Star Wars: The Force Awakens In Your Living Room

I am days away from getting on a plane to go run in the Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon Weekend at Walt Disney World. Along with the packing and the costume planning, I’ve been doing a fair amount of immersion in the Star Wars universe to get me ready for these races. And while the original three films are still near and dear to me, most of my attention the past couple of weeks has been on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Like many Star Wars fans, we were giddy at the release of this new film. We had Cordy and Mira watch the original trilogy ahead of seeing The Force Awakens, and they were nearly as excited as we were. Mira especially connected with the character of Rey, and I couldn’t be more happy to see a strong, positive female lead for her to look up to. It’s definitely made lightsaber battles among kids in our neighborhood more gender neutral, as no one questions that girls can be just as powerful with lightsabers now.

Mira will also be wearing her Rey costume for her first 10k at the Star Wars Dark Side 10k. (And I’ll be dressed as Rey for the half marathon.)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Ph: Film Frame..©Lucasfilm 2015

The months between the film’s theater release and it’s release on Blu-ray/digital HD felt like forever. But then it was finally here, and I’ve been thrilled with everything on this Blu-ray. (Disclosure: I received a copy for review.) So, why do I recommend adding Star Wars: The Force Awakens to your movie collection? Here are a few reasons.

The movie is still amazing, even on a smaller screen. Unlike the prequels, this film made me feel like a kid again. It remained more true to the original films with the reliance on more practical effects versus computer special effects, making everything around the actors feel more solid and also bringing back a “lived-in” feel for the universe that is on par with the original trilogy. The characters are well-defined without giving the audience everything you’ll ever need to know about them – there’s still plenty to learn about the new characters, and that’s exciting when I know there are still two more films ahead of us.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) with Stormtroopers Ph: David James ©Lucasfilm 2015

The story itself fits perfectly as a continuation of the previous Star Wars stories, and the action is fast paced and purposeful. Yes, there are plenty of nods to nostalgia, with moments in the film that seem to be written specifically to make fans swoon at the memories of the original trilogy, but I expected that, and I feel it was necessary to acknowledge the audience’s expectations for it and then move on.

I have a feeling the next two films will not need those moments, as we’ve now established the connection between old and new and can now move forward with the new story.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Ph: Film Frame..©Lucasfilm 2015Passing the…torch?

“Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey.” This bonus feature, included with the Blu-ray or digital HD versions, is a feature-length documentary that takes an in-depth look at the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This addition is priceless for fans, as it provides a fascinating look at everything that went into the concept and creation of this movie.

If you enjoy learning about the process of making a movie (and making one that has to live up to the legacy of the original trilogy!), this is probably one of the best documentaries to watch.

Deleted scenes. I always love watching deleted scenes to get a peek into some of the additional ideas the director and team had for the film. All of the deleted scenes included here added a little bit more to backstory and character development, but none were essential.

The Force Awakens is a little light on deleted scenes, honestly, although I’ve heard there are even more deleted scenes than what was included with this release, including an entire story arc that was removed for time. I’m hoping those deleted scenes weren’t released because they’re trying to work some of them in as backstory for the next film.

Behind the scenes featurettes that cover every area of interest. Do you like learning about how the creatures were made? There’s a bonus feature for that. Love that little BB-8 droid and want to know how he was built and filmed around the set? They’ve included a behind the scenes feature on that, too. Nearly every part of the film-making process is covered.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens..L to R: Director J.J. Abrams w/ actress Daisy Ridley (Rey) on set...Ph: David James..? 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved.

Probably my favorite bonus feature is the “Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight” featurette, which shows how they built that surprisingly lifelike, snowy forest on a sound stage, as well as how they prepared and choreographed that brutal final battle.

Star Wars Snow BattleThis fight was epic.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens carries the legacy of the original trilogy into the next generation, and the story, action, and tone of the film fit seamlessly with the previous films. We’re thrilled to include it on our shelves next to the Original Trilogy (and yeah, the other three movies, too), and I think it’ll be a valued addition to your movie collection as well.

PS – Want some free activities for your kids? (Or, let’s be honest, for you?) I’ve got you covered here:



American Idol Keeps Drawing Me Back In

American Idol logoCan you believe we’re on the 14th season of American Idol? It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been going on for that long, but the show started before either of my children were born. I admit I still watch a lot of TV, and Idol has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. I’m usually not a big fan of reality TV shows, but make it a talent competition – especially a singing competition – and I’m interested.

We didn’t start watching American Idol until season three. (But I’m still a Kelly Clarkson fan.) Season three was the year of the infamous William Hung, with his terrible rendition of “She Bangs” that ensured he didn’t get any further. (Thank goodness.) But more importantly, that was also the season of Fantasia Barrino and Jennifer Hudson. I remember how impressed I was with the talent on display that season, and we watched every episode faithfully, cheering as Fantasia won the crown that year.

Beyond the talent, I loved the judges setup, too. You could count on Paula to say something nice to the performer, no matter how bad the performance. Randy was always the middle-man: you never knew which way he would go with his comments. And then there was Simon, the harsh voice of reality in the industry. I appreciated his blunt critiques and the high bar that was set to impress him. Most of the time, I agreed with him, too. I was hooked at that point.

When season four started, we watched all of the audition rounds and never missed an episode. It was difficult to not get caught up in the moving stories of the singers – for some, this was their one chance to get out of a bad situation and make a name for themselves. While I liked pop music, I was also a fan of rock, and this season gave me more variety with Constantine Maroulis and Bo Bice giving a rock edge to many of their performances. I will never forget Constantine’s performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that season – that was the first song that I ever actively sought out to download onto my (new at the time) iPod.

Perhaps my favorite seasons, though, were seasons five and seven. Season five was the year that Taylor Hicks won American Idol, but I still remember it as the season of Chris Daughtry. I don’t think anyone heard his version of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and had any doubt that he was a star. We were fans of his for a few reasons. He was an older contestant, working to raise a family, and we identified with him, having a daughter of our own at that point. When he was eliminated at the top four, we were stunned and furious. Thankfully, like so many other Idol alumni, that didn’t stop him, and we were thrilled to attend the first concert in Columbus a few years later for his band, Daughtry.

DaughtryYou will have to take my word for it that the backlit singer in the photo is Daughtry. 2010 iPhones weren’t great in concert settings.

But Chris Daughtry paved the way for David Cook in season seven. Another rock singer, I was stunned at his arrangement of Lionel Richie’s song, “Hello,” turning what always seemed to be a soft melody into a rock anthem. But I was even more impressed during Mariah Carey week, where each of the singers – even the guys – had to perform a Mariah Carey song. Of all of the contestants, I wondered how he’d be able to make a song work. Yet his original arrangement of “Always Be My Baby” is now probably my favorite song of his, and definitely my favorite arrangement ever of that song. (It remains in my iTunes playlists, along with a few of his other songs.) Never have I been so invested in a reality TV show as I was that season, jumping out of my seat and clapping when David Cook was announced as the winner.

The tagline of “Superstars Made Here” is truth in advertising: had it not been for American Idol, there are several great stars that we might never have had the chance to hear. No other show has produced this many top singers. Idol’s alumni have sold more than 60 million albums, have garnered more 250 million downloads and have been certified with 20 Platinum and 13 Gold records; and more than 70 Idol contestants have been on the Billboard charts with 440 songs attaining No.1 Billboard hit status. Idol contestants have conquered Broadway, television and film, and have won numerous awards and accolades, including American Country Music Awards, Country Music Awards, Grammy Awards and an Academy Award. Not bad for 13 completed seasons of a talent show!

The new season of American Idol is on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8/7c on FOX, and it’s already shaping up to be a solid season of talent, based off of the auditions I’ve seen so far. I was really impressed with the vocalists coming out of the Nashville auditions alone. Reality TV that focuses on the drama between contestants just isn’t for me. I prefer the focus to be on solid talent, and American Idol is the best at delivering that. (Other than Hollywood Week, which always has a little drama with it.) The show keeps drawing me back in because I love the chance to hear new, fantastic singers.

What about you – which singer was your favorite from past American Idol seasons? Will you be watching this season? Tell me in the comments to enter for a chance to win $100 VISA gift card.

Entry Instructions

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This giveaway is open to US Residents age 18 or older (or nineteen (19) years of age or older in Alabama and Nebraska). Winners will be selected via random draw, and will be notified by e-mail. The notification email will come directly from BlogHer via the sweeps@blogher email address. You will have 2 business days to respond; otherwise a new winner will be selected.

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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy – Bring the Kids?

Guardians of the Galaxy posterIt’s no secret that we’ve loved just about every Marvel movie that has been released in the last several years. We’re a family of geeks, and Marvel and Disney are two of our favorite fandoms. (Along with Doctor Who, the Whedonverse and a few others, of course.)

But when Guardians of the Galaxy was announced, my first reaction was, “What’s that?” Aaron, far geekier in all things comics, had to explain the storyline to me. And I was immediately worried that Marvel was becoming too smug with their chain of film successes. A space drama with a talking raccoon who likes to shoot things and a giant walking tree as two of five main characters? Seriously? It originally sounded completely ridiculous and I wasn’t sure how they would get audiences interested in this story.

I can now look back on this and see how wrong I was.

Aaron and I attended a preview screening last Wednesday, and then we took Cordy and Mira to see it on Saturday afternoon. I was concerned if it would be appropriate for our nine and seven year olds, and even waiting for the movie to start on Saturday, I was still a little concerned how they would handle parts of it.

So, should you bring the kids? Read on for my more in-depth (and mostly spoiler-free) review.

Synopsis (from the studio)

From Marvel, the studio that brought you the global blockbuster franchises of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers, comes a new team–the Guardians of the Galaxy. An action-packed, epic space adventure, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos, where brash adventurer Peter Quill finds himself the object of an unrelenting bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan, a powerful villain with ambitions that threaten the entire universe. To evade the ever-persistent Ronan, Quill is forced into an uneasy truce with a quartet of disparate misfits–Rocket, a gun-toting raccoon; Groot, a tree-like humanoid; the deadly and enigmatic Gamora; and the revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer. But when Quill discovers the true power of the orb and the menace it poses to the cosmos, he must do his best to rally his ragtag rivals for a last, desperate stand–with the galaxy’s fate in the balance.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which first appeared in comic books in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (Jan. 1969), stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, featuring Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, with John C. Reilly, Glenn Close as Nova Prime Rael and Benicio del Toro as The Collector.

The Guardians

What I liked:

This movie felt like a gritty space opera, complete with a throwback soundtrack thanks to the Awesome Mix, Volume 1. It’s fast paced, fun, and full of action. No, really: LOTS of action. The humor maintains its endurance right alongside the action, too.

All five of the heroes are fully realized characters, with flaws to match their talents, and I appreciated that all five of them are not your “typical” heroes. They’re essentially a group of criminals who, when brought together and faced with impending doom, choose to work together to save the galaxy.

While they do discover new aspects to themselves during the climax of the film, this single event of heroism doesn’t transform them into model citizens, either, and that’s okay. It would make the story seem too much like a fairy-tale to think they would entirely change their personalities as a result of stopping Ronan and live happily ever after.

It’s also important to note that the heroes aren’t rewarded for their bad behavior. For example, Peter Quill (Star-Lord) acts like an entitled man-child occasionally during the movie, but this never works in his favor and he’s not rewarded for it.

“I’m Star-Lord, man.”

The CGI in this film is amazing. Two of the five main characters are computer generated images next to their more human-like allies, and yet they feel as real as everyone around them. Groot and Rocket were masterfully inserted into the film with more realism than I’ve ever witnessed in a live-action film. You could see the individual strands of Rocket’s fur, and Groot’s branches have solid weight to them in each scene.

Rocket RaccoonHe’s adorable…and deadly.

The performances by the actors in this film shouldn’t go unnoticed, however. They ranged from the over-the-top antics of Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt, to Karen Gillan’s extremely subtle, yet precision-sharp development of her character, Nebula.

Best of all: Gamora does not become a love interest for Quill – and the mostly naked shot of Zoe Saldana from the rear which is so prominent in the trailers did not make it to the final cut of the movie. I was happy to see that the writers didn’t include the old cliche of having the male lead and the female lead fall for each other.

Gamora and QuillThey’re teammates, that’s it. And for much of the movie she questions even that much involvement.

What I didn’t like:

While I think this is a well-made movie, it wasn’t perfect. My primary complaint is that if you haven’t read the comics, you may feel a little lost or have the urge to take notes to keep up with this new universe and everyone in it. There are new races, feuds and characters to learn quickly at the start of the film. It’s overwhelming.

Unlike Avengers, where we learned the back-story of the major characters previously in their own individual films, this film has to take on the back-story of all five main characters, the state of relations between worlds, and then deliver the current action of the story as well. Having not read the comics, I did have trouble keeping names and details straight. On the second viewing, I felt better at keeping all of the details straight, but there were still some names I couldn’t place.

And while the heroes are well-developed characters, Ronan – the primary villain in this film – was flat. We didn’t get much of his history, and we’re presented with a guy who is determined to wipe out the people of Xandar, with little explanation as to why after we’re told the two races have recently agreed to a peace treaty. And why do the Kree seem unwilling to protect the treaty they just signed and let Ronan go on a killing spree? His motivation is weak and poorly explained, likely cut for time. Hopefully we’ll see more of his development in the extras section of the DVD. (Aaron tells me he’s a deeply complex and interesting character in the comics.)

RonanI want to know more about this guy.

Bring the kids?

If you’re a big Marvel fan, this part is probably not for you, as you probably saw it on opening weekend, and you most likely knew your own kids’ interests in the movie. But a few of you might have kids (like ours) who saw the trailers and said to you, “Awwww! A talking raccoon! I want to see this movie!” without knowing much about the actual plot, and so you may be concerned about if it’s a good fit.

There are a few aspects of Guardians of the Galaxy that might make you pause before bringing the kids. First, there is the violence aspect. There are a handful of space battles where minor characters die, several punches thrown and plenty of knock-back injuries, lots of blaster fire (although most are stun blasters, it seems), and an Infinity Stone that will rip apart any person who tries to hold it – and does. Those moments can be a little scary for some kids.

The humor and language can also border on the crude at times, too. At one point a character is called a “prick” and a few other choice curse words are used, too. While there is no actual sexual content in this film, there is a joke about how a blacklight could prove Quill’s ship to be far more dirty than they assume, but that joke should go right over the heads of most kids. Actually, most of the more questionable jokes and comments were completely missed by our two kids, and they didn’t even ask about them. If you have a kid who is more inquisitive,  just be prepared for a few questions.

One additional concern to be prepared for (slight spoiler here): at the start of the movie, we see Peter Quill as a child at his dying mother’s hospital bedside. Only a few minutes later, his mother is dead, and he’s quickly torn away from his family. This might be tough for a sensitive kid to deal with – I was even teary-eyed in that moment. We (wisely) told our kids about this scene before we went to the movie, making sure it wouldn’t be a surprise to them or a scene that might make them re-think the movie.

Originally, I was more concerned that Cordy and Mira would not enjoy the film, while Aaron was convinced that they’d be fine. For Guardians of the Galaxy, Aaron was right. We chose to tell them a lot of the plot up-front and let them decide if they still wanted to see it. Cordy brought her stuffed Rocket with her to hug through the movie, just in case it got too scary.

And? They loved it. Both kids were engaged through the entire movie, and while some of the finer details of the plot were beyond their understanding, they followed the story and enjoyed the action. Cordy loved all of the humor, while Mira danced in her seat to all of the music throughout the story. They each loved Rocket more than before the movie. And they are both demanding a dancing Groot sprout toy before Christmas.

Dancing Groot sproutJust watching this GIF makes me happy.

Is Guardians of the Galaxy a film to see? Yes, absolutely. If you like superheroes, sci-fi, space dramas, and/or silly humor, you will enjoy this movie. Aaron has a more in-depth review of the film on his site if you want more specifics.

Is Guardians of the Galaxy a film to take the kids to? I’ll answer that with a qualified yes. Kids will like the characters and they won’t be bored with the constant action of the film. I think it’s appropriate for most elementary-age kids and older, but those who are more sensitive to violence or language might want to hold off. You know your kids best to decide where the line needs to be drawn.

I was very happy with this film, and I’m excited to see the start of another section of the Marvel cinematic universe. We know a sequel is already in the works, and the extra scene at the end of the credits provides a quick glimpse of an older Marvel character that we just might see again.

Once again, Marvel has proven they’re on the right track with their films. While DC is still wringing their hands over how they could have a hit movie with Wonder Woman as the solo (female) lead, Marvel has created box office gold with a talking CGI raccoon and a walking tree that can only say “I am Groot.”

Keep up the good work, Marvel.

Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary passes for the screening event only. Affiliate links may be used in this post.



TV in the Age of Netflix: Binge-watching

I’ve been feeling a little under the weather for more than a week now, in a not-quite-sick, but not-quite-well limbo that leaves me tired, but with few other physical symptoms to point to in order to justify my sloth-like nature. So while I’ve been trying to find the right balance to bring me back to the world of the fully alert, I’ve also been resting more, and as a result also watching a lot more TV in the evenings instead of getting anything useful done.

We have Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions, and with our Roku player we can watch both on our TV without even getting up from the couch. While we still have episodes of regular TV that we watch on a week-to-week basis, I’m finding that with streaming media I’m now becoming someone who grows impatient at having to wait a week between episodes.

This has led to our new hobby: binge-watching. Do you do it, too? Netflix started this trend for us, by making their own original series with an entire season available at once. We’ve also gone back to re-watch favorite shows several episodes at a time, seeing the continuity without the long wait between episodes. It’s the ultimate instant gratification: all of the drama of the series storyline, without the seven-day (or longer!) wait between each hour long episode.

Binge-watching shows online

While there are certain shows that we will endure watching week-to-week because we can’t possibly wait for the whole season to be released (Agents of SHIELD, Once Upon A Time, etc), there are others that we give a pass to, and then later come back to binge watch.

Our latest “never-watched-but-should-have” show? Veronica Mars. After hearing so many people talk about the recent movie, and how much they loved the show years ago, I convinced Aaron that we needed to give it a try. All three seasons are available on Amazon Prime, so we started the first episode and gave it a try a few weeks ago.

Of course, I’m not sure we fit the description of true binge-watchers. Unlike some binge-watchers, we’re limited by our kid-free hours. Binge watching for us is usually only 2-3 episodes a night at most, more during the weekends, since we have to wait until the kids are in bed. But that’s really just a limit on the front end of our viewing time. We’ve watched the whole first season now, staying up far too late this weekend to see how the first season ended, and then deciding we had to watch just the first episode of season two to see who Veronica was talking to in the very last scene of season one before we could go to bed.

We’re hooked. Which means we’ll continue filling evening hours with this show until we reach the end. And we have to reach the end before June, when season two of Orange is the New Black is released. Because (for us, at least), the first rule of binge-watching is to never switch to a new show until you’ve finished all available episodes of the current show.

The kids are doing it, too, to a lesser degree. They never watched Phineas and Ferb when it was first released, but discovered it recently on Netflix and have been slowly watching their way through the first three seasons.

There are still plenty of shows that we have yet to see and will eventually get to, with current contenders being House of Cards and Breaking Bad, which friends have told us are both excellent shows. Although the nicer weather will cut down on our TV viewing time, I still think we’ll get through another show or two this summer.

What are you binge-watching? What shows are we missing out on online?



Streaming TV for Kids with Kidoodle.TV

At least once a week, we find ourselves in a situation where one or both kids must sit somewhere boring and wait quietly. Sometimes it’s for an appointment, sometimes it’s while we take one to gymnastics or the other to her therapy session, and the other kid has to tag along because the other parent is occupied. Books work in many situations, but for longer waits or long car trips, we often like to pull out electronic media to provide additional reward for waiting patiently.

My phone and my iPad have a few apps on them specifically for the kids, although both get bored with games fairly quickly. I have different video viewers on my devices, but I also know I’m not always right there to make sure one of the girls doesn’t finish one video and then accidentally jump to another video that may not be appropriate for kids. So I either have to hover to make sure the video is appropriate, or block video apps from their allowed list.

To further complicate things, we’re planning to cut cable soon. The final straw was when the cable company announced they were raising our rates again (3rd time in a year), and were also removing some of our favorite channels from the now-higher-priced package we pay for. While I’ll be glad to save money, I know Cordy and Mira will still want to watch TV, especially when we’re making dinner or when they’re cashing in for some free time.

I recently had the chance to try out Kidoodle.TV for our family. Kidoodle.TV is a video-on-demand streaming service specifically targeted to kids 12 and under. It also has robust parental controls to give you the ability to customize what’s available for each child in your house and set viewing time limits.

kidoodle main pageThe main screen of Kidoodle.TV in a child’s profile.

Signing up was a breeze, and it allowed me to create a profile for each child. (You can create up to 5 profiles per account.) Each profile can then have different customizations applied. You can select appropriate age ranges for videos, so your four year old isn’t watching Transformers Beast Wars, or your older kid isn’t watching preschool programming.

Profile setupProfile setup

Beyond that, you can then look through the list of all shows available, and further customize, turning off shows you don’t want to make available, and turning on others that your child might like, even if it doesn’t fall in the recommended age range.

Selecting showsselecting shows manually

Once you’ve got the profiles set up, you can navigate to the website on your computer or launch the Kidoodle.TV app for iOS or Android, select the profile, and hand the control over to your child. Select a profile

When you’re in a profile, your child can choose from any available video and watch it immediately. You then set up a passcode so that changes can’t be made to a child’s profile without the parental passcode. I also like that you can lock a profile to prevent that child from switching to another kid’s profile. (Mira, who loves to see what her sister is up to, doesn’t need to be watching all of the video options available to Cordy, for example.)

Parent passcode

No changes made without permission.

The video controls are bright and easy to use, too. Mira had no trouble learning how to pause a video, start it again, and control the options available to her. There are a lot of different shows available on Kidoodle.TV, too. Some of the cartoons I grew up with are there–like GI Joe, Inspector Gadget and Jem–and there’s plenty of educational programming, including National Geographic, Zoo Babies, and In Space. I’m excited to introduce our kids to shows that we grew up watching, and we’re enjoying watching new ones together. But when I can’t watch with them, it’s nice to know they won’t wander into anything inappropriate.

This point is completely unrelated to the kids, but Kidoodle.TV is also useful for parent TV time. Give the kids your computer or mobile device for Kidoodle.TV while you watch the TV shows you want to watch!

So far we’re really happy with the Kidoodle.TV service. The selection of kid programming is good, and they plan to add even more great content in the future. We’ve found the iOS app is superbly stable for a video player without the frequent buffering slowdowns of other players. Kidoodle.TV provides a free trial, and then it’s $4.99 a month afterward. BUT…I’ve got a coupon code you can use for 25% off a 1 year subscription to Kidoodle.TV. Just enter this code on the payment page: BLOGHER25. This coupon code expires June 30, 2014.

Giveaway!

Not only can you use that coupon code for a big savings on Kidoodle.TV, but they’re also giving away $100 Visa gift card to one lucky reader!

To enter, leave a comment below to these questions: what devices do you kids use? Do they have their own or share with the whole family?  You can also visit here to enter for a chance to win 1 of 3 iPad Minis in March and in April!

You can find out more about Kidoodle.TV on their websiteFacebook page, Twitter, and Pinterest

Sweepstakes Rules:

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You may receive (2) total entries by selecting from the following entry methods:

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This giveaway is open to US or Canada (excluding Quebec) Residents age 18 or older. Winners will be selected via random draw, and will be notified by e-mail. The notification email will come directly from BlogHer via the sweeps@blogher email address. You will have 72 hours to respond; otherwise a new winner will be selected.

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This sweepstakes runs from 3/17-4/18.

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