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Review of JASPER JONES (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2017, 105 min., Color
Drama/Mystery
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence, language, and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: B (includes short film “Death for a Unicorn”)
Trailer
Amazon link

A reviewer for The Guardian called Jasper Jones “Australia’s Stand by Me,” but that doesn’t strike me as a very apt comparison. Yes, a dead body of a teen is central to the narrative, and a couple of young friends argue the merits of one superhero over another, but that’s the extent of the similarities.

Jasper Jones isn’t your typical coming-of-age story, either. There’s not much of a sexual awakening in 14-year-old Charlie Buctin (Levi Miller), and there’s less sleuthing in this dead-body mystery than one usually finds in a story of this type.

So what’s here? A pretty engaging tale set in conservative Western Australia that has plenty of small-town tropes that viewers who live in ultra-small-town America will recognize. Everybody knows everybody, and there are outcasts, bad reputations, rumors, all-community events, and a law officer who is more one of them than an authority figure far removed. There’s also a polite reluctance to shake up the community, though the Vietnam War is responsible for a racist backlash against the only Asians who live in this tiny town. But it all feels quite believable and engaging . . . once you get past an abrupt opening. More

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Review of THOR: RAGNAROK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2017, 130 min., Color
Fantasy action-adventure
Marvel Studios
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, Chris Hemsworth played Thor (2011) as a brooding, arrogant Adonis who thought he was God’s gift to, well, everyone. But I guess that being the son of the old Norse god Odin can give you a giant superiority complex. Even when he fought the Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World (2013) with Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor at the helm, Thor and his story remained dark and brooding.

But with Thor: Ragnarok (2017), this superhero series gets a sunny makeover. I didn’t believe it when fellow critics described it as being funnier than Guardians of the Galaxy. After finally seeing it on Blu-ray (it looks fabulous, by the way) I can see why that film comparison came to mind, and not just because Guardians is funny. The only thing missing here is a talking animal.

Sans the raccoon, Thor: Ragnarok has the same core as Guardians, with a hero joined by a bad-ass woman (in this case, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie), a big powerful guy (Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk), and a natural-world guy (rock man Korg, rather than tree man Groot). Yet, amazingly, there isn’t a thing about this movie that feels copycat or derivative. More

Review of PITCH PERFECT 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C
Entire family: No
2017, 93 min., Color
Comedy, Music
Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, and some action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio:
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Good music, not-so-good movie.

That just about covers it, unless you happen to be an Anna Kendrick, Hailee Steinfeld, or Rebel Wilson fan.

The original Pitch Perfect was a perfect combination of a cappella performance and competition drama, with plenty of romantic sideplots to add interest. Hitting theaters just three years after Glee captured fans’ hearts and imaginations, the 2012 film had fans begging for more. In Hollywood, of course, that means sequels, and sequels, especially with dance, cheerleading, and vocal music movies, almost always illustrate the law of diminishing returns. Each movie seems to get a little worse, until finally fans can’t take it any more.

Pitch Perfect was a strong B+, and while Pitch Perfect 2 wasn’t as successful, it was still fun because the sideplots and international flavor were enough to compensate for the plot being pretty much the same. And when it came right down to it, the other groups that the Bellas competed against had enough personality and interest to make you care about the competition.

Pitch Perfect 3 proves, if nothing else, that screenwriter Kay Cannon is running out of ideas. Now the Bellas are so desperate (this should have been the first warning sign) that they jump at a chance to perform in a USO show that’s touring Europe. That in itself could have led to all sorts of different plots. I mean, how hard would it have been to look up some of the old Bob Hope TV specials to find inspiration? And when you set a film in Spain, Italy, and France, you’d think that even more opportunities would present themselves. More

Review of BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
1962, 149 min., Black-and-white
Biopic, Drama
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

A prison drama for family viewing? Normally not, but Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t your typical prison movie. It’s not an action film or one that feeds off familiar prison tropes. For the first two-thirds of this 1962 black-and-white drama, which earned four Oscar nominations, there are no escape attempts, no guard brutality, no prison gangs ruled by mobsters, no trading cigarettes to get easy jobs, no sexual assaults, no riots, and nothing remotely loud or uncivil.

Birdman of Alcatraz tells the story of Robert Franklin Stroud, who spent most of his adult life in prison. There are no backstories. We are told only that he is imprisoned at the medium-security federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, because he killed a man in Alaska—a man who was beating up a prostitute. And he has an old photo of his mother that he keeps on a shelf. Most of the film takes place in Leavenworth before a prison official who resented Stroud got him transferred to Alcatraz. But, of course, Birdman of Leavenworth just doesn’t have the same ring. Alcatraz, “The Rock,” was a high-security penitentiary where troublemakers from the other prisons were sent.

In this highly focused biopic we are not told that Stroud ran away from home at age 13 because of an abusive father, or that he became a pimp in Alaska when he was only 18. The film tells the story of his transformation—one that the prison system itself had nothing to do with. And that transformation is pretty fascinating. More

Review of JUSTICE LEAGUE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: 10 and older
2017, 120 min., Color
Fantasy action-adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Since 2000, Warner Bros. has made 17 feature films based on DC Comics, the most successful of which have been the three Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale Dark Knight films, Constantine, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Man of Steel, and, most recently, Wonder Woman. So where does Justice League fit into the DC Universe, critically? Put it this way: it’s better than Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but not as good as Wonder Woman and Man of Steel.

Directed by DC Universe veteran Zach Snyder (Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman), Justice League scores high marks for the action, special/visual effects, and strong villain; an appreciate round of applause for infusing the film with some humor; and a sympathy card for wrestling with the dilemma of how to create an interesting character-based film when the requisite focus for the genre is on non-stop action.

This is an origin story about how the Justice League came about, and the story picks up after the end of Batman v Superman. In the opening credits the camera pans across newspaper headlines proclaiming Superman dead . . . but is he?

The action begins with Batman battling what appears to be a winged human-sized insect that could easily be confused with a bat, if you were a small child reporting criminal actions witnessed. It turns out that the insect is a “scout” for an impending alien invasion.

It’s not exactly clear who summoned whom or how they knew of each other’s existence, but the first act assembles the core of what will become the Justice League: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher). Henry Cavill also appears as Superman/Clark Kent, while the mere humans who are important to them are Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Mera (Amber Heard), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons). More

Review of GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No—high school age and older
1989, 108 min., Color
Biopic
Olive Films
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, language and drug material
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
The real Lewis performing
Amazon link

He was rock ‘n’ roll’s first great wild man, playing the piano with fierce showmanship while singing a string of his early classic hits: “Crazy Arms,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” and “High School Confidential.” But then he got a little too close to his teeny-bopper audience, and it burned him big-time. His asking price for a single appearance dropped from $10,000 to $250 dollars, almost overnight.

It’s impossible to separate Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the biggest stars of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, from Jerry Lee Lewis, the 23 year old who married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed—that is, the daughter of a cousin who was a member of his band.

A year after Winona Ryder starred in the edgy Heathers and a year before she fell for Johnny Depp’s character in Edward Scissorhands she played Myra Gale Brown, who became the most famous 13 year old in rock ‘n’ roll history. It’s hard to tell what was more scandalous: her age, the marriage to Lewis (played here with great accuracy by Dennis Quaid), or the fact that she was his third wife . . . and rumor had it he never officially got divorced from #2.

Doesn’t sound like a movie for the family, does it? Then again, have you taken a look at young adult fiction recently? The books read by teens today have all manner of frank topics in them. Teens are more aware and grown up these days than they were in the 1950s, and that gap in awareness will probably prompt a few discussions and raise a few eyebrows. Great Balls of Fire! is pretty tame by contemporary standards and may actually serve as a cautionary tale. More

Review of COCO (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family:  Yes
2017, 105 min., Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s almost as if the Pixar gang took inspiration out of failure and gave themselves a challenge: to make a successful animated feature about the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, even though Fox tried in 2014 with The Book of Life and failed to connect with audiences or earn an Oscar nomination. But Pixar pulled it off, doing what Disney-Pixar does best: infusing the film with a strong story and characters, catchy music, comic relief, and most importantly, emotion.

You also get the feeling that Coco was a bounceback film for Pixar, if there is such a thing. Although Pixar’s last three features were ignored by the Oscar nominating committee, Coco not only got the nod, but after winning the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature it’s also favored to win that category at the Oscars tomorrow night.

Coco is a bit of a trailblazer, too, as it’s the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latin cast—if you don’t count Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger, who also makes an appearance. Well received south of the border, it’s become the all-time highest grossing film in Mexico and has earned a worldwide box office approximately three times its budget. Critics have hailed its animation, its original music, and its emotional storyline about the importance of family and never forgetting deceased relatives.

If your little ones are creeped out by skeletons, you should know that most of the film’s 105-minute runtime is spent in the Land of the Dead, where everyone but one little boy and his dog is a walking, talking bundle of bones. But Pixar does a nice job of giving those skeletons personality and making them non-menacing and not all that creepy. They’re also humanized because the land of the dead is portrayed as a futuristic city, only one coincidentally inhabited by skeletons. More

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