June 17, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Tomorrowland
Posted by Christine Hurt

We are on the road this June, but the littlest one and I have gotten to the movies (finally).  We recently caught up with Tomorrowland, a movie that caught our eye(s) in the previews.

So, you may or may not like Tomorrowland depending on whether you take your cynical hat off before you enter.  If you are a cynic and hate George Clooney because you think he is a Hollywood ignoramous trying to shove his liberal agenda down consumers' throats, then don't go.  If you are a cynic and hate Walt Disney because you think everything is a marketing ploy and a plot to shove licensed consumer goods down consumers' throats, then don't go.  However, if you accept that grown-ups, politicians and corporations choose short-termism over the long view every time and that sometimes we need to listen to children and geniuses (and child geniuses), then go to the movies!

The framework of the movie is not completely clear until the end (and then not completely), but the basic plot is thus:  At some point, geniuses like Verne, Edison, Tesla and Eiffel created a city in a different dimension.  Brilliant folks would be recruited to this dimension to invent, problem-solve, create, etc. without intervention from pessimists and bureaucrats.  There are some clues that this secret city-lab was to be revealed to the public during the 1964 World's Fair, but that plot strand is sort of left hanging somewhere.  Anyway, one child genius is recruited in 1964:  Frank (Clooney).  Though I'm still fuzzy on this point, he seems to be exiled in the 1980s for creating an algorithm that calculates the end of Earth.  This "bad" machine seems to destroy Tomorrowland in some way, and recruiting stops.  However, one recruiter, Athena, continues to look for brilliant geniuses on Earth who may still be optimistic about the fate of our planet in a world turned ultra-Malthusian.  (The end of the NASA space program is used here as a symbol of at least the United States giving up on new frontiers and new solutions.)

Athena's last hope is the daughter of a NASA engineer, Casey.  She is the 2015 version of Frank, and Athena believes that her optimism can change the course of destiny, which the bad machine has calculated as 100% probable that the world will end in 58 days.  Much is made of the concept that accepting that destiny makes it happen, but one does not have to merely accept it.  The future can be changed by believing in a different outcome.  Casey is the kind of person who does not accept the current course of future events.  Of course, for Athena and Casey to get back to Tomorrowland, they need Frank's help, but Frank has become a Lorax-style hermit.  The other twist is that Athena broke Frank's heart years ago.  The scenes between the still-hurting Frank and Athena work remarkably well, given that Frank is a 62 year-old man and Athena is a 12 year-old android.  (How's that -- a Hollywood movie that has a leading man playing someone a little older than himself!)

My seven year-old and I enjoyed the movie, though it probably won't go into the Disney Hall of Fame.  The movie is a little wacky like older Disney films Bedknobs and Broomsticks with a little Meet the Robinsons thrown in for good measure.  Enjoy!

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May 26, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Pitch Perfect 2
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, the Pitch Perfect series is not fun for the entire family (I learned this the hard way when my 7 year-old asked me what a b----- was), but it is a fun series for most of the family!  I reluctantly saw the first one, but was pleasantly surprised.  But, I'll have to say that our family loves a cappella music.  Loves it.  Goes to see university performances.  Buys CDs and downloads.  So, your mileage may vary, as they say.

So, an assortment of us made our way to see Pitch Perfect 2.  I will admit that I liked it better than the first and actually better than the other sequel our family was waiting anxiously for this summer (Avengers 2).  The challenge for the sequel is how to have a movie with a lot of performances, but not just copy the format of the first movie -- the Barden Bellas face off against their nemesis group, the Treble Makers, in the national championships.  In the sequel, the Bellas have won the championships 3 years in a row, but take a startling plunge due to a wardrobe malfunction scandal.  Suffering under a suspension, their only hope is to win the international championship to be reinstated, a feat no U.S. group has ever accomplished.  Now that the Bellas have made nice with the Treble Makers, we need a new antagonist in the form of a German group "Das Sound Machine."  The face-off is slightly reminiscent of Rocky Balboa v. Drago (albeit Russian).  The Bellas have to regroup, get back to basics, and "find their sound" in order to stand a fighting chance.

Other subplots include Beca (Anna Kendrick) trying to break into music producing by taking an internship at a recording studio.  The scenes with her boss are particularly fun.  Unfortunately, her cute romance with Jesse is sort of a non-event in this movie, with the boyfriend basically providing occasional support but no interesting scenes.  In addition, a new Bella arrives in the form of a "legacy" student who has dreamed of being a Bella only to find the group in shame and disarray.  The funniest Bella, of course, is "Fat Amy" (Rebel Wilson) who steals the movie again, this time with her romance with Bumper, Treble Maker alum.

Stay in your seat until after the credits for a great "bonus," which again is better than the one after Avengers 2, even though the Marvel Cinematic Universe historically has made great use of the post-credits "button."

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May 04, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Avengers: Age of Ultron
Posted by Christine Hurt

I can't decide if I have post-Ultron depression or if this sequel just isn't that great.  My kids and I have "literally" been waiting for this movie since the credits (really) ended after The Avengers.  We have watched every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe multiple times.  We have watched every episode of Agent Carter and Agents of Shield.  We've known that Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were going to be in the movie since the end of Captain America:  Winter Soldier.  We bought our tickets ahead of time.  In 3D.  But walking out, I kept asking everyone, "Did you like it?  Was it better than The Avengers?" because I was not sure.

There are many spoilers, so the rest is below the fold.

My children (not really persuasively) tried to tell me the sequel is at least as good as The Avengers, but here are my points of contention.

1.  Why does the movie not answer any questions from the other movie?  Or even ask them?  No one bothers to mention that at the end of Iron Man 3 Tony blew up all his suits and had the arc reactor removed from his chest.  Though that movie ended with Tony looking like he was giving up being Iron Man, this movie opens with hints that the Avengers have been blowing up Hydra facilities since the end of Winter Soldier.  Huh?  And no one talks about how Steve Rogers and Falcon are supposedly out there looking for Bucky.  Nope.  I understand that every movie should stand alone, but they could have tiny wisps of commonality to tie them together.  The only allusion to the other movies since The Avengers was Steve mentioning that he had seen Natasha flirt "up close."

2.  Where is Pepper?  Or Jane?  I understand that the movie was already expensive and paying for Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman to show up might have been too much, and their schedules may not have allowed for it.  However, it seemed really dumb for the cast to ask where they are and receive such dumb answers (Pepper's running Stark Industries and Jane is up for a Nobel prize).  Even Peggy Carter could show up for 2 minutes.  I was reminded of the season Brenda left 90210 to "go to college."

3.  MOST IMPORTANTLY, where is Agents of Shield?  Where is S.H.I.E.L.D.?  Loyal watchers of AOS should have been rewarded somehow.  Last week's episode ended with a brief reference to "the twins" being held in Sokovia and Agent Phil Coulson telling Agent Maria Hill to "call the Avengers."  Age of Ultron opens with the Avengers raiding that Hydra base in Sokovia.  And. . . . that's it.  No Phil.  At one point, Nick Fury saves the day in the helicarrier and someone asks, "Is that S.H.I.E.L.D.?"  and the answer is "that's what S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be."  (This is a paraphrase -- actual quotes not online).  And that's one of the few references to the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Even though S.H.I.E.L.D. was detonated and scattered in Winter Soldier, no one asks whether it still exists.  From what you can tell, the Avengers are Stark-financed and presumably given orders by Maria Hill, who gets her orders from . . . .?  According to the Internet, the 2-hour finale of AOS Tuesday will fill in where Fury gets the helicarrier from and who helps him get it.  But I really wanted to see Phil Coulson.  

4.  Ultron is not nearly as interesting as he could be.  So, let's see.  Ultron has amazing AI and knows everything and lives in the Internet.  Yet, he's going to bring down humanity by dropping something heavy on them?  Um, why not bring down every global system for delivery of finance, food, water, health, etc.?  There is some fake hand-waving over nuclear launch codes, but that's so 1980s that no one cares.  If Ultron lives in the internet, he could do some pretty interesting things to bring the world to its knees.  Even the Mandarin could take over the airwaves.  Presumably, Ultron is so bored with the human species that it does not wish to torment, torture, or destroy it slowly.  But more could be made of this.  With James Spader's voice and Tony Stark's brain, Ultron should have a more interesting personality.

5.  The action scenes have already been done.  Remember the Battle of New York, where Tony was supposed to take care of the real threat in the air, and the rest would deal with crowd control, killing metal clones and guarding human life.  That is also the Battle of Sokovia.  The opening battles was so stylized and hectic, I thought it was a video game.  I really thought that after four minutes, the movie would open (a la Toy Story 2) with the characters playing an Avengers video game on the Wii U.  Bottom line, there is nothing new in the action sequences, which could have been less about brute force than ingenuity given an AI villain.

6.  Quicksilver looked just like he did when he was Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina.  I couldn't get it out of my mind.

7.  Tony ends the really funny running joke about profanity by asking Steve if he kissed his mother with that mouth.  Steve's mom died in the 1930s.  So, not quite as funny.

8.  The movie seems to be passing the baton to "new Avengers" (Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Vision, War Machine).  Tony says he's "tapping out" (again).  I like the Avengers, not the new Avengers.

I guess in the end some of my points are small and insignificant, but there isn't much big and awesome to like in Age of Ultron.  There is still great humor, which makes it better than most action movies.  But the action was old and the ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe weak.  The link now are the infinity stones, but very little is explained about them.  Oh, well.  The fair has left town.  Time to look forward to next summer!

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April 14, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Home and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
Posted by Christine Hurt

I'm behind on a few movies, so here's a twofer.  I'll start with the bad news.

Spongebob.  However bad you thought it would be, it's worse.  The kids and I went on a cold day during Spring Break when it was at the dollar movie.  We overpaid.  The youngest, age 7, swears it was good, but he's just doing that to save face.

I'm not a Spongebob hater.  Back in the early 2000s, when I had toddlers and a stream of Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer and Caillou, Spongebob was a welcome respite from cloying sweetness.  Spongebob was laugh-out-loud funny but still had a sweet spirit.  I can still tell you episodes I enjoyed:  the claw episode, the driving test episode, the marching band episode, anything with Sandy.  But then Spongebob became annoying to me.  I have not spent enough time or analysis to know whether the show got worse, or it just wasn't new any more, or Phineas and Ferb filled that smart-but-sweet family cartoon void better.  Anyway, I have outlawed Spongebob in the same way that others outlawed Barney.  Too much is too much.  But here we are watching (the second) Spongebob movie in the theater.

The basic plot is familiar -- Plankton wants to steal the formula.  The actual plot is beyond my understanding:  something about Antonio Banderas as a pirate reading a magical book about Plankton trying to steal the formula, then the pirate ending up with the formula and Bikini Bottom looking worse than Pottersville after Uncle Billy loses the money.  There's a time machine and a magical space dolphin.  Then the Bikini Bottom characters go to the surface to get the formula back from the pirate.  (the trailer is almost all about the "out of water" portion of the movie, but 90% of the movie is not "out of the water.'  It's almost as if the writers were on some sort of psychedelic imagination-enhancers and everyone got to put in an idea.  Don't go.  Don't Redbox.  Just don't.  Surely there's a rerun of Phineas and Ferb on.


Home.  This movie may not be the good news, but it's better than Spongebob.  We were very excited to see this movie based on the trailer and it was a Friday night destination.  It was ok.  The marketing is really interesting.  To "seed" the idea of a new movie with new characters based on a little-knownchildren's book "The True Meaning of Smekday," the producers created a short film called "Almost Home," which played in theaters before other Dreamworks movies.  That short film, featuring Steve Martin as the incompetent leader of the alien Boov, was really funny.  The longer movie is not quite as funny.

As seen in the short, the Boov are on the run from another alien race, the Gorgs, and are having a hard time finding a hospitable planet.  They finally find Earth.  Of course, Earth has inhabitants, so Captain Smek tells the Boov that humans are stupid and in need of the Boov to take over, which they do.  The Boov relocate the humans to Australia.  (The Boov are all on one spaceship, so it's hard to imagine that they fill up the entire non-Australian planet, but they seem to fill up at least New York and London.)  Our heroine, Tip (full name Gratuity, unexplained), is separated from her mom and hiding out in New York from the Boov.  Our almost hero, Oh, is a Boov on the run after he is blamed for attracting the attention of the Gorgs to the Boov's new planet.  Soon, Oh and Tip are driving a car (made to hover by Oh, who is something of a technician) to Australia.  Apparently the car moves at the speed of the Concorde, though it looks to just be ambling in the sky.  Like other road movies with two opposite characters, the scenes between Oh and Tip are pretty funny.  The best scenes are in the trailer if you don't want to spend any money.

I haven't read the book, but the movie requires you to suspend a lot of disbelief.  If Tip is 14, how does she know how to drive a car?  In New York?  Why is she named Gratuity?  How do 7 billion people fit in Australia?  Where did all of those row houses for the humans get built in one day?  How did any of this happen in one day?  The best part of the movie is of course Oh, who is voiced by Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory.  His character is very similar to Sheldon's character.  He is very literal, selfish, and lovable.

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March 11, 2015
Family Film Blogging (Oscar Edition): Boyhood
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, those who saw my FB rants know that I was stuck in airports two days this week.  I tried to get some work done, but I'm also not that serious, so I downloaded a movie.  I chose a movie that I wanted to see, but wasn't particularly fun for the whole family:  Boyhood.  Running time was 2:46, which helped to pass the time.

As almost everyone knows now, Boyhood was shot over twelve years, so you see the characters age in front of the camera.  The film is really a series of scenes from twelve different years of a family's life, focusing on Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who ends the movie graduating from high school and going to college.  Physically and emotionally, he ages the most of anyone on-screen.  He and his extraordinarily self-centered and bossy sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), live with their single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette).  In the second year of the movie, their dad Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) shows up and become reintroduced into their lives.  By the end of the movie, Mason has moved from a stoner would-be musician less-than-part-time dad to an actuary dad who drives a minivan with his new wife and baby and is a more-than-part-time dad.  But, he is still less than perfectly reliable.  Samantha is still self-centered and bossy, and Olivia is still utterly unappreciated by her children, though those around her often comment on the impact she has had on others and how well she has raised her children.

The scenes are fourteen mini-movies of Mason's childhood, and they aren't wholly connected.  We meet characters in one year that are gone the next and never spoken of again, including stepfathers, stepsiblings, and friends.  The movie opens in an unnamed Texas city, but Olivia's family moves first to Houston and then to San Marcos.  If you are from Texas, the movie is quite a treat, with hints to tell those in the know where scenes are filmed and places characters go.  In Houston, the family gets a mean, drunk stepfather and in San Marcos the family gets a sullen, drunk stepfather.  The children also get a loving stepmother and step-grandparents, who come with a birthday gun and a birthday bible.  Mason has friends, bullies, and girlfriends that pop up in one year and disappear.  Surprisingly given the drunk stepfathers, Mason and his sister also spend their early (and later) years drinking and smoking pot with permission from their parents.  But, Mason pulls it together in the last two years and goes off to college (Sul Ross in Alpine).

If you enjoyed Slacker and Dazed and Confused, then you'll love Boyhood.  I tried to think of it as a sequel to Dazed:  if the characters there had skipped a decade or so and had kids, they could have been Olivia and Mason, Sr.  What would there kids be like?  I think Mason and Samantha.  Mason is very much like the main character in Dazed.  All the grown-ups are nagging him to have a work ethic, but he doesn't see what a work ethic has done for his mom.  He is somehow on a superior philosophical plane that separates him from others, whether they are schoolmates, teachers or bosses.  He listens to his dad, but that's about it.  He reaches his pinnacle and finds his people on move-in day at college.  They go on a vision hike ('shrooms and all) to Big Bend and talk about how you don't seize the day, the day seizes you.

So, I'll be a weirdo.  I know everyone loves this movie, and it is definitely a great moviemaker's movie.  A lot of references to current events remind us of the passage of time, as well as the aging of the actors.  The novelty of having your actors age alone is worth watching the movie.  I've been thinking of certain scenes since I saw it, and definitely the scenes feel very real.  But I am not and have never been an ambivalent, wishy-washy man-boy.  I'm not a fan of Hamlet, or Holden Caulfield or Mason.  I don't have a romantic notion of him and his place in life.  I love boys -- I have two of them.  But in my movie, Mason would come to appreciate his mother (and his stepmother) and not plan to cruise through college (on his not-so-rich parents' dime) going to class when he feels like it. 

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March 10, 2015
Family Film Blogging: McFarland, USA
Posted by Christine Hurt

McFarland, USA with Kevin Costner is the latest in a run of PG Disney movies that are live-action, family films.  In a film industry made up of animated movies on one side and PG-13 action movies and R-rated drama, these movies are big hits with our family of spread-out children's ages.  We also enjoyed Million Dollar Arm with Jon Hamm.

To be honest, our oldest daughter didn't want to go because she thought it sounded so similar to Million Dollar Arm.  The premise of that movie was that an aging (almost washed up) talent agent went to India to find great cricket players to be MLB pitchers; hilarity ensues as cultures clash, leading to the inevitable heartwarming "becoming a big family" moment between the young Indian athletes and the agent.  The agent has an opportunity to return to his former glamorous life but doesn't.  The premise of McFarland is that an aging (almost washed up) football coach moves to a small town near Bakersfield, California, which is populated with migratory farm workers with Mexican roots.  The very white Coach (last name White, new nickname Blanco) sees potential in a small group of bad football players and attempts to turn them into cross-country runners.  Hilarity ensues as cultures clash, leading to the inevitable heartwarming "becoming a big family" moment between the White family and the families in town.  Coach White gets the opportunity to move on to a glamorous life as the Palo Alto track coach, and you can guess what happens.

Though the premises are very similar, the movie was really enjoyable.  Particulary if, like us, you are from the "Texican" part of the world.  The story is sweet and gritty enough to be real.  And, the story is true.  At the end, we get to meet the real characters of the story, set 25-ish years ago.  The movie has a challenge:  cross-country is not exciting to watch.  Other sports movies have pitching contests, stealing bases, football touchdowns, etc.  Cross-country was not designed to be a spectator sport.  But, the movie does a good job of building tension in races anyway.  The movie runs long (over two hours) and probably could have been cut down somewhat, but the scenes move the story.  As evidence, our seven-year-old never got squirmy.

My friend and I had one quibble:  The movie is set in 1987, a year I know very well.  None of the ladies in the movie have 1987 hair.  They have 2014 hair.  There should have been more bangs, perms and hair spray.

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February 23, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Into The Woods and Annie
Posted by Christine Hurt

Just before DVDs come out, here are two reviews of holiday movies the kids and I finally caught at the "dollar movie" ($4).  We were excited about both of these back in December, but then the reviews came out and we dragged our feet.  In the end, we weren't (too) disappointed.

Into the Woods.  If you were wondering what Anna Kendrick was doing with Neil Patrick Harris last night during the Oscars opening number, this is it.  Kendrick seemed to be wearing her exact dress (but not shoes -- remember the cow ate one) from her role as Cinderella in this musical movie.  Unlike my kids, I had not seen even a high school production of Into the Woods, so I was struck for the first time at how clever the plot is.  Many (many) fairy tales are woven into one story of an old, ugly witch who gives the barren baker couple next door a chance to have a child if they will go "into the woods" and fetch her four objects by midnight in three days -- a red cape, a milk white cow, a gold slipper and hair the color of corn.  The woods here are a metaphor for [life/the world/fears/hopes/whatever].  People are changed when they go into the woods and emerge wiser and less innocent.  The Broadway version (not the high school musical version) is grittier, so some of the songs don't seem quite right with the Disney-fied version, but that's ok.

So, is the singing good?  Yes, by most measures.  Meryl Streep is much better than she was in Mamma Mia, I suppose because the genre is a better fit?  Or the range?  The autotune?  Anna Kendrick is also great, as is Jack (of beanstalk fame), played by Daniel Huttlestone, sounding (and looking) exactly as he did as Gavroche in Les Miserable.  I found this actually distracting, but that may just be me.  The funniest song is "Agony," sung tongue-in-cheek by Prince Charming (Chris Pine) and his brother, Rapunzel's hero (Billy Magnussen).  It goes on a bit long, but so does everything in the movie.  At one point, my son got up to go to the restroom, and I warned him that the movie was almost over.  He gave me a knowing look and said, "No it's not, Mom."  And it wasn't.  So, if you think the play goes on a bit long, so does the movie.  All in all, I'm glad we went and thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Annie.  We were shocked that this movie did not get good ratings, particularly because the trailer seemed so promising.  Now, we aren't as shocked.  I think the reviews for this movie are low for two reasons:  substance and score (I guess that's everything, though).  

When the movie came out, I noticed a lot of chatter on FB about how parents with adopted children should stay clear of the movie.  And here's the problem.  Little Orphan Annie was a depression-era cartoon, and the play and Carol Burnett movie version keep the action in our romantic past.  The long-distance lens lets us pretend that orphans in orphanages are blissfully ignorant of their basket-on-doorstep pasts, perfectly well-adjusted and healthy, one day away from a happily ever after with a new family, and temporarily cared for by a matron who is too campy and funny to be too evil.  But Annie tries to revamp the musical by putting the events in modern day, where we know a little too much about the foster care system, attachment disorders, and reunification to find the fairy tale in five foster care children daydreaming about their real families.  The foster mom, played to the hilt by Cameron Diaz, is more sharp than funny as a bitter alcoholic. Of course, if the movie were too realistic it wouldn't be the same musical, so our five foster care children feel sorry for their foster mom and laugh her off.  The right balance may have been impossible, but it's definitely not there.

So, our 2014 Annie is still waiting for her parents, who left her (somewhere) when she was 4, leaving a note saying they would come back and get her and a locket.  She seems to have no memories prior to being left, and no hard feelings.  But early on, she (literally) runs into Mr. Stacks (Not Warbucks, but close), who is the richest man in America and is running for mayor of New York.  He is elitist and out-of-touch, and befriending a "foster kid" improves his polling.  Annie is worldy-wise and agrees to play along, all the while continuing her search for her real parents.  Of course, the two opposites grow fond of each other, but the evil scheme of Stacks' political consultant and the foster mom to "find" the real parents intervenes.

Here, again, reality intervenes.  In a realistic movie, the thought of paying a couple to pretend to be the real parents of a little girl, take her somewhere and "dump her back in the system" seems like the worst atrocity, not a temporary plot tension.  This twist does not play well in a light-hearted musical.

Which brings us back to the musical.  The credits list as producers not only Will Smith & Jada Pinkett Smith, but also Jay-Z.  These extremely talented people know a lot about music.  But funnily enough, the "new" songs are completely unmemorable.  They are not toe-tapping, and in fact they can't even get the actors in the movie into any sort of dancing most of the time.  The musical restraint here is very boring.  In Enchanted, show-stopping song and dance numbers were woven into the script, even though they seemed out of place and out of time.  The script used that juxtaposition, and it worked.  Here, the subtle songs just don't work. 

there are also some plot holes -- Where is Stacks' mother and the rest of the family?  He acts like an orphan, but his family is just in Queens.  Where is Annie's parents?  If Annie becomes an overnight social media sensation, why don't they come forward?  Especially when the fake reunion is plastered everywhere?  In the 1920s, it is realistic to think that families would become separated and unable to find each other.  Now?  Not so much.  

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January 20, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Paddington
Posted by Christine Hurt

Apparently, people love Paddington, especially critics.  Paddington currently has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  What else has a 98% rating?  Not much, really.  Here are the top Rotten Tomatoes movies for 2014, and movies with that high a rating are artsy movies you and I will never see because they won't be in a movie theater near us.  Boyhood is 98% -- a movie that took 12 years to make by Richard Linklater is vying with Paddington for top honors.

Why am I so persnickity?  (British movies make me start speaking like Mary Poppins, especially since Ancestry DNA tells me I'm 69% British, more British than the average British citizen.)  I'm not.  It's a cute movie.  One might even say "twee."  But why it is a critical darling is a little beyond me.  Here is one review on Rogerebert.com -- the movie deftly walks the line between old-fashioned and technical wizardry, with some political pro-immigration overlay.  People love this bear.

I do not dislike bears.  One of my favorite movies (and very few people can say this) is The Country Bears, which has a 30% Rotten Tomatoes score, even with a great soundtrack.  Perhaps I don't get the Paddingtonmania because I never read the original books by Michael Bond.  Either way, I will solidly report that the movie was perfectly enjoyable, but not anywhere near recent children's movies hits, such as Big Hero 6.

The movie begins with some magical realism -- a British explorer travels to Darkest Peru (treated as a separate country here) forty years ago, befriending two "civilized" bears, who learned to speak English and conduct themselves as Englishmen using the explorer's books and other paraphrenalia he left with them.  They eventually came to look after their nephew, until an earthquake destroyed their tree-home.  The aunt put Paddington on a steamship as a stowaway to London to find the explorer and then went to the retirement home for bears outside of Lima.  Paddington sails along and gets to Paddington station (for which he is eventually named), living off jars of marmalade he has brought with him.

Paddington is taken home by the Brown family, fairly reluctantly.  Though his aunt told him that the English will of course welcome orphans with notes around their neck, just as English child evacuees were welcomed in the countryside during WWII.  This, predictably, did not happen when our bear landed at Paddington station.  So, our little bear is fairly sad to hear that the Browns will only host him for one night until suitable arrangements with an orphanage can be made.  And no, the Browns do not seem overly surprised to see a bear in the train station, nor do any other humans seem startled by a talking bear.  "Bear" does seem to be a substitute hear for a type of immigrant:  neighbors complain that a bear has moved in but at least it is just one; there is a complaint that a bear might play "jungle music" into the wee hours; the villain plays on this feeling by hinting "it's never just one bear."  

Of course, this is a happy family movie, so fairly soon the Browns plus Paddington are a happy family.  As the housekeeper notes, the family needed Paddington more than Paddington needed them, evoking every type of stray animal movie one could think of.  The movie could end once this small tension was resolved, but there is a larger plot at work:  an evil villain (Nicole Kidman) wants to literally stuff Paddington and make him part of a collection at a natural history museum.  So, the family must join together with Paddington to save the day.  ( I will say that under scrutiny, the larger plot device makes no sense to me.  The villain's origin story dates back to the explorer's return to London, when no one believed that he met two bears who were civilized and stripped him of respectability.  Yet, in present-day London everyone takes for granted that talking bears would be walking around, clothed and articulate, having tea and marmalade-covered toast.)

Of course, Mr. Brown is the most reluctant to accept Paddington (dragging his heels by 10 or 15 minutes more than the rest).  Mr. Brown is also Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey, or Hugh Bonneville as real people call him.  He has a particularly amusing scene in which he must dress as a cleaning woman.  All in all, we spent an enjoyable holiday Monday at the theater with Paddington.

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January 15, 2015
Family Film Blogging (Oscar Edition): The Imitation Game and Big Eyes
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, Oscar nominations came out this morning, on the heel's of Monday night's Golden Globes.  I'll have to admit, I didn't rush out and see a lot of the holiday season movies because the reviews were not very good on any of them (i,.e., Unbroken) and FB friends were also critical (Annie, Into the Woods).  But I have recently seen some movies that got some Oscar and/or Golden Globes love.

The Imitation Game.  I took my 15 year-old girl to see this, mostly because she's in love with Benedict Cumberbatch.  We were not constrained by knowing anything about Alan Turing.  We sort of knew that he was vaguely good at computers before they existed.  That's all. Many reviews have criticized the story's departure from historical truth, both about specific facts and in the portrayal of Turing's personality.  In the movie, Turing is portrayed as someone possibly on the autism spectrum:  his vegetables can't touch, he can't understand simple social situations (he doesn't understand "Hey, we're all going to lunch" as an invitation from co-workers), he doesn't get simple jokes, he is very rude and literal to those around him, etc.  This style creates a fun character just a notch more intelligent/arrogant/unapologetic than Sherlock Holmes and Sheldon form Big Bank Theory.  But, of course that character doesn't hang together -- if you can't get jokes and puns, you can't do crosswords.  But critics say that character doesn't match Turing's personality, who was vibrant, well-traveled, and quite active in gay society.

None of this matters much to me.  My daughter and I thought the movie was perfectly wonderful, if a little slow at times.  I think the story that is told brings you to one point to ponder, which is important.  If Turing had not prematurely died (the movie says he committed suicide, which may not be conclusive), how else would he have saved our world?  And, if Turing died because of his persecution (and prosecution) for being gay, then our bigotry cost us a great mind and untold human advances.  I think this is an important message, and I'm perfectly fine with narrative choices to get us there.  I also enjoyed A Beautiful Mind, even though it did not tell the entirety of Nash's story and took artistic license with parts of it.  As I heard a biographer say once, "biography is not memoir."  

My only quibble with the movie is that the "story within a story" (Turing is supposedly relating the story to a police detective in one sittnig) doesn't quite work with the flashbacks to boarding school.  Is he thinking the flashbacks while he's tellng the story?  While he was living the story?  Is he telling the detective the flashbacks?  Why would he talk to the detective in a non-chronological way, with flashbacks every 15 minutes?

Big Eyes.  This movie was ignored by the Oscars, but Amy Adams (my favorite) won a Golden Globe for best female actor in a Comedy.  Big Eyes isn't a comedy, just in case you didn't know that.  The movie is another biopic, this time about Margaret Keane, a painter and single mom who marries a would-be painter and real estate agent, Walter Keane.  Walter is supposed to be selling "his" paintings (we find out later they are purchased from the real artist) and Margarets, but ends up taking credit for painting hers, which are more popular.  Margaret's "big eye" depictions of waifs in various settings become a national craze, and the pair can't risk their fans' wrath by revealing the truth.  Margaret eventually is no more than an indentured servant of Walter's, painting all day in a studio so that Walter can sell the paintings to the wealthy and facsimiles of the paintings to the masses.  Even when she finally leaves him, she bargains for her freedom by agreeing to keep painting under his name.  Margaret's plight is made even worse by the fact that the lie prevents her from spending time with her daughter (i.e., she can't paint in front of her daughter), having friends over, or even having conversations with others.  A great chunk of her day is secret.

Like The Imitation Game, there are websites where you can fact-check Big Eyes.  Much of it is true, including the showdown scene at the end.  For this movie, I went with my 13 year-old son, who asked to go, and he really enjoyed it.  The movie is directed by Tim Burton, so there are some cartoon-ish camera angles and scenes, but it doesn't get in the way of the movie.  The actor who plays the fiendish yet charismatic Walter is Christoph Waltz, who himself looks like a Rankin-Bass character (think Snow-Miser meets the magician from Frosty the Snowman).  He is eerily believable as the pathological liar, Walter.  I'm sorry that it didn't get a lot of Oscar love, but I would definitely recommend it.

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January 06, 2015
Family Film Blogging (Holiday Edition): Penguins of Madagascar and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
Posted by Christine Hurt

We traveled a lot over the holidays, so we are behind on the December 25 releases; however, we did see two of the pre-Christmas releases:  Penguins of Madagascar and Night at the Museum:  Secret of the Tomb (otherwise known as Night at the Museum 3).

Penguins of Madagascar

I will admit that I did not want to see this movie.  I see the penguin quarter from the Madagascar movies as similar to the weird squirrel in Ice Age:  pretty funny the first time you met up with them, but pretty annoying as time and sequels drag on.  I could not imagine that a spin-off movie would be that interesting, particularly because I had watched at least one episode of the penguins' TV show against my will.  But, I lost the vote and off we went.  (The third week of December, the Rotten Tomatoes meter on the movie was very high -- in the 90s; the rating has since plummeted, which is interesting in itself.)  Perhaps because my expectations were set so low, I found it pleasantly amusing.

First, the penguins get a backstory, which is actually interesting and let me actually distinguish the four penguins for the first time.  The plot of the movie is fairly thin:  first, you have to assume that everyone loves penguins, thinks they are cute, avoids other animals at the zoo to see the penguins, etc.  In my experience, penguins are not my favorite exhibit at the zoo, but maybe I'm an outlier.  In this world where penguins are prized stars of movies and documentaries, an evil non-penguin nemesis hatches a plan to collect all the zoo penguins and do something diabolical.  Our 4 penguins are rescued by "North Wind," a sort of S.H.I.E.L.D. made up of animals to protect the animal world.  Benedict Cumberbatch voices a wolf (whose name is classifed) who heads North Wind.  The diabolical villain is voiced by John Malkovich, so all is well on those fronts.  All in all, the movie makes for a pretty good afternoon, though I think it's more of a Redbox purchase than a big cinema splurge.

Night at the Museum:  Secrets of the Tomb

OK, so I love all the Night at the Museum movies.  But, I love both the American Museum of National History and the Smithsonian, where the first two were set.  The third is in (wait for it) the British Museum.  If you remember from the other movies, an Egyptian prince, Ahkmenrah, lives at the New York museum with his magical tablet, which allows the other exhibits to come to life at night.  In the third installation, the tablet is growing green corrosion on it, and the powers are weakening.  Larry (Ben Stiller), must go to the British Museum to see Ahkmenrah's father, the Pharoah, who will explain to him the mysteries of the tablet, in order to save his exhibit friends.  This "crisis" gives the cast the chance to go to the British Museum and meet a lot of new characters and have new adventures.  However, you see that this makes the action much like the second sequel, set at the Smithsonian:  Larry and exhibits go to new museum, have adventures, make new friends, come back to New York with crisis solved.  In fact, many of the interactions are very similar.  In the second movie, Larry met the Smithsonian night guard Brunden (Jonah Hill), and funny banter ensued.  In the third movie, Larry meets the British Museum night guard Tilly (Rebel Wilson), and funny banter ensues.  In the second movie, Larry meets Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), who doesn't quite understand she is a wax figure until the end.  In the third movie, Larry meets Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens), who doesn't quite understand he is a wax figure until the end.  I guess a normal movie-goer might get bored at this point, but not me because I was just so excited that Matthew from Downton Abbey was in the movie!

If I had to point out a disappointing part of the movie (besides not having Amerlia Earhart meet Sir Lancelot and go on a quest together), it was that the "mysteries of the tablet" are stupid.  And I don't mean ridiculous, I mean lame.  And simple.  I won't tell you what the mystery is, but I wouldn't have been as disappointed if the Pharoah had said to dip it in Tarn-X.  But, the Pharoah also was part of an really funny conversation where Larry got to tell him that his Jewish slaves escaped from Egypt and that now every year people get together to have dinner and talk about it.  Pretty funny.

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December 16, 2014
Would I Buy a MoviePass?
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, readers here know that I go to the movies a lot.  A lot.  I really like movies, and movies are expensive.  Particularly the way we go to the movies (like they are going to stop making popcorn any second).  One of the great things about Utah County is that there is a $1 theater and a $3.50 theater (with $1 popcorn) that show movies the week they leave the other theaters, and sometimes before.  But now, AMC and MoviePass are offering a monthly subscription service in Boston and Denver that allow moviegoers to see up to one movie a day for a flat fee ($35 standard format/$45 any format).  If the average AMC ticket price is $9, then you would need to see about one movie a month to break even.

A few thoughts.  First, there are times of the year (February comes to mind) where there aren't any movies to go see at all.  We see mostly family movies, and there really aren't enough of those to eke out a weekly outing all year.  So, if I was paying $35 in February to see one animated sequal, I'd be a little disappointed.  I might make up for it during the summer and the pre-Oscar season, but it would be close.  Second, I would only do it if I were in a city where AMC had enough screens to show a lot of movies:  indies, documentaries, etc.  There really aren't enough mainstream movies that I would want to see 60 new releases a year. (Alas, there isn't an AMC here.)

But, if I did have such a card to a local theater, then I'm sure I would buy a lot of concessions (as if I didn't already).  Even though it is irrational, I would feel like my admission was "free," and I could use more cash for extras.  (Would you like some raisinets with that popcorn?)

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November 13, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Big Hero 6
Posted by Christine Hurt

Boy, have we been waiting for Big Hero 6, and it was worth the wait.  It's not this year's Frozen, but it is a crowd-pleaser.

First of all, the movie is the origin story of a group of superheroes that is never referred to as such in the movie, but is the "Big Hero 6."  These characters are Marvel characters, but here they have very little similarity to that series.  In the movie, the action is set in a beautiful, technologically advanced city called "San Fransokyo."  This of course, is brilliant marketing for a movie with a ready-made global audience.  If you pay attention, you will see that great pains have been taken to not pin down whether the city is in America or Japan.  Someone talks about making "chicken wings," but doesn't necessarily call them "Buffalo wings," so they could very well be Japanese wings.  The result is actually pretty cool, and the city is beautiful.  On to the story:  Hiro, our uh, hero, is a 13 year-old genius who squanders his abilities on illegal robot fights until his older brother, Tadashi, convinces him to enroll at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology.  This is Disney, so not only are the two presumed orphans (there parents are "gone"), but also a tragedy takes Tadashi's life early in the movie.  (Sorry.)

But Tadashi didn't leave Hiro all alone.  Tadashi had just perfected a healthcare robot named Baymax, a Stay-Puft marshmallow nurse who inflates from his charging box when he senses that Hiro is hurt.  Hiro is at first skeptical, then annoyed, but soon he realizes two things:  first, that Tadashi's death was not an accident and second, that Baymax can become a fighting robot to help him avenge Tadashi's death.  Tadashi's university friends vow to help Hiro, mostly because they are worried about him, but come to embrace their new warrior-selves.

If Frozen appealed to younger kids, particularly those that adore princesses, castles and magic, Big Hero 6 appeals to older kids who adore science, computers, and superheroes.  Though some Disney fans may dream of having an ice castle or a talking snowman, some Disney fans may think that a real dream house is having a lot of supercomputing power, a 3D printer and a fab lab.  Hiro has these tools, which enable him to do technology magic.  Hiro is a 13 year-old Tony Stark, only smarter.

My only quibble with the super-science depiction is (of course) its depiction of the two female technology students.  The ensemble has to be rounded out for both ethnic diversity and gender diversity, but I think the ladies get short shrift.  Hiro and Tadashi are super-smart, but fairly "normal" looking and acting.  Tadashi is very attractive and looks sort of athletic.  Hiro is very cute, with "One Direction" hair, which means it goes rakishly in many directions.  The two ladies are named "Go Go" and "Honey Lemon."  (We are told these are their lab nicknames.)  Go Go is very aggressive and abrupt (a "daredevil adrenaline junkie"), while Honey Lemon ("as sweet as her namesake") wears miniskirts and creates weapons out of pink foam.  Really?  So female scientists either have to be super masculine or super feminine?  Weird.

The movie gets very exciting and has moments that are especially heart-warming.  And, it has some pretty funny moments.  The comic relief of the movie is Fred, voiced by T.J. Miller, who is the funniest part of Silicon Valley.  (Though our family remembers him fondly from one of the worst movies ever, Yogi Bear.)  Fred provides great levity to the weighty plot (young boy trying to avenge death of brother with fighting robot).  In the last 60 seconds, you realize that this movie is merely the beginning of a Big Hero 6 franchise, but that kind of makes you happy.

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November 10, 2014
Family Film Blogging: The Book of Life
Posted by Christine Hurt

One thing I love about living in Utah County is that there are two "dollar" theaters where movies play at the end of their run at movie theaters.  Saturday, the two boys and I saw The Book of Life for $3.50, even though it was still playing at full-priced venues.  The seven year-old had wanted to see if after seeing the preview, but the almost thirteen year-old was skeptical.  However, the movie won us all over.

This animated movie is a little different than normal Disney/Dreamworks fare.  The characters are not drawn as beautiful, round Pixar characters.  Instead, the characters are shaped like wooden puppets, and move like very graceful, magical jointed dolls.  (Although the heroine has big doe eyes, like a Bratz doll, that seem out of place.)  The setting is Mexico, and the decor and landscape is multi-colored and bold, like Mexican tile.  The plot also revolves around The Day of the Dead and the two afterlife realms:  The Land of the Remembered and The Land of the Forgotten.  Death and hell aren't normal kiddie fare, but the result is magical and lovely.

The rulers of the two realms (La Muerte and Xibalba) make a wager regarding three childhood friends, Maria, Manolo and Joaquin over which boy will grow up to marry the girl.  Though the story gives both boys lovable characteristics and positive qualities, it is clear that Manolo, who is sensitive and thoughtful, is the man for Maria, a forward-thinking woman who is educated in Europe.  Joaquin is not the bad guy, though, which makes it hard to root against him.  Eventually, Xibalba interferes when it looks like he is going to lose the bet, and Manolo ends up in the Land of the Remembered, an amazing realm pulsing with music, artistry and life.  But that is not the end of the story, just the beginning.

The movie doesn't have the laugh out loud humor of a lot of animated movies, and the plot is fairly simple.  However, the great soundtrack and beautiful artistry makes it a must-see.  And, as much as we love to see fairy tales of Western and Northern Europe, it's good for a change to see a movie celebrating a different part of the globe.

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October 21, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Meet the Mormons
Posted by Christine Hurt

We were among the last folks in Provo-Orem to go see Meet the Mormons last night.  As it was ending, my very astute middle child whispered:  "The point is for non-Mormons to Meet the Mormons, but only Mormons are going to see it."  (Of course, we were seeing it in Provo, so that probably doesn't give us a random sample of moviegoers.)  So, the topic of this family film blog post is to ponder what would make a non-Mormon go to the movies and choose this movie over another.

The reviews from film critics are pretty low.  The word "infomercial" is used a lot.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the reviews from users are very high.  So, here's the deal.  The movie isn't a documentary made by outside filmakers who want to see the ins and outs of a religion.  There are no interviews with detractors or those who have left the church.  There aren't profiles of church leaders or discussions of sensitive points of church doctrine.  It isn't even a reality show where cameras follow members around 24/7 and edit it to portray maximum conflict and tension.  The movie is a portrayal of six families, chosen for a purpose, to show the diversity, ordinariness, and impact of selected members' lives.

A narrator begins in Times Square and shows media clips of common portrayals of Mormons (yes, even South Park).  She then takes us around the world (in beautiful filmmaking reminiscent of IMAX movies) to meet various members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  She sums up at the end by hoping that the audience sees the "common ground" that LDS members have with other religious followers.  And that is what the vignettes focus on -- the core values that the members have and the choices they have made to put God and Jesus in the center of their lives.  The movie does not explore church doctrine or mention the beliefs that make LDS doctrine different from mainstream Christian doctrine.  (This is not Mormonism for Dummies.)  I don't think Joseph Smith or Brigham Young were even mentioned.  The movie isn't an exploration of how LDS doctrine differs, but instead focuses on how it is similar to other religions.  The movie depicts two converts who still maintain close ties with their families, who profess other Christian religions, along with a Nepalese man who still kept the religious customs of his family.

I enjoyed all of the stories, and I can see how they were carefully selected to combat subtle (or not so subtle) stereotypes of Mormon culture.  The subjects are from different races, cultures, countries and socioeconomic backgrounds.  One of the families is led by a working mom who is a mixed martial arts champion.  I get it.  But I still enjoyed all of the uplifting stories. I laughed, I cried.

So, is it worth the average viewer's time and money?  I think so, though Redbox, Netflix or Amazon Prime might also be the way to go.  (The movie is 78 minutes long.)  If you are of my generation, you may remember the commercials that were produced by the LDS church.  You can find some on the Internet, but I couldn't find my two favorites.  One showed a dad shopping with his daughter and agonizing over how much little girl stuff cost and the other showed a dad and his son running to put the trash out after the son forgot to do it in time.  I loved those commercials, and so did a lot of folks.  Growing up RLDS, people would always ask me "Does your church make those great commercials?"  Actually, no.  Anyway, the movie is a bit like those commercials -- heartwarming, inspiring, thought-provoking, but not really challenging or informative.  Finally, the movie is also a bit like an IMAX movie.  I love those short movies, and I notice that in recent IMAX movies Jerusalem and Arabia, the filmmakers focus on what all people have in common, even the three main religious groups that inhabit Jerusalem.

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October 13, 2014
Family Film Blogging: Assorted Dystopian Future Films (The Maze Runner and The Giver)
Posted by Christine Hurt

When I was a "young adult," books geared toward me dealt with parental divorce, mothers dying of cancer, anorexia and the occasional unwanted pregnancy.  But everyone knowns now that YA novels must have a dystopian future (or a wizard).  (See, e.g., Catching Fire and Divergent et seq.)  Two recent movies jump on tha tbadwagon, adapting two other YA novels that depict a dystopian, totalitarian future:  The Giver and The Maze Runner.

I will have to admit that I may be one of the very few moms out there with kids that have gone through middle school who has not read The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry.  Sorry.  But I get the feeling from watching the movie that the book may have a little more to offer.  The NYT Magazine interviewed Lowry here about watching the book be made into a movie twenty years after writing it.  There has to be something weird about writing a book (a single book) decades ago about a totalitarian future where everyone is made to believe that a regimented life with people being organized into work and life by a supreme authority is optimal and then see some young whipper-snappers copy that idea into zillions of dollars (See, eg., Catching Fire and Divergent, mostly Divergent).  LIke Tris in Divergent, Lowry's Jonas begins to sense that life isn't supposed to be about just doing life the way it has been done, organized into familes, occupations, etc.  Very similar to the ceremony in Divergent in which young people are sorted into "factions," young people in The Giver are sorted into occupations.  Jonas is left to the end, and he begins to think there is something wrong with him (divergent, possibly?)  But no, he is given the position of "receiver of memories," which is held only by one person in a generation.  He is to be the memory laureate of the community -- he alone will hold the history of mankind, with its tragedies and blessings, wars and creative accomplishments, weapons and musical instruments.  The trick is though, that the outgoing "receiver/giver" has to give Jonas all of this accumulated knowledge (through some sort of forearm-mindmeld thing) without Jonas balking and deciding that this form of government is completely whack, as the young people say.  As you might imagine, Jonas does exactly that.  Watching the movie, I felt that I wasn't really understanding everything because I did not read the book.  Maybe the book is meant to be a small allegory or cautionary tale and not a summer blockbuster.  Anyway, when you watch the next Divergent movie, just know that Lois Lowry did that first, without as much violence.

Speaking of violence, The Maze Runner does not flinch from modern depictions of a totalitarian future.  I also did not read this book, though my children did.  As far as violence goes, this movie is more along the Divergent and Catching Fire lines than The Giver.  The beginning is very existential -- our hero, Thomas, wakes up in a metal elevator, which is rising to an unseen destination.  The elevator ("box")stops when it emerges from underground into "the glade."  This green space is fairly large, with groves of trees, grass, and a really bizarre stone or metal wall surrounding the green space and extending high into the sky.  Thomas cannot remember who he is and has no idea why he is here or what "here" is.  And neither do the other teen-age boys that greet him.  They also arrived via the box, one a month for three years.  They were expecting another arrival in the box, along with supplies.  Someone or some thing sends the box once a month, but no one knows who.  The supplies are marked with "wckd."  The boys have created a type of community with three rules:  do your work, don't hurt anybody, and don't go into the maze.  The maze is on the other side of the tall wall, and there is a door that opens during daylight hours.  Of course Thomas, being our hero, immediately wants to go into the maze.  And early on, you get the sense that this ok-topia that the boys have worked out over time (apparently with some rough patches) is not going to stable for too long.  The Lord of the Flies seems imminent.

The rest of the movie (obviously just a first installment) poses one central tension:  is it better for the boys to continue on and live in a sort of harmony in the glade, living off the land and the necessary supplies that come once a month or to risk this sort-of-acceptable existence to find a way out through the maze, past the "grievers" (gross robot giant spider things), and see what is outside?  Should they cash everything in and risk death to find out who they are and why they are there?

Because this is the first installment, we get to see the gladers trade what they have for something, but we aren't sure what the something is.  As my daughter said to me on the way out:  "Everyone is lying."  Yikes!  Maybe I should read the book.

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