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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.

Previous Kong films seem to have been bound by the 1933 Fay Wray original, and while we inevitably watch the big ape pick up a lady in his gigantic hand, this 2017 reboot departs so significantly from the whole Kong concept that it almost feels like a totally different animal. In addition to that iconic scene, we do see Kong fight an aerial squadron (helicopters, rather than planes) but he’s on level ground. There’s also a photographer, a native village living behind a big wall, and creatures other than Kong.

Though the creatures aren’t dinosaurs forgotten by time, but rather demonic ones that come from below the earth through a portal, Kong: Skull Island still has as much in common with adaptations of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island and Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Land That Time Forgot, while at the same time there are elements that link it to the radiated monster films of the Nuclear Age. And there are times when you’ll also have flashbacks to Jurassic Park.

Set in Southeast Asia in 1973 when soldiers are still fighting in Vietnam, Kong: Skull Island takes a cue from another Vietnam War movie—Apocalypse Now—and adds a Heart of Darkness dimension to it. As a jerry-built boat made out of a downed airplane chugs upriver, it’s hard not to think of Joseph Conrad’s classic study in the dark depths of human nature—especially when the main character, a master monster tracker, is named Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and the owner of the boat in this film is named Marlow (John C. Reilly), who was the protagonist in Conrad’s novel.

This film not only breathes new life into the Kong films, but also resurrects the trope of a marooned WWII soldier on an island so isolated that he doesn’t know the war has ended. Reilly really has fun with the character—who, when the full “scaffolding” is revealed, ends up being one of the three main characters, along with photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and Conrad. Second-tier characters include U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman), who works in the gigantic creatures division and sets the plot in motion when he hires Conrad and talks a senator into green-lighting his mission to Skull Island to check out images of strange life that their satellites have detected, and Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who heads up military support for this Predator-style mission.

Watch the bonus footage about location filming and you’ll develop a new appreciation for the film’s combination of traditional stunt work and CGI. One scene in particular stands out, where a man is violently jerked off the boat and is whisked high into the air via a system of pulleys and wires. You’ll also see how they were able to make this Kong the most real looking of them all, and that, after all, is what sells a film like this. Does it look real? You bet. And the crazy level of action and humor makes for a great support system. It feels as much like the old-time serials as the Indiana Jones movies—all action, but all in good fun.

Readers at the Imdb.com only gave this film a 6.8 out of 10, which would be a B- on the Family Home Theater scale, while the average rating by readers at Rotten Tomatoes was 7.4 out of 10 (B+). We liked it a lot more than that, and make no apologies!

Language: Surprisingly, two f-bombs (thought they could only get away with one for PG-13!), and handful of “shit”s plus another handful of lesser ones, but the action moves so quickly you don’t have time to react
Sex: n/a
Violence: Pretty much nonstop once the film gets rolling: a giant spider leg impales a man through his mouth, people get gobbled up by creatures, Kong pulls out a lizard’s tongue and everything connected to it, a man is ripped apart in the air by prehistoric-looking birds, people are stomped; you name it, it happens
Adult situations: One bar fight in the early going, and one brief instance of smoking
Takeaway: Kong: Skull Island proves that the key to breathing new life into a series like this is not sticking too close to the original and not taking it too seriously

Review of LA LA LAND (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2016, 128 min., Color
Musical
Rated PG-13 for some language
Summit
Aspect ratio: 2.55:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m glad that Summit decided to wait a few months before making La La Land available on home video. It’s good to take a step back and approach a film like this fresh, especially after all the hype-turned-hate that swirled around it. I frankly can’t think of another film that had so many Oscar nominations (14) and was so praised initially as the surefire Best Picture winner, then derided in a backlash as the biggest overrated film of the year:

—It’s a slick film . . . maybe too slick.
—Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are amazing . . . or maybe just Stone.
—It was pure Hollywood! (they gushed) . . . It was pure Hollywood (they dismissed).
—First Whiplash and now this? Damien Chazelle is a genius . . . or not.

In retrospect, La La Land lands closer to the bulls-eye of praise, though it’s not a perfect film, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone insists. That’s clear already from an opening freeway number that’s visually a big musical showstopper but has a sound that’s not so big. Kind of like the singing we get from the two stars, which is soft and slightly raspy and muted—a throaty rather than full-bodied sound that comes from the diaphragm. There are times when the musical accompaniment even threatens to overpower Gosling’s voice. But it’s easy to ignore that when Gosling and Stone are so cute and so charming together. Plus, they handle the flirtatious choreography and dance numbers like a couple of pros, and seem to actually enjoy it.

For me (and for my teenage daughter) the film’s only real shortcoming is the ending—and that’s a matter of taste. This loving homage to Hollywood musicals from the ‘50s is a feel-good movie for 120 minutes, with a 180-degree ending that feels overly clever and totally changes the mood. My daughter didn’t appreciate that kind of manipulation, and I didn’t appreciate that the homage seemed to slide off-track at the end.

But boy, did Chazelle nail the look and feel of those old Gene Kelly movies. You find yourself admiring the choreography and the mise en scene of the song-and-dance numbers because they so lovingly replicate scenes from musicals past. La La Land revives the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals even if only for a short time. Though Oscars went to Chazelle (Best Director), Stone (Best Actress), and Justin Hurwitz (Original Score, Original Song), the one that feels most deserving is the production design by David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Without it, there isn’t much of an homage, and that they were able to achieve a retro look and feel is even more impressive when you consider that most of it was done not on a soundstage but at a range of Hollywood-area interior and exterior locations that reinforce the tribute—as does an opening where curtains part to reveal a screen that says presented in CinemaScope (a retro ultra-widescreen format).

La La Land tells a typical Hollywood story. Stone plays Mia, a would-be actress currently working the counter at an eatery on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Her dream is to become a star. Sebastian’s passion is jazz, and his dream is to open a jazz club of his own. They meet cute on a Hollywood freeway, with her flipping him off for driving around her. They meet cute again . . . and again . . . until they finally start to determine that maybe they’re meant to be together. Viewers who saw Stone and Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love probably will wonder what’s taking them so long. As both of their careers take off, which passion will win out? The Hollywood dream, their romance, or both?

Like Singin’ in the Rain, that other musical tribute to Hollywood, there are a few standouts in supporting cast. Singer John Legend is engaging as a techno-jazz enthusiast who makes a convincing argument for jazz needing to evolve . . . or die, while J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) gets a brief moment in the spotlight as a club manager who insists on a mundane play-list, and Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno, and Jessica Rothe play Mia’s roommates and shine in one song, “Someone in the Crowd.”

“That’s L.A.,” Sebastian says. “They worship everything and they value nothing.” There’s critical commentary here as well as tribute, and hype or hate aside, La La Land is a bit like its Oscar-winning song, “City of Stars”: it may seem slight, but in the end, it’s the little things you remember most.

Language: One f-bomb, two uses of the middle finger, and a handful of milder swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: n/a
Adult Situations: Not much here, really
Takeaway: Part tribute, part social commentary, and part romantic comedy, La La Land is the strongest musical we’ve seen in years

Review of SPLIT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No, no, no
2016, 117 min., Color
Horror-thriller
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, and some language
Universal Pictures
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer (spoilers)
Amazon link

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is a solid thriller right up until the end, when the director decides to play to his fans and his own indulgences, rather than tying things up for viewers in a more satisfying way. But using the reverse situation of Panic Room, Shyamalan manages to put characters in jeopardy and keep them there for the duration of an otherwise tense and effective film.

Split is obviously inspired by the sordid news story out of Cleveland, where three young women were held captive in a basement by Ariel Castro. The bus driver had targeted two of them because they were friends with his daughter. The women were raped and tortured in captivity for more than a decade before their miraculous rescue.

Rather than tell that story, Shyamalan wisely chooses to stay clear of extremes and instead create a PG-13 thriller that teens can watch—a cautionary tale that reminds them it’s not just “stranger danger” that poses a problem. It can be something as innocent as a party, where the girl’s father offers to drive two of her friends and a “pity invite” home, with the girl’s approval. Instead of a sex-driven abductor, Shyamalan offers a less tawdry and more interesting alternative: a captor who has multiple personalities. The most sexual the film gets is when we learn that one personality “likes to watch young girls dance naked,” but in another wise move the director avoids nudity and instead has one of the girls spend part of the film without a top (wearing only a bra) and another without pants (wearing only panties).

If this 2016 film were a TV series it would probably be called The James McAvoy Show. The Golden Globe nominee (Atonement, 2007) gives a tour de force performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb . . . and Dennis, and Patricia, and Hedwig, and Barry, and Orwell, and Jade—seven of the 23 distinct personalities that share the same body. As he goes from character to character you can even see a believable transformation in his facial features—not just the expression, but the way his face looks.

Medically speaking, Kevin suffers from a dissociative identity disorder triggered by childhood abuse. Among his distinct personalities is a nine-year-old boy, a man who dresses like a woman, a rational-sounding fellow who controls which personality gets to “go into the light” (i.e., surface), and an OCD man with a voyeuristic fetish. Kevin has been seeing a psychiatrist to help him with his problem, and the sequences with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley)—therapy sessions augmented by TV interviews and conference presentations by the well-known expert—do a fine job of educating viewers without seeming pedantic.

All of the young women who play kidnapped victims do so convincingly, but Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula knew when they signed on that the featured performer would be Anya Taylor-Joy—the “pity invite” who sticks to herself and really doesn’t have many friends. We see flashbacks from her childhood as she is taught how to hunt by her father (Neal Huff) and how she was abused by a pervy uncle (Brad William Henke). All of that sets up the possibility of an interesting captive versus captor showdown. Whether it materializes is another story, and I won’t say anything more about that or the rest of the plot. Like many thrillers, you just can’t think too much about the plot, or else you’ll wonder things like why, with such a high-profile kidnapping, wouldn’t the father have emerged very early as a suspect, or why the expert, who clearly suspects something, doesn’t go to the police. I mean, how far does doctor-patient confidentiality extend?

Shyamalan has been a consistently inconsistent filmmaker. He can make a wonderful thriller like The Sixth Sense (1999), which earned six Oscar nominations, or he can crank out a turkey like The Last Airbender (2010), which earned the scorn of critics and a measly 6 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Where does Split fall? It’s slightly better than Unbreakable (2000) and much better than his 2015 campy horror-thriller The Visit. But it’s every bit a PG-13 movie, mostly for violence and disturbing images. Teens will enjoy it, but it’s not recommended for younger viewers.

Language: Minor cursing
Sex: Implied abuse, nothing graphic shown
Violence: One extreme close-up of arms crushing a woman, others dragged by the feet off-camera, wounded body parts, and exposed organs
Adult situations: That would be pretty much the entire film
Takeaway: Shyamalan makes a lot of winners and losers; despite the ending, this one’s a winner

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.

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

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

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

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