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Review of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/A
Entire family: Age 8 and older?
2017, 136 min., Color
Sci-fi action-adventure
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content
Marvel Studios
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s rare when a sequel matches the original for sheer energy and brilliance, but James Gunn has done it again, writing and directing a follow-up that’s every bit as good as the first Guardians of the Galaxy he wrote and directed. The dialogue is just as crisp, the visual look of the film and CGI effects are just as eye-popping, and the characters’ personalities may shine even more brightly in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, since they no longer labor under the yoke of an origin story.

This time it’s all about family, or rather, the family this group has become and the family some are still searching for. If you’ll recall, the original Guardians ended with Groot making the ultimate sacrifice but being saved as a tiny start to a new tree. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 takes full advantage of the reborn little guy’s cuteness—Baby Groot is like a more innocent, bark-covered version of Bart Simpson—and his character is a fun flipside to the acerbic raccoon Rocket (and by the way, you’ll never convince me that the name isn’t an allusion to The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon”).

When we meet them, the Guardians of the Galaxy are renowned keepers of peace. The group is composed of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth as a child by aliens and raised by Yondu (Michael Rooker), the leader of a bunch of thieves and pirates who call themselves the Ravagers. In the sequel, Yondu’s character is explored in more depth, and so is Peter’s. When the Guardians make an emergency landing on another planet they run into a being named Ego (Kurt Russell), who says he’s Peter’s father. While Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) stay behind to fix the spacecraft, Peter goes to Ego’s home planet with the former assassin and now-Guardian Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the large, crude, and very funny dude Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).

In a way, there’s nothing more to the plot than sci-fi fans haven’t already seen in the old Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or Lost in Space TV episodes: they visit a planet, discover all is not as it first seemed, and somehow escape or resolve the situation. And yet, in Gunn’s hands, this simple and frequently used formula expands so naturally and effortlessly that it holds our attention for 136 minutes—a run-time that’s long by today’s standards.

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Review of SUPERGIRL: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 931 min. (22 episodes), Color
Sci-fi action-drama

Warner Bros.
Not rated: would be PG for fantasy violence
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

As I said when I reviewed Season 1, there are two DC Universes, and Melissa Benoist really brightens up the television one. She has the kind of charisma that propelled Lynda Carter (who appears as the President this season) 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: Season 2 to emphasize her “humanity” after otherwise drawing a distinction between humans and aliens.

In this winning 2016 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. She may be a badass, but she’s as amazed by her powers and the fun of being a hero as any teenage Earthling would be. And teens can identify with her because she’s also awkward in social situations, still trying to find her way in the work world, just a little geeky, and a little too wide-eyed for a typical adult her age. In other words, the character was deliberately crafted with a teen and young adult audience in mind, though the show is entertaining enough for all ages.

Supergirl 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’ first-season feminism and “stronger together” theme was reflected in the Hillary Clinton campaign, and this season remarks exchanges like this one tip viewers off that the left-leaning politics continue:

Supergirl (as Kira, defending a young woman in the office): “She went to Yale.”
Cat Grant: “So did George Bush.”

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Review of WHALE RIDER (15th Anniversary) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2002, 101 min., Color
Drama
Rated PG-13 for brief language and a momentary drug reference
Shout! Factory
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

This word-of-mouth hit about a 12-year-old Maori girl captured audience-favorite awards at the Toronto, Rotterdam, and Sundance international film festivals. It’s a feel-good movie that makes you feel a little bad along the way, a “girl power” coming of age story that also involves the girl’s patriarchal-minded grandfather who comes to understand that the best way to preserve the past is to embrace a gender-equal future.

Like Hoosiers, where you know a ragtag bunch of basketball losers are going to somehow win, the plot in Whale Rider is somewhat formulaic. But as with that Indiana roundball saga, the ride itself is really something, and not just because of the fantastic performances or the beautiful cinematography and New Zealand landscape. Just when you begin to think the outcome is predictable, writer-director Niki Caro manipulates a change in current or plumbs the emotional depths to take the performances to another level.

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Review of WITH GREAT POWER: THE STAN LEE STORY (DVD)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2010, 80 min., Color
Documentary
Not rated (would be G)
MPI Home Video
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: A-/B+ (includes second disc of extras)
Trailer
Amazon link

If your family is like ours, the kids don’t exactly clamor for documentaries. But when the subject of a documentary is Marvel comics legend Stan Lee, and when the documentary employs graphics that remind you of comic books, suddenly there’s interest. Enough for them to watch the whole thing, in fact.

Even years after the hey-day of comic books, when kids could indulge themselves for just 12 or 15 cents, the low-culture genre still holds plenty of fascination. Back then, Lee says, they created a comic per day, and most of the kids I knew purchased at least one per week. It was our pulp fiction. “I learned to read because of Spider-Man comics,” one of the many celebs on this documentary confesses. But a new generation has come to know the Marvel characters mostly through TV and movies—and in this, too, we discover, Lee played a pivotal role.

Since the age of 19, Lee has been the driving force behind and larger-than-life face of Marvel, a genius who co-created more than 500 distinctive characters over his long career as a story man. Teaming with legendary comic-book artist Jack Kirby and others, he absolutely owned the Sixties, coming up with nine characters who would become major Marvel success stories: Fantastic Four (Nov. 1961), Ant-Man (Jan. 1962), Hulk (May 1962), Thor (Aug. 1962), Spider-Man (Aug. 1962), Iron Man (Mar. 1963), The Avengers (Sept. 1965), Daredevil (April 1964), and Silver Surfer (Oct. 1966). “I just put the words in the people’s mouths and I may have come up with the original idea, but after that it was a partnership,” Lee says.

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Review of MICKEY AND THE ROADSTER RACERS: START YOUR ENGINES (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No (pre-school only)
2017, 72 min. (7 cartoons), Color
TV Animation
Rated TV-Y (for young viewers)
Disney
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
“Goof Luck Charm” clip
Amazon link

Mickey and the Roadster Racers: Start Your Engines includes seven episodes from the CGI-animated Disney Junior TV series that replaced Mickey Mouse Clubhouse in January 2017. Parents who watch this new show with their toddlers will probably lament that it seems less educational than Clubhouse—at least on the surface. Yes, there are all sorts of primary colors and simple syntaxes that tiny ones can pick up, but the show panders to children’s shrinking attention spans by featuring two 11-minute episodes every half-hour series instead of one 22-minute story that tried for more interactivity.

Every half-hour show features one “Roadsters” cartoon featuring a race, mostly, and one “Happy Helpers” cartoon, where Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, and Cuckoo-Loca (a new character) do various things to help the residents of Hot Dog Hills.

The Roadster Racers cartoons are all plot-driven action that really demand very little from little viewers except that they cheer for their favorite drivers and their distinct vehicles: Mickey and his Hot Rod, Minnie and Pink Thunder (shaped like a hair bow), Goofy and his Turbo Tubster (a modern-day jalopy), Donald and his Cabin Cruiser, and Daisy and her vehicle “Snapdragon.”

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Review of EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: No
2017, 96 min., Color
Romantic drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

The Fault in Our Stars (2014) was such a huge hit that you knew other sick teen romantic dramas would follow, even if you were unaware of what books were out there to inspire the screenplays. And sure enough, along comes Everything, Everything (2017), starring Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) and Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer).

If there’s a teen in your family, they’ve no doubt seen trailers or heard of it. But they may not know about the one big difference between the two “sick teen” romantic dramas: The Fault in Our Stars aims high, for an adult audience as well as teens, with believable dialogue and situations and an edginess that comes from a healthy cynicism that comes from a realistic optimism in a hopelessly pessimistic situation. It’s a little like Hemingway for teens, where grace under pressure and how well you face tragedy becomes more important than the outcome. It’s about finding consolation in an impossible situation.

Everything, Everything is the flip side of that—a film that doesn’t just look for a silver lining, but manufactures one. It’s made for the people who wept during The Fault in Our Stars thinking, Why? Why couldn’t there have been just a slightly happier outcome?

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Review of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (1966) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: No
1966, 87 min., Color
Musical romantic comedy
Not rated: Would be PG-13 (for smoking, drinking, drunkenness, fighting, and suggestive scenes)
Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
“Frankie and Johnny” clip
Amazon link

Three Elvis Presley movies were released in 1966—two of them contemporary (Paradise, Hawaiian Style and Spinout) and one of them, Elvis’s 20th film, a costumed period musical in which Elvis plays a riverboat entertainer and inveterate gambler.

Though there are “11 great songs” advertised for Frankie and Johnny, only two of them are true Elvis tunes where The King actually gets into it: “Shout It Out,” a typical nightclub performance number that gets him smiling, clapping, and gyrating with the Jordanaires backing him up, and “Hard Luck,” a blues he sings accompanied by a shoeshine boy on harmonica. The rest are hokey period or vaudeville-style numbers that make Presley look straitjacketed and uninterested. In fact, the 1890s costumes in this musical make him look so uncomfortable that you can tell he’s feeling out of his element.

So are we. It’s not your typical Elvis movie. If it seems plot-starved (and it does), that’s because it’s basically an expansion of the popular story song “Frankie and Johnny,” which appeared in various forms from the late 1890s through 1912. As the song goes, Frankie and Johnny were lovers, but when Frankie caught Johnny two-timing her and “doing her wrong,” she shot him with her .44.

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