January 31, 2007

BOOKS: The Dead Fathers Club, Matt Haig (2007)

Philip Noble on rugby:
Rugby is weird because it lets people hurt you and jump on you on the field and if they did it 30 minutes before at break theyd get told off but in Rugby you are meant to do it.

Its like how in War soldiers are told to kill other men and then they are Heroes but if they killed the same men when they were not in War they are Murderers. But they are still killing the same men who have the same dreams and who chew the same food and hum the same songs when they are happy but if it is called War it is all right because that is the rules of War.

So it is not the thing that is bad or good it is what the thing is called like in Roman times when the Emperors let people watch the Games in the Colosseum where Slaves killed each other and people cheered.

This is, to be sure, less concise than Shakespeare's version -- "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" -- but then, Philip is only 11. At least Hamlet had the benefit of a little more education when his father's ghost began appearing to him.

Haig's contemporary re-imagining of Hamlet begins much as the original does; Philip's father appears to him (at his own wake), declares that his death was no accident, and orders Philip to avenge his death by killing Uncle Alan, who is (according to the ghost) out to marry Mum and take over the Castle and Falcon, the family pub.

At first, The Dead Fathers Club is a light amusement, and we're kept entertained by spotting the parallels. Philip's first girlfriend, Leah, and her father (who is, naturally, Uncle Alan's business partner) fill in for Ophelia and Polonius; there's Ross and Gary, Philip's identical twin classmates, who no one can tell apart; there are sly references to Shakespeare's dialogue.

But as the novel progresses, and Philip becomes more determined to carry out his father's wishes, the story deepens and darkens. As characters begin to meet their various tragic endings -- c'mon, it's Hamlet; you knew there'd be tragic endings -- Haig achieves moments of heartbreak and poignancy without ever letting the narrative become too heavy or ponderous.

The writing is very smart. The omission of commas and apostrophes is occasionally a bit distracting, but it's an effective reminder that we're not hearing the voice of an adult. And Haig does a terrific job of maintaining the central ambiguity -- is Dads Ghost real, or has Philip been driven mad by grief? -- for as long as possible.

You don't expect to be charmed by black comedy, but that's what Haig has pulled off here; it's first-rate work, and a marvelous entertainment.

January 25, 2007

There's some controversy in the animation world, it seems, over the nominees for Best Animated Film, and whether motion-capture is or isn't real animation.

January 23, 2007

MOVIES: Oscar nominations

Goodness, a nominations announcement with some actual surprises. No Best Picture or Director spot for Dreamgirls, which becomes the first film to lead the year's pack in total nominations without being nominated for Best Picture; no Best Foreign nomination for Volver; no nomination for Jack Nicholson (that one makes me happy). On the other hand, Ryan Gosling gets in, as does Jackie Earle Haley (that one makes me very happy).

At least one gay blogger is already spinning the Dreamgirls omission as proof of the Academy's homophobia. I guess because it's a musical, and who likes musicals more than gay men, and aren't we all still pissed off that Brokeback didn't win last year, and yada yada yada. It seems a flimsy argument to me. And for the record, no, we are not all pissed off about Brokeback; some of us were quite pleased that it didn't win (not that I was exactly giddy about Crash, mind you). It's going to be even harder to spin it as evidence of racism in a year that set new records for nominating black actors (5) and minority actors (8), with black actors the current favorites to win three of the four acting awards.

There's a striking disconnect this year between the Best Picture nominees and the rest of the slate. The five Best Picture nominees generated only six acting nominations, and only one in the Best Actor/Actress categories. Further, as David Poland notes at The Hot Blog, "In the categories of cinematography (0), art direction (0), costume (1), editing (2), make-up (0), score (2), song (0), sound editing (1), and sound mixing (0) combined, there are a total of 6 nominees from the group of Best Picture nominees."

Interesting tidbits from the Academy's press kit:
  • Kate Winslet has become the youngest 5-time Oscar nominee.
  • Alan Arkin's 38-year gap between nominations is not a record. Helen Hayes went 39 years; Henry Fonda went 41 years. Both Hayes and Fonda won their post-gap nominations (hers for Airport; his for On Golden Pond).
  • "I Need to Wake Up" is not, as I would have guessed, the first nominated song from a documentary; "More" from Mondo Cane was nominated in 1963.
  • It's a year to be either a veteran or a novice; ten of the acting nominees have never been nominated, and the other ten have 49 nominations among them.

Looking at the top categories:

BEST PICTURE: I haven't seen Letters from Iwo Jima, and I probably won't; I have very little stomach for that sort of realistic war footage. I'll be rooting for Little Miss Sunshine, but I think it will come down to a battle between Babel and The Departed. The only one that would truly annoy me would be Babel.

BEST DIRECTOR: Scorsese's gotta be nervous; he keeps losing to actors-turned-director, and lord knows Hollywood loves Eastwood. Still, I think Scorsese wins.

BEST ACTOR: I really do have to finally get around to seeing The Last King of Scotland now, and I may even have to try again to get through Half Nelson, which I walked out of after half an hour in utter boredom (oh goody! it's a junkie movie and a noble teacher movie! yawn...). I'm glad that Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for Blood Diamond over The Departed; Will Smith's nomination is the most inexplicable acting nomination of the year. (Is it the most inexplicable nomination of the year? No, but we'll get to that.) Of the three I've seen, Peter O'Toole is clearly the most deserving, and I think he's the only one who has a chance to beat Forest Whitaker.

BEST ACTRESS: We've known that this would be the field for at least a month now, and if anyone other than Helen Mirren wins, it will be one of the greatest shockers in Oscar history. If there is an upset, I hope it comes from Judi Dench; if Kate Winslet wills, I will kick things.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: The only acting category this year where none of the nominees makes me wince. Before the nominations were announced, I'd have said that Eddie Murphy was the clear favorite; the omission of Dreamgirls from the top categories suggests that its support isn't terribly strong, and makes this, I think the most competitive of the top categories. The only winner that would surprise me would be Djimon Hounsou. I think it's probably a tight race between Murphy and Alan Arkin; I will be rooting for Jackie Earle Haley.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett doesn't belong here; she's a co-lead with Dench in Notes on a Scandal. The much-overpraised performance by Rinko Kikuchi doesn't belong here, either. The other three nominees make me very happy, but I'll be rooting for Jennifer Hudson, who I expect will win.

A few thoughts on other categories:

  • Yay, Monster House for Animated Film!
  • I've only seen two of the documentaries; I'd vote for Jesus Camp over An Inconvenient Truth, which is remarkably informative, but let's face it, it's 90 minutes of Al Gore giving a slide show/lecture and it's more boring than dirt. Gore's going to win, though.
  • Very strong Best Score field this year; I'd vote for Thomas Newman's The Good German.
  • Best Song: I don't remember the song from Cars, and didn't like the song from An Inconvenient Truth. (Aside from the giggle quality of ending an Al Gore lecture with a song called "I Need to Wake Up," that is...) Of the Dreamgirls choices, "Love You I Do" is the best choice. Yes, it's throwaway fluff, but it's very skillfully done throwaway fluff.
  • Very unusual to see two contemporary films among the costume nominees, which is usually reserved for period pieces.
  • The year's most inexplicable nomination in any category? That would be the Adapted Screenplay nomination for Borat, because a) adapted from what? and b) if the movie was (as we were repeatedly told) improvised, then what screenplay?
  • I've seen three of the animated shorts. "The Little Match Girl" is beautiful hand-drawn animation in classic Disney style; "Maestro" goes on a bit longer than is justified by its punch line (which, I grant you, is a pretty nifty punch line); "No Time for Nuts" stars Scrat, the squirrel from the Ice Age movies, and is hilarious.

Your thoughts?

January 22, 2007

The American Library Association announced today the winners of its annual awards for children's and young adult literature. Among them is the Newbery Award for the outstanding children's book of the year; this award is to children's books what the Oscar is to movies. Winning a Newbery means that every children's librarian in the country will buy your book, and keep on buying replacement copies for years to come; the award has been given since 1922, and only a handful of winners have gone out of print.

It was a particularly exciting day at the Los Angeles Public Library, where I work, because this year's Newbery was awarded to one of my co-workers, Susan Patron, for her book The Higher Power of Lucky.

It surprised me a bit how thrilled I was by the news; it's not as if I wrote the book or anything. But it is certainly the most prestigious award ever won by anyone I actually know, and I'm delighted that Susan's talent has been recognized in such grand fashion.

January 21, 2007

BOOKS: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Phillips (2006)

I'm not generally a big fan of biographies, especially of creative people. I would rather let the art speak for itself, so you won't find me at author readings, or "special appearance by the director at the 8 pm show!" events.

But y'know, if all biographies were as interesting and well-written as this one, I'd read a lot more of them.

James Tiptree, Jr. took science fiction by storm in the late 1960s with a series of dazzling short stories; among Tiptree's themes was the battle between the sexes (and make no mistake, in Tiptree's stories, it was indeed a battle). In award-winning stories like "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?," Tiptree gave us men and women who couldn't understand one another -- could barely acknowledge each other's existence (one story was called "The Women Men Don't See") -- and rarely did anyone get a happy ending or find true love.

Tiptree was a recluse, communicating only by letter; there were no phone calls or author photos. In 1976, it was revealed that Tiptree was actually Alice Sheldon, a 60ish research psychologist and retired CIA analyst. This was a shock to many and an embarassment to some; the author/critic Robert Silverberg had contemptuously dismissed rumors that Tiptree was female, saying that there was something "ineluctably masculine" about his writing.

Sheldon lived a fascinating life. She was the only child of Chicago socialites and world travelers; they took her on three trips to Africa before she was 15, and this was in the 1930s, when Africa was a wilder and more dangerous place than it is today. Her mother, Mary Bradley, was a moderately successful author, and Alice provided illustrations for Mary's childrens' books about Africa.

She struggled all of her life with what we'd now recognize as depression or bipolar disorder; as a young woman, she felt strong romantic attraction to female friends (she apparently never acted on those urges, and by the time of her second marriage, seems to have either repressed them or stopped talking/writing about them).

She had a hard time finding her place in the world, spending time as a newspaper art critic, a WAC photoanalyst during WWII (and the same job with the CIA after the war), a research psychologist, and various other jobs. It took her until her 50s to find her voice as a writer, and she was convinced that the only reason anyone took her writing seriously at all was that that voice was (perceived to be) male.

The loss of her anonymity hit Sheldon hard; she wrote almost nothing for two years, and when Tiptree stories did appear again, she believed (and most critics agreed) that they were not as good as the stories written before the revelation of Tiptree's identity. Sheldon died in 1987 in a murder-suicide pact with her ailing husband.

Julie Phillips spent ten years working on this biography, which is remarkably thorough and detailed. She almost never leaps to "she must have thought" conclusions, or does armchair psychology that can't be justified by the facts at hand. She does a fine job of summarizing Tiptree's stories and themes for those who haven't read them (so you needn't feel that this biography is for science fiction fans only).

Phillips' portrait of Alice Sheldon is sympathetic without being sycophantic. Sheldon struggled at length with the role of women in society, and with the challenges faced by women who weren't content with the standard roles allotted to them; her life is a fascinating social history of women's roles in the twentieth century.

Very fine work, and highly recommended.

Kiwi! (and other goals)

If you're seeing a cartoon above these words, then I've partly accomplished one of my goals (let's not call them "resolutions," because I've never kept a New Year's resolution in my life) for the new year of blogging:
  • I will figure out how to post videos and pictures so that this place isn't just a sea of text.
  • I will pay more attention to TV. Right now, I generally have a blitz of posting when the fall season begins, a few posts about the Emmys, and episode commentaries on American Idol (at least once the sadistic audition shows are done with and the actual competition begins).
  • I will do more linking. I see lots of stuff I like, think to myself "oh, I should post a link to that," then never remember to do it.
  • I will -- at least occasionally -- try to go a bit deeper than "plot summary; I liked it/ didn't like it" when talking about movies (and books, and TV).

January 16, 2007

Wow! The power of a well-placed link is a marvelous thing.

I see that I have lots of new visitors in the last day or so, thanks to a link from Nathaniel R at The Film Experience Blog. Welcome to everyone, and a great big THANK YOU to Nathaniel.

If you decide to keep visiting, I welcome your comments; this hasn't been a comment-heavy place in the past, but I'd love to hear from y'all.

January 15, 2007

BOOKS: The Reach of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman (2006)

Third in Ruhlman's series exploring the world of the professional chef.

In 1997's The Making of a Chef, Ruhlman went to the Culinary Institute of America and took an abbreviated version of the school's chef-training curriculum. For 2000's The Soul of a Chef, he gave us in-depth looks at two chefs, rising star Michael Symon and Napa Valley's legendary Thomas Keller. The new book is a wide-ranging overview (featuring return visits to the CIA and Thomas Keller) of how the chef's world has changing in the era of celebrity chefs and the Food Network.

Keller is in New York, preparing to open his second restaurant, to be called Per Se, which represents one of the major trends of recent years: chef as brand name. The fact that a chef's name is associated with the restaurant is rapidly becoming more important than whether he's actually there cooking the food. Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter -- all have created empires, and are now arguably more important as products than they are as chefs; one of Ruhlman's chapters examines the Food Network, focusing on Lagasse and Rachael Ray, who's managed to become a brand name/product without ever actually having been a professional chef.

There are still chefs who matter as chefs, of course. Across the hall in the same office tower as Per Se is Masa, run by Masayoshi Takayama; it's the exact opposite of Per Se and the brand name culture. Takayama is a sushi chef who hosts only a few customers a night and serves whatever he chooses to serve; his presence as chef is so important that if he takes sick, Masa does not open.

We also visit two rising chefs and follow their progress as they navigate the increasingly complicated career paths available to them. In Maine, Melissa Kelly's Primo focuses on basic cooking with fresh ingredients; the restaurant has its own 2-acre garden, and its menus change from week to week depending on what's available for harvest. Grant Achatz, at Chicago's Trio, is on the cutting edge of experimental cuisine, using unorthodox techniques and advanced science to create multi-course meals that are barely recognizable as traditional food.

One of Ruhlman's great strengths is his ability to describe food and its preparation so clearly that we can practically see and smell the plates. Here's his description of how Achatz prepares one of his garnishes:
Piles of fines herbes (a traditional four-herb combo of tarragon, chervil, parsley, and chives) are juiced. This liquid is then put in the bowl of a standing mixer and set in ice to keep it cold. A little of the juice is heated enough to melt a sheet of gelatin. This gelatin is then added to the mixing bowl, and it's whipped till the liquid froths to triple its volume; the foam is then put in a hotel pan and chilled. The gelatin sets before the bubbles pop, and so after it's completely chilled, you have what is like a foam pillow of fines herbes juice. At service a cone of it is carved out using a teaspoon and added to the asparagus plate as a garnish.

Ruhlman is a superb journalist, with an eye for just the detail that will bring his characters to life. The Reach of a Chef is a terrific book, and I'd actually recommend going back to read all three in the series.

January 14, 2007

MOVIES: Best of 2006 -- the top ten movies

Counting down from #10 to #1:
  • Duck Season -- four characters in a small apartment on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Nothing much happens, but it's the most entertaining nothing you could wish for. A gem of quiet, dry humor.
  • Thank You for Smoking -- sharp satire, with an assortment of beautifully played cameos, and Eckhart's masterful leading performance leading us through it all.
  • Monster House -- genuinely scary, with kid characters who are far more believable than Hollywood's usual adorable wise-cracking moppets. Skillful and smart use of motion-capture technology, wisely backing off a notch from the attempted photo-realism that made the characters of The Polar Express so waxy and disturbing.
  • Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story -- how do you adapt a famously "unadaptable" novel? By giving up on the effort halfway through, and making instead a movie about the failure of the attempt. The levels of meta will drive some folks nuts, but I thought it was marvelous.
  • Ten Canoes -- beautifully photographed movie, leaping between the relatively recent past and the ancient past to tell parallel stories set among Australia's aboriginal people. I sometimes get annoyed at the critics who stuff their year-end lists with movies that have played only at obscure festivals, things that regular moviegoers haven't had the chance to see; and here I am putting that kind of movie on my list. I saw it while on vacation in Australia; it's been picked up for US distribution, but no release date has been scheduled. It'll get here eventually, whether in theaters or on DVD, and shouldn't be missed.
  • Hard Candy -- two superb performances and a smart, crisp screenplay drive this suspenseful thriller. The psychological battle is so tense that it's sometimes hard to watch, but Page and Wilson are riveting throughout.
  • The Prestige -- very cleverly structured script, leaping back and forth in time, and dishing out the clues to its complicated story just fast enough to let us think we're one step ahead, when we're really always at least one step behind.
  • Children of Men -- the surface darkness eventually reveals a hopeful story, a re-telling of sorts of the Nativity. The action sequences are masterfully photographed; the near-future world is both frightening and plausible; and most important, all of the actors are inhabiting the same world.
  • Pan's Labyrinth -- the most striking images of the year, in a movie that beautifully weaves the horrors of the real world with the horrors of the imagination.
  • United 93 -- the smartest casting decision of the year, as a group of mostly anonymous actors becomes the group of ordinary passengers on United 93. An intelligent and respectful imagining of what might have happened on that flight.

A few runners-up, any of which might have made the top ten on a different day, in a slightly different mood: Brick, Little Miss Sunshine, Over the Hedge, A Scanner Darkly, The Queen, Venus, Volver

MOVIES: Best of 2006 -- actor

On the whole, I wasn't dazzled by most of this year's award front-runners. I should note again that I haven't seen Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, but even a brilliant performance there can't keep this from being a weak year for leading men. Like the lead actress category, the final choice was a tough one.

The runners-up:
  • Steve Coogan, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
  • Vin Diesel, Find Me Guilty
  • Will Ferrell, Stranger Than Fiction
  • Patrick Wilson, Hard Candy

The finalists:

  • Christian Bale & Hugh Jackman, The Prestige -- a marvelous double act. Bale and Jackman play off each other beautifully, impeccably navigating every twist and turn of the complicated story -- and of the complicated relationship between their characters.
  • Peter O'Toole, Venus -- Maurice's obsession with a woman 50 years younger could easily have become too creepy for words, but O'Toole never allows the fascination to be just about sex; it's about the eternal appeal of youth, the thrill of the chase, and the actor's unending need to be loved. And of course, it's about the legend of Peter O'Toole; the same role in the hands of an unknown wouldn't have been nearly as heartbreaking.
  • Clive Owen, Children of Men -- one of the greatest acting challenges: playing a man who's almost completely shut down his own emotions and personality. Owen makes Theo's transformation and re-awakening convincing, and doesn't give in to the temptation to overstate it; the changes in Theo are large enough to be noticed, small enough to be believed.

And the winner:

  • Aaron Eckhart, Thank You for Smoking -- I could easily have gone with O'Toole or Owen, but we don't pay enough attention to comic acting, and Eckhart's work here is top-notch. He's perfectly cast as the smooth-talking spinmeister; you can see the wheels turning as his mind races to stay one step ahead of his mouth in each of his many verbal duels.

MOVIES: Best of 2006 -- actress

Very easy to separate the top five from the runners-up this year, but very hard to choose a single winner from that strong top group.

The runners-up:
  • Maggie Cheung, Clean
  • Penelope Cruz, Volver
  • Gretchen Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page
  • Keke Palmer, Akeelah and the Bee
  • Jodie Whittaker, Venus

The finalists:

  • Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal -- a role that could easily have toppled into Withered Repressed Lesbian Schoolmarm cliche (and certainly never loses those elements entirely) is salvaged by Dench's precise attention to detail and her insistence on presenting Barbara as a complete person; we may never be told exactly what in Barbara's life has warped her personality so badly, but there's no doubt that Dench knows.
  • Queen Latifah, Last Holiday -- admittedly the most eccentric choice on any of my lists this year. Yes, the movie's got a tired, predictable plot; and yes, the supporting cast looks like the cast of next year's Surreal Life (LL Cool J! Timothy Hutton! Gerard Depardieu!), but when Latifah's on screen, none of that matters. Georgia is a fully rounded character, and Latifah brings fresh life and energy to the most hackneyed moments; even a shopping montage, for instance, is filled with joy and charm.
  • Helen Mirren, The Queen -- Mirren's Elizabeth is trapped between the old world of quiet dignity and the new world of celebrity culture, and struggling frantically to find some way to satisfy the public without betraying what she believes it is to be royalty; it is astonishing how much Mirren communicates with very small gestures, facial expressions, and inflections.
  • Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada -- like Mirren, a performance of subtle gradations; every "That's all" and every tossed-aside overcoat means something different. I admit that I have never been a fan of Streep's Tormented Women with Foreign Accents, but I adore her as a comic actress.

And the winner:

  • Ellen Page, Hard Candy -- a very close call over Dench and Mirren, but Page's ferocious work deserves to be singled out. She's so completely convincing as both the innocent young girl and the avenging beast that we're never entirely sure which persona is the real Hayley, or if we've even seen the real Hayley.

MOVIES: Best of 2006 -- supporting actor

A very strong category this year, in which most of the major awards contenders didn't make my list. Again, though, the winner stood out from the pack.

The runners-up:
  • Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine
  • Lawrence Fishburne, Akeelah and the Bee
  • Nick Nolte, Clean
  • Leslie Phillips, Venus
  • Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

The finalists:

  • Michael Caine, Children of Men -- his appearances are perfectly timed, providing comic relief just at the moments when we need it; the performance itself is just as well timed, and this laidback aged hippie is a Caine we've not seen before.
  • Steve Carell, Over the Hedge -- best voice performance of the year. Carell cranks up the energy and the pitch as high as possible, making Hammy the most memorable of the year's many cartoon critters.
  • Robert Downey, Jr., A Scanner Darkly -- as the ultimate conspiracy theorist, Downey completely immerses himself -- and us -- in Barris's drug-addled paranoia.
  • Stanley Tucci, The Devil Wears Prada -- a tiny role, but Tucci finds every nuance and subtlety in it, combining cruelty and supportiveness as he becomes a sort of mentor to Andy

And the winner:

  • Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children -- one of the bravest, and most important, things an actor can do is be willing to be hated. Haley never winks at the audience, or begs us to love him, or tries in any way to separate himself from the character he's playing. It's a superb performance.

MOVIES: Best of 2006 -- supporting actress

A tough category this year, and hard to narrow down to only five; several of my finalists were the best things about movies that I didn't like very much. Choosing the winner, however, was the easiest choice of the year.

The runners-up:
  • Claire-Hope Ashitey, Children of Men
  • Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal, Stranger Than Fiction
  • Carmen Maura, Volver
  • Grace Zabriskie, Inland Empire

The finalists:

  • Adriana Barraza, Babel -- like everyone else in the movie, Amelia makes more stupid mistakes in one day than any real person makes in a lifetime. But Barraza plays the character beautifully; I felt more sympathy for her plight than for any of Babel's other characters. And when she does get to relax and simply enjoy herself at the wedding, she's so lovely and filled with joy as to almost be a different person.
  • Marcia Gay Harden, The Dead Girl -- heartbreaking work, as Harden comes to grip with the violent death of her daughter, and then with the knowledge of just how little she knew about the girl. It's not a flashy performance, but every word and gesture is perfectly calibrated.
  • Phyllis Somerville, Little Children -- it's through Somerville's performance, and May's painful knowledge that her son will never find the peace he seeks, that Ronnie miraculously becomes a sympathetic character; her love for him makes it impossible for us to see him as just a monster.
  • Maribel Verdu, Pan's Labyrinth -- at first glance, Mercedes might seem to be a placid, obedient household servant, but Verdu makes it clear that she's the strongest, bravest person in the house; she earns our sympathy so completely that we're actually rooting for her to be more violent in her final confrontation with the movie's villain.

And the winner:

  • Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls -- yes, she can sing. Good lord, can she sing; "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" is the movie scene of the year, and even with fluffier material like "Love You I Do," she's riveting. But the acting is just as good; watch her face when she's demoted to backup singer, or listen to the desperation in her voice as she begs for an audition at a small jazz club. Hudson is the real deal, and it's going to be fascinating to see where she goes from here.

MOVIES: Best of 2006 -- a few comments

I saw about 80 movies again this year, including almost everything that's likely to be nominated in the major Oscar categories.

The big exceptions: Eastwood's pair of Iwo Jima flicks, because I have no stomach for that sort of ultra-realistic war footage; Ryan Gosling's performance in Half Nelson, a movie that so bored me I walked out after half an hour; and Forest Whitaker's performance in The Last King of Scotland, which I just didn't get to before it left theaters (it's on my Netflix list, and I'm hoping that it might get a re-release here in LA after the nominations come out).

January 07, 2007

MOVIES: Venus (Roger Michell, 2006)

Peter O'Toole stars as Maurice, an actor who was once "a little bit famous" but is now relegated to the occasional bit part, most often as someone who's dead or dying. He spends his days drinking and bickering with his pal Ian (Leslie Phillips), whose great-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) has been sent to London to serve as a sort of live-in nurse for him.

Jessie has no interest in that role, nor is she temperamentally suited to it; she's a surly and uncommunicative girl who dreams of becoming a model. But Maurice is enchanted, and begins spending time with her, eventually falling in love.

We're so accustomed to equating love and sex; here we get a type of romance in which sex is never an issue. Maurice isn't just a dirty old man, and he's well aware that his attraction to someone more than 50 years younger is in some ways silly ("I can still take a theoretical interest," he tells Ian). It's not entirely about love, or even about lust; as much as anything, Maurice is in love with the idea of being in love one last time, of being captivated by youth and beauty.

And of course, of being captivating; O'Toole never forgets that Maurice is an actor, and his performance of the naughty old lech is both charming and seductive. Jessie can't resist it entirely -- who could? -- and she begins to return his affections even as she takes advantage of them. Even as genuine feelings develop, Maurice and Jessie don't lose sight of the ways in which each is manipulating, and being manipulated by, the other.

The performances are superb. O'Toole has gotten most of the attention (and it is thoroughly deserved), but Jodie Whittaker more than holds her own against him; even when Jessie's mood shifts feel more like narrative devices than like the moods of a real person, Whittaker pulls them off in convincing fashion. Leslie Phillips delivers Ian's dry, curmudgeonly grumbling with great style and flair, and gets many of the movie's biggest laughs.

The final act is a bit too predictable, and I wish we'd had more of Vanessa Redgrave as Maurice's estranged (but on friendly terms) wife. But those are minor quibbles; it's a marvelous movie, and O'Toole and Whittaker give us one of the year's most moving love stories.

MOVIES: An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)

Finally caught up with this on DVD, and there isn't a lot to say about it. It is as thorough a primer on global warming as one could want, and will be of great use in high school and college classes as an overview of the subject. It's hard to imagine anyone, unless they have their own personal or political axe to grind, coming out of the movie unconvinced that the problem is real.

But as a movie, An Inconvenient Truth falls terribly short. We are in a golden age of documentary film, as directors find new and interesting ways to tell their stories, and to bring life and interest to the driest of subjects. Against that backdrop, a 90-minute slide show hosted by Al Gore doesn't cut it.

Informative and deadly dull in equal measure.

MOVIES: The Dead Girl (Karen Moncrieff, 2006)

The body of a young woman is found in the Hollywood hills, and Moncrieff explores the ramifications for five women in a series of vignettes; the movie's sections are mostly unconnected, with only minor crossover of any characters.

In "The Stranger," we see the discovery of the body by Arden (Toni Collette, who is -- as always -- spot-on), a painfully shy, quiet woman whose life is dominated by her role as caregiver to her hateful mother (Piper Laurie, hamming it up far too broadly). "The Sister" features Rose Byrne as a coroner-in-training who believes that the body may be that of her sister, who has been missing for 15 years, and hopes that the discovery will allow her family to finally get on with their lives; Byrne tries hard, but can't overcome the segment's movie-of-the-week flavor. "The Wife" is Mary Beth Hurt, trapped by her miserable marriage and by her own rage; her connection to the body is a less direct one, but it forces her to make some difficult choices.

The movie's strongest segment is "The Mother," featuring an excellent Marcia Gay Harden, who has come from rural Washington to Los Angeles after the body has been identified as that of her daughter, and Kerry Washington, as a friend of the dead girl; their scenes together are painfully intense, as Harden realizes just how much she didn't know about her daughter's life.

Finally, we meet "The Dead Girl" herself; she's played by Brittany Murphy, who overemphasizes the brittleness and hard edges of the character. It's the least interesting section of the movie, both because it's mostly showing us things we've already figured out in the earlier scenes and because we know how it's going to end.

Moncrieff's clearly a talented director, and she draws fine performances from her large cast (which also includes Mary Steenburgen, Bruce Davison, James Franco, and Giovanni Ribisi). But the movie is so unrelentingly bleak -- there's no humor, no happiness, and virtually no hope for any of these characters -- that it's difficult to enjoy it as anything other than a series of well-executed acting exercises.

January 01, 2007

MOVIES: Best of 2006?

Not that I think anyone's out there waiting with bated breath for the list, but since it is that time of year, I'm just letting you know that it'll be a week or two more. Still a few year-end releases and DVDs that I want to catch up with before I finalize things.

MUSIC: Best of 2006

I'm much more a song person than an album person -- I'll take a perfect 3-minute song over almost any 50-minute album anyday -- but I did enjoy these albums this year:

Solomon Burke, Nashville
The Ditty Bops, Moon Over the Freeway
The Essex Green, Cannibal Sea
Raul Malo, You're Only Lonely
Audra McDonald, Build a Bridge
Willie Nelson, You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker
original off-Broadway cast, I Love You Because
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs, Under the Covers, Vol. 1
The Weepies, Say I Am You
The Wood Brothers, Ways Not to Lose

And these are the songs -- some from the above albums, some not; a few from '05 releases that I didn't catch up with until this year -- that had me hitting the REPLAY button during '06:

Bobby Bare Jr.'s Young Criminal Starvation League, "Sticky Chemical"
The Boy Least Likely To, "Faith"
Chris Brown, "Waiting for Caroline"
Jonathan Coulton, "Code Monkey"
Kris Delmhorst, "Since You Went Away"
The Essex Green, "Rue de Lis"
Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy"
Paul Kelly & the Stormwater Boys w/Kasey Chambers, "You're Learning"
Raul Malo, "Feels Like Home"
Audra McDonald, "Bein' Green"
Lynn Miles, "Love Sweet Love"
Texas Lightning, "Waterloo"
Ben Vaughn, "Too Happy"
The Weepies, "Painting by Chagall"
The Wood Brothers, "One More Day"
Weird Al Yankovic & Kate Winslet, "I Need a Nap"
Chris Young, "Drinkin' Me Lonely"

BOOKS: Best of 2006

These were the ten best novels I read in '06 (if not actually published in '06, I've indicated publication dates). Links are to my original comments.

Tom DeHaven, It's Superman! (2005)
Michael Flynn, The Wreck of the River of Stars (2003)
Allegra Goodman, Intuition
Joanne Harris, Gentlemen and Players
Joe Keenan, My Lucky Star
Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora
Susan Palwick, The Necessary Beggar (2005)
Nancy Pickard, The Virgin of Small Plains
Scott Smith, The Ruins
Katharine Weber, Triangle

If you made me pick just one? Close call, but Palwick gets the nod over Lynch.

I read less non-fiction than fiction, but these stood out for me this year:

Marilyn Johnson, The Dead Beat
Michael Segell, The Devil's Horn (2005)
Norah Vincent, Self-Made Man
Chris Willman, Rednecks and Bluenecks