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.