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Review of THE FENCER (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (subtitles to read)
2015, 99 min., Color
Drama
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be PG for adult themes)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Estonian 5.1 Dolby Digital w/English subtitles
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

If the children in the household are 10 and older (or good readers), The Fencer is a really nice change-of-pace film for family movie night. This Finnish-Estonian film with subtitles is a high-stakes Hoosiers with foils instead of basketballs, set in Soviet-occupied Estonia in the early 1950s.

Like Hoosiers, it’s the story of a coach with a secret who comes to a small school in a small town and tries to make a difference. With the coach in that Indiana roundball saga, audiences gradually learn about his past; in this film, subtitles in the first sequence explain the man’s dilemma: Estonia was first occupied by the Nazis and all the young Estonian men were drafted into the German army; then the Soviets occupied Estonia and the Russian Secret Police hunted down all of those young “traitors” who had served in the German army, executing them or sending them to work camps in Siberia.

So it’s not just a haunted past that follows fencing champion Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), who, after the Secret Police become alerted to his identity, is advised by his coach to leave Leningrad and go far far away. Despite the threat of death or banishment, he seeks a normal life in the small Estonian town of Haapsalu, where most of the children are fatherless because of the war and feeling that no one cares about them or their town.

Enter Nelis, who begins teaching at the school and tries to start a ski club. But all the skis that he painstakingly repairs and waxes are “shared” with the nearby Soviet military base. How can I start a ski club on Saturdays if we have no equipment, he asks, and when the school’s “Comrade Principal” shrugs, circumstances lead him back to what he knows best: fencing, which the principal (in his Soviet survivalist mode) has deemed a sport not suitable for “the proletariat.” More

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Review of PADDINGTON 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
2017, 103 min., Color
Animation-Live Action Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

I did not see Paddington when it was released in 2014. I simply couldn’t bear it, since the track record for films featuring CGI animals in a world of accepting humans hasn’t exactly been the stuff of NASCAR.

Movies like these are always aimed at children rather than whole families, and even the ones that stretch their audiences—films like The Muppets 2011 reboot featuring Amy Adams and Jason Segel—still seem to suffer from an acute case of the cutsies. But the trailer for Paddington 2 intrigued me. Innocent little Peruvian bear Paddington, who lives in London with a human family, somehow runs afoul of the law and ends up wearing prison pinstripes and escaping with other cons? What’s cute about that?

Nothing, and that’s what interested me. I wondered, could this finally be the furry fish-out-of-water story that parents could also enjoy with their small children? Happily, the answer is an emphatic yes—which is no doubt why Paddington received a passing grade of 7.1 out of 10, while this clever, tongue-in-cheek sequel elicited an 8/10 at the Internet Movie Database with close to 25,000 moviegoers voting. It’s better than any of the Alvin and the Chipmunks, Stuart Little, or newer Muppet movies.

What makes it work is that writer-director Paul King and his co-writers plant their tongues in cheek and include lines and details that will make anyone over three feet tall smile—even laugh out loud in spots. The filmmakers tap into the long tradition of the Hollywood naïves thrust into situations that are emphatically beyond their understanding or capabilities, whether we’re talking about Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, Ma and Pa Kettle, or such later unlikely explorers in strange lands as Forrest Gump and the perpetually clueless Jack Sparrow. Paddington isn’t cute. He’s Austin Powers without the randiness, the straight man in a comic duo, but a ball of fur so innocent that children will still see him as adorable.

In this film at least, Paddington comes to us the latest in a long tradition of benevolent helpers whose very presence changes the lives of those around them in very positive ways. Like Mary Poppins or Pollyanna, his cheerful can-do optimism lifts people up and yields only momentarily enough to Eeyore-like depression for the plot to take a second-act nosedive before flying high again in the third act—quite literally, actually. More

Review of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 105 min., Color
Musical drama
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Like Moulin Rouge! (2001) and La La Land (2016), The Greatest Showman is a musical that was written and produced especially for the big screen. It wasn’t adapted from a Broadway show nor based on a book. The lone inspiration was the curious life of P.T. Barnum, who is most famous for having founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1871 and, through deft promotion, raising the status and popularity of the circus in America.

Barnum is erroneously credited with saying “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but a line that he was confirmed to have said as a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives in later life is more reflective of the positive direction that writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon took for this film: “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab, or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”

Anyone who watched this year’s Oscar’s knows from watching the performance of Best Song nominee “This Is Me” (which earlier won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song) that one central message of The Greatest Showman is the unfair treatment of “freaks” and marginalized members of society.

As regular readers of Family Home Theater know, I am a Tomatometer Critic at RottenTomatoes.com, but I frankly don’t know what my fellow critics’ problems are with this rousing 2017 film. Only 113 out of 205 critics thought The Greatest Showman “fresh,” with the average rating just 6/10—a C+ or B- at best. Meanwhile, 88 percent of the 21,657 RottenTomatoes audience members who responded gave it an average score 4.4 out of 5—in the B+/A- range.

What more could these people want out of a musical?

No film is perfect, but The Greatest Showman grabs you from the beginning and holds you with high-energy choreography and singing, great cast performances, and a tent full of positive messages that stand in sharp contrast to what today’s children are reading in the newspapers. Our family loved it. More

Review of COCO (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family:  Yes
2017, 105 min., Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s almost as if the Pixar gang took inspiration out of failure and gave themselves a challenge: to make a successful animated feature about the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, even though Fox tried in 2014 with The Book of Life and failed to connect with audiences or earn an Oscar nomination. But Pixar pulled it off, doing what Disney-Pixar does best: infusing the film with a strong story and characters, catchy music, comic relief, and most importantly, emotion.

You also get the feeling that Coco was a bounceback film for Pixar, if there is such a thing. Although Pixar’s last three features were ignored by the Oscar nominating committee, Coco not only got the nod, but after winning the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature it’s also favored to win that category at the Oscars tomorrow night.

Coco is a bit of a trailblazer, too, as it’s the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latin cast—if you don’t count Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger, who also makes an appearance. Well received south of the border, it’s become the all-time highest grossing film in Mexico and has earned a worldwide box office approximately three times its budget. Critics have hailed its animation, its original music, and its emotional storyline about the importance of family and never forgetting deceased relatives.

If your little ones are creeped out by skeletons, you should know that most of the film’s 105-minute runtime is spent in the Land of the Dead, where everyone but one little boy and his dog is a walking, talking bundle of bones. But Pixar does a nice job of giving those skeletons personality and making them non-menacing and not all that creepy. They’re also humanized because the land of the dead is portrayed as a futuristic city, only one coincidentally inhabited by skeletons. More

Review of THE STAR (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
2017, 86 min., Color
Animation
Columbia/Sony
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Though there have been exceptions, big studios have mainly steered clear of Bible stories in recent years, leaving it to the low-budget indie filmmakers to tackle projects that were consistent with their beliefs. In their hands, however, the films were too often overly preachy or poorly written and acted.

So imagine my delight when our family watched this Dove-approved PG-rated animated film and actually saw wonderfully colorful and accomplished animation and backgrounds, as well as an all-star cast of voice talents having fun with their roles in  a biblical tale that was fully reimagined to fit today’s modes of creative storytelling. The Star wasn’t preachy, it wasn’t austere, it wasn’t boring, and it didn’t feel like a sit-still-and-listen Bible lesson. But it also wasn’t your typical Bible story. It’s structured more like any number of popular animated features, with an entertaining blend of music, comedy, talking animals, action (yes, action) and inspirational drama.

Mary looked and acted a bit like the younger sister from Frozen, while Joseph had his own “Wait, what?” moments facing off against a donkey that Mary decided to adopt and name Boaz—Bo, for short.

As we read in the end credits that probably should have been inserted as a pre-title sequence head’s up, “While having fun and taking some adventurous artistic license to tell this story, the filmmakers strived to remain true to the values and essence of the greatest story ever told.”

That’s a good way to describe this film, which is not nearly close enough to The Bible to be considered an adaptation, or even earn a “based on” label. The Star is so “adventurous” in its liberties that it can only be said to have been “loosely inspired by” the nativity story. More

Review of BAD LUCKY GOAT (DVD)

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Grade: B+
2017, 76 min., Color
Comedy-Drama
Film Movement
Not Rated (would be PG for the use of a goat head, some dirty dancing)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: B+ (“Miss World” 20-min. short film)
Trailer
Amazon link

Bad Lucky Goat is a film in English . . . with English subtitles, because the Caribbean accents are so thick that it’s easy to miss some of the dialogue if you’re not from the area. It’s also that rare foreign film that feels suitable for families with children, since it’s about two teens and there’s no sex, not much profanity, and none of the graphic violence that American audiences are accustomed to seeing.

Plot-wise, it’s a bit like the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. That is, a single incident sets an entire plot chain in motion: If you accidentally hit a goat while driving to pick up benches for your family’s small tourist hotel . . . you have to get rid of the body and somehow fix the damage to the family truck, or face the consequences. And if you have to get the truck fixed, you have to find the money to pay for it. That’s the simple premise behind this island tale about two siblings who are brought closer together because of their shared one-day adventure.

I said that Bad Lucky Goat was family-friendly, and it is. But you should know that these kids, while basically good, are no angels. They’re scam artists of the highest order—though you get the feeling that in Port Paradise scamming might be a way of life. After all, the first glimpse we get of life in this unspecified country (though it feels like Jamaica, Bad Lucky Goat was filmed in Columbia) is of a hapless police officer sitting on a curve with a radar gun, trying to catch a speeder. But we see that Cornelius (“Corn” for short) and his friend are using the situation as a money-maker to help them record a demo that might get them a tourist gig as musicians. One of the boys comes out of the bushes in a stretch of road just ahead of the cop to warn drivers with a sign; the other is positioned after the cop with a bucket to collect “tips.” Clever? You bet. Almost as clever as a scam one of the boys works later to fleece money from a congregational flock.

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Review of TIME TO DIE (1965) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
1965, 89 min., Black and White
Western
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Spanish LPCM 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Trailer (in Spanish)
Amazon link

The cover of Time to Die (Tiempo de morir) makes it look like a telenovela—the kind satirized in the popular TV series Jane the Virgin. But this film by legendary Mexican director Arturo Ripstein has more in common with classic, tense psychological Westerns like High Noon and the original 3:10 to Yuma. It’s an intelligently written drama that holds your attention from start to finish—no surprise, really, if you consider that the screenplay is by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with additional dialogue courtesy of another Nobel laureate, Carlos Fuentes.

If Time to Die wasn’t a Spanish language film with English subtitles, it would probably appear on lists of Best Westerns (top movies, that is—not the hotel chain).

Like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, this Western moves at a slower pace than is typical of the genre, with tension, not nonstop shoot-‘em-up action, the single most reason for the film’s success. That pacing also makes it an ideal film for families with junior high or high school age children who are studying Spanish in school.

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