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FRANK SINATRA 5-FILM COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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FrankSinatra5FilmcoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, but…
1945-1964, times vary (see below), Color
Approved (would be PG for some adult situations)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: Varies (see below)
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 1.0 and DTS-HD MA 5.1 (Guys and Dolls)
Bonus features: C
Amazon link

For family movie night, the best bet in the Frank Sinatra 5-Film Collection is Robin and the 7 Hoods—a 1964 prohibition musical-comedy set in Chicago that offers an amusing gangster version of the Robin Hood legend. That film and others in this collection new to Blu-ray are available as single titles as well. Whether the five-film collection is worth buying will depend on how much your family likes old musicals (four out of five films are musicals) and how tolerant the kids are of older films. But at least all five are in color, and all are the equivalent of PG-rated films. The discs seem to be identical to the single releases, with the same bonus features, but with a handsome hardcover book of color and black-and-white photos from the five films and the discs on separate plastic pages in an oversized Blu-ray case, all tucked inside a sturdy cardboard slipcase. Picture quality is terrific for all five films, though the Mono DTS on four of them may not be what viewers are used to. But if your family loves musicals—old ones included—this is a great collection.

Robin7HoodsscreenRobin and the 7 Hoods (1964, 123 min., 2.40:1 widescreen, trailer)—This clever and funny riff on the Robin Hood legend stars Peter Falk (TV’s Columbo) in a hilarious role as Guy Gisbourne (in the movies, it was Sir Guy of Gisbourne), who bumps off Big Jim and takes control of the city racketeering, with the Sheriff offering protection for a fee. Naturally Robbo (Sinatra) objects, and their rival factions square off in a battle for speakeasy supremacy. Bing Crosby stars as the troubadour Allen A. Dale, with Dean Martin playing John Little (instead of Little John), and Sammy Davis Jr. as Will Scarlet. But the Robin Hood legend really kicks in when Big Jim’s daughter, Marian (Barbara Rush), thinks the Sheriff responsible for her father’s death and Robbo responsible for his disappearance. She gives Robbo a $50,000 payoff. “Get rid of it,” Robbo says, and his merry men donate the whole bunch to an orphanage. Other charities follow, and it’s fun to watch this legend play itself out on Chicago gangsterland turf. There’s bootlegging and flappers in skimpy costumes but no sex, no language to speak of, and no onscreen violence. Great songs, clever plot, and funny moments. My teenage son gave it an A, he liked it so much. I’d say it’s more of an A-.

GuysandDollsscreenGuys and Dolls (1955, 150 min., 2.55:1 widescreen, trailer)—The second best title in this collection is the film adaptation of the Broadway hit that itself was based on a Damon Runyon story about Broadway gamblers. Nathan Detroit (Sinatra) runs a floating crap game and has been dating dancer Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) for more than a decade. He’s fond of her but unable to commit to marriage because he’s just as fond of gambling and his gambling pals, which include his “second,” Nicely-Nicely Johnson (comic actor Stubby Kaye). There are plenty of Broadway denizens in need of saving, and Jean Simmons plays Sarah Brown, who is in charge of the local Salvation Army. The action is set in motion when Lt. Brannigan (Robert Keith) puts the heat on and the only place that will host Nathan’s illegal gambling operation for one night wants $1000. How to get it? With famous better Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) in town, Nathan tries to get him to bet on a sure thing for him. When Sky brags that he can convince any woman to go with him to Havana for the night Nathan looks out the window and points out Sarah Brown. “I choose her,” he says, and the bet is on. The song-and-dance numbers are old-school musical and the dialogue is Runyonesque, but after a while you get used to it. My son liked this one too, and we’d give it a B+.   More

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New on Blu-ray and DVD (April 28, 2015)

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PaddingtonThe Teddie Bear may have been named after President Theodore Roosevelt, but the two most famous teddies in children’s literature come from England, not America: Winnie the Pooh and Paddington Bear. This week, Paddington comes to home theaters on Blu-ray and DVD, featuring perhaps the most sophisticated blend of live action and animation yet. Ben Whishaw gives voice to Michael Bond’s beloved character, a Peruvian bear that was found at Paddington Station in London by a family who decided to care for him. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins headline the live-action cast, while Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon lend their voices to Paddington’s animated aunt and uncle. It’s rated PG for mild action and rude humor.

50to1For families with older kids there’s 50 to 1, the PG-13 story of a group of New Mexico cowboys who raise blueblood eyebrows when they bring their horse, Mine That Bird, to compete in the Kentucky Derby. There’s alcohol use, mild swearing, and a bar brawl, but no sex or sexual situations except one instance of a man “getting fresh.” But the story of a group of underdogs who race an underdog horse is a compelling one. As I said in my review, this low-budget film may not be as flashy or talent-rich as Seabiscuit (2003), or Secretariat (2010), but I liked it every bit as much. In fact, I’m surprised that Sony Pictures is releasing it on DVD only, and not high definition Blu-ray.

LittleManTateThen there’s the loosely plotted story of a single mother who, upon realizing that her six-year-old son is a genius, tries to raise him in a way that will help him to grow and develop. Starring Jodie Foster as the mom, Adam Hann-Byrd as the boy, and Harry Connick Jr. as an adult student who teaches the lad a few non-genius things, Little Man Tate explores the relationships and world of a gifted child and his average-intellect parent. This week Olive Films is releasing the PG-rated film—Foster’s directorial debut—on Blu-ray for the first time.

MyLittlePonyTalesThat’s it, really, unless you have little ones who are fans of My Little Pony and Franklin and Friends. This week My Little Pony Tales: The Complete TV Series comes to DVD, which sounds like an impressive package, but this isn’t the original 1986 series. Rather, it’s the 1992 follow-up that lasted only 22 episodes, which is confusing, since the press information on this DVD release lists 13 episodes for a total of 285 minutes. Still, if you have a fan of My Little Pony, they’ll want to watch these episodes.

FranklinFranklin and Friends: Deep Sea Voyage takes the popular children’s book characters on a Magic Schoolbus-style adventure. But you can wait until Sunday, May 3, to decide if you want to buy the DVD, because it will be telecast that afternoon on ABC Kids network. Consult your local listings for the time.

TAKEN 3 (Blu-ray)

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Taken3coverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2014, 109 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for brief strong action
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: C-
Trailer/Amazon link

In Taken 3, nobody’s really “taken” until the third act, but I guess it was time for the franchise to shake it up a bit.

The original Taken (2008) featured Liam Neeson as a former CIA operative who used his skills to save a daughter kidnapped in France. Then, in Taken 2, a Patriot Games-style revenge theme drove the plot, with the father of the kidnapper from the first film “taking” both Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) while they’re in Istanbul. The third time around they’re in L.A., where Mills learns from his now-pregnant daughter (Maggie Grace) that his ex-wife is having marital problems. There’s some hint of their getting back together, but early in the first act he finds his ex- in his bed with her throat slit. When the cops show up, his survivalist instincts kick in again. He goes “down the rabbit hole” to hide and, like The Fugitive, try to clear his name.

Neeson makes a credible action hero, so much so that you have to wonder “what if” he had been given the Bond role back in 2006 when his name was bandied about as a possibility. As cast and filmmakers say in one of the bonus features, the film’s appeal comes from the core principle of a father wanting to protect his family, and Neeson does have an appealing “everyman” quality—despite also having superman survival skills that would have eliminated most ordinary men from the challenge 30 seconds into the film. At times the action and close-call escapes border on the cartoonish because they’re so outlandish, but Luc Besson and his co-writers seem to understand that audiences expect him to survive anything. At some point, they don’t even bother to explain how he managed them, they start to feel that routine.

Taken 3 offers a plot that also feels familiar, and unfortunately relies on the cheap trick of printing sequences with some frames removed and slightly blurring them—a shortcut for action films that we first saw in Gladiator. It produces the kind of strobe effect that can drive some people crazy and basically excuses the filmmakers from having to mount expensive and highly choreographed fight scenes.

That said, Taken 3 is still a credible action film that’s entertaining despite its familiarity, largely due to Neeson’s talents and appeal. But Forest Whitaker is also engaging as the LAPD detective in charge of the investigation, making the best out of a two-dimensional role, and Dougray Scott and Sam Spruell spark enough hatred as the film’s bad guys. Neither sequel can touch the original, but fans of the franchise won’t care.    More

New on Blu-ray and DVD (April 21, 2015)

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TheRiverThis week, the best of the family-friendly movies probably isn’t the best movie for families. Jean Renoir’s The River would merit a PG rating, but the French film about three adolescent girls growing up in India who fall for an older American soldier is slow moving and has no real drama beyond emotional ones. The most dramatic incident, in fact, occurs offscreen. But as legendary film critic Roger Ebert noted, The River is the first movie filmed in India in technicolor and one of the two best color movies ever filmed. It’s the visuals and the life-as-it’s lived drama that makes this movie worth watching. Will today’s young people have the patience to grapple with a plot that, to them, might seem plodding and relatively formless? Good question. But The River comes to Blu-ray and DVD in a Criterion special edition this Tuesday, if you want to find out.

Taken3The other big title this week is also a French film. The force was with Liam Neeson big-time in Taken, a 2008 action-thriller penned by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, it featured Neeson as a retired CIA operative who leaps back into action after his daughter is kidnapped in France by sex-slave traffickers. That movie didn’t wow critics, but it was a huge box-office success. Taken 2 made even more money at the box office. This week, if your family is “taken” with the franchise you can add Taken 3 to your home movie library or move it to the top of your rental or on-demand list. Critics thought it the worst of the three, but it was another box-office success. This time, Neeson’s character visits his pregnant daughter in L.A. and reconnects with his ex-wife, who tells him she’s having marital problems and asks him to meet her. He does, but finds only her dead body just as L.A. police arrive and try to arrest him. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and brief strong language, it’s a classic run-from-the-law-while-trying-to-solve-the-case thriller that also features Forest Whitaker. Look for it on Blu-ray or DVD.

CooleyHighIn 1973, American Graffiti focused on high school students looking to have one last fling before going to college. Two years later, the seriocomic Cooley High was released, distinguished by the fact that it’s based on a real Chicago high school, set in 1964 Chicago, and a milestone of black cinema with a Motown soundtrack. If you’re a fan of Welcome Back, Kotter you’ll recognize Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who co-stars with Glynn Turman as best friends whose lives are complicated by relationships, drugs, poor school performance, and “hood” friends. Entertainment Weekly ranked it #23 on its list of 50 Best High School Movies, and Olive Films is bringing Cooley High to Blu-ray this week (Amazon link).

42ndStreetThat’s it, really, for family-friendly noteworthy films, unless your brood is willing to time-travel back to 1933 for an old-style Warner Bros. musical. 42nd Street comes out on Blu-ray this week, and the unrated (would be PG) comedy-musical-romance stars Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers, and Dick Powell. Baxter plays a famous Broadway producer who’s hired to mount a revue that’s to showcase the backer’s girlfriend. But when she breaks her ankle, a chorus girl (Ruby Keeler) gets her big break. It’s available from the Warner Archive Collection (Amazon link).

BIG EYES (Blu-ray)

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BigEyescoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2014, 105 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Anchor Bay
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: C-
Trailer/Amazon link

Big Eyes isn’t your usual Tim Burton film. Though there’s a twisted aspect to the relationship between painter Margaret Keane and her controlling husband Walter—along with a vibe that’s faintly reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands—it’s still a pretty straightforward biopic. But don’t be misled by the box blurb announcing that Amy Adams won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy. Big Eyes is neither. It’s a drama made fascinating by Adams’ flawless performance, with occasional comedic moments provided by Christoph Waltz’s brilliant-but-delusional P.T. Barnum-like antics as Walter Keane.

Walter manipulates the art world and the buying public as much as he does his wife, whose paintings he takes credit for—first, to make a sale, then, because it feeds his ego. Throughout the Sixties they continue this charade, with Walter rising as a public figure and Margaret shrinking to even smaller dimensions than when they first met and she was overwhelmed by his personality.

You forget that it’s a Tim Burton film until Margaret goes grocery shopping and has hallucinations of all the other shoppers looking at her with the trademark “big eyes” that she featured on all of her paintings of children. That’s the one creepy moment in the film that feels Burtonesque. But you can see why the director was drawn to Margaret’s story. Like Edward Scissorhands, she’s forced to live in isolation and spends much of her time in an attic, working away. Like Scissorhands, she’s timid and naive and easily manipulated. And the big eyes she paints? It’s those paintings of big-eyed, dark-eyed, sad-looking waifs that come closest to what we expect from Burton.

BigEyesscreenBig Eyes tells Margaret’s story, beginning with her flight in 1958 from her first husband and her meeting Walter Keane at a San Francisco art fair, where they both were trying to sell their works. It’s rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language, but I’d have to say that it’s pretty understated, with far less language and violence than most PG-13 movies, and no sex. It wouldn’t hurt young teens to see that an abusive relationship doesn’t have to involve physical violence. There’s no hitting in their marriage, only intimidation and manipulation, with Margaret being an unwitting enabler because of her timidity. Yes, there’s one scene where Walter gets drunk and menaces his wife and stepdaughter, but young girls might benefit from seeing a film like this, and how easily things can snowball in a controlling relationship. While Big Eyes is the story of a twisted relationship, the focus remains on the art, the phenomenon that this “kitsch” art became, and what art and those children mean to Margaret. In that respect, it’s quirkier and more upbeat than your typical sour relationship story.   More

FRASIER: COMPLETE SERIES (DVD)

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FrasiercoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
1993-2004, 5,895 min. (263 episodes), Color
Rated TV-PG (mostly for innuendo)
CBS/Paramount
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Includes: 44 discs in two sturdy plastic cases w/cardboard slipcase
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

Modern Family may be King of the American Sitcoms now, but in the ‘90s it was Frasier, a spin-off from the popular sitcom Cheers starring Kelsey Grammer as a pompous but endearing psychologist who reveled in his intellect and haute culture tastes, but also yearned to be “one of the guys.” Frasier won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for each of its first five seasons and continued to win Emmys in other categories for all of its 11 seasons—though it wasn’t a runaway hit with audiences. Its best showing came with Season 6, when Frasier finished as the #3 most watched TV show in America, behind Friends and ER.

In Boston’s Cheers bar, Grammer made arrogance endearing as he played a good-but-jilted doctor who hung out with a dim-witted Iowa bartender, a narcissistic ex-ballplayer, a know-it-all mailman, and an overweight, professional barfly. Sometimes you laughed with him, while at other times (most of the time, actually) the humor came at the doctor’s expense—a book smarts vs. street smarts face-off. In Seattle, fresh from a divorce from his domineering wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), Frasier found a fresh start as a Dr. Phil-style radio psychologist and acquired a new hangout: Café Nervosa, where he and equally effete brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) would indulge their cappuccino tastes and parade their knowledge in front of a generally apathetic public.

FrasierscreenThe show, with chapter tiles that played with puns, had two main sets. The first was KACL-Radio, where Frasier dispensed his psychiatric bromides and producer Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin) was a perfect “give it a rest” foil to his pompous side. Obnoxious sportscaster Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe (Dan Butler) took him down a few more pegs with his cuts and practical jokes, and restaurant critic Gil Chesterton (Patrick Kerr) was the uncomfortable mirror that showed reflections of what Frasier might be like without such irreverent and frequent shots to keep him grounded. Much of the at-work time is spent with Frasier talking to unseen call-ins with a host of problems, and much of the fun for fans is watching the end-credits to see what famous celebrities posed as the callers from week to week.

At home, the brandy-oriented Frasier met his match with his blue-collar dad (John Mahoney), a Ballantine-loving ex-cop who walks with a limp and has a live-in therapist, a Brit named Daphne (Jane Leeves). With dad and son facing off and Daphne offering her humorous third-party, third-culture take on things, it made for more dry humor. And Niles visited so often that it felt as if the four of them lived—and bantered—there. His epic crush on Daphne and the brothers’  sibling rivalry and sharp contrast with their down-to-earth dad became series-long storylines.   More

THE BRADY BUNCH: COMPLETE SERIES (DVD)

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BradyBunchcoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
1969-74, 2,980 min. (117 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G)
CBS/Paramount
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Includes: 20 discs in sturdy plastic case w/cardboard slipcase
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

The Brady Bunch was one of the very last squeaky-clean family sitcoms in the old ’50s mold, airing as an anachronism of sorts during the Vietnam War years amid the chaos of Civil Rights, women’s rights, and anti-war protests. But in the Brady household, father Mike, a working architect, was still king of the castle with a den all his own, while his wife, Carol, was a stay-at-home mom who had the luxury of a servant. The children got into all sorts of minor conflicts and mischief, but none of the storylines tackled serious parental concerns of the day. Everything was sibling rivalry and innocent mix-ups.

There were conflicts over clubhouses, shared things and spaces, class elections, invented boyfriends, broken things that had to be replaced, and even talent shows. Drugs? Not here. Peer pressure to smoke? Only briefly. Teen pregnancy? Please! While other teens from the time were raiding their parents’ liquor cabinets, this group was content to raid the cookie jar. No one got into really serious trouble, and there was usually a lesson to be learned . . . from dad. When he wasn’t around, there was always mom or Alice, the housekeeper/cook (Ann B. Davis), to help them find their way.

First telecast on Sept 26, 1969, the show was a surprise hit, no doubt because it felt like comfort food to Americans who snuggled together during a turbulent era to watch and relive happier, more uncomplicated times. Divorce was becoming a widespread phenomenon for the first time, and the show about BradyBunchscreen1second-chance family life probably struck a chord with broken families. The range of the Brady children’s ages (7 through 14, when the show began) was broad enough for most youngsters to identify with. Airing on Friday nights, the show connected especially with children too young to have a social life, or, like the Bradys, too awkward and introverted. The Brady Bunch never finished in the Nielsen Top-30 and never won any Emmys, yet the show has become a cultural icon, lampooned in two feature films and held up as an example of one of the last wholesome family sitcoms to be telecast . . . before TV sitcom families would start spouting one-liners and zapping each other with zingers, before families (or rather, writers) got “hip.”   More

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