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Review of OVERCOMER (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
Christian sports drama
2019, 119 min., Color
Sony Pictures
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Overcomer is the latest inspirational Christian film from brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, with Alex serving once again as director and also starring. Like the others before it—Flywheel (2003), Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011), and War Room (2015)—there’s frequent mention of God and prayer. Unlike the others, there are quite a few come-to-Jesus moments rather than a single pivotal one. That’s not a criticism, mind you. It’s a fact. If you’re put off by preachy films (“You were created to know and worship Him”), then you won’t want to buy or stream this one.

But it’s also a fact that the Kendrick brothers keep improving. The writing is a little more polished, the camerawork has grown stronger, and there are more sophisticated shots—some, in this film, using drones. The overall production values are far superior as well, the result of a $5 million budget (compared to the $20,000 budget the Kendricks had to work with for their first film). While the brothers’ early films mostly cast members of their Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia (where Kendrick was an associate pastor), they’ve graduated to using more professional actors . . . and that also help to elevate the overall quality. This time there’s also a killer soundtrack, with the highlight a song (“You Say”) by Grammy- and American Music Awards-winner Lauren Daigle.

What further elevates this film is a more savvy sense of potential audiences. Some of the earlier Kendrick brothers’ films felt like simple parables that followed the same facile conversion/resolution that readers encounter in the Bible—a Saul-to-Paul transformation that begins close to rock bottom and pivots to salvation after the subject finds Jesus. Overcomer is a little more sophisticated than that, insomuch as it juggles a number of conversions or reconversions of people who are at different stages of life and belief. As preachy films go, this one has more plotting and interest.

Kendrick, a marginally passable actor, plays John Harrison, a history teacher and basketball coach at Brookshire Christian School who prioritizes basketball above all else in his life. Shari Rigby plays Amy, his wife who thinks he should be more involved with their sons’ lives apart from basketball—though not enough, apparently, for the filmmakers to make the boys more than window dressing. Priscilla Shirer, meanwhile, plays Principal Brooks, who insists that John take over coaching the Cross-Country Team after their whole town downsizes following a massive plant lay-off and his basketball team is decimated. What follows is as predictable as Hoosiers and almost as rousing.

John’s focus soon shifts to Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson), an orphan raised by her grandmother. Hannah is the only student to show up for Cross-Country try-outs. Asthma and all, she’s his entire team. It’s a little troublesome that the Kendricks felt that they had to make this African American girl a thief, especially when her thievery isn’t really integral to the plot. She squirrels away her stolen items rather than using them, but the reason for doing so is never revealed—just as we never know why John remarks that he put his watch down and now it’s gone, but never looks for it or questions where it went until she presents it to him later (you knew it would happen). It’s also unfortunate that the Kendricks felt compelled to make an old blind African American man a former drug addict, so that the only criminal elements in the film were ascribed to black characters. But I suppose it’s good that the Kendricks included African Americans as major characters at all, rather than just slipping them in as token extras. The principal is black, and they get points for having the blind man, Thomas (Cameron Arnett), be the one to help John see that he wasn’t focusing enough on Christ.

Young viewers might be able to identify with Hannah, middle-age viewers with John and his wife, and older viewers with Thomas. All three generations at different stages of life wrestle with problems that are solved by accepting Jesus, and while it happens most movingly with Hannah it’s the Yoda-like wisdom of Thomas and his relationship with Hannah, not John’s, that emerges as the subplot that generates the most interest and gets the Christian message across in a more subtle and palatable way. If the Kendricks figure out how to follow Thomas’s lead in future films, they might be able to take the next leap and create faith-based films that don’t whack people over the head with a Bible or hymnal.

Review of THE SIMPSONS: SEASON 19 (DVD)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2007-08, 440 min. (20 episodes), Color
Animation
Not rated (would be PG for some drinking, smoking, and adult situations)
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: 4 discs, booklet
Intro sample
Amazon Link

It’s almost unfathomable to think that a TV series that first aired in 1989 would still be on the air, but The Simpsons keeps chugging happily along and shows no signs of slowing down. With the 31st season in progress, it’s the longest running TV sitcom and also the longest running scripted primetime TV show.

Cartoonist Matt Groening struck gold with this series about a nuclear power plant worker who’s so dumb you’d swear there’s a leak at the plant. Then again, there might be something to that. In Springfield, where nuclear power is the big employer in town, the stream has multi-headed fish and everyone and everything in town is just a little strange—whether it’s hyper-Christian Ned Flanders, dumb-as-a-baton Chief Wiggum, Marge Simpson’s blue hair, or the Simpsons’ deep yellow pallor that tip you off.

Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) is part Archie Bunker, part Al Bundy, and part Rain Man, and his clueless but try-anything demeanor gets him into all sorts of escapades, sometimes with his über-delinquent son Bart (Nancy Cartwright). Marge (Julie Kavner) is Homer’s long-suffering wife, while daughter Lisa (Yeardley Smith) somehow managed to beat the family’s gene pool to be born brainy and ambitious. Cartoon families are fun because no one ever ages, and the baby Maggie keeps sucking on her pacifier year after year. Bartender Moe (Hank Azaria) also never ages, nor does Flanders (Harry Shearer), Wiggum (Azaria), Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu (Azaria), Principal Skinner (Shearer), bully Nelson Muntz (Cartwright), teacher Edna Krabappel (Marcia Wallace), or Bart’s friend Milhouse (Pamela Hayden).

The animated show’s success can be attributed to three things: engaging characters, sharp writing, and a steady diet of topical humor and pop culture allusions that keep the writing (and the writers) fresh. In fact, The Simpsons itself is such a cultural phenomenon that celebrities have eagerly been a part of various episodes. This season falls into what many consider the Simpsons’ golden era before the style of animation changed. And the titles alone tell you how much fun the writers had with pop culture this season. More

Review of THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
1954, 97 min., Color
Western
Not rated (would be PG for some violence, drinking, smoking, and adult situations)
Arrow Video
Aspect ratio: 2.00:1, 1.85:1
Featured audio: LCPM Mono
Bonus features: B-
Includes: two Blu-ray discs, booklet
Trailer
Amazon link

When people think of James Stewart they think of the pictures he made with Frank Capra, or, in later years, Alfred Hitchcock. But in the early 1950s Stewart teamed with director Anthony Mann on eight films that made his screen persona edgier and more ambiguous. Five of those films were Westerns—Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955)—and all five were both critical and commercial successes.

Sixty years later those Westerns remain so similar in quality that it’s a matter of preference. The slight edge may go to The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie, then Bend of the River and The Far Country—the latter an enjoyable “Northern” along the lines of John Wayne’s North to Alaska.

In The Far Country, Stewart plays a cowboy who had driven a herd of cattle from Montana to Seattle, then boards a steamship to take them to the gold fields in Skagway, where the price of beef is sky high. But as the ship is leaving, a sheriff shouts to the captain to take the cowboy into custody because he’s said to have killed two people. In short order, Jeff Webster goes from wrangler to fugitive, dodging the crew thanks to the help of a woman (Ruth Roman as Ronda Castle) who invites him to get under the covers with her as the crew unlocks and checks every stateroom. And that’s just the start of the action. More

DEADLINE (1959-61) (DVD)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
1959-61, 1006 min. (39 episodes), Black & White
Drama
Not rated (would be PG for some adult situations)
Film Chest Media
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

It’s almost hard to remember, but before unfair cries of “fake news” journalists were widely respected. From the ‘20s through ‘50s they were even considered heroic because they did whatever it took to get a story, whether it involved immediate danger or possible repercussions. Crusading editors and reporters were the frequent subject of films and featured such stars as James Stewart (Call Northside 777), Humphrey Bogart (Deadline —U.S.A.), Kirk Douglas (Ace in the Hole), Clark Gable (Teacher’s Pet), Cary Grant (His Girl Friday), Fred McMurray (Exclusive), Alan Ladd (Chicago Deadline), and Joel McCrea (Foreign Correspondent).

The short-lived Deadline(1959-61) TV series takes viewers back to those simpler times when journalists worked alongside police and the public trusted and relied on them.

Paul Stewart, the series host and frequent “guest actor,” played a reporter in the film Deadline – U.S.A., but he doesn’t have what it takes to carry an anthology series like this. Assuming the role of various reporters from real newspaper stories across the nation, he goes about that reporter’s business with the stiff formality of Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday. In fact, Dragnet is a good comparison.

Dragnet had Friday’s voiceovers, while Deadline has Stewart’s in almost every episode. Like Dragnet, the Deadline investigations are pretty facile and stagey, which was typical of TV crime shows from the ‘50s. The “dramatizations” are, like most TV reenactments, a little hokey and decidedly melodramatic. A situation is quickly set up, there’s a brief investigation with questions asked of various people involved, and by the end of every 30-minute episode there’s a resolution. Guest stars include Peter Falk, Diane Ladd, Robert Lansing, Telly Savalas, George Maharis, and Simon Oakland, but for the most part these are unknown actors and fresh faces, because most of their careers never took off.

Thirty-nine episodes were produced, and all of them are included in this three-disc DVD set from Film Chest Media. The timing couldn’t be better, and you get the feeling that Film Chest is doing a little crusading of their own, thinking perhaps that the mainstream media have been systematically and unfairly maligned the past three years. More

Review of BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Entire family: No
Drama
2019, 118 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language, including ethnic slurs
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Just as you’d better like Abba if you’re going to enjoy Mamma Mia!, you almost need to be a Bruce Springsteen fan (or willing convert) to appreciate this music-filled drama from director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice).

Set in a small British town in 1987, Blinded by the Light features wall-to-wall Springsteen, with only a few exceptions. Included here are The Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark,” “The River,” “Badlands,” “Cover Me,” “Thunder Road,” “Prove It All Night,” “Hungry Heart,” “Because the Night,” “The Promised Land,” “Born to Run,” “I’ll Stand by You,” and the film’s title song. The soundtrack is meant to feel like an extended Springsteen play list that takes us into the mind of a Pakistani teenager as he listens to his Walkman throughout much of the film. But it’s not just the music. The lyrics also appear onscreen in numerous scenes, artfully arranged in superscript to emphasize the impact that Springsteen’s words have on a main character who wants to become a writer and struggles under the burden of a strict, controlling father and hostile community.

It’s no secret that music has a transformative power, capable of inspiring, soothing, even redeeming listeners, and Javed’s story resonates because of that. Based on co-writer Sarfraz Manzoor’s life, Javed’s struggles are also uncomfortably familiar.

Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s British nationalism sparked a white nationalist backlash against immigrants—Pakistanis especially—and it’s difficult if not impossible to watch Blinded by the Light and not think of the current state of affairs in America. Because Luton is a very small town, Pakistanis feel the white nationalist anger more acutely. “Pakis go home” graffiti is everywhere. Neighborhood children urinate through the mail slot of one family’s door. White nationalist demonstrators walk the streets and pummel counter-protesters, and the main character, Javed (Viveik Kalra), is threatened by a menacing white male, forcing him to seek refuge in the home of a white male friend who shares his love of music.

That’s the milieu complicating the life of a teenager who has it hard enough just trying to negotiate typical teen dramas—like the halls and lunchroom of his school, school activities, and encounters with the opposite sex (including a major crush). His life changes when the only other South Asian student in his class befriends him and loans him two Springsteen tapes. His life also takes an upturn because of an English teacher (Hayley Atwell) who champions him and his writing—which he does in relative secret from his parents. In his father’s eyes, if he’s not spending his time earning money to help them get through tough times, he’s not spending his time wisely.

In a way, we’ve seen this story before in films like Billy Elliott, where dance, not writing, was the boy’s dream and his journey was also entwined with one his father had to make, from resistance to acceptance. Still, Blinded by the Light is a solid film, and one that can lead to a lot of discussion. As with so many things, though, a strength can turn into a weakness. There comes a time when the whole “inspired by Springsteen” and “must live my life like Springsteen” gets a little old, which leads me to wonder if the film might have been stronger if it had been edited to clock in at 98 minutes instead of 118. Just sayin’.

Language: Mild compared to most movies today, with Brit versions of swearwords (wanker, crap, fricking, shite, etc.) and a repeated racial slur (Packis)

Sex: Nothing here except a kiss

Violence: A character is bruised on the head, and there are other instances of bullying, but not much in the way of actual physical violence

Adult situations: Teens throw a party that’s seen from the outside, while inside we see suppressed teens letting it all hang out at a rave; later Javed is poured wine though the host knows it’s against his Muslim religion

Takeaway: It’s good to get another film from Chadha, who isn’t afraid to explore emotion in her stories and has a knack for detailing cross-cultural experiences without getting too preachy or maudlin

Review of THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
Drama
1945, 126 min., Black & White
Not rated (would be G)
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Digital Mono
Bonus features: B
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

Bing Crosby played a priest in two gentle warm-hearted films, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)—the latter of special interest because it paired the crooner with the legendary Ingrid Bergman. She’s the no-nonsense Sister Superior of an urban Catholic school run by nuns and he’s the school’s new easy-going pastor-administrator with a totally different attitude about how to handle problems with children. They really play off each other nicely, and as old-fashioned as this film is, it should interest families who enjoy old black-and-white classics like Miracle on 34th Street. It’s as wholesome a slice of American life as a Norman Rockwell painting that, with age, seems just as quaint.

Like other films from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, The Bells of St. Mary’s depicts an America that’s long gone, where everything seemed slower paced and children’s problems were limited to trouble with their parents, studies, or classmates. In this film two children’s problems are on the periphery, while the featured character “bout” is a gentle and very subtle rivalry between Father O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict. The main plot thread involves Sister Benedict’s stubborn hope that a cranky business developer (Henry Travers, who played Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) will donate his new building so that it can serve as a new school. He, meanwhile, is angling for St. Mary’s to sell out so he can tear it down and turn it into a parking lot.

Though Father O’Malley arrives in the fall and the story spans the winter months, there is a long scene where students rehearse a Christmas play, and a few other scenes shot in front of decorated trees. So if Diehard is a Christmas movie, so is The Bells of St. Mary’s. More

Review of THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 97 min., Color
Sony / Columbia
Rated PG for rude humor and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

The Angry Birds Movie 2 (which should have been simply “Angry Birds 2”) is a colorfully manic CGI animated feature that’s full of feathery little fluffballs and cutesy antics that are obviously aimed like a big giant slingshot at young children, rather than gamers.

At one point a bird is reading Crazy Rich Avians, and there are enough smartly written lines and movie allusions to make it fairly painless, even amusing for older siblings and parents to watch along with youngsters. And that includes the curmudgeons who say they’ll only watch such films “when pigs fly” . . . because in this movie, they do. This time around, it’s a classic tale of enemies—pigs and birds—who put their prank war on hold so they can work together when an outside force threatens their separate island paradises. The same cast returns from the 2016 original, and if your family liked that one they’ll like this sequel. It’s a stronger film, and the feather and effects animation is noticeably superior.

Jason Sudeikis once again gives voice to Red, the hero of the first film who has since developed a bit of an arrogant “only I can do this” attitude. So while the two sides learn to work together, Red is relearning how to be humble and realizing, as well, that it takes teamwork to succeed. An all-star cast features the additional voice talents of Rachel Bloom, Leslie Jones, Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Awkwafina, Sterling K. Brown, Eugenio Derbez, Peter Dinklage, Nicki Minaj, Maya Rudolph, Tony Hale, and others.

The plot is set in motion when a large iceball falls out of the sky, swamping Piggy Island and leading the pigs to seek out a truce with their Bird Island counterparts. Pigs, birds, and viewers later learn that, like a James Bond villain, Zeta, the head of Eagle Island is launching iceballs from her volcano cannon in an all-out attack. Her plan? Tired of living on a frigid island, she wants to acquire warmer territory for herself and her army of Eagles. Meanwhile, in a cute-as-a-button side plot, three hatchling birds play with a mother’s eggs but end up watching them drift out to sea. How will they ever get them back? More

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