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Review of ALL STYLES (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
2018, 91 min., Color
Dance drama
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

As a film critic, I dread dance movies. The plots are so similar they all seem to have been hatched from the same Dance Mom. Plus there’s no real character development, and the films are usually just a flimsy excuse to showcase a few dance sequences. So why not just post those dance moves on YouTube?

Well, it turns out that the first-time star of this film, 2013 So You Think You Can Dance winner Du-shaunt “Fik-Shun” Stegall, is already pretty YouTube famous as a top-notch hip-hop dancer. My teenage daughter is serious about dance, and she said this guy is seriously good. She had already watched most of his YouTube videos before I even popped in this movie to review. For her, it’s all about the dancing, and she gave the dancing in All Styles an A. The plot and the acting? That was a B, she said. And though I know far less about dance than she does, I’d have to agree. All Styles, though low-budget, is a cut above the average dance movie.

The big surprise—other than Heather Morris (Brittany on Glee) turning up as one of the dancers—is that Fik-Shun isn’t just a terrific dancer. He’s also pretty charismatic on camera, a really likable fellow that makes you want to root for him. In this film he plays Brandon, who refreshingly isn’t from the “hood,” doesn’t have an attitude problem, and isn’t a delinquent who needs dance to turn his life around. All Styles dodges those clichés and in so doing, director Angela Tucker manages to create the most family-friendly hip-hop movie I’ve seen. No one in the film comes from the wrong side of the tracks, nobody has tattoos or uses bad language, and even the lyrics to the songs are the clean version. It’s all surprisingly wholesome, for a hip-hop film. More

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Review of PIXAR SHORT FILMS COLLECTION: VOL. 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2012-18, 76 min. (13 shorts), Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 to 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C (introductions, mostly)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Although many of the Pixar short films appear as bonus features on various Disney-Pixar releases, it’s still nice to have them all on one disc, and the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 3 is as varied and high quality as the previous volumes.

There’s a nice blend, too, of high-profile shorts that are related to Disney-Pixar films and more distinctive (and quirky/artsy) personal projects that were labors of love for the directors and animators. Of the 13 short films, seven are connected to fan-favorite films.

From the Toy Story films there’s “Partysaurus Rex,” a fun, thumping disco bath story where (T-)Rex goes from party pooper to a partysaurus who helps bath toys get their groove on. It’s an upbeat frolic that fans of the Toy Story films especially will enjoy.

From Inside Out there’s a sequel of sorts where Riley is a teenager and we see “Riley’s First Date” from the inside-out emotional control rooms of her trying-to-be-cool mother, her scowling and disapproving father, and even the young man who dares to date their daughter. A twist ending provides a nice payoff. More

Review of THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE (2015) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2015, 119 min., Color
Musical comedy-drama
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Stereo
Bonus features: B+
Sizzle reel
Amazon link

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in 1959, starring Mary Martin as a nun-in-training who falls in love with a widower after taking a job as his children’s governess. The musical won five Tony Awards. Then in 1965, when Julie Andrews took over the role of Maria for the lavish 172-minute film adaptation, the film earned five Oscars. That film is one of our family’s favorites, so a remake seems almost sacrilegious. Why even attempt it?

Though I was surprised to learn that there’ve been nearly a dozen film and television versions of The Sound of Music, all I knew about was the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic and The Sound of Music Live, a 2013 mistake featuring singer Carrie Underwood. So it’s probably an understatement to say that my wife and I began watching this 2015 live British television production expecting to be disappointed—especially since we’ve seen our share of lackluster filmed stage performances. While you may get a better view than if you were sitting in Row 20, it’s still a filmed version of a live performance with cameras positioned unobtrusively off-stage, creating an odd distance and dislocation. There may be three or four cameras to give you different angles, but gone is the excitement of sitting in Row 20.

As it turns out, we liked The Sound of Music Live nearly as much as the 1965 movie, partly because it’s a quality production and partly because of the very nature of the production. As one of the actors says, it’s a script-to-stage theatrical production that’s filmed on three soundstages for television, but shot in cinematic style using 17 different cameras. It feels like a movie, but it also has the look of a live performance. Instead of the bright three-point lighting that’s a film-industry standard, what’s here comes closer to stage lighting. In this version, cameras are everywhere and they follow the actors with medium shots and close-ups, but because characters go behind pillars and such and we see angles that would be denied a theatrical audience, it feels as if we’re right there on the set with the characters. It’s a strangely exhilarating feeling. More

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

Review of MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
2017, 89 min., Color
Documentary
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

As a documentary, Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards is a product of the times. Reality TV programming has pushed the public’s fascination with celebrity and celebrities to an extent that we haven’t really seen since the Golden Age of Hollywood and the initial proliferation of gossip magazines. Atypical of road-to-success biographies, this film offers an adorational profile of high fashion “cobbler” Manolo Blahnik— one that celebrates the designer’s personality and celebrity more than it explains his methods or his rise to prominence.

The title is literal. As a young boy Blahnik, who grew up in the Canary Islands, really did make tiny little shoes for the lizards that he would catch and play with. But as I said, this isn’t the standard biography that proceeds chronologically in order to explain how that young boy grew up to be one of the most influential fashion figures of the 20th and now 21st century. It’s not emphasized how he lived with his aunt and uncle and how the latter helped his fashion tastes to evolve, and we really don’t learn much about the early transformative years.

The first two-thirds of the film is devoted to creating an impressionistic portrait of the flamboyant Spanish designer, reinforcing how big he actually is in world pop culture and fashion. We see celebrity after celebrity fawning all over Blahnik or his shoes and quickly deduce that he was the main designer on the radar of the rich and famous—both entertainers and political royalty. Blahnik repopularized the stiletto heel and when high-fashion footwear was called for in the movies, he was often the one costume designers turned to—with one film, Marie Antoinette, offered as an extended example. But mostly we hear people talking about Blahnik and we hear Blahnik talking about his life.

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Review of A NEW LEAF (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
1971, 102 min., Color
Comedy
Olive Films
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 (Mono)
Bonus features: B
Clip montage
Amazon link

Looking ahead to New Year’s resolutions, if the new leaf you’re turning over this year is to be more receptive to older and subtler comedies, you might start with A New Leaf—an understated 1971 film featuring Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple) and Elaine May.

Matthau stars as an arrogant playboy who suddenly finds himself penniless. Desperate, he decides to take his butler’s advice and use a loan from his skinflint Uncle Harry (James Coco) to maintain his status and try to get a rich woman to marry him. There’s a catch: if he doesn’t get her to accept his proposal within six weeks, he forfeits all he owns to his uncle.

It’s the kind of premise that opens the door wide for slapstick and humor that’s a throwback to the old screwball comedies. But May—a founding member of the pre-Second City improv group Compass Players in Chicago, who often worked with Mike Nichols—writes every scene with tongue in cheek and crafts a black comedy instead.

As the socially awkward and übernerdy Henrietta Lowell, May plays well off of the naturally acerbic Matthau. Henrietta, whom Henry meets at a party and boorishly defends when she spills her drink on the host’s expensive rug, is an introverted heiress who teaches botany at Columbia University and dreams of discovering a new plant species. But it’s she who’s ripe for the picking.

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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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