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THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (Blu-ray combo)

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FaultinOurStarscoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2014, 126 min., Color
Twentieth Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality, and brief strong language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: B
Trailer

Augustus “Gus” Waters wants what most teens do: to make a mark on the world, to be famous, to be somebody the world will mourn when he’s gone. That’s ridiculous, 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster says. The world will end and no one will be around to remember even its most famous people, much less the billions who, despite grand aspirations, never fulfilled their dreams. But both of them fear oblivion, and in a cancer support group they find in each other an unexpected love.

Entertainment Weekly called it “The greatest romance story of this decade,” and I can see why. It’s this generation’s Titanic—only cancer is the iceberg that sinks their boat. Though it’s about teens, narrated by a 16 year old, and based on a young adult novel by John Green, The Fault in Our Stars has a much wider appeal because cancer is not age- or audience-selective. It affects the lives of so many, and this film reassures people that it doesn’t matter if you’re not famous enough to make history (or reality TV, for that matter). In the end, what matters is that your passing is remembered by ONE person—which reinforces that relationships of any kind are more important than accomplishments.   More

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (Blu-ray)

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TheWinterSoldiercoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2014, 136 min., Color
Marvel Entertainment
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay, and action throughout
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Trailer

Superhero films are the exception to many parents’ rules against too much violence, because even without the “BAM” or “SOCK” graphics we got from TV’s campy Batman episodes, it’s understood that superheroes aren’t real and so neither, by extension, is the violence. It’s why younger children climb onboard to watch a film that, were it a straight action flick, might have been taboo.

But Captain America: The Winter Soldier does something no superhero movie has even attempted: it picks up the superhero and plunks him down right in the middle of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller. That makes sense, actually, because Captain America is probably the most human and normal of all the Marvel superheroes. He’s a regular guy who was made stronger and faster through medical experimentation, the U.S.’s attempt to counter Hitler’s “Master Race.” His only weapon is a shield that he throws like a Frisbee.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were heavily influenced by espionage thrillers such as Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, while directors Anthony and Joe Russo wanted to push the superhero movie beyond the simple nemesis-driven plots we typically see. How unusual is it for a superhero NOT to appear in just about every scene of a superhero movie? But of course it isn’t unusual for that to happen in more complex thrillers.

The Winter Soldier takes its title from a Soviet agent that Captain America (Chris Evans) goes up against, but that assassin (Sebastian Stan) is only one piece of the puzzle in a complex plot that twists and turns like Steve Rogers own souped-up DNA.   More

BLENDED (Blu-ray)

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BlendedcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2014, 117 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content and language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

Sometimes you just have to ignore the buzz. Our family had heard that Blended, the latest Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore comedy, wasn’t all that good. But hey, I said, we loved them together in The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates, so let’s give it a chance.

We did, and our whole family was entertained—enough to watch it again in the future. Yes, there were some cheesy spots and a few gags that fell flat, but that’s the nature of comedies—especially those that try to balance humor with warm fuzzy moments.

So I’m going to have to disagree with my colleagues at Rotten Tomatoes that gave this film a crappy 14 percent “rotten” rating—meaning only 14 critics out of 100 liked it. The telltale sign is that 66 percent of the Rotten Tomatoes readers liked it, and audiences aren’t looking to criticize. They’re just looking to have a good time. So were we.

Blended won’t be for everyone, though, because it does try to do the impossible: to make a family movie that’s also adult, insomuch as it’s full of put-downs, sexual innuendo, and slapstick that bounces back and forth between the adult and juvenile realms. Running gags include the girls’ boyish looks, one “blended” couple’s get-a-room antics, a 15-year-old girl’s flat chest, and a boy’s babysitter and dirty magazine fetish. Blended is rated PG-13 for “crude and sexual content and language,” and parents who are uncomfortable letting their children watch films like that will want to take a pass.

But you know what? The juggling of adult and family content is the realistic theme of this film—and the bulk of it takes place at a South African resort specializing in blended families, one which makes no bones about wanting to keep (or rekindle) the flame between the mother and father so that they don’t just think of themselves as 24/7 parents.  More

THE ORIGINALS: SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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OriginalscoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2013-14, 929 min. (22 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Rated TV-14
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features: B
Trailer

The Twilight novels and films opened the floodgates for a vampire resurgence, and in The Originals: Season 1—a spin-off from the popular CW series The Vampire Diaries—we get more vampire drama . . . and violence.

Like The Vampire Diaries, this spin-off is rated TV-14, which means that the ratings board thinks American 14 year olds are cool with seeing heads lopped off, hearts ripped from chests, and vampires biting off fingers and pieces of flesh. It’s an ultraviolent show that will probably still give young teens more than a few nightmares. So don’t let the TV-14 label fool you. While there isn’t nearly as much sex in this first season of The Originals as we saw in the original series that inspired it, it seems as if people (or vampires or werewolves) are constantly being brutally butchered and tortured.

At least it’s not as soapy as The Vampire Diaries. There’s melodrama and stand-and-talk monologues, but the situations aren’t nearly as cheesy—maybe because romantic entanglements are deemphasized.   More

BEE PEOPLE (DVD)

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BeePeoplecoverGrade: B (what else?)
Entire family: Yes
2014, 102 min., Color
True Mind
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

I don’t know of too many families that say they sit down and watch documentaries together, but I do know plenty that watch reality shows on TV, and this title is for them.

Bee People looked like a film that was going to tell me more about something that I already know: that honeybees are in steep decline, and that anyone who appreciates the little things in life (like flowers, fruits, vegetables . . . trees) ought to be worried. In other words, I expected a documentary with the usual blend of voiceover narration, “bee-roll,” and talking heads.

We get some of the information, but really, Bee People comes closer to a reality show like Treehouse Masters, where you follow an amiable and fun-loving expert (or two) as they go about their business—in this case, answering calls to remove beehives from unwanted locations, relocating “swarms,” establishing new hives for people willing to host them, visiting schools and conventions, mentoring new beekeepers, and shadowing other bee people to see how they do it.

Bee People does have a thesis: if these creatures who’ve survived millions of years without much evolution are going to continue to survive and provide the help with pollination that’s essential to life, it’s going to take more beekeepers. And rather than a small number of beekeepers with huge numbers of hives it’s going to take a village of beekeepers, one every two square miles.   More

OUT OF THE PAST (Blu-ray)

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OutofthePastcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1947, 97 min., black and white
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence, drinking and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA Mono
Bonus features: C-
Clip

Like many parents, my wife and I have tried to help our children to develop an appreciation for a broad range of things, whether it’s expanding their palette at home or their sense of the world via travel. It would be nice, too, if that appreciation extended to film—though this generation seems more resistant to black-and-white movies made in the old Academy ratio (1.33:1) instead of widescreen, and put off by films that are dialogue and plot rich, rather than action-filled visual blockbusters.

So this was an experiment. I told them the 20-minute rule was in effect—give Out of the Past a chance, and if they hated it after 20 minutes I’d put on something else. Film noir is so important a style that I wanted them at least to be able to recognize the traits: the emphasis on shady characters with shady pasts, the frequent flashbacks, the manipulation of shadow and light to create stylized effects, the rough-talking hero who often narrates his own story, and the femme fatale he’s drawn to, even though she’s bad for him and could get him killed.

Film noir is most often associated with crime dramas from the ‘40s and ‘50s, and I knew that Out of the Past was considered among the top 10 on just about everybody’s list. Warner Bros. released it on Blu-ray this week, available only through their archive program, so why not give it a try? As it turned out, both of our kids said they’d keep watching after 20 minutes.   More

TOY STORY OF TERROR (Blu-ray)

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ToyStoryofTerrorcoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2013, 21 min., Color
Disney-Pixar
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: B+
Trailer

Pixar takes the same kind of pride and care with their Toy Story characters as Walt Disney did with his beloved Mickey Mouse. Whether it’s a major motion picture, a half-hour TV special, or one of the short Toy Story Toons to come out of Pixar Canada, the quality of animation and the level of creativity is consistently superior to the competition. I know. What competition, right?

Toy Story of Terror is a perfect example. This 21-minute Halloween special debuted on ABC-TV on October 16, 2013, but it stars all of the original voice talents and features the same energy, inventiveness and attention to detail as we got in the three big Toy Story movies. What’s more, with this release the Pixar bunch continues with their playful brand of self-reflexive filmmaking.

This time we pick up the action as Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), and Trixie (Kristen Schaal) are using a portable DVD player to watch a horror film in the trunk of young Bonnie’s car. Her mother is taking her on a road trip, and as the toys watch horror in horror, Mr. Pricklepants narrates, anticipating the action by exposing all of the conventions of the genre in a sardonic running commentary.

Even as Bonnie and her mother check into a softened Pixar version of the Bates Motel, Mr. Pricklepants continues to undercut everyone’s fears by poking fun of all the clichés—that is, until the toys start disappearing in darkness one by one after they’ve left the suitcase. Is it too scary for young children? Not really, because of that humorous undercutting, and also because the “big reveal” comes fairly early in the film.   More

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