November 26, 2006

MUSIC: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Nov 26 (Janacek / Harbison / Dvorak)

The semi-obligatory disclaimer: I am not a musicologist, nor do I play one on TV. I can tell you what I saw and heard, and what I thought of it, but anything that sounds like actual knowledge is almost certainly lifted from the program notes.

Like, for instance, the fact that the Cunning Little Vixen Suite is a somewhat condensed version of Act I of Janacek's opera, with the vocal parts re-assigned to the orchestra; the orchestration was done by Vaclav Talich, and is generally considered to be somewhat more conservative than the orchestration Janacek had used in the actual opera.

It was clear from listening that Janacek wasn't big on grand romantic arias; the melodies tend to be more fragmented and conversational, thrown back and forth among instruments. There is a lovely tune for solo violin a few minutes in, though; it's a spiky, wide-ranging melody that's a bit hard to imagine anyone singing. Perhaps it's orchestral in the original as well?

All in all, I suspect that this suite is probably not the best introduction to Janacek, whose music I know very little about. It's pretty from moment to moment, but surely it holds together better in the original opera, with characters and words and plot and such. (By coincidence, there's more Janacek -- Taras Bulba -- on my next subscription concert.)

The Janacek suite was followed by John Harbison; the LA Philharmonic had co-commissioned his new Concerto for Bass Viol, which was performed by the Phil's principal bassist, Dennis Trembly.

This seems to be my season for unlikely concertos, with the Harbison coming just a few weeks after Brett Dean's Viola Concerto (which I commented on here). The contrast between the two was instructive; where Dean too often buried his soloist in heavy orchestral writing, Harbison's orchestration was skillfully thought out to allow the solo bass to shine through.

The orchestra was small by contemporary music standards, with a small complement of strings, the usual collection of winds, a handful of brass (horns and trumpets only), piano, and a relatively small battery of percussion. Harbison rarely used the full orchestra at once, and when he did, it generally alternated with the soloist in stating various themes. The strings were used sparingly, and Harbison was careful to use them in ways that wouldn't bury the solo bass -- high violins when the bass was in its lowest register, for instance, or the orchestral basses playing legato support to the soloist's rapid pizzicato melody. The winds, brass, and mallets (vibes and marimba, I believe) carried much more of the orchestral writing than usual, which gave the piece an overall lightness that nicely countered the weight of the solo bass.

After intermission, we got Dvorak's 7th Symphony, a very dramatic piece that was nicely played. I couldn't help feeling, though, that the Philharmonic under guest conductor Carlos Kalmar wasn't quite as vibrant as I've heard it under Esa-Pekka Salonen; there could have been a little more rhythmic kick in the Scherzo, a little more dynamic contrast everywhere, a little more punch in the big climax at the end. It was a pleasant performance, but never quite became an exciting one.

November 25, 2006

MOVIES: The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

I've seen a lot of bad movies in my time, but I've never seen quite so spectacular a mess as this.

There are three parallel stories being told. In the present day, Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is a cancer researcher fighting desperately to find a cure that will save his wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz). She's more accepting of her impending death than he is; knowing that she will be unable to finish the novel she's writing (in longhand, using a fountain pen, no less), she asks him to write the last chapter.

That novel is our second story. It's set during the Inquisition, when a conquistador named Tomas (Jackman again) is sent to "New Spain" by Isabella (Weisz again) in search of the Mayans' legendary Tree of Life, which she believes will allow her to end the Inquisition's campaign against the crown.

The third story takes place (I think, though it's never specifically stated) in the distant future, and features a bald-headed man (Jackman yet again) who may or may not be the same guy we're seeing in the other two stories; he's floating through space in a sort of cosmic snowglobe with a dying tree that looks an awful lot like the Mayan Tree of Life. He's haunted by visions of Izzy/Isabella, and they are all headed for the dying star that was, in Mayan mythology, the location of the underworld.

The Fountain is, to be sure, visually spectacular, but we haven't seen this sort of deeply symbolic pretentious visual imagery since 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that at least made some sort of sense for most of the way; this one is a perplexing mess throughout, and I defy anyone to offer a coherent explanation of how the three stories are or aren't connected. I would certainly not recommend that anyone pay to see this in a theater, but when it hits cable or DVD, it might be worth a look just for the mind-numbing, jaw-dropping, train-wreck-y horror of it all.

MOVIES: Deja Vu (Tony Scott, 2006)

A ferry explosion in New Orleans kills over 500, and ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is assigned to a special team investigating the case. There is one odd clue: One of the bodies actually washed ashore several minutes before the explosion. Why did someone need to make Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton, in a role even more thankless than most chick-in-a-thriller roles) look like just another ferry victim?

Doug's team has nifty new surveillance technology that allows them to view almost anywhere in the city, but only at a precise time gap of 4 days and 6 hours in the past. If they can figure out where to watch, they might be able to catch the bomber before he flees the country and disappears for good. Eventually, Doug figures out that this isn't just fancy satellite technology, but an actual time machine.

Once that happens, the movie's off the deep end as far as plot goes; like almost all time travel stories, there are loose ends and plot holes you could fit an entire movie into. But as such things go, this is well done, and writers Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio at least take a good stab at tying up those loose ends.

They're helped immensely by the presence of Denzel Washington, who projects such likability and trustworthiness that his willingness to accept the movie's loopier twists makes it much easier for us to go along for the ride, and by Adam Goldberg, who is saddled with most of the movie's technobabble, and delivers it with great conviction.

It's hardly essential moviegoing, but it's an entertaining enough action flick.

MOVIES: Infamous (Douglas McGrath, 2006)

Fair or not, it's impossible to avoid comparisons to last year's Capote, since both movies cover exactly the same small slice of Truman Capote's life -- the writing of In Cold Blood.

As Capote, Toby Jones starts off with some advantages over Philip Seymour Hoffman; Jones is a smaller man, closer to Capote's size, and he comes even closer to Capote's distinctive voice than Hoffman did. But I think Jones coasts on the vocal mimicry more than Hoffman did, and especially in the first half of the movie, he's content (as is director McGrath) to get the easy laughs that come from playing Capote's flamboyance against the more reticent Kansas people he's interviewing.

Once the killers, Dick Hickok and Perry Smith (Lee Pace and Daniel Craig), enter the scene, the movie takes a sharp turn away from the breezy humor that dominated the first half; we're now focused on the relationship between Capote and Smith. Infamous presents that relationship as more explicitly sexual than Capote did, even giving us a kiss between the two. But Jones' performance never reaches as deep as Hoffman's did, and he never convinced me of Capote's pain and conflict about that relationship.

Infamous isn't a bad movie, and had it not been preceded by Capote, I'd probably feel much more kindly towards it. But in the wake of a better movie, and a vastly better lead performance, Infamous is superfluous.

MOVIES: Shut Up & Sing (Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck, 2006)

During a 2003 concert in London, Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, announced to the audience that "we're ashamed that the President is from Texas." Kopple & Peck's documentary follows the fallout from that comment over the next three years.

It takes a few days for the news to get back to the US, but when it does, reaction is instant. The group's current single (ironically, it was "Travelin' Soldier," a heartbreak-of-wartime-separation song) was yanked from almost every country radio station, and their album sales plummeted.

Maines and her colleagues don't seem at first to realize quite how serious a mess they've gotten into; they seem genuinely surprised that anyone would be offended, and expect that a simple apology will clear things right up. I couldn't help but wonder how they'd managed to reach such levels of success in country music while remaining so clueless as to who was buying their records.

When that first apology doesn't instantly smooth the waters, the group -- Maines in particular -- become actively hostile towards their former fans, who they see as having betrayed them. Maines takes every opportunity to demonstrate her anger and increasing contempt for the country fans. That continues to this day; when the band released its new album earlier this year, the first single was a piece of in-your-face defiance called "Not Ready to Make Nice."

Maines had my sympathy at the beginning of the movie; I can certainly understand the frustration that led to her comments, and we've all said something that we might later wish we hadn't said. But as the story progresses and Maines grows increasingly obstinate and willful in her insistence on re-opening the wound, she becomes much less sympathetic.

Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the other two members of the band, are background figures for most of the movie; Maines is the lead singer and the public face of the group. I wish that Kopple and Peck could have gotten Robison and Maguire to talk more openly about their feelings in this situation; I can't help but think that their feelings about Maines' behavior are a lot more complicated than the supportive platitudes they mouth in this movie.

November 21, 2006

BOOKS: All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming (2006)

Fifth in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series.

For four volumes now, Episcopal priest Clare and police chief Russ have struggled with their attraction to one another. There was a passionate kiss near the end of the previous volume, and both have reluctantly come to the conclusion that their relationship has crossed the lines of inappropriate behavior, even if only emotionally, and they should not see one another anymore.

Russ has confessed the kiss to his wife, Linda, who has thrown him out of their home, so it's not Russ who finds the body on his kitchen floor; it's Linda's best friend who reports that Linda's been murdered -- throat slashed and face repeatedly stabbed. The obvious suspects, of course, are Russ and Clare.

As always, Spencer-Fleming tells a terrific story and gives us a fine array of characters and suspects; the book ends, as is customary in this series, with an exciting set piece as the heroes confront the villain. The plot is twistier than usual, with surprises and reversals that may anger some readers, but I thought they were fairly set up and presented in convincing fashion. The final pages find Clare making a shocking decision, and it will be extremely interesting to see where the series goes from here.

November 18, 2006

MOVIES: For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006)

A mild disappointment from Christopher Guest.

Guest's earlier films have been marvelous mockumentaries, largely improvised from scenarios devised by Guest and Eugene Levy. Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind -- it's an impressive streak. His usual company of actors is on hand -- Guest, Levy, Michael McKean, Catherine O'Hara, Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch -- for this story about low-budget Hollywood movie making.

We're following the cast and crew of Home for Purim, a World War II-era story about a Southern Jewish family. The movie stars Marilyn Hack (O'Hara) and Victor Allan Miller (Shearer), two actors who've had careers just successful enough to keep their heads above water, but have never earned stardom or much critical respect; Victor's best-known role to date has been as Irv, the foot-long weiner in a long-running series of TV commercials. So no one knows quite what to think when an anonymous Internet poster suggests that Marilyn's performance in Purim might earn her an Oscar nomination; the movie's still being filmed, and suddenly the buzz has taken over the project.

This is something of a letdown from Guest's other movies. At their best, those movies create characters who are so fully realized, so completely inhabited by the actors, that their interaction never feels improvised; it simply feels real. (Levy and O'Hara as Mitch and Mickey in A Mighty Wind, for instance, deliver two of the best performances of recent years.) But this time around, the characters don't feel quite so lived-in; we're more aware of the actors trying to be funny. And when the jokes come -- and there are some very funny moments here -- they're often more about non-sequitur than about the deeply character-based comedy we see in Guest's other movies.

There are things to enjoy here. No one does dumb blonde with the panache of Jennifer Coolidge, who plays the producer of Purim; Fred Willard and Jane Lynch are amusing as the hosts of an Entertainment Tonight-style show; and O'Hara's Marilyn Hack is sweetly befuddled as she gets caught up in hype she's never known before. But if I should find myself six months from now in the mood for one of Guest's comedies, this won't be the one I rent.

MOVIES: Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006)

Gorgeous animation, but a storytelling muddle that can't make up its mind whether it wants to entertain or preach.

Our characters are emperor penguins -- the same penguins featured in March of the Penguins -- and the conceit is that every penguin has a "heart song," and that penguins find their mates by singing at one another until they find the partner whose heart song moves them. Or is compatible with theirs. Or something. The muddle sets in early here, but however it works, every penguin has a heart song, except for poor little Mumble who can't sing at all; instead, Mumble expresses himself by tap dancing.

A digression: If you wanted to make a movie about a misunderstood tap-dancing animal, why on earth would you choose penguins? They've got stumpy little legs that can barely waddle, much less dance, and whether you're talking traction or acoustics, snow and ice are not surfaces made for tap.

But anyway, Mumble dances (he is voiced by Elijah Wood, bland as ever; at least here we don't have to look at his freakish Margaret Keane eyes), and without a heart song of his own, he may never win the love of the fair Gloria (Brittany Murphy).

Another digression: It is never bluntly stated, but it is strongly implied, that the reason for Mumble's dancing/non-singing is that his father dropped his egg in the cold before it hatched. Individuality, in other words, is presented as a birth defect.

Mumble's dancing freaks out the penguins, who ostracize him in distinctly religious terms, with Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving) making long, pompous speeches about repentance and how Mumble's freakishness has displeased the gods. That displeasure has expressed itself in the form of a fish shortage, and all of a sudden, we're into the preachy environmental message half of the movie, as we learn that Evil Mankind -- who else? -- is responsible for the fish shortage. The last act of the movie is just plain weird and the plot nearly incomprehensible (how exactly does Mumble get back to the emperor colony the last time?).

The voice casting isn't terribly good here. In addition to the dullness of Wood, we've got Robin Williams, over the top as usual in two roles, both of them bordering on offensive ethnic stereotypes; Ramon is a Latino penguin (don't ask) and Lovelace is a Barry White-lite penguin guru. Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman play Mumble's parents; Jackman's Memphis is an Elvis-type (his heart song is "Heartbreak Hotel"), and he doesn't come close to pulling off the southern accent.

On the plus side, Brittany Murphy's love interest is charming, and she pulls off a credible version of Queen's "Somebody to Love" in one of the movie's loveliest scenes, with a magnificent animated Aurora Borealis serving as the laser show. And in general, the movie looks marvelous. There's a thrilling sequence with Mumble fleeing from a menacing seal, and some of the musical numbers are very cleverly done.

But the story is such a mess, and the concept of tap-dancing penguins is so inherently flawed, that it's not worth sitting through it in search of those few nice moments.

November 13, 2006

BOOKS: The Second Mouse, Archer Mayor (2006)

17th in Mayor's series about Vermont cop Joe Gunther.

We start with two separate stories. A young woman is found dead in her home. There are no signs of violence, and the evidence suggests suicide. But her landlord had been trying to evict her, and might have wanted her gone badly enough to kill her. Meanwhile, we're following the somewhat comic adventures of a trio of local small-time thugs whose leader wants to take a shot at the big money.

The Second Mouse is an odd book structurally. We're led to expect that as the questions are answered, the two plots will inevitably prove to be one; it's likely, we imagine, that the local thugs are responsible for the woman's death.

We do eventually get answers to all of the questions that are raised in the early going, but the two cases never come together in quite the way we expect. That's probably true to life, and it's likely not at all unusual for police to find that things are or aren't connected in different ways than they'd assumed.

But one of the reasons I enjoy mystery fiction is for the joy of watching how cleverly the author fits all of the puzzle pieces together; when it turns out that he's actually been constructing two separate puzzles, it's a little bit frustrating.

That's not to say that the book's not worth reading. Mayor is one of our most underrated mystery writers, and his cast of characters continues to be an entertaining group; he's also set up some interesting new possible storylines for future volumes in the series. His parallel stories here are laid out cleanly and fairly, and the relationships among his small gang of criminals are interesting and convincing. Not Mayor at his best, but not bad.

BOOKS: The Ruins, Scott Smith (2006)

Four young Americans, just out of college, are vacationing in Mexico. They're having a blast, drinking and flirting with other vacationing students from around the world. One of their new acquaintances, searching for his brother, plans a day trip to a nearby archaelogical dig, and our foursome agree to go with him; they are joined by another of their new friends, a Greek man who speaks no English or Spanish.

As they near the site of the dig, the six are repeatedly warned away. The taxi driver refuses to take them beyond a certain point; the local villagers actively try to stop them from going any further. But once they've set foot on the hill where the dig is supposed to be located, the villagers do an about-face, refusing to let them off the hill.

That's the setup for Smith's novel, which arrives thirteen years after the enormous success of his first book, A Simple Plan. It's a very different type of book; instead of the psychological crime drama of the earlier novel, The Ruins gives us straight-up horror. For there is something on that hill, and it is not friendly.

It's very quickly clear that there are only two ways The Ruins can end: Either there is a miraculous rescue, or the group is doomed to a series of slow, unpleasant deaths. What's remarkable about the book is that as it goes on, and the rescue becomes less and less likely, Smith manages to hold our attention and keep the fear level high. It's an even more impressive feat because the menace on the hill is not something inherently scary, and it proves to have unprecedented talents and abilities; some of the scenes it which it terrorizes our heroes could easily teeter over into camp. Smith never lets that happen, though, and the horror never lets up; it is, in the words one character keeps repeating, "inexorable, inevitable."

Very nicely done.

MOVIES: Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006)

Whaddya know? Turns out that Penelope Cruz can act after all.

There were hints in her earlier work, I suppose; she was notably better in the Spanish film Abre los ojos than she was playing the same role in the English-language remake Vanilla Sky. But she's flat-out marvelous in Pedro Almodovar's Volver, a lovely story about the power of mother-daughter relationships and the ways in which we can never really escape the places we come from.

Cruz plays Raimunda, and we first see her in the cemetery with her sister (Lola Duenas) and daughter (Yohana Cobo), cleaning her mother's grave. They have come to the rural part of Spain where Raimunda and Sole grew up (they have long since moved to the city) to tend to the grave and to visit an elderly aunt (a lovely small performance by Chuz Lampreave).

How Aunt Paula tends for herself is something of a mystery; she can barely get around her house or see anymore, and yet she always has Tupperware dishes full of goodies for Raimunda and Sole whenever they come to visit. The rumor in the village is that the ghost of Paula's sister -- Raimunda and Sole's mother -- lives with and cares for her. But if that's true, where is the ghost of Irene (Carmen Maura) to go when Aunt Paula dies? Why, she returns to her daughters, of course, and begins involving herself in their lives.

Men are irrelevant here; there's only one significant male character -- Raimunda's husband -- and he's removed from the action very early (Cruz's best work in the movie comes here, I think, as she calmly does what must be done in the wake of his departure). It's a movie about women, and the principal actresses are all superb; they collectively won the Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival (the only one I haven't mentioned is Blanca Portillo, who plays a family friend with her own complicated problems).

The movie leans to the melodramatic, though less flamboyantly than usual for Almodovar; the Douglas Sirk influence is tempered with touches of Italian neo-realism (surely it's no accident that Cruz often looks much like Sophia Loren) and hints of magic realism. It's a splendid piece of entertainment, and shouldn't be missed.

MOVIES: Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006)

I haven't been as dazzled as most by Marc Forster's earlier films. I thought Monster's Ball was overwrought melodrama, and Finding Neverland a syrupy bit of fluff. But this time, he gets it right; Stranger Than Fiction is a delight.

Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, an IRS auditor with little life to speak of outside of his job. His life is one mindless bit of routine after another -- nicely illustrated onscreen with a series of pop-up charts and graphs that follow him wherever he goes -- until the day he begins to hear a voice narrating his life. It's merely annoying at first, but when the voice announces that Harold's death is "imminent," annoyance becomes panic. We learn fairly quickly (though Harold does not) that the voice belongs to Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and that Harold is the main character in her new novel, which she is struggling to finish.

Also on hand are Dustin Hoffman, droll and dry as the professor of literary theory to whom Harold turns for advice; Queen Latifah, sadly wasted in the movie's weakest role as the assistant sent by Karen's publisher to see that she finally finishes her book; and Maggie Gyllenhaal, absolutely adorable as the tax-protesting baker who becomes Harold's romantic interest.

For a while, it looks as it the movie's going to be yet another story about how the fear of death inspires a man to finally start living, but there are some twists in the final act that make the movie a much deeper and more profound contemplation on the relationship between life and art, and the extent to which we should be willing to sacrifice one for the other.

Ferrell is marvelous here, and this performance should dispel the notion that he's nothing but a zany comic; he makes Harold's transformation realistic and believable. And much credit, by the way, to Zach Helm's script for not overdoing Harold's change; it would have been easy to make a more radical shift from extreme timidity to extreme extroversion, but Helm and Ferrell give us a more subtle and realistic bit of progress. Thompson is also very good as the cranky, frustrated Eiffel, chain-smoking and stalling as she tries desperately to find an ending for her novel.

There were moments when I found myself wishing the movie had more directly addressed its central philosophical question -- How can Harold simultaneously be a real person in Karen's world and a character in her novel -- but the evasion of that question is done in a relatively graceful fashion, and the final choices made by Harold and Karen are such generous acts of sacrifice that you can't help but leave the movie with a warm, fuzzy glow. An absolute charmer.

November 12, 2006

MOVIES: Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006)

Every three years, González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga deliver a new movie -- Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and now Babel -- and they all follow the same structure. Multiple storylines that initially seem unconnected, but prove not to be; editing that misleads the audience about when X is happening in relation to Y; spiraling ramifications of one small incident -- González Iñárritu and Arriaga are very good at this sort of thing, but it appears to be the only thing they can do, and on the third go-round, it's starting to feel just a little too familiar.

The biggest problem I had with Babel is that every character makes the stupidest possible choice at every possible juncture. If a single character every did the smart thing -- or even just did something that wasn't completely idiotic -- the movie would come to a screeching halt.

That's not to say that the movie's worthless; Gustavo Santaolalla's score is lovely, and there's a lot of very good acting. Adriana Barraza is marvelous as Amelia, a Mexican working as a nanny in San Diego who finds herself stuck with two kids on the day of her son's wedding; Gael Garcia Bernal is charming and funny as her nephew, Santiago, who is singlehandedly responsible for enough stupidity to make the Bush Administration look competent.

The movie's other storylines take place in Morocco, where Brad Pitt tries to get medical care for wife Cate Blanchett when their tour bus is hit by a bullet; and in Japan, where a deaf-mute teenager (Rinko Kikuchi, doing heroic work in a painfully exploitative story) is so desperate for human contact that she throws herself at any man who she thinks might be willing.

But it's so tiresome, watching these characters making decisions so stupid that they cease to be believable as people and become mere puppets being pushed around the movie by the demands of González Iñárritu and Arriaga's jigsaw-puzzle storytelling. The two men have reportedly had a falling out, which may be a good thing; perhaps working with new collaborators will help them both to find new stories to tell and new ways to tell them.

November 05, 2006

MOVIES: Hard Candy (David Slade, 2006)

Hayley (Ellen Page) is chatting on her computer, using the screen name "thonggrrl14," and flirting up a storm with "lensman319." They've been flirting for a few weeks now, and she finally agrees to meet him at a local coffee shop. He is Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a photographer in his early 30s, and when they meet, the flirtation continues. It's clear that both of them want to go back to Jeff's place, but neither is willing to be the one who makes the suggestion -- Jeff because "I'm not a pedophile," and Hayley because she knows that her perceived innocence is what's turning Jeff on -- so there's a lot of verbal tap-dancing as each allows the other to pretend that they're not after what they're both after.

The games continue at Jeff's house, as Hayley mixes screwdrivers for them and they chat about Jeff's photographs. But Hayley's innocence is phony in more ways than one, and she's hidden her ultimate goals and motives far better than Jeff has hidden his. Hard Candy becomes a very intense psychological battle of wits, mind games, and torture -- emotional and physical.

The story goes a bit over the top at times, and if you took too much time to think about it, the plot holes might overwhelm you. But you're not given much time to think, and Wilson and Page are so ferociously committed to their roles that you're carried through the dodgier moments by the strength of their performances. Page is particularly good; in a just world, she'd be on everyone's short list for a Best Actress nomination. She's convincing as a 14-year-old, which is rare when older teens play that much younger, and she makes Hayley's transformation from flirty child to vicious avenger completely believable.

The intensity of the action is a little tough to take in spots (and one sequence in particular will be especially difficult for men to watch), but Page and Wilson make Hard Candy a terrific revenge thriller

MOVIES: Flushed Away (David Bowers & Sam Fell, 2006)

It's been a good year for animation, and here's another entertaining movie to add to the list.

Roddy St. James (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is a pampered pet rat (or maybe he's a mouse; it's never quite made clear) who gets flushed down the toilet into the subterranean city of the sewers. There, he meets Rita (Kate Winslet) who reluctantly agrees to help him get back home. But before that can happen, the two get caught up in a duel with the evil Toad (Ian McKellen), his henchmen Spike and Whitey (Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy), and his mercenary cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno).

The movie is produced by Aardman Animations, the same folks who make the Wallace & Gromit movies, and the characters have that studio's trademark look -- lots of teeth and very expressive eyebrows. But the amount of water footage and the size of the sets made Aardman's usual stop-motion claymation technique impractical for Flushed Away, which is actually computer animation designed to look like claymation. It's still instantly recognizable as an Aardman project, but I did think that the computers give the movie a slightly more polished look than their usual clay work, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

The story's lively and funny enough to keep the kids entertained, and the grownup jokes are smoothly mixed into the story. The action scenes are entertaining, though never especially surprising. The voice performances are solid, with particuarly good work from McKellen, hamming shamelessly and growling his lines in the lowest register of his voice. Reno's Le Toad is also very funny ("I laugh at everyone's pain," he says, "I am French.").

The scene stealers, though, are the Greek chorus of slugs who pop up periodically to offer musical commentary on what's going on; they are to this movie what Scrat is to the Ice Age series -- a guarantee of a laugh. (They are much better integrated into the story than Scrat is, though, and Flushed Away is better than the Ice Age movies.)

This isn't quite up to the year's best animated movies -- Monster House or Over the Hedge -- but I'd take it over Cars or Open Season. Certainly worth seeing in the theater if you're into animation or have kids who need to be entertained; even if you're not, it'll be worth a DVD rental.