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Review of UGLYDOLLS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes (but older kids will be bored)
2019, 88 min., Color
Animation
STX / Universal
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

UglyDolls only received a 4.6 out of 10 rating at the Internet Movie Database and didn’t even merit a notice at Rotten Tomatoes, it was apparently that rotten. But come on, people. There’s a difference between family films (ones aimed at adults that children can also enjoy) and films that are just for kids. Ugly Dolls is the latter, and you can’t fault them for not trying to be something they’re not. Which, coincidentally, is one of this animated film’s themes.

Critics have complained that it’s one long commercial for the Hasbro UglyDolls, with a new line of movie-related characters added to those that debuted in 2001. But so many films have product placement these days that it’s almost an unfair charge. It seems more appropriate to talk about the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strength #1: The Themes
Yes, there are other movies that are better at celebrating individuality and people with imperfections, but it’s hard to find fault with an animated film about a bunch of plush toys who, instead of being sent along the assembly line to their eventual “homes” in the world with children, get chuted down to Uglyville, a subterranean city full of misfit toys. And one of those rejects, Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson), celebrates how great Uglyville is but still dreams of one day leaving for an even better world she believes exists, a world where toys become beloved companions and possessions of children. Love who you are: You’re not ugly, you’re distinctive, is one of the film’s big themes, and one that children can’t hear too much these days when everyone it seems is calling names or finding fault. Cooperation, teamwork, loyalty, and inclusion are other obvious themes as Moxy’s friends accompany her up the chute to explore that other world.  More

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TRANSIT (2018) DVD

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: No
2018, 101 min., Color
Drama
Music Box Films
Not Rated (would be PG for adult situations and some language)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: German and French Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Although Transit isn’t rated, there’s technically nothing in it that would prevent entire families from watching. There’s not much in the way of language, no nudity or sex, limited alcohol and smoking, and the closest thing to violence are forcible arrests, mostly in the background.

But this isn’t the kind of film an American family typically watches. The language is German and French, with English subtitles. It’s a slow-moving drama that eschews the Hollywood plot arc for a structure that allows viewers to appreciate the directionless predicament of trying to maintain any kind of relationship in a country led by an oppressive regime. This film also embraces anachronism, which can be just a little too artsy for some viewers. Though Transit is based on an Anna Seghers novel that takes place in Marseilles, France in 1940 soon after the Nazi occupation, director Christian Petzold chose to set the film in an unspecified present. The Germans are called “fascists,” not “Nazis,” and while there’s talk of rounding up Jews, there isn’t a Nazi uniform in sight. Petzold said he wanted to blur the novel’s setting so that the issues would resonate with current world events.

And you know what? That blurring is a big reason why parents with older children might like to give this film a shot. Transit does resonate, and in an uncomfortable way if you happen to be among the 59 percent of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s immigrant detainment camps and expansive ICE raids. There are characters here that viewers can identify with that can help them understand how common it is to be “illegal” in a country and how frightening it is when the government decides to launch a purge. Illegals aren’t just displaced physically. There’s also a mental and emotional dislocation that occurs. Add the complications that accompany almost any relationship, whether family, friend, or significant other, and it makes for all sorts of issues to discuss after watching the film together.

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Review of SHAZAM! (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (really!)
2019, 132 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

In Shazam!, a teen foster kid turns into a fully costumed adult superhero with a lightning symbol on his chest every time he shouts “SHAZAM”—the name of an ancient wizard who passed along his power to the lad because he was “pure of heart.”

Except that in the early going we watch this Philly kid trick cops into a store, lock them in, steal the cop car, and, adding insult to injury, eat the driver’s steak sandwich and fries. Needless to say, Billy (mostly played by Asher Angel) has been in and out of foster homes for many years because of such delinquent behavior. But the message here comes across loud and clear: kids who do bad things can still be good, and let’s give a shout-out to all the foster parents out there who give them a chance. At one point we even see a close-up of his new foster’s car and the bumper sticker “I’m a foster mom—what’s your superpower?” Another theme that emerges is “Fosters are family,” something that’s reinforced by a third act team effort that’s needed to beat the evil supervillain.

But you might want to pay attention to that PG-13 rating, which, these days, means children 10 and older. The film gets off to a slow start, for one thing. The first-act set-up can seem both confusing and tedious to younger viewers because it intercuts the villain’s childhood back story with current attempts by foster-kid Billy to locate the mother he lost at a carnival when he wandered off many years ago. But just as Billy has a dual identity—kid and adult—this film at times seems great for kids, while there are other times when those kids had better leave the room . . . or be traumatized.

Truly frightening things happen when the seven deadly sins are personified as real monsters that do some really monstrous things—like biting people’s heads off. And the supervillain (Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) is pretty darned menacing as the bitter adult version of a child once summoned by the wizard, but rejected . . . and by his father, as well, who blames him for a car accident that’s graphic enough that small children might fear everyone has been killed or seriously mutilated.  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

Review of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2019, 104 min., Color
Animation
DreamWorks/Universal
Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

How to Train Your Dragon is that rare animated trilogy that critics and audiences have pronounced consistently entertaining. The first installment, released in 2010, garnered a 99 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes with 91 percent of the general public applauding. But the second and third installments weren’t far off, with 92/91 percent critic ratings and 89/87 popular scores. The only surprise for fans, really, was that it took three years longer for the trilogy “capper” to be released.

But there’s a simple explanation for that: DreamWorks, an independent animation studio whose titles were first self-distributed, then released through Paramount Pictures and later 20th Century Fox, was acquired by Comcast/NBC Universal. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was the first Universal release of a DreamWorks title, and presumably that positions the How to Train Your Dragon franchise to become a “world” at Universal theme parks.

The action takes place a year after the end of the second film, when Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) was made leader of his people. Hiccup and his patched-up dragon, Toothless, have continued their dragon rescue operation, but by bringing them back to their dragon-friendly island of Berk they have also created an overpopulation problem. The solution? Hiccup recalls a “hidden world” for dragons that his deceased father had told him about, so when an all-out confrontation with the dragon-trapping Grimmel the Grisly and his warlords leaves their village in shambles, Hiccup and the rest set out to find that dragon utopia. 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 CAPTAIN MARVEL (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: No
2019, 124 min., Color
Fantasy-Adventure
Marvel / Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief suggestive language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widesscreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Two origin stories for the price of one?

That’s what Marvel Cinematic Universe fans get with Captain Marvel once S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) joins Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) a third of the way into the film. What might have been a warm-up for Shaft also turns out to be Jackson’s most entertaining role since Pulp Fiction.

Swagger + Banter + Bad Ass + Latent Rule-breaker + Alien Handler = a lot of fun to watch, especially playing opposite Larson, who for the first third of the film doesn’t seem to have the same ease prancing about in a superhero suit as, say, TV’s Melissa Benoist does as Supergirl. But Larson comes to life in her “buddy” interactions with Fury, the film takes off after that.

Fans who tire of the same basic plot—a supervillain poses a threat to Earth, so one or more superheroes have to rise to the occasion—will appreciate that the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers a different kind of narrative problem.

Not to be confused with Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who was a little too close to Superman for DC Comics’ comfort, Captain Mar-Vell first appeared in the 1967 comic Marvel Super-Heroes #12, yet another creation of Stan Lee’s, drawn by Gene Colan. In that first comic, Mar-Vell is a Kree “he” sent to Earth to observe their development of weapons technology. In 1982 Mar-Vell was replaced by a woman named Monica Rambeau in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, and the character changed again with Silver Surfer Annual #6 (1993), Captain Marvel #16 (2004), and Civil War: The Return (2007) before Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, got promoted to Captain for a role that (re)creator Kelly Sue DeConnick describes as “Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager.”

So did they finally get it right? Considering the success of rival DC Universe’s Wonder Woman, one would hope so. BC (Before Carol) the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t had a stand-alone female hero. Now they do, and her back story—a combination of elements from all of the Marvel comic renditions—isn’t as confusing or complicated as others have been. It’s just presented as flashback rather than in chronological time. More

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