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Review of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (2016) (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
2016, 108 min., Color
Drama, Theatrical Production
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Adapted from a 1905 children’s novel by Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children is a joint York Theatre Royal and National Railway Museum production that was staged in a venue near Kings Cross Station in London. This is a filmed performance of the Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden production, which shut down in January 2017.

If you’re from the U.K. and grew up with the book or have walked the park where a monument pays tribute, you’ll feel more easily charmed by a production that half-depends on the warm feeling of shared cultural nostalgia.

Regardless, the stage set is unique, designed to resemble a train station with one set of tracks and a platform on either side, and a single walkway at one end that allows people to cross from one side to the other. Lining each platform are seats where audience members sit as close to each platform as possible without actually being onstage themselves. In this elongated version of theater-in-the-round, characters are in near-constant movement, and the staging is minimalist—with a real train appearing only briefly. For the most part, flat wooden squares the same height as the platforms are pushed into place to suggest the train and various rooms and buildings, and you marvel at how the actors are able to retain their balance as they walk across the square/squares that briefly connects the platforms. More

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Review of COCO (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family:  Yes
2017, 105 min., Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s almost as if the Pixar gang took inspiration out of failure and gave themselves a challenge: to make a successful animated feature about the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, even though Fox tried in 2014 with The Book of Life and failed to connect with audiences or earn an Oscar nomination. But Pixar pulled it off, doing what Disney-Pixar does best: infusing the film with a strong story and characters, catchy music, comic relief, and most importantly, emotion.

You also get the feeling that Coco was a bounceback film for Pixar, if there is such a thing. Although Pixar’s last three features were ignored by the Oscar nominating committee, Coco not only got the nod, but after winning the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature it’s also favored to win that category at the Oscars tomorrow night.

Coco is a bit of a trailblazer, too, as it’s the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latin cast—if you don’t count Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger, who also makes an appearance. Well received south of the border, it’s become the all-time highest grossing film in Mexico and has earned a worldwide box office approximately three times its budget. Critics have hailed its animation, its original music, and its emotional storyline about the importance of family and never forgetting deceased relatives.

If your little ones are creeped out by skeletons, you should know that most of the film’s 105-minute runtime is spent in the Land of the Dead, where everyone but one little boy and his dog is a walking, talking bundle of bones. But Pixar does a nice job of giving those skeletons personality and making them non-menacing and not all that creepy. They’re also humanized because the land of the dead is portrayed as a futuristic city, only one coincidentally inhabited by skeletons. More

Review of THE STAR (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
2017, 86 min., Color
Animation
Columbia/Sony
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Though there have been exceptions, big studios have mainly steered clear of Bible stories in recent years, leaving it to the low-budget indie filmmakers to tackle projects that were consistent with their beliefs. In their hands, however, the films were too often overly preachy or poorly written and acted.

So imagine my delight when our family watched this Dove-approved PG-rated animated film and actually saw wonderfully colorful and accomplished animation and backgrounds, as well as an all-star cast of voice talents having fun with their roles in  a biblical tale that was fully reimagined to fit today’s modes of creative storytelling. The Star wasn’t preachy, it wasn’t austere, it wasn’t boring, and it didn’t feel like a sit-still-and-listen Bible lesson. But it also wasn’t your typical Bible story. It’s structured more like any number of popular animated features, with an entertaining blend of music, comedy, talking animals, action (yes, action) and inspirational drama.

Mary looked and acted a bit like the younger sister from Frozen, while Joseph had his own “Wait, what?” moments facing off against a donkey that Mary decided to adopt and name Boaz—Bo, for short.

As we read in the end credits that probably should have been inserted as a pre-title sequence head’s up, “While having fun and taking some adventurous artistic license to tell this story, the filmmakers strived to remain true to the values and essence of the greatest story ever told.”

That’s a good way to describe this film, which is not nearly close enough to The Bible to be considered an adaptation, or even earn a “based on” label. The Star is so “adventurous” in its liberties that it can only be said to have been “loosely inspired by” the nativity story. More

Review of THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
2017, 101 min., Color
Animation
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.4:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Lego my Ninjago?

Maybe it’s the law of diminishing returns, or maybe the charm of seeing the Lego world come to life is starting to wear off. Whatever the case, though The Lego Ninjago Movie is entertaining enough, it really didn’t delight my son or me as much as The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017). It wasn’t as original, as sharp, or as sophisticated.

Maybe it’s because a large number of gags and verbal jokes seemed to be aimed at a high-school age audience—viewers who have outgrown Legos but whose fond memories of playing with them are still vivid and fresh—as well as those who still put Legos on their Christmas lists.

The Lego Batman Movie was far more successfully satirical in its takeoff on the Batman saga and movies, with a heck of a lot more sophisticated wink-wink jokes and more sight gags going on in the background—all of which added to its broader appeal.

Maybe The Lego Ninjago Movie ended up being something that mostly children and younger teens will appreciate because if riffs not on adult live-action films but on the Danish TV series Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu and related Lego toys. Or maybe it’s because three talents (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan) new to directing animated features teamed up on this one, or that the story and screenplay were the result of a fairly large committee of 13 writers—often a red flag.

Even headliner Jackie Chan, who gives voice to Master Wu/Mr. Liu, doesn’t have the same crackling energy as he has had in previous films. But mostly I suspect the film isn’t as crisp and fresh as the first two because we’ve seen too many aspects of this plot before: the young teen (Dave Franco as Lloyd Garmadon) who is a social pariah because he’s the son of a villain—in this case, Lord Garmadon, who looks a bit like Zurg and regularly attacks the Lego city of Ninjago. At some point Garmadon starts to feel like Gargamel—just another cartoon nemesis for another group of cartoon people.

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Review of DESPICABLE ME 3 (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
2017, 90 min., Color
Animation
Universal
Rated PG for action and rude humor
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Although Readers at IMDB.com and the critics at Rotten Tomatoes thought otherwise, Despicable Me 3 is just as entertaining as the first sequel to Despicable Me (2010)—the animated feature from Universal that introduced us to the carrot-nosed Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a villain who was softened up by three orphaned girls.

By the third installment, Gru has gone straight and has been working for the Anti-Villain League with his partner/wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig). Because they failed to capture or eliminate Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a maligned child actor who, as a resentful adult, is driven to become the world’s biggest villain, Gru and Lucy find themselves kicked out of the League. But of course that doesn’t stop them from tangling with Bratt (aka Bad Boy Bod) again and somehow managing to save the day. That’s no spoiler: it’s what superheroes and crimefighters do.

How much you enjoy Despicable Me 3 may depend on how much you like Gru’s “minions”—those capsule-shaped little yellow guys in blue overalls that speak in their own gibberish language. This outing the minions aren’t integral to the plot and only seem deployed in several overly cute (and overly long) sequences designed to satisfy those who do love the little guys, and, of course, to keep those Minion toys and product tie-ins flying off the shelves. They mattered much more in the first two films. Here, they’re as gratuitous as nudity in a teen slasher movie. Also marginalized this film are the three orphaned girls that Gru adopted in the first film, so if you thought Mr. Despicable’s interaction with those girls a strength, you’ll be disappointed to find them underused in Despicable Me 3.

Dominating this entry are Gru’s interactions with the villain and a twin brother he never knew he had until recently. Carell also gives voice to Dru, the seemingly perfect (and fabulously wealthy and successful) twin from whom he was separated at birth. Reminiscent of the 1988 comedy Twins, in which the genetically perfect Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, the twin made from DNA leftovers, discover each other, Despicable Me 3 features one twin who is predominantly evil and the other predominantly good. The complication, we learn, is that the successful twin was as much of a disappointment to the villainous-at-heart father who raised him as Gru was to his goody-goody mother. How the brothers learn to cope with who they are and how they were raised, and how they learn to deal with their “Other” gets the lion’s share of narrative attention. And frankly, the twin brother angle probably rescues the third installment from a familiarity that can make sequels seem tedious.

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Review of THE BEST OF THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (DVD)

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Grade:  B/B+
1967-78, 806 min. (16 episodes), Color
TV variety
Time Life
Not rated (would be TV-G)
Aspect ratio:  1.33:1
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features:  B

‘Tis the season when shoppers look to “Best of” lists and compilations as a gift-giving resource, and this latest Time Life release of The Carol Burnett Show is certainly gift-worthy. The six-disc DVD set contains 16 full episodes of the long-running variety show, plus an interview and two featurettes originally made for the full series DVD set. Rich-looking and nicely packaged, The Best of The Carol Burnett Show: 50th Anniversary Edition seems designed not for the obsessed fan who undoubtedly owns or wants the full series on DVD, nor as a stocking stuffer for casual lovers of old-time TV or variety shows whose curiosity could be sated by a smaller collection. This one seems aimed at fans who fondly remember the star, her supporting cast, and those memorable recurring sketches—though not fondly enough to plunk down the money for the complete set.

What’s nice is that the very first and very last episodes are included, and people who haven’t seen the show will be amazed by Burnett’s opening Q&A sessions with the live audience. Yes, there’s a lot of repetition, but it’s also a showcase for Burnett’s quick wit and improv talents. And an episode featuring the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson doing his thing as a very young man is going to be a hit with all ages.

The only lump of coal is, I’m not sure how Time Life can call this a “Best of” compilation when two of the series most infamous episodes aren’t included. Gone is Episode #8 from the 10th season, featuring the Gone with the Wind parody “Went with the Wind” —an episode so iconic that TV Guide named it #53 on their list of 100 Greatest TV Episodes and The Smithsonian Institution asked for the dress that Burnett wore so that it could become a part of their permanent pop-culture displays. Also missing from this “best of” set is Episode 20, which featured one of the series’ funniest sketches starring Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, with Conway playing the patient in a dentist’s office. That’s one of the negatives; the other is that the comedy sketches hold up for today’s audiences much better than the musical numbers do.

Still, as recently as 2013, TV Guide ranked The Carol Burnett Show in its top 20 on a list of  “Greatest Shows of All Time,” and this was a variety show featuring songs and sketch comedy at a time when variety shows were on the decline. Yet it still drew a dedicated following for 11 years. As Burnett says in an interview included in this set, “Some of the sketches, if they were done today on television, they would hold up. Some of them would not. Some were awful, and some were really good.” The bottom line, according to Burnett, is one I agree with: “The sketches that were funny are still funny.”

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Review of THE SISSI COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
1955-57, 318 min. (3 films), Color
Drama, romance, biopic
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen or 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4 Blu-ray discs and 1 DVD
Amazon link

Biopics were big in the ’40s and ‘50s. Whether it was Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, Greer Garson as Marie Curie, James Cagney as George M. Cohen, James Stewart as Charles Lindberg, Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen, or any number of others, audiences enjoyed watching their Hollywood heroes playing real-life ones.

In Europe, though, one biopic towered regally over all the rest: the phenomenally popular Sissi trilogy from director Ernst Marischka, starring Romy Schneider. In Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), Schneider played Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, who went on to marry Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria. As the Empress, “Sissi” reigned alongside him from 1854-1898, and significantly helped unite Austria and Hungary.

By today’s standards, all of the postwar biopics seem sanitized and romanticized, and Sissi is no exception. The “fateful years” don’t involve a guillotine or even a significant loss of any kind, because movies from this era either stopped short of showing a historical figure’s real tragic fate or softened it by depicting it off-camera. The real Empress Elisabeth was assassinated at age 60, but this cheery blend of history, comedy, and romance only covers Sissi’s late teenage years growing up in Bavaria through her forties as Empress trying to balance the demands of government with her own needs and desires. Even that last phrase, as I write it, seems more sensational than this film or biopics from the era, which were intended as entertainments for the whole family.

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