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Review of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (2016) (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
2016, 108 min., Color
Drama, Theatrical Production
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Adapted from a 1905 children’s novel by Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children is a joint York Theatre Royal and National Railway Museum production that was staged in a venue near Kings Cross Station in London. This is a filmed performance of the Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden production, which shut down in January 2017.

If you’re from the U.K. and grew up with the book or have walked the park where a monument pays tribute, you’ll feel more easily charmed by a production that half-depends on the warm feeling of shared cultural nostalgia.

Regardless, the stage set is unique, designed to resemble a train station with one set of tracks and a platform on either side, and a single walkway at one end that allows people to cross from one side to the other. Lining each platform are seats where audience members sit as close to each platform as possible without actually being onstage themselves. In this elongated version of theater-in-the-round, characters are in near-constant movement, and the staging is minimalist—with a real train appearing only briefly. For the most part, flat wooden squares the same height as the platforms are pushed into place to suggest the train and various rooms and buildings, and you marvel at how the actors are able to retain their balance as they walk across the square/squares that briefly connects the platforms. More

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Review of MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
2017, 89 min., Color
Documentary
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

As a documentary, Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards is a product of the times. Reality TV programming has pushed the public’s fascination with celebrity and celebrities to an extent that we haven’t really seen since the Golden Age of Hollywood and the initial proliferation of gossip magazines. Atypical of road-to-success biographies, this film offers an adorational profile of high fashion “cobbler” Manolo Blahnik— one that celebrates the designer’s personality and celebrity more than it explains his methods or his rise to prominence.

The title is literal. As a young boy Blahnik, who grew up in the Canary Islands, really did make tiny little shoes for the lizards that he would catch and play with. But as I said, this isn’t the standard biography that proceeds chronologically in order to explain how that young boy grew up to be one of the most influential fashion figures of the 20th and now 21st century. It’s not emphasized how he lived with his aunt and uncle and how the latter helped his fashion tastes to evolve, and we really don’t learn much about the early transformative years.

The first two-thirds of the film is devoted to creating an impressionistic portrait of the flamboyant Spanish designer, reinforcing how big he actually is in world pop culture and fashion. We see celebrity after celebrity fawning all over Blahnik or his shoes and quickly deduce that he was the main designer on the radar of the rich and famous—both entertainers and political royalty. Blahnik repopularized the stiletto heel and when high-fashion footwear was called for in the movies, he was often the one costume designers turned to—with one film, Marie Antoinette, offered as an extended example. But mostly we hear people talking about Blahnik and we hear Blahnik talking about his life.

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Review of A NEW LEAF (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
1971, 102 min., Color
Comedy
Olive Films
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 (Mono)
Bonus features: B
Clip montage
Amazon link

Looking ahead to New Year’s resolutions, if the new leaf you’re turning over this year is to be more receptive to older and subtler comedies, you might start with A New Leaf—an understated 1971 film featuring Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple) and Elaine May.

Matthau stars as an arrogant playboy who suddenly finds himself penniless. Desperate, he decides to take his butler’s advice and use a loan from his skinflint Uncle Harry (James Coco) to maintain his status and try to get a rich woman to marry him. There’s a catch: if he doesn’t get her to accept his proposal within six weeks, he forfeits all he owns to his uncle.

It’s the kind of premise that opens the door wide for slapstick and humor that’s a throwback to the old screwball comedies. But May—a founding member of the pre-Second City improv group Compass Players in Chicago, who often worked with Mike Nichols—writes every scene with tongue in cheek and crafts a black comedy instead.

As the socially awkward and übernerdy Henrietta Lowell, May plays well off of the naturally acerbic Matthau. Henrietta, whom Henry meets at a party and boorishly defends when she spills her drink on the host’s expensive rug, is an introverted heiress who teaches botany at Columbia University and dreams of discovering a new plant species. But it’s she who’s ripe for the picking.

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Review of THE BEST OF THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (DVD)

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Grade:  B/B+
1967-78, 806 min. (16 episodes), Color
TV variety
Time Life
Not rated (would be TV-G)
Aspect ratio:  1.33:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features:  B

‘Tis the season when shoppers look to “Best of” lists and compilations as a gift-giving resource, and this latest Time Life release of The Carol Burnett Show is certainly gift-worthy. The six-disc DVD set contains 16 full episodes of the long-running variety show, plus an interview and two featurettes originally made for the full series DVD set. Rich-looking and nicely packaged, The Best of The Carol Burnett Show: 50th Anniversary Edition seems designed not for the obsessed fan who undoubtedly owns or wants the full series on DVD, nor as a stocking stuffer for casual lovers of old-time TV or variety shows whose curiosity could be sated by a smaller collection. This one seems aimed at fans who fondly remember the star, her supporting cast, and those memorable recurring sketches—though not fondly enough to plunk down the money for the complete set.

What’s nice is that the very first and very last episodes are included, and people who haven’t seen the show will be amazed by Burnett’s opening Q&A sessions with the live audience. Yes, there’s a lot of repetition, but it’s also a showcase for Burnett’s quick wit and improv talents. And an episode featuring the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson doing his thing as a very young man is going to be a hit with all ages.

The only lump of coal is, I’m not sure how Time Life can call this a “Best of” compilation when two of the series most infamous episodes aren’t included. Gone is Episode #8 from the 10th season, featuring the Gone with the Wind parody “Went with the Wind” —an episode so iconic that TV Guide named it #53 on their list of 100 Greatest TV Episodes and The Smithsonian Institution asked for the dress that Burnett wore so that it could become a part of their permanent pop-culture displays. Also missing from this “best of” set is Episode 20, which featured one of the series’ funniest sketches starring Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, with Conway playing the patient in a dentist’s office. That’s one of the negatives; the other is that the comedy sketches hold up for today’s audiences much better than the musical numbers do.

Still, as recently as 2013, TV Guide ranked The Carol Burnett Show in its top 20 on a list of  “Greatest Shows of All Time,” and this was a variety show featuring songs and sketch comedy at a time when variety shows were on the decline. Yet it still drew a dedicated following for 11 years. As Burnett says in an interview included in this set, “Some of the sketches, if they were done today on television, they would hold up. Some of them would not. Some were awful, and some were really good.” The bottom line, according to Burnett, is one I agree with: “The sketches that were funny are still funny.”

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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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