December 31, 2007

MOVIES: There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Unlike anything Anderson has ever done before, this sprawling epic about greed and corruption has its flaws (at 2 1/2 hours, it's in need of editing, for one thing), but features a riveting performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, spectacular cinematography by Robert Elswit, and a marvelous score by Jonny Greenwood.

Day-Lewis, who is in every scene of the movie, plays California oilman Daniel Plainview. We meet him at the turn of the century -- 19th to 20th, that is -- when he is a struggling silver miner; in the 15-minute wordless sequence that opens the movie, we see just how determined Daniel is to succeed, and we're present for his first discovery of oil. By the 1920s, Daniel is a dominant force in the California oil industry, and now has a young son (whose mother, we are told, died in childbirth).

That son, H.W. (played very nicely by Dillon Freasier, making his film debut), is essential to Daniel's success, humanizing his father in a way that Daniel desperately needs; for all of his charm and persuasive ability, Daniel is a cold, misanthropic man, and much of the movie is devoted to showing us how Daniel deliberately sets out to destroy every relationship in his life.

Daniel's principal antagonist is the preacher in the village that springs up around one of his major oilfields, a smooth talker -- one might even call him oily -- named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, as verbal here as he was silent in Little Miss Sunshine). He is, in a way, Daniel's doppelganger. Just as Daniel insinuates his way into people's trust with promises of wealth, Eli promises salvation; both men are far more interested in their own personal welfare than that of anyone else, though. The confrontations between Eli and Daniel are among the movie's best scenes; they include a baptism that is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.

Day-Lewis seems to have deliberately adopted the voice and delivery of John Huston for this role, which is a bit jarring at first, but it's effective; everything Daniel says feels like a speech, with every inflection and word choice precisely calculated for its effect on the listeners.

Jonny Greenwood's score is not the lush orchestral period piece you might expect; it's a dissonant score dominated by strings and percussion. There are wailing clusters reminiscent of Penderecki's Threnody and clattering woodblocks that go in and out of phase like something from early Steve Reich; it's a perfect aural counterpart to the harshness of the California landscape.

The movie is longer than it needs to be, and I think Day-Lewis goes wildly over the top in the final scene, ranting and growling in a way that feels out of character for Daniel. But it's immensely ambitious in a way that few movies are these days, and that alone makes me willing to forgive its flaws. It's a big movie, and there are images and scenes that I'll carry with me for weeks.

December 30, 2007

MOVIES: Grace Is Gone (James C. Strouse, 2007)

John Cusack stars as Stanley Phillips, who has just learned that his wife Grace has been killed while serving in Iraq. Unable to face the task of telling their daughters that their mother is dead, he instead takes them on an impromptu roadtrip to a Disney-esque theme park.

Stanley is not the usual Cusack character; he's no smooth talker, and doesn't have Cusack's usual jittery energy. He is something of a schlump; he shuffles from place to place, constantly readjusting his glasses. Cusack seems heavier than usual, and every bit of speech is an effort for Stanley.

Unfortunately, doing less doesn't come naturally to Cusack, and I was aware at every moment of how hard he was working; I don't think I've ever seen an actor work so hard to do so little. Every shuffle and mutter and adjustment is a deliberate and painfully obvious actorly choice. "Look, Ma, I'm ACTING!," the performance screams.

The actresses playing Stanley's daughters are another matter entirely. Shelan O'Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk, as 12-year-old Heidi and 8-year-old Dawn, are natural, spontaneous, and entirely convincing as sisters. Heidi senses that there's something their father isn't telling them, though she never figures out exactly what (perhaps because no child would ever suspect that her father would be so cruel as to lie to her about something so important), and O'Keefe captures Heidi's growing awareness that something is wrong, looking at Cusack with ever more suspicion.

The other name of note attached to this movie is that of Clint Eastwood; this is the first time he has composed the score for another director's movie. His music here is tastefully restrained to the point that it fades from memory even as you listen to it.

The movie also makes its political points in heavy-handed fashion. Alessandro Nivola has a few brief scenes as Stanley's brother, John, whose anti-war statements are so clumsy and leaden that we're clearly meant to loathe him and his politics.

Despite the fine performances by the two young actresses, the movie as a whole isn't worth your time.

MOVIES: Charlie Wilson's War (2007, Mike Nichols)

When we meet Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), he's surrounded by strippers, lounging in a Vegas hot tub; there's booze and cocaine everywhere (though Charlie does abstain from the latter). His office staff is made up exclusively of lovely, busty young women; as one of them explains, "Charlie always says: You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow tits."

Clearly, Charlie isn't your average member of Congress. He does, however, sit on a few key subcommittees involved in funding covert military operations, so when he realizes that the US is doing next to nothing to help the Afghan rebels who are fighting the Soviet occupation, he does have the clout to change that. He has help from Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a fabulously wealthy Houston socialite, and from Gust Avrokotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a disgruntled CIA agent who runs the Afghan desk.

Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is crisp and zippy, with lots of clever dialogue. The problem is that some political issues cannot be turned into occasions for witty banter without coming across as glib and callous about the actual human suffering involved. War is certainly such an issue, and the tonal and emotional disconnect between the movie's subject matter and its style occasionally makes it difficult to enjoy the punchlines.

That's not to say it's a bad movie; the principal performances are good. It's nice to see Hanks wallowing in sleaze and dissolution for a change, and Hoffman plays cranky impatience and long-suffering frustration very well. Roberts, barely recognizable beneath a Texas accent and a series of atrocious helmet hairdos, is somewhat wasted, and it still feels odd to see her playing matronly types.

The movie ends with the Afghan victory over the Russians, and the absolute lack of Congressional interest (despite Charlie Wilson's urging) in providing any funding for recovery or reconstruction. Nichols and Sorkin do not directly spell out the connection between that failure and the eventual rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but their ending certainly invites us to make that connection, and it's refreshing to see a movie that assumes its audience is smart enough to get the point.

December 28, 2007

MOVIES: The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007)

Thirty years ago, Laura (Belen Rueda) spent some years at the Good Shepherd Orphanage, which closed shortly after she was adopted. Now, she's returned with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their 7-year-old son, Simon (Roger Princep), planning to turn the building into a small group home for children with special needs. (One wonders what kind of childhood Laura had that left her nostalgic above all for her orphanage...)

Laura and Carlos haven't yet told Simon that he himself is adopted, nor that he is HIV-positive; he accidentally discovers both after a disturbing visit from an elderly social worker (Montserrat Carulla), who Laura later finds wandering around the grounds in the middle of the night. This only adds to Simon's discomfort with his new home, and before long, he's talking to a whole group of new imaginary friends, and playing convoluted games with them, involving the hiding and disappearance of household objects.

And then Simon himself disappears. There are hints as to what might have happened, but they only make sense if you're willing -- as Laura increasingly is -- to accept that Simon's imaginary friends might not be so imaginary after all.

This is a very creepy movie, which gets its chills not from gore or monsters, but from old-fashioned storytelling, beautifully edited and impeccably paced. There are almost no noticable special effects shots in the movie; the one that does come to mind is the movie's most violent moment, and it is very brief. (It is also, as it happens, just about the least supernatural event in the movie.)

Belen Rueda is very often on screen alone in this movie, and she's riveting; her increasing desperation to find her son, and her willingness to turn to more extreme measures, are painful to watch. There's also a lovely cameo from Geraldine Chaplin as a medium who is brought in to give her impressions of the house; we watch her wander through the corridors in creepy green night-vision.

Great fun, and marvelously thrilling.

MOVIES: Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

Animated adaptation of Satrapi's series of graphic novel memoirs about growing up in Iran in the late 70s and early 80s. This is France's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and will almost certainly be one of the nominees; it's also a likely nominee in the Best Animated Film category, and could well win both.

With the exception of a few short framing scenes, the animation is entirely in black and white; the style is a wild mix of Herge's Tintin, Peter Max, Japanese woodprints, and the 1950s animation work of the UPA studio. It's visually stunning, and gorgeous to watch.

The movie begins with the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic; 8-year-old Marjane begins to develop an awareness of politics when her father gently informs her that the Shah was not, in fact, selected by God. By her teen years, her parents are worried that their rebellious daughter will get into trouble, so they send her off to school in Vienna. She returns to Iran as a young adult, only to find that she cannot adapt to so repressive a culture.

The voice work is fine, particularly from the three central women -- Chiara Mastroianni as the teen/adult Marjane, Catherine Deneuve as her mother (she is also Mastroianni's real-life mother), and Danielle Darrieux as her grandmother. The latter is the movie's most memorable character, a tough old broad with more smarts and common sense than her culture would approve of.

As bleak a period of history as this was, the movie's not without humor. There's a marvelous sequence in which we get two views of one of Marjane's boyfriends, first through her love-besotted eyes, second after she catches him with another woman; the transformation is hilarious.

A minor frustration is that the movie is in black and white, with white subtitles; if there were ever a movie that cried out for yellow titles (or any other color, really), this is it. But that shouldn't keep you from seeing the movie, which is a fine achievement.

December 27, 2007

MOVIES: No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)

There are going to be plot spoilers here, but the movie's nearly two months old at this point; if you haven't already heard what happens, you haven't been paying attention.

Anyway, Josh Brolin finds $2 million, the leftovers of a drug deal gone bad, and runs off with it. This turns out to be a bad idea, because the money belongs to unstoppable killing machine Javier Bardem, who chases Brolin all across Texas, shooting everyone he meets with a pneumatic cattle-slaughtering device that looks kinda like a bazooka attached to a scuba tank. Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones chases after Bardem, desperately hoping to get to him before he bazookas Brolin in the head. But no such luck, and by the end of the movie, pretty much everyone is dead -- Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, assorted random passersby -- and Sheriff Tommy Lee only survives because he retires and gives up the chase.

I feel sorry for Javier Bardem in this movie. Not only is he saddled with the worst haircut of the movie year, he has been handed the horrible task of playing a Meaningful Symbol instead of a person. Bardem's Anton Chigurh is the walking embodiment of Evil, you see. Oh yes, there is Evil in the world -- implacable, unfathomable, unstoppable Evil. And there is not a damned thing that you can do about it but stay the hell out of its way and hope that it doesn't decide to fuck with you, for if it does, you are toast.

There are no tragic fates in this movie. No one dies because of anything they did or didn't do (well, OK, it was pretty stupid for Brolin to steal $2 million in drug money), or because of any particular flaw in their character. They suffer and die because they crossed paths with Evil. Period.

Now if that strikes you as a profound or surprising message, then you may well find No Country for Old Men to be a deep and meaningful movie. I found it to be a waste of a lot of fine acting (Brolin is especially good, as is Macdonald -- you'd never guess that she was actually Scottish -- and there's a lovely single scene from Barry Corbin) and some gorgeous photography, all in the service of bleak grad-school existentialism: The world sucks and there ain't nuthin' you can do about it. Gee, that was worth spending $12 and 2 hours on.

MOVIES: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007)

The best part of this musical biopic parody is the music. The jokes? Well, they're not bad, but they're mild chuckles, not belly laughs.

In the tradition of Ray, Walk the Line, and La Vie en Rose, Walk Hard gives us the tragic life story of a famous musician. This time, it's Dewey Cox (a rare starring role for perennial second banana John C. Reilly). And if you've seen any of those other movies, you know the broad outlines of the story -- distant father, tragic death of a young sibling, early success, early unhappy marriage, drugs, divorce, redemption at the hands of beautiful second wife, late-career comeback.

We get all of those points here, played for laughs. Dewey's younger brother dies, for instance, when Dewey accidentally slices him in half with a machete ("You're gonna make it, Nate!" "I dunno, Dewey; I been sliced in half pretty bad here."), and Pa Cox spends the rest of the movie muttering "the wrong kid died."

There are a host of cameo appearances -- Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly; Jack White as Elvis; Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long, and Jason Schwarzman as the Beatles -- and some nice supporting turns from Kristin Wiig, Jenna Fischer (as wives #1 and #2, respectively), and Tim Meadows as the drummer whose "stay away from these drugs, Dewey" warnings always turn out to be more enticing than threatening.

Best of all are the songs. All of Dewey's music is newly written for the movie, and the large crew of songwriters has done a fine job of creating songs that sound like authentic relics of their eras. Reilly does a reasonably good job of singing them. (He has, in a sense, the opposite problem from Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, in that he has a voice too well-trained to be a really convincing pop singer.) His mumbling-Dylan impression is funny, and he does a surprisingly strong evocation of Roy Orbison in a lovely song called "A Life Without You."

When it's all over, though, Walk Hard is a mild amusement and not much more. I can't recommend that you rush out to see it in the theaters; it'll play just fine on DVD or cable TV.

MOVIES: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)

I confess that I was not optimistic as I walked into the theater. Sweeney Todd is not an easy musical, and with most of the key roles filled with non-singers, I dreaded the outcome. But I was pleasantly surprised (with one glaring exception, which we'll get to); the movie turned out reasonably well.

In the title role, Johnny Depp doesn't have a large, theatrical voice, but movies allow for a more intimate sound than live theater, and Depp's voice is adequate to the task. He's also a good enough actor to make up for his vocal shortcomings with a marvelously intense performance. It's a bit one-note -- Burton has chosen to give us a Sweeney who is maniacally obsessed with revenge and anger, and nothing else -- but Depp pulls it off.

You can say much the same for Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall, who play the Judge and the Beadle -- the singing isn't great, but it's redeemed by the acting. The unknowns are generally better singers; Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony and Edward Sanders as Toby have fine voices (though still movie-sized, not theater-sized). Jayne Wisener as Johanna has a chirpy, pinched, Sarah Brightman-esque soprano; it's a type of voice that I can't stand, though it seems to be increasingly popular these days.

But then there's Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, and it's here that the movie falls painfully short. She's badly cast to begin with; I think Mrs. Lovett should be at least 10-15 years older than Todd. That makes her more credible as the sort of neighborhood gossip/busybody who would know every detail of what had happened to his wife and daughter 15 years ago, and it lends a crucial element of the pathetic (and of comic relief, which is desperately needed in this musical) to her conviction that she and Todd are going to be a happy romantic couple. (Without that element of the pathetic, "By the Sea" isn't nearly as interesting a number.)

But even if you like the idea of a younger Mrs. Lovett, Bonham Carter simply can't sing the role. Her voice is small, even by the more intimate standards of this movie; much of what she sings can't be heard over the orchestra, and it's not just a matter of bad sound mixing. When you can hear her, it's not a pretty voice; it's thin and whiny, and her enunciation is horribly bad. The lyrics of "The Worst Pies in London" vanish in a blur.

The movie looks marvelous. Burton gives us a dank and gloomy London of dark blue and gray; at times, you feel like you're watching a black-and-white movie. The most prominent bursts of color come from the blood of Sweeney's victims, which gushes forth in copious amounts. I found the blood to be so over the top, both in quantity and in brightness, that it almost immediately stopped being disturbing and became a cartoonish special effect, but I suspect that some will it find it too intensely gory.

Sondheim's music sounds marvelous played by a full orchestra (orchestrations are by longtime Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick), and while I did miss hearing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," I can understand why it would be less effective in a movie version, and it does serve as a terrific underscore to much of the action.

It's a shame, really; this could have been a great Sweeney Todd, but Helena Bonham Carter is so woefully inadequate that it's only a good one.

December 26, 2007

TV: Best of 2007

Over at Modern Fabulousity, Gabriel has begun a week-long series of "Best of 2007" posts focusing on the year's finest artistic achievements. I was delighted and honored to be invited to join his television jury, and you'll find our collective wisdom here.

Gabriel asked each of us to submit lists of ten programs and five performances that we thought were the year's best. It took some mental gear-shifting to think in terms of calendar year, when I'm so used to analyzing TV by September-thru-May seasons, but these were the lists I turned in:

1. Pushing Daisies -- It's the most dazzling high-wire act on TV, with every actor, writer, and stagehand working on exactly the same wavelength. Every week I find myself thinking that they can't possibly pull it off again, and every week -- miraculously -- they do.
2. Mad Men -- Dialogue bordering on song, and a cast that knows how to sing. Jon Hamm was the find of the year, and Don's sales pitch monologues took my breath away.
3. Slings and Arrows -- Another impeccable ensemble cast, joined for the King Lear season by the superb William Hutt. And it was that rare show that knows how to tie up loose ends in a series finale without answering every question.
4. Project Runway -- Still the best reality competition on TV, thanks to clever challenges, impeccable casting, and the fabulousness of Tim and Heidi. Well, OK, mostly Tim.
5. John from Cincinnati -- I don't even pretend to understand this show, but I was always enthralled by it. John's sermon in the hotel courtyard was the best scene TV gave us this year.
6. Battlestar Galactica -- A lot of people (Emmy voters among them, sad to say) assume that because it's SF, it can't be anything more than meaningless entertainment. Oh, what fools they be!
7. How I Met Your Mother -- The best sitcom ensemble currently working, in a show that plays clever variations on the format, juggling multiple timeframes and plots with spectacular dexterity.
8. The Big Bang Theory -- Part of this year's mini-trend of geek chic. Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons have the kind of chemistry and timing that normally takes years to develop.
9. The Daily Show / The Colbert Report -- Because Jon and Steven are about the only thing keeping me sane these days.
10. Chuck -- A good old-fashioned escapist comic drama, maybe the best since Magnum P.I.

1. Chi McBride, Pushing Daisies -- Every time the show is in danger of becoming just too damned sweet, along comes Emerson -- cranky, skeptical, curmudgeonly, lovable Emerson -- to bring it back down to earth. McBride's done fine TV work for years, but he's never been as perfectly cast as he is here.
2. Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory -- Sheldon was a brilliant creation from week one, but I think Parsons was just getting started when the strike cut off the supply of new episodes. Parsons and the writers were starting to explore the ways in which Sheldon isn't just nerdy, but really annoying, and I'm eager to see how the character develops.
3. the women of Mad Men -- The men got most of the attention (and they were fine indeed), but Christina Hendricks, January Jones, and Elisabeth Moss gave us three spectacular portraits of womanhood in 1960. Any of the three could get a belly laugh and break your heart in the same episode, sometimes in the same scene.
4. Melinda Doolittle, American Idol -- For thirteen weeks, Melinda put on a masterclass in singing. Even Sanjaya didn't seem so horrible when you knew Melinda was coming up next.
5. Jesse Tyler Ferguson & Heather Goldenhersh, The Class -- The most unfairly neglected sitcom of the 2006-07 season gave us the year's best love story -- funny, romantic, poignant. The fact that it featured a pair of socially awkward misfits only made it better, and Ferguson and Goldenhersh were an irresistible couple.

December 25, 2007

MOVIES: Protagonist (Jessica Yu, 2007)

Filmmaker Jessica Yu was commissioned to make a documentary about Euripides, which would seem a rather arcane topic, and not an easy one to make interesting to contemporary audiences. Her approach in Protagonist is to illustrate the ways in which Euripides' themes -- the dangers of obsession and over-certainty -- continue to play out in modern lives.

Four men tell their stories, and the outline of each is similar: A man finds a way to deal with the frustration and challenges of daily life; at first, his new life seems ideal. Eventually, though, he realizes that he has thrown himself so deeply into his obsession that he's ignored the ways in which it is horribly wrong, which has made him someone he never wanted to be.

In an attempt to recreate the rush he felt when he finally stood up to his abusive father, Joe Loya turned to bank robbery. Mark Pierpont knew he was gay at an early age, and attempted to bury those feelings in religion, becoming a prominent "ex-gay" evangelist preacher. Hans-Joachim Klein's involvement in Germany's radical student political movements of the late 1960s and 1970s led him into terrorism. And high-school outcast Mark Salzman thought he'd finally found a home at a local martial arts school, until he realized that the instructor was a drunken sadist. (If Salzman's story sounds somewhat less compelling and dramatic than the others, it is; Salzman makes up for it by being the best storyteller of the four. He also happens to be Jessica Yu's husband.)

The four stories are divided into chapters, each headed by a key phrase from the dramatic structure of Euripides -- Crisis, Turning Point, Catharsis, Fever -- and introduced by an excerpt from his plays, performed (in ancient Greek, no less) by wooden-rod puppets; the puppets also appear occasionally to act out moments from the men's stories. This structural device does give a certain predictability to the proceedings; if one man starts talking about "the day everything changed," you can be pretty sure that the other three will follow. Despite that element of predictability, though, the parallel storytelling works quite well, and the four stories are compelling even when there's not much suspense about the outcome.

I was reminded somewhat of Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, another documentary in which we are invited to draw comparisons and find the connections among the lives of four men. Protagonist isn't as complex or sophisticated a movie, and the connections are a lot more obvious, but it's entertaining, nevertheless, and worth looking for on DVD or cable.

December 24, 2007

MOVIES: Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007)

Margot (Nicole Kidman) is -- and there's no polite way to say this -- a fucking mess. She's self-absorbed, manipulative, dishonest, and cruel. She is toxic, bringing out the worst in everyone she knows. On some level, she understands this, and she hates herself for it. That's why she's meanest to her family; they must be punished, after all, for being so stupid as to love her.

Margot hasn't spoken to her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in several years -- we're never told exactly why -- but has decided to bury the hatchet by returning to the family's seaside home for Pauline's wedding. Of course, when Margot buries a hatchet, she buries it in someone's back, and no sooner has she arrived than she's criticizing Pauline's wedding plans and telling her that Malcolm (Jack Black) isn't nearly good enough for her ("he's like boys we rejected when we were 16," she says).

Pauline isn't quite as unpleasant as Margot, but Margot's presence raises the level of tension to the point where she begins to snap at Malcolm and at her daughter, Ingrid (Flora Cross); even Malcolm, a fairly mellow guy and certainly the sanest character in the movie, begins to crack under the pressure.

The irony is that these are all people who ought to have some insight into the human condition, or at least into their own personalities and interactions. Pauline is a teacher; Malcolm a musician and amateur critic; Margot is a writer of short stories who is "very famous to a very few people." But there's no insight here, just an endless festival of cruelty.

It's well performed, and Kidman in particular deserves credit for her lack of emotional vanity; she never attempts to soften Margot's edges or make her likable in any way. Leigh doesn't get to play the more normal partner in any relationship very often, and she does fine work in this rare sympathetic role. Jack Black is out of his league in their company, and tends to fall back on the broad comic shtick that works in his usual roles; it's not very effective here. In his first film, Zane Pais makes a strong impression as Margot's son, Claude; he's just on the edge of puberty, and in one of her most vicious moments, Margot delivers a lengthy critique of the way his body has changed, and Pais underplays the scene nicely.

But for all of the good acting, Margot at the Wedding isn't very pleasant to watch. It's ninety minutes of vicious nastiness, and Baumbach hasn't leavened the story with much humor at all (the key difference, I think, between this and his previous film, The Squid and the Whale).

December 23, 2007

I didn't watch Clash of the Choirs last week, but after seeing this performance from Nick Lachey's choir, I wish I had. It's a spectacular bit of singing, especially for a group that had only been together for five or six weeks.

MOVIES: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

The Romanian film that won at Cannes this year is having a one-week Oscar qualifying run here in Los Angeles; it opens for real (if you're in a large enough city to get foreign-language movies at all) in February.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is set in 1987; Communism hasn't completely collapsed yet, but it's on the verge. Bribery and black markets are a routine part of life; petty bureaucrats and minor officials revel in abusing the tiny powers that have been allotted to them. And on this particular day, college student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is helping her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) obtain an illegal abortion.

The abortion takes place in a cheap hotel room, and we spend a fair amount of time worried that something will go horribly wrong, but 4 Months isn't that kind of movie. It's not even a movie about abortion, really; it's more about the dehumanizing effects of living in so utterly corrupt a society. The hellish challenges involved in arranging an abortion come to feel like just another day of life as usual in Romania; bribe this one, suck up to that one, make these semi-legal plans and schemes.

The performances are superb. Anamaria Marinca plays a lot of scenes without speaking, and her face communicates every flicker of emotion. There's a long scene, for instance, where she's at a miserable dinner party with her boyfriend's family (while Gabita lies in that hotel room); for close to five minutes, her silent face holds the screen and tells us more than all of the foolish small talk going on around her.

Vlad Ivanov, as the abortionist Bebe, is also excellent, hiding his fury and vicious rage behind a facade of pleasantries and polite instruction.

It's a very intense movie, and some may find it difficult to watch, but it's remarkably good movie making, and I recommend it highly.

MOVIES: Romance & Cigarettes (John Turturro, 2005)

Romance & Cigarettes is John Turturro's all-star musical, finally making it to theaters after a long run on the festival circuit.

Susan Sarandon has caught hubby James Gandolfini having an affair with Kate Winslet; daughters Mandy Moore, Mary Louise Parker, and Aida Turturro are caught in the crossfire (with casting like that, we're already clearly in a surreal world). Also on hand are Christopher Walken as Sarandon's brother (his number set to Tom Jones's "Delilah" is a highlight of the movie) and Eddie Izzard as the choir director at the local church; Elaine Stritch steals her single scene as Gandolfini's mother.

The musical numbers are done by having the actors sing along with classic pop records (in the style of this fall's TV flop Viva Laughlin, but much better done); Turturro has deliberately chosen songs and singers with oversized, melodramatic, borderline campy levels of emotion -- Engelbert Humperdinck, Dusty Springfield, Vikki Carr, Connie Francis -- in an attempt to maintain the concentrated burst of emotion that you get in a great 3-minute pop song for the length of a 2-hour movie.

Most of the actors don't consistently maintain the overheated level Turturro is aiming for, and against the backdrops of those songs, the flat moments feel even flatter. Kate Winslet, though, is fabulous as Tula; she's impossibly crude and wildly vulgar, and it's a hilarious, bravura performance. Romance & Cigarettes isn't always successful, but even in its weakest moments, it's more interesting than most of the movies that make it to the theater.

December 22, 2007

MOVIES: American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are talented, charismatic actors. You'd think that pairing them in a crime drama would make for an exciting movie, but American Gangster never gets any higher than craftsmanlike workmanship.

Washington is Frank Lucas, who rules the criminal underworld of Harlem in the late 60s and early 70s. He comes up with a clever scheme to take over the heroin market, which was then controlled by the Mafia, by importing his product directly from the producers in southeast Asia (he smuggles it into the country in the coffins of American soldiers returning from Vietnam). This allows him to offer "a product twice as good for half the price," and before long, he's living in a fabulous mansion and enjoying ringside seats at the Ali-Frazier fight.

Crowe is Richie Roberts, a Boy Scout of a cop (and loathed by his fellow officers for it) who takes a job on a federal drug task force. It takes a while for Richie to realize that Frank is the guy he's after, because none of the cops can quite believe that a black man has beaten the Mafia at its own game.

Both actors are oddly muted here, with their natural charisma turned way down. This makes some sense for Crowe, I suppose, who's playing a schlub from New Jersey, but Frank Lucas really should be a more charming character than Washington gives us; it's a little hard to understand how he inspires such loyalty (or such fear, for that matter, as Washington doesn't really crank up the menace, either). Perhaps director Ridley Scott feared that Washington would, if given free rein, wipe Crowe's low-key performance off the screen; in any event, it's hard to care much about either character.

The supporting cast is uneven. Armand Assante overacts terribly as a Mafia boss trying to make a deal with Frank, but Josh Brolin is effectively sleazy as a corrupt New York cop, and Ruby Dee is quite good as Frank's mother. (The Supporting Actress hype she's getting, though, is overblown; the role is a standard Noble Black Mama part, and while she's good, she's not award-worthy. She's being singled out for praise because (a) she's a lot better than the movie, and (b) she's a good choice for a "Career Achievement/We're Sorry We Never Honored You Before" award.)

Assante aside, there's not really anything that you can point to here and say it's bad or ineffective; but the movie never becomes more than the sum of its competent parts. There's not a single moment that excited me or made me sit up in my seat. It's a disappointing movie.

December 18, 2007

TV: Duel (ABC)

This year's week-long game-show stunt started its run last night. The game itself isn't awful, but the show's pacing and its leaden host make it unlikely, I think, that Duel will catch on in the way that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Deal or No Deal did.

The game is played in head-to-head duels, each of which eliminates one of the show's 24 players. Each player starts a duel with ten chips, worth $5,000 apiece, and is presented with a series of multiple-choice questions (asked of both players simultaneously). Each player marks his answers with chips; if unsure of the correct answer, a player may mark 2, 3, or even all 4 answers, but any chip placed on an incorrect answer will be lost (and that $5,000 added to the weeklong jackpot for which the players are competing).

Get an answer wrong, and you lose the duel and are eliminated from the competition; if both players get the same question wrong, there's a sudden-death playoff. The winner of each duel keeps the money represented by whatever chips he has left and faces a new opponent in the next duel. The four players who have been the most successful during the week (it's unclear whether that means most duels won or most money) will face off in the final rounds on Sunday night.

The questions are well written; they're things that you feel like you ought to know but don't: What color are President Bush's eyes? Which bill has the White House on the back? And the game play is fun to watch, as each player considers whether he's sure enough of this answer to place only one or two chips, or whether to accept a loss of three chips and mark all of the answers.

But the show's pacing is deadly. It's now common for primetime game shows to be filled with annoying "...and we'll find out the answer...(pause pause pause)...when we come back!" moments, but Duel takes that practice to new levels. It feels like there are a lot of commercials, and a lot of dramatic hostly pauses.

Even worse, host Mike Greenberg (he's a sports guy from ESPN) is ill suited to the job. He displays no sense of humor, and he doesn't seem to be having fun, which is the key requirement of any game show host. He sucks the energy out of the show, making it feel even slower than it is.

With a new host and a tempo boost, Duel might catch on, but as is, even an audience desperate for new programming during the writers' strike won't put up with this for very long.

December 16, 2007

MOVIES: Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)

It's been a year of unplanned pregnancy at the movies. There was Waitress and Knocked Up; the indie Stephanie Daley (which had only a short art-house run, and which I just received from Netflix this week); and the Romanian film that won at Cannes, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (which opens in Los Angeles next weekend). And now there's Juno.

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is our mother-to-be this time, after a single sexual fling with her sort-of boyfriend Paulie (Michael Cera). She considers abortion, but can't bring herself to go through with it, as much because the clinic is a creepy place as because of any moral considerations. Juno decides instead to find a couple in need of a child and arrange to have them adopt her baby. An ad in the local PennySaver leads her to Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who appear to be the perfect yuppie couple -- financially secure, devoted to one another, desperate for a child. At least, that's how they appear through Juno's 16-year-old eyes; their relationship is more complicated than it initially seems (as are Vanessa's and Mark's individual relationships with Juno).

This is one of the year's best movies. Diablo Cody's screenplay is sharp and funny, but it doesn't make the mistake of being just a punchline machine (though I was a bit worried for the first ten minutes or so); there's actually some emotional depth and character development behind the jokes.

The cast is ideal. Ellen Page, who was at the top of my Best Actress list last year for her ferocious work in Hard Candy, is just as good here, in a wildly different role. Juno talks fast and smart, but isn't quite as worldly wise as she pretends to be, and Page gets both the bravado and the confusion just right. Jennifer Garner is always best when she gets to play against her tightly-wound, impeccably presented surface -- in the "who can I trust" paranoia of Alias, for instance, or when she gets to be a kid again in 13 Going on 30 -- and this, I think, is the best work she's ever done. Vanessa is the one character in the movie who's notably not a fast talking, pop-culture referencing, smoothie, and her fear that she'll lose this opportunity if she can't find a way to connect with Juno is heartbreaking. The rest of the supporting players -- Bateman, Cera, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney as Juno's parents, Olivia Thirlby as her best friend -- are every bit as good.

Happily recommended.

MOVIES: The Savages (Tamara Jenkins, 2007)

This movie has some of the most misleading advertising and trailers in recent memory. From the ads, you go in expecting a dark comedy about lovably grumpy relatives -- something in the Wes Anderson school, perhaps -- and what you get instead is a rather bleak drama about unhappy people and the indignities of aging in America.

Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) have not been in close contact with their father for many years, and both had quietly been hoping that he would simply leave their lives by dying peacefully. No such luck, though; Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) has begun slipping into dementia after the death of his longtime girlfriend, and Jon and Wendy are forced to bring him home from Arizona to New York and find an institution in which he can live out his life.

Lenny was -- at least as Jon and Wendy tell the stories to one another -- an abusive father, and they've responded to their childhood very differently. Jon tries to avoid any emotional engagement; his Polish girlfriend is about to leave the country (her visa has expired), and he refuses to try to help her, or even to acknowledge that he will miss her. Wendy has managed to convince herself that she's reasonably happy, mostly by keeping herself busy with temp jobs, unfulfilling affairs, and endless grant applications in support of the "subversive, autobiographical" plays she wants to write.

It's also clear, though, that as terrible a parent as Lenny may have been, Jon and Wendy have been no great shakes as children, either. They are cruel to their father, regarding his presence as an intrusive nuisance; they argue about him as if he weren't in the room.

Linney, Hoffman, and Bosco are three marvelous actors, and the performances here are first-rate. There are some sharp moments in Jenkins' screenplay, and great care has been taken with the physical details of the characters' homes and of the assorted hospitals and institutions (all of which look depressingly the same). I very much liked the fact that the details of Lenny's abuse are never spelled out, and it is, in fact, entirely possible that Jon and Wendy are simply exaggerating the worst aspects of a perfectly normal childhood. They are, after all, both obsessed with drama, figuratively and literally; she's a would-be playwright, and he's a theater professor, specializing in Brecht.

But there's also an unpleasant condescension towards the older characters in the movie, especially in the opening Sun City sequence; the opening credits play out as a group of elderly women in pseudo-Rockette costumes dance to a creepy Peggy Lee recording of "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard," which sexualizes them in a grotesquely inappropriate fashion and infantilizes them at the same time.

The ending suggests that Jon and Wendy are moving on with their lives, finally escaping the need to wallow in their childhood trauma, but that optimism didn't feel earned to me; I hadn't seen any sign that either of them had learned anything or changed in any significant way.

The Savages isn't a completely satisfying movie, but the three central performances are strong enough that I think it's worth seeing.

December 12, 2007

I know, I know, I've been a very bad blogger. But I promise, I'll be caught up by the end of the weekend, with comments on The Savages (liked it), Juno (loved it), and a buncha other stuff.

November 29, 2007

BOOKS: The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta (2007)

Ruth is a high school sex-ed teacher at a Midwestern suburban high school. She believes in being honest with her students, and is gritting her teeth at the new curriculum she's been forced to teach. The school has decided to teach abstinence only, mostly because of political pressure from members of the Tabernacle, an evangelical church that's relatively new in town.

Tim is a member of the Tabernacle, and he coaches the soccer team on which Ruth's younger daughter plays. In the passion of the moment after an exciting victory, he leads the girls in a prayer, infuriating Ruth.

It would not be unreasonable to think that when these two characters meet, something interesting would happen. And in a better novel, it would. But alas, in The Abstinence Teacher, almost nothing happens. Tim and Ruth meet, they argue a bit, they flirt a bit -- all of it leading nowhere.

Perrotta manipulates his cardboard cutouts (Ruth's obligatory gay best pal is a particularly grating collection of stereotypes and cliches) in order to makes what he seems to think are surprising and novel points: Zealotry makes people stupid, and left-wing zealots can be just as intolerant and annoying as right-wing zealots. Gee, who knew.

Not recommended. At all. To anyone.

November 28, 2007

MOVIES: The Valet (Francis Veber, 2006/US 2007)

Veber has built a career on perfectly crafted light comedies, often built around an ordinary guy who gets the best of a more powerful or wealthy man. The Valet is a fine example of Veber's work; it's nothing more than fluffy entertainment, but it's very nicely made entertainment.

The powerful wealthy man this time is billionaire businessman Pierre (Daniel Auteuil), who is caught by the paparazzi with his supermodel mistress, Elena (Alice Taglioni). Pierre's wife, Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is not amused when the photo makes the papers. Pierre tries frantically to talk his way out of the mess. "I don't know her," he claims; "she's with him," pointing to another man who happened to be walking past when the photo was taken.

That man is a parking lot valet named François Pignon (Gad Elmaleh); in desperation, Pierre offers François and Elena large amounts of money to live together and pretend to be a couple for as long as it takes to convince Christine that he's done nothing wrong. Christine, of course, is not fooled, and the deception causes complications in François' own romantic life.

(For some reason, there is often a character named François Pignon in Veber's movies; it's not the same character from movie to movie, and he's generally played by a different actor each time. Auteuil played his own Pignon in Veber's The Closet.)

The cast is first-rate. With his beady eyes and pursed lips, Auteuil is a natural at playing uptight businessmen; Elmaleh is a charming sad sack. Richard Berry shows off some sharp comic timing as Pierre's lawyer; combined with his droopy eyes and gravelly voice, it reminded me of Jerry Orbach. But the toughest role here, I think, is that of Elena. She is the supermodel/mistress, after all, and it would be easy to hate her; she has to be incredibly sweet and warm to win our sympathy, and Taglioni pulls that off without becoming too syrupy or gushy.

It's great fun to watch the complications and plots of the various characters play out, and if you can occasionally see the next plot twist coming, it's hard to grumble when it's done with such charm and style.

November 26, 2007

BOOKS: Ha'penny, Jo Walton (2007)

Sequel to Farthing, which I enjoyed very much.

We're back in Walton's post-WWII England, in a version of history where England and Germany made peace, and England is rapidly sliding into fascist dictatorship. The new Prime Minister, Mark Normanby, has imposed radical new security measures, and although most people aren't complaining, there is a growing underground of opposition.

Our heroine this time is Viola Lark, an actress who is estranged from her noble family, making it something of a surprise when her sister Cressida calls. Cressida is part of the rebel underground, and has learned that Prime Minister Normanby and his geopolitical ally, Adolf Hitler, will be attending the opening night of the play in which Viola's just been cast; the rebels want Viola to help assassinate both men by planting a bomb in their box. Viola reluctantly agrees to go along; she really isn't given much choice when one of Cressida's fellow conspirators points out that Viola now knows too much to be allowed to live if she doesn't cooperate.

Meanwhile, Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard (the only major character to return from Farthing, though other characters and events of that book are referred to in the background) is investigating the explosion of a bomb in the suburban home of an aging actress. Was the bomb planted by terrorists? Or was this actress, unlikely as it seems, killed while building a bomb herself?

Ha'penny is an entertaining book, though it didn't work for me quite as well as Farthing; the characters aren't as interesting or well-developed -- Viola, in particular, is a self-centered drip -- and the ending feels rushed. But Inspector Carmichael is still a terrific character, and I enjoyed the glimpses we got into his domestic life. There is reportedly a third volume in the works, to be called Half a Crown, and I look forward to seeing how Walton wraps up the series.

November 25, 2007

MOVIES: Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner, 2007)

Starting Out in the Evening opens with Leonard Schiller at his typewriter, struggling to finish the novel he's been working on for a decade. During those years of struggle, his first four novels have gone out of print, and he's been largely forgotten as literary novels have gone out of style.

Heather Wolfe thinks she can change all of that with her master's thesis, a critical biography of Schiller that she expects to revive interest in his work (which suggests to me that she has a wildly inflated view of the importance and influence of literary criticism, but c'est la vie...). Leonard is reluctant at first -- he hasn't been well, he protests, and can't afford the distraction from his work -- but an idol-worshipping young woman, especially a pretty one, is hard to resist.

Leonard's daughter, Ariel, is skeptical of Heather's motives, and becomes more so as Leonard and Heather grow closer, but she's distracted by her own relationship problems.

Starting Out in the Evening is a well-made movie, and the acting is impeccable, as one would expect from a cast that includes Frank Langella (Leonard), Lauren Ambrose (Heather), and Lili Taylor (Ariel), with key supporting roles played by Michael Cumpsty, Adrian Lester, and Jessica Hecht. But it's a movie that I admired more than I enjoyed; for all of its craft, I never found any reason to care much about any of these people or their conniving attempts to manipulate one another.

And as the relationship between Leonard and Heather becomes more intimate -- the precise extent of that intimacy is left tastefully ambiguous -- I was really creeped out; at least the analogous relationship in last year's Peter O'Toole vehicle, Venus, was leavened with a fair amount of humor, which is almost entirely absent from this movie.

November 23, 2007

MOVIES: Enchanted (Kevin Lima, 2007)

Enchanted is an absolute joy. It's the latest Disney princess movie, but it's done with a surprising amount of light self-mockery, especially for a company so image-conscious as Disney.

The animated prologue is set in Andalasia, where the lovely Giselle and Prince Edward are about to marry, which will allow Edward to take the throne and depose his wicked stepmother, Queen Narissa. Narissa can't have that, so she pushes Giselle down a magic well; when Giselle pops out the other end, she's now a live-action character in modern Manhattan. Edward follows, desperate to save his true love, and eventually Narissa shows up to stop him from doing so.

Amy Adams plays Giselle, and she is utterly perfect in the role; her innocence and naivete are believable without ever becoming cloying or syrupy. James Marsden is appropriately charming and bland, in the best Disney prince tradition, as Prince Edward (though Edward is allowed to get more laughs than most Disney princes); and Susan Sarandon is fabulously wicked as the evil Queen Narissa. Patrick Dempsey plays the New York divorce lawyer who becomes Giselle's protector, and he plays Robert as a real-world analogue of the Disney prince archetype -- that is, he's perfectly pleasant, but never so interesting as to draw focus away from Giselle.

There's an obligatory cute animal sidekick -- Giselle's chipmunk, Pip, whose frantic attempts to communicate (seems that he can't speak in the real world) provide some of the movie's funniest moments. There are musical numbers, which Adams sings beautifully; the "Happy Working Song" is a hilarious Snow White/Mary Poppins hybrid, and "That's How You Know" is a spectacular production number which finds every street musician and passerby in Central Park joining in Giselle's song.

The movie is filled with references to previous Disney princesses -- Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, Mulan -- with a Lady and the Tramp reference thrown in for good measure, and several of the smaller female roles are played by women (Jodi Benson, Paige O'Hara, Judy Kuhn) who have served as voices for earlier animated princesses. (One of the most charming allusions is the name of Robert's law firm -- Churchill, Harline, & Smith; those are the names of the songwriters for Snow White.)

I could perhaps have done with a bit less clumsy CGI in the movie's final moments, and Timothy Spall is a bit too hammy as Narissa's henchman, Nathaniel. But those minor reservations fade in the light of Amy Adams' performance, which is entirely deserving of consideration at Oscar time. Of course, since the movie is a light, frothy comedy, it will almost certainly be overlooked. Ah well, Adams will have to take comfort in the fact that she's been given the juiciest Disney star-making role since Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins and played it ideally.

November 22, 2007

MOVIES: Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007)

Your IRS forms are printed in Helvetica. So is the signage of the New York City subway system. The corporate logos of Target, JC Penney, American Airlines, and Crate & Barrel are all in Helvetica. Since it was invented in 1957, Helvetica has been ubiquitous; so much so that finding anything interesting to say about Helvetica is, in the words of one type designer, like saying something about off-white paint.

It doesn't seem like much to build a documentary on, but Gary Hustwit's film does a marvelous job of explaining how Helvetica came to be so popular. Even better, he uses Helvetica as a backdrop against which we get the history of graphic design for the last half-century -- the rise of the typeface in the 50s as part of the realist movement; the sweeping adoption of Helvetica by the corporate world in the 60s; the revolt against it in the 70s and 80s, culminating in the grunge design movement of the early 90s; and the somewhat grudging realization among today's designers that Helvetica really was a damned fine typeface after all.

Visually, the movie's a bit of a snooze -- one talking head after another -- but Hustwit has chosen his talking heads very well; they're lively, quirky people with strong opinions and interesting ways of expressing them. Aside from a few film festivals, Helvetica never really had a theatrical release, but it's available now on DVD (and if you're a Netflix subscriber, it's available for online viewing). It's well worth renting.

November 17, 2007

MOVIES: Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2007)

This is director Richard Kelly's followup to Donnie Darko; if you thought Donnie was an impenetrable, confusing, pretentious mess, then you're really gonna hate this one. It is a dark comedy of the apocalypse, rooted in intense anger over the worst excesses of the Bush administration.

The movie stars Dwayne Johnson (no "The Rock" billing here), Seann William Scott, and Sarah Michelle Gellar; the supporting cast includes (in alphabetical order) Nora Dunn, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz (surprisingly good in a small role as a racist LAPD officer), Mandy Moore, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Miranda Richardson, Zelda Rubinstein, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith, and Justin Timberlake.

The action of Southland Tales begins in the middle of the story; the first three segments of the movie are labeled as chapters 4, 5, and 6. Timberlake's Pilot Abilene -- that's a name, not a job title -- lays out the backstory for us in the first 15 or 20 minutes, which are very heavy on expository narration. It's June of 2008, and WW3 is underway -- the US is fighting in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and North Korea. The Republicans have swept into power and imposed restrictions that make the real-life Bush administration look like pikers, culminating in the establishment of USIdent, an agency that controls all communication (including the Internet) and movement of all US citizens within the country.

Johnson plays Boxer Santaros, an action movie star who has, after a brief disappearance, returned to Los Angeles with amnesia in the company of porn star Krysta Now (Gellar). This infuriates Boxer's wife (Mandy Moore), and has the potential to be a huge embarassment for his in-laws; Dad-in-law is the Republican candidate for vice-president and Mom-in-law (Richardson) is in charge of USIdent. Scott plays the dual role of Ronald and Roland Taverner; one's a Los Angeles cop and the other's an Iraq veteran, and their relationship is more complicated than it first seems.

As if this weren't enough, there's a growing left-wing dissident movement -- the Neo-Marxists -- based in Venice Beach; there's a crazed German inventor (Shawn) who's developed a new source of virtually free energy called Fluid Karma, and as a by-product of that process, a hallucinogenic drug of the same name; and there's an apocalyptic screenplay called The Power, written by Boxer and Krysta, the events of which appear to be coming true (the character Boxer is to play in this movie is Jericho Kane, which was the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in End of Days).

To play amnesia and confusion, Johnson resorts to a lot of nervous twitching and hand-wringing; we haven't seen this much jittery finger fidgeting since the sissy sidekicks of 30s comedy. Gellar wouldn't have been my choice to play a porn star, but she certainly throws herself into the role with gusto. The entire cast, in fact, commits to the loopy proceedings with great energy and enthusiasm, but it's still hard to overcome the sense that even they aren't always sure what the hell is going on.

Southland Tales is an overstuffed mess, with some plot lines that don't ever make sense and some that never go anywhere. There are references to the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost (and Eliot-Frost are the Republican presidential ticket), Titanic, Strange Days, Kiss Me Deadly, The Manchurian Candidate, Mulholland Drive, and lord only knows how many other movies. There are some magnificent images, and occasional scenes of remarkable originality. The movie seems destined to join Donnie Darko as a divisive cult classic. I can't say it's a great movie, or even a very good one most of the time, but it's certainly never boring, and you gotta love a movie that gives you the apocalypse in a battle between a giant mega-zeppelin and a levitating ice-cream truck.

November 15, 2007

BOOKS: Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, ed. (2007)

26 essays by assorted authors and foodies on the challenges and joys of cooking for one and dining alone; several of the pieces have a recipe attached.

This sort of collection is always a hit-or-miss kinda thing; the hit-to-miss ratio is surprisingly high here. Among the most entertaining pieces are tributes to black beans, asparagus, and chili (by Jeremy Jackson*, Phoebe Nobles, and Dan Chaon, respectively); M.F.K. Fisher's lament about the challenge of being a known food person (you eat alone more because none of your friends dare to cook for you); and Ben Karlin's story of a sauce, "The Legend of the Salsa Rosa."

Seven of the pieces are reprints; the rest are original to this volume. A charming collection, lots of fun.

(* -- I'm going to take this opportunity to do a little proselytizing on behalf of Jeremy Jackson, one of my favorite unsung writers. He's written two charming little books -- The Cornbread Book and Desserts That Have Killed Better Men Than Me (love that title!) -- which can be viewed as small cookbooks with digressions, or long essays interrupted by recipes. His two novels -- Life at These Speeds and In Summer -- are fine books; I'm particularly fond of Life at These Speeds, which is a loopy, slightly surreal take on the high-school coming-of-age genre. And a quick look at my library catalog shows a third cookbook, Good Day for a Picnic, which I have not yet read but am reserving a copy of this very moment. Go read yourself some Jeremy Jackson. You'll be glad you did.)

November 13, 2007

MOVIES: Bee Movie (Steve Hickner & Simon J. Smith, 2007)

This isn't great animation -- it's not in the league of Pixar's movies, for instance -- but it has its moments, and it's reasonably entertaining.

Jerry Seinfeld provides the voice of Barry B. Benson, a bee who's not quite sure he's ready to commit to one job (with the Honex Company) for the rest of his life. Over the objections of his best friend, Adam (very funny and precise voice work from Matthew Broderick), he joins the "Pollen Jocks" on a nectar gathering run. (It's a bit of an odd choice to have the nectar gathering/pollinating bees presented as an all-male, quasi-military unit; in reality, it's the female bees who do that work.)

The somewhat meandering plot finds Barry separated from the swarm; he meets a nice human, Vanessa (Renee Zellweger), and eventually discovers that humans have been stealing the honey the bees make and selling it for profit. He sues humanity to end this injustice, with unexpected, nearly cataclysmic results.

The movie's strong point is the animation of its sets and backgrounds. The world of the beehive, the scenes of Barry and the Jocks flying through Central Park, the colorful fields of flowers -- all beautifully done, and marvelous to look at. There are one or two impressive set pieces, most notably a clever variation on a fencing match. The character animation isn't at the same level as the backgrounds; the faces -- especially on the human characters -- aren't very expressive, and what expression they are given doesn't always seem to match very well with the dialogue.

The voice performances are uneven. Seinfeld plays the only character he can play (though toned down a bit to be more kid-friendly), but the script (which he wrote with a few other writers) plays well to his strengths. John Goodman is a bit broad, but gets laughs as the opposing lawyer in Barry's court case. Patrick Warburton, normally so good in voice-over work, is disappointing as Vanessa's lunkheaded boyfriend; there's a bit too much shouting and ranting for its own sake, and Warburton's usual subtlety is missing. There are effective cameos from Ray Liotta, Larry King, Sting (all as themselves), and Oprah Winfrey (as the judge).

The final message of the movie seemed to me a bit weird for a kids' movie; Barry's attempts to liberate the bees from the monotony of their work life lead to disaster, and everyone winds up happier when they are doing the same repetitive job every day for the rest of their lives. Gee, there's a message that'll have the tiny tots looking forward to adulthood!

November 12, 2007

MOVIES: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke star as brothers Andy and Hank Hanson. Each is desperately in need of money, and Andy comes up with a can't-miss scheme to rob a jewelry store. Things go horribly wrong -- what, you were expecting a perfect heist and they all live happily ever after? -- and the brothers find their lives and their family crumbling around them.

After a brief introductory scene, the movie begins on the day of the robbery. It's clear that things haven't gone well, but we don't yet realize just how badly things have gone, or what a horrible idea this particular robbery was. That knowledge only comes as Lumet begins looping back in time, showing us the events from different characters' point of view; each new version begins a little earlier, or runs a little later, filling in new details and perspectives.

The role of Andy is tailor-made for Hoffman; no one plays sweaty desperation so well. The surprise is that Hawke keeps up with him; he does his best work in years as Hank, who's none too bright and is just beginning to realize that looks and charm aren't going to carry him much further. There's also fine work from Albert Finney as the boys' father and Marisa Tomei as Andy's wife.

One of the things I love about the movie is that it turns out not to be just a crime thriller (though it is that, and a very good one, filled with tension), but a compelling family drama. The Hanson family is a mess, and as the various members come to realize the ways in which they've been betrayed by one another, the anger and the buried resentment come bubbling to the surface.

Kelly Masterson's screenplay is taut and clever, and for once the looping time structure (so common in movies these days) doesn't feel like a mere gimmick; the story becomes richer and more intricate, and the relationships more complex, with each iteration.

This is one of the year's best movies; highly recommended.

November 11, 2007

MOVIES: Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, 2007)

For all the skill with which this movie is written, directed, and acted, it made me angry. To explain why, I'm going to have to say a lot more about the plot than I normally would, so those of you who are averse to spoilers should stop reading now.

Here's the story, as we are meant to see it:

Lars (Ryan Gosling) is a pathologically shy young man, so much so that his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) has to literally tackle him to get him to come to their house for dinner. It is therefore a great surprise to Karin and Lars' brother Gus (Paul Schneider) when Lars announces that his girlfriend is visiting; it's even a bigger surprise when Lars introduces "Bianca," a life-sized, anatomically correct doll.

Karin and Gus consult the town doctor (who also happens to be the town shrink), Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), who tells them that since Lars isn't violent and doesn't appear to be psychotic or dangerous, they should go along with his delusion and treat Bianca as if she were real. They get the entire town to go along with this (because they all adore Lars so much), giving her a job at the mall and even electing Bianca to the school board. Even Margo (Kelli Garner), Lars' co-worker who is somewhat jealous of Bianca and wants Lars for herself, goes along with Lars' fantasy.

Through his interactions with Bianca, Lars gradually becomes more comfortable with intimacy, eventually announcing that Bianca is terribly sick, and finally that she has died. There is a funeral for Bianca, and after the graveside service, Lars invites Margo to go for a walk, the sign that he has been healed and is ready to join fully in the world around him.

It's all very sweet, uplifting and inspirational and so on. Of course, in order to go along with this reading of the movie, you must accept the unspoken premise at the heart of the story: The desire for solitude is, by definition, pathological; happiness is reserved for the outgoing, and at the front of the happiness line are those in committed, monogamous, (and preferably heterosexual) relationships.

That is, of course, a crock, and as someone who rather enjoys spending time alone, I find it offensive. Solitary people are neither ill nor dangerous, and their preference for solitude should not be automatically pathologized. Let's take a look at how Lars' story reads if we refuse to accept the unspoken premise:

Lars is a quiet young man, fully functional in the world -- holds down a good job, gets along with people in daily interactions -- who prefers to spend most of his time alone. His brother and (especially) his sister-in-law are constantly hectoring him to join them for family functions; the old ladies at church are terribly worried that he's still single, even assuming that he must be gay.

As a gesture of defiance, Lars purchases a life-sized doll, and introduces it to his family as his girlfriend; it's his way of saying, "You want me to have a girlfriend? Fine: Meet Bianca. Happy now?"

This does not work, of course. Karin continues her nagging; she and everyone else in town continue to whisper behind Lars' back about what a sad case he is; the town shrink keeps pressing him to date a real person, and insisting that Lars must put up with the invasion of his physical space from anyone who might wish to hug him at anytime.

Finally, Lars can take no more; he announces the illness, and ultimately the death, of Bianca. He has been beaten down, and what is really being killed is Lars himself; he sacrifices his very identity and enters into a relationship with Margo. This is a relationship that Lars does not want, has no interest in, and will surely make neither of them happy in the long run.

Seen from this perspective, Lars and the Real Girl is no longer the uplifting, moving tale of one man's journey from illness to health; it's a tragedy about a young man whose family and neighbors have clubbed the individuality out of him and forced him to conform to their norms.

The movie is beautifully acted. Ryan Gosling skillfully conveys Lars' basic decency, and is heartbreaking in the final scenes with Margo. Schneider and Mortimer make clear their love for Lars, even while they are clueless to they way that they are suffocating him. Much credit also goes to director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver for their careful control of tone; a story about a young man and his sex doll could easily have turned sleazy and smutty, and this movie never does.

But the assumptions that underlie the movie are so insulting, so uninformed, so misguided, that it was impossible for me to enjoy the movie as the heartwarming inspirational fable it so desperately wants to be; and the movie that it actually is is so dark, bitter, and painful a portrait of a soul being crushed that I can't possibly recommend it.

MOVIES: Dan in Real Life (Peter Hedges, 2007)

Not a great movie by any stretch, but a better-than-average romantic comedy that is aimed at adults instead of 15-year-old kids.

Steve Carell stars as Dan, a recently widowed father of three daughters who writes a newspaper advice column. He's packed up the girls for the annual family gathering at his parents' cozy seaside vacation house; while on a trip into the nearby village, he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) at the book store. They hit it off instantly, and it's the first time since his wife's death that Dan has felt any sort of romantic interest in anyone. But when he gets back to the family home, his brother Mitch (Dane Cook) introduces the woman he's been dating for several weeks -- Marie.

This is the point at which the film is taken over by (to borrow Roger Ebert's useful phrase) an Idiot Plot; that is, the entire movie would be over if it weren't for the fact that every character is an idiot. If Dan or Marie would simply tell the truth about their meeting in town, there would be a few moments of uncomfortable laughter, and that would be that. But no, they decide they mustn't say anything, and so we are forced through the standard cliches -- Carell falling off the roof after crawling out the window, Carell and Binoche almost being caught together in the shower.

There are moments that rise above the standard formula. The bookstore scene in which Dan and Marie meet is nicely written; their conversation is a bit less glib and a lot more awkward than the standard meet-cute dialogue. And while the family talent show scene is awfully syrupy, the moment when Dan simply ignores Mitch (they're singing a song together) and sings directly to Marie is a marvelous bit of acting from Carell.

Carell is very good throughout the movie, in fact, and he's the best reason to see it. Most of his movie work so far has been broad comedy, at which he's very good, but between this movie and Little Miss Sunshine, I'm beginning to think he has the potential to be a fine dramatic actor as well.

The movie's biggest miracle is the performance of Dane Cook, which rises far above his usual level (which is roughly "for the love of god, kill me now") all the way to utter competence. He will never be a great actor, but perhaps there is hope yet for him to be an adequate one.

The large supporting cast is made up of fine actors -- John Mahoney, Dianne Wiest, Norbert Leo Butz, Amy Ryan, Emily Blunt -- most of whom are wasted, given little or nothing interesting to do.

I greatly enjoyed the score and songs by Sondre Lerche, a Norwegian pop singer making his film composing debut here. The quirky rhythms, melodies, and instrumentation of his music (lots of muted trumpets and guitar here) remind me a bit of Burt Bacharach; it's a very different sound from the usual Hollywood composing suspects.

All in all, a pleasant entertainment, and in a fall that's stuffed with dark and violent movies, a good choice if you're in the mood for something a bit lighter.

November 10, 2007 we head into Oscar season...

The next two months will be filled with "gimme an Oscar, dammit" movies, and over at Low Resolution, Joe has decided to take a look at the best of the non-Oscar-season movies and performances. Seemed like an idea worth blatantly stealing, and it will be fun to see how the lists change in two months. My picks thus far would be (unlike Joe, I'm not picking actual winners):

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
The Lookout

Nikki Blonsky, Hairspray
Julie Christie, Away From Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Kate Dickie, Red Road
Keri Russell, Waitress

Chris Cooper, Breach
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Lookout
Glen Hansard, Once
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Gordon Pinsent, Away From Her

Taraji P. Henson, Talk to Me
Anna Kendrick, Rocket Science
Melissa McCarthy, The Nines
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Sigourney Weaver, The TV Set

Jeff Daniels, The Lookout
Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma
Elijah Kelley, Hairspray
Rolf Lassgard, After the Wedding
Alan Tudyk, Death at a Funeral

November 04, 2007

BOOKS: Shelter, Susan Palwick (2007)

Fifty years in the future, compassion -- "excessive altruism," to be precise -- has become a crime, and Roberta Danton finds herself on probation for just such an offense, at risk of having her memories and personality wiped for further violations. Roberta's life has long been entangled with that of Meredith Walford, ever since they were both hospitalized as children. They are both among the relatively small number of survivors of a virus that killed (among many others) Roberta's parents.

When a violent storm hits San Francisco, Roberta and Meredith are forced to take shelter in the same house, that of Meredith's ex-husband. Also taking shelter in the house is Henry, a homeless man with his own ties to Roberta and Meredith. As the storm rages outside, Roberta and Meredith are forced to come to terms with their shared history; each knows only pieces of the story, and we put the pieces together as each tells her side of things.

There are other characters, not all of them exactly human. Meredith's father, Preston, was also killed by the virus, but as a fabulously wealthy tycoon, he is among the first people to have his personality and memory "translated" -- downloaded to a computer, from which he continues to talk to his family, and to anyone else who will listen. An artificial intelligence named Fred, designed as an expert in early childhood education, seems to have developed more personality and volition than AI's are supposed to be capable of, as does the AI that controls the house in which everyone is riding out the storm.

"Not exactly human," I said of these characters, but that is perhaps open to debate; Palwick certainly invites us to ask whether these mechanical intelligences are or are not human, but also raises the much more fundamental question of what it means to be human in the first place. Can one be human without one's memories? Is it possible (as this society has declared) that people can be too compassionate? Too forgiving?

If you're not a science fiction fan, then you may be scared away by the SF trappings of the novel; you shouldn't be. Shelter is a beautifully written novel about the importance of memory and the tragedies that can happen when people act on incomplete information. The characters are rich and complex; even the minor characters have more depth than the protagonists of many a lesser novel. With every piece that falls into place, the story grows in richness and emotional force.

Palwick's The Necessary Beggar was my favorite novel of 2006 (published in 2005, but I didn't get to it for a while), and Shelter will surely be on my top-ten list this year.

October 30, 2007

BOOKS: Red Seas Under Red Skies, Scott Lynch (2007)

Sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I raved about last year.

A few years after the events of Lies, Locke and his sidekick, Jean, have travelled to Tal Verrar, home of the most opulent gaming houses in the world. The finest of them all is the Sinspire, nine floors of gaming, each more decadent and luxurious than the last, and each accessible only by personal invitation of Requin, the owner. No one dares to cheat the Sinspire, because the only penalty for such behavior is death.

Locke and Jean aren't planning to cheat the Sinspire, exactly, though they aren't averse to it if it helps them reach their larger goal, which is to rob the place. Their plot, of course, is spectacularly intricate, and they are forced to make it even more so when the Archon, who controls the military of Tal Verrar, discovers what they are up to.

The Archon, convinced that the military doesn't get the respect (or the money) it deserves from the city's government, needs an excuse to beef up the military, and forces Locke and Jean to help provide one by sending them to sea as pirates. Locke and Jean have absolutely no experience in piracy, but caught as they are in the middle of the power struggle between Requin and the Archon, they don't have much choice but to go along with the Archon's scheme.

Like the first book in the series, this is top-notch entertainment. The con games are fiendishly clever; the action sequences, including some fine battles at sea, are exciting; and Locke is a tremendously appealing hero, likable and resourceful. I miss some of the characters from Lies who are no longer present, but Locke and Jean on their own are a fine team, bantering and teasing one another, but completely able to rely on each other in a jam.

I wouldn't recommend diving into Red Seas without first reading Lies; there are lots of references to events from the first book. You could probably enjoy the main plot of Red Seas without fully understanding all of those references, but they'll be less distracting if you've read the first book, I think. (Besides, it's a fabulous book.)

Recommended with great enthusiasm.

October 29, 2007

MOVIES: Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007)

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is the "fixer" for a prestigious law firm. A client has a nasty auto accident? An unpleasant story is about to hit the papers? Michael's the go-to guy; he has a knack for fixing this sort of thing, quickly and quietly.

When one of Michael's colleagues, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) suddenly goes berserk in the middle of a deposition, declaring his love for the young woman who's testifying and stripping naked in the conference room, Michael is summoned to fix things. His boss (Sydney Pollack) is more worried about the damage to the firm's reputation; the client, a large agrichemical company, is more worried about the impact on the class-action case in which Arthur was defending them. Their agendas do not always overlap, and Michael is stuck in the middle, trying to please both.

It's always nice (and increasingly rare) to see a reasonably intelligent drama aimed at an adult audience, but I didn't think this one was entirely successful. Wilkinson's performance is wildly overdone, and a bit too reminiscent of Peter Firth's ranting in Network. The glimpses we get of Clooney's family life are terribly melodramatic, and Gilroy seems to think that if one family member in crisis will make Michael more sympathetic, then four family members in crisis will really make us love the guy.

I very much liked Tilda Swinton, though, who plays the in-house counsel for Arthur's client; she's particularly good in a scene where we see her rehearsing answers for an upcoming interview, trying to get the phrasing just right.

Michael Clayton isn't a terrible movie -- there are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon -- but it's too frantic and overheated to be a really memorable one.

October 28, 2007

MOVIES: Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)

Affleck makes a solid directing debut with this adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel about the search for a missing child. There's a fine cast; the screenplay (by Affleck and Aaron Stockard) is tight and filled with tension; and Affleck does an excellent job of capturing the Boston neighborhoods where the story is set.

Casey Affleck stars as private investigator Patrick Kenzie, who's asked by the aunt of the missing girl to use his local contacts to "supplement" the police investigation. Patrick's partner (in business and in life), Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), is reluctant to take the case; she's not sure she can handle the particular stress and heartbreak that go with missing children.

The cops aren't thrilled to have them involved, either. Ed Harris and John Ashton are the two detectives in charge of the case, and their boss (Morgan Freeman, using his recent "St. Morgan" typecasting to very good effect here) created the special unit that investigates missing children after his own daughter was murdered; they all assume that amateurs like Patrick and Angie can only screw up the case.

Amy Ryan steals the movie from her better-known co-stars as Helene McCready, the mother of the missing girl. Helene's not a sympathetic figure; she's a drunk and a drug addict, and isn't terribly well educated. Ryan plays the part entirely without vanity; she's not afraid to be hated, and she makes Helene the most complex and interesting character in the movie.

My biggest problem with the movie is Casey Affleck. It's not a bad performance, certainly, but I find it hard to take him seriously as a leading man, mostly because of his voice. It's an insubstantial thing, all breath and top notes with no depth, no bottom to it, and it makes him seem far younger than he is. (Patrick is 31, which is the same age that Affleck was during the filming of the movie.) That's not entirely inappropriate for this story -- Patrick's youth and relative inexperience are crucial to the way the plot unfolds -- but combined with his strong Boston accent, it occasionally leads to key bits of dialogue getting lost in the sound mix.

Still, the movie is well worth seeing, and the difficult moral choice that faces Patrick and Angie at the end of the story had me thinking hard about what I'd do in that situation. (I think I'd make the same choice Patrick makes, but I'd spend the rest of my life wondering "what if?".)