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Review of STUFFED (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)
Documentary

Stuffed sounds like it could be a Thanksgiving-themed film for foodies, but it’s actually a documentary about taxidermy. You know: stuffing dead animals, birds, and fish for display. And if you’re wondering who would be interested in a movie like that, you’re not alone. As we watched, we wondered the same thing.

I was interested because my age lines up with one of the senior taxidermists interviewed in this 84-minute documentary. She noted that their generation of taxidermists got their start as children by taking a taxidermy correspondence course where the lessons came in installments, by mail. I took that very same course and remember looking for fresh road kill squirrels or pigeons, then trying to peel away the skin, remove the body, replace it with a mess of wires and sisal, and sew it up again. That was the era when kids were as fascinated by museum dioramas as they were ventriloquism and magic. So as someone who was a complete failure as an adolescent taxidermist, I watched Stuffed with nostalgic interest and admiration for those who can actually do this, and do it well.

Stuffed pretty much explains why I was unable to create lifelike taxidermy mounts. Taxidermy, as this film aptly illustrates, requires the talents of a naturalist, a craftsman, and an artist. As it turned out, I didn’t have an ounce of Picasso in me. So for an audience of up-and-coming generation of potential taxidermists, the film drives home the point that taxidermy is mostly an art that also requires the mindset and calculations of a scientist, the exacting talent of a sculptor and painter, and the passion of a naturalist.

Yet, young people today are eco-savvy, so I’m not sure that they’d respond well to parts of this film that show hipster taxidermists creating “rogue” mounts that are not true to nature and are done for fun or pure artistic license. They also might cringe when taxidermists who cater to the hunter-fisherman crowd talk about how hunters and fishermen are the biggest conservationists. If that were true, wouldn’t they have a different voting record than they do? Overall, though, director Erin Derham gives us a nice cross-section of different types of taxidermists and features as many women as men.

I rather imagine today’s young people with any fascination with taxidermy would be more drawn to the taxidermists shown here who work at museums and are dedicated to preserving creatures that have died of natural causes—ones who work in this profession because they appreciate the beauty of nature and want to preserve these creatures for future generations. I missed seeing one of Chicago’s most beloved Great Apes, for example, but when Bushman died a year after I was born I was able to appreciate his grandness at the Field Museum, thanks to a talented taxidermist. There’s a segment here that really captures that important function of taxidermy, when we see a famed and beloved tortoise who died of natural causes in captivity mounted so that he is forever preserved for people to remember and admire.

It might be a matter of personal taste, but my son and I most enjoyed this documentary when the filmmakers focused on how dedicated the taxidermists were to not just “stuffing” the animal but trying to capture its personality. That meant making detailed drawings of the animal from film, talking with trainers, and studying photos and the physiology of others of the same species. And it meant spending many more hours than I was willing to dedicate to the art as a youngster.

Some of the most interesting segments of Stuffed focus on the interactions that taxidermists have with live animals, as well as a segment on Carl Akeley, who’s acknowledged as the father of contemporary taxidermy and renowned for his contributions to the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He was the one who brought habitat design to exhibits featuring taxidermy mounts, and the one whose efforts sparked great interest in nature and conservation. His earliest diorama can still be seen at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and those who know of P.T. Barnum and Barnum’s famed “Jumbo” the elephant might find it of interest that Akeley and William J. Critchley were the taxidermists who mounted Jumbo, which was displayed at Tufts University for many years before it was destroyed in a fire.

To be sure, Stuffed will have a limited audience, and it would seem to be mostly for the hardcore naturalists and people who have always admired taxidermy mounts and wondered what all goes into each one. Spoiler alert: a lot.

Entire family: No (limited appeal)
Run time: 84 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 1.85 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
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Review of JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Fantasy Action-Adventure

Before I offer my family’s take on Jumanji: The Next Level, I’d like to point out that the Internet Movie Database readers thought it was almost as good as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (6.8 vs. 6.9/10) and 87 percent of the audience at Rotten Tomatoes rated them dead even.

Our family’s reaction came closer to the Tomatometer Critics, who gave it a 71 percent “fresh” rating compared to the 76 percent rating they had given Welcome to the Jungle. We didn’t think it was as good.

Welcome to the Jungle effectively used the Breakfast Club formula of grouping different teen personalities together so that we knew, by the time they entered the game, what they were afraid of, what they most wanted, and how they acted normally, so we could appreciate their every movement as an avatar within the game that had sucked them inside. The writing was crisp and it all made sense.

This time, though, the beginning is slow and which characters are which avatars is a bit muddled. When we watch Spencer (Alex Wolff) drag through some pre-game scenes that are supposed to explain why he goes back into the game, those scenes seem unnecessary because they don’t really offer much in the way of an explanation. They just slow the narrative. Same with the introduction of Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged business partner Milo (Danny Glover). The camera time they get feels wasted, given DeVito’s and Glover’s talents. You find yourself thinking, “Come on, get on with it.” More

Review of 1917 (Blu-ray combo)

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1917 Blu-ray coverGrade: A-/B+
Rated: R
War

1917 was one of my top five films of 2019, and after the awards show dust cleared it emerged with three Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing), three Golden Globes (Best Picture-Drama, Best Director, Best Original Score), and seven BAFTA Awards (Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Best Director, Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects, and Cinematography).

It’s a striking film that’s a contender for family movie nights if the children are older, despite the R rating, because it’s a war film with an underlying antiwar theme that doesn’t rely too heavily on bloody carnage to get its message across. This unique film from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins features just two soldiers on a mission that begins to feel like a fantasy quest, given the surreal landscape and dangers and delights they encounter. The ground they cover is a recently abandoned battle zone, so while there’s little actual fighting, the effects of war pop up here and there in horror-thriller fashion as sobering reminders—hence the R rating.

Long takes make it feel as if the film was made with just two continuous shots, with a brief blackout in the middle. You realize how different this film is from other war movies almost instantly, as it opens with a shot of two soldiers lolling in a bucolic countryside in a pose vaguely reminiscent of the one that Alice strikes at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. But when one of the two soldiers, named Blake, is summoned and told to pick another and report to the commander and the camera follows them, it’s a long tracking shot through the trenches that leads them to their reverse Wonderland, and not a rabbit hole. That sensation is supported by a later episode in which one of the soldiers helps a French woman in hiding by calming her baby and reciting an Edward Lear poem to the infant—a poem called “The Jumblies.” And of course there are no wondrous creatures in this surreal world—just dead bodies, rats, a few of the enemy, and a number of close calls. More

Review of THE RARE BREED (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Not rated (would be PG)
Western

Every now and then a different kind of western rides into town, and in 1966 it was The Rare Breed. The title was meant to refer not only to the Hereford steer a recently widowed English woman (Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter (Juliet Mills) brought to St. Louis to cross-breed with Texas longhorns, but also the tough old cowboy (James Stewart) they enlist to help them.

There are no Indians in this film, no cattlemen feuding with farmers, no gunslingers out to prove themselves, no saloons full of card sharps, no cavalry riding to the rescue, and no aging sheriff trying to keep it together while keeping order. There’s also very little violence, so The Rare Breed is rare for a western as well. After working with Stewart in the poignant Civil War western Shenandoah, director Andrew McLaglen dipped his bucket into the comedy well again, though it’s not as brimming as an earlier raucous film he made with O’Hara and John Wayne (McLintock!). This one isn’t a slam-bang action movie, though there are strategically placed moments of action and tension. With a minimalist plot, The Rare Breed is more of a character study, a slow-simmering romance, and a light-hearted western that’s offbeat enough to make it seem refreshingly different.

“Bulldog” Burnett (Stewart) is a complicated man. He’s a man of principles, you can instantly tell, but what principles? The epitome of the never-fazed stoic cowboy, he knows when to mind his own business and, in the spirit of American exceptionalism, tends to look out for Number 1. When a Hereford breeding bull named Vindicator (that only responds to a whistled version of “God Save the Queen”) is bought by a man representing a Scottish rancher (Brian Keith), the widow hires Burnett to deliver the bull. Pretty straightforward, right? Except that Burnett also accepts money from another rancher to allow his men to steal the bull at an opportune time. Call it the cowboy version of the Black Sox throwing the series. More

Review of PLAYMOBIL: THE MOVIE (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Rated: PG
Animation

Given the success of the Lego movies, one thing that’s surprising about Playmobil going Hollywood is that it took them so long. The other thing is that there aren’t any Native Americans or knights in this film, and those were among the very first Playmobil sets.   But hey, Ancient Rome is here, and so are Playmobil pirates, cowboys, Vikings, spies, robots, a T-Rex, and a food truck operator.

Yep, it’s pretty random, and while the fun lies in seeing these Playmobil sets come alive on the big screen, Playmobil: The Movie can feel a bit like a screenwriter’s challenge: see how many different Playmobil sets you can jam into a single film. And while the Lego movies’ bread and butter was pop culture allusions and verbal humor, this Playmobil film relies more heavily on sight gags.

As a result, it can feel more like a film aimed at children than adults—but this film for children has secret agent Rex Dasher (Daniel Radcliffe) sipping a martini that’s shaken, not stirred. It also features people being drugged or roofied, a kick to the groin, bales of pink hay that feel like an allusion to marijuana bales. And there are battles where swordplay and fisticuffs and explosions up the ante from children’s typical pretend play of knocking figures down with rubber bands or Nerf guns. More

Review of NE ZHA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Not Rated (would be PG-13)
Animated fantasy-adventure

The ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang (light/dark, positive/negative) is at the heart of Ne Zha, an animated feature film from Chinese director Jiaozi that shuns the harsh angularity of anime in favor of the rounded contours that typically characterize western animation.

In fact, there are moments in this 3D computer animated fantasy when you might find yourself thinking of Disney’s more traditionally rendered Mulan, especially when a governor named Li Jing (Hao) is drawn in the same style as a younger version of Mulan’s father. The governor and Madam Yin (Qi) learn that the Primeval Lord of Heaven has decided that they will be the ones to raise one half two beings that came from the Heavenly Pearl. The other half is being raised and controlled by the Dragon King, who seems determined to prove that even the good offspring of the Primeval Lord of Heaven can be used for evil purposes.

But of the two, Nezha is the hellraiser. In fact, the full Chinese title of the film translates as “Birth of the demon child Nezha.” He’s like Dennis the Menace and Stitch rolled into one—a little fireball that his doting parents love, nonetheless, and want to protect. Because of his temperament and frankly evil laugh, he’s ostracized by his community, and probably justifiably so. I mean, he is prophesized to bring destruction to the world, so why would people cozy up to him? But eventually the community learns they have to count on him. More

Review of DARK WATERS (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Rated PG-13
Investigative legal drama

Dark Waters sounds like the title of a missing person case or murder mystery, and quite literally that’s what this legal drama turns out to be. It’s also based on a true story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, who in 1998 was a newly minted partner at a Cincinnati, Ohio law firm that specialized in defending chemical companies. But one day a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia brings a box of VHS tapes to his office. Bilott is ready to brush him off until the man says he knows Bilott’s grandmother. As a result, Billot drives to Parkersburg to investigate. There he sees a lot of unsettling things, ranging from blackened teeth to a mass burial site for cattle, close to 200 of which died after suddenly acting crazy. The farmer shows him more. Convinced there’s something going on, Bilott agrees to look into it.

This film traces his investigation into DuPont’s use of the dangerous chemical they labeled C-8 (used in Teflon) and the backlash Bilott faced, both personally and professionally. On the home front, for example, he had only been married for several years to his wife Sarah (Jane Hathaway) when he took the case, and at one point in the film, after his obsession starts to rival Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale, we see how close to the breaking point everyone is. It was no better for those in Parkersburg who came forward to testify against DuPont—the biggest employer and community benefactor in the area.

Dark Waters does a nice job of showing the dilemma that communities face: Can you really bit the hand that feeds you? Can you really choose between jobs, or health? If you do anything to sabotage the corporation, you also sabotage the community or your own family. Yet, one worker in the film tells how his brother got hired at DuPont and died two years later of testicular cancer, leaving behind three small boys. How important was his job? This film tells the stories of the victims of corporate greed and the heavier prices that they all pay. More

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