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Review of THE FIRST KING: BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
Historical Drama, Action
2019, 123 min., Color
Not rated (would be R for graphic violence throughout)
Well Go USA Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Latin DTS-HDMA 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Trailer
Amazon link

The First King: Birth of an Empire (originally titled Romulus and Remus: The First King) is an Italian film in Latin with English subtitles (and a dubbed English option) that’s epic insomuch as it’s the story of the founding of Rome in 750 B.C.

But don’t approach this film thinking you’ll see a story related to that famous 5th century B.C. sculpture of The Capitoline Wolf suckling the child figures of Romulus and Remus (which, incidentally, were added in the 15th century A.D.). The story begins with the twins as full-grown men.

Likewise, don’t think that this film has anything at all to do with images of Ancient Rome that you might have in your head. Director Matteo Rovere’s stylish 2019 film has more in common with sagas of ancient barbarians, with a treatment that’s less “Roman” and cinematically epic than it is a second-cousin to the old Hammer films, with their brooding atmospheric narratives paced to allow atmosphere and place to become as important as the characters in those early pagan dramas.

If you happen to know the story of Romulus and Remus, don’t expect a start-to-finish retelling of their story—a fictionalized myth of the founding of Rome that sprang up in the 3rd century B.C. In this  version, their mother isn’t a vestal virgin and daughter of a king deposed by his brother. She could be, but there’s no mention of it. Legend has it that the twins were saved from drowning by the god Tiberinus, then suckled by a she-wolf and eventually found and adopted by a shepherd. That could have happened as well, but again there’s no mention of it.

When a flash flood sweeps the adult Romulus and Remus and their flock downriver, they’re found by Alba and his men and imprisoned in wooden cages. Other slaves have also been captured. Here’s where it takes a Braveheart or Spartacus turn and Romulus and Remus rise up to free themselves and the other slaves. But their escape is jeopardized not only by a soon-in-pursuit Alba, but by tensions and fighting among their own factions. At the center of the conflict is a “god” that Romulus insisted they bring with them—represented by an eternal fire in a small pot that’s carried by a virgin in the service of the god. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that she prophecies one day, while fondling what looks like a piece of liver, that one of the brothers will become king and founder of an empire while the other will fade into darkness:  one brother will kill the other. More

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Review of SHAFT (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No (older teens only)
2019, 111 min., Color
Crime Comedy-Drama
Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material, and brief nudity
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Inexplicably, the 2019 version of Shaft earned only a 32 percent “rotten” rating at Rotten Tomatoes—meaning that just 32 out of 114 movie critics rated it “fresh.” But at that same site, 94 percent of 7,725 viewers gave it a high rating.

Well, this time I’m siding with the average viewer rather than the RT critics, whose consensus—that “this multi-generational Shaft struggles to keep its characters interesting or anything other than uncomfortably outdated”—only proves that they missed the whole point. The humor in this 2019 film comes from taking a ‘70s hero with ‘70s values and attitudes and plunking him down in the more PC-sensitive here and now, then watching the fun as the anachronistic Shaft manages to make us laugh and still be the coolest guy in the room.

As far as I’m concerned, the second time is the charm for Samuel L. Jackson, who played the iconic badass NYCPD detective like a black version of Dirty Harry in a 2000 remake that felt more outdated to me because it took itself too seriously. But in the 2019 version, Jackson and the whole cast seem to have fun revisiting characters from the original 1971 “Blaxploitation” film starring Richard Roundtree (who has a cameo as “Grandpa”). By having Jackson act like a 1970s lawless, anti-PC tough guy, the filmmakers manage to pay homage to the original character while also spoofing him. Perhaps the best example comes when Shaft sends his son wildly inappropriate birthday presents wrapped in brown butcher paper—gifts that include, as the boy grows up, condoms )”What’s in your wallet?”) and girlie magazines. More

Review of THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR (DVD)

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Grade: C
Entire family: No
2019, 100 min., Color
Romance
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Warner Bros. / MGM
Aspect ratio: 16×9 letterboxed widescreen (enhanced)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

My teenage daughter (the target audience) said The Sun Is Also a Star reminded her of Everything, Everything (2017), which was based on a novel by Nicola Yoon. She wasn’t a fan of that film, nor this one, which is also based on a novel by Yoon—though as a fan of Riverdale she did like seeing Charles Melton (Reggie) as the male lead.

In this teen novel-turned-film, Melton plays Daniel Jae Ho Bae, the “number one son” in a Korean family—which, we’re told, means he has no choice as to what he will do with his life. His parents want him to go to Dartmouth and become a doctor, rather than work in the family business, which, inexplicably, is running a black hair care store. So of course Daniel, who is at odds with his brother, ends up meeting and falling for a black girl who also happens to be an immigrant. He’s on his way to an important interview to secure a recommendation so that he can get into Dartmouth, and she’s on her way to the Immigration office to try to fight the deportation order that would have her family return to Jamaica the very next day.

What Daniel really wants to be is a poet, but from what we hear he’d better stick to hair care or med school. It’s the poet in him that makes him a romantic of gigantic proportions, so when he talks about “deus ex machina” that day and later sees it written on the jacket of this young woman at the train station, he pursues her until she agrees to give him the one day he needs to convince her that love is real—even by scientific principles. Natasha (Yara Shahidi, Blackish) wants to become an astronomer, and their story is told from her point of view, which means we get these pretentious sounding monologues and scientific drawings onscreen, accompanied by her voiceover. More

Review of ADVENTURES OF DALLY AND SPANKY (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
Family drama
2019, 94 min., Color
Rated PG for brief language
Sony
1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer (contains spoilers)
Amazon link

Jack Russell terriers have been popular with Hollywood. Most famously there was Uggie, who starred in the 2011 Academy Award-winning picture The Artist. Before him, we saw Eddie on the sitcom Frazier, Skip in the film My Dog Skip, and a CGI-enhanced Milo in The Mask. And now there’s Dally, who, unlike previous Jack Russells, isn’t a solo act. She’s partnered with a miniature horse named Spanky (here’s a link to their 2018 performance at the Del Mar National Horse Show just north of San Diego).

Though Dally and Spanky aren’t listed in the credits and the animals may or may not be the actual Dally and Spanky, this family movie was inspired by their dog-and-pony show. And while too often “family” has meant sappily unwatchable, Adventures of Dally & Spanky isn’t half bad. For all its flaws (and there are many) you still end up liking it because, corny as they seem, as one announcer at a talent show remarks, you can’t not like an animal act, can you? And that’s what this is: an 84-minute animal act that begins like Air Bud and quickly turns into Sing.

There’s not much in the way of plotting, and what there is we’ve seen before. Seventeen-year-old Addy (Brenna D’Amico) is grappling with the loss of someone close to her, and it’s affecting her relationship with her mother, stepfather, and half-sister Ella (Reylynn Caster). When she inherits a miniature horse, though, it ends up being therapeutic. And when her half-sister’s dog takes a shine to her horse, it brings the half-sisters closer together as they train the animals side by side and prepare for competitions to help the family raise money to pay the bills and cover the added expenses of boarding a horse. More

Review of ROCKETMAN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: No (just families with older teens)
2019, 121 min., Color
Musical drama
Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content
Paramount
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen (enhanced)
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

A year after Rami Malek channeled Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and introduced a new young audience to Queen we get Rocketman, which attempts to do the same for Elton John.

Make that Sir Elton John, a musician whose first smash hit (“Your Song” in 1970) propelled him to a career so successful that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, inducted into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, and named Billboard’s most successful male solo artist of all-time. In other words, he’s more than deserving of a biopic.

Make that a hybrid biopic—one that combines the rise (and stumble) of a musician with Broadway-style big production song-and-dance numbers that are imaginatively intercut into the film’s narrative, along with a backward-looking frame with younger alter ego that will remind some viewers of Birdman. Especially given the plume-like costume that Elton (Taron Egerton) wears to his therapy group as he recalls his former self. Is he really dressed that way, or is it a symbol or metaphor? There’s a surreal, glam-bam-thank-you-ma’am element to the film that seems very much in keeping with the real Elton John’s out-of-this-world performance persona—though the musician’s sexual orientation is treated matter-of-factly. More

Review of CURIOUS GEORGE: ROYAL MONKEY (DVD)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire Family: Yes, but…
2019, 87 min., Color
Children’s, Animation
Rated G
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Sheet of 15 stickers
Clip
Amazon link

Raise your hand if the Curious George picture books by Hans Agusto Rey, Margret Rey, and illustrator Alan J. Shalleck helped you learn how to read. If so, you’re not alone.

Since the little monkey first appeared in 1941 with his friend, The Man in the Yellow Hat, all seven original titles penned and inked by this trio have remained in print. They’re that popular. And 2006 was a big year for the tailless monkey. That year, an animated TV show was launched that would run for nine more years, and Universal bankrolled a big-screen feature starring big-name talent and costing $50 million to make.

Producer Ron Howard was involved with both projects. “A lot of animated films throw in adult jokes meant to go over the heads of kids. Curious George doesn’t,” Howard told an interviewer. George doesn’t speak in the books, and Howard said that giving him a voice was never an option. “But you know, there have been a lot of very funny characters going back to Harpo Marx that didn’t have much to say,” he said.

The big-screen version didn’t make as much at the box office as the studio had hoped, and since then the movies have been feature-length direct-to-home-videos. Usually that’s a bad thing, but not in this case. The smaller expectations have allowed Howard and co-producing partner Brian Glazer to focus on the audience that the books were intended to reach.

Though two 2009 films, Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey and Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas, were disappointments, the filmmakers found their groove with Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest (2013) and Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle (2015). And I’m happy to report that Curious George: Royal Monkey keeps the winning streak alive. More

Review of MISS ARIZONA (2018) (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2018, 94 min., Color
Comedy-Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some language and innuendo)
Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Miss Arizona is an indie film that tries to be quirky (in the indie tradition) while also riding a familiar, mainstream plot.

In her first full-length feature, writer-director Autumn McAlpin gives us a first act that’s a little heavy-handed, almost to the point of being melodramatic. In a series of opening scenes we learn that Rose Raynes (Johanna Braddy) is unhappy with the way her life turned out after she won Miss Arizona 15 years ago. Her business-minded husband has been distant and inattentive for at least 10 years now, and her 10-year-old son has gotten to the point where he seemingly doesn’t need her anymore and no longer gives her the “cuddle time” she needs.

When her husband goes away on a business trip, he asks Rose to make sure she attends a lunch with the other wives at the business so she can keep him posted on the gossip. That lunch leads to Rose being asked to take over as “life coach” at a women’s shelter that the company sponsors. And that’s when prim and proper Rose, who shows up with her sash and crown ready to share the “life skills” she learned—like how to behave in polite society, or how to snag a husband—realizes those aren’t the lessons that women in a shelter need. More

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