Review of BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Entire family: No
2019, 118 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language, including ethnic slurs
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital
Amazon link

Just as you’d better like Abba if you’re going to enjoy Mamma Mia!, you almost need to be a Bruce Springsteen fan (or willing convert) to appreciate this music-filled drama from director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice).

Set in a small British town in 1987, Blinded by the Light features wall-to-wall Springsteen, with only a few exceptions. Included here are The Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark,” “The River,” “Badlands,” “Cover Me,” “Thunder Road,” “Prove It All Night,” “Hungry Heart,” “Because the Night,” “The Promised Land,” “Born to Run,” “I’ll Stand by You,” and the film’s title song. The soundtrack is meant to feel like an extended Springsteen play list that takes us into the mind of a Pakistani teenager as he listens to his Walkman throughout much of the film. But it’s not just the music. The lyrics also appear onscreen in numerous scenes, artfully arranged in superscript to emphasize the impact that Springsteen’s words have on a main character who wants to become a writer and struggles under the burden of a strict, controlling father and hostile community.

It’s no secret that music has a transformative power, capable of inspiring, soothing, even redeeming listeners, and Javed’s story resonates because of that. Based on co-writer Sarfraz Manzoor’s life, Javed’s struggles are also uncomfortably familiar.

Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s British nationalism sparked a white nationalist backlash against immigrants—Pakistanis especially—and it’s difficult if not impossible to watch Blinded by the Light and not think of the current state of affairs in America. Because Luton is a very small town, Pakistanis feel the white nationalist anger more acutely. “Pakis go home” graffiti is everywhere. Neighborhood children urinate through the mail slot of one family’s door. White nationalist demonstrators walk the streets and pummel counter-protesters, and the main character, Javed (Viveik Kalra), is threatened by a menacing white male, forcing him to seek refuge in the home of a white male friend who shares his love of music.

That’s the milieu complicating the life of a teenager who has it hard enough just trying to negotiate typical teen dramas—like the halls and lunchroom of his school, school activities, and encounters with the opposite sex (including a major crush). His life changes when the only other South Asian student in his class befriends him and loans him two Springsteen tapes. His life also takes an upturn because of an English teacher (Hayley Atwell) who champions him and his writing—which he does in relative secret from his parents. In his father’s eyes, if he’s not spending his time earning money to help them get through tough times, he’s not spending his time wisely.

In a way, we’ve seen this story before in films like Billy Elliott, where dance, not writing, was the boy’s dream and his journey was also entwined with one his father had to make, from resistance to acceptance. Still, Blinded by the Light is a solid film, and one that can lead to a lot of discussion. As with so many things, though, a strength can turn into a weakness. There comes a time when the whole “inspired by Springsteen” and “must live my life like Springsteen” gets a little old, which leads me to wonder if the film might have been stronger if it had been edited to clock in at 98 minutes instead of 118. Just sayin’.

Language: Mild compared to most movies today, with Brit versions of swearwords (wanker, crap, fricking, shite, etc.) and a repeated racial slur (Packis)

Sex: Nothing here except a kiss

Violence: A character is bruised on the head, and there are other instances of bullying, but not much in the way of actual physical violence

Adult situations: Teens throw a party that’s seen from the outside, while inside we see suppressed teens letting it all hang out at a rave; later Javed is poured wine though the host knows it’s against his Muslim religion

Takeaway: It’s good to get another film from Chadha, who isn’t afraid to explore emotion in her stories and has a knack for detailing cross-cultural experiences without getting too preachy or maudlin

Review of THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
1945, 126 min., Black & White
Not rated (would be G)
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Digital Mono
Bonus features: B
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

Bing Crosby played a priest in two gentle warm-hearted films, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)—the latter of special interest because it paired the crooner with the legendary Ingrid Bergman. She’s the no-nonsense Sister Superior of an urban Catholic school run by nuns and he’s the school’s new easy-going pastor-administrator with a totally different attitude about how to handle problems with children. They really play off each other nicely, and as old-fashioned as this film is, it should interest families who enjoy old black-and-white classics like Miracle on 34th Street. It’s as wholesome a slice of American life as a Norman Rockwell painting that, with age, seems just as quaint.

Like other films from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, The Bells of St. Mary’s depicts an America that’s long gone, where everything seemed slower paced and children’s problems were limited to trouble with their parents, studies, or classmates. In this film two children’s problems are on the periphery, while the featured character “bout” is a gentle and very subtle rivalry between Father O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict. The main plot thread involves Sister Benedict’s stubborn hope that a cranky business developer (Henry Travers, who played Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) will donate his new building so that it can serve as a new school. He, meanwhile, is angling for St. Mary’s to sell out so he can tear it down and turn it into a parking lot.

Though Father O’Malley arrives in the fall and the story spans the winter months, there is a long scene where students rehearse a Christmas play, and a few other scenes shot in front of decorated trees. So if Diehard is a Christmas movie, so is The Bells of St. Mary’s. More


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Grade: B
Entire family: No (older teens and up)
Crime comedy-drama
1974, 115 min., Color
Rated R for brief nudity, profanity, and violence
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is an offbeat heist film that also fits the buddy cop/criminal mold, so it holds strong appeal for fans of those genres. Just be aware that the R rating isn’t only for language that now would be considered relatively tame. There’s also one brief scene of full female frontal nudity and another instance where a naked man and woman are shown tied up together with minimal body parts showing—though both scenes are comedic.

This 1974 light drama from director Michael Cimino featured Clint Eastwood at the height of his Dirty Harry popularity, playing opposite a young and perpetually smiling Jeff Bridges, who had already received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show and would earn another one for his work on this film. Eastwood, meanwhile, would have to wait nearly 20 years for his first acting Oscar nomination (Unforgiven) . . . but he would take home the statue.

A chance meeting pairs an infamous heist mastermind hiding from some of his disgruntled gang (Eastwood, as The Thunderbolt) with a young drifter looking for adventure (Bridges, as Lightfoot). As Thunderbolt’s problems become his own, Lightfoot suggests they do something audacious: partner with the gang to repeat the celebrated heist, step by step. Hit that Montana bank again, using the same anti-tank gun that the gang did initially. More

Review of PAN’S LABYRINTH (4K UltraHD combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No (16 and older)
2006, 119 min., Color
Rated R for graphic violence and some language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Spanish DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Code
Amazon link

Strange. Dark. Sad. Beautiful. Haunting. Powerful.

That describes Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Shape of Water (2017), and it also aptly describes the Mexican director’s earlier wartime fantasy-drama, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Del Toro introduces the new 4K HD release (in Spanish, with English subtitles) by saying simply, “This movie almost killed me.” That’s easy to believe, because Pan’s Labyrinth takes a lot out of audiences too. With del Toro’s fairy tales for adults, you know you’re going to find the film visually stunning, narratively compelling, and, ultimately, deeply moving.

The action takes during place during WWII (1944) in Franco’s fascist Spain. Ofelia (played confidently and sympathetically by Ivana Baquero) is riding in a military car with her pregnant mother to a country outpost run by the ruthless and sadistic Captain Vidal—who married the mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), after her husband died in the war. He had sent for them because he wanted his baby to be born near him. In the car, Ofelia reads a fairytale about a princess who fled her father’s underground kingdom to live in the world above, where she was subject to that world’s illnesses and death. But her father knew that one day her spirit would return to him in the form of another.  More

Review of THE FIRST KING: BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
Historical Drama, Action
2019, 123 min., Color
Not rated (would be R for graphic violence throughout)
Well Go USA Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Latin DTS-HDMA 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Amazon link

The First King: Birth of an Empire (originally titled Romulus and Remus: The First King) is an Italian film in Latin with English subtitles (and a dubbed English option) that’s epic insomuch as it’s the story of the founding of Rome in 750 B.C.

But don’t approach this film thinking you’ll see a story related to that famous 5th century B.C. sculpture of The Capitoline Wolf suckling the child figures of Romulus and Remus (which, incidentally, were added in the 15th century A.D.). The story begins with the twins as full-grown men.

Likewise, don’t think that this film has anything at all to do with images of Ancient Rome that you might have in your head. Director Matteo Rovere’s stylish 2019 film has more in common with sagas of ancient barbarians, with a treatment that’s less “Roman” and cinematically epic than it is a second-cousin to the old Hammer films, with their brooding atmospheric narratives paced to allow atmosphere and place to become as important as the characters in those early pagan dramas.

If you happen to know the story of Romulus and Remus, don’t expect a start-to-finish retelling of their story—a fictionalized myth of the founding of Rome that sprang up in the 3rd century B.C. In this  version, their mother isn’t a vestal virgin and daughter of a king deposed by his brother. She could be, but there’s no mention of it. Legend has it that the twins were saved from drowning by the god Tiberinus, then suckled by a she-wolf and eventually found and adopted by a shepherd. That could have happened as well, but again there’s no mention of it.

When a flash flood sweeps the adult Romulus and Remus and their flock downriver, they’re found by Alba and his men and imprisoned in wooden cages. Other slaves have also been captured. Here’s where it takes a Braveheart or Spartacus turn and Romulus and Remus rise up to free themselves and the other slaves. But their escape is jeopardized not only by a soon-in-pursuit Alba, but by tensions and fighting among their own factions. At the center of the conflict is a “god” that Romulus insisted they bring with them—represented by an eternal fire in a small pot that’s carried by a virgin in the service of the god. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that she prophecies one day, while fondling what looks like a piece of liver, that one of the brothers will become king and founder of an empire while the other will fade into darkness:  one brother will kill the other. More

Review of SHAFT (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
2019, 111 min., Color
Crime Comedy-Drama
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material, and brief nudity
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Amazon link

Inexplicably, the 2019 version of Shaft earned only a 32 percent “rotten” rating at Rotten Tomatoes—meaning that just 32 out of 114 movie critics rated it “fresh.” But at that same site, 94 percent of 7,725 viewers gave it a high rating.

Well, this time I’m siding with the average viewer rather than the RT critics, whose consensus—that “this multi-generational Shaft struggles to keep its characters interesting or anything other than uncomfortably outdated”—only proves that they missed the whole point. The humor in this 2019 film comes from taking a ‘70s hero with ‘70s values and attitudes and plunking him down in the more PC-sensitive here and now, then watching the fun as the anachronistic Shaft manages to make us laugh and still be the coolest guy in the room.

As far as I’m concerned, the second time is the charm for Samuel L. Jackson, who played the iconic badass NYCPD detective like a black version of Dirty Harry in a 2000 remake that felt more outdated to me because it took itself too seriously. But in the 2019 version, Jackson and the whole cast seem to have fun revisiting characters from the original 1971 “Blaxploitation” film starring Richard Roundtree (who has a cameo as “Grandpa”). By having Jackson act like a 1970s lawless, anti-PC tough guy, the filmmakers manage to pay homage to the original character while also spoofing him. Perhaps the best example comes when Shaft sends his son wildly inappropriate birthday presents wrapped in brown butcher paper—gifts that include, as the boy grows up, condoms )”What’s in your wallet?”) and girlie magazines. More


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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
Family drama
2019, 94 min., Color
Rated PG for brief language
1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer (contains spoilers)
Amazon link

Jack Russell terriers have been popular with Hollywood. Most famously there was Uggie, who starred in the 2011 Academy Award-winning picture The Artist. Before him, we saw Eddie on the sitcom Frazier, Skip in the film My Dog Skip, and a CGI-enhanced Milo in The Mask. And now there’s Dally, who, unlike previous Jack Russells, isn’t a solo act. She’s partnered with a miniature horse named Spanky (here’s a link to their 2018 performance at the Del Mar National Horse Show just north of San Diego).

Though Dally and Spanky aren’t listed in the credits and the animals may or may not be the actual Dally and Spanky, this family movie was inspired by their dog-and-pony show. And while too often “family” has meant sappily unwatchable, Adventures of Dally & Spanky isn’t half bad. For all its flaws (and there are many) you still end up liking it because, corny as they seem, as one announcer at a talent show remarks, you can’t not like an animal act, can you? And that’s what this is: an 84-minute animal act that begins like Air Bud and quickly turns into Sing.

There’s not much in the way of plotting, and what there is we’ve seen before. Seventeen-year-old Addy (Brenna D’Amico) is grappling with the loss of someone close to her, and it’s affecting her relationship with her mother, stepfather, and half-sister Ella (Reylynn Caster). When she inherits a miniature horse, though, it ends up being therapeutic. And when her half-sister’s dog takes a shine to her horse, it brings the half-sisters closer together as they train the animals side by side and prepare for competitions to help the family raise money to pay the bills and cover the added expenses of boarding a horse. More

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