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Review of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Comedy-Horror-Mystery
Not rated (would be PG)

If your family enjoyed Knives Out, you also might be entertained by an early entry in the self-conscious light mystery genre.

In The Cat and the Canary (1939)—based on a 1921 stage play by the same name—comedian Bob Hope plays it mostly straight, an actor without the ham in this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a dash of horror. A year later, hitting the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope would develop his famous persona as a bumbling coward of a second banana to Crosby’s straight man, but in this one he’s less goofy and more believable as a love interest for Paulette Goddard. Hope is a considerably more suave and in control than later characters he’ll play, and as a result viewers find themselves focused more on the atmosphere and plot.

The Cat and the Canary was so popular that Hope and Goddard would team up for a second haunted house picture in 1940—The Ghost Breakers—and the sets and gimmicks from both films would provide the inspiration for Disney’s popular Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.

There are revolving bookcases, secret panels, and a Louisiana bayou mansion that wasn’t exactly prime real estate even before it fell into decrepit disrepair. Why would anyone visit now, especially when you have to be paddled there by various canoeists? As it turns out, all are relatives and named parties to attend the ceremonial reading of the will, according to instructions left by a reclusive millionaire who died 10 years ago. The deceased specified that his will must be read exactly at midnight, of course. One more thing: worried that insanity might run in the family, the eccentric recluse specified that the one bearing his surname (Norman) will inherit everything. But there’s a catch. If the named heir, Joyce Norman (Goddard), goes crazy before 30 days have passed, then a second replacement heir will be read from a second sealed envelope.

Kind of makes you want to run the other direction, right? Except that the canoe paddlers don’t operate late at night (they must have a strong union). But how else can you ensure that everyone has to spend the night in this spooky place?

Gale Sondergaard is delightfully creepy as the rich man’s housekeeper, and those summoned include two eccentric little old ladies (Nydia Westman, Elizabeth Patterson), two gentlemanly would-be suitors (John Beal, Douglass Montgomery), and a wisecracking actor (Hope) who shares a brief high-school past with Joyce.

It’s all very campy, and as Hope’s character reminds everyone throughout the film it features all the tropes of a theatrical or radio mystery, including a big black cat, an alligator-infested bayou that functions as a moat, hidden doors, flickering lights, secret passageways, hinged bookcases, a graveyard, a creepy hand that reaches out, paintings with eyes that move, and an escaped homicidal inmate from the local insane asylum. But I can tell you right now that the butler didn’t do it . . . because there is no butler.

It all adds up to some unexpected fun, and I say unexpected because this film came out in 1939, when the closest thing to family viewing was The Wizard of Oz. But if you’ve been to Disney World and the kids can tolerate old black-and-white films, this one makes for a pretty good evening’s entertainment. And don’t worry about jump scares. Compared to today’s horror-slasher films, this one is pretty tame.

Kind of like Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

Entire family: Maybe (though it might not hold the attention of really young ones)
Run time: 75 min. (Black and white)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some frightening situations)

Language: 0/10—The old movies are refreshingly clean-cut

Sex: 0/10—I don’t count a couple of innocent pecks on the lips

Violence: 2/10—The most serious thing a stabbing in the back, but it’s not graphically shown; apart from that, one person is found dead

Adult situations: Nothing really noticeable except for Hope’s character briefly lighting a cigar but then tossing it into the bayou (and an alligator’s mouth)—presumably the whole point of the joke

Takeaway: Keep your arms and legs inside the attraction at all times. And enjoy the ride.

Review of AGAINST ALL FLAGS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Adventure-Romance
Not rated (would be PG)

Hollywood made a lot of Westerns in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, but they also made a fair number of pirate movies. Against All Flags (1952) wasn’t one of the absolute best, but it gave audiences a rare pairing of Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara—both of whom had starred in swashbucklers before.

For Flynn, who first played a pirate in Captain Blood (1935) opposite Olivia de Havilland, his best swordplay was behind him. In Against All Flags he’s less jumpy, calmer, mellowed a bit with age, and no doubt slightly slowed by his bad-boy partying lifestyle. Yet, in this film that only makes him interestingly more human and less of a cardboard Hollywood leading man. For O’Hara, who had appeared in Spanish Main costumers with Tyrone Power and John Payne, The Black Swan remains her slightly superior pirate pic, but she’s at her feistiest in Against All Flags.

Here are my Top 10 pirate movies, so you can appreciate where I’m coming from:

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)—A
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)—A
  3. Captain Blood (1935)—A
  4. The Sea Hawk (1940)—A-
  5. The Crimson Pirate (1952)—A-
  6. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)—B+
  7. The Princess and the Pirate (1944)—B+
  8. Treasure Island (1950)—B
  9. The Black Swan (1942)—B
  10. Against All Flags (1952)—B-

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Review of ORCA, THE KILLER WHALE! (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C
Drama
Rated PG

Orca: The Killer Whale! came out two years after Jaws and a year before the first Jaws sequel, so it would be natural to look at the poster art and assume we’re dealing with the same type of film. But they’re about as similar as a shark and a dolphin.

Jaws was a campy blend of adventure and horror tropes brought to the sea, with a storyline involving beach closings on the Fourth of July weekend and a hunt for a man-eating shark that was terrorizing swimmers. There was a logic to having a marine biologist paired with a shark hunter and the local police chief, and as the trio set off to kill the shark the film played out with the same kind of character attrition as we get in horror films—but with more character and relationship development.

Orca, meanwhile, takes itself way too seriously and tries to be a “message” film. It feels like a straight drama, intercut with sentimentalized footage of killer whales communicating. There are no jump scares typical of horror films (and Jaws), and no build-up of tension through music or any other means. It’s a fairly flat narrative boat ride from point A to point G, as in gee, this doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Set off the coast of Labrador, this 1977 film begins with footage of Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and his crew of two trying to capture a Great White Shark to sell to an aquarium. Never mind that the ship doesn’t seem equipped with a tank and support system large enough to accommodate a 10-foot shark. In this opening sequence they cross paths with two researchers studying Orcas, and as one of the researchers (Robert Carradine) falls into the ocean and looks like a goner, out of nowhere comes an orca that rams the shark and kills it. So what does Nolan do after witnessing this unselfish act from one of nature’s creatures? Naturally, he decides to reward such heroism by trying to capture the killer whale—despite being warned by lead researcher Rachel (Charlotte Rampling) that orcas mate for life and can be very vengeful if anything happens to their mate. More

Review of ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action-Adventure
Not rated (would be PG)

“Open Sesame!”

Who hasn’t heard that phrase before, or immediately recognized it as the voice of Ali Baba? For that we can thank French translator Antoine Galland, who in the 1700s added “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to One Thousand and One Nights. Over time it became one of the collection’s most popular tales, but it gets a revisionist spin in this 1944 color film starring Jon Hall, who’s best known to Baby Boomers as Ramar of the Jungle and the director-star of the campy ‘60s sci-fi flicks The Beach Girls and the Monster and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters.

In the original tale, Ali is a common woodsman who happens upon a thieves’ hideout, discovers the secret of gaining entrance, and sneaks a bag of gold coins. But his sister-in-law learns about it and forces Ali to reveal where he got the gold from, so his brother can follow suit. That brother is killed, but with the help of a slave girl Ali gets revenge and emerges victorious.

In this film version, Ali is the rich son of the Caliph of Baghdad who escapes being killed with his father after Mongols seize the kingdom. Ali is taken in by the thieves and becomes the adopted son of their leader, Baba. Instead of a plot revolving around thievery and wealth, Ali and his band are freedom fighters dedicated to killing the Khan (Kurt Katch) and retaking Baghdad for their people.

Though it’s the kind of solid-but-generic sword-and-sandal film that Hollywood loved to make during the Golden Age, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves also has a campy feel to it because of the presence of veteran character actor Andy Devine, who made a career out of being the Western hero’s sidekick and delivering comic relief. It’s hard to see his rotund frame in Arab garb and hear his familiar raspy high-pitched voice without thinking of him in buckskin as Jingles in TV’s Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, or Cookie from the Roy Rogers feature films. Others will recognize him as the driver in John Ford’s Stagecoach, but regardless, seeing him in a different costume adventure or seeing him for the first time is enough to make you smile. More

Review of THE PALEFACE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Over a 60-year film career, comedian Bob Hope starred in 54 features, but the former vaudevillian was also known for the USO shows he emceed from 1941-91, performing for American military personnel in times of war and peace. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1962 and also received the Medal of Merit from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson, the Medal of Liberty from President Ronald Reagan, the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton, and the Spirit of Hope Award (named for him) from the U.S. Department of Defense.

In other words, Bob Hope, who died at age 100 in 2003, is a national treasure. Since only one of his films (Road to Morocco) has been included in the National Film Registry, the public is dependent upon studios like Kino Lorber to preserve and release the old classics that are worth watching and rewatching. And The Paleface is a good one.

Of Hope’s films, the historical costume comedies are as much fun as the Road pictures he did with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. While The Princess and the Pirate is the best of the powdered wig era comedies, The Paleface is tops among the Westerns that Hope made. In it, we see Hope at the height of his career, both as an actor and as a comedian. The hard-working comic had appeared in four feature films in 1947, and a year later The Paleface teamed him with Jane Russell—the WWII pin-up “girl” who famously debuted five years earlier in Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw and had only appeared in one other soapy drama. Surprisingly, the two play well off each other, with Russell the straight man, of course.

It’s good to finally get this title on Blu-ray, though the timing is probably unfortunate. As monuments are being toppled and even Mount Rushmore has come under fire, this film’s title and treatment of Native Americans is racist—there’s no other way to put it. But this was the ‘40s, and all of America was thinking along the lines of what talented writer Frank Tashlin incorporated into the screenplay. No one thought anything of having just two Native Americans playing Indians and the rest played by Caucasians, and no one bristled when Native Americans were depicted as stern-faced chiefs (“How!”) or wacky medicine men. Wrong as we now know it to be, it was all part of the stereotypical humor of the era.

So where does that leave us? I personally think that it’s wrong to deny or erase history. Instead, America needs to own up to that history, and you don’t do that by burying it and forgetting it. America needs to learn from the past and learn to appreciate artwork and cultural artifacts from previous eras for what they are. You can enjoy a film for its performances and comedy and also be aware that what you’re seeing is no longer appropriate. And Hope’s historical comedies—the Westerns especially—are a good place to start if you want to teach your children about racism and racial stereotypes. They’ll find the films amusing, but then you can also talk about what you just saw and educate them on the reality of Native Americans in the U.S.

Hope plays “Painless” Peter Potter, who picks a peck of trouble when he pulls the wrong tooth and has to skip town. As he’s leaving, Calamity Jane (Russell) hops aboard his wagon following a shootout. She’s a government agent on secret assignment: discover who’s supplying weapons and explosives to the Indians and stop them before they start another war. And what better way to blend in than by joining a wagon train with a “husband” who’s as clueless as they come?

Even the violence (and that includes people shot to death) is played for laughs in The Paleface. Some of the gags involve several Indians clueless as Potter as well as laughing gas that Potter uses to numb patients, but the bulk of them revolve around his bumbling ineptitude and cowardice—especially compared to his rough-and-tough sharpshooting “wife.” There’s a surprising amount of character development in this comedy, which also stars American Indian actors Iron Eyes Cody and Chief Yowlachie, and frequent “heavy” Jeff York.

Hope often found a way to sing in his films, and in The Paleface he’s in peak form performing “Buttons and Bows,” which won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song. Mostly, though The Paleface is just good old-fashioned slapstick and one-liner fun, with a plot that’s strong enough to pull the whole wagon.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 91 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for hints of innuendo and comic violence)

Language: 0/10—Nothing here of consequence

Sex: 2/10—Women in pantaloons, repeated hints of romance, comic kisses and one passionate one

Violence: 3/10—All violence is comic, including fistfights, shootings, and running gags of being dragged by horses and the number of Indians killed by a proclaimed hero

Adult situations: 0/10—Nothing not already mentioned

Takeaway: Kino Lorber did an excellent job on the transfer, with crisp audio and Technicolor presentation sharp and vivid as can be. Would it be too much to hope for The Princess and the Pirate, Monsieur Boucaire or another Hope Western, Fancy Pants (with Lucille Ball) next?

 

Review of THE LAST VALLEY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Historical war-adventure drama
Rated PG

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that Shangri-La is never what it appears to be, because idylls are too close to idols and idles for comfort. Human nature always gets in the way of any Eden, and paradise seems always destined to be lost, as illustrated by this 1971 historical adventure-war drama.

Moviemakers were going different directions the year The Last Valley was released, with audiences latching onto tough-guy cops and P.I.s (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Shaft), racy literary adaptations (A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show), prostitutes (Klute, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), and the latest James Bond entry (Diamonds Are Forever). So The Last Valley was all but overlooked in America, despite its popularity in the U.K. and the pairing of Michael Caine (The Ipcress File) and Omar Sharif (Funny Girl, Dr. Zhivago).

Written and directed by James Clavell (To Sir with Love, also known for his novel Shogun that was made into a popular TV mini-series), the film raises a lot of questions about religion, war, and the very meaning and nature of existence. Mostly, though, it feels like an anti-war fable that grinds its gears toward the conclusion that conflict is futile yet, ironically, inevitable.

For an older film, it’s surprisingly compelling because it’s surprisingly fresh—well written and, except for a few melodramatic moments, superbly acted, with impressive location filming in Austria. Families who like the comedy Miss Congeniality will hardly recognize makeover artist Michael Caine decades earlier in this film as a captain who commands a group of mercenaries during Europe’s Thirty Years War. Superscript tells us at the film’s beginning that this 1618-48 war ravaged central Europe the same time as the plaque and was initially fought between Protestant and Catholic states in a deteriorating Holy Roman Empire. Then it became a fight for power and control, with wealthy noblemen and professional soldiers leading large armies of mercenaries from both religious sides as they spread across the countryside, destroying villages and raping and looting along the way. In effect, they put their religious differences on hold in order to pursue a common “bad”. A similar truce happens in The Last Valley. More

Review of ONWARD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Animation
Rated PG

So what happens to a “shire” when centuries of technology make magic obsolete, and the closest to it for modern-day elves and other residents in the city of New Mushroomton is some version of fantasy role-playing games? In Onward we find out, as a timid elf receives a time capsule present from his father, who apparently died of cancer years ago: a wizard staff.

Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is unimpressed, but older obnoxious brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who’s totally into role-playing games, is delighted that his father was also into wizardry. Then they read a letter that was part of the parcel and discover a “visitation spell” that can bring their father back for one day, so Ian can meet him for the first time. But what happens when unconfident Ian botches the job and brings back only Dad’s bottom half? The elves have less than a day to find a gemstone that, added to the staff, will be powerful enough to bring back all of their father.

That’s the premise of Onward, which is directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), and I found myself thinking of Back to the Future and Marty’s limited time to set things right, or else his family, the top halves of which are slowly vanishing on a photo he frequently looks at, will cease to exist. And of course there’s been no shortage of wizard-quest films with a single high-stakes prize the goal and all manner of obstacles en route, so Onward feels a bit commonplace in its premise and plotting. More

Review of EMMA (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Drama-comedy
Rated PG

Director Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 reincarnation of Jane Austen’s Emma feels like a throwback to early PBS series, where everything and everyone was measured, staid, proper, understated, ever-so-subtly clever, and wrapped in beautiful cinematic finery. In other words, Emma 2020 is for Austen and period costume enthusiasts who like their classics rendered in classical fashion, and that includes the speech (“Husband, comport yourself”).

When it comes to family viewing, the early 19th-century language can be a minor stumbling block, but so can the plot and characters. Emma Woodhouse isn’t the most likable person. A woman of means, she’s not desperate to find a husband to support her. Instead, like the bored young woman she is, she banters with servants and friends and keeps herself entertained by playing matchmaker—or matchbreaker, as the case may be. In this game, others are pawns.

But the thing is, the pacing is so leisurely and the camera so intimately focused on Emma’s non-verbal as well as verbal communication that a good 30 minutes passes before anything really happens. And one of the most interesting characters, Emma’s widowed father (Bill Nighy), doesn’t get as much screen time as fans might like. When our family tried watching Emma together, our college-age kids found it tough going. My wife and I, normally fans of costumed classics, also found it slow—something that, for me, was compounded by the sound mix on this Blu-ray release. Though the featured audio is the standard DTS-HDMA 5.1, most of the sound is dialogue on the center channel that feels contained rather than projected. Add that to the archaic language and British accents, and it can make the dialogue difficult to follow at times.

And this film is mostly dialogue and long lingering reaction shots, plus pastoral shots that showcase the English countryside where it was shot in Tetbury, Lewes, Wiltshire, Surrey, Godalming, Hitchins, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Cheltenham. Like PBS series and movies of old, this Emma is absolutely stunning to look at, and the costume and set design are every bit as eye appealing as the natural settings. More

Review of THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Rated PG
Adventure-Drama

Writer-slash-prospector Jack London penned his classic third novel, The Call of the Wild, in 1903, and the first of seven film adaptations and TV series was released way back in 1935. As a result, people think they know this dog story even if they haven’t read or seen it. What they typically know is that it’s a Yukon gold rush story involving a sled dog. Since the other well-known thing London wrote was “To Build a Fire,” in which a man freezes to death, they naturally assume The Call of the Wild is a sad movie.

And in places, it is. If you have family members who are especially sensitive to bad things happening to animals, this first feature from 20th Century since Disney acquired the movie division of Fox might not be for them.

Overall, though, The Call of the Wild isn’t another weepy Marley & Me or Hachi: A Dog’s Tale or Old Yeller. {Spoiler alert—skip to next paragraph] Dogs are mistreated and animals and humans die—but not Buck.

Buck is the dog whose epic/episodic journey we follow, from owner to owner and from the easy California life of a pampered pet to the harsh world of a sled dog learning how to survive in the wild. Buck is also regrettably CGI, and it takes some time to adjust to that and accept him as a character. From the moment we see him bounding around a judge’s mansion it’s painfully obvious that we’re not watching a real dog. There’s just something “off” about the movement or design. But you get used to it, and as director Chris Sanders told ComingSoon.com, the decision to go with CGI animals was pretty much made for them, because “you just could not safely put a real dog” into the dangerous situations the film depicts. That includes some pretty spectacular scenes.

Sanders also said, “In a situation where you’re using real dogs, you would have a number of dogs playing Buck. So you might have two, three, four or more dogs that are specialized in different behaviors standing in for Buck, which means you’d have a huge inconsistency with these characters. But the most important thing is that we wanted this character to act and to be a character; this is a fable about a dog. The human beings are characters that come and go in Buck’s life . . . .” More

Review of THE CAPER OF THE GOLDEN BULLS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)
Crime comedy-drama

Heist or “caper” movies surged during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, with no fewer than 40 of them made. The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Ocean’s 11 and The Pink Panther inspired remakes, and films like The Sting and How to Steal a Million continue to get a lot of love. But a forgotten heist film, The Caper of the Golden Bulls, deserves at least a little love.

Unlike today’s heist movies, there’s practically no violence in this 1967 entry that’s just been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Shot during the decade James Bond debuted on the big screen, Caper was made at a time when keeping it suave and clever was a priority. Russell Rouse had written the screenplay for Pillow Talk, and as director he brought a light touch to Caper, bolstered by a bright and cheery Vic Mizy soundtrack that came out of the “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” era but would be just as at home in an Austin Powers score.

Stephen Boyd (best known for playing Ben-Hur’s chariot-racing nemesis in the 1959 epic) stars as Peter Churchman, who’s no choirboy. But he’s still a heck of a nice guy. He and his fellow flyboys got into the bank robbery business after the war, but they’ve been retired and waiting out the statute of limitations so they can carry on with their lives without fear of discovery. Churchman owns a club in a small Spanish town and has a relationship with local law enforcement that will remind viewers of Casablanca. His old military pals are married, as Peter hopes to be. Then one of the gang—a “waif” the group enlisted because she had certain skills (Giovanna Ralli)—blackmails Peter so that he’ll agree to get the group together for one last job: to steal the jewels of the statues of the Virgins that have been brought to Pamplona for the Feast of San Fermin. More

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