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PercyJacksonSeaofMonsterscoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  Yes
2013, 106 min., Color
Rated PG for fantasy action violence, some scary images and mild language
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes Blu-ray, DVD, DigitalHD
Bonus features:  D+

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is a good special effects family movie that’s every bit as accomplished as The Lightning Thief and possibly better—even if it doesn’t follow the Rick Riordan juvenile fantasy novels like a road map.

My teenage son has read every one of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, and as our family watched Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, the sequel to the 2010 fantasy-adventure Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, he couldn’t contain himself. He offered a running commentary:

“It’s like they compressed the next three books into one movie.”
“None of this was in the books.”
“This WAS in the books, and it’s actually handled pretty well.”
“I like the way the manticore moves. It’s really realistic.”
“The CGI in this movie is much better than the first one.”

And so on.

His final assessment surprised me, partly because he had seen the trailer and pronounced it “dumb,” and partly because many fans of the books had pretty much washed their hands of the movies because of how much they strayed from the texts. But my son decided it was “better than the first one, with better special effects.” Even though it wasn’t exactly faithful to the books, he felt it was “still good.” If he had give it a grade, he said he’d award it a B+ or A-, because it was action-packed, the CGI effects were great, and the pacing was good. My pre-teen daughter agreed, even though she hadn’t read the books. So did my wife.

So who needs a movie critic? I came to the same conclusions, though I did find fault with some of the CGI effects. For me, the visual shortcomings were the forehead and eye design of Percy’s half-brother, the cyclops Tyson (Douglas Smith)—which looked smeared with Vaseline in medium shots—and Percy (Logan Lerman) and his friends’ descent into the toothy vortex of a sea monster, which also was less than realistic. Everything else—and that includes some pretty fantastic creatures and water effects—looks convincing, and in truth it’s the visual effects that propel the film.  More

BIG (25th Anniv. Blu-ray combo)

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BigcoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  No, unless you send them for snacks during two scenes
1988, 104/129 min., Color
Rated PG for language and adult situations
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, sound-chip packaging
Bonus features:  B

The Big 25th Anniversary Blu-ray offers two ways to watch the film—the original 104-minute theatrical version, and a 129-minute “extended edition.” And so what if that extended edition was available previously on a two-disc DVD that was released six years ago? It’s the first time that the material is available on Blu-ray, and this combo pack should be a welcome addition to the libraries of film fans.

If Splash was the film that gave the Bosom Buddies TV star his first big movie role, Big was the one that showed the industry and audiences that this guy Hanks can act. He earned his first of five Best Actor Oscar nominations for his performance, and it’s great to have both the theatrical release and extended version on Blu-ray finally.

The idea for Big came during a lunch conversation and the first draft flowed in just four months. One day later, it was a quick sell to producer James L. Brooks, who told his friend Penny Marshall that she had to sign on as director. But the second draft took writers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (Steven’s little sister) a full year. During that time, they learned that three other films about body transformations were coming out. Their choice was, hold out for Tom Hanks, whom they had in mind when they wrote the script, or rush to be first with whomever they could cast.

What were the other three movies? It’s hard for most people to recall, because Big became a huge hit and remains memorable because of Hanks’ virtuoso performance. You have no trouble whatsoever believing he’s a 12-year-old boy who gets his wish from an unplugged carnival fortune-telling machine and is transformed into a near-30-year-old man. Driven from his home by his mother (Mercedes Ruehl), who thinks he’s a pervert or kidnapper, the suddenly adult and adrift Josh Baskin goes to New York City and finds work at a toy company—all the while hoping to track down the carnival so he can reverse his wish.

Whether playing opposite his 12-year-old best friend (Jared Rushton), a cubicle co-worker (Jon Lovitz), an arrogant idea man (John Heard), or a sexually active career woman (Elizabeth Perkins), Hanks, as a stranger in a strange land, gives us equal portions of laughs and insights into the worlds of both adults and adolescents. Big also offers up a very funny satire of corporate ladder climbing, as we see how quickly Josh rises in the toy company because of his common-sense kid insights.  More

THE LONE RANGER (Blu-ray combo)

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LoneRangercoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  No
2013, 149 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence and some suggestive material
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features:  C-

Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski conspired to reinvent the pirate movie, so why would it surprise anyone that they’d give a complete makeover to the legend of The Lone Ranger?

According to the legend that radio series and ‘50s TV show were based on, the Lone Ranger was John Reid, who rode into a box canyon with his brother and other Texas Rangers in pursuit of the Butch Cavendish gang—who lay in wait and ambushed them, killing everyone and leaving Reid for dead. Enter Tonto, who helps him recover, and soon the masked man dedicated to avenging those Rangers by fighting for truth, justice, and the American way is riding across the West with his faithful Indian companion, rounding up bad guys in every episode.

When Verbinski and a trio of screenwriters (including Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) begin with the premise that John Reid is a lawyer and anti-gun crusader and brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is a man’s man kind of Ranger, it serves as the set-up to a punch line. Tonto later finds the dead Rangers, John included, and puts them in open graves, after which a white spirit horse thought to be able to bring someone back from the dead focuses on John, despite Tonto’s efforts to flag him over to brother Dan instead.  After John is fully recovered and their reluctant partnership begins, Tonto keeps calling him Ke-mo-sah-be until John finally asks what it means. “Wrong brother,” Depp-as-Tonto deadpans.

That pretty much sets the tone and narrative approach for this big-screen reboot. As in Pirates, there are supernatural elements, super-sinister villains, eyebrow-raising stunts, and two heroes that, together, do what Depp did as Capt. Jack Sparrow—calmly blundering through the mayhem and coming out at the end of each scrape or skirmish with a kind of befuddled confidence. So parents, if you’re fine with your children watching Pirates of the Caribbean, this film has more of the same. But the violence is every bit PG-13, and that’s the audience. Is it any worse than the Pirates films? Not really. It has the same blend of action, stylized violence, and humor.  More

MARY POPPINS (50th Anniv. Ed. Blu-ray combo)

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MaryPoppinscoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes
1964, 139 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features: B+

Mary Poppins stands with The Wizard of Oz as one of the all-time great children’s films adapted from books, and one reason is certainly the memorable music.  Richard and Robert Sherman won an Oscar for Best Original Score, which included that long and hard-to-spell word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Best Song Oscar winner “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “I Love to Laugh,” and Disney’s personal favorite, “Feed the Birds.”

Mary Poppins also won an Oscar for Special Visual Effects, blending traditional painted cell animation with cutting-edge audio-animatronics, stop-motion animation, reverse filming, sophisticated wire work, and sodium vapor screens (for combining live-action with cartoon characters). And those effects look oh-so-much-better on Blu-ray than I expected, given how the HD treatment exposed the live action/animation magic in Pete’s Dragon. Disney, whose 20-year attempt to obtain the rights to the P.L. Travers books to make a film he had promised his daughter, would have been delighted with this release. And we’re talking about someone who was hands-on throughout the process.  More

THE SMURFS 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Smurfs2coverGrade:  C+
Entire family:  No
2013, 105 min., Color
Rated PG for some rude humor and action
Sony Pictures Animation
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, UV Digital HD copy
Bonus features:  C-

I don’t know how much Hank Azaria is getting paid to play Gargamel in the live-action/animated Smurf movies, but it’s not enough.

If it wasn’t for Azaria’s scrumptious,villainous dramatic monologues directed at his cat accomplice, Azrael, The Smurfs 2 would be one big animated yawn. The scenes that feature Azaria and his cat salvage this 2013 sequel—for older audiences, that is. Younger ones will probably be blissfully captivated by the blue Smurfs too, and all things Smurfy.

It’s ‘tweens, teens, and adults who will find the plot and the animation sequences pitched way too low to be of much interest, and the other on-camera stars—Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) and Jayma Mayes (Glee)—seem so caught up in the dumbing-down that their performances don’t have the same wink-wink quality of Azaria’s. So yeah, this guy and his CGI-enhanced cat save the day . . . sort of.

They can’t rescue the plot, which is straight out of the repetitive old Saturday morning cartoons about little blue creatures who live an idyllic existence except for an evil wizard who wants to eliminate them. And they aren’t enough to compensate for humor that sometimes stoops, or rather crouches, to potty-level (“Every time a smurf toots, someone smiles”?).  More