January 31, 2010

Movies: Best of 2009: the top ten movies

Counting up from #10 to #1:
  • O'Horten -- a movie that dares to be quiet and understated, and in its gentle surrealism, captures the disorientation of one man's adjustment to forced retirement and makes a strong statement about the way we treat the elderly as disposable.
  • Sita Sings the Blues -- using a variety of low-budget animation techniques, director Nina Paley brings the Indian legend The Ramayana to life; bright, cheerful colors and a Betty Boop-styled heroine play counterpoint to bluesy jazz records from 20s singer Annette Hanshaw.
  • An Education -- stellar performances, all the way down to the tiniest supporting roles, and vivid 60s details enliven this tale of first love, first disillusionment, and first recovery
  • You, the Living -- a series of offbeat dreams, anecdotes, and sketches that tie together (but don't you dare ask me how) to offer a message of hope in the face of apparently unending bleakness
  • Moon -- Sam Rockwell's spectacular performance(s) are the heart of the movie, which also offers a smart screenplay of ideas, serious ethical quandaries, and Kevin Spacey oozing silken menace as a "son of Hal" computer voice
  • 500 Days of Summer -- so many things that we've seen fail miserably in lesser romantic comedies -- the precocious little sister, the reality-vs.-perception moment, the his view/her view contrast -- brought to new life by the charisma of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the inscrutability of Zooey Deschanel, and a fractured chronology. Bonus points for the year's best production number.
  • Where the Wild Things Are -- not so much a movie about a child as a movie about childhood; the first half hour in particular captures perfectly the quicksilver nature of a kid's emotions. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers did a brilliant job with the minimal story of Maurice Sendak's book, producing not so much an "adapted from" as an "inspired by"
  • Inglorious Basterds -- Tarantino's best work, a giddy bit of historical revisionism about the power of storytelling and the thrill of watching an interrogation. The ending still outrages many, but I think it's to be taken as Tarantino's ultimate statement about the movies: If we can't have a happy ending there, then what's the point?
  • Coraline -- brilliant stop-motion animation, and a magnificently creepy story that is most definitely not for children. Every detail matters here, and I especially admire the way that the Other World gradually changes from homey and inviting to a nightmarish distortion.
  • Up -- what's not to love? "I laughed, I cried," as they say. The silent-film marriage sequence is a brilliant little movie in its own right; the running jokes pay off impeccably (the third "Squirrel!" is a stroke of genius); and Dug is the best talking-animal sidekick in animation history.

Rankings like this are always somewhat arbitrary, and this year, the top four were particularly difficult to separate; any one of them could have been at the top of the list on a different day.

MOVIES: Best of 2009: Actor

The nominees:
  • Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart -- another case of an actor elevating a standard storyline. The washed-up, alcoholic musician (country division) is old hat, but Bridges makes Bad Blake so specific a character that the story feels fresh. And though he doesn't have the best voice in the world, he finds the right tattered, gravely quality to sell the songs.
  • Baard Owe, O'Horten -- forced retirement isn't an easy thing to cope with, and Owe finds just the right tone of detached bemusement as he watches the unfamiliar world away from his beloved railways, a world which gradually seems to get more and more surreal.
  • San Rockwell, Moon -- isolation isn't easy, and Rockwell captures all of the mental strain and frailties of a man living on a moon base with only his own company. The role calls for more variety and shading than we expect at first, and Rockwell brings all of Sam Bell's personality traits to vivid life.
  • Peter Sarsgaard, An Education -- yes, he's being campaigned for the supporting Oscar, but that's nonsense; this is clearly a leading role. David's breezy charm, and the underlying current of danger, are delightful to watch; he's one of the most lovable cads we've seen in years.

The winner:

  • Colin Firth, A Single Man -- George is a very tightly wound man, but Firth lets us see every bit of his pain and heartbreak. And since director Tom Ford seems far more interested in making the movie look good than in creating any sort of emotional response, all the more credit to Firth for a performance that has to fight its way out of Ford's overly art-directed world.

MOVIES: Best of 2009: Actress

The nominees:
  • Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces -- if she ever becomes as good an actress in English as she is in Spanish, she'll dominate Hollywood for decades. Here, she's sexy and funny as a kept woman who wants desperately to be an actress. She particularly shines in a pair of takes from the movie-within-the-movie, one disastrous performance and one made brilliant with surprisingly subtle differences.
  • Zooey Deschanel, 500 Days of Summer -- yes, the character is a bit opaque, but that's the point. The movie is a romance told from his point of view, so we only know of Summer what Tom thinks he knows of her, and Deschanel doesn't miss a beat in capturing all of the ways his view of her changes as their romance grows and fizzles.
  • Carey Mulligan, An Education -- Mulligan, surrounded by a cast of better-known, more experienced actors, has to carry the movie, and she does; our attention and our hearts are with her from the first frame.
  • Gabourey Sidibe, Precious -- the movie itself is frustrating and annoying for lots of reasons, but Sidibe's performance deserves the praise it's been getting. It's hard to play a sullen character; you have to communicate the character's feelings to the audience despite the fact that she doesn't communicate anything to anyone, and Sidibe does that. As unchanging as that bleak face seems to be, Precious's every thought and emotion come through.

The winner:

  • Michelle Monaghan, Trucker -- Monaghan elevates the movie above its rather predictable "crusty adult redeemed by love of a child" story; most interesting and exciting is that the character doesn't change dramatically -- none of the crying or melting that we'd normally get at the end of the story -- but we can still see how the relationship changes.

MOVIES: Best of 2009: Supporting Actor

The nominees:
  • Alec Baldwin, It's Complicated -- the only character in the movie whose problems I cared about. He gets all of the laughs he's asked to get, and also nails his big emotional scenes.
  • John Malkovich, The Great Buck Howard -- an unusually jovial, extroverted performance from Malkovich, who is alternately charming and menacing as a touring psychic who just might be for real
  • Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles -- yes, the Welles impression is nifty, but the acting goes deeper here than just a party trick; look, for instance, at the "oh hell, how do I top this" expression that flashes across his face after the success of opening night.
  • Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds -- the winner of virtually every critic's award this year, a multilingual tour-de-force that takes cinema's "charming Nazi" tradition to new heights.

The winner:

  • James Gandolfini, Where the Wild Things Are -- yes, it's a voice performance. But let's face it, as nice as it was to see actual physical bodies instead of CGI, the Wild Thing bodies and faces didn't communicate much emotion. So the fact that Carol was, for me, the single most moving character in any movie this year -- that's entirely due to Gandolfini's emotional clarity and the surprising, supple agility of his voice work.

MOVIES: Best of 2009: Supporting Actress

The nominees:
  • Catherine Keener, Where the Wild Things Are -- not a lot of screen time, but a spot-on depiction of a frustrated working mom, juggling to balance career and kid, love and annoyance
  • Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air -- her discovery that it is indeed possible to be too efficient is far more interesting (and more convincingly played) than Clooney's "gotta fall in love" epiphany
  • Julianne Moore, A Single Man -- Charley and George have both lost the love of their lives, but Charley's the one who still has to see him every day and go on being his friend; in the end, all of the flirting and the breezy small talk can't hide the pain
  • Rosamund Pike, An Education -- Helen may not have the book smarts of Carey Mulligan's Jenny, but she knows exactly where Jenny's relationship with David is going to end up, and her frustration at not being able to help is palpable

And the winner:

  • Mo'Nique, Precious -- Mary is so monstrous a creature that she's barely human at all, and the performance (like the movie) sometimes comes perilously close to camp -- so it's even more astounding that in that final horrific, deluded, twisted monologue, she almost manages to win the audience's sympathy.

MOVIES: Best of 2009

So, having spent January catching up with the flood of December releases and some DVDs of movies I'd missed earlier in the year, the next few posts will offer my picks for the best performances and movies of the year. There are a few movies that I saw but never got around to posting anything about, most notably Up and Up in the Air. (Loved the former; enjoyed the performances in the latter, but hated the usual Hollywood pathologization of people who choose to live solitary lives.) Of the other movies that are likely to pop up among the nominees on Tuesday, I saw The Blind Side and The Last Station this weekend, and will be posting comments about them later in the week; I haven't seen Invictus, and don't have much interest in it.

And away we go...

January 28, 2010

BOOKS: Save the Deli, David Sax (2009)

In the early 1930s, there were more than 1,500 kosher delicatessens in New York City; by 1960, fewer than 200; today, only a few dozen. What happened to them, and is there any hope for saving the deli? To find out, Sax goes on tours of New York, the United States, and a few international cities in search of great deli, to look for possible keys to deli's salvation.

And he does find success stories. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Zingerman's has become a tourist destination by combining the best homemade ingredients with a gourmet food shop. The Montreal specialty known as "smoked meat" -- something of a cross between corned beef and pastrami -- gives that city a lively deli scene. Langer's, in Los Angeles, offers what Sax says is the best pastrami in the world, and does a thriving business despite its horrible neighborhood. (Heretically, Sax claims that it's Los Angeles, not New York, that is currently the best city in America for good deli, in large part because the families that run the delis are more friendly and cooperative than in most cities.)

A lot of things have gone wrong for the deli since its heyday. As urban dwellers moved to the suburbs, the deli's diners became less centralized, and it hasn't always been easy to attract new customers. Deli classics tend to be time-consuming to make, and expensive to purchase (especially if you insist on top-quality ingredients), and the most popular items, sandwiches, offer the lowest profit margin. And as we've become more obsessed with healthy eating, deli mainstays like pastrami and chopped liver have been perceived as too fatty.

Ultimately, though, Sax argues that it comes down -- as issues of Jewish culture so often do -- to tragic history:

In the flames of the Holocaust, the Jewish world lost more than lives. It lost an entire culture, which survives now only in fragments. In America, every other immigrant group will always have a source for their authentic flavors. So long as a billion and a half Chinese live in China, there will always be a family in Fujian willing to move to America and open another Chinese restaurant. Jewish delicatessens don't have that option. Theirs is the food of a partially destroyed people, three generations or more removed from its source. Delis are cooking from the fading memories of a time and place that no longer exist. No more Jews from Poland are coming to New York to open up a delicatessen.

Despite that rather heavy conclusion, Sax's tour of the deli world is an entertaining one. The Deli Men (always capitalized), waitresses (almost always female), and butchers he meets along the way have lively personalities, and most of them have thought long and hard about the survival of their chosen profession. The love of the food comes through in every chapter, and there are moments when you can almost taste the chicken soup.

January 27, 2010

BOOKS: Eclipse Three, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (2009)

I read very little "literary" short fiction, but quite a bit of "genre" short fiction. Why the quotes, you ask? Because "literary" fiction is a genre, just as much as SF or mystery are; it's not called one because we must reserve the word "genre" as a convenient piece of shorthand for "literature not worthy of our respect."

Anyway, short fiction...

If you're reading anthologies, as opposed to single-author collections, the challenge is to find an editor whose tastes line up with yours, and that can be a big challenge. In a typical collection of, say, 15 stories, I consider myself lucky if there are only 4 or 5 stories that I can't wade through at all; if there are more than 1 or 2 that I really like, then I consider myself so blessed that I'm almost ready to turn to Jesus in gratitude. (And y'all know how I feel about the whole religion thing...)

How good is Jonathan Strahan? After reading Eclipse Three, you can look for me at the church, the synagogue, and the mosque this weekend. Of its 15 stories, there was only one that I found unreadable, and there are half-a-dozen or so that I think are remarkably good.

Among the highlights:

Pat Cadigan's "Don't Mention Madagascar" is a bittersweet comedy about second chances and what we'll give up to get one. Peter S. Beagle's "Sleight of Hand" tells of a young woman's encounter with a mysterious man who claims to be a magician. In "It Takes Two," by Nicola Griffith, we ponder whether what we think someone believes is more important than whether they actually believe it. And there are fine stories by Karen Joy Fowler, Elizabeth Bear, Maureen M. McHugh and others

You might notice that there's a preponderance of female names in that list. The book is unusually tilted towards female authors; ten of the 15 stories are by women, and one's a male-female collaboration. I don't know if that's a deliberate effort on Strahan's part, or just the way the submissions happened to land. I don't think it makes any particular difference in the quality of the book; the only effect that I would connect directly to authorial gender is that there are more lesbian characters and relationships than one would usually find in a collection of this sort.

I had missed the first two volumes in Strahan's Eclipse series, and he's also been editing an annual "best of the year" volume for a few years now. If his taste in this volume is any indication, I've got lots of good reading ahead of me.

January 26, 2010

TV: Caprica (Syfy, Fri 9)

The prequel to Battlestar Galactica finally arrives. Based on the 2-hour pilot, I think the show will be accessible to those who didn't watch Galactica, though there are certainly details that will be of greater significance to those who did.

The setting is Caprica City, the capital city of the planet Caprica, about 60 years before Galactica begins. Zoe Greystone (Alessandra Torresani) is 16, and is planning to run away to Gemenon; she seems to have plans that go deeper than those of the usual runaway, but before we can find up what those plans are, one of her traveling companions unexpectedly turns suicide bomber, blowing up the train on which they are traveling.

Her father, Daniel (Eric Stoltz), who is sort of the Bill Gates of Caprica, is devastated by her death. Work isn't going well, either; he's way behind schedule and over budget on a government contract to develop robot soldiers. But when he discovers that Zoe may have been an even more gifted computer programmer/scientist than he is, and that she'd manage to create a virtual duplicate of herself that exists in the holoworld where all the kids hang out, he begins plotting to load her computer self into one of his robots in order to bring Zoe back to "life."

Also killed in the explosion were the wife and daughter of lawyer Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), who meets Daniel at the funeral for their families, and is torn over the possibility of using Daniel's technology to revive his own family. (Joseph's 11-year-old son, Will, will grow up to be Admiral William Adama on Galactica.)

The show crams a lot of plotlines, characters, and social background into its pilot; it is, as Galactica was, very dense storytelling. There's a mysterious schoolteacher (Polly Walker) who is clearly hiding lots of interesting secrets; a religious conflict between the dominant polytheism and the small radical sect of monotheists; questions of assimilation and discrimination, embodied in Adama, who is from the backwater world Tauron, and does all he can to downplay his ancestry.

The pilot seems to be less dark and brooding than Galactica was, and the producers have said that they think of it as an SF version of Dallas. Galactica fans certainly don't need my recommendation to at least give the show an initial look, but I think even non-Galactica folks might enjoy it.

January 25, 2010

MOVIES: Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar, 2009)

Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) is a blind screenwriter who's offered a writing job by a man calling himself "Ray X" (Ruben Ochandiano). Caine throws him out, wanting nothing to do with him. Does his bad mood have anything to do with that day's news that financier Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) has died?

That's just one of the mysteries that Almodovar sets up in Broken Embraces. There are even more mysteries waiting for us when we flash back 14 years to find that Harry used to be Mateo Blanco, a successful director, and Martel was funding one of his films. Why did Mateo become Harry? How did he lose his sight? What's the connection between Mateo's inexperienced leading lady Lena (Penelope Cruz) and Martel? And who is Ray X?

This isn't Almodovar's very best work, but it's still a marvelously entertaining bit of melodrama about how the things we see (or think we see) can mislead us and make us do foolish things. Cruz gives a fine performance; she's particularly good in the movie-making scenes, where we get to see her doing two versions of the same movie moment, one a disastrously bad performance, and one a crackling comic gem. Homar is also terrific, playing everything from a man caught up in the giddiness of new love to a heartbroken, bitter cynic.

January 24, 2010

MOVIES: Trucker (James Mottern, 2009)

As a whole, this is a solid entry in the working-class slice-of-life category -- nothing spectacular and a bit predictable, but reasonably good entertainment -- but it's anchored by one of the year's best performances from Michelle Monaghan.

She plays Diane, a long-haul truck driver who has settled into a comfortable, if not entirely fulfilling, life. She's on the road much of the time, a job which, in combination with her natural reserve and unapproachability, has kept her from making any serious ties to other people. She has a good friend, Runner (Nathan Fillion), a married man with whom she comes as close to having an affair as one can come without actually having sex.

Her life is thrown into turmoil when her ex-husband (Benjamin Bratt) is hospitalized with cancer, and she's forced to take in her 11-year-old son Peter (Jimmy Bennett), who she hasn't seen since she walked out on them ten years ago. Single motherhood and truck driving aren't highly compatible, and Diane struggles to find a way to fit Peter into her life. He's not a sweet, cuddly kid, either; he's angry and resentful at her for having abandoned him.

In broad outlines, the rest of the story is predictable -- yet another crusty adult whose heart is softened by the responsibility of caring for a child -- but there's just enough variation on the formula to keep it interesting. Most interesting is that while the relationship between Diane and Peter changes, with each becoming more accepting of the other and of their need to find a way to live together, the characters themselves don't change much. Diane is still brittle and reserved at the end of the movie; Peter is still a stubborn, difficult child.

The performances are all very good, but Monaghan is marvelous. It's a quiet, understated performance, and she communicates a lot with small facial expressions. If they gave me an Oscar ballot this year, she'd be on my Best Actress list.

TV: Life Unexpected (CW, Mon 9)

A very pleasant surprise.

Lux (Britt Robertson) is 16, and wants to be legally emancipated from the foster care system. Because her birth parents never actually signed the documents relinquishing their parental rights -- her birth father doesn't even know that she exists -- she has to track them down and get those signatures in order to get that emancipation.

Her father, Baze (Kristoffer Polaha), owns a bar, and lives above it with a couple of other guys and a rotating cast of girlfriends; mother Cate (Shiri Appleby) is a successful morning radio talkshow host whose cohost (Kerr Smith) is also her boyfriend.

Lux's emancipation hearing doesn't go as she had hoped. The judge does take her out of foster care, but releases her into the temporary joint custody of Cate and Baze, forcing the three to figure out how to deal with their newfound existence as a family.

Neither Cate nor Baze has ever quite fully grown up, so the show has something of a Gilmore Girls vibe (though this is a far less whimsical show than Gilmore was), as parents and daughter take turns trying to get the other to be the responsible one.

The pilot tap-dances nimbly around the more implausible parts of its premise -- that an attractive white infant would never have been adopted, or that such dark brunettes as Appleby and Polaha would have so blond and fair a child as Robertson -- with writing that is reasonably intelligent, as this sort of teen soap goes, and is practically Shakespearean by CW standards.

The cast is extremely likable. Appleby and Smith have both done time in teen soaps (Roswell and Dawson's Creek, respectively), so they understand the style and tone very well; Polaha has been knocking around TV for several years now without ever finding the right combination of a good role in a good show. And Robertson is charming and smart, with a gift for delivering her dialogue in a way that downplays its occasional tendency to be too precocious by half.

This one is definitely worth keeping an eye on for a few weeks, and it could develop into something very good.

MOVIES: It's Complicated (Nancy Meyers, 2009)

Y'know, when the biggest probler a woman has is that her utterly spectacular kitchen isn't quite spectacular enough for her, it's awfully hard for me to give a crap about anything she's going through.

So I don't have much interest in the romantic travails of Jane (Meryl Streep) as she tries to decide whether to continue having an affair with her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin) or get involved with the architect (Steve Martin) who's designing her even more spectacular kitchen.

Oh, the performances are fine, though Martin is utterly wasted; why bother to hire Steve Martin if you're not going to ask him to do anything remotely funny? But Streep is at least a bit more relaxed than she has been recently, with a lot less of that exhausting "look how hard I'm acting" attitude that made Doubt or Julie and Julia so hard to sit through.

Alec Baldwin gives the movie's best performance; he's loose and funny, and also hits the big dramatic scenes very well. If the Academy took comedy seriously, he'd be a contender for a Supporting Actor nomination this year.

Ultimately, though, it's a movie about the very small problems of very rich people, and we aren't given any reason to care about whether Meryl gets her new kitchen or not.

TV: The Deep End (ABC, Thurs 8)

Four beautiful young lawyers, fresh out of law school, go to work for a prestigious Los Angeles law firm, where they pair off with one another, the paralegals, and the clients, and occasionally do a little bit of legal work. In short, this is to the law as Gray's Anatomy is to medicine.

There are some good actors on hand -- Billy Zane as the managing partner, known to one and all as "the Prince of Darkness;" Broadway veteran Norbert Leo Butz as the folksy mentor, clearly enjoying the opportunity to slum in the TV mines for a big paycheck; Matt Long as the earnest newbie whose loss of innocence will clearly be a major plotline -- and even though none of them are given anything particularly challenging to do, they are skilled enough to keep things moving briskly along without giving you too much time to laugh at the implausibilities.

I have a terrible weakness for legal dramas, so I'll keep watching for a few weeks to see if things develop in an interesting way. I can't say I'm extremely optimistic, but if the soap opera stuff develops well, it could become a cheesy guilty pleasure.

And oh, yeah, Ben Lawson, who plays another of the newbie lawyers -- he's the one to whom all the ladies are irresistibly drawn and who can't keep it in his pants -- is yummy with a capital yum.

January 18, 2010

BOOKS: Adventures in Unhistory, Avram Davidson (1993)

In a series of essays, Davidson speculates on the possible factual origins of some of our great legends, among them werewolves, the phoenix, unicorns, and dragons.

Davidson's prose style is unique. These essays are like a series of lectures given the most charming, erudite, witty, avuncular professor on campus. Here's the first paragraph in the book, the opening of the essay "Where Did Sindbad Sail?"
It may be that the reply of many is, Who cares? And it lieth not in my power to make anyone care by force or constraint, but it may be I may be able to awaken the interest of those whose interests slumber. May it be. If we do not all recall to mind instantly the stories of Paul Bunyan the giant lumberjack of the North Woods, at least, I am sure, we have all heard of them and of him. I believe that there exists in the minds of all of us, shall I say a suspicion, that Paul Bunyan did not really own a big blue ox named Babe who measured -- was it forty axe-handles and a plug of chewing tobacco between the horns? We suspect, I think, that no one else did, either -- though, to be sure, it is "the plug of chewing-tobacco" which adds the touch of verisimilitude to what is an otherwise, if not bald, certainly an unconvincing narrative. But that does not in any way mean that there was never a Paul Bunyan, that there are no oxen, no axe-handles, no chewing-tobacco, no cakes and ale, and certainly not that there are no North Woods.

As you can gather from that, Davidson is prone to digression and meandering. Or, in any event, to what seems like meandering, though he always seems to make his way to the central topic of each essay, and usually manages to dazzle you with how neatly all of those digressions tie together. He is an extraordinarily well-read man, and pulls together references ranging from classic Greek literature (he is particularly fond of Pliny) to obscure Scandinavian reference volumes.

It has been nearly thirty years since these essays were originally published, and Davidson was not a young man then; there is an occasional reference that reminds the modern reader of how attitudes towards various ethnic groups have changed. It would be unduly harsh, I think, to describe Davidson as racist -- not for an instant does he come across as hostile or ill-intentioned -- but there is a hint of condescension that slips in now and then.

These essays were originally published as magazine articles, and I think that would probably have been the best way to read them. Davidson's rococo style is rich and dense, and reading the entire book in one stretch is a bit like eating the entire cheesecake in one sitting. And it is a style, I am sure, that would have many readers climbing up the wall. But if you can find your way into Davidson's distinctive prose and mindset, the connections he makes will fascinate you.

TV: Human Target (Fox, Wed 9)

Pleasant escapist action, helped greatly by good casting.

Our hero is Christopher Chance (Mark Valley), who hires himself out as a combination of private eye and bodyguard. If your life is in peril, Chance will go undercover as part of your entourage, figure out who's up to what, and save you from them. (In the comic book on which the series is loosely based, Chance is a master of disguise who actually becomes his clients; in TV terms, that would either require the biggest makeup budget in history, or a different leading actor each week, neither of which is practical.)

Chance has two sidekicks. Chi McBride's Winston is something of a less comic version of his Pushing Daisies role; he's the guy who sets up the clients and grumbles that Chance is too reckless. Jackie Earle Haley plays Guerrero, the super hacker with connections in the criminal underground. No one does fussy annoyance like McBride, and Haley plays his character much more quietly and with less obvious menace than you'd expect (though there is no doubt that he is not a man to be messed with.

Mark Valley is a solid actor who's been knocking around TV for several years now, never quite breaking through to stardom. Fox gave him a chance a few years back with the short-lived Fast Eddie, and he spent a few years on Boston Legal. His weakness, I think, is that while he's attractive and talented, there's an amiable blandness about him that keeps him from standing out in a crowd. He's the kind of actor who you know you've seen somewhere, but can't quite put your finger on it. But that may make him the perfect choice for this role. Chance is supposed to be the guy who can blend into any situation, someone who can be added to a crowd without drawing your attention.

The first episode took place primarily on a moving train; judging from the preview, the next episode is set on an airplane. I suppose it's a money-saver to put the bulk of the story on a single set, but I hope that's not going to be the pattern for the whole series. ("This week, Chance and his client take the Love Boat to Mazatlan! Next week, Chance gets trapped in the VW Van of death!")

There's nothing groundbreaking about Human Target, but it's an entertaining hour of wildly implausible action with a likable trio of actors to carry you along.

MOVIES: Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

What a glorious movie this is, creepy and eerie and gorgeously animated.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is an annoying little girl, perpetually bored and complaining about something or other. To be fair, she does have some reasons to be frustrated; she's just moved away from all her friends into a rundown apartment building, and her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are rather inattentive, constantly working at their computers.

So when Coraline finds a tunnel into another world, she's enchanted. The Other World is a slightly warped mirror of her own, but everything seems better. The Other Parents dote on her (and cook much better); the neighbors are entertaining delights instead of faded, drunken vaudevillians; the garden is a gorgeous, colorful delight instead of a barren, gray wasteland.

But gradually, it becomes clear that the Other World is not as warm and inviting as it seems; the Other Mother, in particularly, is revealed to be a sinister, demonic being who has been luring children into her world and stealing their souls for generations. Coraline finds herself struggling to escape (and to rescue her own parents) from this nightmare world.

The voice cast is excellent, and they aren't actors you'd expect to hear in this sort of movie. Hatcher is surprisingly effective as the evil Other Mother, and Hodgman drops his usual dithering, pompous intellectual shtick (it took me a few minutes to recognize his voice without it). The other tenants in the apartment building are played by Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, and Ian McShane (quite funny as a drunken, elderly ex-strongman who trains mice). Keith David is a standout as a mysterious cat who seems to be the only one who knows what's really going on; he's having a good year in animation, having also done fine work in The Princess and the Frog.

The stop-motion animation is gorgeous, and there are scenes of such intricacy that I can't imagine doing them in stop-motion -- a theater filled with a hundred or so terriers, the graying and disintegration of the Other World during the climactic battle. (Compare this with the clunky stop-motion of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and you'll realize just how bad that movie's animation really is.) Even simpler scenes, though, are done with great beauty; I loved, for instance, watching the unfolding of the tunnel to the Other World.

This is most emphatically not a movie for children; it's intensely scary and disturbing. From the opening credits, in which we watch a spidery, metallic hand disassemble a stuffed doll, it's clear that we're going into very creepy territory. But for older kids and grownups, this is a spectacularly good movie, a terrifying delight.

January 17, 2010

For anyone who might be eagerly waiting, there is a "best movies of 2009" list in the works; I'm giving myself the rest of January to catch up with all of the holiday releases -- still need to see Crazy Heart and The Last Station -- as well as a few DVDs of movies I missed earlier in the year.

MOVIES: Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

I should begin, I suppose, by noting that I saw the movie in 2-D, because I have a lazy eye that keeps me from getting anything more than a headache from 3-D. But the stuff that works in Avatar would only be improved by 3-D, and the stuff that doesn't work wouldn't be helped at all by 3-D, so I feel like I can offer a reasonable opinion of the movie.

The story is a familiar one: There's a mining operation on the planet Pandora, which is inhospitable to human life. The miners wear oxygen masks, and there's a project to inflitrate the native population. That's done by creating avatars, Na'vi bodies made with some human DNA so that a human operator can be linked into and control the body. One avatar is controlled by Jake (Sam Worthington), who is a last-minute replacement for his identical-twin brother; since they share DNA, Jake can use his brother's avatar.

Jake hasn't gone through the extensive training that most avatar operators get, so he's improvising from the start. He meets the beautiful Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and falls so in love with her (and with the Na'vi way of life) that when the inevitable human military assault comes, he takes the Na'vi side.

If you're thinking of Pocahontas or Dances With Wolves or any of a zillion other "white guy goes native" movies, well, I told you it was a familiar story. And there's nothing inherently wrong with retelling an old tale, but if you choose to do so, it is incumbent upon you, I think, to find something novel or interesting in it, some new spin on old material. This is where Cameron and Avatar have failed spectacularly. The story is a painful collection of cliches; there's not a single story beat that you wouldn't have predicted after the first ten minutes, and you could probably have written more interesting and original dialogue for most of them.

The acting is adequate to the task, but almost never more than adequate. Stephen Lang brings the occasional glimmer of energy to his Evil Military Bastard, but it's the only remotely memorable performance in the movie.

Part of the acting problem is that so much of the movie is told through CGI characters and performance capture technology. I have yet to see a CGI character that I found convincing; here, as elsewhere, they lack the feeling of weight that a real body would have. The performance capture technology in Avatar is certainly the best I've seen, but it's still not very good at communicating subtle emotions, and the eyes are still cold, dead, and creepy. (To be sure, the dead-eye problem is less obtrusive since the characters aren't human.)

But on the other hand, the world of Pandora is a spectacular creation, filled with glorious landscapes and plant life unlike anything we've seen before. It's an entirely believable world, and I can only imagine how magnificent it must be in the 3-D version of the movie. There are one or two small design decisions I might have made differently -- I wouldn't have chosen to cover the entire planet in "Billie Jean" flooring that glows when you step on it, and the Tree of Souls isn't so much the awe-inspiring spiritual icon of a culture as it is a cheap fiber-optic toy from Spencer Gifts -- but there are so many remarkable ideas and images in Pandora that I think it's worth seeing the movie just for the visuals.

I say that with some reluctance, because I find myself increasingly frustrated by the current trend away from intelligent storytelling in the movies, and I fear that the success of Avatar well only exacerbate that trend. Certainly, we can already expect that by Christmas 2012, the theaters will be filled with Avatar ripoffs that use cut-rate versions of the new technology to tell even less interesting stories than this one.

Still, if you care about the movies as an art form, I think you have to see Avatar, on as large a screen as you can manage, and in 3-D if you can.

Supporting Actresses: Class of 2009

A fine blogathon today on the supporting actresses of 2009. A couple dozen bloggers have posted on their favorites of the year, and you'll find links to all that goodness over at StinkyLulu, who organized the whole thing.

January 12, 2010

MOVIES: The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

I must admit to being utterly perplexed by this one. It's a parable of some sort, set in a small German village in the years immediately preceding World War I. It's a nearly feudal place, with most of the land owned by a local baron, who directly employs about half of the villagers.

It's also a cold, repressive place; children are harshly disciplined for what seem like relatively small infractions. The white ribbon of the title is worn by the two oldest children of the town pastor -- the girl wears it in her hair, the boy wears it as an armband -- as a reminder of the purity they have failed to maintain; this punishment is imposed for the crime of being late to dinner.

The movie is narrated (in the present day) by the now-elderly schoolteacher, who tells us that the strange events he will relate bear some relation to, and will perhaps explain, later events in his country's history. It's hard not to take that a reference of some sort to the rise of the Nazis (especially when you've got some Germans making other Germans wear colored armbands as a sign of impurity).

The village is stricken with a rash of strange and violent incidents. The doctor is seriously injured when his horse trips over a wire strung between two trees. A farmer's wife is accidentally killed in the sawmill. A mentally disabled boy is viciously beaten. There are hints throughout that it may be the children who are doing all of these horrific things, but nothing is ever proven.

And the connection of all of this to German history is a bit vague, too, at least to me; it may be that if I were German, I would be picking up on all sorts of subtle cultural and historical references that simply fly over my American head. But without that, all I can really get from the movie is a beautifully photographed (in black and white) Teutonic variation on Children of the Corn or Village of the Damned or any "the children are eeeeee-viiiil" movie of your choice. It's never boring from moments to moment, but damned if I can figure out the point of it all.

January 11, 2010

MOVIES: Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008 / US 2009)

An understated, wistful movie about the weight of things and our obligations to the past.
Three adult children must deal with the estate of their mother, whose uncle had been a painter and art collector of some moderate renown. It will fall to Frederic to handle the details, as the other two siblings live abroad; their mother had urged him to sell the estate, or donate the art to a museum, so that the family would not be burdened with the upkeep of a summer home that is only rarely used. Frederic, however, wants to keep the home and the art intact, to be handed down to the next generation.
There's a layer of subtext throughout about globalization and how French culture is to survive if the nation's best young minds continue to leave the country, and whether culture can truly be said to "survive" if it's placed in a museum instead of used and lived in.
The four central performances are all superb. Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jeremie Renier are utterly believable as siblings, both physically and emotionally; their conversations about how to handle things after their mother's death feel spot on, just the right mix of emotion and rationality. Edith Scob radiates dignity as their mother; she is not always the warmest person, but there is no doubt that she loves her family -- the current generations as well as those who came before -- and wants what is best for all of them.
Not available on DVD yet, but Netflix has it for instant streaming. Well worth your time.

BOOKS: Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon (2009)

Ryan has just learned that the man he believed was his uncle is actually his father. In shock, he leaves his campus, catches a bus out of town, and disappears; the authorities believe him to be dead.

Lucy, fresh out of high school, is thrilled to be leaving her small Ohio town with her history teacher, and significantly less so when they wind up holed up in an abandoned motel in an even smaller Nebraska town. This is not the glamour and excitement she had looked forward to.

Miles is, once again, on the road in search of twin brother Hayden, who has been missing for ten years, only occasionally popping up with a postcard or a phone call. Miles keeps chasing these tenuous trails, only to find Hayden long gone by the time he gets there.

These three stories of identities lost and found, of personalities discarded and reinvented, are very cleverly woven together by Chaon; the sharp reader will see some of the connections coming, but not all. Chaon misleads us in a variety of ways, not the least of which is simply to allow us to make a host of unfounded assumptions.

The pacing is excellent here; just as one set of characters might begin to wear out their welcome, Chaon jumps back to another story. It's a thrilling ride, watching them struggle to make their way forward with options increasingly limited by circumstances and poor planning. (I particularly felt for poor Lucy, who flees Nowhere only to land in Outer Nowhere.) You'll find yourself wanting to back up and read again, just to see which connections you'd missed along the way. A delightful, clever novel.

MOVIES: A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)

There are very fine performances to be found here, but they are trapped in a movie that is far less interesting than they deserve.

It is 1962, and George (Colin Firth) is still mourning the death of his lover some eight months earlier; George's grief doesn't seem to have lessened any, but he thinks that he may have finally found the only way to move on. This is as good a performance as Firth has ever given. He is particularly heartbreaking when receiving the phone call that informs him of Jim's death (and tells him that he will not be welcome at the funeral); there is no melodramatic weeping or hurling of objects, just a terrifying, fragile stillness, as if to move at all would be more than he could bear.

Since Jim's death, the only real friend George has left is Charly (Julianne Moore), a fellow ex-pat Brit with whom he once had a brief romantic relationship, and who still carries a giant torch for him ("and if you hadn't been a giant poof, we could have been happy!" she screams at one point). They spend evenings together, taking inordinate pleasure in wallowing together in their own misery.

If there is hope for George to rejoin humanity and get on with life, it may come from Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), the pretty young college student who has the hots for professor George. Their scenes together are among the best in the movie. While I certainly wouldn't want to return to that era, there is something intensely romantic about the tension in their conversations; even the mildest flirtation must be hidden beneath countless layers of plausible deniability.

But as fine as these performances are, the movie itself is shallow and superficial. It is a lovely movie to look at, and its ultimate subject is its own beauty. There are endless loving closeups of eyes, beautiful young men (clothed), cocktail glasses, beautiful young men (partially clothed), children's shoes, and beautiful young men (naked). There are scenes and images that seem to be lifted from other highly visual filmmakers -- Almodovar and Wong-Kar Wai, among others -- but Ford has gotten only the visuals, with little of the emotional impact that those directors bring to them.

Mind you, I have nothing against beautiful young men, regardless of their state of (un)dress, but one can go overboard; after about the eighteenth interstitial shot of a man writhing sensuously underwater, I began to grow weary. (I also began to marvel that it was possible to film a man writhing underwater for so long a period without even the slightest glimpse of pubic hair, much less genitalia.) And though it is in keeping with the current gay aesthetic that all of the beautiful young men are completely shaved from the neck down, I think that choice is rather anachronistic for 1962.

If you are particularly fond of any of these actors, or if Tom Ford's aesthetic -- rather, the aesthetic that he has borrowed from better directors -- appeals to you, you may want to see this one in the theaters. Otherwise, it can certainly wait for the DVD.

January 06, 2010

BOOKS: Silver Lake, Peter Gadol (2009)

Robbie and Carlo have been partners, both personally and professionally, for 20 years now. Things are fine for the most part, but the architecture business has hit a slow patch, and their relationship is starting to feel a little worn around the edges.

Maybe that's why Robbie is so intrigued by Tom, a younger man who wanders into their office one Saturday morning. They chat and hit it off; Robbie invites Tom home for dinner. Everyone has a bit too much to drink, and rather than let Tom drive home, the men put him up in the guest room for the night. When they wake the next morning, Robbie and Carlo find that Tom has done something horrifying, and their relationship may not survive the fallout.

Gadol's novel is full of lovely prose, and the characters are well developed, but it's so self-consciously arty that I was driven nuts by it. I was also frustrated by the way Gadol hints at everyone's secrets for chapters on end; I find it's rarely a good sign when the author chooses to hide events from the reader, or describe things in cryptic ways that are wildly misleading, so that bombshells can be dropped later on.

A mixed bag. Can't say I'd recommend it with any great enthusiasm, but wouldn't be surprised if you found it deeply moving, either.

BOOKS: Knives at Dawn, Andrew Friedman (2009)

The Bocuse d'Or is a two-day competition in which nations are represented by a chef and his/her assistant; each team has five and a half hours to prepare two elaborate platters of food (one fish, one meat). Taste is important, to be sure, but the visual spectacle of the food matters almost as much. Most Americans, even a lot of foodies, have never heard of the Bocuse d'Or, but to the culinary world outside the US, it's a very big deal. If you're a Top Chef fan, you might remember the Bocuse d'Or-inspired competition from the show's most recent season -- the one with the ridiculously intricate garnishes and the shiny mirrored platters.

(Were the Food Network really interested in food, they'd be offering us coverage of the Bocuse d'Or, as several European TV networks do. It only happens every two years, and if they can cram an 8-hour cake decorating contest into a one-hour show, they can certainly fit the Bocuse d'Or into a 2-hour special.)

In Knives at Dawn, Andrew Friedman follows the US team -- chef Timothy Hollingsworth and his assistant, Adina Guest -- as they prepare for the 2009 competition. Going into this competition, the US team had never finished higher than sixth, but a small group of prominent American chefs (Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller among them) was determined to give this year's team the financial support and practice time they would need to reach the medal stand.

Hollingsworth faces a variety of challenges, not least of which is simply planning his menu. Should he focus on the food he likes to cook, emphasize American ingredients and flavors, or try to sway the judges with traditional classic technique? He also finds that even with the backing of Boulud and Keller's group, it's nearly impossible to find enough rehearsal and preparation time.

Friedman assumes a basic level of food knowledge. but really unusual techniques or foreign terms are always explained so that even the non-foodie can follow what's happening reasonably well. His book is a solid and entertaining piece of journalism, and he does a lively job of bringing his principal characters to life

January 04, 2010

MOVIES: O'Horten (Bent Hamer, 2007/US 2009)

For 40 years, Odd Horten (Baard Owe) -- that first name is relatively common in Norway -- has driven passengers up and down the length of the country. But now he's reached mandatory retirement age, and doesn't quite now how to cope with life when he's free to wander rather than forced to follow a track.

We spend a few days wandering around Oslo with Horten as he tries to adjust to his new life. Writer-director Bent Hamer gives us a clear sense of his discomfort and disorientation by gradually turning Oslo into a slightly surreal place, where everything seems to be just a few degrees off kilter. Strangers approach and start conversations that sound like coded messages from bad spy novels, asking if he likes some particular brand of butter. Routine events are disrupted in unexpected ways, as when police barge into his favorite restaurant and haul the chef away.

Through it all, Horten maintains a stoic deadpan, barely responding to anything, no matter how bizarre. There's something childlike about his response; to a 4-year-old, after all, the bizarre doesn't seem bizarre, because it's just one more in the endless series of things he hasn't ever seen before. "Oh, so this is what happens in the world," thinks the child. "Oh, so this is what happens away from the train," thinks Horten. It's a lovely performance from Owe, a marvel of calm and understatement.

I could have wished that the movie had ended one scene earlier; there is a beautiful, haunting, potent image at a popular Oslo sporting venue that should have been the final moment of the movie. But that's a quibble. O'Horten is an eccentric charmer.

January 03, 2010

MOVIES: Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Wes Anderson is, notoriously, something of a control freak as a director, particularly with the look of his sets and costumes. So you can understand why stop-motion animation would appeal to him. Everything has to be made from scratch, and you never have to settle for filming in a room where the wallpaper isn't quite what you wanted. Heck, you even get to have perfect control over the movements and physical "performance" of your cast.

And Anderson has assembled a top-notch cast of actors to provide the voices for his characters. George Clooney is Mr. Fox, whose raids on the local farmers are becoming increasingly dangerous. Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) wishes he would slow down and take fewer chances, but as Mr. Fox reminds her, "I'm a wild animal." Their son, Ash (Jason Schwarzman, giving a listless, bland performance) is an insecure wreck with a massive inferiority complex that's only made worse when golden-boy cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) comes to stay with the family. Also doing fine work in smaller roles are Bill Murray and Owen Wilson.

Those local farmers (who are British, oddly enough, though all of the animal voices are distinctly American) eventually get so fed up with Fox's raids that they destroy his home, and the rest of the movie finds Fox and his animal pals out to get their revenge.

The story's entertaining enough, though it sags in the last act, as the plotting against the farmers drags on and on. The real problem, though, is the clunkiness of the animation. There have been a lot of advances in stop-motion in recent years -- look at the quality of the Wallace and Gromit films, for instance -- but this movie is choppier than the Rankin-Bass TV specials of 40 years ago. All the painstaking attention to detail that makes the look of the movie so appealing is wasted because it's just so painful to watch such badly done animation. A serious disappointment.

MOVIES: The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2009)

We cover about three years of Queen Victoria's life here, and eventful years they were, too. (And there will be no grumbling about spoilers here; this is history, for heaven's sake, and we all know how it turns out.) As we open, she is merely Princess Victoria, first in line to the throne. But she is only 17, and should her elderly uncle, King William, die before she turns 18, a regent will have to be appointed; depending on the circumstances, she may be forced to relinquish the throne to a regent for several years. William wants desperately to avoid a regency, because he doesn't trust Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, and trusts even less Lord Conroy, the politician who would likely be pulling the Duchess' strings.

There are several other politicians jockeying for a possible regency (much credit to screenwriter Julian Fellowes for laying out the various factions and contenders very clearly), and of course, Victoria is also being courted by members of several other European royal families. They all have political motives, but some of them also seem to have genuine romantic interest in her; chief among this group is Prince Albert, whose uncle is King of the Belgians.

(He's always referred to in just that way, incidentally -- "King of the Belgians" as opposed to "King of Belgium." I have no idea if there's some particular historic reason for that, but it struck me as odd.)

William holds on long enough (by a few weeks) for Victoria to become Queen without a regency; she marries Albert; and the first two years of her reign are marked by an assortment of political and social blunders. The movie ends with the birth of the first of the nine children Victoria and Albert would have before his tragic death at a young age.

So, there's plenty of drama available to the filmmakers here. Unfortunately, virtually none of it makes it into the movie, which is a flat, lifeless exercise. Much of the blame falls to Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend, whose Victoria and Albert have no romantic chemistry, and who are never convincing as confused young royals struggling to do the right things in the right way. The only performance in the movie with much life comes from Jim Broadbent, who brings more energy to his few moments as King William than anything else in the movie.

The Young Victoria looks pretty. Sandy Powell does her usual fine work with costumes, and Maggie Gray's sets are opulent and lavish. But no matter how gorgeous, a costume drama without the drama doesn't offer much to the viewer.