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{Review} Planes: Fire & Rescue

planesfireandrescueThe JavaKids and I were able to attend a sneak preview of Planes: Fire & Rescue earlier this week for the purposes of giving our review of the movie. Amongst the other invited guests were area firefighters, as the theme of the movie centered around the vehicles who fight forest fires and the opening credits dedicate the movie to the men and women who save lives every day as firefighters.

This movie is of course a sequel to Planes, where we first met the main character, Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook).  Now a world-famous racer, Dusty discovers that he has a failing part that may soon end his racing days. As a result of testing his limits, he accidentally sets his hometown’s airstrip on fire, attracting the scrutiny of the safety department, which informs Dusty and his friends that the airport will be closed until improvements can be made, including updating the current fire engine and finding a second firefighting vehicle.

This sets the stage for a guilt-ridden Dusty to go off to Piston Peak National Park to learn how to be an aerial firefighter. Here we meet the brave crew who fights fires, the legendary fire and rescue helicopter Blade Ranger, scooper Dipper (voice of Julie Bowen), heavy-lift helicopter Windlifter, ex-military transport Cabbie, and the Smokejumpers, a team of  all-terrain vehicles who jump out of Cabbie and fight the fires from the ground by creating “breaks” and clearing paths.

Fires aren’t the only enemy the team faces. The Superintendent, who runs the National Park and more specifically is interested in his pet project the newly renovated lodge, is less concerned with safety than with dazzling VIP guests. Do kids in the audience understand the theme of bureaucracy and budget cuts and what happens when money is diverted to build pet projects? Well, maybe not as well as adults, but my kids (ages 8 and 10) understood it enough and it opened the door for some conversations, and to me, any time a movie does that, it’s a win.

Like the other movies in the Cars and Planes franchise, there are some jokes thrown in there that only the adults will get. There are a couple of romance themes. And there are times when the stories get a little clunky. For example, it took me a little bit to realize that Windlifter is supposed to be an Apache helicopter and therefore his off-the-wall-sounding stories are supposed to be Native American lore (I think?) so the way the characters respond to him (“Oookay…”) are not necessarily the most appropriate. But translating lore to vehicle-speak comes out sounding very bizarre. So it may be worth discussing that with the kids.

The visuals are stunning and yet not frightening. Hint: Stay a little bit through the credits for one last joke.

Overall, there are several good themes you can pick out in the story. The kids and I discussed several, including the fact that there can be more than one solution to a problem; the benefits of opening up and telling someone when you are afraid of something; what it means to be brave; and what the Superintendent was doing that was wrong.  There are more, but I don’t want to spoil things.

Is it cinematically perfect? No. Professional reviewers will pick apart elements of the storytelling and characterization. But from a family’s point of view, it was entertaining, provided a platform for deeper discussion, and we walked away smiling. The only regret I have is that I didn’t think to ask any of the firefighters in the audience what THEY thought of the movie.

Planes: Fire & Rescue opens today, July 18 and is rated PG. You can learn more about the movie on the web site or Facebook page.

Image copyright of Disney, provided as part of media kit.

{Review} Disney’s Frozen Warms The Heart

FrozenMovieReviewIf your Thanksgiving plans include taking the family to see a movie, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Frozen (PG), should be one of your choices on your list.  My family was invited to a complimentary early screening and found it to be delightful.

Loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson, The Snow Queen, it tells the tale of the two princesses of Arendelle, Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) and Anna (voice of Kristen Bell). Elsa is endowed with magical powers that allow her to create snow and ice with the flick of a wrist, which can be quite fun when you are a little girl. Her unendowed little sister, unfortunately, is accidentally struck by this magic and injured, thus causing Elsa to withdraw and become a recluse so as not to risk injuring her sister or anyone else again. As part of the cure, Anna does not remember the incident and doesn’t understand why her sister is avoiding her.

Flash forward several years to when the sisters come of age, and there is a big ball. No one is aware of Elsa’s big secret — until she becomes upset and accidentally sets off winter in her town of Arendelle. The townspeople fear her, proclaim her a witch and she runs off. Anna, who though clumsy and naive at times is no insipid princess, bravely takes after her sister despite the frigid conditions. Along the way she encounters a rugged ice harvester named Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff) with his faithful reindeer Sven, and a magical snowman (created by Elsa when they were children) named Olaf (voice of Josh Gad) as well as a variety of other characters I won’t mention for fear of spoiling some vital plot points.

What would a Disney movie review be without discussing the merits of the princesses themselves? Elsa, burdened with her magic, never gets to fall into the mold of falling in love with a prince. She leads a lonely life. But she has a wonderfully cathartic song, “Let It Go” that will surely become a top song this year. Anna, makes many mistakes, but also shows remarkable self-reliance for a young woman who has been sheltered all her life. Ultimately she is a princess who does the rescuing, not the other way around.

To be honest, I’m not a “musicals” kind of person, so I’m not the right person to evaluate the songs and music in the movie. There were quite a few songs in this movie. “Let It Go” was really the only one that captured me, but with music from Tony® winner Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q”) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (“In Transit”), there are surely other songs that will end up being popular on the radio or iTunes.

What I do know is 3D. The animation, which we saw in 3D, is beautiful and I highly recommend watching it in the 3D version. The snow and individual snow flakes are stunning. The sheen of the ice is impressive. Additionally, there is a Mickey Mouse short before the movie that you will enjoy more if you see it in 3D.

There are a few scary scenes (a snow monster, chase scenes, wolves, fighting) and a few mildly coarse jokes (a lot of references to butts), but overall, I was comfortable with my 7- and 9-year-old kids being there and I’m fairly conservative about what my children watch.  This trailer will give you a pretty good idea of the kind of stuff you will see.


Frozen opens in theaters today.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the movie you can:

Also, enjoy this snowflake cutting template with your kids (PDF format) from Disney. Frozen Snowflake Activity

 The PR Company for Walt Disney Animation Studios provided my family with four tickets to the advanced screening to the movie, but as always, the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

{Review} The Lone Ranger: Quirky, Inconsistent, but Fun

Image courtesy of Disney Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Image courtesy of Disney Jerry Bruckheimer Films

The Lone Ranger (Rated PG-13) opens today, but I was invited to a complimentary sneak preview last week for review purposes. My kids, having seen the commercials, wisely opted out, thinking it would be too scary (they were right), so it became a date night for JavaDad and I.

The Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer Films’ version of The Lone Ranger is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Gore Verbinski, the same team behind the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which will give you some hints as to the flavor of this movie, especially with Johnny Depp playing Tonto.

The movie is a retelling of the classic tale of how the Lone Ranger came to be, as seen through Tonto’s eyes. One might even go so far as to call it a reinterpretation. Audience members who have knowledge of the original TV show or comic books will be in on some of the jokes, but after that, it is best to leave any preconceived notions about the story and the characters behind and just enjoy the ride.

Johnny Depp does what Johnny Depp does in terms of character development. He is pure over the top. His makeup can be distracting, but as we learn later in the movie, it is symbolic, and in the credits, I learned it was inspired by the Kirby Sattler painting “I Am Crow.”  You will either love or hate Depp. I usually am not a Depp fan, but I decided to just “go with it” and actually enjoyed him in this role.

Armie Hammer has a long distance to go from the dedicated lawman John Reid to the Lone Ranger. He overcomes an awkward script and remains a likeable hero throughout.

As long as you set aside memories of previous Lone Ranger shows, this movie can be quite enjoyable. It is quirky and humorous. However, it is long and yet suffers from continuity issues that are either due to script issues, editing, or both. There are sudden leaps that have the audience wondering, “Wait, did I miss something?” Yet some scenes seem unnecessarily long in order to hit us on the head with some symbolism or milk all the jokes possible.

Is this a movie for kids? Not for MY kids, that is for sure. Take that PG-13 rating seriously. In addition to the expected fight scenes, there are several gory references to cannibalism, there is a scene in a whorehouse (I would not want to have to explain what “professional ladies” means to my kids), and there are many discussions about wiping out tribes of Indians. The cinematography is beautiful in every scene, which makes everything incredibly vivid and therefore could be that much more frightening to children. There are a lot of action scenes that include guns, arrows and hand-to-hand combat, as well as some train accidents and explosions.

A quick mention to collectors of antique glass like myself — keep an eye open for scenes inside the dining cars — you are in for a treat!

Overall I would say that The Lone Ranger suffers from some issues, but if you are game for a quirky movie that will make you laugh, it is worth seeing.

I’m including some trailers to help you decide for yourself.

 

Review: Monsters University 3D Delivers Depth and Entertainment

MU_FBProfile_180x180_12 MU_FBProfile_180x180_2Disney’s Monsters University has certainly been going through the hype machine. Could a movie possibly live up to so much build-up? Wednesday night my daughter (7) and I attended a complimentary sneak preview of Monsters University 3D (rated G) in Tysons Corner and found that indeed, it could.

Let me start with the 3D aspect of the movie. I often avoid 3D movies because I hate wearing the glasses and usually find the 3D to be gimmicky. The glasses were lightweight and easily fit over my own prescription glasses and I quickly forgot I was wearing them. The use of 3D was seamlessly integrated throughout the movie (yes, of course there were times when it was used to make something jump out at us), so it felt organic rather than gratuitous.

I’m not an expert movie reviewer, but having worked for a 3D graphics chip manufacturer, I  know some of the things to look for in 3D animation, and I’ll point out that water, lighting, and making anything round are some of the toughest things to do. One scene I found particularly striking is when you see a lake in the background when Mike and Sully are talking. The water on the lake looks as realistic as if it had been shot on film. There are several times throughout the movie when the geek in me was stunned by just how amazing the animation was — look for things like how well the light reflects off Mike’s round head and the individual hairs of Sully’s fur as he moves. Beware, however, that it is for this very reason that some of the scarier moments in the movie may be more intense for your children than similar scenes were in the original Monsters Inc. JavaGirl has watched the original movie several times, but had to cover her eyes during the “scaring” scenes and later told me it’s because the kids looked “so real” that she was worried for them.

As for the story, this movie is a prequel. It tells the story of Mike and Sully before they became scarers. Who knew one had to get a degree in scaring? We get further insight into what drew these two into their career choice to begin with and how they became a team. Hint: They didn’t start out that way. We finally find out why Randall is so nasty to the duo. The story covers many themes including overcoming adversity, being kind, why cheating doesn’t pay, working hard to reach one’s goals, and teamwork. The plot flows well and introduces new characters, some loveable, some quite fearsome. Central to the story is the Scare Games, which pits members of different fraternities and sororities against each other in various scenarios they may face as future scarers.

As long as you are sensitive to your child’s fear-level, I would recommend this as a family movie. JavaGirl was able to close her eyes for the parts she didn’t like and still enjoy the movie. (You can preview trailers and see images of characters at this site.) As an adult, I felt entertained, not impatiently tapping my foot until it ended like I have in other movies for kids. If you have the choice between regular and 3D, I would opt for 3D. After watching the movie, your family may enjoy visiting Disney’s Monsters University web site.

One additional note, there was a 3D animated short before the movie called The Blue Umbrella that was absolutely delightful, and again, a wonderful use of 3D animation. Be sure to make it on time to see it!

Monsters University opens in U.S. theaters June 21, 2013 and will be shown in Disney Digital 3D (TM) in select theaters.

Images of Sully and Mike provided by Disney’s Monsters University web site.

Sesame Place Opens for Winter: A Very Furry Christmas

Sesame Place show

Nothing like Sesame Street characters doing jazz hands!

Motherhood is an endless “To Do” list and taking my kids to Sesame Place has been on my list. Summer 2011, however, became The Summer That Swim Team Took Over Our Lives, so we never made it. Luckily, Sesame Place has opened its doors with a winter offering, “A Very Furry Christmas.”

Sesame Place Vapor Trail

Riding the Vapor Trail with JavaBoy -- just the right-sized thrill for him at this age.

The theme park has a holiday-themed makeover and while water rides are shut down, there are still many popular rides open including Elmo’s Flyin’ Fish, Blast Off, the Vapor Trail, Peek a Bug, Grover’s World Twirl and more.  There is an entire jungle gym type of area with climbing challenges for kids of all ages from the very small to much older kids (think cargo nets and a slippery Cookie Monster’s Mountain).

Sesame Place climbing sectionThere are multiple shows throughout the day that emphasize the values of sharing and giving in the holiday spirit (Christmas is the holiday that is most emphasized, though mostly in a secular sense).  You can find a description of the shows here

Sesame Place dancing with Cookie Monster

JavaBoy got called up on stage to join in the fun!

Having never been in the summertime, I cannot compare the experience to a summer visit.  What I can tell you is that the JavaKids thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  I worried whether JavaBoy, age 7, would be too old for the experience, but he enjoyed the rides, especially Blast Off.  Ever the ham, he got called up on stage to dance with Cookie Monster in one of the shows, which also made his day.  The climbing area was a huge hit and let them burn off a lot of steam.  JavaGirl is at the perfect age to take in the wonder of it all.  Our children are not theme park veterans, so if your kids have graduated to serious thrill rides this park may not be for them.  But what made Sesame Place and in particular, A Very Furry Christmas, nice for us as a family was that it was a miniaturized version of a Disney experience — you had characters, shows, rides, a parade and a big tree lighting, but weren’t completely overwhelmed.  We went on opening day and the lines were quick.  Everyone we encountered was polite.

For my children, seeing the characters in the shows was enough of an up-close experience, they didn’t even feel the need to wait in line to see hug them and get a photo.  However, if you choose, there is a character dining experience option available.  I peeked into the restaurant where it occurs and it isn’t particularly glamorous, though the kids looked happy.  Think of a large elementary school cafeteria with Abby Cadabby running around.

There is, of course, an option to get a photo with Santa and this was one of the few places we encountered a line.  Given that we were in jeans, we decided not to get a photo, but it had a lovely set to do so.

Sesame Place swings

We enjoyed the park from the moment it opened until closing.

The drive to get to Sesame Place was not bad from Northern Virginia and while it is possible to get there and back in a day, given the late hour of finishing up, we opted to get a hotel room and then check something else off my list — visit the Please Touch Museum.  If you haven’t been to Sesame Place before, be forewarned that though there are signs marking the highway exit, the last turn is not well marked, we nearly missed it!

Another hint — line up early for the parade, look for the dots on the edge of main street and that is where you are allowed to line up.  It may be worthwhile to pack a small towel or blanket to sit on while you wait, though the gift shop will be more than willing to sell you one!  Seating for most shows begin half an hour before showtime and it is worth it to get a good seat.  Lockers are available to store the various gear families invariably bring, no outside food allowed in.  Lesson learned the hard way — they do not sell camcorder supplies in their gift shops (oops) and I don’t remember seeing SD cards either.

My final take:  Definitely worth the trip if you live in the Metro DC area or closer, a family fun experience that will probably be one of those “remember when” memories forever, and it makes me even more determined to return in Summer 2012 to see what it’s like to visit in shorts!  For more information on ticket prices and other questions, visit this site.

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Disclosure: My family was invited to attend as media for opening day and received complimentary tickets.  I was not required to write about it nor did this impact my opinion of the event.