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Review of ALASTAIR SIM’S SCHOOL FOR LAUGHTER: 4 CLASSIC COMEDIES (Blu-ray)

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

Alastair Sim (best known for his portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol) is the common denominator in this Blu-ray quartet of old black-and-white British comedies: The Belles of St. Trinian’s, School for Scoundrels, Laughter in Paradise, and Hue and Cry.

The most interesting of the four is Hue and Cry (1947),which gets its title from a 1285 British statute decreeing that any private citizen who witnesses a crime must make a “hue and cry” and doggedly pursue the criminal until the offender can be taken into custody. If you ever watched Gomer Pyle shout “Citizen’s arrest” on the old Andy Griffith Show, you get the idea. It’s a fun premise when the one doing the hueing and crying is a naïve bumpkin like Gomer or a teenager who recruits his “gang” to help catch the criminals.

The film was shot less than two years after WWII ended, and it’s fairly incredible for American teens and tweens to see what life was like in England immediately after the war. There are blocks and blocks of bombed-out buildings, some of which become haunts and clubhouses for young people, with heaps of rubble that spread like sand dunes to be climbed. It looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape, and yet here’s this “gang” of boys who are all wearing schoolboy shirts and ties and sportcoats and being just as proper as can be when they address adults.

Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) reads from The Trump comics magazine (seriously—that’s the name of it) but discovers a page is missing. To find out how funny-page detective Selwyn Pike solves the crime he runs off to buy a copy. But while reading the newest installment he looks up and sees two men carrying a crate into a furrier’s shop and the men are using a truck with the exact same license plate as in the comic. Coincidence? Joe thinks not. He tries to investigate and gets caught, with Inspector Ford telling him essentially to go back to school and stop coming up with these wild ideas. It’s almost the reverse situation of the pickpocket gang in Dickens’ London, with these urchins of all ages joining forces to try to prove that there really is something going on, and it’s somehow connected to the author of the comics (Sim). In him they find a believer, but also someone who cautions that this gang might be too ruthless for them to tangle with. And so it goes, with a climax that looks as if director Charles Crichton asked every boy in London to be extras in a memorable battle royale. As I said, once you can get accustomed to the boys’ British slang and rapid speech it’s one of the strongest in this collection because it’s also a vivid glimpse of history that textbooks don’t show us. Like two other films in this collection it’s more clever than funny, but there’s something to be said for cleverness. B More

Review of LITTLE WOMEN (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Rated PG
Drama

As I watched Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s Best Picture-nominated adaptation of the beloved 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel, I was struck by a great irony.

To appreciate this 2019 film—to even understand what’s going on—you really need to have read the book recently. Rather than tell the story chronologically with fully fleshed-out scenes from the book, Gerwig chops up Alcott’s narrative and tells the story out-of-sequence, bouncing back and forth in time using segments not long enough for the confused to get their bearings. The director seems more interested in scenic juxtapositions than she is telling a story she assumes everyone knows by heart—as evidenced by a scene in which young Amy’s talk with her rich aunt (Meryl Streep) immediately segues to a different location and time with an older Amy talking once again with her aunt. Numerous such examples occur throughout the film, and it’s clever. I get that. But I needed to keep asking my wife, who practically has the book memorized, who some of the characters were or what was going on.

That’s where the great irony comes in. While you had to have recently read the novel to be able to fully understand and appreciate this version, if you’re as big of a fan of Little Women as my wife is, you might find yourself annoyed that Gerwig took too many liberties with a book that was great enough not to need those extra bells and whistles.

A fragmented narration that jumps back and forth between the teenage and adult versions of the March sisters isn’t nearly as effective at conveying information as a traditional linear narrative. A non-sequential narration often puts the effect before the cause, and so viewers who don’t have the book memorized may not understand or fully appreciate what characters have been through, or what brought those characters to a certain point. As a result, you don’t feel the same emotional attachment to characters as you might have if had you been with them from the time they were pre-teens and teens through early adulthood, watching them navigate relationships with family; explore their interests in art, music, and writing; perform plays with neighbor “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Clalamet); and dabble in male-female courtships. More

Review of FLUSHED AWAY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Rated PG
Animation

It’s hard not to be bowled over by Flushed Away, an eccentric tale of a pampered upper-crust pet mouse who’s flushed down the toilet, only to discover a miniature city in the sewers underneath London. French Kung-fu frogs? Singing and screaming slugs? A mouse-granny obsessed with Tom Jones? A Bond-style villain who’s wanting to destroy an entire city? I’m not sure that an animated feature can have more organized chaos and still have such strong emotional content that you walk away from it feeling like you just watched a CGI and claymation Indiana Jones-style adventure.

This 2006 entry from Dreamworks (Shrek) and Aardman (Wallace & Gromit) is an unmistakable tip-of-the-hat to Romancing the Stone, and Flushed Away certainly has the same runaway-train pacing and playful male/female antagonism as that live-action adventure. Add similarities to The African Queen as well and you’ve got a cartoon journey that doesn’t drag, even during the occasional quiet moments.

Though it’s rated PG for “crude humor and some language,” nothing stands out as being really objectionable, and that includes what you’d expect to find floating in the sewers. Mostly, that’s because it all happens so quickly. The gags that do go the low-brow route are subtle or treated in an almost tasteful way. The grossest character is a sewer-rat named Sid (Shane Richie), who shoots up the drain from the underworld and flushes Roddy (Hugh Jackman) from his posh Kensington digs. Sid has the manners of a soccer hooligan, which is appropriate since World Cup Soccer is somehow involved in a destructive master plan by The Toad (Ian McKellen), a literal “underworld” boss. More

Review of THEIR FINEST HOUR: 5 BRITISH WWII CLASSICS (Blu-ray)

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

British WWII movies were dependably good, so it’s no surprise that this collection of five black-and-white films doesn’t contain a single stinker. Every one of them is in the B range. Because of patriotic undertones and because of the era they tend to be on the melodramatic side, but they stick with you as much as those distinctive vocal harmonies from the ‘40s.

Went the Day Well? has a title that sounds stiff, and in fact all of the older women in this 1942 film seem to talk in the same proper, lilting, slightly theatrical voice as Aunt Bee from the old Andy Griffith Show. One of the strongest films in this collection, it’s a home guard movie based on a Graham Greene story about residents of a small British village who are asked to “billet” a platoon of soldiers. Some soldiers are put up at homes and others in a town hall converted into a dorm. But the residents start to suspect that some of those soldiers aren’t at all proper British. Could they be Nazi sympathizers? Or has wartime made everyone overly cautious? Like other films in this collection it’s a bit of a slow simmer but a fascinating drama that might appeal to older children because of the “what if” questions implied by the scenario and because some of the key characters are children. This one’s a B+, with the added bonus of being shot during wartime, when studios couldn’t build new sets and therefore used more location filming with available buildings. As a result, you get a pretty fair idea of what life looked and felt like in 1942.  More

Review of STUFFED (DVD)

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

Stuffed sounds like it could be a Thanksgiving-themed film for foodies, but it’s actually a documentary about taxidermy. You know: stuffing dead animals, birds, and fish for display. And if you’re wondering who would be interested in a movie like that, you’re not alone. As we watched, we wondered the same thing.

I was interested because my age lines up with one of the senior taxidermists interviewed in this 84-minute documentary. She noted that their generation of taxidermists got their start as children by taking a taxidermy correspondence course where the lessons came in installments, by mail. I took that very same course and remember looking for fresh road kill squirrels or pigeons, then trying to peel away the skin, remove the body, replace it with a mess of wires and sisal, and sew it up again. That was the era when kids were as fascinated by museum dioramas as they were ventriloquism and magic. So as someone who was a complete failure as an adolescent taxidermist, I watched Stuffed with nostalgic interest and admiration for those who can actually do this, and do it well.

Stuffed pretty much explains why I was unable to create lifelike taxidermy mounts. Taxidermy, as this film aptly illustrates, requires the talents of a naturalist, a craftsman, and an artist. As it turned out, I didn’t have an ounce of Picasso in me. So for an audience of up-and-coming generation of potential taxidermists, the film drives home the point that taxidermy is mostly an art that also requires the mindset and calculations of a scientist, the exacting talent of a sculptor and painter, and the passion of a naturalist. More

Review of THE RARE BREED (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Not rated (would be PG)
Western

Every now and then a different kind of western rides into town, and in 1966 it was The Rare Breed. The title was meant to refer not only to the Hereford steer a recently widowed English woman (Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter (Juliet Mills) brought to St. Louis to cross-breed with Texas longhorns, but also the tough old cowboy (James Stewart) they enlist to help them.

There are no Indians in this film, no cattlemen feuding with farmers, no gunslingers out to prove themselves, no saloons full of card sharps, no cavalry riding to the rescue, and no aging sheriff trying to keep it together while keeping order. There’s also very little violence, so The Rare Breed is rare for a western as well. After working with Stewart in the poignant Civil War western Shenandoah, director Andrew McLaglen dipped his bucket into the comedy well again, though it’s not as brimming as an earlier raucous film he made with O’Hara and John Wayne (McLintock!). This one isn’t a slam-bang action movie, though there are strategically placed moments of action and tension. With a minimalist plot, The Rare Breed is more of a character study, a slow-simmering romance, and a light-hearted western that’s offbeat enough to make it seem refreshingly different.

“Bulldog” Burnett (Stewart) is a complicated man. He’s a man of principles, you can instantly tell, but what principles? The epitome of the never-fazed stoic cowboy, he knows when to mind his own business and, in the spirit of American exceptionalism, tends to look out for Number 1. When a Hereford breeding bull named Vindicator (that only responds to a whistled version of “God Save the Queen”) is bought by a man representing a Scottish rancher (Brian Keith), the widow hires Burnett to deliver the bull. Pretty straightforward, right? Except that Burnett also accepts money from another rancher to allow his men to steal the bull at an opportune time. Call it the cowboy version of the Black Sox throwing the series. More

Review of PLAYMOBIL: THE MOVIE (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Rated: PG
Animation

Given the success of the Lego movies, one thing that’s surprising about Playmobil going Hollywood is that it took them so long. The other thing is that there aren’t any Native Americans or knights in this film, and those were among the very first Playmobil sets.   But hey, Ancient Rome is here, and so are Playmobil pirates, cowboys, Vikings, spies, robots, a T-Rex, and a food truck operator.

Yep, it’s pretty random, and while the fun lies in seeing these Playmobil sets come alive on the big screen, Playmobil: The Movie can feel a bit like a screenwriter’s challenge: see how many different Playmobil sets you can jam into a single film. And while the Lego movies’ bread and butter was pop culture allusions and verbal humor, this Playmobil film relies more heavily on sight gags.

As a result, it can feel more like a film aimed at children than adults—but this film for children has secret agent Rex Dasher (Daniel Radcliffe) sipping a martini that’s shaken, not stirred. It also features people being drugged or roofied, a kick to the groin, bales of pink hay that feel like an allusion to marijuana bales. And there are battles where swordplay and fisticuffs and explosions up the ante from children’s typical pretend play of knocking figures down with rubber bands or Nerf guns. More

Review of FROZEN II (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Rated: PG
Animation

Has there been a more anticipated Disney sequel than Frozen II?

Frozen was an instant classic, winning Oscars for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song. Within the first few weeks of its debut, children young enough to have barely mastered sentences could be heard belting out “Let It Go” with the same intensity as Idina Menzel, the Broadway talent who sang it in the film.

Frozen was a tough act to follow, but Frozen II gives the 2013 original a run for its money.

For me, the differences can be summarized with a few simple observations. I thought Frozen was marred only by two songs that stood out because they were less successful than the rest: a goofy snowman song that seemed to run counter to the mood of the film, even for comic relief, and a troll song that could have been cut and no one would have cared. But overall, the film brought Broadway style to the fairytale format (a Disney specialty) and also embraced the “meet cute” formula of romantic comedies, with fun characters and interesting side plots and plot twists that were simple enough for even those budding young sopranos and tenors to understand.

Frozen II, meanwhile, comes closer to the operetta in its use of music, where songs are sometimes employed instead of dialogue to move the story forward, and those songs (as a result) seem to come at more frequent intervals. That’s not bad, mind you, just different. Still, it’s been three months since the film premiered, and I have yet to observe any youngster singing a song from the sequel. I also couldn’t pick out a favorite song the way I instantly could with Frozen—though “Into the Unknown” was nominated for an Academy Award and the Frozen II soundtrack reached #1 on the Billboard 200 Album chart. So it might take a second listen for those songs to kick in.  I also thought that Frozen II, a darker film in tone and subject matter, had a plot that was both more richly imagined and a little more contrived, and therefore a little harder for younger children to comprehend. Maybe that’s because Frozen steered fairly close to the shoreline of fairytale land, while Frozen II comes closer to fantasy. There are ghosts and spirits and people living in a netherworld. More

Review of THE MERGER (DVD)

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Grade:  B+
Entire family:  No (junior high or older)
Sports comedy
2018, 103 min., Color
Indie Pix Unlimited
Not rated (would be PG for language and very brief comic nudity)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features:  none
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a film not on your radar that would be a great choice for family movie night if you have children who are junior high age and older—especially if they’re into competitive sports. And don’t be fooled by the DVD cover, which looks like it was designed by the same people that do your local TV commercials. The Merger isn’t an amateur pretending to be professional. It’s a sure-footed, quirky, funny, warmhearted Australian Hoosiers.

Like Hoosiers, the plot revolves around an outcast in a small, small town where there’s a single sports obsession, and that outcast is expected to turn the local sports program around. Not everyone approves, there’s one player who doesn’t like the way he’s doing things, a local woman is drawn to him, he becomes close to a boy, and the players he’s assembled don’t particularly like each other. But they learn, under his tutelage, to work together toward a common goal: winning.

As with all sports films there’s a predictable arc from recruiting to practicing to losing to winning, with a big championship game the final scene. But after that, The Merger is as atypical as can be because it considers one of the biggest issues of our time: attitudes toward immigrants and diversity. The film jogs along at just the right pace for non-Australians to decipher their version of the Queen’s English and not miss many of the jokes that help to sell the message. More

Review of ICEMAN (1983) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No (but just about)
Sci-fi drama
1983, 100 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Rated PG (for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C+
Trailer unavailable
Amazon link

Like many kids these days, my son was really into dinosaurs. At age four he could identify most of the prehistoric creatures and even recite many of their scientific names.

Together we played with his dinosaur figures and watched all-things-prehistoric on TV and film, whether it was Disney’s Dinosaur, speculative documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, the Jurassic Park films, or animated adventures like The Land Before Time series. And if Kino Lorber had released Iceman on Blu-ray when my son was in his last few years of elementary school or junior high, I think he would have watched and enjoyed this 1983 drama as well.

Notice I didn’t say action-drama, because there’s not much in the way of action. Iceman is speculative storytelling for the junior scientist crowd and people who enjoy asking, “What if…?”

If dinosaurs could be cloned from DNA in Jurassic Park, and if whole preserved woolly mammoths can be found in Siberian permafrost with the hair still perfect as can be, what if a cave man was likewise discovered in a block of ice? And what if there was a miraculously plausible reason for his being not only well preserved, but also in what amounted to a state of suspended animation? What if he could actually be brought back to life after 40,000 years?

That’s the premise of Iceman, which stars Timothy Hutton as a scruffily bearded anthropologist who’s summoned to an arctic base after a research team discovers the body of a prehistoric man. They were going to dissect him and learn from him, but that plan changed when one of the scientists behind the surgical mask noticed brain activity. Before you know it they’re applying the paddles and bringing this Neanderthal back to life. Conveniently, this elaborate research station has a large biodome intended for studying bears, but when they revive the cave man they move those bears to cages and transfer the iceman to this controlled habitat.

Dr. Shephard (Hutton) gets free reign to study the cave man, and most of the film revolves around his attempts to communicate, to understand the man, and to interact with him. Lindsay Crouse plays the other main character, Dr. Diane Brady, while Danny Glover turns up as one of the crew and David Strathairn is among the doctors. Structurally, Iceman resembles Anne Sullivan’s attempts to get through to a wild and unfocused Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. More

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