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Review of THE WAR LORD (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
Action-Adventure, Drama
1965, 123 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG-13 for adult situations, brief nudity and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Of the dozen or so films set in medieval times that Hollywood made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, The War Lord stands out. It wasn’t another romanticized tale of knighthood like El Cid, Ivanhoe, The Black Knight, or Knights of the Round Table, and it wasn’t a dreamed-up biopic of a famous figure like Lady Godiva, Prince Valiant, Saint Joan, or Francis of Assissi. If a comparison had to be made, you’d have to say that it comes closest to The Vikings in its tone, spirit, and subject matter.

Like The Vikings, this 1965 Technicolor and Panavision feature from director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) is based on the conflicts between Normans and Frisian (Viking) raiders. But like The Vikings a good portion of the drama comes from internal conflicts unrelated to the main bouts. Unlike The Vikings or any of the films about knights, the life of a warrior is not romanticized, nor is medieval life. The castle in The War Lord is but a single tower, and it’s cold and drafty and in disrepair from previous sieges. There are no lute players or jesters, no feasts, and no life of leisure inside that small castle.

A typically wooden Charlton Heston stars not as a glamorous knight but as knight given a swampy place in the middle of Nowhere, Normandy to hold for his king. Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) relishes the appointment of Lord over all who live in this place, while the brother that accompanies him, Draco (Guy Stockwell) thinks it a mudhole fit only for pigs and heathens. Also accompanying Chrysagon is Bors (Richard Boone), a sidekick who’s fought by his side in the Crusades.

Aside from that implication, the Crusades aren’t mentioned, and there’s no court to provide any courtly intrigue. Though the Normans under Chrysagon are ostensibly there to protect the local population—the Druid-worshipping Saxons—from Frisian invaders, a conflict arises between the pagans and their new Lord and his small band of occupying soldiers. You might say that The War Lord is a small-scale variance on the Helen of Troy myth, where a single woman so captivates one man that he steals her away, and her husband, angered, tries to find a force to help him get her back again. Very little is shown in the way of nudity, but what turns out to be the film’s main premise can leave an impression.

I saw this film in theaters when I was in my mid-teens, and I didn’t remember the long third-act battle. I didn’t even remember that there was a battle. All I remembered was Charlton Heston’s character riding up to a Bacchanalian-style pagan wedding and pointing at the bride (Rosemary Forsyth) to claim his right as Lord for her first night—his right to deflower the virgin, though as the leader of the pagans remarks, “To take her your way is rape.” But by their custom, in ancient times each spring a virgin would be sacrificed to ensure a bountiful year. This was a “modern” twist on that ancient custom.

Fans of the Vikings TV series will find the battle scene tame by comparison, and the Vikings themselves to be far more ordinary than the fearful warriors we encounter in the current TV series. But for the ‘50s and ‘60s, the battle—for a film that’s largely about smaller conflicts and a triangle between a Lord, a pagan lady, and a pagan man—the battle covers all the bases. Though we don’t see their construction, as we do in the Vikings TV series, there’s a battering ram, a catapult, and a siege tower. And because of the tensions between brothers, between the Lord and his lady, and between the Normans and Saxons, when that big moment finally comes when the Frisian raiders attack again, it feels like a bonus.

Language: “Hell,” “damn,” “bastard,” and “whore” pretty much cover it

Sex: A nude man and woman are shown lying dead in bed, but the main characters are more properly covered while nudity and lovemaking are suggested; there is also an attack of the woman by hunting hounds that tear off her clothes, but again we don’t see frontal nudity because she covers herself

Violence: Bloodier and more violent battle scenes than most films of this period, with warriors getting burned and stabbed as well

Adult situations: The whole film is based on adult situations, though again everything is mild compared to today’s standards

Takeaway: For an old-time Hollywood medieval film, The War Lord does a fine job of delivering action, drama, intrigue, and a welcome dose of realism.

Review of THE KNIGHT OF SHADOWS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
Action-Fantasy
2019, 109 min., Color
Well Go USA Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for crude humor and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1 Mandarin (and English dubbed) with English subtitles
Bonus features: C+ (better than the film!)
Trailer
Amazon link

If you look at the cover of The Knight of Shadows with its tagline “Martial Arts Fantasy Adventure” and see Jackie Chan and a serious-looking co-star in period garb, you’d think you’re in store for a serious adventure. You get a similar impression if you read the Imdb.com or Amazon.com description that the studio provided: “A legendary demon hunter (Jackie Chan), tracking down beasts that enter the human dimension, assisted by a lawman protégé and a motley group of friendly monsters.” Still promising, right? Even if you watch the official trailer, with its strange H.R. Pufnstuf-style characters, you never get the sense that silliness ever tries to hijack the film.

Then you watch the film and go, seriously?

Director Jia Yan tries to juggle the comedy and martial arts adventure, and if they were knives he’d still be in the emergency room getting stitched up. This is a film that lurches clumsily between Three Stooges silliness (three law enforcement officers in The Knight of Shadows do their best to ruin Moe, Larry, and Curly for future generations) and cartoonish creatures that are just poorly designed and clumsily integrated into the plot—as if Jia Yan looked at the first print and thought, “We have to do more with this film to attract small children.” Let’s put in a pig character, and a cross between a fairy and Groot, and a character whose only function is to talk about “farts” and throwing his own special brand of f-bombs here and there.

The influential Chinese website Douban gave The Knight of Shadows a 4.3 out of 10, and I’d have to say that my family and I had nearly the same reaction. I’d go ever-so-slightly higher because there are some wonderful serious action sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but make you wish that the director had chosen to go this route instead of trying to straddle the fantasy fanboy and Saturday morning cartoon audiences.

The plot itself is complicated enough that, wires or not, it would soar over the heads of little ones, and yet silly enough to where what happens is an insult to the intelligence of anyone over five years old.

You have to feel for Chan, who does the best with what he has. Then again, Chan was executive producer on this project. Didn’t he see how clumsily the humor and action and adventure were combined, or how the film kept shifting between younger and older audiences?

While the fantasy CGI sequences are uneven, the fight sequence special effects are worthy of a better overall film. Visual effects supervisor Adrian Chan provides over a crew that really sells the concept of Chan’s character being able to wave a paintbrush and paint monsters into a book—not unlike the old Ghostbusters films that had the heroes zapping and then trapping the supernatural entities into a container.

But the film itself? It’s a 5 out of 10 at best.

It’s interesting that Pu Songling is a storyteller who hawks his books and also, on the side, hunts demons. When he sets out with an old assistant and a new protégé they eventually run across a beautiful super demon named Xiao Qian, who has a history with one of the characters. Some of those sequences are beautiful to watch, but because the story itself has been such a mishmash of styles it’s hard to embrace the emotional moment that the director obviously sets up.

Worse, fans of Chan will watch some of his sequences and lament that more of them were CGI rather than Chan doing what he does best—his own stuntwork.

Language: Nothing much here either, whether you watch the Mandarin or the dubbed English version—though it is a little jarring to have this little fart-monster keep talking about leaving “farts” here and there

Sex: Nothing at all, except for a man disguised as a woman for comic effect

Violence: There’s martial arts violence, but no blood

Adult situations: Chan’s character gets drunk at one point

Takeaway: Jackie Chan, what were you thinking???

Review of OVERCOMER (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
Christian sports drama
2019, 119 min., Color
Sony Pictures
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Overcomer is the latest inspirational Christian film from brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, with Alex serving once again as director and also starring. Like the others before it—Flywheel (2003), Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011), and War Room (2015)—there’s frequent mention of God and prayer. Unlike the others, there are quite a few come-to-Jesus moments rather than a single pivotal one. That’s not a criticism, mind you. It’s a fact. If you’re put off by preachy films (“You were created to know and worship Him”), then you won’t want to buy or stream this one.

But it’s also a fact that the Kendrick brothers keep improving. The writing is a little more polished, the camerawork has grown stronger, and there are more sophisticated shots—some, in this film, using drones. The overall production values are far superior as well, the result of a $5 million budget (compared to the $20,000 budget the Kendricks had to work with for their first film). While the brothers’ early films mostly cast members of their Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia (where Kendrick was an associate pastor), they’ve graduated to using more professional actors . . . and that also help to elevate the overall quality. This time there’s also a killer soundtrack, with the highlight a song (“You Say”) by Grammy- and American Music Awards-winner Lauren Daigle. More

Review of THE SIMPSONS: SEASON 19 (DVD)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2007-08, 440 min. (20 episodes), Color
Animation
Not rated (would be PG for some drinking, smoking, and adult situations)
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: 4 discs, booklet
Intro sample
Amazon Link

It’s almost unfathomable to think that a TV series that first aired in 1989 would still be on the air, but The Simpsons keeps chugging happily along and shows no signs of slowing down. With the 31st season in progress, it’s the longest running TV sitcom and also the longest running scripted primetime TV show.

Cartoonist Matt Groening struck gold with this series about a nuclear power plant worker who’s so dumb you’d swear there’s a leak at the plant. Then again, there might be something to that. In Springfield, where nuclear power is the big employer in town, the stream has multi-headed fish and everyone and everything in town is just a little strange—whether it’s hyper-Christian Ned Flanders, dumb-as-a-baton Chief Wiggum, Marge Simpson’s blue hair, or the Simpsons’ deep yellow pallor that tip you off.

Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) is part Archie Bunker, part Al Bundy, and part Rain Man, and his clueless but try-anything demeanor gets him into all sorts of escapades, sometimes with his über-delinquent son Bart (Nancy Cartwright). Marge (Julie Kavner) is Homer’s long-suffering wife, while daughter Lisa (Yeardley Smith) somehow managed to beat the family’s gene pool to be born brainy and ambitious. Cartoon families are fun because no one ever ages, and the baby Maggie keeps sucking on her pacifier year after year. Bartender Moe (Hank Azaria) also never ages, nor does Flanders (Harry Shearer), Wiggum (Azaria), Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu (Azaria), Principal Skinner (Shearer), bully Nelson Muntz (Cartwright), teacher Edna Krabappel (Marcia Wallace), or Bart’s friend Milhouse (Pamela Hayden).

The animated show’s success can be attributed to three things: engaging characters, sharp writing, and a steady diet of topical humor and pop culture allusions that keep the writing (and the writers) fresh. In fact, The Simpsons itself is such a cultural phenomenon that celebrities have eagerly been a part of various episodes. This season falls into what many consider the Simpsons’ golden era before the style of animation changed. And the titles alone tell you how much fun the writers had with pop culture this season. More

Review of THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
1954, 97 min., Color
Western
Not rated (would be PG for some violence, drinking, smoking, and adult situations)
Arrow Video
Aspect ratio: 2.00:1, 1.85:1
Featured audio: LCPM Mono
Bonus features: B-
Includes: two Blu-ray discs, booklet
Trailer
Amazon link

When people think of James Stewart they think of the pictures he made with Frank Capra, or, in later years, Alfred Hitchcock. But in the early 1950s Stewart teamed with director Anthony Mann on eight films that made his screen persona edgier and more ambiguous. Five of those films were Westerns—Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955)—and all five were both critical and commercial successes.

Sixty years later those Westerns remain so similar in quality that it’s a matter of preference. The slight edge may go to The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie, then Bend of the River and The Far Country—the latter an enjoyable “Northern” along the lines of John Wayne’s North to Alaska.

In The Far Country, Stewart plays a cowboy who had driven a herd of cattle from Montana to Seattle, then boards a steamship to take them to the gold fields in Skagway, where the price of beef is sky high. But as the ship is leaving, a sheriff shouts to the captain to take the cowboy into custody because he’s said to have killed two people. In short order, Jeff Webster goes from wrangler to fugitive, dodging the crew thanks to the help of a woman (Ruth Roman as Ronda Castle) who invites him to get under the covers with her as the crew unlocks and checks every stateroom. And that’s just the start of the action. More

DEADLINE (1959-61) (DVD)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
1959-61, 1006 min. (39 episodes), Black & White
Drama
Not rated (would be PG for some adult situations)
Film Chest Media
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

It’s almost hard to remember, but before unfair cries of “fake news” journalists were widely respected. From the ‘20s through ‘50s they were even considered heroic because they did whatever it took to get a story, whether it involved immediate danger or possible repercussions. Crusading editors and reporters were the frequent subject of films and featured such stars as James Stewart (Call Northside 777), Humphrey Bogart (Deadline —U.S.A.), Kirk Douglas (Ace in the Hole), Clark Gable (Teacher’s Pet), Cary Grant (His Girl Friday), Fred McMurray (Exclusive), Alan Ladd (Chicago Deadline), and Joel McCrea (Foreign Correspondent).

The short-lived Deadline(1959-61) TV series takes viewers back to those simpler times when journalists worked alongside police and the public trusted and relied on them.

Paul Stewart, the series host and frequent “guest actor,” played a reporter in the film Deadline – U.S.A., but he doesn’t have what it takes to carry an anthology series like this. Assuming the role of various reporters from real newspaper stories across the nation, he goes about that reporter’s business with the stiff formality of Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday. In fact, Dragnet is a good comparison.

Dragnet had Friday’s voiceovers, while Deadline has Stewart’s in almost every episode. Like Dragnet, the Deadline investigations are pretty facile and stagey, which was typical of TV crime shows from the ‘50s. The “dramatizations” are, like most TV reenactments, a little hokey and decidedly melodramatic. A situation is quickly set up, there’s a brief investigation with questions asked of various people involved, and by the end of every 30-minute episode there’s a resolution. Guest stars include Peter Falk, Diane Ladd, Robert Lansing, Telly Savalas, George Maharis, and Simon Oakland, but for the most part these are unknown actors and fresh faces, because most of their careers never took off.

Thirty-nine episodes were produced, and all of them are included in this three-disc DVD set from Film Chest Media. The timing couldn’t be better, and you get the feeling that Film Chest is doing a little crusading of their own, thinking perhaps that the mainstream media have been systematically and unfairly maligned the past three years. More

Review of BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Entire family: No
Drama
2019, 118 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language, including ethnic slurs
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Just as you’d better like Abba if you’re going to enjoy Mamma Mia!, you almost need to be a Bruce Springsteen fan (or willing convert) to appreciate this music-filled drama from director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice).

Set in a small British town in 1987, Blinded by the Light features wall-to-wall Springsteen, with only a few exceptions. Included here are The Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark,” “The River,” “Badlands,” “Cover Me,” “Thunder Road,” “Prove It All Night,” “Hungry Heart,” “Because the Night,” “The Promised Land,” “Born to Run,” “I’ll Stand by You,” and the film’s title song. The soundtrack is meant to feel like an extended Springsteen play list that takes us into the mind of a Pakistani teenager as he listens to his Walkman throughout much of the film. But it’s not just the music. The lyrics also appear onscreen in numerous scenes, artfully arranged in superscript to emphasize the impact that Springsteen’s words have on a main character who wants to become a writer and struggles under the burden of a strict, controlling father and hostile community.

It’s no secret that music has a transformative power, capable of inspiring, soothing, even redeeming listeners, and Javed’s story resonates because of that. Based on co-writer Sarfraz Manzoor’s life, Javed’s struggles are also uncomfortably familiar.

Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s British nationalism sparked a white nationalist backlash against immigrants—Pakistanis especially—and it’s difficult if not impossible to watch Blinded by the Light and not think of the current state of affairs in America. Because Luton is a very small town, Pakistanis feel the white nationalist anger more acutely. “Pakis go home” graffiti is everywhere. Neighborhood children urinate through the mail slot of one family’s door. White nationalist demonstrators walk the streets and pummel counter-protesters, and the main character, Javed (Viveik Kalra), is threatened by a menacing white male, forcing him to seek refuge in the home of a white male friend who shares his love of music.

That’s the milieu complicating the life of a teenager who has it hard enough just trying to negotiate typical teen dramas—like the halls and lunchroom of his school, school activities, and encounters with the opposite sex (including a major crush). His life changes when the only other South Asian student in his class befriends him and loans him two Springsteen tapes. His life also takes an upturn because of an English teacher (Hayley Atwell) who champions him and his writing—which he does in relative secret from his parents. In his father’s eyes, if he’s not spending his time earning money to help them get through tough times, he’s not spending his time wisely.

In a way, we’ve seen this story before in films like Billy Elliott, where dance, not writing, was the boy’s dream and his journey was also entwined with one his father had to make, from resistance to acceptance. Still, Blinded by the Light is a solid film, and one that can lead to a lot of discussion. As with so many things, though, a strength can turn into a weakness. There comes a time when the whole “inspired by Springsteen” and “must live my life like Springsteen” gets a little old, which leads me to wonder if the film might have been stronger if it had been edited to clock in at 98 minutes instead of 118. Just sayin’.

Language: Mild compared to most movies today, with Brit versions of swearwords (wanker, crap, fricking, shite, etc.) and a repeated racial slur (Packis)

Sex: Nothing here except a kiss

Violence: A character is bruised on the head, and there are other instances of bullying, but not much in the way of actual physical violence

Adult situations: Teens throw a party that’s seen from the outside, while inside we see suppressed teens letting it all hang out at a rave; later Javed is poured wine though the host knows it’s against his Muslim religion

Takeaway: It’s good to get another film from Chadha, who isn’t afraid to explore emotion in her stories and has a knack for detailing cross-cultural experiences without getting too preachy or maudlin

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