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Review of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Adventure
Rated PG (but see below)

Rudyard Kipling adventures have always been popular with Hollywood and its audiences. The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, Soldiers Three, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Wee Willie Winkie, and Kim were a part of every youngster’s coming of age in the last half of the 20th century. But filmmakers ignored Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King until the legendary John Huston took up the challenge in 1975.

Maybe that’s because “The Man Who Would Be King,” one of the stories published in Kipling’s The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (1888), is a little more adult than this film’s PG rating would suggest. The heroes are amoral at best, and in addition to adult situations there are a few grisly elements.

If your family saw and enjoyed The Road to El Dorado, that 2000 animated adventure was also based on “The Man Who Would Be King,” but softened for family audiences. This feature from the director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and The Misfits stays pretty close to Kipling’s original tale.

The story follows the exploits of two former British soldiers who had fought in India and Bharat and now crave adventure more than a return to England, retirement, or respectability. They’re rogues, really, who seem nice enough yet don’t give killing a second thought. They’re also motivated by greed and self-interest—not exactly the kind of heroes that Hollywood gravitated towards. But the anti-hero that had become popular in the late ‘60s paved the way for audiences to watch Peachey Carnehan (Sir Michael Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Sir Sean Connery) with fascination, if not admiration. More

Review of THE OPENING ACT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG-13)

As a college English professor I’ve run across a surprising number of students who want to be stand-up comics. Some of them started a comedy club on campus, some did open mics in local comedy clubs, and one even asked for my opinion on a stand-up routine he was filming to send to an Ivy League school for his grad school admissions essay. Even if they’re not aspiring to grab the microphone themselves, college students love stand-up—which is why so many comics do the college circuit. So a passionate movie about stand-up comedy ought to be a hit with college and high school students who have secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions of being a stand-up comic.

The Opening Act is also plenty fun for the rest of us who have no plans to quit our respectable jobs, as Ken Jeong did (he was a doctor), to become stand-up comics. But as you watch how passionate everyone is about stand-up you begin think, on some level, maybe I could do this too—and that’s because this 2020 film feels like a love letter to stand-up comedy. It’s written and directed by stand-up comic Steve Byrne, it stars stand-up comic Jimmy O. Yang, and all but four of the remaining cast members are stand-up comics. Even guys playing a heckler (Butch Bradley), a cop (Tom Segura), and a taxi driver (Felipe Esparza) are stand-up comics. The only pure actors among the rest of the cast are Debby Ryan (The Suite Life on Deck), Jackie Tohn (GLOW) and two minor roles. Surrounded by so much comedic talent, I can picture them trying to pick up pointers, as The Opening Act‘s main character does throughout the film. More

Review of THE FLINTSTONES: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Blu-ray)

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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 TWINS (1988) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action comedy
Rated PG

Bodybuilder turned actor turned governor Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as a straight-up action hero in most of his films, but he also appeared in four comedies: The Kid and I (2005), Jingle All the Way (1996), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Twins (1988). Of those, two are stinkers and the ones shot within two years of each other fall into the category of guilty pleasures—though audiences that first saw Twins in theaters weren’t feeling guilty at all. Twins grossed $216 million worldwide and provided Schwarzenegger and co-star Danny DeVito with a financial windfall, as the two had agreed to take 20 percent of the profits in lieu of their usual fees. Twins was also popular enough on home video releases that a sequel—Triplets—is now in preproduction.

The comedy’s basic premise easily could have been one that drove a sinister conspiracy film instead: research doctors seeking to create the perfect human recruited a woman to father a child that was the DNA-engineered product of six men. When the baby was born, doctors were surprised that the embryo had split somehow and a second baby followed. One (Schwarzenegger) had all the desirable elements of the six fathers’ DNA, while the other (DeVito) was the product of genetic leftovers.

The mother (Bonnie Bartlett) was told her baby died in childbirth, when really the boy had been shunted to a tropical island to be raised by one of the scientists. And the other? He was given to an orphanage, and turned out to be as the nuns predicted: a small time criminal whom you could most likely find in jail.

The plot starts in motion when the scientist raising the near-perfect Julius finally tells him about his brother, and Julius instantly sets out in a rowboat across the ocean to find him some 30 miles away in L.A. Meanwhile, our introduction to brother Vincent comes when we see the diminutive balding man with a pony tail rolling out of a second story window after the husband of a woman he’d been sleeping with came home unexpectedly and caught them. Apparently Vincent had seduced a nun when he was 12 and has had some sort of power over women ever since—which is harder to believe than the film’s basic premise. Get past that, though, and the plot plays out with the kind of light amusement you’d expect from a guilty pleasure, with a surprising amount of action involving two sets of bad guys that are after the twins. Some of them are loan sharks, while others are thugs hired to deliver some illicit merchandise that is inadvertently “detoured” by Vincent.

Twins relies on the contrast between brothers for its humor and interest. Julius has the kind of strength (and body, which we see bare-chested several times) needed to protect his ne’er-do-well brother, but Vincent has the street smarts. Not surprisingly, there’s a double character arc, with one brother so naïve that he has to learn about the basics of life (including sex), and the other so cynical and unscrupulous that he has to learn that family and people in your lives are worth being good for. Chloe Webb and Kelly Preston play two sisters that share the twins’ journey, and fans of old TV Westerns will also enjoy seeing an older but fit-as-Arnold Hugh O’Brian as one of the twins’ fathers. O’Brian played Wyatt Earp and still looks like he could handle whatever bad guys might jump him. More

Review of MULAN (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Action-Fantasy
Rated PG-13

When it comes to live-action remakes of Disney animated films, there are two types of people: those who want a near-exact copy of the original, and those willing to accept the live-action version as a completely new work of art and entertainment. And people who expect Disney to remain faithful to the 1998 original aren’t loving this 2020 remake of Mulan: Where are the songs? Where’s Mushu? Where’s the cricket? Where’s Shang? And what the heck is a witch doing in this story?

Yeah, about that: Disney opted to go the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon route, with an emphasis on mysticism and the fantastic in a film that showcases martial arts action sequences, along with a heaping portion of qi. It’s not exactly new territory for them. Disney-owned Miramax rolled out Hero in 2002 just two years after Crouching Tiger changed the landscape for martial arts movies. As in Hero, the fight sequences in Mulan 2020 are gravity-defying and poetic in their movement and choreography, even if the fights themselves aren’t quite as spectacular as those you encounter in some of the best martial arts films. Which is to say, überfans of martial arts flicks aren’t loving this film so much either, because Disney likes to steer the ship right down the middle, aiming always for a general audience. The sequences are less violent and bloody so the film could earn a PG-13 rating.

The live-action villain, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) may not be as deliciously villainous as Shan Yu from the animated version, but his witch cohort, Xianniang (Gong Li), is menacing enough for both of them. She’s also a shape shifter who can break apart and reassemble into hundreds of bat-like flying creatures. The live-action Mulan (Yifei Liu) doesn’t have any cutesy animal companions, and there’s less suggestion of attraction between her and the Commander (Donnie Yen) than there was in the animated version. Otherwise, the plot remains essentially the same. When invaders threaten China, the Emperor decrees that every family should send one man to fight to save the empire. Poor old Hua Zhou, a military hero in previous wars, can’t even accept his orders without falling. So naturally his feisty daughter Mulan decides to take his place and leaves in the dead of night with his armor, his sword, and his mount. If she’s discovered, she’ll be put to death for not recognizing her place as a woman.

Mulan 2020 is directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), and the film’s feminist themes come across even more forcefully than they did in the animated version. Young Mulan is already a warrior-woman in the making when we first see her as a child fearlessly chasing a chicken across rooftops (chickens on the roof?) and using a staff with the prowess of former martial arts star Jet Li, who plays the Emperor of China in this version. Though the live-action Mulan has to endure the same embarrassing encounters with a matchmaker, at least her father acknowledges the warrior and qi (life force) within her. So off she goes—without his knowledge or blessing and without the comedic talking dragon and cricket—to train with other draftees and eventually fight the invaders. More

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

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Grade: B
Adventure
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 GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (1997) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Rated PG

Not long ago Disney Movie Club released an exclusive Blu-ray version of the live-action adventure-comedy George of the Jungle, and even if you’re not a member there are copies to be had on eBay—many of them reasonably priced and still in shrink-wrap

Popular when it debuted in 1997 ahead of the original Jay Ward cartoon’s 30th anniversary, George of the Jungle grossed close to $175 million worldwide. It features a rare blend of comedy: humor that appeals to kids, but also humor that’s clever enough for adults. Fans of the cult-classic ‘60s TV series will appreciate that director Sam Weisman got the tone and treatment right. It’s one the most entertaining live-action film versions of an animated TV series—though admittedly that’s kind of a backhanded compliment, given such feature-length disappointments as The Flintstones, Casper, Dudley Do-Right, Fat Albert, and Inspector Gadget.

Still, I wouldn’t pay attention to the 5.5 out of 10 rating that close to 80,000 readers gave it at the Internet Movie Database, and I’d ignore the 56 percent “rotten” critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Legendary reviewer Roger Ebert was more on the money when he pronounced George of the Jungle a three-star movie (out of four). As he wrote when it was first released, this live-action film starring Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) “tries for the look and feel of a cartoon,” with the results being that it’s “sort of funny some of the time and then occasionally hilarious.”

It’s true. George of the Jungle is amusing throughout, but then you get these surprise laugh-out-loud moments—so many that I’d have to say the film borders on being consistently funny. There are clever one-liners, pop-culture allusions, running gags, pratfalls and physical comedy (even a banana peel joke), and yes, some mild scatological humor. And don’t worry about outdated cultural jungle stereotypes. They’re met head-on, and it’s the “native bearers” and super-intelligent talking Ape who get the last laugh.

After an animated title sequence that features the theme song and establishes the backstory of how George came to be raised by apes—and is a little clumsy when it comes to vine-swinging (“Watch out for that tree!”)—the film switches to live action, melding Jay Ward’s original characters, theme song and concepts with the Tarzan/Greystoke legend. More

Review of ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A
Romantic comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Audrey Hepburn’s appeal was that she somehow managed to convey both innocence and sophistication—a girl-next-door who was oddly glamorous at the same time. Two films showcased that exquisite balancing act best: Sabrina (1954) and Roman Holiday (1953). Thanks to Paramount, which recently released the latter on Blu-ray for the first time, a new generation of movie-lovers can appreciate the performance that earned Hepburn her only Best Actress Academy Award.

Hepburn plays royalty in Roman Holiday, but there are other Hollywood “royalty” involved as well. Three-time Best Director Oscar-winner William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur) is behind the camera. Dalton Trumbo, the most (in)famous of the McCarthy-era blacklisted Hollywood 10, was responsible for the story and co-wrote the screenplay. Though uncredited, Trumbo won an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, and legendary costume designer Edith Head added another Oscar to her own mantle for her work on Roman Holiday. And while Gregory Peck wouldn’t win his Best Actor Oscar (To Kill a Mockingbird) for another 10 years, he plays off Hepburn memorably in this very different kind of romantic comedy.

If Roman Holiday were described as a high-concept film during an elevator pitch, it could best be summed up as It Happened One Night meets The Prince and the Pauper in Rome.

Hepburn plays Princess Ann, heir to the throne of a fictional European nation who’s wrapping up a tour with a visit to Rome. Absolutely fatigued and on the brink of a nervous breakdown, she yearns to be common, to live an ordinary life, to get away from all the obligations that accompany being a princess. So what does she do? There’s no one to trade places with, but she sneaks out anyway and goes AWOL for 24 hours. The complication: the doctor had just given her a shot to “calm her down,” and it makes her incredibly sleepy and gives her the appearance of being intoxicated.

Like Clark Gable’s newsman in It Happened One Night, Peck plays a journalist who stumbles onto a runaway “royal,” and like Gable’s newsman, once he realizes her identity, he schemes to write and sell an exclusive “personal” story, all the while being careful not to let her out of his sight . . . or to reveal his ulterior motive. Eddie Albert, of TV’s Green Acres fame, plays Joe’s best friend, a photographer named Irving, and together they attempt to document this escaped princess on her carefree one-day Roman holiday. More

Review of MR. TOPAZE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

The British Film Institute called Mr. Topaze “essential viewing for all Sellers fans,” and I agree. For one thing, I Like Money, as this 1961 film was later retitled, was the first theatrical feature directed by comedian Peter Sellers . . . and also his last, because he was so stung by its failure and critics’ barbs.

It’s of interest for that fact alone, but more importantly, Mr. Topaze gives viewers an interesting glimpse into an evolving dynamic between Sellers and actor Herbert Lom that began with The Ladykillers (1955) and continued with this film, The Pink Panther (1963), and four more Inspector Clouseau comedies: A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). Fans of those detective comedies especially will enjoy seeing Sellers and Lom play off of each other in Mr. Topaze as a kind of warm-up for their later rivalry as Clouseau and Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus.

Like Clouseau, Mr. Topaze is French, earnest, a little naïve and awkward, easily manipulated, slightly clumsy, seemingly feckless, and totally meek compared to most of the males he encounters. Topaze, whose prize possession seems to be a stuffed skunk he keeps on his desk, doesn’t have a commanding presence or one that inspires respect—not even among his students, who prank him without fear of repercussions. But he’s a genuinely nice guy with scruples, a dedicated teacher who loves his profession and hangs inspirational mottos all over his classroom—including one that cautions how money is a test of friendship. “I see you take my kindness for weakness,” he tells one of the pranksters. “I may look like a complete fool,” he says, “but I am not, I assure you.”

That’s debatable, of course. He leads the kind of quietly dull life that prompted James Thurber’s Walter Mitty to escape into fantasy. In love with the daughter of his school’s headmaster (Michael Gough), Topaze makes little headway, partly because of his personality and partly because of hers. As Ernestine (Billie Whitelaw, who looks a bit like Janet Leigh) tells her father after he learns that she got Topaze to grade a huge stack of her papers for her, “If I can find a man who’s fool enough to do my homework for me,” what’s the harm? More

Review of CRESCENDO (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

When this 2019 German film debuted at the Munich International Film Festival, the audience gave it a standing ovation. I’m not surprised. The film tells the story of a world-renowned German conductor who travels to Tel Aviv to assemble a youth orchestra composed of both Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a gestural stunt sponsored by a group whose next project involves a cause in Africa. But while the main message of Crescendo involves Israeli-Palestinian accord, a subtext is that all people ought to get along—including Jews and Germans, the latter whom, conductor Eduard Sporck suggests, should be forgiven for the sins of their Nazi parents and grandparents.

Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann) is warm and engaging as the fictional maestro who must work not only with the typical egos and attitudes of the artistically gifted, but also with two groups that hate each other and have stories in their families that reinforce and justify that cultural hatred. So while we see Sporck audition and rehearse his young musicians, a large portion of film time is devoted to his finding ways to broker peace, to break through the barriers with musicians at a retreat in Italy, neutral ground, rather than Tel Aviv, as originally planned.

Crescendo is multi-language, with spoken English and German and English subtitles. By American standards, it would be slapped with an R rating because an f-bomb is tossed near the beginning and again at the end. Only one is usually permitted for a film to slip into a PG-13 rating. But those two words, which come at emotional high points and are used for emphasis, are joined by only one other noticeable swearword in a film that’s otherwise PG.

If there are teens in your family who got hooked on the Australian TV-series Dance Academy, the few personal dramas that we get in Crescendo will seem familiar. There’s a romantic side plot featuring a Israeli French horn player named Shira (Eyan Pinkovitch) who quickly falls for a quiet and sensitive West Bank clarinetist named Omar (Mehdi Meskar), and there’s a competition side plot between the best Israeli violinist (Daniel Donskoy as Ron) and the best violinist from across the border (Sabrina Amali as Layla). The Palestinians’ families also appear, but for the most part Crescendo builds to its musical and thematic climaxes through Sporck’s efforts to bring them all together to work in both musical and metaphorical harmony. More

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