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AMAZING SPACE: AN AUDIO/VISUAL MEDITATION ON THE COSMOS (Blu-ray combo)

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AmazingSpacecoverGrade: B
Entire family: No, for meditation
2015, 52 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, CD
Trailer
Amazon link

Amazing Space: An Audio/Visual Meditation on the Cosmos is as advertised: a slideshow of images from the Hubble telescope that fade in, fade out, and rotate slightly in a modified Ken Burns style, set to New Age music by composer-performer Kristin Hoffman.

Film Chest Media Group bills it as a “companion and guide to meditation, yoga, dance, dreaming or just relaxing.” That is, this one isn’t for family movie night. It’s for Mom or Dad, locked in a room alone and trying to unwind from the day’s stresses.

Those who find inspiration in music and images will discover that the first seven minutes or so, with its time-lapse photography of everyday life, is vaguely reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance—the 1982 documentary by Godfrey Reggio that featured striking cinematography by Ron Fricke and music from Philip Glass. The big difference is that in Koyaanisqatsi each new set of images was intended to provoke a reaction or insight. Here, the earthbound images are just a jumping-off point for a series of images that are designed to do just the opposite: to clear your mind.

AmazingSpacescreenHoffman’s compositions—featuring piano, synthesizers, drum programming, strings, percussion, sarod, marimba, chimes, and vocals—seem magical all on their own, the proof being that you can close your eyes and feel just as relaxed and transported, especially when Hoffman’s vocals take flight. The images of earth and space almost feel like a bonus, even though they served as inspiration for her eight compositions: “Root of All,” “Elixer Field,” “Starlight,” “The Galactic Beat,” “Universal Voice,” “Celestial Sight,” “Amazing Space,” and “Cosmic Consciousness.”

I do not meditate regularly, nor do I have a meditator’s mindset. Though I found the movements of Hoffman’s compositions to be nicely synchronized with the images and melodic enough to be relaxing, the minute that Amazing Space told me I was looking at the Milky Way, I found myself wondering throughout the rest of the 52-minute film what space phenomena I was witnessing.

I checked the bonus features, but none of the interviews told me in any detail what shots from the Hubble telescope I was watching. While I realize such an impulse makes me the anti-meditator, I do think that when you’re dealing with spectacular (yes, I’d use that word) images of space you’re going to have at least some people like me who, before or after trying to use the film as intended, would appreciate a few answers. I hope that future editions of this title incorporate a list of images and some information about them, or an option to watch with subtitles that identify what is being seen. Then it might actually do double duty: work to help Mom or Dad unwind, and also provide a teaching moment. Couple that with a show-and-tell piece of meteorite that you buy on the Internet (they’re plentiful) and it would be a great mini-lesson for home schoolers or families who enjoy learning together.

Amazing Space is a three-disc set that includes a Blu-ray, DVD, and CD soundtrack.

BARK RANGER (DVD)

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BarkRangercoverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: No (ages 10 and under)
2014, 82 min., Color
Lionsgate
Rated PG for rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m no fan of talking dog movies, but then I’m not the target audience. This family film is aimed at children ages 10 and under. By the time kids get to 6th grade, they’ll feel the 10 to 11-year-old boy and girl leads are too young for them to tag along with on their little adventure—especially since Bark Ranger is a mash-up of so many familiar plot devices. It’s a treasure hunt, a bumbling crooks caper, a we’re-gonna-lose-our-home-unless-someone-can-raise-big-money story, a divorced parent relocating the kid venture, a dealing with bullies tale, and a boy-meets-girl over summer vacation saga. Oh, and a dog saves the day story.

BarkRangerscreen1Jon Lovitz provides the sarcastic voice for Ranger, the canine narrator whose commentary is actually funny at times. He’s not just a talking dog, either. He’s semi-omniscient as well, narrating the story of what happened in the recent past with precise knowledge, even when it involves two bumbling brothers who steal a safe full of gold bullion from a small town sheriff’s office when the dog is nowhere to be seen.

There’s no massive manhunt for these guys, even though they have a safe full of gold bars, and it’s not clear why those gold bars were just sitting around in a tiny resort-town safe or how these guys knew the gold was there. Then again, Marty Adams and Jason Blicker aren’t there for logic. As the Festrunk brothers they’re the main source of comedy, and director exaggerates it for all it’s worth—as if they were auditioning for an over-the-top Disney Channel series. Some of the gags go on too long, but this mixture of potty jokes, physical comedy, and “I know you are but what am I” verbal jousting will amuse a target age group that’s gotten used to seeing bumbling crooks. If they weren’t bumbling, of course, then the eventual confrontation with the kids might be too intense. But it’s not. In fact, there really aren’t any intense moments in this film, because the mash-up of plot devices IS so recognizable and everything is played with a light touch.

BarkRangerscreen2Lucius Hoyos and Zoe Fraser are cute and compatible as the park ranger’s son, Jack, and the dippy Tai Chi/Chi Tea divorced mom’s daughter, Chloe. You don’t mind spending time with them because, frankly, their acting is more natural than the adults who play their parents (Ari Cohen, Alexandra Castillo, Trenna Keating). Then again, that’s clearly the way director Duncan Christie wanted it.

Once you get used to the dog narration and the artificial-looking lower jaw that’s an unfortunate by-product of live-action talking dogs, it’s pretty easy to just lie back and roll with this unoriginal but still entertaining feature. Parents may enjoy it right along with their little ones, though, as I said, older children will probably wander off or toss off sarcastic comments.

If that happens, tell them to hold their tongues and they’ll be rewarded with four French-made animated shorts (5 min. each) that remind you of Disney-Pixar productions. These bonus features are clever, well animated, and (if truth be told) a notch or two above the main feature. In one, dragonflies go after a single ladybug in scenes that incorporate natural backgrounds and the same laws of attrition that we saw in the Ewok/Speeder Bike sequence. The twist is that more ladybugs show up, and then more dragonflies. In another sweet short, two worms in adjacent apples on a tree hit it off, but when one of the apples is harvested and sent to market, the other inches all the way to the market to be reunited. The remaining two concern a black beetle who sees his/her reflection in a mirror. They’re all clever and entertaining for a wider age range than the main feature. But the feature ought to be a winner with parents who have younger children.

THE BEGINNERS BIBLE (Volumes 2, 3) (DVD)

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BeginnersBible2Grade: B+
Entire family: No (ages 6 and under only)
1995, 90 min. (3 stories), Color
Time Life/StarVista
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (full screen)
Featured audio: English mono
Bonus features: Spanish versions
Amazon link (Old Testament Stories)
Trailer

Time Life has taken over the distribution of The Beginners Bible, a DVD series from 1995 that should please parents who want to introduce their youngsters to Bible stories without exposing them to stilted language or the adult implications of those stories. It’s a really well made series of DVDs, each of which features three 25-30 minute animated stories geared for children age six and under. As of today, families can add two more volumes (sold separately) to their home video collections.

I reviewed the first installment—The Story of Easter, The Story of The Nativity, and The Story of Moses—in February, and on June 9 a second volume appeared featuring The Story of Noah’s Ark, The Story of Creation, and The Story of David and Goliath.

The third volume gets back to the New Testament with The Story of Jesus and His Miracles, The Story of the Good Samaritan, and The Story of the Prodigal Son. As with all the characters, Jesus is both humanized and contemporized. Though the dress is still tunic and sandals, the beard is fluffy and rounded and the speech is everyday. Jesus turns water into wine, walks on water, brings fish to his struggling fishermen-disciples, heals the sick and lame, and raises Lazerus from the dead. He is recognized as the Son of God. But at times the Son of Man also shows through—as when a woman asks him if he can help when the wedding runs out of wine, and he says it is not yet time for him to reveal himself. But she persists. Please? And like any good friend, he agrees.

All the animated entries in this series have a sunny palette and characters drawn with a lot of rounded curves rather than harsh angles. The eyes are big and round, which emphasizes the cartoon nature rather than an animated attempt at realism.

The other stories in this volume are parables that Jesus used to teach lessons. While the Bible emphasized that a man had been beaten and robbed and left in bad shape, the focus on this stranger in need is his location: Now the road is on a cliff, and the man is lying at the bottom. I’ve always wondered, though, why it wasn’t more emphasized that the Samaritan was actually someone outside of the tribes of Judah, while those who passed him by were considered of the same faith. The real moral of this story is helping people who are different from you, but of course children are led to the simple conclusion that helping people in need rather than passing them by is a good thing to do. Meanwhile, The Story of the Prodigal Son doesn’t dwell on the wickedness that the prodigal fell into when he left his family. Here it’s the story of someone who refuses to work the family farm and goes off to see the world and experience the temptations of the city. When he returns, the moral is framed thusly: His joyous welcome reminds us of God’s great love for everyone. The Bible, of course, emphasizes that those who have sinned and came back to the “path” are to be celebrated just as much if not more than those who have always stayed the course. But that gets a little heady for a preschooler, doesn’t it? Tweaks like these make this series something that little ones can absorb more readily.

BeginnersBible3The June 9 release offers stories that are more familiar and which will, in truth, hold more appeal for very small children. There’s more that they can relate to, with plenty of animals to fill out the screen. The Story of Noah’s Ark is well known: how God commanded Noah to build an ark and take on board all the animals, two by two, in order to survive a great flood that God would send to cleanse the earth of wickedness. The Story of Creation features the devil in serpent’s form tempting Eve and Adam to sample the only fruit God had forbidden. And David and Goliath is a story that resonates with any kid who’s come up against a bully or someone larger.

The picture quality is decent and the volumes are priced to sell: $9.95 SRP. The Noah’s Ark DVD is currently available at Amazon for $6.99, while the Jesus stories haven’t appeared yet.

THE HEE HAW COLLECTION (DVD)

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HeeHawcoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: Yes
1969-71, 369 min. (5 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G despite some innuendo)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B-
“Pfft You Was Gone” clip

The hay-day (sorry, bad pun) of rural comedy on American TV was between 1960, when The Andy Griffith Show debuted, and 1971, when all of them were put out to pasture. The novelty of The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Gomer Pyle: USMC, Green Acres, and Mayberry R.F.D. had worn off, so it was no surprise that in 1971 CBS also cancelled Hee Haw—a country version of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

But like the Grand Ole Opry, this corny variety show, which debuted in 1969 and featured a group of talented regulars and some of the top country stars of the time, had a life of its own. It became an institution, going into syndication and lasting nearly another 20 years.

Hee Haw managed to have it both ways, featuring characters and jokes that celebrated rural life, but also poked fun of rural stereotypes. You’ll see nostalgic, folksy segments that lament the loss of cracker barrel philosophers, with Archie Campbell playing a barber and regaling customers with stories, Grandpa Jones and Junior Samples doing the same at Gordie’s General Store, or Stringbean reading a letter from home. Always it was a tall tale modernized or a long simmering lead-in to a corny punch line. Yet there were also recurring segments featuring not-too-bright farmer’s daughters in short-shorts or the country equivalent of mini-dresses, and a recurring sketch about barefooted moonshiners in overalls lying in the front yard next to a jug and a bloodhound. In fact, Junior Samples, with his slow-witted and deliberately speaking persona, was the anti-sophisticate, and darned proud of it. Put Junior in a Shakespeare sketch (as they often did) or making a used car commercial and it was instant laughs.

Hee_HawLaugh-In was hosted by a comic duo. Hee Haw’s hosts were musicians first and comedians second, which fit the corny concept just fine. Roy Clark, best known for his instrumental work on banjo, guitar, and mandolin, first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry at the age of 17. Buck Owens was a popular country singer and band leader whose best-known songs were “Act Naturally,” “Together Again,” and “Tiger by the Tail.” The pair appeared to have fun together and provided the perfect anchor for a boatload of sketches and musical numbers. Buck and Roy started each show with a rendition of “Hee Haw” and at some point did a vaudeville-style routine called “Pickin’ and Grinnin’” that strung jokes together with musical riffs. They also did at least one solo per episode.

Though the humor could be adult, the show was obviously intended for families because kids were included in some sketches and the show relied on animated farm animals to add to the laughs. One minute the audience could be enjoying some serious guitar-playing from Clark, and the next minute a chorus line of pigs would be dancing across the screen while he’s playing, lightening the mood.  More

INSURGENT (Blu-ray)

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InsurgentcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2015, 119 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sexuality, thematic elements and brief language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English Dolby TrueHD Almos Mix
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B+ (four hours!)
Trailer
Amazon link

Some people seem to hate Divergent and Insurgent (the second installment in Veronica Roth’s Young Adult dystopian novels-come-to-film) because they’re not The Hunger Games. Or because they feel so structurally similar. My son hates them because he doesn’t think Shailene Woodley can carry a sci-fi action movie the way Jennifer Lawrence does in The Hunger Games. Then again, he’s a teenager, and it could be as simple as liking Lawrence that much more, or associating Woodley too much with a romantic weeper that he refused to watch: The Fault in Our Stars.

When I reviewed the Divergent Blu-ray a year ago I gave it a B because three out of four family members really enjoyed it, and I thought the film featured a nice balance of moral dilemmas and action packaged inside a relatively believable sci-fi world. Like the first film,  Insurgent was made for audiences, not critics, and the tone and pacing are similar,  with continuing characters and plenty of drama and action.

But this is a trilogy, and frankly we got most of the character development in the first film. In Divergent, Tris was faced with tough decisions, starting with which faction she should join and have to remain in for the rest of her life. Then there was her fight and constant struggle to make it through Dauntless training and keep her identity as a “divergent”—someone who has elements of several factions in her—a secret. To top it off, there was a developing romance between her and one of her superiors, and she seemed more complex that first outing because she was as fragile as she was tough.

InsurgentscreenHere she’s mostly tough, which means Tris really doesn’t grow as a character as much in this installment. What’s more, sci-fi fans might be disappointed that there’s less science fiction in Insurgent and more drama. Insurgent also pushes the main male character Tobias/Four (Theo James) slightly to the fringe while giving the oppressive Erudite leader (Kate Winslet) more screen time as she sends her Dauntless police in pursuit of the two Divergents. These are not bad things, especially if you consider that you’re watching the second act of a three-act extended screenplay.

You’ll need to have watched Divergent to appreciate or even understand what’s going on in this film. The action picks up just after Jeanine’s (Winslet’s) mind-controlled Dauntless obliterated Abnegation and she went on TV to blame divergents for the attack. So Tris and Four go on the run, first through factionless territory and then on to Candor. All the while they’re pursued by Dauntless traitors under the command of the sadistic Eric (Jai Courtney). Then there’s some hokum about a box that only a divergent can open, and that opens the door to criticism about the dystopian sci-fi elements. But if you don’t think too hard and just roll with the action, Insurgent makes for an enjoyable family movie night for households with teens. It’s rated PG-13, though, and deservedly so.

Language: A few “b” words and “a” words pop up, but nothing more. Pretty clean.
Sex: Nothing much, really. Just a kiss and a faux attack.
Violence: Punches and knives are thrown and there are some teen beatings and one suicide. The most traumatic might be semi-successful mass execution.
Adult situations: Some pursuit scenes might scare younger viewers.
Takeaway: Don’t listen to the naysayers. Divergent and Insurgent are decent dystopian sci-fi teen action movies that also hold appeal for viewers outside the target age range.

INNERSPACE (Blu-ray)

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InnerspacecoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
1987, 120 min., Color
Rated PG for briefly exposed male buttocks, some comic violence, some mild profanity, and drinking
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Fantastic Voyage, which preceded it by twenty years, Innerspace won an Academy Award for special effects that simulated the interior of a human body—great effects, actually, considering they were accomplished before the advent of computer-generated images. In Voyage, a team of doctors was miniaturized and injected into a human being in a dramatic attempt to save an important political life. But Innerspace director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers) opts for low comedy, not high drama, with Batmanesque villains, pre-Mask morphing, and more than one Austin Powers-style “mini-me.”

A young looking Dennis Quaid stars as Lt. Tuck Pendleton, a bad-boy Navy pilot with a weakness for alcohol and Lydia, the reporter-girlfriend (Meg Ryan) who walked out on him. Tuck resigns his commission to pilot a submersible pod for an independent lab working on miniaturization. But instead of being Innerspacescreeninjected into a rabbit, as planned, when an industrial terrorist raid interrupts the procedure and a lab technician flees with the syringe containing the tiny Tuck, the pilot is injected instead into the bloodstream of Jack Putter, a frazzled milquetoast supermarket clerk (Martin Short). In a relationship that becomes symbiotic out of sheer necessity, Tuck and Jack party in order to “bond,” then work together to battle personal defects, the bad guys, and (tick, tick) time. Tuck’s oxygen supply is limited, you see, and he needs a microchip the villains have in order to coordinate his reentry into peopledom. But it’s a double search, because the evil Victor Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy)–a comic cross between Mr. Freeze and The Penguin–has one microchip and needs Tuck’s in order to complete the technology theft, and he and his henchmen, his oversexed lead doctor (Fiona Lewis), and industrial spy/hit man “The Cowboy” (Robert Picardo) will do anything to get it.

Since Quaid spends most of the movie sitting inside the pod, it’s a tall order for Short to provide all of the visual action and handle most of the proxy interaction with Ryan. But like Paul Blart, Mall Cop, Short’s character rises to the challenge and the trio has a project chemistry that really makes this otherwise lightweight film an engaging adventure—especially on widescreen and in high def. Together, they really sell the situation. Even when Jack begins to fall for Lydia and compete for her attentions, it’s totally credible—which balances the tonally cartoonish villains.

“For a while, we thought we should call it Fantastic Voyage 2,” Dante quips, adding that they chose Innerspace instead because no one could come up with a better title. Dante teams with producer Michael Finnell and co-stars McCarthy and Picardo on a commentary track that’s almost as entertaining as the film. Warner Brothers’ marketing people get roasted, as does Martin Short for bowing out of the commentary, and Quaid for refusing. As the camera pans across the laboratory, one of them tells how the extras were all real scientists from a nearby jet-propulsion laboratory. As the memorable bonding scene between Tuck and Jack runs, another remarks, “I can’t believe that we were gonna cut that scene.” And as the camera pulls closer to the heart valve opening and closing like the beak of the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, threatening to swallow up Tuck’s pod and kill them both, one of them laughs, “The heart valve opening and closing? Two guys with sticks pulling as fast as they can!”

Dante and Finnell said that early on they realized that Innerspace was “a good audience movie,” and self-deprecating humor aside, Innerspace holds up better than Fantastic Voyage precisely because they don’t take themselves or what they’re doing too seriously. Yes, the hair is dated and some of the special effects now seem rudimentary, but the laughs are still here, and the action is pure fun. And it’s rated PG. Innerspace is one of the better, older comedy-adventures and a great candidate for family movie night. Unlike Fantastic Voyage, this one seems to get better with age. Right now at Amazon Innerspace is selling for under $10 on Blu-ray, and the price seems “righter” if you consider the repeat play this one is going to get.

Language: No f-bombs, but a few milder d, s, and h words
Sex: Just a “swapping spit” kiss that’s a plot device
Violence: Fighting, some shooting, a body dissolving to skeleton
Adult situations: Drunkenness, assassin stripped to his shorts
Takeaway: Parodies can actually have a life of their own.

THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (Blu-ray)

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SecondBestExoticcoverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes, but….
2015, 122 min., Color
Rated PG for some language and suggestive comments
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio:
Featured audio:
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) was a surprise hit because it hit home with its basic messages. A group of older British retirees traveled to India because of a brochure that glamorized The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and made it look like the ideal place to retire, to find a replacement husband, or to stay there while getting a hip operation. Unknown to each other, they discovered things in common; foreign to India and some of them suspicious or awkward, they found an appreciation for a different culture and a level of comfort; and feeling a little tired and depressed by their late stage of life, they found some measure of renewal by their association with the hotel’s optimistic and energetic young owner. It was a feel-good movie about growing old, and there aren’t many of those around.

But The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) is a sequel that really didn’t need to be made. Missing is the charm and freshness of the first film, replaced by a formulaic plot and a paucity of humor, with a running gag that’s a 180-degree turn from the positive attitude toward aging that we encountered in the first film. In the original, one of the residents died, but what kind of tone does it set when in the sequel the proprietor, Sonny (Dev Patel), begins each morning with a roll call so the residents can answer . . . and let him know they’re still alive?

Two standard plot devices that we’ve seen before drive the narrative: a wedding and an anonymous visiting inspector who will decide whether Sonny can create a second hotel. Sonny is finally marrying the love of his life, Sunaina (Tina Desai), and there are some song-and-dance numbers SecondBestExoticscreenthat liven up the film. As with the first, each character has a subplot. Evelyn and Douglas (Judi Dench, Bill Nighy) are now working and fully immersed in local culture and finding occasional times to date each other. Carol and Norman (Diana Hardcastle, Ronald Pickup) are learning how to be exclusive to each other, while Madge (Celie Imrie) still plays the field and juggles two wealthy suitors. Somewhat lost in the shuffle is Muriel (Maggie Smith), who has been named co-manager of the hotel and seems to exist only as a confidante for everyone else. Meanwhile, there are two new arrivals (Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig) and only one nice room, and of course one of them is thought to be the inspector. Another sideplot about a business rival seems thrown in for good measure.

More than in the first, the screenplay feels like a paint-by-numbers affair, but the acting and the characters remain strengths. Patel is as energetic as a stand-up comic, and his onscreen mother (Lillete Dubey) gets something fresh to do as the object of Gere’s attentions. As with the first film, India itself is really the most colorful draw, and if you want to make a pilgrimage you can visit the Pearl Palace Heritage Guesthouse in Jaipur, where Second Best was filmed. But the movie truly is “second best,” which is not an uncommon thing for sequels. I was charmed by the first film, yet as much as I wanted to like this one I found it slightly dull. So did my family.

Language: some mild swear words
Sex: n/a
Adult situations: n/really
Takeaway: No matter what your age, after watching this film or the first you’ll dream of going to India.

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