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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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Review of HEIDI (2015) (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 111 min., Color
Family
Not rated (would be G)
StudioCanal
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German), Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Walmart exclusive

Victorian-age literature is full of orphans. Dickens’ gave us David Copperfield, Pip, and Oliver Twist; Twain created Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; L. Frank Baum introduced readers to Dorothy in his Oz books; and Rudyard Kipling wrote about Kim and Mowgli. But the literary orphan who lived the most satisfying life was probably Swiss writer Johanna Spyri’s character, Heidi.

Since 1937, when Shirley Temple played the little Swiss orphan who bounces from place to place in picturesque Switzerland and Germany, there have been more than 20 different film and TV adaptations. But no one captures the spirit of the original 1881 children’s novel better than director Alain Gsponer and his team of German and Swiss filmmakers.

Shot on location in Germany and the Swiss Alps, this most recent and faithful adaptation—available exclusively at Walmart—does the most spectacular job of exploiting the scenery and Heidi’s natural capacity for unbridled joy. With a feel-good default that tends to rub off on most of the people around her, Heidi is a bit like a later American orphan made famous because of the Disney film by the same name: Pollyanna. But instead of playing a “glad game,” it’s Heidi’s positive attitude, helpful nature, and ever-present smile that win her friends. Then again, when your journey goes from living a rather idyllic existence in the Alps with your goatherd grandfather, then boarding with a rich German family in Frankfurt in order to keep their invalid daughter company, and finally back again to be reunited with Grandpa, it’s easier to stay positive than if you’re Dickens’ heroes slogging it out in the dirty and dangerous disease-filled streets of London.

The Alpine scenes in this StudioCanal film are a feast for the eyes, and Heidi is family-friendly with just one disclaimer: the film was made in German with English subtitles, so you have to do a bit of reading or else watch in dubbed English. That might not prove to be too big of a negative, since younger children accustomed to partially animated cartoons probably won’t be bothered by words and lips slightly out-of-synch, and children old enough to read well may find this version of Heidi the perfect first subtitled movie to tackle. It’s an easy-paced film with mostly short exchanges rather than long monologues, and none of the characters talks very rapidly.

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MAMA’S FAMILY: THE MAMA’S FAMILY FAVORITES COLLECTION (DVD)

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mamasfamilycoverGrade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes, but…
1983-1990, 910 min. (37 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G-PG)
TV comedy
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Mama’s Family was a spin-off of “The Family,” a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show starring Burnett and Harvey Korman as a married couple saddled with Burnett’s character’s outspoken and overbearing mother, played by Vicki Lawrence. Lawrence donned a wig and spectacles and, as was typical of the sketch comedy to come out of Burnett’s weekly variety show, the character she played was more of a caricature. The sketches themselves were less realistic than they were the stuff of community theater, but those sketches were popular enough to prompt Burnett’s ex-husband, Joe Hamilton, to back a TV movie titled Eunice, which led to Mama’s Family.

With Burnett and Korman only making guest appearances, Lawrence drives the comedy with her over-the-top rendition of a feisty old woman who drinks beer from the can and juggles homespun quips and insults with equal ease. She’s not the only caricature, though, and the situations in this sitcom are so “sketchy” that I’m tempted to call it a sketchcom instead.

Mama’s Family placed as high as #28 its first season, but viewership dropped off so abruptly in Season 2 that the show was cancelled and revived in syndication, with four more seasons of episodes created. During the show’s six-year run (1983-1990), it earned two Emmy nominations—both for costume design—and won once. During that same period, sitcoms like Cheers, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, The Wonder Years, and Murphy Brown took home most of the awards.

This six-DVD set is a highlights collection, and NOT all episodes from the show’s six seasons. It features Lawrence’s favorite episodes, though her favorites don’t always match up with fan favorites as listed on a number of fansites.

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THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (Blu-ray)

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eaglehuntresscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes, if reading age
2016, 87 min., Color
Sony Pictures Classics
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Kazakh DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Like most 13-year-old girls, Aisholpan likes to paint her nails and hang out with friends. Though she enjoys school and wants to be one of the best students, like a typical teenager she also has a dream that’s more far-reaching.

But Aisholpan Nurgaiv is far from typical. She was born into a family of Kazakh nomads, who break down their tents and relocate based on the time of year, as 30 percent of the population does. She and her family live in the most isolated part of one of the most remote countries in the world—Mongolia—where the terrain is rugged and school is so far away that the children must stay in dormitories during the week, only returning home on the weekends. That leaves plenty of time for hanging out with friends . . . and dreaming.

eaglehuntressscreen1If your children aren’t averse to watching documentaries with subtitles, I can’t think of a better one for family movie night than The Eagle Huntress, a G-rated inspirational film that has a lot going for it: exotic setting, gorgeous cinematography, a likable teenage protagonist, a special father-daughter bond, and a natural dramatic arc that’s the result of Aisholpan’s very specific dream. She wants to become a golden eagle hunter like her father and grandfather, and his father and grandfather, and their fathers and grandfathers. It’s an all-male party she’s trying to crash, but what makes this film heartwarming is that she has the support and encouragement of her family.

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ANTARCTICA: ICE AND SKY (DVD)

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antarcticaiceandskycoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but….
2015, 89 min., Color/B&W
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: French/English Dolby Digital 5.1 w/subtitles
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Claude Lorius is a glaciologist. Over a 60-year career he has participated in more than 20 polar expeditions—not only to study glaciers and glacial movement, but also to drill deep down into their near-timeless cores to analyze the ice from different time periods. What they reveal is fascinating, and one of the film’s memorable moments comes when we’re taken into an archive of core-drill ice samples all stacked in rows on shelves according to samples dated by their air bubbles—some of them going back 800,000 years. Lorius began his study of glaciers in 1956 as a 23-year-old man, but as early as 1965 his research was telling him something disturbing. Long before the polar caps began to melt, Lorius was predicting that they would because of the appearance of so-called greenhouse gasses in the ice samples he was taking, and the way those gasses altered the composition of the ice.

There’s no denying that the work Lorius does is fascinating science, unless you’re a U.S. politician who denounces anything that gets in the way antarcticaiceandskyscreen2of the economy. But it’s not very compelling as drama. Antarctica: Ice and Sky, a film by Luc Jacquet that closed the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is a treatise on global warming that’s frankly dull in spots. The dialogue is overwritten and often stilted, and there aren’t enough shots of Antarctica in HD—with far too much of the film relying on grainier archival footage from earlier expeditions. What Lorius and others do may be fascinating as scientific research, but so much of that research is repetitive and the progress so glacial itself that there isn’t anything close to a dramatic structure to be found here.

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PINOCCHIO (1940) (Signature Collection Blu-ray)

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pinocchiocoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1940, 88 min., Color
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Pinocchio is both a classic and underrated Disney film, if that’s possible. The follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took animation down new paths, but was a box office disappointment and somehow never had the same appeal for successive generations as the princess and animal movies. Maybe it was because Walt Disney pushed his animators to create something a little darker in his second full-length animated feature. Or maybe this cautionary tale about what happens if a boy misbehaves was just a little too obvious. “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face,” the Blue Fairy says, and of course everyone’s familiar with the wooden nose that gets longer with every fib.

pinocchioscreenBased on the 1883 children’s novel by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio is nothing more than an extended fable about behaving well or else turning into a jackass (literally). In this story, old world woodcarver Geppetto sees a wishing star and wishes for his carved marionette to become a real boy. Enter the Blue Fairy, who waves her wand and brings Pinocchio to life, but tells him he will remain wooden until he proves himself brave, truthful, and unselfish. “Now remember,” she tells him, “be a good boy. And always let your conscience be your guide.”

Disney’s 1940 version is as episodic as the original book, with the first 24 minutes devoted to introducing Geppetto, his cat Figaro, goldfish Cleo, and a vagabond cricket named Jiminy who is given the job of being Pinocchio’s conscience. Jiminy is a great little singer. Voiced by a popular ukulele strummer named Cliff Edwards, the little cricket gets to warble the song that will become the Disney theme: “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Jiminy isn’t much of a conscience, but if he had done a better job there would be no story to tell.

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