Enchanted

In theaters.

Looking to Disney for a provocative satire of fairy-tale princess movies is foolish. I knew that going in, but I was hoping, anyway, for some of the pluck of “Petronella” by Jay Williams or “The Long-Nosed Princess” by Priscilla Hallowell—stories I loved as a little girl for the way they applied the magical just-so quality of fables to stories featuring female characters with agency and personality. I wasn’t fundamentally opposed to happy endings or even to princesses; I just couldn’t get interested in girls who only sat there while the boys had all the fun and made all the decisions.

But Enchanted was a disappointment, both to the adult me disgusted with the whole princess culture and to the child me, hidden underneath the cynicism and doubt, hoping for an heir to Petronella and long-nosed Felicity. The movie makes feints in their direction. It lightly tweaks a few conventions and moralizes that after the whole love-at-first-sight thing, you might spend a while getting to know your Twoo Wuv, but all that is just filigree over a story that, at its core, is indistinguishable from those of the movies it teases: just another passive heroine, another lifeless romance.

Giving thanks

The past couple of weeks have been difficult, as several members of my family have been hospitalized with serious health concerns.

No Country for Old Men

In theaters.

The conventional wisdom regarding No Country for Old Men is that it represents a return to greatness for the Coen brothers, a return to the glory of Miller’s Crossing and Fargo. Maybe that’s true, but when I watched it, I didn’t see their fingerprints. I saw Cormac McCarthy’s.

I was introduced to McCarthy’s work during a seminar I took spring term of my senior year of college. I was miserably sick at the time (either a relatively mild case of shingles or a relatively bad case of mono, depending on which doctor you believe—it infuriates me that I don’t have a label to ascribe to two of the worst months of my life), so I stumbled through Child of God and Suttree and Blood Meridian in a weary, queasy fog—an all too appropriate state for those books, which, despite their lyricism, are so nightmarishly grim that they’ll leave you dazed if you aren’t already. Honestly, I don’t consider myself a particularly idealistic person (and god knows I’ve become angrier and more paranoid in the past few years), but if I shared the shockingly cynical, pessimistic worldview McCarthy’s work seems to reflect, I’d end my life.

In any case, watching No Country for Old Men was like reading Blood Meridian. I appreciated its artistry and even enjoyed parts of it in a detachedly intellectual sort of way, but I spent much of the time desperate for it to be over.

Pushing Daisies

Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Five episodes into the first season.

One person’s charmingly sweet whimsy is another’s nauseatingly twee kitsch, and I expected Pushing Daisies would be the latter for me. The convoluted premise, the supersaturated Technicolor visuals, the morbid subject matter, the interminably chaste romance—I wasn’t interested. But our Tivo recorded the pilot on its own, and I thought, what the hell, and despite myself, I fell for the extravagantly quirky drama. It has a genuinely warm heart underneath all the baroque eccentricities, and those baroque eccentricities have grown on me, too. If nothing else, Pushing Daisies is truly distinctive: a unique little gem in a landscape of cop shows, melodramatic soaps, tired sitcoms, and reality TV.

Kiku

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through November 18.

Metaphorically speaking, there’s something unsettling and sad about taking living beings, denying their natural beauty, and forcing them to conform to a standard not their own. But in this case, we’re talking about chrysanthemums (kiku in Japanese), not people, and the results are so extraordinary that even I can’t work myself into too much of a huff over thematic implications.

The botanical garden’s Kiku exhibit showcases traditional Japanese techniques of cultivating the colorful flowers. Plants are trained over a course of months to develop the blossoms for various established forms, supported by frameworks of wire, bamboo, and wood.

Aida

The Metropolitan Opera on Monday, November 5.

At the performance of Aida I attended, a set change drew an enthusiastic round of applause. That cracked me up (a set change?—really?!), but to be fair, the spectacle of Aida is half the fun, and this particular production, by Sonja Frisell, features gorgeous sets that manage to be dramatic without stumbling into kitsch—quite an achievement considering how strongly Egyptian iconography is associated with the Bangles and Steve Martin in American pop culture.

Similarly, the bare plot of Aida—a tragic love triangle between a soldier, a princess, and her slave (secretly a princess herself)—would suggest silly melodrama, like the ballet La Bayadère, but for the most part, the opera avoids that. The three main characters each struggle to reconcile duty to one’s people and duty to oneself, and that theme elevates the lurid romance. Aida’s aria “O patria mia,” for example, is genuinely affecting, a beautifully pained elegy for a lost homeland.

Which leads me to the music. Verdi took the libretto’s Egyptian setting as license to dabble in eerie modal melodies and striking orchestration, and the result is a thoroughly Romantic opera that doesn’t sound quite like any other Romantic opera. Authentically Egyptian it’s not (though of course, we have very little idea what music of the pharaonic period would have sounded like anyway), but it does create a luminous, mystical aura. The achingly beautiful melodies—hinting at far-flung locales—make the star-crossed love story seem exotic instead of familiar.