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Review of WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+
Drama
Rated PG-13

Unlike many reviewers of Where the Crawdads Sing (2022), I don’t have an axe to grind or a subject to bludgeon. I never read the first novel by 70-year-old Delia Owens that this Olivia Newman film is based on, and only heard about the hype—a Reese Witherspoon book club selection that sold 12 million copies in four years—and the controversy after watching the film. For some people, Owens’ background makes a difference, so I’ll address it briefly, though even without the backstory there’s plenty enough to get riled up about.

The film, like the novel, tells the story of a girl who is forced to fend for herself in the marshes of North Carolina after her abusive father drives off her mother and older siblings, and later bows out of the picture as well. Shamefully, it doesn’t occur to any of her family to take her with them. They just take off, leaving her alone with him.

The townspeople aren’t much better. They dub her “the marsh girl” and obviously recognize her situation, but only one couple shows her any kindness. And they certainly could have done more for her. Kya attends school barefoot, but is treated so shabbily that she never returns. Later, as a teenager after living in the marsh for years, she draws the attention of two young men: one a rich boy with a penchant for partying and taking what he wants, and the other a college-bound youth who at one point decides to teach Kya how to read. Some think that sweet; others call it condescending and controlling or a perverse sort of  relationship imbalance fetish.

Maybe the razors were sharpened after it was brought to everyone’s attention that Owens, like Kya, was (and is still) a suspect in an unsolved murder. In the film, one of Kya’s suitors ends up dead and she stands trial, with David Straithairn playing the kind of down-home country lawyer with uncommon wisdom and empathy that we saw in Harper Lee’s attorney, Atticus Finch. In real life, Owens and husband Mark were working as biologists and environmentalists in Zambia and were being filmed when a poacher was shot and killed . . . on camera. The couple left the country and was advised not to return because they remain persons of interest, as shown on ABC’s 1996 special Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story.

But back to the film. Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) wrote the screenplay, Witherspoon co-produced, Polly Morgan (The Woman King) was responsible for the gorgeous location cinematography, Taylor Swift co-wrote and sang the theme song (“Carolina”), and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People, Under the Banner of Heaven) headed a talented cast as Kya. Though men also are involved in the project, Where the Crawdads Sing feels very much like a female empowerment story and holds considerable appeal because of that.

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Review of TWICE TOLD TALES (1963) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Drama/Horror
Not Rated (would be PG)

Rewatching Twice Told Tales on the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray, I found myself wondering about the ideal audience for this film adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne stories featuring screen legend Vincent Price.

Children old enough to have read the stories in school might be curious to see how the 1963 film treatment was handled, but I’m not sure that they will appreciate a tone that tends toward the melodramatic. Director Sidney Salkow took a break from directing popular TV series like Death Valley Days to churn out seven B-movie genre films: four westerns, a mystery, and two fantasies—one of them being this anthology of Hawthorne tales.

Whether by design or coincidence, the three stories are presented in descending order of appeal. The strongest tale, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” is a short story that plumbs the depths of human desire for a fountain of youth or immortality. Like the frequently anthologized Edgar Allan Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado,” it involves a friendship that’s solid on the surface but bubbling beneath with hidden emotions. Sebastian Cabot—whose voice children may recognize as the narrator of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films and the character Bagheera in Disney’s animated Jungle Book—plays Carl Heidegger, who celebrates his 79th birthday with best friend Alex (Price), his only companion since his beloved fiancée Sylvia (Mari Blanchard) died the night before they were to be married 38 years ago. But a “dark and stormy night” causes the door to a crypt in the backyard where her coffin is housed (yep, we’re talking Gothic romance) to open. Carl feels compelled to check on her, and both men are shocked to see that her body appears as it did when she was alive. The rest of the tale follows Dr. Heidegger’s drive to discover what preserved her and maybe even bring her back to life.

The type of horror included in these Price Told Tales is the same sort one would find in a Jaycee’s haunted house: skeletons, dead bodies, creatures dying instantly as if from witchcraft, blood oozing from strange places, etc.—minus the jump scares. It’s pretty tame but still somehow memorable . . . because of the images or concepts, or because of their pairing with old-time melodrama?

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Review of COSTA BRAVA, LEBANON (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

Americans have never been good at thinking about the future. A 2019 Northwestern Mutual poll found that 15 percent of Americans age 40 and older haven’t even put aside a single dollar toward their retirement years. And if the price of gas isn’t too crazy, no one gives a second thought as to whether the oil will run out some day, or whether the polluting side-effects of petroleum consumption will one day become intolerable. Same with the mountains of trash that Americans produce on a daily basis. Does anyone wonder if there will ever come a time when all the refuse becomes too much for the government to handle?

Costa Brava, Lebanon (2021)is an environmentalist fable in Arabic (English subtitles) from Mounia Akl and the Lebanese entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars. A cautionary tale set in the near future, it has an engaging cast and some powerful moments as it tries to sound the alarm to alert people to an impending crisis of waste management. Except that in some countries it’s not all that impending. It’s already happening. Visitors to Egypt’s pyramids, for example, must first drive past mounds of trash pushed to the sides of roads and freeways. And that could happen anywhere . . . and everywhere.

Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki star as Walid and Soraya, a couple who eight years earlier decided to leave their Beirut home because of the poor air quality, pollution, and corrupt politics that made life there untenable. Now they live in the mountains with Walid’s aged mother and the couple’s two daughters: a teenager eager for more than the sheltered life her parents provide, and a precocious adolescent. Presumably because of the mother’s previous income from her pre-marriage career as a popular singer, they were able to build a house in the country’s last unspoiled place, an idyllic hillside home that even has the luxury of a small in-ground swimming pool. But it doesn’t take long for this paradise to be lost, and that’s the whole point of the film. Society’s problems are everyone’s problem. There’s no escaping them—even if you try to live off the grid.

You’d think that Walid and Soraya, former activists who met at a protest, would know that. But the impulse to survive and protect loved ones is even stronger than the drive to fight for the change that society needs. Alas, not long after we meet this family, men from the government show up. And like the earth-moving equipment operators from earlier films such as The Emerald Forest or Avatar who displaced forest-dwellers, the workers force the family to make the same hard decision that drove them to the mountains in the first place. On a micro level, Costa Brava, Lebanon could have been about any disaster, because it’s an intimate look—rendered so by Akl’s directorial style—of how one family deals with adversity.

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Review of FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS (2021) (DVD)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” St. Augustine wrote way back in the 4th century. Travel broadens your world. It increases your understanding, gives you perspective, and, if you’re able to see the world through the emotions of people whose lives are incredibly different from yours, travel also develops your sense of empathy.

If you can’t travel, film is the next best thing. Consider this: if all you and your family watch on your home theater are Hollywood-made formulaic action films and comedies, you’re “reading” just a few pages of the human experience. So I’m going to suggest, as I have in the past, that families with children old enough to manage subtitles should agree to watch a foreign film once a month, then hopefully talk about it afterwards. You could even make it a themed affair, with movie snacks or food from the culture.

Fire in the Mountains is a film in Hindi that offers plenty of possibilities for discussion, starting with the film’s background, which children can research on the Internet. This Indian film debuted in 2021 at Sundance, but for director Ajitpal Singh it was the culmination of many years of work to become a self-taught filmmaker. That’s right. No film school, no mentor—just the spark that came from seeing Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which Singh says really touched him, enough to where he kept at it and finally created his first full-length feature at age 43.

“I connected so deeply with that film. And then I suddenly realized that cinema can be so much more than Bollywood,” he told No Film School. “I realized, I don’t need to know any language. I can just learn this visual language, and I can make films. What I didn’t know at that time, it would take me another 10, 15 years to learn that language.” But he did. First he tried imitation, and it didn’t work. Finally he realized that he needed to film a subject close to his own experience. When he did that, “Suddenly the framing changed, editing changed. Everything changed because this time, I knew what I’m trying to say.” That kind of passion and persistence is certainly worth talking about with children.

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Review of DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA (4K UltraHD, Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Drama
Rated PG

It’s almost a cliché that in Hollywood (and presumably everywhere else films are made) there are two main plots:  something comes into the heroes’ world, or the heroes leave their world. Either way, they encounter the sort of challenges, adventures, or drama that come from a disruption of routine.

The first Downton Abbey movie (2019) was about something coming into the world of the Crawley family and their servants. It revolved around a visit to Downton from King George V and Queen Mary, and the only exit was one of the staff, who went to New York to visit parents and got arrested at an underground gay nightclub. Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022) seems more richly plotted because there is a balance between the coming and going, with heftier plotlines that are equally intricate and dramatic. 

Robert and Mary

On the home front, a film company requests permission to shoot a silent film at Downton, and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) is opposed . . . until oldest daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) convinces him that the income would pay for the new roof they so desperately need. She assures her father that she will supervise the affair and keep a close watch. Naturally, the staff gets as excited about a movie being made at Downton as they did when the King and Queen visited—except, of course, for the ever-so-grumpy Mr. Carson (Jim Carter)—but their excitement is tempered by a less-than-congenial leading lady (Laura Haddock) and the disappointing announcement that funding for the movie is being pulled because only “talking pictures” are making money. Of course, shades of Singin’ in the Rain, they decide to improvise in order to make a film with sound, and even the staff gets into the act. Literally.

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Review of WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Rated G

Coming-of-age juvenile novels, especially ones documenting life below the poverty line, have spawned an awful lot of films. Where the Lilies Bloomis part of that informal tradition, adapted for the big screen in 1974 after the success of another poor sharecropper story, Sounder (1972).

Where the Lilies Bloom is based on a book by Vera and Bill Cleaver and tells the story of a dirt-poor family living pretty much off the grid in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The mother of the family, still known in the area as the best root and herb doctor there ever was, died four years before the action of this film begins, and the father has that telltale cough and the kind of “spells” that suggest poor Roy Luther (Vance Howard), isn’t far behind.

That puts the focus on the children—in particular, on the second oldest daughter, Mary Call (Julie Gholson), because the oldest is a bit of a dreamer like her father and not the take-charge doer that their mother had been. With the father more and more out of the picture, Mary Call takes on the responsibility of leading the family . . . at the age of 14. That includes following her father’s wish that she keep neighbor Kiser Pease (Harry Dean Stanton) away from her older sister Devola, because Kiser is living in the family’s old house that he got “legal like” by paying the taxes that Roy had allowed to lapse—presumably because of grief following the death of his wife. Although Kiser is a persistent suitor, Mary Call is a bulldog that won’t let him near the place, even though he legally owns the sharecropper’s shack they now call home. Mary Call also has to raise younger brother Romey (Matthew Burril) and baby sister Ima Dean (Helen Harmon).

The story is narrated from Mary Call’s point of view, and like her more famous rural counterpart, John Boy Walton, she is good at writing and encouraged by a teacher to make something “more” of herself by leaving the hill country. But that’s the future. Mary Call is more concerned with the present. To earn a living, the children trudge up the mountain as generations of Luthers before them had done, pulling and pushing their wagon. Using their mother’s notebook as a guide, they pick all sorts of mountain herbs and roots to sell to the local pharmacist in a town far from their shack. And the focus of this film is as much on the family’s daily lifestyle as it is on plot.

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Review of LICORICE PIZZA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Comedy-Drama
Rated R

Sometimes hype can be the kiss of death. It was for me, as far as Licorice Pizza was concerned. All the way through this self-consciously quirky film from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), I kept getting wannabe Almost Famous vibes but found myself thinking, when is this going to end?

That’s not the reaction I expected, given that the coming-of-age film Licorice Pizza, even at a sprawling 133 minutes, was the darling of the 2022 awards season. It earned Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay and won Best Screenplay at the BAFTAs. Licorice Pizza was also touted as the first MGM picture produced and distributed since Rain Man to earn a BP Oscar nod. Smaller film critics associations loved it too, but I kept wondering if maybe that was proof of how starved everyone has been for another small pebble to make a big splash, as Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, and Juno did.

I didn’t find myself as engaged by the characters or their situation as I wanted to be, and the quirkiness level was ramped up so high that it all felt absolutely contrived. As for the plot, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and Juno all had strong narrative trajectories, by comparison. Licorice Pizza felt meandering, but not in a way that seemed terribly organic. Small annoyances kept popping up, like why was one character arrested but then quickly released? Why was one character’s world so random? And why wasn’t the developing “love” more perceptible in its development?

Ninety-one percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics loved the film, as did critics on the aggregate site Metacritic, which scored it a 90 out of 100. In other words, just about every critic out there says I’m wrong. If I am, so is the rest of my family, who also wanted more than the quirkiness Licorice Pizza had to offer. More humor, maybe. Or more believable attraction. Or a plot that seemed less aimless. Or a more tightly edited story.

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Review of BELFAST (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A/A-
Drama, comedy
Rated PG-13

I love movies. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. It was that way in 2018 when I first saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and it happened again a year later with Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Now I feel the same way about Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and it makes perfect sense: Belfast feels like a cross between those two films.

Like Roma, Branagh’s film is a loving, artsy, cinematic tribute to his home city. Filmed for the most part in black and white to feed the nostalgia, it begins in color with spectacular shots of Belfast that put to shame anything a tourist bureau could pay an advertising company to design. And soulful, start-to-finish songs by Van Morrison—arguably Ireland’s best export since pubs—help to create the deeply profound outpouring of love you feel when you watch this film.

Like Jojo Rabbit, this 2021 film also manages to combine a serious topic with humor and quirky, endearing characters—a feat accomplished, in part, because the story is largely told from the point of view of an exuberant nine year old who doesn’t quite understand everything that’s going on. There’s a boyish fantasy, an imagination at work here too that suggests the amalgam of cultural images that’s rattling around inside his head and helping to shape his world view. That’s evident just from looking at the covers of the Blu-rays, with Waititi’s and Branagh’s young boys soaring above the ground like figures in a Marc Chagall painting. Buddy’s world view is also influenced by pop culture, including American Westerns that the boy watches with extended family—intended by Branagh as a thematic and structural parallel.

In Belfast, our first glimpse of Buddy (Jude Hill) is of him playing in the streets with the other kids as parents watch or dance in the street to a phonograph record. Some children are jumping rope or playing soccer, but others, like Buddy, are having a mock battle, with Buddy wielding a homemade gladiator-style sword and garbage-can lid shield. That play gets real really fast, as a gang of Protestant thugs shows up at the end of this cul-de-sac neighborhood—one Branagh depicts as loving and communal—and starts hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks, bashing windows, and threatening people. So much for nostalgia. So much for an idyllic childhood, as Buddy needs to be rescued by his mother (Caitríona Balfe), who uses his shield not for play but to protect both of their heads from rocks and missiles.

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Review of CRUELLA (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Comedy-Drama
Rated PG-13

I did not expect to like Cruella as much as I did, because the two previous times Disney tried live-action versions of the popular 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians they produced doggie doo. That’s not just my opinion. While the original animated film got a 98 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close as villainess Cruella De Ville earned just a 41 percent rating, and the 2000 sequel did even worse (31 percent).

But RT critics awarded this new origin story Cruella a 74 percent “fresh” rating, while 97 percent of the audience gave it high marks. After watching it, I can see why. It’s smartly written and full of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. Emma Stone has fun with the titular role without going over-the-top campy—and that’s a tough tone to pull off. Close didn’t even come close.

Stone received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and it was well deserved because of the pressure she faced. Essentially Cruella—like Disney’s Maleficent before it—is similar to a superhero origin story. As the lead performer goes, so goes the film.

Disney is trying to tell the stories of their villains with some sympathy, but isn’t that a risky business? Disney villains are notorious and gigglesnort popular because they are villains of a gigantic sort. Maleficent was the fourth highest grossing film of 2014, and Cruella was 15th in 2021 box office revenue. Since Maleficent was also a bit more sinister than Cruella, might that account for the difference? Do audiences still prefer villains to be more villainous than misunderstood?

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Review of THE PAPER TIGERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Action comedy-drama
Rated PG-13

If your family loved Cobra Kai—or even The Karate Kid films that preceded the popular TV series—and you’re looking for another martial arts offering that balances medium-intensity action, drama, and humor, you might consider The Paper Tigers. Yuji Okumoto, who appeared in the second Karate Kid film and also Cobra Kai, was the film’s producer.

This English-language 2020 martial arts film from director Quoc Bao Tran is as much in the tradition of old-guys-proving-they’ve-still-got-it tradition of films like Space Cowboys (2000) and Old Dogs (2009) as it is the kung fu movies. But don’t fear, younger viewers, there’s young martial arts action too. It’s just that the focus is on three middle-aged men whose bodies have seen better days. In other words, this isn’t your typical Asian martial arts film, though it does have an almost obligatory memorable fight scene.

The Paper Tigers features three likable guys who are just that: guys. Too many martial arts films are all action with nothing but paper characters—kung fu wizards who do little more than kick, block, and punch their way through every scene. The heroes of this film are Everymen, real flesh-and-blood people who just happen to have bonded in the youth when they were “The Three Tigers,” as their master dubbed them. One of the characters happens to be African American and the other two Asian American, but all three are treated as people because “at the end of the day, we wanted to tell a fun, entertaining story that depicted our experience honestly,” Tran told the media.

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