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Review of JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (not for small children)
2017, 119 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Columbia/Sony
Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content, and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/B (includes Digital Copy)
Trailer
Amazon link

The original 1995 Jumanji starring Robin Williams was underwhelming, which is perhaps why the title of the sequel released 21 years later was changed from Jumanji 2 to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Instead of having the adventure fantastically spill out into the world of the game players, the sequel picks up more interest and steam by having the players sucked into an old video game and transported to a lush jungle world. So it’s not only updated for a video gamer generation, but also presents more visual and special effects and “levels” opportunities that young gamers can identify with.

But what makes this action-comedy cute as heck and broadens its appeal so that older viewers can also enjoy it is that the four writers decided to create a high-concept film—a guaranteed-to-make-money Hollywood project that can be summarized in 25 words or less, usually via comparison. I can picture them pitching this to the studio and backers: “It’s Jumanji meets The Breakfast Club.” And it works!

In the early going we see a teen sucked into a game way back in 1969 and then fast-forward to present day, where we’re introduced to a nerdy guy named Spencer (Alex Wolff), who has been conned into doing homework and writing papers for a star football player nicknamed Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain). We also meet a vain, self-centered young popular girl named Bethany (Madison Iseman) and an awkward marginalized girl named Martha (Morgan Turner). Somehow they all end up in detention and find themselves in a storage room crammed with all sorts of things, including an old video game they decide to plug in and play.

In short order, after they’ve chosen avatars (some thoughtfully, others not) and begin to play, something happens and the game starts to scare them. They scramble to unplug it, but no matter: One by one they’re sucked into the game and realize that they’ve become the avatars that they selected. That, of course, is half the fun. More

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Review of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2017, 152 min., Color
LucasFilm/Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Bonus Disc, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Fans at IMBD.com liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens considerably better than Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and I’ve heard it said that it’s because they thought the humor in it was more contemporary than campy.

I think that assessment is a little harsh, as there are only a few instances where the humor seems peculiar to our galaxy. For me, the last two installments in the Star Wars franchise were equally accomplished fun popcorn movies that had all the things that made the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) successful: humor, adventure, action, great characters, a complex-yet-decipherable storyline, and mind-boggling special and visual effects. I’m not alone in thinking them comparable. At Rottentomatoes.com, Tomatometer critics gave The Force Awakens a 93 percent fresh rating and The Last Jedi a 91 percent. Our family liked them equally well.

For me, there was but one jarring moment when I thought, really? And that was when General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), having been jettisoned into space and floating unconscious like a piece of space junk, suddenly is awakened by the Force and then stretches out one hand and takes off like Mary Poppins extending her umbrella arm and flying off.

If you throw out that moment and a casino scene that seems a little too Bond-like, everything else is tensely (well, except for occasional comic relief) believable within the realm of logic that drives this fantasy world of George Lucas’s. Yet, like The Force Awakens, it’s not as dark and traumatizing as the second trilogy (Episodes I-III). In fact, I’d have to say that The Last Jedi is lighter and less traumatic than The Force Awakens. More

Review of THOR: RAGNAROK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2017, 130 min., Color
Fantasy action-adventure
Marvel Studios
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, Chris Hemsworth played Thor (2011) as a brooding, arrogant Adonis who thought he was God’s gift to, well, everyone. But I guess that being the son of the old Norse god Odin can give you a giant superiority complex. Even when he fought the Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World (2013) with Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor at the helm, Thor and his story remained dark and brooding.

But with Thor: Ragnarok (2017), this superhero series gets a sunny makeover. I didn’t believe it when fellow critics described it as being funnier than Guardians of the Galaxy. After finally seeing it on Blu-ray (it looks fabulous, by the way) I can see why that film comparison came to mind, and not just because Guardians is funny. The only thing missing here is a talking animal.

Sans the raccoon, Thor: Ragnarok has the same core as Guardians, with a hero joined by a bad-ass woman (in this case, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie), a big powerful guy (Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk), and a natural-world guy (rock man Korg, rather than tree man Groot). Yet, amazingly, there isn’t a thing about this movie that feels copycat or derivative. More

Review of BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
1962, 149 min., Black-and-white
Biopic, Drama
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

A prison drama for family viewing? Normally not, but Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t your typical prison movie. It’s not an action film or one that feeds off familiar prison tropes. For the first two-thirds of this 1962 black-and-white drama, which earned four Oscar nominations, there are no escape attempts, no guard brutality, no prison gangs ruled by mobsters, no trading cigarettes to get easy jobs, no sexual assaults, no riots, and nothing remotely loud or uncivil.

Birdman of Alcatraz tells the story of Robert Franklin Stroud, who spent most of his adult life in prison. There are no backstories. We are told only that he is imprisoned at the medium-security federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, because he killed a man in Alaska—a man who was beating up a prostitute. And he has an old photo of his mother that he keeps on a shelf. Most of the film takes place in Leavenworth before a prison official who resented Stroud got him transferred to Alcatraz. But, of course, Birdman of Leavenworth just doesn’t have the same ring. Alcatraz, “The Rock,” was a high-security penitentiary where troublemakers from the other prisons were sent.

In this highly focused biopic we are not told that Stroud ran away from home at age 13 because of an abusive father, or that he became a pimp in Alaska when he was only 18. The film tells the story of his transformation—one that the prison system itself had nothing to do with. And that transformation is pretty fascinating. More

Review of JUSTICE LEAGUE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: 10 and older
2017, 120 min., Color
Fantasy action-adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Since 2000, Warner Bros. has made 17 feature films based on DC Comics, the most successful of which have been the three Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale Dark Knight films, Constantine, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Man of Steel, and, most recently, Wonder Woman. So where does Justice League fit into the DC Universe, critically? Put it this way: it’s better than Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but not as good as Wonder Woman and Man of Steel.

Directed by DC Universe veteran Zach Snyder (Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman), Justice League scores high marks for the action, special/visual effects, and strong villain; an appreciate round of applause for infusing the film with some humor; and a sympathy card for wrestling with the dilemma of how to create an interesting character-based film when the requisite focus for the genre is on non-stop action.

This is an origin story about how the Justice League came about, and the story picks up after the end of Batman v Superman. In the opening credits the camera pans across newspaper headlines proclaiming Superman dead . . . but is he?

The action begins with Batman battling what appears to be a winged human-sized insect that could easily be confused with a bat, if you were a small child reporting criminal actions witnessed. It turns out that the insect is a “scout” for an impending alien invasion.

It’s not exactly clear who summoned whom or how they knew of each other’s existence, but the first act assembles the core of what will become the Justice League: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher). Henry Cavill also appears as Superman/Clark Kent, while the mere humans who are important to them are Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Mera (Amber Heard), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons). More

Review of GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No—high school age and older
1989, 108 min., Color
Biopic
Olive Films
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, language and drug material
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
The real Lewis performing
Amazon link

He was rock ‘n’ roll’s first great wild man, playing the piano with fierce showmanship while singing a string of his early classic hits: “Crazy Arms,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” and “High School Confidential.” But then he got a little too close to his teeny-bopper audience, and it burned him big-time. His asking price for a single appearance dropped from $10,000 to $250 dollars, almost overnight.

It’s impossible to separate Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the biggest stars of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, from Jerry Lee Lewis, the 23 year old who married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed—that is, the daughter of a cousin who was a member of his band.

A year after Winona Ryder starred in the edgy Heathers and a year before she fell for Johnny Depp’s character in Edward Scissorhands she played Myra Gale Brown, who became the most famous 13 year old in rock ‘n’ roll history. It’s hard to tell what was more scandalous: her age, the marriage to Lewis (played here with great accuracy by Dennis Quaid), or the fact that she was his third wife . . . and rumor had it he never officially got divorced from #2.

Doesn’t sound like a movie for the family, does it? Then again, have you taken a look at young adult fiction recently? The books read by teens today have all manner of frank topics in them. Teens are more aware and grown up these days than they were in the 1950s, and that gap in awareness will probably prompt a few discussions and raise a few eyebrows. Great Balls of Fire! is pretty tame by contemporary standards and may actually serve as a cautionary tale. More

Review of THEEB (DVD)

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Grade: A-/B+
2014, 100 min., Color
Drama
Film Movement
Not Rated (Would be PG-13 for some bloody sequences and violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Arabic 5.1 Surround (with automatic English subtitles)
Bonus features: B+ (director’s commentary)
Trailer
Amazon link

No offense to James Franco or director Danny Boyle, but I think if I’m locked in a room with only one survival-in-the-wilderness film to watch again and again, I might pass on 127 Hours and opt for Theeb instead.

Theeb is a 2014 Arabic-language drama-thriller from Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar, who describes his film as a “Bedouin Western.” Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour lived for a year in Wadi Rum in order to get a feel for Bedouin culture and legends, and the result is this WWI-era film about a young boy’s highly unusual coming of age in the harsh desert. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of the equally atmospheric Lawrence of Arabia, parts of which were also filmed in the striking Wadi Rum desert. David Lean took three-and-a-half hours to tell his epic tale; Nowar takes a little over an hour and a half to tell his, which also has an epic feel to it because it’s about so much more than one boy and his adventure.

At the outset, Theeb (“wolf” in Arabic) and his older brother, Hussein, are talking over an evening fire with others in their tribe not long after the boys’ father, the Sheikh, had died. Into their midst comes a man from a different tribe and an Englishman who had hired him to take him to a rendezvous in the desert. The next morning, Hussein, the most qualified guide to lead the men to an old Roman well on a pilgrim’s trail deep in bandit territory, leaves with the two men. Though told to stay home because it’s too dangerous, Theeb, whom we are shown is exceptionally close to his brother, doesn’t often do what he’s told. He follows the men and their camels from a distance on his donkey, and after a day’s journey—too far and too late for them to send him home— he reveals himself to them.

Nowar uses the Wadi Rum setting in much the same way as American director John Ford used Monument Valley: as an iconic symbol, but also as such a dominant presence that it takes on the importance of character, rather than being a simple visual backdrop. The cinematography is gorgeous, and adds a rich texture to an already rich story.

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