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.

TV: Modern Family (ABC, Wed 9)

A look at suburban family life, told in mock-documentary style.

Jay (Ed O'Neill) is getting a second shot at fatherhood, thanks to his recent marriage to the much younger Gloria (Sofia Vergara), but can't quite make sense of 11-year-old stepson Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Cameron (Eric Overstreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) have been together for are five years, and are new fathers, having just adopted Lily. Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil (Ty Burrell) are the most traditional of the families; she's a stay-at-home mom, and they're raising three kids. At the end of the first episode, we learn that these families are actually one; Mitchell and Claire are Jay's children.

I haven't been a fan of the mockumentary comedies currently on the air, but this one works better. It uses the documentary interview technique less obtrusively, and unlike The Office or Parks and Recreation, the show actually seems to like its characters, instead of taking delight in their cruelty and stupidity. (And this show has characters who actually are likable, which makes a big difference.)

The writing is funny, only occasionally stooping into cliche, as with Phil's "I'm the cool dad" routine; the cast is solid. Vergara, as she has in the past, is channeling Charo a bit too heavily, but Ferguson and Overstreet are a marvelous comic duo, and already have the kind of chemistry and timing that make them instantly believable as a long-term couple.

(And I think -- please correct me if I'm wrong -- that Cameron and Mitchell mark the first time a broadcast network has given us a gay couple as regular characters. We've had gay characters, and occasionally even a reference to an off-screen partner, but I think this is the first time that both members of a couple have been part of the ensemble.)

And the nice thing is that while we see squabbles and disagreements among the members of this extended family, none of it rises to what you'd call "dysfunctional." These are three very functional families, with couples who love one another and parent/child relationships marked by respect and concern. These intergenerational, multi-cultural, gay and straight families may be the best representation of traditional family values TV is giving us these days, which has gotta make a few heads explode among the right-wing punditry. That alone would be enough reason to root for the show; the fact that it's so funny and entertaining is almost a bonus.

TV: The Forgotten (ABC, Tue 10)

Can't remember the last time a series had such a self-fulfilling title. The Forgotten soon will be, and deservedly so.

Christian Slater stars as the head of the Chicago office of The Forgotten Project, teams of private citizens who take on the job of tracking down the identities of John and Jane Does when the police are forced to give up.

Slater's team in this episode alternates between slowly figuring out the obvious -- she wears black nail polish; maybe she's a Goth! -- and making spectacularly lucky guesses based on almost no evidence -- she paid a bill in ones, that must be tip money, so she must have been a waitress!

The team members have no personality whatsoever, beyond Slater's habitual young-Jack-Nicholson routine, and the decision to have the Doe-of-the-week provide voice-over narration is clunky and ponderous.

The Forgotten is dull on every level and in every way possible, a strong contender for the first cancellation of the season.

TV: NCIS Los Angeles (CBS, Tue 9)

If nothing else, this show gives us the year's best unlikely pair of co-stars in LL Cool J and Linda Hunt, a pairing that will certainly shorten a lot of "six degrees" lists.

LL Cool J plays Sam Hanna; he and Chris O' Donnell star as agents with the Navy's Office of Special Projects, charged with capturing criminals who threaten national security. O'Donnell's character, G Callen, is an orphan who says "no one ever told me" what the "G" stood for, so that's all the first name he has. (That's not much of a back story, but it's more than anyone else on the show gets.)

Callen is supposed to be something of a chameleon, able to take on whatever undercover persona is needed at the moment. If I had needed to cast a "man of a thousand faces" type, I don't think O'Donnell would have been anywhere near the top of my list; "man of two or three faces," maybe.

There's a support staff of half-a-dozen or so, but the only one who makes much of an impression is Linda Hunt as Hetty, who is (in James Bond terms) equal parts Q and M; she's responsible for overseeing the support staff and for giving Hanna and Callen whatever gizmos and costumes they need for the current case. When she's handing out the clothes, you can't help but also be reminded of The Incredibles' Edna Mode. Hunt gives the show the tiny amount of humor it has, and it desperately needs a bit more; Cool J tries, but his attempts at banter inevitably fall flat because O'Donnell can't keep up with him as a comedian.

The story line in the first episode wasn't bad, centered onthe hunt for the kidnapped niece of a murdered naval officer who may have been working with Mexican drug cartels, but the final action/shootout sequence was very poorly filmed, with much rapid cutting and blurry camera work that made the action impossible to follow.

People who are already fans of the original NCIS will no doubt eat this up; for me, O'Donnell's flatness as a leading man would be enough to kill the show, even if I were a bigger fan of crime procedurals.

September 22, 2009

TV: Accidentally On Purpose (CBS, Mon 8:30)

I've never been particularly fond of Jenna Elfman, so I was surprised at how much I liked her in this. She stars as Billie, a late-30s film critic who finds herself pregnant after a brief relationship with the much younger Zack (Jon Foster). ("Apparently," she explains, "condoms aren't 100% effective unless you actually take them out of your purse.")

Billie's best friend, Olivia (Ashley Jensen), and her younger, more conventional sister, Abby (Lennon Parham), are excited at the prospect of a baby; her boss and ex-boyfriend, James (Grant Show), is less so, especially when Billie invites Zack to move into her apartment.

The cast doesn't feel entirely on the same page yet; Jensen, using her natural Scottish accent, is notably louder and broader than anyone else, and Foster needs to up his energy level a bit if he doesn't want to keep being blown off the screen. But that's not an unusual problem for a pilot, and will no doubt be worked out in the next few weeks.

The show doesn't feel to me like the best fit with the CBS Monday lineup of comedies, which are very guy-oriented shows; this one's very much the sitcom equivalent of a chick flick. It would seem to be a better fit with The New Adventures of Old Christine on Wednesday night (and though I don't like the show, Wednesday's Gary Unmarried would be a better fit here).

September 19, 2009

TV: The Beautiful Life (CW, Wed 9)

I am in no way a part of the CW's target demographic. I am a kind of shlumpy-looking guy, no longer young, and have never been part of the in crowd. Every now and then, I admit, I find myself thinking how much easier life would be if I could only be young and beautiful. Well, thank goodness, I have the CW, and The Beautiful Life in particular, to disabuse me of that foolish notion.

It is hard to be young and beautiful. Just look at the horrible lives these young models lead. There's poor Isaac (Corbin Bleu), who used to be a successful child model, but is now forced to sleep with an elderly fashion designer (she must be all of 35!) in order to get work. There's the tragic case of Sonja (Mischa Barton), who returns for her first runway show after a mysterious six-month disappearance, only to find that she can't fit into the dress because she's gained two pounds.

Weep for Raina (Sara Paxton), who has run from her horrible jailbird father, whom she never wants to see again. (Now if it were me, I would think that staying hidden would be best accomplished by not becoming a fashion model and having your photo appear in national magazines, but then, I suppose they don't read a lot of Vogue in prison.) And saddest of all, there's Chris Andrews from Iowa (Ben Hollingsworth) -- he's called "Chris Andrews from Iowa" so many times that you begin to believe it's actually his full name -- forced to turn to modeling, I kid you not, in order to help save the family farm.

Even by the low standards of a CW soap opera, The Beautiful Life is an incoherent, babbling mess of a show, with little more to offer than eye candy. None of these people can act (you know you're in trouble when Elle McPherson offers the show's richest characterization as the owner of the agency for which everyone works), and the writing never even tries to rise above cliche. We haven't seen a show this pointless in many years.

MOVIES: You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007/US 2009)

There is a city, the grayest and bleakest place you have ever seen. Its citizens and their lives seem to be just as bleak as the city in which they live. There is a constant sense of longing for the unknown, of people failing to connect with another, of frustration and futility and hopelessness.

And by the way, this is a comedy.

In a series of some 50 vignettes, Andersson shows us moments from various people's lives. The scenes and the characters are only occasionally connected to one another, though there are a few people who pop up throughout the movie -- a young woman who has a dream about marrying her favorite singer; a middle-aged alcoholic who screams at her boyfriend to go away, then sings a song about wanting to escape on a motorcycle.

It's an unsettling movie. There's no plot to grab hold of, and no character who's around long enough to become a protagonist or rooting interest. There's not much visual excitement, either; Andersson's scenes start and end in one place, almost always without any camera movement at all.

The strange thing is that for all the frustration and thwarted longing, the movie is funny, even if you can never quite put your finger on why you're laughing. It's not the humor of punchlines or of slapstick. Even stranger, there is often a sense of -- well, not joy, exactly, but resilience and the refusal to abandon hope, even when hopelessness seems only logical. I was often reminded of Beckett's "I can't go on; I'll go on."

That resilience ultimately wins out here. Andersson's characters, at their happiest, insist on finding some occasion for joy, no matter how small it may be or how pointless it may seem. Often, that joy is found in music. A man stands alone in his apartment, turns on a tinny tape recorder, and pounds away on his bass drum; there are frequent appearances by a marching band and a small Dixieland group (which share a tuba player); the final half-hour of the movie is dominated by a stately waltz that we first hear being sung at a funeral.

And if we insist on looking for those small bits of joy even in the face of despair, Andersson tells us, then, yes, we can find beauty. We see that three-man Dixieland band -- tuba, banjo, trumpet -- practicing in an empty rehearsal studio as a vicious, noisy thunderstorm rages outside. It's louder than a storm has any right to be, but they keep playing their joyous music. It's a gesture of defiance, and they're rewarded for it; no one else enters the room, but their sound is suddenly joined by a glorious clarinet, weaving its sweet, sad melody into their music. It's a small moment of magic in a world that desperately needs some.

September 18, 2009

BOOKS: Bad Things Happen, Harry Dolan (2009)

David Loogan (or, as he is frequently referred to from page 1, "the man who calls himself David Loogan") is living quietlly in Ann Arbor when he meets Tom Kristoll, publisher of the mystery magazine Gray Streets. The Gray Streets story formula, Tom explains, is a simple one: Plans go wrong; bad things happen; people die.

That's also the formula on which Dolan's novel offers some nifty variations. David accepts Tom's offer of an editing job, and shortly thereafter begins an affair with Tom's wife, Laura. So when Tom turns up dead, David is at the top of the suspect list.

Not that there aren't a variety of good suspects to choose from, mind you. There's Laura, of course, and several of the authors who write for Gray Streets may have had motive. As the murders begin to pile up, often in imitation of those found in Gray Streets or in its authors' novels, the number of suspects continues to grow.

If this were the late 1940s, Bad Things Happen would make a sharp little film noir -- crisp, knowing dialogue; a tough guy hero, and an equally tough heroine, the chief police investigator on the case; clever plot twists.

This would be a fine piece of work from a veteran writer, but it's Dolan's first novel, which makes it an even more impressive feat. Highly recommended.

September 16, 2009

TV: Glee (Fox, Wed 9)

We got a sneak preview of this one in May, and the first new episode this fall was just as good. (The sneak seems to have helped the show build tremendous word of mouth and ratings over the summer, too, so we can expect to see more such previews next May.)

Matthew Morrison stars as Will Schuester, high school Spanish teacher who suddenly finds himself in charge of the school's glee club. During Will's own high school days, the glee club had been a national champion, but these days, it's fallen on hard times, and Will is determined to restore it to its former glory.

The principal isn't wildly enthusiastic, but Will's harshest critic is Sue Sylvester (the spectacular Jane Lynch), who fears that if the glee club catches on, it'll take time, money, and attention away from her own national champions, the cheerleading squad.

Each episode gives us two or three musical numbers, and they're very cleverly done; we're often left both impressed by the level of talent and stunned by the gloriously tasteless choices of repertoire (Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" was the jawdropper in the pilot.) The entire show walks a similar line between deliciously mean humor and surprising sweetness; it's a very carefully balanced tone, and maintaining it will be the show's biggest challenge.

The biggest flaw at this early point is in the show's use of its supporting characters. Will's wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), is a painfully unlikable character. She's meant, I think, to be the at-home counterpart to Sue at work, but Gilsig doesn't have Lynch's gift for delivering horribly inappropriate lines in a way that makes her a love-to-hate character; Terri is just hateful. (Not entirely Gilsig's fault; the character's not terribly well written.)

And the glee club itself is, so far, focused on the pretty white kids -- football star Finn (Cory Monteith) and self-absorbed diva Rachel (Lea Michele). The other kids are reduced to background stereotypes -- the gay guy, the sassy black girl, the Asian girl, the guy in the wheelchair. I really hope that they'll be fleshed out and given storylines of their own in future weeks; Chris Colfer, in particular, has the potential to do very interesting things as Kurt, who's not quite the TV cliche of the gay teen.

Glee leaves me feeling much the same way I felt when Pushing Daisies premiered two years ago; it's so different, and its tone so quirky and offbeat, that I wonder how they'll be able to maintain it in the long run. Even more, I fear that something so odd won't be able to sustain the audience it needs to survive. But for now, at least, it's a marvelous show, and I'll be watching with crossed fingers, hoping for its success.

TV: The Jay Leno Show (NBC, M-F 10)

For weeks now, Jay Leno has been telling everyone who'd listen that The Jay Leno Show was not going to be a copy of The Tonight Show. Based on the first two nights, he's been lying his little brains out.

Opening monologue, cheesy banter with bandleader Kevin Eubanks unfunny comedy bits, softball interviews, more unfunny comedy bits, musical guests -- the only thing missing from The Tonight Show is the desk.

If you were a fan of Leno before, you'll certainly love this, since it's exactly the sort of innocuous bland pablum he's been dishing out for the last seventeen years. If you don't care for Leno, this isn't going to change your mind.

September 14, 2009

BOOKS: Important Artifacts and Personal Property..., Leanne Shapton (2009)

That title in full: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.

What we have here is a story told in the form of an auction catalogue. After a three-year relationship, Lenore and Harold are selling off the memorabilia of their time together. This is the catalogue for the auction, with photos and brief descriptions of all of their stuff, conveniently arranged chronologically. There's the invitation to the Halloween party where they met, the gifts they gave each other for Christmas and birthdays, the postcards they sent when one or the other was traveling.

It's a silly concept; no couple would ever dispose of the detritus of their romance at auction, and unless the couple was far more famous than Lenore and Harold, no auction house would ever be interested in such a thing. (It is possible that Shapton is going for the joke that Strachan & Quinn is so desperate or unreputable an auction house that they would actually do such a thing, but I doubt it.)

It's also a concept that doesn't allow for much development of character. We know that Lenore is 26 and Harold 39 when they meet; we get that she's somewhat passive and he's rather overbearing, but those are the only personality traits that come through.

Shapton also (in my opinon) cheats her own concept through frequent quotes from e-mails, letters, and notes that the two have written to one another; these documents are listed in the catalogue, but usually "not illustrated."

So since the concept doesn't hold water from a realitic standpoint, doesn't allow for any sophistication in character development, and is in fact so limited that the author is forced to tap-dance around it to tell any sort of story at all, the book is only of interest as an odd experiment.

If you enjoy that sort of thing, well, have at it. The book's only about 130 pages long, so at least it won't waste much of your time.

September 13, 2009

TV: Community (NBC, Thur 9:30)

Will premiere on the 17th, but the first episode is available for free viewing at Amazon Video on Demand. Will move to 8 pm in mid-October, when 30 Rock returns.

Jeff (Joel McHale) is a suspended lawyer who needs to get a college degree in order to avoid being disbarred, and has come to Greendale Community College, because he figures it will be easier than going to a "real" school, and he thinks that he can use his connections with a former client (John Oliver, in a very funny guest appearance as one of Greendale's professors) to make the process even easier.

In an attempt to meet the beautiful young Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Jeff fakes a Spanish study group; much to his surprise, several other students from the class show up. The pilot efficiently introduces the seven principal characters, and if they seem limited to only one or two character traits each, the writing is good enough that I feel confident they'll become better rounded as the series progresses.

The students are a pretty typical community college cross-section. Annie (Alison Brie) and Troy (Donald Glover) were high-school classmates; he was the quarterback and prom king, and she was the pretty girl who nobody noticed. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is the late-30s divorcee trying to jumpstart her life; Abed (Danny Pudi) is the socially awkward Palestinian-American trying to figure out how to fit in.

And then there's Pierce Hawthorne, the successful businessman ("Yes, that is Hawthorne as in Hawthorne Wipes, the award-winning moist towelette"). It's a terrific role for Chevy Chase, and my biggest worry for the show after the pilot is that the writers will turn it into The Chevy Chase Show; the show will work best, I think, if it's allowed to remain a true ensemble piece.

The cast is terrific; Brown and Pudi make particularly strong impressions in the first episode. The writing is funny, and even the moments that could have been cloying (Joel's "we're not just a study group, we're a community" speech, for instance) work both as comedy and as relatively sincere emotional moments.

Very promising start.

September 11, 2009

TV: The Vampire Diaries (CW, Thurs 8)

Elena (Nina Dobrev) has had a rough summer. Her parents died in a car crash (which she survived) a few months back, and the emotional strain led to her breaking up with her boyfriend. But a new school year is beginning, and she's determined to move on with her life.

Moving on may mean a new relationship, as the hunky, brooding new boy in school, Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley), takes an immediate interest in her. Turns out that Elena looks just like a girl Stefan used to know. In 1863.

Yup, Stefan's a vampire. He's a good vampire of the sort that is trendy at the moment. (The show is based on a set of novels that predate Twilight, though the influence of those books on the TV show is unmistakable.) Stefan doesn't drink human blood, and you can see him struggle with his desires to do so (as much as I'm sick of the vampire trend, the teen vampire does provide a nifty metaphor for the way teens constantly struggle with their sexual urges).

But where there's a good vampire, there must be a bad vampire, and that would be Stefan's brother, Damon (Ian Somerhalder). They haven't spoken in years, and clearly don't get along; Stefan is worried that Dam on's old-fashioned kill-and-suck vampirism will blow his cover in town.

This is a CW show -- it's Transylvania 90210 -- so all of the actors are very pretty, far too old to be playing high school students, and minimally talented. Even more than most CW programs, The Vampire Diaries is guilty of using pop music to sell the emotions that its cast isn't up to communicating themselves.

The biggest problem, though, is the casting of Somerhalder as the evil Damon; he's just not remotely menacing. He might have been able to pull off the sensitive good-boy vampire, but as the bad boy, he's in over his head.

The first episode reportedly got the highest rating of any premiere in CW history (not that that's a long history). It remains to be seen whether those ratings will hold up when there's more than reruns on the other networks. My hunch is that the Twilight crowd who turned out for week one won't be satisfied with this watered-down imitation, and that the ratings will fall fast.

BOOKS: The Cold Light of Mourning, Elizabeth J. Duncan (2009)

Settings for murder mysteries don't get much cozier than Llanelen, the tiny village in North Wales that is Duncan's setting.

Local boy Emyr Gruffydd is about to marry Meg Wynne Thompson, a big city girl (all the way from London!) who none of the locals much likes, when she vanishes on the morning of the wedding. Her body is found a few days later, setting Llanelen abuzz with speculation. Fortunately, Llanelen has Penny Brannigan, surely the cleverest manicurist ever to take up amateur crime-solving.

You don't often hear the term applied to mystery novels, but there is a very strong flavor of the Mary Sue in Penny, who is a Canadian immigrant to Wales; author Duncan is a Canadian who lives part-time each year in Wales. They're of a similar age, and judging from the author photo, they even look somewhat alike. Penny is sweet, charming, intelligent, and lovably self-deprecating; by the end of the novel, she's won herself both a new BFF and a hunky policeman boyfriend.

The Cold Light of Mourning is this year's winner of the St. Martin's Press Malice Domestic contest, awarded to the best first traditional mystery novel, which St. Martin's then publishes. "Traditional mystery" means cozy -- no explicit sex, violence kept off stage, amateur detective, usually a small-town setting -- but even fans of the cozy may find this one a bit too cloying, I fear. Duncan has an odd obsession with describing people's wardrobes in loving detail, and the creepy inhuman perfection of St. Penny of Llanelen quickly grows tiresome. Her insights into the mystery stretch credibility -- her realization of where the body must be is particularly hard to swallow -- and the whole village is so charming, twee, and sweet that I fear diabetics should be forbidden to read the book.

Unfortunately, the only grounds I have to forbid the rest of you from reading it are those of good taste.

September 10, 2009

BOOKS: The Magicians, Lev Grossman (2009)

Derivative fantasy novel that never transcends its influences to become anything more than a "Harry Potter goes to Narnia" knockoff.

Quentin Coldwater is making college plans when he walks down a Manhattan alley and mysteriously finds himself on the upstate New York campus of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. He passes the entrance exams, revealing magical talents that he never knew he had.

We go with Quentin through Brakebills' five-year program -- he's such a prodigy that he completes it in four -- and then follow Quentin and some of his classmates, who have discovered the magic button that will take them to Fillory. Fillory is the magical land of Quentin's favorite childhood books, and he had never dreamed that it was a real place, or that those books were telling true stories.

There are a few cute ideas here, and one or two nice set pieces -- a long journey to Brakebills' Antarctic annex for special training is nicely conceived and written -- but ultimately, the characters aren't very memorable or likable, and Grossman doesn't live up to the high standards set by J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. The Brakebills section of the book is better than the Fillory section, but then, I found Hogwarts a lot more interesting than Narnia, too.

MUSIC: Ellen DeGeneres, American Idol judge?

Y'know, when I heard the news about Ellen DeGeneres joining the judges last night, my first response was this:

"What are these people smoking?"

But, I thought, that was just a gut reaction, and maybe I should take a few hours before rushing to say anything. So I slept on it, let it soak in, mulled it over, ruminated on the prospect of Ellen DeGeneres as an American Idol judge. And having done so, I am now prepared to offer a more considered and fully thought out response to the news:

"No, seriously, what the hell are these people smoking?"

It's an awful idea. The one thing Paula brought to the show that none of the other judges could bring was that she'd actually been there. She had been a star; she had sold out concert halls and arenas, and known the pressure of having to go on night after night after night to entertain an audience that has come specifically to hear you sing.

And as loopy and incoherent as she could sometimes be, that perspective was invaluable to the show; it's a huge part, I think, of why she became the "nice" judge. Simon, Randy, Kara -- they're evaluating the contestants from a business perspective. Can we sell your record? Can we market you to a financially viable niche? But Paula understood that the contestants were trying to be musicians first, that they were (usually) thinking about expressing themselves before worrying about the cold, hard business considerations.

The show desperately needs that perspective, and to replace it with someone with no musical performance background at all is a ghastly mistake. (Yes, Ellen has ample performance experience, but the pressure faced by a stand up comic, even a successful one, is of a different type and of much lower magnitude than that faced by a pop star.) I can see Ellen going two ways as a judge, and neither will be pretty.

The first possibility is that she'll see Idol as a chance to demonstrate that she's smarter than her slightly ditzy persona (and I've absolutely no doubt that she is; you don't survive the kind of career storms she's survived without being a very bright, very tough woman). She'll try to show us how insightful and knowledgeable she can be, and she'll do it using her sharpest tool -- her humor. She'll try to out-Simon Simon.

I think that's relatively unlikely, if only because it would mean running the risk of someone not liking her. More likely is that she'll simply transfer her talk-show persona to Idol; she'll be sweet and breezy and innocuously funny and blandly inoffensive. In short, she'll be a waste of time. And with Randy and Kara mouthing their standard cliches and becoming increasingly irrelevant with every passing week, the last thing Idol needs is another waste of time on the judging panel.

(A side note: One thing that will be interesting is whether the presence of America's favorite lesbian on the judges' panel will do anything to stop, or at least tone down, the homophobic "banter" of Simon and Ryan.)

September 09, 2009

TV: Melrose Place (CW, Tues 9)

And we're off for another September marathon of new TV shows!

"New" may not be the best word for our first show, an update of the 90s soap opera. "It worked for 90210," seems to be the thinking.

It's easy to forget that the original Melrose Place didn't actually start off as the campfest it would eventually became. For the first few months, it was a relatively serious drama about the beautiful young residents of a Los Angeles apartment complex; it was only when Heather Locklear turned up that the show really began to dive into the more ludicrous plots and melodromatic relationships.

The new version doesn't waste any time getting to the good stuff. Our seven beautiful young cast members all get phone calls in the first few moments telling them that "she needs help." "She" is Sydney (Laura Leighton), returning from the original cast; she's now the landlord at Melrose Place, and she's clearly got serious problems with booze and pills.

You may wonder how Sydney can be the landlord when she was killed off near the end of the original series' run; the new version doesn't waste much time on that (I think there was a passing reference to someone helping her fake her death), but it doesn't much matter, because before the first commercial break, Sydney is dead (again), floating face down in the pool.

She's found by Violet (Ashlee Simpson-Wentz), the newest resident of Melrose Place, whose bright red hair is enough to suggest that she's more closely related to Sydney than anyone knows. Everyone else has been around long enough that they may well have motives, as Sydney was not a lovable woman. It seems clear that the series will, for at least the first several weeks, be devoted to the question of who killed Sydney, with lots of flashbacks.

The remaining residents/suspects are:
  • Aspiring publicist Ella (Katie Cassidy), clearly meant to be the show's reigning bitch
  • Sexy young chef Auggie -- yes, Auggie (Colin Egglesfield) -- the dark, brooding type
  • Engaged couple Jonah and Riley (Michael Rady, Jessica Lucas), aspiring filmmaker and elementary teacher, respectively, and among the show's "good" characters
  • Med student Lauren (Stephanie Jacobsen), who may be driven to desperate measures to pay her tuition bills
  • Bad boy David (Shaun Sipos), who responded to Sydney's late-night distress call, then got so drunk that he can't remember whether he killed her or not

Oh, and David's father? Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro), the only character to last for the entire run of the original series.

Does it work? Well, the cast is extremely pretty (I'm partial to Auggie, myself, but whatever your type, you're bound to find someone you can ogle) and adequately talented; a show like this doesn't exactly demand Shakespearean talent. Cassidy is quite funny as the power-hungry Ella, and Rady has some nice moments as the ethically conflicted Hollywood wannabe. Simpson-Wentz looks to be the show's weakest link, based on the first episode, and I fear that she's not going to be up to the challenge when Violet is revealed to be less naive and more complicated than she initially appears.

If you like this sort of thing, I think the new Melrose Place will probably make you happy. At first glance, it's more earnest and less campy than the original, and that may need to change; I'm not sure anyone will want to watch if the show actually expects us to take these people seriously. But it's not the disaster I'd sort of expected it to be, and it's entirely possible that if the new show finds its own Heather Locklear, it could take off into the sort of giddy, campy free-for all insanity that made the original version so much fun.

September 08, 2009

MOVIES: District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

The alien ship has hovered over Johannesburg for more than 20 years now, damaged in some way and unable to leave. Its inhabitants -- derisively known as "prawns" -- have been brought down to the surface, and more than a million of them now live in the city's District 9, a ghetto that they are not allowed to leave.

But District 9 is getting crowded, and riots have begun to break out. The human population of Johannesburg is growing increasingly uncomfortable with the prawns' presence, and it is decided to relocate them to a new ghetto -- a concentration camp, really -- 100 miles or so outside the city.

The relocation job is turned over to a private company, Multi-National United, because hey! private contractors doing military work? What could go wrong? MNU puts Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) in charge of the job; he's a sycophantic mid-level bureaucratic who's only risen as far as he has in the company because his father-in-law runs the place. Wikus and his fellow mercenaries tackle the job with a strange mix of cheerful friendliness and brutal force.

But a terrible accident leaves Wikus stranded in District 9 with no friends to rely on. MNU is no longer interested in him, except for the monetary value he may suddenly have; the prawns don't trust him; the Nigerian ganglords who live in District 9 are out to kill him.

And all of that is just the setup, the first 20 minutes or so of the movie. From that beginning, District 9 spins a terrifically exciting and creative story about one man's desperate attempt to survive, and his growing realization of the horrors his own society has inflicted on these outsiders.

Sharlto Copley is a marvel in the lead role. Wikus changes from incompetent buffoon to terrified outcast to unlikely terrorist, and Copley makes all of the transformations convincing, while also capturing his horror at the even deeper transformations affecting him.

The Johannesburg setting gives the movie a lot of political resonance that it might not have had if it were set in New York or Chicago. District 9 is certainly reminiscent of the apartheid-era townships; the clicking of the prawns' speech is evocative of many African click languages. (Humans and prawns have learned -- at least some of them -- to understand each others' languages, though neither is apparently capable of speaking the other.) Much of the movie is told in a mock-documentary format, with frequent cuts to cable news as the story gets more dramatic, and Blomkamp is surely commenting on the modern need to hype every story, preferably in a way that gives the audience something to be afraid of.

The special effects are superb, especially for a movie with a reported budget of only around $30 million, and every bit as good as you'd see in a Hollywood movie costing three times as much.

In its final act, District 9 becomes a relatively conventional shoot-em-up/chase/buddy movie; this is the least interesting part of the movie, and it drags on longer than it needs to. Blomkamp is also rather heavy-handed in making it clear that he's already got the sequel in mind.

But this is a smart, exciting movie that takes unexpected twists and turns. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking popcorn flick, a fine debut from writer/director Blomkamp.

September 04, 2009

BOOKS: The Crack in the Lens, Steve Hockensmith (2009)

Fourth in the Amlingmeyer Brothers mystery series.

Love, says Sherlock Holmes, is the crack in the lens; it distorts one's perceptions and keeps one from being truly objective about anything. And it's the memory of past love that is at the heart of this installment in Hockensmith's fine series.

The brothers are more financially flush than usual, Otto having actually sold some of his Dr. Watson-style stories about the "deducifying" triumphs of his big brother, Gustav, who is a devotee of Sherlock Holmes. Gus decides that they will go to San Marcos, Texas, where he had been a ranch hand a few years earlier (before the events of the first book in the series), in hopes of applying his talents to solving the murder of his only true love.

That won't be easy, because Adeline was murdered five years ago (making this book sort of a Cold Case: Old West), and even when the case was fresh, local law enforcement didn't get too worked up over the death of a prostitute. It turns out, though, that Adeline was only the first in a series of such murders, all of them working at the same bawdy house, and there are bizarre hints that the murders may be connected to one of the world's most famous serial killers.

As always in this series, Hockensmith provides a fine array of colorful suspects and an entertaining puzzle to be solved. Otto's narration has enough period flavor to be convincing without being so period as to be unpleasant or difficult reading. (A running joke in which Otto, cognizant of his readers' delicate sensibilities, tidies up the bad guys' worst language by using "fudge" instead of that other f-word gets pounded into the ground, though, in one of Hockensmith's rare comic missteps.)

There's even a cliffhanger of sorts this time, involving Gustav's health; I expect that will be resolved in the opening paragraphs of the next installment, to which I'm already looking forward with great anticipation. This is one of the best mystery series of the decade.

September 03, 2009

BOOKS: Godmother, Carolyn Turgeon (2009)

Once upon a time, Lil was given a task. By fairy standards, it wasn't even a difficult task: Get Cinderella to the ball. But in this re-telling of the story, Cinderella never did get to the ball, and as punishment for her failure, Lil was banished from the world of the fairies and forced to live among humans as one of us. Now, she's an old woman, working in a used bookstore in New York, and missing her old life -- her sister, her friends -- more than ever.

When the beautiful young Veronica walks into the store, the two women strike up a friendship, and Lil becomes convinced that Veronica is the key to her redemption; if only she can put Veronica together with her soulmate, all will be forgiven, and Lil will be allowed back into the fairy world.

Until about ten pages from the end, I loved this book. Lil narrates the story, alternating between her current life in New York and the story of Cinderella; her descriptions of the fairy world are hauntingly beautiful, and we get a real sense of the magic that Lil feels she's lost. In the present day scenes, Turgeon does a fine job of showing us just how frustrating old age can be, and how invisible the elderly often are in our society. The relationship between Lil and Veronica is convincing, and it's an intergenerational friendship of a type we don't often see in fiction. The novel is a dark, brooding take on the fairy tale, and I was utterly enchanted by it.

But at the very end of the story, Turgeon throws in a plot twist that completely drains Godmother of all its mystery, its fantasy, its ambiguity. It brings the story crashing to earth with a great thud, and forces us to disregard everything Lil has told us. It utterly destroys what Turgeon has created; I can't remember reading a book that is so completely ruined by a bad ending. A terrible, tragic disappointment at the end of what might have been one of my favorite novels of the year.