Though we took the littler Stancil cousins to see Frozen, see below, I also accompanied five sixth-graders to see Hunger Games: Catching Fire over the holiday week. After it was over, the other mom looked at me and said, "Did you know it would be that tense?" Unfortunately, yes. There is a whole internet out there with commentary over whether the middle school set should see these movies or read these books. Go over there and discuss. We've already read the books and now 2 movies down. But, your mileage may vary.
If you aren't on pins and needles worrying about other people's children hiding their faces next to you (like I was), then it's a really enjoyable movie. I don't know what holds the line violence-wise between PG-13 and R, but the violence has to be pretty close to that line. And even though it's not particularly bloody like a war movie or a horror movie, it is very tense. You get the feeling that a lot of violence is happening right outside the camera or right after the camera cuts away. And there's not a lot of guns in this dystopian future, mostly just painful instruments of death.
But enough about that. Does it hew closely to the book? I think so, though I read it two years ago. And, at 2.5 hours, if things are cut out, then there's no way they could be left in. I'm not sure if the final scenes in the arena are exactly the same, but they are very compelling. If the screenplay doesn't match the book, then the screenplay is probably better. The relationship between Katniss and Peeta may be what, if anything, is truncated. I seem to remember in the book that they slowly warmed back to one another and became each other's soulmates during their victors' tour. That gradual dissolve happens fairly quickly. But, most of the sixth grade boys there came to see the Games, not the love story.
If you've not read the books, or read them a few moons ago, know that Katniss and Peeta are the Victors in the previous annual "Hunger Games," a sort of bloody take on Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. Two teenagers from each of 12 Districts of PanEm (a sort of future U.S. post revolutionary attempt) go into the arena and only one comes out alive. The central point of the first book/movie is that Katniss tricks the Games Master into letting her and Peeta both live by staging a Romeo and Juliet-like suicide pact on live TV. The Games Master is now dead, and Katniss has a sword dangling over her head by President Snow. He knows it was an act, but she (who is in love with Gale) and Peeta (who is in love with her) will have to pretend to be madly in love for the rest of their lives. However, Katniss' obvious disdain for the Games has inspired some of the Districts to protest and fight back against the totalitarian Capitol, making Katniss' death more appealing to Snow. So, he announces that the next Hunger Games will feature 24 previous Victors, making Katniss' death very likely. As you might imagine, the Victors, who have been able to live in relative comfort (though with severe PTSD) are not happy about this.
This middle book/movie is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy -- there is a lot of action that needs to be squeezed into here, so it is the most fun and most gripping. Much has been written on the web about Katniss' and Peeta's relationship, including this piece that describes Katniss as the usual emotionally unavailable superhero (like Tony Stark/Ironman) and Peeta as the long-suffering girlfriend (like Pepper Potts). That's awesome, but what I thought was interesting is that Katniss' first sacrifice (volunteering to die in place of her sister at the Reaping) is seen as less of a sacrifice as her second one (having to marry her best friend instead of her childhood sweetheart to save her family and Peeta's family). Death is preferable to life without romantic love is a fairly modern, Western ideal I would think. But that tension is only the major one for a brief moment, because it is eclipsed by the new Games, which promises to kill either Peeta or Katniss or both. And, to her credit, Katniss vows to ensure that Peeta survives at all costs.
As others have pointed out, though this series features a strong female character, Katniss, the overarching question is "Who will be my boyfriend?" Katniss is definitely a step up from Twilight's Bella, who was so passive and pasty on the sidelines while her two loves battled each other and then bad vampires. But though Katniss is battling for her life and maybe the future of the citizens Panem, her old beau Gale is making her feel bad for kissing Peeta to survive? (And not for killing human beings to survive?) I guess this is Young Adult fiction, but maybe it could strive to be a little more.
Like many people this holiday weekend, I went to the movies. Twice. One of those times was on Friday, with 5 kids aged 5-12, to see Frozen. Like pretty much everyone else who has seen it, we all loved it. Perhaps all the Disney wonder in the world that skipped over the horrible Planes movie landed on Frozen. It's Tangled, with a bit of Brave, and a whole lot of Wicked.
Anna and Elsa are sisters and daughters of the King of Arendelle, but Elsa has secret powers that enable (or require) her to shoot ice and snow out of her hands. This makes for all kinds of childhood merriment, until Anna is injured and Elsa ordered to not only refrain from ice-making but also avoid contact with her doting little sister. Anna finds that she can't control her powers and so retreats more and more from daily life at the bidding of her parents. Because this is Disney, King and Queen are killed when their ship is caught in a storm, leading the sisters to grieve separately, in the same castle. Over time, Elsa must ascend the throne, opening the palace gates for one day for the coronation. Elsa barely makes it through the coronation without an icy slip, but loses control when Anna giddily announces she is engaged to a prince she just met at the coronation ball. Cold, snow and ice descend on the kingdom as Anna flees to the mountains to live in icy isolation. Anna goes after her sister, with a cute ice-cutter and his reindeer as her guide.
So, you may have seen the trailer with the re-arrangeable snowman, Olaf, and the reindeer, Sven. The movie isn't about that at all. If it were, it would be Free Birds. No, Olaf is the comic relief, but he has an appropriately small-ish role, like the crab in the Little Mermaid or Mu-Shu in Mulan.
Another thing, it's a musical. I full-throated musical. So much so that when Elsa is building her mountain ice castle and belting out "Let it Go," I realized that the plot was Wicked, and Elsa is Elphaba. A little Googling told me that I'm not the first person to think that or even to plan that. The voice of Elsa is Idina Menzel, who originated the role of Elphaba on Broadway, and the song was written especially for her. (The single was recorded by Disney cast member Demi Lovato, but we downloaded the Menzel version.) The song is very much "Defying Gravity" -- embracing what you've been hiding, turning a negative into a positive, eschewing the madding crowd, etc. It's an awesome song. I also dare you not to cry during "Do You Want to Build a Snowman," an anthem for all little sisters everywhere.
But the best thing about the movie is the story. The story of the sister's quest may not be entirely original (very much like Merida's journey in Brave, with a similar ending, and even more like Rapunzel's in Tangled), but it is still very appealing. And of course, no serious Disney love story in the post-Shrek world will have a heroine rescued by a hero, right? We know that. So, either a heroine will rescue a hero or the true love at question will be a different love, like daughter-mother. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to suspect that this movie will have a true love twist, but it didn't seem predictable. And in case you are with a five year-old girl who cries at a particular moment (like I was), remember that Disney dead is only mostly dead.
Better than Planes. . . .
OK, that's not much of a review, but it says it all. Last Friday, the boys (11 and 6) and I raced from school to make the 4:35 (read: cheap matinee) of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. Though the younger one wailed for 3D, I did not give in. That may not have been a great idea because the best part of the movie is the artistry.
The plot is a little forced, and the writers oh-so-cleverly get around this. At the end of the first movie, nutty but loveable inventor Flint Lockwood, with the help of his costars, I mean friends, destroyed his water-into-food invention, which had malfunctioned to produce giant food that falls violently from the sky. The second movie picks up moments later when before unmentioned childhood science hero of Flint, Chester V, appears offering to clean up the giant food-strewn island and temporarily relocate its inhabitants, including Flint, his dad, his friend/girlfriend Sam, bully-turned-friend and police bully-turned-friend. Six months later, we find that the invention has not only still been working, but it reprogrammed itself to produce living food-animals out of water, which have populated the island. How? Who knows? This worry is whisked away as Flint admits to Sam that he has no idea how the machine reprogrammed itself, so they shouldn't waste time pondering it. And so, disbelief is suspended.
So, there's the set up, so what's the plot? The plot is that Chester V, who wears a sporty orange vest, offers Flint a job at Live Corp (hmm, evil spelled backwards), which seems eerily like Google, replete with soy lattes, caffeine patches and volleyball courts. Flint's dream is to be a "thinkquanot" (I have no idea how to spell this and can't find it online), which seems to be an "imagineer"-type appellation given to the best inventors at Live Corp. When he fails in his first attempt, Chester V, who has a secret plan, asks him to go back to the island and help him to shut off the machine. A desperate Flint jumps at the second chance at thinkquanot greatness, grabs his posse and heads back to Swallow Falls island. The band encounters the foodimals, who Chester V tells them are ferocious and dangerous, but which of course are not.
Even with the waving away of the machine's reprogramming itself, several plot holes still remain: if Chester V knows the animals aren't ferocious and can easily capture them for his secret plan, then why does he need an "expendable" party to go find the machine? And if Flint finds the machine easily in basically the volcano in the middle of the island, why couldn't smarty-pants Chester V figure that out? Well, because the movie is about the friends trekking across the colorful island finding all the amazing evolutionary innovations the foodimal machine made -- the tacodile, the cheesespider, the hippo-potato-mus, etc. The foodimal jungle is pretty extraordinary, and makes up for a pretty thin plot.
Overall, the 11 year-old thought it was better than Planes, and the 6 year-old, who liked Planes, thought it was great. He's not much of a plot critic. But he's also holding out for Frozen and Free Birds.
Today is the first day of classes at Illinois, and the second week of school for the kids. So, I have a few minutes to sum up the last two summer movies that we saw in August: Turbo and Planes. To call them blockbusters would be an unethical understatement. But, the review won't take that long to write because they are the same movie. A snail/cropduster has dreams of racing with racecars/stunt planes, gets an amazing opportunity to do so even though his brother/friends warn against it, meets snotty racers who try to sabotage him, meets characters of Mexican heritage and accents, and ultimately wins. Yay!
I am not the only one underwhelmed by Planes, and its name unfortunately writes bad review headlines like "Planes: Crash Landing." Our hopes were high for Planes because it is after all, a Disney/Pixar movie. That being said, it is a spin-off of the Cars franchise, which is one of the least-liked Pixar movies. But, it has to be one of the most lucrative in terms of TOYS. Besides Toy Story toys, we definitely have more Cars toys than any other Pixar franchise. Planes seems like less of a major motion picture than a vehicle for creating more Cars toys to sell. And of course, if you've been to Disneyland recently, Cars Land is one of the greatest wonders of the amusement park world.
That being said, the Cars/Planes story lines don't overlap. Lightning McQueen and Mater are not here. But, some very minor characters reappear (Brent Mustangberger, e.g.), and the "extras" are the same. The Planes world is the same as Cars world; it is a post-human world in which motor vehicles populate the earth. (have you seen this intriguing yet forced explanation of how all the Pixar movies fit together into a timeline between Brave and the post-human world of Cars?) The shots of the stands at the final race are the same as the shots of the stands at the Piston Cup, just with planes every few seats. (I would love to talk to the artists about the challenges of putting planes and cars in the same-size seats, roads, etc.) The world is very pretty, just like the motion picture version of Cars Land. But there's not much of a story here, and the characters are fairly forgettable. (I had to look up the names to be able to write the review.) Dusty is our cropduster hero, who is voiced by Dane Cook, whom I have never heard of before. At least Cars had distinctive, recognizable voices. There is no Paul Newman here, or even Larry the Cable Guy. Dusty wants to be an air racer, but he is afraid of heights. This could be a recurring motif, but it is stated once at the beginning and comes up again at the end, and is resolved in an unbelievable quick scene. There is also a ham-handed ad for American Airlines inside the movie. Leaving, my eleven year-old said, "That is the worst movie I've seen." And let me tell you, he's seen a lot of bad kids' movies!
Turbo, or the "snail movie," was also a dismal afternoon for me, but the kids liked it better than Planes. The first part is pretty cute, with Theo and his brother Chet living with other snails in a tomato garden in suburbia. Like most heros, Theo dreams of another life in which he is a racer. When he accidentally gets doused with nitrous oxide, he has a genetic-level trasnformation and becomes superfast. He winds up in a different part of L.A. in a run-down strip mall with his brother at a back-door snail race, which of course he wins. Then, his new owner, who is half of the Dos Bros Taco restaurant, decides to enter Theo, now Turbo, in the Indy 500. I won't give you the ending, but I bet you can figure it out. For whatever reason, the boys liked it -- maybe because it was funnier, and the voices were more distinctive. So, in this case, Dreamworks with the win!
This weekend, I took four boys aged 5,6,9 and 11 to see Monsters University, along with most of the rest of the town. (The obviously fictional institution has its own webpage here.) The next showing was sold out, so he had to wair for the next one. It was worth the wait. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which has re-energized sales of Monsters, Inc. merchandise.
MU is a prequel, which seems to be a risky endeavor. Writing what comes next seems a little more open than writing what came before. (Think episodes I, II, and III of Star Wars, and how many disconnects there are between them and IV, V and VI.) Now, the elementary age set is probably not going to get too picky about oversights the way that the SW fans do, but it's still a tricky thing to get from the opening of the prequel to the end, which the audience already knows.
So, when MU opens, Mike Wazowksi is the focus of the story. Monsters, Inc. was really about Sulley, and sort of about Mike, but here the narrative goes the other way. From almost the beginning, Mike and Randall are roommates and "lifelong friends," and Jim Sullivan (Sulley) is Mike's worst enemy. Randall is helpful and earnest, and Sulley is arrogant and insensitive. So, the movie has to take our characters to what we know: Randall is evil, and Sulley is warm-hearted and selfless. The smaller journey is for Mike to go from being a Type A know-it-all to a team player.
Mike, as you know, is a cute, one-eyed green monster, who is very small. He would make a good plush pillow, but he's not scary. This is Mike's obstacle to being a "scare major" at Monsters University. He has effort and book knowledge, but just no scariness. Sulely, on the other hand, is a legacy admit at MU who has raw scaring ability, but he doesn't apply himself or learn any of the strategy of scaring. They each find themselves thrown out of the scare program and can only be readmitted if they win a Greek Life team scare competition. To enter, they join the lamest fraternity ever and try to whip the Oozma Kappas into scaring shape. (Yes, a little like Revenge of the Nerds.) The scenes at the OK house are undeniably the funniest in the film. I won't spoil the ending, but it didn't end like I thought it would. But, all in all, I think the montage chronicling the years in between the end of MU and the beginning of MI tell us more about Sulley's metamorphosis from entitled brat to best pal than any action or dialogue could have.
The big "Star Wars"-type disconnect that I can point out lies with Mike. In MU, Sully tells Mike that he is the bravest monster he's ever known. And Mike is. As a child, he sneaks through an open door at Monsters, Inc. into a child's bedroom. Later in the movie, he sneaks through another open door into a bunk bed filled camp cabin. At no time does he seem afraid of human children, even though he's been told they are toxic. So, why is he so afraid of Boo in MI? And, as a monster who broke so many rules in MU, why is he so risk-averse about his job and the scare-record competition in MI? Perhaps age hardened Mike from the dreamer of MU to the wage slave of MI. But, one of the problems with prequels is that you could have written that action into the original. Sully could have pleaded with Mike to help him with Boo by reminding him of the brave monster of action he used to be.
But quibbles aside, MU is a great movie. The university setting is a great environment for all kinds of jokes, gags, funny personalities and events. There are many recognizable cameos from MI. My son and I want to go back and compare the two movies to see how many background monsters are repeated between the MU student body and the MI workforce. And, it's not as scary as the original. The opening scene of MI had our firstborn running out of the theater, never too return. There is no similar scene.
So, criticizing The Ethicist column in the New York Times is about as new as complaining about the weather. When the previous Ethicist, Randy Cohen, quit in 2011, I listed some of his columns that angered me the most. I don't believe the replacement, Chuck Klosterman, is an improvement, but the columns are definitely less definitive (it's easier to be less wrong when you are less clear). Last week's column, in which Klosterman said it was ethical for a college student to write one paper for two classes, most recently rankled the audience. The problem is that the NYT has a column called "The Ethicist," ethicists exist, but the NYT doesn't hire any of them for the column. It's as if there were a column called "The Economist" or "The Cardiologist," but the person writing answers to questions was neither of those things.
But enough about that. Assuming that the letters are written by actual folks, a letter appeared last month asking whether Zach Braff, who has more money than most people, was unethical by posting a film project on Kickstarter and asking for donations to fund it. Here is the Kickstarter page for "Wish I Was Here." The Ethicist's wishy-washy answer is that Braff doesn't lie in his "ask," so he's not unethical, but he might be unethical if he were merely using the Kickstarter page as free advertising, because the page may have led to big-studio follow-on financing in addition to the $3M in donations.
So, a few things the Ethicist doesn't seem to observe. One, even if Braff is using Kickstarter for something other than raising desperately-needed funds, he may have been using it for information-gathering, not advertising. The fact that so many folks donated money signals to him, the maker of the movie, and to studios, that there is an audience out there that loves Zach Braff and desperately wants a follow-up to Garden State (not my favorite movie, but apparently popular to many). Conducting an online poll is not nearly as accurate as a poll where web-clickers click with their credit cards. As Braff states, the rabid response to a similar Kickstarter project to make a Veronica Mars movie proved that there is a huge cult following who want to pay $9 to see a Veronica Mars movie. Yes, it's push-advertising, but it's really more valuable information-revealing.
Second, as Mel Brooks so fabulously writes in his play The Producers, "Never Put Your Own Money in the Show."
O.K., so if you're looking for a review of 42 that lists all of the historical inaccuracies, this ain't it. (Try here and here.) Also, if you're thinking I'm going to talk about how the movie sidesteps still thorny issues of racism, I'm not going to do that, either. I go to the movies. I go to baseball games. I go to baseball movies. I saw this movie with my 11 year-old baseball player. 42 is an awesome baseball movie.
As you probably know, 42 chronicles the two years leading up to and including the 1947 season that Jackie Robinson played with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which would mark the beginning of the integration of major league baseball. Robinson is played by Chadwick Boseman, in what seems to be his largest role yet. Dodgers owner Branch Rickey is played by Harrison Ford, in a smaller role than usual. They are both very good in their roles, with the screenplay giving Ford the job of articulating the moral heart of the story. At one point, you feel bad for Pee Wee Reese, who comes to Rickey to express his reluctance to play in a game against Cincinnati, close to his Kentucky hometown, because he received a nasty letter about Reese's playing on a team with Robinson. Then, Rickey goes to a file cabinet and shoves piles of death threats that Robinson has received in front of Reese and shuts him up. Rickey is also the Jiminy Cricket for Robinson, warning him of what he has to face and then giving him the pep talk when he faces it.
Lots of commentators have mentioned how the movie makes the racism of the day palatable (the racists are shown up in some way, the milder reluctant baseball players are brought around), but to a fifth grader in 2013, the racism is shocking, particularly Phillies' manager Ben Chapman's nonstop racist trash talk. That scene is hard to watch, though I know those words and insults were not rare then and not extinct now. Perhaps that isolated scene and the few milder ones dn't do the situation justice, but I think they get the message across.
Historical sports movies are hard (Miracle, 61* ) because most of the audience is going to know how the movie ends. So, the trick is to create some sort of suspense beyond the outcome of a single event. In 42, the second half of the movie is broadly about the pennant and the World Series, but the tension is in the "game within the game." The movie plays a lot of small ball with the audience -- Will Jackie steal this base, get this hit, throw off this pitcher, or be thrown off by hecklers? I have to say that I was along for the ride. I literally cheered at stolen bases and at hits; I groaned and covered my eyes at strikes and pop flies.
Naysayers will say don't watch it because of the historical inaccuracies or liberties taken. Sure, a pitcher is shown as right-handed, not left-handed. The Dodgers' announcer is shown traveling to away games, but he did not until much later. The movie doesn't mention that Robinson tried out for the Red Sox years earlier, or that other African-Americans followed Robinson very quickly into the major leagues. These problems do not hinder the movie. Some conversations and actions are necessarily fictionalized or at least merely educated guesses. Until the season was over, the world was not recording it as a season that would make history. The kicker for me is that it is a great baseball movie about a great even in baseball history, one that has many lessons to teach today. And the fact that my son really loved it.
We took some time off from unpacking here in Champaign to go see Epic yesterday afternoon. (The "we" here is me and three kids, aged 13 to 5). I enjoyed it; the five year-old didn't freak out or get scared; the 13 year-old said it was "lame." (But, the 13 year-old describes pretty much everything as "lame.")
The movie is very pretty visually. We did not see it in 3-D, though I believe that was an option before the Memorial Day 3-D offerings crowded it out at our theater. The movie is very Tinkerbell meets Avatar. The heroine, Mary Katherine, who wants to be known as "M.K.," is the human sized daughter of a scientist who has thrown away his marriage and career in his pursuit of proving the existence of a civilization of tiny forest people. This civilization, of course, exists, and it is M.K. the unbeliever who is shrunk and spirited into its midst. She falls in like with her rebellious teenage counterpart in this world, who accepts learning that she is a "Stomper" much better than Neytiri did when she learned Jake was a human in Avatar. But the story is broader than just M.K. and Nod -- they must keep a flower bud alive until it opens under the full moon or the civilization will be destroyed by a rival group of tiny beings (not humans, the usual civilization-destroying subjects) that prefer decay and rot to chlorophyll and nectar. (Imagine the Death-Eaters, only miniature.) The flower will choose a successor to the Queen, who passes away quite elegantly (and predictably) in the first part of the movie.
The movie has several bright spots, including the comic relief snails (one of them is from Parks & Recreation). Nod's mentor, voiced by Colin Farrell, is another. I also was glad that the plot wasn't humans v. nature, but just nature v. nature. And the humans help! (Oops, I just gave that away.)
Yes, Iron Man 3 has been out 10 days or so, but I couldn't blog about it until now because I had to see it twice. All five of us went on opening weekend, but our little guy (5 1/2) only lasted about an hour, so he and I spent some quality time in the parking lot. Thankfully the 11 year-old went with me yesterday so I could see the last half. Now, our youngest has seen Captain America, Thor and The Avengers, but the Iron Man movies are grittier. As even Rhodey says during the movie, this isn't superhero stuff. The bad guys appear as terrorists. Gritty, nasty terrorists. More CNN than Saturday morning cartoons. But the thing that put poor Will over the edge was that Tony Stark has PTSD. Seeing Tony have several anxiety attacks was the last straw. And the humor is much more subtle in Iron Man than in The Avengers, so to the kindergarten set, there is no comic relief. Lesson learned.
But, the rest of us very much enjoyed it. Tony spends a lot of time out of the armor, which is really what we all want to see anyway -- Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark at his genius best. The plot (not to give too much away) involves a series of "bombings" in the U.S. and a terrorist who appears on television taking credit for the bombings and threatening the President. The President does not call in Iron Man, but calls in Colonel Rhodes as Iron Patriot (a refurbished War Machine) to go find "the Mandarin." Tony gets involved when his friend Happy Hogan is seriously injured in one of the explosions and vows to find the Mandarin. But, his quest is sometimes halted by his anxiety attacks.
So, why does Tony have anxiety attacks? He says he has had them "since New York." Unfortunately, none of the Avengers appear in the actual movie, but the events of that movie are mentioned many times. Since Tony fought Loki's army from another world and went up "the worm hole," he is not the same. He can't sleep, and he's worried that he will lose the one thing he cares about -- Pepper Potts. (No, he doesn't go over to the dark side like Anakin/Darth Vader, if that's what you're afraid of.) So, he's created 42 Iron Man suits in his newly found free time in the middle of the night.
The producers of these blockbuster Marvel hero movies have a problem now. Now that the four Avengers have met and joined forces in New York (Iron Man, Captain A, Thor and Hulk), how do you keep them out of the individual sequels you have planned? To me, that seems like the elephant in the room during Iron Man 3. Why doesn't Tony call his (super) friends? Where is Nick Fury while the President is being threatened? At one point, Tony admits he needs backup, but he means his Iron Man army, not his Avenger friends. There is some discussion that maybe the public isn't ready for the Avengers again, that this is more military-related than alien-related, but these excuses seem rather slim. The real reason is that this isn't The Avengers 2. In this movie, the heroes are Tony, Rhodey and Pepper.
The ending seems to hint that there will be an Iron Man 4 (and who doesn't want it?). There are some details left to the imagination as to how Iron Man 4 will begin. But until then, we have Thor 2 to look forward to!
My family and I are a little late to see Oz the Great and Powerful. We had seen the 4D Sneak Preview at Disneyland California Great Adventure in March, which really made us want to go see it. And, so far, Oz is the greatest grossing film of 2013. But, after watching it yesterday, I would say our feelings were mixed.
The movie walks a fine line between the book by Frank Baum and the 1939 movie, intending to be a logical prequel to that film, explaining how Oscar Diggs from Kansas becomes the Wizard of Oz. (This is an almost impossible task given that the 1939 film was presented as Dorothy's dream and that the Wizard in the dream was really just a snake oil salesman in 1939, but we'll go with it. Several characters in 1905 Kansas wind up in Oz as well, though it's not presented as a dream.) Several online have speculated that Oscar's gingham-wearing sweetheart Annie, who is giving him up to marry John Gale, is meant to be the mother of Dorothy (Gale), who somehow ends up orphaned and living with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. For us, the first half of the movie was sort of boring. After the 15 minutes in black-and-white, the next half hour or so is an amazing visual spectacle. Oz is not showing in 3D here anymore, ceding theater space to Jurassic Park 3D, I guess. But the first half is obviously meant to be an exhibition of 3D majesty. However, the first half does not have a compelling plot. Also, the acting is pretty bad. Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch of the West is just awful, and Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch of the South (not North, as in the book/movie for some reason) appears with the same noblesse oblige as the most popular girl in class being asked to be in the school play because they need the prettiest princess.
The second half picks up a little and has a few tricks and turns that were harder to spot than the thinly veiled secrets of the first half.
My biggest unease about the film hit me in November when I saw the trailer. I turned to my friend and said, "Why would witches need a wizard to come and save them and their people?" And my uneasiness grew once Glinda acknowledges that Oz is a con man but says that he might still be the man they had been waiting for. What? You are a witch with magical powers, but you need a carnival magician to rouse your people to fight another witch? What kind of craziness is that? And it gets even worse -- a neutral witch is turned into a revenge-seeking green Wicked Witch (you know who I'm talking about now) because she wants Oz to marry her but realizes that he was toying with her affections. Huh. I was listening to an NPR story on the L. Frank Baum books, and one of the threads was that Dorothy was a feminist character. She bravely leads these male misfits on a successful journey and defeats a witch. But this movie is decidedly not feminist. Glinda is not a coward, and deals the final blow (by accident), but she's not a proactive protagonist. She is a protector, and she does see through Oz's blustery, but in the end she is the girl the hero gets, not a heroine.
I will admit that when I saw the ad blitz for The Croods, I was not buying it. It looked fairly dumb to me, and I see a lot of children's movies. But, my family assured me that the movie had gotten good reviews (Here is one -- I had to hunt for it), so off we went. And, the experience was enjoyable for all.
The plot is very 2012 -- headstrong teenage girl believes that her well-meaning dad is too restrictive and keeping her from developing as a person. Enter boy, who is very different and challenges Dad's authority. Dad eventually realizes that the boy has useful insights and makes girl happy. This is exactly the plot of Hotel Transylvania and a variation of the Ice Age 4 and Brave plots. Oh well, nothing new under the sun.
Except that here our story is set in the "caveman era." I'm not an anthropologist, but from the reviews I'm gleaning that the Croods are neanderthals. They are on the verge of extinction having outlived all other neanderthals around them. Then the daughter, Eep, disobeys her parents and leaves the cave where they hide most of the time and finds "Guy." He is distinctly different from them (taller, more upright, pretty facial features) and has more language skills. He also has fire. Guy may, in fact, be a homo sapien. He is definitely a notch above the Croods on the evolutionary scale, at least in a lay sense. And of course, he scares the patriarch, Grug, because he is different. Now, enter natural disasters. It seems that the land all around them is separating, causing huge earthquakes, canyons, rockfalls and lava out of the blue. Guy has a plan, and so Grug needs him if he is going to save his family. (Yes, this "splitting of the earth into continents" plot device was used in Ice Age 4. It works better here.)
We did not see the movie in 3-D, but it was visually stunning none the less. The Croods begin their journey from their cave home, which is in a canyon desert climate, but they move on to places that look like rainforests and then tropical islands. I suspect that great care was used to make the movie nonthreatening to those who prefer not to think about evolution. The animals and plants in the movie are completely unfamiliar. So, you could see the movie as depicting animals that evolution left behind, swallowed up, or you could see the movie as a fantasy with make-believe animals and plants.
What is clever about the movie is also an old conceit -- the fish out of water. How do the Croods react to fire? shoes? lakes swimming? How can they communicate with Guy, who has some pretty basic figures of speech, when the Croods have an Amelia Bedelia-like literalism? All in all, a fun night with the family.
It is Oscar Night, and I am a little sad and sheepish that we don't have television in our Utah rental. So, I'll have to find a livestream somewhere or catch up tomorrow with clips. But, I'm still interested in the outcomes.
Best Picture -- I've seen 4 out of the 9 nominees, which is about par for the course. I don't like violent movies, so that left out Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained. I would have liked to have seen Les Miserables, but just haven't gotten a chance yet. But, I did see Argo (review here); Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook; and Life of Pi. I have to say that Pi is not on my list of favorites of 2013. I was pretty impressed by the special effects (I believed that there was a real tiger in the movie, if not in the boat), but there's only so much boy in his boat one can watch. Some things do make better books than movies. I really liked the other three. It seems to be a race between Argo and Lincoln. I would hate to bet against Abraham Lincoln.
Best Female Actor -- I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty, so I can't speak to the Jessica Chastain nomination. I liked her in The Help. I thought Jennifer Lawrence was good in Silver LInings Playbook, but she seems to say bizarre things unscripted (see, e.g., Golden Globes speech and Ellen appearance, which I saw while convalescing and went "what?"). I will admit that I did not go see Impossible because I couldn't deal with the thought of watching a movie about a family of five split apart by tsunami while on vacation. I'm a wimp. So, Naomi Watts was probably brilliant, but I missed it.
Best Male Actor -- I really liked Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. But it sure seems like Daniel Day-Lewis became Abraham Lincoln. And betting against someone playing Lincoln seems as foolhardy as betting against someone playing Queen Elizabeth (I or II).
Best Animated Feature -- Here, of course, I am in my element. But, we did not see either Frankenweenie or Paranorman because the previews scared the youngest one out of his wits. Now, I have to wait with him outside the theater until the previews are over, just in case a scary preview will precede our chosen film. So, I think it comes down between Brave (review here) and Wreck-it Ralph. We loved them both. I think I'll follow Jack Black's advice, from the speech he gave as a presenter at an awards show a few years ago: "Each year I do one Dreamworks project, then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar." Brave is Disney/Pixar; Wreck-it Ralph is just Disney (although John Lasseter executive produced it).
Hello! I have been away from blogging for about 2 months, since I had rotator cuff surgery in November and went from two typing hands to one. I am almost all the way back now, typing-wise, so I thought I would catch up on some movie reviews. I managed to go see a few films during recuperation, but not as many as I would have liked.
One of our favorite movies this month was Parental Guidance. This movie has not been well-received by critics, but interestingly user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are much higher (66% v. 19%). I get it. There is something that is a little off. I'm not a filmmaker, so I don't know if this is an editing problem, a directing problem or both, but all the jokes seem a half step too quick or too late. The two funniest people are cast as grandparents, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, and Crystal's funny "When Harry Met Sally" asides don't work like they should. There are also way too many bodily function jokes. We are treated to two different gags highlighting two different toileting behaviors of the same preschooler. (One is funny; one is not.)
But the basic premise rings true: a frazzled working mom is caught between her parents and her parenting style. For any parent who has ever had to hear "What are you talking about? There's nothing wrong with feeding a kid [BLANK]," this movie will seem very true to life. I love my Dad, but I definitely remember a moment when he was signing me up for soccer and he had to ask me how old I was. This is the Billy Crystal character. That's my dad. One critical review I read said that the story was implausible. I don't see that at all. The only nitpick I would have is that the parents are a hodgepodge of every modern parenting style, but those styles aren't always compatible. So, the mom is a Tiger Mom about her daughter's violin playing, but is very touchy-feely about confronting her younger son's issues up to the point where his neuroses (imaginary friend, food can't touch, won't wear clothes) dominate family life. For those out there keeping score, yes, our third is just like that, too.
In the movie, Alice (Marisa Tomei) reluctantly asks her parents to watch the kids while she goes on a business trip with her husband, and they reluctantly agree. The movie would not be that interesting without the mom there to backseat drive her parents, so circumstances keep them all in the house on the front and back end of the trip. Critics say what they want, but the kids in our house laughed a lot, and I laughed and cried. It's not a perfect movie, but it was perfect for us on a chilly Saturday afternoon.
So, last Friday I went to a movie that was not animated. (Wow!) I had the great opportunity to go to see Argo with law students. I mention the company because the generational divide is going to become important later. Anyway, I have to say that I was not disappointed. The movie is a solid two hours, but it went by very quickly and had me on the edge of my seat. And, just like Apollo 13, I knew how the movie ended, but I was in suspense anyway. (Yes, some of the suspense was contrived, but I'm fine with that.)
So, what is this true story? The story is one that I haven't heard before, maybe because it was "classified" until 1998. However, part of the story was general knowledge in 1981, though I have no memory of this. When the U.S. embassy was stormed and persons in the embassy were taken hostage in November 1979, six foreign service employees escaped. They eventually found refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house, where they stayed for over two months. The film dramatizes the CIA's successful attempt to "ex-filtrate" them back to the U.S. before the Iranians find them and potentially treat them even more harshly than the embassy hostages. Once back home, their escape was credited to the Canadians, and no mention of American involvement was given to the press in order to avoid retaliation on the hostages.
The focus of the film is on CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, and his wacky plan to get the hostages out by pretending to be Candian filmmakers looking for an exotic location to shoot a sci-fi movie, "Argo." Just wacky enough to work. And the best parts of the movie are set in Hollywood, where Mendez is being helped by John Goodman, who plays a real-life makeup artist who was involved, and Alan Arkin, who plays a fictional veteran producer, a composite of historical participants. These two get the best lines, whereas Affleck gets to stare at people in disbelief, in frustration, and in a state of pleading.
Scenes of the escaped hostages are few, and scenes of the embassy hostages are fewer. In fact, the escaped hostages are played by actors that are only so vaguely recognizable, if at all, that they do not stand out as the characters to follow until they are literally standing on the streets of Tehran having left the building unnoticed. The final fourth or third of the movie is Affleck trying to prepare the escapees for their big challenge at the Tehran airport, complete with new Canadian identities and backgrounds. But even this "training montage" is fairly short. We are not given any insight into what the daily lives of the escapees were like, trapped in relative luxury at the ambassador's house, and not any into the hostages' daily lives. More importantly, we are given no insight into how the escapees dealt with knowledge that their conditions were certainly easier than the colleagues they left behind. Perhaps a second viewing would be instructful, but I did nto get a sense of why they were able to escape while others were frantically trying to burn and shred sensitive material before the demonstrators reached them. For whatever reason, there is no angst or existential crisis here. Which makes it a very entertaining movie, probably!
Of course, the movie is fascinating to watch against the background of current events, particularly the deaths at the Libyan embassy. Watching the demonstrators storm the embassy was pretty chilling. In addition, with Iran and the potential negotiations in the news, a movie about the darkest period of U.S.-Iran relations stirs a lot of emotions. I'm not sure how that cuts politically for either candidate or the negotiations, but it's awfully emotional. That being said, no particular Iranian is portrayed terribly, and at least one is seen as very humanitarian. And, the entire movie is prefaced with a recounting of history that basically says that conditions in Iran in 1979 were the product of extraordinarly misguided U.S. involvement.
Watching the movie with folks 20 years younger than me was also insightful. I think I benefitted from knowing that no hostage was killed. So, I was tense during the embassy scenes; but rationally, I knew the end. I also knew that the hostages wouldn't be released for 444 days, so I took with a grain of salt characters in the film's assertions that the hostages would be home soon, a military rescue mission would be successful, etc. However, when my young friends asked me why the hostages were finally released, I was at a loss. In sixth grade, watching the simultaneous broadcast of the Reagan inauguration and the hostage release, my teachers left me with the impression that the Iranians were afraid of Reagan. I am sure there is more to that story, including the Iran-Iraq war, but I guess I'll have to "read more about it." One thing that was interesting to me from a political science standpoint was why the Iranians were so blase about Canadians. "Oh, you're Canadian, not American. That's great then." We all seem the same to me. Some countries get along with their neighbors. And, the Canadian ambassador risked the lives of himself and his wife and sacrificed international relations between Canada and Iran. Our good friends to the North.
Ar, go to the movies!
Hallowe'en is 30 days away, and some kids' Hallowe'en-ish movies have already come and gone. These movies are tough for us because even though they may be funny as a whole, individual scenes freak our five year-old out. So, all summer Will and I waited in the hall of our multiplex before our feature film started in order to avoid the previews of Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania. Our big kids are still scarred from Coraline and Monster House, but we thought Hotel Transylvania would be more funny than scary, so we left Will at home, grabbed two other friends, and headed out.
Bottom line -- really funny, and really fun for the kids. The theater was pretty full, and a lot of child-less folks were there, too. The plot is very familiar to us -- basically Finding Nemo all over again. Happy mother, father and baby until an outside force (here, it's humans instead of sharks) kills the mom. Father dedicates his life to sheltering baby so that humans can never hurt her. Of course, the twist is that here the family are vampires (actually "the" vampires -- Count Dracula and clan). So, Dracula builds a huge castle where humans can never find it, and baby Mavis grows up in a loving cocoon. Adding more fun, Dracula holds the castle out as a hotel for monsters, where the monsters can relax from sharing the otuside world with humans who don't understand them and Mavis can have a rotating crop of aunts and uncles to populate her otherwise secluded life. A la Monsters, Inc., the monsters are more afraid of humans than the other way around.
But, now it's Mavis' 118th birthday, and she wants to spread her batwings and fly to see all the people and places that life on Earth offers, and her father is doing everything in his power (besides actual confinement) to convince her that the human world is a horrible place. And, a menagerie of fun monsters, voiced by funny actors, is at the hotel to help celebrate. Enter -- a cute, lovable human 21 year-old guy backpacking around the world who stumbles upon the castle. Yes, Dracula has to hide his humanity from his guests and keep Mavis from falling in love with him (fat chance). And when Dracula has to venture out to make things right, the humans, who actually love vampires, particularly Team Edward types, create a path for him similar to the Eastern Australia Current in Finding Nemo.
There's a lot of humor (maybe a little too much potty humor) and a lot of parental love, though misguided. My only fault with the movie is the theme that everyone has one person that they "zing" with and that once that zing happens, then your life is over if that person leaves. I think this is a dangerous theme for the tween/teen set, who imagine every crush to be a life-changing zing already. but, it's hard to get away from that in kids' movies, fairy tales or not.
Also, if you see a lot of kids' movies (like I do), it's hard to get Gru (Steve Carrell) from Despicable Me out of your head when Dracula (Adam Sandler) speaks.