Posts Tagged ‘family films’

Why So Serious, Superman?

August 7, 2013
Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades.  Click the pic for the link.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades. Click the pic for the link.

As some of your know, I’m currently working to get my own take on the Super Hero story, The Adventures of MightyDove, out into the public eye.  Of course over the past decade, the likes of Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and company (though it still frustrates me that Wonder Woman can’t get off the ground) have hit the big screen running, and have fought their way into the mainstream.  Being a guy who remembers comic conventions being nothing but white boxes in the back room of a cheap hotel, it amazes me to see nerd culture firmly established a primary driver of pop culture.

My big fella, now twelve, has discovered the series Smallville, a show full of intrigue and teen angst wrapped up in a Superman package—perfect for an imaginative pre-teen.  While Smallville became something of a wildly uneven show after about the 3rd season, especially after losing Michael Rosenbaum, who was to my mind still by far the best Lex Luthor ever depicted either animated or live action, it did a nice job jugging the very delicate balancing act needed of the genre.  You don’t go 10 seasons without doing something right…

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

With their “No Flights, No Tights” axiom, they endeavored to seat characters who felt real into the unreal world of Superman.  While sometimes redundant with the “freak of the week,” they always managed to capture the sense of almost comic bewilderment when the wild and wacky happened.  It always gave you that small edge of the tongue-in-cheek that allowed you to feel amused at the situation even as the world—or at least Clark and Lana’s relationship—were put ever in peril.

Yet as much as Gus is currently obsessed with Smallville, he didn’t really love the latest Superman iteration, Man of Steel.  Indeed, he and I both came to a similar conclusion after we took in the movie.  Great effects, thin plot, and absolutely no joy.  We both came out feeling that the failed reboot that was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (interesting to note that it gets a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, far higher than the 56% for MoS) was actually more entertaining because, despite its many flaws, it felt more like, well…Superman.

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Of course, Mr. Hippie Nerd here had a very difficult time with the climax to Man of Steel.  [SPOILERS] Indeed, I was actually a bit heartened to learn that producer and Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan actually vehemently disagreed with Zack Snyder’s decision to have Kal-El snap Zod’s neck.  Not only has Superman always been about finding ways not to kill the enemy (see the animated movie Superman vs. The Elite now streaming on Netflix for a great example), but the film actually set up a perfect device (the terraforming of Earth to make it Krypton-like) to defeat Zod without resorting to death.  Snyder seemed to go out of his way to make sure that the man who stands as an example of what humanity should aspire to would be pulled down into the abyss of, “Sometimes you’ve just got to kill the bad guy.” Nolan wasn’t the only one to express dismay over Snyder’s decision.  Grant Morrison, a well-known comic book writer whose titles include the All Star Superman series, had this to say:

“It’s a credible Superman for now. But I’m not sure about the killing thing. I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our super­heroes to do that?”

[END SPOILERS] Indeed, this trend to pull Super Heroes down to “our level” is in no way limited to our favorite Kryptonian orphan.  Iron Man 3 took our wise-cracking Tony Stark down a dark hole of addiction and PTSD.  Captain America: The Winter Solider, is already being billed as “darker” – more of a 70’s noir feel.  And even the most comedy-laced mainstream hero there is, Spider-Man, was so angst-ridden, so humor-free in his latest incaration that even star Andrew Garfield admitted that it was a problem with the first film.

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see!

Increasingly, the whole genre seems to be suffering from Dark Knight Disease.  Not that the TDK trilogy wasn’t excellent.  It was.  But so was Thor, the Avengers, and Sam Rami’s first two Spider-Man films.  Not to mention The Incredibles and Megamind, both of which were successful even venturing into the realm of pure comedy. And did I mention all those films made a load of green?  So no excuses to be found there for always taking our heroes down the dark path.

My greatest fear of this “hyper-realistic” trend is, by removing the joy from Super Heroes, they are extracting the most essential element of the genre: imagination.  Not that you can’t create a serious yet imaginative Super Hero film.  But for the audience, the genre is removed from that dreamlike, aspirational quality.  Super Heroes may have powers, but they cease to become super.

In the urge to make these heroes more like us, we lose the wonder that makes us want to be better, to be more like them.  And I think that is a genuine loss to our kids, who despite the mainstream audience and grown-ups engaging in cosplay, should still be who we make these stories for.

With the announcement that The Dark Knight Returns author Frank Miller is consulting on the new Batman vs. Superman film, my skepticism deepens that much more.  TDKR was a seminal comic book series, turning Batman into a gothic, noir struggle where each and every hero—even the sainted Superman—had feet of clay.  But it was the opposite of inspirational: a desperate slog through a dystopian future with only the faintest glimmer of hope at the conclusion.

Okay, I don't NEED the Batusi, but...

Okay, I don’t NEED the Batusi, but…

While I don’t need Batman dancing the Batusi to be satisfied, I urge the stewards of Super Heroes to remember that the entire genre is predicated on the fantastic notion of what could be.  That is what sparks the imagination of children of all ages to strive to be more than we are, to want to do something to make the world a better place, just like this amazing Mother told her young son after he discovered that Superman wasn’t real.

So when it comes to saving Super Heroes, I think the best advice is to relax and don’t take it so seriously.   Just imagine all of them in their underwear.  That always seems to do the trick.

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The Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

May 17, 2013

Despite some reservations based on the Countdown to Darkness comics, resistance was futile.  My Trek-loving big fella and I lounged at the luxury theater this afternoon, flipped on the 3D glasses, and beheld the new Trek.

Star Trek Into Darkness poster 4The Movie
Star Trek Into Darkness, Paramount

Based on a  Book?
Nope.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
Eight years old and up.  While Iron Man 3 (sorry, haven’t had time to write it up) is also PG-13, I wouldn’t take my young guy to see that one.  I would this.  I would say the violence is actually more Star Wars-like than the 2009 Trek, with only one real scene worthy of note (see spoilers below).

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  Grab the popcorn.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
When Benedict Cumberbatch’s bad guy gets to the bridge of the other ship, he pulls the old squeeze the skull ‘till it cracks trick on one of the crew.  The crack is offscreen, but it might be considered too intense for younger viewers.  The Enterprise gets pummeled and, just like in the first, we see people sucked into space.  Screams, but bloodless and not all that traumatic in the greater scheme of things (unless you’re that crewman, of course).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (Light Spoilers)
On a survey mission of a primitive planet, Kirk and Spock both knowingly break the Prime Directive to save an indigenous people—and Spock himself—from a planet killing volcano.  They are greeted back at Starfleet with scorn.  Kirk is demoted, Spock is transferred, and team Enterprise seem destined to be broken apart.

Behold JesuSpock!

Behold JesuSpock!

But a mysterious figure engineers series of terrorist events, starting in London and then tearing at the heart of Starfleet Command itself that leaves no choice but to put Kirk back in command as they hunt down the mysterious John Harrison.

The manhunt takes them to Qo’noS (Pronounced “Kronos”), the Klingon homeworld, where Harrison inexplicably and single-handedly saves the landing party from attack, and then surrenders himself.  We find out that Harrison is not his real name, and that he may well not end up being the true, or at least only, villain in this affair.  Indeed, the greatest threat may lie within…

My Review (Heavier Spoilers, but I’ll let you know when)
I’ve been pretty clear I had reservations about this movie, but I felt I went into it at the end pretty open.  I saw the high fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, saw a number of good reviews, and remembered that a lot of people really missed the “Star Trek” within the 2009 film.  JJ and company gave me a good ride a few years back.  I was ready to strap in again.

There were a number of things to like about this film.  Most notably and centrally, this was a story about the coming together of Kirk and Spock.  As a Trek Nerd, I was disappointed that McCoy was once again relegated to a supporting role as they have obviously decided that it is Kirk and Spock that is most important.  Zachary Quinto does a wonderful job as Spock, and while Pine’s Kirk is very different from Shatner’s, I found myself not minding the change.

It was going to be hard to top the Narada, and they didn't

It was going to be hard to top the Narada, and they didn’t

That’s big and carries this film.  But, frankly, most of the rest of this movie doesn’t work very well.  In 2009, JJ and company had the challenge of trying to reboot Trek while staying true to Trek cannon.  I think that actually challenged them to write a cohesive story that, while not perfect (uh, the 2nd lightning storm in space never should have happened) did have a resonant and understandable beginning, middle, and end.  The whiz-bang special effects seemed to be in service of the story.

On the other hand, this film absolutely felt like the plot was servicing the action.  Motivations were glossed over to hurry to the next fight.  The intrigue felt rushed because they wanted to make sure things were moving along.  And other than Kirk and Spock with a bit of a mix of Uhura, the interrelations among the characters, both friends and enemies, felt cold.  The jokes of this film felt like a thin retread of what they did in the first.

The plot itself also lacked punch, and was a huge mistake.  Last time ‘round, we had a massive, nasty looking ship from the future tearing through entire fleets, planets, and almost destroying Earth itself.  From the bad guy’s ship to the aims of the bad guys, everything here felt smaller. Indeed, it really worked against itself because having bigger effects for a smaller story really took away from making their larger scale more impressive.

[HERE COME THE SPOILERS] But, if I’m to say where this movie truly went wrong, it was in trying to borrow from the best of all the original films, Wrath of Khan.  As most of you might know by now, John Harrison is actually Khan, and the eventual showdown between Khan’s ship and the Enterprise forces Kirk to sacrifice himself in almost the exact way Spock does in Trek II (don’t worry, they bring him back, completing the parallel).

Sorry Bennie, no dice.

Sorry Bennie, no dice.

Well, if you’re going to decide to tell in some ways a parallel tale to the best of all the Trek movies, you damned well better deliver.  And in this, Into Darkness failed on pretty much all counts.  I will grant you that Benedict Cumberbatch is a superior overall actor to Ricardo Montalbán, but give me the latter’s Khan any day.  Indeed, given this is supposed to be one-in-the-same, I had a very hard time buying that even with the changes to the timeline, this could be the same person.  And Montalbán’s delicious, charismatic evil was incredibly engaging, while this Khan was nothing but a distant, calculating killing machine.  You never really felt his motivation or his pain.  He was cool, but left me cold.  To me, it was an absolute waste of a brilliant actor.  It would have been much smarter had his character been someone else, as there really wasn’t a need for the Khan connection.  As with everything else in this plot, it felt as forced as the 2009 felt organic.

The Trek II connection also brought out the gaping holes in Into Darkness’ story.  While Wrath of Khan beautifully integrated the Genesis device, a moral challenge of galactic consequences into a more simple story of revenge, all of the “Trekisms” of this film feel tacked on.  Just because you have a terrorist attack, for example, that doesn’t really make it a commentary on terrorism unless you make it connect to something resonant in our lives.  Into Darkness really doesn’t even really try to do that.  Instead it gives you a few throw-away lines and a convoluted connection to attacking the Klingons that seems utterly divorced from modern events.  At the end of the day, this is Wrath of Khan with a lobotomy. [END SPOILERS]

There’s enough to like here to be worth the Trek, but there could have been so much more.  I’m delighted this film will be successful, and even more so because JJ is headed over to Star Wars.  For they now have Trek set up to boldly go where this film should have gone in the first place.

Overall Score: A soft 3 out of 5 stars

The Review: 42

April 30, 2013

As I noted in my last post about Jason Collins, now is a particularly prescient moment to see this film with your kids.  I’ll get to that more in a bit, but let’s talk about the movie itself.

42 Movie PosterThe Movie
42, Warner Brothers

Based on a Book?
No. Though there are numerous books at all reading levels about Jackie Robinson. I’ll get to that below.

Genre
Historical drama

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  While I think this movie might be a little slow for younger kids, the key thing you’d need to decide is whether extremely racist language is appropriate for your child.  I think the power and shock value of hearing how easily racist language and mentalities dripped from Americans in the late 1940s is of tremendous educational value, but you might differ on that.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes, yes, yes.  This film has a very “old-timey” feel to it that anyone who has watched a vintage movie might enjoy, even though sometimes is plays a little cheesy.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Well, the “N-word” is dropped numerous times in this film.  Particularly in the scene when Jackie’s Dodgers play the Phillies under uber-racist skipper Ben Chapman, he is forced to endure a profanity and vulgarity-laced screed replete with sexual innuendo that earns this film its PG-13 rating.  Prepping your younger kids for that scene can help make it a learning experience.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey has decided the time has come for the color barrier of America’s pastime to be broken.  We follow the process of his choice– USC graduate and army veteran Jackie Robinson–breaking through this great wall, starting as a minor leaguer in Montreal through is first season in Brooklyn.

My Review
I saw this movie with my 11-year-old and his buddy, both avid baseball fans.  And as a teaching tool about civil rights, prejudice, and the bravery of the path of nonviolence, it is hard to imagine a better film for that audience.

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

I have to say going in I was a little worried about the choice of newcomer Chadwick Boseman, as from the previews I had not seen the cerebral, almost nerdy Jackie Robinson that I had seen in old films, including The Jackie Robinson Story where Jackie plays himself (it used to be streaming on Netflix, but is no longer…interesting).  Instead, it looked like they had turned him instead into a contemporized and stereotypical “angry black man.”  I have to say that was one concern that was alleviated by a solid scripting of the character and a convincing performance by Boseman.

"You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!"

“You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!”

I was also delighted to see Harrison Ford actually act in a film for the first time in at least a decade, rather than just say lines and collect a check.  While his performance was slightly schmaltzy, again for a younger crowd it worked very well.  Of course, the kids were in complete disbelief that, “That was Indiana Jones!”

Actually, schmaltzy is a great word for this entire movie.  From the score to the script, the film felt not sappy, but larded through a lens of baseball mythology.  From the little boy putting his ear to the track carrying Jackie’s train to the big leagues screaming, “I can HEAR it!” to the slow-motion trot around the bases to the shouts of trumpets and angels, the film itself sometimes felt like a glorified movie-of-the-week. But that glorification actually made it work, mostly because this really is American myth.

This story is so seminal that it can stand up to being put on a pedestal and not crash under its own weight.  I actually compare this to John Goodman’s The Babe which in many ways had a similar feel, but despite the realistic depictions of ballparks and Goodman being one of my very favorite actors, it just felt like an over-the-top beatification of the Babe.  But here, perhaps because this was such a huge issue, one that transcended baseball, it works.

Didn't realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in.  Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

Didn’t realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in. Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

And speaking of realistic depictions of the ballparks—wow.  My parents practically lived at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds growing up.  Of course, I’ve seen the parks on film.  But the painstaking CGI recreations of these parks, for the first time, made me feel like I could actually go and visit those long gone baseball cathedrals.  I found the CGI of the ball’s flight when pitched or hit a little distracting and unrealistic sometimes, but that’s a small nerdy quibble for getting closer than I ever thought I could get to experiencing those fields of dreams.  If that’s something of interest to you, I highly recommend you going to see this in the theater.  It will lose some of its grandeur even on your big screen TV at home.

Now THAT'S a slow-motion home run trot!

Now THAT’S a slow-motion home run trot!

Speaking of grandeur, I think what was missing for me in this film was a lack of grandeur, actually.  We skipped from one seminal moment to another, and I almost felt like I was watching a historical highlight reel rather than a cohesive story.  In order to be a great film, I felt like the story needed a little more connective tissue.  One of the great baseball films of all time that has a similar mythological feel, The Natural, is replete with small moments, from talking about how good the food is at a restaurant to batting practice conversation.  It brought a personal feel to a grand film that I really didn’t find much in 42.  Even the personal moments were vital, as if every second of the man’s life was filled with huge importance.  That separation from a regular Joe like me was missing, and, I think, kept 42 from truly competing with movies like The Natural, Field of Dreams (my favorite movie of all time), Eight Men Out, and Bull Durham and even Major League (just the first one) as iconic baseball films.

That said, it does more than enough to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.  Having Gus quote me Branch Rickey’s line “I’m looking for a man with the guts not to fight back!” made it worth the price of admission right there.

Overall Score: 4 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
I will once again recommend that, whether before or after you see 42, you and your kids read the excellent piece Jason Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated as he joins Robinson as a civil rights pioneer through sports.  For more on Jackie Robinson for kids, I’m a big fan of the “Who Was?” series and there is a very good one on Jackie Robinson that we own.  And, to continue the story, one of the all-time classic baseball books Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer is recommended for absolutely anyone.

But, however, you do it, please bring Jackie Robinson into your children’s life.  I truly believe his story is a gateway to a cornucopia of fantastic life lessons.

The baseball is just a fringe benefit.

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2

March 1, 2013

Well, Gus is having his first day back in school (crossed-fingers).  So of course, I spend my first hours alone doing what?  Reading a comic book, of course!  Oh, and for continuity, here is my review on the first issue of this series.

Star-Trek_Countdown-to-Darkness_2The (Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2.  Story by Roberto Orci and Mike Johnson, art by David Messina

The Movie
Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount. Release Date, May 17, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  I added a year on here as there is a particular scene where (SPOILER) one of the Phadians are pretty savagely beheaded (END SPOILER).  Frankly, I didn’t feel that particular image was needed to make the point, but it’s there and so it may not be appropriate for younger children.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Far more interesting and tight storytelling than the first issue.  Good action, but far more importantly, a very interesting dilemma put to Captain Kirk.

Book Availability
Once again, I downloaded this from iTunes for $3.99.  Again no sign of the comics at my local bookstores, though I’d guess the compilation will be there once it comes out.  BUT, I did note that once the NEXT issue of the comic comes out, the price of the previous issue DROPS to $1.99.  So if you’re willing to wait a bit, you’ll get yourself a bargain (relatively speaking).  Issue 3 is supposed to come out on March 13.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers—more than minor if you haven’t read issue #1)
And so we pick up with Kirk and Spock surrounded by light blue Phadians (I’m assuming that’s what they’d be called, as they’re actually not aliens.  In this case, the humans are the aliens) and a former Captain of a starship Enterprise, Robert April.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren't green, scantily clad women.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren’t green, scantily clad women.

We find out that some two decades ago, April, in command of the previous Enterprise, discovered that the blue Phadians were being exterminated by an aggressive subsect of their kind called the Shadows.  It was a classic and brutal case of genocide.  April decided that, in this case, he could not let the Prime Directive stand in the way of saving an entire race.  So he “went native” and his First Officer and friend covered his tracks.

Before Kirk and Spock can get back to their shuttle and crew, the Shadows attack and drive them and April deep into the catacombs where the last of the blue Phadians reside.  It seems that once April introduced advanced technology to this war, someone else jumped in quickly to assist the Shadows.  Their forces were now poised for a final offensive to complete the genocide that they started.

As April, Kirk, and Spock debate the morality of the Prime Directive, one of them slip off, and head, fully armed, toward the Shadow army.  Who it is, however, might come as a bit of a surprise.

Quickie Review (same spoiler level as above)
I liked the first one just fine, but I felt at 22 pages it was a bit thin.  It’s funny, because even though this one is also 22 pages, it felt like SO much more.

The plot itself was very rich, as it really tackled the moral ambiguity that goes along with the Prime Directive.  This issue speaks volumes to current issues, as the technologically sophisticated United States has the ability, as we did in Libya, to play a decisive role in deciding a civil war.  Yet, in cases such a Rwanda in the 1990s, we did nothing and allowed a genocide to happen.  When is it right to interfere in the affairs of other nations?  That, on a planetary scale, is what’s being debated here.

Spock's messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

Spock’s messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

A couple more fun things happen here, as we continue to get a different feel for this Spock.  I’m not sure I like it, as the more I see, the more different he becomes from the Spock I grew up with an idolized.  In some ways, it definitely makes for an interesting juxtaposition, but I’m afraid that the scars of Vulcan’s destruction might actually serve to limit the character’s growth as everything seems to revolve around that now.

It was also fun to see Uhura in command of the Enterprise, as this new generation of our intrepid crew break from the shackles of the glass ceilings of the ‘60s.  However, I really did not like the way McCoy was written, as his interaction with Uhura made him seem power-hungry and scheming, which is completely against type.

I also found it unfortunate that the art of the old Enterprise wasn’t more “old school.”  My understanding is that their original idea for opening the movie in 2009 was to have the Enterprise under April’s command, looking just like it did in the original series, come into contact with the Narada.  I think that would have been amazing, and they could have nodded to that here by drawing his Enterprise more like the one from TOS.

That said, there was a nice drawing of an old-school looking tricorder, and both a race and a name from Star Trek of old that was fun to see.  In all, a very strong issue both for the Trek novice and nerds like me.

Overall Read Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As you might expect, this issue really expands upon the last one.  So what I noted in issue #1 definitely still applies here.  But there is one very large new issue that’s a doozy of a discussion point:

An amazing and haunting book on Rwanda–well worth a read

Genocide: Perhaps one of the most difficult issues for humanity, as we have yet to overcome as a species the drive to exterminate entire peoples simply for what they are.  In this issue of the comic, we have the Shadows painted as nothing but bad guys.  I’ll be curious if they stick there in that “comfortable dilemma” of whether good guys should go in and get the bad guys even if it doesn’t seem to be their business, or whether they’ll open up the Shadows a bit more.  As, of course, the “We were just following orders” is also one of the great debates over what to do in the face of, and the aftermath of, genocide.

As difficult as this issue can be, however, it can also be used as more of a personal allegory to cases of racism, bigotry, and bullying.  Is it always the right thing to do to get yourself involved when you see someone else doing something wrong?  If you see injustice, is it better to involve yourself as an advocate for the one being abused, or an arbiter to help diffuse the situation?  April leaped in as a defender, not doing anything to even try to see if he could change the situation without taking sides.  Was that the right thing for him to do?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But it sure is interesting to talk about.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie

Eh, go play with your Death Star

Oh, go play with your Death Star already

I wish I could say that issue #2 made me feel a little less nervous about what to expect from the movie, but it didn’t.  I think the issue itself is great Trek, but I remember in the Star Trek: Countdown series before the 2009 film, there were wonderful, Trek-like allusions and discussions, but because the film was intended for an audience that had no familiarity with Star Trek, little-to-none of that was included in the picture itself.

I have to say that perhaps a little bit of more worry comes from feeling 2nd best now that JJ Abrams has taken on Star Wars.  It’s not that he’s doing the new movies—that’s fine by me.  It’s that when he agreed to take it on, he said, “I can just say what I want to do: I want to do the fans proud.”  Given his quote while making Trek 2009 was “I’m not making this for the fans,” I still continue to be concerned that while he enjoys the Star Trek characters, he does not seem to really enjoy the core of Roddenberry’s vision.

Yes, yes.  I’ll try to remove the Tauntaun-sized chip from my shoulder before I see the movie in May…

The Review: Beautiful Creatures

February 27, 2013

Well, I have a bit of a blogging backlog as for the past two weeks we’ve been dealing with the impact of a pretty severe concussion my big boy suffered. Indeed, I was about 20 minutes into the movie as I went to see it on the first day when I got the call from the school that he needed to be picked up.

Well, Gus, still not able to get back to school, went with me this afternoon and we finished what I started. I’ll post more about my poor big fella later, but frankly I’m a bit talked out when it comes to that. So a little escapism first both for you and for me.

You can find my Read It and See It review of the Beautiful Creatures book here.

Beautiful-Creatures-Movie-PosterThe Movie
Beautiful Creatures, Warner Brothers

Based on a Book?
Yes. Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl. Originally published in 2009. First of four in the Beautiful Creatures series.

Genre
Paranormal Teen Romance

Age Appropriate
11 and up. I said 10 and up for the book, but there’s a little more sexual innuendo and some aggressive necking in this version in what felt like an attempt to be more “Twilight like.” So I’d bump it up a bit.

Good for Grown Ups?
No. Pretty muddled and insipid throughout, this movie seems far more directly geared toward a teen audience without any real attempt to make it into more than that.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
The effects of the movie were, as my son said, “cheesy” so there’s really nothing there to surprise or shock. This is a romance-heavy plot, so you’re just going to bore the living bejesus out of young kids if you take them, so do yourself and them a favor and see what’s streaming on Netflix.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Much like the book, we start with high school junior Ethan Wate stuck in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina. His mother recently died and his father has cracked under the strain of the tragedy. Only Amma, the housekeeper who has been like a second mother to him, is keeping things together. But he longs to leave the pain of the past and the small-minded pursuits of Gatlin society behind him.

Mean Girls can be beautiful creatures, too

Mean Girls can be beautiful creatures, too

But when Lena Duchannes comes to school, Ethan’s entire world will be turned upside-down. It starts just by defending her against the taunting of the bigoted “mean girls”, who ostracize her as a devil-worshiper because she is living at the old Ravenwood estate with the town shut-in, Macon. But as they get to know each other more, a bond forms between them, cemented by a curious broach that gives them a vision of two lovers separated by tragedy in the Civil War.

As their friendship turns to romance, Lena opens her secret world to him. She is a Caster, a magical creature from a long line of such, and is fated due to a curse brought on by those lovers to be chosen for a light or dark path on her 16th birthday. As the mysterious world of Casters opens, so too does the dark side of Lena’s family, who see her as a portal to bring their kind out of the shadows and into control of the world. Her fate, and their love, will determine the fate of us all.

My Review
When I had to leave this movie the first time, I told Gus that I felt pretty good about it. I was very pleasantly surprised by Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan. First, I liked the southern drawl he used even though the book clearly said that his mother taught it out of him. It lent some grounding to the setting that was really needed. I found his confused, depressed, and funny attitude to really work in the roll. Further, he seemed to have some real chemistry with his buddy Link, played by Thomas Mann.

Had I never come back, I would have been better off. I assume the pull to be Twilight was just too great, as the humor quickly drains from the story and shifts quickly to teen melodrama. Link and the funny buddy relationship quickly become an unfortunate afterthought. What I assume were budget constraints made the supernatural settings and effects feel entirely unbelievable, and in an attempt to keep focused on the protagonists, the rich world of the book is sliced so much that it becomes entirely unrelatable and uninteresting.

I do hope they restocked the bourbon in my trailer.

I do hope they restocked the bourbon in my trailer.

I felt the good performances also ended with Ehrenreich. Alice Englert does generally fine as Lena, but I couldn’t get over the thought that they were just looking for the new Kristen Stewart. Jeremy Irons felt like he was sleepwalking, complete with an accent that seemed to flitter in and out at any time. Viola Davis also screamed “Show me the check!” Emma Thompson at least looked like she was trying, but her role was so poorly written, especially with the new and asinine plotline of Casters taking over the world (why hadn’t they already?) she ended up feeling more like a caricature in both her rolls.

And what was a fairly thin plot in a very long book is rendered completely incomprehensible here. Both Gus and I looked at each other, and felt the whole thing made no sense. Indeed, it felt like that so much import was put on the scenes with Ethan and Lena fighting for their love, that everything else became unimportant. So what was left was a lot of teenage whining and something about magic people needing to do some magical stuff because, well…it’s magic.

The only plus over the book that this has is that there is a little more sexual substance between Ethan and Lena. That felt needed and realistic given the intensity of their feelings, and the fact they’re horny teenagers. But in the book, physical contact between the two of them actually hurt Ethan, a fantastic little detail about how their love was forbidden. Leaving out some of those easy details robbed this film of any of the creative charm of the book.

In other words…yuck.

Overall Score: 1.5 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
As I noted in my review of the book, it has its moments. But if you look and say “I don’t want to spend the time on a 600 page book, so I’ll just see the movie instead,” don’t waste your time. Either read the book or don’t read the book. But don’t go looking for the book in the movie, because it’s just not there.

The Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

January 9, 2013

Finally, a chance to give my feedback on Peter Jackson’s efforts to turn one little book into three big movies.  I saw this at a theater in 3D but on the standard 24 frames per second format.  So I cannot speak to how the ultra-clear 48fps looked.  You can check out the book review in my Read It Then See It post.

Hobbit PosterThe Movie
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Warner Brothers, New Line.

Based on a  Book?
Yes: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, originally published in 1937

Genre
Children’s Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Eight years old and up.  While the book is appropriate for younger children, I felt the film mirrored the tone and violence of Jackson’s LOTR films.  I personally would not have been comfortable taking my child to see it until I felt he was ready for at least The Two Towers, which was for me this past year, when he turned eight.  My sister took her son, who is six, and they both loved it and had no issues.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  While I’ll get to what I see as flaws in this film later, this is really designed for a more mature audience despite coming from a children’s book.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
I often feel that it is the specter that is more frightening than the monster.  In that way, perhaps the most frightening scene in the film is when Gandalf tells the story of another wizard only mentioned in the book, Radagast the Brown.  While in his home attempting to revive an injured animal, he comes under attack from unknown creatures scuttling around the outside.  As it turns out, these are giant spiders we will see in future installments, but Radagast is able to send them away with only their hind quarters being seen as they retreat.  So especially for any of you who have read the book but don’t know it’s coming in the movie, this may be a good time to let your child know that not only will the wizard prevail, but you don’t even really see the spiders (at least not yet).  Also, Azog the one-armed Orc warlord is a pretty freaky and frightening piece of CGI.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
We begin with the fall of the great dwarf city of Erebor by the dastardly Dragon Smaug, and the rise of its heir, Thorin Oakenshield.  With the assistance of wizard Gandalf the Grey, here begins a quest to retake what has become the Lonely Mountain.  Much to the surprise and skepticism of dwarf, elf, and wizard alike, Gandalf has chosen a little hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to serve as the party’s thief. At Gandalf’s urging, Bilbo reluctantly leaves the comfort of Bag End to join the dwarves on this adventure.

Magneto and Dr. Who together in a Hobbit movie?  Nerdgasm!

Magneto and Dr. Who together in a Hobbit movie? Nerdgasm!

The group is almost immediately beset by danger, from hungry trolls to vicious goblins.  After being lost in a Goblin’s cavern, Bilbo stumbles on a creature called Gollum, and a simple but attractive gold ring.  He tricks Gollum into helping him escape with the added aid of that magical invisibility ring.  Bilbo uses the ring to great effect, saving Thorin and with Gandalf’s help escaping to within sight of the Lonely Mountain.  But something wicked has just awakened in the mountain, and will be awaiting them with fire and desolation…

My Review
So let me start out by saying that I enjoyed this movie.  The acting was superb and I, for one, really did not find the many additions from the books, from Radagast to the White Council to the significant expansion of the story of the Necromancer, to have taken away from the story.  Indeed the significant expansion of Gandalf’s character from a clearly supporting role in the book to a very central figure throughout was, I believe, an excellent choice.

No one tosses a dwarf!

No one tosses a dwarf!

The issue with this movie for me is that it felt very much a “square peg/round hole” effort.  Jackson is essentially attempting to use The Hobbit as the glue that holds a larger story together that connects this tale directly to his fantastic LOTR films.  In doing so, he replicates the same brooding, serious tone of his other films.  Indeed, An Unexpected Journey in many ways feels even more serious than Fellowship of the Ring, as the frivolity feels more sporadic, less organic and, frankly, more annoying with the band of dwarves than it did with Merry and Pippin as well as Gimley providing some needed relief to the dire circumstances.

Frankly, this story, even with Jackson’s embellishments (which, credit where credit is due, is all derived from source materials) is simply not epic enough, feeling more like a thin version of his epic trilogy.  The Hobbit is a children’s fairy tale, even after Tolkien edited the book after writing the trilogy to make it more consistent.  In Jackson’s desire to make these films feel absolutely contiguous with his first trilogy, I believe he has robbed that sense of mirth and fun and replaced it with a grandiosity that is simply not supported by the plot.

What we end up with is an enjoyable, but very bloated piece of filmmaking.  I also found that, unlike LOTR, the CGI effects became distracting, especially in the goblin cavern where the combat looked like a medieval version of Attack of the Clones.  And there came a point when Gandalf said “RUN!” for the 6th time that I felt like I wasn’t watching a plot develop, but a video game on a loop. I found Fellowship of the Ring the strongest of the three LOTR films, and then while they were still wonderful, each became more flawed as the series progressed.  I’m just hoping I’ll be able to say the reverse of The Hobbit trilogy.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
All said, I think there is a LOT to be said for seeing this first and then reading the book.  My sister has been doing this with my nephew, and both of them have been having a great time finding the references in the book that Jackson used as cues to expand upon.  Indeed, in the end there may be something to be said for those that are hot Rings nerds to hold off on the book until you’ve seen all the films.

The Review: Rise of the Guardians

November 27, 2012

Hey everyone, sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything.  I’ve been eye-deep working on my book (more on that soon) so blogging had to take a back seat.  But I’m back as the G-men and I took their Savtah and Grandpa to the movies over Thanksgiving weekend as we were very curious to see the film version of our very favorite new book series—The Guardians of Childhood.  Here are my Read It Then See It posts on the first two books, Nicholas St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund.  I am in the middle of reading the third in the series, Toothiana, now and will post about that as soon as I’m done.

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks Animation

The Book(s)
Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King
E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core
Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies
By William Joyce

Genre
Fantasy

Age Appropriate
The bad guy, Pitch Black, could get a little scary for very young children, but given he’s the Boogeyman, he’s actually pretty tame.  The main character is also resurrected from drowning in a frozen lake, but it is also handled with a very deft touch.  I think this film would work for any child 4 and Up.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Generally.  It’s a fairly simple fairytale, but not too cutesy and insipid.  Solid voice acting and CG animation make this a fine couple of hours for the grown-ups.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
A few things here for those that are a little more sensitive.  When Pitch first begins to do his dastardly deed, he perverts a dream that a little girl is having about a unicorn and turns it into a black, flaming-eyed stallion.  That could be a pretty disturbing image, but you can tell your child that the unicorn will get her revenge in the end.  Also, Pitch manages to overwhelm the kindly and powerful Sandman, and seems to destroy him.  Again, you can assure your child that no one can truly destroy dreams, so no doubt he’ll be back to help save the day.

Evil, but in a very British way

Finally, the aforementioned origin of Jack Frost, near the end of the film when he finally remembers his past shows him saving his little sister and falling through the ice and drowning, only to be brought back as the spirit of the cold by the Moon itself.  It’s pretty mild, but young kids might be a little scared by seeing his human form sinking into the icy water.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
The fantasies of our youth: Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman have been chosen by the Man on the Moon to serve as the guardians of our dreams, hopes, and imagination all fueled by the power of children’s belief.  Jack Frost, a new spirit on the block, can make mirth and mischief, but, unlike the Guardians, cannot be seen by children, as even the kids consider him just a fantasy.

The Man on the Moon, however, elevates Jack to full Guardian status despite the resistance of the gang, as the notorious Boogeyman, Pitch Black, has arisen again intent on turning all the dreams of children into nightmares, and stamping out all the belief in the world in magic and wonder, replacing it with a faith in the inky fear that he feeds on.

Jack resists being made part of the team, but when he finds out his true purpose with the help of the one boy who resists Pitch’s bid to stamp out joy in the world, he is able to free the Guardians and, in a final battle with the villain’s minions, drive him back into the shadows and free children to dream again.

My Review
It is impossible to fully separate my opinion of this film from that of the books, as this sort of serves as a quasi-sequel though a number of changes were made to the main characters, most notably the Easter Bunny that went from high-browed intellectual to Crocodile Bunn-ee.

Gus’ favorite thing about the movie was that “New Kirk” was in it, as Chris Pine provides the voice of Jack Frost

To me, it’s a bit surprising that William Joyce was so involved in this movie, as it has the feel of someone who had taken some wonderful books but said “it’s too complicated” and mucked with the whole formula in order to dumb it down for a mainstream audience.  I guess they felt they absolutely had to have all the Guardians in the first film, so better to have the origin story of a new character (Jack Frost) than to try and cram in the introductions of everyone else.

Okay, I generally get that, and the film itself is nice enough.  At it’s center, it is about a person finding his purpose in life, and understanding the worth of bringing joy to others.  The general sentiment as brought to the fore by all the Guardians is nice, and each character has an interesting edge (Santa being a sword-wielding Cossack, Bunny being a boomerang-throwing badass, Tooth Fairy’s obsession with nasty bloody teeth, etc.).  The elves play the now all-too-predictable Minion role from Despicable Me.

The voices, most notably Alec Baldwin’s Santa, are all very good, and the animation is first rate.  The story itself is fine, and there are a number of laugh-out-loud lines and pratfalls, but definitely plays second fiddle to the visual spectacle.  At some points, it also felt like the story was struggling to decide if the journey was Jack Frost’s or the human boy who helps him.  But all in all it is light, fairytale fun.

But as an avid reader of the books, especially the absolutely stunning Nicholas St. North, I cannot but decry the missed opportunity here.  People LOVE good origin stories, and in the first book, you have the origin of Santa himself, as well as other beloved favorites from a nightlight to a bookworm to the Man on the Moon.  I cannot for the life of me understand why there was a need to cram every character here into one film when you had THE classic childhood fantasy figure’s origin story that deftly mixed magic and science fiction with something very profound to say about how we see the world.  In the holiday season, I think that would have been just as, if not more successful than what they came up with here, and would have far better set up sequels more easily adapted from the source material.

So, overall, a respectable piece of holiday fluff, but no more than that.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
My big fella who has been avidly reading the books with me absolutely detested this film.  He was SO shocked and disappointed that they changed the characters, that there was no Katherine, the heroine of the books, and that the real dream-like magic of the stories was replaced with a frenetic action-hero styling.  I have to say I struggled with that myself.

However, this does make me thing that for those who see and enjoy the film, it might actually be a great gateway into the books as prequels.  I would guess that many kids who liked the film will really be captivated by the books and the many unexpected places it goes, and it will help round out the film’s story, rather than it feeling like a pale imitation as it does when you read the books first.

So, indeed, if your kids have not read the books yet, this is one where I highly recommend a See It Then Read It approach.  Same goes for grown-ups, too.

Read It Then See It: The Hobbit

September 21, 2012

Okay, when hit with the preview for the upcoming movie in front of the IMAX of Raiders of the Lost Ark (still the greatest action adventure film of all time, for my money), I will finally bow and write up my long-promised take on the iconic story.

The Movie
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney, New Line, Release Date December 12. Part 1 of a three film series based on the book and various appendices.

The Book
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, originally published in 1937.

Genre
Children’s Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Six and up. Unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit truly is a piece of children’s literature, told very much like a bedtime story.  Some of the language may be complex for younger children, and there are battles a-plenty, but the levity, song, and general general silliness remove any real feeling of danger or dread from the book.

Book Availability
I actually read this book as my own bedtime story, mostly on my iPhone.  I bought the enhanced version for $11.99 which has links to audio files of Tolkien himself singing some of the songs, and alternative photos.  Frankly, I just wanted to read it, so unless you are a huge Rings-o-phile, save the two bucks and get the regular version that’s available for around $10 on both iBooks and Google Books.  Hardcopy available pretty much everywhere.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Between the Dawn of Faeries and the Dominion of Men lived a group of peaceful, earthy little folk called Hobbits.  But despite their general antipathy toward the complicated and dangerous world of the big folk, a Wizard named Galdalf the Gray chooses a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins to go on the adventure of a lifetime.

Silly Dragon, Rings are for Hobbits!

After reluctantly hosting a band of 13 Dwarves (take that Snow White!), Bilbo discovers that he has been chosen as the “thief” to help them recoup the treasure stolen from head Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield from the dastardly dragon, Smaug.

At Gandalf’s urging, Bilbo reluctantly leaves the comfort of Bag End to join the dwarves on this adventure.  The group is almost immediately beset by danger, from hungry trolls to vicious goblins.  After being lost in a Goblin’s cavern, Bilbo stumbles on a creature called Gollum, and a simple but attractive gold ring.  He tricks Gollum into helping him escape with the added aid of that magical invisibility ring.

Bilbo puts that ring to good use in order to outwit hungry giant spiders, greedy and mistrustful elves, and Smaug himself.  But pride and avarice bring men, elves, and dwarves to the brink of war with one and other.  Only the common enemy of a massive attack from the forces of evil are able to bring them together to defend the treasures of the Lonely Mountain.  Redemption is found, for some, found in death, and Bilbo finds himself back at Bag End, but forever changed by the experience.

Quickie Review
It’s funny, for my own grown-up pleasure I’m currently reading A Dance With Dragons, the latest in the Song of Fire and Ice series (better known as the HBO series Game of Thrones).  You can so easily see Tolkien’s influence on George RR Martin’s writing, everything from the grand descriptions to the breaking out in song.  For when it comes to the fantasy genre, you are hard pressed to find an author who isn’t a Tolkien prodigy in some way, shape or form.

But while Martin’s series is extremely adult, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is an epic work that is also quite adult, The Hobbit is a bedtime story, and is written in that exact way.  He in his style will set up side plots, but dismiss them as “a story for another day.”  He will come out of the narration and made editorial statements about the characters, and he uses poems and song to add the kind of improvisational levity to the story that you would absolutely expect with milk and cookies.

I will admit that I am not a huge Tolkien fan.  I believe that is because he spends a tremendous amount of time giving me the lore of his huge and imaginative world, but I believe it is at the expense of the story (indeed, I find the same fault with Martin’s work).  This is definitely a personal taste, as I know many fans who absolutely adore the rich and insanely imaginative world Tolkien created with Middle Earth.  But I find if you’re not interested in geeking out on the histories of elves and goblins, many of the details can be ponderous and clash with the child-like narrative.

I also have to say that the 13 Dwarves killed me.  I simply could not keep up with which character was which.  Given their names weren’t Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, etc., they became mix-and-match to me and made me simply not care about any of them.  I also found his use of song, which is even more pronounced here than in the LOTR books, to be extremely heavy-handed and took away from the drama.

Great rendering by illustrator Alan Lee

The one part I did LOVE was Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum.  Extremely well paced and you really feel the sinister, pained character from beginning to end.  The riddle contest which ends up being Bilbo’s salvation is a lot of fun (some of those riddles actually made their way into Gus’s LOTR party).

So if you’re looking for tightly written and gripping fantasy tale, I don’t think this is it.  But as prologue to an epic adventure, helping to establish the iconic world of Tolkien, I believe this is a book worth reading.  Okay, Tolkien fans, flame away…

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Doctoral theses have been written on the meaning(s) contained within The Hobbit.  So I’m going to keep it a bit more simple and invite others to add to the conversation.

Everything Changes: At its essence, Bilbo’s story is about a man who fears change learning to embrace it.  Kids have these feelings all the time, mine most recently when going to a new school.  Bilbo’s story can help you to parallel times when your kids faced a new experience.  This can either add empathy for your kids to the story, or by using Bilbo as a guide help them to see change as a positive.

Fun With Riddles: As I mentioned, I think the most cleverly written part of the book is Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum.  If your kids feel the same, what a wonderful way to get them hooked on riddles.  Brain-stretching riddles are excellent cognitive, social, and linguistic development tools.  From problem-solving, to understanding the art of word play, to the development of that all-important funny bone, Gollum will do your kid a big favor if these get her/him jazzed to riddle me this.  Especially if you are reading to your children, you can take the opportunity to stop at the riddle and work with them to figure out the answer to the riddle before you move on with the book.

Greed Ain’t Good: Perhaps this won’t sit well with the Ayn Rand set, but from Trolls to Dwarves to Dragons to, yes, even the sainted elves, Tolkien tells the tales of comeuppance for those who only want more.  What is good in this is that greed is not the exclusive providence of the wicked.  Thorin Oakenshield himself succumbs to it much to his own downfall, and, yes, even the woodland elves’ leader Thranduil was known for his greed.  It’s a good basis for discussion about how avarice can blind you to more important things in your life.

Big Things… One of the most obvious things, yet still perhaps the best lesson of the Hobbit and the whole LOTR saga is that even the smallest of creatures can have a major impact on the world.  Bilbo’s journey goes from him feeling very small and useless to finding the full extent of his courage and usefulness.  This story is a great gateway for discussion on how everyone can have a voice and an impact on the world, and no one should be underestimated or discounted in that regard.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you probably know at this point that director Peter Jackson has decided to turn this tale into not one, not two, but three movies.  From the trailers, I think you can see that he is very much attempting to keep with the darker, more adult tone of his LOTR trilogy, though he does say that he has attempted to keep some of the whimsy of this children’s story intact as well.

It seems that the first film, An Unexpected Journey, will be Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain.  The second, The Desolation of Smaug, will focus on the rise and fall of the dragon, and the third, There and Back Again, will climax in the Battle of the Five Armies.  Seems like a reasonable way to split them up.

I actually preferred the LOTR films to the books, as I felt Jackson kept to the spirit of the books but cut a lot of expositional fat that I did not enjoy in Tolkien’s writing style (though I’m still fuming at the removal of the man and the myth, Tom Bombadil).  It will be interesting to see what happens here, as this trilogy seems to be less The Hobbit and more a piecing together of Tolkien’s appendices with The Hobbit’s story meshed in to try and paint a fuller picture and more direct bridge between these films and LOTR.  In many ways, this will likely get compared to Star Wars with a prequel trilogy.  I’m hopeful that Jackson will succeed where Lucas failed, but he is definitely more out on a limb this time from a storytelling perspective than he was with the Rings trilogy.

After all the back and forth about New Line itself, and potential changes in directors, I’m very glad it ended up being Jackson himself that took this on.  It will be fun to see his whole vision played out on screen.  I think Martin Freeman, who is amazing as Dr. Watson in the new Sherlock! series on BBC was an inspired choice, and, especially with the added layers to the story not seen in the book (most notably, the story of the Necromancer) we should see a lot more of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Gray (rather than the more stick-in-the-mud Galdalf the White).  That in itself will be worth the price of admission.

So hit the book, then get that Fandango App warmed up, as I have no doubt this is going to be a great ride, and a lot of fun to compare to the book because there will be a lot of changes.  Happy reading!

The Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

August 7, 2012

A weekend trip to West Virginia and the splendor of Coal Country Mini Golf kept us from seeing this opening weekend, but the G-men and I checked out the third installment of the DoWK film series yesterday.  You can check out my take on the two books this film was based on, The Last Straw and Dog Days, in my Read It Then See It post here.

The Movie
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Fox.

The Book(s)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, by Jeff Kinney.  Originally published in 2009.

Genre
(Very) Juvenile Fiction

Age Appropriate
6 and up, but with one very important spoiler that will save your younger child a potential scream and cry.  See my Spoilers for Younger Kids section below.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Don’t expect Shakespeare, but some very solid physical comedy with an increased focus on Greg’s Dad, played by most excellent comedic actor Steve Zahn, makes this a perfectly fun ride for we who are growing out rather than up.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Everything in this movie is just fine for all ages.  A little rude language and a scene of the Heffley family’s new dog staring at Greg while he’s sitting on the can is about a close as it comes…save one scene.  When Greg and the gang are on a camping trip, the hilariously strange Fregley decides to tell a scary story about the “Muddy Hand.”  Totally classic, but I didn’t realize until half way in that my little guy had never heard a ghost story before.  And when the inevitable hand came out of the tent (ended up being one of the grown ups just exiting the tent), Gunnar jumped in his seat, screamed in a tone of abject terror I had never heard before, and went fetal.

This would be about the time to shut those little ones’ eyes.

He recovered quickly and showed no ill effects after the movie, but I would HIGHLY recommend either covering your younger kids’ eyes for this scene or spoiling it for them (“Watch, a hand is going to come out of the tent, but it’s only one of the grown ups.  Silly, huh?”) rather than give your child a trial by fire (literally) as I did.  If I can save one nightmare, then I feel like I’ve done my job…

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
Rising 8th grader Gregg Heffley’s idea of a great summer includes two things, playing video games and getting a chance to hang out with the girl of his dreams, Holly Hills—preferably at the same time.  But when Holly misses out on giving him the last two digits of her phone number, Gregg embarks on a wild ride from taking him from hairy backs at the public pool to terror on the country club tennis court in an effort to win Holly over.

Patti’s scenes are getting smaller but are always memorable

At the same time, Gregg is running into more and more of a problem with his Dad, whose efforts to get him out of the house causes him consternation until Gregg lies about getting a summer job at the country club.  When Gregg is caught in the lie, he learns an important lesson in the difference between having people angry with you and disappointed in you.  A trip to the woods, defending his father’s honor against the block bully, and one spectacularly horrific concert by his brother’s band Loaded Diaper, and Gregg ends up with even more than he could have ever expected for his summer break.

My Review
I have to say I continue to be impressed with the creative team, especially director David Bowers and screenwriter Maya Forbes, for taking what I believe is the incredibly thin and somewhat mean-spirited material in Jeff Kinney’s books and turning it into fun, family fare with some heart, all while not abandoning many of the slapstick gags that make the books so popular.

Much of what I enjoy about the book is what is NOT there.  Gone are the scenes of Gregg really abusing Rowley’s friendship, from the “time machine” to their attempt to do a lawn service together.  These were the kind of antics that Gregg did in the first film, and while in the book he just continues on the same path, in the movies Gregg is actually growing and changing.  Even though his continues to make (hilarious) mistakes, the movie Gregg is, at his heart, a good kid.

SO much more sense than the book

Also gone was Gregg’s mysterious choice to essentially drop Holly Hills in favor of attempting to woo his big sister, Heather.  Instead, the film wisely continues to grow the Gregg/Holly relationship, and includes Heather as a super-spoiled teenage antagonist.  The puppy-love relationship for Heather is instead put on Rodrick (who Gregg actually helps get an opportunity to “land” Heather—another example of Gregg growing in the movie in a way entirely absent from the books), which makes far more sense.

While it was a bit harder to see Zachary Gordon as a wimpy kid given he’s grown about a foot since the last film, and has a lanky but muscular young swimmer’s build, he managed to win me over as a goofy kid just not comfortable in his own rapidly growing body.  The tennis scene, where Rowley and Gregg get clobbered by Holly and Gregg’s continued physical nemesis Patti has a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and is good example of the broad, physical comedy that actually plays well in this film throughout.

Zahn and Gordon really play well of each other in this one.

The best choice in this movie, however, was to heavily play up something that was more of a side story in the books, and that’s the relationship between Gregg and his Dad Frank.  Partly, playing this up gave the movie more of a soul, as it became a morality play about responsibility, deception, consequences, and redemption.  But, really, it was a great choice because it allowed more screen time for Steve Zahn, who plays Frank.  I think Zahn is an undervalued commodity in Hollywood, as his physical acting, from body use to facial expressions, is one of the best in modern comedy.  The “dinner scene” where the dog gets hold of the family roast, is hilarious only because of how Zahn and Gordon play it.  Zahn’s performance, to me, makes this movie even more than the sum of its parts, and the best yet in the series.

Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
See the movie.  Skip the book.  If for some reason the movie inspires a desire to read the series, do check out my Read It Then See It post as I think I’ve come up with some ideas about how to make a very thin book into something you can actually have a good talk about with your kids.

Oh, and one other plus for the movie is that it has a great trailer to The Hobbit in front of it.  That happens to be next up for the Read It Then See It series, so stay tuned for that one coming soon.