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.