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Review of JOJO RABBIT (Blu-ray)

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Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray coverGrade: A
Rated: PG-13
War-comedy-drama

Jojo Rabbit was my personal pick for Best Film of 2019, and watching it again only confirms that for me. It’s a wildly inventive, offbeat, hilarious-yet-poignant critique of Nazism that entertains as it subtly instructs. Since the action takes place in the closing months of WWII, there are some sad moments and some violence, but far less than what’s usually contained in a PG-13 film these days.

One of the most commonly taught books in junior high and high school is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a German-Dutch teenager who spent two years hiding in a secret upstairs section of her father’s pectin factory in the Netherlands with family and friends. She died in a concentration camp, and what the Nazis did to Jews remains a horrible page in the history of humankind. Picture that story with an equally sad death, a better ending, and the kind of quirky laugh-out-loud humor that characterized Taika Waititi’s film “What We Do in the Shadows, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this film is like. It’s shockingly funny because, as co-star Sam Rockwell told Imdb.com, “Taika has a really good comedy compass.”

Jojo’s family is down to just two—his mother and him—since an older sister had recently died of influenza and his father was still absent, allegedly fighting for the Germans on the Italian front. As a result, he and his free-spirited mother (Scarlet Johansson) are extremely close, and we see them playfully interacting—he, always the serious one, and she the teaser, the one most likely to play a prank or act spontaneously.

Jojo (wonderfully portrayed by first-time actor Roman Griffin Davis) has two problems: the first is that he’s so clearly sensitive and unsuited to being a Nazi that it underscores the propaganda side of Nazism. Jojo gets his nickname when, during a Hitler Youth training camp, he finds himself unable to kill a rabbit, as ordered. But the second and more pressing problem he faces is that he discovers his mother is secretly sheltering a Jewish girl behind a secret panel in the room where his sister stayed before she died. What’s a Hitler Youth to do? More

Review of ICEMAN (1983) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No (but just about)
Sci-fi drama
1983, 100 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Rated PG (for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C+
Trailer unavailable
Amazon link

Like many kids these days, my son was really into dinosaurs. At age four he could identify most of the prehistoric creatures and even recite many of their scientific names.

Together we played with his dinosaur figures and watched all-things-prehistoric on TV and film, whether it was Disney’s Dinosaur, speculative documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, the Jurassic Park films, or animated adventures like The Land Before Time series. And if Kino Lorber had released Iceman on Blu-ray when my son was in his last few years of elementary school or junior high, I think he would have watched and enjoyed this 1983 drama as well.

Notice I didn’t say action-drama, because there’s not much in the way of action. Iceman is speculative storytelling for the junior scientist crowd and people who enjoy asking, “What if…?”

If dinosaurs could be cloned from DNA in Jurassic Park, and if whole preserved woolly mammoths can be found in Siberian permafrost with the hair still perfect as can be, what if a cave man was likewise discovered in a block of ice? And what if there was a miraculously plausible reason for his being not only well preserved, but also in what amounted to a state of suspended animation? What if he could actually be brought back to life after 40,000 years?

That’s the premise of Iceman, which stars Timothy Hutton as a scruffily bearded anthropologist who’s summoned to an arctic base after a research team discovers the body of a prehistoric man. They were going to dissect him and learn from him, but that plan changed when one of the scientists behind the surgical mask noticed brain activity. Before you know it they’re applying the paddles and bringing this Neanderthal back to life. Conveniently, this elaborate research station has a large biodome intended for studying bears, but when they revive the cave man they move those bears to cages and transfer the iceman to this controlled habitat.

Dr. Shephard (Hutton) gets free reign to study the cave man, and most of the film revolves around his attempts to communicate, to understand the man, and to interact with him. Lindsay Crouse plays the other main character, Dr. Diane Brady, while Danny Glover turns up as one of the crew and David Strathairn is among the doctors. Structurally, Iceman resembles Anne Sullivan’s attempts to get through to a wild and unfocused Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. More

Review of GREGORY’S GIRL (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: No
Comedy-drama
1981, 91 min., Color
Film Movement
Rated PG (for adult situations, some language, and brief frontal nudity)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: 2.0 Digital Stereo
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

The Guardian called it “one of the most loved British films of all time.”

Time Out dubbed it “quirky and utterly endearing.”

The great Roger Ebert pronounced it “charming, innocent, very funny.”

And the critics were right. Gregory’s Girl is a sweet movie, a throwback to the even more wholesome ‘50s. But were ‘80s teens ever as sweet and innocent as they are in this BAFTA-winning film—one that Entertainment Weekly named #29 on their top 50 high school films? And how did one decade manage to have both the worst hair and the worst movie music? They’re both here on full display in this teen dramedy of the indie sort by Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero).

Now, almost 40 years later, watching John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory, a geeky hormone-driven teen who falls hard for the first female player on his school’s soccer team, it’s hard to believe Gregory and his pals are for real. Aside from a Porky’s moment in the opening scene when a group of boys hide in trees outside an apartment to spy on a local nurse as she undresses, Gregory’s Girl is a pretty tame coming-of-age film. And that’s not a bad thing.

Gregory’s crush is kind of sweet, and though Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) replaces him at sweeper, relegating him to netminder, he’s still effusively a fan of girls playing on the boy’s team and especially a fan of this particular girl. Hilariously, while Gregory is stuck standing alone in his team’s net at the other end, after Dorothy scores her first goal all of his teammates group-hug her.  And in that celebratory hug that never seems to end, a few kisses on the cheek are snuck in for good measure—some by opposing players as well, wanting to get in on the action. More

Review of THE WAR LORD (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
Action-Adventure, Drama
1965, 123 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Not rated (would be PG-13 for adult situations, brief nudity and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

Of the dozen or so films set in medieval times that Hollywood made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, The War Lord stands out. It wasn’t another romanticized tale of knighthood like El Cid, Ivanhoe, The Black Knight, or Knights of the Round Table, and it wasn’t a dreamed-up biopic of a famous figure like Lady Godiva, Prince Valiant, Saint Joan, or Francis of Assissi. If a comparison had to be made, you’d have to say that it comes closest to The Vikings in its tone, spirit, and subject matter.

Like The Vikings, this 1965 Technicolor and Panavision feature from director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) is based on the conflicts between Normans and Frisian (Viking) raiders. But like The Vikings a good portion of the drama comes from internal conflicts unrelated to the main bouts. Unlike The Vikings or any of the films about knights, the life of a warrior is not romanticized, nor is medieval life. The castle in The War Lord is but a single tower, and it’s cold and drafty and in disrepair from previous sieges. There are no lute players or jesters, no feasts, and no life of leisure inside that small castle.

A typically wooden Charlton Heston stars not as a glamorous knight but as knight given a swampy place in the middle of Nowhere, Normandy to hold for his king. Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) relishes the appointment of Lord over all who live in this place, while the brother that accompanies him, Draco (Guy Stockwell) thinks it a mudhole fit only for pigs and heathens. Also accompanying Chrysagon is Bors (Richard Boone), a sidekick who’s fought by his side in the Crusades. More

Review of OVERCOMER (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
Christian sports drama
2019, 119 min., Color
Sony Pictures
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Overcomer is the latest inspirational Christian film from brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, with Alex serving once again as director and also starring. Like the others before it—Flywheel (2003), Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011), and War Room (2015)—there’s frequent mention of God and prayer. Unlike the others, there are quite a few come-to-Jesus moments rather than a single pivotal one. That’s not a criticism, mind you. It’s a fact. If you’re put off by preachy films (“You were created to know and worship Him”), then you won’t want to buy or stream this one.

But it’s also a fact that the Kendrick brothers keep improving. The writing is a little more polished, the camerawork has grown stronger, and there are more sophisticated shots—some, in this film, using drones. The overall production values are far superior as well, the result of a $5 million budget (compared to the $20,000 budget the Kendricks had to work with for their first film). While the brothers’ early films mostly cast members of their Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia (where Kendrick was an associate pastor), they’ve graduated to using more professional actors . . . and that also help to elevate the overall quality. This time there’s also a killer soundtrack, with the highlight a song (“You Say”) by Grammy- and American Music Awards-winner Lauren Daigle. More

Review of BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Entire family: No
Drama
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
Trailer
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. More

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

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
Drama
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

Review of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (Blu-ray)

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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-
Trailer
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)
Fantasy-drama-war
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
Trailer
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
Trailer
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

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