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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

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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

Review of BAD LUCKY GOAT (DVD)

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Grade: B+
2017, 76 min., Color
Comedy-Drama
Film Movement
Not Rated (would be PG for the use of a goat head, some dirty dancing)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: B+ (“Miss World” 20-min. short film)
Trailer
Amazon link

Bad Lucky Goat is a film in English . . . with English subtitles, because the Caribbean accents are so thick that it’s easy to miss some of the dialogue if you’re not from the area. It’s also that rare foreign film that feels suitable for families with children, since it’s about two teens and there’s no sex, not much profanity, and none of the graphic violence that American audiences are accustomed to seeing.

Plot-wise, it’s a bit like the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. That is, a single incident sets an entire plot chain in motion: If you accidentally hit a goat while driving to pick up benches for your family’s small tourist hotel . . . you have to get rid of the body and somehow fix the damage to the family truck, or face the consequences. And if you have to get the truck fixed, you have to find the money to pay for it. That’s the simple premise behind this island tale about two siblings who are brought closer together because of their shared one-day adventure.

I said that Bad Lucky Goat was family-friendly, and it is. But you should know that these kids, while basically good, are no angels. They’re scam artists of the highest order—though you get the feeling that in Port Paradise scamming might be a way of life. After all, the first glimpse we get of life in this unspecified country (though it feels like Jamaica, Bad Lucky Goat was filmed in Columbia) is of a hapless police officer sitting on a curve with a radar gun, trying to catch a speeder. But we see that Cornelius (“Corn” for short) and his friend are using the situation as a money-maker to help them record a demo that might get them a tourist gig as musicians. One of the boys comes out of the bushes in a stretch of road just ahead of the cop to warn drivers with a sign; the other is positioned after the cop with a bucket to collect “tips.” Clever? You bet. Almost as clever as a scam one of the boys works later to fleece money from a congregational flock.

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Review of A NEW LEAF (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
1971, 102 min., Color
Comedy
Olive Films
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 (Mono)
Bonus features: B
Clip montage
Amazon link

Looking ahead to New Year’s resolutions, if the new leaf you’re turning over this year is to be more receptive to older and subtler comedies, you might start with A New Leaf—an understated 1971 film featuring Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple) and Elaine May.

Matthau stars as an arrogant playboy who suddenly finds himself penniless. Desperate, he decides to take his butler’s advice and use a loan from his skinflint Uncle Harry (James Coco) to maintain his status and try to get a rich woman to marry him. There’s a catch: if he doesn’t get her to accept his proposal within six weeks, he forfeits all he owns to his uncle.

It’s the kind of premise that opens the door wide for slapstick and humor that’s a throwback to the old screwball comedies. But May—a founding member of the pre-Second City improv group Compass Players in Chicago, who often worked with Mike Nichols—writes every scene with tongue in cheek and crafts a black comedy instead.

As the socially awkward and übernerdy Henrietta Lowell, May plays well off of the naturally acerbic Matthau. Henrietta, whom Henry meets at a party and boorishly defends when she spills her drink on the host’s expensive rug, is an introverted heiress who teaches botany at Columbia University and dreams of discovering a new plant species. But it’s she who’s ripe for the picking.

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