‘The Polar Express’ Movie and 4K UHD Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

It has been eighteen years since I first watched “The Polar Express,” and quite frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect because of the length between viewings.  I remembered the film had stunning visuals and great computer-animated graphics.  However, I did not remember what the film was about or how ir unfolded.  So, in a sense, I was walking into this film as a total newcomer.  It was directed by legendary director Robert Zemeckis, and it reunited him with actor Tom Hanks as they had worked together previously on “Forrest Gump” and “Castaway.” This was clearly a different project for the two of them, but they still were able to produce movie magic on screen.

Hero Boy, one of six characters voiced by Tom Hanks, is starting to wonder if Santa is real as he gets a little older.  He’s even started to put doubts into the head of his younger sister.  His parents have even noticed he’s not staying up all night anymore on Christmas Eve to wait for Santa. This doesn’t bring any joy to Hero Boy, but it’s the reality he’s living in at this point in his life.  His skepticism is put to the test when the Polar Express train arrives outside his house with the Conductor (also voiced by Hanks). The Polar Express will take him directly to the North Pole along with other children on Christmas Eve.

On the train, he meets Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), a young girl who has never, ever stopped believing in Christmas. The Christmas spirit is alive and well with her.  He also meets Know-It-All (Eddie Deezen), and he certainly lives up to his name with his mouth that runs a mile a minute with various facts and statements about trains and Christmas.  Along the way, the Polar Express picks up Billy (Peter Scolari).  He’s shy, lonely, and has had some bad luck on Christmas.  Because of this, he’s struggling to find any joy or satisfaction on Christmas, whatsoever.  Between Hero Boy, Hero Girl, and Billy, they form a friendship and help each other as they try to get to the North Pole.

On the way to the North Pole, there are dancing waiters that bring out hot chocolate (who doesn’t love hot chocolate around the holidays?), a hobo on top of the train (voiced by, you guessed it, Hanks), a mean-spirited puppet (Hanks again), and numerous other trials and tribulations.  Along the way, Hero Boy is starting to think that maybe Santa is real after all and maybe, just maybe, he should start to regain his spirit and believe again.  After all, considering all he has gone through on his way to the North Pole, it’s getting harder and harder to believe that Santa isn’t real.  The things that are happening are so fantastical and so magical, it has to be the work of Santa.

The Polar Express” absolutely blew me away.  The film runs at 100 minutes, and there is not a dull moment to be found here. What I loved most about the film was its ability to make me, as an audience member, feel something.  Even at age thirty-seven, this is a film which had me teary eyed and emotional.  The great thing about this is that none of it was forced.  It all worked out because of the out-of-this-world visuals, the big heart of this film, and the epic direction of Zemeckis.  There is no stone left unturned in this film.  It feels like a big, sweeping epic Christmas story which matters.  It also understands the importance of Christmas and believing.

I love a good old-fashioned Hollywood story told the right way.  That is exactly what “The Polar Express” is, and it gets all of the details right.  At first, the life-like nature of the characters is a little peculiar and even creepy, but before long, it adds to the charm.  I absolutely loved this movie, and it was such a pleasant surprise for me. I have seen a lot of Christmas movies in my lifetime, but very few have captured the grand scale of the event like “The Polar Express.”  Leave it to Hanks and Zemeckis to get it right.  It’s rare that I’m watching a film and I get completely lost in the story.  With each and every adventure, I was captivated and in awe.

This film warmed my heart and made me feel good.  Films like this are rare.  When they are released, they need to be praised, valued and appreciated.  This is a big screen Christmas movie that knows exactly what needs to be done and how to do it.  It’s about tugging at your heartstrings in a way that is not manipulative or cheap.  It is about making us, the audience, believe, without being too corny or silly.  It is about making us smile without ever pandering to us or trying to pull the wool over our eyes. “The Polar Express” is a Christmas classic and my kind of Christmas movie.  I wish I could stand on top of a mountain and scream, “I love this movie!”

* * * * out of * * * *

4K/Blu-ray Info: ‘The Polar Express” is released on a two-disc 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  The film is rated G and has a running time of 100 minutes.  It also comes with a digital copy of the film.

4K Info:  I recommend you watch this film with the lights off.  I noticed a vast improvement in the picture quality when I watched the movie in the dark.  It’s absolutely gorgeous in 4K HDR.  It just added to my enjoyment of the film.  When people talk about films that were made for 4K, they are talking about films like “The Polar Express.”  I couldn’t believe the attention to detail on this transfer.  They really put their heart and soul into the making of this film, and there were times where I was completely and utterly blown away by what I was watching on my TV screen.  It was a work of art.

Audio Info:  The Dolby Atmos track also enhances the viewing experience as it’s a big, booming soundtrack.  For a movie like this, which is a big movie, you expect it to look and sound big.  They accomplished both of those tasks here.

Special Features:

You Look Familiar

A Genuine Ticket to Ride

True Inspirations: An Author’s Adventure

Behind the Scenes of “Believe”

Flurry of Effects

Smokey and Steamer

Josh Groban at the Greek

Meet The Snow Angels

Theatrical Trailer

THQ Game Demo

Should You Buy It?

Yes, yes, and YES.  “The Polar Express” is a top-of-the-line 4K film, and it is also top-of-the-line with its audio and visuals.  Everything here is 4 out of 4 stars, except for the fact that the special features are transferred over from the previous Blu-ray.  Normally, I wouldn’t mind this, but I felt the special features were a little lacking here, and there are so many questions regarding this film and especially the filmmaking process.  I would have loved a commentary track with Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis, for example.  I know it can be hard to track people down these days with so much going on, but for a film of this scale, it would have been worth it.  Despite these minor issues, this film gets the highest recommendation I can give a 4K film.  I was watching it on a day where I was feeling a little down, and it instantly cheered me up.  That is the highest praise I can give to a film.  I don’t feel like enough people talk about “The Polar Express” in the same fashion they do other Christmas films, and they should, because it’s a Christmas classic in every sense of the word.

**Disclaimer** I received a copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘Beetlejuice’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

Your enjoyment level for Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” is going to depend on how you feel about Burton as a director.  He is an eccentric director with a flair for style and bright, vivid colors.  However, in my view, I sometimes feel as though his characters and stories can distance themselves from audiences.  I realize he has many devoted fans and “Beetlejuice” is one of his most beloved films.  Whenever Halloween rolls around, I know it is a film which families sit around and watch together, even though there is an F-bomb and some odd innuendos which parents might find off putting to young children. As a first-time viewer of the film, I found I liked certain elements of it, but not nearly enough to recommend it or call it a Halloween classic.

One thing “Beetlejuice” definitely has going for it is the talents of Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder.  Whenever they are on screen together, the film is really hitting the right notes.  The character of Beetlejuice, played by Michael Keaton, is barely in the film, which is odd considering he is displayed so prominently on the film’s poster and in its title.  It is more about the dilemma of Barbara and Adam Maitland (Davis and Baldwin) wanting to enjoy two weeks of a nice, quiet vacation at their Connecticut country home.  All of this is thrown for a loop when they get into a car accident and perish.

Now, they are ghosts that have returned to their home, only to find it has been taken over by the Deetz family, which includes Charles (Jeffrey Jones), Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), although the film is quick to point out that Delia is the stepmother of Lydia.  Delia has plans of her own for the house with the help of her interior designer, Otho, played by Glenn Shadix. The father, Charles, is looking to make a real estate deal with the property and its surrounding areas.  Lydia is suspicious of the place when she notices the ghosts of Barbara and Adam looming over the house.  Here is the catch—Lydia is the only one who is able to see or notice them.

Since Barbara and Adam want the Deetz family out of their home, they are desperate to come up with any solution.  They enlist the help of Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), even though he comes with a lot of baggage, according to their afterlife caseworker, Juno (Sylvia Sidney). She is very familiar with all that comes with Beetlejuice and warns them to stay away from him.  In her mind, the best way to get this family out of the house is to find creative and simple ways to scare them into moving out.  When Barbara and Adam find this harder than they thought, they say the name Beetlejuice three times, and he appears ready and willing to help, as long as there is something in it for him.

The major problem with “Beetlejuice” is just that, Beetlejuice.  As an audience, are we supposed to like this guy?  He wants to get married to what we assume is an underage teenage girl.  He is very perverted around Barbara and is not all that funny or interesting. For the most part, as a viewer, I found him quite annoying on screen.  This is no fault of Keaton, as he is simply playing the character as best he can based on the screenplay he was given and the direction of Burton. Baldwin tries to carry the movie on his back along with the help of Davis, but their charms are not enough to make this film worthwhile.

It’s hard to deny the great make-up and special effects which are on display in “Beetlejuice.”  The concept for the film is rather creative as well.  The actors are ready and willing to do whatever they can to help the flick. However, because Beetlejuice is so obnoxious and the film is so over-the-top and filled with tricks, there is really no heart to the story.  It’s not scary or funny, so it fails as a horror/comedy.  It is nice to look at, filled with some clever scenes, and there is good acting on display.  In the end, this is not enough to save this film which relies too much on style instead of substance.

* * ½ out of * * * *

_____________________________________________________________________________

4K Info: “Beetlejuice” is released by Warner Brothers Home Entertainment on a 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, which comes with the Blu-Ray and a digital code. The film comes in the following languages: English, Latin Spanish, Canadian French, and Brazilian Portuguese. It has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated PG.  The film is presented in 2160 Ultra High Definition.  With 4K, you can’t help but be impressed by the HDR (High Dynamic Range), especially on a film like this.  It really stands out.

Video Info:  The film comes on 2160 Ultra High Definition for the 4K Version.  The Blu-Ray comes in 1080p High Definition.

Audio Info: The 4K Audio is Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish.  For the Blu-Ray, it comes with Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: English 5.1, French and Spanish. Subtitles for both versions are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Three Hilarious Episodes from the Animated “Beetlejuice” TV Series: “A-Ha!,” “Skeletons in the Closet,” and “Spooky-Boo-Tique.”

Theatrical Trailer

Danny Elfman Score Audio Track

Should You Buy It?

Much like my review of “The Goonies,” if you LOVE “Beetlejuice,” you will be very, very happy with the 4K update.  You might not be so happy with the lack of special features.  If they are going to upgrade a film to 4K, you would expect they would add some new special features which look back on the film.  This is not the case here.  If you are strictly in this for the visual and audio upgrades, you will get your money’s worth.  If you haven’t seen the film before and are not a Tim Burton fan, this film is not going to win you over. I would say rent it just to say you have checked it out as Halloween is fast approaching.

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ – Imperfect But Still Satisfying

My journey with “Star Wars” began back in 1980 when my parents took me to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” I had no idea what to expect, and what I saw scared the crap out of me. When that wampa monster attacked Luke Skywalker, I recoiled in shock as that thing came out of nowhere. For the rest of the film, I kept my hands close to my ears as things like those Tie Fighters became unbearably loud. But despite my initial reaction, it was safe to say this particular motion picture did have a profound effect on me. And after watching “A New Hope” a year or two later, I found myself completely hooked on this universe George Lucas created and have never lost my excitement for it.

Now comes “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the last film in this latest trilogy which has J.J. Abrams returning to the director’s chair. This is said to be the end of the Skywalker saga, and this may indeed be the last “Star Wars” trilogy ever as Lucasfilm looks to create more stand-alone movies in the future. As a result, Abrams must have had a motherload of stress making this one as has so many people to satisfy and over 40 years of characters and situations to wrap up in a nice bow.

Well, “The Rise of Skywalker” is far from perfect. The screenplay by Abrams and Chris Terrio (“Argo”) has too much going on, and the story is hard to follow at times. Even with a running time of 142 minutes, things feel a bit rushed as the filmmakers looked to be working furiously to get from one storyline to the next as there are many characters to deal with in one way or another. And while it has many visual splendors, this episode feels like it is lacking somewhat in the imagination department.

And yet, as “The Rise of Skywalker” went on, I found myself completely caught up in the many adventures these characters come to have. As with any epic space opera, there are challenges to be faced, sacrifices to be made, and perhaps even a chance at redemption. By the end of this ninth episode, I honestly found myself choked up as I reveled in the victories and the sorrows everyone faces here. Even with all its weaknesses, this is indeed a “Star Wars” movie. For those who say it is not a true “Star Wars” movie, please shut up. You all gave Rian Johnson way too much flack for thwarting your expectations with “The Last Jedi,” and that episode deserves more respect than we initially gave it.

Obviously, giving you a spoiler-ridden review is not in the cards here as, like everyone else, I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE SPOIL MOVIES. What I can tell you is the opening crawl practically shouts the following phrase at us: “The dead speak!” It should be no surprise by now that Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) shows up alive though physically impaired to the astonishment of many including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who still looks to continue the legacy of Darth Vader. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is taking Jedi lessons from General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), eager to become one like Luke Skywalker before her. As for Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Chewbacca, they fly off into the galaxy to seek out… Well, you’ll figure it out.

As a whole, the “Star Wars” movies have rarely, if ever, been perfect. The only one which can be said to be so is “The Empire Strikes Back” which remains the best of the bunch to this day. But even the least of these movies, their strengths more than make up for their weaknesses. One of the biggest strengths of “The Rise of Skywalker” is the investment it has in the characters. We have followed them through their intergalactic highs and lows, and seeing them take part in one last battle proves to be highly involving even when the story threatens to be a bit too convoluted.

I adore Daisy Ridley’s work as Rey, a scavenger who struggles to find an identity in the midst of intergalactic chaos. Her intensity remains strong and never wanes here, and it is almost exhausting watching her here. She is again equally matched by Adam Driver who is a pretty intense actor himself, and their scenes together prove to be among the highlights here as their characters come to admire and despise one another in equal measure.

I also love seeing Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe and Finn as they both prove to be pair of dudes with plenty of natural charisma to spare. Even if they spend a bit too much time bickering with one another, they still prove to be quite a pair.

Seeing Carrie Fisher here proves to be bittersweet as her character of Princess/General Leia was supposed to be a big part of this installment. Alas, she died before “The Last Jedi” was released, but Abrams ends up making ingenious use of cut footage from the previous films to make her a significant part of the story here. She certainly deserved a better exit than what she got previously, and it is great to see her this one last time.

And yes, it is a blast to have Billy Dee Williams back as Lando Calrissian. Even after all these years, he remains as cool as ever, with or without a Colt 45 in his hand.

As “The Rise of Skywalker” reaches its thunderous conclusion, I found myself of two minds. Yes, this story does feature a number of familiar beats which makes things seem a bit predictable. At the same time, however, I was still very wrapped in the fates of these characters to where I found myself deeply caught up in their predicaments. By the end, I found myself on the verge of tears as I found myself joyously reveling in their triumphs and reunions, and few movie cane make me feel these emotions nowadays.

The other thing which occurred to me is how the “Star Wars” movies always seem to come out when we need them the most. The odds are always against our heroes as evil never dies and always seems to exist in larger numbers, and maintaining a sense of hope can be quite a struggle. In the world we live in right now, hope feels in very short supply as the corrupt seem to have far too much control over everything, and the rich keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else. History repeats itself, and this has certainly been the case in these three recent “Star Wars” movies as the First Order is simply another version of the Empire. And yet these characters continue to persevere despite everything in their way, and seeing this filled my soul up in a way not easily filled. We need to keep the fight going in our lives because giving up is not an option, and we are reminded of this here.

It will be interesting to see how people will view these movies in ten years from now. Perhaps they will receive a much-needed critical evaluation. Regardless of how you feel about “The Force Awakens, “The Last Jedi” and “The Rise of Skywalker,” they are indeed “Star Wars” movies which demand your attention, and it has been a lot of fun revisiting this galaxy once again. I will miss these characters very much. This last chapter may be imperfect, but I still found it to be very satisfying.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The First Trailer for ‘Star Wars: Episode IX,’ Arrived It Has

The first trailer for “Star Wars: Episode IX,” arrived it has. And with our first look at this eagerly anticipated conclusion to the latest “Star Wars” trilogy, it comes to us with the following title we were ever so eager to learn of: “The Rise of Skywalker.” This is an interesting title to be sure as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) left the realm of the living in “The Last Jedi,” but thanks to the Force, you can’t keep a good Jedi down.

Luke is not seen in this teaser trailer, but his voice is heard and his presence is felt throughout as he tells the Force sensitive Rey (Daisy Ridley, looking more intense than ever before) of how a thousand generations of Jedi have been passed on to her, but that this is a fight only she can take on. Still, he says how the Jedi will always be with her, and that no one is ever gone. Oh, the magic and possibilities science-fiction stories bring with them! Luke is right, no one is ever really gone, and it makes me believe a number of surprises are in store for us next Christmas.

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” marks the return of J.J. Abrams to the director’s chair after reinvigorating the franchise to tremendous effect with “The Force Awakens,” and this trailer makes it look and feel like an Abrams film alright. It does what any good teaser trailer does which is wet our appetites, and we will all be dissecting it endlessly long before the next trailer comes along.

There are many sights I delighted in seeing such as Ridley’s infinitely committed portrayal of Rey, and the actress has long since been proven to be one of this franchise’s best additions. Another major delight was seeing the original Lando Calrissian, Billy Dee Williams, back in the pilot’s chair of the Millennium Falcon alongside Chewbacca as he rediscovers the joy he has in flying it just like he did when he escaped from the fiery corridors of the Death Star in “Return of the Jedi.” And judging from the way he handles the controls, it is clear Lando is not drinking a six-pack of Colt 45 while behind the wheel.

Adam Driver is back as Kylo Ren, and I was surprised to see a glimpse of him putting his mask back together. I wonder why he would bother doing so after smashing to pieces. We only get brief moments of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, but it is enough to put a smile on my face to see these two charismatic actors back as Finn and Poe Dameron. Even the late Carrie Fisher returns as Leia, albeit in footage taken from the previous two movies. As always, Fisher has the last laugh.

The title “The Rise of Skywalker” left me wondering what it means just as “The Last Jedi” did. How will Skywalker rise, and is the bloodline really at an end? Lucasfilm has been smart to keep us in the dark about this episode’s story, and the titles they have given these three films only peak our interest as they tell us only so much. As history has shown, there has always been one more Skywalker than we were originally led to believe. You remember what Yoda said to Obi-Wan Kenobi in “The Empire Strikes Back,” right?

“No, there is another…”

And plus, there is that laugh at the trailer’s end. Could it be Darth Sidious making a comeback?

Yes, I am super excited for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” and I am doing my best to keep my expectations in check. Heaven forbid the hype overwhelms the final cut. At the very least, it looks to be much better than the disappointiment that was “Solo.” With Abrams back, we should be in for a fantastic voyage throughout a galaxy far, far away. It also marks John Williams’ last time composing a “Star Wars” film score, so it is a goodbye in more ways than one.

I know Christmas 2019 will be here before I know it, but I’m not sure I can wait that long.

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker teaser poster