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MODERN FAMILY: SEASON 6 (DVD)

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ModernFamily6coverGrade: A
Entire family: Yes
2014-15, 556 min. (24 episodes), Color
20th Century Fox
Not Rated (would be PG for some adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Amazon link

The streak is over. After winning Primetime Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series its first five seasons, which tied Frasier for top honors in that category, Modern Family: Season 6 fell short. But it had nothing to do with the quality of episodes. This series remains one of the funniest sitcoms on television, and Season 6 has no shortage of laugh-out-loud moments. It’s every bit as strong as the other seasons.

The success formula for Modern Family is pretty simple: Clever writing, rapid-fire jokes, likable characters, a talented ensemble cast, reality-show cutaway remarks, and comedy that’s truly situation-based, rooted in emotions and scenarios that audiences can often identify with.

What makes this family “modern” is that it includes non-traditional models that are common today. The gruff businessman patriarch of the Pritchett clan (Ed O’Neill) has remarried a Colombian “hottie” (Sofía Vergara) 20 years his junior who has a son named Manny (Rico Rodriguez), whom Jay tries to toughen up. Jay’s two children are Claire, an OCD who married a doofus (Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy, the self-proclaimed “fun dad”) that Jay couldn’t stand, and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), his gay son now married to the flamboyant Cam (Eric Stonestreet). Mitchell and Cam have adopted a Vietnamese orphan named Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), while Claire and Phil have three biological children: the flirtatious and carefree Haley (Sarah Hyland), the studious Alex (Ariel Winter), and not-too-bright Luke (Nolan Gould).

That core group collectively has 27 Outstanding Supporting Actor/Actress nominations and six Primetime Emmy wins. There isn’t a weak link among them. In all cases, the actors and writers manage to create characters that are totally believable, both individually and in relation to the others. You accept them as couples, in-laws, steps, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters. There are also degrees of exaggeration that help to create the comedy, but without ever edging too close to the kind of over-the-top humor that too many sitcoms depend upon. And there’s no annoying laugh track to prod viewers.

This season new neighbors feud with Claire and Phil, Cam and Mitchell think about adding another child to their family, and Jay seems to be growing more sensitive about his age. He’s also worried his young son Joe is playing with too many “girlie” ModernFamily6screenthings, and it doesn’t exactly help his psyche to pretend to be gay in order to fill in for one of the bowlers on Cam’s team. Haley tries to get Alex to loosen up a bit this season, and the writers attempt a clever (some might say “gimmicky”) episode that’s told entirely from Claire’s laptop as she’s stranded at the airport. Despite the non-standard narrative format, they still manage laughs, and that’s saying something. Apart from an episode in which little Joe might be allergic to Jay’s beloved dog (shades of a Brady Bunch episode), what elevates this show is the originality of the plots from week to week . . . and the way those plots still incorporate ways to connect with viewers. In one Season 6 episode Jay takes a pottery class in order to make a clay bunny for his “Bunny” for their anniversary, but Gloria treats it like a piñata, wondering what he put inside. Anyone who’s ever made or received a personally crafted gift can identify with Jay, and common elements pop up in just about every episode.

Like most good sitcoms, Modern Family is addictive. Buy this season and you’ll probably feel the impulse to pick up the earlier ones. It’s that funny. Twenty-four episodes are included on three single-sided discs and housed in a standard-size keep case, with plastic “pages” to keep the discs from getting scratched.

Language: None, really
Sex: Same here—just some innuendo
Violence: Again, nothing here
Adult situations: A gay man tries to flirt with Jay, and that’s pretty much typical of how tame the adult situations are in this series. It’s all about comedy of character, and viewers are focused so much on the characters that everything else seems secondary.
Takeaway: A well-written sitcom is a thing of beauty.

CINDERELLA (2015) (Blu-ray combo)

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CinderellacoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 105 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Included: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Only Disney would have the audacity to attempt a live-action remake of an animated classic, and to play it fairly straight as a romantic drama—with even less comic relief than the original. And only Disney could pull it off.

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella, so it’s really a matter of how the story is told. I think the studio made the right call. They decided to craft an origin story: to fill in the information gaps, to flesh out the characters, and to focus on the romance. The devil is in the details, but details—and devilish characters, for that matter—have always been Disney’s strong suit. Cate Blanchet plays the stepmother with the same complexity as Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, the backgrounds are as striking as anything you’ve seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the interiors of this live-action feature rival what we saw in Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast. I wouldn’t say the CGI elements are seamless—you can certainly tell that the lizards and mice are computer-generated—but they’re cute as the Dickens.

Scottish actor Richard Madden (Klondike, Game of Thrones) plays the Prince, but Lily James (Downton Abbey) is even more charming as Ella, nicknamed “Cinderella” by her stepmother after she’s found lying next Cinderellascreen1to the hearth to keep warm. It’s easy to become as captivated by Ella as the Prince is, enthralled by her fresh optimism and live-by mantra: to have courage and to be kind. In other words, Cinderella has an inner strength and beauty to complement her physical good looks, and Disney drives home the point that what’s inside matters more. The screenwriters also are mindful of the Disney princess “brand” as they suggest that while little Ella wasn’t royalty, she was a princess to her mother and father, who loved her very much. And Disney being Disney, death is handled matter-of-factly. “Way of all flesh, boy,” a dying father tells his offspring.

If there’s a surprise, it’s that the live-action stepsisters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger) aren’t as broadly comic as they’re often played, and that the fairy godmother is played a little more comically by the incomparable Helena Bonham Carter, who has as much fun with this role as she did playing Disney’s Red Queen in the live-action Alice and Wonderland.

Cinderellascreen2In this version of Cinderella there’s much more development of the Prince and his relationships. We see him interacting with a captain of the guard (Nonso Anozie), a manipulative Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard), and his father, the King (Derek Jacobi). Collectively those interactions make the pair’s coming together more satisfying, and more than anything else the live-action Cinderella is a grand romance that does for this fairy tale what Neuschwanstein Castle—the inspiration for Disney’s theme-park castles—did for all of them: it celebrates the magic, the majesty, and the happily-ever-after ending that everyone, deep down inside, still craves.

The characters, the story, and the wonderful details will make this a repeat play, no matter how familiar it is. Don’t hesitate to add it to your collections. You may know the story, but, like Hoosiers, it’s somehow rousing every time you watch. Get it in Blu-ray combo pack to enjoy a flawless and room-filling DTS-HDMA 7.1 soundtrack (which, surprisingly, is song-free except for one number that Ella and her mother sing) and a gorgeous-looking 2.39:1 widescreen presentation that really pops in HD.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: None, really
Adult situations: Characters die off-screen
Takeaway: Disney is still king when it comes to bringing grand romances and fairy tales to life on the big screen.

PITCH PERFECT 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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PitchPerfect2coverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2015, 115 min., Color
Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 for innuendo and language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Included: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Pitch Perfect (2012) and this 2015 sequel aren’t as solid or compelling as the first few seasons of Glee, but they’re still a lot of fun for a cappella lovers. Perfectly pitched at teens, Pitch Perfect 2 barely wriggles under the PG-13 limbo bar, and you don’t have to wait long to see why:

Nothing graphic is shown, but there’s plenty of innuendo. What sets this musical-comedy plot in motion is a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction that involves the character Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson). Her southern exposure is enough to disgrace the Barden Bellas, costing them a publicity tour and a ban them future competition—except, conveniently, Internationals, which a U.S. group has never won. It’s a tried-and-true formula we’ve seen in every fraternity-on-probation screenplay, combined with the standard underdog-in-competition story.

With that kind of fallback plot and a group of über a cappellists from Germany that are perhaps a little too smugly Master Race, Pitch Perfect 2 isn’t quite as good as the first film—at least not to a film critic trying to be objective. But it doesn’t miss the mark by a lot, and my teenage daughter and wife liked it every bit as much as the first movie. In other words, it’s a title that’s certainly worth adding to your family movie collection if you have junior high and high school age children.  More

THE BEGINNERS BIBLE: VOLUME 4 (DVD)

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BeginnersBible4coverGrade: B+
Entire family: No (ages 6 and under only)
1995, 120 min. (4 stories), Color
Time Life/StarVista
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: English mono
Bonus features: 4th story is considered “bonus”
Amazon link

On the heels of Volume 3 comes The Beginners Bible: Volume 4, though it’s not really labeled as such. It simply says “4 complete stories”: “The Story of Joseph & His Brothers,” “The Story of Daniel & the Lion’s Den,” “The Story of the Battle of Jericho,” and one that’s offered as a “bonus,” “The Story of Jonah & the Whale.”

Like the other installments in this series, these animated Bible stories are really well adapted, with writing and dialogue that aim to be both contemporary and accessible for the target age group combined with animation that takes a page from Saturday morning cartoons. Any menace is softened and any didacticism is made more interesting with bright colors, rounded forms, and big eyes. Disobedient sheep smile, uh, sheepishly, and the whale looks cute as a bathtub toy—even smiling with big bright eyes as he descends to the deep with Jonah inside his belly. With a face like that, how can you expect a harsh end to poor Jonah—especially when Jonah voluntarily jumps overboard when the storm hits his ship and the crew thinks he’s brought them bad luck, rather than the men tossing him over the sides. In other words, anything that might seem harsh is somehow softened. The bright and cheery music helps, too.

BeginnersBible4screenAnd the prophet himself? In the marketplace Jonah comes upon a fish merchant and says, “You know how much I love eating fish,” which sets up a clever irony that shows the writers aren’t just going through the motions or talking down to the kids. Then, when Jonah sees a pigeon waiting for crumbs to fall, he tells the peddler, “And I’ll take a bag of peanuts. I see somebody just as hungry as I.”

The writers and filmmakers take such liberties as they add humanizing details to make the characters seem more interesting for youngsters, or to better explain and contextualize the stories. Joshua tells the king he defeats at Jericho, “When I told you God would give us this land, you called me a fool. Who’s the fool now?” There’s a little bit of “Nyah-nyah” in there that kids can identify with. The characters’ reluctance to obey God in the first place is often given more interpretive context: “I can’t do something to help my enemies,” Jonah says when God tells him to go preach to the Ninevites. “How can I preach to the enemies of the Israelites?” Some parents/purists might object, but making such connections more obvious and adding humanizing elements really does make the stories more palatable for the target age group.

Of these four, “Jonah & the Whale” and “Daniel & the Lion’s Den” are the most accessible to all ages because they are simple stories about a man’s faith in God being tested. It gets a little more complicated in “Joseph & His Brothers” and “The Battle of Jericho,” though the writers really do an excellent job of explaining the basics or slightly altering the motivations of the characters so that their actions make more sense to today’s children. It’s hard to believe that brothers would be so jealous of Joseph that they would want to kill him or sell him into slavery, and so their intent is reduced to a “Wouldn’t it be funny if we sold Joseph to those merchants?” Then laughter, and a pause. “Why not?”

Like the other volumes in this series, The Beginners Bible: Volume 4 is a winner because the filmmakers really adapt the stories well for young contemporary viewers: removing the violence and softening the harsh elements, changing the vernacular to be more contemporary, adding humanizing and fun animated details, and helping children to not just understand the stories but to understand the characters’ emotional responses. Yes, they take liberties, but ultimately their decisions pay off. They really hit the mark for their target audience.

THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW: THE LOST EPISODES (DVD)

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CarolBurnettShowcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes, but…
1967-73, 1255 min. (16 shows), Color
Time Life/StarVista
Not rated (mostly G, some PG sketches)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 6 discs, color booklet
Amazon link

The Carol Burnett Show is a tough one to review because it’s a variety show, and that brand of television is nearly extinct—TV-land’s dinosaur. It’s like trying to assess a pterodactyl, even though this particular old bird won 25 Emmys, eight Golden Globes, and three People’s Choice Awards.

Now TV is dominated by reality shows and snarky talk and news shows, but during TV’s golden age the variety show was king. The Ed Sullivan Show, which ran from 1948 to 1971, preserved the vaudeville format almost exactly, televising animal acts, circus acts, magicians, mind readers, musical acts, dancers, musical acts, and comedians. But it was Sid Caesar in Your Show of Shows (1950-54) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-57) who pioneered sketch comedy as the meat-and-potatoes of future variety shows, and that’s the direction that Carol Burnett took.

The Carol Burnett Show ran for 11 seasons, tying her with Milton Berle for eighth all-time among variety shows, and it was as popular as TV gets. But to watch her show now just isn’t the same as watching it then. So many of the sketches were parodies of TV shows, movies, and commercials, and topical humor loses its edge. Plus, as SNL fans know, sketch comedy is hit or miss. Amazingly, many of the sketches in this six-disc collection still work. In fact, I’d say that there are more “hits” here than the current SNL group manages to muster in an average week.

“Interactive” is a big buzzword now, but Burnett interacted with her audience from the time her show debuted. Instead of doing a monologue, Burnett strode out onto the stage and took questions from the audience for a full three to four minutes. Sometimes she was quick to crack jokes, while other times the questions prompted more serious responses. But can you see a studio allowing a live audience to interact with stars today? Stars would be a nervous wreck, and network honchos would be that times 10. So it’s a fascinating part of every show, and half of Burnett’s weekly traditions.

As for the other half, Bob Hope had his “Thanks for the Memories” theme, and Burnett often closed her shows by singing the words to her own theme song:

I’m so glad we had this time together
Just to have a laugh or sing a song
Seems we just get started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say, So long.

CarolBurnettShowscreenIn between there was song and dance and performing guests. But anchoring the show were the comedy sketches, starring, at first, Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Wagoner, and later Tim Conway, after Wagoner left the show to do “Wonder Woman.” Guest stars got in the act too, and the talents on these 16 episodes are Chita Rivera, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Mel Tormé, Nanette Fabray, Jim Nabors, Bing Crosby, Paul Lynde, Tim Conway, Eydie Gorme, Burt Reynolds, Lesley Ann Warren, Don Adams, Lucille Ball, Bobbie Gentry, Phyllis Diller, Gwen Verdon, Nancy Wilson, Andy Griffith, Bernadette Peters, Cass Elliot, Flip Wilson, Vicki Carr, Carol Channing, Steve Lawrence, Jack Jones, and Ruth Buzzi. I suspect that the more of these celebrities you recognize, the more likely you will be to appreciate The Carol Burnett Show. It’s suitable for families, but children and a new generation of viewers may find the musical numbers especially dated, though the sketches are still funny, and Burnett is as likable as ever.   More