November 29, 2007

BOOKS: The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta (2007)

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

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

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

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

Not recommended. At all. To anyone.

November 28, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 26, 2007

BOOKS: Ha'penny, Jo Walton (2007)

Sequel to Farthing, which I enjoyed very much.

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

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

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

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

November 25, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 23, 2007

MOVIES: Enchanted (Kevin Lima, 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 22, 2007

MOVIES: Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007)

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

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

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

November 17, 2007

MOVIES: Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 15, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

November 13, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 12, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 11, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
The Lookout

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

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

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

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

November 04, 2007

BOOKS: Shelter, Susan Palwick (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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