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Review of CAPTAIN MARVEL (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
2019, 124 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Marvel / Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief suggestive language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widesscreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Two origin stories for the price of one?

That’s what Marvel Cinematic Universe fans get with Captain Marvel once S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) joins Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) a third of the way into the film. What might have been a warm-up for Shaft also turns out to be Jackson’s most entertaining role since Pulp Fiction.

Swagger + Banter + Bad Ass + Latent Rule-breaker + Alien Handler = a lot of fun to watch, especially playing opposite Larson, who for the first third of the film doesn’t seem to have the same ease prancing about in a superhero suit as, say, TV’s Melissa Benoist does as Supergirl. But Larson comes to life in her “buddy” interactions with Fury, the film takes off after that.

Fans who tire of the same basic plot—a supervillain poses a threat to Earth, so one or more superheroes have to rise to the occasion—will appreciate that the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers a different kind of narrative problem.

Not to be confused with Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who was a little too close to Superman for DC Comics’ comfort, Captain Mar-Vell first appeared in the 1967 comic Marvel Super-Heroes #12, yet another creation of Stan Lee’s, drawn by Gene Colan. In that first comic, Mar-Vell is a Kree “he” sent to Earth to observe their development of weapons technology. In 1982 Mar-Vell was replaced by a woman named Monica Rambeau in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, and the character changed again with Silver Surfer Annual #6 (1993), Captain Marvel #16 (2004), and Civil War: The Return (2007) before Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, got promoted to Captain for a role that (re)creator Kelly Sue DeConnick describes as “Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager.”

So did they finally get it right? Considering the success of rival DC Universe’s Wonder Woman, one would hope so. BC (Before Carol) the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t had a stand-alone female hero. Now they do, and her back story—a combination of elements from all of the Marvel comic renditions—isn’t as confusing or complicated as others have been. It’s just presented as flashback rather than in chronological time.

It begins with a Kree special operative named Vers (as in Dan-Vers) being trained by her commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) treading familiar waters. Like a Kree version of Yoda he tells her she needs to learn not to let anger get in the way of her powers. Then, before you can say “Use the Force,” Carol is captured by the shape-shifting Skrulls, who are at war with the Kree. Then, in the film’s lone annoying gimmick, she’s hung upside down while a Skrull interrogator tells the people operating an electric brain drain to “fast forward” or “back up” through her memories they’re “downloading” so they can find information to help them.

That leads all of them to Earth, where the film starts to get more fun and less informational. Earth provides the arena for the two warring alien sides, with a pre-eyepatch Fury trying to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad, and Vers piecing together her life as well.

The special effects are what you’d expect from a new MCU film, and the action wasn’t so nonstop that it felt like action for its own sake. There were also enough moments for characters (and the audience) to try to figure things out. While Captain Marvel is a solid-enough beginning, it will be fun to watch the relationship develop between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury in future films.

Language: Probably fewer than a dozen minor swearwords—the most sexual being a sexist line about why it’s called a “cockpit”

Sex: Nothing to speak of—unless you consider zooming in on a fully clothed butt sex

Violence: Here’s where the film earns its PG-13 rating, for repeated “sci-fi action and violence”—but nothing, really, compared to other Marvel movies; characters’ faces are bloodied, tentacles fly out of a character’s mouth, and there are the usual fights and explosions and battles

Adult situations: One flashback occurs in a bar, but there’s no real drinking or drunkenness shown; an alien autopsy is also graphically shown

Takeaway: Tame by Marvel standards, Captain Marvel is an entertaining film that falls in the B range—but there’s nothing to marvel at, to be honest, nothing that makes your jaw drop

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Review of ISN’T IT ROMANTIC (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-
Entire family: No
2019, 89 min., Color
Romantic Comedy-Fantasy
Rated PG-13 for Language, some sexual material, and a brief drug reference
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Trailer
Amazon link

Isn’t It Romantic?

Uh, not really, I’m sorry to say.

This 2019 film from Todd Strauss-Schulson (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas) seems to want to satirize romantic comedies while also following the formula and hoping audiences will walk away feeling warm and fuzzy about the possibility of romance for everyone—whether they’re “beautiful people” or not. As admirable as that message may be, it’s tough to have it both ways, and the film falls flat as satire and also disappoints as a romantic comedy.

“Flat” is really the operative word here. For most of the 89-minute runtime, Isn’t It Romantic has zero energy—flat as a half-bottle of beer that’s been left out overnight. Actors seem to be just going through the motions. One big problem is the script by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman. It’s just plain dull, and limp lines contribute to the overall flatness. Too often, gags go on unmercifully long. We don’t, for example, get a lot of laughs, insight or plot exposition as Natalie (Rebel Wilson) goes on and on about why she hates the rom-com formula in a montage that we’re guessing is supposed to be funny. As for the gimmick the writers employ to give Natalie a conk on the head and put her smack dab in the middle of a romantic comedy, the film is frankly more fun and interesting without it. And unfortunately, that gimmick occupies the bulk of the film.

With older movies like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), the conk on the head journey worked because of the deep contrast between worlds. It was fascinating to see Oz through Dorothy’s eyes or to experience medieval times through from the perspective of a horse-and-buggy-era blacksmith. Also missing in Isn’t It Romantic is the level of smart reporting and detail that makes newer stranger-in-a-strange-land films like Pleasantville (1998) so compelling, and when Natalie does begin to suspect that she’s in a romantic comedy it’s not nearly as satisfying as when Jim Carrey learns he’s in a reality TV show (The Truman Show, 1998).

Another problem is Wilson herself. She frankly doesn’t have the range to convey the emotional journey a main character needs to make for a film like this to be successful. She plays a milquetoast architect who lets others at the firm walk all over her—even those for whom she’s a superior. There’s an attentive co-worker (Adam Devine as Josh) who obviously has a crush on her, but Natalie is oblivious to his feelings. You KNOW they’re going to get together because that’s the rom-com formula, but we frankly don’t care because not enough time is spent on their relationship or situation, and because Wilson doesn’t sell it. Those who were wondering if she could make the leap from comic character actor to lead actress will probably walk away from this film speculating on the reasons why the funny actress wasn’t able to pull it off. A veteran lead actress might have been able to compensate more for all those flat lines and long periods between laughs. Even multiple allusions to Pretty Woman and 13 Going on 30 aren’t enough to help.

Liam Hemsworth, who plays the eye-candy man of every rom-com woman’s dreams, seems a little lost, and in a role that’s supposed to be comic relief Brandon Scott Jones isn’t nearly as funny as we needed the clichéd gay best friend of the rom-com heroine to be. One of the film’s more hilarious moments comes near the end, when Natalie comments on how she thought her neighbor was heterosexual because of all the women who went in and out of the apartment, and the character and his partner get indignant because, “What, we can be gay AND sell drugs?” There just aren’t nearly enough funny moments like that, and you realize, too, how flat the film is when the cast launches into a big song-and-dance number and you think, Finally, some energy! Wilson fans will of course enjoy seeing her in a different role, but others will watch that big number and wonder why there wasn’t more energy throughout the film.

Language: Lots of suggested f-bombs but only one use of the word, plus another couple dozen lesser swearwords and a “double bird” flip-off

Sex: No nudity or implied sex, but the size of a man’s organ is discussed at some length and Hemsworth is shown in just a towel in a Groundhog Day scene that keeps repeating

Violence: One of the film’s funnier scenes involves Natalie fighting with a would-be mugger in the NYC subway; later Natalie pulls an IV out of her arm and blood squirts everywhere, and there’s a sudden car crash

Adult situations: There’s some drinking in a karaoke bar and a character is seen smoking; there’s also a brief reference to selling “weed”

Takeaway: Wilson is the latest popular character actress to find out that it’s tougher than it looks to carry a film as the headliner

Review of ON THE BASIS OF SEX (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2018, 120 min., Color
Biography, Drama
Focus Features
Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Though it’s rated PG-13 mostly for strong language in a single scene, On the Basis of Sex might be a hard film for parents to talk everyone into watching. The title makes it sound racier than it really is (which might be off-putting for some, misleading for others), while telling children it’s based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems even less enticing.

To get our daughter to watch, we told her, “It’s basically Legally Blonde without the comedy.” And that’s not an unfair comparison. Both films are about a young woman who attends law school with her male love interest, both find sexism alive and well, both fight the system to prove themselves worthy, and both ultimately triumph . . . though Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) doesn’t wear pink or have a dog small enough to carry in her purse.

Directed by two-time Emmy winner Mimi Leder (ER), On the Basis of Sex is a feel-good David and Goliath story that for a time also turns on the relationship between Ruth and husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Martin is considered a legal golden boy who just happens to be married to this curiosity, this woman everyone seems to think of as a pretender or an intruder pounding on the door of the Good Ol’ Boys Club. But one of the film’s fascinations is the way in which each person navigates the reality of those waters while still being supportive of the other. Resentment doesn’t triumph—persistence does. She persisted. And that makes this film a must-see for all your daughters old enough to sit through a leisurely paced drama and understand the stakes.

Sam Waterston is spot-on as a Harvard professor intent on keeping the glass ceiling in place while pretending to be open to change, while Kathy Bates nails it as a savvy progressive crusader. An interesting difference between Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde and this Ginsburg biography is that Ginsburg is fighting to break through while she has a teenage daughter who is far more liberated than the previous generation, with much higher expectations for equal rights. Like Martin, Jane Ginsburg (Cailee Spaeny) becomes not only a sounding board but also a litmus test for Ruth.

Without giving too much of the dramatic plot away, let’s just say that the film mixes one part medical drama with one part workplace drama, two parts romance, and three parts investigative-courtroom drama. It tracks Ginsburg from her first year as a Harvard Law School student and her transfer to Columbia Law School because of family circumstances, to her inability to find a law firm who would hire a woman, her tenure as a Rutgers Law School Professor teaching “Sex Discrimination and the Law,” and the case that finally helps her prove her mettle and launch a legal arm of the women’s rights movement.

On the Basis of Sex is well acted, and the story itself is inspirational. Apart from a brainstorming session where an f-bomb and other language flies in one of Ginsburg’s Rutgers classes, there really isn’t much to earn that PG-13 rating. So when that scene comes on, just send that impressionable young girl of yours to the kitchen to fetch a snack for you if you’re disinclined to let her listen to the way people talked in the early ‘70s.

And yes, our daughter liked the movie, though she’s not usually a fan of dramas.

Language: Other than that f-bomb, there are lesser swearwords (“shit,” etc.) but most are concentrated in one scene

Sex: A married couple is suggested to have sex when the lights dim, but that’s it

Violence: None whatsoever

Adult Situations: There is period drinking and smoking, some drug references, but no intoxicated behavior

Takeaway: Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Supreme Court Justice is so iconic and recognizable that she even has her own action figure, but once you get that image of a short bespectacled old woman out of your mind, it’s easy to become transported into her fascinating past

Review of FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2018, 134 min., Color
Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+ (includes extended cut)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital (extended cut included)
Trailer
Amazon link

Our whole family loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But we were split on Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

My wife, who had read the screenplay and all the Harry Potter books and has a good memory, thought it was a really good movie, somewhere in the B+ range. The only thing she didn’t like was a plot point that’s already been so widely discussed on the Internet that it’s not much of a spoiler: Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, turns out to be an enchanted woman.

Meanwhile, my son, who didn’t read the screenplay but still has a good memory and grasp of characters in complicated plots, thought it was a B- at best. And my daughter and I, who found ourselves confused throughout much of the movie, gave it a B-/C+. In other words, I agreed with critics who slammed J.K. Rowling for creating an unnecessarily complicated but relatively low-stakes plot.

Naturally, I assumed that the more you know going into the film, the more you’ll like it—until I read how überfans criticized Rowling for confusing even herself by violating her own timeline. I didn’t notice. I was too confused.

For me, it was like watching an action movie with terrific special effects in a foreign language with no subtitles. It was like listening to an opera sung in German where you kind of know what’s going on, but not really. More

Review of Creed II (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 130 min., Color
Drama
MGM/Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

If there were an Energizer Bunny Award for movie franchises, I’d nominate the Rocky series. How many times can you go with a familiar formula and still crank out some pretty effective films? Well, Elvis Presley films not withstanding. As the aggregate fan/critic site IMDb.com attests, there’s really only one stinker in the original bunch:

Rocky (1976)—8.1 out of 10

Rocky II (1979)—7.2 out of 10

Rocky III (1982)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky IV (1985)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky V (1990)—5.2 out of 10

After that last disappointment, sixteen years later the franchise picked itself up off the mat and scored another TKO, though it would seem the producers weren’t comfortable counting higher than five in Roman numerals. Rocky Balboa also marked a change in direction for the franchise and star Sylvester Stallone, who was coaxed out of retirement for one last fight before turning to managing fighters—specifically, the son of his old friend and foe, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers)—in the two films to follow:

Rocky Balboa (2006)—7.2 out of 10

Creed (2015)—7.6 out of 10

Creed II (2018)—7.4 out of 5

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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

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

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