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Review of CLAMBAKE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1967, 99 min., Color
Musical comedy-romance
Not rated: Would be PG (for smoking, drinking, and some suggestive scenes)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B- (an audio commentary from Videodrome video rental store)
“Clambake” clip
Amazon link

It started with Jailhouse Rock (1957), the film that established the Elvis film character as a brooding James Dean, often with a chip on his shoulder, but with a good guy hiding under the facade. That character would appear with only minor alterations in most of his 23 films made between 1962 and 1969. By comparison, during that same period John Wayne made 17 films. Both were box-office giants.

Many of the films from this period are “a-go-go” films, and if you’re a fan of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof Top Secret! you’ll see in the formula Elvis movies what they were making fun of. Today’s families will find these lightweight musical comedy-romances fun to watch, but also fun to make fun of. Some of the dancing, some of the clothes, some of the antics are just plain hilarious now, though they were intended, like the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello “beach” movies, to be campy and fun even back then. They feature plenty of mod and mini-skirted and bikinied women and goofy guys doing the swim, the frug, the monkey, the jerk, and all those dances that were so cool then but look so silly now. What will seem even sillier to modern audiences are the backgrounds that were clumsily and unapologetically used (like the mountains in the background of this film set in Miami), or the far-fetched ways in which the writers sought to bring Elvis in contact with children.

Yes, children. You see, the Elvis film persona was meant to be everything to women: a bad boy, a nice guy, a singing romantic, a tough guy when he had to be, a clean-living guy who usually refrained from alcohol and tobacco, and a good-looking guy who was so good with kids that women saw him as father material. Despite the attitude, Elvis was the kind of guy you could bring home to meet Mom and Dad.

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Review of ROARING ABYSS (DVD)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes (though small children may tire)
2015, 87 min., Color
Music documentary
Not rated: Would be G
IndiePix Films
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Roaring Abyss is an unfortunate title, and the cover art just as unfortunate. Both give a false impression of turbulence, pain, struggle, or a profound feeling of being trapped. That couldn’t be more misleading. Roaring Abyss is a feel-good film, a start-to-finish musical journey across Ethiopia, where, we’re told, “Ninety million people in the second most populated African country” are “singing in eighty different languages on both sides of the Rift Valley.”

This 2015 documentary from Quino Piñero could very well do for traditional music from Ethiopia what Buena Vista Social Club did for Cuban music and musicians. The musicians celebrate their lives through music, and Piñero celebrates that too, along with celebrating their talent, passion, and dedication to preserving traditional music.

You don’t have to be a music lover to enjoy this film, but it certainly helps, since music is a constant. From the terrific opening song you know what sort of journey awaits. A pattern unfolds: you see film of everyday life in a section of Ethiopia while you hear music, then a cut to the musicians so you can see the source of the sound and watch the rest of the performance—and in a sense, every one of these songs, no matter where it was recorded, is a performance because they have been recorded in front of microphones for posterity. After the performance we get more of the same, with that pattern occasionally interrupted by interviews with some of the performers.

“A song is not only for dancing,” one of them remarks. “It reminds you of your dear ones, it brings back memories of far relatives, it reminds you of those who passed away, it reminds you of the love you experienced in your life. Indeed, songs are rarely made for dancing only.”

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Review of HICKOK (4K Ultra HD combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2017, 88 min., Color
Western
Not Rated: Would be PG-13 for brief nudity, sexual situations and strong language
Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 matted widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B- (nice making-of feature)
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray
Trailer
Amazon link

Timothy Woodward Jr. grew up loving Hollywood Westerns, and now he’s living the dream—he’s directing them. And he’s getting better.

Woodward’s first effort, Traded (2016), starred music legends Kris Kristofferson and Trace Adkins, both of whom look rugged enough to play a convincing cowboy in the American Wild West of the 1870s and ‘80s. Traded was basically a Western version of Taken, and though Westerns have more clichés than cacti have needles, this one was hemorrhaging hokey dialogue, wooden characters, and silly situations. It was hard going, which is why I’m not surprised it earned only a 5.1 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database from over 2000 audience members. At Family Home Theater we warned it was a C- at best.

But then along comes Hickok (2017), which 600 IMDB audience members rated a 5.3. Seeing that, you’d think that the two films are comparable—but you’d be wrong. Hickok is a superior film, despite a script that fictionalizes ol’ Wild Bill so much you barely recognize him and his story. Then again, this is a Western, not a documentary, and for a Western it’s better than average.

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Review of GOING IN STYLE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2017, 96 min., Color
Crime comedy
Rated PG-13 for drug content, language, and some suggestive material
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C (director’s commentary)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Money-grubbing moneylenders are evil—at least in literature and Hollywood. Whether it was Tom Joad and his fellow Okies trying to start a new life in California after banks foreclosed on them, George Bailey fighting to keep Mr. Potter from buying up the whole town and gouging tenants, or even Bonnie and Clyde becoming bank-robbing folk heroes, any act of resistance has been seen as an act of heroism.

The financial crisis of 2007-08—triggered by banks actively selling subprime mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them—only solidified the notion that banks are the con men, the bad guys. Add the corporate shipping of jobs overseas and the dismantling of pensions that workers paid into but lost, and the idea of the evil moneygrubbers grows even larger.

So how can you possibly go wrong when you cast beloved veterans Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin as 70-somethings who, victimized by the banks and their employer, decide to rob a bank? I mean, the bank and their employer cheated them, so what do they have to lose? If they get caught, they get “three squares” and better health care than they now have, and if they succeed they avoid financial ruin.

Close your eyes and picture the first-act set-up where we’ll get to know each of them, follow their routines, and come to understand what makes them decide that Going in Style is preferable to remaining law-abiding citizens.

Have you got an image of the scenes that you’d see, the situations that would be illustrated?

Good. Because then I don’t have to tell you about the first part of this film. The setup is as generic as can be, and paced so leisurely that it feels like a yawner. Their situations are clichéd, with one about to lose his house (and his daughter and granddaughter are living with him, so they too would be out on the streets), one who needs a kidney transplant and is told he doesn’t have much time left, and a third a family-less fellow who is hit-on by an elderly grocery-store employee (Ann-Margaret). There are no surprises and very few delights in the first third of the film. It’s only when they seek out a “low life” to get advice on how to rob a bank that the interest picks up, and by the third act things are rolling so well that you wish the film had started at that point.

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Review of KONG: SKULL ISLAND (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: No
2017, 118 min., Color
Sci-fi Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Best. Kong. Ever.

That was our family’s verdict, with all four members awarding an A or A- to this franchise reboot. Then again, we’re not purists. We’re just movie-lovers, and we loved this movie. The action is non-stop, the CGI monsters and battles are terrific, the location footage shot in northern Vietnam and Oahu is stunning, the characters are fun, and most importantly for an action film with lots of blood and violence and killing, this film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Tonally, it’s right there with the early James Bond films . . . if Bond was on speed and there was no time for romance.

Unlike more unimaginative monster movies, this isn’t just a game of attrition, where you end up with a slow build-up to one death, then another, and another. All hell breaks loose, and it never stops breaking loose. You can’t predict who’s going to get it and when, but how upset can you possibly get when a man falls into the mouth of the great ape and is presumably eaten, when his fall is followed by a quick match cut in which we see a close-up of a soldier taking a crunchy bite out of a sandwich? And when another character is eaten, as he looks up and notices the creature we have yet to see, his last words are “Oh shit,” you’re more prone to laugh first, then shout in release at the action that follows. Which is to say, yes, this is every bit a PG-13 movie, both in language and in violent action, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (TV’s Single Dads) tempers it with humor. As a result, what could have been a serious bloodbath is more of a popcorn movie.

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Review of THE LEMON DROP KID (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1951, 91 min., Black and White
Comedy
Not rated (would be G)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
“Silver Bells” clip
Amazon link

If the title isn’t a tip-off that this is a Damon Runyon story, the rest of the nicknamed character roster ought to be a dead giveaway: Brainey Baxter, Oxford Charlie, Nellie Thursday, Moose Moran, Straight Flush Tony, Gloomy Willie, Sam the Surgeon, Little Louie, Singing Solly, and Goomba.

Runyon famously wrote about colorful characters he met on Broadway and at the racetracks in Florida—guys and dolls, racketeers and henchmen, horse trainers and grooms, bookies and touts, and just plain down-and-outs.

Like Pocketful of Miracles (1961)—which was also inspired by a Runyon short story—The Lemon Drop Kid is set around Christmas, a film in which the main character wavers between being a selfish Scrooge or an unselfish giver. He’s the only character who has any kind of arc at all; the rest are stock types or foils.

Like the Shirley Temple film Little Miss Marker and the Bob Hope remake, Sorrowful Jones (both based on another Runyon story), it revolves around a debt or a bet. In this case, The Lemon Drop Kid (Bob Hope) touts a horse to a woman holding $10K, and that horse loses. What’s worse, the woman turns out to be the girlfriend of notorious racketeer Moose Moran (Fred Clark).

Naturally, Moose wants his money back, and he gives the Lemon Drop Kid until Christmas to settle the score . . . or else. So the Kid goes to New York and looks up his old girlfriend Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) and also racketeer Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) to see if he can get a loan. When that falls through, the Lemon Drop Kid gets a brainy idea of his own: seeing a Salvation Army bell-ringer dressed as Santa, the Kid decides to ring a bell in a Santa Suit with a kettle and a sign that reads “Save a Life.” Meaning, his own.

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Review of ROAD TO BALI (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1952, 91 min., Color
Musical comedy-adventure-romance
Not rated (would be PG for mild peril and innuendo)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: B-
APC teaser
Amazon link

In the 1940s, singers Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour hooked up with hook-nosed comedian Bob Hope for five “road” pictures—comedies about two erstwhile male vaudeville performers in exotic locations who end up meeting and falling for Lamour’s character. Was it a formula? Yes and no. Audiences knew exactly what to expect, but Hope and Crosby ad-libbed so much that the films had the added energy of unpredictability.

After taking the road to Singapore (1940), Zanzibar (1941), Morocco (1942), Utopia (1946), and Rio (1947), the trio took to the road again in 1952 for their first and only color excursion, Road to Bali. Crosby plays George Cochran and Hope is Harold Gridley, two entertainers forced to cut engagements in Australia short when they end up wooing one too many farmer’s daughters and are forced to find other work. The first job that presents itself is “deep sea diver,” and so they’re off on another adventure.

Though it’s not as funny as Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia, this 91-minute comedy is a good place to start for families with younger children because it is color and because Road to Bali is a kitchen sink film. Writers Frank Butler, Hal Kanter, and William Morrow throw everything into the film, including the kitchen sink, among them:

—A treasure hunt
—A South Seas princess
—A romantic triangle
—A long-lost father who turns up
—A wedding
—A battle with a giant squid
—A fight between a tiger and a gorilla
—A close call with crocodiles
—A lovelorn gorilla who decides Harold is the perfect replacement for the mate she lost
—An exploding volcano
—A “Scottish” song-and-dance routine Hope and Crosby perform in kilts
—Cameo appearances by Humphrey Bogart (in a film clip) and Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Jane Russell
—“Balinese” dancers who move to music that sounds suspiciously like jazz
—A snake-charmer takeoff in which the flute player summons not a cobra but a beautiful woman

Road to Bali may not feature the kind of breakneck pacing that young people are used to, but the film shifts gears enough times and has enough color and humor to make it fun for family viewing—if, that is, your children are open to older movies. And if your family includes a Baby Boomer or fans of vintage television shows, a bonus is that Carolyn Jones (Morticia on TV’s The Addams Family) appears in just her second career role as one of the jilted farmer’s daughters; Leon Askin (Gen. Burkhalter on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes) turns up as King Ramayana, the ruler of an unspecified idyllic island somewhere between Australia and Bali; and Michael Ansara (Cochise on TV’s Broken Arrow and the Blue Djinn on I Dream of Jeannie) is one of the guards that serve the King and Prince Ken Arok (Murvyn Vye).

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