Review of DESPICABLE ME 3 (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
2017, 90 min., Color
Rated PG for action and rude humor
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Amazon link

Although Readers at IMDB.com and the critics at Rotten Tomatoes thought otherwise, Despicable Me 3 is just as entertaining as the first sequel to Despicable Me (2010)—the animated feature from Universal that introduced us to the carrot-nosed Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a villain who was softened up by three orphaned girls.

By the third installment, Gru has gone straight and has been working for the Anti-Villain League with his partner/wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig). Because they failed to capture or eliminate Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a maligned child actor who, as a resentful adult, is driven to become the world’s biggest villain, Gru and Lucy find themselves kicked out of the League. But of course that doesn’t stop them from tangling with Bratt (aka Bad Boy Bod) again and somehow managing to save the day. That’s no spoiler: it’s what superheroes and crimefighters do.

How much you enjoy Despicable Me 3 may depend on how much you like Gru’s “minions”—those capsule-shaped little yellow guys in blue overalls that speak in their own gibberish language. This outing the minions aren’t integral to the plot and only seem deployed in several overly cute (and overly long) sequences designed to satisfy those who do love the little guys, and, of course, to keep those Minion toys and product tie-ins flying off the shelves. They mattered much more in the first two films. Here, they’re as gratuitous as nudity in a teen slasher movie. Also marginalized this film are the three orphaned girls that Gru adopted in the first film, so if you thought Mr. Despicable’s interaction with those girls a strength, you’ll be disappointed to find them underused in Despicable Me 3.

Dominating this entry are Gru’s interactions with the villain and a twin brother he never knew he had until recently. Carell also gives voice to Dru, the seemingly perfect (and fabulously wealthy and successful) twin from whom he was separated at birth. Reminiscent of the 1988 comedy Twins, in which the genetically perfect Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, the twin made from DNA leftovers, discover each other, Despicable Me 3 features one twin who is predominantly evil and the other predominantly good. The complication, we learn, is that the successful twin was as much of a disappointment to the villainous-at-heart father who raised him as Gru was to his goody-goody mother. How the brothers learn to cope with who they are and how they were raised, and how they learn to deal with their “Other” gets the lion’s share of narrative attention. And frankly, the twin brother angle probably rescues the third installment from a familiarity that can make sequels seem tedious.

Are there Disney-style wholesome messages implanted here? Sure, if you consider that good triumphs over evil. Despite a large dose of sibling rivalry (that children with siblings can certainly identify with), there are also moments of true caring and brotherly love that shine through. If the voice of Gru’s mom sounds familiar, none other than Julie Andrews is behind the microphone, while Miranda Cosgrove and Dana Gaier return as the voices of adoptees Margo and Edith and Nev Scharrel replaces Elsie Fisher as Agnes.

The animation is as accomplished as anything we’ve seen from Universal, with artists and animators strutting their stuff in a string of grand-scale action scenes that are comparable to what we’re seeing these days in live-action superhero films. Despite a PG rating for “action and rude humor,” nothing here is terribly offensive (How upset can you get when a villain’s weapon of choice is bubble gum?) and there’s less palpable tension in scenes with characters in danger than a Disney superhero film like The Incredibles. It’s a pretty family-friendly package, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments—many of them involving minor characters and sight gags—and a lot of color and activity on the screen, all of it looking wonderful in 1080p HD.

While at first glance there appears to be a bunch of bonus features, none of them runs longer than seven minutes. The best is probably “The Secret Life of Kyle,” a cartoon short featuring Gru’s pet dog. Yes, even the dogs are getting into the act. This franchise is still going strong, with Minions 2 slated for 2020 release and Despicable Me 4 projected for 2024.


Review of THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
1962, 106 min., Black-and-White
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for intense scenes of struggle)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

I saw The Miracle Worker in the theater when it was first released in 1962, and it affected me deeply. Patty Duke, who played young Helen Keller in the film, was close to my age, so naturally I pictured myself going through a similar struggle. I didn’t identify with her, but I put myself in her place.

These days, I don’t get the sense that young people do that as much. It’s more about interest or entertainment, and older films like this have a few strikes against them.

For one thing, The Miracle Worker is in black and white, and as terrific as it looks on Blu-ray, a generation born into color often has a hard time with anything other than eye-popping visuals. For another thing, drama in the ‘50s and early ‘60s was really melodrama, and the long lingering close-ups with dramatic music may seem a little soapy to contemporary audiences. And while indie films may still employ long takes, the average mainstream film has been edited to fit the shorter attention spans that seem to have evolved.

So when a nine-minute scene shows “miracle worker” Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) physically wrestling with a blind child who has never been disciplined in her life, it could seem like an eternity to younger viewers. My daughter says she already saw the film in school, so teachers see value in it, and this is a pivotal scene. It’s intense, and shows why Bancroft won the Oscar for Best Actress and Duke won for Best Supporting Actress.


Review of FATHER GOOSE (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1964, 118 min., Color
Romantic comedy/Adventure
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for some peril and adult drinking)
Aspect ratio: anamorphic widescreen (16×9)
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

As I wrote when Olive released a no-frills Blu-ray of this title in 2014, Father Goose is one of those rare films that appeals not only to lovers of the genre—in this case, romantic comedy—but others as well. There’s humor and WWII adventure in this amiable 1964 film, which will make it appealing to boys in the family. The girls, meanwhile, will be won over by the seven schoolgirls of varying ages that are rescued by a reluctant (and still very funny and attractive in his second-to-last film) Cary Grant. Much of the humor is based on the contrast between Grant’s scruffy character and “proper” behavior, with the girls as engaging as any child actors I’ve seen.

Grant plays teacher-turned-beachcomber Walter Eckland, who dropped out of the world and in return just wants the world to leave him alone. Though war in the Pacific is raging all around him, he’s determined to be neutral and uninvolved. We first meet him when he turns up at British-Australian naval base that’s under fire, and, bothered more by a pelican that keeps hitching a ride on the boat he recently bought than by shells exploding all around him, he proceeds to try to “borrow” cans of gasoline and rations.

That plays right into the hands of the dockmaster, an old friend named Houghton (Trevor Howard) who’s been ordered to evacuate and set up shop coordinating more than 30 coast watchers spread across the Pacific islands. He needs one more coast watcher and Walter needs supplies, so they strike a deal . . . which Walter had no intention of abiding by, until Houghton “accidentally” rams his boat and forces him to make for the island. Then, to get Walter to actually report Japanese airplane and ship movements, Houghton hides bottles of scotch whiskey and gives Walter the directions to a bottle for every confirmed sighting.

Walter never gets drunk, and his drinking is played for laughs, so most parents won’t find it objectionable. After all, there is a war on, and when Walter ends up rescuing a pretty young teacher (Leslie Caron) and her charges, she immediately sets about trying to reform him. He may be gruff, but he’s still a likable fellow that the girls find as appealing as their teacher does. Sparks eventually fly, and the action intensifies, and in no time at all you’re rooting for this pair of opposites to come together in spite of all that’s happening in the world around them.


Review of LOST HORIZON (1937) (80th Anniversary Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
1937, 132 min., Black-and-White
Columbia Pictures/Sony
Not rated (would be PG for brief long-distance nudity and some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B
Amazon link

“In these days of wars and rumors of wars, haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” an opening card reads. “Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia. Sometimes the Fountain of Youth. Sometimes merely ‘that little chicken farm.’”

That’s how Frank Capra’s 1937 adaptation of James Hilton’s novel begins, and it’s a tip-off that despite an action-packed opening evacuation scene set in China, a plane crash that delivers the original Lost passengers to an isolated place that’s cloaked in mystery, and a mountain sequence involving a massive avalanche and harrowing escape, Lost Horizon is more of a heady melodrama than it is a typical adventure film. And that means that while it may be perfectly suitable for the whole family to watch, it will most likely interest only families with children in their later years of high school.

Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) skips the frame story and jumps right into the evacuation of “white people” who are being evacuated. Hilton’s novel was set in a different time and place, but with war brewing Capra set it in more familiar—and, for 1937 audiences, more disturbing—territory.

When diplomat Hugh Conway (renamed Robert for the film) leaves on the last plane with four other people and their plane is crash-landed in the Tibetan mountains, they make their way to the only shelter around: Shangri-La, a lamasery that’s completely cut off from the outside world, and where everyone is happy no matter what work they do. Once there, the main dramatic questions for each character become: Were they kidnapped or were they rescued? Should they stay or should they go? Shangri-La beckons some, but repels others.

The five travelers offer the same sort of variety as viewers would see two years later in Stagecoach. Joining Conway (Ronald Coleman) is his impetuous brother George (John Howard), mild-mannered paleontologist Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), con-artist Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell, who played Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life and the drunken doctor in Stagecoach), and a sarcastic woman named Gloria (Isabel Jewell) who discovers that her terminal illness seems to go into remission once they reach and spend time in Shangri-La. Given the CGI world we now live in, the sets seem average, but back in 1937 they were impressive enough for all critics to notice, and the cityscape sets took five years to build. But there was a rural component to this as well, which, for all its utopian pretenses, feels remarkably feudal. The High Lama creates a world where all the people are happy, even as they work at different jobs to contribute to society.

It’s not just that everyone in Shangri-La lives in peace and harmony. They also have everything they need, obtained over time because the mountains around them are full of gold. And for the child philosophers in your families, therein lies the film’s main contradiction that’s worth talking about. But the film’s main philosophical question is also discussion-worthy: would you want to live in a place that’s isolated from the world if doing so would enable you to live a hundred, even two hundred years? And what would you do for love? Would you stay in a place like that to be with Sondra (Jane Wyatt), as Conway contemplates? Would you leave, as Maria (Margo) does, risking life itself to be with someone you loved? And why is it that utopias always fail? Is it human nature? Is it the nature of life itself?

Lost Horizon is a thought-provoking drama that’s worth watching if for no other reason than to be aware of this culturally significant film. It did, after all, give us the name “Shangri-La,” which has since become synonymous with a utopian paradise on earth.


Review of SUPERGIRL: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 931 min. (22 episodes), Color
Sci-fi action-drama

Warner Bros.
Not rated: would be PG for fantasy violence
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Amazon link

As I said when I reviewed Season 1, there are two DC Universes, and Melissa Benoist really brightens up the television one. She has the kind of charisma that propelled Lynda Carter (who appears as the President this season) to stardom as TV’s Wonder Woman during the seventies and the kind of girl-next-door likeability and warmth that inspired the writers of Supergirl: Season 2 to emphasize her “humanity” after otherwise drawing a distinction between humans and aliens.

In this winning 2016 CW series she’s the “girl” you want to be friends with, to confide in, to rely on, to have fun with, and, if you’re a guy, to date. Though Supergirl comes from the planet Krypton, with Benoist wearing the costume she embodies everything that’s good in humanity. She may be a badass, but she’s as amazed by her powers and the fun of being a hero as any teenage Earthling would be. And teens can identify with her because she’s also awkward in social situations, still trying to find her way in the work world, just a little geeky, and a little too wide-eyed for a typical adult her age. In other words, the character was deliberately crafted with a teen and young adult audience in mind, though the show is entertaining enough for all ages.

Supergirl offers a less dark DC Universe in which characters have down time, bond, laugh, share food and drink, and grapple with problems that audience members face—like questions about identity, body image, relationships, glass ceilings, and juggling career and personal life. The series’ first-season feminism and “stronger together” theme was reflected in the Hillary Clinton campaign, and this season remarks exchanges like this one tip viewers off that the left-leaning politics continue:

Supergirl (as Kira, defending a young woman in the office): “She went to Yale.”
Cat Grant: “So did George Bush.”


Review of CLAMBAKE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1967, 99 min., Color
Musical comedy-romance
Not rated: Would be PG (for smoking, drinking, and some suggestive scenes)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B- (an audio commentary from Videodrome video rental store)
“Clambake” clip
Amazon link

It started with Jailhouse Rock (1957), the film that established the Elvis film character as a brooding James Dean, often with a chip on his shoulder, but with a good guy hiding under the facade. That character would appear with only minor alterations in most of his 23 films made between 1962 and 1969. By comparison, during that same period John Wayne made 17 films. Both were box-office giants.

Many of the films from this period are “a-go-go” films, and if you’re a fan of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof Top Secret! you’ll see in the formula Elvis movies what they were making fun of. Today’s families will find these lightweight musical comedy-romances fun to watch, but also fun to make fun of. Some of the dancing, some of the clothes, some of the antics are just plain hilarious now, though they were intended, like the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello “beach” movies, to be campy and fun even back then. They feature plenty of mod and mini-skirted and bikinied women and goofy guys doing the swim, the frug, the monkey, the jerk, and all those dances that were so cool then but look so silly now. What will seem even sillier to modern audiences are the backgrounds that were clumsily and unapologetically used (like the mountains in the background of this film set in Miami), or the far-fetched ways in which the writers sought to bring Elvis in contact with children.

Yes, children. You see, the Elvis film persona was meant to be everything to women: a bad boy, a nice guy, a singing romantic, a tough guy when he had to be, a clean-living guy who usually refrained from alcohol and tobacco, and a good-looking guy who was so good with kids that women saw him as father material. Despite the attitude, Elvis was the kind of guy you could bring home to meet Mom and Dad.


Review of ROAD TO BALI (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1952, 91 min., Color
Musical comedy-adventure-romance
Not rated (would be PG for mild peril and innuendo)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B-
APC teaser
Amazon link

In the 1940s, singers Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour hooked up with hook-nosed comedian Bob Hope for five “road” pictures—comedies about two erstwhile male vaudeville performers in exotic locations who end up meeting and falling for Lamour’s character. Was it a formula? Yes and no. Audiences knew exactly what to expect, but Hope and Crosby ad-libbed so much that the films had the added energy of unpredictability.

After taking the road to Singapore (1940), Zanzibar (1941), Morocco (1942), Utopia (1946), and Rio (1947), the trio took to the road again in 1952 for their first and only color excursion, Road to Bali. Crosby plays George Cochran and Hope is Harold Gridley, two entertainers forced to cut engagements in Australia short when they end up wooing one too many farmer’s daughters and are forced to find other work. The first job that presents itself is “deep sea diver,” and so they’re off on another adventure.

Though it’s not as funny as Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia, this 91-minute comedy is a good place to start for families with younger children because it is color and because Road to Bali is a kitchen sink film. Writers Frank Butler, Hal Kanter, and William Morrow throw everything into the film, including the kitchen sink, among them:

—A treasure hunt
—A South Seas princess
—A romantic triangle
—A long-lost father who turns up
—A wedding
—A battle with a giant squid
—A fight between a tiger and a gorilla
—A close call with crocodiles
—A lovelorn gorilla who decides Harold is the perfect replacement for the mate she lost
—An exploding volcano
—A “Scottish” song-and-dance routine Hope and Crosby perform in kilts
—Cameo appearances by Humphrey Bogart (in a film clip) and Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Jane Russell
—“Balinese” dancers who move to music that sounds suspiciously like jazz
—A snake-charmer takeoff in which the flute player summons not a cobra but a beautiful woman

Road to Bali may not feature the kind of breakneck pacing that young people are used to, but the film shifts gears enough times and has enough color and humor to make it fun for family viewing—if, that is, your children are open to older movies. And if your family includes a Baby Boomer or fans of vintage television shows, a bonus is that Carolyn Jones (Morticia on TV’s The Addams Family) appears in just her second career role as one of the jilted farmer’s daughters; Leon Askin (Gen. Burkhalter on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes) turns up as King Ramayana, the ruler of an unspecified idyllic island somewhere between Australia and Bali; and Michael Ansara (Cochise on TV’s Broken Arrow and the Blue Djinn on I Dream of Jeannie) is one of the guards that serve the King and Prince Ken Arok (Murvyn Vye).


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