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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.

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

Review of COLLATERAL BEAUTY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
2016, 97 min., Color
Drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD UltraViolet
Trailer
Amazon link

A feel-good movie about death?

Sounds crazy, but that’s what Collateral Beauty tries to be. It’s a message film that wants audiences to appreciate the beautiful moments that can accompany a death—whether it’s a final shared conversation, an act of generosity, or a small kindness that helps someone cope.

If you’re no big fan of message films . . . or contrived plots . . . or melodramas where you know the whole point of a film is to make viewers feel something, then you probably won’t care too much for this 2016 drama starring Will Smith. And if you are a fan, you won’t appreciate that most viewers will be able to see the plot twists coming long before the turn.

Smith plays Howard, a New York ad agency exec who shows up for work every day but is no longer engaged in day-to-day operations. He’s not retired—he’s grieving. He lost a six-year-old daughter to cancer, and now all he feels like doing is stacking elaborate domino structures in his office. He wanders through each day numb with pain and at one point rides his bicycle fast as he can against traffic on a one-way street.

Now here’s the biggest plot contrivance: Unable to participate in a therapy group for parents who have lost children, Howard writes letters to three abstract concepts and puts them in the mailbox. Dear Death . . . Dear Time . . . Dear Love . . . .

It’s a film about “threes,” as there are three of his associates who are begging him to snap out of it before they lose all of the accounts he personally landed: Whit (Edward Norton), the partner who built the company with him; Claire (Kate Winslet), one of the firm’s top account executives; and Simon (Michael Peña), another top account exec. Each of those people has problems of his/her own, of course, and the deus ex machina that sets everything right—or as right as anything can ever be again, when death is involved—is the trio’s plan to enlist three actors to play those abstract concepts and confront Howard. At first their intentions seem sympathetic—maybe it will shock him back to reality?—but then it’s clear that they put money ahead of feelings. They hope to film Howard losing it as he talks to these abstractions, and thereby take a page from Miracle on 34th Street and commit poor Howard to an institution.

That’s the whole plot, right there, and the character development you get is just as contrived because plot drives this narrative, not characters. People are just along for the ride—but that won’t matter to viewers who like “big picture” movies and crave answers as much as Howard does. And the performances are decent. Helen Mirren is only slightly heavy-handed as Brigitte, an actress-director of a local theater company who accepts a deal to play Death, Time, and Love in exchange for funding their newest production. She is the oldest and so she volunteers to be Death. Amy (Keira Knightley) plays love, while Raffi (Jacob Latimore) takes on the role of Time.

As the three actors confront Howard, he has extended conversations with them, but those conversations are frankly less interesting than a sideplot involving grief support group leader Madeline (Naomie Harris), who tells those in her group that have lost children that the pain will never go away. Yet, they can learn how to deal with it. That kind of honesty feels refreshing, especially when everything else about this film feels so artificial.

A Warner Bros. summary of the film says that it’s not until Howard’s letters to Death, Time, and Love “bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.” That sounds a little tidier and a lot more ontologically satisfying than the film really is. You aren’t going to learn the meaning of life by watching this film, or even the meaning of death. Religion doesn’t even enter into the equation. In fact, I was wondering, as I watched, how the film would be received by people who are religious, or who are facing death themselves, or grieving like Howard, or still far removed from death’s ravages. Collateral Beauty was released in mid-December, and almost every scene has holiday decorations in it—so many that you can’t escape the implication. It’s a different kind of holiday film, for those who feel alone in the world, or who need even the slightest package of positives to unwrap. But be warned: Collateral Beauty is the kind of film that can affect people in profoundly different ways, and I’m guessing that not all of them will be beautiful.

Language: Scattered minor swearwords and one F-bomb uttered, appropriately, on the F Train
Sex: Nothing really, except an implied affair
Violence: n/a
Adult situations: The whole concept is and the implied metaphysical argument is adult, so much so that I can’t imagine children getting into it
Takeaway: Playing Death, Time, and Love isn’t easy, but it’s still easier than making a film about those three abstract concepts

Review of MOANA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2016, 107 min., Color
Animated adventure
Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Moana was an Academy Award nominee (Best Animated Feature, Best Song) that also made waves because of Disney’s depiction of tattoos that some said were culturally insensitive. I won’t wade into those waters, because, typical of Disney, this full-length animated feature reflects the studio’s good intentions through otherwise careful research and, with the exception of Dwayne Johnson, the casting of Pacific islanders in lead roles. Ultimately, Moana is more celebratory of a culture and its people than it is exploitive. But let me say right away, lest the boys in your family think this is another cookie-cutter princess movie, far from it: Moana is an adventure film, and for the first time in forever there’s no inkling the princess actually cares that the opposite sex exists.

The culture is Ancient Polynesia, and the treatment recalls a number of Disney films. When Moana’s father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), keeps her from going out into the water that surrounds their island, it’s hard not to think of Ariel and the strict father who forbade her to leave her watery world to explore the land of humans. When Gramma Tala (Rachel House) coaxes her to follow her destiny to find the demigod Maui (Johnson) and sail with him to return a mystical relic, it’s hard not to think of the grandmother in Mulan or Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas. Given that Maui’s tattoos come alive and help with the narration, it’s also hard not to think of that other Disneyfied demigod, Hercules, and the artwork on the classical vase that functioned the same way. Then too, Disney just acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise, and there’s a little Yoda in Gramma Tala and a lot of Empire Strikes Back in a scene when Moana is advised to go deep inside a cave to discover who she really is.

Disney animators have a history of making subtle references to other House of Mouse films, but they do so more conspicuously in Moana. At one point, shape-shifting Maui goes through a series of animal transformations, and darned if one of them isn’t the reindeer Sven from Frozen. In another sequence, when Moana protests, “I am not a princess,” Maui deadpans, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” If you watch the end credits you’ll also see the giant scavenger crab Tamatoa saying, “If my name was Sebastian and I had a cool Jamaican accent, you’d totally help me.”

When you can allude to yourself you know you’re part of America’s cultural fabric. But the plot of this adventure will also remind indie film lovers of Whale Rider, the 2002 live-action story of a young Maori girl who takes to the sea to fulfill her destiny to become her people’s leader. Though being called by the Ocean to return a sacred relic isn’t exactly commonplace, young viewers—heck, all viewers—can certainly identify with a sense of purpose and the determination to accomplish a goal. Moana doesn’t leave home because she’s spiteful or rebellious. She does it for the greater good, and that kind of altruism is getting harder and harder to find.

Clements and Musker are Baby Boomers who grew up watching classic mythical adventures like Jason and the Argonauts, and Moana has that kind of feel. When Maui and Moana have to sail past the lava demon Te Kä they were obviously inspired by the scene in which Jason had to navigate past the Colossus of Rhodes—only they kicked it up about a hundred notches to make it much more exciting. But like Huck and Jim rafting down the Mississippi in Twain’s classic adventure, it’s what Moana and Maui learn interacting with each other during the journey that’s also a big part of the story.

Though the Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Opetaia Foa’i music helps elevate the film, the songs aren’t as singable and music takes a backseat to the visuals. It’s the first time that directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid) went with all-CGI animation, and the results are spectacular, with water taken to new heights and CGI animated figures looking less like 3D claymation models and more like 2D figures with incredible depth. I didn’t think it possible, but in terms of looks, Moana finds a comfortable middle ground between traditional animation and 3D CGI animation. It’s a style of animation that’s really engaging, with a story that features Disney’s strongest female hero to date.

Language: Nothing objectionable
Sex: n/a
Violence: One battle with coconut warriors and the big battle with the lava monster, who is so frightening your little ones may need to be hugged throughout the sequence–but no more frightening than the Maleficent dragon scene in the animated Sleeping Beauty
Adult situations: There is peril throughout in this journey, but comic relief courtesy of a stowaway chicken that provides plenty of LOL moments
Takeaway: Moana is a film that even boys will like, and a hero that proves, once and hopefully for all, that girls can succeed on their own.

MAMA’S FAMILY: THE MAMA’S FAMILY FAVORITES COLLECTION (DVD)

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mamasfamilycoverGrade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes, but…
1983-1990, 910 min. (37 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G-PG)
TV comedy
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Mama’s Family was a spin-off of “The Family,” a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show starring Burnett and Harvey Korman as a married couple saddled with Burnett’s character’s outspoken and overbearing mother, played by Vicki Lawrence. Lawrence donned a wig and spectacles and, as was typical of the sketch comedy to come out of Burnett’s weekly variety show, the character she played was more of a caricature. The sketches themselves were less realistic than they were the stuff of community theater, but those sketches were popular enough to prompt Burnett’s ex-husband, Joe Hamilton, to back a TV movie titled Eunice, which led to Mama’s Family.

With Burnett and Korman only making guest appearances, Lawrence drives the comedy with her over-the-top rendition of a feisty old woman who drinks beer from the can and juggles homespun quips and insults with equal ease. She’s not the only caricature, though, and the situations in this sitcom are so “sketchy” that I’m tempted to call it a sketchcom instead.

Mama’s Family placed as high as #28 its first season, but viewership dropped off so abruptly in Season 2 that the show was cancelled and revived in syndication, with four more seasons of episodes created. During the show’s six-year run (1983-1990), it earned two Emmy nominations—both for costume design—and won once. During that same period, sitcoms like Cheers, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, The Wonder Years, and Murphy Brown took home most of the awards.

This six-DVD set is a highlights collection, and NOT all episodes from the show’s six seasons. It features Lawrence’s favorite episodes, though her favorites don’t always match up with fan favorites as listed on a number of fansites.

mamasfamilyscreen1Season 1, for example, includes the episodes “The Wedding, Pts. 1 & 2,” “Family Feud,” “Cellmates,” “Positive Thinking,” and “Vin and the Kids Move In,” which fans also seem to like. But Fan favorite “Mama Gets a Job” is missing, while a lesser episode, “Mama’s Boyfriend,” is included.

For Season 2, “Rashomama,” “Mama Buys a Car,” “Mama Learns to Drive,” and “Gert Rides Again” are included, along with less popular episodes “Country Club” and “Dear Aunt Fran.” Missing are fan favorites “No Room at the Inn” and “Obscene Phone Call.”

The Season 3 episodes are fan favorites “Cat’s Meow,” “Where There’s Smoke,” “Steal One, Pearl Two,” and “Birthright,” along with the less popular “It Takes Two to Watusi.” Missing are “The Best Policy” and “An Ill Wind.”

From Season 4 there’s “Mama on Jeopardy,” “The Sins of the Mother,” “Zirconias Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and lesser episodes “Educating Mama” and “Mama Goes Hawaiian.” Missing are fan favorites “The Key to the Crime” and “Gift Horse.”

Season 5 offerings are fan favorite “Dependence Day,” “The Really Loud Family” and “Mama in One,” with lesser episodes “Naomi’s New Position,” “Found Money” and “Mama’s Layaway Plan” also included instead of fan favorites “April Fool’s,” “Ladies Choice,” and “Very Dirty Dancing.”

Season 6 features fan favorites “Mama Fights Back,” “Bye Bye Baby,” and “Bubba’s House,” along with “The Big Nap,” “Pin-Up Mama,” and “Look Who’s Breathing.” Missing are fan favorites “Mama’s Medicine” and “Now Hear This.”

These 37 episodes may be billed as “Mama’s Favorites,” but you have to wonder if there was a deliberate attempt to include episodes featuring two of TV’s “Golden Girls.” Betty White, whose popularity these days is beyond peaking, turns up in seven of the episodes, while Rue McClanahan also appears in seven. Meanwhile, five of Burnett’s six guest appearances are included here, along with all three episodes in which Korman appeared.

mamasfamilyscreen2The cast kept changing, with the first two seasons starring McClanahan as Mama’s sister Fran, who wrote for the local paper, and Ken Berry as Mama’s ne’er-do-well son Vinton, who has to move back in with her and brings with him his older daughter Sonja (Karin Argoud) and son Buzz (Eric Brown). Meanwhile, flirtatious next-door neighbor Naomi (Dorothy Lyman) takes a shine to Vinton and they start “cavorting.” Also appearing the first two seasons are Mama’s two daughters, Ellen (White) and Eunice (Burnett), along with Eunice’s husband Ed (Korman). Korman also doubled as Alistair Quince, who, in mock parody of Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, introduced each episode with cheeky flair. When the series was rebooted for syndication, only Lawrence, Berry, and Lyman returned. Added were Allan Kayser, who played Mama’s delinquent grandson Bubba, and Beverly Archer, who played new neighbor Iola.

Though there was less bickering in syndicated episodes and attempts to let plot have a more influential seat at the table, the series still feels like sketch comedy stretched to 22 minutes, and because it’s so caricaturist and over-the-top you seldom forget you’re watching actors playing parts and speaking lines that were written by writers—even with situations that are more realistic than viewers saw the first few seasons. But just as The Carol Burnett Show has a dedicated following, Mama’s Family has its fans who could care less about realism and are inclined to not just overlook the show’s corny veneer but appreciate it for the hokey homespun family comedy it is.

Will it play for today’s families? My guess is no. It’s not sophisticated enough, the lines aren’t funny enough, plots don’t seem unique enough, and the characters aren’t the kind of smart ensemble that kids have grown used to seeing. The two episodes featuring TV game shows will still be fun for them to watch, and possibly “Rashomama,” which plays with the notion of multiple narrations. But generally, the laughs don’t come quickly enough for today’s family audiences. There’s a reason the show was cancelled after two seasons. Then again, Mama’s Family has a big following, and people who enjoy Tyler Perry as Madea may also love Vicki Lawrence as Mama.

EVELYN (Blu-ray)

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evelyncoverGrade: B
2002, 95 min., Color
Olive Films
Drama
Rated PG for thematic material and language
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m guessing that more than a few people will notice that Evelyn is a film about an Irish father trying to gain custody of his kids and immediately think of Kramer vs. Kramer. How in the world is that appropriate for family viewing? Well, the 1979 Academy Award-winning picture starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep isn’t appropriate, unless you think it’s character building for children to watch parents say and do some pretty nasty things to each other while tugging at their offspring as if they were a wishbone. But Evelyn isn’t like that at all. To continue the analogy, it’s more like Kramer vs. the Government.

Based on a real 1955 custody case that had an entire nation hanging on the decision, Evelyn stars Pierce Brosnan in a very un-Bondlike role. He plays Desmond Doyle, an out-of-work Irishman evelynscreen2who sings in his father’s band and drinks a little too much. But it’s clear that he has a good heart and he loves his children. He’s crushed when his wife (and their mother) runs off to Australia with another man, and Irish law at the time forbade children from being raised by a single parent. The children are removed from the home and placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage, where neglect and abuse are as common as the priest scandals that have dominated the headlines in recent years. Viewers soon discover that the orphanages are full of faux orphans—children taken away from a single parent who still loves them dearly and wishes to care for them.

Most parents give up, the film’s narrative tells us. It is, after all, Irish law. But not Desmond Doyle. After a few aborted attempts to get his children illegally, he attracts the attention of a woman working extra hours as a bartender to help pay for her education. She has a brother (Stephen Rea) who might be able to help him. And a would-be suitor from America (Aidan Quinn) who just happens to be a barrister. Before long, they’ve attracted the interest of another lawyer who moonlights as a sports announcer (Alan Bates). Suddenly, Doyle isn’t just a single father fighting the system in futility. He’s part of a team that’s trying to establish a new precedent in Irish law—one that’s fairer to families.

evelynscreen1The first third of this film can seem like a downer, but the performances are absorbing and in no time at all it takes an inspirational, feel-good turn. You find yourself quickly pulling for Doyle and Evelyn and his two boys, who apparently aren’t important enough to be included in the title, and as you root for them and realize that people all over Ireland were doing the same back in 1955, the film takes on a life of its own. Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur, Becoming Jane) even has an inspirational speech, and that won’t escape the notice of young viewers. But Hollywood being Hollywood, the truth is stretched to accommodate such feel-good moments. If you dip into historical accounts or even go back as far as the film’s 2003 release, you’ll find that abuse survivors weren’t pleased with the film. Then again, if they were, I probably wouldn’t be reviewing it for Family Home Theater.

Evelyn is capably directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) from a screenplay written by Paul Pender (The Bogie Man).

Language: Fewer than a dozen lesser obscenities
Sex: Just one very subtle joke about sex
Violence: A drunken Desmond has a bout with a priest
Adult situations: Desmond is no saint, and there is plenty of smoking and drinking
Takeaway: Hollywood may have given this the feel-good treatment, but there’s still an argument to be made for hopefulness and heartwarming cinema

DOCTOR STRANGE (3D Blu-ray combo)

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doctorstrangecover

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

PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (Blu-ray)

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panthergirlcover

Grade:  C+/C
Entire family:  Yes (with caveat)
1954, 168 min. (12 episodes), Black-and-White
Olive Films
Adventure
Not rated (would be PG for fighting and “monsters”)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio:  Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Old-time serials were shown in theaters in weekly installments as a way of getting people to return to the movies frequently, and the 13-20 minute episodes were especially popular with children. Serials were all about the plot, and the premise behind Panther Girl of the Kongo—a 1955 12-episode black-and-white serial from Republic Pictures—was a doozy:

A mad scientist (albeit a rather understated and sedate one) has set up a lab in the Kongo and is using all his test tubes and beakers to distill jugs of super growth hormones that he’s feeding to crayfish. He’s breeding giant “claw monsters” in an attempt to scare everyone out of the area so he and his two garden-variety henchmen can access secret diamond mines. That means getting rid of Jean Evans, whose work for an international wildlife foundation is less clear than the title the “natives” have bestowed upon her: Panther Girl. She shoots, she swings through the trees on vines like Tarzan, and she rides atop an elephant, all while wearing a mini-skirt outfit that looks straight out of Robin Hood.

The Panther Girl also faints a lot, as women in old-time serials were expected to do, even as the medium was drying up in the mid-fifties. Or she’s knocked silly by such things as hitting her head on a couch cushion, leaving the real fighting to her big-game hunting friend, Larry Sanders (Myron Healey).

panthergirlscreen1Phyllis Coates plays the Panther Girl, and if she looks familiar, Coates played opposite George Reeves in the first 26 episodes of the popular TV series The Adventures of Superman. Before that, she appeared in a string of western movies and TV shows (including four episodes of The Cisco Kid) before first stepping onto a jungle set in 1953 when she co-starred with Clayton Moore (who would go on to play TV’s Lone Ranger) in Jungle Drums of Africa, a 12-episode black-and-white serial from Republic Pictures.

Those connections may delight Grandma and Grandpa, but the rest of the family will smile mostly because of the B-movie conventions that are unintentionally funny by today’s standards. An African tribesman carries a quiver of arrows that have the same look as North American Indians, and one African “native” speaks like the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto (“Me get Bwana”) while the chief sounds as if he attended Oxford and says things like “Don’t mention it,” when thanked. This is a low-budget, man-in-a-gorilla-suit, plot-driven series, and studios just weren’t that concerned about verisimilitude. The attack of a panther is a particularly amusing reflection of low-budget filmmaking. All 12 episodes cost under $175,000 to make, and as was customary the studio reused stock footage (from Jungle Girl, an earlier serial), and the action itself never seems to match the hyperbole of the posters or chapter titles:

  • “The Claw Monster”
  • “Jungle Ambush”
  • “The Killer Beast”
  • “Sands of Doom”
  • “Test of Terror”
  • “High Peril”
  • “Double Trap”
  • “Crater of Flame”
  • “River of Death”
  • “Blasted Evidence”
  • “Double Danger”
  • “House of Doom”

panthergirlscreen2Even if children in the ‘50s didn’t know that Africa doesn’t have any crayfish, they probably realized that the giant claw coming out of a wooden crate would have to belong to a creature much larger than could fit inside. After all, it did look fake, and more importantly, it didn’t matter. Serials were just for fun, and the hokiness was all part of it. Even now, with the hokiness multiplied because of the sophistication of today’s audiences, the serials are still fun if family members turn it into a participatory event and crack jokes during playback.

That’s what our family did, and it’s fun for about three episodes . . . then it starts to get old because you’re joking about some of the same things. Panther Girl of the Kongo is best watched the way it was originally intended: as a weekly teaser before the main feature. It can be a fun idea for today’s families to start a serial tradition and tack on 15 minutes to the movie of the week. Panther Girl may not be as solid as Flash Gordon or even Commando Cody, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny in spots and a good one for savoring serial hokiness and Hollywood’s love of monsters and exotica.

Bottom line:  It’s silly, it’s fake-looking, and it’s unintentionally funny. But Panther Girl is a fun serial to watch, and a representative one at that. One caveat:  every jungle film coming out of Hollywood in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s was racist, and this one is no exception. “Native” warriors run spooked and wide-eyed from danger, they are talked down to by the whites, and their depiction feeds into all the negative stereotypes. At least, unlike some of the Tarzan movies, they used African American actors for most of the parts.

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