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April 2010 Archives

DVD Review: "Avatar"
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avatar_dvd.jpegWhen director James Cameron's "Avatar" came out in theaters last year, its groundbreaking visuals and 3-D effects blew a lot of people's minds. The movie, which tells the story of a far-off moon called Pandora and the peaceful Na'vi people who live there, quickly became the highest grossing movie of all time, earning over 2 billion dollars worldwide.  

Now "Avatar" is out on DVD and Blu-ray, which means that even more people have a chance to check out this sci-fi blockbuster. IML nabbed a copy, and here's what we think:

We Liked:

The Visuals. Currently, the DVD and Blu-Ray of "Avatar" is 2-D only. A 3-D release won't come until next year (2011), and even then you'll need expensive new equipment, including a 3-D TV, to watch it. So for now, 2-D is what you get. We're gonna be honest here...the movie definitely loses something when you take away the 3-D. How could it not? "Avatar"'s 3-D was so awesome that you can't just take it away and say that the movie doesn't suffer. But even in 2-D, this movie is visually dazzling. We could fill pages trying to describe the look of this movie, and write endless praise of the blue, 10-foot-tall Na'vi. But you really have to see it for yourself, because words just fail. Even in two dimensions, "Avatar" is a giant bucket of super-sweet eye-candy.

The World. The moon of Pandora is a pretty amazing place. Not only is it beautiful to look at, with floating mountains, glowing trees, and countless awe-inspiring creatures, but it feels like the kind of place we'd really like to explore ourselves. Cameron has already said there will probably be two "Avatar" sequels, and that they might feature some of the other moons near Pandora, so we'll get that chance (if only in a "watching-more-movies" way). We can't wait.

The Story. A lot of people criticize "Avatar" for having a simple story. But hey: "simple" isn't the same as "stupid."  In fact, sometimes simple is better. "Avatar" tells a classic story of good and evil, good guys and villains, and tells it well. That's all we really need from an action/adventure movie, thank you very much.

The Characters. Jake Sully, the main character, is a strong protagonist, and we enjoyed going on this epic journey with him as he discovers the world of the Na'vi, and begins to question all the beliefs and assumptions of his former life. Neytiri, the proud, strong, and wise princess of the Na'vi, is a wonderful character as well, and we come to care about her and the fate of her people. And scar-faced tough guy Colonel Quaritch makes a fantastic baddie, perfect for taking all of our boos and hisses as he goes about his dastardly work for the company that's trying to wipe out the Na'vi.

avatar.jpgThe Message. Okay, the pro-environment message in "Avatar" isn't exactly subtle. It's more like, hit-you-over-the-head obvious. But we don't mind, because it's a great message, and one we all should think about. The bad guys in "Avatar" are greedy -- they want the valuable stuff that lies in the ground beneath the Na'vi's home, and they'll do anything, including kill and destroy, to get it. They don't care about nature or life...just money. There are plenty of people in our world who feel the same way, and that needs to change. By taking the central message of this movie to heart, perhaps we can all start working to make that change a reality.

We Didn't Like:

The Rating. "Avatar" is rated PG-13, mostly for the battle sequences and warfare, as well as some (mild) bad language and heavy-duty kissing. We're not saying that the movie doesn't deserve to be PG-13, because it does. It's definitely too intense for IML's younger users. But wouldn't it be nice if the filmmakers had made a second edit of the movie, one that could get a PG rating? That way a lot more kids could watch it, and not be exposed to all the violence and scary stuff. We really think the story, characters and themes of this movie, as well as just the fantasy/wonder of the visuals, appeal to a lot of tweens and kids who are younger than 13 (which is why, when the movie was released in theatres, McDonald's did a Happy Meal promotion with it, which we found kinda weird since most Happy Meal eaters were not the target audience). "Avatar" is going to be edited for broadcast TV anyway...so why not just put the edited version on the DVD too? That way parents could choose to show a less violent version to younger viewers. We're just sayin'...

The Extras. Umm...There aren't any. This is a bare-bones release, and the only thing on the disc is the movie itself. A deluxe edition is due out for the holiday gift-buying season, but doesn't that really mean that the studio wants people to buy the movie twice...once now and then again in six months? Hey, Hollywood guys...this movie has already made TWO BILLION DOLLARS! Why so greedy? It doesn't seem right to us, especially when one of the biggest messages of the movie is "Greed is bad!"

IML's rating: A

"Avatar" is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.




Celeb Scoop: Miranda Cosgrove
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For years, Miranda Cosgrove has won the hearts of TV fans on Nickelodeon's "iCarly." Now, she's about to start a new chapter of her career -- as a recording artist -- with the release her debut album, "Sparks Fly." You'll also be able to hear her as the voice of Margo in this summer's animated film "Despicable Me." Sparks fly indeed!

Miranda_02.jpgMany people are calling Miranda "the next Miley" and yeah, of course they're both super-talented...but Miranda is definitely her own person with her own unique talents, following her own path. Recently IML had the pleasure of talking to her about her album, her TV show, and about life stuff in general. It was great to see that despite all the buzz around her these days, Miranda seems to stay focused on what's most important: doing what she loves, spending time with people she cares about, and simply being herself.

IML: Hi Miranda! This is a very exciting time for you. Congrats on the release of "Sparks Fly'!

Miranda: Thank you!

IML: How does this album feel different from your past music projects?

Miranda: With the "iCarly album," I did it when I was 13 and it was my first time in the studio. Most of the songs were covers, too. So it was a different experience with this album, getting to co-write on some of the songs, getting to be in the studio, and everything. I think these songs are more mature.

Miranda_Cover_5x5.jpgIML: Do you feel like this is your coming out as a recording artist?

Miranda: Yeah, definitely! It's my debut album. I've been working on it for a year and a half. I just can't wait for everyone to hear the songs and hopefully the fans of "iCarly" will get to see a different side of me.

IML: Tell us a bit about what it was like to co-write some of these songs. Did you contribute ideas for the subject matter and lyrics?

Miranda: Yes! I have a little journal in my room where I'll just write ideas down, any little thing that pops into my mind that I think might be good. The producers of the album have worked with all these people who I really look up to and have written my favorite songs, so going into my first co-writing session, I felt really nervous to be telling them my ideas. It ended up going really well. I'd take my journal in with me and read off a few ideas and see if they were into any of them. It was really a cool and fun process. It was like, opening up.

IML: That is nerve wracking! Usually when you write in your journal you don't want anyone else to see what's there. So is the song "Kissin U" based on anything from your own life?

Miranda: I actually wrote it about a guy that I really like. I hadn't told him about the song even though he knew I was making an album and everything. I hadn't told him the song was about him. Recently he figured it out! And it's all good. He was happy.

IML: That must have been a huge relief for you! So are there any other songs on the album you consider your personal favorites?

Miranda: I really like this song on the album called "Disgusting" that was written by Ke$ha. It's probably the funniest song on the album. It's really tongue in cheek, saying "It's disgusting, how I love you." When I listen to the radio I always love songs that kind of make you laugh, and I think this will do that.

IML: When you think of your fans listening to the album, what kind of experience do you want them to have?

Miranda: I want it to be fun, something you can pop in and have a good time listening to. Pretty much all the songs are upbeat. There's one ballad but for the most part it's all pop rock, fun music. That was my main goal, for people to have a good time.

IML: It seems like you've been doing more live performances lately, and you'll probably do even more in the future. How does performing music live on stage compare to shooting on a TV or film set?

Miranda: It is completely different. For one thing, you're you. When I'm on set, I'm playing a character and it's words that the writers write for me to say. And even though that's a lot of fun and it's cool getting to play a character, it's a whole different process to be on stage. Also to have people in front of you, watching you. And you can't do it again. On set we do like a million takes of everything but when you're on stage, that's your one shot.

IML: Is it fun to see the faces of the audience while you're performing?

Miranda: Yes, I think that was my favorite part! Just the energy from the audience. When you jump up and down or clap, they do it with you. They get really into it, and it's really cool.

IML: You're viewed as a role model for young people, and we know many IML'ers on our website feel that way. Is that a lot of pressure for you?

Miranda: You know, I don't really think about it too much. When girls come up to me and say, "I love what you wear on the show," and things like that, it really means a lot to me. It's really cool that kids would even think of me like that. I don't think I feel pressure from it, which I guess is a good thing.

IML: It's definitely a good thing...that way you can just be yourself! Do you have any role models of your own?

Miranda: Totally! I love Gwen Stefani...her style and her music. I think she's awesome. As far as acting, I love Meryl Streep even though everybody says that. She's just amazing. Also Rachel McAdams and Anne Hathaway. And my mom!

IML: Pretty soon you'll start shooting the next season of "iCarly". What would you like to see happen on this season?

Miranda: I don't know what's going to happen because the producers keep it a secret even from us. We usually find out the first day of each show's rehearsal when we get the script. I'm sure they'll probably touch on the romances again, between Carly, Sam, and Freddie. Last season, Carly had a boyfriend for a few episodes and he ended up loving Beanie Babies and they broke up...but hopefully she'll have another love interest like that.

IML: You and the other cast members have been working together for so long now. Are you looking forward to seeing them again?

Miranda: Yeah, I really am. Being off for a few months, I really realize how much I miss them. We're together every day for like 10 hours on the set. I've seen them, but nowhere near as much as when we're shooting. So I'm really excited to get back and see everyone, especially Jerry who plays my brother. He's like my brother in real life so I've really been missing him.

IML: How do you keep up your other friendships with such a busy schedule?

Miranda: It can be a little bit hard to find time to go see movies and have sleepovers and stuff. I think it kind of balances out, because during the summer my friends like to come to the set with me. They'll come every few days and watch us film and we'll hang out all day and that's fun. I try to see movies a lot. That's probably my favorite thing to do; I have a little movie theatre by my house and my two best friends live 10 minutes from me, so the three of us will go see movies all the time.

IML: So do you feel like a normal teenager? Do you feel like you've missed out on anything by having your career?

Miranda: The biggest difference is homeschooling, because I don't go to normal high school. I was worried about missing prom and not having the whole high school experience, but I've tried to do little things to make it better. Like I went with my next-door neighbor to her prom last year, which was really fun. That kind of thing balances it out.

IML: That's important! There are a lot of IML'ers who are homeschooled. It almost seems like homeschooling is as normal these days as going to a regular school. I'm sure your experience is not all that different from a lot of other kids.

Miranda: Yes, it's probably not as different as many people think it is!

IML: We're looking forward to seeing "Despicable Me" this summer. What was it like to voice one of the characters in that movie?

Miranda: It's my first animated project. I auditioned for it and when I first found out I was going to get to do it, I was really excited to see what it was like because it was completely new. I didn't know that they would actually film me the entire time I was recording. They film your expressions and hand movements, and they tell you to get really into it as if you were acting.

IML: And then they animate the character based on that?

Miranda: Yes, although I'm sure they do a lot of out of their own minds too. I got to see a little screening of the movie and there's actually a lot of hand movements and facial things I do, so I thought that was really cool.

Miranda_03.jpgIML: What's your favorite way to relieve stress?

Miranda: Hanging out with my friends. One of my best friends, Kat, plays drums and I play guitar, so she'll come over and we'll make up funny dorky horrible songs. We'll play them for people, like my mom or dad or we'll try to find someone. That's fun and we do that a lot! And seeing movies and having sleepovers.

IML: Is there a particular cause or charity that you're really passionate about?

Miranda: I've done a lot of stuff with St. Jude's Children's Hospital, which has been really cool. Any time I can do anything with them, I'm glad to. I've also been working with Quaker Oats. They're doing this thing where they're bringing afterschool programs back into school. I'm really lucky that kids can watch a show and look up to me, and that allows me to help make a difference with certain causes.

IML: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Miranda: Well, I really want to go to college. My two dream choices are the University of Southern California and New York University. I love acting and I love singing, the whole making people laugh thing. I'll always love entertaining people, I guess. I want to keep doing that. I love making "iCarly". I'm probably going to keep up with that. Who knows, a lot of people when they go to college end up finding a new passion or figure out what they really want to do. I'll probably figure it out then!

IML: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today, and good luck with everything. It sounds like it's going to be a really cool year for you!

Miranda: Thank you!


 


Happy Earth Day 2010
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Tomorrow is Earth Day 2010 -- the 40th anniversary of this worldwide event aimed at spreading awareness of environmental issues.

You're probably already bombarded with information at school, on TV, and elsewhere on the Web about Earth Day and how you can help preserve our planet's precious and beautiful resources. We're going to bombard you just a little more, because you know how important this stuff is to us at IML.

If you haven't already checked it out, please visit our section on Green Living and share your own thoughts on how to help the environment.

And then, just because we think it's really cool and inspiring and catchy, watch this video of 13-year-old Leia Schwartz of Florida performing a song she wrote about Earth Day.





TV Review: "E! Investigates: Bullying"
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There's been a definite spike these days in the buzz about bullying...and we think that's a good thing. The more aware young people, parents, school staff, and community members are of the problem and how to address it, the better!

einvestigates.jpgStarting tomorrow night (Wednesday, April 21), E! Entertainment Television's documentary series "E! Investigates" tackles this subject in a powerful and really informative episode that you may want to watch with friends and family members (it might kick off some interesting discussions afterwards!). The program highlights real-life stories from middle school and high school students who've experienced bullying, as well as advice from experts.

While E! Entertainment Television shows are mostly aimed at teens and adults, we feel we can recommend this particular one based on the clips we saw, and because we know that IML'ers are dealing with this topic on a daily basis. Many of the stories will hit home and although some are a little unsettling -- like the story of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Massachusetts -- they're the kinds of stories everyone should hear.

"E! Investigates: Bullying" can be seen throughout the week; check your TV listings.

As always, you can check out IML's advice on the subject of Bullies!

 
Share your Immigration story with IML!
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Right now we're hard at work on a new section of IML that'll be all about Tween Immigrants. That means anyone who was not born in the country he or she currently lives in. Many of you have already told us some great stories on the Tween Immigrants You Said It page...thank you for that! We love hearing about your backgrounds and experiences.

We're looking for a couple of IML'ers willing to tell their tales in more detail on our Tween Immigrants pages. That means we'll arrange a phone call to interview you (with a parent's permission of course), write up your comments, and ask for some photos to include on the page. We're hoping to talk not just to tweens who came to the U.S. from another country, but also people who were born in the U.S. and are currently living abroad.

Here are some examples of personal stories we've shared in the past:

Adoption: Christopher's Story

When Your Family Moves: Katie's Story

You'll see that we don't include last names or geographical details in our stories to protect the kids' privacy.

Please feel free to email us at itsmylife@pbs.org if you're interested! We'd love for you to be a part of IML in this way!




DVD Review: "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel"
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"Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" has come to DVD and Blu-ray. The musical comedy was a smash hit in theaters when it came out last December, earning nearly a half a billion dollars worldwide (yes, we said half a billion) and grabbing the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Award for favorite movie of 2009. Yowza!

alvin.jpgThis flick is a follow up to 2007's "Alvin and the Chipmunks," which is itself a follow up to five decades of Chipmunk records, TV shows, cartoon movies, and merchandise that began when a guy named Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. first dreamed up all the rodent-related madness back in 1958. The story picks up where the first movie left off, with Alvin, Simon and Theodore as super-popular pop stars touring the world with the help of their manager/father-figure Dave, played by Jason Lee.

The opening scene throws us right into the wildness of Chipmunk Mania, with the fuzzy fellows jamming in front of packed stadiums across the globe. But then things get weird.  An onstage mishap lands Dave in a hospital bed, and the 'munks end up in the care of his bumbling nephew Toby (Zach Levi from TV's "Chuck"), who seems to do little but stay at home and play video games. Then the three little guys enroll in the local high school, where they run into trouble with a group of jealous football players and face the challenge of saving their school's music funding with a battle-of-the-bands against a new trio of female chipmunks, called the Chipettes. In the end, there's a wacky chase scene through downtown Los Angeles involving bad-guy record executive Ian (David Cross), a limo, a toy motorcycle, and a toy helicopter.

We Liked:

The musical numbers. The Chipmunks, from the very beginning, have been about the music, and this movie serves up some great high-pitched rockers, from "Funkytown" and "Shake Your Groove Thing" to the showstopper "Single Ladies." These tunes aren't quite as awesome and "chipmunky" as the classics and "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas, Don't Be Late)" and "Witch Doctor"  from the first movie, but just try not to sing along...we dare ya.

The special effects. Just like with the first movie, the filmmakers do a great job of mixing the live-action actors with the computer generated Chipmunks, and everything looks smooth and believable. You never actually believe that the Chipmunks are real, but you buy it, because it looks good, and it's fun.

chipettes.jpgThe Chipettes. Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor aren't the deepest characters we've ever seen...they're basically just female counterparts to the boy Chipmunks. But hey, we're talking about singing and dancing chipmunks here, so how developed do they really have to be? The truth is, these girls are cute and funny, and they know how to rock.

Ian. David Cross, as greedy baddie Ian, basically does the same stuff as last time, but in the sequel he's less menacing and more goofy/pathetic. We know this actor can do a lot more, but he has some funny moments in this flick, and he's bad-in-a-good-way as he manipulates the Chipettes and tries to exact his revenge on the Chipmunks. His one-man attempt at a Chipettes concert (with puppets) is hilarious.

We Didn't Like:

The Dave/Toby switcheroo. Dave Seville has always been the Chimpunks' straight-man foil, the guy who screams "Alviiiiin!" and has to deal with the little guys' shenanigans. But for some unknown reason (probably due to money and contracts) actor Jason Lee plays Dave for about five minutes of this movie, at the very start and the very end. It's pretty lame, if you ask us. Toby, the guy who replaces him, doesn't add much to the story, even with his tacked-on crush on an old schoolmate who is now a teacher.

The high school stuff. A lot of this movie's plot just doesn't make any sense. The Chipmunks go from world popular rock stars playing stadium shows in places like Paris...to normal "kids" in high school? And actual real teenagers are jealous of them? And they let one of them onto the school football team, even though he's actually smaller than the ball? After the first movie, we really expected a sequel to be about the Chipmunks having a crazy adventure somewhere exotic. Sending them to high school really feels like a giant step backwards, and the whole story basically had us scratching our heads.

We know that most IML'ers are probably not going to love "The Squeakquel." It's really geared towards a younger audience. You 8-10 year old IML'ers have a good chance at digging the slapstick humor and goofy zaniness of this movie, but older tweens will probably be a disappointed by the lack of a decent story and the rather flat characters.

The film is best for the really young kids, like 4- to 7-year-olds, who won't be bothered by the silliness of the story. This makes the video a perfect fit for those of you who have little sibs, or who have jobs as babysitters. Those Chipmunks know how to entertain. What's particularly cool about this kind of movie is that children are likely to get up and dance to the music instead of just staring at it like zombies. The DVD comes with a bunch of bonus music videos, for even more kid-friendly fun. You might even find yourself getting into the spirit and joining in!

IML's rating:
A- for kids 7 and under
C+ for tweens over 8

"Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" is rated PG for some mild rude humor.


Our Theme Park Survival Guide
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themepark.jpgSpring (and soon summer) is upon us! And for many IML'ers, that can only mean one thing...it's theme park time! Yes, even as you read this, vacationers of all ages are descending like crazy on countless water parks, adventure lands, zoos, and entertainment mega-worlds. A day at a theme park can be a great way to spend quality time with parents, sibs, relatives, and friends, but it's not always easy to have fun the sun (or rain, or whatever) without going absolutely bonkers, passing out from exhaustion, or demanding to be traded to a less annoying group of people.

Recently, we visited four hot spots in Southern California (Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure, SeaWorld, and the San Diego Zoo) using tickets from CityPASS -- a company that offers discounts to attractions in most major U.S. cities and Toronto -- and came up with our Top Ten theme park survival tips for tweens:

1) Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Yeah, yeah, We know this sounds like "grandma advice." But sometimes grandmas are smart! They've been around long enough to know, for example, that those stylish, bejeweled metallic flip-flops will probably shred your feet after about an hour of walking across hot concrete, and that really cute mini-skirt might make it tough to go on certain rides. It's natural to want to look and feel your best, especially if you're spending the day with friends, but you're going to have more fun in the end if you can focus on what you're doing and seeing, not what you're wearing. (Also, keep in mind that you'll very likely get wet at some point in the day, from a ride or water feature or Shamu, so wear something that dries quickly.)

2) Divide and Conquer. We love family unity and friendly togetherness as much as anyone, but to survive a long day at a mega park, you're probably gonna have to split up and take different routes at some point...especially if you have a big group. It'll save a lot of arguing and whining about "what to do next." Don't rely only on cell phones to hook back up, in case technical difficulties come up. Instead, try the old-fashioned method of "Let's meet in front of Raging Rapids at 11 o'clock."

3) Think twice about getting in that looooooong line. Yeah, we know that you want to see the just-opened panda exhibit at the zoo, or take a spin on the brand new ultra-dragon roller coaster at the theme park. But is five minutes of fun worth two-hours of waiting in line? If you spent those two hours in a different way, you could take your sweet time exploring the zoo's awesome reptile house, or maybe take five rides on the park's older (but still awesome) coaster instead.

4) Shun the sugar. Wait, what? But yummies are the best part! Of course, treat yourself to one or two things during the day. Everything in moderation! The surge-and crash that comes from sugar overload, plus the physical and emotional yuckiness that too many sweet treats can give you, could put a drain on the whole experience. Drink water instead of soda (or better yet, bring a water bottle and fill it up at fountains to save money and waste), and snack on a pretzel instead of a doughnut. 

5) Know the loopholes. Help the adults you're with to read up on the theme park's special time-saving tricks and programs so you can do less waiting in line. Some popular rides, shows, and attractions may have "fast pass" machines so you can get a timed ticket to come back and skip the main line later in the day. Check insider websites and message boards to pinpoint the best day and time to visit certain attractions.

6) Throw out the checklist. Try not to have a long list of every single thing you "must" do while you're at the park. Remember, it's not about packing in as much as you can during the day, but about having an overall good time. If that means slowing down and skipping a few things, so be it. You may have a better day in the end if you take an hour in the middle to rest with a long lunch than if you powered through to the point of exhaustion.

7) Think like a kid. No matter what age you are, places like zoos and theme parks are more fun if you don't think like a grown-up. If you're with younger children, seeing it through their eyes can really make things magical. Relax and have fun. Don't try to be cool and cynical. Be goofy, especially when you actually meet Goofy.

8) Be money smart. These places are designed to practically Hoover cash out of your pockets. Maybe you rely on the adults you're with to buy you everything at the park but if not, give yourself a personal budget for the day and stick to it by bringing snacks, saving your money for one or two souvenirs you really want, and forgoing stuff that costs extra. After it's all over, you'll most remember your experiences rather than the things you bought, and you may avoid that icky "I can't believe how much money I spent" feeling.

9) Don't be a herd animal. Try not to fall into the same patterns as everyone else at the park...that just leads to crowds and unhappiness. Think different. If nearly everyone packs the lunch spots at noon, try having a light snack at eleven and then lunch at 2, when the food lines are shorter and you won't have to fight for a table. If everybody and his cousin is swarming to the main drag for the 5pm parade, maybe that's the time for you to head to the opposite side of the park and get in the (now much shorter) line for the Mayhem Mountain ride.

10) Fights and feuds are normal, but don't let them spoil things. If you and your friends and family have regular tiffs at home, being in the strange, often stressful environment of a theme park can turn those tiffs into wars. Yes, you're here to have fun...but sometimes the pressure to have that fun (plus the heat, and crowds, and exhaustion) can make it harder to come by! Try to resolve conflicts on the spot using compromises and communication. If you have to give in more than you normally would, or put up with something you would never stand for at home, then so be it. You'll probably find that all the cool distractions will help you forget your disagreement and move on to creating great memories together.

Now it's your turn: share your own stories and tips on our Theme Park You Said It page. You can also get more advice in our Family Vacations section. 

Good luck, and have fun!

Books We Like This Month
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The IML office is beginning to look a lot like the Young Adult section of your local library, because publishers have started sending us the best new books for tweens and teens to review! As you can probably guess, we get very excited about books. We love finding stories that relate to the topics we cover and adding them to our recommended reading lists (for example, here's our list of Great Books About Summer Camp). Sometimes, a book is a great way to start thinking and talking about a subject.

In the last month we've read a few new books that we especially like:

darkstale.jpg"Dark's Tale," by Deborah Grabien (Egmont USA)
Dark is a black cat who has lived her whole life as a beloved (or so she thought) pet; when her owners decide she's causing their baby's allergies, they abandon her in San Francisco's Golden Gate park. Suddenly she's forced to rely on her feline wits and instincts to survive, and learns quickly about the different types of animals and people in the park -- some kind, some not-so-kind. Dark forms friendships with a raccoon and another feral cat, but when dangerous coyotes invade and threaten the delicate balance of their surroundings, Dark's ideas of survival and loyalty are challenged.

If you're an animal lover or a fan of the "Warriors" series, you will really enjoy this book. Dark's narration is heartwarming and honest; in fact, even though this might technically be considered a "fantasy" book because of the talking animal factor, it all feels very real. The writing is beautiful and smart. You will probably come away with a better understanding of your pet and/or the wild things you see in your neighborhood, and of what it must be like to be an animal trying to get by in a world ruled by humans.

IML's Rating: A


pickleking.jpg"The Pickle King," by Rebecca Promitzer (Chicken House/Scholastic)
Bea is almost-12 and lives in the very rainy, very boring town of Elbow, which is best known for a giant pickle factory owned by Herman, a local celebrity they call the Pickle King. When Herman turns up dead and Bea, along with a ragtag group of friends, discover his ghost in a weird old house, there's a mystery to be solved.

If you like funny stories about regular kids with a few tablespoons of supernatural, horror, and fantasy thrown in, this would be a great read for you. Bea's voice is entertaining and you'll get caught up in the zaniness of her not-so-boring-after-all summer. The only thing in this book that put us off a bit was that we felt there were too many plot twists, and sometimes it felt like the author was trying too hard to be wacky and offbeat.

IML's Rating: B+


hiddengirl.jpg"The Hidden Girl: A True Story of the Holocaust," by Lola Rein Kaufman with Lois Metzger (Scholastic)
It is German-occupied Poland, 1943. When 8-year-old Lola's mother is killed by the Gestapo, the last shreds of her old life disappear and she must go into hiding. First she lives in secret with a Ukrainian woman, then with another family in a dirt hole underneath a barn. Lola must survive cold, hunger, and fear with only her memories and a single cherished belonging to give her hope for safety and freedom. (We're not giving anything away here when we say that Lola's story is featured on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's website.)

Lola's tale is harrowing and sometimes hard to read, but we're glad she told it. There are countless true stories of how people of all ages survive war, and all of them are pretty amazing. If you've read "The Diary of Anne Frank" or "Zlata's Diary," you know what we mean. These stories may be similar, but it's those similarities that make them all the more wonderful and worth reading. "The Hidden Girl" is a short book but packs a powerful punch, and isn't easily forgotten.

IML's Rating: A

 



DVD Review: "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"
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Mr. Fox is a husband, a father, and a man (no, wait...a fox) trying to eke out a good living in a hard world. But he's also a wild animal who can't help stealing chickens (and lots of other stuff), and this is what gets him into trouble. You see, Mr. Fox has enemies...three of them to be exact: mean, violent farmers named Boggis, Bunce and Bean. These angry old guys are tired of Mr. Fox cleaning them out of food and drink, and they'll stop at nothing to put an end to the fox's thievery, and his life.

fox_dvd.jpgBased on the classic children's book by Roald Dahl (according to your You Said It posts, a lot of you are fans), this film version of Mr. Fox's adventures was directed by Wes Anderson, who's made a career out of delivering artsy, melancholy movies, like "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." Here he takes his trademark quirky moodiness and mixes it into a colorful, kooky tale of talking animals, way-too-complex sports, zany heists, and lots and lots of tunnel-digging. Sound strange? Well, it is.

Here's the thing: Although "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is packaged like a little kids' movie, it really isn't. Sure, it's fun, and often funny, but it's also bittersweet and thoughtful, and occasionally slow-moving. There's even some dialogue that seems too mature to be in a talking animal movie and will probably go over the heads of the youngest viewers. So will a lot of other stuff in this unique film.

Okay, now for the part you've come to expect from IML movie reviews: our breakdown of the good and the not-so-good.

We Liked:

The animation. This movie was made with stop-motion animation, a very old and very amazing process where  real honest-to-gosh puppets are moved by hand, inch-by-inch, and photographed one frame of film at a time. If you're a fan of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" you know what we're talking about; It's the same way they made all those great old holiday TV specials, like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town." In this era of 3-D computer animation, it's great to see a filmmaker go old school, and we're truly impressed with the results. Mr. Fox just looks incredible; you can see the fur on the characters' faces move with each frame, and can enjoy every tiny detail in the miniature props, costumes, and sets. Sure, the movements aren't always smooth, but that's part of the fun, fun, fun.

fantasticmrfox.jpgThe design. Did we mention that this movie looks great? Well, a lot of that is due to the overall design of the visuals, from the look of Badger's impressive flint mine home, to Fox's cozy abode beneath the giant tree, to the hard industrial metal of the bad guys' farms and storehouses. We wish we could shrink ourselves down and play in this carefully-built world.

The voices. Wes Anderson uses his usual gang of actors to voice the characters in Mr. Fox, including Hollywood heavyweights George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Bill Murray. And they don't deliver typical goofy or over-the-top cartoon voices, either. They read the lines like they were doing a regular drama, and this creates a very unique tone. It's sometimes a bit disconcerting, but mostly we like it.

The weird little moments. This movie slows down to offer up some odd but sweet moments, like when Fox stops his motorcycle escape to talk to a wild wolf, or when Fox and his wife have a philosophical heart-to-heart  talk in front of a shimmering below-ground waterfall. There's a lot of quiet beauty in this movie.

Ash. Mr. Fox's son, who wants to be an athlete but is usually seen as a loser, is our favorite character. Lacking the raw talent and bravado of his dad (or even of his cousin Kristofferson), Ash is determined to prove himself worthy. Also, he wears a sock on his head, which is awesome.

Whack-Bat. The weirdest sport in the world!

We Didn't Like:

The bait-and-switch. What do we mean by this? Well, we mean that "Mr. Fox" was promoted as a kids' movie, but it really isn't, and lots of little kids will be bored by it. (So this is probably not something you want to watch with your babysitting charges.) You see, this is one of those movies that Hollywood considers "difficult to sell" to audiences...it isn't an adult movie, and it isn't really a kids' movie ("Where the Wild Things Are" is an even better example of this). So to make sure people come to the theater, the studios sometimes fib in their marketing strategy, and make a movie look like something it isn't. It's a shame, because "Mr. Fox" is a cool movie for older kids and tweens,  and they should have admitted this up front.

The scene with the guitar. What the heck is this scene? Who is this "Petey" guy singing this song? Out-of-place bits like this seem here to entertain the director, not the people watching the movie, even if the song is kinda catchy.

The artiness. We know, we know. We kinda already said that we liked this. But we also didn't like it. How is this possible? Well, sometimes this movie just seems like it's trying too hard to be strange...like the filmmakers are winking at the audience and saying, "Look how cool and smart and hip we are." There are moments when it gets to be a bit much, and we're forced to roll our eyes.

If you like movies like "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and "Where the Wild Things Are," you'll probably enjoy "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" (and you might want to check out "Rushmore" for more cool Wes Anderson-ness). If your tastes run more to "Transformers" or "Ice Age 3," you'll probably be bored.

IML's rating: B

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is rated PG for action, smoking and slang humor. The DVD extras include several interesting "making of" pieces that will be especially interesting to anyone who's into animation, art, and design.

That's IML's take. What do you think? Did you see this movie? Do you want to? Did you read the book? Let us know! We want to hear from you!




Justice for Phoebe?
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phoebe.jpgBy now you've surely heard the story of Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley, Massachusetts high school freshman who hanged herself in January after months of out-of-control bullying by other students.

This week, the local district attorney brought criminal charges against these students -- nine teenagers who hounded Phoebe repeatedly with insults, threats, and physical harassment. Many people are calling this "justice" and are happy to see the legal system providing such a strong response to the problem of bullying...a problem that, as you know, exists at every school. Was it the right thing to do? Without knowing the full details of the case, we can't make a call on that. What do you think? Will it make other tweens and teens think twice about bullying someone like that?

The thing that really makes us go ugh and breaks our hearts a little is that clearly, teachers and other school staff witnessed or were aware of what was happening to Phoebe. If you take a look at our sections on Bullying and Gossip & Rumors, as well as our Advice section about Getting Picked On, you'll see that telling a trusted adult about this stuff is one of the first things a bullying victim should do. But how can we keep suggesting that when adults can keep silent like they did in South Hadley?

We will keep suggesting that. Because if one person does not listen or respond to you, you need to keep trying until somebody does. Bullying should never be ignored or lived with (or not lived with, in some tragic cases). We can only hope that the South Hadley situation is the exception and not the rule, and that in your community there is someone who will help if you need it.

We can also hope that somehow, some way, something good comes out of Phoebe's death. Maybe more anti-bullying programs in schools. Maybe more awareness by students, school staff, parents, and community members about how to deal with the issue before it gets out of hand. Or maybe even just more students reaching out to help when they see someone in trouble, unafraid to stand up to people who are doing wrong.

We have faith that as hard as it can be at times, everyone has the power to do that.