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Review of AQUAMAN (2018) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes (parental judgment required)
2018, 143 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1 and 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: A-/B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Critics at Rotten Tomatoes only gave Aquaman a 65 percent “fresh” rating, but I think maybe they’ve got a trident stuck somewhere. What do they want from a superhero movie? It can’t possibly be the same things my family wants, because this 2018 action-adventure starring Jason Momoa checked all our boxes.

Epic story? Check. At 143 minutes it might be around 10 minutes too long, but we get a wide sweeping origin story that begins when the Queen of Atlantis washes ashore and is taken in by a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), with whom she eventually falls in love and has a son—a little demigod they name Arthur. The Queen (Nicole Kidman) had been fleeing an arranged marriage with the King of Atlantis, and there’s no running from a guy like that. She sacrifices herself so her son and earthbound husband can live—but not before instructing her trusted advisor, Vulko (Willem Dafoe), to secretly teach her son how to become a powerful warrior well schooled in the ways of the ocean and its people. There are plenty of complications, but not so many that they get tangled up with each other and end up tripping the narrative. At some point this turns into a quest story, with Arthur searching to find the powerful Trident of Atlan that would allow him to triumph over his half-brother and take the throne he’s destined to occupy because as half-man and half-Atlantean he’s in a position to unite the two worlds—or at least stop an Atlantean-led invasion of the “surface” people.

Great characters? Check. There’s an interesting Thor/Loki brother tension between the half-breed Arthur and his full-blooded Atlantean half-sib Orm (Patrick Wilson), and an equally interesting triangle forms when history repeats itself and Mera (Amber Heard) flees her arranged marriage with Orm in order to accompany Arthur on his quest. While I’ll admit that the Atlantean scenes can seem a bit hokey at times, it’s worth noting that they’re evocative of the old Clash of the Titans discussions among the gods on Olympus—more homage than misstep. And Momoa really carries this picture. He’s as charismatic as he is powerful, and he has almost as many one-liners with enemies as that master himself, James Bond.

Just the right tone and blend of comedy and action? Check. The people responsible for bringing DC heroes to the big screen have had a hard time getting the tone right, but they finally figured out that the successful Marvel formula is nothing more than a perfect balance of comedy and action, rather than taking anything too seriously. Director James Wan (Saw) resists the impulse to go overly dark, but indulges his horror side in a scene where Arthur and Mera flee and battle trench monsters that keep coming and coming like the zombies in a George Romero film. Wan said that while they opted to go with a brown-skinned Hawaiian in the lead instead of a blond Caucasian, he still wanted to bring the rest of the iconic imagery of the comic books to life—and in that he did a pretty good job.

Great creatures? Check. The souped-up battle sea horses and sea dragons and the Great White Sharks with riders are fun enough, but when you get to the giant crabs and other crustaceans you start to think that maybe Ray Harryhausen was smiling down from above as the character designers and animators did their thing. That feels like another homage, and the various factions of undersea peoples are so crazily different that it will remind older viewers of the old Flash Gordon serials.

A believable fantastic world? Check—for the most part. Some of the undersea set designs are spectacularly realistic, while others embrace the opulence of an undersea kingdom, and others feel a little more Star Wars space age. It’s the latter that sometimes pull you out of the moment. If I were editing, I probably would have hacked 10 minutes off of some of these Olympian-style Atlantis scenes that can get a little stagey and slow things down. But for them, the film’s pace seldom lets up.

Great action sequences? Check. And the humor really does balance the spectacular fight scenes that occur on a micro (mano y mano) level and also on the macro level with grand undersea battles. Epic battles—but all done with the kind of comic-book tone of fun action.

Our family liked Aquaman a lot, and there are some pretty cool bonus features that will help you appreciate what the actors went through to make the film. As if he couldn’t be any more likable, Momoa comes across even more like a guy you wish all good things for as you learn about him in one short extra that focuses on him. It’s really worth watching, as are all the other short features. This film will get a lot of repeat play. There’s a huge cast involved, with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II bringing Manta to life, but when it all comes down to it this is Jason Momoa’s film. Yes, it could have been more tightly edited, and Heard is engaging, but it’s Momoa and the creatures who carry the movie.

Language: One character flips another off, and there’s just a few “shits”

Sex: Unless you’re offended by a male torso, there’s nothing much here besides a kiss or two

Violence: The violence isn’t as ramped up as Black Panther; though there are a lot of fights and battles and people get skewered, it’s all pretty bloodless except for one scene

Adult situations: One scene takes place in a bar and there’s mild drinking

Takeaway: Jason Momoa is 38, but I hope he has a lot more Aquaman left in him. As long as the writers can keep the material fresh and continue to find the right tone and blend of action and humor, this is a series we’d love to continue

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Review of FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 134 min., Color
Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+ (includes extended cut)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital (extended cut included)
Trailer
Amazon link

Our whole family loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But we were split on Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

My wife, who had read the screenplay and all the Harry Potter books and has a good memory, thought it was a really good movie, somewhere in the B+ range. The only thing she didn’t like was a plot point that’s already been so widely discussed on the Internet that it’s not much of a spoiler: Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, turns out to be an enchanted woman.

Meanwhile, my son, who didn’t read the screenplay but still has a good memory and grasp of characters in complicated plots, thought it was a B- at best. And my daughter and I, who found ourselves confused throughout much of the movie, gave it a B-/C+. In other words, I agreed with critics who slammed J.K. Rowling for creating an unnecessarily complicated but relatively low-stakes plot.

Naturally, I assumed that the more you know going into the film, the more you’ll like it—until I read how überfans criticized Rowling for confusing even herself by violating her own timeline. I didn’t notice. I was too confused.

For me, it was like watching an action movie with terrific special effects in a foreign language with no subtitles. It was like listening to an opera sung in German where you kind of know what’s going on, but not really.

Though it was fun seeing Johnny Depp as Gellert Grindelwald, I felt that director David Yates could have nudged him to be just a bit more sinister. As it is, he’s still a more interesting character than the purely evil Voldemort from the Potter films. But would it have hurt to have him be just a little more menacing—even Bond-villain menacing?

Holding it all together is Eddie Redmayne, who is wonderful as always as Newt Scamander, the nerdy wizard who collects and studies fantastic beasts. The critters themselves are also fun to watch. But while his partnership with a very young Albus Dumbledore to foil Grindelwald makes sense and drives the plot right into a segue to the Potter series, the character who suffers most from the addition of Dumbledore (Jude Law) is Newt’s Muggle sidekick from the first film, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Kowalski looks and feels as lost as I was at times. He’s simply not integral to the plot—so much so that if this were an office, he’d spend his days sharpening pencils.

Yes, the plot. As near as I could tell, Grindelwald escapes during a prison transfer from New York to London; meanwhile, the Ministry of Magic agrees to let Newt travel again (he had been barred because of mayhem previously caused) if he would help them locate someone in Paris who might be a Potter-like chosen one who could help defeat Grindelwald. And that’s all I’ve got. After that, characters jump into and out of frames with such disturbing regularity that it left me spinning in a revolving door. My son, who just watched it a second time, said it made more sense to him after seeing it again. So plan on watching it multiple times, unless you’re a Potter savant.

But the special effects? How could they get any better? The creatures are believably rendered, the magic looks as real as a natural disaster, and a “blue-light special” scene is particularly impressive. Plus, how much fun is it to see Hogwarts again—the first time on the big screen since 2011! Overall, there’s nothing here that exceeds whatever “adult” material was in the Potter films, so parents can think accordingly.

Rowling told Variety that there were five films currently planned in this series, rather than an initially reported Fantastic Beasts trilogy. In fact, she said there could be more, given that she’s visualized a story arc that spans 19 years.

This Blu-ray combo pack includes not only the film in glorious HD with a rich and resonant Dolby Atmos TrueHD soundtrack, but the option to watch The Crimes of Grindelwald in an extended cut that adds seven minutes. I wish I could tell you that those seven minutes make everything instantly clearer, but that’s not the case. You’re just going to have to watch this multiple times, like everyone else who hasn’t previously read the screenplay.

Language: Extremely mild, with the worst, really, the use of the swearword“hell”

Sex: Nothing graphic, but themes of rape and forced marriage and death in childbirth might be disturbing to viewers old enough to get the crux of it but not old enough to understand completely

Violence: Some blood, some incineration, and a few killing curses, but by and large it’s pretty tame given most superhero movies, even

Adult situations: Apart from a hookah scene, the only thing is mild alcohol use (with one drunk character) and mild smoking of cigarettes

Takeaway: It will be interesting to see if Rowling takes the criticism into account when forging ahead with the other films in this series, now that she’s gone from novelist to screenwriter

Review of ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1941, 91 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS mono
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

Road to Zanzibar was the second of seven Crosby-Hope-Lamour musical comedy adventures, released in 1941 at a time when Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and safari pictures were popular. There wasn’t even supposed to be a second “Road” picture, but Paramount had bought the rights to a story that was so similar to Darryl f. Zanuck’s 1939 safari pic Stanley and Livingstone that the project was dead in the water . . . until someone decided that maybe they could do a parody of safari movies instead. In no time, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour were on the road again.

The Road pictures were always innocuous fun, spotlighting Crosby’s crooning, Lamour’s singing (and sometimes dancing), and Hope’s second-banana one-liners. This outing, writers Frank Butler and Don Hartman upped the quips between Hope and Crosby, and with the pair ad libbing as well there emerged a crackling comic energy.

The plot is a little more complex than Road to Singapore (1940), and that’s also a good thing for contemporary audiences. Along with Road to Bali (the only color film of the bunch), this is one of the recommended “starter” Road pictures for families with small children. Kids immediately pick up on the fact that Hubert “Fearless Frazier” (Hope) is constantly getting the short end of the stick as the one who has to do the dirty or dangerous work in their rotating carnival acts. The film begins with Frazier as the “Human Cannonball.” But instead of himself being shot through a flaming hoop, he hides in a secret compartment and substitutes a dummy. When that dummy sets the tent and half the town on fire and all the animals are released, they skedaddle, trying different carnival scams in different towns. Next up: Frazier wrestling a live octopus in a tank, except that plan never happens because they meet a man at a restaurant who’s a diamond baron. He buys them expensive champagne and even bails them out the next day after the night gets out of hand. So naturally Chuck Reardon (Crosby) falls for the diamond mine version of magic beans. Instead of buying two tickets back to America on a steamer, he buys a “lost” diamond mine map from a rich baron who turns out to be so crazy that his children won’t let him make decisions anymore. More

Review of Creed II (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 130 min., Color
Drama
MGM/Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

If there were an Energizer Bunny Award for movie franchises, I’d nominate the Rocky series. How many times can you go with a familiar formula and still crank out some pretty effective films? Well, Elvis Presley films not withstanding. As the aggregate fan/critic site IMDb.com attests, there’s really only one stinker in the original bunch:

Rocky (1976)—8.1 out of 10

Rocky II (1979)—7.2 out of 10

Rocky III (1982)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky IV (1985)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky V (1990)—5.2 out of 10

After that last disappointment, sixteen years later the franchise picked itself up off the mat and scored another TKO, though it would seem the producers weren’t comfortable counting higher than five in Roman numerals. Rocky Balboa also marked a change in direction for the franchise and star Sylvester Stallone, who was coaxed out of retirement for one last fight before turning to managing fighters—specifically, the son of his old friend and foe, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers)—in the two films to follow:

Rocky Balboa (2006)—7.2 out of 10

Creed (2015)—7.6 out of 10

Creed II (2018)—7.4 out of 5

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Review of ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes, but….
1940, 85 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG for drinking, smoking, and innuendo)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Today’s parents may have grown up watching some of the old Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour “Road” pictures on television. If so, there’s a good chance they might want to share them with their children.

A showcase for Crosby’s crooning, Lamour’s singing and dancing, and Hope’s second-banana wisecracking, the Road pictures were pure escapism for an America that was weighed down by WWII. Hope and Crosby, two vaudevillians who rose to become popular stars of their own radio shows, had made the leap to film, and the genius who paired them deserves a medal. The first of the Road pictures, The Road to Singapore, became the highest grossing film of 1940. Though it’s not the best—that honor goes to Road to Morocco (1942) and Road to Utopia (1945)—it lays the foundation for the films to come, though it was originally only intended as a one-and-done film. But the public wanted more, and Road to Zanzibar followed in 1941, and Road to Rio (1947), Road to Bali (1952, the only color release), and the Cold War entry The Road to Hong Kong (1962). All of the films were made during a time when Hollywood (and the rest of the world, really) was not terribly educated about or sensitive to issues of race and gender. So you’re going to have to overlook some period-typical dialogue and characterizations, as well as “natives” that seem a blend of big Hollywood musical dancers and a bag full of different cultures. Thankfully, Hope and Crosby make that easy to do.

In all of the Road pictures, they play a couple of ne’er-do-wells who are either petty con men and womanizers seeking to stay one step ahead of the law or world-traveling vaudeville-style entertainers . . . and womanizers seeking to stay one step ahead of the law. That might not sound like family entertainment, but the pictures truly are escapist fare with an emphasis on the one-liners, ridiculous plots, and the inevitable romantic tussle over Lamour (with Crosby always getting “the girl”).

For families with younger children, a good place to start might be the only color release, Road to Bali, which is slightly faster paced than The Road to Singapore and features a squid-wrestling sequence. Despite some racist elements, The Road to Zanzibar, with its safari-centered plot, is another good option if the kids are smaller. The two best are best because of the one-liners, so they’re recommended as good starting points for families with older children. More

Review of A STAR IS BORN (2018) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2018, 136 min., Color
Drama
Warner Bros.
Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s another R-rated movie that families with teens are going to want to watch, because Lady Gaga is the female lead. And A Star Is Born is a good one, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture—though Bradley Cooper reportedly said he was “embarrassed” not to get a Best Director nomination.

Well Brad, you’re not the only one. The directors of Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Black Panther share your pain. But hey, Lady Gaga got the nom for Best Actress, and you for Best Actor, Sam Elliott for Best Supporting Actor, Lady Gaga et alia for Best Original Song (“Shallow”), plus nominations for Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography? Come on, Brad. Eight Oscar nominations for your first directed feature isn’t anything to be embarrassed about.

Plus, you coaxed a whole new generation into watching the story of two people meeting and loving, one whose career is on the way up, and the other whose career is on the way down . . . because of drink and drugs. In 1937 it was Janet Gaynor and Fredric March who paired up in a story about actors in Hollywood, then in 1954 it was Judy Garland and James Mason in what was less a romance than a mentoring tale of an aging alcoholic film star helping a young actress find fame. The switch to music came in 1976, when Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson paired off. And last year young people went to see what, at it’s core, is still a thirties’ melodrama just because Lady Gaga and you were in it! More

Review of THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 99 min., Color
Fantasy-adventure
Rated PG for some mild peril
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

This is one time when Disney should have stuck to the original story. People familiar with the beloved Tchaikovsky ballet, based on an 1816 tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman, won’t see much they recognize in this 2018 film.

In the ballet, a wealthy European family celebrates Christmas with a party at their mansion, to which other families have been invited. The children’s godfather Drosselmeyer, a toymaker, brings a Nutcracker doll for young Clara, which brother Fritz breaks. It’s that broken Nutcracker, tucked under her arm, that leads Clara to dream of battles between a Mouse King and soldiers led by the Nutcracker, and of exotic delights and doll dances in The Land of the Sweets—all colorfully rendered onstage in a production that’s become a beloved holiday classic.

But why in the world would a film company known for injecting music into its films skimp on the music for this one? Though the ballet is magical and Disney has a reputation for creating magic, Tchaikovsy’s music and the magic get lost in the second act, which bogs down in exposition and familiarity.

Oh, the magic returns at the end and it’s there for the opening, where viewers get caught up in the excitement and grandeur of a 19th-century ball on Christmas Eve, backed by strains (albeit songs out of order) of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. But Disney being Disney, they couldn’t keep themselves from killing off Clara’s mother, so the film begins on bit of a downer as their morose father tries to get through his first Christmas without his beloved wife. Disney also felt compelled to make Clara a princess—how else could they market her?—and because the latest trend in princesses is to empower them, Disney decided to make her a science whiz and inventor. More

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