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QUEEN OF KATWE (Blu-ray)

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queenofkatwecoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes (with a one-scene caveat)
2016, 124 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene, and some suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features:  B
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Queen of Katwe is a co-production of Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films, and it does have the road-to-success structure of a typical sports biopic. The difference is that the “sport” here is chess—that two-player brainy board game enjoyed worldwide. If that sounds nerdy or dull, it’s not. This is no Bobby Fischer story of a temperamental prodigy living a life of privilege. Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an Ugandan girl who grew up in a slum known as Katwe. And it’s not just her story. There are many places to find inspiration in this wonderful little PG-rated film, which seems perfect for family viewing on so many levels.

queenofkatwescreen1Shot in Kampala, Uganda in the actual slums of Katwe, the film provides a detailed picture of life as it’s lived in a Third World country . . . and in a section that’s impoverished even by Third World standards. Just to glimpse daily life there gives an eye-opening perspective to children raised in a western city, suburb, or small town. Though what you see isn’t overbearingly oppressive, it’s impossible to watch this film and not feel your mind and your own world expanding. There is poverty in Katwe, and yet there is still dignity and an attitude of joyfulness, especially in the children, that cannot be squashed. You feel it throughout the film, and as a result you come away from it appreciating your own life all the more—no matter what struggles you might have . . . or think you have.

You also develop an admiration for Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), a young single mother who was determined not to go the easy way of women in such situations and trade sexual favors for cash in order to survive—a point made as subtly as possible. And you admire missionary outreach social worker queenofkatwescreen2Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who coaches youth soccer and a group of dedicated young chess players he calls the Pioneers. He inspires them with his own story of learning to play well enough to beat the “city boys” and find enough pride in that moment to turn his life around. They can do it too, he tells them. They can use chess to find their way to a better life. He and his wife make sacrifices in order to take in some of the children, to help them, to convince reluctant parents like Nakku to let her two children join his little group of Pioneers and travel to matches. Queen of Katwe is a film about making good choices, and the characters we grow close to are wonderful role models.

Though it’s Phiona’s story, Queen of Katwe is also very much an ensemble film. The children in the film are all very good, and the camaraderie that the Pioneers have is contagious. It’s not just Phiona that you find yourself rooting for—it’s all of those chess-loving youngsters, and all the residents of Katwe and Uganda who, like the Jamaicans cheering their unlikely bobsledding Olympic heroes in Disney’s Cool Runnings, find inspiration and take pride in their accomplishments.

Queen of Katwe isn’t your typical feel-good Disney movie or biopic, but that’s another strength. With winning performances by the two stars and young Nalwanga, it’s the kind of film that sticks with you.

Language: Nothing to speak of
Sex: A sister is seen glamming up and going on a motorcycle with a man, and it’s implied that she is having relations with the man; it’s all very tastefully presented
Violence: One accident scene that could traumatize very young children
Adult situations: Talk of what the mother could be doing to pay the rent
Takeaway: Director Mira Nair has given us a wonderful triumph story that really resonates and inspires

HOUDINI (1953) (Blu-ray)

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houdinicoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No, ages 10+
1953, 106 min., Color
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for peril)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Hollywood legend Tony Curtis gives one of his best performances in Houdini, a colorful biography set in the 1890s through the 1920s, and he does it playing opposite his then-wife Janet Leigh when they were still relative newlyweds. In this film, Harry and Bess’s meet-cute courtship is the stuff of romantic comedies, and there are plenty of laughs as she joins his act and they go from playing West Virginia vaudeville houses to performing in front of packed crowds at the best opera houses in Europe.

Harry Houdini was the most famous magician and escape artist in the world during his lifetime and through the 1950s, when this Technicolor period biopic was made. This film does a great job capturing the carnivalesque nature of vaudeville and the fame that Houdini found in Europe, where he made headlines by breaking out of a Scotland Yard jail. The film also captures houdiniscreen1Houdini’s obsession with giving the audience bigger and more death-defying stunts, including one in which he was hung upside down from the roof of a skyscraper as he wriggled free of a straitjacket and chains. The real Houdini lived to be 52 and died, ironically, not from any of his dangerous stunts—which included escaping from inside locked safes and chained boxes lowered into water—but from gut punches administered by a cocky college student who had heard Houdini had an iron stomach. The blows aggravated the escape artist’s appendicitis, and he died of a ruptured appendix and peritonitis.

Biopics reached their zenith in the 1950s, when the public romanticized their heroes and celebrities and were perfectly content to have filmmakers do the same. If you’re looking for a completely factual biography of Houdini, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But as the 1976 TV movie starring Paul Michael Glaser proves, facts are underrated if altering them makes for better entertainment. For my money, this 1953 biopic is not only one of the best ever made about Houdini, but one of the best to come out of the Technicolor era as well—at least for family entertainment. Even kids who tend to be bored with life stories will find this one engaging because it’s crisply paced and there are plenty of magic tricks and stunts to divert.

houdiniscreen2But there are moments of peril when you think Houdini is going to die, and this biopic does, in fact, romanticize his death by linking it to the magician’s belief in an afterlife and his obsession with trying to communicate with his dead mother.

[SPOILER Paragraph] It certainly adds more drama to the structure of the film to embellish the facts and have his death happen as a result of one of his tricks rather than a sucker punch, and it makes for more traditional three-act suspense to have one big trick—the Chinese water torture cell—be something that has never been successfully done before, than to have it be Houdini’s specialty. In real life he performed the trick of escaping from being suspended upside down in this torture chamber hundreds of times from 1912 until 1926, but where’s the suspense in that?

By today’s standards, Houdini would qualify as an “inspired by” comedy-drama rather than a factual biography. And as I mentally weigh a more accurate dramatization against this one, I can’t help but think that producer George Pal (The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) and director George Marshall (How the West Was Won) made the right choice. Houdini is highly entertaining and a good choice for family movie night. It was one of my favorite biopics as a kid, and I was pleased to see that it still holds up well.

Language: n/a
Sex: Just kissing and the most wholesome implied wedding night imaginable
Violence: None, unless you count throwing tomatoes
Adult situations: Moments of peril involving near-death experiences as a result of escapes gone wrong
Takeaway: Curtis turned in some great performances in Some Like It Hot (1959 and The Defiant Ones (1958), but he also shined in three biopics: The Boston Strangler (1968), The Great Imposter (1961), and Houdini (1953)

EDDIE THE EAGLE (Blu-ray combo)

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EddietheEaglecoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No, but . . . .
2016, 106 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive elements, partial nudity, and smoking
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Most of the time you can’t trust the glowing blurbs on Blu-ray and DVD boxes, but USA Today’s description of Eddie the Eagle as “delightfully feel-good” pretty much sums it up. And you don’t have to be a sports nut to enjoy this 2016 comedy-drama.

Eddie the Eagle is the latest sports biopic to celebrate the underdog who wins despite losing. It’s a movie that will remind you a lot of Cool Runnings, which told the story of a group of Jamaicans determined to enter the Olympic bobsled competition with the help of a has-been coach. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if writer Simon Kelton and director Dexter Fletcher had that 1993 Disney biopic in mind when they added a disgraced flask-carrying coach to the otherwise mostly true story of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, the Brit who was determined to represent his country in the Olympics no matter what sport, and who first took up ski jumping in his early ‘20s. Most competitors had been training since the age of six, so how is that possible? Because Great Britain hadn’t had an Olympic ski jumper since 1929, and all Eddie had to do to qualify for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary was to make a single minimum jump.

If it sounds like a sports film with no competition (and therefore, no interest), far from it. Eddie has plenty of obstacles to overcome. He may have boundless energy, enthusiasm, and dedication, but his athletic ability is
EddietheEaglescreenslightly above average, at best. Mostly, he’s competing against his own limitations, but there are subplots as well. After trying unsuccessfully to make the British Olympic downhill ski team, he thought he found the perfect loophole to allow him to fulfill his dream of competing in the Olympics. But the British Olympic Committee had ideas of their own. Then Eddie thought the battle would end after he was accepted as an Olympic participant, but next came a wave of negative reactions from “legitimate” ski jumpers. Even when he made it to Calgary, there was still the reaction from his unsupportive father to contend with.

Taking a page out of Billy Elliot, the filmmakers concoct a parallel conflict with a disapproving dad who wants his son to face facts and get a legitimate, respectable, paying job. Like Billy, whose dream was to dance rather than box, Eddie is obviously hurt by the lack of support, but undeterred. What makes Eddie such a likeable hero is that he just keeps going, eyes on the prize. While others around him drink, his beverage of choice is milk. While others have full social lives, Eddie has only a fellow outcast—the coach (Hugh Jackman) who is at first reluctant to take him on.

The real Eddie the Eagle was called “Mr. Magoo” by some journalists, and the way that Taron Egerton plays him you can’t tell whether Eddie is in some way disabled or if he’s just a simple man whose I.Q. isn’t the highest. He’s like the kid with glasses who was always picked on at school, or the mutt you rescue rather than entering him in a dog show. But in a world where winning is narrowly defined and you have people like Dance Moms’ Abby Lee Miller complaining that second place is the first loser, Eddie Edwards is a refreshing example of pursuing a dream that’s scaled down. He doesn’t dream of winning the Olympics. He dreams of participating at that level, and in following that dream he’s as inspiring as this biopic is entertaining.

The film may be rated PG-13, but I think children as young as 10 would enjoy this film, since the adult elements are understated. And the 7.1 soundtrack and glorious HD make you feel as if you’re experiencing it right there.

Language: A few mild swearwords and that’s it
Sex: The coach uses a lovemaking analogy to get his pupil to understand that at the moment of liftoff it’s corresponds to orgasm; very brief glimpse of male backside
Violence: Real footage of wicked wipe-outs are shown
Adult situations: Some smoking and drinking, with one instance where the other jumpers get Eddie intoxicated
Takeaway: Like Hoosiers and Cool Runnings, this is one underdog story that should get a lot of replay because the writing is crisp, the performances are engaging, and there are some good messages for youngsters

DOLPHIN TALE 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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DolphinTale2coverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
2014, 107 min., Color
Rated PG for some mild thematic elements
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Trailer

When you do the right thing, you don’t have to do it perfectly in order to make a difference. So I’m going to pick up a pocketknife and cut this film some slack, the way that its main characters have had to cut fishing line and nets off of trapped and disabled marine life.

Dolphin Tale was based on a true story and used a combination of CGI, animatronics, and real dolphins to tell the tale of Winter, a rescued animal that was fitted with a prosthetic tail and became a beacon of inspiration for physically challenged people everywhere. So many of them came to the Clearwater Marine Hospital to see her that the place not only survived its own bout with possible extinction, but also expanded to a full-blown aquarium to accommodate all the new interest. People who made this film thought it was a one-and-done, with no plans for a sequel. But when they realized that the story about the subsequent acquisition of a very young dolphin named Hope was just as interesting and actually intersected with Winter’s story, Dolphin Tale 2 was born.

The same cast returns, with singer Harry Connick, Jr. playing Dr. Clay Haskett, the amiable head of Clearwater Marine Hospital. Kris Kristofferson is his retired father who lives in a houseboat next to the hospital, while Morgan Freeman reprises his role as prosthetics expert Dr. Cameron McCarthy, and Ashley Judd returns as the mother of Sawyer, a young boy who formed a bond with Winter in the first film.

In the sequel, the boy and Dr. Haskett’s daughter, Hazel, have risen to positions of importance at the aquarium, and the three-year gap between the 2011 original and this film is especially evident when you look at the young actors. Nathan Gamble (Marley & Me) was 13 when Dolphin Tale was released, and his co-star Cozi Zuehlsdorff was younger still. Now they’re more poised and self-assured teens, and if the rule of thumb holds true for young actors—that they tend to appeal to an audience younger, not older than they are—it only means that the audience for Dolphin Tale 2 has grown right along with them.   More

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (Blu-ray)

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YankeeDoodleDandycoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
1942, 125 min., Black and white
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be G despite brief WWI montage)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C
Trailer

John Travolta and I have at least one thing in common: Yankee Doodle Dandy was one of our favorite movies growing up. Maybe that’s because we’re Baby Boomers, and we were raised with postwar patriotism, much of which was reflected in the movies that Hollywood made.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of the top musical biopics from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and it has an unbelievable backstory. But just as unbelievable is that this four-star movie about Broadway sensation George M. Cohan doesn’t interest the rest of my family. My wife, who’s not a Baby Boomer, thinks it’s only okay, and my kids find the flag-waving corny, the Vaudeville sequences otherworldly, and the black-and-white picture the last straw. But if your family is into old-time biopics, Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of the best, and it has an interesting history.

At least one good thing came out of the Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. James Cagney, popular for his gangster roles, had to fly to Washington, D.C. to defend himself against charges that he was a Communist. Though he set the committee straight, afterwards his brother told him, “We have to make the damnedest patriotic picture ever.” Cagney’s very next film would be Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biography of Broadway sensation George M. Cohan, who was honored by President Roosevelt and Congress for composing the patriotic anthems “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Ironically, Yankee Doodle Dandy would also earn Cagney his only Oscar for Best Actor.   More

THE GABBY DOUGLAS STORY (DVD)

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GabbyDouglascoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  Yes
2014, 86 min., Color
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Rated G
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features:  F
Trailer

The Gabby Douglas Story seems tailor-made for families with little girls who have big dreams.

This biopic about Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, who quickly rose from obscurity to compete in the 2012 London games, aired on Lifetime and has that golly G-rated Lifetime feel to it—maybe a little too direct in its plotting, and a little too ready to tug at the heartstrings. But darn it, teenage role models for little girls aren’t all that easy to come by, so it’s easy to overlook a cultivated wholesomeness when the underlying message is so positive.

Besides, Lifetime or not, this 86-minute drama is a good one. It proves that it’s possible to create a successful film that doesn’t have smart-mouthed kids, sex, drinking, drugs, or swearing. There’s only a little mean-spirited talk from some of the gym rats, but even that’s mild. Meanwhile, the virtues showcased here are as clear and crisp as Douglas’s phenomenal routines: hard work, dedication, sacrifice, family togetherness, perseverance, and a toughness that enables you to play through the pain and get past your own self-doubts. In that respect, it’s like so many other athlete biopics. The hurdles may look different, but the track is essentially the same, which is why this film will appeal to more than just little girls.  More