June 24, 2011

MOVIES: Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh, 2011)

Jack Black is back as the voice of Po, the kung fu master panda who's out to save China from evil with the help of his friends, the Furious Five.

This time, that evil takes the form of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a white peacock who's discovered that gunpowder's not only good for fireworks, but it makes a pretty powerful weapon, too. It might just be a weapon strong enough to defeat kung fu for good.

Shen is a marvelous animated character, and his tail is practically a character in its own right; Shen uses it to punctuate his every word and gesture, cracking it open and close like a fan. He's a delightfully hissable villain, and Oldman voices the part with just the right amount of camp, never letting the silliness completely distract us from Shen's evil.

The movie's subplot finds Po and his adoptive father, the goose Mr. Ping (James Hong), finally coming to terms with their relationship, as Ping explains how Po came into his life. Turns out Shen was involved in those events, too, so when Po and Shen have their final showdown, it has personal significance for both.

The animation is beautifully done, with traditional animation used for flashback sequences in a way that smartly sets them apart from the high-tech look of the rest of the movie. An early battle sequence set in a village of musicians is ingenious, as the sounds of the battle become the score for the scene.

A solid piece of work. The kids will certainly enjoy it, and there's enough substance to keep the adults entertained, too.

June 23, 2011

MOVIES: Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

It's the summer of 1979, and in a small Ohio town, 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) plans to spend the summer helping his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish making his zombie movie. Charles has somehow talked Alice (Elle Fanning), the prettiest girl in school, into playing the main female role, and since Joe's in charge of makeup -- and a zombie movie needs lots of makeup -- he gets to spend a fair amount of time with her, so he's happy.

The kids are filming at the train station late one night when their science teacher (Glynn Turman) drives onto the tracks, derailing a military train (in a pretty spectacular effects sequence). After that night, strange things start to happen. All the town's dogs disappear, only to turn up several towns away. There's a flurry of small-appliance thefts, and car engines are being taken. Most ominous of all, the military arrives, under the command of a martinet named Nelec (Noah Emmerich), who won't tell the local authorities anything about what might really be going on.

This is very much an homage to an earlier generation of sci-fi and fantasy movies, and to early Spielberg in particular (Spielberg is a producer of the movie). ET, The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are among the obvious reference points; those who are more devoted to the genre than I will no doubt spot others. As such, it's not the most original piece of storytelling; you'll probably see most of the major plot points coming well ahead of time.

What Super 8 does have going for it, though, is great style; Abrams gets the small-town atmosphere just right, and Joe and his friends are as convincing a group of kids as we've seen in the movies in a long time. The effects are impressive without being overbearing (though there are moments when Abrams' fondness for lens flares gets really distracting), and the acting is far better than we normally get in this sort of movie.

The child actors are particularly impressive. Elle Fanning has a terrific moment when Alice performs her big scene for the first time, and Joel Courtney, who's making his film debut here, is a real discovery. We haven't seen a young man arrive on the scene in such fine fashion since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.

Among the adults, Kyle Chandler makes a strong impression as Joe's recently widowed father, who happens to be the deputy sheriff in charge; he's one of those rare actors who always comes across as an innately decent person, and that serves him well here.

In a summer filled with superhero movies that bombard us with high-tech effects and little else, Abrams has remembered that while all the whizbang may be fun, it doesn't mean much without a story to give it some heart. And even if Super 8's story is a touch familiar, it's got a lot of heart and it's told well. These days, that's enough to make it one of the year's best movies.

June 21, 2011

BOOKS: Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi (2011)

The notion of the fictional reboot has been around in the comic book world for a good long time; publishers are always returning to square one to give their longtime characters a jumpstart, or to clear out the cluttered, incomprehensible backstories that have built up over the years. And in recent years, reboots have become a popular way to energize faded movie franchises -- Christopher Nolan's take on Batman, or J.J. Abrams' new version of Star Trek.

Here we have a relatively rare print reboot, as Scalzi takes the premise and some of the characters from H. Beam Piper's 1962 novel Little Fuzzy and spins his own version of the story. The Piper novel had gone out of copyright -- not sure how that happened so quickly -- but Scalzi requested and got permission from Piper's literary estate to publish this book. I haven't read Piper's book (it's now on my list), but Scalzi's tale is a charming bit of light fluff, reminiscent of the Heinlein juveniles.

Our hero is Jack Holloway, who works as an independent contractor on the mining planet Zarathustra, where he's a good enough miner that the bosses are (just barely) willing to put up with his rebellious streak and independent nature. When Jack comes across a major strike of valuable gems, it looks as if everyone's going to wind up happy -- the payout from Jack's find will allow him to retire a wealthy man, while getting him out of ZaraCorp's hair.

But then Jack has the bad fortune to stumble across the fuzzies, an indigenous species who just might be sentient, which would drastically reduce ZaraCorp's right to mine the planet (and Jack's forthcoming windfall). He's sorely tempted to say nothing, but ethics get the better of him (well, if they didn't, he wouldn't be the hero, now, would he?), setting into motion a legal battle over the sentience of the fuzzies, and forcing Jack to hunt frantically for a way to give them their due without completely sacrificing his own financial well-being.

Jack is the sort of endearing wise guy that Scalzi writes so well (and judging from the writing at his delightful blog, Whatever, that Scalzi kinda is), and though none of the other characters are as well developed, they are amusing versions of their archetypes (the Grumpy Judge, the Evil Industrialist, the Ex-Girlfriend, the Security Goon, etc.). The fuzzies are cute and cuddly and so adorable that you may find yourself wanting one for Christmas, and the final courtroom battle plays out in grand, entertaining style; Scalzi does a particularly good job of presenting the fictional legal background and issues to be contested without ever simply dumping great gobs of exposition on the reader.

An entertaining piece of light reading, and there's certainly room for Scalzi to continue the franchise if he chooses (as Piper did; there were eventually three novels in the original series).

June 19, 2011

MOVIES: Company (Lonny Price, 2011)

Earlier this year, the New York Philharmonic presented a concert production of Stephen Sondheim's musical Company, with the sort of all-star cast that you can only land when you're doing a weekend-long run. Now, as a special theatrical event, we're getting a film of the show, and I think it's the best Company I've ever seen or heard.

The casting is very smart. The more difficult numbers (and there are some doozies in this show) are given to Broadway stars who have the serious musical chops required; to draw the non-Broadway audience, we have some fairly big TV names.

The TV folks tend to be, as they say, actors who can sing a bit, but their numbers are the less difficult ones. Stephen Colbert acquits himself reasonably well on "Sorry-Grateful," and Christina Hendricks is adequate to the demands of "Barcelona." This group of actors really shines, though, in the book scenes. Company is a show with a lot of dialogue scenes, and they require skilled comic actors. Colbert and Martha Plimpton do a wonderful job with the karate scene, and Hendricks' delivery of the butterfly speech is a delight. Jon Cryer makes less of an impression; he might not as well be there, so thoroughly does Jennifer Laura Thompson blow him off the stage in the pot-smoking scene.

The show's more demanding songs often fall to the women, and the Philharmonic has assembled a spectacular group. Anika Noni Rose's "Another Hundred People" is lovely, and Katie Finneran's "Getting Married Today" is the highlight of the show, as Finneran spits out that flood of lyrics with impeccable articulation, capturing every shred of Amy's desperate panic. Not only does Finneran get every laugh that's written for her, she gets laughs that even Sondheim may not have known were there to be gotten.

Patti LuPone has the unenviable job of singing "The Ladies Who Lunch," a song which will forever be owned by Elaine Stritch. I'm not a LuPone fan in general, though I was pleasantly surprised that her enunciation was significantly better than usual. Her interpretation, however, struck me as rather missing the point; she sings the song with a sort of hyper-precise rhythmic choppiness that's entirely wrong. It's a song of extreme anger and self-loathing; the only reason Joanne can say these things is because she's drunk. Sondheim's melodic writing helps to create the illusion of drunkenness, but the actress needs to help out, too; the song demands a certain amount of sloppiness, and LuPone's excessive precision didn't work for me.

The Philharmonic was fortunate enough to get Neil Patrick Harris to play the lead role of Bobby, giving them both an audience-drawing TV name and a legitimately skilled theater singer. It was a magnificent performance, and I've never heard "Marry Me a Little" or "Being Alive" acted any better than they were here.

The staging is clever, with a few simple set pieces and a little bit of straightforward choreography that makes good use of the limited space available. Even conductor Paul Gemignani gets drawn into the action for a couple of clever gags.

There are, I believe, one or two more showings of this film scheduled in select theaters over the next few days. If you have the chance to see it, you should; if not, then let's hope it eventually makes it to DVD.

June 10, 2011

BOOKS: Embassytown, China Mieville (2011)

Embassytown is the human settlement on a remote world where the indigenous species, known as the Hosts, speaks a language (called, simply, Language) that is extraordinarily difficult for humans to speak. Those few humans who can speak Language are only able to do so because they have had a lifetime of training and special preparation; they become Ambassadors to the Hosts.

(As a sidenote, I love the idea of calling the locals "Hosts." Those early colonists were very sensible, using language in a way that would be a daily reminder that they were guests on this world. And that's a particularly nice notion to throw into this book, which is about -- among other things -- the uses and power of language.)

The Ambassadors have always been trained and raised in Embassytown, so the residents are surprised when the homeworld announces that it is sending a new Ambassador; from the moment that EzRa arrives, it is clear that this Ambassador has had none of the usual training. Hearing Language spoken by EzRa, who by all rights should not be able to speak Language at all, has some unexpected effects on the Hosts.

Mieville does not spell things out for you with a lot of early exposition; you're thrown into this world and expected to piece things together for yourself. As a result, Embassytown isn't a light, breezy read -- you do have to pay attention, especially in the early going -- but it's not a painfully difficult slog, either. Mieville packs more inventive ideas into one chapter than you normally find in half a dozen novels. Highly recommended.

June 07, 2011

BOOKS: The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips (2011)

You can't keep your Arthurs straight without a scorecard in Arthur Phillips's novel The Tragedy of Arthur, so here's the lineup:

There's Arthur Phillips (let's call him "Phillips"), the novelist who wrote the book. There's Arthur Phillips ("Arthur"), the protagonist of the novel, who is Phillips in the same way that actors occasionally play "themselves" in TV or movies. There's Arthur's father ("Dad"), who is also named Arthur Phillips. And there's King Arthur ("KA"), the subject of the play The Tragedy of Arthur which is at the center of the novel The Tragedy of Arthur. Confused yet?

Phillips's novel takes the form of Arthur's 250-page introduction to the play, which his publisher, Random House, is presenting as a newly discovered play by Shakespeare. In his introduction, Arthur explains how his father came to have possession of the play, or at least how Dad says he came into it. Dad's been a con man and a forger for as long as Arthur can remember, and was in prison for much of Arthur's childhood. Arthur is therefore convinced (and not unreasonably) that the play is a fraud, and is writing the introduction only because he's legally obliged to do so (and Random is obliged to publish whatever introduction he gives them). He's using the introduction as an attempt to defend his own moral integrity.

Arthur's twin sister, Dana, on the other hand, believes that the play is real, but her relationship with Dad has always been closer than Arthur's, and Shakespeare has been a particular point of bonding for them.

As Phillips presents the story, there is certainly room for ambiguity. Arthur finds the parallels between his own family's experience and the KA story as presented in the play to be too close to be mere coincidence; on the other hand, how could a small-time forger who can't even forge lottery tickets without getting caught ever forge a 17th-century Shakespeare folio well enough to convince all of the experts?

Phillips has actually gone to the bother of writing the "Shakespeare" play -- full-length, five acts, 100 pages long -- that is the novel's bone of contention. Is the imitation any good? Well, it's as good as it can be, I suppose, given that it has to walk the fine line between being possibly convincing as the real thing and possibly the fraudulent work of a non-scholar. I'm not sure who Phillips thinks will enjoy the play, though. If you're a Shakespeare devotee, you're going to be appalled by reading an imitation; if you don't enjoy reading real Shakespeare, why would you want to slog through 100 pages of fake?

And I think the novel stands on its own quite well, even if you choose not to read the play. It's an entertaining story of a man so deeply affected by his father's constant scheming that he's unable to put much trust in anyone or anything, and while there's certainly tragedy to spare in the end (of both novel and play), it's entirely up for grabs which Arthur's tragedy you may think you're reading.

June 05, 2011

the return of the occasional Sunday links

One year after the controversial finale, Inessentials makes the case for understanding Lost as a religious text:
Religious texts mostly don’t make things explicit when they are telling stories. (They often do that elsewhere.) They tell you parts of the story: the parts that answered someone else’s question or that portrayed a particularly resonant idea. And as in most religious texts, Lost is about people without enough information, making monumental decisions, the consequences of which they don’t understand. Occasionally the gods/God/showrunners step in with another piece of the puzzle, either directly or surreptitiously. But mostly we live in ignorance, trying to learn a little more, fitting together the pieces, knowing that ultimately even if it all fits together we’ll live most of our lives without all the pieces in place.
In a series of 3 posts at Antenna, Allison McCracken looks at the significance of Kurt and Blaine as revivals of once-popular male vocal types: the countertenor and the crooner. (part 1, part 2, part 3)

At Slate, Ben Yagoda argues in favor of "logical punctuation" -- putting periods and commas outside the quotations marks.

What does English sound like to people who don't speak it? Here's one answer, a gibberish song written by Italian pop star Adriano Celentano in the early 1970s. Not only is it weirdly compelling listening -- I keep thinking that I can almost understand what's being said -- but it also seems to be a sort of precursor to both disco and rap.

June 01, 2011

MOVIES: Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)

I keep falling for the hype on movies from the Judd Apatow factory, and I keep being disappointed. This one, which is supposed to be a movie about female friendship, is simply a demonstration of the fact that jokes about farting, vomiting, and diarrhea don't miraculously become funny just become the people with digestive problems are women instead of men.

There is a plot -- Kristen Wiig is asked to be maid of honor by best friend Maya Rudolph, but fears that she is losing her friend to fellow bridesmaid Rose Byrne -- but it's beside the point. The movie is about watching Wiig and the rest of the bridesmaids humiliate themselves by getting so high on booze and pills that they force a plane to land early, enduring a bout of food poisoning in a hoity-toity bridal shop (Oh, look, the fat girl is shitting in the sink! Isn't that a laff riot?), and generally behaving like immature kindergarten students.

No one escapes this movie with their dignity fully intact, but Melissa McCarthy is less damaged than most, and is the only one who gets laughs by playing a character instead of by puking on cue. She's a talented actress who deserves far better than this.