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Review of SHARK WEEK: SHARK ‘N’ AWE COLLECTION (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Possibly
2015-16, 1355 min. (32 episodes), Color
Documentary
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Teaser/trailer
No online purchase link available

Sharks are to the Discovery Channel what Mickey Mouse is to Walt Disney Studios. And every year the cable network celebrates their viewers’ fascination with all things shark with a special televised Shark Week that has all the hoopla of a Super Bowl. This past year’s theme was “Shark ‘n’ Awe,” and you can pick up the Shark Week: Shark ‘n’ Awe Collection on DVD now—but only at Walmart and only in-store, no online sales.

What you’ll get in this six-disc, 32-episode collection is the usual blend of episodes: some of them documentaries about scientific studies (including one, pictured, where scientists and shark experts devised a way to accurately measure sharks underwater), some “in search of” adventures, some of them attempts to capture certain shark behaviors on film for the first time, some spotlighting acrobatic aerial attacks, others chronicling an increase in shark attacks worldwide, others habitat-centered, and a bunch of them dealing with Great White Sharks, whose popularity skyrocketed with the summer 1975 release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. As clichéd as it sounds, there’s literally something here for everyone, and tastes will vary. I found the Mythbusters episode to be the most boring of the bunch, but that won’t be the case for everyone.

I mostly enjoyed the scientific studies, many of them focused on the tagging of sharks so they can be monitored via satellite. Such episodes were largely pure research-based, but one of them sought to pinpoint the movement of enormous Great Whites along beaches in order to alert officials to keep human-shark contact at a minimum when they’re in the area—kind of like a sophisticated cowbell. The most interesting of these may have been “Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba,” because it involved a collaboration between Cuban and U.S. shark scientists working frantically during the limited window that both governments had given them.

But the daredevil episodes were also pretty engaging, including ones where shark chasers experimented with new underwater cages and methods of goading the sharks to strike so they can study their behavior. And there’s a train wreck factor to episodes where shark attack victims are interviewed . . . or we see them go back into the water again because they’re as addicted to sharks as many viewers.

I could have done without the clip shows with their teasers, because the networks already run so many sequences over again when they return from commercial breaks that it can get a little old. Though some might want to start by watching an episode like “Sharktacular 2016” to get some idea of which episodes they want to watch first, I would imagine that most fans would just pop these in one disc at a time and watch them from beginning to end.

Best way to watch? Rig up a backyard screen and use a projector. Invite the neighbors over to a pool party where everyone floats in innertubes as you run through the most harrowing episodes!

Some episodes—like “Blue Serengeti” with its limited shark footage—may disappoint, but for sheer volume, you can’t beat this set if you’re a shark lover (or fearer). Below are the episode titles, separated according to discs:

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Review of ROCK DOG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy
Rated PG for action and language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Preferred audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Rock Dog, a Chinese-American collaboration, is a better-than-you’d-think animated feature. It’s a true family movie with the potential to appeal to a wide range of ages. The characters are engaging, the animation is top-notch, and the story . . . well, if it worked in Kung Fu Panda, why wouldn’t it here?

Rather than a Panda who hears a different drummer, this time it’s a Tibetan mastiff that can’t quite bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps as a guard dog of a village of sheep up on Snow Mountain. With a gang of hungry and opportunistic wolves ready to attack, a single dog following his ancestral tradition isn’t enough. The father (J.K. Simmons) needs his son, and he also needs “scarecrows”—a bunch of sheep dressed to look like mastiffs from a distance—in order to keep the wolves at bay.

Bodi (Luke Wilson) would rather play music, but since music was banned because it was a distraction, he defiantly breaks into the “hold” where confiscated instruments are stored and begins teaching himself how to play a traditional stringed instrument. But when a radio falls from the sky and Bodi discovers the delights of rock music, he modifies that instrument to create his own six-string acoustic guitar and finally gets his father’s reluctant blessing to head to the city to follow his dream of becoming a musician.

We’re not supposed to question why we’re unable to get radio reception driving on some roads, but high in the Himalayas everything comes in crystal clear. And we’re not supposed to wonder why character actor Sam Elliott was chosen to play the narrator Fleetwood Yak, since this is set in Asia and Elliott’s unmistakable Western drawl situates us immediately in the American West. Above all, we’re not supposed to question mastiff’s “Iron Paw” defense—a laser-cannon blast of energy that emits from the mastiff’s paws—and later, young Bodi’s musical variation of it. Director Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up) knows that if the writing and story are strong enough and the characters are strong enough, audiences will relax and just enjoy the movie.

Wilson does a fine job as the lead character, but the show-stealer is feline rock ‘n’ roll legend Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard). Almost every scene involving Bodi and Angus is shot full of energy and interest, and you can see it in their interaction that they were the most fun for writers to bring alive. Don’t expect much in the way of sideplots, though. A wannabe successful band—featuring a warm-hearted bass-playing fox named Darma (Mae Whitman), a slightly goofy goat drummer named Germur (Jorge Garcia), and an arrogant snow leapard guitarist named Trey (Matt Dillon)—has almost as little to do as TV mothers in the old father-centric sitcoms. But the real fun begins when Trey pranks Bodi into finding Scattergood and asking him to be his teacher and he leaves that group temporarily behind. Even a kidnapping involving the wolf gang led by Linnux (a mobster type who also is a fight-club owner) isn’t as much fun as the Bodi/Angus scenes—though, of course, the kids will like the infusion of action. In the end, though, it’s another tale of following your dreams and finding parental acceptance in the process.

Rock Dog is based on a graphic novel (Tibetan Rock Dog) by Chinese rock star Zheng Jun and with a $60 million production budget it ranks as the most costly animated film ever produced by Chinese. As I said, the production values are terrific, the script (though familiar) doesn’t sag anywhere, the characters are likeable, the action is sufficient, and the music is an upbeat bonus. It is, in other words, much better than you’d expect for a film that did not do well at the box office in China and drew a 39 percent “rotten” rating at RottenTomatoes.com.

Language: Some name calling and scattered use of “bloody” as a euphemistic swearword
Sex: Zero
Violence: Not much—just some wolves shot with a tranquilizer, a dog fighting a grizzly, and a cat being hit with a baseball bat, all for comic effect
Adult situations: Nothing really
Takeaway: The skills are here, but the filmmakers need an original idea and script to take it to the next level

Review of A MERMAID’S TALE (DVD)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes (technically)
2016, 92 min., Color
Family drama
Rated G
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

You could argue that Daryl Hannah revived Hollywood’s fascination with mermaids in the live-action 1984 romantic comedy Splash, which contained so much adult female nudity that it’s now really only appropriate for adults. Then came the engaging Australian TV series H20: Just Add Water, featuring three young women in their late teens that find themselves transformed into mermaids. Now we get a 12 year old who has her own mermaid encounter in the live-action film A Mermaid’s Tale. And if you remember the rule of thumb for movies aimed at children, the heroes are always slightly older than the intended audience. That means the 6-10 age group finally gets a live-action mermaid film to feed their fantasy side.

From a critic’s perspective, A Mermaid’s Tale is a C- at best. But young Caitlin Carmichael is likable as the female lead and the playful relationship she has with her father (Jerry O’Connell, who was the fat kid in Stand by Me) is more like the one Miranda Cosgrove had with her TV brother (Jerry Trainor). Because of that, and because the production values are surprisingly good, I think young girls in the target age group will probably find this movie entertaining enough to grade a B or B-. Considering that the film was made with them in mind, I’m comfortable giving A Mermaid’s Tale a compromise grade of C/C+.

Carmichael plays Ryan, a 12-year-old girl who moves with her father to a tiny California fishing town in order to help her aging grandfather, whom she hasn’t seen since she was very tiny. Even this early in the film, adults who watch with their daughters will be thinking, Really? I mean, if you don’t see someone for 10 years it usually implies that you’re estranged, and yet the only thing that seems strained in their relationship is their insistence on “caring” for the older man and forcing him to take it easy, since apparently his doctor put him on an aspirin regimen for his heart. If you care enough about a relative to relocate, why didn’t you care enough to visit over the past decade?

Then too, we’re told the fish left a LONG time ago, but everything in this quaint little town looks freshly painted and picturesque as a thriving tourist destination, not a depressed fishing village. The only remotely ramshackle thing is Grandpa’s boat, which has one panel on the hull that’s been primed but not painted. In the early going the plot will remind you a bit of the Flipper remake, in which an isolated boy forced to live someplace different finds a best friend in a dolphin. Only here, Ryan encounters a mermaid named Coral (Sydney Scotia) who had become briefly entangled in a net hanging inexplicably close to the dock. Though she keeps the mermaid business to herself, even more inexplicable is that Grandpa (Barry Bostwick) admonishes her for going to the docks alone. Someone her age shouldn’t be doing that, he and his son chide. Really? I mean, it’s not as if she’s so small she could fall in and drown, and the docks in this quaint little town aren’t exactly full of rough-and-tumble sailors, fishermen, or longshoremen. It’s a pier, basically, with a few boat slips, and an easy walk to cute little bakeries and cafes. Yet, just one day later when Grandpa insists that his son come with him on a two-day fishing trip, he suggests leaving Ryan on her own because “she’s old enough.” That’s not inconsistent at all, right?

The point is, if you’re an adult and you think too much, you’ll find plenty to criticize. If you’re a girl in the target age range, you’ll get caught up in the BFF giggling that a young girl and a young mermaid enjoy together. Grandpa blames the mermaids for chasing away the fish and now he’s determined to catch them to bring the fish back, and the queen of the mermaids (yes, there is such a thing) has warned her people to NEVER have contact with humans. So you basically have a situation where both girls are taking a walk on the wild side because they found a best friend—something that will certainly appeal to rule-following and friend-needy adolescents.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but most young viewers’ hearts will beat with excitement when Ryan is surprised to learn she’s able to hold her breath under water for a whopping 10
minutes! I can’t predict how a young audience will react when Coral takes Ryan to mermaid island, but people who saw the old Power Rangers TV series or grew up watching the campy Lost in Space episodes will recognize in the set and costumes an Irwin Allen hokeyness and smile. Try to ignore the continuity error where Coral is still wearing her own necklace in a scene after she and Ryan traded jewelry, or that near the end Ryan’s dad and his old-now-new girlfriend show up on the island, though we have no idea how they got there. Or that we see a Coast Guard cutter bearing down on the island and Dad mentions the Coast Guard, but they never arrive and the scene ends. If you can put aside those inconsistencies and the campy Power Rangers turn that the film suddenly takes, it’s a cute-enough family film. But really, A Mermaid’s Tale—a film that’s as wholesome as can be—is for young girls no older than age 10.

Review of LA LA LAND (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2016, 128 min., Color
Musical
Rated PG-13 for some language
Summit
Aspect ratio: 2.55:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m glad that Summit decided to wait a few months before making La La Land available on home video. It’s good to take a step back and approach a film like this fresh, especially after all the hype-turned-hate that swirled around it. I frankly can’t think of another film that had so many Oscar nominations (14) and was so praised initially as the surefire Best Picture winner, then derided in a backlash as the biggest overrated film of the year:

—It’s a slick film . . . maybe too slick.
—Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are amazing . . . or maybe just Stone.
—It was pure Hollywood! (they gushed) . . . It was pure Hollywood (they dismissed).
—First Whiplash and now this? Damien Chazelle is a genius . . . or not.

In retrospect, La La Land lands closer to the bulls-eye of praise, though it’s not a perfect film, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone insists. That’s clear already from an opening freeway number that’s visually a big musical showstopper but has a sound that’s not so big. Kind of like the singing we get from the two stars, which is soft and slightly raspy and muted—a throaty rather than full-bodied sound that comes from the diaphragm. There are times when the musical accompaniment even threatens to overpower Gosling’s voice. But it’s easy to ignore that when Gosling and Stone are so cute and so charming together. Plus, they handle the flirtatious choreography and dance numbers like a couple of pros, and seem to actually enjoy it.

For me (and for my teenage daughter) the film’s only real shortcoming is the ending—and that’s a matter of taste. This loving homage to Hollywood musicals from the ‘50s is a feel-good movie for 120 minutes, with a 180-degree ending that feels overly clever and totally changes the mood. My daughter didn’t appreciate that kind of manipulation, and I didn’t appreciate that the homage seemed to slide off-track at the end.

But boy, did Chazelle nail the look and feel of those old Gene Kelly movies. You find yourself admiring the choreography and the mise en scene of the song-and-dance numbers because they so lovingly replicate scenes from musicals past. La La Land revives the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals even if only for a short time. Though Oscars went to Chazelle (Best Director), Stone (Best Actress), and Justin Hurwitz (Original Score, Original Song), the one that feels most deserving is the production design by David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Without it, there isn’t much of an homage, and that they were able to achieve a retro look and feel is even more impressive when you consider that most of it was done not on a soundstage but at a range of Hollywood-area interior and exterior locations that reinforce the tribute—as does an opening where curtains part to reveal a screen that says presented in CinemaScope (a retro ultra-widescreen format).

La La Land tells a typical Hollywood story. Stone plays Mia, a would-be actress currently working the counter at an eatery on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Her dream is to become a star. Sebastian’s passion is jazz, and his dream is to open a jazz club of his own. They meet cute on a Hollywood freeway, with her flipping him off for driving around her. They meet cute again . . . and again . . . until they finally start to determine that maybe they’re meant to be together. Viewers who saw Stone and Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love probably will wonder what’s taking them so long. As both of their careers take off, which passion will win out? The Hollywood dream, their romance, or both?

Like Singin’ in the Rain, that other musical tribute to Hollywood, their are a few standouts in supporting cast. Singer John Legend is engaging as a techno-jazz enthusiast who makes a convincing argument for jazz needing to evolve . . . or die, while J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) gets a brief moment in the spotlight as a club manager who insists on a mundane play-list, and Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, and Jessica Rothe play Mia’s roommates and shine in one song, “Someone in the Crowd.”

“That’s L.A.,” Sebastian says. “They worship everything and they value nothing.” There’s critical commentary here as well as tribute, and hype or hate aside, La La Land is a bit like its Oscar-winning song, “City of Stars”: it may seem slight, but in the end, it’s the little things you remember most.

Language: One f-bomb, two uses of the middle finger, and a handful of milder swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: n/a
Adult Situations: Not much here, really
Takeaway: Part tribute, part social commentary, and part romantic comedy, La La Land is the strongest musical we’ve seen in years

Review of SPLIT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No, no, no
2016, 117 min., Color
Horror-thriller
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, and some language
Universal Pictures
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is a solid thriller right up until the end, when the director decides to play to his fans and his own indulgences, rather than tying things up for viewers in a more satisfying way. But using the reverse situation of Panic Room, Shyamalan manages to put characters in jeopardy and keep them there for the duration of an otherwise tense and effective film.

Split is obviously inspired by the sordid news story out of Cleveland, where three young women were held captive in a basement by Ariel Castro. The bus driver had targeted two of them because they were friends with his daughter. The women were raped and tortured in captivity for more than a decade before their miraculous rescue.

Rather than tell that story, Shyamalan wisely chooses to stay clear of extremes and instead create a PG-13 thriller that teens can watch—a cautionary tale that reminds them it’s not just “stranger danger” that poses a problem. It can be something as innocent as a party, where the girl’s father offers to drive two of her friends and a “pity invite” home, with the girl’s approval. Instead of a sex-driven abductor, Shyamalan offers a less tawdry and more interesting alternative: a captor who has multiple personalities. The most sexual the film gets is when we learn that one personality “likes to watch young girls dance naked,” but in another wise move the director avoids nudity and instead has one of the girls spend part of the film without a top (wearing only a bra) and another without pants (wearing only panties).

If this 2016 film were a TV series it would probably be called The James McAvoy Show. The Golden Globe nominee (Atonement, 2007) gives a tour de force performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb . . . and Dennis, and Patricia, and Hedwig, and Barry, and Orwell, and Jade—seven of the 23 distinct personalities that share the same body. As he goes from character to character you can even see a believable transformation in his facial features—not just the expression, but the way his face looks.

Medically speaking, Kevin suffers from a dissociative identity disorder triggered by childhood abuse. Among his distinct personalities is a nine-year-old boy, a man who dresses like a woman, a rational-sounding fellow who controls which personality gets to “go into the light” (i.e., surface), and an OCD man with a voyeuristic fetish. Kevin has been seeing a psychiatrist to help him with his problem, and the sequences with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley)—therapy sessions augmented by TV interviews and conference presentations by the well-known expert—do a fine job of educating viewers without seeming pedantic.

All of the young women who play kidnapped victims do so convincingly, but Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula knew when they signed on that the featured performer would be Anya Taylor-Joy—the “pity invite” who sticks to herself and really doesn’t have many friends. We see flashbacks from her childhood as she is taught how to hunt by her father (Neal Huff) and how she was abused by a pervy uncle (Brad William Henke). All of that sets up the possibility of an interesting captive versus captor showdown. Whether it materializes is another story, and I won’t say anything more about that or the rest of the plot. Like many thrillers, you just can’t think too much about the plot, or else you’ll wonder things like why, with such a high-profile kidnapping, wouldn’t the father have emerged very early as a suspect, or why the expert, who clearly suspects something, doesn’t go to the police. I mean, how far does doctor-patient confidentiality extend?

Shyamalan has been a consistently inconsistent filmmaker. He can make a wonderful thriller like The Sixth Sense (1999), which earned six Oscar nominations, or he can crank out a turkey like The Last Airbender (2010), which earned the scorn of critics and a measly 6 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Where does Split fall? It’s slightly better than Unbreakable (2000) and much better than his 2015 campy horror-thriller The Visit. But it’s every bit a PG-13 movie, mostly for violence and disturbing images. Teens will enjoy it, but it’s not recommended for younger viewers.

Language: Minor cursing
Sex: Implied abuse, nothing graphic shown
Violence: One extreme close-up of arms crushing a woman, others dragged by the feet off-camera, wounded body parts, and exposed organs
Adult situations: That would be pretty much the entire film
Takeaway: Shyamalan makes a lot of winners and losers; despite the ending, this one’s a winner

Review of A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Entire family:  Yes, for most
1992, 128 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG for language
Columbia/Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

When it first came out, A League of Their Own was an out-of-the-park homer, and not just because Madonna’s name was on the marquee. Director Penny Marshall (Laverne, of Laverne & Shirley fame) drafted some of her old TV cronies and other pals in order to assemble an ensemble that was strong enough to go extra innings. If you isolate the performances and compare them to baseball cards, there isn’t a dud destined to be traded or clipped to the spokes of a bicycle wheel—especially when you consider that no doubles were used for the baseball action. Billed as a “family comedy,” it’s one of our family’s favorite baseball films.

AND now, here’s the line-up for YOUR Rockford Peaches:

C—Geena Davis, as Dottie Hinson. The “Queen of Diamonds” is the best player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that was formed during World War II when men’s baseball was shut down and team owners needed something to keep the sport alive. A handful of teams based at small Midwestern cities played from 1943-1954. This 1992 film is based on that true story, but focuses on two players from a farm in Oregon—Dottie, married to a serviceman stationed overseas, and her younger sister who’s “as unmarried as they come.” Davis shines as the reticent star who manages the team in the early going and makes some amazing catches behind the plate (which, we learn in the extras, were really her own!).

P—Lori Petty, as Kit Keller, a kid sister with a big inferiority complex who’s as competitive in her sibling rivalry as she is on the mound. The fiery but tantrum-prone fireballer needs to be cooled off more than once, and though Petty plays it a bit over the top at times, she makes it easy for viewers to believe the love-hate relationship she has with big sis.

CF—Madonna, as “All the Way” Mae Mordabito. This chain-smoking female Charlie Hustle, who used to be a dime-a-dance girl, offers to spice up things by “accidentally,” ala Janet Jackson, giving fans a glimpse of her “bosom.” Marshall wanted Madonna because she needed a high-energy dancer for a roadhouse scene, but first the superstar had to pass the baseball test, like all the rest. Actresses had to show they could hit, throw, and run before they were even considered for a part. After consultants from the L.A. Dodgers told Marshall the material girl was “teachable,” she was in.

3B—Rosie O’Donnell, as Doris Murphy, Mae’s tough-talking toadie-style sidekick who hits for power and doesn’t pull any punches in her performance. The stand-up comic makes you believe she’s a “broad” from the Bronx. It turns out that O’Donnell, like Petty, was a tomboy who was already a darned good ballplayer. O’Donnell was told to become Madonna’s best friend during filming, and the close relationship they developed carries over onto the screen.

2B—Megan Cavanagh, as really ugly duckling Marla Hooch. Though the league wanted “dollies” who looked good in short skirts, Hooch’s switch-hitting power was too beautiful to pass up. If you never heard of Cavanagh, that’s because she was a waitress at Ed DeBevic’s, a diner where the wait staff does outrageous things. She provides a good chunk of the comedy.

1B—Anne Elizabeth Ramsay, as Helen Haley, one of the sensible ones. That’s ironic, because most viewers will recognize her as Helen Hunt’s daffy sister on the old Mad About You TV show.

LF/P—Tracy Reiner, as Betty “Spaghetti” Horn. Before you think that Rob Reiner’s daughter got the part just because her mom happened to be director, remember, she still had to pass the baseball test. And Mom, a great baseball player herself, apparently prepped her for the role when Tracy was still a young girl. Reiner turns in a sensitive performance in the film’s single serious scene.

RF—Bitty Schram, as Evelyn Gardner, who keeps forgetting to hit the cut-off “man” with her throws, which, of course, raises the blood pressure of the manager and provides for some great comic moments—as does her delinquent little boy, whom she brings on road trips.

SS/P—Freddie Simpson, as former beauty pageant winner Ellen Sue Gotlander, in a minor role.

Manager—Tom Hanks, as Jimmy Dugan, a former major-league star destined for the Hall of Fame but who drank himself out of baseball. Hanks usually has the stage to himself, but even in an ensemble he brings great vitality to his part. When he pees in front of the girls (you don’t see anything), shuffles along in an alcoholic stupor, mistakenly kisses the team’s chaperone (Pauline Brasilsford), and constantly spits tobacco juice, he couldn’t be any more convincingly hilarious. Marshall directed him before in Big, so she knew what she was getting.

Owner—Garry Marshall, as Walter Harvey, of Harvey Candy Bars, obviously patterned after P.K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate whose name is still on the stadium of the Chicago Cubs. Part of the film was shot at Wrigley, and in one of the extras the cast says how their wide-eyed entrance into that hallowed space wasn’t faked. They were genuinely awestruck by the Friendly Confines. Marshall is the director’s brother, and sitcom fans may recall he produced Laverne & Shirley. L&S alum Eddie Mekka (Carmine) makes an appearance in the big dance scene, while David L. Lander (Squiggy) turns up in the announcer’s booth.

Scout—Jon Lovitz, as the caustic Ernie Capadino, whose put-downs of the “milkmaids” he recruits would rival Don Rickles. Lovitz provides most of the humor in the early going, and the screenwriters reveal in one special feature that Lovitz was the only one they ever wrote a part for. He’s laugh-out-loud highlight reel all by himself.

Though the frame that sets up a flashback main story tugs a little too hard at the heartstrings—kind of like Stand by Me—the main narrative is full of humor and strikes just the right tone. It gives you an atmosphere that feels baseball- and period-right, and accomplishes Marshall’s side goal of drawing attention to these women . . . who may be in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown now, but most of their memorabilia is in storage. So much for equal rights. But it does make the title (already a pun) resonate with irony. More

Review of A COWGIRL’S STORY (DVD)

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Grade:  C
Entire family:  Technically, yes
Family drama
Rated PG for thematic elements
Sony/Samuel Goldwyn
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve asked this before but it bears repeating: why are wholesome religious family films so often sabotaged by a weak script and less-than-stellar acting? It’s happened again with A Cowgirl’s Story, a 2017 manipulate-you-to-feel-good movie starring Bailee Madison (Brothers, TV’s Good Witch).

Madison, who co-produced the film, is saddled with a script that’s by turns corny, wooden, and cliché-ridden. And on top of all that, this message film doesn’t trust the audience enough to attempt some measure of subtlety. Then again, the audience for the film—God-fearing, military-supporting, small-town America—might be forgiving enough to overlook the many flaws.

Dance Mom fans will like seeing Chloe Lukasiak as something other than a whipping girl for taskmaster Abby Lee Miller. In A Cowgirl’s Story she plays “bad girl” Savannah Stocker, whose father was killed while deployed in Afghanistan and whose mother has withdrawn and (we think—this is the film’s only subtle part) turned to drink. But Lukasiak is a far better dancer than she is an actress—at least at this stage in her career. She’s a bit too rigid and doesn’t have a very convincing range of facial expressions or body language. In fact, she even looks stiff and awkward while performing in a group line dance that the end credits say she choreographed. But in the weak acting department she’s not alone. The other recognizable name, Pat Boone, also disappoints.

Boone never really had the acting chops of that other, more famous singer who went Hollywood. He was good enough as a young man in April Love and State Fair, in which he could sing, and came close to holding his own in the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, where there was enough excitement to distract. But here he’s a grandpa who’s more doddering than doting and whose interactions with granddaughter Dusty Rhodes (Madison) and son (James C. Victor) are almost painfully unconvincing. As a result, Boone seems inserted for one reason: to deliver Bible-based advice and to lead everyone in prayer (which, with “The Lord’s Prayer,” he actually does quite well). Unfortunately, other actors also don’t come close to the performance that Madison delivers.

All that said, the biggest problem with A Cowgirl’s Story is that everything is too far-fetched, familiar, or unbelievably easy. First of all, what group of teenage girls would drink on-campus sitting in bleachers right near the school by passing a bottle inside a paper bag, wino-style, back and forth? I mean, wouldn’t they be sneakier, so as not to get caught? And when new girl Dusty overhears the principal telling troubled teen Savannah (Lukasiak) that this was her last chance and she’s out, is there anyone watching who doesn’t expect Dusty to do what we’ve seen a gazillion times since Jack Lemmon helped out Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and claim the bottle was really hers?

Then, when Dusty is pushing a library cart with books on what is still presumably her first week and a few books fall, could it be more clichéd than to have a boy (Aidan Alexander as Trevor) pick up that book as their “meet cute”? What’s unexpected, though, is to have them become instant boyfriend-girlfriend, just as Savannah is quickly paired up with a boy named Jason (Froy Gutierrez). It’s just too easy, as anyone currently in high school will attest. Once dance and they’re acting like three-month steadies.

It’s also unreasonably easy for Dusty to get permission to start an equestrian club, and when the principal says “it’s over” because no one has registered to join after an hour or so, the high schoolers (even the ones who ridiculed her) have an “I’m Spartacus” moment, following Savannah’s lead as she joins to even the score. Characters are arrested but promptly released, and though this story takes place in a small town there are students who inexplicably make fun of a girl for wearing cowboy boots. Really? A number of characters either have quick turnarounds or else moments where they behave quite out of character. Part of the problem is that the passage of time isn’t well defined in this film. In what seems like only days or, at best, a few short weeks, teens who never even rode a horse before are suddenly performing at a rodeo event.

The film’s resolution is abruptly convenient, with characters making some pretty major turnarounds based on either one quick moment in church, an equally quick talk, or a visit from Grandpa. And darned if God or fate or the screenwriter doesn’t intervene at the most predictable (yet far-fetched) times. Faith is one thing, but a three-act screenplay is another, and everything in A Cowgirl’s Story is too remarkably easy for it to be believable drama.  A Cowgirl’s Story presents a girl who has a mild crisis of faith after a death —a crisis we don’t necessarily believe because she goes about her business so cheerily, whether it’s helping Savannah or spending time with her equestrian group. And this, despite the trauma of her father leaving (and quickly returning wounded—again, time frame seems ill defined) and her mother MIA in Afghanistan.

A Cowgirl’s Story is directed by Timothy Armstrong, who also directed Cowgirls ‘n Angels (2012) and Cowgirl’s ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer (2014). I reviewed Dakota’s Summer and gave it a B, but apart from Madison, Armstrong doesn’t have the same level of talent to work with here, and the script he came up with is just too facile. Horse-lovers will wish there were more equestrian scenes, and the target audience—many of whom agree with Trump’s policies on immigration and Muslims—may wonder why there is a scene castigating people for spraypainting “Go Home” on the car of a teen who wears a hijab.

In the end, A Cowgirl’s Story is the kind of film that young girls ages 8 to 10 might like, but teens will find it just too eye-rolling . . . and many parents will join them. That’s too bad, because there was potential here for it to be a family movie as good as Dakota’s Summer.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: n/a; even the “bad” kids are wholesome
Adult situations: Brief teen drinking (though it doesn’t even look like there’s a bottle in that bag) and a breaking-and-entering arrest
Takeaway: It’s not the infusion of religion that drags this film down; it’s that everything is just too easy, too unrealistic, and, ultimately, too unbelievable

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