Home

Review of STAR WARS IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Sci-fi Fantasy

George Lucas and The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams had to be dreading the day when the last of the nine-film Star Wars franchise finally went into production—less so because a beloved series was ending, and more because fans have been notoriously hard on final installments. Just ask the Game of Thrones people. They know a little something about expectations being so high they can seldom be met.

But if you’re going to market all things Star Wars over four decades, including books about the various creatures, weapons, uniforms, and vehicles, you’ve got to expect that diehard fans are going to downgrade the film if they see inconsistencies, as überfans did. You also could have predicted that critics, who expect originality in every episode of a storied franchise like this, would also complain that there were too many scenes that seemed little more than variations on iconic scenes from previous Star Wars films.

But if you’re just a casual Star Wars fan who’s looking to be entertained, The Rise of Skywalker is a decent enough popcorn movie.

Yes, the original Star Wars trilogy— A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983)—remains the best trio of the franchise because the films stayed true to what Lucas wanted to do in the first place: make a contemporary version of the Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Commando Cody serials he grew up watching. That meant creating a slam-bang cliff-hanging adventure that was as fun as those old-time black-and-white serials. In the original trilogy, Lucas managed to perfectly capture the blend of action and tongue-in-cheek campiness that made those old-time serials fun. He created a fantasy adventure that didn’t take itself too seriously, with the actors bantering at times like those you saw in another old-time genre: the screwball comedy.

Then came the “prequel trilogy,” with Lucas going to a darker place and losing some of the light adventure in the process. And when he did try to incorporate humor, it wasn’t the tongue-in-cheek variety. It was the insertion of creatures like the unpopular (and surprisingly racist) Jar Jar Binks, whose appearance in The Phantom Menace (1999) caused an uproar. Though there were times when a young Obi-wan Kenobi and master Qui-Gon Jinn managed to recapture the light adventure tone that drove the first three installments, the origin story and angst-ridden love story with Queen Amidala took it light years away from the fun feel of the original trilogy. Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) took it even further down a dark path, and, frankly, Darth Maul didn’t have the villainous charisma of Darth Vader.

The Rise of Starwalker completes a “sequel trilogy” that’s superior to the “prequel trilogy” and began with The Force Awakens (2015). Disney had just acquired the rights to the franchise and fans were relieved that the first film in the new trilogy recaptured the lighter tone and energy of the original trio. The Last Jedi (2017) backslid a bit, but hopes were high that the series would give fans the closure and final rush of adrenalin that they craved. But if we’re being truthful, The Rise of Skywalker is more on a par with The Last Jedi than it is The Force Awakens.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) was the most instantly charismatic of the three new main characters in this sequel trilogy, and she really comes into her own in The Rise of Skywalker. Though his mask can’t compare with Grandpa Darth’s, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has the right balance of sniveling whiner and downright treacherous villain—traits that made him a perfect candidate for those Undercover Boss spoofs on SNL. Former storm trooper Finn (Boyega) grows on you, but while Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of resistance pilot Poe Dameron is solid enough, it’s tough to shake the notion that he comes across like a less charismatic version of Nick on New Girl—especially when we see those new characters interacting with old ones like Luke (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Lando (Billy Dee Williams), and Leia (Carrie Fisher, appearing posthumously). Overall, though, they’re engaging enough—and the same can be said of the plot and scenic construction. It’s just that you get the feeling you’ve seen it before.

Instead of a hologram beamed by a droid, we get a strange voice from space that sets the plot in motion. Instead of Luke training with Yoda, we get Rey learning the ways of the Jedi from Leia. Instead of Luke conversing with his dead mentor we get Kylo Ren confronting his own. Instead of a light saber battle near a pool of fiery bubbling lava we get a dramatic duel aboard a shipwrecked death star surrounded by unbelievably threatening waves. And as always, the emperor, like that uncle at family gatherings who seems obsessed with finding someone willing to pull his thumb, still seeks a good person to give in to anger and embrace the dark side.

So yeah, the finale covers familiar ground. But it’s Star Wars, and there’s nothing average about Star Wars movies—not even this déjà vu finale. In truth, what makes this disc a must-add to your family home theater libraries is a full-length documentary, The Skywalker Legacy, which is rich with details and behind-the-scenes segments. Seeing what Lucas’s puppeteers do to make it all happen is a treat in itself. And what better time to pull back the curtain on the Wizard than after Oz seems to have shut down for good?

Entire family: Yes (parental discretion)
Run time: 142 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: LucasFilm, Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action

Language: 2/10—Only a handful of minor swearwords

Sex: 0/10—Squeaky clean

Violence: 5/10—People are shot with blasters, people are stabbed or run through with light sabers, there are big explosions with ships blasted out of the sky, but what might stick with young ones are some of the creatures that are slicked or sounded

Adult situations: 1/10—Just looking at the Emperor can be scary, but apart from that and a brief cantina scene where dancing commands your attention it’s all pretty free of anything specifically “adult”

Takeaway: Even if this finale wasn’t the gift some fans were looking for, I’m betting they’ll be more than satisfied with the feature documentary included with this Blu-ray

Review of ICEMAN (1983) (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: B-
Entire family: No (but just about)
Sci-fi drama
1983, 100 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Rated PG (for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C+
Trailer unavailable
Amazon link

Like many kids these days, my son was really into dinosaurs. At age four he could identify most of the prehistoric creatures and even recite many of their scientific names.

Together we played with his dinosaur figures and watched all-things-prehistoric on TV and film, whether it was Disney’s Dinosaur, speculative documentaries like Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, the Jurassic Park films, or animated adventures like The Land Before Time series. And if Kino Lorber had released Iceman on Blu-ray when my son was in his last few years of elementary school or junior high, I think he would have watched and enjoyed this 1983 drama as well.

Notice I didn’t say action-drama, because there’s not much in the way of action. Iceman is speculative storytelling for the junior scientist crowd and people who enjoy asking, “What if…?”

If dinosaurs could be cloned from DNA in Jurassic Park, and if whole preserved woolly mammoths can be found in Siberian permafrost with the hair still perfect as can be, what if a cave man was likewise discovered in a block of ice? And what if there was a miraculously plausible reason for his being not only well preserved, but also in what amounted to a state of suspended animation? What if he could actually be brought back to life after 40,000 years?

That’s the premise of Iceman, which stars Timothy Hutton as a scruffily bearded anthropologist who’s summoned to an arctic base after a research team discovers the body of a prehistoric man. They were going to dissect him and learn from him, but that plan changed when one of the scientists behind the surgical mask noticed brain activity. Before you know it they’re applying the paddles and bringing this Neanderthal back to life. Conveniently, this elaborate research station has a large biodome intended for studying bears, but when they revive the cave man they move those bears to cages and transfer the iceman to this controlled habitat.

Dr. Shephard (Hutton) gets free reign to study the cave man, and most of the film revolves around his attempts to communicate, to understand the man, and to interact with him. Lindsay Crouse plays the other main character, Dr. Diane Brady, while Danny Glover turns up as one of the crew and David Strathairn is among the doctors. Structurally, Iceman resembles Anne Sullivan’s attempts to get through to a wild and unfocused Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. More

Review of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: No
Sci-Fi Action-Adventure
2019, 129 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Columbia Pictures / Marvel Studios
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Some franchises age better than others. Spider-Man, in fact, keeps getting younger as the studio aims for a youthful, social media savvy audience. In fact, 22-year-old British actor Tom Holland learned he got the role of Spider-Man three years ago via an Instagram post.

In some respects, Holland has come a long way since he played the lead in Billy Elliott: The Musical, but in other respects he’s still playing that awkward youth who struggles as much with his own self-image as any other adolescent or teen. In Spider-Man: Far from Home—his fifth film wearing the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man costume (counting appearances in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame in addition to the 2017 film Spider-Man: Homecoming)—Holland as Peter Parker is awkward around girls, unsure of himself, and as reluctant a hero as ever there was.

Director Jon Watts said that audiences responded well to the high school student excursion to Washington D.C. monuments in Homecoming, so it was a no-brainer to take those students abroad. But some parents might wish that the kids traveled with a teacher who wasn’t cut from the Disney Channel template of clueless adults, more cardboard comic relief than flesh-and-blood character. Still, I suppose if Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) wasn’t so clueless, there’d be no way to quickly and easily move the group from one part of Europe to allow Peter Parker to do his “Peter tingle” job, as his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) likes to call it. More

Review of GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

Grade: C+
Entire family: No
Sci-Fi Action
2019, 132 minutes, Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

A fellow film critic once quipped, “If all movie critics agreed, only one of us would have a job.” But every now and then we watch a film and find ourselves saying the exact same thing.

In the case of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it’s that the film has great special effects, great action sequences, and a score that amplifies the mayhem. But if you’re looking for any kind of clever plotting or characters with meat on their bones, you’d better look elsewhere.

This 2019 film by Michael Dougherty gets off to a start so fast it would make bobsledders envious. But after that it’s one big downhill slide. Vera Farmiga plays the familiar character of a scientist that none of her colleagues believe. The action takes place five years after monsters collectively referred to as “Titans” had resurfaced and were somehow contained for scientific study . . . or pure containment. When a larval Mothra goes crazy, Dr. Emma Russell calms her down with a sonic device known as an “Orca.” That killer (whale) name notwithstanding, music still apparently calms the savage beast—even if it’s newer than New Age and projected on a frequency that would get dogs howling. More

Review of CAPTAIN MARVEL (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
2019, 124 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Marvel / Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief suggestive language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widesscreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Two origin stories for the price of one?

That’s what Marvel Cinematic Universe fans get with Captain Marvel once S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) joins Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) a third of the way into the film. What might have been a warm-up for Shaft also turns out to be Jackson’s most entertaining role since Pulp Fiction.

Swagger + Banter + Bad Ass + Latent Rule-breaker + Alien Handler = a lot of fun to watch, especially playing opposite Larson, who for the first third of the film doesn’t seem to have the same ease prancing about in a superhero suit as, say, TV’s Melissa Benoist does as Supergirl. But Larson comes to life in her “buddy” interactions with Fury, the film takes off after that.

Fans who tire of the same basic plot—a supervillain poses a threat to Earth, so one or more superheroes have to rise to the occasion—will appreciate that the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers a different kind of narrative problem.

Not to be confused with Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who was a little too close to Superman for DC Comics’ comfort, Captain Mar-Vell first appeared in the 1967 comic Marvel Super-Heroes #12, yet another creation of Stan Lee’s, drawn by Gene Colan. In that first comic, Mar-Vell is a Kree “he” sent to Earth to observe their development of weapons technology. In 1982 Mar-Vell was replaced by a woman named Monica Rambeau in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, and the character changed again with Silver Surfer Annual #6 (1993), Captain Marvel #16 (2004), and Civil War: The Return (2007) before Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, got promoted to Captain for a role that (re)creator Kelly Sue DeConnick describes as “Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager.”

So did they finally get it right? Considering the success of rival DC Universe’s Wonder Woman, one would hope so. BC (Before Carol) the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t had a stand-alone female hero. Now they do, and her back story—a combination of elements from all of the Marvel comic renditions—isn’t as confusing or complicated as others have been. It’s just presented as flashback rather than in chronological time. More

Review of ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: B+
Entire family: Almost (parental discretion advised)
2018, 118 min., Color
Action sci-fi-comedy
Marvel Studios
Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

We’ve gotten to the point where we know a Marvel superhero movie is going to be good, just as surely as we know that legendary Stan Lee is going to turn up in a cameo. Ant-Man and the Wasp is another solid entry in what’s becoming a long line of solid Marvel productions. A little less dark and violent than some of the Marvel movies, it’s also one that’s close to being appropriate for the whole family. It’s just a question of where parents draw the line with sci-fi violence.

Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly click pretty well together as the title characters, and if you don’t happen to have seen (or remember) Captain America: Civil War, not to worry. There’s enough exposition included for you to have an idea of why Scott Lang (Ant-Man) is currently wearing an anklet and serving a two-year sentence under house arrest. In fact, the plot of Ant-Man and the Wasp is much easier to follow than any of the Avengers films, which is another reason why children younger than 13 can also enjoy this one. It’s not just miniaturization they’ll see, but mega-enlargement as well, and that’s fun for any age. More

Review of SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade: B/B-
Entire family: No (parental discretion advised)
2018, 135 min., Color
Sci-fi/fantasy Adventure
LucasFilm/Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Whoever came up with the high concept Solo: A Star Wars Story hit upon a guaranteed way to put people in the theaters. According to one audience poll, Han Solo is the fourth most popular character in the franchise—behind Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that heavy-breathing übervillain, Darth Vader. The problem is that the beloved character was originally played by a beloved actor, and that had to have posed a casting nightmare. How do you replace a charismatic actor like Harrison Ford while also creating a believable backstory involving a younger version of Han Solo?

With great difficulty, it turns out. If Alden Ehrenreich were playing a brand new character, everything would be two thumbs up in the Star Wars universe. He’s engaging enough and, with a little time to get to know him better, would probably evolve into an even more likeable character. The problem is that fans can’t help but compare his portrayal of Solo to Ford’s, and any gaps will be perceived as flaws, not differences of interpretation. This Han isn’t as consistently boyishly and roguishly charming in the self-deprecating, sarcastic manner that made Ford’s character so popular. More

Older Entries