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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June 14, 2013
Family Film Blogging: 42
Posted by Christine Hurt

O.K., so if you're looking for a review of 42 that lists all of the historical inaccuracies, this ain't it.  (Try here and here.)  Also, if you're thinking I'm going to talk about how the movie sidesteps still thorny issues of racism, I'm not going to do that, either.  I go to the movies.  I go to baseball games.  I go to baseball movies.  I saw this movie with my 11 year-old baseball player.  42 is an awesome baseball movie.

As you probably know, 42 chronicles the two years leading up to and including the 1947 season that Jackie Robinson played with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which would mark the beginning of the integration of major league baseball.  Robinson is played by Chadwick Boseman, in what seems to be his largest role yet.  Dodgers owner Branch Rickey is played by Harrison Ford, in a smaller role than usual.  They are both very good in their roles, with the screenplay giving Ford the job of articulating the moral heart of the story.  At one point, you feel bad for Pee Wee Reese, who comes to Rickey to express his reluctance to play in a game against Cincinnati, close to his Kentucky hometown, because he received a nasty letter about Reese's playing on a team with Robinson.  Then, Rickey goes to a file cabinet and shoves piles of death threats that Robinson has received in front of Reese and shuts him up.  Rickey is also the Jiminy Cricket for Robinson, warning him of what he has to face and then giving him the pep talk when he faces it. 

Lots of commentators have mentioned how the movie makes the racism of the day palatable (the racists are shown up in some way, the milder reluctant baseball players are brought around), but to a fifth grader in 2013, the racism is shocking, particularly Phillies' manager Ben Chapman's nonstop racist trash talk.  That scene is hard to watch, though I know those words and insults were not rare then and not extinct now.  Perhaps that isolated scene and the few milder ones dn't do the situation justice, but I think they get the message across.

Historical sports movies are hard (Miracle, 61* ) because most of the audience is going to know how the movie ends.  So, the trick is to create some sort of suspense beyond the outcome of a single event.  In 42, the second half of the movie is broadly about the pennant and the World Series, but the tension is in the "game within the game."  The movie plays a lot of small ball with the audience -- Will Jackie steal this base, get this hit, throw off this pitcher, or be thrown off by hecklers?  I have to say that I was along for the ride.  I literally cheered at stolen bases and at hits; I groaned and covered my eyes at strikes and pop flies.

Naysayers will say don't watch it because of the historical inaccuracies or liberties taken.  Sure, a pitcher is shown as right-handed, not left-handed.  The Dodgers' announcer is shown traveling to away games, but he did not until much later.  The movie doesn't mention that Robinson tried out for the Red Sox years earlier, or that other African-Americans followed Robinson very quickly into the major leagues.  These problems do not hinder the movie.  Some conversations and actions are necessarily fictionalized or at least merely educated guesses.  Until the season was over, the world was not recording it as a season that would make history.  The kicker for me is that it is a great baseball movie about a great even in baseball history, one that has many lessons to teach today.  And the fact that my son really loved it.

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Family Film Blogging: Epic
Posted by Christine Hurt

We took some time off from unpacking here in Champaign to go see Epic yesterday afternoon.  (The "we" here is me and three kids, aged 13 to 5).  I enjoyed it; the five year-old didn't freak out or get scared; the 13 year-old said it was "lame."  (But, the 13 year-old describes pretty much everything as "lame.")

The movie is very pretty visually.  We did not see it in 3-D, though I believe that was an option before the Memorial Day 3-D offerings crowded it out at our theater.  The movie is very Tinkerbell meets Avatar.  The heroine, Mary Katherine, who wants to be known as "M.K.," is the human sized daughter of a scientist who has thrown away his marriage and career in his pursuit of proving the existence of a civilization of tiny forest people.  This civilization, of course, exists, and it is M.K. the unbeliever who is shrunk and spirited into its midst.  She falls in like with her rebellious teenage counterpart in this world, who accepts learning that she is a "Stomper" much better than Neytiri did when she learned Jake was a human in Avatar.  But the story is broader than just M.K. and Nod -- they must keep a flower bud alive until it opens under the full moon or the civilization will be destroyed by a rival group of tiny beings (not humans, the usual civilization-destroying subjects) that prefer decay and rot to chlorophyll and nectar.  (Imagine the Death-Eaters, only miniature.)  The flower will choose a successor to the Queen, who passes away quite elegantly (and predictably) in the first part of the movie.

The movie has several bright spots, including the comic relief snails (one of them is from Parks & Recreation).  Nod's mentor, voiced by Colin Farrell, is another.  I also was glad that the plot wasn't humans v. nature, but just nature v. nature.  And the humans help!  (Oops, I just gave that away.)

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May 14, 2013
Family Film Blogging: Iron Man 3
Posted by Christine Hurt

Yes, Iron Man 3 has been out 10 days or so, but I couldn't blog about it until now because I had to see it twice.  All five of us went on opening weekend, but our little guy (5 1/2) only lasted about an hour, so he and I spent some quality time in the parking lot.  Thankfully the 11 year-old went with me yesterday so I could see the last half.  Now, our youngest has seen Captain America, Thor and The Avengers, but the Iron Man movies are grittier.  As even Rhodey says during the movie, this isn't superhero stuff.  The bad guys appear as terrorists.  Gritty, nasty terrorists.  More CNN than Saturday morning cartoons.  But the thing that put poor Will over the edge was that Tony Stark has PTSD.  Seeing Tony have several anxiety attacks was the last straw.  And the humor is much more subtle in Iron Man than in The Avengers, so to the kindergarten set, there is no comic relief.  Lesson learned.

But, the rest of us very much enjoyed it.  Tony spends a lot of time out of the armor, which is really what we all want to see anyway -- Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark at his genius best.  The plot (not to give too much away) involves a series of "bombings" in the U.S. and a terrorist who appears on television taking credit for the bombings and threatening the President.  The President does not call in Iron Man, but calls in Colonel Rhodes as Iron Patriot (a refurbished War Machine) to go find "the Mandarin."  Tony gets involved when his friend Happy Hogan is seriously injured in one of the explosions and vows to find the Mandarin.  But, his quest is sometimes halted by his anxiety attacks.

So, why does Tony have anxiety attacks?  He says he has had them "since New York."  Unfortunately, none of the Avengers appear in the actual movie, but the events of that movie are mentioned many times.  Since Tony fought Loki's army from another world and went up "the worm hole," he is not the same.  He can't sleep, and he's worried that he will lose the one thing he cares about -- Pepper Potts.  (No, he doesn't go over to the dark side like Anakin/Darth Vader, if that's what you're afraid of.)  So, he's created 42 Iron Man suits in his newly found free time in the middle of the night.

The producers of these blockbuster Marvel hero movies have a problem now.  Now that the four Avengers have met and joined forces in New York (Iron Man, Captain A, Thor and Hulk), how do you keep them out of the individual sequels you have planned?  To me, that seems like the elephant in the room during Iron Man 3.  Why doesn't Tony call his (super) friends?  Where is Nick Fury while the President is being threatened?  At one point, Tony admits he needs backup, but he means his Iron Man army, not his Avenger friends.  There is some discussion that maybe the public isn't ready for the Avengers again, that this is more military-related than alien-related, but these excuses seem rather slim.  The real reason is that this isn't The Avengers 2.  In this movie, the heroes are Tony, Rhodey and Pepper.

The ending seems to hint that there will be an Iron Man 4 (and who doesn't want it?).  There are some details left to the imagination as to how Iron Man 4 will begin.  But until then, we have Thor 2 to look forward to!

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April 24, 2013
Family Film Blogging: Oz the Great and Powerful
Posted by Christine Hurt

My family and I are a little late to see Oz the Great and Powerful.  We had seen the 4D Sneak Preview at Disneyland California Great Adventure in March, which really made us want to go see it.  And, so far, Oz is the greatest grossing film of 2013.  But, after watching it yesterday, I would say our feelings were mixed.

The movie walks a fine line between the book by Frank Baum and the 1939 movie, intending to be a logical prequel to that film, explaining how Oscar Diggs from Kansas becomes the Wizard of Oz.  (This is an almost impossible task given that the 1939 film was presented as Dorothy's dream and that the Wizard in the dream was really just a snake oil salesman in 1939, but we'll go with it.  Several characters in 1905 Kansas wind up in Oz as well, though it's not presented as a dream.)  Several online have speculated that Oscar's gingham-wearing sweetheart Annie, who is giving him up to marry John Gale, is meant to be the mother of Dorothy (Gale), who somehow ends up orphaned and living with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.  For us, the first half of the movie was sort of boring.  After the 15 minutes in black-and-white, the next half hour or so is an amazing visual spectacle.  Oz is not showing in 3D here anymore, ceding theater space to Jurassic Park 3D, I guess.  But the first half is obviously meant to be an exhibition of 3D majesty.  However, the first half does not have a compelling plot.  Also, the acting is pretty bad.  Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch of the West is just awful, and Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch of the South (not North, as in the book/movie for some reason) appears with the same noblesse oblige as the most popular girl in class being asked to be in the school play because they need the prettiest princess. 

The second half picks up a little and has a few tricks and turns that were harder to spot than the thinly veiled secrets of the first half. 

My biggest unease about the film hit me in November when I saw the trailer.  I turned to my friend and said, "Why would witches need a wizard to come and save them and their people?"  And my uneasiness grew once Glinda acknowledges that Oz is a con man but says that he might still be the man they had been waiting for.  What?  You are a witch with magical powers, but you need a carnival magician to rouse your people to fight another witch?  What kind of craziness is that?  And it gets even worse -- a neutral witch is turned into a revenge-seeking green Wicked Witch (you know who I'm talking about now) because she wants Oz to marry her but realizes that he was toying with her affections.  Huh.  I was listening to an NPR story on the L. Frank Baum books, and one of the threads was that Dorothy was a feminist character.  She bravely leads these male misfits on a successful journey and defeats a witch.  But this movie is decidedly not feminist.  Glinda is not a coward, and deals the final blow (by accident), but she's not a proactive protagonist.  She is a protector, and she does see through Oz's blustery, but in the end she is the girl the hero gets, not a heroine.

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March 26, 2013
Family Film Blogging: The Croods
Posted by Christine Hurt

I will admit that when I saw the ad blitz for The Croods, I was not buying it.  It looked fairly dumb to me, and I see a lot of children's movies.  But, my family assured me that the movie had gotten good reviews (Here is one -- I had to hunt for it), so off we went.  And, the experience was enjoyable for all.

The plot is very 2012 -- headstrong teenage girl believes that her well-meaning dad is too restrictive and keeping her from developing as a person.  Enter boy, who is very different and challenges Dad's authority.  Dad eventually realizes that the boy has useful insights and makes girl happy.  This is exactly the plot of Hotel Transylvania and a variation of the Ice Age 4 and Brave plots.  Oh well, nothing new under the sun.

Except that here our story is set in the "caveman era."  I'm not an anthropologist, but from the reviews I'm gleaning that the Croods are neanderthals.  They are on the verge of extinction having outlived all other neanderthals around them.  Then the daughter, Eep, disobeys her parents and leaves the cave where they hide most of the time and finds "Guy."  He is distinctly different from them (taller, more upright, pretty facial features) and has more language skills.  He also has fire.  Guy may, in fact, be a homo sapien.  He is definitely a notch above the Croods on the evolutionary scale, at least in a lay sense.  And of course, he scares the patriarch, Grug, because he is different.  Now, enter natural disasters.  It seems that the land all around them is separating, causing huge earthquakes, canyons, rockfalls and lava out of the blue.  Guy has a plan, and so Grug needs him if he is going to save his family.  (Yes, this "splitting of the earth into continents" plot device was used in Ice Age 4.  It works better here.)

We did not see the movie in 3-D, but it was visually stunning none the less.  The Croods begin their journey from their cave home, which is in a canyon desert climate, but they move on to places that look like rainforests and then tropical islands.  I suspect that great care was used to make the movie nonthreatening to those who prefer not to think about evolution.  The animals and plants in the movie are completely unfamiliar.  So, you could see the movie as depicting animals that evolution left behind, swallowed up, or you could see the movie as a fantasy with make-believe animals and plants.

What is clever about the movie is also an old conceit -- the fish out of water.  How do the Croods react to fire?  shoes?  lakes swimming?  How can they communicate with Guy, who has some pretty basic figures of speech, when the Croods have an Amelia Bedelia-like literalism?  All in all, a fun night with the family.

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February 24, 2013
Oscar Night!
Posted by Christine Hurt

It is Oscar Night, and I am a little sad and sheepish that we don't have television in our Utah rental.  So, I'll have to find a livestream somewhere or catch up tomorrow with clips.  But, I'm still interested in the outcomes. 

Best Picture -- I've seen 4 out of the 9 nominees, which is about par for the course.  I don't like violent movies, so that left out Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained.  I would have liked to have seen Les Miserables, but just haven't gotten a chance yet.  But, I did see Argo (review here); Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook; and Life of Pi.  I have to say that Pi is not on my list of favorites of 2013.  I was pretty impressed by the special effects (I believed that there was a real tiger in the movie, if not in the boat), but there's only so much boy in his boat one can watch.  Some things do make better books than movies.  I really liked the other three.  It seems to be a race between Argo and Lincoln.  I would hate to bet against Abraham Lincoln.

Best Female Actor -- I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty, so I can't speak to the Jessica Chastain nomination.  I liked her in The Help.  I thought Jennifer Lawrence was good in Silver LInings Playbook, but she seems to say bizarre things unscripted (see, e.g., Golden Globes speech and Ellen appearance, which I saw while convalescing and went "what?").  I will admit that I did not go see Impossible because I couldn't deal with the thought of watching a movie about a family of five split apart by tsunami while on vacation.  I'm a wimp.  So, Naomi Watts was probably brilliant, but I missed it.

Best Male Actor -- I really liked Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook.  But it sure seems like Daniel Day-Lewis became Abraham Lincoln.  And betting against someone playing Lincoln seems as foolhardy as betting against someone playing Queen Elizabeth (I or II).  

Best Animated Feature -- Here, of course, I am in my element.  But, we did not see either Frankenweenie or Paranorman because the previews scared the youngest one out of his wits.  Now, I have to wait with him outside the theater until the previews are over, just in case a scary preview will precede our chosen film.  So, I think it comes down between Brave (review here) and Wreck-it Ralph.  We loved them both.  I think I'll follow Jack Black's advice, from the speech he gave as a presenter at an awards show a few years ago: "Each year I do one Dreamworks project, then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar."  Brave is Disney/Pixar; Wreck-it Ralph is just Disney (although John Lasseter executive produced it). 

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