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Review of A STAR IS BORN (2018) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2018, 136 min., Color
Drama
Warner Bros.
Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s another R-rated movie that families with teens are going to want to watch, because Lady Gaga is the female lead. And A Star Is Born is a good one, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture—though Bradley Cooper reportedly said he was “embarrassed” not to get a Best Director nomination.

Well Brad, you’re not the only one. The directors of Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Black Panther share your pain. But hey, Lady Gaga got the nom for Best Actress, and you for Best Actor, Sam Elliott for Best Supporting Actor, Lady Gaga et alia for Best Original Song (“Shallow”), plus nominations for Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography? Come on, Brad. Eight Oscar nominations for your first directed feature isn’t anything to be embarrassed about.

Plus, you coaxed a whole new generation into watching the story of two people meeting and loving, one whose career is on the way up, and the other whose career is on the way down . . . because of drink and drugs. In 1937 it was Janet Gaynor and Fredric March who paired up in a story about actors in Hollywood, then in 1954 it was Judy Garland and James Mason in what was less a romance than a mentoring tale of an aging alcoholic film star helping a young actress find fame. The switch to music came in 1976, when Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson paired off. And last year young people went to see what, at it’s core, is still a thirties’ melodrama just because Lady Gaga and you were in it!

Lady Gaga is a revelation and you’re great too, though sometimes it’s hard to tell whether your character, Jackson, is an aging rock star on the decline or a country star. I guess it doesn’t matter. But in all honesty, the biggest flaw is when the melodrama pokes through in spots, and younger viewers especially will think, That was cheesy. There were enough of those moments to notice. Yet, you and Lady Gaga were so good together that we forgive those bits of cheese. And despite some predictability and maybe going just a teensy bit overboard in the Grammy scene, your version may well be the best of all the Star Is Borns. So yeah, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

Our family really liked the film, though of course no one likes a sad ending. As with Bohemian Rhapsody it was an effective blend of performance, backstage, and private lives drama, but that last phase of a downward spiral is tough to depict. If you spend too much time on it the melodrama starts to take over and ooze more sappiness; spend too little and it can seem rushed. Here too, I think you didn’t quite hit the mark, because the third-act alcohol-and-drugs decline felt like more of a Tower of Terror elevator drop than downward spiral. Apart from these main criticisms I really don’t have any other bad things to say about your film.

That’s not too shabby, considering your first directing gig was a stalled project that you inherited from Clint Eastwood, who had inherited it from Nick Cassavetes. But casting Lady Gaga was a stroke of genius. She’s wonderful, the latest in a long line of singers and dancers who proved that they are “triple threats.” As Jackson Maine’s “discovery” she shines, and clearly revives him for a while before playing second fiddle starts to get to him and he returns to old, destructive habits.

Does our family think it’s a Best Picture winner? I’m afraid not. You picked a tough year to debut behind the camera. There are a lot of worthy contenders, but we still favor Bohemian Rhapsody. It just crackled with more originality and a bit more energy and intensity, even in the downturns. Maybe that’s the problem of trying to revive and remake a classic film. Maybe it’s the material you had to work with—which is why the first act is infinitely more interesting than the second or third. How Jack and Ally meet, come together, and grow together is really where this film flourishes. But as I said, what you did was really good. Really.

Language: Mainly responsible for the R rating, as there are probably over a 150 swearwords, including tons of f-bombs

Sex: Two sex scenes but with nothing graphic shown, plus a shared bathtub scene with VERY brief nudity and a shot of Lady Gaga in the blurred distance standing in the shower that’s onscreen for a fraction of a second

Violence: One punch is thrown, but really it’s a tame movie in this department

Adult situations: LOTS of drinking and drugs, as this is, after all, a story of one rock star’s struggle with addiction

Takeaway: Looks like we’ve got another Clint Eastwood in the making, with Cooper’s directing debut accomplished enough that most people are already looking forward to his next project, Bernstein

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Review of I AM NOT A WITCH (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (but a short film included IS suitable for all)
2017, 93 min., Color
Drama
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG for some cruelty and adult situations; short film is G)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English, Bemba, Nyanja, and Tonga with English subtitles
Bonus features: B+ (Mwansa the Great, 23 min.)
I Am Not a Witch trailer
Mwansa the Great trailer
Amazon link

When I was growing up, National Geographic was a popular flip-through at doctors’ offices because children had a strong curiosity about how their counterparts lived in other countries. Around the same time, teachers were providing us with names and addresses of children from different nations, encouraging us to communicate with pen pals who lived on the other side of the world. The correspondences usually lasted only a few months and sometimes a year, but we got some sense of other lifestyles that way, too. And on TV, we watched travel shows like Lowell Thomas’s High Adventure, where he took us to exotic places to show how other people lived. I can’t help but wonder, for all the time today’s children spend on the Internet, Do they access similar points of contact that would give them a broader sense of the world?

If not, then a film like I Am Not a Witch has even greater value than as a well-crafted film that earned a BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. It’s also as an eye-opening look at life in rural Zambia, where we meet an eight-year-old girl who’s accused of being a witch after witnessing a minor mishap. That’s right, a witch, like those poor women from the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—an event that would become a blot on America’s past. This film from Rungano Nyoni may have comic moments, but what viewers mostly witness is young Shula’s reality, and that reality should shock and touch viewers young and old.

Nyoni based her screenplay on real stories of women in Zambia who were accused of being witches and subsequently sent to witch camps, which Nyoni researched in the African nation of Ghana. With a gentle tone and matter-of-fact storytelling, the film plays out like a fable. But because the young girl accepts her fate so stoically, it also feels like an understated slice of Zambian life with undertones that suggest Nyoni may be poking fun of western cultures who have no idea witch camps exist. More

Review of THE CAPTAIN (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (age 14 and up?)
2017, 120 min., Black and White
War drama (w/dark comic moments)
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be R for language, violence, some nudity)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: German 5.1 Dolby Digital
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

The Captain (2017) isn’t a movie for kids. Then again, neither is Schindler’s List, which my daughter saw in her 10th grade history class during their discussion of the holocaust.

Both are films that stay with you, and for the same reason: mass executions by Germans during WWII. Except that The Captain isn’t a holocaust film. Set in Germany during the final months of the war, it’s based on the true story of Willi Herold, who became separated from his unit and may or may not have deserted. In the film, as in real life, he stumbles onto an abandoned staff car in which he finds a suitcase containing the uniform of a Luftwaffe captain. After celebrating his good fortune he dons the uniform. And putting it on and acting the part begins to have the same effect on him as the ring did on Gollum.

Shot in black and white in German with English subtitles, The Captain is a fascinating film, and not just because it’s so totally different from all the other WWII films that depict the battles, struggles, and individual stories of bravery and survival. It’s also a provocative psychological study. We wonder:

Is it the uniform and the role-playing that makes this corporal suddenly behave like a sadistic German officer? Is it another example of the intoxicating effect that power has? Is it an individual pursuit of irony, with Willi getting back at life for almost having him executed as a deserter by embracing some deserters and “lost” soldiers as his own private army but choosing to execute others? Is Willi the victim of PTSD, or is he representative of what happens when soldiers realize their side has lost and order and discipline start to break down? Did the situation bring out the evil in him, as it did with the British schoolchildren in Lord of the Flies? Or was Willi evil from the start, and the universe just provided him with a chance for that evil to come out? More

Review of ALL STYLES (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
2018, 91 min., Color
Dance drama
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

As a film critic, I dread dance movies. The plots are so similar they all seem to have been hatched from the same Dance Mom. Plus there’s no real character development, and the films are usually just a flimsy excuse to showcase a few dance sequences. So why not just post those dance moves on YouTube?

Well, it turns out that the first-time star of this film, 2013 So You Think You Can Dance winner Du-shaunt “Fik-Shun” Stegall, is already pretty YouTube famous as a top-notch hip-hop dancer. My teenage daughter is serious about dance, and she said this guy is seriously good. She had already watched most of his YouTube videos before I even popped in this movie to review. For her, it’s all about the dancing, and she gave the dancing in All Styles an A. The plot and the acting? That was a B, she said. And though I know far less about dance than she does, I’d have to agree. All Styles, though low-budget, is a cut above the average dance movie.

The big surprise—other than Heather Morris (Brittany on Glee) turning up as one of the dancers—is that Fik-Shun isn’t just a terrific dancer. He’s also pretty charismatic on camera, a really likable fellow that makes you want to root for him. In this film he plays Brandon, who refreshingly isn’t from the “hood,” doesn’t have an attitude problem, and isn’t a delinquent who needs dance to turn his life around. All Styles dodges those clichés and in so doing, director Angela Tucker manages to create the most family-friendly hip-hop movie I’ve seen. No one in the film comes from the wrong side of the tracks, nobody has tattoos or uses bad language, and even the lyrics to the songs are the clean version. It’s all surprisingly wholesome, for a hip-hop film. More

Review of THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE (2015) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2015, 119 min., Color
Musical comedy-drama
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Stereo
Bonus features: B+
Sizzle reel
Amazon link

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in 1959, starring Mary Martin as a nun-in-training who falls in love with a widower after taking a job as his children’s governess. The musical won five Tony Awards. Then in 1965, when Julie Andrews took over the role of Maria for the lavish 172-minute film adaptation, the film earned five Oscars. That film is one of our family’s favorites, so a remake seems almost sacrilegious. Why even attempt it?

Though I was surprised to learn that there’ve been nearly a dozen film and television versions of The Sound of Music, all I knew about was the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic and The Sound of Music Live, a 2013 mistake featuring singer Carrie Underwood. So it’s probably an understatement to say that my wife and I began watching this 2015 live British television production expecting to be disappointed—especially since we’ve seen our share of lackluster filmed stage performances. While you may get a better view than if you were sitting in Row 20, it’s still a filmed version of a live performance with cameras positioned unobtrusively off-stage, creating an odd distance and dislocation. There may be three or four cameras to give you different angles, but gone is the excitement of sitting in Row 20.

As it turns out, we liked The Sound of Music Live nearly as much as the 1965 movie, partly because it’s a quality production and partly because of the very nature of the production. As one of the actors says, it’s a script-to-stage theatrical production that’s filmed on three soundstages for television, but shot in cinematic style using 17 different cameras. It feels like a movie, but it also has the look of a live performance. Instead of the bright three-point lighting that’s a film-industry standard, what’s here comes closer to stage lighting. In this version, cameras are everywhere and they follow the actors with medium shots and close-ups, but because characters go behind pillars and such and we see angles that would be denied a theatrical audience, it feels as if we’re right there on the set with the characters. It’s a strangely exhilarating feeling. More

Review of OCEAN’S 8 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
Crime Comedy/Drama
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for language, drug use, and some suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s hard to say whether Frank Sinatra would be amused or annoyed that Ocean’s 11—his 1960 buddy heist film with fellow rat-packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop—has inspired a series of profitable remakes and sequels. But it might temper whatever he’s feeling to know that the latest of these, Ocean’s 8, also has a lot in common with another sixties’ heist film, Topkapi, which targeted jewels in a museum.

Ocean’s 8 is a caper film through and through. Director Gary Ross, who wrote the screenplays for Pleasantville and The Hunger Games, takes the genre in a warm embrace and has fun with this ensemble flick starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, and Helena Bonham Carter. What could possibly go wrong?

There’s a Reds and Blues Brothers vibe early in the film as Bullock’s character gets out of prison and instantly gets the “band” back together, picking up a few others along the way. The plan? To not just steal the most expensive piece of jewelry on the planet, but also frame the guy who framed her. Instead of hitting three Vegas casinos simultaneously, as the original and first remake buddies did, this group sets their sights on a museum gala and one particular necklace that a star will be wearing. And part of the plan is making sure that this star does indeed wear that heavily guarded and heavily insured necklace.

If you’re not familiar with the caper genre, it’s a little different from the typical Hollywood screenplay in that there’s really no traditional dramatic arc where there’s a peaking movement toward a crisis and then a falling action. It’s more about coming together, planning the heist, and then executing the heist and dealing with whatever unexpected challenges pop up. That can give the film a somewhat even-keeled feel, but a slick upbeat collection of soundtrack songs—a blend of vintage and new that includes The Notorious B.I.G., Eamon, Kelis, Sammy Davis Jr., Herb Alpert, and Nancy Sinatra—provides plenty of energy to make it feel as if even the slow spots are moving a little faster. Ocean’s 8 is a slick film that doesn’t feel forced, and it looks really slick on high-def Blu-ray, which is the way to go with this title.

Everyone will have their favorites, but for me the standouts were Bullock and Hathaway, who really commanded your attention every scene they were in. They also got the glam-scam tone of the film: a combination of tongue-in-cheek humor and slick sophistication. More

Review of EVERY DAY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No
2018, 97 min., Color
Teen drama-fantasy-romance
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language, teen drinking, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Every Day is a strange film. Angourie Rice (who was Ryan Gosling’s daughter in The Nice Guys) plays an average teenager in the Greater Baltimore area whose life is upended when she meets and becomes attracted to another teen whose looks change on a daily basis. And we’re not just talking about capricious makeovers.

That other teen somehow (why is never fully explained) wakes up in a different teen body every single day. “A,” as she comes to know them, can be a 16-year-old girl one day and a 16-year-old boy the next—black, white, Asian, gay or straight. A has no control over what body they awake in, but for the day that A is inside that body and inhabits that person’s life, A has tried to abide by one rule: do nothing that would alter that person’s life for good or for bad. That’s something A finds harder to do once they meet and fall for Rhiannon (Rice). A’s brain, A’s emotions, A’s memory bank, A’s spirit enters a person’s body and then lives that person’s life for a day. Throughout the film we see A do this with 15 different individuals who have zero to some vague memory of that day (whatever memory A decides to leave behind, though his standard M.O. has been to leave no memories). And both Rhiannon’s and A’s lives become more complicated when they develop feelings for one another.

I told you it was strange. But it’s also unique and oddly compelling. You want to see how this star-crossed romance could possibly end. More

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