December 22, 2010

MOVIES: Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010)

After making a pair of movies with loyal cult followings, director John Cameron Mitchell goes mainstream with Rabbit Hole, the story of a couple struggling to return to normal life after the accidental death of their 4-year-old son. It would be easy to turn this into a goopy mess of sentiment, but Mitchell avoids this, largely through David Lindsay-Abaire's skillful adaptaion of his own play.

Nicole Kidman gives one of her best performances as Becca, who's coping mostly by retreating from the world and becoming even more icy and distant than usual. She has no taste for the comfort offered by religion, and feels as if her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) is pressuring her to get over her grief more quickly than she can manage.

Howie takes comfort, at least for a while, from a grief support group -- too touchy-feely for Becca -- but eventually, even that isn't enough to sustain him in the face of Becca's hostility. Eckhart does fine work here, and is particularly strong in the big argument scene, one of the few moments when either character cracks enough to let their emotions out.

The restraint of the movie is one of its great strengths; Kidman and Eckhart both excel at letting us see the emotional turmoil they're hiding from one another. (The great unmovable slab that Kidman's forehead has become in recent years actually works to her benefit here, helping her to maintain the frozen polite smile that seems to be Becca's default expression.)

Dianne Wiest is also very good as Becca's mother, who understands better than most what Becca is going through. In smaller roles, there's strong work from Tammy Blanchard as Becca's sister, who refuses to let Becca's grief prevent her from moving on with her own life, and Sandra Oh as a veteran member of Howie's support group.

The biggest mistake (as it was in the play) is the introduction of the teenager who was responsible for the boy's death; Miles Teller is fine in the role, but his scenes with Kidman are saddled with the movie's worst dialogue, and the fact that they're talking at all stretches beyond credibility.

Still, it's a solid movie, all the better for not indulging in cheap emotional theatrics. It makes me very envious, though, of those who got to see it on Broadway with Cynthia Nixon, John Slattery, and Tyne Daly.

MOVIES: The Tempest (Julie Taymor, 2010)

Like all of Julie Taymor's movies, The Tempest offers a few moments of glorious visual spectacle, but like all of Julie Taymor's movies, it offers precious little else. Many of the cast are fine actors, but not natural Shakespeareans, and they seem uncomfortable with the language; I've never seen Chris Cooper, for instance, look this awkward before.

Reeve Carney and Felicity Jones are blandness personified as Ferdinand and Miranda, and there's not a shred of romantic chemistry between them. Russell Brand is embarrassingly awful in one of the slapstick comedy roles (Alfred Molina partners him, and comes off a bit better).

Djimon Hounsou is also not at home with the language; combine that with his accent, and it's very difficult to understand most of what he's saying. And the way in which Taymor emphasizes his accent and his blackness to make Caliban seem more frightening and alien borders on racist.

Ben Whishaw does reasonably well as Ariel, who is meant to be androgynous; genital blurring notwithstanding, though, he never comes across as anything other than a fey young man. The special effects Taymor uses to emphasize the otherworldliness of Ariel -- a sort of holographic transparency and multiple appearances within the frame, as if he's everywhere at once -- are intriguing the first time, but by the end of the movie, they've become boring.

Helen Mirren gives the movie's best performance as Prospera, though I can't see what's been gained by making the character female. A few of Taymor's effects work nicely; I liked a scene in which Prospera releases three hellhounds to chase after Molina and Brand. And Sandy Powell's costumes are lovely, though horribly anachronistic (who knew that Renaissance duchesses were so fond of zippers?).

This is Taymor's fourth movie, and when a clumpy mess like Frida is the best of the lot, then I think we have no choice but to finally acknowledge that the Empress has no clothes.

December 21, 2010

TV: Million Dollar Money Drop (Fox, week-long special)

Fox's latest game show airs every night this week, Monday through Thursday for a total of six hours. It's a skillful enough production, but the show so fundamentally misses the point of why we watch game shows that I can't imagine it being successful.

We meet our contestants, a pair of some sort -- spouses, siblings, dating -- and they are given a million dollars, neatly bundled in $20,000 packs. On a table in front of them are four trapdoors, each corresponding to one of the answers to a multiple choice question. They have to put all of their money on one answer or another. If they're certain the answer is A, they can put everything on A; if they haven't a clue, they can divide their money among several doors. They may not, however, completely avoid risk by covering all doors; at least one door must remain uncovered.

The answer is revealed, the wrong doors open, and whatever money had been put on those doors drops away. With whatever money remains, the team moves on to the next question. At question #4, the possible answers are reduced to 3; for the seventh and final question, there are only 2 answers, making it all-or-nothing proposition with whatever money is left.

The problem, it seems to me, is this: We watch game shows because we want to see people win money; in this show, we spend the entire hour watching people lose money. It only makes things worse that we watch the money fall away when it's lost. At a time when people are struggling to make ends meet, do they really want to watch money being dropped into a pit, essentially being thrown away? And to put this on TV during Christmas week, when that financial pinch feels even harsher than usual, seems insensitive to the point of sadism.

Aside from the basic structural flaw, the show's reasonably well made. The set, another of those high-tech glowing blue things that seems to be the standard ever since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, is reasonably attractive. The questions are more interesting and unexpected than usual, generally calling for more common sense than actual knowledge. (Which is the most popular breakfast cereal: Cocoa Puffs, Shredded Wheat, Cap'n Crunch, or Cheerios?) Kevin Pollak doesn't have the charm or warmth of a great game show host, but he's pleasant enough.

Despite those strengths, I don't think the show can survive its basic structural flaw. Every episode is structured around loss and disappointment, which does not seem a likely way to draw huge audiences.

December 17, 2010

...convivial, festivious and jollificatory...

From the British branding agency Quietroom comes the Santa Brand Book, complete with a curve of credibility and a brand decision tree. I particularly liked the middle Venn diagram on page 7.

(Via Fritinancy.)

December 16, 2010

MOVIES: Night Catches Us (Tanya Hamilton, 2010)

It's 1976, and Marcus (Anthony Mackie) is returning home to Philadelphia for his father's funeral. He's been away for the last four years, and many of his old friends aren't too happy to see him. Marcus had been active in the Black Panther movement in the late 60s, and many in the neighborhood still believe that he snitched on his best friend, Neil, leading to Neil's death.

One person who doesn't believe that is Neil's widow, Patricia (Kerry Washington), who is now a lawyer raising her and Neil's 9-year-old daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin). Iris is intrigued by Marcus because he's a connection to her father; she's intensely curious about him, and about the circumstances of his death, but Patricia is hesitant to talk about those things.

This is a low-budget first film, and it bears some of the flaws you expect in such efforts; the screenplay occasionally pours on the melodrama a bit too heavily, and not all of the actors are up to the level of the leads. But oh, those leads! Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington are excellent here (as they usually are), and Jamara Griffin gives a far smarter and more subtle performance than you'd expect from so young an actress. It's a smart story about how we deal with the fallout, legal and emotional, from dreams and ambitions that didn't go quite as hoped.

You may have to look hard to find this one; I imagine it won't be playing much beyond the largest cities. But it's definitely worth watching for.

MOVIES: Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Well. That was interesting.

Whatever else you can say about Black Swan, it is certainly not a run of the mill flick that will be quickly forgotten.

It is, among other things, a female variation on Aronofsky's last film, The Wrestler. Both are movies about people who brutalize themselves physically for their careers; both deal with the brutal impact of aging on such a career; and both are, in spots, extraordinarily difficult to watch.

It's also got overtones of All About Eve, with Natalie Portman playing (at different moments) both Eve and Margo.

There are reminders of The Red Shoes, another tale of a ballerina driven mad by her art.

But when all is said and done, Black Swan isn't really much more than just another exploitation thriller that divides women into virgins and whores.

The problem faced by ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) is that the director of her company (Vincent Cassel) wants her to be both, in order to dance the lead in Swan Lake. It's a dual role, and Thomas has no doubt that Nina can handle the virginal purity of the White Swan, but the lustful abandon of the Black Swan is another matter.

And as Nina struggles to bring that part of her soul to the surface, there are hints that someone may be stalking her, and there's no shortage of possible suspects. The company's former star (Winona Ryder) resents Nina for taking the role that should have hers; the newest dancer (Mila Kunis) wants the part for herself; Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey) gave up her own ballet career when Nina was born, and seems to not-so-secretly loathe her daughter for finding the success she never had.

Or maybe it's just Nina going stark raving bonkers from the stress of the starring role. Hallucinations, mysterious physical maladies that may or may not be real, odd visions in every mirror she passes -- mental and emotional stability certainly don't seem to be Nina's strengths.

The performances are certainly intense and committed, and the movie is never boring; it's incredibly good-looking, and Aronofsky (and cinematographer Matthew Libatique) know how to create striking images. The casting is very smartly done. The four principal actresses are very similar types, and Aronofsky uses that to his advantage to reinforce his theme of doubles; during the more hallucinatory moments, one actress will often be replaced by another for an instant, emphasizing Nina's disorientation and paranoia.

For much of its length, Black Swan is quite entertaining in a "can you believe this shit?!?" kinda way, but in the last half hour, things get so absurd and over-the-top that the movie loses what little credibility it had, and lies buried in the rubble of its own lunacy.

December 10, 2010

BOOKS: All Clear, Connie Willis (2010)

The conclusion to the story that began earlier this year in Blackout (my thoughts on that one here).

Our three time-traveling history students are still trapped in London during the Blitz, and can't figure out why they're unable to return to 2060 Oxford. Meanwhile, we get brief glimpses of their Oxford colleagues, who are themselves trying to figure out what's going on and how to rescue the stranded students.

Willis's strengths are all on display here. Her characters are vivid creations; I particularly liked Sir Godfrey, an endearing blowhard of an actor, and Alf and Binnie, a pair of hell-raising siblings whose disinterest in rules and regulations occasionally comes in handy. The history seems to be well researched, and the amount of detail about daily life during the period is impressive, without ever feeling like a "here's what I learned at the library today" lecture.  And the story is an entertaining one, particularly in the last half of this volume, when our characters begin to figure out what's happening and how to set things right.

But oh my goodness, is this thing bloated. There's an enormous amount of repetition. There are, for instance, numerous passages in which our characters come that close to contacting a fellow Oxford historian who might be able to help rescue them; the thing starts to feel like Gilligan's Blitz after a while. I was also frustrated by Willis's fondness for leading us to believe that a character is dead, only to reveal a few hundred pages later that they aren't really. A very good author can get away with that once in a book, if they're lucky; no one is good enough to get away with it as many times as Willis tries it here.

If someone had gone at Blackout and All Clear with a sharp editor's pencil, there's no reason the books couldn't have been tightened down into one terrific novel. It would be a long one, certainly, of 5 or 6 hundred pages. And in terms of storytelling, there's no reason this needed to be divided; it's most definitely one story, not a novel and a sequel. Before reading this, I had thought of Willis as as good enough writer that she should have recognized that problem herself. Now, I'm afraid that she's gotten so successful within the SF field that is she has, like Stephen King, become too big to be edited.

I can't recommend these books with great enthusiasm because of all the unnecessary padding, but there are some lovely moments to be had, and I think Willis's fans will enjoy them despite the obvious flaws.

December 06, 2010

MOVIES: Barney's Version (Richard J. Lewis, 2010)

This one's getting a one-week run in LA to qualify for the Oscars, and will be released more widely next month.

Paul Giamatti stars as Barney Panofsky, a middle-aged schlub looking back at his life. There's not a lot of plot to speak of. Oh, there's a framing device of sorts about a police detective who is convinced that Barney once (literally) got away with murder, and is still determined to find the evidence against him, but the movie is really a character study of a type we don't often get these days. Giamatti is terrific as a man so perpetually dissatisfied with life that he spends much of the reception after his second wedding hitting on the woman who will become his third wife. And whether it's makeup, digital technology, or some combination of the two, the effects that allow Giamatti to play Barney from roughly 30 to 65 are superbly done.

There are fine supporting performances from Saul Rubinek as father-in-law #1 (only one scene, but it's impeccably played), Minnie Driver as an extraordinarily crass wife #2, Scott Speedman as Barney's best friend and Dustin Hoffman as Barney's father. Best of all is Rosamund Pike as Miriam (wife #3). She gives a subtle, understated performance as a woman who is utterly devoted to Barney, but has firm limits about how much of his nonsense she will abide.

Wonderful surprise, and will sadly probably get lost in the shuffle of movies with bigger stars and advertising budgets. Keep an eye out for it; it's worth the time.

December 02, 2010

MOVIES: The King's Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010)

Here we find about as many Oscar-baiting elements as it's possible to cram into one movie. Opulently appointed period piece, prestigious cast given showy roles to play, interesting historical tidbit, British royalty, disability -- heck, it's even got World War II hovering in the background.

Colin Firth stars as Prince Albert, second son of King George V (Michael Gambon). Even as the second son, Bertie is expected to do a certain amount of public speaking, which is a terrifying ordeal for him due to his stammer. He's tried all of the royal doctors and speech therapists, to no avail. But his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) -- these are the parents of the current Queen Elizabeth -- has tracked down Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian therapist whose techniques may be unorthodox, but who promises results.

Logue's work becomes even more important when Bertie's brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicates to marry an American divorcee, and suddenly Bertie becomes King George VI, a role he never expected or wanted. With war on the horizon, and the new technology of radio available to carry his inspiring words around the word to the entire British empire, Bertie must find a way to overcome his speech impediment.

Much of the movie is a two-hander for Firth and Rush, and they're both marvelous. Firth's stammer is thoroughly convincing, as is his terror when forced to face the microphone and his disdain for Logue's methods, which border on psychotherapy. Rush, an actor I generally find to be overly hammy and attention-stealing, has a lighter touch than usual here, and (for once) shares the screen gracefully.

So yeah, the movie occasionally feels like a blatant "we want trophies" grab, but it's usually not quite that unsubtle, and within the confines of its genre, it is a marvelous piece of entertainment.

December 01, 2010

MOVIES: Love and Other Drugs (Edward Zwick, 2010)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway are in fine form in this not-so-comic romantic comedy about the relationship between two people who are each convinced, for different reasons, that they don't really deserve to find true love.

Gyllenhaal is Jamie, the black sheep of his family; after dropping out of medical school and failing at assorted business endeavors, he finally finds success as a pharmaceutical salesman, pushing the newest drugs to doctors throughout the Ohio Valley. Once he gets his hands on Viagra, his career really takes off.

Hathaway is Maggie, a character who teeters perilously close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory without ever quite toppling over the edge; she has early-onset Parkinson's, and doesn't want to burden anyone else with the prospect of caring for her as her condition worsens.

Given that setup, there's nothing in the plot that's going to surprise you much -- they meet cute, they start dating (but nothing serious, they both insist), they fall in love, the stress tears them apart, yada yada yada. There's even the climactic scene where one hops into a car to chase after the other to deliver the "I can't live without you" speech.

But Jaime and Maggie are far enough outside the norm for this type of movie, and Gyllenhaal and Hathaway's performances solid enough, that the movie rises somewhat above the limitations of its genre, and proves surprisingly entertaining. (On a shallow personal note: This is the first time I've ever found Gyllenhaal sexy; he's always been too boyish and scrawny before. And when he tried to bulk up for Prince of Persia, he just wound up looking silly, as most men do when they're overinflated to that extent.)

The movie's glaring weakness is its principal supporting character, Jamie's brother Josh, played by Josh Gad, who could only have been cast after a conversation that included the phrase "whaddya mean we can't afford Jonah Hill?," and who is even more annoying and untalented than Hill. (I know, I wouldn't have thought it was possible, either.)

It's nice to see Jill Clayburgh, though, in her final role; only a single scene, and she's not the focus, but she makes a nice impression. And I was impressed by a small technical thing -- there are scenes late in the movie filmed outside as the snow falls, and it's the most realistic looking snowfall I've ever seen, swirling around as snow does instead of simply dropping straight to earth as movie snow tends to do. I don't know if it was filmed in real snow or just faked better than usual, but I appreciated it.

Those who are either drawn to or repulsed by such things should be aware that there is more nudity than we would expect to see from stars at this level, but none of it is gratuitous, and it never feels tacky.

It's a nice movie. There are a lot of better ones out there at this time of year, and I wouldn't put this at the very top of my list "must see now" list, but you'll enjoy it when it pops up on cable next spring.

MOVIES: Tangled (Nathan Greno & Byron Howard, 2010)

An absolute delight. For their 50th animated feature, Disney has added a few new characters and plot details to the Rapunzel story, and they've created a lively and exciting adventure.

The major new character is Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi, so solidly in heroic mode that I wouldn't have recognized him from TV's Chuck), a charming rogue who is on the run from the king's men when he stumbles across Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) in the tower where she has been held prisoner since birth by Gothel (Donna Murphy, hamming it up in the grand tradition of Disney villains). Rapunzel is turning 18 and longs to see the world, and blackmails Flynn into helping her escape from Gothel's tower.

So Flynn's on the run from the law (and from his fellow thieves, whom he has doublecrossed) and Rapunzel's on the run from Gothel, and they will naturally save each other's bacon several times on the way to falling in love and the inevitable happy ending.

Along the way, there are some catchy songs -- a barroom number in which assorted thugs and goons sing about their unlikely dreams is the highlight, much in the tradition of "Under the Sea" or "Be Our Guest" -- and some beautiful animation, culminating in a scene featuring hundreds of glowing lanterns floating through the air, which is among the most gorgeous images Disney has ever given us. The voice performances are very good; the singing from pop star Moore and Broadway star Murphy isn't surprising, but I don't think we've ever heard Levi sing before, and he holds his own quite well.

Tangled isn't at the level of the best Pixar films, but it's the best thing to come out of Disney since The Lion King.

BOOKS: Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz (1978)

When HBO started running a documentary on Fran Lebowitz last month, I was reminded that I'd still never gotten around to reading her. So I grabbed this from the library to see what all the fuss was about. (Didn't watch the documentary. I find that I almost never care about a writer's life; it's their writing that holds my interest.)

The book's a mixed bag for me. It's a collection of short essays -- rarely more than 5-6 pages long, and most shorter than that -- about various aspects of New York living. The Lebowitz persona is that of a woman who desperately wants to be Oscar Wilde and longs for a world in which a gift for sparkling conversation and devastating epigrams is sufficient to keep one supplied with cigarettes and cocktails.

And there certainly are some magnificent sentences to be found here, precisely calibrated, impeccably crafted little jolts of observation and sharp wit. A few examples:
All God's children are not beautiful. Most of God's children are, in fact, barely presentable.

If your sexual fantasies were truly of interest to others, they would no longer be fantasies.

If you are of the opinion that the contemplation of suicide is sufficient evident of a poetic nature, do not forget that actions speak louder than words.

(In a piece on the pros and cons of chidren) Children are usually small in stature, which makes them quite useful for getting at those hard-to-reach places.
And occasionally, she'll even get off a great paragraph:
12:35 PM -- The phone rings. I am not amused. This is not my favorite way to wake up. My favorite way to wake up is to have a certain French movie star whisper to me softly at two-thirty in the afternoon that if I want to get to Sweden in time to pick up my Nobel Prize for Literature I had better ring for breakfast. This occurs rather less often than one might wish.
But over the course of a full essay, and certainly over the course of the book, the carefully cultivated sardonic disenchantment does grow tiresome (and I speak with full awareness that c.c.s.d. is a mode with which I have more than a nodding acquaintance). Lebowitz is best read in very small doses, I think, and these pieces probably made a better impression in their original form as magazine features.

Will I pick up her other book? Perhaps, but not for a few months, at least, and with the awareness that I'll mostly be browsing through it in search of those few perfect sentences.

November 30, 2010

BOOKS: Red Herring, Archer Mayor (2010)

21st in the series about Vermont policeman Joe Gunther.

Joe heads the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, which gets called in to work on cases that are bigger or more complicated than the state's local police departments can handle. This time around, we have a series of deaths, none of which appear (at first) to be straightforward murder -- a hanging, a rape, a DUI. The victims don't appear to be connected, but there's a strange common element to the three cases; a large drop of blood (not the victim's) is found at each otherwise clean crime scene, suggesting that these crimes have been staged, and that a serial killer is at work.

Mayor does a little bit of plot tap-dancing to allow his detectives access to more high-tech forensic investigative tools than they would normally have, giving this volume something of a CSI: Vermont flavor, but there's still plenty of the routine police work that his cops traditionally specialize in, and the forensics doesn't overwhelm the story.

I've always enjoyed this series, and Red Herring is a particularly entertaining installment. The killer and motive are interesting; the mix of routine interviews and modern tools works well; and Mayor throws in a plot twist at the end that will surely have interesting ramifications in the next volume.

November 25, 2010

MOVIES: Burlesque (Steven Antin, 2010)

Burlesque is not the Showgirls-level catastrophe that the advertising might have suggested, but also isn't, for the most part, terribly memorable.

The movie is, in essence, a modern Busby Berkeley flick with Christina Aguilera in the Ruby Keeler role as Ali, who's fresh off the bus from Iowa, determined to be a star when she wanders into a burlesque lounge owned by Tess (Cher, in a much smaller role than the co-lead you'd expect from the posters and the billing). If you don't already know that by the end of the movie, Ali will have become a star, saved Tess's club, and landed herself a guy, then you have clearly never seen a movie before.

As an actress, Aguilera doesn't make much of an impression, either positive or negative, but when she sings, she absolutely holds your attention. She's ten times better than most of the material she's given to sing (though her opening number is, I think, an old Etta James song that is nearly worthy of her), and has the kind of talent and taste that makes me long for her to do an album of standards.

The most noteworthy thing about Cher at this point is her spectacularly immobile face; watching her speak or sing is like watching one of those old nutcrackers where only the lower jaw moves. She does tolerably well with the two songs she's given, but it's painfully clear why the movie avoids ever having her share the stage with Aguilera, who would destroy her.

Alan Cumming seems to think he's still playing the Emcee in Cabaret in his waste of a role as the club's ticket-booth guy. Cam Gigandet plays Ali's love interest; he is well-sculpted and pretty to look at, and this is all that the role asks of him. The better supporting turns come from Kristen Bell as Ali's rival, the club's established star, and Stanley Tucci, who gets all the best punchlines in a reprise of his turn from The Devil Wears Prada as the gay sidekick.

Ultimately, the problem is that the movie is only moderately successful at anything -- moderately sexy, moderately funny, moderately good music; the only thing that truly impresses is Aguilera's singing, and you can get that (and with better material) by buying one of her CDs.

November 24, 2010

BOOKS: Coming Back, Marcia Muller (2010)

28th in the Sharon McCone mystery series.

At the end of the previous volume, Sharon had recovered from locked-in syndrome after being shot, but faced a long, arduous recovery. Muller hits the fast-forward button at the beginning of the new installment, skipping over six months of physical therapy in five pages. Sharon's still not nearly at full strength (and not being allowed to drive is seriously cramping her style), but she's well enough to get involved in cases again.

So when Piper Quinn, a friend from her physical therapy center, goes missing, Sharon and her team go into action. We don't get to meet Piper -- the action begins when Sharon realizes she's missed therapy for a few days and starts investigating -- which makes it a bit hard at first to get too involved in the case, but we get the emotional involvement we need when one of Sharon's investigators also disappears while working on the case, which winds up involving not-so-dead soldiers, rogue government agents, and a missing microchip.

The format here is similar to the last book. Since Sharon's not yet up to handling the case entirely on her own, we bounce among the members of the McCone Investigations staff as each goes about his or her piece of the case. Chapters focusing on Ted, the office manager, are a bit out of place, since they mostly consist of Ted daydreaming about silk shirts and wishing he could be a real detective just like everyone else. That aside, though, I like the format, and wouldn't mind if this became the new default mode for Muller's series, shifting the focus from one investigator to the full team, or maybe allowing each member of the staff to take center stage, one book at a time. It's an effective way to extend the life of the series without it growing stale as so many have. (Poor Sue Grafton, for instance, hasn't even made it to the end of the alphabet yet, and she's barely readable anymore; one shudders to think what her 28th book will be like. BB Is for Gun...)

A side note: It was an odd juxtaposition to read this back-to-back with Armistead Maupin's latest -- both set in San Francisco, featuring large ensemble casts and storytelling from multiple characters' points of view. I kept expecting Sharon to run into Ben at the dog park, or Craig to pound on Anna Madrigal's door when canvassing the neighbors.

November 23, 2010

MOVIES: Fair Game (Doug Liman, 2010)

Rather a snooze, in which Sean Penn and Naomi Watts reduce the Valerie Plame affair to a soap opera about how politics gets in the way of their happy marriage. The movie is not helped by the fact that Penn and Watts both tend to play every moment of every role with excessive solemnity. The story isn't a laff riot, certainly, but neither is it Greek tragedy.

BOOKS: Mary Ann in Autumn, Armistead Maupin (2010)

The eighth volume in the Tales of the City series. (My thoughts on the previous volume here.)

A mildly meandering visit with several of Maupin's characters. Mary Ann Singleton is at the center of the book; she's returned to San Francisco in need of support from her old friends in the face of calamities both marital and medical. The other viewpoint characters in this installment are not principals from the original series, but second-generation characters -- Michael's young husband, Ben; his business partner, Jake; Mary Ann's estranged stepdaughter, Shawna.

Maupin's been writing about these characters for 35 years now, and it's still an absolute joy to spend time with them. That sense of accumulated history is something that we rarely get in novels, and I like the way Maupin uses the series' longevity as something of a running joke, with the newer/younger characters often being frustrated or bemused by the private jokes and mysterious shared secrets the older characters share.

The actual story, I'm afraid, is a bit on the silly side, with several subplots coming together in a way that is wildly coincidental even by Maupin's somewhat soap opera-ish standards, and involving the unlikely return of a minor character from early in the series. But the Tales of the City series isn't really about plot at this point; it's about the little moments spent with people who matter, and the bonds that develop among the members of what Maupin's matriarch Anna Madrigal calls a logical -- as opposed to biological -- family.

November 18, 2010

BOOKS: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness (2010)

Final volume in Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy. (My thoughts on the first two volumes here and here.)

When we left the human settlers on New World, they were about to go to war, divided into two armies led by Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle; our young heroes, Todd and Viola, were still separated, one in each camp, both of them struggling to find some way to head off the conflict.

But the arrival of an army of Spackle -- the planet's indigenous people, thought to have been exterminated -- with their own obvious grudges against both human groups complicates matters immensely, as does the landing of a scout ship, sent in advance of the new batch of several thousand settlers who will arrive shortly.

This is a spectacular conclusion to the series. Ness does a terrific job of alternating between his narrators -- Todd, Viola, and a new third narrator whose identity I won't give away -- in short bursts, each ending with a mini-cliffhanger. The action moves very quickly, and the story is told with great intensity.

It's not a light story. Ness is dealing with complicated and dark matters here -- terrorism, genocide, the tendency of power to corrupt and the struggle to resist that corruption, the question of whether an evil man can ever truly find redemption, the horrors of war. Throughout, Todd and Viola are forced to grapple with the consequences of their decisions, and the decisions they must make often present them with no good options.

It's hard not to compare this series with Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy; the three volumes of each were published at about the same time, and they deal with similar themes. Collins got most of the attention for her very successful books (and I enjoyed them very much), but I prefer the Ness series. I find the characters to be richer and more complicated, the moral dilemmas more intricate and involving, and the narrative far more compelling and driving.

Collins, I think, got less successful with each volume, in large part because she was repeating herself, finding an excuse to give us a new Hunger Games in the second book, and disguising an uprising against the government as Hunger Games III in the third. Where Collins presents war and violence as videogame entertainment (*), Ness presents them in more brutally realistic terms. And the relationship between Todd and Viola is a deeply moving love story, not a silly Twilight-esque triangle.

(*Yes, I know, Collins is attempting a critique of the way we turn everything into just another reality show, but that's a very hard critique to make in fiction without falling into the trap of doing just that, and Collins doesn't always avoid that trap.)

Monsters of Men is a marvelous book, and the trilogy is a major accomplishment. You do need to start with the first book; the action is continuous, and Ness doesn't waste much time providing background at the beginning of the second and third volumes. But you'll be so glad you did. Recommended with extreme enthusiasm.

November 15, 2010

MOVIES: Morning Glory (Roger Michell, 2010)

Rachel McAdams stars as Becky Fuller, an ambitious young TV producer handed the enormous task of revitalizing Daybreak, the 4th-place morning news show. She's got one veteran host (Diane Keaton, in a role that's much smaller than the advertising would lead you to believe), but needs to find a co-host for her. Through a few plot contrivances involving unlikely contract clauses, she's able to force retired anchorman Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) to take the job. (For a real world analogy, imagine that CBS somehow dragged Dan Rather back into service to spend his mornings with Julie Chen on The Early Show.)

And from there, you can surely see how the story plays out. Mike grumbles and complains about being forced into so undignified a position; Becky twinkles and sparkles and (eventually) charms him into submission, saving the doomed show in the process. It's no Broadcast News -- a comparison that I believe I am required to make under the terms of my Junior Movie Blogger contract -- but it's a moderately entertaining movie.

Ford doesn't do comedy very often; the last two I see on his IMDB page are Sabrina and Working Girl. He should do more of it, because he's quite funny. I hadn't seen any of his movies in a while, and hadn't realized quite how raspy his voice has gotten; he plays it like a gravelly violin here, finding surprisingly subtle variations on the theme of grumpy. And McAdams, playing a character so cheerfullly perky and spunky that she could be excruciatingly annoying, is instead charming, smart, and sexy.

McAdams gets an unnecessary romantic subplot, in which Patrick Wilson plays the bland boyfriend; there's solid supporting work from Keaton and from Matt Malloy as the show's buffoonish weather guy. Morning Glory isn't something you need to rush out to theaters for, but when it lands on cable, it'll make for a harmless evening's diversion.

November 13, 2010

MOVIES: Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010)

Unstoppable is a runaway train movie, so you know a lot of what will happen going in. You know that some dimwitted employee will make a mistake that sends a train down the tracks at full speed with no crew on board. You know that the train will be carrying toxic chemicals, not to mention highly flammable diesel fuel. You know that somewhere down the tracks is a small town, both adorably quaint and densely populated, and that as the tracks pass through that town, they curve so sharply that the train cannot possibly avoid derailing. And you know that before the movie ends, someone will have to run across the top of the train, leaping from car to car in one last desperate attempt to avoid disaster.

And yet, predictable as the thing is, damned if Unstoppable doesn't work as an entertainingly stupid thrill ride. None of the cast is called on to do any actual acting here, but everyone plays their cliche precisely and with great enthusiasm. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine are the veteran engineer and the rookie conductor who must save the day; Kevin Dunn is the venal railroad executive; Ethan Suplee is the dimwit who starts everything in motion; and Rosario Dawson is the dispatcher whose role consists of looking worried and talking into the radio: "Are you sure this is going to work, Frank?"

The stunts and effects are effective, and director Tony Scott knows just when to cut the tension with a dumb laugh or a mild tug at the heartstrings. Unstoppable is utterly forgettable entertainment, but it has no pretensions of being anything more, and on that level, it's entirely effective.

November 12, 2010

BOOKS: The Fat Man, Ken Harmon (2010)

Two great American myths -- the hard-boiled private eye and Santa Claus -- collide in Harmon's uneven parody.

Gumdrop Coal is one of Santa's favorite elves; he heads up the Coal Patrol, deciding which children are naughty enough to receive coal instead of toys. But when Gumdrop finds himself the prime suspect in a murder, he's forced to turn detective to find out who's trying to set him up. Could it be star reporter Rosebud Jubilee? Gumdrop's rival (and Santa's new favorite) Charles "Candy" Cane? Surely not Gumdrop's old pal Dingleberry Fizz?

Harmon hurls every big of Christmas lore he can find into his story -- songs, stories, TV specials, movies -- and is often very clever and innovative in finding ways to use them. (The characters from "The 12 Days of Christmas," for instance, are turned into a delightfully unexpected force of danger.) He falls flat in spots, most notably in his attempts to imitate two great holiday poems -- "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" -- which fail because he has absolutely no sense of rhythm or meter.

Where the book really collapses, though, is when Harmon attempts to link the sacred side of Christmas into his story, and to draw an explicit connection between the two characters at the center of the two Christmas stories -- Santa and Jesus. He makes the connection repeatedly, but here's his most concise statement:

[Santa] wasn't just a jolly old elf and toymaker. He was God's own angel, sent here to show the spirit of Christmas to the poor souls too stubborn or stupid or scared to step into a church. Believing Santa could deliver gifts to the whole world in a single night made it possible to believe that on one quiet night, God gave the whole world the greatest gift.

Now, I wouldn't argue that it's impossible to combine the secular and sacred sides of Christmas in one story -- A Charlie Brown Christmas does it brilliantly, and it's not a coincidence that Harmon's least annoying sacred moment is a direct reference to that classic -- but to do so, I think, requires absolute sincerity in all parts of the storytelling. When your main plotline is elf noir, a parody of a genre than sometimes comes close to parodying itself as is, there's an inherent smirking goofiness which, while entertaining, cuts against being able to suddenly play the religious stuff straight. The Jesus parts of the story are awfully jarring, and the way they're dropped into an otherwise comic tale feels disrespectful at best, if not flat-out blasphemous.

(It is interesting that Harmon never actually uses the words "Jesus" or "Christ;" it is always "the Child." The cynic in me suspects that Harmon and/or his publisher feared that bookstore browsers would be turned off by obvious Jesus references in a book that looks like, and mostly is, a silly holiday romp; "Child," on the other hand, is a much more innocuous and less religiously loaded word.)

If you're willing and able to overlook that particular bit of tonal awkwardness, then there is much to enjoy in The Fat Man. A lot of the comedy works very well; the mystery has a satisfying conclusion and some nice Gumdrop-in-peril scenes; and Harmon's appropriation of our cultural icons is sometimes quite ingenious. But be prepared to be jolted out of the story whenever Harmon shoves the Child into the narrative.

November 08, 2010

BOOKS: Never Look Away, Linwood Barclay (2010)

Here we have a "my family member is missing" thriller, very much in the mold of Harlan Coben's last dozen or so novels, but without the staleness that's crept into Coben's work.

David Harwood is a small-town reporter trying to investigate a possible corruption scandal involving local politicians and the company that wants to build a private prison in town. His bosses at the newspaper, who stand to gain financially if the prison is built, are doing all they can to keep him from reporting the story.

That could make an interesting book on its own, but it's merely the subplot here; the real action gets going when David's wife, Jan, disappears during a visit to the local amusement park. She hadn't been herself lately, and had recently confessed to David that she'd been having suicidal thoughts.

And that sets in motion a tense little thriller, in which David finds himself investigating his own wife and discovering that she'd been keeping more than the usual number of secrets from him.

Barclay does a very nice job of setting up the disappearance, showing us the events leading up to it from David's point of view, then making it clear how, to the police, it all looks suspicious enough to make David the leading suspect.

There is a slightly clunky section early on in which we follow an unnamed character; we know that it's one of two specific people (and that the other is dead), and Barclay drags out the revelation of who it actually is to the point where the avoidance of the name becomes annoying. But once that's out of the way, this is a nicely told story, with cleverly plotted twists and surprises along the way.

November 07, 2010

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, November 7 (Debussy/Stravinsky/Takemitsu)

Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor; Peter Serkin, piano.

The program:
  • Debussy: Jeux
  • Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Winds
  • Takemitsu: riverrun
  • Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird
The usual disclaimer: Anything that sounds like actual knowledge is most likely a shameless lift from the program notes or the pre-concert lecture.

Much of this music wasn't really my cup of tea. Debussy's ballet score and Takemitsu's piano concerto both meandered a bit, drifting from moment to moment, always rather pretty in a vague way, but I couldn't find much to latch on to as a throughline to get me through the piece. As the music wandered, so did my mind. I suspect that the Debussy wouldn't feel quite so aimless if we were actually watching the ballet that goes with it.

I enjoyed the Stravinsky much more. The piano concerto is a rather dark, heavy work, in no small part due to the near absence of strings (only the double basses are present). The winds and brass don't spend much time in their upper register, and the piano solo mostly avoids the glittering trills and runs that one expects from a piano concerto. The opening of the second movement largo is particularly lovely, with a brooding melody rising from a series of heavy, lugubrious chords.

And the Firebird Suite was great fun. The "Infernal Dance" was the highlight, a spectacular, furious whirlwind. The final moments didn't quite have the punch I'd have expected; I've come to expect more kick from the Philharmonic and Disney Hall than we got from the brass today. But even if the performance was slightly muffled, the piece is a terrific crowd-pleaser.

Next up: the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (with Hilary Hahn) and Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique.

November 06, 2010

MOVIES: For Colored Girls (Tyler Perry, 2010)

For Colored Girls is a spectacularly ambitious hodgepodge of a movie. At its best, it can be immensely powerful; at its worst, it's filled with overwrought melodrama.

Tyler Perry's approach to Ntozake Shange's series of monologues/poems is to flesh out the women who speak them, giving them backstories and interconnections. Perry's plot lines are what we've come to expect from him, stories of African-American women and how they suffer at the hands of their hateful men. (There is only one significant male character in the movie who does not in some way betray or abuse the woman he's involved with.)

The transitions from Perry's workaday dialogue to Shange's monologues are awkward. It's always clear when one of Shange's poems has arrived; we shift to extreme closeup, the strings get over-the-top sappy, and the actress takes on a demeanor that says "prepare to be awed by the beauty of this speech and by the artistry with which I declaim it."

Perry and his cast get so caught up in the music of the language that they forget that his plot requires them to be actual people. You can get away with that sort of recitation on stage, when the entire show is built of that heightened speech, but it's less effective when it lands in disconnnected plodding chunks.

Kimberly Elise gives the movie's best performance as a woman trying to maintain a normal life despite the presence of her abusive boyfriend, and there is also fine work from Anika Noni Rose as a dance instructor stepping tentatively into the dating world, and Tessa Thompson as her most gifted student, preparing to leave for college. Janet Jackson is better than I'd have expected as a hard-edged magazine editor, though her vocal and physical resemblance to her brother Michael is distractingly eerie.

Less successful are Whoopi Goldberg as a tyrannical mother caught up in a religious cult, and Phylicia Rashad as the manager of the apartment building where several of the women live. To be fair, Rashad is saddled with the movie's worst character, forced to whip back and forth between judgmental snoop and caring Earth Mother.

There's a stretch in the middle of the movie where Perry's fondness for big emotion runs away with him. We cut back and forth between an operatic aria and a rape; Elise's character arc reaches its climax with an act so monstrous that we might as well be watching a Godzilla movie; a visit to a back-alley abortionist is depicted as a Tea Party nightmare of life in the inner city, all gibbering homeless people and closeups of terrifying gynecological tools shot through fisheye lenses.

But when the movie works, it reaches glorious heights. Loretta Devine's monologue ("someone tried to steal alla my stuff") sings gloriously, and Kimberly Elise's speech at the end of the movie is almost unbearably poignant. Perry's interweaving of the storylines, and the way in which he gradually brings the women together, is quite effective, and the relationship between sisters Tessa Thompson and Thandie Newton is particularly convincing.

And the movie serves as a sad reminder that it is still too damned hard for black actors and actresses to find good roles in good movies. There are actresses here who are as good, and have consistently been as good, as anyone in their generation -- Devine, Elise, Rashad, Kerry Washington -- and we too rarely get to see them in movies. They are worth seeing here, and for all of its flaws -- and lord knows, there are flaws -- so is the movie.

November 05, 2010

BOOKS: Sweater Quest, Adrienne Martini (2010)

The most interesting story in Adrienne Martini's Sweater Quest hovers in the background, and that's the story of Alice Starmore. Starmore is a sweater designer whose Mary Tudor pattern is the ostensible focus of Martini's entry in the "how I spent a year doing X" genre. Starmore's remarkable gift for color enabled her to combine colors that one would never have expected to work together and get gorgeous results. She was so dedicated to getting her colors just right that she developed her own line of yarns, and a lot of her colors are very difficult to duplicate with any other yarns.

But alas, she had a falling out with her distributor and manufacturer, and being the prickly and litigious woman that she is, Starmore simply withdrew all of her yarns from production, leaving knitters who want to make her designs at a loss.

(An illustrative example of Starmore's approach to her public: When one knitter writes to say, "I love your patterns, but I am allergic to wool. What would you suggest?," the response is "I would suggest that you not knit my sweaters.")

And so Martini is forced to improvise, substituting other yarns for Starmore's discontinued originals as she attempts to make her own Mary Tudor. (That's an obstacle in its own right, as Starmore has been known to sue anyone who attempts to make color-conversion charts available, claiming they violate her copyrights.) It's a particularly challenging design which even the most experienced knitters would not attempt lightly, and Martini's skills (and patience) are pushed to their limits.

That's just the backdrop, though, for Martini's real topic, which is the Internet-fueled revival of knitting and growth of an international community of knitters. Once upon a time, Martini tells us, there were a lot of knitters in every community; if you had questions about how to do this or whether to do that, you had someone local to call on for advice. But as the textile industry and economic advances made knitting a less crucial skill, that community shrank; the only ones still knitting were those who did it for love, and some who might have developed the skill had no local community to learn it from.

But then, along came the Internet, and suddenly there was a vast array of resources. Knitting bloggers and how-to YouTube videos and yarn stores led to the current knitting revival, and Martini visits many of the leaders of that online community. It's a friendly, amiable world, and that's about all I can really say for Sweater Quest, too; it's likable enough, but it doesn't dig very deep into anything. If anyone ever writes the Alice Starmore story, though, I'm there.

November 01, 2010

BOOKS: Room, Emma Donoghue (2010)

Jack has just turned five, and has spent his entire life in Room. In a room, to be precise -- an eleven-foot-square toolshed where his mother has lived for even longer than he has. Ma's been there for seven years, ever since being kidnapped at 19 by the man she calls Old Nick.

So far as Jack knows, Room is all the world there is. Ma does her best to keep him happy and healthy (and for a woman with at most a year of college, her creative parenting and educational techniques would be the envy of many a teacher), but Jack is becoming more and more curious, and better able to spot the inconsistencies in her stories about the world; Ma knows that she can't possibly keep him content with this life for very much longer.

Donoghue pulls off a lot of tricky things in Room. Jack is her narrator, and she creates a convincing (albeit rather intellectually precocious) 5-year-old boy. Letting Jack tell the story also gives her a way to keep the most horrifying aspects of their lives at some distance; Jack is less horrified and frustrated by their life than Ma is, simply because it's all he's ever known. (Letting Ma tell the story would also have meant a much heavier emphasis on the sexual aspects of her confinement, which would make the telling even harder to take.)

Even more impressive, Donoghue makes Jack's view of his world so convincing that (and I suppose this is a mild spoiler) when he finally discovers our world, the world outside Room, it becomes a genuinely terrifying and alien place. And Donoghue finds ways to twist her plot and advance her story that I never would have expected after the first few pages.

Room is spectacularly well written; the final pages are particularly moving, as we see just how much Jack has been changed by events. Donoghue finds humor in this bizarre life, and the relationship between Jack and Ma is completely convincing, a portrait of a mother's ferocious love and determination to raise her child as normally as possible under the most extraordinary of circumstances.

October 26, 2010

BOOKS: One Day, David Nicholls (2010/UK 2009)

The 20-year relationship of Dexter and Emma, which we watch by dropping in on them every July 15, beginning with their first meeting. It's an entertaining story, and Nicholls uses his narrative conceit very cleverly, but there is one major flaw that might ruin the book for you.

That flaw is what Roger Ebert calls an "idiot plot;" that is, a story that would be wrapped up in ten minutes if any of the characters were not complete idiots. In this case, it's clear to us by the end of, say, chapter 2 that Dex and Em are meant to be together, and each of them realizes it even sooner than that. But neither of them ever bothers to say "I love you" to the other (or even "I like you a lot and I think we should start dating"), and so we're dragged through a decade or more of watching the two pine miserably away for one another. Each time circumstances put them in danger of actually connecting romantically, Nicholls forces one of them to jump through some foolish hoop to plant yet another obstacle in their way.

But on the plus side, the characters are immensely likable and vividly drawn, and Nicholls tells his story with great warmth and humor. The final chapters are particularly strong, and the ending is much more moving than I had expected from so relatively frothy a confection. That ending, I think, tipped the balance for me, and got me past my annoyance with the idiot plot to the point where I can mildly recommend the book, but with a strong caveat that your mileage may vary.

October 18, 2010

October 17, 2010

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, October 17 (Messiaen)

Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila-symphonie is not a work to be tackled lightly. It's a gargantuan piece -- 78 minutes, in today's performance -- for an enormous orchestra, and requires virtuoso soloists on the piano and the ondes martenot. (The what?, you may be asking. I'll get to that.) It's a work of passionate, almost crazed intensity, a wild attempt to depict the whole experience of human love, from the spiritual to the carnal.

And when it's done well, as it certainly was in this performance, it's an exhilirating thrill ride.

Messiaen calls for a very large orchestra, with triple winds and brass, a large percussion section, and an array of keyboard instruments -- celesta, glockenspiel (an odd little keyboard version that looked like a very small harpsichord), piano, and ondes martenot. The ondes is an electronic instrument that can be played from the keyboard to produce separate, distinct notes (but only one note at a time, no chords), or by sliding a ring along a metal rod at the front of the keyboard to produce swooping glissandos. It's got a 7-octave range with a less piercing tone than that of the theremin, and more timbral variation, created mostly through the use of multiple speakers, each of which filters the sound differently. Today's ondes soloist, Cynthia Millar, is the reigning queen of the instrument, and has performed the Turangalila more than 100 times; her fellow soloist, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, is also a long-time devotee of the work.

It's not a work that follows traditional symphonic structure. There is a sort of development section late in the work, but the music is largely built around the layering of contrasting ideas, rhythms, and timbres. The low brass blares a series of portentous chords; as they fade away, you start to hear the flurrying dance that the strings have been playing all along; and above it all, the piano chirps away in a variety of imitation birdsongs. (Birdsongs were one of Messiaen's obsessions; his business card described him as a "composer/ornithologist.")

The things that stick with me when I hear unfamiliar music for the first time tend to be unusual moments of orchestral color, and there are some lovely ones here. The piano frequently plays in unison with the celesta and glockenspiel, giving it a brighter, more tinkly sound; a solo clarinet becomes even more hollow and hooty when doubled by the ondes. Messiaen has a particularly interesting way of combining unpitched percussion with the piano. A single woodblock, for instance, will clatter out a rhythm as the piano plays a melody to match, with the two balanced in such a way that the timbre of the woodblock dominates; it creates the illusion that one woodblock is playing a full melodic phrase.

The final seconds of the work are striking. The orchestra builds and builds to a thrilling climax, and at the moment when you expect that last little bit of oomph to hit, that little exclamation point on the final instant, the music instead fades away in an instant. It's as if all that joy, that passion, that delirious ecstasy is just too much to be sustained; it can only implode. It's a magical effect.

This was the first concert I'd heard under Gustavo Dudamel, and he's great fun to watch. He's very lively on the podium, but his energy never detracts from the absolute clarity of his beat and his tempos (and in this work, tempos are changing all the time, both abruptly and through drawn-out ritardando passages). The orchestra clearly loves him, and it's exciting to think how good he could become if he's this good at 29.

This was a concert I won't forget for a long time, an absolutely spectacular afternoon, and the audience responded with a standing ovation that lasted for nearly ten minutes.

October 16, 2010

MOVIES: Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010)

To his credit, Clint Eastwood attempts in Hereafter to do several things he's never tried before as a director; unfortunately, he doesn't do any of them very well. The big effects scene that opens the movie looks distinctly low-budget, and the Babel-style bringing together of mulitple storylines is handled in particularly clumsy fashion.

Worst of all, Eastwood attempts (briefly) to give us a glimpse of the afterlife. There are a lot of ways for a director to do that, but all of them call for a visual poetry that Eastwood's prosaic style simply can't provide.

The actors do what they can, but Peter Morgan's script is unusually heavy-handed, wrapping them all in a lead blanket of somber earnestness. Cecile de France is pretty, but an emotional blank as a French journalist; retired psychic Matt Damon has the wounded sincerity cranked up to full blast; George and Frankie McLaren, as London twins struck by tragedy, are the worst sort of child actors, coasting on simpering cuteness. The best impressions are made by supporting players -- Steven Schirippa as a cheerful cooking instructor, Jenifer Lewis as a frantic grieving mother.

As has become his habit, Eastwood scores the movie himself, and you will grow very tired of the plinking little piano theme that accompanies the movie's sadder moments (of which there are a lot).

You don't expect a movie about how we cope with death to be full of laughs, but there's not so much as a smile to break the unrelenting gloom. (Bryce Dallas Howard tries to bring some comic energy to her role as Damon's romantic interest; it doesn't work at all, but at least she's trying.) Hereafter is a movie desperately in need of a sense of humor to break through its hermetic seal of righteous sincerity.

October 09, 2010

MOVIES: Secretariat (Randall Wallace, 2010)

There is not a single moment in Secretariat that will surprise you. That's not just because we all know the story (spoiler alert: the horse wins), but because the obligatory plot points of the Inspirational Sports Movie are ticked off with all the solemn predictability of the Stations of the Cross.

There are a lot of problems here. The dialogue is often hopelessly hackneyed and the movie is weighted down with the same sort of fuzzy, soft-focus Christianity that worked so well in selling The Blind Side last year. John Malkovich is badly miscast; just because he has a reputation for playing eccentrics doesn't mean he's the right choice for every eccentric, and he's not very convincing as a French-Canadian horse-training dandy. (His accent when he slips into French, for instance, is terrible, and it's certainly not the distinctive French-Canadian accent.)

That said, Diane Lane is very good as Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, and there's a charming supporting performance from Margo Martindale as the Chenery family secretary. And when that horse comes barrelling down the track, the movie is undeniably exciting. You could easily wait for the DVD; Secretariat certainly isn't a great movie, but if you're in the mood for this sort of thing, it's an awfully effective one in spite of itself.

October 08, 2010

BOOKS: The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes (2007)

Here's a weirdly loopy knockoff of every Victorian genre you can think of, with a few other styles and eras thrown in for good measure. It's equal parts Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, Jewish mysticism, and German expressionism; and it manages to be both genuinely frightening and very funny.

It's the story of Edward Moon, a stage magician who frequently assists the London police in their investigations. This time, he and his sidekick, The Somnambulist (a 7-foot-tall, mute, milk-guzzling, apparently unkillable fellow), are investigating the mysterious deaths of two actors, which lead them into a conspiracy involving deformed prostitutes, the bum who lives outside Moon's theater, the poetry of the recently deceased (or is he?) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the power of Love.

The opening had me hooked, one of those "Hello, I'm your unreliable narrator" things that I love so:
Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.

Yet I cannot be held wholy accountable for its failings. I have good reason for presenting you with so sensational and unlikely an account.

It is all true. Every word of what follows actually happened, and I am merely the journalist, the humble Boswell, who has set it down. You'll have realised by now that I am new to this business of storytelling, that I lack the skill of an expert, that I am without any ability to enthral the reader, to beguile with narrative tricks or charm with sleight of hand.

And the rest of the book more than lives up to the promise of that opening. It's a darkly hilarious mishmash of genres that carefully balances its spectacular horror elements (which really are immensely creepy, particularly in the elaborate battle at the climax) with a gently mocking, affectionately parodic tone. It's Sherlock Holmes meets Wes Craven, Doctor Who meets Edgar Allan Poe -- and it's a fabulously odd piece of entertainment.

October 04, 2010

MOVIES: Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)

The words "teenage comedy" do not exactly give the average moviegoer great cause for optimism these days, but Easy A is an exception. It's a smart, funny movie that doesn't stoop to vulgarity for its jokes, and that allows its characters to be likable and flawed.

Our heroine is Olive (Emma Stone), who tells her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka), that she's lost her virginity to a college man. She hasn't, and that lie leads to another, and another, until Olive suddenly realizes she's lied her way into an image as the school slut. She finds herself even more outcast than before, and Marianne (Amanda Bynes), leader of the school's Christian student group, makes it her mission to get Olive expelled for her behavior.

Olive's currently reading The Scarlet Letter in English class (good lord, are schools still foisting that musty old thing on kids?), and can't help but draw parallels between her own persecution and that of Hester Prynne; she decides to embrace her new image, to the extent of sewing a bright red A on all of her clothes. That, of course, only makes matters worse, and Olive's lies begin to have unfortunate impacts on those around her.

Emma Stone is fabulous as Olive; she's absolutely charming, very funny, and manages to stay likable even in the character's most irritating smart-aleck moments. She's surrounded by a solid cast of supporting players, especially in the adult roles. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci steal all of their scenes as her neo-hippie parents; Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow have fine moments as two of Olive's teachers.

Easy A has some of the same bittersweet humor and insight into teenagers that the best John Hughes movies had, and if some of the plot points stretch credulity to its limits -- a high school where people are shocked that someone's had sex? a world in which someone as likable and sexy as Emma Stone is among the ignored and unpopular? -- well, that's the nature of the genre. Make those small leaps, though, and you're in for a pleasant surprise that'll make you laugh a lot.

MOVIES: The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

I have never been a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg, mostly because he keeps playing roles that don't seem to suit him well. He's a chilly movie presence, not terribly likable, who seems to be a very smart person, yet he keeps playing lovably bumbling, rather inarticulate guys, and it's simply not convincing. But finally, in The Social Network, he's used correctly, playing Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, who is both whip-smart and utterly unlikable, and it's a spectacularly good performance.

It's true of any biographical movie, of course, that the actor is never actually playing Famous Person X so much as he's playing "Famous Person X," a version of the real thing whose personality has been shaped and edited for dramatic purposes, but that seems to be particularly true here. The book on which Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is partly based (different interviews with Fincher and Sorkin will tell you different things about the extent to which the book was the source) is an unusually unreliable work of "nonfiction," and both Zuckerberg and the PR folks at Facebook have made it clear that they don't think this version of the story is very accurate.

But setting aside historical accuracy, and judging the finished product solely as a movie, it's top-notch work. The cast spits out Sorkin's famously dense dialogue as it they've been doing it all their lives, and the performances are consistently fine. Eisenberg dominates the movie as Zuckerberg, whose inability to make or sustain friendships doesn't stop him from creating what has become the world's largest social networking site (if the movie has a serious flaw, it lies in pounding this irony home much harder than is necessary); he oozes arrogance and condescension, looking down on everyone he meets. Andrew Garfield, as Mark's best friend, who will ultimately be betrayed, gets all the layers right -- the giddy optimism as Facebook takes off, the immense patience required to be friends with someone so socially inept as Mark, the devastation when he realizes that he's been left behind.

Justin Timberlake turns on all of his considerable charm as Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley golden boy who seduces Mark with dreams of angel investors, venture capital, and someday being a billionaire; it's the liveliest performance in the movie, and should finally put an end to the idea that Timberlake only gets cast in movies for his name value. He's a seriously talented actor. Armie Hammer does fine work (with the help of some seamless technical wizardry) as both of the Winklevoss twins, patrician jocks who may have given Zuckerberg the ideas that he would eventually turn into Facebook; he gets to deliver some of Sorkin's best droll punchlines, and does so with great elegance and style.

I'm a bit baffled by the considerable chatter about the movie as some sort of era-defining document; for all of its flaws, it seems to me that the documentary Catfish says more about how we live in the Facebook era than The Social Network does. And of course, it must be taken with a massive grain of salt -- maybe a whole lick of it -- rather than as an accurate historical portrayal. But it gives us superb portrayals of interesting characters, and a sharp, crisply written story. It's a wildly entertaining movie.

September 30, 2010

TV: No Ordinary Family (ABC, Tue 8)

Parenthood meets The Incredibles.

A suburban family survives a plane crash in Brazil, only to find that they've all developed superpowers. Father Jim (Michael Chiklis) has super-strength (he's essentially a non-orange version of Chiklis as The Thing in the Fantastic Four movies); mother Stephanie (Julie Benz) has super-speed. Teenage daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) can read minds, and son JJ (Jimmy Bennett) goes from being a poor student to being a brainiac.

The tone is a little uneven. Much of the family stuff has the earnest dramatic tone of the average family soap opera, but there are moments that are pushing for the high whimsy of something like Pushing Daisies (the musical score is overbearing in this regard). But the sense of humor generally works, particularly in the scenes between Jim and his best friend George (Romany Malco). And the special effects are quite good by TV standards, even Stephanie's speed, which can be a very tricky thing to pull off well -- remember how poorly it was done in The Bionic Woman a couple years back? -- is convincingly presented.

There's a troubling plot twist at the end that raises fears of the show going wholeheartedly down the Heroes rabbithole of elaborate, incomprehensible conspiracies with far too many characters, but if the show can avoid that trap, it could be a lot of fun.

TV: Law & Order: Los Angeles (NBC, Wed 10)

There's really not much to say here. If you're still enjoying any of the 57 earlier versions of the Law & Order franchise, then this will give you exactly what you're looking for. If, on the other hand, you think that the franchise wore out its welcome around the time Sam Waterston left Law & Order: Original Recipe, you won't find anything here to change your mind.

BOOKS: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (2010)

This lovely little novel starts off well enough, as a pleasantly smart-alecky story about a time-machine repairman (who also happens to be named Charles Yu); between clients (to the extent that "between" means anything when you live in a time machine), he travels from place/time to place/time searching for his missing father. There are, eventually, the obligatory time travel paradoxes, one of which involves the future Charles handing the present Charles a book and telling him that it contains all the answers. The book, of course, is Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

And if the book were just that, it would be an amusing diversion. But while you're not looking, the novel sneaks up on you and becomes a poignant, melancholy meditation on memory -- which is, after all, its own sort of time machine -- and its cousins, nostalgia and regret.

The writing is a joy to read, and often caught me off guard with the beauty of its insights. I love, for instance, this paragraph:

Hitting the peak of your life's trajectory is not the painful part. The painful day comes earlier, comes before things start going downhill, comes when things are still good, still pretty good, still just fine. It comes when you think you are still on your way up, but you can feel that the velocity isn't there anymore, the push behind you is gone, it's all inertia from here, it's all coasting, it's all momentum, and there will be more, there will be higher days, but for the first time, it's in sight. The top. The best day of your life. There it is. Not as high as you thought it was going to be, and earlier in your life, and also closer to where you are now, startling in its closeness. That there's a ceiling to this, there's a cap, there's a best-case scenario and you are living it right now. To see that look in your parents' faces at the dinner table at ten, and not recognize it, then to see it again at eighteen and recognize it as something to recognize, and then to see it at twenty-five and to recognize it for what it is.
This is a marvelous little jewel of a book.

September 28, 2010

BOOKS: Last Call, Daniel Okrent (2010)

Okrent's history of Prohibition is everything a good volume of history for the layman should be. It's informative and educational without being overly academic and entertaining without reducing the story to fluff.

Okrent draws connections between Prohibition and other issues that aren't always obvious to those of us who aren't experts on the period. I had never realized, for instance, that the Prohibition movement is the reason we have an income tax. At the beginning of the 20th century, roughly 1/3 of the Federal government's income came from liquor taxes; Prohibition's advocates knew that they couldn't achieve their goal without first providing a source of income that would make up for that lost revenue. Their solution was the income tax, which also played a large part in the eventual repeal of Prohibition; wealthy Americans saw Repeal as a way to eliminate the tax on their personal and corporate income. (That part of the equation never did happen, providing an early lesson in how hard it is to turn off a government's revenue source once it's started flowing.)

We also meet fascinating people who were major figures of their day, but have been largely forgotten over time. Wayne Wheeler was the head of the Anti-Saloon League, one of America's first major lobbying groups; it was Wheeler, in fact, who coined the term "special interests" as it's now used in politics. Or how about assistant attorney general Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who for most of the 1920s was responsible for enforcing the Volstead Act (the legislation that established the rules and regulations for Prohibition), making her the most powerful woman in the country? And of course, there's an enormous cast of politicians, gangsters, bootleggers, clerics, activists, and agitators working on both sides of the issue; Okrent has a fine gift for the colorful details that bring them all to life.

There's unexpected humor in some of the ways that people circumvented Prohibition. I particularly reading about a product called Vine-Glo, which was essentially a large brick of powdered grape juice. It came with instructions to reconstitute the juice by adding water. Those instructions went on to warn the user not to add sugar and yeast, or to leave the juice in a dark place, or to let it sit too long before drinking. Why, if you were foolish enough to do all of those things, your juice might ferment into wine.

This is a marvelous book.

September 26, 2010

TV: My Generation (ABC, Thu 8)

Each year, during my "watch everything" fall TV marathon, I allow myself one show that I give up without watching the entire first episode. This year, the not-so-coveted "Because Life Is Too Damned Short" Award goes to My Generation. It's presented as a documentary. Ten years ago, we're told, the senior year of nine students at an Austin high school was documented; now the documentary folks are back to see what they've made of their lives.

Each character is reduced to an on-screen label -- The Jock, The Wallflower, The Brain, The Nerd -- and what little dramatic interest there is comes from seeing how their 28-year-old selves have failed to live up to their 18-year-old dreams, and how they've paired off over the last decade. (It doesn't appear that anyone's found a partner who wasn't part of the original nine, which is weird, because they certainly seemed to have been parts of very different high school cliques.)

None of the actors are at all convincing as 18-year-olds. It makes you wonder why projects like this always start with high school seniors and work up from there; the 18-28 gap is a big one, and a tough one to fake. It would be much easier, I would think, to find actors who could pull off a 40-50 split, or even a 25-35.

The offscreen voice of the documentarian/questioner is that of Elizabeth Keener, who sounds so much like her sister Catharine that it's extremely distracting.

Boring with a capital BORE.

TV: Outsourced (NBC, Thu 9:30)

Outsourced returns us to the "laughing at vs. laughing with" problem that Mike & Molly raised earlier in the week. This time, the focus of the awkward laughter is India.

Our hero is Todd Dempsey (Ben Rappaport), who's been sent to India to manage the call center for a novelty company. He has a motley crew on the phones, who are utterly ignorant of American culture, and thus not very good at selling "add-ons," the related products that callers didn't know they wanted. Todd is sadly unaware of Indian culture himself -- even the idea that cows are sacred seems to be new to him -- so we've got a classic culture-clash comedy in the making.

At its best, Outsourced is a reasonably entertaining comedy. There's an interesting relationship between Todd and his assistant manager, Rajiv (Rizwan Manji), who figures that it doesn't much matter whether Todd succeeds or fails; either way, he's headed back to America, leaving Rajiv to take over his job. Diedrich Bader is amusing as Charlie, manager of another call center, who's clearly meant to be such an Ugly American that we forgive Todd his relatively mild lapses and insensitivities.

But there's a lot of crude ethnic humor here, too. Indians have funny names! (A character named Manmeet is the butt of most of those jokes.) The cities are crowded! ("It's like Frogger, but with real people," says Todd of the local traffic.) The food gives you diarrhea!

And it's a bit annoying that the show also has one more call center manager in the form of Tonya (Pippa Black), a sexy Australian; she's obviously meant to be Todd's romantic interest, and the clear implication is that it wouldn't do for him to be attracted to an Indian woman.

So, even more than Mike & Molly, the show is a very uneven mess, with enough offputting stuff that you feel a little bit queasy about enjoying even the stuff that actually is funny. But there are hints of something more interesting and complicated here, especially in the notion that Todd needs to learn about India just as much as his staff needs to learn about America. If the writers can get past the obvious ethnic humor, Outsourced could turn into something worth watching.

September 25, 2010

TV: Blue Bloods (CBS, Fri 10)

Blue Bloods is an unusual hybrid of genres; think of it as Law & Order: Brothers & Sisters.

Tom Selleck is Frank Reagan, New York City police commissioner; his father, Henry (Len Cariou), was commissioner before him. Oldest son Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) is a veteran detective; youngest son Jamie (Will Estes) has just joined the force. Their sister Erin (Bridget Moynihan) isn't a cop, but hasn't strayed too far from the field; she's an assistant district attorney. And a third brother was also a cop, recently killed in the line of duty.

So we get police procedural stuff -- Danny and his partner search for a kidnapped 9-year-old who's diabetic and needs to be found quickly so that she can get her insulin shot -- and family drama stuff -- the family squabbles over Sunday dinner about Danny's tactics in finding that girl.

Both halves of the show are done quite well, and the blend works better than I'd have expected. This is a good solid piece of entertainment, and if it's able to tap into the loyal CBS audience for procedurals and the family soap opera audience, it should be around for a while.

TV: The Defenders (CBS, Wed 10)

No relation to the early-60s courtroom show of the same name, which starred E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed.

This one features Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell as scrappy Las Vegas defense attorneys, working hard to grow their small firm; it is a major moment for them when their first billboard goes up. They'll take any case they can get (there are frequent references to an unseen partner who specializes in adult film law), and in the pilot, they've actually gotten hold of a murder case. That case plays out in an interesting way, with a twist involving jury instructions that I hadn't seen before, and there's a nice turn from guest star Stephen Root as the judge; making him a frequent guest would be a smart move.

Neither Belushi nor O'Connell is an actor of great range, but The Defenders casts each solidly in his comfort zone. Belushi is the middle-aged shlub, still trying to adapt to his recent divorce, who is both more competent and less dissolute than a first glance would suggest; O'Connell is the cocky young ladies' man (I am less persuaded of O'Connell's sex appeal than he seems to be, but de gustibus non est disputandum and all that). There's also a newly hired associate (Jurnee Smollett, who needs to tone it down a notch) who worked her way through law school as a Vegas stripper, which it is clear will be the source of many laffs.

The tone is on the lighter side here, and the balance between the more madcap antics of its characters and the relatively serious courtroom stuff isn't always successful, but that sort of thing can be worked out with time. The bigger problem is that the show feels rather generic. These are characters we've seen before, and in more interesting versions. Like its timeslot rival The Whole Truth, it's a perfectly adequate show that will satisfy lots of people, but it's got nothing special enough to make me anything more than an occasional viewer.

TV: The Whole Truth (ABC, Wed 10)

"I've looked at law from both sides now..."

That's the conceit of this courtroom drama, in which we bounce back and forth between the offices of the prosecutor and the defense attorney before arriving at the trial in the final act.

For the prosecution, Kathryn Peale (Maura Tierney). She's a tough, no-nonsense broad, constantly barking at her multicultural staff of underlings.

For the defense, Jimmy Brogan (Rob Morrow). He's a lawyer with a heart, who spends a lot of time negotiating the disputes among his multicultural staff of underlings.

They're not only frequent rivals (and how is the show going to explain why this particular pair of lawyers keep coming up against one another in a court system as large as New York's?), but old friends as well, who studied for the bar together. There's a strong suggestion that they dated for a while, and it seems that the romantic tension never entirely went away.

The leads are reasonably well cast, though Tierney makes the stronger impression. Morrow has handicapped himself by giving Brogan a fast-paced speaking style that the actor can't quite handle; he often seems right on the verge of tripping over his own tongue.

The show's gimmick, which gives it its title, is the post-verdict coda, which reveals to us who the real culprit was. In the pilot, this scene was a bit frustrating, not because they'd failed to leave clues pointing us to character X, but because they'd never given X any motive, and they didn't explain to us exactly how X had done it.

The "here's what really happened" coda is a variation on a similar gimmick used in Justice, an earlier courtroom drama from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who's also the producer here. The two shows also share actor Eamonn Walker, who was one of the sidekick attorneys on Justice and plays a similar role (in Tierney's office) here. They should have given the character the same name and thrown in a line about him having moved from Los Angeles; would have been a cute inside joke for the six people who remember Justice.

The tone and style are very straightforward, with not much room for humor, though perhaps future episodes will feature somewhat lighter cases that allow more of that. The Whole Truth is a perfectly acceptable courtroom show, but I didn't find anything in it that was unusual or distinctive enough to keep me watching on a regular basis.