July 31, 2007

BOOKS: All That Glittered, Ethan Mordden (2007)

In a series of seven superb volumes, Mordden covered the history of the Broadway musical from the 1920s to the present. Here, he turns his attention to the non-musical theater, focusing on what he calls "the golden age," 1919 to 1959.

It is not, Mordden acknowledges, a comprehensive look at these decades; rather, he focuses on specific themes and personalities as he moves through the years. He's very good at tracing the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood as the movie industry developed in the 30s and 40s, for instance, and he's always aware of how theater reflects social trends in the outside world.

Mordden assumes a certain amount of theatrical knowledge, and will occasionally get a bit snarky when forced to footnote a reference that he thinks we should already know. He goes a bit overboard in his assumptions at times; not many authors would drop a casual reference to Chi Chi LaRue into a footnote and assume that readers would recognize the name.

But the writing is always crisp and witty, and Mordden has a gift for describing productions and performances so vividly that you feel you were there. I hope that this will be only the beginning of a series on the history of the Broadway play; there are nearly 50 years left to cover, and I'd love to see a decade-by-decade survey.

July 30, 2007

MOVIES: The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, 2007)

The Simpsons Movie doesn't do anything surprising or stretch the boundaries too much; it's essentially a very good 90-minute episode of the TV show, with one or two small "you can't do that on TV" moments. But when a TV show is as consistently good as The Simpsons, a very good 90-minute episode is all a movie needs to be.

The plotting is actually a bit more cohesive than the show usually is. Homer causes an ecological catastrophe by dumping his pig's waste into Lake Springfield, and when the EPA takes action, the Simpsons are chased out of town. They take refuge in Alaska, only to return to save the town when President Schwarzenegger and EPA chief Cargill (frequent Simpsons guest voice Albert Brooks) plan even more drastic measures.

Fans of the TV show will surely get the most out of the movie; there are lots of little flashbacks and homages to various episodes. But the movie will be perfectly entertaining, I think, even to those who've never seen an episode (there are a few such benighted souls, I'm told). The voice cast does its usual fine work. Dan Castelleneta, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, and Nancy Cartwright shine in their multiple roles. Yeardley Smith and Julie Kavner don't always get as much attention, because they play fewer roles, but they do fine work; as Marge, Kavner has one particularly lovely moment which had my eyes misting over.

It's rare to leave a movie wishing it had been longer, but that's how I felt after this one. I wanted more of the extended Simpsons family of minor characters -- more Apu, more Burns and Smithers, more Carl and Lenny -- and I had hoped for one of the show's trademark musical numbers. I suppose it's better to leave wanting more, though, than to leave feeling that the movie had been too bloated. The Simpsons Movie is lots of fun, and even the obligatory hint at a sequel is handled in clever fashion.

July 29, 2007

MOVIES: I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (Dennis Dugan, 2007)

Larry Valentine (Kevin James) is a recently widowed New York firefighter who missed the deadline after his wife's death to change the beneficiary on his pension plan, and now he fears that if he should be killed in a fire, his kids will be left penniless. (This seems silly; surely if a single parent dies with no beneficiary, the kids automatically inherit, but in the name of suspension of disbelief, we'll let it slide for now.) His only hope is to enter into a domestic partnership with his best pal, Chuck Levine (Adam Sandler); Chuck agrees, but reluctantly, as he will have to give up his Lothario lifestyle. (Adam Sandler as a wildly successful ladykiller? And you thought the pension thing was hard to swallow...)

Therein lies the one brilliant political/rhetorical stroke of the movie. What's one of the right wing's favorite arguments against gay marriage? Why, it's bad for the children! This movie rips that one right out of their hands; the reason Larry has to marry Chuck is to protect his children.

Sadly, nothing else in the movie is that clever, and the movie treads a very unsteady path between indulging in the homophobia of the characters (and the audience) and preaching a message of tolerance for all. We're invited to laugh at Larry's young son, who loves to tap dance and sing show tunes; there's a "don't drop the soap" shower scene; and the movie prolongs for as long as possible the scene in which Chuck and Larry are asked to kiss to prove their love, giving us a slow-motion closeup of their lips getting closer, closer, closer. They are, of course, interrupted before actually kissing; wouldn't do for Sandler's audience to actually have to witness such a horrible thing.

Also on hand are Steve Buscemi, cranking his weasely qualities to the max as the city fraud inspector who suspects that Larry and Chuck aren't really the loving couple they claim to be, and Jessica Biel, who is highly decorative (and not much else) as the lawyer who defends our heroes. Worst of all is Rob Schneider as the minister who marries Chuck and Larry; it's a ghastly impersonation of a cliched Asian, so ugly and offensive as to make Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's seem a model of sensitivity and tastefulness.

I suppose on some level, I should be grateful that the movie presents a strong argument for marriage equality, and even offers a happy ending with a marriage between two characters who actually are gay. But there's so much ugliness and stereotyping along the way that the movie's message is mixed, at best, and I can't work up much enthusiasm for a movie that boils down to "faggots are people, too."

Department of GaGa: "...vintage clothes shops and cat shows..."

Smackdown 1988: and the winner is...

The Smackdowners have spoken! So if you'd like to know which of the 1988 nominees really deserved that Supporting Actress Oscar, just pop on over to StinkyLulu's for the wrapup.

July 28, 2007

As always, John Scalzi offers calm, common sense analysis:

There seems to be an uptick these days in the concern that the Bush administration, sometime before November 2008 will cancel the elections, institute martial law, and implode the democracy we spent 221 years working on solely to remain in power. And this concern isn't just coming from the usual nutbag corners; people who I know are sane are vexed with themselves because they see the various executive orders and policies the Bushies have pushed and can logically see how they're positioned for a coup of the Constitution of the United States, and they can't convince themselves that the Bushies won't try it. The Bush administration has caused even the sane people to get all tin-foil-y.


First: Deep breath, everyone. Seriously, find your happy place inside before we go any further. Yes, pat that imaginary pony and feed it a sugar lump. Imaginary pony loves you. Feel better? Excellent.

Second: The coup ain't gonna happen. It's just not.

Read the whole thing here.

July 25, 2007

Smackdown 1988: the summary

As part of each month's Supporting Actress Smackdown, our host StinkyLulu asks each of us Smackdowners to post a summary of our reactions, so here goes. The contenders (with links to my original comments):

Let's work our way up from the bottom of the heap:

Pfeiffer has what should be the most interesting role of the bunch, and gives the least interesting performance. It's all phony tears and blank facial expressions, communicating nothing. The role of Mme. de Tourvel demands deep emotion; it is certainly a legitimate acting choice that all of that emotion should be repressed and bottled up, but even so, we in the audience have to know that it's there, and Pfeiffer gives us none of it. An undeserved nomination, especially when there is a much better supporting performance in the same movie from Uma Thurman.

McDormand works very hard, and makes very specific physical choices in an attempt to bring some life to the role of Mrs. Pell, but she is ultimately betrayed by the script; there's simply no character there to be played. I admire the effort, and it pays off in lovely individual moments, but even McDormand can't turn this black hole into a real person.

Davis is also let down by her writers, but in a different way. There's plenty for her to play; Muriel is a great mountain of eccentricities and tics. But it's not a very distinctive character -- you can easily imagine any of the other four actresses in this group playing Muriel -- and the writers never answer the key question: why is Muriel attracted to Macon Leary at all, much less so obsessed as to stalk him all the way to Paris? It's a performance of great charm and warmth, but with no answer to that riddle, Muriel can never become more than the sum of her quirks.

Weaver gives a solid performance, though I think she overplays the ogre in Katharine in the second half of the movie. She's nicely ambiguous in the opening scenes, when we're not entirely sure how much we should trust Katharine, and her final moments are quite nice, as we watch her struggling to hang on to some shred of dignity while her world collapses around her. But it's a performance that any of a dozen actresses could have given, and there are none of the delightful moments of surprise that you find in a great performance.

Cusack, on the other hand, gives us those moments, and does so in a role that's very limited on the page. She's the nutty sidekick; even worse, her function in the film allows the character very little room for change or growth. It's a broadly comic performance, but Cusack finds subtlety in it, and when she is allowed a moment of emotional honesty and confrontation, it's perfectly played. We understand Cyn's pain and fear, and Cusack gives us all of that without ever losing the character's wit and humor. By far the best performance of the group.

The final results, with comments from the whole Smackdown gang, will be posted at Lulu's on Sunday morning; I'll post a link to it then, and to each of the other Smackdowner's comments as they become available. I've enjoyed taking part, and am happy to have been invited back for at least one more Smackdown later this year.

July 24, 2007

MOVIES: Hairspray (Adam Shenkman, 2007)

The camera pans over Baltimore, and in the distance we hear a motorcycle engine starting up -- vroom, vr-vroom. The bass guitar picks up that beat, and the rest of the instruments join in. We zoom into the Turnblad home just in time to see Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) sit up in bed and blink her eyes in perfect sync with the music.

And just like that, less than two minutes into the movie, I knew I was in good hands.

You couldn't ask for a better feel-good movie than Hairspray. The cast is first-rate (with one small and one large exception, which we'll get to shortly), the songs are delightful, and the movie is filled with joy from start to finish.

This is a star-making role for Nikki Blonsky. (Well, it should be, at any rate, but the career history of previous Tracys suggests that Hollywood still doesn't know what to do with a large young woman. Ricki Lake couldn't turn her success in the original John Waters film into anything more than a long-running talk show gig; Marissa Jaret Winokur, the original Broadway Tracy, wound up as the second banana on a Pamela Anderson sitcom.) Blonsky is charming and funny, and I like her singing better than that of Winokur, who was just a bit too pinched and chirpy.

In the supporting role of Seaweed, Elijah Kelley is the movie's other breakout star, taking complete command of the screen during Seaweed's big number, "Run and Tell That;" all of those producers who keep talking about making a Sammy Davis Jr. biopic need look no further for their leading man.

There's Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah and Amanda Bynes and Brittany Snow and Zac Efron and James Marsden -- all of them dead-on perfect in their roles, singing and dancing up a storm. (And Allison Janney, in the non-singing role of Prudy Pingleton, is magnificent.)

Who have I not mentioned? Well, there's Michelle Pfeiffer, who falls flat as Velma Von Tussle; true, her solo number, "(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs," is probably the least interesting of the songs, but Pfeiffer does nothing to sell it, and her big comic scene -- Velma's attempted seduction of Walken's Wilbur Turnblad -- works only because of Walken's impeccable timing and utter obliviousness.

Pfeiffer's is a relatively small role, though; the movie's more serious problem is John Travolta as Edna. He's delightful in the musical numbers -- it is, in fact, a marvelous thing to see how light on his feet he is in that gargantuan fat suit -- but less so in the non-musical scenes, especially in the first half of the movie. Yes, Edna's self-conscious about her weight, but Travolta makes her too downbeaten; she may not want to leave her apartment and face the world, but within that apartment, Edna is in charge, and Travolta misses that entirely. Travolta is also the only actor to attempt a Baltimore accent. I don't know that accent well enough to judge whether his accent is ever any good, but I do know that it's not very consistent; it comes and goes, seemingly at random.

The Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman songs are a delight, perfect pastiches of early 60s pop, and Shenkman has added just enough movie magic to keep Hairspray from being just a filmed version of the stage show. (There's a particularly inspired bit of cinematic wizardry in Link and Tracy's duets during "Without Love.")

Shenkman occasionally goes a bit overboard with the cross-cutting -- most notably during "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful," where he's zipping back and forth two or three times within a single line of the song -- and a few lyrics get lost in the sound mix during some of the larger ensemble numbers. But he films the dance numbers so that we can see the dancing, a real novelty these days.

Hairspray is great fun, and it's a thrill to watch so many people working at the top of their form. You can't possibly leave the theater without a smile on your face.

July 23, 2007

Smackdown 1988: Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist

Ah, the Free Spirit! That ethereal creature who blows into the life of an Ordinary Schlub and rescues him from his humdrum life of depression and repression! Does such a character exist anywhere but in the movies? Probably not, but the movies certainly are chock full of them, and here comes Geena Davis, taking her shot at the type and giving The Accidental Tourist the only shreds of life it has.

The fact that Davis seems anything like a real person is an accomplishment, because the script buries Muriel Pritchet under a mountain of quirky -- she dresses funny; she sings goofy cowboy Christmas songs; she has a sickly, hypochondriac son; she's a professional dog trainer -- she's nothing but quirks.

Even Davis's physical presence is quirky, and the movie takes great advantage of that. For the first half of the movie, Davis is never allowed to enter a scene face first; she's always shot in a way that emphasizes her height and angularity -- long legs, pointy shoes, extended fingers with absurdly long press-on nails -- and only then do we see her face. (Even her car is large, an old clunker with giant tail fins.)

Davis brings great warmth and likability to Muriel, and it's easy to see how she can break through even the industrial-strength blandness of William Hurt's Macon. What Davis doesn't make clear is Muriel's attraction to Macon; what does she see in this gloomy lump of a man?

And she's clearly interested in him from the moment they meet, when Macon brings his dog to be boarded at her kennel; she's immediately asking about his personal life and marital status. "I'm a divorcee myself," she chirps; "I don't live with anyone, either," she announces on her first visit to his home. Perhaps she's simply an uncontrollable flirt.

Also inexplicable is the sudden personality transformation that Muriel undergoes heading into the movie's final act. She and Macon argue when he suggests that her son should go to a private school; her protection of Alexander is entirely understandable ("don't you make promises to my son that you won't be around to keep"), but the argument also triggers a possessiveness and demands for a commitment that we'd seen no signs of before.

Even stranger, she follows Macon to Paris, becoming Crazy Stalker Lady; it's as if the movie's suddenly become Fatal Attraction: The Sitcom. This Muriel is just as warm and chirpy as the earlier Muriel, but the obsessive refusal to go away comes out of left field, and Davis doesn't make Muriel's transformation at all understandable.

The blame, I think, lies more with the writers than with Davis (Frank Galati and Lawrence Kasdan adapted Anne Tyler's novel), but since we can't understand Muriel's attraction to Macon in the first place, much less what turns that attraction into obsession, Muriel never makes the leap from lovable pile of charming quirks to real person.

July 22, 2007

MOVIES: Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)

It's 2057, and the sun is dying. Eight astronauts have set out on the Icarus II carrying a giant bomb; the idea is to drop it into the sun and set it off as sort of a jump-start. This isn't the first time this has been tried; the Icarus I left seven years ago, but that mission failed and the ship was never heard from.

(Point of order: Wouldn't the name of the first ship have simply been Icarus? One doesn't generally name a ship Something I unless one knows in advance that there's going to be a Something II, Something III, and so on; naming the first ship Icarus I would seem like a resounding vote of no-confidence in that mission. And while we're in a grumbly mood: Icarus, for a mission to the sun? Really? Is Greek mythology to be entirely forgotten in the next fifty years?)

Anyway... as the movie opens, the crew of the Icarus II is just reaching the point where they can no longer send messages back to Earth; they are truly on their own. And naturally, this is the point where things begin to go disastrously wrong, starting when they pick up a distress call from -- yup, you got it -- the Icarus I.

For the first hour or so, Sunshine is actually a pretty good science fiction thriller; the tensions among the crew are convincing, as are their debates about what to do as each little disaster happens. But about halfway through, the movie takes a sudden and drastic turn for the worse. It's not enough that it suddenly becomes a bad slasher movie -- Jason in Space -- but in its final half-hour, it abandons narrative logic and coherence entirely, diving headlong into pretty visuals that aim for transcendence but only achieve pretension.

In short, the movie becomes this year's version of The Fountain, and will no doubt appeal to the same folks who fell for that one, bamboozling them once again into thinking that they're seeing something profound and important. Sunshine is even more frustrating and annoying than The Fountain was, because it starts off so well before falling completely to bits.

July 16, 2007

BOOKS: Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris (2007)

A beautifully written, dryly witty picture of cubicle life.

The book is narrated collectively by the employees of a Chicago ad agency: "We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen." It's 2000, business is slow, and layoffs are underway.

The staff copes with the stress as does any office -- through gossip, wasting time, and playing bizarre practical jokes on one another. There's not a lot of plot as such, though there is a mystery surrounding the boss, Lynn, who may or may not be suffering from a life-threatening illness.

The strength of the book is in the way Ferris captures the mind-numbing details of office existence. Take this description, for instance:

Seven tables and three vending machines under a dismal light -- that was our cafeteria. We'd call it a break room but "break room" might imply something to look forward to. On our rare trips to the cafeteria, we got what we needed from the vending machines and then we got the hell out. Eating there was never an option because the lights, the chairs -- it was as depressing as a hospital waiting room, but absent any magazines or lifesaving devices. No one ever took comfort in the cafeteria. The perfect place to await your self-help group's arrival -- that was the kindest description we could give to it.

I'd feared that the collective narration would get tiresome, but Ferris manages to create a range of distinctive characters whose personalities shine through despite the narrative gimmick. (And there is an unexpected break from the "we"-narrator partway through the book, in one of the book's best chapters.)

The final chapters of the book fall a bit flat, mainly due to an unnecessary meta-twist that doesn't work very well, but getting there is enough fun that the book is still worth your while.

July 15, 2007

BOOKS: Brendan Wolf, Brian Malloy (2007)

It starts as a thriller. Brendan is working as a driver, carrying large bins of pledge money from an anti-abortion walk to the sponsor's office; he has plotted with his brother and sister-in-law to steal that money. We do eventually get a resolution to that plot, but not before jumping back several months to find out how Brendan reached this point.

He is something of a drifter, Brendan Wolf, going from job to job, home to home, name to name ("Brendan Wolf" is just one in a series of false names), without ever settling down or allowing himself to establish any genuine relationships. He lives in emotional isolation; it's not a huge surprise that his favorite book is Into the Wild, the true story of a young man who abandoned society to live in the wilderness of Alaska.

It's a story with lots of unexpected twists and surprises, and the less said about the plot details, the better. Given the noir-type setup, there's surprising humor in the book, and Brendan's struggle to find some way to fit into the world ultimately proves quite moving. By the time we return to the day of that robbery plot, Malloy has done a marvelous job of building suspense. Brendan Wolf is a fine and entertaining novel.

BOOKS: On Kingdom Mountain, Howard Frank Mosher (2007)

Like all of Mosher's novels, this one is set in Kingdom County, a fictionalized version of northeastern Vermont (in reality, that corner of the state is known as "the Northeast Kingdom.") This one is set in 1930, on Kingdom Mountain, which straddles the Vermont-Quebec border.

The sole resident of the mountain is Miss Jane Hubbell Kinnison, who is celebrating her 50th birthday with a little ice fishing when a biplane makes a crash landing on the mountain. The plane is piloted by Henry Sattermill, a Texan who has come in search of treasure. Near the end of the Civil War, a group of Confederate soldiers robbed the Kingdom Common bank and headed out over the mountain to Canada; they were never seen again, and local legend has it that the stolen gold is still hidden on the mountain. Miss Jane, being a gracious and hospitable woman, takes Henry in and offers him what help she can in solving his grandfather's riddle, which he believes will lead him to the gold.

But Miss Jane has problems of her own. The town and the state want to build a two-lane highway over Kingdom Mountain to connect Vermont and Canada, and she is determined to stop the highway at any cost. She is something of a proto-environmentalist, and believes that the road will do great damage to the mountain's ecosystem and unique forms of life.

On Kingdom Mountain is a rollicking story, with some marvelous set pieces and a pair of likable characters in Miss Jane and Henry. There is something reminiscent of Twain in Mosher's determined eccentrics and his understanding of small-town politics, and his writing is filled with great humor and warmth for his characters.

I'm a big fan of Mosher; I think he's a terribly underrated writer. This is one of his best books, an absolute charmer, and recommended wholeheartedly.

Smackdown 1988: Frances McDormand, Mississippi Burning

I find myself at something of a loss for anything to say about this performance. The character of Mrs. Pell -- she's never given a first name -- isn't very well written; she's little more than a symbol. Mrs. Pell represents that first group of white southerners who found the strength and the decency to throw off their upbringing, to do the right thing simply because it was the right thing. None of her scenes are particularly challenging, and there are dozens of actresses who could play the part perfectly well.

McDormand works hard against the limitations of her predictable dialogue (which includes a particularly clunky version of the "you've got to be carefully taught" speech) and gives the character some depth through her physical choices. It's a character built out of small gestures and facial expressions -- a comforting hand on a black man's arm; a face that lights up at a small bouquet and a little flattery, and the way she keeps playing with those flowers; an exhausted slump when she returns home with the groceries.

It's a skillful piece of work, and a testament to the ability of a good actor to make something out of almost nothing, but the role itself is so dull and unsubtle (so it fits right in with the rest of the movie, which has not aged well) that even in the hands of a fine actress like McDormand, there just isn't much there.

July 09, 2007

BOOKS: Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman (2007)

Doctor Impossible is up to his old tricks, trying to take over the world again. But what can you expect from a certified evil genius? (To be precise, the Doctor suffers, as do so many supervillains, from Malign Hypercognition Disorder; sadly, there is no known treatment.)

Working against him, as they have so many times in the past, are the Champions, the current reigning team of superheros. They are at something of a disadvantage, what with the recent disappearance of longtime Champion CoreFire (think Superman, and you won't be too far off). In his absence, the team is led by Blackwolf and Damsel (roughly, Batman and Wonder Woman), who have recruited some younger heroes to join the team.

Among the rookies is Fatale, a young cyborg; she and Doctor Impossible narrate the novel in alternating chapters. (These names, I think, are something of a misstep on Grossman's part; surely Fatale should be the name of a villainess and Doctor Impossible that of a hero?) The chapter titles alone give you a good sense of the book's tone; the Doctor's chapters include "Foiled Again," "My Master Plan Unfolds," and "But Before I Kill You."

Grossman's characters are, as superheroes and villains tend to be, a bit on the two-dimensional side, but he has more space to flesh them out here than he would in comic book form. He writes with great flair and a nicely understated sense of humor. He never forgets that there's something a little silly about superheroes, with the tights and capes and such, but he's not out to ridicule the genre; it's more of a gentle ribbing. There's nothing particularly surprising here -- it's been nearly fifty years since Stan Lee gave us superheroes who were just as dysfunctional and neurotic as everyone else -- but it's a charming diversion.

July 08, 2007

MOVIES: La Vie en Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007)

Leaping back and forth among the decades as if he's lost control of his Wayback Machine, Dahan turns the life of Edith Piaf into a confusing jumble. Marion Cotillard gives a tremendous performance as Piaf, and the movie is worth seeing (but only barely) for her alone.

It's a compelling life story. Piaf grew up in near-Dickensian misery, literally raised by whores (her grandmother was a madam) and circus freaks (daddy was a contortionist), singing on the street for change before she reached her teens. She was discovered there by impresario Louis Leplee (played here by Gerard Depardieu), who gave her the name "Piaf" (French for "sparrow") and made her the talk of the Parisian cabaret circle; she would later be acquitted of being an accessory to Leplee's murder.

During World War II, she worked with the French Resistance, and helped dozens of French prisoners of war escape from Germany. She married twice; the great love of her life, though, was married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), killed in a plane crash in 1949. His death, and the injuries she suffered in a 1951 car accident, led to a morphine addiction that was largely responsible for her death at the age of 47.

For that summary of Piaf's life, I turned to Wikipedia. I had to, because much of it isn't in the movie -- nothing about Leplee's murder, nothing about the French Resistance (hell, WWII isn't mentioned at all, which is quite a trick for a movie set in France), nothing about her marriages -- and what is there is presented in so jumbled a fashion that it's impossible to keep track of what's happening when.

But Cotillard's performance as Piaf is a marvel. She doesn't sing -- Piaf's own recordings are used -- but you'd never guess; her recreation of Piaf's physical presence is impeccable. There's a montage of Piaf's first theatrical performance (as opposed to cabaret), in which we hear nothing of Piaf, just the orchestral score, as we watch Cotillard. She begins the evening stiff and uncomfortable, still not used to performing for so large an audience, and becomes more animated as the performance progresses; by the end of the scene, she's gesturing to the crowd and selling the songs with facial expressions.

In her final years, Piaf was frail and so physically unreliable that her managers were reluctant to commit to any performances; the insurance and cancellation fees were piling up. The final performance we see in the movie -- its final scene -- comes only two or three years before her death, and it is presented as the first performance of her signature song, "Non, je ne regrette rien." Cotillard totters onto stage, barely able to walk without falling, and sings the song -- "No, I have no regrets" -- with defiance and determination; it is a tremendously powerful moment, and a stirring conclusion to the film, one that makes you wonder what the movie might have been had Dahan been more interested in linear narrative and less interested in presenting a chronological kaleidoscope.

(Kudos, by the way, to the movie's makeup team. Cotillard plays Piaf over roughly the last 25 years of her life, and the aging never looks false, even in Piaf's final days, when she looked a good 20 years older than she was.)

BOOKS: One Perfect Day, Rebecca Mead (2007)

In the tradition of Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, Mead explores the American wedding industry. How is it, she asks, that we have turned the wedding into an elaborate and absurdly expensive celebration?

It wasn't always this way, after all. Mead cites a 1939 study which asked recently married couples whether they had a wedding ring, a wedding reception, or a honeymoon; about one-third answered no to each question. (To be sure, the lingering effects of the Great Depression may have had something to do with those results -- couples marrying in 1939 would have understood better than most the foolishness of throwing money away on trivialities and parties -- but the change from then to now is dramatic, nevertheless.)

Mead talks to magazine editors, wedding planners, gown manufacturers, tchotchke marketers, and clergy, each of them working in their own way to create the notion of the wedding as a once-in-a-lifetime event -- a silly notion these days -- and to implant the idea that any wedding smaller than you can afford is an inadequate celebration of your love.

And for retailers, a wedding is the gift that keeps on giving. Get the happy couple to create a wedding registry at your store, and they'll be customers for life; bring them to your resort for your honeymoon, and they'll return for life. Even those businesses that might not seem like naturals for ongoing business can reap recurring rewards; a bride who was pleased with the catering of her first wedding may return when she's planning her second, and the renewal-of-vows ceremony is a fast growing sector of the industry.

The issue of same-sex marriage exploded while Mead was working on this book, and she discusses it briefly in her epilogue, noting that whatever their personal feelings on the subject may be, those in the wedding industry know a potential large market when they see one, and that they began targeting same-sex couples almost immediately.

Mead has a sharp eye for the telling detail, and a gift for getting her subjects to tell her more about their businesses than they might wish they had. It's a lively, witty book, successful both as entertainment and as reporting.

July 07, 2007

Smackdown 1988: Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Liaisons

I confess that of the 1988 Smackdown movies, this is the one I approached with the most trepidation. I had not much cared for it on its initial release, finding it to be little more than a celebration of cruelty and emotional torture. While I still can't say that I love the movie, I enjoyed it more than I had expected to; I found myself more in tune with the comic elements this time around.

And make no mistake -- this is most definitely a comedy. A comedy that ends tragically for almost everyone, to be sure, but a comedy nevertheless. The scenes in which Glenn Close and John Malkovich plot their revenge on those who have wronged them are viciously funny, and there are moments of near-discovery that could come from contemporary bedroom farce. The actors who do the best in the movie -- Close, Malkovich, Uma Thurman -- are the ones who understand those comic elements.

Sadly, Michelle Pfeiffer is not among them. Not only does she fail to convey the humor, she fails to convey -- well, pretty much anything. It's a performance of blank facial expressions, which work only when the actor manages to communicate her inner life and thoughts. Watch, for instance, Glenn Close in the final scene of the movie; her expression is quite blank as she removes her makeup, but we can read her every thought. Pfeiffer's Madame de Tourvel, on the other hand, has no discernible inner life, and presents to us nothing but vacant dullness.

It's not as if there aren't marvelous opportunities in the role to do something more. Consider the scene in which Malkovich's Valmont comes to her bedroom for the first time. Tourvel should be in torment, torn between her natural virtue and the desire that Valmont has so skillfully nurtured; on some level, she wants to be a bad girl, to understand how being naughty makes Valmont so interesting and appealing. But in Pfeiffer's hands, the scene is nothing but phony weeping and overwrought gasping sighs. "I've never been so unhappy," she says, with all the emotion of someone returning a library book two days late.

It is unfortunate for Pfeiffer that she's sharing the movie with Glenn Close; it makes direct comparisons so easy. Watch the scene in which Valmont breaks off his relationship with Tourvel; then, just a few minutes later, watch the scene in which Close's Marquise de Merteuil learns of Valmont's death. Close is enacting grief; Pfeiffer, by comparison, is suffering from a bad case of indigestion.

Unfair, you say, to compare Pfeiffer with one of our great actresses? OK, let's compare her to Uma Thurman, twelve years her junior, and by far the less experienced actress at this point in their careers. Look at the first opera scene, when Cecile meets Danceny for the first time, and see the little giggle and fleeting expression of joy when the Marquise suggests to Madame Volanges that she hire him as Cecile's music tutor. Look at how beautifully Thurman plays her first bedroom scene with Malkovich -- a dozen emotions flash across her face in just a few seconds -- and at the joy and delight she brings to their later bedroom scenes.

There's not a moment of such emotional clarity or honesty anywhere in Pfeiffer's performance, which is the stiffest and least interesting in the movie. (And I remind you that Keanu Reeves is in this movie, which sets the bar pretty damn low.) Out-acted by Thurman, out-prettied by Reeves -- and this was an Oscar nominee? One can only assume that she was swept along in a mad burst of enthusiasm for the movie, because the performance isn't worthy of such recognition.

July 05, 2007

Smackdown 1988: Sigourney Weaver, Working Girl

Sigourney Weaver does her damnedest in Working Girl, but Katharine Parker is such a stock character that it's almost impossible to make her interesting. We're told that she's a Boss From Hell with her very entrance, which silences the chattering secretaries and sends them scattering to their various desks. We know that she's a liar (and clearly, Tess does not) from her first lines of dialogue, when she claims to be a few weeks younger than Tess. (I know, you can't assume that characters are the same relative ages as the actors playing them, but Weaver's eight years older than Melanie Griffith, and looks it -- which isn't to say that she's not fabulous -- and they are so obviously not the same age that I can only interpret that dialogue as an early cue to the audience that Katharine is duplicitous and Tess naive.)

The role breaks neatly into two halves. In her early scenes, Weaver gives Katharine a certain ambiguity; we're fairly sure she's not to be trusted, but then, maybe she really is the "team player" and supportive boss that she claims to be. She's a slippery beast, impossible to get a grasp on, and every line seems to spin both ways.

She disappears for a long chunk of the movie, recuperating from her skiing accident while the movie focuses on Tess and Jack, and when she returns, we now know that she's a conniving bitch out to steal Tess's ideas, allowing Weaver to abandon subtlety entirely. Katharine becomes pure ogre, practically a cartoon character. "I'll need help bathing and dressing," she tells Tess, with no question in her voice that this ludicrously inappropriate demand could ever be refused. It's not that an ogre is necessarily the wrong thing here -- it is a fairy tale, after all -- but Weaver goes a bit too broad, a bit too large for my taste, and she's out of step with the movie's tone.

She's clearly having great fun in the climactic boardroom scene, storming in on her crutches, waving them about as weapons of accusation, and she gets a fine laugh when she swoons into a chair, realizing that she can play her injury for sympathy. And in the final confrontation with Trask, when she's unable to explain where she came up with the radio idea, she dials it back down a bit and does some lovely, subtle work as Katharine struggles to maintain some shred of dignity and credibility.

It's a competent performance, and Weaver gets the laughs that she's asked to get. But she's too over the top in the second half of the movie, and she never gives me any of those surprising moments that tell me I'm watching something special.

(Originally posted Thursday evening; a few small edits were made early Friday morning.)

Smackdown 1988: Joan Cusack, Working Girl

More often than not, acting is about change. What did this character learn? How did that character grow? Joan Cusack's performance in Working Girl, on the other hand, is all about stasis. Cusack's Cyn is our lodestar, a fixed point of reference against which we measure the transformation of Melanie Griffith's Tess. Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Kevin Wade use Cusack strategically, bringing her into the story whenever they want to emphasize Tess's change.

The movie opens with Cyn and Tess on the Staten Island Ferry, en route to their jobs in the city, and they are essentially the same person: big accent, big makeup, big jewelry, big hair -- and I do mean big hair. There's a four-inch halo of hair surrounding Cyn's face; it's practically a feat of engineering.

By the next time we see Cyn (aside from a quick glimpse at a surprise party), Tess's transformation has begun. She's nearly lost the accent, toned down her makeup and jewelry; she's putting on a glamorous dress, and Cyn is (with great reluctance) cutting off most of her hair. Cusack's makeup in this scene is, if anything, even more flamboyant than in the opening sequence.

When Cyn visits Tess's office, the transformation is complete. The accent is gone and the voice is pitched in a lower register; the haircut is stylish and short (and makes Griffith look eerily like her mother, Tippi Hedren).

To further emphasize Tess's transformation, Cyn is pressed into service as her temporary secretary. "Be me," pleads Tess, and as she awkwardly tries to put on the proper air of professional sophistication, we realize the difference between pretending to fit in to the world of business -- which is all that Cyn can do, and not very well at that -- and geniunely belonging there, as Tess does.

This is Cusack's best moment in the movie, and you can almost feel how relieved she is at getting to do something other than just be the supportive sidekick. Cyn wants so much to say and do the right things, not to embarass her friend, and the desperation is palpable as she searches for the right words.

Cyn is also called upon to point out what she sees as unfortunate changes in Tess's personality and behavior -- "that's not like you," she says about Tess's treatment of her loutish boyfriend, Mick -- and to suggest that Tess will ultimately fail. "Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear," she says. "Doesn't make me Madonna, never will." It's a cruel moment, motivated by fear and anger -- Cyn knows that Tess does belong here, and she's terrified that she'll be abandoned completely, that her friendship will be inadequate to Tess's new life -- it's an impeccable line reading.

Sidekick roles are a bitch, especially roles like this one, where your character's sole purpose for being is to not change, to not grow, to be a one-dimensional backdrop. It's a limited part, but Cusack brings great warmth and humor to the role, and when she's finally called on to do something a little deeper in the office scene, she packs a wallop. There's a long friendship packed into a few lines, and an entire history in a few facial expressions.

July 02, 2007

BOOKS: The Woods, Harlan Coben (2007)

Coben's thrillers in recent years fall into a narrow pattern: Nice guy discovers that a loved one who has been presumed dead for some years may still be alive. This time around, our nice guy is New Jersey prosecutor Paul Copeland, and the loved one is his sister, believed to have been murdered at summer camp twenty years ago. Four teens disappeared that night, and though only two bodies were found, the other two -- Camille Copeland was one of them -- were assumed to have killed as well. But now the body of the other disappeared teen has turned up, freshly murdered, and if he's actually been alive all this time, then Paul has to wonder if Camille is still alive.

The Woods is a perfectly serviceable thriller, but this is the fourth or fifth time that Coben has gone to this same general plot, and the law of diminishing returns is beginning to set in; the fewer of his previous novels you've read, the more you'll probably enjoy this one. He's a talented writer, but it really is time for Coben to come up with a new story.

MOVIES: Ocean's Thirteen (Steven Soderbergh, 2007)

Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and the gang are out to pull off another elaborate heist, and this time? Yup, you got it: It's personal. Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) has been swindled by Vegas tycoon Willie Bank (Al Pacino), cheated out of his interest in Bank's new casino (modestly named The Bank), and the stress has given him a heart attack. Danny has no choice but to reassemble the gang to get back at Willie.

The plot isn't necessarily to steal any money for themselves this time, but to make sure that everyone who comes to The Bank on opening night leaves a winner by rigging all of the casino games in the players' favor. This means defeating the high-tech security system, which their hired expert (a cameo from Eddie Izzard) thinks is impossible; "you're analog players in a digital world," he tells Danny.

The idea that the world has taken a turn for the worse haunts this movie. Reuben takes Willie's betrayal so personally because "we both shook Sinatra's hand," and he cannot believe that anyone would violate that code of honor; Danny and Rusty (Brad Pitt) wax nostalgic about the Sands, the Desert Inn, and the other casinos of the past.

The plot is absurdly intricate, and a few of its details lead us down some uninteresting byways; watching the Malloy brothers (Scott Caan and Casey Affleck) as labor organizers at a Mexican dice factory never really takes off, and Ellen Barkin (as Willie Bank's assistant) is forced to play an unsavalgable, embarrassing seduction scene with Matt Damon.

But there's a terrific subplot featuring David Paymer as the hotel critic whose visit to The Bank is turned into the visit from hell, and it is fun to watch all of the pieces of the intricate plot fall into place at the end. Besides, the Ocean's movies are never about plot as much as they are about good old-fashioned movie star glamour, and Clooney, Pitt, and Pacino provide enough of that to keep us entertained.

July 01, 2007

BOOKS: The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon (2007)

In Chabon's alternate version of history, a piece of what was still the Alaska Territory was designated as a refuge for European Jews; the District of Sitka took in even more people in 1948, with the (fictional) failure of the nation of Israel. The novel is set in the present, as Sitka is about to revert to Alaskan control and its Jewish population is to be dispersed throughout the world. Many people aren't sure where they're going, since so many countries are still reluctant to admit Jewish immigrants.

Against this backdrop, police inspector Meyer Landsman finds his life falling apart. He has no real plans for life after Reversion; he's separated from his wife and living in a fleabag motel; he and his partner (who is also his cousin) have the highest rate of unsolved murders on the force. And now a bum has been found murdered in Landsman's hotel, the only clue to his identity his book of chess puzzles.

The setup is terrific, and Chabon's Sitka is a beautifully detailed creation. But around the midpoint of the book, the answers to the murder mystery begin to be revealed, and they just aren't that interesting. The last third of the book is heavy slogging indeed; the novel, which had gotten off to such a fine start, winds up a serious disappointment.

MOVIES: Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)

Brad Bird has two mighty impressive films to his credit already -- The Iron Giant and The Incredibles -- and he tops them both with Ratatouille, which is an absolute joy.

The hero is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a rat with a superb sense of taste and smell who dreams of dining on better dare than the garbage that his pack is content with. His culinary hero is the late, great Gusteau (Brad Garrett, in a performance with more warmth than I'd have thought him capable of), whose philosophy is "anyone can cook."

Remy gets the chance to prove himself as a cook in the kitchen of Gusteau's restaurant, working in partnership with Linguini (a charming performance by Pixar animator Lou Romano); Remy hides under Linguini's toque and controls him like a puppet by pulling his hair -- there's some beautifully timed slapstick comedy in these sequences -- creating dishes which just might bring Gusteau's back to prominence.

The animation here is spectacular. There are some stunning vistas of Paris; the food looks so appealing you'd swear you could smell it; the characters are vivid and fun to watch. Remy looks like a rat without being entirely repulsive, and the movie overcomes our visceral disgust at the thought of a rat in the kitchen with great charm. A few scenes involve water, a traditional challenge for animators, and they are thoroughly convincing. (Between Surf's Up and this movie, it appears that great strides are being made in water animation.)

Voice casting is also solid. Oswalt has a marvelous EveryRat quality as Remy, and the thrill of doing something that you love clearly comes through in his performance. There's also a magnificent supporting performance from Peter O'Toole, dropping his voice into its most sepulchral register as the dessicated food critic Anton Ego, who gets the most perfectly executed flashback sequence you'll see at the movies this year. The weak link in the cast is Janeane Garofalo as Colette, the romantic interest for Linguini; if she had simply dropped the bad French accent, it would have helped immensely.

But the story is charming, and the movie is beautifully crafted; particular kudos to Michael Giacchino for his lively score. The show I went to was packed, and everyone -- kids and parents -- was delighted throughout; there was great applause when the movie ended. This one will be on my "best of" list at the end of the year, for sure.

TV: Burn Notice

Summer series from USA about Michael, a spy whose employer -- never specifically identified, but it's implied that it's some subunit of the CIA -- issues a burn notice, cutting him off completely (cancelled credit, frozen bank accounts, etc.). No one will tell him why this has been done, and he's stuck in Miami (because he's also been put on the no-fly lists, and is being watched by the FBI).

It looks as if each week will find him taking some sort of spy-ish odd job to support himself, using the skills he's learned in his 15-year career: technowizardry, con artistry, hand-to-hand combat, and general deviousness. It's like Alias meets MacGyver meets Hustle.

Good cast, too. Jeffery Donovan plays Michael with dry wit and cool competence; the supporting players are Gabrielle Anwar (tough and sexy as Fiona, the ex-IRA ex-girlfriend), Bruce Campbell (having fun and hamming it up as Sam, the boozy old pal/retired spy), and Sharon Gless (Madeline, the clingy hypochondriac mother). Michael provides voice-over narration in a style that mixes 40s noir with 90s snark -- call it Raymond Chandler Bing. The blend is occasionally a bit jarring, but I have a feeling that it'll improve as the writers get the hang of it.

On the whole, it's very entertaining fluff and I look forward to seeing where it goes. The pilot will be repeated a few more times over the next week, and the show airs regularly at 10 on Thursday nights.