May 25, 2009

MOVIES: Sunshine Cleaning (Christine Jeffs, 2009)

Stop me if you've heard this one:

There's this lovably quirky family living in the Southwest, and even though they bicker all the time, they really do love one another. So much so, in fact, that when one of them finds an unexpected route to possible success in life, the whole family piles into the creaky old van to support her. There's a talented cast of actors who are comfortable on both sides of the indie/studio divide, and look! There's Alan Arkin as the curmudgeonly patriarch who teaches life lessons -- most of them inappropriate -- to his adorable moppet of a grandchild. And a suicidal family member plays a key role in the action.

No, it's not Little Miss Sunshine, but it comes as close to it in style and tone as humanly possible. Unfortunately, it fails to tell an interesting story and leaves its talented cast stranded with nothing to do.

Emily Blunt and Amy Adams star as sisters who go into business together running a crime-scene cleanup service; Arkin is their father, who has a not very successful career as a distributor of giant metal tins of popcorn. And absolutely nothing of interest happens to any of them.

Oh, Adams has an affair with a local cop (Steve Zahn) and a sort of romantic fling with the guy who sells cleaning supplies (Clifton Collins, Jr.), and there's a strange subplot involving Blunt and the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of one of the dead women they're cleaning up after, in which it's never clear whether their relationship is supposed to be friendly, adversarial, or romantic.

But none of it works, and most of it is just annoying. It's a festival of quirk for quirk's sake. Not recommended.

MOVIES: Easy Virtue (Stephan Elliott, 2009)

Elliott's Noel Coward adaptation isn't going to win any awards, but has a nice breezy charm.

It's the late '20s, and John Whittaker has unexpectedly returned home to the family estate after some time spent traipsing around the Riviera; even more surprising than his return is the fact that he's newly married, and to an American, no less. Larita (Jessica Biel) isn't particularly trashy or vulgar by American standards, but to a proper British lady like John's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), she's a disgrace. Still, Mrs. Whittaker is delighted to have her son at home, and wants the couple to live there; Larita, a city girl at heart, wants to move to London as they'd planned.

What starts out as a battle for John's soul between Larita and Mrs. Whittaker takes some unexpected twists along the way, with lots of those marvelously bitchy Coward bon mots. Kristin Scott Thomas is splendid, as is Colin Firth as her husband. Ben Barnes isn't asked to do much more than be young, pretty, and naive, and he's entirely up to the task. The surprise is Jessica Biel, who is quite good here. She's not up to the level of Scott Thomas, to be sure, but she doesn't embarrass herself, and she has a pair of spotlight scenes -- one involving the family dog, and a tango at the annual Christmas party -- which she gets just right.

The score is mostly made up of songs from the era by Coward and Cole Porter, many of them sung (very nicely) by Biel or Barnes in performances that have been digitally scratched up to sound like period recordings. The opening and closing credit numbers deserve particular notice; Biel's "Mad About the Boy" opens the movie, and over the closing credits, we get a 20s-style arrangement of (of all things) Billy Ocean's "When the Going Gets Tough" that works surprisingly well.

May 22, 2009

BOOKS: Observatory Mansions, Edward Carey (2000)

Observatory Mansions was, in better days, the Orme family's country estate. But as the family's fortunes have declined and the nearby city has continued to sprawl, the building is now a decaying apartment building, situated on a traffic circle at the city's edge.

There are still Ormes living in Observatory Mansions. Francis shares one of the apartments with his elderly parents, venturing out only for necessary shopping and to work. He is a street performer; in a white suit and gloves (and Francis has, shall we say, an obsession with his white gloves), he performs as a "statue of whiteness" in the nearby park. It's a perfect job for Francis because it doesn't require him to actually speak to anyone.

And Francis, sad to say, is probably the least eccentric resident of Observatory Mansions (not that there are many left). They are lonely people who've removed themselves from the world -- Miss Higg to her television, Peter Bugg to the book he'll never finish writing. They are, therefore, horrified when a new tenant arrives, a woman who has the nerve to want to meet her new neighbors instead of leaving them alone.

Observatory Mansions is a masterpiece of tone; it just keeps getting stranger and eerier. Carey's characters are grotesque creations, but he presents them with such compassion and understanding that you find yourselves feeling for them even as you're completely creeped out by them. The world he creates is a weird and marvelous place, and while I'm sure that the novel won't be to everyone's taste, it's one of my favorites (this was a re-reading).

May 21, 2009

MOVIES: The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2009)

I loved Johnson's first film, the high-school noir Brick, so I had very high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, although there is much to admire, the film ultimately collapses under the weight of some very bad casting.

Let's start with the good. Johnson's story is entertaining. Our heroes, such as they are, are con men Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrian Brody), brothers who've been pulling scams since childhood. Stephen does all of the plotting of their cons, and Bloom has grown tired of having to play one role after another; he wants to retire to live "an unscripted life." But Stephen talks him into one final con. (Apparently, neither brother has ever read a book or watched a movie, or they'd know that the "one final" anything never actually works.)

Their target is the lovely Penelope (Rachel Weisz), an eccentric New Jersey heiress, and the con is an elaborate concoction involving medieval manuscripts, Russian mobsters, and traveling to one exotic destination after another. Stephen warns Bloom not to ruin things by falling for Penelope, but who could resist?

The movie looks marvelous. The locations are lovely and they're photographed beautifully (Steve Yedlin, cinematographer); the costumes (by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor) and set decoration (by Sophie Newman) are impeccable (it's a marvelous running joke that everyone is almost always wearing a black hat of some sort -- cloche, derby, top hat, fedora, sunbonnet). The score by Nathan Johnson (the director's cousin) isn't quite as gleefully eclectic as his work for Brick, but it's fine music that does much to enhance the mood of the movie

Now to the problem: What the brothers Bloom are attempting to pull off here isn't called a con game for no reason; it's supposed to be fun. A certain playfulness and lightness of spirit is called for in actors playing con men, and as talented as Ruffalo and Brody can be, they aren't the first names that come to mind when you think light, breezy comedy. Even given that Bloom doesn't really want to be here, and Stephen is tired of putting up with Bloom's moping, we still have to have the sense that these are men who could take pleasure in their craft and cleverness. Brody and Ruffalo don't give us that; they're glum from start to finish.

As if to compensate for their excessive gravity, Rachel Weisz ramps up the energy so much that what should play as lovable eccentricity comes across instead as frenzied and manic. I got tired watching her after a while.

There are moments and scenes of great wit and style to be found in The Brothers Bloom, but they can't float the way they should, weighed down as they are by Ruffalo and Brody. Worth watching when it comes to cable and DVD, but I can't recommend paying full price for it. Here's hoping that Johnson returns to form with his next movie.

May 20, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: year-end awards

By now, the folks on the east coast are about halfway through the overwrought festival of bad duets with celebrities that is the final Idol results show. That won't start here in California for another two hours, so let's take a few moments for the annual year-end awards. Only performances from the top 12 on are considered; the semifinalists aren't included.

Best performance: Kris, "Ain't No Sunshine" (2nd version)
Runner-up: Anoop, 'Always On My Mind"

Worst performance: Danny, "Dream On"
Runner-up: Megan, "Rockin' Robin"

Voted off too soon: Allison
Runner-up: No award; America mostly got it right this year

Lasted too long: Scott
Runner-up: Adam

Most disappointing: Lil, who clearly had the voice to be a contender, but never found her own style or (more important) away to please the judges.

Most pleasant surprise: Kris, who seemed at first to be this year's Jason Castro -- pleasant to look at, nice boy, harmless coffee-house vibe -- but proved to be a skillful interpreter and arranger who never got nearly as much credit from the judges for his originality as did The Chosen One, Adam Lambert.

May 19, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: The finals!

Well, it's not the Adam vs. Danny final the producers so desperately wanted, and it's not the Kris vs. Allison final we so richly deserved, but it is the most interesting final we could have gotten, and by far the sharpest contrast any Idol final has ever presented. It's pop against rock, understatement against flamboyance, sincerity against artifice, subtlety against bombast -- it's Kris against Adam, and THIS... the final rundown.

Round One: Something Old ...

Adam, "Mad World" -- I liked this better than his first performance of it, if only because he kept it almost entirely in his lower register this time, where we can actually hear him singing instead of screeching. This song really brings out his tendency to gasp for breath between phrases, though, and the drawback of being able to understand the lyrics this time around is that you notice how maudlin the song is, and that it's impossible to sing it without looking like a self-pitying 14-year-old. I wish he'd chosen "Tracks of My Tears" or "Feeling Good" instead.

Kris, "Ain't No Sunshine" -- Absolutely the right song choice; Kris's only other real option was the Kanye song from last week, and it wouldn't have been wise to do the same song twice in a row. The original was one of my favorite performances of the year, and I think this was just as good. It's an intense performance, and the dynamic shifts are beautifully done. The last note didn't really need to be a falsetto note -- again with Idol men and their falsetto obsession -- but at least it was in tune.

Round One to Kris, but it's closer than I'd have expected. Interesting to note that Kris's performance was as theatrical as he ever gets and Adam's was as understated as he ever gets; they meet in the middle between their usual styles, giving us the most direct comparison we've ever seen.

Round Two: ...Something New...

Adam, "A Change Is Gonna Come" -- I can understand why Fuller would choose this song for Adam; it certainly plays to his flair for the dramatic. But this is a song about determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and Adam simply doesn't project the world-weariness or the sense of having suffered that the song requires; the biggest obstacle this guy's ever faced is that Starbucks was out of blueberry muffins. The overdone vocal gymnastics in the second half don't help; they detract from the simplicity of the song's message.

Kris, "What's Going On" -- I wish he hadn't chosen to end it in essentially the same way he ended his first number -- big pause, dramatic final note -- but otherwise, that was a fine performance. The arrangement works well, though I think Kris is lucky that this is the last week of the competition; one more acoustic-guitar arrangement might make him start to seem like a one-trick pony. Not his best performance of the year, but after Adam's disappointing work in this round, it didn't need to be.

Round Two to Kris, by a comfortable margin.

Round Three: ... and an Idol Anthem, too!

Adam, "No Boundaries" -- I've been curious about this moment all week. For the first time, Adam was going to have to sing a crappy piece of Top 40 Pop that he wasn't allowed to re-arrange or re-invent, and I wondered whether he'd be able to do it. Well, he managed it, but he didn't look happy about it; this is the most tense and uncomfortable we've ever seen Adam. There are even a few notes badly out of key as the chorus enters near the end of the song (and whatever I may dislike about Adam, ptich has rarely been a problem for him). It's as good a performance as Adam could have given in a style so far from his comfort zone.

Kris, "No Boundaries" -- Oh dear. What a moment to have a really craptastic performance. Kris is pushing so hard to be heard over the band that his pitch is off and his tone is unusually harsh and unpleasant. There's not much to say, really -- it's a disaster on every level, and it's painful to sit through it.

Round Three to Adam, not so much for giving a good performance as for not sucking. I feel sorry for both guys, though, for having to sing that wretched song, which is surely one of the worst official Idol singles ever.

For the night: Kris, but damn, it's surprisingly close, as Adam spent much of the night proving that he could actually sing if he decided to.

For the season: Kris deserves it, and if the vote was really that close last week, then I think he'll win it, as the Danny Gokey vote is likely to break heavily in his favor over Adam. That last performance, though, just might have been awful enough to lose the whole thing for him.

May 18, 2009

MOVIES: Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

It's the Muppet Babies version of Star Trek, as we go back to the very beginning to see how Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise gang came together. Except that it's not quite the Enterprise gang we already knew, because Abrams cleverly re-boots the franchise by making this a time-travel story, thus creating an alternate history in which events are free to develop differently than they did in the original version.

The personalities are essentially the same, though, which poses a particularly nasty challenge for the actors -- how to evoke the original cast without falling into slavish imitation or caricature -- and most of the cast succeed very well. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock come off best (thank goodness, since they have the largest roles). Pine gets the cocky arrogance of Kirk just right, and Quinto's Spock is perfect as a young man who hasn't quite yet found the balance between his human and Vulcan sides.

As McCoy, Karl Urban gives the most cartoonish imitation of his predecessor, and Anton Yelchin's Chekov is embarassing, though in fairness, the script doesn't give him much more to do than a few "victor/wictor" accent jokes, so he's playing them for all they're worth (which isn't much).

Our villain this time is Eric Bana, as a pissed-off Romulan named Nero, who's traveled back in time to wreak vengeance on the men who destroyed his planet. Bana's trying to make Nero a larger-than-life figure, striving for the same sort of operatic tragic figure that Ricardo Montalban created in The Wrath of Khan, and he never quite gets there; all of his flailing about and yelling ultimately just seems a little silly.

But a Star Trek movie is never really about the bad guy, anyway; it's about the relationships among those core characters, and Abrams gets those relationships just right; Pine and Quinto have moments when you forget that you're not watching Shatner and Nimoy. The tone of the movie also captures the original series perfectly, with a precisely calibrated blend of earnestness, camaraderie, humor that walks the is-it-or-isn't-it line of deliberate campiness, and hope that humanity might actually find itself in this wonderful world someday.

The special effects are very well done, though Abrams is overly fond on phony light flares on the lens. Michael Giacchino's score is marvelous; I was reminded at various points of Holst, or of a more brutal and percussive Hovhaness. (And Alexander Courage's original theme music is brought in at exactly the right moment.)

Does the story hold up? Well, not really; time travel stories rarely do if you examine them too closely. But things move along quickly enough that you don't have time to worry about the paradoxes and loopholes until after the movie's over, and the main goal -- giving the series a fresh start and freeing it from the fanboy tyranny of Official Star Trek Canon -- is accomplished with great efficiency. A fine new start for the series.
OK, I've been a very bad blogger in recent weeks, not keeping up with much of anything but American Idol. So this will be a relatively busy week, as I get caught up with posts on the movies I've seen and books I've read.

May 12, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: Judges' choice

The annual choice night -- judges pick a song, contestants pick a song -- gets shrunk from three songs to two this year, as Idol continues to be unable to properly manage time. Sadly missing from the usual lineup: Clive Davis, whose picks are usually the most astute of the evening.

The rundown:

Danny, "Dance Little Sister" -- Danny's screaming at us, and even though he's managing to stay on pitch, it's not a pleasant thing to hear. It's a harsh, aggressive, almost threatening performance; I begin to fear that if Little Sister doesn't dance well enough, Danny's going to send her to the salt mines. And quite apart from the screaming, it's just not a very interesting performance.

Kris, "Apologize" -- Very well done, with the falsetto accents being used (for once) quite effectively. It's a slightly bigger sound than we usually get from Kris, and it's good to see that he's capable of more power; the sound isn't forced or pushed, and (unlike Danny) there's no apparent effort behind it.

Adam, "One" -- The first voice and chorus are rather pleasant, but then it's back to the shriek shriek scream scream scream of which Adam is so fond. There's barely a word in the second half of the song that can be understood, except maybe by dogs, and I feel as if someone's ramming an iron spike into my brain.

For Round 1: Kris, Danny, Adam.

Danny, "You Are So Beautiful" -- A few moments in the middle border on the overly shouty, but far less so than Danny's norm, and the opening is absolutely beautiful. The song suits his voice and style perfectly, and the arrangement is effective. Probably his best performance of the season. (And let's face it, the subliminal reminder of the dead wife is good for a few votes, too.)

Kris, "Heartless" -- I don't know the Kanye West song at all, but I'm willing to bet that it's not an acoustic guitar number. Enunciation continues to be a problem for Kris, but that's the only serious problem here. The arrangement is lovely, and the performance is spot-on technically. It's a fine performance.

Adam, "Crying" -- I have the same reaction I had to his Led Zeppelin song last week: He really doesn't look comfortable as a hard rocker. As for the performance, shriek scream yawn can we please for the love of god send him home already?

For Round 2: Danny, Kris, Adam.

For the night: Kris (narrowly, on the basis of consistency), Danny, Adam.

For the season: Kris, Danny, Adam.

Deserving to go home. Adam. Seriously, America, the emperor has no clothes. Realistically, though, either Danny or Kris will be leaving; I think it's too close to call.

May 07, 2009

BOOKS: Old City Hall, Robert Rotenberg (2009)

Entertaining legal thriller with a fine mix of sharply drawn characters.

Mr. Singh enjoys his short morning chats with Kevin Brace, one of the customers to whom he delivers the newspaper every morning, so it comes as a particular shock when Brace opens the door one morning with bloody hands and confesses to killing his wife, whose body Singh finds in the Braces' bathtub. Those words -- "I killed her" -- will be the last words Brace speaks to anyone; he refuses to talk to the police, and insists on communicating even with his lawyer only in writing.

Not talking is out of character for Brace, who is Toronto's most popular talk-radio host, but the police and Crown Attorney's office aren't terribly bothered. With a dead body, a weapon, and a confession on hand, this should be an easy case. But then, there are those mysterious fingerprints that shouldn't be at the scene; Brace's silence poses unexpected obstacles; and the judge assigned to the case is just unpredictable enough to make everyone nervous.

The story is full of nifty twists, and Rotenberg gives us a terrific bunch of characters; I particularly liked Nancy Parish, Brace's attorney, who can't figure out what her client is up to, and Detective Ari Greene, whose scenes with his grumpy retired father provide much of the novel's comic relief. Because the story's set in Canada, the courtroom sequences happen slightly differently than they might in an American city, but never so much so that the U.S. reader will feel ambushed by something he didn't see coming.

This is a very good first novel, and several of these characters could easily continue on as series protagonists, if Rotenberg so chooses.

May 05, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: Rock night

I will happily admit that rock music is not my favorite genre, so the rundown may sound grumpier than usual. (If I think everyone stinks, I can blame it on their lack of dress rehearsal.) Slash takes on the role of mentor, and for the first time in Idol competition, we get duets from the wannabes.

The rundown:

Adam, "Whole Lotta Love" -- At least tonight his high-pitched shrieking is stylistically appropriate. Sadly, that doesn't make it any less painful, especially when the words are as incomprehensible as they often are here. And for the first time, even Adam's stage presence fails him; he looks uncomfortable tonight, like a little boy playing dress-up in a rocker's clothes.

Allison, "Cry Baby" -- Maybe it's just the song or the style, but this is the least subtle, least interesting performance we've gotten from Allison; she's bludgeoning us with volume. There aren't any serious technical problems -- the pitch is fine, the phrasing makes sense -- but it never crosses the line from competent to interesting.

Kris & Danny, "Renegade" -- It's not really a duet so much as two soloists sharing a stage; they don't even look at each other for most of the song. Kris comes off better as a rock singer than I'd expected him to, and Danny's R&B sound is less suited to the style than I'd have guessed. But their voices blend very well, and they've made enough attempt at ensemble that they're even breathing together in the same odd place ("...long [breathe] arm of the law...").

Kris, "Come Together" -- This song ought to feel a little bit sleazy, and while Kris certainly goes farther in that direction than I thought he could, it is sort of like watching the Hardy Boys make a porn flick. It's not a disastrously awful performance -- I liked the middle section, where he drops into his lower register -- but it's a very bad song choice. Then again, in all fairness, this was never going to be his best night, and I don't know what would have been a better choice.

Danny, "Dream On" -- Excuse me while I lift my jaw from the floor. The opening verse wasn't half bad, but the louder and higher-pitched it got, the worse it became. Danny's pitch went completely to hell and back -- I don't think a single instance of the words "dream on" was in tune, and that made up about half of the song -- and those last few seconds of rocker screaming were horrific. By far the worst performance of the night, maybe the worst of the season (and I haven't forgotten Megan's "Rockin' Robin").

Allison & Adam, "Slow Ride" -- Individually, they're both better than they were in their solo numbers. He looks more comfortable, and (much to my surprise) manages to scale his performance down to a more natural level, allowing the two to blend nicely. She's singing instead of shouting, and unlike the Kris/Danny pairing, these two actually seem to be aware of one another's presence. The song is duller than dirt, but the performance is the best one we've heard tonight.

For the night: Allison, Adam, Kris, Danny.

For the season: Allison, Kris, Danny, Adam.

Deserving the trip home: I continue to dream of the Adam-goes-home miracle, but I certainly don't expect it. Overall, Danny is the most deserving of the exit, but I wouldn't feel safe if I were Kris.