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Review of THE PAPER TIGERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Action comedy-drama
Rated PG-13

If your family loved Cobra Kai—or even The Karate Kid films that preceded the popular TV series—and you’re looking for another martial arts offering that balances medium-intensity action, drama, and humor, you might consider The Paper Tigers. Yuji Okumoto, who appeared in the second Karate Kid film and also Cobra Kai, was the film’s producer.

This English-language 2020 martial arts film from director Quoc Bao Tran is as much in the tradition of old-guys-proving-they’ve-still-got-it tradition of films like Space Cowboys (2000) and Old Dogs (2009) as it is the kung fu movies. But don’t fear, younger viewers, there’s young martial arts action too. It’s just that the focus is on three middle-aged men whose bodies have seen better days. In other words, this isn’t your typical Asian martial arts film, though it does have an almost obligatory memorable fight scene.

The Paper Tigers features three likable guys who are just that: guys. Too many martial arts films are all action with nothing but paper characters—kung fu wizards who do little more than kick, block, and punch their way through every scene. The heroes of this film are Everymen, real flesh-and-blood people who just happen to have bonded in the youth when they were “The Three Tigers,” as their master dubbed them. One of the characters happens to be African American and the other two Asian American, but all three are treated as people because “at the end of the day, we wanted to tell a fun, entertaining story that depicted our experience honestly,” Tran told the media.

One character, like Scott Calvin in The Santa Clause, is a marginalized dad who’s just trying to stay relevant in the life of his son. Another has moved comfortably beyond the life they once had together and is just fine with who he is, while the third has a body that’s in training for an upcoming season of My 600-Pound Life.

The plot is pretty straightforward. After their old master is murdered, Danny (Alain Uy as Danny Eight Hands, the former leader of The Three Tigers), and his best-friend Hing (Ron Yuan) reunite with Jim, the only one who still kept up with his kung fu and works as a trainer. All three are shown in flashbacks with younger actors portraying them so we can develop an appreciation for the relationships they once had. Seeing their lives now and then ought to be of interest to young viewers as well as older ones, because what young person doesn’t wonder at least once what their life will be like in the future, and what older person doesn’t look back? If at its heart The Paper Tigers feels a bit like Stand by Me—a nostalgic look back at the best friends we had when we were young and the things that bonded us—maybe it’s because Tran said the idea for the film came from his own experiences with friends who studied martial arts with him.

This is Tran’s directorial debut, and he does a nice job of balancing the drama and comedy and handling the action scenes. Some dialogue-heavy scenes might go on a bit too long and some reaction shots might also linger too much. Clichés also creep in, like the sneering no-nonsense rival of the Tigers or the disgraced martial arts student who seeks revenge, but Tran’s focus on the humanity and averageness of his characters wins out.  If you’re interested, now’s the time to check it out. As of today it was 40 percent off at Amazon: $17.90 instead of $29.98.

Entire family:  No
Run time:  111 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  16×9 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Well Go USA
Bonus features:  C+
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, offensive slurs, and violence

Language: 3/10—A smattering a cursing, including several f-bombs and the worst of all: the n-word, hurled in insult

Sex:  1/10—At a urinal one man looks at another, played for laughs and with nothing shown

Violence:  5/10—Medium intensity sequences of hand-to-hand combat, with comparatively little blood

Adult situations:  Brief realistic scenes that briefly feature smoking and drinking, but no drunkenness

Takeaway:  This is that rare martial arts movie about average guys, not fantastic superheroes who seem to exist in a world apart from our everyday reality

Review of THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE (2-Movie Collection Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Comedy
Rated PG-13

The Brady Bunch was one of the very last squeaky-clean family sitcoms in the old ’50s mold, airing as an anachronism of sorts during the Vietnam War years amid the chaos of Civil Rights, women’s rights, and anti-war protests. But in the Brady household, father Mike, a working architect, was still king of the castle with a den all his own, while his wife, Carol, was a stay-at-home mom who had the luxury of a servant. The children got into all sorts of minor conflicts and mischief, but none of the storylines tackled serious parental concerns of the day. Everything was sibling rivalry and innocent mix-ups. Drugs? Not here. Peer pressure to smoke? Only briefly. Teen pregnancy? Oh behave! And while other teens from the time were raiding their parents’ liquor cabinets, this group was content to raid the cookie jar. No one got into really serious trouble, and there was usually a lesson to be learned . . . from dad. When he wasn’t around, there was always mom or Alice, to help them find their way. The theme song explained the premise:

“Here’s the story . . . of a lovely lady
Who was bringing up three very lovely girls.
All of them had hair of gold, like their mother,
The youngest one in curls.

Here’s the story . . . of a many named Brady,
Who was busy . . . with three boys of his own.
They were four men, living all together,
Yet they were all alone.

Till the one day when the lady met this fellow,
And they knew that it was much more than a hunch
That this group would somehow form a family,
That’s the way we all became the Brady Bunch.”

First telecast on Sept 26, 1969, the show was a surprise hit, no doubt because it felt like comfort food to Americans who snuggled together during a turbulent era to watch and relive happier, more uncomplicated times. Divorce was becoming a widespread phenomenon for the first time, and the show about second-chance family life probably struck a chord with broken families. Plus, the range of the Brady children’s ages (7 through 14, when the show began) was broad enough for a wide range of youngsters to identify with. Airing on Friday nights, the show connected especially with children too young to have a social life, or, like the Bradys, too awkward and introverted.

The Brady Bunch never finished in the Nielsen Top-30 and never won any Emmys, yet the show became a cultural icon. During the first year of COVID-19 it was common to see people posting Zoom shots of their families that mimicked the show’s opening.

All cultural icons are ripe for parody, and The Brady Bunch Movie (1995)went right for what made the TV show distinctive:  its retro wholesomeness. Both The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel (1996) poked fun of how squeaky-clean out-of-touch-with-the-times this family was, and how others around them were astounded by their collective naivete. People look at the Bradys as if they were aliens, and it’s the discrepancy between Brady values and current values that’s the source of much of the humor. There are also plenty of spot-on Brady highlights in the films, like Marcia getting hit on the nose with a football, Jan dealing with “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” middle-sis blues and inventing imaginary boyfriend George Glass, Greg and Marcia sharing an attic space (and a few uncomfortable but still wholseomely depicted “feelings,”) Cindy’s speech impediment and attachment to her Kitty Carry-all doll, Bobby’s “detective” work, those “groovy threads” and the Brady kids’ singing, and that inexplicable gigantic horse statue that anchored the main entrance to the Brady house.

The casting and costume design are also a highlight, with Gary Cole nailing all the Mike Brady mannerisms and dadisms, Shelley Long rocking the Carol Brady hairdo, Christine Taylor a dead-ringer for the original Marcia, Jennifer Elise Cox having fun with the Jan role, and Olivia Hack as Cindy, with the boys played by Christopher Daniel Barnes, Paul Sutera, and Jesse Lee Soffer. 

Betty Thomas—familiar to TV Land as Sgt. Lucy Bates in Hill Street Blues—directed the first Brady movie parody, while Arlene Sanford, whose directing credits include Desperate Housewives, Ally McBeal, and Boston Legal, directed the second film. The sequel takes the family to Hawaii (yes, the bad-luck Tiki makes an appearance) and also borrows a plot from the old James Garner-Doris Day film Move Over Darling, about a missing-and-presumed-dead husband who returns to complicate life. Henriette Mantel even does a pretty good Alice impersonation.

Though both films pull down PG-13 ratings, they’re still clean enough for most kids who’ve watched the old TV show, especially given the content of most movies today. The innuendos will fly over most young kids’ heads.

Entire family:  Yes (but see below)
Run times:  90 min. each
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Paramount
Bonus features:  n/a
Trailer 1
Trailer 2
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for racy innuendo (tongue-in-cheek) and some drug content

Language:  2/10—None of the Bradys swear, but there might be a lesser profanity or two from background characters

Sex:  4/10—Lots of innuendo, and in the second film older teens Greg and Marcia find themselves fighting an awkward physical attraction to each other—nothing shown, just silhouettes behind a screen, no worse than It Happened One Night

Violence:  2/10—Nothing much here except for a come-uppance punishment or two

Adult situations:  4/10—There’s all that innuendo and Carol finds herself with two husbands, but mostly it’s the clash between wholesome Bradys and the world of 1995-96

Takeaway: You don’t absolutely have to have seen the original TV series to enjoy these films, but you’d be doing your children a favor if you had them watch at least a few episodes of The Brady Bunch on one of the streaming platforms; after all, a parody is funnier when you get all the references

Review of MINARI (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Drama
Rated PG-13

Minari, a film in Korean and English, earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Youn Yuh-Jung and nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Score. Youn, a legendary actress in the Korean film industry, plays a grandma who travels from Korea to Arkansas at the request of her daughter, who is having a hard time adjusting to her family’s move from California.

In California, Monica (Han Ye-ri) and husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) were on track to pay off debt by “sexing chicks” and separating males from females. But Jacob wanted more for her and their children Anne (Noel Cho) and fragile young David (Alan S. Kim), so he moved the family to Arkansas to sex chicks for an outfit that also gave Jacob an opportunity to start his own farm specializing in Korean vegetables. 

Leisurely paced, lyrical, and stylistic kin to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, this film hit close to home for the director. Lee Isaac Chung grew up as the young son of Korean immigrants who settled on a small farm in rural Arkansas, and there’s a truthfulness that quietly percolates beneath the surface of Minari—the name of a plant also known as Korean watercress or parsley that the grandma decides to plant on the banks of a nearby creek.

“Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds, so anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful, wonderful!” the grandma Soonja tells David.

Director Chung had said he initially wanted to make a film adaptation of My Antonia but found that avenue closed. He then decided to make a film about his own upbringing in rural Arkansas.

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Review of FINDING FORRESTER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Drama/Comedy
Rated PG-13

J.D. Salinger wrote three books, then disappeared into Howard Hughes-style oblivion and inspired at least two films.

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character shakes a Salinger type (James Earl Jones) recluse out of his inertia, paranoia, and humanity-avoidance in order to satisfy the voices in his head that also told him to build a baseball field.

In Finding Forrester, aspiring 16-year-old writer Jamal Wallace ends up finding the all-time greatest mentor when on a dare he climbs through the window of a “ghost” who had been watching him and his friends play basketball and, scared off, leaves behind a backpack containing his writer’s notebook.

In a case of life imitating art, Rob Brown showed up for tryouts as an extra on this picture by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) hoping to earn enough money to pay his cell phone bill. But Van Sant liked what he saw and cast him as Jamal, who soon after that break-in finds his backpack tossed out on the street and his writer’s notebook marked up and critiqued by the older writer. On one page he sees a handwritten scrawl, “I want to support this writer.” And so begins a mentorship between Jamal and famed writer William Forrester that will benefit both parties.

It’s kind of refreshing to see African American youths in their lower-income neighborhoods playing basketball and going to school and hanging out without there being any hint of violence or gang activities—the kind of cinematic clichés that have befallen films having to do with residents of “the hood.” The only f-bomb in this PG-13 film comes from an old white man (Sean Connery as Forrester), and the worst behavior comes from uppity adults associated with the private school that recruits Jamal after his test scores expose him as a bit of a genius. It’s refreshing, too, that none of Jamal’s neighborhood friends resent him for transferring to a private school and, ultimately, playing for a championship that’s televised.

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Review of THE MARKSMAN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Action thriller
Rated PG-13

From the first scene where an aging Arizona rancher (Liam Neeson) stumbles onto a cartel “situation” and ends up with a bag full of money, to a scene that’s the equivalent of the Coen Brothers’ “coin toss scene,” The Marksman feels like a cheap knockoff of No Country for Old Men.  And with a little Hunt for the Wilderpeople added for good measure.

What cheapens it isn’t Neeson’s performance, but rather a formulaic approach to ticking off the boxes rather than concentrating on creating characters and relationships with any individuality or depth.

For one thing, first-time director Robert Lorenz spends too much time in the early going just establishing a few facts that could have been hinted at more subtly: 

—Jim Hanson was a Vietnam War veteran who earned a medal for marksmanship

—Jim Hanson is lost and lonely because his wife died of cancer

—Jim Hanson is going to lose his ranch unless he can come up with a lot of money to pay for back mortgage payments

The film is also marred by characters that push past stereotypes into caricature country.

Javier Bardem has nothing to fear from the cartel bad ass that Lorenz gives us here. Mauricio—called “Heffe” and played by Juan Pablo Raba—is too cartoonish to be chilling. He’s just a bad guy who sneers a lot and stares a lot in lingering close-ups. Oh we believe him when he says he’s going to kill the old rancher who drove away with the son of a Mexican woman he already killed at the border. And we believe he’s determined to recover the drug money that the boy’s (now deceased) uncle had taken from him and given to his (now deceased) mother. But Bardem as Anton Chigurh was a one-and-done, just as Heath Ledger’s lizard-tongued Joker was a one-time affair. Try to duplicate it and you’re doomed to fall short.  

The film’s most chilling scene is actually understated. After a brief shoot-out at an isolated stretch of border fence, Jim takes off with the boy Miguel (Jacob Perez), whom he was asked to take to relatives in Chicago in exchange for the contents of the bag. Later in the film, Jim (and the audience) think they might be in the clear when the bad guys try to follow them into the U.S. and pull up at a customs station. Heffe’s driver rolls his arm so the border agent can see his tattoo. When the officer asks to see a passport and is handed a stolen passport of a Anglo-American woman whose likeness is about as far removed from a Mexican male as it gets, we expect such arrogance to be rewarded with detainment or containment . . . especially when the officer calls for the back of the vehicle to be searched. Yet after a token search of the cargo area and an “All clear,” the officer waves them into the country. Welcome to the U.S.

Yikes. Of course the cartel drug trade is so lucrative and large that they would have U.S. law officers on their payroll. But you don’t think about it until you see a scene like this.

Though The Marksman is billed as an action thriller, it’s almost a head-snapper when a vehicle explodes and dramatically flips, because you find yourself thinking that aside from frequent shooting there isn’t as much action as you’d expect. There also isn’t as much growth or depth to the relationship between the crusty old man and the boy as we saw in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or even the relationship between Clint Eastwood’s grumpy old white guy and the Hmong teenager he befriended in Gran Torino. It’s almost as if the screenwriters didn’t know what to do with the old man and boy once they got them in the car together. Same with a subplot involving Jim’s stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), a border agent that really doesn’t seem to do much.

But what Lorenz and co-writers Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz get right is the third act. It’s not just Jim who finds redemption in the end . . . it’s the filmmakers as well. And no, you’ll get no spoilers from me. Is the ending enough to make up for that plodding and excessively (and redundantly) informational first act or the sense of missed opportunities that dominate the second? Probably not. Fans of Neeson will embrace this as another go-it-alone high-stakes maverick venture along the lines of the Taken trilogy or Cold Pursuit, but if they’re honest with themselves The Marksman doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Entire family:  No
Run time: 108 min. (Color)
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Universal
Bonus features:  C-
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and brief strong language

Language:  5/10—One f-bomb and a dozen or so lesser swearwords

Sex:  0/10—No sex, no nudity

Violence:  7/10—Shooting, shooting, and more shooting; people get shot, several at close range, and blood is shown often; some violence happens off-screen

Adult situations:  6/10—Jim drinks often and carries a flask, but it’s not clear whether he’s passing out from the alcohol or tiring because of his age

Takeaway:  Qui-Gon Jinn once said, “Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts,” and you can’t help but wonder how much better this film might have been had it veered more sharply away from Hollywood formulas

Review of ONCE UPON A RIVER (DVD)

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Grade: B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief nudity and adult elements)

Thus far in her career, Chicago-born musician-actress-filmmaker Haroula Rose is probably best known for her soundtrack contribution to American Horror Story and her involvement as an associate producer for Fruitvale Station. Like the latter, her first directorial feature, Once Upon a River, also tackles a serious subject and endemic problem.

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, with one out of six women the victim of an attempted or successful rape. Youths between the ages of 12 and17 are the most vulnerable. Fifty-five percent of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s home, and it isn’t usually “stranger danger”. More often it’s a friend of the family, a neighbor, or even a family member. And in an average year, it’s estimated that there are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 million runaway and homeless youths in the U.S.

So yeah, this film deals with serious subjects that can be especially relevant for American teens and their parents. While it treats the material in a frank way, there’s nothing gratuitous or sensationalized. Maybe that’s because Once Upon a River has a strong female presence, both behind the camera and onscreen. In addition to directing, Rose wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell and also shared a producing credit. The film was shot by cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby (Hair Wolf), the production design, set decoration, costume design, and makeup were all done by women, and the casting director was also a woman. Onscreen, New York-trained actress Kenadi DelaCerna carries the film with her strong presence as a biracial 15 year old—younger than her usual range.

NPR called the novel’s main character, Margo Crane, “the most realistic underage runaway in modern fiction,” and that’s true for this 2019 film adaptation as well. Margo has been raised by her Native American father (Tatanka Means), who gave up drinking the day the girl’s mother left them to “find” herself (which people were doing in the sixties). The film is set in 1977 in the small fictional town of Murrayville in rural Michigan, where prejudice against Native Americans and the class inequity are apparent. Margo appreciates her father and the skills he taught her—she carries around a book about Annie Oakley and has become a crack shot herself—but she clearly misses having a mother in the house and like any teen wants more than life is currently giving her. 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 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 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

Review of THE LADY EVE (Criterion) (Blu-ray)

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

When BBC Culture unveiled their list of 100 greatest comedies of all time, screwball comedies fared pretty well. Topping the list was Some Like It Hot, the Billy wilder comedy produced more than a decade after the subgenre’s hey-day. But Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby turned up at #14 and #17, and closely behind them at #19 was Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve—a 1941 screwball comedy just released on Blu-ray by Criterion.

It’s an enjoyable film, but not one that I would rate so far ahead of It Happened One Night (#28 on the BBC-Culture list) or even The Philadelphia Story (#38). The film rolls along at a brisk pace for the first two-thirds. Lady Eve is the serpent in this farce about a card sharp (Barbara Stanwyck) aboard a cruise ship who sets her sights on a well-known ale heir (Henry Fonda) who just happens to be a snake researcher. But then a third-act dinner party scene goes on too long, a lost snake is all but forgotten, and Lady Eve bounces back and forth between love and revenge so abruptly you’d swear she was under a spell. Then, just as abruptly, the film rushes to an ending with a last line clever enough to rival the most famous last line in cinema (“Nobody’s perfect,” from #1 comedy Some Like It Hot).

Screwball comedies are typically farces revolving around a courtship, pursuit by a member of the opposite sex, or divorced couples still playing games with each other. Film noir has its femme fatale, but the screwball comedy version is more benign, causing the male levels of distress but nothing that can’t be overcome by the end of the film. Screwball comedies are also characterized by clever, fast-paced and often overlapping dialogue, and more often than not they include implied social commentary involving the classes (rich vs. middle class). Some films, like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, are fast-paced enough and with a plot gimmick (escaped convict, escaped leopard) that make them best suited for family viewing. Others, like The Lady Eve, are driven by a spider/fly plot and a screwball femme fatale that make it still fun but a little more sophisticated. More

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