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

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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 FLUSHED AWAY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Rated PG
Animation

It’s hard not to be bowled over by Flushed Away, an eccentric tale of a pampered upper-crust pet mouse who’s flushed down the toilet, only to discover a miniature city in the sewers underneath London. French Kung-fu frogs? Singing and screaming slugs? A mouse-granny obsessed with Tom Jones? A Bond-style villain who’s wanting to destroy an entire city? I’m not sure that an animated feature can have more organized chaos and still have such strong emotional content that you walk away from it feeling like you just watched a CGI and claymation Indiana Jones-style adventure.

This 2006 entry from Dreamworks (Shrek) and Aardman (Wallace & Gromit) is an unmistakable tip-of-the-hat to Romancing the Stone, and Flushed Away certainly has the same runaway-train pacing and playful male/female antagonism as that live-action adventure. Add similarities to The African Queen as well and you’ve got a cartoon journey that doesn’t drag, even during the occasional quiet moments.

Though it’s rated PG for “crude humor and some language,” nothing stands out as being really objectionable, and that includes what you’d expect to find floating in the sewers. Mostly, that’s because it all happens so quickly. The gags that do go the low-brow route are subtle or treated in an almost tasteful way. The grossest character is a sewer-rat named Sid (Shane Richie), who shoots up the drain from the underworld and flushes Roddy (Hugh Jackman) from his posh Kensington digs. Sid has the manners of a soccer hooligan, which is appropriate since World Cup Soccer is somehow involved in a destructive master plan by The Toad (Ian McKellen), a literal “underworld” boss.

The writers give us a script that appeals to adults as well as children not because it’s adult-rated, but because the writing is clever. There are dozens of allusions to other films and pop-culture icons, including the Royal Family, Tom Jones, Kermit the Frog, Finding Nemo, the Gorton’s fish captain, Lady and the Tramp, Batman, Austin Powers, and James Bond. Look in the backgrounds too, because this blend of ping-pong ball-eyed Aardman characters and Dreamworks CGI is loaded with esoteric humor in every frame. But the script is so cleverly written and David Bowers’ and Sam Fell’s direction so snappily paced that it all seems to fit. In fact, you can feel how much fun the voice actors had, and the result is a film that has enough energy to light up a theater.

There’s such good chemistry between upper-crust housemouse Roddy and crusty boat-driving river-rat Rita (Kate Winslet) that it’s a surprise to learn in an excellent but understated directors’ commentary that only the actors playing hench-rodents (Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis) had the pleasure of working together. Everyone else, including The Toad and his French cousin, Le Frog (Jean Reno), drew all of their energy from the script itself.

But it’s not all action or jokes. An emotional journey drives the film, with Roddy learning that “having it all” doesn’t mean much if you don’t have friends and family.

It’s also one of the best non-Disney animated features because it creates a lively and fun fully-imagined world. Pop culture products turn up in the most inventive ways. And as much as the rodents and amphibians in this film entertain, children will get a kick out of the singing slugs, featured as well on one of the bonus features. Flushed Away was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Film BAFTA but lost to Happy Feet. It was in good company; the other losing nominee was Disney-Pixar’s Cars. So if in this time of Covid-19 isolation your family has binged their way through House of Mouse offerings and is looking for a change, Flushed Away is currently selling for $6.99 on Blu-ray at Best Buy. If it’s in stock it can even be picked up curbside at your local store with no human contact. Just you and the rats, slugs, and amphibians.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 85 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Dreamworks-Aardman/Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Best Buy link
Rated PG for crude humor and some language

Language: 2/10—Mostly insults and name-calling, with a few lesser swearwords included

Sex: A few rats kiss and hold hands, bloomers and butt references, and one moment when Roddy has to reach into Rita’s back pocket and she says “Oh” 

Violence: Shades of Mr Freeze in Batman there are people who are frozen, others who get crotched when they fall, a fly that’s eaten (with a “Help Me” allusion to The Fly horror film) and Three Stooges-style “battles” between the good guys and bad

Adult situations: A frog drinks wine, but that’s about it

Takeaway: Flushed Away did well enough at the box office that you have to wonder why the studios weren’t tempted to collaborate on a sequel

Review of THEIR FINEST HOUR: 5 BRITISH WWII CLASSICS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Not rated (would be PG)
War / drama

British WWII movies were dependably good, so it’s no surprise that this collection of five black-and-white films doesn’t contain a single stinker. Every one of them is in the B range. Because of patriotic undertones and because of the era they tend to be on the melodramatic side, but they stick with you as much as those distinctive vocal harmonies from the ‘40s.

Went the Day Well? has a title that sounds stiff, and in fact all of the older women in this 1942 film seem to talk in the same proper, lilting, slightly theatrical voice as Aunt Bee from the old Andy Griffith Show. One of the strongest films in this collection, it’s a home guard movie based on a Graham Greene story about residents of a small British village who are asked to “billet” a platoon of soldiers. Some soldiers are put up at homes and others in a town hall converted into a dorm. But the residents start to suspect that some of those soldiers aren’t at all proper British. Could they be Nazi sympathizers? Or has wartime made everyone overly cautious? Like other films in this collection it’s a bit of a slow simmer but a fascinating drama that might appeal to older children because of the “what if” questions implied by the scenario and because some of the key characters are children. This one’s a B+, with the added bonus of being shot during wartime, when studios couldn’t build new sets and therefore used more location filming with available buildings. As a result, you get a pretty fair idea of what life looked and felt like in 1942.  More

Review of STUFFED (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)
Documentary

Stuffed sounds like it could be a Thanksgiving-themed film for foodies, but it’s actually a documentary about taxidermy. You know: stuffing dead animals, birds, and fish for display. And if you’re wondering who would be interested in a movie like that, you’re not alone. As we watched, we wondered the same thing.

I was interested because my age lines up with one of the senior taxidermists interviewed in this 84-minute documentary. She noted that their generation of taxidermists got their start as children by taking a taxidermy correspondence course where the lessons came in installments, by mail. I took that very same course and remember looking for fresh road kill squirrels or pigeons, then trying to peel away the skin, remove the body, replace it with a mess of wires and sisal, and sew it up again. That was the era when kids were as fascinated by museum dioramas as they were ventriloquism and magic. So as someone who was a complete failure as an adolescent taxidermist, I watched Stuffed with nostalgic interest and admiration for those who can actually do this, and do it well.

Stuffed pretty much explains why I was unable to create lifelike taxidermy mounts. Taxidermy, as this film aptly illustrates, requires the talents of a naturalist, a craftsman, and an artist. As it turned out, I didn’t have an ounce of Picasso in me. So for an audience of up-and-coming generation of potential taxidermists, the film drives home the point that taxidermy is mostly an art that also requires the mindset and calculations of a scientist, the exacting talent of a sculptor and painter, and the passion of a naturalist. 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 1917 (Blu-ray combo)

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1917 Blu-ray coverGrade: A-/B+
Rated: R
War

1917 was one of my top five films of 2019, and after the awards show dust cleared it emerged with three Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing), three Golden Globes (Best Picture-Drama, Best Director, Best Original Score), and seven BAFTA Awards (Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Best Director, Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects, and Cinematography).

It’s a striking film that’s a contender for family movie nights if the children are older, despite the R rating, because it’s a war film with an underlying antiwar theme that doesn’t rely too heavily on bloody carnage to get its message across. This unique film from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins features just two soldiers on a mission that begins to feel like a fantasy quest, given the surreal landscape and dangers and delights they encounter. The ground they cover is a recently abandoned battle zone, so while there’s little actual fighting, the effects of war pop up here and there in horror-thriller fashion as sobering reminders—hence the R rating.

Long takes make it feel as if the film was made with just two continuous shots, with a brief blackout in the middle. You realize how different this film is from other war movies almost instantly, as it opens with a shot of two soldiers lolling in a bucolic countryside in a pose vaguely reminiscent of the one that Alice strikes at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. But when one of the two soldiers, named Blake, is summoned and told to pick another and report to the commander and the camera follows them, it’s a long tracking shot through the trenches that leads them to their reverse Wonderland, and not a rabbit hole. That sensation is supported by a later episode in which one of the soldiers helps a French woman in hiding by calming her baby and reciting an Edward Lear poem to the infant—a poem called “The Jumblies.” And of course there are no wondrous creatures in this surreal world—just dead bodies, rats, a few of the enemy, and a number of close calls. More

Review of THE RARE BREED (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Not rated (would be PG)
Western

Every now and then a different kind of western rides into town, and in 1966 it was The Rare Breed. The title was meant to refer not only to the Hereford steer a recently widowed English woman (Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter (Juliet Mills) brought to St. Louis to cross-breed with Texas longhorns, but also the tough old cowboy (James Stewart) they enlist to help them.

There are no Indians in this film, no cattlemen feuding with farmers, no gunslingers out to prove themselves, no saloons full of card sharps, no cavalry riding to the rescue, and no aging sheriff trying to keep it together while keeping order. There’s also very little violence, so The Rare Breed is rare for a western as well. After working with Stewart in the poignant Civil War western Shenandoah, director Andrew McLaglen dipped his bucket into the comedy well again, though it’s not as brimming as an earlier raucous film he made with O’Hara and John Wayne (McLintock!). This one isn’t a slam-bang action movie, though there are strategically placed moments of action and tension. With a minimalist plot, The Rare Breed is more of a character study, a slow-simmering romance, and a light-hearted western that’s offbeat enough to make it seem refreshingly different.

“Bulldog” Burnett (Stewart) is a complicated man. He’s a man of principles, you can instantly tell, but what principles? The epitome of the never-fazed stoic cowboy, he knows when to mind his own business and, in the spirit of American exceptionalism, tends to look out for Number 1. When a Hereford breeding bull named Vindicator (that only responds to a whistled version of “God Save the Queen”) is bought by a man representing a Scottish rancher (Brian Keith), the widow hires Burnett to deliver the bull. Pretty straightforward, right? Except that Burnett also accepts money from another rancher to allow his men to steal the bull at an opportune time. Call it the cowboy version of the Black Sox throwing the series. More

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