Home

Review of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (Blu-ray combo)

Leave a comment

Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

Some twelve weeks after its theatrical debut, Raya and the Last Dragon is the third highest grossing film in the U.S., behind Spiral and Wrath of Man. With a domestic box office of $49.3 million and another $60.6 million international box office revenue, it’s exceeding expectations, and I’d like to suggest one reason why:  Disney animators always seem to up their game, and they did so again with Raya.

The martial arts swordfights in this 59th full-length feature from Disney are the most accomplished I’ve seen so far in the world of animation—presented at a speed you’d normally encounter in the best Ip Man, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan movies. Combine that with gorgeous backgrounds and character animations, and Raya and the Last Dragon is another solid effort from the House of Mouse—though the plot itself can seem a bit familiar.

Set in a dystopian fantasy world, Raya and the Last Dragon begins with the backstory of a fictional land (Kumandra) where dragons and people once thrived together until evil spirits (that look a bit like the smoke monster on Lost)terrorized the land and turned dragons and people to stone—except for some people and one dragon, who focused the magic she and other dragons had on a single gem. But you do the math: one gem and five tribes? Of course they fight over it, and the pieces are eventually scattered among those tribes. Hundreds of years later, the Druun return and wreak havoc on the now-separate sections of what was once Kumandra. Raya is the daughter of Chief Benja of the Heart tribe, while her once friend and now rival, Namaari, is the princess of the Fang tribe. But like any fantasy, the story itself seems more complicated than the visual action. Relax and enjoy this simple quest story, as Raya tries to find the last dragon, recover the jewel pieces, and defeat the Druun once and for all. Unless Namaari beats her to it.

Give Disney credit, though, for creating strong female characters without drawing attention to it, without adding a Prince or love interest, and for not making a big deal out of adding two more princesses to the merchandising Pantheon. Give them credit, too, for giving Asians and Asian Americans feisty princesses that look like them—even if Disney took a little flak (what else is new?) for not featuring enough South Asian actors among the voice talents.

More

Review of THE MARKSMAN (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

Grade:  B-/C+
Action thriller
Rated PG-13

From the first scene where an aging Arizona rancher (Liam Neeson) stumbles onto a cartel “situation” and ends up with a bag full of money, to a scene that’s the equivalent of the Coen Brothers’ “coin toss scene,” The Marksman feels like a cheap knockoff of No Country for Old Men.  And with a little Hunt for the Wilderpeople added for good measure.

What cheapens it isn’t Neeson’s performance, but rather a formulaic approach to ticking off the boxes rather than concentrating on creating characters and relationships with any individuality or depth.

For one thing, first-time director Robert Lorenz spends too much time in the early going just establishing a few facts that could have been hinted at more subtly: 

—Jim Hanson was a Vietnam War veteran who earned a medal for marksmanship

—Jim Hanson is lost and lonely because his wife died of cancer

—Jim Hanson is going to lose his ranch unless he can come up with a lot of money to pay for back mortgage payments

The film is also marred by characters that push past stereotypes into caricature country.

Javier Bardem has nothing to fear from the cartel bad ass that Lorenz gives us here. Mauricio—called “Heffe” and played by Juan Pablo Raba—is too cartoonish to be chilling. He’s just a bad guy who sneers a lot and stares a lot in lingering close-ups. Oh we believe him when he says he’s going to kill the old rancher who drove away with the son of a Mexican woman he already killed at the border. And we believe he’s determined to recover the drug money that the boy’s (now deceased) uncle had taken from him and given to his (now deceased) mother. But Bardem as Anton Chigurh was a one-and-done, just as Heath Ledger’s lizard-tongued Joker was a one-time affair. Try to duplicate it and you’re doomed to fall short.  

The film’s most chilling scene is actually understated. After a brief shoot-out at an isolated stretch of border fence, Jim takes off with the boy Miguel (Jacob Perez), whom he was asked to take to relatives in Chicago in exchange for the contents of the bag. Later in the film, Jim (and the audience) think they might be in the clear when the bad guys try to follow them into the U.S. and pull up at a customs station. Heffe’s driver rolls his arm so the border agent can see his tattoo. When the officer asks to see a passport and is handed a stolen passport of a Anglo-American woman whose likeness is about as far removed from a Mexican male as it gets, we expect such arrogance to be rewarded with detainment or containment . . . especially when the officer calls for the back of the vehicle to be searched. Yet after a token search of the cargo area and an “All clear,” the officer waves them into the country. Welcome to the U.S.

Yikes. Of course the cartel drug trade is so lucrative and large that they would have U.S. law officers on their payroll. But you don’t think about it until you see a scene like this.

Though The Marksman is billed as an action thriller, it’s almost a head-snapper when a vehicle explodes and dramatically flips, because you find yourself thinking that aside from frequent shooting there isn’t as much action as you’d expect. There also isn’t as much growth or depth to the relationship between the crusty old man and the boy as we saw in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or even the relationship between Clint Eastwood’s grumpy old white guy and the Hmong teenager he befriended in Gran Torino. It’s almost as if the screenwriters didn’t know what to do with the old man and boy once they got them in the car together. Same with a subplot involving Jim’s stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), a border agent that really doesn’t seem to do much.

But what Lorenz and co-writers Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz get right is the third act. It’s not just Jim who finds redemption in the end . . . it’s the filmmakers as well. And no, you’ll get no spoilers from me. Is the ending enough to make up for that plodding and excessively (and redundantly) informational first act or the sense of missed opportunities that dominate the second? Probably not. Fans of Neeson will embrace this as another go-it-alone high-stakes maverick venture along the lines of the Taken trilogy or Cold Pursuit, but if they’re honest with themselves The Marksman doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Entire family:  No
Run time: 108 min. (Color)
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Universal
Bonus features:  C-
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images, and brief strong language

Language:  5/10—One f-bomb and a dozen or so lesser swearwords

Sex:  0/10—No sex, no nudity

Violence:  7/10—Shooting, shooting, and more shooting; people get shot, several at close range, and blood is shown often; some violence happens off-screen

Adult situations:  6/10—Jim drinks often and carries a flask, but it’s not clear whether he’s passing out from the alcohol or tiring because of his age

Takeaway:  Qui-Gon Jinn once said, “Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts,” and you can’t help but wonder how much better this film might have been had it veered more sharply away from Hollywood formulas

Review of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (2016) (DVD)

Leave a comment

Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but…
2016, 108 min., Color
Drama, Theatrical Production
Film Movement
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Adapted from a 1905 children’s novel by Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children is a joint York Theatre Royal and National Railway Museum production that was staged in a venue near Kings Cross Station in London. This is a filmed performance of the Mike Kenny and Damian Cruden production, which shut down in January 2017.

If you’re from the U.K. and grew up with the book or have walked the park where a monument pays tribute, you’ll feel more easily charmed by a production that half-depends on the warm feeling of shared cultural nostalgia.

Regardless, the stage set is unique, designed to resemble a train station with one set of tracks and a platform on either side, and a single walkway at one end that allows people to cross from one side to the other. Lining each platform are seats where audience members sit as close to each platform as possible without actually being onstage themselves. In this elongated version of theater-in-the-round, characters are in near-constant movement, and the staging is minimalist—with a real train appearing only briefly. For the most part, flat wooden squares the same height as the platforms are pushed into place to suggest the train and various rooms and buildings, and you marvel at how the actors are able to retain their balance as they walk across the square/squares that briefly connects the platforms. More

EVELYN (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

evelyncoverGrade: B
2002, 95 min., Color
Olive Films
Drama
Rated PG for thematic material and language
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m guessing that more than a few people will notice that Evelyn is a film about an Irish father trying to gain custody of his kids and immediately think of Kramer vs. Kramer. How in the world is that appropriate for family viewing? Well, the 1979 Academy Award-winning picture starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep isn’t appropriate, unless you think it’s character building for children to watch parents say and do some pretty nasty things to each other while tugging at their offspring as if they were a wishbone. But Evelyn isn’t like that at all. To continue the analogy, it’s more like Kramer vs. the Government.

Based on a real 1955 custody case that had an entire nation hanging on the decision, Evelyn stars Pierce Brosnan in a very un-Bondlike role. He plays Desmond Doyle, an out-of-work Irishman evelynscreen2who sings in his father’s band and drinks a little too much. But it’s clear that he has a good heart and he loves his children. He’s crushed when his wife (and their mother) runs off to Australia with another man, and Irish law at the time forbade children from being raised by a single parent. The children are removed from the home and placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage, where neglect and abuse are as common as the priest scandals that have dominated the headlines in recent years. Viewers soon discover that the orphanages are full of faux orphans—children taken away from a single parent who still loves them dearly and wishes to care for them.

Most parents give up, the film’s narrative tells us. It is, after all, Irish law. But not Desmond Doyle. After a few aborted attempts to get his children illegally, he attracts the attention of a woman working extra hours as a bartender to help pay for her education. She has a brother (Stephen Rea) who might be able to help him. And a would-be suitor from America (Aidan Quinn) who just happens to be a barrister. Before long, they’ve attracted the interest of another lawyer who moonlights as a sports announcer (Alan Bates). Suddenly, Doyle isn’t just a single father fighting the system in futility. He’s part of a team that’s trying to establish a new precedent in Irish law—one that’s fairer to families.

More

INFERNO (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

infernocoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 122 min., Color
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements, and some sexuality
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is confused for the bulk of this action-thriller, and as a result, so are viewers. As he was in The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009), Langdon is on the run—chased by people who want to get what he has, or kill him, or both. And once again he is accompanied/assisted by a beautiful woman (Sienna Brooks).

In other words, there’s a formula at work here, so those who liked the first two films based on novels by Dan Brown and directed by Ron Howard ought to enjoy this one as well. You know who you are, and you know the drill. Along the way you’ll learn more about Langford’s area of specialization—Dante and medieval symbols—and your confusions will eventually be resolved by explanations presented almost as rapid-fire as the action . . . so pay attention!

infernoscreen1In Inferno, Langdon awakens in a hospital in Florence, Italy. He is having major hallucinations of disturbing medieval images—graphic images that are mostly responsible for the PG-13 rating—and he has amnesia. He has no idea how he got from Boston to Florence. But there isn’t much time for reflection. The plot kick-starts when an Italian motorcycle policewoman comes to the hospital, shoots an orderly, and tries to kill Langdon. The nurse, Felicity (Brooks), helps him escape, and from that moment the chases are on. Langdon is pursued by three separate groups of people (who ARE they, and who’s telling the truth?), and on-the-run he’s racing to piece clues together to try to remember how he became involved in all of this, and how big it is.

More

Disney’s INTO THE WOODS arrives on Blu-ray March 24

Leave a comment

intothewoodscoverFrom composer Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park with George), the producers of Wicked, and the director of Chicago comes Disney’s film version of the popular Broadway play Into the Woods—available on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and Disney Movies Anywhere on March 24, 2015.

Iconic characters such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel find their fates intertwined with a humble baker and his wife, whose longing to have a child sends them “into the woods” on a quest to reverse a witch’s curse.

In this PG-rated musical comedy-drama, Meryl Streep stars as the Witch, Johnny Depp intothewoodsscreenas the Wolf, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife, James Corden as the Baker, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Chris Pine as the Prince, Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, and MacKenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel.

The soundtrack will really come to life with an English DTS-HD MA 7.1, and young fans will have fun looking for five Golden Eggs (Easter Eggs) to click on for additional bonus content. Included among the extras are making-of features and a “never-before-seen” (or heard?) original Sondheim song, “She’ll Be Back,” sung by Streep.

New on Blu-ray and DVD (March 3, 2015)

Leave a comment

At Movie Metropolis, which became defunct today when the CEO shut it down without explanation, I wrote a weekly “This Week” column alerting readers to new releases. I had no idea when I posted this morning’s “This Week” column that the site would be shut down permanently today, but I plan on continuing that feature here at Family Home Theater. For Movie Met readers who have found your way to my blog, Family Home Theater is devoted to “stuff the kids can see,” or at least some of the kids. Sometimes it will be the older kids, sometimes just the younger. Mostly I’ll cover PG-13, PG, and G releases, though an occasional R-rated film that’s an award winner or something older teens might want to see may also find its way into the site, if it’s rated R mostly for language that the kids hear on the playground anyway. But the emphasis is on family movie nights.

Charlie160There’s always an anniversary in TV and Movie Land, and this week it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which celebrates its 10th with the release of a Blu-ray. Unless you’re wedded to the original Gene Wilder film, which seems more dated these days, this Tim Burton version of the Roald Dahl story will probably hold your kids’ attention better—even though some of you might feel more nostalgic toward the “Wilder” version. Charlie is rated PG-13, which is what you’d expect from Burton and Depp.

Jane160This week the Warner Bros. musical comedy Calamity Jane comes out on Blu-ray as a single title for the first time and as part of a four-film Blu-ray collection that also includes Kiss Me Kate 3D, The Band Wagon, and Singin’ in the Rain. This isn’t the Calamity Jane you saw in HBO’s Deadwood. In this cheery 1953 film, Jane may own a saloon, but it’s only to give Day a chance to sing. If your family loves musicals, this one isn’t a classic, but Day’s character is infectious. And it’s rated G.

Neverbeast160If you have younger children, girls especially, their “please please” radar will bleep in the direction of two new releases this week. Disney has been promoting the heck out of Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast, and I have no problem with that kind of marketing blitz. As long as they continue to crank out above-average, G-rated, high production-value installments in this Pixie Hollow Fairies series, I’m good with it—even though it seems to be a revisionist take on the 1953 version of Tinker Bell, who was petty, jealous, self-centered, and vindictive. The reimagined Tinker Bell has a much better image—almost as squeaky clean as Doris Day’s persona. That’s good, because these Disney movies are all about modeling positive behaviors and teaching lessons in attitude adjustment. Look for Neverbeast on Blu-ray or DVD.

Barbie160The other kiddie-pleaser coming out on both formats this week is Barbie in Princess Power. Universal hasn’t been able to keep this franchise as fresh as Disney, and all you have to do realize that is recall the funny and inventive Pixar shorts featuring Barbie and Ken. Princess Power looks like another retread from tires we’ve already kicked and drives we’ve already taken. But that won’t stop little girls from enjoying it.

ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE . . . DAY (Blu-ray)

Leave a comment

AlexandercoverGrade: B-/B
Entire family:  Yes
2014, 81 min., Color
Rated PG for rude humor, including some reckless behavior and language
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C
Trailer

Ever have the feeling that when your day starts off on the wrong foot, it’s going to be one stumble after the next, until you can go to bed and get a fresh start the following morning?

That’s what happens to 11-year-old Alexander, a doom-and-gloom youngster who tries to warn his family that anything they attempt is bound to turn out badly—all because his own day begins with a wad of gum stuck in his hair and then slides quickly into a vat of bubbling disasters, both small and large. What’s worse, it’s the day before his 12th birthday.

The rule of thumb for most movies told from the point of view of a child is that they tend to appeal to audiences who are the same age or younger than the star. That would make Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day aimed at elementary schoolers. But because Walt Disney Studios tried to broaden the appeal by bringing in more extreme situations and having the bad luck extend to every single family member, my guess is that it may also appeal to families with pre-teen children. It features an unlikely Date Night sequence of events and a motor vehicle that ultimately, as with the family from Little Miss Sunshine, brings them closer together.   More