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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

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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

Review of US (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Heck no!
2019, 116 min., Color
Thriller-Horror
Universal
Rated R for violence, terror and language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

We need to talk. I’m not sure how I feel about Us.

I mean, a part of me feels that it’s another tense thriller from Jordan Peele, who first indulged his non-comedic side by writing and directing Get Out. But—and you might call this follow-up Just Try to Get Out—there’s a part of me, maybe my doppelganger, that thinks this latest “horror” film doesn’t make enough sense.

Then again, horror genre writers and directors have never excelled in logic. It was their worst subject in school. For them it’s all about putting the characters quickly in peril and keeping them there for 90 minutes. And Peele does that, right up until the big-twist ending that would have tied Chubby Checker into a pretzel, all the while leaning more in the direction of “thriller” than “horror” for much of the way.

We’re told in an epigraph that there are a bazillion tunnels under the continental U.S., suggesting that whatever horrors we’ll meet in this film will be subterranean denizens—hard to miss, especially since there are also images of rabbits, which evoke Alice’s plunge into Wonderland.

The action begins with a family’s 1986 trip to Santa Cruz beach and boardwalk, where a young girl named Adelaide wanders off from her dad and is drawn to a “Find Yourself” fun-house of mirrors on the beach. Before she enters she passes a guy who’s a cross between a creepy carney and a doomsayer with the sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11”— which quickly became a popular Internet search. I’ll save you the trouble: “Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto Me, I will not hearken unto them.” Yeah, well, she sees her double inside and whatever else happened when she’s recovered by her parents she’s so traumatized she can’t even tell them (or the audience) what happened.

Flash forward to the present and we see an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) reluctantly agreeing to return to Santa Cruz for a family outing with her husband (Gabe Wilson) and their two children: Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), whom her father thinks could be an Olympic track star if she applied herself, and Jason (Evan Alex), an odd withdrawn kid who tends to wear a mask up on his head like flip-up sunglasses, ready to put it over his face whenever he wants anonymity. If you’re thinking of Friday the 13th’s Jason and his lake antics, that’s what Peele wants. Throughout the film there are numerous allusions to classic campy horror films, which, of course, means that the hope was for Us to be seen as equally classic and campy. More

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! More

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

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