No one can argue that the folks at Disney aren't brilliant. Starting about a year ago, Disney began re-releasing "classic" (i.e., 10-20 year old) animated films in 3D, making new millions from an asset that had already peaked. We have done our part and have hit all of them. This month, Disney released Finding Nemo 3D, hoping to entice kids/teens who loved it 10 years ago and also new kids that may only know it from video.
However, Finding Nemo is one of those Disney movies that parents love as much or more than kids. The central character is really not Nemo, but his dad, Marlin. Marlin goes on a journey of self-discovery during his literal journey from his comfortable reef "across the ocean" to Sidney, Australia to find his son. Nemo is more or less the same at the end, though he has renewed respect for his dad (but mostly because his dad overcame his fears and embarked on this ocean journey). so, most parents I know love the movie because it's aimed at us -- child gets in danger, parent must rescue, at the same time learning how to let go. My all-time favorite quote from the movie:
Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise.
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.
The big question with these retro-fitted 3D movies is whether the 3D adds anything. That's really hard to say. Finding Nemo was already a visually beautiful movie. So, I'm not sure if side by side the versions would be that different. As an added attraction, a new Toy Story "short," Partysaurus Rex, played at the beginning of the movie. Once this was known, my youngest decided to overcome his shark fear in order to see the Toy Story short, which was cunningly designed to have as little dialogue from the high-dollar actors (Woody and Buzz) as possible.
This movie is pretty meaningful for me because we took our two oldest (then 4 and 1.5) to see the movie the night before we moved from Houston to Milwaukee in 2003. We were heading on our own journey off our reef into the great wide ocean. So I enjoyed going back to see the movie with our three kids, from 13, 10 and 5. (We also saw two 15 year-olds we knew there on a "date.") So, that may be my definition of a great movie -- one that all 5 of us really enjoy and can watch together.
Back in 1969, my parents decided to brave the movies with a sleeping infant. They chose "Midnight Cowboy" because it looked to be a good western. It, of course, was not, and was the first "X" rated movie that I ever went to, though I slept through it. The next day, it was pulled from the Lubbock movie theater. If only the same had been true of Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, then I would not have had to sit through it on its second day in the theaters. However, Midnight Cowboy became the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Oogieloves may break different kinds of records. In case you haven't heard, Oogieloves, which cost $20 million to make, earned less than $500,000 its first weekend. A holiday weekend. Here is a good play-by-play review.
So, why was I there? Because my four year-old made me. For some reason, the trailer spoke to him. So we went. When we bought the tickets, I asked the guy behind the counter if anyone else had bought tickets for this movie yet. He said "no." This was a Saturday. Of a holiday weekend. There were five people total in the theater. The other parent there looked incredibly embarassed to be there. I decided to embrace it.
But even I, with my great attitude and carpe diem personality, couldn't make lemonade out of this movie. If I tried to explain the plot, you wouldn't believe me. Three "oogieloves" live together and have a band. They look like a combination of Doodlebops and Teletubbies, except without the aesthetically pleasing design. They are oogly. And they live with a vacuum (yes, a vacuum), a fish and a pillow (yes, a pillow). Oh, and a talking magic window. Children's cinema is rarely peopled with talking vacuums and pillows. Dogs, yes; vacuums, no. Oh, and the vacuum is hilariously named "J. Edgar." That is wrong on so many levels. But, the pillow, which of course has no arms or legs and is immobile, is having a birthday. The vacuum, which also has no arms, went to get magic balloons for the birthday, but let go of them with his nonexistent hands. The oogieloves have to go get all five of them. Of course, the strangest characters have ended up with the balloons and we get to meet them: a woman who loves polka dots and lives in a teapot treehouse; a guy who talks like a gangster out of the Sopranos who runs a milkshake restaurant; a singing sensation who loves roses but is allergic; a bow-legged bouncing cowboy who loves bubbles; and a Spanish dancing couple who live in a sombrero by a windmill. If a group of English majors on drugs got together late at night, they couldn't come up with this.
While I was watching the movie, I was reminded of the movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I suppose at one point was meant to highlight the amazing Beatles album, but ended up being a movie only eleven year-olds can watch. In case you missed it, the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton left their idyllic small town to make their rock-n-roll fortune, fell prey to the temptations of the big city, and had to redeem themselves by relocating the four magical musical instruments stolen from their hometown. At least there were only four. Not five. And the movie started with songs from one of the most successful albums, sung by the most successful recording artists at the time. And it was awful. (But I watched it about two hundred times on HBO when I was eleven.) Oogieloves starts out with three unknown life-size puffy things lip syncing to songs you should never have to hear, then it goes downhill.
Of course, the ultimate question is whether my preschooler liked it. Unfortunately, I leaned over about four times and said, "I hope you love this movie, because I can't believe we are watching it." So, of course he said he loved it. We did get three free glow sticks (I bet they have plenty extra). I'm waiting to see if he ever asks for the DVD. That's the kicker.
I also forced my 13 year-old to accompany us. She didn't run the risk of any of her friends seeing her there, so she wasn't too upset. As the credits rolled, I turned to her and said, "You know the bouncing cowboy guy? That's Westley, from Princess Bride." She got this strange look on her face and said, "That's kind of sad." Yes, it is.
So, from a business standpoint, who thought this was a good idea? If you want to appeal to the preschooler set, you could at least get some brand-name silliness, like the Doodlebops or the Wiggles or the Fresh Beat Band, which are very popular. Why try to create your own brand out of nothing, particularly one that seems so low-rent? And surely as they were wrapping up the movie, someone could tell it was going to flop. Why not direct to video? Enquiring minds want to know!
I am getting ready to teach MGM v. Scheider next week in Contracts. The case (347 N.Y.S.2d. 755) involves whether a series of communications between a Hollywood studio and actor Roy Scheider (who would later star in JAWS) constituted a contract that bound the star to act in an ABC tv series. [Note: should any of my contract students read this post, the foregoing is not an example of a good case brief.]
When going over the aftermath of this case in class, the inevitable question comes up: “Why didn’t the lawyers insist on a more formal, written, and executed contract?” The same answers surface: sloppiness, lack of sophistication, time pressure. It makes for an easy moral for law students (“be tougher and more careful”), but one that I find increasingly less satisfying and nutritious. Sloppiness just seems too pat an answer to explain this or many of the other lawyer “mistakes” that populate a Contracts case book.
Fortunately, Jonathan Barnett (USC Law) has a new working paper that provides a much more nuanced answer. Barnett’s “Hollywood Deals: Soft Contracts for Hard Markets” explores why many contracts between Hollywood studios and star level talent (both sides usually represented by experienced lawyers) fall into this netherworld of “soft contracts” – that is agreements of questionable status as enforceable contracts. Barnett’s explanation involves both parties navigating two different risks – project risk (the risk a film won’t happen or will flop) and hold-up risk (the risk that a necessary party to a film will back out, possibly to hold the project hostage). The studio system used to provide a way to balance these two risks. The decline of this sytem, according to Barnett, gave rise to a growing use of “soft contracts.” Here is the abstract:
Hollywood film studios, talent and other deal participants regularly commit to, and undertake production of, high-stakes film projects on the basis of unsigned “deal memos,” informal communications or draft agreements whose legal enforceability is uncertain. These “soft contracts” constitute a hybrid instrument that addresses a challenging transactional environment where neither formal contract nor reputation effects adequately protect parties against the holdup risk and project risk inherent to a film project. Parties negotiate the degree of contractual formality, which correlates with legal enforceability, as a proxy for allocating these risks at a transaction-cost savings relative to a fully formalized and specified instrument. Uncertainly enforceable contracts embed an implicit termination option that provides some protection against project risk while maintaining a threat of legal liability that provides some protection against holdup risk. Historical evidence suggests that soft contracts substitute for the vertically integrated structures that allocated these risks in the “studio system” era.
The very accessible paper is worth a read – not only for Contracts scholars and teachers, but also for those interested in the theory of the firm. For a different, stimulating approach to supplementing the teaching of contracts (Hollywood and otherwise), Larry Cunningham’s new book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter is out from Cambridge University Press. Larry gave a preview of the book and his approaching to teaching the subject in our Conglomerate forum on teaching contracts last summer. The book is chock full of very useful stories on chestnut casebook opinions, as well as contracts straight out of Variety involving stars from Eminem to Jane Fonda.
I'm a little behind on blogging summer's explosion of kids' movies, so I'm doubling-up for Ice Age 4: Continental Drift and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. The movies have a lot in common: they are both attempts to extend franchises that maybe have been stretched too thin; they both have sub-narratives that are more interesting than the main ones (Scrat and his acorn; the penguins); and I didn't like either of them. Oh, and I didn't pay for 3D for either one.
Madagascar 3: I have to admit I've very biased against this franchise, which began with a Central Park Zoo's lion leading his three wild animals on a journey that ends off the coast of Africa, where they should feel at home but decidedly do not. The first movie came out right before The Wild, which also had Central Park Zoo lions leading their very similar wild animal friends on a journey that ends in Africa, where they should feel at home but decidedly do not. Apparently no one was imprisoned for this, but it still seems bizarre to me. Anyway, Madagascar had bigger stars and was out first, so it won the "lion out of the zoo" wars.
Critics seem to like Madagascar 3, which seems to benefit from the "MIB3" effect -- it is so much better than the second movie, that it's a relief and gets a boost by comparison. In the second movie, the animals try without success to go home to NY but end up in central Africa, where Alex the lion meets his parents and some other forgettable things sort of happen. In the third movie, the friends again want to get to NY, but this time only manage to crash in Paris after flying from Monte Carlo. How they get to Monte Carlo is obscured; the second movie seemed to suggest they were more in touristy Kenya than northern Africa, but you never know. Anyway, instead of presenting themselves to a zoo in Paris and hoping for the best, they go on the run from a crazy Animal Control officer who wants to mount Alex's head on her wall. The strange Inspector Javert-type antagonist only gets weirder when she starts singing Je Ne Regritte Rien, a la Edith Piaf, complete with runny mascara. (I'm not making this up. I couldn't make this up.) They seek refuge with a traveling animal circus that has a chance of being sent to New York. The circus has seen better days, so our American friends turn the circus into a flashy Cirque du Soleil (without saying those words -- Alex says something like "an all-human circus from Canada"). But the lack of logical plot and intertwining of obscure adult references does not hold back the movie from what will make it millions -- a punchy song with "afro circus" as a refrain, complete with wearing circus clown afro wigs. This is what made my children want to go see it, and they got their afro circus wig's money worth.
Ice Age 4: I'm still unsure how I ended up seeing this. I had 8 rising freshman girls sleeping over, and they were torn between seeing this and seeing Moonrise Kingdom. I'm still shaking my head. Why did they want to see Ice Age 4? Unclear, but some mention was made that Nicki Minaj, Heather Morris(from Glee), and Keke Palmer (from Akeelah and the Bee) were stars. But the first two are not in it much, and rather annoying characters. Palmer plays Peaches, the teenage mammoth, but her character was whiny and annoyed me, too.
So, the premise of the movie is that Peaches is growing up too fast for her father, Manny, and when she breaks his rules she screams that she wishes he would go away. At that moment, the continent splits and Manny and his pals Diego and Sid are cast out to sea on an ice floe, with Manny vowing to come back to his family. The rest of the movie are their attempts to get back home. There are even Sirens attempting to make them crash into the rocks, but this is not an epic poem. It's a little poem, with not much new. And of course, at the end, the father sees that he was too strict, and loosens the rules for his daughter. The daughter doesn't learn a lot except that she would hate to lose her father right after she yells at him and that if she talks about her uncool best friend behind his back, she should make sure he doesn't hear. She does befriend him again, but only after his heroics gain him the respect of the "cool" kids anyway. So, pretty costless to her. But, all 10 kids in my crew were perfectly happy with it, from age 4-14.
I know it's hard to believe, but I just saw Brave. Sorry, I was traveling! In fact, both my older kids saw it before me. Twice. So, the four year-old and I were the last to go. But, it was worth the wait. There are a few things in the movie that are quite rare in a Disney movie.
2. Not only does Merida have no interest in love, she has no love interest throughout the movie. The "happily ever after" is shared by Merida and her parents. Perhaps this is a nod to helicopter parents everywhere, but I really liked the absence of teen marriage from the movie.
3. There is flowing hair (which is apparently very hard to do by computer) and naked bottoms (all male, both old and very young). I loved the hair, but I could have been spared the kiltless Braveheart warriors.
So, the movie suffers from the fact that there just may not be any new stories under the Disney sun. Brave owes its ancestry to The Little Mermaid at the beginning, Beauty and the Beast at the end, and even Brother Bear in the middle. But what's wonderful and new about the movie is that the plot tension is between the headstrong daughter and her equally forceful mother. In most Disney movies, the mother is either long gone or beautifully calm and placid. Merida's mom, Elinor, is quite present and intent on making a princess out of the outdoorsy Merida, and on arranging her betrothal to the son of a clan leader to protect the peace of the kingdom. This results in a mother-daughter relationship recognizable to anyone with a daughter. I have to admit that some of the tension was all too familiar. But, this movie is not going to end with the mother seeing how right the daughter has been all along. Both women will gain understanding, but it's the daughter who will be the one apologizing at the end. (Yay!)
The past couple of decades have seen Disney heroines branching out from traditional damsels in distress roles. Modern heroines have to be fearless, independent, headstrong and proud (see Mulan, Pocahantas, Belle, Jasmine, etc.). But Merida's story is even better. No matter how independent the other "Princesses" have been, they all end up with a boyfriend/husband, and that's the definition of a good ending. But Merida's story doesn't end that way. She ends up not having to get married to anyone until she wants to, and the last scene is her and Elinor riding off into the sunset. Brava, Brave.
The summer blockbuster season is upon us, and our family had been eagerly awaiting Men in Black 3. In preparation, we Netflixed the other two films in the MIB trilogy to adequately prepare the big 'uns for the third. (I don't think I had seen the second, and I had very little memory of the first.) We were not disappointed. If you read the reviews, they all say the same thing: much better than the second, but not quite as good as the first. For a "3" movie, that's pretty good.
The movie's set-up is fairly interesting -- a super-bad alien criminal, Boris, breaks out of his supermax prison (in space) and concocts a way to go back in time and reverse the outcome of a moment in time 40 years ago. This moment is when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) captured Boris, maiming him and ending his freedom. When he does this, Agent K disappears, and only his partner Agent J (Will Smith) seems to recall a world in which Agent K didn't die 40 years ago at Boris' hand. More importantly to the world, in the future in which Agent K died in 1969, Agent K was not able to implement a defense shield against Boris' home planet, now opening Earth up to invasion. Therefore, Agent J has to travel back to 1969 and save Agent K, and with him the rest of the Earth.
OK, so how do you have a movie based on the chemistry between Smith and Jones, if Jones isn't in most of the movie? Well, you find someone who is exactly like Jones, only younger. In what has to be the single best casting moment in Hollywood history since Gone With the Wind, someone realized that Josh Brolin sort of looks like Tommy Lee Jones. And, he totally plays the young Agent K as straight TLJ. It is eerie, and you forget that you aren't watching TLJ. (I know that Rob Lowe apparently brought his career back from the brink by doing his Robert Wagner impression in a movie. This is ten times better than that.) And Will Smith is ageless and timeless and just fun to watch.
The movie's strengths are the relationship between K and J, which is very sweet and funny, and it gets sweeter. I think more could have been made about the disconnect between an African-American traveling back to 1969. He does have a run-in with police who suspect he has stolen an expensive car because of his race, but that scene is muddied because he has in fact stolen it (well, commandeered it, really). But, when he walks into "the Agency," no one there seems to bat an eye at his presence there. And, Agent K, who has a very distinct Texas accent, never mentions his race at all. There could have been an interesting "They Call Me Agent J" moment, but it's a much lighter movie than that, I guess. I have to say, that even though I rarely see things coming, I did see the end coming, but no one else in my family did. It's a rather nice, gift-bow ending I didn't mind guessing.
So, if you are one of approximately nine people in the country that hasn't seen The Avengers yet, you should probably go ahead and go. (And remember, stay until the end of the credits.) I have seen it twice. Once in 3D.
So, I have to admit that my son and I went on a mission to meet all of the prerequisites for the movie. We have seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America. Our favorite was definitely Captain America. But, I have to say that the movies all point toward this summer's blockbuster, interweaving characters and subplots in a nice way. So, we were excited to see The Avengers, and it did not disappoint. And, if you haven't seen the prerequisites, you probably aren't too lost. There's enough brief exposition to get everyone up to speed enough to enjoy the film for what it is, and enough esoteric references to affirm the comic book nerds who know all the backstories.
The main plot actually comes from probably the weakest of the prior movies, Thor. Thor's evil stepbrother, Loki, has regrouped since he was last banished and come under the tutelage of an even more evil villain in the "other realm," a realm that includes Asgard, Thor's home country. At the same time, S.H.I.E.L.D. has uncovered "the Tesseract," the strange 4-dimensional blue cube that gives off magical energy, which was stolen by the Red Skull in Captain America and buried with Steve Rogers at the end of the movie. The Tesseract originally came from Asgard, and Loki has promised it to these evil Chitauri folks. Once Loki has the Tesseract, then Direct Nick Fury must assemble the Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk and Captain America. Though not called by Fury, Thor returns to Earth to deal with Loki and so becomes the fourth Avenger. Black Widow and Hawkeye are sort of "hero support" for the avengers, not having super powers themselves, but having "a specific set of skills" that make them very useful. Once the Avengers are assembled, they of course first fight each other before learning how to fight together and save the world.
At least one reviewer has tried to say that The Avengers is really about 9/11, but as commenters pointed out, the analogy was stretched a bit too thin by the reviewer's inaccurate depiction of the facts of the movie. Yes, there is a big, tall building in Manhattan that is the scene of the final battle. Stark's office tower, which he made self-powering via his "arc reactor." However, Stark Tower, which is located in Midtown, predates 9/11 as a fixture of the comic book series, and more likely stands for Tony Stark's ego. At the beginning of the movie, we see him very proud of his building, telling his better half Pepper Potts that she can take "12% of the credit." Later, Captain America, who is often pointing out Stark's self-absorption, describes the building as ugly. The battle takes place around the building, but the fighting isn't really directed toward the building as there Loki has placed the Tesseract to "open the portal" to the other realm so the Chitauri can cross over. To close the portal, Stark has to sacrifice himself, overcoming his own ego to become part of a team. More generally, the movie draws on patriotism as a theme, alluding to various times of turmoil, including Captain America's WWII, and rallying symbols such as the stars and stripes.
Besides the non-stop action, the dialogue is great, mostly everything that comes out of Robert Downey Jr.'s mouth. (And, some of which you can only catch the second time -- including his calling Thor "Point Break.") And then of course the sentimental favorites that send chills up your spine, like the lone German who refuses to bow to Loki saying, "There have always been men like you."
A few things were surprising. First, the producers had to turn Agent Coulson into a likeable character, the Dobby of the Avengers, if you will. But, in the prequels, Coulson is first portrayed as the cold evil of faceless government intervention. The Marvel folks tried to loosen up his persona in a few "shorts" on the DVDs, but they lay it on thick in the movie. We learn that Coulson is pining for a cross-country girlfriend and collects Captain America trading cards. Pepper has befriended him and wants to solve his romantic woes. This becomes necessary for what comes next, which I'm sure you can figure out.
Also, my two boys (who saw the movie separately), both independently announced to me that they wanted to be Hawkeye for Hallowe'en. Hawkeye? Why? I have no idea. He does have bows and arrows (and his quiver has to hold about 2000 arrows, by my count). But he has no superpowers. Maybe he's accessible. Who knows?
So, what are the movie's flaws? As my 12-year-old girl pointed out, Black Widow is a token player in the movie. During a movie season that brings us Katniss Everdeen, this seems a little behind the times. And, the only other woman is Agent Maria Hill, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who doesn't do much but who was given a soldier's "catsuit" uniform. I'm not sure why female agents in the shadow agency aren't issued ordinary clothing to wear. Agent Coulson just wears a suit. Director Fury does wear his long, leather coat whether he's on the base 20 stories underground or on the base 35,000 feet in the air. I guess he just gets chilly. Anyway, women get short-shrift here, but I assume this topic has come up in the comic book world before.
And the weirdest thing is that it would be as easy to compare The Avengers to The Hunger Games as to 9/11 revenge fantasy. Both movies have amazing archers. Both movies have something called "tesseract/tesserae"), which both seem like something you sell your soul for. And, both movies (at least for awhile) have a strangely-clothed "Gamemaker" who is manipulating powerful young people into fighting each other. Weird.
Usually my film posts begin with my explaining how our whole family went to a movie, or the older kids, or the youngest. Well, this is different. Last Friday, I took my four year-old and met three visitors from Malawi at the theater to see Chimpanzee. So, that was a treat -- to see a movie with folks who had never been in a movie theater before but who were from a country near the filming location!
The true-life documentary is being marketed with the narrative of baby chimp is adopted by old, grizzled male chimp after baby's mom dies and it is lost in the forest. So, a reviewer can either assess how well the narrative works as if it's a film, or you can pick at whether the narrative is a truthful rendetion of the thousands of hours of filming that occurred. I think it's hard to separate these two analyses, so I probably won't try.
So, the filmmakers present one group of chimps as peaceful and loving, with cute names like "Oscar" (the baby) and "Freddie" (the old alpha male). They live some distance across the forest from another group, who is presented as territorial, predatory and violent, with names like "Scar." The good chimps venture into the other territory once for fruit out of necessity, as we are told, and are chased out. Hungry again, the chimps hunt some monkeys, and eat one (who knew?). The bad chimps venture into the peaceful territory to pillage their nut grove and strike fear into the heart of the good chimps. Eventually, there is a confrontation, and Oscar's mom, Isha, is killed. I understand that the target audience is children, who need black and white "good guys" and "bad guys," but it's sort of disheartening that any of the circle of life is presented as "bad," but half?
So then, Oscar is an orphan. The film has a lot of close-in shots, and there is a good 5-7 minutes of Oscar alone, trying to open nuts (unsuccessfully), getting a lot of bugs in his fur (hair?), and generally looking abandoned and maybe lost. The voiceover by Tim Allen (or Buzz Lightyear in our house), talks of Oscar looking for his mom and trying to survive. But then, I saw a chimp arm in the corner of the screen, so I think he was always with his group. But, the group doesn't seem to want to take over his mom's duties, leaving Oscar probably destined to die. Then, the leader of the group, Freddie, takes him under his wing, feeding him, grooming him and letting him sleep with him. Apparently, this never happens. And, it may have happened without the film crew noticing, because literally the footage goes from Oscar alone to Oscar adopted. There is no usual fictional film "thawing montage" with the gruff adult slowly warming to the sassy cute kid. Then, the movie's over.
My biggest concern with the movie was whether it was too scary for my 4.5 year-old. Three years ago, I blogged about taking Luke and his first-grade class to see Earth, which I called "Disney Faces of Death." Luke was not a big fan of the long, drawn-out death scenes in that movie,
I briefly saw a headline on some newspaper's blog entitled something to the effect of "Will You Let Your Children Watch The Hunger Games?" I guess I can answer "yes." I went with my ten-year-old last week, and my twelve-year-old is going today (no school).
I presume that the question was based on the fact that the premise of the movie is disturbing. The movie is based on the first book of a trilogy set in a dystopian world governed by a totalitarian regime. (Pretty much every "YA" book that isn't about vampires is about dystopian, totalitarian future worlds. When I was a "YA", all our books were about your parents getting divorced, your mom getting cancer, or your having anorexia.) In this dystopian world, a revolution from all 13 "districts" was quashed by "the Capitol," but as punishment, every year the 12 remaining districts must select 2 teenagers to fight to the death on national TV -- a mash-up of The Lottery and Survivor. So, the premise itself is not very kid-friendly: 24 teenagers having to play a life-or-death game of survival.
However, the book and the movie present a moral that is anti-violence, so the movie has to walk a line between being suspenseful and not glorifying violence. This result is achieved by quick camera-work, cuta-aways, and a few off-camera deaths. But, as most moms can tell you, little kids are affected more by sadness than by violence, and mine got teared up when the youngest participant, Rue, died (aptly named, obviously), even though her death was not gory, just sad.
The movie has been enormously successful, due of course to the popularity of the books among YAs and adults alike. The story features Katniss, a teenage girl who fights to keep her mother and younger sister from starving after the death of her coal-miner father in the poorest, most remote district, District 12. She "volunteers" to be a "tribute" after her little sister gets picked in the lottery, and has fearsome resolve to not die, if not to kill. Her fellow District 12 tribute is Peeta, the doughy son of a baker, who has led a comparatively soft life. However, he is very personable and charismatic, making him at least popular on the TV show. He also concocts the story that he is in love with Katniss to gain viewer support for Katniss and himself, and the reader of the book is left guessing for awhile as to whether he is simply playing the game and whether Katniss is just playing along. Either way would be fine if Katniss' scrappy best friend Gale wasn't tuning in to watch. Besides the love triangle, the other tension is that only one tribute can be the victor, so which one will it be? I won't spoil the ending for the 6 or 7 people out there that haven't read the book.
Even if the movie is enjoyable on its own, true fans won't be satisfied unless the movie honors the book. The movie follows the happenings of the book, but it some challenges. First, much of the book is set in Katniss' mind, and only there do readers learn of the backstory of the politics of the districts, the revolution, and the post-revolution government control. So all this has to come out in other ways. I'm not sure if I hadn't read the books whether I would have gotten the full story. For one thing, the government-engineered "hybrid" animals are never explained and even cut out of the ending. However, the mockingjay is left in (the symbol of District 12 and the title of the second book/movie) without explanation, as are the trackerjackers (yellow jackets on steroids). Also, the movie didn't explain how some kids' names were in the lottery multiple times because they received government rations. We also don't get a good sense of how Katniss hunts to keep their family from starving; it almost look like she sneaks out to hunt with her really attractive friend for fun. Finally, I don't think that Katniss comes off as emotionally stunted and anti-social as she is in the book. In the first few scenes, she is shown being affectionate with Gale and her sister, and so it's then hard to picture her as a girl who has forced herself to become solely interested in survival of herself and her family.What the movie does do that books don't is depict the action behind the scenes of the Hunger Games -- President Snow wielding pressure on the Game Maker, the Game Maker and staff manipulating outcomes in the Games, Haymitch lobbying for sponsors, and the garish elite in the Capitol enjoying the violent Games from their position of safety and plenty. The books are told from Katniss' perspective, and all she sees is what the players see, even though she accurately suspects most of what is happening outside of the arena. So, did I like it? I didn't dislike it, but I have to admit that I couldn't get into it. I'm not sure why. It could be that the suspense of the book is the outcome of the Games, and once you know that, the steps to get there (which don't deviate from the book) are not that interesting. It could be that the characters were miscast, which a lot of people are saying. The actress who plays Katniss seems to be very good, but I never suspected any chemistry at all between her and the actor who plays Peeta. My son asked me if I was on "Team Peeta" or "Team Gale," and I have to say that at least after the first two books, I was totally on the "Team Peeta" side, but I can't say that after seeing the movie. Or, it could be that the premise of the movie (24 enter, 1 leaves) is just not that fun to watch. It's unpleasant, even when you know the ending. That being said, I'm sure we will be there when Mockingjay opens. At least in that book, the totalitarian regime starts to crack, and there is some hope!
Last Friday, our whole clan went to see The Lorax (yes, in 3D, which was noticeable and added some value). I'll have to say that it was a big hit.
We own the Dr. Seuss book, but I have to say that we never read it. It's not colorful. It's not catchy. And toddlers don't like dystopian fables, even about trees. According to this book review, The Lorax may be more complex than an attempt at environmental evangelicalism. It could be a parody of Malthusian ecologists (circa 1971) who don't convince anyone of anything with their rhetoric ("I speak for the trees" -- who talks like that?). Whether it's meant to convert children to environmentalism or not (and quite frankly, in this era of "reduce, reuse, recycle" that horse is out of the barn), the book itself turns off little readers. Just like the Lorax turned off the Once-ler.
But the film is different. The film wraps the story from the book with a different story -- the story of Ted, who wants to find out about trees to win the heart of an older girl, Audrey. Ted and Audrey live in a very colorful world, which we learn is completely artificial and without plant life. In fact, though their city (Thneedville) is pretty, the residents purchase air in big blue plastic bottles, much like we buy water. This is not a coincidence. Audrey dreams of seeing a Truffula tree, so Ted sets off to find the Once-ler on advice from his Grammy, who remembers the trees. Then we see that Ted's town is really in a bubble, and he must leave the bubble and cross a barren wasteland (like the icky pictures from the book) to find this old hermit. There, his conversations with the Once-ler follow the book, but the flashbacks to Mr. Once-ler inventing Thneeds and chopping down trees are also done in full color, interspliced with Ted's returning home to the city a couple of times to break up the serious part of the story.
The story within the story then is the story of Once-ler inventing the "thneed," a bizarre infinity scarf that seems to have no use. It is not a "need" you see, but something that marketing convinces people that they do need. But, it's made from the fluff of the Truffula tree, and Once-ler's horrible mother and family convince him that sustainable harvesting is too slow and that chopping down the trees will enable them to meet the demand. Of course, supply is then depleted and so is the land, forcing the brightly colored bears and fish to leave. The Lorax, of course, tries to warn Once-ler of this (played cleverly by Danny DaVito), but his warnings are not heeded. Soon, the bucolic countryside is barren wasteland and the factory town is only revitalized by Mr. O'Hare, who sees the need for bottled air and artificial scenery. The Once-ler, who had some definite Oedipal mother-issues, retreats as a hermit. (It is unclear as to whether the bottled air is actually necessary. Ted seems to be able to breathe just fine outside the bubble. There is some sense that just like bottled water, Mr. O'Hare has convinced people to buy something that was ample and free. However, the process of making the bottles is polluting the outside air even more, thereby ensuring the existence of the industry.)
So, back in the wrap-around story, Ted needs to fight off Mr. O'Hare and his spies, plant the Truffula seed and win the high school girl of his dreams. Perhaps the book ended ambiguously, but the film does not. Ted succeeds where the Once-ler did not due to true love and a really awesome mom and Grammy.
So, is the film anti-corporation? That's an interesting question. At the height of his Thneed empire, Once-ler (Ed Helms) sings a song called "How Bad Can I Be?" This song would be a great addition to a Law and Economics class on externalities. Our tragic hero is arguing that he is merely acting rationally -- he is homo economicus. But we can see that he is not externalizing all his costs. Now, of course, he meets his tragic downfall because he depletes his supply and goes bankrupt. But, a lot of the harm is heaped upon the landscape, the wildlife and the residents of Thneedville. So, one could argue that the Once-ler was not acting rationally because he did not have long-range planning, and if he had, then that would have minimized externalities. Or, you could argue that regulation should have stepped in and limited his deforestation when that was not in his self-interest. Could be interesting.
What did my four-year old think? He thought it was a really cool song.
We saw (sans kids) The Artist the day before the Academy Awards. A 90+ percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and some gushing Facebook statuses pushed us to see a movie that didn't seem like a great bet. We had seen no trailers, it is a silent film, it's in black and white, and features no one I had ever heard of before (though familiar faces are in the background). But, we went.
And I think we were pleasantly surprised. The plot of The Artist is like a tragic version of Singin' in the Rain, without the Singin' part. Dashing Gene Kelly look-alike is a silent film star of heroic proportions; however, George Valentin is the original diva with a big splash of hubris. He mocks the "talkie" revolution and attempts to buck the trend, leading to his prideful downfall. The spunky dancing extra, Peppy Miller, who doesn't look much like Debbie Reynolds, ascends while George descends (often quite literally, on spiral staircases). She embraces the talkies, or at least they embrace her and make her a star. There is no Donald O'Connor, but there is a really cute dog who is light on his feet. (Get it, he's a hoofer. Ha.) and, of course, there is a redemptive, happy ending.
A lot of the talk in the reviews centers on the film being silent, and in b/w. Why does it need to be silent? Is this a gimmick? We actually enjoyed the silent nature (there are very few subtitles, actually). And I think we realized that silent movie actors have to be completely different kinds of actors. Silent movies that had a lot of action (swashbuckling, etc.) didn't need a lot of dialogue. But The Artist isn't an action picture. There is a lot of emotional information that has to be communicated without words. This is a romantic comedy, and all of that comes through without dialogue, which is very interesting. Particularly in the modern era of low-brow comedies that are entirely banter-driven. Even sophisticated comedies, like Midnight in Paris, could not possibly be done as silent films because Owen Wilson's external monologues were so key to driving the plot.
But, was it Oscar-worthy? I'm not sure what being "Oscar-worthy" means, given this list of the past winners. I can't say that I'm at home watching Gladiator or Chicago over and over. Once I heard on NPR a reviewer giving a rule of thumb for the top three awards. (I cannot find the name of the reviewer for proper attribution.) The Best Male Actor would go to the actor who played the most flawed male character. The Best Female Actor goes to the actor who plays the strongest female character. And, the Best Picture award goes to the film that captures the "angst" of the motion picture industry that year.
Here, our male acting award goes to Jean Dujardin, who played the tragic hero George Valentin; the female acting award goes to Meryl Streep who played Margaret Thatcher. That works. But what angst does The Artist capture? Maybe the angst of older actors not wanting to give way to younger actors and their moviemaking. Meryl Streep wins an Oscar after being nominated 17 times and not winning since the beginning of her career, 30 years ago. Christopher Plummer, 82, wins his first Oscar. Woody Allen wins best original screenplay, not Kristen Wiig. The Bridesmaids tell dirty jokes on stage, but they go home empty handed. And, the best adapted screenplay is about the rule against perpetuities.
I loved Big Miracle! OK, I stole the ending, but I wanted to get that out of the way. The boys and I went to see Big Miracle on Friday, and I have to say I'm a big fan. The four year-old got a little fidgety (OK, so he kept climbing over the railing for the stadium seating), but he did remind me that he did not leave early like We Bought a Zoo. The ten year-old was pretty into it, and I was really into it.
The movie is based on a true story, Operation Breakthrough, that apparently was a media sensation when I was in college, but I don't remember it at all. Of course, the fall of 1988 was my second year in college, and I missed a lot of current events during that time. So, the movie is set during the Bush v. Dukakis presidential campaign and tries to be a "period piece." (I still don't understand why Drew Barrymore's hair is an ombre mess with 6 inches of highlights grown out. Is there a message that in the 80s people didn't pay attention to their hair color maintenance? Perhaps working for Greenpeace, her character is so passionate about her causes that she has let her hair go? That's sort of 70s, not 80s.) The story is that in Barrow, AK, three whales are trapped under the ice and cannot get to the ocean where they are supposed to swim to Baja, CA for the winter. Without human intervention, the whales will die. Enter reporter Adam (John Krasinski), who would love to move to "the lower 48," and the whales begin to get national attention. Various groups decide how much attention to turn to the whales, and for what purposes.
The movie could be a centerpiece of a government class, with student groups representing the different special interests with their agendas: Greenpeace, an Alaskan oil company CEO, President Reagan, the Inuits, the National Guard, the media, the local business owners, and even the Soviets. What I liked about the movie was that none of these folks seemed one-dimensional, and all of them were portrayed as flawed to various extents. No one has an entirely pure motive, even the heroes.
The end, of course, is happy. (There is a nonhuman death, for the parents out there.) I teared up a little. Why? Because, as the movie tells us, everybody loves whales. We seem to empathize with whales and project our hopes and fears onto them. But, if you're coming to the movie because you love movies and want to see a lot of whale footage, be prepared. There's not much. (It's a $40 million movie, not a $100 million movie.) Most of the whale scenes are whales sticking their snouts out of a hole in the ice, with only a couple of good underwater scenes.
According to my Facebook page, a lot of people I know seem to really hate the Citizens United decision. On a daily basis. I'm not that fascinated by the thought of corporations making unlimited campaign funding expenditures because I just don't see how the results will be any different. (We can argue about it, but then I'll just get bored and try to change the subject.) But, I understand that many folks this election season do not like the thought of tainting democracy with corporate dollars.
But what about art? I love movies, and I see a lot of them, so I am usually at least somewhat interested in the Oscars. Back BC (before children), we used to have Oscar parties and actually watch the award show. Until the end. So, today I was a little intrigued by the announcement of the nominees. Here are the nine (yes, nine) nominees for Best Picture: The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and War Horse. Other pictures picking up nominations in major categories are Beginners; A Better Life; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Warrior; Bridesmaids; Albert Nobbs; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and A Week with Marilyn.
I have seen half of them, which is pretty good for an Oscar list. (I actually haven't seen Hugo because none of my children wanted to go see it.) I think in many years, audience goers are a little disappointed that the list is mostly made up of artsy movies that have either had limited release by January or are critic's darlings just not their cup of tea. Blockbusters and comedies are often overlooked. I think that's ok -- this isn't the All-Stars, it's an industry competition between folks in the industry. If legal academics voted on Best Law Review Article (like business law professors do), then the result would probably be different than if the general public voted, or even the practicing bar.
But today's listings are even weirder. Some of these are pictures that neither critics nor audiences liked (Iron Lady; Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) or pictures that were mixed (Tree of Life). It's almost as if a Republican who is polling third is suddenly named the nominee by the party. So, why do these movies get nominated? Maybe it's because their studios spent millions of dollars campaigning academy members to get them nominated. Here are a few stories on oscar campaigns, one calling for a "luxury tax" on studio spending and one chronicling a campaign that was fruitless.
In fact, the Academy instituted new rules this year on studio campaigning, which take effect today. After nominees are announced, the rules restrict appearances, panels, etc. where nominees might be able to sway academy members. So, we are in the movie analogue to "the quiet period."
OK, so I'm a little behind, so here's a twofer. Over the break, various members of my family went to see two family movies, Chipwrecked (the Alvin and the Chipmunks threequel) and We Bought a Zoo. I wasn't overjoyed with either, for different reasons, so I'm packing up all the negative into one review.
Chipwrecked. I know, why should I be shocked that this third chipmunk movie is a big dud? I go to see a lot of kids' movies, and my bar is fairly low. But I got pretty squirmy and restless in this one. The basic plot is that Alvin has become impossible to supervise -- he doesn't listen to Dave or think about others and every time he steps out of line (about every minute), he creates disorder, danger and chaos. His penchant for breaking the rules gets the six chipmunks (including the three Chipettes) cast overboard a cruise ship taking them to the international music awards. Dave has to then go overboard to save them, along with his old nemesis, Uncle Ian, who implausibly works as a costumed mascot on the ship. The rest of the movie is the two adults wandering around a small island (with Ian always in the duck suit) and the chipmunks on the other side of the island trying to find food and shelter. Eventually, as you might imagine, they find each other and are rescued in time for the award show. And, because this is not the 1970s, the moral of the story is that Dave should have given Alvin more room to be free and be himself. The moral is NOT that Alvin should get his act together.
The movie has a bizarre subplot that even I'm not sure I can summarize. The chipmunks meet a woman named Zoe, a UPS worker who Castaway-like, was shipwrecked there with a variety of sports balls she names Spalding, Calloway, Nerf, etc. She is very risk-seeking and manic, which seems to be the result of getting bitten by certain spiders once or twice a day. But then, Zoe pulls out a crude treasure map and mutters that others didn't believe her and thought she was crazy that there was treasure on the island. (Theodore has found the treasure behind a waterfall at this point.) So, I was unclear as to whether Zoe was indeed shipwrecked with others, who left her behind to search for treasure or if she had gone to the island of her own accord, or some other mishmash. Oh, yeah, and the the volcanic island blows. Blows is a good word here. To sum up, I passed the movie theater with my four year-old the other day and he asked incredulously, "Chipwrecked is still at the movie theater?"
We Bought a Zoo. My ten year-old and I wanted to see this movie based on the previews, which featured animal antics, including a capuchin monkey doing backward flips over and over on Matt Damon's desk. I thought this would be a fun family farce, like Doctor Doolittle. It's not. It is a drama. Perhaps it is a family drama, but it is not a kids' movie. The movie is a true story, has a lot of big names and is from Cameron Crowe, so I guess I should have known it wouldn't be all fun and games. Matt Damon is an international reporter who has to move on with his life after his wife and soulmate dies, leaving him with a surly teenage boy and a cute little girl. Much of the movie is about his journey to deal with her memory and to forge a relationship with his kids. Yes, he does buy a zoo, but the challenge of financing and opening the zoo is secondary to a lot of heartfelt conversations with his son and the rather attractive zoo manager. And there is very litle cute animal humor. At some point, my littlest one asked if we could leave because he just couldn't take the tension. At that point, Damon was having to make a decision to put down an older tiger who was suffering; just as he was having trouble letting go of his wife, he cannot let go of this tiger. (This was lost on our own Will Bear.) He and I sat in the lobby for the last twenty minutes of the movie, waiting for the rest of the family. They seemed to like the movie, and especially the ending. Maybe if I had gone to see it without a small child getting restless and bored, I would have appreciated it more. Oh, and the monkey never does flips in the movie.
If you read or heard my memorial to my colleague and friend Larry Ribstein, then you already know that I saw Sherlock Holmes 2 over the break. I actually saw it twice, once with my oldest child and the second with my middle child. I enjoyed it the second time as much as the first, and (if you've seen it, you'll understand) was glad for the opportunity to watch the ending again.
If you are not only a reader of the Glom but also have an amazing memory, you'll remember that I enjoyed the first movie, though was a little peeved with the deductive reasoning exploits that no audience member could have possibly followed. (E.g., Holmes sees two dots of ink behind Mary's ear and instantly knows that she is a governess and her student threw ink at her that she didn't wash off completely and that's why she has on such a fancy necklace, which the student's mother loaned her as consideration for her trouble.) I don't think that Guy Ritchie or the screenwriter is a reader of this blog, but I do think that those deductions from left field are minimized in the second movie. The machinations of Holmes' mind are much more visible, with his logic spelled out (usually through the mouth of Watson) so that the audience feels more a part of the mystery solving.
Like the first movie, however, this installment is great fun. Watson's fiancee, Mary, gets a much bigger part in this one, and Moriarty is an on-screen character. Rachel McAdams' character, Irene, does not get much screen time, however. Holmes' brother, Mycroft, appears and very nearly steals the show. But he does not because the real stars are Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, who make the so-called "bromances" of modern film just seem silly. They are great together and the rest of the plot, etc. seems secondary.
I found this plot a little less convoluted than the first movie's plot, but according to those in my party who have read the original books, it is a mash-up of several famous Holmes' stories. This plot involves Moriarty's scheme to acquire interests in businesses that produce the tools of war and then push Europe into a multi-country clash. As a business law professor, what I loved, loved about the movie was that Moriarty acquires an interest in a German munitions factory owned and ran by (wait for it, wait for it) MEINHARD! Yes, the evil Moriarty is partners with Mr. Meinhard! And if we thought that Mr. Salmon was horrible to our NY Mr. Meinhard, then you should see what Moriarty does to the German Mr. Meinhard. After assasinating him, Moriarty takes control of the munitions factory (not sure why German law would bring about such a result -- possibly a buy-sell agreement or a buyout under the UPA, but these are details). Scholars point to Germany to show how more enlightened corporate governance is there, but this movie shows the rougher side!
My only disappointment was with the character of a Gypsy woman named Simza, played by Noomi Rapace, who potrayed Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Rapace goes from playing one of the more interesting and challenging female characters of our time to playing basically "the girl." She has very few lines, but is on-camera a lot, usually drinking or eating. She has no interesting scenes and her character basically just tags along with Holmes and Watson to find her brother, who is mixed up in Moriarty's evil plan. Kind of a waste, but it doesn't take away from the movie.