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Review of THE NUN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No
2018, 96 min., Color
Horror
Warner Bros.
Rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

The Nun ends right before The Conjuring begins, but you don’t have to have seen that film, The Conjuring 2, or the related Anabelle and Anabelle: Creation to understand what’s going on. This horror prequel is a stand-alone film set decades before the hauntings from the other films in the popular franchise.

Eighty percent of the scenes in The Nun are dark and/or dreary, and location filming in Romanian Transylvania castles and manors adds to the atmosphere, creating a look and feel that will remind horrorphiles of the old Hammer gothic horror flicks from the late ‘50s and 1960’s. In those B movies, atmosphere was everything, and the mood was so thick you could cut it with a scream. Light on plot and characterization, those old films were also dependent upon the occasional jump-scare—a trick that Nun director Corin Hardy relies on a bit too much. It’s like walking through a Jaycees Haunted House and having something pop out at you every 10 minutes. But that’s what appeals to young horror fans today, and it’s also why my teenage daughter gave this one a higher grade than I did. She gave it a B; I gave it a C+/B-, with B- the compromise grade.

In truth, I found the behind-the-scenes featurette every bit as interesting as the film itself. Seeing the actors set up shop at night in graveyards and walking through narrow corridors of castles where there had been documented cases of suffering and death—places in which locals say you can still feel the ghosts of those who perished—is pretty darned cool. Would I want to be one of those actors? No way—especially in a film about demonic possession. But maybe it helped that the director got a Roman Catholic priest to bless the sets before they began.

Central to the plot is an ancient relic that contains the literal blood of Christ. When two nuns at Saint Cartha’s monastery enter an isolated tunnel to get the relic, they’re attacked by a demon that has somehow come up through a portal to the catacombs below. After killing the first nun, the demon approaches the second, who ties a rope around her neck and jumps out the window. From here, there’s a vibe that harkens back to the old medieval mystery Name of the Rose . . . with jump scares.

Word reaches the Vatican, and the Pope sends Father Burke (Demián Bichir) to travel there with Sister Irene, a nun in training, chosen to accompany him because she has been seeing visions that could be related to what happened. In Romania, the man who discovered the nun’s body, Frenchie, gives them a tour and brings them up to speed. From there, it’s all about trying to discover just who or what that demonic creature might be, and how it can be stopped, while a flashforward at the end of the film provides the connection to The Conjuring.

Any tension besides those jump scares comes from not knowing much about the demon or what comes next in a relatively straightforward plot, so to say any more is to say too much. As Dr. Evil would say, “It’s all pret-ty standard stuff,” but effective enough. Taissa Farmiga is particularly engaging as Sister Irene, and she pairs well with Jonas Bloquet, who plays Frenchie.

Language: I only caught one minor swearword

Sex: Nothing here

Violence: Bloody and rotting bodies of nuns, nuns thrown across the room, a snake biting a man in the eye, ghosts that threaten harm, and a featured demon that causes all sorts of panic and screaming

Adult situations: In a film like this, the whole thing is an adult situation, which is why it’s only recommended for families with older teens

Takeaway: In a way, it’s too bad that Farmiga and Bloquet appeared in a prequel that fits so neatly into the other films, because it would be fun to see more of them together.

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Review of ALL THE CREATURES WERE STIRRING (DVD)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No (13 and older)
2018, 80 min., Color
Horror
RLJE Films
Unrated (would be PG-13)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo
Bonus features: C-
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

This Christmas horror anthology touts Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh off the Boat) and Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls) as headliners of an ensemble cast that’s composed of unfamiliar faces except for Maria Olsen, whom movie-lovers may recognize from her appearances in Paranormal Activity 3, Reunion, and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.

People wanting to see Wu and Kite will have to be patient, though, because their sketch is the last of five in All the Creatures Were Stirring. Connecting them is the clever device of a man and woman on what appears to be a first date (“Is this a date? Should I even ask that?”) who decide to ease the tension by going into a small theater to take in a live show on Christmas Eve. Onstage are three performers who, it’s implied, act out each of the sketches that are introduced by a stone-faced director (Olsen) whose hair and attire can best be described as clown-like. The exaggerated seriousness and the performances all scream “hipster,” but instead of watching the actors do their thing, once their performance begins the camera fades them out and a filmed segment featuring totally different actors fades in.

There’s an admirable self-consciousness at work here, because after watching the first sketch—“The Gift”—the man tries to stifle his laughter, while the woman says, “What the hell was that?” He responds, still trying to control himself, “I have no idea.” There’s also playful confirmation that the material might not exactly be high drama because a few more people in an already small audience leave the theater after each sketch, until there’s just three left in the audience at the end: the awkward daters and a man who keeps staring at them.

But the sketches themselves are a mixed bag. Not surprisingly, the one with Wu and Kite is the best of the bunch, while others showed some promise and still others were dull, strained, or lacking in something—originality, quality of acting, etc. More

Review of CRAZY RICH ASIANS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Almost (10 and older?)
2018, 120 min., Color
Romantic comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com that’s heavy on the rom and lighter on the com. There are plenty of amusing moments, mind you, but this 2018 film by Jon M. Chu has more in common with splendiferous romances like Pride and Prejudice than it does the old Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies that depended mostly on farcical misunderstandings and mistaken identities. The plot is pretty straightforward: it’s a variation on the old meet-the-parents theme, with a couple’s future on the line.

Based on the international best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians features Fresh off the Boat’s Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, the serious girlfriend of Nick Young (Henry Golding) who flies to Singapore to be his plus-one for his country’s wedding of the century. When they fly in an airline suite, she learns for the first time just how rich Nick’s family is, and that’s the main complicating factor. She may be an American success story—the daughter of a hardworking single mom who made Mom proud by becoming an economics professor—but in Singapore she has two strikes against her: she’s comparatively poor, and she’s Chinese American rather than Chinese. Nick’s family, meanwhile, is like the Singapore version of the Kennedys—old money who built Singapore and who now draw paparazzi to them as if they were royalty.

As the tagline says, “The only thing crazier than love is family,” and the humor derives more from characters and their mannerisms and quips than from situations. Awkwafina is pretty hilarious as Rachel’s old college roommate who is unabashedly flamboyant and lives with her mother in a Singapore mansion, while Nico Santos is equally funny as a gay friend of the Young family. Ken Jeong makes an appearance as Rachel’s old roommate’s wealthy father, but he isn’t given nearly as much screen time as the younger generation. More

Review of ROBIN WILLIAMS: COMIC GENIUS (DVD Collection)

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Grade: A-/B+
1978-2018, 1086 min. (22 discs), Color
Entire family: NO!!!
Comedy
Time Life
Not rated (would be R for language and some sex jokes)
Aspect ratio: Varies (mostly 1.33:1)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features:  n/a (the whole set is “extras”)
Includes:  DVDs, booklet
Trailer
RobinWilliams.com

Time Life is known for their sets and collections, and this four-volume, four-DVD, 22-disc set featuring Robin Williams: Comic Genius is thankfully uncensored. Except for 11 episodes of Mork & Mindy, it’s one for the parents to watch after the kids are in bed, or for families with older teens—especially the ones who have ambitions of pursuing a career in entertainment. You walk away with an appreciation for how Williams went all out and wasn’t afraid of a joke or an impression bombing. He just quickly went on to another one and hoped for better results. He did his own thing.

Anyone who’s watched Williams perform knows that his 100-mile-an-hour mind and manic improvisations can’t be bridled. He says whatever comes to mind at such a rapid clip that to try to censor his performances would be like trying to stop a runaway truck with foam blocks.

Time Life has compiled a wonderful tribute to the talented comedian, who began in stand-up comedy, found instant fame playing Mork on episodes of Happy Days and the spinoff series Mork & Mindy, and showed he could act in both comedies and dramas by starring in such films as Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Morning, Vietnam. Included here are more than 50 hours of Williams that spans 40 years on television, including all five of his HBO stand-up specials, never-before-released performances and backstage footage, talk show and late-night appearances, archival family clips, and new interviews with the people who knew him best: Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Martin Short, Pam Dawber, Lewis Black, and son Zak Williams. Williams was a once-in-a-generation talent, and this set really does him justice. Note, though, that it’s only available through RobinWilliams.com. More

Review of THE MEG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (10 and up?)
Action thriller
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Trailers for The Meg made it look like another nature’s monsters film of the exploitative Gila! or Lake Placid sort, so our family was pleasantly surprised that it played out more like a less sophisticated cousin of Jaws. It was a much higher quality film than we expected in terms of production values, screenplay, acting, and special effects.

There isn’t the same level of character development as there was in Steven Spielberg’s original shark tale, nor were there as many iconic scenes, or those fabulously frightening John Williams musical cues. But The Meg delivers a plot that makes more sense than most disaster/monster flicks, and it doesn’t skimp on the outrageous action sequences that cause you to gasp or react with nervous laughter. CHOMP! There it is!!

Here’s how Warner Bros. describes the film: “Five years ago, expert sea diver and Naval Captain Jonas Taylor encountered an unknown danger in the unexplored recesses of the Mariana Trench that forced him to abort his mission and abandon half his crew. Though the tragic incident earned him a dishonorable discharge, what ultimately cost him his career, his marriage and any semblance of honor was his unsupported and incredulous claims of what caused it—an attack on his vessel by a mammoth, 70-foot sea creature, believed to be extinct for more than a million years. But when a submersible lies sunk and disabled at the bottom of the ocean—carrying his ex-wife among the team onboard—he is the one who gets the call. Whether a shot at redemption or a suicide mission, Jonas must confront his fears and risk his own life and the lives of everyone trapped below on a single question: Could the Carcharodon Megalodon—the largest marine predator that ever existed—still be alive … and on the hunt?” More

Review of ALL STYLES (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
2018, 91 min., Color
Dance drama
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

As a film critic, I dread dance movies. The plots are so similar they all seem to have been hatched from the same Dance Mom. Plus there’s no real character development, and the films are usually just a flimsy excuse to showcase a few dance sequences. So why not just post those dance moves on YouTube?

Well, it turns out that the first-time star of this film, 2013 So You Think You Can Dance winner Du-shaunt “Fik-Shun” Stegall, is already pretty YouTube famous as a top-notch hip-hop dancer. My teenage daughter is serious about dance, and she said this guy is seriously good. She had already watched most of his YouTube videos before I even popped in this movie to review. For her, it’s all about the dancing, and she gave the dancing in All Styles an A. The plot and the acting? That was a B, she said. And though I know far less about dance than she does, I’d have to agree. All Styles, though low-budget, is a cut above the average dance movie.

The big surprise—other than Heather Morris (Brittany on Glee) turning up as one of the dancers—is that Fik-Shun isn’t just a terrific dancer. He’s also pretty charismatic on camera, a really likable fellow that makes you want to root for him. In this film he plays Brandon, who refreshingly isn’t from the “hood,” doesn’t have an attitude problem, and isn’t a delinquent who needs dance to turn his life around. All Styles dodges those clichés and in so doing, director Angela Tucker manages to create the most family-friendly hip-hop movie I’ve seen. No one in the film comes from the wrong side of the tracks, nobody has tattoos or uses bad language, and even the lyrics to the songs are the clean version. It’s all surprisingly wholesome, for a hip-hop film. More

Review of PIXAR SHORT FILMS COLLECTION: VOL. 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2012-18, 76 min. (13 shorts), Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 to 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C (introductions, mostly)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Although many of the Pixar short films appear as bonus features on various Disney-Pixar releases, it’s still nice to have them all on one disc, and the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 3 is as varied and high quality as the previous volumes.

There’s a nice blend, too, of high-profile shorts that are related to Disney-Pixar films and more distinctive (and quirky/artsy) personal projects that were labors of love for the directors and animators. Of the 13 short films, seven are connected to fan-favorite films.

From the Toy Story films there’s “Partysaurus Rex,” a fun, thumping disco bath story where (T-)Rex goes from party pooper to a partysaurus who helps bath toys get their groove on. It’s an upbeat frolic that fans of the Toy Story films especially will enjoy.

From Inside Out there’s a sequel of sorts where Riley is a teenager and we see “Riley’s First Date” from the inside-out emotional control rooms of her trying-to-be-cool mother, her scowling and disapproving father, and even the young man who dares to date their daughter. A twist ending provides a nice payoff. More

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