'Wonder' tugs at heartstrings

By Tom Von Malder | Feb 14, 2018
Photo by: Lions Gate Entertainment Among the young actors in "Wonder" are, from left, Jacob Tremblay, Elle McKinnon and Noah Jupe.

Owls Head — Wonder (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 113 min.). "Wonder" follows in the tradition of "The Elephant Man" and "Mask" -- both based on true stories -- to tell the story of someone with cranial disfigurement, in this case, Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic mutation that causes abnormalities in the face and skull. "Wonder" is the story of 10-year-old August "Auggie" Pullman (a solid job by 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay), who, after being homeschooled all his life by his mother, is about to enter the fifth grade at a New York City prep school. However, "Wonder" is fiction, based on the No. 1 New York Times bestseller by R.J. Palacio. The film is adapted and directed by Stephen Chbosky ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower").

Auggie, despite undergoing 27 surgeries, has had a relatively good life with his parents, Nate and Isabel (played by Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts; who wouldn't want them as parents), and his older sister Via (short for Olivia, played by Izabela Vidovic), who bought him the astronaut helmet he wears when going out in public. However, Via feels a bit neglected by her parents and Isabel basically put her professional life on hold to care for Auggie. How long has that been? Well, Isabel's partially completed PH.D. thesis is stored on a floppy disc.

The story stresses the power and goodness of empathy. Auggie's introductory tour of the school presents him with one apiece of three basic types: cruel and entitled Julian (Bryce Gheisar), self-absorbed Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) and nice Jack Will (an engaging Noah Jupe of TV's "Houdini and Doyle" and "The Night Manager" miniseries), who will become Auggie's friend. All of the child actors perform very well.

While Auggie encounters prejudice, mock horror (the other kids say that to touch him is to get "the plague") and even bullying, he has the intelligence and spunk to persevere. Meanwhile, Via has been dumped by her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) for no discernible reason. Via eventually makes a new friend in Justin (Nadji Jeter), who talks her into joining the theater club.

The film is told through different perspectives and thus a few times presents the same event. First, we see Auggie's story, then Via's viewpoint 25 minutes in and Miranda's 61 minutes in. Mandy Patikin plays Headmaster Tushman. The story shies away from some realities, such as what the cost must have been for 27 surgeries, but it is a nice, wholesome family film, a definite feel-good movie. The film earned one Oscar nomination, for Best Makeup and Hairstyling by Arjen Tuiten.

Bonus features audio commentary by Chbosky and Palacio, with both also showing up, along with the actors, in the five-part making-of documentary (57:44), with covers the film's origins, the Pullman family members, the changing points of view and the music. Palacio says the book and film are "a call to kindness." The making-of is exclusive to Blu-ray, as are a look at the child actors (13:23) and filming a New York City-set movie in Vancouver, where Tremblay lives (12:34). Because child actors are limited to the amount of time they can be on set, the full facial prosthetic makeup for Tremblay, which normally would take three-and-a-half hours, was whittled down to 75 minutes a day. Extras on DVD include the audio commentary, a "Brand New Eyes" music video by Bea Miller (3:26; a very nice song) and a look at composer Marcelo Zarvos' score and the film's soundtrack album (3:57). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Hellraiser: Judgment (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 81 min.). The 10th film in the franchise, based on characters created by the marvelous Clive Barker, comes seven years after the last film, which, for a while, was going to be the final entry. Barker's original film debuted in 1987, and recently was upgraded and included in Arrow Video's excellent "Scarlet Box" edition of the first three films. This time out, Paul T. Taylor plays Pinhead.

The film opens with a prologue that has Pinhead and The Auditor (Gary J. Tunnicliffe, who also wrote and directed the film) discussing the changing times and whether the puzzle box, which they use to lure souls, is outdated in this age of electronics. This leads to the capture, testimony of sins, weighing of sins by The Assessor (John Gulager),  judgment by a three-woman jury and dismemberment and skinning by The Butcher (Joel Decker) of Mr. Watkins (Jeff Fenter), a child killer among other things. It is a very disturbing sequence, but then the story shifts to the investigation of a serial killer by three detectives, partners David Carter (Randy Wayne, the younger-looking one) and Sean Carter (Damon Carney, the grizzled-looking one), who apparently are supposed to be actual brothers in the film. (Would a police department actually allow brothers to work together?) They are joined by newly-assigned Detective  Christine Egerton (Alexandra Harris).

The serial killer is known as The Preceptor (i.e. teacher) and he chooses his victims by their breaking of the Ten Commandments. To date, he has gone through eight Commandments, with 14 victims. Then comes victim 15, who actually has her small dog placed alive in her stomach, which is then stapled shut. During the film, Sean Carter is questioned and interviewed by The Auditor about all those he has killed while serving in the military and as a policeman, but an angel (Helena Grace Donald as Jophiel) orders Carter released.

Overall, the police procedural aspects of the film weigh it down, although it is not the worst of the 10 "Hellraiser" films. Like the recent "Jigsaw," the film attempts to find a way for the franchise to go forward. Extras include one extended scene (an even bloodier death for Watkins) and one deleted scene (Sean Carter and Egerton accidentally meet in a church) (7:10 combined time), as well as a gag reel (4:23), which seems so out of place. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 1/2 star

Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield (China, Well Go USA, NR, 120 min.). This sequel to the 2014 film is actually a prequel, with Chang Chen ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") reprising his role as imperial guard Shen Lian in the closing years of the Ming Dynasty. Lu Yang again directs. The problem with sequels is that no matter how outnumbered the hero is and what dangerous circumstances he finds himself in, the viewer knows he is going to survive.

The film starts with a prologue on a battlefield in which many thousands were killed as the united Manchurian tribes battled the Ming troops. Shen manages to save two lives, one of them being Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi). When the story picks up eight years later, in 1627, Lu is now a high government official and Shen is a captain of the Imperial Guard and investigating the murder of seven people in a restaurant. The killings are believed to be the work of rebels, possibly led by Bei Zhai (Yang Mi), a painter whose work Shen collects, although he has no idea that Bei is a woman and one whom he met after obtaining a new painting of hers.

As this is a period piece and in Chinese with subtitles, it takes a while to figure out who is who, especially since there also is a conspiracy involved. Apparently the plans for the Emperor's new Dragon boat were deliberately flawed, so that the boat would capsize, which it did. However, the Emperor survived, although he did catch a potentially fatal bout of pneumonia. At one point, this puts Shen and Lu at odds. Some of the rebels are using Shen's ownership of Bei's paintings to blackmail him; they want him to burn the Imperial Guard Archives, which contain records of the boat's construction. Later too, it seems someone in the government is try to pin the conspiracy all on Shen.

The film has several fine fight sequences. One fighter uses a spiked club, while another uses a metal ball on a lengthy chain. There are, of course, several swordfights. The sole bonus is a behind-the-scenes look (4:44) that discusses the Flying Fish uniforms and the five levels of guards. Grade: film 3 stars; extra 1/2 stars

The Deuce: The Complete First Season (HBO, 3 Blu-ray or 3 standard DVDs, TV-MA, 508 min.). The series is set during the early 1970s in New York City's Times Square, when it was a place of gritty sex and crime, when the porn industry began its climb to legitimacy. This also was the period when there were political efforts to clean up Times Square and make it more appealing to tourists. Among those seizing the chance to cash in on the nascent porn business are Vincent Martino (James Franco), a bartender with vision and connections; Frankie Martino (also Franco), Vincent's identical twin and a dangerous freewheeler; Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a self-made, on-the-street sex worker who wants a career in porn filmmaking; pimps C.C. (Gary Carr) and Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe); young prostitutes Darlene (Dominique Fishback) and Lori (Emily Meade); midtown cop Chris Alston (Lawrence Giliard Jr.); newspaper reporter Sandra Washington (Natalie Paul); mob capo Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli); and disillusioned college student Abby Parker (Margarita Levieva).

The set includes all eight episodes, as well as audio commentaries on episodes one and eight by cast and crew, including co-creators and executive producers David Simon ("The Wire") and George Pelecanos, executive producer Nina Kostroff Noble, director Michele MacLaren, and actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, also a producer, and Franco, also an executive producer. There are brief looks inside each episode (14.30), as well as a discussion by MacLaren, Franco and Roxann Dawson about bringing the show to life (8:13). Finally, a featurette looks at the "Wild West" of Times Square as porn moved from the streets to the mainstream movie screen (11:49). Grade: season 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Animal Kingdom: The Complete Second Season (Warner Bros., 3 DVDs, NR, 572 min.). Starring Ellen Barkin and Scott Speedman, the show centers on 17-year-old Joshua "J" Cody (Finn Cole), who moves in with his freewheeling relatives in their Southern California  beach town after his mother dies of an overdose. As the 13-episode second season starts, the Cody clan is in the midst of a high-adrenaline heist. Things do not go as planned, so the family fractures even more, with some members seeking independence from Janine "Smurf" Cody (Barkin). Also, an external threat from Smurf's past comes back to haunt her. The series airs on TNT. Extras include deleted scenes and a featurette that dissects Pope, aka Andrew Cody, played by Shawn Hatosy.

Bosom Buddies: The Complete Series (1980-82, CBS/Paramount, 6 DVDs, NR, 15 hours 29 min.). This sitcom helped bring stars Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari to the public's eye. After their old apartment building collapses, the best friends and struggling ad men, Kip Wilson (Hanks) and Henry Desmond (Scolari) must dress up as women to rent the only other place they can afford in New York City, namely the female-only Susan B. Anthony Hotel. They become "Buffy" and "Hildegarde." the set includes all 37 episodes from the show's two seasons. Hanks continued with guest appearances in TV series until he co-starred in the film "Splash" in 1984.

Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man: The Complete Series (1994-97, CBS/Paramount, 10 DVDs, NR, 26 hours 15 min.). This set collects all 70 episodes from the four seasons of the animated series about the crude, rude, lewd, slovenly, smart-mouthed dick -- that is, as in private eye --who solves crimes while being a single parent to his dysfunctional sons. And yes, he is a duck, voiced by Jason Alexander of "Seinfeld." Ladies do not like him and men do not want to be like him, but he solves crimes with the help of Cornfed (Gregg Berger), his porcine partner. The cult comedy was nominated for three Primetime Emmys. Special features include a look inside the show; how the anti-hero character went from comic book to TV; and interactive six degrees of "Duckman"; a video of the original animatic drawings and animation from the unaired pilot; and walk cycles, expressions, storyboards and pencil tests.

The Jackie Gleason Show in Color (1966-70, Time Life DVD, NR, 165 min.). This is the inaugural DVD release from the Gleason show with four never-before-released, remastered episodes, including three unreleased "Honeymooners" sketches, that have been unseen for more than 50 years. These years of the show -- the show had been broadcast live and later taped in New York City since 1952 -- were filmed in Miami Beach, as, in 1964, Gleason decided he wanted to be based where he could play golf all year round. The revived "Honeymooners" sketches with Art Carney added Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean as the new Alice and Trixie. The master tapes have been in a vault in South Florida. An interesting note is that more than 100 families relocated to stay with the show, as there was barely any production infrastructure in South Florida. Guest stars in these episodes include Milton Berle, Red Buttons, George Carlin, Nipsey Russell, Phil Silvers, Frankie Avalon and Florence Henderson.

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