October 31, 2005

BOOKS: The Brothers Bishop, Bart Yates (2005)

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

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

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

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

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bothered is Nathan, and Yates paints him as such an uptight jerk that we're clearly meant to see his disapproval as outdated prudishness.

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

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

October 30, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

October 29, 2005

MOVIES: Prime (Ben Younger, 2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 26, 2005

TV: Viva Blackpool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 24, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 23, 2005

MOVIES: Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe, 2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOKS: The Commitment, Dan Savage (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

October 15, 2005

MOVIES: Proof (John Madden, 2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 14, 2005

TV: Freddie

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

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

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

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

October 10, 2005

MOVIES: Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOKS: Black Fly Season, Giles Blunt (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

October 08, 2005

MOVIES: Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005)

Clooney's film about legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow, whose reporting helped end the crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy, is gorgeous to look at, and features a superb lead performance from David Strathairn as Murrow, but falls a bit flat dramatically.

It's 1954, and McCarthy's congressional hearings, devoted to rooting out the Communists who have supposedly infiltrated the government, are in full swing. Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (director/co-writer Clooney), decide that the time has come to confront McCarthy, whose tactics of fear and intimidation they believe to be in direct opposition to the American traditions of justice and decency.

Clooney makes the choice not to have McCarthy played by an actor; all of the scenes involving McCarthy are the actual news footage from the era. He has said in interviews that McCarthy's style was so grandiose and overbearing that it would be nearly impossible for any actor to play the role without being accused of overdoing the evil in order to slant the audience's perceptions, and in fact, many members of the movie's preview audiences reportedly complained that the performance of "the actor playing McCarthy" was over the top.

The movie's filmed in black-and-white; Robert Elswit's cinematography is superb, and the lighting brings out every crease and shadow in each face.

Strathairn's performance as Murrow is very fine, and more than just an impersonation (though his recreation of Murrow's cadences and style is quite good); Murrow's anger with the state of affairs, and with the state of his industry, shines through with great clarity. Frank Langella is also excellent as CBS founder William Paley, who struggles to balance his belief in investigative journalism with his need to keep the network financially afloat.

When we know the story already, it's a challenge for a filmmaker to maintain dramatic tension, and Clooney doesn't quite succeed here; the movie has a tendency to come across as a mildly preachy civics lesson. A subplot involving Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, playing coworkers who are secretly married in violation of CBS policy, goes nowhere; and the movie's use of jazz standards as transitions between scenes, in lieu of a traditional score, is a bit too arch (though the songs are very nicely sung by Dianne Reeves).

Worth seeing for Strathairn's performance, and (if you aren't familiar with the era) as a snapshot of a particularly unpleasant moment in American history, but mildly disappointing.

MOVIES: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park & Steve Box, 2005)

This one is a complete delight. Wallace and Gromit, who've starred in three superb short films, make the leap to feature length with total success.

Wallace is a slightly dotty inventor, and Gromit his loyal dog, who usually winds up rescuing Wallace from the problems caused by his inventions. This time around, the two have gone into the garden-security business as Anti-Pesto, protecting gardens from ravaging rabbits. Wallace attempts to brainwash the bunnies into hating vegetables, and before long, the neighborhood is being terrorized by a giant furry beast. Once again, it's up to Gromit to save the day.

The movie is made in claymation, with clay figurines moved a fraction of an inch for each frame of the film, and took five years to complete. The low-tech nature of the animation -- you can occasionally see the animators' fingerprints in the clay -- is part of the movie's charm. It is astonishing how expressive the characters' faces are, especially that of Gromit, who has no voice (heck, he doesn't even have a mouth), but manages to express infinite variations on "oh, dear lord, what has this fool gotten me into now" with the subtleties of a raised brow.

The voice performances are very good; Peter Sallis has voiced Wallace for 15 years now, and hits just the right tone of slightly befuddled confidence. The movie's other principal actors are Helena Bonham Carter, the very model of stuffy upper-class dithering as Lady Tottington, and Ralph Fiennes, clearly having a grand time, and surprisingly funny as the gung-ho hunter Victor Quartermaine, who has no patience for the humane methods of Anti-Pesto.

Were-Rabbit is rated G, but in the finest British tradition, there are a few subtly bawdy double entendres, and enough intelligent humor to keep the adults happy; they may actually enjoy the movie more than the kids, who probably won't pick up on a lot of the references to other movies, everything from King Kong and Frankenstein to the classic Ealing comedies.

TV: Hot Properties

Another example -- a relatively good one, this time -- of the influence of Sex and the City. Again we have four sexy women, tossing witty quips back and forth, constantly chatting about sex and the men in their lives.

This time, the setting is a real estate agency run by Ava (Gail O'Grady), who's in her early 40s and struggling to have a child with her 25-year-old husband (who thinks she's in her early 30s). Her partners are Chloe (Nicole Sullivan), a self-help-book addict who has no problem finding men for the evening, but can't find one who'll call back the next day, and Lola (Sofia Vergara, going way overboard on the Charo-esque Latin bombshell routine), recently divorced after a ten-year marriage to a husband she never realized was gay.

There are a pair of doctors with offices down the hall -- sweet-natured therapist Sellers Boyd (Evan Handler) and cocky plastic surgeon Charlie Thorpe (Stephen Dunham) -- and everyone shares the services of receptionist Mary (Amy Hall, sitting at a desk that reminds us of Marcia Wallace in The Bob Newhart Show).

And finally, there's Emerson (Christina Moore), who arrives as a client, looking for a home for herself and her fiancee; Ava and Chloe both recognize him from one-night stands, but Emerson believes he's a virgin. The first episode ends with Emerson and the realtors hanging out at a local bar, and since she's among the show's regulars, I would assume that Emerson will be joining the firm.

The cast is very good, and there are enough funny lines to make this a reasonably entertaining half-hour. It feels like a comfortable fit with its lead-in, Hope & Faith, and while it's not going to be a classic sitcom for the ages, it's better than most.

October 07, 2005

BOOKS: Blood of Angels, Reed Arvin (2005)

Arvin's second novel, like his first (The Last Goodbye) is a terrific legal thriller that explores issues of race and class while telling an exciting, suspenseful story.

Thomas Dennehy is a prosecuting attorney in Nashville, preparing what looks like a slam-dunk murder prosecution against Moses Bol, a Sudanese refugee accused of killing a white woman. The killing has raised tensions even higher than usual in the neighborhood known as The Nations, whose residents are mostly poor, white, and violently racist.

One of Dennehy's earlier cases suddenly comes back to life when an activist professor claims that Dennehy convicted the wrong man, who has since been executed. If that can be proven, Dennehy and his colleagues fear that the anti-death-penalty crowd will be stirred up to such an extent that it will be impossible to get the death penalty for Bol, no matter how strong the case against him.

And that case may not be as strong as it had seemed; a local minister suddenly surfaces as Moses Bol's alibi, claiming that she was with Bol on the night of that murder. Bol is released on bail, and The Nations teeters on the edge of full-out riots.

Arvin's plotting is tight, his characters are well-rounded and realistic, and his writing is sharp and fun to read. The identity of the principal villain is fairly prepared, but comes as a surprise (it caught me off guard, anyway), and the final showdown between Dennehy and the villain is marvelously tense. This is a very fine book.

TV: Related

Do you remember Sisters? It was a Saturday night staple about ten years ago, the story of four 30ish sisters living in the Chicago suburbs with a terrific cast -- Sela Ward, Swoosie Kurtz, Patricia Kalember, pre-stardom roles for Paul Rudd and Ashley Judd -- caught up in gloriously melodramatic soap-opera stories.

Well, now the WB gives us Related, which is like Sisters for the post-Sex and the City era; this time around, the sisters are ten years younger, twenty IQ points dumber, and a lot more gabby about the intimate details of their lives. They are the Sorellis, and each of them is in personal crisis when we meet them. Ginnie (Jennifer Esposito) fears that her pregnancy will derail her legal career, and hasn't yet told hubby Bob (Callum Blue) that she's pregnant. Anne (Kiele Sanchez) is a therapist whose restaurateur boyfriend is about to dump her. Marjee (Lizzy Caplan) is being evicted, which makes it difficult to get her party-planning career off the ground; and Rose (Laura Breckenridge) has yet to tell Daddy that she's changed her major from pre-med to experimental theater.

It is, I think, not a good sign that though I finished watching the first episode 20 minutes ago, I still had to check the WB website to remember the sisters' names; even now, I'm not sure I could tell the oldest three apart. (Rose, I can spot; she's the one who isn't blonde.)

The dialogue is very Sex and the City; everyone is constantly dropping witty remarks (well, they're supposed to be witty, but the writing doesn't quite get there) that sound nothing like the way real people talk. And even if the writing were better here, Sex and the City had actresses who were talented enough to get away with the heightened artifice and theatricality of that show's writing; the cast of Related is nowhere near that caliber. Laura San Giacomo, who was dropped from the cast very late in the process to be replaced by Esposito, is a better actress than anyone left on the show, and should be counting her blessings to have gotten away from this trainwreck.

October 05, 2005

TV: Close to Home

Good news for those who are missing Judging Amy : CBS has filled its time slot with a show that should hit the spot. Close to Home is a cross between a legal drama and a crime procedural featuring a tough yet sensitive female prosecutor; it's Law & Order: The Suburbs.

Jennifer Finnigan stars as Annabeth Chase, who's returning to work in the prosecutor's office after 12 weeks of maternity leave (the baby is, of course, adorable); the promotion she thought was hers has been given to her office rival Maureen (Kimberly Elise), and their boss Steve (John Carroll Lynch) is skeptical about Annabeth's ability to balance work and her new status as a mom.

Annabeth will be prosecuting the crimes that take place in the seemingly quiet streets of neighborhoods just like her own (and by extension, just like The Target Audience's own); in the first episode, she's filing arson charges against a woman who lives just six blocks away, a woman who apparently set her house on fire with her children still inside.

Finnigan is immensely likable (I adored her in the flop sitcom Committed earlier this year), and she's much better than the show she's stuck in, which is standard-issue crime drama. I think the show will do just fine with the 30+ female audience it's going after, and I continue to look forward to the day when Finnigan gets the big success she deserves in a show worth watching.

October 01, 2005

MOVIES: A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

In the opening scene of A History of Violence, we watch two men leave a motel room, get into their car, and prepare to check out. In the back of our minds, we can sense that there's something not quite right about the two of them, but the scene is paced so slowly that the languor becomes almost comic, and we're distracted from our own misgivings. That sets up one of the movie's major themes: How willing are we to ignore our own suspicions and fears in order to maintain our happiness, and (even more important) the happiness of those we love?

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives an idyllic small-town life somewhere in middle America -- beautiful wife, two kids, successful business, loved by everyone in town -- which is abruptly thrown off track when a pair of thugs come in to rob his diner at closing time. Tom successfully fights them off, killing both, and is acclaimed by the town and the local press as a hero. He also draws the attention of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who is convinced that Tom is really Joey Cusack, a one-time Philly gangster. Fogarty insists that Tom is lying; Tom insists that Fogarty is mistaken.

Mortensen's performance and the script (adapted by Josh Olson from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke) leave us guessing for quite some time before the question of Tom's true identity is finally resolved. But as we wonder, we're left to ponder another of the movie's themes, that of identity. Is it possible to simply abandon who one is and become an entirely different person? Tom's son, Jack (a solid performance by newcomer Ashton Holmes), faces that question as his father's heroism moves him to a new way of dealing with high-school bullies.

This is a marvelous movie here, with a note-perfect cast. In addition to Mortensen and Holmes, Harris is in top form; Maria Bello, who plays Tom's wife, is a strong contender for a supporting Oscar nomination. Most miraculous of all, Cronenberg gets a good performance out of that tired old has-been William Hurt, who pops up late in the movie for a single scene and does ten minutes that are sharper and funnier than anything he's done in fifteen years.

Those who are bothered by violence should know that the violence here is more realistic than in most Hollywood movies; those moments are brief, though. There's also a pair of realistic sex scenes that do what such scenes almost never do in the movies: tell us something about the characters and advance the plot. The sex and violence are anything but gratuitous here; they are central to the story, and they are judiciously used.

I could quibble about a few things. The final scene is so ambiguous as to be meaningless, and Jack's transformation, though emotionally plausible, isn't believable on a practical level, as he suddenly demonstrates skills he's shown no sign of having.

But those are small details. The story and the performances are riveting, and A History of Violence is highly recommended.

TV: Night Stalker

This revamped version of the short-lived 70s show is a watered down X-Files with a touch more horror.

As we open the first episode, Carl Kolchak (Stuart Townsend) has just been hired as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Beacon, and his first move is to get on the bad side of Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union), the senior crime reporter, by showing up at a crime scene that she's supposed to be covering. Emily Gale has been murdered, and husband Henry is the prime suspect. At least, he is until his sister is also killed, and her young daughter Julie is kidnapped. (I would have bet money that the kid's name would be Dorothy.)

Why is Kolchak so fascinated by these murders, and so unwilling to stay out of Reed's way? Turns out that they are connected to a mysterious -- and possibly supernatural -- series of unsolved crimes he's been tracking, which include the murder of his own wife; the FBI still considers Kolchak the leading suspect in his wife's death, but have never been able to gather sufficient evidence to charge him.

In Kolchak and Reed, the show's going for that X-Files Mulder & Scully thing -- one believer, one skeptic, forced to work together, and no doubt with oodles of unresolved and unexpressed sexual tension. But Townsend and Union have neither the charisma that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson had as individuals nor the chemistry they had as a pair. Townsend, in particular, is working so hard to keep his American accent intact that very little personality of any sort comes through. Eric Jungmann is effective, though, as the Jimmy Olson/comic relief sidekick.

The show is often poorly photographed; even if the setting is a cave at night, the audience has to be able to tell what's happening. Night Stalker is a murky mess, and it's hard to imagine that it'll last very long.