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Review of WEST SIDE STORY (2021) (4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-
Musical
Rated PG-13

In 1961, the average American couldn’t go to see a Broadway show. But they did go to movie theaters in droves, and West Side Story was a blockbuster of a movie that surprised audiences with gang members who danced and sang in an updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in then-contemporary New York City and featuring two warring gangs instead of feuding families. The Robert Wise-directed film received 11 Oscar nominations and won 10 of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Music, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress.

So why would anyone even consider remaking a film so lauded and beloved? On one of the 90 minutes of bonus features on this 4K/Blu-ray release, Spielberg provided an answer—several of them.

First, Spielberg said he was not remaking a film. He was making a second film version based on the 1957 Broadway play. He reasoned that if West Side Story has been performed all over the world with different casts, why couldn’t there be a second film version?

Second, he was personally motivated. Spielberg said West Side Story was the first Broadway music he was exposed to at age 10, and that he basically “commandeered” the album his parents had bought. He loved it, and it spawned in him a love of musicals. As a result, Spielberg said that all his life he’s wanted to make a musical version of West Side Story.

A third and most compelling reason didn’t come from Spielberg. It came from my college-age daughter, who, since the film’s release, has been re-watching it and playing the songs constantly. She and many of her friends liked the music and some of the dancing from the first film version, but they weren’t exactly crazy about the characters or the narrative.

Enter Spielberg, who pinpointed the biggest difference between his new film version and the original:  the 1961 film was a hybrid—part cinematic and part theatrical. He wanted to create a film that was more fully cinematic, and to do that he had to push it away from the theatrical and make it more realistic. He had to push it away from the moist-eyed spotlight solos sung in private or in closed spaces and open it up to where they were sung with active movements (and reactions) on the streets of New York. He also added small touches of realism throughout the film and created a narrative based on logic rather than the limitations of stage.

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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 BELFAST (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A/A-
Drama, comedy
Rated PG-13

I love movies. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. It was that way in 2018 when I first saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and it happened again a year later with Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Now I feel the same way about Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and it makes perfect sense: Belfast feels like a cross between those two films.

Like Roma, Branagh’s film is a loving, artsy, cinematic tribute to his home city. Filmed for the most part in black and white to feed the nostalgia, it begins in color with spectacular shots of Belfast that put to shame anything a tourist bureau could pay an advertising company to design. And soulful, start-to-finish songs by Van Morrison—arguably Ireland’s best export since pubs—help to create the deeply profound outpouring of love you feel when you watch this film.

Like Jojo Rabbit, this 2021 film also manages to combine a serious topic with humor and quirky, endearing characters—a feat accomplished, in part, because the story is largely told from the point of view of an exuberant nine year old who doesn’t quite understand everything that’s going on. There’s a boyish fantasy, an imagination at work here too that suggests the amalgam of cultural images that’s rattling around inside his head and helping to shape his world view. That’s evident just from looking at the covers of the Blu-rays, with Waititi’s and Branagh’s young boys soaring above the ground like figures in a Marc Chagall painting. Buddy’s world view is also influenced by pop culture, including American Westerns that the boy watches with extended family—intended by Branagh as a thematic and structural parallel.

In Belfast, our first glimpse of Buddy (Jude Hill) is of him playing in the streets with the other kids as parents watch or dance in the street to a phonograph record. Some children are jumping rope or playing soccer, but others, like Buddy, are having a mock battle, with Buddy wielding a homemade gladiator-style sword and garbage-can lid shield. That play gets real really fast, as a gang of Protestant thugs shows up at the end of this cul-de-sac neighborhood—one Branagh depicts as loving and communal—and starts hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks, bashing windows, and threatening people. So much for nostalgia. So much for an idyllic childhood, as Buddy needs to be rescued by his mother (Caitríona Balfe), who uses his shield not for play but to protect both of their heads from rocks and missiles.

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Review of GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) is the kind of film that unapologetically panders to fans of the franchise. Dedicated to the late Harold Ramis, this fourth incarnation features nostalgia-inducing cameos by stars of the original 1984 smash hit:  Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver.

That original cast appeared in a slightly disappointing 1989 sequel, but was absent in the polarizing 2016 all-female reboot starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife seems aimed at an audience of both fans who have felt like the franchise owed them one and fans of child-centered mystery-drama-adventures like TV’s Stranger Things or the newer Jumanji films.

So who ya’gonna call to direct a heavily nostalgic picture that aims to please both old and young viewers? How about Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking), son of Ivan Reitman—the man who directed the first two Ghostbuster films.

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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 CRUELLA (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Comedy-Drama
Rated PG-13

I did not expect to like Cruella as much as I did, because the two previous times Disney tried live-action versions of the popular 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians they produced doggie doo. That’s not just my opinion. While the original animated film got a 98 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close as villainess Cruella De Ville earned just a 41 percent rating, and the 2000 sequel did even worse (31 percent).

But RT critics awarded this new origin story Cruella a 74 percent “fresh” rating, while 97 percent of the audience gave it high marks. After watching it, I can see why. It’s smartly written and full of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. Emma Stone has fun with the titular role without going over-the-top campy—and that’s a tough tone to pull off. Close didn’t even come close.

Stone received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and it was well deserved because of the pressure she faced. Essentially Cruella—like Disney’s Maleficent before it—is similar to a superhero origin story. As the lead performer goes, so goes the film.

Disney is trying to tell the stories of their villains with some sympathy, but isn’t that a risky business? Disney villains are notorious and gigglesnort popular because they are villains of a gigantic sort. Maleficent was the fourth highest grossing film of 2014, and Cruella was 15th in 2021 box office revenue. Since Maleficent was also a bit more sinister than Cruella, might that account for the difference? Do audiences still prefer villains to be more villainous than misunderstood?

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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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Review of MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE (Blu-ray)

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

What do Rudolph Valentino and Bob Hope have in common?

They both played the title character in film versions of Monsieur Beaucaire, a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Booth Tarkington, but with one big difference. The legendary silent movie star nicknamed The Latin Lover played him as a swashbuckler, while the swordplay side of the character was shifted to another for this 1946 comedy.

Both during and after the “Road” pictures Hope made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, the comedian who lived to be 100 starred in a slew of solo films. For families especially, his costumed comedies and historical biographies remain the most enjoyable. Here’s how I’d rank them:

1. The Princess and the Pirate (1944)
2. Monsieur Beaucaire (1946)
3. The Paleface (1948)
4. Casanova’s Big Night (1954)
5. The Seven Little Foys (1955)
6. Fancy Pants (1950)
7. Beau James (1957)
8. Son of Paleface (1952)
9. Alias Jesse James (1959)

What makes Monsieur Beaucaire rise to the top is its plot. Unlike the Cold War spy mix-ups that Hope made, the costumed dramas have more intricate plotting.

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Review of THE PAPER TIGERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Action comedy-drama
Rated PG-13

If your family loved Cobra Kai—or even The Karate Kid films that preceded the popular TV series—and you’re looking for another martial arts offering that balances medium-intensity action, drama, and humor, you might consider The Paper Tigers. Yuji Okumoto, who appeared in the second Karate Kid film and also Cobra Kai, was the film’s producer.

This English-language 2020 martial arts film from director Quoc Bao Tran is as much in the tradition of old-guys-proving-they’ve-still-got-it tradition of films like Space Cowboys (2000) and Old Dogs (2009) as it is the kung fu movies. But don’t fear, younger viewers, there’s young martial arts action too. It’s just that the focus is on three middle-aged men whose bodies have seen better days. In other words, this isn’t your typical Asian martial arts film, though it does have an almost obligatory memorable fight scene.

The Paper Tigers features three likable guys who are just that: guys. Too many martial arts films are all action with nothing but paper characters—kung fu wizards who do little more than kick, block, and punch their way through every scene. The heroes of this film are Everymen, real flesh-and-blood people who just happen to have bonded in the youth when they were “The Three Tigers,” as their master dubbed them. One of the characters happens to be African American and the other two Asian American, but all three are treated as people because “at the end of the day, we wanted to tell a fun, entertaining story that depicted our experience honestly,” Tran told the media.

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