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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
Trailer
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?

K’s superior (Robin Wright) orders him to locate and take care of the replicant child in order to keep the truth from coming out and spreading panic—though this post-nuclear holocaust landscape is so bleak you wonder if anyone—replicant or human—is capable of extreme feelings. If that sounds like a slam, it’s not. The production design of Blade Runner 2049 is one of the film’s great strengths. It’s exquisite, if a bombed-out wasteland can be called that. The landscape and rubble and building remnants are as stylish as they are eerily believable. Is this where we’re headed? You can’t help but wonder, the terrain created by Dennis Gassner (Skyfall, Spectre, Road to Perdition) is so powerfully convincing—especially with a sound design and Hans Zimmer soundtrack that pulses like a futuristic heartbeat on life support.

The original Blade Runner wasn’t exactly a sprint to the end credits, but by comparison Blade Runner 2049 seems slow-paced—at least through the first act and the start of the second. Dennis Villeneuve (Arrival) embraces a pace so deliberate in the beginning that it gives the film a brooding quality. Blade Runner fans will love every minute of this homage and its richly imagined futuristic world, but younger viewers who are more into Gosling than they are sci-fi will find the beginning slow-going enough to wish that Villeneuve would have cut this 164-minute film by another 20 minutes.

If those same younger viewers were hoping to see Gosling shirtless, get ready for another disappointment. Blade Runner 2049 derives its R rating from violence, some sensuality, language, and female nudity—some of it quite gratuitous. So, #Timesnotexactlyup, basically the film reinforces that sexism and the objectification of the female body are alive and well in the even creepier corporate-controlled future.

Since Jared Leto has a relatively small part as the slightly insane CEO and Ford doesn’t come into play until the third act, this is really Gosling’s show, and fans will find him incredibly understated as K. This is L.A. in the future, not La La Land. But as a futurescape it’s a thing of beauty, and the main plot, though different, is faithful to the tone, message, and emotional core of the original 1982 film. Just be warned: though a woman

Yes there’s a female killing machine and there are perilous situations, but Blade Runner 2049 is not so much a sci-fi adventure, sci-fi action film, or sci-fi thriller as it is a serious sci-fi drama. It did quite well abroad but disappointed at the U.S. box office, and executive producer Ridley Scott told Yahoo! Entertainment he thought the reason why was because it’s “slow” and “too long. I would have taken out half an hour,” he said.

So would my 15-year-old daughter—the minimum age for this film, I would think—who spent much of the time on her phone.

Language: A handful of f-bombs plus a few lesser swearwords
Sex: Hologram nudes, female frontal nudity, naked replicants in glass cases
Violence: Occasional but significant, with people’s stomachs slashed, people shot point-blank in the head, an underwater strangling, and a bludgeoning that turns bloody
Adult situations: Some alcohol use and smoking, and prostitutes presumably engaged in their trade (but nothing graphic shown)
Takeaway: Good movie, but it would have been interesting to see what Ridley Scott’s version would have looked like

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Review of THEEB (DVD)

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Grade: A-/B+
2014, 100 min., Color
Drama
Film Movement
Not Rated (Would be PG-13 for some bloody sequences and violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Arabic 5.1 Surround (with automatic English subtitles)
Bonus features: B+ (director’s commentary)
Trailer
Amazon link

No offense to James Franco or director Danny Boyle, but I think if I’m locked in a room with only one survival-in-the-wilderness film to watch again and again, I might pass on 127 Hours and opt for Theeb instead.

Theeb is a 2014 Arabic-language drama-thriller from Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar, who describes his film as a “Bedouin Western.” Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour lived for a year in Wadi Rum in order to get a feel for Bedouin culture and legends, and the result is this WWI-era film about a young boy’s highly unusual coming of age in the harsh desert. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of the equally atmospheric Lawrence of Arabia, parts of which were also filmed in the striking Wadi Rum desert. David Lean took three-and-a-half hours to tell his epic tale; Nowar takes a little over an hour and a half to tell his, which also has an epic feel to it because it’s about so much more than one boy and his adventure.

At the outset, Theeb (“wolf” in Arabic) and his older brother, Hussein, are talking over an evening fire with others in their tribe not long after the boys’ father, the Sheikh, had died. Into their midst comes a man from a different tribe and an Englishman who had hired him to take him to a rendezvous in the desert. The next morning, Hussein, the most qualified guide to lead the men to an old Roman well on a pilgrim’s trail deep in bandit territory, leaves with the two men. Though told to stay home because it’s too dangerous, Theeb, whom we are shown is exceptionally close to his brother, doesn’t often do what he’s told. He follows the men and their camels from a distance on his donkey, and after a day’s journey—too far and too late for them to send him home— he reveals himself to them.

Nowar uses the Wadi Rum setting in much the same way as American director John Ford used Monument Valley: as an iconic symbol, but also as such a dominant presence that it takes on the importance of character, rather than being a simple visual backdrop. The cinematography is gorgeous, and adds a rich texture to an already rich story.

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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 THE SISSI COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
1955-57, 318 min. (3 films), Color
Drama, romance, biopic
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen or 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4 Blu-ray discs and 1 DVD
Amazon link

Biopics were big in the ’40s and ‘50s. Whether it was Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, Greer Garson as Marie Curie, James Cagney as George M. Cohen, James Stewart as Charles Lindberg, Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen, or any number of others, audiences enjoyed watching their Hollywood heroes playing real-life ones.

In Europe, though, one biopic towered regally over all the rest: the phenomenally popular Sissi trilogy from director Ernst Marischka, starring Romy Schneider. In Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), Schneider played Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, who went on to marry Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria. As the Empress, “Sissi” reigned alongside him from 1854-1898, and significantly helped unite Austria and Hungary.

By today’s standards, all of the postwar biopics seem sanitized and romanticized, and Sissi is no exception. The “fateful years” don’t involve a guillotine or even a significant loss of any kind, because movies from this era either stopped short of showing a historical figure’s real tragic fate or softened it by depicting it off-camera. The real Empress Elisabeth was assassinated at age 60, but this cheery blend of history, comedy, and romance only covers Sissi’s late teenage years growing up in Bavaria through her forties as Empress trying to balance the demands of government with her own needs and desires. Even that last phrase, as I write it, seems more sensational than this film or biopics from the era, which were intended as entertainments for the whole family.

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Review of THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
1962, 106 min., Black-and-White
Drama
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for intense scenes of struggle)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I saw The Miracle Worker in the theater when it was first released in 1962, and it affected me deeply. Patty Duke, who played young Helen Keller in the film, was close to my age, so naturally I pictured myself going through a similar struggle. I didn’t identify with her, but I put myself in her place.

These days, I don’t get the sense that young people do that as much. It’s more about interest or entertainment, and older films like this have a few strikes against them.

For one thing, The Miracle Worker is in black and white, and as terrific as it looks on Blu-ray, a generation born into color often has a hard time with anything other than eye-popping visuals. For another thing, drama in the ‘50s and early ‘60s was really melodrama, and the long lingering close-ups with dramatic music may seem a little soapy to contemporary audiences. And while indie films may still employ long takes, the average mainstream film has been edited to fit the shorter attention spans that seem to have evolved.

So when a nine-minute scene shows “miracle worker” Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) physically wrestling with a blind child who has never been disciplined in her life, it could seem like an eternity to younger viewers. My daughter says she already saw the film in school, so teachers see value in it, and this is a pivotal scene. It’s intense, and shows why Bancroft won the Oscar for Best Actress and Duke won for Best Supporting Actress.

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Review of THE GLASS CASTLE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
2017, 127 min., Color
Drama
Lionsgate
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, language, and smoking
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD 7.1
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once remarked, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” That’s certainly true of journalist Jeannette Walls, whose memoir, The Glass Castle, describes the nomadic, hardscrabble existence she and her siblings lived as they were raised by free-spirited parents without a steady source of income.

The book and this 2017 film revolve around her eccentric father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), a smart, off-the-grid kind of guy who’s described in the book as someone who, in all likelihood, was suffering from bipolar disorder. He’s an alcoholic, but not the textbook mean drunk who routinely abuses his family. He’s a loving father who can enthrall his children and uplift them, but who can also be cruel in his parenting and thoughtless about the way his actions impact those closest to him. In other words, he’s complicated. So is his wife (Naomi Watts), an artist who can’t be bothered to cook dinner for her children and tells Jeannette to do it—only to have her dress catch fire, scarring her for life.

In one of the best making-of features I’ve seen in recent years, the real Walls family appears with cast and crew, and it’s remarkable how happy they all are and how fondly they remember their spontaneous but spontaneously combustible childhood.

“I completely believe that even the worst experience has a valuable gift wrapped inside if you’re willing to receive that gift, Walls says. “But if you’re running from your past, then you’re going to lose the blessings that come with those hardships.” That statement alone lets you know that there is a richness of experience to be found here, and lessons to be learned.

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Review of WARRIOR (4K UltraHD combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2011, 140 min., Color
Sports drama
Lionsgate
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: 4K UltraHD, Blu-ray, DigitalHD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I would have bet against Warrior, a 2011 sports drama from writer-director Gavin O’Connor.

I would not have believed that an old-style boxing (mixed martial arts, actually) film could successfully appropriate the Rocky Philadelphia setting, the Rocky notion of an underdog who’s out of his league, the Rocky subplot of a woman in the boxer’s life not wanting him to fight, and a Russian champion who comes to the U.S. for “the big fight” . . . and put it all together in a package that’s just as engrossing and exciting as that 1976 benchmark boxing film.

It helps that the plot turns on a former alcoholic boxer and boxing trainer who is estranged from his two adult sons, and that Nick Nolte plays the father, Paddy Conlon. It helps too that Tom Hardy plays the younger brother, an intense young man who holds a grudge against his older high-school-teacher brother, Brendon (Joel Edgerton). The performances of the three male leads are searing and help to elevate a film that throws every boxing cliché into the ring. Yes, we’ve seen it all before, but not like this. The characters may be familiar types, but each actor brings something new to the formula. Warrior runs a hefty 140 minutes, but it never drags.

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