Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Summer Movie Diary: Premium Rush

Date: August 28, 2012
Time: 7:40 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick
Food:  small blue Icee

Runtime: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Rating:  PG-13
Director:  David Koepp

Quick Impressions:
Full Disclosure:  Before seeing Premium Rush, I spent the afternoon shopping for a reasonably priced 24 X 36 inch poster frame, so that I can display the new giant London Underground map I recently purchased.  Why?  Am I planning a trip to London? No.  Am I from London?  No.  I just like studying the map and imagining places I’ve been and would enjoy going in the future (emphatically less vivid).  I’m a terrible driver, you see, and never feel comfortable behind the wheel of a car.  In fact, the first time I visited London, I was twenty-one and still didn’t have a driver’s license.  Imagine a magical place where no matter how horribly you drive, you can still get around the entire city just by taking a few minutes to make sense of an incredibly clearly drawn map!

With that bit of trivia about me in mind, you can see why I would enjoy a chase movie featuring a bike messenger pedaling quick and complicated routes through numerous areas of New York (a city I have yet to tackle in person.  When I was in college, my entire family went without me because my parents were chaperoning my sister’s high school choir trip.  I’m still bitter.)

To be honest, I went to Premium Rush with the kind of low expectations that should accompany any film released at the end of August (traditionally a dumping ground for the year’s weakest features.  In recent years, though, I’ve seen enough decent films both in late January and late August to suspect that studios may be slowing changing their strategies.)

Why did I choose Premium Rush over other end-of-summer fare?  Well, Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t usually star in bad movies.  His excellent track record shows he’s far more likely to choose a small but solid film than a glitzy, failed blockbuster.  (I loved him in The Lookout, and even G.I. Joe entertained my then six-year-old stepson.)  And who doesn’t want to get one last peek at Michael Shannon before his career really takes off after people actually see him in next summer’s Man of Steel?  (At least, I hope his turn as General Zod makes the general, movie-going public more aware of him.)  Actually I would guess that in time, Premium Rush will become a much viewed and much loved movie simply because it stars Gordon-Levitt (who has a solid fan base) and Shannon (a good actor whose star is on the rise).

Anyway, Premium Rush blew past my expectations.  In some ways, it was a formulaic chase movie, but the elements plugged into the formula were pretty original.  Not only have I never seen a movie starring bike messengers in New York City, but I had no idea that there were so many bike messengers in New York City.  That’s an entire microcosm full of vibrant eccentricity that I never even knew existed.  The stakes are high, the chases are elaborate, and the performances are more than solid.

The Good:
Premium Rush really feels like someone’s passion project.  I don’t know much about writer/director David Koepp (though he’s written a very mixed group of scripts, I see).  But I did just discover that he and the other writer John Kamps previously collaborated on the screenplay for Zathura a really entertaining and highly underrated kids’ adventure movie that my stepson used to watch all the time

This movie really feels like a beleaguered law student’s daydream.  I know.  Instead of taking the Bar, I’ll become a bike messenger and spend my day having races through Central Park.  I’ll get paid to cycle around the streets of New York, and if anything bad ever goes down, I know I would have the courage to be a hero.

This movie definitely wasn’t slapped together passionlessly.  It has a captivating, quirky aesthetic.  Gordon-Levitt’s Wilee imagines the probable outcomes of taking potential routes much like a champion chess player.  (Of course, chess prodigies don’t wind up smashed against the windshield of a taxi or under the wheels of a bus if they make a bad move.)  The sounds of the movie seem perfectly paired to the sights.  Not only is the soundtrack solid, but the background noises of the city really pop.

The chase scenes are well choreographed and definitely supply a visceral adrenaline rush.  (It’s like watching BMX racing at the Olympics—if the race got diverted onto the city streets and lasted for over an hour.)  I’m pretty sure that Joseph Gordon-Levitt did most (if not all) of his own stunts.  At the very least, he did some of them.  I remember reading an article about it earlier in the summer, and at the end of the movie, you see the footage of Gordon-Levitt’s dramatically wounded and bleeding arm in the wake of a glassy crash.

Strong performances by Gordon-Levitt and Shannon and solid turns by a talented but largely unknown supporting cast make even the most formulaic elements of the story addictively compelling.

Really, as scripted, the antagonist, Bobby Monday, is a very formulaic contrivance.  He works because of the power of Shannon’s riveting performance.  I’m starting to think that nobody delivers creepy intensity better than Michael Shannon.  On paper, the guy seems a little thin, but Shannon makes him very real and incredibly scary.  He’s so scary that the fact that he’s over-the-top and larger-than-life just makes him seem scarier.

The movie succeeds because it makes the wise choice of placing the burden of our concern on hoping that the protagonist will triumph not on wondering whether the antagonist will fail (because there’s no suspense there.  A guy like that is doomed.  He’s like one of those Disney villains who through his own relentless and basically illogical machinations eventually throws himself off a cliff, so the virtuous hero doesn’t have to dirty his hands.)  In Premium Rush, the protagonists’ success and the antagonist’s failure are really not two sides of the same coin.  The inevitable long-term failure of the villain in no way guarantees the short term success of those the film shamelessly ensures are dear to our hearts.

Emotionally, the stakes eventually become so high that at moments I found myself wanting to look away from the screen, worrying that something would go wrong.  The scene in the impound lot, in particular, had me squirming on the edge of my seat.

The film’s success in making me overwrought with genuine concern is really an astonishing achievement considering how blatantly (and with what careless transparency) Premium Rush attempts to manipulate the audience emotionally.  It’s almost as bad as Old Yeller or Pollyanna.  It won’t stop barraging you with its broad strokes of pathos until tears are streaming down your cheeks and you’re reciting that old postal carriers’ creed about how “the mail must go through,” and praying that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character will man up and follow a similar code tailored for bike messengers.

Premium Rush has a way of converting its glaring weaknesses into surprising strengths.  The general nature of the conflict is unquestionably formulaic, making use of a stock cinematic dilemma—when the cops are dirty and the law is unjust, what must an honest man do?  Chase movies work best when the pursuant has power to abuse and as few scruples as humanly possible, so it’s no surprise to see a dirty cop or a demented psycho, or (as in this case) a dirty cop who is a demented psycho chasing the unwitting hero.  Still, the chasing doesn’t usually happen on bicycles.  This makes it all feel strangely fresh.  Meanwhile, the use of an almost stock villain guarantees that the audience knows who to root against and feels genuinely satisfied by the triumph of good over the character who is essentially easily recognized shorthand for evil.

The message of the movie is also pretty strong, so strong that we forgive the delivery for  sometimes being a bit ham-fisted.  Not since Huckleberry Finn have I seen such a pointed example of what is legal being at odds with what is moral.  This is a movie about visceral thrills, with more heart than head.  Rational arguments do not matter.  Pathos trumps everything.  

What is somewhat astonishing is that when the film hits its stride, when so many principle characters have so many differing agendas, absolutely NOBODY is doing what’s legal.  None of these people represents the justice of the law.  Even the bicycle cop stops pursuing Wilee and company eventually.  He wasn’t actually chasing them because they were lawbreakers.  He was really chasing them because he’s mad.  The movie doesn't pull any punches.  The law has failed.

Premium Rush pointedly tells us that justice and legality are two different things and that human beings matter more than any arbitrary set of rules put in place to govern them.  Going further, the law probably won’t protect you, but if people work together and refuse to give up, triumph is possible.  Every person counts, and together, people can form an unstoppable force for justice.

Best Scene:
For me, the movie’s most essential moment comes when Michael Shannon’s creepy Bobby Monday pulls Jamie Chung’s Nima into an otherwise empty room to terrorize her.  Until this moment, Monday’s character seems odd and unrealistic.  But in the way he approaches Nima, he suddenly starts to make sense.  We learn that his bizarre behavior has not escaped notice.  We also realize the full threat of his menace because of Shannon’s chillingly intense performance.

A close second comes in the scene in the back of the ambulance when Gordon-Levitt and Shannon have their lip-twistingly intense showdown.   (They don’t do the lip twisting.  That was me, grimacing and squirming in my seat.)

Best Action Sequence:
The other really intense sequence of the movie occurs when Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) attempts to navigate the impound lot, desperate and running out of time.  At this point, I was starting to get really nervous.  The story had totally sucked me in with its out of control emotional appeals.  (In general, I really liked Ramirez’s performance.  I’m not very familiar with her work, but thanks to her performance here, I plan to be in the future.)

The tense moments with Vanessa culminate in Wilee’s nerve-wracking and thrilling attempt to escape.  How he tries to get out of the impound lot when pursued on all sides provided the most exciting bicycle racing scene of the movie for me.

Honestly, though, all scenes on the bike are great.  Manny (played by Wolé Parks) and Wilee’s chase through Central Park is thrilling to watch (though perhaps a bit unnecessary to the story).

Best Scene Visually:
The most effective use of visuals is the scene on the boat, when English speaking audiences don’t understand the dialogue but definitely get the point.

The numerous aerial map shots of routes through the city combined with Wilee’s imagined routes through traffic definitely give the movie a unique visual style.

The Negatives:
As I said earlier, some of the movie’s strengths come out of its weaknesses.  Michael Shannon’s character does not behave rationally.  The movie explains the reason for this, but it’s still sometimes frustrating.  Why bother to chase Wilee at all?  Why not go straight to plan B (which he tries mid-feature) or plan C (at the end)?  Obviously the answer is that Monday doesn’t think that way, but it’s still a bit annoying.

I also thought it was strange that Manny couldn’t be turned into a willing ally instead of an accidental asset.  Wolé Parks is a handsome guy and his Manny (though at times annoying, self-focused, vain, etc.) has definite skills and a lot to offer. (I realize his handsomeness doesn’t make him a hero, but his athleticism would have made him a great help.  Why make the handsome guy an unwitting accomplice to evil just because of his vanity?  Seems a clichéd choice if you ask me.)  Plus, though undoubtedly motivated by self-interest, Manny’s criticisms of Wilee are valid, and he gives every indication of being oriented toward justice.  So why did the movie use him as an accidental source of conflict instead of a deliberate ally?  I understand that he’s a poor listener, but the whole bike race through the park was so unnecessary and felt like a waste of time and effort.  (On the flip side, of course, real life is like that.  Much of what we do is unnecessary and inefficient because of accidents, misunderstandings, and random stuff that always happens.)

But here’s the thing that really gets me—how did Wilee recognize Sister Chen the second he saw her?  What made him so sure that woman was the woman he needed to find?

I thought Jamie Chung was quite good as Nima, and generally the performances of the characters in China Town were very solid, but I have no idea what the Chinese American community in general would think of how this whole subculture was represented.  The movie definitely seems to make a political statement that would annoy the Chinese government.  I know nothing about this.  People who do might find more to criticize or to praise in Premium Rush than I (with my limited knowledge) am able to do.

Premium Rush is good.  I can see why it got its late-August release date.  Audiences craving explosive summer blockbusters might not choose a movie about a guy riding around town on his bicycle, particularly when the only stars are Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon.  The movie is extremely entertaining, however, and quite innovative in its use of formulaic characters and situations.  I know my stepson would like it.  The divide between good and evil is pronounced, the stakes are high, and the momentum never relents.  The bike chases are truly exhilarating to watch, and the film does a good job of giving audiences a compelling, deeply human reason to cheer for Wilee as he attempts to do what is right in the face of numerous obstacles and unrelenting menace. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Little Red Vampire Hood

Penelope really wants to be a vampire for Halloween.  Meanwhile, I found the most adorable Little Red Riding Hood costume online.  I decided to order it (with Derrick's permission) because I thought it would look so cute on her, and a lot of the girls' vampire costumes seem kind of slutty and unappealing for a three-year-old (because child vampires are supposed to look so wholesome). The costume (complete with red cape) arrived at the door today!

We tried it on immediately.  Grandma and I agree that she looks adorable.  Penelope can't wait to get the fangs and won't stop talking about it!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Summer Movie Diary: Ice Age: Continental Drift

Date: August 21, 2012
Time: 3:30 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope, Grandma
Food:  large mixed red and blue Icee, $3 popcorn
Runtime:  1 hour, 27 minutes
Rating:  PG
Directors:  Michael Thurmeier, Steve Martino

Quick Impressions:
Since The Avengers, we’d been seeing at least one movie a week all summer.  But then in July we went on a long vacation that made us miss Ice Age:  Continental Drift and The Dark Knight Rises.  We saw The Dark Knight Rises as soon as we got back, but we thought we’d probably just catch Ice Age on DVD.  This week, though, we had a chance to take the kids to see it at the theater, and I’m glad we did.

Full Disclaimer:  I’ve seen the first Ice Age and bits and pieces of various sequels, but I’m not a hard core follower of the franchise.  Because I’ve waited so long to write the review, I’ve heard that Continental Drift rehashes elements used in previous Ice Age films.  Since I haven’t seen all the previous Ice Age films, I really can’t confirm or deny this complaint.

The Good:
Captain Gutt is by far the best part of this movie.  In fact, he pretty much is the movie since he brings with him most of the film’s conflict and the solution for overcoming the tiny bit of conflict that comes from nature.  Until Gutt’s entrance, the movie could just as easily be called Ice Age 4: Everybody’s Still Here for Some Reason.

Aside from a standard-but-solid subplot involving Peaches and the delightful introduction of Sid’s Granny (voiced by Wanda Sykes), Gutt and his crew are the story. 

Until Gutt arrives, the movie’s great strength is impressive and aesthetically pleasing visuals.  The ice gleams.  The ocean looks alive.  The tousled hair of the mammoths has an organic beauty.  Gutt ups the ante here, too. He’s fascinating to look at, equal parts compelling and repulsive—like a dramatic wreck that causes rubber necking on the other side of the highway.  Who can resist admiring with dread the mixture of dirty and golden teeth in his apish leer?  The character looks so cool, and I love the shiver-inducing explanation of how he got his name.

My mother, my husband, and I spent the entire movie trying to place Gutt’s distinctive voice.  Finally the credits solved the mystery.  It’s Peter Dinklage, best known these days for his star turn as Tyrion “the Imp” Lannister on Game of Thrones.  He does a wonderful job.

Gutt brings with him a scurvy crew of miscreants who do their part to make the story more interesting.  As first-mate Shira the white saber-tooth, Jennifer Lopez provides a rival and eventual love interest for Denis Leary’s Diego.  Nick Frost as blubbery Flynn and Aziz Ansari as Easter Bunny doppelganger Squint get a lot of laughs.  And, of course, Gutt also brings with him a boat—or rather a huge chunk of ice.  He’s an expert at using ice to his nautical advantage, and he also understands the currents and how to navigate the seas.

Another bright spot in the movie is Sid’s long-lost Grandma (very recognizably voiced by Wanda Sykes) who’s crotchety energy is a major comic force in the film.  I love John Leguizamo.  He has such a wonderful voice and does a marvelous job portraying Sid.  Bringing Granny into Sid’s life was a great idea since it gives him a meaningful role in the story. 

For children, there’s also something valuable in the story about Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie’s (Queen Latifa) daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) trying to get the attention of attractive male mammoth Ethan (Drake) and his cool friends.  Should Peaches change who she is to make herself more attractive to Ethan and his crowd?  What about her friend Louis (Josh Gad)?  He’s loyal and devoted (and clearly has a crush on her), but Ethan’s friends think he’s a loser.  Will Peaches have to pick a side?  What’s the right choice?  Adults, of course, can see how all of this will play out right from the start, but children might not.  And the lesson Peaches learns has universal value.

Best Scene:
By far the best part of the movie is the rollicking sea shanty sung by Captain Gutt and his ragtag crew.  This lively, catchy tune not only sets toes tapping, but it also does a great job of introducing the genuinely menacing villain of this piece.  We learn who this prehistoric primate is, what he intends, and how he and his crew are going to inject life into an otherwise bland story that badly needs them to survive.

Funniest Scene:
There are lots of laughs to be had in this film, particularly once it gets going.  Personally, I laughed the hardest near the beginning when Granny performed her variation on the old magnifying glass in the sun trick.  Something about the character’s crotchety moxie really appealed to me.  Actually I think the two central sloths were my favorite small-group family in this movie.

Best Scene Visually:
I love the scene with the sirens.  Not only is it funny, but it also brings a hint of true danger (real magic) and a visual feast.  The movie’s take on how the sirens operate seems pretty original.  I mean, we all know what sirens do, but I enjoyed the way the movie presented the spell of the sirens’ song.  Plus my daughter is particularly interested in mythological creatures, so it’s always exciting when they show up on the big screen.

The intercalary episodes featuring Scrat are also pretty diverting and fun to watch.

Best Action Sequence:
I’d give the slight edge here to the scene when Precious finally appears.  So much is happening at that time.  The stakes are at their highest, and the movie’s almost over.  Everything must be resolved in one big battle, and Granny’s got an ace up her sleeve. 

A really close second, though is the sequence with the adorable army on the island.  Sid’s work as a translator is baffling but adorable, and the group effort to take control of the ship is great—providing lots of action, and a nice, character-driven moment between Diego and Shira.

The Negatives:
The movie’s glacially paced opening (see what I did there?) isn’t exactly bad.  It’s certainly watchable, but it doesn’t feel particularly fresh or innovative.  Also the stakes aren’t very high because the outcome seems so predictable.  The audience can tell from the start that Peaches is going to sort out her coming-of-age issues by the end of the movie.  And, of course, we know that the herd won’t be separated forever.  That would be unthinkable in this franchise. 

It’s not that Continental Drift sets lofty goals and fails to reach them.  On the contrary, the real problem is, it doesn’t aim very high.  Maybe because I spent so many nights watching Olympic gymnastics recently, I’d say that the movie doesn’t falter in execution, but it has a low starting value.  This is the fourth film in a highly successful family franchise.  It really isn’t trying to do anything groundbreaking (no pun intended).  The makers of this movie aren’t expecting any Academy Awards, and I don’t think loyal Ice Age watchers go into the theater expecting that caliber of film. 

Basically, until Captain Gutt and his crew shows up, the film is lackluster but far from terrible.  It would make very good, family friendly viewing on television.  The characters are likeable.  The animation is beautiful.  My three-year-old watched the early scenes with genuine interest.  So by no means is the beginning bad.

But the film doesn’t actually become truly engaging (at least to an adult audience) until Captain Gutt shows up and brings with him the luster of the new.  (I mean, sure pirate movies and battles are common elements in kids’ movies, but not so much in Ice Age movies.  The pirate berg takes the film in a new and unexpected direction, providing novel adventures for the already well-liked leads.)  For what it’s worth, my nine-year-old stepson enjoyed the movie, and my three-year-old daughter really enjoyed the movie.  She watched the entire thing and announced near the end that she wanted to play Ice Age as soon as we got home.

The new additions to this movie make it worth seeing and truly entertaining (particularly during the final act as everything comes together).  Captain Gutt is great.  Sid’s Granny cracks me up.  And, of course, as in all the Ice Age films you get the bonus of a truly interracial voice cast putting forth a message of unity and community—a herd made up of all different kinds of animals where everyone contributes something, everyone cares for one another, and somebody always has your back.  That seems to be the message of the Ice Age franchise.  The world as we know it could end at any time.  All we really have is the support and friendship of the people we care about.  We need to work together and adapt to a changing environment to make the world a place where all of us can continue to thrive.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Penelope Says

July 25th

Penelope (watching Phineas and Ferb): That crazy Candace!
12:53 am

Happy to get home and discover we have Nickelodeon again! That trip to Disneyland was well timed! 
1:54 pm

Penelope (about five minutes after I fixed her a plate of the dinner Grandma made): Mommy, I am so full. I can't eat any more of my dinner. I don't have the throw up. But my tummy just feels so funny. It feels kind of stomachy and weird, so I can't eat any more of my dinner.
Me: I see. Is there something you wanted to eat after dinner?
Penelope: Yes, I was interested in my sucker.
6:59 pm

Penelope: You old rapscallion!
Derrick: Did you just call me a rapscallion?
Penelope: I called you an OLD rapscallion!
9:12 pm

July 26th
Penelope: Doesn't my hair look awful?
Me: It doesn't look awful to me. I think it looks pretty good.
Penelope: It doesn't seem very good to me. I think I really need a change up. I need to put some in the front, some in the middle, and some in the back.
4:23 pm

Penelope has Derrick busy tying a plastic shovel to the back of her toodle car with a red ribbon.
Penelope: Now, while you work, I will go pee pee. (Disappears)
11:49 pm

July 27th
I left the room to get Penelope some ice water. When I returned from the kitchen, I found her completely naked and covered in ice cream. Keep in mind, I was gone like two minutes at the very longest.
Penelope: You will never believe this, but when I found my old ice cream bar, it was melted, so I made some soup, but when I tried to drink it, it spilled all over me. 
(I take her into the kitchen to wipe her off.)
Me: Okay (leading her back into the living room) Now we've got to put on some new clothes.
Penelope: (stopping at the scale) No wait a minute! First I have to find out how many pounds I have! I may have loosed a lot of weight. (She weighs herself)
Me: 37.6. You were 38 this morning. I guess you did lose a little weight.
Penelope: (waking up Derrick) Daddy! I lost weight on vacation!!!!!!

She's so crazy!
1:33 am

We DVRed the opening ceremonies and started them when Mom got home, so we're a little behind.
Penelope (watching the royal entrance): Wow! Is that the queen? Is that the highness? Wow! That's amazing! That queen is amazing!
9:20 pm

Merry, watching the Olympics always makes me think of you. Why aren't you here? I remember that morning you woke me up by running into my room and yelling, "Sarah, there was a bomb at the Olympics," and I thought you were just lying to trick me into waking up (as you often did). It also makes me think of watching TV with you in general, how we checked out all of North and South and I, Claudius on VHS from the Friendswood public library, and how because the feed was scrambled to censor Third Eye Blind at the Grammys, every time the radio or TV cut out, we'd say, "He said crystal meth."
9:36 pm

Penelope (putting her princess pirate ears from Disneyland on Derrick's head): Hello, Princess Daddy. I'm going to call you, Princess Daddy. Princess Daddy, it is time to go beyond.
Me: Go beyond? Where is he going to go?
Penelope: To Mars! That's where princesses always go. (lots of giggling as she tries to convince me this is true) Now Princess Daddy (brings over her inflatable minion from Despicable Me) here is your jealous brother!
11:06 pm

Penelope (running around with her monkey mask on): USA! USA! USA!
Derrick: Now fast forward it to the UK! (We're watching lots of the parade of nations in fast forward, so we can get Nellie to bed sooner.)
Penelope: No! No UK! I do not like UKs.
11:10 pm

Penelope climbed up on my lap during "Hey Jude," and I started keeping time by clapping on her belly.
Penelope: Don't clap on my tummy! It hurts!
(I stop clapping on her tummy, and then with a wicked grin, she begins clapping on her tummy.)
Penelope (turning to face me, and ostensibly giving me an Eskimo kiss while sneakily attempting to remove both my earrings): Hold me, Mommy. You're my only hope.
11:59 pm

July 28th

Grandpa: (watching a slow-loading slide show of pictures on the TV) I'm getting tired of looking at this guy. Who is that old man?
Penelope: That's you.
Grandpa: Oh? Is it?
(Moments later)
Grandma: We always tried to limit our beach time to one hour because Sarah in particular burns so badly.
(We have a long discussion about how many of us just immediately turn dark without burning.)
Grandpa: And Merry does, too. But Sarah does not.
Penelope: And Mommy does, too.
Grandpa: Mommy does not.
Penelope: She does. You don't even know what you're talking about, old man!
7:16 pm

Grandma (looking at the pictures): Well that one's cute.
Penelope: (who has been deliberately contrary contradicting what everyone says) That one IS cute because me and Bubby are in it.
7:32 pm

Penelope: (who has not been paying much attention for a long time) How did they turn into girls?
Me: They didn't turn into girls. We were watching men's swimming, and now we're watching women.
Penelope: I don't want to watch girls! I want to watch men! (Watching as the gold and bronze medalist hug) Aww! That's so sweet!
11:41 pm

Me (noticing that we're getting to the end of what we've recorded): Oh no! We're going to run out soon.
Penelope (supportively): Oh no, Mommy, that's terrible! Say, would you like to speak dog, so that we can be the dog family?
11:46 pm

July 29th

Hmm...Grandma and Nellie just baked up a batch of Funfetti cookies (thanks to Laurel and Katey for the recipe). We thought we had enough frosting to frost them all--until we discovered that someone was eating all the frosting in her bowl instead of frosting the cookies!
4:35 pm

Penelope (climbs up into my lap and hands me a bowl of Cheez-Its): Hold this.
Me: Okay. (I eat one as I take the bowl)
Penelope: (highly indignant) I said hold it, not eat it!
5:12 pm

Penelope (showing me her magnadoodle): Look Mom! I made Jupiter with it's big, red eye! Let's show Dinah! Now let's read my Eight Spinning Planets book! (while reading her book) Ooh! There's Mars. Dinah, Mars is named after Martians.
Me: Oh yes, Martians live on Mars, don't they?
Penelope: Yeah! They spook around!
Dinah: What do they look like?
Penelope: They're little and green! (Now she and Dinah are rotating on their axes.)
7:32 pm

Penelope: Did you just say you wanted to get that movie?
Derrick: Yes.
Penelope: I can't wait to see that new movie.
Derrick: Well, it will be a couple of months before we get it. We're going to pre-order it.
Penelope: Are we going to take Bubby to see that movie? I'd like to take him to see that new movie in the movie theater.
Derrick: Well, we already saw that in the movie theater.
Penelope: Oh. I remember seeing lots of scary movies.
Derrick: Oh yeah?
Penelope: Yeah, like I remember Fright Night.
Derrick: Yeah, that one was pretty scary.
11:11 pm

July 30th
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Seven, plus Chip and Dale makes how many friends?
Penelope: (who hasn't been paying attention, suddenly hearing the question and pretending like she's been watching, confidently) One-hundred.
12:39 am

Penelope (watching men's sand volleyball with me): Ohhhh. Those Polands keep getting points.
Me: Oh! But now the US team just got a point!
Penelope: (bouncing on my lap) USA! USA! USA! USA!
Me: Now Poland got a point again.
Penelope: Ohhhhhh. But America has to win!
3:35 pm

Penelope (setting up her little people in their cars): Now, you are the red team, and I'm the orange team. And now we're ready to race.
Me: Where are we racing to?
Penelope: South America.
Me: South America! Where are we now?
Penelope: We're right here.
Me: Where is here?
Penelope: (muffled)ico.
Me: Mexico?
Penelope: No, I said Nazico.
Me: Nazico? Where is Nazico?
Penelope: It's somewhere far, far away. We came just to have this race. Now we are ready. Go!
Me (pushing the red team's car): We're almost to the finish line. We're going to get there first.
Penelope (freaking out and plowing into me perpendicularly with three cars, sending all the little people flying): I'M GONNA GET THERE FIRST! WE WON THE RACE!!!!
3:50 pm

Penelope (scooting up off the floor onto my lap): Hey, I want to sit in your lap, big fellow.
3:51 pm

Penelope (showing up with a slap/mood bracelet we bought on vacation a few years ago): Look at this. It's my moon bracelet.
Me: Beautiful. Where did you get that?
Penelope: Daddy. (She takes it off, then asks) Put this back on for me.
Me: Okay. (I slap it on her wrist) See? It's a slap bracelet.
Penelope: No, it is a moon bracelet, and that kind of hurt.
3:59 pm

Penelope: I didn't like the way you put it on last time.
Me: But it's a slap bracelet. (I put it on my own wrist) See? It's called a slap bracelet because you slap it onto your wrist.
Penelope: NO. It is called a moon bracelet because it helps you go to a moon.
4:00 pm

Penelope: Which one is my left hand and which one is your right hand?
My first answer: Well, it depends on which way you're facing.
Try again, Mommy.
7:20 pm

Me (to Penelope as we watch male gymnasts flip on the floor exercises): Do you think you can do that?
Penelope: (scoffs like I am crazy) No-oh!
Me: Oh you don't think so?
Penelope (now looking uncertain): Well...let me see...I will try....
9:43 pm

Penelope (as we raise our hands high in the air while watching Little Einsteins): I'm raising mine higher than you!!!! (Apparently, she really thought so)
11:55 pm

July 31st
Penelope: Mommy, do you have Antoni Gaudi on your computer?
Me: Who?
Penelope: Remember how you showed me the Little Einsteins man last night? Can you show me Antoni Gaudi?

Penelope is currently having a love affair with Little Einsteins. She also insists that I participate. If I forget to pat or clap appropriately (because I'm not actually watching), she really yells at me until I fall into step.
1:26 pm

Penelope (painting a green skeleton in her haunted house painting, spontaneously): A bony skeleton in the night with his crashing teeth so green and bright!

I thought that was pretty good!
3:45 pm

Penelope (touching my laptop screen): I can't believe they make computers out of glass! How do they do it?
6:24 pm

August 1st
Funny story. Usually, I make frosting with milk and powdered sugar. But my mom makes it with butter, and her frosting was so delicious on our last batch of Funfetti cookies that I asked how she made it. She told me (over the phone) to soften two tablespoons of butter, then gradually add powdered sugar and then milk or cream if necessary. Well, Penelope was in the background dowsing the entire kitchen with water from the sprayer. Meanwhile, the cookies didn't seem to be baking enough, so I kept taking them in and out of the oven.

Soooo...I thought she said two sticks of butter...
8:45 pm

Penelope (while my dad and I discuss politics): Stop it! Don't annoy my mommy!
Grandma: Penelope, Grandpa loves your mommy. He is just talking with her.
Penelope: (eating the world's butteriest frosting off a spreading knife while she eyes Grandpa suspiciously) Hmmm.
8:48 pm
(Dad's comment: Politically, I think we agree that both sides are useless.
My reply: At least we can agree that I should not be in charge of fiscal policy. I'm sure if I were head of the Fed, the results would be instantly catastrophic. Plus gun enthusiasts would be up in arms over how much butter I used to make that frosting!)

Earlier, I saw a mosquito in the downstairs bathroom and made the mistake of mentioning it. Penelope refused to go to the bathroom by herself this afternoon and only with great coaxing went into the bathroom at all. She kept saying warily, "I don't want that mosquito to get me." "No, it won't get you," I reassured her many times. But I just realized that I myself have been avoiding that bathroom as much as possible because I'm scared that mosquito's going to get me.
8:52 pm
Penelope (showing up with a stuffed Clifford plush dog): Bolt got so sick today, so I made him some chamomile tea.
Me: Oh, that was nice of you.
Penelope: Yes, I don't want him to throw up again.
8:54 pm

August 2nd

Penelope: Look at me! I'm Super Penny in my super tiara! Ow! I bit my super tongue!
Derrick: With your super teeth?
Super Penny: Yeah! Now I need a drink of my super water!
1:36 am

Penelope (interrupting her bedtime story): Look at that yellow planet. That's Planet Queso-dilla.
Me: That is not a planet.
P: It used to be a planet, but then they decided that they were wrong.
2:04 am

Penelope: Mom, I missed you. And you know that I love Batman!
Me: Yes, but this movie was scary, and it was long. It would have been too scary for you. It even scared Mommy. (It seriously did. I watched every single person leave and re-enter the theater, which tends to happen often during an almost three-hour movie. Poor Derrick! Normally I just recoil at every cough.)
Me: I heard that while we were gone you watched Gulliver's Travels. Grandpa said you really liked it. Did you?
Penelope: (running back and forth across the room) Yes! It was wonderful!
Me: So what was your favorite part?
Penelope: I can't even tell you because I'm Penny the superhero now!

(She's been Penny off and on ever since she watched Bolt. Apparently, Penny is her superhero name.)
10:54 pm

August 3rd

Penelope (wearing a purple monkey she got from the zoo instead of a shirt): Don't I look kooky? Ready to be amazed?
2:40 am

August 4th
Penelope: I'm Super Penny, and this is Super Dinah. Her nickname is Figaro. There's an emergency, but Bolt can't come because...he's not real. Super Dinah is smarter, anyway. Ready for action, turn on my suit, and flyyyyy! (jumps off the bed) Daddy, this is fine. (She spreads Pinkie across Derrick's face then lays on him). Don't make any erruptions!
2:12 am

August 5th
Penelope: (watching Batman Begins, just after Alfred has told young Bruce Wayne that his father's death was not his fault) This is a lot like Lion King (her favorite movie).
Me: I agree. It is. Why do you think so?
Penelope: (listening to Liam Neeson talking to adult Bruce) Well, because some of them have funny voices.

Apparently, Nellie watched this movie with Grandma and Grandpa while we were watching The Dark Knight Rises. Mom said she really liked it, and today when I asked everyone if we should watch Batman Begins or Toy Story 3, Penelope yelled enthusiastically, "Batman!"
3:29 pm

August 6th
So after watching the Olympics, Penelope has decided that she wants to play volleyball. Hopefully there are some talented volleyball players on Derrick's side of the family because I still remember the bitter sting of getting a 42 on my volleyball skills test in seventh grade, so I have nothing to give her (except possibly a volleyball). (And yes, that's 42 out of 100.)
12:07 am

Penelope (watching a commercial for glow-in-the-dark Pull-ups): I want a sister and a brother.
Derrick: But you already have Bubby.
Penelope: Yes, but, when Bubby and I grow up...I think I want to marry Will.
Derrick: Well that's okay. I think that could be an okay proposition...if Will agrees.
Penelope: But I have to [hard to understand] because it's the most important thing!
Derrick: What?
Penelope: When I get married, I have to have a bracelet.
Derrick: Well, let's not worry about that now. I think we have some time.

I have no idea why she is so obsessed with getting married! Maybe we need to move the wedding photos from the living room wall to someplace less prominent.
12:17 am

Candace (on Phineas and Ferb, refusing to go home): Not yet Mom, I've got to get this car into the sky.
Penelope: Hahahahaha! (to Derrick, in case he doesn't get it) Cars don't go in the sky!
12:41 am

Penelope: Where is some water I can put my flower in so we can admire it?
Grandpa: What are you looking for?
Penelope: Water.
Me: (chopping lettuce and my finger) I think she wants it to float.
Grandpa: Well, here how about this? (Finds an empty mustard jar and fills it with water, drops in the flower.)
Penelope: Oh that's perfect! That will look so beautiful at my wedding when I marry Will! He will think it's wonderful! And we will be married for a hundred years, and we will have kids, and a dog and a cat!

Christina, I hope Will wants a big wedding. Penelope has been talking about it all day. Apparently romantic fixations run in our family.
8:31 pm

August 7th

Penelope (getting up off the floor and stretching): Uhhh! I think I pulled something.
Me: What?
Penelope: (groaning theatrically) I think I pulled something in my back.
12:26 am

Penelope: I'm not crazy about going through lines.
Me: No, huh?
Penelope: No. Like on Star Tours. I loved Star Tours--except when we go really fast through those lines.
Me: Oh you mean light speed?
Penelope: I do not like going through those lines! It is too fast!
11:50 pm

August 8th

Penelope: What rhymes with outer space?
Me: I don't know. What do you think?
Penelope: How about powder case? And dace, grace, nace, pace! Mom, what rhymes with space man?
Me: Race plan?
Penelope: Base ban!
3:01 pm

Penelope: Mom! Oh no! I missed it!
(We've been watching a documentary about Mars while painting)
Me: You missed what?
Penelope: I missed the end! We forgot to watch the end about Mars.
Me: No, we saw it. We just watched the end, remember? And it's over now.
Penelope: No! But they were trying to find out if there's life on Mars. And we didn't see them find it yet!
5:21 pm

Penelope (out of nowhere to Derrick): Mufasa, will you do the honors?
Me: What honors?
Penelope: I won't tell you. It's a secret.
Derrick: Even to me.
Penelope: (making a face at me) Come on, Nala. Don't laugh!
10:02 pm

August 11th
Penelope: (sobbing at the top of the stairs) Leave me alone! Leave me alone! I just want SOMEBODY to leave me alone!
12:13 am

Grayson: Sarah, I have a joke for you. What other branch of the military could a guy join instead of being a pirate?
Me: (confused) The navy? That's not right. I give up. What is it?
Grayson: The Arrrrrgghhforce.
Me: (laughing, wondering why it's not the Arghhhhmy)
Grayson: Get it. Like the Arrrrghhhmy? Like Daddy's joke earlier? But this is the Arrrghhhforce.

Clearly I missed something earlier.
12:34 am

Penelope (watching Grayson play a Batman game): How does he fly? (Pause, then wickedly) How does he die? (Lots of giggles and infinite repetition.)
1:39 pm

Derrick: (playing a video game with Grayson) Aw, crap.
Penelope: (coming up to me with a grin) Aw crap, I love you, Mom.
Me: Hmm. You're a weird little girl.
Penelope: I'm not a weird little girl. (shockingly, as if dropping a bombshell) Bubby's the weird little girl!
7:23 pm

Penelope (out of nowhere to Grayson): How does God put in the eyeballs?
9:44 pm

Penelope (with a piece of pirate treasure): Hey. That hurt. I just hit myself. I just hit myself in my own head. This is real. This is pirate treasure I've got to give to the queen. I'm the queen.
10:13 pm

Grayson (reading aloud from "The Hook" in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, breaking character): If this were a real movie, I wouldn't be watching it. (A minute later, after he's read the male character declining cocoa and going back to his car alone) Yeah, he's going to die.
11:03 pm

Grayson: When she arrived at the dance with her friend, she was attracted to everyone. Again and again...
Derrick: What?
Penelope: Shut this party down!
Derrick: (reading correctly) She looked so attractive to everyone...
11:07 pm

August 12th

Penelope (watching Tony Stark on the desert operating table at the beginning): Ooh, I'll bet that freaks him out.
Me (moments later, watching him pull him pull the tube out of his nose): Penelope used to have a tube like that.
Penelope: I can't believe it. I used to eat through my little nose!
1:51 pm

Penelope: (Holding up an enormous rubber bouncy ball) This ball came out my toodlebutt. Then I scraped off the poop, and now I can play with it.
Me: Hmm. That doesn't sound very good to me.
Penelope: (with a smile) I washed it with my magic water. Now you can touch it. Mommy, how are you reading with your mind? (She suddenly became aware of silent reading today.)
5:43 pm

August 13th

I don't know why Penelope insists on wearing her shirt with her right arm out instead of through the arm hole. At first I thought it was an accident, but nope.
11:38 pm

August 14th

Penelope: Dinah, remember that spooky movie we went to about those scary eyes? Those eyes were gleaming out, and my heart pounded because I was scared. I was holding my breath, and I couldn't stop holding my breath, so I almost died. And my blood almost came out. And you know what else almost came out, Dinah?
Dinah: What?
Penelope: My boogers! I was so scared. And my teeth almost popped out, Dinah. They almost popped right out and chattered away. I was so scared!
3:34 pm

August 16th
Penelope: (climbing inside the collapsible laundry bag) Me and Dinah are in our space ship. It's for littles!
1:14 am
Penelope: Mommy, while we work our new planet puzzle, I'll be Chester, and you be Harold. And here are our walkie-talkies. (She hands me a dog from one of her Duplo sets and uses a cat herself. Holding the cat up to her ear) Come in, Harold. Come in, Harold.
Me: This is Harold. What is it, Chester?
Penelope: There's something strange about that rabbit. He got out of his cage last night. I think he's a vampire.
Me: A vampire? Aww, Chester, are you sure? He's just a little bunny.
Penelope: I'm sure, Harold. I found a white tomato.
Me: You did?
Penelope: Yeah, and be careful because I think he drinks tomato juice and people juice!
11:00 pm

August 17th

So Penelope's favorite part of playing with her phonics matching cards is finding crazy rhymes instead of correct matches.
Me: What's this?
Penelope: A monkey.
Me: What sound does he start with?
Penelope: MMMMMM M.
Me: So what sounds like that? A mammer? (laughter) A megg? (laughter) Mapes? (more laughter) A Mandwich?
Penelope: That's it! A sandwich!
Me: A sandwich? How does that go with monkey?
Penelope: Because he says, "Mmmm! A sandwich!"
Me: Hmm. I still don't think those go together.
Penelope: (touching the cards) Yes, they do because they give each other a kiss and now they're together.
12:13 am

Me: That's right! Ih-Ih-Insects and Ih-Ih-Igloo!
Penelope: (lunging abruptly into my laugh giggling) I'll iggle-oo and tickle you and pickle you!!!
12:14 am

Penelope: (enticingly) Grandma, I've got a princess story, and it's even got an old woman in it!
9:07 pm

Grandma: Somebody's got to take the bullets out. It might as well be the doctor.
Me: I don't think he is a doctor. He probably bought a metal detector by calling the number on TV, and now he's collecting scrap metal.
Derrick: He's a recycler.
Me: He's already saved for his retirement.
Penelope: Mommy, you're the nice princess.
Derrick: And Bubby's the mean princess.
Grayson: Hey!
Penelope: (to Grayson) No, you've got to be the dog.
9:15 pm

Mom: Matt Damon's very young there. He's very cute.
Me: He's still cute. I mean, he's got a young face. He looks youthful.
Derrick: He looks useful?
Me: No, he looks youthful.
Mom: He looks useful to me. I'm sure I could use him. That other guy's pretty good, too! More wine! More wine!
Me: I think I'd need a lot more wine for that guy.
Mom: Well, I think he's pretty good looking.
Dad: He's not my type.
9:20 pm

Penelope (watching Jason Bourne climb around the ledge of a building, doesn't turn away until he's made it, then turns away, to me): That was dangerous. I bet it was!
9:35 pm

Penelope: Oh, he dropped a knife. Now he's gonna be in big trouble. Is she going to yell at him?
9:52 pm

Me: As you can see (showing an illustration), there's something dripping from the floor boards.
Grayson: Looks like blood.
Penelope: It looks like blood and guts to me. Blood and guts and...snails...and...what are little boys made of?
11:55 pm

August 18
Penelope (sitting on Derrick's lap, watching as the mob attacks the zombies in Paranorman, brightly): I'm beginning to like this movie.
4:42 pm

Penelope: Dad, will I have a twin one day?
Derrick: Not unless you grow up to become a doctor and clone yourself.
8:10 pm

Penelope (coming up to me sadly): Mom, Pupcake died. (Pupcake is one of her stuffed animals.)
Me: Pupcake died? What happened to him?
Penelope (hanging her head): He got a heart attack.
Grandma: My word! Well, I guess it can happen suddenly.
8:37 pm

So Penelope is pretending to be Chester, trying to convince me (Harold) that Bunnicula (played by Grayson) is a vampire. Grayson's pretty good at hiding his fangs just when I look in his direction. And Penelope gives Chester almost exactly the same voice I do when I read to her. (Mom read Bunnicula to me using particular accents for Harold and Chester, so those are the accents I've always used.)
9:09 pm

Penelope: I need this apple.
Grandma: What? You already had an apple today.
Penelope: I need another one. My body needs one.
Grandma: Your body needs one! Am I supposed to cut this for you?
Penelope: Yeah.
9:14 pm

(Penelope climbed up onto Derrick's shoulders, throwing a leg around each side of his neck while he was reading on his phone.)
Penelope: Dad! Dad! I'm up here!
Derrick: (Annoyed) What makes you think I would not know that you're up there?
Grayson: If I were a spy, would you tell me not to be a spy?
Me: If you were a spy, we wouldn't know.
Grayson: But what if you found out?
Penelope: No! Yo
u cannot be a spy. They're rude.
Derrick: Why are they rude?
P: I don't like them.
Derrick: Just because you don't like them doesn't mean they're rude.
Penelope: They're rude. They spit on you. Then they die.
Grayson: No, Penelope, spies are nice and polite. They make sure you don't get hurt.
Penelope: NO! They're RUDE and they SPIT!
Grayson: I am a spy!
Derrick: Penelope, I have a question. What is your opinion of our conversation?
Penelope: I don't like spies!
Me: Why don't you like spies?
Penelope: Because they're rude, and they eat people!
Derrick: Maybe you're thinking of flies.
Me: Don't tell her flies eat people.
10:06 pm

Me: This is called "The Bed by the Window."
Grayson: Oh that sounds scary. Of course, that's where I sleep. My bed is next to the window.
Me: Do you hear strange noises in the night?
Gray: No.
Penelope (earnestly): I have been hearing some werewolves for the past couple of nights.
Gray: That's probably me. I groan in my sleep.
11:05 pm

August 19th

Penelope (as I read to her from Bunnicula, steals book away from me): Give that to me, Harold, you big oof! (She means oaf.) You go to sleep, Harold. I have to read from The Mark of the Vampire.
Me: What does it say?
Penelope: It says put a stake through the heart...and...uh...get a stake...and...some coconut splash.
Me: Coconut splash?
P: It's for B-U-N-N-C-U-L-A.
Me: You forgot the I, Chester.
P: And I!
1:02 am

Penelope (watching Mythbusters, to Derrick): I would never peel off my skin. That would hurt. I would go, "OUCH!"
2:19 pm

If I knew where my phone was, I'd be taking a video of Derrick headbanging to "The Irish Washer Woman" right now. It's very exciting as the fiddler goes faster and faster.
3:33 pm

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Summer Movie Diary: ParaNorman

Date: August 18, 2012
Time: 2:35 pm
Place: Tinsel Town
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope
Food:  large blue Icee, $3 popcorn
Runtime:  1 hour, 36 minutes
Rating:  PG
Directors:  Sam Fell, Chris Butler

Quick Impressions:
Since summer movie season started early back in May, we’ve been bombarded with previews for ParaNorman, Frankenweenie, and Hotel Transylvania.  Seriously, those three previews seem to play back-to-back in front of every family oriented movie out there.  Basically, they all ran together for me, and ParaNorman didn’t look like anything special.  Then just a few days ago, I realized that the movie was stop-motion and from the same studio that made Coraline.  Stop-motion always gets my attention.  If you’re going to go through all the time and effort necessary for successful stop-motion animation, then you’re not likely to waste your time on supbar material.  Plus our other plans for the afternoon got rained out.  So we took the kids to see ParaNorman which turned out to be fantastic, exceeding all my expectations.

The Good:
I love a good ghost story, and I’m always on the lookout for spooky (but not downright terrifying) Halloween fare.  ParaNorman appealed to me immediately. 

Not only does the film look great (even in 2D as we saw it), but it’s consistently engaging, incredibly entertaining, and genuinely thoughtful.  Based on what came through on the screen, I’d guess that the script is fantastic.  Besides being spooky, funny, and fast-paced, ParaNorman actually has something to say to audiences.  You don’t get a silly, contrived, by-the-numbers moral for children (though the moral is pretty heavy-handed).  ParaNorman comments thoughtfully on basically everything happening in our society today.  (Yes, I’m aware that seems a bit broad, but, seriously, watch the movie.  What isn’t it talking about?  I stubbornly maintain that whatever ParaNorman isn’t talking about, nobody else is talking about, either.)

A huge strength of the film is its captivating characters, capably voiced by an outstanding cast. As Norman’s friend Neil, young Tucker Albrizzi is a particular standout.  Neil brings a youthful, optimistic, innocent energy into Norman’s otherwise gloomy world.  Casey Affleck is also pretty great as Neil’s ripped older brother, Mitch, the unwitting lust object of Norman’s older sister Courtney, voiced by Anna Kendrick.  Courtney is not the kind of character you usually get in a children’s movie.  She’s indefensibly shallow, not sugar coated.  In fact, none of the motley crew that assembles to “help” Norman can boast outstanding virtues.  At best, Neil is casually loyal and Mitch is vaguely helpful.  The most recognizably voiced character, Alvin the bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), like all bullies only backs down when he feels fear.  In terms of sidekicks, Norman has a lot to complain about.  Yet somehow, this ragtag bunch ultimately comes around and gets the job done.  This is definitely not a sanitized kids’ only outing.  These characters should really not be anybody’s role models, but they’re very interesting to watch.  They’re much more like us than the people we like to pretend to like us are.

John Goodman is lots of fun as Norman’s smelly and forbidden Uncle Prenderghast.  (Who would guess that a man named Prenderghast would manifest such abilities?  Astounding!)  (That’s sarcasm.)  His best scene comes in the bathroom at the school, providing some light laughs and terrific visual elements.

Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann are also pretty good as Norman’s listening impaired parents.  Alex Borstein and Tempestt Bledsoe add some flourish as a theatrical drama teacher and a police officer.  And Bernard Hill provides the perfect voice for the zombie judge—a character I really found appealing.  He had such a dramatic appearance and a rich voice to match.  To me, what the zombies are doing seems pretty apparent right from the start.  My daughter, however, did not feel the same way.  The zombies terrified her, and when the townspeople started beating them up, she proclaimed in delight, “I’m beginning to like this movie.”

Young actors Kodi Smit-McPhee (as Norman) and Jodelle Ferland give strong performances that combine with the visual effects to make the final confrontation of the movie strong and memorable with a clear (and emphatic) message.

Best Scene:
Several scenes stand out, but I personally found the opening sequence quite effective.  It’s a simple, yet brilliant introduction to the character that also sets the mood and hints at the ultimate complication of the story.  Norman likes monster movies and has a close relationship with his grandma (voiced by Elaine Stritch).  His reality is perfectly real to him, but his family refuses to listen to him or try to see things from his point of view.  It’s a great set-up that got my attention immediately.  Another great (though brief) scene:  Norman’s parents interacting with the unusual trio in the back seat of their car.

Funniest Scene:
This movie has lots of great jokes.  Much of its humor works because of its fearless approach.  Instead of worrying about potentially squeamish audiences, the filmmakers made bold choices that were right for the movie.

My husband and I both loved the scene with the vending machine.  It rang so true.  Even though you’re staring death in the face, you’ve got to have those greasy potato chips!

My three-year-old laughed out loud at the delightful finish to the game of fetch.

Norman’s confusion when the ghost asks him to swear is pretty amusing, too.  And Mitch’s last words to Courtney seem like a fitting ending to that relationship.

Best Scene Visually:
This is a pretty movie.  The whole town looks spooky and kooky and cool.  (This is one of those movies that rewards those who scan the background with hidden gems.)  And when witch-like clouds start to swirl around in the night sky, it’s something to behold, but probably the best visuals come during Norman’s encounter with the witch near the end of the movie.  The way they depict the interaction is gorgeous, scary, artistic, and powerful.

Runners-Up (Best Scene Visually):
Every time Norman’s world dissolves into a vision of Blythe Hollow’s past, it looks really crackly and cool on screen.  The zombies look pretty great, too.  I particularly like their uniform gaping jaws.

Best Action Sequence:
I liked the “chase” scene in the van.  It’s really more of a flight/pursuit scene.  The ensemble works well together, and there’s plenty of excitement.

The Negatives:
Some of the humor is very daring for a PG-rated movie targeted at kids.  If you’re turned off by profanity, violence, or hints of sexuality, this movie is going to irritate you.  There’s lots and lots of talk of damning people to Hell (meant literally), a reference to the “F” word, and a lot of disturbing leering (mainly from Norman’s teenaged sister).  Plus, the movie is whimsical but never silly.  The paranormal elements are real, and with them, they bring real menace.  Some of the social commentary is very pointed, too, and some people might resent that.  These are the kinds of things that would be sanitized out of a Disney animated feature—so it’s all a matter of what you like.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not complaining about any of this, but I’m aware that others may find it off-putting. 

Another thing this movie is dark and can be scary for younger children.  (It’s not as scary as Coraline, but it does have some legitimately frightening elements, particularly for those sensitive to disturbing images.)  My three-year-old enjoyed it and commented throughout, but she also got up halfway through and announced, “This is too scary.  I’m going to sit with my Daddy,” which she then did.  This isn’t truly a criticism of the movie.  It’s more of a warning.

ParaNorman should definitely get Oscar consideration (for animated feature, I mean).  Based on early previews, I had it pegged as lazy, end-of-the-summer fare designed to rake in a few dollars.  That’s not what it is.  ParaNorman is funny, creative, engaging, and consistent.  I can’t wait to own it on Blu-ray.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Summer Movie Diary: The Bourne Legacy

Date: August 16, 2012
Time: 7:30 pm
Place: Tinsel Town (in XD)
Company: Derrick
Food:  small mixed blue and red Icee

Runtime: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Rating:  PG-13
Director:  Tony Gilroy

Quick Impressions:
Here’s the burning question the movie left me asking.  What color pill did Dr. Shearing take?  I mean, she looks like Rachel Weisz.  She’s a brilliant research scientist.  And she can keep up with a genetically enhanced super spy while wearing fashionable clothes (and most likely uncomfortable shoes).  Forget the blue pill and the green pill!  I want the Rachel Weisz pill!

Anyway, heading into the theater, I couldn’t seem to get excited about The Bourne Legacy.  I’m always suspicious of sequels to Matt Damon movies that don’t have Matt Damon in them.  (Please don’t ask me for other examples.)  Also Robert Ludlum didn’t write a fourth Bourne novel.  On the other hand, I loved Michael Clayton so much that I was willing to give any effort by Tony Gilroy a shot.  I’m also a big fan of Edward Norton.

I’m happy to report that The Bourne Legacy far exceeded my expectations.  It’s not quite as good as the Jason Bourne focused trilogy.  (For one thing, it has some serious pacing problems.  The first thirty minutes of the movie seem a lot like what your impressions of The Bourne Ultimatim might be if you watch it inattentively while flipping through a National Geographic featuring a stunning photo essay on Alaskan wilderness.  So you’re thinking, Ooh Alaska, flip, London, glance up, Oh yeah, Jason Bourne, flip, Ooh another world capital!)  But eventually, the film hits its stride.  Ultimately, it’s a perfectly worthy entry into the Bourne series.  Parts of it also captivated me much more than I expected.  Certain moments and themes resonated way more than I thought they would.

Another exciting bonus is that Donna Murphy’s in the movie.  (She voices Mother Gothel in Tangled, a movie my daughter watched approximately nine thousand times when she was two.)  I mention that only because she’s wonderfully talented and not in that many movies, though she did (all-too-briefly) play Rosalie Octavius in Spiderman 2.

The Good:
I’ve always thought that Rachel Weisz is gorgeous, and of course, she’s a very good actress.  But I don’t always like her movies.  (I don’t mean that she makes bad movies, just that she has a tendency to make films I don’t enjoy watching for whatever reason.  I particularly loathe The Shape of Things.)  But Weisz gives a phenomenal performance here.  She’s by far the best thing about The Bourne Legacy.

It’s not just that Weisz gives a superlative performance.  It’s not just that she projects tremendous energy, presence, and passion.  Honestly, I think early on Weisz’s scenes are best because her character is given the best scenes.  As a screenwriter and director, Gilroy seems very comfortable with the character of Dr. Marta Shearing, and he gives Rachel Weisz’s character all the best parts of the story. 

Early on, we’re really not sure what’s going on with Aaron Cross.  We appreciate that 1) He’s not Jason Bourne, and 2) He is Jeremy Renner, so we’re supposed to pay attention to him.  But we don’t have enough information about his motivations and intentions.  And even though we quickly realize everyone is trying to kill him, we really don’t know what makes him worth saving.  (Of course, all human life is valuable.  But I mean, initially, we have no idea what Aaron Cross is really like.  We know we’re supposed to be in his corner.  But do we want to be there?)

Shearing’s story comes into focus faster.  We’re not given much backstory on her.  But cinematically, we’re set up to empathize with her.  I think the scenes that focus on the doctor and her trauma seem much more focused and better handled than the introduction to Cross.

For me, the highlight of the movie was realizing when and how Cross and Shearing come together.  (It’s no surprise to anyone who’s ever watched a movie that their paths cross, of course.  But you’re so happy when your expectations are fulfilled because a formerly scattered presentation suddenly turns to a tight focus that continues from then on, allowing dramatic tension to build.)

In previous Bourne movies, there’s always been a girl involved—Franka Potente, Julia Stiles—but here the girl seems more important.  Dr. Shearing isn’t just connected to Cross.  She also plays a vital role in what’s happening.  She’s almost as much of a potential liability as he is.  Instead of being star and love interest, Renner and Shearing are more like co-protagonists.  And as a pair, they’re quite interesting.  I hope the pairing lasts through two more movies.  (How uncanny, too, that Rachel Weisz plays a major role in the Bourne franchise and is married to James Bond!)

As in previous Bourne installments, once the action starts happening, it’s fast and electrifying.  You certainly see the allure of the blue pill.  Catching one of these enhanced spies is like hunting a velociraptor.  Instead of mindless violence, the film gives us extremely calculated and thoughtfully (though rapidly) executed violence.

Also as usual in these movies, the actors playing the team tracking Cross and Shearing are a seasoned bunch.  You expect people like Edward Norton and Stacy Keach to give good performances, and they deliver.  (Given how often you see his face in previews, though, Norton has relatively little screentime.  I mean, he’s in the whole thing, and he’s always jumping in, but he doesn’t seem like a dominating force in the same way that Brian Cox, David Strathairn, or, particularly, Joan Allen did.)  I actually thought Corey Stoll gave a conspicuously strong performance.  He was both charismatic and memorable.  (I kept racking my brains, too, trying to figure out where I’d seen him before.  Now I know.  He played Hemingway in Midnight in Paris.)

Another plus for me was all the stuff about viruses.  I’ve long been fascinated by viruses and how they function (and potentially could function).

Best Scene Visually:
The first twenty to thirty minutes had me wanting to scream, “Okay!  You win!  You’ve sold me!  I’ll go to Alaska!”  As Legacy opens, our focus is pulled in a thousand different directions, and we’re only given brief glimpses of Aaron Cross who is very, very, very slowly moving faster than anybody else ever has.  It’s hard not to be painfully aware that the movie needs to pick up the pace.  Still who can deny the pristine beauty of wild Alaska?  It’s hard not to be charmed by the setting (which dominates the screen more than either the new protagonist or the ghost of The Bourne Ultimatim).  The scenes of Aaron on the mountain are breathtaking. 

So I have to conclude that the best actor in the early part of the movie is Fortress Mountain, near Calgary, Canada (where they filmed, apparently).  Fortress Mountain played a peak in Alaska so convincingly that I was ready to call my travel agent and book my next vacation.

Another visually stunning moment comes when Aaron stares down the wolf in the snow.  What a gorgeous wolf!  What big eyes he has!

Best Scene:
Two scenes tie here as far as I’m concerned. Tension is so high when Weisz’s Dr. Shearing tries to escape from her lab. The scene is riveting. Who can look away from a situation like that? Outstanding performances by Weisz, Zeljko Ivanek, and other supporting cast members make the scene quite memorable. The scene is also something special because it takes place in a locked room and gives us something tight and defined to focus on for the first time in the movie.

Another fantastic scene follows as Dr. Shearing retreats to her house in the country and takes an impromptu meeting. Weisz gives a magnificent performance here, but she’s not the only reason this scene stands out. The writing of the scene seems more focused. The world of the doctor and her laboratory experiments feels more real and relatable than anything we’ve seen from Aaron Cross or the government agency pursuing him. The movie seems more comfortable with Dr. Shearing. It makes better use of her than it does of Cross. The way the scene in Shearing’s house ends really kicks the movie into high gear. Suddenly, we get sucked into the action. The plot clicks. The pacing picks up. The movie finds its footing and becomes consistently entertaining and engrossing.

Best Action Sequence:
The final chase sequence is when the movie really shines.  Finally the pace has picked up.  We know where our focus belongs.  We’re invested in the characters and understand what they’re trying to achieve.  We’re also offered a force of real menace that poses a serious and immediate threat, so the immediate stakes are incredibly high. 

Normally I zone out during long action sequences, though I have a soft spot for well-orchestrated chase scenes.  The on-foot action at the beginning of the chase echoes similar action scenes in the earlier Bourne movies and really has a signature series feel.  But once the key participants get wheels, the visceral thrills really start and rapidly intensify. 

To be honest, initially I thought the car was a bad choice for the other guy since he loses his terrifying edge that way.  Wow, I thought, the automobile:  the great equalizer.  Then I saw what he could do with a car and amended my opinion a bit.  Still, any panicked driver could have achieved the same road chaos that he instigated deliberately.  He should have grabbed a bike in the beginning or found a way to force another pedestrian chase.

I would be lying if I said my thoughts didn’t wander a bit during all those long minutes of no dialogue.  (Mainly I found myself wondering, What if they have kids together?  How does laboratory-engineered genetic enhancement work with reproduction?  Sperm are made  fresh, but it takes three months for them to mature, so if they have sex that night, will all of his reproductive materials have caught up to the rest of him?  Either way, of course, the kids would look like a cross between Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz, so they’d probably be okay even if they didn’t get the Bourne brains.)

Still I followed all the action on the screen and was pretty impressed when they decided to go perpendicular.  What a great idea!

The Negatives:
The last half of the movie is exponentially stronger than the first half.  Part of the problem, of course, is that we have to be introduced to Aaron Cross, and I don’t think that’s done particularly well.  Back in the first movie, Jason Bourne seemed fascinating immediately.  But in this movie, the long enigmatic Aaron Cross just hangs out in the wilderness for ages.  Then he shows up someplace, meets somebody, and starts talking about stuff that may or may not be true.  (We don’t know him.  We don’t know what he’s like.  We don’t know what he’s capable of.  We don’t know what motivates him.  We also don’t know the other guy.)  Nobody in the entire world (which we see, incidentally, represented on screen by about as many countries as compete in the Olympics) cares what’s going on with Aaron Cross.  He’s barely a blip for them.  They’re all focused on finding Jason Bourne and denying and destroying everything connected to him.

What happens before the title shouldn’t be there.  The opening is weak.  You see some guy swimming around.  Then, Boom, The Bourne Legacy.  That type of opening should be reserved for scenes that really pop.  That one doesn’t and fails more conspicuously as an opening scene by announcing itself with such undeserved fanfare.

Now once we finally learn more about Aaron Cross and what motivates him, we retroactively understand these opening moments better.  But Jason Bourne was motivated by things that seem higher up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Everything he did initially was based on a fight or flight response.  Cross’s journey is more personal and character-driven.  He doesn’t want to find out who he is (or was).  He knows who he was.  He wants to be someone else.

His motivations for obsessing over his meds seem shockingly shallow when he first reveals them.  You’re expecting more for sure.  Even Rachel Weisz’s character doesn’t get why he feels as strongly about them as he does.   Of course, then we begin to understand.  He needs his wits about him to survive—but only because he’s attracted their attention and put himself back on the map.  He could have just run away into the wilderness of fake Alaska and settled for being himself.

So this action movie is strangely character driven.  What’s at stake for Cross is different than what mattered to Jason Bourne. 

Because of the type of movie this is, that type of lead protagonist doesn’t work as well as someone like Jason Bourne did.  Bourne felt more high octane.  The stakes aren’t initially as high for Cross.  But that’s why the movie needs Shearing, too.  And I think that’s why it seems to focus on her and improves when she’s onscreen.  Shearing’s story is the one with the high stakes.  From a narrative point of view, she’s much more like Bourne than Cross is.  She’s the character facing high stakes for no reason that she understands.  She’s the character whose struggle sets the story in motion.

Until Cross and Shearing get together, the movie can’t decide where it wants us to look and doesn’t really have a steadily progressing series of related events that it wants us to see.  Cross may have the training and the genetic alterations, but Shearing brings the focus and the momentum to the story.

When I heard Moby’s Bourne theme shriek onto the screen, I couldn’t believe it.  I had just finally gotten totally engrossed by the movie.  The story had kicked into high gear.  I thought it was the middle of the movie—honestly I did!—and then it was suddenly the end.  I was stunned and kind of disappointed.  Of course, on the flip side, they’ve perfectly positioned a sequel.  I hope they’re making a sequel.  That’s the only reason I can think of for including the disappointing stuff we learn about Pamela Landy near the ending of the movie.

The Bourne Legacy got off to a slow start, but then it really got good and ended way before I was ready.  I’d gladly watch a sequel.  (I’m hoping two further installments are planned.)  Shearing and Cross make a terrific team, and the introduction of a new antagonist also added an intriguing layer to a franchise that could become Bond-like and unending.