Diplomaniacs (1933) Review

Director: William A. Seiter

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 61 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Often compared to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) of the same year, Diplomaniacs is a wild, anti-war satire with a few musical numbers thrown into the mix, because – well- why the Hell not? The story concerns itself with Willy Nilly (Bert Wheeler) and Hercules Grub (Robert Woolsey), two barbers on a Native American reservation who are assigned by the local natives to negotiate an end to all war at a peace conference in Geneva. It’s as crazy as it sounds, and, yes, there will be blackface. Oh, so much blackface.

The first thing that must be discussed when talking about Diplomaniacs is its dated racial humor. Just about every race gets mocked here (and they’re all played by Whites, as far as I could tell), but there is a blackface musical number that has stirred up some controversy in recent times. This makes the film in question difficult to recommend to everybody, but those with strong stomachs when it comes to racial insensitivity will find much to enjoy (other than the song that I was just talking about).

Diplomaniacs is a very funny movie, being one of those pictures that tries to make almost every single line a joke of some kind. It only lasts an hour, so there is a high gag density here. Of course, not every comedic beat lands, but the flick is so likeably silly and audacious in how stupid it will go for a laugh that it still puts a smile on my face. There is definitely some satire in Diplomaniacs, but much of its humor is straightforward goofiness.

Made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this irreverent movie reflects a cynical, Great Depression-era view of international diplomacy. To the filmmakers, it seems like all that politicians and business-people want is war, and everybody else is just too dumb to stop them. There are a lot of laughs to be found, as it never gets too dark, but the blackface sequence means that this one isn’t for everyone.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Spookley the Square Pumpkin (2004) Review

Director: Bernie Denk

Genre(s): Kids & Family, Musical

Runtime: 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

This children’s computer-animated film plays out like a Halloween version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Based on the book The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin by Joe Troiano, this movie follows a cube-shaped pumpkin (voiced by Sonja Ball) who is made fun of by the rest of the normal-shaped inhabitants of the pumpkin patch. Okay, this one might be easy to dog-pile on, but I’ll be merciful.

The first thing one notices about this picture is the dated animation quality. It’s not horrible, but time hasn’t been kind to this particular aspect. With all of the talking vegetables and moralizing, it feels like an early episode of VeggieTales (except with more bullying). The message of the movie is, of course, to not judge someone by their appearance.

To an adult, Spookley the Square Pumpkin could seem a bit slow and padded (even at forty-seven minutes), with some less-than-stellar jokes. The musical numbers are fine and the characters are easy to keep track of. The target audience (kids, obviously) will be far more forgiving and will hopefully take away the film’s message of tolerance with them. It’s rightfully rated G by the MPAA, featuring no swearing or real violence (although there is some peril).

This isn’t the most famous feature of all time, with, at the time of this review, IMDb listing its release date as 2005. However, this is apparently only for its Dutch-language release in Belgium. Wikipedia (never wrong, never wrong) says it came out in 2004. In case you were wondering, yes, there is a sequel, called Spookley and the Christmas Kittens (2019), but it’s so obscure that it doesn’t even have an IMDb page at the time of this review.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Grease (1978) Review

Director: Randal Kleiser

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1978 musical Grease is a nostalgic look back on teenage life in the 1950s as seen through the lens of the 1970s. You see, high school cool cat Danny (John Travolta) had a summer fling with an Australian girl, Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), and now doesn’t know that they’re attending the same school together. This one follows the standard rom-com formula pretty closely, so no points will be awarded for guessing how it ends.

The biggest draws of this film are its iconic musical numbers. Even people who’ve never seen the movie before can probably hum along with one or two of the songs featured here. My favorite ditty is “Grease,” performed by Frankie Valli, which plays over the animated main title sequence. It’s a disco tune, but doesn’t feel particularly out-of-place in the fifties setting.

The detractors of this picture point out things like that the high schoolers here look like forty-year-olds (perhaps it was all that underage smoking and drinking?). Another common criticism is the flick’s dubious sense of morality, where surrendering to peer pressure, unprotected sex, reckless driving, and chain-smoking are seen are ultimate cools. I can’t subscribe to what Grease says about right and wrong, but, if you’re getting your moral direction from this feature, you have deeper issues.

The film only has just enough conflict in it to sustain itself. Sure, the characters of Danny and Sandy go back and forth with each other, but most of the work is about teens partying, singing, and dancing. The story’s simple, but the lively music, heavy on the rock ‘n’ roll and pop, makes Grease worth watching. Joan Blondell shows up as Vi, a waitress at a diner frequented by the main characters.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Blinded by the Light (2019) Review

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Musical

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Blinded by the Light is a film about the music of Bruce Springsteen, but this is no rock star biopic. Instead, it follows Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), the son of Pakistani immigrants living in Great Britain in the 1980s, who discovers the music of “the Boss” to help him cope with his chaotic life. Based on a true story, this is a euphoric movie that wears its heart on its sleeve.

This dramedy covers more than just classic rock, of course. It’s a coming-of-age story that tackles the issues of intergenerational conflict, prejudice, hero worship, and the role of family. It’s refreshingly earnest and some are bound to find it cheesy in its emotional directness and lack of subtlety. I, however, found the flick’s child-like enthusiasm infectious and charming.

Almost needless to say, there’s plenty of Bruce Springseen music in this feature to rock out to. Most of the biggies are here, like “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Prove It All Night,” and, obviously, “Blinded by the Light.” I was surprised to hear “Because the Night,” a song originally written by Bruce for the Patti Smith Group (it’s the Springsteen version that plays here). Even if you’re not familiar with the works of the New Jersey rocker at its center, you’ll still probably enjoy the picture.

Blinded by the Light is the kind of positive movie that’s not reliant on sex or violence that many people lament aren’t being made anymore. It’s a feel-good flick for sure, but it still shows a few glimpses of the darker side of humanity that must be overcome by our unassuming hero. It’s a focused work of cinema that succeeds without leaning too much on the Springsteen music that inspired it. It’s just a good story.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Review

Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, and King Vidor

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Musical

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: G (2D version), PG (3D version)

IMDb Page

The hype exists for a reason. There’s little I can say about this endlessly iconic 1939 feature that hasn’t been said before. The charming story is about a Kansan farmgirl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog, Toto (Terry), being whisked away to the magical Land of Oz during a tornado. Even if you feel like you’re too old to be watching a family film like The Wizard of Oz, I highly recommend it anyway.

How was this made all the way back in 1939? The songs are still as catchy as ever, the special effects just as stupendous, the characters just as lovable, the flying monkeys just as frightening, the visuals just as splendorous, the action just as exciting, the drama just as moving, the humor just as amusing, and the pacing just as swift as ever. Those who say films were merely “proto-movies” prior to Citizen Kane (1941) can take a hike!

Holding this timeless masterpiece together is the message of there being no place like home. Sepia-colored Kansas may not be a roller coaster ride of excitement, but that’s where the heart is. To find their way back to the heartland, Dorothy, Toto, and their new friends must put their inner courage, compassion, and smarts to the test and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). Who couldn’t love a story like that?

The Wizard of Oz is just about as close to perfection as motion pictures can get. What? Are you actually going to criticize the painted backgrounds for not looking realistic enough? Anyway, this is a true classic that hasn’t aged with time. From the yearning for a better tomorrow displayed in the opening to the crazily imaginative adventures in Oz to the tear-jerking finale, this is the real deal.

My rating is 10 outta 10.