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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
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).
Hello! I have been away from blogging for about 2 months, since I had rotator cuff surgery in November and went from two typing hands to one. I am almost all the way back now, typing-wise, so I thought I would catch up on some movie reviews. I managed to go see a few films during recuperation, but not as many as I would have liked.
One of our favorite movies this month was Parental Guidance. This movie has not been well-received by critics, but interestingly user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are much higher (66% v. 19%). I get it. There is something that is a little off. I'm not a filmmaker, so I don't know if this is an editing problem, a directing problem or both, but all the jokes seem a half step too quick or too late. The two funniest people are cast as grandparents, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, and Crystal's funny "When Harry Met Sally" asides don't work like they should. There are also way too many bodily function jokes. We are treated to two different gags highlighting two different toileting behaviors of the same preschooler. (One is funny; one is not.)
But the basic premise rings true: a frazzled working mom is caught between her parents and her parenting style. For any parent who has ever had to hear "What are you talking about? There's nothing wrong with feeding a kid [BLANK]," this movie will seem very true to life. I love my Dad, but I definitely remember a moment when he was signing me up for soccer and he had to ask me how old I was. This is the Billy Crystal character. That's my dad. One critical review I read said that the story was implausible. I don't see that at all. The only nitpick I would have is that the parents are a hodgepodge of every modern parenting style, but those styles aren't always compatible. So, the mom is a Tiger Mom about her daughter's violin playing, but is very touchy-feely about confronting her younger son's issues up to the point where his neuroses (imaginary friend, food can't touch, won't wear clothes) dominate family life. For those out there keeping score, yes, our third is just like that, too.
In the movie, Alice (Marisa Tomei) reluctantly asks her parents to watch the kids while she goes on a business trip with her husband, and they reluctantly agree. The movie would not be that interesting without the mom there to backseat drive her parents, so circumstances keep them all in the house on the front and back end of the trip. Critics say what they want, but the kids in our house laughed a lot, and I laughed and cried. It's not a perfect movie, but it was perfect for us on a chilly Saturday afternoon.
So, last Friday I went to a movie that was not animated. (Wow!) I had the great opportunity to go to see Argo with law students. I mention the company because the generational divide is going to become important later. Anyway, I have to say that I was not disappointed. The movie is a solid two hours, but it went by very quickly and had me on the edge of my seat. And, just like Apollo 13, I knew how the movie ended, but I was in suspense anyway. (Yes, some of the suspense was contrived, but I'm fine with that.)
So, what is this true story? The story is one that I haven't heard before, maybe because it was "classified" until 1998. However, part of the story was general knowledge in 1981, though I have no memory of this. When the U.S. embassy was stormed and persons in the embassy were taken hostage in November 1979, six foreign service employees escaped. They eventually found refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house, where they stayed for over two months. The film dramatizes the CIA's successful attempt to "ex-filtrate" them back to the U.S. before the Iranians find them and potentially treat them even more harshly than the embassy hostages. Once back home, their escape was credited to the Canadians, and no mention of American involvement was given to the press in order to avoid retaliation on the hostages.
The focus of the film is on CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, and his wacky plan to get the hostages out by pretending to be Candian filmmakers looking for an exotic location to shoot a sci-fi movie, "Argo." Just wacky enough to work. And the best parts of the movie are set in Hollywood, where Mendez is being helped by John Goodman, who plays a real-life makeup artist who was involved, and Alan Arkin, who plays a fictional veteran producer, a composite of historical participants. These two get the best lines, whereas Affleck gets to stare at people in disbelief, in frustration, and in a state of pleading.
Scenes of the escaped hostages are few, and scenes of the embassy hostages are fewer. In fact, the escaped hostages are played by actors that are only so vaguely recognizable, if at all, that they do not stand out as the characters to follow until they are literally standing on the streets of Tehran having left the building unnoticed. The final fourth or third of the movie is Affleck trying to prepare the escapees for their big challenge at the Tehran airport, complete with new Canadian identities and backgrounds. But even this "training montage" is fairly short. We are not given any insight into what the daily lives of the escapees were like, trapped in relative luxury at the ambassador's house, and not any into the hostages' daily lives. More importantly, we are given no insight into how the escapees dealt with knowledge that their conditions were certainly easier than the colleagues they left behind. Perhaps a second viewing would be instructful, but I did nto get a sense of why they were able to escape while others were frantically trying to burn and shred sensitive material before the demonstrators reached them. For whatever reason, there is no angst or existential crisis here. Which makes it a very entertaining movie, probably!
Of course, the movie is fascinating to watch against the background of current events, particularly the deaths at the Libyan embassy. Watching the demonstrators storm the embassy was pretty chilling. In addition, with Iran and the potential negotiations in the news, a movie about the darkest period of U.S.-Iran relations stirs a lot of emotions. I'm not sure how that cuts politically for either candidate or the negotiations, but it's awfully emotional. That being said, no particular Iranian is portrayed terribly, and at least one is seen as very humanitarian. And, the entire movie is prefaced with a recounting of history that basically says that conditions in Iran in 1979 were the product of extraordinarly misguided U.S. involvement.
Watching the movie with folks 20 years younger than me was also insightful. I think I benefitted from knowing that no hostage was killed. So, I was tense during the embassy scenes; but rationally, I knew the end. I also knew that the hostages wouldn't be released for 444 days, so I took with a grain of salt characters in the film's assertions that the hostages would be home soon, a military rescue mission would be successful, etc. However, when my young friends asked me why the hostages were finally released, I was at a loss. In sixth grade, watching the simultaneous broadcast of the Reagan inauguration and the hostage release, my teachers left me with the impression that the Iranians were afraid of Reagan. I am sure there is more to that story, including the Iran-Iraq war, but I guess I'll have to "read more about it." One thing that was interesting to me from a political science standpoint was why the Iranians were so blase about Canadians. "Oh, you're Canadian, not American. That's great then." We all seem the same to me. Some countries get along with their neighbors. And, the Canadian ambassador risked the lives of himself and his wife and sacrificed international relations between Canada and Iran. Our good friends to the North.
Ar, go to the movies!
Hallowe'en is 30 days away, and some kids' Hallowe'en-ish movies have already come and gone. These movies are tough for us because even though they may be funny as a whole, individual scenes freak our five year-old out. So, all summer Will and I waited in the hall of our multiplex before our feature film started in order to avoid the previews of Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania. Our big kids are still scarred from Coraline and Monster House, but we thought Hotel Transylvania would be more funny than scary, so we left Will at home, grabbed two other friends, and headed out.
Bottom line -- really funny, and really fun for the kids. The theater was pretty full, and a lot of child-less folks were there, too. The plot is very familiar to us -- basically Finding Nemo all over again. Happy mother, father and baby until an outside force (here, it's humans instead of sharks) kills the mom. Father dedicates his life to sheltering baby so that humans can never hurt her. Of course, the twist is that here the family are vampires (actually "the" vampires -- Count Dracula and clan). So, Dracula builds a huge castle where humans can never find it, and baby Mavis grows up in a loving cocoon. Adding more fun, Dracula holds the castle out as a hotel for monsters, where the monsters can relax from sharing the otuside world with humans who don't understand them and Mavis can have a rotating crop of aunts and uncles to populate her otherwise secluded life. A la Monsters, Inc., the monsters are more afraid of humans than the other way around.
But, now it's Mavis' 118th birthday, and she wants to spread her batwings and fly to see all the people and places that life on Earth offers, and her father is doing everything in his power (besides actual confinement) to convince her that the human world is a horrible place. And, a menagerie of fun monsters, voiced by funny actors, is at the hotel to help celebrate. Enter -- a cute, lovable human 21 year-old guy backpacking around the world who stumbles upon the castle. Yes, Dracula has to hide his humanity from his guests and keep Mavis from falling in love with him (fat chance). And when Dracula has to venture out to make things right, the humans, who actually love vampires, particularly Team Edward types, create a path for him similar to the Eastern Australia Current in Finding Nemo.
There's a lot of humor (maybe a little too much potty humor) and a lot of parental love, though misguided. My only fault with the movie is the theme that everyone has one person that they "zing" with and that once that zing happens, then your life is over if that person leaves. I think this is a dangerous theme for the tween/teen set, who imagine every crush to be a life-changing zing already. but, it's hard to get away from that in kids' movies, fairy tales or not.
Also, if you see a lot of kids' movies (like I do), it's hard to get Gru (Steve Carrell) from Despicable Me out of your head when Dracula (Adam Sandler) speaks.
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.