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

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Grade: 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 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 ROARING ABYSS (DVD)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes (though small children may tire)
2015, 87 min., Color
Music documentary
Not rated: Would be G
IndiePix Films
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Roaring Abyss is an unfortunate title, and the cover art just as unfortunate. Both give a false impression of turbulence, pain, struggle, or a profound feeling of being trapped. That couldn’t be more misleading. Roaring Abyss is a feel-good film, a start-to-finish musical journey across Ethiopia, where, we’re told, “Ninety million people in the second most populated African country” are “singing in eighty different languages on both sides of the Rift Valley.”

This 2015 documentary from Quino Piñero could very well do for traditional music from Ethiopia what Buena Vista Social Club did for Cuban music and musicians. The musicians celebrate their lives through music, and Piñero celebrates that too, along with celebrating their talent, passion, and dedication to preserving traditional music.

You don’t have to be a music lover to enjoy this film, but it certainly helps, since music is a constant. From the terrific opening song you know what sort of journey awaits. A pattern unfolds: you see film of everyday life in a section of Ethiopia while you hear music, then a cut to the musicians so you can see the source of the sound and watch the rest of the performance—and in a sense, every one of these songs, no matter where it was recorded, is a performance because they have been recorded in front of microphones for posterity. After the performance we get more of the same, with that pattern occasionally interrupted by interviews with some of the performers.

“A song is not only for dancing,” one of them remarks. “It reminds you of your dear ones, it brings back memories of far relatives, it reminds you of those who passed away, it reminds you of the love you experienced in your life. Indeed, songs are rarely made for dancing only.”

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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.

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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.

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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+.

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Review of THE SWAN PRINCESS: ROYALLY UNDERCOVER (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes . . . theoretically
2017, 79 min., Color
Children
Rated G
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

Given the widespread popularity of the Barbie animated features, odds are that parents may be thinking The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is a knock-off of Barbie of Swan Lake (2003). If anything, it’s the other way around.

Former Disney animator Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron) made his first adaptation of the Tchaikovsky ballet way back in 1994 with The Swan Princess, starring Michelle Nicastro as the Princess Odette, Howard McGillin as Prince Derek, and Jack Palance as the evil Lord Rothbart.

That debut turned into a mostly direct-to-DVD franchise for Nest Family Entertainment, which quickly followed with The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain (1997) and The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom (1998). Then, after a 14-year hiatus, they came back with The Swan Princess Christmas (2012), The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale (2014), and The Swan Princess: Princess Tomorrow, Pirate Today (2016). All of the Swan Princess sequels tend to fall in the same made-for-young girls ages 2 through 8 range. The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is no exception. But it is exceptional by comparison.

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