April 30, 2005

MOVIES: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Garth Jennings, 2005)

A bit of a mixed bag, this one, and even its best moments are only moderately amusing.

Most of the problems are due to casting. Martin Freeman as Arthur has a tough challenge, playing an Ordinary Guy who's believably ordinary, yet somehow non-ordinary enough to hold our interest. Freeman's not quite up to it; his Arthur is solidly nondescript and far too bland.

Mos Def and Zooey Deschanel are pleasant enough, but Ford and Trillian should be British, and having them played by Americans, with American accents, was a very bad idea. Sam Rockwell falls completely flat as Zaphod Beeblebrox, playing him as a manic cross between Elvis and Bill Clinton.

There are a few good casting choices. Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin and Stephen Fry as the voice of The Guide are both ideal (the animated Guide sequences are the best parts of the movie), and Bill Nighy is marvelous as Slartibartfast.

On the whole, though, a disappointment.

April 29, 2005

TV: marathon recommendations

A pair of terrific TV shows are having marathon showings on Sunday, and both are worth either watching or taping.

Sundance will air all 8 episodes (at roughly 45-50 minutes each) of The Staircase, a documentary about the North Carolina murder trial of writer Michael Peterson. Peterson's wife died in their home, and the police believed that he had beat her to death. The defense claimed that she had drunk a bit too much wine that evening and slipped while going up a narrow, dimly lit stairway; she smashed her head into the wall once or twice before falling to the ground, and continued to bang her head as she slipped in her own blood while trying to stand. I haven't yet watched the final two episodes, but the first six are riveting.

We follow the preparation and the trial from the point of view of Peterson's defense team, and the twists and turns the case takes would, if presented in fiction, be laughed off as unbelievable. Marvelous stuff.

And the third season of Project Greenlight is currently underway on Bravo (the first two seasons aired on HBO). This is a contest show that chooses a writer and a director, then follows them through the process of making a low-budget movie. The first two seasons produced coming-of-age stories that bombed at the box office (Stolen Summer and The Battle of Shaker Heights), so this year, the Greenlight team specifically set out to make a genre movie that might actually draw an audience.

They selected a horror script called Feast about aliens attacking a group of strangers in an isolated bar, and chose as director John Gulager, who has become the star of the season. He's an insecure guy who seems to have very clear ideas about how he wants the movie to turn out, and almost no skill at communicating those ideas to the cast and crew. We're seven episodes into the Greenlight season, and six of those episodes will air on Sunday (they're skipping the first episode, in which the winning writer and director were chosen).

BOOKS: Sgt. Piggy's Lonely Hearts Club Comic (Stephan Pastis, 2004)

A collection of Pastis' Pearls Before Swine comics, covering roughly the first 18 months of the strip. There's a short introduction, detailing how the strip evolved, and Pastis includes brief comments under many of the strips, a nice idea which I'd like to see other cartoonists adopt in their own collections.

The artwork is fairly primitive -- many of Pastis' comments poke fun at his inability to master the art of perspective -- but it's appealing. The characters aren't particularly complex, either, but they're nicely defined types -- Pig is naive and a bit gullible; Rat is cynical and scheming; Goat is the would-be intellectual of the group.

And then there's Zebra. Poor Zebra, who is the subject of a running gag about his attempts to make peace with the predators who keep killing off his fellow zebras. One Sunday strip, for example, shows Zebra writing a long letter to the lions: "We zebras have taken it upon ourselves to examine our own possible fault in this [relationship]....We invite you to examine your own motives in this and reflect thoughtfully upon why it is you feel compelled to kill." The lions' response, in full: "YOU TASTE GUD."

What I love most about Pastis is his utter shamelessness in pursuit of a groan-inducing joke. If a Monday or Tuesday strip are a bit disappointing, you know it's because he's building up to an especially bad pun or sight gag on Friday.

Pearls Before Swine isn't the world's most sophisticated humor, but it makes me laugh, and that's all I really need from a comic strip.

April 26, 2005

TV: American Idol -- music of the new millennium

This may have been the dullest night in Idol history. It's a sign of how long it's been since I listened to pop radio that I didn't recognize most of the songs, and a sign of how bad pop radio has gotten that I don't ever want to hear any of them again.

The rundown:

Carrie -- Paula is right to point out that this song doesn't allow her to show off her pipes, but even beyond that, she sounds tense and short of breath. It's the first time I've ever felt like she had to work to get through the song.

Bo -- looking life a refugee from 1968 San Francisco, Bo delivers up a song that sits right in his comfort zone, but unfortunately it's a lethargic, tepid performance, and the shirt is the most memorable thing about it.

Vonzell -- the first half of the song is terribly flat, I think mainly because it's pitched too low for her. She sounds better after the key change, when she gets into a more comfortable higher register.

Anthony -- I don't much care for the breathy sound at the beginning, but hey, at least he's pretty much on pitch throughout. On a night this weak, that's enough to make this seem better than it is.

Constantine -- as the judges have been suggesting for a while now, Constantine isn't really a rocker, and this performance proves it. It's all phony attitude and insincerity; it's an imitation of a rocker, and it's almost painfully funny to watch.

Scott -- lord knows I don't expect much from Scott, but even by those standards, this was sad. He wasn't anywhere near pitch, and the high notes were especially bad. He sounded tired; it was a lazy performance.

For the night: Anthony, Vonzell, Bo, Carrie, Constantine, Scott.

Overall: Vonzell, Carrie, Anthony, Bo, Constantine, Scott.

The "what the fuck is wrong with you, America" award to the most deserving evictee goes -- as it always does -- to Scott.

BOOKS: The Family Tree, Carole Cadwalladr (2005)

Three generations of English women seek love and happiness, and it's a series of most entertaining stories.

Rebecca, our narrator, is married -- not entirely happily -- to a geneticist who doesn't want children. As a child, she watched her mother, Doreen, struggle with bipolar disorder; grandmother Alicia has never really gotten over losing the love of her life, and settled for marrying her first cousin, Herbert.

Cadwalladr's novel is sometimes very funny, sometimes nearly tragic, and sometimes both at once, most impressively in a beautifully written scene depicting Doreen's disastrous dinner party in honor of the Charles-Diana wedding.

It would have been nice if the men in the book were as well-written, or as sympathetic, as the women, but still, I enjoyed this one a lot.

(A quibble: I don't normally get too bothered by factual errors in novels; people get things wrong in real life, and fictional characters should have the same luxury. But when a character is presented as an expert in some field, I expect the author to have done her research; if that character's going to make mistakes, they had better be sophisticated mistakes of the sort one might expect from someone with expertise. It's terribly jarring when Rebecca, who is writing a thesis on 70s pop culture, tells us that the British sitcom The Good Life (1975-1978) was "restyled" as the US sitcom Green Acres (1965-1971). Not unless someone had a time machine, it wasn't, and that's too stupid a mistake for the character to make.)

April 24, 2005

MOVIES: Cube 2: Hypercube (Andrzej Sekula, 2002)

The first Cube, made in 1997, was a pretty nifty low-budget SF thriller which required only one small set and a handful of actors. Cube 2 duplicates the formula almost exactly, with a bit less gore and violence (for most of the way, at least), then throws in a stupendously bad ending that explains most of the things that the first movie smartly left open-ended. If you haven't seen Cube, then Cube 2 might entertain you; it's not terribly made, and though the acting certainly isn't brilliant, it's sufficient to the material. But better you should see the first one instead.

(I admit, though, that I am curious to see Cube Zero, the prequel, to find out how they ring a third set of changes on the same material.)

MOVIES: Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004/US 2005)

The city is being overrun by gangs, and the notorious Axe Gang is the worst of the bunch. The only folks who'd been safe were the residents of the slums, who were too poor to be bothered with. But now, the residents of Pig Sty Alley find themselves on the Axe Gang's bad side, and a series of epic battles is the result.

This is a very weird movie, a mix of stupendous martial arts sequences and extremely broad slapstick. At moments, the comedy turns the movie into a live-action cartoon; there's a chase scene where the characters' legs spin as they run, like something from a Road Runner film.

The fight sequences are spectactular. I was particularly impressed by a scene involving two villains who play a traditional Chinese harp; each strum of their fingers across the strings lets fly a ghostly knife or sword or warrior, and the battle provides its own soundtrack music.

There are a lot of in-jokes and references to other movies along the way. I caught references to The Matrix, The Untouchables, Spiderman, and The Shining. I'm sure there are also a lot of specific references to other Chinese/Hong Kong action movies, and I think that some of the fight scenes are meant to be parodies of certain conventional martial arts styles.

But for me, the action and the comedy didn't mix very well. And though I've enjoyed other movies in which the martial arts sequences bend the laws of physics, this movie shatters them completely, which I found far less interesting and effective.

MOVIES: A Lot Like Love (Nigel Cole, 2005)

Two Ashton Kutcher movies in three weeks; you'd think I were a 14-year-old girl.

It's another romantic comedy, this time with Amanda Peet, and we follow the relationship of Oliver and Emily over seven years.

The challenge with this sort of romantic comedy is finding a plausible way to keep the central couple apart until the very end. They want to be together, and we want them to be together, and the obstacle has to be plausible but not insurmountable.

In A Lot Like Love, the only obstacle appears to be that both characters are idiots. They certainly know that there's physical chemistry between them (their first encounter is a quickie in an airplane toilet); they care about one another enough that they make a point of visiting whenever either is in the other's home town; every other relationship either enters into crashes and burns.

So the only reason they're not together is that they don't live in the same city. She's an actress/photographer and he's an Internet entrepreneur; it's not as if either of those jobs is limited to a certain city. But there's never a conversation about "I could move" or "you could move," because these two have somehow convinced themselves that they're just good friends (who hop into bed and go at it like happy little bunnies every time they meet).

It's a shame that the movie couldn't come up with a more convincing story, because Kutcher and Peet are an appealing couple, and they work well together. There's a dinner date scene where each is refusing to talk to the other (don't ask...), and they play the ensuing silliness with sharp comic timing. Also making good impressions in smaller roles are Kal Penn as Kutcher's business partner, and Ty Giordano as Kutcher's brother, who happens to be deaf, which is utterly irrelevant to the plot, which is a nice thing to see.

April 22, 2005

BOOKS: "Word of Mouth" writes to Oprah

This is interesting, and somehow a little sad.

A group of female authors called "Word of Mouth" (joined by some male authors) has written an open letter to Oprah Winfrey, begging her to return to featuring contemporary authors in her TV book club.

Fiction sales, they argue, took a recent precipitous decline not because of 9/11, but because Oprah ended her Book Club. And if Oprah brings back the Book Club, focusing on contemporary authors instead of the Great Books/classics she's been doing of late, the Word of Mouth authors seem to believe that fiction sales will begin to climb again.

I'm skeptical. Yes, I suppose that if Oprah starts recommending current books again, then fiction sales will go up a bit, because all of Oprah's fans will rush out, zombie-like, to buy that book, and that's another million or so books that wouldn't have been sold otherwise.

But is there any evidence to suggest that the Oprah Book Club does anything for the sales of any books beyond the Oprah Books themselves? The new work by Oprah authors hasn't sold nearly as well as the Oprah books by those authors, though some authors -- Bohjalian, Mitchard -- have certainly increased their readership from their pre-Oprah levels.

When Oprah's followers go to the bookstore, do they buy other books, or do they simply pick up that month's assigned text and leave?

(And the stores always pile that book at the front of the store; the customers don't even have to look for it. That's silly marketing; if something will sell well, you make the customer venture deep into the store for it, increasing the chance of an impulse buy. That's why supermarkets put the milk in the back.)

If Oprah returns to contemporary fiction, then eight or nine authors will benefit each year, and that's about it. That would not, of course, be a bad thing, but it's rather depressing to see so many people bamboozled into believing that it would be the salvation of contemporary fiction. The Church of St. Oprah may be powerful, but it ain't that powerful.

April 20, 2005

BOOKS: The Big Show, Steve Pond (2005)

For a decade or so, Pond has had nearly complete access behind the scenes of the Academy Awards show, and has reported on that drama in an annual article for Premiere magazine, each report appearing in the next year's Oscar issue. The Big Show is a collection of those articles, along with a brief introductory chapter about the history of the show.

Pond's reporting is solid enough, and at annual intervals, his reports on the preparation of each show are quite interesting. But taken as a group, there's a certain monotony that sets in as each year's producers deal with the same issues. Who will sing the nominated songs? Can we get star X to present award Y? Will Whoopi/Billy/Robin tell a joke that sets off the network censor? And above all else, how can we get the show to end before midnight?

(My take on the last question: You can't, and you should stop trying. Start the show at 8 instead of 8:30 -- that should be no-brainer, especially now that the show's on Sunday instead of Monday -- and let people make their speeches. For most of them, it's the only Oscar they'll ever win, and they should be allowed to enjoy the moment.)

If you haven't read Pond's Premiere articles, then you might find The Big Show entertaining, a chapter at a time, but only if you're an Oscar fanatic or completist.

April 19, 2005

TV: American Idol -- 70s dance night

The rundown for 70s dance night:

Constantine, "Nights on Broadway" -- There's a lot of vibrato in those opening phrases, and it almost sounds electronically processed. This is a creepy performance, full of oily Vegas sleaze. Wayne Newton would be proud.

Carrie, "MacArthur Park" -- very uneven. Carrie and the band have trouble matching tempo at the beginning, and the verse is pitched far too low for her. But those choruses, and those big huge notes at the end, are absolutely spectacular.

Scott, "Everlasting Love" -- he still looks pained when he sings, with a nasty "I've got a headache" squint, and his voice is awfully nasal. But by Scott's standards, this is quite good, which is to say that it's almost adequate.

Anthony, "Don't Take Away the Music" -- the most obscure song of the night, and deservedly so; it's aggressively uninteresting. But it suits Anthony well, and his performance is fine; his pitch is rock-solid throughout.

Vonzell, "I'm Every Woman" -- what are those weird little shoulder heaves in the intro? This is one of the most overdone songs on Idol, and Vonzell loses points with me just for dragging it out again. But she's having lots of fun, and she sounds terrific.

Anwar, "September" -- love the tied-back hair; a great look for him. The dancing is painful to watch, and although this is better singing than he's done in several weeks, it's still dull.

Bo Bice, "Vehicle" -- the song was never anything but a bad Blood, Sweat, & Tears knockoff, and Bo can't do much to make it interesting. It's well suited to his voice, though, and there's nothing really wrong with the performance.

For the night: Anthony, Vonzell (a close call, which Vonzell loses for cliched song choice), Carrie, Bo, Anwar, Scott (amazingly escaping last place!), Constantine.

For the season: Vonzell, Carrie, Bo, Anthony, Anwar, Constantine, Scott.

Still most deserving of the ticket home: Scott. But if the viewers are voting solely on tonight's performances, Constantine and Anwar would not be disappointing choices.

TV: ...meanwhile, in an alternate universe...

In honor of the ascension of Benedict XVI to the papal throne, it's liturgical music night on American Idol. The contestants seem a bit confused, but they give it their all.

The rundown:

Constantine, "Magnificat" (My soul doth magnify the Lord) -- poor Constantine. His own soul doth grow ever more conflicted between rocker and lounge lizard, and this Paul Anka-meets-Sammy Hagar rendition is a real mess; the fugue at "omnes generationes" is particularly pitchy.

Bo, "Ave maris stella" (Hail, O star of the ocean) -- as often happens, Bo has memory problems with the words, and Paula nearly faints when he describes the Virgin Mary not as "ever sinless," but as "ever willing." Even in Latin, that's offensive, and it detracts from what is an otherwise very nice performance.

Vonzell, "Veni, sancte spiritus" (Come, Holy Spirit) -- and my goodness, but the spirit is with Vonzell tonight! The high notes are spectacular, her pitch is impeccable, and the audience is eating out of her hand. She's never been this good; if she can keep this up, she could win it all.

Anthony, "Alma redemptoris mater" (Kindly mother of the Redeemer) -- nice mellow groove he's got going here, and Anthony seems to be more emotionally connected to the music tonight than usual, singing about the Blessed Mother. Feel free to make your own "mama's boy" joke.

Carrie, "O magnum mysterium" (O great mystery) -- Carrie's country twang is perfectly suited to this hymn to the animals who were the first to see Jesus, and I got chills at the "jacentem in praesepio" (lying in a manger). One of the best performances of the year.

Anwar, "Salve Regina" (Hail, holy Queen) -- now this is the Anwar we all fell in love with during the semifinals. He's got sort of a Johnny Mathis goes hip-hop thing working. Still, you have to wonder iff a hymn to the Virgin Mary was really the best moment for Anwar to finally get his sex appeal in gear.

Scott, "Gloria" -- not only can't he sing, but he apparently didn't get the memo on appropriate repertoire, and has instead settled on the Van Morrison song. Oy.

For the night: Carrie, Vonzell, Anwar, Anthony, Bo, Constantine, Scott.

Most deserving of excommunication: Now and forever, Scott.

April 18, 2005

MOVIES: Fever Pitch (Peter & Bobby Farrelly, 2005)

Don't need to say much about this one, since it's been getting oodles of attention.

Fever Pitch is a charming romantic comedy about Ben (Jimmy Fallon), a man torn between the two great loves of his life, Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) and the Boston Red Sox.

When Ben and Lindsey meet (in a manner far more plausible and less annoying than the standard romantic-comedy "meet-cute"), it's late fall. Through the winter, their relationship grows, and Lindsey begins to think that Ben may be The One.

Then April arrives, and suddenly Ben becomes "Summer Guy," absolutely devoted to the Sox -- so devoted that he can't go to Paris for a romantic weekend because Seattle's coming to town, and Ben hasn't missed a home game in more than a decade.

The movie does a solid job of capturing the mindset of the obsessive fan, and Fallon is terrific here as a guy in the final stages of transition from boy to man. Barrymore is a little flatter than usual, I thought, but the two of them are an adorable couple.

Very entertaining.

April 16, 2005

MOVIES: The Upside of Anger (Mike Binder, 2005)

The Upside of Anger opens at a funeral. Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) arrives with her neighbor, Denny (Kevin Costner), and one of her four daughters.

Almost immediately, we get a caption: THREE YEARS EARLIER, and we're in the Wolfmeyer home, where Terry's husband, Grey, has just disappeared, apparently run off to Sweden with his secretary.

Terry wallows in pity and booze, and argues a lot with her daughters. She more or less falls into a relationship with Denny, a one-time baseball player who now hosts a radio show on which he refuses to talk about baseball. It's not a particularly romantic affair, built as it is on desperation, lust, and the unspoken belief that constantly drinking with someone is somehow less pathetic than constantly drinking alone.

The most pleasant surprise in the movie is Kevin Costner, who is very good; he's done so much dreck in the last decade that it's wonderful to be reminded how subtle and understated he can be. Costner is perfect here as a likable lug struggling to figure out what life holds now that celebrity and adulation are in the past.

Joan Allen also does fine work here, in a role that's something of a departure from her usual movie work. She's tended to play very controlled women, and it's fascinating to watch her here as someone whose control over her own life and emotions is rapidly vanishing.

What's missing from her performance (and from the script), I think, is any sense of who Terry was before Grey's disappearance. The youngest daughter, Popeye, tells us that Terry used to be a sweet and loving woman, but there's no hint of that in the bitter and malicious woman she's become.

And there are other problems with the movie. Beginning with a flashback from a funeral is always a rather manipulative move; we spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out whose funeral it's going to be, and worrying every time a character coughs or does something remotely dangerous.

Worst of all, when we finally do find out whose funeral it is, the answer betrays everything the movie has told us for the last two hours, and makes Terry's behavior seem even more monstrous and unfeeling.

When a movie ends on such a clumsy note, that can shape the way we remember the whole, and it's sometimes difficult to remember all the good things that came before. Writer/director Mike Binder does such a good job for most of the movie (his acting in a supporting role is significantly less impressive), and the performance by Allen and (especially) Costner are so good, that The Upside of Anger is well worth seeing it, even if you'll leave wanting to kick something.

April 13, 2005

BOOKS: Matchbook, Samantha Daniels (2005)

Daniels is the divorce lawyer-turned-matchmaker who inspired the short lived Alicia Silverstone TV series Miss Match, and this is her memoir of her first year or so in the business.

Now, I am not a huge fan of memoirs in general. I think too many people write memoirs and autobiographies when they haven't done anything remotely interesting enough to justify writing a book. (Keith's rule of thumb #17: Just because it happened doesn't mean it's interesting.)

But an inside look at the operations of a matchmaker (or, if we stick to Daniels' preferred orthography, a Matchmaker) is something we haven't seen before, and there's potential there for an interesting book.

Unfortunately, Matchbook is buried in a deep layer of contempt; Daniels doesn't really have any respect for her clients, or see them as anything other than a paycheck. Collectively, she refers to her clients as "Desperados;" individually, the pseudonyms she gives them refer to their most prominent physical feature (Miss Boobs, Mr. Teeth), their most superficial personality trait (Miss Interrupter, The Girl I Always Thought Hated Me), or the size of their bankbook (The Hundred Thousand Dollar Man).

These are, of course, precisely the sorts of things that she warns her clients not to base their dating decisions on. And Daniels isn't any kinder to the men she dates herself; the on-again, off-again boyfriend she briefly considers marrying is known to us as "Jerkoff."

If this is how she thinks of the people she works with and for, it's no wonder that her own dating life is such a mess, and it's a mystery how she manages to successfully pair off any of her clients. Matchbook is a nasty little piece of work.

(On one matter, I must praise Daniels: The boyfriends and clients she presents to us are composites, and she acknowledges that up front; too many memoir writers these days aren't so honest about the fact that some of their characters and conversations are actually fictionalized.)
A bit of random weirdness of the streets of Los Angeles this afternoon.

I'm walking from work to the subway station, and as I'm waiting for the light to change, a man walks up and stands next to me. He's a bit shabby, not well dressed, and he's pushing one of those vertical metal baskets that people use to haul groceries or laundry, packed full with all of his worldly possessions.

But unlike your average homeless guy, this one is carrying a laptop, and as we stand there, he flips it open, balances it in the bend of his elbow, and pushes a button. The music that starts playing isn't something you expect to hear on a warm spring afternoon, and it takes me a few seconds to recognize it as "Silver Bells." He starts nodding in time to the melody. The light changes, and I step into the intersection. But he just stands there, humming along and muttering the words under his breath.

April 12, 2005

TV: American Idol -- songs from birth years

It was an evening of dizzying competence, for the most part, without a single really impressive performance, and only one that was geniunely awful.

The rundown:

Nadia, "When I Dream" -- as always, her pitch is almost impeccable (there's one bad high note near the end), but the performance is dull, and she doesn't seem to be as connected to the song as she usually is.

Bo, "Free Bird" -- if there was ever an Idol contestant/song combination that should have generated fireworks, this was it. It was an adequate performance, which for Bo is a huge disappointment.

Anwar, "I'll Never Love This Way Again" -- the beginning is better than it usually is with Anwar; maybe he took Randy's criticism to heart. But where the hell did the melody go? By the second chorus, it's all ruffles and flourishes.

Anthony, "Everytime You Go Away" -- Anthony knows his comfort zone, maybe better than any of the other contestants, and this is the best we've gotten yet this evening. But the little hip twists and pelvic thrusts aren't making him sexy (unless you happen to be Michael Jackson, that is).

Vonzell, "Let's Hear It for the Boy" -- lord, how I hate this song, but it's absolutely the right choice for her voice and style. A bit stiff rhythmically, and I could do with fewer "hah!" outbursts after each line, but very nicely done.

Scott, "She's Gone" -- and if there is any justice, so is Scott, after yet another wretchedly bad performance.

Carrie, "Love Is a Battlefield" -- she's working a little too hard to get that rocker growl in her voice, but on a weak night, this is good enough to put her in the top half of the field.

Constantine, "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- well, you have to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else. The long notes, especially at the beginning ("mamaaaaaa...") aren't well-tuned, but as the judges said, he's a showman. Not the best singing, but certainly the most entertaining performance of the night.

For the night: Vonzell, Carrie, Constantine, Anthony, Anwar, Bo, Nadia, Scott.

For the season: Vonzell, Nadia, Carrie (a rapidly tightening race among these three), Bo, Anthony, Constantine, Anwar, Scott.

Most deserving the ticket home: Scott. There is no alternative.

April 11, 2005

TV: Popularity Contest

New from Country Music Television, Popularity Contest, which had its first episode tonight before settling into a Friday night slot.

Ten city dwellers are brought to Vega, Texas (population 949), and each is sent to live with a local family. They take part in various challenges for cash prizes -- tonight, it was a scavenger hunt -- and involve themselves in town activities like the Methodist Church potluck, where the scavenger hunt winners made themselves instant favorites by donating their prize to the church and the football team.

Vega is one of those towns where everyone knows everyone, and news spreads very quickly, so when New York opera singer Marthia fails to ice the cake in preparation for the 18th birthday party of her host family's daughter, everyone is a-buzz. Seriously; we spent nearly five minutes on the cake thing, listening to the shocked townsfolk. ("And not only didn't she ice it, but she left in uncovered on the counter! You can't do that in Texas; a cake'll dry right out!")

Other un-small-town behavior that has the locals in an uproar: Chicago management analyst Mandell is 90 minutes for his morning shift waiting tables at the local diner, and Beverly Hills model Leyla is horrified to be awakened at 7:00 am.

Every three days, the residents of Vega vote for their favorite, and the least popular resident is sent home, escorted from the County Barn and driven out of town by the sheriff. (The last shot of the episode shows a hand changing the "welcome to Vega" population sign from 949 to 948.) The grand prize is $100,000, and the winner has to split it with a Vega resident of his/her choice, meaning that we're going to see lots of sucking up on both sides.

It's culture shock galore for the contestants, and probably for any viewers who've never lived in a small town. It's a low-key show -- certainly no Survivor -- but it has a pleasant charm.

BOOKS: Cast of Shadows, Kevin Guilfoile (2005)

Davis Moore is a fertility doctor, specializing in reproductive cloning, who never quite recovers from the murder of his teenage daughter. The police were able to gather DNA samples from the crime scene, but never identified a suspect, and finally close the case, returning the girl's personal effects to Davis in a box.

Also in that box, thanks to police clumsiness, is a vial containing the crime-scene DNA sample, which Davis uses (most illegally) as the genetic source for the child of his current client, hoping that someday he'll be able to track down the killer through his genetic double.

Obviously, we're off into the Land of Preposterous here, and Guilfoile's thriller does have more coincidences and implausibilities than you can count. The story doesn't get any less far-fetched as it goes along -- much of the second half takes place inside a video game -- but it zips along with great energy, and Guilfoile's characters are so well-developed and convincing that they hold your interest even as you're snickering at the absurdities of the story.

Despite himself, Guilfoile's written a highly entertaining thriller here; if he can learn to control his more baroque plotting instincts, he might someday write a great one.

April 10, 2005

Welcome, or hello again, as the case may be.

In Which Our Hero has moved to a new platform -- Blogger -- and over the next few days, the few months' worth of posts from its old home will be copied over so that the entire history of the place (such as it is) will be kept intact.

And as I get used to the new place, I may be tinkering a bit with the layout and appearance.


April 09, 2005

Announcing the Unitarian Jihad; if you'd like to join, you can have a name assigned to you here.

Yours in reasonableness, Brother Shotgun of Forgiveness.


MOVIES: Guess Who (Kevin Rodney Sullivan, 2005)

Guess Who is a loose update of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner -- loose enough that the writers of the original don't get an on-screen credit -- with the races reversed. This time, we get Bernie Mac and Judith Scott in the Hepburn & Tracy parent roles, and Ashton Kutcher in the Sidney Poitier role.

(Talk about phrases you thought you'd never need: "...Ashton Kutcher in the Sidney Poitier role." Oy.)

The original movie really hasn't held up all that well; it's awfully sanctimonious; Spencer Tracy's illness is evident throughout, and you find yourself fearing that the character isn't going to survive the movie; and Poitier is saddled with the most Perfect of his Perfect Negro roles (a criticism of the writers, not of Poitier, who, as always, plays the part with great skill and charm).

From a commercial standpoint, an update wasn't a bad idea. Kutcher and Mac each have a loyal fan base, and there's probably relatively little overlap between the two. The race reversal from the original gives us the possibility for a fresh twist and a take on the story that we haven't seen before.

But here's what's weird about the movie: The couple whose relationship we're most interested in (and rooting for) isn't Ashton Kutcher and Zoe Saldana. Their ostensible romance isn't convincing at all, and they've got no chemistry. Their most romantic scene, a late-night stroll through her hometown, is painful to watch, and we believe they're a couple only because the script tells us so.

No, the real storyline here is the courtship by Ashton Kutcher of Bernie Mac. That's the couple we see sleeping together; that's the couple that gets the most interesting dance scene. They even share the movie's poster, with neither of the women anywhere in sight. And when it looks as if the youngsters' relationship has been broken up, it's not Saldana who rushes to the train station to bring Kutcher back, it's Mac (and he's leaving the party at which he's about to renew his own wedding vows to do so).

Is the movie any good? Eh. If you like Kutcher and Mac, you'll enjoy seeing them do their usual shtick -- ineffectual dithering doofus and slow-burn after slow-burn, respectively -- and the supporting cast is effective, if not terribly memorable. It's a perfectly adequate, and perfectly disposable, piece of Hollywood product.

But that strange and unexpected homoerotic subtext is what's going to stick with me the most, and I'm damned if I can figure out what to make of it.

April 06, 2005

BOOKS: The Jigsaw Puzzle, Anne D. Williams (2004)

Williams traces the history of jigsaws, which were invented nearly 200 years as teaching aids; English schoolchildren used "dissected maps" to learn geography.Since then, they've become a popular form of recreation around the world, and occasionally -- notably during the Depression -- great fads have sprung up around them. Today, specialty puzzle makers create individually crafted works of art that sell for thousands of dollars.

Williams also offers advice to the collector, and basic information on how to make your own puzzles. This book will probably be of limited interest to anyone who's not a games & puzzles fan, but for those who are, it's a solid, concise history.

April 05, 2005

TV: American Idol -- musicals night

It's show tunes night at American Idol, and everyone's performing pretty much to form; the folks you'd expect to shine do, and Nikko and Scott are still awful.

The rundown:

Scott, "The Impossible Dream" -- there are a lot of long, exposed notes in this song, and almost none of them were in tune; most of them went through three or four different pitches from start to finish of each note. It got a bit better at the end, but not much.

Constantine, "My Funny Valentine" -- the arrangement was awful, and it played up Constantine's tendency to be a bit smarmy and sleazy. But if you must do the song this way, it was reasonably well sung.

Carrie, "Hello Young Lovers" -- Paula called it "elegant," which it was. Very solidly controlled without being rigid or metronomic. Lovely.

Vonzell, "People" -- a few minor pitch problems early, but nicely done for the most part, and the big note at the end was impressive.

Anthony, "Climb Every Mountain" -- very bad song choice. The low notes at the beginning are breathy and lacking in power; the high note at the end is too high and isn't pretty at all. The arrangement is too pop; this is just not pleasant.

Nikko, "One Hand, One Heart" -- not everything is R&B. And you shouldn't sing a song that consists almost entirely of long phrases if you're going to have to gasp for breath in the middle of each one.

Anwar, "If Ever I Would Leave You" -- this was just boring, and overly filigreed with little runs and trills. Remember when we all thought Anwar was going to win this thing? Ah, those were the days...

Bo, "Corner of the Sky" -- again, Bo screws up the words. Aside from that, not bad, and about as well suited to his style as a song from a musical is likely to be.

Nadia, "As Long As He Needs Me" -- she clearly has no idea of the context of this song -- that it's sung by a woman in an abusive relationship -- but the lyrics are vague enough that you can get away with it as an unironic statement of devotion, and Nadia's back in fine form tonight.

For the night: Carrie, Nadia, Vonzell, Bo, Constantine, Anwar, Anthony, Nikko, Scott.

Still most deserving of the trip home: Scott and Nikko, and I don't much care which one goes first.

BOOKS: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)

It's six, six, six books in one!

Mitchell gives us an audacious stunt here. We get the beginnings of five stories, each interrupted by the next; the sixth story, at the center of the book, is presented in full, then the endings of the stories are presented in reverse order.

Like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1.

The stories are set over a wide range of time, from the early 1850s to a post-apocalyptic distant future, and there are connections -- some subtle, some less so -- among them. Each story is being read (in some form or another) by a character in the next; there is the suggestion that we may be following the progression through history of a single soul, reincarnated into each new time and place.

And it's quite a variety of stories, too: a 19th-century journal of a Pacific explorer; the letters of a 1930s English composer living in Belgium; a corporate thriller set in the 1970s; the memoir of a London publisher, set roughly in the present; a 22nd-century tale of enslaved clones, set in Korea; and a far-future tale of life on Hawaii.

So is the book worthwhile beyond the technical stunt? Absolutely. Each of Mitchell's stories is perfectly in style for its time and genre; the writing is clever and lively throughout. The composer's letters, in particular, are quite funny. Mitchell has smartly placed at the center of the book the two stories which will give the most readers (at least, non-SF readers) trouble; get the readers hooked in the first 4 half-tales, and they might not even notice that they're reading science fiction. (They will, however, surely notice the heavy use of dialect that makes the sixth tale rather rough sledding in spots; not quite as difficult as Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, but surely influenced by it.)

Mitchell gets a bit heavy-handed at the end, clubbing us over the head at every turn to be sure we've caught his theme of how the powerful exploit and take advantage of others (in the summary of one character, "The weak are meat the strong do eat."), and that made the second half of the book the weaker half for me.

But that's a relatively minor flaw in what was otherwise a marvelous read. It's an ambitious book, and Mitchell succeeds almost completely.

April 01, 2005

TV: The EYES have it

I caught the first episodes of four new TV shows in the last week or so; mostly, they were a disappointing lot -- two god-awful sitcoms and one musty medical drama. But there's one potential gem in the bunch.

Let's get the crud out of the way first, shall we?

Fox's Life on a Stick advertises itself as "the voice of a generation," and gives us a bunch of none-too-bright, none-too-interesting teens who work in a mall's fast food court. We're trying to recapture the vibe of That 70s Show, but the jokes are obvious, the characters are cardboard, and the actors have none of the personality or chemistry of the 70s cast.. (One small exception: It is nice to see Amy Yasbeck working again after the death of her husband, John Ritter; she is the only one in this cast who even comes close to making any of this stuff work.) This one won't last long.

Anything I say about NBC's adaptation of the British cult show The Office should be prefaced by noting that I have never seen the BBC version, so I'm judging the new one strictly on its own merits (which is, of course, how it should be judged). And those merits, I'm afraid, are thin enough that I'm having a hard time seeing them.

The show is an exaggerated recreation of all the most hellishly embarrassing, awkward, and unpleasant moments that make up a day in the typical office, and I'm at a loss to find anything funny in that. The pacing is interminably slow; the actors are bland and listless. Steve Carell, who I've liked elsewhere, makes the best impression, I suppose, hurling himself into the role of the clueless and insensitive office manager with all the energy he can muster, but the scripts give him nothing to work with. In a way, this is even more unpleasant to watch than Life on a Stick; at least with that one, I can tell where it's supposed to be funny. The appeal of The Office escapes me entirely.

ABC gives us Grey's Anatomy, about a group of four residents beginning their training to become surgeons. Sandra Oh as one of the residents is particularly good, and Chandra Wilson, as one of their supervising doctors, makes the most of a somewhat hackneyed Feisty Black Woman role. This isn't a bad show, it's just not particularly memorable or distinctive. It could have been made at any time within the last 20 years or so (with a bit of editing for sexual content and language, I suppose). Grey's Anatomy is thoroughly competent, but a bit stale.

But finally, there was one bright spot: ABC's Eyes, a hip update on the private-eye genre that fits very nicely into the Wednesday lineup after Lost and Alias. Tim Daly stars as Harlan Judd, whose "risk management" firm skirts the edge of the law to satisfy its clients. Daly is surrounded by a fine supporting cast of actors, most of whom have been working steadily for a few years without really becoming recognizable names; this show should change that.

Making the best impression in the first episode, I thought, were A.J. Langer (best known for My So-Called Life) as a recently hired investigator still trying to balance her military background with the occasionally shady tactics Judd calls on her to use; and Rick Worthy as Judd's best friend and most trusted partner, a gay black man who's only recently been released from an institution after an as-yet-unexplained nervous breakdown. They, along with the rest of the cast, have a nice chemistry.

The writing is sharp and clever, and I suspect we're going to get a lot of entertaining "nothing is what it seems" con-game scenes (and I am a sucker for a good con game). I hope this one catches on.