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MartialArtsKidcoverGrade: C+
Entire family: No, but darned close
2015, 103 min., Color
Traditionz Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for martial arts fighting)
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

As its title suggests, The Martial Arts Kid (2015) is a remake of The Karate Kid, though this five Dove-rated film was made with a much lower budget than the $8 million the original 1984 film had to work with. Ironically, the remake was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, and the lower budget mostly shows up in the lack of experienced actors as extras and in rougher-looking tracking shots.

But Jansen Panettiere, Hayden’s younger brother, is just as likable as Ralph Macchio was as the title character—only in this version he has the added burden of playing a troubled youth whom we see carted away in a police car in the opening sequence. When his grandmother announces she can’t take it anymore, the setting changes from Cleveland, Ohio to Cocoa Beach, Florida, where he will live with his Aunt Cindy (Cynthia Rothrock), her Asian husband Glen (Don “The Dragon” Wilson), and their 12-year-old daughter, Katie (Kayley Stallings, who does a lot with a small role).

MartialArtsKidscreen1The thing is, young Robbie (Panettiere) seems pretty wholesome and clean-cut from the beginning, and his last words to an appalled grandma—“It’s not as bad as it looks”—aren’t enough to explain why this nice guy goes from someone who’s in with a rough crowd one minute and someone who sits at the nerd table in school and is bullied in Florida the next. Except that that was loosely the plot of The Karate Kid, and apart from this twist and the resolution, The Martial Arts Kid stays pretty close to the original script.

Like The Karate Kid, Robbie finds his life complicated when he falls for a girl whose boyfriend is a student at a take-no-prisoners dojo and bullies him—though the bullying episodes are much harder to believe in The Martial Arts Kid. For one thing, Bo (Matthew Ziff) gets away with murder, figuratively speaking, with authority figures not really doing anything because “his father is powerful.” Really? That might have been believable in the ‘70s, but in this age of WikiLeaks even the most powerful are held accountable. Same with the “break their legs” philosophy taught by Dojo Extreme master Kaine (T.J. Storm).

MartialArtsKidscreen2The year before this film was released, Cocoa Beach had a lower-than-average crime rate, and on film it looks like an upscale little Space Coast Town—not the kind of place where an angry dude would threaten to demolish a dealer who won’t give him a refund, or thugs would attack others in broad daylight with a knife. When things like that happen here, you’re well aware that they’re plot contrivances. That said, it’s praiseworthy that Robbie’s salvation comes not only from mentor Glen, who agrees to take him on as a student at his school, but also from Aunt Cindy . . . and that she was a martial arts expert before she decided to develop her skills further with her husband.

The Martial Arts Kid couldn’t be clearer about its main message—bullies suck— though a sub-message gets kind of blurry in an ending that offers not a structured match between the “kid” and his tormenter, but a resolution that’s a little more free form, shall we say. This remake may be a little corny in its wholesomeness, but that’s a trait of family films. The message is a good one, women aren’t portrayed as damsels in distress, and Panettiere and Kathryn Newton (TV’s Gary Unmarried) have enough chemistry to where you want them to be happy. For all its low-budget flaws, The Martial Arts Kid still makes for an entertaining family movie night. Dove approved this for ages 12 and older, but I see no reason why under-12s also couldn’t watch. You don’t have to be 12 to be bullied or take martial arts lessons, right?

Language: Nothing offensive here
Sex: None; just an innocent kiss and sparring takedown
Violence: Knives and guns are pulled at one point, but it’s all martial arts otherwise
Adult situations: Plenty of pseudo low-lifes
Takeaway: My teenage son said this movie was better than he expected, and I’d have to agree, especially considering the budget

THE PEANUTS MOVIE (Collector’s Edition Blu-ray)

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PeanutsMoviecoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 88 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated G
Aspect ratio:1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

Steve Martino is a brave man. Sure, he directed the Dr, Seuss classic Horton Hears a Who! (2008) and Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), the fourth installment in the Fox animated prehistoric series. But Charles Schulz is in a totally different league.

One of the most famous cartoonists of all time, Schulz received the Congressional Gold Medal for his influence on America culture—an influence that famously extended into the U.S. space program, with the Apollo 10 command module named “Charlie Brown” and the lunar module named “Snoopy.” Over his career Schulz drew close to 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, published dozens of collected strips in books, and came into American homes through a series of now-iconic television specials, many of which were linked to holidays. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Upon his death, Schulz requested that his characters remain essentially unchanged, and The Peanuts Movie was to be the first time the characters were rendered in 3D CGI. In addition, the script was written by Cornelius Uliano and Schulz’s son and grandson, who also had a hand in producing the film. But hey, no pressure!

PeanutsMoviescreen1Martino presides over a production that remains faithful to the spirit of the Peanuts world, choosing to surprise viewers not with twists or deviations, but with the clever rendering of familiar elements from the Peanuts gang repertoire and recognizable visual cues from the comics themselves. Snoopy hauls out his typewriter and takes to the skies atop his doghouse to fight the Red Baron, Charlie Brown is smitten by a new red-haired girl in the neighborhood, and everyone starts to think differently about failure-magnet, disaster-prone Charlie after he scores a perfect 100 on an exam.

In the end, the perceived messages about never giving up, the thin line that often separates failure from success, and the fickleness of public opinion come across loud and clear—whether you’re an adult or a child. And universal messages like that are a big part of what has made the Peanuts adventures popular with all ages.

PeanutsMoviescreen2If The Peanuts Movie feels like a first, it’s only because it’s the first full-length animated feature to be produced for the big screen in 35 years. It’s the fifth film, really, though this one feels like a first film because it introduces all of the familiar elements for a new audience. Yet, old ones will take delight in the way that those familiar elements are treated. Lucy is her old irascible self, setting up her psychiatric advice booth on the street in the middle of winter—though she could probably stand to see a shrink herself because of her self-image and anger-management issues. Pigpen doesn’t have much to do, but his cloud of dirt appears every now and then. Schroeder is more visible with his Beethoven fetish and his toy piano, and Charlie’s sister Sally seems to lurk everywhere in the wings, like a real little sister.

Despite being set in winter, The Peanuts Movie manages to bring in all of the most famous “bits,” from Charlie Brown’s disastrous attempts at kite-flying to school talent shows, or from birdie Woodstock and Snoopy’s comic antics to and Charlie Brown’s dance lessons. The 3D CGI characters and stylized backgrounds seem perfectly melded by comic-strip wordless graphics like gigantic stars briefly flashed to signify an explosion or implosion, thought balloons, or eyes and eyebrows on a character that shift like drawings hovering over the CGI bodies. The effect is fairly mesmerizing and adds a charming uniqueness to the faithful tone and treatment of familiar material. The Peanuts Movie is one of the better 3D CGI animated adaptations in a sub-genre that sees far too many wrong turns and stinkers.


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RoadChipcoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
2015, 92 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for some mild rude humor and language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Includes: DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

If you’re thinking of picking up Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, you probably already know what’s in store: a cutesy, formulaic blend of live-action and CGI animation that showcases the antics of squeaky-voiced Alvin, Theodore, and Simon.

So it makes no sense to review this film against classic road movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Thelma & Louise, and Little Miss Sunshine. It’s not in that league, nor does it try to be. It only tries to appeal to the same audience that was entertained by the original 2007 film about struggling songwriter David Seville (Jason Lee) and the singing chipmunks that brought him fame. And I will say this: The Road Chip strikes me as the best of the sequels thus far.

The opening high-energy production number mostly gives animators a chance to show what they can have these furry 3D animated guys do with a bunch of dancers and partiers, but once the main plot is established—David has met someone he plans to marry, and she has a teenage son they met earlier, someone who bullies them—the could-be stepbrothers hop in a car together to try to sabotage the proposal. Why? Because the Chipmunks think that Dave will drop them like three fuzzy hot potatoes after he’s married, or worse, that they’ll be sentenced to a lifetime with a new stepbrother who torments them.

RoadChipscreenThe minute they get inside that car together, you know the road trip will bring them together, and that eventually their dad and mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) will take another step on the road to their own happily ever after. It’s in the stars (or script). And in the Chipmunk movies there’s another formula: a single determined antagonist—like David Cross, in the first film—that pursues the Chipmunks. In The Road Chip it’s Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep) who has the honor of taking pratfalls for the cause. Hale plays an Air Marshal who goes full-bore Capt. Ahab in his pursuit, to sometimes genuinely comic effect. Meanwhile, as Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) try to work together with their new nemesis and potential stepbrother Miles (Josh Green), viewers from blended families or children of single parents fearing change can find some hope for their own futures.

In The Road Trip the Chipettes (voiced by Christina Applegate, Kaley Cuoco, and Anna Faris) appear as more successful performers than their male counterparts, but they’re really just window dressing. It’s all about potential stepbrothers this outing, and the mishaps that threaten to keep them from completing their mission.

The integration of animated characters into live action films has really come a long way since Pete’s Dragon, and The Road Trip is fun to watch just because of all the detail. For such an eye-feast, Blu-ray is the best. But make no mistake: the filmmakers are not pitching this at entire families, though it’s certainly suitable for all to watch. It’s aimed mostly at smaller children, who will give it two thumbs up. Older family members will say that in fairness it’s more like a C+ or B-, depending on your mood. And they’ll probably be more entertained than they’re willing to admit.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR (Blu-ray combo)

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GoodDinosaurcoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2015, 94 min., Color
Rated PG for peril, action, and thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

The Good Dinosaur is a good movie, but a weird one. How weird, you wonder?

Picture a dinosaur version of a western involving cattlemen and sodbusters, with vegetarian apatosauruses as the farmers, carnivore T-rexes wrangling prehistoric longhorns, and pterosaurs the rustlers.

Picture a dinosaur version of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, flipped upside-down so that the dog who eventually answers to the “call of the wild” is a prehistoric human that hasn’t learned to walk upright yet and acts a bit like Donnie from The Wild Thornberrys, while his “master” is an apatosaurus.

GoodDinosaurscreen2Picture a dinosaur version of The Lion King, with young apatosaurus Arlo getting a life lesson in one scene that shows him and his father looking skyward, while later we watch as the father pushes the son to safety when a calamity sweeps through the valley and (not really a spoiler if you’ve seen The Lion King) kills the father, who comes back in a vision when his young son needs him most.

Picture realistic backgrounds with an animated green dinosaur that will have you flashbacking to Pete’s Dragon.

And picture a dinosaur version of “ohana,” the lesson we learned about family from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, with more pathos, overall, than humor.

The Good Dinosaur is still entertaining, but it’s less than what you’d expect from Pixar and more than a little weird. Just as unusual for a Disney-Pixar film, especially one that was in production for six years, is that there are so many déja vu moments. Pixar built a name for themselves by coming up with completely unique stories, so this more standard and familiar entry is a bit of a surprise. But families with young children especially won’t care.

Using photorealistic scenery and cartoonish characters, Disney-Pixar offers a story with themes about making a mark in the world, living up to parental expectations, and dealing with stronger, more accomplished siblings—all of which ought to resonate with young viewers. Child/teen actors Jack McGraw and Raymond Ochoa give voice to Arlo, the runt of a litter who has a hard time keeping up with his rambunctious brother (Ryan Teeple/Marcus Scribner) and sister (Maleah Padilla).

GoodDinosaurscreen3Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) put their marks on the side of a stone silo they built to hold winter corn, and soon so do Buck and Libby. Only poor runty Arlo isn’t able to accomplish a task in order to make his mark. Encouraged by his father, he takes on the challenge of catching and killing the “varmint” that keeps stealing and eating their corn. Of course he can’t do it, because he’s the “good dinosaur”—a kind of prehistoric version of the old children’s book hero Ferdinand the Bull, who wanted to smell flowers rather than fight in the bullring. When Arlo is separated from his family and runs into that “varmint,” whom he names Spot (voiced by Jack Bright), an unlikely friendship develops that will also, of course, enable Arlo to finally prove himself while facing all sorts of dangers.

More strange than it is totally original, The Good Dinosaur is the kind of movie that will really appeal to children. Parents? Not nearly as much—though it’s easy to get lost in the film’s captivating art decoration, set design, and animation, all of which look terrific in Blu-ray.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: A head is ripped off a large bug, there’s a traumatic Lion-King style death, and the main character is in near-constant peril.
Adult situations: Like the intoxication scene in Dumbo the main character and his friend eat some bad fruit and hallucinate.
Takeaway: We’re so used to everything to come out of Pixar Studios being so extraordinary that when a good story instead of a great one comes along it’s a shock to the system, and maybe that’s unfair.


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SnowWhitecoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1937, 83 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

Walt Disney didn’t invent Snow White, but then again, neither did the Brothers Grimm, who published their version in an 1812 book of folk tales they collected from across Germany. But Disney renamed the dwarves and gave them individual personalities. With their help, he proved to the world in 1937 that it really was possible to create a full-length animated feature that could engage movie audiences.

When Disney first announced the project and put out a call for artists and animators, the press called it “Disney’s Folly,” because no one in Hollywood thought it possible for an animated cartoon to hold the public’s interest for more than a few minutes. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made movie history and started a cottage industry of Disney Princesses and full-length animated features that had strong enough storylines and evocative characters to entertain adults as well as children.

SnowWhitescreenPerhaps most amazing, it still holds up today because of the formula that we’ve come to expect from Disney: characters with personality that we care about, gorgeous artwork, true-to-life animation, a strong storyline, memorable music, and an emotional ride that makes us laugh, cry, and fear for the characters’ lives. Compared to later Disney animated features Snow White has a much simpler trajectory: A wicked queen gets jealous of Snow White’s beauty, orders her huntsman to kill her, and she runs into the dark forest after he spares her. There she discovers a tiny house that’s a frightful mess and decides to clean it with the help of forest animals. She bonds with the house’s inhabitants—seven dwarves that work in a diamond mine—but the ever persistent Queen transforms herself into an old hag and stalks Snow White. Yet, for such a simple story, Snow White is packed full of emotions and colorful characters and all of those things that now seem standard-issue in a Disney movie. Ironically, if it wasn’t for the decidedly ‘30s look of Snow White and the Prince, you’d never know the film was that old. It’s aged very well.

The bottom line is that Snow White belongs in every family movie collection, and it looks positively wonderful on Blu-ray. The soft palette look of the film is preserved, but with slightly greater edge delineation, and that makes all the difference in the world. Meanwhile, the 7.1 DTS-HDMA really enhances songs like “Hi-Ho-Hi-Ho” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” What it will come down to is whether you already own the three-disc Diamond Edition that was released in 2009. In that case, unless you really want the film in Digital HD to watch on other devices, you’re just fine with that edition.

Not all the bonus features from the 2009 Blu-ray were ported over, but that’s not surprising, since the earlier release featured a second Blu-ray disc of bonus features in addition to the DVD. What made it: two deleted scenes, a fascinating making-of feature, “Snow White Returns,” a Hyperion Studios tour, “Bringing Snow White to Life,” “In Walt’s Words,” “Decoding the Exposure Sheet,” and an audio commentary featuring historian John Canemaker, Roy Disney, and recordings of Walt Disney. What seems to be new are features on the iconography of Snow White, “@Disneyanimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess,” a fun facts featurette hosted by Disney Channel star Sofia Carson, and “Snow White in 70 Seconds.” Like the 2009 release, Snow White comes with DisneyView, drawn borders to fill out the black bars on the sides of a classic film that’s presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio that actually measures closer to 1.37:1.

This new release shows how the digital landscape has changed. Gone is the BD-Live content and games for the kids to play, and added are the Digital HD copy and instructions on how to download a Disney Movies Anywhere app.


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SantasLittleHelpercoverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 91 min., Color
Rated PG for a comic fight scene and some suggestive humor
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: DVD, Digital HD Copy
Amazon link

There have been so many mediocre or downright bad Christmas movies that my family approaches every new one with as much suspicion and guarded anticipation as a child shaking presents under the tree. But the thing about low expectations is that it leaves the door open for occasional surprises . . . like Santa’s Little Helper.

This 2015 film from WWE Studios, distributed by Fox, won’t make it onto anyone’s best Christmas movies list no matter how many times you check it. Santa’s Little Helper looks and feels like a made-for-TV movie, but it’s surprisingly entertaining. The biggest surprise is that the film’s star—World Wrestling Entertainment dynamo Mike “The Miz” Mizanin—turns out to be as good of an actor as the most famous wrestler-turned-actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This guy has a future in comedy and displays way more expression and range than body-builder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Plus, because he comes across as a regular guy except when the script calls for him to look as if he’s posing for a GQ cover, he’s actually pretty likable.

Good thing, because everyone who wants to step up and ring the Christmas bell tries to do so with the same old recycled plots. In Santa’s Little Helper, a youth center is going to close because they can’t keep up with the mortgage payments. Add music and change “youth center” to “church” and you’ve got The Preacher’s Wife. Mizanin plays the Scrooge that gleefully hands them their notice. He’s a corporate hatchet man who delights in serving those kinds of papers, and naturally he’s also an alum of that youth center. Like the real estate developer in The Preacher’s Wife he’ll have his turnaround, but Santa’s Little Helper throws in a lot more fantasy . . . and a little more cheesiness.

SantasLittleHelperscreenThe wholesomeness meter dips a bit when we go to the North Pole and see one of Santa’s helpers looking more like a hot calendar model than an elf. Given her skimpy short-shorts, it’s hard not to think of another context when she and Santa talk about filling the job of “Ho Ho Ho”—Santa’s #1 elf. But former model AnnaLynne McCord gets to be a lot nicer and more wholesome than the characters she’s played on Nip/Tuck or 90210. Like the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, she’s given the task of interacting with a mortal and trying to convince him of something. In this case, Santa wants her to put Dax (Mizanin) through a series of challenges to test his temper and gauge his mettle to see if he’d be a contender for the Ho Ho Ho position, as Santa suspects. Her job is to convince him that this dream job with its unspecified brand and CEO are worth jumping through all the hoops.

The filmmakers try to address the inconsistency of having a human as top elf, and the explanation they offer won’t satisfy some viewers—adults especially. But hey, it’s fantasy, and that means anything goes . . . or almost anything. WWE wrestler Paige, a two-time Divas Championship winner, plays the daughter of an elf who last held the Ho Ho Ho position. Unfortunately, she’s seems an afterthought: hey, we need an antagonist, don’t we? She tries, but she really doesn’t have the acting chops of the other two and really doesn’t have much to do until the third act, when the plot shifts from Dax’s tests and trials to a full-out competition for the Ho Ho Ho job.

As I said, there’s nothing new here and no great set design or special effects. But unlike many crank-em-out Christmas movies that are sappy or just plain dull, this one is fun to watch. And that’s mainly because Mizanin and McCord are enjoyable to watch—despite a script that calls for him to go shirtless and flex, and for her to dress to showcase her own physique. Still, the sexuality is muted compared to most films these days, and there is no (repeat, NO) sexual tension between the two main characters. That keeps it wholesome, and good thing. Kids will like this one more than adults, but that pretty much goes for all things Christmas, doesn’t it?

Language: Pretty squeaky clean
Sex: n/a
Violence: One fight, with comic overtones
Adult situations: Other than a skimpy outfit? No
Takeaway: I suspect we’ll be hearing more from Mizanin.

Max (Blu-ray combo)

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MaxcoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: No
2015, 111 min., Color
Rated PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements
Warner Bros./MGM
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Included: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

Max, released in 2015 and distributed by Warner Bros./MGM, is a family film that my family refused to watch. Why? Because they’d seen the trailer and had no interest in a movie about a U.S. soldier killed in action whose dog mourns him and has a hard time adjusting to life afterwards. They wouldn’t watch Marley & Me either, and as for Old Yeller? Forget it! No sad movies involving dogs!

So I watched it alone, thinking that for families that aren’t resistant to tearjerkers, Max is a good choice for movie night. Though it’s a little heavy-handed at times and sprinkled with occasional cheesy lines, it’s an engaging patriotic film, it’s an incredible journey for one dog, it’s a thriller involving piracy and gun-running, and it’s a coming-of-age story about a young boy who doesn’t care about anything besides his video games, when we first meet him.

Maxscreen1Newcomer Josh Wiggins stars as low-end teen Justin Wincott, who learns in short order that his older brother serving in Afghanistan was killed. But viewers already know that, because the first act acquaints us with Kyle (Robbie Amell) and his relatively unusual assignment. He’s a dog handler, and this film is dedicated to the 26 dogs and 25 handlers who died in battle. Viewers see how dogs are used to walk ahead of troops to make sure it’s safe and also to sniff out weapons caches—though to give the screenplay a little Hollywood twist, Kyle’s best friend, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), is mixed up with a gun-smuggling operation.

But Max is the focus, and the scene my family saw on the trailer is one that will jerk plenty of tears out of you, as this Belgian Malinois (think German Shepherd) is brought to the funeral and lunges at the casket, putting it’s front paws on it, then slumps to the ground. After that, it’s a story about how Max gets over his post-traumatic stress syndrome and loss of owner through Justin, whom he senses is a blood relative to his beloved Kyle. As happens with the dog in Air Bud, Max is also the agent by which his new young and reluctant handler comes out of his shell and, in this case, straightens out.

Maxscreen2Mia Xitlali appears as Carmen, the somewhat clichéd feisty Latina who just happens to be visiting her cousin Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), Justin’s best friend. Not only do you get attitude with this girl, you get a potential first-love interest and a dog whisperer who helps Justin learn how to click with Max. But a story that’s essentially about a dog and teens needs a few adults to anchor it, and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways, Broken Trail) and Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) fill the bill. There are some surprises and there are some familiar plot devices, which collectively make Max a B-range movie because it ultimately succeeds at what it attempts. The acting is decent, the production values are decent, and the script is decent enough. If you ignore those occasional clunker lines and familiar turns, Max is an exciting, feel-bad feel-good film.

Language: One or two mild expletives, tops
Sex: n/a
Violence: Brief battle action
Adult situations: Some smoking and drinking
Takeaway: Family movies can be corny and predictable, but this one actually has some surprises, and there are enough exciting moments to balance the cheesy ones.


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GoldenShoescoverGrade: C-/C
Entire family: Yes
2015, 89 min., Color
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Rated PG for language
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Golden Shoes is a Dove-approved film in the “family” category, and you know what that means: go for the heart, or head for the pulpit. Films in this genre are usually heavy handed and don’t trust the audience to get the message, so subtlety isn’t a hallmark. Plotting is usually as the crow flies, as direct (and often contrived) as can be. Characters are either good or bad, because the modern-day family movie is an update of the old medieval morality plays. And since the object of a feel-good movie is to make you feel good, there’s more than a little melodrama and emotion for emotion’s sake. Contrivance? No matter, as long as it offers a plotting shortcut or makes you feel something.

Golden Shoes has all of the shortcomings of the genre. It also, surprisingly, has a few recognizable name actors to help shoulder the burden. John Rhys-Davies—who narrates Once Upon a Time and appeared in dozens of big films, including The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Bond film The Living Daylights, and Raiders of the Lost Ark—turns up as a mentor-of-sorts to young Christian (Christian Koza), who dreams of becoming a soccer star but only sits on the bench of his youth-league team. Dom DeLuise’s son, David, is a coach that seems too nice, even for a youth league. Montel Williams has a bit part, as does Vivica A. Fox, and Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight) gets the most air time as the boy’s next-door neighbor, who is by turns lecherous, helpful, crusty, self-absorbed, and just plain contemptuous.

GoldenShoesscreen1Roberts comes on to Christian’s mother, and yet he’s listed on the contact list at school so when Mom gets in an accident, he’s the responsible adult who’s called to take Christian to the hospital to see his mother and then take him in while she’s recuperating. Here’s where this Cinderella story takes a Cinderella turn. Frank has no wife that we can see, but two sons who aren’t very good soccer players but whom Dad pushes the coach to play more. Christian gets to bunk in the basement, and is locked in that basement when a big game comes up, with Frank no doubt trying to increase the odds of his boys getting more playing time at the “big dance.” Instead of glass slippers, it’s golden shoes that Frank buys him, thinking they’re the cheapest reject shoes he can get his new “stepson.”

Like many family films, this one is a low-budget indie. But I have no quarrel with the production values. Many a decent indie film has limped along with low-budget audio and video and still finished strong. The biggest problem viewers will have with Golden Shoes is the plausibility, especially if they’re into youth soccer. First of all, it’s not likely at all for a single player to sit on the bench game after game. More than one? Sure. But any coach worth his whistle would have found a way to rotate in that last player without inflicting too much damage on the final score . . . or the kid’s psyche. And if you knew this kid’s dad was serving in Afghanistan and MIA, wouldn’t you try extra hard to give him some playing time? And no matter how rotten a neighbor you were, wouldn’t you take the kid in your custody to see his mom in the hospital more than once?

Even more far-fetched is that these games, which appear to be played, like so many across America, on a small field with just a few parents watching, suddenly start to snowball to where, after Christian is inserted and becomes a star, they’re competing in a play-off game in a big stadium and the President of the United States is learning about this kid and orchestrating a rescue mission to bring his father home in time to see him play his big game. I’ve coached youth soccer and I’ve seen a lot of terrific players, but I’ve never seen a youth soccer player make newspaper headlines and TV newscasts, as happens here. And the whole idea of a big-venue game, ala Hoosiers, is just absurd.

GoldenShoesscreen2It’s fair to say that writer-director Lance Kawas got a little carried away. I would have been happier had he stayed with a smaller story, because while the acting isn’t going to win any awards, 12-year-old Koza is likable enough as Christian, and despite the fact that Roberts is all over the map as Frank, he’s still as mesmerizing as a train wreck in slow motion. This movie isn’t perfect, but I remember it weeks after seeing it, which isn’t always the case.

I had the chance to do a phone interveiw with Christian Koza, who got into the business after three months of lessons, and he said that he has played soccer since he was three years old, and that he was as much of a goal-scorer as his character. “Some of it I could curve the balls. Maybe half, but some of it was CGI,” he said, adding that most of the kids who played soccer on camera were extras in a real league.

Koza said it was fascinating watching Eric Roberts get into character, adding that the only time he actually saw him in a good mood (i.e., not in character) was with his dad on set. What drew Christian to the story was the fact that his character was bullied, and when I asked him whether he’d want a girlfriend in the sequel that’s in pre-production he said, simply, “No.” As in real life, he said he’d rather just concentrate on school and soccer. On the set, he said that he bonded with the young actor who played the goalie and that the two of them would always talk and eat and play X-Box. His favorite X-Box games? “All the sports games . . . . I don’t like the violent games,” he said.

Now that’s the kind of honesty I’d prefer in the sequel, rather than a trumped-up world-stage scenario. Keep it simple. Focus on the kids and kid problems. It is, after all, a family movie.

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