December 22, 2009

MOVIES: The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements & John Musker, 2009)

By now you've no doubt heard the twist this one puts on the old fairy tale; when Tiana kisses the frog, it doesn't turn him into a handsome prince, it turns her into another frog, and the two must set out together to restore their humanity.

Anika Noni Rose, as Tiana, is on the bland side even by Disney princess standards, but there are a few good voice performances here. Bruno Campos gives Prince Naveen more personality than Disney princes are usually allowed; Keith David oozes silky evil as the voodoo man, Dr. Facilier; and Jennifer Cody is quite funny as Tiana's best friend, Charlotte, whose obsession with finding a prince could almost be taken as Disney mocking its own princess obsession.

The old-fashioned hand-drawn 2-D animation is beautifully done, and comes across as charmingly retro in this era of 3-D and CGI. Particularly fine sequences include Dr. Facilier's final moments, a lilypad waltz for the two frogs, and a beautiful Deco-style fantasy sequence set in the restaurant Tiana hopes to one day own. Randy Newman's songs are competent, professional imitations of authentic New Orleans music -- all of the notes and rhythms feel right, but there's no soul to it.

Disney had reportedly been worried for years about doing an African-American princess for fear that they would somehow stumble into offensive stereotypes; I think they've avoided that (but I'm a white guy, so there may be something I've missed). For me, the character who crossed the line into offensive cliche was Ray, the Cajun firefly, who is a toothless, bumbling idiot.

This is certainly a vast improvement over Disney's most recent hand-drawn flicks, Home on the Range and Treasure Planet, and the crowd of 8- and 9-year-old girls in the theater certainly seemed to enjoy it. But the movie never soars in the magical way that the best Disney animation does, and if you're not a pre-teen girl with a princess fixation, you can certainly wait for DVD.

December 21, 2009

MOVIES: Nine (Rob Marshall, 2009)

Why is it that no one can find a Hollywood leading man who can sing when they're casting musicals? Richard Gere in Chicago, Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, and now Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine. You'd think they wanted us to hate musicals.

Nine is based loosely on Fellini's 8 1/2, and tells the story of Guido Contini, a Fellini-esque film director in 1965 Italy who's suffering from writer's block. He runs off to a resort town with his mistress in search of inspiration, but finds none; he spends the weekend daydreaming about the women in his life, and his daydreams take the form of musical numbers.

Day-Lewis croaks his way through his two songs, and is fortunately not asked to do any real dancing. And even if he were a musical leading man, I don't think he'd be the right choice for this role. Guido should be suave and charming; we need to understand why all of these women are so drawn to him (not all of them in romantic fashion). Day-Lewis is a chilly presence, and his inexpressive woodblock of a face doesn't help any. In the show's Broadway revival a few years back, the role was played by Antonio Banderas; he would have been a better choice for the film.

The heavy musical lifting is left to the all-star cast of women, each of whom gets a musical number (Marion Cotillard, as Guido's wife, gets two). Coming off best are Fergie, who delivers a delightful performance of the score's best song, "Be Italian," which also offers the movie's most interesting staging/choreography, involving sand and tambourines. Penelope Cruz also does well with "A Call from the Vatican," which isn't much more than an excuse to thrash about the floor and be fabulously sexy, but hey! who does fabulously sexy better these days than Cruz?

Less successful is Kate Hudson, whose "Cinema Italiano" (one of the two songs newly written for the film) is little more than an excuse to put her in a 60s go-go outfit and remind us that her mother was a lot hotter during her own go-go days on Laugh-In. The biggest problem, though, and the reason the musical's more admired than loved, is that the songs mostly aren't very good; they aren't particularly tuneful (Go ahead, hum "A Call from the Vatican." I dare you.) and they have a tendency to bluntly spell out what ought to be subtextual. Both of Cotillard's songs -- "My Husband Makes Movies" and the new "Take It All" -- are particularly weak in this regard, clubbing the audience over the head with stuff that we'd figured out about ten minutes before the songs began.

The other women on hand -- Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman (who grows more creepily animatronic with every movie she makes), and Sophia Loren -- deliver their songs adequately, though you get the sense that Loren's number was written for someone who doesn't sing much.

So, a few good moments, enough that you might want to rent the DVD if you're a fan of any of the actors, and if you're a fan of the musical, you'll probably want to see it on a big screen just to see what's been made of it. But beyond that, I can't really recommend it.
Yes, I know; I've been a very naughty blogger over the last month, and have fallen behind in posting comments about the movies I've been seeing. The goal is to get caught up over the next week or so. So all of you who've been waiting with bated breath to find out what I thought of Fantastic Mr. Fox won't have to wait much longer.

December 19, 2009

BOOKS: Green Metropolis, David Owen (2009)

Back to nature! That's been the rallying cry of the environmental movement for decades now. If only we would all just return to the land and grow our own food and get out of those smelly, polluted cities, we could make a dent in the environmental crisis. And for the most part, we've bought in to that narrative; we're all convinced that living on a farm in Vermont or Montana would be a planet-friendly thing to do.

Not so fast, says Owen. It turns out that the most environmentally friendly place in the US isn't Vermont. It's Manhattan. On a per-capita basis, Vermonters use 3.5 times as much gasoline and 4 times as much electricity as Manhattanites do. New York City is so energy efficient that it is singlehandedly responsible for making New York state the lowest per-capita user of electricity.

There are two reasons for Manhattan's low energy use, and Owen argues that we need to find ways to introduce them to our other large cities. First, population density is high enough to make a truly efficient public transit system possible; second, mixed-use neighborhoods mean that it is more convenient to do most errands on foot or bicycle than by car.

Compare, for instance, Owen's current home in suburban Connecticut to his previous New York apartment. The closest thing to walk to in the suburbs is his mailbox, 150 yards away. Walking that distance from the front door of his apartment building could have taken him to "six or seven restaurants, a shoe-repair shop, a liquor store, two grocery stores, various doctors' offices, a pharmacy, and a half-dozen large apartment buildings."

And because there's so much to see, people are further encouraged to walk in the city; psychologically, walking through a busy landscape makes the walk seem shorter than a walk of the same distance through an empty one. One of the places that New Yorkers don't walk is through Central Park; anyone who needs to cross the 3/4 mile park is more likely to take a cab than someone walking the same distance along a busy avenue.

High-density population, combined with smaller living spaces, also saves energy because it's cheaper to heat/cool your home, and because you're less likely to buy a lot of stuff you don't need when you don't have anywhere to put it.

Owen also points out that many of the things we do, thinking that we're making things better, are only going to make things worse. Adding new highway lanes may decrease traffic in the short term, but what we really need to do is make driving less practical and convenient, not more. The various programs to certify energy-efficient building projects turn out to reward behaviors that do very little good for the environment, and may actually do a fair amount of harm. And Owen rips to shreds the nonsense of the "locavore" movement, the idea that we should eat only food that's grown and produced locally.

This is an eye-opening book that will reshape the way you think about what is and isn't good for the environment; it's a solid piece of contrarian journalism, and entertaining reading to boot.

December 18, 2009

BOOKS: Uglies / Pretties / Specials, Scott Westerfeld (2005 / 2005 / 2006)

Solid SF trilogy, targeted at the YA market, about the destruction of a repressive society.

Our heroine is Tally Youngblood, who at the beginning of the series, is about to turn 16 and become Pretty. Massive plastic surgery makes everyone Pretty, every face and physique corrected to fit the very narrow range of beauty allowed by society. The logic is that if everyone's pretty (and in roughly the same way, so that no one stands out), then people won't have to deal with the petty jealousies that so often led to violence and conflict in the old days.

Not everyone wants to be Pretty, though, and there have always been rumors of people living in the wilderness, beyond the safety of the city limits, who have never had the surgery and have remained Ugly into adulthood. Tally finds herself caught up in a plot to find and destroy one such community, the Smokies; she's forced to work for the Office of Special Circumstances, a sort of secret police who have had additional surgeries to enhance their senses and their fighting abilities.

Westerfeld's action sequences occasionally get repetitious, especially in the numerous hoverboard chase scenes (a hoverboard is like a flying skateboard), and the action of the trilogy takes place very quickly; I don't think it's more than a few months from beginning to end, certainly no more than a year.

But there are a lot of clever ideas to be found here, and Tally is an appealing heroine; her struggles to maintain her mental and emotional clarity in the face of unprecedented obstacles are compelling, and that aspect of the story made Pretties the most entertaining of the three books for me.

December 17, 2009

BOOKS: And Another Thing..., Eoin Colfer (2009)

The original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a work of comic genius, and survived its transition from radio play to the printed page surprisingly well. Douglas Adams showed a marvelous gift for writing goofy anecdotes, witty one-liners, and entertaining digressions. The plot was never the point; it was only there to be the minimal framework required for all of the meanderings, which is where all the good stuff was.

Alas, Adams wasn't content to have one brilliant success under his belt; he dragged the series on for four more books, each a further demonstration of the law of diminishing returns. The later books were never truly horrible, and there was always an occasional gem to be found in them, but those gems were fewer and farther between with every book. As sad as it was when Adams died at the young age of 49, there was a part of me that was almost grateful that at least we wouldn't have any more disappointing Hitchhiker books.

Ah, but these days, mere death needn't be an obstacle to cashing in on a successful series. New novels continue to be published under the name "V.C. Andrews," and she's been dead since 1986; Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne marches on in books by Eric Von Lustbader.

And here's Eoin Colfer with the sixth installment in the Hitchhiker's Guide series. Like the later Adams books, it's not unreadable. It's just uninspired and unnecessary. The familiar characters -- Arthur, Trillian, Ford, and Zaphod are all back -- don't feel quite themselves, and the jokes never land with the same zip that Adams gave them in his early books. Colfer has given us a second-rate imitation of an author who had already become his own second-rate imitation. For Hitchhiker completists only.

December 08, 2009

BOOKS: Locked In, Marcia Muller (2009)

27th (!) in the Sharon McCone mystery series.

Sharon survives being shot by an office intruder, but is left with locked-in syndrome -- she's alert and conscious, but unable to speak and almost completely paralyzed. All she can do to communicate is blink once for yes, twice for no.

Her friends, family, and colleagues -- not mutually exclusive groups -- begin digging even deeper into the cases they've been working on, hoping to find a connection to Sharon's shooting. Muller's narrative leaps back and forth among a half-dozen of the series' regular supporting characters, occasionally returning to Sharon's internal monologue as she lies in her hospital bed, frustrated at not being able to help with the investigation.

It's a nice way for Muller to put a new spin on the series, and it gives the minor characters their moment in the spotlight, which is entertaining. The many cases that everyone's been working on tie together into one giant case a bit neatly for my liking, but Muller juggles the puzzle pieces with enough dexterity that you aren't too distracted by the implausibility.

The last novel in the series, Burn Out, found Sharon wondering if she still had in her to be a private investigator, and at the close of this one, it seems unlikely that she'll be returning to full duty any time soon. Muller's been writing these novels for more than 30 years now, and surely retirement can't be too far away for McCone. Locked In suggests that Muller may be looking for a way to continue the McCone series with Sharon in a less central role, perhaps serving as an advisor to her younger colleagues who do most of the leg work themselves.

November 26, 2009

MOVIES: Phoebe in Wonderland (Daniel Barnz, 2009)

Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is 9, and is beginning to misbehave and act out in disturbing ways. She spits at classmates; she washes her hands until they're raw -- and those are just the visible signs. She's also having fantasies in which the characters from Alice in Wonderland appear to give her advice.

There's always been a lot of Wonderland in Phoebe's life. Her mother (Felicity Huffman) is still struggling to finish a scholarly book on Alice, and she's so fascinated with the story that her birthday present is an elaborate handmade diorama based on the story.

It's not surprising, therefore, when she lands the lead role in the school production of Alice, directed by the free-spirited drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson). But as good as she is in the role, it seems to be exacerbating her problems; the inappropriate behavior becomes more common, as do the Alice fantasies.

Barnz' movie (he's also the screenwriter) can't quite make up its mind whether it wants to be a whimsical fantasy about the importance of individuality or a more somber study of how difficult it can be to parent (and teach) a disturbed child. In the latter mode, it comes perilously close to a disease-of-the-week TV movie; one wonders if the presence of Lifetime as one of the movie's producers has anything to do with that.

The cast is also uneven, with most of the problems coming from the men. Bill Pullman's ineffectual dithering as Phoebe's father quickly grows annoying, and Campbell Scott gives an unusually bland performance as an elementary-school principal. The women, on the other hand, are marvelous. Fanning is marvelous as Phoebe, and it's painful to watch her struggle against the behavior that she clearly knows is wrong, but can't control. Huffman's Hilary has her own struggles to deal with; she clearly loves her children, but is also sometimes frustrated by the demands they place on her. (Barnz saddles her with a speech in which she expresses that frustration far more cleanly and concisely than any mother ever could.)

But the finest performance comes from Patricia Clarkson, who is luminous as Miss Dodger. It's a role that could have easily plummeted into cliche -- has there ever been a drama teacher in the movies who wasn't an inspirational free spirit? -- but Clarkson finds novel touches, bringing to life both Miss Dodger's joy at bringing creativity to life and her horror when she realizes the ways in which her encouragement has inadvertently pushed all of the wrong buttons in Phoebe.

There are moments and characters of dull predictability here -- Phoebe's best friend is a boy who wants to play the Queen of Hearts, leading to the inevitable gay-bashing and well-meaning (but somewhat condescending) lecture -- but there are also moments of incredible beauty, such as a lovely conversation between Phoebe and Miss Dodger as they sit on the catwalk above the theater.

Not a perfect movie by any stretch, and the ending feels awfully abrupt, but the moments and performances that work outweigh those that don't, and Clarkson's lovely, delicate work tips the balance, leading me to tell you that the movie is well worth renting.

November 25, 2009

BOOKS: The Amateurs, Marcus Sakey (2009)

Alex is divorced and fears that he's failing his young daughter. Jenn is a travel agent who dreams of living the adventures she sells to others. Ian's a broker with serious coke and gambling problems. And Mitch is a wimp.

These four friends find themselves, in their early 30s, dissatisfied with life but with no idea how to make things any better. So when the opportunity to steal a couple hundred thousand bucks from Alex's boss comes along, they see it as the perfect chance to change their lives. And it's a perfect plan. Who would suspect them, after all? They're not criminals.

It will come as no surprise that their maiden venture into the world of crime goes horribly wrong; much of the fun in the first few chapters of Sakey's thriller is trying to guess just how they're going to screw things up. The second half of the book, when these four schmucks find themselves trying frantically to outsmart the professional bad guys, doesn't quite match the fun of the setup, but Sakey keeps things moving along quickly. And I very much appreciated that he didn't force an absurdly sunny ending on the situation; not all of our four protagonists get what they're looking for.

The characters are a bit on the thin side, and Mitch's miraculous transformation from milquetoast to criminal mastermind is wildly implausible, but on the whole, The Amateurs is an efficient thriller; the villains are evil, and the heroes are both brave and stupid, which is an entertaining combination.

November 19, 2009

BOOKS: Wife of the Gods, Kwei Quartey (2009)

Solid first novel, a police procedural set in Ghana. Detective Darko Dawson is based in Accra, the capital city, but is sent to a small rural village to assist with a murder investigation. He's the logical choice to go; he speaks the local language and even has family in the area. The victim is a popular young woman, a promising medical student who does volunteer AIDS education work in the area.

There are, of course, lots of colorful exotic details (*) -- the villagers living in huts, the unusual food, the superstitions that won't die out -- but the basics of a good murder mystery don't change; lust, greed, power, secrets, and revenge will drive someone to kill in Ghana just as much as they will in the US. Quartey's characters are entertaining and his mystery is well-plotted. If he chooses to return to this character, there are surely other worthwhile stories to be told; letting Dawson stay in Accra, for instance, for a look at urban African life, would be fascinating. (It would also allow Dawson's wife and son to be given a larger role than they get here; they're largely on the sidelines while he's away from home, and they're interesting enough characters that I'd like to see more of them.)

(*) Oddly enough, one of the most exotic details is the extraordinary politeness with which everyone -- police, suspect, murderer -- treats everyone else. Try to imagine the following conversation taking place between detective and suspect in an American setting: "Oh, and by the way, I'd like to officially apologize for my arresting you. No hard feelings?" "None. You were doing your job."

November 09, 2009

BOOKS: Sworn to Silence, Linda Castillo (2009)

Painters Mill, Ohio, is a small town of some 5,000 people, about a third of whom are Amish. Kate Burkholder, was raised Amish, but chose not to join the church when she turned eighteen; after a few years on the Columbus police force (which qualifies as "big city" experience by Painters Mill standards), she's returned to Painters Mill, where she is now the chief of police.

For the most part, it's a fairly quiet job -- the occasional domestic dispute, some traffic accidents, cows getting loose and wandering the roads -- but when the bodies of young women start turning up, it appears that Painters Mill has a serial killer on the loose. And not just any serial killer, but the notorious Slaughterhouse Killer, who terrorized the town fifteen years ago (when Kate was a young teen), killing four women before apparently disappearing. Kate is particularly horrified by his apparent return, because she thought she knew where he had been for all those years, and now fears that her own secrets about the past will be revealed by the investigation.

This is a solid police procedural, and Castillo does a particularly good job of creating an interesting mix of officers working to solve the case. There are not only Kate's own officers, but officers from the county sheriff's office, and an agent from the state police as well; the mix of personalities and jurisdictional conflicts reminded me of the novels by Archer Mayor, set in a southern Vermont town that's not too much bigger than Painters Mill.

Kate's discovery of the killer's identity is nicely plotted, and the scenes leading to his capture are skillfully done, tense and exciting. Those who are bothered by graphic depictions of killers at work should be warned that there are a few scenes of the Slaughterhouse Killer torturing his victim; they aren't the most pleasant reading, but I didn't find them to be excessive by today's standards, either in amount or in graphic detail.

I could have done without the semi-obligatory romantic subplot, which only served to slow down the story, and the Amish background didn't amount to as much as I would have hoped; perhaps future volumes (and this is announced as the first in a series) will dig a little deeper into that culture. But on the whole, Sworn to Silence is an entertaining police procedural, and a solid debut for Castillo.

November 08, 2009

MOVIES: Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009)

Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is 16 years old. She's obese, illiterate (though she's managed to hide that well enough to get to the 8th grade), and she is currently, for the second time, pregnant with her father's child. She lives in a small Harlem apartment with her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), a physically and emotionally abusive woman. Precious, which is based on a novel by Sapphire, gives us one year in her life.

Let's start with the good news. The two principal performances are very good. Precious wears a near-permanent scowl of fear and anger, but it is remarkable how much emotion Sidibe communicated through that scowl. We see her hope and her optimism, which are somehow even more painful than the horrible circumstances of her life, because we know how unlikely it is that they will ever be rewarded.

Mo'Nique is given a very limited character to play. Mary is, quite simply, a monster. That's all she is; there are no redeeming qualities, no warmth, no flashes of the decent human being she might once have been. She gets a big speech late in the movie which is, I think, meant to provide her with some shred of humanity -- she talks about realizing that her boyfriend was sexually abusing their daughter -- but her response to that realization is so ghastly, so inhuman, that it only makes her seem more beastly. But Mo'Nique is utterly committed to the character, and goes to all of the horribly dark places the role demands without a shred of vanity; it's a ferocious performance, and a shock from an actress who's been best known for moderately competent sitcom work.

But the problem with the movie is that it is unrelentingly bleak. There's not a shred of humor in it, and while we can admire the hope and resilience with which Precious faces life, it seems so unlikely that she's ever going to have any of the joy she hopes for, or ever escape from this miserable life of poverty, that it almost feels cruel to watch her cling to such false hope. And any time some slim shred of genuine hope does come along, it is inevitably stomped to death by some new horrific event or revelation.

By the end of the movie, not much has changed for Precious. She's another year older; she's now got two children to take care of; she's gotten some distance from her mother; and there have been other developments -- most of them for the worse -- that I shouldn't give away. So the movie becomes not much more than 90 minutes of wallowing in misery. There's no relief, there's no hope, there's no escape, there's only pain.

And wallow is precisely what director Lee Daniels does. It's not enough to show us Precious being raped by her father; he has to intercut that with scenes of pig's feet cooking on the stove, in case we don't get "he treats her like meat" connection. It's not enough for Mary to be a cruel and abusive mother; she has to actually try to kill her daughter and newborn grandson. The suffering is piled so deep that it starts to become a sadistic cartoon. By the time it's over, I felt like I'd been beaten up.

Are two brilliant performances enough to overcome the movie's manipulative cruelty? Not for me. I'm glad to have seen those performances, and I'm very eager to see what's next for Sidibe, but as good as she and Mo'Nique are, I can't recommend the movie.

November 04, 2009

TV: V (ABC, Tue 8)

It's been about 25 years since the first incarnation of V, which used a story of alien invasion as the basis for an allegorical re-telling of the Nazis' rise to power, exploring the seductive nature of evil, and how willing people are to overlook that evil so long as they're not directly harmed by it. Now V is back, and the new version is still a political allegory, but this one explores a very different rise to power.

The aliens seem to arrive from nowhere, with no advance warning. Suddenly, their motherships are in the sky above 29 cities, and we are being greeted by their leader, Anna (Morena Baccarin). She is young, attractive, well-spoken, and incredibly charismatic; her easy smile and unflappable warmth are appealing to a nation still recovering from difficult years. She seems to have a special appeal to the young, and the Visitors (that's what they call themselves) make a particular effort to reach out to teens and young adults.

Gradually, the Visitors work their way into society; their first major project is a series of "Visitors Healing Centers," at which they offer -- and this phrase is a direct quote from the show -- "universal health care," including new cures for 65 human illnesses.

The media, represented by anchorman Chad Decker (Scott Wolf, perfectly cast in a role that calls for equal parts ambition and shallowness), is completely in Anna's pocket. When Chad lands the first one-on-one interview with Anna, he's more than happy to go along with her last-minute instruction that there must be no questions "that would show us in a negative light;" after all, this interview is good for his career. (There is a hint here of a genuinely interesting idea -- the only one the first episode has to offer -- that the increasingly partisan and biased nature of cable news isn't really about any genuine partisanship on the part of the anchors, but about ambition, ratings, and careers.)

There are those who don't trust the Visitors, but they are mocked by the pro-Visitor media as paranoid crackpots, not to be trusted. They are, of course, right; the Visitors are here to undermine and destroy our way of life, and only this brave band of rebels can save us from their nefarious plot.

In short, the new version of V is a depiction of the rise of Barack Obama, as seen from the Teabaggers' point of view; all that's missing is an Orly Taitz to demand Anna's birth certificate ("she's not really from this galaxy..."). It's no accident, I think, that the two characters who will be our principal heroes, leaders of the resistance, are an FBI agent -- representative of the permanent, civil servant government class (as opposed to the untrustworthy partisans who hold elected office) -- and a Catholic priest; church and state are brought together in this noble cause.

The show is skillfully made, with top-notch special effects by broadcast TV standards, and the first episode does a remarkably good job of cramming in a lot of plot; the original version would have taken at least three or four hours to get through this much of the story. The cast is fine; Elizabeth Mitchell as the FBI agent and Joel Gretsch as the priest are likable leads, and Baccarin is delightful as Anna, with a fine knack for combining a bright, warm, inviting smile with cold, dead eyes. So far, the entertainment value outweights the creepy conservative political subtext; let's hope it stays that way.

BOOKS: Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby (2009)

In the mid-80s, Tucker Crowe was a moderately succesful singer-songwriter, compared to folks like Springsteen, Dylan, and Cohen. But he hasn't been heard from since his 1986 masterpiece, Juliet. These days, there's a lively Internet community devoted to sharing every tiny rumor about where Crowe might be living, and offering up minutely detailed analysis of his every lyric.

One of those self-styled "Crowologists" is Duncan, who lives in a dull little village on the English coast; he is giddy with excitement at the release of Juliet, Naked, a collection of acoustic demo recordings of the Juliet songs. Duncan's long-time girlfriend, Annie,doesn't understand the fuss; to her, the Naked recordings are unpolished versions of the much better songs from the original Juliet.

Annie surprises herself by posting her own thoughts on Naked at Duncan's website; Duncan's reaction is somewhere between amusement -- "oh, Annie has an opinion; isn't that cute?" -- and horror -- "...and it's not the same as my clearly better-informed opinion?!?" The stress turns out to be the final blow to their relationship, which has been slowly dying for some time. But there are some enthusiastic responses to Annie's comments, most surprisingly an e-mail message from someone claiming to be Tucker Crowe himself.

Annie is, I think, the most convincing female character Hornby's ever written; his focus has been mostly on men before now. (There were significant female characters in A Long Way Down, but the less said about that mess of a book, the better.) And the relationship that develops between Annie and Tucker (because, yes, it really is Tucker sending that e-mail) is entirely believable; it's a lovely portrait of two lonely people, each one completely aware that they may be investing far too much emotional energy in what is, after all, simply a long-distance e-mail relationship.

Annie and Tucker are both coming to grips with the idea that they may have wasted much of their lives -- Tucker as a reclusive non-musician who's done nothing for 20 years but accumulate ex-wives and children he rarely sees, and Annie in a long-term relationship that's never been terribly fulfilling, but seemed like the best she was likely to find in her small town. Is it too late for either of them to live up to the potential lives they once thought were possible?

Juliet, Naked is a graceful and charming novel (though I really do dislike the title) filled with Hornby's usual mix of understated humor and broad punchlines. The characters are well-rounded, and there are marvelous comic set pieces (I loved the first meeting between Tucker and Duncan, for instance). It feels to me like Hornby's first novel about grownups, as opposed to young men who can't or won't take the final steps into adulthood. I liked it a lot.

November 01, 2009

MOVIES: Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)

Based on -- "loosely inspired by" would probably be more accurate -- Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, this is a magnificent movie that is not so much a movie for children as it is a movie about childhood.

Sendak's book is only about 300 words long. It's the story of a small boy who, after arguing with his mother, goes to his room and imagines a journey to the place where the Wild Things are. He names himself their king, and they have a "wild rumpus," after which he comes back to his room, and finds that his mother has supper waiting for him. A faithful adaptation of the book would last for about six minutes, so Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers have expanded on the story.

The first half-hour is the movie's best, a dazzling look at a day in the life of 9-year-old Max (Max Records). Jonze and Eggers do a stunning job of capturing just how mercurial a child's emotions can be; Max goes from delight to tears in the blink of an eye. And when it is time for Max's journey to begin, he actually runs away from home, and we see him travel across the sea in a small boat.

The Wild Things of the movie are not the wordless creatures of Sendak's book. These Wild Things have names, personalities, emotional challenges -- they aren't so much Sendak's Wild Things as they are six monsters in search of a therapist. They are all unhappy; one of their first questions to Max before they crown him their king is "will you make the unhappiness go away."

The Wild Things are played by actors in giant costumes; their facial expressions were added by CGI after filming; and a different set of actors provides their voices. And an impressive voice cast it is, too. Catherine O'Hara and Forest Whitaker are bossy Judith and her henpecked husband Ira; Lauren Ambrose is disenchanted teen K.W., longing to break free of this community and make new friends. Paul Dano is the goat-like Alexander, the smallest of the Wild Things, who perpetually feels ignored; Chris Cooper is Douglas, the sycophant who's willing to be right-hand man to whoever seems to be in charge at the moment.

Best of is James Gandolfini as Carol, the closest thing the Wild Things have to a leader. Carol is prone to wild mood swings and destructive of rage; in a good mood, he can be a kind and compassionate father figure, but everyone is always at least a little bit afraid of him. When big stars are cast to do voice work, they often fall flat because they aren't able to bring sufficient energy to their characters using only their voice; that never happens with Gandolfini, who easily captures the wide range of Carol's shifting moods.

I suppose that those who demand that their adaptations be absolutely faithful will hate this movie, but I've never been one of those. (Don't tell me the book was ruined; the book is right there on your shelf, and you can re-read it anytime you want to.) This movie isn't exactly Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, but it's a marvelous collaboration between two generations of artists, and a spectacular work in its own right.

MOVIES: The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)

Near the beginning of a relatively minor FBI investigation into agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland, mid-level executive Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) approaches the FBI and tells them that he has evidence of price-fixing and other crimes far more serious than what they're looking into. Thus begins a crazed journey, in which Whitacre's FBI handlers (played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) struggle to figure out whether he's the biggest whistle-blower they've ever seen, or the cleverest con man.

Based on a true story, The Informant! takes its cues from Whitacre's own personality, and is itself impossible to pin down as a movie. The story is a relatively straight drama, but Soderbergh keeps giving us cues that don't fit with that. Take the score, for instance, which is Marvin Hamlisch's first feature film score in thirteen years. It has a very mid-70s feel to it (despite the story taking place in the 90s), and alternates between overly dramatic action cues that feel like something from Barnaby Jones and goofy comic cues that seem to have been pulled from a lost George Segal comedy. And in neither case -- action or comic -- does what's actually happening on the screen ever quite match the intensity of Hamlisch's musical suggestions.

The cast is also an odd mix. Damon is surrounded by actors better known for their TV work, or as comics; the supporting players include Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt, Rick Overton, Melanie Lynskey, and both Smothers Brothers. Damon is the only full-fledged Movie Star in the movie, and whether by the limitations of their talent or by Soderbergh's design, none of his co-stars can command the screen the way he does.

So Damon's the major presence in the movie (and not just because his character is the protagonist), and we're desperately trying to identify with him, and to see this story through his eyes. But Soderbergh and Damon work so hard to distance us from Whitacre by having his motives constantly seem to be shifting, and by making it clear through Damon's voice-over of Whitacre's internal monologues that Whitacre is at least slightly emotionally unbalanced, that we're left with no character we can truly identify with.

With no character, no tone, no style to cling to as a throughline to carry the audience through the movie, I was left floundering for much of it. The movie is never dull, and Damon's performance has some spectacular moments in it as well, but neither the movie nor the performance ever comes together as a coherent whole.

October 29, 2009

MOVIES: Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

This movie never had a full-fledged commercial release, but it's been playing the festival circuit for the last year or two, and is now available on DVD (or for free viewing at Paley's website).

It's an animated movie, telling multiple stories in multiple animation styles. The bulk of the story is the tragic love of Sita and Rama (tragic mostly for poor Sita, I'm afraid), a tale from the Ramayana, the Indian book of stories and legends. ("It's probably just about as true as any of the stories in the Bible," says one of the movie's narrators.) The Sita story is animated in a flat 2-D style that's somewhat reminiscent of the faux-paper-cutouts of South Park, but with a much brighter color palette -- think Persian rugs and Indian tapestries -- and characters who are much more sharply geometrically defined. Sita herself is all curves and circles, a South Asian Betty Boop.

The Sita story is counterpointed against the autobiographical story of the breakup of Paley's own relationship, and that story is animated in yet another style, a deliberately scratchy hand-drawn look.

There's relatively little dialogue in the Sita story; instead, it's narrated for us by three contemporary Indians. They get some time on-screen, and they are animated as Indonesian shadow puppets against a backdrop of figures and images from contemporary commercial art. The narrators provide much of the movie's humor, especially as they bicker about the precise details of the story; the Sita tale is an old one, after all, and none of them can quite remember exactly what part is played by every minor character who pops up.

That lack of dialogue doesn't mean that Sita doesn't have a voice, though. Her thoughts are expressed in song, using late 20s jazz/blues recordings by Annette Hanshaw; we hear Sita sing standards like "Mean to Me" and "Lover Come Back to Me," along with relative obscurities like the delightful "If You Want the Rainbow, You Must Have the Rain."

Whichever story is being told, whichever animation style is being featured, Paley's storytelling is crisp and witty, and she's very clever at finding ways to turn the limitations of her chosen styles into advantages. She gets some nice visual punchlines, for instance, from the fact that Sita and her fellow characters can't really move towards us or away from us, only side to side in the same plane. She's constantly surprising us, whether with the cold bluntness of the breakup e-mail sent by Nina's boyfriend, or with an intermission during which her characters sneak out from behind the movie screen to use the restroom or run to the snack bar.

Sita Sings the Blues is a delight, a charming take on an old story that is probably unfamiliar to most Americans (it certainly was to me). And since it's not going to cost you anything to watch it, you don't have any excuse not to, do you?

October 22, 2009

MOVIES: An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)

Yes, everything you've heard about Carey Mulligan's star-making performance is true. She's spectacular here, and in a role that demands a wide emotional range, she never makes a false step.

Mulligan stars as Jenny, who is 16 as the movie opens. It's the early 1960s in London, and Jenny is desperate for her childhood to end and for her real life to begin. So when she meets the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), she leaps at the romance despite their age difference. She likes David, but as much as anything, Jenny is in love with what David represents -- sophistication, travel, wealth, a casually weary "been there, done that" attitude about life. When she learns that David earns his living in ways that are, at best, unethical, she brushes that aside as the cost of entering his exciting adult world.

Similarly, David isn't so much in love with Jenny herself as with her innocence and eagerness. Sarsgaard plays the role with a hint of sadness throughout; he's aware from the very beginning that this relationship isn't going to last for long (for reasons that go well beyond the obvious), and that Jenny will ultimately have her heart broken.

The supporting cast is very strong. Alfred Molina shines as Jenny's father, who is just as taken in by David's manipulative charm as Jenny is. Rosamund Pike is quite funny as Helen, the girlfriend of David's best friend; Helen may not be the most worldly of women, but she does what she can to protect Jenny from David's worst excesses. Olivia Williams has been made up and costumed to be unrecognizably dowdy as Jenny's favorite teacher, and Emma Thompson has a spectacular cameo as her headmistress.

But it's Mulligan's picture. She's on screen in almost every scene, and captures every nuance of Jenny's emotions, from her initial boredom to the thrill of first love, from the fear and excitement of her first sexual experience to the overwhelming pain when the relationship ends. She will certainly be one of the front-runners for all of the major awards this year. (It was announced today that Sarsgaard will be campaigned in the Supporting Actor category, which is nonsense -- his is clearly a lead role -- and which will likely hurt Molina's chances of being nominated in that category.)

Nick Hornby's screenplay, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, is sharp and funny, and allows all of the characters to be fully human; there are no perfect saints or total villains on hand. The period music is well chosen and helps to keep the audience firmly located in time; Floyd Cramer's "On the Rebound" was a particularly inspired choice for the opening credits, and it sets the tone perfectly for the opening scenes.

First-rate work from everyone involved; recommended wholeheartedly.

October 21, 2009

BOOKS: A Date You Can't Refuse, Harley Jane Kozak (2009)

4th in the Wollie Shelley series of light mysteries.

In this volume, Wollie is offered a job by Yuri Milos with his company Medias Rex, which helps newcomers to America -- athletes, singers, models, and the like -- get accustomed to American life and media. She's reluctant to take the job as "dating consultant" to Yuri's male clients, but designing greeting cards isn't the most steady income, and Yuri is offering her lots of money. So when she's approached by an FBI agent who wants her to take the job and report back on what she learns about Yuri's business (and who has just enough leverage over her to make her take the job), she goes undercover as a spy in the Milos family compound. Her boyfriend, Simon (who happens to be an FBI agent himself), is none too happy that Wollie's put herself in such danger, and her pals Joey and Fredreeq are urging her to get out as fast as she can.

Their fears seem to be justified. It's clear very quickly that someone's up to no good at Medias Rex, but it's not clear who, and it's even less clear what. There are ample suspects -- Yuri's extended family includes a couple of ex-wives, an ex-mother-in-law, and two children; and there are half a dozen clients on hand, most of them from eastern Europe -- and Wollie stumbles across evidence hinting at everything from arms dealing to movie piracy.

Kozak's style is light and bubbly; she's often compared to Janet Evanovich, who blurbs this one on the cover. (For what it's worth, I find Evanovich insufferably precious and twinkly, but I like Kozak very much.) Wollie is an engaging narrator, with a dry wit and just enough cynicism to give her a pleasant edge.

The usual cast of supporting characters is on hand -- in addition to Joey and Fredreeq, there's Wollie's schizophrenic brother P.B. and philosophical Uncle Theo -- and though they aren't given quite as much to do in this volume as usual, they have their moments. Most notably, everyone gets to shine in a terrific chapter set at a Santa Barbara chalk art festival at which everybody is on hand -- several of Wollie's Medias Rex clients, pals, relatives, both of the FBI men -- all of them with conflicting agendas.

A Date You Can't Refuse stands on its own perfectly well; there are a few brief references to events in earlier volumes, but nothing that's essential to following or enjoying this one. It's a likable piece of very well-crafted fluff.

October 20, 2009

BOOKS: This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper (2009)

Judd Foxman's father has died, and it was his dying request that his family follow the Jewish custom of sitting shiva for him. This brings the Foxman family together for the first time in years, forcing them to spend seven days living together.

It's been a rough few months for Judd, even before his father's death. He's separated from his wife, after finding her in bed with his boss, and is living in a dingy basement apartment. And on the very day of the death, his soon-to-be ex has told him that she's pregnant.

The rest of the Foxman clan is only marginally in better shape. Big brother Paul now runs the family business, and still resents Judd, whom he blames for the injury that ruined his chances of a career in baseball. Wendy, his sister, has a husband who ignores her and children she can't seem to control. And youngest brother Phillip, the black sheep of the family, arrives with his new girlfriend, a therapist who's several years older than he is. Their mother is the author of a popular how-to book on parenting, who nevertheless often seems clueless about the problems of her own children, and is prone to revealing far too many personal details about her life and theirs to anyone who'll listen.

All of that may sound like the setup for a depressing book about dysfunctional families and death and mortality, but This Is Where I Leave You, though it doesn't ignore the sadness and the pain the Foxmans are going through, is a wildly funny book. Tropper has a gift for summing up characters and situations with sharp one-liners; Judd describes Phillip, for instance, as "the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead." The moment when Judd discovers his wife and boss in bed -- he's carrying her birthday cheesecake, lit with many candles -- is a magnificent comic bit, and later on, Tropper gives us what may be the best description ever put to paper of what it feels like to be kicked in the balls:

First there's nothing. A surprising amount of nothing actually. No pain at all, just white noise and the shock of having been hit there, in your softest of places. And because the pain has yet to arrive, you dare to hope that it won't come at all, that the impact was less direct than you first thought. And then it comes, like thunder on the heels of lightning, at first just a faint rumble, a low, steady hum of discomfort. If it were a musical note, it would be one of those bottom bass notes they use in horror films to creat an ominous sense of dread, of dark, fanged things hiding, poised to spring. It's a loaded hum, because you know a note that low has only one direction to go. And as you feel the dull, pulsating pain emanating from the center of your being, from your core, you think to yourself, I can handle this, this is nothing, I can kick this pain's ass, and that's the exact instant that you find yourself suddenly on your knees, doubled over and gasping, with no memory at all of how you got there. And now the pain is everywhere -- in your groin, your gut, your kidneys, the tightly flexed muscles of your lower back where you didn't even think you had muscles. Your body is tensed too hard to breathe right so your lungs are constricted, and you're drooling because your head is hanging, and your heart can't pump your rushing blood fast enough, and you can feel yourself teetering, but you have no muscles left to correct with, so you end up collapsing onto your side, your nerves fusing together into knotted coils of anguish, your eyeballs turned up into your skull like you've grabbed hold of a live wire in the rain.

But all the great descriptions and jokes would be wasted if Tropper hadn't given us such richly detailed characters; in addition to the five Foxmans, there are a handful of supporting characters who are, in surprisingly little time, drawn so vividly that you'd like to follow them off into stories of their own. This is a spectacularly good book, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

October 15, 2009

BOOKS: The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness (2009)

The first volume in this series (The Knife of Never Letting Go, which I commented on here) was a winner of this year's Tiptree Award, given to the work of science fiction or fantasy that best addresses gender issues, and this new installment continues to deal with those issues in fascinating ways.

Teens Todd and Viola, fleeing the army that's been chasing them ever since Todd left Prentisstown, arrive in Haven, where they believe that they'll be safe. Alas, Mayor Prentiss has gotten there first and conquered Haven (it would be more accurate to say that the residents of Haven have capitulated without the least bit of struggle), which he has renamed New Prentisstown. He's also declared himself to be not merely the Mayor, but the President. Todd and Viola continue to think of him as the Mayor, and that's how I'll refer to him here.

Todd and Viola are separated -- the Mayor ultimately separates the entire town by gender, quarantining the men and women in separate districts -- and put to work. Todd doesn't want to help the Mayor's occupying army, but the Mayor has somehow developed the ability to control his Noise (the constant undercurrent of his thoughts, which is audible in men and some animals; women don't generate Noise) and use it as a weapon, giving him more control over his underlings.

There is, eventually, a rebellion against Mayor Prentiss; a group calling itself The Answer begins bombing key facilities as part of a guerrilla war against his occupation. And that's when the book gets very dark indeed, exploring issues of torture, terrorism, and genocide.

Ness is skilled at giving us characters who are neither entirely good nor evil. The Mayor is certainly the villain (and a fine one he is, too), but there are moments when his rhetoric is compelling and seductive; Mistress Coyle, who heads the Answer, is justified in her cause, but the reader can reasonably wonder if her tactics aren't sometimes more violent and bloodthirsty than is absolutely required.

The relationship between Todd and Viola continues to deepen, a pretty nifty trick on Ness's part, given that the characters are kept apart for the vast majority of the book, and the strength of their bond plays a key role in the climax of the story.

As for that climax? Well, just as in the first installment of the series, Ness ends things mid-stream without really resolving any of the ongoing storylines; the feel of the series isn't so much a trilogy -- three separate stories -- as it is of one novel that was simply too large to publish without breaking it into pieces (this volume runs just over 500 pages). But there are new plotlines established for the next volume; two new groups of players arrive on the scene in the final pages, and their presence is going to complicate the existing guerrilla war immensely.

Don't be put off by the fact that Ness's series is written for the young adult market; this is top-notch stuff, and is deep and complex enough to satisfy any adult reader.

October 14, 2009

BOOKS: Devil's Trill, Gerald Elias (2009)

The Grimsley Competition is held only once every 13 years, and only violinists under the age of 13 are allowed to enter. The winner gets to perform at Carnegie Hall on the legendary Piccolino Stradivarius, a 3/4 scale violin with a particularly beautiful tone and a cursed history. But this year's winner may not get that opportunity, because on the night of the competition, the Piccolino is stolen.

Our amateur detective is Daniel Jacobus, a cantankerous violin teacher who had to give up his own performing career after losing his eyesight. 52 years earlier, he had entered the Grimsley himself, and harbors great resentment towards the competition for a variety of reasons. That resentment, of which he has made no secret, makes him a leading suspect in the theft. Daniel hopes to prove that the Piccolino was stolen by one of the members of the organization that organizes the Grimsley, many of whom have a financial interest in the success of the competition's young winners.

The story here is a good one, and the mystery is entertaining. Daniel's sidekicks, insurance investigator Nathaniel Williams and young violin student Yumi Shinagawa, are well-drawn characters, and the interplay among the three is often quite amusing. But the prose is painfully clunky and leaden, and Jacobus too often serves as a mere mouthpiece for what are clearly Elias' own grumpy views about the world of classical music (Competitions, bad! Competitions for the young, evil!).

A very mixed bag here. There's just enough good that I'm curious to see what Elias does next (the jacket copy says this is the first of a series), but if his writing skills don't catch up to his plotting skills, I won't stick with him for long.

October 11, 2009

TV: Three Rivers (CBS, Sun 9)

Transplant surgeons are the focus of this medical drama, which presents a formidable dramatic obstacle: Every episode must begin with a death in order for there to be any organs to transplant. Given our preference for seeing lives saved in medical shows, this makes the final outcome of the show's transplant stories fairly predictable. How depressing would it be, after all, if someone's attempt to save lives by being an organ donor is a failure? Not only have we seen the donor's death, but the show's now going to end with the recipient's death as well; this is not exactly the uplifting stuff of which the American medical drama is made.

So if the medical stories are going to be relatively predictable, the show's going to have to rely on interesting characters and office soap opera for its drama; based on the pilot, it doesn't really have that going for it, either. Our hero is Dr. Andy Yablonski (Alex O'Loughlin), who is (according to one of his patients) "the best transplant surgeon at the best transplant hospital in the country." CBS seems determined, for whatever reason, to make O'Loughlin a star, bringing him back in Three Rivers after the flop two years of Moonlight. He's attractive and noble and charming, everything that you want your medical-drama star doctor to be, but there's a blandness to him, a lack of charisma and star quality.

He has a sidekick surgeon, David Lee (Daniel Henney, who if you ask me, is the real hottie on the show); there's a grouchy hospital administrator (Alfre Woodard, whose presence saves the show from complete mediocrity), a wise nurse (Justina Machado, whose longing to be back on Six Feet Under with a real character to play is almost palpable), and a non-transplant surgeon (Katharine Moennig) who is meant to give the show its female sex appeal and will almost surely wind up in bed with Dr. Andy just in time for November sweeps.

The show's most inexplicable character is the young transplant coordinator, Ryan (Christopher J. Hanke), who is so spectacularly ignorant of transplant basics ("You mean you can transplant half a liver?") and ethics that it's impossible to understand how he'd ever have gotten such a job. His ignorance is dramatically useful -- he gives the doctors someone to whom they can explain all of the things that we in the audience might not know about transplants -- but so far-fetched that I winced every time he came on screen to say something idiotic.

It's not a ghastly show -- it's certainly better than Mercy or Trauma, the season's other new medical dramas -- but ER raised the bar for the medical half of the equation, and Grey's Anatomy did the same for the soap-opera half, and Three Rivers falls short on both counts. It's got a nice cushy time slot between The Amazing Race and Cold Case, which will be enough to keep it around for a season or two.

October 10, 2009

MOVIES: A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

Things are not going well for Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). One of his students is trying simultaneously to blackmail him and to bribe him in hopes of getting a better grade; his 12-year-old son is more interested in pot and the Jefferson Airplane than in his upcoming bar mitzvah; the Columbia Record Club is dunning him for records he swears he didn't buy; his depressed brother (Richard Kind) has moved in and has no interest in finding a job or an apartment. So it's less of a shock that it should be when Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces that she wants a divorce. (Her new boyfriend, Sy, is played by Fred Melamed in the movie's best performance; Sy is the sort of "let's all be adults" guy whose calm drone and refusal to get upset about anything are his most vicious weapons.)

A Serious Man is as bleak and unhopeful a comedy as you'll ever see. As one misery after another is heaped upon poor Larry Gopnik, it begins to feel like a cosmic variation on the Coens' No Country for Old Men, with God playing the Anton Chigurh role. That is, if there even is a God, which is a question that the Coens leave very much up for grabs. One of the rabbis Larry turns to for spiritual guidance tells him a long shaggy-dog story that ends with the punchline "Who cares?," which seems to be the central question of the movie; the answer, more often than not, is "nobody."

The Coens get more and more nihilistic with every movie, more and more convinced that the universe is cruel and forbidding, and that we are powerless to control it. A Serious Man feels to me almost like the final (and angriest) installment of a trilogy. No Country for Old Men told us that there is evil in the world, and you can't stop it; Burn Before Reading simply replaced "evil" with "stupidity." A Serious Man offers even less hope: There is suffering in the world, and not only can't you stop it, but if you try, you're only going to piss God off and make things worse.

I admire the craftsmanship of the movie -- Roger Deakins' cinematography is fine, and the movie's recreation of 60s suburbia is impeccable -- and the performances are consistently good. But it's so relentlessly bleak a vision of the world that it's difficult to enjoy, and the choice to make it a comedy is disconcerting; the story of Job isn't meant to be a sitcom.

October 08, 2009

BOOKS: Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins (2009)

Sequel to The Hunger Games, about which I commented here.

The grand gesture which Katniss made in a desperate attempt to save both herself and her friend Peeta at the end of the previous book has worked, and most people seem to have interpreted it as she'd hoped -- as the desperate act of a young woman in love. President Snow, however, is not convinced, and tells Katniss that if she and Peeta still haven't convinced him of their love by the end of their victory tour through the 12 Districts and the Capitol, there will be much trouble in store.

It becomes clear during that tour, however, that trouble is already brewing. Some people have interpreted Katniss's actions as a gesture of outright rebellion against the Capitol, and there are already signs of unrest and potential revolution in some districts. At first, Katniss wants nothing to do with this; she certainly doesn't want to be a symbol of the rebellion. But when President Snow stacks the deck in order to send Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games for a second time, she begins to realize that revolution may be the only way to save herself, her friends and family, and perhaps even her nation.

Collins takes a big risk, I think, by devoting the second half of the book to yet another Hunger Games, but she finds enough new twists and variations on that formula to keep that part of the story entertaining. I do hope, though, that she won't go back to that well in the final volume of the trilogy.

Her characters continue to grow and deepen in unexpected ways. Haymitch, who is Katniss's mentor in the Games, takes on some particularly surprising shadings in this volume of the series. Katniss herself is still a marvelous protagonist, an immensely likable mix of street smarts and naivete, and her surprise and delight at how quickly she adapts to the rapidly changing world around her is a pleasure to watch.

The Hunger Games series is a genuine trilogy, and not simply one novel that was too big for three books; the principal storylines of the book are brought to a satisfying conclusion. There are, of course, plot points to be resolved in the final volume, and the last sentence gives us a spectacular bombshell of a revelation that will surely drive the action to come.

These books are written for the young adult market, but adult readers who enjoy a good post-apocalyptic dystopia will also enjoy them.

October 05, 2009

BOOKS: Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson (2009)

From the "if this goes on" sub-genre of SF comes this tale set in the late 22nd century, in a United States that has suffered technological collapse (when the oil finally ran out), but expanded to include most of North America. We're at war with the Europeans in Labrador, and though the enemy is never specified, the Army of the Californias is fighting on the West Coast.

The influence of the religious right on our government has been solidified; the Air Force Academy has been converted (because you don't have any need for an air force when you can't fly planes) into the headquarters of the Dominion, the military/religious organization that approves churches, consults on all important government decisions, and issues its seal of approval on acceptable publications.

The Presidency is now dynastic, handed down from one family member to the next. Our title character, Julian Comstock, is the nephew of the current president; they have been estranged ever since Uncle Deklan had his war-hero brother (Julian's father) killed for fear of being deposed. When Julian is suddenly drafted into the Army of the Laurentians and sent to Labrador, it looks as if he may face the same fate.

The story is told in the form of a memoir by Julian's best friend, Adam Hazzard. Adam's narrative voice has a delightfully old-fashioned air of formality. Take, for instance, this footnote:

Julian's somewhat feminine nature had won him a reputation among the other young Aristos as a sodomite. That they could believe this of him without evidence is testimony to the tenor of their thoughts, as a class. But it had occasionally redounded to my benefit. On more than one occasion his female acquaintances -- sophisticated girls of my own age, or older -- made the assumption that I was Julian's intimate companion, in a physical sense. Whereupon they undertook to cure me of my deviant habits, in the most direct fashion. I was happy to cooperate with these "cures," and they were successful, every time.

As is the nature of "if this goes on" stories, there's a touch of didacticism to it, and there doesn't seem to be much doubt about Wilson's own politics, or how he feels about, for instance, the rise of the Dominion. (It's interesting to imagine the same story re-told by a more right-wing author, perhaps from Deklan's point of view.)

The characters are compelling, the story is entertaining -- I particularly enjoyed a passage in which Julian brings his theatrical expertise to the battlefield -- and Wilson's imagined future is a vivid one; the road from here to there seems all too plausible.

October 03, 2009

TV: The Middle (ABC, Wed 8:30)

"The middle" is that part of America sometimes called "fly-over country," the part that often feels ignored by the big-city dwellers on the coasts. In this case, to be specific, it's Orson, Indiana, home of the Heck family.

As a sitcom title, The Middle is also inescapably reminiscent of Malcolm in the Middle, which this show resembles in broad outline -- harried mother, father laid-back almost to the point of oblivion, three oddball kids.

Mom in this case is Frankie (Patricia Heaton, pounding the Midwestern accent just a bit too hard), struggling to balance raising those three kids with her job at Orson's only remaining car dealership. Husband Mike (Neil Flynn, clearly relishing the chance to play someone a bit closer to normal than Scrubs' Janitor) means well, but has a gift for saying precisely the wrong thing in remarkably charming fashion.

Two of the kids are relatively standard issue sitcom kids -- sullen son Axl (Charlie McDermott) and misfit daughter Sue (Eden Sher), who's on the verge of setting a school record for most failed attempts to make an extracurricular team.

But then there's Brick (Atticus Shaffer), whose teachers can't make up their minds whether he's just quirky or "clinically quirky." Given to whispering random words to himself for no apparent reason, and not caring at all (or even aware of, really) what people think of his odd behavior, he's a fabulous character, and if The Middle does well enough to stick around, Shaffer will be one of the breakout stars of the new season. (The show's Malcolm overtones are only furthered by Shaffer's resemblance to Erik Per Sullivan, who played eccentric youngest child Dewey on that show.)

I never much cared for Heaton during her days on Everybody Loves Raymond, but she's very good here, and my earlier lack of enthusiasm may well have had more to do with my distaste for that show than for her in particular. The Middle is well written and the cast is likable. It may not be breaking any new sitcom ground, but I'll take solid professional work over the sort of laziness you see on shows like Brothers any day.

October 01, 2009

TV: Hank (ABC, Wed 8)

Why do Kelsey Grammer's sitcoms always begin with him returning home?

Frasier Crane was coming back to Seattle from Boston; news anchor Chuck Darling (in Back to You) was returning to Pittsburgh after humiliating himself on Los Angeles TV; and here, ex-CEO Hank Pryor leaves New York and returns to River Bend, Virginia, where he founded his first store and met his wife. (With The Cleveland Show, that's two "back home to Virginia" shows in one season.)

Hank and Tilly (Melinda McGraw) have two kids -- eccentric 9-year-old Henry (Nathan Gamble) and grumpy teen Maddie (Jordan Hinson, playing younger, dumber, and louder than she did on Eureka); Tilly's the only one who's remotely happy about going back home, and even she'd be happier if they were returning with some of the money they used to have.

Tilly's brother Grady (David Koechner) is delighted to see them, though, especially because he gets to gloat over Hank's collapse. He's a contractor, and clearly one of the show's running jokes will be his semi-incompetent attempts to get their new home up to standard. He's an uncomfortably broad hick caricature, and he doesn't fit with the relatively realistic tone set by the rest of the characters (realistic by sitcom standards); it's as if Mr. Kimball from Green Acres suddenly appeared on the set of Home Improvement.

Home Improvement is very much the type of show we have here -- bumbling dad who's not that good at the family stuff, mom who runs things, adorable sitcom kids -- and if you like that sort of thing, it's done tolerably well here. Grammer is still (as always) playing another slight variation on Frasier -- pompous, out of touch, self-important, but well-intentioned -- but it's a role that he plays to perfection with surprising nuance.

Hardly essential TV, but not the disaster that many of the critics have made it out to be, either.

TV: Trauma (NBC, Mon 9)

Every year, during the annual Fall New TV Marathon, I allow myself to give up on one (but only one) show before the first episode is finished. I think of it as my annual "life's just too damned short" moment, and this year, that moment belonged to Trauma.

As the show opens, a bunch of beautiful young EMTs and helicopter pilots are involved in a San Francisco rooftop rescue that goes tragically wrong. I was sort of interested at this point; I would have enjoyed seeing how people in those jobs react in the aftermath of such a horrific incident. But the show doesn't want to tell that story; it leaps ahead a year, thinking for some reason that people living with the relatively distant memory of pain will be more interesting than people in the midst of it.

Not that I'm a sadistic bastard who wants to see TV characters suffer or anything, but if you're in the storytelling business, it seems stupid to take the less dramatically interesting option.

Anyhoo, after the "one year later" leap, our beautiful young cast is immediately involved in another gigantic rescue, a massive highway pileup this time, complete with exploding oil truck. (Has an oil truck ever been shown in a TV show as a simple part of routine traffic? I don't think so. If you see an oil truck, you know there's a fireball a-comin'.)

And since the "that blowed up real good" genre of entertainment has never been my favorite, I bailed on Trauma.

(One interesting note: The pilot episodes of both Trauma and FlashForward featured images of helicopters crashing into skyscrapers. Not quite as horrific as jet planes crashing into the World Trade Center, I realize, but still, it's something you wouldn't have seen on network TV two years ago.)

TV: The Cleveland Show (Fox, Sun 8:30)

Spinoff from Family Guy, in which Cleveland Brown (voiced by Mike Henry), tired of being overlooked and not taken seriously, packs up with 13-year-old Cleveland Jr.(Kevin Michael Richardson) and leaves Quahog. They wind up in Cleveland's home town (Stoolbend, Virginia), where Cleveland reunites with and marries high school sweetheart, Donna (Sanaa Lathan). She's got two kids of her own, which makes them "the black Brady Bunch," says Cleveland, "except that I'm not a gay architect and my son's not sleeping with my wife."

Some of creator Seth MacFarlane's trademarks are immediately recognizable -- the many pop culture references, the talking animals (Cleveland's new neighbors are bears, voiced by MacFarlane and Arianna Huffington) -- but the show has a sweeter tone than either Family Guy or American Dad. It may be the first MacFarlane show in which the central family actually seems to love one another. There are also a lot fewer cutaways to non-sequitur jokes than there are on Family Guy, which is disappointing if you like Family Guy and a huge relief if you don't.

I am a big fan of Family Guy, and I kinda miss the cutaways and the meandering "plot? what plot?" style. I'm curious, though, to see what a MacFarlane show with more conventional plotting looks like (and I'm weirdly delighted by the prospect of Arianna Huffington as Mrs. Bear), so I'll keep watching for a few weeks.

September 28, 2009

In the Broadsheet blog at Salon, Kate Harding says everything that needs to be said about Roman Polanski and his apologists.

Roman Polanski raped a child. Let's just start right there, because that's the detail that tends to get neglected when we start discussing whether it was fair for the bail-jumping director to be arrested at age 76, after 32 years in "exile" (which in this case means owning multiple homes in Europe, continuing to work as a director, marrying and fathering two children, even winning an Oscar, but never -- poor baby -- being able to return to the U.S.). Let's keep in mind that Roman Polanski gave a 13-year-old girl a Quaalude and champagne, then raped her, before we start discussing whether the victim looked older than her 13 years, or that she now says she'd rather not see him prosecuted because she can't stand the media attention. Before we discuss how awesome his movies are or what the now-deceased judge did wrong at his trial, let's take a moment to recall that according to the victim's grand jury testimony, Roman Polanski instructed her to get into a jacuzzi naked, refused to take her home when she begged to go, began kissing her even though she said no and asked him to stop; performed cunnilingus on her as she said no and asked him to stop; put his penis in her vagina as she said no and asked him to stop; asked if he could penetrate her anally, to which she replied, "No," then went ahead and did it anyway, until he had an orgasm.

Can we do that? Can we take a moment to think about all that, and about the fact that Polanski pled guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, before we start talking about what a victim he is? Because that would be great, and not nearly enough people seem to be doing it.

September 27, 2009

TV: FlashForward (ABC, Thur 8)

Based very loosely on a novel by Robert J. Sawyer, here's ABC's attempt to create a successor to Lost, which begins its final season in January.

We begin with a dramatic event: Everyone in the world blacks out for two minutes and seventeen seconds, and has a vision of their future. All of the visions, it seems, are of the same time -- 10 pm Pacific, April 29, 2010 (which just happens to be the Thursday night that kicks off the May sweeps period).

Three FBI agents are assigned to the case. Mark (Joseph Fiennes) had a vision that showed him working on it, and apparently close to a breakthrough; his partner Demetri (John Cho) is one of the few who didn't have a vision, which he assumes means that he won't be alive on April 29. Janis (Christine Woods) is the best analyst in the FBI's Los Angeles office.

There is a certain amount of soap opera to some of the visions; Mark sees himself drinking heavily again, and his wife Olivia (Sonya Walger) sees herself romantically involved with another man.

FlashForward is very clearly targeting the Lost audience; there's a billboard for Oceanic Airlines in the background of one scene, and as Mark wanders the chaotic streets of downtown LA immediately after the blackouts, we see a lone kangaroo hopping through the streets, very reminiscent of the polar bear from the Lost premiere.

The premise is a compelling one, and the cast is solid; Brian F. O'Bryne and Courtney B. Vance are also on hand, and Dominic Monaghan joins the show next week. What isn't quite there yet is a group of characters who are as intriguing as the premise; everyone's a bit cookie-cutter after the first episode. But I'm hopeful that they'll be better developed as we go along, and very excited about the possibilities for the show.

TV: Brothers (FOX, Fri 8)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the worst new show of the season!

The brothers of the title are Mike (Michael Strahan) and Chill (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell). Mike is a former NFL player forced to move in with his family in Houston after a crooked manager makes off with all of his money; Chill was perhaps an even better athlete when they were boys, but as a result of a drunk driving accident, now uses a wheelchair. Their father, "Coach" (Carl Weathers), is the local high school football coach, and mother Adele (CCH Pounder) runs the household with an iron fist.

The show gets most of its jokes from its characters' infirmities; the wheelchair and Coach's apparent case of early-onset Alzheimer's are at the top of the list, but the gap between Strahan's front teeth is the subject of far more jokes than you'd think possible.

Strahan actually is a former NFL player, and this is his first significant acting role; somewhat surprisingly, he's not the worst thing about the show, and if given a smaller role in a show with better writing, he might develop into a perfectly competent sitcom actor.

No, the worst thing about the show -- and it pains me to say this -- is the normally reliable CCH Pounder, who has done fine work in shows like The Shield and ER. But this is her first major sitcom role, and she seems to think that being funny means being loud; she clubs the audience over the head with every punchline.

That's not entirely her fault, I suppose, since the entire program -- writing, directing, acting -- lacks any sense of subtlety. There is one scene, in which we learn that Chill blames Mike for that auto accident, that comes tantalizingly close to real emotion, but it's certainly not enough to redeem the show, which is a trashy and obnoxious mess.

TV: Mercy (NBC, Wed 8)

Imagine that you took Showtime's Nurse Jackie, replaced all of the actors with less talented ones, drained the show of all its humor, stretched the episodes from 30 to 60 minutes, and played up the soap-opera elements. If you did that, you'd have Mercy.

The tough-hearted nurse at the center of Mercy is Ronnie (Taylor Schilling), an Iraq veteran who's torn between her lunk of a husband (Diego Klattenhoff), and the charming Dr. Sands (James Tupper), with whom she had an affair while in Iraq. There's an arrogant doctor (James LeGros) who ignores the nurses' advice, killing patients in the process. Ronnie has a sharp-tongued best friend (Jamie Lee Kirchner) who seems more interested in money than in anything else. There's even a naive new nurse (Michelle Trachtenberg) in Hello Kitty scrubs, and they've barely even bothered to change her name; on Nurse Jackie, she's Zoey, and here, she's Chloe.

Throw in a handful of gay male nurses (but as background characters, only, please) and an abrasive older woman in charge of the nursing staff (Margo Martindale, the only case in which the casting improves on Nurse Jackie), and you've got the worst case of cloning since the epidemic of House copies a few years back.

All of which would, of course, be forgivable if the show were any good, but it's not. The medical stories are tepid, and the characters aren't interesting enough to make the soap opera emotionally involving. Mercy isn't an aggressively bad show in the way that the already-cancelled The Beautiful Life was; it's just painfully mediocre and entirely unnecessary.

September 26, 2009

TV: Cougar Town (ABC, Wed 9:30)

Courtney Cox is Jules, a 40-year-old realtor trying to get back into the dating world after her recent divorce. She's got a teenage son (Dan Byrd) who's embarrassed by everything she does, especially her constant joking about her lack of a romantic life. "Why don't you laugh at my jokes?," she asks; "Because they make me sad," he answers.

Also on hand are Christa Miller as Jules' best friend, Busy Phillips as a fellow realtor, and Brian Van Holt as her ex-husband. As she often is, Miller is the best thing in the show, which would be immeasurably funnier if she were playing the lead.

The problem with Cox isn't so much that she isn't funny; she's perfectly up to the demands of the role. The problem is that she's still far too sexy to be this mopy woman, and Cox knows it. (Miller isn't unsexy, but she seems less convinced of that than Cox does, and Miller is far better at self-deprecating humor.)

Cougar Town isn't an awful show. It's probably good enough that I'll keep watching for another week or two in the hopes that it gels into something better, but it could just as easily collapse into an utter mess.

September 25, 2009

TV: Eastwick (ABC, Wed 10)

Eastwick is a quaint New England town that has always has legends of witches. (How quaint is Eastwick? It's precisely as quaint as Gilmore Girls' Stars Hollow, the set for which has become Eastwick; Luke's Diner is now the Eastwick Cafe.) As this episode opens, three women begin to discover their own powers as a mysterious man arrives in town.

Flaky sculptor Roxie (Rebecca Romijn) begins to have prophetic dreams; reliable nurse Kat (Jamie Ray Newman) has some sort of control over weather and nature; and insecure reporter Joanna (Lindsay Price) can make men do her bidding. The new man in town is Daryl Van Horne (Paul Gross), and his arrival triggers their latent powers into full bloom. He's arrogant and cocky, and as much as the women are repulsed by him, they can't deny that he's also got a sexy charm.

The women are a fairly standard TV trio -- a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead -- and their personalities as quickly sketched in the first episode aren't terribly distinctive or original. Price, for instance, is the one who wears glasses and a tight bun solely so that they can be removed for a "my god, but you're beautiful" moment.

But the actresses are all likable, and Gross is spot on as the lovably loathsome Daryl. This is another one that's worth keeping a hopeful eye on.

TV: The Good Wife (CBS, Tue 10)

The ads for this one suggest that it's going to be all about a political sex scandal, as told from the wife's point of view. That's the event that kicks off the story, certainly, with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) standing quietly in the background as Peter (Chris Noth, nicely cast in a role that brings his latent smarm to the forefront) confesses to a scandal involving several prostitutes.

But then we jump forward six months, Peter's now in prison, and Alicia's getting on with her life by going back to work as an attorney. No one takes her seriously -- she only had a couple of years of courtroom experience before retiring to raise kids and support Peter's political career -- but she's determined to make it work, and she may even have a mentor in one of the firm's senior partners, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, toning down the stuffy bitchiness a bit from her usual TV work).

Her strongest ally at the firm, though, seems likely to be the young investigator, Kalinda (Archie Panjabi); it certainly isn't the other newly hired associate, Cory (Matt Czuchry), because it turns out they're competing for the firm's only associate position, and one of them will be fired in six months.

So The Good Wife really isn't so much the sex scandal story, though that's constantly in the background; what we've got here is a legal drama with a heavy overlay of commentary about how women do and don't support one another against the old boys' network. Both Kalinda and Alicia are more than willing to use their femininity to get what they want, in very different ways. When they need to get info from a security guard, Kalinda undoes a button or two; "better than any subpoena," she says. And Alicia knows just how to play the "aren't men pigs" card to get the information she needs from a secretary.

Margulies is very good here, and she's got a wonderfully expressive face, particularly in the opening scene with Noth. Panjabi is likable and tough, and Czuchry plays privileged arrogance as well as any young actor on TV. There's also a nice guest role in the first episode for David Paymer, who plays a judge who does not suffer fools gladly, making you wish he'd do more acting and less TV directing.

I am a fan of legal dramas, and this one's got a solid cast and a different point of view. Lots of potential here.