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Review of THOR: RAGNAROK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2017, 130 min., Color
Fantasy action-adventure
Marvel Studios
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, Chris Hemsworth played Thor (2011) as a brooding, arrogant Adonis who thought he was God’s gift to, well, everyone. But I guess that being the son of the old Norse god Odin can give you a giant superiority complex. Even when he fought the Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World (2013) with Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor at the helm, Thor and his story remained dark and brooding.

But with Thor: Ragnarok (2017), this superhero series gets a sunny makeover. I didn’t believe it when fellow critics described it as being funnier than Guardians of the Galaxy. After finally seeing it on Blu-ray (it looks fabulous, by the way) I can see why that film comparison came to mind, and not just because Guardians is funny. The only thing missing here is a talking animal.

Sans the raccoon, Thor: Ragnarok has the same core as Guardians, with a hero joined by a bad-ass woman (in this case, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie), a big powerful guy (Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk), and a natural-world guy (rock man Korg, rather than tree man Groot). Yet, amazingly, there isn’t a thing about this movie that feels copycat or derivative. More

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Review of JUSTICE LEAGUE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: 10 and older
2017, 120 min., Color
Fantasy action-adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Since 2000, Warner Bros. has made 17 feature films based on DC Comics, the most successful of which have been the three Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale Dark Knight films, Constantine, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Man of Steel, and, most recently, Wonder Woman. So where does Justice League fit into the DC Universe, critically? Put it this way: it’s better than Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but not as good as Wonder Woman and Man of Steel.

Directed by DC Universe veteran Zach Snyder (Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman), Justice League scores high marks for the action, special/visual effects, and strong villain; an appreciate round of applause for infusing the film with some humor; and a sympathy card for wrestling with the dilemma of how to create an interesting character-based film when the requisite focus for the genre is on non-stop action.

This is an origin story about how the Justice League came about, and the story picks up after the end of Batman v Superman. In the opening credits the camera pans across newspaper headlines proclaiming Superman dead . . . but is he?

The action begins with Batman battling what appears to be a winged human-sized insect that could easily be confused with a bat, if you were a small child reporting criminal actions witnessed. It turns out that the insect is a “scout” for an impending alien invasion.

It’s not exactly clear who summoned whom or how they knew of each other’s existence, but the first act assembles the core of what will become the Justice League: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher). Henry Cavill also appears as Superman/Clark Kent, while the mere humans who are important to them are Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Mera (Amber Heard), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons). More

Review of FATHER GOOSE (Olive Signature Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
1964, 118 min., Color
Romantic comedy/Adventure
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for some peril and adult drinking)
Aspect ratio: anamorphic widescreen (16×9)
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C+
Clip
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As I wrote when Olive released a no-frills Blu-ray of this title in 2014, Father Goose is one of those rare films that appeals not only to lovers of the genre—in this case, romantic comedy—but others as well. There’s humor and WWII adventure in this amiable 1964 film, which will make it appealing to boys in the family. The girls, meanwhile, will be won over by the seven schoolgirls of varying ages that are rescued by a reluctant (and still very funny and attractive in his second-to-last film) Cary Grant. Much of the humor is based on the contrast between Grant’s scruffy character and “proper” behavior, with the girls as engaging as any child actors I’ve seen.

Grant plays teacher-turned-beachcomber Walter Eckland, who dropped out of the world and in return just wants the world to leave him alone. Though war in the Pacific is raging all around him, he’s determined to be neutral and uninvolved. We first meet him when he turns up at British-Australian naval base that’s under fire, and, bothered more by a pelican that keeps hitching a ride on the boat he recently bought than by shells exploding all around him, he proceeds to try to “borrow” cans of gasoline and rations.

That plays right into the hands of the dockmaster, an old friend named Houghton (Trevor Howard) who’s been ordered to evacuate and set up shop coordinating more than 30 coast watchers spread across the Pacific islands. He needs one more coast watcher and Walter needs supplies, so they strike a deal . . . which Walter had no intention of abiding by, until Houghton “accidentally” rams his boat and forces him to make for the island. Then, to get Walter to actually report Japanese airplane and ship movements, Houghton hides bottles of scotch whiskey and gives Walter the directions to a bottle for every confirmed sighting.

Walter never gets drunk, and his drinking is played for laughs, so most parents won’t find it objectionable. After all, there is a war on, and when Walter ends up rescuing a pretty young teacher (Leslie Caron) and her charges, she immediately sets about trying to reform him. He may be gruff, but he’s still a likable fellow that the girls find as appealing as their teacher does. Sparks eventually fly, and the action intensifies, and in no time at all you’re rooting for this pair of opposites to come together in spite of all that’s happening in the world around them.

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Review of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2017, 129 min., Color
Action-Adventure Fantasy
Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence and some suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMI 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Our family loved Pirates of the Caribbean when it was only a theme park ride. So when Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl appeared in 2003, we happily climbed aboard. It turned out to be a fantastically original and fun film that felt like a ride, with Johnny Depp creating a pirate captain like we’ve never seen before: a rum-loving, slightly swishy ne’er-do-well who is simultaneously the worst and best pirate anyone has ever seen. Captain Jack Sparrow.

But success in Hollywood is a curse in itself, dooming actors in highly successful blockbusters to repeat their roles over and over. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is the fifth in the franchise, and I will say this: our family liked it better than the fourth (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011). Though some of the fantasy elements are still as confusing as they’ve been in other sequels, Dead Men Tell No Tales at least has some fun action scenes, some great special effects (like undead sharks attacking) and two very likable young leads that inject new blood into the franchise.

That’s a double-edged cutlass, though, because as filmgoers your gut tells you that this series ought to have stopped after the first trilogy. Now, with two new characters to drive the action, the series probably won’t end with #5—though it will never catch the all-time sequels leader, Godzilla, which has spawned 29 movie offspring.

But back to what makes the film work. Newcomers Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario are as refreshing as Felicity Jones and Diego Luna were in Rogue One—just the kind of jolt that a storied franchise needs. As an astrologer accused of witchcraft and the son of pirate Will Turner, both of them looking for fathers, they have good chemistry together and capture the light tone of the first film.

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Review of PILGRIMAGE (2017) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: No
2017, 96 min., Color
Adventure-Drama
RLJ Entertainment
Not rated (Would be R for violence)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Trailer
Amazon link

Pilgrimage is an average movie with above-average atmosphere and cinematography, thanks largely to the Irish landscapes where it was mostly filmed. It’s also a movie that plods along into eye-rolling territory until, suddenly, there’s a burst of violent (some would call it ultra-violent) action. Though it’s billed as a medieval thriller, this Jekyll-Hyde movie lurches between tedium and frenetic action, while viewers may well wish that the filmmakers had opted for some sort of happy medium.

The plot is simple: an emissary from Rome shows up at an Irish monastery in remote Western Ireland with instructions to take a holy relic back to the Pope, who believes it has enough power to end the Crusades. An opening scene showed just how that relic came to become “holy”: it was the large rock that ended the life of a Christian martyr who was being stoned for his beliefs. Fast-forward to 1202 A.D. and Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber) shows up in a white robe asking for the relic.

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Review of WONDER WOMAN (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2017, 141 min., Color
Action-Adventure Fantasy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action and some suggestive content
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

In a way, Wonder Woman is DC’s version of Marvel’s Thor. Both are ancient gods with one foot in the mythological sphere and one foot in the saving-the-planet contemporary world. Thor has his hammer, but Wonder Woman tops that with her indestructible bracelets and Lasso of Hestia (and Truth, and Butt-Kicking). Like Captain America, this Amazonian goddess has to train to learn how to fight, and one super-accessory that she shares in common with Steve Rogers is a powerful shield. She also carries a special sword, making her one formidable superhero.

The brainchild of psychologist-writer William Mouton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter, Princess Diana of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta made her appearance in DC’s All Star Comics #8 (October 1941) and was enough of a feminist icon that she made the cover of Ms. magazine 30 years later and in 2016 was named “U.N. Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls” by the United Nations. Marston explained that he wanted “to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman,” and that character has resonated with people. In this 2017 film, she can leap high as tall buildings, she can deflect speeding bullets, and she can cause a devastating shock wave both on-screen and off. Wonder Woman earned more than $819 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing film directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, Monster).

The biggest change the film makes from the comics and 1970s TV series starring Lynda Carter is that Wonder Woman enters the world of humans during WWI rather than WWII. It’s the Kaiser, not Hitler, that leads the enemy, and the plot revolves around mustard gas, trench warfare, and biplanes. There’s no shortage of villains, but the standouts are David Thewlis as Ares, Diana’s distant half-brother and son of Zeus, and Elena Anaya as the demented Dr. Maru, a.k.a. “Dr. Poison.”

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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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