Pras on WorldFilms: WINTER IN WARTIME (Dutch/English/German)

WINTER IN WARTIME is a film set winter of 1944 in a village in the Nazi-occupied WINTER2Netherlands (as Holland endured the Nazis’ icy grip) and shot in Lithuania, is an adaptation of a semiautobiographical 1972 novel by the Dutch author Jan Terlouw, who lived under German occupation for five years. The period was known in the Netherlands as “the Hunger Winter.” The film was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008.

The narrative framed in a boy’s coming-of-age story in a snowbound rural Holland, contemplates the fog of war and the mysteries of adult life through the eyes of Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), the 13-year-old son of the town’s stoic mayor, Johan van Beusekom (Raymond Thiry).

It’s January 1945, a time when the Nazis’ defeat was beginning to seem inevitable, and the temptation to play it safe in occupied territories must have been strong.

Michiel, a fresh-faced 14-year-old, yearns to join the resistance. Michiel views his father’s uneasy cooperation with the Nazi authorities with disdain, even though it is essential to maintaining the fragile peace in the area. In his mind, his father, the mayor is seemingly only interested in maintaining the status quo between the town and the German Army.

WINTER4The boy also looks up to his dashing Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), a hearty resistance fighter who arrives for a visit carrying a suitcase filled with ration cards, canned sardines and a radio. Ben, who appears to have better connections with the local German authorities than Johan, isn’t exactly what he seems. Meanwhile, an allied plane is hit in the air and crashes, but before it hits the ground, a young British airman named Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower) is able to escape by parachute. Michiel (who wants to contribute as his uncle Ben does to the resistance) finds the downed and the wounded RAF pilot in the nearby woods, and now gets his chance.

But he quickly finds himself mired in a hornet’s nest of murky motives and multiple identities. Given the times and Michiel’s adolescent need for heroes and villains, neutrality is not an option. The boy finds it increasingly difficult to tell which of his beloved immediate family and the village elders is a resister, an informer, or an appeaser of the occupying Nazis.

Michiel’s father is arrested when the body of a German soldier, killed by Jack on the night of the plane crash, is found in the forest. Jack wants to turn himself in to save Michiel’s father, but Ben tells Michiel he can save his father. Ben’s efforts fail, and Michiel’s father is shot by the Germans.

Michiel tries to take Jack to the town of Zwolle, across a river, but the Germans foil their attempt, and the two narrowly escape after a chase through the forest. Michiel finally turns to his Uncle Ben for help in getting Jack to Zwolle. Ben agrees, and Ben, Jack and Erica set off for the bridge to Zwolle. As they leave, Ben tells Michiel that Dirk should never have gotten Michiel involved with Jack. After they go, Michiel realizes that he had never mentioned Dirk’s role to Ben. Quickly checking Ben’s suitcase, he finds papers showing that Ben is working for the Germans.

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Pras on WorldFilms: SANGRE DE MI SANGRE (US/Mexico | English/Spanish)

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Director and screenwriter Christopher Zalla’s debut film “PADRE NUESTRO,” (also released as “Sangre De Mi Sangre” in the US)  is a tale of stolen identity and desperation that unfolds as a taut thriller and showcases some awesome performances by a multi-generational cast.

At its heart the film is a story of survival at any cost and the odds that lie against an illegal immigrant, the grit and hardships demanded of these unfortunate people.

Padre Nuestro is a very original, very dark and shadowy drama with unexpected story twists. It also jerks you back and forth between two parallel story tracks.  The film won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic film of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. It was also screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

In Padre Nuestro, a film almost entirely in Spanish with small English portions.

SangreWe meet the hero, Pedro, as he escapes from Mexico by quickly scaling a fence along the U.S. border. Waiting on the other side (not miles away, or hidden) is a truck for taking immigrants to New York. Pedro is hustled inside, the doors are slammed, and the truck begins a 2,500-mile journey, to be survived entirely on half a taco and a small bottle of water.

Now begins the story of Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espíndola), a Mexican immigrant who is traveling by truck to New York City to find his wealthy father, Diego (Jesús Ochoa), a man he has never met. All Pedro has is a 17-year-old letter with an address at which Diego once worked. He harbors a strong desire to make contact with his dad and carries the letter of introduction from his mother to help him accomplish his goal.

It is also the story of Juan (Armando Hernandez) Juan, a ruthless and conniving ex-career criminal who tries to escape his past by hopping on the same truck as Pedro, transporting illegal immigrants from Mexico to the Big Apple.and Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola).

sangre2Pedro (the sweet naive kid from Puebla long-estranged from his father, Diego) meets Juan meet on the truck.

Over the course of his journey, Juan meets and befriends Pedro. When the truck arrives he finds that Juan has stolen all he has,  and then proceeds to assume his identity to trick Pedro’s father throughout the movie. Pedro slowly makes his way to New York, but Juan arrives first and finds Diego, convincing him that he is his long-lost son. The truest of these relationships, paradoxically, is the false one.

sangre3Meanwhile, the “real” Pedro wanders the streets, remembering only his father’s street address (still accurate after 17 years). He enlists Magda, a hard-worn Mexican girl, who does drugs, makes a living by her wits and her body, and wants nothing to do with Pedro. They nevertheless become confederates, picking up $50 here or there by performing sex for men who want to watch.

Jesus Ochoa, a much-honored Mexican actor, creates a heartbreaking performance as Diego, the “old man,” as Juan always calls him. He was once in love in Mexico, left, sent sangre4money home, returned, and then (after apparently fathering the real Pedro), returned to New York 17 years ago. Maybe he told his wife he owned a restaurant, or maybe she lied about that to her son. No matter. He is a dishwasher and vegetable slicer, who earns extra money by sewing artificial roses. He has money stashed away. He is big, burly, very lonely. He comes to care for this “son.” Despite Juan’s deception, Juan comes to care for him — almost, you could say, as a father.

sangre 5Magda is a tougher case. She does not bestow her affection lightly, nor is the real Pedro attracted to prostitution as a way for them to earn money. But Christopher Zalla, (who wrote and directed this contemporary post-noir thriller), does a perceptive, concise job of showing us how Magda lives on the streets and nearly dies. Magda and Pedro are together as a matter of mutual survival.

sangre 6The film alternates between the story of each man as they each seek out food and shelter and comb the city for the man in whom they see a chance to establish a secure future. Pedro, Juan and Diego have paths that must eventually cross

 

 

Pras on WorldFilms: HORN PLEASE (India / Documentary)

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One unmistakable feature of the Indian highway is the presence of the brightly decorated trucks that ply the country’s roads. The men who drive these trucks spend long hours on the road and can be away from their families for weeks at a time, so their trucks act as a second home and they take great pride in them. The interior and exterior of the trucks are colorfully decorated with paintings, stickers, garlands, tassels, and shrines, which are not only a unique form of folk art but also an expression of individualism.

The title of the documentary — ” HORN PLEASE “ — is derived from a message seen behind each and every truck in India. It is a signal for the vehicles behind the trucks to blow the horn before overtaking. The sheer exposure of the signage has led it to become a popular phrase among Indians.

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HORN PLEASE is a documentary that encapsulates various aspects of an age-old folk art form of India — the TRUCK ART, an art form that makes journeys through the dusty highways of India, incredible in more ways than one. With a kaleidoscope of bright paints, motifs, typography and some unique couplets, these Indian trucks take you on a rather colorful journey of diverse cultures and beliefs of the country. The designs painted on the trucks do not merely stand for aesthetic purposes, but they also attempt to depict religious, sentimental, and emotional viewpoints of the people related to the truck industry.

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This film focuses on the origin of truck art and its evolution since then. And also how it influences not just the world of art, but also the lives of its artists and the truckers who interact with it on a daily basis. Largely, it investigates on whether the once-accepted type of art as a unique form of expression, will survive the test of time in this era of capitalism.

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Horn-3WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY

Another Interesting Book With A Similar Title “HORN PLEASE: The Decorated Trucks of India” by Dan Eckstein:

Photographer Dan Eckstein traveled over 10,000km across India’s byzantine and danburgeoning road network documenting these elaborately decorated trucks festooned with lights, brightly colored text, paintings of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian deities, pop cultural fixtures and geometric patterns–symbols representing a blinding mashup of new and old India. What Eckstein produced is a singular portrait of the subcontinent–distinctly Indian, and a vividly colored reflection of this country in flux between tradition and modernity. “Horn Please” serves as a psychedelic guide to design in India and a showcase of the visual vernacular of the subcontinent.

The book captures the beauty of India’s truck driving culture …offers a glimpse inside the world of drivers, truck stops, restaurants, and repair services that make up a roadside culture familiar yet wildly distinct from the one most Westerners have come to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pras on WorldFilms: THE BEST OFFER

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Set in the elegant world of high-end art and antique dealers, Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Best Offer is a romantic thriller that plays out like a cross between Hugo and Vertigo, with a bit of Her thrown in.

Rush plays art auctioneer Virgil Oldman, renowned for his appraisal skills and ability to spot forgeries. He leads a deliberately structured life. He’s a high-end art auctioneer with an acid tongue, a sharp eye for a diamond in the rough.  He can quickly tell if a nondescript slab of wood has a Renaissance painting hidden beneath it, or if a random piece of metal discarded in a corner might have belonged, once upon a time, to some wondrous (and valuable) automaton.

But Oldman also engages in his own deception. With the help of an old friend and partner in crime Billy (Donald Sutherland), he routinely scams the auction houses by having Billy bid on works he has deliberately undervalued, to procure the most obscure and valuable paintings for his private collection. He pays Billy a fee and takes home the masterpieces — all portraits of women — which he hangs in a secret room and savors with intense if solitary pleasure.

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Virgil is hired to look at the contents of a creepy mansion, evaluate and auction off her estate full of priceless furniture and paintings and arcana. . Its sole occupant, Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks), a beautiful, mysterious and agoraphobic heiress who refuses to go outside or let anyone see her. Seeming to communicate only via phone and through walls, she hires Oldman to evaluate and auction off her estate full of priceless furniture and paintings and arcana. Ever vigilant for opportunities to add to his collection, Virgil accepts, though he’s irritated by her eccentric manner.

As he catalogs Claire’s estate, Oldman stashes away more bits and pieces of gears he finds, taking them to his repairman pal Robert (Jim Sturgess) to put together.  As time goes by, the chandeliers and furniture and paintings are sorted and catalogued, but the elusive young woman keeps coming up with reasons she can’t meet him in person. At first, Virgil is annoyed. But as any lonely man might do in his position, he begins to grow obsessed with her.

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The film creates an appealingly uncompromising protagonist and a lush sense of suspense straight out of a 1940s film like “Suspicion” or “Rebecca.”Claire’s mysterious condition, and the particulars of Virgil’s growing bond with her, carry shades of Vertigo-style obsession and even a bit of Spike Jonze’s Her in the length of time she spends as a disembodied voice. Complicating matters are a playboy mechanic (Jim Sturgess) and a 19th-century automaton straight out of Hugo. Shot all over northern Italy, Vienna and Prague, the film’s precise setting is deliberately left a blank.

Best Offer - Jim Sturgess

Working entirely in English for the first time in his long career, screenwriter/director Tornatore is best known for his nostalgic Cinema Paradiso, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1990.  But The Best Offer is completely different in style and tone.

 

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Sylvia Hoeks, Donald Sutherland.
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore.
Screenwriter: Giuseppe Tornatore.
Producers: Isabella Cocuzza, Arturo Paglia.

Pras on WorldFilms: THE BIG SHORT

The greatest achievement of THE BIG SHORT is its success in dumbing-down what are The Big Shortarguably the most complex financial mathematics and risk management concepts used by mortgage-linked derivatives experts, and bring them down to a level that the average movie-goer can appreciate. If they pay sufficient attention throughout the film.

Based on Michael Lewis’s bestseller by the same name, “The Big Short” tells the story of a handful of renegade traders who figured out that the subprime mortgage bubble would end in catastrophe, and bet against (i.e. “shorted”) it.This group made millions betting against subprime housing by buying up credit-default swaps on mortgage bonds.

The film educates the viewer using comedic episodes of analogies presented by celebrities in cameo roles, while keeping the rapid pace of the film’s storytelling continue without interruption. Standing in his kitchen, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain cuts up three-day-old fish for a seafood stew while explaining how banks repackaged crappy mortgages into bonds. Selena Gomez joins behavioral economics professor & economist Dr. Richard Thaler at a blackjack table along in Las Vegas go over how a collateralized debt obligation works. Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble-bath (remember “Wolf Of Wall Street”?) explains what it means to “short” something.

However, the real credit for storytelling belongs to the book’s author Michael Lewis who despite beingMichael Lewis 1 popularly linked more to his book “Moneyball” (and the film based on it), has done more to help masses understand the financial complexity of Wall Street’s trading instruments. His books are a lesson in functioning of the bond trading markets and the history of how they came into being. The film is based on The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis about the build-up of the housing and credit bubble during the 2000s.      The serious enthusiast is also strongly encouraged to pick up a copy of Micheal Lewis’ groundbreaking first book LIAR’S POKER, as a way to catch the backstory of THE BIG SHORT as well.

Liar's_Poker_by_Michael_Lewis,_W._W._Norton,_Oct_1989Liar’s Poker is a non-fiction, semi-autobiographical book by Michael Lewis describing the author’s experiences as a bond salesman on Wall Street during the late 1980s. First published in 1989, it is considered one of the books that defined Wall Street during the 1980s, along with Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, and the fictional The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. The book captures an important period in the history of Wall Street. Two important figures in that history feature prominently in the text, the head of Salomon Brothers’ mortgage department Lewis Ranieri and the firm’s CEO John Gutfreund.

 

A COMMENTARY ABOUT THE STATE OF OUR FINANCIAL SYSTEM                     Most economists blame the latest crisis not on Wall Street malfeasance but larger economic forces. Low interest rates and global flows of capital inflated the housing bubble. The growth of “shadow” banks, aided by financial innovation, drastically increased leverage and weakened underwriting standards while escaping regulatory scrutiny. Politicians’ obsession with home ownership caused them to turn a blind eye to the excesses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and private lenders alike.

These forces created a misplaced sense of safety. The Federal Reserve’s success in stamping out inflation, moderating recessions and containing periodic financial mayhem—such as the 1987 crash—convinced investors, regulators and the Fed itself that it was safe to take on bigger debts. Underwriting standards collapsed because home buyers and lenders alike believed national home prices would never drop significantly.

That last happened during the Great Depression, and the Fed assured it would never let that happen again.  Financial innovation reinforced that sense of safety. Mortgage-backed securities protected lenders from localized housing busts, and credit default swaps insured lenders against the underlying loans’ defaults. The widespread use of both inflated lending, prices and leverage.

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Howie Hubler, a trader at Morgan Stanley profiled in Mr. Lewis’s book (but not the movie ) was like the movie’s protagonists, bearish on housing and bet against the lowest-rated slices of subprime-backed mortgage securities. But at the same time he made bullish bets on their triple-A-rated pieces, which tumbled in value, inflicting a big loss on Mr. Hubler’s firm. So even traders who correctly thought the housing market would collapse believed financial innovation had immunized some markets to the consequences.

Even if Wall Street financiers weren’t breaking the law, the money at stake clearly incentivized them to ignore Cassandras and suppress misgivings about the triple-A ratings. Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” “When you are incentivized to believe something, you will believe it.”

 

 ABOUT THE FILM & ITS STORYTELLING CHALLENGES                                                    The biggest challenge for any director with a subject matter such as THE BIG SHORT to make a film on, is the question – how do you make a movie about the housing market, mortgage backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, collateralized debt swaps, and synthetic CDOs interesting for the average person. Clearly Adam McKay succeeded beyond expectations. Filmmakers have already approached the story from a number of angles, from sober-minded documentary (“Inside Job”) to operatic boiler-room drama (“Margin Call”) already.

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McKay focuses on the greed, stupidity, hubris, and arrogance of Wall Street bankers gone wild. He captures the idiocy and complete capture of the rating agencies (S&P, Moodys). He reveals the ineptitude and dysfunction of the SEC, where the goal of these regulators was to get a high paying job with banks they were supposed to regulate. He even skewers the faux financial journalists at the Wall Street Journal who didn’t want to rock the boat with the truth about the greatest fraud ever committed.
As the meltdown approaches, the film darkens in tone while keeping much of its comic edge—high resentment giving way to heightening disbelief, followed by horrified belief, about rampant deception, self-deception and the financial system’s fragility.

Christian Bale’s quirky performance as one eyed Dr. Michael Burry (a one-time medical doctor sucked into the world of trading), whose Asperger’s Christian Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, the founder of Scion Capital.Syndrome actually allowed him to focus on the minutia and discover the fraud before everyone else.  Running a very successful West Coast hedge fund,  Michael Burry is a stock-picking shaman with a glass eye and an utter lack of social graces, who crunches numbers while pacing his office barefoot and blaring heavy metal. By actually bothering to go through the thousands of individual mortgages that make up the securities that underwrite so much of the banking industry, Burry realizes that a dangerous number of subprime home loans are on the verge of going south, and decides to plug more than a billion dollars of his investors’ money into credit default swaps, effectively betting against the housing market. His seemingly insane investments create enough of a stir on Wall Street to attract the attention of alpha-banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, who also serves as the film’s foul-mouthed narrator, often breaking the fourth wall of film-making.

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Thanks to a fortuitous wrong number, Vennett winds up going into the credit-default-swap business with Mark Baum . He is an abrasively hysterical character with his foul mouthed commentary and insults to authority. He is the heart and soul of the movie, and deserves recognition for his unusually brilliiant and serious performance. The potential windfall also interests the bumbling small-potatoes investment team of Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who loop in a former banker-gone-New Age (Brad Pitt) to help get them a spot at the grown-ups’ table.Brad Pitt plays a supporting role, but does it with his usual class as a retired banker who does not want to touch Wall Street with a barge-pole.
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The finale of the movie is sobering and infuriating. After unequivocally proving that Wall Street bankers (aided and abetted by the Federal Reserve, Congress, the SEC and  mainstream media), destroyed the global financial system, put tens of millions out of work, got six million people tossed from their homes, and created the worst crisis since the Great Depression, the filmmakers are left to provide the depressing conclusion.

“No bankers went to jail. The Too Big To Fail banks were not broken up – they were bailed out by the American taxpayers. They actually got bigger. Their profits have reached new heights, while the average family has seen their income fall. Wall Street is paying out record bonuses, while 46 million people are on food stamps. Wall Street and their lackeys at the Federal Reserve call the shots in this country. They don’t give a fuck about you. And they’re doing it again.”

EPILOGUE:  Under proposals currently moving through Congress, our financial regulators are supposed to sit down together to identify and head off asset bubbles before they pose a risk to the system. But a bubble becomes a systemic risk only because it is not recognized as such.

Pras on WorldFilms: POINT BREAK 3D

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POINT BREAK Is Not About A FBI Story Or A Character Drama At All.  Its All About Extreme Sport & Its Spiritual Core That Drives People To Find Their Limit.

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I expect a natural inclination to revisit and make comparisons to Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 cult action film of the same name that follows FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) as he goes undercover to infiltrate a cache of Southern California surfers suspected of robbing banks. That’s about as I would encourage you to go as you walk in to watch this new film. While there are similar thematic elements that were used as inspiration, there is nothing of a remake at all here.

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Here is how the typical description of this 2015 film would look like: Thrill-seeking criminals perform a series of daredevil stunts to steal money and gems, only to give it away to the poor and less fortunate. Training for a job with the FBI, young recruit Johnny Utah is handed the enigmatic case of Robin Hood heists in Mumbai and Mexico, in which American conglomerates were targeted and the loot was distributed among the poor.

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Utah suspects that only extreme athletes could pull off these heists. He puts his extreme-sports experience to good use, identifying the perpetrators as fellow athletes trying to pass the legendary Ozaki Eight — a series of “Ordeals” honoring the forces of Nature around the planet, laid down by environmentalist-guru Ozaki Ono, who died attempting the third one.Utilizing his own special skills, Utah infiltrates the gang of athletes after befriending their charismatic leader, Bodhi (played by Edgar Ramirez).

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Point Break 9As Johnny experiences the rush of their lifestyle, his superiors fear that he was being stretched between his loyalty to the FBI and his respect for the athletes and his passion for extreme sports

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Ericson Core’s incarnation of POINT BREAK is really about one thing, extreme sports, and the film handles those sequences extremely well. Shooting in a number of treacherous and visually impressive locations, including Venezuela’s Angel Falls and the Cave of Swallows in Mexico. The locations are actually spread over Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France, Mexico, Venezuela, French Polynesia, India and the United States, all of which are spectacular in both their otherworldly beauty and their inhospitality.

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Having cut his teeth lensing fast-track blockbusters like “The Fast and the Furious” and “Payback” before helming “Invincible,” Core, who also filmed the movie, has poured his expertise into devising jaw-dropping stunts and visualizing awesome natural wonders. The film starts with a daredevil freestyle motocross sequence in the Arizona desert that sees  Utah (played by Australian Luke Bracey) lose his best friend in a tragic accident.

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What really sets it apart is having actual extreme sport athletes involved in the production and shooting the film, which offers some brilliant POV shots.  The outstanding visual effects fully taps into the cinematic potential of such dynamic sports as base jumping, sheer-face snowboarding, wingsuit-flying, free climbing and big-wave surfing. Aerial shots of the characters floating between the canyons like puffy cushions in their wingsuits are at once goofy and sheer visual poetry, while the scene in which Bodhi and Utah hang off a practically vertical cliff by their fingers is a milestone in novelty as well as composition.

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The sheer range of sports represented here (surfing 70-foot waves, snowboarding, wingsuit flying, free rock climbing, and high-speed motorcycle stunts) through whiz-bang stunt choreography, were all performed by champions in their field. Core showed his true talent as a cinematographer, capturing some of the world’s most accomplished extreme athletes doubling as the film’s characters as they perform death-defying stunts against breathtaking backdrops which rival anything attempted by the Fast & Furious franchise.

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Renowned extreme athletes performing stunts in the film included surfers Makua Rothman, Billy Kemper, Brian Keaulana and Ahanu Tson-dru; snowboarders Lucas DeBari, Ralph Backstrom, Mitch Toelderer, Mike Basich and Xavier De La Rue; motorcyclists Riley Harper and Oakley Lehman; wingsuit stunt pilots Jeb Corliss, Jon Devore, Julian Boulle, Noah Bahnson and Mike Swanson; and free climber Chris Sharma, as well as Bob Burnquist, Xavier de le Rue, Jeb Corliss, John Devore, Jonathan Florez, Laird Hamilton, Dylan Longbottom, Iouri Podladtchikov, Laurie Towner and Ian Walsh).

The rest of the incredible production team behind Ericson Core included  Oscar-winning editor Thom Noble (“Thelma & Louise,” “Witness”), production designer Udo Kramer (“North Face,” “The Physician”) and Oscar-nominated costume designer Lisy Christl (“Anonymous,” “White House Down”).

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point-breakThis distinctive superyacht Ocean Emerald designed by Sir Norman Foster served as the spectator-platform and a party place during one of the early scenes in the film of surfers competing against 70-foot waves crashing in Biarritz in the south of France.

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FILMING LOCATIONS YOU CAN VISIT Filmed on four continents using pro athletes in place of stuntmen, Point Break pits high-stakes stunts against the primal forces of nature. From the world’s tallest waterfall to a massive fissure in the Alps, these are the real-life locales you can visit from the film.

Caineville, Utah, United States

Caineville, Utah, United StatesColloquially known as “Swingarm City,” Caineville is a mecca for motocross riders the world over thanks to its miles of undulating, dusty terrain. In the film, extreme-athlete-turned FBI agent Johnny Utah (Luke Bracey) and his buddy ride on some of the most extreme routes the area has to offer before jumping their bikes onto a narrow butte.

Cave of Swallows, Mexico

Cave of Swallows, MexicoUtah first sniffs out his targets when he discovers that they jumped out of a cargo plane straight down into the Cave of Swallows, the world’s largest cave shaft. Diving in here from the sky might seem pretty nuts, but the 1,220-foot-deep pit is actually a popular BASE jumping location in real life. The pit cave also teems with flocks of swifts and parakeets, which it is named for.

Teahupo’o, Tahiti

Teahupo’o, TahitiTo capture the big-wave action, the filmmaker shot at one of the premier surf locations on the planet: Though the film’s surf scene takes place off the coast of France, it was actually filmed in the blue swells just south of Tahiti, where wave heights can climb into the double digits.

Walenstadt, Switzerland

Walenstadt, SwitzerlandPoint Break’s biggest stunt features four guys jumping off the Jungfrau, a peak in the Swiss Alps, and flying through a massive fissure in the mountains—a feat known as “Grinding the Crack.” The athletes in the suits performed the flight about 60 times to get all the angles, leaping from mountain heights to the crystal-clear Lake Walensee in the valley below.

Aiguille de la Grande Sassière, France

Aiguille de la Grande Sassière, FranceWhile snowboarding down the snow-covered side of this 12,300-foot-high mountain, the boarders in the film accidentally triggered a Class 4 avalanche—talk about a “whoops” moment.

Falzarego Pass, Italy

Falzarego Pass, ItalyBodhi (Édgar Ramírez) and his group of daredevil eco-criminals attempt to pull off gold-mining sabotage from the vantage point of this scenic road that winds its way through Italy’s Dolomites. The route was originally carved out to provide access to the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina.

Hall in Tirol, Austria

Hall in Tirol, AustriaThe film’s high-altitude bank heist takes place in Tofana, Italy—a fictional location that’s actually Hall in Tirol, a medieval town in western Austria. Owing its early prosperity to salt mining, Hall is home to a historical district brimming with well-preserved Gothic architecture.

Angel Falls, Venezuela

Angel Falls, VenezuelaAt a jaw-dropping 3,212 feet high, Angel Falls is the tallest uninterrupted waterfall in the world. Naturally, this makes it the perfect spot for Bodhi and Utah to do a little free climbing on the sheer cliff face of Auyán-tepu, the tabletop mountain from which the falls spring.

Pixar’s “THE GOOD DINOSAUR / SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM”

good-dinosaur-3I just saw a pre-release screening of Pixar’s  THE GOOD DINOSAUR that opens this week. The film took a long convoluted path since 2013 that finally ended with the studio allowing it to see light of day theatrically. The film screens along with a pretty spectacular new Pixar 3D-Short, “SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM, created by longtime Pixar artist Sanjay Patel who makes his directorial debut with this “semi” autobiographical film of an Indian-American boy fantasizing about the similarities between his favorite TV superheroes and his father’s Hindu gods (More on this cool film #D short in the review).

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Sanjays Super Team 1The characters and the plot-line in the The Good Dinosaur are quite similar to those Pixar visited so many times before, and so is the formulaic “find your courage” plot line. It simply retreads a lot of well-worn narrative and thematic ground in that respect. The real story about THE GOOD DINOSAUR is the fact that Pixar broke new computational ground in the re-creation of some truly amazing (and real) landscape imagery never before seen in such resolution, clarity and authenticity. A lot to write about here. But first a little bit about the film itself.

One of the biggest surprises for me about The Good Dinosaur is that it is actually a Western. It begins with a near apocalypse 65 million years ago and an asteroid racing toward Earth. And while that’s around the time, that dinosaurs became extinct, the film hypothesizes a story with alternate-timeline premise.
What if the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs had missed the Earth? What if they had zipped right past the planet, creating a false alarm instead of an extinction level event? “What if the dinosaurs didn’t get wiped out with a meteor?” And, millions of years later, primitive humans and dinosaurs coexisted?

The Good Dinosaur presents a world where people and dinosaurs coexist, but also where the latter has become the dominant intelligent life-form.  We see dinosaurs and other talking animals interacting with a feral human, and the film implies that absent the pesky meteor dinosaurs would have perhaps evolved enough to engage in agriculture. While humans scamper around on all fours, their language a primitive series of grunts, the dinos speak impeccable English, wield tools, and tend to crops.

Our hero is a young Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), runt of his litter and the underachiever of his folksy farm clan. Arlo wants to “earn his mark,” to meet the expectations of his patient Poppa (Jeffrey Wright), but he can’t seem to overcome his anxiety. Thankfully, there’s nothing like a little adventure—coupled with some parental loss, a signature of Pixar’s parent company since Bambi—to instill courage in a plucky talking animal. Swept up in a rapid river and deposited miles from his home, Arlo has a dangerous voyage ahead of him. Separated from his family as they struggle to bring in the harvest (winter is coming!), Arlo finds himself alone in the wild until Spot becomes his protector and friend as they try to make their way back to Arlo’s family. Arlo will need to overcome his fears if he’s to make it home.  His only steady companion: a feral human child whom he names Spot (voiced by Jack Bright, who only grunts and howls but never actually speaks words). Spot becomes his protector and friend as they try to make their way back to Arlo’s family. Arlo will need to overcome his fears if he’s to make it home.

While they start off more as adversaries (at least Arlo has a very specific reason to be angry with Spot), the two eventually become best friends as they traverse the unforgiving and often terrifying wilderness of prehistoric America. Along the way, the duo encounter religious zealot search-and-rescue pterodactyls, T-Rex cowboys, and raptors who rustle the T-Rexes’ herd of primeval longhorns. Mother Nature is also as much of an enemy here as any of the bad dinosaurs.

Spot is alone in the world, but he’s fearless and a survivor, qualities that inspire Arlo. Their bond is the best part of the film, and, with his dog-like antics, Spot steals every scene he’s in. It’s adorable and hilarious. You believe in the bond between these two, and the movie’s final moments will generate enough feels to make even the most stoic adult choke up.

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There are moments where the film can be genuinely terrifying — enough so that it may be too extreme for very little kids — with death always right around the corner. The Good Dinosaur certainly doesn’t shy away from the ever-present mortal dangers of prehistoric times with more than a few deaths (some played for laughs, others not) occurring along the way. To say more in this particular case would be to spoil things.

PIXAR’S ANIMATION TECHNOLOGY BREAKS NEW GROUND

On a technical level, The Good Dinosaur is gorgeous-looking, especially its photo-realistic imagery. Never before have water and landscapes looked so real in an animated movie.

This is a visually dazzling animated feature, with photo-realistic backgrounds effortlessly merging with somewhat more conventionally cartoonish animal characters.
Perhaps more than ever before, the animators do the heavy lifting: Every detail, from the gentle bob of a beast’s breathing to the fluid shifts of Spot’s facial expressions, has been lovingly rendered. And that’s to say nothing of the few set pieces, the most striking of which finds the fins of psychotic pterodactyls—the movie’s villainous flock—ominously dipping down out of a cluster of storm clouds, as though the sky itself was shark-infested waters.. The film is at once an enormously sophisticated visual achievement—just look at the way water ripples, the way light bounces, the shots of raindrops bouncing off leaves and clouds curling around rocky ridges here that look like real-world documentary footage.    There is great beauty in every frame. While the realism allows Pixar’s artists to flex their graphical muscles in a very different way to, say, the fantastical landscapes of Inside Out, it’s also vital in cultivating the palpable sense of danger that pervades the film.

The film’s stunning locations set in Jackson Valley, the Grand Tetons & Yellowstone were created using terrain mapping technology to capture the actual geometry of several areas found in the American wilderness. As the camera pulls back further and further, our heroes become tiny specs on an enormous canvas.

The_Good_Dinosaur_Textless_Poster_01CREATING THE STUNNING PHOTO-REAL LANDSCAPE
Sohn and his Director of Photography, Sharon Calahan, felt that realism would really make the characters, Arlo specifically, pop off the background. To help achieve the stunning backgrounds, Director Sohn and his team downloaded United States Geological Survey satellite photos of 65,000 square miles of the northwest, along with their topographical data.

When inputted into their computers, this gave them a 3D environment that could look out over 50 miles into the distance. The United States Geological Survey has satellite photos of all of North America along with typographical data for the height. To accomplish this near-impossible task, the set team used actual USGS data of the northwest United States to create the sets in the film.

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They downloaded the terrain for Wyoming, and using the Survey’s height data and satellite images from Google Earth, they were able to bring Arlo into the landscape they had just seen. The geographical data povided a foundation the team could then build on, first with vegetation, dirt and water. It would take time to texture and populate the environment with vegetation, but the result was a lot of bang for very little buck.
They even used that data to conduct digital virtual location scouts — Pete Sohn would “visit” the locations using the virtual topographical locations created from the data and chose the locations needed for each sequence of the film. 64,600 square miles of North America were downloaded and adapted to help tell Arlo’s story. The river that takes Arlo away from his home was modeled after the Salmon River in Idaho. The desert where Arlo meets the T-rexs was modeled off of Zion National Park.

As a test, Pixar’s set team downloaded the information and took a famous Ansel Adams photo and applied the data to where the photographer would have taken the image. The result was miles and miles of 3D geographic environment. They kept the scale of the environment, but they chose different types of trees and such to suit the scene. They would also alter the data to fit their story, turning real-life locations into fictional ones.

While all this data looks beautiful (and it really does), it also took up a lot of space and time. The landscapes gobbled up 300TB of server space, 10 times the entirety of Monsters University. This is on top of the over 900 visual effects shots (which include the movements of the river, rain, smoke and clouds), twice as many as have ever been used in a Pixar movie. Just one sequence of Arlo getting swept away by a river has more data than all of Cars 2.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR - Pictured: Arlo. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

To achieve this realism effect, the Pixar team ALSO spent time in the American Northwest, immersing themselves in landscapes they wanted to recreate in Arlo’s epic journey. Director Peter Sohn and his team traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Juntura, Oregon and southern Montana. “The area has a fantastic variety of landscapes, ranging from the Jackson Valley and the Tetons to the amazing geysers and waterfalls in Yellowstone,” said production designer Harley Jessup. “We studied the grasslands of Montana and the Red Desert, then incorporated all of it in Arlo’s journey.”

CREATING THE REALISTIC PHYSICAL BEHAVIOR OF WATERSCAPES
wATERThe Good Dinosaur’s water effects in particular are staggeringly detailed — the river running alongside Arlo’s journey has more character than 90 percent of the cast. At one point, a semi-conscious Arlo lies in the river’s shallows, while light plays across the ripples in the water, partially obscuring the multicolored rocks below. In that moment, the water is beautiful enough to completely distract from the distressed protagonist lying in it. When the river roils in a rainstorm, or relaxes into a deep, still pool, it’s hard to tell that the film wasn’t shot in live action. And the fantastically detailed trees and grasses of the mountainside Arlo and Spot traverse are just as stirring. If humanity successfully pollutes all the world’s water, kills off the greenery, and breaks every mountain down for oil, future generations can lie in their dwelling-tubes and watch The Good Dinosaur alongside films like The Searchers and Shane to remind them exactly what the wide-open spaces of the American West once looked like.

Pet_Collector_RenderOver 900 effects shots were created for The Good Dinosaur, twice as many as Pixar has ever done in a feature. The effects department is responsible for providing many of the natural phenomena you see onscreen: smoke, fire, fog, water, etc. Motion is important to the effects department to give you a sense of scale, timing and weight. For instance, the way snow mists in the wind off the top of mountain might reflect the mood of the scene.They use physics simulation software, using different toolsets for different problems. The software solves equations of motion for every frame of an effect, as it understands the physics of how things are supposed to move and behave.

Pixar has also updated the technology used to create clouds in the film, ditching the ‘sky matte’ paintings that are traditionally used in animated films in favour of realistic digital clouds made of millions of particles – this volume of ‘thinking particles’ is particularly useful for a scene in which Arlo tosses Spot up through the clouds while running along the ridge of a mountain. They wanted to create 100% volumetric clouds or the first time. Usually Pixar just paints clouds into sets, but by creating a new cloud library, Pixar would be able to light them and insert them in many scenes. This was particularly important for stormy scenes. From the rapid river that sweeps Arlo away to the towering mountains he must learn to climb, much of the set of “The Good Dinosaur” looks so real it feels more like a photograph than animation. There are shots of raindrops bouncing off leaves and clouds curling around rocky ridges here that look like real-world documentary footage.

One of the greatest challenges for the team was a river sequence in which Arlo is swept away. The film features more than 125 shots of the water alone, more shots of water than in any other Pixar film. To achieve this, the effects team broke down the river into different pieces, and then repeated those pieces.  While on these travels, the team lived the fantasy they were trying to create. They rode boats down rapid, winding rivers and went on a horse riding expedition. During their boat ride, they lost the GoPro camera that was capturing their journey. Luckily their guide later retrieved it, and the team was able to use the solo footage of the river.

SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM
Sanjay Patel’s  Sanjay’s Super Team  short cartoon that precedes this film is pretty spectacular. Longtime Pixar artist Sanjay Patel makes his directorial debut with this “semi” autobiographical film and was partnered with Pixar producer Nicole Paradis Grindle.
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A little boy races to the TV for cartoons only to be called over by his father for Hindu meditation. While it’s a big deal that the movie represents Pixar’s move to show more diversity in their storytelling, it also happens that Sanjay’s Super Team is a visually interesting, exciting, and heartwarming film that will likely win audiences over from the minute Sanjay bounces on-screen with his action figure.
The “mostly true story” of an Indian-American boy fantasizing about the similarities between his favorite TV superheroes and his father’s Hindu gods is helmed by first-time director Sanjay Patel, a Pixar animator since A Bug’s Life, it’s a personal story about how he related to his father and his family’s culture as a child. It’s a fast-paced, dynamic superhero throwdown, full of Tron-worthy, bright, glowing colors and a tremendously effective sound design. It’s sweet and intense.
 Sanjays Super Team 3
According to Sanjay Patel:  Personally, I’ve done a lot of research and study of Hindu culture and find the myths to be very inspiring and appreciate how sacred they are to my dad and his friends. So going in, I knew exactly what we had on our hands. So each deity was carefully constructed and we paid close attention to the details, to make sure they were respectful. But it was also fun to think that we were introducing some people to them and showing why they are significant and how they are different. Why Vishnu is blue but Hanuman is green? And we made and thought about all those specific choices, because we knew right away that if we didn’t, we would upset some people. We just wanted to be faithful to the mythology. But from there, we wanted to form some connections which might have gone overlooked. In India, these classical myths are performed all the time, often in theater or dance. So we drew upon those traditions. We brought in an expert who had studied traditional dance in India, and taught our animators how to be specific in the deities’ movement, because we don’t use language in the film. So each deity was assigned a specific dance tradition. So we tried to give each layer an interesting way of introducing this culture to people who may have no knowledge going into the theater.
 Sanjays Super Team 5

With every new Pixar movie not only comes the excitement of new family movie, but the appetizer of a new short. With the release this week of The Good Dinosaur comes one of the best shorts in recent years: Sanjay’s Super Team.

A little boy races to the TV for cartoons only to be called over by his father for Hindu meditation. Yes, it’s a big deal that the movie is Pixar’s move to showing more diversity in their storytelling, but it also happens to be a visually interesting, exciting, and heartwarming films that will likely win audiences over from the minute Sanjay bounces on-screen with his action figure. Longtime Pixar artist Sanjay Patel is making his directorial debut with this “semi” autobiographical film and was partnered with Pixar producer Nicole Paradis Grindle.

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AN INTERVIEW:  Sanjay’s Super Team Pixar Team: Sanjay Patel and Nicole Paradis Grindle

Lesley Coffin: You put in right at the beginning that the movie is “based” on a true story, so I’m just curious what part of the story was inspired by your real life?

Sanjay Patel: The initial pitch was actually something completely different, and didn’t really have anything to do with family. It was just about a kid who wasn’t appreciating his culture and absorbed in comic books.

Nicole Paradis Grindle: A generic kid from India right?

Patel: Yeah, and the premise was just about a kid appreciating his culture. And as I was telling the story, I showed this drawing I had, which illustrated the way I grew up with my dad. And I told John Lasseter a little bit about how I grew up, and that every morning, my dad would get up in the morning and worship his gods, while I would worship mine on TV. And I had this one drawing that really illustrated that, and straight away, John said he loved the idea about a movie about a kid not appreciating his culture, but he also really loved the idea that through appreciating your culture, you can build a connection with your father. And that was absolutely true of my own story and isn’t something we had to manufacture for this film. It took be 30 years to get here, but it is definitely based on a true story.

TMS: I know you’ve both worked at Pixar for a while, but this being your first time directing, how did you partner up and create the team for this film?

Grindle: They just kind of put us together because I was available. Perhaps it was kind of by design but no one told us that or gave us a reason why. But it has turned into a great partnership. We really get along well and I was very passionate about the story and bringing his vision to the screen. It’s a great story and I am personally someone who gets excited about seeing new and fresh voices on screen, and that includes having more ethnicity and women in leadership roles. So this project certainly resonated and we had a good relationship right away.

TMS: Had you ever worked on a film together?

Grindle: We have both worked on the same films, but in the past, Sanjay has always worked on animation or was part of the story team, and I was always in a different department. So this was our first time really working together.

Patel: But I’ve seen all of Nicole’s work growing up. I was obsessed with the shows she worked on at Liquid Television, like Æon Flux. And of course Roger Rabbit, which is one of the seminal movies of my childhood.

Grindle: I can take no credit for that movie. The production assistant takes no credit for that film’s success! I never thought I would work in animation until I did that movie, and then I just fell in love with the world of animation and all the people that work in that world.

TMS: Father and son are so instantly endearing and sweet, because they aren’t hyper-realistic human characters, but they also have some very realistic features, like the design of their eyes. How did you decide on the character’s design and style?

Patel: There was a lot going on when we were thinking about and designing those characters. One of the big things were concerned about was how to link the designs of essentially the two worlds together, and show a connection between father and son with their features. But we also wanted to create a design aesthetic which felt universal for all the characters. Initially we designed father and son in isolation from the deities, but then John Lasseter came in and suggested finding something to unify all the characters. So our art director looked at classical Indian sculptures and saw that many have these beautiful eyebrows and noses which give the eyes an almond shape. So we used that to unify the characters.

TMS: Whenever doing a film that deals with religion, you have to consider how respectful you are compared to how much freedom you have, but with this film you also had to make the film both playful and informative for kids. How did you determine the approach you would take on this film?

Patel: Personally, I’ve done a lot of research and study of Hindu culture and find the myths to be very inspiring and appreciate how sacred they are to my dad and his friends. So going in, I knew exactly what we had on our hands. So each deity was carefully constructed and we paid close attention to the details, to make sure they were respectful. But it was also fun to think that we were introducing some people to them and showing why they are significant and how they are different. Why Vishnu is blue but Hanuman is green? And we made and thought about all those specific choices, because we knew right away that if we didn’t, we would upset some people. We just wanted to be faithful to the mythology. But from there, we wanted to form some connections which might have gone overlooked. In India, these classical myths are performed all the time, often in theater or dance. So we drew upon those traditions. We brought in an expert who had studied traditional dance in India, and taught our animators how to be specific in the deities’ movement, because we don’t use language in the film. So each deity was assigned a specific dance tradition. So we tried to give each layer an interesting way of introducing this culture to people who may have no knowledge going into the theater.

Grindle: But in a respectful way. We were so aware of those concerns, and didn’t want to do anything which might make those deities look too cartoonish or too much like the superheroes on Sanjay’s TV. That was parallel we drew, but we don’t want anyone to say they are just like superheroes. These are deities and we want to honor them.

TMS: The deities’ have that stream of light which makes the action sequences feel so unique and graceful in a way we haven’t seen before. Was that part of the reason you chose to look at dance traditions?

Grindle: We were talking about incorporating something which made things feel almost cosmic and infinite. And Sanjay is a big fan of Anime so he drew from those influences, but we also talked about everything from the Arora Borealis to an image from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And with all that brainstorming with our team, we found a way to turn that old, gray temple into something where the walls seem to melt away and turns into this cosmic space. We wanted to experience the transformation from something feeling enclosed and dark to something feeling light and beautiful. Really create a sense of the celestial realm on screen.

TMS: How familiar were you with Hindu culture?

Grindle: Not very much at all. I think I came at this from a very typical white, European background. I knew something of it, but very little. I’ve learned so much doing this film and found that part of it to be really enjoyable. I found there is so much depth that I never knew about before, and just hope other people from a similar background are inspired by this film to learn more. I’m sure a lot of people will go in saying “I don’t know about these deities” but want to learn about them. And they are just the tip of the iceberg.

TMS: You use the superhero connection in the movie as the little boy’s entry point into understanding what his dad is talking about. But when you were growing up, did you have any kid friendly things to teach you and get you excited about the Hindu religion?

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Patel: I was born in the UK but raised in LA, so I kind of had three level of removed. And the community in LA was still pretty new. There wasn’t even temple nearby. But in the 70s, there were some comic books published called Amar Chitra Katha which means Immortal Stories or Golden Stories. But they were kind of frozen relics from the early 70s, but just kept in circulation because there wasn’t anything else out there. I mean, they aren’t X-Men comics, so I was sort of like “boring.” But it was crazy when I finally got a job at Pixar, the church of modern day storytelling, and felt moved enough by these myths to want to tell them in a way so a kind like me in a culture like this could appreciate them. That was a huge motivator for me, because those comic books I had as a kid were terrible and did not get me interested. I can appreciate them now as an adult, but certainly not a kid.

Grindle: But most religions have those entry points for kids or kid friendly version of the stories, but it doesn’t sound like that exists in Hinduism.

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