June 26, 2010

MOVIES: Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)

Pixar's remarkable series of successful movies continues, with the darkest movie in the Toy Story series. There are adult themes and action sequences here that may be too much for the smallest kids, and a final scene that is tremendoubly moving.

Woody, Buzz, and the gang face an uncertain fate as Andy prepares to leave for college? Will he take them with him? Put them in the attic for safekeeping? Or might they even be (horrors!) thrown away?

Their ultimate fate may be even worse than the dumpster, as they wind up at the Sunnyside Day Care Center in the hands of rambunctious toddlers who haven't yet learned how to play nicely with their toys. (The first scene with the toddlers plays like a ramped-up action-movie take on the early Pixar short Tin Toy.)

Running the show at Sunnyside is Lotso (a fine voice performance by Ned Beatty, channelling every sleazy prison warden and syrupy southern Senator the movies have ever given us), a strawberry-scented tyrant with a tragic backstory; his presence turns Toy Story 3 into a spectacular riff on prison-break movies, as Woody works to rescue his friends from Sunnyside.

Lotso isn't the only new character. Timothy Dalton has some funny moments as Mr. Pricklepants, a porcupine who thinks of himself as quite the thespian; and Michael Keaton is spectacularly funny as Ken, who loves Barbie almost as much as he loves his Dream House and extensive wardrobe.

And of course, all of our old favorites are back, and everyone gets a moment of heroism -- Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, Jessie, the claw-worshiping aliens. Even Andy himself, who has been largely a background character in the first two movies, gets a few moments in the spotlight, and if his final scene doesn't have your eyes misting over, then you're tougher than I am.

(I very much liked this take on the movie from the Double X blog at Slate, arguing that the movie's real subject is parenthood.)

Preceding the movie is the short Day and Night, which cleverly combines Pixar's trademark 3-D computer animation with rounded, bouncy 2-D animated figures who reminded me of the UPA style from the 1950s and 1960s.

MOVIES: I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009/US 2010)

Some interesting moments are wasted here, in a movie that's marked by a striking mismatch of story and tone.

Tilda Swinton stars as Emma, a Russian woman who has married into a wealthy Italian family. She has all the trappings of a perfect life -- a devoted husband; three adult children, each one seemingly on the way to success in various endeavors; staff of loyal servants; a home appointed so lavishly that even the editors of Palatial Estates Monthly might be taken aback by the excess. But alas, Emma is not happy, and her mid-life crisis leads her into an affair with Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a dashing young chef who happens to be her son's best friend.

What is called for here is heat, passion, over-the-top melodrama -- think Douglas Sirk at his most overwrought -- and what we get is chilly detachment. Tilda Swinton, talented though she is, is not an actress who brings to mind life-altering lust and unbridled passion. And the John Adams score (not new music, but selected excerpts from his work) is entirely wrong; his chugging, blocky rhythms and jagged, spiky fragments of melody would feel more at home in one of Soderbergh's more intellectual experiments than they do in this would-be potboiler.

There are a few things that work. The most interesting relationship is built in the background, almost without being noticed; it's that of Emma and Ida (Maria Paiato), one of her household staff. They are not friends -- Ida understands the Italian class system too well for that, even in those moments when Emma seems not to -- but there is an affection and a respect between them. Their moments together have an understated dignity; their final moment together, a rather frantic scene in Emma's bedroom, is particularly well played.

Beyond that, the sets are gorgeous to look at, as is Flavio Parenti, who plays Emma's son Edoardo.

June 25, 2010

BOOKS: From Away, David Carkeet (2010)

Denny is stranded in northern Vermont after crashing his rental car on the way to the airport. And when a mildly intoxicated woman barges into his hotel room, it looks as if the night might not be completely wasted. But before long, Marge is dead and Denny's the primary suspect. Unable to leave by plane or train (because the police have his name), and without a car to drive, Denny's stuck in town.

If that wasn't enough to make life complicated, Denny is mistaken by the locals for Homer Dumpling, a young man who left town rather suddenly a few years back and hasn't been heard from since. That bit of mistaken identity at least gives Denny a place to stay, but it has him frantically tap-dancing his way through conversations with all of Homer's friends, and some of them are starting to get suspicious.

Carkeet's given us a nice breezy comic mystery here, and a terrific protagonist in Denny, whose lack of social grace is alternately charming and irritating. Denny's increasingly frantic attempts to successfully pass as Homer give the story a touch of the con-man, and it's great fun to watch him gleaning tiny little clues from scraps of paper and overheard conversations. There's a fine assortment of supporting players, too -- Lance, the cop who's not sure about "Homer" from the start; Homer's prickly girlfriend, Sarah; and Nick, Homer's most loyal friend.

This is Carkeet's sixth novel (sixth for adults, at least; there are also a couple of YA novels), and he deserves to be better known than he is. I haven't read all of his books, but I've enjoyed the ones I have, and I think his first novel (Double Negative, in which a linguist must solve a murder based on the pre-verbal babblings of the toddler who is the sole witness) is a small masterpiece. From Away doesn't rise quite to that level, but it's a nice bit of entertainment.

June 22, 2010

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic 2010-2011 season

So, after a year when medical problems kept me from even bothering to subscribe to the Philharmonic -- hardly seemed worth spending all the money for concerts I might not be able to attend -- things have settled down enough that I'm subscribing again for next season. This will be my first time seeing Gustavo Dudamel, who is conducting most of the concerts I've bought, including the entire 5-week "Brahms Unbound" festival in May and June. I'm a sucker for Brahms, and since each concert pairs him with a new work -- and I always enjoy the new music -- I couldn't resist doing the entire thing.

So, here's the season I've purchased:

  • Dudamel, conductor / Messiaen: Turangalila
  • Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor; Peter Serkin, piano / Debussy: Jeux; Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Winds; Takemitsu: riverrun; Stravinsky: Firebird Suite
  • Rafael Fruhbeck de Brugos, conductor; Hilary Hahn, violin / Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
  • Dudamel, conductor; Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano / Adams: Slonimsky's Earbox; Bernstein: Symphony #1 ("Jeremiah"); Beethoven: Symphony #7
  • Lionel Bringuier, conductor; Gautier Capucon, cello / Smetana: The Moldau; Schumann: Cello Concerto; Dvorak: Symphony #5
  • Thomas Ades, conductor / Stravinsky: Les noces; Ades: In Seven Days
  • Dudamel, conductor; Leonidas Kavakos, violin / Brahms: Academic Festival Overture; Golijov: Violin Concerto (world premiere); Brahms: Symphony #1
  • Dudamel, conductor; Leila Josefowicz, violin; Christine Schafer, soprano; Matthias Goerne, baritone / Mackey: Beautiful Passing (West Coast premiere); Brahms: A German Requiem
  • Dudamel, conductor; Glorious Percussion, percussion ensemble / Brahms: Tragic Overture; Gubaidulina: Glorious Percussion (U.S. premiere); Brahms: Symphony #2
  • Dudamel, conductor; Pedro Carneiro, percussion / Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Lieberson: Percussion Concerto (world premiere); Brahms: Symphony #3
  • Dudamel, conductor / Gorecki: Symphony #4 (U.S. premier); Brahms: Symphony #4

Some works I've never heard and wanted to (Messaien, Takemitsu), a couple of warhorses that I like a lot (Berlioz, Firebird, German Requiem), a Bernstein work that doesn't get played often, two new percussion works (another particular interest of mine) -- it should be a good season. Goodness knows I'll probably miss at least one or two of the concerts along the way for one reason or another, but I'm happy with the lineup.

June 18, 2010

BOOKS: The City and the City, China Miéville (2009)

Miéville is best known as a science fiction writer, though there's no SF to be found here. Rather, we have a police procedural, albeit one with a distinctive twist. The precise nature of that twist has been given away in far too many of the reviews and commentary I've seen about the book; I think I'd have enjoyed the first fifty pages or so even more if I'd had to figure out for myself precisely what Miéville was up to. So I'm going to do the best I can not to give away the notion that makes the book so interesting.

Our hero is Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad in the city of Besźel, somewhere in southern Europe. His current assignment is to solve the murder of a young woman, a job that becomes much more complicated when it is learned that the murder was committed in the neighboring city of Ul Qoma and the body dumped in Besźel. The two cities -- city-states would probably be a better description -- have a complicated geopolitical relationship under the best of circumstances, but political tensions at the moment are on the upswing. Each city has a radical nationalist movement, devoted to the destruction of the other; there's also a growing unification movement that longs to see the two cities united as one.

As Borlú's case becomes an international incident, he's forced to travel into Ul Qoma to work with their police force. The investigation leads them into the the nationalist and the unification movements, the complications of the two cities' relations with other nations, and the possible smuggling of archaelogical artifacts from one city to the other. And as Borlú didn't face enough pressure, always hovering in the background is the shadowy police agency known as Breach, independent of both Ul Qoman and Besź police. Breach is tasked with only one job -- to guard the boundaries between the two cities -- and it takes that job very seriously.

If it were only a run-of-the-mill murder mystery/police procedural, The City and the City would be a rousing success. There's a nice array of potential suspects, a few terrific chase scenes, and an entertainingly intricate plot that resolves in fascinating ways. And that central plot point that should remain a surprise complicates things in all the right ways, making the chases more suspenseful, adding layers of complexity to everyone's motives, and providing a surprisingly deep layer of philosophical contemplation about the nature of boundaries, both geographical and otherwise.

This is the first of Miéville's books that I've read. My friends who are fans tell me that while they enjoy the book, they definitely think it's among his lesser work. And I'll take that as good news, because if the rest of his books are even better than this, I've got some terrific writing ahead of me.

June 17, 2010

TV: Hot in Cleveland (TV Land, Wed 10)

After years of surviving on sitcom reruns, TV Land dives into the original sitcom world with Hot in Cleveland, and for a first effort, it's not horrible.

The first episode is devoted to setting up the premise. Three friends from Los Angeles are on a flight to Paris. Melanie (Valerie Bertinelli) is still recovering from a recent divorce; Victoria (Wendie Malick) is a soap opera diva whose show has just been cancelled; and Joy (Jane Leeves) is a makeup artist who's started losing her celebrity clients. They're all feeling old and unattractive, and angry at being replaced by younger, prettier women.

The plane makes an emergency landing in Cleveland, and since they're stuck there overnight, the ladies head out to a local bar. Much to their amazement, they find that the local men (unlike the shallow Angelenos they're used to) are dazzled by their beauty, and that midwestern culture is not obsessed with youth and skinniness. ("Everyone eats," says an astonished Victoria, "and no one feels shame.") Delighted to be objects of lust again, the women decide to stay in Cleveland for good, renting a large house that comes with its own caretaker (Betty White).

The show's great weakness is its writing. The jokes are a bit corny and very predictable, and at a moment when the sitcom is seeing a variety of innovative new formats, the setup-punchline-setup-punchline flow of this one feels rather dated.

But these four actresses are old pros at this -- Betty White, for heaven's sake, has been making sitcoms for as long as there have been sitcoms -- and they find every laugh that can be found in the script, through the power of consummate craft, immaculate timing, and sheer force of will. They make the material seem better than it is. Bertinelli, though charming and immensely likable, is the weakest link in the cast, in part because of how her character is written; the perky ingenue shtick that worked well for her at 20 doesn't hold up well at 50. And White's character is the least well conceived; she was a late addition to the cast, and you sense that the writers haven't had time yet to rethink the character to play to her strengths. (Not that "running from the Nazis" jokes would work that much better with a different actress, but still...)

Given the familiarity of the faces, and the very old-fashioned style of the show, Hot in Cleveland feels right at home on TV Land. It's almost as if the network has commissioned a set of brand-new original reruns to go along with their classic reruns. The writing will have to improve if the show's going to survive in the long term, but the actresses are delightful to watch, and they're enough to keep me with the show for a few more weeks to see if the writing rises to their level.

MOVIES: Please Give (Nicole Holofcener, 2010)

This one just drove me nuts. It's set in an insular little slice of New York society, and I suppose it may be absolutely fascinating to those who come from that world, but as an outsider, I didn't find much to grab on to.

When your protagonists are a pair of well-off antique dealers whose principal preoccupation in life is waiting for the old lady next door to die so they can knock down the wall and expand their own apartment, then you're already starting off with a serious sympathy deficit, and it doesn't help matters much to have those characters played by Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt. They're fine actors, mind you, and I'm usually very happy to see them, but they both have a tendency to come across as rather smug and self-satisfied in a way that only adds to my annoyance with their characters here.

Keener, in particular, is a ghastly person. She's constantly wracked with guilt about all of the poverty and suffering that she sees every day. More precisely, she needs to be seen to be wracked with guilt; there are numerous scenes in the movie of her attempting to help someone, but there is always someone else present when she performs her acts of charity. And, yes, I think that "performs" is precisely the right word; Keener's conscience is less well-developed than is her need to have other people praise her for having a conscience.

Holofcener hasn't give us anyone else who's terribly likable, either. The old lady whose death Keener and Platt so eagerly await is a bitter, hateful woman (nicely played by Ann Guilbert), and the granddaughters who somewhat grudgingly care for her (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall) aren't much better.

The performances are all fine, I suppose, but the movie's social landscape is so narrow, and I didn't feel that any attempt was made to connect the problems of these shallow people to any broader, more general concerns. As a result, I didn't give a damn about any of their petty problems.

June 16, 2010

MOVIES: Solitary Man (Brian Koppelman & David Levien, 2010)

Low-key character study, dominated by a fine Michael Douglas performance.

Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, and as the movie opens, he's getting some bad news from his doctor. We immediately leap forward six years, and only gradually do we put the pieces together about who Ben was before that doctor's visit and who he's been since.

Once upon a time, Ben had it all -- happy marriage, successful string of auto dealerships (he was known as "New York's honest car dealer") -- but he's spent those six years slowly destroying everything that mattered in his life. Koppelman's screenplay makes the interesting choice to skip over all of those self-destructive years, and focus instead on the year or so during which all of Ben's birds come home to roost, and he's finally forced to face up to the shambles he's made of his life.

Douglas is fabulous here as a vain 60-year-old who expects the women to be just as interested as they were when he was 40, and doesn't seem to grasp how many relationships he's trashed, or what the consequences will be. He's surrounded by a solid supporting cast -- Susan Sarandon as his ex-wife, Mary-Louise Parker as the most recent in a long string of girlfriends, Jenna Fischer as his frustrated daughter, Danny DeVito as the old friend who may be the last person Ben hasn't driven away. Even Jesse Eisenberg, playing the annoying college kid that he always plays, comes off reasonably well, which is a significant directorial achievement all by itself.

Solitary Man isn't a great movie, but Douglas is so good in it that it's at least worth a rental when the DVD arrives.

June 15, 2010

MOVIES: Mother and Child (Rodrigo Garcia, 2010)

Garcia's movies are generally large ensemble pieces with strong roles for women, and this one is no exception. We get three interwoven stories about adoption, and our starring actresses are Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, and Naomi Watts.

The connection between two of the three stories is made clear very quickly -- Watts is the daughter who Bening gave up for adoption. Washington's story -- she and her husband are trying to adopt a child -- isn't directly connected to the others until late in the movie, but there is enough thematic connection that the jumps from one story to another never feel disjointed or awkward.

All three lead actresses are superb, but Bening and Washington made the strongest impressions on me. Bening is a self-described "difficult person," prickly and anti-social, who finds it difficult to respond appropriately to gestures of friendship. (And the movie seems to take the "nature" side of the "nature vs. nurture" argument, as Watts' own personality is just as difficult and offputting as her birth mother's.) Washington is heartbreaking as she goes through the emotional turmoil of the adoption process, with its frequent U-turns from delighted to anticipation to devastating heartbreak.

As usual, Garcia is a master of casting. The key supporting roles here are played by Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smith; smaller roles are impeccably handled by such fine actors as David Morse, S. Epatha Merkerson, Cherry Jones, Shareeka Epps, LisaGay Hamilton, and Amy Brenneman. There's not a false note to be found in any of the performances, and the movie is like a masterclass in film acting.

I could have done without the "children make you a better person" meme that is so prevalent in American culture these days, but Garcia is one of my favorite directors, and this is another fine addition to his excellent body of work. (You should certainly check out his previous movie, Nine Lives, which I talked about here, and I really need to go back and take another look at Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her.)

BOOKS: The January Dancer; Up Jim River, Michael Flynn (2008;2010)

A pair of terrific space-opera McGuffins, with memorable characters and spectacularly lovely prose.

By the time of Flynn's distant future, Terra is a distant memory -- more of a legend, really. As mankind has moved out into space, the cultures of old Terra have been mixed and combined in every possible combination. You get a sense of that just from Flynn's character names: Zorba de la Susa, Johnny Barcelona, Enwelumokwu Tottenheim, Shmon van Rwengasira y Gasdro, Cheng-bob Smerdrov. For some odd reason, Irish/Celtic culture seems to have hung on particularly strongly -- the lingua franca of this universe is called Gaelactic -- so it's probably not a surprise that one of our central characters is a harper, a woman who travels the universe playing traditional music and improvising new tunes about the exploits of those she meets.

As The January Dancer opens, the harper has approached a scarred man in a bar on Jehovah, and asked him to tell her a tale; he tells the tale of the title object, a piece of stoneware whose owner can give anyone any order and not be denied. In the nature of all good McGuffins, the Dancer itself isn't particularly important, and its powers play only a relatively small role in the actual story; the drama lies not in the object but in the quest. Up Jim River reunites the harper and the scarred man, and sends them on a quest of their own; one of the central characters from The January Dancer has gone missing, and our two protagonists each have reasons for wanting to find her.

The great strength of these books is Flynn's prose, which is delightful to read. Here's how he introduces one character, early in Up Jim River:

And so the story begins, if it did not begin elsewhere and at another time. The
scarred man sits in his accustomed place in the Bar, robed in shadows in a niche cut into the wall. The other niche-seats are favored by lovers seeking shadows -- but there is no love here. Or love only of the most abrasive sort.

The early morning is a somber and introspective time, and the scarred man's visage is nothing if not somber and introspective. He owns a gaunt and hollow look, as if he has been suctioned out, and not even a soul remains. He is all skin and skull, and his mouth sags across the saddle of his hooked chin. He has been known to smile, but not very often and never is it comforting to see. He is weathered, his skin almost translucent. His hair is snow-white, but not the white of purity, for that has been a long time lost. A checkerboard of scars breaks the hair into tufts like a woodland violated by streets and winding roads. Those scars and a sad story have kept him fed and reasonably drunk for a long time. He has changed the story from time to time just to keep it fresh; but his eyes are never still and the true story may have never been told.

You probably could get away with diving straight into Up Jim River, but there are details and plot points that will make more sense and resonate more strongly if you read The January Dancer first. I think Up Jim River is the more entertaining of the two books, but both are marvelous entertainment.

June 14, 2010

BOOKS: Supreme Power, Jeff Shesol (2010)

I often feel at something of a loss about what to say after reading non-fiction, especially history. If I knew enough about the period or events covered to have anything insightful to offer, I probably wouldn't be reading the book. So usually I can't really evaluate whether the book is accurate or unbiased. Often, I wait to see other reviews of such books before I pick them up, essentially letting those folks who are experts do the pre-screening for me. And for what it's worth, this one's been very well reviewed.

It's the story of Franklin Roosevelt's mid-1930s attempt to pack the Supreme Court. Midway through his first term, the legal challenges to the various programs and regulatory packages that made up the New Deal began arriving at the Court, which overturned many of them. The decisions were often quite harsh, and left Roosevelt feeling that despite his enormous Congressional majorities and the apparent support of the public (a bit harder to gauge then than now, as polling was in its relative infancy at the time), anything he attempted to do would be overturned by the Court.

In Roosevelt's eyes, this was a Constitutional crisis in the making; if the powers granted to the executive and legislative branches were to be as narrowly defined as the Court's rulings implied, then the federal government had essentially no power to deal with major national crises. He saw this as a problem caused in large part by the age of the Court. The "Nine Old Men," as they were known, were an unusually old Court -- average age above 70 -- and in Roosevelt's eyes, they were relics of an earlier generation who simply could not adapt to the realities of a new era.

And so, midway through his second term, Roosevelt introduced his plan to increase the size of the Court to 15 members. The Constitution doesn't define the size of the Court, and during America's first 100 years, it changed fairly often. But it had been stable at 9 since roughly the Civil War, so a 9-member court was all that most people alive had ever known, and Roosevelt's plan seemed terribly radical to many, an attempt to turn the Court into a rubberstamp for his legislative agenda.

I was often reminded of the recent debate over health care. In both cases, a popular Democratic president with large Congressional majorities (Roosevelt's were even larger than Obama's, and that at a time when the filibuster was still a rarely-used tool instead of the default opposition setting that it is today) fought to accomplish something he believed crucial to the nation's well-being. In the public arena, the conservative opposition seemed far more vocal and better organized than did the Democrats, who were sometimes so divided on the issues at hand as to be there own worst enemy. And in both eras, the president was accused of being a socialist who wanted to rule America as his own personal playground, a tyrant in the making.

Roosevelt's Court-packing plan never made it through Congress, for a variety of reasons -- one of his principal opponents on the Court resigned; another suddenly seemed to switch sides on a host of issues, putting Roosevelt on the winning side of those 5-4 decisions; Congressional Democrats feared that the riled-up voters at home would throw them out of office if they voted for the plan. In an "...and as a result..." afterword, Shesol argues that the ensuing divisions in the Democratic party led to the party's gradual weakening over the next 35 years, and to the increased strength of the Republicans, who had been a very small minority party, culminating in the Republican dominance of the Nixon-Ford-Reagan era.

Supreme Power is entertaining reading, and Shesol brings his characters to vivid life; Roosevelt comes across as an immensely intelligent and profoundly arrogant man, who finds it difficult to believe that his own party might not go along with his ideas. I thought it was an informative look at an important moment in American history.

MOVIES: Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)

Here's the Grand Jury Prize winner from this year's Sundance Festival, and it's a fairly typical Sundance winner -- low-budget, regional, a bit too satisfied with its own gritty authenticity -- but it's gone some terrific performances that make it absolutely worth seeing.

The setting is the Missouri Ozarks, where 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is raising two younger siblings and caring for her mentally disturbed mother; her father has disappeared, as he frequently does when he's hiding from the law. But this time, his bail bondsman tells Ree, he's put the family home up as security towards his bail, and if he misses his upcoming court date, Ree and her family will be homeless. So it's up to Ree to wade through the complicated maze of meth dealers and thugs who make up her extended family (everyone we meet seems to be a distant cousin of some sort or other), trying to find her father when everyone has their own reasons for not wanting him found.

Lawrence gives a star-making performance as Ree; she has a spectacularly communicative face, and when she's silent, we know exactly what she's thinking and (often more important in this story) what she's trying to keep hidden. She gets equally strong support from John Hawkes as her uncle Teardrop, who finds that his natural tendency to let sleeping dogs lie is not quite as strong as his family loyalty, and Dale Dickey as Merab, a family matriarch who guards her husband's privacy and business interests with an iron fist. ("No, he won't see you," she tells Ree. "Talkin' to people just leads to witnesses.")

(It drove me nuts the whole movie trying to figure out where I'd seen Dickey before; I had to look her up at IMDB to realize that she was Patty the Daytime Hooker from My Name Is Earl. I love being surprised when an actor I think of in one way knocks me for a loop with a completely different type of character.)

Winter's Bone is being compared by a lot of critics to Frozen River, and the comparison is understandable; they're both movies with very strong sense of place, about determined women dealing with the financial problems left to them by irresponsible men. I think Frozen River is a slightly better movie; it lacks the undercurrent of condescension towards the rural poor that I sometimes feel in Winter's Bone, and I think the Ozark cliches are sometimes laid on a bit too thick. But Lawrence, Hawkes, and Dickey all give top-notch performances here, and they are more than enough reason to see the movie.

June 13, 2010

MOVIES: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg, 2010)

Stern and Sundberg followed Rivers for a year to make this documentary, and they appear to have nearly total access, making for an informative, entertaining look at the legendary comedian.

I had not seen much of Rivers' early work, and have never been a particular fan of the more recent work I have seen, so the clips from her early years were a revelation to me. I think Rivers has not been well served by the cultural changes over her 45 years in the business. In her early years, when there were still some cultural restrictions on how blunt one could be (and especially on how blunt a woman could be), she could be no more than risque, and was spectacularly funny; as years have gone by and standards have loosened, I think she's gone from risque to vulgar. It's easier to get cheap laughs with vulgarity, but it's much harder to be genuinely witty or clever.

That aside, there is certainly much to admire in Rivers' career, not least her remarkable dedication, persistence, and simple refusal to ever give up. Her agent sums it up best, I think, when he says, "You're never going to be struck by lightning if you're not willing to stand out in the rain, and nobody will stand out in the rain longer than Joan Rivers."

But there's also a surprising amount of self-pity, more than would seem to be justified by her level of success; for all her longevity, she seems convinced that no one really respects her achievements or takes her seriously as a performer.

The film is almost entirely from Rivers' point of view, and the few other people the directors do interview are her friends and colleagues; it would have been nice to hear from the other side (and as blunt and abrasive as Rivers can be, you know she must have been burned some bridges in her day). But it's still a marvelously entertaining look at a geniune comedy legend, and I'm very glad to have seen it, if only for those glimpses into the brilliance of her early years.

MOVIES: How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, 2010)

Very good animated tale of a teenaged Viking boy whose friendship with a dragon makes him an even bigger misfit than he already was.

There's fine voice work from Gerard Butler, who's more charming and likable as the blustery Viking chieftain than he has been in his recent slew of romantic comedies; Craig Ferguson, particularly effective late in the film when he goes into full sycophantic mode; and America Ferrera, sounding unusually young and girly as the romantic interest. Jay Baruchel, in the lead role of teenaged Viking Hiccup, is less distinctive or interesting than his supporting players.

The animation is superb, and the dragon flying sequences are nearly as exciting as the similar scenes from Avatar. The first big scene, in which Hiccup and his dragon Toothless figure out how this flying thing is going to work, is especially thrilling.

What really struck me about the story is that, even more than most misfit-comes-of-age stories, this one reads very strongly as an allegory about a gay teen. You've got a scrawny, sensitive boy who can't win the approval of his father or the other more traditionally "manly" men in the community, and he's hiding a secret relationship that he fears would lead to his complete ostracism from a community that already mistrusts his unorthodox sensibilities.There's an "I know your secret" speech for Hiccup's father -- Hiccup thinks that dad has learned about Toothless, but his father's talking about something else entirely -- that would need only minor rewriting to be right at home in a gay coming-out movie.
Thought I'd try out a new look for the place. Whaddya think?

And I have fallen shamefully behind on posting about lots of the movies I've seen over the last month, so the goal is to get caught up on that by the end of the week.

June 03, 2010

BOOKS: Invisible Boy, Cornelia Read (2010)

Third volume in the Madeline Dare mystery series. (My thoughts on the first two volumes here and here.)

I find this one puzzling in the same way that I found the second, which is that Read seems to be going out of her way to make the series as non-series as it can be. This book gives us our third different setting (New York City), and another mostly new cast of supporting characters.

Part of what I enjoy about series mysteries is the chance to keep revisiting a place and a group of characters, to watch them change over time. When it's done well, supporting characters can take on a life of their own. Heck, in her most recent book, Marcia Muller let her large supporting cast take center stage while her series character spent nearly the entire novel in a hospital bed, unable to communicate.

So I'm frustrated by Read's reluctance to give us any of that. I understand the commercial imperatives that make publishers prefer series to stand-alones, but it's starting to feel as if Read has been asked for a series that she really doesn't want to write, so she's writing stand-alones in the guise of a series.

Aside from that, how's the book? Not bad. It's 1990 in New York, and Madeline has volunteered to help a distant cousin clear out an overgrown family cemetery; on her first day there, she discovers the body of a small child, its bones broken in a way that strongly suggests the child was beaten to death. Our supporting cast (this time around) features the cops and lawyers working to bring the boy's killer to justice.

Read is a bit heavy-handed in the way she sets up abuse as the theme of the novel. One of Madeline's friends may be being abused by her husband (or she may be crazy); Madeline's sister reveals that one of Mom's boyfriends abused her when she was young. And I was annoyed by the way Read and her characters paint men as the world's sole abusers; when the child's body is discovered, Madeline and her cousin immediately begin wondering whether the abuser was a father or the mother's boyfriend. Such "it had to be a man because men are evil" dialogue gets repeated way too often for comfort here, and it feels particularly clumsy because (mild spoiler here) when the culprits are revealed, the mother turns out to have significant culpability herself.

But Read knows how to tell a story, and Madeline is as entertaining a character as ever -- witty in a mildly mean way, self-deprecating, smart. I enjoyed Invisible Boy just as I'd enjoyed the earlier volumes. I only wish that Read would Madeline settle down in one place for a while.