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MALEFICENT (Blu-ray)

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MaleficentcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2014, 97 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for “sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images”
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

Disney’s live-action Maleficent has irked and annoyed more than a few of the generation that saw the studio’s animated Sleeping Beauty in theaters when it was released in 1959. That’s because the evil fairy Maleficent was Disney’s first larger-than-life villain, someone everyone loved to hate.

Now the haters are angry that in reworking the material for a live-action feature, Disney went the Wicked route, offering up a completely sympathetic portrait of a Disney villain so that she’s really no longer recognizable as a villain. She’s both villain and hero, as Aurora proclaims.

Some will insist that Disney can’t have it both ways, arguing that they spoiled a perfectly good villain by giving her a heartbreaking backstory and making her more of a softie than you’d ever have imagined possible. But Disney wanted to reimagine the story for a new generation, and since both my teenage daughter and son prefer it to the animated classic, and since “Maleficent” is the second-highest grossing film of the year thus far, you’d have to say, “Mission accomplished.”

The filmmakers give Maleficent a context so that she’s not villainous, but rather a protector of the fairy world against encroachments from warlike humans. They give her a motivation for the curse she bestows on King Stefan’s newborn daughter, something more significant than the petty reason offered in the animated version: not being invited to the christening. They even tweak the story so that we see how she regrets the curse and wishes for a way to take it back. And they give her a fairy version of Kryptonite to make her potentially weak. What’s more, it all feels logical.

It’s clever, really, how the filmmakers are able to turn such a menacing character into a victim, and the fun for those of us who remember the animated classic comes comes from seeing the gradual steps they take to completely transform the horned fairy and flip this fairy tale on its head.

As for the casting, I really don’t see this working without Angelina Jolie, who has the same angular face as Disney’s villain and who’s able to be both menacing, when she needs to be, and sympathetic, when a scene calls for it. There’s a harshness and beauty in her face that perfectly suits the character. Sharlito Copley, meanwhile, does a nice job of handling Stefan’s own transformation from an idealistic young man to a self-serving one, and finally a bitter old man filled with hate. And Elle Fanning dishes up a large serving of sweetness and naiveté as the teenage Aurora.  More

THE WONDER YEARS: COMPLETE COLLECTION (DVD)

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WonderYearscoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No. Age 10 and older.
1988-93, six seasons, Color
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG because of mild language, content)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Includes: 12” tall metal locker, 26 DVDs, yearbook and notebooks, etc.
Bonus features: A-
Trailer

There are plenty of coming of age stories, but the classics for me are still Stand by Me and A Christmas Story in film, and The Wonder Years on TV. In each, you get the full impact of adolescence, but with a terrific sense of the time period, along with plots that bring everything into sharp focus. The Wonder Years is funny, it’s fresh, it’s thought provoking, it insightfully and colorfully captures the attitudes of the era, and it plays well 20 years later.

Why wouldn’t it? Like Leave It to Beaver, the series’ episodes were seen from the point of view of an adolescent, and you knew you were in for an interesting ride when this half-hour comedy-drama shunned a laugh track and introduced the kind of voiceover narrator that we got in A Christmas Story—an adult version of the main character, who was 12 years old when the series began. And you knew that The Wonder Years would meet the ‘60s head-on when the pilot called for the girl-next-door’s older brother to be killed in Vietnam, and for our hero to comfort her in a scene that would culminate in a first kiss for each of them—both as characters, and as actors.

In short, The Wonder Years gets it right. Kids Kevin’s age were too young to worry about a draft number, yet too old to ignore the events that were shaping history and the lives of Americans—things like the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, the moon landing, Woodstock, the Apollo 13 crisis, and events that were an outgrowth of Civil Rights, women’s liberation, and increasingly strident anti-war protests. The result is a series that combines the innocence of childhood—of who likes whom, and passing notes—with a world that’s pushing them to grow up more quickly.  More

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (Blu-ray)

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YankeeDoodleDandycoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
1942, 125 min., Black and white
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be G despite brief WWI montage)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C
Trailer

John Travolta and I have at least one thing in common: Yankee Doodle Dandy was one of our favorite movies growing up. Maybe that’s because we’re Baby Boomers, and we were raised with postwar patriotism, much of which was reflected in the movies that Hollywood made.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of the top musical biopics from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and it has an unbelievable backstory. But just as unbelievable is that this four-star movie about Broadway sensation George M. Cohan doesn’t interest the rest of my family. My wife, who’s not a Baby Boomer, thinks it’s only okay, and my kids find the flag-waving corny, the Vaudeville sequences otherworldly, and the black-and-white picture the last straw. But if your family is into old-time biopics, Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of the best, and it has an interesting history.

At least one good thing came out of the Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. James Cagney, popular for his gangster roles, had to fly to Washington, D.C. to defend himself against charges that he was a Communist. Though he set the committee straight, afterwards his brother told him, “We have to make the damnedest patriotic picture ever.” Cagney’s very next film would be Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biography of Broadway sensation George M. Cohan, who was honored by President Roosevelt and Congress for composing the patriotic anthems “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Ironically, Yankee Doodle Dandy would also earn Cagney his only Oscar for Best Actor.   More

SLEEPING BEAUTY (DIAMOND EDITION) (Blu-ray)

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SleepingBeautycoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1959, 75 min., Color
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 2.55:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C
Trailer

Sleeping Beauty was the last of the Disney films to use hand-inked cells, and the last film that Walt Disney personally supervised. Which is to say, Sleeping Beauty was both the last great film from the classic era of Disney animation, and a herald of even greater things to come. And though it’s one of the first trilogy of Disney princess movies (following Snow White and Cinderella), it captured the attention of young boys because it featured one of the all-time great Disney villains in Malificent—who now is the subject of a new live-action retelling on the order of Wicked.

Set in the 14th century and adapted from Charles Perrault’s version of the tale (Perrault also wrote the ballet which Tchaikovsky scored), Sleeping Beauty is actually closer in structure to the fairy tale related by the Brothers Grimm, who inspired Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Sleeping Beauty relates the story of a king and queen whose baby is cursed by a malevolent witch with the promise that before the child’s 16th birthday she’ll prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die! Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley), one of the is a sorceress with spiral-horned headgear and flowing black gown who can vanish into thin air, transform herself into fire or a creature, and send minions scurrying with jolts of lightning from her staff. She both frightened and captivated children when the film first showed in 1959, and she’s likely to do the same for another generation.   More

MILLION DOLLAR ARM (Blu-ray)

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MillionDollarArmcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2014, 124 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

My family liked Million Dollar Arm as much as any Disney sports movie. It has a Jerry Maguire structure, a Bollywood vibe, a likable cast, laugh-out-loud moments, and a lead actor who shows us the vulnerable flip side of his Mad Men character.

Million Dollar Arm is the eighth based-on-a-real-story sports film that Disney has made this millennium, following in the footsteps (or hoof tracks) of Secretariat (2010), Invincible (2006), Glory Road (2006), Miracle (2004), The Rookie (2002), Snow Dogs (2002), and Remember the Titans (2000). And it’s a worthy successor to those films.

Jon Hamm is cast against type as sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who quit his job at a large agency to form a partnership with Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi). But they’re running out of time and the future of their struggling, fledgling business, as in Jerry Maguire, seems to rest with one player. In this case it’s an NFL star named Popo (Rey Maualuga) whom Bernstein is wooing, big-time.

But at the same time, to buy time with an impatient investor named Chang (Tzi Ma), they come up with the gimmick of having a contest in India to find the two best, hardest throwing cricket players to bring to America and convert into baseball pitchers.

That really happened to Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, who appeared on a 2008 reality TV show called Million Dollar Arm and became the first Indians to play baseball in America. Only Patel made it to the majors, though, and he only lasted a short while. None of that makes it into the film. Million Dollar Arm is all about the relationship that forms between the agent and his prospects.  More

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

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