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Review of TOP SECRET! (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Comedy
Rated PG (but more like PG-13)

In 1987, when I interviewed David Zucker—one of the trio responsible for inflicting non-stop gags on movie audiences in such zany satires as Airplane! and The Naked Gun— Zucker, brother Jerry, and Jim Abrahams were basking in the success of Ruthless People. But they were also thinking a great deal about what made Airplane! a run(a)way success and wondering why Top Secret!and their short-lived Police Squad TV series weren’t as popular with audiences.

Cult favorite
“The problem with Top Secret! was that the story wasn’t strong enough, even though the jokes were probably funnier than Airplane! or Ruthless People, and many of the scenes were far more clever,” Zucker said.  “We were very much in tune with the jokes, but the characters weren’t very well-developed. We just used them to spout these jokes. The other thing is, it really wasn’t a readily identifiable concept.  The idea of a rock ‘n’ roll singer who goes to East Germany to fight what seem to be Nazis is kind of an esoteric concept. It was surrealism, and intended to be surrealistic”—which is why Top Secret!, though not a mainstream hit, has achieved a kind of cult status among comedy fans who relish the trio’s mind-boggling juxtapositions and the way the actors somehow manage to maintain deadpan faces as they deliver those deliciously funny lines. As Zucker explained, “With our style, the writers are the funny characters. When people watch our movies, they’re aware that somebody had to write this stuff.”

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Review of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES / DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN! DOUBLE FEATURE (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+
Mystery-Horror
Rated PG-13

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), are cult films—but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re not suitable for family viewing. In the case of this double feature—available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber—there’s far less violence, sex, and jump-scares than in contemporary horror films (see the trailer). But these are definitely cult classics, which is to say that they’re not mainstream popular.

For me, a cult classic is defined by a string of “usuallys”:  Usually it’s a low-budget B-movie, one that courts in-your-face difference and has an air of scandal or controversy about it, often with acting and a script that make you wonder if it’s unintentionally bad or bad for the purpose of being campy. Rarely is a cult film deadly serious, but most of the time there’s a “weird” factor. In part they’re also defined by their audiences, who celebrate “getting” the film when others don’t, and whose embrace can be exuberant, if not obsessive.

When it was first released, Dr. Phibes nudged viewers toward a cult film mindset just by featuring Vincent Price, who had built up a following as the star of campy director Roger Corman’s B-movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe horror stories. Price’s silky villainous voice and stage-actor mannerisms in those films had already earned him cult status—something that would continue throughout his career, whether he was featured in The Brady Bunch Hawaii episodes and the beach-party film Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, embraced by Tim Burton for two films (Vincent and Edward Scissorhands), enlisted by Michael Jackson (“Thriller” song/video) and Alice Cooper for musical gigs, celebrated in song by Deep Purple and ZZ Top,or parodied on The Simpsons and SNL.

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Review of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13

Well, it’s out: Spider-Man’s identity and the film that almost wasn’t, now available on home video.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) almost didn’t happen because of corporate greed, but ironically ended up making more money than ever for Sony and Marvel-Disney, who couldn’t come to an agreement over future Spider-Man movies. Fan backlash sent them back to the negotiating table, and the resulting sequel to 2019’s Spider-Man: Far from Home became the highest grossing Spider-Man film and sixth-highest grossing film of all time.

No Way Home also got the highest ratings from critics and fans on Rotten Tomatoes, with 93 percent of critics and 98 percent of audience members loving it—better, even, than fan favorite Spider-Man 2 (2004) featuring Doc Oc.

See? Good things happen when you play nice and listen to fans. But it’s next to impossible to keep a secret from them. Word leaked that somehow previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would be involved.

Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers had taken inspiration from It’s a Wonderful Life, where a wish provided the basis for the plot and a domino chain of revelations. Far from Home ended with Spider-Man’s identity exposed and reputation destroyed. The writers decided to have him do what any young and still immature adult would do: wish it away. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to use his magic to make everyone forget Spider-Man’s identity so things can return to normal. But because he keeps tinkering with the spell by adding people he wants to still remember him—girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei)—the spell goes awry. The multiverse breals open, and visitors good and bad enter his universe.

McKenna and Sommers wrote the screenplay before Maguire and Garfield even agreed to participate. But their wishful thinking paid off. Fans have debated who’s the best, as they have with Bond actors. Dropping all three into the same film was pure genius—and it’s not just fan-candy or a curtain-call film. There’s actual chemistry among the three, and it’s fun seeing them not only work together as superheroes and compare powers, but also reference their own films.

There’s consistency, too, because Jon Watts—who directed the first two films starring Holland—is also behind the camera for this one. The light touch that’s been a part of his sensibilities is here in triplicate, and that’s good news for families. When the tone is light and there are moments that spark laughter, it tends to balance the fantasy-adventure violence and traumatic moments, sending a message to young viewers that this is first and foremost a fun ride. Enjoy it. Although a beloved character does die and there’s some blood, stabbing, and serious punching, the “reunion” aspect of former villains and heroes entering the current Spider-Man universe takes a little off the edge of the violence.

No Way Home earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects, and apart from a sequence involving power lines in a forested area that looks very much like it was shot using miniatures, I can see why. The complicated Tetris-like shifting of the urban landscape completely suggests a universe that is fracturing, and the portals that lead from one universe to the next are rendered convincingly. The film’s budget was estimated to be a whopping $200 million, but the opening weekend box office alone was $260 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Just one question:  When a superhero fall, lands, or finds their footing again, is it deliberately campy that every single time they assume that low-crouch, one-hand-on-the-ground superhero pose? And how long will it take Disney to realize that they can build a fun theme-park attraction for fans if they have people take turns assuming the pose in front of a green screen so they can see themselves in a finished shot with background added?

Entire family:  No (age 8 and older?)
Run time:  148 min.
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Columbia Pictures/Pascal Pictures/Marvel Studios
Bonus features:  B
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language, and brief suggestive comments

Language:  2/10—A few of the characters use the “s” word and there might be a few other lesser profanities, but no f-bombs

Sex:  1/10—Chaste as can be, with a few kisses plus an instance where a man is shown from the torso-up saying “I’m butt-ass naked”

Violence:  6/10—Punching, pummeling, explosions, and superhero-villain battling, but not much blood except for one emotional scene

Adult situations:  2/10—Really, all Marvel Universe films are adult-world films that kids have been a part of since the comic books first appeared, but in this one there are no drugs and the only scene that has anything close to drinking is an end-credit scene set in a bar

Takeaway:  The ending sets up fourth film, but thus far nothing is in pre-production

Review of MARRY ME (2022) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+/B
Romantic comedy
Rated PG-13

If you and your family are suckers for feel-good romantic comedies that follow the rom-com formula to the first 10 digits of pi, you might think about adding Marry Me to your home video collection. This far-fetched but cute 2020 movie pairs a low-key junior high math teacher with a pop superstar that’s way out of his league. 

How far out?

Jennifer Lopez plays the sexy performer Kat Valdez, who is known and loved worldwide, while Owen Wilson is meek and nerdy math teacher Charlie Gilbert, the custodial single parent of a junior-high age daughter named Lou (Chloe Coleman). The idea of a romance between a celebrity and an average person no doubt stems from those happily-ever-after fairy tales about commoners marrying a prince . . . or beauty marrying a beast. Here Wilson is the common “beast,” and that’s not just me throwing shade. There are more than a few jokes in the film about the disparity in their looks and appeal.

Instead of a “meet cute” there’s a “marry cute.” Charlie reluctantly agrees to go to a Kat Valdez concert with his best friend/co-worker (Sarah Silverman) and daughter to prove he’s a cool dad. It’s the hottest ticket in town, as the whole world is talking about the hit song that Valdez made with Latinx heartthrob Bastian (Maluma). At this concert, in front of 5000 fans and 20 million people watching on TV, the couple will perform the song live and then get married onstage.

But as Parker hands Charlie her “Marry Me” sign to hold while she takes a few photos, everyone in the room begins gasping and looking at their phones. They’re looking at film of Bastian “canoodling” (we have to bring that word back!) with Valdez’s assistant. Ouch. Valdez not only stops the concert; she talks about breaking patterns and taking a leap of faith. Seeing Charlie in the first few rows with his “Marry Me” sign she declares, “Yes. I’ll marry . . . YOU.”

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Review of WEST SIDE STORY (2021) (4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-
Musical
Rated PG-13

In 1961, the average American couldn’t go to see a Broadway show. But they did go to movie theaters in droves, and West Side Story was a blockbuster of a movie that surprised audiences with gang members who danced and sang in an updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in then-contemporary New York City and featuring two warring gangs instead of feuding families. The Robert Wise-directed film received 11 Oscar nominations and won 10 of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress.

So why would anyone even consider remaking a film so lauded and beloved? On one of the 90 minutes of bonus features on this 4K/Blu-ray release, Spielberg provided an answer—several of them.

First, Spielberg said he was not remaking a film. He was making a second film version based on the 1957 Broadway play. He reasoned that if West Side Story has been performed all over the world with different casts, why couldn’t there be a second film version?

Second, he was personally motivated. Spielberg said West Side Story was the first Broadway music he was exposed to at age 10, and that he basically “commandeered” the album his parents had bought. He loved it, and it spawned in him a love of musicals. As a result, Spielberg said that all his life he’s wanted to make a musical version of West Side Story.

A third and most compelling reason didn’t come from Spielberg. It came from my college-age daughter, who, since the film’s release, has been re-watching it and playing the songs constantly. She and many of her friends liked the music and some of the dancing from the first film version, but they weren’t exactly crazy about the characters or the narrative.

Enter Spielberg, who pinpointed the biggest difference between his new film version and the original:  the 1961 film was a hybrid—part cinematic and part theatrical. He wanted to create a film that was more fully cinematic, and to do that he had to push it away from the theatrical and make it more realistic. He had to push it away from the moist-eyed spotlight solos sung in private or in closed spaces and open it up to where they were sung with active movements (and reactions) on the streets of New York. He also added small touches of realism throughout the film and created a narrative based on logic rather than the limitations of stage.

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Review of BELFAST (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A/A-
Drama, comedy
Rated PG-13

I love movies. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. It was that way in 2018 when I first saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and it happened again a year later with Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Now I feel the same way about Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and it makes perfect sense: Belfast feels like a cross between those two films.

Like Roma, Branagh’s film is a loving, artsy, cinematic tribute to his home city. Filmed for the most part in black and white to feed the nostalgia, it begins in color with spectacular shots of Belfast that put to shame anything a tourist bureau could pay an advertising company to design. And soulful, start-to-finish songs by Van Morrison—arguably Ireland’s best export since pubs—help to create the deeply profound outpouring of love you feel when you watch this film.

Like Jojo Rabbit, this 2021 film also manages to combine a serious topic with humor and quirky, endearing characters—a feat accomplished, in part, because the story is largely told from the point of view of an exuberant nine year old who doesn’t quite understand everything that’s going on. There’s a boyish fantasy, an imagination at work here too that suggests the amalgam of cultural images that’s rattling around inside his head and helping to shape his world view. That’s evident just from looking at the covers of the Blu-rays, with Waititi’s and Branagh’s young boys soaring above the ground like figures in a Marc Chagall painting. Buddy’s world view is also influenced by pop culture, including American Westerns that the boy watches with extended family—intended by Branagh as a thematic and structural parallel.

In Belfast, our first glimpse of Buddy (Jude Hill) is of him playing in the streets with the other kids as parents watch or dance in the street to a phonograph record. Some children are jumping rope or playing soccer, but others, like Buddy, are having a mock battle, with Buddy wielding a homemade gladiator-style sword and garbage-can lid shield. That play gets real really fast, as a gang of Protestant thugs shows up at the end of this cul-de-sac neighborhood—one Branagh depicts as loving and communal—and starts hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks, bashing windows, and threatening people. So much for nostalgia. So much for an idyllic childhood, as Buddy needs to be rescued by his mother (Caitríona Balfe), who uses his shield not for play but to protect both of their heads from rocks and missiles.

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Review of GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) is the kind of film that unapologetically panders to fans of the franchise. Dedicated to the late Harold Ramis, this fourth incarnation features nostalgia-inducing cameos by stars of the original 1984 smash hit:  Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver.

That original cast appeared in a slightly disappointing 1989 sequel, but was absent in the polarizing 2016 all-female reboot starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife seems aimed at an audience of both fans who have felt like the franchise owed them one and fans of child-centered mystery-drama-adventures like TV’s Stranger Things or the newer Jumanji films.

So who ya’gonna call to direct a heavily nostalgic picture that aims to please both old and young viewers? How about Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking), son of Ivan Reitman—the man who directed the first two Ghostbuster films.

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Review of CRUELLA (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Comedy-Drama
Rated PG-13

I did not expect to like Cruella as much as I did, because the two previous times Disney tried live-action versions of the popular 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians they produced doggie doo. That’s not just my opinion. While the original animated film got a 98 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close as villainess Cruella De Ville earned just a 41 percent rating, and the 2000 sequel did even worse (31 percent).

But RT critics awarded this new origin story Cruella a 74 percent “fresh” rating, while 97 percent of the audience gave it high marks. After watching it, I can see why. It’s smartly written and full of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. Emma Stone has fun with the titular role without going over-the-top campy—and that’s a tough tone to pull off. Close didn’t even come close.

Stone received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and it was well deserved because of the pressure she faced. Essentially Cruella—like Disney’s Maleficent before it—is similar to a superhero origin story. As the lead performer goes, so goes the film.

Disney is trying to tell the stories of their villains with some sympathy, but isn’t that a risky business? Disney villains are notorious and gigglesnort popular because they are villains of a gigantic sort. Maleficent was the fourth highest grossing film of 2014, and Cruella was 15th in 2021 box office revenue. Since Maleficent was also a bit more sinister than Cruella, might that account for the difference? Do audiences still prefer villains to be more villainous than misunderstood?

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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.

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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.

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