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Review of GET SHORTY (Shout Select Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (older teens only)
1995, 105 min., Color
Crime comedy-drama
Shout! Factory
Rated R for language and some violence
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Get Shorty is rated R and strictly for families with older teenagers. The third word we hear is an f-bomb, and it’s dropped dozens of times throughout the film (how many dozen make a gross?). But for families that may have watched John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino in the old TV comedy Welcome Back Kotter, or caught his “cool” acts in Grease and Saturday Night Fever, his performance as small-time hood Chili Palmer will seem like a revelation. It’s Travolta at his absolute coolest. For his portrayal of Chili he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.

Chili is a Miami-based loan shark who works for a crime boss, and a crazy series of unfortunate events is set in motion when he’s at a restaurant and a mobster from a rival crime family “borrows” his leather jacket from the coat room. Chili promptly goes to the man’s apartment and breaks his nose when he answers the door, then reclaims his coat. When the man, Ray “Bones” Barboni (Dennis Farina), comes to Chili’s office to get revenge, Chili parts his hair with a bullet. And all of this is done to the kind of jazzy, up-tempo soundtrack that viewers have come to expect from crime comedy-dramas.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) has fun with this one, showcasing Elmore Leonard’s colorful characters and dialogue in scenes that are packed sky-high with props that add to the crime-comedy flavor.

It’s going to take some careful watching to catch everything, because there’s a lot going on, and some of the plot is based on the old domino theory. Knock one down, and they all fall down . . . eventually. After Chili’s mob boss dies, Palmer finds himself working for Bones and is ordered to collect a loan debt owed by a guy (David Paymer) who was believed killed in an airplane crash . . . but actually never made it on the plane. That trail takes Chili to Las Vegas, where he decides to accept a second job from a casino manager who has his own bad debt he needs collected. That sends Chili to Hollywood to track down B-movie producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), whom he finds at the home of B-movie actress Karen Flores (Rene Russo). But it doesn’t take long for film buff Chili to get sucked into the idea of making a movie himself. He pitches a script idea (that’s really what happened so far in this movie) and Harry is hooked. Bring in some DEA guys and another rival mob with drug money just waiting to be picked up at an airline locker, and you’ve got a tightly constructed plot interweave that eventually comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Aside from the language, there are several instances of brutal violence, but because the tone of the film is Elmore Leonard-light, even that seems tempered and there’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect involved, even when there’s a death. Several years before James Gandolfini played Tony Soprano he turned up here as a movie stuntman trying to make extra money working as a “tough buy” for a Hollywood mobster, and he and Travolta are fun together. Bette Midler also appears in a comic role.

Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray release featuring a 4K transfer is remarkable. With superior picture and sound quality, few would suspect that this film was made more than 20 years ago. It’s not dated at all. Part of that, of course, is attributable to Elmore Leonard, whose crime caper stories themselves seem timeless.

Language: More than 80 f-bombs and several dozen lesser expletives

Sex: Nothing is shown, but in one scene it’s suggested that a woman is rubbing a man’s crotch; other than that, there’s a three-second shot of bare butts swimming in a pool

Violence: People are punched in the face, two men are shot point blank, and another falls off a balcony

Adult situations: There’s plenty of casual drinking and smoking

Takeaway: Music really does a fine job of capturing the tone Leonard described in the novel, and Travolta is great fun to watch, as is Gandolfini

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Review of OCEAN’S 8 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
Crime Comedy/Drama
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for language, drug use, and some suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s hard to say whether Frank Sinatra would be amused or annoyed that Ocean’s 11—his 1960 buddy heist film with fellow rat-packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop—has inspired a series of profitable remakes and sequels. But it might temper whatever he’s feeling to know that the latest of these, Ocean’s 8, also has a lot in common with another sixties’ heist film, Topkapi, which targeted jewels in a museum.

Ocean’s 8 is a caper film through and through. Director Gary Ross, who wrote the screenplays for Pleasantville and The Hunger Games, takes the genre in a warm embrace and has fun with this ensemble flick starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, and Helena Bonham Carter. What could possibly go wrong?

There’s a Reds and Blues Brothers vibe early in the film as Bullock’s character gets out of prison and instantly gets the “band” back together, picking up a few others along the way. The plan? To not just steal the most expensive piece of jewelry on the planet, but also frame the guy who framed her. Instead of hitting three Vegas casinos simultaneously, as the original and first remake buddies did, this group sets their sights on a museum gala and one particular necklace that a star will be wearing. And part of the plan is making sure that this star does indeed wear that heavily guarded and heavily insured necklace.

If you’re not familiar with the caper genre, it’s a little different from the typical Hollywood screenplay in that there’s really no traditional dramatic arc where there’s a peaking movement toward a crisis and then a falling action. It’s more about coming together, planning the heist, and then executing the heist and dealing with whatever unexpected challenges pop up. That can give the film a somewhat even-keeled feel, but a slick upbeat collection of soundtrack songs—a blend of vintage and new that includes The Notorious B.I.G., Eamon, Kelis, Sammy Davis Jr., Herb Alpert, and Nancy Sinatra—provides plenty of energy to make it feel as if even the slow spots are moving a little faster. Ocean’s 8 is a slick film that doesn’t feel forced, and it looks really slick on high-def Blu-ray, which is the way to go with this title.

Everyone will have their favorites, but for me the standouts were Bullock and Hathaway, who really commanded your attention every scene they were in. They also got the glam-scam tone of the film: a combination of tongue-in-cheek humor and slick sophistication. More

Review of TAG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2018, 100 min., Color
Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated R for language throughout, crude sexual content, drug use and brief nudity
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Though Tag is rated R—mostly for language (lots of f-bombs)—teens have been flocking to see it with their parents. After all, it is a movie about a kid’s game, and who hasn’t chased after someone on the playground or in the neighborhood in order to tap them and shout, “You’re it”? And how fun is it to see a children’s game elevated to the same, crazy, go-for-broke level of prom invitations?

Tag is a relatively plotless comedy that relies on the game and hijinks to sustain viewers’ interest for the entire 100 minutes. It stars Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, Leslie Bibb, Jon Hamm, and Jeremy Renner. Renner plays the never-been-tagged super player that suddenly all the others want to join together to bring down—even though (or especially since?) he’s getting married during “tag month.” As you probably heard, Renner broke both of his arms on the second day of filming while trying to climb a stack of 20+ chairs. The rigging broke and he went down hard, but in the film it looks as fun as the rest of the elaborate stunts that these childhood friends have been pulling in order to tag each other for nearly 30 years.

The game, no doubt, keeps their minds sharp and their bodies fit. But mostly it gives them a chance to keep in touch—literally. Credit The Wall Street Journal for bringing these guys to the public’s attention with a January 2013 front-page feature that led to notoriety and eventually this film from Warner Bros. and TV series/movie director Jeff Tomsic.

And it is laugh-out-loud funny in spots. It’s a bit like watching Impractical Jokers go at each other, with side plots that don’t seem to matter. You really are just itching to see the next tag attempt . . . and the next . . . and the next. More

Review of LIFE OF THE PARTY (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: No
2018, 105 min., Color
Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Of the last five movies that Melissa McCarthy starred in—Life of the Party, The Boss, Spy, Tammy, and The Heat—only two are funny. The Heat is a hilarious pairing of McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as cops, while the less riotous Spy has her playing a desk-bound CIA operative who has to hit the field to prevent global disaster. The other three are uninspired and reliant on bits and gags we’ve seen a thousand times before. And not coincidentally, the three disappointments were written by McCarthy and her husband, actor Ben Falcone.

So can I just say, on behalf of all the fans of McCarthy and her Robin Williams-like improvisational talent, would you please leave the writing to someone else?

Life of the Party feels like a female remake of Back to School, which starred Rodney Dangerfield as a parent who cramps his son’s style by going to the same college and hanging out with some of the same people, ultimately becoming the most popular “kid” in school. Except that Back to School is much funnier and also less raunchy and more believable. More

Review of PADDINGTON 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
2017, 103 min., Color
Animation-Live Action Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

I did not see Paddington when it was released in 2014. I simply couldn’t bear it, since the track record for films featuring CGI animals in a world of accepting humans hasn’t exactly been the stuff of NASCAR.

Movies like these are always aimed at children rather than whole families, and even the ones that stretch their audiences—films like The Muppets 2011 reboot featuring Amy Adams and Jason Segel—still seem to suffer from an acute case of the cutsies. But the trailer for Paddington 2 intrigued me. Innocent little Peruvian bear Paddington, who lives in London with a human family, somehow runs afoul of the law and ends up wearing prison pinstripes and escaping with other cons? What’s cute about that?

Nothing, and that’s what interested me. I wondered, could this finally be the furry fish-out-of-water story that parents could also enjoy with their small children? Happily, the answer is an emphatic yes—which is no doubt why Paddington received a passing grade of 7.1 out of 10, while this clever, tongue-in-cheek sequel elicited an 8/10 at the Internet Movie Database with close to 25,000 moviegoers voting. It’s better than any of the Alvin and the Chipmunks, Stuart Little, or newer Muppet movies.

What makes it work is that writer-director Paul King and his co-writers plant their tongues in cheek and include lines and details that will make anyone over three feet tall smile—even laugh out loud in spots. The filmmakers tap into the long tradition of the Hollywood naïves thrust into situations that are emphatically beyond their understanding or capabilities, whether we’re talking about Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, Ma and Pa Kettle, or such later unlikely explorers in strange lands as Forrest Gump and the perpetually clueless Jack Sparrow. Paddington isn’t cute. He’s Austin Powers without the randiness, the straight man in a comic duo, but a ball of fur so innocent that children will still see him as adorable.

In this film at least, Paddington comes to us the latest in a long tradition of benevolent helpers whose very presence changes the lives of those around them in very positive ways. Like Mary Poppins or Pollyanna, his cheerful can-do optimism lifts people up and yields only momentarily enough to Eeyore-like depression for the plot to take a second-act nosedive before flying high again in the third act—quite literally, actually. More

Review of JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (not for small children)
2017, 119 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Columbia/Sony
Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content, and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/B (includes Digital Copy)
Trailer
Amazon link

The original 1995 Jumanji starring Robin Williams was underwhelming, which is perhaps why the title of the sequel released 21 years later was changed from Jumanji 2 to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Instead of having the adventure fantastically spill out into the world of the game players, the sequel picks up more interest and steam by having the players sucked into an old video game and transported to a lush jungle world. So it’s not only updated for a video gamer generation, but also presents more visual and special effects and “levels” opportunities that young gamers can identify with.

But what makes this action-comedy cute as heck and broadens its appeal so that older viewers can also enjoy it is that the four writers decided to create a high-concept film—a guaranteed-to-make-money Hollywood project that can be summarized in 25 words or less, usually via comparison. I can picture them pitching this to the studio and backers: “It’s Jumanji meets The Breakfast Club.” And it works!

In the early going we see a teen sucked into a game way back in 1969 and then fast-forward to present day, where we’re introduced to a nerdy guy named Spencer (Alex Wolff), who has been conned into doing homework and writing papers for a star football player nicknamed Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain). We also meet a vain, self-centered young popular girl named Bethany (Madison Iseman) and an awkward marginalized girl named Martha (Morgan Turner). Somehow they all end up in detention and find themselves in a storage room crammed with all sorts of things, including an old video game they decide to plug in and play.

In short order, after they’ve chosen avatars (some thoughtfully, others not) and begin to play, something happens and the game starts to scare them. They scramble to unplug it, but no matter: One by one they’re sucked into the game and realize that they’ve become the avatars that they selected. That, of course, is half the fun. More

Review of PITCH PERFECT 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C
Entire family: No
2017, 93 min., Color
Comedy, Music
Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, and some action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio:
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Good music, not-so-good movie.

That just about covers it, unless you happen to be an Anna Kendrick, Hailee Steinfeld, or Rebel Wilson fan.

The original Pitch Perfect was a perfect combination of a cappella performance and competition drama, with plenty of romantic sideplots to add interest. Hitting theaters just three years after Glee captured fans’ hearts and imaginations, the 2012 film had fans begging for more. In Hollywood, of course, that means sequels, and sequels, especially with dance, cheerleading, and vocal music movies, almost always illustrate the law of diminishing returns. Each movie seems to get a little worse, until finally fans can’t take it any more.

Pitch Perfect was a strong B+, and while Pitch Perfect 2 wasn’t as successful, it was still fun because the sideplots and international flavor were enough to compensate for the plot being pretty much the same. And when it came right down to it, the other groups that the Bellas competed against had enough personality and interest to make you care about the competition.

Pitch Perfect 3 proves, if nothing else, that screenwriter Kay Cannon is running out of ideas. Now the Bellas are so desperate (this should have been the first warning sign) that they jump at a chance to perform in a USO show that’s touring Europe. That in itself could have led to all sorts of different plots. I mean, how hard would it have been to look up some of the old Bob Hope TV specials to find inspiration? And when you set a film in Spain, Italy, and France, you’d think that even more opportunities would present themselves. More

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