Dwarf Tossing

Time to close out the 2012 lists! I never imagined that the last movie I'd see this year would be the new Hobbit, because I was on the fence about seeing it at all. This is a good case of how a movie's final grade is a balance of how much I liked it vs. what I think it was trying to accomplish vs. my pre-existing expectations. I really need to start seeing things with a blank slate so hype or nerd-rage doesn't seep into my subconscious. I was expecting this movie to be a slog. The podcast reviews have been pretty harsh, and I figured that the expansion of a slim book into three movies would make each of them bloated and insufferable. Although there were certainly some unnecessary tangents, this first film of the trilogy actually wound up being pretty fun.

Having Martin Freeman in the lead helps, because he's good in everything, and as always, Ian McKellen knocks it out of the park. I almost feel bad in suggesting that they cut back on the amount of Gandalf, because I enjoy McKellen so much. But there's no denying that there's a bit too much wizard-ex-machina going on in this movie, which kills some of the suspense. Some of the side stories didn't really fit into the main narrative, although it may be laying some groundwork for the next movies.

I did enjoy the group of dwarves, and think Peter Jackson and the production designers did an excellent job differentiating each of them so that they felt like separate characters instead of a mass of ciphers. The story of their leader Thorin Oakenshield wasn't as developed as it could have been, but not to the point that it hurt the movie too much. And where this film really shined is the scene in Gollum's cave, where Bilbo first comes into possession of the One Ring. It could have easily been a tossaway scene, but turns out to be the most suspenseful part of the movie, instead.

After enjoying a movie I was prepared to skip, I've already made my first resolution for the coming new year: It's time to start going into movies with fewer preconceived expectations! Let's see if this resolution lasts any longer than the usual ones about exercise.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: B

French Dressing

As a fan of musical theater, I'd like to read an in-depth article about ways that shows have been adapted into movies, both successfully and unsuccessfully. What's the best way to shift the scope? People on stage have to display outsized emotions to play to the back of the theater, so how do you adapt the tone for the big screen? Why does Dreamgirls work so well, while Rent is such a pile of crap? Is it all directorial choices, or is there something built into the genetic code of a musical that affects how the movie version turns out?

After seeing Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, I'm no closer to answering these questions. I was more excited to see it than almost any other movie this year, for lots of reasons. I enjoyed the stage version. Tom Hooper is an accomplished director, as The King's Speech showed. I'm a fan of several of the actors. So I really had a lot of goodwill built up as I walked into the theater.

Which this movie then did a thorough job of chipping away. I'll say at the outset that I don't think it was terrible. In fact, it wasn't even bad; it was just very strangely cobbled together. A lot of the camera work is disjointed and repeated several times. A character dies, and instead of trusting the audience to know that instinctively, a sickening neck crunch sound effect is added in, just so you really, really know he's dead. The idea to have the actors sing live into the camera, rather than lip sync to themselves was... Well, I've seen it called a "noble experiment", and would agree. When someone was good, it showed, but by the same token, when someone was bad, it blared out like a siren.

Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Samantha Barks were all remarkably good (as were some of the secondary characters), while everyone else was mediocre or worse. That's not an acceptable ratio. My biggest issue is with Marius, and I'm still trying to work out how much of that is the character's failings, and how much is the fault of Eddie Redmayne, who looks about as much of a 19th-century Frenchman as I look like Alfre Woodard. A lot of the plot revolves around characters sacrificing so that Marius can have a better life, and there is just no indication of why he deserves all this adoration.

That's kind of what I meant about how to adapt tone from a musical into a movie. As a stage show, Les Miserables is a grand, sweeping tragedy. On the screen, it comes off as a tale of how everyone in world loves a wealthy, self-involved dilettante.

Les Miserables: B-

The State of the Art: Books 2012

It's fairly easy to see movies in the same year they're released. It's more difficult (but still feasible) to keep up with a mass of television shows in the same year they're released. But when your main source of reading material is the public library, and you must take your place in a long line before you can get your hands on a popular title, it can be downright impossible to read a lot of books in the same year they're released.

Over the course of this past year, I've read 24 books (not including re-reads of favorites that I return to again and again). A two-a-month average isn't bad for a busy fellow such as myself, but only 6 of these books were published in 2012. So it makes no sense to take my top five from solely 2012 titles, because everything except one would make the list, no matter how good or bad they were. I guess I'll just have to pick my top five from everything I read this year. Let's hit it!

#1: Battle Royale - Koushun Takami

What I Said: I was a little dismayed when I picked Battle Royale up from the library, because it's thick, and with a hectic schedule, I worried that I wouldn't be able to get through it in my allotted two weeks. I tore through it in a day and a half. It's a riveting, exciting, saddening story.

#2: The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

What I Said: Normally, I'd find a book that back-benches its plot in service of atmospheric descriptions maddening. But in this book, delving into the enigma of the circus and its denizens is hypnotic. Like a fairground itself, you'll find yourself happy to wander off in an unexpected direction to see what mysteries you'll discover.

#3: Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

What I Said: This story could have easily spun into contrived melodrama, but Flynn's meticulous writing makes scenes that would usually come off as ludicrous seem completely feasible. Every time we think we know which way the story is heading, it veers off into another direction.

#4: Why We Broke Up - Daniel Handler

What I Said: I generally love Daniel Handler books. Though not my favorite of his, this one is certainly in the top three. It's a series of notes from a teenage girl to her ex-boyfriend, ruminating over the dissolution of their relationship as she returns all the items that remind her of them as a couple. Each item is also given an illustration, and the total package really encapsulates the diary-like remembrances of an adolescent protagonist.

#5: Taft 2012 - Jason Heller

What I Said: Ridiculously biased cable news commentary and vicious internet sniping are ripe for satire, of course, but Heller can do that in his sleep. What's truly remarkable is that Taft 2012 achieves more than just poking fun at our often absurd media and political system. It gives us an elbow to the ribs as a reminder of what democracy is actually supposed to be about, and paints Taft as a historical figure worth learning about, rather than just writing him off as that fat, milquetoast one with the giant bathtub.

All five are highly recommended. That said, it wasn't a stellar year. Here's the full list of books I read in order of rank, with the ones published in 2012 underlined:

Battle Royale - Koushun Takami (A)
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern (A)
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (A-)
Why We Broke Up - Daniel Handler (B+)
Taft 2012 - Jason Heller (B+)

The Gates - John Connelly (B+)
One Last Thing Before I Go - Jonathan Tropper (B)
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte (B)
Marcelo in the Real World - Francisco X. Stork (B)
Look At Me - Jennifer Egan (B)
The Illustrated Man - Ray Bradbury (B)
A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin (B)

Machine Man - Max Barry (B-)
The Infernals - John Connelly (B-)
Drift: The Unmooring of America's Military Power - Rachel Maddow (B-)
The Magician King - Lev Grossman (B-)

The Leftovers - Tom Perotta (C+)
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle (C+)

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King - Rich Cohen (C)
Big Babies - Sherwood Kiraly (C)
Girl Walks into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle - Rachel Dratch (C)
Freedom - Jonathan Franzen (C-)
A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin (C-)

Batter Off Dead - Tamar Myers (F)

Two final notes:

Firstly, these retrospective lists involve a lot of looking back on things that I graded months ago, and I'm genuinely surprised that so far, I agree with my past self, and would give the same grade today that I gave then. Today is the first time I found my feelings have significantly changed over time. So because I gave A Game of Thrones a B at the time, that's how it appears in this list. It got a B because I thought that while it was extremely bloated, with too much exposition and too many characters, it could be somewhat excused on the grounds that it was laying groundwork for future novels. Now I know that the bloat is just a characteristic of those books, so its true grade should really be a C, if not a C-.

And finally, the list above comprises the books I read from start to finish. There are always a few that don't make the cut. This ignoble list contains books that were so terrible I couldn't finish them, books that were so boring I couldn't keep up any interest, or perfectly adequate books that were either not my style or I just wasn't in the mood for. This year's toss-asides were:

Snow White and the Seven Samurai - Tom Holt: Not awful, but the whole updated-twist-on-fairy-tales trope has been done a lot lately, and this is not among the better attempts at it.

The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin: The AV Club recommended that if you haven't read any Le Guin, you should start with this one. So I did, and quickly realized that I am just not the target audience for her stories.

Passing It On: Folklore of St. Louis (2nd ed., revised and updated) - John L. Oldani: I picked this up because I love little quirks about my hometown. I wanted to get more in depth as to the origins of why we ask each other about what high school we attended, or how the practice of requiring a joke on Halloween got started. Instead, it was a dry recitation of stories and sayings that were either too dull for inclusion or not specific enough to the region. It bored me silly, and I wasn't about to extend the pain by finishing it.

I picked up two fresh books today that will kick off the 2013 list, so get thee to a library! I need some good recommendations for the coming year.

Shorties #6

I was concerned that the holiday season would be a cultural dead zone, but things are piling up faster than I can write about them! Aaaaaaah!

#1: Koyaanisqatsi: I'm surprised that I hadn't heard of this 1982 movie before it was sprung on me by a date. Francis Ford Coppola helped produce it, Philip Glass wrote the score, and it was enough of a cult film to warrant being the first of a trilogy. Translated from Hopi as "Life Out of Balance", it has no dialogue, but is merely a series of clips progressing from the beauty and stillness of nature through hectic scenes of urban life. Frankly, it was too much of "Nature Good! People Bad!" kind of message for me, but even if the tone didn't strike the right artistic balance, the music and editing were remarkable. (Grade: C+)

#2: "Serenity": Not the Serenity that I've already mentioned. This one was the pilot episode(s) of Firefly. Back then, I wondered if I didn't like the movie because I needed to be more familiar with the source material, or if I just didn't like it. Looks like we've got an answer now, because the TV show was no better. An antihero here and there is fine, but there are simply too many unlikeable characters in this franchise. I doubt I'll pursue this show any further. (Grade: C)

#3: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: This 2008 film is pretty much a fluffy little nothing, and I mean that as a compliment. Frances McDormand is terrific in everything, and this is no exception. She plays a poverty-stricken governess, who through a quirk of fate, finds herself attempting to rescue a ditzy aspiring actress (Amy Adams) from various romantic entanglements. It's a charming movie that's best enjoyed some snowy night in front of the fire with a mug of hot chocolate. (Grade: B)

#4: United State of Pop - "Shine Brighter": I always enjoy DJ Earworm's yearly mashup of the top 25 pop songs of the year. Nothing has beaten out 2010 as my favorite one, but 2012's compilation comes pretty close. (Grade: B+)

#5: How I Met Your Mother - Season 7: Granted, I wasn't in the best headspace as I watched this season, but I'm pretty sure that has little to do with my opinion that it's the weakest of the bunch. There were some bright spots here and there, but for the most part, the MacLaren's gang may have put their best days behind them. (Grade: C)

The State of the Art: Television 2012

My approach to TV shows this year has been vastly different than my approach to movies. I've been pretty damned attentive to getting out to see movies that I'm interested in, but have been letting most TV shows pile up, waiting until there's an easily-accessible chunk of episodes I can tear through in one stretch. There is an enormous amount of quality shows that I just haven't gotten around to yet, which means that my favorite shows of the year are a lot less representative than my picks in the world of cinema. Please bear that in mind when you mentally scold me for not including Homeland or Breaking Bad. I'll see them someday! You could always check out the TV label for a more inclusive list of what I watched this year, but when it comes to actually watching shows as they air, here are my Top Five TV Shows of 2012:

#1: Parks and Recreation - Season 4

If Parks & Rec had only given us the story arc of Leslie Knope's run for city council, Dayenu! The entire arc was pure gold, giving us brilliant episodes like "Campaign Ad" and "The Debate". But they didn't stop there! Season 4 also included the Pawnee Rangers, Tom and Donna's "Treat Yo' Self" excursion, and the incomparable Patricia Clarkson as the ice queen Tammy One. From start to finish, this was most well-written, well-paced, well-acted, well-everythinged show of the year.

#2: Community - Season 3

If Parks & Rec is the gold standard as far as what a standard sitcom can achieve, Community wins the medal for what high-concept weirdness can accomplish. It's the most imaginative (non-animated) show on the air right now, and for those who enjoys its quirks, there's nothing better. Standout episodes of the year include "Basic Lupine Urology" (a pitch-perfect Law & Order send-up), "Curriculum Unavailable" (a take-off of a clip show, in which the actual backstory of the show is briefly assumed to be a delusion so that more craziness can stand in for the "real" story), and "Digital Estate Planning" (in which the characters are encoded into 8-bit video game avatars). Sound strange? It is! But in all the best ways.

#3: Bob's Burgers - Season 3

The two seasons of the shows mentioned above are long since over. But the Bob's Burgers season still in progress has already had such standout moments that it deserves inclusion on a Best Of list, no matter where it goes from here. And even though Parks & Rec was the best show of the year, and Community had the best episode of the year, Bob's Burgers far and away had the best character of the year, as it continues to develop the shy, awkward, thoughtful, horny, pushover Tina. "Tina-Rannosauraus Wrecks", in which she gets into a fender-bender and is forced to tell a series of increasingly complex lies, had me laughing louder than I have in a long time. All of the family members have been given a chance to shine, though, as seen in the fantastic Halloween episode "Full Bars". I've soured a bit on animated shows lately, but this one manages to balance sentimentality and comedy perfectly, and I'm never not in the mood for it.

#4: Downton Abbey - Season 2

If you call or text me during the three shows above, I'll shrug and ignore you. If you try to contact me during Downtown Abbey, I'll be enraged. This season may not have been as gripping as the first one, but there was plenty to enrapture me. The petty social situations in Season 1 were grand fun, but the arrival of World War I and a wave of Spanish Flu brings much more serious problems to the Crawley household. And while I'm not by any means a "shipper", seeing Mary and Matthew finally manage to snag a moment of love and happiness in a Christmas snowfall was a much-needed exhalation. Season 3 starts up here in the States in about a week, and you can bet I'll be glued to the screen. Plan your calls and texts accordingly.

#5: RuPaul's Drag Race - Season 4

Reality TV doesn't hold the same allure as it once did for me. The Amazing Race, Top Chef, Project Runway... All of these used to be appointment television for me, and all have pretty much fallen by the wayside. Thank goodness there's one show left that skewers everything that's melodramatic and ridiculous about other shows, while still maintaining a source of suspense and delight about who wins. RuPaul's Drag Race seasons have been steadily improving, and this last one, which came down to a decision between a goth horror queen, a snotty, self-entitled showgirl, and a placid, consummate professional, was pure awesomeness. Clever challenges, epic lip syncs, and fantastic casting somehow made a show about bickering drag queens the highlight of the week.

It's The End of the World As We Know It

Hey, look! December 21 has come and gone, and if a gigantic Mayan-style apocalypse happened, I seem to have missed it. It's only by happenstance that I just wrapped up Tom Perotta's The Leftovers, which is about the differing paths people take once a Rapture-like event has caused a large chunk of the population to vanish suddenly. The premise is certainly intriguing, especially since the disappearance doesn't adhere to any strict religious tenets; people of all stripes are taken, and people of all stripes are left behind.

Nobody treats this as a joyous event. Religious people freak out over not being "chosen", while those who don't ascribe the disappearances to any particular deity are still shattered by losing their friends and loved ones. Various cults spring up like weeds, and even families who didn't lose anyone are blown apart by characters choosing to take their lives in a wildly different direction.

As I said, an intriguing premise, right? Unfortunately, it's not developed as deeply as I'd have liked. There are so many paths to take when you're suddenly alone and confronted by crushing self-reflection and moral quandaries, and these characters just kind of wander around. A woman following her conscience abandons her husband and children to join a doomsday cult, and... Nobody in the family much cares. A woman spends the whole book falling to pieces after her family vanished, and... Is instantaneously restored to peace and happiness by a stranger's infant.

For readers looking for an interesting premise, this book explores some really fascinating ideas. But for those looking for a cohesive, well-written story within that framework, you may come away a bit disappointed.

The Leftovers: C+

The State of the Art: Movies 2012

If there's one thing this blog accomplishes (and that's a big "if"), it's a handy form of organizing the pop culture I consumed over a set period of time. Now I can get all statistical on this bitch! If the posts I've made correctly comprise everything, I've seen 21 movies that were released this year, and 54 movies total over the course of 2012 [numbers updated 12/31]. I'll see more before the new year, and this list doesn't even take into consideration any movie I watch over and over again - just the ones I saw for the first (or second) time. Since I assign letter grades to the movies I watch, a ranking naturally falls into place. I'm pretty surprised by how these films shook out; if you had told me in January that an animated movie would wind up being way more enjoyable than the year's award magnet dramas, I'd have laughed. But here we are! So, allow me to present my Top Five Movies of 2012:

#1: Wreck-It Ralph

What I Said: This film was heartfelt and funny and beautifully animated and had terrific voice acting and was loaded with video game in-jokes. How could I not love it? The entire audience, both adult and child, was captivated throughout the entire running time.

#2: Looper

What I Said: I don't even really have any nerdy nitpicks about potential plot holes opened up by the time travel. Tons of care and thought went into this movie, and it shows.

#3: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

What I Said: This almost monarchical story, combined with seemingly endless beauty shots of the sushi itself, kept me totally enraptured. Even those who do not like sushi would find much to enjoy in this as purely a movie, but for those of us who would sell our plasma for some tasty unagi, this film is pitch perfect.

#4: The Avengers

What I Said: It's amazing how many pitfalls this movie could have fallen into, and didn't. The sultry Black Widow could have been a generic eye-candy character, and instead, pretty much becomes the glue that holds the entire plot together. Any of the heroes could have been lost in the background, but everyone gets a chance to shine. The Hulk, so sullen and plodding in other movies, becomes simultaneously more threatening and more empathetic in Whedon's hands.

#5: Moonrise Kingdom

What I Said: This movie fits nicely into the Wes Anderson oeuvre. The basic structure is made a lot deeper by some impressive acting - Add in some gorgeous set locations, excellent music, and Anderson's patented quirkiness, and you've got a pretty charming little film.

This isn't meant to imply these are the five best movies of the year. They are simply the five I enjoyed the most of the ones I was able to get to. There are plenty of 2012 films I have yet to watch, and as always, a lot of them will have to be seen months or even years from now. For now, here's the full list.

2012 Movies

Wreck-It Ralph (A)
Looper (A-)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (A-)
The Avengers (A-)
Moonrise Kingdom (B+)
Chronicle (B+)
Brave (B+)
The Dark Knight Rises (B+)
The Hunger Games (B+)
Cloud Atlas (B)
Skyfall (B)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (B)
Magic Mike (B)
Argo (B-)
Lincoln (B-)
Les Miserables (B-)
Pitch Perfect (C+)
Rise of the Guardians (C+)
The Campaign (C+)
Joyful Noise (C+)
The Amazing Spider-Man (C-)

Strange. Nothing below a C-, which means that my stinkbomb filter must be in pretty good condition. Also, it seems pretty clear that a lot of these were grades were derived by weighing against what I felt the film was trying to accomplish. For example, Chronicle wanted to tell a deep, complex character study involving superpowers with no big name actors and no budget, and succeeded admirably, while Lincoln threw a ton of prestige and money towards telling the definitive story of a period of history, and fell a bit short. The list above is all the movies released this year I was able to see, but there were plenty from other years I was able to get my paws on. Hit it!

The Artist (2011) (A)
Wreck-It Ralph (A)
Looper (A-)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (A-)
Midnight in Paris (2011) (A-)
Winter's Bone (2010) (A-)
The Avengers (A-)
Michael Clayton (2007) (A-)
The Illusionist (2010) (A-)

Moonrise Kingdom (B+)
Chronicle (B+)
Brave (B+)
V For Vendetta (2005) (B+)
The Dark Knight Rises (B+)
Brick (2005) (B+)
The Hunger Games (B+)
The Social Network (2010) (B+)
How to Train Your Dragon (2010) (B+)
Beginners (2010) (B+)
The Station Agent (2003) (B+)
Good Hair (2009) (B+)

Cloud Atlas (B)
The Descendants (2011) (B)
Skyfall (B)
Weekend (2011) (B)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (B)
Magic Mike (B)
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) (B)
Super (2010) (B)
Conversations With Other Women (2005) (B)
Argo (B-)
Lincoln (B-)
Black Swan (2010) (B-)
Les Miserables (B-)
The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) (B-)
The September Issue (2009) (B-)

Pitch Perfect (C+)
Rise of the Guardians (C+)
The Perfect Host (2010) (C+)
Halloween (1978) (C+)
The Campaign (C+)
Joyful Noise (C+)
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) (C+)

Born Yesterday (1950) (C)
The Iron Lady (2011) (C)
The Help (2011) (C)
Christmas Vacation (1989) (C)
Serenity (2005) (C)
Thor (2011) (C)
Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) (C)

The Tree of Life (2011) (C-)
The Amazing Spider-Man (C-)
Halloween II (1981) (C-)
The Room (2003) (F)

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #6: Christmas Vacation

I may be Jewish, but I'm not immune to the impulse to watch entertaining Christmas movies when the holiday rolls around. I don't really bother with It's A Wonderful Life much anymore, but I'll always be in the mood for A Christmas Story. And I suppose Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie, right? I'll go ahead and decree that it is. For some reason, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation has always just slipped through the cracks. It's certainly hallowed by both Christmas movie fans and National Lampoon fans, so I'm not sure why it took me this long to watch it, but I finally plopped down and gave it a whirl.

One of the inherent dangers of the Pop Culture Homework Project is having to live up to the widespread stamp of approval that society has given a particular work. Since I'm arriving late to the experience, a beloved property can turn out to be disappointing. I'm afraid that's pretty much what happened here.

There's just too much history weighing down on this movie. We're pretty much past the era of comedies composed of nothing but pratfalls. We know what Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid have turned out to be like. It's fun to see kid versions of Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis, but their parts are pretty minor. I get the feeling that if I'd seen this movie in 1989 when it was released, I'd be a bigger fan of it. As it is, I feel like it's a so-so fluff movie that doesn't really deserve its place in the Christmas Canon.

Christmas Vacation: C

Fabric Softener

What I'm Watching: How I Met Your Mother - Season 7

The past week has been a difficult one in terms of Life Issues, which meant two things as far as what pop culture I felt like consuming. First, it couldn't be anything too deep, or complex, or thought-provoking. It needed to be something easy and fluffy. And second, it needed to be something to fill in the time cracks around a lot of quickly-planned events. There could be no must-be-home-on-this-day-at-this-time kind of thing. In other words, I needed a Laundry Show. And just in time, I received word that Netflix is now streaming the seventh season of How I Met Your Mother. Season 8 is currently airing on TV, but this is one of those shows I like to let build up, then shotgun several episodes in a row.

In terms of how this season is stacking up against previous ones, it's been a bit of a disappointment so far. The quirky friendships and the always-fun rules/challenges/games plots are taking a backseat to a lot of emotional development, and the scales have tipped a little too much. This is one of those programs that has always been pretty good, and a handful of episodes have even been outstanding. So far in Season 7, there has only been one glimmer of that old cleverness, and that was in an episode in which the gang realizes with horror that all of their significant others remind themselves of one of their parents.

But in terms of what I need this show to do for me right now - to provide something relatively light-hearted to make me smile for a short burst of time - it's performing admirably.

Do You Believe in Magic?

Whenever I go to visit my sister in Kansas City, tons of pop culture is consumed. Books are read on the journey! Movies are gone to as family outings! Television is watched in an attempt to tame my nephew's wild energy for a few minutes! So, when I wrote about the book and movie combo I experienced over the past couple of days, it was really only half of what I got through. Those two properties were extremely pragmatic. How is the relationship between America and its military changing? How is morally tricky legislation passed?

The next set of properties I tackled were a lot more ethereal and imaginative. First, we took the aforementioned nephew to see Rise of the Guardians, which is about how Jack Frost takes his place among a pantheon of children's heroes (Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Sandman, and The Tooth Fairy) in order to protect the kids' hope and wonder from the sinister boogeyman. Perhaps I judge it too harshly because I'm still giddy from how terrific Wreck-It Ralph was. Perhaps I judge it too harshly because it's a movie for kids, and I shouldn't expect it to cater to my tastes. Or perhaps I don't judge it too harshly, because here is my six-year-old nephew's three-word review: "That was boring."

Yeah, it kind of was. From a story standpoint, anyway. I will absolutely not complain about the visuals, because this movie is beautifully animated, and the 3D was used very well. The rest of it could have used some work. The voice acting was fine, if nothing to write home about (Jude Law is the exception, imbuing the boogeyman with wonderfully elegant menace). The story was fairly bland and uninspired. It was surprisingly talky for a kid's movie, which is probably what earned my nephew's ire. It wasn't a terrible movie by any stretch; plenty of children's entertainment has me scratching at the walls, begging to be let out. This wasn't that. It was just a fair-to-middling movie that needed another twenty minutes in the oven, so to speak.

On the book front, I needed a palate-cleanser after the grim experience of Drift, and fortunately, Erin Morgenstern's 2011 novel The Night Circus was next on my list. I've always been a big fan of magical realism - it's not for nothing that I'm a Bryan Fuller superfan. So this dreamlike story about the wonders of a magic-infused circus and its nocturnal performers really hit my sweet spot.

The circus' amazing exhibitions are all part of an intricate game between two sorcerers, but rather than take on each other directly, they prefer to use the people around them as their unwitting pieces on an ever-changing chessboard. When two opposing forces find themselves increasingly drawn to one another, events take a turn for the dangerous. Normally, I'd find a book that back-benches its plot in service of atmospheric descriptions maddening. But in this book, delving into the enigma of the circus and its denizens is hypnotic. Like a fairground itself, you'll find yourself happy to wander off in an unexpected direction to see what mysteries you'll discover.

Rise of the Guardians: C+
The Night Circus: A

War and Peace

I just finished saying that although war movies can be extremely well-made, I'm not generally entertained by them. The subject matter is too harsh for me to have any fun, and I've already taken most of the lessons they have to teach. There needs to be something extra to draw me in. Well, curiously, I have just happened to tackle two properties that approach war that bring that same extra perspective to their frameworks: The politics surrounding war, and how those politics reverberate throughout history just as much as any legendary battle.

The first was Rachel Maddow's recent book Drift: The Unmooring of America's Military Power. Regardless of your political affiliation, try to keep that knee from jerking when you read the author's name. Maddow's argument in this book is that going to war used to be something we went through as a country, all of us together. But as warfare stands now, the public has never been more removed from the battles being fought in our name. It's hard to dispute that assertion, and Maddow does not spare either political party from sharing in the blame for it. Both Reagan and Obama (among others) are taken to task for using executive power to do what the founders pointedly stated should be left up to the legislative branch, and there's plenty conservatives would find to like in her plea that we should take a more traditional stance on how we wage war.

The book is not overly preachy, and takes a light tone where it can. Still, a few chapters did tend to meander away from the central thesis, making the overall work feel a bit too padded. I'd recommend it if you're interested in the topic of the struggle over military use and spending, but you won't come away very cheered.

For a more mainstream work, my mom, sister, and I went to go see Lincoln, which is getting pretty glowing reviews. Despite being named that, the movie actually spends more time discussing the back-room politics surrounding the effort to get the 13th amendment passed (and the Civil War ended) than as some sort of biopic of the president. I liked that. When a movie tries to take on too much, it can get muddled in a hurry.

Daniel Day-Lewis did a phenomenal job, and several of the supporting actors really shined as well, from Tommy Lee Jones to Lee Pace. Though a lot of the acting on display was fantastic, the movie as a whole had some issues. A few lines were too on-the-nose as jokey asides to a modern-day audience, and the scenes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln were rushed, to the point that they honestly could have been left on the cutting room floor.

I don't want to give the impression I didn't like the movie; it's pretty darn good, and serves as a useful reminder that policies we take for granted now were moral and political messes at the time. But it also serves as a reminder that when your story revolves around a lot of talking, it's important to make sure all that wordiness is warranted. Lincoln gives the impression that Honest Abe liked to ramble on and on, but he didn't have a post-production editor.

Drift: B-
Lincoln: B-

The Pantheon: The French Chef

It may appear from reading this blog that pop culture is my ruling passion, but it's actually in second place. Anyone who knows me knows that food and cooking is my real obsession. Someone could say to me "Hey, I just had lunch and then ran into a major celebrity!" and the first thing out of my mouth would be "What did you have for lunch?"

So when episodes of The French Chef became available on Netflix, I jumped at the chance to rent them. Naturally, I'm familiar with Julia Child, but the show itself was well before my time. Most of what I knew of Child comprised a lot of second-hand anecdotes relayed by other people, and I was anxious to see the source material.

The French Chef ran on PBS from 1963-1973, and when I watched the DVDs, it became important to keep reminding myself of that. Sometimes it can be difficult to judge an original work when so much has been based on it since then, and the more I told myself that the show I was watching aired 40 years ago, the more impressed I was.

After all, cooking fine French cuisine was not considered at the time to be something the general populace would be capable of, let alone should want to do. This was the era of those gloriously terrible, gelatinous casseroles. Beef Bourguignon was something you'd have to go to a fancy restaurant for, not something to be whipped up in your kitchen. What a breath of fresh air this show must have been. And now that we've been through a couple of generations of the cooking shows that followed it, it's worked its way around to being a breath of fresh air again.

The French Chef lacks even a hint of the pretension a lot of celebrity chefs display in the modern era. Julia Child did not slap her name on whatever product she thought could rake in a few bucks. She did not earn her reputation solely on the basis of judging reality shows. She did not craft a phony personality so she could come off as more appealing to audiences. Her love of food was and is infectious, and she was never afraid to admit mistakes - some of the most endearing scenes of The French Chef are her attempting to salvage something that she's just goofed.

The use of food and cooking as pop culture entertainment has come a long way in the past forty years, but not all of its advances have been beneficial. I'm not always one to talk about the good ol' days, but in the case of The French Chef, there's a lot the Food Network could learn from the woman who started it all.

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #5: Wuthering Heights

The copy of Wuthering Heights I got from the library is bound in a pale pink cover, with the image of a placid, porcelain beauty on the front. Its back cover includes a quote that reads: "My greatest thought in living is Heathcliff. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be... Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure...but as my own being."

Makes it sound so sweeping and romantic, doesn't it? If you knew nothing about Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which I didn't, you'd assume as I did that it falls into the same category of those other drawing room romances, with hopeful young Englishwomen plotting their schemes for an advantageous marriage. That's not a criticism. I happen to love that style of literature; Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen both hold places of pride on my bookshelf. So, being a fan of the style, I figured it was time to fill in this glaring omission in my reading background, and plunged in. Wow, you people had me fooled.

Wuthering Heights is emphatically not a shy little romance, but a dark, twisted novel of despair and selfishness and petty revenge. None of Austen's heroines would last a week in this setting, where brutal physical fights and constant emotional manipulation are the norms, and the best thing any character can hope for is to be ignored. Rather than a love that conquers the ages, the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine is a mutually destructive dirty bomb that poisons and destroys all around them, and that's how they like it. Both of them are completely egocentric monsters, devoid of compassion for anyone but themselves and each other. If they existed today, they'd have a reality show on E!

It's a very claustrophobic story. The characters are sealed off in two neighboring country houses, and hardly anyone can either penetrate that isolation from the outside, or escape it from within. Who wouldn't go crazy? Heathcliff overhears part of a conversation that would seem to suggest Catherine feels herself too above him to consider marriage, and that one little event sets off a chain of hate and recrimination that will eventually decimate half a dozen lives.

This novel is incredibly pessimistic of human nature. Aside from the Heathcliff/Catherine debacle, there is plenty of child abuse, hypocritical religion, and psychological warfare running rampant through its pages. And if all of this sounds like a complaint, it's not. This book kind of blew me away, mostly because its plot was so unexpectedly bleak. Though nine-tenths of it is morose, Bronte made sure to end on a hopeful note, with the promise that the cycle of pain and heartache endured by this family for two generations may finally be coming to a close.

So, by all means, read it. But the next time someone tries to lump this book in the same category with Sense and Sensibility, don't fall for it like I did. The characters of Wuthering Heights would sooner grab your head and smack it on the fireplace than escort you to the local ball for tea and cakes.

Wuthering Heights: B
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