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Review of STAR WARS IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Sci-fi Fantasy

George Lucas and The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams had to be dreading the day when the last of the nine-film Star Wars franchise finally went into production—less so because a beloved series was ending, and more because fans have been notoriously hard on final installments. Just ask the Game of Thrones people. They know a little something about expectations being so high they can seldom be met.

But if you’re going to market all things Star Wars over four decades, including books about the various creatures, weapons, uniforms, and vehicles, you’ve got to expect that diehard fans are going to downgrade the film if they see inconsistencies, as überfans did. You also could have predicted that critics, who expect originality in every episode of a storied franchise like this, would also complain that there were too many scenes that seemed little more than variations on iconic scenes from previous Star Wars films.

But if you’re just a casual Star Wars fan who’s looking to be entertained, The Rise of Skywalker is a decent enough popcorn movie.

Yes, the original Star Wars trilogy— A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983)—remains the best trio of the franchise because the films stayed true to what Lucas wanted to do in the first place: make a contemporary version of the Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Commando Cody serials he grew up watching. That meant creating a slam-bang cliff-hanging adventure that was as fun as those old-time black-and-white serials. In the original trilogy, Lucas managed to perfectly capture the blend of action and tongue-in-cheek campiness that made those old-time serials fun. He created a fantasy adventure that didn’t take itself too seriously, with the actors bantering at times like those you saw in another old-time genre: the screwball comedy. More

Review of JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL (Blu-ray combo)

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

Before I offer my family’s take on Jumanji: The Next Level, I’d like to point out that the Internet Movie Database readers thought it was almost as good as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (6.8 vs. 6.9/10) and 87 percent of the audience at Rotten Tomatoes rated them dead even.

Our family’s reaction came closer to the Tomatometer Critics, who gave it a 71 percent “fresh” rating compared to the 76 percent rating they had given Welcome to the Jungle. We didn’t think it was as good.

Welcome to the Jungle effectively used the Breakfast Club formula of grouping different teen personalities together so that we knew, by the time they entered the game, what they were afraid of, what they most wanted, and how they acted normally, so we could appreciate their every movement as an avatar within the game that had sucked them inside. The writing was crisp and it all made sense.

This time, though, the beginning is slow and which characters are which avatars is a bit muddled. When we watch Spencer (Alex Wolff) drag through some pre-game scenes that are supposed to explain why he goes back into the game, those scenes seem unnecessary because they don’t really offer much in the way of an explanation. They just slow the narrative. Same with the introduction of Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged business partner Milo (Danny Glover). The camera time they get feels wasted, given DeVito’s and Glover’s talents. You find yourself thinking, “Come on, get on with it.” More

Review of DRAGONHEART: VENGEANCE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
Fantasy
2020, 97 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some bloody images
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Dragonheart: Vengeance is the third direct-to-video “prequel” to the cult-favorite 1996 fantasy adventure starring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery, and the good news is that it doesn’t look like the typical slap-it-together direct-to-video release.

Aside from some noticeable green screen work in less than a handful of spots, the CGI effects and animation are strong enough to make you forget that this spawn of Dragonheart never saw the dim light of theaters. But apart from those strong production values, Dragonheart: Vengeance is a mixed bag.

On the plus side, the two main characters are instantly likeable. The more screen time they get, the more you like watching farm boy Lukas (Jack Kane) and mercenary swordsman Darius (Joseph Millson) as they set about to avenge the murder of the boy’s family and eventually take on the evil king. On the minus side, haven’t we already seen a family-less Luke hooking up with a profit-minded rogue adventurer who then take on the Emperor—albeit with a galactic rebel army? And haven’t we seen Darius’s “look” before in Aragorn?

Instead of Sean Connery’s voice, the dragon in this film is powered by Helena Bonham Carter (“You’re a girl dragon?”). Carter is always the consummate professional, and it’s a nice touch having the dragon breathe ice and not fire. But some of the lines that are written seem way too contemporary, and the script doesn’t allow for the same playful interaction as in the original film. Instead of a con game where the mercenary and dragon worked together to extort money from frightened villagers (and banter like buddy cops in the process), this dragon is a reluctant dragon—as much of a pacifist as those old-time Western heroes who need to have someone close to them threatened or die before they’ll take action. More

Review of THE WAR LORD (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
Action-Adventure, Drama
1965, 123 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG-13 for adult situations, brief nudity and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Of the dozen or so films set in medieval times that Hollywood made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, The War Lord stands out. It wasn’t another romanticized tale of knighthood like El Cid, Ivanhoe, The Black Knight, or Knights of the Round Table, and it wasn’t a dreamed-up biopic of a famous figure like Lady Godiva, Prince Valiant, Saint Joan, or Francis of Assissi. If a comparison had to be made, you’d have to say that it comes closest to The Vikings in its tone, spirit, and subject matter.

Like The Vikings, this 1965 Technicolor and Panavision feature from director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) is based on the conflicts between Normans and Frisian (Viking) raiders. But like The Vikings a good portion of the drama comes from internal conflicts unrelated to the main bouts. Unlike The Vikings or any of the films about knights, the life of a warrior is not romanticized, nor is medieval life. The castle in The War Lord is but a single tower, and it’s cold and drafty and in disrepair from previous sieges. There are no lute players or jesters, no feasts, and no life of leisure inside that small castle.

A typically wooden Charlton Heston stars not as a glamorous knight but as knight given a swampy place in the middle of Nowhere, Normandy to hold for his king. Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) relishes the appointment of Lord over all who live in this place, while the brother that accompanies him, Draco (Guy Stockwell) thinks it a mudhole fit only for pigs and heathens. Also accompanying Chrysagon is Bors (Richard Boone), a sidekick who’s fought by his side in the Crusades. More

Review of THE KNIGHT OF SHADOWS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
Action-Fantasy
2019, 109 min., Color
Well Go USA Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for crude humor and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1 Mandarin (and English dubbed) with English subtitles
Bonus features: C+ (better than the film!)
Trailer
Amazon link

If you look at the cover of The Knight of Shadows with its tagline “Martial Arts Fantasy Adventure” and see Jackie Chan and a serious-looking co-star in period garb, you’d think you’re in store for a serious adventure. You get a similar impression if you read the Imdb.com or Amazon.com description that the studio provided: “A legendary demon hunter (Jackie Chan), tracking down beasts that enter the human dimension, assisted by a lawman protégé and a motley group of friendly monsters.” Still promising, right? Even if you watch the official trailer, with its strange H.R. Pufnstuf-style characters, you never get the sense that silliness ever tries to hijack the film.

Then you watch the film and go, seriously?

Director Jia Yan tries to juggle the comedy and martial arts adventure, and if they were knives he’d still be in the emergency room getting stitched up. This is a film that lurches clumsily between Three Stooges silliness (three law enforcement officers in The Knight of Shadows do their best to ruin Moe, Larry, and Curly for future generations) and cartoonish creatures that are just poorly designed and clumsily integrated into the plot—as if Jia Yan looked at the first print and thought, “We have to do more with this film to attract small children.” Let’s put in a pig character, and a cross between a fairy and Groot, and a character whose only function is to talk about “farts” and throwing his own special brand of f-bombs here and there.

The influential Chinese website Douban gave The Knight of Shadows a 4.3 out of 10, and I’d have to say that my family and I had nearly the same reaction. I’d go ever-so-slightly higher because there are some wonderful serious action sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but make you wish that the director had chosen to go this route instead of trying to straddle the fantasy fanboy and Saturday morning cartoon audiences. More

Review of CHARLIE’S ANGEL’S: FULL THROTTLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No
Action-Adventure Comedy
2003, 106 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for action violence, sensuality and language/innuendo
Sony
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

The original Charlie’s Angels TV series (1976-81) was a campy affair that gave viewers a little female eye candy every week and some tongue-in-cheek crime-show action. What made it work were the three stars—Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Jaclyn Smith—and not the undercover situations the detectives found themselves in, which were only slightly more outlandish than other crime shows on the air.

In that original TV series, John Forsythe provided the voice of the head of the Charles Townsend Detective Agency, while David Doyle was the lovably uncool Bosley, the angels’ contact and often fourth wheel on their assignments. The never-seen Charlie gave the show a hint of mystery, while Doyle’s doddering Everyman provided comic relief and balanced the chic, ultra-hip vibe that the angels gave off. But the angels were portrayed realistically enough that fans could either identify with their favorite or wistfully lust after them. They came across as real people who managed to find themselves in unreal situations every week.

That winning formula was altered so completely in 2000 by music video director McG that the first Charlie’s Angels reboot seemed little more than an over-the-top extended music video. And McG did the same thing with Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003). The three stars—Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu—are deliberately comic, but the comedy feels clumsily inserted instead of integrated into the narrative. That makes it hard for us to care about their assignment, which gets lost in an onslaught of road-runner-and-coyote action. More

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

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

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