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Review of JOJO RABBIT (Blu-ray)

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Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray coverGrade: A
Rated: PG-13
War-comedy-drama

Jojo Rabbit was my personal pick for Best Film of 2019, and watching it again only confirms that for me. It’s a wildly inventive, offbeat, hilarious-yet-poignant critique of Nazism that entertains as it subtly instructs. Since the action takes place in the closing months of WWII, there are some sad moments and some violence, but far less than what’s usually contained in a PG-13 film these days.

One of the most commonly taught books in junior high and high school is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a German-Dutch teenager who spent two years hiding in a secret upstairs section of her father’s pectin factory in the Netherlands with family and friends. She died in a concentration camp, and what the Nazis did to Jews remains a horrible page in the history of humankind. Picture that story with an equally sad death, a better ending, and the kind of quirky laugh-out-loud humor that characterized Taika Waititi’s film “What We Do in the Shadows, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this film is like. It’s shockingly funny because, as co-star Sam Rockwell told Imdb.com, “Taika has a really good comedy compass.”

Jojo’s family is down to just two—his mother and him—since an older sister had recently died of influenza and his father was still absent, allegedly fighting for the Germans on the Italian front. As a result, he and his free-spirited mother (Scarlet Johansson) are extremely close, and we see them playfully interacting—he, always the serious one, and she the teaser, the one most likely to play a prank or act spontaneously.

Jojo (wonderfully portrayed by first-time actor Roman Griffin Davis) has two problems: the first is that he’s so clearly sensitive and unsuited to being a Nazi that it underscores the propaganda side of Nazism. Jojo gets his nickname when, during a Hitler Youth training camp, he finds himself unable to kill a rabbit, as ordered. But the second and more pressing problem he faces is that he discovers his mother is secretly sheltering a Jewish girl behind a secret panel in the room where his sister stayed before she died. What’s a Hitler Youth to do? More

Review of THE MERGER (DVD)

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Grade:  B+
Entire family:  No (junior high or older)
Sports comedy
2018, 103 min., Color
Indie Pix Unlimited
Not rated (would be PG for language and very brief comic nudity)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features:  none
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a film not on your radar that would be a great choice for family movie night if you have children who are junior high age and older—especially if they’re into competitive sports. And don’t be fooled by the DVD cover, which looks like it was designed by the same people that do your local TV commercials. The Merger isn’t an amateur pretending to be professional. It’s a sure-footed, quirky, funny, warmhearted Australian Hoosiers.

Like Hoosiers, the plot revolves around an outcast in a small, small town where there’s a single sports obsession, and that outcast is expected to turn the local sports program around. Not everyone approves, there’s one player who doesn’t like the way he’s doing things, a local woman is drawn to him, he becomes close to a boy, and the players he’s assembled don’t particularly like each other. But they learn, under his tutelage, to work together toward a common goal: winning.

As with all sports films there’s a predictable arc from recruiting to practicing to losing to winning, with a big championship game the final scene. But after that, The Merger is as atypical as can be because it considers one of the biggest issues of our time: attitudes toward immigrants and diversity. The film jogs along at just the right pace for non-Australians to decipher their version of the Queen’s English and not miss many of the jokes that help to sell the message. More

Review of PARASITE (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
Comedy, crime thriller
2019, 132 min., Color
Universal
Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Korean DTS-HDMA 5.1 (or dubbed English 2.0)
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Parasite is a South Korean black comedy with English subtitles that was among my Top Five films for 2019, along with Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Knives Out, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), the Korean film focuses on a poor family that plots to sponge off of a rich family.

The structure is classic, with one small act leading to another, and another, growing larger each time. Before you watch, it’s okay to look up “parasite” in the dictionary and discover something like this: “an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense.” In fact, Bong counts on the association, if the audience is really going to appreciate his film. But if you’re not a fan of spoilers, stay away from the encyclopedia or specific case histories of certain parasites like mistletoe. Wait until after you’ve seen Parasite and then read up. It will make the film resonate all the more.

The Kim family struggles to get by. They live in a basement apartment in a crappy neighborhood where people urinate outside their window. The first hint of their parasitic nature is that they’re tapped into other people’s wifi. Father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), college-age son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and college-age daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) are all unemployed and have only temporary jobs that bring in just a little money as the family struggles to get by. More

Review of GREGORY’S GIRL (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: No
Comedy-drama
1981, 91 min., Color
Film Movement
Rated PG (for adult situations, some language, and brief frontal nudity)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: 2.0 Digital Stereo
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

The Guardian called it “one of the most loved British films of all time.”

Time Out dubbed it “quirky and utterly endearing.”

The great Roger Ebert pronounced it “charming, innocent, very funny.”

And the critics were right. Gregory’s Girl is a sweet movie, a throwback to the even more wholesome ‘50s. But were ‘80s teens ever as sweet and innocent as they are in this BAFTA-winning film—one that Entertainment Weekly named #29 on their top 50 high school films? And how did one decade manage to have both the worst hair and the worst movie music? They’re both here on full display in this teen dramedy of the indie sort by Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero).

Now, almost 40 years later, watching John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory, a geeky hormone-driven teen who falls hard for the first female player on his school’s soccer team, it’s hard to believe Gregory and his pals are for real. Aside from a Porky’s moment in the opening scene when a group of boys hide in trees outside an apartment to spy on a local nurse as she undresses, Gregory’s Girl is a pretty tame coming-of-age film. And that’s not a bad thing.

Gregory’s crush is kind of sweet, and though Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) replaces him at sweeper, relegating him to netminder, he’s still effusively a fan of girls playing on the boy’s team and especially a fan of this particular girl. Hilariously, while Gregory is stuck standing alone in his team’s net at the other end, after Dorothy scores her first goal all of his teammates group-hug her.  And in that celebratory hug that never seems to end, a few kisses on the cheek are snuck in for good measure—some by opposing players as well, wanting to get in on the action. More

Review of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (older teens and up)
Crime comedy-drama
1974, 115 min., Color
Rated R for brief nudity, profanity, and violence
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is an offbeat heist film that also fits the buddy cop/criminal mold, so it holds strong appeal for fans of those genres. Just be aware that the R rating isn’t only for language that now would be considered relatively tame. There’s also one brief scene of full female frontal nudity and another instance where a naked man and woman are shown tied up together with minimal body parts showing—though both scenes are comedic.

This 1974 light drama from director Michael Cimino featured Clint Eastwood at the height of his Dirty Harry popularity, playing opposite a young and perpetually smiling Jeff Bridges, who had already received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show and would earn another one for his work on this film. Eastwood, meanwhile, would have to wait nearly 20 years for his first acting Oscar nomination (Unforgiven) . . . but he would take home the statue.

A chance meeting pairs an infamous heist mastermind hiding from some of his disgruntled gang (Eastwood, as The Thunderbolt) with a young drifter looking for adventure (Bridges, as Lightfoot). As Thunderbolt’s problems become his own, Lightfoot suggests they do something audacious: partner with the gang to repeat the celebrated heist, step by step. Hit that Montana bank again, using the same anti-tank gun that the gang did initially. More

Review of GOOD BOYS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
Comedy
2019, 90 min., Color
Rated R for crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout—all involving tweens
Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Good Boys was so heavily advertised on TV that I felt compelled to let Family Home Theater readers know whether it’s another Stand by Me classic that’s well worth the amount of R-rated material, or if it’s just an ironically titled companion to Bad Grandpa or Bad Teacher.

This much seems true: if you’re going to make a raunchy comedy about American boys, it had better be funny. Otherwise, the raunchiness feels like a cement overcoat that drags it down into the muck. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, if it doesn’t make the film funnier, why even include it? When the lines aren’t funny, it just gives viewers an uncomfortable feeling to be watching sixth graders talk the way these kids do about sex (they have no clue), drugs (even more clueless), and beer (don’t get me started).

There’s maybe a dozen laugh-out-loud moments when the R-rated material is funny. Otherwise, the f-bombs and confused sex talk coming out of tweens’ mouths isn’t as hilarious as writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky seem to think it is. What’s worse, given the precociousness of kids these days, their naivete is hard to believe. Even a younger sister recognizes a sex toy and tells them about it, which all but draws attention to how difficult it is to believe the boys are that clueless.

The first half of this “adventure comedy” is flat, dull, and, for the most part, devoid of laughs. The three main characters are played by actors who seem stiff and self-conscious—though when the second half finds them working with better material, audiences can see that the problem lies mostly with the writing. Writer-director Stupnitsky also penned the screenplay for Bad Teacher, and if you know that in advance, you pretty much know what you’re going to get with Good Boys. 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 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

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

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