February 02, 2016
Family Film Blogging: Kung Fu Panda 3
Posted by Christine Hurt

Having avoided seeing the most dreaded sequel this season (Alvin & the Chipmunks 4 -- Really, 4???), we did find ourselves in a rather sparse theater Friday evening watching Kung Fu Panda 3.  I can't believe I'm admitting this, but when Kung Fu Panda 2 ended, I did sort of want to know if Po would find his panda Dad.  I've kind've been wondering what was taking these Dreamworks people so long, ending the "2" sequel on such a cliffhanger.  Well, now I can go on with my life -- Po and his dad are reunited.

I don't feel weird admitting that I generally have really liked the Kung Fu Panda franchise.  Jack Black is great as Po, the chunky, cuddly panda who saves kung fu fighting and is named the "dragon warrior," even though he has to start learning the ancient art from the beginning.  The ensemble cast of the "Furious Five" led by Dustin Hoffman's Shifu is also really entertaining.  The dialogue is witty, and the plots interesting.  But, the "3" sequel is not as sharp, not as funny.  It is not bad, like painfully bad (see Minions), but it just doesn't live up to the other two movies.

At the end of KFP2, we see an older male panda get a "message from the universe" that his son is alive.  We have already learned that Po's dad (the goose) found him in a radish crate and raised him as his own.  KFP2 has a subplot of Po dealing with this news.  So, you sort of know going in that KFP3 is going to feature Po's panda dad.  But, Po finds his dad, Li, in the first few scenes of KFP3, in his own family restaurant.  So, there's not a lot of suspense or interest there.  Also, Li is not that interesting of a character.  He's not even that likeable.  Or funny.  

The main conflict then is that an ancient villain, Kai (J.K. Simmons), has returned from the Spirit Realm, where he has learned how to take other beings' chi.  He sets out to take the chi from all the kung fu masters, including Shifu and the Furious Five.  Shifu learns that centuries ago, a village of pandas (Po's village) was able to control chi, meaning that Po might be able to beat Kai.  Li declares that the pandas in his village know how to control chi and that if Po returns with him, Po will learn this skill.  However, Li is not being truthful with Po, and disaster ensues.

I wish that Li had been a more interesting character, but maybe that's too much to hope for in a short animated feature.  The fun Furious Five also don't get a lot of screen time because their chi is taken pretty quickly.  So, most of the movie involves really cute pandas (that all look very similar) doing pretty cute things, but I missed the banter between Po and the gang, particularly Angelina Jolie's Tigress.  And, I'm not waiting anxiously for KFP4!

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January 15, 2016
Family Film Blogging (Oscar Edition): The Big Short
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, not a lot of R-rated movies appear here in my reviews, but I couldn't stay away from The Big Short, having absolutely loved the book.  My teenage son, a big Michael Lewis fan, also wanted to go, so I smuggled him in as well.  If he begins talking like a sailor (or an investment banker), it's my fault.

The Big Short has gotten a lot of love from the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Best Adapted Screenplay), and it is well-deserved.  From reading the book, it is hard to understand how it could be turned into a movie.  This isn't The Blind Side, with lovable characters and a heartwarming story.  The star of the book is the credit default swap, which is not only not as attractive and lovable as Sandra Bullock, but very few people understand what a CDS is.  Not to mention the antagonists of the story, the collateralized debt obligation and its evil twin the synthetic CDO.  However, the movie does an absolutely amazing job creating these "asides" where the narrator or cameo spokespeople (no spoilers here), explain these Frankenstein products and the risks involved.  Genius may not describe this.

The nonfiction book follows the select few who understood that the residential housing market was going to crash, taking the mortgage-backed security market (and CDS and CDO markets) with it.  From the book, I most remembered Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the physician-turned-fund manager with Asperberger's, who is more comfortable with numbers than people.  The book and movie also follow two young "garage band hedge fund" managers (Charlie Gellar and Jamie Shipley) who have parlayed their personal funds into millions and now want to short the MBS market. Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, a slick investment banker who sells the short positions.  Finally, Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) runs a hedge fund inside of Morgan Stanley, and he and his team are quickly sold on the idea that the banks have massively overreached in the MBS market.  Baum's story takes center stage in the movie, with the audience getting glimpses into his motivations, fears, and hesitations.  Burry is an enigma in the movie.  We only see him in his office or basement at home, blasting loud music.  We do not see inside of him at all, which I think of as a downside.

When the stories of these guys first appeared in the Vanity Fair, I recall the tone as "here are the guys that bet against America."  Lewis didn't skewer them, but there seemed to be a bit of shame in the story -- these guys made hundreds of millions, maybe billions, by predicting the Titanic would sink.  If anyone would have listened to them, then perhaps the crash could have been cushioned somewhat.  When a guy comes into your bank and asks to bet $200 million against your portfolio, maybe you should question your portfolio instead of doubling down, thinking you are taking advantage of an idiot.  Even still, the "heroes" of the book profited from the collapse of the world economy, so there was some unease in glorifying "the big short."

The movie, though, throws the shame away in way that I don't recall the book doing.  This telling of the story makes our Cassandras twist in the wind for much of the movie -- no one believes them, then they lose a lot of reputation and money having to make collateral calls to their counterparties while the CDOs (the subject of the swap) remain mispriced even though mortgages are tanking.  Our heroes are almost ruined.  Even at the end, when their swaps are worth billions, you wouldn't know it from the movie.  The movie depicts our heroes scrambling to close out their positions while counterparties still have cash.  If you go to the bathroom at the wrong time, you would believe our heroes lost money.  But they didn't.  They made out like bandits.  But in the movie, they are sad, even devastated.  Charlie and Jamie sneak into Lehman, showing the viewer first-hand the depressing sea of employees leaving with cardboard boxes and the empty trading floor.  Charlie earlier frantically called his mom to tell her to protect her savings, which would be more moving if he hadn't just made $80 million.  Mark Baum is at home, as if he has lost his job, on the phone with his analyst, pressuring him to close out his position (to the tune of over $1 billion).  Burry is alone in an empty office floor, looking as if he is bankrupt, though his fund gained almost 500%.  Baum gives a speech about greed and fraud on Wall Street.

Brad Pitt, who plays mentor to Charlie and Jamie and the integrity of the movie, chides them at one point for celebrating when they get bankers to laughingly sell them CDS's on AA MBS.  He reminds them that they just bet against America, and that if they are right people will lose their jobs and people will die.  "Just don't dance."  The movie has effectively inoculated our heroes from our scorn.  I have no problem with this, but I point it out for its masterfulness.  Well played.

In addition, the movie sets up other villains we might hate instead:  Wall Street bankers.  The ratings agencies.  Seriously, when Mark goes to see S & P, the executive is literally wearing BLINDERS because she has had her eyes dilated at the eye doctor.  That's pretty strong symbolism right there.  And, in about 2 minutes she has admitted that S & P sell ratings to the banks so they won't go to Moody's.  Also, the SEC.  This one was a bit of a stretch, but in Vegas, Jamie meets with an acquaintance "who works at the SEC."  This young woman appears poolside, flirting with a banker from Goldman so she can make a career move.  So, the ratings agencies are willfully blind, and the SEC is a floozy?  OK, but the scene isn't as clean as the S & P scene.  Jamie asks what the SEC is doing about MBS, and the woman merely responds that the SEC has had its budget cut.  True, but it gives the impression that with enough money, the SEC could police the private offerings of MBS more effectively.  I'm not convinced of that given that our heroes could ascertain from the prospectuses what the MBS's were made of, but a lot of ink has already been spilled on that point.  GreenspanBernanke, and The White House get some hand-waving directed their way, but not much.  However, the movie makes the claim that fraud was at the heart of the crash of the residential housing market.  The mortgage broker fraud is highlighted, but Wall Street fraud is made the big villain.  All our parties believe that fraud keeps the CDOs mispriced.  This villainy was a strange scapegoat to me, but I"m willing to go along.

All in all, it's a great movie, and given that it is a movie about something as obscure, complex and mind-numbing as collateralized debt obligations, it's pretty amazing.

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Family Film Blogging (Oscar Edition): Brooklyn
Posted by Christine Hurt

I actually saw Brooklyn in December when it was first released, but missed blogging about it during the crush of finals, travel, etc.  I saw this movie with my law school colleagues, not my kids, but I think at least the teenage daughter might enjoy it.  Now, of course, it has been nominated for several Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay), so I thought I would dust off my opinions of it and write a review.

Eilis (sounds like A-liss), a young woman in Ireland living with her widowed mother and older, unmarried sister, sets off for America for a chance at life away from her small village.  Eilis is tired of the small-mindedness of the people, particularly the young men, and looks forward to her new life where she might find a career.  However, she is unprepared for the homesickness she feels living in a boarding house, taking bookkeeping classes and working in a department store.  Eventually, her fog lifts as she makes friends and even meets a young Italian man, Tony Fiorello.  Tony and his raucous family have great dreams beyond Brooklyn, planning on building homes on a plot on Long Island.  Eilis is very happy with her prospects until her sister suddenly passes away, sending Eilis back to Ireland for an extended visit.  Strangely, things have changed in her hometown, and she suddenly is presented with a better life wrapped up in a nice bow, forcing her to decide whether her home is in New York or Ireland.

To the ending, I believe that we are supposed to see that Eilis is evolved and now must make an informed, grown-up choice among her two options.  However, at the end of the movie, I would argue that one choice is foreclosed to her, making her "choice" not as voluntary as it may seem.  However, she embraces her choice whole-heartedly, which I suppose is almost as meaningful.  The movie is a great vehicle for a strong actress, and we all become great fans of Eilis.  The movie is not a gritty depiction of Irish immigrants in New York; Eilis is very fortunate to have her way paved for her by a compassionate Catholic priest and a network of helpful parishioners.  She lives in a lovely house with a kind but strict housemother of sorts; the girls in the house are catty but kind enough; her retail clerk job at a fancy store seems to pay handsomely; her efforts to educate herself at night school are rewarded; she goes to a dance and an outsider Italian man walks her home and he proves a cuddly gentleman with a family that embraces her despite her Irishness.  

The film is beautifully made with a sweet story.  I loved the costumes and of course, Eilis.  I'm not sure if I would vote for it for Best Picture (I loved The Martian and The Big Short.  I will not be seeing The Revenant), but it made for a nice afternoon.

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January 11, 2016
Family Film Blogging: Bridge of Spies
Posted by Christine Hurt

Very rarely do movies create heroes out of insurance defense attorneys, but Bridge of Spies tries to remedy that fact.  This Saturday, my oldest said she wanted to see "that Tom Hanks movie about war."  I interpreted that to mean Bridge of Spies, which is at our discount theater, so off we went.

The movie is based on true events depicted in the book Strangers on a Bridge, written by James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in the movie.  Donovan, a partner at a NY law firm handling insurance defense cases, is asked by the head of the NY bar to represent pro bono an accused Russian spy, known in the movie as Rudolf Abel.  We later learn that Donovan participated in the Nuremberg prosecutions, so he is no stranger to high-level political prosecutions.  Though he is encouraged to take the case, he soon finds that he is not expected to push very hard for an acquittal or an appeal, as Abel is clearly guilty of espionage and Cold War fears are high in 1962.  He grows to respect Abel for being a model employee (he will not agree to cooperate or be a double agent) for the USSR, and eventually saves him from the death penalty.  However, his representation takes a toll on his reputation and his family.

The real center of the movie, however, is he exchange of Abel for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the USSR.  Donovan, as a private citizen, is asked to represent Abel in a strange negotiation with the USSR for Powers and the newly born East Germany for the release of a Yale graduate student, Frederic Pryor.  As someone who watched the Berlin wall fall, and (my daughter) someone who never knew the Berlin wall, watching the wall be constructed and the immediate impact on Berliners was the most interesting part of the movie.  Donovan must travel daily from West Berlin to East Berlin to conduct these strange pantomime negotiations, and of course his litigation settlement skills are quite valuable here.  

If you were aware of the story, then you know how the movie ends, but in talking to others I've noticed a lot of people did not know the Powers story.  Interestingly, the trailer doesn't mention Powers, though it shows shots of scenes in which the actor portraying him appears.  The website does not use his name, either.  This seems to be an obvious choice on their part, but the reason is not obvious to me.  I gather that history is not clear on whether Powers followed orders to self-destruct the plane and commit suicide before being taken prisoner, and his military honors and awards came late and posthumously.  However, I'm not sure whether naming Powers as the American spy in question in the trailer would have kept people away, drawn people to the theater, or neither.  Perhaps the producers didn't want audiences to stay away from a movie with a known ending, though Apollo 13 seemed to do okay.  Anyway, the focus of the movie is Donovan, and Powers' on-screen time is minimal.

Is it a good movie?  It was enjoyable for a Saturday afternoon for $4.  I think my daughter (16) thought it was long, and it did drag along.  Hank's Donovan is very likable, and always fun to watch.  

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January 04, 2016
Family Film Blogging (Non-Star Wars Edition): Creed and Concussion
Posted by Christine Hurt

We took the older kids to some non-Star Wars PG-13 movies this holiday, though I am still resisting going to see Daddy's Home, which just seems awkwardly horrible from the trailer I've seen dozens of times now.  The two we did go see were Creed and Concussion, and I would heartily recommend them both.

As you probably now, Creed is a sequel/reboot of the Rocky franchise, which I have to say I lost track of after Mr. T and the Russians.  In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen Rocky the original from start to finish.  I did see the last half of I and the first part of II during a marathon last year, so I think I'm good on the basics.  Rocky III was the first movie I saw sitting next to a boy, so I can remember it pretty well.  Enough about me.

So, Sylvester Stallone has now realized that he cannot carry the franchise indefinitely, and this episode focuses on Adonis Creed (Donnie), the son of Apollo Creed, born out-of-wedlock by Apollo's mistress after his fatal boxing match with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.  Donnie ends up in the foster care system after the death of his mother, but Apollo's widow eventually finds him and becomes his guardian.  Donnie spends the last half of his adolescence in plush Californian opulence, nurtured by his "Ma," but secretly satisfies his desire to fight by boxing in Tijuana.  Though he becomes successful in the financial industry at a young age, he leaves it behind to move to Philadelphia to ask Rocky Balboa to train him.  Of course, Rocky at first balks at the suggestion, having become a semi-reclusive figure after the death of Adrian, running a restaurant and living in his old, modest home.  (Apparently, Rocky lost his fortune in Rocky V, which I missed.)  Eventually, however, Rocky takes on Donnie as a fighter, and the two take on a familial-type relationship.  Donnie calls him "Unc," and he moves in with him.

Donnie and Rocky try to keep his identity a secret, but of course Adonis' relationship to Apollo is leaked to the media.  Following this revelation, the heavyweight champion, who is awaiting a probable prison sentence, offers to fight Donnie for the championship.  The fight will bring the Irish fighter a lot of money and publicity, which will help his family after he goes to prison.  Donnie of course has nothing to lose.  The fight is a lot like the championship fight between Rocky and Apollo in the original movie, in case you haven't figured that out yet.

I never watch actual boxing, but I kind of enjoy boxing movies.  I once heard a director explain that boxing movies are really dancing movies, and that makes a lot of sense to me.  Michael B. Jordan, who we knew from Parenthood and The Fantastic Four, was pretty amazing in this really physical role.  And Stallone, who did not write the screenplay, gives a great, understated performance as Rocky Balboa.  If you are a Rocky fan, there are plenty of homage moments that will make you nostalgic.  If you aren't, then you will enjoy the movie afresh. 

Concussion is also a movie about a contact sport, but this movie focuses more on the darker side of athletic violence, not the poetic beauty.  Based on a true story, the film focuses on Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who, working in Pittsburgh, was assigned to perform an autopsy on a former Pittsburgh Steeler center, Mike Webster.  Against the wishes of his colleagues, he performs extra tests to determine why Webster's mental health had deteriorated to the point where he was living in his truck, sniffing super glue and taser-ing himself so he could sleep.  Dr. Omalu identifies brain damage undetectable by CT scans, seemingly caused by repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head over the course of Webster's successful NFL career.  He shows his findings to notable academics at Columbia University, and together with the head coroner in Pittsburgh, publishes his findings.  The movie chronicles the downward trajectory of his medical career as his work earns him jeers, death threats, and damage to his reputation. The film presents a scene in which the FBI will investigate the Pittsburgh coroner and try to force Dr. Omalu into being either a witness or defendant to the trumped-up charges, but Slate has exposed this scene as misleading.  I have not done any independent research on the FBI investigation.  Eventually, Dr. Omalu gains access to the brains of three other NFL players, all of whom exhibit the same damage.  Dr. Omalu was later vindicated, but only at great personal cost.

Commentators on the movie continue to argue over the implications of Dr. Omalu's research and whether NFL players are exposing themselves to outsized risks.  The movie, however, does pose interesting questions.  Even if the evidence against football collisions was incontrovertible and airtight, would it make a difference?  Would fans stop watching or players stop playing?  Would 10% of moms not let their kids play football, and (as suggested in the movie) professional football would die?  If the coroner assigned to Mike Webster had been a Steeler's fan, or even a football fan, would chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) never have been detected?  The Sony email leaks apparently contained emails suggested that the movie was changed so as not to anger the NFL.  Even so, the movie seems to be fairly straightforward in its blaming the NFL for not disclosing risks that it had discovered and not seriously investigating red flags.  In the end, it is a movie, and the movie is quite compelling.

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November 30, 2015
Family Film Blogging: The Martian
Posted by Christine Hurt

We are very late in seeing The Martian, but I will say better late than never!  My husband went with my fourteen year-old and I, and that is saying something.  He also was heard to say "That was a great movie."

So, after seeing Gravity and Interstellar, I definitely think The Martian is the best of both of those movies.  Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind on Mars, but the movie is not just him talking to himself.  Scenes with Watney are interspersed nicely with scenes of the team back at NASA trying to get him back and with scenes of his crew on their space voyage home.  And, when we are with Watney on Mars, he is doing interesting things, not just floating around.  And, unlike Interstellar, the movie doesn't bog down and is much more compelling.  Though long, every scene seems necessary and important -- and is enjoyable.

Back to the plot:  Watney is part of a six-man crew that is supposed to spend about a month on Mars collecting soil and other space stuff.  While five of them are out of the "hab" doing just that, a sudden, blinding severe dirt storm hits them.  (From my internet research, the author of the book, Andy Weir, acknowledges that this wouldn't happen on Mars, but it was necessary for the plot.)  The storm threatens to destroy their spaceship and ride home, so the commander (Jessica Chastain) orders the astronauts to the spaceship to blast off and away.  During the short walk to the ship, the crew's communication equipment snaps free and hits Watney.  The crew gets the audio message that Watney's suit has been breached, meaning death within 60 seconds.  After looking for him for most of those seconds, the commander determines he is a goner and they blast off back to Earth.  NASA announces that Watney died on Mars, and life goes on.  

And it goes on for Watney.  Apparently, the antenna that impaled him and breached his suit somehow sealed his suit, so he lived.  But he's all alone with limited rations and no way that anyone from Earth can reach him for months, even if they knew he was alive.  (Depending on where the two planets are in orbit relative to one another, travel can take anywhere from 160 days to 300 days, and that does not include building and readying the ship and crew.)  Eventually, NASA turns its satellites to Mars to see how much material was left on the planet, then they notice someone is moving the crew's vehicle around.  Aha!  Watney must be alive.  Then, the fun begins as each side tries to figure out how to communicate with one another.  During this time, Watney (a botanist) figures out how to grow food in the "hab."  Eventually, NASA must figure out a rescue plan.  Then everything falls apart.

The great part of the movie is the problem-solving.  As Watney explains to his video log, he has to "science the s--t" out of this.  And he does.  Between his logical thinking and the minds back at NASA, a plan forms, and then Watney's old crew will have to do some problem solving on the fly.  If you loved the scene in Apollo 13 in which the engineers throw all of the material the astronauts have on the ship with them onto a table and try to figure out a contraption to make a CO2 filter, then you'll love this whole movie.

This was definitely one of the best movies we've seen all year.  Who wouldn't want to bring Matt Damon home?  (Apparently his parents, who are mentioned once but never appear at all.)  We did take our eighth-grader, who enjoyed it.  The movie is a little like The King's Speech (which I let my kids watch when they were tweens) in that it has some isolated cursing.  Watney does let the F-word fly at least twice (and really, if you can get left behind on Mars and not curse, then you are really disciplined), and then the movie walks a line showing him soundlessly cursing, typing his cursing, etc.  I never thought KS should have been rated R, and I'm not sure how Martian escaped the same fate.  (Who can say no to Matt Damon?)  To me, it's a perfectly fine (and basically family-friendly) movie.

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Family Film Blogging: The Good Dinosaur
Posted by Christine Hurt

We have been looking forward to The Good Dinosaur for awhile, and when I say "we," I mean our eight year-old.  But, all three kids and I went on Wednesday before Thanksgiving for a good holiday treat.  I'm not sure if I felt treated at the end.  In sum, our group was mixed.  The youngest and oldest child liked it, but the middle one and I were skeptical.  And we generally aren't skeptical about anything Disney or Disney/Pixar.

The plot, as my fourteen year-old put it, is The Lion King.  As I put it, without the catchy songs or funny comic relief.  Arlo is an Apatosaurus, living in an alternate history universe in which the dinosaur-destroying asteroid did not hit earth.  Now, millions of years later, dinosaurs have developed even further as the top megafauna species and are living in a land that looks a lot like Utah.  Herbivore dinosaurs are now cultivating the soil and growing their own crops, and carnivore dinos are bison ranchers.  They still do not seem to have developed bartering or market economies, but they have developed language.  Anyway, Arlo is the runt of his dino litter, and never seems to be living up to his perceived place in his family unit.  His father is generally very patient and supportive of him, but one day Arlo lets the family down and his father loses his life in a flash flood in a canyon trying to fix Arlo's mistake (almost identical in visuals to the Lion King stampede scene).  Soon after, Arlo is separated from his homestead and has to make his way in the frightening mountains by himself, until he is befriended by a "critter."  This critter is described on the movie site as a human, but I'll leave it to the anthropologists to classify this hominid.  (Critters don't seem to have speech, travel on four legs as often as two, blah, blah, blah.)  Arlo calls him "Spot."  The bulk of the movie is Arlo and (nonverbal) Spot trying to make their way back to the homestead, meeting very strange creatures along the way.

Just as in The Lion King, the writers have to work around the whole "circle of life" thing.  Remember in that movie, we mostly saw Simba eating bugs and worms with Timon and Pumba, which worked because the audience probably couldn't take Simba stalking a zebra and eating it raw on camera.  Here, Arlo is an herbivore, but Spot is an omnivore.  So, we see Spot eat an iguana, a really big bug, and corn.  The T-Rexes have rounded teeth, and when they fight the raptors, they grab them in their teeth and throw them bloodlessly.  We do not see the T-Rexes eat their "longhorns" (bison).  Also, similar to The Lion King, Arlo's enemies here are scavengers.  Though not hyenas, the pterodactyls have learned to scavenge after the harsh storms, when animals are separated, injured, and scared.  Because they hunt in packs, they seem to be threatening to even large land animals, but especially the critters.

The biggest difference between LK and GD is that GD isn't funny.  At all.  It is sweet and it is touching, but it's not funny.  Spot doesn't talk.  The pterodactyls are not funny.  The T-Rexes are strange, not funny -- more Rango than Disney.  The weirdest character of all is a dinosaur named the "pet collector," as the website calls him.  He is really unsettling and bizarre, but thankfully only on screen for two minutes or so.

The best part of the movie is the amazingly beautiful scenery.  I can't imagine how difficult it is to make animation look this real -- the trees, the water, the dirt, the storm, etc.  The dinosaurs, however, look cartoon-ish.  (I never would have guessed Apatosaurus, for example.)  Arlo looks more like Dino from the Flintstones than an actual dinosaur.  Someone made a decision that the dinosaurs needed to look cute -- either for merchandising purposes or to avoid confusion with Disney's realistic-looking 2000 Dinosaur or the very realistic-looking 2013 Walking with Dinosaurs, or both.  The result is a landscape that is very realistic and beautiful, and a made-for-plush dinosaur population.  

The more we thought about the movie afterward, the more we weren't sure we liked it.  I can't imagine that it will be on our "can we buy the DVD?" list.

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November 20, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
Posted by Christine Hurt

It's over.  The Hunger Games "trilogy" movies are over.  The book/movie combination that spawned an outbreak of dystopian futures in which teenagers must topple totalitarian regimes has run its course.  I for one, am glad.  And sleepy (my 14 year-old and I went to the 10:15 showing of Mockingjay Part 2).

The best thing about the Hunger Games movies, of course, has been Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen.  The NYT has a review of the movie that is basically an ode to both Katniss and the actress who portrays her.  The review seems to argue that Katniss is a revolutionary type of female on-screen character; she leads the action, keeps her love interests in the background, resists stereotype, etc.  But really the difference is Jennifer Lawrence, who seems to have a magical and unique ability to have a serious movie career in grown-up movies and be the teenage star of this YA action franchise.  (Imagine Meryl Streep being cast as Princess Leia and pulling off that franchise and the rest of her acting career.)  Because of Lawrence, Katniss seems a much more interesting character than her shadows (Tris of the Divergent franchise, e.g.).

This movie is the end of the Katniss story.  As some (including me) have criticized the story as being, at its core, the same as Twilight, the ultimate question of "which cute boy will I marry" is answered.  But the movie really marks the moment of Katniss' political epiphany.  We usually see only what Katniss sees, and interpret events as she does.  Though she is savvy, she is also being manipulated.  She always saw that the Capitol and President Snow were using citizens as pawns in both the actual "games" and in the larger political game, but in the final installment she sees the two sides of President Coin (get it?).  Now she realizes that Coin is just the flip side of Snow, using her own "gamemaker" to position her own pawns, including her biggest one, Katniss.  The climactic moment of the movie is the best part of the third book, and the screen version does not disappoint.  

However, the written path Suzanne Collins took between Katniss exiting the arena at the end of Catching Fire and Katniss' final arrow in the victor's arena was muddled.  Writing the tale of Katniss and the games seems to have been a lot more fun and familiar for the author than writing about the rebellion.  The two movies that follow the arc of the third book had the challenge of trying to fill in the bare cat-and-mouse military exploits that follow Katniss' joining the rebellion and the end of that rebellion.  Every other chapter in the third book opens with Katniss waking up, not knowing where she is, following a bombing, a shooting, an attack, etc.  Mockingjay Part 2 gets to focus on just two fighting episodes, though the second is the longest and final one.  Still, the ratio of Katniss' silence and brooding looks to action seems not to be optimal.  The result is a bit like space travel:  90% boredom and 10% sheer terror.

All in all, I enjoyed sharing this (admittedly violent) book series with my middle child, and humbly brag that we did go to see three of the four movies on the Thursday night pre-premieres.  It's not Marvel, but it gave us some good November nights.

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November 16, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Suffragette
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, I took my 16 year-old daughter and her friend to see Suffragette on Friday in Salt Lake City.  She had been studying women's suffrage in the U.S. recently, so I thought she would enjoy it or at least not roll her eyes too much.  We had lots to talk about on the way home, then she and her friend continued discussing the movie over late-night snacks, so I take that as a win.

Suffragette focuses on a fictional "rank-and-file" soldier, Maud, in the fight for women's right to vote in Britain in 1912.   Maud seems very happy at the beginning of the film, creating a peaceful and loving life for herself, her husband and her son, George, even though she and George have low-paying jobs at the laundry.  A new employee, Violet, begins agitating for women's right to vote outside the laundry, and Maud becomes attracted to the work, eventually testifying at parliament about her life at the laundry.  Then we learn that Maud's life may not be as idyllic as it seems:  she has worked at the laundry since she was 7 and has probably been abused and harassed off and on since that time by her boss, Mr. Taylor.  Her mother died at the laundry from unsafe working conditions, and a shot of Maud's mottled shoulder suggests that she may have been involved in the accident that killed her mother.

Maud's home life begins to fall apart when Maud's activities escalate and Maud is arrested and even jailed for several days.  Maud's loving husband seems more than rattled at her "shame" and warns Maud to give up her activities, which she does not.  One more escapade causes Maud's husband to lock her out of the house, separating her from George and forcing her into homelessness.  (Strangely, fortunately, sadly??) this only hardens Maud's resolve to fight for women's right to vote.  A link is suggested between the law giving the husband rights over children to Maud's recognition that a female voting constituency could change such unjust laws.  In addition, the right to vote might increase working women's wages and rights to healthy and safe working conditions.  So, Maud now has nothing to lose and is a fearsome fighter for the right to vote.

The (nonfictional) leaders of the suffragette movement take Maud in (though not in their homes) and together their activities escalate in violence and in effect.  There is prison and a force-feeding episode.  The movie ends on a dramatic, historical moment in the suffrage movement, more than a decade before the right to vote was won.

There are lots of great things to talk about in the movie, though the movie doesn't provide any great answers.  The suffrage movement became very violent, destroying property (including a residence) in the name of the movement.  (One historical character, Edith Ellyn, promotes "deeds, not words.")  Whether the movement required violence is not debated much in the movie.  The voice against the violence is not particularly trustworthy -- the Inspector in charge of surveillance and investigation of the women.  The Inspector only briefly mentions to Maud that (1) someone was nearly killed in the home-burning plot and (2) that Maud was targeted and recruited by the middle-class suffragettes (such as Meryl Streep, briefly, as Emmaline Pankhurst) in textbook ways to join their ranks.  Is this a noble movement that must resort to property crimes to be heard or is it a dangerous permutation that uses noble goals to recruit and radicalize ordinary women to make horrible sacrifices?  Maud briefly argues to the Inspector that violence is required to get the attention of the public, and the debate is over.

What seemed to be rushed in the movie was Maud's transformation from happy married working mom who defends her boss to other workers to a woman who is willing to give up her family, job and (most importantly) her beloved son to join the militant suffragette movement.  This happens very quickly and with little explanation.  Her traumas at the laundry seem to be old scars (she has been a forewoman for four years and her handsy boss has moved on to others), and no new tragedy sparks her to action.  (One possible explanation is that she notices her boss has moved on to the 12 year-old daughter of Violet, and perhaps she wants to stop the cycle of work harassment.)  One would think that the new event or new information would have to be quite compelling for her to endure being separated from her son.  Perhaps this is why I wouldn't make a good protester or martyr -- I'm pretty set on preserving my way of life and my children, but I think some explanation would help.  Reviews seem to focus on her reaction when Parliament refused to enact a voting bill after hearing her testimony with a sympathetic ear, but that seems strained.  Other reviews paint her homelife as bleak and impoverished (hinting that she had little to stay for), but her home scenes seemed blissful in the beginning to me.  (Matthew McConaughey had a harder time leaving his daughter to go be the only person who can save the Earth than Maud has her leaving her son to go fight with scores of others for the right to vote.)  Maud also accepts the escalating violence more readily than hardened veterans of the movement, and it's hard to understand why.  Though a composite character and a literary construct to help us understand the interior of the movement, she needs a little more time to evolve.

From a legal standpoint, there are also lots of interesting issues to discuss, including surveillance, the right to assemble, the right to petition, the right to hold meetings, etc.  The differences between being a disenfranchised group and being a constituency.  The difference between agitating for a cause when you have a wealthy or middle-class family or spouse and when you do not.  Bail.

All in all, a good teachable moment for a night out with the older kids!

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November 09, 2015
Family Film Blogging: The Peanuts Movie
Posted by Christine Hurt

Sigh.  Rats.  Good Grief!  Our whole family made a big Friday night outing to see The Peanuts Movie on opening night.  We were not disappointed.

Just a warning:  you will not be surprised.  There are no twists, turns, special effects, or a catchy ballad.  It's just Peanuts.  If someone had a time machine and could go back to 1965 and ask Charles Schulz to write a new movie, this would have been the movie.  This isn't the Peanuts gang grown up, or the Peanuts gang in the 21st Century.  It's just Peanuts -- and that's a good thing.  Along those lines, if there's anything you like about the comic strip or the TV specials, you'll probably see it in the movie:  that funny kid in the group scene dancing to jazz music; the Red Baron, Snoopy writing on the typewriter, the red-haired girl, Lucy the psychiatrist, baseball, football, Snoopy kissing Lucy, the adult voice droning on and on, Christmas, etc.  The only element that I missed was the Linus monologue.  I love those.

The story is about what you would expect:  Charlie Brown falls for the new girl on his block (with red hair), but is afraid to talk to her all year.  He wants to impress her in various ways, but life plots against him every time.  There is a happy ending.  I will say, with all respect to the Charlie Brown specials of my childhood, this one is happier.  The happy ending is happier.  Charlie Brown is nicer to his sister.  Snoopy is nicer to him.  Everyone is a little bit nicer to each other.  Life plots against Charlie Brown, but it's not as bad.  There is melancholy, but it is more exception than the rule.  I like it.

I also like that the gang is frozen in time, or in a timeless time.  There is a snow day, but the kids don't start playing the Wii or watching Netflix.  They all get dressed to go play ice hockey.  Charlie Brown writes a book report in pencil.  On paper.  He goes to the library to find the right book.  He doesn't text the new girl because no one has a cell phone.  the only nod to modern life is that the students take a standardized test.

If you are in the mood for a bit of wonderful nostalgia and a nice story, then by all means go to see The Peanuts Movie.  If you want crude kid humor and famous voices, you'll have to go see Hotel Transylvania 2 again.

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November 03, 2015
The Psych Lab Goes to Hollywood
Posted by Matt Bodie

There's a new movie out on the Milgram experiments -- the ones where subjects were told, calmly and patiently, to keep upping the level of electric shocks to an increasingly distraught victim in another room.  "Experimenter" stars Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram, Winona Ryder as his wife, and John Leguizamo and Anthony Edwards (among others) as the subjects.  You can catch the trailer here.  There is also film of the actual experiments themselves; here's one segment.  Watching these is painful -- it's not surprising that we now have IRBs -- but the experiments really capture something important about human nature.

2015 is apparently a boom year for dramatic films about psychology experiments.  "The Stanford Prison Experiment" came out earlier this year -- here's the trailer.  There's also existing archival footage as well.  Next year I'm looking forward to a gripping thriller about subjects trying to decide how much to charge for a mug.  "I want to charge more, but it's just ... not ... RATIONAL!"

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October 26, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Goosebumps
Posted by Christine Hurt

Our whole family finally was together for a movie night this weekend, and we went to see a movie we had been waiting for since viewing the trailer:  Goosebumps.  What attracted us about the trailer?  Two things:  the Goosebumps books and Jack Black.  I have to say as a disclaimer thought that I have never read a Goosebumps book; however, I have been forced to read aloud another R.L. Stine series, Rotten School.  If gross were a genre, Rotten School would win that category.

So, in case you (also) don't know, the Goosebumps series contains many short-ish books aimed at older elementary school children that are slightly creepy.  Sort of like how Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys are slightly mysterious.  Not creepy enough to scare kids away or make parents throw the book out, but just creepy enough to make kids feel pretty cool for reading them.  In the 1990s, these books were wildly popular and made Stine a bestselling author.  (In the movie, the character Stine brags that he has sold more books than Stephen King, and that seems to be true from Wikipedia at least).  There was a TV series based on the books, and my second grader has been watching it (completely unsupervised) on Netflix.  But, how do you make a full-length movie based on scores of short books?

The answer is both creative and fun.  Cute teenager Zach moves to a quiet Delaware town with his mom.  His father has recently passed away, but Zach and mom seem pretty well-adjusted and caring with one another during this move for a change of scenery.  Zach soon spies pretty teenager Hannah next door, but Hannah's single dad (Jack Black) tells Zach in no uncertain terms to stay on his side of the fence.  Of course, Zach and Hannah do not do this and fall in love.  One night Zach becomes convinced that Hannah's dad has somehow hurt Hannah to punish her and so decides to break in the house with his new friend, Champ.  (The movie competently walks a fine line here -- Zach calls the police to report a "domestic disturbance" and then tells Champ that he thinks the dad "locked Hannah up."  At no point would little ears worry about some sort of child abuse scene being played out.)  Inside the house, Zach and Champ find the original manuscripts to all the Goosebumps books, which are locked, with the key kept under glass on a desk.  Unfortunately, they open one of the books and the abominable snowman literally leaps off of the page.

If that was all that happened, then our heroes could deal with one sort of clueless monster.  However, one of the Goosebumps with Slappy the Dummy has also been opened.  Slappy was instantly recognized by my kids.  He is by far the creepiest Goosebumps villain, and he continues his villainy in the movie, using the key to open all the manuscripts, thus letting loose all the villains.  The horde of monsters, zombies, and freaky things wreak havoc on the town and the high school dance.  To stop the horde, Stine, Zach, Hannah and Champ will have to work together to come up with a global solution.  Stine says at the end of the movie that every great story has a "beginning, a middle, and a twist."  There are enough twists in the movie to keep anticipation high, but enough light moments to keep kids from getting too frightened.  The scariest scene involves zombies in a cemetery, but it is very short and over before it begins.


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Family Film Blogging: Hotel Transylvania 2
Posted by Christine Hurt

After recounting the horror of watching Pixels, I noted in my post that Kevin James and Adam Sandler should be banned from making movies together unless they are cartoons about a hotel for monsters.  Here, the two have teamed up again for the sequel to Hotel Transylvania, a movie about a hotel for monsters.  I'm glad they made it, but I'm not sure I'll count the days until the DVD.

I went to this film with just the 8 year-old.  The plot of Hotel Transylvania 2 picks up from the original:  Dracula's 118 year-old daughter, Mavis, has married her human beau, Johnny, and they now have a five year-old son named Dennis.  Dennis seems a lot more humanish than vampirish, and this bothers Drac.  Even though he has changed his ways and adopted the mantra "Vampire?  Human?  Unicorn?" to show his tolerance, he of course wishes that Dennis would start to show signs of being a vampire -- fangs, flying, etc.  His hopes may be intrinsic or instrumental; the more human that Dennis seems, the more Mavis senses that he should be raised in Santa Cruz, CA near Johnny's family and not in Transylvania at the monster hotel.

Drac concocts a scheme whereby Johnny (who wants to stay at Hotel T. and doesn't particularly want to live with his human family in Santa Cruz) takes overprotective mom Mavis on a vacation to California to "check it out," leaving Dennis with his "Vampa."  While the mom is away, Drac and his monster pals try multiple funny ways to get the vampire to emerge from Dennis before his fifth birthday.  These efforts conclude at the birthday party with Drac's dad, a very mean-spirited, human-hating vampire, arriving to show his disgust for Drac's new found inclusive hotel and extended family.  Drac will have to find the courage to stand up to his intimidating dad and not lose Mavis to California at the same time.

The movie has its funny moments, and the overall theme of inclusion and tolerance is well-received in our house.  To me, the best part of Hotel Transylvania was the ensemble cast of funny monsters -- Frankenstein (Kevin James) and his wife (Fran Drescher), the werewolf (David Spade), etc.  Here, there is a lot going on, and the monster pack seems a little lost in the shuffle.  The sequel has to make room for Johnny's equally goofy family, including his parents played by real-life couple Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman.  Ninety minutes just didn't seem enough time to get attached or re-attached to all these characters.  The friendship between Dennis and the werewolf daughter, Winnie, was pretty cute, though.  All in all, we enjoyed it and would recommend it. 

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September 08, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Fantastic Four
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, my Labor Day weekend consisted of a thousand loads of laundry, creating a dry erase wall with whiteboard paint and watching THREE Fantastic Four movies.  Yes, THREE.  For some ridiculously low price, my eight year-old and I bought a DVD collection of Fantastic Four (2005), Fantastic 4:  Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007); Elektra (2005); and Daredevil (2003).  (The DVD irrationally contains the director's cut of the latter, making it rated R and unappealing for the family.  Sorry, Ben Affleck, we won't be needing you.)  So, we watched the first two and then decided we had to catch the 2015 version at the dollar movie.  Because it had a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I was understandably skeptical.

So, none of the F4 movies are very good.  I guess no one knew how to make a good superhero movie until Iron Man in 2008.  The early versions are a little campy and silly, and even Chris Evans, who makes an darn good Captain America, grates on me as Johnny Storm/Human Torch.  The 2015 reboot reinterprets the four accidental superheroes as teenagers/young adults, but this doesn't improve upon the original story.  Reed Richards is an underappreciated genius being flunked out of science fairs by his ignorant teachers, and Ben Grimm is his grittier (grimmer?) best friend, whose abusive family conveniently runs a junkyard.  Reed is snapped up at the science fair (Meet the Robinsons, anyone?) by Dr. Storm, who wants Reed to be a scholarship student at his "institute," where he can perfect his teleportation machine.  Unbeknownst to Reed, his teleportation machine hasn't been teleporting objects to some unknown spot on Earth and back, but to a separate dimension.  And, although Dr. Storm and his scientists (including his daughter, Sue) hadn't been able to make the objects return from the other dimension, Reed has.  So, Reed joins Sue, her brother Johnny, and a recluse named Victor Von Doom (no foreshadowing there) to complete the project to send humans to the other dimension to learn of its powers.  Once the team successfully sends a monkey to the other dimension and back, they learn their project will be completed by NASA astronauts who will be the first humans in the other dimension.

This rubs Reed, Johnny and Victor the wrong way.  This bitterness seems illogical given the fact that none of these young guys have had any sort of astro-anything training.  In the original F4, all of the team worked for NASA at one time, and Johnny and Ben were pilots.  Sending these kids in space to a different world would seem fairly unbelievable and negligent.  But, the boys share a flask after hours and decide to take the teleportation machine for a spin before NASA can get "first steps" credit.  But, before they go, Reed calls Ben and invites him to tag along on the joyride.  Amazingly, there's no sort of security to get through to launch the teleportation machine, so the boys go.  Bad things happen, and when they are trying to come back, the new dimension "alters their DNA."  Sue, who ran to the control room when she (and she alone, apparently) received a notice on her phone that the machine had been launched, is also affected by the re-entry.  (As my 13 year-old put it, "she got some dimension on her.").  Voila, the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom.

The movie suffers badly in comparison to the recent movie additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe which combine really good special effects, a great cast and smart writing.  The science here is so sloppy and poorly presented that it makes it hard not to laugh.  The characters have very little witty banter or even intelligent dialogue.  The "action" takes up a small part of the movie, and the special effects seem decades old.  The difficulty in presenting the F4 story is that most of it is backstory (the five become a team, bad things happen, the team learns to use their powers, an ending showdown with Dr. Doom over a vague power conflict).  Both the 2005 and the 2015 version struggle with how to have an action movie that requires a great bit of wind-up and that does not have a concrete conflict.  But, Captain America had the same problem of a long backstory.  However, the wind-up there is told really well with a great script and about 20 more minutes of movie, and the conflict of WWII and Hydra provides enough action.  Another problem is that the comic book powers of the F4 characters don't translate well to a realistic superhero genre.  Reed Richards can stretch his body in a lot of directions?  That's really hard to depict in live-action without looking stupid.  Invisibility (Sue) is also hard to depict on film, though the 2015 version seems to do it better than the 2005/2007 films.  The Incredibles family makes all this look cool in Pixar animation, but it's tough to pull off in live-action.

Apparently, a sequel is already in the works.  We can only hope that the Avengers aren't in it.

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August 18, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Pixels
Posted by Christine Hurt

Sigh.  Let's recap the very disappointing summer blockbuster movie season.  The best movie by far was Inside Out, with Marvel offerings (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man) having respectable showings and moving the Marvel Cinematic Universe story forward.  After that, Jurassic World was enjoyable, and a few other movies seem to have good showings, but I haven't seen (that Mission Impossible movie).  However, many movies had great build-ups but extremely poor showings (MinionsFantastic Four reboot that we just said no to).  But I don't think any movie had as much going for it with such poor execution as Pixels.

The insatiable appetite that today's parents have for '80s nostalgia has given rise to some pretty great movies that both kids and parents have enjoyed:  Wreck-It RalphThe LEGO Movie).  The trailer for Pixels seemed to suggest that this movie would succeed in the same ways.  The set-up:  In 1982, a time capsule made up of video arcade games and other '80s memorabilia was set into space.  Now, inhabitants of another planet have found this time capsule and -- this is fuzzy -- believe that the games are an invitation to actual battle.  So, the space aliens have created weapons that appear as old arcade games:  Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc.  The inhabitants of Earth have to catch on and fight back somehow or be annihilated.  The only people that can save Earth are the video game champions of yesteryear.

That sounds good, actually.  And the effects that are shown on the trailer look really cool.  And the parts of the movie showing the arcade battles are actually really cool.  But that part of the movie is about 15%.  The remaining 85% is pure, unadulterated drivel.  So much that you want Congress to pass a law saying that Adam Sandler should not be allowed to make movies anymore.  Or, at least with Kevin James.  Or, at least if the movie isn't animated and about a vampire.

The screenplay adds in some horrible content and worse dialogue.  The video game champions are now an overaged "geek squad" employee, a prison inmate, a living-in-Grandma's basement-type conspiracy theorist, and the President.  Yes, the President.  Add in a recently divorced weapons designer/scientist Colonel in the armed forces who happens to be gorgeous and you have the makings of some truly horrible scenes.  Oh, and Q*Bert, who did better work in Wreck-It Ralph.

How bad was it?  The seven year-old asked to leave.  He lives on an appetite of horrible kids' television, but even he realized that this movie crossed all the borders of watchability.  My husband really wanted to leave.  We stayed, and we are dumber for it.

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