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Review of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Age 10 and older?
2018, 149 min., Color
Sci-fi/Fantasy Action-Adventure
Marvel/Disney
Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Best Buy link

The Marvel Universe has grown so large and complicated that it sometimes takes a fanboy to keep it all straight. But thankfully, Avengers: Infinity War isn’t all that hard to follow. For the casual film fan, that’s a big plus. Another is that Marvel-Disney has figured out that if you add enough cleverly written dialog and humor to an action film, it can compensate for any lack of character development and keep the action from seeming repetitive or mindless. And for a doom-and-gloom ending to The Avengers’ saga, a little bit of humor can go a long way. There’s something here to keep you on the edge of your seat, and something to make you smile.

And let’s be clear: the action is pretty spectacular. My son, who’s the Marvel devotee of the family, said he liked Avengers: Infinity War every bit as much as one of his favorites, Captain America: Civil War—maybe even more. It is, we thought, possibly the strongest Avengers film to date, despite a downer ending that everyone seems to know about before even watching the film.

From my perspective, a film like this is a shoe-in for repeat play because of the quality script and actors who’ve grown so comfortable with their characters that they fit like latex gloves. You buy into it because they buy into it, and you have fun because you’re watching them have fun, even as they sacrifice everything to meet the challenge of defeating Thanos (Josh Brolin) before he can gather up all the powerful infinity stones (e.g., Power Stone, Time Stone, Mind Stone, Soul Stone) and get the collective power he needs to destroy enough of the universe to “prune it back,” to reverse overpopulation by killing massive amounts of peoples.

Fans will love that Avengers: Infinity War is packed with Marvel heroes. Trying to stop Thanos are Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Pom Klementieff, Bradley Cooper), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). That’s a big cast, to be sure, but because the characters appear in smaller groups in scenes that build and connect, it’s not all that hard to keep them straight as most of them eventually converge on Thanos and his villainous cohorts for a colossal confrontation.

Anthony and Joe Russo directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016), and they do an equally kick-ass job juggling all of the action and heroes and villains in this film as well. Don’t be too surprised if these two end up directing the next Guardians of the Galaxy film as well, if James Gunn isn’t reinstated. They’ve really got the Marvel formula down pat, and on hi-def Blu-ray Avengers: Infinity War looks and sounds fantastic. Turn off the lights and turn up the sound on this action flick and you’ll never see two-and-a-half hours pass so quickly.

But let’s talk about the level of violence. Even more than the previous two films that the Russos directed, Avengers: Infinity War seems to have more intense violence and more bloody scenes. Even though it’s all sci-fi comic-style violence, and viewers never forget that, the humor ironically brings us closer to the characters, so it can all start to feel a little more real to young viewers especially. Families have different thresholds for sci-fi violence, so how age-appropriate this is will vary. If I had to guess an average for today’s savvy young viewers, I’d say age 10 and older. Do you have to have seen the other Marvel films in order to enjoy this one? Well, it helps. They’re intended to build on each other and interlock, though it is possible to watch this installment as a stand-alone film.

Language: “Chill the F out,” “shit,” and “asshole” is pretty much the extend of it; not too many expletives, and they’re pretty mild
Sex: Implied hotel room sex but nothing is shown; Pratt’s character refers to someone’s “junk”; Rocket talks about hiding something up his butt
Violence: Here’s where the PG-13 rating comes in; more intense violence than in some other Marvel films, including bloody scenes, though it’s all sci-fi/comic violence
Adult situations: There’s some torture and beloved characters are disintegrated
Takeaway: Anthony and Joe Russo have emerged as the go-to guys for high-octane Marvel action films that also have a heavy infusion of humor—Go Team!

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Review of LIFE OF THE PARTY (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: No
2018, 105 min., Color
Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Of the last five movies that Melissa McCarthy starred in—Life of the Party, The Boss, Spy, Tammy, and The Heat—only two are funny. The Heat is a hilarious pairing of McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as cops, while the less riotous Spy has her playing a desk-bound CIA operative who has to hit the field to prevent global disaster. The other three are uninspired and reliant on bits and gags we’ve seen a thousand times before. And not coincidentally, the three disappointments were written by McCarthy and her husband, actor Ben Falcone.

So can I just say, on behalf of all the fans of McCarthy and her Robin Williams-like improvisational talent, would you please leave the writing to someone else?

Life of the Party feels like a female remake of Back to School, which starred Rodney Dangerfield as a parent who cramps his son’s style by going to the same college and hanging out with some of the same people, ultimately becoming the most popular “kid” in school. Except that Back to School is much funnier and also less raunchy and more believable.

In the Dangerfield comedy, Rodney was a Trump-like businessman used to bribing people and getting his own way, so he donates a large amount of money in order to get accepted, pays people to “update” his dorm room, uses his chauffeur to help him enroll in classes, pays people to do his homework and attend class for him, and hits on his English teacher. In Life of the Party, McCarthy is told by her husband as they pull away from dropping off their daughter for her senior year at Decatur University that he wants a divorce. She decides to go back get the archaeology degree she missed out on when she got pregnant and dropped out, and though she’s technically still married she makes a big deal about her active vagina and has a sexual relationship, not with a teacher but with one of her daughter’s male friends (Luke Benward). I know. It’s almost as cringe-worthy as the obligatory Bridesmaids-style trashing of a wedding reception and as unfunny as an initiation into sorority sisterhood that doesn’t even involve pledging. Throw in a few “mean girls,” an inadvertent pot party, and a “save the . . .” fundraising bash and you’ve pretty much covered all the clichés. A racquetball scene we’ve seen before is almost painful to watch, as is a fight where Deanna, McCarthy’s character, has her breasts punched. More

Review of EVERY DAY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: No
2018, 97 min., Color
Teen drama-fantasy-romance
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language, teen drinking, and suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Trailer
Amazon link

Every Day is a strange film. Angourie Rice (who was Ryan Gosling’s daughter in The Nice Guys) plays an average teenager in the Greater Baltimore area whose life is upended when she meets and becomes attracted to another teen whose looks change on a daily basis. And we’re not just talking about capricious makeovers.

That other teen somehow (why is never fully explained) wakes up in a different teen body every single day. “A,” as she comes to know them, can be a 16-year-old girl one day and a 16-year-old boy the next—black, white, Asian, gay or straight. A has no control over what body they awake in, but for the day that A is inside that body and inhabits that person’s life, A has tried to abide by one rule: do nothing that would alter that person’s life for good or for bad. That’s something A finds harder to do once they meet and fall for Rhiannon (Rice). A’s brain, A’s emotions, A’s memory bank, A’s spirit enters a person’s body and then lives that person’s life for a day. Throughout the film we see A do this with 15 different individuals who have zero to some vague memory of that day (whatever memory A decides to leave behind, though his standard M.O. has been to leave no memories). And both Rhiannon’s and A’s lives become more complicated when they develop feelings for one another.

I told you it was strange. But it’s also unique and oddly compelling. You want to see how this star-crossed romance could possibly end. More

Review of READY PLAYER ONE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/A
Entire family: No (10 and older)
2018, 140 min., Color
Sci-fi Action-Adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity, and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHd
Bonus features: A-/B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

What a fun ride this is—Jason and the Golden Fleece for the 21st century. Fantastic graphics and CGI special effects, plus a strong, suspenseful story and likable characters make Ready Player One a real winner for all ages.

Based on the young adult novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One requires knowledge of video gaming no more than another Steven Spielberg directed film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, required viewers to have seen a UFO. Sure, audience members will reach another level of allusions if they’re gamers, but there are plenty of cultural markers here for non-players to enjoy.

Besides, the film’s overtly stated theme is that maybe, just maybe, people spend too much of their lives avoiding reality, so parents thinking that this is just another film that glorifies video and online gaming so much that it’s a virtual commercial can relax. Cline and Spielberg are on your side.

Ready Player One is set in 2044-45, when so many people live in slums or have mediocre lives that just about everyone dons virtual reality headgear in order to spend time in the OASIS, a virtual reality world where people go after work or school to relax, have adventures, and meet other people. They all have avatars and other names when they’re in the OASIS, and that’s when Spielberg and his effects team really gets going. But the opening slums known as the “stacks” are also pretty impressive—a trailer park of sorts for the future, with mobile homes stacked on ramshackle iron structures—an idea as unique as we’ve seen for future living prognostication. More

Review of RAMPAGE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2018, 107 min., Color
Sci-fi Action
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language and crude gestures
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-/B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Watching Rampage, I got the giggles when a giant gorilla and an equally enormous mutated wolf and alligator all headed for Chicago, lured by a homing device of some kind for a reason I’m not sure we’re ever really clear about. Rampage is, after all, a popcorn movie—an action film that takes no prisoners and hopes viewers will ask no questions.

Still, I couldn’t help but giggle when a government honcho learns these creatures are only minutes away from doing to Chicago what Godzilla did to Tokyo, and he barks, “Evacuate the city, immediately!” Really? A city of 2.7 million people? Just like that? You couldn’t even convince people to leave the drive-thru line at Portillo’s during that length of time.

Then again, logic isn’t standard issue for a film like this. We don’t need to know exactly why genetic editing was outlawed, or by whose authority. We don’t need to know why some corporate scientists were still working secretly in space, or what they hoped to accomplish. We don’t even need to know why one government agent acts like a cowboy and is unquestioned in his authority everywhere he turns up. All we need to know is that genetic editing is bad, bad people are still doing it, and a good person who used to work for the bad corporation is now trying to save the gorilla . . . and maybe Chicago too. More

Review of THE STEAM ENGINES OF OZ (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
2018, 75 min., Color
Animation
Not rated (would be PG for violence)
Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

The Steam Engines of Oz is billed as a “steampunk” version of the L. Frank Baum classic, making it one of the more interesting revisionist updates to come out since The Wiz. But what is “steampunk,” and how does it play out in an adaptation of a beloved film classic?

As a subgenre of science fiction, “steampunk” is a blend of technology and Victorian images that fuses a cyberpunk sensibility with a celebration of vintage Industrial Age images and plots. After that, it’s anybody’s guess, as the term has morphed into a confusing number of mutations. But the bottom line is that it’s all about gears and goggles.

The bigger question is, Who is the audience for a steampunk version of The Wizard of Oz?

Since Oz is run by a sinister Tin Man, the lions are anything but cowardly, the munchkins look like Uzi-toting bikers, and at least one of the main characters from the children’s book has limbs cut off, it’s not exactly for small children.

Yet, small children would be the most forgiving of an animated style that’s inconsistently disappointing. Sometimes the animation flattens out into 2D, other times it has the same 3D CGI look of the Barbie franchise films, and still other times the action looks like a phone app version of a video game. The latter is the style that’s predominant throughout this wacky 79-minute animated adventure, which seems longer than that—never a good sign. More

Review of TOMB RAIDER (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
2018, 118 min., Color
Action-Adventure Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Critics didn’t care much for Tomb Raider. At Rotten Tomatoes the film earned just a 49 percent fresh rating with critics, while 60 percent of the audience liked it. That sounds terrible until you consider that the original 2001 film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, tallied just a 20 percent fresh rating and a 47 percent happy audience share.

The problem with Tomb Raider is that for all the action, for all the accomplished CGI and special effects work, and in spite of everything that Alicia Vikander does to shine on camera, the film is saddled with an origin story that feels a little heavy for a film adaptation of a video game. More tongue-in-cheek humor would have helped, but so would more a more original plot. When the end credits roll, you’re thinking, that was entertaining enough, but you can’t really escape the feeling that you’ve seen it all before.

That’s a little unsettling, because while Alastair Siddons is a relative newcomer, his co-screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet is signed up to work on screenplays for some pretty high-profile films: Captain Marvel (2019), Sherlock Holmes 3 (2020), and Dungeons & Dragons (2021). So Geneva, let me protect everyone’s interests moving forward by saying, please don’t take those films too seriously and try especially hard to come up with at least two action sequences that are both original and memorable—because I’ve already forgotten most of the action from Tomb Raider. And there’s no shortage of searching-for-lost-parent films, most of which manage to feel more original than this one—with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade coming instantly to mind.

Curiously, our family was split: the females thought it was worth a solid B, while the males (who had watched a bit more in the way of action/superhero films) were a little more jaded and gave it a C- or C. So that’s your break point. What do you want out of an action film? More

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