Saturday, January 17, 2015

Penelope Says

January 7, 2015

Penelope asked for a Frozen backpack for her birthday to replace her My Little Pony backpack because she wanted to match her best friend's Frozen backpack. Yesterday, I asked her if her friend liked her new backpack. Yes. And did they match now? "No!" Penelope replied with a sigh, "because for Christmas, she got a pony backpack!"

7:49 am

January 8th

Making Birthday Cupcakes to Take to Class Tomorrow!

5:01 pm

Penelope (wandering around the house, singing a very long song, mournfully): But we can never be together [pronounced togedder]! We can never beeeee togedderrr....
Me: Why can't they be together?
Penelope: Because he thinks it's all over for him, so their love is doomed. He thinks he is going to die on this plane. (Gallops off, singing again) No, my love! You will not die on the plaaaaaane!
5:08 pm

January 10th

Penelope's contribution to our D&D game, a drawing of an owl bear.

9:55 pm

Scandal at the inn, the male ranger and the female paladin are sharing a room. She insists and actually got in a fight with the innkeeper. It seems the paladin is afraid of the dark.
10:04 pm

January 11th

Penelope: (playing Animal Crossing) Can somebody please come play for me? I really want to eat an apple.
Grayson: You can just put it down for a second.
Penelope: Well, an apple takes more than a second for me. It takes more like a year.
Grayson: You must be like 20 years old then!
10:09 am

Penelope: Once I bit off somebody's neck at school.
Me: What? When did you do that?
Penelope: When somebody made me mad, I opened up my jaws and closed my mouth around the neck and bit off the whole head.
Me: How come I didn't get a note about this from Mrs. Ybarra?
Penelope: Because she didn't see.
Me: I'm surprised she didn't notice somebody disappeared from the class.
Penelope: It was someone in another class. And he made me mad. (Eerie whisper) And now he's not here anymore. (Pause, eerie voice again) Actually that was all just a story, but now I'm going to do it for real. (Bites the neck off a Teddy Graham)
12:56 pm

Penelope (singing to herself as she plays Plants Versus Zombies): It's going crazy up in here!
(I giggle.)
Penelope (earnestly): No, it really is.
5:13 pm

January 13th

Penelope was very excited to get the award for confidence at the knighting ceremony this morning. Two students from each class were honored--one for Tolerance, one for Confidence. They read a little paragraph about each student as a woman in a knight costume put a medal around the honoree's neck. Meanwhile, the parents were lined up backstage. When Penelope was called, we walked out through a castle arch prop to give her a hug and a certificate.

Her teacher had called us last week with the good news and asked us to keep it a secret so it would be a surprise. Of course, this morning she kept complaining that she was too tired and cold to go to school. Couldn't we take her temperature? (Totally normal.) Couldn't she stay home?

I was surprised she had no questions when I vaguely insisted, "I think you should at least go for the morning."

The elated grin on her face as she ran up to hug us during the ceremony was delightful. Of course, I wish I'd known we were going to be up on stage with her. I probably would not have worn a brown sweater and purple and white striped pajama pants!
10:51 am

Penelope: Mom, everybody kept gathering around to look at my medal, and Hannah gave me a hug and told me, "Great job!" I was really proud!
3:22 pm

January 14th

Penelope (last night, contemplating her medal): Does my teacher really think I have confidence, or is this like...a fake medal?
Penelope (anxiously): Why didn't I get the Tolerance medal? Aren't I a good friend? I always try to be a good friend to everyone. Doesn't my teacher think I'm a good friend?
Me: Well, Penelope, she gave you the medal for confidence. She can't give you all the medals!
Penelope: Do you think she really believes I have confidence? I'm not sure that this medal is gold or silver. I can't tell what color it is exactly. I'm worried this is some kind of trick.

Such confidence!
11:49 am

January 15th

Penelope just instructed me not to give a baby the name of her "enemy" in class.

Penelope (cautiously): I'm still his friend, but... (rethinks) I pretend to be his friend, but...
Me (smiling): You pretend to be his friend?
Penelope: Yes. I don't like him, but I don't want to hurt his feelings...(I'm thinking how sweet this is until she adds with enormous eyes)...because he tells on EVERYONE.
6:27 pm

Fall Movie Diary: Foxcatcher

Date: January 16
Time: 12:30 pm
Place: Regal Arbor
Company: No one
Food: Small popcorn,  small red Icee

Runtime: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Bennett Miller

Quick Impressions:
I didn't realize it until yesterday (I'm slow), but I remember when this happened.  I didn't know anything about wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, but John du Pont’s big standoff with the police was actually on the news for quite a while.  I remember watching the story as it broke with my dad when I was in high school.  For some reason, I thought du Pont had shot his girlfriend or female lover, but I must just have been confused about the details of the crime.

I don't always like Bennett Miller's movies.  Well, I guess what I mean is, I found Capote far too dark and depressing to be enjoyable.  (It had that great, “I went out the front door and he went out the back door” line, and of course Philip Seymour Hoffman is great, but what a demoralizing story!)

Foxcatcher is kind of a downer like that, too, but I thought it had a much more coherent narrative than internet chatter about the film and the crime had led me to believe.

I've been meaning to see this film for a while now, but I couldn't decide, this or Selma first?  I decided the prudent choice was to wait for Oscar nominations to be announced.   Since director Bennett Miller, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo are all nominated, this became the more pressing choice.

The movie definitely has great performances, arresting cinematography, and some thought provoking material.  It’s not my favorite movie of the year by a long shot, but it’s definitely a very intriguing piece of work.

The Good:
The acting is great—such varied styles, all pretty captivating.  The story feels very controlled (perhaps a bit too slow burning), but that's probably why Bennett Miller got the directing nomination.

I also liked the score (ultimately.  At first I thought there was no score.  The beginning is so filled with long, painful silences!)

Channing Tatum is a revelation here.  Hopefully he'll be offered stronger scripts in the future based on this performance.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Steve Carell:
Honestly, I think Channing Tatum gives the best performance in this film, and definitely the best performance of his career.  I disagree with people who insist that Carell should be nominated in Supporting,  though.  While it wouldn't be a travesty to run him in Supporting, he is clearly in a leading role here.  Yes for most of the film, Tatum's Mark Schultz is the protagonist, but Carell's character is just as central to the progression of the story.  The key is that they are really the only two characters who get significant screen time, focus, and development.  The only other “important” characters in Foxcatcher are Dave and old Mrs. du Pont, and compared to Tatum and Carell, Ruffalo and Redgrave get such a reduced share in the central action that anyone can see they are in supporting roles.  (Contrast this with the situation in say, Twelve Years a Slave.  Like du Pont, Edwin Epps is a crazy, compelling antagonist.  The difference is, Epps is just one of many, many characters who interact significantly with the protagonist.  Foxcatcher, on the other hand, might just as well be called A First Hand Account of the Destructive Madness of John du Pont as Told by Mark Schultz.  Both Tatum and Carell are right at the heart of the story, and for most of the film, the rest of the cast is just set dressing.

Now as for Carell’s performance itself, I’m not sure that I see any significant difference between the worthiness of this performance and Jake Gyllenhaal’s in Night Crawler.  (Meanwhile Ralph Fiennes is better, and I haven’t yet seen David Oyewolo.) I'm not knocking either turn, but both of them have kind of a self-conscious “look how carefully I'm crafting this kooky, dysfunctional character” quality.

Now I’m sure part of the appeal of Carell’s work here is seeing a consistently funny, often deliberately goofy comedian pull off a serious, dramatic role.  (I’m not sure why this has come as a surprise to some people.  Carell has always been a gifted actor who just happens to be great at making ordinary situations funny.)

Probably my favorite moment in the entire film is Mark and “Golden Eagle’s” cocaine-fueled speech practice in the helicopter.  And Carell is particularly brilliant here because the ridiculous “philatelist, philanthropist, ornithologist” back-and-forth could so easily spiral into ridiculous comedy.  In fact, the same actors could perform the same scene as comedy with just a subtle tweaking of their performances.

And yet the moment—so rife with ridiculousness—never does become out-and-out funny.  Instead it becomes increasingly ludicrous and and eerily compelling.

I actually think this scene is an Oscar Worthy moment for both Tatum and Carell.  Their bizarre screen chemistry here is riveting.

Another moment from Carell that really sticks with me is the fairly late scene when he begins “jogging” around the gym.  The character is so pathetic and kind of tragically ridiculous, and yet Carell conveys this (physically) without injecting even a drop of comedy into the performance.  It isn't funny.  It's just sad.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Mark Ruffalo:
This is one of those performances that sneaks up on you, quietly building so that its cumulative effect is much more powerful than anything you would expect from its component parts.

Ruffalo is doing fine work.  Some might call it the best acting in the film.  What intrigues me is the observation (mine) that Tatum, Ruffalo, and Carell are all using slightly different styles of acting.  Tatum’s performance seems almost Method in its intensity.  Carell's is very cerebral, somewhat stagey in some respects (though subtle).  Ruffalo's, meanwhile, is incredibly naturalistic.  He slips into affable Dave Schultz and makes it just look easy.  This difference in styles creates a very palpable tension among these three characters and also increases the likelihood that viewers are going to consider one of the performances vastly superior to the others (but disagree about which one it is).

Ruffalo definitely deserves his nomination.  He's tremendous in the documentary interview.  What can one say, really, about John du Pont.  Particularly because Dave has just revealed his motives for staying on to his brother in the scene before (another strong moment), his obvious discomfort here makes a lot of sense to us.  Ruffalo plays this beautifully with such nuance and feeling in his silences that his words almost don't matter.

Best Scene Visually:
I’m a big fan of the release of horses.  Tatum's bit with the mirror and slightly later on the bicycle are pretty resonant as well.

Best Scene:
We get a short scene (rather provocative in its evasiveness) of Mark and du Pont training together late at night.  This is followed by an oddly intimate, soul-baring buddy chat out on the porch.  Taken together, these scenes shed light on the intense relationship developing between the pair and set us up to understand the full significance of the highly dramatic moment that soon follows.

Best Action Sequence:
The slap is fantastic and brings the first portion of the film to a highly dramatic end.

Of course, what happens later between du Pont and Dave is pretty riveting, too.

The Negatives:
I see why Mark Schultz is angry about this movie.  If his enraged tweets are genuine (and not part of some strange, staged PR campaign for the film), then I believe him when he says that director Bennett Miller deceived him.

The film definitely does imply a sexual relationship (or at least a sexualized dynamic) between Mark and du Pont.  Schultz says that he didn't like that one-on-one “training” scene, but Miller assured him that it was meant to show that du Pont did not respect his personal space, that he had no boundaries.

If I were Schultz, I would be so mad because I would think the movie implies that I basically pimped myself out to this rich, degenerate lunatic because I needed the money and was too dumb to realize his true intentions.  And then of course I would think, Oh no!  I'm so dumb I’ve let it happen again.  I signed a contract, and these people deceived me and misrepresented my life, and didn’t respect me enough to think they had to deal with me honestly.

As evinced in the film and in his own tweets, Schultz clearly has some issues of his own, among them a clear impulse control problem.

But Bennett Miller certainly does make the relationship sexually charged and depict du Pont as extremely (perhaps even insidiously) gay.  (Now maybe du Pont doesn't realize or admit he’s gay, but the audience knows it and so does his mother.)

Mark Schultz definitely characterizes du Pont differently than the film does, and I tend to think that Schultz may be more in line with the actual facts on this one.

For one thing, Schultz actually lived these events.  For another, Miller’s John du Pont is basically Norman Bates.  I mean, it’s glaringly obvious in the movie.  Every time his mother reprimands him for being “low” (by which she clearly means a disappointing, homosexual weirdo), he snaps and violently lashes out at the object of his unseemly passions in dramatic fashion.  He’s also into stuffed birds.  We get a whole scene of them looking at us from all over the room.  I'm pretty sure if you carefully check each and every one of those cabins on the estate, you’ll find Janet Leigh dead in the shower in one of them.

I had heard this film didn't present a coherent narrative explaining what happened with Dave, but it seems pointedly clear to me.  In fact, it’s almost heavy handed.  I think if you can’t connect the dots for yourself, maybe you need to watch more movies.  (Maybe it’s just hard for some people to follow the motives of a crazy person.)

Now I’m not saying that John du Pont didn't have some repressed homosexual tendencies and a creepy relationship with his disapproving mother.  I’m just saying that the way this plays out on screen is a bit disappointingly movie standard.  (We watch and think, Ah, that makes sense.  Weird creepy seeming guys are always secretly gay.  And sometimes they hurt people because they have overbearing mothers who are not nice to them.  I know because that's the way it always happens in the movies.)  I feel like the complexity of the truth is being way oversimplified to fit a standard trope of the silver screen.

I think nearer the mark is that insanity gallops through the du Pont family.  (They get arrested for weird, objectionable crimes all the time.  Google it.)  The movie seems to suggest that du Pont’s biggest problem is that he's an unattractive, closeted misfit with a mean mommy.  Okay, but Mark Schultz says he was constantly drunk and high on cocaine and had delusions of grandeur and lost his testicles in a childhood accident.  I'm not saying those narratives aren’t compatible, but Schultz’s version hints at far greater complexity.  Miller makes it seem like du Pont lost his testicles when his mother confiscated them because she didn't want him to be gay.  It just feels a little too stereotypical to be true.  It’s kind of an insult to conflicted, closeted gay men who have nice enough mothers and refrain from violent crime.

I also wish Vanessa Redgrave were featured a bit more heavily.  She’s a great actress, and I’d love to see a bit more complexity and nuance in that relationship.  But I hear there is a much longer director’s cut out there, so we’ll see.

Foxcatcher is not exactly the feel good movie of the year, but it is a well-directed (if a bit clich├ęd) piece of cinematic storytelling.  I liked it less than Moneyball but more than Capote.  The performances are all quite good, and I'm very pleased that Steve Carell has picked up his first Academy Award nomination.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Fall Movie Diary: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game
Time: 1:20 pm
Place:  Tinsel Town
Company: No one
Food:  small blue Icee, popcorn 
Runtime: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Morten Tyldum

Quick Impressions:
This is a much better movie than The Theory of Everything.  At least, it’s more to my taste.  I suppose I’m comparing the two projects because they’re both British films about true life academics who make great discoveries.  I’m not suggesting that the historical Turing is superior to Hawking in some way, or that Eddie Redmayne doesn’t give a fantastic performance as pop culture’s favorite cosmologist.  I just find this movie far more interesting.  More happens.  For most of the film, the plot is driven by the race against time by Turing and his colleagues to break the Nazi Enigma codes and help to end World War II.  Not only are the stakes high, but the dialogue and character interactions are compelling.  The principal characters say and do interesting, captivating things.  I also quite liked Alexandre Desplat’s score.  It fit the film tonally and helped to create a suspenseful mood.  The music was lovely without being too showy or overpowering.

I can see why both Cumberbatch and Knightley are favored for Oscar nominations.  Cumberbatch is absolutely brilliant here.  His Turing definitely gives every indication of being somewhere on the Autism spectrum, and apparently Cumberbatch is at his best when playing characters who are not neurotypical.  I like his performance because he portrays Turing as a markedly unusual individual without making him seem like a huge weirdo.  (Too often when actors portray characters who are not ordinary, they go a little overboard and become so obsessed with portraying their character’s disability or atypical traits that the character’s personality—and often the film’s plot—somehow gets lost or ignored in all the drama.)

Keira Knightley is at her best here, too.  She has the great advantage of playing an immensely sympathetic, well-written character who is given clever lines and intelligent, compassionate things to do.  If this movie is any indicator, then Joan Clarke was a fascinating woman in her own right.  I particularly like all the insight we’re given into her thought processes and motivations.  (A weakness of Felicity Jones’s performance as Jane Hawking is the limiting material she’s given.  Unfortunately we never learn much about Jane’s reasoning or motivations, which is truly frustrating since print interviews have led me to suspect that the real life Jane Hawking is a thoughtful and interesting woman.)  Knightley benefits greatly from the well-developed, engaging-as-scripted character that she’s given.  I would expect a Best Supporting Actresses nomination for her this year, and I’d say it’s thoroughly deserved.

The Good:
This is a movie about scientists/mathematicians called upon by their country to do some monumentally important work—and we actually get to see them doing that work.  Their effort to break Enigma is the primary focus of the movie.  So of course, the story is quite captivating and engaging because, I mean, the bombing of Britain is compelling stuff.  The stakes are extremely high.  All around Turing and his team people are dying every day, and people will continue dying until the top-secret team can break the codes and win the war. 

Of course, there’s a separate, intertwined narrative advancing at the same time.  While we’re learning about this great historical feat, we also get to see the tormented past and persecuted future of the highly complex Alan Turing.

Perhaps the film deserves a screenplay nomination.  I’m definitely a fan of the structure.  Instead of telling two separate stories—of Turing the hero and Turing the “criminal—in chronological order, the film makes the wise choice of presenting both storylines at once.  This way, it can rise and fall along with the progress of the government project, which creates a story that is easy to watch.  Otherwise, we’d get the big climax of the culmination of the team’s work, then have to suffer through the remaining thirty minutes of tagged on post-success persecution as the film gradually loses energy and focus.  For this story, telling everything all at once works much better, particularly because that way the audience can consider the parts of the story as components of a related whole, a complete person.

By the way, the flashback scenes of Turing’s youth left me with two strong convictions.  1) The kid who plays the young Turing does a fantastic job.  Keep an eye on young Alex Lawther.  He’s definitely going places.  His performance is almost as convincing as Cumberbatch’s.  2) I’m so glad I didn’t go to a British boys prep school.  Seriously, if you ever want to feel really good about the state of American schools, just watch the flashback scenes in this movie.  I mean sure, the teasing of kids who stand out is a pretty universal phenomenon, but good grief, they stuff him underneath the floor boards and nail him up and push furniture on top of him!?  Who runs this prep school—Edgar Allan Poe? 

As I’ve said, Cumberbatch and Knightley are fantastic, and there are some pretty great supporting performances as well.  Charles Dance is a particular standout as the strangely likable (despite his bullheaded hostility to the protagonist) Commander Denniston.  In his dignified bluster and increasingly unconcealed derision, Denniston is strangely reminiscent of Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones.  (All of this, “Have you ever won a war?  Well, I have,” kind of stuff, the lofty tone, the obvious professional experience.)  Dance is perfect in the role, and rather curiously, the character manages to be kind of likable even though he’s clearly wrong about Turing’s work and persists in needlessly making things more difficult for him.

I love Mark Strong, and he’s very good in his part, too.  Strong has a knack for seeming sinister and suave simultaneously, which always helps when you’re playing an MI-6 agent.

Before seeing The Imitation Game, I knew almost nothing about Alan Turing.  I knew his name, of course, and that he was a computer pioneer.  And I’m familiar with the widespread anecdote about Churchill making the tough decision to let a village get bombed rather than to reveal that the British had cracked the Germans’ codes.  But I knew absolutely none of the details of how Turing and the rest of the team worked to solve Enigma.  And until listening to some interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch a few weeks before seeing the film, I had absolutely no inklings of Turing’s homosexuality or the government’s almost bizarrely punitive response.

I suppose I’ll now have to do some serious reading about Alan Turing.  (I’m also very curious about Joan Clarke.  Romances are often built up and thrown in to enhance biopics for the screen, so I’d love to know more of the facts of this woman’s life.)  I’ve heard some complaints that the film is not completely historically accurate, and I mean, frankly I’d be stunned if it were completely accurate.  Biopics never are.  (I’m rather suspicious about the origin of the name of the computer and Turing’s tortured attachment to it.  That seems very likely to be embroidered for maximum tear-jerk potential to me, especially given Turing’s apparently non-melodramatic personality.  But honestly, I don’t know a thing about the actual events.  I’ll have to do some reading.)

Strongly in the movie’s favor, however, is that it gives the audience a coherent idea of how Turing and his team worked during World War II.  Surely the movie’s basic plot points are at least broadly true.  And this is a part of history that isn’t often taught in schools (at least not American schools).  We tend to hear a lot more about what happened on the battlefield (or in the concentration camps) than we ever do about the intellectuals/politicians working behind the scenes to hasten peace through strategy, diplomacy, espionage, and other such chicanery.  The events in this film are genuinely interesting, chiefly because they’re not often told.  I think the screenplay is quite well written in that it reveals and develops Turing’s character so thoroughly while briskly guiding us through the events of his professional life.  Too often biopics indulge in long asides, probing the complexities of the protagonist while letting the plot stagnate.

Another great strength of the movie is Alexandre Desplat’s score.  It killed me to learn that Birdman’s superb score was disqualified for Oscar consideration.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s easily the year’s best score.  (I was upset about the Black Swan score a few years ago, but that at least made sense.  I really don’t get this, but the processes for selecting nominees for song, score, and foreign film are all very arcane and confusing to laypeople, if you ask me.)  Anyway, I like this score, too.  Maybe it will win an Oscar.  It’s subtle and sets the perfect mood for the story.  (That’s what I don’t like about The Theory of Everything’s much lauded score.  It’s just so intrusive and grandstanding.  If Hawking were a symphony orchestra conductor, I’d understand that choice.  It’s lovely music, but I just think it doesn’t do a great job as a movie score.)

In short, The Imitation Game succeeds chiefly because it features captivating characters and a genuinely interesting, content heavy story.  And the superb score doesn't hurt.

Best Action Sequence:
It’s pretty hard to forget that stomping the floorboards scene of school room abuse, and I like the way that scene is juxtaposed with a later moment when Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) suddenly loses patience with Turing, snaps, and turns on him in violence. 

Best Scene:
Then, of course, there’s the later scene when Charles Dance and the men in his command storm into the room and attack Turing.  What happens here is a definite turning point in Turing’s story and is genuinely moving (so much so that it seems a bit contrived, and I find myself wondering if it really went down like that).  The scene definitely works cinematically, though.

Another soaring scene is the eureka moment as the code is cracked. 

Best Scene Visually:
We begin to appreciate the difficulty of the team’s job—the extreme sacrifices involved in winning war—through visual cues which emphasize the toll the war is taking on Britain.  It’s absolutely chilling when Peter (Matthew Beard) looks at the map they assemble charting the position of ships an draws a terrifying conclusion.  Moments later, we see Alan and Joan talking with Stewart Menzies.  They reach an understanding about what must be done, but at the same moment, Joan happens to glance out the window at first hand evidence of the horror of war.  In fact, various intercalary scenes regularly remind us how high the stakes are, how horrific the ramifications of delay. 

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Benedict Cumberbatch:
Cumberbatch does a great job throughout the film of convincing us that Turing is a prickly (though genuine), socially awkward genius who’s probably on the Autism spectrum somewhere without ever overplaying this. 

He’s good in all his scenes, but I love his moment (broken up and inserted into the main narrative as several separate scenes) in the interrogation room with Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear).  The film obviously knows this is one of its strongest scenes since we get these beautifully framed close-ups of Cumberbatch’s face as he delivers a quietly profound monologue.  (This is also the sequence in which we learn the significance of the film’s title.)

What makes Cumberbatch’s performance so good is that he’s able to generate such intensity in scenes like this one, in which he’s basically just sitting there talking quietly.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Keira Knightley:
Keira Knightley’s Oscar chances are helped along greatly by the fact that she plays the attractive young character who is most sympathetic and kind to the troubled protagonist.  The film portrays Joan Clarke as the colleague closest to being Turing’s intellectual equal yet without his social difficulties.  Joan is kind and socially adept and very clever and helpful to Turing.  I feel like it would take a special kind of atrocious actress to screw up a role like this.  Fortunately, Knightley is a good actress who is often at her best in period pieces (where she excels at being not at all like the other women of that period). 

Knightley is quite good in an early scene in the pub, and she gets to give a very impressive, impassioned speech in the late scene when Turing tries to send Joan home.  In some ways, this scene is frustrating, but it’s that kind of very emotionally satisfying frustration and torment that movie audiences eat up with such relish. 

The Negatives:
There’s something a bit too neat and contrived about the story as presented.  That one line that gets passed back and forth...The third time I heard it, I thought, Good grief!  What is this, Spiderman?  I mean, “With great power comes great responsibility,” is a stirring line, too, but you can only hear it so many times before you start to become convinced that you’re living within a work of fiction.

Little things like this—the repeated line, the heavy-handed explanation of Turing’s work near the end, the name Alan gives the machine—drive home the point that the movie is obviously fiction.  That’s okay because it’s not pretending to be a documentary or something.  But at same time, I sat there alternating between thinking, This is so well crafted and This is too well crafted.

That’s really my only complaint.  Sometimes verisimilitude is sacrificed for craft.  Nothing true is ever that neat.  And when it’s so easy to draw huge conclusions about what makes Turing tick and what we’re supposed to be taking from the story, then it’s all the more obvious that what we’ve been watching is just that—a story.  Highly contrived.

Still I’d rather watch a well-crafted if contrived piece of fiction than a complete train wreck of random action lacking any logical focus or organization.


The Imitation Game is a thoroughly engaging piece of historical fiction that introduces movie audiences to a character whose significant contribution to ending World War II has been marginalized and overlooked over the years.  Benedict Cumberbatch gives a brilliant lead performance and thoroughly deserves the Best Actor nomination that he will likely get.  Keira Knightley will probably get nominated, too, for her solid, sympathetic performance as Joan Clarke, a character The Imitation Game makes almost as intriguing as the fascinating and complex Alan Turing himself.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Penelope Says

December 18th

Penelope the Red Nosed Reindeer

3:26 PM

December 19th

Anybody want a hippopotamus for Christmas?

7:50 AM

Penelope: Mom, I've been wondering. Santa and reindeer and elves--do they die?
Me: Oh. I'm not sure. That's a very good question. 
Penelope: Maybe if they die, they become ghosts, and then they search the world for a new body so they can continue their work.
5:07 pm

When I picked up Penelope this afternoon...
Me: How was your day?
Penelope: So, so, so great, great, great, great, great! Best day ever!
I'm thinking school would be way more popular if you got to wear your pajamas and have a cookie decorating/face painting party every day.
5:09 pm

Penelope: My character will be a knight. He's a boy who has dirty blond hair--like me, but he's a boy. And his backstory is, his mother got killed by wolves. So now...
Derrick: Killed by wolves! I like that. 
Penelope: I changed my mind. She was killed by monsters, like giant big foot monsters and goblins. So now he wants to help other people not get hurt by those monsters. 
Penelope: I thought of more backstory. Here's how my father died. When I was a little boy, we lived in a village, and somebody just killed him. He was walking along, and somebody sneaked up behind him and stabbed him in the face.
Me: How did he sneak up behind him and stab him in the face?
Penelope: Because he peeked around just a little bit, and then he stabbed him in the face.
Me: That's dark.
Penelope: And he was eating candy the whole time.
Me: That guy sounds creepy.
Gray: He was just like, "Heh heh heh. Stab. Mmmm. Candy."
6:52 pm

December 20th

Grayson (finishing up the egg whites for our buche): Look, Nellie!
Penelope: (appropriately awed) Cool.
Me: Hold on! Let me get a picture of your stiff peak.
Derrick (from the other room, totally thrown): What?
(Grayson bursts out laughing.)
3:07 pm

In the kitchen...
Penelope: Eww! What are you doing, Bubby?
Gray: (trying to put her on the defensive) Nothing. What are YOU doing?
Penelope (unfazed): Um, watching you do something gross!

5:05 pm

At every stage of this project, there's something to sample--meringue mushrooms, cake, whipped cream, frosting. By the time we actually eat the buche, the kids will be full, and Penelope will be completely concealed by a thick layer of chocolate.

5:15 pm

Buche de Noel

7:32 pm

December 21st

Penelope (to Grayson in exasperation as she keeps running into his bombs in Nintendoland Metroid): You are going to kill me! And then I am going to haunt you FOREVER! 
(Grayson laughs)
Penelope: And then I will kill YOU.
Grayson: How will you kill me if you're transparent? (Giggling, to annoy Derrick, saying for the millionth time) Wouldn't it be funny of we mastered this?
Penelope: Stop torturing your fadder!
10:32 am

Me (playing a game with Derrick and Nellie): If you could ask one question of a dead person, whom would you ask and what would the question be?
Penelope: I want to ask Marilyn Monroe. I would ask her how she was so famous. And if I could, I would tell you when I was dead. I would rise from the grave and walk to our house, and then you would hear my voice, and then I would tell you. 
Me: You would tell us her answer?
Penelope: Yes. And by the way, shouldn’t we research that out? Because I really want to know!
10:42 pm

Me: If you could choose to be something other than human, would you rather be a Greek god, a Christian angel, or a mortal animal? Explain. 
Penelope: I would go for animal because they’re so unique and they’re cool, and I want to learn about them. In fact, I might even go in the zoo.
Derrick: I would be an angel, so I could watch over and help people.
Penelope: But some animals can help people, too.
Derrick: Absolutely.
Penelope: Giraffes could help, don’t you think?
Derrick: Yeah, a giraffe would be a good lookout.
10:44 pm

Me: What is your favorite story from the Old Testament? Why do you like it?
Penelope: Actually, I have two favorite stories. They are “Adam and Eve” and “David and the Giant. Goliath.” I like it because—the rock. David wins with a few stones and sling shot. I like Adam and Eve because I feel like they’re like me. Sometimes I know not to do it, and anyway, I do it.
10:45 pm

December 22nd
Christmas Cuties

9:51 am

Penelope: What I really want for Christmas is my friends--if someone could wrap them up, and I would unwrap them like presents. My hands don't know what to do without my friends.
After two weeks of, "I think I will be too sick to go to school tomorrow," we are now being treated to, "I miss school so much! I hate winter break!" and, "When I get back to school in January, the first thing I will do is hug all my friends!"
9:51 pm

December 23rd

Me (reading a question from a game): Would you rather eat a human stranger or your own cat? Explain.
Mom: I wouldn't eat either of those.
Me: You have to pick one.
Mom: No, I don't!
Penelope: (after thinking, carefully) I would eat a strange cat.
(Mom looks at her incredulously.)
Penelope: (wide-eyed, pleading her case) I would eat a lion if it was killed!
Mom: How would it get killed?
Penelope: I’d get a knife and some bows and arrows.
Mom: I would come to your funeral.
9:43 pm

December 26th

Penelope: (playing with Play-Doh on her little table) On this episode of Nerdy Nummies, we will need purple fondant, decorating tools, and a little extra purple fondant that came with the tools. Oh dear, we've dropped a little fondant on the floor. We'll just pick that up later. Now get your stone-looking rolling tool...if you have one...
10:07 am

Penelope (putting together her Lego Friends dollhouse with Derrick): Aw, Dad! This is so cool, right? Because when we're building this wall together (scrunch-nosed grin) it's like we're real construction workers!
11:26 am

Me (reading the letter from Santa): My elf, Louie, had his eye on you at school, as you know. I hear you always did your best to be kind and respectful to others. And don't think I didn't hear about the day your friend hurt herself, and you did everything in your power to help her. What a good friend you are!
Penelope's reaction:

1:28 pm

Penelope bought us all Christmas presents at the Santa store at school. She gave Derrick a hint that his was green. He could feel what it was through the wrapper. Days later, Penelope asked us all to make Christmas list. One of the items Derrick wrote on his list was "a new cup, preferably green." Penelope got so excited. She was so excited to watch him open it yesterday, delighted that she had purchased something from his list before he'd even asked for it.

6:26 pm

December 27th

Penelope (trying to get her brother to play with her, sternly): Grayson, I am your boss! (when this doesn't work, a moment later, enticingly) If you do what I say, I will give you a treat!
6:59 pm

Penelope: (to Grayson) Now I want you to do exactly what I say. If you don't, I will seize you.
Gray: Well what is it you want me to do?
Penelope: I want you to be a girl in the game.
Gray (in a cheerful, extremely high-pitched voice): Ooooh-kay!!!
8:09 pm

Penelope (after playing Hyrule Warriors as Midna with Gray): Man, I KOed a lot of bad guys, but those last three skeleton dudes! I targeted them, and I handed them, and I wolfed them, but like, they just wouldn't die! So like what's up with that?
11:40 pm

December 28th

Penelope just handed me this note and gushed excitedly, "I don't know who's going to win this one! It's the first fight!"

2:49 pm

December 30th

Merry’s post:  Turns out mom is cursed to never get a pawn home in Sorry. Sarah sends her back every turn haha

2:09 pm

December 31st

Me: Daddy and Grandpa are going to get Chinese food, Penelope. Would you like some Chinese food?
Penelope (pauses, considers carefully, hopefully): Is Taco Bell Chinese food?
7:00 pm

January 2nd

Somebody is six years old today!
2:42 pm

Gray was sitting on the couch with a pirate sword, and Penelope was sword fighting him with her old chopsticks from New Year's Eve...
Grandma: Be careful.
Penelope: Grayson's a man, so I can fight him with these chopsticks.
Grandma: Well, he may be a man...
Me: But we want him to be a man with two eyes.
4:12 pm

January 3rd

Almost time for mushroom cake!

1:21 pm


1:40 pm

Relief: When you're thinking to yourself, "Hmm...This cake is kind of lumpy and drippy for a mushroom," and you hear your six-year-old exclaim in satisfaction, "This is the best birthday cake ever!"
2:28 pm

Penelope: (who arranged her Mario figures very carefully) Hey! Somebody was messing with these!
Derrick: I think Mommy rearranged them.
Penelope: Ohhhhhh.
Me: You can put them back however you want them, lovee.

2:48 pm

Super Mario Party!

3:17 pm

January 4th

Penelope: (threatening Derrick with a balloon) If you lie to me, I will crush your bones!
Derrick: Wow.
Me: With a balloon?
Penelope: With my own hands!
Derrick: Maybe you're an owl bear!
Penelope: Grayson, aren't you going to kill me? You said you were going to kill me in my dream, remember?
Gray: I don't remember that.
Penelope: That's because you said it in my dream.
Me: Well how is he supposed to remember what he said in your dream?
Gray: Maybe I was there. Inception.
10:47 pm

Overheard from a huddle on the stairs...
Grayson: How are you going to do that? 
Penelope: I'm going to marry somebody. 
Grayson: (incredulously) Are you going to marry Adam? 
Penelope: No...
Grayson: (even more incredulously) Are you going to marry Daddy?
Penelope: No.
Grayson: Then I don't see how you can be my mother.
Me: Who do you possibly think you're going to marry to be Grayson's mother?
Penelope: (highly indignant) We are HAVING a PRIVATE conversation!!!
Derrick: In other words, stop pointing out the flawed logic in Penelope's plans!

11:48 pm

Fall Movie Diary: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2D)

Date: January 4, 2014
Time: 2:30 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Food: Blue Icee, Raisinettes
Company: Derrick,  Grayson,  Penelope, Mom, Dad
Runtime: 2 hours, 24 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Jackson

Quick Impressions:
This movie was way better than I expected.

Of course, I went in with low expectations.  I’ve liked all of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies so far, but I can’t deny that overall The Lord of the Rings is a far stronger cinematic trilogy than The Hobbit.  But of course, that’s because the source material is more suited to such an adaptation.  The Hobbit was never meant to be an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings.  It’s a very different kind of story and really didn’t need such a sweeping big screen treatment.

Nevertheless, I like what Jackson has done with it.  I mean, what fan of The Lord of the Rings doesn’t want to see Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellan, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, and other old favorites like this back in action?  (In fact, what the wizard and the elves are doing is infinitely more interesting than anything that happens in the actual plot of The Hobbit—except maybe the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter because who doesn’t love Gollum?)  Jackson’s version is not necessarily the best adaptation of The Hobbit.  (There’s a stage play often performed by children that’s actually pretty great.)  But the movie that Jackson has made is still a wildly interesting peek into what’s going on as Sauron rises to power again in Middle Earth.

Anyway, we planned to see The Hobbit the week of Christmas but ended up making emergency trips to the doctor every single day (except, of course, the 25th) instead.  What a festive holiday!  (I’ve been so stressed out this Christmas!  Even now I keep thinking of that quote from The Naked Gun, “Doctors say that Nordberg has a 50/50 chance of living, though there's only a 10 percent chance of that.”  Surprise, surprise!  Going to see a movie turned out to be more fun and relaxing than having a bunch of panic attacks and being pointedly told that everything that happens is completely out of my control.  Who could have predicted that?)

Now I’ve read The Hobbit several times, but I’ll confess it’s been a while.  Here’s what I remember about the part of the book covered in this film—nothing.  Well, I mean, I remember Smaug’s defeat.  And then Thorin turns into a big jerk, and Bilbo is puzzled and disillusioned, and everybody has a fight, but Bilbo isn’t even that involved in the action as I recall.  It seems like in the book, the whole battle takes place in about five seconds while Bilbo is unconscious.  Then Bilbo goes home and finds a scene much like what he encounters at the end of this film.  It’s really hard to believe that someone could stretch these events into a two-and-a-half-hour movie, but if anybody can do it, it’s Peter Jackson.  I joked to my mother, “And I thought he stretched the ending of The Return of the King.  He’s really milking this one.  He’s managed to make an entire movie out of just two words—The End.”

It’s a good movie, though.  It’s fast-paced and engaging throughout, thoroughly entertaining.  And honestly it seems shorter than all of Jackson’s other movies (possibly because it actually is.  I’ll have to double-check that).  It’s twenty minutes longer than Into the Woods, but it feels much shorter.  The movie is very engaging, and even as someone who isn’t always thrilled by long action scenes, I found the entire thing winningly entertaining.

The Good:
The whole time I was watching this movie, I kept thinking, Man, I wish I could ride around on a reindeer, casting aspersions and withering glances in my wake!  (I really did think it in those words, too.  I’m a little weird.)

Lee Pace’s performance as Thranduil is without question my favorite part of these Hobbit movies.  I’ve always liked Lee Pace (whom I first noticed in the doomed Wonderfalls), but I’ve never found him particularly captivating until I saw him as the creepy king of the woodland elves.  Gosh he’s great!  I love him!  (And he’s much scarier as Thranduil than he is as Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy.)  (What’s really scary, of course, is that he’s my age, two years younger than his “son” Legolas.  What’s scary about that is what they’ve done to Orlando Bloom’s face to achieve that effect.  It looks like they caked wax onto his cheeks with a palette knife!)

Out in the parking lot after the movie, my mom echoed my sentiment about that awesome reindeer.  I discovered online, however, that Thranduil is actually supposed to be riding an elk, and the part is actually played by a horse in a funny disguise.  Still he knows how to make an entrance; that’s for sure!

Martin Freeman is also (once again) very good as Bilbo.  In general, I prefer The Lord of the Rings to The Hobbit, but I will say that as far as hobbit protagonists are concerned, Bilbo is approximately ninety thousand times more interesting than Frodo (who barely has any personality at all).  (I’m not blaming Elijah Wood.  I’m talking about the characters as written.)  Bilbo is wonderfully flawed and terribly charming, and Freeman plays him impeccably.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Smaug is another highlight (even though he doesn’t have much screentime in this one—obviously).  Cumberbatch also voices Sauron, and though that moment is brief, I really do love the way these films present the eye of Sauron.  What they do with that is very cool.

Luke Evans is very strong as Bard, which is good because somebody’s got to be.

Richard Armitage is good as Thorin, too, although his part in this one becomes a bit depressing and is sometimes unpleasant to watch.  Ken Stott also has some nice moments as Balin.  And I was also pleased as surprised to see Billy Connolly turn up (surprised mainly because I wasn’t sure why I know who Billy Connolly is, but as it turns out, I do, and I was delighted to see him).

Best Action Sequence:
The fight choreography in this is thrilling to watch (and this is coming from someone who usually checks out during action scenes).  The last big battle sequence of the movie (up in the frosty north) is absolutely the most exciting, viscerally appealing part of the entire film. 

What happens to Legolas—taking him by unpleasant surprise—is almost like an in-joke for the faithful audience.  We almost laugh in shock.  We can’t believe it.  (This has certainly never happened to Legolas before!  We didn’t know it was possible!  In fact, previous installments have been eye-rollingly criticized on this very point.)  The scene of him scrambling to save someone (using less than ideal means) before it’s too late is one of the most energetic, engaging scenes of the entire film.

Thorin’s final battle with Azog (occasionally overlapping with the Legolas sequence) is pretty great, too.  My daughter particularly liked the way Thorin turned Azog’s big rock and chain to his own advantage.  “Oooh!  That was a smart way to do it!” she breathed appreciatively.

Best Scene Visually:
An early highlight of the movie for me was the moment that Smaug fell—specifically where he fell.  What made this so great was my six-year-old’s reaction.  Some of the early moments with the dragon had frightened her (even though she’s really into the dragon, so don’t let her theatrics fool you).  So I was thinking to myself, I hope the brutality of this doesn’t scare her. 

To my surprise, when she saw what had happened, she turned to me in delight, nose scrunched, mouth open wide, with this look plastered all over her face like, Isn’t this the most awesome thing that could ever have happened!

I also enjoyed the look of the moment when Bard speaks to Thorin through the hole in the wall.  The depth in that scene is impressive (particularly given that we saw it in 2D).

Best Scene:
The first scene that I found truly captivating in this film is the moment of Gandalf’s rescue.  I just love all the characters assembled, and it’s very cool that we get to see the Eye of Sauron and the use of Galadriel’s power.

The Negatives:
Why doesn’t this movie contain a scene of Saruman going over to Sauron’s side?  A scene The Battle of the Five Armies does include definitely tantalizes the audience with the hope that such a juicy scene will probably be coming up soon.  We should get to see that scene.  (Seriously the unexpected hope of seeing that scene really woke me up and drew me into the movie.  Why didn’t we ever go back to Christopher Lee?)

Peter Jackson almost always releases a director’s cut that adds considerable runtime to each of his films, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that we’re going to see a lot more of Christopher Lee on the Blu-ray.  (By the way, did you know that Christopher Lee is ninety-two years old!  Good grief, he’s looking spry for his advanced years!  I hope he lives to see his eleventy-first birthday.  What a marvelous actor!  Such charisma!  Such presence!)

I also think Tauriel and Kili are short-changed a little by this film.  Their love story is kind of shoe-horned in there, anyway.  I have no objections to Evangeline Lilly’s portrayal of Tauriel.  (She’s lovely.  Well, so is Aidan Turner, for that matter.  What beautiful people!)  But I just felt like much of her storyline seemed anticlimactic and predictable.

The main problem with this movie is that the entire thing feels largely superfluous.  (Did we really need an entire movie to cover the battle of the five armies?  Really?)  But if you’re a fan of Tolkien (or even just a fan of Peter Jackson), the movie is still incredibly interesting, engaging, and entertaining to watch.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this anywhere else yet, so I will go ahead and emphasize in conclusion that I love Ian McKellan, and Gandalf is my favorite Tolkien character (with Gollum a close second).  It’s great to see all the familiar faces there (and back again) in this final installment of The Hobbit.  (I think it’s even rather commendable that Legolas gets a complete storyline that actually makes sense when he isn’t even mentioned in the book.)  The acting is uniformly excellent, the scenery is beautiful, the battles are well choreographed, and the movie moves at a surprisingly brisk pace with plenty of fun and a ton of energy. 

We all enjoyed this movie (including my parents and my children), and if you’re a fan of Peter Jackson’s other Middle Earth films, then I’m sure you’ll like this one, too.