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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March 10, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Mr. Peabody and Sherman
Posted by Christine Hurt

It's not The LEGO Movie.  Last Friday, our family took in the opening of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a movie that suffers from opening in the wake of both LEGO and Frozen, which is still in theaters 3 1/2 months after its premiere.  But, it also suffers from groan-worthy poop jokes.  

That being said, the movie has a lot of fun moments for the history buffs out there -- a sort of animated Night at the Museum.  There are two stories here -- the big-picture story is that local officials are focused on dissolving the adoption of Sherman, a human boy, to Mr. Peabody, a genius dog, who has raised Sherman since he was a foundling.  So, Mr. Sherman must prove to a classmate's parents (Penny's parents) that he is a good father, to throw the family services worker off his scent, so to speak.  Sherman is bullied by Penny at school, and there is a not-quite comfortable cafeteria scene in which Penny humiliates Sherman and calls him a dog with ensuing dog-related taunts.  If this scene wasn't among cute animated second graders, and the bully wasn't a cute girl, it would be really hard to watch.  This primary theme, in case you haven't caught on, is an anthropomorphic cartoon depiction of the too-often contested fact that all families are different and that love is what makes a family, not gender or skin color or sexual preference (or genus species).  The subplot here is out of Finding Nemo -- how much freedom does a loving father give his child so that the child grows in independence and confidence?

The second plot is the one that had the smaller kids rolling (and the mom in front of me).  Faced with having to entertain each other during an adult dinner party, Sherman shows Penny (his nemesis) his father's "Wabac" machine (time machine).  (By the way, the Wabac machine looks exactly like the time machine in Free Birds, down to the reversible hexagonal invisible shields.  Weird.)  Penny, who is much more adventurous than Sherman, taunts him into taking her inside and then going back in time to ancient Egypt.  There, Sherman loses her to King Tut, who wants to make her his bride.  He then has to go back in time, get Mr. Peabody, and go back to rescue her.  That second trip takes them through Egypt, the Renaissance, and the Trojan War.  Eventually, time-space continuum problems happen and both plots come to a crisis point with hundreds of historical figures stuck in modern-day New York.  The crisis will be averted and everything will end happy, but it is was a fairly joyful ride to that end.

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February 11, 2014
Family Film Blogging: The Lego Movie
Posted by Christine Hurt

Everything is Awesome!!

Yes, if you go see this movie, you will sing "Everything is Awesome!" pretty much for the rest of your life, but you'll be smiling the whole time.

Friday night we went to the opening night of The Lego Movie, which was showing on packed multiple screens.  When I told a colleague we were going, she seemed extremely skeptical that anyone could make a movie about LEGOs.  Perhaps she was thinking of the LEGO sets of our childhood, silly squares and rectangles in six colors,  She maybe has never been to a LEGO store and seen the $100 Millennium Falcons or multiple sets that make up Hogwarts, Hagrid's Hut and Hogsmeade.  Or LEGO City.  She probably doesn't have any minifigures or LEGO video games (Harry Potter, Batman, Indiana Jones, and of course Star Wars).  Oh, yes.  You can make a movie out of that.

The first-order premise of the movie is that Emmet, an ordinary construction guy (minifigure), stumbles upon "the piece of resistance," which attaches to him.  Emmet lives in a perfectly lovely LEGO City, where he tries to "follow the instructions" in all his daily actions.  His City is mostly run by Octan Corporation, which makes all the TV shows, the music, the history books, and the voting machines.  Hmmm.  According to "the prophecy," finding the piece of resistance makes Emmet "the Special," who will stop Lord Business (whose alter ego is President Business, CEO of Octan) from destroying their world.  WyldStyle (otherwise known as Lucy) whisks him away to other worlds that he was unaware existed, believing that his world (LEGO City) was the only world.  (BTW, none of the minifigures ever use the word "LEGO" -- why would they?).  She takes him to Vitruvius, the wise leader of an undergroud group of "Master Builders."  The Master Builders are endangered because Lord Business wants to stamp out those who can build anything with their imagination, not instructions.  WyldStyle, Vitruvius, and other Master Builders, including Batman, must try to help Emmet save the world from Lord Business and his super weapon, the "Kragle."  Only the piece of resistance can stop the Kragle.

Yes, it's part The Matrix and part Kung Fu Panda.  But it's awesome.  And yes, the song is dangerously addictive, just the kind of song that an evil overlord would require you to listen to all day long.  It was written by Mark Mothersbaugh, the co-founder of Devo (and also the writer of a lot of songs for kids' shows, like the Rugrats, and video games). 

But this isn't just an insanely cool movie about a world that is entirely LEGOs with a catchy song.  The movie has a pretty big twist.  Spoilers under the fold. . . .

Of course, if you've seen the movie, you know the movie is about much more than Emmet, the Kragle and the piece of resistance.  You know that President/Lord Business really represents parents who want their kids to follow the instructions on these $100 LEGO sets, keep all the pieces together, and Krazy Glue them to keep them intact.  I would say that I am that parent, except the Dad in the movie (Will Farrell) loves LEGOs.  He just wants them to stay perfect, unlike his imaginative son.  I want them to stay in the store, or in Rubbermaids, so they won't be on my floor.  I thought that the reveal at the end was brilliant.  My 12 year-old son actually said at the beginning of the movie, wouldn't it be great if at the end, you saw some kid playing with these guys?  I shushed him.

We will be seeing it again because my husband (who is much more like Will Farrell, lover of LEGO) was out of town.  We haven't told him the spoiler!

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January 23, 2014
(Really) Not-so Family Film Blogging: The Wolf of Wall Street
Posted by Christine Hurt

Last week, I went with a group of other law professors to see The Wolf of Wall Street, based on a book by Jordan Belfort.  I have to admit that I did not know anything about the movie before I went other than it was about Wall Street.  I was surprised to see at the end that it was based on a true story, which I think is reasonable given that the events depicted in the film are unbelievable. 

To say that Wolf is a movie about Wall Street is to say that The Sopranos was a series about the waste management business.  Wolf is a movie about a bunch of people knowingly running an illegal enterprise, with stock trading as its cover.  In fact, only a few minutes of the movie take place anywhere near Wall Street, but in a bucket shop in Long Island.  Now, this wasn't Madoff-type fraud; client money was invested in actual stocks by Belfort's company, Stratton Oakmont.  However, the firm was engaging in rampant stock manipulation, making outrageous sums of money.  (the 2000 movie Boiler Room was apparently inspired by the downfall of Stratton Oakmont.)  In the first few minutes, Belfort's character (played of course by Leonardo DiCaprio) says that he made $49 million when he was 26 years old.  (This actually makes no sense to me.  Belfort turned 26 in 1988, and we were told that his first day on the job as a stockbroker was Black Monday in October 1987, after which his firm closed and he was out of work for some time. Probably in 1988, he started stock trading on Long Island.  Though he made huge sums of money there ($75,000 one week), he probably did not make $49 million a year until he founded Stratton Oakmont, in the 1990s, but then he made much more.)

The main action of the movie seems to take place in the early 1990s, after the 1980s heyday of LBOs and Gordon Gekko, but before the technology boom would shift attention to Northern California.  According to Wikipedia, the investigations and indictments that appear in the last part of the movie took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Much of the movie is true, including the firm's criminal involvement in the Steve Madden Shoes IPO of 1993, which also sent Steve Madden to jail.  Even the most unbelievable moments of the movie are true, including the multiple near-pornographic depictions of office (hotel, plane, pool, etc.) orgies and massive drug and alcohol use.   (As has been chronicled everywhere, the movie fought to receive an "R" rating.  The fact that the King's Speech and Wolf are both rated R proves that the ratings are meaningless.)

Though director Martin Scorcese, DiCaprio and Belfort have said this movie is a cautionary tale, that characterization is laughable.  The downside to Belfort was minimal.  He is sent to two years in a minimum security prison, and he laughs this off by telling us that he was a rich man in a place where anything could be bought.  Scenes of him playing tennis on the grounds of prison buttress his point.  Upon leaving prison, he began life anew as a motivational speaker, and has retained much of his wealth.  At the end of Goodfellas, which the movie is intentionally much like, the main character is in the witness protection plan and obviously unhappy.  Belfort is not unhappy.  Even though he admits at one point in the film that he is a drug addict and a sex addict, these weaknesses are not shown as having much of a negative impact on his life.  (His first marriage ended because he fell in love with his second wife; his second marriage ended because he was going to jail.)  Belfort off-handedly "reminds" his best friend that he had become sober, but no painful rehab process is shown or even any triggering event.  Unlike Wall Street's Bud Fox, he doesn't seem like a kid who got caught up with the wrong people trying to make something of himself but who returns to good values after his tragic downfall.  Belfort's downfall is a little bump in the road that doesn't seem to have changed him at all.  The real-life Belfort is so untouched that he received $1 million for the movie rights to his book and even appears in the movie at the end.  The movie seems to celebrate Belfort's scoundrel-like personality rather than hold him up as a negative example.

I went to the movie thinking that it would be an entertaining piece of instruction for class.  If you have seen the film, you know that there is no way to show this in class.  There are some interesting issues -- how brokers could make high commissions selling penny stocks because of the spreads, how the spreads were smaller for blue-chips and even worse after decimilization, how a pump-and-dump scheme works, why cold-calling has nearly disappeared, etc. -- but mostly the movie is merely about the excess of a group of folks making money illegally who began to think that they can do anything because they are filthy rich.  If you were ever wondering whether there were people who would do anything for money, Wolf will prove it to you.  In fact, many of those people appear in the movie.

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January 07, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Saving Mr. Banks
Posted by Christine Hurt

Another movie that we took our 12 year-old to was Saving Mr. Banks.  Or, I should say he took us because he chose the movie.  This movie, about the adaptation of P.L. Travers' book into the screenplay for the movie Mary Poppins, is rated PG-13, mostly for some fairly serious themes relating to Travers' hardscrabble childhood in rural Australia.  But it's not in the same category as most other action-adventure PG-13 movies these days, such as The Hunger Games, etc.  Our guy was not fazed, but your mileage may vary.

That being said, it's not a movie aimed at kids.  The Disney moments are sprinkled here and there, but the real story is a fairly mature one --the real, heartbreaking story that lurks behind the book Mary Poppins, which is itself a step removed from the "spoonful of sugar" movie that Disney made.  The movie has many light moments, created by the humorous bristliness of Travers faced with the singing, dancing Disney machine.  As Walt and his crew try to win her over, her Britishness (which is actually Australian) provides for great dialogue and banter.  But the modern-day tug-of-war over the script is interspersed with scenes from Travers' youth, which includes a loving but troubled alcoholic father, a despairing mother, and an efficient, no-nonsense aunt who arrives too late to turn their fortunes around. 

The movie is very entertaining, particularly the 1960s scenes with Tom Hanks as Walt and Emma Thompson as Travers.  But in the end, you still don't know that much about Travers, particularly how quickly she hardened into such a bitter person that in her middle age, none of her family, including her adopted son, seemed to have anything to do with her.

One thing the movie did make us want to do was watch Mary Poppins again! 

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Family Film Blogging: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Posted by Christine Hurt

Our family did not travel much this winter break, so we saw a lot of movies.  Some of them without the children (American Hustle; Nebraska).  But, we saw a few with the kids, too.

The first movie to blog about was Walter Mitty, a movie that is rated PG.  In case you haven't been paying close attention, very few nonanimated movies are rated PG these days.  Frozen was PG.  In 2013, PG movies made up 5.8% of all movies released in the U.S.  Almost any movie with action is packed with enough action to make it PG-13 and attract a wider audience, like The Hobbit.  But Walter Mitty is PG, which makes it seem like it might be "fun for the entire family."  However, at least on Facebook, this is a debatable conclusion.

I saw Walter Mitty with my 12 year-old, who is an "old soul."  He liked it a lot, but I could tell that the ultimate point seemed to elude him.  This of course made for a nice discussion about big questions like the meaning of living life to its fullest; however, the movie will mean different things to different folks depending on your stage in life.  We did not take our six year-old, and he probably would have squirmed.  A lot.  It is not fast-moving.

Iwas not limited in my enjoyment of the movie by either having read the James Thurber short story or having seen the Danny Kaye movie.  However, I surmise that the 2013 movie differs from the stereotypical "Walter Mitty" character that merely daydreams adventures.  Ben Stiller's Mitty is a habitual daydreamer who (almost too easily) transitions into a true adventurer.  Walter's job at Life magazine, and the entire magazine it seems, is at stake unless he can find a missing negative (No. 25) taken by a famous Life photojournalist.  To do this, he embarks on an incredible journey across the globe.  Also unlike the stereotypical Mitty, the modern version has not always been content to observe the world from his basement desk at the Time-Life building.  We gradually learn that at 17, a mohawk-wielding, skateboarding Walter was on the verge of traveling the world when a family tragedy changed his plans.  The story is not so much one of a transformation of a shy, retiring dreamer into a man of action as one of a reigniting of lost dreams and passions.

Though we all enjoyed the movie, it is not without flaws.  At times it seems very long, and the parts that seem the most interesting are the shortest.  Much of his expedition is condensed and shown as a montage, while numerous scenes take place before and after that seem not terribly critical.  Many of these scenes involve his love interest, played by Kristen Wiig, the transition specialist whose job it is to fire most every Life employee after it is acquired, Mitty's family, and a phone rep at eHarmony.   Some of these scenes are interesting, with great acting, but they may not all be necessary. 

Reviewers haven't been that kind to Walter Mitty, but that's because it is not the kind of movie that makes adult comedies reviewable -- it isn't ironic, or self-aware, or clever, or witty, or laugh-out-loud funny.  It is nothing like Stiller's Tropic Thunder or Wiig's Bridesmaids.  It is straight-forward and earnest -- the kind of movie critics don't know what to do with anymore.  If it were animated, and Walter MItty were a daydreaming 16 year-old called out of his reverie to save the kingdom, then that would be familiar territory.  Probably the closest type of movie to Walter Mitty is Stiller's Night at the Museum franchise.

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December 05, 2013
Family Film Blogging: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Posted by Christine Hurt

Though we took the littler Stancil cousins to see Frozen, see below, I also accompanied five sixth-graders to see Hunger Games:  Catching Fire over the holiday week.  After it was over, the other mom looked at me and said, "Did you know it would be that tense?"  Unfortunately, yes.  There is a whole internet out there with commentary over whether the middle school set should see these movies or read these books.  Go over there and discuss.  We've already read the books and now 2 movies down.  But, your mileage may vary.

If you aren't on pins and needles worrying about other people's children hiding their faces next to you (like I was), then it's a really enjoyable movie.  I don't know what holds the line violence-wise between PG-13 and R, but the violence has to be pretty close to that line.  And even though it's not particularly bloody like a war movie or a horror movie, it is very tense.  You get the feeling that a lot of violence is happening right outside the camera or right after the camera cuts away.  And there's not a lot of guns in this dystopian future, mostly just painful instruments of death.

But enough about that.  Does it hew closely to the book?  I think so, though I read it two years ago.  And, at 2.5 hours, if things are cut out, then there's no way they could be left in.  I'm not sure if the final scenes in the arena are exactly the same, but they are very compelling.  If the screenplay doesn't match the book, then the screenplay is probably better. The relationship between Katniss and Peeta may be what, if anything, is truncated.  I seem to remember in the book that they slowly warmed back to one another and became each other's soulmates during their victors' tour.  That gradual dissolve happens fairly quickly.  But, most of the sixth grade boys there came to see the Games, not the love story. 

If you've not read the books, or read them a few moons ago, know that Katniss and Peeta are the Victors in the previous annual "Hunger Games," a sort of bloody take on Shirley Jackson's The Lottery.  Two teenagers from each of 12 Districts of PanEm (a sort of future U.S. post revolutionary attempt) go into the arena and only one comes out alive.  The central point of the first book/movie is that Katniss tricks the Games Master into letting her and Peeta both live by staging a Romeo and Juliet-like suicide pact on live TV.  The Games Master is now dead, and Katniss has a sword dangling over her head by President Snow. He knows it was an act, but she (who is in love with Gale) and Peeta (who is in love with her) will have to pretend to be madly in love for the rest of their lives.  However, Katniss' obvious disdain for the Games has inspired some of the Districts to protest and fight back against the totalitarian Capitol, making Katniss' death more appealing to Snow.  So, he announces that the next Hunger Games will feature 24 previous Victors, making Katniss' death very likely.  As you might imagine, the Victors, who have been able to live in relative comfort (though with severe PTSD) are not happy about this.

This middle book/movie is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy -- there is a lot of action that needs to be squeezed into here, so it is the most fun and most gripping.  Much has been written on the web about Katniss' and Peeta's relationship, including this piece that describes Katniss as the usual emotionally unavailable superhero (like Tony Stark/Ironman) and Peeta as the long-suffering girlfriend (like Pepper Potts).  That's awesome, but what I thought was interesting is that Katniss' first sacrifice (volunteering to die in place of her sister at the Reaping) is seen as less of a sacrifice as her second one (having to marry her best friend instead of her childhood sweetheart to save her family and Peeta's family).  Death is preferable to life without romantic love is a fairly modern, Western ideal I would think.  But that tension is only the major one for a brief moment, because it is eclipsed by the new Games, which promises to kill either Peeta or Katniss or both.  And, to her credit, Katniss vows to ensure that Peeta survives at all costs.

As others have pointed out, though this series features a strong female character, Katniss, the overarching question is "Who will be my boyfriend?"  Katniss is definitely a step up from Twilight's Bella, who was so passive and pasty on the sidelines while her two loves battled each other and then bad vampires.  But though Katniss is battling for her life and maybe the future of the citizens Panem, her old beau Gale is making her feel bad for kissing Peeta to survive?  (And not for killing human beings to survive?)  I guess this is Young Adult fiction, but maybe it could strive to be a little more.

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December 04, 2013
Family Film Blogging: Frozen
Posted by Christine Hurt

Like many people this holiday weekend, I went to the movies.  Twice.  One of those times was on Friday, with 5 kids aged 5-12, to see Frozen.  Like pretty much everyone else who has seen it, we all loved it.  Perhaps all the Disney wonder in the world that skipped over the horrible Planes movie landed on Frozen.  It's Tangled, with a bit of Brave, and a whole lot of Wicked

Anna and Elsa are sisters and daughters of the King of Arendelle, but Elsa has secret powers that enable (or require) her to shoot ice and snow out of her hands.  This makes for all kinds of childhood merriment, until Anna is injured and Elsa ordered to not only refrain from ice-making but also avoid contact with her doting little sister.  Anna finds that she can't control her powers and so retreats more and more from daily life at the bidding of her parents.  Because this is Disney, King and Queen are killed when their ship is caught in a storm, leading the sisters to grieve separately, in the same castle.  Over time, Elsa must ascend the throne, opening the palace gates for one day for the coronation.  Elsa barely makes it through the coronation without an icy slip, but loses control when Anna giddily announces she is engaged to a prince she just met at the coronation ball.  Cold, snow and ice descend on the kingdom as Anna flees to the mountains to live in icy isolation.  Anna goes after her sister, with a cute ice-cutter and his reindeer as her guide.

So, you may have seen the trailer with the re-arrangeable snowman, Olaf, and the reindeer, Sven.  The movie isn't about that at all.  If it were, it would be Free Birds.  No, Olaf is the comic relief, but he has an appropriately small-ish role, like the crab in the Little Mermaid or Mu-Shu in Mulan

Another thing, it's a musical.  I full-throated musical.  So much so that when Elsa is building her mountain ice castle and belting out "Let it Go," I realized that the plot was Wicked, and Elsa is Elphaba.  A little Googling told me that I'm not the first person to think that or even to plan that.  The voice of Elsa is Idina Menzel, who originated the role of Elphaba on Broadway, and the song was written especially for her.  (The single was recorded by Disney cast member Demi Lovato, but we downloaded the Menzel version.)  The song is very much "Defying Gravity" -- embracing what you've been hiding, turning a negative into a positive, eschewing the madding crowd, etc.  It's an awesome song.  I also dare you not to cry during "Do You Want to Build a Snowman," an anthem for all little sisters everywhere.

But the best thing about the movie is the story.  The story of the sister's quest may not be entirely original (very much like Merida's journey in Brave, with a similar ending, and even more like Rapunzel's in Tangled), but it is still very appealing.  And of course, no serious Disney love story in the post-Shrek world will have a heroine rescued by a hero, right?  We know that.  So, either a heroine will rescue a hero or the true love at question will be a different love, like daughter-mother.  You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to suspect that this movie will have a true love twist, but it didn't seem predictable.  And in case you are with a five year-old girl who cries at a particular moment (like I was), remember that Disney dead is only mostly dead.

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October 07, 2013
Family Film Blogging: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2
Posted by Christine Hurt

Better than Planes. . . .

OK, that's not much of a review, but it says it all.  Last Friday, the boys (11 and 6) and I raced from school to make the 4:35 (read:  cheap matinee) of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2.  Though the younger one wailed for 3D, I did not give in.  That may not have been a great idea because the best part of the movie is the artistry.

The plot is a little forced, and the writers oh-so-cleverly get around this.  At the end of the first movie, nutty but loveable inventor Flint Lockwood, with the help of his costars, I mean friends, destroyed his water-into-food invention, which had malfunctioned to produce giant food that falls violently from the sky. The second movie picks up moments later when before unmentioned childhood science hero of Flint, Chester V, appears offering to clean up the giant food-strewn island and temporarily relocate its inhabitants, including Flint, his dad, his friend/girlfriend Sam, bully-turned-friend and police bully-turned-friend.   Six months later, we find that the invention has not only still been working, but it reprogrammed itself to produce living food-animals out of water, which have populated the island.  How?  Who knows?  This worry is whisked away as Flint admits to Sam that he has no idea how the machine reprogrammed itself, so they shouldn't waste time pondering it.  And so, disbelief is suspended.

So, there's the set up, so what's the plot?  The plot is that Chester V, who wears a sporty orange vest, offers Flint a job at Live Corp (hmm, evil spelled backwards), which seems eerily like Google, replete with soy lattes, caffeine patches and volleyball courts.  Flint's dream is to be a "thinkquanot" (I have no idea how to spell this and can't find it online), which seems to be an "imagineer"-type appellation given to the best inventors at Live Corp.  When he fails in his first attempt, Chester V, who has a secret plan, asks him to go back to the island and help him to shut off the machine.  A desperate Flint jumps at the second chance at thinkquanot greatness, grabs his posse and heads back to Swallow Falls island.  The band encounters the foodimals, who Chester V tells them are ferocious and dangerous, but which of course are not.

Even with the waving away of the machine's reprogramming itself, several plot holes still remain:  if Chester V knows the animals aren't ferocious and can easily capture them for his secret plan, then why does he need an "expendable" party to go find the machine?  And if Flint finds the machine easily in basically the volcano in the middle of the island, why couldn't smarty-pants Chester V figure that out?  Well, because the movie is about the friends trekking across the colorful island finding all the amazing evolutionary innovations the foodimal machine made -- the tacodile, the cheesespider, the hippo-potato-mus, etc.  The foodimal jungle is pretty extraordinary, and makes up for a pretty thin plot.

Overall, the 11 year-old thought it was better than Planes, and the 6 year-old, who liked Planes, thought it was great.  He's not much of a plot critic.  But he's also holding out for Frozen and Free Birds.

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August 26, 2013
Family Film Blogging Summer Wrap-Up: Turbo and Planes
Posted by Christine Hurt

Today is the first day of classes at Illinois, and the second week of school for the kids.  So, I have a few minutes to sum up the last two summer movies that we saw in August:  Turbo and Planes.  To call them blockbusters would be an unethical understatement.  But, the review won't take that long to write because they are the same movie.  A snail/cropduster has dreams of racing with racecars/stunt planes, gets an amazing opportunity to do so even though his brother/friends warn against it, meets snotty racers who try to sabotage him, meets characters of Mexican heritage and accents, and ultimately wins.  Yay!

I am not the only one underwhelmed by Planes, and its name unfortunately writes bad review headlines like "Planes: Crash Landing."  Our hopes were high for Planes because it is after all, a Disney/Pixar movie.  That being said, it is a spin-off of the Cars franchise, which is one of the least-liked Pixar movies.  But, it has to be one of the most lucrative in terms of TOYS.  Besides Toy Story toys, we definitely have more Cars toys than any other Pixar franchise.  Planes seems like less of a major motion picture than a vehicle for creating more Cars toys to sell.  And of course, if you've been to Disneyland recently, Cars Land is one of the greatest wonders of the amusement park world.

That being said, the Cars/Planes story lines don't overlap.  Lightning McQueen and Mater are not here.  But, some very minor characters reappear (Brent Mustangberger, e.g.), and the "extras" are the same.  The Planes world is the same as Cars world; it is a post-human world in which motor vehicles populate the earth.  (have you seen this intriguing yet forced explanation of how all the Pixar movies fit together into a timeline between Brave and the post-human world of Cars?)  The shots of the stands at the final race are the same as the shots of the stands at the Piston Cup, just with planes every few seats.  (I would love to talk to the artists about the challenges of putting planes and cars in the same-size seats, roads, etc.)  The world is very pretty, just like the motion picture version of Cars Land.  But there's not much of a story here, and the characters are fairly forgettable.  (I had to look up the names to be able to write the review.)  Dusty is our cropduster hero, who is voiced by Dane Cook, whom I have never heard of before.  At least Cars had distinctive, recognizable voices.  There is no Paul Newman here, or even Larry the Cable Guy.  Dusty wants to be an air racer, but he is afraid of heights.  This could be a recurring motif, but it is stated once at the beginning and comes up again at the end, and is resolved in an unbelievable quick scene.  There is also a ham-handed ad for American Airlines inside the movie.  Leaving, my eleven year-old said, "That is the worst movie I've seen."  And let me tell you, he's seen a lot of bad kids' movies!

Turbo, or the "snail movie," was also a dismal afternoon for me, but the kids liked it better than Planes.  The first part is pretty cute, with Theo and his brother Chet living with other snails in a tomato garden in suburbia.  Like most heros, Theo dreams of another life in which he is a racer.  When he accidentally gets doused with nitrous oxide, he has a genetic-level trasnformation and becomes superfast.  He winds up in a different part of L.A. in a run-down strip mall with his brother at a back-door snail race, which of course he wins.  Then, his new owner, who is half of the Dos Bros Taco restaurant, decides to enter Theo, now Turbo, in the Indy 500.  I won't give you the ending, but I bet you can figure it out.  For whatever reason, the boys liked it -- maybe because it was funnier, and the voices were more distinctive.  So, in this case, Dreamworks with the win!

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June 25, 2013
Family Film Blogging: Monsters University
Posted by Christine Hurt

Mu2This weekend, I took four boys aged 5,6,9 and 11 to see Monsters University, along with most of the rest of the town.  (The obviously fictional institution has its own webpage here.)  The next showing was sold out, so he had to wair for the next one.  It was worth the wait.  Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which has re-energized sales of Monsters, Inc. merchandise.

MU is a prequel, which seems to be a risky endeavor.  Writing what comes next seems a little more open than writing what came before.  (Think episodes I, II, and III of Star Wars, and how many disconnects there are between them and IV, V and VI.)  Now, the elementary age set is probably not going to get too picky about oversights the way that the SW fans do, but it's still a tricky thing to get from the opening of the prequel to the end, which the audience already knows.

So, when MU opens, Mike Wazowksi is the focus of the story.  Monsters, Inc. was really about Sulley, and sort of about Mike, but here the narrative goes the other way.  From almost the beginning, Mike and Randall are roommates and "lifelong friends," and Jim Sullivan (Sulley) is Mike's worst enemy.  Randall is helpful and earnest, and Sulley is arrogant and insensitive.  So, the movie has to take our characters to what we know:  Randall is evil, and Sulley is warm-hearted and selfless.  The smaller journey is for Mike to go from being a Type A know-it-all to a team player.

Mike, as you know, is a cute, one-eyed green monster, who is very small.  He would make a good plush pillow, but he's not scary.  This is Mike's obstacle to being a "scare major" at Monsters University.  He has effort and book knowledge, but just no scariness.  Sulely, on the other hand, is a legacy admit at MU who has raw scaring ability, but he doesn't apply himself or learn any of the strategy of scaring.  They each find themselves thrown out of the scare program and can only be readmitted if they win a Greek Life team scare competition.  To enter, they join the lamest fraternity ever and try to whip the Oozma Kappas into scaring shape.  (Yes, a little like Revenge of the Nerds.)  The scenes at the OK house are undeniably the funniest in the film.  I won't spoil the ending, but it didn't end like I thought it would.  But, all in all, I think the montage chronicling the years in between the end of MU and the beginning of MI tell us more about Sulley's metamorphosis from entitled brat to best pal than any action or dialogue could have.

The big "Star Wars"-type disconnect that I can point out lies with Mike.  In MU, Sully tells Mike that he is the bravest monster he's ever known.  And Mike is.  As a child, he sneaks through an open door at Monsters, Inc. into a child's bedroom.  Later in the movie, he sneaks through another open door into a bunk bed filled camp cabin.  At no time does he seem afraid of human children, even though he's been told they are toxic.  So, why is he so afraid of Boo in MI?  And, as a monster who broke so many rules in MU, why is he so risk-averse about his job and the scare-record competition in MI?  Perhaps age hardened Mike from the dreamer of MU to the wage slave of MI.  But, one of the problems with prequels is that you could have written that action into the original.  Sully could have pleaded with Mike to help him with Boo by reminding him of the brave monster of action he used to be.

But quibbles aside, MU is a great movie.  The university setting is a great environment for all kinds of jokes, gags, funny personalities and events.  There are many recognizable cameos from MI.  My son and I want to go back and compare the two movies to see how many background monsters are repeated between the MU student body and the MI workforce.  And, it's not as scary as the original.  The opening scene of MI had our firstborn running out of the theater, never too return.  There is no similar scene. 

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June 18, 2013
The NYT, Zach Braff, and the Ethics of Kickstarter-ing
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, criticizing The Ethicist column in the New York Times is about as new as complaining about the weather.  When the previous Ethicist, Randy Cohen, quit in 2011, I listed some of his columns that angered me the most.  I don't believe the replacement, Chuck Klosterman, is an improvement, but the columns are definitely less definitive (it's easier to be less wrong when you are less clear).  Last week's column, in which Klosterman said it was ethical for a college student to write one paper for two classes, most recently rankled the audience.  The problem is that the NYT has a column called "The Ethicist," ethicists exist, but the NYT doesn't hire any of them for the column.  It's as if there were a column called "The Economist" or "The Cardiologist," but the person writing answers to questions was neither of those things.

But enough about that.  Assuming that the letters are written by actual folks, a letter appeared last month asking whether Zach Braff, who has more money than most people, was unethical by posting a film project on Kickstarter and asking for donations to fund it.  Here is the Kickstarter page for "Wish I Was Here."  The Ethicist's wishy-washy answer is that Braff doesn't lie in his "ask," so he's not unethical, but he might be unethical if he were merely using the Kickstarter page as free advertising, because the page may have led to big-studio follow-on financing in addition to the $3M in donations.

So, a few things the Ethicist doesn't seem to observe.  One, even if Braff is using Kickstarter for something other than raising desperately-needed funds, he may have been using it for information-gathering, not advertising.  The fact that so many folks donated money signals to him, the maker of the movie, and to studios, that there is an audience out there that loves Zach Braff and desperately wants a follow-up to Garden State (not my favorite movie, but apparently popular to many).  Conducting an online poll is not nearly as accurate as a poll where web-clickers click with their credit cards.  As Braff states, the rabid response to a similar Kickstarter project to make a Veronica Mars movie proved that there is a huge cult following who want to pay $9 to see a Veronica Mars movie.  Yes, it's push-advertising, but it's really more valuable information-revealing.

Second, as Mel Brooks so fabulously writes in his play The Producers, "Never Put Your Own Money in the Show."  

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