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Review of ALL THE CREATURES WERE STIRRING (DVD)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No (13 and older)
2018, 80 min., Color
Horror
RLJE Films
Unrated (would be PG-13)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo
Bonus features: C-
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

This Christmas horror anthology touts Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh off the Boat) and Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls) as headliners of an ensemble cast that’s composed of unfamiliar faces except for Maria Olsen, whom movie-lovers may recognize from her appearances in Paranormal Activity 3, Reunion, and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.

People wanting to see Wu and Kite will have to be patient, though, because their sketch is the last of five in All the Creatures Were Stirring. Connecting them is the clever device of a man and woman on what appears to be a first date (“Is this a date? Should I even ask that?”) who decide to ease the tension by going into a small theater to take in a live show on Christmas Eve. Onstage are three performers who, it’s implied, act out each of the sketches that are introduced by a stone-faced director (Olsen) whose hair and attire can best be described as clown-like. The exaggerated seriousness and the performances all scream “hipster,” but instead of watching the actors do their thing, once their performance begins the camera fades them out and a filmed segment featuring totally different actors fades in.

There’s an admirable self-consciousness at work here, because after watching the first sketch—“The Gift”—the man tries to stifle his laughter, while the woman says, “What the hell was that?” He responds, still trying to control himself, “I have no idea.” There’s also playful confirmation that the material might not exactly be high drama because a few more people in an already small audience leave the theater after each sketch, until there’s just three left in the audience at the end: the awkward daters and a man who keeps staring at them.

But the sketches themselves are a mixed bag. Not surprisingly, the one with Wu and Kite is the best of the bunch, while others showed some promise and still others were dull, strained, or lacking in something—originality, quality of acting, etc. More

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Review of CRAZY RICH ASIANS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Almost (10 and older?)
2018, 120 min., Color
Romantic comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com that’s heavy on the rom and lighter on the com. There are plenty of amusing moments, mind you, but this 2018 film by Jon M. Chu has more in common with splendiferous romances like Pride and Prejudice than it does the old Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies that depended mostly on farcical misunderstandings and mistaken identities. The plot is pretty straightforward: it’s a variation on the old meet-the-parents theme, with a couple’s future on the line.

Based on the international best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians features Fresh off the Boat’s Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, the serious girlfriend of Nick Young (Henry Golding) who flies to Singapore to be his plus-one for his country’s wedding of the century. When they fly in an airline suite, she learns for the first time just how rich Nick’s family is, and that’s the main complicating factor. She may be an American success story—the daughter of a hardworking single mom who made Mom proud by becoming an economics professor—but in Singapore she has two strikes against her: she’s comparatively poor, and she’s Chinese American rather than Chinese. Nick’s family, meanwhile, is like the Singapore version of the Kennedys—old money who built Singapore and who now draw paparazzi to them as if they were royalty.

As the tagline says, “The only thing crazier than love is family,” and the humor derives more from characters and their mannerisms and quips than from situations. Awkwafina is pretty hilarious as Rachel’s old college roommate who is unabashedly flamboyant and lives with her mother in a Singapore mansion, while Nico Santos is equally funny as a gay friend of the Young family. Ken Jeong makes an appearance as Rachel’s old roommate’s wealthy father, but he isn’t given nearly as much screen time as the younger generation. More

Review of THE MEG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (10 and up?)
Action thriller
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Trailers for The Meg made it look like another nature’s monsters film of the exploitative Gila! or Lake Placid sort, so our family was pleasantly surprised that it played out more like a less sophisticated cousin of Jaws. It was a much higher quality film than we expected in terms of production values, screenplay, acting, and special effects.

There isn’t the same level of character development as there was in Steven Spielberg’s original shark tale, nor were there as many iconic scenes, or those fabulously frightening John Williams musical cues. But The Meg delivers a plot that makes more sense than most disaster/monster flicks, and it doesn’t skimp on the outrageous action sequences that cause you to gasp or react with nervous laughter. CHOMP! There it is!!

Here’s how Warner Bros. describes the film: “Five years ago, expert sea diver and Naval Captain Jonas Taylor encountered an unknown danger in the unexplored recesses of the Mariana Trench that forced him to abort his mission and abandon half his crew. Though the tragic incident earned him a dishonorable discharge, what ultimately cost him his career, his marriage and any semblance of honor was his unsupported and incredulous claims of what caused it—an attack on his vessel by a mammoth, 70-foot sea creature, believed to be extinct for more than a million years. But when a submersible lies sunk and disabled at the bottom of the ocean—carrying his ex-wife among the team onboard—he is the one who gets the call. Whether a shot at redemption or a suicide mission, Jonas must confront his fears and risk his own life and the lives of everyone trapped below on a single question: Could the Carcharodon Megalodon—the largest marine predator that ever existed—still be alive … and on the hunt?” More

Review of DRAGNET (1987) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
1987, 106 min., Color
Crime comedy
Shout! Factory
Rated PG-13 for some nudity, language, and violence
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Two years after Tom Hanks was paired with John Candy in Volunteers, Universal matched him up with another SNL regular: Dan Aykroyd. The premise? Spoof the old black-and-white Dragnet police drama starring Jack Webb as detective Sgt. Joe Friday, who always narrated with a stiff, humorless voiceover, walked without swinging his arms, and questioned witnesses and suspects with the same no-nonsense manner as he spoke. If someone started talking just a little off-topic, he’d interrupt them with a line that became his catchphrase: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

In other words, Joe Friday and Dragnet were both ripe for a parody, and while you don’t have to be familiar the old 30-minute detective show “get” this comedy, seeing Webb as Friday would certainly set you up for a steady smile as you watch Aykroyd nail the character playing Joe Friday’s nephew pursuing the same occupation. Being just a little familiar with the TV series also enables you to also appreciate the casting of Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H) as Friday’s superior officer, because Morgan played Sgt. Friday’s partner in the original series, which ran from 1951-59 and briefly again from 1967-70.

Although Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars because of how clever the parody played out, the trouble is, once you get past those delightful recognitions, this “flatfoot” crime comedy falls a little flat after a promising start. It’s entertaining enough, but you just don’t find yourself laughing as much once you get past the first 15 minutes or so. The humor is more tongue-in-cheek, with satire, not slapstick or clever writing, defining the comedy. More

Review of SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Entire family: No (parental discretion advised)
2018, 135 min., Color
Sci-fi/fantasy Adventure
LucasFilm/Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Whoever came up with the high concept Solo: A Star Wars Story hit upon a guaranteed way to put people in the theaters. According to one audience poll, Han Solo is the fourth most popular character in the franchise—behind Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that heavy-breathing übervillain, Darth Vader. The problem is that the beloved character was originally played by a beloved actor, and that had to have posed a casting nightmare. How do you replace a charismatic actor like Harrison Ford while also creating a believable backstory involving a younger version of Han Solo?

With great difficulty, it turns out. If Alden Ehrenreich were playing a brand new character, everything would be two thumbs up in the Star Wars universe. He’s engaging enough and, with a little time to get to know him better, would probably evolve into an even more likeable character. The problem is that fans can’t help but compare his portrayal of Solo to Ford’s, and any gaps will be perceived as flaws, not differences of interpretation. This Han isn’t as consistently boyishly and roguishly charming in the self-deprecating, sarcastic manner that made Ford’s character so popular. More

Review of OCEAN’S 8 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
Crime Comedy/Drama
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for language, drug use, and some suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s hard to say whether Frank Sinatra would be amused or annoyed that Ocean’s 11—his 1960 buddy heist film with fellow rat-packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop—has inspired a series of profitable remakes and sequels. But it might temper whatever he’s feeling to know that the latest of these, Ocean’s 8, also has a lot in common with another sixties’ heist film, Topkapi, which targeted jewels in a museum.

Ocean’s 8 is a caper film through and through. Director Gary Ross, who wrote the screenplays for Pleasantville and The Hunger Games, takes the genre in a warm embrace and has fun with this ensemble flick starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, and Helena Bonham Carter. What could possibly go wrong?

There’s a Reds and Blues Brothers vibe early in the film as Bullock’s character gets out of prison and instantly gets the “band” back together, picking up a few others along the way. The plan? To not just steal the most expensive piece of jewelry on the planet, but also frame the guy who framed her. Instead of hitting three Vegas casinos simultaneously, as the original and first remake buddies did, this group sets their sights on a museum gala and one particular necklace that a star will be wearing. And part of the plan is making sure that this star does indeed wear that heavily guarded and heavily insured necklace.

If you’re not familiar with the caper genre, it’s a little different from the typical Hollywood screenplay in that there’s really no traditional dramatic arc where there’s a peaking movement toward a crisis and then a falling action. It’s more about coming together, planning the heist, and then executing the heist and dealing with whatever unexpected challenges pop up. That can give the film a somewhat even-keeled feel, but a slick upbeat collection of soundtrack songs—a blend of vintage and new that includes The Notorious B.I.G., Eamon, Kelis, Sammy Davis Jr., Herb Alpert, and Nancy Sinatra—provides plenty of energy to make it feel as if even the slow spots are moving a little faster. Ocean’s 8 is a slick film that doesn’t feel forced, and it looks really slick on high-def Blu-ray, which is the way to go with this title.

Everyone will have their favorites, but for me the standouts were Bullock and Hathaway, who really commanded your attention every scene they were in. They also got the glam-scam tone of the film: a combination of tongue-in-cheek humor and slick sophistication. More

Review of JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No (Age 10 and older?)
Sci-fi/Adventure
Universal
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science fiction violence and peril
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-X, Dolby Atmos
Bonus features:  B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

As the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom box notes remind us, it’s been three years since Jurassic World, the theme park and luxury resort, was destroyed by dinosaurs who had gotten loose, and though all humans evacuated the island the dinosaurs remained, living now as nature may have intended 150 million years ago.

But the volcano on Isla Nubar is erupting and threatening to destroy all dinosaurs on the island while the world watches, helpless. Former Jurassic World employee Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Harper) has launched a campaign to save the dinosaurs, and before long Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is recruited to help with the dinosaur extraction. Of particular interest is Blue, the most intelligent dinosaur on the island, who moviegoers may remember was a Velociraptor raised and trained by Owen.

The main company is ostensibly committed to rescuing the dinosaurs—to save them from going extinct a second time—but when Claire and Owen get there and find that mercenaries are involved, it’s never a good sign. Neither is a sneaky CEO who seems to be giving orders contrary to what the remaining co-founder of Jurassic World would want. The save-the-dino folks and the mercenaries are at cross-purposes, as they were in Disney’s animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It’s a familiar concept, whether it’s saving lost civilization or an island full of dinosaurs: business versus science. We saw that theme play out in the King Kong films, just as we’re seeing it play out now in America as environmentalists and national park employees try to resist a business-driven administration that’s determined to open up more sanctuary land to development. So yes, the plot is very familiar, and when you see flashbacks showing Owen with baby Blue you realize that there are fewer tender moments here as well. More

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