March 30, 2005

BOOKS: Old Man's War, John Scalzi (2005)

If I say that Old Man's War is an updated version of Heinlein's juvenile novels -- Starship Troopers in particular -- you're going to expect a callow 17-year-old protagonist and a story aimed at early teens. What Scalzi's actually given us is a 75-year-old hero, and a novel for adults (and smart teens with good taste).

John Perry joins the Colonial Defense Forces as soon as he becomes eligible, on his 75th birthday. It's the job of the CDF to fight humanity's battles on distant planets, with the goal of wiping out hostile aliens before they get anywhere near Earth. The CDF recruits senior citizens because it wants people with a lifetime of experience and common sense to draw on. Those who join the CDF are never allowed to return to Earth themselves; if they survive their 10-year term of service, they are sent to live on one of the human colony worlds.

But how (I hear you asking) can an army of 75-year-old soldiers have the strength and stamina to go to war? Why, by giving them nifty new high-tech bodies, of course. Each recruit has his/her mind downloaded into a younger version of themselves that's healthier, faster, and stronger than they ever were; they're no longer entirely human -- they're green, for one thing -- but they're perfect soldiers.

Once that background is established, the novel is somewhat episodic, as John and his new friends go through training, and then from battle to battle, without much of a through-story. (The plot thread that does dominate the last third of the book is driven by a turn of events that's a bit too coincidental for my liking.) But the battles are terrifically entertaining, and Scalzi's alien races are interesting creations. I especially liked the Consu, who believe themselves so superior to any other race that negotiations are a degrading task, doled out as punishment to Consu criminals and outcasts.

The prose is crisp and clean; the characters are well-rounded; and the story moves along at a brisk clip. This is a solid piece of entertainment, well-crafted and lots of fun.

March 29, 2005

TV: American Idol -- 90s night

Very uneven night of performances tonight. My take:

Bo, "Remedy" -- oy, that hat! This is a dull song, and Bo's performance, though competent, isn't particularly interesting.

Jessica, "After All" -- another dull song, and it gives her absolutely no chance to show what she's capable of doing. It's an OK performance, though.

Anwar, "I Believe I Can Fly" -- Randy nails it: he's got a lot of nasty pitch problems in his lower register, and he keeps winning the audience back with his big finish. I didn't think that even the big finish was up to his usual standard, though, and he looks very uncomfortable singing all that melismatic garbage.

Nadia, "I'm the Only One" -- interesting choice, and nice to see that she can pull off something with a harder edge. Best of the night so far.

Constantine, "I Can't Make You Love Me" -- the best pure singing he's done yet, but he doesn't seem to get the point of the song, and there's very little personality coming through.

Nikko, (I have no idea what this song is) -- there's too much vibrato in his voice. His pitch is a lot better than usual tonight, but when it is off, it's way off.

Anthony, "Something About the Way You Look Tonight" -- he's done the best job in the last few weeks of figuring out what songs work for him; this is a very good choice for his voice, and is quite nicely done.

Carrie, "Independence Day" -- there are a couple of notes at the very beginning that are too low for her, but otherwise, this is a fabulous performance, very exciting, and ideal for her style.

Scott, "One Last Cry" -- even by Scott's low standards, this is horrible, bad enough that I find myself longing for the dulcet tones of Mikalah. The pitch is off throughout, the falsetto is unattractive; this is the single worst performance of the year.

Vonzell, "I Have Nothing" -- solid performance, good showcase for impressive vocalizing.

For the night, I'd rank them: Carrie, Anthony, Nadia, Vonzell, Constantine, Jessica, Anwar, Bo, Nikko, Scott.

Overall: Nadia, Vonzell, Carrie, Jessica, Bo, Anthony, Anwar, Constantine, Scott, Nikko.

Most deserving of the ticket home: Nikko overall, but as bad as he was tonight, Scott would not be undeserving.

March 26, 2005

BOOKS: Abandon in Place, Jerry Oltion (2000)

On the day after Neil Armstrong's funeral, a Saturn V rocket appears from nowhere on a Cape Canaveral launch pad and blasts off for the moon; NASA tracks its flight until it apparently vanishes several hundred feet above the lunar surface.

A month later, the same thing happens, and it keeps on happening until NASA decides to put an astronaut on one of these flights and find out what's going on. It may well be a suicide mission, but Rick Spencer is so thrilled at the idea of an actual space mission -- as opposed to the relative safety and humdrum-ness of shuttle flights -- that he volunteers to ride the Saturn.

That's not a bad premise to start with, and there are umptyzillion different places you could go with it. Unfortunately, Oltion has chosen one of the sillier possible places to go, and after that promising beginning, Abandon in Place becomes a hopelessly ludicrous story about the new "science" -- I use the word loosely, indeed -- of harnessing the world's collective psychic powers to shape reality.

The book is skillfully written, with nicely drawn characters and sharp plotting; Oltion's carefully thought through the likely consequences of his new "science". But the whole thing is just so preposterous and absurd that the foolishness of the story outweighs Oltion's virtues as a writer and sink the whole thing.

MOVIES: Millions (Danny Boyle, 2004)

Millions is a family flick, which is not exactly what you'd expect from Danny Boyle, who directed Trainspotting and 28 Days Later.

Damian, who is about 8 or 9, is playing in his cardboard-box fort when a duffel bag comes flying through the air, smashing the fort to bits. The bag is filled with money -- more than 200,000 pounds -- and Damian and his older brother, Anthony, begin arguing about what to do with the money.

Damian is obsessed with the lives of the Catholic saints, and several of them visit him during the movie; he recognizes each immediately and knows exactly why they are saints. So of course, Damian wants to do good with the money and give it to the poor.

Anthony doesn't have any particular plans for the money, but he does think they should keep it for themselves, and charity isn't practical. "There aren't any poor people here," he says. "The housing values keep them away."

In any event, the boys don't have much time to make up their mind, because (in this particular fictional universe) England is about to convert to the euro, and all of these pound notes will be worthless in about two weeks.

Boyle directs with great visual style; something as simple as three men rounding a corner on bicycles becomes a memorable image of grace and beauty. Damian's saints wear halos that spin above their heads like transparent Frisbees, and a scene in which we see a house being built in rapid motion, with the boys watching from the inside, is a marvel.

Alex Etel plays Damian, and he's perfect in the role, wanting to be good without ever becoming sanctimonious or creepy. Lewis McGibbon's Anthony isn't quite so well defined, but I'd blame that more on the script (by Frank Cottrell Boyce) than on the actor.

The obligatory subplot in which Damian is menaced by the crook who wants his money back doesn't work as well as the rest of the movie; Christopher Fulford is just a bit too thuggish for the movie's tone. And since that subplot dominates the last 20 minutes or so of the movie, the movie ends less well than it began.

But even with a somewhat weak ending, Millions is a sweet story, told with light charm and great fun, and centered by Etel's lovely performance.

March 23, 2005

MUSIC: Los Angeles Master Chorale / Tan Dun, Water Passion after St. Matthew

Went to hear the Los Angeles Master Chorale last night, performing Tan Dun's Water Passion after St. Matthew. It's scored for chorus (about 65 singers in this performance), soprano and bass soloists, violin, cello, 3 percussionists, and digital sampler, which is occasionally used to alter the acoustic sounds of the other performers.

The piece is very theatrical, starting with the stage setup. Seventeen large basins filled with water, each one lit from below, form a cross on the stage. (At Walt Disney Concert Hall, the size and shape of the stage forced the ends of the crossbar to curve towards the audience, making it look more like a pitchfork than a cross, which might not be a good omen for a piece of sacred music...). The women of the chorus sit in the upstage left quadrant of the cross; the men are upstage right. The bass and violin are downstage, in front of the women; the soprano and cello in front of the men. The conductor and the three percussionists stand at the end of the arms of the cross.

Those basins of water aren't merely decorative; they're used by the percussionists for some pretty nifty effects. Gongs are struck, then lowered into water, which does very odd things to the sound. A large tube is lowered into the water, and the open end struck with a foam mallet; raising and lowering the tube alters the pitch. And frequently, the percussionists are simply slapping the water in rhythm; I was astonished at how rapidly that could be done without losing precision or clarity of the sound.

The demands on the vocal soloists (Stephen Bryant and Elizabeth Keusch, who sang the world premiere of the piece in 2000) are extreme. The bass is called on to sing some extremely low notes -- a low C, certainly, and I think it may have gone down as far as B-flat -- and Bryant's enunciation in that register was dazzling. He's also required (as are the men of the chorus) to do some Tuvan overtone singing. The soprano part includes the high-pitched yelps associated with Chinese opera, and she's also called on for a fair amount of Sprechstimme. (One such passage, early in the piece, depicts the temptation of Christ in the desert; as Keusch repeats the words "If you are the Son of God," her inflections and rhythms reminded me of nothing so much as Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz: "I'll get you, my Jesus...") Both Bryant and Keusch were superb, and every word could be understood (often a pet peeve of mine with classical soloists).

Much of the choral singing is in chorale style, a nod to Bach, I would assume (the piece was commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death), though the harmonic language certainly isn't Bach's. The chorus's words were occasionally a bit muddy, despite Tan Dun's best efforts to make them clear; final sibilants, for instance, are often extended ("darknesssssssssss"). Text was printed in the program, but the house lights were completely dimmed, making it useless.

There are some striking moments in the piece. The depiction of the Last Supper ends with a cadenza for water percussion (this is the moment in the piece where the electronic distortion of acoustic sounds is most noticable). Later, the crowd's taunts of Christ on the cross, sung by the chorus, get their instrumental accompaniment from the chorus as well, each singer striking together a pair of stones in frenzied rhythm.

The Water Passion is about 90 minutes long, and while it's relatively accessible as contemporary music goes, it is a complicated piece (a few folks crept out during the short re-tuning break between the two halves of the piece, which was performed without intermission). I know that I didn't entirely get everything that was going on, or follow all of the logic of the piece. But thanks to this fine performance, directed by Grant Gershon, I know equally well that the piece is worth getting, and that further hearings (there is a recording of the premiere) will be rewarding.

March 22, 2005

TV: American Idol -- Billboard #1 hits night

My rundown:

Anthony, "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me" -- the song really needs the harmony vocals, which doesn't help him. It's a bit too precise; he needs to learn to cut loose, but it's not a bad performance.

Carrie, "Alone" -- dull song, and the beginning is pitched a bit too low for her, but she sings it very well, and it's nice to see her show some stylistic range.

Scott, "Against All Odds" -- he doesn't connect with the audience at all, no eye contact, no gestures to them, and he still looks terribly pained when he sings. He sounds better than he has in the past, though.

Bo, "Time in a Bottle" -- a competent performance. On a ballad like this, his tendency to scoop into notes instead of hitting them squarely on pitch really shows, though.

Nikko, "Incomplete" -- oh lord help us, what's with the outfit? Pitch is off throughout, especially at the ends of phrases. Yuck.

Vonzell, "Best of My Love" -- solid vocals, and she's showing more personality and having more fun than she ever has.

Constantine, "I Think I Love You" -- disastrous song choice; the rock edge doesn't mix well with the bubblegum pop song. He's almost showman enough to sell it, but not quite.

Nadia, "Time After Time" -- the biggest disappointment of the evening. It wasn't awful, it just wasn't very interesting. Loved the hair, though.

Mikalah, "Love Will Lead You Back" -- even if I try to make allowances for the fact that I don't like Mikalah's voice, this was horrible; she was almost never in pitch. Her worst performance yet, which is saying a lot.

Anwar, "Ain't Nobody" -- he looks so uncomfortable and stiff at the beginning of the song. The big note at the end and the final choruses were pretty good, but if he can't find some way to get comfortable with revealing his sexy side (if he has one), he's not going to make it to the end.

Jessica, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" -- good song choice for her voice. A bobble with the words at one spot, I think, but a very strong performance.

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

Fastest improving: Scott.

Fastest sinking: Anwar.

Most deserving of going home, still: Mikalah and Nikko.

March 21, 2005

MOVIES: Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 2004)

When Berlinger and Sinofsky signed on to do this film, it was going to be just another "making of the album" flick, but the two years they spent with metal legends Metallica proved to be far more turbulent and unpredictable than that.

Just before filming began, the band's bass player quit, which sent the rest of the band into a sort of group therapy, trying to figure out what had happened and why none of them seemed to be having as much fun making music anymore.

A few months later, the lead singer went into alcohol rehab for 5 or 6 months, and stayed out of touch with the band for so long after his treatment that they began to wonder if he planned on ever coming back. When he finally did return, his recovery process meant that he was on a strict schedule, limited to four hours a day of work. Given Metallica's usual creative process -- long improvisational jam sessions, later waded through in search of fragments or ideas that could be expanded into songs -- his limited schedule was particularly problematic.

Meanwhile, the drummer becomes, in his own words, "the most hated man in rock and roll" for his role as the frontman in Metallica's lawsuit against Napster.

The most interesting stuff in the movie comes in the last half hour, as the band finally gets around to choosing a new bass player (their manager had filled in for the last two years of recording sessions), and deals with its therapist, who seems to think that he's going to be with Metallica on a long-term basis.

But ultimately, I didn't have much sympathy for these guys. They're all rich men, doing what they most love in life, and in the face of that, the problems they're dealing with here seem relatively petty and insignificant. It's a bit hard to care about the minor problems that keep their lives from being completely perfect. (The exception, of course, is the alcoholism, which really is a major problem; unfortunately for the movie, but understandably given the nature of the recovery process, most of that particular story plays out offscreen.)

If you're a Metallica fan, this will all be absolutely fascinating, I'm sure; if you're not, it'll be significantly less so (and you'll have to find some way to endure two hours of Metallica music).

BOOKS: Dating Is Murder, Harley Jane Kozak (2005)

Second in Kozak's series of comic mysteries featuring Los Angeles greeting card artist Wollie Shelley.

This time, Wollie's a reluctant contestant on Biological Clock, a very low-budget reality TV show, when her friend Annika, a young German woman working as an au pair, suddenly disappears. The police don't seem terribly interested, so Wollie starts digging herself, and stumbles into a case involving international drug smuggling.

The plotting isn't as tight as it might be, but the characters are fun to spend time with. The suspects are an interesting and wide-ranging lot, and I came nowhere close to guessing who the real culprit was. Kozak's writing is very laid-back, and I enjoy her sense of humor. Hardly essential reading, but I liked it.

BOOKS: Bucky Katt's Big Book of Fun, Darby Conley (2004)

A collection of Conley's marvelous comic strip Get Fuzzy
Conley's characters are sharply defined and unforgettable. Bucky is the cat, angry, cynical, and hostile; Satchel is the dog, trusting, sentimental, and a bit naive. Neither of them is the brightest of animals. Trying desperately to keep them in line is their owner, Rob Wilco.

The drawing style reminds me of both Bloom County and 28 Chickweed Lane; it's less cartoonish than the former, a bit more ragged than the latter. I'd be willing to bet that Bloom County was a big influence on Conley; Rob even looks a bit like a less dissolute Steve Dallas, and there's a lot of Opus (minus a few IQ points) in Satchel.

Among the stories collected here: Satchel convenes an international convention of dogs (inviting a German shepherd, an Afghan hound, a French poodle, and so on); Bucky's ongoing feud with the ferret next door, culminating in an appearance on Judge Judy's show; and Satchel's ongoing fear of bicycles.

Funny stuff, nicely drawn and written.

BOOKS: Sing for Your Supper: The Broadway Musical in the 1930s, Ethan Mordden (2005)

Over the last several years, Mordden has been working on a history of Broadway's "Golden Age," which he defines as the 20s through the 70s, dedicating a volume to each decade; this is the final volume in the set. (There's also a similar volume covering the 80s, 90s, and early 00s, but it is not technically part of the "Golden Age" series.)

The volume at hand covers the 1930s, a decade which saw great stars begin their careers -- Merman, Hope, and Astaire on the stage; Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and the Gershwins off stage. It was a decade of great songs, even if they were generally contained in shows that weren't particularly interesting.

It was, Mordden tells us, the "least enterprising decade" of the Golden Age, with less innovation than had been seen in the 20s, and the musicals of the 1930s were less political than our memory of the era might suggest. The two significant innovations of the decade: the revolving stage, bringing new fluidity to the transitions between scenes, and the increasing importance of dance and the choreographer, as dance began to be not simply a diversion within the show, but an integral part of it.

As always, Mordden has done his research, and this book is as comprehensive as one can imagine, covering not only the great successes of history, but the classic disasters as well. He explains why shows work or fail, and his writing is crisp and witty. The entire Mordden series is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of American musical theater.

BOOKS, The Getaway Special, Jerry Oltion (2001)

Self-proclaimed "mad scientist" Allen Meisner has invented a hyperdrive engine, which he decides to share with the world. Surely, he thinks, the new frontiers offered by cheap, easily accessible faster-than-light travel will help bring peace to the world; why fight with your neighbors when you can simply head into space, find a habital planet, and form a new society that's to your own liking? Surely there'll be no more need for war or petty squabbling among nations!

Yeah, right.

It doesn't take Allen long to realize how far off track he was. Give the world a new form of power, and the nations of the world will each be determined to control that power. And so, Allen and his girlfriend/co-pilot Judy head off into space on their own private Star Trek, seeking out new worlds yadda yadda.

They find interesting planets, meet nifty aliens, and get home in time to save the Earth from blowing itself up. It's all very pleasant and breezy; the aliens are convincingly alien; and if the story is a bit rambling, well, that's part of the charm.

It seems almost mandatory these days for a story like this to carry a libertarian message; while it's true that the principal villains of the story are Governments (boo! hiss!), the political content is much less heavy-handed here than is often the case.

Pleasant enough reading that there's already another Oltion novel in my stack of checked-out library books.

March 19, 2005

MOVIES: Robots (Chris Wedge & Carlos Saldanha, 2005)

The animation is quite nice, but the story's a bit of a bore and there's nothing especially memorable about most of the voice acting. Robin Williams' manic shtick, in particular, has gotten very old. Jennifer Coolidge is funny in a small role, and as the principal villainess, Madame Gasket, Jim Broadbent (!) is effectively menacing.

Two sequences stood out for me. A trip on the "crosstown express" turns out to be a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption with gears and spirals and hammers that whack the characters from place to place; it's very clever and full of energy. And the full-cast dance sequence that ends the movie -- how many movies is that in the last few months that end with everyone dancing? -- allows the naturally stiff robots to loosen up a bit without seeming too fluid.

Worth seeing for animation fans and those with tiny tots who must be entertained; the rest can wait for cable and DVD, I think.

March 15, 2005

TV: American Idol -- 60s night

My rundown:

Jessica, "Shop Around" -- nice voice, not much personality. The words "my mama told me" are consistently off pitch.

Anwar, "A House Is Not a Home" -- Burt Bacharach songs are hard, people. There are some serious pitch problems here, and he's working so hard on getting the notes right that there's no personality shining through. His dullest performance yet.

Mikalah, "Son of a Preacher Man" -- If you can get past that awful nasal honk, she sounds better tonight than usual; she's on pitch and seems to be having fun with the song. But this is a disastrous choice for her voice. The song requires smooth and sultry; Mikalah is harsh and brassy. And I can't get past that awful nasal honk.

Constantine, "You've Made Me So Very Happy" -- This, on the other hand, is an excellent song choice, well suited to his style and his voice, and quite well sung.

Lindsey, "Knock On Wood" -- This sounds a lot more like the disco-era version than the 60s version to me. I really like the huskiness in Lindsey's voice, but the woman has negative charisma, and her pitch is all over the place tonight.

Anthony, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" -- This is definitely not the 60s version. Well done for most of the way, but there are two or three extremely sour notes near the very end.

It is scary to realize that we are halfway through the show, and the best performance thus far is Constantine's.

Nadia, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" -- my first WOW! moment of the season. Dazzling, fabulous, impeccable.

Bo, "Spinning Wheel" -- next time, Bo, let's see if we can't learn all of the words, OK? Aside from that, it's a good choice for his style, and very well done.

Vonzell, "Anyone Who Had a Heart" -- remember what I said about Burt Bacharach songs being hard? Uh-huh. Like Anwar before her, she's working so hard on just getting the notes right that the performance feels a little bland. It comes to life at the end, though, and she looks fabulous.

Scott, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" -- Scott doesn't sound too bad tonight, but look at him. Has anyone ever had less fun singing this song? He looks bored, like he'd rather be someplace else. And look at that tension crease between his eyebrows, especially at the very end.

Carrie, "When Will I Be Loved" -- she's oversinging and pushing terribly hard, and her rhythms are stiff and metronomic; it certainly doesn't feel as if this is a song she's known all her life.

Nikko, "I Want You Back" -- lots of energy, but I just find his voice intensely unpleasant, and can't get past that to evaluate him in any detail.

Most deserving of going home (still): Mikalah, but I'd be content with Lindsey or Nikko.

March 13, 2005

MOVIES: Compulsion (Richard Fleischer, 1959)

Based on Meyer Levin's novel, itself loosely based on the Leopold & Loeb case.

Here, it's Steiner & Strauss, two Chicago college students in the 1920s who believed themselves so much the intellectual superiors of ordinary men that they ought not be bound by ordinary laws, and decided to commit a murder simply to prove that they could.

Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman are very good as Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss, and the movie is, by the standards of its time, relatively frank in suggesting the homoerotic aspect of their relationship. (1959 audiences must have been shocked when Dillman asks Stockwell, "Are you ditching me for some girl?")

But the performance that dominates the movie is that of Orson Welles as the boys' defense attorney. He doesn't show up until about halfway through the film, but once he arrives, you can't take your eyes off him. There's no question of the boys' guilt, and all their lawyer can hope to accomplish is life in prison instead of hanging; Welles argues their case in a riveting uninterrupted 10-minute speech.

And as is so often true with older movies, it's fun to see actors pop up in small roles who would have greater success later in life; Martin Milner, E.G. Marshall, and Gavin MacLeod are all on hand here.

The acting is occasionally a bit broad and hammy by modern standards, but less so than usual for the period. Worth seeing for the strength of the three principal performances.

MOVIES: Word Wars (Eric Chaikin & Julian Petrillo, 2004)

Documentary following four players as they prepare for the 2002 National Scrabble Championship Tournament.

If you've read Stefan Fatsis's book Word Freak (which the filmmakers acknowledge as a major inspiration), then you'll recognize most of these players. "G.I." Joel Sherman gets his nickname from his digestive problems and is frequently seen chugging Maalox. Joe Edley is the Zen master of Scrabble, preparing for each match with acupuncture and long sessions of tai chi. Marlon Hill revels in his image as the angry black man of the Scrabble world, and Matt Graham seems to be the most centered of the bunch.

They're all among the country's finest Scrabble players, which means, as the movie notes, that they are more often broke than not. The best players spend up to five hours a day memorizing word lists, spellings, and anagrams, which doesn't allow much time to be devoted to anything else, such as career or romantic life.

Chaikin & Petrillo present the games in entertaining fashion. Definitions appear on the screen whenever an obscure word is played, and as the players consider their options, we see the letter tiles float across the board to form each of their possible plays.

This isn't a brilliant or groundbreaking movie, but it's entertaining, and if you enjoyed Spellbound, this will have much of the same appeal.

March 12, 2005

MOVIES: Be Cool (F. Gary Gray, 2005)

Not much to say about this one, really; it's a bit like Ocean's Twelve in the sense that you get the feeling the actors had a lot more fun making the movie than you're having watching it.

Most of the cast -- Travolta, Thurman, Keitel, De Vito -- are just doing variations on their usual shtick; Vince Vaughn is (as usual) especially annoying. The Rock is at least attempting to do something he hasn't done before, and while his turn as a gay bodyguard occasionally drifts a bit too close to offensive cliche, it suggests that he might be a serviceable comic actor, if given a decent script.

Coming off best, maybe just because we haven't seen them much before, are the two musicians-turned-actors in the cast. Andre Benjamin (of OutKast) is funny as a dimwitted thug who just wants to kill someone; Christina Milian is very sweet as the baby diva whose career everyone wants to control (and she sings very nicely, too).

March 10, 2005

BOOKS: Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School, Michael Bamberger (2004)

Bamberger spends a year at Pennsbury High in eastern Pennsylvania. It's a large school, with nearly 5000 students, and is particularly well-known locally for its prom, an elaborate event for which the entire school building is decorated; much of Bamberger's book focuses on that prom and the preparations that go into it. The book is well written, and Bamberger does a nice job of bringing his characters to life.

But here's the problem: He's chosen to focus almost exclusvely on the school's elite -- the quarterback, the junior class president, the president of the prom committee -- instead of giving us a really well rounded picture of the student body. It's like portraying America as populated entirely by CEOs and Congressmen.

Bamberger doesn't even seem to be aware that there might be other students in the school, and on the rare occasions that they do come into view, he accepts without question the idea that they are somehow less interesting or deserving than the golden children he's focused on.

Take, for instance, quarterback Bobby Speer, whom Bamberger calls (unironically) "Pennsberry's prince." He volunteers to help paint sets for the school musical, and Bamberger tells us Bobby "smudged the line between athlete and thespian" by actually speaking to the drama and music kids. This is reported as a great act of noblesse oblige; it doesn't occur to Bamberger to wonder why there's such a division between the groups, or to question the fact that Bobby's involvement in the musical (limited and tangential though it is) is universally seen as slumming. And it certainly doesn't occur to Bamberger to ask any of the artistic students how they feel about the fact that the quarterback has deigned to speak to their lowly selves.

If you want a look at the lives of the in crowd, this will do nicely, but it's a shame that Bamberger's focus is so limited; he missed the opportunity to tell a less common and (if only because less common) more interesting story.

March 08, 2005

TV: American Idol -- women's semifinals, week 3

Nothing hugely shocking tonight; people were pretty much good, mediocre, and awful as you'd have expected from the first two weeks.

Good: Nadia, Vonzell, and Jessica. Nadia's starting to affect me the way Fantasia did last year; she's eccentric and weird, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of her, but she's always compelling.

Mediocre: Carrie, Amanda, and Lindsey. Carrie's probably the best of this group, but she was particularly dull and listless tonight.

Awful: Mikalah and Janay. Janay's simply too young for this competition; her pitch is terrible and she looks terrified. Mikalah's voice is harsh and nasal, and her low notes were particularly off pitch tonight.

Three weeks running they've given the worst performances; surely Mikalah and Janay will be sent home this week.

March 07, 2005

MOVIES: Touch of Pink (Ian Iqbal Rashid, 2004)

Alim (Jimi Mistry) is a gay man living in London who is horrified to learn that his mother, Nuru (Suleka Matthew), is coming to visit from Toronto; Alim has never told his mother that he's gay, or that he lives with his boyfriend Giles (Kristen Holden-Reid), and is horrified at how she will react to the news.

We're in familiar territory here, with another farce about parents who aren't as conservative or as clueless as their kids think they are. The novel twists this time are that the family is Muslim, of Indian descent (that's Asian Indian, not "the John Wayne kind," as one character puts it); and that Alim spends much of the time consulting with his imaginary friend/spirit guide, who offers advice on dealing with the crises in Alim's life.

That guide is the spirit of Cary Grant, whose attitude and style are nicely captured by Kyle MacLachlan. More precisely, of course, we're seeing the attitude and style of "Cary Grant," the on-screen persona that Cary Grant the actor perfected over the years.

The presence of Grant as a guru to a young gay man is a fascinating choice, given the continuing speculation about Grant's own romantic life (some insist that he and Randolph Scott were more than housemates). The movie never directly addresses that speculation; the closest it comes is when Grant refers to gay men as "your people" (he later uses the same phrase in a different conversation, this time referring to Indians).

But Grant's final scene, in which Alim, who's found a happy ending (as if you had any doubt), dismisses Grant, whose advice he no longer needs -- well, that scene takes on some really interesting overtones if we read it as a conversation between a man who was forced by the mores of his time to stay closeted, and a man of the current era who's able to live a more honest life.

The movie's a fluffy trifle, with a touch of the charm you'd find in Grant's own romantic comedies; it's certainly not up to the level of Grant's best movies, but it's a sweet diversion. Suleka Matthew is appropriately imperious as Nuru, and it's great fun to watch her discover her own softer side. Mistry and Holden-Reid aren't particularly convincing as a couple, and each comes off better in his scenes with the movie's other characters. MacLachlan's Cary Grant is a delight, and the best reason to watch the movie.

March 06, 2005

MOVIES: five quotes

So the latest meme sweeping the blogosphere (I picked it up from Our Girl in Chicago at About Last Night) is this: List the first five movie quotes that come to mind; they must be from five different movies.

What surprised me was that this turned into the opposite of "don't think about an elephant." My daily conversations are full of TV and movie quotes, but as soon as I wanted to actually think of any, my mind went blank. I did, however, finally come up with these five:

"But ya aaaaare, Blanche, ya aaaaare in that chair!" -- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

"Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?" -- Airplane

"That'll do, pig." -- Babe

"And I guess that was your accomplice in the woodchipper." -- Fargo

"I went to a bar mitzvah once; that doesn't make me Jewish." -- The Opposite of Sex

And yours?

March 05, 2005

MOVIES: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Judy Irving, 2003)

In the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, there's a flock of nearly 50 wild parrots. No one knows exactly how they came to be there; it's generally assumed that the flock began when some pet birds escaped, most likely (because of the large number) from a pet store.

Today, they seem to have adapted quite well to living in the wilds of San Francisco, but they are also regularly fed by Mark Bittner, who has spent a lot of time over the last several years watching and getting to know the birds. They eat from his hands, and he takes sick birds into his home to recuperate.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill tells the story of Bittner and his flock; we are introduced to several of the birds, and Bittner tells us how he got involved with them.

Bittner doesn't appear to do anything but spend time with the parrots; he lives rent-free in a small cottage and has no interest in working (in his words, he's "too spiritual to follow the careerist path"), and though the subject is raised, it's never quite clear exactly how he supports himself.

His hair hangs midway down his back, since he'd promised himself not to cut it until he found a girlfriend. But "I'm not an eccentric," Bittner tells us repeatedly. Well, of course he is, and a charming one at that.

Director Judy Irving has clearly spent a lot of time with Bittner and the parrots; she must have been able to get fairly close to the birds herself to get some of the marvelous shots we see.

The only thing that annoyed me about the movie (and Bittner) is its tendency to anthropomorphize the birds. Shots are edited to create the impression that birds are moving in time to music; Bittner talks about the birds' pair-bonds as if they were romantic relationships; and he's convinced that the birds are capable of feeling (and communicating) human emotions.

That aside, though, Bittner's relationship with the parrots is sweet and endearing, and the movie has a few surprises in store in the last half hour (if this were fiction, I'd call them "plot twists"), with the last few words providing a particularly happy ending to Bittner's story.

March 04, 2005

BOOKS: Mysterium, Robert Charles Wilson (1994)

The town of Two Rivers, Michigan is the home of a mysterious government research facility. No one in town knows what it does, and its employees are intensely secretive; most of them live on the faciility's campus, and only come into town for supplies or the occasional movie.

But when the residents of Two Rivers wake up one morning to find that their town has somehow been transported to a parallel Earth, it's not hard to figure out that the research facility was somehow involved. Still no way to know how, exactly, since the facility is now surrounded by a dome of blue light, and everyone who was inside it is apparently dead.

Wilson does a solid job of setting up his story, and the tension between the folks from our Earth and the authorities of their new home -- a theocracy ruled by a version of Christianity that has multiple deities -- feels very real. His principal characters are very sharply drawn; 12-year-old Clifford Stockton is a particularly fine creation, a kid who behaves as a kid actually would.

It's a bit hard to believe that the residents of Two Rivers wouldn't be quicker to figure out what the local authorities have in store for them, or to rebel against the harsh control they're under. And the climax of the book is a muddle, with a bit too much mysticism and theological gobbledygook. But getting there is lots of fun, and the characters and relationships are involving enough to make the book worth reading.

March 03, 2005

TV: American Idol -- men' semifinals, week 3

Some interesting surprises tonight. The rundown:

Scott -- this is the best he's ever sounded, and it's still not very good. The dancing is awful, and he looks as if he's in pain when he sings, which makes him unpleasant to watch.

Bo -- a few pitch problems, and not the best song choice for him, I thought, but an OK performance.

Anthony -- vastly improved, showing a power and a personality we haven't seen before. Terrific surprise.

Nikko -- major pitch problems, especially in the first half. High notes are still pinched, though he sounds a bit better than usual.

Travis -- absolute disaster. Pitch is all over the place; his voice disappears on the low notes; and it's a terrible song choice. Worst performance any of the men have given this season.

Mario -- apparently left his personality at home with his hat. Bland, lifeless, uninteresting performance.

Constantine -- listen to how lazy his phrase endings are; words like "magic" and "tragic" come out as an unpitched puff of air. Of course, the notes he is putting pitch too aren't all that accurate, so it's probably no great loss.

Anwar -- solid as always. I'm a bit concerned that he doesn't seem to know any songs less than 20 years old, but still the class of this group.

For the night, Anwar and Anthony are the best; Constantine and Travis the worst.

Overall, Anwar, Bo, and Mario absolutely deserve spots in the final 12; Anthony and Travis aren't as impressive, but should make it to the finals; some combination of Constantine, Scott, and Nikko needs to go home this week.

BOOKS: The Actor's Guide to Adultery, Rick Copp (2004)

Second in Copp's series about Jarrod Jarvis, former child star, struggling adult actor, and amateur sleuth.

As this one opens, Jarrod's not having a good day. The parole board has released the man who stalked him during his teenage heyday; his pilot for NBC didn't get picked up; and his agent/best friend has announced plans to marry a former soap actor who she's only known for two weeks.

Laurette's never had the best taste in men, and Jarrod is convinced that Juan Carlos is yet another mistake; when one of the wedding guests falls face first into the wedding cake -- murdered -- Jarrod is determined to find out what's going on and rescue Laurette from another disastrous marriage.

The trail takes him to southern Florida, where he's manages to land a supporting role in a cheap horror film that Juan Carlos is starring in. There's the usual assortment of suspects, included a disgruntled tabloid reporter and a Miami mob family; there's even a hunky private eye to serve as romantic temptation for Jarrod (whose policeman boyfriend is back home in Los Angeles).

Copp's style is light, breezy, and just a bit campy; as gay fluff goes, this is quite good (much better than most of the other books Kensington Publishing puts out). The mystery is fairly laid out, and the clues to the murderer's identity are there if you're sharp enough to spot them. (I wasn't; I almost never am.) I look forward to further volumes in the series.

March 02, 2005

2005 Snow Sculpture Championships

Gorgeous, unbelievable sculptures.

Reflections in d minor)

BOOKS: Blink, Malcolm Gladwell (2005)

Through a series of well-chosen anecdotes and stories, Gladwell explores the phenomenon he calls "thin-slicing," the ability of some people to make decisions or analyze situations extremely quickly, usually with no conscious awareness of how they're making that decision.

Art experts who look at statues and instantly recognize them as fakes; a tennis coach who knows when a player is about to double-fault; a marriage counselor who can predict with 95% accuracy the success of a marriage based on watching 5 minutes of the couple's interaction -- these are the folks who populate Blink.

Thin-slicing can be learned in some circumstances. John Gottman, the marriage counselor, spent years developing his methods for analyzing the emotional nuances of conversation, and has become so proficient at such analysis that it's second nature to him. Most of his colleagues, on the other hand, still have to carefully take notes over several viewings before coming to the conclusions that Gottman now reaches instinctively.

Gladwell is careful to note that thin-slicing is not always a good thing, and that it can lead to what he calls "the Warren Harding error." Harding, generally considered one of our least distinguished presidents, was elected largely because he looked so presidential -- tall, distinguished, handsome -- and people simply assumed that he must also have all of the other qualities one would desire in a president.

Similarly, the recent increase in the number of women who play in the world's major orchestras has come about only after those orchestras began having auditioners play behind a screen; when the audition panel saw female auditioners, their "knowledge" that women didn't play as well or as forcefully as men caused them to hear the auditions differently.

Gladwell's a terrific writer, with a knack for finding the telling anecdote, or for summing up a novel concept in a simple-to-understand phrase (like "thin-slicing"). Anyone who liked his first book, The Tipping Point, will certainly enjoy this one, too.

March 01, 2005

TV: American Idol -- women's semifinals, week 2

After the second round of women's performances, the extremes are clear for me. Nadia and Jessica are the best of the lot (though what the hell was Nadia thinking when she chose to do that insipid McCartney song?); Janay and Mikalah (god, that awful nasal voice!) are the worst, and clearly the ones who deserve to go home this week.

In the middle, Vonzell, Carrie, and Aloha seem to have potential, but haven't been consistent; Amanda, Celena, and Lindsey are mediocrities.

BOOKS: What Were They Thinking?, David Hofstede (2004)

Hofstede provides an entertaining countdown of "the 100 dumbest moments in television history." From shows that never should have seen the air (Me and the Chimp, My Mother the Car, Fish Police) to specific episodes and plotlines (replacement cousins on The Dukes of Hazzard, the "it was all a dream" season of Dallas, Paul Lynde's appearance as a Dating Game bachelor), from bad ad campaigns like Burger King's "Herb" to the Janet Jackson Super Bowl fiasco -- it's all here.
The writing's light and breezy, and Hofstede clearly enjoys ripping into the worst that TV has offered over the years. You may not agree with all of his choices -- I liked Cop Rock, myself -- but the book's a pleasant diversion.