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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.

In fact, given the quirky characters, the frequency of jokes, and Australian swearing (which seems equally funny), The Merger probably has more of a kinship with sports films like Major League and A League of Their Own. Yet, here too there’s a big difference. The baseball scenes are as familiar to Americans as the basketball scenes in Hoosiers. But how many films about Australian rules football have you seen? It’s fun watching how play unfolds in a game that might seem like a mystery to viewers. There’s no forward pass, everyone seems to be able to kick the ball, and there’s lots of tipping and batting the ball to each other and running while dodging tackles. And the scoring? To Americans it can seem as indecipherable as cricket scoring. But it is fun to watch.

Based on a one-man show by comedian Damian Callinan, The Merger was filmed in the New South Wales city of Wagga Wagga (Pop. 56,000), which looks much smaller onscreen until the final big game scene shot at a larger stadium. And it’s riddled with funny scenes and dialogue, many of them laugh-out-loud. Still, all of those jokes would hang like cheap suits on the characters if the acting was subpar, and thankfully this Mark Grentell film is well acted.

Callinan, who also wrote the screenplay, is surprisingly understated as Troy Carrington, a former Australian Football League star whose career ended with a grisly multiple fracture in one leg. Now he’s a low-key environmental activist whose activism has caused his hometown to shrink on the vine, and the people resent him for it, calling him “Town Killer.” He strikes just the right tone of self-deprecating humor and deadpan quirkiness (he makes his own very bad export wine at his parents’ old house, stomping grapes himself in an old cast-iron bathtub in his front yard). He’s instantly likable, and Neil (Rafferty Grierson)—the kid who wears a Roosters costume (the mascot of the local “footy” team) and keeps trying to film a documentary about the “dickhead” that used to be a footy star—is nowhere near as annoying as child actors too often tend to be. In fact, all of the actors in this film come across as both believable and quirky.

The sports plot gets complicated because the boy hasn’t been the same since his father died, and Grandpa “Bull” gets even angrier about Carrington coaching his old team when he begins to sense that Troy is worming his way (albeit unintentionally) into the hearts of his grandson and widowed daughter-in-law Angie (Kate Mulvany).

The Merger is the kind of film where I could spill the entire plot and you’d still enjoy it because of the performances and the Australian rules football and the humor and the strong pro-immigrant and pro-refugee message. The kids can get 20 lessons in diversity at school and still not get as full of an emotional feel for it as they would by watching this film. This is a gem of an indie pic, one that merits repeat play. The only caveat is that it takes some getting used to in order to understand all that’s being said, with the thick Australian accents and the Australian habit of using abbreviations for words, like “refo” for “refugee,” “footy” for “football,” etc. You’ll miss a few things in the early going, but you eventually develop an ear for it and can sit back and enjoy.

The Merger is, like The Sandlot, obviously intended as a film that the whole family could watch, if you’re okay with the language that would be PG if the film were rated. But understand that this is an adult team, not a little league team that’s the focus of the film.

Language: “Dickhead” and “shit” stand out the most, with “bugger” not even registering as a swearword by many Americans

Sex: Nothing at all, unless you count an old man’s buttocks briefly peering through the back of a hospital gown

Violence: Some rough tackles, but it’s the stories of violence that have plagued some of the immigrants that hit home

Adult situations: Some drinking and drinking chants, with a scene where one player tries to insist a Muslim take a drink

Takeaway: Reviewers kiss a lot of toads to find that prince of a movie, but when you find something like The Merger it all feels worth it

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 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

Review of GREGORY’S GIRL (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: No
Comedy-drama
1981, 91 min., Color
Film Movement
Rated PG (for adult situations, some language, and brief frontal nudity)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: 2.0 Digital Stereo
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

The Guardian called it “one of the most loved British films of all time.”

Time Out dubbed it “quirky and utterly endearing.”

The great Roger Ebert pronounced it “charming, innocent, very funny.”

And the critics were right. Gregory’s Girl is a sweet movie, a throwback to the even more wholesome ‘50s. But were ‘80s teens ever as sweet and innocent as they are in this BAFTA-winning film—one that Entertainment Weekly named #29 on their top 50 high school films? And how did one decade manage to have both the worst hair and the worst movie music? They’re both here on full display in this teen dramedy of the indie sort by Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero).

Now, almost 40 years later, watching John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory, a geeky hormone-driven teen who falls hard for the first female player on his school’s soccer team, it’s hard to believe Gregory and his pals are for real. Aside from a Porky’s moment in the opening scene when a group of boys hide in trees outside an apartment to spy on a local nurse as she undresses, Gregory’s Girl is a pretty tame coming-of-age film. And that’s not a bad thing.

Gregory’s crush is kind of sweet, and though Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) replaces him at sweeper, relegating him to netminder, he’s still effusively a fan of girls playing on the boy’s team and especially a fan of this particular girl. Hilariously, while Gregory is stuck standing alone in his team’s net at the other end, after Dorothy scores her first goal all of his teammates group-hug her.  And in that celebratory hug that never seems to end, a few kisses on the cheek are snuck in for good measure—some by opposing players as well, wanting to get in on the action. More

Review of THE ADDAMS FAMILY (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 87 min., Color
MGM / Universal
Rated PG for macabre and suggestive humor and some action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve been scratching my head over why The Addams Family 2019 animated feature film isn’t as entertaining as the original 1961 live-action television series.

Then again, there are probably better things I could do with my time. Feature films based on half-hour TV shows have a long history of limited success, with filmmakers either unable to capture the tone of the original or unable to expand the basic plot and premise to fill out the additional minutes. And films based on novelty sitcoms from the sixties have been particularly prone to bomb. I’m talking about feature-length versions of My Favorite Martian, The Jetsons, The Flintstones, Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Underdog. Even slightly better ones like The Brady Bunch movies and George of the Jungle were a mixed bag, with only Get Smart coming close to matching the success of the original half-hour series.

Writers Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler took an immediate wrong turn with an opening pre-title sequence in The Addams Family that has more in common with the Frankenstein sagas than the popular TV series inspired by the Charles Addams New Yorker cartoons that began appearing in 1938. Addams’ famous understated tongue-in-cheek humor is supplanted by more over-the-top gags and characters, wrapped up in an overly familiar plot. Yet, none of these things is necessarily the kiss of death, and The Addams Family isn’t a BAD film. It’s just not a very good one. For the most part it’s dull, and there aren’t enough moments to delight. What’s more, the TV Addams family’s charming obliviousness to how different they are from everyone else is replaced by a monsters vs. humans and us vs. them dynamic that’s far too common and clichéd. More

Review of THE WAR LORD (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
Action-Adventure, Drama
1965, 123 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG-13 for adult situations, brief nudity and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Of the dozen or so films set in medieval times that Hollywood made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, The War Lord stands out. It wasn’t another romanticized tale of knighthood like El Cid, Ivanhoe, The Black Knight, or Knights of the Round Table, and it wasn’t a dreamed-up biopic of a famous figure like Lady Godiva, Prince Valiant, Saint Joan, or Francis of Assissi. If a comparison had to be made, you’d have to say that it comes closest to The Vikings in its tone, spirit, and subject matter.

Like The Vikings, this 1965 Technicolor and Panavision feature from director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) is based on the conflicts between Normans and Frisian (Viking) raiders. But like The Vikings a good portion of the drama comes from internal conflicts unrelated to the main bouts. Unlike The Vikings or any of the films about knights, the life of a warrior is not romanticized, nor is medieval life. The castle in The War Lord is but a single tower, and it’s cold and drafty and in disrepair from previous sieges. There are no lute players or jesters, no feasts, and no life of leisure inside that small castle.

A typically wooden Charlton Heston stars not as a glamorous knight but as knight given a swampy place in the middle of Nowhere, Normandy to hold for his king. Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) relishes the appointment of Lord over all who live in this place, while the brother that accompanies him, Draco (Guy Stockwell) thinks it a mudhole fit only for pigs and heathens. Also accompanying Chrysagon is Bors (Richard Boone), a sidekick who’s fought by his side in the Crusades. More

Review of THE KNIGHT OF SHADOWS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
Action-Fantasy
2019, 109 min., Color
Well Go USA Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for crude humor and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1 Mandarin (and English dubbed) with English subtitles
Bonus features: C+ (better than the film!)
Trailer
Amazon link

If you look at the cover of The Knight of Shadows with its tagline “Martial Arts Fantasy Adventure” and see Jackie Chan and a serious-looking co-star in period garb, you’d think you’re in store for a serious adventure. You get a similar impression if you read the Imdb.com or Amazon.com description that the studio provided: “A legendary demon hunter (Jackie Chan), tracking down beasts that enter the human dimension, assisted by a lawman protégé and a motley group of friendly monsters.” Still promising, right? Even if you watch the official trailer, with its strange H.R. Pufnstuf-style characters, you never get the sense that silliness ever tries to hijack the film.

Then you watch the film and go, seriously?

Director Jia Yan tries to juggle the comedy and martial arts adventure, and if they were knives he’d still be in the emergency room getting stitched up. This is a film that lurches clumsily between Three Stooges silliness (three law enforcement officers in The Knight of Shadows do their best to ruin Moe, Larry, and Curly for future generations) and cartoonish creatures that are just poorly designed and clumsily integrated into the plot—as if Jia Yan looked at the first print and thought, “We have to do more with this film to attract small children.” Let’s put in a pig character, and a cross between a fairy and Groot, and a character whose only function is to talk about “farts” and throwing his own special brand of f-bombs here and there.

The influential Chinese website Douban gave The Knight of Shadows a 4.3 out of 10, and I’d have to say that my family and I had nearly the same reaction. I’d go ever-so-slightly higher because there are some wonderful serious action sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but make you wish that the director had chosen to go this route instead of trying to straddle the fantasy fanboy and Saturday morning cartoon audiences. More

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