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Review of SHAFT (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
2019, 111 min., Color
Crime Comedy-Drama
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material, and brief nudity
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Inexplicably, the 2019 version of Shaft earned only a 32 percent “rotten” rating at Rotten Tomatoes—meaning that just 32 out of 114 movie critics rated it “fresh.” But at that same site, 94 percent of 7,725 viewers gave it a high rating.

Well, this time I’m siding with the average viewer rather than the RT critics, whose consensus—that “this multi-generational Shaft struggles to keep its characters interesting or anything other than uncomfortably outdated”—only proves that they missed the whole point. The humor in this 2019 film comes from taking a ‘70s hero with ‘70s values and attitudes and plunking him down in the more PC-sensitive here and now, then watching the fun as the anachronistic Shaft manages to make us laugh and still be the coolest guy in the room.

As far as I’m concerned, the second time is the charm for Samuel L. Jackson, who played the iconic badass NYCPD detective like a black version of Dirty Harry in a 2000 remake that felt more outdated to me because it took itself too seriously. But in the 2019 version, Jackson and the whole cast seem to have fun revisiting characters from the original 1971 “Blaxploitation” film starring Richard Roundtree (who has a cameo as “Grandpa”). By having Jackson act like a 1970s lawless, anti-PC tough guy, the filmmakers manage to pay homage to the original character while also spoofing him. Perhaps the best example comes when Shaft sends his son wildly inappropriate birthday presents wrapped in brown butcher paper—gifts that include, as the boy grows up, condoms )”What’s in your wallet?”) and girlie magazines. More

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Review of MISS ARIZONA (2018) (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2018, 94 min., Color
Comedy-Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some language and innuendo)
Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Miss Arizona is an indie film that tries to be quirky (in the indie tradition) while also riding a familiar, mainstream plot.

In her first full-length feature, writer-director Autumn McAlpin gives us a first act that’s a little heavy-handed, almost to the point of being melodramatic. In a series of opening scenes we learn that Rose Raynes (Johanna Braddy) is unhappy with the way her life turned out after she won Miss Arizona 15 years ago. Her business-minded husband has been distant and inattentive for at least 10 years now, and her 10-year-old son has gotten to the point where he seemingly doesn’t need her anymore and no longer gives her the “cuddle time” she needs.

When her husband goes away on a business trip, he asks Rose to make sure she attends a lunch with the other wives at the business so she can keep him posted on the gossip. That lunch leads to Rose being asked to take over as “life coach” at a women’s shelter that the company sponsors. And that’s when prim and proper Rose, who shows up with her sash and crown ready to share the “life skills” she learned—like how to behave in polite society, or how to snag a husband—realizes those aren’t the lessons that women in a shelter need. More

Review of DUMBO (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
Live-action dramedy
2019, 112 min., Color
Disney / Buena Vista
Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ll be honest. My family wanted to watch a live-action remake of Dumbo about as much as they’re hoping for an animated version of Old Yeller. Some people just can’t get past the sad parts, so I watched this on my own.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Disney downplayed the sad moments in this live-action dramedy by quickly moving past them, rather than lingering as they did with the 1941 animated classic. And the focus is less on poor Dumbo and his odyssey than it is on the two children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and their father that try to help him. Tonally, Tim Burton’s live-action remake comes closer to Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain than it does the original cartoon . . . or anything else that Burton has done, for that matter. You hear “Burton” and you think “weird,” but that’s not the case here.

Set in 1919, with Colin Farrell playing a widowed WWI veteran who returns to his children decorated but without his left arm, Dumbo feels like a throwback homage to the wholesome small-town America that Walt Disney idealized in his early live action films. But with one important difference: Burton also celebrates Disney’s visionary creation of theme parks. More

Review of POMS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2019, 90 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG-13 for some language and sexual references
STX / Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

In recent years, Hollywood has made a number of movies featuring (and presumably geared toward) seniors. We’ve watched retirement-age heroes take road trips, thwart a mob hit, get off their rockers to take on super assassins, reconnect with estranged children, rob a bank, and now, with Poms, find new life in a retirement community through cheerleading.

But the message is often the same: No regrets. Worry about living, not dying. Play hard and enjoy all nine innings.

In Poms, Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver are wonderful to watch as neighbors in an active retirement commuity, and so, for that matter, is their nemesis Celia Weston (who played Cam’s mom on Modern Family), who rules with all the force of a 12-person condo association. But the plot itself is cookie-cutter, and the basic premise is a bit of a head-scratcher.

I mean, if you’ve been an unmarried, childless teacher living in the same apartment in New York City for 40+ years and you learned that you’re dying of ovarian cancer, would you sell everything you own at a sidewalk sale and buy a home in a Georgia retirement community that bills itself as “active”? Why buy a home in a brand new area surrounded by complete strangers when you have only months to live? Wouldn’t you rent until you had to go into hospice? More

Review of THE HUSTLE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
2019, 93 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content and language
MGM / Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Rebel Wilson was funny in the Pitch Perfect movies and Bridesmaids, but films like The Hustle continue to prove that she’s not well suited to play a leading role. Her schtick, let’s call it, is a comedy of character that’s not up to the fast pace of the 2010s. It’s like watching Stan Laurel wiggle and squirm and fiddle with his hat and slowly, increment by increment, try to react or explain something to a befuddled partner (or audience). At some point, you tend to lose patience because the humor, often crude or full of innuendo, is so protracted out. Instead of a bouncy spring, it’s drawn out so it becomes flat as can be.

That’s the adjective that best describes The Hustle: flat. It’s lacking energy, and features only a handful of laugh-out-loud moments where you think, gee, I wish there were more of those. And they’re all in the trailer. The plot, meanwhile, is a rehash of things we’ve seen before, which only adds to the movie’s flatness. And that’s not even getting into co-star Anne Hathaway’s “British accent,” which sounds like the kind of accent that you or I would attempt at a party to amuse folks. As a snooty Brit con artist, she just isn’t convincing enough. And Wilson, as her American counterpart, is also a bit hard to believe as a con artist who could make men part with their money.

The film is a remake or variation of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which Michael Caine and Steve Martin played two con artists with gigantic egos who decide once and for all to see who’s the best by having a contest to see who can be the first to bilk an American heiress out of $50,000. In this version, given inflation, the bet is $500,000, and the players are a small-time grafter (Wilson as Penny) and a sophisticated and very rich con artist (Hathaway as Josephine). They meet in Europe when Penny gets in the way of Josephine’s con and also turns up on the French Riviera after learning that’s where Josephine is going . . . and where the really rich people are. After competing they finally decide to team up, and that leads to scrambled egos with egg on Penny’s face, which leads to the ultimate contest over a goofy, nerdy, rich tourist (Alex Sharp as Thomas). More

Review of PLUS ONE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No–parents only!
2019, 99 min., Color
Comedy-drama romance
RLJE Films
Not rated (would be R for drinking, drunkenness, drugs, language, and implied sex)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

This one is for parents only—parents who are fans of romantic comedies but also like to show a little love for indie filmmaking. For best results, save Plus One for a night after the kids have been a real handful and you’re both exhausted and secretly thinking back to how carefree everything was before the first bundle of joy arrived, or even before you got married. Watching Plus One will make you appreciate every last difficult minute you spend with your family.

If this film has an underlying social message, it’s that being single sucks, so single parents be warned. More cautionary tale than standard romantic comedy, Plus One is nonetheless totally aware of the romantic comedy conventions: boy has a meet-cute with girl, they fall in love, they lose each other and realize what they lost, and they get together again, just in time for the happy ending. Because of that genre self-awareness, you know pretty much where this film is headed, without even looking much farther than the premise: Ben (Jack Quaid, who looks a bit like Joel McHale with a beard) and his loud, force-of-nature college friend Alice (Maya Erskine, PEN15), find themselves with 10 weddings to attend over the summer—some his, some hers. To get through them, Alice gets Ben to agree to be each other’s “plus one” to avoid sitting at the singles table (a.k.a. the kids table). So yeah, you fully expect them to get together. More

Review of SHAZAM! (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (really!)
2019, 132 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

In Shazam!, a teen foster kid turns into a fully costumed adult superhero with a lightning symbol on his chest every time he shouts “SHAZAM”—the name of an ancient wizard who passed along his power to the lad because he was “pure of heart.”

Except that in the early going we watch this Philly kid trick cops into a store, lock them in, steal the cop car, and, adding insult to injury, eat the driver’s steak sandwich and fries. Needless to say, Billy (mostly played by Asher Angel) has been in and out of foster homes for many years because of such delinquent behavior. But the message here comes across loud and clear: kids who do bad things can still be good, and let’s give a shout-out to all the foster parents out there who give them a chance. At one point we even see a close-up of his new foster’s car and the bumper sticker “I’m a foster mom—what’s your superpower?” Another theme that emerges is “Fosters are family,” something that’s reinforced by a third act team effort that’s needed to beat the evil supervillain.

But you might want to pay attention to that PG-13 rating, which, these days, means children 10 and older. The film gets off to a slow start, for one thing. The first-act set-up can seem both confusing and tedious to younger viewers because it intercuts the villain’s childhood back story with current attempts by foster-kid Billy to locate the mother he lost at a carnival when he wandered off many years ago. But just as Billy has a dual identity—kid and adult—this film at times seems great for kids, while there are other times when those kids had better leave the room . . . or be traumatized.

Truly frightening things happen when the seven deadly sins are personified as real monsters that do some really monstrous things—like biting people’s heads off. And the supervillain (Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) is pretty darned menacing as the bitter adult version of a child once summoned by the wizard, but rejected . . . and by his father, as well, who blames him for a car accident that’s graphic enough that small children might fear everyone has been killed or seriously mutilated.  More

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