March 29, 2006

TV: American Idol (songs of the 21st century)

Hello, back from Vegas, and just watched last night's show. Not a good night on the whole, and not an interesting song in the bunch. Mandisa and Chris get a pedantic scold for choosing songs from 2000, which was the last year of the 20th century, not the first year of the 21st.

Lisa, "Because of You" -- I don't know where Simon's description of this as "painful" comes from. The ending was a bit off-pitch, but the big notes sounded good, and there were hints that there might actually be a personality beneath that animatronic surface.

Kellie, "Suds in the Bucket" -- She's got the voice for country, but after hearing this (and last week's "Walking After Midnight") I wonder if she has any comprehension of what she's singing. She might just as well have learned the lyrics phonetically, with the lack of emotional connection to anything she says.

Ace, "Drops of Jupiter" -- It's so blah a performance that I'm forgetting it even as it happens; Ace looks uncomfortable, and that "let me pull my shirt open for you, girls" moment was really tacky.

Taylor, "Trouble" -- nice to see him physically calm down. It's a solid performance, though not his best. I'd be willing to bet that the original version (which I don't know) is a lot grittier and bluesier, and doesn't have all those polished strings and brass.

Mandisa, "Wanna Praise You" -- Simon's right; this is a very self-indulgent performance. I mean, it's Mandisa, so it sounds good and it's stylish and polished, but it's the most boring song of the night.

Chris, "What If" -- It's one thing for Simon to question your range, but when even Ryan is wondering whether you've got any versatility in you, you're really in trouble. But as long as he can find a piece of thumping rock to scream through every week, Chris will continue to do that very well, as he does here.

Katharine, "The Voice Within" -- Finally, we've found something I don't want to hear Katharine sing; melismatic diva-pop does not suit her at all. I'm perplexed by the judges' admiration and praise for this one.

Bucky, "Real Good Man" -- Every great singer is an actor, and that's what Bucky is missing. There's no flirtatiousness, no sense of play here, and as Paula notes, his enunciation continues to be poor. But the song does suit his voice, and there's nothing hideously wrong with the singing.

Paris, "Work It Out" -- Lots of energy and fun to watch; this look is so much better for her than the Lil' Billie Holiday thing from last week. Again, the song is crap, but the performance is fine.

Elliott, "I Don't Want to Be" -- Simon nails it: good song choice, crappy arrangement, reasonably good performance.

For the night: Paris, Chris, Mandisa, Taylor, Elliott, Katharine, Bucky, Lisa, Kellie, Ace.

For the season: Mandisa, Katharine, Paris, Chris, Taylor, Elliott, Bucky, Lisa, Kellie, Ace.

Deserving the boot: Ace or Kellie.

March 24, 2006

No new posts here for the next few days; I'm off to Las Vegas. My mother and aunt are flying in from Vermont, and I'm joining them for part of their vacation. We're going to Avenue Q on Tuesday night, and everything else is going to be spur-of-the-moment.

March 23, 2006

BOOKS: The Masque of Mañana, Robert Sheckley (2005)

Science fiction and humor don't often go together very well, but here are forty-one delightful short stories from one of the genre's great humorists.

The stories are mainly from the 1950s, but they hold up very well. There was only one story in the book that felt at all dated; that's "Holdout," one of those late-50s stories about how awful racism is, but even here, Sheckley finds a novel twist on the theme.

That's one of his strengths throughout the collection. Familiar ideas pop up -- genies and wishes ("Something for Nothing"), manipulation of timelines ("The Deaths of Ben Baxter"), first contact ("All the Things You Are"), time travel paradoxes ("A Thief in Time") -- but Sheckley's treatment of them is always interesting, and still feels fresh fifty years later.

We get several of Sheckley's stories about the AAA Ace Planetary Decontamination Service, about a team of explorers who will -- for a fee -- rid your planet of whatever pest might be bothering it. This sort of puzzle story can easily fall into a rut, as the author simply writes one variation after another on the same basic puzzle, but Sheckley shines just as brightly here as in the rest of the book. His puzzles are diverse enough that after reading half-a-dozen AAA Ace stories in a row, I wanted more.

This is a well-chosen selection of Sheckley's work, and I was entertained all the way through.

March 21, 2006

TV: American Idol (songs of the 1950s)

With a little help from Barry Manilow, it was a good night for our boys and girls, with some truly fine singing. Most interesting, the worst of the clunkers didn't come from the usual suspects.

The rundown:

Mandisa, "I Don't Hurt Anymore" -- The first WOW! performance of the year. There was a smile on my face from the first note, and chills up my spine by the end. This was spectacular. And she looked fabulous, too.

Bucky, "Oh, Boy!" -- It's a good song choice for Bucky, and his enunciation is better than usual. It's a pleasant performance, but as Barry points out, this should be a joyful song, and in Bucky's hands, there's not a lot of joy in it.

Paris, "Fever" -- Lord, the kid can sing, but she looks like she's been playing dressup in Aunt Billie's closet. I admire her talent immensely, but I really wish she'd stop trying to be 35.

Chris, "I Walk the Line" -- A performance that raises one of the great Idol philosophical debates: What is the purpose of theme nights? Is it simply to provide an accepted list of repertoire, or is it to make the singers show that they have some range? I lean to the latter view, so I was horrified by this performance. There was nothing remotely 50s about it, and it served as Chris's admission that yes, he is a one-trick pony.

Katharine, "Come Rain or Come Shine" -- I didn't care for the arrangement, but Katharine sings the hell out of this song. She doesn't have the stage presence or charisma that Mandisa brings, but Katharine is the most technically gifted singer in the group.

Taylor, "Not Fade Away" -- And the hair darkening, I believe, has begun, with the patch of hair right in the middle of Taylor's forehead looking noticably darker. As for the performance, it's not a very interesting song, and the performance matches it. Blandly competent.

Lisa, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" -- Lisa could walk onto this stage and sing this song 20 times, and it would be exactly the same every time. She's very precise, but there's not an ounce of spontaneity or human feeling in what she does; it's mechanical and plastic.

Kevin, "When I Fall In Love" -- This shows remarkable progress for Kevin, and the first half is quite lovely. When he starts pushing in the second half, he regresses a bit; there are pitch problems and that "god, help me" crease in the forehead comes back. On the whole, though, his best performance yet.

Elliott, "Teach Me Tonight" -- Oh, dear. The pitch is never quite stable, and Elliott's vibrato, which is always on the wide and rapid side, is in overdrive tonight. This just wasn't pretty at all.

Kellie, "Walking After Midnight" -- Give the girl a song in her comfort zone, and it turns out she can sing after all. Sure, the low notes at the beginning are a little too low for her, but still, it's a very solid performance.

Ace, "In the Still of the Night" -- Back to sultry and smoldering for Ace, and it's a good thing he's pretty, because if you close your eyes and listen, you begin to notice that his voice is awfully thin and reedy, and that his pitch wobbles on the long notes. But he certainly is pretty to look at, and that'll keep him around for a while longer.

For the night: Mandisa, Katharine, Paris, Kellie, Chris, Taylor, Kevin, Bucky, Ace, Lisa, Elliott.

Overall: Katharine, Mandisa, Paris, Taylor, Chris, Bucky, Kellie, Lisa, Elliott, Ace, Kevin.

Who should go home: Y'know, the overall bottom six are so closely bunched at this point that I don't much care. Let's say Elliott, who is the clear frontrunner for this season's Anwar Robinson Disappointment of the Year Trophy.

March 19, 2006

MOVIES: Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, 2004 / US 2006)

Flama and Moko (Daniel Miranda and Diego Cataña) are 14. They're best friends, and they've got Flama's apartment all to themselves for a long Sunday afternoon on pizza, Coke, and video games. But then the power goes out, and Rita (Danny Perea), the 16-year-old from down the hall shows up wanting to use the oven to bake a cake, and Ulises the pizza guy (Enrique Arreola) refuses to leave because the boys won't pay him for the pizza (he was, by their watch, eleven seconds late).

So these four people are stuck in the apartment together with not much to do. Not much really happens in Duck Season, but there's an awful lot happening in all of that "not much." It's a movie about kids about to begin the journey to adulthood and an adult who finally acknowledges that he's finished that journey.

It's a tender comedy, and much of the humor comes from Eimbcke's calm, deadpan camera style. With the exception of a brief flashback scene, the camera never moves. We fade in on a scene; the scene plays out; we slowly fade out, then fade in on a new scene. There are entire scenes -- some short, but some surprisingly long -- with little or no dialogue, built around the physical timing and facial expressions of the four talented actors.

This isn't a big, flashy movie; it's quiet, bittersweet, and contemplative. It's Eimbcke's first full-length film, and it's a confident debut; I look forward to seeing what he'll do next.

BOOKS: The Devil's Horn, Michael Segell (2005)

The "devil's horn" is the saxophone, and Segell gives us an informative history of the instrument.

Invented by Adolphe Sax in the 1840s, the instrument was designed to combine the best characteristics of all the instrument families: the smooth tone of the winds, the forceful projection of the brass, the smooth blend from high to low of the strings. It was almost immediately successful; by the 1860s, it had a prominent role in American military and community brass bands.

By the 1920s, it had become the dominant instrument in dance bands. It has been suggested, in fact, that the reason so many popular songs of that decade are written in the keys of F, B-flat, and E-flat is that those were the easiest keys for the saxophone; with its new popularity, there were a lot of novice players, and songs that were easy for them to play would be more likely to be picked up.

The sax is best known as a jazz instrument, and Segell spends several chapters giving us a detailed history of the great players. I think this is the book's weakest section. For non-jazz fans, like myself, it's too detailed and comprehensive to hold interest; and for those who do follow jazz, I suspect that there's not much new or surprising.

When he invented the instrument, Sax hoped that it would find a role in the symphony orchestra, but with a few exceptions, that's never really happened. It's a nasty cycle: because orchestras don't need a full-time sax player, the parts are generally assigned to the resident clarinet or oboe player, and since the sax isn't their primary instrument, the parts aren't always played well, making composers reluctant to include the saxophone in their orchestral music.

Further complicating the acceptance of the classical saxophone is the ongoing feud between two schools of musicians. The German school believes in a darker sound, and prefers to play on older instruments; at their most extreme, they argue that the physical refinements made to the instrument in newer models have changed its sound so much that they're barely even saxophones at all. The French school prefers a brighter sound, newer instruments, and is fonder of the avant-garde extended playing techniques that have extended the instrument's range.

Segell illustrates his history with entertaining anecdotes; he interviews key players and historicans, getting fascinating information from them. I suspect that different readers will respond to different chapters, depending on their own musical interests, as I responded to the jazz chapters, but the book allows for dipping here and there. Anyone with any interest in the saxophone, even if he's not fascinated by everything here, will surely find something interesting.

March 18, 2006

MOVIES: Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2006)

"Michael Jordan plays basketball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk."

That's tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) explaining his role as chief spokesman for Big Tobacco in Reitman's marvelous adaptation of Christopher Buckley's satirical novel.

Nick has a gift for warping his opponents' arguments to be used against them -- "moral flexibility," he calls it -- and Eckhart is perfect in the role; Nick is a smooth-talking manipulator, and Eckhart delivers even his most ludicrous arguments with such ease and confidence that you could almost find yourself falling for them.

The rest of the cast is also top-notch, and what a cast it is: Maria Bello, William H. Macy, J.K. Simmons, Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe, Adam Brody, and Sam Elliott are all on hand; Lowe is particularly funny as a Hollywood talent agent. Reitman's smartest move is to expand the role of Nick's son, Joey (Cameron Bright, overdoing the precocious act a bit), who is a very minor character in the book; giving Nick someone to relate to in a more human (and humane) way makes it easier to take him at his most outlandish.

Very funny, and highly recommended.

March 15, 2006

BOOKS: Self-Made Man, Norah Vincent (2006)

For 18 months, Vincent disguised herself as a man and spent time in a series of all-male environments in order to find out what life is really like for men. "Ned" spent eight months in a mens' bowling league, lived for several weeks at a monastery, joined a mens' support group (and went on their weekend retreat), and visited strip clubs.

There are always ethical issues raised by this sort of undercover journalism, and it is one of the strengths of the book that Vincent is aware of these issues from the outset, and does her best to deal with them. She ultimately does tell most of the men she meets who she really is, and when she chooses not to, it's clear that she's given the decision a lot of thought.

Most of what Vincent discovers doesn't come as any great surprise. Or do I only think that because I'm a man? I don't think so; surely these days, most women understand that men pay a significant emotional and physical cost because of the expectations and pressures of life in what is still a male-dominated society.

Of course, understanding it and actually seeing it close up are two very different things; Vincent writes with great emotion about the men she meets, men who seem desperately in need of the sorts of close relationships and conversations that women take for granted, but cannot find a way to have those things while adhering to cultural norms.

I was disappointed that none of Vincent's explorations dealt specifically with gay male culture (and one would have thought that as a lesbian herself, she'd be more sensitive to assuming heterosexuality as a default). And at the end, looking back on her experiment, she goes way overboard into Deborah Tannen/John Gray territory, declaring that "there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects."

But Vincent has a sharp eye, and a gift for drawing out the thoughts of the men she meets. She's also very aware of her own role in this process, of the ways in which "Ned" succeeds or fails in pulling off his deception and of the ways in which she can't be entirely objective about the experiment.

Particularly interesting is her failure to anticipate the impact that the deception would have on her; she calls the term "nervous breakdown" overly dramatic, but does check herself into a hospital for several days. The strain of presenting a false identity for so long takes its toll, and I'd have thought her own sexual identity might have kept her from being quite so surprised by that.

This is a fascinating book, and Vincent is an entertaining writer. Her "journey into manhood and back" proved far more complex than she'd expected; her book, likewise, isn't the simplistic "aren't men awful" rant I'd feared it might be.

March 14, 2006

TV: American Idol (songs of Stevie Wonder)

The first half of the night was especially dreary, as everyone seemed intimidated by the thought of singing Stevie Wonder songs; there wasn't a lot of personality or charisma on display, and performances were on the cautious side. But things did pick up with the last few singers, and we finally got some decent entertainment.

The blow-by-blow:

Ace, "Do I Do" -- On the plus side, there was a lot of energy, and the audience certainly seemed to be enjoying itself. But right from the start, the high notes were strained and pinched, and when Ace got to the rapid-patter section midway through, he wasn't even trying to hit the right note. Worst of all, every phrase ends with a little explosion of air -- "Do I DoAhhh!" -- that's almost as annoying as Taylor's whoops and hollers a few weeks back.

Kellie, "Blame It on the Sun" -- I thought the judges were a bit harsh on Kellie; given that she's not an R&B singer, she at least had the sense to choose a song that she could do a passable job with in her own style. Like most of the women on the show, she's weak in her lower register, and she's having problems with some of the trickier melodic lines. It wasn't a very interesting performance, but it wasn't wretchedly awful.

Elliott, "Knocks Me Off My Feet" -- The timbre of Elliott's voice is somewhat similar to Stevie Wonder's, so I had high hopes for him tonight. And he wasn't bad, really, but he seemed awfully cautious and never really turned his voice loose until the very end, when he gave us a nice flourish.

Mandisa, "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" -- This was not Mandisa's best night, and the beginning was especially weak; it was too low for her, and she was a bit hard to hear. But the last 2/3 of the song was much better, and even though it lacked the pizzazz we've come to expect from Mandisa, she's a strong enough singer that Mandisa coasting through an off night is better than most of the field at its best.

Bucky, "Superstitious" -- Here's the pleasant surprise of the night. Yes, his enunciation is horrible and I couldn't understand half of what he said. But he was having fun, he seemed a lot less intimidated by the song than most of the singers did, and that raspy voice of his suits the song very nicely, as does the hint of New Orleans in the way he drawls "supersti-SHAWWWN."

Melissa, "Lately" -- I didn't even notice the lyric bobbles that the judges were so amused by, though I did notice a bit of insecurity with the melody here and there. The song suits her voice, though, and she sounds a lot better now than she did in the early weeks of the competition.

Lisa, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" -- Where is all the personality, the charm, the flair that Lisa once had? This was a perfectly competent, terribly polite performance with no oomph to it at all. And the straightened hair was a big mistake.

Kevin, "Part Time Lover" -- He's improving, god love him; his pitch is good for the most part, and there are even a couple of moments where his voice relaxes enough to lose that strangled tone and you can hear the possibility of something really interesting. But he's so far behind the field to begin with that he can't possibly improve fast enough to be a credible contestant.

Katharine, "Until You Come Back to Me" -- Finally, someone shows some personality and individuality. This was an absolutely lovely performance. You can hear that she's a trained singer; where most singers scoop up to the high notes in the phrase "THAT'S what I'M gonna do," Katharine hits them as discrete pitches.

Taylor, "Livin' for the City" -- Another really fine effort, especially the first verse and chorus, which are a little quieter and a lot more relaxed than we've heard from Taylor. The spastic, slightly manic Taylor is back when the band kicks in, but that's who Taylor is, and it works for him.

Paris, "All I Do" -- Like Mandisa earlier in the night, Paris has enough raw talent to carry her through when she's not at her best, which she's not tonight. It's a perfectly professional performance -- pitches are all in place and so on -- but Paris never really connects with the material and takes it from professional to exciting.

Chris, "Higher Ground" -- Eventually, there will come a theme week that Chris can't find a way to shoehorn into his rocker talents, and when that happens, he's going to crash and burn very badly. Until then, though, he does what he does very well indeed.

For the night: Katharine, Taylor, Chris, Paris, Mandisa, Bucky, Melissa, Elliott, Lisa, Ace, Kellie, Kevin.

Overall: Katherine, Mandisa, Chris, Taylor, Paris, Elliott, Bucky, Melissa, Ace, Lisa, Kellie, Kevin.

Most deserving of the ticket home: Kevin, though I would not be crushed if Kellie went before him.
This is a remarkable bit of jugglng. Yeah, yeah, I know, juggling, but trust me, you haven't seen anything quite like this. Click on "the big finale" and enjoy.

(via Anne Thompson at Risky Biz)

March 12, 2006

March 08, 2006

TV: American Idol (men's semifinals, week 3)

It's a night of remarkable blandness from the men, and all it does is strengthen my growing sense that none of these guys is fit to carry the handbags of the top four women.

Let's work our way up from the bottom, shall we?

Kevin was better than we've ever heard him; he was generally in tune, and the song suited him reasonably well. But even at his very best, he's still horrible. Just look at how furrowed his brow is; that's tension, and you can hear it in his strangled tone and his excessive vibrato. As for showmanship, there are sand dunes with more charisma than Kevin. That was the only truly dreadful performance, but the rest of the show was a great sea of mediocrity.

Bucky can't control the raspiness that takes over his volume when he gets loud, and it destroys his enunciation; the chorus was entirely incomprehensible.

Will is pretty to look at, and "How Sweet It Is" would be a good match for his personality if only he had one. This was the most instantly forgettable performance of the night.

Ace sounds OK when he's down in his regular voice, but his falsetto is pinched and unattractive, and we have to endure a lot of it.

Elliott chose the wrong song, and sounded very tense. I like his voice, but this was a disappointing performance.

"Takin' It to the Streets" should have been a slamdunk for Taylor, but between the spastic dance moves and his apparent boredom, the song never found the energy it really needed.

There were only two good performances tonight, and neither of them was truly exciting. Gedeon did a nice job, though I'd have liked a lot more passion from him. I worry, though, after three straight weeks of old-school R&B, that Gedeon is going to struggle when the genre assignments begin.

Chris wasn't up to the level of last week's performance, but it was the best of the night. He's actually singing, instead of just screaming as so many rockers do, and he's very much in control of his voice.

Going into the finals, I'd put Chris and Gedeon out in front of the pack (and even they don't live up to the standards set by the top three or four women); Taylor, Elliott, and Ace in the next tier; and Will, Bucky, and poor pitiful Kevin bringing up the rear.

Kevin absolutely deserves to go home this week, and I think he will. The second ticket home should go to Bucky, but I won't be crushed if it's Will instead; my fear is that Elliott may get booted.

March 07, 2006

TV: American Idol (women's semifinals, week 3)

Not much really changes tonight; for the most part, the ladies sing about as well or as poorly as we've come to expect.

There is one striking exception, and that's Kinnik, who gives the night's worst performance; her pitch is off throughout, the song doesn't suit her voice, and she never seems comfortable.

Almost as bad -- and this isn't much of a shock -- is Ayla, who gets a bit better as the song goes on, but sounds very weak at the beginning, and should probably have stuck to ballads.

Moving up from awfulness to mediocrity, we find Kellie, who rocks about as hard as Pat Boone on a milk binge; like so many Idol women over the years, her low notes are weak, and she's only really comfortable when she can belt. Simon's fondness for her is inexplicable, and her "I'm a lovably dumb redneck" shtick becomes more patently phony each week. "I'm a mink!," indeed.

Melissa does nothing tonight but belt, and though she's occasionally pushing a little too hard, the song she's chosen is reasonably well suited to her voice.

Paris has chosen the night's dullest song, and while she's fun to watch (as always), even she can't quite make "Conga" anything other than boring.

Here we cross the line from mediocre to entertaining. Lisa does a fine job, and she's got technique to spare; listen to how smoothly she makes the transitions from the low part of her range to the high. It's a pleasant surprise that she doesn't overdo the melismatic wailing (Randy even complains that there's not enough of it).

Mandisa's performance is a bit on the safe, by-the-book side, but she knows how to sell a song, and that voice is spectacular.

Katharine gives the most casually sultry performance of "Think" I've ever heard, and she makes it look almost too easy. Some will no doubt find it too laidback and low-key, but I thought it was the best of the night, and one of the highlights of the season so far.

So overall, I'd put Mandisa, Katharine, Paris, and Lisa in the lead group; Melissa and Kinnik some distance behind; and Kellie and Ayla deserving to go home.

I think both of them will survive, though, and I'll predict that America will vote off Kinnik and Melissa.

BOOKS: Gentlemen & Players, Joanne Harris (2006)

This is Harris's seventh novel; I have read none of the others. My perception of her, from what I've read about her and what I've heard from those who have read her books, has always been that she's a skilled writer of exactly the sort of sentimental goo that would make me want to pound my head against a wall and beg for the sweet release of death. (The closest I have come to Harris's work is the film adaptation of Chocolat, which certainly didn't do much to dispel that perception.)

It is, of course, horribly unfair to judge a writer based on second-hand reports and someone else's interpretations of her work, but we all do it, and so when Gentlemen & Players was recommended to me by people who know my taste, I was skeptical. But oh my, this is a fine novel, a crisp suspense thriller with some remarkable turns of plot, and a final series of twists that took my breath away. (And it is not remotely sentimental or gooey.)

The setting is St. Oswald's Grammar School for boys, a traditional English private school (or as the English call it, a "public school," which is often confusing to we Americans), and there are two narrators. The first is Roy Straitley, who has taught Latin at St. Oswald's for 30-some years; as part of the novel's theme of game-playing, his chapters are headed with a picture of a white chess king. The chapters of the other narrator, whose identity hides from us for most of the novel, are headed by a black pawn; for now, "Pawn" will do as a convenient name.

Pawn has been hired as a new faculty member in Straitley's department, and because of grudges and resentment that have festered since childhood, is out to destroy the school. Through a vicious series of pranks, misdeeds, and psychological plots, Pawn sets the faculty and students of St. Oswald's against one another.

Straitley's chapters are set in the present, and we watch as he gradually realizes that the troubling incidents at the school are not random, but part of an organized scheme. In Pawn's chapters, we watch the present-day scheming, and also flashback to childhood, when Pawn donned a St. Oswald's uniform and pretended to be one of the school's students.

Harris does a magnificent job of misdirection. I was feeling smug at having figured out Pawn's identity several pages before Straitley did, and even when it's revealed that Straitley (and the reader) has gotten it wrong, it took me far too many pages to realize what was really going on. It's the kind of ending that makes you want to re-read the book to see how the author has so thoroughly misled you without ever actually lying.

March 05, 2006

BOOKS: The Actor's Guide to Greed, Rick Copp (2005)

Third in the Jarrod Jarvis series; my comments on the second are here.

Jarrod's landed in a role in a play this time around, and is off to London to make his West End theatrical debut. The only one in the cast with whom Jarrod gets along is the 40-ish Oscar-winning diva Claire Richards, so when she is murdered on opening night, Jarrod is horrified to find himself suspected of the crime. The play has a large cast of egotistical actors, all of whom apparently had their own reasons to want Claire dead, and Jarrod sets out to save his own skin by solving the crime himself.

Jarrod's boyfriend, Charlie, is a policeman with the LAPD, and his expertise as a cop sometimes gets in the way of Jarrod's amateur crimesolving efforts in these books. Moving the story to London automatically helps, because Charlie has no jurisdiction there, but Copp takes even more steps to remove Charlie from the scene; his absence, in fact, is a key element that drives the plot in the second half of the book.

The biggest flaw this time around is that we don't meet the actual villain until far too late in the book, and we have no way of actually guessing who's pulling the strings until that character finally appears.

But like the earlier volumes in the series, this is breezy, disposable, fluffy fun, and it's a pleasant way to pass some time.

MOVIES: The Oscars

Well, only one real surprise all night, but what a doozy it was!

I can't say I'm thrilled to see Crash win Best Picture -- it was my fourth pick of the nominees -- but Brokeback Mountain was my fifth, so I take some schadenfreude-ish pleasure in the fact that it didn't win.

Jon Stewart seemed a bit flat tonight, though he did get off two terrific lines, the one about Bjork having been shot by Cheney, and "Martin Scorsese: Zero Oscars; the Three Six Mafia: One."

Other moments that stand out:

The gay-cowboy montage, the only one of the night's montages that was even remotely interesting. (And did anyone else find themselves laughing at the sight of The Day After Tomorrow in the "important social issues" montage?)

Colleen Atwood accepting the Costume Design award, having apparently gone back to the late 60s to borrow Barbra Streisand's hair.

Steve Carell and Will Ferrell presenting the Makeup award.

Was Lauren Bacall just having teleprompter problems? She seemed a bit out of it to me, and I wondered if she might be ill.

The weird production number for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," and the surprise win for the song. (Well, it surprised me, anyway.)

The giant bow ties on Nick Park and Steve Box.

Reese Witherspoon's charming acceptance speech, and all the other awful ones; no matter how hard the Academy tries to get people to stop reciting lists of names, everyone goes right ahead and does it.

The bad luck of having three significant deaths -- Don Knotts, Darren McGavin, Dennis Weaver -- too close to the ceremony to get them into the "In Memoriam" reel. I wish the audience would not applaud during that segment of the show; what should be a solemn remembrance turns into a tacky Applause Meter o' Death.

Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, whose introduction of Robert Altman was the funniest thing on the show, and has me really looking forward to seeing them in A Prairie Home Companion, despite my visceral loathing of Garrison Keillor.

Poor Ziyi Zhang, struggling to be understood as she introduced the editing nominees; you'd think if the Academy wanted to use her as a presenter, they could at least have been kind enough to give her a category with only three nominees.

The awfulness of the Brokeback Mountain theme, which is rather pretty in the movie's spare instrumentation, when blown up for full orchestra.

The frequent repetition of the "movies are better in a theater" idea; sounds like the Academy's getting really worried about the shrinking/disappearance of the DVD window.

March 04, 2006

MOVIES: Unknown White Male (Rupert Murray, 2005)

How much of who we are is based on what has happened to us? If we suddenly lost the memories of our experiences and our relationships, would be be the same person?

These are among the questions raised by Murray's documentary about the experience of his friend, Doug Bruce.

Bruce is riding a subway when he realizes that he has no idea where he is or where he's coming from; in fact, he doesn't even remember who he is. He's carrying no wallet or identification, and can't find anything in his backpack to connect him to his identity.

He goes to the police; they have no luck figuring out who he is, and turn him over to the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. He finally finds a phone number on a slip of paper buried in a book in his pack, which connects him to a former girlfriend.

Before his amnesia, Bruce had a charmed life -- wealthy family, global jet-setting lifestyle, striking good looks, successful career as a stockbroker -- and things aren't much different afterwards. His friends and family seem more affected by the experience than Bruce does; they're struggling to reacquaint themselves with their friend, who isn't quite the same man they knew.

At first, Bruce is understandably terrified by his memory loss, and the doctors are unable to provide any explanation for what's happened. Once the initial shock wears off, though, Bruce seems to adjust surprisingly easy (and begins videotaping his life almost immediately), and shows little interest in finding an answer or in regaining his memories.

That quick adjustment is one of the things that has led some people to suspect that the movie may be an elaborate hoax; in this post-Frey era, anything that's presented as memoir will be greeted with suspicion. It does seem odd, after all, that a man would be traveling around New York with no money or identification, or that the only phone number he'd be carrying would belong to the mother of a woman he'd recently dated a few times.

But unless you're willing to believe that all of Bruce's friends and family are in on the hoax, it's hard to imagine anyone pulling it off; complete memory loss would be a difficult thing to fake, with opportunities to slip up lurking in almost every conversation.

Murray's not much of a filmmaker. He relies far too heavily on fisheye lenses and other distortions as a reflection of Bruce's confused mental state, and on meaningless shots of clouds and water to fill time while people talk. But Bruce's story is so inherently interesting (and the possibility that it is a hoax makes it even more so; I found myself constantly watching for slipups and clues) that it overcomes Murray's limitations.

MOVIES: North Country (Niki Caro, 2005)

First, Niki Caro gave us Whale Rider, her version of an ABC Afterschool Special; now she gives us a glorified Lifetime movie-of-the-week -- "based on true events," even -- in which all of the women are noble, all of the men are schmucks, and all of the plotlines are tired and predictable.

Charlize Theron, having struck Oscar gold for de-glamming in Monster, returns to that well (and scores another Oscar nomination) as Josey Aimes, a struggling single mom who goes to work in the iron mines of northern Minnesota. She and her female co-workers are not welcomed by their male colleagues, who subject them to vicious sexual harassment, ultimately leading to the first sexual harassment class-action lawsuit.

Now, I'm sure that what the real-life women in these mines went through was horrible, but I have a hard time believing that it was as cartoonishly and unsubtly evil as it's depicted here; the men in the mines of North Country are only a mustache twirl away from Snidely Whiplash.

Only two men are allowed any shred of humanity -- Woody Harrelson as Josey's attorney, and Richard Jenkins as her father, who also works in the mines; Jenkins gets much credit for taking the obligatory "she's my daughter, dammit" speech to his fellow miners and actually making something of it.

Frances McDormand landed an Oscar nomination for her work here as Josey's best pal, Glory, a fellow miner; it's hard to hear her doing a Minnesota accent without immediately thinking of Marge Gunderson and Fargo, and this performance isn't nearly at that level. To be sure, McDormand isn't helped by a script that saddles her with an unnecessary subplot in which she's taken seriously ill.

And as if the awful predictability and cardboard characters weren't enough, we get a final courtroom scene that trashes every imaginable rule of courtroom procedure, then tosses on a jaw-dropping "I am Spartacus" climax.

For this dreck, Joan Allen lost out on an Oscar nomination? Oy.

March 01, 2006

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

After two weeks, the men's race still seems much less clear to me than the women's race. None of the men have turned in two really good performances (though there are some who've been consistently bad).

Top of the class tonight, and I say this even though I detest his style of music, was Chris, who had charisma to burn and -- within the limits of the song -- sang well.

Also doing fine work were Elliott, with a relaxed and confident performance of the most difficult song I can remember hearing any Idol contestant tackle, and Gedeon, who I find awfully hard to watch with all of his jittery tics, but marvelous to hear.

Will's performance was on the polite, bloodless side, but showed his voice to better advantage than I'd heard before.

We slip into the "oh dear" side of the scale from there. Tay(WHOO!)lor didn't do (HEY!) anything interesting (WHOO!) with his song, and his little (HEY! WHOO!) yelps got annoying really fast.

Bucky improved over last week, but every time he steps up in volume, his voice gets harsher in an unpleasant way, which made it difficult for him to give that song the drama it really needs.

Ace chose a song that was, stylistically, a near clone of last week's performance, and we found out that sex appeal only takes you so far if you can't sing the damn song. He was extremely flat throughout, and the falsetto notes were painful.

Jose was dull, and Kevin's voice is still stuck in the back of his throat, where it appears to be strangling him.

And then there's David, who I gave the benefit of the doubt last week, wondering what he'd sound like with a song better suited to his style. But tonight I realized that his problem is that he has no style; there's nothing of David's own personality coming through his performance, which is all shtick and imitation.

After two weeks, I'd say that Chris, Elliott, and Gedeon head the pack; Taylor and Ace slipped badly this week, but should still earn spots in the final six. Will and Bucky deserve the chance to come back next week and fight for the last spot; some combination of Jose, Kevin, and David should be sent home tomorrow night.