August 31, 2007

TV: weekend marathons

If you're looking for something to do over the weekend, I recommend a pair of TV marathons, complete airings of the first seasons (so far) of two of the summer's best new series.

On Sunday, AMC airs the first seven episodes of Mad Men, about a group of advertising men coping with a world and a career on the verge of major change in 1960; Jon Hamm is getting most of the attention (and he's very good) in the starring role, but even more, I'm enjoying the supporting performances of Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery, and January Jones.

And on Monday, FX repeats the first four episodes of the legal thriller Damages; the plot is on the wildly implausible side, but it's worth it for Glenn Close's magnificently ferocious performance as legal shark Patty Hewes, and for Ted Danson's precisely calibrated is-he-evil-or-misunderstood work as the tycoon she's suing.

New episodes of Mad Men air on Thursday nights, and Damages on Tuesdays; both are on basic cable, so they repeat frequently during the week.

Senator Craig visits Avenue Q

As sad as the Larry Craig scandal is (for so many reasons), it certainly is inspiring a lot of terrific comedy.

(via The Tin Man)

August 26, 2007

BOOKS: First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde (2007)

5th in the Thursday Next series.

Thursday is one of the finest agents in Jurisfiction, the police agency responsible for what happens inside books. Most of her fellow agents are themselves fictional characters; Thursday's mentor, for instance, was Jurisfiction legend Miss Havisham. Thursday is the rare Jurisfiction agent who comes from the real world -- the Outland, as it's known in BookWorld -- and she travels back and forth between the two worlds.

First Among Sequels finds her training two potential new Jurisfiction agents, who happen to be the fictional versions of herself from the five Thursday Next novels. Why two? Well, there was an author change after the fourth book, and the Thursday from The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco is (literally) a different character entirely. Now, if it seems to you that neither of these fictional Thursdays bears much resemblance to the Thursday you read about in those novels, or if you don't remember reading The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco, have no fear. Those anomalies are part of the fun, and Fforde resolves them nicely by the time the story is over.

Thursday's frustrating stint as a trainer is just one of the story threads woven throughout First Among Sequels, and for the first half of the book, they seem to be entirely unconnected. There's the reluctance of Thursday's slacker son, Friday, to join the ChronoGuard -- the time traveling police -- which poses a problem becuase Friday is supposed to invent the technology that allows time travel, and if he doesn't do that, then the ChronoGuard will have been unable to do all the fine work it's done over the last several decades. (Not only that, but there's the little problem of time itself unravelling, and that needs to be taken care of by the end of the week.) Jurisfiction is also struggling to understand the declining interest in reading in the Outland, a decline which threatens the very existence of the BookWorld; and Friday is being visited by the ghost of her uncle Mycroft. In the second half of the book, Fforde cleverly weaves these threads together, and what had seemed like amiable, digressive rambling proves to be a carefully planned plot.

As always, there are marvelous jokes, many of them tossed off in the background (there's a terrific Thomas Hardy joke, and how many novels can you say that about?). Fforde keeps coming up with new aspects of BookWorld, and ingenious new ways to expand its territory; I particularly liked the chapter in which Thursday finds herself trapped on the steamship Moral Dilemma.

You could probably get through First Among Sequels without having read the earlier Thursday Next novels, but there are a lot of references and plot details that would be clearer if you had. And they're all terrific books, filled with outlandishly clever ideas, so there's no reason not to start with The Eyre Affair and make your way through the series. If you've been reading all along, you surely won't be disappointed by this latest installment. The best news is that there will be at least one more volume to come; this one ends with a lovely cliffhanger that promises another set of inventive complications.

August 24, 2007

Department of GaGa: MAMBO!!!!

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in a joyful performance of the Mambo from Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story." I'm getting more impatient for his arrival in Los Angeles every day. (via Sounds & Fury)

August 22, 2007

BOOKS: The Coup, Jamie Malanowski (2007)

The Jack Mahone presidency is a year old, and things are not going well. Blunders and scandals have sent Mahone's approval ratings plummeting, and hardly a day goes by that Vice President Godwin Pope doesn't hear from some party insider, "Geez, it's a shame we didn't elect you." Like all politicians, Pope is not overly burdened with modesty or humility, and he begins to take those rumblings seriously; things would be better if he were President, he decides, and sets out to make that happen. How? By concocting an elaborate scheme to embarass President Mahone so spectacularly that he will be forced to resign in disgrace, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong.

What Malanowski gives us here is essentially a con man caper in the guise of a political satire, and it suffers from the problems that afflict all con man stories. Pope's plan relies on an inordinate number of coincidences, and too many people have to react to events in precisely the right way. But what can I say? I'm a sucker for con man stories. I like watching all the elaborately plotted pieces fall into piece, no matter how improbable it all is.

There's an ample supply of colorful characters -- the President's dimwit brother, who fancies himself a great singer; the disgraced journalist, trying to overcome her reputation for sleeping with her sources; the software tycoon who is Pope's best pal; the Speaker of the House, giddy with joy at watching Mahone's apparent self-destruction -- and there are enough clever plot twists to keep me entertained. The Coup isn't a great book; there are better political satirists (Christopher Buckley comes to mind) and there are better con man stories. But it combines the two things reasonably well, and it's a pleasant enough diversion.

August 19, 2007

BOOKS: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (2007)

As the final volume opens, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in hiding; when Voldemort's minions take control of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic, the three are forced to go on the run, sleeping in a tent and moving to a different remote hideout every day. This camping trip epitomizes the biggest problem with Deathly Hallows (and with the Potter series as a whole) -- it's horribly bloated and needs the services of a good editor.

Deathly Hallows is more than 750 pages long, and that could easily have been trimmed by 100 or 150 pages, most of it from the never-ending camping trip. Camp camp camp, bicker bicker bicker, camp camp camp, squabble squabble squabble -- by the time it was over, I was beginning to root for Voldemort.

There's also a huge amount of new rulemaking surrounding wands and who may (or may not) use them; it's a bit frustrating to have all these new rules suddenly thrown into the mix, especially when Rowling has generally done such a good job of laying groundwork in early volumes for later developments. At one point, Harry has to explain how character X has gotten control of wand Y, and the lecture is so convoluted that it's like watching a conman pulling off an elaborate scam.

Once the camping trip is over and we reach the final battle between good and evil -- building, of course, to the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort -- things improve greatly. The action is fast and frantic, and Rowling keeps it clear (for the most part) what's happening where; we get great moments of heroism from likely characters (Neville finally steps up!) and surprising characters (Molly Weasley, whose shining moment is greatlly weakened by the worst line of dialogue in the series; it doesn't fit the character or the book).

Deathly Hallows is, like the series as a whole, frustrating. There's so much creativity and so many marvelous ideas in these books, but in the end, I found myself wishing that the literary fates had given them to an author with the skill to manage them better. Trim these books by 15-20% and polish up Rowling's bland prose, and you'd have a work of great literature here. The strengths outweigh the weaknesses by enough that the books will endure, but I'll always be a bit saddened by thoughts of what they could have been.

August 14, 2007

BOOKS: Michael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin (2007)

Nearly twenty years after the last novel in the Tales of the City series, Maupin takes us back to San Francisco to check in on some of the characters from those books.

The most obvious difference from the earlier books is that this one is told in first-person by Michael. He's somewhat surprised to find himself still alive, as are many men who contracted HIV in the early years of the epidemic, then survived long enough to take advantage of new medicines. Michael's happily married now; he was part of the crowd who married at City Hall during San Francisco's short-lived fling with gay marriage. His husband, Ben, is in his early 30s, "a whole adult younger than me," as Michael puts it.

I had not re-read the earlier volumes before reading this one, and I don't think you need to. I'm not even sure you should; reading Michael is like catching up with old friends you haven't seen in a long time. Maupin does a nice job of bringing us up to speed on what everyone has been up to, in a graceful way that never feels like exposition for its own sake.

The main plotline has Michael and Ben going to Florida, where Michael is visiting his dying mother. As with the earlier Tales volumes, plot isn't the most important thing; the earliest volumes began life as a newspaper column, which contributed to the episodic nature of the storytelling. No, what matters here are the characters and their relationships, and as always, the relationships among Maupin's characters are precisely drawn and entirely believable.

I was just a bit disappointed by the ending of the book. Maupin walks right up to the edge of an ending that (sad though it would have been) would have been the perfect way to end the Tales saga; he backs off at the last moment, though, leaving us with an ending that is happier (in a muted way), but less emotionally fulfilling. Still, it's a joy to revisit these characters again, and Michael Tolliver Lives is a sweetly delightful postscript to the Tales series.

August 13, 2007

MOVIES: Stardust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007)

A shooting star falls from the sky, and Tristan (Charlie Cox) promises to retrieve it as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). But to do so, he will have to cross the stone wall at the edge of the village, and that is strictly forbidden. For on the other side of the wall is not England, but the fantasy kingdom of Stormhold, where the king (Peter O'Toole, making yet another delightful cameo appearance) lies on his deathbed, pirates sail the skies in great wooden dirigibles, and evil witches terrorize everyone they meet.

Tristan does find the star, and much to his surprise, it takes the form of the lovely young Yvaine (Claire Danes). He's not the only one who's interested in Yvaine, though. The princes of Stormhold want the jewel she carries; their father has made its retrieval a prerequisite to taking the throne. The witch Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer) and her sisters want Yvaine so that they may cut out her heart, which will restore their youth and beauty.

Stardust is somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride, though it's certainly less manic, and the humor is more dry British understatement than broad Catskills vaudeville. The principal roles are beautifully cast. As Tristan, Charlie Cox has the difficult task of going from ordinary downtrodden schlub to hero, and he makes the transition convincing; Claire Danes plays the star Yvaine not as the perfect glamorous maiden you might expect, but as a slightly spoiled and vain princess. Michelle Pfeiffer has great fun as the villainous Lamia, and brings just the right level of hamminess to the role.

Less successful is Robert DeNiro as the ferocious pirate Captain Shakespeare. DeNiro's proven in movies like Meet the Parents that he can do comedy, but the precise style of campiness required in this role is out of his grasp, and the movie screeches to a halt for those minutes set on his ship. I could also have done without the Ricky Gervais cameo, but then, I've never understood Gervais' appeal on any level.

The special effects are nicely done -- I particularly liked a clever fencing duel late in the movie -- without ever drawing so much attention to themselves that they overwhelm the story; Ilan Eshkeri's score is thrilling, romantic, and suspenseful as required, and adds greatly to the movie's impact. Stardust is lively and energetic, with clever plot twists (director Vaughn and Jane Goldman adapted Neil Gaiman's graphic novel), and a perfect happily-ever-after ending.

August 12, 2007

MOVIES: Rocket Science (Jeffrey Blitz, 2007)

Oh, my friends, we are going to be paying for the success of Napoleon Dynamite for years to come, as the arthouses are flooded with a never-ending series of quirky little movies about quirky little teenagers living bleak (but quirky!) lives in some suburban wasteland or other.

This example of the genre is set in New Jersey, not too far from Trenton, and our hero is Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), who suffers from a stutter so intense that he can't tell the lunch lady whether he wants fish or pizza. Despite this handicap, Hal is approached by Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), the star of the school's debate team; Ginny believes that underneath that stutter, Hal has the makings of a champion debater. "Deformed people are the best," she tells him. "Maybe it's their deep reserves of anger." Hal, captivated by the lovely Ginny, agrees to give it a shot.

The notion of Hal as a debater is so ludicrous that it rips the movie out of the real world and into an absurd fantasy land. To be sure, the movie's grasp on reality was already thin, as every character is so aggressively eccentric that they no longer feel human. There's the therapist who hasn't a clue how to deal with Hal's stuttering ("Too bad you don't have ADD," he chirps, "I could really do something with that."); Hal's pal Lewis (Josh Kay), whose parents play piano-cello duet versions of Violent Femmes songs as a form of marital therapy; the creepy Judge Pete (Steve Park), who's dating Hal's mother and is given to loud bursts of laughter for no particular reason. (Park has a gift for this sort of bizarrely inappropriate social behavior; you may remember him as Mike Yanagita in Fargo). Even the movie's soundtrack screams quirky -- an arrangement of "The Blob" for mandolin, accordion, and whistler; "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" tentatively plucked out on a banjo.

A few of the actors escape this mess with some dignity intact. Vincent Piazza steals every scene he's in as Hal's bullying brother, Earl; Nicholas D'Agosto has the right mix of arrogance and desperation as the mysterious debate legend, Ben Wekselbaum. And as Ginny, Anna Kendrick is a delight, sailing through oceans of rapid-fire dialogue with great aplomb; the movie's energy level plummets whenever she's not on screen.

But Reece Daniel Thompson is a cipher on the screen; flat inflections, a blank face, and the inability to communicate any emotion combine to make Hal an empty character. There's nothing to Hal but his eccentricities, so it's hard to care what happens to him. Much the same can be said of Rocket Science as a whole; it's a twee festival of oddness, but that's all it is.

August 07, 2007

MOVIES: The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)

Third and final (?) installment in the Jason Bourne series.

One more time, Bourne (Matt Damon) is trying to find out who he is and how he became an unstoppable killer, while the CIA sends an endless supply of slightly less unstoppable killers after him. (One of the fun things about the Bourne universe is that the job description for hired killers apparently includes "must have a fabulous body and a gorgeous face.")

The action scenes are dazzling. The standout is a hand-to-hand combat scene that takes place in a very tiny Morocco apartment; there's none of that quick and easy dispatching of the villains that we get in lesser action movies. No, Bourne and his rival both take a pummelling in this one, and even though we know that Bourne is going to win, the scene is still filled with suspense and tension.

One of the best things about the Bourne movies is that they don't settle for whichever relatively competent actors happen to be available; they get real actors -- Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Julia Stiles, Albert Finney -- who bring more depth to characters who could be simple cartoons. And let's not forget Damon himself, whose fine work here will no doubt be dismissed by many because this is "just" an action flick.

Yes, Greengrass does go a bit overboard with the jiggly hand-held camera, and the New York car chase at the end of the movie does subject Bourne to more violence than anyone could actually survive, but as popcorn thrillers go, this is a high adrenaline thrill ride, and lots smarter than the usual for the genre.

August 06, 2007

MOVIES: Becoming Jane (Julian Jarrold, 2007)

Based on a handful of vague references in Jane Austen's letters, this movie concocts a great heartbreaking romance in Austen's early life, a romance that would inspire her novels. In essence, the movie is a Jane Austen novel with Austen herself as the protagonist.

The problem is that it isn't a very good Austen novel. All of Austen's favorite standard characters are on hand -- the young clergyman who serves as comic relief, the formidable old dowager, the dithering parents who long to see their daughter married off, the decent but dull fellow our heroine is expected to marry, the enticing man of bad reputation whom she secretly prefers -- but they're present in pale versions that feel like fifth-generation photocopies of Austen's originals.

If the very fine 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice weren't still relatively fresh in our minds, Becoming Jane might not seem so awful, but so many of these actors feel like poor-man's versions of the actors who played similar roles in that film. James Cromwell and Julie Walters take over for P&P's Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn as the parents, Maggie Smith is in for Judi Dench as the grumpy old dame, and so on.

None of them give bad performances, really; they're just a bit flat compared to the earlier versions. They aren't helped by a script (by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams) that crawls like molasses and stumbles through more "oh, I thought it was over" false endings than the last Lord of the Rings movie.

If there is any reason to see the movie, it's the central couple -- Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy as Jane Austen and Thomas Lefroy. They're a very likable couple, and they actually manage to generate some heat and passion, despite the movie's lack of energy. They've both done superb work in other movies, and in the long run, this one will just be an unfortunate footnote on their resumes.