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
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
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.

Although the main “good guys” are indeed marginal to the overall saga, Rogue One is a fascinating prequel to A New Hope that connects far better than any of the second trilogy films (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, or Revenge of the Sith). Like The Force Awakens, it recaptures the slam-bang Saturday matinee feel of the very first trilogy (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi). But the tone is a little darker, given the fact that people die and they don’t just evaporate into spirits as in the saga films. Still, the production design is similar, and so is the spirit. Gone is the moodiness of brooding villains or brooding Force fence-sitters.

As with The Force Awakens, audiences are treated to another male-female team in which the female is a bad-ass who holds her own. In Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Lucas went back to that original galaxy far, far away in order to present readers with another intergalactic trio of a good guy (Finn, who’s actually a stormtrooper defector), a rogue pilot (Poe), and a feisty woman (Rey). In Rogue One, Lucas gives us an even stronger and more dominant female character. In fact, even the robot is feistier this time around. K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is both hilarious and inching closer to human than any of the robots we’ve previously seen.

The Flash Gordon serials that Lucas so admired featured a doctor who was conscripted and forced to work in the laboratories of Emperor Ming. Here, it’s the father of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who’s put to work on the Death Star against his will, leaving virtual orphan Jyn to grow up alone on the galaxy’s mean streets. Rogue One is really all about Jyn, with other characters filling in the gaps—and that’s new territory for Lucas and his filmmakers. Yet, because of Vader and the Death Star, it also feels comfortably familiar. You get a similar sensation watching Imperial Walkers (AT-ATs) plodding along menacingly in a tropical setting instead of a frozen wasteland. One note: because of the palm trees and soldiers wearing camou it almost feels like a throwback WWII Pacific Theater film during some of the battle scenes, and that adds a touch of realism to what had previously been fantasy, sci-fi battles. The father-daughter angle is also heavily realistic, and that’s at the center of the plot.

Jones does a terrific job of making Jyn a character we care about, but she’s also surrounded by a talented ensemble who play equally interesting characters, ranging from the wounded rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a former Imperial cargo pilot who defected named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), or rebel leader Mon Mothma. But the character who is perhaps the most interesting is Chirrut Imwe (played by the scene-stealing Donnie Yen), a blind man who may or may not be a Jedi. He’s at least a Jedi wannabe, and in tune enough with the Force to walk through hell and somehow perform an important task. His sidekick, a rogue named Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) who reminds you of characters Danny Trejo usually plays, is also a fun addition to the Star Wars universe.

Rogue One’s narrative is made more interesting because of the characters’ cross purposes. Jyn is recruited by rebel leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) to rescue her father (Mads Mikkelsen) so the Alliance can learn more about the project he’s been working on, but Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the intelligence officer assigned to accompany her, has another agenda. Though the mere presence of Lord Vader elevates the film, Jones’ character holds her own. And it’s been a while since that galaxy far, far away had real balance like this.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: More realistic violence (including an assassin with a scope) can make this feel darker and bleaker than the other films, though optimism is certainly more prevalent than pessimism
Adult situations: Implied drinking at one point, but mostly just the violence and loss that characters experience
Takeaway: Old-school seems to work best with the Lucas-fueled Star Wars franchise. The past two films are more on a par with the original three in terms of looks and spirit, and that all but guarantees it will be the course Lucas takes moving forward


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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
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.

It wouldn’t be a Rowling story without some questions or convolutions, and we think (but aren’t really sure) that maybe Newt was in New York on a collecting mission. After all, about this time a mysterious unseen creature has been terrorizing one section of the city. But while Newt is lugging around that magical zoo-in-a-suitcase, several of his creatures—including a platypus-like critter that’s a kleptomaniacal sucker for coins and jewelry and anything shiny—escape, and part of the plot involves Newt trying to recapture them.

The beasts themselves are indeed fantastic (and another marvel of computer generated images), but the charm of this adventure comes from Rowling’s application of a time-honored convention: the suitcase swap. In this case, a No-Maj (pre-Muggle term) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is lugging a suitcase full of baked goods that he had whipped up to try to convince a bank officer to loan him the money to open a shop. That suitcase mix-up leads to a variation on the buddy adventure, and Fogler and Redmayne make an entertaining team. Their interaction and antics are almost as fun as the creatures themselves—so much so that you wonder what some of the Potter books and films would have been like if a Muggle had been given a more prominent sidekick role.

Other plot points pale by comparison. There’s Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a temperance-style No-Maj who leads a society that aims to warn the public that witches and wizards really do exist and pose a menace to society. The beasts, of course, give credence to her cries. Then there’s an Auror named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) who sees in Newt the chance to make a “bust” and win favor with the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Along the way a scene plays itself out at the Central Park Zoo, Newt is brought before to MACUSA headquarters and accused of conspiring with rogue wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), Jacob confronts a darkly destructive Obscurus, and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), Auror and Director of Magical Security, gets involved in tracking a murderous Obscurus that always finds a host in a child.

Although the main characters are adults rather than children, Fantastic Beasts is as close to the world of Harry Potter as it gets. The film was so warmly received by fans that five installments have been announced, with the second volume already in pre-production—not bad for an expansion of a plotless nature guidebook. One suspects that the insertion of a missing wizard—Gellert Grindelwald—is both a way of connecting this film stylistically with the others, giving Rowling and director David Yates (a veteran of four Potter films) the chance to splash animated newspaper headlines across the screen, and also a Voldemort-style twist for them to work out in future films.

Language: A few buggers and hells, but that’s it
Sex: n/a (unless you count kissing or hugging)
Violence: Bloodless but still graphic violence, as much as in the final Potter movie
Adult situations: A woman almost dies, a mother beats her son, a boy is punched in the face, and a speakeasy scene features drinking and smoking in the background, with “giggle water” being the only intoxicant highlighted
Takeaway: Harry Potter lives! This series is just as well done and so far equally addictive

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
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.

The action takes place after Superman’s death, when Col. Rick Flag suicidesquadscreen2(Joel Kinnaman) takes charge of a team of supervillains assembled by an intelligence officer named Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). What’s to keep them from bolting after they’re released? A micro-bomb injected into their necks that can be detonated if they even think about going rogue. But here’s where it gets confusing: one potential recruit is an archaeologist (a girlfriend of Flag) who is possessed by the witch-goddess the Enchantress, and faster than you can drag race a car she turns into a destroy-the-world threat. Meanwhile, The Joker finds a way to disable Harley’s bomb and springs her loose. In a confusing turn of events she ends up joining the original group as they battle the Enchantress . . . though this is no simple good vs. evil confrontation.

Honestly, though the Task Force X team of supervillains includes the pyrokinetic El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), the mutated Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), assassin Slipknot (Adam Beach), and superthief Captain Boomerang, Suicide Squad is the Batman and Harley show. Some will say it’s hard to top Heath Ledger’s Joker, while others will be suicidesquadscreen3fans of Jack Nicholson or even TV’s Caesar Romero. That’s the way it is when you have multiple actors playing iconic roles. To be able to add something new and still believable to the character is a real feat, and that’s what Leto does here—same with Robbie. You are mesmerized whenever they’re onscreen, and because of them and the action and special effects you don’t mind as much that the plot can seem muddled. In fact, that’s all the more reason to watch it again—though this one is definitely only for teens and older. The Blu-ray comes with an extended cut that adds 11 minutes of mayhem.

Language: One f-bomb and frequent uses of other swearwords and a mention of that term President-Elect Trump used that no one seemed to mind; additional sex talk
Sex: A strip club features dancers in the slightly blurred distance, while Harley gives a tame lap dance to someone and kisses another woman; Deadshot is shown butt-naked in a darkly lit room only briefly
Violence: Shootings and mass destruction, mostly, along with prison torture and plenty of hand-to-hand fighting; the most extreme are a character whose head is blown off and others who are shot in the head point-blank, but with no blood to speak of
Adult situations: Drinking and implied smoking
Takeaway: Letto and Robbie make this film fun to watch, and a little more of that from the other characters and a few more lighter lines would have been a welcome balance to some of the more violent and serious scenes

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
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



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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
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.


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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
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

EQUALS (Blu-ray)

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EqualscoverGrade: C
Entire family: No
2016, 101 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, sensuality, partial nudity and disturbing images
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Amazon link

Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult in a dystopian romantic drama? Sounds like a surefire hit with teens, doesn’t it? Especially when it’s all about emotions, as Equals is.

Sometime in the far future—far enough to where everyone wears white uniforms and the buildings and residential cubicles are all as sanitized as can be—human emotions and illnesses have been all but eliminated. People go about their sanitized jobs like futuristic zombies or contented cows, until a new disease pops up: SOS (Switched on Syndrome), the stages of which ultimately lead to the afflicted being “put down” in a humane and painless way, though an ubiquitous videoboard and voiceover reassures them that “a cure is coming soon.”

Equalsscreen2When Silas (Hoult) is affected, he goes through treatments. He also suspects that co-worker Nia (Stewart) is suffering from SOS but hiding her symptoms. The main symptom, of course, is that they can feel emotions and therefore notice each other, then feel for each other. A romance grows . . . though unfortunately, not fast enough for most teens.

Therein lies the chief problem. How do you convey a sterile and emotionless environment and a futuristic existence bereft of real meaning without subjecting viewers to stark repetitive images and what feels like real-time boredom? Thirty minutes into Equals our dystopian-novel-loving teen was ready to pull the plug, and I can’t say as I blame her. It’s slow going. What’s worse, though, is that if you’ve seen The Giver, or even Gattaca, you’re already have a slight sense of deja vu. The concept isn’t new or original, and that places a burden on Equalsscreen1director Drake Doremus and his cast to make their version of dystopian disappointment memorable or distinctive it in some way. And I’m not sure that happens.

Doremus seems to wrestle with the sense of inevitability that’s embedded in the film’s plot, determined to shine the spotlight on these ill-fated lovers when what’s more interesting, frankly, are the other patients who have formed both a support group and underground movement to deal with not just SOS but their newfound “knowledge” of emotions that feels a little like the problem Adam and Eve faced after tasting of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

Is Equals stylish? Yes. Is it cold and sterile? Yes. Is it satisfying to watch? Honestly, no . . . though things really pick up in the third act when SOS patients played by Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver both literally and figuratively try to come to the rescue. By then, though, many viewers—young ones especially—might feel a little too zombified themselves to care.

Language: None
Sex: No nudity, but clothing removed and implied coupling
Violence: Nothing much—a body appears to have been the result of a “jumper,” and other references to suicide are made
Adult situations: Other than a frighteningly sterile vision of the future? Nothing much
Takeaway: There had to be a way to tell this story without focusing so much on the mind-numbing sterility of this future world and more on the capacity of the human spirit to rise above such things

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