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Review of THE PAPER TIGERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Action comedy-drama
Rated PG-13

If your family loved Cobra Kai—or even The Karate Kid films that preceded the popular TV series—and you’re looking for another martial arts offering that balances medium-intensity action, drama, and humor, you might consider The Paper Tigers. Yuji Okumoto, who appeared in the second Karate Kid film and also Cobra Kai, was the film’s producer.

This English-language 2020 martial arts film from director Quoc Bao Tran is as much in the tradition of old-guys-proving-they’ve-still-got-it tradition of films like Space Cowboys (2000) and Old Dogs (2009) as it is the kung fu movies. But don’t fear, younger viewers, there’s young martial arts action too. It’s just that the focus is on three middle-aged men whose bodies have seen better days. In other words, this isn’t your typical Asian martial arts film, though it does have an almost obligatory memorable fight scene.

The Paper Tigers features three likable guys who are just that: guys. Too many martial arts films are all action with nothing but paper characters—kung fu wizards who do little more than kick, block, and punch their way through every scene. The heroes of this film are Everymen, real flesh-and-blood people who just happen to have bonded in the youth when they were “The Three Tigers,” as their master dubbed them. One of the characters happens to be African American and the other two Asian American, but all three are treated as people because “at the end of the day, we wanted to tell a fun, entertaining story that depicted our experience honestly,” Tran told the media.

One character, like Scott Calvin in The Santa Clause, is a marginalized dad who’s just trying to stay relevant in the life of his son. Another has moved comfortably beyond the life they once had together and is just fine with who he is, while the third has a body that’s in training for an upcoming season of My 600-Pound Life.

The plot is pretty straightforward. After their old master is murdered, Danny (Alain Uy as Danny Eight Hands, the former leader of The Three Tigers), and his best-friend Hing (Ron Yuan) reunite with Jim, the only one who still kept up with his kung fu and works as a trainer. All three are shown in flashbacks with younger actors portraying them so we can develop an appreciation for the relationships they once had. Seeing their lives now and then ought to be of interest to young viewers as well as older ones, because what young person doesn’t wonder at least once what their life will be like in the future, and what older person doesn’t look back? If at its heart The Paper Tigers feels a bit like Stand by Me—a nostalgic look back at the best friends we had when we were young and the things that bonded us—maybe it’s because Tran said the idea for the film came from his own experiences with friends who studied martial arts with him.

This is Tran’s directorial debut, and he does a nice job of balancing the drama and comedy and handling the action scenes. Some dialogue-heavy scenes might go on a bit too long and some reaction shots might also linger too much. Clichés also creep in, like the sneering no-nonsense rival of the Tigers or the disgraced martial arts student who seeks revenge, but Tran’s focus on the humanity and averageness of his characters wins out.  If you’re interested, now’s the time to check it out. As of today it was 40 percent off at Amazon: $17.90 instead of $29.98.

Entire family:  No
Run time:  111 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  16×9 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Well Go USA
Bonus features:  C+
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, offensive slurs, and violence

Language: 3/10—A smattering a cursing, including several f-bombs and the worst of all: the n-word, hurled in insult

Sex:  1/10—At a urinal one man looks at another, played for laughs and with nothing shown

Violence:  5/10—Medium intensity sequences of hand-to-hand combat, with comparatively little blood

Adult situations:  Brief realistic scenes that briefly feature smoking and drinking, but no drunkenness

Takeaway:  This is that rare martial arts movie about average guys, not fantastic superheroes who seem to exist in a world apart from our everyday reality

Review of THE BRASS BOTTLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Comedy
Not Rated (would be PG)

The mid-‘60s gave viewers two sitcoms featuring women with magical powers: Bewitched, an ABC-TV series about a witch married to a mortal, and I Dream of Jeannie, an NBC comedy about an astronaut who splashes down near a deserted island and finds a bottle containing a beautiful genie determined to serve (and exasperate) him.

As with “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family,” audiences were split over which show was better. It’s the fans of I Dream of Jeannie who are going to want to see The Brass Bottle, because it provided the inspiration for the TV show. After Bewitched became a smash hit when it debuted in October 1964, creator-producer Sidney Sheldon wanted to develop a similar property for NBC. Sheldon had seen The Brass Bottle, which opened in theaters in May of that year, and the concept seemed perfect. All he had to do was make a few changes, and the rest was television history.

The Brass Bottle was the third film inspired by the 1900 novel of the same name, and as it turns out, British writer Thomas Anstey Guthrie was probably born in the wrong century. The fantastic elements of The Brass Bottle drew praise from none other than George Orwell, and an earlier comic novel, Vice Versa, was about a father and son who change places because of magic. That novel was made into a 1981 British TV series and a 1988 American film. It also inspired modern retellings like Freaky Friday, Big, and Seventeen Again. In other words, the old Victorian writer would have made one heck of a good screenwriter.

Though The Brass Bottle doesn’t have the madcap mayhem of slapstick or screwball comedy, the plot and dialogue are clever. The film might have played out like a fable, but there’s more complexity here and it’s fun to see how similar yet totally different The Brass Bottle is from I Dream of Jeannie. It’s equally fun to see the star of I Dream of Jeannie as a mortal in this fantasy.

In one of his few starring roles, Tony Randall plays an architect who hopes to impress the father of his girlfriend (Eden) by giving the professor a brass bottle he went to great lengths to obtain—only to be laughed at by the Egyptologist and told it’s a mass-produced fake. Of course, this particular bottle ends up being the real McCoy, and rotund genie Fakrash (actor-folksinger Burl Ives) emerges, persistently determined to serve his master while mostly creating trouble.

It’s easy to see why the film inspired Sheldon. Bewitched’s Darren was in the advertising industry and Samantha often used magic to help him in his work. Fakrash does the same with Harold Ventimore (Randall), an architect hoping his designs will be a hit with clients. The special effects in this film aren’t bad.

The way the film is structured, Randall may be the star, but all the scenes worth stealing belong to Ives, who had already won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Big Country (1958). While not as manic, he has the same commanding presence as Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin—but in a strangely menacing way, at times. This genie has a little edge to him.For the better part of the film, Fakrash wanders here and there, marveling at how civilization has advanced over the past 3000 years. But if you don’t like what he’s done for you? That creates an uncomfortable situation.

I agree with Tony Mastroianni of the Cleveland Press, who wrote in his review when the film first played theaters, “Randall and Ives are quite perfect in their parts. Randall’s forte is the light comic role, the nice guy who’s slightly befuddled. His wide-eyed wonder is far better for the part than an overdone double take. Ives as a genie was a wonderful casting idea on someone’s part.”

That’s what The Brass Bottle is:  light comedy, the mild kind that was popular in films of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And yeah, it’s going to mostly be of interest to fans of that genre or fans of I Dream of Jeannie and Barbara Eden—who is interviewed especially for this release.  

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  89 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for magical mischief and some innuendo)

Language:  1/10—There may be some lesser profanity

Sex:  3/10—Scanty harem costumes and talk of 1000 wives and such; mostly talk and innuendo, but some more overt references

Violence:  3/10—Some outbursts and some physical damage result from the magic and Fakrash’s tantrums

Adult situations:  3/10—Some drinking and smoking, in addition to the sexualization of women

Takeaway:  I can’t be the only one who thinks it’s fun to see precursors and related films, especially when they relate to iconic shows such as I Dream of Jeannie

Review of THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE (2-Movie Collection Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Comedy
Rated PG-13

The Brady Bunch was one of the very last squeaky-clean family sitcoms in the old ’50s mold, airing as an anachronism of sorts during the Vietnam War years amid the chaos of Civil Rights, women’s rights, and anti-war protests. But in the Brady household, father Mike, a working architect, was still king of the castle with a den all his own, while his wife, Carol, was a stay-at-home mom who had the luxury of a servant. The children got into all sorts of minor conflicts and mischief, but none of the storylines tackled serious parental concerns of the day. Everything was sibling rivalry and innocent mix-ups. Drugs? Not here. Peer pressure to smoke? Only briefly. Teen pregnancy? Oh behave! And while other teens from the time were raiding their parents’ liquor cabinets, this group was content to raid the cookie jar. No one got into really serious trouble, and there was usually a lesson to be learned . . . from dad. When he wasn’t around, there was always mom or Alice, to help them find their way. The theme song explained the premise:

“Here’s the story . . . of a lovely lady
Who was bringing up three very lovely girls.
All of them had hair of gold, like their mother,
The youngest one in curls.

Here’s the story . . . of a many named Brady,
Who was busy . . . with three boys of his own.
They were four men, living all together,
Yet they were all alone.

Till the one day when the lady met this fellow,
And they knew that it was much more than a hunch
That this group would somehow form a family,
That’s the way we all became the Brady Bunch.”

First telecast on Sept 26, 1969, the show was a surprise hit, no doubt because it felt like comfort food to Americans who snuggled together during a turbulent era to watch and relive happier, more uncomplicated times. Divorce was becoming a widespread phenomenon for the first time, and the show about second-chance family life probably struck a chord with broken families. Plus, the range of the Brady children’s ages (7 through 14, when the show began) was broad enough for a wide range of youngsters to identify with. Airing on Friday nights, the show connected especially with children too young to have a social life, or, like the Bradys, too awkward and introverted.

The Brady Bunch never finished in the Nielsen Top-30 and never won any Emmys, yet the show became a cultural icon. During the first year of COVID-19 it was common to see people posting Zoom shots of their families that mimicked the show’s opening.

All cultural icons are ripe for parody, and The Brady Bunch Movie (1995)went right for what made the TV show distinctive:  its retro wholesomeness. Both The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel (1996) poked fun of how squeaky-clean out-of-touch-with-the-times this family was, and how others around them were astounded by their collective naivete. People look at the Bradys as if they were aliens, and it’s the discrepancy between Brady values and current values that’s the source of much of the humor. There are also plenty of spot-on Brady highlights in the films, like Marcia getting hit on the nose with a football, Jan dealing with “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” middle-sis blues and inventing imaginary boyfriend George Glass, Greg and Marcia sharing an attic space (and a few uncomfortable but still wholseomely depicted “feelings,”) Cindy’s speech impediment and attachment to her Kitty Carry-all doll, Bobby’s “detective” work, those “groovy threads” and the Brady kids’ singing, and that inexplicable gigantic horse statue that anchored the main entrance to the Brady house.

The casting and costume design are also a highlight, with Gary Cole nailing all the Mike Brady mannerisms and dadisms, Shelley Long rocking the Carol Brady hairdo, Christine Taylor a dead-ringer for the original Marcia, Jennifer Elise Cox having fun with the Jan role, and Olivia Hack as Cindy, with the boys played by Christopher Daniel Barnes, Paul Sutera, and Jesse Lee Soffer. 

Betty Thomas—familiar to TV Land as Sgt. Lucy Bates in Hill Street Blues—directed the first Brady movie parody, while Arlene Sanford, whose directing credits include Desperate Housewives, Ally McBeal, and Boston Legal, directed the second film. The sequel takes the family to Hawaii (yes, the bad-luck Tiki makes an appearance) and also borrows a plot from the old James Garner-Doris Day film Move Over Darling, about a missing-and-presumed-dead husband who returns to complicate life. Henriette Mantel even does a pretty good Alice impersonation.

Though both films pull down PG-13 ratings, they’re still clean enough for most kids who’ve watched the old TV show, especially given the content of most movies today. The innuendos will fly over most young kids’ heads.

Entire family:  Yes (but see below)
Run times:  90 min. each
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Paramount
Bonus features:  n/a
Trailer 1
Trailer 2
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for racy innuendo (tongue-in-cheek) and some drug content

Language:  2/10—None of the Bradys swear, but there might be a lesser profanity or two from background characters

Sex:  4/10—Lots of innuendo, and in the second film older teens Greg and Marcia find themselves fighting an awkward physical attraction to each other—nothing shown, just silhouettes behind a screen, no worse than It Happened One Night

Violence:  2/10—Nothing much here except for a come-uppance punishment or two

Adult situations:  4/10—There’s all that innuendo and Carol finds herself with two husbands, but mostly it’s the clash between wholesome Bradys and the world of 1995-96

Takeaway: You don’t absolutely have to have seen the original TV series to enjoy these films, but you’d be doing your children a favor if you had them watch at least a few episodes of The Brady Bunch on one of the streaming platforms; after all, a parody is funnier when you get all the references

Review of BLACK WIDOW (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Action-Superhero
Rated PG-13

There are two kinds of Marvel movies: the puzzler that requires a vast knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to make sense of the plot, and the stand-alone that’s more closed form and self-contained. Black Widowwill satisfy people who take comfort in the latter.

In this 24th film in the Marvel Universe, we get the information that Thanos has killed off most of the Avengers and that Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha (Black Widow) are on the run. Though it takes place after the action in Captain America: Civil War (2016), you really don’t have to have seen or remember that film to make sense of this one.

Black Widow features a lot of blockbuster special effects action, but there’s enough back story to give an emotional backbone to those sequences and make them matter. There are fewer characters to keep straight, and just enough comic lines and moments to change the pace from time to time.

Scarlet Johansson stars as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow. The film was partially shot at Pinewood Studios and features location shots of Norway, Budapest, and Morocco. If the film has a Bond feel to it—and I think it does—maybe it’s because of those locations, the Cold War Russian vs. American high stakes covert operations, and a villain with a grand scheme to control the world.

Just as Black Panther featured a cast that was mostly Black, this 2021 film, by design, has a sisterhood feel to it. Directed by Cate Shortland (The Secret Life of Us), Black Widow pairs Johansson with Florence Pugh and shows them in an early flashback as sisters raised in a Russian sleeper cell in Ohio. Ripped from their lives, they are turned into Red assassins. Throughout the film the two have great chemistry, which gives Black Widow a quirky buddy-cop feel to it as well. But it turns out that they’re not alone. The villain (Ray Winstone as Dreykov, one of only two prominent male characters) is trying to build a network of trained female assassins.

Viewers might also find themselves thinking of Disney’s The Incredibles, because the four main characters are the ones we meet in that opening flashback:  that Russian sleeper cell “family” consisting of father Alexei (David Harbour), mother Melina (Rachel Weisz), and the two girls. As the plot twists and turns, they split, reunite, work together, turn against each other, and always keep viewers guessing as to what they’re real intentions are. That level of character development adds a lot to the film, and Harbour is hilarious in the second half as he tries to get back into character as a male Red scourge before the villain decided female scourges would be better. But Pugh’s and Johansson’s banter can also be quite funny.

It must be hard for filmmakers to conceive of original and shocking action sequences for every film, but here too Black Widow doesn’t disappoint. There are a few stand-out special effects moments to add occasional peaks to what at times feels like non-stop action.

Black Widow may not be among very best Marvel movies, but it’s a solid B+, marred only by a few jarring edits and the usual smattering of hard-to-believe sequences that seems to come with the action-film territory. Johansson acquits herself well as the star, but if she were Michael Jordan, then Pugh is her Scottie Pippen. The two of them together make this movie work. Sister power!

Entire family:  No (Junior high and older)
Run time:  134 min. (Color)
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Studio/Distributor:  Marvel/Disney
Bonus features: B (several short features, gag reel, deleted scenes)
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material

Language:  4/10—Mostly in Russian with subtitles, and all lesser curse words

Sex:  0/10—Nothing here aside from a bra in one shot and a bare back

Violence:  7/10—Aside from the usual crashes, explosions, and weaponry there’s a considerable amount of stabbing, head-slamming, punching, and no-holds-barred fighting; one man’s wrist is broken in a shocking scene played for laughs

Adult situations:  3/10—Drinking but no real drunkenness

Takeaway:  If Marvel wasn’t so hell-bent on killing off everyone, I think people would welcome many more single-character films

Review of BRINGING UP BABY (Criterion) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Comedy
Would be PG

The dictionary says the noun “screwball” is a baseball pitch or “a crazy or eccentric person.” Baseball may be listed first, but when it comes to the adjective it’s all about film:  “crazy, absurd—relating to or denoting a style of fast-moving comedy film involving eccentric characters or ridiculous situations.”

The dictionary probably should have added, “See Bringing Up Baby,” because Howard Hawks’ 1938 comedy starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, a leopard and a dog is widely considered the quintessential screwball comedy.

Screwball comedies became popular as people could see the light at the end of the tunnel that had been the Great Depression. Often the films involved a romantic couple from different social classes, with one of them a screwball. Plots revolved around an unconventional “courtship” that began as annoyance and ended with attraction. In that respect they’re the quintessential “opposites attract” movies as well.

Screwball comedies are characterized by a flipped social script that featured women as the pursuer and men as passive or befuddled objects of desire. Basically, it was a comic twist on the femme fatale moviegoers saw in the film noir crime movies of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Fast talk and overlapping dialogue were also characteristics of the screwball comedy, as were farcical situations, mistaken identities and misunderstandings, physical comedy, witty and fast-paced plots, and “out-of-uniform” comic situations. What’s more, the “meet cute” that’s become a standard convention in romantic comedies was pioneered by screwball comedies.

This one stars Katharine Hepburn, for whom the screenplay was written. Cary Grant was cast at the suggestion of director Hawks’ friend, the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Bringing Up Baby took four months to shoot, as production was frequently delayed because Grant and Hepburn kept cracking each other up. It was Hepburn’s first comedy, and when she struggled with the fast talk it made Grant laugh, and that made her laugh. They generate an off-the-rail runaway train energy that the best screwball comedies have, and their energy is contagious.

Highly regarded now—it’s #97 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time list—Bringing Up Baby bombed at the box office and ran for only a week after its Radio City Music Hall premier. Moviegoers just weren’t ready to accept dramatic actress Hepburn as a ditzy screwball. And she can be a lot to take.

As the elegant-but-oblivious heiress, Hepburn is the snowball rolling down the hill that gathers mass and speed and knocks poor nerdy paleontologist David Huxley on his rear end—numerous times. An absurd series of events drives the first act as we witness stranger Susan play David’s golf ball, then ruin his car while insisting it too was hers. All David wants is to influence an attorney representing a rich donor so his museum can get a million dollars (the stakes are high), but there seems to be no escaping Susan, as she seemingly turns up to thwart his every attempt. If she’s not tossing an olive on the floor for him to slip on, she’s swerving into a poultry truck and he’s covered with feathers. At one point, in typical farce fashion, David ends up wearing a woman’s nightgown and that lead’s to an improvised line that’s one of the film’s most famous.

Then there’s the matter of the leopard—played in this film by Nissa, who had been working in Hollywood for eight years. Trainer Olga Celeste was always just off-camera with a whip, and while Hepburn had to wear a special perfume to keep the leopard calm she was unafraid to work with the animal. Grant was another story. Most of the scenes showing him interacting with the leopard were shot with doubles. He was scared to death, and at one point Hepburn teased him about it by tossing a toy stuffed leopard through the roof of his dressing-room trailer. Antics involving a precious dinosaur bone, a leopard who responds to the song “I can’t Give You Anything But Love (Baby),” and George the Dog, who romps and plays with Baby, the leopard sent to Susan’s rich aunt (May Robson), become central to a plot that also features a not-so-tame escaped circus leopard.   

Will the animals and the silliness make up for the fact that Bringing Up Baby is a black-and-white film presented in 1.37:1 aspect ratio? One would hope so. It’s all a matter of adjustment. The more you watch it, the more you adjust to it. When our kids were little we had a 10-minute rule. They had to give a movie a fair chance by watching the first 10 minutes without complaint or distraction. More often than not, they managed to get into the film. And once kids get into this comedy of character and situation, they should find it entertaining.  

Bringing Up Baby remains a likable farce that showcases the talents of two huge stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s great to finally have it available on high-definition Blu-ray—especially in a Criterion Collection edition that preserves some of the original film’s grain and also includes a nice bundle of bonus features.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  102 min. (Black-and-white)
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  Digital Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Criterion
Bonus features:  B+
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated “Passed” (would be rated PG for adult situations and brief drinking, smoking)

Language:  1/10—“Jesus” and “crap” are about as raw as it gets

Sex:  1/10—The back of a woman’s dress is torn and her undergarments are partially exposed; Grant delivers his famous ad lib about turning gay “all of a sudden” while asked what he’s doing in a woman’s nightgown

Violence:  0/10—The closest thing we get to violence is a leopard-dog tussle where you can’t tell if they’re playing or fighting

Adult situations:  2/10—There is brief drinking and smoking

Takeaway:  Though Howard Hawks was known for his Westerns, he made two of the three most famous screwball comedies:  this one and His Girl Friday (1940); the man knew what he was doing

Review of MINARI (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Drama
Rated PG-13

Minari, a film in Korean and English, earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Youn Yuh-Jung and nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Score. Youn, a legendary actress in the Korean film industry, plays a grandma who travels from Korea to Arkansas at the request of her daughter, who is having a hard time adjusting to her family’s move from California.

In California, Monica (Han Ye-ri) and husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) were on track to pay off debt by “sexing chicks” and separating males from females. But Jacob wanted more for her and their children Anne (Noel Cho) and fragile young David (Alan S. Kim), so he moved the family to Arkansas to sex chicks for an outfit that also gave Jacob an opportunity to start his own farm specializing in Korean vegetables. 

Leisurely paced, lyrical, and stylistic kin to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, this film hit close to home for the director. Lee Isaac Chung grew up as the young son of Korean immigrants who settled on a small farm in rural Arkansas, and there’s a truthfulness that quietly percolates beneath the surface of Minari—the name of a plant also known as Korean watercress or parsley that the grandma decides to plant on the banks of a nearby creek.

“Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds, so anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful, wonderful!” the grandma Soonja tells David.

Director Chung had said he initially wanted to make a film adaptation of My Antonia but found that avenue closed. He then decided to make a film about his own upbringing in rural Arkansas.

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Review of FINDING FORRESTER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Drama/Comedy
Rated PG-13

J.D. Salinger wrote three books, then disappeared into Howard Hughes-style oblivion and inspired at least two films.

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character shakes a Salinger type (James Earl Jones) recluse out of his inertia, paranoia, and humanity-avoidance in order to satisfy the voices in his head that also told him to build a baseball field.

In Finding Forrester, aspiring 16-year-old writer Jamal Wallace ends up finding the all-time greatest mentor when on a dare he climbs through the window of a “ghost” who had been watching him and his friends play basketball and, scared off, leaves behind a backpack containing his writer’s notebook.

In a case of life imitating art, Rob Brown showed up for tryouts as an extra on this picture by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) hoping to earn enough money to pay his cell phone bill. But Van Sant liked what he saw and cast him as Jamal, who soon after that break-in finds his backpack tossed out on the street and his writer’s notebook marked up and critiqued by the older writer. On one page he sees a handwritten scrawl, “I want to support this writer.” And so begins a mentorship between Jamal and famed writer William Forrester that will benefit both parties.

It’s kind of refreshing to see African American youths in their lower-income neighborhoods playing basketball and going to school and hanging out without there being any hint of violence or gang activities—the kind of cinematic clichés that have befallen films having to do with residents of “the hood.” The only f-bomb in this PG-13 film comes from an old white man (Sean Connery as Forrester), and the worst behavior comes from uppity adults associated with the private school that recruits Jamal after his test scores expose him as a bit of a genius. It’s refreshing, too, that none of Jamal’s neighborhood friends resent him for transferring to a private school and, ultimately, playing for a championship that’s televised.

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Review of WILDCATS (1986) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B/B-
Comedy
Rated R

One of my guilty pleasures recently came out on Blu-ray:  Wildcats, starring Goldie Hawn. You know, Kate Hudson’s mom?

Back in the day, Hawn was a huge star, and it didn’t take her long to get there. After a failed TV series (Good Morning World) and two minor roles in films, she landed a plum role opposite Walter Matthau in Cactus Flower and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Piece of cake, right? Except that after that she was cast in a succession of make-a-buck films that tried to capitalize on her popularity and personality in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Along with Private Benjamin (1980), Seems Like Old Times  (1980), and Overboard (1987), Wildcats is one of the better formulaic light comedies that Hawn made. In it, she plays the daughter of high school football coach who finally gets the chance to realize her own dream of coaching football . . . at an inner city school.

Right . . . to use the catch-phrase of comedian Nipsey Russell, who plays the principal at that school.

Wildcats would be fun viewing for the entire family if it wasn’t rated R for language (F-bombs included), teen drinking and drunkenness, and brief nudity, because the whole high-school setting and fish-out-of-water, win-them-over storyline is meant to be as upbeat and warm-hearted as it is humorous. It’s hard not to root for Molly as she endures sexism in the workplace, resentment and disrespect from her players, and meddling/bullying from an ex-husband en route to trying to coach a bunch of losers into lovable winners.

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Review of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

Some twelve weeks after its theatrical debut, Raya and the Last Dragon is the third highest grossing film in the U.S., behind Spiral and Wrath of Man. With a domestic box office of $49.3 million and another $60.6 million international box office revenue, it’s exceeding expectations, and I’d like to suggest one reason why:  Disney animators always seem to up their game, and they did so again with Raya.

The martial arts swordfights in this 59th full-length feature from Disney are the most accomplished I’ve seen so far in the world of animation—presented at a speed you’d normally encounter in the best Ip Man, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan movies. Combine that with gorgeous backgrounds and character animations, and Raya and the Last Dragon is another solid effort from the House of Mouse—though the plot itself can seem a bit familiar.

Set in a dystopian fantasy world, Raya and the Last Dragon begins with the backstory of a fictional land (Kumandra) where dragons and people once thrived together until evil spirits (that look a bit like the smoke monster on Lost)terrorized the land and turned dragons and people to stone—except for some people and one dragon, who focused the magic she and other dragons had on a single gem. But you do the math: one gem and five tribes? Of course they fight over it, and the pieces are eventually scattered among those tribes. Hundreds of years later, the Druun return and wreak havoc on the now-separate sections of what was once Kumandra. Raya is the daughter of Chief Benja of the Heart tribe, while her once friend and now rival, Namaari, is the princess of the Fang tribe. But like any fantasy, the story itself seems more complicated than the visual action. Relax and enjoy this simple quest story, as Raya tries to find the last dragon, recover the jewel pieces, and defeat the Druun once and for all. Unless Namaari beats her to it.

Give Disney credit, though, for creating strong female characters without drawing attention to it, without adding a Prince or love interest, and for not making a big deal out of adding two more princesses to the merchandising Pantheon. Give them credit, too, for giving Asians and Asian Americans feisty princesses that look like them—even if Disney took a little flak (what else is new?) for not featuring enough South Asian actors among the voice talents.

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Review of THE MARKSMAN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Action thriller
Rated PG-13

From the first scene where an aging Arizona rancher (Liam Neeson) stumbles onto a cartel “situation” and ends up with a bag full of money, to a scene that’s the equivalent of the Coen Brothers’ “coin toss scene,” The Marksman feels like a cheap knockoff of No Country for Old Men.  And with a little Hunt for the Wilderpeople added for good measure.

What cheapens it isn’t Neeson’s performance, but rather a formulaic approach to ticking off the boxes rather than concentrating on creating characters and relationships with any individuality or depth.

For one thing, first-time director Robert Lorenz spends too much time in the early going just establishing a few facts that could have been hinted at more subtly: 

—Jim Hanson was a Vietnam War veteran who earned a medal for marksmanship

—Jim Hanson is lost and lonely because his wife died of cancer

—Jim Hanson is going to lose his ranch unless he can come up with a lot of money to pay for back mortgage payments

The film is also marred by characters that push past stereotypes into caricature country.

Javier Bardem has nothing to fear from the cartel bad ass that Lorenz gives us here. Mauricio—called “Heffe” and played by Juan Pablo Raba—is too cartoonish to be chilling. He’s just a bad guy who sneers a lot and stares a lot in lingering close-ups. Oh we believe him when he says he’s going to kill the old rancher who drove away with the son of a Mexican woman he already killed at the border. And we believe he’s determined to recover the drug money that the boy’s (now deceased) uncle had taken from him and given to his (now deceased) mother. But Bardem as Anton Chigurh was a one-and-done, just as Heath Ledger’s lizard-tongued Joker was a one-time affair. Try to duplicate it and you’re doomed to fall short.  

The film’s most chilling scene is actually understated. After a brief shoot-out at an isolated stretch of border fence, Jim takes off with the boy Miguel (Jacob Perez), whom he was asked to take to relatives in Chicago in exchange for the contents of the bag. Later in the film, Jim (and the audience) think they might be in the clear when the bad guys try to follow them into the U.S. and pull up at a customs station. Heffe’s driver rolls his arm so the border agent can see his tattoo. When the officer asks to see a passport and is handed a stolen passport of a Anglo-American woman whose likeness is about as far removed from a Mexican male as it gets, we expect such arrogance to be rewarded with detainment or containment . . . especially when the officer calls for the back of the vehicle to be searched. Yet after a token search of the cargo area and an “All clear,” the officer waves them into the country. Welcome to the U.S.

Yikes. Of course the cartel drug trade is so lucrative and large that they would have U.S. law officers on their payroll. But you don’t think about it until you see a scene like this.

Though The Marksman is billed as an action thriller, it’s almost a head-snapper when a vehicle explodes and dramatically flips, because you find yourself thinking that aside from frequent shooting there isn’t as much action as you’d expect. There also isn’t as much growth or depth to the relationship between the crusty old man and the boy as we saw in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or even the relationship between Clint Eastwood’s grumpy old white guy and the Hmong teenager he befriended in Gran Torino. It’s almost as if the screenwriters didn’t know what to do with the old man and boy once they got them in the car together. Same with a subplot involving Jim’s stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), a border agent that really doesn’t seem to do much.

But what Lorenz and co-writers Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz get right is the third act. It’s not just Jim who finds redemption in the end . . . it’s the filmmakers as well. And no, you’ll get no spoilers from me. Is the ending enough to make up for that plodding and excessively (and redundantly) informational first act or the sense of missed opportunities that dominate the second? Probably not. Fans of Neeson will embrace this as another go-it-alone high-stakes maverick venture along the lines of the Taken trilogy or Cold Pursuit, but if they’re honest with themselves The Marksman doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Entire family:  No
Run time: 108 min. (Color)
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Universal
Bonus features:  C-
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and brief strong language

Language:  5/10—One f-bomb and a dozen or so lesser swearwords

Sex:  0/10—No sex, no nudity

Violence:  7/10—Shooting, shooting, and more shooting; people get shot, several at close range, and blood is shown often; some violence happens off-screen

Adult situations:  6/10—Jim drinks often and carries a flask, but it’s not clear whether he’s passing out from the alcohol or tiring because of his age

Takeaway:  Qui-Gon Jinn once said, “Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts,” and you can’t help but wonder how much better this film might have been had it veered more sharply away from Hollywood formulas

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