Home

Review of MAMBO MAN (DVD)

Leave a comment

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.

I absolutely loved the cinematography, soundtrack, and featured performances, and I’m not alone. Mambo Man won Best Cinematography at the Anatolia International Film Festival and Best Score at the Beloit International Film Festival, with other wins coming from the Ciudad de Mexico International Film Festival, Crown Wood International Film Festival, Festigious International Film Festival, Florence Film Awards, Hollywood Gold Awards, Marina Del Rey Film Festival, Montreal Independent Film Festival, New York Cinematography Awards, Open World Toronto Film Festival, Panamanian International Film Festival, Rome International and Rome Prisma Independent Film Awards, Scorpiusfest, South Film and Arts Academy Festival, IndieFest Film Awards, Next Level International Film Festival, Thinking Hat Fiction Challenge, and World Premiere Film Awards.

Although the film is in Spanish with English subtitles, I highly recommend it for family viewing because of the music and cinematography. The plot, dialogue, and acting are considerably less accomplished. Loosely based on a true story, Mambo Man follows dream-big entrepreneur JC (Héctor Noas), who works hard enough to buy two farms, but then has various disasters cancel out any success he envisioned. He likes to think of himself as an important man, and has “associates” to help him. A musician himself with all sorts of contacts, he promotes concerts and tries to find rich European investors to back his musical enterprises, wooing them with performances and a feast that includes a whole roasted pig. But like any get-rich-quick schemer, he is ripe for a fall, or at least a stumble. When he finds himself going up against another get-rich-quick schemer, his latest gambit is threatened. It sounds dramatic enough, but the plot and acting and dialogue really can’t compete with the music and the visuals.

There are a number of children in this realist film—one that uses many non-actors—and young family members no doubt will be fascinated to see how Cuban children play and pass the time, whether it’s Hopscotch, slingshots, or “fruit toss” trying to knock down more fruit out of trees. Set in 2017, the film shows the ways that Cubans get by with a little and still enjoy life and each other—though the U.S. Embargo has obviously hurt their economy. There’s mention of Cubans going to Miami, as well as scenes showing mechanics working on engines and old American cars to keep them going.

A number of films have been set in Cuba, but this one really stands out because it depicts not Havana but a vibrant smaller city and rural life on the island. There’s life here pulsing underneath and on the surface of an otherwise pedestrian story.

Directors Alejandro and Fini couldn’t have created a more alluring travel film if that had been their goal. Mambo Man manages to “sell” viewers on Cuba without whitewashing or withholding information. What we see is an unvarnished, un-romanticized view of the country that’s closest to the U.S. without bordering it—a country we should get to know better.

Entire family: No (Age 8 and up—younger ones may be distracted by subtitles)
Run time: 82 min.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Digital Stereo (Spanish w/English subtitles)
Studio/Distributor: Corinth Films
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for social drinking and smoking)

Language: 1/0—Nothing stood out, but there might have been a lesser swearword or two

Sex: 1/10—It’s not that kind of movie—a husband even kisses his wife on her forehead rather than the mouth—but there is a sequence involving Viagara jokes

Violence: 0/10—Nothing here

Adult situations: 2/10—No drunkenness, just the kind of celebrations that children can be a part of, with some social drinking and some smoking

Takeaway: It’s not often that we see a Cuban film, and that rarity factor adds to the novelty of what is already a unique movie about music and life in southeastern Cuba

Review of MY FAVORITE BLONDE (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

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.

Hope was known for his self-deprecating humor, a bumbling “cowardice” that reluctantly turned to bravery, snappy comebacks and one-liners, improvisations and impersonations, and his banter. My Favorite Blonde is a gentle kind of comedy that has more cleverness than laughs, but Hope sells it with a warm and winning personality. And you can’t find a better second banana than Percy the Penguin. When all is said and done, it’s a lighter version of espionage thrillers, though curiously, “British agents” or “German agents” are never mentioned by name, and neither is Germany, World War II, or Nazis. The closest the film comes is when Hope’s character calls the bad guys “nasties.” Audiences back then would have gotten the joke, but back then they also knew that there was as much at stake on the homefront as well as overseas. They were willing to suspend belief and think that agents operating clandestinely on American soil was a real possibility.

My Favorite Blonde was popular enough that Hope was enlisted to immediately make My Favorite Spy as a follow-up that very same year, and revived the idea two years after the war ended with My Favorite Brunette. Hope fans disagree whether the best of the three is “Blonde” or “Brunette,” but if you and your family like old movies either one is worth your time, and this Kino Lorber Blu-ray is worth adding to your home movie collection.

I will admit to having a Hope bias. I like his persona and like his quips and ad-libs. At one point Larry tells spy Karen Bentley (Madeleine Carroll) that he’s going to call his agent. “Do you think he’ll help?” “He’d better. If I get the electric chair, he gets 10 percent of the current.” Later, when they commandeer a biplane—yes, you could call this film an early rendition of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—he asks her, “You sure you know how to run this thing?” She says, “Sure, my brother’s a British ace.” “Yeah, well my uncle’s a dogcatcher, but I can’t bark.”

Hope’s characters never took themselves too seriously, and his films were always pleasant diversions rather than films that made you feel tense or anxious. They were escapist fare, entertainments that were intended to take people’s minds off whatever ailed them. And Hope lived to be 100, proving that laughter may indeed be the best medicine.

Entire family: No (under age 10 might find it slow going and not worth the penguin antics)
Run time: 78 min., Black-and-White
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for mild violence, smoking, and drinking)

Language: 1/10—Nothing caught my attention, but there may have been a few lesser swearwords that slipped past

Sex: 0/10—Squeaky clean on this front, unless you consider a kiss from fully clothed people sexual

Violence: 3/10—For a parody of spy thrillers this one is pretty tame, with some fisticuffs, some shooting, a conk on the head, a kick in the pants, and some crashes—the latter, really, the most startling

Adult situations: 3/10—A man and woman who aren’t married travel together and pretend to be married at one point

Takeaway: The Princess and the Pirate remains the most family-friendly Bob Hope picture, but older children might enjoy this minor blast from the past

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

Leave a comment

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.

Creative vision? Definitely. The Croods: A New Age is like the TV ads for boring department store chains that offer wild colors, people dancing, hip music, and a message that screams “We’re a happening place!” Whether the filmmakers didn’t trust the narrative or just felt obliged to insert different comic-book style animations interrupti into the mix, the result feels a bit like a kitchen-sink approach to animated features. The intercut sections don’t really add anything . . . except to contribute more energy and craziness. And that’s one thing The Croods: A New Age doesn’t lack. Adding more just makes it seem like it’s trying way to hard to be a “happening place.”

That’s my opinion, and my family shares it. So, apparently, do the collective Metacritics that gave it a 56 out of 100, and the Metacritic readers who awarded it a 6.6 out of 10. But in fairness, I have to note that The Croods: A New Age got a 77 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with 94 percent of that audience giving it high marks.

Competing opinions aren’t very helpful, I realize, but maybe it’s useful to consider that when I reviewed the original 2013 film, The Croods, I gave it a B+. I wrote that the “first act may be a little slow, but once this animated comedy gets rolling, it’s a rollicking good family movie with upbeat messages and a happy ending—with enough eye-popping peril to interest even the most jaded of your teen video gameplayers. It’s a nice combination of action, humor, and interesting ‘prehistoric’ creatures.” The sequel has the same combination of elements, but the balance just seems off this time.

It’s possible to watch The Croods: A New Age without having seen the original. It begins with a flashback that shows how Guy (Ryan Reynolds) was urged by his dying parents to seek a better tomorrow. En route he ends up joining the Croods—a cave clan led by Grug (Nicolas Cage) that consists of his wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), daughter Eep (Emma Stone), son Thunk (Clark Duke), tiny daughter Sandy (Kailey Crawford), and Ugga’s mother Gran (Cloris Leachman, in her third-to last film, as feisty as ever).

One day they stumble upon a giant wall, and after entering this paradise they are caught in a net . . . but released when Phil Betterman (Peter Dinklage) and his wife, Hope (Leslie Mann) realize they’re fellow humans. As the Bettermans flaunt their better way of living, a romantic triangle develops between Guy, Ugga, and the Betterman’s daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), and tensions mount between the “evolved” Bettermans and the crude Croods. Things get even worse when Eep and Dawn become friends and jump the wall to have an adventure that Dawn’s helicopter parents have been keeping her from. Somehow both families end up having to deal with “punch monkeys” and some goofiness surrounding bananas as the coin of the realm. And then there are multiple-eyed wolf spiders, and other dangers that push the two families closer together. You know, a common enemy and all that . . . and an uncommonly hard to believe ending. But as I said, the kids will love the creatures, and the animation really pops in HD.

The readers at IMDB.com gave the original a 7.2/10 and the sequel a 7.0, but I’m not feeling it. As visually spectacular as the sequel is, the two movies seem farther apart then that—almost a full grade, even. That makes this one a B-/C+, which still makes it a good choice for family movie night, especially if the kids are young.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 96 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: DreamWorks/Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+ (two cartoon shorts, a recipe, a prank book, how to draw caveman style, etc.)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG for peril, action, and rude humor

Language: 1/10—If you think “sucks” is bad language, that’s about all you’ll find here

Sex: 1/10—Several characters wear clothing that reveals cleavage or a bare back and such, and we see a woman in a bra, but that’s it

Violence: 3/10—Most of the violence is comic or near-comic, and even though characters are in peril the source of the peril and the treatment of material makes it seem more exciting than truly perilous

Adult situations: 1/10—After one character gets stung by a prehistoric bee, the venom seems to have an intoxicating effect on her, but again that’s it

Takeaway: DreamWorks animators do such a fantastic job of bringing an animated world to life, it’s a shame that director Joel Crawford (Rise of the Guardians, Kung Fu Panda, Kung Fu Panda 2) felt he had to go the full-manic-jacket route, because sometimes understatement can be more powerful and effective

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

Leave a comment

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)

Leave a comment

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)

Leave a comment

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)

Leave a comment

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)

Leave a comment

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)

Leave a comment

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)

Leave a comment

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

Older Entries