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Review of THE STEAM ENGINES OF OZ (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
2018, 75 min., Color
Animation
Not rated (would be PG for violence)
Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

The Steam Engines of Oz is billed as a “steampunk” version of the L. Frank Baum classic, making it one of the more interesting revisionist updates to come out since The Wiz. But what is “steampunk,” and how does it play out in an adaptation of a beloved film classic?

As a subgenre of science fiction, “steampunk” is a blend of technology and Victorian images that fuses a cyberpunk sensibility with a celebration of vintage Industrial Age images and plots. After that, it’s anybody’s guess, as the term has morphed into a confusing number of mutations. But the bottom line is that it’s all about gears and goggles.

The bigger question is, Who is the audience for a steampunk version of The Wizard of Oz?

Since Oz is run by a sinister Tin Man, the lions are anything but cowardly, the munchkins look like Uzi-toting bikers, and at least one of the main characters from the children’s book has limbs cut off, it’s not exactly for small children.

Yet, small children would be the most forgiving of an animated style that’s inconsistently disappointing. Sometimes the animation flattens out into 2D, other times it has the same 3D CGI look of the Barbie franchise films, and still other times the action looks like a phone app version of a video game. The latter is the style that’s predominant throughout this wacky 79-minute animated adventure, which seems longer than that—never a good sign.

Call it The Wizard of Oz meets Mad Max and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, only instead of a naïve Dorothy visiting Oz it’s an underground dweller named Victoria who is tasked with keeping the underground machinery running that powers Oz. But this Oz is no Technicolor paradise. It has more factions than a political party, and Victoria (voiced by Julianne Hough) is recruited to help stop the Tin Man from destroying all the natural resources in his pursuit of profit and expansion. Yes, you can read this as an indictment of whatever government fits the bill, but it’s a film that needs a tighter focus and more quality control over the animation. What’s more, the narrative is as uneven as the animation.

Sometimes the film seems plodding, while at other times the action is quick-cut so that it takes a while to figure things out. Why, for example, are some of the lions walking on four legs and others dressed and walking on two? And what’s the deal with the Tin Man’s heart? Mostly, though, while other animated features hold viewers’ attention during such confusing periods because of the artwork and animation, there’s nothing here to visually delight. It’s all pretty mundane, and pretty crudely and cheaply done. Ron Perlman and William Shatner also provide voices, but they’re not given much to work with.

Though The Steam Engines of Oz isn’t rated, it would probably merit a PG for the adult elements I’ve mentioned. But fans of the original Wizard of Oz won’t find this as interesting as it sounds. In fact, it’s a little sad that what might have been a fun steampunk version turns out to be more pedestrianpunk . . . unless you’re high and making jokes as you watch this in a group. And let’s hope there aren’t a whole lot of families that fit that category.

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Review of TOMB RAIDER (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2018, 118 min., Color
Action-Adventure Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Critics didn’t care much for Tomb Raider. At Rotten Tomatoes the film earned just a 49 percent fresh rating with critics, while 60 percent of the audience liked it. That sounds terrible until you consider that the original 2001 film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, tallied just a 20 percent fresh rating and a 47 percent happy audience share.

The problem with Tomb Raider is that for all the action, for all the accomplished CGI and special effects work, and in spite of everything that Alicia Vikander does to shine on camera, the film is saddled with an origin story that feels a little heavy for a film adaptation of a video game. More tongue-in-cheek humor would have helped, but so would more a more original plot. When the end credits roll, you’re thinking, that was entertaining enough, but you can’t really escape the feeling that you’ve seen it all before.

That’s a little unsettling, because while Alastair Siddons is a relative newcomer, his co-screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet is signed up to work on screenplays for some pretty high-profile films: Captain Marvel (2019), Sherlock Holmes 3 (2020), and Dungeons & Dragons (2021). So Geneva, let me protect everyone’s interests moving forward by saying, please don’t take those films too seriously and try especially hard to come up with at least two action sequences that are both original and memorable—because I’ve already forgotten most of the action from Tomb Raider. And there’s no shortage of searching-for-lost-parent films, most of which manage to feel more original than this one—with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade coming instantly to mind.

Curiously, our family was split: the females thought it was worth a solid B, while the males (who had watched a bit more in the way of action/superhero films) were a little more jaded and gave it a C- or C. So that’s your break point. What do you want out of an action film?

Like the first Tomb Raider, this 2018 reboot was based on a video game—in this case the 2013 video game by the same name. The plot is simple: Lara (Vikander) decides to follow clues to the last known place where her long-lost father was seen, mostly out of curiosity but partly out of hope that he may still be alive. She goes to Hong Kong, where she finds a charter ship captain to take her into the Devil’s Sea and after the ship breaks up in a storm she’s washed ashore on the island of Yamatai. There she meets Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who is funded by an evil organization to locate the tomb of Himiko, a mythical queen who had power over life and death—the same thing that her father was trying to find. Predictably, Lara finds her father (Dominic West), and the two of them tangle with Vogel and the other Trinity forces in order to keep them from getting a power that could enable them to take over the world. I won’t say anything more except to note that while Lara gets her butt beaten way too many times, at least the third act plot twists are slightly more original, and they lead up to the point where the video games begin.

Vikander makes for a buff and earnest action hero, but it would fun to see her in a story that resonates more. This one felt too much like a Scooby-Doo feature-length film, with scenes that make you flash back to Indiana Jones, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, National Treasure, and others.  We’ve seen most of it before, and Vikander herself said that she was thinking, “’There’s not enough women, where are they?’ I was running around looking for them.” Aside from Kristin Scott Thomas, Vikander is the only other female main character, and neither of them is the feminist icon that Wonder Woman or the supporting cast of Black Panther projected. More than a lost father, that’s what this film’s hero should have been looking for, and maybe she’ll get another chance with a more original script. The final grade is a compromise among family members.

Language: Fewer than a dozen mild profanities, with one half-uttered f-bomb.
Sex: n/a
Violence: Lots of shooting, stabbing, choking, impaling
Adult situations: Some intoxication (which sets up a joke), a scary skeleton, and a part of that skeleton broken off
Takeaway: Vikander should have held out for a Marvel hero

Review of BLACK PANTHER (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A
Entire family:  No
2018, 134 min., Color
Sci-Fi action adventure
Marvel/Disney
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Everything you’ve heard about Black Panther is true. It is a contender for best film in the 18-title Marvel Universe.

Despite a 134-minute runtime, you don’t want this ride to end. You get caught up in the action because it isn’t just nonstop effects-driven nonsense with battles that go on too long. The action feels character-driven, and you care about these characters because they’re richly drawn, with so many of them—even the ones without a backstory— sympathetic because of their on-camera interactions and dialogue. That’s one huge thing this film has going for it. Instead of one big nefarious villain there are three antagonists, and that keeps viewers on their toes.

Another positive is the blend of technology and primitive mysticism—something that lends itself to the film’s visual style and may remind viewers of Avatar or Atlantis. We’re told that long ago a meteorite hit Africa and the rare metal it was made of—Vibranium—had powers that allowed the Wakandans to develop a technologically advanced civilization. Because they feared other nations would try to steal or abuse the Vibranium, they created a deceptive shield to hide their futuristic world so that, to outsiders, Wakanda would appear to be just another poor Third World country. In the past, an adventurer-physicist named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, unrecognizable as always) discovered the secret world, stole some Vibranium, and was responsible for the death of T’Chaka, their king and Black Panther. Klaue is at it again, hooking up with other baddies as he tries to penetrate Wakandan security, defeat the new Black Panther, and profit from their technological secrets.

If you have flashbacks to Avatar, Atlantis, The Lion King, Tarzan, or even early James Bond films and Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, you’re probably not alone. There are archetypes at work here that surfaced in all of those films, and the multi-referential aspect adds an additional layer of interest. And while too many superhero plots can seem like exercises in confusion, Black Panther is neither muddled nor insultingly obvious.

Chadwick Boseman debuted as T’Challa, the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War (2016), and that’s very much in the Marvel tradition. His comic-book counterpart first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966. Though Lee has denied any political inspiration, it should be noted that the black panther was the symbol of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization that formed in Alabama in 1965 and sought power in numbers by increasing the black vote. Three months after the comic book debuted, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland as a black nationalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist whose first order of business was to arm themselves as a deterrent against police brutality. And this film begins with one of the Wakandans working undercover in Oakland, with an anti-isolationist message embedded in the screenplay.

Even if you don’t pick up on the politics, it’s refreshing to have a predominantly black cast in a film that isn’t an indie drama or slavery tome. Boseman is terrific as the Black Panther, but Lettitia Wright also kills it as his younger sister Shuri, and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira are equally wonderful as a spy/quasi-love interest and the head of special forces/bodyguards, respectively. Also look for Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best friend, Martin Freeman cast slightly against type as the Felix Leiter of this bunch, a CIA operative who’s taken into T’Challa’s confidence, and Michael B. Jordan who rivals His Airness for hang time as a former Black Ops soldier and long-lost cousin of T’Challa. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and maybe because there also doesn’t seem to be a limp line of dialogue anywhere to be found. This one was meant to be seen in 4K or Blu-ray so you can appreciate all the detail. It’s a great choice for family movie night. Director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) has created a film that’s so wonderful it’s bound to get repeat play and well worth adding to your home video libraries. It’s a positive film on so many counts, too. Though the title character is a man, Black Panther is really a film that emphasizes the power and equal status of women, and these days that message is more powerful than the herb that gives the BP his superstrength.

Language: A few “shits” and a middle finger salute, but that’s it
Sex: n/a
Violence: Because we care about the characters the violence seems more intense; people are impaled, cut, shot and slashed, though the cameras turn away from initial blood rather than lingering; a big battle has the usual big-battle violence
Adult situations: One scene takes place in a bar, where whiskey is ordered
Takeaway: What makes this film seem more intense than the other Marvel entries is also what makes it the best: we care more about all of these characters, and so we care more about what happens to them

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

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

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