February 27, 2010

MOVIES: The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010)

A top-notch thriller filled with excellent performances.

Ewan McGregor stars as a writer (never named, and identified in the credits only as "The Ghost") hired to ghost-write the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British prime minister. The Ghost's predecessor was a long-time Lang aide, and he had finished a rough first draft before his recent death; all the Ghost is being asked to do is sit with Lang for a few final interviews and polish the draft for publication.

From the moment that the Ghost arrives at Lang's sterile, high-tech home on Martha's Vineyard, it's clear that this is not a happy place. Lang's wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), suspects that her husband is having an affair with his personal assistant (Kim Cattrall), and the news is just breaking that Lang may be charged with war crimes at the Hague, thanks to some documents that have been produced by one of his former Cabinet ministers.

So how did the minister get those documents? Is Lang cheating on his wife? And is there more to the death of ghost #1 than meets the eye?

The cast is almost uniformly excellent; only Cattrall seems out of her league. Williams is particuarly fine as Ruth Lang, whose anger and resentment are almost certainly justified, but who is clearly hiding a few secrets of her own. There are nice turns in smaller roles from Tom Wilkinson, reliable as ever as one of Lang's old college pals; Timothy Hutton as Lang's attorney; Jon Bernthal as the Ghost's agent; and Eli Wallach as a long-time local who holds some of the answers (or at least knows some of the right questions). Even Jim Belushi is entertaining in a small role as one of Lang's publishers.

I could have done without the running joke of the Ghost being unnamed; it goes very quickly from amusing to annoying. Yes, I get the point -- the ghost writer is the anonymous guy whose name no one can be bothered to ask, or remember -- but we don't need to be clubbed over the head with it quite so vigorously.

Alexandre Desplat's score contributes greatly to the paranoid mood, and is occasionally reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's work for Hitchcock. Pawel Edelman's cinematography is lovely, filled with bleak dark blues and grays that allow Germany to pass convincingly for New England in winter. The story unfolds in clever fashion, with one especially smart moment that uses modern technology in a way I haven't seen in a mystery, and I love the way the final moments unfold.

Marvelous, highly entertaining, and recommended with great enthusiasm.

February 26, 2010

BOOKS: Secrets of Eden, Chris Bohjalian (2010)

It strikes me that in his mix of melodramatic mystery and hot-button social issues, Bohjalian is essentially Jodi Picoult with a slightly heavier veneer of respectability. And I say that with no slight intended to either author; the potboiler has a long history in American lit, and there have always been lots of readers who take great joy in them. This is not a bad thing.

This time, the central character is a minister in southern Vermont who undergoes a crisis of faith when one of his parishioners is killed by her husband in an apparent murder-suicide. He is approached by a successful author of vaguely New Agey books about angels, who happens to be in the area on a book tour at the time of the deaths (because successful authors are always stopping by the many metropolises of southern Vermont on their book tours, don'cha know?) and thinks she can be of assistance. It's not long before the police begin to suspect that the suicide part of that murder-suicide might not have been suicide after all, and everyone's suddenly a suspect.

If you're already a Bohjalian fan, you'll probably enjoy this one, too. But if you're new to his writing, this isn't the place to start, if only because the angel author is either (if she genuinely believes the stuff she says about angels in her life) a seriously deluded lunatic or (if she doesn't) happily taking advantage of emotionally fragile people; either way, it's hard to have much sympathy for her. I'd suggest Midwives or Water Witches as a better starting place for the Bohjalian newcomer.

February 25, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: men's semifinals, week 1

So, a day late with this one, as life stepped in to keep me away from the TV last night. By now, the results show has aired on the East Coast, but I haven't peeked to see who went home.

It's another generally uninspiring night. There are a couple of performances that rise above anything the women did last night, but for the most part, it's another night of blandly competent singing.

The rundown:

Todrick, "Since U Been Gone" -- Well, he's got stage presence and confidence, and there's a good voice buried somewhere beneath all of those runs and frills, but just because you can throw in an extra flourish doesn't mean that you should.

Aaron, "Here Comes Goodbye" -- He's a little young for the song, and the judges are right that the nerves are showing, but I like his voice. There's a lot of potential here.

Jermaine, "Get Here" -- Pitch is problematic. When he's quiet, his voice is terribly thin and reedy, and when he belts, it gets very pinched. I'd like to hear him in a lower register; I think he's forcing himself into a tenor range that may not be the best place for him.

Tim, "Apologize" -- I was right there with him for about 15 seconds, and then he hit his falsetto, which is painfully thin and out of tune. And since roughly half of the song was falsetto, this was a disaster.

Joe, "You and I Both" -- The opening verse is nice, but the louder he gets, the more trouble he has staying on pitch. I like the tone of his voice, though.

Tyler, "American Woman" -- It's an angry breakup song; shouldn't there be at least a hint of emotion on his face? He comes across as a little boy playing 70s-rock-star dressup in his grandpa's closet.

Lee, "Chasing Cars" -- Pitch, pitch, pitch. There are some wincingly sour notes here, and I don't much like the sound of his voice when he is in tune.

John, "God Bless the Child" -- He doesn't know his own voice very well yet. Vibrato's inconsistent (though there's usually too much of it), and he wavers between pinched nasality and full-throated clarity, sometimes within a single note.

Michael, "This Love" -- The lyrics are completely incomprehensible. It's like watching one of those Irish gangster movies where the accents are so thick that even though it's in English, it needs subtitles.

(What is it with the sudden ubiquity of "Big Mike" in pop culture? There's the boss on Chuck, the football player in The Blind Side, and now this guy. Odd...)

Alex, "Wonderful World" -- The low notes are out of his range, but I love the tone of his voice; reminds me a bit of Jamie Cullum.

Casey, "Heaven" -- This is the first time in two nights that I've even come close to being really excited by anything on the show. It's not a brilliant performance, but compared to everything else we've heard tonight, it's terrific.

(The Kara/Casey thing is really embarrassing, and the rest of the judges and Ryan need to stop playing into it before it turns into a rerun of Paula Abdul/Corey Clark.)

Andrew, "Sugar, We're Goin' Down" -- The song is deadly dull, and the performance feels like something you'd see in a college-town coffeehouse on Open Mike Night.

Deserving a spot in the final 12: Aaron and Casey.

Deserving to come back for another hearing (if only because someone has to come back): Todrick, Jermaine, Joe, Lee, John, Alex, and Andrew.

Deserving to go home this week: any combination of Tim, Tyler, and Michael.

February 23, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: women's semifinals, week 1

At last! After the wasted weeks of sadistic auditions and Hollywood tedium, the competition finally begins. Sadly, it doesn't get off to a rousing start, and there's not a genuinely impressive performance to be found. There are fewer glaring errors than we might expect at this point -- pitch is generally good and so on -- but not much excitement or personality comes through, and overall it's an evening of bland competence.

As always, the semi-finals are about cutting out the obvious weaklings, so just quick thumbnail comments for now; there'll be time for more careful analysis after we've winnowed the field a bit.

The rundown:

Paige, "All Right Now" -- Good voice, and very nicely sung, which is the problem; this style demands a bit more roughness than she brings to it. It's also not a terribly demanding song, and in these first few weeks, everyone should be trying to make a big impression.

Ashley, "Happy" -- A few iffy pitches, and very poor microphone technique; her sibilants are hissing and her Bs and Ps are popping like crazy.

Janell, 'What About Love" -- A lot of iffy pitches, and she doesn't have a big enough voice to pull off this song.

Lilly, "Fixing a Hole" -- She's chosen a key in which she can't hit the low notes, and she's far too pleased with her own precious adorability. And the word "right" has a "T" at the end, dammit.

Katelyn, "Oh! Darling" -- Very well done; certainly the most credible rocker chick we've heard this evening.

Haeley, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" -- She's overdoing the melodic/rhythmic flexibility a bit for my taste, and there's a sour note or two, but I like her power, and she's making the song something more than a historical relic.

Lacey, "Landslide" -- She breathes with complete disregard for the way the words are phrased, and her voice is an ugly, nasal, Kewpie-doll mess.

Michelle, "Fallin'" -- I like her intensity, but it gives her facial expressions an edge that's a bit scary; I feel like she wants to bite my head off. If she can soften her presence, she could be a contender.

Didi, "The Way I Am" -- The song suits her voice well, and it's the night's best song choice so far. I'm not all that wild about this sort of indie-quirky-faux-naif thing, but she does it well.

Siobhan, "Wicked Game" -- Lovely voice, and she even has some power in her lower register, which is practically unheard of in Idol women.

Crystal, "Hand in My Pocket" -- When you've only got a few seconds to make an impression, don't waste ten of those seconds on the harmonica. And again, enunciation: There's a "d" in "hand."

Katie, "Feeling Good" -- Some pitch problems, and she has the charisma of mashed potatoes.

Deserving a spot in the final 12: No one impressed me enough to claim a spot yet.

Deserving to come back for another hearing: Paige, Katelyn, Haeley, Michelle, Didi, Siobhan, and Crystal.

Deserving to go home this week: Lacey and any one of Ashley, Janell, Lilly, and Katie.

BOOKS: Blacklands, Belinda Bauer (2010)

It's been nearly twenty years since Billy Peters was killed, the victim of a pedophile serial killer, and his family's never recovered. Arnold Avery led the police to the bodies of several of his victims, but Billy wasn't among them, and his mother still can't give up hope that he might be alive; she spends most of her days sitting at the window, watching for Billy to come home.

Billy's sister lives with her mother, along with her two sons, and they're not a very happy family. The older boy, Steven, is twelve now -- a year older than Billy ever got to be -- and he's convinced that if only he can find Billy's body, then Nan will have to accept that he's dead, and just maybe the family can move on to something resembling a normal life.

But even if Billy is buried on the moor where the other bodies were found, well, it's an awfully large moor, and Steven's not an awfully large boy; his months of digging holes have gotten him nowhere, and he decides it's time to take more drastic measures. Like writing a letter to Arnold Avery.

Bauer's first novel is a marvelous debut, with a nifty premise and a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse between Steven and Arnold. She ratchets the tension to almost unbearable levels, and the climactic chapters are terrifically tense.

She writes with great confidence. There is a moment some 50 pages from the end of the book, for instance, when she suddenly introduces a new character. His role in the story is a minor one, and he will be of no significance once that small role has been played; you'd expect him to be whisked on and off stage as quickly as possible so as not to interrupt the story. But Bauer devotes eight pages to this character's backstory, at a moment when the action has begun to build inexorably to the final showdown. In a lesser author's hands, this would be incredibly annoying, and you'd be screaming at her to get on with the story already. Bauer not only gets away with it, she makes that digressive chapter a spectacular bit of bleak comic relief.

Clearly, this is not a book for those who are particularly bothered by children-in-peril stories, but if you're not subject to that particular phobia, then you're gonna love this one. A glorious debut.

February 20, 2010

MOVIES: Terribly Happy (Henrik Ruben Genz, 2008 / US 2010)

This one is great fun, equal parts film noir, contemporary western, and crime thriller. Robert (Jakob Cedergren) is a cop who's been posted to a remote village where the locals prefer to handle things on their own, with no outside interference. It's a gloomy little place where there's always enough rain to turn the fields outside town into a murky bog -- a bog that hides a lot of local secrets -- and where all of the villagers know every one of those secrets.

They know, for instance, that Jorgen and Ingelise (Kim Bodnia and Lene Maria Christensen) aren't a happy couple. She claims he beats her; he says her wounds are self-inflicted, a desperate cry for attention. Whichever is true, they know that Jorgen is enough of a bully that it's better not to get involved. But law-and-order Robert can't help but get involved, and he's gradually sucked into their complicated relationship until he's knee-deep in trouble.

This wouldn't be much of a film noir if Robert really were the boy scout he initially seems to be; he's got dark secrets of his own (and gathers more as the story unfolds), and some of the locals seem to know a lot about those secrets, too.

And it wouldn't be much of a western without a barroom faceoff between hero and villain (a drawn-out drinking contest takes the place of the traditional quick-draw), or an ironic country song playing in the background of a key scene (Eddy Arnold's "You Always Hurt the One You Love" takes on a creepy resonance that might remind you of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" in Blue Velvet).

And it certainly wouldn't be much of a thriller without at least one "dammit, I thought I killed you already" scene, or a moment when the hero's misdeeds are almost revealed, or a little girl who wanders the streets late at night pushing a baby carriage with a very squeaky wheel.

David Lynch isn't the only director who came to mind as I watched Terribly Happy; I was reminded of the Coen brothers, too, particularly Blood Simple. But director Henrik Ruben Genz brings a style of his own that goes beyond those influences, and finds a creepy with that's all his own. Genz has signed on to direct an English-language remake (which I'll be mentally casting for the next few days -- Ryan Gosling as the cop? George Clooney playing against type as the villain?) -- but you know that it won't live up to the original, which is definitely worth seeing if it comes to your town.

February 19, 2010

MOVIES: Oscar-nominated short films

Now playing in select cities, on two separate programs, are the live-action and animated short films that will be contending for this year's Oscar.

Children are always popular in the live-action films, and this year's selection includes two films about young boys in trouble. From India, Kavi tells the story of a 10-year-old living with his parents in slavery, working from sunrise to sunset making bricks; he dreams of being able to go to school and play cricket. Once the point has been made that Kavi's life is bleak and miserable, there's not much more to the movie, though the final image is a lovely one. Australia gives us Miracle Fish, in which Joe's 8th birthday is just as miserable as most of his days; he's bullied at school and doesn't seem to have many friends. He sneaks into the nurse's office for a nap and falls asleep wishing that everyone would leave him alone; when he wakes up, he finds the school mysteriously abandoned. The twist ending is a bit darker than the movie has led us to expect, but the young lead gives a nice performance.

The Swedish film Instead of Abracadabra is the longest of the bunch, at 22 minutes (the rest are between 15 and 18); it's the story of a 25-year-old aspiring magician whose father wishes he'd give up his hobby, find a real job, and move out of the house, already. It's a charming comedy, and the scary moments when Thomas's tricks seem to have gone horribly wrong are nicely mixed in. The Door, from Ireland, begins with a man skulking through a bleak landscape to break into an abandoned apartment building and steal a door; what looks at first like a post-apocalyptic fantasy turns into a moving story about one of recent history's great tragedies.

My favorite of the bunch, The New Tenants, is the only film set in the United States, though the director is Danish. It's the story of a bickering gay couple who've just moved into a new apartment; when they loan a cup of flour to the sweet old lady who lives upstairs, they find themselves caught up in the messy personal life of the previous occupant. It's a marvelously dark comedy, with a particularly fine performance from comic writer David Rakoff as a chain-smoking pessimist who opens the movie with a gloriously bitchy monologue about what a screwed-up world this is.

On the animation side, most of the films are relatively short (6-8 minutes) one-joke stories. From Ireland, Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty gives us a grandmother who can't tell a simple bedtime story without being distracted by her own emotional issues. France's French Roast is something of a shaggy dog story about a businessman who finds that he's lost his wallet and can't pay for the coffee he's been drinking. The Lady and the Reaper, from Spain, is my favorite in the field. It's the story of an elderly widow nearing death and the doctor trying desperately to save her; the battle between the doctor and the grim reaper turns into a marvelous farce, told with impeccable comic timing.

Logorama, a French film, is a bit longer -- about 15 minutes -- and is preceded by a "strong language and violence" warning. (The programmers have thoughtfully placed it last on the program so that parents who might have brought their children can enjoy the rest of the show.) It's set in a version of Los Angeles where the characters and landscape are entirely made up of commercial logos. The diner waitress is the Esso lady; Bob's Bad Boy is a juvenile delinquent, raising hell on a school trip to the zoo; and Ronald McDonald is a psychopath being chased by the cops, who are Michelin men. Once the basic joke is established, the film quickly starts to drag.

The longest movie on the program, just under half an hour, is A Matter of Loaf and Death, the latest Wallace & Gromit story. Wallace is working as a baker this time, and finds romance with Piella, the former spokesmodel for a popular bread company. But Wallace may be in danger, becuase there's a serial killer on the loose who's already killed a dozen bakers. This isn't as good as the earlier Wallace & Gromit films, and the climactic battle with the killer lacks the energy and creativity of, say, the classic penguin duel in The Wrong Trousers. But Gromit can still say more with a raised eyebrow than most cartoon characters can say with ten pages of dialogue, and the Academy has always loved Nick Park, so I think it's safe to put your money on this one being the winner.

Because the films are shorter, the animation program is filled out with three of the shorts that made the Academy's shortlist but weren't nominated. Runaway (Canada) tells of a distracted conducter, a frantic fireman, and a cow who combine to give a group of passengers a hectic train ride; The Kinematograph (Poland) is the story of an inventor whose quest for perfection leads him to ignore things he should notice at home; and Disney/Pixar's Partly Cloudy is about a stork who seems to get all of the worst baby-delivery assignments (it played in theaters before Up). Each of them has some nice moments -- there's a particularly lovely series of dissolves at the end of the Polish film that has something of a sand-painting effect -- but I'd say they deserve their runner-up status to the five nominees.

I don't think the overall level in either field is quite at the level it was last year, but it's always interesting to get a look at the nominees in categories we don't generally get to know much about. If you don't have time to do both programs, I'd say do the animation.

February 07, 2010

MOVIES: The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009)

How many ways does this movie go wrong? I'm not sure I can count that high.

Jackson's version of Alice Sebold's novel about a murdered teenager is an uneasy mix of horror, family drama, and CGI extravaganza; it never finds a consistent tone, and the actors often seem to be starring in different movies from each other.

Saoirse Ronan stars as 14-year-old Susie Salmon, the latest victim of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a serial killer who has lured eight or nine other girls to their deaths. (The fact that Harvey is the killer is no spoiler; we learn that within the first fifteen minutes of the movie.) Susie watches as her family struggles to accept her death, a struggle that Susie herself shares, which is why she remains in "the in-between," a sort of way station between earth and heaven. Ronan's performance is the best thing in the movie; she does a nice job of capturing the way that girls that age get caught up in their own romantic fantasies.

Tucci's performance, on the other hand, is embarrassing. One of the cardinal rules of acting is that villains don't think of themselves as villains; if you're playing the bad guy, you have to find some way to understand or justify what the character thinks of as proper, justified behavior. Tucci, on the other hand, is playing Harvey as The Pervert from his first scene; he might as well be wearing a neon sign that reads, "Hi, I'm the Serial Killer." It's a performance filled with awkward tics and creepy laughter, and not for an instant does the character feel remotely human.

Beaming in from another movie world is Susan Sarandon, who plays Susie's chain-smoking, booze-guzzling grandmother like the reincarnation of Bette Davis. It's not an uninteresting bit of work; it just doesn't have anything to do with this movie.

And then there's Jackson's CGI creation of the in-between, which is meant to be an eerie, enchanting fantasy world, but is merely an unpleasant, cheap looking mess. Trees with leaves that fly away like birds, cornfields that turn into swamps, a gazebo that pops up everywhere, seasons that change instantly -- it's an incoherent hodgepodge of effects for their own sake.

By the end of the movie, I was cringing at the tastelessness of some of the scenes -- an in-between reunion of all of Harvey's victims, Harvey's final comeuppance (which plays so much like a classic Simpsons scene that I expected to hear Tucci yell "D'oh!"), Susie's creepy first kiss -- and I was utterly flabbergasted at how badly wrong the movie had gone.

I'm not convinced that it was possible to adapt this novel to the screen successfully, but Peter Jackson has certainly failed to do so, and failed in spectacular fashion.

MOVIES: The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009)

Finally caught up with this one, Sandra Bullock's breakthrough to awards-season recognition.

Bullock stars as Leigh Anne Tuohy, who takes into her home Michael Oher (Quintin Aaron), a student at her kids' school whose own home life is unstable at best. Michael turns out to be a star football player, and with the support of Leigh Anne and her family, winds up making it to college and, eventually, pro football.

The movie was a mildly surprising nominee for Best Picture this year, and I'm not convinced that it deserves the slot. To me, there are two things required for a movie to earn a Best Picture nomination: there needs to be at least one thing about the movie -- script, performance, technological acheivement -- that raises the movie above the average, and there should be no glaring weakness in the movie. I think The Blind Side fails on both counts.

What's special about the movie? Well, Bullock's performance is what's getting the attention, and there's certainly nothing wrong with it. But it's essentially a slightly more dramatic variation on her usual characters, a feisty, determined woman out to do the right thing. She's being rewarded, I think, because she's immensely popular in Hollywood, and this is really the first movie she's made that comes even close to having the gravitas that an Oscar movie requires.

As for the movie's glaring weakness, that would be Jae Head's insufferably grating performance as Leigh Anne's son, SJ. There was a time when this sort of shameless mugging was par for the course from child actors in Hollywood, but the bar has been raised in recent years by kids like the Fanning sisters, and Head's performance is painful to watch.

The Blind Side is a harmless enough movie, and if you're in the mood for this sort of old-fashioned uplifting, inspirational tale, this will fill the bill nicely. But a Best Picture nominee? That's going too far.

February 02, 2010

BOOKS: Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde (2009)

If you've read Fforde's Thursday Next series (about the police officers for responsible for what happens inside novels and other fiction) or his Nursery Crimes series (hard-boiled detective stories set in the world of nursery rhymes), then you know that he packs more geniune inventiveness and novel ideas into ten pages than most novelists give us in a lifetime.

The premise this time is that humanity has largely lost the ability to see color. It is implied, though never conclusively stated, that this is our own world, several hundred years down the line; there was, Fforde tells us, Something That Happened to cause this change, but it Happened long enough ago that no one can remember exactly what it was. Whatever the Something That Happened was, it caused a lot of other odd changes, too; swans are now greatly feared predators, and there's a perpetual shortage of spoons.

In this society, one's social standing is based entirely on what colors one can see and how well one sees them. The Purples and Reds are the social elite; the Greys are the servants and menial laborers. Our hero is Eddie Russett, who is about to turn 20 and take the color perception test that will determine much of the rest of his life. He and his father have been relocated to the podunk village of East Carmine, where he is quickly caught up in the local social politics; he may even be pushed into an arranged marriage with the hateful Violet deMauve. (Her family is slipping towards the Blue end of Purple, and desperately needs the bloodlines of a strong Red like Eddie to keep from slipping entirely into Blue.) But the woman Eddie finds himself drawn to, much to his own horror, is a Grey named Jane.

Shades of Grey starts off as a light, breezy comedy, but by the end, Jane has revealed to Eddie some of the darker secrets of their world, and the novel is dealing with substantial ethical and moral issues. That's not to say that it ever becomes heavy or ponderous; Fforde has too light a touch for that. I'm already eager to read the next volume in the series.

February 01, 2010

MOVIES: The Last Station (Michael Hoffman, 2009)

It's 1910, and we are at the country estate of Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), who is caught up in an ongoing battle with the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren). At the advising of his best friend, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoy is considering leaving the copyright to all of his work to the Russian people; Sofya sees this as a betrayal of her and their children. Caught between the dueling Tolstoys is Leo's new private secretary, Bulgakov (James McAvoy), an adherent to the Tolstoyan philosophy which advocates an end to private property, equality for all, and celibacy. The latter provision is particularly challenging for Bulgakov after he meets the fetching young Masha (Kerry Condon) at the nearby Tolstoyan commune where both live.

The Last Station is a servicable costume drama, but it's juggling too many subplots; the romance could easily have been chopped out without any serious damage.

The bigger problem is that the actxors are performing in vastly different movies. The romance between McAvoy and Condon is played at a fairly naturalistic level; Plummer and Giamatti are much bigger and more theatrical (and I think they're at the level that best suits the material and the movie's overall style).

And then there's Mirren, who plays every scene as if her audience is seated across the Grand Canyon, and even that audience might think she was hamming it up a bit. It's an insane piece of overacting, and I am baffled by the widespread praise for it.