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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I am not Asian or Asian American, so I’m not in a position to comment on what has lately been called “outdated cultural stereotypes” or “depictions.”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 Often, unfortunately, that translates into outdated cultural stereotypes.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.

It would be tempting to say that such things account for why this R&H musical has been less popular and has had fewer productions mounted than any of the talented team’s other musicals. But frankly, aside from “I Enjoy Being a Girl”—an Ann-Margret-style number sung by Nancy Kwan—the songs themselves are forgettable and seem less integral, though the music earned one of the film’s five Academy Award nominations. Two long dream sequence numbers also seem to detract rather than add to any building momentum.

The plot of Flower Drum Song is a tamer variation of the bedroom farce. This was the Hugh Hefner era, and playboy nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo) has a thing for women in general and his spotlight attraction, Linda Low (Kwan), in particular—though Helen (Reiko Sato) has a thing for him. Complicating matters, Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki) and her father (Ching Wah Lee) have stowed away aboard a ship from Hong Kong and arrive in San Francisco to announce that they are there to honor a marriage contract with Sammy that his mother had arranged. In Guys and Dolls parallel fashion, there’s also nice-guy Wang Ta (James Shigeta), who enters the picture when Sammy tries to get the marriage contract shifted to him by having someone approach his parents. Through a series of misunderstandings, Wang Ta finds himself needing to choose between the same two women as Sammy.

Flower Drum Song subtly tackles issues of immigration and assimilation, with one song, “Chop Suey,” devoted to America-as-cliché malapropisms as seen through the eyes of immigrants studying to become U.S. citizens. It’s a fun song, but who can remember the lyrics or the tune to be able to sing it later in the shower or while stuck in rush-hour traffic?

Ultimately, Flower Drum Song feels brave in what it attempts, and this film version is entertaining enough . . . as long as you don’t think about other R&H musicals like The Sound of Music, The King and I, Oklahoma!, or even South Pacific. Fans at Ranker.com placed this one ahead of State Fair, andI’d have to agree. If you consider the overall production, then Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head and Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage seem like the qualitative equivalents to Flower Drum Song.

Entire family:  Yes (but younger children will be bored)
Run time:  133 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features:  B
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some drinking and smoking)

Language:  2/10—I frankly didn’t catch anything, so the 2 is in case things slipped past me

Sex: 1/10—The trailer promises “tempestuous” lovemaking, but there’s really just an innocent kiss and embrace or two, and one character sleeps over after drinking too much to set up a misunderstanding (but nothing happens and nothing is shown)

Violence: 0/10—Nothing at all, unless you consider getting doused with ice violent

Adult situations: 2/10—a variation of the bedroom farce, but all very G-rated apart from some drinking and smoking

Takeaway:  Flower Drum Song may not be as solid as other R&H successes, but it also isn’t bad enough to be as ignored as it is; fans will be glad that Kino Lorber has released this Blu-ray featuring a brand new 2K master

Review of KING RICHARD (2021) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Sports biopic, 2021
Rated PG-13

King Richard is a good movie that our family found entertaining. But we also found ourselves wondering how Oscar-worthy it was. The film has received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Song (“Be Alive,” by Beyoncé and Dixson).

Not your typical sports biopic, this Venus and Serena Williams story uniquely revolves around the father that shaped and micromanaged their careers.  And there’s no arguing with the results. His daughters became two of the greatest tennis players ever to hit the courts. Venus, who turned pro at age 14, was the first African American woman to rank No. 1 in the US Open era and notched seven Grand Slam singles titles over the course of her career. Younger (by one year) sister Serena won 23 Grand Slam singles titles—the most of any player in the Open era and second-most all-time. Together, they teamed to win 14 women’s doubles titles and three Olympic gold medals in women’s doubles.

So the Williams sisters’ story was certainly ripe for the telling.

With Hollywood being Hollywood, though, the screenplay is reductive. The curtain parts just enough to show the period between when Richard recognized the girls were ready for a professional coach and when Venus played her first match as a pro. Though both parents had a hand in coaching the girls, emphasized here is Richard’s coaching and the tension caused by his ironfisted parenting and management. As played by Will Smith, Richard is a character that’s admirable but not always likable. In fact, he can be annoying as hell. The more he pushes, you find yourself siding with the girls; the more he stubbornly ignores the very professionals he sought out, the more you want to shake him—almost as much as the agents, coaches and would-be sponsors who are so intent on getting a piece of the Williams’ action that they act like a bunch of overzealous Jerry Maguires (“Help me help you!”).

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Review of BLACK WIDOW (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Action-Superhero
Rated PG-13

There are two kinds of Marvel movies: the puzzler that requires a vast knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to make sense of the plot, and the stand-alone that’s more closed form and self-contained. Black Widowwill satisfy people who take comfort in the latter.

In this 24th film in the Marvel Universe, we get the information that Thanos has killed off most of the Avengers and that Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha (Black Widow) are on the run. Though it takes place after the action in Captain America: Civil War (2016), you really don’t have to have seen or remember that film to make sense of this one.

Black Widow features a lot of blockbuster special effects action, but there’s enough back story to give an emotional backbone to those sequences and make them matter. There are fewer characters to keep straight, and just enough comic lines and moments to change the pace from time to time.

Scarlet Johansson stars as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow. The film was partially shot at Pinewood Studios and features location shots of Norway, Budapest, and Morocco. If the film has a Bond feel to it—and I think it does—maybe it’s because of those locations, the Cold War Russian vs. American high stakes covert operations, and a villain with a grand scheme to control the world.

Just as Black Panther featured a cast that was mostly Black, this 2021 film, by design, has a sisterhood feel to it. Directed by Cate Shortland (The Secret Life of Us), Black Widow pairs Johansson with Florence Pugh and shows them in an early flashback as sisters raised in a Russian sleeper cell in Ohio. Ripped from their lives, they are turned into Red assassins. Throughout the film the two have great chemistry, which gives Black Widow a quirky buddy-cop feel to it as well. But it turns out that they’re not alone. The villain (Ray Winstone as Dreykov, one of only two prominent male characters) is trying to build a network of trained female assassins.

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Review of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

Some twelve weeks after its theatrical debut, Raya and the Last Dragon is the third highest grossing film in the U.S., behind Spiral and Wrath of Man. With a domestic box office of $49.3 million and another $60.6 million international box office revenue, it’s exceeding expectations, and I’d like to suggest one reason why:  Disney animators always seem to up their game, and they did so again with Raya.

The martial arts swordfights in this 59th full-length feature from Disney are the most accomplished I’ve seen so far in the world of animation—presented at a speed you’d normally encounter in the best Ip Man, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan movies. Combine that with gorgeous backgrounds and character animations, and Raya and the Last Dragon is another solid effort from the House of Mouse—though the plot itself can seem a bit familiar.

Set in a dystopian fantasy world, Raya and the Last Dragon begins with the backstory of a fictional land (Kumandra) where dragons and people once thrived together until evil spirits (that look a bit like the smoke monster on Lost)terrorized the land and turned dragons and people to stone—except for some people and one dragon, who focused the magic she and other dragons had on a single gem. But you do the math: one gem and five tribes? Of course they fight over it, and the pieces are eventually scattered among those tribes. Hundreds of years later, the Druun return and wreak havoc on the now-separate sections of what was once Kumandra. Raya is the daughter of Chief Benja of the Heart tribe, while her once friend and now rival, Namaari, is the princess of the Fang tribe. But like any fantasy, the story itself seems more complicated than the visual action. Relax and enjoy this simple quest story, as Raya tries to find the last dragon, recover the jewel pieces, and defeat the Druun once and for all. Unless Namaari beats her to it.

Give Disney credit, though, for creating strong female characters without drawing attention to it, without adding a Prince or love interest, and for not making a big deal out of adding two more princesses to the merchandising Pantheon. Give them credit, too, for giving Asians and Asian Americans feisty princesses that look like them—even if Disney took a little flak (what else is new?) for not featuring enough South Asian actors among the voice talents.

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Review of THE MARKSMAN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Action thriller
Rated PG-13

From the first scene where an aging Arizona rancher (Liam Neeson) stumbles onto a cartel “situation” and ends up with a bag full of money, to a scene that’s the equivalent of the Coen Brothers’ “coin toss scene,” The Marksman feels like a cheap knockoff of No Country for Old Men.  And with a little Hunt for the Wilderpeople added for good measure.

What cheapens it isn’t Neeson’s performance, but rather a formulaic approach to ticking off the boxes rather than concentrating on creating characters and relationships with any individuality or depth.

For one thing, first-time director Robert Lorenz spends too much time in the early going just establishing a few facts that could have been hinted at more subtly: 

—Jim Hanson was a Vietnam War veteran who earned a medal for marksmanship

—Jim Hanson is lost and lonely because his wife died of cancer

—Jim Hanson is going to lose his ranch unless he can come up with a lot of money to pay for back mortgage payments

The film is also marred by characters that push past stereotypes into caricature country.

Javier Bardem has nothing to fear from the cartel bad ass that Lorenz gives us here. Mauricio—called “Heffe” and played by Juan Pablo Raba—is too cartoonish to be chilling. He’s just a bad guy who sneers a lot and stares a lot in lingering close-ups. Oh we believe him when he says he’s going to kill the old rancher who drove away with the son of a Mexican woman he already killed at the border. And we believe he’s determined to recover the drug money that the boy’s (now deceased) uncle had taken from him and given to his (now deceased) mother. But Bardem as Anton Chigurh was a one-and-done, just as Heath Ledger’s lizard-tongued Joker was a one-time affair. Try to duplicate it and you’re doomed to fall short.  

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Review of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (2016) (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
2016, 108 min., Color
Drama, Theatrical Production
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Adapted from a 1905 children’s novel by Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children is a joint York Theatre Royal and National Railway Museum production that was staged in a venue near Kings Cross Station in London. This is a filmed performance of the Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden production, which shut down in January 2017.

If you’re from the U.K. and grew up with the book or have walked the park where a monument pays tribute, you’ll feel more easily charmed by a production that half-depends on the warm feeling of shared cultural nostalgia.

Regardless, the stage set is unique, designed to resemble a train station with one set of tracks and a platform on either side, and a single walkway at one end that allows people to cross from one side to the other. Lining each platform are seats where audience members sit as close to each platform as possible without actually being onstage themselves. In this elongated version of theater-in-the-round, characters are in near-constant movement, and the staging is minimalist—with a real train appearing only briefly. For the most part, flat wooden squares the same height as the platforms are pushed into place to suggest the train and various rooms and buildings, and you marvel at how the actors are able to retain their balance as they walk across the square/squares that briefly connects the platforms. More

EVELYN (Blu-ray)

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evelyncoverGrade: B
2002, 95 min., Color
Olive Films
Drama
Rated PG for thematic material and language
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m guessing that more than a few people will notice that Evelyn is a film about an Irish father trying to gain custody of his kids and immediately think of Kramer vs. Kramer. How in the world is that appropriate for family viewing? Well, the 1979 Academy Award-winning picture starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep isn’t appropriate, unless you think it’s character building for children to watch parents say and do some pretty nasty things to each other while tugging at their offspring as if they were a wishbone. But Evelyn isn’t like that at all. To continue the analogy, it’s more like Kramer vs. the Government.

Based on a real 1955 custody case that had an entire nation hanging on the decision, Evelyn stars Pierce Brosnan in a very un-Bondlike role. He plays Desmond Doyle, an out-of-work Irishman evelynscreen2who sings in his father’s band and drinks a little too much. But it’s clear that he has a good heart and he loves his children. He’s crushed when his wife (and their mother) runs off to Australia with another man, and Irish law at the time forbade children from being raised by a single parent. The children are removed from the home and placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage, where neglect and abuse are as common as the priest scandals that have dominated the headlines in recent years. Viewers soon discover that the orphanages are full of faux orphans—children taken away from a single parent who still loves them dearly and wishes to care for them.

Most parents give up, the film’s narrative tells us. It is, after all, Irish law. But not Desmond Doyle. After a few aborted attempts to get his children illegally, he attracts the attention of a woman working extra hours as a bartender to help pay for her education. She has a brother (Stephen Rea) who might be able to help him. And a would-be suitor from America (Aidan Quinn) who just happens to be a barrister. Before long, they’ve attracted the interest of another lawyer who moonlights as a sports announcer (Alan Bates). Suddenly, Doyle isn’t just a single father fighting the system in futility. He’s part of a team that’s trying to establish a new precedent in Irish law—one that’s fairer to families.

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INFERNO (Blu-ray)

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infernocoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 122 min., Color
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements, and some sexuality
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is confused for the bulk of this action-thriller, and as a result, so are viewers. As he was in The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009), Langdon is on the run—chased by people who want to get what he has, or kill him, or both. And once again he is accompanied/assisted by a beautiful woman (Sienna Brooks).

In other words, there’s a formula at work here, so those who liked the first two films based on novels by Dan Brown and directed by Ron Howard ought to enjoy this one as well. You know who you are, and you know the drill. Along the way you’ll learn more about Langford’s area of specialization—Dante and medieval symbols—and your confusions will eventually be resolved by explanations presented almost as rapid-fire as the action . . . so pay attention!

infernoscreen1In Inferno, Langdon awakens in a hospital in Florence, Italy. He is having major hallucinations of disturbing medieval images—graphic images that are mostly responsible for the PG-13 rating—and he has amnesia. He has no idea how he got from Boston to Florence. But there isn’t much time for reflection. The plot kick-starts when an Italian motorcycle policewoman comes to the hospital, shoots an orderly, and tries to kill Langdon. The nurse, Felicity (Brooks), helps him escape, and from that moment the chases are on. Langdon is pursued by three separate groups of people (who ARE they, and who’s telling the truth?), and on-the-run he’s racing to piece clues together to try to remember how he became involved in all of this, and how big it is.

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Disney’s INTO THE WOODS arrives on Blu-ray March 24

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intothewoodscoverFrom composer Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park with George), the producers of Wicked, and the director of Chicago comes Disney’s film version of the popular Broadway play Into the Woods—available on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and Disney Movies Anywhere on March 24, 2015.

Iconic characters such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel find their fates intertwined with a humble baker and his wife, whose longing to have a child sends them “into the woods” on a quest to reverse a witch’s curse.

In this PG-rated musical comedy-drama, Meryl Streep stars as the Witch, Johnny Depp intothewoodsscreenas the Wolf, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife, James Corden as the Baker, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Chris Pine as the Prince, Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, and MacKenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel.

The soundtrack will really come to life with an English DTS-HD MA 7.1, and young fans will have fun looking for five Golden Eggs (Easter Eggs) to click on for additional bonus content. Included among the extras are making-of features and a “never-before-seen” (or heard?) original Sondheim song, “She’ll Be Back,” sung by Streep.

New on Blu-ray and DVD (March 3, 2015)

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At Movie Metropolis, which became defunct today when the CEO shut it down without explanation, I wrote a weekly “This Week” column alerting readers to new releases. I had no idea when I posted this morning’s “This Week” column that the site would be shut down permanently today, but I plan on continuing that feature here at Family Home Theater. For Movie Met readers who have found your way to my blog, Family Home Theater is devoted to “stuff the kids can see,” or at least some of the kids. Sometimes it will be the older kids, sometimes just the younger. Mostly I’ll cover PG-13, PG, and G releases, though an occasional R-rated film that’s an award winner or something older teens might want to see may also find its way into the site, if it’s rated R mostly for language that the kids hear on the playground anyway. But the emphasis is on family movie nights.

Charlie160There’s always an anniversary in TV and Movie Land, and this week it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which celebrates its 10th with the release of a Blu-ray. Unless you’re wedded to the original Gene Wilder film, which seems more dated these days, this Tim Burton version of the Roald Dahl story will probably hold your kids’ attention better—even though some of you might feel more nostalgic toward the “Wilder” version. Charlie is rated PG-13, which is what you’d expect from Burton and Depp.

Jane160This week the Warner Bros. musical comedy Calamity Jane comes out on Blu-ray as a single title for the first time and as part of a four-film Blu-ray collection that also includes Kiss Me Kate 3D, The Band Wagon, and Singin’ in the Rain. This isn’t the Calamity Jane you saw in HBO’s Deadwood. In this cheery 1953 film, Jane may own a saloon, but it’s only to give Day a chance to sing. If your family loves musicals, this one isn’t a classic, but Day’s character is infectious. And it’s rated G.

Neverbeast160If you have younger children, girls especially, their “please please” radar will bleep in the direction of two new releases this week. Disney has been promoting the heck out of Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast, and I have no problem with that kind of marketing blitz. As long as they continue to crank out above-average, G-rated, high production-value installments in this Pixie Hollow Fairies series, I’m good with it—even though it seems to be a revisionist take on the 1953 version of Tinker Bell, who was petty, jealous, self-centered, and vindictive. The reimagined Tinker Bell has a much better image—almost as squeaky clean as Doris Day’s persona. That’s good, because these Disney movies are all about modeling positive behaviors and teaching lessons in attitude adjustment. Look for Neverbeast on Blu-ray or DVD.

Barbie160The other kiddie-pleaser coming out on both formats this week is Barbie in Princess Power. Universal hasn’t been able to keep this franchise as fresh as Disney, and all you have to do realize that is recall the funny and inventive Pixar shorts featuring Barbie and Ken. Princess Power looks like another retread from tires we’ve already kicked and drives we’ve already taken. But that won’t stop little girls from enjoying it.

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