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Review of BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
1962, 149 min., Black-and-white
Biopic, Drama
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

A prison drama for family viewing? Normally not, but Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t your typical prison movie. It’s not an action film or one that feeds off familiar prison tropes. For the first two-thirds of this 1962 black-and-white drama, which earned four Oscar nominations, there are no escape attempts, no guard brutality, no prison gangs ruled by mobsters, no trading cigarettes to get easy jobs, no sexual assaults, no riots, and nothing remotely loud or uncivil.

Birdman of Alcatraz tells the story of Robert Franklin Stroud, who spent most of his adult life in prison. There are no backstories. We are told only that he is imprisoned at the medium-security federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, because he killed a man in Alaska—a man who was beating up a prostitute. And he has an old photo of his mother that he keeps on a shelf. Most of the film takes place in Leavenworth before a prison official who resented Stroud got him transferred to Alcatraz. But, of course, Birdman of Leavenworth just doesn’t have the same ring. Alcatraz, “The Rock,” was a high-security penitentiary where troublemakers from the other prisons were sent.

In this highly focused biopic we are not told that Stroud ran away from home at age 13 because of an abusive father, or that he became a pimp in Alaska when he was only 18. The film tells the story of his transformation—one that the prison system itself had nothing to do with. And that transformation is pretty fascinating. More

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Review of GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No—high school age and older
1989, 108 min., Color
Biopic
Olive Films
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, language and drug material
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
The real Lewis performing
Amazon link

He was rock ‘n’ roll’s first great wild man, playing the piano with fierce showmanship while singing a string of his early classic hits: “Crazy Arms,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” and “High School Confidential.” But then he got a little too close to his teeny-bopper audience, and it burned him big-time. His asking price for a single appearance dropped from $10,000 to $250 dollars, almost overnight.

It’s impossible to separate Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the biggest stars of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, from Jerry Lee Lewis, the 23 year old who married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed—that is, the daughter of a cousin who was a member of his band.

A year after Winona Ryder starred in the edgy Heathers and a year before she fell for Johnny Depp’s character in Edward Scissorhands she played Myra Gale Brown, who became the most famous 13 year old in rock ‘n’ roll history. It’s hard to tell what was more scandalous: her age, the marriage to Lewis (played here with great accuracy by Dennis Quaid), or the fact that she was his third wife . . . and rumor had it he never officially got divorced from #2.

Doesn’t sound like a movie for the family, does it? Then again, have you taken a look at young adult fiction recently? The books read by teens today have all manner of frank topics in them. Teens are more aware and grown up these days than they were in the 1950s, and that gap in awareness will probably prompt a few discussions and raise a few eyebrows. Great Balls of Fire! is pretty tame by contemporary standards and may actually serve as a cautionary tale. More

Review of THE SISSI COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
1955-57, 318 min. (3 films), Color
Drama, romance, biopic
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen or 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4 Blu-ray discs and 1 DVD
Amazon link

Biopics were big in the ’40s and ‘50s. Whether it was Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, Greer Garson as Marie Curie, James Cagney as George M. Cohen, James Stewart as Charles Lindberg, Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen, or any number of others, audiences enjoyed watching their Hollywood heroes playing real-life ones.

In Europe, though, one biopic towered regally over all the rest: the phenomenally popular Sissi trilogy from director Ernst Marischka, starring Romy Schneider. In Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), Schneider played Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, who went on to marry Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria. As the Empress, “Sissi” reigned alongside him from 1854-1898, and significantly helped unite Austria and Hungary.

By today’s standards, all of the postwar biopics seem sanitized and romanticized, and Sissi is no exception. The “fateful years” don’t involve a guillotine or even a significant loss of any kind, because movies from this era either stopped short of showing a historical figure’s real tragic fate or softened it by depicting it off-camera. The real Empress Elisabeth was assassinated at age 60, but this cheery blend of history, comedy, and romance only covers Sissi’s late teenage years growing up in Bavaria through her forties as Empress trying to balance the demands of government with her own needs and desires. Even that last phrase, as I write it, seems more sensational than this film or biopics from the era, which were intended as entertainments for the whole family.

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Review of A QUIET PASSION (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2016, 125 min., Color
Biographical drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material
Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a revealing statistic:  At Rotten Tomatoes, 92 percent of critics gave A Quiet Passion a “fresh” rating, while only 52 percent of readers liked it.

There have been a lot of very good films made about writers and writing—films like Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie/Peter Pan), Becoming Jane (Austen), Saving Mr. Banks (P.L. Travers/Mary Poppins), or the fictional Finding Forrester, the latter inspired by the reclusive J.D. Salinger. They make for good family dramas because unless the writer is Ernest Hemingway they’re usually pretty tame, tied to an internal drive for success and full of advice that older children can certainly glean.

A Quiet Passion—the story of American poet Emily Dickinson—had the potential to be all that plus a model of enlightened feminism. But while older fans of literature may still warm to this 2016 film despite its flaws, I don’t see it working very well with family audiences.

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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.

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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.

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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

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