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Review of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: No
Sci-Fi Action-Adventure
2019, 129 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Columbia Pictures / Marvel Studios
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Some franchises age better than others. Spider-Man, in fact, keeps getting younger as the studio aims for a youthful, social media savvy audience. In fact, 22-year-old British actor Tom Holland learned he got the role of Spider-Man three years ago via an Instagram post.

In some respects, Holland has come a long way since he played the lead in Billy Elliott: The Musical, but in other respects he’s still playing that awkward youth who struggles as much with his own self-image as any other adolescent or teen. In Spider-Man: Far from Home—his fifth film wearing the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man costume (counting appearances in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame in addition to the 2017 film Spider-Man: Homecoming)—Holland as Peter Parker is awkward around girls, unsure of himself, and as reluctant a hero as ever there was.

Director Jon Watts said that audiences responded well to the high school student excursion to Washington D.C. monuments in Homecoming, so it was a no-brainer to take those students abroad. But some parents might wish that the kids traveled with a teacher who wasn’t cut from the Disney Channel template of clueless adults, more cardboard comic relief than flesh-and-blood character. Still, I suppose if Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) wasn’t so clueless, there’d be no way to quickly and easily move the group from one part of Europe to allow Peter Parker to do his “Peter tingle” job, as his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) likes to call it. More

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

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Adventure-Fantasy
2019, 128 min., Color
Rated PG for some action/peril
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

While Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated classics have been hit or (near) miss, the 2019 remake of Aladdin is a hit—and don’t let any of the Will-Smith-shouldn’t-have-been-the-Genie complainers tell you differently. Smith is just fine as the genie whose many moods and mannerisms help pace the film. And if you don’t believe me, go to Rotten Tomatoes, where you’ll see that Aladdin received the highest audience rating of any of the live-action remakes.

Smith said that he loved Robin Williams’ manic performance in the 1992 animated classic, but he had no intention of trying to duplicate it—partly because it was the right thing to do out of respect for Williams, but partly because it was the sane thing to do. You can’t beat Williams at manic improvisation, so you might as well carve out your own niche. Smith manages to entertain as the bright blue genie, who fast-talks, sass-talks, back-talks, and even throws in some improvisations of his own—all while managing to carve out his own version of the character.

Meanwhile, Disney struck casting gold with Egyptian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Today’s teens and tweens are into Hollywood’s beautiful twentysomethings, but don’t look for Massoud to be bare-chested throughout the film, as the animated Aladdin was. Director Guy Ritchie thought it would be too distracting on a human, and he’s probably right. Massoud and Scott have great chemistry together and individually they’re charismatic, warm, and talented. Young viewers might also recognize Scott from the Disney channel movie Lemonade Mouth and the TV series Life Bites. More

Review of THE FIRST KING: BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
Historical Drama, Action
2019, 123 min., Color
Not rated (would be R for graphic violence throughout)
Well Go USA Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Latin DTS-HDMA 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Trailer
Amazon link

The First King: Birth of an Empire (originally titled Romulus and Remus: The First King) is an Italian film in Latin with English subtitles (and a dubbed English option) that’s epic insomuch as it’s the story of the founding of Rome in 750 B.C.

But don’t approach this film thinking you’ll see a story related to that famous 5th century B.C. sculpture of The Capitoline Wolf suckling the child figures of Romulus and Remus (which, incidentally, were added in the 15th century A.D.). The story begins with the twins as full-grown men.

Likewise, don’t think that this film has anything at all to do with images of Ancient Rome that you might have in your head. Director Matteo Rovere’s stylish 2019 film has more in common with sagas of ancient barbarians, with a treatment that’s less “Roman” and cinematically epic than it is a second-cousin to the old Hammer films, with their brooding atmospheric narratives paced to allow atmosphere and place to become as important as the characters in those early pagan dramas.

If you happen to know the story of Romulus and Remus, don’t expect a start-to-finish retelling of their story—a fictionalized myth of the founding of Rome that sprang up in the 3rd century B.C. In this  version, their mother isn’t a vestal virgin and daughter of a king deposed by his brother. She could be, but there’s no mention of it. Legend has it that the twins were saved from drowning by the god Tiberinus, then suckled by a she-wolf and eventually found and adopted by a shepherd. That could have happened as well, but again there’s no mention of it.

When a flash flood sweeps the adult Romulus and Remus and their flock downriver, they’re found by Alba and his men and imprisoned in wooden cages. Other slaves have also been captured. Here’s where it takes a Braveheart or Spartacus turn and Romulus and Remus rise up to free themselves and the other slaves. But their escape is jeopardized not only by a soon-in-pursuit Alba, but by tensions and fighting among their own factions. At the center of the conflict is a “god” that Romulus insisted they bring with them—represented by an eternal fire in a small pot that’s carried by a virgin in the service of the god. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that she prophecies one day, while fondling what looks like a piece of liver, that one of the brothers will become king and founder of an empire while the other will fade into darkness:  one brother will kill the other. More

Review of GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
Sci-Fi Action
2019, 132 minutes, Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

A fellow film critic once quipped, “If all movie critics agreed, only one of us would have a job.” But every now and then we watch a film and find ourselves saying the exact same thing.

In the case of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it’s that the film has great special effects, great action sequences, and a score that amplifies the mayhem. But if you’re looking for any kind of clever plotting or characters with meat on their bones, you’d better look elsewhere.

This 2019 film by Michael Dougherty gets off to a start so fast it would make bobsledders envious. But after that it’s one big downhill slide. Vera Farmiga plays the familiar character of a scientist that none of her colleagues believe. The action takes place five years after monsters collectively referred to as “Titans” had resurfaced and were somehow contained for scientific study . . . or pure containment. When a larval Mothra goes crazy, Dr. Emma Russell calms her down with a sonic device known as an “Orca.” That killer (whale) name notwithstanding, music still apparently calms the savage beast—even if it’s newer than New Age and projected on a frequency that would get dogs howling. 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 SHAZAM! (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (really!)
2019, 132 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

In Shazam!, a teen foster kid turns into a fully costumed adult superhero with a lightning symbol on his chest every time he shouts “SHAZAM”—the name of an ancient wizard who passed along his power to the lad because he was “pure of heart.”

Except that in the early going we watch this Philly kid trick cops into a store, lock them in, steal the cop car, and, adding insult to injury, eat the driver’s steak sandwich and fries. Needless to say, Billy (mostly played by Asher Angel) has been in and out of foster homes for many years because of such delinquent behavior. But the message here comes across loud and clear: kids who do bad things can still be good, and let’s give a shout-out to all the foster parents out there who give them a chance. At one point we even see a close-up of his new foster’s car and the bumper sticker “I’m a foster mom—what’s your superpower?” Another theme that emerges is “Fosters are family,” something that’s reinforced by a third act team effort that’s needed to beat the evil supervillain.

But you might want to pay attention to that PG-13 rating, which, these days, means children 10 and older. The film gets off to a slow start, for one thing. The first-act set-up can seem both confusing and tedious to younger viewers because it intercuts the villain’s childhood back story with current attempts by foster-kid Billy to locate the mother he lost at a carnival when he wandered off many years ago. But just as Billy has a dual identity—kid and adult—this film at times seems great for kids, while there are other times when those kids had better leave the room . . . or be traumatized.

Truly frightening things happen when the seven deadly sins are personified as real monsters that do some really monstrous things—like biting people’s heads off. And the supervillain (Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) is pretty darned menacing as the bitter adult version of a child once summoned by the wizard, but rejected . . . and by his father, as well, who blames him for a car accident that’s graphic enough that small children might fear everyone has been killed or seriously mutilated.  More

Review of CAPTAIN MARVEL (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
2019, 124 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Marvel / Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief suggestive language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widesscreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Two origin stories for the price of one?

That’s what Marvel Cinematic Universe fans get with Captain Marvel once S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) joins Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) a third of the way into the film. What might have been a warm-up for Shaft also turns out to be Jackson’s most entertaining role since Pulp Fiction.

Swagger + Banter + Bad Ass + Latent Rule-breaker + Alien Handler = a lot of fun to watch, especially playing opposite Larson, who for the first third of the film doesn’t seem to have the same ease prancing about in a superhero suit as, say, TV’s Melissa Benoist does as Supergirl. But Larson comes to life in her “buddy” interactions with Fury, the film takes off after that.

Fans who tire of the same basic plot—a supervillain poses a threat to Earth, so one or more superheroes have to rise to the occasion—will appreciate that the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers a different kind of narrative problem.

Not to be confused with Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who was a little too close to Superman for DC Comics’ comfort, Captain Mar-Vell first appeared in the 1967 comic Marvel Super-Heroes #12, yet another creation of Stan Lee’s, drawn by Gene Colan. In that first comic, Mar-Vell is a Kree “he” sent to Earth to observe their development of weapons technology. In 1982 Mar-Vell was replaced by a woman named Monica Rambeau in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, and the character changed again with Silver Surfer Annual #6 (1993), Captain Marvel #16 (2004), and Civil War: The Return (2007) before Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, got promoted to Captain for a role that (re)creator Kelly Sue DeConnick describes as “Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager.”

So did they finally get it right? Considering the success of rival DC Universe’s Wonder Woman, one would hope so. BC (Before Carol) the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t had a stand-alone female hero. Now they do, and her back story—a combination of elements from all of the Marvel comic renditions—isn’t as confusing or complicated as others have been. It’s just presented as flashback rather than in chronological time. More

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