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SUDDENLY (Blu-ray)

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suddenlycoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1954, 75 min., Black-and-white
Film Detective
Not rated (would be PG for violence and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.75:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

A year before Frank Sinatra would play the better-known hoodlum Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and a year after he impressed audiences with his Oscar-winning performance as Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, Old Blue Eyes was convincingly crazy-eyed as a war-hero-turned-criminal in the 1954 film Suddenly.

If you remove the hokum—the overly obvious and period-wholesome nonsense that frames the main narrative and reminds you a bit of The Andy Griffith ShowSuddenly is a taut thriller in the Key Largo mold, with hoods taking over a family residence (in this case a private one, rather than a hotel).

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NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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nowyouseeme2coverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 129 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for violence and some language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos (Dolby TrueHD compatible)
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Now You See Me 2 is a solid sequel that’s as glitzy and stylish as the first—even though it may be a little harder to figure out. This heist thriller brings back Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and David Franco (James’ brother) as three of the Four Horsemen—magicians who pulled off grand illusions as diversions so they could steal from the conniving rich and give their money away to common people.

That Robin Hood theme isn’t a part of the second film, which opens with Jack Wilder (Franco) thought dead and Atlas (Eisenberg) and McKinney (Harrelson) waiting for instructions from The Eye. In short order they are given a fourth illusionist named Lula May (Lizzy Caplan) and their contact/handler, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) tells them they are to expose a software magnate who is stealing user data.

nowyouseeme2screen1It really helps to have seen the original, as what emerges is a revenge motif that’s dependent on your knowledge of the past. Even so, it’s possible to enjoy Now You See Me 2 as a stand-alone film because it’s essentially a come-uppance plot that involves grand illusions that are mostly unexplained. So what’s a little extra confusion?

The FBI, led by new chief Natalie Austin (Sanaa Lathan) is out to get the Four Horsemen, not knowing that Agent Rhodes is playing both sides. They’re not the only ones with an axe to grind. Rhodes’ nemesis (Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bentley) wants to bring them down because he was framed by them in the first film because Rhodes thought him responsible for the death of his father, a Houdini-like magician. Their original handler (Michael Caine) is also disgruntled with them and wants to bring them down, with the assistance of his son (Daniel Radcliffe).

nowyouseeme2screen2Everything starts to hit the fan when the Horsemen expose that software magnate but are themselves exposed at that same event, which forces them to go on the run. They escape through a previously placed chute but instead of going according to plan they mysteriously find themselves in Macau, where they become involved with all sorts of danger and intrigue and Jay Chou, a popular Taiwanese musician/actor who plays a magic shop employee.

The plot of Now You See Me 2 is a little more convoluted than the original, meaning it’s going to be for ages 13 and up—not so much because of anything that is censorable, but because it’s intellectually demanding. Much depends on the audience’s ability to figure out some things on the fly, as well as their willingness to just have fun and appreciate the rest without needing to have every last thing explained. Aside from some confusion, Now You See Me 2 offers everything you’d want from a film like this: great production values, great performances, and illusions that are rendered with equally great special effects.

Language: One f-bomb and multiple lesser swearwords
Sex: Nothing here
Violence: Hand-to-hand combat, bloody loss of body part (that turns out to be fake)
Adult situations: A boy watches while his father drowns inside a safe
Takeaway: Though it’s a half-grade less than the original, this film about magic can get away with a lot

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (Blu-ray)

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MidnightSpecialcoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2016, 112 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and action
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

Midnight Special is a strange movie about a boy with strange powers that are never fully explained, even as the film tries to transcend its limitations to enter Steven Spielberg territory toward the second half.

In giving us a different kind of Close Encounter with a sorta-human version of E.T., writer-director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) hovers over Sixth Sense territory as well. Yet, as much as you keep watching with interest, this 2016 sci-fi drama is uneven and kinda cops out when it comes to explanations.

You can picture Nichols’ mind at work: Okay, start with a young boy who has special powers (Jaeden Lieberher)—a boy who was taken from his parents and raised for two years by the leader of a religious cult (Sam Shepard) that thinks he’s the key to life itself. MidnightSpecialscreen1Have them be investigated by the FBI, then have his parents decide they want to rescue him, and, with the help of his best friend, have Dad (Michael Shannon) grab the kid and hits the road. Of course the kid’s powers have to be cool—Light shooting from his hands? Ability to unleash a light attack on people who would harm them?—and then bring in some alien or alternate universe elements to keep viewers guessing. But mostly run with a chase story and lean heavily on Shannon, Joel Edgerton, and Kirsten Dunst to pull off the roles of parents and friend on the run, trusting that viewers will go along for the ride and not ask too many questions.

As I watched this PG-13 rated film with my son, I found myself asking plenty of questions, starting with the title. “Midnight Special” is a traditional American folk song about a train from Houston whose light would shine on a prisoner’s cell as it passed every evening. If you know that and think about it, the title fits. But MidnightSpecialscreen2if you’re not getting the allusion, the title probably makes no sense. The pacing also makes no sense. You’ll be chugging along at a slow pace with not much happening and then WHAM! Something freaky or strange happens to make you go, huh? or wow! Sometimes it’s violence. Sometimes it’s violence that reminds you of cartoons, because characters that seem to get shot point blank just bounce up as if nothing happened. Sometimes it’s a new sci-fi wrinkle. But it’s never character development (there’s no arc to follow), and you don’t really get much in the way of why any of this is really happening. That misguided urge to understate is the film’s chief weakness.

Maybe in some perverse way it’s also the reason why Midnight Special holds your interest as much as it does. You keep watching, hoping to piece everything together. In the end, how much you enjoy this movie may be tied to how much you’re willing to accept the information you’re given and not demand more than that. But the actors also do their part to keep you hanging on, with Shannon especially turning in a fine performance. Star Wars fans will also enjoy watching Adam Driver leave the Dark Side to play a lead investigator.

Midnight Special depends on the element of surprise, so that’s all I’m going to say. I thought it was slightly better than average, but my teenage son was more into it . . . enough to shelve it and watch it again sometime.

Language: No F-words, and less than a handful of others
Sex: None
Violence: People are shot point blank, involved in violent car crashes, and bloodied
Adult situations: Nothing besides the above, plus intense pursuit
Takeaway: Sci-fi thrillers walk a fine line between telling too much and revealing too little, and you’ll either walk away from this shrugging, or you’ll be fascinated enough by the film’s unique elements to give it thumbs up

SAN ANDREAS (Blu-ray combo)

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SanAndreascoverGrade: C+
Entire family: No
2015, 114 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and brief strong language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English TrueHD 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

You don’t have to be a seismologist to know that San Andreas is far-fetched—though an expert will certainly confirm your suspicions.

In this 2015 disaster movie starring Dwayne Johnson, an earthquake caused by a fault no one even knew about completely destroys the Hoover Dam, setting off a chain reaction that leads the San Andreas Fault to shift dramatically. When that happens, all of Los Angeles spectacularly crashes and burns—no spoiler here, you’ve seen the previews—and all the massive skyscrapers and buildings for many miles topple like dominoes. Then a second quake and a tsunami knock down everything and everyone who thought they’d survived—again, in spectacular fashion. We’re not just talking about L.A., either. The destruction begins in the City of Angels with a 9.1 quake on the Richter scale and spreads across California, with a second major quake to the north registering a 9.6.

SanAndreasscreen1The actual San Andreas Fault is nearly 800 miles long and has the potential to cause a disastrous earthquake, but not one above 9.0. That’s because, according to experts, the fault is not long or deep enough. Plus, the level of destruction wouldn’t be nearly as massive. Scientists predict a San Andreas earthquake would cause 1800 deaths and 50,000 injuries, with hundreds of old buildings and a few skyscrapers collapsing—nothing remotely close to the wholesale destruction we see in the film.

Then again, subtlety has never been a Hollywood trademark. Thinking back to disaster movies of the ‘70s that started it all—films like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno—I’m struck that at least this time there isn’t a woman like Shelley Winters shrieking in panic the entire time. Besides, these are popcorn movies that rely more on story than factuality, and on special effects more than story.

Viewers will recognize two stories combined into one: Godzilla (only this time it’s nature doing the stomping) and any number of cop dramas where the guy has to rescue his estranged wife and/or daughter. Paul Giamatti SanAndreasscreen2plays the lone scientist trying to warn everyone (really?). So it’s all pretty familiar, and if you happen to miss the first act you’re not missing a lot. We don’t learn much about these people except that Ray (Johnson) is a helicopter rescue pilot who served with his team in the military, and his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is moving in with real-estate developer Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). Ray’s not happy about that, but grown-up daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) understands and provides another person for him to worry about when the quake strikes. The only backstory we get is that Ray and Emma had a daughter named Mallory who drowned years earlier, so of course that tsunami proves especially terrifying. Throw in a few British brothers visiting California (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson) and you get a romantic sideplot and comic relief.   More

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (Blu-ray)

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TheWinterSoldiercoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2014, 136 min., Color
Marvel Entertainment
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay, and action throughout
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Trailer

Superhero films are the exception to many parents’ rules against too much violence, because even without the “BAM” or “SOCK” graphics we got from TV’s campy Batman episodes, it’s understood that superheroes aren’t real and so neither, by extension, is the violence. It’s why younger children climb onboard to watch a film that, were it a straight action flick, might have been taboo.

But Captain America: The Winter Soldier does something no superhero movie has even attempted: it picks up the superhero and plunks him down right in the middle of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller. That makes sense, actually, because Captain America is probably the most human and normal of all the Marvel superheroes. He’s a regular guy who was made stronger and faster through medical experimentation, the U.S.’s attempt to counter Hitler’s “Master Race.” His only weapon is a shield that he throws like a Frisbee.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were heavily influenced by espionage thrillers such as Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, while directors Anthony and Joe Russo wanted to push the superhero movie beyond the simple nemesis-driven plots we typically see. How unusual is it for a superhero NOT to appear in just about every scene of a superhero movie? But of course it isn’t unusual for that to happen in more complex thrillers.

The Winter Soldier takes its title from a Soviet agent that Captain America (Chris Evans) goes up against, but that assassin (Sebastian Stan) is only one piece of the puzzle in a complex plot that twists and turns like Steve Rogers own souped-up DNA.   More

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (DVD)

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CaptainPhillipscoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  No
2013, 134 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and substance abuse
Columbia/Sony
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Trailer

Family Home Theater has the tagline “stuff your kids can see,” and to that end I review films that are rated PG-13 or under. Not all PG-13 films are candidates for family viewing, and Captain Phillips is borderline. I’d say that children have to be at LEAST 13 to watch this taut thriller about a small band of Somali pirates who, in 2009, became the first to hijack a U.S. ship in 200 years. The nature of the film will make it more appealing to teenage boys than to teenage girls.

For all but 10 minutes, Captain Phillips plays like a thriller in the tradition of such siege pictures as Air Force One and Panic Room. For all but 10 minutes, menace, not violence, creates a tension that holds you in its grip until the final outcome. But there are, in fact, a few brief bloody moments, and the fact that the film is based on a true story makes those moments seem more intense. So does an ending that changes the whole feel of the film and appears largely designed to give Tom Hanks an Oscar moment by pushing his emotional range.

After a slow and contrived opening sequence that shows Phillips with his wife before she drops him off at the airport, where he’ll fly to Oman to take command of the container freighter Maersk Alabama and guide it through pirate waters off the Somali coast, the narrative almost shapes itself once Phillips gets onboard. You may have heard that crew members objected to the film because, in their words, Phillips “wasn’t that brave,” but this is Hollywood and one expects a degree of exaggeration in order to craft a more effective and powerful film.   More