppeteers used traditional hand-operated puppets, string-manipulated marionettes, and remote controlled Muppetry to make this 1977 TV Christmas special. It’s hard not to have some reaction when you watch Emmet rowing his mother across real water while Ma sings about the good old days. But it could seem so totally new to today’s youngsters that they may not even be sure how to react. What they’re watching is a lost art, with such detailed sets and models and characters that you have to feel charmed by the whole process. And that rowing scene? It’s the equivalent of watching a ventriloquist work his dummy while drinking a glass of water. Such technical wizardry abounds in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.

Henson enlisted composer Paul Williams to create the songs for this 48-minute film, which he told Williams was a “trial run” before he went all-out to make a full-length feature film. That means fans of The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie will find this especially fascinating. You can see what Henson thought worked and what he thought needed to be juiced up a bit in order to be effective in the theaters.

Emmet Otter looks a bit like an Ewok, and he’s cute as the Dickens. He and his Ma are both good singers, but, like everyone else in their watery corner of the world, poor as can be. When they see signs for a talent show featuring a $50 prize, they both decide to enter because, shades of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” each wants to buy a Christmas present for the other. While Ma practices her solo, Emmet gets his musical friends together to form a jug band. But while they all are performing old-time music, that prize money starts to look like a pipe dream when a bunch of kids with electric guitars are cranking out tough-to-beat rock music.

Whether Emmet and his Ma win or lose is almost irrelevant. There’s a lesson to be learned here, and models of behavior and life attitudes that have almost become as “old timey” as some of the early songs in this musical family film. The tone of the film is like a story told around a pot-belly stove, a warm-your-hands (and heart) affair that’s played pretty straight. Missing is the irreverence of The Muppet Show and the Muppet movies, no doubt because Henson and Co. were aiming for a wholesome family Christmas show that evokes the “good old days.”

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Review of SUPERGIRL: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 931 min. (22 episodes), Color
Sci-fi action-drama

Warner Bros.
Not rated: would be PG for fantasy violence
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

As I said when I reviewed Season 1, there are two DC Universes, and Melissa Benoist really brightens up the television one. She has the kind of charisma that propelled Lynda Carter (who appears as the President this season) to stardom as TV’s Wonder Woman during the seventies and the kind of girl-next-door likeability and warmth that inspired the writers of Supergirl: Season 2 to emphasize her “humanity” after otherwise drawing a distinction between humans and aliens.

In this winning 2016 CW series she’s the “girl” you want to be friends with, to confide in, to rely on, to have fun with, and, if you’re a guy, to date. Though Supergirl comes from the planet Krypton, with Benoist wearing the costume she embodies everything that’s good in humanity. She may be a badass, but she’s as amazed by her powers and the fun of being a hero as any teenage Earthling would be. And teens can identify with her because she’s also awkward in social situations, still trying to find her way in the work world, just a little geeky, and a little too wide-eyed for a typical adult her age. In other words, the character was deliberately crafted with a teen and young adult audience in mind, though the show is entertaining enough for all ages.

Supergirl offers a less dark DC Universe in which characters have down time, bond, laugh, share food and drink, and grapple with problems that audience members face—like questions about identity, body image, relationships, glass ceilings, and juggling career and personal life. The series’ first-season feminism and “stronger together” theme was reflected in the Hillary Clinton campaign, and this season remarks exchanges like this one tip viewers off that the left-leaning politics continue:

Supergirl (as Kira, defending a young woman in the office): “She went to Yale.”
Cat Grant: “So did George Bush.”

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Review of WITH GREAT POWER: THE STAN LEE STORY (DVD)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2010, 80 min., Color
Documentary
Not rated (would be G)
MPI Home Video
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: A-/B+ (includes second disc of extras)
Trailer
Amazon link

If your family is like ours, the kids don’t exactly clamor for documentaries. But when the subject of a documentary is Marvel comics legend Stan Lee, and when the documentary employs graphics that remind you of comic books, suddenly there’s interest. Enough for them to watch the whole thing, in fact.

Even years after the hey-day of comic books, when kids could indulge themselves for just 12 or 15 cents, the low-culture genre still holds plenty of fascination. Back then, Lee says, they created a comic per day, and most of the kids I knew purchased at least one per week. It was our pulp fiction. “I learned to read because of Spider-Man comics,” one of the many celebs on this documentary confesses. But a new generation has come to know the Marvel characters mostly through TV and movies—and in this, too, we discover, Lee played a pivotal role.

Since the age of 19, Lee has been the driving force behind and larger-than-life face of Marvel, a genius who co-created more than 500 distinctive characters over his long career as a story man. Teaming with legendary comic-book artist Jack Kirby and others, he absolutely owned the Sixties, coming up with nine characters who would become major Marvel success stories: Fantastic Four (Nov. 1961), Ant-Man (Jan. 1962), Hulk (May 1962), Thor (Aug. 1962), Spider-Man (Aug. 1962), Iron Man (Mar. 1963), The Avengers (Sept. 1965), Daredevil (April 1964), and Silver Surfer (Oct. 1966). “I just put the words in the people’s mouths and I may have come up with the original idea, but after that it was a partnership,” Lee says.

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Review of CLAMBAKE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1967, 99 min., Color
Musical comedy-romance
Not rated: Would be PG (for smoking, drinking, and some suggestive scenes)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B- (an audio commentary from Videodrome video rental store)
“Clambake” clip
Amazon link

It started with Jailhouse Rock (1957), the film that established the Elvis film character as a brooding James Dean, often with a chip on his shoulder, but with a good guy hiding under the facade. That character would appear with only minor alterations in most of his 23 films made between 1962 and 1969. By comparison, during that same period John Wayne made 17 films. Both were box-office giants.

Many of the films from this period are “a-go-go” films, and if you’re a fan of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof Top Secret! you’ll see in the formula Elvis movies what they were making fun of. Today’s families will find these lightweight musical comedy-romances fun to watch, but also fun to make fun of. Some of the dancing, some of the clothes, some of the antics are just plain hilarious now, though they were intended, like the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello “beach” movies, to be campy and fun even back then. They feature plenty of mod and mini-skirted and bikinied women and goofy guys doing the swim, the frug, the monkey, the jerk, and all those dances that were so cool then but look so silly now. What will seem even sillier to modern audiences are the backgrounds that were clumsily and unapologetically used (like the mountains in the background of this film set in Miami), or the far-fetched ways in which the writers sought to bring Elvis in contact with children.

Yes, children. You see, the Elvis film persona was meant to be everything to women: a bad boy, a nice guy, a singing romantic, a tough guy when he had to be, a clean-living guy who usually refrained from alcohol and tobacco, and a good-looking guy who was so good with kids that women saw him as father material. Despite the attitude, Elvis was the kind of guy you could bring home to meet Mom and Dad.

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