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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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Review of WHALE RIDER (15th Anniversary) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2002, 101 min., Color
Drama
Rated PG-13 for brief language and a momentary drug reference
Shout! Factory
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

This word-of-mouth hit about a 12-year-old Maori girl captured audience-favorite awards at the Toronto, Rotterdam, and Sundance international film festivals. It’s a feel-good movie that makes you feel a little bad along the way, a “girl power” coming of age story that also involves the girl’s patriarchal-minded grandfather who comes to understand that the best way to preserve the past is to embrace a gender-equal future.

Like Hoosiers, where you know a ragtag bunch of basketball losers are going to somehow win, the plot in Whale Rider is somewhat formulaic. But as with that Indiana roundball saga, the ride itself is really something, and not just because of the fantastic performances or the beautiful cinematography and New Zealand landscape. Just when you begin to think the outcome is predictable, writer-director Niki Caro manipulates a change in current or plumbs the emotional depths to take the performances to another level.

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Review of EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
2017, 96 min., Color
Romantic drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

The Fault in Our Stars (2014) was such a huge hit that you knew other sick teen romantic dramas would follow, even if you were unaware of what books were out there to inspire the screenplays. And sure enough, along comes Everything, Everything (2017), starring Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) and Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer).

If there’s a teen in your family, they’ve no doubt seen trailers or heard of it. But they may not know about the one big difference between the two “sick teen” romantic dramas: The Fault in Our Stars aims high, for an adult audience as well as teens, with believable dialogue and situations and an edginess that comes from a healthy cynicism that comes from a realistic optimism in a hopelessly pessimistic situation. It’s a little like Hemingway for teens, where grace under pressure and how well you face tragedy becomes more important than the outcome. It’s about finding consolation in an impossible situation.

Everything, Everything is the flip side of that—a film that doesn’t just look for a silver lining, but manufactures one. It’s made for the people who wept during The Fault in Our Stars thinking, Why? Why couldn’t there have been just a slightly happier outcome?

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Review of A QUIET PASSION (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2016, 125 min., Color
Biographical drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material
Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a revealing statistic:  At Rotten Tomatoes, 92 percent of critics gave A Quiet Passion a “fresh” rating, while only 52 percent of readers liked it.

There have been a lot of very good films made about writers and writing—films like Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie/Peter Pan), Becoming Jane (Austen), Saving Mr. Banks (P.L. Travers/Mary Poppins), or the fictional Finding Forrester, the latter inspired by the reclusive J.D. Salinger. They make for good family dramas because unless the writer is Ernest Hemingway they’re usually pretty tame, tied to an internal drive for success and full of advice that older children can certainly glean.

A Quiet Passion—the story of American poet Emily Dickinson—had the potential to be all that plus a model of enlightened feminism. But while older fans of literature may still warm to this 2016 film despite its flaws, I don’t see it working very well with family audiences.

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Review of COLLATERAL BEAUTY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
2016, 97 min., Color
Drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD UltraViolet
Trailer
Amazon link

A feel-good movie about death?

Sounds crazy, but that’s what Collateral Beauty tries to be. It’s a message film that wants audiences to appreciate the beautiful moments that can accompany a death—whether it’s a final shared conversation, an act of generosity, or a small kindness that helps someone cope.

If you’re no big fan of message films . . . or contrived plots . . . or melodramas where you know the whole point of a film is to make viewers feel something, then you probably won’t care too much for this 2016 drama starring Will Smith. And if you are a fan, you won’t appreciate that most viewers will be able to see the plot twists coming long before the turn.

Smith plays Howard, a New York ad agency exec who shows up for work every day but is no longer engaged in day-to-day operations. He’s not retired—he’s grieving. He lost a six-year-old daughter to cancer, and now all he feels like doing is stacking elaborate domino structures in his office. He wanders through each day numb with pain and at one point rides his bicycle fast as he can against traffic on a one-way street.

Now here’s the biggest plot contrivance: Unable to participate in a therapy group for parents who have lost children, Howard writes letters to three abstract concepts and puts them in the mailbox. Dear Death . . . Dear Time . . . Dear Love . . . .

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EVELYN (Blu-ray)

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evelyncoverGrade: B
2002, 95 min., Color
Olive Films
Drama
Rated PG for thematic material and language
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m guessing that more than a few people will notice that Evelyn is a film about an Irish father trying to gain custody of his kids and immediately think of Kramer vs. Kramer. How in the world is that appropriate for family viewing? Well, the 1979 Academy Award-winning picture starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep isn’t appropriate, unless you think it’s character building for children to watch parents say and do some pretty nasty things to each other while tugging at their offspring as if they were a wishbone. But Evelyn isn’t like that at all. To continue the analogy, it’s more like Kramer vs. the Government.

Based on a real 1955 custody case that had an entire nation hanging on the decision, Evelyn stars Pierce Brosnan in a very un-Bondlike role. He plays Desmond Doyle, an out-of-work Irishman evelynscreen2who sings in his father’s band and drinks a little too much. But it’s clear that he has a good heart and he loves his children. He’s crushed when his wife (and their mother) runs off to Australia with another man, and Irish law at the time forbade children from being raised by a single parent. The children are removed from the home and placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage, where neglect and abuse are as common as the priest scandals that have dominated the headlines in recent years. Viewers soon discover that the orphanages are full of faux orphans—children taken away from a single parent who still loves them dearly and wishes to care for them.

Most parents give up, the film’s narrative tells us. It is, after all, Irish law. But not Desmond Doyle. After a few aborted attempts to get his children illegally, he attracts the attention of a woman working extra hours as a bartender to help pay for her education. She has a brother (Stephen Rea) who might be able to help him. And a would-be suitor from America (Aidan Quinn) who just happens to be a barrister. Before long, they’ve attracted the interest of another lawyer who moonlights as a sports announcer (Alan Bates). Suddenly, Doyle isn’t just a single father fighting the system in futility. He’s part of a team that’s trying to establish a new precedent in Irish law—one that’s fairer to families.

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THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (Blu-ray combo)

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edgeofseventeencoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No (17 and older)
2016, 104 min., Color
Universal
Comedy-Drama
Rated R for sexual content, language, and some drinking, all related to teens
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: D
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

More than a few critics have remarked how ironic it is that some 17 year olds might not be able to get past the ticket-taker to see the R-rated film The Edge of Seventeen, which stars 20-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as a teen whose world is turned upside down after her only friend starts dating her only sibling—a brother who is everything she’s not, and who has never shown her any kindness. In fact, the only person young Nadine felt connected to died several years ago, and that’s no spoiler: we see it fairly early in the film.

edgeofseventeenscreen2Nadine and best buddy Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) really capture the behavior of teenager besties, while Blake Jenner as the got-everything-going-for-him older brother struts his stuff—those perfect abs, great hair, and jock standing that make him popular. The gap between the outgoing and accomplished Darian and his introverted and awkward sister is so great that you wonder if they’re really brother and sister . . . until you see more of the mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and realize how incapable she seems of handling life’s problems. The ratings paradox, meanwhile, is the result of another gap: the one between reality and standards of decency. Are today’s teenagers drinking, swearing, and having sex? Not all, and maybe not even most . . . but many, certainly. Do parents feel comfortable admitting this? Not remotely.

The Edge of Seventeen is a film that teenagers would like, and a film that ultimately models the kind of behavior most parents would hope would be their children’s default, no matter how much they experiment or stray (as even the best ones are apt to do). Nadine sexts the boy she’s crushing on and she goes with him in his car to an isolated spot, but her default morality kicks in when it matters most. It’s implied that another couple has had sex, since they’re in bed together, but aside from bare shoulders and a hand moving up and down under the blanket, nothing is shown. Aside from teens making out at a party, that’s the extent of the sex in this 2016 film from newcomer Kelly Fremon Craig. I’ve seen PG-13 films that have had more explicit moments.

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