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Review of PAN’S LABYRINTH (4K UltraHD combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No (16 and older)
Fantasy-drama-war
2006, 119 min., Color
Rated R for graphic violence and some language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Spanish DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Strange. Dark. Sad. Beautiful. Haunting. Powerful.

That describes Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Shape of Water (2017), and it also aptly describes the Mexican director’s earlier wartime fantasy-drama, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Del Toro introduces the new 4K HD release (in Spanish, with English subtitles) by saying simply, “This movie almost killed me.” That’s easy to believe, because Pan’s Labyrinth takes a lot out of audiences too. With del Toro’s fairy tales for adults, you know you’re going to find the film visually stunning, narratively compelling, and, ultimately, deeply moving.

The action takes during place during WWII (1944) in Franco’s fascist Spain. Ofelia (played confidently and sympathetically by Ivana Baquero) is riding in a military car with her pregnant mother to a country outpost run by the ruthless and sadistic Captain Vidal—who married the mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), after her husband died in the war. He had sent for them because he wanted his baby to be born near him. In the car, Ofelia reads a fairytale about a princess who fled her father’s underground kingdom to live in the world above, where she was subject to that world’s illnesses and death. But her father knew that one day her spirit would return to him in the form of another.  More

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Review of ANNABELLE COMES HOME (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No (way)
Horror, thriller
2019, 106 min., Color
Rated R for horror violence and terror
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

First there was The Conjuring (2013), then Annabelle (2014), The Conjuring 2 (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), and now Annabelle Comes Home (2019). The Conjuring Universe continues to expand, but this latest film isn’t as much of a big bang as it is a slow evolution from dark potentiality to a third act burst of relatively predictable action. That’s because it’s a Pandora’s box film, and even if you know nothing about Greek mythology you probably have heard that Pandora opened a box (well, jar, actually) and unwittingly unleashed sickness, plagues, death, and all manner of evils on humankind. With a Pandora’s box film, you know the plot will be about trying to re-contain those evils, and the protagonists either will succeed or not. You have a 50/50 chance of guessing the outcome.

That’s one thing that makes Annabelle Comes Home less energetic or surprising than some of the previous entries. Fans have been through this before and know what to expect. There aren’t as many scares as in previous films, but the ones that are here are high octane, and their intensity is boosted by the fact that much of the action takes place within the confines of the home. More

Review of THE FIRST KING: BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
Historical Drama, Action
2019, 123 min., Color
Not rated (would be R for graphic violence throughout)
Well Go USA Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Latin DTS-HDMA 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Trailer
Amazon link

The First King: Birth of an Empire (originally titled Romulus and Remus: The First King) is an Italian film in Latin with English subtitles (and a dubbed English option) that’s epic insomuch as it’s the story of the founding of Rome in 750 B.C.

But don’t approach this film thinking you’ll see a story related to that famous 5th century B.C. sculpture of The Capitoline Wolf suckling the child figures of Romulus and Remus (which, incidentally, were added in the 15th century A.D.). The story begins with the twins as full-grown men.

Likewise, don’t think that this film has anything at all to do with images of Ancient Rome that you might have in your head. Director Matteo Rovere’s stylish 2019 film has more in common with sagas of ancient barbarians, with a treatment that’s less “Roman” and cinematically epic than it is a second-cousin to the old Hammer films, with their brooding atmospheric narratives paced to allow atmosphere and place to become as important as the characters in those early pagan dramas.

If you happen to know the story of Romulus and Remus, don’t expect a start-to-finish retelling of their story—a fictionalized myth of the founding of Rome that sprang up in the 3rd century B.C. In this  version, their mother isn’t a vestal virgin and daughter of a king deposed by his brother. She could be, but there’s no mention of it. Legend has it that the twins were saved from drowning by the god Tiberinus, then suckled by a she-wolf and eventually found and adopted by a shepherd. That could have happened as well, but again there’s no mention of it.

When a flash flood sweeps the adult Romulus and Remus and their flock downriver, they’re found by Alba and his men and imprisoned in wooden cages. Other slaves have also been captured. Here’s where it takes a Braveheart or Spartacus turn and Romulus and Remus rise up to free themselves and the other slaves. But their escape is jeopardized not only by a soon-in-pursuit Alba, but by tensions and fighting among their own factions. At the center of the conflict is a “god” that Romulus insisted they bring with them—represented by an eternal fire in a small pot that’s carried by a virgin in the service of the god. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that she prophecies one day, while fondling what looks like a piece of liver, that one of the brothers will become king and founder of an empire while the other will fade into darkness:  one brother will kill the other. More

Review of SHAFT (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
2019, 111 min., Color
Crime Comedy-Drama
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material, and brief nudity
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Inexplicably, the 2019 version of Shaft earned only a 32 percent “rotten” rating at Rotten Tomatoes—meaning that just 32 out of 114 movie critics rated it “fresh.” But at that same site, 94 percent of 7,725 viewers gave it a high rating.

Well, this time I’m siding with the average viewer rather than the RT critics, whose consensus—that “this multi-generational Shaft struggles to keep its characters interesting or anything other than uncomfortably outdated”—only proves that they missed the whole point. The humor in this 2019 film comes from taking a ‘70s hero with ‘70s values and attitudes and plunking him down in the more PC-sensitive here and now, then watching the fun as the anachronistic Shaft manages to make us laugh and still be the coolest guy in the room.

As far as I’m concerned, the second time is the charm for Samuel L. Jackson, who played the iconic badass NYCPD detective like a black version of Dirty Harry in a 2000 remake that felt more outdated to me because it took itself too seriously. But in the 2019 version, Jackson and the whole cast seem to have fun revisiting characters from the original 1971 “Blaxploitation” film starring Richard Roundtree (who has a cameo as “Grandpa”). By having Jackson act like a 1970s lawless, anti-PC tough guy, the filmmakers manage to pay homage to the original character while also spoofing him. Perhaps the best example comes when Shaft sends his son wildly inappropriate birthday presents wrapped in brown butcher paper—gifts that include, as the boy grows up, condoms )”What’s in your wallet?”) and girlie magazines. More

Review of ROCKETMAN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: No (just families with older teens)
2019, 121 min., Color
Musical drama
Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content
Paramount
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen (enhanced)
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

A year after Rami Malek channeled Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and introduced a new young audience to Queen we get Rocketman, which attempts to do the same for Elton John.

Make that Sir Elton John, a musician whose first smash hit (“Your Song” in 1970) propelled him to a career so successful that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, inducted into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, and named Billboard’s most successful male solo artist of all-time. In other words, he’s more than deserving of a biopic.

Make that a hybrid biopic—one that combines the rise (and stumble) of a musician with Broadway-style big production song-and-dance numbers that are imaginatively intercut into the film’s narrative, along with a backward-looking frame with younger alter ego that will remind some viewers of Birdman. Especially given the plume-like costume that Elton (Taron Egerton) wears to his therapy group as he recalls his former self. Is he really dressed that way, or is it a symbol or metaphor? There’s a surreal, glam-bam-thank-you-ma’am element to the film that seems very much in keeping with the real Elton John’s out-of-this-world performance persona—though the musician’s sexual orientation is treated matter-of-factly. More

Review of PLUS ONE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No–parents only!
2019, 99 min., Color
Comedy-drama romance
RLJE Films
Not rated (would be R for drinking, drunkenness, drugs, language, and implied sex)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

This one is for parents only—parents who are fans of romantic comedies but also like to show a little love for indie filmmaking. For best results, save Plus One for a night after the kids have been a real handful and you’re both exhausted and secretly thinking back to how carefree everything was before the first bundle of joy arrived, or even before you got married. Watching Plus One will make you appreciate every last difficult minute you spend with your family.

If this film has an underlying social message, it’s that being single sucks, so single parents be warned. More cautionary tale than standard romantic comedy, Plus One is nonetheless totally aware of the romantic comedy conventions: boy has a meet-cute with girl, they fall in love, they lose each other and realize what they lost, and they get together again, just in time for the happy ending. Because of that genre self-awareness, you know pretty much where this film is headed, without even looking much farther than the premise: Ben (Jack Quaid, who looks a bit like Joel McHale with a beard) and his loud, force-of-nature college friend Alice (Maya Erskine, PEN15), find themselves with 10 weddings to attend over the summer—some his, some hers. To get through them, Alice gets Ben to agree to be each other’s “plus one” to avoid sitting at the singles table (a.k.a. the kids table). So yeah, you fully expect them to get together. More

Review of BECOMING ASTRID (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 123 min., Color
Biography, Drama
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be R for nudity, drunkenness, and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Swedish Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Trailer
Amazon link

Astrid Lindgren wrote more than 30 children’s books and is the fourth most translated children’s writer in the world. To American audiences, her best-known creation was Pippi Longstocking, born one day when Lindgren’s daughter was home from school sick and asking for a story to help her feel better.

The Swedish-language (with English subtitles) biopic Becoming Astrid implies that the film’s narrative will reveal how Lindgren became one of the world’s most beloved children’s book authors, and that fans of her books will be able to connect more deeply with her after seeing the this 2018 drama. Well, they can . . . but not as directly as one might imagine.

There’s no way to describe the essence of the film without spoilers, but I’ll warn everyone right now that Becoming Astrid is for adults only. There is frontal female nudity and a plot that revolves around an illicit affair between a 16-year-old girl and a man her father’s age. This biopic begins with a 90-something Lindgren opening birthday wishes from thousands of readers worldwide, with one fourth grade class sending an audio tape that she plays. From time to time as we watch a flashback and presumed recollections of a significant period in the author’s life, circa 1924-31, we hear a voiceover of that tape, reminding us of the influence that Lindgren had on young people. Without that tape, there’s no connection between what happens on the screen and the success that Lindgren would become.

There are many reasons to watch this film. It’s beautifully shot and directed, and fans of author biopics get a compelling narrative that seems to run absolutely counter to expectations one might have for the life story of a beloved children’s book author—a film in which we can perceive a change in Lindgren’s demeanor. Early on she’s the ugly duckling who’s never asked to dance, but gets on the dance floor anyway, crazily moving so that her two long braids fly all over the place. She’s a good speller who had an essay about her family’s farm in Smaland published in the local paper—one reason why the editor hires her as an intern/secretary/writer. But throughout the course of a life that turns hard, we can see the optimism and energy flag slightly. Later it will reappear and reignite her imagination as she begins to write children’s books, but there is no writing of children’s books in this film. This is the down period in her life, one that no doubt shaped her resolve and explains the bond she feels with children.  More

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