My daughter’s birthday is coming up, and to celebrate the occasion, Toys R Us sends her a $3 gift card. Not that you can get anything there for $3, but it is the thought that counts, I suppose, and the fact that the recipient will want to spend it, and inevitably spend more!

Anyway, we took her there on Saturday to see what she could find. She wanted something Harry Potter, but I warned her they were unlikely to have anything, and that was proved correct. Despite the staying power of the books, the ancillary market seems to have died out after the final movie. Then she wanted something featuring Wonder Woman. Nope–lots of Spiderman, Batman, and Superman, but no Wonder Woman. Then she saw the Star Wars section, and asked if there were any Princess Leias. Again we struck out.

Finally we found ourselves in the Star Trek section, and she saw a Mr. Spock action figure. This is from the classic series, not the reboots, which she has not seen. We have been watching Star Trek on TV, and she thinks Spock is cool, so that is what she wanted. We did another lap of the store to be sure, but Spock it was, and now he stands, ready for action, between her photo of President Obama, which he sent in answer to her letter, and a Harry Potter action figure. I have had trouble finding a Hermione one.

I have no problem with Spock–as I told her later that morning, I thought it was cool that she liked him. However, it would have been nice to come home with a female figure. First, I have to note that all this looking we did took place in the boys’ section of the store. The girls section was pretty much limited to Barbie, My Little Pony, and Disney Princesses. None of which she finds appealing. But as I walked past the pink Easy Bake Oven, I was reminded of the petition started by the girl whose brother wanted said oven and didn’t understand why it only came in pink. My daughter wanted a cool superhero toy, and there was nothing specifically for her. It’s bad enough that we still perpetuate the cars and tools sets are for boys and kitchen sets are for girls mindset in the toy industry. But can’t girls even get the tiniest bone thrown their way?

I left the store wanting to open a toy store of my own and stocking it with cool, non-traditional toys for girls, and maybe boys too. It is unrealistic, but I was annoyed. I don’t think my daughter really realized she was shopping in the boys’ department, but she did notice that the store didn’t have the things she wanted. In the end, however, I am happy she found something she liked.

This past movie night found us watching The Polar Bear King, a Norwegian film from 1991 and based on a folktale  (the Norse title is Kvitebjørn Kong Valemon). In it, a prince from the land of Summer gets turned into a polar bear by an evil witch. He has to find someone willing to love him in order to break the curse. Fairly early in the movie, he does, so saying that isn’t spoiling anything!

There are echoes of many stories in this one–Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus and Eurydice–I can’t remember them all right now, but I remember drawing lots of connections while we were watching–guess I should have taken notes! But the thing my daughter liked best about the film was that the girl was the hero. She gets out there, gets dirty, and uses her brain and her brawn to save the day. It may be named after the prince, but it is truly about the princess from the land of Winter. She sees beneath the bear to find the man, which isn’t unusual, but her heroics don’t end there. I don’t want to give away anything, but I will say that being turned into a bear isn’t the only problem the prince has to deal with, and if not for the princess–and other women in his life–he would be very much up the creek!

The princess is not without flaws, and some of the problems she needs to fix are of her own making, but that makes her human and real. Yes, there are some cheesy scenes and the effects aren’t spectacular–but they also aren’t bad for a 20-year-old film. According to Amazon, the movie is dubbed, but Norwegian must be really close to English because the dubbing was flawless. I even found myself wondering why the actors were speaking English.

This is a great movie for girls, for boys, for everyone!

Setec Astronomy

November 28, 2012

If that phrase doesn’t ring a pop culture bell for you, then you need to go out and rent/stream Sneakers, an under-appreciated, in my opinion, film from 1992. If the bell does ring, then you might be the perfect reader for Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. The novel follows Wade Watts, aka Parzival, a high school senior who has lived almost his entire life in a virtual reality world known as OASIS. As the United States has suffered economic and environmental catastrophe, just about everyone else has also abandoned the real world for the virtual one.

Wade is a gunter–a seeker of the treasure hidden in OASIS by its creator, James Halliday, when he died. Because Halliday was obsessed with late twentieth-century pop culture, OASIS reflects that, so anyone trying to find the “Egg” needs to be equally obsessed. As Wade and his friends are.

The story is fun–a post-modern quest pitting the resourceful gunters against the evil mega-corp who wants Halliday’s fortune for their own nefarious purposes. There is also a bit of a warning to the attentive reader–how close are we to a world like this? But the real fun comes from all the pop culture references–and seeing how many you know. While there are a lot of video game references, there are also TV, movie, and music mentions. Some are explained; some are not. “Setec Astronomy,” for example, wasn’t, and I think that was the only reference to the movie in the book. You are just expected to know or to want to go find out.

And as hokey as the game is by today’s standards,  it will make you want to pull out your old Atari 2600 and play Adventure.

Movies: New and Revisited

November 14, 2012

Last week was my husband’s birthday, so we went to see Argo as part of our celebration. He has a more vivid memory of the events of the film than I do, but I do remember bits and pieces of what happened. The film was splendid, and it has to be right up there when the Oscar nods come out. Everything was spot on–not too over the top, not too contrived–just perfect. As I said when we were leaving, there are movies, and there are films. This was a film. But don’t hold that against it. Speaking as someone who prefers movies (things with superheroes, action, and lots of explosions), I am happy I saw this on the big screen. And in a miracle moment from my husband, he said he needed to rethink his opinion of Ben Affleck, which was, until this moment, quite negative. The power of the cinema!

This past weekend, we watched E.T. for family movie night. We were hesitant to show it to our daughter, who is nine and quite empathic, even with fictional characters, but we decided to give it a shot. While there were some rough spots where she wasn’t going to keep watching until we assured her all would be OK, she was mostly captivated. At one point, her pizza hovered in mid-air on its way to her mouth as she couldn’t break away to eat it. She was baffled about why Elliott had “a stick” in his mouth when he was playing sick to stay home with E.T.–she had never seen a mercury thermometer before.

As much as we enjoy discovering new movies with her, it is also fun sharing the classics we grew up with.

Weekend Movie: Miss Minoes

November 5, 2012

Saturdays are family pizza and movie night in our house, and this week we happened upon a gem called Miss Minoes. It is a Dutch film from 2001 about a cat, Minoes, who encounters some toxic waste, and she is turned into a girl. As a human, she can still talk to cats, and she recruits her feline friends to help a struggling reporter break news stories. Cats hear everything after all! It won raves from everyone. My husband said it was adorable; my daughter wanted to give it five stars on Netflix.

The film was dubbed, so there were no subtitles for my daughter to deal with, but the mismatched mouth movements were barely noticeable. I found myself wondering why American filmmakers can’t make clever movies like this for families. It had good messages about perseverance, fighting for what you know is right, and caring for our four-legged friends, but they weren’t smacking us in the head. There was action, mystery, romance–and, for full disclosure, one swear word used two times. The effects that made the cats talk were even pretty good. Apparently, the actress who plays Minoes is actually allergic to cats!

It is based on a book, which doesn’t seem to be in print here, but my checking of Amazon showed the film also released as Undercover Kitty. Somehow, that title is less appealing–they should have stuck with the original. Anyway, if you have kids, or even if you don’t, check it out!

Update: Apparently the book is available here–no longer in print, but there are used copies. The English title is Minnie, by Annie M. G. Schmidt. Have to try to get one!

Summer Reflections, Part 1

September 7, 2012

It’s hard to believe that I haven’t posted since June, that school is back in session, and that Fall is right around the corner. The end of August really took me by surprise this year. One thing that I look forward to during the summer is going to the movies–summer blockbusters, no need for a sitter thanks to camp–it is all good. Unfortunately the movie crop wasn’t that tempting this year. After The Avengers, there really wasn’t anything that had me jumping up and down–and that was worth the jumping! The Amazing Spiderman was pretty good. I am really looking forward to seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in IMAX tomorrow.

We took our daughter to see Brave, and that was pretty good. Finally a movie about a girl that doesn’t end in a wedding–where she gets to choose her own course. Disney should really take notice. Interestingly, we finally watched Disney’s Snow White with our daughter around the same time. She just finished The Sisters Grimm and wanted to know more about the fairy tales in the book. It had been a long time since I watched the movie–it was never one of my favorites–but something struck me as I was watching–a couple of somethings actually. One is that the movie is not about marrying Prince Charming. It is about dying a virgin so one can go to Heaven and marry God/Christ. The Christian overtones at the end are really striking, and I don’t know how I never noticed it before.

The second thing I noticed really didn’t come together in my mind until the movie theater shooting in Colorado. The effect of violence in popular media on our psyches continues to be an important conversation. A parallel conversation is the impact of negative images of women in the media and how that affects girls. That is one reason I have delayed showing my daughter any Princess movies–I wanted her to be able to think about the message first.

Now, my mother has always said that I watched these movies as a kid with no ill effects. Without going back in time to change that, I don’t know if she is true or not. However, I may be willing to agree with her because I experienced these films differently–just like people used to experience violent films differently. People would see a movie once in the theater. That was it; the effect was limited. Now movies are viewed, especially by kids, over and over on DVD. A violent video game isn’t just played once–it is played for hundreds of hours. There is a lot of evidence supporting the idea that if someone is told something over and over, they will come to believe it. Might not something similar happen with repeated exposure to violence or negative images? I would argue that it is not necessarily the products of the entertainment industry, but the way we engage with them.

However, because of this difference in engagement, perhaps the industry needs to do something differently. What that is, I am not sure. Serious thought for the end of summer. I promise some pictures of tasty treats soon to make up for it!

The Hunger Games

April 13, 2012

Finally went to see The Hunger Games yesterday. Since I am teaching the book this summer, I was sort of obligated. I thought the movie was a pretty faithful adaptation–yes there were changes, but the changes made sense given how movies need to flow. I have to say that the scene where Katniss and Peeta roll into the stadium on fire gave me goosebumps. The movie did raise issues for me, however, that I had not expected.

First off, as a recent Entertainment Weekly article noted, the current ratings system needs some serious overhaul, and this movie is a good example of that. No one under thirteen should be seeing it–or reading the book for that matter–but even a PG-13 is not strong enough. Not that it needs an R–there needs to be something else. This is for mature teen audiences–fifteen or sixteen at minimum–and then only at parental discretion. This is definitely a movie, and a book, for parents to see/read with their teens and discuss afterwards. In depth and at length. Not enough of the violence was off-camera for my tastes, and even what was on camera was not tween-friendly. My daughter has friends at school in fourth grade reading the series–no way. As advanced a reader as my daughter is, she will not be reading this any time soon. How younger viewers respond to the violence–both what is shown and what is implied–is critical, and that is part of what needs to be discussed.

The other thing is the message. I get the metaphor, but I am 43 and do this for a living. Dystopian fiction is all about where we can end up if we don’t get our act together. This has messages about violence, government control, and reality TV. But are teen/tween readers getting that? Do they see that Survivor is only a couple of small hops away from this? That we can only see people humiliate themselves and psychologically abuse others for so long before the masses get bored and want to step it up a few notches? And that people will sign up for it? The real world probably won’t need a Reaping. If the intended audience isn’t getting the intention, that is also a problem–and another reason for this story to be taught and discussed.

Sorry this isn’t as fluffy or foody as previous posts, but sometimes I have to talk about serious things too.

 

Kim Harrison

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