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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 KIDS TABLE (DVD)

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Grade:  C-
Entire family:  No
2018, 72 min., Color
Documentary
Giant Interactive
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Trailer
Amazon link

After I watched this documentary about bridge (the card game, not London or any other feat of engineering), I was surprised to see that the runtime was only 72 minutes. It seemed much longer . . . and not just because I know nothing about bridge. It seemed longer because this documentary didn’t inspire me to care any more about bridge than I do now.

And there was certainly potential. When you get a group of four 20- and 30-somethings who are being coached by bridge trainers (who knew there was such a thing?), and those four people compete in tournaments where the opponent’s average age is 73, there’s potential here for interest.

But The Kids Table feels superficial because it doesn’t really answer any of the questions that arise along the way. Like, how do the old people really feel about them intruding in their private world of bridge? We get a few responses, but not nearly enough, and the responses we get aren’t personal enough.

What made each of these people want to learn bridge? Were they recruited? What do their friends or families or significant others think about them spending so much time on an old people’s card game? While we get some solo interviews with each of the young people, there’s not much in the way of answers or depth. Out of curiosity I Googled one of them and learned that Stefanie Woodburn (who admits she’s not super hot on bridge but, once involved, can be super competitive) is a member of Mensa and a summa cum laude graduate from NYU. She’s an actress who’s been featured in TV movies and starred as Mulan in Once Upon a Time: The Rock Opera. She also was one of the first graduates of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s IMAGINE IMPACT class, and she created the first short film funded through video streaming games. Fascinating, right?

But we don’t get much information about her or the others in this documentary, which limits the on-camera interviews to reality-show style questions about their feelings on what we just saw onscreen. Frankly, a documentary like this would have worked so much better if each of the principle young players had their own “Olympic moment” profiles that make us care about them as they play. Does it put a strain on their social lives or family life? Does it compete with their other ambitions? Has learning bridge been a struggle that they continue because of x, y, or z? Without strong back stories there aren’t strong characters, and that especially holds true for this film by Stephen Helstad and Edo Benda. We simply don’t get enough personal information about the four novice players and their two trainers for us to care about them. We’re just flies on the wall as we watch Woodburn, Paul Stanko, Monique Thomas, Edd Benda, Brian Reynolds, and Samantha MacDouglas go from match to match. 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

Review of CURIOUS GEORGE: ROYAL MONKEY (DVD)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire Family: Yes, but…
2019, 87 min., Color
Children’s, Animation
Rated G
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Sheet of 15 stickers
Clip
Amazon link

Raise your hand if the Curious George picture books by Hans Agusto Rey, Margret Rey, and illustrator Alan J. Shalleck helped you learn how to read. If so, you’re not alone.

Since the little monkey first appeared in 1941 with his friend, The Man in the Yellow Hat, all seven original titles penned and inked by this trio have remained in print. They’re that popular. And 2006 was a big year for the tailless monkey. That year, an animated TV show was launched that would run for nine more years, and Universal bankrolled a big-screen feature starring big-name talent and costing $50 million to make.

Producer Ron Howard was involved with both projects. “A lot of animated films throw in adult jokes meant to go over the heads of kids. Curious George doesn’t,” Howard told an interviewer. George doesn’t speak in the books, and Howard said that giving him a voice was never an option. “But you know, there have been a lot of very funny characters going back to Harpo Marx that didn’t have much to say,” he said.

The big-screen version didn’t make as much at the box office as the studio had hoped, and since then the movies have been feature-length direct-to-home-videos. Usually that’s a bad thing, but not in this case. The smaller expectations have allowed Howard and co-producing partner Brian Glazer to focus on the audience that the books were intended to reach.

Though two 2009 films, Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey and Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas, were disappointments, the filmmakers found their groove with Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest (2013) and Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle (2015). And I’m happy to report that Curious George: Royal Monkey keeps the winning streak alive. More

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

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

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