Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

August 31, 2012

Review: ParaNorman

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:57 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

“ParaNorman” is the second major feature by the stop-motion animation studio Laika, after “Coraline” in 2009. Previously the studio has done only commercials, a short, and contract work on features such as
Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” (2005,) which it visually resembles.

Laika is owned by Phil Knight, billionaire cofounder of Nike, and run by his son Travis. It is located in Hillsboro, Oregon. About as far from Hollywood as you can get and still be on the West Coast.

Laika was the name of the Russian dog that in 1957 became the first animal launched into space, and tragically the first to die in space.

Laika seems to have promising beginnings. “ParaNorman” has been getting largely favorable reviews and doing very good box office.

“ParaNorman” is the first stop-motion film to use the new full-color 3-D printers, a technique which greatly speeds up the production of stop-motion animation, hitherto an incredibly tedious process.

“ParaNorman” is visually compelling, but not terribly original plot-wise. So who cares? It’s a children’s movie and children don’t give a durn about originality, they want a story. Every parent who knows certain children’s books by heart knows that.

Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a schoolboy in the sleepy New England town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. Norman sees dead people.

Norman is misunderstood by everyone except his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch,) who haunts the couch in the TV room. The only person who wants to be friends with him is bullied fat kid Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi.)

Norman has an uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman,) who is so crazy he embarrasses even Norman.
But Uncle Prenderghast has a secret. He’s the last keeper of a yearly ritual that keeps the spirit of a witch asleep. A witch executed 300 years ago, who put a zombie curse on seven men and women who condemned her to death.

There you’ve got witches, ghosts, and zombies. (No vampires though, that would be a bit over the top.)

And they all come out to play when Uncle Prenderghast has a fatal heart attack on the eve of the yearly ritual.

The only way for a grown-up to review a children’s movie, is to take some children to see it. If the kids sit through it without too many bathroom breaks, requests for treats from the concession, or “When is it going to be over?” then it’s a good kids movie. The grownups function is to decide if it’s something they want their kids to see.

OK, it’s pretty good. I heard lots of laughs from my 11-year-old and my six-year-old, and chuckled a few times myself. About scary I got different opinions.

“Boy that part with the witch’s face in the sky was scary,” said 11-year-old.

“I wasn’t scared!” quoth six-year-old.

Going down the suitable-movie-for-kids checklist I found:

Scary but won’t give the kids nightmares, check.

Nerdy kids save the day and become school heroes, check.

Parents come to understand and accept eccentric, gifted son, check.

Clairol-brained teenage sister (Anna Kendrick) stands up for baby brother, check.

School bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse ) comes around, wants to hang with nerdy kids to bask in reflected glory, check.

Zombies turn out to be repentant for the harm they did during their lives and just want to say they’re sorry, OK that’s a twist.

The witch (Jodelle Ferland ) turns out not to be evil but misunderstood, awwwww.

Stuff I wasn’t so crazy about:

Female town sheriff (Tempestt Bledsoe) portrayed as a buffoon (and African-American to boot, an equal opportunity buffoon.)

Adults portrayed as clueless, violent, and needing guidance from a grade-schooler. I know the trope is very much a part of our culture, but why are grownups expected to learn tolerance, non-violence, and to respect our differences from children? Work that way for you in grade school?

Then there’s Mitch (Casey Affleck,) the jock without three brain cells to clink together who is nonetheless a good and protective big brother to Neil.

Of course Courtney goes ga-ga over him.

I’m waiting for a bright, scholarly, athletic role model for young boys. “Mens sana in corpore sano.”

Mitch is not only dumb, but turns out he’s gay. That’s a gotcha on Courtney.

I’m not going to get indignant on that one or moan about the effect on my kids. The fact is it sailed right over their heads. It’s a joke for the adults, revenge on the jocks who were popular in high school and had all the cheerleaders throwing themselves at them. Appealing to adults who were bright nerds but a little out of place here. The irony is, Knight is both bright and an athlete. Just the guy to inspire kids to strive to be physically fit AND bright.

Maybe next time.

August 24, 2012

Review: The Campaign

Filed under: Movies,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:52 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only edition of the TV Guide published by The Marshall Independent.

It’s not that this movie isn’t funny, it is in spots. It’s just that you have to wonder why it isn’t funnier given the subject matter.

“The Campaign” has a few things going for it. There are a couple of great belly laughs in the early part of the movie but you’ve probably already seen them in the trailer.

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a Democratic North Carolina congressman who has been in office forever. He’s got a beautiful, albeit cold and ruthless wife (Katherine LaNasa,) two attractive children, and a lot of action on the side. He has such a lock on the job he usually runs unopposed.

Until now.

Cam is such a klutz he accidental sends a sexually explicit phone call intended for his girlfriend to the answering machine of a stereotypically uptight Christian family. Oops!

The local Powers that Be, the Motch brothers Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade (Dan Aykroyd) decide it’s time for a change and co-opt a lesser power broker Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox) to run his son Marty (Zach Galifianakis) on the Republican ticket.

What they want is a congressman who will smooth their way to selling the district to the Chinese, who will bring sweatshops staffed by 50 cents an hour labor producing cheap junk.

Marty is their guy because he’s kind of dumb. He’s also a disappointment to his father, who is so into the trappings of power he makes his Chinese housekeeper Mrs. Yao (Karen Maruyama) affect a black “Mammy” accent straight out of “Gone with the Wind” because it “reminds him of the good old days.”

Marty, to put it kindly, is kind of weird. He’s got effeminate mannerisms and an air of innocence which comes off sweet but idiotic. His wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) is plump and cute, and his kids look like the boys who get bullied on the playground.

He starts out getting creamed by Cam who makes him look like the weirdo he is. But then a combination of sweetness, honesty, plus the ruthless machinations of his new campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) starts to push him ahead in the polls.

And of course you know this means war. And war has collateral damage. But who could imagine seeing a baby get punched could be so hilarious?

The middle of the film is all about the dirty tricks the two play on each other. And I mean dirty, even by the standards of politics. Marty, with Wattley’s help, discovers his inner mensch, but also discovers his mean streak.

So what’s right with the movie?

Well to begin with, it’s not shilling for either party. It shows them as the Evil Party and the Stupid Party, and you can take you pick as to which is which depending on your own inclinations. It shows the corrupting influence of power, and that big money has no party preference, only a flag of convenience.

What’s wrong with it?

It’s vulgar. Worse, the vulgarity has no point. Worse still it’s not funny.

There are some odd misfires when it tries to be dramatic. Cam comes over to Marty’s place drunk and wanting to make friends. He gets drunker and leaves.
Tim comes out of the shadows and tells Marty, “You know what to do.”

Marty calls the police to report a drunk driver. This is presented as despicable.

No it’s not!

Yes it would have been better to convince Cam to give Marty the car keys and sleep on the couch. But it is not a bad thing to report a dangerously intoxicated driver.

The problem is, politicians have become so self-parodying it’s getting very, very hard to parody them.

Cam’s public gaffes inevitably remind one of Bill Clinton’s zipper problems, Joe Biden’s logorrhea, and Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) “legitimate rape” gaffe. I see allusions to former Rep. Anthony Wiener (D-NY,) and possibly former Sen. David Boren’s (D-Okla.) “broom brigade” that was going to “clean up” Washington. (In 1979. How’d that work out?)

In the end Marty rediscovers his idealism and honesty, inspires Cam to rediscover his, they unite against the bad buys and all is made right with the world.

I like fairly tales too. Just don’t take your kids to this one.

August 19, 2012

The Spirit of Play

Filed under: Op-eds,Personal,Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:30 am

Note: This is one of my self-syndicated columns.

“It is a juvenile notion that a society needs a lofty purpose and a shining vision to achieve much. Both in the marketplace and on the battlefield men who set their hearts on toys have often displayed unequal initiative and drive. And one must be ignorant of the creative process to look for a close correspondence between motive and achievement in the world of thought and imagination.”
Eric Hoffer

Last Saturday I had the weekend rotation at the newspaper and covered a Polish festival in Ivanhoe and the Benton-Fremont Days in Hole-in-the-Mountain Park near Lake Benton.

The nice thing about the newspaper business for a reporter with a family is, when covering fairs, festivals, and events such as these I can take my children along. I’m a single father with a boy, 10, and a girl, 6. If I had any other job with an irregular schedule like this, I’d be in baby-sitter crisis mode almost constantly.

Covering Polish festivals in America is always kind of amusing for me. I almost always find I’m the only person who speaks Polish there, and I’m not Polish!

My children had fun though, and caused some comment with their Polish first names. My son found some boys his own age displaying their collection of Bionicle kits and my daughter wore herself out on the inflatable bounce houses.

There was a street full of classic cars, trucks, restored small engines, and the usual tables of miscellanea for sale.

When we headed to Benton-Fremont for photos my little girl was asleep n the back seat and my boy ravenously hungry.

Fortunately there was a pioneer with a tent restaurant serving beer cheese soup in a bread bowl. Kids loved it, (my son was excited by the idea of his first beer) and now I have to get the recipe.

Not far away was a couple with a genuine restored chuck wagon making lemon meringue pie.

All along one side of the campsite were men and women demonstrating the ancient art of flint knapping, to the banging of Indian drums and black powder rifles.

I only regret I missed a Civil War recreation group meeting in Pipestone that weekend.

In summer a reporter for a rural paper always covers a lot of these kinds of events. Historical recreation groups, local festivals, and lots of old technology restoration hobbyists.

Two weeks ago I covered an old-time threshing festival in Hanley Falls, featuring restored, fully-functional antique tractors and farm machinery. Before summer is over I’ll cover at least a few more local festivals.

Some reporters might consider this kind of assignment part of the routine-but-unexciting part of the newspaper biz that fills in the time between accidents, scandals, and elections. But to me it speaks of America in ways nothing else does.

The reason I love taking my kids to these is, they see people making their own entertainment rather than sitting in their living room with the screen, waiting for the entertainment to come to them.

They see how history is preserved outside of museums and galleries by amateurs who have make themselves experts in one particular historical subject that fascinates them. They see people with otherwise unremarkable lives doing remarkable things. They are exposed to some of the incredible reservoir of talent in the people of this country.

And they experience the fun, the joy, the sheer exuberance of life in this country that shines through even in the worst of times.

August 12, 2012

Injecting opinions into news

Filed under: Media bias — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:32 am

Note: I have a self-syndicated weekly column which I sometimes archive here. To be fair to my subscribers (plus I’m busy and lazy,) I post them a bit later than they appear, so as a consequence they’re not topical. From a few weeks ago.

Injecting opinions into news, here’s how
By Steve Browne

I entered journalism later in life than most when I started writing for the English-language press while I was living abroad. When I decided to make the jump to professional journalism, I headed back to my alma mater, Oklahoma University to get some formal training.

My features writing class was taught by Professor Ray Chavez, a seasoned pro with experience writing and editing for papers around the country. I’ll never forget what he taught me on the occasion I picked the topic of home schooling for an assignment.

I like the idea of home schooling, and it showed.

“This is an advocacy piece,” Ray told me after I handed it in.

I looked at it again. He was right. I had interviewed and quoted only home schoolers. I had not included opinions from anyone who thought it might not be a good idea, even though I knew there were some.

This was a revelation. I believed then and do now, that professional journalism is rife with bias and advocacy disguised as reporting, and there I was doing it too! Worse, I hadn’t even noticed until it was pointed out to me.

This goes on all the time, though somewhat more subtly, and I believe mostly unconsciously. It’s done by both sides, but it’s going to show up more on one side because journalists on the national level are 90-odd percent left of center.

Case in point: The Miami Herald, Sunday, June 24, Erica Bolstad, “Obama’s immigration maneuver could box in Romney, GOP.”

“WASHINGTON — In the week since President Barack Obama announced a plan that would allow some young undocumented immigrants to stay in this country, Republicans have struggled to embrace any version of immigration reform.”
Note “undocumented immigrants” sounds like someone who lost their drivers license, not someone who has broken the law. But choice of this phrase, rather than the formerly current “illegal alien” could be newspaper policy rather than a reporter pushing an agenda.

And Republicans have “struggled to embrace any version of immigration reform.” Note the implied air of desperation, and that it completely ignores the issue of the constitutionality of the president enacting this reform by executive fiat rather than working through congress. It’s entirely possible to approve of what the president did, while opposing the way it was done.

Bolstad goes on to say, “Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has fumbled when asked how he would handle such undocumented youths if he were elected president. And Sen. Marco Rubio, who began talking about his own immigration plan for young people this spring but never had a bill in writing, peevishly told national news outlets that the president should have called him.”

Note Romney “fumbled” but no quotes or examples are given. And note, “undocumented youths” which glosses over the fact that the provisions of the presidents unilateral de facto amnesty covers people as old as 35.

And Rubio didn’t just “say” the president should have called him, he said it “peevishly.”
Well maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Point is that’s a pretty subjective judgment which wasn’t backed up by a video link or a direct quote that might have showed a peeve or two.

The rest of the article is very good reporting with direct quotes from the individuals cited, but from the first two paragraphs do you have any doubt which side the reporter favors?

Now the thing about this was, the reporter definitely leans a certain way, but probably isn’t aware it shows up in her reporting. It’s just the kind of thing that happens when journalists live in a bubble full of people who agree on most things.

One more thing is worth noting. Over the headline is the label, “Campaign 2012.” Expect a lot of this kind of thing, be aware of it, and whatever your opinion is, let it be yours not ours.

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