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Review of ALL STYLES (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
2018, 91 min., Color
Dance drama
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

As a film critic, I dread dance movies. The plots are so similar they all seem to have been hatched from the same Dance Mom. Plus there’s no real character development, and the films are usually just a flimsy excuse to showcase a few dance sequences. So why not just post those dance moves on YouTube?

Well, it turns out that the first-time star of this film, 2013 So You Think You Can Dance winner Du-shaunt “Fik-Shun” Stegall, is already pretty YouTube famous as a top-notch hip-hop dancer. My teenage daughter is serious about dance, and she said this guy is seriously good. She had already watched most of his YouTube videos before I even popped in this movie to review. For her, it’s all about the dancing, and she gave the dancing in All Styles an A. The plot and the acting? That was a B, she said. And though I know far less about dance than she does, I’d have to agree. All Styles, though low-budget, is a cut above the average dance movie.

The big surprise—other than Heather Morris (Brittany on Glee) turning up as one of the dancers—is that Fik-Shun isn’t just a terrific dancer. He’s also pretty charismatic on camera, a really likable fellow that makes you want to root for him. In this film he plays Brandon, who refreshingly isn’t from the “hood,” doesn’t have an attitude problem, and isn’t a delinquent who needs dance to turn his life around. All Styles dodges those clichés and in so doing, director Angela Tucker manages to create the most family-friendly hip-hop movie I’ve seen. No one in the film comes from the wrong side of the tracks, nobody has tattoos or uses bad language, and even the lyrics to the songs are the clean version. It’s all surprisingly wholesome, for a hip-hop film. More

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Review of THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE (2015) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2015, 119 min., Color
Musical comedy-drama
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Stereo
Bonus features: B+
Sizzle reel
Amazon link

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in 1959, starring Mary Martin as a nun-in-training who falls in love with a widower after taking a job as his children’s governess. The musical won five Tony Awards. Then in 1965, when Julie Andrews took over the role of Maria for the lavish 172-minute film adaptation, the film earned five Oscars. That film is one of our family’s favorites, so a remake seems almost sacrilegious. Why even attempt it?

Though I was surprised to learn that there’ve been nearly a dozen film and television versions of The Sound of Music, all I knew about was the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic and The Sound of Music Live, a 2013 mistake featuring singer Carrie Underwood. So it’s probably an understatement to say that my wife and I began watching this 2015 live British television production expecting to be disappointed—especially since we’ve seen our share of lackluster filmed stage performances. While you may get a better view than if you were sitting in Row 20, it’s still a filmed version of a live performance with cameras positioned unobtrusively off-stage, creating an odd distance and dislocation. There may be three or four cameras to give you different angles, but gone is the excitement of sitting in Row 20.

As it turns out, we liked The Sound of Music Live nearly as much as the 1965 movie, partly because it’s a quality production and partly because of the very nature of the production. As one of the actors says, it’s a script-to-stage theatrical production that’s filmed on three soundstages for television, but shot in cinematic style using 17 different cameras. It feels like a movie, but it also has the look of a live performance. Instead of the bright three-point lighting that’s a film-industry standard, what’s here comes closer to stage lighting. In this version, cameras are everywhere and they follow the actors with medium shots and close-ups, but because characters go behind pillars and such and we see angles that would be denied a theatrical audience, it feels as if we’re right there on the set with the characters. It’s a strangely exhilarating feeling. More

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 EVERY DAY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No
2018, 97 min., Color
Teen drama-fantasy-romance
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language, teen drinking, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Every Day is a strange film. Angourie Rice (who was Ryan Gosling’s daughter in The Nice Guys) plays an average teenager in the Greater Baltimore area whose life is upended when she meets and becomes attracted to another teen whose looks change on a daily basis. And we’re not just talking about capricious makeovers.

That other teen somehow (why is never fully explained) wakes up in a different teen body every single day. “A,” as she comes to know them, can be a 16-year-old girl one day and a 16-year-old boy the next—black, white, Asian, gay or straight. A has no control over what body they awake in, but for the day that A is inside that body and inhabits that person’s life, A has tried to abide by one rule: do nothing that would alter that person’s life for good or for bad. That’s something A finds harder to do once they meet and fall for Rhiannon (Rice). A’s brain, A’s emotions, A’s memory bank, A’s spirit enters a person’s body and then lives that person’s life for a day. Throughout the film we see A do this with 15 different individuals who have zero to some vague memory of that day (whatever memory A decides to leave behind, though his standard M.O. has been to leave no memories). And both Rhiannon’s and A’s lives become more complicated when they develop feelings for one another.

I told you it was strange. But it’s also unique and oddly compelling. You want to see how this star-crossed romance could possibly end. More

Review of JERMAL (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2008, 88 min., Color
Drama
IndiePix
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-
Trailer
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. More

Review of THE FENCER (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (subtitles to read)
2015, 99 min., Color
Drama
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+
Trailer
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
Trailer
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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