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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 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 BLACK PANTHER (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A
Entire family:  No
2018, 134 min., Color
Sci-Fi action adventure
Marvel/Disney
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Everything you’ve heard about Black Panther is true. It is a contender for best film in the 18-title Marvel Universe.

Despite a 134-minute runtime, you don’t want this ride to end. You get caught up in the action because it isn’t just nonstop effects-driven nonsense with battles that go on too long. The action feels character-driven, and you care about these characters because they’re richly drawn, with so many of them—even the ones without a backstory— sympathetic because of their on-camera interactions and dialogue. That’s one huge thing this film has going for it. Instead of one big nefarious villain there are three antagonists, and that keeps viewers on their toes.

Another positive is the blend of technology and primitive mysticism—something that lends itself to the film’s visual style and may remind viewers of Avatar or Atlantis. We’re told that long ago a meteorite hit Africa and the rare metal it was made of—Vibranium—had powers that allowed the Wakandans to develop a technologically advanced civilization. Because they feared other nations would try to steal or abuse the Vibranium, they created a deceptive shield to hide their futuristic world so that, to outsiders, Wakanda would appear to be just another poor Third World country. In the past, an adventurer-physicist named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, unrecognizable as always) discovered the secret world, stole some Vibranium, and was responsible for the death of T’Chaka, their king and Black Panther. Klaue is at it again, hooking up with other baddies as he tries to penetrate Wakandan security, defeat the new Black Panther, and profit from their technological secrets.

If you have flashbacks to Avatar, Atlantis, The Lion King, Tarzan, or even early James Bond films and Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, you’re probably not alone. There are archetypes at work here that surfaced in all of those films, and the multi-referential aspect adds an additional layer of interest. And while too many superhero plots can seem like exercises in confusion, Black Panther is neither muddled nor insultingly obvious. More

Review of MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 141 min., Color
Sci-fi action adventure
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

What you want to know is this: How does Maze Runner: The Death Cure stack up against the previous two installments, and how does The Maze Runner film trilogy compare with The Hunger Games and Divergent—the other popular dystopian series based on young adult novels?

Our family thought that all three Maze Runner films were comparable in quality—ranging from a B+ to an A, depending on your age (teens leaning higher). In terms of production design and plot, this series may rely a little more on familiar post-apocalyptic tropes than the others, but it’s just as well done—again, comparable. The characters are engaging, the production design is strong, and the action, though it covers familiar ground, is unique in its details.

With Maze Runner: The Death Cure, director Wes Ball brings his film adaptation of the popular James Dasher young adult novels to a close, but if you’re going to understand anything that’s going on, you really need to have seen the first two films—the second, especially. The three installments function like a three-act screenplay, with the first film the set-up, the second the acceleration of plot, and the third a push toward resolution.  More

Review of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Blu-ray)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2017, 152 min., Color
LucasFilm/Disney
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Bonus Disc, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Fans at IMBD.com liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens considerably better than Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and I’ve heard it said that it’s because they thought the humor in it was more contemporary than campy.

I think that assessment is a little harsh, as there are only a few instances where the humor seems peculiar to our galaxy. For me, the last two installments in the Star Wars franchise were equally accomplished fun popcorn movies that had all the things that made the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) successful: humor, adventure, action, great characters, a complex-yet-decipherable storyline, and mind-boggling special and visual effects. I’m not alone in thinking them comparable. At Rottentomatoes.com, Tomatometer critics gave The Force Awakens a 93 percent fresh rating and The Last Jedi a 91 percent. Our family liked them equally well.

For me, there was but one jarring moment when I thought, really? And that was when General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), having been jettisoned into space and floating unconscious like a piece of space junk, suddenly is awakened by the Force and then stretches out one hand and takes off like Mary Poppins extending her umbrella arm and flying off.

If you throw out that moment and a casino scene that seems a little too Bond-like, everything else is tensely (well, except for occasional comic relief) believable within the realm of logic that drives this fantasy world of George Lucas’s. Yet, like The Force Awakens, it’s not as dark and traumatizing as the second trilogy (Episodes I-III). In fact, I’d have to say that The Last Jedi is lighter and less traumatic than The Force Awakens. More

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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