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Review of KONG: SKULL ISLAND (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: No
2017, 118 min., Color
Sci-fi Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and for brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Best. Kong. Ever.

That was our family’s verdict, with all four members awarding an A or A- to this franchise reboot. Then again, we’re not purists. We’re just movie-lovers, and we loved this movie. The action is non-stop, the CGI monsters and battles are terrific, the location footage shot in northern Vietnam and Oahu is stunning, the characters are fun, and most importantly for an action film with lots of blood and violence and killing, this film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Tonally, it’s right there with the early James Bond films . . . if Bond was on speed and there was no time for romance.

Unlike more unimaginative monster movies, this isn’t just a game of attrition, where you end up with a slow build-up to one death, then another, and another. All hell breaks loose, and it never stops breaking loose. You can’t predict who’s going to get it and when, but how upset can you possibly get when a man falls into the mouth of the great ape and is presumably eaten, when his fall is followed by a quick match cut in which we see a close-up of a soldier taking a crunchy bite out of a sandwich? And when another character is eaten, as he looks up and notices the creature we have yet to see, his last words are “Oh shit,” you’re more prone to laugh first, then shout in release at the action that follows. Which is to say, yes, this is every bit a PG-13 movie, both in language and in violent action, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (TV’s Single Dads) tempers it with humor. As a result, what could have been a serious bloodbath is more of a popcorn movie.

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Review of ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: No
2016, 133 min., Color
Sci-Fi Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Lucasfilm/Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Can I just say that I liked Rogue One: A Star Wars Story better than the last four Star Wars stories—even The Force Awakens, which was the top-grossing film of 2015? In fact, I think it’s borderline absurd that Rogue One is marketed as a tangential story rather than part of the saga, especially since it hooks up to the original Star Wars film (rechristened Episode IV: A New Hope) as neatly as a mid-air refueling.

With lesser villains like Darth Maul in the second trilogy and even Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, it almost seemed as if George Lucas was searching for a hero to match the charismatic power of Darth Vader. In Rogue One he finally finds that perfect villain . . . in Vader himself.

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Review of FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family:  No, a little violent for young children
2016, 133 min., Color
Fantasy adventure
Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Anyone unconvinced that J.K. Rowling is a brilliant storyteller needs to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. That she was able to expand what was essentially a book written to sate the appetites of Harry Potter fans into her first screenplay is amazing enough. That the book was nothing more than a plotless, encyclopedic “field guide” to beasts she imagined for the magical world of Hogwarts and beyond is proof positive that this woman knows how to spin a yarn. Or in this case, a prequel to the Potter books set well before the Second Wizarding War.

Eddie Redmayne is perfectly cast as Newt Scamander, a British wizard who is dedicated to convincing fellow wizards that fantastic creatures are not as dangerous as everyone believes, and that they should no longer be banned or hunted. Newt disembarks from a steamer in 1920’s New York City with a suitcase so deeply magical that it puts Mary Poppins’ valise to shame. Once you enter that suitcase you enter a veritable zoo filled with fantastic beasts he has collected.

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SUICIDE SQUAD (Blu-ray combo)

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suicidesquadcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2016, 123 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

 Suicide Squad is a high-concept film that asks, What if you plug characters from the DC Universe into the old Dirty Dozen plot? Instead of having a bunch of badasses tackle a war mission, have these imprisoned supervillains agree to work together to foil what is presumably a super-supervillian named the Enchantress in exchange for reduced sentences.

suicidesquadscreen1Sounds fun, right? But while it’s imminently watchable, Suicide Squad isn’t as fun of a ride as Guardians of the Galaxy. It could have been, with more performances like Jared Leto’s and Margot Robbie’s as The Joker and his henchwoman/partner-in-crime, Harley Quinn. Those two really go over-the-top with their roles and push their characters from celluloid right back onto the pages of a comic book, while the rest of the supervillains are played a little straighter . . . perhaps because they weren’t given as meaty (and savory) roles. But I suspect that these two just found inspired ways to play their characters.

As superhero movies go, Suicide Squad is entertaining enough to add to the family video library, but it has one big flaw. The PG-13 rated film takes a full 40 minutes to introduce the characters and basic set-up, and after that, as if making up for lost time, zips along at breakneck speed through the mission itself. What that means, of course, is that family members might squirm a bit in the early going and then sit there with raised eyebrows for the remainder of the film. It can get a little confusing. Then again, so can the set-up. You’ll want to rewatch it just to get a better handle on what’s going on, and to look for things you missed the first time around.

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X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (Blu-ray combo)

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x-menapocalypsecoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2016, 144 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language, and some suggestive images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

The Marvel Universe is a complicated one, and the X-Men movies are among the more demanding. Viewers are expected to juggle a lot of different characters in various incarnations, and to remember each complicated film as it builds upon the others—nine now, in all. That takes a memory better than mine, which is why I waited to review this until my son took a weekend off from college to visit home again. He’s a big fan and does manage to keep it all straight. We both enjoyed the film, though his verdict was that X-Men: Apocalypse wasn’t as good as X-Men: Days of Future Past—a B+/A- rather than a solid A or A-. Why? Because it did require even more recollection of details from previous films, and the narrative also jumps around more.

I came at it from a slightly different angle. What I do tend to remember are basic plot types, and X-Men: Apocalypse recycles a familiar one: an ancient Egyptian dark force of a “man” is resurrected and seeks to destroy x-menapocalypsescreen2the world and start anew. Whether it’s world conquest or revenge, we’ve seen variations on this theme ever since the first black-and-white presentation of The Mummy way back in 1932. Only this time it’s a mutant, the first mutant, that’s unleashed. As with a film like The Matrix, you may not understand every little nuance of exposition, but Apocalypse proceeds so confidently that you feel assured that it all fits together and makes perfect sense, even if you’re not getting it in the instant. Plus, it’s easy to tolerate any momentary confusion because you’re soaking in the inventive special effects that, conceptually, rank among the best in this series. That’s something my son and I agreed was a major strength, and the sort of thing that will make you want to watch this film over and over. This X-Men is more violent that some of the previous installments, with one of the most brutal scenes the result of a surprise appearance by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

James McAvoy returns as Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, the telepathic genius who started a school for “gifted” teens—that term a euphemism for the catch-all phrase “mutants.” Among those also returning are Michael x-menapocalypsescreen1Fassbender as metal-manipulating Erik/Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as shapeshifter Raven/Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as the super strong Hank/Beast, Evan Peters as the Flash-like Peter/Quicksilver, and Lucas Till as plasma-blasting Havok. Replacing other actors this time around are Lana Condor as Jubilee, Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops, Olivia Munn as Psylocke, and Ben Hardy as Angel. But it’s the new people that will please fans. Oscar Isaac makes a darned good villain as En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, while also new to the series this outing are Kodi Smit-McPhee as the slightly humorous Kurt/Nightcrawler, the weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and super-tracker Caliban (Tomas Lemarquis). On a side note, fans will delight in seeing Stan Lee actually turn expressive in his traditional cameo.

The set-up is, as my son suggests, confusing, but things come more sharply into focus after Apocalypse recruits some mutants—Magneto among them—and begins causing major disruptions around the world. He then kidnaps Xavier, and that launches annother explosive chain of events (pun intended). There are battles in the external world, and battles inside the mind. Through it all, the production values that have helped to make this series so successful are as slick as ever. It’s a long movie, but it doesn’t feel long.

Though Days of Future Past was an unqualified hit with fans and critics, Apocalypse received mixed reviews, mostly because some were wanting director Bryan Singer to make a different film than he did. This is a special effects movie first, and a superhero movie second. But Singer (X-Men, X2, X-Men: Days of Future Past) does a nice job of enhancing the visual effects that drive the film with near-perfect pacing and shots that often mirror character mindsets—as when he launches into a 360 POV shot to capture the aftermath of chaos. And yes, it looks spectacular on 1080p Blu-ray and sounds fantastic with a 7.1 soundtrack.

Ultimately, as with any franchise that has such rabid fans, individuals will have their own favorites. My son liked X-Men: Apocalypse more than X-Men First Class (2011), but not as much as X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). And that sounds about right to me.

Language: One f-bomb that I can recall and only a handful of other swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: Multiple decaptiations are partially obscured by a cloud of dust, but there are numerous scenes of combat, a broken leg, psychological paid, and mass destruction of cities seen from a distance
Adult situations: Pretty much everything, including individuals entombed, Han Solo style, as a result of Apocalypse’s power to command sand (an ingredient in concrete)
Takeaway: Marvel and 20th Century Fox really know their audience and continue to crank out installments that please

 

COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE (Blu-ray)

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commandocodycoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes
1953, 361 min. (12 episodes), Black-and-white
Olive Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe probably owes his existence to Flash Gordon.

In the early ‘50s, baby boomers woke on Saturday and Sunday mornings to discover not just cartoons and new programs, but syndicated, recycled black-and-white shorts and serials that were made decades earlier to be shown in theaters—features like The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, and yes, Flash Gordon.

When Republic Pictures noticed that youngsters were hungry for more of the old Flash Gordon serials, they decided to create a TV series that would look like one of those early Flash adventures or several of their own, like King of the Rocket Men (1949) or Radar Men from the Moon (1952). The interesting thing about Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe is that while it commandocodyscreen1looks like an old movie serial, it was made for television, and as such, it lacks the cliffhangers that end every serial. These episodes are more self-contained, despite a narrative arc that also stretches across all 12 included here: Enemies of the Universe, Atomic Peril, Cosmic Vengeance, Nightmare Typhoon, War of the Space Giants, Destroyers of the Sun, Robot Monster from Mars, The Hydrogen Hurricane, Solar Sky Raiders, S.O.S. Ice Age, Lost in Outer Space, and Captives of the Zero Hour.

Though it was made in 1953, Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe has the look and feel of the old Flash Gordon serials. Even now, without knowing anything about the production, you’d swear that it was made in the ‘30s. That in itself is an achievement—though Commando Cody doesn’t have the same range or production values. The cast is smaller, the budget isn’t as big, there aren’t as many villains or costumed aliens of different kinds, and the sets aren’t as elaborate.

commandocodyscreen2But Commando Cody is just as campy and still fun. Though it was made for children, many families might enjoy it now because, well, what’s not to like about a man with a bulky metal mask and jet-pack who can fly through the air like Superman? Or hydrogen hurricanes, magno-force rays that can tilt the Earth on its axis, freeze rays that will remind you of playing freeze tag, and a thought-control chair that looks like a cross between a barber chair and an old Victorian parlor chair? Or robots from Mars? Or any number of gizmos and gadgets that might inspire your kids to head for the craft table and make a few of their own. Some of the fun comes from seeing how low-budget and low-tech some of the props are.

It’s hard not to laugh at Commando Cody’s atomic-powered rocket ship, which he unclogs at one point using a plunger-like device, and which has standard-issue office chairs with seat belts. When the camera tilts and the men lean back on their seats to give the appearance of “lift-off,” your family will probably crack up, if yours is anything like mine. And the top-secret headquarters for Commando Cody? You don’t have to look too carefully to see that they filmed it in front of a southern California apartment building complex and just propped a phone and two guards in front of one entrance. It’s funny too to watch Commando Cody leave his “decompression chamber” and walk on top of his stratosphere-bound rocket ship, leaning over an exhaust that looks more like it came from a giant firework pinwheel than a jet-propelled aircraft.

In Flash Gordon, the planet Mongo’s emperor, Ming the Merciless, caused natural disasters all over Earth as a first step toward conquering the planet, and Flash took off in a rocket ship with two others to thwart him. In Commando Cody the plot is similar. Commando Cody (Judd Holdren) is somehow appointed Intergalactic Sky Martial (though it’s unclear who actually appointed him) and his activities are so top secret that even viewers can’t be told. But we do know this: a cosmic ruler from another planet known simply as The Ruler (Gregory Gaye) has spies on Earth who are transmitting information to him and helping him carry out his own plan to conquer Earth. But not if Commando Cody can help it . . . with the help of his assistants Ted Richards (William Schallert) and Joan Gilbert (Aline Towne), with Richard Crane replacing Schallert midway.

The acting, as in most serials and B-movies, is no great shakes, but there’s just enough science fiction in here to make it interesting, and plenty of low-budget props and scenes to make it unintentionally funny. Commando Cody could easily serve as a warm-up for family movie night, with the installments spread out over a dozen weeks as originally intended. Yes, you can watch the episodes on YouTube, which is where the screen grabs come from, but the audio-visual quality on this two-disc set from Olive Films is far, far superior.

THE FLASH: SEASON 2 (Blu-ray)

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flash2coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: No
2015-16, 1020 min. (23 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be TV-PG for violence)
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/A- (four hours worth!)
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Though The Flash is a spin-off from Arrow (another DC Comics television series), the two shows could be from alternate universes—which, coincidentally, is a main plot thread in The Flash: Season 2.

Arrow is dark and TV-14 ultra-violent, but The Flash is tongue-in-cheek and light enough to have some fun with the whole idea of superheroes saving the planet on a daily basis, as if they were lunch bucket-carrying blue-collar workers. Tonally, this TV-PG series comes closer to Supergirl, and together the shows are closer in spirit to the old comic books. The Flash may not be as addictive, but it’s more wholesome fun, and therefore a better choice for families with children ages 9-12 who adore superhero movies and TV shows but aren’t old enough for the raw violence of Arrow.

flash2screen1Though my teenage daughter thinks he’s too nerdy, Grant Gustin seems well cast as Barry Allen, a forensic investigator for Central City police who comes out of a nine-month coma—the result of a particle accelerator explosion—only to realize that he has superhuman speed. Like, if you have a taste for a burrito, he can run to Mexico and back in time to put one in your outstretched hand!

As with most superheroes, Barry doesn’t have a traditional family. When he was younger, he witnessed his mother’s murder by a supernatural power, and was essentially orphaned when his father was convicted of killing her and sent to prison. But Barry knows what he saw, and he’s determined to clear his father’s name and avenge his mother’s death.

Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), the designer of the failed particle accelerator, takes Barry under his wing and gives his condition a name: “Metahuman.” It turns out that there are more metahumans—especially in Season 2, when Barry, aka “The Flash,” meets Jay Garrick, who claims to be The Flash in a parallel world. He got there through a breach, and warns that other metahumans—bad ones like Zoom and Dr. Light—might follow. But there’s no shortage of evil, and this season The Flash also has to face a giant-sized metahuman, Weather Wizard, Captain Cold, Trickster, Killer Frost, the time-traveling immortal Vandal Savage, Reverse-Flash, Tar Pit, Geomancer, and King Shark.

flash2screen2This season characters bounce back and forth between Earth-1 and Earth-2, The Flash investigates the phenomenon of speedsters and, typical of superheroes, at one point he loses his power. Like his female superhero counterpart on the CW he also has a secret crush—Iris (Candice Patton), his best friend and the daughter of Det. Joe West (Jesse L. Martin)—as well as another possible romantic interest (Danielle Panabaker as Dr. Caitlin Snow).

Opinions will vary, but of the CW series our family still considers Arrow to be tops, followed by Supergirl, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow. Though The Flash is loaded with villains and villainy, it doesn’t have the same compelling sequence of events as Arrow. And though the characters are engaging enough, they too fall slightly short of the charisma that we get from Arrow and Supergirl. That is, our family got hooked on Arrow and Supergirl and wanted to binge-watch, but were perfectly happy to watch The Flash like every other TV show.

Language: Squeaky clean
Sex: Nothing at all
Violence: Mostly bloodless, sci-fi battles that aren’t as frequent as on other CW superhero series
Adult situations: Occasional drinking and the death of a parent
Takeaway: It’s hard to pinpoint what makes some shows addictive and others, like The Flash, just pleasant entertainment, but that’s how it played out for our family

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