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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 PLAYMOBIL: THE MOVIE (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Rated: PG
Animation

Given the success of the Lego movies, one thing that’s surprising about Playmobil going Hollywood is that it took them so long. The other thing is that there aren’t any Native Americans or knights in this film, and those were among the very first Playmobil sets.   But hey, Ancient Rome is here, and so are Playmobil pirates, cowboys, Vikings, spies, robots, a T-Rex, and a food truck operator.

Yep, it’s pretty random, and while the fun lies in seeing these Playmobil sets come alive on the big screen, Playmobil: The Movie can feel a bit like a screenwriter’s challenge: see how many different Playmobil sets you can jam into a single film. And while the Lego movies’ bread and butter was pop culture allusions and verbal humor, this Playmobil film relies more heavily on sight gags.

As a result, it can feel more like a film aimed at children than adults—but this film for children has secret agent Rex Dasher (Daniel Radcliffe) sipping a martini that’s shaken, not stirred. It also features people being drugged or roofied, a kick to the groin, bales of pink hay that feel like an allusion to marijuana bales. And there are battles where swordplay and fisticuffs and explosions up the ante from children’s typical pretend play of knocking figures down with rubber bands or Nerf guns. More

Review of FROZEN II (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Rated: PG
Animation

Has there been a more anticipated Disney sequel than Frozen II?

Frozen was an instant classic, winning Oscars for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song. Within the first few weeks of its debut, children young enough to have barely mastered sentences could be heard belting out “Let It Go” with the same intensity as Idina Menzel, the Broadway talent who sang it in the film.

Frozen was a tough act to follow, but Frozen II gives the 2013 original a run for its money.

For me, the differences can be summarized with a few simple observations. I thought Frozen was marred only by two songs that stood out because they were less successful than the rest: a goofy snowman song that seemed to run counter to the mood of the film, even for comic relief, and a troll song that could have been cut and no one would have cared. But overall, the film brought Broadway style to the fairytale format (a Disney specialty) and also embraced the “meet cute” formula of romantic comedies, with fun characters and interesting side plots and plot twists that were simple enough for even those budding young sopranos and tenors to understand.

Frozen II, meanwhile, comes closer to the operetta in its use of music, where songs are sometimes employed instead of dialogue to move the story forward, and those songs (as a result) seem to come at more frequent intervals. That’s not bad, mind you, just different. Still, it’s been three months since the film premiered, and I have yet to observe any youngster singing a song from the sequel. I also couldn’t pick out a favorite song the way I instantly could with Frozen—though “Into the Unknown” was nominated for an Academy Award and the Frozen II soundtrack reached #1 on the Billboard 200 Album chart. So it might take a second listen for those songs to kick in.  I also thought that Frozen II, a darker film in tone and subject matter, had a plot that was both more richly imagined and a little more contrived, and therefore a little harder for younger children to comprehend. Maybe that’s because Frozen steered fairly close to the shoreline of fairytale land, while Frozen II comes closer to fantasy. There are ghosts and spirits and people living in a netherworld. More

Review of I GOT YOU BABE: THE BEST OF SONNY AND CHER (DVD)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
TV Variety
1971-74, 503 min. (10 episodes), Color
Time Life
Not rated (would be G; any innuendo will fly over the heads of youngsters)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+/A- (some great interviews and TV appearances)
Trailer
Amazon link

Fans of Sonny and Cher will be glad to add I Got You Babe: The Best of Sonny & Cher to their video collections. The five-disc set includes 10 episodes culled from the series’ four-year run (1971-75), and Time Life did a good job finding the best elements to use for the DVD transfer. As for the “best” picks, that will be a matter of fan taste. Included here are:

Season 1, Episode 1—guest star Jimmy Durante (air date 8-1-71)
Season 1, Episode 8—Tony Curtis, Dinah Shore (1-3-72)
Season 1, Episode 9—Carroll O’Connor (1-10-72)
Season 3, Episode 2—Jerry Lewis, The Supremes (9-22-72)
Season 3, Episode 11—Jim Brown, Bobby Vinton
Season 3, Episode 18—Jim Nabors (2-7-73)
Season 4, Episode 3 “The Sonny & Cher Years (Part 1)—retrospective featuring Chuck Berry, Ed Byrnes, Dick Clark, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Vinton, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons (9-26-73)
Season 4, Episode 11 “The Sonny & Cher Years (Part 2)—retrospective featuring Paul Anka, The Coasters, Peter Noone, Neil Sedaka, Wolfman Jack (11-28-73)
Season 4, Episode 22—Joe Namath, The Righteous Brothers (2-20-74)

From the ‘40s through the ‘70s variety shows were a dominant genre, and Ranker.com currently lists The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour as the 10th Greatest Variety Show in TV History. But to a TV audience that didn’t grow up with variety shows, their attraction can seem a mystery. It’s like going to see a live revue at a lounge—a circuit that Sonny & Cher played, actually, before they got this summer replacement TV series. There’s something slightly indulgent about variety shows, where a line-up of guest stars as predictable as those on TV game shows get to sing and do out-of-their-element comedy sketches and basically extend their careers, while the stars can do whatever they want. Sometimes they’re entertaining, and sometimes they’re not. Some variety shows are deliberately edgy (like SNL, which debuted in 1975) and some follow the format that had become standard: an opening number (if the host is a singer) or monologue (if a comic), followed by alternating sketches and musical numbers featuring the host and guest stars. More

Review of THE ADDAMS FAMILY (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 87 min., Color
MGM / Universal
Rated PG for macabre and suggestive humor and some action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve been scratching my head over why The Addams Family 2019 animated feature film isn’t as entertaining as the original 1961 live-action television series.

Then again, there are probably better things I could do with my time. Feature films based on half-hour TV shows have a long history of limited success, with filmmakers either unable to capture the tone of the original or unable to expand the basic plot and premise to fill out the additional minutes. And films based on novelty sitcoms from the sixties have been particularly prone to bomb. I’m talking about feature-length versions of My Favorite Martian, The Jetsons, The Flintstones, Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Underdog. Even slightly better ones like The Brady Bunch movies and George of the Jungle were a mixed bag, with only Get Smart coming close to matching the success of the original half-hour series.

Writers Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler took an immediate wrong turn with an opening pre-title sequence in The Addams Family that has more in common with the Frankenstein sagas than the popular TV series inspired by the Charles Addams New Yorker cartoons that began appearing in 1938. Addams’ famous understated tongue-in-cheek humor is supplanted by more over-the-top gags and characters, wrapped up in an overly familiar plot. Yet, none of these things is necessarily the kiss of death, and The Addams Family isn’t a BAD film. It’s just not a very good one. For the most part it’s dull, and there aren’t enough moments to delight. What’s more, the TV Addams family’s charming obliviousness to how different they are from everyone else is replaced by a monsters vs. humans and us vs. them dynamic that’s far too common and clichéd. More

Review of OVERCOMER (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
Christian sports drama
2019, 119 min., Color
Sony Pictures
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Overcomer is the latest inspirational Christian film from brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, with Alex serving once again as director and also starring. Like the others before it—Flywheel (2003), Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011), and War Room (2015)—there’s frequent mention of God and prayer. Unlike the others, there are quite a few come-to-Jesus moments rather than a single pivotal one. That’s not a criticism, mind you. It’s a fact. If you’re put off by preachy films (“You were created to know and worship Him”), then you won’t want to buy or stream this one.

But it’s also a fact that the Kendrick brothers keep improving. The writing is a little more polished, the camerawork has grown stronger, and there are more sophisticated shots—some, in this film, using drones. The overall production values are far superior as well, the result of a $5 million budget (compared to the $20,000 budget the Kendricks had to work with for their first film). While the brothers’ early films mostly cast members of their Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia (where Kendrick was an associate pastor), they’ve graduated to using more professional actors . . . and that also help to elevate the overall quality. This time there’s also a killer soundtrack, with the highlight a song (“You Say”) by Grammy- and American Music Awards-winner Lauren Daigle. More

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