I know, I know, I'm behind. That's what happens when you become the Associate Dean for Faculty and Curriculum. But, I have been to the movies a couple of times, including to see Disney's The Jungle Book. (Not to be confused with the Warner Bros. version, which is also in production.) Funnily enough, though we were all eagerly anticipating this movie after seeing the trailer, the old folks loved it, but our eight year-old (target audience?) did not. Why not? This is our hypothesis:
So, the movie has one speaking actor that is not animated. Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi) interacts with a jungle filled with animated mammals, reptiles and birds. Those animals are voiced by great actors, though some animals oddly don't seem to have language abilities. The result is really quite impressive, and I'm sure if you had a time machine and showed the movie to folks in the 1980s, they would wonder at how the director was able to train the real-live animals to do all of these things. The movie is also very impressive when you realize that a little boy had to basically film an entire movie by himself with Iron-Man director and actor Jon Favreau. The scene-stealers are Bill Murray voicing an animated Baloo (the bear) and Christopher Walken as King Louie (the orangutan). Watch closely for the "cowbell" reference -- I was embarrassed that my fourteen year-old got it before I did.
So, why did the only real "kid" in our midst not like the movie? My teenage girl's hypothesis is "the uncanny valley." According to this aesthetic theory, humans find animation that is very close to real to be "creepy," while animation that is cartoon-y (like Frozen, etc.) to be just fine. Apparently, this theory explains audience revulsion to animated movies such as Christmas Carol, Polar Express, and Mars Needs Moms. These are all movies that my kids hate, btw. So, the "almost real" animals may be too creepy -- not cute, not real, just creepy. However, none of the over-12 set that went with us had this reaction.
You probably know at least the set-up: Man-cub Mowgli is somehow separated from the humans and is raised in a wolf pack. In the 1967 version, the takeaway seemed to be that the jungle was no place for Mowgli, and he is eventually reunited with the humans (after a lot of fun singing and dancing). In this version, the takeaway seems to be more that humans and animals have a symbiotic relationship and can help one another thrive. The movie opens with a "water truce," in which animals during a drought tacitly agree not to prey upon one another at the lone remaining water hole. Perhaps the message is that here in these days on Earth, we should all live in peace with one another, or maybe that's reading a bit too much into it. While the animated movie was a funny road trip movie -- Bagheera escorting Mowgli to the Man-village, and along the way they meet friends and enemies, quarrel with one another, then reunite at the end -- the new movie has more of an internal journey than an external one. Shere-Khan, the tiger, sets his sights on Mowgli, but the vindictiveness is personal and acute, not just "tiger eats human." Shere-Khan is also a little more brutal than as a cartoon. Baloo is the buddy Mowgli meets, but he is also the voice of wisdom beyond his "bare necessities" persona. Mowgli learns not just that the jungle has dangers, but also that he has skills and abilities. The movie is much more a coming-of-age story than a road trip story.
I heartily recommend it, notwithstanding one young critic's review.
First, my disclaimers. I love Marvel. I'm not a D.C. person. I am not very familiar with the D.C. universe. In addition, I have not seen the Dark Knight trilogy. I was not a big fan of Man of Steel. "My" versions of Batman and Superman are Michael Keaton and Christopher Reeve, respectively. So, I wasn't really excited about seeing this installment, but I was outvoted by my children and Captain America: Civil War isn't out yet.
Second, it was not as bad as I feared. It's no Captain America, but it was interesting. (Rotten Tomatoes has it at 29% from critics; 71% from viewers. I disagree with the critics.) Ben Affleck, as much as I wanted to hate him, was pretty good as an older, resigned, wise Batman. The problem with the movie is not Batman; it's Superman. This man of steel is not like the Superman of yore. He does not fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way. He does not love America, or humans. He loves Lois Lane. He is depicted here (and in Man of Steel) as a stranger in a strange land basically biding his time until he wakes up back on planet Krypton. Perhaps there was too much stuff to put in the movie so we couldn't waste time watching him save random people or have any sort of personality at all. But the result is that he seems more like someone in hiding than a superhero. Batman has more dialogue and more air time; we know what makes him tick. While Superman reacts to situations around him, Batman is a proactive superhero. Or antihero. Or whatever.
Whether or not Superman or Batman are heroes is the main question of the movie. What would we do if there were humans among us with powers that threatened democratic debate and civil society should those humans prove not to be benevolent dictators? Should we fear Superman? Is the planet better off without a Superman? (This, of course, is a question played out in the X-Men series as well as The Avengers. And how do we feel about vigilantes? Assassins? These fears are stirred up in a crucible located in what I'll call the "twin cities" of Gotham and Metropolis, which are apparently right next to each other. In a creative scene, Bruce Wayne is present at the final fight scene between Superman and General Zod that ends Man of Steel. The destructive battle, in the middle of Metropolis, topples a skyscraper bearing the name of Bruce Wayne's company and kills many employees. Bruce tries to save as many on the ground as he can, but the devastation is overwhelming. In that moment, Bruce Wayne becomes Superman's biggest critic. (Batman does not seem to contemplate what would have happened to his employees under General Zod, but his heartbreak is palpable and his misplaced rage seems logical.) Two years later, Batman is still monitoring Superman, and Clark Kent (almost lamely) wants the Daily Planet to investigate Batman, who he sees as an out-of-control vigilante, branding his captured bad guys so they are marked in prison.
Left to their own devices, Batman and Superman may have left each other alone, but Lex Luthor sees an opening. Lex Luthor is our young, upstart genius bad guy (and having Jesse Eisenberg, known for portraying Mark Zuckerberg, play the evil genius seems a little on the nose). Luthor's motivations are amorphous. Unlike the 1970s Luthor, he is not attempting to amass wealth or even power. He could be playing the two against each other so that one will take the other one out, leaving more room for criminal minds like his, but then he creates an even worse, uncontrollable monster to fight them both. Luthor seems to be rooting for chaos and destruction for its own sake, and doesn't seem to have a plan to save himself from that destruction.
In the end, there are a lot of interesting themes here. Because it was Easter, I saw Superman as a Christ-figure both loved and hated, and Holly Hunter as Pontius Pilate tasked with passing judgment on him. Batman is Saul, a hater who sets out to destroy him but who has an ephiphany along the way and becomes a convert and organizer. Who is Luthor? The Devil, who still blames his father. Who is Wonder Woman? Who knows? She was only on screen for 10 minutes.
My boys liked the movie, but it was dark. I thought my 8 year-old was on the line for violence and intensity, though there were much younger kids there. There were no jokes, no witticisms, no comic relief at all. Clark and Lois aren't flirty or cute -- they are doomed and resigned. I prefer my action movies with a dash of fun. This movie is obviously the "Dawn" of a new string of DC movies: Wonder Woman, The Flash (which doesn't seem to be linked at all to the Netflix series our family has been watching), Aquaman. I hope they have a little bit of humor.
Not to get political, but if you need a refreshing break from the election season, Disney's Zootopia could not have come at a better time. To be honest, most kids' movies these days have a theme of tolerance and acceptance -- our hero may be negatively stereotyped, but (almost always) he has unique gifts and talents. (The Shrek franchise, the Ice Age franchise, Monsters University, Ratatouille, Harry Potter franchise, Wreck-It Ralph, etc.) But Zootopia takes it a few steps further and tells a much more nuanced and complex story of living in a diverse world. Only Disney can make an animated feature about a bunny into a lesson about not only bigotry but tokenism, reverse discrimination, diversity and affirmative action. (Sounds crazy, but it works.)
OK, here goes. At the beginning of the movie, we are told that the mammal world at one time was separated into predators and prey. These categories roughly map on to carnivores and herbivores, though we could quibble. However, mammals evolved and so now have transcended those primitive instincts. Now, mammals can live together in almost harmony in Zootopia (and wear clothing, walk upright and have opposable thumbs.) Zootopia is divided into small contiguous ecosystems (tundra, rain forest, etc.) with a central government. There are only mammals here. I did see a sign for a fish restaurant, so mammal citizens must still eat fish when so inclined. (Pretty much the only other things you see the mammals eat are doughnuts, carrots, cake, popsicles and ice cream.) I guess even Disney couldn't have designed one city for mammals, birds, fish and insects to live in harmony. At the time of most of the action, the mayor of Zootopia (Leodore Lionheart, so yes, a lion) has launched a "mammal inclusion" campaign. Good thing, too, because a bunny named Judy Hopps wants to be a police officer. She gets into the police academy and after a struggle, graduates first in her class, the first bunny to do so (no one says "rabbit," just "bunny."). Her parents on the carrot farm are very anxious for her to go to the big city and fight crime, but Judy is determined. Though she is applauded as the first bunny to be a police officer, she faces more subtle (or not-so-subtle) discrimination on the force. The police chief Chief Bogo (a cape buffalo) basically ignores her and sends her off to be a meter maid.
And here is where the simple "predators rule, prey drool" dichotomy becomes more complex. I can only think this is intended. Buffaloes are more prey than predator, as are elephants, rhinos and hippos. But these megafauna have a lot of power and clout on the force and throughout Zootopia. In one scene, we see an elephant store owner refusing to serve a fox. So some of the stereotyping in Zootopia has to do with predator v. prey, but there are different prejudices as well. Nick Wilde, a fox, has been discriminated in his life and accused of being sneaky. So, he has become a hustler. Prey like rabbit fear predators, particularly foxes, and predators think prey are "cute." (There is a funny scene in which Judy tells a cheetah that bunnies can call each other "cute," but other species can't call them "cute.")
Back to Judy the meter maid. Fourteen citizens, all predators, have gone missing, and the police force seem incapable of finding them. Judy hears Chief Bogo brushing off Mrs. Weaselton's concerns about her missing husband, and Judy intervenes. (Again, Chief Bogo seems to be less concerned about the smaller weasel, and yes, Weaselton is an "easter egg" homage to Frozen.) Bogo gives Judy 48 hours to find Weaselton or she must resign. Because she is unable to get help from within the force, she turns to Nick Wilde to help her figure out the mystery. The ensuing 48 hours uncover a Sherlock Holmes-like plot that will remind adults of modern-day news items of false accusations of bigotry in the name of pushing debate, racial profiling, and more.
Of course, it is a Disney movie, so happiness and inclusion will reign in the end. But Judy sums things up nicely at the end, noting that all animals will make mistakes and that real life is really, really messy. Though the film doesn't have catchy Disney songs or princesses, I consider it one of the great modern Disney movies, like Big Hero 6 or Wreck-It Ralph.
In the past week or so, we have seen two "base-on-a-true-story" movies that are remarkably similar. In both movies, an athlete overcomes childhood health problems to become an athlete; enjoys the support of a cheering mother and the bare tolerance of a father with other concerns; endures prejudice and elitism in working toward the Olympics; is coached by an alcoholic who lost his Olympic shot years earlier; is urged not to participate in the Olympics, even after qualifying;encounters poor treatment by the Olympic coaches at the Olympics; goes to the Olympics and performs his personal best.
Our family enjoyed each of these movies fairly equally. Race, of course, features an amazingly impressive winning Olympian. Jesse Owens, with modern shoes, starting blocks, and track, could still give the fastest man in the world a run for his money. Eddie the Eagle was an average athlete who went to the Olympics on a semi-loophole: no other British athlete competed in the ski jump so he was an (almost) automatic qualifier. At the Olympics, Jesse Owens set records and bested everyone. Eddie came in last with jumps half the distance of other jumpers. In Race, the Olympics is testing ground, but the blood, sweat and tears for Eddie comes in the journey to be qualified for the ski jump event.
No doubt about it, Jesse Owens suffered horrible prejudice and injustice. Even as a star athlete at Ohio State and at the 1936 Olympics, he was treated poorly because of his race, though Jewish-Americans fared even worse at the Olympics. The movie chronicles this injustice, juxtaposed with Owen's absolute athletic superiority. Though the movie depicts the racism Owens faced here at home, the even less nuanced bigotry of the Nazi regime toward black athletes at the Olympics is highlighted in the second half of the movie (as well as the horrible acts of the Nazis toward Jewish citizens in Berlin in 1935 and 1936). Though a bit long and draggy, the movie is definitely worth watching, particularly with kids. Eddie Edwards seems to have been mistreated because of his socioeconomic class and perhaps because of his oddball personality. The movie shows him being summarily cut from the Olympic trials in downhill skiing, which Eddie attributes to his not having attended the right schools because he was the fastest. A quick browse of the internet only reveals that he was the last person cut from the downhill team. Of course, being good enough or almost good enough to go to the Olympics in downhill skiing seems a little incompatible with how amateurish Eddie is portrayed as he tries to become a ski jumper, but whatever. Eddie's struggle to get to the Olympics is helped when he meets a former ski jumper, now alcoholic slope groomer, who eventually is won over by Eddie's persistence and fearlessness. In the end, Eddie gets to the 1988 Olympics, where he becomes a media darling for his antics.
Both Jesse Owens and Eddie Edwards are not perfect in these movies. When Owens goes to OSU, he leaves behind a girlfriend and a daughter, but fame seems to distract him from his promises to his girlfriend. He eventually reforms his personal life. Eddie's flaws are harder to pinpoint. He is single-minded about wanting to go to the Olympics, but he seems content with making the team via loophole and not merit. As his coach notes, he should want to strive to be a contender in the 1992 games, not a participant in the 1988 games. He also tries to redeem himself mid-Olympics by entering an event he has never practiced, and it's hard to see how this is redemption and not just another stunt, albeit an impressive one.
Another note: Eddie the Eagle is rated PG-13. The reason it is not PG is one scene that my eight year-old did not understand at all. In this scene, Hugh Jackman (the coach) gives a When Harry Met Sally-esque performance of ski jumping-as-sex-act. When we left, Will kept saying, "I don't know why it's rated PG-13 and not PG." Well, I did.
Having avoided seeing the most dreaded sequel this season (Alvin & the Chipmunks 4 -- Really, 4???), we did find ourselves in a rather sparse theater Friday evening watching Kung Fu Panda 3. I can't believe I'm admitting this, but when Kung Fu Panda 2 ended, I did sort of want to know if Po would find his panda Dad. I've kind've been wondering what was taking these Dreamworks people so long, ending the "2" sequel on such a cliffhanger. Well, now I can go on with my life -- Po and his dad are reunited.
I don't feel weird admitting that I generally have really liked the Kung Fu Panda franchise. Jack Black is great as Po, the chunky, cuddly panda who saves kung fu fighting and is named the "dragon warrior," even though he has to start learning the ancient art from the beginning. The ensemble cast of the "Furious Five" led by Dustin Hoffman's Shifu is also really entertaining. The dialogue is witty, and the plots interesting. But, the "3" sequel is not as sharp, not as funny. It is not bad, like painfully bad (see Minions), but it just doesn't live up to the other two movies.
At the end of KFP2, we see an older male panda get a "message from the universe" that his son is alive. We have already learned that Po's dad (the goose) found him in a radish crate and raised him as his own. KFP2 has a subplot of Po dealing with this news. So, you sort of know going in that KFP3 is going to feature Po's panda dad. But, Po finds his dad, Li, in the first few scenes of KFP3, in his own family restaurant. So, there's not a lot of suspense or interest there. Also, Li is not that interesting of a character. He's not even that likeable. Or funny.
The main conflict then is that an ancient villain, Kai (J.K. Simmons), has returned from the Spirit Realm, where he has learned how to take other beings' chi. He sets out to take the chi from all the kung fu masters, including Shifu and the Furious Five. Shifu learns that centuries ago, a village of pandas (Po's village) was able to control chi, meaning that Po might be able to beat Kai. Li declares that the pandas in his village know how to control chi and that if Po returns with him, Po will learn this skill. However, Li is not being truthful with Po, and disaster ensues.
I wish that Li had been a more interesting character, but maybe that's too much to hope for in a short animated feature. The fun Furious Five also don't get a lot of screen time because their chi is taken pretty quickly. So, most of the movie involves really cute pandas (that all look very similar) doing pretty cute things, but I missed the banter between Po and the gang, particularly Angelina Jolie's Tigress. And, I'm not waiting anxiously for KFP4!
So, not a lot of R-rated movies appear here in my reviews, but I couldn't stay away from The Big Short, having absolutely loved the book. My teenage son, a big Michael Lewis fan, also wanted to go, so I smuggled him in as well. If he begins talking like a sailor (or an investment banker), it's my fault.
The Big Short has gotten a lot of love from the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Best Adapted Screenplay), and it is well-deserved. From reading the book, it is hard to understand how it could be turned into a movie. This isn't The Blind Side, with lovable characters and a heartwarming story. The star of the book is the credit default swap, which is not only not as attractive and lovable as Sandra Bullock, but very few people understand what a CDS is. Not to mention the antagonists of the story, the collateralized debt obligation and its evil twin the synthetic CDO. However, the movie does an absolutely amazing job creating these "asides" where the narrator or cameo spokespeople (no spoilers here), explain these Frankenstein products and the risks involved. Genius may not describe this.
The nonfiction book follows the select few who understood that the residential housing market was going to crash, taking the mortgage-backed security market (and CDS and CDO markets) with it. From the book, I most remembered Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the physician-turned-fund manager with Asperberger's, who is more comfortable with numbers than people. The book and movie also follow two young "garage band hedge fund" managers (Charlie Gellar and Jamie Shipley) who have parlayed their personal funds into millions and now want to short the MBS market. Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, a slick investment banker who sells the short positions. Finally, Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) runs a hedge fund inside of Morgan Stanley, and he and his team are quickly sold on the idea that the banks have massively overreached in the MBS market. Baum's story takes center stage in the movie, with the audience getting glimpses into his motivations, fears, and hesitations. Burry is an enigma in the movie. We only see him in his office or basement at home, blasting loud music. We do not see inside of him at all, which I think of as a downside.
When the stories of these guys first appeared in the Vanity Fair, I recall the tone as "here are the guys that bet against America." Lewis didn't skewer them, but there seemed to be a bit of shame in the story -- these guys made hundreds of millions, maybe billions, by predicting the Titanic would sink. If anyone would have listened to them, then perhaps the crash could have been cushioned somewhat. When a guy comes into your bank and asks to bet $200 million against your portfolio, maybe you should question your portfolio instead of doubling down, thinking you are taking advantage of an idiot. Even still, the "heroes" of the book profited from the collapse of the world economy, so there was some unease in glorifying "the big short."
The movie, though, throws the shame away in way that I don't recall the book doing. This telling of the story makes our Cassandras twist in the wind for much of the movie -- no one believes them, then they lose a lot of reputation and money having to make collateral calls to their counterparties while the CDOs (the subject of the swap) remain mispriced even though mortgages are tanking. Our heroes are almost ruined. Even at the end, when their swaps are worth billions, you wouldn't know it from the movie. The movie depicts our heroes scrambling to close out their positions while counterparties still have cash. If you go to the bathroom at the wrong time, you would believe our heroes lost money. But they didn't. They made out like bandits. But in the movie, they are sad, even devastated. Charlie and Jamie sneak into Lehman, showing the viewer first-hand the depressing sea of employees leaving with cardboard boxes and the empty trading floor. Charlie earlier frantically called his mom to tell her to protect her savings, which would be more moving if he hadn't just made $80 million. Mark Baum is at home, as if he has lost his job, on the phone with his analyst, pressuring him to close out his position (to the tune of over $1 billion). Burry is alone in an empty office floor, looking as if he is bankrupt, though his fund gained almost 500%. Baum gives a speech about greed and fraud on Wall Street.
Brad Pitt, who plays mentor to Charlie and Jamie and the integrity of the movie, chides them at one point for celebrating when they get bankers to laughingly sell them CDS's on AA MBS. He reminds them that they just bet against America, and that if they are right people will lose their jobs and people will die. "Just don't dance." The movie has effectively inoculated our heroes from our scorn. I have no problem with this, but I point it out for its masterfulness. Well played.
In addition, the movie sets up other villains we might hate instead: Wall Street bankers. The ratings agencies. Seriously, when Mark goes to see S & P, the executive is literally wearing BLINDERS because she has had her eyes dilated at the eye doctor. That's pretty strong symbolism right there. And, in about 2 minutes she has admitted that S & P sell ratings to the banks so they won't go to Moody's. Also, the SEC. This one was a bit of a stretch, but in Vegas, Jamie meets with an acquaintance "who works at the SEC." This young woman appears poolside, flirting with a banker from Goldman so she can make a career move. So, the ratings agencies are willfully blind, and the SEC is a floozy? OK, but the scene isn't as clean as the S & P scene. Jamie asks what the SEC is doing about MBS, and the woman merely responds that the SEC has had its budget cut. True, but it gives the impression that with enough money, the SEC could police the private offerings of MBS more effectively. I'm not convinced of that given that our heroes could ascertain from the prospectuses what the MBS's were made of, but a lot of ink has already been spilled on that point. Greenspan, Bernanke, and The White House get some hand-waving directed their way, but not much. However, the movie makes the claim that fraud was at the heart of the crash of the residential housing market. The mortgage broker fraud is highlighted, but Wall Street fraud is made the big villain. All our parties believe that fraud keeps the CDOs mispriced. This villainy was a strange scapegoat to me, but I"m willing to go along.
All in all, it's a great movie, and given that it is a movie about something as obscure, complex and mind-numbing as collateralized debt obligations, it's pretty amazing.
I actually saw Brooklyn in December when it was first released, but missed blogging about it during the crush of finals, travel, etc. I saw this movie with my law school colleagues, not my kids, but I think at least the teenage daughter might enjoy it. Now, of course, it has been nominated for several Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay), so I thought I would dust off my opinions of it and write a review.
Eilis (sounds like A-liss), a young woman in Ireland living with her widowed mother and older, unmarried sister, sets off for America for a chance at life away from her small village. Eilis is tired of the small-mindedness of the people, particularly the young men, and looks forward to her new life where she might find a career. However, she is unprepared for the homesickness she feels living in a boarding house, taking bookkeeping classes and working in a department store. Eventually, her fog lifts as she makes friends and even meets a young Italian man, Tony Fiorello. Tony and his raucous family have great dreams beyond Brooklyn, planning on building homes on a plot on Long Island. Eilis is very happy with her prospects until her sister suddenly passes away, sending Eilis back to Ireland for an extended visit. Strangely, things have changed in her hometown, and she suddenly is presented with a better life wrapped up in a nice bow, forcing her to decide whether her home is in New York or Ireland.
To the ending, I believe that we are supposed to see that Eilis is evolved and now must make an informed, grown-up choice among her two options. However, at the end of the movie, I would argue that one choice is foreclosed to her, making her "choice" not as voluntary as it may seem. However, she embraces her choice whole-heartedly, which I suppose is almost as meaningful. The movie is a great vehicle for a strong actress, and we all become great fans of Eilis. The movie is not a gritty depiction of Irish immigrants in New York; Eilis is very fortunate to have her way paved for her by a compassionate Catholic priest and a network of helpful parishioners. She lives in a lovely house with a kind but strict housemother of sorts; the girls in the house are catty but kind enough; her retail clerk job at a fancy store seems to pay handsomely; her efforts to educate herself at night school are rewarded; she goes to a dance and an outsider Italian man walks her home and he proves a cuddly gentleman with a family that embraces her despite her Irishness.
The film is beautifully made with a sweet story. I loved the costumes and of course, Eilis. I'm not sure if I would vote for it for Best Picture (I loved The Martian and The Big Short. I will not be seeing The Revenant), but it made for a nice afternoon.
Very rarely do movies create heroes out of insurance defense attorneys, but Bridge of Spies tries to remedy that fact. This Saturday, my oldest said she wanted to see "that Tom Hanks movie about war." I interpreted that to mean Bridge of Spies, which is at our discount theater, so off we went.
The movie is based on true events depicted in the book Strangers on a Bridge, written by James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in the movie. Donovan, a partner at a NY law firm handling insurance defense cases, is asked by the head of the NY bar to represent pro bono an accused Russian spy, known in the movie as Rudolf Abel. We later learn that Donovan participated in the Nuremberg prosecutions, so he is no stranger to high-level political prosecutions. Though he is encouraged to take the case, he soon finds that he is not expected to push very hard for an acquittal or an appeal, as Abel is clearly guilty of espionage and Cold War fears are high in 1962. He grows to respect Abel for being a model employee (he will not agree to cooperate or be a double agent) for the USSR, and eventually saves him from the death penalty. However, his representation takes a toll on his reputation and his family.
The real center of the movie, however, is he exchange of Abel for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the USSR. Donovan, as a private citizen, is asked to represent Abel in a strange negotiation with the USSR for Powers and the newly born East Germany for the release of a Yale graduate student, Frederic Pryor. As someone who watched the Berlin wall fall, and (my daughter) someone who never knew the Berlin wall, watching the wall be constructed and the immediate impact on Berliners was the most interesting part of the movie. Donovan must travel daily from West Berlin to East Berlin to conduct these strange pantomime negotiations, and of course his litigation settlement skills are quite valuable here.
If you were aware of the story, then you know how the movie ends, but in talking to others I've noticed a lot of people did not know the Powers story. Interestingly, the trailer doesn't mention Powers, though it shows shots of scenes in which the actor portraying him appears. The website does not use his name, either. This seems to be an obvious choice on their part, but the reason is not obvious to me. I gather that history is not clear on whether Powers followed orders to self-destruct the plane and commit suicide before being taken prisoner, and his military honors and awards came late and posthumously. However, I'm not sure whether naming Powers as the American spy in question in the trailer would have kept people away, drawn people to the theater, or neither. Perhaps the producers didn't want audiences to stay away from a movie with a known ending, though Apollo 13 seemed to do okay. Anyway, the focus of the movie is Donovan, and Powers' on-screen time is minimal.
Is it a good movie? It was enjoyable for a Saturday afternoon for $4. I think my daughter (16) thought it was long, and it did drag along. Hank's Donovan is very likable, and always fun to watch.
We took the older kids to some non-Star Wars PG-13 movies this holiday, though I am still resisting going to see Daddy's Home, which just seems awkwardly horrible from the trailer I've seen dozens of times now. The two we did go see were Creed and Concussion, and I would heartily recommend them both.
As you probably now, Creed is a sequel/reboot of the Rocky franchise, which I have to say I lost track of after Mr. T and the Russians. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen Rocky the original from start to finish. I did see the last half of I and the first part of II during a marathon last year, so I think I'm good on the basics. Rocky III was the first movie I saw sitting next to a boy, so I can remember it pretty well. Enough about me.
So, Sylvester Stallone has now realized that he cannot carry the franchise indefinitely, and this episode focuses on Adonis Creed (Donnie), the son of Apollo Creed, born out-of-wedlock by Apollo's mistress after his fatal boxing match with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Donnie ends up in the foster care system after the death of his mother, but Apollo's widow eventually finds him and becomes his guardian. Donnie spends the last half of his adolescence in plush Californian opulence, nurtured by his "Ma," but secretly satisfies his desire to fight by boxing in Tijuana. Though he becomes successful in the financial industry at a young age, he leaves it behind to move to Philadelphia to ask Rocky Balboa to train him. Of course, Rocky at first balks at the suggestion, having become a semi-reclusive figure after the death of Adrian, running a restaurant and living in his old, modest home. (Apparently, Rocky lost his fortune in Rocky V, which I missed.) Eventually, however, Rocky takes on Donnie as a fighter, and the two take on a familial-type relationship. Donnie calls him "Unc," and he moves in with him.
Donnie and Rocky try to keep his identity a secret, but of course Adonis' relationship to Apollo is leaked to the media. Following this revelation, the heavyweight champion, who is awaiting a probable prison sentence, offers to fight Donnie for the championship. The fight will bring the Irish fighter a lot of money and publicity, which will help his family after he goes to prison. Donnie of course has nothing to lose. The fight is a lot like the championship fight between Rocky and Apollo in the original movie, in case you haven't figured that out yet.
I never watch actual boxing, but I kind of enjoy boxing movies. I once heard a director explain that boxing movies are really dancing movies, and that makes a lot of sense to me. Michael B. Jordan, who we knew from Parenthood and The Fantastic Four, was pretty amazing in this really physical role. And Stallone, who did not write the screenplay, gives a great, understated performance as Rocky Balboa. If you are a Rocky fan, there are plenty of homage moments that will make you nostalgic. If you aren't, then you will enjoy the movie afresh.
Concussion is also a movie about a contact sport, but this movie focuses more on the darker side of athletic violence, not the poetic beauty. Based on a true story, the film focuses on Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who, working in Pittsburgh, was assigned to perform an autopsy on a former Pittsburgh Steeler center, Mike Webster. Against the wishes of his colleagues, he performs extra tests to determine why Webster's mental health had deteriorated to the point where he was living in his truck, sniffing super glue and taser-ing himself so he could sleep. Dr. Omalu identifies brain damage undetectable by CT scans, seemingly caused by repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head over the course of Webster's successful NFL career. He shows his findings to notable academics at Columbia University, and together with the head coroner in Pittsburgh, publishes his findings. The movie chronicles the downward trajectory of his medical career as his work earns him jeers, death threats, and damage to his reputation. The film presents a scene in which the FBI will investigate the Pittsburgh coroner and try to force Dr. Omalu into being either a witness or defendant to the trumped-up charges, but Slate has exposed this scene as misleading. I have not done any independent research on the FBI investigation. Eventually, Dr. Omalu gains access to the brains of three other NFL players, all of whom exhibit the same damage. Dr. Omalu was later vindicated, but only at great personal cost.
Commentators on the movie continue to argue over the implications of Dr. Omalu's research and whether NFL players are exposing themselves to outsized risks. The movie, however, does pose interesting questions. Even if the evidence against football collisions was incontrovertible and airtight, would it make a difference? Would fans stop watching or players stop playing? Would 10% of moms not let their kids play football, and (as suggested in the movie) professional football would die? If the coroner assigned to Mike Webster had been a Steeler's fan, or even a football fan, would chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) never have been detected? The Sony email leaks apparently contained emails suggested that the movie was changed so as not to anger the NFL. Even so, the movie seems to be fairly straightforward in its blaming the NFL for not disclosing risks that it had discovered and not seriously investigating red flags. In the end, it is a movie, and the movie is quite compelling.
We are very late in seeing The Martian, but I will say better late than never! My husband went with my fourteen year-old and I, and that is saying something. He also was heard to say "That was a great movie."
So, after seeing Gravity and Interstellar, I definitely think The Martian is the best of both of those movies. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind on Mars, but the movie is not just him talking to himself. Scenes with Watney are interspersed nicely with scenes of the team back at NASA trying to get him back and with scenes of his crew on their space voyage home. And, when we are with Watney on Mars, he is doing interesting things, not just floating around. And, unlike Interstellar, the movie doesn't bog down and is much more compelling. Though long, every scene seems necessary and important -- and is enjoyable.
Back to the plot: Watney is part of a six-man crew that is supposed to spend about a month on Mars collecting soil and other space stuff. While five of them are out of the "hab" doing just that, a sudden, blinding severe dirt storm hits them. (From my internet research, the author of the book, Andy Weir, acknowledges that this wouldn't happen on Mars, but it was necessary for the plot.) The storm threatens to destroy their spaceship and ride home, so the commander (Jessica Chastain) orders the astronauts to the spaceship to blast off and away. During the short walk to the ship, the crew's communication equipment snaps free and hits Watney. The crew gets the audio message that Watney's suit has been breached, meaning death within 60 seconds. After looking for him for most of those seconds, the commander determines he is a goner and they blast off back to Earth. NASA announces that Watney died on Mars, and life goes on.
And it goes on for Watney. Apparently, the antenna that impaled him and breached his suit somehow sealed his suit, so he lived. But he's all alone with limited rations and no way that anyone from Earth can reach him for months, even if they knew he was alive. (Depending on where the two planets are in orbit relative to one another, travel can take anywhere from 160 days to 300 days, and that does not include building and readying the ship and crew.) Eventually, NASA turns its satellites to Mars to see how much material was left on the planet, then they notice someone is moving the crew's vehicle around. Aha! Watney must be alive. Then, the fun begins as each side tries to figure out how to communicate with one another. During this time, Watney (a botanist) figures out how to grow food in the "hab." Eventually, NASA must figure out a rescue plan. Then everything falls apart.
The great part of the movie is the problem-solving. As Watney explains to his video log, he has to "science the s--t" out of this. And he does. Between his logical thinking and the minds back at NASA, a plan forms, and then Watney's old crew will have to do some problem solving on the fly. If you loved the scene in Apollo 13 in which the engineers throw all of the material the astronauts have on the ship with them onto a table and try to figure out a contraption to make a CO2 filter, then you'll love this whole movie.
This was definitely one of the best movies we've seen all year. Who wouldn't want to bring Matt Damon home? (Apparently his parents, who are mentioned once but never appear at all.) We did take our eighth-grader, who enjoyed it. The movie is a little like The King's Speech (which I let my kids watch when they were tweens) in that it has some isolated cursing. Watney does let the F-word fly at least twice (and really, if you can get left behind on Mars and not curse, then you are really disciplined), and then the movie walks a line showing him soundlessly cursing, typing his cursing, etc. I never thought KS should have been rated R, and I'm not sure how Martian escaped the same fate. (Who can say no to Matt Damon?) To me, it's a perfectly fine (and basically family-friendly) movie.
We have been looking forward to The Good Dinosaur for awhile, and when I say "we," I mean our eight year-old. But, all three kids and I went on Wednesday before Thanksgiving for a good holiday treat. I'm not sure if I felt treated at the end. In sum, our group was mixed. The youngest and oldest child liked it, but the middle one and I were skeptical. And we generally aren't skeptical about anything Disney or Disney/Pixar.
The plot, as my fourteen year-old put it, is The Lion King. As I put it, without the catchy songs or funny comic relief. Arlo is an Apatosaurus, living in an alternate history universe in which the dinosaur-destroying asteroid did not hit earth. Now, millions of years later, dinosaurs have developed even further as the top megafauna species and are living in a land that looks a lot like Utah. Herbivore dinosaurs are now cultivating the soil and growing their own crops, and carnivore dinos are bison ranchers. They still do not seem to have developed bartering or market economies, but they have developed language. Anyway, Arlo is the runt of his dino litter, and never seems to be living up to his perceived place in his family unit. His father is generally very patient and supportive of him, but one day Arlo lets the family down and his father loses his life in a flash flood in a canyon trying to fix Arlo's mistake (almost identical in visuals to the Lion King stampede scene). Soon after, Arlo is separated from his homestead and has to make his way in the frightening mountains by himself, until he is befriended by a "critter." This critter is described on the movie site as a human, but I'll leave it to the anthropologists to classify this hominid. (Critters don't seem to have speech, travel on four legs as often as two, blah, blah, blah.) Arlo calls him "Spot." The bulk of the movie is Arlo and (nonverbal) Spot trying to make their way back to the homestead, meeting very strange creatures along the way.
Just as in The Lion King, the writers have to work around the whole "circle of life" thing. Remember in that movie, we mostly saw Simba eating bugs and worms with Timon and Pumba, which worked because the audience probably couldn't take Simba stalking a zebra and eating it raw on camera. Here, Arlo is an herbivore, but Spot is an omnivore. So, we see Spot eat an iguana, a really big bug, and corn. The T-Rexes have rounded teeth, and when they fight the raptors, they grab them in their teeth and throw them bloodlessly. We do not see the T-Rexes eat their "longhorns" (bison). Also, similar to The Lion King, Arlo's enemies here are scavengers. Though not hyenas, the pterodactyls have learned to scavenge after the harsh storms, when animals are separated, injured, and scared. Because they hunt in packs, they seem to be threatening to even large land animals, but especially the critters.
The biggest difference between LK and GD is that GD isn't funny. At all. It is sweet and it is touching, but it's not funny. Spot doesn't talk. The pterodactyls are not funny. The T-Rexes are strange, not funny -- more Rango than Disney. The weirdest character of all is a dinosaur named the "pet collector," as the website calls him. He is really unsettling and bizarre, but thankfully only on screen for two minutes or so.
The best part of the movie is the amazingly beautiful scenery. I can't imagine how difficult it is to make animation look this real -- the trees, the water, the dirt, the storm, etc. The dinosaurs, however, look cartoon-ish. (I never would have guessed Apatosaurus, for example.) Arlo looks more like Dino from the Flintstones than an actual dinosaur. Someone made a decision that the dinosaurs needed to look cute -- either for merchandising purposes or to avoid confusion with Disney's realistic-looking 2000 Dinosaur or the very realistic-looking 2013 Walking with Dinosaurs, or both. The result is a landscape that is very realistic and beautiful, and a made-for-plush dinosaur population.
The more we thought about the movie afterward, the more we weren't sure we liked it. I can't imagine that it will be on our "can we buy the DVD?" list.
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.
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!
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.
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!"