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Review of A STAR IS BORN (2018) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2018, 136 min., Color
Drama
Warner Bros.
Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s another R-rated movie that families with teens are going to want to watch, because Lady Gaga is the female lead. And A Star Is Born is a good one, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture—though Bradley Cooper reportedly said he was “embarrassed” not to get a Best Director nomination.

Well Brad, you’re not the only one. The directors of Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Black Panther share your pain. But hey, Lady Gaga got the nom for Best Actress, and you for Best Actor, Sam Elliott for Best Supporting Actor, Lady Gaga et alia for Best Original Song (“Shallow”), plus nominations for Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography? Come on, Brad. Eight Oscar nominations for your first directed feature isn’t anything to be embarrassed about.

Plus, you coaxed a whole new generation into watching the story of two people meeting and loving, one whose career is on the way up, and the other whose career is on the way down . . . because of drink and drugs. In 1937 it was Janet Gaynor and Fredric March who paired up in a story about actors in Hollywood, then in 1954 it was Judy Garland and James Mason in what was less a romance than a mentoring tale of an aging alcoholic film star helping a young actress find fame. The switch to music came in 1976, when Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson paired off. And last year young people went to see what, at it’s core, is still a thirties’ melodrama just because Lady Gaga and you were in it!

Lady Gaga is a revelation and you’re great too, though sometimes it’s hard to tell whether your character, Jackson, is an aging rock star on the decline or a country star. I guess it doesn’t matter. But in all honesty, the biggest flaw is when the melodrama pokes through in spots, and younger viewers especially will think, That was cheesy. There were enough of those moments to notice. Yet, you and Lady Gaga were so good together that we forgive those bits of cheese. And despite some predictability and maybe going just a teensy bit overboard in the Grammy scene, your version may well be the best of all the Star Is Borns. So yeah, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

Our family really liked the film, though of course no one likes a sad ending. As with Bohemian Rhapsody it was an effective blend of performance, backstage, and private lives drama, but that last phase of a downward spiral is tough to depict. If you spend too much time on it the melodrama starts to take over and ooze more sappiness; spend too little and it can seem rushed. Here too, I think you didn’t quite hit the mark, because the third-act alcohol-and-drugs decline felt like more of a Tower of Terror elevator drop than downward spiral. Apart from these main criticisms I really don’t have any other bad things to say about your film.

That’s not too shabby, considering your first directing gig was a stalled project that you inherited from Clint Eastwood, who had inherited it from Nick Cassavetes. But casting Lady Gaga was a stroke of genius. She’s wonderful, the latest in a long line of singers and dancers who proved that they are “triple threats.” As Jackson Maine’s “discovery” she shines, and clearly revives him for a while before playing second fiddle starts to get to him and he returns to old, destructive habits.

Does our family think it’s a Best Picture winner? I’m afraid not. You picked a tough year to debut behind the camera. There are a lot of worthy contenders, but we still favor Bohemian Rhapsody. It just crackled with more originality and a bit more energy and intensity, even in the downturns. Maybe that’s the problem of trying to revive and remake a classic film. Maybe it’s the material you had to work with—which is why the first act is infinitely more interesting than the second or third. How Jack and Ally meet, come together, and grow together is really where this film flourishes. But as I said, what you did was really good. Really.

Language: Mainly responsible for the R rating, as there are probably over a 150 swearwords, including tons of f-bombs

Sex: Two sex scenes but with nothing graphic shown, plus a shared bathtub scene with VERY brief nudity and a shot of Lady Gaga in the blurred distance standing in the shower that’s onscreen for a fraction of a second

Violence: One punch is thrown, but really it’s a tame movie in this department

Adult situations: LOTS of drinking and drugs, as this is, after all, a story of one rock star’s struggle with addiction

Takeaway: Looks like we’ve got another Clint Eastwood in the making, with Cooper’s directing debut accomplished enough that most people are already looking forward to his next project, Bernstein

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Review of THE CAPTAIN (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (age 14 and up?)
2017, 120 min., Black and White
War drama (w/dark comic moments)
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be R for language, violence, some nudity)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: German 5.1 Dolby Digital
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

The Captain (2017) isn’t a movie for kids. Then again, neither is Schindler’s List, which my daughter saw in her 10th grade history class during their discussion of the holocaust.

Both are films that stay with you, and for the same reason: mass executions by Germans during WWII. Except that The Captain isn’t a holocaust film. Set in Germany during the final months of the war, it’s based on the true story of Willi Herold, who became separated from his unit and may or may not have deserted. In the film, as in real life, he stumbles onto an abandoned staff car in which he finds a suitcase containing the uniform of a Luftwaffe captain. After celebrating his good fortune he dons the uniform. And putting it on and acting the part begins to have the same effect on him as the ring did on Gollum.

Shot in black and white in German with English subtitles, The Captain is a fascinating film, and not just because it’s so totally different from all the other WWII films that depict the battles, struggles, and individual stories of bravery and survival. It’s also a provocative psychological study. We wonder:

Is it the uniform and the role-playing that makes this corporal suddenly behave like a sadistic German officer? Is it another example of the intoxicating effect that power has? Is it an individual pursuit of irony, with Willi getting back at life for almost having him executed as a deserter by embracing some deserters and “lost” soldiers as his own private army but choosing to execute others? Is Willi the victim of PTSD, or is he representative of what happens when soldiers realize their side has lost and order and discipline start to break down? Did the situation bring out the evil in him, as it did with the British schoolchildren in Lord of the Flies? Or was Willi evil from the start, and the universe just provided him with a chance for that evil to come out? More

Review of THE NUN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No
2018, 96 min., Color
Horror
Warner Bros.
Rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

The Nun ends right before The Conjuring begins, but you don’t have to have seen that film, The Conjuring 2, or the related Anabelle and Anabelle: Creation to understand what’s going on. This horror prequel is a stand-alone film set decades before the hauntings from the other films in the popular franchise.

Eighty percent of the scenes in The Nun are dark and/or dreary, and location filming in Romanian Transylvania castles and manors adds to the atmosphere, creating a look and feel that will remind horrorphiles of the old Hammer gothic horror flicks from the late ‘50s and 1960’s. In those B movies, atmosphere was everything, and the mood was so thick you could cut it with a scream. Light on plot and characterization, those old films were also dependent upon the occasional jump-scare—a trick that Nun director Corin Hardy relies on a bit too much. It’s like walking through a Jaycees Haunted House and having something pop out at you every 10 minutes. But that’s what appeals to young horror fans today, and it’s also why my teenage daughter gave this one a higher grade than I did. She gave it a B; I gave it a C+, with B- the compromise grade. More

Review of ROBIN WILLIAMS: COMIC GENIUS (DVD Collection)

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Grade: A-/B+
1978-2018, 1086 min. (22 discs), Color
Entire family: NO!!!
Comedy
Time Life
Not rated (would be R for language and some sex jokes)
Aspect ratio: Varies (mostly 1.33:1)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features:  n/a (the whole set is “extras”)
Includes:  DVDs, booklet
Trailer
RobinWilliams.com

Time Life is known for their sets and collections, and this four-volume, four-DVD, 22-disc set featuring Robin Williams: Comic Genius is thankfully uncensored. Except for 11 episodes of Mork & Mindy, it’s one for the parents to watch after the kids are in bed, or for families with older teens—especially the ones who have ambitions of pursuing a career in entertainment. You walk away with an appreciation for how Williams went all out and wasn’t afraid of a joke or an impression bombing. He just quickly went on to another one and hoped for better results. He did his own thing.

Anyone who’s watched Williams perform knows that his 100-mile-an-hour mind and manic improvisations can’t be bridled. He says whatever comes to mind at such a rapid clip that to try to censor his performances would be like trying to stop a runaway truck with foam blocks.

Time Life has compiled a wonderful tribute to the talented comedian, who began in stand-up comedy, found instant fame playing Mork on episodes of Happy Days and the spinoff series Mork & Mindy, and showed he could act in both comedies and dramas by starring in such films as Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Morning, Vietnam. Included here are more than 50 hours of Williams that spans 40 years on television, including all five of his HBO stand-up specials, never-before-released performances and backstage footage, talk show and late-night appearances, archival family clips, and new interviews with the people who knew him best: Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Martin Short, Pam Dawber, Lewis Black, and son Zak Williams. Williams was a once-in-a-generation talent, and this set really does him justice. Note, though, that it’s only available through RobinWilliams.com. More

Review of GET SHORTY (Shout Select Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (older teens only)
1995, 105 min., Color
Crime comedy-drama
Shout! Factory
Rated R for language and some violence
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Get Shorty is rated R and strictly for families with older teenagers. The third word we hear is an f-bomb, and it’s dropped dozens of times throughout the film (how many dozen make a gross?). But for families that may have watched John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino in the old TV comedy Welcome Back Kotter, or caught his “cool” acts in Grease and Saturday Night Fever, his performance as small-time hood Chili Palmer will seem like a revelation. It’s Travolta at his absolute coolest. For his portrayal of Chili he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.

Chili is a Miami-based loan shark who works for a crime boss, and a crazy series of unfortunate events is set in motion when he’s at a restaurant and a mobster from a rival crime family “borrows” his leather jacket from the coat room. Chili promptly goes to the man’s apartment and breaks his nose when he answers the door, then reclaims his coat. When the man, Ray “Bones” Barboni (Dennis Farina), comes to Chili’s office to get revenge, Chili parts his hair with a bullet. And all of this is done to the kind of jazzy, up-tempo soundtrack that viewers have come to expect from crime comedy-dramas.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) has fun with this one, showcasing Elmore Leonard’s colorful characters and dialogue in scenes that are packed sky-high with props that add to the crime-comedy flavor. More

Review of TAG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2018, 100 min., Color
Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated R for language throughout, crude sexual content, drug use and brief nudity
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Though Tag is rated R—mostly for language (lots of f-bombs)—teens have been flocking to see it with their parents. After all, it is a movie about a kid’s game, and who hasn’t chased after someone on the playground or in the neighborhood in order to tap them and shout, “You’re it”? And how fun is it to see a children’s game elevated to the same, crazy, go-for-broke level of prom invitations?

Tag is a relatively plotless comedy that relies on the game and hijinks to sustain viewers’ interest for the entire 100 minutes. It stars Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, Leslie Bibb, Jon Hamm, and Jeremy Renner. Renner plays the never-been-tagged super player that suddenly all the others want to join together to bring down—even though (or especially since?) he’s getting married during “tag month.” As you probably heard, Renner broke both of his arms on the second day of filming while trying to climb a stack of 20+ chairs. The rigging broke and he went down hard, but in the film it looks as fun as the rest of the elaborate stunts that these childhood friends have been pulling in order to tag each other for nearly 30 years.

The game, no doubt, keeps their minds sharp and their bodies fit. But mostly it gives them a chance to keep in touch—literally. Credit The Wall Street Journal for bringing these guys to the public’s attention with a January 2013 front-page feature that led to notoriety and eventually this film from Warner Bros. and TV series/movie director Jeff Tomsic.

And it is laugh-out-loud funny in spots. It’s a bit like watching Impractical Jokers go at each other, with side plots that don’t seem to matter. You really are just itching to see the next tag attempt . . . and the next . . . and the next. More

Review of JERMAL (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2008, 88 min., Color
Drama
IndiePix
Not rated (would be R for brief nudity and language, alcohol use, and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Indonesian Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo with English subtitles
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

You haven’t seen another film in the world like Jermal, a 2008 Indonesian production with English subtitles about a group of young teenage boys who live and work on an isolated fishing platform in the middle of the Malacca Straits off North Sumatra. It’s an absolutely unique, vicarious experience that almost dwarfs the coming-of-age / father-son themes that shape the plot—or rather, situation, since this is a character- and situation-driven film.

Fishing platforms or “jermals” may be common in Indonesia and Malaysia, but no one before directors Ravi L. Bharwani and Rayya Makarim has ever thought to shoot a drama on one of them.

What we see in the beautifully filmed Jermal is a high level of realism that extends to the actors—or rather, non-actors. The directors said that many of the nine boys that appear in the film were actually working already on the jermal that the filmmakers inhabited for 30 days.

Though work on a fishing platform is tough and the conditions primitive, no experience is necessary. Because of their isolation they’re often a refuge for people on society’s fringes. If the movie is any indication, authorities don’t seem to mind that children under 18 are working on them, and the directors said that they knew of several other jermals in the area—one of them occupied by convicts, one by runaway children, and another by children sent by their parents to work (one less mouth to feed).

Jermal isn’t rated, but if it were it would probably merit an R for one scene of young male posterior nudity, one f-bomb, a few lesser swearwords, constant bullying, mild violence, and smoking and alcohol use. More

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