Review of JERMAL (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2008, 88 min., Color
Not rated (would be R for brief nudity and language, alcohol use, and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Indonesian Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with English subtitles
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link

You haven’t seen another film in the world like Jermal, a 2008 Indonesian production with English subtitles about a group of young teenage boys who live and work on an isolated fishing platform in the middle of the Malacca Straits off North Sumatra. It’s an absolutely unique, vicarious experience that almost dwarfs the coming-of-age / father-son themes that shape the plot—or rather, situation, since this is a character- and situation-driven film.

Fishing platforms or “jermals” may be common in Indonesia and Malaysia, but no one before directors Ravi L. Bharwani and Rayya Makarim has ever thought to shoot a drama on one of them.

What we see in the beautifully filmed Jermal is a high level of realism that extends to the actors—or rather, non-actors. The directors said that many of the nine boys that appear in the film were actually working already on the jermal that the filmmakers inhabited for 30 days.

Though work on a fishing platform is tough and the conditions primitive, no experience is necessary. Because of their isolation they’re often a refuge for people on society’s fringes. If the movie is any indication, authorities don’t seem to mind that children under 18 are working on them, and the directors said that they knew of several other jermals in the area—one of them occupied by convicts, one by runaway children, and another by children sent by their parents to work (one less mouth to feed).

Jermal isn’t rated, but if it were it would probably merit an R for one scene of young male posterior nudity, one f-bomb, a few lesser swearwords, constant bullying, mild violence, and smoking and alcohol use.

So why am I proposing it as an option for Family Home Theater readers?

Because films, like books, can expand our world and also help us better understand and appreciate our own . . . and because this particular film is about teenagers who live an experience that’s so far removed from what American teenagers experience that it bears watching for the perspective alone. Bullying also happens to be a major concern for teens all over the world.

What’s immediately striking is that on this platform the boys have their own hierarchy, as in The Lord of the Flies, a book that most American teenagers are required to read in school. Into this world comes a bookish 12-year-old schoolboy named Jaya (Iqbal S. Manurung), whose mother told him, before she died, to find his father who works as a supervisor on one of the jermals. To continue the Lord of the Flies analogy, he corresponds to the weak and bookish Piggy who is picked on by the other boys.

At first, the sullen, warm beer-drinking Johar (played by Didi Petet, for whom the script was written) refuses to acknowledge that he even has a son, much less that this boy is his. As he ignores Jaya, the other adult on the platform, the mute Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), tries to get him to accept responsibility and also keep the rough jermal boys from hurting the newcomer.

As the boys defer to a leader, their alpha, and even pay him for what ought to be a common commodity—a water container—it will remind viewers of prison films like Cool Hand Luke. In school, boys can be cruel; on the jermal, they can be almost as cruel as hard-timers . . . until (and this is one of the embedded themes) education wins out.

Language: One f-bomb and lesser swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: The boys shove and push and hit, but stop short of actual beating, and one boy is hard-slapped by an adult
Adult situations: Adults drink and smoke, but children also partake (with bad results), and the whole situation with Jaya feels desperate at times
Takeaway: International filmmakers are creating wonderful films using non-actors, and this is one of them


Review of THE FENCER (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (subtitles to read)
2015, 99 min., Color
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be PG for adult themes)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Estonian 5.1 Dolby Digital w/English subtitles
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

If the children in the household are 10 and older (or good readers), The Fencer is a really nice change-of-pace film for family movie night. This Finnish-Estonian film with subtitles is a high-stakes Hoosiers with foils instead of basketballs, set in Soviet-occupied Estonia in the early 1950s.

Like Hoosiers, it’s the story of a coach with a secret who comes to a small school in a small town and tries to make a difference. With the coach in that Indiana roundball saga, audiences gradually learn about his past; in this film, subtitles in the first sequence explain the man’s dilemma: Estonia was first occupied by the Nazis and all the young Estonian men were drafted into the German army; then the Soviets occupied Estonia and the Russian Secret Police hunted down all of those young “traitors” who had served in the German army, executing them or sending them to work camps in Siberia.

So it’s not just a haunted past that follows fencing champion Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), who, after the Secret Police become alerted to his identity, is advised by his coach to leave Leningrad and go far far away. Despite the threat of death or banishment, he seeks a normal life in the small Estonian town of Haapsalu, where most of the children are fatherless because of the war and feeling that no one cares about them or their town.

Enter Nelis, who begins teaching at the school and tries to start a ski club. But all the skis that he painstakingly repairs and waxes are “shared” with the nearby Soviet military base. How can I start a ski club on Saturdays if we have no equipment, he asks, and when the school’s “Comrade Principal” shrugs, circumstances lead him back to what he knows best: fencing, which the principal (in his Soviet survivalist mode) has deemed a sport not suitable for “the proletariat.” More

Review of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 105 min., Color
Musical drama
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Amazon link

Like Moulin Rouge! (2001) and La La Land (2016), The Greatest Showman is a musical that was written and produced especially for the big screen. It wasn’t adapted from a Broadway show nor based on a book. The lone inspiration was the curious life of P.T. Barnum, who is most famous for having founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1871 and, through deft promotion, raising the status and popularity of the circus in America.

Barnum is erroneously credited with saying “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but a line that he was confirmed to have said as a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives in later life is more reflective of the positive direction that writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon took for this film: “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab, or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”

Anyone who watched this year’s Oscar’s knows from watching the performance of Best Song nominee “This Is Me” (which earlier won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song) that one central message of The Greatest Showman is the unfair treatment of “freaks” and marginalized members of society.

As regular readers of Family Home Theater know, I am a Tomatometer Critic at RottenTomatoes.com, but I frankly don’t know what my fellow critics’ problems are with this rousing 2017 film. Only 113 out of 205 critics thought The Greatest Showman “fresh,” with the average rating just 6/10—a C+ or B- at best. Meanwhile, 88 percent of the 21,657 RottenTomatoes audience members who responded gave it an average score 4.4 out of 5—in the B+/A- range.

What more could these people want out of a musical?

No film is perfect, but The Greatest Showman grabs you from the beginning and holds you with high-energy choreography and singing, great cast performances, and a tent full of positive messages that stand in sharp contrast to what today’s children are reading in the newspapers. Our family loved it. More


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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
2016, 108 min., Color
Drama, Theatrical Production
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Adapted from a 1905 children’s novel by Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children is a joint York Theatre Royal and National Railway Museum production that was staged in a venue near Kings Cross Station in London. This is a filmed performance of the Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden production, which shut down in January 2017.

If you’re from the U.K. and grew up with the book or have walked the park where a monument pays tribute, you’ll feel more easily charmed by a production that half-depends on the warm feeling of shared cultural nostalgia.

Regardless, the stage set is unique, designed to resemble a train station with one set of tracks and a platform on either side, and a single walkway at one end that allows people to cross from one side to the other. Lining each platform are seats where audience members sit as close to each platform as possible without actually being onstage themselves. In this elongated version of theater-in-the-round, characters are in near-constant movement, and the staging is minimalist—with a real train appearing only briefly. For the most part, flat wooden squares the same height as the platforms are pushed into place to suggest the train and various rooms and buildings, and you marvel at how the actors are able to retain their balance as they walk across the square/squares that briefly connects the platforms. More


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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2017, 105 min., Color
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence, language, and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: B (includes short film “Death for a Unicorn”)
Amazon link

A reviewer for The Guardian called Jasper Jones “Australia’s Stand by Me,” but that doesn’t strike me as a very apt comparison. Yes, a dead body of a teen is central to the narrative, and a couple of young friends argue the merits of one superhero over another, but that’s the extent of the similarities.

Jasper Jones isn’t your typical coming-of-age story, either. There’s not much of a sexual awakening in 14-year-old Charlie Buctin (Levi Miller), and there’s less sleuthing in this dead-body mystery than one usually finds in a story of this type.

So what’s here? A pretty engaging tale set in conservative Western Australia that has plenty of small-town tropes that viewers who live in ultra-small-town America will recognize. Everybody knows everybody, and there are outcasts, bad reputations, rumors, all-community events, and a law officer who is more one of them than an authority figure far removed. There’s also a polite reluctance to shake up the community, though the Vietnam War is responsible for a racist backlash against the only Asians who live in this tiny town. But it all feels quite believable and engaging . . . once you get past an abrupt opening. More

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+
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

Review of BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/B
2017, 164 min., Color
Sci-Fi drama
Warner Bros.
Rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: A-/B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Amazon link

Blade Runner 2049 is rated R, but if you have older teens (15+) they’re probably begging you to let them see it, so I’m reviewing it here.

More homage than sequel or remake, Blade Runner 2049 picks up 30 years after the action of the groundbreaking 1982 sci-fi film from director Ridley Scott, who probably would have directed this one if he wasn’t already working on a project. For fans, Blade Runner 2049 offers the same bonus attraction as Star Wars: The Force Awakens—the return of Harrison Ford to an iconic role. For a new generation, the appeal is current Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling, who plays a 2049 version of Ford’s LAPD replicant-hunting cop. The twist this time? By 2049, replicants (bioengineered synthetic humans) are so common and integrated into society that they even work as Blade Runners—those cops who track down and “retire” the old versions that are no longer functioning as they were programmed to do.

After K (Gosling) catches up with and eliminates an old replicant in the opening sequence, he discovers a box buried near a tree that, though dead, is still a rarity in this post-apocalyptic world. Rarer still are the small flowers he finds on the ground next to it. As it turns out, they were marking a grave, for inside the box are bones that have a number on it. A female replicant who, forensics explain, had died in childbirth. To them it’s a frightening discovery, for if replicants are capable of reproducing in the traditional way, it means they may also have feelings that the corporation that engineered them hadn’t programmed. That raises all sorts of questions. If they can reproduce, can they also harbor grudges? Can they mount a unified rebellion? Can they produce and store memories of their own, rather than being limited to those that are programmed into them?


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