February 28, 2006

TV: American Idol (women's semifinals, week 2)

Mandisa and Paris solidified their positions at the front of the pack tonight. I get what the judges were saying about Paris's performance being too old for her, but it was still well sung on a night when most weren't.

Melissa and Kinnik both made smart song choices; neither was a particularly interesting or difficult song, but Melissa showed that she does have some personality and a nice husky quality to her voice, and Kinnik wisely showed a different side than the icy Latoya London elegance we saw last week.

Beyond that, the pickings were slim. Ayla was pleasant, but her lower register is noticably weaker than her upper, and she doesn't cover the transition between them very well; compare her to, say, Paris, whose lowest notes were also a bit weak, but who got from top to bottom more smoothly than Ayla.

Katharine was a little too Broadway for this venue, milking every overly dramatic dynamic contrast, and picking a song that doesn't suit her at all.

Lisa was hugely disappointing, with a surprisingly dull performance.

Kellie has a pretty voice, but the song was all wrong for her; she came off a nice girl trying to be scandalous without quite knowing what the word means. Paula's "can you get any cuter?" is not the reaction that song should get, ever.

Heather is out of her class in this group. She gasps for air between phrases; her quiet notes are all breath with no sound at the core; the endings of her phrases tend to die and go flat.

But at least she's not Brenna, whose voice is ugly and whose arrogance comes through in every note; she thinks she's much better than she is. I fear that that attitude will play well with the audience, turning her into this year's "how the hell is she still here?" contestant.

The top five are still clearly Paris, Mandisa, Kinnik, Katharine, and Lisa; Melissa, Kellie, and Ayla deserve to come back next week and fight for that sixth spot. Heather and Brenna should be sent home on Thursday.

February 25, 2006

MOVIES: Oscar-nominated shorts

Over the next few weeks, audiences in selected cities will have the chance to see the short films nominated for this year's Oscars, in both the live-action and animated categories. Short films don't get much theatrical play these days, so we usually find ourselves sitting through those categories at the Oscars with no clue who any of these nominees are. Both of these programs are entertaining, and if they're coming to your town, they're definitely worth seeing.

Of the live-action films, my favorite was Rob Pearlstein's "Our Time Is Up," which stars Kevin Pollak as a psychiatrist whose approach to analysis undergoes a radical change when he gets some unexpected news. I also very much liked "Six Shooter," the filmmaking debut of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, with Brendan Gleeson as a newly widowed man who meets a brash young man on a train; it's something of a shaggy dog story with Tarantino-like dialogue, and it beautifully balances the tragic and the rudely comic.

Sean Ellis's "Cashback" gives us the adventures of an art student working the night shift at a supermarket; Ellis gets the tone just right, and some nude scenes that could play as creepy and misogynistic if mishandled come off as sweet and affectionate. Runar Runarsson's "The Last Farm" is an Icelandic film about an elderly farmer tending to final errands before his daughter arrives to help him move into senior citizens' housing; it's a bit on the sentimental and predictable side, but the final images caught me by surprise and were quite moving.

I think the most likely winner is Ulrike Grote's "Ausreisser (The Runaway)," in which a young architect has his life disrupted when a small boy shows up on his doorstep one morning, demanding to be taken to school. Peter Jordan as Walter and Maximilian Werner as little Yuri are both very good, and though the final twists are somewhat derivative, Grote handles them in a most effective fashion.

On the animated side, my hunch is that the winner will be John Canemaker's "The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation," which uses photos, home movies, and surprisingly light-hearted animation to tell the story of Canemaker's difficult relationship with his father; in tone, the film reminded me of last year's winner in this category, "Ryan." I thought the film was a bit too long, at 28 minutes.

Also on the long side (27 minutes) is Anthony Lucas's "The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello," set against an odd mix of cultures and technologies. Steam-powered airships fly against polluted brown and orange skies; people are dying from a mysterious plague; and there's a vaguely Victorian atmosphere. The characters are presented almost entirely as silhouettes; it's lovely to look at for a while, but eventually monotonous at this length.

My own favorite of the animated films is "One Man Band," directed by Andrew Jimenez and Mark Andrews at Pixar, the story of two street musicians competing for the attention of a little girl who has a single coin to give away. As always with Pixar, every facial expression communicates volumes, and every gesture is precisely chosen.

The other nominees are Sharon Colman's very funny "Badgered," in which a sleepy badger finds that a pair of noisy crows is the least of his problems, and Shane Acker's "9," an odd movie (already being expanded into a feature) in which a mechanical spider-creature chases a pair of sock-puppet/teddy bear critters across a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape; it's fascinating to watch, even if I don't have a clue what any of it meant.

Not nominated this year, but on the animated program as a bonus, is Bill Plympton's "The Fan and the Flower." Plympton's style is instantly recognizable, though less jittery here than it's been in the past, and he tells a weirdly charming love story involving a ceiling fan and a potted plant.

February 23, 2006

BOOKS: Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Cherie Priest (2005 revision)

Originally self-published in 2003; now published in a revised, longer version by Tor.

Eden has seen the ghosts since she was a small child. They are three sisters, and one of them is a distant ancestor. They haunt her not out of malice, but to protect her from her family history. Eden's great-great-grandfather, Avery, was a sorko -- an African sorcerer -- and some of Eden's relatives think that she may have inherited the gifts Avery was purported to have, gifts that included the ability to curse the living and to raise the dead; even worse, they believe that Eden has been possessed by Avery, and that through her, he continues his quest for immortality.

Priest has written a nifty Southern horror thriller. The first half, following Eden's gradual discovery of her family history, is especially strong, as Priest creates a creepy atmosphere of foreboding and doom. Her characters are vivid, and Eden's ancient great-aunt Tatie Eliza is a particularly marvelous creation.

The plot threads fall into place a bit too neatly, perhaps, but I find that's often the case with horror; it's relatively easy to create the mood while there are still mysteries in the air, but harder to sustain it while providing the answers. Priest provides a stronger wrapup than most, though, and this is a top-notch horror novel.

February 22, 2006

TV: American Idol (men's semifinals, week 1)

My hunch is that there will be less consensus about tonight's performances than there was about the women last night.

If I had to make a prediction right now, I'd say that the winner this year will be a woman; there are only one or two men who I think have any chance at all.

Starting at the top, I'd say that Ace and Taylor certainly deserve spots in the final twelve; Gedeon and Elliot also made reasonably good impressions tonight, but I feel like I need to hear more from them.

Chris, Will, Patrick, and Bucky were all on the dull side tonight, but I can imagine them giving performances that I'd enjoy.

David made the worst song choice of the night -- if your shtick is "crooner," why the hell would you be singing Queen? -- but I hope he survives, because I want to hear what he sounds like with material that's better suited to him.

Bobby gave the strangest performance of the night, giving us "Copacabana" a la Jackie Gleason. Jose and Kevin were disasters, and are most deserving of elimination this week.

But none of these boundaries and divisions feel as solid to me as the divisions among the women do. The men seem overall less formed as singers, with more room for change and growth, and their two remaining semifinal rounds will probably be a lot more interesting than the women's.

February 21, 2006

TV: American Idol (women's semifinals, week 1)

The competition's not yet interesting enough to merit detailed commentary; I'll get into that once we're down to the final twelve.

But for the most part, it seems clear already which of the women deserve to make it that far.

At the bottom of the heap, deserving to be cut the quickest, are (from the bottom up) Brenna, Stevie, Ayla, and Becky.

At the top, deserving to be among the final six women, are (from the top down) Lisa, Katharine, Paris, Mandisa, and Kinnik.

And if you made me choose one of the three mediocrities in the middle of the pack to join those five, I'd go with Kellie over Heather and Melissa, mainly because the clip of her dress rehearsal performance (that's what we're seeing at the very end of the show, when Ryan runs down the phone numbers one last time), was noticably better than her performance during the show.

February 20, 2006

MOVIES: The Final Curtain (Patrick Harkins, 2002)

What happens when good actors are saddled with a bad script?

Well, if they're good enough, they can make it almost worthwhile despite the story's flaws, and that's what happens here.

Peter O'Toole stars as JJ Curtis, a showbiz veteran who's finally found huge success as the host of The Big Prize, a family-oriented game show (think Family Feud meets Nickelodeon). But the show's slipping in the ratings, losing ground to Current Account, a trashier show hosted by young upstart Dave Turner (Aiden Gillen). Dave and JJ find themselves in competition to be picked up by an American TV company, and set out to destroy each other's show, and utlimately to destroy each other. Narrating the story is Jonathan Stitch (Adrian Lester), a young novelist who's been hired by JJ to help write his autobiography.

The movie's going for a very dark comic tone, but the problem is that it keeps getting darker and darker without ever really getting funny. None of the movie's big surprises are all that surprising, and the elaborate schemes of the two men come off as cruel, especially as non-combatants wind up taking the most vicious punishment.

Still, the three principal actors do fine work, especially O'Toole and Lester, and the movie's just barely worth seeing because of them.

MOVIES: Something New (Sanaa Hamri, 2006)

Pleasant, if not especially memorable, romantic comedy. The twist here is that our heroine, Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is African-American, and feels she has to fight her attraction to Brian (Simon Baker) because he's white.

There is the obligatory "appropriate" black romantic partner brought in to add tension to the relationship between Kenya and Brian; unfortunately, the movie feels the need to stack the deck in Simon's favor by making Blair Underwood's character completely uninteresting, and Underwood more physically unattractive than he's ever been.

The biggest problem the movie faces is that the obstacles to Kenya and Brian being happy simply aren't big enough; if a romantic comedy is going to work, the audience has to be able to at least pretend that the couple isn't going to end up together (and it's always pretending, because we always know they will, or it wouldn't be a romantic comedy). But here, Kenya and Brian are such a perfect couple, and Lathan and Baker so likable together, that we can't make even that small suspension of disbelief.

The big obstacle could be racism, and the movie makes some tentative feints in that direction. Kenya's friends and relatives do a lot of teasing and scolding about her new boyfriend, but once they get to know him, they like him as much as she does. It's only Kenya herself who clings to the notion that she ought to be with a black man.

If the movie had been brave enough to put some real obstacles in their way -- had Kenya's mother (played in oddly brittle fashion by Alfre Woodard) threatened to disown her, or had Underwood's character been appealing enough to be a real alternative -- the movie would have been a lot stronger. Instead, we get Brian making puppy-dog eyes and waiting for Kenya to realize she loves him. As likable as Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker are, that's not quite enough to make the movie work.

BOOKS: On Account of Darkness, Barry N. Malzberg & Bill Pronzini (2004)

Science fiction short stories written by Malzberg & Pronzini, in collaboration, between 1975 and 1982.

What's most striking about the collection is how much smarter SF has gotten in the last quarter-century. Most of these stories are built around ideas that would seem laughably simple in the pages of today's SF magazines. They're nicely written, but it's hard to get terribly caught up in any of them, because by contemporary standards, they're rather predictable.

As is often the case with anthologies, the authors' preoccupations and favorite themes become overly repetitive in a way they wouldn't if we were reading one story every few months. M&P are especially fond of the apparent paranoid whose "delusions" turn out in the end to be the truth.

The best known of Malzberg & Pronzini's collaborations is "Prose Bowl," which imagines a sporting event built around the writing of hack genre prose, and it still holds up reasonably well. The book is filled out with some solo stories by each writer, the best of which is Pronzini's "The Hungarian Cinch." Again, the story's not especially surprising or original -- a pool shark finds himself facing aliens who may be even better hustlers than he is -- but Pronzini tells the story nicely, in a sort of pastiche of Damon Runyon.

February 16, 2006

TV: Slings and Arrows

Hooray! The Sundance Channel has picked up the second season of this fine Canadian series, and it will begin airing on Sunday evening.

The show's about the backstage relationships of a Shakespearean theater company -- the struggle to put on the play, the interpersonal dramas, and so forth -- and it sits precisely on the boundary between comedy and drama.

If you missed the first season when Sundance aired it last fall (it originally aired in Canada in 2003), there will be a marathon showing of the six episodes on Saturday. I commented after the first episode last August, and the series just kept getting better. A second season is good news, indeed.

February 15, 2006

BOOKS: Smoke Screen, Kyle Mills (2003)

In this corporate thriller, the tobacco companies find themselves on the verge of losing a lawsuit that could start them down the road to bankruptcy. Led by Terra, the largest of the group, Big Tobacco makes a bold move by calling America's bluff. Effective immediately, they announce, all tobacco products are being recalled from American stores, all factories are being shut down, and no more tobacco will be purchased from American farmers; this state of affairs will end only when Congress passes legislation granting the industry immunity from product-liability lawsuits.

It's a nifty premise, and Mills' projection of the consequences of such a move is both entertaining and plausible. I'd have liked a slightly more evenhanded treatment of the debate -- Mills seems to me to be solidly on the side of Big Tobacco -- but the premise is quite attention-grabbing, and Mills keeps the story moving along in a crisp, efficient manner.

February 13, 2006

BOOKS: Rednecks & Bluenecks, Chris Willman (2005)

There was a time when country music and those who sang it were solidly identified with the rural working class and with the Democratic party. But in recent years, Toby Keith's jingoistic anthems and radio boycott of the Dixie Chicks after their anti-Bush remarks have Democrats feeling as if there is no place for them in the world of country music; singers like Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell have taken refuge in the smaller, but more liberal, audiences of the alt-country movement.

Willman traces the history of these changes in country music, which parallel the South's transformation from solidly Democratic to safe Republican territory. He interviews dozens of singers and music executives on both sides of the political aisle, and suggests that Democrats' fear of ostracism by the industry may be overstated; the country music audience, Willman argues, is actually closely divided politically, just as the nation is. For the moment, though, that division is a sharply polarizing one, and neither side seems much interested in seeking middle ground.

Particularly interesting is Willman's final chapter, a look at two of country's legendary figures, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. Over the course of their careers, Haggard and Cash have been proudly claimed by both sides of the political divide, often at the same moment. Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee," for instance, was seized on by conservatives who took its hippie-bashing traditionalism at face value, and by those same hippies, who read the song as a wicked satire.

Willman isn't out to predict the future, or to tell us where country music is going. This, he says, is simply a look at where America stands during the Bush administration, as viewed through the lens of the musical genre that seems most willing and able to engage its audience in any sort of political debate. It's an informative snapshot, and will be an useful resource for cultural historians of the future. Best of all, it's not a stodgy academic treatise; Willman's writing is lively, and the people he interviews offer thoughtful and intelligent commentary.

February 12, 2006

MUSIC: Los Angeles Philharmonic 2006-07 season

Season renewal goodies arrived this week. My current subscription is for a Saturday night series, and I've found that it's difficult for me to drag myself downtown at night. I don't drive, and the bus and subway stops near Disney Hall aren't pleasant places to be after dark. So I've missed a lot of the concerts I subscribed to this year, and I considered not renewing at all for next year; it's a lot of money to spend on concerts I don't actually go to.

But I think instead I'm going to switch my subscription to a Sunday afternoon series, which should be less nerve-wracking than Saturday nights.

Choosing a series is always interesting. I like to hear as much new music as possible, so that's where I start looking. There are no world premieres on the season this year, but there are 3 US premieres and one West Coast premiere, and three of those pieces are on the same series. And since the Phil offers a generous exchange policy to its subscribers, it's fairly easy to swap out some of the concerts on a given series for concerts you'd rather hear.

So, assuming that none of the concerts I plan to exchange for are so popular as to sell out during the initial subscription period, this will be my 06-07 Philharmonic season:

October 15: Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Brett Dean, viola
Haydn: Symphony #82 ("The Bear")
Dean: Viola Concerto (US premiere; LA Phil co-commission)
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

November 5: Jonathan Nott, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin
Ligeti: Lontano
Schubert: Symphony #8 ("Unfinished")
Brahms: Violin Concerto

November 26: Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Dennis Trembly, bass
Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen Suite
Harbison: Bass Concerto (West Coast premiere; LA Phil co-commission)
Dvořák: Symphony #7

December 10: Jiři Bĕlohlávek, conductor; Sarah Chang, violin
Bruch: Violin Concerto #1
Janáček: Taras Bulba
Dvořák: Symphony #6

January 14: Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Dawn Upshaw, soprano
Debussy: Nocturnes
Saariaho: La Passion de Simone (US premiere; LA Phil co-commission)

March 11: Leonard Slatkin, conductor; Yundi Li, piano
Liszt: Piano Concerto #1
Holst: The Planets

April 1: Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Salonen: Helix (US premiere)
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet Suite

May 20: Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor; Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Simon Preston, organ
Barber: Toccata Festiva
Foss: Time Cycle
Golijov: Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Should be a nice mix. New composers I don't know (with all the press he's gotten, I still haven't heard any of Golijov's music); warhorses I like (The Planets and Pictures -- who can resist those?); composers I ought to know better than I do, like Janáček.

(And what concerts am I swapping out to create this series? An evening of Bach choral music; Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, with film; and a program of Chopin's 1st Concerto, played by Lang Lang, and Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances.)

Now all I have to do is actually attend the concerts...

February 11, 2006

MOVIES: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2006)

I have not read Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and unless you were an English lit major, odds are pretty good that neither have you. Published in nine volumes between 1760 and 1770, it's a 600-page novel in which Tristram Shandy sets out to tell his entire life story with so many ramblings and digressions that by the time it ends, he's barely gotten to his own birth. The narrator's grief over one character's death is represented by a solid black page; another page is left blank for the reader to fill in as he sees fit. It's a novel that broke all of the rules at a time when the novel was still so new an art form that there weren't any rules to break yet. (Or as the movie's star, Steve Coogan, says at one point, "it was postmodern before there was any modernism to be post about.")

All of that has led many to put Shandy on the list of books that could not possibly be adapted into movies. So how does Winterbottom pull it off? For the most part, by ignoring the book and translating its style and tone to the screen, creating a loopy comic movie that is just as rambling and digressive as the novel.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are the movie's stars. Coogan plays both Tristram and his father, Walter; Brydon plays Tristram's Uncle Toby. But both actors also play themselves, or versions of themselves, at any rate. The movie opens, in fact, in the makeup room, where Coogan and Brydon are complaining about their costumes and the color of their teeth.

When the opening credits begin and we appear to have finally begun the adaptation proper, Coogan-as-Tristram's first words are, "Groucho Marx once said...," making it immediately clear that we are not in for a straightforward period picture. Most of the opening scenes are centered around the birth of young Tristram -- this is what allows Coogan to play both Tristram, who comments on the action, and Walter, who is part of the action -- and like the novel, the movie never really gets much past that moment.

In fact, by the time the movie's half over, we've pretty much abandoned the pretense of telling Sterne's story at all, and we're now focused on Coogan, Brydon, and the rest of the crew as they struggle to finish making their movie. Coogan's trying to find time to spend with his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly McDonald), but is constantly being distracted by the director and producers, journalists in search of interviews, and a production assistant named Jennie (Naomie Harris) with whom he's been flirting. Brydon's painfully insecure, and is terrified to find out that Gillian Anderson has been hired at the last minute to play his romantic interest, because he's got such an intense a crush on her that he can't possibly play love scenes with her.

There are lots of goofy self-referential moments. As the producers contemplate how to adapt the famous black page of grief, the screen goes dark as we listen to them wonder if audiences will put up with watching a black screen; Coogan interrupts his own TV interview to tell us that the entire interview will be one of the extras on the movie's DVD.

Winterbottom and his co-writer Frank Cottrell Boyce (who are jointly billed here as Martin Hardy) make all of this far less confusing than it could be; the movie flows very gracefully from Shandy to meta-Shandy, and the multiple levels of storytelling are nicely interwoven.

Coogan and Brydon are better known in England than they are here, and there are a few jokes and references to the actors' past roles and careers that don't play as well for American audiences. In addition to the actors already mentioned, there are nice performances from Shirley Henderson and Keeley Hawes, who makes more of an impression than you'd think possible in a role that consists almost entirely of screaming in labor pain through take after take of the scene in which Tristram is born.

February 06, 2006

BOOKS: The Hidden Family, Charles Stross (2005)

Book two of "The Merchant Princes." My comments on the first volume, The Family Trade, here.

Not much to add to those comments, really. The new book has the same strengths -- a smart and appealing lead character who is neither dolt nor genius, vividly imagined alternate worlds (and yes, a third world plays a large part in the plot this time), clever plotting -- as the first.

It also shares the first book's major weakness, with an abrupt ending that leaves us hanging in the middle of the story, waiting for the next volume to resolve anything (if, in fact, the next volume doesn't just leave us hanging waiting for the fourth). And the final chapter is so muddled that even after reading it four times, I'm still not exactly sure how our heroine and her pals get out of their predicament.

The strengths outweigh the weaknesses, and I'll be there when the next installment of Miriam's story arrives.

MOVIES: Mrs. Henderson Presents (Stephen Frears, 2005)

Judi Dench trots out her patented mix of steel and twinkle one more time, for a movie that is pleasant but disposable.

This time, she plays Laura Henderson, a widow struggling to figure out what to do with herself in 1937 London. She buys the Windmill, a run-down theater, and hires Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to produce musical revues there. The show's a success at first, but after all the other London theaters copy it, the box office begins to sag.

So Laura decides to bring something new to the London stage -- nudity. She convinces the Lord Chamberlain (a dryly witty performance by Christopher Guest) that if the women don't move while on stage, then their nudity can be considered artistic, like paintings or statues.

There's lots of bickering between Dench and Hoskins, and we get to see several of the show's nude tableaux and musical numbers (Will Young plays the show's leading tenor, and his numbers are very entertaining). Dench gets a big "I'd like an Oscar nomination, please" speech late in the movie (and in a weak year for leading actress roles, it worked).

But everything about the movie is so ephemeral and lightweight that it barely registers on the mind while you're watching it, and in a week, I can't imagine that I'll remember a thing about it. It'll be a harmless way to kill an evening if you stumble across it on TV, but it's not worth making the effort to go to the theater or rent a DVD.

February 05, 2006

BOOKS: Peeps, Scott Westerfeld (2005)

In Westerfeld's lively, innovative take on vampire stories, vampirism is caused by a parasite; those affected refer to themselves as "parasite-positives" -- peeps, for short.

Cal is one of the lucky peeps, in that he is only a carrier of the parasite. He gets all the good stuff -- night vision, enhanced senses, super strength -- but none of the crazed cannibalistic bloodlust that usually goes with being a peep. Only about one percent of peeps are carriers, and they make up the Night Watch, whose mission it is to capture the more dangerous peeps and keep us normal folks from finding out about them.

Westerfeld does a clever job of tying traditional elements of vampire lore into his parasite concept, often through his notion of "the anathema." In ancient days, y'see, when communities were smaller, an infected person would need to leave home in order to find more potential victims; the parasite thus affects the person's brain, causing them to hate -- and therefore flee -- the things and people they once loved. They can no longer bear the sun, or in a day when more of the population was religious, the church, giving us the popular notion that vampires are killed by sunlight or crosses.

Peeps is written for the YA market, and it shows some signs of its intended audience. The vocabulary is just slightly simpler than it would be in an adult-targeted novel, and Westerfeld targets his audience's love of the slightly gross; the narrative chapters alternate, for instance, with anecdotal chapters about some of the ickier parasites that exist in the world. But the story is creative enough, and the writing funny enough, to keep adults entertained, too.