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Grade:  B-/C+
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. 


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.”


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

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Grade:  B+
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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Grade: B+
Animated TV Series
Rated G

Crab lawn mowers, a dinner of roast pterodactyl leg, triceratops wheelbarrows, birds using their wings to cover red and green stoplights to coordinate traffic—it’s all part of an average day in Bedrock, the pre-historic community where one of TV’s most famous animated families lived from 1960-66. Fred Flintstone was a blue-collar working stiff, the operator of a dinosaur-powered crane at the Rock Head & Quarry Cave Construction Co. Like everyone else, when the end-of-day whistle blew, he hurried home in a foot-powered car so he could be with his wife, their pet “dog” that was really a small dinosaur, and later, a baby girl named Pebbles who would inspire a fruity breakfast cereal.

As the first prime-time animated TV series, The Flintstones was both beloved and wildly profitable through six seasons and two spin-off full-length movies. All six seasons, both films, and the original pilot and bonus features are included in this Complete Series set that really has a lot of visual pop because of the high-def transfer to Blu-ray. It makes all the small details even more pleasurable—like the paintings hanging in the home that are in the style of cave drawings.

Fans of the all-time most popular cartoon, The Simpsons, will recognize that the show about America’s “nuclear family” owes a debt to The Flintstones, which TV Guide named the second all-time most popular cartoon—one that earned a primetime Emmy nomination in 1961 for outstanding TV comedy. Simpsons fans will get déjà vu from the beginning as they watch a work-to-home title sequence that ends with a garage door closing and a character heading for the furniture in front of the TV. The Flintstones was also big on pop-culture allusions and celebrity guest stars—all staples of the later Matt Groening series. Instead of Cary Grant, Ann-Margret, Tony Curtis, and James Darren, audiences encountered Cary Granite, Ann-Margrock, Stony Curtis, and Jimmy Darrock. TV’s Bewitched stars make an appearance, and the Hanna-Barbera writers had fun spinning versions of shows like My Favorite Martian (with the appearance of a little spaceman called The Great Gazoo) and The Munsters and The Addams Family (with their bizarre family The Gruesomes).

The Flintstones also trailblazed the half-hour animated cartoon that took its format from TV sitcoms and would be the lifeblood of The Simpsons years later. The stone-age gadgets were fun for the kids, but adults also enjoyed seeing the Rube Goldberg contraptions that were a part of daily life for this “modern Stone Age family.” Even more fun for adults was the but even more fun was Hanna-Barbera’s riff on the classic ‘50s sitcom The Honeymooners.

The Honeymooners starred Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as the Cramdens, a New York City couple who palled around with their neighbors, the Nortons (Art Carney and Joyce Randolph). Here we get Fred and Wilma Flintstone, whose neighbors and best friends are Barney and Betty Rubble. As with The Honeymooners, many an episode revolves around a mild battle of the sexes and mishaps that Ralph Cramden and Fred Flintstone get themselves into. Like Ralph, Fred is a bully and a loudmouth, but he’s easily put in his place. In the #MeToo era it’s probably important to mention that the beefy and blustery Ralph, a bus driver by trade, was forever shouting and often threatened to sock his wife. He never did, of course, because Alice knew, as Wilma Flintstone did, that her husband was all bark and no bite. If there’s any hitting that happens, it’s more often the wife or someone else that administers the blow, all for comic effect, of course. The Flintstones softened the gender sparring of The Honeymooners for family audiences, but the sitcom formula was still apparent in every half-hour episode. More

Review of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Rated G

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is available now on DisneyPlus, but since it came out on Blu-ray last year as a Disney Movie Club exclusive copies are also turning up on eBay now, if your family is building a Blu-ray library.

With Treasure Island (1950) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Disney made it clear that they were going to be big-time players in the live-action filmmaking business. How big? Well, to do the Jules Verne undersea adventure justice, Disney decided to shoot it in CinemaScope and Technicolor, which was so brand new that this was one of the first major films to get the vivid colors and ultra-widescreen treatment. Disney also spent a half-million dollars to reshoot the famous squid scene in order to get it right, and back in the 1950s that was a lot of Mickey money.

But it paid off. Anyone who’s been to one of the Disney theme parks knows that it’s all about attention to detail, and that holds true with the live-action adventures as well. It’s also about family and a certain level of wholesomeness. Though 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea features sci-fi elements, slave exploitation, and a mad captain who wants to destroy humanity to save it, this remarkable adventure is perhaps even more remarkable because it’s rated G. Ships explode and it’s known that lives are lost, but nothing graphic is shown except for that epic giant squid battle, a shark encounter, and a large- and small-scale fight where one main character is shot. Apart from several characters smoking, the use of the word “hell,” one character getting drunk, and some outdated cultural depictions of cannibals, it’s all pretty sin-free. Yet it remains exciting nearly 70 years later.

Verne was a visionary who was ahead of his time, but that also makes it last into the future, where some of his predictions came true and others remain to be discovered or implemented. It’s quite fascinating climbing aboard the uranium-powered Nautilus and witnessing how he’s able to derive everything from the sea. More

Review of I AM A DANCER (1972) (Blu-ray)

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

Ballet Dancers Guide lists five “most legendary” dancers in history: Marie Taglioni (1804-84), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), and Margot Fonteyn (1919-91). You can see two of them dance in this newly released Blu-ray of the 1972 Pierre Jourdan film.

Nureyev, who also makes the top four list of “most famous ballet dancers in history,” according to DanceUS.org, is the focus of this documentary, but don’t expect to learn a lot about Nureyev’s life. This isn’t a cradle-to-grave biography, and it doesn’t intercut old photos and film clips with talking heads.

I Am a Dancer, is less biography and more of a montage of Nureyev dancing: in training, in rehearsal, and in performance. And unlike documentaries that are heavily scripted and edited, Jourdan, for the most part, just turns on his camera, relying on viewers to appreciate the long takes as a means of understanding the dedication, hard work, and passion that it takes to become or remain one of the world’s most talented dancers. We do get a few moments when Nureyev appears on camera responding to interview questions—“I live in my suitcase, and my only ground is my work”—and we do get periodic voiceover narrations written by John Percival and voiced by Bryan Forbes, but for the most part any narration is minimal.

In other words, if you’re looking for Nureyev’s story—how a young man born on a Trans-Siberian train ended up as a dancer in the Kirov Ballet, became the first artist to defect from the Soviet Union to the West, found a new home as principal dancer with The Royal Ballet in London, then served as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and tragically died of AIDS at the age of 54—you’ll have to look elsewhere. The White Crow, a controversial 2019 biopic starring Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev, fills that bill.

I Am a Dancer showcases a great dancer dancing, but I can’t say that this is great filmmaking. In fact, a gimmicky “fly’s-eye” lens that shows multiple images is so over-used that it’s annoying and detracts from the dance, while the Vaseline lens for other shots seems Playboyesque and dated. That the film earned a Golden Globe nomination is somewhat surprising, though it’s possible that at the time it was considered “brave” to let the story mostly tell itself. More


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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
TV Variety
1971-74, 503 min. (10 episodes), Color
Time Life
Not rated (would be G; any innuendo will fly over the heads of youngsters)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+/A- (some great interviews and TV appearances)
Amazon link

Fans of Sonny and Cher will be glad to add I Got You Babe: The Best of Sonny & Cher to their video collections. The five-disc set includes 10 episodes culled from the series’ four-year run (1971-75), and Time Life did a good job finding the best elements to use for the DVD transfer. As for the “best” picks, that will be a matter of fan taste. Included here are:

Season 1, Episode 1—guest star Jimmy Durante (air date 8-1-71)
Season 1, Episode 8—Tony Curtis, Dinah Shore (1-3-72)
Season 1, Episode 9—Carroll O’Connor (1-10-72)
Season 3, Episode 2—Jerry Lewis, The Supremes (9-22-72)
Season 3, Episode 11—Jim Brown, Bobby Vinton
Season 3, Episode 18—Jim Nabors (2-7-73)
Season 4, Episode 3 “The Sonny & Cher Years (Part 1)—retrospective featuring Chuck Berry, Ed Byrnes, Dick Clark, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Vinton, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons (9-26-73)
Season 4, Episode 11 “The Sonny & Cher Years (Part 2)—retrospective featuring Paul Anka, The Coasters, Peter Noone, Neil Sedaka, Wolfman Jack (11-28-73)
Season 4, Episode 22—Joe Namath, The Righteous Brothers (2-20-74)

From the ‘40s through the ‘70s variety shows were a dominant genre, and Ranker.com currently lists The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour as the 10th Greatest Variety Show in TV History. But to a TV audience that didn’t grow up with variety shows, their attraction can seem a mystery. It’s like going to see a live revue at a lounge—a circuit that Sonny & Cher played, actually, before they got this summer replacement TV series. There’s something slightly indulgent about variety shows, where a line-up of guest stars as predictable as those on TV game shows get to sing and do out-of-their-element comedy sketches and basically extend their careers, while the stars can do whatever they want. Sometimes they’re entertaining, and sometimes they’re not. Some variety shows are deliberately edgy (like SNL, which debuted in 1975) and some follow the format that had become standard: an opening number (if the host is a singer) or monologue (if a comic), followed by alternating sketches and musical numbers featuring the host and guest stars. More

Review of THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1945, 126 min., Black & White
Not rated (would be G)
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Digital Mono
Bonus features: B
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

Bing Crosby played a priest in two gentle warm-hearted films, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)—the latter of special interest because it paired the crooner with the legendary Ingrid Bergman. She’s the no-nonsense Sister Superior of an urban Catholic school run by nuns and he’s the school’s new easy-going pastor-administrator with a totally different attitude about how to handle problems with children. They really play off each other nicely, and as old-fashioned as this film is, it should interest families who enjoy old black-and-white classics like Miracle on 34th Street. It’s as wholesome a slice of American life as a Norman Rockwell painting that, with age, seems just as quaint.

Like other films from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, The Bells of St. Mary’s depicts an America that’s long gone, where everything seemed slower paced and children’s problems were limited to trouble with their parents, studies, or classmates. In this film two children’s problems are on the periphery, while the featured character “bout” is a gentle and very subtle rivalry between Father O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict. The main plot thread involves Sister Benedict’s stubborn hope that a cranky business developer (Henry Travers, who played Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) will donate his new building so that it can serve as a new school. He, meanwhile, is angling for St. Mary’s to sell out so he can tear it down and turn it into a parking lot.

Though Father O’Malley arrives in the fall and the story spans the winter months, there is a long scene where students rehearse a Christmas play, and a few other scenes shot in front of decorated trees. So if Diehard is a Christmas movie, so is The Bells of St. Mary’s. More


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Grade:  C-
Entire family:  No
2018, 72 min., Color
Giant Interactive
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Amazon link

After I watched this documentary about bridge (the card game, not London or any other feat of engineering), I was surprised to see that the runtime was only 72 minutes. It seemed much longer . . . and not just because I know nothing about bridge. It seemed longer because this documentary didn’t inspire me to care any more about bridge than I do now.

And there was certainly potential. When you get a group of four 20- and 30-somethings who are being coached by bridge trainers (who knew there was such a thing?), and those four people compete in tournaments where the opponent’s average age is 73, there’s potential here for interest.

But The Kids Table feels superficial because it doesn’t really answer any of the questions that arise along the way. Like, how do the old people really feel about them intruding in their private world of bridge? We get a few responses, but not nearly enough, and the responses we get aren’t personal enough.

What made each of these people want to learn bridge? Were they recruited? What do their friends or families or significant others think about them spending so much time on an old people’s card game? While we get some solo interviews with each of the young people, there’s not much in the way of answers or depth. Out of curiosity I Googled one of them and learned that Stefanie Woodburn (who admits she’s not super hot on bridge but, once involved, can be super competitive) is a member of Mensa and a summa cum laude graduate from NYU. She’s an actress who’s been featured in TV movies and starred as Mulan in Once Upon a Time: The Rock Opera. She also was one of the first graduates of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s IMAGINE IMPACT class, and she created the first short film funded through video streaming games. Fascinating, right?

But we don’t get much information about her or the others in this documentary, which limits the on-camera interviews to reality-show style questions about their feelings on what we just saw onscreen. Frankly, a documentary like this would have worked so much better if each of the principle young players had their own “Olympic moment” profiles that make us care about them as they play. Does it put a strain on their social lives or family life? Does it compete with their other ambitions? Has learning bridge been a struggle that they continue because of x, y, or z? Without strong back stories there aren’t strong characters, and that especially holds true for this film by Stephen Helstad and Edo Benda. We simply don’t get enough personal information about the four novice players and their two trainers for us to care about them. We’re just flies on the wall as we watch Woodburn, Paul Stanko, Monique Thomas, Edd Benda, Brian Reynolds, and Samantha MacDouglas go from match to match. More

Review of TOY STORY 4 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 100 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Amazon link

The buzz (no Lightyear pun intended) on Toy Story 4 was that it’s the saddest (translation: most poignant) entry yet, and that Pixar really fumbled the ball by naming a new character Forky when it’s so clearly a spork.

But if that’s your biggest complaint, you know Pixar/Disney has created another hit. In fact, if there’s a more critically successful film franchise, it’s not coming to mind. The first two Toy Story animated features earned a remarkable 100 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes with audience ratings of 92 and 86 percent, respectively, while the third entry received a 98 from critics and 89 from the audience. Their latest exercise in animated wizardry merited a 97 from critics and a 94 from audiences. That’s amazingly consistent, given that there’s only so much you can do, plot-wise, with a family’s toys that come to life when no humans are looking.

This time western sheriff doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is having an existential crisis. He’s spent three play days in a row left in the closet, wondering what his purpose is if it’s no longer to be played with by his special human. And in case you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, his special human Andy went off to college,” in Toy Story 4 Woody’s a hand-me-down that’s now in the possession of Andy’s little sister, Bonnie.

When Woody stows away in Bonnie’s backpack to make sure she has the comfort of a toy her first day of kindergarten orientation, he watches her make a new toy doll out of a spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks. But Forky, as she calls him, is a kind of cheerful fatalist who keeps jumping into wastebaskets and trash receptacles and such because, well, that’s where plastic forks end up.

Pixar/Disney keeps the series fresh by rotating characters who get the spotlight, and this time Woody, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Forky (Tony Hale), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and a fun new character, motorcycle stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), take center stage. The animators also moved up the ladder of progressive possibilities for toys that are no longer wanted. Having already explored the Goodwill option, the rabid collector option, and the donated-to-preschool option, they set this entry in an antique store where Bo ended up. More


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Grade: B+/A-
Entire Family: Yes, but…
2019, 87 min., Color
Children’s, Animation
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Sheet of 15 stickers
Amazon link

Raise your hand if the Curious George picture books by Hans Agusto Rey, Margret Rey, and illustrator Alan J. Shalleck helped you learn how to read. If so, you’re not alone.

Since the little monkey first appeared in 1941 with his friend, The Man in the Yellow Hat, all seven original titles penned and inked by this trio have remained in print. They’re that popular. And 2006 was a big year for the tailless monkey. That year, an animated TV show was launched that would run for nine more years, and Universal bankrolled a big-screen feature starring big-name talent and costing $50 million to make.

Producer Ron Howard was involved with both projects. “A lot of animated films throw in adult jokes meant to go over the heads of kids. Curious George doesn’t,” Howard told an interviewer. George doesn’t speak in the books, and Howard said that giving him a voice was never an option. “But you know, there have been a lot of very funny characters going back to Harpo Marx that didn’t have much to say,” he said.

The big-screen version didn’t make as much at the box office as the studio had hoped, and since then the movies have been feature-length direct-to-home-videos. Usually that’s a bad thing, but not in this case. The smaller expectations have allowed Howard and co-producing partner Brian Glazer to focus on the audience that the books were intended to reach.

Though two 2009 films, Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey and Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas, were disappointments, the filmmakers found their groove with Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest (2013) and Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle (2015). And I’m happy to report that Curious George: Royal Monkey keeps the winning streak alive. More

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