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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 And don’t worry about outdated cultural jungle stereotypes.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 SERGEANT YORK (1941) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Biopic
Not rated (would be PG)

Hollywood legend Gary Cooper won two Best Actor Oscars: one for his performance in High Noon (1953) as a marshal facing a showdown on the day of his marriage to a Quaker pacifist, and the other for his portrayal of a real-life conscientious objector who became an American war hero in Sergeant York. And Cooper plays York with the same kind of aw-shucks naiveté as he gives Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, a film he would make the following year.

Based on Alvin C. York’s personal diary, this 1941 black-and-white biopic was made to inspire a nation near the start of America’s involvement in WWII. But it also helped to fund an interdenominational Bible school—the main reason a reluctant York finally agreed to let Hollywood dramatize his life story and WWI heroism for the big screen.

Typical of biopics from the period, Sergeant York is wholesome, folksy, sentimental, and moralistic. But with director Howard Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo) behind the cameras, it’s also an example of compelling narrative storytelling.

Mostly set in an impoverished backwoods corner of rural Tennessee, Sergeant York spends four-fifths of its 134-minute run time showing how York, a hard-working mama’s boy, went from being a frequent hell-raising drinker to a born-again Christian opposed to killing. Like Daniel Boone, who recorded one of his exploits on a tree near the York homestead, York is a crack shot and crafty outdoorsman, and early in the film he disrupts a church service by shooting his initials into a tree.

A young but still raspy-voiced Walter Brennan plays the pastor, while Joan Leslie (Yankee Doodle Dandy) is the love interest and British actress Margaret Wycherly plays the taciturn mother who stands by her boy no matter what he does. When the announcement comes that all young men are expected to go to Europe to fight and Alvin says, “Maw, what are they a’fightin’ for?” She replies, “I don’t rightly know. I don’t rightly know.” But she knows he has to go fight, no matter what his newfound religion tells him. More

Review of THE IPCRESS FILE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Spy drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman, a name familiar to Bond fans because it was Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli who gave us Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. But don’t approach this one thinking it’s a cousin to the slightly campy and always sexy James Bond adventures. The Ipcress File has more in common with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), because it offers a more realistic view of spies and also prominently features brainwashing—a term credited to Edward Hunter, who in 1950 wrote about mind-control techniques that China used on American prisoners of war.

By “a more realistic view of spies” I mean that there are no exotic locations, no scantily clad women willing to do anything for their country, and no physical conflict, really, until we’re some 30 minutes into the film. Before that there’s a little sleuthing and surveillance and a lot of trying to find one’s place in a new post of assignment.

Based on Len Deighton’s novel, which came out the same year as The Manchurian Candidate, this 1965 film is rated #59 on the BFI list of 100 greatest British films. Instead of the peppy and campy action in the Bond films, Saltzman and director Sidney J. Furie (Iron Eagle, The Appaloosa) chose to play it low-key, concentrating instead of unique shots and camera angles to keep viewers interested.

Harry Palmer (a young Michael Caine) is assigned to investigate a series of kidnappings of leading scientists who turn up eventually with their minds completely erased. Somewhere along the way Palmer finds a clue—the word “Ipcress”—and it leads him through a tangled web of deceit, double agents, and spies keeping tabs on other spies. The latter, in fact, was something that Ian Fleming described as commonplace in the early days of Cold War spying, and it feels authentic here. But as a result of all this truth-in-spying, the pace is considerably slower than a Bond film. Takes and scenes are longer as if to suggest real time. More

Review of P.J. (1968) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
Crime drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The pandemic has prompted most major studios to delay theatrical releases and slow down the production of home theater titles. Since Covid has made shut-ins of us all, big studios have released fewer films new to Blu-ray and DVD and more titles that are rereleases in the relatively new ultra-HD 4K format. But not Kino Lorber. They continue to remaster lesser-known older films for Blu-ray that feel like pleasant surprises when you watch them.

P.J. is a good example of that. This all-but-forgotten 1968 private detective film—which has never before been released on VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray in the U.S.—has one foot in the hard-boiled PI genre, and another foot in the groovy sixties that inspired Mike Meyers to poke fun of the decade in his Austin Powers spy spoofs. In fact, there’s a club scene where two female go-go dancers do their go-go thing in a gigantic martini glass, swirling and shimmying around like a couple of human olives, and that scene feels as if it could have been shot for an Austin Powers film. Oh behave!

The music seems straight out of Austin Powers too, so fans of that parody will enjoy seeing where the inspiration came from—not this film precisely, but films like it that were produced during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Yet P.J. is also strongly evocative of other neo-noir PI films from the period, like Harper, Klute, Tony Rome, Night Moves, and the Robert Mitchum version of Farewell, My Lovely.

George Peppard (TV’s The A-Team, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) plays a down-but-not-out New York PI who takes a bodyguard job because it’s preferable to getting his legs broken by loan sharks and mob bosses. The Korean War vet is hired to protect the mistress (Gayle Hunnicutt) of the rich and powerful (and shady) William Orbison, played against type by the rotund Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, Ironsides). What P.J. doesn’t know is that the job isn’t just dangerous—somebody has already shot at her—it’s also a set-up. Who wants her dead? Who’s behind it all? Who’s using him as a pawn? And why does Orbison flaunt his affair in front of his wife, even forcing his wife to meet the “other woman”? More

Review of CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+/B-
Western-horror
Not rated (would be PG)

A week ago, if you had asked me to name a Western that bridged genres and included vampires, I would have said, “I know, I know: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula!” That 1966 movie is famous for being so absolutely awful that it’s not even laughably bad—an insipid film that’s only known for the blending of genres that everyone thought unique. But a few days ago I became aware of another vampire Western—Curse of the Undead—and it turns out that this black-and-white 1959 film was really the first vampire Western.

What’s more—and here’s the shocker—it’s not a silly movie that takes itself seriously, thereby setting itself up for an audience that likes campy films, films that are wink-wink so bad that they’re kinda good. You need to know this, so you won’t look at the cover art and think, Oh, we’re going to have so much fun making fun of this rotten film. It’s not rotten and it’s not campy. Writer-director Edward Dein, who would go on to direct Robert Conrad in three TV series (Hawaiian Eye, The Wild Wild West, The Black Sheep Squadron), plays this absolutely straight. It’s a surprisingly good drama that treats vampires a little less like Universal monsters and more like what legend says they were. If it were shorter, it might pass for an episode of The Twilight Zone, and tonally it’s very much like the classic monster movies that Universal cranked out in previous decades.

To make the Western aspect work, it helps that one of the stars is Eric Fleming, who played Gil Favor on the highly respected Rawhide (think Blues Brothers!) TV series and also appeared in several episodes of Bonanza, that other long-running TV Western. In this vampire Western, Fleming plays Preacher Dan. Somebody has to have a cross, right?

One of the other stars is John Hoyt, who appeared in such TV Westerns as The Virginian, The Big Valley, Laredo, Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel, Maverick, Laramie, The Rifleman, Death Valley Days, and Union Pacific. All of those Westerns were popular because they were aimed at adults. They were serious dramas and not just Saturday morning formulaic shoot-‘em-ups.

In this film, even the vampire—Michael Pate—worked in TV Westerns that were played for drama, not laughs, including shows like Zane Grey Theater, Maverick, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Sugarfoot, and Broken Arrow. These guys knew how to play cowboys, and it’s both surprising and refreshing that the vampire in Curse of the Undead doesn’t transform into a bat, doesn’t say “I vant to suck your blood,” and doesn’t behave like he just got in from Transylvania. He looks and acts like the kind of gunslinger you’d encounter in the Old West: dark and menacing as a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike.

There’s always a ranch or town boss in a Western who’s the villain, but when there’s a vampire gunman in town any villain is going to seem soft by comparison—even someone like Bruce Gordon, who played Frank Nitti in the old Untouchables TV series and also appeared with Vincent Price in Tower of London. And there’s always a damsel in distress, a delectable morsel-in-waiting in every vampire movie. Here, the part is played by Kathleen Crowley, who was in her fair share of B movies and Westerns, including The Rebel Set, Target Earth, Female Jungle, and Maverick. More

Review of THE SECRET GARDEN (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Family Drama
Rated PG

There seems to be just one rule for adapting a classic of children’s literature: stay close to the book. It’s a wonder more filmmakers don’t follow that unwritten rule.

The Secret Garden is a case in point. The 1949 release starring Margaret O’Brien earned a 7.5 out of 10 from audiences at the Internet Movie Database, while a 1987 TV version and 1993 big-screen remake were equally popular (7.2 and 7.3, respectively). All three films were faithful to the book. But a 2017 steampunk treatment got the cold shoulder (4.5), and two 2000 faquels (fake sequels)—Back to the Secret Garden and Return to the Secret Garden didn’t fare much better, with scores of 5.7 and 5.3.

Is it any wonder that audiences tagged this 2020 “reimagined” incarnation with a 5.6 rating? The weight of audience expectation was dropped like a piano from a rooftop on an otherwise beautifully filmed version, most likely because it dared to change things a bit.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel followed a sickly 10-year-old girl who lived in India with wealthy parents that both ignored and spoiled her. Cared for by Indian servants, she awakened one day to find her parents dead of cholera and the staff long gone. Eventually she was sent to England to live with a hunchbacked uncle and his servants in an isolated mansion on the moors. As it happened, Archibald Craven had sealed off a private walled garden after his wife had died there. But Mary grew ever curious about the garden and also the cries she heard in the house at night. Eventually she found the key that unlocked the garden, hung out with the maid’s younger brother, and discovered a cousin she never knew she had, shuttered away in a hidden room because of a spinal illness that had kept him bedridden. He quickly became a diversion for Mary, who took him (secretly) to see the secret garden.

Writer Jack Thorne and BAFTA-winning director Marc Munden decided to mix things up a bit. They made the garden magical. Plants are ginormous, and far more tropical More

Review of THE GREY FOX (1982) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Western-drama
Rated PG

The Grey Fox is the kind of Western that holds some appeal for people who aren’t fans of the genre, because this independent Canadian film is about as far as you can get from the formula Western. Sure, there’s a little gunplay and a few robberies, but this 1982 film is a quiet Western, a character-based film—one that feels like a full-movie version of the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s a feature that feels every bit the indie film. There’s only the slightest bit of violence, sex, and language, with the focus on a grandfatherly figure that’s instantly sympathetic.

A number of revisionist Westerns—including Butch and Sundance, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, and The Wild Bunch—have embraced an elegiac tone and offered an aging hero who also stands as a symbol for the passing of a romantic Old West that’s now consigned to history. But The Grey Fox stands alone as a story that offers a character that’s stronger than the symbol he was meant to be. And it’s based on a true story, too.

Former stuntman Richard Farnsworth is compelling as the low-key, soft-spoken Bill Miner, who in Canada became as famous and oddly beloved by average people as Jesse James was south of the border. James robbed banks and Miner robbed the railroad—two institutions that were squeezing common people and were therefore resented. Miner was credited for first instructing people to put their “hands up,” and he became known as the Gentleman Bandit because of his politeness, gentility, and strict instructions that his men should never shoot or otherwise harm anyone. The Billy Miner Alehouse in Maple Ridge, British Columbiasd still celebrates this folk hero, not because he robbed from the rich to give to the poor, but because he only took from the hated Canadian Pacific Railway.

Writer John Hunter and director Phillip Borsos (who studied under Francis Ford Coppola) stay pretty close to the truthful parts of the Bill Miner story, choosing only to add their own bit of legend by giving Miner a low-key love interest (Jackie Burroughs) to match his personality—a strong, older woman who never married because she had other ambitions in life. More

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, which isn’t recommended for family viewing because of offensive outdated cultural stereotypes. 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? More

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