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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

Review of JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-
Rated PG-13
Fantasy Action-Adventure

Before I offer my family’s take on Jumanji: The Next Level, I’d like to point out that the Internet Movie Database readers thought it was almost as good as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (6.8 vs. 6.9/10) and 87 percent of the audience at Rotten Tomatoes rated them dead even.

Our family’s reaction came closer to the Tomatometer Critics, who gave it a 71 percent “fresh” rating compared to the 76 percent rating they had given Welcome to the Jungle. We didn’t think it was as good.

Welcome to the Jungle effectively used the Breakfast Club formula of grouping different teen personalities together so that we knew, by the time they entered the game, what they were afraid of, what they most wanted, and how they acted normally, so we could appreciate their every movement as an avatar within the game that had sucked them inside. The writing was crisp and it all made sense.

This time, though, the beginning is slow and which characters are which avatars is a bit muddled. When we watch Spencer (Alex Wolff) drag through some pre-game scenes that are supposed to explain why he goes back into the game, those scenes seem unnecessary because they don’t really offer much in the way of an explanation. They just slow the narrative. Same with the introduction of Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged business partner Milo (Danny Glover). The camera time they get feels wasted, given DeVito’s and Glover’s talents. You find yourself thinking, “Come on, get on with it.” More

Review of 1917 (Blu-ray combo)

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1917 Blu-ray coverGrade: A-/B+
Rated: R
War

1917 was one of my top five films of 2019, and after the awards show dust cleared it emerged with three Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing), three Golden Globes (Best Picture-Drama, Best Director, Best Original Score), and seven BAFTA Awards (Best Film, Outstanding British Film, Best Director, Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects, and Cinematography).

It’s a striking film that’s a contender for family movie nights if the children are older, despite the R rating, because it’s a war film with an underlying antiwar theme that doesn’t rely too heavily on bloody carnage to get its message across. This unique film from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins features just two soldiers on a mission that begins to feel like a fantasy quest, given the surreal landscape and dangers and delights they encounter. The ground they cover is a recently abandoned battle zone, so while there’s little actual fighting, the effects of war pop up here and there in horror-thriller fashion as sobering reminders—hence the R rating.

Long takes make it feel as if the film was made with just two continuous shots, with a brief blackout in the middle. You realize how different this film is from other war movies almost instantly, as it opens with a shot of two soldiers lolling in a bucolic countryside in a pose vaguely reminiscent of the one that Alice strikes at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. But when one of the two soldiers, named Blake, is summoned and told to pick another and report to the commander and the camera follows them, it’s a long tracking shot through the trenches that leads them to their reverse Wonderland, and not a rabbit hole. That sensation is supported by a later episode in which one of the soldiers helps a French woman in hiding by calming her baby and reciting an Edward Lear poem to the infant—a poem called “The Jumblies.” And of course there are no wondrous creatures in this surreal world—just dead bodies, rats, a few of the enemy, and a number of close calls. More

Review of THE RARE BREED (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Not rated (would be PG)
Western

Every now and then a different kind of western rides into town, and in 1966 it was The Rare Breed. The title was meant to refer not only to the Hereford steer a recently widowed English woman (Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter (Juliet Mills) brought to St. Louis to cross-breed with Texas longhorns, but also the tough old cowboy (James Stewart) they enlist to help them.

There are no Indians in this film, no cattlemen feuding with farmers, no gunslingers out to prove themselves, no saloons full of card sharps, no cavalry riding to the rescue, and no aging sheriff trying to keep it together while keeping order. There’s also very little violence, so The Rare Breed is rare for a western as well. After working with Stewart in the poignant Civil War western Shenandoah, director Andrew McLaglen dipped his bucket into the comedy well again, though it’s not as brimming as an earlier raucous film he made with O’Hara and John Wayne (McLintock!). This one isn’t a slam-bang action movie, though there are strategically placed moments of action and tension. With a minimalist plot, The Rare Breed is more of a character study, a slow-simmering romance, and a light-hearted western that’s offbeat enough to make it seem refreshingly different.

“Bulldog” Burnett (Stewart) is a complicated man. He’s a man of principles, you can instantly tell, but what principles? The epitome of the never-fazed stoic cowboy, he knows when to mind his own business and, in the spirit of American exceptionalism, tends to look out for Number 1. When a Hereford breeding bull named Vindicator (that only responds to a whistled version of “God Save the Queen”) is bought by a man representing a Scottish rancher (Brian Keith), the widow hires Burnett to deliver the bull. Pretty straightforward, right? Except that Burnett also accepts money from another rancher to allow his men to steal the bull at an opportune time. Call it the cowboy version of the Black Sox throwing the series. More

Review of PLAYMOBIL: THE MOVIE (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Rated: PG
Animation

Given the success of the Lego movies, one thing that’s surprising about Playmobil going Hollywood is that it took them so long. The other thing is that there aren’t any Native Americans or knights in this film, and those were among the very first Playmobil sets.   But hey, Ancient Rome is here, and so are Playmobil pirates, cowboys, Vikings, spies, robots, a T-Rex, and a food truck operator.

Yep, it’s pretty random, and while the fun lies in seeing these Playmobil sets come alive on the big screen, Playmobil: The Movie can feel a bit like a screenwriter’s challenge: see how many different Playmobil sets you can jam into a single film. And while the Lego movies’ bread and butter was pop culture allusions and verbal humor, this Playmobil film relies more heavily on sight gags.

As a result, it can feel more like a film aimed at children than adults—but this film for children has secret agent Rex Dasher (Daniel Radcliffe) sipping a martini that’s shaken, not stirred. It also features people being drugged or roofied, a kick to the groin, bales of pink hay that feel like an allusion to marijuana bales. And there are battles where swordplay and fisticuffs and explosions up the ante from children’s typical pretend play of knocking figures down with rubber bands or Nerf guns. More

Review of NE ZHA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Not Rated (would be PG-13)
Animated fantasy-adventure

The ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang (light/dark, positive/negative) is at the heart of Ne Zha, an animated feature film from Chinese director Jiaozi that shuns the harsh angularity of anime in favor of the rounded contours that typically characterize western animation.

In fact, there are moments in this 3D computer animated fantasy when you might find yourself thinking of Disney’s more traditionally rendered Mulan, especially when a governor named Li Jing (Hao) is drawn in the same style as a younger version of Mulan’s father. The governor and Madam Yin (Qi) learn that the Primeval Lord of Heaven has decided that they will be the ones to raise one half two beings that came from the Heavenly Pearl. The other half is being raised and controlled by the Dragon King, who seems determined to prove that even the good offspring of the Primeval Lord of Heaven can be used for evil purposes.

But of the two, Nezha is the hellraiser. In fact, the full Chinese title of the film translates as “Birth of the demon child Nezha.” He’s like Dennis the Menace and Stitch rolled into one—a little fireball that his doting parents love, nonetheless, and want to protect. Because of his temperament and frankly evil laugh, he’s ostracized by his community, and probably justifiably so. I mean, he is prophesized to bring destruction to the world, so why would people cozy up to him? But eventually the community learns they have to count on him. More

Review of DARK WATERS (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Rated PG-13
Investigative legal drama

Dark Waters sounds like the title of a missing person case or murder mystery, and quite literally that’s what this legal drama turns out to be. It’s also based on a true story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, who in 1998 was a newly minted partner at a Cincinnati, Ohio law firm that specialized in defending chemical companies. But one day a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia brings a box of VHS tapes to his office. Bilott is ready to brush him off until the man says he knows Bilott’s grandmother. As a result, Billot drives to Parkersburg to investigate. There he sees a lot of unsettling things, ranging from blackened teeth to a mass burial site for cattle, close to 200 of which died after suddenly acting crazy. The farmer shows him more. Convinced there’s something going on, Bilott agrees to look into it.

This film traces his investigation into DuPont’s use of the dangerous chemical they labeled C-8 (used in Teflon) and the backlash Bilott faced, both personally and professionally. On the home front, for example, he had only been married for several years to his wife Sarah (Jane Hathaway) when he took the case, and at one point in the film, after his obsession starts to rival Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale, we see how close to the breaking point everyone is. It was no better for those in Parkersburg who came forward to testify against DuPont—the biggest employer and community benefactor in the area.

Dark Waters does a nice job of showing the dilemma that communities face: Can you really bit the hand that feeds you? Can you really choose between jobs, or health? If you do anything to sabotage the corporation, you also sabotage the community or your own family. Yet, one worker in the film tells how his brother got hired at DuPont and died two years later of testicular cancer, leaving behind three small boys. How important was his job? This film tells the stories of the victims of corporate greed and the heavier prices that they all pay. More

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