December 22, 2010

MOVIES: Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOVIES: The Tempest (Julie Taymor, 2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 21, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 17, 2010

...convivial, festivious and jollificatory...

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

(Via Fritinancy.)

December 16, 2010

MOVIES: Night Catches Us (Tanya Hamilton, 2010)

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

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

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

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

MOVIES: Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Well. That was interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 10, 2010

BOOKS: All Clear, Connie Willis (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 06, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

December 02, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 01, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOKS: Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz (1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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