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.

MOVIES: The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are stage magicians in turn-of-the-century London; their rivalry is personal from the beginning -- Angier blames Borden for the death of his wife during a risky illusion --and each man takes increasingly drastic measures to defeat the other. When Borden presents the inexplicable illusion "The Transported Man," Angier becomes obsessed with learning the secret and finding a way to top the trick.

This is a movie of delicious twists from start to finish, and it's difficult to say much about the plot without giving away things that should remain surprises. Some of those twists you may see coming, but I think even the sharpest viewer is going to be caught off guard somewhere in the movie.

The performances are top-notch. In addition to Jackman and Bale, each growing more obsessed with defeating his rival, and more bitter about his own failures, there's solid work from Michael Caine as Cutter the ingeneur, the designer of the illusions and mechanical devices the magicians use; Scarlett Johansson as a magician's assistant; and David Bowie as pioneering electrician Nikola Tesla, who is recruited by Angier to find a way to perform his own "Transported Man" illusion.

Christopher Priest's novel has been adapted by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan; they've created a fiendishly clever movie that is a joy from start to finish. Most enthusiastically recommended.

MOVIES: Running With Scissors (Ryan Murphy, 2006)

This is based on the "memoir" by Augusten Burroughs; I put the word in quotes because Burroughs has acknowledged that there are fictionalized storylines and characters in his books.

This installment of Burroughs' "memoir" focuses on his teen years, during which his parents separated; his mother, struggling with her own increasing mental and emotional instability, arranged for her therapist to become Augusten's legal guardian. Dr. Finch and his family can be described, if one is in a charitable mood, as lovable eccentrics, and Murphy presents Augusten's story as a sort of updated You Can't Take It With You, with Augusten meant to be the island of sanity around which the zaniness swirls.

The problem is that the Finches aren't lovable eccentrics -- they're flat-out lunatics, every one of them -- and since Augusten himself isn't the most mentally stable kid in town (understandable, given his upbringing), we're left with nothing to do for two hours but watch a group of insane people perform ridiculous, nonsensical, deranged acts at random. There's no one normal enough to serve as our entryway into the story, and nothing happens that makes enough sense for us to grab on to.

The movie comes closest to reality in its portrayal of Augusten's mother, occasionally even acknowledging that there are serious health consequences to mental illness. Annette Bening rips into the role of Deirdre with everything she's got, and her scenes with Joseph Cross (as Augusten) are the best in the movie. Other actors have nice moments -- Jill Clayburgh as Mrs. Finch has a lovely scene at the end of the movie -- but they're only moments, and not part of a coherent whole; each character behaves in such a random fashion that there's no sense that the actor is even playing the same character from scene to scene. The Agnes Finch we see on that bus bench at the end of the movie, for instance, has nothing to do with the Agnes Finch we see eating dog food earlier in the movie.

This is an absolute disaster, two hours of chaos pretending to be a coherent story.

October 23, 2006

MOVIES: Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

When we first see Marie (Kirsten Dunst), she's lounging on a chaise, scooping frosting off a nearby cake. She's just another teenage girl with nothing better to do. But then she's sent off to France, where she is to be married to the young Dauphin, Louis XVI, in order to solidify the alliance between France and Austria.

Coppola's not remotely interested in Marie Antoinette as a historical figure. This Marie is a bored young woman living in a foreign land, struggling with ludicrously elaborate rules of ettiquette and protocol, married to a man who has so little interest in her that even the need to father an heir is insufficient to convince Louis to consummate the marriage. She passes the time by gossipping with the ladies of the court (Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson are quite funny as two of these ladies), shopping for expensive wigs and gowns and shoes, dining on elaborate pastries, and flirting with a cute Swedish count.

It's a gorgeous movie to look at, and Kirsten Dunst is quite good as Marie; she's an entirely believable selfish ditz, and occasionally, we even get hints of a smarter, more politically aware woman underneath. There are fine actors in the supporting cast who manage to create interesting characters, despite Coppola's paper-thin script -- Rip Torn as Louis XV; Judy Davis and Steve Coogan as Marie's principal advisors; Danny Huston in a beautifully played cameo as Marie's brother, the Emperor of Austria.

For the first half-hour or so, it's rather entertaining watching Marie adapt to her new circumstances, but she's ultimately so tightly wrapped in her little cocoon -- partly by the limited roles allowed to women of her era, but mostly by her own self-absorption -- that the movie becomes a bore. Oh look, another lovely gown, another gorgeous set, another frustrating night in bed with Louis. The only tiny bit of drama we're given involves the pressure on Marie to produce an heir; once that finally happens, there's no more plot to speak of; the growing crisis in the French economy, and the revolt of the French people, is kept well in the background until the last few moments of the movie, when the royal family is forced to flee from the gathering mob. Dull and disappointing.

October 22, 2006

BOOKS: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2006)

Lynch's setting is the city of Camorr, one of those faux-Italian-Renaissance cities -- minor nobles, starving peasants, guilds of thieves and whores -- so popular in cheesy fantasy novels; if there's a specific model, it is perhaps Venice, as Camorr is a city of canals and islands.

I am normally allergic to this sort of thing, but The Lies of Locke Lamora won me over completely. It's a thrilling joyride of a story, with exciting plot twists, terrific characters, and a world so thoroughly imagined that entire novels could be written around some of Lynch's throw-away details.

The hero (such as he is) is Locke Lamora, leader of a band of con men who call themselves the Gentlemen Bastards. Locke and his team specialize in long cons, elaborate setups designed to trick wealthy nobles into handing over their money; imagine a Renaissance-era version of Mission: Impossible (the TV series, not the movies) to get a sense of what they do. So skillfully do the Gentlemen Bastards work their magic that even the Capa Barsavi, ruler of the Camorran criminal underworld, believes them to be mere street theives; he has no idea that the weekly dues Locke pays him are a mere pittance compared to the money he's actually making.

It's a comfortable life Locke and the Bastards have created for themselves, but when a new player arrives on the scene, he threatens to destroy the entire setup. The Gray King wants nothing less than to depose the Capa Barsavi and become the ruler of Camorr's underworld himself; Locke finds himself caught in the middle, with the Gray King and the Capa each trying to use him as a weapon against the other, and must call upon all of his skills to find a way to survive.

The con games that Lynch creates are ingenious and great fun; the battle scenes are exciting and unpredictable, and the stakes are high (don't assume that all of your favorite characters will survive to the end of the book). The twin plotlines -- the con game Locke is working, and the Gray King/Capa battle -- are cleverly woven together in the final act; and the frequent flashbacks to young Locke's training at the hands of the blind priest, Father Chains (who is actually neither blind nor a priest), are skillfully worked into the story.

This is reportedly the first in a series of Gentlemen Bastards novels; it is a pleasant surprise to note that the reader is not left hanging in mid-story for volume two. That's not to say that there aren't a few loose ends, and there are background details that are clearly waiting for later volumes (the mysterious disappearance of the woman who was Locke's great love, for instance; or the history of Camorr, which is built on the ruins of an ancient alien civilization). But The Lies of Locke Lamora stands on its own as a delightful and ingenious novel; I can hardly wait for Lynch's next book.

MOVIES: Little Children (Todd Field, 2006)

Another movie about the dishonesty and misery that lurk beneath the superficial perfection of suburbia.

This time, our principal unhappy suburbanite is Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), who spends her mornings in the local park with the other local moms, a trio of judgmental gossips whose only happiness comes from the occasional glimpse of a handsome local stay-at-home dad. They call him "The Prom King," and when Sarah talks to him (on a bet from the three harpies), she is instantly drawn to him. His name is Brad (Patrick Wilson), and he is just as unsatisfied in his marriage as Sarah is in hers, so it's no great shock when they begin an affair.

More than anything else, the movie is about our need to watch others and gossip. The moms in the park watch Brad; Brad watches the skateboarders outside the library and longs for his own youth; Brad's wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), makes documentaries for PBS; everyone in town watches Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), recently released from prison after an indecent exposure conviction.

Field emphasizes this theme by giving the movie a narrator; Will Lyman, whose voice is instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever watched PBS for more than five minutes, is dry and detached, observing the movie's characters with so clinical a stance that they barely feel human.

The movie is so cold towards its characters, in fact, that it's hard to care at all about what happens to them. And that coldness too often crosses the line into cruelty and caricature, as with the moms in the park, or even more unkindly, with the character of Sheila, a woman who goes on a date with Ronnie. She's played by Jane Adams, and Field shoots her in a way that emphasizes her long jaw and large eyes to the point that she seems to be auditioning for the role of Olive Oyl.

There are some fine performances here. Wilson and Connelly are very good, and Winslet does superb work (despite being terribly miscast; the narrator keeps telling us that Sarah is supposed to be on the plain side, and Winslet is simply too pretty for the part). Jackie Earle Haley, who essentially disappeared after The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away, is making a comeback this year (he was also in All the King's Men), and he's marvelous here, making Ronnie sympathetic without ever letting us lose sight of the fact that he really is a creep. Ronnie's mother is played by Phyllis Somerville, and it's the movie's best performance; May wants desperately for her son to find happiness, and can't bring herself to admit how unlikely that is.

But as admirable as the performances are, Field has so distanced himself (and us) from the characters that when the final act arrives, with its over-the-top series of disasters for everyone, it doesn't have any impact. We haven't been allowed close enough to these people to care whether they live or die, whether they find happiness or continue living their lives of quiet suffering.

October 15, 2006

MUSIC: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Oct 15 (Haydn / Dean / Mussorgsky)

Today's concert, under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, featured the US premiere of Brett Dean's Viola Concerto, which coincidentally was given its Australian premiere by the Sydney Symphony while I was on vacation in Sydney in August. My comments on that performance are here; I hadn't been dazzled by the piece, but it was interesting enough that I welcomed the chance to hear a second performance. (How often does anyone get to hear a piece of new music performed twice, by different orchestras?)

The biggest difference was caused by the hall; the acoustics at the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House are very good, but those at LA's Walt Disney Concert Hall are stunning. Quiet passages in Dean's music -- the opening of the piece, the beginning of the third movement -- could be played at a significantly lower volume in LA than they could in Sydney, where they'd have been inaudible to much of the audience. Further, the acoustics allowed Dean's orchestral writing to shine more clearly than it had in Sydney; I was especially impressed by his use of a large percussion section (I think this is the first time that I've seen sandpaper among the list of instruments) and by a lovely deep rumble obtained by striking the strings of the double bass with soft mallets.

The improved acoustics alleviated, but did not entirely eliminate, the biggest problem with Dean's concerto, which is that the soloist is too often buried beneath the heavy orchestral scoring. I'm still not sure whether this flaw is inherent to the viola, or whether Dean simply doesn't play with enough force to be heard; we may not know for sure until some other soloist takes up the piece.

The concert opened with Haydn's Symphony #82 in C Major, "The Bear." To my ears, Haydn symphonies tend to blur together; they're all charming and pleasant to listen to, and the Philharmonic delivered a crisp, lively performance, with every detail precisely in place.

The highlight of the program was Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, in the Ravel orchestration. It's a piece that is exciting and entertaining if it's played at all competently; when it's played well, it's incredibly thrilling, and the Philharmonic played it extremely well indeed. The mood of each movement was perfectly captured -- the droll wit of "The Gnome," the gloom of "The Old Castle," the near-slapstick of "Ballet of the Chicks." The featured soloists took full advantage of their moments in the spotlight; the final alto saxophone note of "The Old Castle" faded away with impeccable control, and the stuttering trumpet was a joy to hear in "Two Polish Jews."

The key to a great Pictures is a great brass section, which the Philharmonic certainly has, and when the final statements of the "Great Gate of Kiev" theme rang out, the hair literally stood up on my neck. The audience leapt to its feet at the end of the piece, with a standing ovation that -- for once -- was genuinely earned. It was an extraordinary performance.

MOVIES: The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

Not among the very best of Scorsese's work, but easily his best movie since Goodfellas.

The Massachusetts State Police are out to bring down crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), and as part of their effort, they manage to plant young trooper Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Costello's organization. What they don't know is that the head of their special investigative unit, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), is actually working for Costello.

This movie couldn't have been made without the development of the cell phone. Colin makes secret calls to Frank, Billy makes secret calls to his police bosses -- everyone slips secret information back and forth constantly. Eventually, both Frank and the police figure out that they've been infiltrated by the other side, and the race is on to see which side can find the other's spy first. This is particularly awkward for Colin, who's now in charge of finding himself.

Damon and DiCaprio are a well chosen pair for these leads; their shared boyishness emphasizes the mirror-image quality of the characters, and makes it easy to believe their increasing panic as they come ever closer to being caught. Nicholson isn't hamming it up quite so badly as usual, but the performance is still a bit too large; villains are far more interesting when they aren't screaming "Look at me! I'm EEEEEEEEEEE-VIL!" at every turn.

There are fine supporting performances from Alec Baldwin as Colin's superior officer and Martin Sheen as Billy's police contact; Mark Wahlberg steals his every scene as a cop who turns every conversation into a pissing contest. Vera Farmiga is stuck with the role of The Girl; she's the dullest character in the movie, which is partly because she's a dull actress and partly because the character isn't given much to do.

William Monahan's screenplay, adapted from the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, is sharp and funny; the complicated story is laid out clearly, and we never lose track of who's crossing who, or what any character's motives are. The movie's a bit on the long side, especially in the final act, and could easily be cut by 20 minutes or so.

Not a perfect movie, but in its best moments -- DiCaprio chasing Damon through the streets of Chinatown, for instance, or Sheen's final scene -- terrifically exciting.

October 12, 2006

TV: Twenty Good Years

Let's take it as a given that if you hire John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor to star in a sitcom, you're clearly not interested in subtlety. Both are fine comic actors, but neither leans to understatement. Lithgow, in particular, is one of the broadest hams television has seen in recent years.

That broadness worked well for him on 3rd Rock From the Sun, but he was playing an alien from another planet on that show; he could get away with his oversize reactions, since the character didn't understand human norms.

But in this show, he's been cast as an actual person -- surgeon John Mason -- and it's a lot harder to justify the scale of his performance here. And as John's best pal, judge Jeffrey Pyne, Tambor is working as hard as he can to keep up with Lithgow, leaving the audience feeling clubbed into submission by a script in which all of the dialogue seems to be WRITTEN! JUST! LIKE! THIS!!!!!!!

The storyline finds John pushed into retirement and forced to move in with Jeffrey sort of a Golden Girls meets The Odd Couple concept. There are two other regular characters, Jeffrey's son, Hugh (Jake Sandvig), and John's daughter, Stella (Heather Burns), but they barely register in the first episode.

I like Lithgow and Tambor. They can be very funny. But they have got to tone it down for this show to have any chance to work; if they try to maintain the energy level of the first episode, it'll be exhausting for them, and even more so for us.

TV: 30 Rock

The second "backstage at a sketch-comedy show" show of the year.

This one's a sitcom, created by and starring Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, head writer for The Girlie Show. Liz's best friend, Jenna (Jane Krakowski), is the star of the show, and life is good. But then the new network executive arrives.

Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin, the best thing about the first episode) wants to make changes to the show. Not because it's bad, necessarily, but because "sometimes you have to change something that's perfectly good to make it your own.) The change Jack wants Liz to make: Hire Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan, playing equal parts Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy), a reckless, unpredictable movie star. Liz isn't happy, but doesn't have much choice, and her struggle to fit Tracy into the comfortable world of The Girlie Show will clearly be a major storyline of the show.

On the whole, it's not a bad show. Baldwin is very funny, and while Fey's not an actress with a wide range, she's smart enough to write the part of Liz to suit her skills and limitations. The show's major flaw -- and it's a big one, maybe big enough to be fatal -- is Tracy Morgan. He wasn't funny during his years on Saturday Night Live, and he's not funny here. If Fey can't find some way to make Morgan's presence bearable, then 30 Rock will be unwatchable, despite its considerable assets.

October 09, 2006

The Long Beach Symphony has come up with a novel way to premiere a new work.

For their new six-concert season, they've commissioned a six-movement Concerto for Winds from film composer David Newman. The concerto will be premiered one movement at a time during the season.

Each of the first five movements features one of the soloists -- flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon -- and as his/her movement is premiered, that soloist will also perform a complete concerto as part of that evening's concert. The five movements will be repeated on the sixth and final concert of the season as part of the first performance of the complete work, including the debut of the final movement, which will feature all five soloists.

Very clever. It should (assuming the piece is any good) build word of mouth during the season, and those who hear the early movements are likely to be curious about the rest of the piece, increasing repeat business. It's also a creative way to showcase the orchestra's own musicians, as the LBSO principals will be the five soloists.

MOVIES: The Last Kiss (Tony Goldwyn, 2006)

This must be the glummest romance I've ever seen. Marriage and relationships are doomed to failure, or at the very least, to prolonged periods of misery and turbulence, because people are all too selfish to make any real commitments.

Our hero, such as he is, is Michael (Zach Braff), a 30-ish guy who is engaged to Jenna (Jacinda Barrett); he describes her as the perfect woman. But not perfect enough, apparently, because when perky college student Kim (Rachel Bilson) hits on him at a friend's wedding, he's more than happy to give in to temptation.

And this is not simply a moment of weakness. They meet at the wedding; he goes to campus to flirt with her some more; she asks him to a party -- he has many opportunities to end the flirtation, but he continues it, knowing that it will lead to infidelity, and knowing that Jenna will be devastated by that infidelity.

No one else in the movie has a happy relationship, either. Michael's best buds are all unhappy. Chris (Casey Affleck, giving the movie's best and most honestly emotional performance) is feeling increasingly trapped in his marriage; he'd thought that things would get better when they had a baby, but that's only seemed to make things worse. Izzy (Michael Weston) is still pining for his high school sweetheart, and Kenny (a light and funny Eric Christian Olson) thinks he's met the perfect woman, an uninhibited sexual dynamo, until she wants him to meet her parents.

Do things get better with time? Nope. Meet Jenna's parents, Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) and Anna (Blythe Danner, chewing the scenery in embarassing fashion). He's a monosyllabic, unemotional, cold fish; she's a raging drama queen who stomps out of the house because he doesn't give her the attention she demands.

As Michael, Braff is dull and whiny; Barrett's Jenna is a fountain of emotional turbulence (having learned her mother's lessons very well, it seems). We can't for a second imagine that they'd ever be happy together, and the movie's conclusion -- an ostensibly grand, romantic gesture that's closer to stalking -- is painful to watch.

Big disappointment.

MOVIES: 49 Up (Michael Apted, 2005 / US 2006)

In 1963, Michael Apted was a researcher on a BBC film that explored the layers of class in British society by interviewing fourteen 7-year-old children from various schools in London. Every seven years since, Apted has returned to interview the same people, following them through their life. Most of the group have continued to take part in the series; some have missed an occasional installment, but only two of the original fourteen appear to have dropped out for good.

49 Up is the latest installment, and as always, it's fascinating to check in and see what's happened over the last seven years. In general, they've settled into contentment at middle age.

More than I remember from previous installments, the Up series itself is a recurring theme; Apted asks many of the group what it's been like for them to be a part of this project. They all agree that it's been a tremendously difficult thing; it's an intrusion that forces them to dredge up their pasts and examine their lives in ways they'd just as soon not be bothered with. I kept waiting for Apted to ask the obvious follow-up question -- "Then why do you continue to take part?" -- but if he did, we don't get to see it.

Charles points out that the series is a precursor to reality television; "with the added bonus," he says, "that you get to watch us get old, lose our hair, get fat..." Jackie scolds Apted for the way he's portrayed her in earlier films, and claims that the films "aren't about us, they're about your perception of us."

For the last few installments, the most intriguing character of the bunch has been Neil. At 7, he was a bright-eyed, cheerful boy; by 21, he was struggling to find his place in the world; at 35, he was homeless, wandering through the English countryside. When we last saw him at 42, he appeared to have settled down and found himself; at 49, though, it seems that he's simply moved to a slightly higher level of unsettled wandering.

Apted does a superb job of editing each person's segment of the film, using footage from earlier installments of the series to tell their backstory and point up the ways in which people have (or haven't) changed. The Up series is a tremendously important social document, and 49 Up is just as entertaining as the previous installments have been.

MOVIES: Open Season (Roger Allers & Jill Culton, 2006)

This is the fourth animated film in the last year or so about animals taken out of the world they know and forced to survive in a new environment, filled with perils they could never have imagined before -- post 9/11 films for the tots. Like Madagascar and The Wild, Open Season takes domesticated animals and throws them into the wild; Over the Hedge reversed the formula by tossing a group of forest animals into suburbia.

Here, we start with Boog (voiced by Martin Lawrence), a bear who lives a cushy life in the garage of Ranger Beth (Debra Messing); the two do a daily show at the local theme park. When Boog saves mule deer Elliot (Ashton Kutcher) from evil hunter Shaw (Gary Sinise, far too exaggerated even for a cartoon, in the movie's worst performance), the two go on a late-night rampage that leads Beth to believe that Boog has become too wild and dangerous to stay with her; she reluctantly takes him into the mountains and leaves him there.

Boog is, of course, utterly unequipped for life in the wild ("I can't even go in the woods!"), and forced to rely on manic Elliot for assistance. It's casting somewhat against type to have Lawrence play the insecure, panicky guy and Kutcher as the blustery showboat, but it works nicely; Kutcher is particularly good, cranking up the nervous energy in his voice and never letting us forget just how false his bravado really is.

The rest of the voice casting is somewhat uneven. Billy Connolly and Patrick Warburton (a voice-over veteran, and always a welcome presence) do nice work as an arrogant squirrel and the majestic stag who leads Elliot's herd, respectively; Georgia Engel lends her distinctive voice to a Sasquatch-hunting housewife. Jane Krakowski doesn't bring much life to Giselle, Elliot's love interest.

The animation is nicely done. Every new CGI movie seems to advance the art just a little further; in this case, we get the most convincing fur that I've yet to see.

On the whole, Open Season doesn't quite rise to the level of its mirror image from earlier this year, Over the Hedge. The final battle sequence, in which the animals unite to drive off the hunters, doesn't have the creativity or the energy of the comparable sequence in Hedge, and the jokes aren't as consistently funny. It's a mildly entertaining movie, though, and the kids will certainly enjoy it; as for grownups, they can probably wait for cable or DVD.

BOOKS: It's Superman!, Tom De Haven (2005)

There's a fair amount in the Superman mythology about the childhood of Clark Kent -- the trip from Krypton, the crash landing on the Kent farm -- and certainly tons about the exploits of Superman himself, but not much about the transition from one to the other. How did Clark Kent become Superman? What led to the uniform and the heroics? Tom De Haven's It's Superman! explores just that transition, following Clark from the ages of (roughly) 17 to 22 as he leaves Smallville and makes his way to New York (and yes, it's New York here, not "Metropolis"), meets Lois Lane, and has his first encounters with Lex Luthor.

De Haven remains faithful to the characters he borrows, while adding new shadings of character and making them more fully-rounded people than they are in the comic books; his newly created characters are just as vivid, and you may find yourself wishing that Willi Berg or Skinny Simon had been part of the story all along.

The writing is gorgeous, moving from thrilling action scenes to touching relationships. Take, for instance, this passage, set at Martha Kent's funeral:

She cherished her family, and baked the world's most delicious rhubarb pie. And her apple pie, too -- the way she coated the crust with sugar, that you couldn't beat. Simply could not. And she was always there in your time of trouble, with a kind word, a smile, a sincere offer of assistance. She was humble. She was gracious. She wrote the loveliest, the most thoughtful Christmas letters. She had moral fiber, real pioneer strength of character. And. And did everyone recall that wienie roast just before the war, the summer Mary Agel was afflicted by shingles, and Martha, always the friend in need, always the selfless one, stepped right up and volunteered to --

Mr. Kent doesn't think he can stand too much more. Martha was all that everyone said, but she was also his wife of thirty-one years, his best friend, his soul mate, his complement, and she is five feet away from him now, confined forever in the plain wooden coffin she requested, and his heart is broken. Rhubarb pies! That woman made the sun come up. And he wants this ordeal to end, to go home, to be home, back in the house where her spirit is still present, will always be present, in the iron stove, the knotty pine wardrobe, the spoons, the handwoven draperies and pillow covers, the stair treads, the floorboards, their bed. In everything.

The more you know about the Superman legend, the more you'll appreciate this book. But I think that it's so well done that even if you're not a comic book fan, you can enjoy this novel entirely on its own. Very fine stuff indeed.

October 06, 2006

MOVIES: The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)

Helen Mirren stakes her claim for this year's Best Actress Oscar with a marvelous performance as Queen Elizabeth II.

The film begins in the spring of 1997, with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as the new Prime Minister. He goes to the palace for his first official meeting with the Queen, for whom this sort of thing is old hat. "After all," she reminds him, "you are my tenth Prime Minister; my first was Winston Churchill."

Leap forward to August, and the death of Princess Diana, an event to which Elizabeth and the royal family respond as protocol demands, which means that they remain in seclusion at the country estate in Balmoral and defer to Diana's family, who want a private funeral.

Meanwhile, the public is responding with an unprecedented outpouring of grief, and Blair is put in the awkward position of trying to convince Elizabeth that the royal family needs to make some sort of statement or public appearance, that the public wants their grief to be visible.

Mirren's Elizabeth simply doesn't comprehend the extent to which celebrity culture has taken over the world; she expects the public response to Diana's death to be proportionate to her official status as an ex-princess, and the depth of public grief perplexes her completely. She is incapable of grasping that Diana has become transcended royalty to achieve iconic status; in death, Diana has become Rebecca, leaving the queen to play the second Mrs. de Winter.

This may all sound rather somber, but The Queen provides a lot more fun than you'd expect. Michael Sheen plays Tony Blair in a manner reminiscent of Dudley Moore, constantly exasperated by the idiocy of the people around him. James Cromwell is an unexpected choice to play Prince Philip, who seems to be the most clueless member of the family, convinced that all William and Harry need is to go out and do some deer hunting. Alex Jennings nicely conveys the complex emotions of Prince Charles, balancing his obvious frustration and anger towards Diana with his concern for the wellbeing of their sons.

But Helen Mirren dominates the movie, with a beautifully understated performance. Her Elizabeth is a very smart woman, with a dry sense of humor, and a very precise sense of what her role in society is supposed to be. Watching her come to terms with the ways in which that role has changed provides one of the finest afternoons you'll have at the movies this year.

TV: The Nine

The best of this year's new crop of serialized dramas; it is, even more than most of them, strongly influenced by Lost, but it wears that influence very well.

We start in a bank. It's almost closing time on Friday afternoon, and most of the tellers have already gone home; there are only a handful of customers left. Nick (Tim Daly), a cop with a gambling problem, has come in to deposit his paycheck and to flirt with teller Eva (Lourdes Benedicto); her sister Franny (Camille Guaty), also a teller at the bank, eggs them on. Egan (John Billingsley) is talking to branch manager Malcolm (Chi McBride) about taking out a loan to buy a boat, but is terrified that his wife won't approve; Malcolm is interrupted when his teenage daughter Felicia (Dana Davis) comes in.

Surgeon Jeremy (Scott Wolf) and his social-worker girlfriend Lizzie (Jessica Collins) are on their way to a late lunch, where she plans to tell him that she's pregnant. And district attorney Kathryn (Kim Raver) has come to help her mother (Susan Sullivan, very funny in a small guest role), who's convinced that the bank has stolen jewelry from his safe-deposit box.

Two men suddenly pull guns, and a robbery is under way. We jump forward 52 hours to see people leaving the bank. One of the hostages and one of the robbers are rushed to the hospital; the other robber, Lucas (Owain Yeoman), is taken to jail.

It's clear that a lot has happened during those 52 hours, and while it's not surprising that such an experience would have bonded the hostages, they seem to have become an even more tight-knit group than we'd have expected. People and relationships have changed: Egan is no longer a doormat; Lizzie and Jeremy are no longer a couple; Felicia claims not to remember anything that happened during those 52 hours.

The characters are a great assortment, and the cast is a fine mix of TV veterans and newcomers. Billingsley makes a particularly strong impression in the first episode as Egan; finding out how he went from hen-pecked patsy to hero will be one of the most entertaining storylines of the show.

And we will find out eventually; in the style of Lost, each episode will mix the ongoing story of these characters which flashbacks to some piece of those 52 hours. That can be an annoying way to tell a story, requiring as it does that all of the characters carefully avoid talking about their own pasts until the writers decide we should be let in on some new piece of the puzzle. But the first episode is so strongly done that I'm betting these writers can pull off the trick. If nothing else, they know how to end with an unexpected twist; the final shot of the first episode is the best jaw-dropper of the new season.

October 04, 2006

TV: Friday Night Lights

Dillon is a small town in west Texas, where high school football is practically a religious experience. (The show makes the parallel explicit at one point; a member of Dillon's Pee-Wee football team asks the high school's star quarterback, "Do you think God likes football?" "I think everyone likes football," says the QB.) The new coach of the Dillon Panthers is Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), and he's under constant pressure; Dillon expects him to lead his talented team to a state championship, and will accept nothing less.

The first episode introduces us to the team, focusing mainly on three players. Jason Street (Scott Porter) is the quarterback, so damned wholesome and boy-next-door it'll make your teeth hurt; Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) is the flashy, cocky, arrogant running back; and Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is the sullen, rebellious running back. (It should come as no surprise that Smash is the black one of the group, or that Smash and Riggins don't get along at all.)

The story builds to the first game of the season, and it unfolds in standard big-game fashion; the rival is stronger than anyone expected, there's a shocking injury, an unsung nobody must rise to the occasion, yada yada yada. Given that the storyline is so predictable, the show gets credit for finding a surprising amount of fresh drama in it; the last ten minutes or so are particularly well done.

Still, I found myself admiring the show more than enjoying it. The reliance on hand-held camera is distracting, and there's a bleak, washed-out look to the show that grows tiresome very quickly. I'm also not particularly interested in the subject matter. I suppose that later episodes will begin to develop the personal stories of the characters -- you can't do a Big Game story every week -- and in a less competitive timeslot, I might stick around for a few weeks to see if that provides enough emotional involvement to make the show more compelling. But alas, Friday Night Lights shares its timeslot with Gilmore Girls and Standoff, making it a distant third choice.

October 03, 2006

TV: The Game

There's one show every year that I just can't bring myself to sit through even the first episode of, and this year, it's The Game. The characters were barely one-dimensional, much less three; the writing wasn't funny; the acting was painful to watch. Tia Mowry, the show's star, is still pounding every punchline and pulling the exaggerated facial expressions that were her stock in trade as a child star on Sister, Sister; they aren't nearly so adorable now that she's grown up.

To be sure, I am about as far from this show's target demographic -- young African-Americans, principally women -- as you can get, and it may just be that it's full of cultural references and a style of humor that are beyond my experience. I hope that's the case, because the alternative is to wonder how on earth something this awful ever made it to air.

October 01, 2006

TV: Ugly Betty

What a charmer this is, a perfectly marvelous Cinderella variation set in the world of fashion magazines.

Betty Suarez (America Ferrera, finally getting the star-making role she deserves) is a plain Jane who desperately wants a job in publishing, but potential employers refuse to look beyond her appearance to see the smart, likable young woman behind the bushy eyebrows, large glasses, and braces. But veteran publisher Bradford Meade (Alan Dale) has just turned over the reins of Mode magazine to his son Daniel (Eric Mabius), a compulsive womanizer; in Bradford's eyes, the only hope of getting Daniel to focus on work is to give him an assistant who won't tempt him in the slightest.

And so, Betty finds herself working at Mode. Daniel is horrified, and since he can't fire Betty, he sets out to make her so miserable that she'll quit. Betty quickly makes friends at Mode, though, notably the manager of the magazine's "closet," Christina (Ashley Jensen, sharp and bubbly).

Daniel has problems of his own beyond Betty. Fashion director Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams, in full-on Wicked Stepmother mode) had expected to get the editor's job herself, and with the help of her own assistant, Marc (Michael Urie), she sets out to destroy Daniel.

The plot of the first episode is admittedly a bit predictable. Wilhelmina sets Daniel up for disaster; Betty saves him and makes him appear the hero; Daniel realizes that she's perfect for the job, and that the two will make a great team.

Ugly Betty is based on a Colombian telenovela which has been adapted for countries around the world, and it has some of the over-the-top flavor of its source; the tone is big, broad, and a little bit campy. That's risky; if everyone doesn't match style and tone precisely, it can come across as nothing more than an exercise in bitchy nastiness. That's not a problem here, though, and the first episode gives us hints of plotlines to come that will fit right into this style. (Who is that masked woman giving Wilhelmina advice? Is it possible that the previous editor of Mode isn't actually dead at all?) The show is a light, fluffy, perfect souffle, and if it lives up to its first episode, it'll be one of the year's highlights.