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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

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