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ZOOLANDER NO. 2: THE MAGNUM EDITION (Blu-ray combo)

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Zoolander2coverGrade: C
Entire family: No
2016, 102 min., Color
Paramount
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS: X, DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Fifteen years after Zoolander (2001) registered somewhere around the B- range on the cult comedy scale, along comes the sequel that fans never thought would happen. Yet Zoolander No. 2 feels like an uninspired knockoff rushed into production to take advantage of the first film’s popularity.

Oh, there are a few wickedly funny gags—as when Justin Bieber is hunted down and machine-gunned to death by an assassin who, like a true dis-Belieber, keeps firing much longer than necessary. And Bieber, in cameo, provides the punch line: using his dying moment to Instagram a photo of himself. But for the most part the jokes fall flat, and even the comedy of character seems cramped by the script’s far-fetched plot and pedestrian dialogue.

The original Zoolander probably worked as well as it did because the outrageous characters were balanced by a satiric plot that at least made some sense. Egotistical male model Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) lost his top male model crown to the upstart Hansel (Owen Wilson), and lost his marbles in the process. Enter the evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell), who, teamed with modeling agent Maury Ballstein (Jerry Stiller), act on behalf of the entire fashion industry, which will collapse if they can no longer obtain cheap child labor in Malaysia. And that’s just what could happen after a new progressive Prime Minister wins election in that Asian country. They decide to program a brainless assassin, and who’s more vacuous, and, since his rapid decline, more ripe for manipulation than Derek Zoolander?

Zoolander No. 2 begins with both former top male models in seclusion following the collapse of a building that Derek built with “popsicle sticks and glue,” during which Derek’s beloved wife Matilda (Christine Taylor) was killed and Hansel, who had just been hanging out, was horribly, facially disfigured. Many years afterwards both receive a visit from Billy Zane, who Zoolander2screenpersuades them to attend a House of Atoz fashion show. For Derek, the added incentive is to resume living a productive life so he can regain custody of Derek Jr., whom he lost because of parental neglect (he couldn’t make spaghetti sauce—seriously). But someone is also systematically killing the world’s pop stars, and an apparent Interpol agent (Penélope Cruz as Valentina) asks for their help. Meanwhile, Mugatu has been in a special prison, and somehow Derek waltzes in and Mugatu waltzes out. And new models like the androgynous All (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the hipster Don Atari (Kyle Moody) have taken over the runway.

Stiller, who directed and produced this sequel, has a lot of friends, and almost all of them make an appearance. Yet even the cameos, which are normally a source of delight, seem to be more of a “huh” moment, again because the whole sequel seems to fall flat. Appearances by Katie Couric, Jim Lehrer, Christiane Amanpour, Jane Pauley, Justin Theroux, Mila Jovovich, Matt Lauer, Kristen Wiig, Susan Boyle, Andy Dick, Olivia Munn, Naomi Campbell, Ariana Grande, Willie Nelson, Katy Perry, Sting, M.C. Hammer, John Malkovich, Tommy Hilfiger, Kate Moss, and a host of fashion icons don’t seem to add any effervescence. And there’s no hilariously stupid-but-energetic scene to match the one from the first film, in which Derek’s equally dim-witted male model friends have a gasoline war at a gas station, frolicking as if for a photographer, only to explode when someone decides to light a match.

Is Zoolander No. 2 bad enough to take the second half of its title as an ironic appraisal? No, because there are still a few scenes that will make you smile, and if you’re a fan of the first film there’s still Wilson and Stiller in character that are fun to watch. But laugh-out-loud moments are harder to come by in the sequel, and for that you can thank the writers: Stiller, Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg. For whatever reason, their “wouldn’t it be funny if” gauges were malfunctioning.

Language: one muttered f-bomb and milder swear words (bitch, bastard, damn, hell, whore) used throughout
Sex: Talk of orgies and masturbation, a woman puts a man’s hands on her breasts
Violence: Bieber’s gun-down, several stabbings
Adult situations: In addition to what’s been mentioned, just a weird everybody’s pregnant in Hansel’s family scene
Takeaway: You’d think after 15 years they could come up with something a little funnier. As is, Zoolander No. 2 is really really really ridiculously average at best.

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FRANK SINATRA 5-FILM COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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FrankSinatra5FilmcoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, but…
1945-1964, times vary (see below), Color
Approved (would be PG for some adult situations)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: Varies (see below)
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 1.0 and DTS-HD MA 5.1 (Guys and Dolls)
Bonus features: C
Amazon link

For family movie night, the best bet in the Frank Sinatra 5-Film Collection is Robin and the 7 Hoods—a 1964 prohibition musical-comedy set in Chicago that offers an amusing gangster version of the Robin Hood legend. That film and others in this collection new to Blu-ray are available as single titles as well. Whether the five-film collection is worth buying will depend on how much your family likes old musicals (four out of five films are musicals) and how tolerant the kids are of older films. But at least all five are in color, and all are the equivalent of PG-rated films. The discs seem to be identical to the single releases, with the same bonus features, but with a handsome hardcover book of color and black-and-white photos from the five films and the discs on separate plastic pages in an oversized Blu-ray case, all tucked inside a sturdy cardboard slipcase. Picture quality is terrific for all five films, though the Mono DTS on four of them may not be what viewers are used to. But if your family loves musicals—old ones included—this is a great collection.

Robin7HoodsscreenRobin and the 7 Hoods (1964, 123 min., 2.40:1 widescreen, trailer)—This clever and funny riff on the Robin Hood legend stars Peter Falk (TV’s Columbo) in a hilarious role as Guy Gisbourne (in the movies, it was Sir Guy of Gisbourne), who bumps off Big Jim and takes control of the city racketeering, with the Sheriff offering protection for a fee. Naturally Robbo (Sinatra) objects, and their rival factions square off in a battle for speakeasy supremacy. Bing Crosby stars as the troubadour Allen A. Dale, with Dean Martin playing John Little (instead of Little John), and Sammy Davis Jr. as Will Scarlet. But the Robin Hood legend really kicks in when Big Jim’s daughter, Marian (Barbara Rush), thinks the Sheriff responsible for her father’s death and Robbo responsible for his disappearance. She gives Robbo a $50,000 payoff. “Get rid of it,” Robbo says, and his merry men donate the whole bunch to an orphanage. Other charities follow, and it’s fun to watch this legend play itself out on Chicago gangsterland turf. There’s bootlegging and flappers in skimpy costumes but no sex, no language to speak of, and no onscreen violence. Great songs, clever plot, and funny moments. My teenage son gave it an A, he liked it so much. I’d say it’s more of an A-.

GuysandDollsscreenGuys and Dolls (1955, 150 min., 2.55:1 widescreen, trailer)—The second best title in this collection is the film adaptation of the Broadway hit that itself was based on a Damon Runyon story about Broadway gamblers. Nathan Detroit (Sinatra) runs a floating crap game and has been dating dancer Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) for more than a decade. He’s fond of her but unable to commit to marriage because he’s just as fond of gambling and his gambling pals, which include his “second,” Nicely-Nicely Johnson (comic actor Stubby Kaye). There are plenty of Broadway denizens in need of saving, and Jean Simmons plays Sarah Brown, who is in charge of the local Salvation Army. The action is set in motion when Lt. Brannigan (Robert Keith) puts the heat on and the only place that will host Nathan’s illegal gambling operation for one night wants $1000. How to get it? With famous better Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) in town, Nathan tries to get him to bet on a sure thing for him. When Sky brags that he can convince any woman to go with him to Havana for the night Nathan looks out the window and points out Sarah Brown. “I choose her,” he says, and the bet is on. The song-and-dance numbers are old-school musical and the dialogue is Runyonesque, but after a while you get used to it. My son liked this one too, and we’d give it a B+.   More

BIG EYES (Blu-ray)

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BigEyescoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2014, 105 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Anchor Bay
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: C-
Trailer/Amazon link

Big Eyes isn’t your usual Tim Burton film. Though there’s a twisted aspect to the relationship between painter Margaret Keane and her controlling husband Walter—along with a vibe that’s faintly reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands—it’s still a pretty straightforward biopic. But don’t be misled by the box blurb announcing that Amy Adams won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy. Big Eyes is neither. It’s a drama made fascinating by Adams’ flawless performance, with occasional comedic moments provided by Christoph Waltz’s brilliant-but-delusional P.T. Barnum-like antics as Walter Keane.

Walter manipulates the art world and the buying public as much as he does his wife, whose paintings he takes credit for—first, to make a sale, then, because it feeds his ego. Throughout the Sixties they continue this charade, with Walter rising as a public figure and Margaret shrinking to even smaller dimensions than when they first met and she was overwhelmed by his personality.

You forget that it’s a Tim Burton film until Margaret goes grocery shopping and has hallucinations of all the other shoppers looking at her with the trademark “big eyes” that she featured on all of her paintings of children. That’s the one creepy moment in the film that feels Burtonesque. But you can see why the director was drawn to Margaret’s story. Like Edward Scissorhands, she’s forced to live in isolation and spends much of her time in an attic, working away. Like Scissorhands, she’s timid and naive and easily manipulated. And the big eyes she paints? It’s those paintings of big-eyed, dark-eyed, sad-looking waifs that come closest to what we expect from Burton.

BigEyesscreenBig Eyes tells Margaret’s story, beginning with her flight in 1958 from her first husband and her meeting Walter Keane at a San Francisco art fair, where they both were trying to sell their works. It’s rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language, but I’d have to say that it’s pretty understated, with far less language and violence than most PG-13 movies, and no sex. It wouldn’t hurt young teens to see that an abusive relationship doesn’t have to involve physical violence. There’s no hitting in their marriage, only intimidation and manipulation, with Margaret being an unwitting enabler because of her timidity. Yes, there’s one scene where Walter gets drunk and menaces his wife and stepdaughter, but young girls might benefit from seeing a film like this, and how easily things can snowball in a controlling relationship. While Big Eyes is the story of a twisted relationship, the focus remains on the art, the phenomenon that this “kitsch” art became, and what art and those children mean to Margaret. In that respect, it’s quirkier and more upbeat than your typical sour relationship story.   More

WITHOUT A CLUE (Blu-ray)

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WithoutaCluecoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes . . . but
1988, 107 min., Color
Rated PG for some violence, smoking, and drinking
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (says the box, but it looks more like 1.85:1)
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0
Bonus features: D (trailer only)
Trailer/Amazon link

From 1982-1987 Stephanie Zimbalist starred as the assistant to private detective Remington Steele, whom she had invented because no client would trust a female detective. He got the credit, but she was the sleuth. TV writers Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther took that concept and applied it to the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. And TV veteran Thom Eberhardt made the leap with them to direct the 1988 PG-rated crime comedy-mystery Without a Clue.

It’s a PG-rated light comedy that tries for slapstick at times and satire other times and often gets caught in-between. The result is a kind of tongue in cheek (or maybe bubble-pipe in mouth) parody that has a warm, tea cozy feel to it.

Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine make a good pair as Dr. Watson and the third-rate actor he hired to play the part of Sherlock Holmes so that he could be free to practice medicine and deduce all he wanted, without criticism or scrutiny. Of course, when you hire a bad actor it should come as no surprise that he turns out to be a ham who hogs the spotlight and has any number of habits that annoy the real detective—including drinking too much and clumsy attempts at womanizing.

By film’s end, of course, they’ll end up becoming a real team, but the fun comes from watching them get there. Without a Clue is a light mystery that features famed Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman, who played Indiana Jones’ nemesis René Belloq) masterminding a plot to flood the market with counterfeit British money and cause the collapse of the British economy. The £5 printing plates have disappeared, and so has the printing supervisor. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones, who was the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is jealous of Holmes and competes with him to solve the case, standing in the wings every time adoring reporters surround Holmes.

WithoutaCluescreenThere’s a kidnapping and several skirmishes, all of which are handled with the same light touch as elsewhere in the film. Any potential trauma from the kidnapping, for example, is muted by a comic sequence that has Holmes pinned behind the door so that all we can see is his scrunched face as he threatens to pounce on the ruffians and urges a woman to keep a stiff upper lip. A few gunfights and an explosion are the only exceptions. Otherwise, moments of tension are defused by similar humorous devices, so that there’s never much in the way of serious peril—only comic danger. There’s no language, and the only sexuality comes from the unmasking of a transvestite and a little keyhole peeping in which a woman is seen taking off stockings. Overall, it’s a relatively wholesome film that relies on some familiar, but softened elements from private detective mysteries—including a woman in distress (Lysette Anthony) and a housekeeper (Pat Keen) who sees more than anyone thinks.   More

INTO THE WOODS (2014) (Blu-ray)

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IntotheWoodscoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Not really
2014, 125 min., Color
Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer/Amazon link

I was surprised to see that more than 52,000 readers at the Internet Movie Database collectively rated Disney’s Into the Woods a mere 6.2 out of 10. And at Rotten Tomatoes, only 53 percent of some 85,000 viewers liked it. Obviously, these were people more familiar with the Disney formula than the Broadway musical penned by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, because the film version stays pretty true to the theatrical production.

In fact, despite the addition of greater visual depth and special effects, Disney’s Into the Woods has a very staged feel to it, except that the actors aren’t consciously playing to the audience. We’re not talking about the insertion of occasional songs, either. Like an operetta, Into the Woods features plenty of monologues and conversations that are sung rather than spoken. It’s a very theatrical film, in other words, and I can see where, if you’re not expecting that, it could throw you for a loop.

So could the encroachment of serious themes and an ending that undercuts the fairytale notion of happily-ever-after. You and your family may find yourself tearing up, and that’s almost unheard of with a Disney film. In the past, there may have been weepy Bambi’s mother and Old Yeller moments, but all was usually well that ended well. There’s a difference between a happy ending and a hard-earned optimism that reinforces the old adage about making lemonade when life gives you lemons, and it’s the latter that audiences encounter when they travel vicariously Into the Woods.

Disney’s film version may be rated PG, but the emotional content may make the film appropriate only for children old enough to understand and accept what was repackaged in The Lion King as “The Circle of Life.” If they can handle The Lion King, they can handle this. But they have to love live theater and musicals to love Disney’s Into the Woods. It’s that simple. They also need to be able to understand the basic premise, which is an intricate weave of familiar fairytales.

Everybody wants something, which is what the cast sings about in the long, opening title song that begins, “I Wish.” It might help to share ahead of time with smaller children that Into the Woods is a mash-up of fairytales, and that we jump from tale to tale and character to character.

The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) desperately want a child, and the witch next door who had put a curse on their family (Meryl Streep in her Oscar-nominated role) offers them a way to do that: they must bring her a milky white cow (from the Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale), a slipper of gold (from the Cinderella fairytale), a blood-red cape (from the Red Riding Hood fairytale), and hair as yellow as corn (from the Rapunzel fairytale).

All the characters go into the woods: Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is sent by his mother (Tracy Ullman) to sell the cow, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) goes there to talk to her dead mother and receive the gift of fine clothes that will allow her to attend the ball, Little Red (Lilla Crawford) skips to her grandmother’s house deep in the woods, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) rebels against her witchy mother by secretly seeing a prince, the baker and his wife try to acquire their objects, and the giant and giant’s wife from Jack and the Beanstalk eventually wreak havoc.   More

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (Blu-ray)

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ExoduscoverGrade: C+
Entire family: No
2014, 150 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: C-/D
Trailer/Amazon link

Last year two modernized biblical blockbusters came to the big screen: Noah, starring Russell Crowe in the title role, and Exodus: Gods and Kings, with Christian Bale playing Moses. Both films took so many liberties with the Old Testament version that if a bell rang every time they veered off-course, we’d all be deaf. But at least there are no fantastic rock monsters in Exodus, the superior of the two.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is Ridley Scott’s attempt to retell the story of Moses and the Israelites’ flight from Egypt, but it’s significantly different from Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, which was closer to King James.

Exodusscreen1De Mille made an epic. Scott, like Noah director Darren Aronofsky, made an action movie. There’s no wandering the desert with staff and sandals in Exodus. Scott’s Moses rides a horse across the Red Sea narrows and the wilderness to Midian, with a sword in his bedroll. This Moses wears a breastplate and fights assassins, and when the time finally comes for him to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites to freedom, there’s more talk of rebellion than there is of a “promised land.” He teaches the Israelites to fire bows and arrows and leads them on commando raids. This Moses is more military leader than prophet, and there’s not a single “And the Lord says” to be found here. “They’re Egyptians,” Moses tells Ramesses, “they should have the same rights, they should be paid.”

Much of the language is contemporary, with liberal use of contractions—something my 17-year-old son assures me will go a long way toward appealing to the younger generation. So you have the Pharaoh saying things like, “Everybody but the Viceroy, OUT!” and another ancient Egyptian saying, “I didn’t say exiled. I said DEAD.” In Midian, Moses says, “Your daughters invited me here for food. They didn’t tell me there was going to be an interrogation”—a word that didn’t exist until the late 14th century.

Maybe that’s nit-picking, since Scott manages to create a visually interesting ancient world. He also uses today’s superior technology to wow us when God sends 10 plagues to smite the Egyptians—even though the Nile turns blood red [SPOILER ALERT] because of a giant crocodile that attacks everyone like an ancient Jaws. And later, when the Red Sea rushes over the Egyptians, we briefly see sharks swirling around them in a feeding frenzy. All that too will probably go a long way toward appealing to a new generation of teens and ‘tweens who’ve grown up playing action-filled video games.   More

WALKING WITH DINOSASURS (Blu-ray combo)

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Walking with Dinosaurs (FHT)Grade: C
Entire family: No (only small children will like it)
2013, 87 minutes, Color
BBC Earth/Evergreen Films/Fox
Rated PG  for creature action, peril, and mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features: C
Trailer

When Fox got back into the animation game in 1994, I and probably half the world envisioned the kind of spirited competition the studio gave Disney during the Golden Age of cartoon shorts. But that hasn’t materialized. After the promising theatrical debut of Anastasia, only the Ice Age films and Rio could be called hits.

The problem isn’t the animation, which has been accomplished and, at times, jaw-dropping. It’s the concepts and the writing, and there isn’t a better illustration of that than the film version of Walking with Dinosaurs, which was released in theaters as Walking with Dinosaurs 3D. Produced by BBC Earth and Evergreen films, this animated feature has gorgeous CGI artwork and effects and tells an interesting-enough story, even if it does lumber a little too close to Disney’s Dinosaur (2000). But Fox bought the distribution rights and decided that instead of a voiceover narration like the TV series that spawned it, they would make the dinosaurs talk in order to better connect with audiences.

Bad move. So bad, in fact, that BBC Earth must have balked, since the 3D combo pack includes a “Cretaceous Cut” that allows you to watch the film without the unnecessary live-action frame story that the Fox brass tacked on, and without the talking characters.

The addition of wise-guy narration, a goofy tone, and juvenile humor (sometimes the scatological sort) turns this animated feature into something only small children will enjoy. And that’s a shame, given how accomplished the CGI work is. Gradations of color within dinosaur skins really give them a believable complexity, and representations of fire and water are every bit as accomplished as what we get from Disney. BBC Earth cranked it up a notch in producing dinosaurs that look real as can be and move even more fluidly than they did in the TV series. The mammals and birds aren’t as accomplished—more animatronic looking, really—but they don’t surface in the narrative that often. I wish I could say the same about dumb writing.   More