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THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) (Blu-ray combo)

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legendoftarzancoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2016, 110 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

The Legend of Tarzan adds a nice infusion of originality and energy into an old, familiar story.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape man, Tarzan, has been featured in some 200 films since Elmo Lincoln first donned the loincloth in 1918, so any filmmaker would be crazy to think that he or she could come up with anything new. Yet that’s exactly what writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer and director David Yates have done. They’ve thrown off the loincloth, abandoned the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” talk, and turned the inarticulate noble savage into an action hero who prefers to be called John Chapman.

Calm down, purists! We still get the story of Tarzan embedded in flashbacks that are seamlessly and artfully inserted into a homecoming narrative. The premise is this: Tarzan and Jane have been living in London long enough for him to have lost all traces legendoftarzanscreen1of his wild African upbringing. Opening story tiles tell us that King Leopold II has nearly gone bankrupt trying to mine the riches of his portion of the Congo Basin claimed by Belgium, and that he needs to finance more infrastructure projects with mythic diamonds rumored to be the property of an isolated tribe. To secure those diamonds and turn his Congo venture around, the King has entrusted his envoy Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz, who plays the role a lot like Kurz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).

Waltz is a wonderful villain who discovers that the tribe will give him the diamonds only if he will deliver Tarzan—who killed the chief’s son many years ago. So in what amounts to an elaborate trap, he sends Tarzan and Jane an invitation on behalf of King Leopold asking them to revisit Boma and give him a report on the Congo. Complicating matters is that an American envoy named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Tarzan/Chapman that he wants to accompany him to investigate what he suspects might be the enslavement of an entire population by the Belgians. It’s a risky, politicized overhaul of a time-honored tale, but our family thought the changes made an almost too-familiar narrative more fun and interesting to watch.

Parents, be warned: enslavement and slaughter aren’t exactly topics for the timid, and The Legend of Tarzan is every bit a PG-legendoftarzanscreen213 movie. Inexplicably, Jackson’s character provides some comic relief in an otherwise serious film, but that’s about the only glaring inconsistency. As for other negatives, three of four family members thought the CGI apes were just fine, but our teenage son said he thought they took a furry backseat to the ones from the more recent Planet of the Apes creatures—especially the eyes, which he thought were more lizard-like. It’s amazing, though, to see what filmmakers can do with animals completely created on the computer, and a scene in which Tarzan and his party leap from a cliff into the jungle canopy and then start running on a labyrinth of limbs will have Tarzan fans thinking of Disney’s animated feature. It’s a fun homage/allusion, and the visuals in this film are dramatically detailed, especially in 1080p HD.

The Legend of Tarzan also surprises with the level of acting, which is a cut above what viewers usually see in an action movie. Alexander Skarsgaard is totally believable as Tarzan, and Margot Robbie manages to portray Jane as both warm and strong—someone that the villainous Rom will learn is as tough to tangle with as her husband. The three main performers are nothing short of charismatic, and that elevates the film considerably.

There are sad moments in The Legend of Tarzan and tough scenes to watch, if you have any sensitivity whatsoever, but overall it’s an adventure well worth taking.

Language: Just minor swearwords, and not all that many
Sex: Nothing much here; just kissing and cuddling
Violence: Soldiers fight tribal people, apes and crocs attack people, and people are shot, strangled, and held under water;
Adult situations: Hippos pose a threat in one frightening scene, and there are other intense scenes as well; no smoking, but there is a dinner scene where wine is served
Takeaway: Just when you thought you’d seen it all, along comes a variation that’s as convincing as it is original

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (Blu-ray combo)

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x-menapocalypsecoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2016, 144 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language, and some suggestive images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

The Marvel Universe is a complicated one, and the X-Men movies are among the more demanding. Viewers are expected to juggle a lot of different characters in various incarnations, and to remember each complicated film as it builds upon the others—nine now, in all. That takes a memory better than mine, which is why I waited to review this until my son took a weekend off from college to visit home again. He’s a big fan and does manage to keep it all straight. We both enjoyed the film, though his verdict was that X-Men: Apocalypse wasn’t as good as X-Men: Days of Future Past—a B+/A- rather than a solid A or A-. Why? Because it did require even more recollection of details from previous films, and the narrative also jumps around more.

I came at it from a slightly different angle. What I do tend to remember are basic plot types, and X-Men: Apocalypse recycles a familiar one: an ancient Egyptian dark force of a “man” is resurrected and seeks to destroy x-menapocalypsescreen2the world and start anew. Whether it’s world conquest or revenge, we’ve seen variations on this theme ever since the first black-and-white presentation of The Mummy way back in 1932. Only this time it’s a mutant, the first mutant, that’s unleashed. As with a film like The Matrix, you may not understand every little nuance of exposition, but Apocalypse proceeds so confidently that you feel assured that it all fits together and makes perfect sense, even if you’re not getting it in the instant. Plus, it’s easy to tolerate any momentary confusion because you’re soaking in the inventive special effects that, conceptually, rank among the best in this series. That’s something my son and I agreed was a major strength, and the sort of thing that will make you want to watch this film over and over. This X-Men is more violent that some of the previous installments, with one of the most brutal scenes the result of a surprise appearance by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

James McAvoy returns as Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, the telepathic genius who started a school for “gifted” teens—that term a euphemism for the catch-all phrase “mutants.” Among those also returning are Michael x-menapocalypsescreen1Fassbender as metal-manipulating Erik/Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as shapeshifter Raven/Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as the super strong Hank/Beast, Evan Peters as the Flash-like Peter/Quicksilver, and Lucas Till as plasma-blasting Havok. Replacing other actors this time around are Lana Condor as Jubilee, Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops, Olivia Munn as Psylocke, and Ben Hardy as Angel. But it’s the new people that will please fans. Oscar Isaac makes a darned good villain as En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, while also new to the series this outing are Kodi Smit-McPhee as the slightly humorous Kurt/Nightcrawler, the weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and super-tracker Caliban (Tomas Lemarquis). On a side note, fans will delight in seeing Stan Lee actually turn expressive in his traditional cameo.

The set-up is, as my son suggests, confusing, but things come more sharply into focus after Apocalypse recruits some mutants—Magneto among them—and begins causing major disruptions around the world. He then kidnaps Xavier, and that launches annother explosive chain of events (pun intended). There are battles in the external world, and battles inside the mind. Through it all, the production values that have helped to make this series so successful are as slick as ever. It’s a long movie, but it doesn’t feel long.

Though Days of Future Past was an unqualified hit with fans and critics, Apocalypse received mixed reviews, mostly because some were wanting director Bryan Singer to make a different film than he did. This is a special effects movie first, and a superhero movie second. But Singer (X-Men, X2, X-Men: Days of Future Past) does a nice job of enhancing the visual effects that drive the film with near-perfect pacing and shots that often mirror character mindsets—as when he launches into a 360 POV shot to capture the aftermath of chaos. And yes, it looks spectacular on 1080p Blu-ray and sounds fantastic with a 7.1 soundtrack.

Ultimately, as with any franchise that has such rabid fans, individuals will have their own favorites. My son liked X-Men: Apocalypse more than X-Men First Class (2011), but not as much as X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). And that sounds about right to me.

Language: One f-bomb that I can recall and only a handful of other swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: Multiple decaptiations are partially obscured by a cloud of dust, but there are numerous scenes of combat, a broken leg, psychological paid, and mass destruction of cities seen from a distance
Adult situations: Pretty much everything, including individuals entombed, Han Solo style, as a result of Apocalypse’s power to command sand (an ingredient in concrete)
Takeaway: Marvel and 20th Century Fox really know their audience and continue to crank out installments that please

 

LIGHTS OUT (Blu-ray)

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lightsoutcoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 81 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material, and brief drug content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: D (deleted scenes only)
Trailer
Amazon link

I can’t explain why teenage girls like horror-thriller movies so much, but I can tell you that the two who watched Lights Out with me were satisfyingly scared. This 2016 film won’t ever be considered top-fright entertainment, yet it manages to play the genre game fairly well.

At the heart of all horror-thriller films is this simple concept: It’s HERE! No it’s not. It’s HERE! No it’s not. It’s HE—AHHHHH! Usually there’s a build-up of tension before the release, but present-day horror-thriller dabblers don’t seem interested in that or anything else besides the simple formula for scaring people.

lightsoutscreen1Lights Out is based on a short film by director David F. Sandberg, but the expansion to feature-length film doesn’t include any simmering set-up. We’re thrown right into a horror situation and then, like people corralled in a dark room, we’re subjected to the “It’s HERE” nope “It’s HERE” jumpfest—one that’s milked for all it’s worth with the addition of loud musical cues. One of the girls gave it an A-, while the other thought it a B-. Either way, both girls said they’d watch it again—and hopefully understand more about what was going on.

I doubt it. Without sliding too deeply into spoiler territory, let me just say that there isn’t a satisfactory explanation for the horror phenomenon that haunts this film, primarily because the apparition itself inexplicably changes. One minute it’s substantive, and the next minute it’s more wispy—kind of like the ending, which seems to make sense unless you think too much about it. That holds true for the beginning, too.

lightsoutscreen2What does that leave you with? The formula, of course. In this variation, when the lights go out (and sometimes they go out as a result of the horror phenomenon) an apparition appears and seeks to harm people. It’s not just anybody that the apparition targets, either. It’s a particular family. Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) moved away from her mother (Maria Bello) and much younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), in order to stay sane. You see, the mother talks to an imaginary person and is chronically depressed. So why is young Martin still living with her? Good question, and another one that’s never answered. All that matters is that Martin freaks out when the lights turn off and he starts seeing this apparition . . . as his older sister once did. Who is it? What is it? What is it after? Those are the questions that are never fully answered, but which drive this horror-thriller all the same.

If all you require of a horror-thriller is that it scares you, then Lights Out does the trick. If you need it to make complete sense, well . . . it’s NOT HERE! But hey, that’s the world of the supernatural. As with magic, do you really want to know everything?

Sex: People in bed after implied coupling, but nothing shown
Language: A few “shit”s and that’s about all I remember
Violence: Clawing, choking, dragging people into darkness
Adult situations: A phenomenon tries to hurt or kill people, and one death with blood is shown, while others are off-screen; a character also commits suicide
Takeaway: When the formula works, it works

WHO GETS THE DOG? (DVD)

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whogetsthedogcoverGrade: C-
Entire family: Yes
2016, 95 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for language and a brief drug reference
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Australian actor Ryan Kwanten stars opposite Alicia Silverstone in Who Gets the Dog?—a cute-premise film whose writing and scenic construction never rise to that same level of cuteness. In fact, this formulaic, straight-as-the-crow-flies romantic comedy can feel plodding and downright dull at times, perhaps because we’re never given any scenes that explain what attracted Chicago Wolves hockey goalie Clay Lonnergan (Kwanten) and doctor Olive Greene (Silverstone) to each other in the first place, and what, specifically, drove them to the divorce that’s announced in the very first scene.

whogetsthedogscreen1All we’re told is that Olive is tired of waiting (wait for it) . . . for Clay to “grow up.” Yet he doesn’t engage in any irresponsible behavior. In fact, if they had to go to trial for their divorce rather than for who gets custody of their white lab, then Exhibit A might be that he dresses sloppily, lives sloppily and can’t cook. But that’s not the clichéd Peter Pan syndrome. That’s just an informal guy who also still likes hanging out with the guys, and why wouldn’t he? Clay makes his living as a professional athlete, where guy bonding is crucial to success. What we see in him is a hard-working goalie who wants to make it to the next level of professional hockey. And he works with kids too. What’s not grown up about that?

Consider it one example of facile writing, and a logical problem that’s matched by some head-snapping others in the film. Set in Chicago during a typical Chicago winter, Who Gets the Dog? features some great shots of the city, but it does make you take notice when truck tires screech and “burn rubber” in snow and slosh, just as later when Clay is living by himself and burning muffins so badly that the RV fills with smoke, and  he removes the tray with an oven mitt but then seconds later barehands it, no problem. You tend to notice things like that when there isn’t much else to divert you. A side plot featuring dog whisperer Glen Hannon (Randall Batinkoff) trying to date Olive isn’t developed nearly enough, and neither is a side plot involving youth hockey—which, let me say, seems like another hard-to-believe scene. We’re talking about players older than age 10 and they’re falling down on the ice after a face-off as if they were five and six year olds.

whogetsthedogscreen2But the biggest problem is that there’s not nearly enough exposition to make you care about the characters or really want them to get back together again. You care more about the dog, and maybe that’s the point. We see Clay working out and talking with a friend, and we see him involved with youth hockey. But we really don’t see much of Olive’s life apart from the main plot, and even that main plot revolves around such goofy things as seeing a doggie counselor together or dealing with site visits from court-appointed authorities.

Silverstone and Kwanten are likable enough, but they don’t have the chemistry between them to explain the happy ending that the film offers, and dog lovers can’t help but think that the one Timmy’s-in-the-well moment also could have been stronger, and that the dog actually could have been featured more. Who Gets the Dog? feels like the kind of made-for-TV movie you’d see on the Hallmark Channel, which seems to crank out dog movies and Christmas movies because people like them. But it’s a film that never rises to the level of cuteness promised by its premise. Whole families can watch Who Gets the Dog? and it’s simple enough for even the youngest children to follow. But there are better options out there.

WILD OATS (DVD)

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wildoatscoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2016, 86 min., Color
Anchor Bay
Rated PG-13 for language sexual content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Usually one “sows wild oats” in youth, but this 2016 comedy from Andy Tennant (Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Sweet Home Alabama) flips the script and gives viewers two widows in the twilight of their lives who decide to go a little crazy.

Maddie (Jessica Lange) is more crushed learning that her sixty-something husband dumped her for someone a third her age than she was by his death, and Eva (Shirley MacLaine) feels bereft after her husband—also implied to be a cheater—dies. The set-up implies that what’s good for the gander is good for the goose, and sure enough, when Eva receives an insurance benefits check for $5 million instead of the expected $50,000 she deposits it and talks Maddie into going with her on a Thelma-and-Louise-style binge in the Canary Islands. There they enjoy life to the fullest while unintentionally causing Eva’s daughter (Demi Moore) stress as the media gets wind of their escapades and the insurance company sends someone after them. But don’t expect a Thelma and Louise ending. Wild Oats is a positive film.

There’s a lot of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Wild Oats, and not just because an older cast of characters decides to really live life and sprint for the finish line rather than letting the finish line come to them. Tonally the films are similar, marked by warmth and a gentle humor, with pacing that befits a cast of sixty-somethings. The question, at least for a site like Family Home Theater, is how broad of an audience a film like this might have. That’s hard to say, especially in 2016, when an irascible old anti-establishment coot like Bernie Sanders captured the hearts and imaginations of Millennials.

There’s an anti-establishment vibe to Wild Oats too, though not a political one. It’s more a film about going against the grain, of living life to the fullest, of taking a chance—in other words, a message that might very well resonate with younger people who have been “feeling the Bern.” That trickle-down effect will probably only go as far as the last two years of high school, though. Younger than that, and I fear that younger viewers who tend to like a film only if they can identify with the characters might not be able to look past the wrinkles to see themes that do in fact speak to a broader audience. After all, they’ve got time. No need to worry about such things as living life to the fullest just yet, is there?

wildoatsscreenWild Oats is rated PG-13 for “sexual content,” and I can picture a few “ewwwws” coming from younger viewers when Lange finds herself in a Mrs. Robinson situation and, ripping the shirt off a young man, turns into a bit of a sexual tiger. Nothing is seen, but his bare chest and her writhing send a pretty clear message. So does talk of “doing it,” and when Eva says it’s been seven years it might be a little disorienting for a younger audience who’s been doing the family head count (“Let’s see, three kids means Mom and Dad did it three times!”). So while this is a gentle film and the sex is underplayed, it’s not something pre-teens and under should see—unless Grandma or Grandpa just went off the deep end in your family.

The MacLaine-Lange pairing is good but not great, though I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly why. Maybe it’s because you don’t feel any depth to their friendship, and they’re supposed to be best friends. Alan Arkin and Sarah Jessica Parker were originally cast as co-stars, and I can only assume that if they bolted for reasons other than scheduling it was because there’s even less depth to the supporting characters. Moore really has little to do, and the men who pursue these two women (and we’re talking about two very different types of pursuit) have only a little more. It’s really the MacLaine-Lange show, and the women seem to enjoy the spotlight in one of Hollywood’s rare films featuring older actresses as the romantic leads.

Wild Oats debuted on Lifetime before its limited theatrical release, and if you’ve seen Lifetime movies you know what to expect: nothing too complicated, nothing too crazy, nothing too original, and something that borders on the cheesy (especially the humor). That’s what we get here. Like the MacLaine-Lange pairing, the film is good but not great . . . no matter what your age.

Language: Surprisingly, one subtle f-bomb and a handful of other swearwords
Sex: No crucial body parts shown, but one graphic scene of implied sex along with a gentler one; sex talk includes talk of “doing it again” and how good one’s “ass” looks
Violence: Nothing here
Adult situations: The whole premise is a felony, and there is drinking and drunkenness
Takeaway: It’s nice to see the full range of human experience on the big screen, and I hope the Bernie phenomenon paves the way for even more films like this

ICE GIRLS (DVD)

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icegirlscoverGrade: C+
Entire family: Almost
2016, 90 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s what the back of the DVD box has to say about this one: “Fifteen-year-old aspiring figure skating champion Mattie Dane is forced to put her dreams on ice after a bad fall—and her mother’s decision to relocate the family to a new town. But a chance encounter with the owner of a local skating rink rekindles Mattie’s passion to compete and sets up an intense rivalry with a talented classmate who’ll stop at nothing to win. Featuring legendary skating stars Elvis Stojko and Tessa Virtue, Ice Girls is an uplifting underdog tale that will leave you cheering.”

Here’s the problem I have with that description: There is no “intense rivalry” between girls (they get along, actually), and the “underdog tale” never has a chance to wag because the girl’s injury seems so slight and such icegirlsscreen2a non-factor. Plus, one thing the copywriter neglects to mention is that this made-for-TV movie is clearly aimed at a younger audience. It’s the kind of film my daughter would have absolutely loved when she was in elementary school—now, not so much. As a high schooler she’s picking up on such shortcomings as the film’s shifting tone. Ice Girls starts out as the kind of serious go-for-the-heartstrings comeback story you’d see on Lifetime or Hallmark, but then seems to fast-forward past any rehabilitation. The musical score changes to something very Danny Elfman-like to accompany a lighter tone and what feels suddenly like a Disney Channel offering, complete with exaggerated quasi-villain.

But the fact of the matter is that there’s no real competition and no real road-to-recovery narrative, which means there also isn’t a lot of tension or suspense. Side plots seem token at best. What there is, at least, is some decent skating, so young Olympic hopefuls can watch and dream. Newcomer Michaela du Toit is also extremely likable as young Mattie, and down-to-earth too—the kind of non-threatening girl that wouldn’t intimidate others, the kind of girl you’d like for a friend. In other words, she’s the perfect star for a film aimed at young girls who aren’t yet ready to accept the sad truth that the world can be full of complicated people and downright mean girls. Despite a roster of one-dimensional characters and an uncomplicated plot, Ice Girls has a likability factor that will make it a hit with elementary and possibly junior high-age girls. And yes, I said “girls” because there isn’t much in the way of male characters to interest boys, unless they’re junior high age on the brink of discovering girls.

icegirlsscreen1One of the best performances in Ice Girls comes from a non-actor. Surprisingly believable as a coach who works with Maddie is three-time figure skating World champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stojko, in his first feature since the 2000 made-for-TV movie Ice Angel.

Ultimately Ice Girls is pleasant enough even for those outside the age range, though it still hovers in the slightly above average range. . . . unless the judges are young girls. As for the PG rating, I’m not sure what the qualifying thematic elements or language could possibly be, it’s so squeaky clean. If Ice Girls is uplifting, it’s not because of an underdog succeeding or an injured athlete working toward a triumphant return . . . it’s because the film emphasizes friendship over everything else. These days, that might be even more important.