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Review of LOVE AND MONSTERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-/B+
Sci-fi/Fantasy Adventure
Rated PG-13

Love and Monsters has a lot in common with 2009’s Zombieland, except that the post-apocalyptic plague that threatens surviving humans in this 2020 film consists of mutated monster-size insects and toads and such, rather than a viral-induced plague of zombies. Both are post-apocalyptic coming-of-age films.

Instead of an unproven and unsure-of-himself teen trying to get to his family in Ohio, Love and Monsters features an unproven and unsure-of-himself young adult (Dylan O’Brien)—more sensitive artist than warrior. After everyone in his survivor group had paired off romantically, Joel decides to leave the bunker and trek the “surface” for seven days to find the girlfriend he had acquired just as the catastrophe had struck seven years ago.

Instead of meeting and joining forces with a mentor who was an expert zombie killer in search of the last Twinkies on Earth (as Jesse Eisenberg’s character did), Joel meets up with a grizzled survivor (Dan Ewing) who has been living on the surface with an adopted young girl called Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). One quester learned the secrets of zombie killing and survival in a zombie world, while the other learns how to stay alive in a world filled with monsters that can attack at any moment.

Although Zombieland and Love and Monsters are both quest/survival stories involving a likable young male character, there is one important difference for families to note: Zombieland was rated R for horror violence/gore, while Love and Monsters is rated PG-13 for action/violence, language, and some suggestive material. The latter feels like a hero’s journey through a fantasy land filled with the kind of fantastic creatures one saw in films based on J.K. Rowling books, while the former features humans turning into zombies and then having to be killed. But visually they’re still humans, and as a result it feels more like killing than it does to eliminate an enormous and enormously fantastic monster. Plus, Zombieland was all about finding creative (and graphic) ways to kill zombies. It had a Whack-a-Mole feel to it, having more in common with slasher-horror movies than anything else. But the focus in Love and Monsters is more on Joel’s own survival and his quest for love. Love and Monsters feels like a fun monster movie, with a scarier Alice in Wonderland feel to it, which makes Love and Monsters more suitable for a younger audience—say, 8 years and up? More

Review of TWINS (1988) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action comedy
Rated PG

Bodybuilder turned actor turned governor Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as a straight-up action hero in most of his films, but he also appeared in four comedies: The Kid and I (2005), Jingle All the Way (1996), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Twins (1988). Of those, two are stinkers and the ones shot within two years of each other fall into the category of guilty pleasures—though audiences that first saw Twins in theaters weren’t feeling guilty at all. Twins grossed $216 million worldwide and provided Schwarzenegger and co-star Danny DeVito with a financial windfall, as the two had agreed to take 20 percent of the profits in lieu of their usual fees. Twins was also popular enough on home video releases that a sequel—Triplets—is now in preproduction.

The comedy’s basic premise easily could have been one that drove a sinister conspiracy film instead: research doctors seeking to create the perfect human recruited a woman to father a child that was the DNA-engineered product of six men. When the baby was born, doctors were surprised that the embryo had split somehow and a second baby followed. One (Schwarzenegger) had all the desirable elements of the six fathers’ DNA, while the other (DeVito) was the product of genetic leftovers.

The mother (Bonnie Bartlett) was told her baby died in childbirth, when really the boy had been shunted to a tropical island to be raised by one of the scientists. And the other? He was given to an orphanage, and turned out to be as the nuns predicted: a small time criminal whom you could most likely find in jail.

The plot starts in motion when the scientist raising the near-perfect Julius finally tells him about his brother, and Julius instantly sets out in a rowboat across the ocean to find him some 30 miles away in L.A. Meanwhile, our introduction to brother Vincent comes when we see the diminutive balding man with a pony tail rolling out of a second story window after the husband of a woman he’d been sleeping with came home unexpectedly and caught them. Apparently Vincent had seduced a nun when he was 12 and has had some sort of power over women ever since—which is harder to believe than the film’s basic premise. Get past that, though, and the plot plays out with the kind of light amusement you’d expect from a guilty pleasure, with a surprising amount of action involving two sets of bad guys that are after the twins. Some of them are loan sharks, while others are thugs hired to deliver some illicit merchandise that is inadvertently “detoured” by Vincent.

Twins relies on the contrast between brothers for its humor and interest. Julius has the kind of strength (and body, which we see bare-chested several times) needed to protect his ne’er-do-well brother, but Vincent has the street smarts. Not surprisingly, there’s a double character arc, with one brother so naïve that he has to learn about the basics of life (including sex), and the other so cynical and unscrupulous that he has to learn that family and people in your lives are worth being good for. Chloe Webb and Kelly Preston play two sisters that share the twins’ journey, and fans of old TV Westerns will also enjoy seeing an older but fit-as-Arnold Hugh O’Brian as one of the twins’ fathers. O’Brian played Wyatt Earp and still looks like he could handle whatever bad guys might jump him.

Twins only earned a 43 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but legendary film critic Roger Ebert thought it warm and goofy enough to merit three stars out of four. I’m almost in Ebert’s camp. The ‘80s saw world tensions grow as then-President Ronald Reagan raised tensions by challenging the Soviet Union with a hardline approach, so it’s no wonder that ‘80s comedies were lightweight, with uncomplicated plots. Twins is typical of the decade and has about the same entertainment value as other ‘80s comedies, such as Spies Like Us, Wildcats, and Caddyshack.

How is it for family viewing? Although Twins has a wholesome message that can resonate especially with children who feel they’re not as smart or athletic or talented as their sibling(s), the scenes do feature less than savory situations. The main characters get in fights, they drive stolen cars, they talk about getting lucky, and they go up against an assassin. Still, the film pulled down a PG rating, and it’s all pretty tame by today’s standards.

Entire family: No (12 and older?)
Run time: 107 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Universal/Shout! Factory
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG for some violence, suggestive situations, and language

Language: 3/10—A few dozen lesser swearwords (“dickhead” the most colorful) and several instances of God’s name taken in vain

Sex: 2/10—Two instances of people in bed with before or after sex implied, but nothing shown; a man looks at a Playboy magazine; several references to sperm and virginity and sex

Violence: 4-10—Two assassinations (offscreen), several fistfights, a few chases and crashes, and a death by bizarre (nongraphic) means, plus two scenes with blood (bodies discovered and men shot) 

Adult situations: Several characters smoke and drink

Takeaway: Twins is from director Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters, Kindergarten Cop, Six Days Seven Nights), and his light touch is evident throughout the film.

 

Review of MULAN (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Action-Fantasy
Rated PG-13

When it comes to live-action remakes of Disney animated films, there are two types of people: those who want a near-exact copy of the original, and those willing to accept the live-action version as a completely new work of art and entertainment. And people who expect Disney to remain faithful to the 1998 original aren’t loving this 2020 remake of Mulan: Where are the songs? Where’s Mushu? Where’s the cricket? Where’s Shang? And what the heck is a witch doing in this story?

Yeah, about that: Disney opted to go the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon route, with an emphasis on mysticism and the fantastic in a film that showcases martial arts action sequences, along with a heaping portion of qi. It’s not exactly new territory for them. Disney-owned Miramax rolled out Hero in 2002 just two years after Crouching Tiger changed the landscape for martial arts movies. As in Hero, the fight sequences in Mulan 2020 are gravity-defying and poetic in their movement and choreography, even if the fights themselves aren’t quite as spectacular as those you encounter in some of the best martial arts films. Which is to say, überfans of martial arts flicks aren’t loving this film so much either, because Disney likes to steer the ship right down the middle, aiming always for a general audience. The sequences are less violent and bloody so the film could earn a PG-13 rating.

The live-action villain, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) may not be as deliciously villainous as Shan Yu from the animated version, but his witch cohort, Xianniang (Gong Li), is menacing enough for both of them. She’s also a shape shifter who can break apart and reassemble into hundreds of bat-like flying creatures. The live-action Mulan (Yifei Liu) doesn’t have any cutesy animal companions, and there’s less suggestion of attraction between her and the Commander (Donnie Yen) than there was in the animated version. Otherwise, the plot remains essentially the same. When invaders threaten China, the Emperor decrees that every family should send one man to fight to save the empire. Poor old Hua Zhou, a military hero in previous wars, can’t even accept his orders without falling. So naturally his feisty daughter Mulan decides to take his place and leaves in the dead of night with his armor, his sword, and his mount. If she’s discovered, she’ll be put to death for not recognizing her place as a woman.

Mulan 2020 is directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), and the film’s feminist themes come across even more forcefully than they did in the animated version. Young Mulan is already a warrior-woman in the making when we first see her as a child fearlessly chasing a chicken across rooftops (chickens on the roof?) and using a staff with the prowess of former martial arts star Jet Li, who plays the Emperor of China in this version. Though the live-action Mulan has to endure the same embarrassing encounters with a matchmaker, at least her father acknowledges the warrior and qi (life force) within her. So off she goes—without his knowledge or blessing and without the comedic talking dragon and cricket—to train with other draftees and eventually fight the invaders. More

Review of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Adventure
Rated G

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is available now on DisneyPlus, but since it came out on Blu-ray last year as a Disney Movie Club exclusive copies are also turning up on eBay now, if your family is building a Blu-ray library.

With Treasure Island (1950) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Disney made it clear that they were going to be big-time players in the live-action filmmaking business. How big? Well, to do the Jules Verne undersea adventure justice, Disney decided to shoot it in CinemaScope and Technicolor, which was so brand new that this was one of the first major films to get the vivid colors and ultra-widescreen treatment. Disney also spent a half-million dollars to reshoot the famous squid scene in order to get it right, and back in the 1950s that was a lot of Mickey money.

But it paid off. Anyone who’s been to one of the Disney theme parks knows that it’s all about attention to detail, and that holds true with the live-action adventures as well. It’s also about family and a certain level of wholesomeness. Though 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea features sci-fi elements, slave exploitation, and a mad captain who wants to destroy humanity to save it, this remarkable adventure is perhaps even more remarkable because it’s rated G. Ships explode and it’s known that lives are lost, but nothing graphic is shown except for that epic giant squid battle, a shark encounter, and a large- and small-scale fight where one main character is shot. Apart from several characters smoking, the use of the word “hell,” one character getting drunk, and some outdated cultural depictions of cannibals, it’s all pretty sin-free. Yet it remains exciting nearly 70 years later.

Verne was a visionary who was ahead of his time, but that also makes it last into the future, where some of his predictions came true and others remain to be discovered or implemented. It’s quite fascinating climbing aboard the uranium-powered Nautilus and witnessing how he’s able to derive everything from the sea. More

Review of GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (1997) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Rated PG

Not long ago Disney Movie Club released an exclusive Blu-ray version of the live-action adventure-comedy George of the Jungle, and even if you’re not a member there are copies to be had on eBay—many of them reasonably priced and still in shrink-wrap

Popular when it debuted in 1997 ahead of the original Jay Ward cartoon’s 30th anniversary, George of the Jungle grossed close to $175 million worldwide. It features a rare blend of comedy: humor that appeals to kids, but also humor that’s clever enough for adults. Fans of the cult-classic ‘60s TV series will appreciate that director Sam Weisman got the tone and treatment right. It’s one the most entertaining live-action film versions of an animated TV series—though admittedly that’s kind of a backhanded compliment, given such feature-length disappointments as The Flintstones, Casper, Dudley Do-Right, Fat Albert, and Inspector Gadget.

Still, I wouldn’t pay attention to the 5.5 out of 10 rating that close to 80,000 readers gave it at the Internet Movie Database, and I’d ignore the 56 percent “rotten” critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Legendary reviewer Roger Ebert was more on the money when he pronounced George of the Jungle a three-star movie (out of four). As he wrote when it was first released, this live-action film starring Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) “tries for the look and feel of a cartoon,” with the results being that it’s “sort of funny some of the time and then occasionally hilarious.”

It’s true. George of the Jungle is amusing throughout, but then you get these surprise laugh-out-loud moments—so many that I’d have to say the film borders on being consistently funny. There are clever one-liners, pop-culture allusions, running gags, pratfalls and physical comedy (even a banana peel joke), and yes, some mild scatological humor. And don’t worry about outdated cultural jungle stereotypes. They’re met head-on, and it’s the “native bearers” and super-intelligent talking Ape who get the last laugh.

After an animated title sequence that features the theme song and establishes the backstory of how George came to be raised by apes—and is a little clumsy when it comes to vine-swinging (“Watch out for that tree!”)—the film switches to live action, melding Jay Ward’s original characters, theme song and concepts with the Tarzan/Greystoke legend. More

Review of AGAINST ALL FLAGS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Adventure-Romance
Not rated (would be PG)

Hollywood made a lot of Westerns in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, but they also made a fair number of pirate movies. Against All Flags (1952) wasn’t one of the absolute best, but it gave audiences a rare pairing of Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara—both of whom had starred in swashbucklers before.

For Flynn, who first played a pirate in Captain Blood (1935) opposite Olivia de Havilland, his best swordplay was behind him. In Against All Flags he’s less jumpy, calmer, mellowed a bit with age, and no doubt slightly slowed by his bad-boy partying lifestyle. Yet, in this film that only makes him interestingly more human and less of a cardboard Hollywood leading man. For O’Hara, who had appeared in Spanish Main costumers with Tyrone Power and John Payne, The Black Swan remains her slightly superior pirate pic, but she’s at her feistiest in Against All Flags.

Here are my Top 10 pirate movies, so you can appreciate where I’m coming from:

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)—A
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)—A
  3. Captain Blood (1935)—A
  4. The Sea Hawk (1940)—A-
  5. The Crimson Pirate (1952)—A-
  6. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)—B+
  7. The Princess and the Pirate (1944)—B+
  8. Treasure Island (1950)—B
  9. The Black Swan (1942)—B
  10. Against All Flags (1952)—B-

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Review of GUNDALA (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Action
Not Rated (would be PG-13)

With the U.S. being the center of the Marvel and D.C. universes, it’s easy to think of superheroes as being an American thing. But Superman, “born” in 1938, debuted seven years after Japan’s Ogon Bat (“Golden Bat”), which is generally acknowledged to be the world’s first comic book superhero—that is, a hero with at least one super power.

Marvel and D.C. films are recognizably formulaic, so it’s fascinating to see how other countries “do” superhero films. Gundala is a 2019 cinematic origin story of the most popular superhero comic in Indonesia, a character created by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata in 1969. And there are some striking differences.

For one thing, American superheroes, even before they fully develop their powers, appear in almost every scene. That’s not the case with Gundala, which offers a complex web of characters that get plenty of screen time without the hero present. That’s one big difference. Another is that Gundala has terrific fight sequences and plays more like a martial arts film with all characters on equal footing than it does a superhero flick—at least for four fifths of the film. Yet another difference is that the actual superpower and how it works is murkier than an American superhero film. And the filmmakers aren’t interested in traveling the shortest distance between two points to explain it. They get there eventually, but they’re in no hurry. You can pinpoint at least three moments in the film when an American superhero would have pivoted and hit that moment of discovery or resolve earlier than our Indonesian hero, because Hollywood likes to keep it simple.

What’s immediately striking is that Gundala has strong production values and seems to have been made with subtitles in mind. Though the film is fast-paced, subtitle texts don’t speed by and the dialogue is short enough to enable non-Indonesian viewers to read them comfortably. More than any non-English film I’ve watched over the past several years, this one required no conscious effort to juggle the “reading” of images and reading of text. More

Review of ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action-Adventure
Not rated (would be PG)

“Open Sesame!”

Who hasn’t heard that phrase before, or immediately recognized it as the voice of Ali Baba? For that we can thank French translator Antoine Galland, who in the 1700s added “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to One Thousand and One Nights. Over time it became one of the collection’s most popular tales, but it gets a revisionist spin in this 1944 color film starring Jon Hall, who’s best known to Baby Boomers as Ramar of the Jungle and the director-star of the campy ‘60s sci-fi flicks The Beach Girls and the Monster and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters.

In the original tale, Ali is a common woodsman who happens upon a thieves’ hideout, discovers the secret of gaining entrance, and sneaks a bag of gold coins. But his sister-in-law learns about it and forces Ali to reveal where he got the gold from, so his brother can follow suit. That brother is killed, but with the help of a slave girl Ali gets revenge and emerges victorious.

In this film version, Ali is the rich son of the Caliph of Baghdad who escapes being killed with his father after Mongols seize the kingdom. Ali is taken in by the thieves and becomes the adopted son of their leader, Baba. Instead of a plot revolving around thievery and wealth, Ali and his band are freedom fighters dedicated to killing the Khan (Kurt Katch) and retaking Baghdad for their people.

Though it’s the kind of solid-but-generic sword-and-sandal film that Hollywood loved to make during the Golden Age, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves also has a campy feel to it because of the presence of veteran character actor Andy Devine, who made a career out of being the Western hero’s sidekick and delivering comic relief. It’s hard to see his rotund frame in Arab garb and hear his familiar raspy high-pitched voice without thinking of him in buckskin as Jingles in TV’s Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, or Cookie from the Roy Rogers feature films. Others will recognize him as the driver in John Ford’s Stagecoach, but regardless, seeing him in a different costume adventure or seeing him for the first time is enough to make you smile. More

Review of THE LAST VALLEY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Historical war-adventure drama
Rated PG

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that Shangri-La is never what it appears to be, because idylls are too close to idols and idles for comfort. Human nature always gets in the way of any Eden, and paradise seems always destined to be lost, as illustrated by this 1971 historical adventure-war drama.

Moviemakers were going different directions the year The Last Valley was released, with audiences latching onto tough-guy cops and P.I.s (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Shaft), racy literary adaptations (A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show), prostitutes (Klute, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), and the latest James Bond entry (Diamonds Are Forever). So The Last Valley was all but overlooked in America, despite its popularity in the U.K. and the pairing of Michael Caine (The Ipcress File) and Omar Sharif (Funny Girl, Dr. Zhivago).

Written and directed by James Clavell (To Sir with Love, also known for his novel Shogun that was made into a popular TV mini-series), the film raises a lot of questions about religion, war, and the very meaning and nature of existence. Mostly, though, it feels like an anti-war fable that grinds its gears toward the conclusion that conflict is futile yet, ironically, inevitable.

For an older film, it’s surprisingly compelling because it’s surprisingly fresh—well written and, except for a few melodramatic moments, superbly acted, with impressive location filming in Austria. Families who like the comedy Miss Congeniality will hardly recognize makeover artist Michael Caine decades earlier in this film as a captain who commands a group of mercenaries during Europe’s Thirty Years War. Superscript tells us at the film’s beginning that this 1618-48 war ravaged central Europe the same time as the plaque and was initially fought between Protestant and Catholic states in a deteriorating Holy Roman Empire. Then it became a fight for power and control, with wealthy noblemen and professional soldiers leading large armies of mercenaries from both religious sides as they spread across the countryside, destroying villages and raping and looting along the way. In effect, they put their religious differences on hold in order to pursue a common “bad”. A similar truce happens in The Last Valley. More

Review of THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Rated PG
Adventure-Drama

Writer-slash-prospector Jack London penned his classic third novel, The Call of the Wild, in 1903, and the first of seven film adaptations and TV series was released way back in 1935. As a result, people think they know this dog story even if they haven’t read or seen it. What they typically know is that it’s a Yukon gold rush story involving a sled dog. Since the other well-known thing London wrote was “To Build a Fire,” in which a man freezes to death, they naturally assume The Call of the Wild is a sad movie.

And in places, it is. If you have family members who are especially sensitive to bad things happening to animals, this first feature from 20th Century since Disney acquired the movie division of Fox might not be for them.

Overall, though, The Call of the Wild isn’t another weepy Marley & Me or Hachi: A Dog’s Tale or Old Yeller. {Spoiler alert—skip to next paragraph] Dogs are mistreated and animals and humans die—but not Buck.

Buck is the dog whose epic/episodic journey we follow, from owner to owner and from the easy California life of a pampered pet to the harsh world of a sled dog learning how to survive in the wild. Buck is also regrettably CGI, and it takes some time to adjust to that and accept him as a character. From the moment we see him bounding around a judge’s mansion it’s painfully obvious that we’re not watching a real dog. There’s just something “off” about the movement or design. But you get used to it, and as director Chris Sanders told ComingSoon.com, the decision to go with CGI animals was pretty much made for them, because “you just could not safely put a real dog” into the dangerous situations the film depicts. That includes some pretty spectacular scenes.

Sanders also said, “In a situation where you’re using real dogs, you would have a number of dogs playing Buck. So you might have two, three, four or more dogs that are specialized in different behaviors standing in for Buck, which means you’d have a huge inconsistency with these characters. But the most important thing is that we wanted this character to act and to be a character; this is a fable about a dog. The human beings are characters that come and go in Buck’s life . . . .” More

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