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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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Review of THE GLASS CASTLE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
2017, 127 min., Color
Drama
Lionsgate
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, language, and smoking
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD 7.1
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once remarked, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” That’s certainly true of journalist Jeannette Walls, whose memoir, The Glass Castle, describes the nomadic, hardscrabble existence she and her siblings lived as they were raised by free-spirited parents without a steady source of income.

The book and this 2017 film revolve around her eccentric father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), a smart, off-the-grid kind of guy who’s described in the book as someone who, in all likelihood, was suffering from bipolar disorder. He’s an alcoholic, but not the textbook mean drunk who routinely abuses his family. He’s a loving father who can enthrall his children and uplift them, but who can also be cruel in his parenting and thoughtless about the way his actions impact those closest to him. In other words, he’s complicated. So is his wife (Naomi Watts), an artist who can’t be bothered to cook dinner for her children and tells Jeannette to do it—only to have her dress catch fire, scarring her for life.

In one of the best making-of features I’ve seen in recent years, the real Walls family appears with cast and crew, and it’s remarkable how happy they all are and how fondly they remember their spontaneous but spontaneously combustible childhood.

“I completely believe that even the worst experience has a valuable gift wrapped inside if you’re willing to receive that gift, Walls says. “But if you’re running from your past, then you’re going to lose the blessings that come with those hardships.” That statement alone lets you know that there is a richness of experience to be found here, and lessons to be learned.

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Review of WARRIOR (4K UltraHD combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2011, 140 min., Color
Sports drama
Lionsgate
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: 4K UltraHD, Blu-ray, DigitalHD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I would have bet against Warrior, a 2011 sports drama from writer-director Gavin O’Connor.

I would not have believed that an old-style boxing (mixed martial arts, actually) film could successfully appropriate the Rocky Philadelphia setting, the Rocky notion of an underdog who’s out of his league, the Rocky subplot of a woman in the boxer’s life not wanting him to fight, and a Russian champion who comes to the U.S. for “the big fight” . . . and put it all together in a package that’s just as engrossing and exciting as that 1976 benchmark boxing film.

It helps that the plot turns on a former alcoholic boxer and boxing trainer who is estranged from his two adult sons, and that Nick Nolte plays the father, Paddy Conlon. It helps too that Tom Hardy plays the younger brother, an intense young man who holds a grudge against his older high-school-teacher brother, Brendon (Joel Edgerton). The performances of the three male leads are searing and help to elevate a film that throws every boxing cliché into the ring. Yes, we’ve seen it all before, but not like this. The characters may be familiar types, but each actor brings something new to the formula. Warrior runs a hefty 140 minutes, but it never drags.

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Review of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2017, 129 min., Color
Action-Adventure Fantasy
Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence and some suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMI 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Our family loved Pirates of the Caribbean when it was only a theme park ride. So when Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl appeared in 2003, we happily climbed aboard. It turned out to be a fantastically original and fun film that felt like a ride, with Johnny Depp creating a pirate captain like we’ve never seen before: a rum-loving, slightly swishy ne’er-do-well who is simultaneously the worst and best pirate anyone has ever seen. Captain Jack Sparrow.

But success in Hollywood is a curse in itself, dooming actors in highly successful blockbusters to repeat their roles over and over. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is the fifth in the franchise, and I will say this: our family liked it better than the fourth (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011). Though some of the fantasy elements are still as confusing as they’ve been in other sequels, Dead Men Tell No Tales at least has some fun action scenes, some great special effects (like undead sharks attacking) and two very likable young leads that inject new blood into the franchise.

That’s a double-edged cutlass, though, because as filmgoers your gut tells you that this series ought to have stopped after the first trilogy. Now, with two new characters to drive the action, the series probably won’t end with #5—though it will never catch the all-time sequels leader, Godzilla, which has spawned 29 movie offspring.

But back to what makes the film work. Newcomers Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario are as refreshing as Felicity Jones and Diego Luna were in Rogue One—just the kind of jolt that a storied franchise needs. As an astrologer accused of witchcraft and the son of pirate Will Turner, both of them looking for fathers, they have good chemistry together and capture the light tone of the first film.

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Review of WONDER WOMAN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2017, 141 min., Color
Action-Adventure Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action and some suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

In a way, Wonder Woman is DC’s version of Marvel’s Thor. Both are ancient gods with one foot in the mythological sphere and one foot in the saving-the-planet contemporary world. Thor has his hammer, but Wonder Woman tops that with her indestructible bracelets and Lasso of Hestia (and Truth, and Butt-Kicking). Like Captain America, this Amazonian goddess has to train to learn how to fight, and one super-accessory that she shares in common with Steve Rogers is a powerful shield. She also carries a special sword, making her one formidable superhero.

The brainchild of psychologist-writer William Mouton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter, Princess Diana of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta made her appearance in DC’s All Star Comics #8 (October 1941) and was enough of a feminist icon that she made the cover of Ms. magazine 30 years later and in 2016 was named “U.N. Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls” by the United Nations. Marston explained that he wanted “to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman,” and that character has resonated with people. In this 2017 film, she can leap high as tall buildings, she can deflect speeding bullets, and she can cause a devastating shock wave both on-screen and off. Wonder Woman earned more than $819 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing film directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, Monster).

The biggest change the film makes from the comics and 1970s TV series starring Lynda Carter is that Wonder Woman enters the world of humans during WWI rather than WWII. It’s the Kaiser, not Hitler, that leads the enemy, and the plot revolves around mustard gas, trench warfare, and biplanes. There’s no shortage of villains, but the standouts are David Thewlis as Ares, Diana’s distant half-brother and son of Zeus, and Elena Anaya as the demented Dr. Maru, a.k.a. “Dr. Poison.”

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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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