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InnerspacecoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
1987, 120 min., Color
Rated PG for briefly exposed male buttocks, some comic violence, some mild profanity, and drinking
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Amazon link

Like Fantastic Voyage, which preceded it by twenty years, Innerspace won an Academy Award for special effects that simulated the interior of a human body—great effects, actually, considering they were accomplished before the advent of computer-generated images. In Voyage, a team of doctors was miniaturized and injected into a human being in a dramatic attempt to save an important political life. But Innerspace director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers) opts for low comedy, not high drama, with Batmanesque villains, pre-Mask morphing, and more than one Austin Powers-style “mini-me.”

A young looking Dennis Quaid stars as Lt. Tuck Pendleton, a bad-boy Navy pilot with a weakness for alcohol and Lydia, the reporter-girlfriend (Meg Ryan) who walked out on him. Tuck resigns his commission to pilot a submersible pod for an independent lab working on miniaturization. But instead of being Innerspacescreeninjected into a rabbit, as planned, when an industrial terrorist raid interrupts the procedure and a lab technician flees with the syringe containing the tiny Tuck, the pilot is injected instead into the bloodstream of Jack Putter, a frazzled milquetoast supermarket clerk (Martin Short). In a relationship that becomes symbiotic out of sheer necessity, Tuck and Jack party in order to “bond,” then work together to battle personal defects, the bad guys, and (tick, tick) time. Tuck’s oxygen supply is limited, you see, and he needs a microchip the villains have in order to coordinate his reentry into peopledom. But it’s a double search, because the evil Victor Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy)–a comic cross between Mr. Freeze and The Penguin–has one microchip and needs Tuck’s in order to complete the technology theft, and he and his henchmen, his oversexed lead doctor (Fiona Lewis), and industrial spy/hit man “The Cowboy” (Robert Picardo) will do anything to get it.

Since Quaid spends most of the movie sitting inside the pod, it’s a tall order for Short to provide all of the visual action and handle most of the proxy interaction with Ryan. But like Paul Blart, Mall Cop, Short’s character rises to the challenge and the trio has a project chemistry that really makes this otherwise lightweight film an engaging adventure—especially on widescreen and in high def. Together, they really sell the situation. Even when Jack begins to fall for Lydia and compete for her attentions, it’s totally credible—which balances the tonally cartoonish villains.

“For a while, we thought we should call it Fantastic Voyage 2,” Dante quips, adding that they chose Innerspace instead because no one could come up with a better title. Dante teams with producer Michael Finnell and co-stars McCarthy and Picardo on a commentary track that’s almost as entertaining as the film. Warner Brothers’ marketing people get roasted, as does Martin Short for bowing out of the commentary, and Quaid for refusing. As the camera pans across the laboratory, one of them tells how the extras were all real scientists from a nearby jet-propulsion laboratory. As the memorable bonding scene between Tuck and Jack runs, another remarks, “I can’t believe that we were gonna cut that scene.” And as the camera pulls closer to the heart valve opening and closing like the beak of the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, threatening to swallow up Tuck’s pod and kill them both, one of them laughs, “The heart valve opening and closing? Two guys with sticks pulling as fast as they can!”

Dante and Finnell said that early on they realized that Innerspace was “a good audience movie,” and self-deprecating humor aside, Innerspace holds up better than Fantastic Voyage precisely because they don’t take themselves or what they’re doing too seriously. Yes, the hair is dated and some of the special effects now seem rudimentary, but the laughs are still here, and the action is pure fun. And it’s rated PG. Innerspace is one of the better, older comedy-adventures and a great candidate for family movie night. Unlike Fantastic Voyage, this one seems to get better with age. Right now at Amazon Innerspace is selling for under $10 on Blu-ray, and the price seems “righter” if you consider the repeat play this one is going to get.

Language: No f-bombs, but a few milder d, s, and h words
Sex: Just a “swapping spit” kiss that’s a plot device
Violence: Fighting, some shooting, a body dissolving to skeleton
Adult situations: Drunkenness, assassin stripped to his shorts
Takeaway: Parodies can actually have a life of their own.


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SecondBestExoticcoverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes, but….
2015, 122 min., Color
Rated PG for some language and suggestive comments
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio:
Featured audio:
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) was a surprise hit because it hit home with its basic messages. A group of older British retirees traveled to India because of a brochure that glamorized The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and made it look like the ideal place to retire, to find a replacement husband, or to stay there while getting a hip operation. Unknown to each other, they discovered things in common; foreign to India and some of them suspicious or awkward, they found an appreciation for a different culture and a level of comfort; and feeling a little tired and depressed by their late stage of life, they found some measure of renewal by their association with the hotel’s optimistic and energetic young owner. It was a feel-good movie about growing old, and there aren’t many of those around.

But The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) is a sequel that really didn’t need to be made. Missing is the charm and freshness of the first film, replaced by a formulaic plot and a paucity of humor, with a running gag that’s a 180-degree turn from the positive attitude toward aging that we encountered in the first film. In the original, one of the residents died, but what kind of tone does it set when in the sequel the proprietor, Sonny (Dev Patel), begins each morning with a roll call so the residents can answer . . . and let him know they’re still alive?

Two standard plot devices that we’ve seen before drive the narrative: a wedding and an anonymous visiting inspector who will decide whether Sonny can create a second hotel. Sonny is finally marrying the love of his life, Sunaina (Tina Desai), and there are some song-and-dance numbers SecondBestExoticscreenthat liven up the film. As with the first, each character has a subplot. Evelyn and Douglas (Judi Dench, Bill Nighy) are now working and fully immersed in local culture and finding occasional times to date each other. Carol and Norman (Diana Hardcastle, Ronald Pickup) are learning how to be exclusive to each other, while Madge (Celie Imrie) still plays the field and juggles two wealthy suitors. Somewhat lost in the shuffle is Muriel (Maggie Smith), who has been named co-manager of the hotel and seems to exist only as a confidante for everyone else. Meanwhile, there are two new arrivals (Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig) and only one nice room, and of course one of them is thought to be the inspector. Another sideplot about a business rival seems thrown in for good measure.

More than in the first, the screenplay feels like a paint-by-numbers affair, but the acting and the characters remain strengths. Patel is as energetic as a stand-up comic, and his onscreen mother (Lillete Dubey) gets something fresh to do as the object of Gere’s attentions. As with the first film, India itself is really the most colorful draw, and if you want to make a pilgrimage you can visit the Pearl Palace Heritage Guesthouse in Jaipur, where Second Best was filmed. But the movie truly is “second best,” which is not an uncommon thing for sequels. I was charmed by the first film, yet as much as I wanted to like this one I found it slightly dull. So did my family.

Language: some mild swear words
Sex: n/a
Adult situations: n/really
Takeaway: No matter what your age, after watching this film or the first you’ll dream of going to India.

TREASURE PLANET (10th Anniversary Edition) (Blu-ray Combo)

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TreasurePlanetcoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
2002, 95 min., Color
Rated PG for adventure and peril
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

Pirates in space?

Why not? But Treasure Planet is a strange combination of futuristic space age, recent pop culture, and 17th century elements. The plot and characters have one foot in the past and one in the future. It’s the same with visual design. Ships that look like Spanish galleons fly in the air. Whales fly. Jim Hawkins, the lad at the center of this Robert Lewis Stevenson adaptation, has a solar board and rides it like a skate punk or parasailor. And the architecture? It’s like Tortuga in space. Disney was trailblazing in its combined use of 2D and 3D animation, and the results are stunning to look at. But the past-and-future mix doesn’t work nearly as well when it comes to content.

Fans of Disney’s live-action Treasure Island may be disappointed that the spaced-up version has more breakneck action and not nearly the intrigue of the 1950 classic. What’s more, Robert Newton carried the old film as Long John Silver, playing just the right blend of a benign old peg-legged pal who fascinates Jim Hawkins, and a menacing fellow with a hidden agenda—a blackguard who could be ruthless when the time came.

We don’t get that same type of character in Treasure Planet’s John Silver, who’s a menacing looking cyborg from the start. His face is drawn a little like Fagin from Oliver & Company, but fuller and meaner. And he’s armed with a gadget that slices, dices, shoots, and scares the heck out of everyone. There’s only menace in this fellow, so he’s nowhere near as interesting as Newton was in the more complex live-action role.

TreasurePlanetscreenBut fans of Stevenson’s novel will at least have fun picking up plot points and variations. In this animated version from directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid), Jim Hawkins (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bit of a delinquent at a crossroads. His mother (Laurie Metcalf) runs the Benbow Inn, and the adventure begins when Jim finds a dying pirate named Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan) and brings him back to the Inn. In short order, the pirate is dead, Jim is holding an orb the size of a grapefruit and told to “beware the cyborg,” and pirates are ransacking and torching the place, forcing Jim, his mom, and a family friend, Dr. Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), to flee.

As in the book, Silver (Brian Murray) and his crew keep their identities secret and hire on as hands on a mission to follow the orb-map to Treasure Planet . . . which is curious, since their own planet, Montressor, is French for basically the same thing. Oh well.

Unlike the 1950 film, this souped-up, spaced-out version drags a little, despite the action, because the characters and their relationships are more superficial. Take Ben Gunn, for example. Instead of a lunatic who’s been away from people for too long, it’s an annoying robot named B.E.N., who’s supposed to provide some of the comic relief. The rest comes from the doddering Dr. Doppler, a dog creature with an obvious fondness for the catlike ship’s captain (Emma Thompson), and a little thing that looks like one of those goofy, unidentifiable things that Olympic cities present as mascots. Morph (Dane A. Davis) is a shape-shifting blob of pink mass that perches on Silver’s shoulder, like a parrot. But I’ll take the parrot any day.

So what does that leave us with? The stunning art and animation. Andy Gaskill worked as a visual development artist on The Little Mermaid, and, promoted to art director, he oversees a crew that creates frame after frame and sequence after sequence of breathtaking art design and animation. The palette is largely orange and brown, and yet there’s plenty of visual pop. Only in a few scenes do we get grain and a soft image.

Given the artwork, if a better character had been inserted than the one-dimensional cyborg Silver, we’d be talking about Treasure Planet as another Disney classic. As is, it’s still a stirring animated adventure with near non-stop action that can be shelved in the “underappreciated Disney” category.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: The usual peril and fighting
Adult situations: Several deaths of minor characters
Takeaway: Disney’s adaptations continue to be inventive, if not always successful at the box office. And Treasure Planet deserves a second life.


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LongestRidecoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2015, 139 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality, partial nudity, and some war and sports action
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS HD-MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B
Amazon link

This could have been the shortest review I’ve written. All I had to do was say that The Longest Ride is based on a novel by romance writer Nicholas Sparks, and everyone would get the picture.

Sparks’ audience is and has always been primarily women, and the movie adaptations of his books have fallen into the category of “chick flicks.” That’s not bad, mind you, but the reality-check is that families with adolescent and teenage girls are more likely to fall for this opposites-attract love story than families with boys. That’s just the way it is, and it’s not a slam. Sparks has written 18 romance novels, and 11 of them (including Message in a Bottle, The Notebook, and Dear John) have been turned into films. They’re tremendously popular.

This one falls right in the middle, in terms of worldwide gross, but it’s decent enough entertainment if you’re into romance. The plot is a two-strand weave that involves two couples.

LongestRidescreenRomantic comedies always have a “meet cute,” and though this isn’t a comedy, that’s how it works. Wake Forest college student Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) is coerced by her sorority sisters into donning cowboy boots and going to a rodeo to check out the “beef.” When Luke—who was seriously injured a year earlier and is still mentally and emotionally scarred as a result—falls off a bull right in front of her and loses his hat, she tosses it to him . . . and he tosses it back. “Keep it,” he says. Eye contact. Later they meet at a party where she’s just about to accept a drink with him but has to cut the evening short because of a friend who drank too much. Yep, there’s drinking and implied sex in this film, though the nudity we see is full-body without full reveal, hence the PG-13 rating.

They start to see each other, but an otherwise ordinary love story is given another layer when they come across an accident. Luke (Scott Eastwood—Clint’s youngest son) pulls the man out, while Sophia goes back at the man’s request to retrieve a box. Sparks has never been bashful about using plot devices, and this one’s a doozy. With a curious Sophia reading the love letters contained in the box, Sparks sets up a double love story—one in the past, with the woman (Oona Chaplin) deceased and the man (Alan Alda) on life support, and the other a young couple just trying to find someone. Sparks and director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food, Barbershop) do a nice job of pacing the reveals and relationship development, and a surprise-but-inevitable ending ties that neat bow that romance lovers have come to expect on every package.

In between there are some exciting and wonderfully filmed bull riding sequences, and the stars are plenty likable—which is really important in a formulaic romance, so that we care about their characters and their outcomes. It also looks great in HD, with a bundle of bonus features that should appeal to fans.

Language: Surprisingly little. Maybe a few s-words but that’s about it
Sex: A number of sex scenes, with one brief breast shot and a brief men’s top half of a butt shown. Also plenty of talk about sex.
Violence: Not much. Really just the bull riding sequences and the car crash
Adult situations: Drinking, smoking, partying, etc.
Takeaway: You’re doomed to repeat the past, unless you can learn from someone else’s past. Oh, and love is timeless.


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CuriousGeorge3coverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes, but ….
2015, 81 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus feature: C-/D
Amazon link

After a disappointing Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey and a relatively pedestrian Curious George Swings into Spring, executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have given this popular children’s book character the kind of animated adventure he deserves. Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle may be better than the original Curious George theatrical release, and that’s quite a compliment for a direct-to-DVD release.

This outing, George (voiced by animated voiceover genius Frank Welker) is recruited by a space program run by a man named Houston (John Goodman) to fly into space to link a gizmo to a satellite and then return to Earth with it so that the gizmo can be installed in Africa to prevent flooding. And yes, we do get the line, “Houston, we have a problem.” So while the previous two Curious George films were aimed directly at preschoolers and everyone else be gosh-darned, this time there are a few more embedded allusions to entertain the older siblings and parents who watch with them.    More

THE BLACK STALLION (Criterion) (Blu-ray)

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BlackStallioncoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
1979, 117 min., Color
Rated G
Criterion Collection
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 Surround
Includes: 17×11 color poster, five short films by Ballard
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Amazon link

The Black Stallion—at least the 1979 adaptation that Francis Ford Coppola “presents”—is an interesting hybrid. It’s part family movie and part indie/art house film. Director Carroll Ballard takes the 1941 book for young readers and infuses the story of a boy and a wild horse who “save” each other with indie film sensibilities and art-house cinematography.

The result is a film that’s obviously made for adults but suitable for children. There are a few less warm fuzzies and sappy moments in this hybrid (a good thing!), though the pacing in the first act might seem a bit too leisurely for the youngest viewers. There’s not much you can do for them except to assure them that the action picks up, but older children who squirm can be shown the luxurious cinematography from Caleb Deschanel (Zooey Deschanel’s father), with breathlessly original shots and angles and the space for those shots to breathe and expand in our consciousness.

BlackStallionscreen1Ballard isn’t quite as lavish with his plotting and narrative. Some directors like to show rather than tell; Ballard likes to suggest rather than show. We see a young boy and his father on a steamer off the coast of North Africa, where Dad (Hoyt Axton) is gambling with dangerous-looking people, and the boy, Alec (Kelly Reno), has the run of the ship. The boy glimpses a wild black stallion roped and whipped by Arab trainers and forced into one of the ship’s holds. Feeling sorry for the horse, Alec returns with sugar cubes he swiped but is caught and treated almost as roughly by the Arab. Shortly thereafter, his father shares with him a trinket from his poker winnings: a small statuette of Alexander the Great’s horse. We hear the story of how the horse was so wild the king was going to put him down, but conceded that the boy Alexander could keep him if he could ride him. Of course, that tiny statuette and story become a controlling metaphor for the narrative of The Black Stallion, for soon afterwards a violent storm kicks up, the boy releases the horse so he won’t go down with the ship, and after watching him leap into the sea the boy is thrown overboard and calls for help.

So begins a relationship between the boy and the horse that develops on the island until he’s rescued by a group of men who also take the animal that Alec refuses to leave behind. And yet, what Alec does leave behind is any apparent feeling for his father. We really don’t know what happened to the man, nor did we see any emotional reaction in Alec after he awakens on the beach of a desert island. He’s as concerned about what happened to his father as he is about finding fresh drinking water (a detail that’s never addressed). We aren’t told, as readers of the book were, that the two of them had been visiting an uncle in India, so viewers really have no idea why the pair was on a ship so far from his home somewhere in the states where horses are raced. Even after Alec returns home to his mother (Terri Garr), we aren’t given much in the way of information.

BlackStallionscreen2But this is an impressionistic film, one that is more image-driven and scene-driven than it is dependent on plot, especially in the early going. For a while, it’s like Cast Away, but with a horse instead of a volleyball. Then turns into National Velvet, but with a teenage boy instead of a teenage girl, and a thoroughbred horse race rather than steeplechase. Perhaps not coincidentally, just as actor Mickey Rooney played the role of the former jockey and mentor in National Velvet who helps young Velvet train for the steeplechase, he’s a former jockey and mentor here too, helping Alec to learn what it takes to harness all that wild energy and race Black, as he’s simply called.

The payoff will ultimately satisfy young viewers if they can make it through the slower parts. But frankly, it wouldn’t hurt today’s children to learn how to appreciate those slow-down moments in life—especially when they’re so beautifully filmed.

If you’re building a Blu-ray collection, by all means, add this title. But the master had a lot of grain that carries over onto the HD release, so this title would probably look just as good on DVD. As for the bonus features, they’re geared for adults—though older, curious young filmmakers-in-waiting might be drawn to several of the five short films by Ballard, especially one on the “Rodeo” and another in which Ballard interviewed centenarians talking about what L.A. was like a hundred years ago . . . juxtaposed against the chaos of images that flood 1971 Los Angeles. What he does will inspire young filmmakers, who will find a way to take the best of what he does and speed it up for the current time and generation.

Language: Clean as can be
Sex: Same here
Violence: That brief boat beat-down, a violent storm, and a cobra incident
Adult situations: Loss of the father
Takeaway: It IS possible to have it both ways, to craft a film that’s aesthetically pleasing out of a story intended for a young audience.