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Review of MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 141 min., Color
Sci-fi action adventure
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

What you want to know is this: How does Maze Runner: The Death Cure stack up against the previous two installments, and how does The Maze Runner film trilogy compare with The Hunger Games and Divergent—the other popular dystopian series based on young adult novels?

Our family thought that all three Maze Runner films were comparable in quality—ranging from a B+ to an A, depending on your age (teens leaning higher). In terms of production design and plot, this series may rely a little more on familiar post-apocalyptic tropes than the others, but it’s just as well done—again, comparable. The characters are engaging, the production design is strong, and the action, though it covers familiar ground, is unique in its details.

With Maze Runner: The Death Cure, director Wes Ball brings his film adaptation of the popular James Dasher young adult novels to a close, but if you’re going to understand anything that’s going on, you really need to have seen the first two films—the second, especially. The three installments function like a three-act screenplay, with the first film the set-up, the second the acceleration of plot, and the third a push toward resolution.

Because The Maze Runner (2014) feels like a near stand-alone mystery-thriller and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) and Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018) play out like connected action-thrillers, it’s impossible to understand anything that’s going on in the third installment if you haven’t seen the second. If you didn’t catch (or can’t remember) the first, the only thing you’ll miss in The Death Cure is a big reveal when a character thought dead turns up again. Everything else can be gleaned from the narrative and dialogue.

In the first film, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) woke up in a large contained area called The Glade. At first he had no idea who or where he was, but then gradually he remembered and he and the others—young teens all about the same age who, shades of Lord of the Flies, had to learn to function as a micro-society—pieced together clues in order to try to escape. The main young characters that continued through all three films are Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and Frypan (Dexter Darden); the adult carryover is Dr. Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), a driving force behind an organization with the Bond-like acronym WCKD, a class-based group that seeks to safely separate itself from the rest of the post-apocalyptic rabble and use its resources to find a cure for The Flare Virus.

The second and third installments are really just one continuous action plot that could have been broken up any number of ways. Thomas and the others are relocated to another area where they are assured that it’s merely a waystation along a highway to a better life. Really, they’ve been isolated in a Phase 2 experiment because it’s suspected that they are somehow immune to the virus that turns the afflicted into zombies (yep, here’s where it gets a little familiar). WCKD is aggressively “farming” their blood, their essence, in order to conduct experiments to create a vaccine. It’s clear, though, that the group’s motivation isn’t to save all mankind, but only an elite segment.

Enter a revolutionary force called The Right Arm and a rag-tag rabble that comes together, put these kids in the middle, and you have a classic story of a bunch of revolutionaries who try to bring down a despotic ruler. Or, given the walled city that WCK rebuilds while the rest of humanity lives an existence that’s only steps up from the infected “cranks,” you’ve got the typical siege drama that could have played out just as interestingly in Game of Thrones.

In fact, GOT enthusiasts will enjoy watching Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger, in that popular HBO series) ham it up as the head of security and “enforcer” for WCKD, whose job it is to keep rounding up young ones for immunity “tests” and to keep the revolutionaries and rabble at bay. Barry Pepper (as Vince) and Giancarlo Esposito (Jorge) also add color as adult liberators of WCKD teen lab rats, while Rosa Salazar is well cast as the revolutionary Brenda, whose very appearance completes/competes the romantic-but-not-really triangle of the series.

I’m told that fans of the book series didn’t care much for the last two films, but our family didn’t have that burden of watching after reading. We thought the trilogy was entertaining and well edited, with terrific special effects (watch on Blu-ray!), crisp pacing and action that keeps you on that clichéd edge of your seat. Yes, you’ll find yourself having flashbacks to the kitchen raptor scene in Jurassic Park and scenes from Star Wars and any number of other action films, but the variations here are neither homage nor blatant rip-off. They’re just established sci-fi action tropes that, despite their lack of originality, still work well.

Language: Under a dozen lesser swearwords, with “shit” and “bitch” most prominent
Sex: n/a
Violence: Lots of gunfire, explosions, flesh-eating zombies, people killed and wounded, but moderate level of blood and gore
Adult situations: Teens are drugged (clinically and recreationally), main characters are killed, and the entire film is one big peril
Takeaway: Don’t always believe what you hear; the last two installments of The Maze Runner are just as good as the first

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Review of JERMAL (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2008, 88 min., Color
Drama
IndiePix
Not rated (would be R for brief nudity and language, alcohol use, and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Indonesian Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with English subtitles
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

You haven’t seen another film in the world like Jermal, a 2008 Indonesian production with English subtitles about a group of young teenage boys who live and work on an isolated fishing platform in the middle of the Malacca Straits off North Sumatra. It’s an absolutely unique, vicarious experience that almost dwarfs the coming-of-age / father-son themes that shape the plot—or rather, situation, since this is a character- and situation-driven film.

Fishing platforms or “jermals” may be common in Indonesia and Malaysia, but no one before directors Ravi L. Bharwani and Rayya Makarim has ever thought to shoot a drama on one of them.

What we see in the beautifully filmed Jermal is a high level of realism that extends to the actors—or rather, non-actors. The directors said that many of the nine boys that appear in the film were actually working already on the jermal that the filmmakers inhabited for 30 days.

Though work on a fishing platform is tough and the conditions primitive, no experience is necessary. Because of their isolation they’re often a refuge for people on society’s fringes. If the movie is any indication, authorities don’t seem to mind that children under 18 are working on them, and the directors said that they knew of several other jermals in the area—one of them occupied by convicts, one by runaway children, and another by children sent by their parents to work (one less mouth to feed).

Jermal isn’t rated, but if it were it would probably merit an R for one scene of young male posterior nudity, one f-bomb, a few lesser swearwords, constant bullying, mild violence, and smoking and alcohol use. More

Review of THE FENCER (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (subtitles to read)
2015, 99 min., Color
Drama
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be PG for adult themes)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Estonian 5.1 Dolby Digital w/English subtitles
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

If the children in the household are 10 and older (or good readers), The Fencer is a really nice change-of-pace film for family movie night. This Finnish-Estonian film with subtitles is a high-stakes Hoosiers with foils instead of basketballs, set in Soviet-occupied Estonia in the early 1950s.

Like Hoosiers, it’s the story of a coach with a secret who comes to a small school in a small town and tries to make a difference. With the coach in that Indiana roundball saga, audiences gradually learn about his past; in this film, subtitles in the first sequence explain the man’s dilemma: Estonia was first occupied by the Nazis and all the young Estonian men were drafted into the German army; then the Soviets occupied Estonia and the Russian Secret Police hunted down all of those young “traitors” who had served in the German army, executing them or sending them to work camps in Siberia.

So it’s not just a haunted past that follows fencing champion Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), who, after the Secret Police become alerted to his identity, is advised by his coach to leave Leningrad and go far far away. Despite the threat of death or banishment, he seeks a normal life in the small Estonian town of Haapsalu, where most of the children are fatherless because of the war and feeling that no one cares about them or their town.

Enter Nelis, who begins teaching at the school and tries to start a ski club. But all the skis that he painstakingly repairs and waxes are “shared” with the nearby Soviet military base. How can I start a ski club on Saturdays if we have no equipment, he asks, and when the school’s “Comrade Principal” shrugs, circumstances lead him back to what he knows best: fencing, which the principal (in his Soviet survivalist mode) has deemed a sport not suitable for “the proletariat.” More

Review of PADDINGTON 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
2017, 103 min., Color
Animation-Live Action Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

I did not see Paddington when it was released in 2014. I simply couldn’t bear it, since the track record for films featuring CGI animals in a world of accepting humans hasn’t exactly been the stuff of NASCAR.

Movies like these are always aimed at children rather than whole families, and even the ones that stretch their audiences—films like The Muppets 2011 reboot featuring Amy Adams and Jason Segel—still seem to suffer from an acute case of the cutsies. But the trailer for Paddington 2 intrigued me. Innocent little Peruvian bear Paddington, who lives in London with a human family, somehow runs afoul of the law and ends up wearing prison pinstripes and escaping with other cons? What’s cute about that?

Nothing, and that’s what interested me. I wondered, could this finally be the furry fish-out-of-water story that parents could also enjoy with their small children? Happily, the answer is an emphatic yes—which is no doubt why Paddington received a passing grade of 7.1 out of 10, while this clever, tongue-in-cheek sequel elicited an 8/10 at the Internet Movie Database with close to 25,000 moviegoers voting. It’s better than any of the Alvin and the Chipmunks, Stuart Little, or newer Muppet movies.

What makes it work is that writer-director Paul King and his co-writers plant their tongues in cheek and include lines and details that will make anyone over three feet tall smile—even laugh out loud in spots. The filmmakers tap into the long tradition of the Hollywood naïves thrust into situations that are emphatically beyond their understanding or capabilities, whether we’re talking about Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, Ma and Pa Kettle, or such later unlikely explorers in strange lands as Forrest Gump and the perpetually clueless Jack Sparrow. Paddington isn’t cute. He’s Austin Powers without the randiness, the straight man in a comic duo, but a ball of fur so innocent that children will still see him as adorable.

In this film at least, Paddington comes to us the latest in a long tradition of benevolent helpers whose very presence changes the lives of those around them in very positive ways. Like Mary Poppins or Pollyanna, his cheerful can-do optimism lifts people up and yields only momentarily enough to Eeyore-like depression for the plot to take a second-act nosedive before flying high again in the third act—quite literally, actually. More

Review of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 105 min., Color
Musical drama
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Moulin Rouge! (2001) and La La Land (2016), The Greatest Showman is a musical that was written and produced especially for the big screen. It wasn’t adapted from a Broadway show nor based on a book. The lone inspiration was the curious life of P.T. Barnum, who is most famous for having founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1871 and, through deft promotion, raising the status and popularity of the circus in America.

Barnum is erroneously credited with saying “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but a line that he was confirmed to have said as a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives in later life is more reflective of the positive direction that writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon took for this film: “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab, or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”

Anyone who watched this year’s Oscar’s knows from watching the performance of Best Song nominee “This Is Me” (which earlier won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song) that one central message of The Greatest Showman is the unfair treatment of “freaks” and marginalized members of society.

As regular readers of Family Home Theater know, I am a Tomatometer Critic at RottenTomatoes.com, but I frankly don’t know what my fellow critics’ problems are with this rousing 2017 film. Only 113 out of 205 critics thought The Greatest Showman “fresh,” with the average rating just 6/10—a C+ or B- at best. Meanwhile, 88 percent of the 21,657 RottenTomatoes audience members who responded gave it an average score 4.4 out of 5—in the B+/A- range.

What more could these people want out of a musical?

No film is perfect, but The Greatest Showman grabs you from the beginning and holds you with high-energy choreography and singing, great cast performances, and a tent full of positive messages that stand in sharp contrast to what today’s children are reading in the newspapers. Our family loved it. More

Review of JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (not for small children)
2017, 119 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Columbia/Sony
Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content, and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/B (includes Digital Copy)
Trailer
Amazon link

The original 1995 Jumanji starring Robin Williams was underwhelming, which is perhaps why the title of the sequel released 21 years later was changed from Jumanji 2 to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Instead of having the adventure fantastically spill out into the world of the game players, the sequel picks up more interest and steam by having the players sucked into an old video game and transported to a lush jungle world. So it’s not only updated for a video gamer generation, but also presents more visual and special effects and “levels” opportunities that young gamers can identify with.

But what makes this action-comedy cute as heck and broadens its appeal so that older viewers can also enjoy it is that the four writers decided to create a high-concept film—a guaranteed-to-make-money Hollywood project that can be summarized in 25 words or less, usually via comparison. I can picture them pitching this to the studio and backers: “It’s Jumanji meets The Breakfast Club.” And it works!

In the early going we see a teen sucked into a game way back in 1969 and then fast-forward to present day, where we’re introduced to a nerdy guy named Spencer (Alex Wolff), who has been conned into doing homework and writing papers for a star football player nicknamed Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain). We also meet a vain, self-centered young popular girl named Bethany (Madison Iseman) and an awkward marginalized girl named Martha (Morgan Turner). Somehow they all end up in detention and find themselves in a storage room crammed with all sorts of things, including an old video game they decide to plug in and play.

In short order, after they’ve chosen avatars (some thoughtfully, others not) and begin to play, something happens and the game starts to scare them. They scramble to unplug it, but no matter: One by one they’re sucked into the game and realize that they’ve become the avatars that they selected. That, of course, is half the fun. More

Review of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2017, 152 min., Color
LucasFilm/Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Bonus Disc, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Fans at IMBD.com liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens considerably better than Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and I’ve heard it said that it’s because they thought the humor in it was more contemporary than campy.

I think that assessment is a little harsh, as there are only a few instances where the humor seems peculiar to our galaxy. For me, the last two installments in the Star Wars franchise were equally accomplished fun popcorn movies that had all the things that made the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) successful: humor, adventure, action, great characters, a complex-yet-decipherable storyline, and mind-boggling special and visual effects. I’m not alone in thinking them comparable. At Rottentomatoes.com, Tomatometer critics gave The Force Awakens a 93 percent fresh rating and The Last Jedi a 91 percent. Our family liked them equally well.

For me, there was but one jarring moment when I thought, really? And that was when General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), having been jettisoned into space and floating unconscious like a piece of space junk, suddenly is awakened by the Force and then stretches out one hand and takes off like Mary Poppins extending her umbrella arm and flying off.

If you throw out that moment and a casino scene that seems a little too Bond-like, everything else is tensely (well, except for occasional comic relief) believable within the realm of logic that drives this fantasy world of George Lucas’s. Yet, like The Force Awakens, it’s not as dark and traumatizing as the second trilogy (Episodes I-III). In fact, I’d have to say that The Last Jedi is lighter and less traumatic than The Force Awakens. More

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