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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.

For me (and for my teenage daughter) the film’s only real shortcoming is the ending—and that’s a matter of taste. This loving homage to Hollywood musicals from the ‘50s is a feel-good movie for 120 minutes, with a 180-degree ending that feels overly clever and totally changes the mood. My daughter didn’t appreciate that kind of manipulation, and I didn’t appreciate that the homage seemed to slide off-track at the end.

But boy, did Chazelle nail the look and feel of those old Gene Kelly movies. You find yourself admiring the choreography and the mise en scene of the song-and-dance numbers because they so lovingly replicate scenes from musicals past. La La Land revives the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals even if only for a short time. Though Oscars went to Chazelle (Best Director), Stone (Best Actress), and Justin Hurwitz (Original Score, Original Song), the one that feels most deserving is the production design by David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Without it, there isn’t much of an homage, and that they were able to achieve a retro look and feel is even more impressive when you consider that most of it was done not on a soundstage but at a range of Hollywood-area interior and exterior locations that reinforce the tribute—as does an opening where curtains part to reveal a screen that says presented in CinemaScope (a retro ultra-widescreen format).

La La Land tells a typical Hollywood story. Stone plays Mia, a would-be actress currently working the counter at an eatery on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Her dream is to become a star. Sebastian’s passion is jazz, and his dream is to open a jazz club of his own. They meet cute on a Hollywood freeway, with her flipping him off for driving around her. They meet cute again . . . and again . . . until they finally start to determine that maybe they’re meant to be together. Viewers who saw Stone and Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love probably will wonder what’s taking them so long. As both of their careers take off, which passion will win out? The Hollywood dream, their romance, or both?

Like Singin’ in the Rain, that other musical tribute to Hollywood, there are a few standouts in supporting cast. Singer John Legend is engaging as a techno-jazz enthusiast who makes a convincing argument for jazz needing to evolve . . . or die, while J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) gets a brief moment in the spotlight as a club manager who insists on a mundane play-list, and Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, and Jessica Rothe play Mia’s roommates and shine in one song, “Someone in the Crowd.”

“That’s L.A.,” Sebastian says. “They worship everything and they value nothing.” There’s critical commentary here as well as tribute, and hype or hate aside, La La Land is a bit like its Oscar-winning song, “City of Stars”: it may seem slight, but in the end, it’s the little things you remember most.

Language: One f-bomb, two uses of the middle finger, and a handful of milder swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: n/a
Adult Situations: Not much here, really
Takeaway: Part tribute, part social commentary, and part romantic comedy, La La Land is the strongest musical we’ve seen in years

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.

Medically speaking, Kevin suffers from a dissociative identity disorder triggered by childhood abuse. Among his distinct personalities is a nine-year-old boy, a man who dresses like a woman, a rational-sounding fellow who controls which personality gets to “go into the light” (i.e., surface), and an OCD man with a voyeuristic fetish. Kevin has been seeing a psychiatrist to help him with his problem, and the sequences with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley)—therapy sessions augmented by TV interviews and conference presentations by the well-known expert—do a fine job of educating viewers without seeming pedantic.

All of the young women who play kidnapped victims do so convincingly, but Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula knew when they signed on that the featured performer would be Anya Taylor-Joy—the “pity invite” who sticks to herself and really doesn’t have many friends. We see flashbacks from her childhood as she is taught how to hunt by her father (Neal Huff) and how she was abused by a pervy uncle (Brad William Henke). All of that sets up the possibility of an interesting captive versus captor showdown. Whether it materializes is another story, and I won’t say anything more about that or the rest of the plot. Like many thrillers, you just can’t think too much about the plot, or else you’ll wonder things like why, with such a high-profile kidnapping, wouldn’t the father have emerged very early as a suspect, or why the expert, who clearly suspects something, doesn’t go to the police. I mean, how far does doctor-patient confidentiality extend?

Shyamalan has been a consistently inconsistent filmmaker. He can make a wonderful thriller like The Sixth Sense (1999), which earned six Oscar nominations, or he can crank out a turkey like The Last Airbender (2010), which earned the scorn of critics and a measly 6 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Where does Split fall? It’s slightly better than Unbreakable (2000) and much better than his 2015 campy horror-thriller The Visit. But it’s every bit a PG-13 movie, mostly for violence and disturbing images. Teens will enjoy it, but it’s not recommended for younger viewers.

Language: Minor cursing
Sex: Implied abuse, nothing graphic shown
Violence: One extreme close-up of arms crushing a woman, others dragged by the feet off-camera, wounded body parts, and exposed organs
Adult situations: That would be pretty much the entire film
Takeaway: Shyamalan makes a lot of winners and losers; despite the ending, this one’s a winner

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.

AND now, here’s the line-up for YOUR Rockford Peaches:

C—Geena Davis, as Dottie Hinson. The “Queen of Diamonds” is the best player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that was formed during World War II when men’s baseball was shut down and team owners needed something to keep the sport alive. A handful of teams based at small Midwestern cities played from 1943-1954. This 1992 film is based on that true story, but focuses on two players from a farm in Oregon—Dottie, married to a serviceman stationed overseas, and her younger sister who’s “as unmarried as they come.” Davis shines as the reticent star who manages the team in the early going and makes some amazing catches behind the plate (which, we learn in the extras, were really her own!).

P—Lori Petty, as Kit Keller, a kid sister with a big inferiority complex who’s as competitive in her sibling rivalry as she is on the mound. The fiery but tantrum-prone fireballer needs to be cooled off more than once, and though Petty plays it a bit over the top at times, she makes it easy for viewers to believe the love-hate relationship she has with big sis.

CF—Madonna, as “All the Way” Mae Mordabito. This chain-smoking female Charlie Hustle, who used to be a dime-a-dance girl, offers to spice up things by “accidentally,” ala Janet Jackson, giving fans a glimpse of her “bosom.” Marshall wanted Madonna because she needed a high-energy dancer for a roadhouse scene, but first the superstar had to pass the baseball test, like all the rest. Actresses had to show they could hit, throw, and run before they were even considered for a part. After consultants from the L.A. Dodgers told Marshall the material girl was “teachable,” she was in.

3B—Rosie O’Donnell, as Doris Murphy, Mae’s tough-talking toadie-style sidekick who hits for power and doesn’t pull any punches in her performance. The stand-up comic makes you believe she’s a “broad” from the Bronx. It turns out that O’Donnell, like Petty, was a tomboy who was already a darned good ballplayer. O’Donnell was told to become Madonna’s best friend during filming, and the close relationship they developed carries over onto the screen.

2B—Megan Cavanagh, as really ugly duckling Marla Hooch. Though the league wanted “dollies” who looked good in short skirts, Hooch’s switch-hitting power was too beautiful to pass up. If you never heard of Cavanagh, that’s because she was a waitress at Ed DeBevic’s, a diner where the wait staff does outrageous things. She provides a good chunk of the comedy.

1B—Anne Elizabeth Ramsay, as Helen Haley, one of the sensible ones. That’s ironic, because most viewers will recognize her as Helen Hunt’s daffy sister on the old Mad About You TV show.

LF/P—Tracy Reiner, as Betty “Spaghetti” Horn. Before you think that Rob Reiner’s daughter got the part just because her mom happened to be director, remember, she still had to pass the baseball test. And Mom, a great baseball player herself, apparently prepped her for the role when Tracy was still a young girl. Reiner turns in a sensitive performance in the film’s single serious scene.

RF—Bitty Schram, as Evelyn Gardner, who keeps forgetting to hit the cut-off “man” with her throws, which, of course, raises the blood pressure of the manager and provides for some great comic moments—as does her delinquent little boy, whom she brings on road trips.

SS/P—Freddie Simpson, as former beauty pageant winner Ellen Sue Gotlander, in a minor role.

Manager—Tom Hanks, as Jimmy Dugan, a former major-league star destined for the Hall of Fame but who drank himself out of baseball. Hanks usually has the stage to himself, but even in an ensemble he brings great vitality to his part. When he pees in front of the girls (you don’t see anything), shuffles along in an alcoholic stupor, mistakenly kisses the team’s chaperone (Pauline Brasilsford), and constantly spits tobacco juice, he couldn’t be any more convincingly hilarious. Marshall directed him before in Big, so she knew what she was getting.

Owner—Garry Marshall, as Walter Harvey, of Harvey Candy Bars, obviously patterned after P.K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate whose name is still on the stadium of the Chicago Cubs. Part of the film was shot at Wrigley, and in one of the extras the cast says how their wide-eyed entrance into that hallowed space wasn’t faked. They were genuinely awestruck by the Friendly Confines. Marshall is the director’s brother, and sitcom fans may recall he produced Laverne & Shirley. L&S alum Eddie Mekka (Carmine) makes an appearance in the big dance scene, while David L. Lander (Squiggy) turns up in the announcer’s booth.

Scout—Jon Lovitz, as the caustic Ernie Capadino, whose put-downs of the “milkmaids” he recruits would rival Don Rickles. Lovitz provides most of the humor in the early going, and the screenwriters reveal in one special feature that Lovitz was the only one they ever wrote a part for. He’s laugh-out-loud highlight reel all by himself.

Though the frame that sets up a flashback main story tugs a little too hard at the heartstrings—kind of like Stand by Me—the main narrative is full of humor and strikes just the right tone. It gives you an atmosphere that feels baseball- and period-right, and accomplishes Marshall’s side goal of drawing attention to these women . . . who may be in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown now, but most of their memorabilia is in storage. So much for equal rights. But it does make the title (already a pun) resonate with irony. More

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.

Dance Mom fans will like seeing Chloe Lukasiak as something other than a whipping girl for taskmaster Abby Lee Miller. In A Cowgirl’s Story she plays “bad girl” Savannah Stocker, whose father was killed while deployed in Afghanistan and whose mother has withdrawn and (we think—this is the film’s only subtle part) turned to drink. But Lukasiak is a far better dancer than she is an actress—at least at this stage in her career. She’s a bit too rigid and doesn’t have a very convincing range of facial expressions or body language. In fact, she even looks stiff and awkward while performing in a group line dance that the end credits say she choreographed. But in the weak acting department she’s not alone. The other recognizable name, Pat Boone, also disappoints.

Boone never really had the acting chops of that other, more famous singer who went Hollywood. He was good enough as a young man in April Love and State Fair, in which he could sing, and came close to holding his own in the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, where there was enough excitement to distract. But here he’s a grandpa who’s more doddering than doting and whose interactions with granddaughter Dusty Rhodes (Madison) and son (James C. Victor) are almost painfully unconvincing. As a result, Boone seems inserted for one reason: to deliver Bible-based advice and to lead everyone in prayer (which, with “The Lord’s Prayer,” he actually does quite well). Unfortunately, other actors also don’t come close to the performance that Madison delivers.

All that said, the biggest problem with A Cowgirl’s Story is that everything is too far-fetched, familiar, or unbelievably easy. First of all, what group of teenage girls would drink on-campus sitting in bleachers right near the school by passing a bottle inside a paper bag, wino-style, back and forth? I mean, wouldn’t they be sneakier, so as not to get caught? And when new girl Dusty overhears the principal telling troubled teen Savannah (Lukasiak) that this was her last chance and she’s out, is there anyone watching who doesn’t expect Dusty to do what we’ve seen a gazillion times since Jack Lemmon helped out Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and claim the bottle was really hers?

Then, when Dusty is pushing a library cart with books on what is still presumably her first week and a few books fall, could it be more clichéd than to have a boy (Aidan Alexander as Trevor) pick up that book as their “meet cute”? What’s unexpected, though, is to have them become instant boyfriend-girlfriend, just as Savannah is quickly paired up with a boy named Jason (Froy Gutierrez). It’s just too easy, as anyone currently in high school will attest. Once dance and they’re acting like three-month steadies.

It’s also unreasonably easy for Dusty to get permission to start an equestrian club, and when the principal says “it’s over” because no one has registered to join after an hour or so, the high schoolers (even the ones who ridiculed her) have an “I’m Spartacus” moment, following Savannah’s lead as she joins to even the score. Characters are arrested but promptly released, and though this story takes place in a small town there are students who inexplicably make fun of a girl for wearing cowboy boots. Really? A number of characters either have quick turnarounds or else moments where they behave quite out of character. Part of the problem is that the passage of time isn’t well defined in this film. In what seems like only days or, at best, a few short weeks, teens who never even rode a horse before are suddenly performing at a rodeo event.

The film’s resolution is abruptly convenient, with characters making some pretty major turnarounds based on either one quick moment in church, an equally quick talk, or a visit from Grandpa. And darned if God or fate or the screenwriter doesn’t intervene at the most predictable (yet far-fetched) times. Faith is one thing, but a three-act screenplay is another, and everything in A Cowgirl’s Story is too remarkably easy for it to be believable drama.  A Cowgirl’s Story presents a girl who has a mild crisis of faith after a death —a crisis we don’t necessarily believe because she goes about her business so cheerily, whether it’s helping Savannah or spending time with her equestrian group. And this, despite the trauma of her father leaving (and quickly returning wounded—again, time frame seems ill defined) and her mother MIA in Afghanistan.

A Cowgirl’s Story is directed by Timothy Armstrong, who also directed Cowgirls ‘n Angels (2012) and Cowgirl’s ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer (2014). I reviewed Dakota’s Summer and gave it a B, but apart from Madison, Armstrong doesn’t have the same level of talent to work with here, and the script he came up with is just too facile. Horse-lovers will wish there were more equestrian scenes, and the target audience—many of whom agree with Trump’s policies on immigration and Muslims—may wonder why there is a scene castigating people for spraypainting “Go Home” on the car of a teen who wears a hijab.

In the end, A Cowgirl’s Story is the kind of film that young girls ages 8 to 10 might like, but teens will find it just too eye-rolling . . . and many parents will join them. That’s too bad, because there was potential here for it to be a family movie as good as Dakota’s Summer.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: n/a; even the “bad” kids are wholesome
Adult situations: Brief teen drinking (though it doesn’t even look like there’s a bottle in that bag) and a breaking-and-entering arrest
Takeaway: It’s not the infusion of religion that drags this film down; it’s that everything is just too easy, too unrealistic, and, ultimately, too unbelievable

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.

Although the main “good guys” are indeed marginal to the overall saga, Rogue One is a fascinating prequel to A New Hope that connects far better than any of the second trilogy films (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, or Revenge of the Sith). Like The Force Awakens, it recaptures the slam-bang Saturday matinee feel of the very first trilogy (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi). But the tone is a little darker, given the fact that people die and they don’t just evaporate into spirits as in the saga films. Still, the production design is similar, and so is the spirit. Gone is the moodiness of brooding villains or brooding Force fence-sitters.

As with The Force Awakens, audiences are treated to another male-female team in which the female is a bad-ass who holds her own. In Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Lucas went back to that original galaxy far, far away in order to present readers with another intergalactic trio of a good guy (Finn, who’s actually a stormtrooper defector), a rogue pilot (Poe), and a feisty woman (Rey). In Rogue One, Lucas gives us an even stronger and more dominant female character. In fact, even the robot is feistier this time around. K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is both hilarious and inching closer to human than any of the robots we’ve previously seen.

The Flash Gordon serials that Lucas so admired featured a doctor who was conscripted and forced to work in the laboratories of Emperor Ming. Here, it’s the father of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who’s put to work on the Death Star against his will, leaving virtual orphan Jyn to grow up alone on the galaxy’s mean streets. Rogue One is really all about Jyn, with other characters filling in the gaps—and that’s new territory for Lucas and his filmmakers. Yet, because of Vader and the Death Star, it also feels comfortably familiar. You get a similar sensation watching Imperial Walkers (AT-ATs) plodding along menacingly in a tropical setting instead of a frozen wasteland. One note: because of the palm trees and soldiers wearing camou it almost feels like a throwback WWII Pacific Theater film during some of the battle scenes, and that adds a touch of realism to what had previously been fantasy, sci-fi battles. The father-daughter angle is also heavily realistic, and that’s at the center of the plot.

Jones does a terrific job of making Jyn a character we care about, but she’s also surrounded by a talented ensemble who play equally interesting characters, ranging from the wounded rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a former Imperial cargo pilot who defected named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), or rebel leader Mon Mothma. But the character who is perhaps the most interesting is Chirrut Imwe (played by the scene-stealing Donnie Yen), a blind man who may or may not be a Jedi. He’s at least a Jedi wannabe, and in tune enough with the Force to walk through hell and somehow perform an important task. His sidekick, a rogue named Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) who reminds you of characters Danny Trejo usually plays, is also a fun addition to the Star Wars universe.

Rogue One’s narrative is made more interesting because of the characters’ cross purposes. Jyn is recruited by rebel leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) to rescue her father (Mads Mikkelsen) so the Alliance can learn more about the project he’s been working on, but Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the intelligence officer assigned to accompany her, has another agenda. Though the mere presence of Lord Vader elevates the film, Jones’ character holds her own. And it’s been a while since that galaxy far, far away had real balance like this.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: More realistic violence (including an assassin with a scope) can make this feel darker and bleaker than the other films, though optimism is certainly more prevalent than pessimism
Adult situations: Implied drinking at one point, but mostly just the violence and loss that characters experience
Takeaway: Old-school seems to work best with the Lucas-fueled Star Wars franchise. The past two films are more on a par with the original three in terms of looks and spirit, and that all but guarantees it will be the course Lucas takes moving forward

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.

As recent titles suggest, the Swan Princess has migrated pretty far from the original film plot, in which Princess Odette and Prince Derek’s betrothal to unite kingdoms is jeopardized by the sorcerer Rothbart, who, though defeated, vows revenge. Years later he ambushes the royal couple by transforming himself into an animal and kidnaps Odette. He turns her into a swan during the day in order to keep her hidden from the world, and she can only become human again under moonlight on the lake. Eventually, after a Romeo-and-Juliet moment or two, Prince Derek is able to defeat Rothbart and break the spell.

Now the main characters are children, and those children are secret agents and pirates and Ninjas—whatever’s popular any given year. Most of the recent installments feel overly familiar to adults, not just because of that chasing-pop-culture aspect, but because so many elements seem to have been recycled from earlier Swan Princess entries, or else “borrowed” from other films. With this one, the borrowing seems to come from Disney’s Frozen, with a little Spy Kids thrown in for good measure—including a mini-submarine. Instead of a prince cozying up to a princess in order to gain control of a kingdom, as we saw in Frozen, it’s a scoundrel trying to woo an old dowager. Outfitted with gadgets from their own personal Q, it’s up to spy kids Lucas (Grant Durazzo) and Princess Alise (Jayden Isabel) to expose the plot. Along the way they’ll have to figure out who they can trust, and like Disney heroes they’ll have to rely on animal friends to help them, especially Puffin (Gardner Jaas).

It’s all pretty formulaic and the characters are stock types that we’ve seen many times before. But the animation is colorful, there’s enough action, music, and humor to keep little ones from getting bored, and (most importantly) the main characters are likable enough to make it an entertaining diversion for the target audience. Because the action is ramped up, the gadgets add interest, the story seems more logical and the animation seems more sophisticated, Royally Undercover is a cut above recent Swan Princess sequels.

Bottom line: If your children liked the other Swan Princess sequels, they’ll like this one as well. But older children may still roll their eyes. Royally.

 

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.

It’s well cast, too, with Anuk Steffen radiant as the mop-haired Heidi, Bruno Ganz appropriately grouchy and initially standoffish as the grandfather, and Katharina Schüttler as the curt Frankfort governess. In the sixties, WGN-TV aired a series of movies called Family Classics with Frazier Thomas, and this 2015 film has a throwback feel to it. It’s as wholesome as can be, and that means the cutoff for kids is probably junior high age. This film feels older because it’s a costumed affair set in Victorian times, and that means junior high school students will think it too corny (or whatever the current vernacular is). But young children ought to enjoy Heidi.

Part of the appeal is that the story speaks to every child’s fantasy . . . not to be orphaned, of course, but to have an adventure that includes living in the mountains with animals and few rules, relatively free to enjoy your days as the goats graze. Forks? Napkins? What are those? You pick up your wooden bowl with two hands and you drink whatever’s in it. What child hasn’t dreamt of living in such a mountain paradise? Or being rich? If you’re going to be sent away as an orphan, there are worse fates than becoming a part of a rich household where you’re well cared for and treated like a guest rather than a servant.

Especially if you’re a girl, what’s not to like about having a friend your own gender and approximate age living in a big house where the mother is dead and the father travels most of the time, leaving servants to tend to your needs? And when your wheelchair-bound new friend expresses a desire to leave the house and break the overprotective bonds of her governess and father, what young girl wouldn’t secretly love to help her escape . . . even if it’s only for a few hours? It’s not exactly the prison Little Orphan Annie lived in, either. When the servants are occupied, Heidi simply pushes her friend out the front door to the nearby marketplace.

In the original novel, Heidi got her grandfather to pray again, but the religious element is downplayed in this lavishly produced adaptation. The emphasis isn’t on the grandfather’s redemption, but on Heidi finally finding a home. Feel-good classic? Yes, please.