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Review of LA LA LAND (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2016, 128 min., Color
Musical
Rated PG-13 for some language
Summit
Aspect ratio: 2.55:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m glad that Summit decided to wait a few months before making La La Land available on home video. It’s good to take a step back and approach a film like this fresh, especially after all the hype-turned-hate that swirled around it. I frankly can’t think of another film that had so many Oscar nominations (14) and was so praised initially as the surefire Best Picture winner, then derided in a backlash as the biggest overrated film of the year:

—It’s a slick film . . . maybe too slick.
—Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are amazing . . . or maybe just Stone.
—It was pure Hollywood! (they gushed) . . . It was pure Hollywood (they dismissed).
—First Whiplash and now this? Damien Chazelle is a genius . . . or not.

In retrospect, La La Land lands closer to the bulls-eye of praise, though it’s not a perfect film, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone insists. That’s clear already from an opening freeway number that’s visually a big musical showstopper but has a sound that’s not so big. Kind of like the singing we get from the two stars, which is soft and slightly raspy and muted—a throaty rather than full-bodied sound that comes from the diaphragm. There are times when the musical accompaniment even threatens to overpower Gosling’s voice. But it’s easy to ignore that when Gosling and Stone are so cute and so charming together. Plus, they handle the flirtatious choreography and dance numbers like a couple of pros, and seem to actually enjoy it.

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Review of SPLIT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No, no, no
2016, 117 min., Color
Horror-thriller
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, and some language
Universal Pictures
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is a solid thriller right up until the end, when the director decides to play to his fans and his own indulgences, rather than tying things up for viewers in a more satisfying way. But using the reverse situation of Panic Room, Shyamalan manages to put characters in jeopardy and keep them there for the duration of an otherwise tense and effective film.

Split is obviously inspired by the sordid news story out of Cleveland, where three young women were held captive in a basement by Ariel Castro. The bus driver had targeted two of them because they were friends with his daughter. The women were raped and tortured in captivity for more than a decade before their miraculous rescue.

Rather than tell that story, Shyamalan wisely chooses to stay clear of extremes and instead create a PG-13 thriller that teens can watch—a cautionary tale that reminds them it’s not just “stranger danger” that poses a problem. It can be something as innocent as a party, where the girl’s father offers to drive two of her friends and a “pity invite” home, with the girl’s approval. Instead of a sex-driven abductor, Shyamalan offers a less tawdry and more interesting alternative: a captor who has multiple personalities. The most sexual the film gets is when we learn that one personality “likes to watch young girls dance naked,” but in another wise move the director avoids nudity and instead has one of the girls spend part of the film without a top (wearing only a bra) and another without pants (wearing only panties).

If this 2016 film were a TV series it would probably be called The James McAvoy Show. The Golden Globe nominee (Atonement, 2007) gives a tour de force performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb . . . and Dennis, and Patricia, and Hedwig, and Barry, and Orwell, and Jade—seven of the 23 distinct personalities that share the same body. As he goes from character to character you can even see a believable transformation in his facial features—not just the expression, but the way his face looks.

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Review of A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Entire family:  Yes, for most
1992, 128 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG for language
Columbia/Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

When it first came out, A League of Their Own was an out-of-the-park homer, and not just because Madonna’s name was on the marquee. Director Penny Marshall (Laverne, of Laverne & Shirley fame) drafted some of her old TV cronies and other pals in order to assemble an ensemble that was strong enough to go extra innings. If you isolate the performances and compare them to baseball cards, there isn’t a dud destined to be traded or clipped to the spokes of a bicycle wheel—especially when you consider that no doubles were used for the baseball action. Billed as a “family comedy,” it’s one of our family’s favorite baseball films.

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Review of A COWGIRL’S STORY (DVD)

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Grade:  C
Entire family:  Technically, yes
Family drama
Rated PG for thematic elements
Sony/Samuel Goldwyn
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve asked this before but it bears repeating: why are wholesome religious family films so often sabotaged by a weak script and less-than-stellar acting? It’s happened again with A Cowgirl’s Story, a 2017 manipulate-you-to-feel-good movie starring Bailee Madison (Brothers, TV’s Good Witch).

Madison, who co-produced the film, is saddled with a script that’s by turns corny, wooden, and cliché-ridden. And on top of all that, this message film doesn’t trust the audience enough to attempt some measure of subtlety. Then again, the audience for the film—God-fearing, military-supporting, small-town America—might be forgiving enough to overlook the many flaws.

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Review of ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: No
2016, 133 min., Color
Sci-Fi Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Lucasfilm/Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Can I just say that I liked Rogue One: A Star Wars Story better than the last four Star Wars stories—even The Force Awakens, which was the top-grossing film of 2015? In fact, I think it’s borderline absurd that Rogue One is marketed as a tangential story rather than part of the saga, especially since it hooks up to the original Star Wars film (rechristened Episode IV: A New Hope) as neatly as a mid-air refueling.

With lesser villains like Darth Maul in the second trilogy and even Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, it almost seemed as if George Lucas was searching for a hero to match the charismatic power of Darth Vader. In Rogue One he finally finds that perfect villain . . . in Vader himself.

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Review of THE SWAN PRINCESS: ROYALLY UNDERCOVER (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes . . . theoretically
2017, 79 min., Color
Children
Rated G
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

Given the widespread popularity of the Barbie animated features, odds are that parents may be thinking The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is a knock-off of Barbie of Swan Lake (2003). If anything, it’s the other way around.

Former Disney animator Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron) made his first adaptation of the Tchaikovsky ballet way back in 1994 with The Swan Princess, starring Michelle Nicastro as the Princess Odette, Howard McGillin as Prince Derek, and Jack Palance as the evil Lord Rothbart.

That debut turned into a mostly direct-to-DVD franchise for Nest Family Entertainment, which quickly followed with The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain (1997) and The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom (1998). Then, after a 14-year hiatus, they came back with The Swan Princess Christmas (2012), The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale (2014), and The Swan Princess: Princess Tomorrow, Pirate Today (2016). All of the Swan Princess sequels tend to fall in the same made-for-young girls ages 2 through 8 range. The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is no exception. But it is exceptional by comparison.

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Review of HEIDI (2015) (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 111 min., Color
Family
Not rated (would be G)
StudioCanal
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German), Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Walmart exclusive

Victorian-age literature is full of orphans. Dickens’ gave us David Copperfield, Pip, and Oliver Twist; Twain created Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; L. Frank Baum introduced readers to Dorothy in his Oz books; and Rudyard Kipling wrote about Kim and Mowgli. But the literary orphan who lived the most satisfying life was probably Swiss writer Johanna Spyri’s character, Heidi.

Since 1937, when Shirley Temple played the little Swiss orphan who bounces from place to place in picturesque Switzerland and Germany, there have been more than 20 different film and TV adaptations. But no one captures the spirit of the original 1881 children’s novel better than director Alain Gsponer and his team of German and Swiss filmmakers.

Shot on location in Germany and the Swiss Alps, this most recent and faithful adaptation—available exclusively at Walmart—does the most spectacular job of exploiting the scenery and Heidi’s natural capacity for unbridled joy. With a feel-good default that tends to rub off on most of the people around her, Heidi is a bit like a later American orphan made famous because of the Disney film by the same name: Pollyanna. But instead of playing a “glad game,” it’s Heidi’s positive attitude, helpful nature, and ever-present smile that win her friends. Then again, when your journey goes from living a rather idyllic existence in the Alps with your goatherd grandfather, then boarding with a rich German family in Frankfurt in order to keep their invalid daughter company, and finally back again to be reunited with Grandpa, it’s easier to stay positive than if you’re Dickens’ heroes slogging it out in the dirty and dangerous disease-filled streets of London.

The Alpine scenes in this StudioCanal film are a feast for the eyes, and Heidi is family-friendly with just one disclaimer: the film was made in German with English subtitles, so you have to do a bit of reading or else watch in dubbed English. That might not prove to be too big of a negative, since younger children accustomed to partially animated cartoons probably won’t be bothered by words and lips slightly out-of-synch, and children old enough to read well may find this version of Heidi the perfect first subtitled movie to tackle. It’s an easy-paced film with mostly short exchanges rather than long monologues, and none of the characters talks very rapidly.

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