Far from the Madding Crowd

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including gun, character killed
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: May 1, 2015
Date Released to DVD: August 3, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00ZRBQTXO
Copyright 2015 Fox Searchlight
Copyright 2015 DNA Films

It may be a British costume drama based on a classic novel, but Thomas Hardy’s saga of a headstrong woman and the three marriage proposals from very different men is not the usual corsets and teacups. Far from the Madding Crowd is the story of Bathsheba Everdene (a radiant Carey Mulligan), an orphan who inherits a farm and announces to the staff, “It is my intention to astonish you all.”

What gives the story a vital, even modern tone is the independence of its heroine, who is often wrong, but who has good instincts and accepts the consequences of her mistakes and learns from them. There is romance and drama in the story, tragedy and betrayal, but it engages in a bracing fashion with issues of class, honor, and values. It is not much of a spoiler alert to say that Hardy favored those who were most connected to the land and nature.

It begins in 1870, when Everdene is at first a poor relative living on her aunt’s small farm. She had intended to take on the favorite profession of literary heroines: governess. But “she was far too wild,” nothing like the meek Jane Eyre. She rides straddling her horse, no sidesaddle. The very handsome farmer next door is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, radiating quiet integrity) who presents her with a lamb and asks her to marry him. She likes him very much but turns him down. “I shouldn’t mind being a bride and having a wedding if I didn’t have to have a husband.”

Their positions are suddenly and dramatically changed. She inherits a farm, rising to the lower levels of the landed gentry. He loses his flock in a calamitous accident and is unable to keep the farm. As he is looking for work, he stops to put out a fire in what turns out to be Everdene’s new farm. She offers to hire him if the change in their positions will not be too awkward for him, and he agrees. Her next proposal is from her neighbor, a reserved and lonely older man named William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who is not bold at all, but who was encouraged by a valentine Everdene sent him impulsively, not thinking he would take it seriously. Her third proposal is from an officer named Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), who tells her she is beautiful, shows off his swordsmanship, and introduces her to sensual pleasures. He does not tell her he was supposed to marry someone else.

David Nicholls, who wrote the excellent miniseries adaptation of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, would have benefited from miniseries length for a story of this scope. It is rushed and abrupt at times. But Nicholls and director Thomas Vinterberg never let the story get musty or dated. It is firmly grounded in the most literal sense, always returning to the land as the source of what is good and true, and to the people who understand that as the real heroes and the ones who know what love can be.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and a non-explicit situation, violence, and sad deaths including a murder.

Family discussion: What was Bathsheba looking for? Why did it take her so long to figure that out? What appealed to her about each of her suitors? Why do you think this heroine inspired the name of “Hunger Games” heroine Katniss Everdeen?

If you like this, try: the earlier version with Julie Christie and the book by Thomas Hardy, and “My Brilliant Career”

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Based on a book Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Remake Romance

Avengers: Age of Ultron

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language and jokes about swear words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive and intense sci-fi/comic book violence, some disturbing images, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 1, 2015
Date Released to DVD: September 28, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00WAJ8QXC
Copyright Disney Marvel 2015
Copyright Disney Marvel 2015

Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) sums it up best. Speaking pretty much to himself but also to us in the audience, he notes that he is on a floating city trying to fight off a robot army with arrows. “It doesn’t make sense,” he concedes. And yet, that is where we are, and we’re okay with it.

Writer/director Joss Whedon knows that we know that this is some superhero silliness, and once in a while we get to see that the characters know it, too. But he never treats the stories or the fans with anything less than respect. We get wisecracks. We get romance. But most of all, we get rock ’em, sock ’em, 3D action involving super-arrows, a super-strong shield, a super-heavy hammer, a cool bang-a-gong hammer hitting shield moment, a super-big, super-angry green guy, a super-assassin, and that genius arms-dealing billionaire philanthropist, Tony Stark.

In the first “Avengers” movie, we had the fun of seeing the team come together, a sort of Traveling Wilburys supergroup made up of heroes each more than able to carry a movie alone. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Incredible Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Black Widow/Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) joined forces to defeat Thor’s brother Loki and retrieve the source of his power, one of the six infinity stones (yep, you saw another one in “Guardians of the Galaxy;” feel free to have your mind blown with Marvel universe awesomeness).

Then they had shwarma.

No time for getting acquainted here. We start smack dab in the middle of the action (thank you, 3D), as our merry band is battling the forces of Hydra, but of course not missing a beat in the quip department, even from the bad guys: “The Americans sent circus freaks to attack us.” Burn! (Both literal and metaphor.) Secret weapons hiding out with Hydra include twins who are very angry and damaged because their parents were killed (by weapons from Stark’s company). Now, thanks to some Hydra tinkering, they have superpowers, best summed up as “He’s fast and she’s weird.” He is Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and she is the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson). They both have bad Boris and Natasha accents and look like one of the Diane Arbus-like visions in “The Shining.” Her weird powers involve waggling her fingers and red smoke, with some sort of force field and the ability to impose what looks like a very bad acid trip on anyone with a biology-based brain.

But that’s not the problem. The battle with Hydra lasts just long enough to re-introduce us to everyone and not a few updates, especially a new tenderness between the Black Widow and Bruce Banner. Soon, they’re back at their clubhouse/headquarters and Tony asks for three days to investigate Loki’s stone before Thor returns to to Asgard. What could go wrong?

Pretty much everything, as Tony’s hubristic attempt to create a new artificial intelligence to protect humanity ends up as Ultron (James Spader, using that same tone of languid contempt we first heard when he played Blaine’s snooty rich friend in “Pretty in Pink”). Ultron takes one look around and decides humanity is in need of a major reboot, starting with extermination. Anyone who hates the Avengers has a couple of friends in the twins. And, given the little Hydra infestation problem in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” our group no longer has access to the massive government tools and technology, while Ultron is tapped into all digital data. It’s tough to come up with a bad guy who can be a credible threat to superheroes, but Ultron and the twins are scary and crazy, so they qualify. “Is this your first time intimidating?” Ultron asks with an arrogant robot sneer.

Yep, another big, big battle lies ahead, and yep, it includes a floating city and an army of robots and awesome stunts. It also involves evacuating civilians, often overlooked in superhero films. It also involves some group dynamic governance issues, as you might expect with so many Alpha males in the room. Shwarma, maybe, revels, now and then, but kumbaya, no, not even Robert’s Rules of Order or majority vote. “We don’t have time for a city hall debate,” Stark says as he doubles down on a bad decision. “I don’t want to hear a ‘man was not meant to meddle’ medley.” Perhaps only Downey could give that line the right zhuzh, but that’s why they pay him the big, big, big bucks, and he nails it.

The interaction is a treat, especially when everyone (with one notable exception) tries to lift Thor’s hammer and no one (with one notable exception) succeeds. There is sparkling banter with a refreshing Whedoneseque twist. Given the challenges of making sure at least nine lead characters get their due in dramatic arcs, quippy zingers, and superhero showmanship, it is inevitable that it will be cluttered. It is perhaps a little less inevitable that the ladies will be squeezed out, entirely off-screen Jane and Pepper dismissed with a couple of lines of dialogue about how busy and important they are, Natasha all nurturing and flirty and beauty taming the beast-ish, though she’s dynamite on a motorcycle. But his willingness to grapple with the existential dilemmas of superheroes and his ability to make those questions so much fun is what superheroes — and movies — are for.

NOTE: Stay through the beginning of the credits to find out who the villain will be in the next chapter. But you don’t need to stay after that as there is no shwarma this time.

Parents should know that this film has extended and graphic sequences of superhero peril and action-style violence with some disturbing images, characters injured and killed, some strong language, and brief crude humor.

Family discussion: How can the Avengers find better ways to resolve their conflicts? Why was Stark so wrong in his design for Ultron?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies and the original comics

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3D Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Scene After the Credits Series/Sequel Superhero

Welcome to Me

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language and brief drug use
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations, brief violence
Diversity Issues: Treatment of people with mental illness
Date Released to Theaters: May 1, 2015
Copyright 2015 Alechemy
Copyright 2015 Alechemy

In “Welcome to Me,” Kristen Wiig plays Alice, a depressed woman diagnosed with borderline personality disorder who wins $86 million in the lottery. She uses much of it to create a one-woman television series that feature monologues about her life and re-enactments of some of her most traumatic moments. This is the most recent in a series of Wiig’s depressed/repressed roles in mostly indie films like “Girl Most Likely,” “The Skeleton Twins,” “Hateship Loveship,” and “Bridesmaids.” Even as the romantic interest in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” she played a character so low-key she came across as diffident. No one is asking her to do a perky rom-com, but it would be nice to see her try something different.

Alice is off her meds. She makes inappropriate comments that make the people around her feel uncomfortable, although she has the support of her parents, her ex-husband and his new boyfriend, and her best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini). And she gets a lot of support from Oprah, via VHS tapes of her talk show, which Alice plays so often she knows them by heart. Oprah’s exhortation to find “something you were born to give,” to “figure out your calling and then begin to honor it” fascinates and inspires her, though probably not in the way Oprah had in mind. When she wins the lottery, she goes to a tiny television station that has been barely surviving on infomercials, run by two brothers, the three-times married on-air talent Gabe (Wes Bentley) and the behind-the scenes guy Rich (James Marsden). “I’m Rich,” he says. “No, I’m rich,” she replies.

Alice gives them $15 million to create a daily two-hour series for her to talk about herself. Oh, and she wants to enter on a swan boat. Soon there is a string of applicants for roles in her re-enactments of difficult and traumatic moments like the time someone took her make-up or the time Gina thought she did not look good in a bikini. Her comments are bizarre snippets of what she has absorbed from television mixed with more bizarre assertions and confessions, all delivered in near-monotone. “I have a prepared statement,” she says as though everything is a press conference, even to her family.

Is this one of those “crazy people are less crazy than normal people” movies? Or a comic but sympathetic portrayal of the challenges of mental illness? Or a satire of our media-saturated age? Despite excellent performances all around, especially Tim Robbins as Alice’s therapist, it does not succeed in any of those categories. The movie opens with a quote from Montaigne: “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my physics. That is my metaphysics.” But Montaigne drew insights about the human condition from that study, which neither Alice nor this film is able to manage.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and explicit and crude sexual references and an explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: If you could re-enact a moment from your life, what would you pick? If you had $86 million, what would you do with the money?

If you like this, try: “The Skeleton Twins” and “Girl Most Likely”

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Drama Independent Movies

Iris

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Issues of aging
Date Released to Theaters: May 1, 2015
Date Released to DVD: August 23, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00YIZWGKA

Fashion icon nonagenarian Iris Apfel is renowned for her taste and style. But people who see this movie, the last from documentary legend Albert Maysles, will remember her for her fearlessness and life force. Along with the signature big, round, black-rimmed glasses, her attire on any given day could include a hand-painted leather Valentino jacket she originally bought decades ago for her husband, pants made from fabric she haggled over at an exotic open market, and gorgeous big, clunky beads as likely to be worth a fortune as they are to have been picked up at the time store.

No one ever got a bigger kick out of getting dressed than Iris (she admits she likes dressing for a party far more than the party itself) and no one ever got a bigger kick out of life and love, either.

Iris is an artist and the world is her canvas. She is a living installation project of wild color and design. But her greatest art form is her life, and it is an enormous treat to see this valentine by one legend to another.

Families should know that this film includes some strong language and discussion of illness and loss.

Family discussion: What would change in your life if you wore something a little bit more adventurous? What do you think of her comments on “pretty?”

If you like this, try: “The September Issue” and “The Eye Has to Travel”

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Documentary DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Puss in Boots “Hosts” a Jeopardy Category

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Tonight on Jeopardy Puss in Boots becomes the first CG-animated character to host an entire category of answers. Puss “recorded” clues for an entire category called “Not as Great as Puss In Boots.”

On May 8, The Adventures of Puss in Boots returns to Netflix. In these new episodes, Puss and Dulcinea embark on an adventure to find the Fountain of Youth to save Puss’ old mentor, El Guante Blanco. When Dulcinea becomes enchanted with new powers, Puss helps her learn how to control her newfound strength.

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