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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.

With older movies like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), the conk on the head journey worked because of the deep contrast between worlds. It was fascinating to see Oz through Dorothy’s eyes or to experience medieval times through from the perspective of a horse-and-buggy-era blacksmith. Also missing in Isn’t It Romantic is the level of smart reporting and detail that makes newer stranger-in-a-strange-land films like Pleasantville (1998) so compelling, and when Natalie does begin to suspect that she’s in a romantic comedy it’s not nearly as satisfying as when Jim Carrey learns he’s in a reality TV show (The Truman Show, 1998).

Another problem is Wilson herself. She frankly doesn’t have the range to convey the emotional journey a main character needs to make for a film like this to be successful. She plays a milquetoast architect who lets others at the firm walk all over her—even those for whom she’s a superior. There’s an attentive co-worker (Adam Devine as Josh) who obviously has a crush on her, but Natalie is oblivious to his feelings. You KNOW they’re going to get together because that’s the rom-com formula, but we frankly don’t care because not enough time is spent on their relationship or situation, and because Wilson doesn’t sell it. Those who were wondering if she could make the leap from comic character actor to lead actress will probably walk away from this film speculating on the reasons why the funny actress wasn’t able to pull it off. A veteran lead actress might have been able to compensate more for all those flat lines and long periods between laughs. Even multiple allusions to Pretty Woman and 13 Going on 30 aren’t enough to help.

Liam Hemsworth, who plays the eye-candy man of every rom-com woman’s dreams, seems a little lost, and in a role that’s supposed to be comic relief Brandon Scott Jones isn’t nearly as funny as we needed the clichéd gay best friend of the rom-com heroine to be. One of the film’s more hilarious moments comes near the end, when Natalie comments on how she thought her neighbor was heterosexual because of all the women who went in and out of the apartment, and the character and his partner get indignant because, “What, we can be gay AND sell drugs?” There just aren’t nearly enough funny moments like that, and you realize, too, how flat the film is when the cast launches into a big song-and-dance number and you think, Finally, some energy! Wilson fans will of course enjoy seeing her in a different role, but others will watch that big number and wonder why there wasn’t more energy throughout the film.

Language: Lots of suggested f-bombs but only one use of the word, plus another couple dozen lesser swearwords and a “double bird” flip-off

Sex: No nudity or implied sex, but the size of a man’s organ is discussed at some length and Hemsworth is shown in just a towel in a Groundhog Day scene that keeps repeating

Violence: One of the film’s funnier scenes involves Natalie fighting with a would-be mugger in the NYC subway; later Natalie pulls an IV out of her arm and blood squirts everywhere, and there’s a sudden car crash

Adult situations: There’s some drinking in a karaoke bar and a character is seen smoking; there’s also a brief reference to selling “weed”

Takeaway: Wilson is the latest popular character actress to find out that it’s tougher than it looks to carry a film as the headliner

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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

Review of FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 134 min., Color
Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+ (includes extended cut)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital (extended cut included)
Trailer
Amazon link

Our whole family loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But we were split on Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

My wife, who had read the screenplay and all the Harry Potter books and has a good memory, thought it was a really good movie, somewhere in the B+ range. The only thing she didn’t like was a plot point that’s already been so widely discussed on the Internet that it’s not much of a spoiler: Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, turns out to be an enchanted woman.

Meanwhile, my son, who didn’t read the screenplay but still has a good memory and grasp of characters in complicated plots, thought it was a B- at best. And my daughter and I, who found ourselves confused throughout much of the movie, gave it a B-/C+. In other words, I agreed with critics who slammed J.K. Rowling for creating an unnecessarily complicated but relatively low-stakes plot.

Naturally, I assumed that the more you know going into the film, the more you’ll like it—until I read how überfans criticized Rowling for confusing even herself by violating her own timeline. I didn’t notice. I was too confused.

For me, it was like watching an action movie with terrific special effects in a foreign language with no subtitles. It was like listening to an opera sung in German where you kind of know what’s going on, but not really. More

Review of THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 99 min., Color
Fantasy-adventure
Rated PG for some mild peril
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

This is one time when Disney should have stuck to the original story. People familiar with the beloved Tchaikovsky ballet, based on an 1816 tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman, won’t see much they recognize in this 2018 film.

In the ballet, a wealthy European family celebrates Christmas with a party at their mansion, to which other families have been invited. The children’s godfather Drosselmeyer, a toymaker, brings a Nutcracker doll for young Clara, which brother Fritz breaks. It’s that broken Nutcracker, tucked under her arm, that leads Clara to dream of battles between a Mouse King and soldiers led by the Nutcracker, and of exotic delights and doll dances in The Land of the Sweets—all colorfully rendered onstage in a production that’s become a beloved holiday classic.

But why in the world would a film company known for injecting music into its films skimp on the music for this one? Though the ballet is magical and Disney has a reputation for creating magic, Tchaikovsy’s music and the magic get lost in the second act, which bogs down in exposition and familiarity.

Oh, the magic returns at the end and it’s there for the opening, where viewers get caught up in the excitement and grandeur of a 19th-century ball on Christmas Eve, backed by strains (albeit songs out of order) of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. But Disney being Disney, they couldn’t keep themselves from killing off Clara’s mother, so the film begins on bit of a downer as their morose father tries to get through his first Christmas without his beloved wife. Disney also felt compelled to make Clara a princess—how else could they market her?—and because the latest trend in princesses is to empower them, Disney decided to make her a science whiz and inventor. More

Review of EVERY DAY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No
2018, 97 min., Color
Teen drama-fantasy-romance
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language, teen drinking, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Every Day is a strange film. Angourie Rice (who was Ryan Gosling’s daughter in The Nice Guys) plays an average teenager in the Greater Baltimore area whose life is upended when she meets and becomes attracted to another teen whose looks change on a daily basis. And we’re not just talking about capricious makeovers.

That other teen somehow (why is never fully explained) wakes up in a different teen body every single day. “A,” as she comes to know them, can be a 16-year-old girl one day and a 16-year-old boy the next—black, white, Asian, gay or straight. A has no control over what body they awake in, but for the day that A is inside that body and inhabits that person’s life, A has tried to abide by one rule: do nothing that would alter that person’s life for good or for bad. That’s something A finds harder to do once they meet and fall for Rhiannon (Rice). A’s brain, A’s emotions, A’s memory bank, A’s spirit enters a person’s body and then lives that person’s life for a day. Throughout the film we see A do this with 15 different individuals who have zero to some vague memory of that day (whatever memory A decides to leave behind, though his standard M.O. has been to leave no memories). And both Rhiannon’s and A’s lives become more complicated when they develop feelings for one another.

I told you it was strange. But it’s also unique and oddly compelling. You want to see how this star-crossed romance could possibly end. More

Review of TOMB RAIDER (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2018, 118 min., Color
Action-Adventure Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Critics didn’t care much for Tomb Raider. At Rotten Tomatoes the film earned just a 49 percent fresh rating with critics, while 60 percent of the audience liked it. That sounds terrible until you consider that the original 2001 film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, tallied just a 20 percent fresh rating and a 47 percent happy audience share.

The problem with Tomb Raider is that for all the action, for all the accomplished CGI and special effects work, and in spite of everything that Alicia Vikander does to shine on camera, the film is saddled with an origin story that feels a little heavy for a film adaptation of a video game. More tongue-in-cheek humor would have helped, but so would more a more original plot. When the end credits roll, you’re thinking, that was entertaining enough, but you can’t really escape the feeling that you’ve seen it all before.

That’s a little unsettling, because while Alastair Siddons is a relative newcomer, his co-screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet is signed up to work on screenplays for some pretty high-profile films: Captain Marvel (2019), Sherlock Holmes 3 (2020), and Dungeons & Dragons (2021). So Geneva, let me protect everyone’s interests moving forward by saying, please don’t take those films too seriously and try especially hard to come up with at least two action sequences that are both original and memorable—because I’ve already forgotten most of the action from Tomb Raider. And there’s no shortage of searching-for-lost-parent films, most of which manage to feel more original than this one—with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade coming instantly to mind.

Curiously, our family was split: the females thought it was worth a solid B, while the males (who had watched a bit more in the way of action/superhero films) were a little more jaded and gave it a C- or C. So that’s your break point. What do you want out of an action film? More

Review of JUSTICE LEAGUE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: 10 and older
2017, 120 min., Color
Fantasy action-adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Since 2000, Warner Bros. has made 17 feature films based on DC Comics, the most successful of which have been the three Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale Dark Knight films, Constantine, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Man of Steel, and, most recently, Wonder Woman. So where does Justice League fit into the DC Universe, critically? Put it this way: it’s better than Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but not as good as Wonder Woman and Man of Steel.

Directed by DC Universe veteran Zach Snyder (Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman), Justice League scores high marks for the action, special/visual effects, and strong villain; an appreciate round of applause for infusing the film with some humor; and a sympathy card for wrestling with the dilemma of how to create an interesting character-based film when the requisite focus for the genre is on non-stop action.

This is an origin story about how the Justice League came about, and the story picks up after the end of Batman v Superman. In the opening credits the camera pans across newspaper headlines proclaiming Superman dead . . . but is he?

The action begins with Batman battling what appears to be a winged human-sized insect that could easily be confused with a bat, if you were a small child reporting criminal actions witnessed. It turns out that the insect is a “scout” for an impending alien invasion.

It’s not exactly clear who summoned whom or how they knew of each other’s existence, but the first act assembles the core of what will become the Justice League: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher). Henry Cavill also appears as Superman/Clark Kent, while the mere humans who are important to them are Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Mera (Amber Heard), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons). More

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