February 28, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (women's semifinals, week 2)

Week 2 for the women, and if it wasn't up to the remarkable standard they set last week, there were still some good moments, and they're still a cut above the men in quality.

The rundown:

Gina, "Alone" -- it's a common problem for Idol women: They can belt the high notes, but they can't reach the low notes. In the first few bars, there are notes that are completely out of Gina's range. The song feels like it should be the right style for her, but she's pushing so hard that she looks as if she's in pain by the end.

Alaina, "Not Ready to Make Nice" -- her enunciation is ghastly, and she's running out of breath in the middle of phrases, in part because she's shouting more than singing. And I wouldn't have picked this song, which is so strongly and specifically associated with the political troubles of the Dixie Chicks that it sounds odd coming out of anyone else's mouth.

LaKisha, "Midnight Train to Georgia" -- fabulous voice, which isn't surprising, but something's missing that I can't put my finger on, and I'm oddly bored by it. It feels timid, tepid somehow, and there's not nearly as much personality behind it as she showed last week.

Melinda, "My Funny Valentine" -- stunning. A distinctive, personal interpretation, and I would be picking at the tiniest of nits to complain about a thing.

Antonella, "Because You Loved Me" -- well, it's better than last week, and I actually rather liked her falsetto. But she's still got the most unattractive voice in the competition, whiny and nasal. (And the dress is hideous.)

Jordin, "Reflections" -- like Gina, she starts in a register lower than she can really sing. But once she gets up into the meat of her voice, it's quite pretty, if not particularly memorable.

Stephanie, "Dangerously in Love" -- I don't know the song, and my first reaction was that she was treating the song with such rhythmic freedom that the band might as well have been in another county; I am informed by my roomie, though, that this is entirely in keeping with Beyonce's original, so it would seem churlish to take points off for that. Fine voice, but a bit lacking in charisma.

Leslie, "Feeling Good" -- she suffers from comparison to AJ's much better performance of the song last night, and her tempo is just a bit slower than she can get away with. The scat section went on longer than it needed to, but it wasn't painfully embarassing, and I do love the tone of her voice.

Haley, "Queen of the Night" -- there's only one thing to say when someone botches a Whitney song this badly: Oh, HELL to the no! The song is all wrong for Haley, who comes off as a hard-working high-school actress failing miserably in her attempt to play the Rocker Chick.

Sabrina, "All the Man That I Need" -- yet again, we hear a fine and powerful belt, but not much beyond that. It'll keep herin the game for a few weeks, but it won't win her the competition.

For the night: Melinda (by a mile), Stephanie, LaKisha, Sabrina, Jordin, Leslie, Gina, Haley, Alain, Antonella. Overall: Melinda, LaKisha (the two front-runners to win the whole thing, I think), Stephanie, Sabrina, Jordan (all deserving spots in the final 12), Leslie, Gina, Haley (fighting it out for that sixth spot), Alaina, Antonella (the two who need to go home this week).

February 27, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (men's semifinals, week 2)

Week 2 for the guys, and it's a huge improvement over the nightware that was Week 1. Some unexpected song choices -- not all of them wise -- and a more relaxed group of singers made for a pleasant evening. (They've still got a way to go to catch up to the women, though.)

The rundown:

Phil, "Missing You" -- very good song choice for his voice, and though the performance was a bit on the safe side, it was smooth, polished, and very entertaining.

Jared, "Let's Get It On" -- When a guy this sexy sings this song, the audience ought to be melting in their seats, at least a little bit. All the notes were there, and there was nothing technically wrong with it, but there was no sex, no lust, no oomph; it was the performance of a virgin.

AJ, "Feeling Good" -- unusual song choice that paid off very nicely. The intro is intense and hushed in a way that drew me in, and when the brass kicks the song into gear, AJ is relaxed and sexy, with terrific falsetto notes that are right on pitch. And that glissando at the very end? Ooooooh, that was nice!

Sanjaya, "Steppin' Out With My Baby" -- He's too young for the song, and his attire isn't sophisticated enough for it. It's "top hat and tails," Sanjaya, not Michael Jackson drag. He still can't do pitch and power simultaneously, and he's so whispery that it feels like a dress rehearsal, as if he's saving his voice for the real performance that's a few hours away.

Chris S., "Trouble" -- I like Chris's voice very much; it's confident and powerful without ever being pushed too hard. This song choice is a bit on the safe side for him, perhaps, and the performance is a bit prettier than the song ought to be, but it's not bad.

Nick, "Fever" -- Nick doesn't look comfortable; he's tight and tense, and you can hear it in his voice. How can someone work so hard to produce such a breathy little sound? There's none of the rhythmic flexibility or spontaneity that the song needs; it's a rigid performance, and the pitch -- especially in the last chorus -- is not pretty.

Blake, "Virtual Insanity" -- worst song choice of the night; it's a boring trainwreck of a song, and the beatbox/scat thing in the middle just feels out of place. On the plus side, it does show off how wide Blake's range is from low to high, and it shows how well controlled (for the most part) his pitch is.

Brandon, "Time After Time" -- instantly forgettable; he's got to find some charisma, or he'll be a background singer forever. His phrasing is choppy, and he's breathing in all the wrong places. ("...I hear the (gasp)(pause) clock tick...")

Chris R., "Geek in the Pink" -- another odd song choice, and I don't think it shows him off as a singer very well. I'm less annoyed by his voice than I was last week, but I still think it's a bit thin, and it disappears entirely when he goes for falsetto. He's got tremendous stage presence, though, and he's fun to watch; I'd like to hear what he sounds like with a more melodic song.

Sundance, "Mustang Sally" -- winner of the Most Improved award, with 90% of the difference coming simply from song selection. The blues-rock thing is his strong suit, and though I suspect he'll be in trouble when the theme weeks begin, this was a fine performance. Needs to work on breath control, though; he seems to run out of air awfully quickly.

For the night: AJ, Sundance, Phil, Chris S., Chris R. Blake, Jared, Nick, Brandon, Sanjaya. Overall: Phil, Chris S., Blake, AJ, Sundance, Jared, Chris R., Brandon, Nick, Sanjaya.

February 26, 2007

...the day after the show...

A few misses in yesterday's predictions, but not many. Granted, I made things easier on myself by not predicting the technical categories, where I don't feel competent to judge; I don't think I could explain the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, much less decide which movie hd done either one better. I feel no shame about missing Best Picture in an unusually competitive year; I missed both of the music awards, but the Academy made very weak choices in both (though if Babel had to win something, the score was the strongest thing in the movie). And I'm very happy to have gotten Animated Short wrong; the win for "The Danish Poet" was my happiest surprise of the night.

The show itself was as dull as any I can remember. Ellen DeGeneres was blandly harmless; her best moments came when she wandered through the audience, joking with Scorsese or Eastwood. Her advice to the winners -- "we have time for long speeches, what we don't have time for is boring speeches" -- was ignored by everyone.

The Pilobolus contortion routines were amusing, but could have more effectively been condensed into a single segment. The sound effects choir was a lovely idea (and like Pilobolus, had been seen in a car commercial within the last six months or so; apparently that's where producer Laura Ziskin got all of her ideas), but probably sounded better in the theater than it did on TV.

All of the film montages -- Errol Morris' pointless race through the nominees, most of whom were anonymous faces; Nancy Meyers' look at writers in the movies; Michael Mann's bizarre look at America in the movies (an odd choice, given that "the international Oscars" was a theme of the show) -- could have been cut with no ill effect, which would have allowed a longer tribute to Morricone's music than the perfunctory one we had, and a more respectful one than Celine Dion's butchering of his lovely melody.

There were a few bright spots. The Ferrell/Black/Reilly musical number was clever. Abigail Breslin was charming throughout, and covered nicely for Jaden Smith's small blunder. Emily Blunt and Anne Hathaway were funny (and looked fabulous)in presenting the Costume award, and the joke was sold by Meryl Streep's playing along from the audience (does anyone know if she was in on it, or was she ad-libbing?).

And the best joke of the night was the orchestra "cutting off" Al Gore as he was about to make his big announcement. It was funny enough to make up for the fact that the rest of the Gore-DiCaprio speech was pompous sanctimony.

Creepiest surprise of the night was James Taylor, who I hadn't seen in some years; time has not been kind. (Ladies and gentlemen, your Best Actor winner in two years: Jackie Earle Haley in The James Taylor Story.)

February 25, 2007

With just a few hours left until the show begins, my final predictions and favorites for this year's Oscars (with occasional commentary):

PICTURE: Should and will win: Little Miss Sunshine.
But isn't it wonderful to have a Best Picture race that's unpredictable for once? The only win that would truly shock me would be The Queen; the only one that would truly disappoint me would be Babel.

DIRECTOR: Should win: Greengrass; will win: Scorsese.

ACTOR: Should win: O'Toole; will win: Whitaker.
As good as Whitaker was in The Last King of Scotland, it was a supporting performance (and had be nominated there, he'd be my favorite in the category). Most inexplicable nomination of the year (in any category) is Will Smith, whose blandly competent work in The Pursuit of Happyness is outclassed by the rest of this field.

ACTRESS: Should and will win: Mirren.
When was the last time that the Best Actress field was stronger than the Best Actor field?

SUPP. ACTOR: Should win: Haley; will win: Arkin.

SUPP. ACTRESS: Should and will win: Hudson
Though I will be neither surprised nor disappointed if Breslin pulls the upset

ANIMATED FILM: Should win: Monster House; will win: Happy Feet.
Monster House is the only deserving winner; how the sluggish Cars and the muddled Happy Feet were picked over A Scanner Darkly or Over the Hedge is a mystery to me.

DOCUMENTARY: Should win: Deliver Us From Evil; will win: An Inconvenient Truth.

FOREIGN FILM: Should win: Pan's Labyrinth; will win: The Lives of Others.
It's a two-horse race, and I'll be perfectly happy with either.

SCORE: Should win: The Good German; will win: The Queen.

SONG: Should win: "Love You I Do;" will win: "Listen."
The bloated star vehicle wins over the perfectly crafted pop song.

ANIMATED SHORT: Should win: "The Danish Poet;" will win: "Maestro."
LIVE-ACTION SHORT: Should win: "The Saviour;" will win: "West Bank Story."
In both cases, they're going to go with the feel-good comedy over the more thoughtful film. An animated win for "The Little Match Girl" wouldn't surprise me too much, but I just have a hunch that it's going to be a happy happy joy joy kinda year.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Should win: Children of Men; will win: The Departed.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Should and will win: Little Miss Sunshine.

February 21, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (women's semifinals, week 1)

Just like last night, this was my first time hearing any of these women sing, and I would like to humbly suggest that we just send the boys home right now and let the women get on with things. This was a fine night of singing.

The rundown:

Stephanie: Her vibrato's a bit out of control in her lower register, but she's got a solid belt; she's confident and poised, and possessed of great showmanship.

Amy: The pitch is off throughout, painfully so at the end. She sounds nervous, and looks even more so. Almost entirely devoid of personality.

Leslie: I like her laidback, cool style; nothing is forced, and there's a huskiness and sultriness that remind me just a little of Dusty Springfield. Not the best of the night, to be sure, but she has the potential to be interesting.

Sabrina: In most Idol years, this would be the best performance of the night at this stage; she's powerful, sexy, confident -- it's a very fine performance.

Antonella: Nasal, out of tune, terrible song choice. But even if all of that had been fixed, she simply has the most unattractive voice of the twelve, and it's not pleasant to listen to.

Jordin: Maybe the judges are right that the song doesn't show her off as well as it could, but listen to how smoothly she transitions from low notes to high, from quiet to loud, never losing the core of her sound, never becoming breathy; she's in perfect control, and she has a lovely voice.

Nicole: She's pushing too hard, which is making her vowels really ugly, and she's the first singer of the competition who we can hear gasping for breath.

Haley: Not a great song choice, and her style is a bit too musical theater for this competition, I think. It's a competent performance, with nothing glaringly wrong, but it's uninspired and bit dull.

Melinda: When she's not singing, she looks like she feels guilty for taking up space; her head is hunched into her shoulders, and she's a bit plain. The minute the music starts, the head comes up and she takes command of that stage; suddenly she's the sexiest thing in the room. Powerhouse voice, terrific entertainer.

Alaina: The song absolutely doesn't suit her voice, which is too small and airy for it. Like Nicole, she's gasping for air, and Alaina is doing so in odd places in the middle of phrases.

Gina: Well, if she can find a dozen or so songs that consist entirely of powerfully belted climaxes, she'll do just fine. Unfortunately, though, she's got to sing the boring parts of the songs, too, and in quieter moments, her voice isn't pretty, especially in the lower register.

LaKisha: Clearly, she can sing, and on a scale of 1 to 10, this was a 9.5. But this song needs to go to 11 (gratuitous Spinal Tap references are always fun), and I never felt the emotional impact that the song should have. Had she sung a different song, she'd probably have topped my list for the night, but as good a singer as she is, she isn't quite the actress that this song requires.

Ask me to pick the six finalists based just on tonight, and I'd go with Melinda, LaKisha, Jordin, Sabrina, Leslie, and Stephanie. Most deserving of a speedy exit: Amy and Antonella.

February 20, 2007

MUSIC: American Idol (men's semifinals, week 1)

I come into this without having seen any of the audition or Hollywood week shows, so this was my first exposure to these twelve, and all I can say is: These are the twelve best guys America had to offer?

It was a veritable cornucopia of blandness, and none of these guys merit more than a few words, so that's all I'm going to give them.

The rundown:

Rudy: Can't enunciate, sings through his nose, and has piercing high notes that could drill through steel. Great teeth, though.

Brandon: Nice voice, but you can tell he's a background singer; he hasn't yet learned that a lead singer is allowed to have personality.

Sundance: Consistently off pitch; his phrasing and voice were too refined and polite for the song.

Paul: Low notes are all air, with no core to the sound; falsetto is thin and weak. Can you be a pop star with the six notes in between?

Chris R: Nice stage presence, but the song doesn't show much range, and his voice is thin and whiny.

Nick: The most charisma-deficient of the lot, which is saying a lot. His pitch is frequently off.

Blake: Laid back, confident, interesting song choice. Best of the night by a mile.

Sanjaya: When he focuses on pitch, he loses power. When he goes for power, he loses pitch. Sweet kid, but he's in over his head.

Chris S: Distinctive voice, and his personality comes through nicely. Not a particularly interesting song, but there's potential here.

Jared: Occasional moments where his throat tightens up on him, but his falsetto is better than most, and on a crappy night, he's OK.

AJ: Some pitch problems, but a pleasant enough voice, and he certainly has more stage presence than most of the bunch.

Phil: The big eyes and ears, along with the shaved head, give him an unfortunate resemblance to Gollum, but he sings quite well.

If I had to cut it to six tonight, the survivors would be Blake, Chris S, Jared, Brandon, Phil, and AJ. Most deserving of a quick exit: any two of Sundance, Paul, and Sanjaya.

MOVIES: Breach (Billy Ray, 2007)

Based on the true story of Robert Hansson, the FBI agent who spied for the Soviets and Russians for more than 20 years, doing more damage than any other spy in US history.

Hansson is played here by Chris Cooper, and the story of his downfall is told through the eyes of Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an agent-in-training who was assigned to Hansson's office, told at first only that Hansson was a sexual deviant whose fondness for exchanging videotapes with other amateur pornographers could be an embarassment to the Agency. O'Neill can't find any evidence that Hansson's proclivities are having any effect at all on his work, and he even comes to admire Hansson. That's undrestandable; Hansson is a devoted family man, a devout Catholic who attends Mass daily, and (so far as O'Neill knows at this point) a dedicated professional, determined to convince his superiors that the Agency's computer systems are in desperate need of overhaul and security enhancements.

But eventually O'Neill's handler (Laura Linney) fills him in on the truth -- Hansson is a traitor, and the FBI is trying to build a strong enough case against him to stand up in court -- and O'Neill finds himself struggling to reconcile his fondness for the man with his duty, and with his own desire to become a full-fledged agent.

Cooper gives one of his best performances here. Hansson's motives for betraying his country are complicated, but they're all clear in Cooper's portrayal. Hansson's arrogance, his wounded pride at the way his superiors have ignored his ideas, his religious obsession -- they all feed into his betrayal.

Over the last several years, Ryan Phillippe has quietly been making the transformation from pretty-boy to serious actor, and Breach marks his best work yet. O'Neill's ambition, his reluctance to believe the worst about Hansson, his fear of being caught, the struggle of maintaining a marriage when you have to lie about so much of your work -- Phillippe gets it all just right.

The supporting cast provides equally fine work, not only from Linney, but from Gary Cole and Dennis Haysbert as other FBI agents, Kathleen Quinlan as Hansson's wife, Caroline Dhavernas as O'Neill's wife, and -- in a perfectly played single scene -- Bruce Davison as O'Neill's father.

Cooper's performance here is absolutely award-worthy, and it will be interesting to see if it's remembered at the end of the year; I fear that it will be overlooked, buried in the attention being paid to the annual year-end flood of Big Oscar-Bait Movies.

MOVIES: Music and Lyrics (Marc Lawrence, 2007)

OK, admittedly this movie is absolutely formulaic and predictable at every step. But when the formula is applied with this much charm and lively humor, even the old "boy gets/loses/regains girl" story can still be a lot of fun to watch.

Hugh Grant stars as Alex, who used to be half of 80s pop band PoP! His partner went on to great solo success, but Alex scrapes along by doing gigs at state fairs and theme parks; so desperate is Alex that he's thrilled when he's invited to take in a reality TV "Battle of the 80s Has-Beens." (We are invited, about as blatantly as possible without actually using the names, to think of Andrew Ridgely and Wham!)

Alex is approached by Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), who is "bigger than Britney and Christina combined;" she's a big fan, and asks him to write her a new song by the end of the week. Alex, who's only ever written music, is in desperate need of a lyricist; when he discovers that Sophie (Drew Barrymore), the woman who waters his plants, has a natural gift for writing lyrics, he begs her to work with him.

(About this: Do rich people actually hire people to water their plants? And even if they do, wouldn't they put the plant-watering people on hold when they're actually at home? And even if we buy all of that, Alex is supposed to be a struggling musician, not someone rich enough to throw money away on plant-watering services. But I digress...)

Anyway, you can already see where this is going, but Grant and Barrymore are, both individually and as a team, utterly charming, and the movie is written with a bit more intelligence than most of the romantic comedies that Hollywood shovels at us these days. Bennett is very funny as the pop diva who wants to be spiritual and sexy at the same time, and the rest of the supporting cast is also fine, led by Kristen Johnston as Sophie's older sister and Campbell Scott as Sophie's novelist ex. Heck, even Brad Garrett, as Alex's manager, is surprisingly non-annoying.

There comes a point in any movie of this sort where an obstacle arises to keep the lead couple apart, and it's usually so artificial and silly that we have to bite our lips and choke down our "that's absurd" reflexes in order to make it to the happy reconciliation at the end. But in this movie, the obstacle comes out of Alex and Sophie's relationship (both personal and professional); it's plausible and convincing, and that gives the hurtful things they say in their big argument some real impact.

Best of all is the music. Grant, Barrymore, and Bennett do their own singing, and they have been provided with songs by Adam Schlesinger, from Fountains of Wayne, which are perfectly written in the fluffy pop styles of today (Cora's material) and of 20 years ago (PoP!'s songs). They are catchy and instantly memorable, so much so that everyone was humming them in the men's room after the movie. (Schlesinger pulled off the same trick with the title song for That Thing You Do a few years back.)

There's a moment in the movie when Alex is feeling particularly fed-up with what his career has become, and with having to sing these same songs over and over again, and Sophie gives him a pep talk that is a defense of the well-crafted pop song. These songs remind us of people, places, lovers we have known, she tells him; they make people happy, and isn't that worth celebrating? The speech could equally well apply to Music and Lyrics; sure, it's lightweight fluff, but it's done with great skill and warmth, and it made me happy.

BOOKS: The Pale Blue Eye, Louis Bayard (2006)

In 1830, the body of a West Point cadet is found hanging from a tree, an apparent suicide. The next morning, it is discovered that the body has been stolen from the morgue; when it is found, the heart has been removed.

West Point is still a new institution, and there are those in Washington who would seize this opportunity to shut it down; hoping to solve the mystery quickly, Academy officials approach retired New York City constable Gus Landor and ask him to investigate. Landor soon realizes that he will need eyes and ears within the Academy, and recruits an eager cadet named Edgar Allen Poe to serve as his assistant.

I am not, in general, a fan of "let's plop a historical figure into a fictional mystery" stories. There's almost always a moment in which the historical figure is set up to look like the killer, and those red-herring moments never work precisely because they're historical figures and we know that they never actually committed murder. That moment is no less distracting here.

I was also unconvinced by the climactic confrontation, which goes a bit overboard on the occult in ways that I didn't think had been adequately prepared (to be sure, an emphasis on the occult isn't inappropriate for a novel that features Poe as a major character); and the final twist at the ending is of a kind that's not nearly as surprising (but is just as annoying) as it was 80 years ago.

Still, The Pale Blue Eye is quite well written; the prose evokes the early 19th century without mimicking it so closely as to be unreadable by contemporary audiences, and Bayard does a particularly good job of capturing Poe's voice in the chapters written from his point of view. Landor and Poe are sharply drawn characters, and the relationship that develops between them -- equal parts best pals, close brothers, and father-son -- is interesting.

Mixed feelings, but I think the strengths outweigh the flaws here, and those who are fans of the historical-figure mystery sub-genre will probably find the balance even more in Bayard's favor.

February 17, 2007

The big story in the classical music world this weekend is the apparent hoax of pianist Joyce Hatto.

Hatto, who died in June 2006, has been the object of much critical praise over the last year or so for a series of recordings produced by her husband and released on the small Concert Artist label.

Now, Gramophone Magazine has discovered that several of Hatto's recordings are almost certainly performances by other pianists. There's a lot of research left to be done in upcoming weeks to determine how much (if any) of the music released under Hatto's name is actually performed by her, and how much is stolen from other recordings. As Gramophone says, this story will be with us for a while.

MOVIES: Oscar-nominated shorts

This year's program of live-action short films struck me as significantly weaker than last year's, with most of the nominees being marred by excessive sentimentality.

Javier Fesser's "Binta and the Big Idea" crams too many stories into too little time, and all of them wind up slightly muddled. The central theme is the importance of education to poor communities (this one happens to be in Africa); the film is produced by UNICEF, and has more than a whiff of sanctimonious condescension.

Borja Cormeaga's "Eramos Pocos" and Soren Pilmark's "Helmer & Son" both deal with adults and aging parents; each is pleasant enough, and "Eramos Pocos" has a surprising twist ending, but neither short is particularly memorable.

I'd put my money on Ari Sandel's "West Bank Story" to win; it's a broadly comic musical about an Israeli-Palestinian Romeo & Juliet, set against the backdrop of feuding fast-food joints (Kosher King and Hummus Hut). For my money, it too often crossed the line from gently mocking ethnic stereotypes to wallowing in them.

My favorite of the group was Peter Templeman's "The Saviour," an Australian fim about a pair of missionaries and their relationship with a young couple in need of a miracle. The characters are more complex, and the story contains more surprises, than I'd have expected in so short a film; I think there's easily enough material here that this could be expanded to feature length.

The animated films are a much stronger group. Even the weakest of the group, Geza M. Toth's "Maestro," is an attractive bit of computer animation with a clever punchline; it does, though, go on a bit longer than that punchline can justify.

Roger Allers' "The Little Matchgirl," based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, wants desperately to make us weep; despite the loveliness of its images and the marvelous use of a Borodin string quartet as score, it never reaches the level of pathos to which it aspires.

Pixar's "Lifted," directed by Gary Rydstrom, is a very funny short, in which we are reminded that on-the-job training is a bitch no matter what your job, and that for some jobs, such training can lead to enormous amounts of collateral damage.

There are two standouts in the field. Chris Renaud and Michael Thurmeier directed "No Time for Nuts," featuring Scrat, the squirrel from the Ice Age movies, whose discovery of a time machine makes his perpetual acorn quest even more complicated than usual.

Torill Kove's "The Danish Poet" is a charming meditation on fate and the improbable chain of events that leads to each of our births. The animation isn't especially sophisticated -- more than anything, it reminded me of the Schoolhouse Rock shorts -- but the jokes are perfectly timed, and Liv Ullmann's narration has just the right tone of wistful wonder.

The five nominated shorts only run about 45 minutes in total, so there were five extra shorts on this program; the only one which came close to the nominees in quality was Bill Plympton's "Guide Dog," in which a very eager dog is frustrated by repeated failures in his chosen career.

February 13, 2007

TV: Rules of Engagement

So with 8 zillion sitcoms to choose from, if you were going to rip one off, would Till Death really be your first choice?

No, I didn't think so, but that's what CBS has done here. We've got the 12-year veterans of marriage, Jeff and Audrey (Patrick Warburton and Megyn Price) living across the hall from the newbie couple, recently engaged Adam and Jennifer (Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajlich). Added to the mix is creepy single guy Russell (David Spade, somehow continuing to find employment).

The show has exactly one thing going for it -- Warburton -- and it doesn't even use him very well. He's a terrific comic actor, with a laidback spin that gets laughs from even the most obvious lines, but his strengths are bravado and bluster; he's a big guy, and he's funniest when he can play off his size and his cartoonish macho quality. He gets to do some of that here, mostly in his scenes with Hudson and Spade, but in his scenes with Price, he's stuck playing the meek, vaguely henpecked husband, and all of his charm just drains away.

The other principals are competent enough. Price gives her marital spats a droll "been there, done that" flavor; Hudson and Kajlich are pretty to look at, in a blandly plastic way, and they do reasonably well at capturing the puppy-dog enthusiasm of a relationship that's still new.

Spade, on the other hand, is ghastly. He's never been a gifted comic actor, and he's not remotely credible as a successful ladies' man (would you sleep with him?). To the extent that he works at all, it's in very small doses; there's far too much of him in this show.

The writing isn't terribly original or witty, and the characters feel stale. Warburton is working hard, but even his best efforts aren't enough to recommend the show. I don't think this one will be around for long.

February 11, 2007

MOVIES: Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

One of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film.

The setting is East Germany in 1984, and our main character is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an officer in the Stasi, the secret police. He is dragged to the theater one night by his boss, who explains to him that playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is "our only non-subversive writer who's read in the West". Wiesler takes this as a challenge, and declares that given the chance, he could find something subversive in Dreyman's life. He's given that chance. The apartment that Dreyman shares with his actress girlfriend Christa (Martina Gedeck) is wired, and Wiesler sets up a listening post in the building's attic.

Listening to the lives of Georg and Christa changes Wiesler, for many reasons. His own life is drab and empty -- his apartment has the personality of a hotel room -- and he's fascinated by the relative activity and happiness of theirs. As a good and loyal agent of the state, he is shocked and horrified to discover that there may have been personal motivations behind his assignment to the case (the minister of culture has designs on Christa, and would love to see Georg gotten out of the way).

Most important, perhaps, he begins to wonder if their subversive acts are really so horrible after all, and to question his own role and job. Gradually, Wiesler finds that he is no longer content to simply listen, and he begins taking action to shape events, which under this government, is itself a subversive act that can only lead to his own downfall.

The performances are all first-rate. Mühe, who seems at first to be an utterly soulless robot, makes Wiesler's transformation entirely convincing. Koch is moving as the playwright who is foolish enough to believe that no one could suspect him of wrongdoing, and Thomas Thieme is perfectly sleazy and loathsome as the culture minister.

The story (von Donnersmarck is also the writer) never becomes melodramatic, and builds to a marvelously suspenseful ending that has us wondering whether any of these characters can survive the plots that have been put in motion. This is a sharp and thoughtful thriller; highly recommended.

BOOKS: By the Time You Read This, Giles Blunt (2006)

Fourth in Blunt's mystery series set in the small Canadian city of Algonquin Bay.

The Toronto Sex Crimes Unit has sent a group of photographs to Algonquin Bay; they're child pornography, and Toronto believes that the pictures may have been taken in or near Algonquin Bay. Lise Delorme is working on the case, without the assistance of her partner, John Cardinal, who is on leave after the death of his wife (which is revealed at the end of the first chapter, so let's have no grumbling about spoilers).

All of the evidence indicates that Catherine has committed suicide -- she's always struggled with bipolar disorder and depression, and there's a hand-written suicide note at the scene -- but Cardinal is convinced that Catherine, who was in a relatively stable and optimistic phase, would not have killed herself, and sets out on his own highly unofficial investigation to find out what really happened.

Cardinal is right, of course; it wouldn't be much of a crime novel if he weren't. And it's also par for the course that the two apparently disconnected cases are actually related. Blunt does a nice job with this aspect of things, and once we've figured out who the principal villain is, the connection between Delorme's child pornography and Catherine's death is credible, and not so tight as to be silly.

Blunt is always good at creating memorable villains with plausible motivations, and this book is no exception. The moment when we realize the precise nature of the evil at hand is one of the creepiest, most chilling things I've read in a long time, and it's made more so by the realization that it will be a challenging thing to prove or to punish through the legal system.

Hanging over the novel, of course, is Cardinal's grief at the loss of his wife, and Blunt gives us a superb portrait of a man so deeply wounded that even he finds himself questioning his own instincts as a policeman.

The book stands on its own perfectly well, but the death of Catherine will surely have more emotional resonance for those who've read the earlier volumes (Forty Words for Sorrow; The Delicate Storm; Black Fly Season), and they are all worth reading.

February 04, 2007

MOVIES: The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006)

Fresh out of medical school and horrified at the thought of joining his father's practice, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) heads to Uganda with idealistic dreams of Doing Good. He's been there for only a few weeks when Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) comes to power in a coup. Through a series of circumstances a bit too coincidental and unlikely to be believed, Garrigan becomes Amin's personal physician and, as Amin keeps saying, "one of my top advisors."

The movie has gotten most of its attention for Whitaker's Oscar-nominated performance, which is remarkable indeed, a chilling mix of lunacy and charisma. It's especially surprising coming from Whitaker, who has generally played quiet, repressed, internal men; Amin is loud, boisterous, gregarious, and (when he chooses to be) overtly menacing.

McAvoy has gotten less attention, but his performance is also quite good. Garrigan is a naive young man who's amused by the attention he's getting from the new president, and only gradually does he begin to realize just how dangerous Amin really is; he's even slower to realize that the danger might extend to him personally.

It was one of the oddities of the awards season that Whitaker wound up in the Lead category and McAvoy was pushed for Supporting when they ought to have been the other way around; Last King is most definitely Garrigan's story, and McAvoy is unquestionably the lead. Whitaker's role sits on the edge, I suppose, but I think it really would have fit better in the supporting category.

The movie, I'm afraid, doesn't quite live up to the strength of its two central performances. Once again, we're being told a story about black Africans through the eyes of a heroic white guy, and a fictional white guy at that. It seems to me that there's enough drama in the story of Idi Amin as it actually happened that there's no need to filter it through a layer of fiction. The movie is also fuzzy about how quickly everything happens. From the time Amin came to power to the Entebbe hostage crisis (which happens at the end of the movie) was a bit more than five years; the movie makes it feel like a matter of months.

Two very fine performances make the movie worth seeing, but unless you are (like me) someone who wants to see all of the nominees before the Oscars are handed out, you could wait for DVD for this one.

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic 2007-08 season

Season renewal packets came in the mail this week. Among the highlights of the new season:
  • A 2-week Sibelius mini-festival, with all seven symphonies, some tone poems, and some songs sung by Ben Heppner
  • A three-program series called "Concrete Frequency," featuring music about or inspired by cities
  • New music from Saariaho (the L.A. premiere of La Passion de Simone, which was to have premiered here last month, but was postponed due to Dawn Upshaw's illness), Knussen (world premiere of his Cello Concerto), and Salonen (West Coast premiere of his Piano Concerto, which just had its world premiere in New York)
  • Oh boy, oh boy -- Britten's War Requiem!

And I don't even have to do too much exchanging to get a series I like this year. Once the season tickets arrive and the exchanges are done, these are the concerts I can look forward to:

  • Debussy: Suite from Le martyre de Saint Sebastien; Saariaho: La Passion de Simone (Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor)
  • Sibelius: Symphonies #1 & #3, Pohjola's Daughter (Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor)
  • Barber: Essay #1; Brahms: Double Concerto; Dvorak: Symphony #9 ("From the New World") (Martin Chalifour, violin; Peter Stumpf, cello; Joana Carneiro, conductor)
  • Britten: War Requiem (Los Angeles Master Chorale; Los Angeles Children's Chorus; soloists TBA; Lorin Maazel, conductor)
  • Salonen: Insomnia; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto #1; Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (Simon Trpceski, piano; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor)
  • Janacek: Capriccio; Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques; Beethoven: Symphony #3 ("Eroica") (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano; Christoph von Dohnanyi, conductor)
  • Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements; Knussen: Cello Concerto; Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (Anssi Karttunen, cello; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor)
  • Debussy (arr. Matthews): Selected Preludes; Stravinsky (arr. Stucky): Les Noces; Salonen: Piano Concerto (Yefim Bronfman, piano; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor)

A nice mix of new music, warhorses, and composers I don't know enough about.

February 03, 2007

TV: Another musical episode?

So a bunch of us were talking about 24 over at The Well (which, if you're into online communities, you really should check out, because it's a nifty place), and someone jokingly suggested that the show should do a musical episode, which led me to propose the following list of musical numbers:

Overture: "The Following Takes Place"
"Where's Jack?" (Bill, Chloe, Morris)
"I Haven't Got Time to Explain" (Jack)
Ballet: "Dance of the Innocent Bystanders"
"Listen to Me" (Jack, Terrorists)
"Refocusing the Satellite" (Chloe, CTU Computer Staff)

Entr'acte: "Tick...Tick...Tick...Tick..."
"Another Goddamm Mole?" (Karen, Bill, Chloe)
"I Need It By the Top of the Hour" (President Palmer, Aides)
"Time's Running Out" (Jack, Head Terrorist)
"Where's Jack? (reprise)" (Company)
"Your Country Is Grateful, Now Please Go Away" (President Palmer, Jack)

February 02, 2007

Dan Savage responds to those on the right who argue that Mary Cheney's pregnancy isn't a political issue.