April 30, 2007

April 28, 2007

Department of Link

The Exeter (RI) Public Library, which serves a city of 6,000 people has subscribed to Netflix as a way of supplementing its DVD collection. I look forward to reading the "how we did it" articles in the library journals next year.

Roger Ebert's gutsy insistence on attending his Overlooked Film Festival this weekend got a lot of attention this week. Another bit of journalistic courage came from Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner, who informed his readers that when he returned from his vacation, it would be as
Christine Daniels.

The biggest injustice in American Idol history? Tamyra's ouster in season one,
says Simon.

Miranda July, director and star of the marvelous film Me and You and Everyone We Know, has created a charming
promotional site for her upcoming book No One Belongs Here More Than You.

"Classic gross-out comedy works well when performed by servants and slaves at the expense of their social "betters." But it is less appealing when performed by elite-educated pranksters at the expense of ordinary citizens." -- from a fine piece on Borat by Martha Bayles at Serious Popcorn

April 24, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (songs of inspiration)

Inspiration was the theme this week, but there wasn't much inspired singing going on. Everyone was OK (and there was one mild standout), but almost no one was much more than that.

The rundown:

Chris, "Change the World" -- The song suits his voice reasonably well, and his pitch is much better than usual. Still not much of a voice, though. He doesn't handle the transitions in and out of falsetto very well, and his vocal flourish at the end is both poorly executed and not in keeping with the relative simplicity of the song.

Melinda, "There Will Come a Day" -- A rarity for Melinda: A bad song choice. This song is dull. Really dull. Paaaaaaaaainfully dull. So dull, in fact, that even Melinda's obvious talent can't redeem it. I had the feeling, though, that we weren't hearing the band very well on this one; there seemed to be nothing going on behind her, and I wonder if that contributed to the general air of dullness.

Blake, "Imagine" -- Blake has proven to have the most limited stylistic range of the remaining contestants; everything sounds very mellow and laid-back, like a lesser work from some annoyingly fey British singer/songwriter. His "Imagine" sounds disconcertingly like his "Mack the Knife," which is not a good thing. It's a pretty enough voice, I suppose, and he's obviously sincere -- just look at those wounded-puppy eyes! -- but it's blander than tapioca, and his consonants are mushy ("imagine all the beoble living life in beace").

LaKisha, "I Believe" -- LaKisha keeps picking songs associated with unusually distinctive or memorable singers, and while she does them well, I'm always left thinking, "Well, it was pretty good, but she's no Jennifer Holiday/Shirley Bassey/Fantasia." Tonight there were a few pitch problems at the beginning, revealing that her lowest register isn't nearly as good as the rest of her voice. Still, this was her best performance in several weeks, if only because she's starting to make eye contact with the camera/audience.

Phil, "The Change" -- Not nearly as good as last week, and a reversion to his usual pattern of starting weak and ending strong. There's a rasping buzzy noise in his voice on some of those long notes, as if he's got a nasty frog in his throat, and there are major pitch problems in the first verse. But from the chorus to the end, he's quite good.

Jordin, "You'll Never Walk Alone" -- A bit on the slow side, but she gets away with it. Some of her vocal tics are starting to feel stale; there's an odd little fluttery thing she does on some high notes ("...afraid of the dark...," "...song of a lark...") that's starting to annoy me. But it's another very good performance from her, the best of a weak night.

For the night: Jordin, LaKisha, Melinda, Chris, Phil, Blake.

For the season: Melinda, Jordin, LaKisha, Blake, Chris, Phil.

Should go home: Justice will be served if it's any of the men, really, but let's say Phil.

Will go home: Probably Phil, but I'd be nervous if I were Blake, too.

April 23, 2007

MOVIES: Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006/2007 US)

Jackie (Kate Dickie) works for the Glasgow police department, watching the monitors from the security cameras in one part of the city and dispatching officers whenever she sees crimes or suspicious activities. This job is about all the human contact she gets, as she's something of a recluse, living alone and occasionally meeting a friend for quick sex in his van.

Jackie is surprised one day to see Clyde (Tony Curran) on one of her monitors, leaving the Red Road apartment complex. She begins following him around the city on her monitors, and eventually progresses to stalking him in the real world -- going to a party at his apartment, "accidentally" meeting him at the bar, and so on.

Writer/director Andrea Arnold is in no hurry to fill in the missing pieces of the story, so we don't understand fully the connection between Jackie and Clyde for quite a while. The pieces of the puzzle fall into place just quickly enough to keep us involved in the story, and the story is structured well enough that I never felt that information was being withheld solely in the interest of generating artificial suspense. There is one glaring plot loophole -- it seems unlikely that Clyde wouldn't recognize Jackie long before he does -- but the story is so involving that I was willing to let Arnold finesse that point.

Dickie and Curran are both very good here, and the relationship between them keeps shifting in interesting ways as we (and they) gradually figure out what each other are really up to.

This movie is part of the Advance Party project, a Dogme offshoot in which the same four central characters (and actors) will be used by three different writer/director teams to make three different movies; the relationships among the characters may change, but the basic character traits and the Glasgow setting will be common. Red Road gets the project off to a fine start, and I hope that the other films will also make it to the US.

April 22, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol: halfway home

Six weeks ago, as the finals began, I offered up an overview of how the competition looked at that point. We're halfway through now, so let's look back and see how well I did, and what's changed since then. I'll start with the departed contestants.

Brandon: I thought he was "the most disappointing of the twelve so far....he's really got his work cut out for him if he wants to make it to mid-season." He probably never should have made it to the final 12 in the first place.

Stephanie: A mildly surprising early dismissal, but I warned you: "...she is in danger of being this year's Elegant Black Woman, and that's a contestant who always goes home about three weeks sooner than anyone thinks she will..." Not only did she never recapture the magic of her first semifinal performance, she had the bad luck to come along in a season that was filled with strong African-American women.

Chris S.: After the semifinals, I thought he was "the best of the men," but he fell flat every week once the finals began, making him a strong contender for this season's Biggest Disappointment award.

Gina: Six weeks ago, she seemed to be "the only rocker chick; that alone will keep her in the running for a few weeks, and might even carry her to the final six," I thought. She turned out to be less of a rocker than I thought, delivering a mediocre "Paint It Black," and having her best moment with Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." Her departure in week four was the biggest shock of the season, coming as it did after two very good weeks. She was finding her personality and her style, and I wish she'd gotten to stay longer.

Haley: I thought that voters might "keep her around into the top 8 or so;" hard to get more accurate than that. Haley will be best remembered for providing an answer to the question "How long can you survive on sex appeal alone?"

Sanjaya: Didn't belong in the top 12. Didn't belong in the top 24. Probably didn't belong at Hollywood Week. He only gave one remotely competent performance (that would be "Besame Mucho"), and his "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" will go down as the worst performance ever by an Idol finalist.

And that leaves us with our final six singers. Working our way up from the bottom:

Phil and Chris R.: I didn't think either would get this far. Phil "could be the first guy to go," I predicted, and I thought that Chris might "survive for another week or two" purely on his boy-band/Timberlake sex appeal. One of the two should be the next to go; barring any real surprises in the performances this week, I'd bet that it's Phil.

LaKisha: Six weeks ago, I thought that LaKisha's "voice alone should carry her at least to the top 3 or 4, but I'm not sure she can win it all." I'm even more sure now that she won't win, and I'll be surprised if she makes it to the final three; Chris R. might even beat her out of a spot in the final four. Like Stephanie, she's never matched the performance she gave on the first semifinal night, and she's slipped slowly down my list of contenders all season long.

I think there are only three people left with any chance to win the competition.

Blake: "He could be a dark horse threat to make the final two," I predicted; the only change I'd make now is that he's not such a dark horse. I think he certainly makes the top three. Winning is a longshot.

Jordin: In March, I said, "if she's smart (and I think she is), she's soaking up as much as she can from those older women. I expect her to improve by leaps and bounds as the season progresses." But even I never expected the kind of progress she's shown. She's given, in my opinion, the two best performances of the finals ("I Who Have Nothing" and "A Broken Wing"), and she's a definite threat to win.

Melinda: "Does she have a weakness?" I asked six weeks ago. I still think she's the clear front-runner, but there are some potential pitfalls. I know a lot of people who believe that her humility is a put-on, and they get more annoyed by it every week. I think it's genuine, but when it becomes so much of an issue that the judges are pointing it out, as Simon did last week, it's a potential trouble spot. Another possible problem is complacency; Melinda and Jordin are the only singers left who've never been in the bottom three, and if either of them has an off night, they run the risk of their fans not getting out the vote because they don't really think they're in trouble.

Finally, as we get closer to the finals, I think that the question of whether Melinda can be contemporary will grow. In nine weeks, Melinda has sung eight songs that are older than she is. Assuming that the final three will be the traditional judges' choice/Clive's choice/singer's choice night, I'd expect the judges to choose much newer material for her, and I look forward to seeing how she copes.

To close, I'll go out on a limb and predict that the order of elimination in the next few weeks will be Phil, LaKisha, Chris, Blake. That'll leave us with Jordin and Melinda, which would be the best Idol final yet; I'm still rooting for Melinda, but I think that final is too close to call. (If Blake manages to slip into the final two, he loses to either Jordin or Melinda, and it won't be close.)

April 19, 2007

Department of Retro GaGa: Carpenters

From a 1974 Dutch TV broadcast, one of the all-time unlikely combinations of singer and song. And you gotta love that manic flute.

April 18, 2007

BOOKS: Crow Lake, Mary Lawson (2002)

Kate Morrison is a zoologist, teaching at a university in Toronto, a full day's drive from her childhood home in northern Ontario. She's invited home for her nephew's 18th birthday party, an invitation which stirs mixed feelings. As Kate narrates the events of the year when she was seven, we learn the history of the Morrison siblings.

Kate's parents were killed in a car crash that year, and she and her younger sister, Bo, were left in the care of their older brothers, Luke and Matt; at 19 and 17, the boys were barely old enough to take care of themselves, much less of two small children. Everyone's plans were changed by that car crash, and Crow Lake is principally concerned with the slow revelation of how those plans were changed, how the siblings resent one another for those changes, and how they've spent the last twenty years misunderstanding one another's motives and feelings.

And I do mean slow. This is a book where very little happens, and it takes forever for it not to happen. It's also a book in which the narrator and author withhold information from us, encouraging us to misunderstand things just as badly as the characters do.

Yet there is much to admire here. Lawson's characters, even the supporting ones, are vivid and fully realized. I was particularly fond of Mrs. Stanovich, the most aggressively helpful of the neighbor ladies; she is part of Lawson's perfect understanding of the occasionally oppressive nature of small-town community. The relationships among the Morrison siblings are convincing, and Kate's hero-worship of big brother Matt feels precisely right.

But in the end, whatever surprises are to be found in the story derive from Kate's willfully not telling us everything she knows, and omitting crucial details at key points along the way. I found it a frustrating reading experience, and when it was over, I thought that a more straightforward, direct narration could have boiled the whole thing down into a really fine short story. I certainly look forward to Lawson's next book, but I hope it doesn't work so hard to generate phony suspense.

April 17, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (country / Martina McBride)

There are always one or two surprises on country night -- front-runners tripped up by music that's not as simple as it looks, back-of-the-pack types who turn out to be country boys and girls at heart -- and while the best and worst of the night are about as we've expect, there are some unexpected turns in the middle of the pack.

The rundown:

Phil, "Where the Blacktop Ends" -- Phil gets off to a good start, which as Paula correctly notes, is a novelty for him. He sounds relaxed and comfortable, and even looks less creepy and stalker-y than usual. I can't say it's a particularly memorable performance, but there's nothing glaringly wrong with it, and it's a big step up from Phil's usual work.

Jordin, "A Broken Wing" -- this is something special. Jordin has taken to heart everything Martina McBride has been saying about country music. It's a performance of great simplicity and purity; she's telling a story, and every emotion is crystal-clear. I think this is the best performance we've seen since the finals began.

Sanjaya, "Something to Talk About" -- He tried his hardest. It wasn't very good.

LaKisha, "Jesus, Take the Wheel" -- I believe this is the first time an Idol contestant has sung a hit song by a previous Idol contestant. Unfortunately, it's not much of a song; it's a pickup truck and a dying puppy away from being everything that people hate about country music. And it's not a song that suits LaKisha very well, either; the judges are correct to note that there are so many country songs that are full-on gospel shouts and would have been right in her comfort zone. But here, she's shouting uncomfortably at then end, and she's still not communicating an ounce of emotion through those cold, dead eyes.

Chris, "Mayberry" -- the reediness in Chris's voice is not exactly alien to country, and could have worked really well here. But the pitch problems that he seemed to have under control in recent weeks are back, and they make his voice sound even whinier than usual. He knows, I think, that it didn't go well, and tries desperately to suck up to the audience with a rather ill-advised Virginia Tech reference.

(As tacky a moment as it was, Simon's eye-rolling response looked even worse, and clearly the producers knew it, as Simon would later trot out an awkward "we judges feel bad too" speech.)

Melinda, "Trouble Is a Woman" -- this song is only eight years old, which makes it the newest song Melinda has sung on Idol by roughly twenty years. And as usual, she's a joy to watch. She doesn't have a country singer's voice, but the song is close enough to the blues that she can make it work for her, and she gets the inflections of country right -- the bends, the slides, the scoops -- without them sounding like foreign affectations.

Blake, "When the Stars Go Blue" -- a smart song choice, really, as this is Tim McGraw at his poppiest. But Blake is not in good form tonight. His pitch is off, especially in falsetto, and the transitions in and out of falsetto are not graceful at all. Of all of tonight's singers, Blake is probably the one to whom country music is most unfamiliar, and he's not able to adapt his style to suit; this sounds like a bad rehash of every Blake performance to date.

For the night: Jordin, Melinda, Phil, LaKisha, Blake, Chris, Sanjaya.

For the season: Melinda, Jordin, Blake, LaKisha, Chris, Phil, Sanjaya.

Should go home: Always and forever, Sanjaya.

Will go home: I think we might actually get rid of Sanjaya this week; if not, it'll be Chris.

BOOKS: Capitol Threat, William Bernhardt (2007)

15th in Bernhardt's Ben Kincaid series.

I'd read some of the early volumes in this series, but it had drifted off my radar in recent years. They were, as I remember them, servicable legal thrillers. Not as well-written as Turow, not the same narrative drive as the best Grisham, but moderately entertaining stories about a Tulsa defense attorney. In this volume, Kincaid has recently been appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate (as the result of events in the previous volume, I gather), where he is the most junior member, still struggling to fit in and get used to Senate customs and procedures.

Here's the setup for Bernhardt's story in this volume: There's a Supreme Court vacancy, and everyone expects the conservative Republican president to nominate a fire-breathing conservative; he has a majority in the Senate, after all, and can probably get a confirmation for anyone he likes. It is a great surprise, therefore, when he nominates Thaddeus Roush; Roush is conservative, to be sure, but firmly believes that his personal views ought not color his judgments from the bench. He is liked and respected by those on both sides of the political spectrum.

(Is there anything in that paragraph that feels even remotely plausible in the current political environment? But wait, there's more...)

Roush has a big surprise up his sleeve, though, that somehow didn't get discovered during the vetting process, and he shocks the President at his "here's my nominee" press conference by announcing that he is gay. This causes a furor, with Republicans trying to find a credible excuse to kill his nomination and Democrats suddenly supporting him, if only out of fear that the replacement would be worse. So Roush holds another press conference, this one at his home, hoping to address the many questions that have risen, when a freshly murdered body is found in his garden.

If you're anything like me, you are now giggling uncontrollably at the complete loopiness of this plot. But somehow, Bernhardt makes it work. Sure, it's a far-fetched story, but it makes for a goofy wild ride, and you almost have to marvel at the audacity with which he heaps on one outlandish plot twist after another. The action moves briskly along; the fight scenes involving Kincaid's investigator and various villains are exciting; and the prose, if not of the finest literary quality, is unobtrusively competent. If you like this sort of legal/political thriller, this will make for a fine beach or airplane read.

April 16, 2007

MOVIES: Year of the Dog (Mike White, 2007)

If you've seen the ads and trailers for this movie, then you're probably expecting a wistful romantic comedy about a sad woman who learns to connect with others -- and maybe even finds love -- after the death of her beloved dog. You have been wildly misled.

That's how the movie starts off, to be sure. When we meet Peggy Spade (Molly Shannon), she's living alone with her beagle, Pencil, and seems to have only one friend in the world, co-worker Layla (Regina King, playing the Sassy Black Chick in heavy-handed fashion). Her brother and sister-in-law live nearby (Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern, who is quite funny as an obsessively concerned mother), but even those relationships aren't as important to Peggy as Pencil.

When Pencil dies, Peggy does meet a couple of men -- her neighbor, Al (John C. Reilly), and Newt (Peter Sarsgaard, the warmest and most likable person in the movie), who works at the dog pound. But neither of them works out romantically, and the movie becomes the story of Peggy's increasing involvement with animal rights issues, an involvement that rapidly crosses the line from simple political crusade to dangerous obsession.

The last half of the movie is relentlessly bleak and gloomy as Peggy slowly loses her grip on reality; it would be bad enough if she were only ruining her own life, but her obsession is causing problems for everyone else, too, and I began to wonder why her friends and family didn't simply have the poor woman institutionalized.

Molly Shannon is at her best in the first half of the movie, when things are still relatively light and comic, but she's not a good enough actress to pull off the shift into darkness in the second half of the movie. Dern, Reilly, and Sarsgaard are almost good enough to salvage things, but the movie ultimately collapses around Shannon's limitations.

The kindest thing I might say about Year of the Dog is that it's an interesting failure. If you feel you must see it, I'd wait for cable or DVD; there's certainly nothing of visual interest that would require you to see it on the big screen.

April 15, 2007

MOVIES: After the Wedding (Susanne Bier, 2006/2007 US)

Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) runs a struggling orphanage in India; Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård) is a Danish businessman considering a large donation. Jørgen insists, however, that Jacob must come to Copenhagen for an in-person interview. Jacob isn't thrilled with the idea, but with the orphanage on the brink of closing, he goes back to Denmark. Over the weekend of Jacob's stay, Jørgen's daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) is getting married, and having nothing better to do (and needing to suck up to Jørgen), Jacob accepts an invitation to the wedding. He is greatly surprised when he recognizes Jørgen's wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as a woman he was involved with 20 years ago.

That's a fairly obvious setup, and I suspect that you can already imagine how the rest of the story plays out -- if you can't guess Jørgen's real motivation for summoning Jacob to Denmark, then you just don't see enough movies -- but as in her previous movie, Brothers, director/co-writer Bier overcomes the melodramatic elements of the story to produce a fine piece of entertainment. After the Wedding was one of the Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees earlier this year, and while it doesn't quite reach the level of fellow nominees Pan's Labyrinth or The Lives of Others, it's certainly deserving of recognition and a wider audience.

Bier gets excellent performances from her actors. Mikkelsen, who will be most familiar to American audiences as the villain in last year's Casino Royale, makes it clear from the beginning that Jacob's philanthropic gestures are motivated as much by the need to atone -- for what, we don't quite know at first -- as by the desire to do good. Knudsen's Helene is a woman dealing with personal betrayals on all fronts, and her anger is palpable.

Best of all, though, is Lassgård. Jørgen seems at first to be a cartoon character, the standard pompous captain of industry, but as his scheming is revealed to be both more selfless and more selfish than we'd originally understood, he becomes the movie's most sympathetic character.

Bier's first American film, Things We Lost in the Fire, will be released later this year, and it will be a fine test of her skill with actors; if she can get a decent performance out of Halle Berry, then there may be nothing she can't do. But while we're waiting for that, After the Wedding shouldn't be missed.

April 10, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (Latin music/Jennifer Lopez)

It's Latin night, and the Idol kids just don't have any salsa in their souls, making for a rather dull night of mediocrity. But there are mild surprises to be found at both the top and the bottom of the night's leaderboard.

The rundown:

Melinda, "Sway" -- it's clear from the get-go that this isn't going to be one of Melinda's best performances. True, she looks marvelous, and there's a lovely breathiness to her voice as the song begins, but she looks more stiff and uncomfortable than she ever has, and she keeps putting more power back into her voice, undercutting the sultry mood of the song; the big note at the end shatters the mood entirely. Still, a second-rate performance is better than a first-rate performance from most of her competitors.

LaKisha, "Conga" -- I hadn't noticed before how little of LaKisha's eyes we get to see. Her lids are very heavy, and she tends to look down; I think this is the main reason that I feel so little emotional connection to any of her performances. As for the performance, it's fine, but Simon is correct to note that this isn't a singer's song; it calls for energy and personality, neither of which LaKisha is able to project in sufficient quantities to hold my interest.

Chris, "Smooth" -- smart song choice, and while I might have liked a touch more excitement from the performance, it was entertaining. The nasal whininess that plagued him in earlier weeks is greatly reduced, and he's relatively restrained with the vocal acrobatics.

Haley, "Turn the Beat Around" -- when she needs Blake to be her drums in rehearsal, you know she'll never sell this song. The words are the percussion here; if you can't hear the drumsticks landing with every consonant, you're doomed. And sure enough, although Haley articulates the rapid-fire text cleanly enough to be understood, it completely lacks that rhythmic pop. And she's well aware that (as Simon points out) she's no longer staying in the competition based on talent; she's staying here because of the short shorts and the way she shakes her chest.

Phil, "Maria, Maria" -- yawn. Dull. Blah. A pair of unfortunate cracks while going for the high notes are the only interesting moments in the piece. On the other hand, the beret occasionally hides his freakishly oversized eyes, making him look much less like a stalker, so he's got that going for him.

Jordin, "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" -- Same problem as Haley, though not quite so extreme; the song's lacking the rhythmic crispness and bite that it needs. Aside from that, it's a very good performance.

Blake, "I Need to Know" -- perfect song choice. No beatboxing (hurray!), more power in his voice than usual. At the beginning, he even finds some of the passion that Jennifer told him he needed; he can't quite sustain it for the whole song, but it's still the best we've heard on a weak night.

Sanjaya, "Besame Mucho" -- I know, I promised not to keep piling on any more, but this actually isn't painful to listen to. The pitch is OK, and he even finds a little bit of power in spots without going flat. It's still not a good performance, but he's improved from painful to dull.

For the night: Blake, Melinda, Chris, Jordin, LaKisha, Phil, Sanjaya (his first time out of the basement!), Haley.

For the season: Melinda, Jordin, Blake, LaKisha, Chris, Phil, Haley, Sanjaya.

Should go home: still Sanjaya, of course. Will go home: A tossup between Haley and Phil, though it's not out of the question that we could say goodbye to LaKisha in one of those mid-season shockers that we usually get right about now.

April 09, 2007

Department of Credit Where Credit Is Due

So now that this "Department of..." thing is becoming more habitual for all of my miscellaneous non-review posts -- the Thursday videos, the Sunday link-fests, and such -- I should note that I have shamelessly stolen it ("lovingly ripped off," as the Pythons would say) from my good friend Maggie at What the Hell Am I Doing Here? I don't think she'll object, but y'never know, she may come charging out of the Nebraska plains with anger in her eyes and a chain saw in her hand, ready to give me a monstrous whuppin'.

And I should also note that the "Retro GaGa" at the top of the video links comes from Modern Fabulousity, who gave the label to the first of them a few weeks back.

April 08, 2007

MOVIES: The Lookout (Scott Frank, 2007)

Best movie of the year so far, with a perfect cast and a solid screenplay.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris Pratt. Chris was a golden boy in high school -- hockey star, popular with everyone, admired by all -- until an auto accident killed two of his friends and left him with just enough brain damage to make ordinary life a struggle. There are labels on everything in Chris's apartment to remind him to turn things on or off, and he carries a small notebook in which he writes down everything that he needs to remember. He has a job as night janitor at a bank, and shares an apartment with Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a blind man who was paired up with Chris by the local life-skills training center.

Chris has some trouble holding things in his left hand, and he orders O'Doul's at the bar (can't mix alcohol with his meds), but under most circumstances, you might never guess that anything was wrong with him. The locals all know, though, and their attitudes range from the condescending paternalism of the sheriff's deputy who checks in on Chris at the bank each night to the support of his counselor.

And of course, there are those who would take advantage of his disability. Enter Gary (Matthew Goode) and his girlfriend, an ex-stripper with the magnificent stage name Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher, miles away from her work in Wedding Crashers); they seduce Chris (in every way imaginable) into their circle of friends before revealing that they plan to rob his bank, and that they expect him to help.

That sets us off on a thrilling battle of wits, as Chris struggles to plan a way out of this mess, to remember it for long enough to make it work, and even to find ways to make his disability work in his favor by lowballing Gary's expectations of his abilities.

Scott Frank's screenplay is crisp and intelligent, and he gets top-notch performances from his four principal actors. Gordon-Levitt is especially fine; he's rapidly become one of our finest actors. He doesn't overplay Chris's mental problems (this isn't the standard Hollywood flashy "give me an Oscar" version of brain damage) but they're always present in subtle ways -- the relieved smile when he gets a joke, the frustration when he can't quite deliver a pickup line the way he used to.

Recommended without reservation.

BOOKS: On the Wrong Track, Steve Hockensmith (2007)

Second in the Amlingmeyer Brothers mystery series.

Gustav ("Old Red") and Otto ("Big Red") Amlingmeyer are cowboys in the wild west of the 1890s, but Gustav has taken a liking to the Sherlock Holmes stories that occasionally appear in the popular magazines of the day, and he's begun to think that "detectifying" would be a much more satisfying way to make a living. There aren't a lot of job opportunities for would-be detectives, though, especially those with limited education, and the boys are forced to sign on as railroad detectives with the Southern Pacific.

Cowboys and railroads don't get along well under the best of circumstances, and Gustav has other reasons to be less than enthusiastic about the job, but there they are on the Pacific Express, hoping for a chance to catch the "Give-'em-Hell Boys." But before those bandits even show up, there's a murder on board, and Gustav and Otto are pressed into service.

There's a colorful array of suspects, and Hockensmith does a fine job of providing unexpected twists along the way. He manages the tricky feat of being realistic about period attitudes toward women and ethnic minorities without allowing those attitudes to be too offensive to modern-day readers, mainly by allowing Gustav and Otto to be relatively enlightened for their era. The dialogue and narration (Otto tells the story, serving as Dr. Watson to Gustav's Holmes) have enough period flavor to feel authentic without drowning the reader in archaic slang.

A solid successor to Holmes on the Range, and both books are worthwhile if you're in the mood for a charming light mystery.

Department of Link

"...if you grew up in the church, and if you were a little baby in your mama's arms in the church, that was the first music you heard. You're tuned, I think, like a violin, and church music is always gonna have an effect on you." -- Susan Werner talks about her new album The Gospel Truth, an exploration of spirituality and skepticism

South Dakota Dark concludes its look at what we might see from the networks this fall, with educated guesses about the schedules of Fox and NBC.

Every year, an artist is chosen from each state to decorate an egg for display as part of the White House Easter celebration. Here's this year's collection. Most of them are trying too hard (like Rhode Island, for instance), but I do like the ones from Colorado, Kentucky (though it would be much better without the metal horse on top), Utah, and Vermont. I don't much care for the ones that hollow out the egg, like Connecticut. And Iowa is a godawful mess. (via A Sweet, Familiar Dissonance)

Nifty organizing theme for a new anthology: Each contributor to Logorrhea was asked for a story inspired by a championship spelling bee word. Titles include "The Chiaroscurist," "Appoggiatura," "Eczema," and "Vignette." A fine collection of SF/fantasy authors, too. (via The Bodhisattva)

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post asks: What happens when one of the world's best musicians -- classical violinist Joshua Bell -- plays for quarters at a DC subway stop? (via The Rest Is Noise)

And some big news: The Los Angeles Philharmonic says goodbye, Esa-Pekka; hello, Gustavo.

April 03, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (Tony Bennett / standards)

What did we learn tonight, boys and girls? We learned that while our little wannnabes may have the interpretive chops to handle the lyric complexity of "Hey Baby," they are utterly at sea when given songs where the words actually, y'know, mean something. You had to feel for poor Tony Bennett, trying desperately (and failing miserably) to get his pupils to pay attention to the lyrics.

The rundown:

Blake, "Mack the Knife" -- Blake's pitch gets progressively worse as the song goes on, but that's not really the problem. Blake's not singing about a gangster, he's singing about his pal, "good ol' Mack the Knife." We should be nervous to hear that Mackie is back at the end of the song, with images of switchblades dancing in our heads; Blake's Mack is so mild-mannered that I'm seeing picnic baskets and frisbees.

Phil, "Night and Day" -- the arrangement is too damned slow, and utterly lacking in rhythmic energy and forward propulsion. The song is about obsessive love, and it needs a momentum that feels uncontrollable.

Melinda, "I Got Rhythm" -- I am a little nervous during the slow intro; surely she isn't going to plod through the whole song like this? But then the drums kick in, and Melinda is back on track. Here's what really amazes me about her: It's like we're listening to a different singer every week, and they're all brilliant. She gives us an astonishing variety of tone and style from week to week. I'm also very happy to see her looking a bit less timid and shocked than usual when receiving the judges' praise.

Chris, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" -- this is an awfully tricky melody, and Chris does a little wandering in the desert at the beginning. But by the bridge, he's much improved, and the last verse and coda are quite good. There's a little more power in his voice than usual, and a lot less whining. Most important, he actually seems to have thought about the words and to understand the mood of the song.

Jordin, "On a Clear Day" -- I don't think this was the best song choice, and the arrangement feels like something from The Carol Burnett Show, circa 1971. It's an oddly bouncy interpretation, too; there's a subtle difference between optimism and joy, and Jordin's approach to the song leans too much to the latter, I think. As always, though, Jordin's got a lovely voice, and there are no serious technical flaws.

Gina, "Smile" -- two strong performances in a row from Gina; I'll have to stop being surprised by her. Her tone is lovely, she's solidly in control of pitch and dynamics, and she's totally connected to the emotion of the song.

Sanjaya, "Cheek to Cheek" -- He tried his hardest. It wasn't very good.

Haley, "Ain't Misbehavin'" -- Tony's pre-song comments hint at what's to come, but it's still a shock. Between the dress and the prancing about, this is the sluttiest "Ain't Misbehavin'" on record. The singing is good enough -- a bit too musical theater, still, and a few off notes -- but she's completly missed the point of the song. It's not impossible to conceive of a mildly flirty version that works, but Haley's crossed the line from flirt to hooker.

LaKisha, "Stormy Weather" -- the LaKishaBot hits all the notes, and the big loud ones at the end are impressive, but she's making some very odd vowel sounds along the way, and the big drop on "weather" at the very beginning isn't pretty. She's the coldest stage presence of the night; other singers may have been communicating the wrong message, but at least they were communicating something.

For the night: Melinda, Gina, Chris, Jordin, LaKisha, Haley, Blake, Phil, Sanjaya.

For the season: Melinda, Jordin, Gina, LaKisha, Blake, Chris, Phil, Haley, Sanjaya.

Should go home: Sanjaya, of course. Will go home: Phil, whose last-minute "I was thinking of my wife" audience suckup will not quite be enough to save him.

BOOKS: The Fate of Mice, Susan Palwick (2007)

Marvelous collection of short stories on the boundary between SF/fantasy and mainstream fiction.

Some of Palwick's stories put novel twists on standard tropes. "Beautiful Stuff" is the sweetest zombie story you'll ever read; "Ever After" puts a marvelous new spin on Cinderella and her fairy godmother, turning them into characters from a horror story. A lab mouse with artifically enhanced intelligence is at the heart of "The Fate of Mice," which explicitly references Flowers for Algernon.

The dominant theme of the collection is compassion. "Going After Bobo" starts with a teenaged boy's love for his cat and grows into a story about learning to live with the flaws of others; "The Old World" looks at the struggle of people for whom an apparent utopia is not the best of all possible worlds.

There are two stories that I particularly loved. "GI Jesus" is more comic than the rest of the book, a wildly heretical story about faith, death, and an apparition of Jesus in a most unlikely place (if you thought Jesus on a tortilla was weird...).

Best of all is "Gestella," in which Palwick applies a mundane truism about canine physiology to a werewolf story in a way that seems so inevitable that it's a wonder no one had thought of it before; it's a heartbreaker, a small gem of perfectly controlled tone and narrative detail.

Strongly recommended.

April 02, 2007

MOVIES: Blades of Glory (Josh Gordon & Will Speck, 2007)

Will Ferrell goes back to the goofball sports movie again, and gets just enough laughs to make the movie a mildly entertaining diversion.

This time, he's Chazz Michael Michaels, the most macho figure skater on the circuit; his archrival is Jimmy McElroy (Jon Heder), the least macho figure skater on the circuit. After getting into a brawl at a competition, both men are banned from the sport, only to discover that a loophole will allow them to compete as a team in pairs' skating.

And so we get lots of jokes about how awful it is for two men to skate together (managing, I think, to stay barely on the right side of the line separating mere bad taste from outright homophobia), and lots of impressive special-effects enhanced stuntwork about the elaborate routines that Chazz and Jimmy perform.

The plot is paper-thin. There's a rival team, the magnificently named brother and sister Stranz and Fairchild Von Waldenburg (played by real-life husband and wife Will Arnett and Amy Poehler; Poehler is the funnier of the two by a long shot), and Jenna Fischer is blandly pleasant as their sister, the obligatory nice girl who serves as a love interest for Jimmy (he has to have a love interest so that we know he's not really gay, just really effeminate).

If you're a fan of figure skating, there's a lot you have to ignore here. Neither Ferrell nor Heder is remotely believable as a skater; they're both too tall and bulky; look at how they tower over former champion Scott Hamilton playing himself as a TV analyst. The movie uses the 6-point scoring system, which skating abandoned a few years back; and virtually none of the music we hear would actually be allowed as music in a real competition.

As for the cast, Jon Heder continues to have one of the most inexplicable careers in Hollywood. I don't think he's been funny in anything; the best I can say is that he's mildly less annoying here than he usually is. Ferrell plays the same type of buffoon he plays in all of his broad comedies, and although he does it very well, it's starting to be awfully predictable.

But the skating sequences are cleverly choreographed -- a big hand to the stunt skaters and the effects guys -- and the good jokes are just funny enough, and come just often enough, to keep me amused. I don't think it's good news, though, that Ferrell's now got a basketball comedy in the works; it really is time to find a new shtick.

April 01, 2007

Department of Link

David Bordwell asks: Is it possible to plagiarize a movie?

South Dakota Dark is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs. This week, Todd and Jon begin a series of educated guesses as to what the networks' fall TV schedules might look like. To start: ABC, CBS, and the CW.

40 years ago, Karen Morrow was a Broadway star; now she's a vocal coach who specializes in working with ordinary people.