December 31, 2006

MOVIES: Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

Ofelia is 11, and her mother is taking her to live with her new husband in rural Spain. It's 1944, and Captain Vidal is an officer in the army of Franco's Fascists, trying to wipe out a group of rebels holed up in the nearby hills. The captain isn't particularly interested in his new stepdaughter; he doesn't even seem all that concerned with his new wife. What he cares about is the child -- a son, he's sure -- to which she is about to give birth.

Ofelia follows an odd-looking insect into the woods behind Vidal's house. It leads her to an ancient stone labyrinth, and presents her to the faun Pan, who believes that she may be the long-lost Princess Moanna of the underground world; to prove herself worthy of reclaiming her royal place, Ofelia must perform three difficult tasks before the next full moon.

Del Toro's movie is an odd, unsettling blend of war story and fairy tale (though it is most definitely not a movie for children), and it's hard to say which of Ofelia's worlds is the more frightening. Pan challenges her to face giant toads and the surreal Pale Man, whose eyes are located in his palms; reality presents her with a sadistic stepfather and a mother who may be dying. It is one of del Toro's greatest accomplishments that we are able to move so smoothly from one world to the other.

He's aided by a fine cast. Ivana Baquero, who was herself only 11 when the movie was filmed, is lovely as Ofelia, who bravely faces the first challenges of adulthood without anyone to rely on. Sergi Lopez is a terrific villain, pushing Captain Vidal's sadistic cruelty as far as possible without ever quite toppling into caricature. Doug Jones appears as both Pan and the Pale Man, and while his dialogue is dubbed (Jones speaks no Spanish), his physical presence in both roles is extraordinary. Best of all is Maribel Verdu as Mercedes, Vidal's housekeeper, who draws on unexpected resources to become one of Ofelia's strongest allies in both worlds (and who is nearly unrecognizable as the object of sexual obsession from Y tu mama tambien).

More than anything, I was dazzled by the magnificent, surreal imagery. The Pale Man at his feast table, the magnificent throne room of the underground kingdom, Pan and his fairy -- we've never seen things like this, and yet they have the timelessness of any fairy tale. And I will not soon forget the strange sight of a mandrake root in a bowl of milk.

MOVIES: The Painted Veil (John Curran, 2006)

Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) has been courting Kitty (Naomi Watts) for some time, and finally proposes marriage; Kitty doesn't love Walter in the least, but feeling pressure from her parents to stop being such a financial burden -- it's 1925, and Kitty's not getting any younger -- she accepts. Walter works as a bacteriologist in Shanghai, where Kitty begins an affair with British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). Walter discovers the affair, and announces that he's off the a small village in the interior of China to help battle a cholera epidemic; Kitty can either come with him, or he will begin very nasty, very public, very scandalous divorce proceedings.

It took me longer to type that paragraph than it takes director John Curran to go through that backstory, so if you blink during the first five minutes of the movie, you'll miss a lot.

Things slow down considerably once the Fanes arrive in Mei-tan-fu, where they are not exactly greeted with open arms; Chinese nationalism is on the rise, and some recent unpleasantness in Shanghai (British soldiers shooting Chinese workers) has made westerners rather unwelcome. The only Brit left in the village is local consul Waddington (Toby Jones), and there's also a convent of French nuns who run the orphanage and hospital (Diana Rigg is the Mother Superior).

Walter and Kitty spend most of the movie very pointedly not talking to one another, or at the very least, not actually saying what's on their minds, in that very reserved British way that's meant to suggest that passions seethe just below the surface. Unfortunately, all it suggests here is that Norton and Watts are so uncomfortable with the formal sentence structure and grammatical precision of the period dialogue (Ron Nyswaner adapted W. Somerset Maugham's novel) that they'd rather just not speak.

That's always a challenge in this sort of period piece; even if the characters are not allowed to express their feelings, the actors are still obliged to communicate those feelings to the audience. Norton and Watts are so focused on starched propriety that nothing else escapes the screen.

There are better performances from the supporting players. Toby Jones, playing the sort of dissolute diplomat obligatory in this sort of story, gives the movie a much needed sense of humor and jolt of energy; he's far more interesting here than he was as Truman Capote earlier this year in Infamous. Diana Rigg is given the movie's best speech, about the challenges and joys women face in long marriages, whether their husband is a doctor or God. Also worthy of praise is Alexandre Desplat's score, which features pianist Lang Lang to such an extent that a "Painted Veil Concerto" seems inevitable.

But Norton and Watts are so horribly uncomfortable here, with all the humanity shellacked out of them, that those small pleasures can't save the movie. A serious disappointment.

December 30, 2006

MOVIES: Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

It's 2027, and humanity has become infertile. The last child -- "Baby Diego" -- was born 18 years ago, and the world is in mourning over his recent murder; we see enormous collections of bouquets, reminiscent of London's mourning of Princess Diana. Most of the world has fallen into chaos -- a brief reference to the "Siege of Seattle," now in its third year, opens the movie -- and "only England soldiers on," say the propaganda posters. Even England, though, is barely clinging to civility, and that only through a government crackdown on every facet of life, most notably a total ban on immigration.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is a minor bureaucrat in that government, and has largely numbed himself to the bleakness around him. He has only one real friend, the aging pothead Jasper (a light and joyful performance from Michael Caine), who lives in seclusion with his disabled wife, a victim of unspecified government torture.

There are groups working in opposition to the government; Theo is kidnapped by one such group, the Fishes, and learns that this cell is headed by his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), who asks him to arrange transport papers for Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey, in an understated performance of quiet strength), an illegal immigrant who needs to reach the coast. But no one's agenda is what it seems, and Theo soon finds himself fleeing with Kee, unable to trust the government or the Fishes, and unsure if salvation is to be found anywhere.

Cuaron has created a richly detailed world, in which animals have become child substitutes to an even greater extent than they occasionally are in our own world; hardly a scene goes by without the presence of a dog or a cat (all of which seem to be drawn to Theo for some reason). There is blessedly little time spent discussing why humanity has become infertile, or how the situation might be reversed; Cuaron is much more concerned with the impact of such a change.

The look of the movie is marvelous; it's a bleak and dingy England, covered in rubble and graffiti ("Last one to die, turn out the lights"). Emmanuel Lubezki's photography is beautifully done, particularly in two spectacular set pieces filmed in single shots, one from inside a moving car -- a special rig was devised to give the camera so much mobility -- and a hellish escape through a prison camp for illegal immigrants.

In addition to the lovely work from Caine and Ashitey, there are very good supporting turns from Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of the Fishes' leaders, Peter Mullen as a none-too-stable prison guard, and Pam Ferris as the one Fish who can be relied on. And as Theo, Clive Owen is ideal, a stoic man who finds that hope may not have entirely died in him after all.

A very fine movie, highly recommended.

MOVIES: Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006)

The movie's set in the late 1990s, during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Rebel fighters have captured the family of fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), and forced him to work in the diamond mines; the diamonds will be smuggled across the border into Liberia, and the profits from their sale will be funneled back to the rebels in the forms of weapons. Vandy finds a 100-carat pink diamond, which he manages to hide, hoping to retrieve it later.

News does spread, though, and among those learning of the diamond's existence is Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a free-lance smuggler; he offers to use his connections to help Vandy find his family if Vandy will split the profits from the diamond with him. Also on hand is American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), who wants to expose the trade in blood diamonds, and hopes that Archer will give her the hard evidence she needs.

The movie is a mess. Yet again, we see a story about black Africans told principally through the eyes of a white hero, and there's a queasy sense of exploitation in the way these tragic events are being tidily packaged as entertainment for western audiences. But even setting those concerns aside, it doesn't really work as an action thriller; the action sequences aren't very well staged and the three principal characters are all stock figures.

Connelly can do nothing with her role, as Maddy exists only to repeatedly scold the audience for its complicity in the blood diamond trade (well, and because you can't make an action flick without the obligatory Hot Chick/Love Interest).

Hounsou has a better go of it, but the role isn't much more than the personification of nobility. He does this sort of thing well, but it is starting to get awfully predictable; you see Djimon Hounsou's name in the credits and you know you're going to get misty-eyed loving gazes and pained looks of wounded dignity. Is there any actor in Hollywood who has a greater need to get out of a rut? Surely there's a juicy serial killer role he could play...

DiCaprio is quite good here; for my money, it's this performance, not The Departed, that is his best work of the year. This is the first role where I've truly believed him as an adult (though I thought The Departed played nicely on the boyishness that he and Matt Damon share), and there's a gravitas and a sense of worldliness that he's rarely shown before. I'm not qualified to judge his South African accent, but it seems at least to be internally consistent throughout the movie. He's saddled with the obligatory moment of redemption late in the film, but manages to make even that seem less cloying and predictable than expected. It's a good performance, one of the best in a weak year for leading men, but it's not enough to salvage the movie.

December 29, 2006

MOVIES: Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre, 2006)

Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is the new art teacher at St. George's, a none-too-posh London school. She is befriended by veteran history teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who warns her not to get her hopes too high. Sheba may dream of changing lives, but "teaching is crowd control," says Barbara.

The women become friends, with Barbara frequently joining the Hart family for dinner (Bill Nighy, reliable as ever, has a nice supporting turn as Sheba's husband), but it soon becomes clear from Barbara's diary entries (which we hear in voice-over) that she has more than just friendship in mind. Exactly how much more isn't clear -- Barbara's far too repressed to think of herself as a lesbian, and seems vaguely repulsed at the idea of a sexual relationship -- but she's developing an interest in Sheba that is, at the very least, obsessive. "In a different, better era," she writes, "we would be ladies of leisure. We would be companions."

When Barbara discovers that Sheba has been having an affair with a 15-year-old student (played by Andrew Simpson, and what a pleasant surprise it is that Simpson actually looks like a teenager instead of a 25-year-old trying desperately to look younger), she realizes that she can use Sheba's scandal to her own advantage, and begins more actively manipulating the situation in an attempt to gain the "companionship" for which she so desperately longs.

Patrick Marber's adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel is a sharp, lively, pitch-black comedy with a pair of fabulous star roles in Sheba and Barbara. Blanchett does fine work, capturing both Sheba's willfully naive refusal to accept that she's done anything so terribly wrong ("For God's sake," she says, "he's almost 16!"), and her devastation when the scandal causes her to lose everything that matters to her.

But the movie belongs to Judi Dench, who is unstoppably ferocious as Barbara. She's made up to look every bit of her age (compare to her appearance in Mrs. Henderson Presents or Casino Royale; she looks a good decade older here), and her voice drips with bitterness and condescension as she talks about her students (all of them destined to be "plumbers and shop clerks") or the "bourgeois bohemia" of the Harts' marriage. The role could be condemned as just another revival of the stock lesbian-predator character that was once so popular; what elevates it above that, I think, is that we see not only Barbara's viciousness and cruelty, but her loneliness and suffering. There are cliche elements to the character, to be sure, but she's never just the cliche.

The movie goes a touch over the top, perhaps, in the final act, after Sheba commits what Barbara perceives as an act of betrayal -- the final confrontation between the two comes perilously close to being an outtake from Dynasty -- but Dench and Blanchett inhabit their characters so solidly that even that silliness feels grounded in reality. Two top-notch actresses in peak form; a crisp, vivid script; and (unlike so many of the year-end movies) an efficiently told story that clocks in at roughly 90 minutes -- go see it, already.

December 28, 2006

MOVIES: Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006)

There are two Big Diva Moments in Dreamgirls. One is among the most exhilirating movie moments of the year; the other is surely the cruelest.

The exhiliration, of course, comes from Jennifer Hudson, who attacks the song "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" like a starving man attacks a steak. It's impeccably sung, which isn't a huge surprise to those of us who loved her as an American Idol contestant; it's also impeccably acted, which is something of a shock, since this is Hudson's film debut.

The cruel moment is given to Beyonce Knowles as Deena, the singer with less talent but a more mainstream style and look who has bumped Hudson's Effie from the role of lead singer; she has an argument with her husband/Svengali, Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), in which he tells her that the reason he chose her to sing lead is that her voice has "no depth, no personality." We cut immediately to Beyonce/Deena's only solo number, "Listen" -- a song newly written for the movie specifically so that the character would have a big solo -- and she proves Curtis/Foxx absolutely right. It's the movie's dullest musical number, and for all the flailing of arms and anachronistic melismas that Knowles throws into it, it never comes to life, never becomes anything more than a series of accurately pitched notes.

That leads us to the biggest problem with the movie, its terribly uneven casting. Hudson is magnificent, and Eddie Murphy is very good as Jimmy Early, an R&B singer who's equal parts James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Otis Redding. But Knowles is even duller as an actress than she is as a singer, and Foxx's performance is unusually lifeless and bland.

There's an even bigger structural problem with the musical itself, one that I think has kept it (and wil keep it) from ever being considered a truly great musical: It doesn't know who its own leading character is. The Oscar pundits have been arguing for the last several weeks over whether Knowles and Hudson should be considered in the Best Actress or the Best Supporting Actress category, trying to decide whether the movie is Deena's story or Effie's. It's neither (and both actresses belong in supporting). It's Curtis Taylor's story, the rise and fall of a music mogul.

Yet Curtis isn't given much music at all (and the one major number he does get isn't among the show's best), which makes sense on a strictly realistic level; he is a producer, after all, not a singer himself. But a musical in which the protagonist is on the musical sidelines can't help but feel off balance.

Still, the movie's absolutely worth seeing. The production numbers are staged with great flair and energy; the costumes are magnificent recreations of the movie's era (I particularly loved the orange leather miniskirts the Dreams wear on one TV appearance). And because the movie's about musicians, there's much less of the "but why are they singing?" problem that often annoys those who aren't fans of musicals.

And then there's Jennifer Hudson. We don't often get to witness the birth of a full-fledged movie star, but we're seeing one here. When Hudson is on screen, she is what I'm watching, regardless of who might be singing or talking. And when she's the one singing, I am riveted to her, even in a fluffy throwaway like "Love You I Do" (another of the movie's new songs, and the best of that bunch). When she gets hold of a real song -- "I Am Changing" or "And I Am Telling You" -- I find myself breathless. It's a brilliant piece of work; I think it's the best performance any actor has given this year.

December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas and best wishes for a perfect 2007 to everyone!

And a happy second birthday to In Which Our Hero!

(Next time I start a blog, I won't do it on Christmas. Jesus gets all the birthday attention...)

December 24, 2006

MOVIES: Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)

If you thought Lynch's Mulholland Drive was too confusing and non-linear, then oh boy, are you gonna hate Inland Empire. Here's what happens in the first ten minutes or so:

A man and a woman, their faces digitally blurred, enter a hotel room and have a conversation (in Polish) about what whores do and whether they should fuck. A woman in a different hotel room sits on the bed and weeps as she watches a sitcom about three rabbits, dressed in conservative 50s attire, who speak entirely in meaningless pseudo-Beckett dialogue ("Someday I will find out." "It was red." "Who are we?" "That's not how it was.") as the audience laughs wildly. The father rabbit leaves the room, and we see him re-appear in a fashionable parlor; he stands in the background, fading in and out of view, as two men in the foreground talk (again in Polish) about whether the older man understands how important it is that the young man find an opening.

Once all of that's out of the way, we actually do get something that vaguely resembles a plot. Laura Dern stars as Nikki Grace, a faded actress who's just landed a role that she hopes will be her comeback; she's playing Sue in the oddly-titled On High in Blue Tomorrows. She warns her co-star, Devon (Justin Theroux), that their relationship must stay professional, as her husband is a very jealous man. Director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) tells Nikki and Devon that the movie is actually a remake of sorts; the original film was never completed because the two stars were murdered during production, and there are rumors that the movie is cursed.

The movie's characters, Sue and Billy, are having an affair, and inevitably, so are Nikki and Devon; they seem unable to keep clear lines between reality and their characters, and are constantly calling each other by the wrong names.

But about an hour in, the movie completely divorces itself from narrative logic (once you see the word AXXONN for the first time, don't expect anything else to make sense), as we follow Nikki/Sue/Nikki-as-Sue through a series of realities, hallucinations, fantasies, and/or dreams. It's never clear on what level of reality any of this is happening, or which version of her character Dern is playing. Assorted Polish-speaking characters keep appearing (it seems possible that these might be scenes from the aborted original version of the movie Nikki's making), as do the gloomy sitcom rabbits; people keep getting stabbed with screwdrivers, and there's a Greek chorus (of sorts) of prostitutes who do dance numbers to songs like "The Locomotion."

With so little narrative logic or internal consistency between successive appearances of characters, the actors who make the most vivid impression are those who appear only briefly. An actress named Nae -- just Nae -- plays a homeless woman who has one fabulous speech about visiting her cousin in Pomona; Diane Ladd (Dern's real-life mother) sparkles as a Hollywood talk-show host whose wig seems to have a life of its own; and Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie is hilarious as Nikki's new neighbor, who introduces herself with a series of cryptic, foreboding pronouncements ("I can never remember if it is yesterday or tomorrow; if it were 9:45, I would probably think it was after midnight.") delivered in a vaguely eastern European accent (Polish again, maybe?).

Dern is onscreen for most of the movie's 3 hours, and while she's clearly passionately committed to the project (she is one of the producers), and each individual scene is played with great enthusiasm and emotional honesty, there's so little throughline that I didn't get the sense of a unified performance; it's more like watching a series of acting exercises and monologues.

Lynch completists -- and you know who you are -- will surely want to see this latest journey through his bizarre dream world, but for most of us, I'm afraid that Lynch has dived so far into his own subconscious that we couldn't follow him even if we wanted to.

December 23, 2006

MOVIES: Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, 2006)

It's late in the 10th-century -- the Tang Dynasty -- and as the movie opens, the Emperor (Chow-Yun Fat) and middle son Jai (Jay Chou) are returning from war to their opulent palace. The Empress (Gong Li) is slowly wasting away from what her husband insists is anemia; she's just broken off an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) -- the son of the Emperor's first wife -- who is himself in love with Chan (Li Man), daughter of the imperial doctor, whose medicine isn't doing a thing for the Empress's health. There's a third son, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), who seems to be on hand mainly for comic relief; he spends his time being as obsequious as possible to both parents and sulking about being ignored.

Clearly, this is not a healthy, functional, Oprah-approved family; these people make the Hamlets look well-adjusted. And the Hamlets aren't a bad point of comparison, because what Zhang is going for here is a sort of cross between martial arts epic and Shakespearean tragedy.

If you loved Zhang's Hero or House of Flying Daggers, you may be disappointed by the level of action here. There's not as much of it, and most of it involves large armies of CGI; I found myself longing for some nice straightforward hand-to-hand combat.

The story is wildly melodramatic; before it's over, we've seen husband and wife plotting to murder one another, father and son plotting to murder one another, two different incestuous romances, poison, faked death, and an army of black-clad ninjas (yes, I know this is China and not Japan, but that really is the word that leaps to mind).

The movie is visually spectacular. The palace rooms are great chaotic riots of color -- it's as if a five-year-old got loose with a box of oil paints -- and the costumes are elaborately gorgeous. (I don't remember ever seeing this much cleavage in a Chinese film; Gong Li's gowns are marvels of engineering, allowing her breasts to enter a room three minutes before the rest of her.) The hairdos alone probably cost more than any movie that will play at Sundance next month.

As for the acting? Well, any attempt at subtlety would just get lost in all the opulence; emotions are big here, and we occasionally cross the line from melodrama to camp. Prince Yu's big scene at the end of the movie, for instance, dives gleefully over the line; you can practically hear the actor thinking, "this is my big moment, dammit, and I'm gonna have fun!"

And despite the lack of really thrilling martial arts, there is great fun to be had here. Gong Li is magnificent to watch, driven by vicious rage but never quite losing control to it as she plays a movie-length death scene; Jay Chou, as the good son who really deserves to be the next Emperor, is the very picture of moral rectitude and decency (and he's awfully good-looking, too).

Curse of the Golden Flower isn't a great movie, by any means; the CGI armies aren't always convincing, and the double-crosses and backstabbing can be hard to keep track of. But it's a crazy thrill ride, as purely entertaining as anything I've seen this year.

MOVIES: The Good German (Steven Soderbergh, 2006)

World War II is over, and American journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney) has arrived in Berlin to cover the Potsdam peace conference. His driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire), is an enterprising young man who's taking advantage of the black market to cash in as quickly as possible, even offering Jake an hour with his girlfriend. She is Lena (Cate Blanchett), and as chance would have it, she had been Jake's lover during his pre-war stint in Berlin. Her husband disappeared during the war's final months, and she's been forced to turn to prostitution to survive.

When an American soldier is found dead in Potsdam, Jake -- ever the reporter -- can't resist investigating, even when the evidence keeps leading him back to Lena and the mystery of what she might have done to survive the war.

Soderbergh has gone to great lengths to re-create the look of a 1940s movie, using period lenses, mikes, and cameras; and avoiding modern technology as much as possible. Sadly, his black-and-white photography (the cinematography is credited to "Peter Andrews," which is a Soderbergh pseudonym) isn't very good; faces are often lost in shadows that are too dark or in light that glares too brightly.

Also paying the price for Soderbergh's period fetishism is Thomas Newman's fine score. As if we actually were watching a mediocre 60-year-old print, there are frequent dropouts of sound, pitch wobbles, and volume fluctuations; there's so much of this gimmickry that it becomes distracting.

The actors don't quite get the period feel, either, though that is at least partly a function of the story. In a Bogart film, we'd have had obvious villains and heros; modern psychological ambiguity would have been out of place, and its presence here keeps us from ever really buying the movie as a period piece. Cate Blanchett looks particularly uncomfortable, delivering poorly written dialogue in a wavering Dietrich accent, and never convincing us that she has (or ever had) any genuine feelings for any of the movie's men.

None of the characters, in fact, are terribly convincing or interesting, and when the technical gimmicks finally wear out their welcome, I found myself just waiting for the movie to end. And it does, eventually, with Clooney and Blanchett on an airport runway in a moment straight out of Casablanca (Blanchett is even wearing the type of hat Ingrid Bergman wore). It takes a lot of confidence to invite such direct comparisons to a masterpiece, and for The Good German, the confidence isn't justifed.

December 22, 2006

The composer Daniel Pinkham has died at 83. He wrote (among other things) a lot of fine choral music; at this time of year, his Christmas Cantata would be particularly appropriate listening. I'm especially fond of the second movement, a lovely setting of "O Magnum Mysterium" with trumpets and unison sopranos weaving long, sinuous melodic lines around each other.
Here's a brilliant dissection of the many, many, many plot absurdities to be found in Babel, which some people are still taking seriously as a Best Picture Oscar contender.

December 18, 2006

BOOKS: The Book of Samson, David Maine (2006)

Third in Maine's series of novels based on Biblical stories, following The Preservationist and Fallen (which I commented on here).

Maine has a terrific knack for giving his characters distinctive voices. Here's how The Book of Samson opens:
This is the story of my life and it's not a happy one. If you wish to read about me you're welcome to but if you're looking for something to give you hope & joy comfort & inspiration then you had best leave off here straightaway and go find something else. My life has an abundance of frustration and pain plus a fair bit of sex and lots of killing and broken bones but it's got precious little hope & joy comfort & inspiration.

It's got some women in it too plus a wife. Dalila is the one you may have heard of and a rare piece of work she was. You may think you know the story but believe me there's more.

It's an interesting question why anyone would seek hope & joy comfort & inspiration in a story in the first place. Something to think about. Maybe because there's precious little of it in life so we gather up as much as we can find and put it in our stories where we know where it is and it can't get out. But this story as I say isn't like that. It starts and ends with me here in chains and in between if anything it gets worse. Betrayal adultery and murder all figure in words writ large as if in fire against the nighttime sky. With the story not even done yet it might get more hopeless still before my days in this world are over.

In face I'm sure it will.

What I enjoy about Maine's novels is his ability to flesh out characters who, in their Biblical incarnations, are mere sketches, puppets with only enough personality on which to hang the bare-bones plot of their stories. What we know of Samson from the Bible isn't much more than "strongman betrayed when a hot chick cut his hair." Maine's Samson is a terrific character; he's none too bright, and well aware of it (especially when narrating the Dalila part of the story). He's also easily tempted to misuse his strength in ways that range from mere bullying to violence to murder.

("Dalila?" I hear you asking. "Isn't that 'Delilah'? Maine spells all of his place/person names as they appear in the Douay Bible.)

As always, Maine brings a dry sense of humor to his re-telling, managing to be funny and a bit irreverent without crossing the line into sacrilege. His story this time isn't quite as compelling (or as well known) as the Noah/Adam & Eve stories of his earlier books, but The Book of Samson is so marvelously written that it's still well worth your time.

December 16, 2006

MOVIES: The Pursuit of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino, 2006)

You know from Will Smith's appearance in the advertising for this movie -- glasses, mustache, hint of gray at the temples -- that this is meant to be a piece of Serious Acting. Unfortunately, it's such a predictable weepie that it could be a Lifetime movie-of-the-week (well, it could if Smith were female, anyway).

Smith plays Chris Gardner, who is struggling to make ends meet as a salesman of over-priced, useless medical equipment; taking a big chance to improve his life, he applies for an unpaid internship/trainee program at Dean Witter Reynolds (whose logo appears so often that the movie is practically a 2-hour ad for the company). It's six months with no salary, and only a one-in-twenty chance that it will actually result in a paying job, but Gardner has enough confidence in his abilities to take the leap.

But when his wife (Thandie Newton) leaves him, what had been a difficult life becomes even harder; Chris and his son Christopher (played by Will Smith's real son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) lose their home, and Chris has to juggle single parenting and the challenges of his internship, all without letting anyone at work know how desperate he is.

The movie's based on a true story, so there's never any real suspense about how things are going to turn out -- if Gardner hadn't gotten the job and had lost his son to Social Services, nobody would have wanted to make a movie, would they? -- so it's entirely a matter of how skillfully the cast and director can go through the predictable paces.

Will Smith is one of the few MOVIE! STARS! we have at the moment, and he's always immensely likable; our affection for Smith goes a long way towards getting us through the movie's more saccharine moments. His best moment in the movie comes when Gardner and his son are forced to spend the night in a subway station restroom; Gardner is trying to turn the situation into a game, to keep Christopher from realizing how bad things really are, and Smith does a fine job of balancing that paternal concern with his own anguish at the situation.

Jaden Smith, who was seven when the movie was shot, is quite good; he's got terrific comic timing, and is cute without being overly sweet. His relationship with Will Smith is, not surprisingly, very convincing and natural; if he chooses to continue acting, the big question will be whether he can be as convincing with actors who aren't his father.

Thandie Newton is wasted in a role that never makes much sense; Linda is a shrill, unhappy woman from frame one, and we never have any reason to believe that these two people were ever in love or happy together. Her decision to leave Chris feels arbitrary; it's not as if things have suddenly gotten any worse for the two of them, and we aren't given any notion what triggers her departure.

Will and Jaden Smith are talented enough here that the movie's not unwatchable; it's a perfectly adequate bit of uplifting schmaltz. But despite a few tepid attempts at social commentary about our failure to do anything about the problem of homelessnes, it never becomes anything more than a piece of fluff.

December 10, 2006

MOVIES: The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, 2006)

It's 1983, and a group of eight young men are being prepared for Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams. Their two principal teachers bring very different philosophies of education. Hector (Richard Griffiths) believes in knowledge for its own sake, and his "General Studies" classes include memorization of Hardy's poetry, singing Rodgers & Hart ballads, and performing classic movie scenes. Irwin (Steven Campbell Moore) believes that what you know isn't nearly as important as how you show off what you know, and urges the boys to take contrarian positions for their own sake, because being memorable will impress the judges more than being right.

Alan Bennett's screenplay is adapted from his stage play, and the entire original cast is on hand for the film version. The dialogue is that sort of terribly witty, terribly clever, terribly bon mot-laden stuff that can play well on stage, but comes off as too clever by half on screen. Everyone's so damned busy trading sub-Wildean quips that there's not much time for actual character development. The boys in the class get one character trait each: the jock, the black kid, the fat kid, the Muslim. (There is one kid who gets to be gay and Jewish.)

There are a few scenes that go beyond superficial glibness -- Hector and one of his students discuss a poem by Hardy; a classroom debate about the meaning of the Holocaust (and what it means to study the Holocaust) -- but they are rare, and the movie is generally content to skim along the surface, dropping cheeky punchlines in place of character development. We don't get to know anyone well enough to care about any of them, and the movie's final five minutes are a conceit that might have been effective on stage, but is a disaster on screen. Not recommended.

MOVIES: The Holiday (Nancy Meyers, 2006)

Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is an editor of film trailers who's just dumped her cheating boyfriend. Iris (Kate Winslet) is a newspaper reporter who's just learned that the man she loves (but has never dared to tell) is engaged to someone else. Both are desperate to get away from it all, and meet at an online home-exchange service; they agree to swap homes for two weeks.

And we're off, for a remarkable assemblage of chick-flick romantic-comedy cliches. Of course, each meets and falls for a new guy. In London, Amanda meets Iris's brother, Graham (Jude Law); in Los Angeles, Iris meets film composer Miles (Jack Black).

You can see almost every key scene coming from the first five minutes: Iris dancing for joy at the sight of Amanda's palatial estate; Amanda, in high heels, trudging through the slush to Iris's quaint cottage (which looks like something that one of Beatrix Potter's animals would have lived in); the meet-cutes with the new beaux; the possible reconciliations with the old beaux; the "how can we make long-distance relationships work" conversations.

Since there's not an ounce of surprise or unpredictability in the story, the only chance writer-director Meyers has to make the movie work is the star power of her cast; she's lucky enough to have three actors with oodles of charisma, charm, and/or sex appeal. Kate Winslet, in what I think is her first major role as a contemporary British woman, is adorable and immensely likable; she does a particularly good job in the early scenes, convincing us that she's heartbroken about the end of a relationship that only really existed in her fantasies. Jack Black tones down his usual in-your-face aggressiveness, and he's surprisingly sweet. Jude Law, who is somehow even sexier here than usual, has a sort of Hugh Grant stumbling bad boy quality here that is tremendously endearing.

The problem is Cameron Diaz. To be fair, hers is the most poorly conceived and poorly written character, and even a good actress would have struggled with it. But Diaz is utterly at sea; she's shrill and hysterical, and it's impossible to understand what Law sees in her.

The movie's best performance, though, is a nice supporting turn from Eli Wallach, who plays a crusty old screenwriter who becomes a pal to Iris and Miles.

The ending -- and please, no complaints about spoilers, since none of this could possibly come as a surprise to anyone -- finds the two couples celebrating New Year's Eve together and dancing to the obligatory Motown oldie. None of them has seriously contemplated the challenges of a trans-Atlantic relationship, but by golly they're happy for the moment, and that's all that really matters. Which is pretty much how you have to deal with The Holiday; it's pleasant enough as it happens (despite Cameron Diaz), even if it doesn't hold up to any serious thought.

December 03, 2006

BOOKS: The Android's Dream, John Scalzi (2006)

A wild departure from Scalzi's pair of Heinlein-esque military SF novels (Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades).

The novel opens at the trade negotiations between Earth and the Nidu, where Dirk Moeller creates a major interplanetary diplomatic incident by killing his Nidu counterpart. (Didn't mean to kill him, really; just wanted to make him really angry, but hey, these things happen...) What follows is a fast-paced comic romp, equal parts Douglas Adams and Eric Frank Russell.

A host of governmental offices are involved as Earth, desperate to save face and get back in the good graces of the Nidu, begins searching for a rare sheep -- the Android's Dream -- that is needed for the upcoming ceremony at which a new Nidu ruler will be crowned. The sheep is found in a most unexpected place, and becomes the object of a massive sheep-hunt and power struggle among rival Nidu factions, and human government officials with their own reasons to want the sheep to be found (or not found, as the case may be).

The story is a clever one, and there are sequences I liked very much; a chase scene involving special sneakers is lively and funny, and the climactic Nidu ceremony is sharply thought out. I'm afraid, though, that Scalzi's sense of humor and mine just don't synch up very well. I grew tired of his interchangeable bureaucrats (and yes, I realize that their blandness and interchangability is part of the joke), and thought he strained awfully hard for the throwaway digressions at which Adams excelled.

Scalzi's a talented writer, and if you enjoyed his earlier novels, by all means give this one a shot; humor's a subjective thing, and it's entirely possible that you'll find this to be the rollicking comedy it's meant to be. Just didn't work for me.

BOOKS: Blind Submission, Debra Ginsberg (2006)

Awkward mix of boss-from-hell/chick-lit comedy with thriller.

Angel Robinson takes a job at the Lucy Fiamma Literary Agency as one of Lucy's assistants. It quickly becomes clear that Angel knows more about literature than any of Lucy's other flunkies, and she rapidly rises to the top of the office food chain. All that means, though, is that Angel gets handed more work and Lucy becomes even more demanding.

Things really start to get weird when an anonymous author begins sending chapters of his new novel, Blind Submission; it's about a young woman working at a literary agency, and there are creepy similarities to Angel's own life. Who's writing this book? Could it be that co-worker Anna isn't as dumb as she appears? Is Craig, Lucy's accountant, upset about Angel's recent raise? Perhaps Angel's boyfriend, Malcolm, resents Angel spending so much time on work? Or maybe hunky author Damiano isn't the Italian dreamboat he appears to be?

The thriller story starts far too late in the book, and never gets scary enough to really involve us; the boss-from-hell story is overdone these days, and Ginsburg's version doesn't ring any new changes on the theme. The book is mildly entertaining, but ultimately nothing special; Ginsburg's a skilled enough writer, though, that with some more innovative plotting, she could write something terrific.

MOVIES: Borat (Larry Charles, 2006)

The premise of this "comedy" (I use that word very loosely indeed) is that Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen), a journalist from Kazakhstan, is sent to the United States to do a documentary for Kazakh television; he is accompanied by his producer/cameraman, Azamat (Ken Davitian). In his character of Borat, Baron Cohen interviews a range of ordinary Americans and exposes the bigotry, hatred, and prejudice that supposedly permeates American society.

Well, big whoop. There are bigots in America. This is neither a surprise nor an occasion for laughter. What Baron Cohen has made here isn't a piece of scathing satire or a bold social commentary; it's what Candid Camera would have been if Allen Funt had been a sadistic asshole.

Knowing that most people try to avoid confrontation, Baron Cohen puts people in untenable positions where they have a difficult choice They can either be rude to their guest by taking a confrontational stance about the bigoted things he says; or they can go along with his idiocy and try to get out of the situation as gracefully as they possibly can, realizing that arguing with someone so clearly deranged as Borat is a waste of time. Most of his victims in this movie do the latter. When the police entice someone to commit a crime they wouldn't otherwise have committed, that's called entrapment; most of what Baron Cohen does in Borat is the social equivalent.

All Baron Cohen proves in this movie is that if you point a camera at anyone for long enough, they will probably say something stupid, especially if they are being "interviewed" by an idiot whose sole purpose is to goad them into doing so. Many of his interviewees have been drinking -- the Southern dinner party, the frat boys in the RV -- which makes it even easier for him to get embarrassing comments from them.

One or two of Borat's subjects do seem to be genuinely unpleasant people -- there's the rodeo organizer who offers an unsolicited volley of homophobic commentary, and advises Borat to shave his mustache so that he won't be mistaken for a Muslim -- but what is remarkable about many of Borat's victims is how far they allow themselves to be pushed before getting angry.

The guests at that Southern dinner party, for instance, continue to smile politely at their guest's antics even as he calls one of the women at the table ugly, even after he returns from the restroom asking where he should put the bag of feces he's now carrying. (There's actually a line in the closing credits: "Mr. Baron Cohen's feces provided by...") It's only when Borat goes to the extreme of inviting a prostitute to join the dinner party that they show any anger, and that anger is entirely justified.

Borat isn't a funny movie, it isn't a brave movie, and it isn't an important movie. It's unkind, cruel, and unfair. I've heard people say of other movies that they needed a shower after seeing it, and I've always written that off as hyperbole; after seeing Borat, I understand what they meant.

November 26, 2006

MUSIC: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Nov 26 (Janacek / Harbison / Dvorak)

The semi-obligatory disclaimer: I am not a musicologist, nor do I play one on TV. I can tell you what I saw and heard, and what I thought of it, but anything that sounds like actual knowledge is almost certainly lifted from the program notes.

Like, for instance, the fact that the Cunning Little Vixen Suite is a somewhat condensed version of Act I of Janacek's opera, with the vocal parts re-assigned to the orchestra; the orchestration was done by Vaclav Talich, and is generally considered to be somewhat more conservative than the orchestration Janacek had used in the actual opera.

It was clear from listening that Janacek wasn't big on grand romantic arias; the melodies tend to be more fragmented and conversational, thrown back and forth among instruments. There is a lovely tune for solo violin a few minutes in, though; it's a spiky, wide-ranging melody that's a bit hard to imagine anyone singing. Perhaps it's orchestral in the original as well?

All in all, I suspect that this suite is probably not the best introduction to Janacek, whose music I know very little about. It's pretty from moment to moment, but surely it holds together better in the original opera, with characters and words and plot and such. (By coincidence, there's more Janacek -- Taras Bulba -- on my next subscription concert.)

The Janacek suite was followed by John Harbison; the LA Philharmonic had co-commissioned his new Concerto for Bass Viol, which was performed by the Phil's principal bassist, Dennis Trembly.

This seems to be my season for unlikely concertos, with the Harbison coming just a few weeks after Brett Dean's Viola Concerto (which I commented on here). The contrast between the two was instructive; where Dean too often buried his soloist in heavy orchestral writing, Harbison's orchestration was skillfully thought out to allow the solo bass to shine through.

The orchestra was small by contemporary music standards, with a small complement of strings, the usual collection of winds, a handful of brass (horns and trumpets only), piano, and a relatively small battery of percussion. Harbison rarely used the full orchestra at once, and when he did, it generally alternated with the soloist in stating various themes. The strings were used sparingly, and Harbison was careful to use them in ways that wouldn't bury the solo bass -- high violins when the bass was in its lowest register, for instance, or the orchestral basses playing legato support to the soloist's rapid pizzicato melody. The winds, brass, and mallets (vibes and marimba, I believe) carried much more of the orchestral writing than usual, which gave the piece an overall lightness that nicely countered the weight of the solo bass.

After intermission, we got Dvorak's 7th Symphony, a very dramatic piece that was nicely played. I couldn't help feeling, though, that the Philharmonic under guest conductor Carlos Kalmar wasn't quite as vibrant as I've heard it under Esa-Pekka Salonen; there could have been a little more rhythmic kick in the Scherzo, a little more dynamic contrast everywhere, a little more punch in the big climax at the end. It was a pleasant performance, but never quite became an exciting one.

November 25, 2006

MOVIES: The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

I've seen a lot of bad movies in my time, but I've never seen quite so spectacular a mess as this.

There are three parallel stories being told. In the present day, Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is a cancer researcher fighting desperately to find a cure that will save his wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz). She's more accepting of her impending death than he is; knowing that she will be unable to finish the novel she's writing (in longhand, using a fountain pen, no less), she asks him to write the last chapter.

That novel is our second story. It's set during the Inquisition, when a conquistador named Tomas (Jackman again) is sent to "New Spain" by Isabella (Weisz again) in search of the Mayans' legendary Tree of Life, which she believes will allow her to end the Inquisition's campaign against the crown.

The third story takes place (I think, though it's never specifically stated) in the distant future, and features a bald-headed man (Jackman yet again) who may or may not be the same guy we're seeing in the other two stories; he's floating through space in a sort of cosmic snowglobe with a dying tree that looks an awful lot like the Mayan Tree of Life. He's haunted by visions of Izzy/Isabella, and they are all headed for the dying star that was, in Mayan mythology, the location of the underworld.

The Fountain is, to be sure, visually spectacular, but we haven't seen this sort of deeply symbolic pretentious visual imagery since 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that at least made some sort of sense for most of the way; this one is a perplexing mess throughout, and I defy anyone to offer a coherent explanation of how the three stories are or aren't connected. I would certainly not recommend that anyone pay to see this in a theater, but when it hits cable or DVD, it might be worth a look just for the mind-numbing, jaw-dropping, train-wreck-y horror of it all.

MOVIES: Deja Vu (Tony Scott, 2006)

A ferry explosion in New Orleans kills over 500, and ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is assigned to a special team investigating the case. There is one odd clue: One of the bodies actually washed ashore several minutes before the explosion. Why did someone need to make Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton, in a role even more thankless than most chick-in-a-thriller roles) look like just another ferry victim?

Doug's team has nifty new surveillance technology that allows them to view almost anywhere in the city, but only at a precise time gap of 4 days and 6 hours in the past. If they can figure out where to watch, they might be able to catch the bomber before he flees the country and disappears for good. Eventually, Doug figures out that this isn't just fancy satellite technology, but an actual time machine.

Once that happens, the movie's off the deep end as far as plot goes; like almost all time travel stories, there are loose ends and plot holes you could fit an entire movie into. But as such things go, this is well done, and writers Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio at least take a good stab at tying up those loose ends.

They're helped immensely by the presence of Denzel Washington, who projects such likability and trustworthiness that his willingness to accept the movie's loopier twists makes it much easier for us to go along for the ride, and by Adam Goldberg, who is saddled with most of the movie's technobabble, and delivers it with great conviction.

It's hardly essential moviegoing, but it's an entertaining enough action flick.

MOVIES: Infamous (Douglas McGrath, 2006)

Fair or not, it's impossible to avoid comparisons to last year's Capote, since both movies cover exactly the same small slice of Truman Capote's life -- the writing of In Cold Blood.

As Capote, Toby Jones starts off with some advantages over Philip Seymour Hoffman; Jones is a smaller man, closer to Capote's size, and he comes even closer to Capote's distinctive voice than Hoffman did. But I think Jones coasts on the vocal mimicry more than Hoffman did, and especially in the first half of the movie, he's content (as is director McGrath) to get the easy laughs that come from playing Capote's flamboyance against the more reticent Kansas people he's interviewing.

Once the killers, Dick Hickok and Perry Smith (Lee Pace and Daniel Craig), enter the scene, the movie takes a sharp turn away from the breezy humor that dominated the first half; we're now focused on the relationship between Capote and Smith. Infamous presents that relationship as more explicitly sexual than Capote did, even giving us a kiss between the two. But Jones' performance never reaches as deep as Hoffman's did, and he never convinced me of Capote's pain and conflict about that relationship.

Infamous isn't a bad movie, and had it not been preceded by Capote, I'd probably feel much more kindly towards it. But in the wake of a better movie, and a vastly better lead performance, Infamous is superfluous.

MOVIES: Shut Up & Sing (Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck, 2006)

During a 2003 concert in London, Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, announced to the audience that "we're ashamed that the President is from Texas." Kopple & Peck's documentary follows the fallout from that comment over the next three years.

It takes a few days for the news to get back to the US, but when it does, reaction is instant. The group's current single (ironically, it was "Travelin' Soldier," a heartbreak-of-wartime-separation song) was yanked from almost every country radio station, and their album sales plummeted.

Maines and her colleagues don't seem at first to realize quite how serious a mess they've gotten into; they seem genuinely surprised that anyone would be offended, and expect that a simple apology will clear things right up. I couldn't help but wonder how they'd managed to reach such levels of success in country music while remaining so clueless as to who was buying their records.

When that first apology doesn't instantly smooth the waters, the group -- Maines in particular -- become actively hostile towards their former fans, who they see as having betrayed them. Maines takes every opportunity to demonstrate her anger and increasing contempt for the country fans. That continues to this day; when the band released its new album earlier this year, the first single was a piece of in-your-face defiance called "Not Ready to Make Nice."

Maines had my sympathy at the beginning of the movie; I can certainly understand the frustration that led to her comments, and we've all said something that we might later wish we hadn't said. But as the story progresses and Maines grows increasingly obstinate and willful in her insistence on re-opening the wound, she becomes much less sympathetic.

Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the other two members of the band, are background figures for most of the movie; Maines is the lead singer and the public face of the group. I wish that Kopple and Peck could have gotten Robison and Maguire to talk more openly about their feelings in this situation; I can't help but think that their feelings about Maines' behavior are a lot more complicated than the supportive platitudes they mouth in this movie.

November 21, 2006

BOOKS: All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming (2006)

Fifth in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series.

For four volumes now, Episcopal priest Clare and police chief Russ have struggled with their attraction to one another. There was a passionate kiss near the end of the previous volume, and both have reluctantly come to the conclusion that their relationship has crossed the lines of inappropriate behavior, even if only emotionally, and they should not see one another anymore.

Russ has confessed the kiss to his wife, Linda, who has thrown him out of their home, so it's not Russ who finds the body on his kitchen floor; it's Linda's best friend who reports that Linda's been murdered -- throat slashed and face repeatedly stabbed. The obvious suspects, of course, are Russ and Clare.

As always, Spencer-Fleming tells a terrific story and gives us a fine array of characters and suspects; the book ends, as is customary in this series, with an exciting set piece as the heroes confront the villain. The plot is twistier than usual, with surprises and reversals that may anger some readers, but I thought they were fairly set up and presented in convincing fashion. The final pages find Clare making a shocking decision, and it will be extremely interesting to see where the series goes from here.

November 18, 2006

MOVIES: For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006)

A mild disappointment from Christopher Guest.

Guest's earlier films have been marvelous mockumentaries, largely improvised from scenarios devised by Guest and Eugene Levy. Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind -- it's an impressive streak. His usual company of actors is on hand -- Guest, Levy, Michael McKean, Catherine O'Hara, Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch -- for this story about low-budget Hollywood movie making.

We're following the cast and crew of Home for Purim, a World War II-era story about a Southern Jewish family. The movie stars Marilyn Hack (O'Hara) and Victor Allan Miller (Shearer), two actors who've had careers just successful enough to keep their heads above water, but have never earned stardom or much critical respect; Victor's best-known role to date has been as Irv, the foot-long weiner in a long-running series of TV commercials. So no one knows quite what to think when an anonymous Internet poster suggests that Marilyn's performance in Purim might earn her an Oscar nomination; the movie's still being filmed, and suddenly the buzz has taken over the project.

This is something of a letdown from Guest's other movies. At their best, those movies create characters who are so fully realized, so completely inhabited by the actors, that their interaction never feels improvised; it simply feels real. (Levy and O'Hara as Mitch and Mickey in A Mighty Wind, for instance, deliver two of the best performances of recent years.) But this time around, the characters don't feel quite so lived-in; we're more aware of the actors trying to be funny. And when the jokes come -- and there are some very funny moments here -- they're often more about non-sequitur than about the deeply character-based comedy we see in Guest's other movies.

There are things to enjoy here. No one does dumb blonde with the panache of Jennifer Coolidge, who plays the producer of Purim; Fred Willard and Jane Lynch are amusing as the hosts of an Entertainment Tonight-style show; and O'Hara's Marilyn Hack is sweetly befuddled as she gets caught up in hype she's never known before. But if I should find myself six months from now in the mood for one of Guest's comedies, this won't be the one I rent.

MOVIES: Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006)

Gorgeous animation, but a storytelling muddle that can't make up its mind whether it wants to entertain or preach.

Our characters are emperor penguins -- the same penguins featured in March of the Penguins -- and the conceit is that every penguin has a "heart song," and that penguins find their mates by singing at one another until they find the partner whose heart song moves them. Or is compatible with theirs. Or something. The muddle sets in early here, but however it works, every penguin has a heart song, except for poor little Mumble who can't sing at all; instead, Mumble expresses himself by tap dancing.

A digression: If you wanted to make a movie about a misunderstood tap-dancing animal, why on earth would you choose penguins? They've got stumpy little legs that can barely waddle, much less dance, and whether you're talking traction or acoustics, snow and ice are not surfaces made for tap.

But anyway, Mumble dances (he is voiced by Elijah Wood, bland as ever; at least here we don't have to look at his freakish Margaret Keane eyes), and without a heart song of his own, he may never win the love of the fair Gloria (Brittany Murphy).

Another digression: It is never bluntly stated, but it is strongly implied, that the reason for Mumble's dancing/non-singing is that his father dropped his egg in the cold before it hatched. Individuality, in other words, is presented as a birth defect.

Mumble's dancing freaks out the penguins, who ostracize him in distinctly religious terms, with Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving) making long, pompous speeches about repentance and how Mumble's freakishness has displeased the gods. That displeasure has expressed itself in the form of a fish shortage, and all of a sudden, we're into the preachy environmental message half of the movie, as we learn that Evil Mankind -- who else? -- is responsible for the fish shortage. The last act of the movie is just plain weird and the plot nearly incomprehensible (how exactly does Mumble get back to the emperor colony the last time?).

The voice casting isn't terribly good here. In addition to the dullness of Wood, we've got Robin Williams, over the top as usual in two roles, both of them bordering on offensive ethnic stereotypes; Ramon is a Latino penguin (don't ask) and Lovelace is a Barry White-lite penguin guru. Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman play Mumble's parents; Jackman's Memphis is an Elvis-type (his heart song is "Heartbreak Hotel"), and he doesn't come close to pulling off the southern accent.

On the plus side, Brittany Murphy's love interest is charming, and she pulls off a credible version of Queen's "Somebody to Love" in one of the movie's loveliest scenes, with a magnificent animated Aurora Borealis serving as the laser show. And in general, the movie looks marvelous. There's a thrilling sequence with Mumble fleeing from a menacing seal, and some of the musical numbers are very cleverly done.

But the story is such a mess, and the concept of tap-dancing penguins is so inherently flawed, that it's not worth sitting through it in search of those few nice moments.

November 13, 2006

BOOKS: The Second Mouse, Archer Mayor (2006)

17th in Mayor's series about Vermont cop Joe Gunther.

We start with two separate stories. A young woman is found dead in her home. There are no signs of violence, and the evidence suggests suicide. But her landlord had been trying to evict her, and might have wanted her gone badly enough to kill her. Meanwhile, we're following the somewhat comic adventures of a trio of local small-time thugs whose leader wants to take a shot at the big money.

The Second Mouse is an odd book structurally. We're led to expect that as the questions are answered, the two plots will inevitably prove to be one; it's likely, we imagine, that the local thugs are responsible for the woman's death.

We do eventually get answers to all of the questions that are raised in the early going, but the two cases never come together in quite the way we expect. That's probably true to life, and it's likely not at all unusual for police to find that things are or aren't connected in different ways than they'd assumed.

But one of the reasons I enjoy mystery fiction is for the joy of watching how cleverly the author fits all of the puzzle pieces together; when it turns out that he's actually been constructing two separate puzzles, it's a little bit frustrating.

That's not to say that the book's not worth reading. Mayor is one of our most underrated mystery writers, and his cast of characters continues to be an entertaining group; he's also set up some interesting new possible storylines for future volumes in the series. His parallel stories here are laid out cleanly and fairly, and the relationships among his small gang of criminals are interesting and convincing. Not Mayor at his best, but not bad.

BOOKS: The Ruins, Scott Smith (2006)

Four young Americans, just out of college, are vacationing in Mexico. They're having a blast, drinking and flirting with other vacationing students from around the world. One of their new acquaintances, searching for his brother, plans a day trip to a nearby archaelogical dig, and our foursome agree to go with him; they are joined by another of their new friends, a Greek man who speaks no English or Spanish.

As they near the site of the dig, the six are repeatedly warned away. The taxi driver refuses to take them beyond a certain point; the local villagers actively try to stop them from going any further. But once they've set foot on the hill where the dig is supposed to be located, the villagers do an about-face, refusing to let them off the hill.

That's the setup for Smith's novel, which arrives thirteen years after the enormous success of his first book, A Simple Plan. It's a very different type of book; instead of the psychological crime drama of the earlier novel, The Ruins gives us straight-up horror. For there is something on that hill, and it is not friendly.

It's very quickly clear that there are only two ways The Ruins can end: Either there is a miraculous rescue, or the group is doomed to a series of slow, unpleasant deaths. What's remarkable about the book is that as it goes on, and the rescue becomes less and less likely, Smith manages to hold our attention and keep the fear level high. It's an even more impressive feat because the menace on the hill is not something inherently scary, and it proves to have unprecedented talents and abilities; some of the scenes it which it terrorizes our heroes could easily teeter over into camp. Smith never lets that happen, though, and the horror never lets up; it is, in the words one character keeps repeating, "inexorable, inevitable."

Very nicely done.

MOVIES: Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006)

Whaddya know? Turns out that Penelope Cruz can act after all.

There were hints in her earlier work, I suppose; she was notably better in the Spanish film Abre los ojos than she was playing the same role in the English-language remake Vanilla Sky. But she's flat-out marvelous in Pedro Almodovar's Volver, a lovely story about the power of mother-daughter relationships and the ways in which we can never really escape the places we come from.

Cruz plays Raimunda, and we first see her in the cemetery with her sister (Lola Duenas) and daughter (Yohana Cobo), cleaning her mother's grave. They have come to the rural part of Spain where Raimunda and Sole grew up (they have long since moved to the city) to tend to the grave and to visit an elderly aunt (a lovely small performance by Chuz Lampreave).

How Aunt Paula tends for herself is something of a mystery; she can barely get around her house or see anymore, and yet she always has Tupperware dishes full of goodies for Raimunda and Sole whenever they come to visit. The rumor in the village is that the ghost of Paula's sister -- Raimunda and Sole's mother -- lives with and cares for her. But if that's true, where is the ghost of Irene (Carmen Maura) to go when Aunt Paula dies? Why, she returns to her daughters, of course, and begins involving herself in their lives.

Men are irrelevant here; there's only one significant male character -- Raimunda's husband -- and he's removed from the action very early (Cruz's best work in the movie comes here, I think, as she calmly does what must be done in the wake of his departure). It's a movie about women, and the principal actresses are all superb; they collectively won the Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival (the only one I haven't mentioned is Blanca Portillo, who plays a family friend with her own complicated problems).

The movie leans to the melodramatic, though less flamboyantly than usual for Almodovar; the Douglas Sirk influence is tempered with touches of Italian neo-realism (surely it's no accident that Cruz often looks much like Sophia Loren) and hints of magic realism. It's a splendid piece of entertainment, and shouldn't be missed.

MOVIES: Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006)

I haven't been as dazzled as most by Marc Forster's earlier films. I thought Monster's Ball was overwrought melodrama, and Finding Neverland a syrupy bit of fluff. But this time, he gets it right; Stranger Than Fiction is a delight.

Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, an IRS auditor with little life to speak of outside of his job. His life is one mindless bit of routine after another -- nicely illustrated onscreen with a series of pop-up charts and graphs that follow him wherever he goes -- until the day he begins to hear a voice narrating his life. It's merely annoying at first, but when the voice announces that Harold's death is "imminent," annoyance becomes panic. We learn fairly quickly (though Harold does not) that the voice belongs to Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and that Harold is the main character in her new novel, which she is struggling to finish.

Also on hand are Dustin Hoffman, droll and dry as the professor of literary theory to whom Harold turns for advice; Queen Latifah, sadly wasted in the movie's weakest role as the assistant sent by Karen's publisher to see that she finally finishes her book; and Maggie Gyllenhaal, absolutely adorable as the tax-protesting baker who becomes Harold's romantic interest.

For a while, it looks as it the movie's going to be yet another story about how the fear of death inspires a man to finally start living, but there are some twists in the final act that make the movie a much deeper and more profound contemplation on the relationship between life and art, and the extent to which we should be willing to sacrifice one for the other.

Ferrell is marvelous here, and this performance should dispel the notion that he's nothing but a zany comic; he makes Harold's transformation realistic and believable. And much credit, by the way, to Zach Helm's script for not overdoing Harold's change; it would have been easy to make a more radical shift from extreme timidity to extreme extroversion, but Helm and Ferrell give us a more subtle and realistic bit of progress. Thompson is also very good as the cranky, frustrated Eiffel, chain-smoking and stalling as she tries desperately to find an ending for her novel.

There were moments when I found myself wishing the movie had more directly addressed its central philosophical question -- How can Harold simultaneously be a real person in Karen's world and a character in her novel -- but the evasion of that question is done in a relatively graceful fashion, and the final choices made by Harold and Karen are such generous acts of sacrifice that you can't help but leave the movie with a warm, fuzzy glow. An absolute charmer.

November 12, 2006

MOVIES: Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006)

Every three years, González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga deliver a new movie -- Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and now Babel -- and they all follow the same structure. Multiple storylines that initially seem unconnected, but prove not to be; editing that misleads the audience about when X is happening in relation to Y; spiraling ramifications of one small incident -- González Iñárritu and Arriaga are very good at this sort of thing, but it appears to be the only thing they can do, and on the third go-round, it's starting to feel just a little too familiar.

The biggest problem I had with Babel is that every character makes the stupidest possible choice at every possible juncture. If a single character every did the smart thing -- or even just did something that wasn't completely idiotic -- the movie would come to a screeching halt.

That's not to say that the movie's worthless; Gustavo Santaolalla's score is lovely, and there's a lot of very good acting. Adriana Barraza is marvelous as Amelia, a Mexican working as a nanny in San Diego who finds herself stuck with two kids on the day of her son's wedding; Gael Garcia Bernal is charming and funny as her nephew, Santiago, who is singlehandedly responsible for enough stupidity to make the Bush Administration look competent.

The movie's other storylines take place in Morocco, where Brad Pitt tries to get medical care for wife Cate Blanchett when their tour bus is hit by a bullet; and in Japan, where a deaf-mute teenager (Rinko Kikuchi, doing heroic work in a painfully exploitative story) is so desperate for human contact that she throws herself at any man who she thinks might be willing.

But it's so tiresome, watching these characters making decisions so stupid that they cease to be believable as people and become mere puppets being pushed around the movie by the demands of González Iñárritu and Arriaga's jigsaw-puzzle storytelling. The two men have reportedly had a falling out, which may be a good thing; perhaps working with new collaborators will help them both to find new stories to tell and new ways to tell them.

November 05, 2006

MOVIES: Hard Candy (David Slade, 2006)

Hayley (Ellen Page) is chatting on her computer, using the screen name "thonggrrl14," and flirting up a storm with "lensman319." They've been flirting for a few weeks now, and she finally agrees to meet him at a local coffee shop. He is Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a photographer in his early 30s, and when they meet, the flirtation continues. It's clear that both of them want to go back to Jeff's place, but neither is willing to be the one who makes the suggestion -- Jeff because "I'm not a pedophile," and Hayley because she knows that her perceived innocence is what's turning Jeff on -- so there's a lot of verbal tap-dancing as each allows the other to pretend that they're not after what they're both after.

The games continue at Jeff's house, as Hayley mixes screwdrivers for them and they chat about Jeff's photographs. But Hayley's innocence is phony in more ways than one, and she's hidden her ultimate goals and motives far better than Jeff has hidden his. Hard Candy becomes a very intense psychological battle of wits, mind games, and torture -- emotional and physical.

The story goes a bit over the top at times, and if you took too much time to think about it, the plot holes might overwhelm you. But you're not given much time to think, and Wilson and Page are so ferociously committed to their roles that you're carried through the dodgier moments by the strength of their performances. Page is particularly good; in a just world, she'd be on everyone's short list for a Best Actress nomination. She's convincing as a 14-year-old, which is rare when older teens play that much younger, and she makes Hayley's transformation from flirty child to vicious avenger completely believable.

The intensity of the action is a little tough to take in spots (and one sequence in particular will be especially difficult for men to watch), but Page and Wilson make Hard Candy a terrific revenge thriller

MOVIES: Flushed Away (David Bowers & Sam Fell, 2006)

It's been a good year for animation, and here's another entertaining movie to add to the list.

Roddy St. James (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is a pampered pet rat (or maybe he's a mouse; it's never quite made clear) who gets flushed down the toilet into the subterranean city of the sewers. There, he meets Rita (Kate Winslet) who reluctantly agrees to help him get back home. But before that can happen, the two get caught up in a duel with the evil Toad (Ian McKellen), his henchmen Spike and Whitey (Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy), and his mercenary cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno).

The movie is produced by Aardman Animations, the same folks who make the Wallace & Gromit movies, and the characters have that studio's trademark look -- lots of teeth and very expressive eyebrows. But the amount of water footage and the size of the sets made Aardman's usual stop-motion claymation technique impractical for Flushed Away, which is actually computer animation designed to look like claymation. It's still instantly recognizable as an Aardman project, but I did think that the computers give the movie a slightly more polished look than their usual clay work, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

The story's lively and funny enough to keep the kids entertained, and the grownup jokes are smoothly mixed into the story. The action scenes are entertaining, though never especially surprising. The voice performances are solid, with particuarly good work from McKellen, hamming shamelessly and growling his lines in the lowest register of his voice. Reno's Le Toad is also very funny ("I laugh at everyone's pain," he says, "I am French.").

The scene stealers, though, are the Greek chorus of slugs who pop up periodically to offer musical commentary on what's going on; they are to this movie what Scrat is to the Ice Age series -- a guarantee of a laugh. (They are much better integrated into the story than Scrat is, though, and Flushed Away is better than the Ice Age movies.)

This isn't quite up to the year's best animated movies -- Monster House or Over the Hedge -- but I'd take it over Cars or Open Season. Certainly worth seeing in the theater if you're into animation or have kids who need to be entertained; even if you're not, it'll be worth a DVD rental.

October 29, 2006

BOOKS: Variable Star, Robert A. Heinlein & Spider Robinson (2006)

In 1955, Robert Heinlein wrote a detailed outline and several pages of notes for a novel that he never finished. Heinlein died in 1988, but that outline and notes were not discovered among his papers until after the death of his widow a few years ago. The Heinlein estate asked Spider Robinson if he would be interested in completing the novel, and Robinson agreed.

It was an obvious choice; critics have long compared Robinson to Heinlein, and their work shares many traits. They're both optimistic authors, believing that it is humanity's destiny to settle other worlds, and that we can and will resolve our problems well enough to allow us to do so. They both have a mistrust of authority -- government in particular -- though that distrust reveals itself somewhat differently in their work. Heinlein leans toward a rugged individualism, and his characters are often extraordinarily well-rounded men and women, masters of all trades who could survive on their own indefinitely in any environment; Robinson's characters tend to believe in the importance and power of community and friendship.

Heinlein's novels of the 50s were written for a relatively young audience. They were called "juveniles" at the time; today, we'd probably call them young adult novels. They're fine books, and fifty years later, they're still the first science fiction novels a lot of kids read.

The main character of Variable Star is a typical Heinlein juvenile hero. Joel Johnston is preparing for college -- he wants to study music and composition -- when on the night of the senior prom, his girlfriend reveals that she's been keeping a secret from him. She still loves him and wants to marry him, but it's clear that their life together would be very different from the life that they've discussed. Joel feels tricked and trapped; he goes on a massive bender and decides to join the crew of a ship leaving Earth to establish a new colony on a distant planet. There is much self-discovery, lots of details about life on a spaceship, and eventually a major catastrophe that threatens not only the colony ship, but humanity itself.

The biggest problem with the story is that there's too much time spent on the "life on a spaceship" stuff and too little spent on the catastrophe, which feels like something of an afterthought, as if the authors suddenly realized that they hadn't actually provided much of a plot and decided to throw one into the final chapters. But the crisis is resolved in fine fashion, and Heinlein/Robinson even find a clever way to tie in a resolution of the romantic subplot from the beginning of the book.

Robinson talks about the events that led to his getting this job in an afterword, and tells us that he's not trying to do "a Rich Little impression" of Heinlein, and indeed this is no slavish imitation. There are elements that are distinctly Robinson -- lots of puns and wordplay, more humor than you'd generally find in Heinlein, an openness about sex that Heinlein wouldn't have been allowed in his juveniles (though when his novels became more targeted to adults in the 60s, he certainly wasn't shy about the subject) -- and it's hard to imagine a Heinlein protagonist who wanted to go into so frivolous a career as music.

And yet, it does have the flavor of Heinlein's novels. There's an awareness that the life of space travelers will be hard, a precision and attention to the details of how life aboard a ship will work, and an unusual method of starship propulsion that I don't believe I've seen elsewhere.

It's not among the very best work of either author, but minor Heinlein and minor Robinson are still pleasant reading, and Variable Star is an amiable piece of entertainment. It's hard to imagine that anyone could have completed Heinlein's work with any more grace or charm than Robinson.

BOOKS: Exiles in America, Christopher Bram (2006)

Zack and Daniel have been together for more than twenty years, and have settled into a comfortable suburban life in northern Virginia. Zack's a psychiatrist, and Daniel teaches art at the local college, where a new artist-in-residence has just arrived.

He's Abbas Rohani, an Iranian painter, and Daniel and Zack strike up a friendship with Abbas and his wife, Elena. That friendship eventually leads to an affair between Daniel and Abbas; both couples have open relationships, so neither Zack nor Elena is particularly bothered by the affair at first. But as it develops into something more than a simple sexual fling, both marriages begin to show signs of strain.

The novel is set in the fall and winter of 2002, just before the Iraq War begins, and geopolitical developments only add to the increasingly complex relationships among the four.

I can't talk about my reaction to this book without giving away some details about how it ends -- more along the lines of narrative tactics -- so fair warning: If you are averse to spoilers of any type, stop reading now.

At the end of the book, the war in Iraq has begun. Daniel and Zack are watching the news, and discussing their own relationship and that of the Rohanis, when suddenly Bram (Bram's narrator, to be more precise), who has not been a presence in the book until now, leaps in and asks if we're offended that these men can be discussing such trivialities as their own romance in the face of such global catastrophe, or are we more offended that they're allowing world events to distract them from the events of their own lives?

"I'm not being sarcastic. I'm just asking," says the narrator. "Because I don't know how to do it myself. I don't have an answer here. I'm in the dark with Zack and Daniel."

This strikes me as a monstrous copout on Bram's part. "Gee, I dunno how to end the damn book," is what these final paragraphs boil down to. "Let's just leave the characters here and fade out, because I don't have a clue how to resolve the mess I've written them into."

And it's a horrible shame, because for 360 pages or so, Bram's written a marvelous book. The characters are magnificently vivid; the relationships are complex and painfully real; and events are surprising without ever feeling arbitrary. But those final paragraphs are such a cheat that despite all of its strengths, I'm left with a strong sour taste in my mouth, and I can't recommend the book.