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Review of THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE (2-Movie Collection Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Comedy
Rated PG-13

The Brady Bunch was one of the very last squeaky-clean family sitcoms in the old ’50s mold, airing as an anachronism of sorts during the Vietnam War years amid the chaos of Civil Rights, women’s rights, and anti-war protests. But in the Brady household, father Mike, a working architect, was still king of the castle with a den all his own, while his wife, Carol, was a stay-at-home mom who had the luxury of a servant. The children got into all sorts of minor conflicts and mischief, but none of the storylines tackled serious parental concerns of the day. Everything was sibling rivalry and innocent mix-ups. Drugs? Not here. Peer pressure to smoke? Only briefly. Teen pregnancy? Oh behave! And while other teens from the time were raiding their parents’ liquor cabinets, this group was content to raid the cookie jar. No one got into really serious trouble, and there was usually a lesson to be learned . . . from dad. When he wasn’t around, there was always mom or Alice, to help them find their way. The theme song explained the premise:

“Here’s the story . . . of a lovely lady
Who was bringing up three very lovely girls.
All of them had hair of gold, like their mother,
The youngest one in curls.

Here’s the story . . . of a many named Brady,
Who was busy . . . with three boys of his own.
They were four men, living all together,
Yet they were all alone.

Till the one day when the lady met this fellow,
And they knew that it was much more than a hunch
That this group would somehow form a family,
That’s the way we all became the Brady Bunch.”

First telecast on Sept 26, 1969, the show was a surprise hit, no doubt because it felt like comfort food to Americans who snuggled together during a turbulent era to watch and relive happier, more uncomplicated times. Divorce was becoming a widespread phenomenon for the first time, and the show about second-chance family life probably struck a chord with broken families. Plus, the range of the Brady children’s ages (7 through 14, when the show began) was broad enough for a wide range of youngsters to identify with. Airing on Friday nights, the show connected especially with children too young to have a social life, or, like the Bradys, too awkward and introverted.

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Review of MINARI (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Drama
Rated PG-13

Minari, a film in Korean and English, earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Youn Yuh-Jung and nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Score. Youn, a legendary actress in the Korean film industry, plays a grandma who travels from Korea to Arkansas at the request of her daughter, who is having a hard time adjusting to her family’s move from California.

In California, Monica (Han Ye-ri) and husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) were on track to pay off debt by “sexing chicks” and separating males from females. But Jacob wanted more for her and their children Anne (Noel Cho) and fragile young David (Alan S. Kim), so he moved the family to Arkansas to sex chicks for an outfit that also gave Jacob an opportunity to start his own farm specializing in Korean vegetables. 

Leisurely paced, lyrical, and stylistic kin to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, this film hit close to home for the director. Lee Isaac Chung grew up as the young son of Korean immigrants who settled on a small farm in rural Arkansas, and there’s a truthfulness that quietly percolates beneath the surface of Minari—the name of a plant also known as Korean watercress or parsley that the grandma decides to plant on the banks of a nearby creek.

“Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds, so anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful, wonderful!” the grandma Soonja tells David.

Director Chung had said he initially wanted to make a film adaptation of My Antonia but found that avenue closed. He then decided to make a film about his own upbringing in rural Arkansas.

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Review of FINDING FORRESTER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Drama/Comedy
Rated PG-13

J.D. Salinger wrote three books, then disappeared into Howard Hughes-style oblivion and inspired at least two films.

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character shakes a Salinger type (James Earl Jones) recluse out of his inertia, paranoia, and humanity-avoidance in order to satisfy the voices in his head that also told him to build a baseball field.

In Finding Forrester, aspiring 16-year-old writer Jamal Wallace ends up finding the all-time greatest mentor when on a dare he climbs through the window of a “ghost” who had been watching him and his friends play basketball and, scared off, leaves behind a backpack containing his writer’s notebook.

In a case of life imitating art, Rob Brown showed up for tryouts as an extra on this picture by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) hoping to earn enough money to pay his cell phone bill. But Van Sant liked what he saw and cast him as Jamal, who soon after that break-in finds his backpack tossed out on the street and his writer’s notebook marked up and critiqued by the older writer. On one page he sees a handwritten scrawl, “I want to support this writer.” And so begins a mentorship between Jamal and famed writer William Forrester that will benefit both parties.

It’s kind of refreshing to see African American youths in their lower-income neighborhoods playing basketball and going to school and hanging out without there being any hint of violence or gang activities—the kind of cinematic clichés that have befallen films having to do with residents of “the hood.” The only f-bomb in this PG-13 film comes from an old white man (Sean Connery as Forrester), and the worst behavior comes from uppity adults associated with the private school that recruits Jamal after his test scores expose him as a bit of a genius. It’s refreshing, too, that none of Jamal’s neighborhood friends resent him for transferring to a private school and, ultimately, playing for a championship that’s televised.

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Review of THE MARKSMAN (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Action thriller
Rated PG-13

From the first scene where an aging Arizona rancher (Liam Neeson) stumbles onto a cartel “situation” and ends up with a bag full of money, to a scene that’s the equivalent of the Coen Brothers’ “coin toss scene,” The Marksman feels like a cheap knockoff of No Country for Old Men.  And with a little Hunt for the Wilderpeople added for good measure.

What cheapens it isn’t Neeson’s performance, but rather a formulaic approach to ticking off the boxes rather than concentrating on creating characters and relationships with any individuality or depth.

For one thing, first-time director Robert Lorenz spends too much time in the early going just establishing a few facts that could have been hinted at more subtly: 

—Jim Hanson was a Vietnam War veteran who earned a medal for marksmanship

—Jim Hanson is lost and lonely because his wife died of cancer

—Jim Hanson is going to lose his ranch unless he can come up with a lot of money to pay for back mortgage payments

The film is also marred by characters that push past stereotypes into caricature country.

Javier Bardem has nothing to fear from the cartel bad ass that Lorenz gives us here. Mauricio—called “Heffe” and played by Juan Pablo Raba—is too cartoonish to be chilling. He’s just a bad guy who sneers a lot and stares a lot in lingering close-ups. Oh we believe him when he says he’s going to kill the old rancher who drove away with the son of a Mexican woman he already killed at the border. And we believe he’s determined to recover the drug money that the boy’s (now deceased) uncle had taken from him and given to his (now deceased) mother. But Bardem as Anton Chigurh was a one-and-done, just as Heath Ledger’s lizard-tongued Joker was a one-time affair. Try to duplicate it and you’re doomed to fall short.  

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Review of ONCE UPON A RIVER (DVD)

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Grade: B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief nudity and adult elements)

Thus far in her career, Chicago-born musician-actress-filmmaker Haroula Rose is probably best known for her soundtrack contribution to American Horror Story and her involvement as an associate producer for Fruitvale Station. Like the latter, her first directorial feature, Once Upon a River, also tackles a serious subject and endemic problem.

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, with one out of six women the victim of an attempted or successful rape. Youths between the ages of 12 and17 are the most vulnerable. Fifty-five percent of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s home, and it isn’t usually “stranger danger”. More often it’s a friend of the family, a neighbor, or even a family member. And in an average year, it’s estimated that there are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 million runaway and homeless youths in the U.S.

So yeah, this film deals with serious subjects that can be especially relevant for American teens and their parents. While it treats the material in a frank way, there’s nothing gratuitous or sensationalized. Maybe that’s because Once Upon a River has a strong female presence, both behind the camera and onscreen. In addition to directing, Rose wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell and also shared a producing credit. The film was shot by cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby (Hair Wolf), the production design, set decoration, costume design, and makeup were all done by women, and the casting director was also a woman. Onscreen, New York-trained actress Kenadi DelaCerna carries the film with her strong presence as a biracial 15 year old—younger than her usual range.

NPR called the novel’s main character, Margo Crane, “the most realistic underage runaway in modern fiction,” and that’s true for this 2019 film adaptation as well. Margo has been raised by her Native American father (Tatanka Means), who gave up drinking the day the girl’s mother left them to “find” herself (which people were doing in the sixties). The film is set in 1977 in the small fictional town of Murrayville in rural Michigan, where prejudice against Native Americans and the class inequity are apparent. Margo appreciates her father and the skills he taught her—she carries around a book about Annie Oakley and has become a crack shot herself—but she clearly misses having a mother in the house and like any teen wants more than life is currently giving her. More

Review of THE OPENING ACT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG-13)

As a college English professor I’ve run across a surprising number of students who want to be stand-up comics. Some of them started a comedy club on campus, some did open mics in local comedy clubs, and one even asked for my opinion on a stand-up routine he was filming to send to an Ivy League school for his grad school admissions essay. Even if they’re not aspiring to grab the microphone themselves, college students love stand-up—which is why so many comics do the college circuit. So a passionate movie about stand-up comedy ought to be a hit with college and high school students who have secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions of being a stand-up comic.

The Opening Act is also plenty fun for the rest of us who have no plans to quit our respectable jobs, as Ken Jeong did (he was a doctor), to become stand-up comics. But as you watch how passionate everyone is about stand-up you begin think, on some level, maybe I could do this too—and that’s because this 2020 film feels like a love letter to stand-up comedy. It’s written and directed by stand-up comic Steve Byrne, it stars stand-up comic Jimmy O. Yang, and all but four of the remaining cast members are stand-up comics. Even guys playing a heckler (Butch Bradley), a cop (Tom Segura), and a taxi driver (Felipe Esparza) are stand-up comics. The only pure actors among the rest of the cast are Debby Ryan (The Suite Life on Deck), Jackie Tohn (GLOW) and two minor roles. Surrounded by so much comedic talent, I can picture them trying to pick up pointers, as The Opening Act‘s main character does throughout the film. More

Review of MULAN (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Action-Fantasy
Rated PG-13

When it comes to live-action remakes of Disney animated films, there are two types of people: those who want a near-exact copy of the original, and those willing to accept the live-action version as a completely new work of art and entertainment. And people who expect Disney to remain faithful to the 1998 original aren’t loving this 2020 remake of Mulan: Where are the songs? Where’s Mushu? Where’s the cricket? Where’s Shang? And what the heck is a witch doing in this story?

Yeah, about that: Disney opted to go the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon route, with an emphasis on mysticism and the fantastic in a film that showcases martial arts action sequences, along with a heaping portion of qi. It’s not exactly new territory for them. Disney-owned Miramax rolled out Hero in 2002 just two years after Crouching Tiger changed the landscape for martial arts movies. As in Hero, the fight sequences in Mulan 2020 are gravity-defying and poetic in their movement and choreography, even if the fights themselves aren’t quite as spectacular as those you encounter in some of the best martial arts films. Which is to say, überfans of martial arts flicks aren’t loving this film so much either, because Disney likes to steer the ship right down the middle, aiming always for a general audience. The sequences are less violent and bloody so the film could earn a PG-13 rating.

The live-action villain, Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) may not be as deliciously villainous as Shan Yu from the animated version, but his witch cohort, Xianniang (Gong Li), is menacing enough for both of them. She’s also a shape shifter who can break apart and reassemble into hundreds of bat-like flying creatures. The live-action Mulan (Yifei Liu) doesn’t have any cutesy animal companions, and there’s less suggestion of attraction between her and the Commander (Donnie Yen) than there was in the animated version. Otherwise, the plot remains essentially the same. When invaders threaten China, the Emperor decrees that every family should send one man to fight to save the empire. Poor old Hua Zhou, a military hero in previous wars, can’t even accept his orders without falling. So naturally his feisty daughter Mulan decides to take his place and leaves in the dead of night with his armor, his sword, and his mount. If she’s discovered, she’ll be put to death for not recognizing her place as a woman.

Mulan 2020 is directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), and the film’s feminist themes come across even more forcefully than they did in the animated version. Young Mulan is already a warrior-woman in the making when we first see her as a child fearlessly chasing a chicken across rooftops (chickens on the roof?) and using a staff with the prowess of former martial arts star Jet Li, who plays the Emperor of China in this version. Though the live-action Mulan has to endure the same embarrassing encounters with a matchmaker, at least her father acknowledges the warrior and qi (life force) within her. So off she goes—without his knowledge or blessing and without the comedic talking dragon and cricket—to train with other draftees and eventually fight the invaders. More

Review of CRESCENDO (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

When this 2019 German film debuted at the Munich International Film Festival, the audience gave it a standing ovation. I’m not surprised. The film tells the story of a world-renowned German conductor who travels to Tel Aviv to assemble a youth orchestra composed of both Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a gestural stunt sponsored by a group whose next project involves a cause in Africa. But while the main message of Crescendo involves Israeli-Palestinian accord, a subtext is that all people ought to get along—including Jews and Germans, the latter whom, conductor Eduard Sporck suggests, should be forgiven for the sins of their Nazi parents and grandparents.

Peter Simonischek (Toni Erdmann) is warm and engaging as the fictional maestro who must work not only with the typical egos and attitudes of the artistically gifted, but also with two groups that hate each other and have stories in their families that reinforce and justify that cultural hatred. So while we see Sporck audition and rehearse his young musicians, a large portion of film time is devoted to his finding ways to broker peace, to break through the barriers with musicians at a retreat in Italy, neutral ground, rather than Tel Aviv, as originally planned.

Crescendo is multi-language, with spoken English and German and English subtitles. By American standards, it would be slapped with an R rating because an f-bomb is tossed near the beginning and again at the end. Only one is usually permitted for a film to slip into a PG-13 rating. But those two words, which come at emotional high points and are used for emphasis, are joined by only one other noticeable swearword in a film that’s otherwise PG.

If there are teens in your family who got hooked on the Australian TV-series Dance Academy, the few personal dramas that we get in Crescendo will seem familiar. There’s a romantic side plot featuring a Israeli French horn player named Shira (Eyan Pinkovitch) who quickly falls for a quiet and sensitive West Bank clarinetist named Omar (Mehdi Meskar), and there’s a competition side plot between the best Israeli violinist (Daniel Donskoy as Ron) and the best violinist from across the border (Sabrina Amali as Layla). The Palestinians’ families also appear, but for the most part Crescendo builds to its musical and thematic climaxes through Sporck’s efforts to bring them all together to work in both musical and metaphorical harmony. More

Review of THE LADY EVE (Criterion) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Romantic Comedy
Not rated (would be PG-13)

When BBC Culture unveiled their list of 100 greatest comedies of all time, screwball comedies fared pretty well. Topping the list was Some Like It Hot, the Billy wilder comedy produced more than a decade after the subgenre’s hey-day. But Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby turned up at #14 and #17, and closely behind them at #19 was Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve—a 1941 screwball comedy just released on Blu-ray by Criterion.

It’s an enjoyable film, but not one that I would rate so far ahead of It Happened One Night (#28 on the BBC-Culture list) or even The Philadelphia Story (#38). The film rolls along at a brisk pace for the first two-thirds. Lady Eve is the serpent in this farce about a card sharp (Barbara Stanwyck) aboard a cruise ship who sets her sights on a well-known ale heir (Henry Fonda) who just happens to be a snake researcher. But then a third-act dinner party scene goes on too long, a lost snake is all but forgotten, and Lady Eve bounces back and forth between love and revenge so abruptly you’d swear she was under a spell. Then, just as abruptly, the film rushes to an ending with a last line clever enough to rival the most famous last line in cinema (“Nobody’s perfect,” from #1 comedy Some Like It Hot).

Screwball comedies are typically farces revolving around a courtship, pursuit by a member of the opposite sex, or divorced couples still playing games with each other. Film noir has its femme fatale, but the screwball comedy version is more benign, causing the male levels of distress but nothing that can’t be overcome by the end of the film. Screwball comedies are also characterized by clever, fast-paced and often overlapping dialogue, and more often than not they include implied social commentary involving the classes (rich vs. middle class). Some films, like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, are fast-paced enough and with a plot gimmick (escaped convict, escaped leopard) that make them best suited for family viewing. Others, like The Lady Eve, are driven by a spider/fly plot and a screwball femme fatale that make it still fun but a little more sophisticated. More

Review of GUNDALA (2019) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Action
Not Rated (would be PG-13)

With the U.S. being the center of the Marvel and D.C. universes, it’s easy to think of superheroes as being an American thing. But Superman, “born” in 1938, debuted seven years after Japan’s Ogon Bat (“Golden Bat”), which is generally acknowledged to be the world’s first comic book superhero—that is, a hero with at least one super power.

Marvel and D.C. films are recognizably formulaic, so it’s fascinating to see how other countries “do” superhero films. Gundala is a 2019 cinematic origin story of the most popular superhero comic in Indonesia, a character created by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata in 1969. And there are some striking differences.

For one thing, American superheroes, even before they fully develop their powers, appear in almost every scene. That’s not the case with Gundala, which offers a complex web of characters that get plenty of screen time without the hero present. That’s one big difference. Another is that Gundala has terrific fight sequences and plays more like a martial arts film with all characters on equal footing than it does a superhero flick—at least for four fifths of the film. Yet another difference is that the actual superpower and how it works is murkier than an American superhero film. And the filmmakers aren’t interested in traveling the shortest distance between two points to explain it. They get there eventually, but they’re in no hurry. You can pinpoint at least three moments in the film when an American superhero would have pivoted and hit that moment of discovery or resolve earlier than our Indonesian hero, because Hollywood likes to keep it simple.

What’s immediately striking is that Gundala has strong production values and seems to have been made with subtitles in mind. Though the film is fast-paced, subtitle texts don’t speed by and the dialogue is short enough to enable non-Indonesian viewers to read them comfortably. More than any non-English film I’ve watched over the past several years, this one required no conscious effort to juggle the “reading” of images and reading of text. More

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