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Fishes'nLoavescoverGrade: C
Entire family: Yes
2016, 103 min., Color
Rated PG for brief suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: DVD, Digital
Amazon link

Fishes ‘n loaves aside, I’m a sucker for fish-out-of-water stories, and the promotional description for this 2016 “comedy” made it sound promising:

“When his parish closes, a big-hearted California preacher is dispatched to a church in tiny Eufala, Arizona (pop. 4,521), a land of rodeos, square dances, love-struck-goats, and amateur musicals. Can Pastor Randy (Patrick Muldoon) and his loved ones keep their sanity long enough to inspire a community that’s gone astray?”

So I was primed and ready to experience Fishes ‘n Loaves: Heaven Sent, “a comedy of biblical proportions,” as the tagline described it. My wife thought it sounded cute, and my daughter was along for the ride.

But it wasn’t long before we started giving each other sidelong glances.

Funny how you don’t give casting a second thought until it seems wrong. And from the minute that Patrick Muldoon stood in front of a sparsely populated but really impressive church and delivered his sermon, I wasn’t believing him as a minister. He had the vibe of a business executive leading a team-building exercise, not someone who felt it his calling to tend to God’s flock. Dina Meyer also seemed far from what we think of when we think of preacher’s wives—a little too glam, a little too worldly, maybe. Their children were fine, though we all laughed that the family’s refrigerator is covered with alphabet magnets and the kids are in their teens. But details like that make a difference, and we had a hard time swallowing the “reality” that Fishes ‘n Loaves was serving. Stiff lines of dialogue didn’t help, nor did situational lines that seemed totally unbelievable. I mean, what teenage guy, upon meeting a teenage girl with his family standing right there next to him, would gush, “Gee, you’re pretty”?

Fishes'nLoavesscreen1So here’s where we’re at: Pastor Randy is told that they’re closing his parish—though the building is huge and in pristine condition, so there’s obviously money—and they want him to go to a tiny town in Arizona. His wife, meanwhile, wants him to work for her brother at his pizza place (something else I’m not buying, given the casting) and give up this preaching stuff. Really? One minute Pastor Randy is trying to decide how to tell his family they’re moving, and the next minute he’s mopping the floor of the pizza joint and looking like a mope. I just wasn’t believing his crisis of faith or the way they dealt with decisions in their relationship—at least the way that it was presented here. Did he really need a heavy-handed push from a homeless man named (wait for it) DeAngelis (Michael Emery), who basically explains to him the cliché that when God closes one door another one opens, or that God wants him to go to Arizona? No, but he (and we) get it anyway, and it adds an unnecessary layer of hokiness that even the normally ebullient Bruce Davison, as Pastor Ezekiel, can’t penetrate once the film relocates to its primarily rural setting.

But really, it all keeps coming back to casting. Even in Eufala, the assortment of characters lacks the charm and presence to make this city fish feel enough out of water to where it flops and squirms the way it needs to in order to make for successful comedy. Same with the hackneyed “talent auditions” that pop up in way too many movies.

Bottom line: for a comedy,  Fishes ‘n Loaves: Heaven Sent just isn’t that funny. What’s more, it falls short of being inspirational because the film’s trajectory is an overly simplistic line from Point A to Point B. (“You’ve taught us city folk the true meaning of how to love one another”). Even a similarly uncomplicated film like Miracles from Heaven does a better job of inspiring because of nuance, better writing, and (here’s that word again) casting.

Language: Squeaky clean
Sex: Same here
Violence: n/a
Adult situations: Some mild suggestive material
Takeaway: The only fish out of water in this film are the actors

EQUALS (Blu-ray)

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EqualscoverGrade: C
Entire family: No
2016, 101 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, sensuality, partial nudity and disturbing images
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Amazon link

Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult in a dystopian romantic drama? Sounds like a surefire hit with teens, doesn’t it? Especially when it’s all about emotions, as Equals is.

Sometime in the far future—far enough to where everyone wears white uniforms and the buildings and residential cubicles are all as sanitized as can be—human emotions and illnesses have been all but eliminated. People go about their sanitized jobs like futuristic zombies or contented cows, until a new disease pops up: SOS (Switched on Syndrome), the stages of which ultimately lead to the afflicted being “put down” in a humane and painless way, though an ubiquitous videoboard and voiceover reassures them that “a cure is coming soon.”

Equalsscreen2When Silas (Hoult) is affected, he goes through treatments. He also suspects that co-worker Nia (Stewart) is suffering from SOS but hiding her symptoms. The main symptom, of course, is that they can feel emotions and therefore notice each other, then feel for each other. A romance grows . . . though unfortunately, not fast enough for most teens.

Therein lies the chief problem. How do you convey a sterile and emotionless environment and a futuristic existence bereft of real meaning without subjecting viewers to stark repetitive images and what feels like real-time boredom? Thirty minutes into Equals our dystopian-novel-loving teen was ready to pull the plug, and I can’t say as I blame her. It’s slow going. What’s worse, though, is that if you’ve seen The Giver, or even Gattaca, you’re already have a slight sense of deja vu. The concept isn’t new or original, and that places a burden on Equalsscreen1director Drake Doremus and his cast to make their version of dystopian disappointment memorable or distinctive it in some way. And I’m not sure that happens.

Doremus seems to wrestle with the sense of inevitability that’s embedded in the film’s plot, determined to shine the spotlight on these ill-fated lovers when what’s more interesting, frankly, are the other patients who have formed both a support group and underground movement to deal with not just SOS but their newfound “knowledge” of emotions that feels a little like the problem Adam and Eve faced after tasting of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

Is Equals stylish? Yes. Is it cold and sterile? Yes. Is it satisfying to watch? Honestly, no . . . though things really pick up in the third act when SOS patients played by Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver both literally and figuratively try to come to the rescue. By then, though, many viewers—young ones especially—might feel a little too zombified themselves to care.

Language: None
Sex: No nudity, but clothing removed and implied coupling
Violence: Nothing much—a body appears to have been the result of a “jumper,” and other references to suicide are made
Adult situations: Other than a frighteningly sterile vision of the future? Nothing much
Takeaway: There had to be a way to tell this story without focusing so much on the mind-numbing sterility of this future world and more on the capacity of the human spirit to rise above such things

HONEY 3: DARE TO DANCE (Blu-ray combo)

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Honey3coverGrade: C
Entire family: No
2016, 97 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for some sensuality
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

It’s almost a given that dance movies exist to feature dance moves, with usually just enough plotting to get you from performance to performance. And if those performances are exceptional, the target audience—dance lovers, would-be dancers, and teens still looking to find their passion or their identity—will be happy to overlook the bad acting and scenic construction that strings those dance numbers together.

The problem with Honey 3: Dare to Dance is that the dancing isn’t exceptional. It’s uneven, with decent hip-hop routines mixed in with some very mundane ones that inexplicably have the other dancers on the set “oooing and “ahhhing,” even though the moves and level of excitement aren’t as good as what viewers saw on Glee. For me, the saving grace was that the film was both shot and set in Cape Town, South Africa, and the backgrounds and locations were fascinating. There’s some gorgeous time-lapse photography as well, which looks terrific in HD. Then again, this is a dance movie, not a documentary.

Our 14-year-old daughter is part of the target audience. She’s a serious dancer who also watches every PG and PG-13 dance movie that comes out. But she was bored mid-way through Honey 3—a film she said she’d grade a C. After it was over she needed to watch a good dance movie to set her world right again.

Honey3screen1I would give it a similar grade, though I’m not a dancer. Neither, unfortunately, is the female lead. Cassie Ventura is a hip-hop singer who has the look of a leading lady but not the dance chops to be the focus of a film like this. Both supporting actresses are better dancers and have more stage presence. Dena Kaplan (whom viewers may recognize as Abigail from the popular Australian television series Dance Academy) is a joy to watch, and she was actually born in South Africa. Why not cast her as the lead? Or Sibongile Mlambo, who was a contestant on America’s Got Talent and appeared as a dancer in the 2013 family dramedy Felix? It seems like a waste to relegate Kaplan to the role of “best friend,” while Mlambo, who has more raw stage presence, is cast as Ishani, the street-tough hard case Melea has to win over. Another problem is that Ventura doesn’t have any chemistry with the lead male dancer (Kenny Wormald, Footloose). We don’t buy them as Romeo and Juliet, and we don’t buy them as a couple off-stage.

The first Honey (2003) starred Jessica Alba and was set in New York but shot in Toronto. The plot? Find a place to put on a show to raise money to build a community center. In the tradition of unimaginative dance movies, that’s what happens here too—although there’s also some nonsense about Melea being kicked out of college for not paying tuition and we think the show is going to be all Honey3screen2about her getting back into school again. Instead, that “plot” line just withers away, forgotten by all, while her focus shifts to honoring her dead mother by seeing her thesis project through and producing a modern version of Mom’s favorite play, Romeo and Juliet. And that focus expands to trying to establish a dance center in honor of Ishani’s slain brother.

When they finally get around to producing this hip-hop R&J, we’re not supposed to think too hard about how Melea was able to “borrow” costumes from the college she was kicked out of, or why there isn’t more violence when South Africa is rampant with violent crime. Or how, for that matter, Melea is able to rent an old theater with no money. But of course this is a dance movie, which means none of those questions are supposed to be asked. Viewers are expected to get caught up in the music (which sounds great on a DTS-HDMA 5.1 soundtrack, by the way), watch the moves on this direct-to-video movie . . . and “ooo” and “ahhh” like the extras on set.

Language: Surprising, very clean
Sex: Nothing here to offend either
Violence: Some pushing and posturing and that’s it
Adult situations: We’re told that Ishanti’s brother was killed over a necklace
Takeaway: In a way it’s too bad bad director Bille Woodruff spent his budget on a trip to South Africa; he could have used more money to pay for a little better choreography and dancers


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Lucifer1coverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2015-16, 566 min. (13 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be TV-14 for violence, adult situations, sexual innuendo, and language)
Aspect ratio: Letterboxed widescreen “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link

In the ‘60s, novelty sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched proved that shows with positively ridiculous supernatural premises could still be popular if the situations were interesting enough, the cast likeable enough, and the writing clever enough.

That lesson was not lost on the creators of Lucifer: Season 1, a series that’s based on a character from the DC Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman and Sam Kieth. Could there be a crazier premise for a male-female police procedural than to pair the real Lucifer (aka Satan, who’s taking a vacation from hell by running a nightclub in L.A.) with a detective who was a former actress known primarily for posing topless in Hot Tub High School?

Tom Ellis stars as the suave ladies man Lucifer Morningstar, who runs a trendy nightclub called Lux. He had grown bored and restless in hell and often did a deliberately poor job of punishing the people who were sent there because his Father assigned him to that as a punishment for his rebellion. All these Lucifer1screen1millennia later he wanted out, so much so that his L.A. vacation turns into a permanent abdication. When he witnesses a murder outside his club, he finds himself becoming curiously involved and decides to help Det. Chloe Decker (Lauren German) by using some of his powers. In Touched by an Angel Michael Landon gave people warm fuzzies; Lucifer has the power to get people to speak the truth about their deepest, most secret desires, and to admit their sinful urges—including, in an opening scene, a cop who decides to take the bribe after Lucifer exposes his loose relationship with the law. He’s like truth serum, and in extreme situations he shows his real satanic form to those he wants to shock.

Now, why would a good, dedicated cop pair up with Satan? Good question, since one would guess the LAPD would have certain rules about a non-force partnership. Though Lucifer Morningstar comes right out and tells her who he is, she thinks he’s speaking metaphorically, until his character and his immortality is gradually revealed to her. His fascination with her is more believable: she’s the only human who is impervious to his powers—which, by mid-season, like Samantha’s nose-twitch and Jeannie’s head-blink, start to get a little old. But the situations and clever writing are enough to compensate.

This first season Chloe and Lucifer investigate the slaying of a movie star’s son, a girl that turns up dead in a football star’s pool, a woman who’s killed at a fashion show, a biker gang that’s into nasty stuff, a murdered therapist, an underground drug ring, the murder of a prominent restauranteur, a philanthropist that was found dead, and a girl who may have been murdered by a group of Satanists.

Rounding out the cast are Scarlett Estevez as Chloe’s precocious daughter, Trixie (“You do know that’s a hooker’s name, don’t you?” Lucifer says upon first meeting her); Lesley-Ann Brandt as Mazikeen (aka Maze), an assistant of sorts who accompanied Lucifer to L.A.; DB Woodside as Amenadiel, Lucifer’s “brother” who is intent on getting him to return to hell; and Rachael Harris as Dr. Linda Martin, whose sessions and relationship with Lucifer will remind viewers of Tony Soprano and his therapist, especially since both men run clubs that are highly sexualized.

Lucifer1screen2Fans of forensic shows won’t be impressed that no attention is paid to that aspect of criminal investigations. Even when we see a body with bruises we just get a coroner’s pronouncement of  “strangulation,” and it’s left to Chloe and Lucifer to find out whether the attacker was male or female, how tall or heavy, etc. And though the writers try to make sense of why and how Chloe is working on her own, it’s not totally clear why, after she clashed with the LAPD over a cop shooting, she’s still able to work on her own while ostracized by her homicide detective ex-husband Dan Espinoza (Kevin Alejandro) and the rest of the detectives. But the show’s writing is clever enough, with laugh-out-loud moments, where you tend to shrug and overlook such things.

Any positive messages that the show might offer (Lucifer’s gradual enlightenment, for example, or anti-bullying, or the always available possibility of reinventing oneself) get lost among the Satanic elements that the writers clearly favored. It’s like a Satanic version of Touched by an Angel meets Remington Steele, with a little Dexter and The Sopranos thrown in for good measure. No wonder the website One Million Moms launched a petition drive to keep the show from airing—though far short of a million signed it by the time the show first aired (165,643). The irony? The show airs on Fox, the network most identified with the GOP and their emphasis on “family values.” Lucifer is a stylish and entertaining show, but it won’t be for many church-going families. It’s also every bit a TV-14 series. Given the soundtrack and special effects, you might want to pick this up on Blu-ray instead. The 5.1 Surround and standard definition, while strong, do have their limitations—especially, with the visuals, in low-light situations.

Language: A bunch of it, mostly male-female slurs like “bitch” or “dick”
Sex: Lots of innuendo, some scantily clad females, implied sexual coupling
Violence: Jerry Bruckheimer produced this, so you’ll see a bunch of crashes and explosions and high-concept stylized violence, some of it bloody
Adult situations: Drug-use, smoking, drinking
Takeaway: Despite the ridiculous premise, Lucifer is surprisingly entertaining


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LegendsofTomorrowcoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 681 min. (16 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be PG-13 for sci-fi/fantasy violence and some sensuality)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Amazon link

Marvel may be masters of the film universe, but DC is holding its own in the battle for small screen supremacy. The latest case-in-point is DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, the first season of which comes out on Blu-ray and DVD today. While it may not have the charismatic cast of Supergirl, the edgy darkness of Arrow, or the conceptual “coolness” of The Flash, it’s still entertaining—especially if you haven’t had your fill of classic time-travel shows like Quantum Leap.

In the DC Universe, instead of (or perhaps in addition to) a deity there’s an organization known as the Time Masters, whose job it is to manipulate time in order to protect the future. Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) was once one of them, though he goes off on his own time-altering mission after his wife and son are murdered in 2166 by an immortal dictator named Vandal Savage (Casper Crump). Knowing his own limitations Hunter tricks or persuades a mismatched group of special talents to join him:

  • Nuclear physicist Martin Stein (Victor Garber) and his student, Jefferson Jackson (Franz Drameh), who collectively form the character Firestorm, which was introduced on The Flash
  • Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh) as Atom, a character introduced on Arrow
  • Kendra Saunders (Clara Renée) and Carter Hall (Falk Hentschel) as Hawkgirl and Hawkman, incarnations of ancient Egyptians who sprout wings as outward manifestations of their inner warriors and who have been reincarnated multiple times, also introduced on The Flash
  • Sara Lance (Caity Lotz), a character with rage issues who’s talked into wearing the White Canary suit (based on a Black Canary character seen on Arrow)
  • Leonard Snart (Wentworth Miller) as the former Captain Cold introduced on The Flash, a petty criminal
  • Mick Rory (Dominic Purcell) as the arsonist Heat Wave, Captain Cold’s criminal partner

LegendsofTomorrowscreen1All of the characters have their moments, but the two that consistently appealed to our family were the petty criminals—perhaps because Purcell and Miller drew on the bond they developed as screen brothers on Prison Break.

The look and feel of this sci-fi/fantasy series comes closer to the 1960’s Irwin Allen TV series The Time Tunnel than it does to any of its current DC cousins—and maybe that was deliberate. The eighth episode, for LegendsofTomorrowscreen2example—in which Jefferson is attacked by bird-like humanoids created by Savage—and the Egyptian flashbacks will have older viewers flashing back to Allen’s campy Time Tunnel and Lost in Space. Like those series, the hand-to-hand battles are clunkier in Legends of Tomorrow, and there are more Power Rangers moments (especially scenes featuring bounty hunter Chronos). The season-long plot also has more of a single trajectory than the other DC television series. In Supergirl there’s an arc that pushes from one episode to the next, but each episode is also different to a degree and self-contained. There’s less of that in Legends of Tomorrow, which relies more on a simple plot for the entire season: stop Vandal Savage and save the future world from destruction.

Is it entertaining? Yes. Is it addictive? Not as much as Arrow, The Flash, or even Supergirl—at least in the early episodes. Give it a chance, though, and Season 1 really picks up during the second half. It gets more complicated, and time travel to 1871 (where they meet Jonah Hex) juxtaposed against a trip to 2147 push the show toward a strong finish.

Language: Nothing bad here
Sex: Kissing and implied coupling, but nothing shown
Violence: The usual superhero/sci-fi/fantasy violence, graphic but without much blood or gore
Adult situations: Nothing besides good vs. evil predicaments
Takeaway: Irwin Allen lives!


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WintersWarcoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2016, 114 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for fantasy action, violence, and some sensuality
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-X Immersive Audio
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Amazon link

If you only looked at Rotten Tomatoes you’d think that The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a real stinker. Out of 183 critics, only 31 pronounced it “fresh,” while the 152 calling it “rotten” gave it an average rating of just 4.2 out of 10. That’s the kind of score you’d look at and think, “This movie isn’t even worth renting.”

Not so, people. While there are plenty of things wrong with this follow-up to Snow White and the Huntsman, whose 49 percent “fresh” rating starts to look stellar by comparison, there are also plenty of things to enjoy.

Chief among them are the nifty special effects and action sequences that help to bring this fantasy world to life. Black tentacle-daggers, fluid gold, and a live-action version of the ice-action we saw in Frozen are all flawlessly rendered. Battle and fight scenes are convincing, and the art and set designers do a decent job of creating a fantasy world that feels believably fantastic. The cast and their performances are also very good, and, apart from a few eyebrow-raising lines, so is the dialogue.

So what’s the problem? Well, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is both disjointed (kids will say “confusing”) and derivative—two strikes against it that make critics crazy enough to act as if it were three.

Winter’s War starts out as a prequel (“The Story before Snow White”), but then fast-forwards past the events of the first film. So it’s a prequel and a sequel rolled into one. There are a lot of unwritten rules in filmmaking, but this seems like a pretty big one to break. Adding to the confusion, like too many fantasies, Winter’s War is more complicated than it needs to be. It’s also WintersWarscreen2dark. Freya (Emily Blunt), the younger sister of Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) whose spirit had been trapped inside the mirror and released by her sister, falls in love with a nobleman (Colin Morgan) she later believes has killed their child. She retaliates and leaves the kingdom to set up her own frozen kingdom. And yes, like Disney’s Elsa she has cryokinetic powers. She can build walls, put people in the deep freeze, and does so with more deliberate evil than her Disney counterpart. But even Disney’s ice queen is more developed as a character than Freya, or her sister, for that matter.

Much of the narrative revolves around Freya, who has ordered her minions to kill parents and abduct the children to “save” them from a world in which love is a hurtful lie. She trains them to become her soldiers with but one rule that tops even abject obedience: no one must ever love or fall in love. And the queen keeps an ever-watchful eye on her minions by using a magical, mechanical snowy owl and an owl mask. But because the Huntsman gets a backstory, we can assume this story is his. Eric (Chris Hemsworth) is one of those kidnapped children raised not to love, and yet he can’t help falling for his tough female counterpart, Sara (Jessica Chastain). Life gets complicated for them after that, to state the obvious without spilling spoilers.

WintersWarscreen1Frozen parallels abound—so many that you wish the filmmakers had been more creative—and when the snow queen rides a polar bearish creature it’s impossible not to also think of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Golden Compass. Thank God for dwarfs. Four of them (Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach) liven things up and also provide opportunities for the writers to lighten the mood. With Hemsworth and Chastain they make for an engaging flight-quest story, despite the structural and conceptual problems.

This Blu-ray combo pack comes with an extended unrated version, but parents will find the PG-13 theatrical version strong enough. It’s every bit a movie for teens and older. Note that the Blu-ray version comes with three additional bonus features, all worth watching, and since this special effects fantasy looks best in HD going “Blu” makes the most sense.

Language: “Pissed” is the only language that intrudes on this fantasy
Sex: Blurred, side-view nudity that implies sex, but nothing graphic
Violence: Main characters are thought to be killed, others are skewered or shot; plenty of fighting and battle violence, with relatively little bloodshed
Adult situations: The whole dark fantasy tilts more toward the adult realm than the child’s; this is a movie made for adults that was edited to make the PG-13 rating so children could also see it
Takeaway: A stronger concept could have made Winter’s War a winner, but even as is it’s a film my teens said they’d watch again


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MartialArtsKidcoverGrade: C+
Entire family: No, but darned close
2015, 103 min., Color
Traditionz Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG for martial arts fighting)
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

As its title suggests, The Martial Arts Kid (2015) is a remake of The Karate Kid, though this five Dove-rated film was made with a much lower budget than the $8 million the original 1984 film had to work with. Ironically, the remake was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, and the lower budget mostly shows up in the lack of experienced actors as extras and in rougher-looking tracking shots.

But Jansen Panettiere, Hayden’s younger brother, is just as likable as Ralph Macchio was as the title character—only in this version he has the added burden of playing a troubled youth whom we see carted away in a police car in the opening sequence. When his grandmother announces she can’t take it anymore, the setting changes from Cleveland, Ohio to Cocoa Beach, Florida, where he will live with his Aunt Cindy (Cynthia Rothrock), her Asian husband Glen (Don “The Dragon” Wilson), and their 12-year-old daughter, Katie (Kayley Stallings, who does a lot with a small role).

MartialArtsKidscreen1The thing is, young Robbie (Panettiere) seems pretty wholesome and clean-cut from the beginning, and his last words to an appalled grandma—“It’s not as bad as it looks”—aren’t enough to explain why this nice guy goes from someone who’s in with a rough crowd one minute and someone who sits at the nerd table in school and is bullied in Florida the next. Except that that was loosely the plot of The Karate Kid, and apart from this twist and the resolution, The Martial Arts Kid stays pretty close to the original script.

Like The Karate Kid, Robbie finds his life complicated when he falls for a girl whose boyfriend is a student at a take-no-prisoners dojo and bullies him—though the bullying episodes are much harder to believe in The Martial Arts Kid. For one thing, Bo (Matthew Ziff) gets away with murder, figuratively speaking, with authority figures not really doing anything because “his father is powerful.” Really? That might have been believable in the ‘70s, but in this age of WikiLeaks even the most powerful are held accountable. Same with the “break their legs” philosophy taught by Dojo Extreme master Kaine (T.J. Storm).

MartialArtsKidscreen2The year before this film was released, Cocoa Beach had a lower-than-average crime rate, and on film it looks like an upscale little Space Coast Town—not the kind of place where an angry dude would threaten to demolish a dealer who won’t give him a refund, or thugs would attack others in broad daylight with a knife. When things like that happen here, you’re well aware that they’re plot contrivances. That said, it’s praiseworthy that Robbie’s salvation comes not only from mentor Glen, who agrees to take him on as a student at his school, but also from Aunt Cindy . . . and that she was a martial arts expert before she decided to develop her skills further with her husband.

The Martial Arts Kid couldn’t be clearer about its main message—bullies suck— though a sub-message gets kind of blurry in an ending that offers not a structured match between the “kid” and his tormenter, but a resolution that’s a little more free form, shall we say. This remake may be a little corny in its wholesomeness, but that’s a trait of family films. The message is a good one, women aren’t portrayed as damsels in distress, and Panettiere and Kathryn Newton (TV’s Gary Unmarried) have enough chemistry to where you want them to be happy. For all its low-budget flaws, The Martial Arts Kid still makes for an entertaining family movie night. Dove approved this for ages 12 and older, but I see no reason why under-12s also couldn’t watch. You don’t have to be 12 to be bullied or take martial arts lessons, right?

Language: Nothing offensive here
Sex: None; just an innocent kiss and sparring takedown
Violence: Knives and guns are pulled at one point, but it’s all martial arts otherwise
Adult situations: Plenty of pseudo low-lifes
Takeaway: My teenage son said this movie was better than he expected, and I’d have to agree, especially considering the budget


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IntheDeepcoverGrade: C
Entire family: No
2016, 89 min., Color
Dimension Films / Anchor Bay Entertainment
Not Rated (would be PG for drinking and frightening situations)
Aspect ratio: anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Two woman vs. shark movies were released this past year, and neither of them comes close to the sheer terror of that first toothy blockbuster, Jaws. Of the two, The Shallows is slightly superior, but they both fail to achieve the same simmering first act as Spielberg’s original, and the pay-off is equally slight by comparison.

In the Deep’s big claim to fame is that the majority of the film was shot underwater—the first full-length feature to accomplish that feat. The underwater filming does give this direct-to-video film a sense of authenticity that’s a welcome antidote to a cliché-filled opening that couldn’t be any slower moving if the cameraman had only focused on the sea lapping against the sand. Two sisters are on vacation in Mexico, one is less adventurous, they talk, they kill time, we all kill time until those sisters, Lisa (Mandy Moore, Red Band Society) and Kate (Claire Holt, The Originals), find themselves trapped at the bottom of the sea when a cable breaks and their shark-cage adventure goes awry.

IntheDeepscreen1Originally titled 47 Meters Down, it’s 127 Hours without the backstory and Cast Away underwater without the volleyball—which is to say that with the focus solely on two trapped characters and the narrative arena minimalized, the burden falls on the writers and the actors’ abilities to carry the film. They try, but director Johannes Roberts seems to specialize in modern-day B movies and made-for-TV films, and this one feels like something you’d see on television (it seems to have aired on Starz). The opening is so slow and mindless that can’t wait for them to get in the water. Once that happens you get POV filming that makes you feel as if you’re right there in the cage with them—so much so that it might make some viewers claustrophobic. The filmmakers also manage a credible tension.

IntheDeepscreen2But one big problem with the all-underwater filming is that once the cage hits bottom, the visibility isn’t the greatest. Pictured left is the cage in open water, but down below it’s dark, it’s murky, and there are too many scenes where all you can see are shapes and different brightly colored lights. If you watch this with kids they may complain, “I can’t see, was that the shark?” Oh, there are frightening moments when you DO see the shark and plainly enough, but too much of this underwater drama is obscured—though it helps if you watch it at night and turn off all the lights.

Matthew Modine also appears aboard ship, but unlike the minor characters in Jaws, he and the rest of the supporting cast seem to exist as necessary plot devices and nothing more. There are implied relationships and also a slight sexual tension that borders on the lecherous, but none of it is developed or seems to matter. As I said, In the Deep is all about what happens underwater.

The two sisters have less than an hour of oxygen in their tanks to figure a way to get to the surface, past the Great White Sharks that are on the prowl. Some viewers will be fine with the murky darkness. After all, horror films are predicated on a simple premise: keep people from seeing the whole monster until the “money shot.” Lovers of the genre will hang on, hoping for a big payoff. Others will feel caged themselves and want out.

If you want to watch this one, I recommend that you rent or buy the Blu-ray rather than the DVD. You’ll need and appreciate all the visual sharpness you can get.

Language: A few very mild curse words and that’s it
Sex: Just implied lechery and flirtations
Violence: Nothing here that older children can’t see
Adult situations: Drinking, flirtation, and underwater peril
Takeaway: Hardcore lovers of shark films may like this, but I’m guessing more casual viewers will be turned off by the slow opening and the underwater murkiness

TRADED (Blu-ray)

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TradedcoverGrade: C- at best
Entire family: No
2016, 98 min., Color
Not Rated: Would be PG for violence and adult situations
Aspect ration: 16×9 widescreen (letterboxed)
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link

Even though Westerns aren’t as popular as they once were, especially with young viewers, you’d think a Western version of Taken might win a few new converts. And Traded might have, if the writing and acting were better.

Clichés roll like tumbleweeds in this drama starring Michael Paré as a retired gunfighter now living as a rancher with a wife, an older teenage daughter named Lily (Brittany Elizabeth Williams) and a young son named Jake (Hunter Fischer). But familiarity isn’t the problem. Every Western is built on clichés. A good one makes you forget those clichés; a bad one makes those clichés stand out like the neck hair on a rabid dog.

Kids need characters to identify with, and unlike Shane, you lose the boy just a half-hour into the film when he’s killed by a rattlesnake—which almost comes as a relief, because the over-the-top family wholesomeness will strike today’s families as being trying-too-hard hokey. The family in Act 1 of Traded is more like the Flanders family in The Simpsons than the wholesome-but-believable Ingalls family in Little House on the Prairie.

Tradedscreen1When Lily is kidnapped by white slavers working as brothel suppliers and his wife Amelia (Constance Brenneman) has a breakdown, Clay Travis chooses to go after his daughter. That’s when you hope he also leaves the hokiness in his dust, but nope, it follows him to Wichita and then Dodge City. An exchange with a saloon owner (Tom Sizemore) and a face-off with a tough brothel owner (Trace Adkins) have the same kind of hokey dialogue as the opening sequences, and even the normally charismatic Kris Kristofferson can’t get past the bad writing as he plays an older bartender who provides help.

The look of Traded is authentic enough, helped considerably by location shooting in California and New Mexico and believable interior sets, but only a few moments stand out—like the scene where Travis tells a man to take his glasses off before he punches him, or when he wails on a bad dad and in so doing earns the help of the man’s teenage daughter. But scenes like those only serve to remind you that the rest of it is all pretty tedious and riddled with poor dialogue—so surface obvious that you find yourself wondering if the problem is with the lines themselves or the acting. Either way, director Timothy Woodward Jr. seems uneasily comfortable proceeding.

There aren’t enough plot twists for me to talk about narrative thrust without revealing too much, but though the action picks up in the third act I found Traded hard going. The West would have been easier, I found myself thinking. And my kids? No one had to kidnap them. They left the room voluntarily after the first confrontation didn’t up the ante enough for them.

Language: Some mild swearwords and old-timey Western equivalents
Sex: Nothing graphic, but prostitutes and brothels are shown
Violence: The obligatory Western showdown plus other gun and fist violence scattered throughout
Adult situations: drinking, smoking, houses of ill-repute
Takeaway: With a great premise, it’s surprising a film like this didn’t fare better. I blame the writers, and feel sorry for the actors whose performances seem boxed in by bad writing and scenic construction


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Supergirl1coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: Yes (except for preschoolers?)
2015, 877 min. (20 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-TV for violence
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link

There are two DC Universes, and Melissa Benoist really brightens up the television one. She has the kind of charisma that propelled Lynda Carter to stardom as TV’s Wonder Woman during the seventies and the kind of girl-next-door likeability and warmth that inspired the writers of Supergirl to refer to her “humanity” after otherwise drawing a distinction between humans and aliens.

Then again, alienity just doesn’t cover it when we’re talking about Benoist as Kara Danvers, aka Supergirl. In this winning 2015 CW series she’s the “girl” you want to be friends with, to confide in, to rely on, to have fun with, and, if you’re a guy, to date. Though Supergirl comes from the planet Krypton, with Benoist wearing the costume she embodies everything that’s good in humanity.

Supergirl1screen1Supergirl offers a less dark DC Universe in which characters have down time, bond, laugh, share food and drink, and grapple with problems that audience members face—like questions about identity, body image, relationships, glass ceilings, and juggling career and personal life. The series’ feminism and “stronger together” theme is even reflected in the Hillary Clinton campaign, and who knows? Maybe this is the year that a female who is dedicated to the prospect of helping people is finally able to be accepted as a hero. That’s certainly Kara’s main focus in Season 1.

Kara Zor-El was sent to Earth to look after her younger cousin, but because her pod strayed off-course she arrived after Kal-El, who’s grown up and already accepted as a hero in Metropolis. Instead of her taking care of him, he’s the caretaker who whisks her her off to foster parents. The series begins when Kara, who had been experimenting with her powers off-camera all this time, is now 24 and working in National City as an assistant to media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart).

Kara’s boss reminds her that things come easier for men, and that women have to work twice as hard in order to be accepted. That’s no truer than for Kara, who is still feeling the burden of role reversal. She was supposed to take care of her cousin, and instead, once a disaster forced her to reveal herself as a superhero before she felt ready, the unseen Superman continues to be her protector. In fact, Superman even asked his good friend Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) to move to National City and work at the same media corporation so he could keep an eye on Kara. Who else knows her secret identity? Aside from her foster mom and an older sister (Chyler Leigh as Alex Danvers) who works for the DEO (Dept. of Extra-Normal Operations), just tech expert and good friend Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan). Well, and Alex’s boss, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), who eventually allows the sisters to work together. And her Kryptonian mother’s deceased sister Astra, who escaped destruction because she was on a prison transport full of hundreds of aliens that also crashed on Earth—which she now wants to conquer.

Supergirl1screen2The Supergirl writers do a nice job of withholding information and adding characters along the way in order to keep the series fresh, and a reviewer with no spoiler scruples could go on and on about plot twists and the numerous thematic threads. Relationships are also a focus, as unrequited love seems as abundant as the number of Kryptonian criminals who either surface or break out of prison. Winn likes Kara who likes Jimmy who likes Lucy Lane (Lois’s sister, played by Jenna Dewan Tatum). In the DC movie universe the focus seems to be on creating a puzzle that readers can piece together, Marvel-style. But Supergirl is all about the female hero and the many challenges she faces—both physical and emotional.

If all this estrogen starts to make Supergirl sound like another Gilmore Girls for women only, rest assured: The action and special effects are decent and there are plenty of DC villains to interest a broader audience. This season you’ll encounter the insectile Hellgrammite, the bio-electric Reactron, the newly electrified Livewire, the wonderfully rendered Red Tornado, the Toyman, a plant known as Black Mercy, the Martian Manhunter, the Master Jailer, Myriad, and a not-so-nice human industrialist in the Tony Stark vein named Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli). Sometimes the villains are rendered in a way that it reminds you vaguely of Power Rangers, but for the most part they’re villainous enough. Just.

Bottom line: Supergirl hooks you quickly and Benoist holds your attention until the writers can toss in a new wrinkle every now and then to keep things interesting. She’s even a strong enough hero to where you don’t mind if she battles a villain that seems a bit hokey. But you can’t help but wonder, as Cat Grant’s mother does, “Why Supergirl? Why not Superwoman?”

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: Battles between good people and bad, superheroes and villains, elite fighters and worthy opponents; not much in the way of violence to everyday people
Adult situations: There is drinking, but no intoxication
Takeaway: This series has a lot going for it, but the big plus is Melissa Benoist, who was also one of the few charismatic replacement characters Glee brought in when the main cast changed

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