August 31, 2006
Male professional, early middle age, brilliant at what he does, but so blunt and abrasive that it's not advisable to let him deal directly with the public. He has a team of three assistants who help him prepare, and who serve as the more palatable public face for the presentation of his work; they are a classic Mod Squad team: cute young white guy; sexy/brooding, slightly older black guy; and hot chick. That's right, it's House, but it's also Justice, which has pulled off the most blatant theft of a character set that I can remember.
This time, it's criminal defense attorneys instead of doctors, and our brilliant-but-abrasive genius is Ron Trott (Victor Garber), who prepares for a trial and spins the media better than anyone; unfortunately, juries hate him. So at trial time, Trott steps into the background and lets one of his partners take the lead. Most often, that job falls to the "all-American face of not guilty," Tom Nicholson (Kerr Smith). Also on the team are Luther Graves (Eamonn Walker), who tends to play devil's advocate, spotting the weaknesses in his side's case; and Alden Tucker (Rebecca Mader), who deals with the forensic and medical experts.
Like the show's cast of characters, the first episode's plot is borrowed from elsewhere -- from the fine documentary The Staircase. As in that film, we're given a husband accused of murdering his wife; he claims that she died in a fall, but the prosecution argues that the head wounds are too severe and numerous to have been the result of an accident. The police claim that she was clubbed to death with a blunt object, but have been unable to locate that weapon.
As in all the other crime shows from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the visual style is flashy, with lots of swooping camera shots that dive through walls, and lengthy shots in which the passage of time is indicated by a character's clothes changing mid-stride. The show's signature device will be its epilogue, in which we get to see what actually happened, and I suspect that we'll see clients turn out to be guilty as often as not.
As Hugh Laurie dominates House, Victor Garber dominates Justice; he's crisp and witty, constantly barking orders at his colleagues and his clients, and turning on the charm for the TV talk shows. (How Trott can be so successful on these show but so unpopular with actual juries is the greatest flaw in the setup, and I hope that will be explored; perhaps he freezes under courtroom pressure.) It's a brash, extroverted performance, the polar opposite from his work on Alias as the tightly wound stoic Jack Bristow. The other actors didn't make particularly strong impressions in the first episode; they were overshadowed by Garber's oversized presence, but I expect that each will get a chance to shine in later episodes.
The show's got a tough time slot, opposite Lost, Criminal Minds, and One Tree Hill. It's a reasonably entertaining hour, though, and I'll give it at least a few more episodes.
August 27, 2006
The timing couldn't be much worse. Mom Cheryl (Toni Collette) has just taken in her brother, Frank (Steve Carell), to live with them after his recent suicide attempt; husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a would-be self-help guru waiting for news on a book deal that he thinks will propel him to stardom. Teenaged son Dwayne (Paul Dano) wallows in gloom and has refused to speak for months, and Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is a heroin-snorting grump with nothing kind to say about anyone except Olive, who he is helping with her pageant talent routine. None of the Hoovers (except Olive) is very excited about the trip, but everyone has to go. Richard's the only one who can drive a stick shift; neither Frank, Dwayne, nor Grandpa can be left alone at home. And that's all I'm going to say about the story, because it's filled with unexpected twists and jokes that should come as surprises.
The cast is uniformly excellent; it's one of the best ensemble performances of the year, with every pair of characters having a completely believable relationship. The writing (screenplay by Michael Arndt) is sharp, and everytime you think you see a cliche approaching, it's deftly avoided. (There is, for instance, a poolside argument between two characters that does not end with one of them falling into the pool.) Seemingly unimportant details pay off in beautiful and unexpected ways, and the ending is neither too Hollywood-sweet nor too indie-cynical.
Just go. You'll be glad you did.
August 22, 2006
Enter the FBI, in the form of Graham Kelton (Gale Harold) and Lin Mei (Ming-Na). He is, as TV cops must be, haunted by his disastrous last case, in which a preteen kidnap victim was killed by his captors during a rescue attempt. Sadly, Harold doesn't quite have the gravitas to make him a convincing FBI agent, much less an emotionally wounded one; it's like watching a poodle try to play a Doberman. (If we could find a happy medium between Harold's lightweight performance in this show and Jeremy Sisto's overly brooding performance in Kidnapped, we'd have a terrific FBI agent). As Lin Mei, Ming-Na gives the same flat, affectless performance she's been giving for the last ten years or so; her face is so cold and immobile that you might think her the victim of a tragic Botox accident.
It appears that Vanished will be one of those shows that's going to hand us a lot of goofy plot twists and over-the-top revelations. There's a home pregnancy test (with a positive result) in Sara's bathroom? Then of course, we must learn from her parents tell Sara is infertile. Jeffrey's daughter Marcy has a hunky young boyfriend with shifty eyes? Then of course, we must find a bloody shirt and a hidden backpack of money in his laundry room.
And we haven't even gotten to Jeffrey's ex-wife and the ambitious TV reporter and the body that's had some sort of ritual tattoo applied posthumously and the suggestion that some sort of mysterious Da Vinci Code-esque secret society is involved. It's all wildly farfetched, and that sort of thing works best when a show is willing to go indulge its goofiness to the max and just have fun. Lost, for instance, or the recently departed Alias, simply dove into the deep end of preposterousness and asked the audience to suspend almost every shred of disbelief. Based on the first episode, though, I'm afraid that Vanished is going to take itself too seriously; instead of being carried along by the plot twists in an exhilirating rush, we plod from one revelation to another, every one of them treated with far too much solemnity.
I'll give the show another week or two, in the hopes that it'll find the right tone for its story elements, but I can't say I'm optimistic.
August 21, 2006
(A 15-year-old boy named Leopold? Really?)
It doesn't take long for the FBI to find out about the kidnapping, though; through a twist that's too coincidental even for a TV thriller, Leopold's bodyguard (Mykelti Williamson) is connected somehow (family? friendship? it's not clear yet) to FBI agent Latimer King (Delroy Lindo), who postpones his retirement in order to work on the case. King and Knapp have very different approaches; Knapp relishes the freedom that he has as an independent agent, and the presence of by-the-book FBI agents is cramping his style.
Kidnapped is part of this year's flood of serialized storytelling; the kidnapping story will play out over the course of the entire season. (I will be surprised if Leopold isn't recovered fairly quickly, moving the focus to finding and arresting the kidnappers; Americans don't have a lot of patience for stories about children in jeopardy.)
This is a cast of fine actors (Dana Delany is also on hand as Ellie Cain, Conrad's wife, and she'll surely be given more to do in later episodes than stand in the corner on the verge of tears), and the action scenes are suspenseful and clearly edited. The principal danger, I think, is that Sisto and Lindo share a dark intensity that's often more effective in supporting roles (Sisto was used perfectly in Six Feet Under, for instance); having them both in leading roles, especially where they're likely to be butting heads every week, seems like too much brooding to take on an ongoing basis.
The show may also suffer from the fact that Fox's similarly-themed Vanished (about the disappearance of a Senator's wife), which debuts tonight, and will have been on the air for several weeks when Kidnapped finally arrives; it seems unlikely that both kidnap serials can survive.
The newly hired head of the NBS entertainment division, Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), is ordered by network boss Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber), to find a solution to the Friday Night problem in time for a Monday press conference. Her solution is to re-hire the writing team who oversaw the show during its glory years, Matt Albie and Danny Tripp (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford), a team who left the show after a very visible and somewhat spectacular argument with Rudolph (details are left vague).
These four actors are very comfortable with Sorkin's style of rapid-fire dialogue, much of it delivered while walking through corridors and sets and stairways in trademark Sorkin style. Like Sports Night and The West Wing before it, Studio 60 throws you right into the action. The details of what's going on aren't always immediately explained; unlike most TV writers, who have so little faith in our ability to keep up that they force their characters (for our benefit) to explain to one another things they already know, Sorkin trusts the audience to keep up with what's happening and to figure things out as we go along.
The other principal characters spend most of the first episode in the background, but will presumably get more to do in later episodes. Timothy Busfield is Friday Night's longtime director, worried that he'll lose his own over that on-air meltdown. The three principal members of the Friday Night cast are played by Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, and Nate Corddry; Paulson's character, Harriet Hayes, is a conservative Christian who's only just ended a relationship with Danny.
The first episode of Studio 60 is lots of fun, and gets the series off to a promising start; if you liked Sorkin's other shows, you're going to enjoy this one, too. His writing is just as sharp as ever, and the show is well-cast, with several of the actors playing against their usual type; Weber's never been so hissably smarmy, and while I've enjoyed Amanda Peet's movie work, Jordan is a much smarter character than she usually gets to play, and she's delightful in the role. Perry and Whitfield are a crisp comic team, with the kind of timing and interaction that makes you believe they've known one another for years.
NBC will be airing this on Monday nights at 10:00, opposite CSI: Miami and What About Brian?; even after one episode, it's clear that it's going to be the best show in its timeslot.
Last year, I watched at least one episode of every new series on the major networks. I'm not sure I'm going to be quite that brave and/or masochistic this year, but I'll watch a lot of them, and post my reactions here, beginning with the NBC/Netflix pair that I watched over the weekend.
August 14, 2006
The concert was presented in the Verbruggen Concert Hall, a lovely auditorium which seats about 300 (there doesn't appear to be a photo of the hall at the Conservatorium's website); it was about half-full for this concert, which I thought was a good turnout for a Wednesday afternoon percussion concert.
The program opened with Eric Ewazen's The Palace of Nine Perfections, which the program notes tell us was inspired by a series of scrolls by 17th century Chinese painter Yuan Chiang. The three movements depict the procession of soldiers and dignitaries; the palace itself, shrouded in mist; and "the excitement of the painter's vision;" the piece lasts about 20 minutes.
The first movement alternates somber marches and brisk waltzes, all quite stately and haughty. The second movement is more of a fantasy landscape, with clouds of soft, prolonged chords that occasionally allow melodies to shine through; the third movement is about rhythmic propulsion and high energy. If Ewazen's melodies throughout tend to slip into the pentatonic cliches of Chinoiserie, he shows great skill in varying their color, given the limited instrumental choices available to him (xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone carry the melodic weight, occasionally accented by glockenspiel and tubular bells), and makes particularly effective use of the marimba's lowest notes. It's entertaining music, if not profound, and I'd like to hear more of Ewazen's music.
Next came Emmanuel Sejourne's Nancy, for solo marimba. It was a short piece, no more than four minutes long, and was a study in contrasts; soft rolled chords were periodically interrupted by louder, staccato melodic outbursts. Sandy Sin gave a nice performance, though I think she could have boosted the dynamic level on the quieter passages a bit without losing the effectiveness of the contrast; those quiet moments were sometimes hard to hear. Sin is a petite woman, and her arms were often stretched as far as they could reach to play some of the chords which called for notes at both extremes of the marimba's register; had she been three inches shorter, I don't think she'd have been physically capable of playing the piece.
The program closed with the Percussion Octet of New Zealand composer Gareth Farr, the premiere of a new work commissioned by a generous donor to the Conservatorium. In a single movement of about 15 minutes, this piece was all about rhythmic energy and volume. The roto-toms drove the work throughout; its steady pulse and abrupt shifts from one musical idea to another were reminiscent of early Glass or Reich. While it wasn't an obvious influence in the sound of the music, the performers seemed to be treating the piece as something akin to dance music; they bobbed their heads and shifted their weight from one foot to the other as if they were standing at the bar of their favorite club. (That may have also been a visual cue for the ensemble, which performed this piece without conductor, to keep one another in tempo.) When it came time for the timpani player to take the melodic lead -- which, in this piece, means that everyone backs down to mezzo-forte and he ramps up to fortissimo -- he leapt around inside his arc of drums like a finalist on So You Think You Can Dance.
Given that the piece is loud from beginning to end, Farr did a surprisingly effective job of keeping it from becoming dull or overbearing; it's an exciting piece to hear. There is still some revision to be done, I think. The ending is very abrupt, and the ensemble hadn't quite worked out the optimal placement of performers and instruments -- one of the marimba players had to make a frantic, awkward dash to strike the gong at the very end -- but for a first performance by a student ensemble, it was very fine, and the audience greatly enjoyed it.
So rather than a review as such, let me talk first a little bit about programming. The new piece on this program was the Viola Concerto by Australian composer Brett Dean; this was the Australian premiere. As it happens, the US premiere will be given here in Los Angeles in October. (The Sydney Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are among the co-commissioners of the concerto.)
The Los Angeles program is precisely what you would expect from most American orchestras when programming a major piece of new music. It's practically a formula: Start the concert with sort of pleasant little bonbon -- a Copland ballet suite, maybe, or a Rossini overture; perhaps one of the shorter Haydn or Mozart symphonies. Then comes the premiere, and after intermission, one of the major audience-pleasing warhorses. The Planets or Enigma Variations, or a symphony by Brahms or Tchaikovsky -- something popular enough to make the audience willing to sit through the scary new music.
Apply the formula, and you get this program for the American premiere of Dean's concerto:
- Haydn, Symphony No. 82, "The Bear"
- Dean, Viola Concerto
- Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition
(And the LA Phil will follow the formula again with its other major concerto premiere later in the season, surrounding John Harbison's Bass Viol Concerto with Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen Suite and Dvorak's 7th Symphony.)
Now here's the program presented in Sydney for the Australian premiere of the same concerto:
- Schoenberg, Notturno for strings and harp
- Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4
- Dean, Viola Concerto
- Strauss, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24
No sweet little bonbon to open the concert (well, the Notturno actually is a sweet little bonbon, but it's not a well enough known piece to overcome the fear that the name "Schoenberg" puts into the hearts of many casual concertgoers), and while Verklärte Nacht and Tod und Verklärung both have their devotees, neither is quite the audience magnet that Holst or Elgar might be. And the concerto is presented after intermission, giving the audience the chance to run away. It is, all things considered, an ambitious and gutsy program.
It is not, I confess, a program that filled my heart with glee. The Notturno, which I hadn't heard before, is a charming miniature, 3 or 4 minutes long; that's about the length of my patience for strings-only music. Be it a quartet or a string orchestra, I find myself rapidly yearning for a flute or a tuba or a triangle or anything to break the timbral monotony. So when we continued on to the string orchestra version of Verklärte Nacht, I grew bored fairly quickly.
As for Strauss, well, I prefer Johann to Richard, and if it must be Richard, let it be Till Eulenspiegel, or something else on the relatively playful side; Tod und Verklärung is Strauss in one of his gloomy philosophical moods, which is all a bit much for me.
And then there's Dean's Viola Concerto, in which he played the solo part himself. The work is in three movements: Fragment (Unhurried, yet flowing); Pursuit (Presto); Veiled and Mysterious (Distant, dark). The first movement is very brief, only 2 or 3 minutes; the other movements are each about 12 or 13 minutes (the program notes give the total length of the concerto as 27 minutes).
The solo viola was, to my ears, too often buried and lost in the orchestral texture. During his pre-concert talk, Dean addressed this issue, and said that he had struggled with the question of balance throughout the writing of the piece, as the viola doesn't have the piercing qualities of the violin or the cello; ultimately, he decided that he wasn't bothered by it. We've been spoiled by recordings, he said, in which the soloist is always placed well in front of the orchestral sound, and that's not always an accurate representation of how music sounds in the concert hall; further, he thought it somehow in keeping with the "less heroic" nature of the viola that it should not always be the dominant presence.
All of which is well and good from a philosophical standpoint, I suppose, but from a listener's point of view, it was rather annoying to so often see Dean sawing away and have no idea what he was playing. Given that Dean has been the soloist in all performances of the piece thus far (as he will be in Los Angeles in October), and that conductor Simone Young has led several of the previous performances with other orchestras, it seems fair to assume that the balance they were getting was the balance they wanted.
The concerto is not principally about melody; it's largely about tone color, which can be an interesting and effective way to organize a piece. To make it interesting, though, requires more variety and creativity in orchestration than Dean showed. There were only two moments that stood out for me as interesting or memorable. The first came late in the second movement, where we would traditionally find the cadenza; this wasn't exactly a cadenza, but it was as close as the piece came to having one. The solo viola has a dialogue of sorts with a muted trombone, which plays jittery little passages, sounding like a grumpy old man muttering under his breath. The other noteworthy effect comes at the very end of the piece, when the oboe and English horn play fragmented melodies, while above them, the viola plays very slow downward glissandos -- say, 4 or 5 seconds to drop a quarter-tone -- in the highest part of its register.
I can't say I found the piece a success, but it is certainly possible that my lack of enthusiasm for the rest of the program colored my response. I do look forward to hearing it again with a different orchestra and conductor, surrounded by music for which I have more affection.
My reservations about the repertoire should not be taken to apply to the Sydney Symphony itself, which is a very fine group, or to the performances, which were top-notch. Simone Young is an energetic presence, and her more emphatic upbeats are so vigorous as to lift her feet off the floor. The sound in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House is superb, and the hall itself is an attractive and comfortable place to hear a concert. After suffering in the cramped quarters of LA's Disney Hall for two years, it was especially refreshing to have sufficient legroom.
Also noteworthy was that the concert was being broadcast live throughout Australia by the national radio network, and there was less audience noise than I've ever heard at a symphony concert before.
We hear (in English) the voice of a storyteller (David Gulpilil, familiar to American audiences from movies like Walkabout and Rabbit-Proof Fence) who begins, "Once upon a time, in a place far, far away..." He laughs, and tells us that this isn't that kind of story. "It's not your story," he says, "it's our story. But it's a good story."
The storyteller takes us back a thousand years, and tells us of Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), who is leading a group of ten men on the annual hunt for goose eggs. Among those men is Minygululu's younger brother, Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil, who is David's son); Minygululu is aware that Dayindi has become interested in the youngest of Minygululu's three wives, and begins to tell Dayindi a story of his own, set in the ancient times. Minygululu's story is about another chief, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurrdal), who also has a younger brother, Yeeralparil (Jamie Gulpilil again); again, the younger brother has an eye for the youngest wife of the older.
We occasionally jump out of the Ridjimiraril story to follow Minygululu and his men on their goose-egg hunt; these scenes are filmed in black and white, and are almost anthropological in nature, explaining to us the process by which the men gather bark, make their canoes, and hunt for eggs. The Ridjimiraril story (which is in color) is rambling and digressive -- the storyteller compares it to a tree, and tells us that all of the branches are important -- and never goes quite where we expect it to. There is a real sense, both from the storyteller and from Minygululu, that these stories are important and worthy of respect, and must be honored by being told properly; if the story wants to wander, then it must be allowed to wander.
With the exception of David Gulpilil (who is present only in voice-over), the cast is made up of non-professional actors, and they give fine performances. The acting is perhaps less naturalistic then we're used to, but after a few minutes to get acclimated to the movie's style, that's not distracting.
What's most surprising about the movie, given its storylines about adulterous lust and accidental murder, is how funny it is. There's a nice running joke about tribal elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin) and his fondness for honey; husbands and wives are constantly bickering; the young men of the tribe tease Yeeralparil about his affection for his brother's wife. The English subtitles of the Ganalbingu dialogue have a very earthy, contemporary feel, as does David Gulpilil's English narration, to which he brings a wry sense of humor that is precisely right.
More than anything, Ten Canoes reminded me of the Canadian movie The Fast Runner, which provided a similar look into ancient Inuit culture. I haven't yet heard of any plans to release Ten Canoes in the United States; it would almost surely be unrated, or rated NC-17, because the characters are largely naked throughout. (It is a plot point, in fact, when a stranger arrives wearing a loincloth; "never trust a man who covers his prick," warns Birrinbirrin.) If it does make its way to the US (or to wherever you might live), whether in theaters or on DVD, you should definitely make the effort to see it.
On the culinary side of things, I'm still trying to understand the Australian fascination with pumpkin soup and banana bread, both of which appeared on almost every restaurant menu I saw. My one big splurge-y expensive meal was at Nick's Bar and Grill, near the aquarium, where I had grilled kangaroo, which was very tasty and not nearly as gamy as I'd expected, and a superb dessert of sticky date pudding served in a pool of hot butterscotch sauce (the best butterscotch I've ever tasted) with vanilla ice cream.
The happiest accident of the trip was going to the Powerhouse Museum (the museum of science and technology) on my last day, and finding a special exhibit on the first 50 years of Australian television.
Saw a good movie, and went to a pair of concerts, which I'll detail in their own posts.
August 04, 2006
I have lots of things I want to do, many more than I'll ever have time to get to. Tuesday will be a day-long bus tour to the Blue Mountains, west of the city. Wednesday is likely to be the Botanic Gardens in the morning, followed by the lunchtime concert by the University music students; it's the percussion students this week, and I loves me some percussion music.
There's the ferry across the harbor to Manly, which I'd like to do because (a) it supposedly provides the best views of the city as you return, and (b) how can I possibly pass up a ride on something called the Manly Ferry?
There's the Opera House (maybe the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday night?), and the Taronga Zoo, and some museums; there's souvenirs to shop for, and restaurants to try. Should be fun, and I'll report back next week.