November 13, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Big Hero 6
Posted by Christine Hurt

Boy, have we been waiting for Big Hero 6, and it was worth the wait.  It's not this year's Frozen, but it is a crowd-pleaser.

First of all, the movie is the origin story of a group of superheroes that is never referred to as such in the movie, but is the "Big Hero 6."  These characters are Marvel characters, but here they have very little similarity to that series.  In the movie, the action is set in a beautiful, technologically advanced city called "San Fransokyo."  This of course, is brilliant marketing for a movie with a ready-made global audience.  If you pay attention, you will see that great pains have been taken to not pin down whether the city is in America or Japan.  Someone talks about making "chicken wings," but doesn't necessarily call them "Buffalo wings," so they could very well be Japanese wings.  The result is actually pretty cool, and the city is beautiful.  On to the story:  Hiro, our uh, hero, is a 13 year-old genius who squanders his abilities on illegal robot fights until his older brother, Tadashi, convinces him to enroll at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology.  This is Disney, so not only are the two presumed orphans (there parents are "gone"), but also a tragedy takes Tadashi's life early in the movie.  (Sorry.)

But Tadashi didn't leave Hiro all alone.  Tadashi had just perfected a healthcare robot named Baymax, a Stay-Puft marshmallow nurse who inflates from his charging box when he senses that Hiro is hurt.  Hiro is at first skeptical, then annoyed, but soon he realizes two things:  first, that Tadashi's death was not an accident and second, that Baymax can become a fighting robot to help him avenge Tadashi's death.  Tadashi's university friends vow to help Hiro, mostly because they are worried about him, but come to embrace their new warrior-selves.

If Frozen appealed to younger kids, particularly those that adore princesses, castles and magic, Big Hero 6 appeals to older kids who adore science, computers, and superheroes.  Though some Disney fans may dream of having an ice castle or a talking snowman, some Disney fans may think that a real dream house is having a lot of supercomputing power, a 3D printer and a fab lab.  Hiro has these tools, which enable him to do technology magic.  Hiro is a 13 year-old Tony Stark, only smarter.

My only quibble with the super-science depiction is (of course) its depiction of the two female technology students.  The ensemble has to be rounded out for both ethnic diversity and gender diversity, but I think the ladies get short shrift.  Hiro and Tadashi are super-smart, but fairly "normal" looking and acting.  Tadashi is very attractive and looks sort of athletic.  Hiro is very cute, with "One Direction" hair, which means it goes rakishly in many directions.  The two ladies are named "Go Go" and "Honey Lemon."  (We are told these are their lab nicknames.)  Go Go is very aggressive and abrupt (a "daredevil adrenaline junkie"), while Honey Lemon ("as sweet as her namesake") wears miniskirts and creates weapons out of pink foam.  Really?  So female scientists either have to be super masculine or super feminine?  Weird.

The movie gets very exciting and has moments that are especially heart-warming.  And, it has some pretty funny moments.  The comic relief of the movie is Fred, voiced by T.J. Miller, who is the funniest part of Silicon Valley.  (Though our family remembers him fondly from one of the worst movies ever, Yogi Bear.)  Fred provides great levity to the weighty plot (young boy trying to avenge death of brother with fighting robot).  In the last 60 seconds, you realize that this movie is merely the beginning of a Big Hero 6 franchise, but that kind of makes you happy.

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November 10, 2014
Family Film Blogging: The Book of Life
Posted by Christine Hurt

One thing I love about living in Utah County is that there are two "dollar" theaters where movies play at the end of their run at movie theaters.  Saturday, the two boys and I saw The Book of Life for $3.50, even though it was still playing at full-priced venues.  The seven year-old had wanted to see if after seeing the preview, but the almost thirteen year-old was skeptical.  However, the movie won us all over.

This animated movie is a little different than normal Disney/Dreamworks fare.  The characters are not drawn as beautiful, round Pixar characters.  Instead, the characters are shaped like wooden puppets, and move like very graceful, magical jointed dolls.  (Although the heroine has big doe eyes, like a Bratz doll, that seem out of place.)  The setting is Mexico, and the decor and landscape is multi-colored and bold, like Mexican tile.  The plot also revolves around The Day of the Dead and the two afterlife realms:  The Land of the Remembered and The Land of the Forgotten.  Death and hell aren't normal kiddie fare, but the result is magical and lovely.

The rulers of the two realms (La Muerte and Xibalba) make a wager regarding three childhood friends, Maria, Manolo and Joaquin over which boy will grow up to marry the girl.  Though the story gives both boys lovable characteristics and positive qualities, it is clear that Manolo, who is sensitive and thoughtful, is the man for Maria, a forward-thinking woman who is educated in Europe.  Joaquin is not the bad guy, though, which makes it hard to root against him.  Eventually, Xibalba interferes when it looks like he is going to lose the bet, and Manolo ends up in the Land of the Remembered, an amazing realm pulsing with music, artistry and life.  But that is not the end of the story, just the beginning.

The movie doesn't have the laugh out loud humor of a lot of animated movies, and the plot is fairly simple.  However, the great soundtrack and beautiful artistry makes it a must-see.  And, as much as we love to see fairy tales of Western and Northern Europe, it's good for a change to see a movie celebrating a different part of the globe.

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October 21, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Meet the Mormons
Posted by Christine Hurt

We were among the last folks in Provo-Orem to go see Meet the Mormons last night.  As it was ending, my very astute middle child whispered:  "The point is for non-Mormons to Meet the Mormons, but only Mormons are going to see it."  (Of course, we were seeing it in Provo, so that probably doesn't give us a random sample of moviegoers.)  So, the topic of this family film blog post is to ponder what would make a non-Mormon go to the movies and choose this movie over another.

The reviews from film critics are pretty low.  The word "infomercial" is used a lot.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the reviews from users are very high.  So, here's the deal.  The movie isn't a documentary made by outside filmakers who want to see the ins and outs of a religion.  There are no interviews with detractors or those who have left the church.  There aren't profiles of church leaders or discussions of sensitive points of church doctrine.  It isn't even a reality show where cameras follow members around 24/7 and edit it to portray maximum conflict and tension.  The movie is a portrayal of six families, chosen for a purpose, to show the diversity, ordinariness, and impact of selected members' lives.

A narrator begins in Times Square and shows media clips of common portrayals of Mormons (yes, even South Park).  She then takes us around the world (in beautiful filmmaking reminiscent of IMAX movies) to meet various members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  She sums up at the end by hoping that the audience sees the "common ground" that LDS members have with other religious followers.  And that is what the vignettes focus on -- the core values that the members have and the choices they have made to put God and Jesus in the center of their lives.  The movie does not explore church doctrine or mention the beliefs that make LDS doctrine different from mainstream Christian doctrine.  (This is not Mormonism for Dummies.)  I don't think Joseph Smith or Brigham Young were even mentioned.  The movie isn't an exploration of how LDS doctrine differs, but instead focuses on how it is similar to other religions.  The movie depicts two converts who still maintain close ties with their families, who profess other Christian religions, along with a Nepalese man who still kept the religious customs of his family.

I enjoyed all of the stories, and I can see how they were carefully selected to combat subtle (or not so subtle) stereotypes of Mormon culture.  The subjects are from different races, cultures, countries and socioeconomic backgrounds.  One of the families is led by a working mom who is a mixed martial arts champion.  I get it.  But I still enjoyed all of the uplifting stories. I laughed, I cried.

So, is it worth the average viewer's time and money?  I think so, though Redbox, Netflix or Amazon Prime might also be the way to go.  (The movie is 78 minutes long.)  If you are of my generation, you may remember the commercials that were produced by the LDS church.  You can find some on the Internet, but I couldn't find my two favorites.  One showed a dad shopping with his daughter and agonizing over how much little girl stuff cost and the other showed a dad and his son running to put the trash out after the son forgot to do it in time.  I loved those commercials, and so did a lot of folks.  Growing up RLDS, people would always ask me "Does your church make those great commercials?"  Actually, no.  Anyway, the movie is a bit like those commercials -- heartwarming, inspiring, thought-provoking, but not really challenging or informative.  Finally, the movie is also a bit like an IMAX movie.  I love those short movies, and I notice that in recent IMAX movies Jerusalem and Arabia, the filmmakers focus on what all people have in common, even the three main religious groups that inhabit Jerusalem.

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October 13, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Assorted Dystopian Future Films (The Maze Runner and The Giver)
Posted by Christine Hurt

When I was a "young adult," books geared toward me dealt with parental divorce, mothers dying of cancer, anorexia and the occasional unwanted pregnancy.  But everyone knowns now that YA novels must have a dystopian future (or a wizard).  (See, e.g., Catching Fire and Divergent et seq.)  Two recent movies jump on tha tbadwagon, adapting two other YA novels that depict a dystopian, totalitarian future:  The Giver and The Maze Runner.

I will have to admit that I may be one of the very few moms out there with kids that have gone through middle school who has not read The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry.  Sorry.  But I get the feeling from watching the movie that the book may have a little more to offer.  The NYT Magazine interviewed Lowry here about watching the book be made into a movie twenty years after writing it.  There has to be something weird about writing a book (a single book) decades ago about a totalitarian future where everyone is made to believe that a regimented life with people being organized into work and life by a supreme authority is optimal and then see some young whipper-snappers copy that idea into zillions of dollars (See, eg., Catching Fire and Divergent, mostly Divergent).  LIke Tris in Divergent, Lowry's Jonas begins to sense that life isn't supposed to be about just doing life the way it has been done, organized into familes, occupations, etc.  Very similar to the ceremony in Divergent in which young people are sorted into "factions," young people in The Giver are sorted into occupations.  Jonas is left to the end, and he begins to think there is something wrong with him (divergent, possibly?)  But no, he is given the position of "receiver of memories," which is held only by one person in a generation.  He is to be the memory laureate of the community -- he alone will hold the history of mankind, with its tragedies and blessings, wars and creative accomplishments, weapons and musical instruments.  The trick is though, that the outgoing "receiver/giver" has to give Jonas all of this accumulated knowledge (through some sort of forearm-mindmeld thing) without Jonas balking and deciding that this form of government is completely whack, as the young people say.  As you might imagine, Jonas does exactly that.  Watching the movie, I felt that I wasn't really understanding everything because I did not read the book.  Maybe the book is meant to be a small allegory or cautionary tale and not a summer blockbuster.  Anyway, when you watch the next Divergent movie, just know that Lois Lowry did that first, without as much violence.

Speaking of violence, The Maze Runner does not flinch from modern depictions of a totalitarian future.  I also did not read this book, though my children did.  As far as violence goes, this movie is more along the Divergent and Catching Fire lines than The Giver.  The beginning is very existential -- our hero, Thomas, wakes up in a metal elevator, which is rising to an unseen destination.  The elevator ("box")stops when it emerges from underground into "the glade."  This green space is fairly large, with groves of trees, grass, and a really bizarre stone or metal wall surrounding the green space and extending high into the sky.  Thomas cannot remember who he is and has no idea why he is here or what "here" is.  And neither do the other teen-age boys that greet him.  They also arrived via the box, one a month for three years.  They were expecting another arrival in the box, along with supplies.  Someone or some thing sends the box once a month, but no one knows who.  The supplies are marked with "wckd."  The boys have created a type of community with three rules:  do your work, don't hurt anybody, and don't go into the maze.  The maze is on the other side of the tall wall, and there is a door that opens during daylight hours.  Of course Thomas, being our hero, immediately wants to go into the maze.  And early on, you get the sense that this ok-topia that the boys have worked out over time (apparently with some rough patches) is not going to stable for too long.  The Lord of the Flies seems imminent.

The rest of the movie (obviously just a first installment) poses one central tension:  is it better for the boys to continue on and live in a sort of harmony in the glade, living off the land and the necessary supplies that come once a month or to risk this sort-of-acceptable existence to find a way out through the maze, past the "grievers" (gross robot giant spider things), and see what is outside?  Should they cash everything in and risk death to find out who they are and why they are there?

Because this is the first installment, we get to see the gladers trade what they have for something, but we aren't sure what the something is.  As my daughter said to me on the way out:  "Everyone is lying."  Yikes!  Maybe I should read the book.

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Family Film Blogging: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Posted by Christine Hurt

On Saturday, our whole family met another whole family to go see Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  Because we were in Provo, we were one of only three families who were not going to see Meet the Mormons.  Even though we were meeting Mormons to go see Alexander, there was a moment of shame that we weren't going to see the documentary.  Next week.  But this week, we saw Alexander.

So, any reader will understand that my criteria for a good movie would not make me a good film teacher or film critic.  I like movies that my whole family can watch, that make me laugh, don't have too much potty humor or gross-out jokes, and have some sort of intelligence.  I would say that Alexander fits the bill.

Obviously, the movie does not track the book other than the general gist (sort of like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs).  Alexander's bad day takes place in the first 15-20 minutes of the movie.  He gets gum in his hair, falls down in front of his 6th grade crush, finds out the most popular boy in his class is having a blow-out bash the same night as his 12th birthday party, etc.  Alexander's angst comes not because he had a bad day, but because his family doesn't seem to care in their self-centered busy-ness:  Big brother crowing about his prom the next day; big sister preening about her big theater debut the next day; mother worrying about her big book launch the next day; dad cautiously optimistic about his big interview the next day.  As you can see "the next day" has a lot of potential for the other family members.  You can brace yourself for what happens next.  At midnight on his birthday, Alexander wishes that his family could have a bad day (I'm sorry -- a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day) so that they could know what it is like and maybe empathize with him more.  And beginning the next morning, that is what happens.

What separates Alexander from a number of movies (family and not) where a series of things go horribly wrong is that the movie never loses its sweetness.  The awful, cringe-worthy things that happen are followed swiftly by an epiphany, a shared moment with a family member, a recommitment to optimism and family togetherness.  Hokey?  Maybe, but exactly the kind of movie that I like to see with my family, which is not too different from Alexander's family.  (I was sitting by my 12 year-old, and he definitely empathized with Alexander's middle child angst.)

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August 27, 2014
Family Film Blogging: The Hundred- Foot Journey
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, first let me tell you my agenda.  I try to frequent non-animated PG-rated films as much as possible.  Why?  So they will keep them coming.  I like movies that aren't necessarily kids' movies, but are family-friendly.  So, we saw The Secret Life of Walter MittyMillion-Dollar Arm, and now The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Our whole family went, and I have to say we all enjoyed it very much.  The movie did make us very, very hungry, and when we left we all had a huge desire to visit the French countryside.  So, be warned.  The plot is fun:  family from Mumbai, India leaves the country after popular restaurant destroyed by political protestors.  After stopping for awhile in London, the patriarch leads the family into France and decides to start a restaurant in a picturesque village they find when the brakes on their van malfunction.  But, their new restaurant is across the road from a one-star Michelin restaurant, which serves traditional French cuisine.  Hilarity ensues.  Prejudice and jealousy melts into friendship and affection.  And there is Helen Mirren.

Our hero is Hassan, the handsome and brilliantly talented son whose concoctions vault the family restaurant to local fame.  Madame Mallory is the owner of the fancy restaurant who tries to hate him.  Marguerite is the cute sous chef who also tries to hate him.  Neither female succeeds.  Try not to think how the plot is a little similar to Ratatouille.  Just enjoy the pleasant ride that is a feast for the eyes, but unfortunately not for the tastebuds due to limitations on film.  If only the movie could be showed while you enjoyed a great Indian-French fusion meal!

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August 18, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Guardians of the Galaxy
Posted by Christine Hurt

Man, the deadweight loss of moving cannot be underestimated!  We are finishing the busiest yet least productive summer in history, but we did find time to go to the movies!

So, I'll start with the fact that when we saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy, I looked over at our youngest and said, "You will have to make Dad take you to that one."  A racoon?  I don't think so.  I have taken the kids to a lot of really dumb movies (top of that list:  Dougal, Space Chimps, Ice Age 24), but I have standards.  A superhero raccoon is where I draw the line.  Can you see Iron Man fighting side by side with a raccoon?  No.  But then, when the movie came out a few weeks ago, the reviews were pretty universally great.  And, there was a lot of construction and confusion at my house.  So, off to Guardians of the Galaxy we went.

My take:  Guardians is the Fletch of the Marvel universe.  That is a compliment.  The movie has a lot of action, violence, etc., but it's also really funny.  And not funny every half hour like the Avengers or even the Iron Man series, but funny throughout.  The big four Avengers are serious.  Captain America is super-serious, and Thor couldn't even get the timing right on the funniest line in the Avengers ("He's adopted.")  Tony Stark is usually funny, but had serious mental illness in his last movie that dampened the mood.  Peter Quill (aka Star Lord or Star-Lord) is mostly funny.  Action comedies are a hard combination to get right, but Guardians seems to get it right.  We started quoting the movie as we were walking out of the theater, and are still quoting it today.

For Marvel junkies out there, the Peter Quill backstory does not follow any of the various Marvel narratives.  In the movie, his mother dies, apparently from cancer, when Peter is small.  She speaks lovingly of his father, who she believes will return to them.  Minutes later, a spaceship arrives at the hospital and takes Peter away.  The next time we see him, he is a grown man flying around the galaxy retrieving artifacts for shadowy clients.  (The second scene is reminiscent of Indiana Jones, but Peter Quill is no archaelogical genius.)  Unfortunately, he unwittingly becomes involved in a high-stakes grab for a valuable object, the importance of which ties this movie into other Marvel movies.

Quill eventually bands together with four others -- Rocket (the raccoon), Drax (who looks like a body builder, but seems to lose most fights for some reason), Groot (a tree-man), and Gamora (the requisite female).  The movie is very self-aware, and people don't just casually join up with a talking raccoon.  There is quite a bit of condescension there, which gets dispelled, thereby dispelling my own skepticism.  Groot is the fan favorite, and Gamora is sufficiently complex and interesting to be more than just the token girl.  Most of the buzz about the movie is how awesome Chris Pratt (Parks & Rec, Lego Movie) is as Quill/Star-Lord.  He is very enjoyable.  Indiana Jones Harrison Ford enjoyable, I'm not sure.  We'll (anxiously) wait for the sequel.

One caveat:  The Marvel/Avengers movies are fairly family-friendly.  (Our 6 year-old is still a little too freaked out by the more graphic and dark Iron Man movies, though.)  Guardians is definitely more on the 13-level of PG-13 for language than it needs to be, but your mileage may vary.

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June 13, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Maleficent
Posted by Christine Hurt

The summer blockbusters keep coming, and I predict Maleficent to be one of the biggest.  In my own opinion, it is one of the best.  On its face, the movie doesn't seem that new.  There have been other live-action re-tellings of animated fairy tales (Snow White and the Huntsman; Mirror, Mirror), both with Academy Award winning female leads playing the evil role.  But Maleficient seems different, more important.  The premise is not just that a silly fairy tale has more nuance or detail to it but that an important story has been intentionally mistold to whitewash a powerful man's guilt and villainize a victim.  Moreover, evil exists in the world, and we all must account for how we respond to it and let it shape our actions.  Now don't get me wrong, kids will like it as much as other scary, dark Disney movies (the original Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast).  But, on another level, its a PG-version of Extremities.

The trailer doesn't give much up about the plot of the movie, and if you want everything to be a surprise, you may want to stop reading.  From the trailer, we know that Maleficent, played by Angelina Jolie, alludes to the fact that she used to have wings.  In the first scenes of the movie, we see a young Maleficent happily winging (not really flitting -- her wings are huge) over the moors, where the fairy creatures live in harmony with one another, out of the way of humans.  There is some suggestion that humans have warred with them before.  Maleficent is anything but evil -- she is happy, strong, forgiving, and playful.  Then she meets Stefan, who we know from watching Disney movies grows up to be King Stefan, father of Aurora.  But in opening scenes he is a peasant, dreaming of being king, who becomes quite close to Maleficent as they grow up together.  When she is 16, he kisses her, calling it "true love's kiss."  She obviously loves him, but does not pine for him as he goes out to find his fortune, something she does not understand but does not seem to resent.

So, at this point we know that something is going to happen to turn Maleficent against Stefan.  I was really, really hoping that it would not be a romantic betrayal -- that he finds love elsewhere, marries, etc.  And it's not.  (You may want to stop reading now.)  The human King promises to give his throne to whichever of his loyal soldiers can vanquish Maleficent.  Stefan wants to be king.  He pretends to warn Maleficent of the King's reward offering, then drugs her.  He does not kill her, but he takes her wings, her identity, the physical embodiment of her soul.  You can see this as sort of the Snow White-Huntsman compromise or as something much more insidious.  Maleficent's pain on waking without her wings is very hard to watch.  Anyway, Stefan becomes King, and Maleficent becomes, well, Maleficent, with a single purpose -- to destroy King Stefan.

The christening scene is almost word-for-word a rendition of the animated movie's scene, which makes the differences even more rich.  Maleficent curses the baby, leaving King Stefan to descend into madness over the next 16 years, knowing that he has brought this on his house.  The baby is taken to the cottage in the glen by the three "good" fairies, who are comic relief in a much different way than in the original.  Then the amazing part of the movie begins -- the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora, and how Maleficent finds redemption without revenge.  The entirety of the movie is played out on Jolie's face, from Stefan's betrayal to the end.

The movie will undoubtedly find its audience both with moms of this generation who have elevated loving one's children to an art form and with teenage girls who would rather have Angelina Jolie as a Fairy Godmother than a boyfriend.  (Prince Philip here looks like he mistakenly wandered off the set of a Disney channel show.)  That's fine with me -- I think it's nice to have a crop of movies that tell teenage girls that love at first sight with a stranger isn't really love at all (Frozen, Brave).

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June 04, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Million Dollar Arm
Posted by Christine Hurt

One movie that our whole family wanted to see was Million Dollar Arm.  One of those rare non-animated movies that is rated PG, this movie seemed like a great way to celebrate the last day of school.  Though fairly appropriate for all ages, note that there is a lot of reading.  A nontrivial percentage of the dialogue is in subtitles, which our six year-old was not prepared to read in real time.  There was some loss of interest as some jokes were not understandable to him.

The movie begins with a sports agent, J.B. Bernstein, who is in danger of business failure having gone out on his own two years prior.  The opening scene shows him losing the NFL superstar client that was the new agency's last hope for solvency.  In the middle of the night, Bernstein gets the crazy idea to find the next new MLB pitcher from the cricket fields of India.  He convinces a deep pocket to fund a one year experiment.  Bernstein then travels to India, launches an American Idol-type contest, nabs two young Indian boys, brings them back to L.A. to train, and sets up a major league tryout for the two would-be pitchers.

The important thing to remember is this is a Disney movie.  There will be a miracle.  There will be success when it seems completely impossible.  And, there will be a character transformation from self-centered and insensitive to loving hero.  And there will be a girl, and the guy will get the girl.  And, it pretty much works.  Jon Hamm is really good at playing the selfish business guy, and Lake Bell is convincing as his bungalow tenant who teaches him how to be a family man to his adopted pitchers.  It's like Miracle and The Game Plan in one movie!

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May 22, 2014
Godzilla versus Collateralized Debt Obligations
Posted by Erik Gerding

 

Godzilla

 

Collateralized Debt Obligations

Definitively

Derivative?

Definitionally

USAF Tests early 1950s

Origin

JPM experiments early 1990s

Radioactive waste

Diet

Toxic Mortgages

Pricey Simulation of Destruction of Tokyo

Computer Special Effects

Destructive Monte Carlo Simulation for Pricing

Heating up in Asia

Foreign Markets

Europe already burned

Laser, Taser, Bomb

Too Big To

Fail

Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco, Las Vegas, in other words, comparatively limited

Scope of Devastation

Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, European banks, worldwide financial markets

“Mmm … Calamari”

Attitude towards

Giant Squid

BFF

Mothra, MechaGodzilla

Nemesis

Carl Levin, Mecha-Carl Levin

Hollywood too risk averse; recycles old assets

Bottom Line

Wall Street too risk seeking; recycles old assets

 

 

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May 20, 2014
Family Film Blogging: The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, I'll have to admit there are a lot of things about movie franchises I don't understand.  Why were there two Hulk movies, for instance.  And now, why there are two three-part Spider-Man blockbuster movies basically back-to-back, retelling the same basic story but with different scripts and actors.  (And yes, I know that "because they can, and because people will pay money" is most of the reason why.)  So, I've been skeptical about this re-do of Spider-Man for awhile.  But, I'm mostly convinced that the second trilogy is better.

So, my clan wanted to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for awhile.  (The "Amazing" part distinguishes this Andrew Garfield/Emma Stone trilogy from the Tobey Maguire/Kirsten Dunst franchise.)  So, Saturday I took four kids from 14 to 6 to see it in 3D, which actually was pretty cool.  I hadn't seen the first one, so we had to rent it on Amazon and watch it.  I was very skeptical of Garfield, who was so convincingly feckless as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, but he makes a very likeable Peter Parker/Spider-Man.  Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy (not the Mary Jane hero of the other franchise, both of whom appear in the comic book series) is a modern superhero girlfriend.  Like Thor's girlfriend Jane (Natalie Portman), Gwen is very intelligent, even more so than Peter, and her knowledge and courage save the world a few times.  Unlike Jane, she does not seem emotionally helpless and is able to successfully manage her education and career even when Peter is not her boyfriend.

The second movie picks up basically where the first left off:  Spider-Man is saving New York citizens on a regular basis, Peter and Gwen are graduating from high school, and Aunt May is having trouble making ends meet.  Gwen has an internship and a scholarship to Oxford, but Peter doesn't seem to be enrolled in college, although Aunt May talks as if he is.  Peter's time seems to be taken up swinging around the city, saving kids from bullies and stopping adult bad guys.  He also spends more time obsessing about why his father dumped him (his mother doesn't seem to concern him) and what the items in his father's briefcase mean.  We learn that the FBI told Aunt May that Mr. Parker absconded with vital scientific discoveries belonging to Oscorp for his own financial gain.  

Then, however, the CEO and founder of Oscorp, Norman Osbourne dies, telling his son, Harry, that he has a genetic disease that will kill him, but that the secret to staying alive is at Oscorp.  Though Oscorp seems to be a public company, Harry apparently succeeds his father as CEO, even though his is 20 years old.  Let's just suspend disbelief for a minute.  Also, Harry turns out to be the childhood best friend of Peter, though he was sent away to boarding school at a young age.  Harry is obviously depressed about his terminal illness, but finds information in secret files at Oscorp that says that the spider venom that created Spider-Man may save him, and urges Peter to get Spider-Man, whom he believes Peter knows through his photojournalism, to give him some blood.  Around the same time, an electrical engineer named Max (Jamie Foxx), who is ignored and bullied at work, falls into one of the secret projects containing electric eels and becomes Electro.  Spider-Man must now fight Electro, who seems fairly invincible, and try to put off his friend Harry.  Eventually, Harry turns his anger on Spider-Man, whom he feels has let him down, and joins with Electro to defeat Spider-Man (and get his blood).  The third twist is that Gwen Stacy's dad, who dies in the first movie, asked Peter in a dying wish to stay away from Gwen, to save her from Spider-Man's enemies.  Peter is having a hard time doing this, obviously, but it foreshadows some trouble later in the movie.

I have to admit that I still do not understand the pseudo-science behind the Oscorp/Parker discoveries of mixing animal DNA with human DNA to make humans faster, stronger, regenerative, self-healing, etc.  This doesn't seem to be necessary to enjoy the great visuals and fun chemistry between real-life sweeties Garfield and Stone.

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April 09, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Posted by Christine Hurt

I love the Marvel superheroes.  And my favorite superhero is Captain America.  So, our family was in a sold-out IMAX theater on Friday night for Captain America:  The Winter Soldier.  Earlier that day, I had purchased a certain someone the winter soldier action figure at the Disney store.  This actually caused some problems in our household because the box names the winter soldier as Bucky Barnes.  My daughter looked at me like I just told her there was no Santa Clause.  "The winter soldier is Bucky!?"  So, sorry for the spoiler.

The plot of this sequel is fairly hard to describe without giving away more than the identity of Bucky.  Suffice it to say that in the first part of the movie we find out that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised.  Captain America has to figure out who is not corrupt, who he can trust.  Then, they will have to save the world from the enemy.  Black Widow plays a very large part in the movie (foreshadowing her own movie?), and a new superhero is introduced, Falcon.  Robert Redford appears as Alexander Pierce, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and leader of "the council" that gives Nick Fury orders regarding S.H.I.E.L.D.  My favorite part was when Pierce opens his super-fancy refrigerator, with a glimpse of Newman's Own pasta sauce.  (I'm sure lots of zillionaires keep leftover pasta sauce in their fridge, but whatever.)

The bad guys (who shall not be named here) have a secret weapon, Bucky, who also has some of whatever makes Captain America so super.  He may even have a little more.  Bucky has no memory of who he was at all.  In a way, this movie taps into the angst of returning U.S. soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan -- Falcon runs a support group for vets having trouble assimilating back into civilian life, and he empathizes with Steve Rogers, who is having trouble assimilating after returning from a war seventy years ago to a time and place that is foreign to him.  Not to give it away, but Steve's only soulmate is 96.  Bucky is an extreme version -- told by the bad guys that he is a soldier making the world better for humanity, but who is being used and exploited for the bad guys' own ends.  (Remember, one of the big plot points for Iron Man 3 was that Tony Stark has PTSD from his battle with Loki's alien army.)

The biggest hole in this movie, just like in Iron Man 3, is WHY DOESN'T CAPTAIN AMERICA CALL THE OTHER AVENGERS?  If the fate of the world is really hanging in the balance, and you have three friends with whom you've saved the world before, why wouldn't you call them?  At least call Tony Stark.  From a plot point of view, the absence of the other Avengers in these sequel is unbelievable.  From an actor contract perspective, it makes sense.  Robert Downey, Jr. has fulfilled his contracts.  That is a negotiation for done the line.  Also, once you start calling in help, the sequel just becomes Avengers2.  But back in the world where millions of people are about to die, it seems weird that Captain America doesn't ask Black Widow what Iron Man is doing for the next few days.

Still, it's an awesome movie.

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April 02, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Muppets Most Wanted
Posted by Christine Hurt

I like the muppets.  I liked The Muppets.  But I can't say that I am dying to see Muppets Most Wanted again.  Yes, there were parts where I laughed out loud, but I do that a lot.  

As probably ever reviewer has noted, the opening song (which is not memorable except for this line), pretty much tells you how the next 90 minutes is going to go:

We're doing a sequel, We're back a popular demand.
C'mon on everybody, strike up the band.
We're doing a sequel; That's what we do in Hollywood.
And everybody knows, the sequel's never quite as good

Except for Toy Story 2, but this is not TS2.  The movie begins literally at the moment that The Muppets ended.  We see the backsides of the stand-ins for Gary (Jason Segal) and Mary (Amy Adams), who walk away and are never mentioned again.  The rest of the Muppets characters (including Walter, from the first movie) then try to think of what they should do in the sequel (opening number), and decide on the prompting of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) to do a world tour.  Badguy is secretly working with Constantine, number one criminal mind in the world and dead ringer for Kermit, to use the world tour as a way to pull off various heists, leading to the theft of the crown jewels in London.  To pull this off, Constantine must take Kermit's place, with Kermit being mistaken for Constantine and sent to a Russian gulag, run by Nadya (Tina Fey).  All the best parts of the movie take place in the gulag.

Though I thought the last movie was diminished by the story of Walter, Gary and Mary, here the movie could use a good non-Muppet plot.  Ricky Gervais does not shine in his role.  Whereas Segal and Adams seemed overjoyed to be in a Muppets movie, Gervais seems like someone with the flu showing up for work because he has to do so.  Fey and the gulag cast of characters (Ray Liotta, Daniel Trejo) are definitely worth seeing, including the 15 seconds of Tom Hiddleston (Loki from Thor).  The other human narrative is Ty Burrell, playing an Interpol agent working with muppet Eagle, a CIA agent.  Immediately after the "badge" scene from the trailer, this bit begins to grate.  The jokes all center around how the Interpol agent is European, so he has six hour lunch breaks, two months' summer vacation, etc.  Yeah, the kids didn't really get that.  Burrell also goes through the movie sounding like the French "taunter" from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the "outrageous French accent."

The plot within the Muppets is pretty thin, unlike the "getting the band back together" plot of the earlier movie.  Here, the other muppets are just putting on the show, with a "new and improved' Kermit who lets them do whatever they want.  Walter, who barely appears in the first half of the movie, puts together that Kermit and Constantine have been switched. With Animal and Fozzie (also minimally used in this movie), he breaks Kermit out of the gulag.  The other thing that is missing from the movie is catchy songs.  We downloaded the soundtrack of the earlier movie pretty quickly, and loved the songs.  Here, I couldn't hum any song in the movie five minutes after it was over.  I will say that the best part of The Muppets was the "Am I a Man (Or Am I a Muppet)" song, in which Jim Parsons (Sheldon from Big Bang Theory) appears as Walter's parallel human.  This movie tried to do the same thing with Miss Piggy and Celine Dion, and it was dumb.  Really dumb.

I hate being so negative, mostly because the six year-old did enjoy it, but I won't put it on my 2014 highlight reel.

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March 29, 2014
Family Film Blogging Divergent
Posted by Christine Hurt

I did not want to interrupt our awesome forum on Hobby Lobby with my pedestrian mommy movie reviews, but here goes:

Opening night for Divergent found me and another lucky mom sitting with four sixth-grade boys (and three girls who pretended to be annoyed that we ran into them) in the IMAX.  Yes, we had all read the book.  (Though, after devoting too much of my life to both the Twilight series and the Catching Fire series, I stopped at the first, which is usually the best.)  And, of course, we are two hours south of pre-dystopian Chicago.

Beatrice/Tris is our heroine in our dystopian future Chicago.  Though she was raised in the selfless Abnegation faction, she chooses on the appointed choosing day to join the Dauntless faction, which favors crazy bravery in order to be the security force of the city.  Her brother chooses Erudite, which is the faction for academic research/think tank sort of things.  As you might expect, trying to join Dauntless is a harrowing experience, with the prospect of failure and being "factionless" a harsh, but real possibility.  Tris, of course, falls in love with her trainer, Four, because movies with young, female heroes seem to be required to have as a "sub"plot "who is going to be my boyfriend?"

So, many reviews are not very favorable, including the Manohla Dargis one in which the reviewer seems to be puzzled by the magic of mascara.  But I will say that my low expectations aside, I was pleasantly surprised.  No, it's not Harry Potter, and who knows when that will roll around again, but it is completely enjoyable.  And yes, it seems a little derivative of Catching Fire, which features another teenage girl with a secret courageous streak that comes in handy when she has to save the world.  I would argue that it's not as violent as Catching Fire (and less violent than the book), though that may not be saying much.  Many fans have noted that the ending is different, but I actually liked the movie ending better.  My only quibble is that the end of the movie, with plenty of monologuing by Kate Winslet, makes the tension seem more like the Erudite and Dauntless factions v. Abnegation faction, when in the book it seemed more like a few power-hungry Erudite exploiting the Dauntless to grab power with the Abnegation conspiracy charges as obvious ruse.

FYI, all the boys liked the movie.  They also liked the book.  None of them ever mentioned that the main character was a girl.  In case you didn't see this, In Praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Granger Series.

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March 19, 2014
Law School: The Motion Picture
Posted by Joseph Yockey

Spring Break means that there’s more free time than usual to go to the cinema. Unfortunately, nothing at my local theatre really strikes my interest (The Grand Budapest Hotel is still not here, and it’s driving me crazy).

Rather than go out, I decided to put on a little mini film festival at home. This week’s theme is “origins stories” – The Godfather: Part II; RoboCop (the 1987 original); Batman Begins; Alien; The Bourne Identity; and Star Trek (2009).

All of this got me thinking about an origins story that’s a bit closer to home, and one that hasn’t yet made it to the big screen.

Imagine that you’ve been put in charge of producing a two-hour film on the history of the American law school. You have a $100 million budget. Who would you hire to direct? What characters, stories, and events would you build your narrative around? And, most importantly, who should play the role of Christopher Columbus Langdell?

(Maybe another question should be whether anyone will pay to watch, but I’m too optimistic to worry about that).

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