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EMPIRE RECORDS (Blu-ray)

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EmpireRecordscoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1995, 90 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sexual situations, language and drug use
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer/Amazon link

Sometimes you’d swear that critics and audiences seem to be watching two different movies. Empire Records was liked by only 24 percent of the Rotten Tomatoes critics, whereas 84 percent of the audience liked it. But I can see where a person’s reaction could go either way.

Empire Records (1995) is deliberately quirky, with a cast of teens whose quirkiness and iCarly-style random dancing will make you either smile . . . or roll your eyes. It’s the kind of movie you’d get if you crossed a mainstream teen dramedy like The Breakfast Club with an indie film that, like so many indie flicks, seems to operate by the philosophy that the weirder the better. And if you’re familiar with the classic chick-flick Mystic Pizza (1988), which featured Conchata Ferrell as the lone adult presiding over a small business overrun by teens and their problems, you’ll see plenty of similarities, starting with the basic premise and structure.

Mystic Pizza featured a young Julia Roberts, and the attraction here is a young Liv Tyler and Renée Zellweger.

Like Mystic Pizza, Empire Records is a coming-of-age story in which a wholesome character (Tyler) is looking to lose her virginity, a young man (Johnny Whitworth) wants to overcome his shyness and tell a girl he loves her, one girl wrestles with the “promiscuous” label (Zellweger), and another (Robin Tunney) is feeling so down on herself and life that she’s tried to cut herself as a cry for help. And a running contrast between promiscuity and wholesome behavior blurs at some point.

EmpireRecordsscreenThe business itself is facing a make-or-break moment, though it almost seems incidental compared to the personal problems of the employees that take center stage—or rather, center aisle. Empire Records is an independent store that feeds off the energy of its young and crazy employees, who like to play loud music and rock out in the store with customers of all ages. At times, you’d think you were in an Elvis movie, the whole place is so up and random dancing. Even the benevolent boss, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) gets into the act by locking himself in his office and playing a drum set he keeps there for stress relief. He’s a father-figure to this group, the “cool dad” before cool dads became a thing. He doesn’t even get overly mad when a young employee (Rory Cochrane) entrusted to close and deposit the day’s receipts has an Uncle Billy moment, and he’s just as tolerant with a space cadet employee who wants to be in a band (Ethan Embry), a young shoplifter (Brendan Sexton III) whose attitude is 50 shades of obnoxious, or a boyfriend (Coyote Shivers) that hangs around too much.   More

New on Blu-ray and DVD (March 31, 2015)

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InterstellarGeorge Clooney and Sandra Bullock had their time in the space spotlight, and last year Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway grabbed theirs. Like Gravity, Interstellar is a space adventure. But it’s also situated more squarely in the sci-fi tradition, with the adventure set in the future and involving travel through a wormhole in order to save humanity. Just a typical low-stakes drama from director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception), right? The terrific cast includes Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, and Michael Caine. Interstellar is rated PG-13 for “some intense perilous action and brief strong language” (two f-bombs and a handful of others). My sense is that it would be for families with junior high age kids or older. Look for it on Blu-ray combo or DVD this week (trailer).

ImitationGameA little headier is the biodrama-thriller The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, and Matthew Goode. Rated PG-13 for “some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking,” it’s the real-life story of cryptanalyst Alan Turing, whose team of code-breakers at England’s top-secret Bletchley Park facility race against time to save lives during the darkest days of WWII. The subject matter is such that it will appeal only to young viewers with patience and an appreciation of dialogue-heavy films, but it’s well done, winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Imitation Game is available on Blu-ray or DVD (trailer).

IslandofLemursFor the entire family there’s the nature film Island of Lemurs: Madagascar (2014), made for IMAX theaters to showcase the cute creatures who can only be found on a single island off the African coast and the scientist who is working to save them. Unlike most nature films, this one isn’t focused on life cycles, so that means there’s also no death: no predators, no poachers, just cute lemurs of all different kinds and a lesson or two in environmentalism. I gave it a B in my review. It’s available on a Blu-ray combo pack that includes a DVD and 3D version of the film (trailer).

RewriteThe Rewrite (2014) is cleaner than most PG-13 movies, with adult drinking, sexual situations and some language rewritten into the script. The ever-boyish Hugh Grant stars as a has-been Hollywood hack who struck gold with one screenplay but hasn’t been able to write anything since. The only gig he’s able to get is teaching at a New York college, where he’s pursued by a coed and meets his match in an exuberant single mom (Marisa Tomei). Every bit for 13 and older, The Rewrite earned a B- in my review. Look for it on Blu-ray or DVD (trailer).

WithoutaClueWithout a Clue (1988), a PG-rated mystery-crime comedy that flies under most people’s radar (probably because only 56 percent of the Rotten Tomatoes critics liked the film), is coming to Blu-ray for the first time this week courtesy of Olive Films. It stars Ben Kingsley as the famed Dr. Watson, who, in this take-off, hires an often drunk third-rate actor (Michael Caine) to play Sherlock Holmes to cover up the fact that Watson is the real detective. Also available on DVD, it’s rated PG mostly for that comic drunkenness and adult smoking (trailer).

New Frank Sinatra titles to debut on Blu-ray

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FS5FilmCollectionWarner Bros. Home Entertainment will release the Frank Sinatra: 5 Film Collection on Blu-ray May 5, 2015. The set, which has an an SRP of $69.96 and is selling at Amazon for $59.99, includes Ocean’s 11, Guys and Dolls, and three films new to Blu-ray:  Anchors Aweigh, On the Town, and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). The three new-to-Blu titles will also be released separately on May 5.

The most family-friendly title is without a doubt Robin and the 7 Hoods, a fun riff on the Robin Hood legend set in 1920s Chicago and Robinandthe7Hoodsfeaturing Sinatra and his Rat Pack as gangsters who become beloved for their donations, until a femme fatale complicates things. Sinatra plays Robbo, while Dean Martin is John Little, Sammy Davis Jr. is Will, and Bing Crosby is Allen A. Dale. Peter Falk is fun as the villain, Guy Gisborne, while veteran character actor Victor Buono plays a crooked Sheriff. There’s singing, dancing, and, of course, shooting . . . it is, after all, the Roaring ’20s. But despite some adult situations it’s a pretty tame movie. Killings are off-stage, only a few mild swearwords appear, and though the action revolves around speakeasies, Crosby sings a temperance song about the evils of “Mr. Booze.” Waitresses and flappers are dressed a little skimpily, but that’s the extent of it. It would be rated PG by today’s standards.

SONS OF LIBERTY miniseries comes to home video May 26

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SonsofLiberty160Lionsgate Home Entertainment announced that the HISTORY channel blockbuster miniseries Sons of Liberty will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 26, 2015. Scripted by the writer of the acclaimed HBO miniseries John Adams, Sons of Liberty tells the story of the American Revolution as it begins to take shape.

As riots consume the streets of Boston, a dangerous game plays out between a British governor and ringleader Sam Adams, which escalates to extreme measures-street brawls, black market dealings, espionage and murder. A sizzling, romantic affair percolates against a backdrop of rising civil unrest, the infamous Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s legendary ride. From the Battle of Lexington, a clash between the dedicated colonists and the superior British Army ensues, and the colonies join forces as a single, united country in the most epic revolution of our time.

SonsofLibertyscreensmallSons of Liberty stars Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia), Ryan Eggold (The Blacklist), Michael Raymond-James (Once Upon a Time), Rafe Spall (Prometheus), Henry Thomas (Gangs of New York), Marton Csokas (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), Jason O’Mara (Terra Nova), and Emily Berrington (24: Live Another Day). SRP is $29.99 for the Blu-ray and $26.98 for the DVD, and both include three featurettes (subject to change): “Lensing Liberty: The Making of Sons of Liberty,” “Men of Independence: The Historic Figures of Sons of Liberty,” and “The Choreography of War: Creating the Battles and SPFX of Sons of Liberty.”

Runtime is 270 minutes, format is 1.78:1 widescreen, and the Blu-ray features an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.

ISLAND OF LEMURS: MADAGASCAR (Blu-ray combo)

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IslandofLemurscoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
2014, 39 min., Color
Rated G
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray version, DVD, Digital HD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer/Amazon link

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is a nature film made for IMAX theaters, not for a PBS viewership—meaning it’s geared for a popular audience rather than one looking to learn every detail they can about animals and their environment.

IMAX movies are typically experiences—movies shot in higher definition on 70mm film that can then be shown on screens way larger than anything you’d see in a standard movie theater, and with no loss of detail if you sit in the front rows. Shots have tended toward the dramatic—aerial panoramas, whales breeching, fires blazing out of control, and wilderness adventures—with early short films including The Eruption of Mount St. Helens!, Fires of Kuwait, and Alaska: Spirit of the Wild. So it’s somewhat of a deviation for a less naturally dramatic nature film like Island of Lemurs: Madagascar to get the IMAX treatment.

Featured primatologist Patricia Wright worked tirelessly to establish a 107,000-acre national park on the island of Madagascar to protect the 12 species of lemurs that live there. Maybe she has connections (or fans) in high places, because there isn’t a better way to raise awareness of a cause than with a 3D IMAX movie.

Wright and her work are showcased in Island of Lemurs, but the stars are, of course, the lemurs themselves. Lemurs tend to hop and jump a lot, using their strong hind legs, and there’s amazing footage of Sifakas, who naturally hop sideways so that it looks like they’re dancing, hopping across a beach. We also see Brown Mouse Lemurs, a little tinier and pudgier than the others, fearlessly flinging themselves from tree to tree. And we watch Indriids and their peculiar way they have of “singing.” You can look up information on these and find that their calls can be heard more than a mile away, but you won’t get that kind of specific information here. IMAX is a celebration of exotic places and phenomena, and the emphasis here is on these amazing creatures themselves.   More

New on Blu-ray and DVD (March 24, 2015)

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HobbitTwo titles jump out this week. New to Blu-ray combo and DVD is the final installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a single book that Peter Jackson stretched out to make a companion trilogy to The Lord of the Rings. As I wrote in my review, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is really more third act than stand-alone film, dominated by final-battle conflict. You have to have seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: The Desloation of Smaug to appreciate the climax, and even then it’s a series for families with older children, as the PG-13 film has plenty of fantasy violence. But for Tolkien-lovers, it’s a must-buy. Martin Freeman stars as the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, while Ian McKellen is the wizard Gandalf and Richard Armitage is dwarf leader Thorin.

IntotheWoodsIf your family is into musicals, the must-have this week is Disney’s PG-rated Into the Woods, a review of which I’ve just posted. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine Tony Award-winning Broadway play that really has a theatrical feel to it. Into the Woods is also pretty faithful to the original, and I thought Disney’s cast and their performances were every bit as good as the Broadway version. Meryl Streep stars as the witch, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his wife, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, Mackenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel, Chris Pine as Prince Charming, and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince in this fairytale mash-up, which subverts the clichéd happily-ever-after ending. Look for it on Blu-ray or DVD.

SureThingFamilies with teens might check out Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing, an opposites-attract romantic dramedy starring John Cusack (Say Anything) and Daphne Zuniga (Spaceballs). The 1985 film comes out in a 30th Anniversary Blu-ray this week, rated PG-13 for sexual content, including references and language. But the only skin we glimpse is a man “mooning” other cars in this story of a college freshman (Cusack) who decides to travel across country to visit his friend and bed what his friend claims is a “sure thing.” To share on costs he teams with Allison (Zuniga), a coed who is going to California during the same spring break to visit her boyfriend. Opposites clash, opposites drive each other crazy, and opposites kind of like each other and try to help each other figure out life, which seems more complicated for teens than for anyone else. Though sex is the driving force, it’s actually a sweet film from Reiner, who also gave us The Princess Bride and Stand by Me.

UnbrokenNot so sweet and downright difficult to watch in parts is Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, a war and prisoner-of-war movie about a U.S. Olympian named Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) who survives 47 days on a raft after his bomber is shot down during WWII, only to be taken prisoner and subjected to all manner of abuse at the hands of his Japanese captors. Unbroken is rated PG-13 for brief language and near-constant war violence, including intense sequences of brutality. It’s a movie about survival, and that means catching and slitting open a seagull to eat raw, then vomiting. There’s even violence in flashbacks, where we see a boy beaten by others and called a “dago.” But for families who are into historical-based films, this one offers a glimpse into man’s inhumanity to man . . . and man’s ability to resiliently survive. It’s available on both Blu-ray combo and DVD.

VincentTheoIt seems as if every fifth arts question on Trivia Crack is about Vincent van Gogh, and the curious can learn his tragic story this week when Robert Altman’s 1990 biopic Vincent & Theo comes to Blu-ray for the first time. Tim Roth stars as the artist and Paul Rhys as his art-dealer brother in this beautifully filmed PG-13 rated offering, which can be dark at times, since it deals with a tortured artist who went through long bouts of depression and was unstable enough to cut off his ear to give it to a woman.

AtwarwithArmyFinally, if your family loves old black-and-white classics, the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Louis stars in At War with the Army, a 1950 musical-comedy directed by Hal Walker, who also helmed three of the Crosby-Hope-Lamour “road pictures.” Sgt. Puccinelli (Martin) wants to be transferred overseas, while PFC Korwin (Lewis) wants a pass to see his wife and new baby. But forget about it, because this is WWII and the boys are in training . . . to perform at a talent show. Though it isn’t highly regarded now, this was the film that solidified Martin & Lewis as box-office talents and introduced actress Polly Bergen. Film Chest restored the film and is bringing it to Blu-ray for the first time this week.

INTO THE WOODS (2014) (Blu-ray)

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IntotheWoodscoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Not really
2014, 125 min., Color
Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer/Amazon link

I was surprised to see that more than 52,000 readers at the Internet Movie Database collectively rated Disney’s Into the Woods a mere 6.2 out of 10. And at Rotten Tomatoes, only 53 percent of some 85,000 viewers liked it. Obviously, these were people more familiar with the Disney formula than the Broadway musical penned by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, because the film version stays pretty true to the theatrical production.

In fact, despite the addition of greater visual depth and special effects, Disney’s Into the Woods has a very staged feel to it, except that the actors aren’t consciously playing to the audience. We’re not talking about the insertion of occasional songs, either. Like an operetta, Into the Woods features plenty of monologues and conversations that are sung rather than spoken. It’s a very theatrical film, in other words, and I can see where, if you’re not expecting that, it could throw you for a loop.

So could the encroachment of serious themes and an ending that undercuts the fairytale notion of happily-ever-after. You and your family may find yourself tearing up, and that’s almost unheard of with a Disney film. In the past, there may have been weepy Bambi’s mother and Old Yeller moments, but all was usually well that ended well. There’s a difference between a happy ending and a hard-earned optimism that reinforces the old adage about making lemonade when life gives you lemons, and it’s the latter that audiences encounter when they travel vicariously Into the Woods.

Disney’s film version may be rated PG, but the emotional content may make the film appropriate only for children old enough to understand and accept what was repackaged in The Lion King as “The Circle of Life.” If they can handle The Lion King, they can handle this. But they have to love live theater and musicals to love Disney’s Into the Woods. It’s that simple. They also need to be able to understand the basic premise, which is an intricate weave of familiar fairytales.

Everybody wants something, which is what the cast sings about in the long, opening title song that begins, “I Wish.” It might help to share ahead of time with smaller children that Into the Woods is a mash-up of fairytales, and that we jump from tale to tale and character to character.

The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) desperately want a child, and the witch next door who had put a curse on their family (Meryl Streep in her Oscar-nominated role) offers them a way to do that: they must bring her a milky white cow (from the Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale), a slipper of gold (from the Cinderella fairytale), a blood-red cape (from the Red Riding Hood fairytale), and hair as yellow as corn (from the Rapunzel fairytale).

All the characters go into the woods: Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is sent by his mother (Tracy Ullman) to sell the cow, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) goes there to talk to her dead mother and receive the gift of fine clothes that will allow her to attend the ball, Little Red (Lilla Crawford) skips to her grandmother’s house deep in the woods, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) rebels against her witchy mother by secretly seeing a prince, the baker and his wife try to acquire their objects, and the giant and giant’s wife from Jack and the Beanstalk eventually wreak havoc.   More

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