Claire LaZebnik’s Thoughts on Thanks

Posted on November 26, 2014 at 9:39 am

I can’t think of a better way to start Thanksgiving weekend than taking a few minutes to read my friend Claire LaZebnik’s wise and inspiring essay on gratitude. This most American of holidays is often accompanied by stress — from hosting and being hosted, from traveling, from family. Claire writes movingly about the way that cultivating gratitude has helped her through challenging times.

I feel like an exposed nerve these days, and that means the smallest touch can hurt, but it also means I’m exponentially more sensitive to the good stuff, too. As I stop focusing on tomorrow–because lately I’ve just been trying to get through one day at a time–I find myself much more aware of, and grateful for, every email from a friend, every encouraging comment on FB, every shared pastry at Starbucks, every stranger who smiles at me instead of shoving by, every good-natured exchange, every moment of solidarity, and every example of generosity, whether it’s directed at me or someone else.

There’s so much in the news that’s sad and scary but so much in my own life that’s decent and affirming. For a while, it felt like I couldn’t see that. I knew it intellectually: I just couldn’t feel it. But this is the strange gift of my own struggles: I’ve become very aware of the choices we all make at every moment of the day–how we can choose to be kind and generous or malicious and selfish–and I’m so grateful that the people I care about make the choice to be kind. I’m pretty sure that kindness, love, and generosity are all we’ve got to fall back on when everything else feels wrong or meaningless, and that every positive interaction makes life that much more livable for all of us. And the more I stop to notice the goodness all around me, the less hopeless I feel.

Wishing everyone a Thanksgiving filled with the bounty of friends, family, and blessings to be counted and shared.

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Commentary

Horrible Bosses 2

Posted on November 25, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Copyright 2014 New Line
Copyright 2014 New Line

Maybe it’s just the proximity to the horrible “Dumb and Dumber To,” but the cheerily offensive “Horrible Bosses 2” made me laugh. Full warning — it begins with an elaborate sight gag as our hapless heroes demonstrate their new product on a relentlessly cheery morning show. When the product, a “Shower Buddy” that combines the soap and shampoo with the shower head, demonstrated by Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) does not work at first, Dale (Charlie Day) kneels down behind it to make some quick repairs. His back-and-forth motions in the vicinity of Kurt’s lower torso make it appear to be a sexual act. This is followed by an expression of interest in the Shower Buddy by the TV host (the wonderful Keegan Michael Key), until he hears the name of the company. The trio has combined their three names: Nick, Kurt, and Dale, to sound like a racist epithet. If you’re still with me, then this is your movie.

Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt, and Dale are very happy to be free of their horrible bosses and running their own company, especially when a wealthy entrepreneur named Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz) places a large order. The guys rent a manufacturing facility, hire staff (mostly girls Kurt wants to have sex with, plus a black felon they are scared of and a Latina woman they can’t understand), and go into production. They are proud to report to Hanson ahead of schedule. But it turns out that Hanson planned from the beginning to bankrupt them and take over their company. They are back in the world of horrible bosses again.

They get some advice from one of their old horrible bosses, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), now serving his jail term, and from M****F**** Jones (Jamie Foxx), the criminal they sought guidance from in the last movie, not realizing that his crime was only pirating “Snow Falling On Cedars.” They decide the best option is to kidnap Hanson’s spoiled, arrogant son (Chris Pine) and hold him for ransom. Their plot requires some laughing gas as a sedative, so they visit the dental office of Dale’s former horrible boss, the sexually predatory Julia (Jennifer Aniston), not knowing her sex addiction support group is going to be meeting there.

The kidnapping plot does not go well. They are not even sure how to spell kidnapping when they write it with permanent marker on their dry-erase board. But there’s a surprising twist that gives the story a second wind. Waltz and Pine, not known for comedy, are both excellent, especially Pine, clearly enjoying himself enormously. A lot of the humor is sheer outrageousness, much of it racist or sexist or both, but some of it is pleasantly loopy, like a doorbell that plays Badfinger. The three guys have great chemistry. And nobody is better at playing a horrible boss than Spacey. But the highlight of the film is the outtakes over the end credits, showing us that this movie was more fun to make than to watch.

Parents should know that this movie includes extremely crude, offensive, and graphic sexual references and situations, nudity, constant very strong language, and violence including murder.

Family discussion: Who was the worst boss you ever had? Who was the best?

If you like this, try: The first “Horrible Bosses” movie and “Ruthless People”

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Comedy Series/Sequel

Penguins of Madagascar

Posted on November 25, 2014 at 5:17 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 26, 2014
Date Released to DVD: March 16, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00SK573RU

The most adorable characters from the first three animated “Madagascar” movies were the penguins, the seldom right but never in doubt leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), the often right but never listened to Kowalski (Chris Miller), the literally explosive Rico (Conrad Vernon), and the ever-loyal Private (Christopher Knights). They spun off into their own television series and now they star in their first feature film, a sublimely silly spy farce that has them globe-hopping through exotic locations with a cosmopolitan spy (Benedict Cumberbatch) in pursuit of a dastardly villain known as Dr. Octavious Brine, aka Dave (John Malkovich). It is one of the best family films of the year.

Copyright DreamWorks 2014
Copyright DreamWorks 2014

First, we get the origin story, hilariously narrated in the inimitable voice of director/documentarian Werner Herzog. It is Antarctica, and a film crew led by a cartoon Herzog (who did make a movie in Antarctica, “Encounters at the End of the World”) is there to shoot the march of the penguins. But Skipper, Kowalski, and Rico step out of line to rescue an egg that is rolling away, and the decision to think for themselves and to opt for adventure and loyalty to the team over tradition and instinct — plus a more-than-healthy dose of boundless confidence and optimism soon has them floating away from the frozen South Pole and on their way to uncharted lands, or lands uncharted by any penguins anyway. The egg they have saved finally hatches, and while they are a bit distressed to find that the miracle of birth is messier than they thought, they are charmed by the tiny hatchling and especially by the way they imprint on him as the only family he has ever known.

We next see the penguins years later, following the events of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. They are on a mission to break into that most impenetrable of fortresses, Fort Knox, repository of the US Government’s store of gold. But their goal is not what we might think. And the outcome is not what they expect. They are kidnapped by an enormous purple octopus, brilliantly animated, with every tentacle and crooked tooth creating comic menace. His human identity is Dr. Octavius Brine, well-known geneticist, aficionado of fine cheeses, and regular contributor to NPR pledge drives. But inside that lab coat is his real persona, the evil purple octopus named…Dave.

Yeah, I know, not too scary, right? And that is just one of the immense frustrations Dave has to confront, which is why he has created the green, ominously glowing Medusa serum. No one knows what it does, but it looks pretty evil.

It turns out someone has been tracking Dr. Brine. An international organization of crack spies called the North Wind, led by a wolf so deep undercover his name is classified (so the Penguins call him Classified) is trying to find him. The North Wind and the penguins stop in Venice, Rio, Shanghai (which the penguins think is Ireland) and other world capitals, sometimes working together, sometimes trying to beat each other to Dave and the Medusa serum. It turns out that Dave’s motive is one that will ring very true to kids, especially those with adorable younger siblings.

But of course, all of this is just an excuse for a never-ending stream of jokes. My favorite is Dave’s disastrously non-threatening Skype call as he tries to figure out how to transmit sound and picture at the same time. “It’s like trying to call my parents,” Classified says impatiently. The break-in at Fort Knox is very funny as the penguins roll over to camouflage themselves on a black and white striped floor. And a running joke featuring puns on celebrity names is delivered with such understated dry humor that it never loses its charm. If, as they say in the theater, dying is easy but comedy is hard, silly comedy may be the hardest of all, but here it is done to perfection, one more item to add to the thanks list on this holiday weekend.

Parents should know that this film has brief potty humor, and some comic peril and action (no one hurt).

Family discussion: Why was Dave so jealous of the penguins? Why didn’t Classified want the penguins to help him?

If you like this, try: “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” and the television series “The Penguins of Madagascar”

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3D Animation Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For the Whole Family Scene After the Credits Series/Sequel Spies Talking animals

Coming Soon: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the Miniseries

Posted on November 25, 2014 at 3:58 pm

Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of those delicious stories that transports the reader to another world, so enthralling that it is difficult to leave.

The setting is historical, England in 1806, as the Napoleonic Wars are being fought on land and at sea. Most people believe that magic no longer exists, but two very different magicians know differently. Mr. Norrell is a scholarly and reserved man who becomes a celebrity overnight when he reveals his powers by making the statues in York Cathedral speak, and bringing back a young woman from the dead (though it is conditioned on her spending half of her time with the fairies). Jonathan Strange is young, handsome, intuitive, and daring. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces to help England defeat France.

I was delighted to learn that the BBC is adapting the book into a miniseries we may see in the US as early as next year, starring Bertie Carvel (Les Misérables) and Eddie Marsan (The World’s End). Stay tuned for more information.

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