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THE OTHER WOMAN (Blu-ray)

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OtherWomancoverGrade: B
Entire family: No (not for younger children)
2014, 109 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual references, and language
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: D
Trailer

Rare is the sex comedy that lives up to its PG-13 rating. Most of them push those boundaries like a teen testing curfew. But The Other Woman is pretty accurately PG-13 rated, with the most questionable scene coming conveniently in the opening, when concerned parents can tell their ‘tweens to make themselves a snack. But even that scene doesn’t show anything. There’s no nudity, only sexual references, and they’re all comic. And the language is tame compared to most PG-13 movies these days.

First-time screenwriter Melissa Stack and director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) offer a variation of the 1980 light comedy Nine to Five, in which three women got revenge on their lying, cheating, sexist pig of a boss—only now, rather than being co-workers, the women are strangers to each other who have unknowingly slept with the same man. The filmmakers also cast by two established actresses—Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann—alongside a relative newcomer who’s better known for a different field of entertainment. In this case it’s model Kate Upton, who graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue for the past two years.

Though Nine to Five played out as an ensemble film, The Other Woman is totally taken over by Mann, who swipes every scene with her hilariously sympathetic portrayal of a needy, ditzy, and slightly manic wife who’s surprised one day at her front door by someone who turns out to be “the other woman” (Diaz), dressed as a naughty plumber and asking for her husband by name. That he’s having an affair is nearly as shocking to her as it is for lawyer Kate to discover he’s married.   More

AMERICAN GIRL: ISABELLE DANCES INTO THE SPOTLIGHT (Blu-ray combo)

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IsabellecoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2014, 100 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Digital Copy
Bonus features: None
Trailer

With Isabelle Dances into the Spotlight, American Girl celebrates 10 years of being in the filmmaking business. What began as a way to add historical backstories to dolls that “came” from certain periods in history has evolved into the marketing of contemporary dramas. The former taught the target audience of 3-12 year old girls what it would be like to live during a different era, while the latter have focused on little girls’ dreams and desires and the things that can get in the way of success.

Kit Kitredge: An American Girl (2008) was the last film set in a historical period, with An American Girl: Chrissa Stands Strong tackling bullying as an issue the following year, An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars spotlighting a young gymnast and the trials of competition, and An American Girl: Saige Paints the Sky crafting a story about a girl with artistic aspirations who also goes to a ranch camp, where there’s plenty of horseback riding.

The historical dramas were better made, but the filmmakers are obviously chasing a market, and most girls love art and horses, right? That’s obviously what they were thinking, and they continue that two-for-one approach with Isabelle Dances into the Spotlight.

Isabellescreen1In this 2014 direct-to-video release, Erin Pitt (ironically, a Canadian actress) plays American Girl Isabelle Palmer, a young girl who dreams of studying ballet at a high level, but who also has an interest in and aptitude for fashion—though this aspect is really glossed over in the film. We’re told that the heroine is nine years old, but even young girls will notice that Pitt looks every bit of her 15 years. Is that a problem? Not really, but parents may wonder why the screenwriters couldn’t have made her 12, or speculate that if she were slightly older, maybe we wouldn’t have to endure so much cutesy Cosby Show banter and Barbie movie giggles.

The American Girl films present problems for the main characters to work through, and confidence and second/middle child syndrome are at issue here, with Isabelle trying to cope with the fact that her older sister, Jade (Grace Davidson, Radio Disney Music Awards), is a far better student and the more accomplished and assured dancer.

Since one theme is that siblings should be able to understand each other and get along, sibling rivalry doesn’t get out of hand or push the plot toward a crisis. The girls clearly love and support each other. Rather, the conflict comes at the hands of a mean girl named Renata (Genneya Walton), and it’s Isabelle’s own easily shattered confidence that threatens to derail the young dancer’s hopes and dreams.  For boys in the family and parents it will be something that’s watched out of courtesy, but it’s a well made film considering the target audience. More

RIO 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Rio2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2014, 101 min., Color
Rated G
20th Century Fox Animation
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Digital Copy
Bonus features: B+
Trailer

I won’t beat around the rainforest. If your family enjoyed Rio, they’ll appreciate this sequel, which brings back all of the original voice talents and offers the same sort of smorgasbord of songs, richly textured animation, and a serviceable plot that combines humor with mild peril. Even when that plot hits an occasional speed bump, the animation is so darned captivating that you don’t really notice.

If Rio showed that 20th Century Fox Animation had finally moved into Disney’s neighborhood, with Rio 2 they’ve taken off their shoes and propped their feet up on the coffee table. This talented bunch is clearly comfortable with what they’re doing, and they strut their stuff at every opportunity, showcasing things like complicated big-cast song-and-dance sequences and the hyper-realistic water and fireworks that used to be the sole province of Disney animators. And the writing, while not on a par with the best of Disney, is certainly good enough to match second-tier Disney efforts.

Other things Fox apparently learned from Disney animators are the importance of character personalities and the impact that small details and quirky comedic moments can have on a film. Rio 2 is loaded with little surprises that catch you off-guard and make you smile or laugh out loud. What’s interesting is that it’s often not the same sight gag or verbal gibe that tickles everyone’s fancy. I watched this with three family members, and it seemed as if each of us blurted out an expression of delight at least once when the rest of the room was silent.

A feast for the senses, Rio 2 picks up where Rio left off. You don’t have to know the whole backstory because there are hints embedded in the narrative. But it certainly helps—especially to appreciate the evil cockatoo Nigel’s current predicament. In Rio, Linda (Leslie Mann) had brought her blue macaw Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) to Rio to mate him with Jewel (Anne Hathaway), after she learned from ornithologist Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) that those two are the last of their species. By film’s end, she had married Tulio and set up a blue macaw sanctuary. In Rio 2 their love-birds have three spirited offspring—Carla, Bia, and Tiago—and on an expedition to release a rehabilitated bird, Tulio and Linda glimpse another rare blue macaw. So the whole group sets off on an expedition deep into the Amazon to discover if there are more.   More

HOW THE WEST WAS WON: SEASON 2 (DVD)

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HowtheWestwasWoncoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
1978-79, 900 min. (14 episodes), Color
Not rated; would be PG for some violence and adult situations
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: None

What does the star of an iconic TV Western do after the series ends its 20-year run? If that star is James Arness, he goes right from Gunsmoke to How the West Was Won, turning in his marshal’s badge to hobble around bowlegged as cagey frontier scout Zeb Macahan.

Gunsmoke left the small screen after the 1974-75 season, and the following year Arness donned fringed buckskins to play Zeb Macahan in a TV movie. That realistic, location-shot film was so popular that it led to a mini-series in 1977, and a bona fide TV series in 1978. But Westerns were on their way out. Gunsmoke was the #1 TV show in America from 1957 to 1960, but How the West Was Won only managed to place 11th its first season, four places behind Little House on the Prairie—the only other Western to crack the Top 30 shows. After that, it dropped out of the Nielsen elite, leaving Little House on the Prairie as the only popularly watched Western. It was clearly the end of an era.

Partly, though, it was because the blend of realism and melodrama that sustained How the West Was Won its first two outings started to tip more toward melodrama by the second season. And Arness, who was so genially believable as the crusty Zeb Macahan, develops a slight case of John Wayne syndrome this season, with his performance at times resembling a caricature of his character.

That said, Season 2 is still a cut above the average TV Western.  More

NOAH (Blu-ray combo)

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NoahcoverGrade: C-
Entire family: No
2014, 138 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content
Paramount
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1, “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah has sparked all kinds of criticism for it’s looser-than-loose interpretation of the story of The Flood that’s recounted in The Bible. The film was banned in China on religious grounds, condemned by Muslims for the way it treats prophets, and branded by the official Vatican newspaper as a “strange” and “perplexing” movie that adds up to a “missed opportunity.” Christian audiences have generally decried its inexplicable departure from the traditional Bible story.

But let’s be fair. There are a number of perplexities in The Bible, none of which have anything to do with Darren Aronofsky (The Black Swan). Adam and Eve are supposed to be the mother and father of all humanity, but the Book of Genesis tells us that they begat Cain and Abel—no daughters. And when Cain is confronted by God after murdering his brother he worries that he will become a fugitive and that whoever finds him will slay him—which implies that people exist apart from Adam’s lineage. Later we’re told that Cain “knew” his wife and begat children of his own. Where she came from is not specified.

As for Noah, The Bible says he was 500 years old when he became the father of three sons, and 600 when God commanded him to build an ark and take into it his sons, their wives, and two of all the beasts of the air and ground. There was no mention of fantastic mud-and-rock creatures called “Watchers” helping him to build this massive boat, as we see in Noah.

When it comes to Hollywood, I don’t expect film adaptations to be exact. I didn’t, for example, mind that the land Noah traverses looked more like a desolate apocalyptic wasteland than the arid, olive tree-filled Holy Land we typically see. But I do expect filmmakers to operate in the general vicinity of truthfulness or reality. Infusing Noah’s story, however fictional or true you believe it to be, with the kind of rock creatures we saw in GalaxyQuest is like trying to tell the story of Geronimo with an E.T.-like alien turning up in the Apache desert to offer his assistance. It’s too over-the-top and, because it stands in such sharp contrast to the biblical account and the kind of God-talk that Aronofsky includes, it’s also more than a little hokey.    More