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Review of DUMBO (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
Live-action dramedy
2019, 112 min., Color
Disney / Buena Vista
Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ll be honest. My family wanted to watch a live-action remake of Dumbo about as much as they’re hoping for an animated version of Old Yeller. Some people just can’t get past the sad parts, so I watched this on my own.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Disney downplayed the sad moments in this live-action dramedy by quickly moving past them, rather than lingering as they did with the 1941 animated classic. And the focus is less on poor Dumbo and his odyssey than it is on the two children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and their father that try to help him. Tonally, Tim Burton’s live-action remake comes closer to Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain than it does the original cartoon . . . or anything else that Burton has done, for that matter. You hear “Burton” and you think “weird,” but that’s not the case here.

Set in 1919, with Colin Farrell playing a widowed WWI veteran who returns to his children decorated but without his left arm, Dumbo feels like a throwback homage to the wholesome small-town America that Walt Disney idealized in his early live action films. But with one important difference: Burton also celebrates Disney’s visionary creation of theme parks.

In this film, Danny DeVito plays the owner of a down-and-mostly-out traveling circus that’s forced to finally accept a proposed “partnership” with business tycoon V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Vandevere foresaw that the future wasn’t in traveling circuses—it was in building a giant theme park that included a circus, something big enough to bring the people to it rather than going to the people. And knowing what we do now about Disney and his vision, it’s kind of fun seeing this futuristic theme park element joined together with his classic depiction of America near the turn of the century. There are playful allusions to different themed sections of the park, as well as kiosks with stuffed Dumbo souvenirs for sale. But Dumbo is tamer and less strange than most Burton films, no doubt because of the respect he had for both Disney and the original cartoon. Not only do we hear the Casey Jr. song from the first film, but we also hear DeVito’s character singing it.

What’s different? Well, clowns don’t make fun of Dumbo—a few audience members do, and Dumbo punishes them in comic fashion. Instead of pink elephants seen as the result of Dumbo accidentally getting drunk, there’s no drunkenness here—just manufactured shapes in the sky that appear to move and take on identities. And don’t look for talking animals. That’s one decision Burton made that I heartily applaud. There’s no Timothy Mouse coaching Dumbo like Pinocchio’s conscience, and no rowdy bantering crows on a telephone wire. The focus here is on Dumbo and Mother Jumbo’s plight and what people are inspired to do to help them. It may not be as sad as the original, but the 2019 live-action version of Dumbo still takes a backseat to the 1941 animated feature.

And Dumbo himself? The little guy looks pretty believable as a live-action CGI model with ears so big he can’t walk properly—but boy can he fly after he gets those things flapping. Afraid the original might be too much of a downer for your little ones? Ease into Disney’s Dumbo with the live-action film first.

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Review of POMS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2019, 90 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG-13 for some language and sexual references
STX / Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

In recent years, Hollywood has made a number of movies featuring (and presumably geared toward) seniors. We’ve watched retirement-age heroes take road trips, thwart a mob hit, get off their rockers to take on super assassins, reconnect with estranged children, rob a bank, and now, with Poms, find new life in a retirement community through cheerleading.

But the message is often the same: No regrets. Worry about living, not dying. Play hard and enjoy all nine innings.

In Poms, Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver are wonderful to watch as neighbors in an active retirement commuity, and so, for that matter, is their nemesis Celia Weston (who played Cam’s mom on Modern Family), who rules with all the force of a 12-person condo association. But the plot itself is cookie-cutter, and the basic premise is a bit of a head-scratcher.

I mean, if you’ve been an unmarried, childless teacher living in the same apartment in New York City for 40+ years and you learned that you’re dying of ovarian cancer, would you sell everything you own at a sidewalk sale and buy a home in a Georgia retirement community that bills itself as “active”? Why buy a home in a brand new area surrounded by complete strangers when you have only months to live? Wouldn’t you rent until you had to go into hospice?

Or maybe that’s the point. We’re all dying, but at different rates. Instead of sitting around waiting for it to happen, get out of your comfort zone and do something to feel alive again and take your mind off of the inevitable. That’s not a bad message. In fact, it probably deserves a plot all its own, instead of a clichéd structure that starts with the main character deciding to start or reactivate a club or band or put together some sort of show to save something, then follow up with the obligatory “tryouts” montage, then footage of failures along the way, a crisis of some sort, and, finally, the triumphant feel-good performance that saves the day . . . or comes close enough to make a difference. We’ve seen this plot so many times with younger casts that it’s not even close to fresh.

But as I said, the saving grace of Poms is the relationship that develops between Martha (Keaton), the uptight newcomer to this senior community, and Sheryl (Weaver), the wild and crazy neighbor who’s into dating younger men and lives a life that’s a little more “active” than the brochure advertised. She’s the free spirit who pulls Martha out of her funk, and then it’s Martha who finds new purpose in life. And that’s a message that any viewer can take to the bank, whether what remains of your life is years or decades. But another artificial plot device is that Sheryl’s grandson (Charlie Tahan) lives with her, if only for the purpose of matching up with a young cheerleader (Alisha Boe) in an attempt to broaden the audience beyond seniors. There’s always a defector—in this case that high school cheerleader who thinks her young friends are talking too much trash about these sincere old ladies and agrees to help them—well, after she’s blackmailed (“You’re one of us now. Except for higher boobies.”).

Nothing in life changes much. Former cheerleader and probably mean girl Vicki (Weston), who’s the senior community prima donna, still has her suck-up entourage who nod in agreement with everything she says. And regardless of location, the community’s security Chief Carl (Bruce McGill) is as familiar a trope as Barney Fifte was in Mayberry—a sometimes gung-ho but generally nice guy who really doesn’t have as much authority as he’d like to think he does. It’s kind of hilarious that his “deputy” here is an old woman who rides shotgun in their official golf cart (Carol Sutton as Ruby).

There are at least a half dozen genuinely funny moments in this film, with one of them coming when a high school mean girl quips “Break a hip” when the old cheerleaders are ready to go onstage and no-filter Sheryl retorting, “Get pregnant.”

Unlike band or cheerleading or dance movies where the performances are kind of amazing, what we watch these seniors do is not all that interesting to watch and far less amazing than the fact that they’re doing it at all. While the characters themselves are sincerely portrayed and threaten to burst the bonds of their “types,” they really did deserve a more original script.

Language: These old gals have a bit of a potty mouth, and there’s at least one f-bomb and what seems like an abundance of other swearwords—more shocking because of the surprise factor that it comes out of the mouths of these older women

Sex: Lots of sex talk and innuendo (“Oh, we’re talking about erections now?”) but nothing shown and no physical action implied onscreen—only referred to

Violence: Nothing here to single out

Adult Situations: There is drinking and some smoking

Takeaway: When you get a consummate pro like Keaton and give her a good supporting cast, they can almost rescue a tired screenplay . . . almost

Review of THE HUSTLE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
2019, 93 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content and language
MGM / Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Rebel Wilson was funny in the Pitch Perfect movies and Bridesmaids, but films like The Hustle continue to prove that she’s not well suited to play a leading role. Her schtick, let’s call it, is a comedy of character that’s not up to the fast pace of the 2010s. It’s like watching Stan Laurel wiggle and squirm and fiddle with his hat and slowly, increment by increment, try to react or explain something to a befuddled partner (or audience). At some point, you tend to lose patience because the humor, often crude or full of innuendo, is so protracted out. Instead of a bouncy spring, it’s drawn out so it becomes flat as can be.

That’s the adjective that best describes The Hustle: flat. It’s lacking energy, and features only a handful of laugh-out-loud moments where you think, gee, I wish there were more of those. And they’re all in the trailer. The plot, meanwhile, is a rehash of things we’ve seen before, which only adds to the movie’s flatness. And that’s not even getting into co-star Anne Hathaway’s “British accent,” which sounds like the kind of accent that you or I would attempt at a party to amuse folks. As a snooty Brit con artist, she just isn’t convincing enough. And Wilson, as her American counterpart, is also a bit hard to believe as a con artist who could make men part with their money.

The film is a remake or variation of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which Michael Caine and Steve Martin played two con artists with gigantic egos who decide once and for all to see who’s the best by having a contest to see who can be the first to bilk an American heiress out of $50,000. In this version, given inflation, the bet is $500,000, and the players are a small-time grafter (Wilson as Penny) and a sophisticated and very rich con artist (Hathaway as Josephine). They meet in Europe when Penny gets in the way of Josephine’s con and also turns up on the French Riviera after learning that’s where Josephine is going . . . and where the really rich people are. After competing they finally decide to team up, and that leads to scrambled egos with egg on Penny’s face, which leads to the ultimate contest over a goofy, nerdy, rich tourist (Alex Sharp as Thomas). More

Review of POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 104 min., Color
Animation-Live Action-Adventure
Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

My son was into Pokémon when he was younger; my daughter, not at all. From talking with other parents that seems to be fairly common. There are video games and collectors’ cards that can be used to play games and battles and powers and all manner of things that my son could rattle off as if it were all quite elementary. He told me it was like chess: as complicated or as simple as you wanted to make it.

Detective Pikachu, the first live-action film based on the Pokémon franchise, seems to have been made to work on multiple levels as well. There are allusions and references to Pokémon powers and battles that those unfamiliar with the Pokémon universe will choose to ignore, while others will have their heads spinning with recognition. On it’s simplest level, Pokémon are creatures with various powers, and those creatures are pursued by humans that call each other “Pokémon trainers,” because they then battle their Pokémon against those of other trainers for sport.

Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) gave up Pokémon training after his mother died and his father remained absent in his life. Instead, the 21 year old joined the work world. One day he’s told that his father, a detective, was apparently killed in a car crash, and Tim travels to Ryme City—a utopian city where Pokémon and humans live in harmony and equality—in order to meet with the police officer in charge and collect his father’s personal effects. More

Review of WILD KRATTS CREEPY CREATURES! (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (ages 3-8)
2011, 2015, 75 min. (2 episodes), Color
Not Rated (would be TV-G)
PBS
Aspect ratio: 16×9
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s not exactly family movie night material, but episodes of Wild Kratts—a half-animated, half-live nature show featuring the brothers who gave us Zoboomafoo—will entertain and inform children ages 3-8.

Chris and Martin Kratt’s series, which airs on PBS KIDS GO, is a hybrid that combines the brothers’ nature show activities with a cartoon segment that feels like a cross between The Magic School Bus and a Disney animated series like Kim Possible or Phineas and Ferb.

Each episode of Wild Kratts: Wildest Animal Adventures begins with the real-life brothers in the wild, pointing out an animal with a curious trait—say, for example, the Basilisk lizard that can walk and run on water—and then the brothers morph into cartoon versions of themselves in order to explore the animal’s “powers” and, with the help of a suit that looks a little like a cousin to Iron Man’s, acquire that animal power. It all happens within the animated framework of a story that often involves saving a particular animal from human encroachment, a world problem, or even a Disney-style villain. Though the characters seem unnecessary, there’s also a crew at the computer center in Tortuga helping the brothers once they’ve transformed or are on their way in various animal-shaped vehicles to get a better look. It’s clearly a way to include children of both genders in the show, but they really feel like window dressing, and some children will prefer more nature footage to the Tortuga gang “interruptions.”

The brothers say they got into animation because it gave them a chance to feed their (and children’s) imaginations and project what it might be like to have the ability to fly, swim, leap, see at night, or any of the other animal “superpowers.” And it is kind of fun. Again, I’m not sure that the show needed villains—especially ones that remind you of standard cartoon bad guys—but obviously the brothers thought that it might be yet another “hook” to get kids less innately fascinated by nature into the show. My son would have loved this show if it were around when he was younger, but as a nature guy he would have preferred more live footage than the intro-outro we get for each episode. More

Review of PLUS ONE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No–parents only!
2019, 99 min., Color
Comedy-drama romance
RLJE Films
Not rated (would be R for drinking, drunkenness, drugs, language, and implied sex)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

This one is for parents only—parents who are fans of romantic comedies but also like to show a little love for indie filmmaking. For best results, save Plus One for a night after the kids have been a real handful and you’re both exhausted and secretly thinking back to how carefree everything was before the first bundle of joy arrived, or even before you got married. Watching Plus One will make you appreciate every last difficult minute you spend with your family.

If this film has an underlying social message, it’s that being single sucks, so single parents be warned. More cautionary tale than standard romantic comedy, Plus One is nonetheless totally aware of the romantic comedy conventions: boy has a meet-cute with girl, they fall in love, they lose each other and realize what they lost, and they get together again, just in time for the happy ending. Because of that genre self-awareness, you know pretty much where this film is headed, without even looking much farther than the premise: Ben (Jack Quaid, who looks a bit like Joel McHale with a beard) and his loud, force-of-nature college friend Alice (Maya Erskine, PEN15), find themselves with 10 weddings to attend over the summer—some his, some hers. To get through them, Alice gets Ben to agree to be each other’s “plus one” to avoid sitting at the singles table (a.k.a. the kids table). So yeah, you fully expect them to get together. More

Review of MISSING LINK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 94 min., Color
Animation
Laika / 20th Century Fox
Rated PG for action peril and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

In announcing Missing Link at Cannes in 2018, the Laika animation CEO crowed, “Missing Link is an artistic and technical wonder. Led by our visionary director Chris Butler, Laika has once again blended fine art, craftsmanship, and cutting-edge technology to achieve something we’ve never tried before: a raucous comedy entwined with a swashbuckling epic, underscoring the universal need to find belonging.”

And for a change, it wasn’t just typical Hollywood hype. Missing Link is both visually stunning and richly imagined, and the quirky plot is powered by a blend of physical humor that children will appreciate, as well as allusions and verbal gags that are meant for the adults. But it’s also warm-hearted, with some positive messages embedded in the story. In other words, this a perfect choice for family home movie night—if, that is, your family likes stop-motion animation and the distinctively rendered characters, some of which have harsh angular or pointy features.

I’ll confess to not being a fan of stop-motion animation (often called “Claymation”), but the Laika group has created a film that’s as fluid looking as traditional animation. Producer Arianne Sutner (Kubo and the Two Strings) said in the 2018 announcement that they “created 110 sets with 65 unique locations to achieve the film’s scale, majesty, and geographic beauty.” And again, I couldn’t have described it better. The film includes their inventive takes on Victorian England, the American Old West, Old World Spain, the Tibetan Himalayas, and incredible variations of the natural world that lie in between. Missing Link is one of those films that just leaves you smiling or awestruck every time there’s a set change.

And that’s just the art design and animation. The plot itself may sound far-fetched, but you’re almost immediately sucked into the premise and the film quickly feels like a Crosby-Hope-Lamour road picture adventure, with flashback similarities to the animated Road to El Dorado, and Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Up. It’s a classic pursuit tale where the pursuers are also being pursued.  More

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