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THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (Blu-ray)

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HundredFootJourneycoverGrade:  B
Entire family: Yes
2014, 122 min., Color
Rated PG for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality
Touchstone/DreamWorks
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Digital HD Copy
Trailer

There’s nothing in The Hundred-Foot Journey that the whole family can’t see, thanks to an overly dark night scene that’s so murky you can’t tell what’s going on. There is a fire and a character does die, but there’s nothing so graphic that it would warrant staying away—especially when the theme of cultural acceptance and understanding is one that many parents would like their children to see.

The Hundred-Foot Journey goes a surprising number of places for such a short trip. It’s a love story, a story about culture clash, an underdog success story, and a movie that celebrates food—albeit one that devolves into a food fight at one point, figuratively speaking.

But this little film has heart. How can it not, being executive produced by the reunited team of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey? Everybody in the audience gets a box of warm fuzzies.

Director Lasse Hallström (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) is no stranger to films that celebrate food. His Chocolat (2000) was among those first-wave attempts to incorporate the transformative properties of delicious concoctions into the narrative. In fact, there are a few similarities to The Hundred Foot Journey. Both films focus on characters new to a conservative, provincial French town the plot revolves around the way that the new arrivals gradually win everyone over because of the food that they make.

Adapted from Richard C. Morais’ 2010 novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey features Helen Mirren as Madame Mallory, a widow who operates an haute cuisine restaurant that has earned a single Michelin star, and she wants another. Soon, as the audience senses, her life will radically change when an Indian family buys the shuttered, former restaurant one hundred feet across the road from her.   More

INTO THE WOODS (1987) (Blu-ray)

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IntotheWoodscoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
1987, 153 min., Color
Not rated (would be PG for several intense sequences)
Image Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: None
Opening song (audio only) 

 Into the Woods is a strange musical that’s about to get even stranger this Christmas when Disney’s film version debuts with Johnny Depp as the wolf and Meryl Streep as the witch. But if you want to see the original Broadway production that inspired it, James Lapine does a nice job of filming a performance from the show’s initial 1987 run, with camerawork that pulls in tight for plenty of medium shots that give the stage production a filmic feel—especially since there are no audience reaction shots. It’s a technically accomplished film version of a real Broadway production.

Into the Woods earned Bernadette Peters a Tony Award for Best Actress and statues as well for Stephen Sondheim (Best Score) and Lapine (Best Book). You can see why. There are a few catchy songs, but you won’t walk away singing the score the way you might with something like Frozen. In weaving together the stories of Cinderella, Jack and his mother (and the beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, Lapine uses the witch as a lynch pin and Sondheim creates song after song that mimics the narrative structure with its high level of discordance and overlapping and interwoven sung lines. That’s one thing that makes this Broadway musical distinctive, and one thing that adds a level of sophistication that might push it beyond the comfort zone of some younger viewers.

What makes Into the Woods strange is that after a first act that playfully pokes fun of children’s fairy tales while at the same time celebrating them, a second act deconstructs the whole idea of fairytale endings by introducing darker elements . . . certain to become even darker in the 2014 film, given Hollywood’s recent forays into fairy tales. Not that the first half is rosy-cheeked and cheery, mind you. Cinderella’s stepmother cuts off parts of her daughters’ feet so that the prince detects they’re not the real deal because of the blood that drips into the golden slipper (only a cartoon character can wear a GLASS slipper). And the wolf’s stomach is cut open so the Red Riding Meal he ingested can escape unharmed. In other words, this fairytale mash-up can be pretty Grimm in an “ewwww” sort of way, despite the infusion of humor at every turn.   More

WHAT IF (Blu-ray)

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WhatIfcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2013, 98 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, including references throughout, partial nudity and language
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Trailer

What If Daniel Radcliffe took a break from the horror-thriller movies he’s been making since his Harry Potter run ended and tried his hand at a romantic comedy? And what if he was paired with writer-actress Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks)?

According to Radcliffe, “There was something lovely about just stepping up on the set and talking,” since this was the first contemporary character he’s ever played.

So what if a nice-guy med school dropout named Wallace (Radcliffe), who’s been burned one too many times in a relationship, meets a woman (Kazan) who already has a boyfriend and clicks with her instantly? What if she drops the “f bomb” on him that no guy likes to hear: “Let’s be friends. Just friends”? And what if the two of them find themselves growing so close as friends that he definitely wants it to be more, and on some level, so does she? What would it take for good friends to move beyond that, without wrecking what they have? And without pushing the film’s rating into R territory?

That’s the premise of What If, a PG-13 rated comedy-drama-romance that features intelligent writing, a believable chemistry between the slightly staid Wallace and borderline free spirit Chantry, and one “close-your-eyes” skinny-dipping moment that shows both actors’ bodies from behind in a moonlit (sorry, bad pun) long shot.

These two are friends, and so the emphasis is on friendship and clever dialogue rather than the steamy couplings and break-ups and make-ups that often shape the contemporary rom-com. There’s a meet-cute, certainly, but everything else takes a different route from the typical romantic comedy. That’s refreshing, especially since these two are moral individuals who care about each other, and the film emphasizes caring over romance, and romance over lust (which hardly makes an appearance).   More

COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG: SEASON 2 (DVD)

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Courage2coverGrade: B
Entire family: No (age 7 and older)
2000, 286 min. (13 episodes), Color
Unrated (would be PG for rude humor and frightful situations played for laughs)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features:  none

Cartoon Network has a reputation for edgy, “out there,” and slightly manic animated shows aimed at kids ages 7-17. The characters are often anime-influenced and drawn with severe angularity, while the style of backgrounds would have to be called minimalist. Coming out of CN in the early years were Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, and I Am Weasel, followed by The Powerpuff Girls and this popular entry, Courage the Cowardly Dog.

CN is part of Ted Turner’s broadcasting empire, and their shows have always tickled some children and rubbed others and parents the wrong way. They can be a little in your face, a little loud, a little shrill at times. But as CN series go, Courage the Cowardly Dog is actually one of the more traditionally animated. The backgrounds have more detail, and there are more props than we get in other shows, which makes for a richer-looking appearance. The concept, meanwhile, is actually as familiar as it gets: a dog is adopted by an older lady named Murial Bagge, a farm wife who lives with her crotchety husband, Eustace, “in the middle of nowhere”—quite literally in the town of Nowhere, Kansas.

But you know you’re not in Kansas anymore when the first episode is a riff on the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale, with a Magic Tree of Nowhere granting wishes . . . and gaining power as it goes.

Many of the plots from this 13-episode season are fantastic, with the bulk of them drawing inspiration from the horror genre. One of the best is a take-off on the old Mummy films, but revolving around a special kind of cookie. And in a spoof of The Fly, Courage gets turned into a fly by a villain named Di Lung. Such episodes are constructed in thriller fashion but played for laughs, starting with a dog who’s deathly afraid of just about anything and REACTS IN A BIG WAY. Each outing, Courage has to confront all manner of fantastic villains and threats in order to save his often clueless owners.

Courage2screenThe humor in Courage isn’t as rude as in other CN shows, with the worst of it coming out of the mouth of Eustace, who is perpetually annoyed by Courage and shouts “STUPID DOG” every chance he gets. But the extreme exaggeration of old-people stereotypes proves to be a necessary ingredient for a show about a cowardly dog who rises to the occasion despite his fears. Children will respond to the wild leaps of imagination and the ways in which this series, like Disney’s Phineas and Ferb, creates fantastic adventures for everyday characters and situations.   More

ARROW: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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Arrow2coverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2013, 1014 min. (23 episodes), Color
Unrated (would be PG-13 for violence)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Trailer

As I wrote about Arrow: Season 1, if your family consists of parents and teenage boys and you’re looking to bond, this show will grab their attention. Loosely based on the DC Comics vigilante Green Arrow, the popular action series spotlights a hero who fights crime but isn’t appreciated by either the police or the media, largely because of his above-the-law methods and the collateral damage that seems to follow him. In Season 1, we saw the origin of Arrow and the madness behind his method: rich people built their fortunes by abusing and taking advantage of others, and he followed a list his father had given him in order to exact what some would call “revenge” and others “justice.”

That first season grew a little tedious because every episode seemed a dead ringer for the previous one. It was like watching My Name Is Earl without the humor. But Season Two had a bigger budget to work with and the production values are noticeably slicker, while more money was obviously paid to writers. The scripts are a huge improvement, and the special effects and action are cranked up a notch to where they’re right up there with big-screen FX.  More

A BELLE FOR CHRISTMAS (DVD)

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BelleforChristmascoverGrade: C
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
2014, 91 min., Color
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Rated PG for “mild thematic material and rude humor”
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Bonus features: None
Trailer (Caution: spoilers)

Anchor Bay Entertainment has found a nice little niche by marketing family movies—including Christmas-themed ones that feature dogs. They’re unabashedly warm and fuzzy, with second-tier supporting actors and screenplays that fall somewhere between Hallmark movies and the kind of kid-pet-parent shenanigans we often see on the Disney Channel. This holiday season you can even pick up a five-pack of canine Christmas movies: Chilly Christmas, A Christmas Wedding Tail, The Dog Who Saved Christmas, The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation, and The Dog Who Saved the Holidays. They’re either made-for-TV movies or direct-to-video offerings, and how much your family likes them will likely depend on their ages and viewing tastes. The good news is that A Belle for Christmas, a new 2014 entry, is better than any of the previous doggie-holiday releases, with several likable characters, a cute pooch, and a plot that has kids, not adults, saving the day. The bad news is that if your children are as picky about their movies as they are their food, they may not respond well to the film’s clichés, the over- (or sometimes under-) acting, occasionally weak writing, and a pervasive undercurrent of sentimentality. The most likable character isn’t the dog at all. It’s Glenn Barrows (Dean Cain), a single father who’s trying to date again after losing his wife earlier in the year. He’s such a nice guy you wonder how he ever became a rich attorney and where he finds the time to spend with his kids. Personally, I think it’s a little soon for a relationship, much less a partial live-in girlfriend, but you can chalk that up to a facile screenplay that takes the quick route to conflict and relies on exaggeration to make its points.   More

PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE (Blu-ray combo)

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PlanesFireandRescuecoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
2014, 83 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for “action and some peril”
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

Here’s what I think: Disney’s Planes never got off the ground in 2013 because it was a) too close in concept to Cars, and b) not even half as complex, in terms of the world that animators created and their sight gags and background animations. It was an as-the-crow-flies narrative about an airplane named Dusty Crophopper that dreamed of racing instead of dumping pesticides on crops . . . though, of course, Disney didn’t frame it that environmentally conscious. It was all about dreaming to be more than you’re born to be, a familiar Disney theme.

In this 2014 sequel, Planes: Fire & Rescue, an opening montage weakly reminds us of Dusty’s status as a racing champion, then in short order we see him sputter and learn that his racing career is basically over. He has a bad gearbox, which, for a reason we’re not quite sure about, can’t be replaced. Not one to accept bad news, Dusty pushes himself to fly faster than the warning light that a crew member installed and ends up crash-landing and starting a fire at the airport. All of this is the run-up to the film’s basic scenario: Propwash Junction’s airport has a single aging fire and rescue unit, and Dusty’s crash made it clear that they were operating below standards. They’ll remain shut down unless they get a second unit. So Dusty, feeling guilty, offers to go to Piston Peak National Park for fire-and-rescue training.

In a way, I’m surprised that it took so long for there to be a film about forest firefighters, because I had a friend who was a smokejumper—who parachuted into fires along with bulldozing Bobcats and forklifts that were dropped in the area—and the stories he told were amazing.

In Planes: Fire & Rescue, which is dedicated to firefighters of all kinds, Disney shows just how far they’ve come by animating the most realistic forest fires I’ve ever seen, and they continue to display the same kind of prowess with their animation of water sequences. Visually, this sequel is a huge improvement over Planes, and there’s more here to learn, too—though I wish Disney would have trusted their young audience to be able to absorb more than just basic information about fighting forest fires. Young minds want to know details, and there are plenty of times where more explanation would have been welcome.

PlanesFireandRescuescreenI’m not spoiling anything when I say that of course Dusty’s racing arrogance gets in the way of his instruction and performance, because we’ve seen that before, too, in Cars. This time his mentor is a command and training helicopter named Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), and a mechanic named Maru (Curtis Armstrong) rigs him with a set of pontoons so he can skim the surface of a lake or river, pick up water, and then release it over a fire.

A sideplot involves the equivalent of a lodge developer who’s reminiscent of the mayor’s attempts in Jaws to convince patrons there’s no immediate danger, but it’s underdeveloped and only exists to put vacationing cars and planes in harm’s way when a forest fire spreads out of control. Otherwise, this is a single-trajectory narrative that follows Dusty’s arc through disappointment, training struggles and mistakes, and his eventual (and predictable) heroism. Yes, there are a couple of vans in extreme danger, but I think the ratings people went overboard giving this a PG. I mean, without some peril there’s no drama, right?

Adults and older children may think back to the richer world of Cars and wish for more complexity, but Planes: Fire & Rescue should appeal to younger children of both genders, probably up until 3rd or 4th grade. And everyone in the room will appreciate the accomplished artwork and animation. These people were on fire!

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