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Sunday, December 25, 2016

They’ll be home for Christmas: Five homeless children get a holiday surprise

When Randall and Joshua and Anthoney and Isah and Johnathan Montague spilled out of their friend’s car on Christmas Eve, they didn’t recognize the place he had brought them.
The five brothers, ages 4 to 11, have seen a lot of places in the past year. An apartment complex that kicked them out. Crowded rooms where relatives let all five of them sleep on the floor, for a while. A rehab facility where their whole family crammed into their father’s hospital room.
But when they pulled up to the brick house in College Park with the blue shutters on Saturday afternoon, they’d never seen anything like it.
“We have a surprise for you: this is y’all’s new home,” a friend said. All five boys looked around, dumbfounded. A home of their own — the biggest Christmas surprise these boys could receive, delivered thanks to a community that made it happen.
“Through the grace of God, my babies are getting a house, and they’re going to have a Christmas,” Reese said. The boys rushed through each room: one for their parents, one for the twins, and one for the three other boys, where Joshua, 9, did a flip on his new bed. They saw the basement playroom, the kitchen stove stacked with gleaming red pots and pans, the back yard large enough for five energetic boys. And a Christmas tree, surrounded by dozens of presents from their Prince George’s community.
Finding a home for the Montagues has been a community project months in the making.
It started last spring, at University Park Elementary School, where the four oldest Montague kids attend school. Devilan Cowherd, the school registrar at the Prince George’s County public school, saw the boys mother, Porsha Reese, leaving a parent-teacher conference with their father, Randall Montague.
Montague, 31, has multiple sclerosis and sickle cell disease. Reese, 27, was walking a mile home, pushing Montague in his wheelchair and toting her youngest son, Johnathan, alongside her. In the rain.
Cowherd took in the scene, stopped to talk with the couple, and turned to Krista Atteberry, an involved parent in the school community.
“It really spoke to them, to their character, and what they wanted to do for their kids despite their circumstances,” Atteberry said. “They would be at that parent-teacher conference even if it meant walking over a mile in the rain pushing a wheelchair.”
Soon Atteberry got to know the couple and their five sunny, rambunctious kids. She learned that Montague had been hospitalized repeatedly since he was diagnosed with M.S. about five years ago, and had to give up his job as a shoe-store manager because of his health. She learned that Reese — who left high school at age 15 when she and Montague had their first child together — had spent the past 11 years raising her boys and was only now starting to think about getting her G.E.D. and finding a job.
And she learned what had become the most pressing fact in their life: They couldn’t renew their apartment lease.
Atteberry and Justin Ross, another parent at the school, went to the property management company to lobby for the Montagues. But the company wouldn’t budge; the family and Atteberry say that the manager discovered seven people living in two bedrooms, and refused to allow so many.
In the final days of the school year, the Montagues found themselves on the street.
The father was in a rehab facility at the time, his latest medical setback. Reese took her five sons there, and they stayed in his sick room until the facility told them they couldn’t live there.
The boys and Reese went to a relative in Northeast Washington’s Trinidad neighborhood, where they slept crowded on the floor in one room. Montague couldn’t stay there, because it wasn’t wheelchair-accessible. He went to a different relative’s home.
“They don’t get to see their father as much — they miss him,” Reese said. And then there’s the constraint of living in close quarters, where they have to take a special bus to get to their elementary school half an hour away, and where they’ve always felt they might hit a day when they’ve overstayed their welcome. “It’s, ‘Mommy, when are we moving?’,” Reese said. “ ‘We want our own place. We want our own rooms. We want to be able to run around. We want to be able to jump around. We want to play.’ ”
After the family had to vacate the old apartment, Atteberry and Ross were determined to find a new home for them in the College Park area. Ross combed websites and inquired with landlords on the family’s behalf. An apartment that can accommodate a wheelchair and seven people was hard to find.
His own children, ages 5 to 12, were in school with the Montagues, making it difficult to walk away from their dilemma. “Your kids will see them every day. It’s harder to let it go,” he said. “From the first moment, my wife and I realized that we’re just going to have to do something, and we might have to do something unusual to us.”
Finally, he found a house that normally rents to University of Maryland students, where the landlord was willing to offer a six-month lease to the large family, with the possibility of extending it.
Ross, a former Maryland state legislator, agreed to co-sign the lease for the family, and to pay the security deposit and the first month’s rent.
The Montagues will be responsible for the future monthly rent of $1,500, a bargain that the landlord offered. They hope to manage it through a combination of Randall Montague’s disability check, donations from the elementary school community and, hopefully, Reese’s earnings from the job she has yet to find.
Ten days ago, Ross signed the paperwork. Then he called Atteberry: “Now we just need to get them in before Christmas.”
The race was on.
Atteberry asked the school community for donations and the response was dazzling: a microwave, toaster and dishes; 3 bookshelves, 11 chairs and 4 tables; 6 beds and 8 blankets; and 17 towels. One mom said she would donate everything in her pantry.
The volunteers found even more items on Craigslist, and moms in minivans spent the week before Christmas driving all over the D.C. area to pick up furniture.
“It just seems like this is what we’re supposed to do,” said Ross, a United Methodist who talked to his own children about the meaning of supporting the Montagues at Christmas. “For the folks that celebrate Christmas, for the people who share that faith tradition, the central premise is that you’re supposed to love your neighbor.”
As the children entered the house with shock on their faces, Montague spoke through tears.
“This is where we live now, you hear me?” he said to his children. “Y’all go look around.”
They wanted to explore — and soon they would, marveling at everything from the old-fashioned alarm clock for the twins, to the giant container of cheese balls, to their very own beds covered in snowman blankets and with new pajamas waiting.

No survivors found after Russian military plane with 92 on board crashes en route to Syria

 A Russian military passenger plane carrying dozens of Red Army Choir singers, dancers and orchestra members plunged into the Black Sea minutes after it took off en route Sunday to a military base in Syria, killing all 92 people on board, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.
Russian officials were ruling out terrorism as the cause of the crash, which the Defense Ministry said took place after the aging Soviet-era jet, which set out from Moscow, made refueling stop at the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian military spokesman, told reporters that no one survived. 
“The area of the crash site has been established. No survivors have been spotted,” he said.
Russian news agencies reported that the plane had crashed about two minutes after taking off in good weather. It had not sent a distress signal before disappearing from the radar, and no life rafts had been found. Konashenkov described the captain of the jet as an experienced “first-class pilot.”
In nationally televised comments, Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St. Petersburg, declared Dec. 26 a national day of mourning.
The jet, carrying 84 passengers and eight crew members, was bound for the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia.
The Defense Ministry published on its website a list of passengers, who, it said, included members of the famed Alexandrov ensemble, better known internationally as the Red Army Choir, heading to Syria to entertain troops for the coming New Year holiday.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense affairs committee in the upper house of Russian parliament, said in remarks carried by the state news agency RIA Novosti that he “totally excludes” terrorism as a possible cause.
Konashenkov said the jet, a Tupolev 154 passenger liner built in 1983, last underwent repairs in December 2014, and had since been fully serviced.
Russia’s special Investigative Committee announced that it had opened a criminal inquiry. Nine Russian journalists, including a TV crew from Channel One, were also among the passengers. 
U.S. Amabassadar John Tefft joined other diplomats and international leaders in offering condolences.
The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built, three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s that was the workhouse of the Soviet, and later Russian, fleet of midrange passenger jets. In recent years, Russian airlines have replaced the jets with modern aircraft — often manufactured by Boeing or Airbus —  but the military and some other government agencies in Russia have continued to use them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Mark Zuckerberg builds an AI assistant to run his house — and entertain his toddler

Mark Zuckerberg has a new housemate: Jarvis, an artificial intelligence assistant he created this year that can control appliances, play music, recognize faces and, perhaps most impressively, entertain his toddler.
The Facebook founder spent 100 hours putting together the virtual assistant — named after the artificial intelligence system in “Iron Man” — which understands spoken commands as well as text messages, he wrote in a 3,000-word Facebook post Monday.
Among Jarvis’s skills: adjusting the home thermostat, turning on lights and operating the toaster. The virtual assistant texts Zuckerberg images of visitors who stop by during the day and opens the front door for those it recognizes. It can also tell when Zuckerberg’s 1-year-old daughter, Max, wakes up “so it can start playing music or a Mandarin lesson,” he wrote.
In a tongue-in-cheek video he posted Tuesday on Facebook, Zuckerberg offers an example of Jarvis at work: “Max woke up a few minutes ago. I’m entertaining her,” the virtual assistant (voiced by Morgan Freeman) tells Zuckerberg, before turning his attention to the toddler. “Good morning Max, let’s practice our Mandarin.”
The year-long project was part of an effort to learn about the state of artificial intelligence, Zuckerberg wrote, and also an opportunity to experiment with cutting-edge technology at a time when voice-activated assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home are gaining widespread popularity. (Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
At this point, I mostly just ask Jarvis to “play me some music” and by looking at my past listening patterns, it mostly nails something I’d want to hear. If it gets the mood wrong, I can just tell it, for example, “that’s not light, play something light”, and it can both learn the classification for that song and adjust immediately. It also knows whether I’m talking to it or Priscilla is, so it can make recommendations based on what we each listen to. In general, I’ve found we use these more open-ended requests more frequently than more specific asks. No commercial products I know of do this today, and this seems like a big opportunity.
Building the robot was the easier — and less time-consuming — of his two goals for the year, he said. The other was to run 365 miles in 2016.
But there are also some kinks to work out, particularly around voice commands. When Zuckerberg demonstrated the technology for a Fast Company story, he had to ask the robot to turn off the lights four times before it complied. Shutting down the music took another two tries. (“Wow, that’s like the most fails that it’s ever had,” the 32-year-old told the reporter, visibly embarrassed.)
Next up, Zuckerberg plans to create an Android app for the robot and connect it to more appliances around the house, such as his Big Green Egg grill. The ultimate challenge, he says, is “to build a system that could learn completely new skills on its own.”
”In the longer term, I’d like to explore teaching Jarvis how to learn new skills itself rather than me having to teach it how to perform specific tasks,” he wrote. “If I spent another year on this challenge, I’d focus more on learning how learning works.”

These hotel workers just took on Trump — and won

Donald Trump’s hotel company and two of the country’s leading labor unions reached agreement Wednesday on deals that will offer new benefits to hundreds of workers at his Las Vegas hotel and pave the way for workers at his D.C. hotel to unionize.
The Vegas agreement resolves a high-profile battle at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, where Trump, as co-owner, refused to recognize a vote to organize last year by housekeepers, maids, porters, cooks and other members of the UNITE HERE Culinary Workers Union and the Bartenders Union.
The agreements mark the latest moves for Trump’s business to smooth over potential problem spots in the remaining weeks before his inauguration.
Workers in Las Vegas had appealed for help to the National Labor Relations Review Board — raising questions about whether the president-elect might try to influence the outcome once he enters office — and prompted workers to protest at Trump campaign events and in front of his D.C. hotel, marring the hotel’s opening celebrations this fall.
“This is it. This is what we’ve been fighting for, for over a year, to have a contract,” said Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for Culinary Workers Union Local 226. “This has been a very long process but now there’s finally a contract, and workers at Trump hotels will have respect and dignity at work.”
In D.C,. the Trump Organization has agreed not to intervene as between 120 and 135 workers there consider whether to join UNITE HERE. In a statement released by the union, Eric Danziger, the chief executive of Trump Hotels, called UNITE HERE “an important partner.”
“We share mutual goals with the Union, as we both desire to ensure outstanding jobs for the employees, while also enabling the hotel to operate successfully in a competitive environment, and to establish a reputation as one of the finest hotels in the world,” he said.
The deal marks a stark change in tone from one Trump took in targeting unions on the campaign trail and since his election, including through insults he tweeted at Indianapolis steelworkers union leader Chuck Jones.
Other union leaders have described Trump’s election as a crisis for workers even though Trump received more support from union households than previous Republican presidential candidates. Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, has opposed additional overtime pay for workers and expressed skepticism over minimum-wage increases.
John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of the D.C. affiliate of UNITE HERE, said in an interview that the discussions in D.C. were “cordial and fruitful and ultimately resulted in a deal that will allow those workers to organize if they wish.”
It’s unclear what a labor agreement in D.C. might yield. Dishwashers and housekeepers who recently organized at another new hotel nearby, the Marriott Marquis, are set to make $20.35 per hour beginning in March of 2017 and receive 100 percent health care employer-paid coverage for them and their families.
Boardman said the labor talks focused on workers in D.C. and that “there were no discussions about macro issues.”
Asked if he was surprised at the company’s stance, Boardman said, “I have been trying to parse out in my own mind on what might have motivated the Trump Organization to do this and I haven’t quite figured that out.” He added, “It was a very, very cordial discussion and it ended up in an agreement that will ultimately allow the workers to make a free and unfettered choice.”
Workers at Trump’s Vegas hotel voted to unionize last December after several months of campaigning. A labor agreement, though, was slow to materialize until last week, when over a few days, union representatives and Trump Organization executives negotiated a four-year contract, taking effect Jan. 1, that will cover roughly 520 housekeepers, bartenders, servers, porters and other staff at the hotel.
It will allow workers there to enjoy benefits long offered to workers at other hotels on the Las Vegas strip, including annual wage increases, a pension and company-funded health insurance, Khan said. Workers will also be able to resolve workplace issues through a formal grievance procedure. Union members voted to ratify the contract this weekend.
Lawyers and former ethics advisers to previous White Houses have urged the president-elect to divest from his business interests and sever other private ties that could influence his presidential policies and decision-making.
Khan and Boardman both declined to say who negotiated on behalf of the Trump Organization, and whether it was Trump, his children or other executives.
Workers at Trump hotels in New York and Toronto are represented by unions, but Trump’s Vegas hotel had paid more than $500,000 to Cruz & Associates, a consulting firm that says it specializes in “union avoidance,” Department of Labor records show.
The Trump Organization agreed in June to give $11,000 in back pay to two workers at the Vegas hotel who told the federal labor board that they were punished by managers for trying to unionize.
But the company still refused to bargain, battling the union for months in court and before the National Labor Relations Board, a federal labor authority whose ruling members will be appointed by Trump once he enters office.
The entanglement became one of the most visible domestic conflicts for Trump’s private businesses and public power, as the Trump hotel last month asked a U.S. appeals court to overturn the board’s ruling that the company had violated federal law by refusing to negotiate with union employees.

Union workers showed little interest in letting Trump avoid bargaining in the days following the election.
“We’re like slaves working for someone who is going to run the country,” said Carmen Llarull, a 64-year-old housekeeper at the Trump Vegas hotel who said she made $3 less an hour than union workers at nearby hotels, shortly before the agreement was announced. “He knows who we are. The way we work, we’re going to get what we want.”
“Him being president or not president, he’s still our boss,” said Eleuteria Blanco, another housekeeper at the hotel. “We beat him twice legally. He needs to sit down and negotiate our contract.”
Trump has now pushed to resolve a series of business disputes as he prepares to enter office. He agreed last month to pay $25 million to settle years-old fraud lawsuits aimed at his Trump University seminar series.

The Trump Organization also recently dissolved licensing deals for real-estate projects in sensitive diplomatic hot spots such as Brazil and Azerbaijan, where his partners and private revenue have come under scrutiny.

How fashion is drawing political battle lines after the Trump election

From the presidential campaign to the transition of power, fashion has been a point of tension and protest — not just because of what people were wearing but for where it was made, who was selling it and what name was on the label. Hillary Clinton’s white pantsuits had some folks recalling suffragettes, and her rainbow of matchy-matchy ensembles inspired others into a flash-mob dance. The clothing and accessory business that has grown up around Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka drew boycotts and protests in response to his derogatory statements about minorities, women and immigrants.
Since the election, Trump outrage has only grown in the fashion world. Even brands that don’t bear the Trump name, but whose executives voiced support for his stance on trade policy, have received a torrent of condemnation on social media and beyond.

At least one designer says she will not dress Melania Trump. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Designer Sophie Theallet, who has dressed Michelle Obama, announced Thursday in an open letter that she will take a principled pass on dressing Melania Trump — if the soon-to-be first lady should ask for her help, that is. And Theallet encouraged other designers to follow suit:
“I am well aware it is not wise to get involved in politics. That said, as a family owned company, our bottom line is not just about money. We value our artistic freedom and always humbly seek to contribute to a more humane, conscious and ethical way to create in this world. . . .  As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady. The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by. I encourage my fellow designers to do the same.”
The French-born Theallet’s business is based in New York, and her collection is known for its femininity and reflection of world culture. Her runway presentations and advertising emphasize diversity, and she has been a leader in bringing plus-size women into the fashion fold — using plus-size models on her catwalk and creating capsule collections for Lane Bryant.

Designer Sophie Theallet, shown in her New York showroom during fashion week in September, won’t be dressing Melania Trump and encourages other designers to take a principled pass. (Kate Warren for The Washington Post)
So far, Melania Trump does not appear to have worked directly with any designer for her public wardrobe — none are claiming credit for the clothes she has worn for big public moments — but has instead shopped retail. So if Melania decided to hop on Matches.com to buy a Theallet dress, there’s nothing the designer could do about it. Theallet’s point is that she will not create one-off garments for Melania nor tout any association with the former model.

A Sophie Theallet dress from her spring 2017 collection (Kate Warren for The Washington Post)
In contrast, Patagonia is aiming to take a stand without being political. But is that even possible?
The privately held outdoor-gear clothier, whose catalogues feature wind-chapped athletes summiting mountain peaks, plans to donate 100 percent of its global online and in-store sales from Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year — to environmental causes.
The idea emerged from a brainstorming session as the company considered how to respond to the outcome of the presidential election and the installation of a commander in chief who has called climate change a myth ginned up by the Chinese government.
“We wanted to do something on Black Friday to make a big statement, to fund grass-roots activism and engagement,” Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario said in an interview. “We shouldn’t let anyone of any political stripe destroy our planet.”
Since 1985, the company has been donating 1 percent of net annual sales to environmental causes. To date, it has raised about $74 million, with the typical donation to an organization being less than $25,000. Last year, about 800 groups benefited. Marcario estimates that Black Friday sales of its parkas, thermal underwear and backpacks will bring in more than $2 million. In the past, Patagonia, which describes itself as an “activist company,” has campaigned for clear labeling of genetically modified foods and for the removal of “old, derelict and particularly harmful dams.”
“I think most of our core customers understand what the brand is about,” Marcario said when asked if the company was expecting blowback from Trump supporters.

Patagonia has a history of supporting environmental causes. (Tim Davis/Patagonia)
While Patagonia is asking its customers to show their politics by shopping, a San Francisco marketing executive is telling folks to stand up for what they believe in by boycotting — not just Trump brands but the retailers that sell those brands, the folks who own those retailers and anything else those titans might control. In October, Shannon Coulter launched #grabyourwallet, a social media campaign that includes a list of major retailers that carry Trump-branded merchandise — both Donald’s and Ivanka’s — and an appeal to boycott them. The list includes Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Amazon, Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor.
“I’ve never boycotted before,” Coulter said in an interview. But in October, she saw the “Access Hollywood” videotape, in which Trump made light of sexually assaulting women.
Shortly after she read that story, Coulter was browsing the Nordstrom website; she saw pages of Ivanka Trump merchandise. “I didn’t want to see the name,” Coulter said. It aggravated her. But she stood down.
And it has only gotten longer. It’s focused not simply on protesting a brand but an entire web of people and industries. (She considered boycotting The Washington Post because owner Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns Amazon, which sells Ivanka Trump dresses and Donald Trump ties. But after conducting an online poll, Coulter declined to target the newspaper because she respected its investigative reporting during the campaign.) In Coulter’s perfect world, she would be able to “shop the stores I love with a clear conscience and no bad memories.” She has had several victories, including Shoes.com tweeting that it had removed Ivanka Trump footwear from its website.
On Black Friday, Coulter plans to enlist her supporters to flood the customer service lines of targeted stores to ask them to dump their Trump merchandise.
In the aftermath of the election, it’s not just Trump products in the bull’s eye. It’s also New Balance sneakers. The company manufacturers in the United States and has opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. “The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction,” Matthew LeBretton, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Those remarks inspired some folks to post photos of themselves on social media tossing their New Balance sneakers into the trash.
Fashion is not just about economics, aesthetics, culture. It’s now a litmus test for one’s politics.

As crooning animals, Hollywood heavyweights give ‘Sing’ the boost it needs

The animated comedy “Sing” has one big thing going for it: movie stars playing singing animals. There’s a second appeal if you follow such television shows as “The Voice” and “American Idol.” The movie is set during an amateur vocal competition.
Still, the sight and sound of British heartthrob Taron Egerton as a crooning gorilla named Johnny — and Reese Witherspoon as the pig Rosita, Seth MacFarlane as the mouse Mike and Scarlett Johansson as the punk porcupine Ash, all singing their little hearts out — is just charming enough to keep anyone looking for a family-friendly movie option this holiday season happy. The naughty jokes never stray very far from the realm of flatulence, and the sounds coming out the other ends are, like those generated by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in “La La Land,” surprisingly easy on the ears. Former “Idol” contestants Tori Kelly and Jennifer Hudson also provide voices for, respectively, an elephant with stage fright and a young sheep diva (voiced, in her later years, by Jennifer Saunders, who proved she had some pipes as the fairy godmother in “Shrek 2.”)
The story, insubstantial as it is, revolves around the efforts of a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) to revive the fortunes of his dying theater. Hence: the singing contest. Problems arise when the prize offered is mistakenly advertised as $100,000, which Buster doesn’t have. Other mild conflicts emerge in the form of Rosita’s efforts to juggle her dreams of celebrity with the demands of a large family and Johnny’s struggle to leave behind a life of crime. The tension is never unbearable, even when generated by a trio of mobster bears in pursuit of Mike, for reasons I have, quite frankly, forgotten.
The animation, courtesy of Illumination Entertainment (“Despicable Me”), is serviceably cute, adding the eye-popping delights of bioluminescent squid to the strange allure of a menagerie of animals rendering everything from such contemporary chart-toppers as Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to Shocking Blue’s 1969 hit “Venus.” There’s even a snippet of obscure scat singer Shooby Taylor’s early-1980s oddity “Stout-Hearted Men.” (Kudos to the film’s music supervisor. Bonus points for Mom and Dad if they recognize it.)
“Sing” ends, predictably and without straining, on a high note, with everybody’s problems resolved. If only real life could so easily be realigned, by a singing pig.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some mild rude humor. 108 minutes.

Movies ‘Why Him?’ celebrates family values while simultaneously trashing them

Christmas is one of the busiest moviegoing days of the year, and not just because many families need a two-hour break from each other. Some of the year’s best, most exciting films come out around the holidays. “Why Him?” is not among them.
The comedy from director and co-writer John Hamburg (“I Love You, Man”) exists primarily as counterprogramming for the miserable souls who need a movie when “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Passengers” are sold out. Despite flashes of brilliance, “Why Him?” is perfunctory and boorish, the sort of film that already has begun to fade from memory before you’re too annoyed by it.
Bryan Cranston risks typecasting as Ned Fleming, a middle-class Everyman who loves his family and the modest printing company he runs. His daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is his jewel, so he is shocked when she announces that she will not be returning home from Stanford University for Christmas. Instead, she suggests that the Flemings fly out to visit her and meet Laird (James Franco), the tech mogul she’s dating. Laird does not make a good first impression, unwittingly talking about his nether regions during a video chat. His Silicon Valley home is bizarre, even vulgar, furnished with intrusive gadgets and transgressive nude sculptures. The holiday becomes a battle of wills, as Ned tries to derail Stephanie’s new relationship and Laird attempts to ingratiate himself with the family.
Franco and Cranston are seasoned performers, and their anti-chemistry is kind of admirable. Laird may be forthright and strange, yet he has no idea how he constantly offends Ned, whose attempts at sabotage also demonstrate a keen lack of self-awareness. The strait-laced guy who comes to find that no one respects him isn’t a new comic conceit, yet Cranston has enough skill that we can see the fear that informs his character’s behavior. Still, “Why Him?” has little curiosity about the impulses that drive its characters, relying instead on stale generation-gap humor. Ned’s dying, paper-based company is set up as a foil to Laird’s digital business model. Meanwhile, some viewers’ minds may wander from the plot to such thorny topics as the economics of printed wedding invitations.
“Why Him?” ends on a folksy note, in a maudlin affirmation of family values that is both strange and strangely unsatisfying, given the film’s previous violations of good taste. (The most remarkable thing about it is its willingness to offend.) Contemporary comedy fans are likely to roll their eyes at the emotional parts, while more old-fashioned moviegoers may wonder what’s so funny about an aquarium filled with moose urine.
When it comes to family entertainment options, board game night at home is looking better and better.

R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language, nudity, violence and crude humor. 111 minutes.