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DOCTOR STRANGE (3D Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Entire family: No
2016, 115 min., Color
Marvel Studios/Disney
Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Best Buy link

Who knew that Earth had a Sorcerer Supreme protecting it from outside magical and supernatural threats? Or that Marvel still remembered how to produce a straight-up origin story without feeling the need to overpopulate it with Marvel Universe heroes and villains? Some fans accustomed to crossover confusion may wish for a more complex plot than we get in Doctor Strange, but I find it refreshing to be able to focus on a single character’s journey from supreme jerk to Sorcerer Supreme.

doctorstrangescreen1Benedict Cumberbatch might not fit the leading man profile, but he wears the Doctor Strange uniform well. In the early going he’s especially perfect as an arrogant neurosurgeon who has a career-ending accident and, embittered, travels to Nepal to seek a mind-over-matter healer that would help him get his career back. As is often the case in life, when one door closes, another one opens . . . only this portal opens into the astral dimension and time-space continuum.

Doctor Strange looks great in standard Blu-ray, but if ever a film was made for 3D, it’s this one. Unlike some 3D movies that look as if the filmmakers occasionally threw in some effect so it looks like it’s flying at you, Doctor Strange features mostly remarkable depths of field in plot-grounded scenes that are so mind-bending it’s hard to describe. As the sorcerers do battle they rearrange buildings, roads, and whole cities as if they were Tetris blocks, turning them sideways, upside down, and creating fields of battle that keep shifting. Amazingly, it only seems to shift for those in attuned to the supernatural. Streets and cars and people seem to carry on even as their world is turned sideways or upside down. In 3D it’s especially “marvel”ous, though it’s still pretty awesome on 2D Blu-ray.

doctorstrangescreen2By contrast, Stephen Strange’s journey is surprisingly straightforward: he arrives at the door of Kamar-Taj and, refused, sits there until the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) decides to take him under her wing and teach him mystical powers and the secrets of being able to access and manipulate other dimensions, like the Mirror Dimension or the Astral Plane. Strange is no stranger to hard work and studying. After all, he made it through med school. A quick study, he always wants more than he’s allowed—especially when it comes to the sorcery books in the Ancient One’s library. Along the way he learns that the only thing keeping Earth safe from other dimensions is a spell involving three buildings in New York, London, and Hong Kong. When a former pupil (it’s always a former pupil, isn’t it?) named Kaecilius steals pages from the book detailing the most powerful secrets of time and immortality and returns with a force of underlings, the sorcerers must stop them—whether Doctor Strange feels ready or not. Much of it—even the idea of turning back time, which we saw in GalaxyQuest and other films—is old news. But it works.

doctorstrangescreen3Strange is an interesting hero because he’s a fence-straddler. He’s much too selfish to be a true superhero—at least at first—and he has an arrogant streak in him that drives him to do what he wants to do, thinking that rules don’t apply to him. So when he secretly studies the book that Kaecilius read and learns the language that would reveal its secrets, and when he takes the Eye of Agamotto and uses it to bend time, he’s actually going rogue rather than following the Sorcerer Supreme’s—the Ancient One’s—instructions. Yet he also understands the stakes and seems ready to take up the Cloak of Levitation and protect Earth.

Swinton and Cumberbatch are both “large” characters, but Kaecilius doesn’t really stand out as a villain. That’s less the fault of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting than it is the limitations of the role. Despite the inevitable battle, the character frankly seems like part of an ensemble, no more or no less significant than Strange’s surgical colleague Christine (Rachel McAdams), mystic librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), or mystic arts master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Regardless, Doctor Strange is a successful film and a worthy addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. Look for Thor to pair up with him the next time around, as the ending and credits sequence reveals. And in the spirit of that pairing, Disney has released a fun Thor YouTube video and a clip that reveals how they came up with the end tag for Doctor Strange.

Language: There’s so much action that foul language takes a back seat. Only once does a swearword (a-hole) stand out; otherwise it’s the cursing version of fecal matter
Sex: Nothing at all
Violence: Not as violent as some Marvel Universe films; surgeries can seem gruesome, and there are several shots of a beating and the aftermath of an impaling; otherwise, it’s all grand-scale sci-fi battling, with more buildings crashing than blood
Adult situations: The depiction of the surgeries and car accident are the “real” situations in a fantastic world; some children may find it disturbing when Strange encounters the ultimate evil in a different dimension
Takeaway: Doctor Strange may not be as well known as other Marvel characters, but this excellent cinematic adaptation should help raise his profile considerably

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (Blu-ray combo)

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AvengersAgeofUltronGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2015, 141 min., Color
Marvel/Disney
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments/language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: A-/B+
Included: Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, Digital HD (DVD sold separately)
Trailer
Amazon link

All superheroes try to save the world. It’s in their contract. But the crisis usually isn’t of their own making, as it is in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The sequel to 2012’s The Avengers is a slam-bang action and special effects movie that requires you to pay attention to pick up the plot points—which means that family members on the low side of the PG-13 rating might be slow to figure things out, though they won’t care a bit. They’ll be happy enough savoring the breakneck action and appreciating the CGI antics of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Captain America (Chris Evans).

In the pre-title sequence, the Avengers raid a Hydra stronghold in a fictional Eastern European country and recover Loki’s scepter that Hydra scientists were using to experiment on human subjects, including a pair of twins—the now superfast Pietro and mind-manipulating Wanda. But what viewers can see that the Avengers can’t is that Hydra actually wanted them to take that scepter, knowing its power for evil and Tony Stark’s all-or-nothing personality.

Thor is anxious to return the scepter to his world, but trouble ensues when Stark (aka Iron Man) borrows it to upload into his global defense program, dubbed “Ultron,” and the scepter A.I. causes Ultron to go full-blown evil. He eliminates Stark’s A.I., J.A.R.V.I.S., and, like all non-human intelligences, looks around and decides that the world would be a better place without so much bickering flesh and blood. The rest of the film follows the Avengers attempts to track him down—which means a return trip to fictional Sokovia and some pretty cool all-out battles.

AvengersAgeofUltronscreenI’m giving this an A- only because the special effects are uneven. That long pre-title sequence incorporates shortcuts—sped up shots, wildly sweeping cameras, and quick cuts—to generate the appearance of furious action. Thankfully the rest of the film is mostly devoid of those cheap tricks, and viewers can “marvel” at the action as it plays out. In Avengers: Age of Ultron the characters Hawkeye, The Hulk, and Black Widow get more development, and Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury, but only for the third act. Ultron is the star of this show, and he’s villainous enough to pull the very best out of the Avengers.

Some viewers might have flashbacks to the 1999 remake of The Mummy, in which an evil one tries to “upgrade” himself from walking skeleton to fully flesh-and-blood villain, because the same thing holds true for Ultron. The opening sequence might also remind viewers of the Star Wars series—particularly the speeder bike sequences from Return of the Jedi—because, even more than the first Avengers film, this one goes full-bore CGI in action, backgrounds, settings, and objects.

But it’s accomplished and it’s as entertaining as popcorn movies get. Because of the complexity, because of the accomplished special effects, it’s a film that ought to get plenty of repeat play. The collector’s edition comes with 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and Digital HD, with more than 45 minutes of exclusive bonus features. The DVD is sold separately, but Blu-ray is the way to go, mostly because the sound is so amazing. The picture has plenty of pop, but it’s the immersive soundtrack that sells it. And if you have 3D capability, the depth and tracking during quick scenes is pretty amazing.

Language: A surprising “s-word” early in the film that’s used as a running joke, but otherwise pretty clean
Sex: n/a
Violence: Plenty of fantasy violence, but no graphic blood-letting
Adult situations: Some innuendo, but that’s it
Takeaway: Marvel and Disney are inching closer into Star Wars territory, and creating a series of movies with just as many connections and complexities.

CARS (3D Blu-ray combo)

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Cars3DcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family: Yes
2006, 117 min., Color
Rated G
Disney-Pixar
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Includes: 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features: A-
Trailer 

Cars begins in a surprisingly generic way, with a big race (the stuff of Saturday morning cartoons) ending in a three-way tie between two veterans and a cocky rookie named Lightning McQueen—the winner to be determined by a tiebreaker that will be held in California a week later.

McQueen is totally self-absorbed, so it’s no shock that he pushes his personal big rig, Mack, to get him there overnight . . . and it’s no surprise that the audience is instantly delighted that he gets an early come-uppance when Mack (John Ratzenberger) falls asleep and, startled by a bunch of highway hotwheels, accidentally dumps his dozing cargo in the middle of nowhere.

Make that the one-road town that time forgot: Radiator Springs. There, McQueen is towed off by a buck-toothed tow-truck named Mater (Tow Mater, get it?) and appears in court. Though the judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), is willing to let bygones be bygones, the local attorney wants restitution, and McQueen is sentenced to repave the road. Hard labor, yes, but Radiator Springs is also his salvation.  More

THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) (3D Blu-ray combo)

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LittleMermaidcoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes
1989, 83 min., Color
Rated G
Disney
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features:  B+
Includes: 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy, 10-song download
Trailer

Though the Disney’s acknowledged Golden Age of animation began in 1938 with Snow White, seven dwarfs, and Nine Old Men—the original team of animators—the studio’s 1989 production of The Little Mermaid launched what could only be called a second Golden Age.

Disney’s 28th animated feature broke new ground by infusing the narrative with Broadway-style songs from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, whose music theater work included Little Shop of Horrors. The two brought a new energy to Disney animation—it was Ashman’s idea to turn the crab in the screenplay from an English butler type to a Jamaican Rastafarian—and directors Ron Clements and John Musker had a budget to work with that was larger than it had been in decades.  But it’s all in the details, and Disney really ramped up the animation and backgrounds to create an undersea world that was nothing short of spectacular. That successful formula would also be used in Beauty and the Beast two years later, and in The Lion King (1994).

Broadway actress Jodi Benson was chosen to play Ariel, and she brings a wide-eyed innocence and passion to the role—and to Ariel’s signature song, “Part of Your World.” Each song moves the narrative and character development forward, with several big production numbers so rousing (and with characters assuming “Ta da!” poses at the end) that many theater audiences burst into applause.

Viewers could identify with Ariel, too. She was a flawed Disney “princess” who was all the more endearing because of her humanness (uh, fish tail notwithstanding). She disobeyed her father to follow her passion, she was talented but easily distracted and perhaps too trusting—and most importantly, she aspired to a life that was different from the one her father envisioned.  More

WRECK-IT RALPH (3D Blu-ray combo)

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Wreckit200Grade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes

2012, 108 min., Color
Rated PG for rude humor, mild violence
Disney

Aspect ratio:  2.39:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features:  C
Includes:  Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer

When Wreck-It Ralph and Brave came out of Disney-Pixar studios last year, it felt like a case of babies being switched at birth. But it really WAS the Pixar gang that produced Brave, a princess fairy tale with a traditional, realistic look to it, while Disney animation gave us Wreck-It Ralph, a spunky homage to video games that depicted multiple virtual worlds.

For gamers, the fun comes from spotting allusions to such popular and historic video games as Super Mario Bros., Q*bert, Street Fighter, Pac-Man, Paperboy, Pong, Dig Dug, Qix, Frogger, BurgerTime, Sonic the Hedgehog, Metal Gear, World of Warcraft, and Altered Beast. But you don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy Wreck-It Ralph.

The premise is similar to Toy Story. Once the lights go out, the “toys” (here, characters in a video game) are off-duty and have a life of their own. It turns out that acting out these video games is their day job, and there’s a transportation terminal that takes them to and from their games at the Arcade.

Once again Disney has created an immersive world that’s rich with detail, populated by characters who have problems humans can identify with and characteristics that make them likable—even “bad guy” Ralph (John C. Reilly), who’s hurt that he wasn’t invited to the game’s 30th anniversary celebration. Just once he wants to be the guy who gets the medal at the end, rather than the hero of his game, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer). If he can’t get a medal here, he’s determined to find another game where he can be the hero. More

MONSTERS, INC. (Ultimate Collector’s Edition)

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monstersinc200Grade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes

2001, 92 min., Color animation
Rated G
Disney-Pixar

Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 7.1
Bonus features:  A-

Includes:  3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer

Not many people have 3D TVs, but there’s reason to pick up a copy of Monsters, Inc. on 3D Blu-ray even if you’re not equipped to watch with those funny glasses just yet. For this release the fourth Pixar animated film got an audio makeover—even the standard Blu-ray—and the English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 is a considerable upgrade over the previous Blu-ray and DVD.

The sound really fills the room now and matches the “wow” factor of the video, where you can see every hair on big blue monster Sulley’s body. If ever a film was made for Blu-ray, it’s this one. More