30 May 2013

Audiobook Review: "The Message // Remix"

Written by: God (original text) / Eugene H. Peterson (translator)
Narrators: Kelly Ryan Dolan, Steven Curtis Chapman, Steve and Christine Dente, Stu Garrard, Louie Giglio, Steve Green, Dan Haseltine, Janna Long, Mac Powell, Martine Smith, Nicol Sponberg, Rebecca St. James, TobyMac, et. al.
Synopsis: Called a "Bible in contemporary language," The Message is a paraphrase that updates the antiquated, archaic language found in most translations, whether the 1611 KJV or the 2010 NIV.  This audio version features narration from experienced voice actor Kelly Ryan Dolan, as well as popular contemporary Christian music artists ranging from Steve Green to Janna Long (Avalon) to TobyMac reading selected passages, it's God's Word as you likely have never heard it before!

Production Values: 3.5/5
I bought this expecting a multi-cast narration, a la The Word of Promise or The Bible Experience.  Instead, what I got was one guy (Dolan) reading most of the Bible, with others reading passages that usually amount to a few chapters, if even that.  Though Mr. Dolan puts more expression into his voice that Alexander Scourby ever did, the lack of variance in his voice is a bit bothersome.  When God has the same voice as Rachel, who has the same voice as Jonathan, who has the same voice as the serpent, it's just...well, not good.  The other narrators--who are musicians, not actors--don't change their voices either, but some of their readings are better than others.  Rebecca St. James, who reads Ephesians, and Steve Green, who reads the account of Abraham, both do pretty well, but Tricia Brock's reading of Jude and Steven Curtis Chapman's performance of the epistle of James are a bit hard to sit through.

Compatibility: 3.5/5
The edition I bought of The Message // Remix is the MP3 CD edition, as pictured above.  Some reviewers on CBD said that they had trouble getting the files onto their computer/MP3 player, but they were all Windows users; I figured my flat-screen iMac would copy them just fine...but I was wrong.  Though it mostly copied correctly, most of the book of Isaiah was unable to copy.  That wouldn't be that bad...if it weren't for the fact that Isaiah is one of those books where a paraphrase would really help.  So, whether you use Mac or Windows, beware.

Content Concerns: N/A
The Bible is God's Word, and is not subject to the same analyses that I would give a Disney Channel movie or a Saturday morning cartoon.  Therefore, I am not going to analyze its content.  All I will say is that some people might have a problem with the nature of the translation, but, as long as The Message has been around, pretty much everyone has already made up their mind about it.

Conclusion: For a while, I have had a bit of a penchant for audio Bibles.  I own both the original and Next Generation editions of The Word of Promise, as well as two audio NIVs and The Bible Experience.  They are a great study tool, especially when I read and listen at the same time.  Though The Message // Remix is moderately well-done, I've heard much better.  Maybe someday Mr. Peterson's paraphrase will get the Word of Promise treatment and actually sound really good; the nature of the translation seems to be perfect for that.

Score: 3.5/5

27 May 2013

DVD Series Set Review: "Iron Man" (Anime)

Rated: TV-14 (US) / PG (Canadian Home Video Rating)
Starring: Adrian Pasgar, Eden Riegel, and Laura Bailey
Released: April 24, 2012 (DVD)
Synopsis: Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, is planning on creating an Arc Reactor, which will give the world limitless energy.  Sounds good, right? Well, the nefarious Zodiac will stop at nothing to bring him to ruin! With robotic monsters and terrorists attacking both him and innocent Japanese civilians at every turn, will even a smart and powerful man like Tony Stark be able to claim victory?

Plot: 5/5
These thirteen episodes are some of the most engaging ones I've seen in a while.  Just before starting this review, I finished the series by watching the last four episodes one after another; seriously, it was that gripping.  The further you go into the series, the more insane it gets.  If you decide to watch this, you'd better clear your schedule!

Production Values: 4/5
Everything was good in this department, as well...except for one thing.  The animation was stellar; each action sequence, explosion, attack blast, and everything else looked amazing, even on a small iPad screen or my iMac's monitor.  The voice work--in the English dub, at least--was great, too.  The one problem was that the English dub didn't match up with the subtitles/captions on the DVD.  In many cases, the subtitles would have a character say something when, on the dub, he/she wasn't saying anything, or vice versa.  I think the producers of the American DVD need to get to work on syncing those better.

Moral Content:
  • Sex: Nothing worse than two or three kisses and a mild quip or two. 4.5/5
  • Nudity: High-rise dresses, occasional cleavage, and Stark is seen shirtless and naked in the fetal position a few times each.  An insert in the DVD case advertising another show has a woman with her midriff bare on it. 4/5
  • Language: Aside from the first two or three episodes, each one has at least three or four profanities, mostly d-words and h-words, but also both b-words and the a-word as well.  Milder terms, such as "crap" and "heck," are used a time or two. 2/5
  • Drugs: Alcohol is consumed, and people are seen smoking. 3.5/5
  • Violence: Lots of blasts, booms, fights, and such.  Robot enemies are sliced into pieces.  More serious are two scenes where characters get impaled, which causes their deaths.  A small amount of blood is seen in a few episodes, though there is absolutely no gore. 3/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: The intensity increases as you go into the series, hence the "TV-14" rating; parents of young children might want to screen this before showing it to their kids. 2.5/5
  • Other: Episodes involving tornadoes and terrorist attacks may hit a nerve in light of the recent events in Boston, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.
Conclusion: Prior to watching this series, I hadn't done anything with anime since I stopped watching Yu-Gi-Oh! during my junior year of high school.  You can imagine my surprise when Iron Man ended up being quite amazing.  Comic book superhero fans who didn't get to see this when it aired on G4 are in for a treat; just keep in mind the above content concerns.

Score: 4.5/5

Movie Review: "Quest for Camelot"

Rated: G for general audiences
Starring: Jessalyn Gilsig, Cary Elwes, and Eric Idle
Released: May 15, 1998 (theaters) / October 20, 1998 (VHS/DVD)
Synopsis: Kayley's father (Gabriel Byrne, The Man in the Iron Mask) was one of the Knights of the Round Table, who serve King Arthur (Pierce Brosnan, GoldenEye) to keep peace all through the land...but the evil and selfish knight Ruber (Gary Oldman, Harry Potter) killed him when she was young.  Now a young adult, she wants to fight for the cause her father gave his life for, but her mother won't let her...until Ruber comes barging into their house, kidnapping Kayley's mother (Jane Seymour, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman)! As Kayley (Jessalyn Gilsig) ventures to find the famed sword Excalibur, which is the only thing that stands between Ruber and Arthur's throne, she befriends a blind hermit (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride) and his seeing-eye bird, as well as two conjoined dragons (Eric Idle, Monty Python; Don Rickles, Laugh-In).  With such a crazy group, hilarity, adventure, and heroics are sure to ensue...but will it be enough to foil Ruber's plan?

Plot: 5/5
With the emotional grip of Finding Nemo and the zaniness of a Nickelodeon cartoon, Quest for Camelot had me engrossed from the start.  I found this to be fun, exciting, and pretty much everything one could want in a movie.

Production Values: 5/5
Everything in this department was amazing, too! The voice work--including the singing, which was done by the likes of Andrea Corr and Celine Dion--was outstanding, and the animation was simply wonderful! Nothing to complain about in this department.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: Nothing worse than kissing. 5/5
  • Nudity: Shirtless guys and one off-the-shoulder dress. 4.5/5
  • Language: "Gosh," "darn" and some mild name-calling ("idiot") are as bad as it gets. 4.5/5
  • Violence: Plenty of action, some of it played for laughs, though most of it is serious.  Pretty much the "TV-Y7-FV" kind. 3/5
  • Drugs: None. 5/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: Some sequences may be too intense for the youngest viewers.  Also, the emotional prologue could trigger some tears, a la Finding Nemo. 3/5
  • Other: Some may be bothered by the use of magic in the film. 4/5
 Conclusion: I don't usually do animation, unless it's computer generated and/or superhero related, but, when I saw this movie on the "Kids and Family" rack at my local MovieStop, it called to me, and for good reason.  Other than two longtime favorite albums, I have yet to give anything a perfect score on this blog.  Well, this is going to get one.  A new favorite for me; no question.

Score: 5/5

20 May 2013

DVD Review: "Cory in the House": Newt and Improved Edition

Rated: TV-G (US) / G (Canadian Home Video Rating)
Starring: Kyle Massey, Jason Dolley, and Maiara Walsh
Released: May 27, 2008 (DVD)
Synopsis: Raven Baxter's younger brother Cory (Kyle Massey, That's So Raven and Dancing With the Stars) now has a show of his own! His father Victor (Rondell Sheridan, That's Funny) was hired as the chef for none other than the President of the United States!  Together with his friends Newt (Jason Dolley, Good Luck, Charlie) and Meena (Maiara Walsh, Switched at Birth), they are in for some crazy adventures!  Whether it's a song-writing session that literally sends the two guys through the roof, or a old rivalry between two countries that is resolved through an embarrassing mishap, laughter and smiles are sure to ensue!

Plots: 3/5
This series seems to be a bit of a slack effort from the Disney Channel.  Though it has its cute and humorous moments, some of the antics are simply silly.  A teenaged guy keeping a promise he made to a girl when he was eight? A grown man stopping at nothing to win a game against a little girl?  Even for a Mouse network sitcom, this is ridiculous!

Production Values: 3/5
The acting is as good as one would expect from a Disney sitcom.  Still, having Cory do raps during scene changes is slightly annoying, and the overall feel is lackluster.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: It is implied that a boy accidentally moons someone in "Peace, Love, and Understanding".  The episode "Lip Service" is all about kissing, and a girl who has a boyfriend kisses another guy in one scene.
  • Nudity: Boxers are seen in two episodes; short skirts are seen, too.
  • Drugs: None.
  • Violence: All slapstick, aside from a weird animation of a guy hitting himself with mallets during the closing credits of every episode.
  • Language: Mild slang terms.
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: None that I saw.
  • Other: See the above sections.
Conclusion: I had high hopes for this series; Cory was second only to Chelsea when it came to my favorite That's So Raven characters.  However, from now on, I think I'll stick to watching Kyle Massey alongside Raven-SymonĂ© and Anneliese van der Pol, because this is definitely a sub-par effort.  Apparently, even regular Disney Channel fans didn't like it; only thirty-four episodes were produced instead of the usual sixty-five.  If you've seen this sitcom and loved it, then go ahead and buy this DVD; others should save their money for the upcoming releases of Austin & Ally, Shake It Up!, and Good Luck Charlie.

Score: 2.5/5

19 May 2013

DVD Review: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1987): Volume One

Rated: For Ages 5 and Up (back of DVD case) / TV-Y7 (US TV rating)
Starring: Cam Clarke, Townsend Coleman, and Renae Jacobs
Released: 1987 (first season) & 1996 (bonus episodes) (original TV airing) / April 20, 2004 (DVD)
Synopsis: After a mutating agent fell into some sewers, Japanese martial artist Hamato Yoshi's four pet turtles became Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Yoshi himself became an oversized rat, who the turtles dubbed Splinter, but that didn't keep him from teaching his new larger-than-life friends the way of the warrior! In this set, they befriend Channel Six's reporter April O'Neil, and fight against Splinter's old enemy Saki alongside some unlikely allies.  Also contains four episodes from the series' tenth (and final) season, which was rarely seen on US television.

Plots: 5/5
It's rare for me to watch even a normal-length movie in one sitting, so, the fact that I devoured all nine episodes on this disc in less than forty-eight hours is really saying something.  I did feel that the first few episodes were lacking in action and intensity, but the story did have to be set up.

Production Values: 4.25/5
Even a non-TMNT fan would notice a marked difference between the first season and the final season when it comes to animation.  Though there may be a stylistic variation between them, they're equally good, though some rough spots were noticeable.  Also, some of the voice acting, mostly with the minor characters, was a little grating, and the music could be slightly cheesy at times.  A few typos in the closed captions were also present.  Those factors only slightly detract from what was otherwise a quality presentation.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: None.
  • Nudity: April wears an outfit in the first season that shows a little cleavage, but it is only seen when she appears close-up.
  • Language: Nothing worse than usage of euphemisms such as "heck" or name-calling, i.e., "fools," "imbecile," etc.
  • Drugs: None.
  • Violence: Plenty of comic-book-style-violence, though few fatalities are present.  Lots of explosions, hits, kicks, and use of weapons, though there is absolutely zero blood or gore.
  • Frightening/Intense Sequences: Some of the villains are scary-looking.  Two of the bonus episodes feature one or more of the Turtles turning into hideous monsters.  One bonus episode shows the entire Earth in peril.  A few of the plots may hit a nerve in light of recent terrorist attacks and natural disasters.
  • Other: A small about of bathroom humor that will likely make its target audience--young males--laugh.
 Conclusion: A purchase of a TMNT DVD at a yard sale last September led to me being a fan of not only the Turtles, but animated superhero shows in general.  Since then, I've been watching everything from Superman: The Animated Series to Disney XD's Avengers cartoon.  Though Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael are all a different breed of crime-fighter, their animated adventures are just as fun and exciting as anything based on a DVD or Marvel comic.
Some may be asking: Is this original series better than the 2003 one from 4Kids?  To be honest, I can't say.  They're both really good; they just take a different approach to the same material.  Having not read the comics, I'm unsure which one is truer to the original source material, though the promotional material for the 2003 series claims it is.  Maybe venturing further into both series would give me a better idea, which is what I plan to do; stay tuned.

Score: 4.5/5

17 May 2013

DVD Set Review: "Shake It Up!"

NOTE: The episodes reviewed below are available as a package deal with the DVD of the Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) Geek Charming.  That is a good movie and worth watching at least once, but I actually bought the DVD only for the Shake It Up! episodes.  Currently, other than on iTunes or similar services, the episodes are not available elsewhere, though there is a DVD of the show slated to be available in stores soon.

Rated: TV-G
Starring: Zendaya, Bella Thorne, and Roshon Fegan
Released: February 7, 2012 (DVD package with Geek Charming)
Synopsis: Raquel "Rocky" Blue (Zendaya, Dancing With the Stars) and Cecilia "CeCe" Jones (Bella Thorne) are a bit of a yin and a yang.  Rocky does well in school; CeCe couldn't care less about her grades.  Rocky is well-behaved; CeCe can't seem to stay out of trouble.  However, they have two very big things in common: They are best friends...and dancers on Shake It Up, Chicago!, a local dance show.  The unlikely duo, along with their peers--foreign rivals Tinka and Gunther Hessenheffer (Caroline Sunshine and Kenton Duty), "con man" Deuce (Adam Irigoyen), and all-around good guy Ty (Roshon Fegan, also a DWTS alum)--get into one misadventure after another.  Whether they're dealing with a washed-up choreographer, taking an accidental bus trip to a small town, or hosting an episode of Shake It Up, Chicago! because the regular host is sick, prepare for plenty of laughs, zaniness, and insanity!

Plots: 4/5
I'll be honest; sometimes these ten episodes delve a little into inanity.  Still, for the most part, they are entertaining, cute, and funny, in the way only sitcoms on the Mouse network can be.  Those who are familiar with Disney Channel productions should expect more of the same from this one; that, in my opinion, is a good thing.

Production Values: 5/5
I honestly can't think of anything bad in this area.  Not only does this show excel in the normal categories--acting, sets, costumes, etc.--but the dance moves and music are really well-done.  It's no surprise that Zendaya is doing well on Dancing With the Stars this season.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: Mildly suggestive dance moves and a few mild quips.  Passionate kissing in one episode, though it is later revealed that the two who were smooching are married.
  • Nudity: Short skirts; sleeveless and off-the-shoulder tops.
  • Language: Mild name-calling is as bad as it gets.
  • Drugs: None. (This is Disney Channel, people!)
  • Violence: Entirely slapstick.
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: Anything that would normally be frightening is made silly by the tone of the show.
  • Other: Deuce is a con man who sells items from his jacket, but it is played for laughs; some bathroom humor.
Conclusion: Some may scoff, but, in my opinion, Disney Channel knows how to create a sitcom.  With plenty of humor, great performances, and two attractive leading ladies, what's not to like?  Now, if only the Mouse House would release a complete season set, something they haven't even come close to doing with any of their sitcoms other than Lizzie McGuire.  (Come on, Disney executives; Shake It...er, I mean, step it up!)

Score: 4/5

13 May 2013

Movie Review: "A Cinderella Story"

Rated: PG for mild language and innuendo (US) / G (Canadian Home Video Rating)
Starring: Hilary Duff, Chad Michael Murray, and Regina King
Released: July 16, 2004 (theaters) / October 19, 2004 (DVD)
Synopsis: Sam (Hilary Duff, Lizzie McGuire) used to have it all: a loving father, good friends, a nice house, and a bright future.  However, after her father's death, Sam was left in the care of her selfish stepmother and stepsisters, who make her work her fingers to the bone while they live it up.  Sam has struck up a friendship with a guy online (Chad Michael Murray, One Tree Hill), who calls himself Nomad.  Based on their online interactions, she believes he is her soulmate.  They agree to meet at her school's Halloween homecoming dance, but, when she finds out that he is a popular jock, she is embarrassed to reveal her true identity.  Will Nomad ever find his Cinderella, or will Sam be forced to spend the rest of her life being her stepmother's slave?

Plot: 4/5
Sure, the whole Cinderella thing has been done before countless times, but this film takes a slightly different spin on it, which is to its benefit.  There are some moments that are a bit silly, but, as a whole, I found it to be mostly involving.

Production Values: 4.5/5
Aside from some soundtrack issues, I also found it to be well-made.  All of the stars, including lead actress and my former number-one girl Hilary Duff, did quite well.  Even the background music wasn't all terrible; there were two songs by Ms. Duff herself, and one by a pre-American Idol Kara DioGuardi, as well as few others that weren't bad.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: Some quips are made, and breast implants are discussed.  One kiss.
  • Nudity: Many of the female characters in this film wear everything from short skirts to high-rise tops to bikinis, though Sam herself never stoops to that level.  Shirtless guys are also seen in just one scene.
  • Language: A little bit of profanity, including some misuses of God's name, alongside some euphemisms such as "jeez" and name-calling.
  • Drugs: None.
  • Violence: An implied death from an earthquake.  One automobile accident happens, and two more nearly do, though no one is hurt or killed in any of them.  Everything else is mostly slapstick and played for laughs.
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: The near-accidents mentioned above.
  • Other: A bit of bathroom humor.
Conclusion: I missed out on this movie when it came out in 2004, despite being a big-time Hilary Duff fan.  Since then, I had wanted to see it, but, every time I checked it out from the library, it would be due before I got around to watching it.  I even saw the direct-to-video sequels--Another Cinderella Story, which was a bit dumb but had a great song by Selena Gomez, and A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song, which had a bit too much language and inane content, not to mention that the theme song by lead actress Lucy Hale was an attack on those with religious beliefs--before actually watching the original; this one is definitely the best of the three.  It's nothing spectacular, but those who enjoy silly, sappy romantic comedies will likely enjoy this film.

Score: 3.5/5

10 May 2013

Movie Review: "The Blind Side"

Rated: PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, and Tim McGraw
Released: November 20, 2009 (theaters) / March 23, 2010 (DVD/Blu-Ray)
Synopsis: Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) is a kid with a hard life.  Born in a poor neighborhood to a drug-addict mother, and with no father in sight, he escapes his destitute living situation...only to end up homeless.  Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock, While You Were Sleeping) is an opulent wife and mother who takes Michael in, if only to give him a home.  After finding out that Michael has superior athletic ability, he joins his private school's football team.  However, his classmates and others harass him because of his size and skin color, and his skills on the court need some sharpening.  With his adoptive family behind him, though, Michael will prove to the entire nation that he is not to be counted out.

Plot: 5/5
Though neither "based on a true story" films nor sports flicks are really my thing, I found The Blind Side to be the most engaging movie I've seen in either category in a while.  Even an annoying storytelling device--showing the end before the beginning--didn't detract at all from the narrative.  The entire film speaks of the gift of having a family, the need for an education, looking out for your fellow man, and, at times, the joy of literacy.  What could be better than that?

Production Values: 5/5
The acting, the sets, the sports sequences...what was there not to like?  Everything in this was amazingly done.  Of course, when a movie is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, you know it's well-made.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: A husband and wife are seen passionately kissing.  Terms--slang and otherwise--for private parts are mentioned.  Women are described in unkind terms.
  • Nudity: Leigh Anne is almost always seen wearing a low-cut top.  Cheerleaders are seen in their typical sleeveless, short-skirted outfits.  A minor male character has his coat open every time you see him, and it exposes some of his chest.  One bare midriff is seen.
  • Violence: Rough-and-tumble football action, along with a fight where gunfire is heard.  A car crash ends with two people being bloodied.
  • Drugs: Usage of drugs is mentioned.  Beer is consumed.
  • Language: A-words, b-words, d-words, and h-words appear more frequently than they should.  Slang terms for private parts are also used.
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: The fight mentioned above could be freaky to some viewers, and the car crash might be as well.
  • Other: A clip from the song "Bust-A-Move" appears; though what you hear in the movie itself is innocent, the entire song is not.
Conclusion: I have a feeling this is going to join Rudy, Hoosiers, and Remember the Titans as part of the pantheon of classic sports flicks.  Not being a sports fan myself, I still found the movie to be mostly enjoyable, though the problematic content kept it from being what it could have been.  Those who don't mind the above content, or have ClearPlay or a similar service to filter their movies, should definitely watch this inspiring story.  Others might have some quibbles with the content.

Score: 3.75/5

07 May 2013

Book Series Review: "The Secret Life of Samantha McGregor" by Melody Carlson

Synopsis: Samantha McGregor has had a tough time lately.  Her father, a police officer, died in the line of duty; her brother is a drug addict; and her mom is always depressed.  That may sound complicated enough, but, then, Sam is given a unique gift from God that makes matters even more complicated: The ability to have visions and dreams about future events.  As she soon finds out, it isn't something to be taken lightly; her visions show that many people, including her friends and even her family, are in grave danger.  With God's help, and a little assistance from Ebony, a former colleague of her father's, she can stop the worst from happening...but will she?

Plot: 4.5/5
Sort of like a more serious version of That's So Raven, Samantha's various entanglements kept me enthralled from the start.  Every book--except for the last one, of course--ended with a cliffhanger that left me panting for the next one.  I did find that the final volume, Payback, was slightly slow in parts, but it still had a knock-your-socks-off finale, which I will not give away here.

Writing: 4.75/5
As usual for Melody Carlson, this is written amazingly well.  The first person narration is so well done, you can easily hear a teenage girl's voice in your head while reading her words.  Someone should get a young actress like Victoria Justice or Bridgit Mendler to perform an audio narration; seriously, those who prefer to hear their books instead of read them would be in for a treat if they listened to this on CD.

Content Concerns:
(Please keep in mind that this is a young adult book series, and, therefore, not intended for young children!) 
  • Sex: Discussions of teenagers having sex, though it is all vilified.  One story arc features a child predator.
  • Nudity: None.
  • Violence: Fights involving teenagers are both shown and discussed.  A kid dies in a fire.  Some of the visions also involve violence.  A shooting is discussed in somewhat lurid detail.  All of the violence, however, is shown as sinful and not an answer to problems.
  • Drugs: As mentioned above, the protagonist's brother is a drug-addict; elsewhere, someone else dies due to drug use.  All of it is vilified.
  • Language: Implied usage of profanity, though it is vilified.
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: The whole tone of the series is bleak.  Samantha has a vision of hell that is somewhat freaky.  Her mom also goes missing, and it is assumed that she was kidnapped by a significant other.  The possibility of a terrorist attacking a prom may be unsettling in light of recent events.
  • Other: Some may be bothered by the series' premise of a girl who has visions from God.
 Conclusion: What a great find.  My local used bookstore had the entire series for sale, and I had enough credit, so, I figured, why not?  I ended up being glad I bought them; The Secret Life of Samantha McGregor is the best literary series I've read since Christy Miller several months ago.  Anyone who enjoys Christian supernatural fiction should definitely seek this one out; you will definitely be glad that you did.

Score: 4.75/5 

06 May 2013

DVD Review: "The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes": Volume Two: "Captain America Reborn!"

Rated: TV-Y7 for fantasy violence
Starring: Eric Loomis, Brian Bloom, and Colleen O'Shaughnessey
Released: April 26, 2011
Synopsis: If the planet is threatened by super villains, time traveling conquerors, alien invaders, mythical beasts, or robots bent on the total destruction of humanity...if the forces of evil are so overwhelming that no single hero has the power to save the world...when there is no hope left, you assemble the Avengers. The Avengers are the best of the best in the Marvel universe; the greatest heroes who take on the unbeatable foes. These are the heroes who hold back the storm; on their shoulders rests the fate of the world.
(Adapted from the Amazon.com page for the DVD)

Plots: 5/5
As superhero TV series go, these episodes are amazing.  Not only is each individual episode enthralling, but the stories connect to make a larger narrative.  Each episode seems to be setting up something for later in the series, possibly in the next volume, all the while having its own story.  The two-parter "Gamma World," which closes off this volume, is the best.

Production Values: 4.5/5
The voice work is great, as usual, and the action sequences are outstanding.  However, the mostly amazing animation has a spot or two where it could have been done better.

Moral Content: 10+
  • Positive Elements: Themes of heroism and self-sacrifice; helping your fellow man is shown in a positive light.  A hero says, "Violence doesn't solve anything."
  • Sex: None.
  • Nudity: Shirtless men; women, including a main superheroine and a featured villainess, in low-cut/high-rise tops.
  • Violence: Plenty of the usual hits, kicks, and explosions.  The heroes and villains get blasted, smashed, and thrown around throughout.  Guns and other projectile weapons are also fired.
  • Drugs: None.
  • Language: Mild name-calling, such as "cucumber head."
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: Some of the monsters are quite scary-looking; the two-parter "Gamma World" shows both the heroes and regular people being transformed into monsters.
  • Other: Hulk belches.
Conclusion: Upon watching the first volume of Avengers episodes, I was surprised at how intense and gripping they were.  The same is true of this second one; in fact, it ratchets things up in both of those categories.  Now, I've got to get my hands on the third one!

Score: 4.75/5

04 May 2013

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games"

Rated: PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images -- all involving teens
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth
Released: March 23, 2012 (theaters) / August 18, 2012 (DVD /Blu-Ray)
Synopsis: Every year, in the ruins of what was once North America, the capitol of the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games.  Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her younger sister's place, and must rely on her sharp instincts when she is pitted against highly trained Tributes who have been preparing their entire lives.  If she is ever to return home to District Twelve, Katniss must make impossible choices in the arena that weigh survival against humanity...and life against love.
(Adapted from the back cover of the double-disc DVD edition)

Plot: 4.5/5
Usually, when a best-selling novel is made into a movie, you know you're going to get a good story...and, in this case, you get a great one.  Like George Orwell's 1984, this film paints a bleak portrait of the world we are becoming.  What made it all the more striking was how the "competition" smacked of "reality" TV shows such as Survivor, Big Brother, or Jon and Kate Plus Eight.  That said, I did think it was a bit ridiculous that many of the minor characters had hairdos that made them look like Marilyn Manson or Lady Gaga; that was the only weak point in the story, though.

Production Values: 5/5
Everything in this department was impressive: the acting, the sets, and especially the special effects.  Of course, that's obvious; would it have been a high-grossing movie if it hadn't had any of that?

Moral Content: 15+
  • Positive Elements: Themes of self-sacrifice; portrayal of when entertainment goes too far.
  • Sex: One guy looks at women a bit lecherously.
  • Nudity: Off-the shoulder dresses; holes in clothes that are only used to show wounds.
  • Violence: In the competition and elsewhere, teenagers go at each other with bows and arrows, knives, and swords.  One character drops a hive of insects to the ground to fend off assailants; though it succeeds, said character also gets bitten, too.  Some of the wounds and weapons do get bloody, though the level of violence never reaches "R" territory.  A character shoots an arrow where people are gathered to get their attention, but no one is hurt.  Elsewhere, a father goes on a violent rampage when he sees his daughter get killed as part of the Games.
  • Drugs: A man is seen drinking and drunk.
  • Language: Six or seven profanities total, all d-words and h-words.
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: The whole theme of the movie--teenagers killing other teenagers--would likely be freaky to many youngsters.  A hallucination that one character has is also quite scary, and some monsters that the Game-makers use to scare the kids are, as well.
  • Other: The makers of the game show little care about what is happening to the teenagers during the Games.
 Conclusion: After seeing this, I'm not sure if I want to watch any more reality television!  More than just an action/adventure flick, The Hunger Games is a shocking portrait of where our society might be in the future.  If you're not too young and/or sensitive to handle the violence and intensity, you should definitely see this; it's as provocative as it is unsettling!

Score: 4.5/5

DVD Season Set Review: "True Jackson, VP": Season 1, Volume 1

Rated: TV-G (US) / PG (Canadian Home Video Rating)
Starring: Keke Palmer, Ashley Argota, and Danielle Bisutti
Released: November 8, 2008 - October 24, 2009 (TV) / September 9, 2011 (DVD)
Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old True Jackson (Keke Palmer, Joyful Noise) just landed the job of a lifetime: being the vice president of Mad Style, one of New York's top fashion companies.  Unfortunately, not all is as it seems.  Her boss Mr. Madigan (Greg Proops, Whose Line Is It Anyway?) is insane, and her nemesis and former VP Amanda Cantwell (Danielle Bisutti) is out to get her at every turn.  Thankfully, she has her best friends Lulu (Ashley Argota) and Ryan (Matt Shively) by her side.  Whether she is fixing up her heartbroken boss with her crazy art teacher, being the queen in a life-sized game of chess, or escorting the snooty teenage model Dakota North (Nathalia Ramos, House of Anubis) during a visit to Mad Style, craziness and hilarity are sure to ensue!

Plots: 4.5/5
Sure, we've all seen this kind of thing before, but it works very well in this case.  Every episode is enthralling in its own way.  Sitcom haters may scoff, but everyone else will find plenty to love here.  The only reason I'm not giving it a perfect score is because Lulu and Ryan had a time or two where they were just annoying.

Production Values: 4.5/5
The sets, costumes, and such are all well-done; however, where it really shines is the acting.  Though everyone here did great, Danielle Bisutti really caught my eye as villainess Amanda Cantwell.  With the right amount of silliness and seriousness, she does amazingly with the role and gives Lizzie McGuire's Kate Sanders a run for her money.  Unfortunately, some errors in the closed captioning, poor music during the closing credits, and a opening title sequence that could have been done better prevent me from giving it a perfect score in this department.

Moral Content: 6+
  • Sex: In one episode, Amanda's dress falls off during a meeting, and, though she is only seen from the shoulders up, it is implied that she is naked; later, a couple of mildly suggestive remarks are made about that incident.
  • Nudity: Along with the implied nudity listed above, Amanda wears some low-cut outfits.  Other ladies, including True, wear off-the-shoulder tops and dresses that show a lot of leg at times.
  • Violence: Mostly slapstick and played for laughs, though an online animation that shows a head exploding--in a cartoony way--and drops of blood is slightly creepy.
  • Drugs: None.
  • Language: Other than one d-word, as bad as it gets is some mild name-calling and occasional slang words for bodily functions.
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: The web animation mentioned in the "Violence" section.
  • Other: It's unrealistic...but, hey: It's television!
Conclusion: As someone who likes family-friendly entertainment, I often find myself drawn to Nickelodeon and Disney Channel productions; though they are sometimes forgettable, I know that I don't have to worry about the kind of offensive content that gets bandied about on most other networks with abandon.  Part of the reason I like sitcoms from those "kiddie" channels is that they remind me of old-school shows, such as Growing Pains or Mork & Mindy.  Well, I'm here to tell you: True Jackson, VP splits the difference between classic TV and the Mouse network, and doesn't resort to the crudity or inanity that iCarly and VICTORiOUS tended to have.  This is the kind of television we need more of; are you listening, Tinseltown?
Score: 4.75/5

DVD Set Review: "Superman: The Animated Series": Volume Two

Rated: TV-PG (US) / PG (Canadian Home Video Rating)
Starring: Tim Daly, Dana Delany, and Clancy Brown
Released: September-November 1997 (TV) / December 6, 2005 (DVD)
Synopsis: Superman, aka Clark Kent, may be a staple of Metropolis by now, but his troubles are far from over! Between new foes such as Mr. Mxyzpltk and Lord Karkull, as well as old enemies ranging from the ever-present Lex Luthor to the prison escapee LiveWire, not to mention his love interest Lois Lane and keeping his double identity a secret, things get crazy for the Man of Steel!

Plots: 4/5
As you'd expect, most of these are your typical superhero-versus-supervillain battles that have been in comic books for ages.  However, some of them take a different tack: "The Late Mr. Kent" involves a man on death row for a crime he didn't commit; Clark Kent gets involved in the mess when he decides to report on the case.  Also, "Mxyzpixelated" featured a wise-cracking, unusually dumb villain who can only be sent back to his own dimension if he says his own name backwards.  Plot-wise, and in other ways, the worst episode was "The Hand of Fate", which would keep this from getting a perfect score no matter how the rest of the set was.

Production Values: 4/5
The voice work is great, as is the music.  All of the action sequences are well-done.  Where it lost me a bit was the animation which was mostly great, but some scenes were not as polished as they could have been.

Moral Content: 11+
I'm going to categorize this:
  • Sex: A couple of winks and mild innuendos.
  • Nudity: Shirtless men, as well as immodestly dressed women, are seen infrequently, though, thanks to the style of the animation, it's not as sultry as it would be in a live-action film or with highly-detailed CG.
  • Violence: Plenty of booms, crashes, hits and kicks.  Low death count, though, because Superman cannot kill.  Probably the most violent scene is when the Man of Steel gets slashed in the chest.
  • Drugs: Some drinks in wine goblets, though no mention is made of what exactly they are.
  • Language: A few misuses of God's name, and right much name-calling.
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: Several of the villains are scary-looking; some innocent people, including Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, get turned into monsters in "The Hand of Fate"; Superman is seen suffering a few times; in "The Late Mr. Kent," one man nearly gets executed in a gas chamber, and it is implied that another man is killed in the same way.
  • Other: Superman can be slightly smart-aleck at times; "The Hand of Fate" has allusions to Wicca and the usage of spells.
Conclusion: As a longtime superhero fan, I find that DC or Marvel cartoons are usually right up my alley.  This one wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but it proved to be enthralling and involving for the most part.  I felt that the three-parter "World's Finest," which also featured Batman, Harley-Quinn, and the Joker, was where the set really shined.  On the other side of the coin, "The Hand of Fate" has to be one of the worst animated superhero shows or movies I've seen in a long time.  Still, one episode does not define a set; anyone who enjoyed the previous Superman: The Animated Series set will find plenty to like about this one, too.

Score: 4/5