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Review of US (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Heck no!
2019, 116 min., Color
Thriller-Horror
Universal
Rated R for violence, terror and language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

We need to talk. I’m not sure how I feel about Us.

I mean, a part of me feels that it’s another tense thriller from Jordan Peele, who first indulged his non-comedic side by writing and directing Get Out. But—and you might call this follow-up Just Try to Get Out—there’s a part of me, maybe my doppelganger, that thinks this latest “horror” film doesn’t make enough sense.

Then again, horror genre writers and directors have never excelled in logic. It was their worst subject in school. For them it’s all about putting the characters quickly in peril and keeping them there for 90 minutes. And Peele does that, right up until the big-twist ending that would have tied Chubby Checker into a pretzel, all the while leaning more in the direction of “thriller” than “horror” for much of the way.

We’re told in an epigraph that there are a bazillion tunnels under the continental U.S., suggesting that whatever horrors we’ll meet in this film will be subterranean denizens—hard to miss, especially since there are also images of rabbits, which evoke Alice’s plunge into Wonderland.

The action begins with a family’s 1986 trip to Santa Cruz beach and boardwalk, where a young girl named Adelaide wanders off from her dad and is drawn to a “Find Yourself” fun-house of mirrors on the beach. Before she enters she passes a guy who’s a cross between a creepy carney and a doomsayer with the sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11”— which quickly became a popular Internet search. I’ll save you the trouble: “Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto Me, I will not hearken unto them.” Yeah, well, she sees her double inside and whatever else happened when she’s recovered by her parents she’s so traumatized she can’t even tell them (or the audience) what happened.

Flash forward to the present and we see an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) reluctantly agreeing to return to Santa Cruz for a family outing with her husband (Gabe Wilson) and their two children: Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), whom her father thinks could be an Olympic track star if she applied herself, and Jason (Evan Alex), an odd withdrawn kid who tends to wear a mask up on his head like flip-up sunglasses, ready to put it over his face whenever he wants anonymity. If you’re thinking of Friday the 13th’s Jason and his lake antics, that’s what Peele wants. Throughout the film there are numerous allusions to classic campy horror films, which, of course, means that the hope was for Us to be seen as equally classic and campy.

And you know what? If you try not to think too much and avoid the rabbithole-doppelganger-subterranean blues, you can just float along on the action until that end-twist crashes in on a big wave and it all feels as if it makes sense. Sort of.

Regardless, the main cast does a wonderful job of selling the horror while also switching gears to handle the occasional humor Peele injects to keep it new-school campy. But it’s also a treat to be surprised by Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale), who turns up as the wife and mother of the family’s rich friends at Santa Cruz, playing opposite Tim Heidecker and twins Cali and Noelle Sheldon.

There are plenty of jump-scares here, but thank Peele for not making them too obvious or mechanical. He’d rather his audience thinks about those rabbits and those subterranean people and the whole idea of doppelgangers—not just during the film, but long afterwards. Maybe some things aren’t made to make total sense.

Language: A kid shocks his parents by saying “Kiss my anus” and there are almost as many f-bombs as this family has fingers, with the N.W.A. song “Fuck the Police” prominently featured as well as another dozen or so lesser swearwords

Sex: None, and no nudity, which is a rarity in this genre

Violence: Much of the shock of the violence is in the anticipation, but people are stabbed multiple times; still, there really isn’t much gore until a pool of blood is shown later, and another time blood is used to suggest death since people mostly see blood churning in the water

Adult situations: There are drug references and a husband refers to the bedroom as a “magic room,” but there really isn’t much here

Takeaway: Pay attention, because Jordan Peele certainly loves his end-twists!

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Review of CAPTAIN MARVEL (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
2019, 124 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Marvel / Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief suggestive language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widesscreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Two origin stories for the price of one?

That’s what Marvel Cinematic Universe fans get with Captain Marvel once S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) joins Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) a third of the way into the film. What might have been a warm-up for Shaft also turns out to be Jackson’s most entertaining role since Pulp Fiction.

Swagger + Banter + Bad Ass + Latent Rule-breaker + Alien Handler = a lot of fun to watch, especially playing opposite Larson, who for the first third of the film doesn’t seem to have the same ease prancing about in a superhero suit as, say, TV’s Melissa Benoist does as Supergirl. But Larson comes to life in her “buddy” interactions with Fury, the film takes off after that.

Fans who tire of the same basic plot—a supervillain poses a threat to Earth, so one or more superheroes have to rise to the occasion—will appreciate that the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers a different kind of narrative problem.

Not to be confused with Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who was a little too close to Superman for DC Comics’ comfort, Captain Mar-Vell first appeared in the 1967 comic Marvel Super-Heroes #12, yet another creation of Stan Lee’s, drawn by Gene Colan. In that first comic, Mar-Vell is a Kree “he” sent to Earth to observe their development of weapons technology. In 1982 Mar-Vell was replaced by a woman named Monica Rambeau in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, and the character changed again with Silver Surfer Annual #6 (1993), Captain Marvel #16 (2004), and Civil War: The Return (2007) before Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, got promoted to Captain for a role that (re)creator Kelly Sue DeConnick describes as “Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager.”

So did they finally get it right? Considering the success of rival DC Universe’s Wonder Woman, one would hope so. BC (Before Carol) the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t had a stand-alone female hero. Now they do, and her back story—a combination of elements from all of the Marvel comic renditions—isn’t as confusing or complicated as others have been. It’s just presented as flashback rather than in chronological time.

It begins with a Kree special operative named Vers (as in Dan-Vers) being trained by her commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) treading familiar waters. Like a Kree version of Yoda he tells her she needs to learn not to let anger get in the way of her powers. Then, before you can say “Use the Force,” Carol is captured by the shape-shifting Skrulls, who are at war with the Kree. Then, in the film’s lone annoying gimmick, she’s hung upside down while a Skrull interrogator tells the people operating an electric brain drain to “fast forward” or “back up” through her memories they’re “downloading” so they can find information to help them.

That leads all of them to Earth, where the film starts to get more fun and less informational. Earth provides the arena for the two warring alien sides, with a pre-eyepatch Fury trying to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad, and Vers piecing together her life as well.

The special effects are what you’d expect from a new MCU film, and the action wasn’t so nonstop that it felt like action for its own sake. There were also enough moments for characters (and the audience) to try to figure things out. While Captain Marvel is a solid-enough beginning, it will be fun to watch the relationship develop between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury in future films.

Language: Probably fewer than a dozen minor swearwords—the most sexual being a sexist line about why it’s called a “cockpit”

Sex: Nothing to speak of—unless you consider zooming in on a fully clothed butt sex

Violence: Here’s where the film earns its PG-13 rating, for repeated “sci-fi action and violence”—but nothing, really, compared to other Marvel movies; characters’ faces are bloodied, tentacles fly out of a character’s mouth, and there are the usual fights and explosions and battles

Adult situations: One flashback occurs in a bar, but there’s no real drinking or drunkenness shown; an alien autopsy is also graphically shown

Takeaway: Tame by Marvel standards, Captain Marvel is an entertaining film that falls in the B range—but there’s nothing to marvel at, to be honest, nothing that makes your jaw drop

Review of ISN’T IT ROMANTIC (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No
2019, 89 min., Color
Romantic Comedy-Fantasy
Rated PG-13 for Language, some sexual material, and a brief drug reference
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

Isn’t It Romantic?

Uh, not really, I’m sorry to say.

This 2019 film from Todd Strauss-Schulson (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas) seems to want to satirize romantic comedies while also following the formula and hoping audiences will walk away feeling warm and fuzzy about the possibility of romance for everyone—whether they’re “beautiful people” or not. As admirable as that message may be, it’s tough to have it both ways, and the film falls flat as satire and also disappoints as a romantic comedy.

“Flat” is really the operative word here. For most of the 89-minute runtime, Isn’t It Romantic has zero energy—flat as a half-bottle of beer that’s been left out overnight. Actors seem to be just going through the motions. One big problem is the script by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman. It’s just plain dull, and limp lines contribute to the overall flatness. Too often, gags go on unmercifully long. We don’t, for example, get a lot of laughs, insight or plot exposition as Natalie (Rebel Wilson) goes on and on about why she hates the rom-com formula in a montage that we’re guessing is supposed to be funny. As for the gimmick the writers employ to give Natalie a conk on the head and put her smack dab in the middle of a romantic comedy, the film is frankly more fun and interesting without it. And unfortunately, that gimmick occupies the bulk of the film.

With older movies like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), the conk on the head journey worked because of the deep contrast between worlds. It was fascinating to see Oz through Dorothy’s eyes or to experience medieval times through from the perspective of a horse-and-buggy-era blacksmith. Also missing in Isn’t It Romantic is the level of smart reporting and detail that makes newer stranger-in-a-strange-land films like Pleasantville (1998) so compelling, and when Natalie does begin to suspect that she’s in a romantic comedy it’s not nearly as satisfying as when Jim Carrey learns he’s in a reality TV show (The Truman Show, 1998).

Another problem is Wilson herself. She frankly doesn’t have the range to convey the emotional journey a main character needs to make for a film like this to be successful. She plays a milquetoast architect who lets others at the firm walk all over her—even those for whom she’s a superior. There’s an attentive co-worker (Adam Devine as Josh) who obviously has a crush on her, but Natalie is oblivious to his feelings. You KNOW they’re going to get together because that’s the rom-com formula, but we frankly don’t care because not enough time is spent on their relationship or situation, and because Wilson doesn’t sell it. Those who were wondering if she could make the leap from comic character actor to lead actress will probably walk away from this film speculating on the reasons why the funny actress wasn’t able to pull it off. A veteran lead actress might have been able to compensate more for all those flat lines and long periods between laughs. Even multiple allusions to Pretty Woman and 13 Going on 30 aren’t enough to help.

Liam Hemsworth, who plays the eye-candy man of every rom-com woman’s dreams, seems a little lost, and in a role that’s supposed to be comic relief Brandon Scott Jones isn’t nearly as funny as we needed the clichéd gay best friend of the rom-com heroine to be. One of the film’s more hilarious moments comes near the end, when Natalie comments on how she thought her neighbor was heterosexual because of all the women who went in and out of the apartment, and the character and his partner get indignant because, “What, we can be gay AND sell drugs?” There just aren’t nearly enough funny moments like that, and you realize, too, how flat the film is when the cast launches into a big song-and-dance number and you think, Finally, some energy! Wilson fans will of course enjoy seeing her in a different role, but others will watch that big number and wonder why there wasn’t more energy throughout the film.

Language: Lots of suggested f-bombs but only one use of the word, plus another couple dozen lesser swearwords and a “double bird” flip-off

Sex: No nudity or implied sex, but the size of a man’s organ is discussed at some length and Hemsworth is shown in just a towel in a Groundhog Day scene that keeps repeating

Violence: One of the film’s funnier scenes involves Natalie fighting with a would-be mugger in the NYC subway; later Natalie pulls an IV out of her arm and blood squirts everywhere, and there’s a sudden car crash

Adult situations: There’s some drinking in a karaoke bar and a character is seen smoking; there’s also a brief reference to selling “weed”

Takeaway: Wilson is the latest popular character actress to find out that it’s tougher than it looks to carry a film as the headliner

Review of ROAD TO UTOPIA (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
1945, 90 min., Black & White
Adventure-Comedy
Not rated (would be PG for adult elements)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Road to Morocco, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour’s fourth “road” picture, Road to Utopia, received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay—one reason why both of the musical comedies are considered the best of the bunch. There’s more plotting, more clever lines, and a more ambitious narrative arc in each of them.

The action takes place in Seattle and Alaska shortly after the Klondike Gold Rush around the turn of the century, making Road to Utopia (1945) the only road picture with a historical backdrop. It’s also the only road picture to use a frame device that takes full advantage of the audience’s familiarity with other road pics. This time it’s made clear that Hope, not Crosby, got the “girl,” as the film opens with a made-to-look-old Hope and Lamour as a married couple who get a surprise visit from their old friend, Duke, and they reminisce about the adventure that led to their separation.

In Utopia, Hope and Crosby play two vaudeville performers (what else?) who are working a scam called “Ghosto,” in which audience members are urged to wager money by placing it in a box to see if the “spirit” (Hope, as Chester, curled up underneath) will take the money and replace it with a larger bill. Duke (Crosby) wears the swami getup and solicits the cash, and all goes well enough until two murderers evading police chase through the theater. When the Ghosto table is overturned and the crowd sees it’s a scam, they take after Chester and Duke (Crosby), who scram with the money. After Duke swipes all of it and Chester follows him aboard the boat to get it back, the steamer horn sounds and they find themselves bound for Alaska.

It’s when Duke and Chester lose their money, stowaway, and are caught that the plot really kicks into high gear and never downshifts. Forced to clean cabins, the boys stumble onto the gold mine map that everyone is looking for. Then, confronted by the murderers Sperry and McGurk, they somehow manage to subdue the men, shave off their beards, and swap clothes. Assuming their identity, they disembark in Skagway and learn in short order just how feared Sperry and McGurk really are. The fun, of course, comes from watching the cowardly Chester and mild-mannered Duke masquerade as tough guys (“I’ll have a lemonade,” Chester says to the bartender, adding, after realizing he’s broken character, “in a dirty glass!”). Some of the action takes place in a saloon, where there’s drinking and smoking and chewing tobacco, but the jokes and the boys’ trying to act tough take center stage.

In the chain of events that follows, Lamour plays Sal, whose father was murdered for the map. She thinks saloon owner Ace Larson (Douglass Dumbrill) and his gal Kate (Hillary Brooke) are going to help her get the mine back, but really they want it for themselves. And of course Sperry and McGurk, once they get loose, are also hot on the trail of the map and the men who are impersonating them.

All of the road pictures have moments where the fourth wall is broken, but in this one it’s done in a way that some might find more annoying. Former New Yorker columnist and humorist Robert Benchley introduces the film and interrupts the film occasionally in a freeze-frame insert of himself, commenting on what “we’re seeing.” When the film was made, the interruptions themselves would have seemed funny to audiences, but that’s no longer the case. And frankly, Benchley’s running commentary isn’t funny. It’s something to be tolerated or ignored.

Thankfully the banter between Hope and Crosby is nearly as good as it was in Road to Morocco, and the plot is fun and fast-paced enough to where Benchley is easy to ignore. Though the music isn’t as catchy as Morocco, Johnny Mercer’s rendition of the song “Personality” hit #1 on the music charts, and Hope and Crosby’s “Put It There, Pal” is a pretty good BFF tune for the times.

Older family members will appreciate this comedy of character and one-liners, while the action and the dogs and dogsledding—especially one Saint Bernard that “adopts” the boys—should keep the younger ones interested. If this were a race, Road to Morocco still finishes first, but Road to Utopia comes in a strong second.

Review of ON THE BASIS OF SEX (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2018, 120 min., Color
Biography, Drama
Focus Features
Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Though it’s rated PG-13 mostly for strong language in a single scene, On the Basis of Sex might be a hard film for parents to talk everyone into watching. The title makes it sound racier than it really is (which might be off-putting for some, misleading for others), while telling children it’s based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems even less enticing.

To get our daughter to watch, we told her, “It’s basically Legally Blonde without the comedy.” And that’s not an unfair comparison. Both films are about a young woman who attends law school with her male love interest, both find sexism alive and well, both fight the system to prove themselves worthy, and both ultimately triumph . . . though Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) doesn’t wear pink or have a dog small enough to carry in her purse.

Directed by two-time Emmy winner Mimi Leder (ER), On the Basis of Sex is a feel-good David and Goliath story that for a time also turns on the relationship between Ruth and husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Martin is considered a legal golden boy who just happens to be married to this curiosity, this woman everyone seems to think of as a pretender or an intruder pounding on the door of the Good Ol’ Boys Club. But one of the film’s fascinations is the way in which each person navigates the reality of those waters while still being supportive of the other. Resentment doesn’t triumph—persistence does. She persisted. And that makes this film a must-see for all your daughters old enough to sit through a leisurely paced drama and understand the stakes.

Sam Waterston is spot-on as a Harvard professor intent on keeping the glass ceiling in place while pretending to be open to change, while Kathy Bates nails it as a savvy progressive crusader. An interesting difference between Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde and this Ginsburg biography is that Ginsburg is fighting to break through while she has a teenage daughter who is far more liberated than the previous generation, with much higher expectations for equal rights. Like Martin, Jane Ginsburg (Cailee Spaeny) becomes not only a sounding board but also a litmus test for Ruth.

Without giving too much of the dramatic plot away, let’s just say that the film mixes one part medical drama with one part workplace drama, two parts romance, and three parts investigative-courtroom drama. It tracks Ginsburg from her first year as a Harvard Law School student and her transfer to Columbia Law School because of family circumstances, to her inability to find a law firm who would hire a woman, her tenure as a Rutgers Law School Professor teaching “Sex Discrimination and the Law,” and the case that finally helps her prove her mettle and launch a legal arm of the women’s rights movement.

On the Basis of Sex is well acted, and the story itself is inspirational. Apart from a brainstorming session where an f-bomb and other language flies in one of Ginsburg’s Rutgers classes, there really isn’t much to earn that PG-13 rating. So when that scene comes on, just send that impressionable young girl of yours to the kitchen to fetch a snack for you if you’re disinclined to let her listen to the way people talked in the early ‘70s.

And yes, our daughter liked the movie, though she’s not usually a fan of dramas.

Language: Other than that f-bomb, there are lesser swearwords (“shit,” etc.) but most are concentrated in one scene

Sex: A married couple is suggested to have sex when the lights dim, but that’s it

Violence: None whatsoever

Adult Situations: There is period drinking and smoking, some drug references, but no intoxicated behavior

Takeaway: Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Supreme Court Justice is so iconic and recognizable that she even has her own action figure, but once you get that image of a short bespectacled old woman out of your mind, it’s easy to become transported into her fascinating past

Review of ROAD TO MOROCCO (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
1942, 82 min., Black & White
Comedy
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG for drinking, smoking, innuendo, and some peril)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Of all the “Road” pictures, Road to Morocco is tops for family viewing—especially those families with older children who can appreciate the chemistry that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby bring to the screen as drifters and small-time grifters. Hope and Crosby brought their A game to this picture, and their banter with each other may well have inspired all of the buddy cop pictures that would come decades later, and their on-screen love interest, Dorothy Lamour, said that the guys ad-libbed so much that she had a hard time figuring out when she was supposed to say a line.

Turkey (Hope, seeing the desert for the first time): This must be the place where they empty all the old hourglasses.

Jeff (Crosby): We must storm the place!
Turkey: You storm. I’ll stay here and drizzle.

Turkey: The dead have a way of coming back you know.
Jeff: Get out. When they’re dead, they’re dead.
Turkey: Not Aunt Lucy. She was a Republican.

Road to Morocco was released in 1942 following Road to Singapore and Road to Zanzibar, and the third time was the charm. Audiences wanted pleasant diversions from the war, but Morocco was even more fun than usual. It also holds up the best for contemporary audiences—starting with the music. More

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. More

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