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Review of DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA (4K UltraHD, Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Drama
Rated PG

It’s almost a cliché that in Hollywood (and presumably everywhere else films are made) there are two main plots:  something comes into the heroes’ world, or the heroes leave their world. Either way, they encounter the sort of challenges, adventures, or drama that come from a disruption of routine.

The first Downton Abbey movie (2019) was about something coming into the world of the Crawley family and their servants. It revolved around a visit to Downton from King George V and Queen Mary, and the only exit was one of the staff, who went to New York to visit parents and got arrested at an underground gay nightclub. Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022) seems more richly plotted because there is a balance between the coming and going, with heftier plotlines that are equally intricate and dramatic. 

Robert and Mary

On the home front, a film company requests permission to shoot a silent film at Downton, and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) is opposed . . . until oldest daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) convinces him that the income would pay for the new roof they so desperately need. She assures her father that she will supervise the affair and keep a close watch. Naturally, the staff gets as excited about a movie being made at Downton as they did when the King and Queen visited—except, of course, for the ever-so-grumpy Mr. Carson (Jim Carter)—but their excitement is tempered by a less-than-congenial leading lady (Laura Haddock) and the disappointing announcement that funding for the movie is being pulled because only “talking pictures” are making money. Of course, shades of Singin’ in the Rain, they decide to improvise in order to make a film with sound, and even the staff gets into the act. Literally.

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Review of THE NAKED SPUR (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+/B
Western
Not rated (would be PG)

Some people consider classic Westerns to be paint-by-numbers, but the numbers are pretty darned good for Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann. Of the 18 Westerns that Stewart appeared in, five were made with Mann, and four of those rank among Stewart’s top eight. Not bad, considering that Stewart also made four Westerns with the legendary John Ford and one with genre wizard Delmer Daves. The Naked Spur (1953) was the third film that Stewart and Mann made together, following Winchester ’73 (1950) and Bend of the River (1952) and preceding The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955).

Winchester ’73 is the best of the bunch, but The Naked Spur isn’t far behind. Mann got some great performances out of Stewart because he encouraged him to play characters that went against type. Sure, they’re basically nice guys, but they’re not meek, they’re not befuddled, and they’re not so darned goody-goody sure of themselves all the time. Under Mann’s direction, Stewart played characters with a tormented past that is kept tightly lidded, with occasional breakthroughs—rougher, rawer, darker characters than people were used to seeing, yet still one that’s likable, whom you root for and want to see win.   

Mitchell and Stewart

In terms of storytelling, Mann manages to have it both ways. He showcases the raging rivers and formations of the Rocky Mountains and San Juan Mountains, while also zeroing in on five characters who, because they are together the whole time, feel as if they could be on a stage, the drama is so contained and psychological. The assist for making the scenery feel like a sixth character goes to cinematographer William C. Mellor, who won Oscars for his black-and-white work in A Place in the Sun and The Diary of Ann Frank and captures both the stage-like intimacy on the trail and also the grand location scenery in glorious Technicolor.

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Review of WINCHESTER ’73 (1950) (Blu-ray Import)

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

One of Anthony Mann’s most highly regarded Westerns, Winchester ’73 feels like the perfect film for this year’s Fourth of July celebration. Not only does it take place around the Fourth and show a 100-year celebration in that most fabled of American towns, Dodge City, but it also helps to explain the paradox of America’s gun-crazy culture.

The 1950 film stars James Stewart in one of his best Westerns . . . and that’s saying something, because he’s made quite a few good ones. Winchester ’73 was the first that Stewart made since 1939’s Destry Rides Again, and it started a string of Westerns he would star in over the next half-decade:  Broken Arrow, Bend of the River, Carbine Williams, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie. Five of those films were with director Anthony Mann, whom The Guardian called a “master of the genre.”

Winchester ’73 is set just after the battle that was popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand. Indians now have repeating rifles, thanks to gunrunners who have no qualms about selling weapons that will be used on settlers and U.S. Cavalry . . . as long as they can make a tidy profit. The Indians that wiped out Custer and his command had better rifles than the cavalry, and America was just learning about Little Bighorn shortly before the nation’s big Centennial celebration. It threw a damper on celebrations in the East, but not in Dodge City, where a genial Wyatt Earp confiscates the guns of newcomers Lin McAdam (Stewart) and Frankie “High-Spade” Wilson (Millard Mitchell, who would play the big studio boss in Singin’ in the Rain). Lin is tracking down Dutch Henry Brown, with whom he has a personal beef—one that will result in gunplay. As they reluctantly hand over their weapons, the audience is shown the inside of the lawmen’s office that’s completely packed with rifles and handguns and gun belts full of ammunition. Earp explains, it’s impossible to keep law and order in a wild town like Dodge if they allow people to keep their guns. “You’ll get them back when you leave town,” he says.

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Review of SWASHBUCKLER (1976) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Action-Adventure/Comedy
Rated PG (see below)

Pirates of the Caribbean fans who are looking toward the future and wincing at the prospect of Margot Robbie replacing Johnny Depp might find some comfort in looking backwards. I didn’t know it until I watched this all-region Blu-ray import, but the 1976 pirate movie Swashbucker was an obvious influence on Disney’s theme-park-ride-turned-film-franchise. 

The first third of Swashbucker has the same comic tone and breakneck action of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. The basic premise for the opening scene is here too:  Drums beat as a pirate is about to be hanged. But then a pirate ship comes around the corner, a pirate captain swings onto the hanging platform to rescue his second in command, and as they escape you almost expect one of them to say “You will always remember today as the day you almost caught . . . Nick Debrett, who sails with Captain Ned Lynch.”

Elements of the basic premise and structure are here, too. The kindly and fair governor of Jamaica has been deposed by an ambitious man and now is imprisoned. His daughter would have been as well, had she not fought and escaped. After that the three main characters who interact and drive the film are Jane Barnet (Genevieve Bujold), Nick Debrett (James Earl Jones), and Ned Lynch (Robert Shaw)—just as Disney’s films would depend upon the triangle of Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, and Jack Sparrow.

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Review of TURNING RED (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Animation
Rated PG

Turning Red is film that can seem uncharacteristically strident for Disney-Pixar. You’ve already heard the complaints: it deals with a young girl’s first menstruation, it “glorifies” juvenile disobedience, and the main character can be a bit much to take.

The first period criticism is way overblown, because it’s really just a mother’s assumption that briefly pops up. When Meilin “Mei” Lee is embarrassed, she does what many kids do:  she turns red. But her red is a giant version of the red panda.  It confuses her. It frightens her. She tries to hide it, especially from her over-protective and aggressive mom. That’s when Ming assumes her daughter is having her first period, but quickly learns it’s an animal transformation instead. 

So the “period” thing is nothing more than a brief blip on the radar screen. Parents worried about young children “getting an education” prematurely can relax. It’s subtle enough that the very young ones won’t even pick up on what’s happening, and those old enough to perceive what Meilin’s mother is talking about are old enough to ask their parents about it. Or maybe the parents would prefer to do things the old-fashioned American way and refrain from talking about something until it actually happens? You know, like Stephen King’s Carrie in the shower, who loses her mind thinking she’s dying?

I personally think any film that give families the chance to talk about important life changes and events is a good thing, and that includes the minutiae. In Turning Red, for example, Meilin has a crush on a boy, and that might be a conversation-starter for parents to talk to their children about crushes.

As for glorifying juvenile disobedience, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Meilin isn’t the first adolescent to sneak out of the house. I mean, even Disney’s Pollyanna did that, and her name is always equated with a goody-goody attitude.

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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.

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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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