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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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Review of LOST HORIZON (1937) (80th Anniversary Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
1937, 132 min., Black-and-White
Drama-Adventure
Columbia Pictures/Sony
Not rated (would be PG for brief long-distance nudity and some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

“In these days of wars and rumors of wars, haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” an opening card reads. “Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia. Sometimes the Fountain of Youth. Sometimes merely ‘that little chicken farm.’”

That’s how Frank Capra’s 1937 adaptation of James Hilton’s novel begins, and it’s a tip-off that despite an action-packed opening evacuation scene set in China, a plane crash that delivers the original Lost passengers to an isolated place that’s cloaked in mystery, and a mountain sequence involving a massive avalanche and harrowing escape, Lost Horizon is more of a heady melodrama than it is a typical adventure film. And that means that while it may be perfectly suitable for the whole family to watch, it will most likely interest only families with children in their later years of high school.

Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) skips the frame story and jumps right into the evacuation of “white people” who are being evacuated. Hilton’s novel was set in a different time and place, but with war brewing Capra set it in more familiar—and, for 1937 audiences, more disturbing—territory.

When diplomat Hugh Conway (renamed Robert for the film) leaves on the last plane with four other people and their plane is crash-landed in the Tibetan mountains, they make their way to the only shelter around: Shangri-La, a lamasery that’s completely cut off from the outside world, and where everyone is happy no matter what work they do. Once there, the main dramatic questions for each character become: Were they kidnapped or were they rescued? Should they stay or should they go? Shangri-La beckons some, but repels others.

The five travelers offer the same sort of variety as viewers would see two years later in Stagecoach. Joining Conway (Ronald Coleman) is his impetuous brother George (John Howard), mild-mannered paleontologist Alexander Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), con-artist Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell, who played Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life and the drunken doctor in Stagecoach), and a sarcastic woman named Gloria (Isabel Jewell) who discovers that her terminal illness seems to go into remission once they reach and spend time in Shangri-La. Given the CGI world we now live in, the sets seem average, but back in 1937 they were impressive enough for all critics to notice, and the cityscape sets took five years to build. But there was a rural component to this as well, which, for all its utopian pretenses, feels remarkably feudal. The High Lama creates a world where all the people are happy, even as they work at different jobs to contribute to society.

It’s not just that everyone in Shangri-La lives in peace and harmony. They also have everything they need, obtained over time because the mountains around them are full of gold. And for the child philosophers in your families, therein lies the film’s main contradiction that’s worth talking about. But the film’s main philosophical question is also discussion-worthy: would you want to live in a place that’s isolated from the world if doing so would enable you to live a hundred, even two hundred years? And what would you do for love? Would you stay in a place like that to be with Sondra (Jane Wyatt), as Conway contemplates? Would you leave, as Maria (Margo) does, risking life itself to be with someone you loved? And why is it that utopias always fail? Is it human nature? Is it the nature of life itself?

Lost Horizon is a thought-provoking drama that’s worth watching if for no other reason than to be aware of this culturally significant film. It did, after all, give us the name “Shangri-La,” which has since become synonymous with a utopian paradise on earth.

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Review of PILGRIMAGE (2017) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: No
2017, 96 min., Color
Adventure-Drama
RLJ Entertainment
Not rated (Would be R for violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Trailer
Amazon link

Pilgrimage is an average movie with above-average atmosphere and cinematography, thanks largely to the Irish landscapes where it was mostly filmed. It’s also a movie that plods along into eye-rolling territory until, suddenly, there’s a burst of violent (some would call it ultra-violent) action. Though it’s billed as a medieval thriller, this Jekyll-Hyde movie lurches between tedium and frenetic action, while viewers may well wish that the filmmakers had opted for some sort of happy medium.

The plot is simple: an emissary from Rome shows up at an Irish monastery in remote Western Ireland with instructions to take a holy relic back to the Pope, who believes it has enough power to end the Crusades. An opening scene showed just how that relic came to become “holy”: it was the large rock that ended the life of a Christian martyr who was being stoned for his beliefs. Fast-forward to 1202 A.D. and Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber) shows up in a white robe asking for the relic.

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Review of THE WEDDING BANQUET (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire Family: No, older teens and up
1993, 106 min., Color
Comedy-drama
Rated R
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS Mono
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Though Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet is rated R for language and brief frontal nudity, it’s included here because the 1993 comedy-drama deals with issues faced by people on the fringe of society. Suitable for families with older teens, it’s the kind of film that can put a humanizing face on the LGBT and immigration headlines, the kind of film that in the process will have you both laughing and tearing up.

It’s almost hard to believe that The Wedding Banquet is more than 25 years old, because it’s still so topical and relevant. It’s about a gay Chinese man who has yet to come out to his family, and a Chinese artist who needs a green card or must marry an American citizen to stay in the country. Lee (The Life of Pi) does a fine job of exploring the anxieties faced by people in their situations, while also managing to create a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing film. An added bonus is the insight we get into another culture, as the wedding customs themselves will fascinate family audiences.

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