TANGLED, starring Mandy Moore

Tangled is a delightfully updated retelling of the classic fairy tale Rapunzel. The film is lovely to watch, the plot is engagingly re-imagined, so you don’t feel as if you are simply walking through a story you’ve read a thousand times before. It’s new enough that half-way through, I was on the edge of  my seat asking: 1) how are they going to get out of this predicament? 2) how is Flynn going to redeem himself enough to be acceptable to Rapunzel? and 3) how are they going to bring Rapunzel home at last?  The answers to these questions are the story, of course, and Disney has outdone itself in crafting a wonderful movie that adults will love and little girls will go bonkers for.  There were several little girls in full princess get-up in our theater. They were so cute!

At first I worried that it was too up-to-date, but I calmed all the way down and enjoyed this film from the first scene to the happily-ever-aftering.

The answer to the question: Why is this Disney princess musical rated PG? I don’t know. It’s certainly not as scary as some of the earlier princess movies. Gothel is nowhere near as frightening as Maleficent.  There’s the violence to be expected when a princess is being rescued, and the villain dies as most or all Disney villains die–by falling off something very high. There is nothing objectionable here–no potty humor, no innuendo, no nothin’–and happily, all the motivations are correct. This happens so rarely in film that it is really something when it is done right: people (and horses and chameleons) do the things they would do, and you can understand why they do them.  (Worst offender ever here is War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise, where there’s this horrendous evil red goo growing all over the world and people are running toward it.  Dumb!) We can understand, given her situation, why a woman keeps a girl locked in a tower for years and years, why a man would become a thief, why a child will return to an abusive home after being freed.

As for big-picture morality and universal themes, you’ll get a packful. Tangled is full of hard choices, delayed happiness, honoring parents, seeking truth, and noble self-sacrifice.  Importantly, truth must be grappled with and understood, and self must be forsaken before ultimate happiness is won.  Disney has not always been consistent here, remember that self-seeking, father-disrespecting mermaid who marries a man she hasn’t even spoken to? Not here. Here we have a strong woman who wants to know who she is and who is willing to fight to get to truth.

The chameleon is adorable.  He doesn’t speak or go all spirit-world on us like the sidekick in Mulan. The horse Maximus is heroic. The music is wonderful–lots of good, fun songs. Tangled is a definite yes for the whole family.  Fun enough for little children, interesting enough for mom and dad. Lots of good talking points for follow-up conversations.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

(Because of my Fundamentalist/Reformed/Calvinist position–and knowing the anti-Harry feelings held by many of my friends who might read this, there are two main parts to this post: 1) the whole idea of  Harry Potter and 2) my thoughts on the movie. I hope you will either read the entire post or not read it at all, as it is all one piece. Thank you.)

There is a wildly popular children’s book series taking up space in every library, every school, and most evangelical homes in America. The protagonist of the stories is self-willed and naughty, scoffs  at religious training, and is jealous of those who find happiness in doing right. As the series progresses and our protagonist grows up, a romantic alliance is made with an opportunistic liar who withholds life-saving food from starving people for his own advantage. Our protagonist castigates and ridicules the town’s religious leader, an unloved teacher, and a childhood enemy—using those people’s true names.  And yet, people love these books, some even making pilgrimages to the several towns in which the family lived (note: restless, wandering father who at one point forces his hungry, overworked family to live in an underground cave).

In another wildly popular children’s book series taking up space in every library, every school, and most evangelical homes in America, we learn that there is no difference between Jehovah and false gods, that it doesn’t matter what you believe, but that you believe. In the final scene of this 7-book series, a man who worships a demon is welcomed into heaven because (so it turns out) when he was worshipping the demon, he was actually worshipping God.

My dear, dear faithful and godly friends, you can have your Laura Ingalls and your Last Battle. Give me Harry Potter every time.

Give me Harry—with the clear black-and-white/good-versus-evil every time. Where Voldemort is always evil, and Harry is always pursuing good: not perfectly, but consistently.  Where the might of the Evil One is trained and focused on Harry’s destruction, and where Harry is protected because of the self-sacrifice of his mother. Where, when Evil is near and getting nearer, Harry has acute physical pain. Where Harry consistently seeks to go it alone so that his friends will not have to suffer with him as he faces Voldemort. Where friendship is true, enduring, strong, and lasting.  Not to mention that the entire work is fun, delightfully clever, creative beyond imitation, endearing, suspenseful, frightening, poignant, and (most importantly) satisfyingly finished as it should be: with good decisively triumphant over evil.

In late 2000, I became aware of Harry Potter when an article opposing Harry appeared in a major Christian news magazine. Shortly thereafter, I began to receive emails from godly friends who were sincerely afraid that this new series was not just another set of fantasy books, but was the Devil’s own tool to take over the hearts of our children and lead them down the frightening road to the occult and Satanism.

It has been my habit to try to avoid band-wagons. I wanted to know the answer to my question: “What in the world???” Why would so many good people be so freaked out about a children’s book? So, we went to the bookstore at the mall (back when malls had bookstores!), and I put a copy of Goblet of Fire on the counter. The lady said, “Have you read the other three?” When I said I had not, she told me to replace number four, and start with number one. Obediently, I purchased Sorcerer’s Stone, took it home, sat down, and read this line:

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

Delighted by this lovely, simple opening, I immediately called the family down and read the whole book aloud to them.  The next day, we bought the second and third books. When we had finished reading those aloud, I bought Goblet of Fire, a wonderful read. Since then, we were in line at Wal-Mart at midnight each time a new book was released, always buying three copies so we didn’t have to share.

Here’s a story: Spring of 2002. I’m teaching Special Ed. English at a public intermediate school in Hawaii. There’s a boy in my class named Gomez. He’s never read a book voluntarily in his life. After hearing me read books one and two aloud to the class, he picks up my copy of Prisoner of Azkaban. Three days later, I notice he is still reading it during classroom reading time, and that he is making good progress through it! I told him, “Gomez, if you finish that book, I will buy you your own copy of Goblet of Fire.” His eyes grew enormous.  “Really, Miss???” (They call you Miss in Hawaii—or Auntie—it is delightful.) A few days later, he finished book three. The first book he had ever read for pleasure, and it had over 400 pages. The next day I brought him book four. He said, “I never knew reading could be fun.”  This was not a child about to dive into any evil pursuit. This was a kid who didn’t know what it was to enjoy reading.

Okay, so this is supposed to be a movie review.

If you aren’t a fan, it might be too difficult to follow. The movie does not over-explain. It expects its audience to know what it is talking about, to know what has happened up til now.

If you haven’t been a fan, but think you want to give it a try, start back at Book One. Notice I didn’t say Movie One. Read the books first, for crying out loud! Then see the movies. Doesn’t everyone have that rule for their kids? Of course you do.

If you are a fan and you have read all the books and seen all the other movies, listen to me extremely carefully:

THIS MOVIE IS WONDERFUL. It is beautiful. It is frightening. It is riveting. It is heart-wrenching. You will have tears in your eyes before five minutes have passed—if you have children, you will cry.  There is a scene in the tent that is sweet beyond explanation.  There is heroic self-sacrifice. There is courage in the face of insuperable difficulties. There is Dobby with the cutest shoes ever.  And because this is Part 1, this movie ends exactly how it should. Intense, scary ending.

The music is wonderful, throbbing; the scenery vast. The child actors are children no longer, and their problems are gigantic and far-reaching. Muggles are being killed, Mudbloods tortured.  There are understated, beautiful performances by many secondary characters. The little we see of Draco is telling, if ambiguous. We wonder. We hope. Same for Snape whom I rooted for all through the books: something about him made me care and hope that in the end he would turn out to have been good all along.

NOTICE:  NOT FOR CHILDREN. This is a movie for adults. Please, at least preview it if you think your kids are all that mature. I told my children to put this one on their ten-year-calendars for their 17th birthdays. At 14, they’re watching Mississippi Burning, so that should tell you something. (Because everyone should watch Mississippi Burning and I mean it, but that’s another post, isn’t it?) There were little children in our theater, but this is a mistake. There’s no Hogwarts here. No Nearly-Headless Nick.  No Howlers. No Sorting Hat. School’s out: this is the real world, and it’s frightening. (There is an unexpected “skin” scene that is muted and unfocused, but obvious. Do not bring children.)

One more note: I have a dear, dear friend whom I love who said she could not even try Harry Potter because the “one Christian family” is made ridiculous. I think she was referring to the Dursleys, and I want to say that whoever told her that the Dursleys are a Christian family has slandered Christianity in every possible way. The Dursleys are the opposite of even horrible hypocritical Christians. They are cruel, heartless child abusers. Nor do they claim to be Christian, attend church, or do anything remotely connected with Christianity.   But that’s an example of unjust stones that are flung at Harry. There are many, many more. People are just trying to protect their children, and my goodness, it’s certainly not important that kids read Harry Potter. It’s just a set of books, after all. But they are loads and loads of fun. I have greatly enjoyed all seven books and all seven movies. July 15, 2011, is on my calendar for sure: I’m going as Molly Weasley, of course!

UNSTOPPABLE, starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine

Silly me. From watching the previews for this movie, I thought it was about a trainful of children in mortal danger who are saved by the combined efforts of Mr. Washington and Mr. Pine.  The children are never in any danger, and although a big deal is made out of them during the first few minutes, they disappear from the movie fairly quickly and we never hear from them again.  They are not even afraid.

I have been in love with Denzel Washington since A Soldier’s Story, through Glory, and on through Inside Man, as everyone in my family can affirm, but whatever the man was paid for this flick was too much. He sits in a chair and talks to Mr. Pine, with the lone exception of the bit at the end where he’s fist-pumping the air in a Pennsylvania take on Leonardo’s king of the world stunt.  Yeah, there’s the bit with running on top of train cars, but I’m guessing they have expert train runners to do that sort of thing.

Speaking of love, Chris Pine and I go way back to 2009. I think it was the yellow shirt and the “Bones, buckle up,” that did me in, but whatever. Here, although he wears a yellow vest, it’s not the same thing. He’s a newbie train conductor with marriage problems that don’t make sense and a restraining order against him that would never have been granted, let alone increased by 30 days. This information (the extension of the TRO), by the way, is given to us by a man with a cell phone who is never identified and has no other purpose.

Okay, okay, I’m getting to it. Here’s what happens (Don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens at the end): There’s this train, and a fat guy lets it get away because he’s too fat to run fast enough to jump back into the cab after jumping out to throw a switch. The train rolls off, but no one tells anyone for a while. Then for a while longer, no one tells anyone that the train is not coasting, but is actually under power. Then they don’t know what to do. They say they’ll evacuate all these places, but all you see is a bunch of people crowding the train tracks.

Stanton, Pennsylvania may blow up in a cloud of molten phenol combined with explosions from giant gas tanks that are certain to be destroyed when (not if) the train falls off the deadly S-curve there. However, everyone is just standing there looky-looing for all they’re worth. No one runs for cover. No one covers his face. Mothers even bring their children. Huh?

Chilean mine rescuers know to have three rescue operations going at once, but here in the US, we have just two men running down a train that’s about the destroy a city of over 700,000 people.  A funny man with a fast truck appears from time to time, we are not sure why. But, good thing he’s there (his name is Ned) because at the end, he drives his truck parallel to the engine, so Will (Chris Pine) can jump onto the engine, pop into the cab and put on the brakes. Why did we have to wait through an entire movie if all they had to do was drive up next to the train so someone could scoot into the front seat?

If indeed someone just had to go up front, and the train is 1/2 a mile long, and Frank (Mr. Washington) is already running from the back of the train to the front of the train, why not just go all the way and get in the driver’s seat? Even I could run 1/2 a mile in the time they have, although I do have to admit that jumping from car to car is something better left to Agent Salt (see earlier review) who can do this sort of thing with her shoes off. (This sounds like one of those old-fashioned math problems: A train is traveling out of control at 70 miles per hour. The man on top can run the length of one train car in about 15 seconds. If there are 80 cars, how fast will he get to the engine, and will it be in time to keep the train from bursting into flame and consuming a major city on the Eastern Seabooard?)

There are annoying helicopters throughout, and this is because Frank’s daughters  and Will’s wife have to be able to see what is going on on television. Hence the need for TV helicopters. I’m no expert in any kind of aviation, but I don’t know that helicopters can travel in fairly tight spaces at 70 or 80 miles an hour for a couple of hours at a time while staying about 20 or 30 feet off the ground. They have eye-level shots of the people on the train. In several scenes there are mutliple helicopters all flying in very tight quarters. You’ve got to think that the TV station owner is going to weigh The Scoop against the probability that he’s going to lose a news crew and a helicopter if he keeps up this nonsense. Safety first! However, if we didn’t have this “footage,” we would miss out on the emotional connection, such as it is, from the wife and the daughters.

So, the train makes the curve okay, no one is killed, no molten phenol explodes or oozes or whatever molten phenol does, and then the train gains speed again. Here, I thought, was where there would be the Moment Of Intense Suspsense where the train is stopped just inches from slamming smack into the children’s field trip train (or whatever), but nothing of the sort happens. Will gets into the cab, slows the train, and stops it. Everything is fine. We learn who gets fired, who gets promoted and that the fat guy who caused it all now flips burgers and gets fries with that.

Here was the best part of the movie: afterwards, in the restroom, I overhear two 70-ish lady-friends talking to each other stall-to-stall. One says to the other: “My father was in railroads. They had a very nice pension plan. But there were a lot of alkies.”  The other lady says, “There are a lot of alkies in railroads.” The first lady says, “There are a lot of alkies in construction too.”  Her friend replies, “There are quite a lot of alkies in landscaping.”  The first lady says, “I know a lot of lawyers are alkies.” There was then a pause, and then the second lady says, “My hairdresser is an alkie,” and the first lady says, “A lot of hairdressers are alkies.”  It was worth the whole movie to overhear this conversation.

See this one if you want to–it’s not a complete failure, and the actors are very good looking–but you know, of course, that HP7.1 is coming out in a few days. You might as well wait for that one.

(My kids won’t see it. There’s  a little language and a couple of inappropriate conversations, but nothing really awful.)

MEGAMIND, starring Will Ferrell and Tina Fey

It must be really hard to make a good movie. You have to come up with interesting characters. You need a plot–that is, a beginning that leads to the middle, that works toward the end. The beginning should capture your interest with fascinating characters placed in complex situations that will require courage and growth of character to overcome. The middle should be full of twists and turns so that you are wondering how it will end. The end should be emotionally satisfying. 

Pixar knows how to do this. Dreamworks, not so much. In fact, with the exception of the gorgeous  How To Train Your Dragon,  Dreamworks and I don’t get along at all. Case in point: Megamind. 

This movie is about nothing. OK, there’s a bad guy (Megamind) and a good guy (Metro Man).  Bad Guy beats Good Guy and has all of Metro City (which he pronounces so that it rhymes with ‘atrocity’)  to himself. After a little while he gets bored because there’s no Good Guy to battle.  Bad Guy then attempts to make a Good Guy so there’s someone to fight with. It goes wrong. There’s a girl (Ms. Fey) they’re all in love with. Bad Guy realizes that bad guys never get the girl (This is not true in real life, of course. In real life, Scott Peterson has women writing to him in San Quentin.) and this makes him sad.  In the end the Bad Guy decides that the Badder Guy is too bad so he has to be beat. Now Bad Guy is Good Guy. 

That is literally the entire story. There are no villains, no imminent destruction of Metro City, no babies trapped in burning buildings, no nothin’.  Furthermore, the characters are not endearing. Metro Man is a Fopped Up  Mr. Incredible with a Liberace cape. Megamind is petty, scrawny, and blue. He’s a liar and an opportunist.  Hal is simply horrible.  Ms. Fey’s character (Rochelle? Roxanne? I can’t remember.)  lacks that little something–that Need to be Saved–that all damsels in distress need. We never worry about her.  There’s no emotional tension.   Boring.

There were two particular moments that jarred me as a Christian: in one scene during the time Megamind is Overlording Metro City, he takes everything he wants–piles of money, art treasures, and even,  apparently, the Ark of the Covenant.  Huh? In an earlier scene, Metro Man walks on water. Why? Why trifle with the Holy?  The Lord’s name is taken in vain twice. 

 I also did not care for the scene in which the tallest tower in Metro City is destroyed by the bad guy. Did someone even think about this? Let me think…No. (Here’s the meeting: a bunch of people working on the film sit around in a room and one says, “Hey, let’s make a city that resembles New York in that it has super-giant buildings and is on the water, and then–hey, howdy!–let’s knock down the tallest building!” and everyone else says, “ooh, neato.”)   

On the plus side, there is no potty humor and there are no sexual innuendos. Too bad my kids still won’t get to see this one, not even when it comes to the $3 theater. Not even on Netflix. On more of a plus side, Despicable Me just went up in my estimation. At least it had cute kids.

Speaking of Despicable Me, it had a lot of minions. Megamind has a minion–it’s a fish, but it’s called “minion.” Gru had a shrink ray. Megamind has a dehydrater, which if you think about it, is the same thing. Gru wanted to be the greatest villain. Megamind wants to be a great villain. Gru had cookie bots. Megamind has brain-bots. At least Megamind doesn’t photocopy his little blue butt.

So, back to the idea that it must be really hard to make a movie. Of course, these studios have to Keep Making Movies. They can’t say, “Nope, nothing good in the in-box this year, let’s take a year to cultivate some stories.”  Still, this movie had some giant names involved. I think they should have hired less-costly Voices and spent the money on a Story Writer.

RED, starring Bruce Willis

It’s too dramatic to be a comedy-with-dramatic-themes and too silly to be a drama-with-jokes. They should have picked one genre and gone with it instead of flailing around between the two. “It’s a dramedy!” you say, but no, it actually isn’t, because the genres do  not seamlessly mesh–they crash sloppily.

The premise is riveting: in 1981, a young Lieutenant commits mass murder when an “action” in a Guatamalan village goes wrong and every man, woman, and child in the village is killed.  His father is a US Senator who engineers a cover-up. No one has peeked under the covers until now–present day–when a New  York City reporter finds out that the one-time Lieutenant is none other than the current Vice President of the United States. The reporter gets sloppy, lets word out that she knows about the cover-up and is about to plaster it on Page One. She is murdered. Then, one by one, all those who had been part of the cover-up turn up dead. Also on the hit list, retired CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis). The VP’s hit squad comes after him at his home in the middle of the night, blasting it with so much firepower, I thought it would collapse on itself from perforation.

This is not thematic material for a comedy. This is serious stuff, and if they had made the movie as a thriller, I would have been on the edge of my seat. But they threw in so much nonsense, it takes the satisfaction right out of it. Here’s satisfaction in a thriller: remember the end of The Departed when Mark Wahlberg walks away down the hall? That works. This movie takes incredibly serious scenes and juxtaposes them next to complete stupidity.

I wanted to like this movie because I want to like Bruce Willis because (name-dropping alert) his daughter went to school with my daughter, and truly, I did like Mr. Willis and his character Frank Moses. I didn’t even mind that his love interest is decades younger than him, because c’mon, art may as well imitate life on occasion. I also liked Karl Urban playing Agent Cooper. His entire performance could be picked up and moved to the Serious Version of this movie without one hitch. When he learns that Moses is at his house and that his children are in danger, his reaction is dead-on correct. Of course, we don’t feel any suspense at all because we know Moses and crew are a bunch of jokers in a film they must have thought was some sort of Oceans Goes CIA farce. 

Helen Mirren is fantastic, and the moment where she swaps her stilletos for combat boots is classic. At least she knows (as Agent Salt does not, apparently) that a woman in a dangerous spot needs a good pair of practical shoes. But the idea that an MI6 agent would fall in love with a Soviet agent and live to tell the tale is ludicrous.  Can MI6 agents retire in the US? Really?

Here’s a weird scene: Morgan Freeman, retired CIA Agent Joe,  lives in an assisted living facility ogling girls’ behinds. One of Vice President Stanton’s thugs comes to murder him. Moses hears from the Facility that Joe’s been murdered, however, Joe later shows up! How did he convince the Ogled Ones that he was dead when in fact it was the assassin who bought it? They don’t let us know how he pulls off this bit of trickery, so we have to guess that he played dead long enough to steal the ambulance he arrives in later just when an ambulance is needed.  Never mind. I like Freeman as Mandela, so I’ll let this slide. You’ve got to give people some slack sometimes.

In short, the actors are fine. The script is a mess. It is apparently written by two brothers. Maybe one of them wrote a comedy version, the other wrote a drama version and they spliced it all together. The end is a horror–cheap, mocking potshots at former Soviet slave-states are not funny.

SOCIAL NETWORK, starring Jesse Eisenberg

Everyone is raving about this movie. I’m just scratching my head.  Sure, it’s well put-together and nicely acted. Yes, the script is tight and smart. But “Best Movie of the Year”? Really?

The Social Network is about college kids partying too hard and getting mad when one of them hits the mother lode and leaves the rest of them behind. It’s about the rise of Facebook. It’s about the lawsuits brought against Mark Zuckerberg, the World’s  Youngest Billionaire by some non-billionaires who want some of his money.  

The story:

Harvard kid Mark Zuckerberg (played very well by Jesse Eisenberg) is dumped by his girlfriend because he thinks conversation on a date is supposed to be Edgy and Smart instead of Sweet and Companionable. He thinks their relationship is a contest of who has the fastest and most cutting conversational come-back.  When she walks out, he doesn’t examine himself to see if he is the blankety-blank she says he is, but instead proves that he is by blogging bad things about her, including some personal vital stats. Not satisfied with hurting just one woman, he decides to diss girls in general by comparing them two-by-two in an exercise of Mass Subjectification of Women that is instantly so  outrageously popular that it crashes the Harvard servers.

Zuckerberg gets called on the administrative carpet for hacking through Harvard cyber-security, but gets the attention of the Winklevoss twins (kid you not, their real name is Winklevoss), a couple of rich Harvard rowing stars who want to start a social network to link the Harvard student body. They ask Zuckerberg to write the program for them, and then they go back to the rowing tank to work on their Olympic aspirations. Weirdly, they meet Prince Albert of Monaco.

The social site the Winklevosses envision would be different from MySpace because it would allow users to manage who sees their information. Exclusivity is the name of the game, which makes sense: we’re talking about Harvard, after all. Zuckerberg jumps on board, then decides he wants to play this game by himself, gets The Facbook up and running in a few short weeks and completely cuts the Winklevi (his term) out of the loop. They sue.

The movie goes back and forth between the legal depositions and the development of Facebook from a little Harvard-only social network to the behemoth we all know, love,  and use daily (okay, several times daily). The Winklevosses want a cut of the pie, and Eduardo, Zuckerberg’s former friend and original Facebook CFO (who gets cut out of the deal along the way) wants his share in the company back. In between there is a lot of college nonsense (including hazing and chicken “cannibalism”) and a lot of young men and women partying too hard–some of them fornicating in public toilet stalls. 

Justin Timberlake makes a great villain as Napster founder Sean Parker. Parker is on the take in every way, but he does have the smarts to point out that, for the savvy capitalist, it makes sense not to sell to the first bidder if your company might go global and eventually be worth A Billion Dollars.  

Given, no one wants to be the dumpee in an ended relationship, but am I supposed to feel sorry for a 26-year-old billionaire because a girl dumped him at 19 and won’t friend him back? Wasn’t everyone dumped at 19? No one wants their intellectual property to be heisted, so maybe it’s the Winklevoss Twins I’m supposed to feel sorry for with their Harvard educations, their Olympics, and their Family Money.  I actually did feel pity for the hard-working Eduardo, who ends up soaking wet, forgotten, and dismissed, but am I really to believe that it matters whether someone does or does not gain admittance to a Harvard “final club”?  Am I to wince with pain  (or, alternately, feel some sense of civic justice) when a man with a Billion Dollars has to write a few checks?

The ending is emotionally unsatisfying. There is Mr. Zuckerberg writing checks and pining over a girl he didn’t appear to really like all that much.  I’m thinking that if you asked Mr. Zuckerberg (now 26), he’d tell you that being the world’s youngest billionaire is not as lonely and/or depressing as the movie would have us believe.   

Very good acting. Great writing.