July 30, 2006

BOOKS: The Wreck of The River of Stars, Michael Flynn (2003)

We don't often think of nostalgia when we think of science fiction. SF is often set in the future, and it's hard to fake nostalgia for something that hasn't happened yet (and may never actually happen). But Michael Flynn pulls it off in his opening paragraphs:
They called her The River of Stars and she spread her superconducting sails to the solar wind in 2051. She must have made a glorious sight then: her fuselage new and gleaming, her sails shimmering in a rainbow aurora, her white-gloved crew sharply creased in black-and-silver uniforms, her passengers rich and deliciously decadent. There were morphy stars and jeweled matriarchs, sports heroes and prostitutes,
gangsters and geeks and soi-disant royalty. Those were the glamour years, when magsails ruled the skies, and The River of Stars was the grandest and most glorious of that beautiful fleet.

But the glory years faded fast. Coltraine was still her captain when the luxury trade dried up and the throngs of the rich and famous slowed from a torrent to a trickle, and even those who still craved the experience could see that it was no longer the fashionable
thing to do. But as he told Toledo when he handed her the command, the luxury trade had been doomed from the start. Sex and vice and decadence were more safely found earthside. There were yet more honorable -- if more quotidian -- pursuits for a ship with such wings to her.

Flynn is aided, to be sure, by the fact that we have such powerful images and associations with the images of ships and sailing; even though he's talking about spaceships sailing on the solar wind instead of ocean ships sailing on earthly breezes, the power of that imagery still holds. But even without the strength of those images, Flynn's prose is lovely to read.

The novel begins in the late 21st century. The River's sails have long since been folded into stowage, and the ship is now a tramp freighter, hauling cargo in the outer solar system, powered by new engines and manned by a skeleton crew.

Given the book's title, there's not much risk of spoiling the plot: The River is struck by a rock and loses power to two engines, and her crew makes valiant efforts to repair the ship in time to make their scheduled arrival at Jupiter. Time is of the essence in a way that it wouldn't be for an Earthly ship; London, after all, will still be there no matter how late the ship is, but Jupiter is going to keep on moving, and missing a scheduled rendezvous is literally a matter of life and death.

Flynn tells that story in great detail; his explanations of what's happening make the science perfectly clear without ever feeling condescending or pedantic. But what's even more remarkable is the attention he pays to his characters, who are beautifully full creations, each a distinctive and utterly convincing individual. It's a large cast of characters: There are thirteen crew members and a passenger; a captain who dies in the first chapter, but whose memory lingers so strongly that he is almost a character in his own right; and a ship whose malfunctions may be causing her to develop unwanted personality traits of her own.

Flynn gives his characters such complete personalities that every action they take feels right; even as we understand why what they do is wrong, and how it will lead to disaster, we understand exactly why it's the only thing that character can do at that moment. Even more impressive, the interactions among his characters feel accurate; each pair or set of characters play off one another in precisely the right way.

It's a long book -- the paperback is 534 pages -- and it's not one that can be rushed through; Flynn's prose, while never difficult, is dense and richly packed with precise observations of event and character. It's a sad and elegiac book; we know from the beginning that the River will not survive this disaster, and that the efforts of her crew will be wasted. We can only watch as the crew members slowly come to this realization themselves, and still refuse to stop searching for some sort of miracle.

The Wreck of The River of Stars is a gorgeous piece of work. The characters and their tragic fate will stay with me for a long time, and the prose is impeccably crafted. Strongly recommended.

July 23, 2006

BOOKS: The Understudy, David Nicholls (2005)

When you reach your early thirties and the highlight of your acting career has been the starring role in a children's DVD about Sammy the Squirrel, you might begin to wonder if it's time for a career change. That's where Stephen C. McQueen -- no relation -- finds himself as The Understudy opens.

Stephen is actually working at the moment, which is an improvement; unfortunately, it's as an understudy to an actor who seems unlikely ever to miss a performance. That would be Josh Harper, Hollywood movie star (and according to one magazine, the Twelfth Sexiest Man in the World) who's doing London theater in order to be taken more seriously. Josh seems to have it all, especially in comparison to Stephen; not only is Stephen's acting career stalling out, but his marriage has failed, his daughter seems to be slipping away as she grows up, and he's living in a depressing tiny apartment.

There is a bright moment for Stephen when he's invited to Josh's birthday party. Well, not "invited" so much as "asked to work as a waiter," but Stephen does meet a beautiful woman with whom he falls almost immediately in love. Nora is charming, witty, everything Stephen could hope for. She's also Josh's wife.

This is a style of comic novel that has never really caught on with American authors; the Brits call it "lad lit," and it's essentially chick lit with male protagonists. When it's done well, as it is here or in the early Nick Hornby novels, it's light and breezy and lots of fun to read. The challenge is that we tend to frown on men who are too aware of their own emotional flaws and desires (which is probably why lad lit is almost always in the third person, where chick lit is often in the first; if we must focus on male emotion, at least let it by done by a somewhat distant omniscient narrator), but if the men are too unaware, they come off as cold, unfeeling bastards.

Nicholls gets the balance right here; Stephen is insecure without being a complete wimp, and I found myself rooting for him, even at his worst and most foolish moments. The characters are, to be sure, perpetually witty in the way that only romantic comedy characters can be, and like much lad/chick lit, the plot relies a bit heavily on contrived situations and far-fetched coincidence. But the whole thing is funny and very sweet, and Nicholls manages to keep the story from collapsing completely into sitcom.

MOVIES: Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan, 2006)

Not the disaster that most of the reviews would have you believe, but not a very good movie, either.

The movie opens with an animated introduction about the days of yore, when mankind regularly talked to, and took advice from, the creatures of the sea. But alas, as time has passed, mankind has "forgotten how to listen," and only occasionally do the sea people try to reach out to we violent humans.

Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a Narf who is the latest emissary from the Blue World, and she appears in the swimming pool of "The Cove," a rundown Philadelphia apartment complex. Story is discovered by Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), and she tells him that she has come to visit a writer who lives in his building.

The mythology of the Blue World is a story that humanity remembers only as an old, almost-forgotten Korean legend (or so Shyamalan tells us; it's actually a "mythology" of his own creation). The movie spells the mythology out for us in dribs and drabs, as Cleveland turns to his Korean-American tenants for explanations; the college-student daughter translates as her mother shares the story her grandmother used to tell.

But, alas, Mrs. Choi is a cranky old woman who doesn't like to be interrupted, so the telling of the legend is very disjointed. Cleveland gets a piece of it, uses that information to get through the next fifteen minutes of the movie, then runs back to Mrs. Choi to find out what crucial bit of information she's left out this time. By the time Cleveland finally gets the whole story from Mrs. Choi, we've been given a complicated mess about Narfs and Scrunts and The Tartutic, and the human Guardian and Guild and Healer who are supposed to help the Madame Narf, and none of it makes a lick of sense.

Shyamalan has assembled a fine cast of actors, though -- Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Mary Beth Hurt, Bill Irwin, Freddy Rodriguez, Sarita Choudhury, Tovah Feldshuh -- and when they all come together for the movie's final sequence, they play this goofy material with such conviction that it works better than it has any right too. (Sadly, Shyamalan has also cast himself, as is his wont, and in a larger role than usual as the writer whom Story has come to see; he's a stiff and clunky presence.)

As is usually the case with Shyamalan's movies, it looks marvelous -- the talented Christopher Doyle is the cinematographer -- and no one generates suspense through skillful use of sound as well as Shyamalan. James Newton Howard has scored all of Shyamalan's movies since The Sixth Sense, and his music here is effectively creepy.

So yes, the movie's beautifully made and well acted, but the story is such a mess that it's hard to care. And -- mild spoilers here -- the none-too-subtle ways in which Shyamalan makes the movie about himself are rather heavy-handed; Shyamalan's writer character is told that he will be martyred for the brilliant ideas which will eventually change the world for the better, and the most unlikable character in the movie (the only one killed by the monster) is a movie critic.

There's something sad, really, in watching a talented director get so wound up in his own personal mythology that he can't see the flaws in his own writing anymore. Shyamalan desperately needs to focus on his strengths as a director the next time around, and leave the writing to someone else, but I don't think he's capable of hearing that message.

MOVIES: Monster House (Gil Kenan, 2006)

Best animated film of the year, with gorgeous visuals, impeccable voice casting, and an entertaining story.

Every neighborhood has a creepy old house, inhabited by a grumpy old man who yells "get off my lawn" and refuses to give back the balls and toys that land in his yard. DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) lives across the street from that house, and old man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) is as nasty and ill-tempered as they come. But when Nebbercracker is rushed off to the hospital, DJ and his friends -- best pal Chowder (Sam Lerner) and neighborhood newcomer Jenny (Spencer Locke) -- discover that it isn't just Nebbercracker they need to worry about it; the house has a mind of its own, and it wants to eat them. The kids set out to destroy the house, and we're off for a marvelous thrill ride that will make a great first horror film for older kids, though it is definitely too scary for smaller kids; I'd say nine or ten would be the cutoff.

The movie's made using the same motion-capture technology that we saw in The Polar Express; wisely, Kenan has chosen not to go for the same level of photo-realism in his characters that Robert Zemeckis attempted in Express (Zemeckis is one of the executive producers of Monster House); he's stepped the characters back a notch or two towards cartoon, and as a result, they don't have the waxy creepiness that made Express so unpleasant to watch.

With the exception of the three kids, the cast is made up of fairly recognizable names, but the star casting never gets in the way as it can in some animated films (think of Robin Williams in Robots, for instance, whose every appearance is just more Robin Williams shtick). In addition to Buscemi, the cast includes Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Lee, Kevin James, Nick Cannon, Jon Heder (who, for the first time in his inexplicable career, is actually funny), and, in a small role, a perfectly cast Kathleen Turner. And those three kids are just as good as their better known adult co-stars, aided by a top-notch screenplay (by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler) that precisely captures the voice and attitudes of kids who are right on the edge of puberty.

Monster House isn't at the level of the best Pixar films, but it's better than the lesser Pixar films -- certainly better than Cars or A Bug's Life -- and it's the best non-Pixar animation we've seen in years.

July 19, 2006

BOOKS: Manhattan Transfer, John E. Stith (1993)

Manhattan is ripped off the face of the earth and sealed in a giant bubble by aliens; that bubble is hauled into the alien ship and placed on a large plain, surrounded by other bubbles. What's going on here? Are the aliens assembling an intergalactic zoo? Collecting souvenirs? Gathering their next meal?

Stith focuses on half-a-dozen or so human heroes (and one or two villains); all of his characters are appropriately heroic/stalwart/courageous or shifty/unscrupulous/scheming, as the plot requires. The heroes set out on a mission to escape their bubble and contact their captors while the villains, fearful that this mission can only make things worse, attempt to sabotage things.

There's not a lot of subtlety here; characters are paper thin, and the romantic relationship between the two principal hero characters is painful to read. But as cheesy sci-fi goes, Manhattan Transfer does have the virtue of moving swiftly along; Stith is at least trying to make the science plausible; and there are some unexpected twists involving the alien captors and their real motivations. It's not great literature, but if you're in the mood for mindless entertainment, you could do worse.

July 18, 2006

MOVIES: You, Me, and Dupree (2006, Anthony & Joe Russo)

When bad movies happen to good people...

The three lead actors here may not be threats to win Oscars anytime soon, but they're all reasonably capable actors, and all are cast solidly in their comfort zone. Owen Wilson as the blissed-out free spirit who disrupts the lives of his more stable pal; Matt Dillon as the put-upon decent guy coping with aforementioned free spirit, and with disapproving father-in-law; Kate Hudson as the blandly pleasant wife whose main job in the movie is to scowl disapprovingly, either at Wilson (for the first half of the movie) or at Dillon (for the second half of the movie).

But the three of them are stuck in so deadly dull and predictable a movie that no matter how they try (and lord knows they're trying), they can't salvage much. Even if you haven't seen the movie -- even if you haven't seen the ads -- you know the story already. Wilson needs a place to stay, moves in with just-married best pal Dillon over the objections of bride Hudson. Wilson's zaniness grows increasingly annoying, lives are disrupted, etc. until the Great Epiphany, after which Wilson rushes about in his zany way to undo all of the damage he's done. Happy endings for all.

What's the point of making this movie if you're not going to do a single distinctive, interesting, or original thing with it? There's not a scene or a line of dialogue that we haven't seen before, and the actors all seem vaguely depressed to be stuck in this mess. Chin up, I say to them. At least they don't have to watch it.

July 09, 2006

BOOKS: The Virgin of Small Plains, Nancy Pickard (2006)

This is a marvelous book, with vivid characters and a compelling mystery at the center of the story.

Pickard jumps back and forth between the present and 1987, when the naked body of a young woman is found in a blizzard. That discovery changes the lives of three high-school students. Rex Shellenberger, who finds the body; Mitch Newquist, who mysteriously leaves town the next day; and Abby Reynolds, Mitch's girlfriend, who can't understand why he would leave without even saying goodbye. The town authorities -- the sheriff, the judge, and the doctor (who happen to be the fathers of Rex, Mitch, and Abby) -- arrange for the unidentified girl to be given a decent burial in the Small Plains cemetery. Over the years, her grave becomes something of a shrine, and a legend grows that "the Virgin of Small Plains" performs miracles and heals people.

Jump to 2004, when Mitch returns to town for the first time since his disappearance. In different ways, Rex's and Abby's lives have always revolved around the unsolved mystery of the Virgin's death and Mitch's departure; his return triggers a series of investigations, and much panic on the part of those who have been keeping secrets for seventeen years.

The relationships among these characters, especially the three principals, are sharply drawn and interesting enough to be a fine story in their own right, and I was so caught up in their present-day story that I almost forget about the central mystery of the Virgin's death. When Pickard does begin to resolve that story in the final chapters, though, the revelations are all the more devastating because we've come to care about the characters so deeply.

This is a very fine novel; highly recommended, even to those who think they don't like mystery novels.

MOVIES: A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater)

Our setting is Orange County, California, sometime in the new future, where "Fred" -- that's his code name -- is an undercover narcotics agent investigating some small-time users of Substance D, a drug so addictive that "you're either on it or you've never tried it." While undercover, he wears a scramble suit, a full-body (including head and face) jumpsuit that constantly changes his appearance so that those he deals with (even his supervisor) can never get a solid grip on what he looks like; the most they'll see or remember is a vague blur.

Among those being investigated is Robert Arctor, who spends most of his time lounging around his house, having long rambled drug-fueled conversations with his pals, who are also hooked on D. Bob is beginning to suffer the side effects of long-term D use, which include a growing inability to recognize familiar faces and objects, and a dissociation of the hemispheres of his brain, which are beginning to do battle with one another.

Those symptoms are making Bob's day job more difficult, because as it happens, Bob and Fred are the same person, so addled that Fred doesn't recognize himself when watching surveillance tapes of Bob, and Bob has no idea that he's the one who planted the cameras in his own home.

Keanu Reeves plays Bob/Fred, and while it's not one of his best performances, his befuddled blandness fits well with his character's increasing confusion and disorientation. The supporting cast includes Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson (a twistedly appropriate group for a movie about addiction), and they make up for Reeves' weakness; Downey is especially good, and deserves to be in contention for a supporting Oscar nomination.

Odds are that won't happen, though, if only because the movie is animated, using similar rotoscoping technology to that in Linklater's Waking Life; the movie was filmed live, and the individual frames traced to create an animated film. In Waking Life, I thought the jiggliness of the technique was annoying, and it left me with a bad headache; here, the look is a bit more stable (though the shifting highlights in Ryder's hair are oddly snakelike) and much easier to watch.

And unlike in Waking Life, where the rotoscoping felt like an unnecessary gimmick, the technology serves useful purposes in this movie; it allows for a beautiful realization of the scramble suit technology, which would be very difficult and expensive to achieve in live action. In addition, rotoscoping gives the movie a crisp and vivid look, but you never lose the awareness that what you're seeing isn't quite real, which (though I can't speak from personal experience) feels appropriate for a movie about drug use.

July 06, 2006

TV: Emmy nominations

Lots of surprises when the nominations were announced this morning. A few quick thoughts:

Most inexplicable nominations: Alfre Woodard (the least interesting character in the least interesting plotline in her show's disappointing season), Kevin James (ahead of Zach Braff or Jason Lee? Really?), Stockard Channing (did people think she was still on The West Wing?)

Most inexplicable omissions: James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, obviously, but also Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee. And as always, the perpetually bizarre lack of love for Lauren Graham, Kelly Bishop, and John C. McGinley.

Not-all-that-surprising omission: Hugh Laurie. Best Actor/Drama was a very crowded field this year, and while I'd have preferred Laurie to some who did get nominated (Sheen or Meloni, for instance), there are others who didn't get in who deserved it even more (Michael C. Hall, Edward James Olmos).

Not a good year to be the defending champ: Three of four Best Actor/Actress winners and one of the two Best Series winners from last year were eligible to be nominated this year; none of them were.

Planned obsolescence: Seventeen of the forty acting nominees (in the series categories) this year are from shows that have been cancelled, and at least one other (Alfre Woodard) has already been written out of her series (and who knows whether Gregory Itzin and Jean Smart will be back for the next season of 24?), which means that there are likely to be lots of new faces come this time next year.

BOOKS: Lost and Found, Carolyn Parkhurst (2006)

Lost and Found (the book) is set against the backdrop of Lost and Found, a reality TV show that is basically The Amazing Race with a scavenger hunt thrown in. Teams of two race around the world, stopping at various checkpoints; the last team to arrive at each checkpoint is eliminated. But the race isn't really the story here. Parkhurst is more interested in the relationships between the members of each team, and those that develop between the teams -- the real reality behind the made-for-TV "reality."

We focus on three teams. Laura is a single mom and Cassie is her teenage daughter; their relationship has been strained of late because of a secret Cassie waited as long as possible to share with her mother, who now feels guilty for not realized sooner what was going on. Abby and Justin are newlyweds, hoping to use the show as a forum to spread their message: God can save you from homosexuality, as he has saved both of them. Juliet and Dallas are former child TV stars struggling to adjust to life post-stardom; Juliet is particularly eager to work her way back into the limelight.

Everyone gets to tell the story; a new character takes over the narration with each chapter. Parkhurst gives each of her characters a distinctive voice, and she has a knack for turning to each narrator just as you find yourself wondering what they're up to.

The host of Lost and Found asks each eliminated contestant the same question, "You've lost the race, but what have you found?" What most of her characters find is themselves, and sure, that's not the most original story in the world, but Parkhurst's variation on the theme is crisply written, with sincere feeling and flashes of wit. Her characters' emotional lives feel genuine, and their behavior rings true.

July 04, 2006

MOVIES: Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006)

Oh, dear. What happens when everything that can go wrong does go wrong? You get a mess like this, that's what.

Be warned that I'm going to be giving away plot points here; there's really no way to talk about the movie's problems without doing so.

The movie is designed as a sequel to Superman II (we are asked to forget the not-so-popular III and IV), so I feel less guilty about making comparisons to the cast of that movie than I normally would. It seems likely, in fact, that Brandon Routh has been cast largely because of his strong resemblance to Christopher Reeve. Routh handles the Superman half of the role adequately, which is to say that he looks good in cape and tights. As Clark, though, Routh is a disaster, with none of Reeve's charm, wit, or skill at physical comedy. You can't help but notice how little dialogue Routh has been given; the script is designed to require him to do as little actual acting as possible.

The other principal roles aren't cast any better. Kate Bosworth has none of the spark or energy that Margot Kidder had; she doesn't even measure up to Teri Hatcher in the 90s TV version. Hell, even the comic strip Lois Lane is closer to three-dimensional than Bosworth. As Lex Luthor, Kevin Spacey aims for camp and misses badly; none of his jokes are funny, and he's straining so hard for light and witty that he forgets that a villain has to be at least a little bit menacing or scary.

There are enormous plot holes throughout. For instance:

  • How exactly did Superman get to Krypton and back? His powers derive from being under Earth's yellow sun, after all -- and there's a passing line of dialogue in the movie that explicitly makes that point -- so once he's far enough from Earth, wouldn't he lose the ability to fly and survive the vacuum of space?
  • Late in the movie, Superman's been badly wounded by kryptonite exposure; there's still a chunk of the stuff in his body. So how does he find the strength to rip a small island -- an island that is itself laced throughout with veins of kryptonite -- from the ocean floor and fly it into space?
  • In one scene (one of the few in the movie that works), we watch a group of frustrated doctors try to treat Superman; their needles won't penetrate his skin, and attempting to use the defibrillator just shorts out the machine. But we're supposed to believe that Superman's kid hasn't raised any medical eyebrows in five years? (And then there are the questions raised by the child's conception, which are brilliantly explored in Larry Niven's classic "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.")

What does work in the movie? Not much. Oh, it's sweet to see Noel Neill and Jack Larson -- Lois and Jimmy from the 50s TV show -- in small roles, and Frank Langella brings some needed snap to Perry White. And it's certainly thrilling to hear John Williams' classic opening theme bursting forth in full stereo sound again, but even here, the movie finds a way to botch things. When we get to the "Clark and Lois go flying" scene, John Ottman's score keeps tap dancing around and sneaking up to Williams' love theme ("Can You Read My Mind?") until we're desperate to hear that melody, but Ottman never gives us more than a few bars of it; it's ridiculously distracting.

And that's pretty much what the whole movie is like; nearly everything in it leaves you disappointed and reminds you of how much better the Reeve movies were. Time to put the real Superman on the Netflix list, I think.

July 03, 2006

I'll be spending a week in Sydney next month, my first major vacation in a very long time, and my first trip overseas ever. Any suggestions for things to do and see that might not be obvious guidebook picks?

TV: The Emmys: My dream ballot

Emmy nominations will be announced on Thursday morning, and if it were up to me, these are the shows and people who'd be nominated:

How I Met Your Mother
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
My Name Is Earl
Slings and Arrows

(Never got into Arrested Development, Entourage, or The Office; and I think that Two and a Half Men is the Home Improvement of its generation -- a perfectly competent, but never special, sitcom.)

Zach Braff, Scrubs
Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report

Paul Gross, Slings and Arrows
Jason Lee, My Name Is Earl

Tyler James Williams, Everybody Hates Chris

(OK, yeah, I know, Colbert's not even eligible in this category, but he should be; his rightwing anchor is the most subtle comic creation of the year, and he does it four nights a week)

Marcia Cross, Desperate Housewives
Lauren Graham, Gilmore Girls
Felicity Huffman, Desperate Housewives
Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle

Lisa Kudrow, The Comeback

(How does Lauren Graham keep getting overlooked year after year? It's embarrassing.)

Supporting Actor
Neil Flynn, Scrubs
Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
John C. McGinley, Scrubs
Mark McKinney, Slings and Arrows

Ethan Suplee, My Name Is Earl

(Along with Graham, McGinley is one of the Emmy Awards' most shamefully overlooked comedy performers, and Suplee has given us one of the most sublime idiots in TV history.)

Supporting Actress
Tichina Arnold, Everybody Hates Chris
Kelly Bishop, Gilmore Girls
Alyson Hannigan, How I Met Your Mother
Megan Mullally, Will and Grace

Jamie Pressly, My Name Is Earl

(Arnold won't be nominated, as she and her producers foolishly decided to run her in the Lead category, where she doesn't stand a chance of being nominated, but she's certainly deserving of a nomination; Bishop is the Graham/McGinley of this category, doing magnificent work that's been ignored for too long.)


Battlestar Galactica
Six Feet Under

The West Wing

(Just finished catching up with Galactica, which is brilliant, and which bumped The Sopranos off my list -- too much time spent in Tony's coma fantasy and following Vito around Gayville, NH made for a weak season; I don't watch Rescue Me, and don't care for Grey's Anatomy.)

William Fichtner, Invasion
James Gandolfini, The Sopranos
Michael C. Hall, Six Feet Under
Edward James Olmos, Battlestar Galactica

James Spader, Boston Legal

(A tough field, this one, and I wish I'd been able to find room for Alan Alda, Peter Krause, and Hugh Laurie.)

Frances Conroy, Six Feet Under
Edie Falco, The Sopranos
Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica
Kari Matchett, Invasion

Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

(Not much to say here; as usual, it's the weakest category on the ballot, and I felt happy to find five names that I could put on my list without wincing.)

Supporting Actor
Vince Curatola, The Sopranos
Michael Emerson, Lost
Jorge Garcia, Lost
Gregory Itzin, 24

William Shatner, Boston Legal

(Emerson made enough appearances to appear in this category instead of Guest Actor; this is another crowded field, and you could practically fill it with the male cast of Lost -- Terry O'Quinn, Naveen Andrews, Josh Holloway, Daniel Dae Kim, all deserving.)

Supporting Actress
Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under
Tricia Helfer, Battlestar Galactica
Grace Park, Battlestar Galactica
Mary Lynn Rajskub, 24

Jean Smart, 24

(Helfer and Park do remarkable work, each playing multiple versions of the same character with impeccable subtlety. Helfer particularly surprised me, since her work in the first season of the show had been limited to a not-so-interesting sex-kitten; it was great fun to watch her rise to the occasion when given a broader range to play. Still, the winner here must be Smart, who gave the performance of the year.)

July 01, 2006

MOVIES: The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006)

There's a horrible flaw in the conception of the main character here that keeps the movie from being really great, but there are enough good jokes and funny performances to make it well worth seeing.

Anne Hathaway stars as Andy Sachs, a wholesome midwestern girl just arrived in New York hoping for a career in journalism. Instead, she lands a position as assistant to Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep), editor of Runway magazine, and as such, one of the most powerful women in the fashion industry. Andy does not follow the world of couture, and has never even heard of Miranda before being hired, so she has no idea that Miranda is a tyrant of a boss, burning through assistants at a dizzying pace.

It doesn't seem likely that Miranda will put up with Andy for long. Her clothes are wrong, she's not pretty enough, and she doesn't know the industry (Taking a phone message, she asks, "And how do you spell 'Gabbana'?"). But after the inevitable makeover sequence -- very nicely edited to show us a dozen or so of Andy's new looks in one walk to work -- Andy gets down to business and sets out to become a great assistant.

There are no surprises in the story; we've seen all of this before. Andy's determination to meet Miranda's impossible demands ("My twins want to read the next Harry Potter; get me a copy of the manuscript.") means that her relationships with best friend (Tracie Thoms, who deserves better parts than this) and boyfriend (Adrian Grenier, who doesn't) will suffer, and Andy must eventually choose between life and work. (In a way, it's Click: The Chick Flick.)

The problem is that Andy is a passive wimp. She never fights back or challenges Miranda, and the movie desperately needs a good verbal battle between the two. Instead, she simply takes all of Miranda's abuse with good spirits and an occasional fit of whining to her friends. And at the movie's climax, when the formula requires that she ingeniously save Miranda from some awful fate, she's such a weak character that even that opportunity is taken away from her by the script.

Hathaway does all that can be done with the role. It is one of the standard bits of Hollywood nonsense that the girl who needs a makeover was already pretty damned attractive to begin with, but I think that's part of the joke this time; everyone at Runway is so caught up in high fashion that they genuinely can't see Andy as pretty until they see her in couture.

The movie's real attractions, though, are in its supporting cast. Stanley Tucci gives the gay sidekick role more dimension than it usually gets; Emily Blunt is marvelously brittle as Andy's co-assistant, who sees her primary position vanishing as Andy works her way into Miranda's good graces.

And as Miranda, Meryl Streep is magnificent. Miranda is not one to fly into furious rages at people; she simply nods or purses her lips before dismissing them -- "That's all" -- almost under her breath. Streep looks fabulous here, and it's an interesting choice to show a woman in the fashion industry who embraces her maturity; her hair has gone silver-white, and it would never occur to Miranda that it needed to be colored a more youthful shade. Streep lands every joke and gets every laugh to be found in the part.

The movie's a lot of fun, and it's a solid piece of entertainment, but I can't help wonder what might have been if Andy had been written as someone capable of giving Miranda a real battle; that could have been an all-time classic.

MOVIES: Click (Frank Coraci, 2006)

Click is two different movies, each of which would be moderately entertaining on its own, but the two don't mix well at all.

The first half is a standard Adam Sandler man-boy-idiot comedy, in which Sandler's Michael Newman is an architect with an overly demanding boss (David Hasselhoff), a gorgeous wife (Kate Beckinsale), and two movie-cute kids. Michael ventures into the "Way Beyond" room at the local Bed Bath & Beyond -- can you say product placement, boys and girls? I knew you could -- in search of a universal remote, hoping to simplify something in his hectic life. He's given "the newest technology" in remotes by Marty (Christopher Walken, who seems to be auditioning for a particularly wacko version of Willy Wonka).

And this sets up Movie #1, in which Sandler uses his remote (which allows him to fast-forward, pause, mute, etc. his actual life) to skip through colds, arguments with Donna, and family dinners. If you like this sort of thing (and I do, as an occasional thing), Sandler does it as well as anyone, and scattered among the cheap jokes are a few clever ideas; a joke involving the color adjustment on the remote is nicely done.

But the remote has a mind of its own, and it's not long before it starts skipping Michael through life of its own accord, setting up Movie #2, which gets all sentimental and heartwarming in a Frank Capra-wannabe kind of way, pounding home the lessons that life must be enjoyed while it happens and family is the most important thing. Sandler isn't going to be stealing roles from Tom Hanks any time soon, but he pulls off the emotional moments well enough. (He really is a better actor than most give him credit for; he was quite good in Spanglish, and deserved an Oscar nomination for Punch-Drunk Love.)

There's much fine work in the supporting cast. Walken is, as always, entertaining and gives dialogue his unique spin. Henry Winkler and Julie Kavner are charming as Sandler's parents, and there's some remarkable digital work to de-age them in flashbacks to Michael's childhood, an especially challenging task since we have such vivid memories of the younger Winkler and Kavner from their TV sitcom days. (Well, at least those of us who are 40-ish and up have vivid memories; Sandler's core audience of 15-year-old boys, maybe not so much.) There's also superb old-age makeup by Rick Baker as the movie leaps into Sandler's future.

(An aside: The movie stumbles into a common flaw of stories set in the not-too-distant future -- over-changing things. Violins, for instance, have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. So when we see, in a scene set roughly 20 years from now, a quartet playing skinny metallic pseudo-violins and -cellos, someone is trying too hard to be futuristic.)

Click isn't an awful movie, and there is much to enjoy about it. But the chasm between fart jokes and It's a Wonderful Life is wide, indeed, and the screenplay (by Steve Koren and Mark O'Keefe) doesn't quite bridge it successfully; the movie's shift of gears isn't well prepared, and the contrast between the two halves was too jarring for me.