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.