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Review of THE HUSTLE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
2019, 93 min., Color
Comedy
Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content and language
MGM / Universal
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Rebel Wilson was funny in the Pitch Perfect movies and Bridesmaids, but films like The Hustle continue to prove that she’s not well suited to play a leading role. Her schtick, let’s call it, is a comedy of character that’s not up to the fast pace of the 2010s. It’s like watching Stan Laurel wiggle and squirm and fiddle with his hat and slowly, increment by increment, try to react or explain something to a befuddled partner (or audience). At some point, you tend to lose patience because the humor, often crude or full of innuendo, is so protracted out. Instead of a bouncy spring, it’s drawn out so it becomes flat as can be.

That’s the adjective that best describes The Hustle: flat. It’s lacking energy, and features only a handful of laugh-out-loud moments where you think, gee, I wish there were more of those. And they’re all in the trailer. The plot, meanwhile, is a rehash of things we’ve seen before, which only adds to the movie’s flatness. And that’s not even getting into co-star Anne Hathaway’s “British accent,” which sounds like the kind of accent that you or I would attempt at a party to amuse folks. As a snooty Brit con artist, she just isn’t convincing enough. And Wilson, as her American counterpart, is also a bit hard to believe as a con artist who could make men part with their money.

The film is a remake or variation of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which Michael Caine and Steve Martin played two con artists with gigantic egos who decide once and for all to see who’s the best by having a contest to see who can be the first to bilk an American heiress out of $50,000. In this version, given inflation, the bet is $500,000, and the players are a small-time grafter (Wilson as Penny) and a sophisticated and very rich con artist (Hathaway as Josephine). They meet in Europe when Penny gets in the way of Josephine’s con and also turns up on the French Riviera after learning that’s where Josephine is going . . . and where the really rich people are. After competing they finally decide to team up, and that leads to scrambled egos with egg on Penny’s face, which leads to the ultimate contest over a goofy, nerdy, rich tourist (Alex Sharp as Thomas).

Maybe it’s Wilson and Hathaway, or maybe it’s the screenplay-by-committee that’s the problem. This film by Chris Addison, who’s making the leap from TV to the big screen, just doesn’t have much substance or oomph—though fans of Veep (Addison directed 13 episodes) will be delighted to see Timothy Simons (Jonah, on the show) turn up. Since Veep is so smart and this screenplay by a committee of seven is so lackluster, it would be fair to conclude that the problem is in the writing . . . and there are way too many of those scenes where Wilson does the Stan Laurel wiggle to think that showcasing her was a good idea. If we could conduct an experiment and feature Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in the con artist roles, we could pinpoint the problem a little better. My guess is that it wouldn’t help a whole lot.

There are a few plot twists, but you can see them coming, even if you never watched Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or the David Niven and Marlon Brando film that inspired it, Bedtime Story. Either one of those films is more entertaining to watch, unless of course you’re a huge Rebel Wilson and/or Anne Hathaway fan.

Language: Fairly mild, just the gamut of lesser swearwords

Sex: A little in the way of kissing and a lot in the way of innuendo and gestures, but still mild overall 

Violence: I don’t recall seeing anything in the way of violence

Adult situations: There’s plenty of drinking but no real drunkenness, with some scenes taking place inside a casino and others inside restaurants

Takeaway: These days every film like this ends up generating a sequel, but if that happens I hope Addison decides to write the screenplay himself and, in the meantime, learn that what often works on the small screen doesn’t translate well to cinema

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Review of POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 104 min., Color
Animation-Live Action-Adventure
Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

My son was into Pokémon when he was younger; my daughter, not at all. From talking with other parents that seems to be fairly common. There are video games and collectors’ cards that can be used to play games and battles and powers and all manner of things that my son could rattle off as if it were all quite elementary. He told me it was like chess: as complicated or as simple as you wanted to make it.

Detective Pikachu, the first live-action film based on the Pokémon franchise, seems to have been made to work on multiple levels as well. There are allusions and references to Pokémon powers and battles that those unfamiliar with the Pokémon universe will choose to ignore, while others will have their heads spinning with recognition. On it’s simplest level, Pokémon are creatures with various powers, and those creatures are pursued by humans that call each other “Pokémon trainers,” because they then battle their Pokémon against those of other trainers for sport.

Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) gave up Pokémon training after his mother died and his father remained absent in his life. Instead, the 21 year old joined the work world. One day he’s told that his father, a detective, was apparently killed in a car crash, and Tim travels to Ryme City—a utopian city where Pokémon and humans live in harmony and equality—in order to meet with the police officer in charge and collect his father’s personal effects.

While he’s in his father’s apartment looking around, he meets a Pokémon called Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), who’s wearing a Sherlock Holmes-style hat. When the creature speaks, Tim can actually understand him, and that’s something special. Before they can talk much, Tim releases an R-labeled purple gas from a test tube he picks up, and suddenly they’re attacked by a group of Aipom who are under the influence of that gas. They flee, and when they stop and finally get to talk, Tim learns that Pikachu was his father’s detective partner, and that they were on a case together when Harry was reported as being killed. But Pikachu is convinced that Tim’s father, Harry, is still alive, and the basic plot follows the pair as they try to track down clues to locate Harry. Along the way they meet Ryme City’s wealthiest man, Howard Clifford, who confirms that Harry is indeed alive but warns them about his ambitious son, Roger.

Who Framed Roger Clifford? Not exactly. While the investigative plot, the fantastic creatures, and the blend of animation and live action will have some viewers flashing back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, tonally the two films are worlds apart. Rather than a manic caper comedy with a clever intellectual core, Detective Pikachu has a warm-hearted core and a structure than comes closer to the classic fantasy quest. As racy and raunchy as Who Framed Roger Rabbit could be, Detective Pikachu is so wholesome it almost borders on the bland. Or maybe the blandness or “meh” factor comes from the familiarity of the plot. It’s a standard missing person story, but one we’ve seen before in so many different forms. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a bad film at all. It’s just that given the accomplished animation, the cool creatures, and the heart that this film has, it’s surprising to walk away without thinking, Wow. What Detective Pikachu lacks is that ever-so-hard-to-define wow factor.

Language: Pretty wholesome, with a single “damn,” a few “hells,” and one instance when a character begins to say “sh—t” but stops at “sh—“

Sex: Uh, nope

Violence: There are chases and explosions, but for the most part it’s all pretty tame; each main character has a brief moment when we think they may have died, but it’s clear that everything will be okay

Adult situations: Probably the scariest creatures in the film are the Charizard, a dragon-like species that can spout fire at both ends

Takeaway: I think you’d have to say that this first foray into animation/live-action filmmaking was a success, and that we’re probably going to see a lot more of them

Review of WILD KRATTS CREEPY CREATURES! (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (ages 3-8)
2011, 2015, 75 min. (2 episodes), Color
Not Rated (would be TV-G)
PBS
Aspect ratio: 16×9
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s not exactly family movie night material, but episodes of Wild Kratts—a half-animated, half-live nature show featuring the brothers who gave us Zoboomafoo—will entertain and inform children ages 3-8.

Chris and Martin Kratt’s series, which airs on PBS KIDS GO, is a hybrid that combines the brothers’ nature show activities with a cartoon segment that feels like a cross between The Magic School Bus and a Disney animated series like Kim Possible or Phineas and Ferb.

Each episode of Wild Kratts: Wildest Animal Adventures begins with the real-life brothers in the wild, pointing out an animal with a curious trait—say, for example, the Basilisk lizard that can walk and run on water—and then the brothers morph into cartoon versions of themselves in order to explore the animal’s “powers” and, with the help of a suit that looks a little like a cousin to Iron Man’s, acquire that animal power. It all happens within the animated framework of a story that often involves saving a particular animal from human encroachment, a world problem, or even a Disney-style villain. Though the characters seem unnecessary, there’s also a crew at the computer center in Tortuga helping the brothers once they’ve transformed or are on their way in various animal-shaped vehicles to get a better look. It’s clearly a way to include children of both genders in the show, but they really feel like window dressing, and some children will prefer more nature footage to the Tortuga gang “interruptions.”

The brothers say they got into animation because it gave them a chance to feed their (and children’s) imaginations and project what it might be like to have the ability to fly, swim, leap, see at night, or any of the other animal “superpowers.” And it is kind of fun. Again, I’m not sure that the show needed villains—especially ones that remind you of standard cartoon bad guys—but obviously the brothers thought that it might be yet another “hook” to get kids less innately fascinated by nature into the show. My son would have loved this show if it were around when he was younger, but as a nature guy he would have preferred more live footage than the intro-outro we get for each episode. More

Review of PLUS ONE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No–parents only!
2019, 99 min., Color
Comedy-drama romance
RLJE Films
Not rated (would be R for drinking, drunkenness, drugs, language, and implied sex)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

This one is for parents only—parents who are fans of romantic comedies but also like to show a little love for indie filmmaking. For best results, save Plus One for a night after the kids have been a real handful and you’re both exhausted and secretly thinking back to how carefree everything was before the first bundle of joy arrived, or even before you got married. Watching Plus One will make you appreciate every last difficult minute you spend with your family.

If this film has an underlying social message, it’s that being single sucks, so single parents be warned. More cautionary tale than standard romantic comedy, Plus One is nonetheless totally aware of the romantic comedy conventions: boy has a meet-cute with girl, they fall in love, they lose each other and realize what they lost, and they get together again, just in time for the happy ending. Because of that genre self-awareness, you know pretty much where this film is headed, without even looking much farther than the premise: Ben (Jack Quaid, who looks a bit like Joel McHale with a beard) and his loud, force-of-nature college friend Alice (Maya Erskine, PEN15), find themselves with 10 weddings to attend over the summer—some his, some hers. To get through them, Alice gets Ben to agree to be each other’s “plus one” to avoid sitting at the singles table (a.k.a. the kids table). So yeah, you fully expect them to get together. More

Review of MISSING LINK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 94 min., Color
Animation
Laika / 20th Century Fox
Rated PG for action peril and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

In announcing Missing Link at Cannes in 2018, the Laika animation CEO crowed, “Missing Link is an artistic and technical wonder. Led by our visionary director Chris Butler, Laika has once again blended fine art, craftsmanship, and cutting-edge technology to achieve something we’ve never tried before: a raucous comedy entwined with a swashbuckling epic, underscoring the universal need to find belonging.”

And for a change, it wasn’t just typical Hollywood hype. Missing Link is both visually stunning and richly imagined, and the quirky plot is powered by a blend of physical humor that children will appreciate, as well as allusions and verbal gags that are meant for the adults. But it’s also warm-hearted, with some positive messages embedded in the story. In other words, this a perfect choice for family home movie night—if, that is, your family likes stop-motion animation and the distinctively rendered characters, some of which have harsh angular or pointy features.

I’ll confess to not being a fan of stop-motion animation (often called “Claymation”), but the Laika group has created a film that’s as fluid looking as traditional animation. Producer Arianne Sutner (Kubo and the Two Strings) said in the 2018 announcement that they “created 110 sets with 65 unique locations to achieve the film’s scale, majesty, and geographic beauty.” And again, I couldn’t have described it better. The film includes their inventive takes on Victorian England, the American Old West, Old World Spain, the Tibetan Himalayas, and incredible variations of the natural world that lie in between. Missing Link is one of those films that just leaves you smiling or awestruck every time there’s a set change.

And that’s just the art design and animation. The plot itself may sound far-fetched, but you’re almost immediately sucked into the premise and the film quickly feels like a Crosby-Hope-Lamour road picture adventure, with flashback similarities to the animated Road to El Dorado, and Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Up. It’s a classic pursuit tale where the pursuers are also being pursued.  More

Review of UGLYDOLLS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes (but older kids will be bored)
2019, 88 min., Color
Animation
STX / Universal
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

UglyDolls only received a 4.6 out of 10 rating at the Internet Movie Database and didn’t even merit a notice at Rotten Tomatoes, it was apparently that rotten. But come on, people. There’s a difference between family films (ones aimed at adults that children can also enjoy) and films that are just for kids. Ugly Dolls is the latter, and you can’t fault them for not trying to be something they’re not. Which, coincidentally, is one of this animated film’s themes.

Critics have complained that it’s one long commercial for the Hasbro UglyDolls, with a new line of movie-related characters added to those that debuted in 2001. But so many films have product placement these days that it’s almost an unfair charge. It seems more appropriate to talk about the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strength #1: The Themes
Yes, there are other movies that are better at celebrating individuality and people with imperfections, but it’s hard to find fault with an animated film about a bunch of plush toys who, instead of being sent along the assembly line to their eventual “homes” in the world with children, get chuted down to Uglyville, a subterranean city full of misfit toys. And one of those rejects, Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson), celebrates how great Uglyville is but still dreams of one day leaving for an even better world she believes exists, a world where toys become beloved companions and possessions of children. Love who you are: You’re not ugly, you’re distinctive, is one of the film’s big themes, and one that children can’t hear too much these days when everyone it seems is calling names or finding fault. Cooperation, teamwork, loyalty, and inclusion are other obvious themes as Moxy’s friends accompany her up the chute to explore that other world.  More

TRANSIT (2018) DVD

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: No
2018, 101 min., Color
Drama
Music Box Films
Not Rated (would be PG for adult situations and some language)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: German and French Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Although Transit isn’t rated, there’s technically nothing in it that would prevent entire families from watching. There’s not much in the way of language, no nudity or sex, limited alcohol and smoking, and the closest thing to violence are forcible arrests, mostly in the background.

But this isn’t the kind of film an American family typically watches. The language is German and French, with English subtitles. It’s a slow-moving drama that eschews the Hollywood plot arc for a structure that allows viewers to appreciate the directionless predicament of trying to maintain any kind of relationship in a country led by an oppressive regime. This film also embraces anachronism, which can be just a little too artsy for some viewers. Though Transit is based on an Anna Seghers novel that takes place in Marseilles, France in 1940 soon after the Nazi occupation, director Christian Petzold chose to set the film in an unspecified present. The Germans are called “fascists,” not “Nazis,” and while there’s talk of rounding up Jews, there isn’t a Nazi uniform in sight. Petzold said he wanted to blur the novel’s setting so that the issues would resonate with current world events.

And you know what? That blurring is a big reason why parents with older children might like to give this film a shot. Transit does resonate, and in an uncomfortable way if you happen to be among the 59 percent of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s immigrant detainment camps and expansive ICE raids. There are characters here that viewers can identify with that can help them understand how common it is to be “illegal” in a country and how frightening it is when the government decides to launch a purge. Illegals aren’t just displaced physically. There’s also a mental and emotional dislocation that occurs. Add the complications that accompany almost any relationship, whether family, friend, or significant other, and it makes for all sorts of issues to discuss after watching the film together.

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