May 29, 2006

MOVIES: A League of Ordinary Gentlemen (Christopher Browne, 2004)

In the 1970s and 1980s, professional bowling was a successful part of the ABC Sports lineup, but by the mid-1990s, the sport had fallen on hard times. Bowling was a low-key sport in an era that demanded excitement from its entertainment, and a blue-collar sport at a time when advertisers were increasingly interested in capturing upscale audiences. ABC cancelled its weekly broadcasts in 1997, after 35 years.

In 2000, the Professional Bowlers Association was sold to three former Microsoft executives, and they set about trying to revitalize the league. One of their principal strategies was to focus on their bowlers, hoping to capture some of the personality-driven excitement that had made televised wrestling so popular. In this fine documentary, Browne follows four bowlers through the 2002-03 PBA season, looking at how they are adapting (or not) to the new style of the league.

Three of the bowlers are veterans, members of bowling's Hall of Fame. Pete Weber is part of bowling's first family and has long struggled to live up to his father's reputation (Dick Weber was the most consistent winner on the tour when bowling first hit television in the early 1960s). In his early years on the tour, in the 1980s, Pete was often disciplined for his flamboyant antics; now his "bad boy of bowling" style is exactly what the PBA's new management is looking for. Unfortunately, he's having a bad season, finishing just short of the televised finals each week.

Having more success is Walter Ray Williams, Jr., but while he's doing well in tournaments, he doesn't find it so easy to adapt to the new PBA style. Williams is a low-key, polite bowler whose most confrontational gesture is a thumbs-up, and try as they might, management can't find a way to get more pizzazz from him.

Wayne Webb is the third Hall of Famer in the bunch, and despite his early career success, he's seen as something of a disappointment. He had the promise 20 years ago to be one of the game's all-time greats, but a hard-partying lifestyle and a gambling problem led to many bad years in the 1990s. Now, he's struggling to put his act back together after several divorces and at least two bankruptcies ("But that's OK," he says, "I bowl better when I'm broke.")

The relative novice in the movie is Chris Barnes, a rising star who makes it to the TV rounds with some consistency, but seems to fall apart under the pressure of the lights and cameras.

Weber and Williams get most of the movie's time, and their long-time rivalry makes an interesting story. But it's Webb's story that I'll remember the longest; his struggle to recapture his peak form is poignant and painful.

As a whole, the movie's a bit jumpy; the first half-hour seems to be leading up to a movie about the new PBA ownership and their marketing efforts; the last hour turns into a fairly standard year-in-the-life documentary, focusing on the athletes. I'd have liked more of the business story, which fascinated me, but the sports story is done well enough to keep the movie reasonably interesting.

BOOKS: The Ethical Assasin, David Liss (2006)

David Liss's earlier novels have been historical mysteries, set in 18th-century London (A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption) and 17th-century Amsterdam (The Coffee Trader); this is his first novel in a contemporary setting.

It's not all the way to present-day; the setting is Florida in the mid-1980s, where 17-year-old Lem is selling encyclopedias door-to-door, hoping to make enough money to pay for college. He's surprising even himself by turning out to be a good salesman, which is making it even harder to cope with his incipient guilt about talking people who don't have much money into buying things they really don't need. He's in a tiny middle-of-nowhere trailer, having spent hours making his pitch to another couple; just as he close the sale, a man comes into the trailer and kills the couple.

The killer -- he refers to himself as an "assassin" -- is Melford Kean, and he's surprised to find Lem there. Melford offers Lem a simple deal: Stay quiet, and you'll be safe; go to the cops, and you'll take the fall for the killings. Things are never that simple, of course, and over the next several days, Lem finds himself caught up in Melford's world, trying to save his own skin. The relationship between them is more complicated than you'd expect, and Melford presents Lem with philosophical conundrums that he'd never contemplated before, involving (among other things) vegetarianism, pig farming, and the real purpose of prisons.

It's hard to read a crime novel set in Florida these days without thinking of Carl Hiaasen, and there is something of Hiaasen in this novel, especially in the large cast of vividly eccentric characters -- the not-quite-a-bimbo personal assistant who's haunted by the ghost of the conjoined twin who didn't survive their separation; Lem's potential love interest, a sexy vegetarian from India who sells encyclopedias with him; the head of a crystal meth ring who's managed (so far) to sublimate his pedophilic desires into the "mentoring" of young men. But where Hiaasen is bright and zany, Liss is darker and more disturbing; there's comedy here, but it's in the background, subordinate to the suspense and the tension.

Liss's historical mysteries are fine books, and it's a joy to see him do equally well with so different a story and setting. I can't wait to see what he gives us next.

MOVIES: Over the Hedge (Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick, 2006)

I was never terribly fond of the comic strip this movie is based on, so I didn't enter with great expectations. It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise that, despite a few significant flaws, the movie is lots of fun.

The story is about a group of animals who awake from hibernation to find that their forest has been cut in half by a giant hedge, on the other side of which is suburbia, in the form of a new housing development.

The leader of this family of animals is a turtle named Verne (voiced by Garry Shandling), who is by nature cautious; he would like to ignore this new development and continue life as it has always been, gathering nuts and bark to be stored in preparation for winter. The newest member of the group is RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis), who convinces the animals that suburbia is a great blessing, the source of all the food they could ever want. What the animals don't know is that RJ has an ulterior motive: He has only a short time to replace all of the food that he's stole from Vincent the bear (a perfectly cast Nick Nolte), and plans to do so by taking advantage of the hard work of his new friends.

Like most animated movies these days, we get lots of high-powered star voice casting, and most of it works well. Thomas Haden Church is very funny in one of the two significant human roles; he's Dwayne, the exterminator who's brought in to get rid of the animals. Also good are Wanda Sykes as Stella the skunk; Eugene Levy and Catharine O'Hara as a pair of midwestern porcupines ("Oh, jeepers!" "Oh, yah, jeepers; that's the word, don'cha know."); and William Shatner, continuing his remarkable late career of brilliant self-parody as Ozzie the possum, whose faked-death scene is a magnificent takeoff of Shatner's signature dramatic vocal style ("I! can see! the light! Must! Go! Forward!" and so on).

Best of all is Steve Carell, cranking his voice into its highest register as Hammy, the hyperactive squirrel who zips from place to place, frantically trying to remember where his food is stored, and constantly begging for assistance ("Wanna help me find my nuts?").

Less successful is Garry Shandling as Verne. Shandling as a turtle sounds like a good idea, but voice acting, even for a quiet and tentative character, requires a level of vocal energy that Shandling fails to provide; he's a low-energy actor, and when Verne takes center stage, Shandling didn't hold my attention. He's not helped by the fact that Verne is drawn and animated in a less interesting way than most of the other characters.

The slapstick action sequences don't always reach the energy they need; Verne's first excursion into suburbia is paced just a hair too slow throughout. But the final sequence, in which the animals make one final raid through the exterminator's series of traps, is ingenious, and Hammy's role in that sequence is smartly conceived and beautifully prepared for.

Over the Hedge certainly isn't at the level of the Pixar movies, but kids will enjoy it, and there's enough intelligence in it to keep adults happy; the movie is ultimately a surprisingly pointed commentary on commercialism and the human "need" for more stuff.

May 23, 2006

TV: American Idol (the finals)

It's the big show tonight, boys and girls, as Katharine and Taylor go head to head for the title.

Three songs each -- two "greatest hits" selections from the past season, and each singer's Official First Single; the singers have been given different OFS songs this year, making head-to-head comparison a little bit more difficult. (But is that going to stop me? Hell, no!)

Each singer, I thought, had one very good performance and one OK performance during the "greatest hits" rounds, so let's compare like with like. First, the very good:

Taylor, "Living for the City" (his first song) -- This is Taylor doing what he does best; he's a showman who knows how to work the crowd. The song suits his voice -- of this year's Idol contestants, Taylor has the best understanding of his own range and limitations -- and it's an energetic, entertaining performance. If there is a flaw, it's that it doesn't show us anything new; it is, in some ways, the default Taylor performance.

Katharine, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (her second song) -- As it was the first time she sang it, it's impeccably sung. I think this performance may be even better; the phrasing feels a little looser and more relaxed. And not once does she throw in one of the inappropriate broad smiles she's often criticized for; tonight, she's acting the song as well as she's singing it.

On to the OK performances:

Taylor, "Levon" (his second song) -- Again, the song suits his voice perfectly, and the verse is quite nicely sung. But when he gets to the chorus? Well, the chorus is a bit on the dull side, and Taylor seems a bit off here, not bringing quite enough energy to it to overcome the repetitive nature of the song. It's a perfectly adequate performance, but it's not much more than that.

Katharine, "Black Horse and Cherry Tree" (her first song) -- She's not sprawled on the stage as she was the first time she sang this (mainly because she'll be sprawled for "Rainbow"), but her movement on stage is more relaxed than she's been in the past. She's enjoying herself, and
her flirtation with those drummers is kinda sexy, which is a surprise; in the past, Katharine's tended to come across as the serious girl play-acting at sexy without quite understanding it. The singing is not quite at the level it was when she first did the song, but it's still pretty good, and she's having so much fun that she completely sells it.

And on to the new songs, the first singles. Both are the standard issue Inspirational Idol Pop Ballad, designed to talk about how thrilling it is to be here on the verge of winning the competition, but in a way that's lyrically vague enough that it'll sound like a generic love song in six months, when we've stopped caring about the competition.

Katharine opens with "My Destiny," which is not much of a song. It puts in her lowest register to start, which is one of her strengths; she's got a rich, husky quality down there. She's having pitch problems, though, especially at the ends of those short rising phrases in the verse ("I didn't stop;" "I did my best"). And when she gets to the bridge and the final chorus, she doesn't quite have the power that she needs to sell the climax of the song; it needs to be one volume level higher, and you can hear the strain in her voice as she tries to get there.

Taylor follows with "Do I Make You Proud?," which is a marginally better song than Katharine's, and is a better fit with his style than her song was for hers. More important, though, he sings it better. Oh, there are a few flat notes scattered here and there, and Taylor does this odd head-shaking thing right after the key change that makes his voice fade in and out -- not smart -- but on the whole, it's a solid performance. Not brilliant, not hugely memorable, but solid.

I'd give Katharine a solid lead on their "very good" songs and a slight edge on their "OK" songs; Taylor takes the First Single round. For the night -- and for the season -- I'd give it to Katharine by the narrowest of margins, but I expect Taylor to win.

And a few end-of-the-year awards:

Best performance: Mandisa, "I Don't Hurt Anymore"
Runner-up: Paris, "These Foolish Things"

Worst performance: Kevin, "Part Time Lover"
Runner-up: Kellie, "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" (though it was awfully tempting to give this spot to Kevin, too)

Voted off too soon: Mandisa
Runner-up: Chris
Honorable mention: Gedeon, who should have made the final 12

Lasted too long: Kevin, who won this award the instant he made the final 12
Runner-up: Elliott

Most disappointing: Lisa, who never figured out how to communicate with the audience
Most pleasant surprise: Chris, who actually could sing when forced out of his preferred rock-scream mode

May 21, 2006

MOVIES: Clean (Olivier Assayas, 2004 / US 2006)

As the movie opens, Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) is on the road with her common-law husband, Lee; he is an aging rock musician who's come close to stardom a time or two, but never quite made it. Most of his friends would probably tell you that his most recent failures are Emily's fault, and it's true that even at her best, Emily's not a very likable person. She's cold, distant, and self-absorbed.

Lee and Emily are both hooked on heroin, and very early in the movie, Lee overdoses, leaving Emily to survive on her own (Lee's friends blame her for his death, and want nothing to do with her). The only family Emily has is Jay, her son from her relationship with Lee, who currently lives with Lee's parents in Vancouver. Emily wants a relationship with Jay, and she's self-aware enough to realize that she needs to get off drugs and put her life into some semblance of order before she'll be capable of caring for a child.

Jay's grandmother, Rosemary (Martha Henry), blames Emily for Lee's death, and isn't even willing to consider the possibility that Emily might one day be capable of raising Jay; grandfather Albrecht (Nick Nolte) is more willing to forgive, and that willingness becomes Emily's touchstone, the one thing she can cling to.

The performances by Cheung and Nolte are quite marvelous. Cheung manages to gain our sympathy for Emily, without ever avoiding or sugar-coating the character's obnoxious traits. (She won the Best Actress award at the 2004 Cannes festival for this performance.) Nolte is entirely convincing, giving full weight to both Albrecht's pain and his compassion. Don McKellar also does very good work in a small role as Lee's manager.

There's a subplot in which Emily is attempting to establish her own career as a singer, and it's not at all convincing, because Cheung can't sing. But aside from those few painful scenes, Clean is a strong piece of work, often bleak but ultimately delivering a powerful message about the importance of forgiveness, and of having someone who believes in you even when you find it difficult to believe in yourself.

BOOKS: The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi (2006)

Follow-up to Old Man's War, which I talked about here.

It's not exactly a sequel; the novels are set in the same fictional universe, and there is some overlap of characters, but the stories are independent of one another.

One of the challenges of SF series is that there's often a lot of background information that the reader needs to know about that writer's universe, and presenting that information in later novels can lead to clunky blocks of exposition; at its worst, this takes the form of "As you know, Bob..." dialogue, in which characters recite to one another things they already know in order to get the info to the reader. Scalzi does a terrific job of working that background information into the narrative without any of it ever feeling as if it's there solely for the purpose of exposition.

The story this time finds humanity on the verge of war, as three alien races have joined forces and are about to attack. These are races not known for cooperating with one another, so their alliance is rather unexpected, and it turns out to have been instigated by Charles Boutin, a human scientist whose motives for treason are a mystery.

The Colonial Defense Forces have a copy of Boutin's consciousness, and hope that loading it into one of their specially-grown Special Forces soldiers -- the so-called "Ghost Brigades" -- will give them access to Boutin's motives. But when that soldier, Jared Dirac, is awakened, the consciousness transfer appears not to have taken. The CDF assigns Jared to a standard tour of duty, despite the fact that none of his supervisors are entirely sure that he can be trusted, or that Boutin's treasonous mind won't awaken in him without warning.

Eventually, of course, Boutin's memories do begin to pop into Jared's mind, and as he tries to track down the scientist, some serious nature-nurture issues are raised. What happens when two minds share one skull? Can Jared's training as one of humanity's saviours override the traitorous desires that were buried in his mind when he was created?

This is a very smart novel, with lots of involving ideas; the action side of the story is just as good, marked by exciting battles and clever strategies.
Today's Silly Consumer Product Award goes to the folks at Jelly Belly, who have come up with Sport Beans. A bag of roughly 15 beans sells for a buck, and they are, according to the package, "energizing jelly beans" loaded with "electrolytes and vitamins C & E." The athlete in need of a power boost is advised to "energize with one package before activity." That's right, it's candy for jocks.

May 16, 2006

TV: American Idol ("choice" night)

It's the annual "choice" night on Idol, and as always, Clive Davis is on hand, though he's been relegated to a cheap seat in the audience instead his usual ringside seat with Randy, Paula, and Simon. Clive picks the songs for Round One, which goes a little something like this:

Elliott, "Open Arms" -- Elliott's singing with much less vibrato than usual, and it makes a huge difference; his voice is actually pleasant to listen to. The performance is on the tepid side, pleasant enough but not very memorable.

Katharine, "I Believe I Can Fly" -- Clive, Clive, Clive, what were you thinking? Have you not seen Katharine's sad attempts to play Pop Diva, horrifying moments like "The Voice Within" and "Against All Odds"? This was even worse than those, all runs and frills and filigrees, and it's just too much. Yes, the voice is lovely, but her attempts at style are getting in the way of her technique. It isn't pretty.

Taylor, "Dancing in the Dark" -- Clive wanted this song so badly that we are told he called Bruce personally to get permission for the first ever Idol use of a Springsteen song. And it's a good choice for Taylor's voice and style, though he doesn't do anything particularly interesting with it. Small deduction for the silly gun-pointing gesture on "this gun's for hire."

Round Two belongs to our beloved trio of judges, each of whom have chosen a song for one contestant:

Elliott, "What You Won't Do for Love" (chosen by Paula) -- Elliott looks more relaxed than usual, which helps to make this a reasonably entertaining performance. The song's not very interesting, though, and that vibrato is back in a big, unpleasant way.

Katharine, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (chosen by Simon) -- Two big surprises at the beginning: She sings the verse -- no one ever sings the verse -- and she sings it a cappella; when the band comes in as the chorus begins, she is dead perfect on pitch. She's spectacular, and I'm holding my breath waiting for the moment when she's going to swoop or hurl some melisma or do something gratuitous, but it never comes. This really was her finest performance, and something quite marvelous to see.

Taylor, "You Are So Beautiful" (chosen by Randy) -- So if you've got a contestant against whom the chief criticism is that he's nothing but a bad Joe Cocker/Michael McDonald impersonator, do you really want to ask him to sing a Joe Cocker song? Taylor looks pained throughout, and he can't sustain the long, quiet notes (" meeeeeee"), which fade in and out. Even so, the opening isn't bad -- I like Taylor more when he's still than when he's spastic -- but he completely shatters the mood he's created with a manic "woo hoo hoo" midway through.

And for the final round, the singers get to choose their own material:

Elliott, "I Believe to My Soul" -- His voice is particularly heavy and throaty on this one, which is working against the agility he needs to make those R&B riffs really soar; as is so often the case with Elliott, you can see how hard he's working. There's an especially ugly high note near the very end, and he's fighting throughout to be heard above the band.

Katharine, "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues" -- awful song choice, in a style that will completely bore most of this show's audience. And the performance isn't especially good, either, as Katharine returns to the ruffles and flourishes that marred her first number (though admittedly, they weren't as excessive here).

Taylor, "Try a Little Tenderness" -- It starts off OK, with the slow intro, but the band picks up the tempo and suddenly we're watching the most spectacular act of self-parody in Idol history. I have to pinch myself to be sure I'm still watching Taylor and not a Saturday Night Live Taylor impersonator. The ending is amazingly, unbelievably ghastly.

For the night: Katharine only had one really good performance, but that was one more than anybody else had, so she wins the night; Taylor beats Elliott for second, but it's not much of an honor.

For the season: It's the least interesting group of finalists Idol has ever produced, and I'm not sure any of them really deserves to win. Elliott is still the most undeserving, though, and should be sent home.

May 14, 2006

MOVIES: Mission: Impossible III (2006, J.J. Abrams)

This is Abrams' first film, after a few successful years in TV (he's the creator of Alias and Lost), and it is reportedly the most expensive first film any director has ever made.

TV's Mission: Impossible was a large influence on Alias -- at least one episode was a direct homage to the earlier show -- so it's a fine fit for Abrams, who gets to indulge a lot of his favorite narrative devices. There's the in medias res beginning with the hero in peril that jumps back to the start of the story; there's the fascination with masks and doubling; there's a nerdy, stammering computer geek; and there's the odd notion that the way for a female spy to go undercover is to wear a stunning gown that makes her the most attention-grabbing thing in the room.

Tom Cruise has always been an actor who works up to the level of his best co-stars; he'll never be the worst thing in a movie, but if you don't surround him with talent, he's not going to be very impressive himself. So the presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain and Michelle Monaghan as the love interest, which might seem like overkill, pushes Cruise to a performance of surprising emotional intensity; the dialogue scenes among those three characters are just as tense and exciting as the action scenes. (And the supporting characters aren't exactly talentless slouches themselves; Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers are all on hand.)

And those action scenes are terrific. A helicopter chase through a field of wind turbines, a break-in and kidnapping from the Vatican, a mad dash along the banks of a Shanghai river -- they're all top-notch thrills, and Cruise does this type of material better than anyone.

There was one thing that distracted me; there are lots of scenes -- the opening scene with Hoffman, in particular -- in which Cruise bears a striking facial resemblance to Adam Sandler. I'd never noticed that before, but it would be interesting to see the two cast as brothers.

May 09, 2006

TV: American Idol (songs of Elvis)

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times, in tonight's Tale of Two Rounds. Well, OK, maybe not the worst of times -- no one tonight was truly awful -- but again, no one was able to put together two terrific performances. We did, however, get one terrific performance from some of our singers tonight.

The rundown:

Round One was, for the most part, a round of bland competence.

Taylor, "Jailhouse Rock" -- It is rather an obvious choice for him, and it was a perfectly pleasant performance. But there's nothing surprising or original about it, and Taylor himself has probably forgotten it already.

Chris, "Suspicious Minds" -- Something of a surprise choice. With no rock screamers available to him, Chris's track record led me to expect one of the sappy ballads, so it was nice to hear him choose something uptempo. Like Taylor before him, it was a competent performance, but not an interesting one, and Chris is hurt by the fact that the song doesn't condense well; all of its drama is in the build.

Elliott, "If I Can Dream" -- Very Vegas lounge act. Not that this is necessarily inappropriate for late Elvis, and if you like that sort of thing, it was reasonably well done, but he's not going to win this competition by turning himself into Wayne Newton.

Katharine, "Hound Dog/All Shook Up" -- There's a dropped lyric midway through, which she covers fairly well, and she throws in some vocal runs at the end that are neither necessary or appropriate to the style. But on the whole, this is lots of fun, and Katharine pulls off the rock'n'roll chick better than I'd have expected. Best of a weak round.

Things start to look a lot better in Round Two:

Taylor, "In the Ghetto" -- Absolutely the right song for him. Beautifully sung, and he's physically more restrained than usual without looking paralyzed by fear as he did during "Something" last week. There's a lovely falsetto note in the middle that I don't think we've heard from him before.

Elliott, "Trouble" -- Holy crap, where has this guy been hiding? This is exciting, passionate, and riveting. He even pulls off the "I'm evil" line without inducing too many giggles (unlike Carrie a year ago).

Chris, "A Little Less Conversation" -- I like the lower register of his voice, which we don't get to hear very often, and the transition to the higher octave at the end is really effective. Those last few notes of rocker shouting at the end don't work at all, though, and he looks silly carrying the entire mike stand into the audience with him.

Katharine, "Can't Help Falling In Love" -- I love her voice; I hate her instincts. This is so overly melodramatic and theatrical -- the same words that keep coming up when I talk about Katharine -- and on the heels of three very good performances, it may be the final nail in her coffin.

For the night, it's Elliott (!?!), Taylor, Chris, and Katharine.

For the season, it's Chris, Taylor, Katharine, and Elliott.

I still think Elliott is the most deserving of being booted, but I think Katharine has probably sung her last.

BOOKS: Intuition, Allegra Goodman (2006)

I feel like I've been on a tremendous roll of good novels lately, and this one is marvelous.

The setting is a cancer research lab in Boston, where none of the current experiments have produced much, and the most recent round of grant funding is about to run out; lab directors Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn are beginning to worry that they may have to shut down.

Suddenly, though, hope arrives as one of their young scientists suddenly reports exciting results; it's a surprise, as Cliff had been working for months on this line of research with nothing to show for it, and as Sandy and Marion begin pulling people off other projects to assist Cliff, there is a certain amount of resentment in the lab.

Among the most resentful is Robin, who has research of her own she'd rather be working on, and doesn't appreciate being assigned to Cliff's project; the fact that Robin and Cliff are a couple only complicates matters.

Everyone's motives are complex and subject to second-guessing in Intuition, and Goodman refuses to make any of her characters simple heroes or villains. These are complicated, real people, and even the minor players have more depth than many novelists' protagonists. There are no easy answers at the end, and we're left with a great deal of room to make our own judgments about what's really happened.

Very fine.

BOOKS: Alternatives to Sex, Stephen McCauley (2006)

William is beginning to recognize that his problems -- he's somewhat compulsive about ironing and cleaning, his tenant keeps avoiding him when it's time to pay the rent, and he's spending far too many nights meeting men online for anonymous sexual encounters -- are taking over his life. As a starting point for improvement, he sets himself the goal of celibacy and decides to focus more of his attention on his real estate career.

When Charlotte and Samuel come into his office looking to move from the suburbs into Boston, they seem like just the role models of happiness and stability that William needs; William also finds himself increasingly turning to his best friend, Edward, who has always seemed to have his life together. Of course, none of these people are quite as collected as they appear, and the better William gets to know them, the more he finds himself wondering if chaos and confusion aren't the best that any of us can hope for.

The novel takes place about a year after 9/11, and William is very aware of the fact that his recent sexual compulsions are related to that event, a way of trying to find whatever happiness is available in a world that's suddenly more unpredictable. There's not a lot of plot here, at least in the sense of huge, dramatic events; McCauley is more interested in character study, in the ways that the most mundane events can sometimes lead us to the most surprising epiphanies.

The characters are vivid, and McCauley's writing is lively and lots of fun to read. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and the final pages pack a surprising emotional punch.

MOVIES: The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, 2006)

Bettie Page was the "pin-up queen of the universe" in the early 1950s. By today's standards, the photos and films for which she posed were incredibly tame; by the standards of her time, they were shocking. Page did fully nude photos, and posed in bondage attire -- leather boots and corsets, teasingly positioned riding crop, and so on.

Bettie is played in this movie by Gretchen Mol, who is the best thing about the movie, and who perfectly captures Page's most remarkable characteristic -- her utter lack of shame and embarassment. In none of the surviving images of Page do we see anything but a woman who is enjoying what she's doing, and perfectly happy to be doing it. "Oh, why not, they're just pictures," says Mol's Bettie when first approached to pose; when someone asks if she's at all bothered by having to wear those outfits and spank other women, she chirps, "Oh no, I enjoy acting very much."

Unfortuately, Mol's excellent performance is surrounded by a movie that's wildly uneven in tone, often landing too close to camp; Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor, as porn impresarios Irving and Paula Klaw, are especially guilty here (Taylor's Noo Yawk accent is a disaster), and David Strathairn as Senator Estes Kefauver seems to be playing the comic flipside of his recent role as Edward R. Murrow.

Several years ago, Gretchen Mol was famously declared by Vanity Fair to be the next Hollywood "It Girl," but a few bad film choices kept her career from taking off the way everyone had expected. Her work here, I hope, will put her back on people's short lists and land her some decent parts. She certainly proves herself worthy of them; as wildly inconsistent as Harron's script and direction are, Mol is always a delight.

MOVIES: The Promise (Chen Kaige, 2005)

With a reported budget of $35 million, this is the most expensive movie in Chinese history. It's another in the recent series of lush, epic martial arts fantasies -- think Hero or House of Flying Daggers -- but this one unfortunately emphasizes the weaknesses of the genre.

The stories in these movies always demand major suspension of disbelief, but at their best, they are so emotionally involving and thrilling to look at that we're swept past all of the implausibilities without noticing them too much. But this time, the emotional depth just isn't there, and the story is even goofier than usual.

We start with a little girl wandering through a battlefield, now strewn with corpses, and stealing what food she can find from the dead; she is visited by the Goddess Manshen, who gives her a great gift and a great curse: She will be the greatest beauty in the world and want for nothing material, but any man she ever truly loves, she will lose.

Leap forward twenty years, and that little girl is now a royal concubine, the Princess Qingcheng. And this is where the story starts flying out of control. There's a general and his slave, both of whom love Qingcheng; there's the evil Duke Wuluan and his assassin, Snow Wolf; and there's a messy backstory about the slave and the assassin both coming from the Land of Snow, a land that had been destroyed by Wuluan. Alliances are constantly shifting among these characters, with Qingcheng being unable to make up her mind whether she loves the general or the slave.

As Land-of-Snow-villians, the slave and the assassin are both blessed with superhuman speed. The thing is, the effect of super speed is nearly impossible to pull off in a live-action movie; it always looks cartoony and foolish. Given that the CGI effects in The Promise are on the cheap side to begin with (there's a stampeding herd of bulls early on that is especially poorly done), the fast running inevitably pulls you out of the story.

On the plus side, Peter Pau's photography is lovely, as are Tim Yip's costumes. And if you're visually oriented, those things may be enough for you to enjoy the movie. But on the whole, you'd be better off renting House of Flying Daggers.

May 06, 2006

MUSIC: iPod Personality Profile

It's the latest thing to sweep the blogosphere; I picked it up from Nathaniel R at Film Experience Blog.

Here's how it works: Set your iPod on shuffle, and hit play. The first 15 songs to come up -- no fair skipping over the embarassing ones -- will serve as answers to the following questions.

1. How does the world see you?
John Forster, "Tone Deaf" -- Well, not literally, certainly; I happen to be a reasonably good singer. But metaphorically, I suppose that's a fair assessment; I'm always a bit off in social settings. The good news is that the tone deaf misfit in this song winds up falling in love and raising a whole family of happy little misfits.

2. Will I have a happy life?
Bats, "Not My Girl Anymore" -- "She's not thinking about me and she's not losing her mind." Pretty standard love-gone-wrong song, but not a good omen for happiness.

3. What do my friends think of me?
The Flirts, "I Only Want to Be With You" -- They don't know what it is that makes them love me so. It's crazy, but it's true.

4. Do people secretly lust after me?
The Archies, "Bang-Shang-A-Lang" -- Apparently. Just a glimpse of me from the corner of their eye-aye-aye makes their hearts go bang-shang-a-lang. Who knew?

5. How can I make myself happy?
Buck Owens, "You're For Me" -- "Don't tell me no; don't make me go," says Buck, so perhaps I should invite a few more of those secret lusters into my life.

6. What should I do with my life?
Roger Miller, "Chug-a-Lug" -- Drink. A lot.

7. Will I ever have children?
Tom Lehrer, "We Will All Go Together When We Go" -- Doesn't much matter, I guess, since we're all going to die in a cheerfully tuneful nuclear apocalypse.

8. What is some good advice for me?
Laurie Anderson, "Baby Doll" -- Laurie's bossy brain says: "Take me out to the ballgame / Take me out to the park / Take me to the movies / Cause I love to sit in the dark / Take me to Tahiti / Cause I love to be hot / Take me out on the town tonight / Cause I love the new hot spot," and "Why don't you get a real job?"

9. How will I be remembered?
Gordon Lightfoot, "Sundown" -- as a creepy, drunken, overly possessive husband, it seems. Something to look forward to. And I blame Roger Miller for the drunken part.

10. What's my signature dance song?
Erasure, "Chains of Love" -- I'm not much of a dancer, but yeah, I could probably move a little to this.

11. What's my current theme song?
Gladys Knight & the Pips, "I Don't Want to Do Wrong" -- Hard to argue with that as a philosophy of life. Of course, the whole point of the song is that Gladys is about to give in and do wrong anyway ("I just can't help myself," sing the Pips) because her man isn't giving her the lovin' she needs. Maybe if she'd been more creepy and overly possessive...

12. What do others think my current theme song is?
Blue Swede, "Hooked on a Feeling" -- Ooh, they don't know me very well, do they? I'm so non-emotional that I make Mr. Spock look like the embarassing drunk uncle who turns up at every wedding.

13. What shall they play at my funeral?
Akon, "Lonely" -- Well, that's a sad thought. None of my secret lusters are going to work out in the long run, I guess.

14. What type of men do I like?
John Stey, "Fifteen Animals" -- I decline to comment on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me.

15. How's my love life?
The Saffrons, "Give Me Time" -- Chock full of painful dumping, leaving me so scarred that I don't even trust the nice boys ("I'm so afraid I'll wind up like I did before / I can't take it anymore").

And at this point, I'm supposed to tag some other blogger with the task of doing their own profile, but I hate dumping that kind of responsibility on people, so if you want to do it, consider yourself tagged. (I will say, though, that it would be interesting to see an iPod Personality Profile from my friend Maggie at What the Hell Am I Doing Here?)

May 02, 2006

TV: American Idol (year of birth / current Billboard charts)

Two songs apiece tonight, and none of our Idol wannabes is able to put together two really good performances. The differences between their good and their bad, though, are instructive as to the strengths and weaknesses of each, so let's consider each pair as a unit. The theme for round one is "the year I was born;" round two is "top ten of any current Billboard chart."

Elliott, "On Broadway"/"Home" -- When Elliott is nervous, as he is in the first round, his voice really suffers. His pitch wavers a bit, that ugly raspy growl sneaks in, and his vibrato goes even wider and wobblier than usual. But when he's relaxed, as he is in the second round, he sounds so much better; I still don't really like his singing, but I can understand why some might. "Home" is one of his best performances.

Paris, "Kiss"/"Be Without You" -- When they said "Kiss," I thought, "Hooray! Paris is going to sing something more youthful and appropriate to her age!" And then she started to sing, and it just didn't work. Paris's voice is so freakishly not that of a 17-year-old girl that she faces a nearly unsolvable dilemma when choosing songs: Either pick something that suits the sound of her voice, but that she doesn't have the emotional chops to pull off (as she did last week with "The Way We Were"); or pick something that suits her age, but will clash horribly with the maturity of her voice. The Mary J. Blige song in the second round went better, but it wasn't a performance I'll remember 30 minutes from now.

Chris, "Renegade"/"I Dare You" -- More than any of the other contestants, Chris knows his comfort zone, and both of these performances are solidly competent; he is the most consistent singer of the night. But as the judges note, his voice is starting to go; he's screaming near the end of both songs in a way he hasn't done before, and it's ugly to hear. There's also a painful falsetto note in the middle of "Renegade" that he should have avoided.

Katharine, "Against All Odds"/"Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" -- Round one: Overwrought, melodramatic theatrics, as Katharine tries to force herself into standard diva mode. Round two: A more eccentric song choice, a more offbeat approach, and a far more interesting performance. I still think she's got the best pure voice in the competition, but it's going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to shoehorn her into the pop star mold. Katharine has to be quirky, because as a generic pop queen, she's boring as hell.

Taylor, "Play That Funky Music"/"Something" -- Points off for sneaking around the "sing something current" goal of round two by picking a Beatles song from the "Pop Catalog Albums" chart. Even more points off for not adequately learning the song. And the performance suffered for that lack of preparation; Taylor looked depressed and bored, and the song had no life at all. The first round, on the other hand, was busting with life, and walked right on the edge between goofball fun and insane disaster. For my money, it came down -- just barely -- on the fun side of the line, and it was the best thing we heard all night. But if you hated it, I can't say I'd blame you.

For the night: Chris, Paris, Taylor, Elliott, Katharine.

For the season: Paris, Chris, Katharine, Taylor, Elliott.

Needs to go home: We're at the point where there are no more genuinely awful singers who must be ousted in the name of decency; from here on in, it's a matter of personal taste. My taste says that Elliott needs to go.

May 01, 2006

MOVIES: United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

In roughly real time, Greengrass tells the story of United 93, the only one of the four planes hijacked on September 11 that failed to hit its planned target; the passengers fought back against the hijackers, and the plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field, killing everyone on board.

It's not an easy story to watch, and I can understand why so many are reluctant to see the movie. The final moments are almost unbearably tense, and had my stomach in knots. But the movie is magnificently made. It is neither a cheap action thriller nor a piece of patriotic jingoism, but a serious portrayal of the day's events presented in near-documentary style.

Much of the movie, especially in the first two-thirds, takes place not on the plane, but in the various air control centers. Many of the traffic controllers are playing themselves -- the mind boggles that anyone would be willing to devote weeks to reliving that day -- notably Ben Sliney, who was newly in charge of the national traffic control center (9/11 was his first day on the job).

Greengrass is not out to make political points in his movie, but it is difficult not to be astounded at the incompetence of the military on that morning; it takes Sliney nearly an hour to get a military liaison on site, and the military is unable to take any action because commanders cannot get in touch with the president to authorize any specific rules of engagement. (If you've seen Fahrenheit 9/11, it's nearly impossible not to flash on the image of Bush continuing to read to a classroom of children as the crisis begins.)

The scenes on the plane are painfully suspenseful because we know what's coming. Greengrass has made the smart decision not to cast stars; familiar faces would only be distracting and take us out of the movie's severe realism. Instead, we have a plane full of ordinary-looking people, unfamiliar faces. They are the faces of the passengers on every flight we've ever taken; they are us. Greengrass doesn't even make any effort to tell us who's who; there are no sentimental backstories or monologues about their lives. We know virtually nothing about these people, because they knew nothing about each other.

That's why the movie is so horrifying; the initial moments are utterly familiar and banal -- passengers waiting to board, flight attendants gossiping, pilots running through the pre-flight checklist -- and we can't help but imagine ourselves on that plane. And in the final half hour, which takes place almost entirely on the plane, we find ourselves wondering how we would respond in the face of near-certain death.

As hard as those final sequences are to watch, there is something inspirational about the heroism of these passengers. The most impressive thing about the movie, for me, is that this inspirational quality is never cloying, never cliched, and never tries to present itself as a happy ending of any kind.

Yes, United 93 is an awfully intense experience, and it will be too much for some. But if you can bring yourself to see it, do. It's tremendously moving and deeply cathartic, and it honors the sacrifice made by those passengers in beautifully appropriate fashion.