June 30, 2007

Smackdown: 1988

Speaking of StinkyLulu, it's now official that the July Smackdown will focus on the Supporting Actress nominees from 1988. So over the next few weeks, I'll be watching and commenting on the following performances:
  • Joan Cusack and Sigourney Weaver, Working Girl
  • Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist
  • Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Liaisons
  • Frances McDormand, Mississippi Burning

I saw all of these movies when they were released, but haven't seen any of them since; the only one that I have any strong memories of is Dangerous Liaisons, which I remember hating intensely.

This month's Smackdowners are:

I urge you to visit their blogs -- several of them are new to me, and I look forward to getting to know them -- and follow the Smackdown as it progresses, culminating in the final vote at StinkyLulu's on the 29th of July.

8 Things

StinkyLulu has tagged me with the "8 things" meme that's currently sweeping the blogosphere, which goes as follows:

1. All right, here are the rules.
2. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
3. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
4. People who are tagged write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
5. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to tag and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Now here's the thing: One of the reasons I don't do a lot of personal talking on this blog is that I'm a) very shy, and b) not very interesting. I'm always more than happy to express my opinions about other things, but I don't talk about myself much. Still, we'll see what we can come up with.

1. One of the chief perks of being gay is not having children. I don't actually hate the little critters as much as I sometimes pretend to, but I like them better when I can give them back to their parents.

2. I hate having my picture taken.

3. For a non-professional musician/actor -- and someone with limited talent in either area -- I have performed in some prestigious halls, having sung at Carnegie Hall (with a large chorus, but hey, it still counts), acted at the Mark Taper Forum (one of LA's major professional theaters), and performed at the Comedy Store.

4. I crashed into Ann Miller, nearly knocking her over, during a theatrical intermission. I started to apologize, but she held up her hand to stop me, bellowed, "Young man, it will take a lot more than that to knock me down!," and swept back into the theater.

5. I don't eat my vegetables. French fries and mashed potatoes, baked beans every now and then, but that's about it. (Do corn chips count as a vegetable?)

6. I believe that The Wizard of Oz is the most overrated movie in history, mostly because I hate Dorothy. Here's a girl who spends the first twenty minutes whining because she doesn't have any friends and nothing ever happens and life is so dull that it's in black and white, then along comes the hurricane and whisks her off to Oz where she makes lots of friends and has exciting adventures and the world is in color, and now it's "I wanna go back to Kaaaaansas!" Having gone from Kansas to Oz myself (well, Vermont to Los Angeles, but it's essentially the same thing), I can safely say that no one with a lick of sense ever wants to go back to Kansas.

7. When listening to classical music, I prefer large forces to small -- choruses to soloists, symphonies to string quartets. I do, however, have a weakness for percussion ensembles.

8. As a child, I always believed that I would die young, and am somewhat astonished to find myself still here at 43.

June 19, 2007

Not that this place has been bustling with activity of late, but just wanted to let y'all know that I'll be out of town for the next few days -- without Internet access (gasp) -- so no posting until early next week. See you then!

June 17, 2007

Get ready for the Smackdown!

Every month, StinkyLulu hosts the Supporting Actress Smackdown, inviting a few movie bloggers to join him in revisiting a Supporting Actress Oscar race from years past and deciding who really should have won. This month, StinkyLulu and the gang are evaluating the 1978 race, and he's already posted commentary on Penelope Mitford, Maggie Smith, and Maureen Stapleton, with Dyan Cannon and Meryl Streep still to come before he assembles this month's Smackdown team for the group evaluation on the last Sunday of the month.

I am delighted to have been invited to join the Smackdowners in July, and StinkyLulu has just opened the voting to decide which year's Supporting Actresses we'll be discussing. Please drop by and cast your vote; the choices are 1943, 1952, 1970, 1979, 1988, and 1997. Oddly enough, four of those six years ('52 and '97 are the exceptions) have pairs of actresses nominated for the same film.

I'm torn between 1970 and 1979 myself; I have the horrible fear that either 1988 or 1997 is going to win, forcing me to sit through Dangerous Liaisons (shudder) or Titanic (double shudder) again. But even if that should happen, I'm looking forward to my first Smackdown with great anticipation.

BOOKS: Seeker, Jack McDevitt (2005)

This year's winner of the Nebula Award, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

The setting is some 10,000 years or so in the future, and Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer, traveling through space in search of lost ships and derelicts from which he might gather valuable artifacts. His assistant, Chase Kolpath (she's the narrator of the book), gets a visit from a woman who wonders if there might be any value in an old cup she has.

Alex and Chase are stunned and thrilled to discover that the cup appears to be from the Seeker, a ship that left earth in the 27th century to found a colony called Margolia; neither the ship nor the colony were ever heard from, and over the ensuing millennia, Margolia has become the new Atlantis. The discovery of this artifact sets Alex and Chase on a mission to discover the provenance of the cup, so that they'll know their client has the legal right to sell it, and with any luck, to discover what happened to Margolia.

Seeker is a top-notch mystery, and there's great playfulness in the way that Alex and Chase track down the clues. Mystery and science fiction don't always mix well -- it can be too easy for an author to pull a mysterious gadget out of his pocket in the last chapter -- but McDevitt does a fine job of combining the two here. I was reminded of Isaac Asimov, who also wrote some clever science fiction/mystery hybrids; McDevitt has a similar writing style, very clean and straightforward.

The future that McDevitt creates is strikingly atypical for current science fiction; at a time when authors are generally imagining that in as little as fifty years, we will become more physically integrated with our machines and technology will come to dominate our lives, McDevitt leaps 10,000 into a future where people are still pretty much people, and where there's been some technological advance, but society looks much as it does today.

There are two earlier Benedict/Kolpath novels that I haven't read -- A Talent for War and Polaris -- but they're certainly on my To Be Read list now.

June 10, 2007

MOVIES: Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007)

So here's our heroine, Alison Scott (played by Katherine Heigl). She's in her mid-20s, and she's just landed a promotion to an on-air position at E! TV. While celebrating that promotion, she has a bit too much to drink and has a one-night stand with Ben (Seth Rogen), who she finds so unappealing that she cannot bring herself to touch him the next morning. Eight weeks later -- she has not seen or spoken to Ben in the meantime, or had even the slightest interest in doing so -- she discovers that she's pregnant.

So, the mystery: With that setup, how is it that we never, not once, hear the word "abortion" during this movie? Oh, one of Ben's stoner friends raises the subject, but can't bring himself to utter what he calls "the A word;" the idea is turned into a joking suggestion that Ben should encourage Alison to have a "schmaschmortion." And Alison's mother, who appears in one scene only and is clearly meant to be an unsympathetic bitch, tells Alison that she should "take care of" things. But that's all the lip service that's paid to the subject.

Now I get that a comedy about the consequences of unplanned pregnancy doesn't get very far if the woman chooses abortion, but we never even see Alison consider the idea seriously. How realistic is it that there wouldn't be some serious "hmmm.... guy I don't know and aren't attracted to, career starting to take off, I'm still young... maybe I shouldn't have this baby" thinking going on? And since we don't ever see that, Alison becomes a cipher, a mere device; she decides to have the baby solely because the plot requires her to.

And since I can't believe in Alison as an actual 21st-century woman, it's nearly impossible to care about whether she and Ben will make their relationship work. Rogen and Heigl have little chemistry, and I never once believed that they should be a couple. (Rogen loosens up considerably in his scenes with Paul Rudd, who plays Alison's brother-in-law; theirs is the most interesting relationship in the movie). Alison actually sums up her relationship with Ben at one point by saying (roughly), "I'm a nice person; you're a nice person; we're just trying to do the nice thing for each other," and she's absolutely right. They're not trying to make it work because they care about each other; they simply feel obliged to do so.

Even worse than the implausible story and the unconvincing central relationship is the fact that the movie isn't very funny. The jokes fall flat, and the secondary couple in the movie, played by Rudd and Leslie Mann, are a nasty, unhappy pair who are almost always at one another's throats. Ben's housemates are a tiresome collection of stoner cliches who exist only to be even less ambitious and responsible than Ben, providing an excuse for Alison to think, "Well, he's not that bad...".

After the tedium of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I began to wonder if Judd Apatow was peddling the Emperor's New Clothes. I'm not wondering anymore.

June 09, 2007

MOVIES: Surf's Up (Ash Brannon & Chris Buck, 2007)

Again with the penguins.

This time, they're surfers, gathered for the tenth annual "Big Z Memorial" tournament, in honor of the legendary penguin surfer. Among Big Z's devoted followers is 17-year-old Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), who dreams of being the next big star on the penguin surfing circuit. Surf's Up is framed as a documentary that follows Cody from his home in Antarctica to the tournament; that device allows the movie to play a little with the storytelling -- nicely aged "archival" footage, the off-screen voice of the interviewers (directors Brannon and Buck) talking to the characters -- and it's not overplayed so much that it becomes tiresome.

Nothing about Surf's Up, in fact, reaches the level of manic energy or hyperactivity that is common in animated films; the movie's very much in line with the laidback surfer-dude philosophy of Big Z. It's not a hugely ambitious movie, but it meets its own modest goals nicely. The animation is quite good, and the water -- notoriously hard to animate realistically -- is the best I've yet seen in a computer-animated movie.

Smart voice casting sets the movie on the right track. James Woods is perfectly oily as the tournament promoter, and Mario Cantone precisely right as his put-upon assistant, whose spindly-legged walk is one of the movie's best running jokes; Diedrich Bader is full of pompous bluster as the reigning champ; Zooey Deschanel is sweet as Cody's romantic interest. (Only Jon Heder, as a surfing chicken, disappoints, which really isn't much of a surprise at this point in his inexplicable career.)

Best of all is Jeff Bridges, doing a penguin variation on The Dude from The Big Lebowski, all gruff charm and exasperation. Bridges and LaBeouf have terrific chemistry in their scenes together, aided immensely by the directors' decision to have their actors record their dialogue together, which is unusual for animation these days.

We're not going to remember Surf's Up as a classic in ten years, but it's a good-natured, sweetly charming little movie that'll keep you entertained.

June 07, 2007

BOOKS: What's So Funny?, Donald E. Westlake (2007)

13th in the John Dortmunder series of comic crime novels.

This time, Dortmunder is approached by an ex-cop who wants him to steal a chess set. Sounds easy enough, but the pieces are 4 inches high and made of solid gold; the set is too heavy for one (or even two) to carry, and it's located in a very secure underground bank vault. But not stealing the chess set isn't really an option, as the cop has some incriminating photos of an earlier Dortmunder heist.

Dortmunder's usual gang of associates is on hand, and it's always a pleasure to spend time with them. And as usual, Westlake's given us some marvelous new supporting characters to fill out the story -- ex-cop Johnny Eppick; his employer, the very elderly Mr. Hemlow, who wants that chess set; the imperious Livia Northwood Wheeler, its current owner -- and a plot with a terrific surprise twist every few chapters.

If you're a regular Dortmunder reader, you know precisely what to expect, and you won't be disappointed by this installment in the series. If you haven't read any of the Dortmunder books before, give them a shot; I'm particularly fond of The Hot Rock (the first in the series) and Drowned Hopes, but they're all good.

June 05, 2007

BOOKS: The Last Colony, John Scalzi (2007)

A lively return to the universe of Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. John Perry, the soldier-hero of Old Man's War, has retired and settled down with his family when his old military commanders ask him and his wife, Jane, to serve as the leaders of a new colony, to be called Roanoke. John and Jane both suspect that there's more to the request than meets the eye, but they agree, and with their adopted daughter Zoe (who is the biological daughter of Charles Boutin, one of the principal characters of The Ghost Brigades), they head off to Roanoke.

They are, of course, right to be suspicious, as nothing about Roanoke is quite what they'd been led to believe. There are plot twists and bombshells every few chapters here, none of which I plan to spoil for you; suffice it to say that every bit of conniving you think you're figured out will prove to be covering another scheme that you'd never expected.

John Perry is a genial and droll narrator, though Scalzi too often has Perry deliberately conceal knowledge from us solely for dramatic effect. Something happens that is surprising to the readers, then Perry explains that because of X -- which happened last week, but he hadn't bothered to tell us about yet -- it's not really surprising at all. That's OK once or twice, but Scalzi repeats that trick too often here.

That's a mild quibble, though, and the novel as a whole is great fun. The story is cleverly constructed, the characters are sharply defined, and for all the scheming and conniving aliens and space battles, there's a surprising warmth to the story. John and Jane are flat-out nice people; you can't help rooting for them, and smiling every time they triumph over ludicrous odds. Scalzi says this is the last novel to be set in this universe, and it's a most satisfying conclusion to the series.

June 03, 2007

MOVIES: Show Business: The Road to Broadway (Dori Berinstein, 2007)

Berinstein follows four musicals of the 2003-04 Broadway season from rehearsals to the Tony Awards in this pleasant documentary. They're an eclectic assortment of shows. There's the big-budget Wicked, based on the novel about Oz from the Wicked Witch's point of view; the London import Taboo, a largely autobiographical show written by Boy George and produced by Rosie O'Donnell; the defiantly anti-commercial civil rights story Caroline, or Change; and the "Sesame Street for grownups" puppet musical Avenue Q.

Berinstein gets lucky, capturing some marvelous moments -- composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Tony Kushner struggling to get the final number of Caroline right; Boy George sneaking out of the theater for a cigarette on the opening of night of Taboo and meeting two long-time fans, who just happen to be the writers of Avenue Q, which is playing two theaters down the street; the cast of Wicked marveling at their first sight of Idina Menzel in her green makeup -- and some lovely Broadway traditions, such as the travels of the "gypsy robe."

Serving as a Greek chorus of sorts are several of New York's most prominent theater critics, who meet over dinner or cocktails several times during the year to chat about the season for Berinstein. They serve largely as a reminder that even the self-styled experts don't really have any clue about what the public wants; every one of their consensus opinions -- "There's no audience for Avenue Q!;" "Wicked is a mess that's doomed to fail;" (that one eventually replaced in their groupthink by "Wicked is sure to win the Best Musical Tony") -- proves to be wrong.

The critics are particularly interesting when analyzing the failure of Taboo, the biggest flop of the four; in retrospect, they seem to think that they may have been to hard on the show, and that it deserved a better chance than it got. (The lone exception here is Michael Riedel of the New York Post, who seems to have made it his personal mission to destroy Taboo and everyone associated with it.)

The movie's not ultimately terribly insightful, and I don't think it'll hold any real surprises for anyone who follows theater (or any other major form of showbiz, for that matter). But it's a sharply assembled piece of entertainment, and theater buffs will surely enjoy it.