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Review of THE BRASS BOTTLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Comedy
Not Rated (would be PG)

The mid-‘60s gave viewers two sitcoms featuring women with magical powers: Bewitched, an ABC-TV series about a witch married to a mortal, and I Dream of Jeannie, an NBC comedy about an astronaut who splashes down near a deserted island and finds a bottle containing a beautiful genie determined to serve (and exasperate) him.

As with “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family,” audiences were split over which show was better. It’s the fans of I Dream of Jeannie who are going to want to see The Brass Bottle, because it provided the inspiration for the TV show. After Bewitched became a smash hit when it debuted in October 1964, creator-producer Sidney Sheldon wanted to develop a similar property for NBC. Sheldon had seen The Brass Bottle, which opened in theaters in May of that year, and the concept seemed perfect. All he had to do was make a few changes, and the rest was television history.

The Brass Bottle was the third film inspired by the 1900 novel of the same name, and as it turns out, British writer Thomas Anstey Guthrie was probably born in the wrong century. The fantastic elements of The Brass Bottle drew praise from none other than George Orwell, and an earlier comic novel, Vice Versa, was about a father and son who change places because of magic. That novel was made into a 1981 British TV series and a 1988 American film. It also inspired modern retellings like Freaky Friday, Big, and Seventeen Again. In other words, the old Victorian writer would have made one heck of a good screenwriter.

Though The Brass Bottle doesn’t have the madcap mayhem of slapstick or screwball comedy, the plot and dialogue are clever. The film might have played out like a fable, but there’s more complexity here and it’s fun to see how similar yet totally different The Brass Bottle is from I Dream of Jeannie. It’s equally fun to see the star of I Dream of Jeannie as a mortal in this fantasy.

In one of his few starring roles, Tony Randall plays an architect who hopes to impress the father of his girlfriend (Eden) by giving the professor a brass bottle he went to great lengths to obtain—only to be laughed at by the Egyptologist and told it’s a mass-produced fake. Of course, this particular bottle ends up being the real McCoy, and rotund genie Fakrash (actor-folksinger Burl Ives) emerges, persistently determined to serve his master while mostly creating trouble.

It’s easy to see why the film inspired Sheldon. Bewitched’s Darren was in the advertising industry and Samantha often used magic to help him in his work. Fakrash does the same with Harold Ventimore (Randall), an architect hoping his designs will be a hit with clients. The special effects in this film aren’t bad.

The way the film is structured, Randall may be the star, but all the scenes worth stealing belong to Ives, who had already won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Big Country (1958). While not as manic, he has the same commanding presence as Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin—but in a strangely menacing way, at times. This genie has a little edge to him.For the better part of the film, Fakrash wanders here and there, marveling at how civilization has advanced over the past 3000 years. But if you don’t like what he’s done for you? That creates an uncomfortable situation.

I agree with Tony Mastroianni of the Cleveland Press, who wrote in his review when the film first played theaters, “Randall and Ives are quite perfect in their parts. Randall’s forte is the light comic role, the nice guy who’s slightly befuddled. His wide-eyed wonder is far better for the part than an overdone double take. Ives as a genie was a wonderful casting idea on someone’s part.”

That’s what The Brass Bottle is:  light comedy, the mild kind that was popular in films of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And yeah, it’s going to mostly be of interest to fans of that genre or fans of I Dream of Jeannie and Barbara Eden—who is interviewed especially for this release.  

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  89 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for magical mischief and some innuendo)

Language:  1/10—There may be some lesser profanity

Sex:  3/10—Scanty harem costumes and talk of 1000 wives and such; mostly talk and innuendo, but some more overt references

Violence:  3/10—Some outbursts and some physical damage result from the magic and Fakrash’s tantrums

Adult situations:  3/10—Some drinking and smoking, in addition to the sexualization of women

Takeaway:  I can’t be the only one who thinks it’s fun to see precursors and related films, especially when they relate to iconic shows such as I Dream of Jeannie

Review of MULAN (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Action-Fantasy
Rated PG-13

When it comes to live-action remakes of Disney animated films, there are two types of people: those who want a near-exact copy of the original, and those willing to accept the live-action version as a completely new work of art and entertainment. And people who expect Disney to remain faithful to the 1998 original aren’t loving this 2020 remake of Mulan: Where are the songs? Where’s Mushu? Where’s the cricket? Where’s Shang? And what the heck is a witch doing in this story?

Yeah, about that: Disney opted to go the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon route, with an emphasis on mysticism and the fantastic in a film that showcases martial arts action sequences, along with a heaping portion of qi. It’s not exactly new territory for them. Disney-owned Miramax rolled out Hero in 2002 just two years after Crouching Tiger changed the landscape for martial arts movies. As in Hero, the fight sequences in Mulan 2020 are gravity-defying and poetic in their movement and choreography, even if the fights themselves aren’t quite as spectacular as those you encounter in some of the best martial arts films. Which is to say, überfans of martial arts flicks aren’t loving this film so much either, because Disney likes to steer the ship right down the middle, aiming always for a general audience. The sequences are less violent and bloody so the film could earn a PG-13 rating.

The live-action villain, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) may not be as deliciously villainous as Shan Yu from the animated version, but his witch cohort, Xianniang (Gong Li), is menacing enough for both of them. She’s also a shape shifter who can break apart and reassemble into hundreds of bat-like flying creatures. The live-action Mulan (Yifei Liu) doesn’t have any cutesy animal companions, and there’s less suggestion of attraction between her and the Commander (Donnie Yen) than there was in the animated version. Otherwise, the plot remains essentially the same. When invaders threaten China, the Emperor decrees that every family should send one man to fight to save the empire. Poor old Hua Zhou, a military hero in previous wars, can’t even accept his orders without falling. So naturally his feisty daughter Mulan decides to take his place and leaves in the dead of night with his armor, his sword, and his mount. If she’s discovered, she’ll be put to death for not recognizing her place as a woman.

Mulan 2020 is directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), and the film’s feminist themes come across even more forcefully than they did in the animated version. Young Mulan is already a warrior-woman in the making when we first see her as a child fearlessly chasing a chicken across rooftops (chickens on the roof?) and using a staff with the prowess of former martial arts star Jet Li, who plays the Emperor of China in this version. Though the live-action Mulan has to endure the same embarrassing encounters with a matchmaker, at least her father acknowledges the warrior and qi (life force) within her. So off she goes—without his knowledge or blessing and without the comedic talking dragon and cricket—to train with other draftees and eventually fight the invaders. More

Review of JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Fantasy Action-Adventure

Before I offer my family’s take on Jumanji: The Next Level, I’d like to point out that the Internet Movie Database readers thought it was almost as good as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (6.8 vs. 6.9/10) and 87 percent of the audience at Rotten Tomatoes rated them dead even.

Our family’s reaction came closer to the Tomatometer Critics, who gave it a 71 percent “fresh” rating compared to the 76 percent rating they had given Welcome to the Jungle. We didn’t think it was as good.

Welcome to the Jungle effectively used the Breakfast Club formula of grouping different teen personalities together so that we knew, by the time they entered the game, what they were afraid of, what they most wanted, and how they acted normally, so we could appreciate their every movement as an avatar within the game that had sucked them inside. The writing was crisp and it all made sense.

This time, though, the beginning is slow and which characters are which avatars is a bit muddled. When we watch Spencer (Alex Wolff) drag through some pre-game scenes that are supposed to explain why he goes back into the game, those scenes seem unnecessary because they don’t really offer much in the way of an explanation. They just slow the narrative. Same with the introduction of Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged business partner Milo (Danny Glover). The camera time they get feels wasted, given DeVito’s and Glover’s talents. You find yourself thinking, “Come on, get on with it.” More

Review of NE ZHA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Not Rated (would be PG-13)
Animated fantasy-adventure

The ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang (light/dark, positive/negative) is at the heart of Ne Zha, an animated feature film from Chinese director Jiaozi that shuns the harsh angularity of anime in favor of the rounded contours that typically characterize western animation.

In fact, there are moments in this 3D computer animated fantasy when you might find yourself thinking of Disney’s more traditionally rendered Mulan, especially when a governor named Li Jing (Hao) is drawn in the same style as a younger version of Mulan’s father. The governor and Madam Yin (Qi) learn that the Primeval Lord of Heaven has decided that they will be the ones to raise one half two beings that came from the Heavenly Pearl. The other half is being raised and controlled by the Dragon King, who seems determined to prove that even the good offspring of the Primeval Lord of Heaven can be used for evil purposes.

But of the two, Nezha is the hellraiser. In fact, the full Chinese title of the film translates as “Birth of the demon child Nezha.” He’s like Dennis the Menace and Stitch rolled into one—a little fireball that his doting parents love, nonetheless, and want to protect. Because of his temperament and frankly evil laugh, he’s ostracized by his community, and probably justifiably so. I mean, he is prophesized to bring destruction to the world, so why would people cozy up to him? But eventually the community learns they have to count on him. More

Review of DRAGONHEART: VENGEANCE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
Fantasy
2020, 97 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some bloody images
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Dragonheart: Vengeance is the third direct-to-video “prequel” to the cult-favorite 1996 fantasy adventure starring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery, and the good news is that it doesn’t look like the typical slap-it-together direct-to-video release.

Aside from some noticeable green screen work in less than a handful of spots, the CGI effects and animation are strong enough to make you forget that this spawn of Dragonheart never saw the dim light of theaters. But apart from those strong production values, Dragonheart: Vengeance is a mixed bag.

On the plus side, the two main characters are instantly likeable. The more screen time they get, the more you like watching farm boy Lukas (Jack Kane) and mercenary swordsman Darius (Joseph Millson) as they set about to avenge the murder of the boy’s family and eventually take on the evil king. On the minus side, haven’t we already seen a family-less Luke hooking up with a profit-minded rogue adventurer who then take on the Emperor—albeit with a galactic rebel army? And haven’t we seen Darius’s “look” before in Aragorn?

Instead of Sean Connery’s voice, the dragon in this film is powered by Helena Bonham Carter (“You’re a girl dragon?”). Carter is always the consummate professional, and it’s a nice touch having the dragon breathe ice and not fire. But some of the lines that are written seem way too contemporary, and the script doesn’t allow for the same playful interaction as in the original film. Instead of a con game where the mercenary and dragon worked together to extort money from frightened villagers (and banter like buddy cops in the process), this dragon is a reluctant dragon—as much of a pacifist as those old-time Western heroes who need to have someone close to them threatened or die before they’ll take action. More

Review of THE KNIGHT OF SHADOWS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
Action-Fantasy
2019, 109 min., Color
Well Go USA Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for crude humor and action violence)
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1 Mandarin (and English dubbed) with English subtitles
Bonus features: C+ (better than the film!)
Trailer
Amazon link

If you look at the cover of The Knight of Shadows with its tagline “Martial Arts Fantasy Adventure” and see Jackie Chan and a serious-looking co-star in period garb, you’d think you’re in store for a serious adventure. You get a similar impression if you read the Imdb.com or Amazon.com description that the studio provided: “A legendary demon hunter (Jackie Chan), tracking down beasts that enter the human dimension, assisted by a lawman protégé and a motley group of friendly monsters.” Still promising, right? Even if you watch the official trailer, with its strange H.R. Pufnstuf-style characters, you never get the sense that silliness ever tries to hijack the film.

Then you watch the film and go, seriously?

Director Jia Yan tries to juggle the comedy and martial arts adventure, and if they were knives he’d still be in the emergency room getting stitched up. This is a film that lurches clumsily between Three Stooges silliness (three law enforcement officers in The Knight of Shadows do their best to ruin Moe, Larry, and Curly for future generations) and cartoonish creatures that are just poorly designed and clumsily integrated into the plot—as if Jia Yan looked at the first print and thought, “We have to do more with this film to attract small children.” Let’s put in a pig character, and a cross between a fairy and Groot, and a character whose only function is to talk about “farts” and throwing his own special brand of f-bombs here and there.

The influential Chinese website Douban gave The Knight of Shadows a 4.3 out of 10, and I’d have to say that my family and I had nearly the same reaction. I’d go ever-so-slightly higher because there are some wonderful serious action sequences that seem to come out of nowhere, but make you wish that the director had chosen to go this route instead of trying to straddle the fantasy fanboy and Saturday morning cartoon audiences. 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 ALADDIN (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Adventure-Fantasy
2019, 128 min., Color
Rated PG for some action/peril
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

While Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated classics have been hit or (near) miss, the 2019 remake of Aladdin is a hit—and don’t let any of the Will-Smith-shouldn’t-have-been-the-Genie complainers tell you differently. Smith is just fine as the genie whose many moods and mannerisms help pace the film. And if you don’t believe me, go to Rotten Tomatoes, where you’ll see that Aladdin received the highest audience rating of any of the live-action remakes.

Smith said that he loved Robin Williams’ manic performance in the 1992 animated classic, but he had no intention of trying to duplicate it—partly because it was the right thing to do out of respect for Williams, but partly because it was the sane thing to do. You can’t beat Williams at manic improvisation, so you might as well carve out your own niche. Smith manages to entertain as the bright blue genie, who fast-talks, sass-talks, back-talks, and even throws in some improvisations of his own—all while managing to carve out his own version of the character.

Meanwhile, Disney struck casting gold with Egyptian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Today’s teens and tweens are into Hollywood’s beautiful twentysomethings, but don’t look for Massoud to be bare-chested throughout the film, as the animated Aladdin was. Director Guy Ritchie thought it would be too distracting on a human, and he’s probably right. Massoud and Scott have great chemistry together and individually they’re charismatic, warm, and talented. Young viewers might also recognize Scott from the Disney channel movie Lemonade Mouth and the TV series Life Bites. More

Review of ISN’T IT ROMANTIC (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No
2019, 89 min., Color
Romantic Comedy-Fantasy
Rated PG-13 for Language, some sexual material, and a brief drug reference
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

Isn’t It Romantic?

Uh, not really, I’m sorry to say.

This 2019 film from Todd Strauss-Schulson (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas) seems to want to satirize romantic comedies while also following the formula and hoping audiences will walk away feeling warm and fuzzy about the possibility of romance for everyone—whether they’re “beautiful people” or not. As admirable as that message may be, it’s tough to have it both ways, and the film falls flat as satire and also disappoints as a romantic comedy.

“Flat” is really the operative word here. For most of the 89-minute runtime, Isn’t It Romantic has zero energy—flat as a half-bottle of beer that’s been left out overnight. Actors seem to be just going through the motions. One big problem is the script by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman. It’s just plain dull, and limp lines contribute to the overall flatness. Too often, gags go on unmercifully long. We don’t, for example, get a lot of laughs, insight or plot exposition as Natalie (Rebel Wilson) goes on and on about why she hates the rom-com formula in a montage that we’re guessing is supposed to be funny. As for the gimmick the writers employ to give Natalie a conk on the head and put her smack dab in the middle of a romantic comedy, the film is frankly more fun and interesting without it. And unfortunately, that gimmick occupies the bulk of the film. More

Review of AQUAMAN (2018) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes (parental judgment required)
2018, 143 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1 and 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: A-/B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Critics at Rotten Tomatoes only gave Aquaman a 65 percent “fresh” rating, but I think maybe they’ve got a trident stuck somewhere. What do they want from a superhero movie? It can’t possibly be the same things my family wants, because this 2018 action-adventure starring Jason Momoa checked all our boxes.

Epic story? Check. At 143 minutes it might be around 10 minutes too long, but we get a wide sweeping origin story that begins when the Queen of Atlantis washes ashore and is taken in by a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), with whom she eventually falls in love and has a son—a little demigod they name Arthur. The Queen (Nicole Kidman) had been fleeing an arranged marriage with the King of Atlantis, and there’s no running from a guy like that. She sacrifices herself so her son and earthbound husband can live—but not before instructing her trusted advisor, Vulko (Willem Dafoe), to secretly teach her son how to become a powerful warrior well schooled in the ways of the ocean and its people. There are plenty of complications, but not so many that they get tangled up with each other and end up tripping the narrative. At some point this turns into a quest story, with Arthur searching to find the powerful Trident of Atlan that would allow him to triumph over his half-brother and take the throne he’s destined to occupy because as half-man and half-Atlantean he’s in a position to unite the two worlds—or at least stop an Atlantean-led invasion of the “surface” people. More

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