Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 92 min.). This is a kids comedy with a surprising amount of heart, as Rafe Katchadorian (Griffin Gluck) tries to adapt to his third new school of the year. Unfortunately for Rafe, his new principal (Andy Daly as Principal Dwight) is a stickler for rules and even has a handbook with some 100 Rules of Conduct in it. Naturally, Rafe has an immediate run-in with Principal Dwight -- just for wearing brightly-colored clothes.
Rafe lives with his single mom (Lauren Graham as Jules) and younger sister (Alexa Nisenson as Georgia). Later in the film, we learn that his previous school troubles are partially the result of his having a hard time dealing with the death of his fraternal twin from cancer. Jules has an obnoxious boyfriend in Carl (Rob Riggle, whom I find annoying in general, so he is perfect for the part). Carl is more interested in his car than Rafe and Georgia.
At his new school, Rafe develops an interest in Jeanne (Isabela Moner), who is running for the student council, and an old friend (Thomas Barbusca as Leo) is a fellow student. It is Leo who suggests that he and Rafe anonymously break every rule in the Rules of Conduct after the principal destroys Rafe's drawing notebook. Much like the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movies, sometimes Rafe's drawings and/or imaginations come to life. There are nine such animated scenes and most are very entertaining. Meanwhile, Principal Dwight and Vice Principal Ida Stricker (Retta) are focused on maintaining good scores on the B.L.A.A.R. standard assessment tests, even if they have to find a way to keep Rafe's homeroom from taking the test.
Rafe and Leo come up with some amazing ways to break the rules. The first one is about the best, as the principal's office and school hallways are transformed into art via various colored sticky notes. Kudos to the film's art department for a wonderful job. In the extras, we learn that what supposedly took Rafe and Leo one night to do, actually took five people three weeks to accomplish. Later we learn that Rafe has named his efforts Operation R.A.F.E. for Rules Aren't For Everyone.
Extras include four deleted scenes (3:21), including an animated Stricker; a gag reel (5:22); a look behind the scenes and at the characters (10:57); Gluck talking about making the movie and more behind the scenes (5:28); the cast talking about their favorite versions of wedgies (2:33; after all, this movie is aimed at kids); and, best, a closer look at the stunts pulled out by Rafe and Leo (6:55), including the amazing trophy case turned into an aquarium. The film is an adaptation of a young adult novel, co-authored by James Patterson. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
The Monkey King 2 (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 119 min.). This is another film based on the beloved Chinese book, "Journey to the West" (it also was a TV series in 1986), which tells the tale of the Buddhist monk Tang Seng (William Feng), who is directed by the Goddess of Mercy to travel to the West and fetch the sacred Buddhist scriptures. Despite the Monkey King having wrought havoc in heaven 500 years earlier in the first film ("The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven's Palace," 2014), the Goddess chooses him to be the monk's guardian. Aaron Kwok replaces Donnie Yen as the Monkey King , also known as Sun Wukong, in this sequel.
First though, Tang Seng is forced to free the Monkey King from his half-century imprisonment inside a cave in Five Finger Mountain. He is chased into the cave by a giant white tiger. Two other demons soon join the trek: Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shen Yang), a pig demon who changes form from human to part pig to full-on pig monster; and blue-skinned Sha Wujing (Him Law), who looks like a genie. Both also become convinced they must help the monk and the Monkey King, who is a simian-human hybrid, complete their mission. The three demons' main job, it turns out, is to protect Tang Seng from the demon White Bone Spirit (Gong Li of "Curse of the GoldenFlower"), who seeks immortality by consuming the monk's essence. Along the way, they face a sea dragon that transforms into a horse, White Bone Spirit's trap of an old woman with beautiful daughters, and a cursed king, who drinks children's blood to stave off his body's degeneration. And yes, there even is an army of skeletons that guards the White Bone Spirit's lair and can combine into one gigantic skeleton.
The film is a visual treat with fantastical action elements, including the Monkey King's gold staff. Particularly appealing are the flowing dresses that trail into wispy clouds when the White Bone Spirit flies. Much of the outrageous action is done via complicated wire work, with veteran actor-director Sammo Hung the action director. Soi Cheang is the overall director once again. The action is almost non-stop throughout, leaving the viewer breathless in more ways than one. It sometimes might not seem to make sense initially, but if one goes with the flow, it becomes a wondrous viewing adventure.
The film originally was presented in 3D in theaters, but is not available on disc in that format. The sole extra is a five-part making-of feature (15:10 total). Among its reveals is it took seven hours to apply the Monkey King makeup on Kwok. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 1.5 stars
Jackie Chan Presents: Amnesia (China, Lionsgate DVD, PG-13, 101 min.). In 1998, Chan co-directed, co-wrote and starred in the thriller, "Who Am I?" He played a secret agent who loses his memory after falling from a crashing helicopter. The agent then is chased by other agency personnel, but he has no idea why. Even though this film is titled "Amnesia," the main character, bike courier Li Ziwei, actually suffers from "face blindness" (prosopagnosia), an inability to remember faces. Chan serves as the film's executive producer.
Early in the film, Ziwei (newcomer Ocean Wang) stumbles upon a murder when asked to return a package he had been given for delivery. He is chased by the two main baddies -- a man and a woman -- and eventually is forced off a bridge into the water below, bumping his head in the process, which damages the portion of the brain used for facial recognition. A phone call gets the courier headed by car to "Uncle Nan" at Yulong Mountain. Uncle Nan says he has video footage that will prove to the police that Ziwei did not commit the murder, but he needs the package that Ziwei still carries. Along the way, Ziwei encounters a sassy hitchhiker, Tong Xin (Xingtong Yao). While the action sequences are entertaining, the plot kind of jumps all over the place, and the resolution of what happens to the two murderers is ludicrous, seemingly from an entirely different movie. Tong Xin's resolution also is poor. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 2.25 stars
Lone Wolf and Cub (Japan, 1972-74, Criterion, 3 Blu-ray or 5 standard DVDs, NR, 506 min. + supplements). Based on the best-selling manga series that started in 1970, the six intensely kinetic "Lone Wolf and Cub" films collected here elevated chanbara to bloody, new heights. After his wife and household are murdered and he is framed as disloyal, the shogun's executioner, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), makes a bloody escape and takes to wandering the countryside as an assassin for hire. He is accompanied by his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) and an infinitely weaponized perambulator. He helps those he encounters, while his overall goal is vengeance for his murdered wife. The series is noted for its brilliantly choreographed and unbelievably violent action sequences, as well as for its tender depiction of the bonds between parent and child.
The films are "Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance" (1970, 83 min.),"Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx" (1972, 81 min.), "Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades" (1972, 89 min.), "Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril" (1972, 81 min.), "Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons" (1973, 89 min.) and "Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell " (1974, 83 min.). The films are presented in new 2K digital restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays. Extras include a high-definition presentation of "Shogun Assassin", the 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two films; a new interview with Kazuo Koike, writer of the "Lone Wolf and Cub" manga series and screenwriter on five of the films (12 min.); "Lame d'un pere, l'ame d'un sabre," a 2005 documentary about the making of the series, its style and success (53 min.); a new interview in which Sensei Yoshimitsu Katsuse discusses and demonstrates the real Suio-ryu sword techniques that inspired those in the manga and films (14 min.); a new interview with biographer Kazuma Nozawa about filmmaker Kenji Misumi, director of four of the six films (13 min.); the 1937 two-part, silent documentary, "Sword of the Samurai," which chronicles the making of a traditional samurai sword by the River Nagara in the Sekimachi, one of the towns noted for producing the finest swords of Japan (31 min.); and a 34-page booklet with an essay and film synopses by Japanese pop culture writer Patrick Macias.
In "Sword of Justice," Ogami is called upon to prevent the assassination of a member of the royal family and in doing so, he liberates a dozen or so frightened captives of a gang hiding out at a hot springs spa. One of the most striking scenes is when a seated Ogami kills two men entering through a door behind him without even getting up or looking. Then, of course, there is when he wipes out the whole gang at the spa. There is lots of spraying blood in the fight scenes and more than one cut-off limb. Also be warned that the film includes a brief rape/murder scene. In "Baby Cart at the River Styx," Ogami has to battle the female assassins of the Yagyu clan, led by the deadly Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo), while carrying out his new job to kill a member of the Awa clan who holds the secret to the production of a rare indigo dye. His target is protected by the Hidari Brothers, masters of death who wield mailed fists, a club and a metal claw.
In "Baby Cart to Hades," Ogami and son are traveling up a river by boat, when they happen to pass a "Rashomon"-esque scene. Later, at an inn, Ogami offers to be tied up and tortured in place of a young girl sold into prostitution. Next, in "Baby Cart in Peril," Ogami is hired by the Owari clan to assassinate a tattooed woman (Michi Azuma), who is killing her enemies and disgracing them by cutting off their topknots. For "Baby Cart in the Land of Demons," the film delves more into the spiritual dimensions of Ogami's quest, as Ogami is asked to kill a Buddhist priest entrusted with delivering a secret document to the shogun. Finally, in "White Heaven in Hell," which was not directly based on a manga story, things get wild, with Ogami battling three zombies and Daigoro's baby cart zipping across an icy landscape on skis. The massive battle in the snow which ends the film took about 45 days to film and involves more than a hundred sword-waving stuntmen, professional athletes and local skiers. Grade: films 3.75 stars; extras 4 stars
Operation Avalanche (Lionsgate DVD, R, 94 min.). This quirky little film presents a new twist on the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked. The actors play characters with their own names. Matt Johnson (also director and co-writer) and Owen Williams (also co-writer) play recent college grads recruited by the CIA. They are working on a presentation film that proves director Stanley Kubrick was not a spy. Upon learning the Russians have a mole in NASA, they talk their way into going undercover as a documentary film crew to find the mole. Instead, their phone tap reveals that while the U.S. can send men to the moon, they cannot land them on the moon, at least not until 1971, two years after John F. Kennedy's famous pledge goal and possibly not until after the Russians have accomplished the feat.
Matt comes up with a plan to fake the landing, preparing a film that the astronauts can broadcast from orbit around the moon. To help prepare the film, and make sure their "moon" landscape looks realistic, Matt and Owen talk their way onto the London set of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." (Through the use of still photos, explained in the extras, the filmmakers make it look like Kubrick is actually in the film.) Their plan becomes all the more urgent when they discover that the CIA's backup plan is to shoot down the Apollo 11 and blame the Soviets.
The film turns interesting after a slow start, so hang with it. Extras include three audio commentaries: one by director/co-writer Johnson; a second on the film's look with directors of photography Andy Appelle and Jared Raab, colorist Conor Fisher and 16mm film artist Pablo Perez; and third, on writing through editing and post-production with producer Matthew Miller, editor Curt Lobb and VFX supervisor Tristan Zerafa. There also are four deleted scenes (7:12); some behind-the-scenes fooling around (6:35); the planning of the car chase (4:01) and the pool party (2:50); reanimating Stanley Kubrick (4:47); and a Vice channel making-of featurette (6:43). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.5 stars
When the Bough Breaks (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 107 min.). In this polished, but predictable film, attorney John Taylor (Morris Chestnut) and his chef wife Laura (Regina Hall), who has had three miscarriages, hire 21-year-old waitress Anna Wash (Jaz Sinclair in her debut) to be the surrogate mother of their last chance to become parents. Anna is engaged to Michael Mitchell (Theo Rossi), who plans the whole surrogate thing as a scam: they will extort more money from the Taylors, then sell the baby to another couple for $15,000. The interesting thing is that the surrogate mother actually has parental rights over the baby, not the couple who hire her.
Of course, Anna develops feelings for John and tries to break up his marriage. It is a psychotic fixation that becomes physically dangerous. As if she were not being bad enough already, Anna kills Laura's elderly cat -- a true sign that she is evil. The acting is fine, but the overall affect is very generic, and the story is old hat. There was only one "twist" that I did not see coming.
Extras include audio commentary by director Jon Cassar, writer Jack Olsen and actress Sinclair; eight deleted or extended scenes (17:59); and a behind-the-scenes featurette (7:48) in which Cassar and costume designer Olivia Miles discuss the process of designing the characters and actors Chestnut, Hall, Sinclair and Rossi talk about their approaches to their characters. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 2 stars