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Review of BRINGING UP BABY (Criterion) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Comedy
Would be PG

The dictionary says the noun “screwball” is a baseball pitch or “a crazy or eccentric person.” Baseball may be listed first, but when it comes to the adjective it’s all about film:  “crazy, absurd—relating to or denoting a style of fast-moving comedy film involving eccentric characters or ridiculous situations.”

The dictionary probably should have added, “See Bringing Up Baby,” because Howard Hawks’ 1938 comedy starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, a leopard and a dog is widely considered the quintessential screwball comedy.

Screwball comedies became popular as people could see the light at the end of the tunnel that had been the Great Depression. Often the films involved a romantic couple from different social classes, with one of them a screwball. Plots revolved around an unconventional “courtship” that began as annoyance and ended with attraction. In that respect they’re the quintessential “opposites attract” movies as well.

Screwball comedies are characterized by a flipped social script that featured women as the pursuer and men as passive or befuddled objects of desire. Basically, it was a comic twist on the femme fatale moviegoers saw in the film noir crime movies of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Fast talk and overlapping dialogue were also characteristics of the screwball comedy, as were farcical situations, mistaken identities and misunderstandings, physical comedy, witty and fast-paced plots, and “out-of-uniform” comic situations. What’s more, the “meet cute” that’s become a standard convention in romantic comedies was pioneered by screwball comedies.

This one stars Katharine Hepburn, for whom the screenplay was written. Cary Grant was cast at the suggestion of director Hawks’ friend, the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Bringing Up Baby took four months to shoot, as production was frequently delayed because Grant and Hepburn kept cracking each other up. It was Hepburn’s first comedy, and when she struggled with the fast talk it made Grant laugh, and that made her laugh. They generate an off-the-rail runaway train energy that the best screwball comedies have, and their energy is contagious.

Highly regarded now—it’s #97 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time list—Bringing Up Baby bombed at the box office and ran for only a week after its Radio City Music Hall premier. Moviegoers just weren’t ready to accept dramatic actress Hepburn as a ditzy screwball. And she can be a lot to take.

As the elegant-but-oblivious heiress, Hepburn is the snowball rolling down the hill that gathers mass and speed and knocks poor nerdy paleontologist David Huxley on his rear end—numerous times. An absurd series of events drives the first act as we witness stranger Susan play David’s golf ball, then ruin his car while insisting it too was hers. All David wants is to influence an attorney representing a rich donor so his museum can get a million dollars (the stakes are high), but there seems to be no escaping Susan, as she seemingly turns up to thwart his every attempt. If she’s not tossing an olive on the floor for him to slip on, she’s swerving into a poultry truck and he’s covered with feathers. At one point, in typical farce fashion, David ends up wearing a woman’s nightgown and that lead’s to an improvised line that’s one of the film’s most famous.

Then there’s the matter of the leopard—played in this film by Nissa, who had been working in Hollywood for eight years. Trainer Olga Celeste was always just off-camera with a whip, and while Hepburn had to wear a special perfume to keep the leopard calm she was unafraid to work with the animal. Grant was another story. Most of the scenes showing him interacting with the leopard were shot with doubles. He was scared to death, and at one point Hepburn teased him about it by tossing a toy stuffed leopard through the roof of his dressing-room trailer. Antics involving a precious dinosaur bone, a leopard who responds to the song “I can’t Give You Anything But Love (Baby),” and George the Dog, who romps and plays with Baby, the leopard sent to Susan’s rich aunt (May Robson), become central to a plot that also features a not-so-tame escaped circus leopard.   

Will the animals and the silliness make up for the fact that Bringing Up Baby is a black-and-white film presented in 1.37:1 aspect ratio? One would hope so. It’s all a matter of adjustment. The more you watch it, the more you adjust to it. When our kids were little we had a 10-minute rule. They had to give a movie a fair chance by watching the first 10 minutes without complaint or distraction. More often than not, they managed to get into the film. And once kids get into this comedy of character and situation, they should find it entertaining.  

Bringing Up Baby remains a likable farce that showcases the talents of two huge stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s great to finally have it available on high-definition Blu-ray—especially in a Criterion Collection edition that preserves some of the original film’s grain and also includes a nice bundle of bonus features.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  102 min. (Black-and-white)
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  Digital Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Criterion
Bonus features:  B+
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated “Passed” (would be rated PG for adult situations and brief drinking, smoking)

Language:  1/10—“Jesus” and “crap” are about as raw as it gets

Sex:  1/10—The back of a woman’s dress is torn and her undergarments are partially exposed; Grant delivers his famous ad lib about turning gay “all of a sudden” while asked what he’s doing in a woman’s nightgown

Violence:  0/10—The closest thing we get to violence is a leopard-dog tussle where you can’t tell if they’re playing or fighting

Adult situations:  2/10—There is brief drinking and smoking

Takeaway:  Though Howard Hawks was known for his Westerns, he made two of the three most famous screwball comedies:  this one and His Girl Friday (1940); the man knew what he was doing

Review of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

Some twelve weeks after its theatrical debut, Raya and the Last Dragon is the third highest grossing film in the U.S., behind Spiral and Wrath of Man. With a domestic box office of $49.3 million and another $60.6 million international box office revenue, it’s exceeding expectations, and I’d like to suggest one reason why:  Disney animators always seem to up their game, and they did so again with Raya.

The martial arts swordfights in this 59th full-length feature from Disney are the most accomplished I’ve seen so far in the world of animation—presented at a speed you’d normally encounter in the best Ip Man, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan movies. Combine that with gorgeous backgrounds and character animations, and Raya and the Last Dragon is another solid effort from the House of Mouse—though the plot itself can seem a bit familiar.

Set in a dystopian fantasy world, Raya and the Last Dragon begins with the backstory of a fictional land (Kumandra) where dragons and people once thrived together until evil spirits (that look a bit like the smoke monster on Lost)terrorized the land and turned dragons and people to stone—except for some people and one dragon, who focused the magic she and other dragons had on a single gem. But you do the math: one gem and five tribes? Of course they fight over it, and the pieces are eventually scattered among those tribes. Hundreds of years later, the Druun return and wreak havoc on the now-separate sections of what was once Kumandra. Raya is the daughter of Chief Benja of the Heart tribe, while her once friend and now rival, Namaari, is the princess of the Fang tribe. But like any fantasy, the story itself seems more complicated than the visual action. Relax and enjoy this simple quest story, as Raya tries to find the last dragon, recover the jewel pieces, and defeat the Druun once and for all. Unless Namaari beats her to it.

Give Disney credit, though, for creating strong female characters without drawing attention to it, without adding a Prince or love interest, and for not making a big deal out of adding two more princesses to the merchandising Pantheon. Give them credit, too, for giving Asians and Asian Americans feisty princesses that look like them—even if Disney took a little flak (what else is new?) for not featuring enough South Asian actors among the voice talents.

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Review of MAMBO MAN (DVD)

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

Good art of any kind expands your world or your mind—often both. And films that show us a way of life, a way of perceiving life in another region or country can be more than fascinating. They can be instructional on a subliminal level. If you’re the kind of person who drives through a small town and looks in the windows of houses and shops wondering what it would be like to live there, the fictional Mambo Man is your kind of movie. And if you loved Buena Vista Social Club because it was awash with Cuban music, well, Mambo Man is your kind of movie too.

This 2020 Cuban film is full of fantastic images of life as it’s lived in in mostly rural Cuba, and the wonderful cinematography by Luis Alberto and Gonzalez Garcia is further enhanced by near-constant non-diegetic Cuban music that, along with several performances written into the screenplay, really capture the essence of life on this Caribbean island just 105 miles from Key West.

Edesio Alejandro and Mo Fini co-directed this film, which was shot mostly in the southeastern cities of Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba. Fini is the founding director of Tumi Music, which has produced more than 300 Latin CDs and videos, so it’s no wonder that music plays as much of a role in Mambo Man as the scenery and cinematography. Some scenes include live music performed by such legendary Cuban musicians as Candido Fabre, Maria Ochoa, Alma Latina, David Alvarez, and Arturo Jorge. The soundtrack features members of the Buena Vista Social Club—among them Grammy winner Eliades Ochoa, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Omara Portuondo, and many others that fill the screen with a rich tapestry of songs. More

Review of MY FAVORITE BLONDE (Blu-ray)

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

Comedian Bob Hope received a record five honorary Oscars and also has a record four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But those awards are dimmed by the Congressional Gold Medal he received, the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him, the Medal of Liberty he got from Pres. Ronald Reagan, the National Medal of Arts he received from Pres. Bill Clinton, the knighthoods he received from two Popes, and the honorary knighthood that Great Britain bestowed upon him. In fact, Hope has almost as many high honors as he does films—and he starred in 54 of them during a career that spanned nearly 80 years.

Yeah, you’re probably thinking, but are his films any good? For the most part, Hope’s films fall in the three-star category (out of four). And speaking of stars, five-star Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Hope with the Medal of Merit “in recognition of his wartime contributions to morale on the homefront as well as on virtually every war front.” Which is to say, besides entertaining the troops, as he did his entire life starting in 1941, Hope also starred in a number of wartime films that both entertained audiences and reinforced patriotic themes.

My Favorite Blonde is one of those WWII-era films. This 1942 black-and-white comedy features Hope in a familiar role: a vaudevillian who unwittingly finds himself in the middle of an adventure or intrigue. This time Larry Haines (Hope) and his trained roller-skating penguin Percy are headed for Los Angeles, where the movies want to sign the penguin—not his trainer. But that was before he ran into British secret agent Karen Bentley, or rather she planted a scorpion brooch on him containing the flight plans for 100 American bombers. Back then Americans weren’t as paranoid as they are now, but there was still a sense that a “fifth column” might be operating as underground spies in the U.S.A. German agents (led by screen veteran Gale Sondergaard) are in pursuit, and as irrational as it seems for plans for a European war to start out in New York City, move to Albany, then Chicago, and finally L.A., what entertains about Bob Hope movies is less the plotting than it is Hope’s character, antics, and interaction with a woman that he eventually gets—if Road picture crooner-crony Bing Crosby isn’t co-starring. More

Review of THE CROODS: A NEW AGE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Animation
Rated PG

They say you’re only tall or short compared to who’s standing alongside you, and the Croods seem a little cruder in The Croods: A New Age.

When this prehistoric family meets the Bettermans, who live a better existence that feels like a cross between the Garden of Eden and The Flintstones’ Bedrock, the Croods’ lack of couth really stands out. Kind of like the Clampetts in swanky Beverly Hills. In fact, what could have been a clever commentary on evolution instead becomes more of a familiar poor/rich, rural/urban comedy.

DreamWorks animators have produced another visual feast, with typically stellar animation. But, as is often the case with full-length features that come from big studios who don’t have a mouse and a history of animation evolution that traces back to the beginning of cartoon time, there’s something just slightly off.

It’s not a bad movie, mind you, and the kids actually will love this one because of the bright colors, the crazy characters, and the manic antics that tend to dominate. There are some fun creatures and thrill-ride sequences. But adults may find themselves trying to put their finger on what’s missing—what keeps this okay-to-good movie from being a truly good one.

Endearing characters? Maybe. I don’t know if it’s the way they’re drawn, the dialogue, or the way the actors were directed, but everyone seems to be overwrought this outing and there’s as much constant jabbering and conflict as there is in a typical Real Housewives episode.

Heart? Possibly. There’s a touching family-first love-who-you-are message embedded here, but sometimes the decision to DO EVERYTHING BIG AND LOUD AND MANIC short circuits the feelings that those messages are intended to create. The warm-and-fuzzy moment feels tacked on when everything else is 50 Shades of Crazy. More

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of TWINS (1988) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action comedy
Rated PG

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

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

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

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

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

Review of 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

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