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.
So, if you are one of approximately nine people in the country that hasn't seen The Avengers yet, you should probably go ahead and go. (And remember, stay until the end of the credits.) I have seen it twice. Once in 3D.
So, I have to admit that my son and I went on a mission to meet all of the prerequisites for the movie. We have seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America. Our favorite was definitely Captain America. But, I have to say that the movies all point toward this summer's blockbuster, interweaving characters and subplots in a nice way. So, we were excited to see The Avengers, and it did not disappoint. And, if you haven't seen the prerequisites, you probably aren't too lost. There's enough brief exposition to get everyone up to speed enough to enjoy the film for what it is, and enough esoteric references to affirm the comic book nerds who know all the backstories.
The main plot actually comes from probably the weakest of the prior movies, Thor. Thor's evil stepbrother, Loki, has regrouped since he was last banished and come under the tutelage of an even more evil villain in the "other realm," a realm that includes Asgard, Thor's home country. At the same time, S.H.I.E.L.D. has uncovered "the Tesseract," the strange 4-dimensional blue cube that gives off magical energy, which was stolen by the Red Skull in Captain America and buried with Steve Rogers at the end of the movie. The Tesseract originally came from Asgard, and Loki has promised it to these evil Chitauri folks. Once Loki has the Tesseract, then Direct Nick Fury must assemble the Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk and Captain America. Though not called by Fury, Thor returns to Earth to deal with Loki and so becomes the fourth Avenger. Black Widow and Hawkeye are sort of "hero support" for the avengers, not having super powers themselves, but having "a specific set of skills" that make them very useful. Once the Avengers are assembled, they of course first fight each other before learning how to fight together and save the world.
At least one reviewer has tried to say that The Avengers is really about 9/11, but as commenters pointed out, the analogy was stretched a bit too thin by the reviewer's inaccurate depiction of the facts of the movie. Yes, there is a big, tall building in Manhattan that is the scene of the final battle. Stark's office tower, which he made self-powering via his "arc reactor." However, Stark Tower, which is located in Midtown, predates 9/11 as a fixture of the comic book series, and more likely stands for Tony Stark's ego. At the beginning of the movie, we see him very proud of his building, telling his better half Pepper Potts that she can take "12% of the credit." Later, Captain America, who is often pointing out Stark's self-absorption, describes the building as ugly. The battle takes place around the building, but the fighting isn't really directed toward the building as there Loki has placed the Tesseract to "open the portal" to the other realm so the Chitauri can cross over. To close the portal, Stark has to sacrifice himself, overcoming his own ego to become part of a team. More generally, the movie draws on patriotism as a theme, alluding to various times of turmoil, including Captain America's WWII, and rallying symbols such as the stars and stripes.
Besides the non-stop action, the dialogue is great, mostly everything that comes out of Robert Downey Jr.'s mouth. (And, some of which you can only catch the second time -- including his calling Thor "Point Break.") And then of course the sentimental favorites that send chills up your spine, like the lone German who refuses to bow to Loki saying, "There have always been men like you."
A few things were surprising. First, the producers had to turn Agent Coulson into a likeable character, the Dobby of the Avengers, if you will. But, in the prequels, Coulson is first portrayed as the cold evil of faceless government intervention. The Marvel folks tried to loosen up his persona in a few "shorts" on the DVDs, but they lay it on thick in the movie. We learn that Coulson is pining for a cross-country girlfriend and collects Captain America trading cards. Pepper has befriended him and wants to solve his romantic woes. This becomes necessary for what comes next, which I'm sure you can figure out.
Also, my two boys (who saw the movie separately), both independently announced to me that they wanted to be Hawkeye for Hallowe'en. Hawkeye? Why? I have no idea. He does have bows and arrows (and his quiver has to hold about 2000 arrows, by my count). But he has no superpowers. Maybe he's accessible. Who knows?
So, what are the movie's flaws? As my 12-year-old girl pointed out, Black Widow is a token player in the movie. During a movie season that brings us Katniss Everdeen, this seems a little behind the times. And, the only other woman is Agent Maria Hill, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who doesn't do much but who was given a soldier's "catsuit" uniform. I'm not sure why female agents in the shadow agency aren't issued ordinary clothing to wear. Agent Coulson just wears a suit. Director Fury does wear his long, leather coat whether he's on the base 20 stories underground or on the base 35,000 feet in the air. I guess he just gets chilly. Anyway, women get short-shrift here, but I assume this topic has come up in the comic book world before.
And the weirdest thing is that it would be as easy to compare The Avengers to The Hunger Games as to 9/11 revenge fantasy. Both movies have amazing archers. Both movies have something called "tesseract/tesserae"), which both seem like something you sell your soul for. And, both movies (at least for awhile) have a strangely-clothed "Gamemaker" who is manipulating powerful young people into fighting each other. Weird.
Usually my film posts begin with my explaining how our whole family went to a movie, or the older kids, or the youngest. Well, this is different. Last Friday, I took my four year-old and met three visitors from Malawi at the theater to see Chimpanzee. So, that was a treat -- to see a movie with folks who had never been in a movie theater before but who were from a country near the filming location!
The true-life documentary is being marketed with the narrative of baby chimp is adopted by old, grizzled male chimp after baby's mom dies and it is lost in the forest. So, a reviewer can either assess how well the narrative works as if it's a film, or you can pick at whether the narrative is a truthful rendetion of the thousands of hours of filming that occurred. I think it's hard to separate these two analyses, so I probably won't try.
So, the filmmakers present one group of chimps as peaceful and loving, with cute names like "Oscar" (the baby) and "Freddie" (the old alpha male). They live some distance across the forest from another group, who is presented as territorial, predatory and violent, with names like "Scar." The good chimps venture into the other territory once for fruit out of necessity, as we are told, and are chased out. Hungry again, the chimps hunt some monkeys, and eat one (who knew?). The bad chimps venture into the peaceful territory to pillage their nut grove and strike fear into the heart of the good chimps. Eventually, there is a confrontation, and Oscar's mom, Isha, is killed. I understand that the target audience is children, who need black and white "good guys" and "bad guys," but it's sort of disheartening that any of the circle of life is presented as "bad," but half?
So then, Oscar is an orphan. The film has a lot of close-in shots, and there is a good 5-7 minutes of Oscar alone, trying to open nuts (unsuccessfully), getting a lot of bugs in his fur (hair?), and generally looking abandoned and maybe lost. The voiceover by Tim Allen (or Buzz Lightyear in our house), talks of Oscar looking for his mom and trying to survive. But then, I saw a chimp arm in the corner of the screen, so I think he was always with his group. But, the group doesn't seem to want to take over his mom's duties, leaving Oscar probably destined to die. Then, the leader of the group, Freddie, takes him under his wing, feeding him, grooming him and letting him sleep with him. Apparently, this never happens. And, it may have happened without the film crew noticing, because literally the footage goes from Oscar alone to Oscar adopted. There is no usual fictional film "thawing montage" with the gruff adult slowly warming to the sassy cute kid. Then, the movie's over.
My biggest concern with the movie was whether it was too scary for my 4.5 year-old. Three years ago, I blogged about taking Luke and his first-grade class to see Earth, which I called "Disney Faces of Death." Luke was not a big fan of the long, drawn-out death scenes in that movie,
I briefly saw a headline on some newspaper's blog entitled something to the effect of "Will You Let Your Children Watch The Hunger Games?" I guess I can answer "yes." I went with my ten-year-old last week, and my twelve-year-old is going today (no school).
I presume that the question was based on the fact that the premise of the movie is disturbing. The movie is based on the first book of a trilogy set in a dystopian world governed by a totalitarian regime. (Pretty much every "YA" book that isn't about vampires is about dystopian, totalitarian future worlds. When I was a "YA", all our books were about your parents getting divorced, your mom getting cancer, or your having anorexia.) In this dystopian world, a revolution from all 13 "districts" was quashed by "the Capitol," but as punishment, every year the 12 remaining districts must select 2 teenagers to fight to the death on national TV -- a mash-up of The Lottery and Survivor. So, the premise itself is not very kid-friendly: 24 teenagers having to play a life-or-death game of survival.
However, the book and the movie present a moral that is anti-violence, so the movie has to walk a line between being suspenseful and not glorifying violence. This result is achieved by quick camera-work, cuta-aways, and a few off-camera deaths. But, as most moms can tell you, little kids are affected more by sadness than by violence, and mine got teared up when the youngest participant, Rue, died (aptly named, obviously), even though her death was not gory, just sad.
The movie has been enormously successful, due of course to the popularity of the books among YAs and adults alike. The story features Katniss, a teenage girl who fights to keep her mother and younger sister from starving after the death of her coal-miner father in the poorest, most remote district, District 12. She "volunteers" to be a "tribute" after her little sister gets picked in the lottery, and has fearsome resolve to not die, if not to kill. Her fellow District 12 tribute is Peeta, the doughy son of a baker, who has led a comparatively soft life. However, he is very personable and charismatic, making him at least popular on the TV show. He also concocts the story that he is in love with Katniss to gain viewer support for Katniss and himself, and the reader of the book is left guessing for awhile as to whether he is simply playing the game and whether Katniss is just playing along. Either way would be fine if Katniss' scrappy best friend Gale wasn't tuning in to watch. Besides the love triangle, the other tension is that only one tribute can be the victor, so which one will it be? I won't spoil the ending for the 6 or 7 people out there that haven't read the book.
Even if the movie is enjoyable on its own, true fans won't be satisfied unless the movie honors the book. The movie follows the happenings of the book, but it some challenges. First, much of the book is set in Katniss' mind, and only there do readers learn of the backstory of the politics of the districts, the revolution, and the post-revolution government control. So all this has to come out in other ways. I'm not sure if I hadn't read the books whether I would have gotten the full story. For one thing, the government-engineered "hybrid" animals are never explained and even cut out of the ending. However, the mockingjay is left in (the symbol of District 12 and the title of the second book/movie) without explanation, as are the trackerjackers (yellow jackets on steroids). Also, the movie didn't explain how some kids' names were in the lottery multiple times because they received government rations. We also don't get a good sense of how Katniss hunts to keep their family from starving; it almost look like she sneaks out to hunt with her really attractive friend for fun. Finally, I don't think that Katniss comes off as emotionally stunted and anti-social as she is in the book. In the first few scenes, she is shown being affectionate with Gale and her sister, and so it's then hard to picture her as a girl who has forced herself to become solely interested in survival of herself and her family.What the movie does do that books don't is depict the action behind the scenes of the Hunger Games -- President Snow wielding pressure on the Game Maker, the Game Maker and staff manipulating outcomes in the Games, Haymitch lobbying for sponsors, and the garish elite in the Capitol enjoying the violent Games from their position of safety and plenty. The books are told from Katniss' perspective, and all she sees is what the players see, even though she accurately suspects most of what is happening outside of the arena. So, did I like it? I didn't dislike it, but I have to admit that I couldn't get into it. I'm not sure why. It could be that the suspense of the book is the outcome of the Games, and once you know that, the steps to get there (which don't deviate from the book) are not that interesting. It could be that the characters were miscast, which a lot of people are saying. The actress who plays Katniss seems to be very good, but I never suspected any chemistry at all between her and the actor who plays Peeta. My son asked me if I was on "Team Peeta" or "Team Gale," and I have to say that at least after the first two books, I was totally on the "Team Peeta" side, but I can't say that after seeing the movie. Or, it could be that the premise of the movie (24 enter, 1 leaves) is just not that fun to watch. It's unpleasant, even when you know the ending. That being said, I'm sure we will be there when Mockingjay opens. At least in that book, the totalitarian regime starts to crack, and there is some hope!
Last Friday, our whole clan went to see The Lorax (yes, in 3D, which was noticeable and added some value). I'll have to say that it was a big hit.
We own the Dr. Seuss book, but I have to say that we never read it. It's not colorful. It's not catchy. And toddlers don't like dystopian fables, even about trees. According to this book review, The Lorax may be more complex than an attempt at environmental evangelicalism. It could be a parody of Malthusian ecologists (circa 1971) who don't convince anyone of anything with their rhetoric ("I speak for the trees" -- who talks like that?). Whether it's meant to convert children to environmentalism or not (and quite frankly, in this era of "reduce, reuse, recycle" that horse is out of the barn), the book itself turns off little readers. Just like the Lorax turned off the Once-ler.
But the film is different. The film wraps the story from the book with a different story -- the story of Ted, who wants to find out about trees to win the heart of an older girl, Audrey. Ted and Audrey live in a very colorful world, which we learn is completely artificial and without plant life. In fact, though their city (Thneedville) is pretty, the residents purchase air in big blue plastic bottles, much like we buy water. This is not a coincidence. Audrey dreams of seeing a Truffula tree, so Ted sets off to find the Once-ler on advice from his Grammy, who remembers the trees. Then we see that Ted's town is really in a bubble, and he must leave the bubble and cross a barren wasteland (like the icky pictures from the book) to find this old hermit. There, his conversations with the Once-ler follow the book, but the flashbacks to Mr. Once-ler inventing Thneeds and chopping down trees are also done in full color, interspliced with Ted's returning home to the city a couple of times to break up the serious part of the story.
The story within the story then is the story of Once-ler inventing the "thneed," a bizarre infinity scarf that seems to have no use. It is not a "need" you see, but something that marketing convinces people that they do need. But, it's made from the fluff of the Truffula tree, and Once-ler's horrible mother and family convince him that sustainable harvesting is too slow and that chopping down the trees will enable them to meet the demand. Of course, supply is then depleted and so is the land, forcing the brightly colored bears and fish to leave. The Lorax, of course, tries to warn Once-ler of this (played cleverly by Danny DaVito), but his warnings are not heeded. Soon, the bucolic countryside is barren wasteland and the factory town is only revitalized by Mr. O'Hare, who sees the need for bottled air and artificial scenery. The Once-ler, who had some definite Oedipal mother-issues, retreats as a hermit. (It is unclear as to whether the bottled air is actually necessary. Ted seems to be able to breathe just fine outside the bubble. There is some sense that just like bottled water, Mr. O'Hare has convinced people to buy something that was ample and free. However, the process of making the bottles is polluting the outside air even more, thereby ensuring the existence of the industry.)
So, back in the wrap-around story, Ted needs to fight off Mr. O'Hare and his spies, plant the Truffula seed and win the high school girl of his dreams. Perhaps the book ended ambiguously, but the film does not. Ted succeeds where the Once-ler did not due to true love and a really awesome mom and Grammy.
So, is the film anti-corporation? That's an interesting question. At the height of his Thneed empire, Once-ler (Ed Helms) sings a song called "How Bad Can I Be?" This song would be a great addition to a Law and Economics class on externalities. Our tragic hero is arguing that he is merely acting rationally -- he is homo economicus. But we can see that he is not externalizing all his costs. Now, of course, he meets his tragic downfall because he depletes his supply and goes bankrupt. But, a lot of the harm is heaped upon the landscape, the wildlife and the residents of Thneedville. So, one could argue that the Once-ler was not acting rationally because he did not have long-range planning, and if he had, then that would have minimized externalities. Or, you could argue that regulation should have stepped in and limited his deforestation when that was not in his self-interest. Could be interesting.
What did my four-year old think? He thought it was a really cool song.