IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (Blu-ray combo)

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IntheHeartoftheSeacoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: No
2015, 122 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

In the Heart of the Sea is a terrific special effects movie and a great atmospheric, period adventure. But it does drag near the end of the second act, and there isn’t as much drama among the men as there could have been. They get along remarkably well for a disparate group of individuals who have to brave the dangers of the sea together on a voyage that lasts roughly a year and a half.

IntheHeartoftheSeascreen1Before oil, it was whale oil that fueled lamps everywhere, and the demand for it was great. If you read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and didn’t skip over the cetology chapters, you know that whaling ships were floating factories that not only pursued whales, but also processed them right there on the spot.

It’s one thing to read about it, but director Ron Howard creates a film that graphically shows the process, from the harpooning of a female while her calf swims next to her to the eventual killing and processing—which at one point requires the smallest sailor onboard to crawl inside the fetid whale to make sure every bit of it is harvested before the sharks come to take the rest. It’s fascinatingly realistic, but if you’re an animal lover it can be painful to watch.

In the Heart of the Sea is rated PG-13, and it’s the kind of film that could traumatize youngsters if they see it before they’re able to handle it—and not just because of the whale harvest, or the violence that ensues when a rogue white whale seems to understand what the whalers are doing and tries to destroy them. This film is based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick, and it doesn’t just tell the story of an 1820 incident that became the basis for Melville’s famous novel. It’s what happens after the whale cripples the Essex that will leave a permanent impression on young viewers. You can probably guess the spoiler I won’t share, but when the frame for the story involves Herman Melville visiting the remaining survivor of the Essex and trying to get him to tell his story of survival, if it’s something so unspeakable that the man kept it secret for all his adult life, well, that’s the kind of thing that will leave an impression on children. So the PG-13 rating is mostly because of “thematic material.”

IntheHeartoftheSeascreen2Moby-Dick was all about Capt. Ahab’s obsession with capturing a white whale, and there’s none of that here, and nothing that comes even close to the tension that came between Ahab and his whalers. There are no tattooed harpooners here and nobody builds a coffin—though there is a character named Coffin. While there isn’t a specific point of view, we mostly see things as they affect veteran first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who is justifiably angered when the fleet owners renege on their promise to make him captain and instead assign him to be first mate again to a rookie whose family is prominent in the whaling business.

Curiously, there’s not nearly the conflict between Capt. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and Chase as you might expect. Even the men get along fairly well, partly because Charles Leavitt’s screenplay focuses on the man-versus-nature main plot and all but ignores side plots involving conflicting personalities. But when the film drags at one point you find yourself wishing he had developed minor conflicts. As is, In the Heart of the Sea is a straightforward sea adventure, and the device of leaving the action to return to Melville and survivor Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland) isn’t as successful as the filmmakers think it is. Some of the dialogue in those scenes gets a bit syrupy, hokey, cheesy—pick an adjective—and you get the feeling much more could have been done to explore the attitudes of the young and old Nickersons. Those are my complaints, but give Howard credit for creating some of the most realistic whaling scenes ever to be shown on the big screen. The characters may seem shallow as pawns in an existential chess match, but the action is something else.

Language: Not much, really, besides a few damns and hells
Sex: n/a (unless you count a scrimshaw drawing of a topless woman)
Violence: Harpooning and whale violence against the ships
Adult situations: Atrocities committed while surviving adrift. (SPOILER: we’re talking Donner Party)
Takeaways: Moby-Dick may be the more compelling story, but this tale of the incident that inspired it is still pretty darned good as a period adventure.

CREED (Blu-ray combo)

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CreedcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2015, 133 min., Color
Warner Bros./MGM
Rated PG-13 for violence, language, and some sensuality
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

You’ve heard the jokes about Rocky XX and so on. After the popular film franchise, which began with Rocky in 1976, came out with Rocky II (1979), III (1982), IV (1985), and V (1990) in what seemed like rapid succession, entertainment writers started tossing off one-liners about the series continuing down the road with Sylvester Stallone eventually mixing it up with residents at a rest home from his wheelchair.

Well, who’s laughing now? Not only did Stallone prove he still had it with Rocky Balboa (2006), but with Creed he shows that he can effortlessly shift from the Rocky role into the role of boxing trainer—a part that Burgess Meredith made famous, and for which Meredith earned an Oscar nomination.

CreedscreenStallone earned an Oscar nomination for his initial role as Rocky, and he earned his second acting Oscar nomination for playing Rocky Balboa the trainer in this 2015 sport drama. What that means, all you jokers, is that Rocky CAN go on for many more years, though now the title shifts to Creed. And Creed II, III, or whatever. It’s no longer dependent upon Stallone’s ability to give or take a punch.

Stallone is as engaging as Meredith’s crusty seen-it-all trainer, and his performance anchors the film, both as a presence and as a plot point that’s central to the screenplay. The son of Apollo Creed fighting for the championship with boxing legend Rocky Balboa, “The Italian Stallion,” in his corner? It’s a dream-come-true for boxing promoters, and just as dreamy for filmmakers wanting to inject this storied but stalled franchise with a new shot of adrenalin.

As Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s deceased foe-and-friend who has a rap sheet as long as his juvenile hall stays, Michael B. Jordan comes to the film buff and ready to go the full 12 rounds. As Creed’s widow, Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show, Do No Harm) isn’t nearly the tough-love foster parent young Donnie needs, but that only goes to show that he’s more boxer-at-heart than he is criminal-at-heart. As he trains we see him go down the same streets and marketplaces as Rocky once did, and also climbing those famous Philadelphia Museum of Art steps that are commemorated by a statue of Rocky that’s also shown in the film. Though it’s not intrusively nostalgic or formulaic, fans will still notice quite a few similarities between Rocky and Creed. Both are headstrong and self-taught lumps of coal that need a little compressed discipline and training to be come diamonds, both get a shot at the championship well before they’re ready, both find a skull-cap wearing trainer, and both find a woman that motivates them. It’s Rocky all over again, but shifting characters makes it feel like a double-layered film rather than a formulaic exercise.

Creedscreen1The first four Rocky films and Rocky Balboa were rated PG, but Creed follows in the footsteps of Rocky V, with a PG-13 rating for violence, language, and some sensuality. But Creed is more violent and intense than any of the previous Rocky films, and there’s an implied sex scene and more language (including the F-word). So it’s every bit a PG-13 film. It’s also an entertaining film because the characters are likable, they grow and have good chemistry together (including Jordan and Tessa Thompson, who plays love-interest Bianca, a singer going permanently deaf), and the plot framework itself is a proven winner. Creed is Rocky for a new generation, with realistically choreographed boxing sequences, plenty of attitude, and just as much punch. And a sparkling transfer to Blu-ray and DTS-HDMA 7.1 really brings it all to vivid life.

Language: Typical range of PG-13 swear words, with at least one f-bomb tossed
Sex: Nothing graphic or too revealing, but there is naked skin and implied coupling, plus plenty of kissing
Violence: More violence both inside and outside the ring than in previous Rocky movies; people get beat, people get hurt
Adult situations: There’s not so much in the way of drinking as there was in previous Rocky movies
Takeaways: If you’re going to continue a series of films and not be worrying about your star’s physical capabilities, this reboot is certainly a good way to solve the problem, and Stallone is just as engaging as a trainer in a supporting role as he was the boxer and star

THE GOOD DINOSAUR (Blu-ray combo)

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GoodDinosaurcoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2015, 94 min., Color
Rated PG for peril, action, and thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

The Good Dinosaur is a good movie, but a weird one. How weird, you wonder?

Picture a dinosaur version of a western involving cattlemen and sodbusters, with vegetarian apatosauruses as the farmers, carnivore T-rexes wrangling prehistoric longhorns, and pterosaurs the rustlers.

Picture a dinosaur version of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, flipped upside-down so that the dog who eventually answers to the “call of the wild” is a prehistoric human that hasn’t learned to walk upright yet and acts a bit like Donnie from The Wild Thornberrys, while his “master” is an apatosaurus.

GoodDinosaurscreen2Picture a dinosaur version of The Lion King, with young apatosaurus Arlo getting a life lesson in one scene that shows him and his father looking skyward, while later we watch as the father pushes the son to safety when a calamity sweeps through the valley and (not really a spoiler if you’ve seen The Lion King) kills the father, who comes back in a vision when his young son needs him most.

Picture realistic backgrounds with an animated green dinosaur that will have you flashbacking to Pete’s Dragon.

And picture a dinosaur version of “ohana,” the lesson we learned about family from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, with more pathos, overall, than humor.

The Good Dinosaur is still entertaining, but it’s less than what you’d expect from Pixar and more than a little weird. Just as unusual for a Disney-Pixar film, especially one that was in production for six years, is that there are so many déja vu moments. Pixar built a name for themselves by coming up with completely unique stories, so this more standard and familiar entry is a bit of a surprise. But families with young children especially won’t care.

Using photorealistic scenery and cartoonish characters, Disney-Pixar offers a story with themes about making a mark in the world, living up to parental expectations, and dealing with stronger, more accomplished siblings—all of which ought to resonate with young viewers. Child/teen actors Jack McGraw and Raymond Ochoa give voice to Arlo, the runt of a litter who has a hard time keeping up with his rambunctious brother (Ryan Teeple/Marcus Scribner) and sister (Maleah Padilla).

GoodDinosaurscreen3Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) put their marks on the side of a stone silo they built to hold winter corn, and soon so do Buck and Libby. Only poor runty Arlo isn’t able to accomplish a task in order to make his mark. Encouraged by his father, he takes on the challenge of catching and killing the “varmint” that keeps stealing and eating their corn. Of course he can’t do it, because he’s the “good dinosaur”—a kind of prehistoric version of the old children’s book hero Ferdinand the Bull, who wanted to smell flowers rather than fight in the bullring. When Arlo is separated from his family and runs into that “varmint,” whom he names Spot (voiced by Jack Bright), an unlikely friendship develops that will also, of course, enable Arlo to finally prove himself while facing all sorts of dangers.

More strange than it is totally original, The Good Dinosaur is the kind of movie that will really appeal to children. Parents? Not nearly as much—though it’s easy to get lost in the film’s captivating art decoration, set design, and animation, all of which look terrific in Blu-ray.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: A head is ripped off a large bug, there’s a traumatic Lion-King style death, and the main character is in near-constant peril.
Adult situations: Like the intoxication scene in Dumbo the main character and his friend eat some bad fruit and hallucinate.
Takeaway: We’re so used to everything to come out of Pixar Studios being so extraordinary that when a good story instead of a great one comes along it’s a shock to the system, and maybe that’s unfair.


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SnowWhitecoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1937, 83 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

Walt Disney didn’t invent Snow White, but then again, neither did the Brothers Grimm, who published their version in an 1812 book of folk tales they collected from across Germany. But Disney renamed the dwarves and gave them individual personalities. With their help, he proved to the world in 1937 that it really was possible to create a full-length animated feature that could engage movie audiences.

When Disney first announced the project and put out a call for artists and animators, the press called it “Disney’s Folly,” because no one in Hollywood thought it possible for an animated cartoon to hold the public’s interest for more than a few minutes. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made movie history and started a cottage industry of Disney Princesses and full-length animated features that had strong enough storylines and evocative characters to entertain adults as well as children.

SnowWhitescreenPerhaps most amazing, it still holds up today because of the formula that we’ve come to expect from Disney: characters with personality that we care about, gorgeous artwork, true-to-life animation, a strong storyline, memorable music, and an emotional ride that makes us laugh, cry, and fear for the characters’ lives. Compared to later Disney animated features Snow White has a much simpler trajectory: A wicked queen gets jealous of Snow White’s beauty, orders her huntsman to kill her, and she runs into the dark forest after he spares her. There she discovers a tiny house that’s a frightful mess and decides to clean it with the help of forest animals. She bonds with the house’s inhabitants—seven dwarves that work in a diamond mine—but the ever persistent Queen transforms herself into an old hag and stalks Snow White. Yet, for such a simple story, Snow White is packed full of emotions and colorful characters and all of those things that now seem standard-issue in a Disney movie. Ironically, if it wasn’t for the decidedly ‘30s look of Snow White and the Prince, you’d never know the film was that old. It’s aged very well.

The bottom line is that Snow White belongs in every family movie collection, and it looks positively wonderful on Blu-ray. The soft palette look of the film is preserved, but with slightly greater edge delineation, and that makes all the difference in the world. Meanwhile, the 7.1 DTS-HDMA really enhances songs like “Hi-Ho-Hi-Ho” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” What it will come down to is whether you already own the three-disc Diamond Edition that was released in 2009. In that case, unless you really want the film in Digital HD to watch on other devices, you’re just fine with that edition.

Not all the bonus features from the 2009 Blu-ray were ported over, but that’s not surprising, since the earlier release featured a second Blu-ray disc of bonus features in addition to the DVD. What made it: two deleted scenes, a fascinating making-of feature, “Snow White Returns,” a Hyperion Studios tour, “Bringing Snow White to Life,” “In Walt’s Words,” “Decoding the Exposure Sheet,” and an audio commentary featuring historian John Canemaker, Roy Disney, and recordings of Walt Disney. What seems to be new are features on the iconography of Snow White, “@Disneyanimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess,” a fun facts featurette hosted by Disney Channel star Sofia Carson, and “Snow White in 70 Seconds.” Like the 2009 release, Snow White comes with DisneyView, drawn borders to fill out the black bars on the sides of a classic film that’s presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio that actually measures closer to 1.37:1.

This new release shows how the digital landscape has changed. Gone is the BD-Live content and games for the kids to play, and added are the Digital HD copy and instructions on how to download a Disney Movies Anywhere app.


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CarolBurnettShowTreasuresGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
1967-71, 1039 min. (15 episodes), 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 will appeal to two types of people: those who remember watching it when they were younger and respond to the pull of nostalgia, and those who are curious about a time in American television when variety shows, not reality shows, were popular. Burnett was arguably the best of all the variety show hosts, a multitalented woman who could sing, dance, act, impersonate famous stars, and make a comedy sketch work with ad libs better than anyone else. Because of her long-running TV show, which initially aired from 1967-1978, Burnett was toasted at a 2003 Kennedy Center Honors and also awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2013. During its time, the show earned 68 Primetime Emmy nominations and won Golden Globes as the Best TV Show–Comedy or Musical in 1971. Burnett herself won five Golden Globes for her work on the series, and her talented regulars pulled down a few as well: Harvey Korman in 1967, and Tim Conway in 1976.

As Tina Fey remarked at the presentation of the Mark Twain Prize, “I fell in love with sketch comedy watching your show, and you proved sketch comedy is a good place for women . . . . Only in sketch comedy does a woman get to play Cher, Scarlett O’Hara, the Queen of England, and Girl Scout, Mrs. Wiggins’—all in one night.” At that same event comedian Martin Short summarized the long reach of her Burnett’s influence: “Everyone copied from her. There wouldn’t be Saturday Night Live without Carol.” So keep that in mind as you watch this pioneering comedy-variety show, which featured guest stars in musical numbers as well as sketches, and in which Burnett did indeed play almost anyone. This collection shows how wide of a range she had, and she was particularly “on” in sketches that aped other actresses. Included here is a sketch in which she pokes fun of Joan Crawford in “Mildred Fierce” and really nails Katharine Hepburn in “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner?”

Like a previous “Lost Episodes” release, this collection features 15 uncut episodes on six single-sided DVDs, with episodes culled from the first four seasons.

From Season 1:
Show #11—Guest Stars Sonny & Cher, actress/singer/dancer Nanette Fabray
Show #15—Mickey Rooney, singer John Davidson
Show #20—Shirley Jones, actor/singer/dancer George Chakiris
Show #21—comedian Jonathan Winters, singer Dionne Warwick
Show #22—comic actress Martha Raye, pin-up girl/actress Betty Grable
Show #23—Nanette Fabray, actor Art Carney
Show #29—actor Peter Lawford, Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl

From Season 2:
Show #113—opera stars Eileen Farrell, Marilyn Horne

From Season 3:
Show #302—actress/dancer Gwen Verdon, singer Pat Boone
Show #317—comedian Soupy Sales, singer Mel Tormé
Show #318—Get Smart! actress Barbara Feldon, comedian Joan Rivers
Show #326—Family Show

From Season 4:
Show #404—Nanette Fabray, actor Ken Berry
Show #413—actress Dyan Cannon, comic actor Paul Lynde
Show #426—Nanette Fabray, Paul Lynde

Fans of Saturday Night Live will marvel at how LONG these sketches go on, how character-driven they are, and ultimately how much the “players” trust the material and their performances. CarolBurnettTreasuresscreenIt will also seem amazing to people of the anti-social social media generation that at the beginning of each show Burnett strides out in a gown that was glamorous then (kitschy now) and answers questions from a live audience. When an adolescent boy asks if he can read a poem he wrote for her and she says, “Sure, stand up and read it,” could you see that happening today? He starts reading the poem and when he gets to the part where he says he’s in love with a girl old enough to be his mother, she says, “Sit down.” In a truly historical moment, then Gov. Ronald Reagan walks onstage to join Carol in that opening Q&A and answers questions from the audience—one of them from a woman who asks if he has any interest in moving to Washington, D.C. His response is what you’d expect from a man known as the Great Communicator: he says he can’t see why anyone would ever want to leave California. Earlier he had gotten a big laugh when he offered a comic counterpunch. A woman asked, “Does the mayor know you’re in town?” Everyone laughed and Reagan shot back with, “The important thing is, is Yorty in town?” Mayor Sam Yorty had a number of nicknames, among them Travelin’ Sam, Suitcase Sam, and Airplane Sam.

There are some terrific sketches here, as well as some that aren’t so successful. Ultimately, though, the sketches seem less dated than the clothes or the musical numbers, and they are the reason people remember Carol Burnett and buy DVDs like this. The fun is in watching how many different characters Burnett can convincingly pull off, and whether she can stay in character or crack up with her co-stars. Some of her characters are convincingly ugly, others glamorous, and she even dons a Bugs Bunny costume for a sketch paying tribute to Warner Bros. animation. You get the feeling that Burnett would do anything for a laugh, and she provides a lot of them in this collection.


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WonderYears4coverGrade: A
Entire family: No. Age 10 and older.
1988-89, 520 min., Color
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG because of mild language, content)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Amazon link

As I wrote in my review of the complete series, this coming-of-age TV comedy-drama gets it right. Lots of things can shape a person, and just as WWII defined a generation, so did the ‘60s—which historians date from John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 resignation. The Wonder Years managed to capture the perfect storm of events that were always in a family’s consciousness—even as the father tried to put food on the table, siblings fought and sought to find their place in the world, and the mother tried to hold them all together. And Season 4 is the absolute best of the six seasons.

Like Leave It to Beaver, the series’ episodes were seen from the point of view of an adolescent, and you knew you were in for an interesting ride when this 1987 series shunned a laugh track and introduced the kind of voiceover narrator that we got in A Christmas Story—an adult version of the main character. And you knew that the series would meet the ‘60s head-on when the pilot called for the girl-next-door’s older brother to be killed in Vietnam, and for our hero to comfort her in a scene that would culminate in a first kiss for each of them—both as characters, and as actors.

WonderYears4screenFred Savage was perfectly cast as Kevin, who at 13 became the youngest actor ever nominated for a Primetime Outstanding Lead Actor for a Comedy Series Emmy. His doe eyes reflected innocence, while his impish smile was a sign that he could say or do something impulsive or mischievous at any moment. The girl next door, Winnie Cooper, was also well cast with Danica McKellar perfect as someone who would be both a best friend and love interest over the course of the show’s six seasons. And for comic relief and guy-to-guy matters there was bespectacled Paul (Josh Saviano), a brainy pal who was also Kevin’s best friend. The tone was wink-wink as this group navigated the halls of junior high, then high school and all of the problems that seem so major to this age group: crushes, dates, tormentors, cliques, and run-ins with teachers and coaches.

On the home front, older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) was obviously fond of his brother but lived to torment him, while much older sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) was so caught up in the ‘60s that she was a flower child from the very first episode. The parents were extremely well cast, with Dan Lauria returning from work each day grumpy and feeling chewed up and spat out, and Alley Mills deferring to him while also trying to act as mediator when he got on the kids.

Then there’s the music. I don’t know how they got the permissions, but Season 4 includes songs by Joan Baez, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Nat King Cole, Judy Collins, Lee Dorsey, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees, Randy Newman, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Sam & Dave, Bob Seger, Edwin Star, The Ventures, The Who, and Hank Wilson.

Season 4 has the highest number of fan-rated classic episodes. This season the family goes to Jack’s company picnic—no one more reluctantly than Kevin, who’s afraid of seeing a girl who used to have a crush on him. This season his first girlfriend Winnie moves and changes schools, then finds a new boyfriend and breaks up with Kevin. No matter, because Kevin has also found someone else and is juggling two relationships. Never a show to shy away from reality, The Wonder Years: Season 4 also features an episode in which Kevin and his friends try to crash a 10th-grade girls pajama party thinking beer will be their magic pass. This season Kevin runs for student council against his nemesis, Becky Slater, and also discovers his coach moonlighting as a mall Santa. Kevin and Wayne argue over who’s going to take over Karen’s room when she goes off to college, Kevin and his father have another disastrous time of it when they go off to buy a suit for Kevin, and the up-and-down Winnie and Kevin saga culminates in an “I love you” moment and sets up the group’s graduation from junior high.

Though The Wonder Years may shock young girls who probably don’t want to believe that this is the way young boys think about girls, it remains one of TV’s most honest family coming-of-age comedies. And Season 4 catches the show at its apex. All 23 episodes are included on four single-sided DVDs and housed in a standard-size keep case with plastic “pages” holding the discs.

Language: Lots of junior-high insults (butthead, scrote, dork) and hells and damns
Sex: Lots of kissing; masturbation is referenced, as are nudie magazines and talk of orgies
Adult situations: There’s both smoking and drinking in the series, and some pretty intense family fights
Takeaway: When a show is this honest, it’s no wonder that it still informs and entertains, as it gets to the heart of male adolescence, families, and interpersonal relationships

SPECTRE (Blu-ray)

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SpectrecoverGrade: B
2015, 148 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language
MGM/Twentieth Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Amazon link

James Bond films are notorious for their pre-title sequences, and the one for Spectre (2015) is spectacular. In it, Bond (Daniel Craig) falls level to level as a building collapses, only to land, seat first, onto a well-placed couch . . . and walk away, causing viewers to think that maybe, just maybe, the franchise is trying to find its way back to the original tongue-in-cheek spy adventures that made 007 such a worldwide phenomenon in the first place. But what follows lies somewhere between the extreme gritty realism of the previous three Craig-as-Bond films and the campy fun fans got when Sean Connery and Roger Moore had the license to kill. It’s as if the screenwriters couldn’t agree what direction they wanted to go, and director Sam Mendes went along with it.

Spectrescreen2But that opening sequence is enough to make you wonder: What happened to the snappy exchanges between Bond and Q or M, or Miss Moneypenny? Or the women he beds? And why didn’t Christoph Waltz as Blofeld get more screen time to give him a chance to be a stronger, bolder, more menacing villain? Henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is engaging while onscreen, but afterwards he doesn’t stick with you the way Odd Job or Jaws did. Q (Ben Whishaw) has little to do and little charisma, and even the “Bond girls” (a universal term, not mine) seem less memorable this 24th franchise outing. Spectre is still plenty entertaining, but despite a budget that’s reportedly the most expensive of all the Bond films ($245 million), it doesn’t “wow” the way some Bond movies do. The locations don’t have that überexotic feel to them that previous films often did. Director Mendes decided to go with a selectively desaturated and nearly monochromatic color palette for a Day of the Dead sequence in Mexico, and the other non-European location, Tangier, features a similar dusky-golden palette. And the plot features elements we’ve seen before in a number of Bond movies.

SpectrescreenIn Spectre, Bond goes rogue again, off on his own agenda because of information provided him by M (Judi Dench), who had been killed in the previous film. A criminal organization is focused on committing acts of terrorism, and Bond is bent on stopping them. Against the orders of the new M (Ralph Fiennes), he travels to Rome to talk to the wife of a man he just killed (Monica Bellucci), then to Austria to confront a man who used to work for SPECTRE and MI6 (Jesper Christiansen), and finally to seek out the man’s daughter (Léa Seydoux), who is now in grave danger.

It’s at the bad guy’s base where things start to get a little convoluted, as the screenwriters try to both complicate the narrative and insert information for what turns out to be an origin story for Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the organization fans have been following all these years. But the terrorism plot would have been just fine, thank you, had the writers focused more on dialogue and on the kind of dominoes-falling plots viewers got in earlier Bond films. Unnecessarily added here are an internal affairs subplot and a crossover background story that links Bond and Blofeld. But the writers could have stuck to basics rather than resorting to contrivances. For example, now that the attractive Naomie Harris has taken over as Miss Moneypenny, the screenwriters still haven’t figured out what to do with her, given that they can no longer play up the hollow flirtations between lovestruck but plain-looking Moneypenny and Bond, who prefers his women shaken, not stirred.

Despite the complaints, remember, this is the Bond franchise, and as A View to a Kill—still the weakest entry of the bunch—has proven, even Bond at his worst is way better than most action-dramas Hollywood produces. While Spectre may not be the mega-movie that Skyfall was, it’s entertaining enough and a solid B on the Family Home Theater grading scale. On Blu-ray it also happens to look awesome, with a 7.1 soundtrack really giving the special effects the heft that they deserve.

Language: No “f” words and less than a dozen other profanities
Sex: Surprisingly no sex scenes, no nudity
Violence: Eye gouging, torture (blood shown), crashes, explosions, killings
Adult situations: Drinking, one scene involving drunkenness
Takeaway: Daniel Craig is rumored to still be interested in his fifth and the franchise’s 25th bond film, and he’s still a convincing Bond, especially if the writers challenge him with something new—like a return to those terrific tongue-in-cheek lines


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KungFuPanda2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2011, 91 min., Color
Rated PG for sequences of martial arts action and mild violence
DreamWorks/Twentieth Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B (same extra disc as on original rerelease)
Includes: DVD, Bonus Disc, Digital HD
Amazon link

Thoughts I had about Kung Fu Panda 2 as I watched it for the first time:

Hey, this sequel is as good as the original.
Sequels—especially animated action movies—often suffer from brain drain. Once the origin story has been told, what’s left for the characters to do? More action? Usually, and often at the expense of character development. But that doesn’t happen to Po (Jack Black), who became the Dragon Warrior in the first installment.

Huh, it’s actually a second origin story.
If the first film had me seeing elements of Star Wars, this second one had a Superman vibe. Like young Clark Kent, Po is found as an infant and raised by someone else, and of course like Clark Kent little Po grows up to be a superhero who is tasked with responding to all threats against their community. Despite their different species, it never occurs to Po—now so famous that children play with his action figure as well as the Furious Five—that he might be adopted, which he discovers in Kung Fu Panda 2. Mr. Ping the noodlemaker (James Hong) is worried that his son might abandon him, as he sets off to learn the truth about his origin and also stop Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), an albino peacock, from taking over all of China. As a result, there’s as much action and as much room for Po to grow as there was in the original Kung Fu Panda.

The animation actually kicks it up a notch.
The peacock fight scenes are especially mesmerizing because of their combination of grace and implied power. Long shots and action scenes are this film’s strengths—no doubt one reason why it received a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar nomination. That Rango won instead probably is a reflection of one thing:

KungFuPanda2screenThe plot of Kung Fu Panda 2 is essentially the same as Kung Fu Panda.
Po tries to find himself in the first film—the son of a noodlemaker who seems destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, though he dreams of being a kung fu warrior—and he does in this one too. Action will help him arrive at a point of recognition, but instead of a former pupil of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) who escapes from prison and threatens to take over China, it’s the son of a Peacock Dynasty that invented fireworks who turns his parents’ good invention into something bad by creating gunpowder, cannons, and cannonballs that Poe and the others must fight. Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chen), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Crane (David Cross) return to fight like animal Avengers, along with two new characters, Master Ox (Dennis Haysbert) and Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Still, despite the warmed-over plot, the action is different enough and the writing and the animation are strong enough to make you overlook any similarities.

Looks like the filmmakers had a trilogy in mind from the very beginning.
We don’t realize until Kung Fu Panda 2, which picks up shortly after the action of the first film had ended, that there’s a three-movie narrative arc. Po’s revelation that he’s adopted and the film’s ending make that perfectly clear.

Beware of several “Bambi’s mother” moments.
There are a few more sad scenes in the sequel than there were in the first movie, because you’re dealing with death and feelings of abandonment and/or rejection, and because the comic relationship between Po and his adoptive father turns more serious at several junctures. Small children might need a little coaching along the way. Or else, heck, you could just let them find their own way, as filmgoing children have been doing for generations now.

But what sense does it make to include identical bonus discs on both rereleases?
In addition to an audio commentary, deleted scenes, and a short voice talents feature, for whatever reason DreamWorks/Fox decided to include the same bonus disc of content on this rerelease as on the Kung Fu Panda rerelease. So if you buy both films on DVD you’ll find yourselves with an extra disc.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: More intense action than the first, especially since Po absorbs more punishment
Adult situations: Those few Bambi’s mother moments of off-camera loss or implied loss
Takeaway: The Kung Fu Panda series is that rare model of consistency that Hollywood too often seems incapable of producing, especially in animated “franchises.” 


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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2008, 92 min., Color
Rated PG for sequences of martial arts action
Dreamworks/Twentieth Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: A- (extra disc)
Includes: DVD, Bonus Disc, Digital HD
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Twentieth Century Fox decided to rerelease Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2 to coincide with the January 29 theatrical debut of the much-anticipated Kung Fu Panda 3. And when I say “much anticipated” I’m not talking about anyone who lives in my house.

It took two weeks before I could even convince my two teens to finally watch the original Kung Fu Panda with me. I have to admit, I don’t blame them. The previews made it look like an all-action/no-cleverness Saturday morning formula cartoon. Maybe the studio was playing to the lowest common denominator, but if the trailer had included a couple of the many clever lines and character-driven moments instead of all that wax-on wax-off stuff, we would have watched it LONG ago.

Though critics who’ve seen the second sequel at early screenings have said #3 is the best of the bunch, the original film turns out to be a tough one to beat. In it, a Panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black) could be the alter ego for any number of slacker kids who aren’t yet ready to face up to their potential, though that potential is all but proven by a dream for the future that they have. In Po’s case, he wants to be a Kung Fu master, like Master Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Master Viper (Lucy Liu), Master Monkey (Jackie Chan), Master Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Master Crane (David Cross)—though he was “born” into a family business, a noodle shop—and I use air quotes because in Kung Fu Panda his dad (James Hong) is a goose. Is Po adopted? Is this cross-species family a writer’s joke? Could be, because it made us smile. And Po turns out to be the perfect hero for all the kids who have been told they are too short, too tall, too chubby, too uncoordinated, or too dumb to reach goals so lofty you’d have to call them dreams.

KungfupandascreenPo’s dad expects him to carry on the family business—a familiar trope—but destiny intervenes. When Po devises a fireworks way of launching himself into the courtyard of the temple so he can witness the coronation of the Dragon Warrior, a chosen one who can defeat the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane), he launches himself right into the middle of the affair. And a tortoise grand master (Randall Duk kim) anoints him the chosen one. Hey, if he falls out of the sky, he must be right? Because there are no accidents.

Well, except for a visit to check on the security of the prison where the villain is kept immobilized, which goes horribly wrong. With an escape impending and doom just around the corner, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) has no time at all to train Po to become the Kung Fu master he always aspired to, and the Dragon Warrior he reluctantly becomes. Star Wars fans will also recognize a familiar pupil-gone-to-the-dark-side storyline.

But the film’s familiar action-oriented plot doesn’t come close to telling the whole story of this film, which is brought to life by sharp dialogue, terrific animation, and voice talents who can take that dialogue and use it to make their characters distinctive and sympathetic—and none more so than Po.

This reissue comes with a bonus disc of special features. The main ones are three short Kung Fu Panda “Secrets” films: “Secrets of the Furious Five” (2008, 25 min.), “Secrets of the Masters” (2011, 23 min.), and “Secrets of the Scroll” (2013, 23 min.). These direct-to-video shorts capitalized on the popularity of the full-length features, and while they’ll entertain young ones, the animation isn’t up to the standards of the feature films—which are really quite impressive in their animation and set, character, and background designs. The other bonus features feel like filler: two mash-ups (blooper collections), a martial arts awesomeness music video, and a Kung Fu Panda 3 sneak peek, for those who haven’t gotten to the theater yet.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: Some moments of fighting-related peril
Adult situations: n/a
Takeaway: Kung Fu Panda ought to have plenty of replay potential because it’s complex enough to satisfy with every new viewing.