Home

Review of JOJO RABBIT (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray coverGrade: A
Rated: PG-13
War-comedy-drama

Jojo Rabbit was my personal pick for Best Film of 2019, and watching it again only confirms that for me. It’s a wildly inventive, offbeat, hilarious-yet-poignant critique of Nazism that entertains as it subtly instructs. Since the action takes place in the closing months of WWII, there are some sad moments and some violence, but far less than what’s usually contained in a PG-13 film these days.

One of the most commonly taught books in junior high and high school is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a German-Dutch teenager who spent two years hiding in a secret upstairs section of her father’s pectin factory in the Netherlands with family and friends. She died in a concentration camp, and what the Nazis did to Jews remains a horrible page in the history of humankind. Picture that story with an equally sad death, a better ending, and the kind of quirky laugh-out-loud humor that characterized Taika Waititi’s film “What We Do in the Shadows, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this film is like. It’s shockingly funny because, as co-star Sam Rockwell told Imdb.com, “Taika has a really good comedy compass.”

Jojo’s family is down to just two—his mother and him—since an older sister had recently died of influenza and his father was still absent, allegedly fighting for the Germans on the Italian front. As a result, he and his free-spirited mother (Scarlet Johansson) are extremely close, and we see them playfully interacting—he, always the serious one, and she the teaser, the one most likely to play a prank or act spontaneously.

Jojo (wonderfully portrayed by first-time actor Roman Griffin Davis) has two problems: the first is that he’s so clearly sensitive and unsuited to being a Nazi that it underscores the propaganda side of Nazism. Jojo gets his nickname when, during a Hitler Youth training camp, he finds himself unable to kill a rabbit, as ordered. But the second and more pressing problem he faces is that he discovers his mother is secretly sheltering a Jewish girl behind a secret panel in the room where his sister stayed before she died. What’s a Hitler Youth to do?

There’s also a third factor that shapes Jojo’s young life: he’s so brainwashed by the Nazis that his hero, Adolph Hitler, frequently visits him like an imaginary friend, talking to him, giving him advice, and acting more like a Dutch uncle than someone who kills Dutch Jews and those living anywhere within his reach. Waititi, who told TheWrap that the imaginary Hitler was “a lonely boy’s best version of his hero, which is really his dad,” plays Hitler with the all Hitler and Jojo running with grenadeerratic energy of improv (“Come on, heil me”) in scenes so funny that they’ll take you back to the “Springtime for Hitler” sequences in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The director gave his actors the same kind of freedom, Rockwell said, adding that he saw his camp commandant character “as Bill Murray with a German accent.” In playing the teenage girl hiding in the family’s house, Thomasin McKenzie was told to prepare by watching Heathers and Mean Girls. So yeah, that’s the tone of this very funny film about a very serious subject.

How subtle you think the film is will depend upon your ability to see allusions and connect the dots. For example, an opening visual sequence featuring a barrage of Hitler and Nazi parade and crowd images is backed by a musical soundtrack of a Beatles song—reinforcing the rock-star nature of Hitler’s rise to power, a rise that swept the German people up in Der Fuehrer’s version of Beatlemania. Emotion replaced thought, and that’s evident in a number of places throughout the film.

JoJo Rabbit is an ensemble tour de force, with all the actors finding just the right tone—even the normally over-the-top Rebel Wilson, who excels as an instructor in the Hitler Youth camp that turns up later in the film as well (“Here,” she says, handing a grenade to a young boy, pulling the pin, and telling him, “Go hug a G.I.”). Also noteworthy is the performance by young Archie Yates as Jojo’s bespectacled best friend Yorki, with both boys trying to tackle jobs that men should be doing.

Waititi, who won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay by radically altering Christine Leunens’ novel to fit his comic sensibilities, alludes to the Anne Frank diary in a clever way that’s in keeping with the humor-driven tone of the film. Yet, by film’s end you come away feeling the same emotional reaction as if you’d just watched a serious film about Nazi atrocities . . . only you also laughed your head off in the process.

Entire family: No (junior high or older)
Twentieth Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Rated PG-13 for “mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language”

Language: 5/10—one f-bomb at the near the very end, a number of “s” words, and a few lesser swearwords, all for comic effect

Violence: 5/10—Most of what’s shown is comic, with the bulk of anything serious implied off stage; there are sequences of war violence near the end, though nothing is bloody or graphic

Sex: 0/10—Only an innocent attraction with nothing pursued

Adult situations: 6/10—the whole idea of the film weighs on your minds in the background as the humor occupies the forefront, and there is a prolonged shot of hanged bodies; also, one of the characters dies

Takeaway: Taika Waititi is living the best of two cinematic lives; with films like this he gets to explore his playful indie side, and with Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder he gets to work on blockbusters

Review of DRAGONHEART: VENGEANCE (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
Fantasy
2020, 97 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some bloody images
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Dragonheart: Vengeance is the third direct-to-video “prequel” to the cult-favorite 1996 fantasy adventure starring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery, and the good news is that it doesn’t look like the typical slap-it-together direct-to-video release.

Aside from some noticeable green screen work in less than a handful of spots, the CGI effects and animation are strong enough to make you forget that this spawn of Dragonheart never saw the dim light of theaters. But apart from those strong production values, Dragonheart: Vengeance is a mixed bag.

On the plus side, the two main characters are instantly likeable. The more screen time they get, the more you like watching farm boy Lukas (Jack Kane) and mercenary swordsman Darius (Joseph Millson) as they set about to avenge the murder of the boy’s family and eventually take on the evil king. On the minus side, haven’t we already seen a family-less Luke hooking up with a profit-minded rogue adventurer who then take on the Emperor—albeit with a galactic rebel army? And haven’t we seen Darius’s “look” before in Aragorn?

Instead of Sean Connery’s voice, the dragon in this film is powered by Helena Bonham Carter (“You’re a girl dragon?”). Carter is always the consummate professional, and it’s a nice touch having the dragon breathe ice and not fire. But some of the lines that are written seem way too contemporary, and the script doesn’t allow for the same playful interaction as in the original film. Instead of a con game where the mercenary and dragon worked together to extort money from frightened villagers (and banter like buddy cops in the process), this dragon is a reluctant dragon—as much of a pacifist as those old-time Western heroes who need to have someone close to them threatened or die before they’ll take action.

Meanwhile, the acting is uneven. Some performances are quite convincing, and some feel just a little off in terms of their tone—either bordering on over-the-top or else dipping under the limbo bar of emotional range. And as far as the dragon Siveth goes, people are either going to love the variation on a theme or hate it. This dragon is a shape shifter! In some mythologies, there were stories of female dragons that turned themselves into humans in order to romance mortal men. But that’s not what happens here. Siveth can turn into animals and does so with seriocomic regularity.

Those moments would have been kid favorites, but age 10 or so is about as kid-friendly as this film gets. There’s no sex, no language, and no real adult situations—just violence, some of it extreme. When Darius lops off someone’s body part during a fight he jokes, “Sorry, I was aiming for the other one,” but the shock of the violence is there nonetheless. As we were watching, my wife quipped, “This movie is for kids who are too old for How to Train Your Dragon and too young for Game of Thrones,” and that pretty much sums it up. Plus, the location filming adds a real layer of fantasy-reality. It was shot in Romania at such locations as Rasnov Fortress, the volcanic crater at Racos, and the famous Bran Castle—better known as Dracula’s Castle. That alone makes this film fun to watch.

If you’re wondering how this new prequel stacks up against the others, It’s better than Dragonheart: A New Beginning (2000), about the same quality as Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer’s Curse (2015), but perhaps not quite as good as Dragonheart: Battle for the Heartfire—in part because the main female character in Vengeance is token rather than an integral part of the plot, and in part because there’s no personal rivalry in this most recent film to match the sibling rivalry of Sorcerer’s Curse.

Is it entertaining? Despite its flaws, heck yes, and if your kids are in that netherworld age range between How to Train Your Dragon and Game of Thrones, then Dragonheart: Vengeance isn’t a bad choice for family movie night. If you liked any of the other Dragonheart films, you’ll like this one.

Language: Nothing of note

Sex: Nothing here either

Violence: Body parts get lopped off, people get stabbed, frozen, shot with arrows, and some of the violence gets bloody—yet it’s not what I’d call Tarantino violence, just enough to push it into the PG-13 range

Adult situations: There’s one scene where a person watches someone close to him killed, and that can be traumatic

Takeaway: Ultimately it’s the engaging stars and the production values that make this worthwhile, despite its being a direct-to-video release

Review of THE MERGER (DVD)

Leave a comment

Grade:  B+
Entire family:  No (junior high or older)
Sports comedy
2018, 103 min., Color
Indie Pix Unlimited
Not rated (would be PG for language and very brief comic nudity)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features:  none
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a film not on your radar that would be a great choice for family movie night if you have children who are junior high age and older—especially if they’re into competitive sports. And don’t be fooled by the DVD cover, which looks like it was designed by the same people that do your local TV commercials. The Merger isn’t an amateur pretending to be professional. It’s a sure-footed, quirky, funny, warmhearted Australian Hoosiers.

Like Hoosiers, the plot revolves around an outcast in a small, small town where there’s a single sports obsession, and that outcast is expected to turn the local sports program around. Not everyone approves, there’s one player who doesn’t like the way he’s doing things, a local woman is drawn to him, he becomes close to a boy, and the players he’s assembled don’t particularly like each other. But they learn, under his tutelage, to work together toward a common goal: winning.

As with all sports films there’s a predictable arc from recruiting to practicing to losing to winning, with a big championship game the final scene. But after that, The Merger is as atypical as can be because it considers one of the biggest issues of our time: attitudes toward immigrants and diversity. The film jogs along at just the right pace for non-Australians to decipher their version of the Queen’s English and not miss many of the jokes that help to sell the message. More

Review of PARASITE (2019) (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: A-
Entire family: No
Comedy, crime thriller
2019, 132 min., Color
Universal
Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Korean DTS-HDMA 5.1 (or dubbed English 2.0)
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Parasite is a South Korean black comedy with English subtitles that was among my Top Five films for 2019, along with Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Knives Out, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), the Korean film focuses on a poor family that plots to sponge off of a rich family.

The structure is classic, with one small act leading to another, and another, growing larger each time. Before you watch, it’s okay to look up “parasite” in the dictionary and discover something like this: “an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense.” In fact, Bong counts on the association, if the audience is really going to appreciate his film. But if you’re not a fan of spoilers, stay away from the encyclopedia or specific case histories of certain parasites like mistletoe. Wait until after you’ve seen Parasite and then read up. It will make the film resonate all the more.

The Kim family struggles to get by. They live in a basement apartment in a crappy neighborhood where people urinate outside their window. The first hint of their parasitic nature is that they’re tapped into other people’s wifi. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), college-age son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and college-age daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) are all unemployed and have only temporary jobs that bring in just a little money as the family struggles to get by. More

Review of I GOT YOU BABE: THE BEST OF SONNY AND CHER (DVD)

Leave a comment

Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
TV Variety
1971-74, 503 min. (10 episodes), Color
Time Life
Not rated (would be G; any innuendo will fly over the heads of youngsters)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+/A- (some great interviews and TV appearances)
Trailer
Amazon link

Fans of Sonny and Cher will be glad to add I Got You Babe: The Best of Sonny & Cher to their video collections. The five-disc set includes 10 episodes culled from the series’ four-year run (1971-75), and Time Life did a good job finding the best elements to use for the DVD transfer. As for the “best” picks, that will be a matter of fan taste. Included here are:

Season 1, Episode 1—guest star Jimmy Durante (air date 8-1-71)
Season 1, Episode 8—Tony Curtis, Dinah Shore (1-3-72)
Season 1, Episode 9—Carroll O’Connor (1-10-72)
Season 3, Episode 2—Jerry Lewis, The Supremes (9-22-72)
Season 3, Episode 11—Jim Brown, Bobby Vinton
Season 3, Episode 18—Jim Nabors (2-7-73)
Season 4, Episode 3 “The Sonny & Cher Years (Part 1)—retrospective featuring Chuck Berry, Ed Byrnes, Dick Clark, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Vinton, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons (9-26-73)
Season 4, Episode 11 “The Sonny & Cher Years (Part 2)—retrospective featuring Paul Anka, The Coasters, Peter Noone, Neil Sedaka, Wolfman Jack (11-28-73)
Season 4, Episode 22—Joe Namath, The Righteous Brothers (2-20-74)

From the ‘40s through the ‘70s variety shows were a dominant genre, and Ranker.com currently lists The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour as the 10th Greatest Variety Show in TV History. But to a TV audience that didn’t grow up with variety shows, their attraction can seem a mystery. It’s like going to see a live revue at a lounge—a circuit that Sonny & Cher played, actually, before they got this summer replacement TV series. There’s something slightly indulgent about variety shows, where a line-up of guest stars as predictable as those on TV game shows get to sing and do out-of-their-element comedy sketches and basically extend their careers, while the stars can do whatever they want. Sometimes they’re entertaining, and sometimes they’re not. Some variety shows are deliberately edgy (like SNL, which debuted in 1975) and some follow the format that had become standard: an opening number (if the host is a singer) or monologue (if a comic), followed by alternating sketches and musical numbers featuring the host and guest stars. More

Review of ICEMAN (1983) (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: B-
Entire family: No (but just about)
Sci-fi drama
1983, 100 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Rated PG (for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C+
Trailer unavailable
Amazon link

Like many kids these days, my son was really into dinosaurs. At age four he could identify most of the prehistoric creatures and even recite many of their scientific names.

Together we played with his dinosaur figures and watched all-things-prehistoric on TV and film, whether it was Disney’s Dinosaur, speculative documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, the Jurassic Park films, or animated adventures like The Land Before Time series. And if Kino Lorber had released Iceman on Blu-ray when my son was in his last few years of elementary school or junior high, I think he would have watched and enjoyed this 1983 drama as well.

Notice I didn’t say action-drama, because there’s not much in the way of action. Iceman is speculative storytelling for the junior scientist crowd and people who enjoy asking, “What if…?”

If dinosaurs could be cloned from DNA in Jurassic Park, and if whole preserved woolly mammoths can be found in Siberian permafrost with the hair still perfect as can be, what if a cave man was likewise discovered in a block of ice? And what if there was a miraculously plausible reason for his being not only well preserved, but also in what amounted to a state of suspended animation? What if he could actually be brought back to life after 40,000 years?

That’s the premise of Iceman, which stars Timothy Hutton as a scruffily bearded anthropologist who’s summoned to an arctic base after a research team discovers the body of a prehistoric man. They were going to dissect him and learn from him, but that plan changed when one of the scientists behind the surgical mask noticed brain activity. Before you know it they’re applying the paddles and bringing this Neanderthal back to life. Conveniently, this elaborate research station has a large biodome intended for studying bears, but when they revive the cave man they move those bears to cages and transfer the iceman to this controlled habitat.

Dr. Shephard (Hutton) gets free reign to study the cave man, and most of the film revolves around his attempts to communicate, to understand the man, and to interact with him. Lindsay Crouse plays the other main character, Dr. Diane Brady, while Danny Glover turns up as one of the crew and David Strathairn is among the doctors. Structurally, Iceman resembles Anne Sullivan’s attempts to get through to a wild and unfocused Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. More

Review of GREGORY’S GIRL (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: B-/B
Entire family: No
Comedy-drama
1981, 91 min., Color
Film Movement
Rated PG (for adult situations, some language, and brief frontal nudity)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: 2.0 Digital Stereo
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

The Guardian called it “one of the most loved British films of all time.”

Time Out dubbed it “quirky and utterly endearing.”

The great Roger Ebert pronounced it “charming, innocent, very funny.”

And the critics were right. Gregory’s Girl is a sweet movie, a throwback to the even more wholesome ‘50s. But were ‘80s teens ever as sweet and innocent as they are in this BAFTA-winning film—one that Entertainment Weekly named #29 on their top 50 high school films? And how did one decade manage to have both the worst hair and the worst movie music? They’re both here on full display in this teen dramedy of the indie sort by Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero).

Now, almost 40 years later, watching John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory, a geeky hormone-driven teen who falls hard for the first female player on his school’s soccer team, it’s hard to believe Gregory and his pals are for real. Aside from a Porky’s moment in the opening scene when a group of boys hide in trees outside an apartment to spy on a local nurse as she undresses, Gregory’s Girl is a pretty tame coming-of-age film. And that’s not a bad thing.

Gregory’s crush is kind of sweet, and though Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) replaces him at sweeper, relegating him to netminder, he’s still effusively a fan of girls playing on the boy’s team and especially a fan of this particular girl. Hilariously, while Gregory is stuck standing alone in his team’s net at the other end, after Dorothy scores her first goal all of his teammates group-hug her.  And in that celebratory hug that never seems to end, a few kisses on the cheek are snuck in for good measure—some by opposing players as well, wanting to get in on the action. More

Older Entries