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Review of FLOWER DRUM SONG (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Musical
Not rated (would be PG)

I am not Asian or Asian American, so I’m not in a position to comment on what has lately been called “outdated cultural stereotypes” or “depictions.” But I can spot a song in this overlooked Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that feels more like it came out of South Pacific than San Francisco’s Chinatown, where this film version of the Broadway play is set. And I can look up who’s singing and see that, surprise, it’s the same woman who played Pacific Islander Bloody Mary in that earlier R&H musical. And that actress was of African and Irish American descent—not Asian American. 

Hollywood has a history of casting white. Marlon Brando as Japanese? That’s what audiences were supposed to believe when he played one of the leads in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). From 1957-58, TV’s The New Adventures of Charlie Chan featured Irish American actor J. Carrol Naish as the Chinese American detective. Of the 12 billed actors in The World of Suzy Wong (1960), only five in that “world” were Asian. In 1965, a remake of Genghis Khan replaced the laughably cast John Wayne from an earlier film with Omar Sharif in the title role—but Sharif was Egyptian. Even as late as 1980, British actor Peter Sellers starred as Fu Manchu in The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). All of which is to say, Hollywood may have experienced a come-to-Jesus revelation when it came to casting whites as Native or African Americans, but they have been much slower to do so with Asian roles.

So it must have come as a pleasant shock to audiences that Flower Drum Song (1961), apart from Juanita “Bloody Mary” Hall, featured all Asian actors in the main roles—especially since that same year Breakfast at Tiffany’s presented Mickey Rooney as a buck-toothed nearsighted Asian caricature worthy of a WWII propaganda film. Also to its credit, Flower Drum Song was based on a novel by Chinese American C.Y. Lee. But while the film gets one thing right—telling an Asian American story from an Asian American perspective and using mostly Asian American actors—it lapses into the kind of flat characterizations that tend to accompany any attempt at humor. Often, unfortunately, that translates into outdated cultural stereotypes. Veteran character actor Benson Fong, who was forced into that straitjacket when he played Charlie Chan’s “Number 1 son,” is called upon for such service. And an outdated and corny routine featuring the children ends up in a See, hear, speak no evil pose.

It would be tempting to say that such things account for why this R&H musical has been less popular and has had fewer productions mounted than any of the talented team’s other musicals. But frankly, aside from “I Enjoy Being a Girl”—an Ann-Margret-style number sung by Nancy Kwan—the songs themselves are forgettable and seem less integral, though the music earned one of the film’s five Academy Award nominations. Two long dream sequence numbers also seem to detract rather than add to any building momentum.

The plot of Flower Drum Song is a tamer variation of the bedroom farce. This was the Hugh Hefner era, and playboy nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo) has a thing for women in general and his spotlight attraction, Linda Low (Kwan), in particular—though Helen (Reiko Sato) has a thing for him. Complicating matters, Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her father (Ching Wah Lee) have stowed away aboard a ship from Hong Kong and arrive in San Francisco to announce that they are there to honor a marriage contract with Sammy that his mother had arranged. In Guys and Dolls parallel fashion, there’s also nice-guy Wang Ta (James Shigeta), who enters the picture when Sammy tries to get the marriage contract shifted to him by having someone approach his parents. Through a series of misunderstandings, Wang Ta finds himself needing to choose between the same two women as Sammy.

Flower Drum Song subtly tackles issues of immigration and assimilation, with one song, “Chop Suey,” devoted to America-as-cliché malapropisms as seen through the eyes of immigrants studying to become U.S. citizens. It’s a fun song, but who can remember the lyrics or the tune to be able to sing it later in the shower or while stuck in rush-hour traffic?

Ultimately, Flower Drum Song feels brave in what it attempts, and this film version is entertaining enough . . . as long as you don’t think about other R&H musicals like The Sound of Music, The King and I, Oklahoma!, or even South Pacific. Fans at Ranker.com placed this one ahead of State Fair, andI’d have to agree. If you consider the overall production, then Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head and Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage seem like the qualitative equivalents to Flower Drum Song.

Entire family:  Yes (but younger children will be bored)
Run time:  133 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features:  B
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some drinking and smoking)

Language:  2/10—I frankly didn’t catch anything, so the 2 is in case things slipped past me

Sex: 1/10—The trailer promises “tempestuous” lovemaking, but there’s really just an innocent kiss and embrace or two, and one character sleeps over after drinking too much to set up a misunderstanding (but nothing happens and nothing is shown)

Violence: 0/10—Nothing at all, unless you consider getting doused with ice violent

Adult situations: 2/10—a variation of the bedroom farce, but all very G-rated apart from some drinking and smoking

Takeaway:  Flower Drum Song may not be as solid as other R&H successes, but it also isn’t bad enough to be as ignored as it is; fans will be glad that Kino Lorber has released this Blu-ray featuring a brand new 2K master

Review of MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT? (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Romantic Comedy
Not Rated (would be PG)

When Man’s Favorite Sport? was first released, film critic and cinema snob Andrew Sarris called it “a complete waste of time,” and it’s been underrated ever since. Still, Man’s Favorite Sport? finished among the 25 highest grossing pictures of 1964, so average viewers liked it well enough. It was a simple and silly diversion at a time when the country was recovering from the assassination of President Kennedy.

It was also one of my favorite rom-coms that I watched growing up, so kids also liked it well enough. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, rom-coms were typically bedroom romps set in cities. Man’s Favorite Sport? takes place mostly in the woods by a lake, and the plot revolves around an Abercrombie & Fitch fishing expert that’s forced to enter the annual tournament at Lake Wakapoogee . . . though he’s a big fake who’s thrown many a line but never wetted one. The attraction for younger viewers—at least back then—were such non-rom-com gags as a black bear mucking things up (even riding a scooter at one point), inflatable waders that overinflate, a running gag about a toupee that looks alive, a campsite that floats away in a storm, and plenty of accidental fishing catches played for laughs.

Nearly 30 years after his quintessential screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks decided the first of three pictures he agreed to do for Paramount would be a broad romantic comedy that paid homage to his earlier classic. It would turn out to be the legendary director’s fourth-to-last film, and his last comedy. Although Rock Hudson is no Cary Grant (Hawk’s first choice), Paula Prentiss turns in a screwball performance worthy of Katharine Hepburn herself. In fact, she’s less annoying than Hepburn’s character and her deep voice and mischievous actions were a welcome change from the high-pitched, quasi-innocent Doris Day characters.

Prentiss plays Abigail Page, a PR director for a big resort on the lake, and throughout the film her sidekick is the resort owner’s grown-up daughter, “Easy” Mueller (Maria Perschy). From an opening meet-cute involving a car and a parking space that pays obvious tribute to Bringing Up Baby, the fast-talking, insecure, but determined Abby spends most of the film trying to help Roger Willoughby (Hudson) once she learns his secret . . . and trying to help herself to Willoughby in the process. Call her a more competent and less ditzy version of Hepburn’s character, while Hudson is a more befuddled and expressionless version of Grant’s exasperated character.

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Review of LUCA (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

Since Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006, the look and sensibility of the studio’s films have changed to the point where you have to read the credits to tell if it’s a Pixar or Disney film. Cases in point? Brave had all the earmarks of a Disney princess film set in Ireland, but it was produced by Pixar.  Coco (2017) and Encanto look like they were cut from the same cloth, but Pixar did the scissoring on the former title and Disney the latter. Wreck-It Ralph (2012) felt like a Pixar film, but it came out of Disney animation studios. 

Now we get Luca, a 2021 film that, under the direction of Enrico Casarosa, does for the Italian Riviera what Pixar’s Ratatouille did for Paris:  it celebrates the landscape and the culture in a loving tribute, while focusing on a duo that hides a secret and goes against the social grain. Fans of the 1984 live-action Splash—starring Tom Hanks as a young man who has a close encounter with mermaid Daryl Hannah—might also see a few similarities.

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Review of ENCANTO (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

While most of the country was complaining about COVID, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) had an amazing 2021. He directed the bio-musical tick, tick . . . BOOM!, co-wrote the screenplay for the film version of his college project In the Heights, and composed the music for Netflix’s Vivo and Disney’s Encanto. It’s the big-production soundtrack, songs, and visuals that wow you immediately in Disney’s 60th full-length feature. Awash with bright colors and vibrant music, Encanto is a celebration for the eyes and ears.

Maybe that’s why I felt the plot by comparison was less striking. It’s almost a Hollywood convention that something has to be done or the magic will be lost, whether it’s a teenage boy going Back to the Future to fix things or Encanto’s Mirabel needing to trust her premonition that the magic of the candle that created their living house that bestows special gifts on the Madrigal family will be lost unless she can follow her instincts to save the Casita.

Set in Colombia—home of Nobel Prize-winning magical realist writer Gabriel García Márquez—Encanto is the first Disney animated feature to spotlight a Latinx family and hero. Stephanie Beatriz gives voice to 15-year-old Mirabel, who is cheerful and upbeat despite being the only family member not to have received a special power from the house. It’s a mystery to everyone—especially Mirabel’s grandma/abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero)—why the house didn’t bestow a gift on her, but they choose to forget about it. Mirabel goes about her business despite not having superhuman strength like older sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow), or the ability to make flowers out of nowhere like oldest sister Isabela. Aside from Mirabel, everyone in the family has a special gift that enriches the community, which honors and celebrates the family as a result.

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Review of WHERE THERE’S LIFE (Blu-ray)

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

Throughout their careers, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby had a rivalry that extended beyond their onscreen personas in the “Road” pictures they made with Dorothy Lamour. In 1946, Crosby had the upper hand. His Bells of St. Mary’s was the top grossing film that year, while his Blue Skies placed #3, just ahead of their Road to Utopia picture. Meanwhile, Hope’s Monsieur Beaucaire lagged at #26. 

A year later Hope made Where There’s Life and couldn’t resist a dig at both of them, as on-the-lam radio personality Michael Valentine (Hope) runs through a narrow street past a movie poster of Blue Skies and does a turned-up-nose double-take.

In fairness, Hope’s nose was always turned up, and that self-proclaimed “banana nose” was also a running gag from picture to picture. Where There’s Life is one of several Cold War spy comedies that Hope made, and it falls somewhere in the middle of the comedian’s film catalog. It’s pleasantly entertaining, but we feel as if we’ve seen it all before. I mean, how many times can you make a film about an innocent average Joe who gets caught up in intrigue and finds himself intrigued as well by a femme fatale?

As it turns out, three others—My Favorite Blonde (1942), They Got Me Covered (1943), My Favorite Spy (1951)—but it seems like more because there’s not enough variation to the plots. You begin to realize as much when you find yourself delighted by little things in the film—like that Blue Skies dig or William Bendix, who plays a cop in this one, saying “What a revoltin’ development this is!” Audiences familiar with The Life of Reilly radio series starring Bendix would have laughed to hear him repeat his famous catch-phrase, one he’d continue to use as Reilly on the TV sitcom version in the fifties.

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Review of MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE (Blu-ray)

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

What do Rudolph Valentino and Bob Hope have in common?

They both played the title character in film versions of Monsieur Beaucaire, a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Booth Tarkington, but with one big difference. The legendary silent movie star nicknamed The Latin Lover played him as a swashbuckler, while the swordplay side of the character was shifted to another for this 1946 comedy.

Both during and after the “Road” pictures Hope made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, the comedian who lived to be 100 starred in a slew of solo films. For families especially, his costumed comedies and historical biographies remain the most enjoyable. Here’s how I’d rank them:

1. The Princess and the Pirate (1944)
2. Monsieur Beaucaire (1946)
3. The Paleface (1948)
4. Casanova’s Big Night (1954)
5. The Seven Little Foys (1955)
6. Fancy Pants (1950)
7. Beau James (1957)
8. Son of Paleface (1952)
9. Alias Jesse James (1959)

What makes Monsieur Beaucaire rise to the top is its plot. Unlike the Cold War spy mix-ups that Hope made, the costumed dramas have more intricate plotting.

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Review of THE BRASS BOTTLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Comedy
Not Rated (would be PG)

The mid-‘60s gave viewers two sitcoms featuring women with magical powers: Bewitched, an ABC-TV series about a witch married to a mortal, and I Dream of Jeannie, an NBC comedy about an astronaut who splashes down near a deserted island and finds a bottle containing a beautiful genie determined to serve (and exasperate) him.

As with “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family,” audiences were split over which show was better. It’s the fans of I Dream of Jeannie who are going to want to see The Brass Bottle, because it provided the inspiration for the TV show. After Bewitched became a smash hit when it debuted in October 1964, creator-producer Sidney Sheldon wanted to develop a similar property for NBC. Sheldon had seen The Brass Bottle, which opened in theaters in May of that year, and the concept seemed perfect. All he had to do was make a few changes, and the rest was television history.

The Brass Bottle was the third film inspired by the 1900 novel of the same name, and as it turns out, British writer Thomas Anstey Guthrie was probably born in the wrong century. The fantastic elements of The Brass Bottle drew praise from none other than George Orwell, and an earlier comic novel, Vice Versa, was about a father and son who change places because of magic. That novel was made into a 1981 British TV series and a 1988 American film. It also inspired modern retellings like Freaky Friday, Big, and Seventeen Again. In other words, the old Victorian writer would have made one heck of a good screenwriter.

Though The Brass Bottle doesn’t have the madcap mayhem of slapstick or screwball comedy, the plot and dialogue are clever. The film might have played out like a fable, but there’s more complexity here and it’s fun to see how similar yet totally different The Brass Bottle is from I Dream of Jeannie. It’s equally fun to see the star of I Dream of Jeannie as a mortal in this fantasy.

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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.

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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

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