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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. More

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. More

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

Review of THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
Drama
1945, 126 min., Black & White
Not rated (would be G)
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Digital Mono
Bonus features: B
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

Bing Crosby played a priest in two gentle warm-hearted films, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)—the latter of special interest because it paired the crooner with the legendary Ingrid Bergman. She’s the no-nonsense Sister Superior of an urban Catholic school run by nuns and he’s the school’s new easy-going pastor-administrator with a totally different attitude about how to handle problems with children. They really play off each other nicely, and as old-fashioned as this film is, it should interest families who enjoy old black-and-white classics like Miracle on 34th Street. It’s as wholesome a slice of American life as a Norman Rockwell painting that, with age, seems just as quaint.

Like other films from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, The Bells of St. Mary’s depicts an America that’s long gone, where everything seemed slower paced and children’s problems were limited to trouble with their parents, studies, or classmates. In this film two children’s problems are on the periphery, while the featured character “bout” is a gentle and very subtle rivalry between Father O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict. The main plot thread involves Sister Benedict’s stubborn hope that a cranky business developer (Henry Travers, who played Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) will donate his new building so that it can serve as a new school. He, meanwhile, is angling for St. Mary’s to sell out so he can tear it down and turn it into a parking lot.

Though Father O’Malley arrives in the fall and the story spans the winter months, there is a long scene where students rehearse a Christmas play, and a few other scenes shot in front of decorated trees. So if Diehard is a Christmas movie, so is The Bells of St. Mary’s. More

Review of THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 97 min., Color
Sony / Columbia
Rated PG for rude humor and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

The Angry Birds Movie 2 (which should have been simply “Angry Birds 2”) is a colorfully manic CGI animated feature that’s full of feathery little fluffballs and cutesy antics that are obviously aimed like a big giant slingshot at young children, rather than gamers.

At one point a bird is reading Crazy Rich Avians, and there are enough smartly written lines and movie allusions to make it fairly painless, even amusing for older siblings and parents to watch along with youngsters. And that includes the curmudgeons who say they’ll only watch such films “when pigs fly” . . . because in this movie, they do. This time around, it’s a classic tale of enemies—pigs and birds—who put their prank war on hold so they can work together when an outside force threatens their separate island paradises. The same cast returns from the 2016 original, and if your family liked that one they’ll like this sequel. It’s a stronger film, and the feather and effects animation is noticeably superior.

Jason Sudeikis once again gives voice to Red, the hero of the first film who has since developed a bit of an arrogant “only I can do this” attitude. So while the two sides learn to work together, Red is relearning how to be humble and realizing, as well, that it takes teamwork to succeed. An all-star cast features the additional voice talents of Rachel Bloom, Leslie Jones, Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Awkwafina, Sterling K. Brown, Eugenio Derbez, Peter Dinklage, Nicki Minaj, Maya Rudolph, Tony Hale, and others.

The plot is set in motion when a large iceball falls out of the sky, swamping Piggy Island and leading the pigs to seek out a truce with their Bird Island counterparts. Pigs, birds, and viewers later learn that, like a James Bond villain, Zeta, the head of Eagle Island is launching iceballs from her volcano cannon in an all-out attack. Her plan? Tired of living on a frigid island, she wants to acquire warmer territory for herself and her army of Eagles. Meanwhile, in a cute-as-a-button side plot, three hatchling birds play with a mother’s eggs but end up watching them drift out to sea. How will they ever get them back? More

Review of TOY STORY 4 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 100 min., Color
Rated G
Pixar/Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

The buzz (no Lightyear pun intended) on Toy Story 4 was that it’s the saddest (translation: most poignant) entry yet, and that Pixar really fumbled the ball by naming a new character Forky when it’s so clearly a spork.

But if that’s your biggest complaint, you know Pixar/Disney has created another hit. In fact, if there’s a more critically successful film franchise, it’s not coming to mind. The first two Toy Story animated features earned a remarkable 100 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes with audience ratings of 92 and 86 percent, respectively, while the third entry received a 98 from critics and 89 from the audience. Their latest exercise in animated wizardry merited a 97 from critics and a 94 from audiences. That’s amazingly consistent, given that there’s only so much you can do, plot-wise, with a family’s toys that come to life when no humans are looking.

This time western sheriff doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is having an existential crisis. He’s spent three play days in a row left in the closet, wondering what his purpose is if it’s no longer to be played with by his special human. And in case you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, his special human Andy went off to college,” in Toy Story 4 Woody’s a hand-me-down that’s now in the possession of Andy’s little sister, Bonnie.

When Woody stows away in Bonnie’s backpack to make sure she has the comfort of a toy her first day of kindergarten orientation, he watches her make a new toy doll out of a spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks. But Forky, as she calls him, is a kind of cheerful fatalist who keeps jumping into wastebaskets and trash receptacles and such because, well, that’s where plastic forks end up.

Pixar/Disney keeps the series fresh by rotating characters who get the spotlight, and this time Woody, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Forky (Tony Hale), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and a fun new character, motorcycle stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), take center stage. The animators also moved up the ladder of progressive possibilities for toys that are no longer wanted. Having already explored the Goodwill option, the rabid collector option, and the donated-to-preschool option, they set this entry in an antique store where Bo ended up. More

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