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Review of BLACK PANTHER (Blu-ray)

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

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

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

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

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

Chadwick Boseman debuted as T’Challa, the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War (2016), and that’s very much in the Marvel tradition. His comic-book counterpart first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966. Though Lee has denied any political inspiration, it should be noted that the black panther was the symbol of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization that formed in Alabama in 1965 and sought power in numbers by increasing the black vote. Three months after the comic book debuted, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland as a black nationalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist whose first order of business was to arm themselves as a deterrent against police brutality. And this film begins with one of the Wakandans working undercover in Oakland, with an anti-isolationist message embedded in the screenplay.

Even if you don’t pick up on the politics, it’s refreshing to have a predominantly black cast in a film that isn’t an indie drama or slavery tome. Boseman is terrific as the Black Panther, but Lettitia Wright also kills it as his younger sister Shuri, and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira are equally wonderful as a spy/quasi-love interest and the head of special forces/bodyguards, respectively. Also look for Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best friend, Martin Freeman cast slightly against type as the Felix Leiter of this bunch, a CIA operative who’s taken into T’Challa’s confidence, and Michael B. Jordan who rivals His Airness for hang time as a former Black Ops soldier and long-lost cousin of T’Challa. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and maybe because there also doesn’t seem to be a limp line of dialogue anywhere to be found. This one was meant to be seen in 4K or Blu-ray so you can appreciate all the detail. It’s a great choice for family movie night. Director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) has created a film that’s so wonderful it’s bound to get repeat play and well worth adding to your home video libraries. It’s a positive film on so many counts, too. Though the title character is a man, Black Panther is really a film that emphasizes the power and equal status of women, and these days that message is more powerful than the herb that gives the BP his superstrength.

Language: A few “shits” and a middle finger salute, but that’s it
Sex: n/a
Violence: Because we care about the characters the violence seems more intense; people are impaled, cut, shot and slashed, though the cameras turn away from initial blood rather than lingering; a big battle has the usual big-battle violence
Adult situations: One scene takes place in a bar, where whiskey is ordered
Takeaway: What makes this film seem more intense than the other Marvel entries is also what makes it the best: we care more about all of these characters, and so we care more about what happens to them

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

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

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

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

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

Because The Maze Runner (2014) feels like a near stand-alone mystery-thriller and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) and Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018) play out like connected action-thrillers, it’s impossible to understand anything that’s going on in the third installment if you haven’t seen the second. If you didn’t catch (or can’t remember) the first, the only thing you’ll miss in The Death Cure is a big reveal when a character thought dead turns up again. Everything else can be gleaned from the narrative and dialogue.

In the first film, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) woke up in a large contained area called The Glade. At first he had no idea who or where he was, but then gradually he remembered and he and the others—young teens all about the same age who, shades of Lord of the Flies, had to learn to function as a micro-society—pieced together clues in order to try to escape. The main young characters that continued through all three films are Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and Frypan (Dexter Darden); the adult carryover is Dr. Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), a driving force behind an organization with the Bond-like acronym WCKD, a class-based group that seeks to safely separate itself from the rest of the post-apocalyptic rabble and use its resources to find a cure for The Flare Virus.

The second and third installments are really just one continuous action plot that could have been broken up any number of ways. Thomas and the others are relocated to another area where they are assured that it’s merely a waystation along a highway to a better life. Really, they’ve been isolated in a Phase 2 experiment because it’s suspected that they are somehow immune to the virus that turns the afflicted into zombies (yep, here’s where it gets a little familiar). WCKD is aggressively “farming” their blood, their essence, in order to conduct experiments to create a vaccine. It’s clear, though, that the group’s motivation isn’t to save all mankind, but only an elite segment.

Enter a revolutionary force called The Right Arm and a rag-tag rabble that comes together, put these kids in the middle, and you have a classic story of a bunch of revolutionaries who try to bring down a despotic ruler. Or, given the walled city that WCK rebuilds while the rest of humanity lives an existence that’s only steps up from the infected “cranks,” you’ve got the typical siege drama that could have played out just as interestingly in Game of Thrones.

In fact, GOT enthusiasts will enjoy watching Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger, in that popular HBO series) ham it up as the head of security and “enforcer” for WCKD, whose job it is to keep rounding up young ones for immunity “tests” and to keep the revolutionaries and rabble at bay. Barry Pepper (as Vince) and Giancarlo Esposito (Jorge) also add color as adult liberators of WCKD teen lab rats, while Rosa Salazar is well cast as the revolutionary Brenda, whose very appearance completes/competes the romantic-but-not-really triangle of the series.

I’m told that fans of the book series didn’t care much for the last two films, but our family didn’t have that burden of watching after reading. We thought the trilogy was entertaining and well edited, with terrific special effects (watch on Blu-ray!), crisp pacing and action that keeps you on that clichéd edge of your seat. Yes, you’ll find yourself having flashbacks to the kitchen raptor scene in Jurassic Park and scenes from Star Wars and any number of other action films, but the variations here are neither homage nor blatant rip-off. They’re just established sci-fi action tropes that, despite their lack of originality, still work well.

Language: Under a dozen lesser swearwords, with “shit” and “bitch” most prominent
Sex: n/a
Violence: Lots of gunfire, explosions, flesh-eating zombies, people killed and wounded, but moderate level of blood and gore
Adult situations: Teens are drugged (clinically and recreationally), main characters are killed, and the entire film is one big peril
Takeaway: Don’t always believe what you hear; the last two installments of The Maze Runner are just as good as the first

Review of JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (not for small children)
2017, 119 min., Color
Action-Adventure Comedy
Columbia/Sony
Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content, and some language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/B (includes Digital Copy)
Trailer
Amazon link

The original 1995 Jumanji starring Robin Williams was underwhelming, which is perhaps why the title of the sequel released 21 years later was changed from Jumanji 2 to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Instead of having the adventure fantastically spill out into the world of the game players, the sequel picks up more interest and steam by having the players sucked into an old video game and transported to a lush jungle world. So it’s not only updated for a video gamer generation, but also presents more visual and special effects and “levels” opportunities that young gamers can identify with.

But what makes this action-comedy cute as heck and broadens its appeal so that older viewers can also enjoy it is that the four writers decided to create a high-concept film—a guaranteed-to-make-money Hollywood project that can be summarized in 25 words or less, usually via comparison. I can picture them pitching this to the studio and backers: “It’s Jumanji meets The Breakfast Club.” And it works!

In the early going we see a teen sucked into a game way back in 1969 and then fast-forward to present day, where we’re introduced to a nerdy guy named Spencer (Alex Wolff), who has been conned into doing homework and writing papers for a star football player nicknamed Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain). We also meet a vain, self-centered young popular girl named Bethany (Madison Iseman) and an awkward marginalized girl named Martha (Morgan Turner). Somehow they all end up in detention and find themselves in a storage room crammed with all sorts of things, including an old video game they decide to plug in and play.

In short order, after they’ve chosen avatars (some thoughtfully, others not) and begin to play, something happens and the game starts to scare them. They scramble to unplug it, but no matter: One by one they’re sucked into the game and realize that they’ve become the avatars that they selected. That, of course, is half the fun. More

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of THOR: RAGNAROK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2017, 130 min., Color
Fantasy action-adventure
Marvel Studios
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, Chris Hemsworth played Thor (2011) as a brooding, arrogant Adonis who thought he was God’s gift to, well, everyone. But I guess that being the son of the old Norse god Odin can give you a giant superiority complex. Even when he fought the Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World (2013) with Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor at the helm, Thor and his story remained dark and brooding.

But with Thor: Ragnarok (2017), this superhero series gets a sunny makeover. I didn’t believe it when fellow critics described it as being funnier than Guardians of the Galaxy. After finally seeing it on Blu-ray (it looks fabulous, by the way) I can see why that film comparison came to mind, and not just because Guardians is funny. The only thing missing here is a talking animal.

Sans the raccoon, Thor: Ragnarok has the same core as Guardians, with a hero joined by a bad-ass woman (in this case, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie), a big powerful guy (Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk), and a natural-world guy (rock man Korg, rather than tree man Groot). Yet, amazingly, there isn’t a thing about this movie that feels copycat or derivative. More

Review of BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
1962, 149 min., Black-and-white
Biopic, Drama
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

A prison drama for family viewing? Normally not, but Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t your typical prison movie. It’s not an action film or one that feeds off familiar prison tropes. For the first two-thirds of this 1962 black-and-white drama, which earned four Oscar nominations, there are no escape attempts, no guard brutality, no prison gangs ruled by mobsters, no trading cigarettes to get easy jobs, no sexual assaults, no riots, and nothing remotely loud or uncivil.

Birdman of Alcatraz tells the story of Robert Franklin Stroud, who spent most of his adult life in prison. There are no backstories. We are told only that he is imprisoned at the medium-security federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, because he killed a man in Alaska—a man who was beating up a prostitute. And he has an old photo of his mother that he keeps on a shelf. Most of the film takes place in Leavenworth before a prison official who resented Stroud got him transferred to Alcatraz. But, of course, Birdman of Leavenworth just doesn’t have the same ring. Alcatraz, “The Rock,” was a high-security penitentiary where troublemakers from the other prisons were sent.

In this highly focused biopic we are not told that Stroud ran away from home at age 13 because of an abusive father, or that he became a pimp in Alaska when he was only 18. The film tells the story of his transformation—one that the prison system itself had nothing to do with. And that transformation is pretty fascinating. More

Review of JUSTICE LEAGUE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Entire family: 10 and older
2017, 120 min., Color
Fantasy action-adventure
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Since 2000, Warner Bros. has made 17 feature films based on DC Comics, the most successful of which have been the three Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale Dark Knight films, Constantine, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Man of Steel, and, most recently, Wonder Woman. So where does Justice League fit into the DC Universe, critically? Put it this way: it’s better than Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but not as good as Wonder Woman and Man of Steel.

Directed by DC Universe veteran Zach Snyder (Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman), Justice League scores high marks for the action, special/visual effects, and strong villain; an appreciate round of applause for infusing the film with some humor; and a sympathy card for wrestling with the dilemma of how to create an interesting character-based film when the requisite focus for the genre is on non-stop action.

This is an origin story about how the Justice League came about, and the story picks up after the end of Batman v Superman. In the opening credits the camera pans across newspaper headlines proclaiming Superman dead . . . but is he?

The action begins with Batman battling what appears to be a winged human-sized insect that could easily be confused with a bat, if you were a small child reporting criminal actions witnessed. It turns out that the insect is a “scout” for an impending alien invasion.

It’s not exactly clear who summoned whom or how they knew of each other’s existence, but the first act assembles the core of what will become the Justice League: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher). Henry Cavill also appears as Superman/Clark Kent, while the mere humans who are important to them are Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Mera (Amber Heard), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons). More

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