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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

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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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Review of THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
2017, 101 min., Color
Animation
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.4:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Lego my Ninjago?

Maybe it’s the law of diminishing returns, or maybe the charm of seeing the Lego world come to life is starting to wear off. Whatever the case, though The Lego Ninjago Movie is entertaining enough, it really didn’t delight my son or me as much as The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017). It wasn’t as original, as sharp, or as sophisticated.

Maybe it’s because a large number of gags and verbal jokes seemed to be aimed at a high-school age audience—viewers who have outgrown Legos but whose fond memories of playing with them are still vivid and fresh—as well as those who still put Legos on their Christmas lists.

The Lego Batman Movie was far more successfully satirical in its takeoff on the Batman saga and movies, with a heck of a lot more sophisticated wink-wink jokes and more sight gags going on in the background—all of which added to its broader appeal.

Maybe The Lego Ninjago Movie ended up being something that mostly children and younger teens will appreciate because if riffs not on adult live-action films but on the Danish TV series Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu and related Lego toys. Or maybe it’s because three talents (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan) new to directing animated features teamed up on this one, or that the story and screenplay were the result of a fairly large committee of 13 writers—often a red flag.

Even headliner Jackie Chan, who gives voice to Master Wu/Mr. Liu, doesn’t have the same crackling energy as he has had in previous films. But mostly I suspect the film isn’t as crisp and fresh as the first two because we’ve seen too many aspects of this plot before: the young teen (Dave Franco as Lloyd Garmadon) who is a social pariah because he’s the son of a villain—in this case, Lord Garmadon, who looks a bit like Zurg and regularly attacks the Lego city of Ninjago. At some point Garmadon starts to feel like Gargamel—just another cartoon nemesis for another group of cartoon people.

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Review of DESPICABLE ME 3 (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
2017, 90 min., Color
Animation
Universal
Rated PG for action and rude humor
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Although Readers at IMDB.com and the critics at Rotten Tomatoes thought otherwise, Despicable Me 3 is just as entertaining as the first sequel to Despicable Me (2010)—the animated feature from Universal that introduced us to the carrot-nosed Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a villain who was softened up by three orphaned girls.

By the third installment, Gru has gone straight and has been working for the Anti-Villain League with his partner/wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig). Because they failed to capture or eliminate Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a maligned child actor who, as a resentful adult, is driven to become the world’s biggest villain, Gru and Lucy find themselves kicked out of the League. But of course that doesn’t stop them from tangling with Bratt (aka Bad Boy Bod) again and somehow managing to save the day. That’s no spoiler: it’s what superheroes and crimefighters do.

How much you enjoy Despicable Me 3 may depend on how much you like Gru’s “minions”—those capsule-shaped little yellow guys in blue overalls that speak in their own gibberish language. This outing the minions aren’t integral to the plot and only seem deployed in several overly cute (and overly long) sequences designed to satisfy those who do love the little guys, and, of course, to keep those Minion toys and product tie-ins flying off the shelves. They mattered much more in the first two films. Here, they’re as gratuitous as nudity in a teen slasher movie. Also marginalized this film are the three orphaned girls that Gru adopted in the first film, so if you thought Mr. Despicable’s interaction with those girls a strength, you’ll be disappointed to find them underused in Despicable Me 3.

Dominating this entry are Gru’s interactions with the villain and a twin brother he never knew he had until recently. Carell also gives voice to Dru, the seemingly perfect (and fabulously wealthy and successful) twin from whom he was separated at birth. Reminiscent of the 1988 comedy Twins, in which the genetically perfect Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, the twin made from DNA leftovers, discover each other, Despicable Me 3 features one twin who is predominantly evil and the other predominantly good. The complication, we learn, is that the successful twin was as much of a disappointment to the villainous-at-heart father who raised him as Gru was to his goody-goody mother. How the brothers learn to cope with who they are and how they were raised, and how they learn to deal with their “Other” gets the lion’s share of narrative attention. And frankly, the twin brother angle probably rescues the third installment from a familiarity that can make sequels seem tedious.

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Review of THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
1962, 106 min., Black-and-White
Drama
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for intense scenes of struggle)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I saw The Miracle Worker in the theater when it was first released in 1962, and it affected me deeply. Patty Duke, who played young Helen Keller in the film, was close to my age, so naturally I pictured myself going through a similar struggle. I didn’t identify with her, but I put myself in her place.

These days, I don’t get the sense that young people do that as much. It’s more about interest or entertainment, and older films like this have a few strikes against them.

For one thing, The Miracle Worker is in black and white, and as terrific as it looks on Blu-ray, a generation born into color often has a hard time with anything other than eye-popping visuals. For another thing, drama in the ‘50s and early ‘60s was really melodrama, and the long lingering close-ups with dramatic music may seem a little soapy to contemporary audiences. And while indie films may still employ long takes, the average mainstream film has been edited to fit the shorter attention spans that seem to have evolved.

So when a nine-minute scene shows “miracle worker” Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) physically wrestling with a blind child who has never been disciplined in her life, it could seem like an eternity to younger viewers. My daughter says she already saw the film in school, so teachers see value in it, and this is a pivotal scene. It’s intense, and shows why Bancroft won the Oscar for Best Actress and Duke won for Best Supporting Actress.

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Review of FATHER GOOSE (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1964, 118 min., Color
Romantic comedy/Adventure
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for some peril and adult drinking)
Aspect ratio: anamorphic widescreen (16×9)
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C+
Clip
Amazon link

As I wrote when Olive released a no-frills Blu-ray of this title in 2014, Father Goose is one of those rare films that appeals not only to lovers of the genre—in this case, romantic comedy—but others as well. There’s humor and WWII adventure in this amiable 1964 film, which will make it appealing to boys in the family. The girls, meanwhile, will be won over by the seven schoolgirls of varying ages that are rescued by a reluctant (and still very funny and attractive in his second-to-last film) Cary Grant. Much of the humor is based on the contrast between Grant’s scruffy character and “proper” behavior, with the girls as engaging as any child actors I’ve seen.

Grant plays teacher-turned-beachcomber Walter Eckland, who dropped out of the world and in return just wants the world to leave him alone. Though war in the Pacific is raging all around him, he’s determined to be neutral and uninvolved. We first meet him when he turns up at British-Australian naval base that’s under fire, and, bothered more by a pelican that keeps hitching a ride on the boat he recently bought than by shells exploding all around him, he proceeds to try to “borrow” cans of gasoline and rations.

That plays right into the hands of the dockmaster, an old friend named Houghton (Trevor Howard) who’s been ordered to evacuate and set up shop coordinating more than 30 coast watchers spread across the Pacific islands. He needs one more coast watcher and Walter needs supplies, so they strike a deal . . . which Walter had no intention of abiding by, until Houghton “accidentally” rams his boat and forces him to make for the island. Then, to get Walter to actually report Japanese airplane and ship movements, Houghton hides bottles of scotch whiskey and gives Walter the directions to a bottle for every confirmed sighting.

Walter never gets drunk, and his drinking is played for laughs, so most parents won’t find it objectionable. After all, there is a war on, and when Walter ends up rescuing a pretty young teacher (Leslie Caron) and her charges, she immediately sets about trying to reform him. He may be gruff, but he’s still a likable fellow that the girls find as appealing as their teacher does. Sparks eventually fly, and the action intensifies, and in no time at all you’re rooting for this pair of opposites to come together in spite of all that’s happening in the world around them.

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