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Review of ON THE BASIS OF SEX (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2018, 120 min., Color
Biography, Drama
Focus Features
Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Though it’s rated PG-13 mostly for strong language in a single scene, On the Basis of Sex might be a hard film for parents to talk everyone into watching. The title makes it sound racier than it really is (which might be off-putting for some, misleading for others), while telling children it’s based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems even less enticing.

To get our daughter to watch, we told her, “It’s basically Legally Blonde without the comedy.” And that’s not an unfair comparison. Both films are about a young woman who attends law school with her male love interest, both find sexism alive and well, both fight the system to prove themselves worthy, and both ultimately triumph . . . though Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) doesn’t wear pink or have a dog small enough to carry in her purse.

Directed by two-time Emmy winner Mimi Leder (ER), On the Basis of Sex is a feel-good David and Goliath story that for a time also turns on the relationship between Ruth and husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Martin is considered a legal golden boy who just happens to be married to this curiosity, this woman everyone seems to think of as a pretender or an intruder pounding on the door of the Good Ol’ Boys Club. But one of the film’s fascinations is the way in which each person navigates the reality of those waters while still being supportive of the other. Resentment doesn’t triumph—persistence does. She persisted. And that makes this film a must-see for all your daughters old enough to sit through a leisurely paced drama and understand the stakes. More

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Review of Creed II (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 130 min., Color
Drama
MGM/Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

If there were an Energizer Bunny Award for movie franchises, I’d nominate the Rocky series. How many times can you go with a familiar formula and still crank out some pretty effective films? Well, Elvis Presley films not withstanding. As the aggregate fan/critic site IMDb.com attests, there’s really only one stinker in the original bunch:

Rocky (1976)—8.1 out of 10

Rocky II (1979)—7.2 out of 10

Rocky III (1982)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky IV (1985)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky V (1990)—5.2 out of 10

After that last disappointment, sixteen years later the franchise picked itself up off the mat and scored another TKO, though it would seem the producers weren’t comfortable counting higher than five in Roman numerals. Rocky Balboa also marked a change in direction for the franchise and star Sylvester Stallone, who was coaxed out of retirement for one last fight before turning to managing fighters—specifically, the son of his old friend and foe, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers)—in the two films to follow:

Rocky Balboa (2006)—7.2 out of 10

Creed (2015)—7.6 out of 10

Creed II (2018)—7.4 out of 5

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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! More

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

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