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JOHNNY GUITAR (Blu-ray)

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johnnyguitarcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
1954, 110 min., Color
Olive Films
Unrated (would be PG for adult themes and some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (full widescreen)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: A-
Trailer
Amazon link

In 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee interrogated members of Hollywood about alleged Communists in the film industry, and the “Hollywood Ten” refused to cooperate—which resulted in their being blacklisted and unable to work again in their profession. Even into the early 1950s, those “Red Menace” flames were fanned by Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose unsubstantiated claims that there were huge numbers of Soviet spies and sympathizers living among us sparked additional modern-day witchhunts.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible—his dramatization of the Salem witch trials—as an allegory criticizing McCarthyism, and anyone who knows history and watches the 1954 Western Johnny Guitar will recognize it as another allegory, one that references not only the idea of the McCarthy-style witch hunt but also Miller’s play. It’s hard not see in the “funeral attire” of a posse and the firebrand reformer of a woman who leads them a pretty exact match with the stark black-and-white dress of the Puritans who tried women as witches simply because another woman—jealous, perhaps—“accused” her of witchcraft. Accusation was enough to justify burning at the stake, and that same lack of tolerance and lack of due process drives this intelligent Western, which also features a “burning.”

johnnyguitarscreen2So what does that mean for family TV night? Well, Johnny Guitar isn’t a guilty pleasure, that’s for sure. It’s not the kind of movie you pop in for mindless entertainment. It’s not a typical formulaic Western with a strong male hero rescuing a damsel in distress. This revisionist Western features a strong female protagonist and big fight at the end that pits one strong woman against another. There’s gunplay, certainly, but as in High Noon—another intellectual Western—it’s measured, and a direct result of character. Compared to other Westerns, Johnny Guitar is high art—richly atmospheric and with noir elements that will remind viewers of such dramatic films as Key Largo. It’s directed by is directed by Nicholas Ray, who also gave us Rebel without a Cause, and fans of James Dean will see similarities here as well. All of which make this Western—which French critics collectively pronounced one of the best of all time—family viewing only if you have teenagers who can appreciate thoughtful and well-constructed films that aren’t made for the masses.

johnnyguitarscreen1Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a former saloon “girl”—a woman who survived by giving pleasure to men, though nothing so blunt is ever specifically stated. Through a series of events that also are left to our imaginations, Vienna has raised herself up. She once worked in a saloon, but now she owns a saloon isolated in the foothills apart from a small cattle town. She’s at odds with the townspeople, not only because of morality—Emma Small (as in small-minded?) wants to drive her away—but because she’s working with the railroad to run tracks through her property and build a depot right there by her saloon.

In a nod to TV Westerns and B movies, a stagecoach is held up by a gang, and the town accuses Vienna of being in cahoots with The Dancin’ Kid and his boys, which memorably include young Turkey (Ben Cooper) and crusty Bart (Ernest Borgnine). But this is an “iceberg” Western, with most of it lurking beneath the surface. Every character has a back story that viewers are invited to figure out, and to speculate about the relationship between Vienna and Emma, between The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and both women, among the “gang” members, and between Vienna and the unarmed stranger (Sterling Hayden) who rides into town with a guitar slung on his back. For that matter, Johnny Guitar invites you to speculate on the notion of power and who has it in this town—the head of the cattlemen (Ward Bond), the marshal (Frank Ferguson), or Emma as the voice of all things “proper.” And why does Vienna really want that railroad to go right past her saloon?

Johnny Guitar was added to the National Film Registry in 2008, and it truly is “culturally, historically” and “aesthetically” significant. Aside from the allegorical elements there’s much to appreciate and discuss about the film’s structure and the ways in which it plays with Western clichés, or the way it offers a feminist, revisionist take on the West. It’s the kind of movie that you discuss with your kids, rather than crack jokes during the film—though it might be hard not to joke briefly about Mercedes McCambridge’s performance as Emma, a fanatic who acts wild-eyed crazy, or even the harsh-featured Crawford, who plays her character like a strong-and-silent male Western hero. Yet, while the style of acting borders on the melodramatic, as was common at the time, the heady elements keep it from being unintentionally funny. Director Ray uses atmosphere and sparse dialogue to create and sustain a tension that holds you until the end credits. And for a 1954 film aimed at making a statement about politics run amuck, that’s a pretty good feat.

Olive Films has been quietly building a catalog of old films, but with this release they launch Olive Signature—“the next generation of fan-centered entertainment.” It’s their version of the Criterion Collection, with a handsome slipcase and a barrel of bonus features that draws upon the knowledge of film historians and admirers like Martin Scorsese. A full-color booklet includes a terrific essay on “Johnny Guitar: The First Existentialist Western,” and the print itself looks and sounds great in HD. It’s a wonderful release that’s aimed at intelligent people who can appreciate intelligent films. Especially if your teens are reading The Crucible in high school they might appreciate watching this one.

Language: Nothing much; “tramp” is as bad as it gets
Sex: None, though everything simmers below the surface and is so subtle that children won’t get it
Violence: Several people are shot and killed, but old-school style, no blood; there’s also one lynching with the camera turning away during the crucial moment
Adult situations: Pretty much the entire film; it takes place in a saloon, so there you go
Takeaway: The more you watch this Western, the more you see, and its allegoric message is still sadly appropriate today

BARBARIANS RISING (Blu-ray)

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barbariansrisingcoverGrade: C/C+
Entire family: No
2016, 336 min. (4 episodes), Color
HISTORY / Lionsgate
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

HISTORY (formerly The History Channel) has been criticized for focusing too much on American history, and so you’d think that their docudrama Barbarians Rising would be just the thing to silence those critics. But while the subject matter may be international, the production itself is all too familiar. The four-part series tracks the rise of “barbarians” against the Roman Empire, blending voiceover narration, interviews with scholars and (curiously) Civil Rights leaders, and dramatic reenactments. That mixture feels as unbalanced as some of the historical figures we encounter along the way, and the series’ undoing is ultimately those reenactments . . . some of which go on way too long, and feature little in the way of dramatic tension.

barbariansrisingscreen1The first episode, “Resistance,” focuses on Hannibal from the time he is a boy sworn to try to defeat Rome through his famed crossing of the Alps. Nicholas Pinnock (a Shakespearian actor who appeared in a minor role in Captain America: The First Avenger) is fine as Hannibal. The problem is with the scenic construction. There’s no built-in drama to the scenes, which often go on way too long and therefore prevent viewers from finding a comfortable rhythm as the series jumps from reenactments to talking heads and various maps and illustrations that feel more like lectures than integrated enhancements. With shorter reenactments or more dramatic ones, the balance of narrative components might have seemed more fluid and natural.

That’s the series’ chief weakness—other than the fact that Caesar’s Gallic Wars seems to have been ignored. Aside from that apparent oversight, its strength is overwhelmingly the barbariansrisingscreen2subject matter itself, and the fact that it educates audiences about not just well-known figures like Hannibal, Attila the Hun (Emil Hostina), and Spartacus (Ben Batt), whose gladiator-slave rebellion also qualifies as “barbarian,” but also lesser-knowns like Viriathus (Jefferson Hall), a shepherd from western Hispania/Iberia who reached out to other groups in order to build an alliance that could stand up to Roman expansion. His story is fascinating because he survived a massacre and used his knowledge of the Romans to help his people wage what now would be called a guerilla war against the more formal and militaristic Roman army.

Narrated by Michael Ealy, Barbarians Rising might be tonally consistent, but the episodes themselves vary in quality. The series manges to find a foothold with the opening episode, which features the stories of Hannibal and Viriathus, then peaks with the Spartacus and Arminius episode titled “Rebellion,” but then tapers off with “Revenge”—the stories of Arminius (Tom Hopper), Queen Boudica (Kirsty Mitchell), and Fritigern (Steven Waddington)—and fizzles when it should sizzle with the final episode, “Ruin,” which details Alaric’s (Gavin Drea) sack of Rome, Attila the Hun’s sweeping destruction, and, finally, the Vandal king—Geiseric (Richard Brake)—who brought about the end of the Roman Empire.

If it sounds fascinating, the subject matter certainly is. It’s the execution that’s disappointing. These stories could have been told in livelier fashion and with considerably more drama. As is, I found myself leaving the room to get a snack whenever the reenactments droned on too long and returning for the history lessons. Too often those reenactments were just plain dull. I kept wondering what the point was, and that was part of the problem. The reenactments didn’t feel well integrated.

I’m sure history nuts will still gravitate toward shows like this, but for families looking for an educational program that’s also entertaining, well, there are better options out there—though the transfers are top-notch, with two episodes per disc in this two-disc set.

COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE (Blu-ray)

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commandocodycoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1953, 361 min. (12 episodes), Black-and-white
Olive Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe probably owes his existence to Flash Gordon.

In the early ‘50s, baby boomers woke on Saturday and Sunday mornings to discover not just cartoons and new programs, but syndicated, recycled black-and-white shorts and serials that were made decades earlier to be shown in theaters—features like The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, and yes, Flash Gordon.

When Republic Pictures noticed that youngsters were hungry for more of the old Flash Gordon serials, they decided to create a TV series that would look like one of those early Flash adventures or several of their own, like King of the Rocket Men (1949) or Radar Men from the Moon (1952). The interesting thing about Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is that while it commandocodyscreen1looks like an old movie serial, it was made for television, and as such, it lacks the cliffhangers that end every serial. These episodes are more self-contained, despite a narrative arc that also stretches across all 12 included here: Enemies of the Universe, Atomic Peril, Cosmic Vengeance, Nightmare Typhoon, War of the Space Giants, Destroyers of the Sun, Robot Monster from Mars, The Hydrogen Hurricane, Solar Sky Raiders, S.O.S. Ice Age, Lost in Outer Space, and Captives of the Zero Hour.

Though it was made in 1953, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe has the look and feel of the old Flash Gordon serials. Even now, without knowing anything about the production, you’d swear that it was made in the ‘30s. That in itself is an achievement—though Commando Cody doesn’t have the same range or production values. The cast is smaller, the budget isn’t as big, there aren’t as many villains or costumed aliens of different kinds, and the sets aren’t as elaborate.

commandocodyscreen2But Commando Cody is just as campy and still fun. Though it was made for children, many families might enjoy it now because, well, what’s not to like about a man with a bulky metal mask and jet-pack who can fly through the air like Superman? Or hydrogen hurricanes, magno-force rays that can tilt the Earth on its axis, freeze rays that will remind you of playing freeze tag, and a thought-control chair that looks like a cross between a barber chair and an old Victorian parlor chair? Or robots from Mars? Or any number of gizmos and gadgets that might inspire your kids to head for the craft table and make a few of their own. Some of the fun comes from seeing how low-budget and low-tech some of the props are.

It’s hard not to laugh at Commando Cody’s atomic-powered rocket ship, which he unclogs at one point using a plunger-like device, and which has standard-issue office chairs with seat belts. When the camera tilts and the men lean back on their seats to give the appearance of “lift-off,” your family will probably crack up, if yours is anything like mine. And the top-secret headquarters for Commando Cody? You don’t have to look too carefully to see that they filmed it in front of a southern California apartment building complex and just propped a phone and two guards in front of one entrance. It’s funny too to watch Commando Cody leave his “decompression chamber” and walk on top of his stratosphere-bound rocket ship, leaning over an exhaust that looks more like it came from a giant firework pinwheel than a jet-propelled aircraft.

In Flash Gordon, the planet Mongo’s emperor, Ming the Merciless, caused natural disasters all over Earth as a first step toward conquering the planet, and Flash took off in a rocket ship with two others to thwart him. In Commando Cody the plot is similar. Commando Cody (Judd Holdren) is somehow appointed Intergalactic Sky Martial (though it’s unclear who actually appointed him) and his activities are so top secret that even viewers can’t be told. But we do know this: a cosmic ruler from another planet known simply as The Ruler (Gregory Gaye) has spies on Earth who are transmitting information to him and helping him carry out his own plan to conquer Earth. But not if Commando Cody can help it . . . with the help of his assistants Ted Richards (William Schallert) and Joan Gilbert (Aline Towne), with Richard Crane replacing Schallert midway.

The acting, as in most serials and B-movies, is no great shakes, but there’s just enough science fiction in here to make it interesting, and plenty of low-budget props and scenes to make it unintentionally funny. Commando Cody could easily serve as a warm-up for family movie night, with the installments spread out over a dozen weeks as originally intended. Yes, you can watch the episodes on YouTube, which is where the screen grabs come from, but the audio-visual quality on this two-disc set from Olive Films is far, far superior.

YOURS, MINE AND OURS (1968) (Blu-ray)

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yoursmineandourscoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1968, 111 min., Color
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for mild language and innuendo)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

In 1968, a year before The Brady Bunch charmed television audiences, two blended family movies played in theaters: With Six You Get Eggroll, starring Doris Day and Brian Keith, and Yours, Mine and Ours, with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as the parents. The latter was popular enough to spark a less successful 2005 remake (with Rene Russo and Dennis Quaid). Of them all, the original Yours, Mine and Ours is the best—partly because of a decent script by committee, partly because of the stars’ steady performances, and partly because it’s based on a real story.

yoursmineandoursHelen North was a Navy wife whose husband was killed in an air crash when she was 30 and pregnant with their eighth child. When she married Navy Warrant Officer Frank Beardsley in 1961, her eight children were blended with his 10. And a year later, when each of them legally adopted the others’ brood, they made headlines for the largest group adoption in California history and ended up as guests of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Yours, Mine and Ours is based on her memoir, Who Gets the Drumstick.

Only a fraction of her story is recounted in the film, which focuses on the courtship between Helen and Frank, their marriage, and their attempts to raise 18 children together in the months leading up to that adoption. Though dated (what sixties’ movie isn’t?) Yours, Mine and Ours is still cute —and “cute” is the word that came to my wife and myself as we watched and sometimes laughed out loud.

It’s a little bit of a stretch to accept 57-year-old Ball and 63-year-old Fonda as fertile parents of these combined families, but the casting makes sense when you realize that Ball’s Desilu Productions bought the movie rights. Though the two of them are old enough to be the children’s grandparents, they still make for believable parents once you get over the initial shock. Fans of the old I Love Lucy series will find it interesting to watch Ball in a mostly seriocomic role, with only two scenes that feature slapstick/physical comedy—things that Ball did best. There’s a funny scene at a crowded bar, and later, when Frank brings Helen home to meet his children, the teenage boys (among them Tim Matheson of Animal House fame) put a little extra booze—make that a lot extra—in her drink. Ball, in that scene, evokes a few memories of her Season 2 episode “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” in which Lucy takes a little too much of the alcohol-based elixer Vitameatavegimin.

yoursmineandoursscreen2Fans of vintage TV will also smile seeing another TV dad, Tom Bosley (Happy Days) playing a doctor. If you’re a Brady Bunch fan, you’ll realize how many of the blended family situations came from this movie. The level of realism and believability is enough to offset anything corny or quaint comes from Yours, Mine and Ours being so wholesome and nearly 50 years old. It’s still enjoyable family fare, and because it is so dated looking it’s going to provide a nice touchstone for children to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same when it comes to family dynamics.

Aside from Matheson, the actors who play the children are believable but unremarkable, while the same could be said of the film’s minor characters—except for Van Johnson, a leading man who gets to play the sidekick this outing. Directed by Melville Shavelson—who got his experience shepherding stepparents and stepchildren in the Oscar-nominated romantic comedy Houseboat, starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren—Yours, Mine and Ours is a wholesome, cute family movie. And age hasn’t diminished its cuteness one bit.

Age has, however, affected the print, which is a little rough in the opening. But the graininess gradually becomes less after the title sequence. Like the stars’ ages, once the film gets rolling you it all smoothes out, and the colors especially look rich in this HD presentation.

Language: Nothing here except literally a handful of “damns” and “hells”
Sex: Nothing here either, apart from a few phrases (“sex maniac”), a boy reading a Playboy, mild innuendo, and references to a boy who expects a teenage girl to “prove her love”
Violence: Just one scuffle and an implied schoolyard fight with a black eye to prove it
Adult situations: Aside from the innuendo, a few fertility jokes, and the drinking/drunkenness, nothing offensive
Takeaway: As old as Ball and Fonda seem at the beginning of the film, you quickly forget their ages and appreciate two professionals—two Hollywood legends—at work

THE FLASH: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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flash2coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: No
2015-16, 1020 min. (23 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be TV-PG for violence)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/A- (four hours worth!)
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Though The Flash is a spin-off from Arrow (another DC Comics television series), the two shows could be from alternate universes—which, coincidentally, is a main plot thread in The Flash: Season 2.

Arrow is dark and TV-14 ultra-violent, but The Flash is tongue-in-cheek and light enough to have some fun with the whole idea of superheroes saving the planet on a daily basis, as if they were lunch bucket-carrying blue-collar workers. Tonally, this TV-PG series comes closer to Supergirl, and together the shows are closer in spirit to the old comic books. The Flash may not be as addictive, but it’s more wholesome fun, and therefore a better choice for families with children ages 9-12 who adore superhero movies and TV shows but aren’t old enough for the raw violence of Arrow.

flash2screen1Though my teenage daughter thinks he’s too nerdy, Grant Gustin seems well cast as Barry Allen, a forensic investigator for Central City police who comes out of a nine-month coma—the result of a particle accelerator explosion—only to realize that he has superhuman speed. Like, if you have a taste for a burrito, he can run to Mexico and back in time to put one in your outstretched hand!

As with most superheroes, Barry doesn’t have a traditional family. When he was younger, he witnessed his mother’s murder by a supernatural power, and was essentially orphaned when his father was convicted of killing her and sent to prison. But Barry knows what he saw, and he’s determined to clear his father’s name and avenge his mother’s death.

Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), the designer of the failed particle accelerator, takes Barry under his wing and gives his condition a name: “Metahuman.” It turns out that there are more metahumans—especially in Season 2, when Barry, aka “The Flash,” meets Jay Garrick, who claims to be The Flash in a parallel world. He got there through a breach, and warns that other metahumans—bad ones like Zoom and Dr. Light—might follow. But there’s no shortage of evil, and this season The Flash also has to face a giant-sized metahuman, Weather Wizard, Captain Cold, Trickster, Killer Frost, the time-traveling immortal Vandal Savage, Reverse-Flash, Tar Pit, Geomancer, and King Shark.

flash2screen2This season characters bounce back and forth between Earth-1 and Earth-2, The Flash investigates the phenomenon of speedsters and, typical of superheroes, at one point he loses his power. Like his female superhero counterpart on the CW he also has a secret crush—Iris (Candice Patton), his best friend and the daughter of Det. Joe West (Jesse L. Martin)—as well as another possible romantic interest (Danielle Panabaker as Dr. Caitlin Snow).

Opinions will vary, but of the CW series our family still considers Arrow to be tops, followed by Supergirl, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow. Though The Flash is loaded with villains and villainy, it doesn’t have the same compelling sequence of events as Arrow. And though the characters are engaging enough, they too fall slightly short of the charisma that we get from Arrow and Supergirl. That is, our family got hooked on Arrow and Supergirl and wanted to binge-watch, but were perfectly happy to watch The Flash like every other TV show.

Language: Squeaky clean
Sex: Nothing at all
Violence: Mostly bloodless, sci-fi battles that aren’t as frequent as on other CW superhero series
Adult situations: Occasional drinking and the death of a parent
Takeaway: It’s hard to pinpoint what makes some shows addictive and others, like The Flash, just pleasant entertainment, but that’s how it played out for our family

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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nowyouseeme2coverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 129 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for violence and some language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos (Dolby TrueHD compatible)
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Now You See Me 2 is a solid sequel that’s as glitzy and stylish as the first—even though it may be a little harder to figure out. This heist thriller brings back Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and David Franco (James’ brother) as three of the Four Horsemen—magicians who pulled off grand illusions as diversions so they could steal from the conniving rich and give their money away to common people.

That Robin Hood theme isn’t a part of the second film, which opens with Jack Wilder (Franco) thought dead and Atlas (Eisenberg) and McKinney (Harrelson) waiting for instructions from The Eye. In short order they are given a fourth illusionist named Lula May (Lizzy Caplan) and their contact/handler, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) tells them they are to expose a software magnate who is stealing user data.

nowyouseeme2screen1It really helps to have seen the original, as what emerges is a revenge motif that’s dependent on your knowledge of the past. Even so, it’s possible to enjoy Now You See Me 2 as a stand-alone film because it’s essentially a come-uppance plot that involves grand illusions that are mostly unexplained. So what’s a little extra confusion?

The FBI, led by new chief Natalie Austin (Sanaa Lathan) is out to get the Four Horsemen, not knowing that Agent Rhodes is playing both sides. They’re not the only ones with an axe to grind. Rhodes’ nemesis (Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bentley) wants to bring them down because he was framed by them in the first film because Rhodes thought him responsible for the death of his father, a Houdini-like magician. Their original handler (Michael Caine) is also disgruntled with them and wants to bring them down, with the assistance of his son (Daniel Radcliffe).

nowyouseeme2screen2Everything starts to hit the fan when the Horsemen expose that software magnate but are themselves exposed at that same event, which forces them to go on the run. They escape through a previously placed chute but instead of going according to plan they mysteriously find themselves in Macau, where they become involved with all sorts of danger and intrigue and Jay Chou, a popular Taiwanese musician/actor who plays a magic shop employee.

The plot of Now You See Me 2 is a little more convoluted than the original, meaning it’s going to be for ages 13 and up—not so much because of anything that is censorable, but because it’s intellectually demanding. Much depends on the audience’s ability to figure out some things on the fly, as well as their willingness to just have fun and appreciate the rest without needing to have every last thing explained. Aside from some confusion, Now You See Me 2 offers everything you’d want from a film like this: great production values, great performances, and illusions that are rendered with equally great special effects.

Language: One f-bomb and multiple lesser swearwords
Sex: Nothing here
Violence: Hand-to-hand combat, bloody loss of body part (that turns out to be fake)
Adult situations: A boy watches while his father drowns inside a safe
Takeaway: Though it’s a half-grade less than the original, this film about magic can get away with a lot

ARROW: SEASON 4 (Blu-ray)

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Arrow4coverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2012, 972 min. (23 episodes), Color
Unrated (would be TV-14 for violence)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Arrow is by far the most popular DC Comics series on television. It’s also the darkest, the most complex, and the most violent—which means it’s strictly for families with teenage children.

The creators were clearly fans of Lost, as they incorporate the same kind of flashback structure over an arc that spans a number of seasons, with each season offering new flashbacks and new revelations. The problem with Season Arrow4screen14 is that those flashbacks seem a little more disconnected from the main narrative and often are so brief that they also feel annoyingly interruptive. That’s one thing that sets this season apart from the rest. Another is that a villain called Anarchy wasn’t terribly popular with friends, though I found him to be just as interesting as the others, all of whom take a backseat this season to Damien Darhk. I can’t imagine this season without Darhk, who has all the fascinating charisma and on-screen presence of a James Bond villain. The last things that distinguish Season 4 from the first three is that Arrow becomes Green Arrow and magic and supernatural elements take center stage.

Unlike a few other DC series—Supergirl or Flash come instantly to mind—you can’t just pick up a later season of Arrow and start watching. Too much is predicated on your knowledge of revelations from the previous seasons, and you’ll sit there in confusion without an Arrow fan nearby to tell you plot points you may have missed.

The show’s premise is this: In Season 1 billionaire Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) went out on his father’s boat with his girlfriend’s sister (whom this spoiled rich boy was also “dating”) when a storm hit. She was sucked out to sea, but the men survived (yeah, this is why the series appeals mostly to males). The father makes a huge sacrifice so his son can live and atone for his mistakes, which are all chronicled in a book of former business partners and “like” minds. Queen was marooned on an island for five years, and he wasn’t alone. There were people there who wanted to (and DID) hurt him badly, and others who were tough on him because they wanted him to survive. Other things happened, and flashbacks tease viewers the way Lost did with its disjointed narrative. One thing is certain: he’s no longer the irresponsible bad boy he once was. Like Bruce Wayne/Batman, Queen assumes a dual identity as himself and The Vigilante (as the media first calls him), with plenty of tension on the work and home fronts. That dualism gradually breaks down over the course of several seasons.

Arrow4screen2In Season 4, Green Arrow and his crew fight against Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), who has decided humanity needs a “reset” and is determined to wipe everyone out, starting with Star City. This season Oliver as Oliver runs for mayor and Oliver as Arrow comes up against a villain who pulls playing cards off his skin and flings them like lethal weapons in very cool sequences. Those are the easy plot lines. More complicated twists involve the League of Assassins and a Pit that can bring people back to life, an old enemy of Arrow’s named Ra’s al Ghul (Matthew Nable) who coaches his daughter in her “bloodlust,” Arrow’s bodyguard-turned-helper-turned-Arrow-turned-helper-again John Diggle (David Ramsey) and Diggle’s concern over a brother who might be involved with Darhk, Arrow’s complicated relationship with Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), and a revelation of paternity for Oliver.

If all of that sounds a bit sudsy, Arrow does feel like a stylish, action-filled, dark, and violent soap opera at times—but with better acting and production values, great special effects, and a pleasing superhero-fantasy structure. Season 4 may have a few weak spots, but it’s still superior to most of the dramas on television. If you’re interested, though, do start with Season 1!

Language: Lots of minor swearwords, but no f-bombs
Sex: Nothing here, surprisingly
Violence: Lots, and bloody as well; shooting, stabbing, hand-to-hand
Adult situations: Beloved characters die; characters are tortured; characters smoke, drink, and do drugs
Takeaway: If Neal McDonough isn’t cast as a future Bond villain, I’d be flabbergasted

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