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Review of FROZEN II (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Rated: PG
Animation

Has there been a more anticipated Disney sequel than Frozen II?

Frozen was an instant classic, winning Oscars for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song. Within the first few weeks of its debut, children young enough to have barely mastered sentences could be heard belting out “Let It Go” with the same intensity as Idina Menzel, the Broadway talent who sang it in the film.

Frozen was a tough act to follow, but Frozen II gives the 2013 original a run for its money.

For me, the differences can be summarized with a few simple observations. I thought Frozen was marred only by two songs that stood out because they were less successful than the rest: a goofy snowman song that seemed to run counter to the mood of the film, even for comic relief, and a troll song that could have been cut and no one would have cared. But overall, the film brought Broadway style to the fairytale format (a Disney specialty) and also embraced the “meet cute” formula of romantic comedies, with fun characters and interesting side plots and plot twists that were simple enough for even those budding young sopranos and tenors to understand.

Frozen II, meanwhile, comes closer to the operetta in its use of music, where songs are sometimes employed instead of dialogue to move the story forward, and those songs (as a result) seem to come at more frequent intervals. That’s not bad, mind you, just different. Still, it’s been three months since the film premiered, and I have yet to observe any youngster singing a song from the sequel. I also couldn’t pick out a favorite song the way I instantly could with Frozen—though “Into the Unknown” was nominated for an Academy Award and the Frozen II soundtrack reached #1 on the Billboard 200 Album chart. So it might take a second listen for those songs to kick in.  I also thought that Frozen II, a darker film in tone and subject matter, had a plot that was both more richly imagined and a little more contrived, and therefore a little harder for younger children to comprehend. Maybe that’s because Frozen steered fairly close to the shoreline of fairytale land, while Frozen II comes closer to fantasy. There are ghosts and spirits and people living in a netherworld.

As I said, Frozen II gives the original a run for its money, and I think when all is considered they’re close to being equal, with the original nudging ahead by a nose . . . and the horse analogy is appropriate, given that Elsa gets to ride spirit horses in this animated film.

My wife and teenage daughter do not share my opinions. They both think Frozen II is the superior film, and the data at Rotten Tomatoes proves they’re not alone. At the popular movie aggregate site, 90 percent of the critics gave the original Frozen a “fresh” rating, while only 77 percent did so for the sequel. But the numbers were flipped for the general public, with 85 percent loving the original and 92 percent loving the sequel. In any case, the numbers do not reflect a disagreement over whether the film is successful or not. Frozen II is good. The only question is, how good.

Frozen directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee are back again, and so are all the original voice talents: Kristen Bell as younger princess Anna; Idina Menzel as the older Elsa, who can freeze things with her touch; Josh Gad as Olaf, the enchanted talking snowman; and Jonathan Groff as Kristoff the ice cutter who’s best friend is the reindeer Sven and who wants to propose to Anna.

After an opening flashback in which a young king tells his very young daughters the story of how their grandfather, then king, built a dam to establish a treaty with the neighboring tribe of Northuldra, the action picks up three years after the first film ended. Elsa hears a faraway voice she can’t identify, but one she thinks must be tied to her powers, one she knows she has to follow. Of course, it’s not much of a movie if just Elsa goes on a quest, and so Anna insists on going with, as do Olaf, Kristoff, and Sven. Along the way the quest changes, with the sisters trying to learn more about the Enchanted Forest, and more about the people of Northuldra and how they relate to the people of Arendelle. And of course there are plenty of emotional moments, perilous episodes, and times when a character appears doomed, all deftly balanced by comic relief—the cutest of which is supplied by a tiny little salamander who, like Elsa, has an unusual reaction when agitated.

As with the first Frozen and practically all Disney animated films, the animation is spectacular and spectacularly captures the changing moods of each sequence. Those spirit horses are particularly well rendered, but some of the animation of the natural world is so detailed that it might remind viewers of the world of Avatar. Because of the detail, because of the music, and yes, because of a plot that’s a little more involved than the original, Frozen II seems destined for a lot of repeat play. And because it leans hard in the direction of fantasy (Frozen wasn’t exactly a grab-your-plastic-crown princess movie, and the sequel is even less so), it holds appeal for a broader range of viewers. With a robust 7.1 channel soundtrack and high-def presentation, it’s easy to appreciate a film like Frozen II.

Entire family: Yes
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: A-/B+ (includes sing-along version)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Rated PG for action, peril, and some thematic elements

When I say that Frozen II is darker than the original, I don’t mean it in the way that the Harry Potter films got menacingly, traumatizingly darker. Characters have close calls. Characters have sad moments, but hey, it’s Disney. That’s all part of the formula. There’s nothing here that children who watched and enjoyed the first Frozen can’t see, as both are rated PG, after all. Parents of young children just might have to explain the situations more in this one than they had to with the original.

Review of JOJO RABBIT (Blu-ray)

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Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray coverGrade: A
Rated: PG-13
War-comedy-drama

Jojo Rabbit was my personal pick for Best Film of 2019, and watching it again only confirms that for me. It’s a wildly inventive, offbeat, hilarious-yet-poignant critique of Nazism that entertains as it subtly instructs. Since the action takes place in the closing months of WWII, there are some sad moments and some violence, but far less than what’s usually contained in a PG-13 film these days.

One of the most commonly taught books in junior high and high school is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a German-Dutch teenager who spent two years hiding in a secret upstairs section of her father’s pectin factory in the Netherlands with family and friends. She died in a concentration camp, and what the Nazis did to Jews remains a horrible page in the history of humankind. Picture that story with an equally sad death, a better ending, and the kind of quirky laugh-out-loud humor that characterized Taika Waititi’s film “What We Do in the Shadows, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this film is like. It’s shockingly funny because, as co-star Sam Rockwell told Imdb.com, “Taika has a really good comedy compass.”

Jojo’s family is down to just two—his mother and him—since an older sister had recently died of influenza and his father was still absent, allegedly fighting for the Germans on the Italian front. As a result, he and his free-spirited mother (Scarlet Johansson) are extremely close, and we see them playfully interacting—he, always the serious one, and she the teaser, the one most likely to play a prank or act spontaneously.

Jojo (wonderfully portrayed by first-time actor Roman Griffin Davis) has two problems: the first is that he’s so clearly sensitive and unsuited to being a Nazi that it underscores the propaganda side of Nazism. Jojo gets his nickname when, during a Hitler Youth training camp, he finds himself unable to kill a rabbit, as ordered. But the second and more pressing problem he faces is that he discovers his mother is secretly sheltering a Jewish girl behind a secret panel in the room where his sister stayed before she died. What’s a Hitler Youth to do? More

Review of DRAGONHEART: VENGEANCE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
Fantasy
2020, 97 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some bloody images
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Dragonheart: Vengeance is the third direct-to-video “prequel” to the cult-favorite 1996 fantasy adventure starring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery, and the good news is that it doesn’t look like the typical slap-it-together direct-to-video release.

Aside from some noticeable green screen work in less than a handful of spots, the CGI effects and animation are strong enough to make you forget that this spawn of Dragonheart never saw the dim light of theaters. But apart from those strong production values, Dragonheart: Vengeance is a mixed bag.

On the plus side, the two main characters are instantly likeable. The more screen time they get, the more you like watching farm boy Lukas (Jack Kane) and mercenary swordsman Darius (Joseph Millson) as they set about to avenge the murder of the boy’s family and eventually take on the evil king. On the minus side, haven’t we already seen a family-less Luke hooking up with a profit-minded rogue adventurer who then take on the Emperor—albeit with a galactic rebel army? And haven’t we seen Darius’s “look” before in Aragorn?

Instead of Sean Connery’s voice, the dragon in this film is powered by Helena Bonham Carter (“You’re a girl dragon?”). Carter is always the consummate professional, and it’s a nice touch having the dragon breathe ice and not fire. But some of the lines that are written seem way too contemporary, and the script doesn’t allow for the same playful interaction as in the original film. Instead of a con game where the mercenary and dragon worked together to extort money from frightened villagers (and banter like buddy cops in the process), this dragon is a reluctant dragon—as much of a pacifist as those old-time Western heroes who need to have someone close to them threatened or die before they’ll take action. More

Review of THE MERGER (DVD)

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Grade:  B+
Entire family:  No (junior high or older)
Sports comedy
2018, 103 min., Color
Indie Pix Unlimited
Not rated (would be PG for language and very brief comic nudity)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features:  none
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a film not on your radar that would be a great choice for family movie night if you have children who are junior high age and older—especially if they’re into competitive sports. And don’t be fooled by the DVD cover, which looks like it was designed by the same people that do your local TV commercials. The Merger isn’t an amateur pretending to be professional. It’s a sure-footed, quirky, funny, warmhearted Australian Hoosiers.

Like Hoosiers, the plot revolves around an outcast in a small, small town where there’s a single sports obsession, and that outcast is expected to turn the local sports program around. Not everyone approves, there’s one player who doesn’t like the way he’s doing things, a local woman is drawn to him, he becomes close to a boy, and the players he’s assembled don’t particularly like each other. But they learn, under his tutelage, to work together toward a common goal: winning.

As with all sports films there’s a predictable arc from recruiting to practicing to losing to winning, with a big championship game the final scene. But after that, The Merger is as atypical as can be because it considers one of the biggest issues of our time: attitudes toward immigrants and diversity. The film jogs along at just the right pace for non-Australians to decipher their version of the Queen’s English and not miss many of the jokes that help to sell the message. More

Review of PARASITE (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
Comedy, crime thriller
2019, 132 min., Color
Universal
Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Korean DTS-HDMA 5.1 (or dubbed English 2.0)
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Parasite is a South Korean black comedy with English subtitles that was among my Top Five films for 2019, along with Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Knives Out, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), the Korean film focuses on a poor family that plots to sponge off of a rich family.

The structure is classic, with one small act leading to another, and another, growing larger each time. Before you watch, it’s okay to look up “parasite” in the dictionary and discover something like this: “an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense.” In fact, Bong counts on the association, if the audience is really going to appreciate his film. But if you’re not a fan of spoilers, stay away from the encyclopedia or specific case histories of certain parasites like mistletoe. Wait until after you’ve seen Parasite and then read up. It will make the film resonate all the more.

The Kim family struggles to get by. They live in a basement apartment in a crappy neighborhood where people urinate outside their window. The first hint of their parasitic nature is that they’re tapped into other people’s wifi. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), college-age son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and college-age daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) are all unemployed and have only temporary jobs that bring in just a little money as the family struggles to get by. More

Review of I GOT YOU BABE: THE BEST OF SONNY AND CHER (DVD)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
TV Variety
1971-74, 503 min. (10 episodes), Color
Time Life
Not rated (would be G; any innuendo will fly over the heads of youngsters)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+/A- (some great interviews and TV appearances)
Trailer
Amazon link

Fans of Sonny and Cher will be glad to add I Got You Babe: The Best of Sonny & Cher to their video collections. The five-disc set includes 10 episodes culled from the series’ four-year run (1971-75), and Time Life did a good job finding the best elements to use for the DVD transfer. As for the “best” picks, that will be a matter of fan taste. Included here are:

Season 1, Episode 1—guest star Jimmy Durante (air date 8-1-71)
Season 1, Episode 8—Tony Curtis, Dinah Shore (1-3-72)
Season 1, Episode 9—Carroll O’Connor (1-10-72)
Season 3, Episode 2—Jerry Lewis, The Supremes (9-22-72)
Season 3, Episode 11—Jim Brown, Bobby Vinton
Season 3, Episode 18—Jim Nabors (2-7-73)
Season 4, Episode 3 “The Sonny & Cher Years (Part 1)—retrospective featuring Chuck Berry, Ed Byrnes, Dick Clark, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Vinton, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons (9-26-73)
Season 4, Episode 11 “The Sonny & Cher Years (Part 2)—retrospective featuring Paul Anka, The Coasters, Peter Noone, Neil Sedaka, Wolfman Jack (11-28-73)
Season 4, Episode 22—Joe Namath, The Righteous Brothers (2-20-74)

From the ‘40s through the ‘70s variety shows were a dominant genre, and Ranker.com currently lists The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour as the 10th Greatest Variety Show in TV History. But to a TV audience that didn’t grow up with variety shows, their attraction can seem a mystery. It’s like going to see a live revue at a lounge—a circuit that Sonny & Cher played, actually, before they got this summer replacement TV series. There’s something slightly indulgent about variety shows, where a line-up of guest stars as predictable as those on TV game shows get to sing and do out-of-their-element comedy sketches and basically extend their careers, while the stars can do whatever they want. Sometimes they’re entertaining, and sometimes they’re not. Some variety shows are deliberately edgy (like SNL, which debuted in 1975) and some follow the format that had become standard: an opening number (if the host is a singer) or monologue (if a comic), followed by alternating sketches and musical numbers featuring the host and guest stars. More

Review of ICEMAN (1983) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No (but just about)
Sci-fi drama
1983, 100 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Rated PG (for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C+
Trailer unavailable
Amazon link

Like many kids these days, my son was really into dinosaurs. At age four he could identify most of the prehistoric creatures and even recite many of their scientific names.

Together we played with his dinosaur figures and watched all-things-prehistoric on TV and film, whether it was Disney’s Dinosaur, speculative documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, the Jurassic Park films, or animated adventures like The Land Before Time series. And if Kino Lorber had released Iceman on Blu-ray when my son was in his last few years of elementary school or junior high, I think he would have watched and enjoyed this 1983 drama as well.

Notice I didn’t say action-drama, because there’s not much in the way of action. Iceman is speculative storytelling for the junior scientist crowd and people who enjoy asking, “What if…?”

If dinosaurs could be cloned from DNA in Jurassic Park, and if whole preserved woolly mammoths can be found in Siberian permafrost with the hair still perfect as can be, what if a cave man was likewise discovered in a block of ice? And what if there was a miraculously plausible reason for his being not only well preserved, but also in what amounted to a state of suspended animation? What if he could actually be brought back to life after 40,000 years?

That’s the premise of Iceman, which stars Timothy Hutton as a scruffily bearded anthropologist who’s summoned to an arctic base after a research team discovers the body of a prehistoric man. They were going to dissect him and learn from him, but that plan changed when one of the scientists behind the surgical mask noticed brain activity. Before you know it they’re applying the paddles and bringing this Neanderthal back to life. Conveniently, this elaborate research station has a large biodome intended for studying bears, but when they revive the cave man they move those bears to cages and transfer the iceman to this controlled habitat.

Dr. Shephard (Hutton) gets free reign to study the cave man, and most of the film revolves around his attempts to communicate, to understand the man, and to interact with him. Lindsay Crouse plays the other main character, Dr. Diane Brady, while Danny Glover turns up as one of the crew and David Strathairn is among the doctors. Structurally, Iceman resembles Anne Sullivan’s attempts to get through to a wild and unfocused Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. More