Monthly Archives: November 2010

Three-Word Review of ‘Tangled’

Stylish cut above.

Captions don't count: Surprisingly more depth and wit than I expected from a Disney princess movie. And don’t be fooled: Even though the marketing campaign shows swashbuckling adventure and boy-friendly pratfalls, the meat of this story is full-on, teen-girl yearning. Which should trigger my schmaltz reflex. As should the typical self-loving scoundrel of a hero who falls in with her in meet-cute predictability. Or the adorable animal-companions-cum-comedic-relief. My eyes should have rolled out of my head and escaped the theater. And yet, they didn’t. I bought it all. And I liked it. Here’s are four reasons why: 1.) Rapunzel’s backstory is set up with the fearless go-for-the-gut instincts of a Pixar film (and it’s no accident Pixar founder and current Disney tree-shaker John Lasseter is the producer). Rapunzel’s mother nearly dies in childbirth, only to lose her newborn to a kidnapper. Then the grieving royal parents launch thousands of candle-powered lantern kites each year on her birthday -- lights that Rapunzel can see each year from her captivity. She is entranced by their beauty while ignorant of their meaning. That’s not quite “Up” levels of pathos, but it’s damn good enough to make me truly care that this wrong is righted. 2.) The animation is punchy, evocative and plum funny. I don’t know what kinds of crippled grips the animators suffered around their digital pens in achieving this, but they wrung every tic, glimmer, wince and furrow for maximum effect in each facial expression. It’s remarkable, especially when your heroine has an alarmingly high eye-socket-to-skull ratio. Rapunzel’s conflicting emotions, her heartbreak and joy, are each hung like portraits in an exhibition. The expressiveness of the supporting cast is just as crisp and humorous. 3.) The villain is the very worst kind of all: A regular human. A bad mom who belittles and whittles away at her daughter’s esteem one slight at a time. She’s no wicked witch (there’s only one spell in the whole Rapunzelverse, and it belongs to the namesake); she’s no wicked stepmother (as in the cartoonishly evil shell of a character from ‘Cinderella’); she’s only this greedy old woman who expresses something like maternal love, dripping with the kind of casual, passive-aggressive malice you’d find at a million American Thanksgiving dinners. It’s very pedestrian, very real, and so much more dreadful than a typical cartoon mustache-twirler. 4.) “Tangled” does the full Joseph Campbell with its hero mythmaking. As you might know, the author of “Hero with a Thousand Faces” identifies death itself as a key milestone in an archetypal hero’s quest, and “Tangled” delivers with gusto. One hero makes the sacrifice of life, which delivers an emotional payoff grander than any Disney fairy tale since “Little Mermaid.” And I think that’s the perfect comparison. Just as Ariel grandly opened the Era of the Disney Princess, Rapunzel closes it with a bookend worthy of the royal bloodline.

 

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A Thanksgiving menu

As much for my own archival purposes as anything, here is the 2010 carte du jour:

APPETIZER

Cheese board featuring Humbolt Fog with Genoa salami and Kerrygold Aged Cheddar with Irish Whisky.

To drink: The “Gingerbread Man” (1.5 oz. vanilla vodka, 4 oz. ginger beer), and Cranberry martinis

ENTREE

Brined, roasted turkey prepared in the traditional manner

Sweet potato soufflé

Endive salad with blue cheese, pears and spice-candied walnuts

Family recipe “Grandma’s rolls”

Homemade stuffing

Cranberry compote, prepared according to the classic recipe sur la poche

To drink: Sokol Blosser “Evolution” table white and 2008 Vouvray Monmousseau

DESSERT

Triple-chocolate pumpkin pie

Pecan squares

To drink:Santa’s Hat” cocktails (with a splash too much grenadine)

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Forbidden Island: The game everyone everywhere must own. Now.

Run, run, RUN to your Barnes and Noble at once and buy the too-good-to-be-true game Forbidden Island before somebody wakes up and realizes what they’ve done.

There is no reason not to buy this game. Here are some major arguments for getting off your couch now and springing into action:

  1. It’s fun. Well duh. No game worth my recommendation would be anything else. More on this in a moment.
  2. It’s cheap. Fifteen bucks. $15. For a game with this many pretty, pretty components, a less-than-30 price tag is unheard of. Outrageous. It’s worthy of full-on, used-car-commercial promotion: “Low low low prices! How do we do it? I don’t know — it’s just crazy! No wonder they call me Crazy Vinnie!” From the sturdy cardboard cards to the amazing art to the miniatures of priceless artifacts, it’s just astounding how many awesome goodies made it into this tin.

    Go down the contents list: Four fancy "artifact" playing pieces, beautiful and sturdy cardboard tiles, wooden pawns, scads of cards and a nifty sliding-counter tool that measures rising flood waters. Oh, and joy -- that just doesn't show up on film.

  3. It’s easy to find. Every now and again Target surprises me by adding an unusual or hard-to-find game of quality to its wares, but that feels rarer and rarer these days as it descends into a soulless purgatory of Whack-a-Mole rip-offs and creaky Monopoly reskins. Usually, a game of this caliber would have to come from a specialty game store, which are hard enough to find as it is. But Barnes and Noble seems to have put the pedal to the metal on fine gaming recently. Their revamped Games section also carry such gamer’s games as Agricola, Dominion, and Settlers of Catan (about time this stealthy juggernaut reached the shores of mainstream stores).
  4. It’s co-operative. So many games pit me versus you, and that’s fine. But it’s a real gem to find a game that lets everybody in the family work together to defeat the game itself. We dither and dicker and barter about who will do what as tension mounts and the game races to defeat us. This means all ages can play, from my 6 to my 10 to us adults. A rare bird.
  5. It’s easy to learn and quick to play. For some people, those two criteria are deal breakers if unmet, and I’m happy to put to ease the minds of those reluctant gamers who look at rows of pretty components and have visions of a 12-hour Risk marathon. This is nothing of the sort. The rulebook is particularly well-written for getting a game up and running on the fly.

These are reasons enough to buy it. You have my permission to stop reading if you, as I assume, are so filled with the Gaming Spirit you must leap to your feet and flee to B&N. If your knees are a bit sore, or you need to finish your morning coffee, I give you leave to take another minute to contemplate the beauty of the gameplay.

You and your team of explorers have touched down on a mysterious island on the hunt for artifacts from an ancient civilization. But the moment you touch down, an ancient curse causes the island to begin sinking. Can you find the four artifacts and escape on the helicopter before the island swallows you all? Can you?

Early in the game, and already we're missing chunks of island.

The actions you can take on each turn are simple: Move. Give a card to another player. Claim an artifact. “Shore up” one of the island pieces (when a tile begins to sink, you flip it over to reveal a washed-out image; this means that a tile is starting to sink. But you can still keep it from sliding into the abyss, if you are swift!).

After your movements you draw cards that help you collect treasure — but which also might trigger the dreaded “Water Levels Rise” action, wherein the island sinks even further.

Later still in the game, and it's starting to feel a little moist around our ankles.

My kids actually shake with anticipation at this point, as the island creeps closer and closer to swamping us. As we scour the island for treasure cards, we shore up crucial pieces of land to keep them from disappearing. The game can beat you two ways: if the right kind of tiles disappear (the tiles where you can claim an artifact), or if the helicopter pad sinks. As these two types of tiles become imperiled, everyone begins to get antsy.

“We’ve got to save the Temple of the Moon!”

“But I need to give you my treasure card so you can claim the chalice!”

“I know, but the waters are due to rise, and if we lose the temple, the game is over!”

“Maybe we can give the chalice cards to someone else so they can claim it before your turn!”

“No time, I’ll never make it over there! We’ve got to take our chances that the Palace of Tides won’t sink before my turn.”

“Gahhh!”

And so on. But when you win — and it’s been about 50-50 so far when we play — the table breathes a sigh of relief as you board the helicopter with your salvaged booty and take flight.

For $15? That’s more than a great purchase. It’s a required purchase. I require you. Go. Now.

Oldest Boy celebrates our victory by re-enacting our helicopter escape from the island. Note the three upside-down tiles in front of the pink-robed girl, representing the last soggy patches of land on the isle; this one was a nail biter.

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Three-Word Review of ‘The Secret of Kells’

Brightest illumination ever.

The Secret of Kells

Captions don’t count: If you value things of beauty, see this movie. My kids enjoyed it, but were a bit confused -- for starters, we had to explain monks and illuminated manuscripts and why Vikings were jerks. Also, the movie departs from a traditional kid-story arc: The final act isn’t about defeating bad guys, but surviving them. While the story ends on an uplifting moment where light is brought into a dark world, it still felt like a downbeat ending to the kids because the good guys don’t sit back and high five at the end. “Did we win?” “I guess…” But no matter; it will grow on them as they mature, because this beautiful work stays with you. The signature art style is built on simplified lines that belie the complexity of illumination, suggestions of which accent the backgrounds and details in surprising ways that delight the eye. Yes, I said “delight the eye.” This movie brings out my inner New Yorker critic. And it would in anybody who has a soul, too. I only regret that “Kells” had to compete against “Up” for Best Animated Film. It really could use a wider audience. See it, see it, see it.

 

BONUS SCREEN GRAB: The Abbot’s bedroom, bedecked in his obsessive blueprints and calculations of a wall he’s building around the abbey. Look. Look!

The Secret of Kells

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The Financial Lives of the Poets: A literary hit right where I live (Literally)

I never really got “The Great Gatsby.” I didn’t read it as part of a school assignment, so I missed out on, apparently, the meaning behind the meaning of a bitter obituary for the American Dream.

What I understand now (thanks to friends of mine who could not believe I thought the book was about the spoiled, annoying people it seemed to be about) is that it is a highly symbolic treatise about the excess of the Jazz Age, and the hollow exuberance of post-war euphoria. It captures (I am told) the cynicism of the New America selling its soul for a quick buck and a cheap thrill.

But what do I care about the 1920s? That was a half century before I was even born. What’s a book that sums up the ennui of an era I’m actually familiar with?

Enter “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” by Jess Walter. This book arrived in my mailbox one day from my friend Chuck who called it “lovely dark and deep,” and “an outlandish but true picture of now.”

“You among my friends might best find its pleasures,” he said a bit poetically himself. Boy, was he right, though. I found pleasure aplenty. Pain, too.

A Daily News quote on the cover calls “Poets” gasp-out loud funny, and I agree. Walter sees the funny clown beneath the Emmett Kelly grease paint, and he teases laughs out of the most casual of observations — unerringly, it seemed, while I had a mouthful of water to choke on. What I didn’t expect all the gasping I’d do from Walter’s dead-on skewering of modern middle-American life. My life.

The star of “Poets” is Matthew Prior, a beleaguered father and laid-off journalist with a ponderous mortgage and a failed start-up in his rear-view mirror and an existential malaise clouding up over the backyard of his midlife and … hold on. I need to mop my brow and pour myself a stiff drink.

The similarities to my life begin to diverge, thank God, as we see Matthew’s despair drive him to some unorthodox solutions to his financial woes, sparked by a chance meeting with a few young stoners in possession of some really stellar ganja. (My record with weed is brief, uninteresting and not the stuff of literary inspiration, which offered me some welcome distance from Matthew’s trajectory.)

First, let me say this about the writing: Walter should be fitted at once for a white, three-piece suit. You may recall from my recent Influence Map that Tom Wolfe is something of a muse of mine. So it is not lightly that I draw a line between the Great White Wolfe and this book. Walter has, like Wolfe, a journalist’s eye for detail and, like Wolfe, a poet’s ear for prose:

Ike was the music writer at the newspaper for years, and oddly enough, given that position, among the squarest people I know. Married. Three kids. Asthmatic and frail. He was probably the only other adult not getting high the last fifteen years. He’s recently been transferred and is covering politics and city government now. On a shrinking staff a music writer is an extravagance they can’t afford. I feel bad for Ike, who spent years developing that weird, specific music-writer vocabulary (the thunky wallop of the bass … the womb-like, plangent guitar …) only to find it doesn’t quite translate to covering politics (the state Senator’s speech “lumbered along like a fussy cover musician scatting a complex hook”).

This is just a flick of Walter’s wrist. The whole book reads with that bouncy style, even when delineating the sad decline of housing prices, economic indicators, and our feelings of self-worth that go with it all.

This mastery alone makes Walter new best friend. But then he really has to get inside my head. He places his characters square in the middle of our collective financial slump, with all the same anxieties regular schmoes like me feel every day. This excerpt made me close the book and step away:

I push the garbage into the alley and turn back toward my home —

My home …

God, this view is breathtaking. This is the view that sold us on the place. The homes on the front of our block sit on wide lots and I still lose my breath at this angle of my house, from deep in the backyard: a long, gently sloped hill leading to big majestic maple trees on either side of our angular, two-story 1917 Tudor, a streetlight on the corner, and the mist of late October rain bands the street with fog so that our big brick house glows in the soft light like a movie set of Old London. From back here, the money the stress, the lifetime of work it will take to pay for this place (I remember calculating the total we’d pay over thirty years and feeling sick) almost seems worth it. Up close, the clinker brick and uneven roof make our house look like it was drawn by the unsteady hand of a child, but from back here, if you squint, there is the faint line of a country manor. This is the house we fell in love with, Lisa and I — the house that has become, in every way, the third party in our marriage, the very sort of big drafty place we always saw each other in when we imagined our married adult lives.

If that uneasy feeling (the lifetime of work almost seems worth it), doesn’t describe two thirds of America, I’ll eat my closing documents. The thing is, I really have dropped off the garbage in the alley and turned around to see my house lit up at night, and though it was filled with happy children and a loving wife doing the things they do in cozy well-lit houses on autumn evenings, I could only see payment schedules and pay stubs. A scary dislocation, as my friend Chuck would call it.

This isn’t a maudlin book, though. Sure, times are grim, but the people in them can be funny and inspired instead. The observations that Walter makes, the flip asides, the inherent screwball adventure of a man who goes out for milk and ends up with a budding marijuana business — they are all roadside attractions on a fast-moving tale of modern toil, filled with despair, yes, but also redemption and recovery. And laughs.

Gatsby may still speak for somebody, but Walter’s financial poetry speaks for me.

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