July 31, 2005

MOVIES: The Aristocrats (Paul Provenza, 2005)

It's generally accepted in comedy that repetition kills a joke, but in The Aristocrats, 100 comedians spend 90 minutes telling and analyzing a single joke, and it only gets funnier with every telling.

The setup for the joke, known as "The Aristocrats," is consistent: A guy walks into a talent agent's office and says, "My family and I have a terrific act. Let me tell you about it." The middle section of the joke is the description of the act, which usually starts with a full-family orgy -- including the kids, grandma, and maybe even a recently deceased uncle -- before moving on to bestiality and more scatological references than you can imagine. Finally, the depravity concludes, and the agent says, "That's some act. What do you call it?" And the guy says proudly, "The Aristocrats!"

It's not really all that funny a joke, as many of these comics acknowledge. It's barely a joke at all, but it's a perfect framework for improvisation. As Penn Jillette (one of the movie's producers) says, "It's the singer, not the song," and it's thrilling to watch the endless variations that can be put on the story. The most straightforward telling comes from George Carlin; Wendy Liebman turns the joke on its head; Sarah Silverman's creepy variation refuses to acknowledge that it is a joke.

There's a hilarious silent rendition from Billy the Mime (performed on the sidewalk, where the reactions of the people walking by are priceless), showbiz takes from Carrie Fisher and Lewis Black, and painstaking analysis of the joke itself from Drew Carey and Paul Reiser ("...you have to do the sex before the shit, 'cause if you start with the shit, then where you gonna go?"). Bob Saget completely destroys his wholesome Full House reputation with one of the most inventively filthy versions in the movie. And in the hands of Gilbert Gottfried, "The Aristocrats" becomes a kind of catharsis.

There's nothing visually interesting about The Aristocrats -- it's a talking-head documentary -- and you might therefore be tempted to wait for the DVD, but if you can see it in a theater with a crowd, you should; it'll only be funnier when you're laughing with a room full of people.

If I haven't already made it clear, this movie is vulgar and crude in the extreme. It doesn't matter who you are; you will be offended by something in The Aristocrats. But I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard at a movie.

July 30, 2005

MOVIES: Bad News Bears (Richard Linklater, 2005)

This new version of Bad News Bears is so faithful to the original as to be entirely unnecessary. So little has changed that the screenwriter of the 1976 version shares the writing credit for the new version, and he's been dead for 8 years. The baseball scenes even use the same music, excerpts from Bizet's Carmen.

In place of Walter Matthau, we get Billy Bob Thornton this time, doing a toned-down and laid-back variation on his Bad Santa character. I wasn't a fan of Bad Santa, but a large part of the character's appeal was his foul-mouthed willingness to say anything, no matter how inappropriate. If you tone that shtick down enough to fit into a PG-13 movie, you've robbed the character of his reason to exist, and Thornton struggles here to bring any energy to Morris Buttermaker.

As for the rest of the cast, Greg Kinnear plays the evil opposing coach, and he does that sort of smarmy yuppie as well as anyone, but it's not a very interesting part. Sammi Kane Kraft takes on the role of Amanda, the Bears' star pitcher, and you can tell she's trying hard, but she's no Tatum O'Neal.

Part of the problem with the movie is that times have changed. Hearing the kids use foul language in the original was genuinely shocking and unexpected; today, you can hear worse language than this on Saturday morning TV. (It's interesting that one of the few lines that didn't survive to the new version was one kid's description of the team as "a buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin' moron;" those words apparently having become even more offensive in the last 30 years.)

The new Bad News Bears isn't an awful movie, really, and it'll probably entertain the kids or anyone else who never saw the original. But it's a movie with no purpose, with actors doing pale imitations of the original cast, so why bother? Just rent the original instead.
I love this Australian commercial. Very clever.

July 24, 2005

MOVIES: Happy Endings (Don Roos, 2005)

Another in the seemingly endless stream of movies in which Los Angeles is populated by ten people, who keep running into one another in a remarkable series of coincidences. I happen to be a sucker for such things, and this one is very well written and acted by a fine ensemble cast.

Lisa Kudrow is Mamie, who gave up a child for adoption 20 years ago, though her family believes she had an abortion. Now she's being blackmailed by Nicky (Jesse Bradford), who wants to make a documentary about her reunion with her child, thinking that it will be his ticket to film school.

The father of that child was Mamie's stepbrother, Charley (Steve Coogan), who now lives with his architect boyfriend, Gil (David Sutcliffe), and manages the last of his father's chain of tacky steakhouses (having run the rest into the ground). Gil and Charley are close friends with Pam and Diane (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke), and doting "uncles" to the womens' son, Max; Gil had at one point been considered as a possible sperm donor for their child.

And then there's Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who seduces Otis (Jason Ritter) before moving on to his father, Frank (Tom Arnold).

The performances are all solid here, but Lisa Kudrow is especially good, playing a sad and lonely woman who can't seem to make a real connection to anyone. In a pleasant surprise, Tom Arnold does the best acting of his career as Frank, who is probably the most decent and good-hearted character in the movie.

The movie's major stylistic twist is the frequent use of title cards to comment on the action and fill in the background of the characters. In the first scene, we see a character hit by a car; as she lies in the street, bleeding, the titles appear: "Don't worry, she's not dead. No one dies in this movie, at least not onscreen. It's a comedy, sort of." This device is overdone a bit by the end of the movie, and is generally more effective when it's used to fill us in on backstory, less effective when it's explaining emotional states that the actors should be providing for us.

And the coincidental meetings of the characters do stretch the limits of credulity. When Mamie and Jude meet, it's at least somewhat plausible, given the careers and circumstances they find themselves in, but when Mamie and Frank run into one another later in the movie, even the most patient among us are likely to react with an "oh, come on!". But a few implausibilities go with the territory in this sort of story, and with writing this sharp and funny, and a cast this talented, that's a very small price to pay.

MOVIES: Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin & Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005)

It's been a fine year for documentaries, and here's another good one, winner of the audience award for documentaries at this year's Sundance festival. The subject is the US Quadriplegic Rugby Team and its quest for gold at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

Quadriplegic rugby, affectionately known as "murderball," is played in specially armored wheelchairs on a regulation basketball court. It's a full-contact sport, and these men crash their chairs into one another at high speeds; it's not at all unusual to see chairs topple over.

The movie opens at the 2002 world championships, and sets up the strong rivalry between the teams from the US and Canada. Joe Soares, one of the movie's central figures, had been a star for the US until age caught up with him and he was cut from the team; feeling betrayed, he became the coach of the Canadian team, and it is his mission in life to defeat the US.

This is not a sentimental, heart-warming movie about men who need to be pitied; these are men who enjoy their sport, and their lives, to the fullest. The movie isn't shy about answering some of our more embarassing questions about quadriplegic life. Yes (for instance), they can still have sex, as they explain in one of the movie's funniest sequences.

That's not to say that they aren't inspiring figures. The movie takes some time away from the team to introduce us to Keith, who is still undergoing physical therapy after a recent motorcycle accident, and still adjusting to the idea of life in a wheelchair. When the team comes to visit his rehab center and give a demonstration, Keith is thrilled; he cruises through the halls in one of the rugby chairs with an enormous smile on his face, beginning to realize that there are still exciting things to do.

The movie is very well paced, and the personal stories give us something to root for on either side when the US and Canadian teams meet at the Paralympics. The matches are crisply edited; we get a real sense of the action of the game in a very short time.

Very funny, exciting, entertaining movie.

BOOKS: Replay, Ken Grimwood (1986)

I hadn't read this novel since shortly after it was published, and it's rare for a book to stick in my memory for that long. I was happy to read it again and see that it holds up very well; it's one of the best time-travel stories I've read.

The story begins in 1988, with Jeff Winston's death at the age of 43. He wakes up in 1963, an 18-year-old with all the memories of his adult life. He does the obvious things -- makes a fortune betting on sports events, invests in the right stocks, tries to save JFK -- and makes sure to take particularly good care of his health. But when he reaches the age of 43, he dies of another heart attack, and finds himself an 18-year-old again.

The cycle continues, and each new replay finds Jeff with different goals, usually as a reaction to whatever he didn't like about the previous life. Money, sex, love, philanthropy -- the search for true happiness takes different forms every time, with the knowledge of impending death hovering over each life, and the fear that the next death could be the last. When Jeff meets another repeater, Replay becomes an oddly moving love story.

Grimwood wisely doesn't attempt to explain why this is happening; the focus is more on the human reaction than on the mechanics of the situation. Jeff is a finely realized character, and his responses to his far-fetched reality always ring true.

Replay is less than 20 years old. Is that too soon to call it a classic?

July 23, 2005

BOOKS: The Book of Bunny Suicides / Return of the Bunny Suicides, Andy Riley (2004/2005)

In the gleefully tasteless spirit of 101 Uses for a Dead Cat come these two slim collections of wordless cartoons about depressed bunnies and their creative plans to off themselves.

Riley's cartooning skills aren't the greatest, but the jokes are occasionally very funny. His bunnies are remarkably patient -- one sits against a wall, holding a nail to his forehead, waiting for the sun to melt an enormous block of ice, inside which is frozen a hammer, tied to a rope, that will (eventually) swing down and strike the nail -- and quite creative, in a Rube Goldberg fashion; there's one terrific sequence, for instance, involving a bowling ball and a sieve.

And every now and then, Riley comes up with something utterly brilliant. In one cartoon, a young woman sits in a chair, surrounded by used tissues and a torn photo of a happy couple; across the room, a bunny slips a tape into the VCR: Fatal Attraction.
How does a 6-second drum break from 1969 become the basis of an underground music scene? And what does it say about the current status of copyright? This 17-minute lecture on the history of the "Amen break" offers some answers. Fascinating stuff, though I don't entirely agree with Mr. Harrison's views on copyright law.

(Via The Fredösphere)

July 20, 2005

BOOKS: The Carpet Makers, Andreas Eschbach (2005 / 1995 Germany)

For generations, the carpet makers have done their meticulous work, each man devoting his life to producing a single carpet, woven from the hair of his wives and daughters. As he nears death, he finishes his carpet and sells it to the Emperor's traders, who will deliver it to the Emperor's palace; the proceeds from each man's carpet will support his son as he weaves his own carpet.

But some of the world's great thinkers have begun to have doubts. Many dozens of carpets are sold to the Emperor each year, and this has gone on for thousands of years. Even if they are simply piled in storage rooms, how large must the Emperor's palace be to hold so many thousands of hair carpets? And there are other hints of change in the air, rumors that the Emperor has been overthrown (or perhaps he has abdicated? or died?).

Eschbach tells his story by focusing on a different character in each chapter (though some will make background appearances elsewhere in the book); many of the chapters could stand on their own as short stories. The writing is lovely (at least some of the credit here goes to translator Doryl Jensen); this is how the book begins:
Knot after know, day in, day out, for an entire lifetime, always the same hand movements, always looping the same knots in the fine hair, so fine and so tiny that with time, the fingers trembled and the eyes became weak with strain -- and still the progress was barely noticable. On a day he made good headway, there was a new piece of his carpet perhaps as big as his fingernail. So he squatted before the creaking carpet frame where his father and his father before him had sat, each with the same stooped posture and with the old, filmy magnifying lens before his eyes, his arms propped against the worn breastboard, moving the knotting needle with only the tips of his fingers. Thus he tied knot upon knot as it had been passed down to him for generations until he slipped into a trance in which he felt whole; his back ceased to hurt and he no longer felt the age in his bones.

There are characters and images in this book that will stay with me for a long while: a carpet maker deals with the birth of a forbidden second son; the cruel punishment of a defeated king; a flute player willing to risk arrest and death for his music; the answer to the mystery of the hair carpets. It's a lovely and haunting novel, and I hope that more of Eschbach's work will be translated into English.

July 18, 2005

MOVIES: Criminal (Gregory Jacobs, 2004)

This is a remake of the Argentinian con-game movie Nine Queens (which I watched a few weeks back) and the only reason to watch this one instead of the original is if you have a pathological aversion to subtitles.

John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, and a very badly miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal star in this version, which is very faithful to the plot of the original. To be sure, when a movie's as tightly plotted as Nine Queens is, you really can't change much. But Reilly and Luna don't have nearly the charm or the chemistry of Gastón Pauls and Ricardo Darín in the original, and the ending -- one of the places where the plot did have to be a changed a bit -- isn't as clear as it needs to be (someone gets arrested, but we're never really told why).

Skip this one, and rent Nine Queens instead.

July 17, 2005

MOVIES: Twist of Faith (Kirby Dick, 2004)

As this documentary opens, Toledo fireman Tony Comes and his family find a rude surprise awaiting them in the neighborhood where they've just bought a home. Five houses down the street lives Dennis Gray, the former priest who molested Tony when he was a boy. Tony eventually becomes one of the leaders of Toledo's community of abuse survivors, and this movie follows the story of his lawsuit against Gray and the Toledo diocese of the Catholic Church.

By now, we've all heard the stories from almost every American city. The Church systematically covered up abuse by its clergy, knowingly left priests in positions where they'd be working with children and teens, and used every legal loophole at its disposal to avoid admitting the truth. Too often, the media presents the survivors as obsessive kooks, out to destroy a beloved institution.

What this movie does is to present one story in detail, and allow those facts to speak for themselves. It's abundantly clear how Comes is still affected by his molestation, and that everyone around him is also struggling with the aftereffects. In one of the movie's most heartbreaking scenes, Comes explains to his nine-year-old daughter what happened to him as a boy and that she must avoid the man who did it now that they are neighbors.

Comes and his wife, who converted to Catholicism when they married, discuss whether they should remain in the church; I'd have liked to see more of that discussion, because it's never quite clear why they choose to stay in an institution that has done them such wrong.

Twist of Faith was one of last year's Oscar-nominated documentaries. It's been playing on HBO for the last few weeks, and will have a theatrical release in larger cities this summer. It's a fine and important movie.

July 16, 2005

MOVIES: Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin, 2005)

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn have perfected their comic personas over the last few years -- Wilson, the slow-talking sensitive guy; Vaughn, the jabbering sleaze -- and together, they make a fine pair of opposites. Their chemistry is the best thing about Wedding Crashers, which is an extremely good comedy for 90 minutes before going all gooey and sentimental in the last 20.

Wilson and Vaughn play John and Jeremy, best friends who spend every summer crashing weddings in order to pick up girls. It's starting to dawn on both of them that they're reaching the age where this sort of thing stops being charming youthful hijinks and starts being vaguely pathetic, but they can't resist the "crash of the century." The daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury is getting married, and 200 high-society single women will be on hand, making it well worth the challenge of getting in past the Secret Service.

The bride has two sisters, and each of the guys winds up with one. Jeremy is horrified to discover that Gloria (Isla Fisher) has fallen instantly in love, and wants out ("I've got a Class Five clinger emergency here!"); John, however, wants to see more of Claire (Rachel McAdams), and over Jeremy's objections, he accepts Gloria's invitation to spend the weekend with the Clearys.

Unfortunately for both men, the Cleary family is nuts. As Roger Ebert put it, when Christopher Walken (who plays the Treasury Secretary) is only the fourth-craziest member of the family, you know you're in trouble. There's the potty-mouthed grandma, the angry gay brother, the sexually unfulfilled mother. And as an extra obstacle for John, there's Claire's fiance, a viciously nasty, smug idiot (Bradley Cooper).

It's not as if there are a lot of big surprises in the movie; we know pretty much who's going to wind up with who, and that the idiot fiance will get his comeuppance. But the writing is sharp, and the jokes delivered with such style and energy, that the predictability of the plot isn't too bothersome. Yes, the wrapup of the movie, in which we get the big romantic speeches and the "love conquers all" mushiness, is a bit of a letdown. But that first hour-and-a-half is such fun that it's worth putting up with it.

MOVIES: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, 2005)

Terrific movie.

Spotting the people who've influenced Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka is becoming something of a parlor game at the moment. I see equal parts Liza Minnelli, Michael Jackson, and Carol Channing, for starters. Whoever he's been influenced by, he's created a character even creepier, in a very different way, than Gene Wilder's classic Wonka.

Depp's Wonka is utterly disinterested in the children who've come to visit his factory -- "Don't you want to know our names?" asks Augustus Gloop as they enter the factory; "I can't think how that could possibly help," chirps Wonka -- and doesn't seem at all concerned as they meet their horrible fates, each a victim of his or her own particular brand of gluttony.

Freddie Highmore is ideal as Charlie; he's adorable without ever wallowing in his own cuteness, and his decency never becomes precious or sanctimonious. Of the other kids, Annasophia Robb stands out as Violet, the world-champion gum chewer; as Violet's mother, Missi Pyle displays a very funny rigid perkiness.

The movie looks spectacular (art direction is by Alex McDowell), from the run-down shack in which Charlie and his family live to the magnificent and inventive rooms of the Wonka factory. The meadow the group first enters is an especially enchanting creation, with candy trees and grass. ("Everything in here is eatable," says Wonka. "Even I am eatable. But that is called cannibalism, my dear children, and it is frowned on by most cultures.")

Tim Burton's score is effective, and the production numbers for his Oompa-Loompa songs, in a wide range of musical styles, are lots of fun (though the lyrics are occasionally a bit hard to understand). Deep Roy plays all of the Oompa-Loompas, and for those production numbers, filmed each Oompa-Loompa separately in multiple takes, rather than create the multitude through digital effects; he's the hardest working actor in the movie.

The backstory about Willy Wonka's childhood, not part of Roald Dahl's novel, was an unnecessary addition, and doesn't add much to the movie. Part of what makes Wonka so weirdly charming is that his oddness is never explained; in trying to explain it, Burton takes a little of the magic away. But there's a very minor quibble about a movie that was wildly entertaining.

July 14, 2005

TV: Emmy nominations

Nominations were announced this morning. I posted some end-of-season handicapping back here. How'd I do? Here's the major categories and some reaction:

SERIES: Arrested Development, Desperate Housewives, Everybody Loves Raymond, Scrubs, Will & Grace

New additions this year: Desperate Housewives -- no surprise there -- and Scrubs, finally getting the recognition it deserves. Still waiting, though, for the Emmy voters to recognize the quality of Gilmore Girls.

ACTOR: Jason Bateman / Arrested Development, Zach Braff / Scrubs, Eric McCormack / Will & Grace, Ray Romano / Everybody Loves Raymond, Tony Shalhoub / Monk

This was a wide-open field; most of last year's nominees weren't eligible, allowing McCormack and Romano to get back into the race (in both cases, a sign of just how weak the sitcom is these days), and giving Bateman and (hooray!) Braff their first nods.

ACTRESS: Marcia Cross / Desperate Housewives, Teri Hatcher / Desperate Housewives, Patricia Heaton / Everybody Loves Raymond, Felicity Huffman / Desperate Housewives, Jane Kaczmarek / Malcolm in the Middle

Pretty much as expected. I'd hoped that Lauren Graham might grab a slot away from one of the Housewives, but alas, 'twas not to be.

SUPP. ACTOR: Peter Boyle / Everybody Loves Raymond, Brad Garrett / Everybody Loves Raymond, Sean Hayes / Will & Grace, Jeremy Piven / Entourage, Jeffrey Tambor / Arrested Development

Piven's the newcomer, and a rather surprising one. What, pray tell, does John C. McGinley have to do to score a nomination in this category? He should have two or three Emmys on the mantel by now for his work on Scrubs.

SUPP. ACTRESS: Conchata Ferrell / Two and a Half Men, Megan Mullally / Will & Grace, Doris Roberts / Everybody Loves Raymond, Holland Taylor / Two and a Half Men, Jessica Walter / Arrested Development

Easily the weakest field in the major categories this year. Mullally and Roberts are back for shtick that was tired three years ago; Ferrell and Taylor are both fine actresses, to be sure, but this show is far from their best work. (I'm not a fan of Arrested Development, so I can't comment on Walter.) It was bad enough seeing Gilmore Girls overlooked in other categories, but to leave Kelly Bishop out of a field this poor is criminal.

SERIES: 24, Deadwood, Lost, Six Feet Under, The West Wing

CSI got bumped from the field, always unusual, given the inertia of the Emmy voters. I know a lot of people are complaining that The West Wing doesn't deserve to be here, and there are shows I might have chosen ahead of it (Alias, House, or Boston Legal, maybe), but I think Wing had a good year with the election storyline.

ACTOR: Hank Azaria / Huff, Hugh Laurie / House, Ian McShane / Deadwood, James Spader / Boston Legal, Kiefer Sutherland / 24

LaPaglia and Sheen were both bumped from the field, and Gandolfini wasn't eligible this year, making for a particularly interesting race. I'm disappointed not to see Michael C. Hall here; I thought he did some marvelous work on Six Feet Under last season in the (admittedly overwrought) abduction storyline.

ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette / Medium, Glenn Close / The Shield, Frances Conroy / Six Feet Under, Jennifer Garner / Alias, Mariska Hargitay / Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Surprised to see Alison Janney dropped, very surprised to see Patricia Arquette nominated. Hadn't anticipated the Glenn Close nomination, but should have; Emmy voters still have an inferiority complex about movie stars, and love to reward them for "slumming." (Kyra Sedgwick will be nominated next year for The Closer, in part for the same reason. Which is not to suggest, by the way, that such nominations are necessarily undeserved; I haven't watched The Shield, but I've no doubt Close's performance is fine, and I know Sedgwick's is.)

SUPP. ACTOR: Alan Alda / The West Wing, Naveen Andrews / Lost, Terry O'Quinn / Lost, Oliver Platt / Huff, William Shatner / Boston Legal

A completely new field compared to last year's nominees. Of the Lost men, I'd have preferred Daniel Dae Kim to Naveen Andrews, but I suspect he was hurt by the fact that his role was entirely in Korean, and Andrews certainly did good work on the show. Shatner's "Denny Crane!" shtick seemed to me just enough to win Shatner the Guest Emmy he won last year, but hardly interesting enough, or possessed of enough variety, to deserve this nomination. I'm also surprised to see Alda here for what was a very small role.

SUPP. ACTRESS: Stockard Channing / The West Wing, Blythe Danner / Huff, Tyne Daly / Judging Amy, Sandra Oh / Grey's Anatomy, CCH Pounder / The Shield

How on earth did Stockard Channing hang on to her spot? Did she do anything remotely interesting on the last season of The West Wing? The other actresses are all from shows I don't watch, but how could both of the strong contenders from 24 -- Mary Lynn Rajskub and Shohreh Aghdashloo -- be left out?

July 13, 2005

From the speech of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, prime minister of Spain, upon the Spanish parliament's vote to legalize same-sex marriage:

We are not making law, honorable members, for people far away and unknown to us. We are increasing the opportunity for happiness for our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, and our families. At the sametime, we are making a more decent society, because a decent society is one that does not humiliate its members.

Today, the Spanish society answers to a group of people who for many years have been humiliated, whose rights have been ignored, whose dignity has been offended, their identity denied, and their liberty oppressed. Today the Spanish society grants them the respect they deserve, recognizes their rights, restores their dignity, affirms their identity, and restores their liberty.

It is true that they are only a minority, but their triumph is everyone's triumph. It is also the triumph of those who oppose this law, even though they do not know this yet, because it is the triumph of liberty. Their victory makes all of us, even those who oppose thelaw, better people. It makes our society better.

Honorable members, there is no damage to marriage or to the concept of family in allowing two people of the same sex to get married. To the contrary, what happens is this class of Spanish citizens gets the opportunity to organize their lives with the rights and privileges of marriage and family. There is no danger to the institution of marriage, but precisely the opposite: This law enhances and respects marriage.

Today, conscious that some people and institutions are in profound disagreement with this change in our civil law, I wish to say that, like other reforms to the marriage code that preceded this one, this law will generate no evil, and that its only consequence will be to avoid the senseless suffering of decent human beings. A society that avoids the senseless suffering of decent human beings is a better society.

With the approval of this bill, our country takes another step in the path of liberty and tolerance that was begun by the democratic change of government. Our children will look at us incredulously if we tell them that many years ago, our mothers had fewer rights than our fathers, or if we tell them that people had to stay married against their will even though they were unable to share their lives. Today we can offer them a beautiful lesson: Every right gained, each access to liberty, has been the result of the struggle and sacrifice of many people that deserve our recognition and praise.

How much longer will it be before we hear such a speech from an American head of state?

July 12, 2005

Here's something appalling: The "Secret Lover" company, "committed to providing a Greeting Card Collection with empathy and understanding, without judgment to lovers involved in a secret love relationship. " That's right, greeting cards specifically designed for people in adulterous relationships.

Here's the text from the "Holidays" card:

As we each celebrate with our families, I will be thinking of you. I will miss spending the holiday with my special lover...the one I really want to be sharing it with...These are the times when I wish we could be together and not have to hide our love. Until we can celebrate together, my holiday will be incomplete without you.

Let's leave aside the sleaziness of the concept for the moment, and just think in practical terms. You're having an affair, which suggests that you don't want your (legal) significant other to know about. So why on earth would you send your paramour greeting cards that s/he can use to threaten you with the next time you have an argument? "You're buying me that diamond brooch, or I'm showing these to your wife!"

And getting back to the sleaze factor, these cards are a celebration of immorality and cruelty. Not everyone is into monogamy these days, and I don't object to whatever limits (or lack thereof) a couple chooses. But if a couple has agreed to a monogamous relationship -- and why would you need to keep your secondary relationship a secret if you hadn't? -- then adultery is a violation of that relationship, and it should be condemned, not celebrated "with empathy and understanding." The "Secret Lover" collection is repulsive.

July 09, 2005

MOVIES: Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine (Vikram Jayanti, 2003)

Documentary about the 1997 chess match between Garry Kasparov and the computer known as "Deep Blue."

Kasparov had been among the world's finest chess players for at least 15 years when he first played Deep Blue in 1996, a match he won, four games to two. By the time of the 1997 rematch, Deep Blue was now sponsored and financed by IBM, who had enlisted several chess grandmasters to improve the computer's game.

Kasparov won the first game of the rematch handily; Deep Blue played sloppily, making strange errors, and Kasparov anticipated another fairly easy victory. But not only did Deep Blue win the second game, it won by making long-term strategic moves of a type no computer had ever made before. Kasparov came to believe that IBM was cheating and that Deep Blue was somehow getting human assistance at key moments in the match.

As one of the journalists who covered the match notes, great chess players have always been more susceptible than most to paranoia, and psychological warfare has long been a part of the game, even (maybe especially) at the top levels of play. Playing into an opponent's neuroses is par for the course, and the IBM team certainly did nothing to discourage Kasparov's suspicions.

This is essentially a talking-head movie, told largely from Kasparov's perspective, though several members of the IBM team -- computer scientists and chess advisers -- are also interviewed. The movie, despite Kasparov's prominence, remains neutral on the question of whether there was any cheating, and presents the story with all of its fascinating ambiguity intact. Very interesting.

BOOKS: Iterations, Robert J. Sawyer (2002)

Robert Sawyer is one of my favorite SF novelists. He hasn't written a lot of short fiction, and for many years, he's written it only on commission, so most of it has appeared in anthologies and small magazines. So unless you're a dedicated Sawyer completist, you probably haven't read most of these stories.

As a novelist, one of Sawyer's great strengths is the extrapolation of all the likely (and unlikely) consequences of whatever his central premise might be. Short stories, I think, don't give him the kind of room to do that extrapolation, and so some of the stories feel like sketches, mere outlines of an interesting world in which he might someday write a terrific novel. "The Hand You're Dealt," for instance, sets up a society in which genetic screening at birth and at the age of 18 is mandatory, and each person knows his genetic predispositions -- behavioral, talent, medical -- in great detail. The story itself, though, crams too much information into its final pages as Sawyer explains the convoluted solution to his mystery.

Most of the stories I like best in this collection are the shortest. "If I'm Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage," written for a Village Voice series of stories of exactly 250 words, builds quickly to a clever punchline; "The Abdication of Pope Mary III" takes the battle between religion and science to a logical conclusion.

I also very much enjoyed Sawyer's Sherlock Holmes tale, "You See But You Do Not Observe," in which Holmes's ego provides the answer to one of science's most baffling mysteries; and the lovely "Lost in the Mail," which gives the notion of parallel universes a new twist.

But even if they don't always reach the level of those stories, nothing here is flat-out awful; Iterations is a solid collection of smart stories.

MOVIES: Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2005)

OK, so the special effects are a bit cheesy, and there's almost no one in the movie who can actually act (though Michael Chiklis as The Thing does surprisingly well buried in that orange latex suit). But after the overwrought angst of Batman Begins, I was happy to see a comic-book movie that's not ashamed of being nothing more than a great big stupid piece of entertainment. It's not great art, but I had fun.

July 08, 2005

Over at Drink at Work, Francesco Marciuliano offers up some "less-than-exceptional beginnings to children's books." I particularly like the one about the very poor farmer.

MUSIC: harmonica concertos

Who knew there was such a thing? This CD turns out to be a very entertaining collection, featuring concertos by Malcolm Arnold, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Michael Spivakovsky (of whom I had never heard, but his is my favorite of these pieces). Soloist Tommy Reilly is a virtuoso of the instrument, and once you get past the "that's a harmonica" giggles, there's much pleasure to be had here.

My favorite sentence from the album notes tells us that after its 1959 premiere, the Villa-Lobos concerto "seems to have suffered inexplicable neglect, undoubtedly linked to the dearth of classical harmonica players in the world...". Yeah, that would explain it.

July 07, 2005

BOOKS: Spin, Robert Charles Wilson (2005)

Tyler was twelve the night the stars went out, watching the sky with his best friends, twins Jason and Diane. It's eventually learned that the earth is now behind some sort of barrier, and that time is proceeding much more slowly inside than it is outside. The time distortion is so great, in fact, that there may be as little as 40 years of Earth time before the sun dies, incinerating the planet in its final expansion.

Wilson follows his three lead characters through those 40 years, as Tyler becomes a doctor, Jason heads the research teams seeking an answer, and Diane turns to one of the many cults which arise after the barrier's appearance.

Tyler narrates the story, with occasional chapters leaping out of the chronological sequence to a point near the very end. That can be tricky to pull off; it's difficult to write the chapters that take place near the end, when the narrator knows all of the secrets that the author hasn't yet let us in on, without the narrative becoming annoyingly coy or resorting to awkward phrasing to avoid telling us things that the author isn't ready to reveal yet. But Wilson does the job very nicely, and the out-of-sequence chapters never feel awkward.

Spin is about (among other things) the power and importance of friendship, and the relationships among the three main characters are complex and sharply observed. There are a lot of interesting ideas in Spin, but those ideas and the strange situation never dominate the book at the expense of the characters. This is a fine piece of writing, and I will be surprised if it doesn't appear on the major SF awards ballots next year.

July 05, 2005

TV: The '70s House

Remember those PBS reality shows like Frontier House and Colonial House, in which a typical American family is immersed in the lifestyle of the past? They give up modern comforts and conveniences, wear the uncomfortable period clothes, and adopt the social roles and customs of that era.

Tonight, MTV offers its take on that genre, with The '70s House, in which a dozen 20-ish kids are asked to live without cell phones, without DVDs, without Splenda or satellite TV or the Internet; they'll be trapped in an avocado-green house with nothing to sustain them but 8-track tapes of the Doobie Brothers.

At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy: Are you kidding me? My junior high years are now such ancient history that living in that era is considered hardship enough to make entertaining television? Oy, maybe kids today really are useless...

July 04, 2005

BOOKS: Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy, Ken Tucker (2005)

100 Things to Love and Hate About TV is the subtitle, and that's precisely what we get, in alternating Love/Hate mini-essays of a page or two. The pairings are sometimes logical (love C-SPAN; hate Sunday morning news shows), but mostly random (love Freaks & Geeks; hate The Price Is Right).

The book is among the most sloppily edited I've ever seen from a major publisher (St. Martin's). A piece on ABC's "TGIF" sitcoms says "The shows to which I refer above..." when no shows have been referred to; a piece on Andy Rooney lists Jack Kilpatrick as a participant in the Point/Counterpoint segment which preceded Rooney's on 60 Minutes (it should be James Kilpatrick). Similar errors of fact and clumsy editing are scattered throughout the book.

As for the actual content, Tucker's "Love" pieces aren't nearly as interesting as his "Hate" pieces; that's not terribly surprising, since it's much easier to write an entertaining rant than to write entertaining praise. Tucker's also more willing to present himself as an iconoclast, making brave choices, in his "Hate" pieces, where he goes after ostensibly dangerous targets like Star Trek, Six Feet Under, and The West Wing (though with the critical backlash all of those shows have gone through, none of them are particularly brave "hate" targets). There's nothing remotely controversial in his "Love" pieces -- Paul Lynde, Jack Benny, Buffalo Bill. (Well, OK, maybe admitting a fondness for Welcome Back, Kotter is a bit weird.)

There's no theme to the book, and no coherent aesthetic philosophy that I can find. What it feels like more than anything else, really, is a collection of blog entries written on whatever TV topic happened to cross Tucker's mind at any given moment.

MOVIES: Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)

Finally got around to this, and was not particularly impressed. Yes, I understand that they're trying to distance themselves from the overly campy Schumacher movies, but this one swings too far in the other direction for my tastes. It's far too gloomy and murky-looking; even the Batmobile is drained of style and sex appeal.

The fight scenes are especially awful, shot so poorly that we can't tell what's happening; we just get frantic cutting from an arm to a leg to a face, with no apparent continuity between any of the images.

Christian Bale comes off better as Bruce Wayne than he does as Batman; once he puts the cape on, he puts on an artificially husky voice, a 12-year-old boy's idea of what "macho" is supposed to sound like. Of the other actors, the assorted villains -- Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy -- are all too bland, and Katie Holmes is a vacuous non-entity.

Thank goodness for Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and (best of all) Tom Wilkinson, who manage to bring a bit of life and flashes of humor to the show. And the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard (unusual for two big-name composers to collaborate on a score) is very nice.

There will, of course, be a sequel; the final scene between Batman and Gordon advertises that more bluntly than I can remember any other franchise flick ever doing. And how much you wanna bet that the little boy who Batman keeps saving in Batman Begins is named Dick Grayson?

July 03, 2005

MOVIES: Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005)

Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know is a marvelous movie about the difficulty of connecting in an era when every attempt at communication seems to be pushed away. The central relationship is that between Christine, a lonely video artist (played by July), and Richard (John Hawkes), a recently separated shoe salesman, but we also meet a dozen or so other characters who surround them.

There's the gallery owner who refuses to let Christine deliver a tape of her work by hand ("It's better if you mail it to this address," she says; Christine looks at the card she's been given and says, "But that's here..."); Richard's co-worker, who enjoys the fantasy of being a dirty old(er) man than the reality; a pair of senior citizens whom Christine drives back and forth for visits at one of their nursing homes; a teenage girl who is carefully assembling her hope chest (and refers to its contents as "my dowry"); and Richard's sons, 14-year-old Peter and 7-year-old Robbie, each of whom finds himself caught up in the fantasies of others.

Me and You is rated R for "disturbing sexual content involving children," but July has written and filmed the scenes in question in a completely non-exploitative fashion, and there is a surprising sense of delicacy and innocence about them; the movie deserves its R, certainly, but I didn't find anything "disturbing" about its content.

It's hard to talk about the specific plot details of the movie, because much of it sounds utterly bizarre taken out of context, and descriptions would risk making it sound like some freakshow, like a happier Todd Solondz movie. But the tone of Me and You is so precise that while some of the events are admittedly weird, they always feel comfortably within the realm of possibility; they feel natural, if not entirely normal.

July's writing is poetic without being precious or cutesy. A conversation in which Richard and Christine turn their walk of a few blocks into a metaphor for their relationship crackles with the joy of people who've finally found someone who understands them; the impending death of a goldfish provides one of the movie's funniest scenes.

Me and You and Everyone We Know is a delight, and Miranda July is a major new talent to watch.

July 02, 2005

MOVIES: War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005)

The publicity surrounding the recent eccentricities of Tom Cruise may be hurting War of the Worlds at the box office -- early reports suggest that it's not doing as well as hoped this weekend -- but once you get past all of those things, it turns out to be a darned good movie.

Spielberg wisely keeps the aliens offscreen for long stretches, and the movie is often more about suspense than about Blowin' Stuff Up Good, though there's certainly plenty of that, too. The first action sequence is especially good (though it's marred by an awful continuity error: How exactly is that camcorder working?).

Cruise does a nice job here, and his awkward relationship with his kids feels natural and real. Dakota Fanning, as Cruise's daughter, is terrific; let's hope she makes it through puberty with her talent intact, as so many child stars have failed to do. (Yes, Elijah Wood, I'm talking to you.) Casting the outspoken peace activist Tim Robbins as a shotgun-toting survivalist isn't by itself as funny as Spielberg seems to think, but Robbins brings a solid comic touch to the role that takes it beyond just a piece of jokey casting.

The movie falls a bit flat in the last 20 minutes, when Cruise takes on the alien invaders most directly, and the ending is just as anticlimactic as it was when H.G. Wells wrote it, but hooray for Spielberg for keeping it, when he must surely have been under pressure from the studio to create an ending with a bit more pizzazz.

July 01, 2005

Nice Newsweek profile of cartoonist Stephan Pastis, whose Pearls Before Swine is one of the funniest comic strips out there.