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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August 10, 2015
Family Film Blogging (YA Edition): Paper Towns and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Posted by Christine Hurt

The end-of-summer blahs took me and the two teenagers to see the latest Young Adult book-turned-movie selections.  These aren't sci-fi dystopian movies with a little too much violence, these are angsty teen films with a little too much profanity.  And, they are the same movie.  In both, a male senior is about to graduate from high school and a vague friend of the female variety enters the picture suddenly.  By the time the female friend exits, our male protagonist has been nudged out of his comfort zone and learned to appreciate his friends and family.  The female friend is ancillary and fairly symbolic.  Some differences exist.

Paper Towns.  If you have heard of The Fault in Our Stars, then you may be familiar with John Green, the wonderkind author of several YA books, creator of the YouTube educational sensation Crash Course, and host of the Mental Floss YouTube channel.  My eighth-grader is a big fan of all things John Green, but especially Paper Towns, the book.  So, I sped-read the book and braced myself for the film.  Quentin (or "Q") has grown up next door (or across the street in the film version) to Margo Roth Spiegelman, who is generally called by her full name, and has been secretly in love with her in high school, though MRS barely acknowledges him.  As you probably can guess, Q is a big nerd with two nerdy friends, and MRS is super-cool and dating a super-handsome jock.  But, before graduation, MRS crawls into Q's bedroom late at night and convinces him to accompany her on a revenge fantasy aimed at her now ex-boyfriend and former friends.  Then, just as Q believes he will wake up the next day and see his new girlfriend, or at least lunch buddy, at school, MRS disappears.  Q spends the last few weeks trying to solve the mystery of where MRS has gone, following clues he believes that she has left for him.  The book (to me) gets rather confused at the end as to which clues MRS intentionally left for Q and why, and the movie is no clearer.  However, the movie is clearer on the point that Q's transformation comes not from finding (and keeping) MRS, but from the journey.  In the short few weeks that the movie covers, Greg does things he otherwise wouldn't do:  breaking and entering, going to parties, driving cross-country, skipping school, etc.  Unfortunately, the movie has to truncate Q's sleuthing, so the mystery of where MRS has gone is not quite as interesting, but the madcap road trip from Orlando to upstate New York is still entertaining.  The bottom line is that Q is very likable and watchable, and the eighth-grader felt the film lived up to the book.  

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  This film is also adapted from a YA novel, but is artsier and definitely has an indie-vibe.  The filmmaking feels a little surreal, like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or 500 Days of Summer.  Because it aims a little higher than Paper Towns, it's also a little grittier, with more adult language and situations, even though the characters are still high school seniors.  Our senior boy is Greg, who has survived high school by being invisible, drifting around the various cliques that he has identified and staying just vaguely friendly with all of them, but not enough to alienate any others.  He eats lunch in the history teacher's office, with his "co-worker," Earl.  He and Earl have been friends for years, but Greg keeps Earl at arm's length, like the rest of the world, even though they have made 43 (really bad) stop-action and live-action films together.  Greg's mom forces Greg to visit a fellow student, Rachel, who has recently been diagnosed with leukemia.  Greg's ability to stay untouched by those around him is put to the test as he begrudgingly begins to visit Rachel, ultimately growing very attached.  In the process, Rachel forces Greg to do things he otherwise wouldn't do, like eat in the school cafeteria and apply to college.  To a grown-up, this movie is superior to Paper Towns because of the better script and much better acting, but I think my teenagers thought it was too depressing.  When they realized that Park & Rec's Ron Swanson was in it, they were cheering for a comedy, but that was not to be.  They loved Earl, who is the foul-mouthed comic relief and soul of the movie, but they were taken aback by the non-YA depiction of Rachel's struggle.  And when I say Rachel's struggle, I mean Greg's.  The audience really learns very little about Rachel until the end of the movie, and I was not that attached to her.  However, I was very moved by Greg's pain being a witness to Rachel's struggle.  In fact, it was a little hard to watch on a breezy summer afternoon.

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August 03, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Ant-Man
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, I'm sure loyal readers were wondering if I were ill or at the International Space Station given the fact that I had yet to review Ant-Man, the latest edition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Actually, my middle guy has been at back-to-back camps for 4 weeks, so we literally went to the first showing after he returned on Saturday morning.  It was worth the wait.

First, the answers to the obvious questions.  Yes, Ant-Man will be an Avenger (in the second tier with Falcon and Quiksilver).  Yes, one of the Avengers is in Ant-Man (Falcon).  No, Agent Coulson does not show up in the movie, and the current state and future of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not discussed.  No, in the movie Hank Pym is not linked to Ultron, a clear break from the "historical record" of the comic books.  Yes, Hydra is still out there.  Yes, there are special effects ants, and scientist agree that the ants are realistic, except that they would all be female.

Scott Lang (the very likeable Paul Rudd) has served three years in prison for a very likeable crime.  An electrical engineer at VistaCorp, he discovers that his employer has been bilking clients and hacks into the network to return the funds to their rightful owners.  He also releases secrets.  (I've only seen the movie once, and his actual crime is alluded to only once.)  He's a combination of a hacker and a self-proclaimed cat burgler.  And, he seems to be a small folk hero.  Anyway, he's determined to go straight, but after finding it difficult to obtain employment with his record and thus be able to have visitation with his daughter, he decides to do one burglary offered up by his former cellmate and friends.  (This hilarious trio of good-hearted thieves makes the movie.)  The whole thing is a set up by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, scientist and Ant-Man.  Pym uses the job to confirm his belief that Scott should be the next Ant-Man.

Why does the world need a new Ant-Man?  Because, Pym's former mentee Darren Cross has developed the mothballed Pym Particle (a formula to reduce the space between atoms -- in other words shrink living beings) and wants to sell it as a weapon.  Just as Captain America had to defeat Red Skull and Winter Soldier, Iron Man had to defeat Obadiah Stane and Anton Vanko, and Hulk had to defeat Abomination, our superheroes always seem to be coming up against frenemies who "steal their tech."  All the scientific breakthroughs in the Marvel Universe seem to be double-edged swords and the tension always between saving mankind and weaponization.  Anyway, Scott needs to don Pym's Ant-Man suit to steal back/destroy Cross' research and his new Yellowjacket suit.  There will be a brief training montage with Hank's daughter Hope Pym, and then Scott will need to enlist the good-hearted thieves to help.

Rudd's Ant-Man is very self-aware and doesn't take himself or the movie very seriously.  he's much like Guardians of the Galaxy's Peter Quill, cracking jokes while saving the world.  His niche in the superhero ensemble is that he is smart in a practical way and humbly selfless, an altruistic engineer to Tony Stark's narcissistic genius.  Though in the end all the Avengers throw themselves on the grenade, Scott seems to come to the job with a clear knowledge that he is, in his own words, expendable.

Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is, at least in this movie, fairly underused and underdeveloped.  In fact, there is a moment when it is clear to cast and audience alike that Hope would make a much, much better Ant-Man than Scott.  Hank's reasons for recruiting Scott seem quite sexist at first, but are revealed to be more admirable than that.  After the credits, the audience is treated to a hint that we will see much more of Hope (the new Wasp) in the future. 

So, the plot isn't all that new, but at least it isn't as hard to follow as Avengers 2.  The ending turns very Big Hero Six, but it works.  The movie is here to introduce us to the new characters and does that well.  The dialogue is witty, the characters are likeable, and the appetite for Ant-Man is sufficiently whetted for future appearances.

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July 17, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Minions
Posted by Christine Hurt

Years ago at the dawn of my career, someone advised me that there is no reason to write a negative book review.  If that advice holds for movies, I should stop here.

Minions is not a good movie.  For those who read my posts regularly, you'll know that I have a low bar for family films; I can find the good in almost any children's movie.  Not this one.  As my FB friends read today, my status was "Wednesday we got Paul Blart:  Mall Cop 2 from Redbox and thought it was the worst movie ever, until we saw Minions."  

OK, what is good about the movie?  The new characters.  We all know the Despicable Me minions, though I wasn't quite sure about their names.  The three main minions here are Bob, Stuart and Kevin.  But the new characters are great:  Scarlet Overkill (Sondra Bullock) and her husband, Herb (Jon Hamm).  How can you go wrong there?  Also, our minions hitch a ride with a bad-guy family, the Nelsons, voiced by Michael Keaton and Allison Janney.  OK, surely those four are a good "soup starter" for an excellent film, right?  No.  The producers seemed to spend all their money on voice talent and a good soundtrack (Beatles, the musical Hair, Mellow Yellow, etc.) and forgot to buy a script.

The movie starts out fine as an original story of how the minions came to be and how they got to modern times with Gru.  All of their evil bosses die, starting with T-Rex, and so they are continually looking for new villains.  (I didn't know that the minions were immortal, a fact that would seem important to keep consistent.)  In 1968, our brave trio leaves the minions in the cave where they are hiding out, in search of a new boss.  Their travels take them to 1968 New York City, where there are great visual gags, if you were alive and remember 1968.  Judging from the lack of laughs in our theater, I would say the number was 1.  Still, the movie seems ok.  The minions stumble upon an ad for "Villain-Con," and hitchhike there with the Nelsons.  A joke is set up about how wonderful Orlando is, but it is a pre-Disney swamp.  Again, lost on everyone in the audience.  The scenes with Villain-Con are great, and could have taken up more of the movie.  The minions win the temporary favor of the greatest villain of the time, Scarlet Overkill, and go home with her.  Again, the scenes with Scarlet in her house were great and could have taken up more of the movie.  Instead, the movie got so stupid it's hard to write about here.

Scarlet sends the three out on a quest for Queen Elizabeth II's crown.  If they fail, they will be "blown off the face of the earth."  (Again, if they have lived for tens of thousands of years, this is hard to get interested in.)  From here, things could have gone a right way or a wrong way, and the writers chose the superwrong way.  Let's just say that there's a moment where one of the minions (Stuart, maybe) hypnotizes the Tower of London guards into taking off their clothes and dancing to a minion version of the title song in Hair, the musical.  No one else in the theater knew what song that was or why they were taking their clothes off.  I guarantee you no seven year-old did.

I hate to say it, but the minions are the most boring part of the movie.  They are great for comic relief, but like the Ice Age squirrel or the Madagascar penguins, they don't need a whole movie.  If the movie had centered more on Scarlet or the Nelsons, with the minions alongside, then it would have been better.   And, funny bits that children could understand that don't assume a knowledge of the summer of 1968 would have been better.  My seven year-old, after the movie was over said, "We are never seeing that again."  This from the guy who wanted to keep Paul Blart:  Mall Cop 2 an extra day.

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June 29, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Inside Out
Posted by Christine Hurt

I'm rarely in on anything cool, but two weeks ago, my seven year-old and I stumbled upon a "sneak preview" of Disney/Pixar's Inside Out, with commentary.  We even got lanyards.  My former colleague and movie friend Kenworthey Bilz joined us, so we had an actual psychologist with us.  We all loved it.

I had seen the trailer, and quite frankly, I didn't really understand what the movie was about.  Now, I think I have it.  Riley, an eleven year-old girl, moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco.  Riley's emotions, personality, thoughts, and behaviors are guided by five main characters in her brain:  Joy, Disgust, Anger, Fear and Sadness.  As one would hope, Joy is in control.  After the move, however, Sadness keeps winding up front and center, turning once happy memories into sad ones.  (It took me a long time to see this as reflecting inevitable reality:  happy memories with loved ones become tinged with sadness once those loved ones are gone or those times have passed.)  Joy tries everything she can to keep Sadness out of the picture, but that makes things worse.  Ultimately, Joy and Sadness will have to leave "headquarters" to retrieve Riley's "core memories" that become lost in the shuffle.  These core memories help support Riley's "islands of personality":  family, friendship, goofiness, hockey and honesty.  One by one, as Joy and Sadness get sidetracked on their adventure into "long-term memory" and Fear, Anger and Disgust are left at the controls, these islands begin to crumble.  As our tween begins to shut out friends and family because of feelings about the move, she makes poor decisions.  In the end, Anger convinces the other two emotions and implant an idea into Riley's consciousness that will prove disastrous unless Joy can regain the controls.

The beginning of the movie feels like any other animated feature, but halfway through you realize that this is no silly kids' movie.  This is Pixar.  And Pixar can make grown-ups cry like no other film company.  Toy Story 3?  Up?  Yep, you're in for it again.  Unless you were asleep during Toy Story 2 and 3, you've realized by now that the grown-ups at Pixar are parents, and they understand the pain of parenthood better than anyone.  When Riley's islands of personality start slipping away, I almost lost it.  If you've ever watched an eleven year-old girl (or 12, or 13, or 14) disappear, then you know what I'm talking about.  Goofiness island doesn't come back.  But, other islands take its place, and Riley and her parents make more core memories.  Family island is rebuilt, even bigger and better.  But goofiness island doesn't come back.

Joy is also the quintessential helicopter parent.  She is running around, doing somersaults, bending over backwards trying to make sure that Riley feels nothing but Joy/joy.  What we learn from the movie is that Sadness is also very important.  Sadness also keeps us from making poor decisions.

Like Up, this is a movie that we probably won't see over and over again but really do appreciate for its thoughtfulness and intelligence.  But I do want to see it with my daughter.

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Family Film Blogging (Summer Blockbuster Edition): Jurassic World
Posted by Christine Hurt

I have a lot of reviewing-catching up to do.  Two weeks ago, I took eight children (only two were mine) to see Jurassic World.  I am still reeling with its awesomeness!

So, you may have seen some reviews that say that the movie (i) has no plot or no good plot; (ii) is merely a special effects vehicle; and (iii) is merely a product placement vehicle.  I will address these claims in order.

First, the movie has a plot, though it is not well-developed.  Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) works at the Jurassic World theme park, which is built on the site (island) of the original Jurassic Park.  Claire is some sort of executive who is concerned with "the investors" and the return on "assets."  (The "assets" are the dinosaurs, and I suppose "the investors" are shareholders, presumably private shareholders.)  Now, having seen Jurassic Park (but not the other two sequels), I can only imagine that someone  had their bad idea jeans on when they thought opening Jurassic World theme park was a great idea, and the folks in charge don't seem to have done much "worst case scenario" planning.  I.e., the park's scientists have created a hybrid dinosaur (Indominus Rex) that seems to be indestructible as well as super-crafty.  But, they put the dinosaur in a pen with 40-feet walls, so everything should be ok.  Owen (Chris Pratt) is some sort of velociraptor-whisperer who trains raptors at the park.  He seems to be sort of a hired-gun boy wonder that one of the investors/directors brought in to bring credibility to the "assets."  Vincent D'Onofrio is Hoskins, and I have no idea what he is doing in the park.  He seems to head up some sort of paramilitary group, though Wikipedia says he is head of security.  Anyway, he wants to weaponize the raptors for combat, which of course our hero Owen knows is hubris heading toward a fall.  When everything falls apart at Jurassic World, Hoskins' group takes control of the park by orders of the board of directors.  As you may guess, Hoskins will try to bring down Indominus Rex with the raptors, but he'll need Owen's help to do it.  The overarching theme, of course, is that human hubris and commercialization are about to meet their match against mother nature.

The two subplots involve Claire and Owen.  Claire's sister is having marital problems, so she sends her two tween/teenage boys to the park for a fun weekend away.  Claire is supposed to be spending family time with them, but she's not much on "family" or "time."  But, when Indominus escapes its pen, she and Owen must go search for the boys and protect them.  How did Owen get involved?  Because of the second subplot:  Owen and Claire are star-crossed lovers, having had one disastrous first date.  But, Owen is the only person Claire can turn to, etc.  For artistic reasons that seem fairly stupid, Claire does a lot of heroic things in heels and a white dress.  Laura Dern got hiking boots and khaki shorts (and weird mom jeans), but Claire gets a wardrobe barely suitable for work, let alone running from dinosaurs.  Owen, of course, gets Indiana Jones clothes, but Claire gets Marion Ravenwood-style white dresses.  So, there's the plot, which seems completely sufficient.  The winningness of these subplots is that Chris Pratt is the most likeable actor since Harrison Ford.  You would have to have a heart three sizes too small not to love him and Owen.  

Second, the special effects are awesome.  Do the effects substitute for plot?  Not for me.  The effects make the plot worthwhile.  I can't tell you how many times I gasped, screamed, yelled, etc.  The movie is like a roller coaster ride, and after the ride you say "Let's do that again!"  

Third, the product placements are there, but in a way they reflect the plot.  In the movie, Jurassic World is an over-the-top theme park, complete with high-end shopping and brand-name corporate sponsors.  To tell that story, the set would need some high-end trademarks to give the park that corporate feel.  The irony, of course, is that the stores and brands get trampled on and ruined by mother nature.  But, you still saw the brand names before they were destroyed!  Because of the theme park plot, the movie also gets to have product placements for itself!  So, one employee is chastised for a considerable amount of time for wearing a "Jurassic Park" t-shirt.  I bet they are selling those like hotcakes!

The homages to the original movie do not stop with the t-shirt and are nice Easter eggs for those JP aficionados. The t-shirt wearing employee has a workstation reminiscent of the cluttered and clumsy traitor in the first movie.  The lost boys find a shed with all sorts of museum pieces from original park.  I would list more, but I don't want to give away the end!

The bottom line is that we thought Jurassic World was a great summer blockbuster and can't wait to see it again!

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June 17, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Tomorrowland
Posted by Christine Hurt

We are on the road this June, but the littlest one and I have gotten to the movies (finally).  We recently caught up with Tomorrowland, a movie that caught our eye(s) in the previews.

So, you may or may not like Tomorrowland depending on whether you take your cynical hat off before you enter.  If you are a cynic and hate George Clooney because you think he is a Hollywood ignoramous trying to shove his liberal agenda down consumers' throats, then don't go.  If you are a cynic and hate Walt Disney because you think everything is a marketing ploy and a plot to shove licensed consumer goods down consumers' throats, then don't go.  However, if you accept that grown-ups, politicians and corporations choose short-termism over the long view every time and that sometimes we need to listen to children and geniuses (and child geniuses), then go to the movies!

The framework of the movie is not completely clear until the end (and then not completely), but the basic plot is thus:  At some point, geniuses like Verne, Edison, Tesla and Eiffel created a city in a different dimension.  Brilliant folks would be recruited to this dimension to invent, problem-solve, create, etc. without intervention from pessimists and bureaucrats.  There are some clues that this secret city-lab was to be revealed to the public during the 1964 World's Fair, but that plot strand is sort of left hanging somewhere.  Anyway, one child genius is recruited in 1964:  Frank (Clooney).  Though I'm still fuzzy on this point, he seems to be exiled in the 1980s for creating an algorithm that calculates the end of Earth.  This "bad" machine seems to destroy Tomorrowland in some way, and recruiting stops.  However, one recruiter, Athena, continues to look for brilliant geniuses on Earth who may still be optimistic about the fate of our planet in a world turned ultra-Malthusian.  (The end of the NASA space program is used here as a symbol of at least the United States giving up on new frontiers and new solutions.)

Athena's last hope is the daughter of a NASA engineer, Casey.  She is the 2015 version of Frank, and Athena believes that her optimism can change the course of destiny, which the bad machine has calculated as 100% probable that the world will end in 58 days.  Much is made of the concept that accepting that destiny makes it happen, but one does not have to merely accept it.  The future can be changed by believing in a different outcome.  Casey is the kind of person who does not accept the current course of future events.  Of course, for Athena and Casey to get back to Tomorrowland, they need Frank's help, but Frank has become a Lorax-style hermit.  The other twist is that Athena broke Frank's heart years ago.  The scenes between the still-hurting Frank and Athena work remarkably well, given that Frank is a 62 year-old man and Athena is a 12 year-old android.  (How's that -- a Hollywood movie that has a leading man playing someone a little older than himself!)

My seven year-old and I enjoyed the movie, though it probably won't go into the Disney Hall of Fame.  The movie is a little wacky like older Disney films Bedknobs and Broomsticks with a little Meet the Robinsons thrown in for good measure.  Enjoy!

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May 26, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Pitch Perfect 2
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, the Pitch Perfect series is not fun for the entire family (I learned this the hard way when my 7 year-old asked me what a b----- was), but it is a fun series for most of the family!  I reluctantly saw the first one, but was pleasantly surprised.  But, I'll have to say that our family loves a cappella music.  Loves it.  Goes to see university performances.  Buys CDs and downloads.  So, your mileage may vary, as they say.

So, an assortment of us made our way to see Pitch Perfect 2.  I will admit that I liked it better than the first and actually better than the other sequel our family was waiting anxiously for this summer (Avengers 2).  The challenge for the sequel is how to have a movie with a lot of performances, but not just copy the format of the first movie -- the Barden Bellas face off against their nemesis group, the Treble Makers, in the national championships.  In the sequel, the Bellas have won the championships 3 years in a row, but take a startling plunge due to a wardrobe malfunction scandal.  Suffering under a suspension, their only hope is to win the international championship to be reinstated, a feat no U.S. group has ever accomplished.  Now that the Bellas have made nice with the Treble Makers, we need a new antagonist in the form of a German group "Das Sound Machine."  The face-off is slightly reminiscent of Rocky Balboa v. Drago (albeit Russian).  The Bellas have to regroup, get back to basics, and "find their sound" in order to stand a fighting chance.

Other subplots include Beca (Anna Kendrick) trying to break into music producing by taking an internship at a recording studio.  The scenes with her boss are particularly fun.  Unfortunately, her cute romance with Jesse is sort of a non-event in this movie, with the boyfriend basically providing occasional support but no interesting scenes.  In addition, a new Bella arrives in the form of a "legacy" student who has dreamed of being a Bella only to find the group in shame and disarray.  The funniest Bella, of course, is "Fat Amy" (Rebel Wilson) who steals the movie again, this time with her romance with Bumper, Treble Maker alum.

Stay in your seat until after the credits for a great "bonus," which again is better than the one after Avengers 2, even though the Marvel Cinematic Universe historically has made great use of the post-credits "button."

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