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Review of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13

Well, it’s out: Spider-Man’s identity and the film that almost wasn’t, now available on home video.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) almost didn’t happen because of corporate greed, but ironically ended up making more money than ever for Sony and Marvel-Disney, who couldn’t come to an agreement over future Spider-Man movies. Fan backlash sent them back to the negotiating table, and the resulting sequel to 2019’s Spider-Man: Far from Home became the highest grossing Spider-Man film and sixth-highest grossing film of all time.

No Way Home also got the highest ratings from critics and fans on Rotten Tomatoes, with 93 percent of critics and 98 percent of audience members loving it—better, even, than fan favorite Spider-Man 2 (2004) featuring Doc Oc.

See? Good things happen when you play nice and listen to fans. But it’s next to impossible to keep a secret from them. Word leaked that somehow previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would be involved.

Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers had taken inspiration from It’s a Wonderful Life, where a wish provided the basis for the plot and a domino chain of revelations. Far from Home ended with Spider-Man’s identity exposed and reputation destroyed. The writers decided to have him do what any young and still immature adult would do: wish it away. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to use his magic to make everyone forget Spider-Man’s identity so things can return to normal. But because he keeps tinkering with the spell by adding people he wants to still remember him—girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei)—the spell goes awry. The multiverse breals open, and visitors good and bad enter his universe.

McKenna and Sommers wrote the screenplay before Maguire and Garfield even agreed to participate. But their wishful thinking paid off. Fans have debated who’s the best, as they have with Bond actors. Dropping all three into the same film was pure genius—and it’s not just fan-candy or a curtain-call film. There’s actual chemistry among the three, and it’s fun seeing them not only work together as superheroes and compare powers, but also reference their own films.

There’s consistency, too, because Jon Watts—who directed the first two films starring Holland—is also behind the camera for this one. The light touch that’s been a part of his sensibilities is here in triplicate, and that’s good news for families. When the tone is light and there are moments that spark laughter, it tends to balance the fantasy-adventure violence and traumatic moments, sending a message to young viewers that this is first and foremost a fun ride. Enjoy it. Although a beloved character does die and there’s some blood, stabbing, and serious punching, the “reunion” aspect of former villains and heroes entering the current Spider-Man universe takes a little off the edge of the violence.

No Way Home earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects, and apart from a sequence involving power lines in a forested area that looks very much like it was shot using miniatures, I can see why. The complicated Tetris-like shifting of the urban landscape completely suggests a universe that is fracturing, and the portals that lead from one universe to the next are rendered convincingly. The film’s budget was estimated to be a whopping $200 million, but the opening weekend box office alone was $260 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Just one question:  When a superhero fall, lands, or finds their footing again, is it deliberately campy that every single time they assume that low-crouch, one-hand-on-the-ground superhero pose? And how long will it take Disney to realize that they can build a fun theme-park attraction for fans if they have people take turns assuming the pose in front of a green screen so they can see themselves in a finished shot with background added?

Entire family:  No (age 8 and older?)
Run time:  148 min.
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Columbia Pictures/Pascal Pictures/Marvel Studios
Bonus features:  B
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language, and brief suggestive comments

Language:  2/10—A few of the characters use the “s” word and there might be a few other lesser profanities, but no f-bombs

Sex:  1/10—Chaste as can be, with a few kisses plus an instance where a man is shown from the torso-up saying “I’m butt-ass naked”

Violence:  6/10—Punching, pummeling, explosions, and superhero-villain battling, but not much blood except for one emotional scene

Adult situations:  2/10—Really, all Marvel Universe films are adult-world films that kids have been a part of since the comic books first appeared, but in this one there are no drugs and the only scene that has anything close to drinking is an end-credit scene set in a bar

Takeaway:  The ending sets up fourth film, but thus far nothing is in pre-production

Review of THE PAPER TIGERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Action comedy-drama
Rated PG-13

If your family loved Cobra Kai—or even The Karate Kid films that preceded the popular TV series—and you’re looking for another martial arts offering that balances medium-intensity action, drama, and humor, you might consider The Paper Tigers. Yuji Okumoto, who appeared in the second Karate Kid film and also Cobra Kai, was the film’s producer.

This English-language 2020 martial arts film from director Quoc Bao Tran is as much in the tradition of old-guys-proving-they’ve-still-got-it tradition of films like Space Cowboys (2000) and Old Dogs (2009) as it is the kung fu movies. But don’t fear, younger viewers, there’s young martial arts action too. It’s just that the focus is on three middle-aged men whose bodies have seen better days. In other words, this isn’t your typical Asian martial arts film, though it does have an almost obligatory memorable fight scene.

The Paper Tigers features three likable guys who are just that: guys. Too many martial arts films are all action with nothing but paper characters—kung fu wizards who do little more than kick, block, and punch their way through every scene. The heroes of this film are Everymen, real flesh-and-blood people who just happen to have bonded in the youth when they were “The Three Tigers,” as their master dubbed them. One of the characters happens to be African American and the other two Asian American, but all three are treated as people because “at the end of the day, we wanted to tell a fun, entertaining story that depicted our experience honestly,” Tran told the media.

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Review of THE MARKSMAN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Action thriller
Rated PG-13

From the first scene where an aging Arizona rancher (Liam Neeson) stumbles onto a cartel “situation” and ends up with a bag full of money, to a scene that’s the equivalent of the Coen Brothers’ “coin toss scene,” The Marksman feels like a cheap knockoff of No Country for Old Men.  And with a little Hunt for the Wilderpeople added for good measure.

What cheapens it isn’t Neeson’s performance, but rather a formulaic approach to ticking off the boxes rather than concentrating on creating characters and relationships with any individuality or depth.

For one thing, first-time director Robert Lorenz spends too much time in the early going just establishing a few facts that could have been hinted at more subtly: 

—Jim Hanson was a Vietnam War veteran who earned a medal for marksmanship

—Jim Hanson is lost and lonely because his wife died of cancer

—Jim Hanson is going to lose his ranch unless he can come up with a lot of money to pay for back mortgage payments

The film is also marred by characters that push past stereotypes into caricature country.

Javier Bardem has nothing to fear from the cartel bad ass that Lorenz gives us here. Mauricio—called “Heffe” and played by Juan Pablo Raba—is too cartoonish to be chilling. He’s just a bad guy who sneers a lot and stares a lot in lingering close-ups. Oh we believe him when he says he’s going to kill the old rancher who drove away with the son of a Mexican woman he already killed at the border. And we believe he’s determined to recover the drug money that the boy’s (now deceased) uncle had taken from him and given to his (now deceased) mother. But Bardem as Anton Chigurh was a one-and-done, just as Heath Ledger’s lizard-tongued Joker was a one-time affair. Try to duplicate it and you’re doomed to fall short.  

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Review of THE COURT JESTER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Adventure Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

The Robin Hood legend gets a makeover and a different focal character in The Court Jester (1956), one of Danny Kaye’s best. Along with Bob Hope’s The Princess and the Pirate, it’s also one of the classic costume comedies from the Technicolor era.

Once you get past a slightly corny title-sequence song sung onscreen by Kaye, this medieval musical comedy-adventure is full of pageantry and fun. Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a minstrel among merry men who hide in the forest and serve a Robin Hood figure known as The Black Fox. Aside from providing entertainment, Hawkins’ main job is to attend to the true king of England—a baby that somehow escaped the slaughter ordered by King Roderick the Tyrant (Cecil Parker) by his henchman, Lord Ravenhurst. That includes changing diapers and pulling said diaper down to reveal a “purple pimpernel” (a takeoff on The Scarlet Pimpernel) to each subject, who then kneels.

Despite his own timidity, Hawkins yearns for a more active and manly job. He finally gets his chance when he’s ordered to team with the swashbuckling Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) and take the child to safety after the group’s forest lair had been discovered. What follows is a clever plot with more twists than a French braid and running gags involving mistaken identity, slapstick, tongue twisters, and snappy catch-phrases.

At $4 million, The Court Jester was the most expensive comedy filmed to date, and it has a lot of elements that still make it appealing for family viewing. Colorful costumes by Edith Head really pop in high definition and bring to life the grandeur of Hollywood’s romantic vision of castles and courtly intrigues. There’s a petulant princess (Angela Lansbury, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) who refuses to marry a blustery Scotsman just so her father can form a political alliance. That princess has an attendant (Mildred Natwick) who is also a sorceress capable of hypnotizing people. And there is a troupe of little persons (billed as Hermine’s Midgets) that perform acrobatics and clever stunts that factor heavily in the family-friendly action. The American Legion Zoaves from Jackson, Michigan even make an entertaining appearance in a sequence where a knighthood ceremony is comically rendered. More

Review of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Adventure
Rated PG (but see below)

Rudyard Kipling adventures have always been popular with Hollywood and its audiences. The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, Soldiers Three, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Wee Willie Winkie, and Kim were a part of every youngster’s coming of age in the last half of the 20th century. But filmmakers ignored Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King until the legendary John Huston took up the challenge in 1975.

Maybe that’s because “The Man Who Would Be King,” one of the stories published in Kipling’s The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales (1888), is a little more adult than this film’s PG rating would suggest. The heroes are amoral at best, and in addition to adult situations there are a few grisly elements.

If your family saw and enjoyed The Road to El Dorado, that 2000 animated adventure was also based on “The Man Who Would Be King,” but softened for family audiences. This feature from the director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and The Misfits stays pretty close to Kipling’s original tale.

The story follows the exploits of two former British soldiers who had fought in India and Bharat and now crave adventure more than a return to England, retirement, or respectability. They’re rogues, really, who seem nice enough yet don’t give killing a second thought. They’re also motivated by greed and self-interest—not exactly the kind of heroes that Hollywood gravitated towards. But the anti-hero that had become popular in the late ‘60s paved the way for audiences to watch Peachey Carnehan (Sir Michael Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Sir Sean Connery) with fascination, if not admiration. More

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. More

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

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