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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.

So why am I proposing it as an option for Family Home Theater readers?

Because films, like books, can expand our world and also help us better understand and appreciate our own . . . and because this particular film is about teenagers who live an experience that’s so far removed from what American teenagers experience that it bears watching for the perspective alone. Bullying also happens to be a major concern for teens all over the world.

What’s immediately striking is that on this platform the boys have their own hierarchy, as in The Lord of the Flies, a book that most American teenagers are required to read in school. Into this world comes a bookish 12-year-old schoolboy named Jaya (Iqbal S. Manurung), whose mother told him, before she died, to find his father who works as a supervisor on one of the jermals. To continue the Lord of the Flies analogy, he corresponds to the weak and bookish Piggy who is picked on by the other boys.

At first, the sullen, warm beer-drinking Johar (played by Didi Petet, for whom the script was written) refuses to acknowledge that he even has a son, much less that this boy is his. As he ignores Jaya, the other adult on the platform, the mute Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), tries to get him to accept responsibility and also keep the rough jermal boys from hurting the newcomer.

As the boys defer to a leader, their alpha, and even pay him for what ought to be a common commodity—a water container—it will remind viewers of prison films like Cool Hand Luke. In school, boys can be cruel; on the jermal, they can be almost as cruel as hard-timers . . . until (and this is one of the embedded themes) education wins out.

Language: One f-bomb and lesser swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: The boys shove and push and hit, but stop short of actual beating, and one boy is hard-slapped by an adult
Adult situations: Adults drink and smoke, but children also partake (with bad results), and the whole situation with Jaya feels desperate at times
Takeaway: International filmmakers are creating wonderful films using non-actors, and this is one of them

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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

Review of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (2016) (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
2016, 108 min., Color
Drama, Theatrical Production
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Adapted from a 1905 children’s novel by Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children is a joint York Theatre Royal and National Railway Museum production that was staged in a venue near Kings Cross Station in London. This is a filmed performance of the Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden production, which shut down in January 2017.

If you’re from the U.K. and grew up with the book or have walked the park where a monument pays tribute, you’ll feel more easily charmed by a production that half-depends on the warm feeling of shared cultural nostalgia.

Regardless, the stage set is unique, designed to resemble a train station with one set of tracks and a platform on either side, and a single walkway at one end that allows people to cross from one side to the other. Lining each platform are seats where audience members sit as close to each platform as possible without actually being onstage themselves. In this elongated version of theater-in-the-round, characters are in near-constant movement, and the staging is minimalist—with a real train appearing only briefly. For the most part, flat wooden squares the same height as the platforms are pushed into place to suggest the train and various rooms and buildings, and you marvel at how the actors are able to retain their balance as they walk across the square/squares that briefly connects the platforms. More