December 30, 2005

MOVIES: Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

We open with a static shot of an apartment building, over which the opening credits appear -- all of them, in type so small it can barely be read. The shot lasts, essentially unchanging, for at least four or five minutes; we hear a couple begin to speak. Eventually, we realize that we're watching a videotape.

The building on that tape is the home of Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), and it was left on their front step with no note or explanation attached. Georges and Anne continue to receive surveillance tapes, eventually accompanied with child-like drawings of a head gushing blood, and the tapes gradually reveal more intimate knowledge of their lives.

Georges begins to have nightmares about a childhood incident involving the son of Algerian farmhands who worked for his parents, and to wonder if the tapes are related to that incident. But how likely is that, when Georges hasn't seen Majid in forty years; would Majid -- now a man with a teenaged son of his own -- go to such extremes to take revenge for the childish behavior, cruel though it was, of a six-year-old boy?

Writer-director Haneke keeps the audience on edge throughout. The videotapes are indistinguishable from the rest of the film, so every establishing shot might be something other than it appears, and I found myself waiting at each new scene for the camera to move, which seemed to be the most reliable clue that we were in the movie's "real" world and not in another tape.

On one level, Caché is an allegory, with Georges' treatment of Majid meant to represent France's treatment of its African immigrants (and more broadly, the First World's treatment of the Third World), but it's also a psychological thriller of sorts. Georges and Anne, who were (we come to realize) never the best communicators to begin with, find themselves increasingly distanced by Georges' reluctance to share his childhood secrets with her; their son, Pierrot, has grievances of his own which add to the stress on the family.

The thrills are almost entirely mental and emotional, though there is one brief moment of shocking violence; suffice it to say that it's been a long time since I've heard a movie audience gasp in unison.

Who's sending the tapes? Well, we never really do get a firm answer to that question, though if you watch the last scene very closely, you'll see something that hints at a possible solution, albeit one which raises at least as many questions as it answers. Caché will stick with you, and you'll be thinking about its puzzles and issues for days.

December 29, 2005

MOVIES: Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2005)

Aviva is about ten when we meet her, shortly after the funeral of her cousin, Dawn (who was the lead character in Solondz' Welcome to the Dollhouse). Dawn has committed suicide, and Aviva and her mother are reassuring one another that Aviva will not turn out the same way. Dawn's parents didn't love her like we love you, says mom. Aviva replies that she could never kill herself; she wants to have lots and lots of babies, "so I'll always have someone to love."

Jump forward two or three years, and Aviva has -- in rapid succession -- gotten pregnant, been forced by her mother to have an abortion, and run away from home. She falls in with a creepy truck driver, then spends a few days with a family of Up-With-Jesus do-gooders, before returning home to the empty bland suburbia that is the setting for all of Solondz' films. And as the title suggests, we seem to have come full circle. As Aviva's cousin, Mark, tells her in what certainly feels like a Directorial Statement, "No one ever changes. They may think they do, but they don't."

So what are we to make of the fact that Aviva is played by eight different actors, ranging in age from 6 to early 40s -- several teenage girls, an obese African-American woman, an androgynous teenage boy, and Jennifer Jason Leigh? Damned if I know. To his credit, Solondz gets similar enough performances from his multiple Avivas that the transitions aren't as jarring as they might be; they all seem to be playing the same character, with the same flat, dazed, not-quite-there affect.

And there are also good performances from Ellen Barkin as Aviva's mother, who gets the movie's best speech, a viciously self-absorbed explanation of why Aviva has to have an abortion; and Debra Monk as Mama Sunshine, whose kindness and dedication to her houseful of disabled orphans is scary in its intensity.

Solondz is a polarizing director; he isn't prone to letting any of his characters be heroes or villains, and his view of the world can be relentlessly bleak for some. Palindromes doesn't give the audience anyone it can consistently root for, and it's not a movie for those who like tidy happy endings. But it's certainly never boring, and I found enough compelling moments to keep me watching, even if I'm not sure what all those moments add up to.

December 28, 2005

MOVIES: The Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha, 2005)

It starts with the bun.

A very tight close-up, to be precise, of the back of Meredith Morton's head, and a bun so tightly wound that we're almost afraid to see how tightly drawn her face must be. As played by Sarah Jessica Parker, Meredith is very tightly drawn indeed, barking orders into her cell phone and "helping" her boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulroney) buy Christmas presents for his family ("No, the red one," she says as he picks a sweater; he shrugs and buys the red one.)

Meredith is perhaps even more tense than usual, as Everett is taking her home for Christmas to meet the rest of the Stones. We get to meet them first, and they are an intimidatingly warm, close-knit bunch -- parents Sybil and Kelly (Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson); perky rebel Amy (Rachel McAdams); big sister Susannah (Elisabeth Reaser), pregnant with her second; brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano), who's deaf, gay, and in an interracial relationship; and the closest thing the Stones have to a black sheep, stoner Ben (Luke Wilson).

Needless to say, Meredith doesn't fit in -- none of the Stone women has ever worn her hair in a bun -- and it seems painfully clear that this will be one of those cloying, uplifting holiday movies in which the uptight city girl is taught to be lovable and, quite literally, to let her hair down.

The pleasant surprise, though, is that while writer-director Thomas Bezucha doesn't avoid all of the obvious cliches, he avoids enough of them to produce a solidly entertaining movie with fine performances from one of the year's best ensemble casts. The actors playing the Stones get special recognition for having given thought to every single relationship in that familiy; we may never get a major scene featuring Thad and Susannah, for instance, but in their small interactions we can see a very precise dynamic, and we're always aware of the shorthand that family members use to communicate (and to exclude outsiders).

One of the movie's nicest surprises is that Meredith isn't the only one blamed for her disconnect with the Stones; close-knit families really can be intimidating and hard to break into, and Bezucha isn't afraid to show us the smugness that sometimes accompanies that kind of snugness.

Yes, I could have done without the extended slapstick sequence late in the movie, and there's a Tragic Subplot that feels a bit tacked-on, but these actors are so good -- Keaton, Nelson, and (much to my surprise) Parker are the standouts -- and there's such sincerity and warmth in the movie that the flaws and the occasional bit of predictability don't matter quite so much. (Had I been blogging five years ago, I'd have said almost exactly the same thing about Bezucha's first film, the charming gay romance Big Eden.) An unexpectedly sweet holiday delight.

December 27, 2005

MOVIES: Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005)

Bree is about to have surgery that will complete her transformation from male -- she was born Stanley -- to female, when she learns that a fumbling sexual encounter in Stanley's youth resulted in a son. Toby is 17 now, and calls looking for Stanley, hoping that his father will bail him out of jail.

Bree's therapist refuses to authorize her surgery until she meets her son, so Bree goes to New York and gets Toby out of jail; he thinks she's a do-gooder missionary and has no idea that she's his father. (Oy, pronouns can get complicated in stories like this...) The two set out on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles, Bree returning home for surgery, Toby planning to make a name for himself in porn.

The trip itself follows the standard road-trip-of-discovery formula. There are unhappy reunions with families (both Bree's and Toby's), potential romantic interests, hitchhikers with questionable motives, and so forth and so on.

But Felicity Huffman's performance as Bree is so remarkable that the movie is absolutely worth seeing, despite its frequent lapses into predictability. Start with Huffman's physical transformation; her shoulders and jaws are squarer, her hands larger and clumsier, her voice pushed to the bottom of her range. Then notice the careful attention to details -- makeup that's not applied quite right, fingernails that are just a bit too long and too square.

And finally, Huffman nails the emotional turmoil of someone who's still not sure who she is and how to be that person. Teaming her with a 17-year-old boy for most of the movie is a clever move; both characters are (to descend into academic jargon for a bit) still learning how to perform their own identities.

The rest of the movie really isn't up to the level of Huffman's work. Kevin Zegers is adequate, if not particularly memorable, as Toby; in his defense, the character's not very well written. It boggles the mind that he doesn't put the pieces together to figure out who Bree really is long before she finally tells him; Toby may not be a genuis, but he's not that stupid.

Graham Greene has a few nice scenes as one of the many strangers we meet along the way. Fionnula Flanagan, usually such a good actress, is a shrieking harpy as Bree's mother, and seems to think she's doing daytime soap opera.

But oh my, Felicity Huffman is magnificent here. It's an astonishing piece of work, and it should not be missed.

December 26, 2005

BOOKS: The Family Trade, Charles Stross (2004)

"Book One of The Merchant Princes."

That's what it says on the cover. More accurately, this is Book One-Half; the volume ends abruptly in mid-story, without even the slightest attempt to provide resolution of anything. It's an annoying trend in SF and fantasy publishing in recent years.

It's one thing if you're planning a multi-volume mega-series, like that interminable monstrosity Robert Jordan continues to crank out, but this is clearly half of a single novel that is being published in two volumes in order to get twice as much money from the reader. And it's not so thick a book -- about 300 pages -- that doubling it would create an impractically large volume.

Aside from my frustrations about packaging and commercialism, though, this is a most entertaining book that provides a few novel twists on one of the standard fantasy tropes. Once again, our hero is magically transported to an alternate Earth where society has not progressed quite so far as it has here -- roughly medieval, in this case -- and finds that knowledge from our world may be the key to survival.

Among the twists: Miriam Beckstein's jumps from our world to the other are controllable; she simply has to gaze into a locket to make the trip. In fact, "world-walking" is taken for granted in the other world. That's not to say that everyone can do it; it is a hereditary skill, found principally in the royal families.

That sets up our next interesting variation: OtherEarth (I'm going to call it that; I don't believe it's ever given a name) isn't entirely a medieval society; the ruling class lives, unknown to the mass of peasants, a very comfortable and relatively modern existence, funded by the family business. That business involves a lot of jumping between worlds, and it is essentially an import/export business.

There's a lot of political struggle among the ruling families of OtherEarth, and Miriam finds herself in the thick of it; seems that she's the long-lost daughter of a deceased countess, and her reappearance stands to upset the financial plans of several relatives who have been managing her family's financial and political affairs.

Stross has one more interesting change on the formula for us. Generally, the poor schmo who finds himself in another world is utterly ill-equipped to deal with it; he's often not that bright to begin with, and certainly doesn't have any specialized knowledge that would help him cope. Miriam, on the other hand, is a smart woman who deals with the situation intelligently, testing the parameters of her locket's ability; not only that, she's a financial journalist, and knowledge of financial and economic systems may be just what OtherEarth needs.

I look forward to reading part two, The Hidden Family, and Stross has dropped some interesting hints about what will happen there (I'm pretty sure there's at least one more alternate world to be visited). I'd still have been happier, though, if the thing had been published as one novel in the first place.

BOOKS: Ordinary People, Scott Turow (2005)

Every three years, like clockwork, along comes a new novel from Turow. This is his seventh, and it's quite a departure in many ways. It's not principally a legal drama (though some of the characters are lawyers, and there is a legal proceeding at the center of the story), and it's largely set during World War II.

We begin in the present, as Stewart Dubinsky goes through the effects of his father, David Dubin, who has just died. (Stewart has reclaimed the family name David had Anglicized.) Stewart knew that his father had served in the war, and had heard the family stories of how David had rescued his wife-to-be, Gilda, from a Polish prison camp. But he is quite surprised to discover a bundle of letters to David's earlier fiancee, and even more surprised to learn that David had spent time in prison after being court-martialed. Stewart's investigation leads him to the lawyer who had defended his father, and to the memoir of the events that David wrote while in prison; that memoir makes up the bulk of Turow's novel.

David had been a lawyer with the JAG Corps, and was assigned the task of investigating Robert Martin, an American agent who may have gone rogue; Martin claims to be receiving his orders directly from the OSS in London, and the OSS -- the precursor to the CIA -- is far too secretive an organization to simply confirm or deny this to David.

As ever, Turow is a superb storyteller, and he does a good job of keeping clear the many strands of this complicated tale. The battle scenes are appropriately terrifying, and the relationships among the many soldiers we meet are convincing (and appropriately shaded by WWII attitudes about race and sex). I'd prefer that Turow refrain from writing sex scenes; he doesn't do that well at all.

Fine and moving page-turner.

MOVIES: The Producers (Susan Stroman, 2005)

The plot hasn't lost any of its punch since Mel Brooks' original movie was released in 1968: A down-on-his-luck Broadway producer and his nebbishy accountant come up with a scheme to make a fortune by staging a show that's sure to flop; their choice, a light-hearted nostalgic musical romp called Springtime for Hitler, turns out to be a disastrously huge hit. Still, who would have expected that the stage adaptation would have become the most award-winning musical in Broadway history, or turned Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick into theatrical royalty?

And now, here's the movie version of the musical version of the movie, with Lane and Broderick re-creating their stage roles; key supporting players Roger Bart and Gary Beach are also on hand, as is director-choreographer Susan Stroman. They're joined for the movie by Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it's Stroman's first film, and she hasn't toned anything down from the stage version; it's hard to tell if this is a deliberate choice, or if she simply didn't realize how !!!LARGE!!! these theatrical-scaled performances would be on screen. Nathan Lane, in particular, is still playing to the back row of a Broadway theater, and I found myself flinching at his every gesture.

And, this being a movie, Lane and Broderick must contend with the ghosts of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in a way they didn't have to on stage; Lane's performance is just different enough to survive the comparison, but Broderick isn't so lucky. (Maybe there are simply more ways to play brash and desperate than there are to play timid and mousy.) Throughout the movie, I found myself thinking of Wilder's performance in the original, and the comparison was never to Broderick's advantage; the "I'm hysterical" scene is especially hard to watch.

But there is much that works here; Stroman's choreography is often very clever, and her dance scenes are better filmed than those in most recent musicals (though still choppier and less clear than in the classic Hollywood musicals of the 30s and 40s). The casting of supporting roles is impeccable; Ferrell's demented Nazi playwright and Thurman's Swedish bombshell secretary are hilarious. Best of all is Gary Beach as "the worst director in town," who finds himself thrown onstage unexpectedly and plays Hitler as though he were channeling Judy Garland.

And though their performances are far too big for the screen, Lane and Broderick are an undeniably effective team, getting every laugh there is to be gotten. Lane's "Betrayed," which includes a 4-minute summary of the first 90 minutes or so, is a magnificent tour de force; Broderick, though not gifted with the loveliest of voices, is nevertheless charming, and dances very well, especially in his duets with Thurman.

Very mixed feelings here; there are many fine moments, but Lane and Broderick are so over-the-top that the movie can feel like an assault. If you were thinking of going, you really should see it on a large screen, and I think you'll enjoy it; but if you weren't all that interested, I'm not going to argue very hard that you should make the effort.

December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas to everyone!

And, of slightly less cosmic importance, today is also the first birthday of this blog.

December 24, 2005

Meme of the week, popping up almost everywhere, most recently at David's:

Four jobs you’ve had in your life: librarian, waiter, paper boy, pea picker.

Four movies you could watch over and over: Oddly enough, as much as I love movies, I don't tend to be a re-watcher; there are too many movies I haven't even seen once yet. But let's see . . . Beauty and the Beast (the Disney musical; I cry every time Belle comes down the staircase in that yellow gown while Angela sings the title song); Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (brilliant wordplay will always grab my attention); Moulin Rouge (all that spectacle, and the thrilling romance of "Come What May"); and we'll fill the fourth spot with a group of perfect shorts directed by Chuck Jones -- Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, and What's Opera, Doc.

Four places you’ve lived: Albany, VT; St. Louis, MO; Ann Arbor, MI; Los Angeles, CA. The only four places I've lived, actually.

Four TV shows you love to watch: Lost; The Daily Show; Project Runway; My Name Is Earl.

Four places you’ve been on vacation: Another toughie; I'm not a big traveler, and don't tend to go places unless there's a reason for the trip. I've been to New York, Miami, Denver, Dallas, and Montreal, for instance, with various choruses. About the only place I ever go just because I love being there is San Francisco.

Four websites you visit daily: Aside from those listed in the blogroll, there's Salon, Slate, the Los Angeles Public Library, and IMDB.

Four of your favorite foods: a thick ham steak; my mother's stuffed shells; pepperoni pizza; my mother's peanut butter fudge.

Four places you’d rather be: at the movies; in college; on Broadway; San Francisco.

December 20, 2005

BOOKS: Delete All Suspects, Donna Andrews (2005)

4th in the Turing Hopper series.

Tim Pincoski is a young private eye in suburban Washington, DC, whose new client wants him to investigate her grandson's business. Eddie is in the hospital, the victim of a hit-and-run driver, and Grandma thinks it has to do with his work.

Eddie's company -- a small, not terribly organized enterprise -- hosts web space and designs web pages for several small businesses, which means that Tim's friends Maude and Turing are going to be of great assistance. Maude works at Universal Library, a consulting firm that has designed several AIP programs -- that's Artificial Intelligence Personality -- that are experts in various areas; Turing is one of those AIPs, an intellectual jack-of-all-trades, and fully sentient (though only Tim and Maude know this).

The marvel of Andrews' series is that she continues to find ways to keep Turing involved in the action despite her obvious lack of mobility; amazing what a highspeed Internet connection and a few strategically placed webcams will do.

There is also an ongoing background story in the series, involving the theft (Turing would prefer the word "kidnapping") of T2, a copy of Turing's program, also sentient. The thief is apparently trying to rewrite T2's program to keep the smarts but lose the sentience; a mind like Turing's, after all, would be of great benefit to a criminal, were it not for that annoying conscience. Andrews stretches a bit hard at the end of this book to tie that background story into her main plot; it's time, I think, to devote a book to resolving the T2 story.

Lightweight stuff, but written with great charm and always entertaining.

December 18, 2005

Here's my contribution to the latest iTunes meme making its way through the blogosphere. It originated at Don Nunn's blog, and I discovered it at Robert Gable's aworks.

How many songs?
2,874 songs, 8.24 GB, 6.2 days total playing time. Not as large as some libraries I've seen, but I've been slow about loading my CD collection; I will eventually have to abandon my 20G iPod for a larger model.

Sorted by song title, the first and last songs:
'Til I Can Make It On My Own / Martina McBride; Zorba the Greek / Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass

Sorted by artist, the first and last songs:
96 Tears / ? and the Mysterians; Mister Loveman / Yvonne Carroll

Sorted by album, the first and last songs:
Every Morning / Sugar Ray (from 14:59); Your Tender Loving Care / Buck Owens (from Your Tender Loving Care)

Top 10 most-played songs:
The Joy of Pickled Okra / Da Vinci's Notebook
That Lonesome Road / Chicago Voice Exchange
Words Enough to Tell You / The Mascots
Xanadu / Olivia Newton-John & ELO
Stay Awhile / The Clovers
Tracy / Cuff Links
Eye in the Sky / Jonatha Brooke
A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow / Mitch and Mickey
10 Rocks / Shelby Lynne
Dancing Queen / Frida & The Real Group

10 most recently played songs:
Music of Heaven / Jason Robert Brown
I Love You More Than Cheese / Adam Bryant
Till I Can't Take It Anymore / The Beautiful South
Baby Got Back / Jonathan Coulton
Hide and Seek / Imogen Heap
Caravan of Love / The Housemartins
Surfer Girl / Phranc
Wishful Thinking / The Ditty Bops
Over the Weekend / The Playboys
Trust In Me / Holly Cole Trio

Find “sex”; how many songs?
24, most of which are performed by The Essex; only Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing" actually has "sex" in the title

Find “death”; how many songs?

Find “love”; how many songs?

Find “peace”; how many songs?

Find “rain”; how many songs?
46, but that includes a lot of"train" songs

Find “sun”; how many songs?

December 12, 2005

There's a new word creeping into the language, and its usage is a nasty bit of linguistic hypocrisy.

The word is "Christianist," and it's being used by Christians on the left (or what passes for the left within the narrow ideological band of organized Christianity) to describe certain Christians on the right.

The complaint of those who use the word "Christianist" is that the right wing of the religion is too rigid and exclusionary in its definition of who gets to be considered a Christian -- no gay people, no pro-choice people, etc -- and that this exclusionary tendency isn't a characteristic of genuine Christianity; they therefore don't deserve to be called Christians.

It is certainly true that at the extreme right wing of Christianity, there is a mighty big heap of hatred and exclusion going on. But in adopting the word "Christianist" to describe these folks, the left is doing precisely the same thing -- declaring that some of their co-religionists are too extreme in some fashion to be considered real Christians.

I'm not one to defend any sort of organized religion, and trying to distinguish one group of invisible-bully-in-the-sky cultists from another is rather like trying to distinguish chickpeas from garbanzos. But if the left really wants to make Christianity more inclusive, they're not going to do it by adopting the very exclusionary tactics they claim to loathe.

December 10, 2005

MOVIES: Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005)

The Johnny Cash story -- at least that part of it told here -- is very familiar stuff. Childhood trauma, early financial struggle, sudden rise to stardom, drug abuse and the resulting crash, salvation in the hands of a good woman -- it's every episode of Behind the Music you've ever seen. And with Ray still so recent in our memories, the story seems even more stale.

Walk the Line is still worth seeing, though, for the lead performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter. Witherspoon does her best work here, capturing both June's professional insecurity -- she believes herself to be unworthy of her famous performing family -- and her private strength, as she refuses to give in to her love for Cash until he's proven himself worthy of that love.

Phoenix and Witherspoon do all of their own singing, and while they don't really sound like Cash and Carter, they get the style and the attitude right. Phoenix's accomplishment in lowering his voice an octave or so, to match Cash's booming bass, is especially impressive.

There are nice supporting performances from Ginnifer Goodwin as Cash's first wife, Vivian (some of Vivian's children have complained about the way she's portrayed in the movie) and Robert Patrick and Shelby Lynne as his parents.

Walk the Line is not as good a movie as Ray, but Phoenix's performance is better than Jamie Foxx's was, and Witherspoon's performance is magnificent.

MOVIES: Rent (Chris Columbus, 2005)

Let's be honest: Rent isn't a very good musical. The lyrics are trite and uninteresting, and the melodies sound like bad 80s pop songs. Had composer Jonathan Larson not died just as the show was about to open, Rent would have closed after a short off-Broadway run, and would have been received as a mildly promising first attempt. Larson's death, though, allowed the show's publicists to position him as the Tragically Lost Voice of a New Generation, and the show took on an emotional force that it hadn't really earned on artistic merit alone.

And so the show runs and runs, having become an essential part of the New York tourist experience simply by virtue of its own longevity. Now that the film musical is making a comeback, it was inevitable that someone would take a shot at filming Rent.

What wasn't inevitable -- or, I'm afraid, very wise -- was the choice to bring back as much of the riginal cast as possible. Six of the eight principal actors are veterans of the original 1996 Broadway production; their characters are supposed to be in their early-to-mid 20s; these six actors range from 30 to 37. They're too old for these parts, and it's distracting. (The two newcomers are younger, but that doesn't help in both cases. Rosario Dawson is 26, but her character tells us she's 19, and another character says she looks 16. Only Tracie Thoms, whose character is the most mature of the central group, isn't uncomfortably old for her role.)

The actors are certainly comfortable with the singing and acting demands of their roles, and there are a handful of effective moments -- the "Tango: Maureen" is wittily staged, and a gospel-tinged version of "I'll Cover You" is quite lovely -- but all the hard work can't make up for the weakness of the material. I suppose that die-hard Rent fans will be happy to have a film record of the show, but they're the only ones who will take much pleasure from the movie.

BOOKS: St. Albans Fire, Archer Mayor (2005)

Sixteenth in Mayor's series about Vermont policeman Joe Gunther.

Seventeen-year-old Bobby Cutts is killed in a barn fire that appears to be arson, one in a string of fires hitting family farms in northwestern Vermont. Gunther's investigation begins with local real estate speculation, and eventually points to the unlikely involvement of the Newark mob.

I think that Mayor is one of our most underrated crime writers; he deserves to be far better known than he is. He's sixteen volumes into this series, and the Gunther novels haven't gotten stale the way some long-running series have. (How long has it been, for instance, since either of the Kellermans wrote a decent book?)

The details of police work feel right, with interesting bits of knowledge -- did you know that potato chips are a commonly used fuel in arson fires? -- and the rural setting is an interesting departure from the urban norm for procedurals. Mayor's cast of regular supporting characters are appealing and distinctive; Willy Kunkle is one of the best such characters in the genre. (Admittedly, Willy only works in small doses; The Sniper's Wife, in which Willy took center stage, was one of the weakest entries in the series.)

As for the mystery in this particular volume, the clues are fairly planted, and the red herrings are appropriately distracting. Another solid book from an overlooked author.

December 08, 2005

BOOKS: Spook, Mary Roach (2005)

Roach's follow-up to Stiff (which I commented on here) is written just as well, and Roach is just as entertaining and witty, but the book doesn't work quite so well, principally because of its subject matter.

Stiff was about the varied uses science has made of human corpses over the years; Spook is about attempts to prove the existence of the human soul. Science is the wrong field for study of the soul, though; it's a matter for religion and faith, and attempts to study it using scientific techniques can't help but look foolish. Roach tries to take their work seriously, but her natural skepticism (quite justified in all cases here) shines through, and she never seems as interested in her topic this time around as she did in Stiff.

December 06, 2005

BOOKS: Don't Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff (2005)

Marvelous collection of essays, loosely built around the theme of the foolish luxuries we Americans indulge in. Fashion Week in Paris, $15-a-pound salt, Puppetry of the Penis, and contrasting flights (on the Concorde and Hooters Air) are among Rakoff's topics.

Here's a sample, in which Rakoff finds himself overwhelmed by a seemingly endless series of runway shows:

My shirt front is transparent from the more than half a bottle of water with which I have doused myself and I am feeling incredibly shaky and I no longer have the capacity to articulate anything. I like pretty things, I suppose, and things that make me feel stuff, but if there were a gun at my head at this moment, I couldn't elaborate on that thought. Suddenly it all feels beyond my grasp. My aesthetic comprehension of the entire century -- why the Jasper Johns American-flag painting is so good; why it should trouble me that artists like Damien Hirst don't do the actual physical making of their art, while it doesn't bother me that Frank Gehry isn't laying his own titanium siding; why the directors of the French New Wave spawned generations of cineastes who consider Kiss Me Deadly a masterpiece while I just can't bear that movie -- it's all running through my fingers like sand. All my fancy education and artfully crafted cant can't help me now. I am feeling linear and literal and must not be mentally taxed with anything more difficult than the sledgehammer subtle symbolism of, say, a butterfly landing on a coffin. Where was I? Oh, that's right: I like pretty things. Tell me about the rabbits, George.

The best piece here is a long profile of Patrick Guerriero, head of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican lobbying group. Rakoff is perplexed by the very idea of a gay Republican, comparing it to "the cow helpfully outlining its tastiest cuts on its side with chalk, while happily pouring the A-1 sauce over its own head."

Rakoff's humor is less flashy than that of David Sedaris, with whom he's often compared (40ish gay humorists, both well-known for their appearances on radio's This American Life), and for my money, Rakoff's the better writer; Sedaris may be funnier in short bursts, but I find his humor overly aggressive and wearying after a while. Rakoff's a bit more understated, and the humor never becomes overwhelming. He's a sharp, observant writer, and this is a solid, entertaining collection.

December 01, 2005

BOOKS: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, George Saunders (2005)

Saunders' little fable is a study in tone, so let me quote the first few paragraphs to give you a sense of it:

It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.

Whenever the Outer Hornerites looked at the hangdog Inner Hornerites crammed into the Short-Term Residency Zone, they felt a little sick, and also very patriotic. Inner Hornerites were pathetic and whiny and grasping, unlike them, the Outer Hornerites, who for many years had been demonstrating their tremendous generosity by allowing the Inner Hornerites to overflow into the Short-Term Residency Zone. Not that the Inner Hornerites appreciated it. No, they never wept with gratitude anymore, only stood very close together, glaring resentfully at the Outer Hornerites, who, having so much room, had no need to stand close together, and in fact could often be seen drinking coffee at the spacious Outer Horner Cafe with their legs thrown out in the aisles, causing the
Inner Hornerites to wonder: Jeez, couldn't those jerks spare us a couple hundred extra spare yards of that vast unlimited country?

For their part, the Outer Hornerites felt that, yes, okay, their country was big, but it wasn't infinitely big, which meant they might someday concievably run out of room. Besides, what if they gave more of their beloved country to Inner Horner and some other crummy little countries came around demanding more of Outer Horner? What would happen to the Outer Horner way of life, which was so comfortable and afforded them such super dignity and required so much space? Well, those Inner Hornerites could take a flying leap if they considered Outer Hornerites selfish, it was pretty nervy to call someone selfish while standing on land they were letting you use for free.

That's the setup, and Saunders quickly sets his plot in motion as Inner Horner suddenly shrinks, becoming so small that none of the Inner Hornerites can fit into it, and since the Short-Term Residency Zone is too small to hold all seven of them, an Inner Hornerite is forced to step outside the Zone into Outer Horner. This is not well received by the Outer Horner Border Guard and Militia, or by Phil, the guy who happens to be sitting at the cafe enjoying his coffee at the moment of the shirinkage.

Phil eventually takes control of the situation, and he is precisely the wrong man for the job. Jingoistic and chauvinistic at his best, Phil also has the unfortunate tendency to literally lose his brain when he gets excited, as it goes sliding off his head (Saunders' characters aren't exactly human).

There's a tricky balancing act happening here. There's just enough bite in those opening paragraphs to keep them from being too precious for words; as the story gets darker and darker, the balance shifts, and the whimsy becomes the counterbalance that keeps the story from getting too dark to bear (it is ultimately, after all, a story about attempted genocide).

Saunders wimps out a bit at the end; there's a literal deus ex machina to provide a happier ending than the preceding events should allow. But aside from the last few pages, this is a marvel of precisely controlled writing, evoking horror and chuckles in equal measure.

November 22, 2005

I'm leaving town for the Thanksgiving holiday; there will likely be no new posts here for a week or so. Happy holidays, y'all!

BOOKS: Wicked / Son of a Witch, Gregory Maguire (1995/2005)

I hadn't reread Wicked since it was published ten years ago, and I'm happy to find that it's just as good as I'd remembered it.

Wicked is a prequel of sorts to The Wizard of Oz, giving us the life story of the Wicked Witch of the West, who is named Elphaba (a name derived by Maguire from L. Frank Baum's initials). We follow her through a difficult childhood (everyone is shocked when she is born green); her college education at Shiz, where she meets Glinda; and her transformation into a politically aware anti-Wizard activist. Dorothy and company show up only at the very end (and as far as I'm concerned, the less Dorothy, the better), and we finally learn exactly why Elphaba is so determined to get back her sister's red shoes.

It's a fabulous book, and Elphaba is one of the great fictional characters of the last decade. She's prickly, difficult to deal with, and uncompromising, but fiercely loyal to her friends and her causes; her relationship with Glinda is one of the best portraits of friendship I know.

It's not surprising that the Elphaba-Glinda relationship became the focus of the musical adaptation; Glinda is elevated to a co-star in the musical, and huge chunks of Maguire's novel are abandoned entirely. That's not a criticism; it is the nature of adaptation, and the musical that was fashioned out of Wicked is a fine piece of entertainment.

Son of a Witch is most definitely a sequel to Wicked, the novel; anyone coming to it knowing only the musical will be quite confused. The central character of the new book doesn't even exist in the musical.

That character is Liir, who we last saw cowering in fear as Elphaba was killed; he had been traveling with her for as long as he can remember, and he may be -- no one is quite sure, even Elphaba -- her son. As Son of a Witch opens, it's some ten years later, and Liir is found by a group of travelers in a gully, where he's been left for dead. He is taken to the Cloister of Saint Glinda to recover, which turns out to be one of the places he and Elphaba had lived for a time.

One of the cloister's young novices, Candle, is tasked with tending to him, and as she helps him to recover his health, Maguire flashes back through Liir's adolescence, showing us how he reached this point.

Like Wicked, Son of a Witch is concerned with destiny, with how we respond to others' perception of us, and with the nature of good and evil. The new book is interesting; if it doesn't quite rise to the level of Wicked, well, very few books do.

At the heart of the problem is that Liir simply isn't as interesting a character as Elphaba was; for most of the book, he's an indecisive, passive character. The book does pick up steam at the end when Liir finally realizes that adulthood means making choices and taking responsibility. But even if Liir is a bit flat, Maguire's Oz is a marvelous place to visit, and his notions about the political realities of life there are intriguing.

November 19, 2005

MOVIES: Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (Liam Lynch, 2005)

Half concert film, half original songs/sketches from Sarah Silverman.

I'd been looking forward to this one since The Aristocrats, the one-joke documentary in which Silverman gave the joke one of its funniest twists by pretending that it wasn't a joke at all. Unfortunately, those few minutes are funnier than anything in Jesus Is Magic.

Silverman's shtick is to play up the contrast between her innocent, sweet-natured demeanor and the button-pushing offensiveness of her material; she repeatedly describes her jokes as "edgy." She's especially fond of using shocking ethnic jokes as a way of making fun of racists. Before The Aristocrats, in fact, she was probably best known for the controversy surrounding her appearance on Conan O'Brien's show, where she used the word "chinks," offending Asian-American activists who didn't quite get the point.

She talks about that incident briefly here, and it's one of her better moments. "I saw myself on TV, being portrayed as a racist," she says (and all quotes here are from memory). "As a Jewish person, I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media."

There are some nice small jokes here (worrying about her biological clock: "The best time to have a baby is when you're a black teenager"), and Silverman delivers her material with impeccable timing, but the act never finds a focus; each joke gets its laugh and we're instantly on to something else, never sticking with any idea long enough to build to a really great comic capper.

The original songs that occasionally interrupt Silverman's act aren't particularly memorable, though she sings them well enough; her encore performance of "Amazing Grace," though, is unforgettable, and gives the movie its funniest two minutes.

November 14, 2005

MOVIES: 5x2 (François Ozon, 2004)

A couple signs divorce papers; they host a dinner party; their son is born; they are married; they meet. Those five events, in that order, are all we see of Gilles' and Marion's relationship.

Since we know from the first minute of the movie that this marriage is doomed, we can't help but watch each scene looking for the reasons why, but there are no easy answers. We can see at every stage, even their first encounter at an Italian resort, that Gilles tends to be hostile and Marion passive, and that they really aren't quite suited for one another, but they don't seem any less likely to succeed than most other couples.

It's as if the story is told in the cracks, with the audience forced to draw its own conclusions about what happens in the months and years between these five glimpses. And maybe that's the point. We can never know the whole story; even Gilles and Marion don't seem to know what's happening, and they're the ones living it.

This is the least flashy movie we've seen from Ozon, with none of the puzzle-plotting of Swimming Pool or the elaborate staging of 8 Women, but its quiet depiction of a slowly dying relationship is fascinating to watch and the final scene is quite lovely, given a wistful sadness by our knowledge that this perfect moment is only going to lead to unhappiness. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Stéphane Freiss are marvelous in the lead roles.

November 12, 2005

MOVIES: Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)

Jane Austen's devotees take her work very seriously indeed, to the point that one feels almost obliged to establish one's credentials before talking about the movie. But the sad truth is, I have no credentials. Pride and Prejudice was assigned reading when I was in high school -- a cruel thing to do to a 17-year-old boy -- and it was the closest I ever came to not finishing an assigned book. I hated it, hated it, hated it, and though I've tried several times over the years, I've never been able to get through any of Austen's novels.

And I have also not seen the 1995 BBC miniseries that everyone seems to agree is the finest film version yet made of Pride and Prejudice, so I can offer no opinion on how Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen compare to the critically acclaimed Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the roles of Elizabeth and Darcy. All I can do is judge this movie on its own terms, which when you get down to it, is all the criticism that any movie should be subjected to.

Despite my loathing for Austen's novels, I've often very much enjoyed the movies based on them -- Emma, Clueless, Sense and Sensibility. And I liked this one, too.

The plot is familiar to most, I'm sure, recounting the romantic travails of the five Bennet sisters, focusing mostly on Elizabeth. Lizzie detests Mr. Darcy on first meeting, and continues to loathe him strongly enough to turn down his proposal of marriage. This, despite the financial security it would bring, and Austen never lets us forget that marriage at the beginning of the 19th century was at least much a finanical proposition as a romantic one (and this particular movie seems to be even more aware of that than other Austen films I've seen). She ultimately realizes how harshly she's judged him, of course, allowing for the obligatory happy ending.

Knightley and MacFadyen are clearly meant to be together from the beginning, filmed in ways that emphasize their similarities. Early on, it's all about sharp angles -- his severe cheekbones; her collarbones, on which you could slice a tomato -- but both faces soften as they recognize how poorly they have misjudged one another.

MacFadyen is the movie's weak spot; he's a bit on the stiff side, and never the sweeping romantic hero that Darcy ought to become. Knightley, on the other hand, is quite charming, and plays Lizzie's sharp wit very nicely; this is a woman who knows exactly how to be viciously cutting without ever violating the strict rules of ettiquette.

There are a host of excellent supporting performances. Donald Sutherland is Mr. Bennet, slightly at sea in a home of women, but always in charge; Brenda Blethyn dithers effectively as Mrs. Bennet. Simon Woods is perhaps a touch too contemporary-geek as Mr. Bingley, but Tom Hollander is quite effective as the dreary Mr. Collins. Judi Dench does her now-routine aggrieved regal bitch performance as Lady de Bourg. Rupert Friend, as Mr. Wickham, looks so much like Orlando Bloom that you can practically hear the producers screaming, "What do you mean, we can't get Orlando Bloom?" (It seems clear that Wickham's subplot, involving his scandalous relationship with the youngest Bennet sister, has been hacked to shreds here; I'm still not entirely sure what the heck happened or who did what, except that -- as usual -- money was involved.)

The movie's sets are messier than we expect from this sort of period piece. Hems are muddied are hair occasionally out of place; laundry hangs on the line; animals occasionally wander through the Bennet house (it is a farm, after all). Class distinctions are sharply foregrounded here, making Elizabeth's rejection of marriage proposals (yes, she turns down two suitors) all the more shocking and dramatic.

A more emotionally involving Darcy might have allowed this Pride & Prejudice to be a great movie, but even with MacFadyen in the role, I enjoyed it a lot.

MOVIES: The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)

This is a ruthless, darkly comic look at a family going through divorce in the 1980s, loosely inspired by Baumbach's own childhood.

Bernard and Joan Berkman (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney) are both writers; his career's hit a slump and hers is just picking up steam, which may be one of the contributing factors to their separation. Their sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), instantly take sides, Walt siding with Bernard and Frank with Joan. There's no tidy plot or easy summing-up at the end of the movie; we're simply watching a few difficult weeks in the lives of this family.

Jeff Daniels is terrific here, and deserves an Oscar nomination; Bernard is an utterly self-absorbed, pompous jerk, and Daniels never backs away from the character's most appalling traits, or winks at the audience to try and separate himself from Bernard. Daniels is willing to be hated, which I have always believed is one of the things that separates great actors from very good ones. (It's the biggest thing that keeps Tom Hanks, for instance, from ever doing truly great work.)

The rest of the cast, if not quite at the magnificent level Daniels reaches, is also very good; Owen Kline (the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) gives as realistic a portrayal of early adolescent confusion as I can remember seeing. The ensemble is rounded out with solid supporting performances from William Baldwin, Anna Paquin, and Halley Feiffer. A fine movie, well worth your time.

MOVIES: The Dying Gaul (Craig Lucas, 2005)

Playwright Craig Lucas makes his directing debut, adapting his own play for the screen. For the three lead roles, he's landed three of our finest actors -- Peter Sarsgaard, Campbell Scott, and Patricia Clarkson -- each of whom is ideally cast. Unfortunately, the story is so absurd and the ending such overwrought melodrama that even those fine actors can't save it.

Sarsgaard is Robert, a screenwriter about to sell his script The Dying Gaul to producer Jeffrey (Scott). The script is loosely based on the recent death of Robert's lover, which makes Robert very reluctant to give in to Jeffrey's major condition: The script must be rewritten to make the central couple heterosexual. ("Most of America," Jeffrey explains, "hates gay people." "What about Philadelphia?" asks Robert. "Philadelphia," says Jeffrey, "is about a man who hates gay people. And it's been done.") But a million dollars is a lot of money, and Robert gives in; he and Jeffrey eventually begin an affair, even as Robert is becoming friends with Jeffrey's wife, Elaine (Clarkson).

A promising enough beginning -- and that first long negotiation scene between Robert and Jeffrey is the best thing in the movie -- but it's hard to get past the implausible idea that Robert can't find anyone willing to buy his script as is, especially if it's as good as we're told. The movie's set in 1995, by which time there were certainly companies in the business of producing gay films. (Strand Releasing, for instance -- the company releasing Lucas's The Dying Gaul -- had been around for at least five years, and Robert's The Dying Gaul would have been right up their alley.)

And as the movie winds on, with these three learning one another's secrets and betraying one another in increasingly convoluted and cruel ways, the absurdities become too much to bear (how does Elaine learn everything she would need to know to torment Robert as she does, for instance?). The principals do fine and valiant work, but as good as they are, they can't overcome the increasingly silly story.

On the plus side, the art direction is terrific -- Jeffrey and Elaine's fabulous home in the Hollywood Hills is practically a character in its own right -- and the music by Steve Reich (not an original score, but excerpts from his existing work) is effectively chosen.

November 09, 2005

Francesco Marciuliano's online comic strip Medium Large is always fun, but today's installment is particularly good.

November 05, 2005

BOOKS: Divided Kingdom, Rupert Thomson (2005)

Thomson sets up a wildly implausible premise here, and you have to swallow hard to get past it if you're going to enjoy the book at all.

The United Kingdom (never actually named, but that's clearly where the book takes place) is on the verge of social collapse. Crime, racial strife, economic troubles -- all are on the rise, and the government has reached the conclusion that the nation as it stands is ungovernable. It is therefore decided to forcibly separate the population into four new nations. And on what basis is that division to be made? Why, the humours of the citizenry, of course.

The "humours" is a medical/psychological concept that's been discredited since the Middle Ages or so, the notion that our basic psychology is based on imbalances of bodily fluids. Thomson never takes time to explain why this theory has come back into vogue so strongly that it would be used as an organizing concept. But onward we go, with the nation divided into Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow Quarters, homes to (respectively) the sanguine, melancholy, phlegmatic, and choleric.

Our hero is eight years old at the time of The Rearrangement; he is sent to the Red Quarter and a new family, who rename him Thomas Parry. As an adult, Thomas becomes a member of the bureaucracy responsible for psychological classification and relocation; this provides him the opportunity, unavailable to most, to visit the other Quarters.

For a little while, the book holds some interest as a sort of Gulliveresque travelogue through these four societies, but the second half steadily loses energy. The final chapters, when Thomas's actions should lead to some dramatic action, instead dwindle away to a sadly anticlimactic ending.

Thomson's writing is quite nice, but the premise is so absurd and the ending so disappointing that Divided Kingdom falls painfully flat.

MOVIES: Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005)

Based on Anthony Swofford's memoir, this is the story of a group of Marines sent to Saudi Arabia as part of the buildup to Operation Desert Storm -- the first Gulf War. They've been trained to fight and kill; Swofford is a scout/sniper. But their mission consists of guarding Saudi oil fields that aren't currently under attack; it will be six months before American soldiers actually get involved in the Iraq-Kuwait conflict, and when they do, the war will last for only four days.

So Jarhead is about the frustration that comes about when there isn't much happening, which is potentially a deadly subject for a movie; if nothing's happening, how do you hold the audience's interest? It's easier in a book, where the author can tell us what he's thinking, but converting a story about internal emotional states to the screen isn't easy. Director Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. don't quite pull it off.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford, and the movie is told from his point of view, with the result that this is an even more anonymous group of soldiers than we usually get in war movies; Swofford doesn't get to know any of them very well, so neither do we. The exception is Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Troy, Swofford's sniper-team partner; he gives a fine, subtle performance as a man gradually collapsing under the stress of inactivity and the desire to see combat.

The other major role in the movie is the unit's commander, Staff Sergeant Sykes, played by Jamie Foxx, who displays a maturity and gravitas unlike his previous work. Dennis Haysbert makes a nice impression in a two-scene cameo performance that makes me wish someone would cast him in a comedy. (Which isn't to say that his scenes are funny, exactly -- the second isn't at all -- but there's something about his timing that makes me think he could be hilarious if someone found the right way to use his size and deep, booming voice.)

But Gyllenhaal is at the center of the movie. The screenplay doesn't give him any of the usual devices to communicate his feelings verbally -- there are no letters home, there's only a small amount of voice-over narration, and Marines aren't encouraged to share their problems with one another -- and Gyllenhaal doesn't manage to get them across non-verbally. It's a very blank performance, and Swofford, despite being the movie's central character, blurs into the group of anonymous soldiers. I kept wanting Sarsgaard to come back and give the movie a jolt of energy.

November 01, 2005

TV/BOOKS: A "Lost" novel

The folks at ABC have come up with another way to cash in on the success of Lost. They've announced that an upcoming subplot will deal with one of the characters who didn't survive the plane crash that stranded everyone on an island. That character is a novelist who had just turned in his latest manuscript to Hyperion Books (an ABC sister company); the manuscript did survive the crash.

Hyperion will publish that book, a private eye thriller called Bad Twin, and has hired a "well-known" mystery writer to write it; it will be published under the name of the Lost character who "wrote" it.

This isn't ABC's first such venture. A character from the soap opera One Life to Live published a mystery novel earlier this year, and the "diary" of a character from the Stephen King miniseries Rose Red was mildly successful a few years back (those books were actually written by Michael Malone and Ridley Pearson, respectively).

But given the obsessiveness of Lost fans, and their desire to find clues to the show's many mysteries, this will probably sell like crazy.

October 31, 2005

BOOKS: The Brothers Bishop, Bart Yates (2005)

What a mess of gay-fiction cliches this is. Let me summarize the story for you, and don't be bothered by the fact that I'm giving away plot elements, because not a single one of them is surprising, anyway.

Tommy and Nathan are brothers, both gay, survivors of a miserable childhood with a now deceased, emotionally abusive father. Tommy's 29, and he's the golden boy -- pretty, blond, sunny disposition, enjoys sex. Nathan's 31; he's the dark, brooding, bitter one who still lives in the small town where the boys grew up, and is more circumspect about his sexuality (in part because he's a high school teacher in a small town) to the point that he hasn't gotten laid in five years.

It's summer, and Tommy's coming back to the family seaside home for a visit, bringing his current boyfriend, Philip, and their friends Kyle and Camille. Philip's just beginning to realize that Tommy's not a long-term kind of partner; Kyle and Camille are having marital problems, mainly because Kyle is -- all together now! -- a closet case.

Also hanging around the house this summer is 15-year-old Simon, one of Nathan's summer-school students; Simon's being beaten by his father, and is -- you got it -- beginning to come to terms with his own homosexuality. Kyle flirts with Nathan; Tommy flirts with Simon; when it's all over, everyone is miserable, and Tommy is dead.

There's a lot to hate about this book. Tommy's death falls into the old tradition, which I had once dared to think obsolete, that any character who actually likes being gay must be punished with death for his happiness. The principal characters are all terribly cavalier about Tommy's sexual conquest of a boy half his age; the only one who's bothered is Nathan, and Yates paints him as such an uptight jerk that we're clearly meant to see his disapproval as outdated prudishness.

Then there's the heavy-handed symbolic subplot about the local history nut who's digging up the family cornfield, hoping to find evidence of an ancient Indian village. Ooo, digging up the buried past -- can't get much less subtle than that.

The Brothers Bishop is an awful book, and could only be recommended as a "what not to do" study aid for the aspiring novelist.

October 30, 2005

BOOKS: Third Girl from the Left, Martha Southgate (2005)

Marvelous, lovely novel about three generations of African-American women and the power of the movies.

We start with Angela, who leaves Tulsa for Los Angeles in 1970, just in time to find very small-scale success playing bit parts in blaxploitation films. Then we meet her mother, Mildred, who was 8 years old when her mother was killed in Tulsa's 1921 race riots, and who has sought solace at the movie theater ever since. Finally, there is Angela's daughter, Tamara, who grows up in Los Angeles before going to film school in New York. The Edwards women are not a close-knit family; Angela's departure has estranged her from her mother, and she refuses to even talk to Tamara about her family

Their three stories are beautifully told, and the book builds to a powerful conclusion as the three women are finally reconciled., sharing their lives with one another for the first time. The characters are vivid, and Southgate has an eye for telling details; the writing is precise and crisp, a joy to read. Third Girl from the Left is elegant and entertaining, one of the best books I've read in a long while.

(I would also recommend Southgate's previous novel, The Fall of Rome, which didn't get nearly the attention it deserved when it was published a few years back.)

October 29, 2005

MOVIES: Prime (Ben Younger, 2005)

(The ads for Prime have foolishly given away the major plot twist; I think the movie will play better if it's left a surprise, so on the off chance that you don't already know it, I'm not going to give it away.)

I am in that small minority of people who don't especially care for Meryl Streep. I find her too mannered, I can always see the actor's thinking beneath her characters, and everything she does is overly prepared and lacking in spontaneity. But Streep in a comedy? A whole different story. She loosens up, and her characters seem real; their movement and dialogue doesn't have that rehearsed quality.

And Streep gives one of her best comic performances in Prime. She is, in fact, the only reason to see the movie.

Streep plays Lisa Metzger, a New York therapist who's helping Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman) get over her recent divorce. Shortly after signing the divorce papers, Rafi begins dating David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg), and the relationship gets off to a fabulous start. The only problem, Rafi tells her therapist, is that David is so much younger than she is -- he's 23, she's 37.

Right there, the movie's in trouble. If you're going to tell a story about the mixed emotions of a (slightly) older woman dating a younger man, then for heaven's sake, cast an actress who actually looks older. Uma Thurman is so spectacular looking for her age that Rafi and David feel more like contemporaries than they should. Put an actress in the role who genuinely seems older than David -- imagine Laura Linney, or Catherine Keener, for instance -- and the emotional stakes in that part of the story are instantly higher.

The Rafi/David relationship also falls flat because both actors are miscast. This sort of broad romantic comedy isn't Thurman's strong suit, and though she's trying very hard, it always feels like trying; Greenberg just isn't a very interesting actor, and David has so little personality that it's hard to understand why Rafi's attracted to him in the first place.

But then there's Streep, who is so funny, so true, so human that she almost redeems the movie singlehandedly. She is especially good in the first half of the movie, when Lisa is the only character who knows about the big plot twist; it's a secret that she can't say anything about, and watching her struggle to hide her true feelings in a variety of situations is wildly entertaining.

It's a performance that won't get the attention it deserves come awards season, partly because the movie itself is such lightweight faux-Woody Allen, partly because comedy never does. But it's a performance worth seeing, and even if I can't recommend that you rush right out and see Prime immediately, you should certainly watch for it on cable or DVD.

MOVIES: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)

Robert Downey Jr. stars in this lively private eye comedy as Harry, a thief who finds himself in Hollywood, where a producer who thinks Harry is an actor has him studying with a private eye in preparation for an upcoming movie. Kilmer plays Harry's tutor, Perry, known all over town as "Gay Perry." There is also -- of course -- a damsel in distress, the lovely Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan). Harry and Perry inevitably stumble into a pair of actual cases, which turn out to be closely connected.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is very self-aware of itself as a genre flick. The movie's chapters are titled after Raymond Chandler novels; Harry's narration helpfully points out all of the genre cliches that the movie is following, and apologizes for some of the sillier plot twists. (Harry's best line, late in the movie: "Don't worry, I saw the last Lord of the Rings; I'm not gonna end this thing 17 times.")

Downey and Monaghan are both very good, but it's Kilmer who steals the movie. It would have been easy to go offensively overboard by making Perry an extremely flamboyant character, but Kilmer underplays all of that; rather than wallow in flamboyance, Kilmer (greatly aided by Shane Black's writing) suggests it through vocal rhythms and use of language.

The self-referential stuff will really annoy some, I think, but I loved every minute of it. Highly recommended.

October 26, 2005

TV: Viva Blackpool

From BBC America, a six-part series that's part murder mystery, part comedy, part musical.

Blackpool is a British seaside resort town that's seen better days, but Ripley Holden is determined to revive its fortunes, singlehandedly if need be. He's just opened a family arcade -- video games and slot machines -- and dreams of expanding it to a full-fledged casino/hotel within a year or two.

Those plans may be derailed, though, when the body of a young man is found in the arcade the morning after its grand opening party. Detective Inspector Peter Carlisle settles on Ripley as the chief suspect; when he's not on the case, he's flirting with Ripley's wife, Natalie (who has no idea that Carlisle is a cop, much less that he's investigating her husband.

And Ripley's kids are causing him no end of grief; teenage son Danny seems to know more about the dead man than he's willing to admit, and daughter Shayanne's current beau, Steve, is Ripley's age (and is somehow connected to Ripley's past).

All of this is laid out with a great sense of humor, especially from David Morrissey and David Tennant as Ripley and Carlisle; their confrontation at the end of the first episode is a delight to watch, in no small part because it's set to Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking."

Yes, Viva Blackpool is a sort of musical, in the tradition of Pennies From Heaven or The Singing Detective; several scenes are told through popular recordings; the actors not only lip-sync, they actually sing along (some are notably better than others at carrying a tune).

It's all a bit strange and completely engrossing; the first episode will be repeated on Sunday evening, and subsequent episodes premiere on Monday nights.

October 24, 2005

I turned on word verification for comments last week, meaning that if you want to post a comment here, you'll be shown a word and asked to type it in. I did this because I was tired of spending nearly an hour each day deleting comment spam, most of which is posted by automated gizmos that can't respond to word verification.

I haven't had any comment spam since then, but I haven't had any legit comments either. That's not terribly unusual -- this isn't a high-traffic place, and I don't get flooded with comments -- but I would be grateful if one of my Loyal Readers would post a comment here, just so that I know the comment / word verification combo actually works.

Thanks much.
The Truth Laid Bear is surveying bloggers for their opinion on the hot political issue of the moment -- the Harriet Miers nomination -- and you can find instructions for taking part in the survey here.

I oppose the Miers nomination. I suspect that Miers and I would disagree on virtually every issue likely to come before the Court in the near future, but that's not why I'm opposed; I believe that a president has the right to appoint justices who are in keeping with his political and judicial philosophy. Getting right-wing nuts like Roberts and Miers is simply part of the price we pay for having elected a right-wing nut like Bush in the first place.

But we do, I think, have a right to basic competence from any nominee to such high office, and no matter how minimally we might define "basic competence," it seems clear to me that Miers falls short.

I don't expect Bush to withdraw her nomination; his stubbornness (or, if you're a supporter, his determination and loyalty) will keep him from doing so. I hope, though, that Miers will withdraw from consideration herself; if she does not, her hearings will be brutal and humiliating, and much as I dislike this administration, I would not enjoy watching anyone put through that.

October 23, 2005

MOVIES: Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe, 2005)

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has single-handedly lost his employer nearly a billion dollars, and is planning suicide when the phone rings; it's his sister, delivering the news that their father has died. Dad had been visiting his family in Kentucky, and it's up to Drew to go to Elizabethtown and bring the body back home to Oregon. Drew hasn't seen his father's large extended family years, and is somewhat overwhelmed by being immersed in this close-knit group.

On the way to Kentucky, Drew meets flight attendant Claire (Kirsten Dunst), an insufferably perky motormouth; they are attracted to one another and spend almost the entire movie in a series of "meet cute" scenes that are neither funny nor believable. Dunst is an actress I normally like, but she's awful here, so caught up in her character's quirkiness that she never finds any humanity to go with it.

As for Bloom, this is his first romantic lead, and his first significant role that doesn't call for period costume (he's played elves, pirates, cowboys...), and he's dull as can be; it's impossible to understand why Claire is interested in Drew (aside from the fact that he's really really attractive), because he has no personality whatsoever.

The movie's most interesting moments come from minor characters. Susan Sarandon plays Drew's mother. She has only one major scene -- her husband's eulogy -- and it is the most blatant "Hello, I'd like an Oscar nomination, please!" scene I've seen in many years; Sarandon being Sarandon, of course, the scene is impeccably played, and it's one of the best moments in the movie.

The most unexpected face in the movie is that of Food Network host Paula Deen, who has a small role as one of Drew's many aunts. She's essentially playing herself, or at least playing the same persona she presents on her food shows, but she does so better than many non-actors have managed.

There's another nice scene that shows Drew driving into Elizabethtown; along the side of the road and sitting on their porches are all of the town's residents, pointing Drew down the road, indicating which corners he needs to turn to get where he's going. It's that sort of small town -- everybody knows that Drew is arriving that afternoon, and everyone knows (though most have never seen him) that this car must be Drew, because it's the only strange car to drive through town all day.

But for all the nice touches and details -- the soundtrack music is, as usual with Crowe's movies -- impeccably chosen -- the two central characters are so dull and annoying that there's no reason to care whether or not they wind up together, and if you don't care about the central couple in a romantic comedy, there's no reason to watch.

BOOKS: The Commitment, Dan Savage (2005)

Dan and his boyfriend, Terry, are nearing their tenth anniversary as a couple, and have begun to consider the idea of getting married. Neither of them is terribly enthusiastic about it -- Terry doesn't want to copy straight people, and Dan is superstitious that it would jinx their relationship -- but Dan's mother keeps pushing the idea on them, and both Dan and Terry have to admit that the idea isn't entirely unappealing.

Savage's memoir of the year or so leading up to their tenth anniversary party is an exploration of the gay marriage issue. Savage presents the arguments for and against from within the gay community; his own stand is a common one -- while he may not want to get married himself, he beleives that the right to do so should be there for all people. As for those who oppose the idea entirely, Savage is particularly effective at ripping to shreds the hypocrisy of their arguments.

I have two minor qualms about the book. First, there's too much explicit talk about sex. I don't want to seem like a prude, and in general, I've no objections to appropriate sexual content at all. But it's gratuitous here, and there is just enough of it (and it's just explicit enough) that I would feel uncomfortable recommending the book to people who are a bit more conservative, even though I think they would generally enjoy the book very much.

Second, one of the challenges faced by any author who uses his own life as material is how to deal with the privacy rights of his friends and family, and I think that even more sensitivity is called for when children are involved. Savage's 6-year-old adopted son, D.J., is a principal character here, and there are moments that the older D.J. will wish had not been shared with the world.

Those qualms aside, The Commitment is written with great warmth and humor, and it's not a dull, somber political tract. It's light reading, but there's great substance and food for thought lying beneath the jokes.

October 15, 2005

MOVIES: Proof (John Madden, 2005)

Proof is based on a play by David Auburn, and while it can't overcome the flaws of its source, it's a better movie than I'd expected it to be.

Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Catherine, whose father Robert (Anthony Hopkins) has just died after several years of slow mental deterioration. In his youth, Robert had been a brilliant mathematician, making revolutionary discoveries before he reached 30. The great breakthroughs in mathematics, we're told, are made by the young, and Catherine may have forfeited the most productive years of her own career by spending the last few years caring for her father.

Also on hand are older sister Claire (Hope Davis), in town for the funeral, who fears that the stress of the last few years may have put Catherine on the brink of her own mental and emotional collapse; and Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a former student of Robert's, who is going through the 103 notebooks of scribbles that Robert left behind in hope of finding something valuable in them.

Paltrow isn't quite right for the lead role; she gets Catherine's paranoia right, and the fear that she might have inherited her father's "tendency to instability," but I never quite believed her character's genius-level intelligence. To be sure, one of the hardest acting challenges is to play a character whose intelligence level differs significantly from your own -- it's no accident that playing mental deficiency is a shortcut to an Oscar nomination -- and playing up the intelligence scale is, I think, even harder than playing down.

But the rest of the cast is top-notch. Hopkins does communicate intelligence, and his painful mental deterioration is entirely believable. Davis has the most thankless role, yet another brittle and bitchy sibling who swoops in to take charge of everything, but she plays it very nicely.

The play is well-adapted for the screen (by Auburn and Rebecca Miller), but its major flaws -- the "genius = madness" trope, an overuse of the "talking to the dead" device -- are still annoying. On the whole, Proof is an entertaining movie, better than the play really deserves.

October 14, 2005

TV: Freddie

...and at last, we come to the end of the fall season's newcomers.

Freddie Prinze, Jr. stars as Freddie Moreno, a successful Chicago chef who was just getting used to bachelor life. But when his older brother dies, Freddie takes in widow Allison (Madchen Amick); sister Sofia (Jaqueline Obradors) and 13-year-old niece Zoey (Chloe Suazo) move in after Sofia's divorce, and Grandma (Jenny Gago) comes with them. Across the hall lives best friend Chris (Brian Austin Green), the semi-obligatory sidekick who does a lot of barging in without knocking and plotting to pick up girls.

There's nothing awful about Freddie, and I even laughed once or twice during the first episode. But it's stale and predictable; these are all characters we've seen before: the sullen teen; the drunken, bitter sister-in-law; the sensible sister; the sassy granny (the fact that Grandma refuses to speak English -- her Spanish is subtitled for us -- is a new twist); the lovably sleazy pal. Green makes the best impression, despite being saddled with a particularly tacky subplot (Chris decides that the route to one-night stands is to hit on poor girls, who will be grateful for the attention and spending); while she doesn't get much time in the first episode, Amick also comes off reasonably well.

The biggest problem, though, is Prinze, who lacks the charisma and the personality to carry a show, and whose comic timing is never quite right. It's harder than it looks to play the sane voice of reason at the center of a sitcom; Prinze is trying too hard to get laughs when he's supposed to be the straight man. (He should study Bob Newhart's sitcoms; Newhart was the grandmaster at getting laughs through his reactions to everyone else's punchlines.)

October 10, 2005

MOVIES: Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)

It's always hard to play someone whose celebrity is recent enough that we have a strong memory of how he looked and sounded, but to play Truman Capote must be a special piece of acting hell. Capote's voice and mannerisms were so distinctive that they bordered on self-caricature. How do you perform what is already a performance without getting lost in a spiral of parody and cartoon?

Somehow, Philip Seymour Hoffman pulls it off in Capote, getting all of the mannerisms and vocal quirks just right, but also giving us the human being hiding behind them. Hoffman's Capote is a man who is absolutely aware of how people react to him, of how they are both charmed and unnerved by his public persona, and most crucial, of how he can use those reactions to his advantage.

Capote is set in the years 1959-1964, when the author was writing what would become his masterpiece, the "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood, about two men who murdered a Kansas family. Throughout the movie, we watch as Capote charms and manipulates people -- the teenage girl who discovered the bodies, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation officer in charge of the case, the sister of one of the killers -- to get the interviews and the information he wants.

That manipulation comes with a price, to be sure; Capote, like journalists throughout history, struggles with the dilemma of how much lying and manipulation is acceptable in the name of getting the story. Dan Futterman's screenplay (based on Gerald Clarke's biography) suggests that this struggle, and Capote's guilt about his own actions, led to Capote's lack of productivity later in life; after In Cold Blood, Capote would publish only one book of short stories before his death in 1984.

The most important relationship Capote develops, and the one that calls for the most subtle manipulative skills, is with Perry Smith (a very good performance by Clifton Collins Jr.), one of the two killers. Capote finds himself genuinely drawn to Smith, an attraction that is equal parts friendship, lust, and disgusted fascination; this ultimately leads to the terrible conflict of not wanting Smith to be executed, but knowing that In Cold Blood cannot be finished until Smith is dead.

Hoffman, who seems not only to have lost a good bit of weight for the role, but to somehow have become six inches shorter, is superb here, and he's surrounded by a fine cast -- Catherine Keener, Bob Balaban, Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood. This is the first feature film for director Bennett Miller (he has one documentary to his credit), and it's a solid, assured piece of work

BOOKS: Black Fly Season, Giles Blunt (2005)

Third in Blunt's series of thrillers set in Algonquin Bay, Ontario, starring homicide detectives John Cardinal and Lise Delorme.

The young woman who's just arrived at The World Tavern is acting so odd that the bartender assumes she's high on something; if only because no one in their right mind would have been outside during black fly season without covering up more than she has. Turns out, though, that "Red" isn't on drugs. She's got a bullet in her brain, and no memory of how it might have gotten there.

Solving the mystery of her identity leads Cardinal and Delorme into a case involving the local drug trade, the Viking Raiders biker gang, and a self-styled Native American shaman who calls himself Red Deer.

This is a fine series Blunt has going here. The second in the series, The Delicate Storm, relied a bit heavily on knowledge of 1970s Quebec separatist politics for most US readers, but the first volume, Forty Words for Sorrow, is one of the best thrillers of recent years (and has one of my favorite covers ever).

John Cardinal is a complicated character, and his domestic problems -- his wife struggles with serious emotional problems -- make for a nice subplot without overwhelming the main story. Blunt's villains, as usual, are a strong point; their behavior is always believable and understandable. And the progress of the woman initially known only as "Red" is very nicely drawn as she slowly recovers from her amnesia.