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Review of ROAD TO UTOPIA (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
1945, 90 min., Black & White
Adventure-Comedy
Not rated (would be PG for adult elements)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Road to Morocco, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour’s fourth “road” picture, Road to Utopia, received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay—one reason why both of the musical comedies are considered the best of the bunch. There’s more plotting, more clever lines, and a more ambitious narrative arc in each of them.

The action takes place in Seattle and Alaska shortly after the Klondike Gold Rush around the turn of the century, making Road to Utopia (1945) the only road picture with a historical backdrop. It’s also the only road picture to use a frame device that takes full advantage of the audience’s familiarity with other road pics. This time it’s made clear that Hope, not Crosby, got the “girl,” as the film opens with a made-to-look-old Hope and Lamour as a married couple who get a surprise visit from their old friend, Duke, and they reminisce about the adventure that led to their separation.

In Utopia, Hope and Crosby play two vaudeville performers (what else?) who are working a scam called “Ghosto,” in which audience members are urged to wager money by placing it in a box to see if the “spirit” (Hope, as Chester, curled up underneath) will take the money and replace it with a larger bill. Duke (Crosby) wears the swami getup and solicits the cash, and all goes well enough until two murderers evading police chase through the theater. When the Ghosto table is overturned and the crowd sees it’s a scam, they take after Chester and Duke (Crosby), who scram with the money. After Duke swipes all of it and Chester follows him aboard the boat to get it back, the steamer horn sounds and they find themselves bound for Alaska.

It’s when Duke and Chester lose their money, stowaway, and are caught that the plot really kicks into high gear and never downshifts. Forced to clean cabins, the boys stumble onto the gold mine map that everyone is looking for. Then, confronted by the murderers Sperry and McGurk, they somehow manage to subdue the men, shave off their beards, and swap clothes. Assuming their identity, they disembark in Skagway and learn in short order just how feared Sperry and McGurk really are. The fun, of course, comes from watching the cowardly Chester and mild-mannered Duke masquerade as tough guys (“I’ll have a lemonade,” Chester says to the bartender, adding, after realizing he’s broken character, “in a dirty glass!”). Some of the action takes place in a saloon, where there’s drinking and smoking and chewing tobacco, but the jokes and the boys’ trying to act tough take center stage.

In the chain of events that follows, Lamour plays Sal, whose father was murdered for the map. She thinks saloon owner Ace Larson (Douglass Dumbrill) and his gal Kate (Hillary Brooke) are going to help her get the mine back, but really they want it for themselves. And of course Sperry and McGurk, once they get loose, are also hot on the trail of the map and the men who are impersonating them.

All of the road pictures have moments where the fourth wall is broken, but in this one it’s done in a way that some might find more annoying. Former New Yorker columnist and humorist Robert Benchley introduces the film and interrupts the film occasionally in a freeze-frame insert of himself, commenting on what “we’re seeing.” When the film was made, the interruptions themselves would have seemed funny to audiences, but that’s no longer the case. And frankly, Benchley’s running commentary isn’t funny. It’s something to be tolerated or ignored.

Thankfully the banter between Hope and Crosby is nearly as good as it was in Road to Morocco, and the plot is fun and fast-paced enough to where Benchley is easy to ignore. Though the music isn’t as catchy as Morocco, Johnny Mercer’s rendition of the song “Personality” hit #1 on the music charts, and Hope and Crosby’s “Put It There, Pal” is a pretty good BFF tune for the times.

Older family members will appreciate this comedy of character and one-liners, while the action and the dogs and dogsledding—especially one Saint Bernard that “adopts” the boys—should keep the younger ones interested. If this were a race, Road to Morocco still finishes first, but Road to Utopia comes in a strong second.

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Review of AQUAMAN (2018) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes (parental judgment required)
2018, 143 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1 and 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: A-/B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Critics at Rotten Tomatoes only gave Aquaman a 65 percent “fresh” rating, but I think maybe they’ve got a trident stuck somewhere. What do they want from a superhero movie? It can’t possibly be the same things my family wants, because this 2018 action-adventure starring Jason Momoa checked all our boxes.

Epic story? Check. At 143 minutes it might be around 10 minutes too long, but we get a wide sweeping origin story that begins when the Queen of Atlantis washes ashore and is taken in by a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), with whom she eventually falls in love and has a son—a little demigod they name Arthur. The Queen (Nicole Kidman) had been fleeing an arranged marriage with the King of Atlantis, and there’s no running from a guy like that. She sacrifices herself so her son and earthbound husband can live—but not before instructing her trusted advisor, Vulko (Willem Dafoe), to secretly teach her son how to become a powerful warrior well schooled in the ways of the ocean and its people. There are plenty of complications, but not so many that they get tangled up with each other and end up tripping the narrative. At some point this turns into a quest story, with Arthur searching to find the powerful Trident of Atlan that would allow him to triumph over his half-brother and take the throne he’s destined to occupy because as half-man and half-Atlantean he’s in a position to unite the two worlds—or at least stop an Atlantean-led invasion of the “surface” people. More

Review of ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Almost (parental discretion advised)
2018, 118 min., Color
Action sci-fi-comedy
Marvel Studios
Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

We’ve gotten to the point where we know a Marvel superhero movie is going to be good, just as surely as we know that legendary Stan Lee is going to turn up in a cameo. Ant-Man and the Wasp is another solid entry in what’s becoming a long line of solid Marvel productions. A little less dark and violent than some of the Marvel movies, it’s also one that’s close to being appropriate for the whole family. It’s just a question of where parents draw the line with sci-fi violence.

Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly click pretty well together as the title characters, and if you don’t happen to have seen (or remember) Captain America: Civil War, not to worry. There’s enough exposition included for you to have an idea of why Scott Lang (Ant-Man) is currently wearing an anklet and serving a two-year sentence under house arrest. In fact, the plot of Ant-Man and the Wasp is much easier to follow than any of the Avengers films, which is another reason why children younger than 13 can also enjoy this one. It’s not just miniaturization they’ll see, but mega-enlargement as well, and that’s fun for any age. More

Review of SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Entire family: No (parental discretion advised)
2018, 135 min., Color
Sci-fi/fantasy Adventure
LucasFilm/Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Whoever came up with the high concept Solo: A Star Wars Story hit upon a guaranteed way to put people in the theaters. According to one audience poll, Han Solo is the fourth most popular character in the franchise—behind Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that heavy-breathing übervillain, Darth Vader. The problem is that the beloved character was originally played by a beloved actor, and that had to have posed a casting nightmare. How do you replace a charismatic actor like Harrison Ford while also creating a believable backstory involving a younger version of Han Solo?

With great difficulty, it turns out. If Alden Ehrenreich were playing a brand new character, everything would be two thumbs up in the Star Wars universe. He’s engaging enough and, with a little time to get to know him better, would probably evolve into an even more likeable character. The problem is that fans can’t help but compare his portrayal of Solo to Ford’s, and any gaps will be perceived as flaws, not differences of interpretation. This Han isn’t as consistently boyishly and roguishly charming in the self-deprecating, sarcastic manner that made Ford’s character so popular. More

Review of JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No (Age 10 and older?)
Sci-fi/Adventure
Universal
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science fiction violence and peril
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-X, Dolby Atmos
Bonus features:  B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

As the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom box notes remind us, it’s been three years since Jurassic World, the theme park and luxury resort, was destroyed by dinosaurs who had gotten loose, and though all humans evacuated the island the dinosaurs remained, living now as nature may have intended 150 million years ago.

But the volcano on Isla Nubar is erupting and threatening to destroy all dinosaurs on the island while the world watches, helpless. Former Jurassic World employee Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Harper) has launched a campaign to save the dinosaurs, and before long Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is recruited to help with the dinosaur extraction. Of particular interest is Blue, the most intelligent dinosaur on the island, who moviegoers may remember was a Velociraptor raised and trained by Owen.

The main company is ostensibly committed to rescuing the dinosaurs—to save them from going extinct a second time—but when Claire and Owen get there and find that mercenaries are involved, it’s never a good sign. Neither is a sneaky CEO who seems to be giving orders contrary to what the remaining co-founder of Jurassic World would want. The save-the-dino folks and the mercenaries are at cross-purposes, as they were in Disney’s animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It’s a familiar concept, whether it’s saving lost civilization or an island full of dinosaurs: business versus science. We saw that theme play out in the King Kong films, just as we’re seeing it play out now in America as environmentalists and national park employees try to resist a business-driven administration that’s determined to open up more sanctuary land to development. So yes, the plot is very familiar, and when you see flashbacks showing Owen with baby Blue you realize that there are fewer tender moments here as well. More

Review of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Age 10 and older?
2018, 149 min., Color
Sci-fi/Fantasy Action-Adventure
Marvel/Disney
Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Best Buy link

The Marvel Universe has grown so large and complicated that it sometimes takes a fanboy to keep it all straight. But thankfully, Avengers: Infinity War isn’t all that hard to follow. For the casual film fan, that’s a big plus. Another is that Marvel-Disney has figured out that if you add enough cleverly written dialog and humor to an action film, it can compensate for any lack of character development and keep the action from seeming repetitive or mindless. And for a doom-and-gloom ending to The Avengers’ saga, a little bit of humor can go a long way. There’s something here to keep you on the edge of your seat, and something to make you smile.

And let’s be clear: the action is pretty spectacular. My son, who’s the Marvel devotee of the family, said he liked Avengers: Infinity War every bit as much as one of his favorites, Captain America: Civil War—maybe even more. It is, we thought, possibly the strongest Avengers film to date, despite a downer ending that everyone seems to know about before even watching the film.

From my perspective, a film like this is a shoe-in for repeat play because of the quality script and actors who’ve grown so comfortable with their characters that they fit like latex gloves. You buy into it because they buy into it, and you have fun because you’re watching them have fun, even as they sacrifice everything to meet the challenge of defeating Thanos (Josh Brolin) before he can gather up all the powerful infinity stones (e.g., Power Stone, Time Stone, Mind Stone, Soul Stone) and get the collective power he needs to destroy enough of the universe to “prune it back,” to reverse overpopulation by killing massive amounts of peoples. More

Review of READY PLAYER ONE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/A
Entire family: No (10 and older)
2018, 140 min., Color
Sci-fi Action-Adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity, and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHd
Bonus features: A-/B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

What a fun ride this is—Jason and the Golden Fleece for the 21st century. Fantastic graphics and CGI special effects, plus a strong, suspenseful story and likable characters make Ready Player One a real winner for all ages.

Based on the young adult novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One requires knowledge of video gaming no more than another Steven Spielberg directed film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, required viewers to have seen a UFO. Sure, audience members will reach another level of allusions if they’re gamers, but there are plenty of cultural markers here for non-players to enjoy.

Besides, the film’s overtly stated theme is that maybe, just maybe, people spend too much of their lives avoiding reality, so parents thinking that this is just another film that glorifies video and online gaming so much that it’s a virtual commercial can relax. Cline and Spielberg are on your side.

Ready Player One is set in 2044-45, when so many people live in slums or have mediocre lives that just about everyone dons virtual reality headgear in order to spend time in the OASIS, a virtual reality world where people go after work or school to relax, have adventures, and meet other people. They all have avatars and other names when they’re in the OASIS, and that’s when Spielberg and his effects team really gets going. But the opening slums known as the “stacks” are also pretty impressive—a trailer park of sorts for the future, with mobile homes stacked on ramshackle iron structures—an idea as unique as we’ve seen for future living prognostication. More

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