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Review of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/A
Entire family: Age 8 and older?
2017, 136 min., Color
Sci-fi action-adventure
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content
Marvel Studios
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s rare when a sequel matches the original for sheer energy and brilliance, but James Gunn has done it again, writing and directing a follow-up that’s every bit as good as the first Guardians of the Galaxy he wrote and directed. The dialogue is just as crisp, the visual look of the film and CGI effects are just as eye-popping, and the characters’ personalities may shine even more brightly in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, since they no longer labor under the yoke of an origin story.

This time it’s all about family, or rather, the family this group has become and the family some are still searching for. If you’ll recall, the original Guardians ended with Groot making the ultimate sacrifice but being saved as a tiny start to a new tree. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 takes full advantage of the reborn little guy’s cuteness—Baby Groot is like a more innocent, bark-covered version of Bart Simpson—and his character is a fun flipside to the acerbic raccoon Rocket (and by the way, you’ll never convince me that the name isn’t an allusion to The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon”).

When we meet them, the Guardians of the Galaxy are renowned keepers of peace. The group is composed of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth as a child by aliens and raised by Yondu (Michael Rooker), the leader of a bunch of thieves and pirates who call themselves the Ravagers. In the sequel, Yondu’s character is explored in more depth, and so is Peter’s. When the Guardians make an emergency landing on another planet they run into a being named Ego (Kurt Russell), who says he’s Peter’s father. While Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) stay behind to fix the spacecraft, Peter goes to Ego’s home planet with the former assassin and now-Guardian Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the large, crude, and very funny dude Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).

In a way, there’s nothing more to the plot than sci-fi fans haven’t already seen in the old Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or Lost in Space TV episodes: they visit a planet, discover all is not as it first seemed, and somehow escape or resolve the situation. And yet, in Gunn’s hands, this simple and frequently used formula expands so naturally and effortlessly that it holds our attention for 136 minutes—a run-time that’s long by today’s standards.

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Review of WHALE RIDER (15th Anniversary) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2002, 101 min., Color
Drama
Rated PG-13 for brief language and a momentary drug reference
Shout! Factory
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

This word-of-mouth hit about a 12-year-old Maori girl captured audience-favorite awards at the Toronto, Rotterdam, and Sundance international film festivals. It’s a feel-good movie that makes you feel a little bad along the way, a “girl power” coming of age story that also involves the girl’s patriarchal-minded grandfather who comes to understand that the best way to preserve the past is to embrace a gender-equal future.

Like Hoosiers, where you know a ragtag bunch of basketball losers are going to somehow win, the plot in Whale Rider is somewhat formulaic. But as with that Indiana roundball saga, the ride itself is really something, and not just because of the fantastic performances or the beautiful cinematography and New Zealand landscape. Just when you begin to think the outcome is predictable, writer-director Niki Caro manipulates a change in current or plumbs the emotional depths to take the performances to another level.

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Review of EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
2017, 96 min., Color
Romantic drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

The Fault in Our Stars (2014) was such a huge hit that you knew other sick teen romantic dramas would follow, even if you were unaware of what books were out there to inspire the screenplays. And sure enough, along comes Everything, Everything (2017), starring Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) and Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer).

If there’s a teen in your family, they’ve no doubt seen trailers or heard of it. But they may not know about the one big difference between the two “sick teen” romantic dramas: The Fault in Our Stars aims high, for an adult audience as well as teens, with believable dialogue and situations and an edginess that comes from a healthy cynicism that comes from a realistic optimism in a hopelessly pessimistic situation. It’s a little like Hemingway for teens, where grace under pressure and how well you face tragedy becomes more important than the outcome. It’s about finding consolation in an impossible situation.

Everything, Everything is the flip side of that—a film that doesn’t just look for a silver lining, but manufactures one. It’s made for the people who wept during The Fault in Our Stars thinking, Why? Why couldn’t there have been just a slightly happier outcome?

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Review of KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
2017, 126 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content, and brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Guy Ritchie and the King Arthur legend? Sounds like a match made in heaven, doesn’t it? After all, the director who gave us Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sure breathed new life into another legendary but staid franchise, Sherlock Holmes, reinvigorated and reinvented in partnership with star Robert Downey Jr.

For King Arthur: Legend of the Sword he had hunky and charismatic Sons of Anarchy alum Charlie Hunnam to work with, and Jude Law playing the bad guy on the throne. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, when a film begins with giant elephants with pyramids on their backs filled with soldiers and all of them attacking a castle, it certainly gets your attention—kind of like those rock monsters did in the otherwise believably biblical epic of Noah. Then there’s more action, and people talking quickly about things you’re not grasping, and more outrageous things happening, and scenes quickly changing, and before you know it you’re feeling like some of those soldiers in the opening battle, falling hundreds of feet into a moat below and drowning in confusion.

There are some absolutely marvelous sequences in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but because confusion reigns with an even tighter fist than King Vortigern (Law), you don’t have enough context to really appreciate what’s happening. It probably doesn’t help that Ritchie employs some of the self-conscious techniques he used in his smart crime dramas: like guys telling a story and we see it in narrative flashback as they speak, then someone will ask a question and the story will change or something will happen that’s even more visually outrageous, like the flashback reversing when one of the listeners says, “Whoa, back up.” It’s clever and postmodern and fun and all, but it also adds to the confusion rather than helping to resolve it. Ritchie’s technique often involves throwing a lot at viewers and then later explaining what they saw, but even the explanations fall short when you watch this film for the first time. I suspect it will take two or three viewings to make complete sense of the film.

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Review of HICKOK (4K Ultra HD combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2017, 88 min., Color
Western
Not Rated: Would be PG-13 for brief nudity, sexual situations and strong language
Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 matted widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B- (nice making-of feature)
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray
Trailer
Amazon link

Timothy Woodward Jr. grew up loving Hollywood Westerns, and now he’s living the dream—he’s directing them. And he’s getting better.

Woodward’s first effort, Traded (2016), starred music legends Kris Kristofferson and Trace Adkins, both of whom look rugged enough to play a convincing cowboy in the American Wild West of the 1870s and ‘80s. Traded was basically a Western version of Taken, and though Westerns have more clichés than cacti have needles, this one was hemorrhaging hokey dialogue, wooden characters, and silly situations. It was hard going, which is why I’m not surprised it earned only a 5.1 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database from over 2000 audience members. At Family Home Theater we warned it was a C- at best.

But then along comes Hickok (2017), which 600 IMDB audience members rated a 5.3. Seeing that, you’d think that the two films are comparable—but you’d be wrong. Hickok is a superior film, despite a script that fictionalizes ol’ Wild Bill so much you barely recognize him and his story. Then again, this is a Western, not a documentary, and for a Western it’s better than average.

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Review of GOING IN STYLE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2017, 96 min., Color
Crime comedy
Rated PG-13 for drug content, language, and some suggestive material
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C (director’s commentary)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Money-grubbing moneylenders are evil—at least in literature and Hollywood. Whether it was Tom Joad and his fellow Okies trying to start a new life in California after banks foreclosed on them, George Bailey fighting to keep Mr. Potter from buying up the whole town and gouging tenants, or even Bonnie and Clyde becoming bank-robbing folk heroes, any act of resistance has been seen as an act of heroism.

The financial crisis of 2007-08—triggered by banks actively selling subprime mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them—only solidified the notion that banks are the con men, the bad guys. Add the corporate shipping of jobs overseas and the dismantling of pensions that workers paid into but lost, and the idea of the evil moneygrubbers grows even larger.

So how can you possibly go wrong when you cast beloved veterans Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin as 70-somethings who, victimized by the banks and their employer, decide to rob a bank? I mean, the bank and their employer cheated them, so what do they have to lose? If they get caught, they get “three squares” and better health care than they now have, and if they succeed they avoid financial ruin.

Close your eyes and picture the first-act set-up where we’ll get to know each of them, follow their routines, and come to understand what makes them decide that Going in Style is preferable to remaining law-abiding citizens.

Have you got an image of the scenes that you’d see, the situations that would be illustrated?

Good. Because then I don’t have to tell you about the first part of this film. The setup is as generic as can be, and paced so leisurely that it feels like a yawner. Their situations are clichéd, with one about to lose his house (and his daughter and granddaughter are living with him, so they too would be out on the streets), one who needs a kidney transplant and is told he doesn’t have much time left, and a third a family-less fellow who is hit-on by an elderly grocery-store employee (Ann-Margaret). There are no surprises and very few delights in the first third of the film. It’s only when they seek out a “low life” to get advice on how to rob a bank that the interest picks up, and by the third act things are rolling so well that you wish the film had started at that point.

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Review of KONG: SKULL ISLAND (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: No
2017, 118 min., Color
Sci-fi Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Best. Kong. Ever.

That was our family’s verdict, with all four members awarding an A or A- to this franchise reboot. Then again, we’re not purists. We’re just movie-lovers, and we loved this movie. The action is non-stop, the CGI monsters and battles are terrific, the location footage shot in northern Vietnam and Oahu is stunning, the characters are fun, and most importantly for an action film with lots of blood and violence and killing, this film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Tonally, it’s right there with the early James Bond films . . . if Bond was on speed and there was no time for romance.

Unlike more unimaginative monster movies, this isn’t just a game of attrition, where you end up with a slow build-up to one death, then another, and another. All hell breaks loose, and it never stops breaking loose. You can’t predict who’s going to get it and when, but how upset can you possibly get when a man falls into the mouth of the great ape and is presumably eaten, when his fall is followed by a quick match cut in which we see a close-up of a soldier taking a crunchy bite out of a sandwich? And when another character is eaten, as he looks up and notices the creature we have yet to see, his last words are “Oh shit,” you’re more prone to laugh first, then shout in release at the action that follows. Which is to say, yes, this is every bit a PG-13 movie, both in language and in violent action, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (TV’s Single Dads) tempers it with humor. As a result, what could have been a serious bloodbath is more of a popcorn movie.

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