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PRETTY LITTLE LIARS: SEASON 4 (DVD)

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PrettyLittleLiars4coverGrade: B-
Entire family: No (way)
2013-14, 1046 min. (24 episodes), Color
Not Rated (would be TV-14 at least)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: B-
Season 4 preview

“All of my friends watch it.”

Every parent gets that at some point, and Pretty Little Liars is exactly the type of show that will draw such comments, because its central characters are teens—though they look, dress, and act more like twenty somethings. And they’re all beautiful people . . . even the corpses.

I haven’t watched the entire series, only Season 4, but Warner Bros. makes it possible for people to jump right in and get up to speed by screening a full recap episode that takes you through the first three seasons. It automatically kicks in if you select “Play All.” And from what I’ve seen in recap and this season, the writers treat the girls as if they are twenty somethings.

We don’t see any parents or family life to speak of, except for brief turns involving Alison’s mom, another “skanky” mom who sleeps with a cop to get her delinquent daughter off the hook, and few more siblings. The emphasis is all on these four girls and their little individual dramas that interweave with one very large one. Meanwhile, for high school students, this group of teens sure has a light schedule. The only scenes involving school or classes come from one girl’s illicit relationship with her English teacher. Yeah, not a lot of role modeling going on in this show.

Still, Pretty Little Liars, now in its fifth season, is a popular series that inspired the spinoff Ravenswood. As with The Hunger Games, this ABC Family show is loosely based on a series of young-adult novels (in this case, by author Sara Shepard), and there’s plenty of killing—though not as graphic as in The Hunger Games films. Part murder mystery and part soap opera, it’s what you’d get if you created a teen version of Desperate Housewives and concentrated less on relationships and sex than on the mystery of the group’s “frenemy”—in this case, Alison, the clique’s leader, who disappeared in Season 1.

Alison (Sasha Pieterse) knew all of their secrets and had been using that information to get artsy Aria (Lucy Hale), brainy Spencer (Troian Bellisario), athletic Emily (Shay Mitchell), and loser-turned-popular girl Hanna (Ashley Benson) to do whatever she wanted. And after she’s gone, the girls start receiving text messages from someone who seems to know all of those same secrets and signs each note “A.” Is it Alison? Someone Alison knew? Someone who killed Alison?   More

FALLING SKIES: SEASON 3 (Blu-ray)

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FallingSkiescoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2013, 440 min. (10 episodes), Color
Rated TV-14 for some violence and peril
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Included: Blu-ray discs (2), UV copy
Bonus features: B+
Season 3 preview

Falling Skies is as out-of-the-question for younger children as any monster or war movie would be, because it’s essentially a combination of the two. But families with older children will find it easy to get hooked on this series about a group of humans who’ve survived an alien invasion and are now fighting as an underground unit to reclaim the planet and perpetuate the species.

My ‘tween daughter isn’t a big fan of sci-fi and she’s definitely squeamish about violence. Yet, like my teenage son, she loves Falling Skies, which is produced by Steven Spielberg. Maybe one reason is that there are certain “shooter” games on the X-Box that she’ll agree to play with my son, and the sci-fi violence on this series tends to resemble what they see as they’re blasting away in the basement.  More

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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LittleHouse2coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family:  Yes
1975-76, 1080 min. (22 episodes), Color
Lionsgate
Not rated: Would be G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Includes: Blu-ray (5 discs), UV Copy
Bonus features: C-
Today Show reunion clip

My ‘tweenage daughter doesn’t like historical dramas, isn’t a fan of westerns, and loves fashion so much that it’s like fingernails-on-the-chalkboard to watch the Ingalls girls parade about in their dowdy homemade calico pioneer dresses and bonnets. But she liked Little House on the Prairie: Season 2 enough to want to keep watching one episode after the other, and to shelve it in our collection for future play.

This wholesome family TV series from the ‘70s still has broad appeal, as you can see from the clip of the cast reuniting on The Today Show (link above) to promote the release of the Blu-ray on Season 1 and now Season 2.

The first season was more the authentic pioneer experience, as Pa and Ma Ingalls (Michael Landon, Karen Grasse) moved their brood of three daughters from Wisconsin to Kansas and finally Minnesota. There were Indians and hardships of every kind, and the emphasis was on the family’s journey and settlement.

The popular series was based on the juvenile books by Laura Ingalls Wilder that told of her family’s adventures on the newly expanding American frontier—books like Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and By the Shores of Silver Lake. The TV series ran for nine seasons, but by Season 2 the plots were already shifting from pioneer-specific storylines to ones that viewers may have seen elsewhere and could actually identify with better.   More

SOPHIA GRACE & ROSIE’S ROYAL ADVENTURE (Blu-ray combo)

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SophiaGracecoverGrade: C
Entire family: Theoretically, but . . .
2014, 75 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.0
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: C+/B-
Trailer

There are three types of people who will go for Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure: people who are charmed by the duo’s YouTube videos, fans of Toddlers & Tiaras, and Ellen DeGeneres. And if only some members of your family fall into any of those categories, you can be sure that the rest will groan or complain all the way through this film.

I was thinking about why Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure has more limited appeal than the old Shirley Temple movies, and maybe it’s as simple as the difference between watching Shirley Temple perform “On the Good Ship Lollipop” or watching another little girl imitate Shirley Temple. It’s the difference between being cute and acting cute, and television is famous for giving us way too many of the latter. Then too, even when Temple was being cute, she was sweet. And there will always be a broader audience for sweetness than there is for attitude, even if we describe it euphemistically as “precociousness.”

Sophia Grace and Rosie first appeared on Ellen in 2011 when they were eight and five years old, respectively, and the older girl performed Niki Minaj’s “Super Bass” while her younger cousin went through the motions alongside her because it made her less nervous. More appearances (and many more YouTube videos) followed, with the pair acting as mini-journalists and doing Red Carpet interviews—always in their trademark pink princessy dresses and tiaras. Then they were recruited for two episodes of the Nickelodeon sitcom Sam & Cat, in which teen stars Jennette McCurdy and Ariana Grande’s characters had to babysit two two-faced “BritBrats” and later had to deal with the “Revenge of the BritBrats.” Even without watching those episodes you can see how the girls’ onscreen personas have been shaped.

Now they’re on their own with no Ellen and no teen stars. Can they carry a movie? Yes indeed, if you happen to like them. If not, it’s like being trapped in an elevator with a valley girl who’s a nonstop chatterer intent on giving you a play by play as she scales Mount Inanity.

SophiaGracescreenIn their Royal Adventure, Sophia Grace & Rosie are sent to Switzelvania as correspondents for Ellen in order to report on the coronation of a new queen, but when they arrive they find that three princesses are scheming to get that crown. And so these “journalists” decide to make the news instead of reporting it by plotting and coaching so that the best candidate wins. Of course the humor is played over-the-top and since the film is a showcase for Sophia Grace & Rosie they don’t have to steal each scene—it’s handed to them on a silver platter.

Though they overact in the manner of way too many child actors, Sophia Grace & Rosie still impress with their ability to memorize scenes and play to reaction shots. I mean, they’re still only 11 and eight years old, and they really do an amazing job of just being professionals. But over the past three years it seems that the older cousin has gotten more full of herself and therefore more annoying . . . unless you’re a fan of Toddlers & Tiaras or are big fans of Sophia Grace & Rosie because you like their act. Very little girls who are into pink and all things princess will enjoy this movie as well. But for everyone else? It’s like watching a Shirley Temple imitator at a talent contest who tries to act cute, rather than being cute and not knowing it. They’re great in small doses, but the girls make this 75-minute feature feel a lot longer.

THE RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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R&HcoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: Yes (well, two-thirds, at least)
1945-1965, 838 min. (6 films), Color
20th Century Fox
Rated G
Aspect ratios: 1.37:1, 2.55:1, 2.20:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1, DTS-HD MA 5.1, DTS-HD MA 4.0, DTS-HD MA Mono
Bonus features: B-

Rodgers & Hammerstein are Broadway legends, having won a total of 34 Tony Awards for their work. They’ve done all right with film adaptations, too, earning 15 Academy Awards. So if you’re a fan of old musicals and want to share that with your children, it might be tempting to pick up this collection. But don’t do it because you think it will be a good resource should your children get a part in a future high school musical. According to The Broadway Scoop, not one Rodgers & Hammerstein musical ranks among the Top 10 Musicals currently being performed by high schools.

Does that mean they’re dated, or as corny as Kansas in August? Some of them, yes. For that reason, it might be better to wait (right now four out of six are only available through this collection) to buy these titles individually, rather than as an eight-disc, six-film collection, because while two of the films are surefire winners and two are entertaining-enough slices of rural Americana to where they will be of marginal interest to younger viewers, the remaining two musicals feature topics that won’t engage children much.

The King and I and The Sound of Music, with 10 Oscars between them, are the most likely to have wide family appeal. They’re colorful spectacles, and both of them have a large cast of children that will interest young ones.

Set in the 1860s, The King and I features Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, who, in his desire to become a more “scientific” ruler, has decided to educate himself and to hire a teacher to instruct his many children. Deborah Kerr is the English widow who arrives with her son and falls in love with the children (as we do). Audiences also love the give-and-take sparring between her and the KingandIscreenking, while everyone around him is so fearful of his authority. She helps him put on a state dinner for visiting western dignitaries to prove he’s no barbarian, and he charms her with his own grace and gratitude. The costumes are lavish, the songs are wonderfully catchy—like “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance,” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune”—and they have core messages that will resonate, even with children. The ending is sad and it might take some discussion to frame it for your youngest, but The King and I still has wide appeal. Unfortunately, the film isn’t out on Blu-ray except in this collection.

The Sound of Music is already available as a stand-alone Blu-ray title, and in fact if your family likes bonus features the stand-alone is the better buy. That’s because the second disc of bonus features on the stand-alone is not included in this set—an unfortunate omission. But the film is a triumph. It overwhelmed audiences from the start with its story of the von Trapp family singers, who fled Austria for Switzerland during the Nazi occupation.

SoundofMusicscreenExteriors were shot on location, so there’s a beautiful authenticity to complement a storyline that’s classic: a woman studying to be a nun (Julie Andrews) doesn’t seem particularly suited to the convent and is sent to serve as governess to the children of a widowed Austrian captain (Christopher Plummer). There, she reintroduces song into the household, becomes beloved to the children, and falls in love with her employer. How do you solve a problem like Maria? Especially when she becomes part of a romantic triangle in this blended family tale set against the backdrop of war? The songs are some of the best that Rodgers & Hammerstein ever produced, including “Maria,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and a song written especially for the film that’s so convincing as a national anthem that it almost brings tears to your eyes when Capt. von Trapp leads the crowd at the Salzburg music festival in a chorus, right in front of Nazi officials. It’s as stirring a moment as those dueling national anthems in Casablanca.   More

HAPPY DAYS: SEASON 5 (DVD)

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HappyDays5coverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
1977-78, 662 min. (26 episodes), Color
CBS Home Entertainment
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: C (4th Anniv. Special)
Theme song

Entertainment is one thing, but there are times when, if something out of Hollywood has become part of our vocabulary or is frequently alluded to, you need to see a film or TV show just to be culturally literate.

That’s the case with Happy Days: Season 5. Maybe you’ve heard of the expression “jumped the shark”—the precise moment when a TV series gets a little too wonky and begins to go downhill? That phrase comes from a triple episode that launched the fifth season of Happy Days, a popular series created by Garry Marshall and set in Milwaukee, circa the 1950s and early ‘60s. This season in California, Fonzie (Henry Winkler)—whose trademark catchphrase “Heyyyyyy” had already become a part of pop culture—is faced with a water skiing challenge and must jump over a man-eating shark that’s penned in an enclosure near the beach.

For most of America, Happy Days felt like the TV version of American Graffiti, especially because Ron Howard also starred in that coming-of-age film about teenagers cruising around on the eve of their separate departures for college. This series from Garry Marshall is a fun, wholesome one that hit its stride in Season 2 and, as many believe, started to decline in Season 5 when Fonzie paraded around the beach in his leather jacket, shorts, and motorcycle boots.  More

THE HONEYMOONERS: CLASSIC 39 EPISODES (Blu-ray)

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HoneymoonerscoverGrade: B+/A- for adults; C+/B-  for kids
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
1955, 1017 min. (39 episodes), black-and-white
CBS Home Entertainment
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: PCM 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C+
Trailer

The Honeymooners began in 1950 as a comedy sketch on Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show hosted by Jackie Gleason, and continued with The Jackie Gleason Show. The Honeymooner sketches became so popular that five years later they aired for a season as a half-hour situation comedy, and it’s these “39 classic episodes” broadcast on CBS that are featured on this Blu-ray.

Shot for the most part on a single set depicting the shabby New York City apartment of bus driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason) and his longsuffering wife, Alice (Audrey Meadows), The Honeymooners had the feel of a stage play, with character entrances sparking plenty of applause—especially when tenement neighbors and good friends Ed Norton (Art Carney) and his wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph) walked in.

So here’s the puzzler. The basic set-up—two couples living in apartments above and below each other, with one gender getting into mischief—is the same as I Love Lucy, and yet our kids don’t find The Honeymooners nearly as entertaining, despite being #3 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, right behind Lucy.

Maybe part of it is the look. Black-and-white can seem ancient enough for young people, but at least Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were visionary enough to shoot each episode with more permanent 35mm film than the throwaway kinescope process being used by other television series prior to the introduction of videotape in 1956. I Love Lucy also used three cameras, compared to the one or two that were standard for other sitcoms. Kinescopes were subject to banding, and we see evidence of such vertical white lines on some of these episodes, even though the Blu-ray is a vast improvement over the DVD.   More

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