December 22, 2009

MOVIES: The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements & John Musker, 2009)

By now you've no doubt heard the twist this one puts on the old fairy tale; when Tiana kisses the frog, it doesn't turn him into a handsome prince, it turns her into another frog, and the two must set out together to restore their humanity.

Anika Noni Rose, as Tiana, is on the bland side even by Disney princess standards, but there are a few good voice performances here. Bruno Campos gives Prince Naveen more personality than Disney princes are usually allowed; Keith David oozes silky evil as the voodoo man, Dr. Facilier; and Jennifer Cody is quite funny as Tiana's best friend, Charlotte, whose obsession with finding a prince could almost be taken as Disney mocking its own princess obsession.

The old-fashioned hand-drawn 2-D animation is beautifully done, and comes across as charmingly retro in this era of 3-D and CGI. Particularly fine sequences include Dr. Facilier's final moments, a lilypad waltz for the two frogs, and a beautiful Deco-style fantasy sequence set in the restaurant Tiana hopes to one day own. Randy Newman's songs are competent, professional imitations of authentic New Orleans music -- all of the notes and rhythms feel right, but there's no soul to it.

Disney had reportedly been worried for years about doing an African-American princess for fear that they would somehow stumble into offensive stereotypes; I think they've avoided that (but I'm a white guy, so there may be something I've missed). For me, the character who crossed the line into offensive cliche was Ray, the Cajun firefly, who is a toothless, bumbling idiot.

This is certainly a vast improvement over Disney's most recent hand-drawn flicks, Home on the Range and Treasure Planet, and the crowd of 8- and 9-year-old girls in the theater certainly seemed to enjoy it. But the movie never soars in the magical way that the best Disney animation does, and if you're not a pre-teen girl with a princess fixation, you can certainly wait for DVD.

December 21, 2009

MOVIES: Nine (Rob Marshall, 2009)

Why is it that no one can find a Hollywood leading man who can sing when they're casting musicals? Richard Gere in Chicago, Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, and now Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine. You'd think they wanted us to hate musicals.

Nine is based loosely on Fellini's 8 1/2, and tells the story of Guido Contini, a Fellini-esque film director in 1965 Italy who's suffering from writer's block. He runs off to a resort town with his mistress in search of inspiration, but finds none; he spends the weekend daydreaming about the women in his life, and his daydreams take the form of musical numbers.

Day-Lewis croaks his way through his two songs, and is fortunately not asked to do any real dancing. And even if he were a musical leading man, I don't think he'd be the right choice for this role. Guido should be suave and charming; we need to understand why all of these women are so drawn to him (not all of them in romantic fashion). Day-Lewis is a chilly presence, and his inexpressive woodblock of a face doesn't help any. In the show's Broadway revival a few years back, the role was played by Antonio Banderas; he would have been a better choice for the film.

The heavy musical lifting is left to the all-star cast of women, each of whom gets a musical number (Marion Cotillard, as Guido's wife, gets two). Coming off best are Fergie, who delivers a delightful performance of the score's best song, "Be Italian," which also offers the movie's most interesting staging/choreography, involving sand and tambourines. Penelope Cruz also does well with "A Call from the Vatican," which isn't much more than an excuse to thrash about the floor and be fabulously sexy, but hey! who does fabulously sexy better these days than Cruz?

Less successful is Kate Hudson, whose "Cinema Italiano" (one of the two songs newly written for the film) is little more than an excuse to put her in a 60s go-go outfit and remind us that her mother was a lot hotter during her own go-go days on Laugh-In. The biggest problem, though, and the reason the musical's more admired than loved, is that the songs mostly aren't very good; they aren't particularly tuneful (Go ahead, hum "A Call from the Vatican." I dare you.) and they have a tendency to bluntly spell out what ought to be subtextual. Both of Cotillard's songs -- "My Husband Makes Movies" and the new "Take It All" -- are particularly weak in this regard, clubbing the audience over the head with stuff that we'd figured out about ten minutes before the songs began.

The other women on hand -- Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman (who grows more creepily animatronic with every movie she makes), and Sophia Loren -- deliver their songs adequately, though you get the sense that Loren's number was written for someone who doesn't sing much.

So, a few good moments, enough that you might want to rent the DVD if you're a fan of any of the actors, and if you're a fan of the musical, you'll probably want to see it on a big screen just to see what's been made of it. But beyond that, I can't really recommend it.
Yes, I know; I've been a very naughty blogger over the last month, and have fallen behind in posting comments about the movies I've been seeing. The goal is to get caught up over the next week or so. So all of you who've been waiting with bated breath to find out what I thought of Fantastic Mr. Fox won't have to wait much longer.

December 19, 2009

BOOKS: Green Metropolis, David Owen (2009)

Back to nature! That's been the rallying cry of the environmental movement for decades now. If only we would all just return to the land and grow our own food and get out of those smelly, polluted cities, we could make a dent in the environmental crisis. And for the most part, we've bought in to that narrative; we're all convinced that living on a farm in Vermont or Montana would be a planet-friendly thing to do.

Not so fast, says Owen. It turns out that the most environmentally friendly place in the US isn't Vermont. It's Manhattan. On a per-capita basis, Vermonters use 3.5 times as much gasoline and 4 times as much electricity as Manhattanites do. New York City is so energy efficient that it is singlehandedly responsible for making New York state the lowest per-capita user of electricity.

There are two reasons for Manhattan's low energy use, and Owen argues that we need to find ways to introduce them to our other large cities. First, population density is high enough to make a truly efficient public transit system possible; second, mixed-use neighborhoods mean that it is more convenient to do most errands on foot or bicycle than by car.

Compare, for instance, Owen's current home in suburban Connecticut to his previous New York apartment. The closest thing to walk to in the suburbs is his mailbox, 150 yards away. Walking that distance from the front door of his apartment building could have taken him to "six or seven restaurants, a shoe-repair shop, a liquor store, two grocery stores, various doctors' offices, a pharmacy, and a half-dozen large apartment buildings."

And because there's so much to see, people are further encouraged to walk in the city; psychologically, walking through a busy landscape makes the walk seem shorter than a walk of the same distance through an empty one. One of the places that New Yorkers don't walk is through Central Park; anyone who needs to cross the 3/4 mile park is more likely to take a cab than someone walking the same distance along a busy avenue.

High-density population, combined with smaller living spaces, also saves energy because it's cheaper to heat/cool your home, and because you're less likely to buy a lot of stuff you don't need when you don't have anywhere to put it.

Owen also points out that many of the things we do, thinking that we're making things better, are only going to make things worse. Adding new highway lanes may decrease traffic in the short term, but what we really need to do is make driving less practical and convenient, not more. The various programs to certify energy-efficient building projects turn out to reward behaviors that do very little good for the environment, and may actually do a fair amount of harm. And Owen rips to shreds the nonsense of the "locavore" movement, the idea that we should eat only food that's grown and produced locally.

This is an eye-opening book that will reshape the way you think about what is and isn't good for the environment; it's a solid piece of contrarian journalism, and entertaining reading to boot.

December 18, 2009

BOOKS: Uglies / Pretties / Specials, Scott Westerfeld (2005 / 2005 / 2006)

Solid SF trilogy, targeted at the YA market, about the destruction of a repressive society.

Our heroine is Tally Youngblood, who at the beginning of the series, is about to turn 16 and become Pretty. Massive plastic surgery makes everyone Pretty, every face and physique corrected to fit the very narrow range of beauty allowed by society. The logic is that if everyone's pretty (and in roughly the same way, so that no one stands out), then people won't have to deal with the petty jealousies that so often led to violence and conflict in the old days.

Not everyone wants to be Pretty, though, and there have always been rumors of people living in the wilderness, beyond the safety of the city limits, who have never had the surgery and have remained Ugly into adulthood. Tally finds herself caught up in a plot to find and destroy one such community, the Smokies; she's forced to work for the Office of Special Circumstances, a sort of secret police who have had additional surgeries to enhance their senses and their fighting abilities.

Westerfeld's action sequences occasionally get repetitious, especially in the numerous hoverboard chase scenes (a hoverboard is like a flying skateboard), and the action of the trilogy takes place very quickly; I don't think it's more than a few months from beginning to end, certainly no more than a year.

But there are a lot of clever ideas to be found here, and Tally is an appealing heroine; her struggles to maintain her mental and emotional clarity in the face of unprecedented obstacles are compelling, and that aspect of the story made Pretties the most entertaining of the three books for me.

December 17, 2009

BOOKS: And Another Thing..., Eoin Colfer (2009)

The original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a work of comic genius, and survived its transition from radio play to the printed page surprisingly well. Douglas Adams showed a marvelous gift for writing goofy anecdotes, witty one-liners, and entertaining digressions. The plot was never the point; it was only there to be the minimal framework required for all of the meanderings, which is where all the good stuff was.

Alas, Adams wasn't content to have one brilliant success under his belt; he dragged the series on for four more books, each a further demonstration of the law of diminishing returns. The later books were never truly horrible, and there was always an occasional gem to be found in them, but those gems were fewer and farther between with every book. As sad as it was when Adams died at the young age of 49, there was a part of me that was almost grateful that at least we wouldn't have any more disappointing Hitchhiker books.

Ah, but these days, mere death needn't be an obstacle to cashing in on a successful series. New novels continue to be published under the name "V.C. Andrews," and she's been dead since 1986; Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne marches on in books by Eric Von Lustbader.

And here's Eoin Colfer with the sixth installment in the Hitchhiker's Guide series. Like the later Adams books, it's not unreadable. It's just uninspired and unnecessary. The familiar characters -- Arthur, Trillian, Ford, and Zaphod are all back -- don't feel quite themselves, and the jokes never land with the same zip that Adams gave them in his early books. Colfer has given us a second-rate imitation of an author who had already become his own second-rate imitation. For Hitchhiker completists only.

December 08, 2009

BOOKS: Locked In, Marcia Muller (2009)

27th (!) in the Sharon McCone mystery series.

Sharon survives being shot by an office intruder, but is left with locked-in syndrome -- she's alert and conscious, but unable to speak and almost completely paralyzed. All she can do to communicate is blink once for yes, twice for no.

Her friends, family, and colleagues -- not mutually exclusive groups -- begin digging even deeper into the cases they've been working on, hoping to find a connection to Sharon's shooting. Muller's narrative leaps back and forth among a half-dozen of the series' regular supporting characters, occasionally returning to Sharon's internal monologue as she lies in her hospital bed, frustrated at not being able to help with the investigation.

It's a nice way for Muller to put a new spin on the series, and it gives the minor characters their moment in the spotlight, which is entertaining. The many cases that everyone's been working on tie together into one giant case a bit neatly for my liking, but Muller juggles the puzzle pieces with enough dexterity that you aren't too distracted by the implausibility.

The last novel in the series, Burn Out, found Sharon wondering if she still had in her to be a private investigator, and at the close of this one, it seems unlikely that she'll be returning to full duty any time soon. Muller's been writing these novels for more than 30 years now, and surely retirement can't be too far away for McCone. Locked In suggests that Muller may be looking for a way to continue the McCone series with Sharon in a less central role, perhaps serving as an advisor to her younger colleagues who do most of the leg work themselves.