Magical Mystery Tour

The real world is boring! And when it's not being boring, it's being sad and depressing. It's no wonder readers and audiences are constantly looking to jump into fictional worlds of wonder, be they utopian, dystopian, or something in-between. Of course, authors are members of this unfortunate real world, so they have varying amounts of success in capturing the feel of the supernatural. On that note, I just finished two books that attempt this jump. One did a great job; one... One was not so great.

The first was Susanna Clarke's 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. An admission up front: I had read the synopsis of this book (Two sparring magicians become rivals in their shared goal of bringing magic back to the forefront of 19th-century English society) and thought it sounded like a quick, fun read. While it was plenty of fun, quick it was not. This sucker is 782 pages long.

That's not a knock against it. Reading this book made me feel like I was researching a historical document, which is exactly the feel it was going for. It's tough for a book to put you into the state of mind of another time period, the way TV does all the time, but this one almost makes the reader believe we took it off the shelf to peruse in the 1800s.

After it fades from the mainstream, both the stuffy Mr. Norrell and his apprentice, the younger, more adventurous Mr. Strange, want magic to be a big part of English society again. But while Mr. Norrell trades in theory and research, Mr. Strange wants to use magic more practically, applying it to the English war effort against the French. The relationship between them frays and snaps, and they both begin to meddle with power they cannot control. Other characters are soon drawn into their webs, and magic's reputation with the ruling class becomes the least important problem that the magicians must contend with.

Though it was a long haul, I enjoyed this book, and wonder if it would have made as much of an impression if it were shorter. I do think it's one of those books that has aspects that may be especially appealing to me, and that I shouldn't widely recommend. But if you like the idea of magic being an almost everyday subject, as dense and as full of historical research as astronomy, by all means, give it a go.

I rejoined the modern era with The Three, a 2014 novel by Sarah Lotz. It's arranged as snippets of interviews, basically copying the format of World War Z. The interviews tell the story of Black Thursday, on which four separate planes from four separate airlines on four separate points of the globe all crash. Terrorism is ruled out as the cause, but in an even stranger turn of events, on three of the flights, a lone child survives.

The world immediately begins to try and puzzle out the cause and the meaning of all this. The usual crazy theories about aliens and conspiracies swirl through the internet. The explanation that amasses the most support, though, is that the three children are harbingers of the upcoming apocalypse, and a tide of religious fervor sweeps in.

Pretty cool premise, right? As with a lot of disappointing books, though, a pretty cool premise doesn't mean much if you botch the execution. Most of the book is build-up. A lot of chapters end with statements like "I didn't know that it was the last time I'd ever talk to him," or "Of course, when they found out what happened later, everything changed." Build-up like that has to lead to something pretty explosive. And it doesn't; it ends with a shrug.

This could have been a good book if it had built to the revelation that there were completely rational explanations for the crashes, and all the hysteria was misguided. This could have been a good book if it had built to the revelation that the children who survived really were otherworldly visitors or the messengers of an angry God, and the characters had to deal with the fallout from that. Instead, after all this building and building, the book ends with a smarmy "Gotcha!" and walks away - the equivalent of a twenty-minute joke where the punchline is that there is no punchline.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: B
The Three: C-

The Sound of Silence

Amidst the birthday and other holiday gatherings that pop up on my Facebook invite page, once in a while I'll spot an interesting public event. One of my friends is an organist, and recently, he posted about the local organist group's fundraiser, which immediately caught my attention. And not just because of the promised wine and hors d'oeuvre! The group was also screening a silent movie, for which there would be live organist accompaniment, to approximate the movie-going experience back in the day.

The movie chosen was 1924's Hot Water, starring Harold Lloyd, who was immensely popular at the time. In introducing the movie, the event organizer told the audience a fun fact I'd never heard before: That organists were free to improvise whatever music they felt complemented the film. I'd always assumed that silent movies came with a pre-written score for the organist to play. I had no idea that every individual organist was given free rein to interpret and adapt the themes. Just as a thought experiment, imagine what it would be like if every theater showing Gravity had had a different score. Amazing.

The movie itself was a gas. See, I'm already speaking as if I live in 1924! I was half-expecting it to be a bit stale and dated, but it genuinely made me laugh. It's only about an hour long, and though there's a thin storyline running throughout, it's mostly an excuse to present a few vignettes. Lloyd plays a young husband just trying to lead a normal, pleasant life with his new bride. Mishaps and hijinks ensue. First, there's the matter of trying to get home on the trolley with an armful of groceries, including -- wait for it -- a live turkey. Then, it's time for a relaxing drive in the new car with his wife, her mother and brother, and...some pre-Dennis the Menace neighbor brat, maybe? At dinner, Lloyd accidentally chloroforms his mother-and-law, and mistakenly believes that he has killed her. So, lots of pratfalls and misunderstanding abound, and happily, they all easily translate to modern sensibilities (except maybe bottles of chloroform lying around the house).

The organist was great, too; all of his music choices fit the mood of the movie perfectly. Honestly, I mostly went to this event out of curiosity. It seemed like a different way to see a movie, and I wanted to at least make an attempt at experiencing what it was like to go to the movies in the '20s. I wasn't really expecting to get a kick out of the movie itself, and I've never been happier to be wrong. It wound up being a really fun film and a fun evening, and as a bonus, I got to see it in an era with internet and plentiful sushi restaurants.

Hot Water: B+

Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

Hi! I'm 37 years old! OK, now that that's out of the way, let's talk about kids' movies! Animation has been having a very good time of it, lately. Though it can be difficult to balance story, comedy, and appealing to audience members of all ages, studios have pretty much been knocking it out of the park lately, give or take a Cars 2. I mean, I see a lot of movies over the course of a year, many of which are designed to win awards, and what winds up landing in my list of favorites? Animated kids' movies. I just saw another trio of contenders, so how did they stack up? Let's find out!

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is the latest from Disney, who has taken to copying a lot from the Pixar playbook. That's not a complaint; I've been enjoying the new style quite a bit. In this newest movie, protagonist Hiro is a precocious, science-minded kid in the near-future city of San Fransokyo. His older brother is also an engineer, and when he's killed in an explosion (not really a spoiler - it happens towards the beginning, and c'mon: Mufasa, Anna and Elsa's parents, Nemo's mom, Tiana's father, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.), Hiro takes up his project, an inflatable health-care companion named Baymax. Hiro's own inventions come back to haunt him, so he teams up with his brother's colleagues and Baymax to combat the new threat to the city.

Good stuff first. This movie is gorgeous, and the design of San Fransokyo is a flawless, futuristic meld of American and Japanese culture (I do wonder what happened in World History to create this city. Someone get on a novelization of that). The characters are nicely diverse. Baymax is adorable, and I'll be imitating his fist bump for days. Also, I should mention that Feast, the short in front of the movie, was terrific (though I don't know if I'd think as highly of it if it didn't feature a Boston Terrier. Buuuuuuuuuh cuuuuuuuuute.) All in all, it was a very sweet movie.

That said, when stacked up against its siblings (Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen), it suffers a bit by comparison. Every story beat is overly telegraphed. Though Baymax is a memorable character, none of the humans can claim the same. I'm glad I saw it, but unlike those other movies I just mentioned, I doubt I'll ever have the urge to revisit it.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2

Next up was this 2013 sequel to 2009's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I was surprised by how much I liked the first one, but even given that, I was a little skeptical of the sequel. I shouldn't have been. This time, Flint Lockwood and pals are tasked with dealing with the malfunctioning FLDSMDFR (Flint Lockwood's Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator, silly), which is spitting out food/animal hybrids. I cannot believe how many pure, deep-seated belly laughs this movie got out of me. And it wasn't just the low-hanging fruit (*rimshot*) of food puns! There are actual, story-based jokes that had me almost falling off the couch. The story is a little predictable and thin, but it almost doesn't matter. I got a huge kick out of this one.

The Boxtrolls

Finally, I took in this past September's The Boxtrolls, which was cleverly deployed before Big Hero 6 could steal its thunder. Of the three movies, this one was the weakest, though still not bad. It involves a cheese-obsessed society of humans who lives above a sewer-dwelling race of trolls who are named after whatever product is advertised on the cardboard boxes they wear. The two groups are bitter enemies, but things begin to change when a boy raised by the trolls attempts to reconcile them, with the help of a strong-willed girl who wants nothing more than to see scenes of grim carnage. The stop-motion animation style of this one was extremely well done. In fact, I have zero issues with anything about the technical design of this movie, which is beautiful. But the characters are not particularly engaging, the story is not particularly intriguing, and despite a few shining jokes, the humor is pretty lacking. It sure did make me want to tear into a big pile of cheese, though.

Big Hero 6: B
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2: B+
The Boxtrolls: B-

Sugar Imperatives and the Shortbread Concierge

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 10

Autumn! Autumn! Autumn! It's passing by too quickly. While we've still got it in our clutches, we've packed another episode full of seasonal goodness, so put on a sweater and go listen to Episode 10.

Topics include "No Menu Monday" at Home Wine Kitchen, a new semi-regular segment about our favorite drinks of the season, the majesty of soups and stews, and the food traditions of Halloween. Dibs on all the Mr. Goodbar! We close with Kyle's advice on stocking up the freezer for the cold months ahead, and given the sudden shift in temperature, it has come none too soon. Please enjoy, and feel free to drop a line to fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!
Copyright © Slice of Lime