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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

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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

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

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