Review of A STAR IS BORN (2018) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2018, 136 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link

Here’s another R-rated movie that families with teens are going to want to watch, because Lady Gaga is the female lead. And A Star Is Born is a good one, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture—though Bradley Cooper reportedly said he was “embarrassed” not to get a Best Director nomination.

Well Brad, you’re not the only one. The directors of Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Black Panther share your pain. But hey, Lady Gaga got the nom for Best Actress, and you for Best Actor, Sam Elliott for Best Supporting Actor, Lady Gaga et alia for Best Original Song (“Shallow”), plus nominations for Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography? Come on, Brad. Eight Oscar nominations for your first directed feature isn’t anything to be embarrassed about.

Plus, you coaxed a whole new generation into watching the story of two people meeting and loving, one whose career is on the way up, and the other whose career is on the way down . . . because of drink and drugs. In 1937 it was Janet Gaynor and Fredric March who paired up in a story about actors in Hollywood, then in 1954 it was Judy Garland and James Mason in what was less a romance than a mentoring tale of an aging alcoholic film star helping a young actress find fame. The switch to music came in 1976, when Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson paired off. And last year young people went to see what, at it’s core, is still a thirties’ melodrama just because Lady Gaga and you were in it!

Lady Gaga is a revelation and you’re great too, though sometimes it’s hard to tell whether your character, Jackson, is an aging rock star on the decline or a country star. I guess it doesn’t matter. But in all honesty, the biggest flaw is when the melodrama pokes through in spots, and younger viewers especially will think, That was cheesy. There were enough of those moments to notice. Yet, you and Lady Gaga were so good together that we forgive those bits of cheese. And despite some predictability and maybe going just a teensy bit overboard in the Grammy scene, your version may well be the best of all the Star Is Borns. So yeah, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

Our family really liked the film, though of course no one likes a sad ending. As with Bohemian Rhapsody it was an effective blend of performance, backstage, and private lives drama, but that last phase of a downward spiral is tough to depict. If you spend too much time on it the melodrama starts to take over and ooze more sappiness; spend too little and it can seem rushed. Here too, I think you didn’t quite hit the mark, because the third-act alcohol-and-drugs decline felt like more of a Tower of Terror elevator drop than downward spiral. Apart from these main criticisms I really don’t have any other bad things to say about your film.

That’s not too shabby, considering your first directing gig was a stalled project that you inherited from Clint Eastwood, who had inherited it from Nick Cassavetes. But casting Lady Gaga was a stroke of genius. She’s wonderful, the latest in a long line of singers and dancers who proved that they are “triple threats.” As Jackson Maine’s “discovery” she shines, and clearly revives him for a while before playing second fiddle starts to get to him and he returns to old, destructive habits.

Does our family think it’s a Best Picture winner? I’m afraid not. You picked a tough year to debut behind the camera. There are a lot of worthy contenders, but we still favor Bohemian Rhapsody. It just crackled with more originality and a bit more energy and intensity, even in the downturns. Maybe that’s the problem of trying to revive and remake a classic film. Maybe it’s the material you had to work with—which is why the first act is infinitely more interesting than the second or third. How Jack and Ally meet, come together, and grow together is really where this film flourishes. But as I said, what you did was really good. Really.

Language: Mainly responsible for the R rating, as there are probably over a 150 swearwords, including tons of f-bombs

Sex: Two sex scenes but with nothing graphic shown, plus a shared bathtub scene with VERY brief nudity and a shot of Lady Gaga in the blurred distance standing in the shower that’s onscreen for a fraction of a second

Violence: One punch is thrown, but really it’s a tame movie in this department

Adult situations: LOTS of drinking and drugs, as this is, after all, a story of one rock star’s struggle with addiction

Takeaway: Looks like we’ve got another Clint Eastwood in the making, with Cooper’s directing debut accomplished enough that most people are already looking forward to his next project, Bernstein



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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 99 min., Color
Rated PG for some mild peril
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link

This is one time when Disney should have stuck to the original story. People familiar with the beloved Tchaikovsky ballet, based on an 1816 tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman, won’t see much they recognize in this 2018 film.

In the ballet, a wealthy European family celebrates Christmas with a party at their mansion, to which other families have been invited. The children’s godfather Drosselmeyer, a toymaker, brings a Nutcracker doll for young Clara, which brother Fritz breaks. It’s that broken Nutcracker, tucked under her arm, that leads Clara to dream of battles between a Mouse King and soldiers led by the Nutcracker, and of exotic delights and doll dances in The Land of the Sweets—all colorfully rendered onstage in a production that’s become a beloved holiday classic.

But why in the world would a film company known for injecting music into its films skimp on the music for this one? Though the ballet is magical and Disney has a reputation for creating magic, Tchaikovsy’s music and the magic get lost in the second act, which bogs down in exposition and familiarity.

Oh, the magic returns at the end and it’s there for the opening, where viewers get caught up in the excitement and grandeur of a 19th-century ball on Christmas Eve, backed by strains (albeit songs out of order) of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. But Disney being Disney, they couldn’t keep themselves from killing off Clara’s mother, so the film begins on bit of a downer as their morose father tries to get through his first Christmas without his beloved wife. Disney also felt compelled to make Clara a princess—how else could they market her?—and because the latest trend in princesses is to empower them, Disney decided to make her a science whiz and inventor. More

Review of THE ROAD TO EL DORADO (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2000, 89 min., Color
Animation adventure-comedy
Rated PG for mild thematic material and language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Amazon link

It’s hard to believe that it took almost 19 years for The Road to El Dorado to be released on Blu-ray, because it’s one of the best non-Disney animated films made during that period. With original songs by Elton John and solid direction from Bibo Bergeron (Shark Tale) and Don Paul (visual effects supervisor on Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Pocohontas), it’s a sure-footed adventure comedy that sure should have made more money at the box office than it did.

Kids will be taken in by the colors, the music, the action, and the humor, yet there’s enough here that will go over their heads and straight to the adults who are familiar with the classic Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour “road” pictures. The Road to El Dorado is as wonderful a homage to those classic comedies as Ishtar (with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as the adventurers) was an insult.

Set in 1519 Spain, The Road to El Dorado begins as many of the old road pictures did: showing the two men (in this case, Kevin Kline as Tulio and Kenneth Branagh as Miguel) doing what they do best, and that’s trying to work a con but narrowly escaping an angry mob. If the banter and the guarded closeness isn’t a tip-off that we’ve entered Hope and Crosby land, then the gambit they use (a pretend fight, ending with both of them punching out the man who’s threatening them) ought to jog a few memories.

After they’re caught cheating at dice and end up hiding in barrels that get hoisted into the cargo hold of Cortes’ ship, they escape in a rowboat with a little help from Cortes’ horse, Altivo. Armed with a treasure map that they “won” in the dice game, they realize that they’ve landed at the starting point leading to El Dorado, the fabled city of gold that Cortes also seeks. More

Review of I AM NOT A WITCH (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (but a short film included IS suitable for all)
2017, 93 min., Color
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG for some cruelty and adult situations; short film is G)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English, Bemba, Nyanja, and Tonga with English subtitles
Bonus features: B+ (Mwansa the Great, 23 min.)
I Am Not a Witch trailer
Mwansa the Great trailer
Amazon link

When I was growing up, National Geographic was a popular flip-through at doctors’ offices because children had a strong curiosity about how their counterparts lived in other countries. Around the same time, teachers were providing us with names and addresses of children from different nations, encouraging us to communicate with pen pals who lived on the other side of the world. The correspondences usually lasted only a few months and sometimes a year, but we got some sense of other lifestyles that way, too. And on TV, we watched travel shows like Lowell Thomas’s High Adventure, where he took us to exotic places to show how other people lived. I can’t help but wonder, for all the time today’s children spend on the Internet, Do they access similar points of contact that would give them a broader sense of the world?

If not, then a film like I Am Not a Witch has even greater value than as a well-crafted film that earned a BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. It’s also as an eye-opening look at life in rural Zambia, where we meet an eight-year-old girl who’s accused of being a witch after witnessing a minor mishap. That’s right, a witch, like those poor women from the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—an event that would become a blot on America’s past. This film from Rungano Nyoni may have comic moments, but what viewers mostly witness is young Shula’s reality, and that reality should shock and touch viewers young and old.

Nyoni based her screenplay on real stories of women in Zambia who were accused of being witches and subsequently sent to witch camps, which Nyoni researched in the African nation of Ghana. With a gentle tone and matter-of-fact storytelling, the film plays out like a fable. But because the young girl accepts her fate so stoically, it also feels like an understated slice of Zambian life with undertones that suggest Nyoni may be poking fun of western cultures who have no idea witch camps exist. More

Review of THE CAPTAIN (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (age 14 and up?)
2017, 120 min., Black and White
War drama (w/dark comic moments)
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be R for language, violence, some nudity)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: German 5.1 Dolby Digital
Bonus features: B
Amazon link

The Captain (2017) isn’t a movie for kids. Then again, neither is Schindler’s List, which my daughter saw in her 10th grade history class during their discussion of the holocaust.

Both are films that stay with you, and for the same reason: mass executions by Germans during WWII. Except that The Captain isn’t a holocaust film. Set in Germany during the final months of the war, it’s based on the true story of Willi Herold, who became separated from his unit and may or may not have deserted. In the film, as in real life, he stumbles onto an abandoned staff car in which he finds a suitcase containing the uniform of a Luftwaffe captain. After celebrating his good fortune he dons the uniform. And putting it on and acting the part begins to have the same effect on him as the ring did on Gollum.

Shot in black and white in German with English subtitles, The Captain is a fascinating film, and not just because it’s so totally different from all the other WWII films that depict the battles, struggles, and individual stories of bravery and survival. It’s also a provocative psychological study. We wonder:

Is it the uniform and the role-playing that makes this corporal suddenly behave like a sadistic German officer? Is it another example of the intoxicating effect that power has? Is it an individual pursuit of irony, with Willi getting back at life for almost having him executed as a deserter by embracing some deserters and “lost” soldiers as his own private army but choosing to execute others? Is Willi the victim of PTSD, or is he representative of what happens when soldiers realize their side has lost and order and discipline start to break down? Did the situation bring out the evil in him, as it did with the British schoolchildren in Lord of the Flies? Or was Willi evil from the start, and the universe just provided him with a chance for that evil to come out? More


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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2018, 320 min. (12 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be PG for some language)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

It’s a nice idea—profiling highly successful people to try to nail down what it was that made the difference—but Breaking Big ultimately is more fascinating than it is a template for how to break big yourself.

For this PBS biographical series, host Carlos Watson sought out and interviewed phenomenally successful people who had a breakthrough moment that made all the difference in the world. Featured here are all 12 celebrities from Season 1:

—South African comedian Trevor Noah, whose quick rise landed him the plum job of Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show.

—Restaurateur, TV host, and author Eddie Huang (Fresh off the Boat), who turned a passion for cooking and his Asian-American upbringing into a best selling book and other successes.

Danai Gurira, a Zimbabwe native whose play about her African heritage brought her acclaim and led to roles on The Walking Dead and Black Panther.

Jason Aldean, who trusted his nonstandard rock-infused approach to country music and made it big. More

Review of MURDER BY DEATH (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (13 and up?)
1976, 94 min., Color
Shout! Factory
Rated PG for some language and crude/sexual references
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C
Amazon link

It’s not often that you hear of a TV comedy writer who goes on to become one of his generation’s most successful playwrights, but that’s what happened with Neil Simon, who started by writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and became the toast of Broadway for two decades, during which he produced such long-running plays as Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park, and, most famously, The Odd Couple.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Murder by Death has a very staged feel to it, with many of the scenes performed in a single dining room at a neogothic mansion. Typical of Simon, the humor is also the gentle kind, with plenty of verbal and conceptual jokes that make you smile . . . and occasionally laugh out loud. But this murder-mystery comedy was produced in 1976, two years after fellow Sid Caesar writer Mel Brooks amused audiences with the irreverent Blazing Saddles. You could do things like that back in the ‘70s, when Archie Bunker was TV’s undisputed king of non-political correctness. Now? Not so much.

Simon’s clever Murder by Death pokes fun of the mystery genre and also lampoons the great detectives in pop literature and movies. The premise is simple: an eccentric named Lionel Twain who lives at 22 Twain, invites the world’s best detectives to “dinner and a murder.” Once they get past the blind butler (Alec Guinness) and deaf-and-dumb cook (Nancy Walker) and are seated in the dining room, Twain announces that at midnight there will be a murder—someone in this very room will die, and he challenges them to crack this case. His motive? Twain wants to prove that he’s more brilliant than the world’s most brilliant detectives.

James Coco is Milo Perrier, a character obviously that’s based on and pokes fun of Hercule Poirot, while Peter Falk plays hardboiled Sam Spade clone Sam Diamond, Elsa Lanchester is Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple), David Niven and a very young Maggie Smith are Dick and Dora Charleston (The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles), and Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), who’s accompanied this time by an adopted Number 3 son from Japan. It’s the Chan character—with a Caucasian playing an Asian speaking in pidgin English and offering up fortune cookie advice—that contemporary audiences might find cringe-worthy, as are the original Charlie Chan B-movies in which European-Americans always played the Chinese detective. But like a good satirist or caricaturist, Simon identifies the prominent traits of each detective and plays them for laughs—including stereotypes. More

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