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Review of THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
1954, 97 min., Color
Western
Not rated (would be PG for some violence, drinking, smoking, and adult situations)
Arrow Video
Aspect ratio: 2.00:1, 1.85:1
Featured audio: LCPM Mono
Bonus features: B-
Includes: two Blu-ray discs, booklet
Trailer
Amazon link

When people think of James Stewart they think of the pictures he made with Frank Capra, or, in later years, Alfred Hitchcock. But in the early 1950s Stewart teamed with director Anthony Mann on eight films that made his screen persona edgier and more ambiguous. Five of those films were Westerns—Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955)—and all five were both critical and commercial successes.

Sixty years later those Westerns remain so similar in quality that it’s a matter of preference. The slight edge may go to The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie, then Bend of the River and The Far Country—the latter an enjoyable “Northern” along the lines of John Wayne’s North to Alaska.

In The Far Country, Stewart plays a cowboy who had driven a herd of cattle from Montana to Seattle, then boards a steamship to take them to the gold fields in Skagway, where the price of beef is sky high. But as the ship is leaving, a sheriff shouts to the captain to take the cowboy into custody because he’s said to have killed two people. In short order, Jeff Webster goes from wrangler to fugitive, dodging the crew thanks to the help of a woman (Ruth Roman as Ronda Castle) who invites him to get under the covers with her as the crew unlocks and checks every stateroom. And that’s just the start of the action.

Jeff isn’t the only character straddling good and evil, either. Ronda has a saloon and may or may not be in cahoots with Skagway’s self-appointed law, Judge Gannon (John McIntire), who has a whole gang of gunslingers and thugs to help him “keep order.” His first order of business when we meet him is a public hanging that’s disrupted by Jeff driving his cattle through the center of town. And suddenly he’s the judge’s next order of business, with a ruling that the court is confiscating the whole herd for “damages.”

Set in 1896 during the Klondike gold rush, the film’s main theme is that where there’s an honest fortune to be made, close behind are dishonest people looking to take it away—whether that means cheating someone, bullying them, running them off, or eliminating them. And Jeff Webster finds himself caught in the middle—even between Ronda and a young French girl he calls “Freckle Face” (Corinne Calvet), though he doesn’t seem to have any interest in them. Like the other miners, he’s just interested in making a score.

Famed character actor Walter Brennan is in top form as Ben Tatum, Jeff’s partner, but there’s a whole parcel of familiar faces in this film, as Mann was inclined to use the same actors over and over. Harry Morgan and Jay C. Flippen are here, along with Jack Elam, Robert J. Wilke, Chubby Johnson, and Royal Dano—all instantly recognizable, even if their names are not.

But the real star, as is often the case with a Mann Western, is the wilderness. Many of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, with its dramatic snowy mountains, icy glaciers, and big sky, showcased to perfection by Oscar-winning cinematographer William H. Daniels. This Arrow Academy Blu-ray features two discs and two ways to view the film: with the “alternate original aspect ratio of 2.00:1 and the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 2.00:1 is the way to go, because it captures detail lost on the “original” release. There’s a decent bunch of bonus features here too, featuring a six different film scholars—though a little “scholar” goes a long way. The best of the extras is probably “American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal,” which is a nice overview of the director’s Universal films, many of which he did with Stewart.

Language: Nothing to speak of

Sex: Other than seeing a woman in underclothes pretending to be in bed with a man, there’s nothing much here

Violence: It’s a Western, so there are the usual fistfights and shootings, though there are a lot more ambushes here than usual, and characters are killed 

Adult situations: There are competing saloons in Skagway and Dawson, and so there’s drinking, smoking, and gambling 

Takeaway: This is a pretty decent transfer from Arrow, and hopefully that bodes well for future releases

DEADLINE (1959-61) (DVD)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
1959-61, 1006 min. (39 episodes), Black & White
Drama
Not rated (would be PG for some adult situations)
Film Chest Media
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

It’s almost hard to remember, but before unfair cries of “fake news” journalists were widely respected. From the ‘20s through ‘50s they were even considered heroic because they did whatever it took to get a story, whether it involved immediate danger or possible repercussions. Crusading editors and reporters were the frequent subject of films and featured such stars as James Stewart (Call Northside 777), Humphrey Bogart (Deadline —U.S.A.), Kirk Douglas (Ace in the Hole), Clark Gable (Teacher’s Pet), Cary Grant (His Girl Friday), Fred McMurray (Exclusive), Alan Ladd (Chicago Deadline), and Joel McCrea (Foreign Correspondent).

The short-lived Deadline(1959-61) TV series takes viewers back to those simpler times when journalists worked alongside police and the public trusted and relied on them.

Paul Stewart, the series host and frequent “guest actor,” played a reporter in the film Deadline – U.S.A., but he doesn’t have what it takes to carry an anthology series like this. Assuming the role of various reporters from real newspaper stories across the nation, he goes about that reporter’s business with the stiff formality of Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday. In fact, Dragnet is a good comparison.

Dragnet had Friday’s voiceovers, while Deadline has Stewart’s in almost every episode. Like Dragnet, the Deadline investigations are pretty facile and stagey, which was typical of TV crime shows from the ‘50s. The “dramatizations” are, like most TV reenactments, a little hokey and decidedly melodramatic. A situation is quickly set up, there’s a brief investigation with questions asked of various people involved, and by the end of every 30-minute episode there’s a resolution. Guest stars include Peter Falk, Diane Ladd, Robert Lansing, Telly Savalas, George Maharis, and Simon Oakland, but for the most part these are unknown actors and fresh faces, because most of their careers never took off.

Thirty-nine episodes were produced, and all of them are included in this three-disc DVD set from Film Chest Media. The timing couldn’t be better, and you get the feeling that Film Chest is doing a little crusading of their own, thinking perhaps that the mainstream media have been systematically and unfairly maligned the past three years. More

Review of THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 97 min., Color
Sony / Columbia
Rated PG for rude humor and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

The Angry Birds Movie 2 (which should have been simply “Angry Birds 2”) is a colorfully manic CGI animated feature that’s full of feathery little fluffballs and cutesy antics that are obviously aimed like a big giant slingshot at young children, rather than gamers.

At one point a bird is reading Crazy Rich Avians, and there are enough smartly written lines and movie allusions to make it fairly painless, even amusing for older siblings and parents to watch along with youngsters. And that includes the curmudgeons who say they’ll only watch such films “when pigs fly” . . . because in this movie, they do. This time around, it’s a classic tale of enemies—pigs and birds—who put their prank war on hold so they can work together when an outside force threatens their separate island paradises. The same cast returns from the 2016 original, and if your family liked that one they’ll like this sequel. It’s a stronger film, and the feather and effects animation is noticeably superior.

Jason Sudeikis once again gives voice to Red, the hero of the first film who has since developed a bit of an arrogant “only I can do this” attitude. So while the two sides learn to work together, Red is relearning how to be humble and realizing, as well, that it takes teamwork to succeed. An all-star cast features the additional voice talents of Rachel Bloom, Leslie Jones, Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Awkwafina, Sterling K. Brown, Eugenio Derbez, Peter Dinklage, Nicki Minaj, Maya Rudolph, Tony Hale, and others.

The plot is set in motion when a large iceball falls out of the sky, swamping Piggy Island and leading the pigs to seek out a truce with their Bird Island counterparts. Pigs, birds, and viewers later learn that, like a James Bond villain, Zeta, the head of Eagle Island is launching iceballs from her volcano cannon in an all-out attack. Her plan? Tired of living on a frigid island, she wants to acquire warmer territory for herself and her army of Eagles. Meanwhile, in a cute-as-a-button side plot, three hatchling birds play with a mother’s eggs but end up watching them drift out to sea. How will they ever get them back? More

Review of HESBURGH (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 106 min., B&W and Color
Documentary
Not rated (would be PG for Kent State footage)
Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Trailer
Amazon link

Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked him to serve on the National Science Board and later the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and he was the one who brought Democrats and Republicans together on the latter, then brokered the approval of 11 civil rights recommendations. Later “Ike” asked him to help bridge the gap between Russia and the U.S., and he became good friends with the Soviet Union’s delegate to the U.N. in order to relax tensions.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked him to be by his side for a crucial civil rights rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field on June 21, 1964, and there he linked arms with Dr. King and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Eleven days later the Civil Rights Act was signed, and years later King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, would call him “One of the giants of the civil rights movement.”

Pres. Richard M. Nixon called on him to stop anti-war protesters at Notre Dame, and he cracked down on them . . . but after Kent State, had a change of heart and publicly attacked Nixon and the Vietnam War. He’s prominently mentioned on the Nixon tapes as a “problem.”

Who knew that the life of a college president could be so influential . . . and fascinating?

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh was president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952-87, and this 2018 biography begins with a voiceover recording of him saying “Since the age of six, I wanted to be a priest,” and ends with his funeral procession and thousands of Notre Dame students lining the route to the cemetery. But it’s as much a documentary about history as it is a man who devoted his life to the service of others, and there are some incredible stories here.

Who knew that the president of Notre Dame had such power?

One of the stories Hesburgh tells is about a Cardinalship that he turned down. “I came to know all of the popes throughout my life,” Hesburgh says, “but the only one I considered a true friend was Giovanni Montini, who would take on the name Pope Paul VI.” The Pope gave him the enormous emerald ring he wore as a cardinal, saying, “Now it’s yours,” but hoping he would accept his offer. “I said, ‘Thank you for the ring, Your Holiness,’ and I put it in my pocket. . . . [but] I can do a lot more as a university president.”

Who knew that a fishing trip was behind the success of civil rights reform in the U.S.? More

Review of ALADDIN (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Adventure-Fantasy
2019, 128 min., Color
Rated PG for some action/peril
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

While Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated classics have been hit or (near) miss, the 2019 remake of Aladdin is a hit—and don’t let any of the Will-Smith-shouldn’t-have-been-the-Genie complainers tell you differently. Smith is just fine as the genie whose many moods and mannerisms help pace the film. And if you don’t believe me, go to Rotten Tomatoes, where you’ll see that Aladdin received the highest audience rating of any of the live-action remakes.

Smith said that he loved Robin Williams’ manic performance in the 1992 animated classic, but he had no intention of trying to duplicate it—partly because it was the right thing to do out of respect for Williams, but partly because it was the sane thing to do. You can’t beat Williams at manic improvisation, so you might as well carve out your own niche. Smith manages to entertain as the bright blue genie, who fast-talks, sass-talks, back-talks, and even throws in some improvisations of his own—all while managing to carve out his own version of the character.

Meanwhile, Disney struck casting gold with Egyptian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Today’s teens and tweens are into Hollywood’s beautiful twentysomethings, but don’t look for Massoud to be bare-chested throughout the film, as the animated Aladdin was. Director Guy Ritchie thought it would be too distracting on a human, and he’s probably right. Massoud and Scott have great chemistry together and individually they’re charismatic, warm, and talented. Young viewers might also recognize Scott from the Disney channel movie Lemonade Mouth and the TV series Life Bites. More

Review of ADVENTURES OF DALLY AND SPANKY (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
Family drama
2019, 94 min., Color
Rated PG for brief language
Sony
1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer (contains spoilers)
Amazon link

Jack Russell terriers have been popular with Hollywood. Most famously there was Uggie, who starred in the 2011 Academy Award-winning picture The Artist. Before him, we saw Eddie on the sitcom Frazier, Skip in the film My Dog Skip, and a CGI-enhanced Milo in The Mask. And now there’s Dally, who, unlike previous Jack Russells, isn’t a solo act. She’s partnered with a miniature horse named Spanky (here’s a link to their 2018 performance at the Del Mar National Horse Show just north of San Diego).

Though Dally and Spanky aren’t listed in the credits and the animals may or may not be the actual Dally and Spanky, this family movie was inspired by their dog-and-pony show. And while too often “family” has meant sappily unwatchable, Adventures of Dally & Spanky isn’t half bad. For all its flaws (and there are many) you still end up liking it because, corny as they seem, as one announcer at a talent show remarks, you can’t not like an animal act, can you? And that’s what this is: an 84-minute animal act that begins like Air Bud and quickly turns into Sing.

There’s not much in the way of plotting, and what there is we’ve seen before. Seventeen-year-old Addy (Brenna D’Amico) is grappling with the loss of someone close to her, and it’s affecting her relationship with her mother, stepfather, and half-sister Ella (Reylynn Caster). When she inherits a miniature horse, though, it ends up being therapeutic. And when her half-sister’s dog takes a shine to her horse, it brings the half-sisters closer together as they train the animals side by side and prepare for competitions to help the family raise money to pay the bills and cover the added expenses of boarding a horse. More

Review of DUMBO (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
Live-action dramedy
2019, 112 min., Color
Disney / Buena Vista
Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ll be honest. My family wanted to watch a live-action remake of Dumbo about as much as they’re hoping for an animated version of Old Yeller. Some people just can’t get past the sad parts, so I watched this on my own.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Disney downplayed the sad moments in this live-action dramedy by quickly moving past them, rather than lingering as they did with the 1941 animated classic. And the focus is less on poor Dumbo and his odyssey than it is on the two children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and their father that try to help him. Tonally, Tim Burton’s live-action remake comes closer to Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain than it does the original cartoon . . . or anything else that Burton has done, for that matter. You hear “Burton” and you think “weird,” but that’s not the case here.

Set in 1919, with Colin Farrell playing a widowed WWI veteran who returns to his children decorated but without his left arm, Dumbo feels like a throwback homage to the wholesome small-town America that Walt Disney idealized in his early live action films. But with one important difference: Burton also celebrates Disney’s visionary creation of theme parks. More

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