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MartiancoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2015, 144 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury imagery, and brief nudity
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Amazon link

Once is an incidence, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

It’s official, then. Hollywood has re-discovered NASA.

First came Gravity (2013), then Interstellar (2014), and now The Martian (2016), which is just as compelling a film as the first two—so good, in fact, that you wonder if it and the others will help to promote an American space program that has lapsed into relative obscurity. Gone are the glamour days, but a still-active NASA has been quietly concentrating its efforts on the International Space Station, as well a program to launch exploratory surveys of Mars and other planets.

It’s hard to say whether this renewed interest will have any effect, but like the first two space films in Hollywood’s rediscovery mission, The Martian makes space travel look both harrowing and heroic. And it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Martianscreen1The Martian isn’t the first foray into space for Matt Damon, who plays an astronaut stranded on Mars in this film and also starred in Interstellar—nor for director Ridley Scott, who previously thrust beyond Earth’s gravity to make Alien and Prometheus. You sense a confidence at work in this production.

Don’t be misled by the Golden Globe nomination it received in the Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy. The Martian is neither. There are probably a half-dozen funny moments, but The Martian is mostly a one-man survival drama in the manner of Castaway or The Revenant that’s broadened by intercut sequences involving a Mars mission in space and mission control back on Earth.

Except for the language it’s mostly a family movie, but there are a few adult moments—as when botanist Mark Watney, (Damon), left for dead after the crew saw him felled by a massive object during a nasty storm, pulls a projectile out of his stomach and staples himself while in great pain. Or when we briefly see his buttocks as he strides through the station on Mars, or when he talks about using his own “shit” to farm inside the station to provide enough food to survive until rescue comes.

Martianscreen2Jessica Chastain plays the mission commander for Ares III (Ares was the Greek name for Mars, god of war), and other crew members who had to abort their mission and left Watney behind were the pilot (Michael Peña), systems operator (Kate Mara), flight surgeon (Sebastian Stan), and navigator (Aksel Hennie). Sean Bean plays the mission commander on the ground, with the believably bureaucratic Jeff Daniels taking on the role of NASA chief administrator Teddy Sanders. Kristen Wiig is also on the ground, and maybe that’s why people automatically thought this must be a comedy. But she doesn’t even get any of the funny lines.

The famed Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, with its red-orange sand and stark, towering rock formations, is a believable stand-in for Mars, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Caribbean) does a fantastic job of shooting visuals to match the mood, the atmosphere, and the action.

Mostly, though, The Martian is compelling because of the story, and it stands as yet another tribute to American ingenuity and world cooperation—since China also gets involved in the rescue mission. It’s also just plain fascinating to see how a person would survive alone on another planet, and it proves the adage that necessity really is the mother of invention. Like Tom Hanks before him and Leonardo DiCaprio, Damon doesn’t shrink from the burden of being alone onscreen for so much of the film—he owns it, which is why he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination to add to the film’s seven. I’m still not sure why The Martian won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Comedy or Musical, though music is a running gag. And unless your sense of humor is as dry as the soil on Mars, it’s tough to fathom why Damon’s performance was entered in the Best Actor—Comedy or Musical category. But he won, and despite the spuriousness of the category, he deserved at least one honor. The Martian is his best performance since Good Will Hunting. Recommended for families with teens.

Language: A surprising number of f-bombs, mostly bleeped or mouthed, plus a few other curse words
Sex: Mild innuendo and one brief long shot of a man’s buttocks
Violence: The storm sequence and its aftermath is the only violence
Adult situations: Other than the above and general peril, not much
Takeaway: If I had to watch only one of the three recent space movies over and over again, it would be The Martian, because of the wonderful details


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HungerGamescoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2012-15, 548 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, some language, some suggestive elements, and thematic material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD Atmos / Dolby TrueHD 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 6 Blu-ray discs, Digital HD
Amazon link

If you don’t already have the 15th highest grossing film franchise of all time, read on.

The Hunger Games movies are based on the young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, whose inspiration for her teen heroine Katniss Everdeen was probably Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene, the strong main character of Far from the Madding Crowd—a young woman who also finds herself torn between different admirers.

In the movie version, Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss, an accomplished archer from the coal-mining District 12 in the futuristic dystopia of Panem, which is run by an autocratic president-slash-dictator named Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland)—a name derived from Shakespeare’s tragedy of Coriolanus, about a Roman general who rises to political leadership after successfully quelling uprisings against Imperial Rome. Teens won’t know or get any of this, but it does make the series a little more literate than most.

HungerGamesscreen1Mockingjay Part 2 (included here) is the climax of a series that began with Katniss taking her younger sister’s place in nationally televised “tributes,” in which two teens from each district fight to the death in a broad, natural arena in a futuristic and more violent version of Survivor. She distinguishes herself and, with fellow District 12 acquaintance-turned-friend-turned-love-interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), finds a way to beat the “only one winner” rule.” On their victory tour Katniss senses revolution brewing, and Mockingjay Part 1 finds her being recruited by the underground movement to be their PR heroine. Though Part 2 begins with her accompanied by a film crew advancing to the district closet to Capitol to make another rouse-the-rebellion film, Katniss has other ideas. Liam Hemsworth stars as Gale, who complicates Katniss’s emotional terrain, and a star-riddled cast includes Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore.

Hollywood expanded Collins’ trilogy into four installments, and fans that faithfully purchased the previous three films in HD can pick up The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 on Blu-ray, while The Hunger Games Complete 4-Film Collection seems geared for people who were waiting for the series to conclude before adding the films to their collections. The wrinkle is that the 4-Film set contains a bonus disc that includes exclusive features that haven’t appeared in earlier releases. Is it be enough to entice real fans to double-buy?

HungerGamesscreen2Maybe. But The Hunger Games Complete 4-Film Collection is a great set except for one thing: to package the six discs so that they overlap, Lionsgate had to go with DVD packaging. That’s right. If you’ve adjusted your shelves to fit Blu-rays only, this one won’t make it . . . as is. But if you buy inexpensive replacement double-disc Blu-ray cases at Amazon and photocopy, then cut out, your covers from the previous three releases, it works pretty well: The Hunger Games consists of two discs, like the first release, and they fit in one case; Catching Fire was a single disc, but if you switch to a double disc case you can put that film plus the bonus disc for this collection in that case; and that leaves The Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2 for the third case. Then you can take your first three Blu-rays to the local second-hand video store to get a few bucks for them.

Wait, you’re thinking. That’s a lot of work. Are the bonus features worth it? Well, that can be confusing, because the bonus disc also contains previously released material. But new to this release are “Stories from the Tributes,” an 18-minute feature on the actors and clips from the film; “Casting the Tributes,” an 11-minute behind-the-scenes look; “Tribute Video Diaries,” which is 17 minutes of just what it sounds like; a photo slideshow that runs about 3 minutes; a 15-minute feature on the stunts; an 18-minute feature on the costume design; a 7-minute short on the weaponry; a 10-minute feature on the visual effects; a 7-minute look at the food created for the film; a 5-minute clip of the premiere; a 14-minute look at the returning cast members for the second film; an 18-minute look at new cast members; two 3-minute shorts on the production design of the second film and the Quarter Quell cast; a five-minute look at the weapons of Catching Fire; a 5-minute location tour of Hawaii; a Coldplay music video; another 5-minute foodie feature; a 2-minute look (fast) of The Hob; a miniscule scene that was deleted early in production; a “Battling the Clock Arena” feature that runs 5 minutes; a catch-you-up 9-minute summary of Mockingjay; a 13-minute look at the Mockingjay art design and set decoration; a 12-minute feature on “The Propos Team”; a 12-minute look at the broader war that emerges in the series; and a “Picturing Panem” photo gallery that runs around 8 minutes.

Uber fans will probably want to upgrade, because the additional bonus features are indeed substantial and worthwhile, but if your family is only into the films, there’s no need to buy this collection if you already own the first three films on Blu-ray—the only way to watch this series, by the way. The Hunger Games 4-Film Collection is solid sci-fi entertainment that does what all good fiction attempts: it appeals to more than its intended audience, and offers a compelling plot and cast of characters, some great action and CGI special effects, along with some pretty good messages for teens and anyone else who will listen.

Language: No swearing in the first installment, but a few bleeped-out f-bombs and lesser curse words pop up in the second film
Sex: In the second film the side of a bare breast is glimpsed as people watch a woman undress
Violence: People are killed, but in the first film the crucial moment is either so brief or the camera quickly cuts elsewhere to avoid reveling in violence; the violence is more on-screen and increases in intensity as the series goes on
Adult situations: In Catching Fire one character is often drunk, but there are also plenty of emotional scenes all through the series; in Mockingjay reference is made to a character being forced into sex slavery and that character is traumatized by it
Takeaway: Sorry Divergent and Maze Runner fans, The Hunger Games is the superior young adult novel-on-film, and a rousing finale puts the exclamation point on that


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RoadChipcoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
2015, 92 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for some mild rude humor and language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Includes: DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

If you’re thinking of picking up Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, you probably already know what’s in store: a cutesy, formulaic blend of live-action and CGI animation that showcases the antics of squeaky-voiced Alvin, Theodore, and Simon.

So it makes no sense to review this film against classic road movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Thelma & Louise, and Little Miss Sunshine. It’s not in that league, nor does it try to be. It only tries to appeal to the same audience that was entertained by the original 2007 film about struggling songwriter David Seville (Jason Lee) and the singing chipmunks that brought him fame. And I will say this: The Road Chip strikes me as the best of the sequels thus far.

The opening high-energy production number mostly gives animators a chance to show what they can have these furry 3D animated guys do with a bunch of dancers and partiers, but once the main plot is established—David has met someone he plans to marry, and she has a teenage son they met earlier, someone who bullies them—the could-be stepbrothers hop in a car together to try to sabotage the proposal. Why? Because the Chipmunks think that Dave will drop them like three fuzzy hot potatoes after he’s married, or worse, that they’ll be sentenced to a lifetime with a new stepbrother who torments them.

RoadChipscreenThe minute they get inside that car together, you know the road trip will bring them together, and that eventually their dad and mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) will take another step on the road to their own happily ever after. It’s in the stars (or script). And in the Chipmunk movies there’s another formula: a single determined antagonist—like David Cross, in the first film—that pursues the Chipmunks. In The Road Chip it’s Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep) who has the honor of taking pratfalls for the cause. Hale plays an Air Marshal who goes full-bore Capt. Ahab in his pursuit, to sometimes genuinely comic effect. Meanwhile, as Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) try to work together with their new nemesis and potential stepbrother Miles (Josh Green), viewers from blended families or children of single parents fearing change can find some hope for their own futures.

In The Road Trip the Chipettes (voiced by Christina Applegate, Kaley Cuoco, and Anna Faris) appear as more successful performers than their male counterparts, but they’re really just window dressing. It’s all about potential stepbrothers this outing, and the mishaps that threaten to keep them from completing their mission.

The integration of animated characters into live action films has really come a long way since Pete’s Dragon, and The Road Trip is fun to watch just because of all the detail. For such an eye-feast, Blu-ray is the best. But make no mistake: the filmmakers are not pitching this at entire families, though it’s certainly suitable for all to watch. It’s aimed mostly at smaller children, who will give it two thumbs up. Older family members will say that in fairness it’s more like a C+ or B-, depending on your mood. And they’ll probably be more entertained than they’re willing to admit.


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TheVikingscoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1958, 116 min., Color
Kino Lorber
Unrated (would be PG)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

Two years after Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea as Moses, Ernest Borgnine (TV’s McHale’s Navy) and Kirk Douglas (Michael’s dad, call him Spartacus) starred as Norse raiders in a memorable adventure-drama about 9th-century Viking chieftain Ragnar’s raids on England. History Channel’s 2013 series Vikings covered similar ground in a far grittier production, but for 1958 The Vikings was pretty darned edgy, and it still incorporates scenes that will cause young people today to pronounce it “sick,” if they’re anything like my teenage son.

Things stand out: like a scene in which Vikings rowing into their home fjord play a game in which the warriors step from oar to oar and try not to fall into the water; or when a Viking is captured and brought to England, where he jumps voluntarily into a pit of wolves, sword in hand, to face his end; or when an attack on an English castle shows Vikings throwing axes at the raised drawbridge door, one after the other, and then one of them runs to use those axes as steps to get to the top and lower the door for everyone to enter; or when a Viking wife accused of adultery is put in stocks and her braids are nailed to the wood, so that when her husband throws axes at her if he cuts her braids she was faithful, and if he misses . . . uh, probably not.

As for the action, there’s no CGI slow-mo or quick editing cuts to suggest chaos. It’s all right there in front of you, the shields clashing in what seems like as much pushing and shoving as actual blades and axes swinging. But it feels realistic, as do the ships, the buildings, and smaller details, enhanced by the decision to film on location at a real Norwegian fjord, as well as at castles and exteriors in Bavaria, France, and Croatia. In Technicolor, and now on glistening Blu-ray, the production has a rich look to it—a gleaming historical adventure that, typical of 1950’s Hollywood sword-and-sandals movies, is slightly romanticized.

TheVikingsscreen1In this version of history, Ragnar (Borgnine) and his son Einar (Douglas) have been raiding the coasts of England, and on his most recent raid Ragnar kills the king of that particular realm and it is implied that he rapes the queen. To save her son (and we’ve seen this device from Hollywood before), the baby is sent away wearing a pendant made from a broken piece of the sword of the new King Aella (smarmily and simperingly played by Frank Thring, who would go on to play Pontius Pilate in Ben-Hur). Twenty years later the son, Eric (Tony Curtis), turns up as a slave in the Viking settlement and clashes with Einar, his real half-brother, in several key scenes. But their animosity is truly brought to a head when an English traitor who has been providing information to the Vikings (James Donald) suggests they kidnap Aella’s bethroved, the Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh). Both men fall for her and fight over her, with one main swordfight on the narrow heights of a castle as convincing, still, as anything you’ll see in Hollywood. Curtis and Douglas made enough of an impression together that they were paired again two years later in the more famous epic Spartacus.

Although the homecoming scenes are shot in such a way as to make you smile and one glaring violation of the 180-degree rule does the same when a Viking shoots an arrow toward the castle and we see a medium shot of an Englishman getting shot through the throat from the opposite side, The Vikings still plays well and ought to be appreciated by families who enjoy historical adventures and epics. I’d say that this one is for families with children 10 and older. Unrated, it’s mostly PG, but, like any historical film from this period, be warned that it’s not a beacon of feminism.

If you’re upgrading from DVD, the same featurette with director Richard Fleischer is included here.

Language: n/a
Sex: An implied rape, though the camera fades to black after the woman screams when he first grabs her by the shoulders, and plenty of kissing from Viking women who serve the men
Violence: Most of the deaths are offscreen or understated by today’s standards, but there are some slashes and hacks to the body and that arrow through the neck
Adult situations: Lots of beer-drinking and drunkenness
Takeaway: Memorable scenes and attention to detail will make a movie work even 50+ years later