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Review of EMMA (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Drama-comedy
Rated PG

Director Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 reincarnation of Jane Austen’s Emma feels like a throwback to early PBS series, where everything and everyone was measured, staid, proper, understated, ever-so-subtly clever, and wrapped in beautiful cinematic finery. In other words, Emma 2020 is for Austen and period costume enthusiasts who like their classics rendered in classical fashion, and that includes the speech (“Husband, comport yourself”).

When it comes to family viewing, the early 19th-century language can be a minor stumbling block, but so can the plot and characters. Emma Woodhouse isn’t the most likable person. A woman of means, she’s not desperate to find a husband to support her. Instead, like the bored young woman she is, she banters with servants and friends and keeps herself entertained by playing matchmaker—or matchbreaker, as the case may be. In this game, others are pawns.

But the thing is, the pacing is so leisurely and the camera so intimately focused on Emma’s non-verbal as well as verbal communication that a good 30 minutes passes before anything really happens. And one of the most interesting characters, Emma’s widowed father (Bill Nighy), doesn’t get as much screen time as fans might like. When our family tried watching Emma together, our college-age kids found it tough going. My wife and I, normally fans of costumed classics, also found it slow—something that, for me, was compounded by the sound mix on this Blu-ray release. Though the featured audio is the standard DTS-HDMA 5.1, most of the sound is dialogue on the center channel that feels contained rather than projected. Add that to the archaic language and British accents, and it can make the dialogue difficult to follow at times.

And this film is mostly dialogue and long lingering reaction shots, plus pastoral shots that showcase the English countryside where it was shot in Tetbury, Lewes, Wiltshire, Surrey, Godalming, Hitchins, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Cheltenham. Like PBS series and movies of old, this Emma is absolutely stunning to look at, and the costume and set design are every bit as eye appealing as the natural settings. More

Review of THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Rated PG
Adventure-Drama

Writer-slash-prospector Jack London penned his classic third novel, The Call of the Wild, in 1903, and the first of seven film adaptations and TV series was released way back in 1935. As a result, people think they know this dog story even if they haven’t read or seen it. What they typically know is that it’s a Yukon gold rush story involving a sled dog. Since the other well-known thing London wrote was “To Build a Fire,” in which a man freezes to death, they naturally assume The Call of the Wild is a sad movie.

And in places, it is. If you have family members who are especially sensitive to bad things happening to animals, this first feature from 20th Century since Disney acquired the movie division of Fox might not be for them.

Overall, though, The Call of the Wild isn’t another weepy Marley & Me or Hachi: A Dog’s Tale or Old Yeller. {Spoiler alert—skip to next paragraph] Dogs are mistreated and animals and humans die—but not Buck.

Buck is the dog whose epic/episodic journey we follow, from owner to owner and from the easy California life of a pampered pet to the harsh world of a sled dog learning how to survive in the wild. Buck is also regrettably CGI, and it takes some time to adjust to that and accept him as a character. From the moment we see him bounding around a judge’s mansion it’s painfully obvious that we’re not watching a real dog. There’s just something “off” about the movement or design. But you get used to it, and as director Chris Sanders told ComingSoon.com, the decision to go with CGI animals was pretty much made for them, because “you just could not safely put a real dog” into the dangerous situations the film depicts. That includes some pretty spectacular scenes.

Sanders also said, “In a situation where you’re using real dogs, you would have a number of dogs playing Buck. So you might have two, three, four or more dogs that are specialized in different behaviors standing in for Buck, which means you’d have a huge inconsistency with these characters. But the most important thing is that we wanted this character to act and to be a character; this is a fable about a dog. The human beings are characters that come and go in Buck’s life . . . .” More

Review of THE CAPER OF THE GOLDEN BULLS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)
Crime comedy-drama

Heist or “caper” movies surged during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, with no fewer than 40 of them made. The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Ocean’s 11 and The Pink Panther inspired remakes, and films like The Sting and How to Steal a Million continue to get a lot of love. But a forgotten heist film, The Caper of the Golden Bulls, deserves at least a little love.

Unlike today’s heist movies, there’s practically no violence in this 1967 entry that’s just been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Shot during the decade James Bond debuted on the big screen, Caper was made at a time when keeping it suave and clever was a priority. Russell Rouse had written the screenplay for Pillow Talk, and as director he brought a light touch to Caper, bolstered by a bright and cheery Vic Mizy soundtrack that came out of the “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” era but would be just as at home in an Austin Powers score.

Stephen Boyd (best known for playing Ben-Hur’s chariot-racing nemesis in the 1959 epic) stars as Peter Churchman, who’s no choirboy. But he’s still a heck of a nice guy. He and his fellow flyboys got into the bank robbery business after the war, but they’ve been retired and waiting out the statute of limitations so they can carry on with their lives without fear of discovery. Churchman owns a club in a small Spanish town and has a relationship with local law enforcement that will remind viewers of Casablanca. His old military pals are married, as Peter hopes to be. Then one of the gang—a “waif” the group enlisted because she had certain skills (Giovanna Ralli)—blackmails Peter so that he’ll agree to get the group together for one last job: to steal the jewels of the statues of the Virgins that have been brought to Pamplona for the Feast of San Fermin. More

Review of SPIES IN DISGUISE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Rated PG
Animation

Spies in Disguise is surprisingly entertaining . . . and surprisingly adult for an animated children’s feature that parents can also watch without being bored out of their skulls.

The bare rear end of a very large man is shown as he’s caught taking a bath. A man whose hand has shrunk because of a chemical transformation peeks inside his pants and screams. A man turned into a pigeon talks about #1 and #2 coming out of the same place. Characters sip martinis and champagne. And Yakuza down shots and take plenty of shots at heroes, with violence ramped up to take full advantage of the cover that animation provides. If this were live action it would easily merit a PG-13 rating.

Then again, if this were live action, it would be more of a challenge to tackle the main premise of Spies in Disguise: a nerdier version of “Q” (voiced by Tom Holland), mocked because of always wanting to invent “nice” devices for conflict resolution rather than the lethal ones his agency wants, is fired for slipping his “kitty glitter bomb” into the field kit of superspy Lance Sterling (Will Smith). When Sterling is framed and is deemed a rogue agent, he seeks Walter’s help to make him “disappear”—but the formula doesn’t make him invisible. It turns him into a pigeon.

Kids will take delight in the pigeon transformation and the rendering of birds in this 13th feature from Fox Animation Studios (Ice Age, Rio, The Peanuts Movie). And hey, so will adults. There’s a “cute” factor that this film has that works as a buffer for the violence and adult elements. More

Review of ALASTAIR SIM’S SCHOOL FOR LAUGHTER: 4 CLASSIC COMEDIES (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Not rated (would be PG)
Comedy

Alastair Sim (best known for his portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol) is the common denominator in this Blu-ray quartet of old black-and-white British comedies: The Belles of St. Trinian’s, School for Scoundrels, Laughter in Paradise, and Hue and Cry.

The most interesting of the four is Hue and Cry (1947),which gets its title from a 1285 British statute decreeing that any private citizen who witnesses a crime must make a “hue and cry” and doggedly pursue the criminal until the offender can be taken into custody. If you ever watched Gomer Pyle shout “Citizen’s arrest” on the old Andy Griffith Show, you get the idea. It’s a fun premise when the one doing the hueing and crying is a naïve bumpkin like Gomer or a teenager who recruits his “gang” to help catch the criminals.

The film was shot less than two years after WWII ended, and it’s fairly incredible for American teens and tweens to see what life was like in England immediately after the war. There are blocks and blocks of bombed-out buildings, some of which become haunts and clubhouses for young people, with heaps of rubble that spread like sand dunes to be climbed. It looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape, and yet here’s this “gang” of boys who are all wearing schoolboy shirts and ties and sportcoats and being just as proper as can be when they address adults.

Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) reads from The Trump comics magazine (seriously—that’s the name of it) but discovers a page is missing. To find out how funny-page detective Selwyn Pike solves the crime he runs off to buy a copy. But while reading the newest installment he looks up and sees two men carrying a crate into a furrier’s shop and the men are using a truck with the exact same license plate as in the comic. Coincidence? Joe thinks not. He tries to investigate and gets caught, with Inspector Ford telling him essentially to go back to school and stop coming up with these wild ideas. It’s almost the reverse situation of the pickpocket gang in Dickens’ London, with these urchins of all ages joining forces to try to prove that there really is something going on, and it’s somehow connected to the author of the comics (Sim). In him they find a believer, but also someone who cautions that this gang might be too ruthless for them to tangle with. And so it goes, with a climax that looks as if director Charles Crichton asked every boy in London to be extras in a memorable battle royale. As I said, once you can get accustomed to the boys’ British slang and rapid speech it’s one of the strongest in this collection because it’s also a vivid glimpse of history that textbooks don’t show us. Like two other films in this collection it’s more clever than funny, but there’s something to be said for cleverness. B More

Review of LITTLE WOMEN (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Rated PG
Drama

As I watched Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s Best Picture-nominated adaptation of the beloved 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel, I was struck by a great irony.

To appreciate this 2019 film—to even understand what’s going on—you really need to have read the book recently. Rather than tell the story chronologically with fully fleshed-out scenes from the book, Gerwig chops up Alcott’s narrative and tells the story out-of-sequence, bouncing back and forth in time using segments not long enough for the confused to get their bearings. The director seems more interested in scenic juxtapositions than she is telling a story she assumes everyone knows by heart—as evidenced by a scene in which young Amy’s talk with her rich aunt (Meryl Streep) immediately segues to a different location and time with an older Amy talking once again with her aunt. Numerous such examples occur throughout the film, and it’s clever. I get that. But I needed to keep asking my wife, who practically has the book memorized, who some of the characters were or what was going on.

That’s where the great irony comes in. While you had to have recently read the novel to be able to fully understand and appreciate this version, if you’re as big of a fan of Little Women as my wife is, you might find yourself annoyed that Gerwig took too many liberties with a book that was great enough not to need those extra bells and whistles.

A fragmented narration that jumps back and forth between the teenage and adult versions of the March sisters isn’t nearly as effective at conveying information as a traditional linear narrative. A non-sequential narration often puts the effect before the cause, and so viewers who don’t have the book memorized may not understand or fully appreciate what characters have been through, or what brought those characters to a certain point. As a result, you don’t feel the same emotional attachment to characters as you might have if had you been with them from the time they were pre-teens and teens through early adulthood, watching them navigate relationships with family; explore their interests in art, music, and writing; perform plays with neighbor “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Clalamet); and dabble in male-female courtships. More

Review of STAR WARS IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Sci-fi Fantasy

George Lucas and The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams had to be dreading the day when the last of the nine-film Star Wars franchise finally went into production—less so because a beloved series was ending, and more because fans have been notoriously hard on final installments. Just ask the Game of Thrones people. They know a little something about expectations being so high they can seldom be met.

But if you’re going to market all things Star Wars over four decades, including books about the various creatures, weapons, uniforms, and vehicles, you’ve got to expect that diehard fans are going to downgrade the film if they see inconsistencies, as überfans did. You also could have predicted that critics, who expect originality in every episode of a storied franchise like this, would also complain that there were too many scenes that seemed little more than variations on iconic scenes from previous Star Wars films.

But if you’re just a casual Star Wars fan who’s looking to be entertained, The Rise of Skywalker is a decent enough popcorn movie.

Yes, the original Star Wars trilogy— A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983)—remains the best trio of the franchise because the films stayed true to what Lucas wanted to do in the first place: make a contemporary version of the Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Commando Cody serials he grew up watching. That meant creating a slam-bang cliff-hanging adventure that was as fun as those old-time black-and-white serials. In the original trilogy, Lucas managed to perfectly capture the blend of action and tongue-in-cheek campiness that made those old-time serials fun. He created a fantasy adventure that didn’t take itself too seriously, with the actors bantering at times like those you saw in another old-time genre: the screwball comedy. More

Review of FLUSHED AWAY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Rated PG
Animation

It’s hard not to be bowled over by Flushed Away, an eccentric tale of a pampered upper-crust pet mouse who’s flushed down the toilet, only to discover a miniature city in the sewers underneath London. French Kung-fu frogs? Singing and screaming slugs? A mouse-granny obsessed with Tom Jones? A Bond-style villain who’s wanting to destroy an entire city? I’m not sure that an animated feature can have more organized chaos and still have such strong emotional content that you walk away from it feeling like you just watched a CGI and claymation Indiana Jones-style adventure.

This 2006 entry from Dreamworks (Shrek) and Aardman (Wallace & Gromit) is an unmistakable tip-of-the-hat to Romancing the Stone, and Flushed Away certainly has the same runaway-train pacing and playful male/female antagonism as that live-action adventure. Add similarities to The African Queen as well and you’ve got a cartoon journey that doesn’t drag, even during the occasional quiet moments.

Though it’s rated PG for “crude humor and some language,” nothing stands out as being really objectionable, and that includes what you’d expect to find floating in the sewers. Mostly, that’s because it all happens so quickly. The gags that do go the low-brow route are subtle or treated in an almost tasteful way. The grossest character is a sewer-rat named Sid (Shane Richie), who shoots up the drain from the underworld and flushes Roddy (Hugh Jackman) from his posh Kensington digs. Sid has the manners of a soccer hooligan, which is appropriate since World Cup Soccer is somehow involved in a destructive master plan by The Toad (Ian McKellen), a literal “underworld” boss. More

Review of THEIR FINEST HOUR: 5 BRITISH WWII CLASSICS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Not rated (would be PG)
War / drama

British WWII movies were dependably good, so it’s no surprise that this collection of five black-and-white films doesn’t contain a single stinker. Every one of them is in the B range. Because of patriotic undertones and because of the era they tend to be on the melodramatic side, but they stick with you as much as those distinctive vocal harmonies from the ‘40s.

Went the Day Well? has a title that sounds stiff, and in fact all of the older women in this 1942 film seem to talk in the same proper, lilting, slightly theatrical voice as Aunt Bee from the old Andy Griffith Show. One of the strongest films in this collection, it’s a home guard movie based on a Graham Greene story about residents of a small British village who are asked to “billet” a platoon of soldiers. Some soldiers are put up at homes and others in a town hall converted into a dorm. But the residents start to suspect that some of those soldiers aren’t at all proper British. Could they be Nazi sympathizers? Or has wartime made everyone overly cautious? Like other films in this collection it’s a bit of a slow simmer but a fascinating drama that might appeal to older children because of the “what if” questions implied by the scenario and because some of the key characters are children. This one’s a B+, with the added bonus of being shot during wartime, when studios couldn’t build new sets and therefore used more location filming with available buildings. As a result, you get a pretty fair idea of what life looked and felt like in 1942.  More

Review of STUFFED (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)
Documentary

Stuffed sounds like it could be a Thanksgiving-themed film for foodies, but it’s actually a documentary about taxidermy. You know: stuffing dead animals, birds, and fish for display. And if you’re wondering who would be interested in a movie like that, you’re not alone. As we watched, we wondered the same thing.

I was interested because my age lines up with one of the senior taxidermists interviewed in this 84-minute documentary. She noted that their generation of taxidermists got their start as children by taking a taxidermy correspondence course where the lessons came in installments, by mail. I took that very same course and remember looking for fresh road kill squirrels or pigeons, then trying to peel away the skin, remove the body, replace it with a mess of wires and sisal, and sew it up again. That was the era when kids were as fascinated by museum dioramas as they were ventriloquism and magic. So as someone who was a complete failure as an adolescent taxidermist, I watched Stuffed with nostalgic interest and admiration for those who can actually do this, and do it well.

Stuffed pretty much explains why I was unable to create lifelike taxidermy mounts. Taxidermy, as this film aptly illustrates, requires the talents of a naturalist, a craftsman, and an artist. As it turned out, I didn’t have an ounce of Picasso in me. So for an audience of up-and-coming generation of potential taxidermists, the film drives home the point that taxidermy is mostly an art that also requires the mindset and calculations of a scientist, the exacting talent of a sculptor and painter, and the passion of a naturalist. More

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