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Review of THE KIDS TABLE (DVD)

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Grade:  C-
Entire family:  No
2018, 72 min., Color
Documentary
Giant Interactive
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Trailer
Amazon link

After I watched this documentary about bridge (the card game, not London or any other feat of engineering), I was surprised to see that the runtime was only 72 minutes. It seemed much longer . . . and not just because I know nothing about bridge. It seemed longer because this documentary didn’t inspire me to care any more about bridge than I do now.

And there was certainly potential. When you get a group of four 20- and 30-somethings who are being coached by bridge trainers (who knew there was such a thing?), and those four people compete in tournaments where the opponent’s average age is 73, there’s potential here for interest.

But The Kids Table feels superficial because it doesn’t really answer any of the questions that arise along the way. Like, how do the old people really feel about them intruding in their private world of bridge? We get a few responses, but not nearly enough, and the responses we get aren’t personal enough.

What made each of these people want to learn bridge? Were they recruited? What do their friends or families or significant others think about them spending so much time on an old people’s card game? While we get some solo interviews with each of the young people, there’s not much in the way of answers or depth. Out of curiosity I Googled one of them and learned that Stefanie Woodburn (who admits she’s not super hot on bridge but, once involved, can be super competitive) is a member of Mensa and a summa cum laude graduate from NYU. She’s an actress who’s been featured in TV movies and starred as Mulan in Once Upon a Time: The Rock Opera. She also was one of the first graduates of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s IMAGINE IMPACT class, and she created the first short film funded through video streaming games. Fascinating, right?

But we don’t get much information about her or the others in this documentary, which limits the on-camera interviews to reality-show style questions about their feelings on what we just saw onscreen. Frankly, a documentary like this would have worked so much better if each of the principle young players had their own “Olympic moment” profiles that make us care about them as they play. Does it put a strain on their social lives or family life? Does it compete with their other ambitions? Has learning bridge been a struggle that they continue because of x, y, or z? Without strong back stories there aren’t strong characters, and that especially holds true for this film by Stephen Helstad and Edo Benda. We simply don’t get enough personal information about the four novice players and their two trainers for us to care about them. We’re just flies on the wall as we watch Woodburn, Paul Stanko, Monique Thomas, Edd Benda, Brian Reynolds, and Samantha MacDouglas go from match to match.

In choosing to focus only on competitions that can run 12 hours long, Helstad and Benda are bound by the same insistent (boring?) quietness that characterizes these bridge arenas, and that’s about as exciting as being dragged along to one of these matches by a friend. You sit and you watch and you watch, though you don’t really know what you’re watching.

Oh, the directors try to explain the game as simply as they can, but as you’re still thinking huh? 10 minutes later you almost wonder what the point of the brief lesson was when one of the featured novice players says that it’s an extremely complicated game that takes hours and hours to learn. Well, unless you’re MacDouglas, who says on her website that you can learn bridge in 20 minutes if you download her free pamphlet. Maybe people who know bridge will find this documentary interesting, but if you’re not already a part of this world, the directors don’t really make it enticing or accessible enough for a general audience.

The Kids Table was “presented in association with the ACBL Educational Foundation,” and it makes sense that the American Contract Bridge League might get involved. This film is mostly of value for current players who might see it and realize, Hey, we’d better reach out to more young people the way that blues musicians did a generation ago, or else this card game that was once the second most popular pastime in America after baseball is going to become as extinct as the Passenger Pigeon. Or that other card game my Milwaukee relatives used to play that I could never understand: Sheepshead.

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Review of HESBURGH (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 106 min., B&W and Color
Documentary
Not rated (would be PG for Kent State footage)
Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Trailer
Amazon link

Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked him to serve on the National Science Board and later the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and he was the one who brought Democrats and Republicans together on the latter, then brokered the approval of 11 civil rights recommendations. Later “Ike” asked him to help bridge the gap between Russia and the U.S., and he became good friends with the Soviet Union’s delegate to the U.N. in order to relax tensions.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked him to be by his side for a crucial civil rights rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field on June 21, 1964, and there he linked arms with Dr. King and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Eleven days later the Civil Rights Act was signed, and years later King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, would call him “One of the giants of the civil rights movement.”

Pres. Richard M. Nixon called on him to stop anti-war protesters at Notre Dame, and he cracked down on them . . . but after Kent State, had a change of heart and publicly attacked Nixon and the Vietnam War. He’s prominently mentioned on the Nixon tapes as a “problem.”

Who knew that the life of a college president could be so influential . . . and fascinating?

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh was president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952-87, and this 2018 biography begins with a voiceover recording of him saying “Since the age of six, I wanted to be a priest,” and ends with his funeral procession and thousands of Notre Dame students lining the route to the cemetery. But it’s as much a documentary about history as it is a man who devoted his life to the service of others, and there are some incredible stories here.

Who knew that the president of Notre Dame had such power?

One of the stories Hesburgh tells is about a Cardinalship that he turned down. “I came to know all of the popes throughout my life,” Hesburgh says, “but the only one I considered a true friend was Giovanni Montini, who would take on the name Pope Paul VI.” The Pope gave him the enormous emerald ring he wore as a cardinal, saying, “Now it’s yours,” but hoping he would accept his offer. “I said, ‘Thank you for the ring, Your Holiness,’ and I put it in my pocket. . . . [but] I can do a lot more as a university president.”

Who knew that a fishing trip was behind the success of civil rights reform in the U.S.? More

Review of TOY STORY 4 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 100 min., Color
Rated G
Pixar/Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

The buzz (no Lightyear pun intended) on Toy Story 4 was that it’s the saddest (translation: most poignant) entry yet, and that Pixar really fumbled the ball by naming a new character Forky when it’s so clearly a spork.

But if that’s your biggest complaint, you know Pixar/Disney has created another hit. In fact, if there’s a more critically successful film franchise, it’s not coming to mind. The first two Toy Story animated features earned a remarkable 100 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes with audience ratings of 92 and 86 percent, respectively, while the third entry received a 98 from critics and 89 from the audience. Their latest exercise in animated wizardry merited a 97 from critics and a 94 from audiences. That’s amazingly consistent, given that there’s only so much you can do, plot-wise, with a family’s toys that come to life when no humans are looking.

This time western sheriff doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is having an existential crisis. He’s spent three play days in a row left in the closet, wondering what his purpose is if it’s no longer to be played with by his special human. And in case you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, his special human Andy went off to college,” in Toy Story 4 Woody’s a hand-me-down that’s now in the possession of Andy’s little sister, Bonnie.

When Woody stows away in Bonnie’s backpack to make sure she has the comfort of a toy her first day of kindergarten orientation, he watches her make a new toy doll out of a spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks. But Forky, as she calls him, is a kind of cheerful fatalist who keeps jumping into wastebaskets and trash receptacles and such because, well, that’s where plastic forks end up.

Pixar/Disney keeps the series fresh by rotating characters who get the spotlight, and this time Woody, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Forky (Tony Hale), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and a fun new character, motorcycle stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), take center stage. The animators also moved up the ladder of progressive possibilities for toys that are no longer wanted. Having already explored the Goodwill option, the rabid collector option, and the donated-to-preschool option, they set this entry in an antique store where Bo ended up. More

Review of PAN’S LABYRINTH (4K UltraHD combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No (16 and older)
Fantasy-drama-war
2006, 119 min., Color
Rated R for graphic violence and some language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Spanish DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Strange. Dark. Sad. Beautiful. Haunting. Powerful.

That describes Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Shape of Water (2017), and it also aptly describes the Mexican director’s earlier wartime fantasy-drama, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Del Toro introduces the new 4K HD release (in Spanish, with English subtitles) by saying simply, “This movie almost killed me.” That’s easy to believe, because Pan’s Labyrinth takes a lot out of audiences too. With del Toro’s fairy tales for adults, you know you’re going to find the film visually stunning, narratively compelling, and, ultimately, deeply moving.

The action takes during place during WWII (1944) in Franco’s fascist Spain. Ofelia (played confidently and sympathetically by Ivana Baquero) is riding in a military car with her pregnant mother to a country outpost run by the ruthless and sadistic Captain Vidal—who married the mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), after her husband died in the war. He had sent for them because he wanted his baby to be born near him. In the car, Ofelia reads a fairytale about a princess who fled her father’s underground kingdom to live in the world above, where she was subject to that world’s illnesses and death. But her father knew that one day her spirit would return to him in the form of another.  More

Review of ANNABELLE COMES HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No (way)
Horror, thriller
2019, 106 min., Color
Rated R for horror violence and terror
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

First there was The Conjuring (2013), then Annabelle (2014), The Conjuring 2 (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), and now Annabelle Comes Home (2019). The Conjuring Universe continues to expand, but this latest film isn’t as much of a big bang as it is a slow evolution from dark potentiality to a third act burst of relatively predictable action. That’s because it’s a Pandora’s box film, and even if you know nothing about Greek mythology you probably have heard that Pandora opened a box (well, jar, actually) and unwittingly unleashed sickness, plagues, death, and all manner of evils on humankind. With a Pandora’s box film, you know the plot will be about trying to re-contain those evils, and the protagonists either will succeed or not. You have a 50/50 chance of guessing the outcome.

That’s one thing that makes Annabelle Comes Home less energetic or surprising than some of the previous entries. Fans have been through this before and know what to expect. There aren’t as many scares as in previous films, but the ones that are here are high octane, and their intensity is boosted by the fact that much of the action takes place within the confines of the home. More

Review of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: No
Sci-Fi Action-Adventure
2019, 129 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Columbia Pictures / Marvel Studios
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Some franchises age better than others. Spider-Man, in fact, keeps getting younger as the studio aims for a youthful, social media savvy audience. In fact, 22-year-old British actor Tom Holland learned he got the role of Spider-Man three years ago via an Instagram post.

In some respects, Holland has come a long way since he played the lead in Billy Elliott: The Musical, but in other respects he’s still playing that awkward youth who struggles as much with his own self-image as any other adolescent or teen. In Spider-Man: Far from Home—his fifth film wearing the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man costume (counting appearances in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame in addition to the 2017 film Spider-Man: Homecoming)—Holland as Peter Parker is awkward around girls, unsure of himself, and as reluctant a hero as ever there was.

Director Jon Watts said that audiences responded well to the high school student excursion to Washington D.C. monuments in Homecoming, so it was a no-brainer to take those students abroad. But some parents might wish that the kids traveled with a teacher who wasn’t cut from the Disney Channel template of clueless adults, more cardboard comic relief than flesh-and-blood character. Still, I suppose if Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) wasn’t so clueless, there’d be no way to quickly and easily move the group from one part of Europe to allow Peter Parker to do his “Peter tingle” job, as his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) likes to call it. More

Review of ALADDIN (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Adventure-Fantasy
2019, 128 min., Color
Rated PG for some action/peril
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

While Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated classics have been hit or (near) miss, the 2019 remake of Aladdin is a hit—and don’t let any of the Will-Smith-shouldn’t-have-been-the-Genie complainers tell you differently. Smith is just fine as the genie whose many moods and mannerisms help pace the film. And if you don’t believe me, go to Rotten Tomatoes, where you’ll see that Aladdin received the highest audience rating of any of the live-action remakes.

Smith said that he loved Robin Williams’ manic performance in the 1992 animated classic, but he had no intention of trying to duplicate it—partly because it was the right thing to do out of respect for Williams, but partly because it was the sane thing to do. You can’t beat Williams at manic improvisation, so you might as well carve out your own niche. Smith manages to entertain as the bright blue genie, who fast-talks, sass-talks, back-talks, and even throws in some improvisations of his own—all while managing to carve out his own version of the character.

Meanwhile, Disney struck casting gold with Egyptian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Today’s teens and tweens are into Hollywood’s beautiful twentysomethings, but don’t look for Massoud to be bare-chested throughout the film, as the animated Aladdin was. Director Guy Ritchie thought it would be too distracting on a human, and he’s probably right. Massoud and Scott have great chemistry together and individually they’re charismatic, warm, and talented. Young viewers might also recognize Scott from the Disney channel movie Lemonade Mouth and the TV series Life Bites. More