August 30, 2010

MOVIES: Cairo Time (Ruba Nadda, 2010)

Cairo Time is sort of a middle-aged, less overtly romantic version of Before Sunrise, in which a pair of likable people stroll around a beautiful city together.

Patricia Clarkson stars as Juliette, who has come to Cairo for a vacation with her husband, who works for the United Nations in Gaza. He has been delayed by events there -- unspecified, but vaguely menacing -- and has asked one of his former assistants, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), to meet her at the airport. And so, for a week or so, as Juliette waits for her husband, she explores Cairo, usually with Tareq as her guide.

If you need a lot of plot or excitement from your movies, Cairo Time is most emphatically not for you; this is a mood piece. Like its characters, the movie is very reserved, sometimes too much so; more is said with gestures and glances than with dialogue, and the dialogue we do get often borders on the cheesy.

But Clarkson and Siddig are awfully good with those gestures and glances, and they're skilled enough actors that even the clunkier bits of dialogue are less annoying than they would be in lesser hands. And they're a lovely pair together, both tall and slender (Siddig almost improbably so, with oddly long arms), both comfortable with the faces and bodies they've aged into.

Not essential viewing, but a pleasant movie. If it appeals to you, it's probably worth the effort to see it on a big screen for the gorgeous photography and Cairo travelogue.

August 29, 2010

MOVIES: Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010)

J is 17, and doesn't know his mother's family very well. They're small time thugs and drug dealers, and she feared for his safety if he got involved with them. But now mom has died (of a drug overdose, with suggests that "safety of my son" stopped being a motivating force in her life at some point), and J has nowhere else to turn.

And as J's mother had feared, life with the Codys is a veritable cornucopia of danger. J's uncles are (in varying degrees) violent, paranoid, and psychotic, and his grandmother (known as Smurf), though not actively involved in the criminal activity, certainly doesn't condemn it particularly strongly. And when push comes to shove, she's willing to go further than we might have guessed to protect her boys.

We're in fairly familiar crime drama territory here, with the expected mix of sudden outbursts of violence, innocents placed unfairly in danger, and evil lurking behind every apparently loving smile. But it's executed with great skill, and the Australian setting gives it a bit of novelty for American audiences.

Most of the actors are unfamiliar here, with Guy Pearce (as a cop who tries to help J) being the most recognizable face. The performances are uniformly fine, with Jacki Weaver making a particularly strong impression as Smurf and James Frecheville making an impressive movie debut as J. This one probably won't get beyond the largest cities, but it's certainly worth adding it to your Netflix queue.

August 28, 2010

TV: Emmy predictions

Because there just aren't enough sets of Emmy picks and predictions floating around the blogosphere this week.

Curb Your Enthusiasm
Modern Family
Nurse Jackie
The Office
30 Rock

SHOULD WIN: Modern Family
WILL WIN: Modern Family

Toni Collette, United States of Tara
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, The New Adventures of Old Christine
Lea Michele, Glee
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation

SHOULD HAVE MADE THE LIST: Portia de Rossi, Better Off Ted

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Steve Carell, The Office
Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Matthew Morrison, Glee
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Tony Shalhoub, Monk

WILL WIN: Shalhoub

Julie Bowen, Modern Family
Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock
Jane Lynch, Glee
Holland Taylor, Two and a Half Men
Sofia Vergara, Modern Family
Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live

SHOULD HAVE MADE THE LIST: Meritt Wever, Nurse Jackie

Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Chris Colfer, Glee
Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family
Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family

SHOULD WIN: Stonestreet
WILL WIN: Harris
SHOULD HAVE MADE THE LIST: Danny Pudi, Community

Breaking Bad
The Good Wife
Mad Men
True Blood

SHOULD HAVE MADE THE LIST: These shows aren't all my cup of tea, but it's a reasonable field, and nothing comes to mind that is obviously more deserving.

Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Matthew Fox, Lost
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House

WILL WIN: Cranston
SHOULD HAVE MADE THE LIST: By far, the strongest field of the night. Not all performances that I watch regularly, but the bits and pieces I have seen are enough to convince me that there's not an undeserving name on the list.

Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
Glenn Close, Damages
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
January Jones, Mad Men
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

SHOULD WIN: Margulies
WILL WIN: Margulies
SHOULD HAVE MADE THE LIST: As usual, the weakest field of the night, but that's not really the fault of the Academy voters. The pickings are mighty slim in this category, and these probably are the best choices available from an unimpressive list. (The name most frequently suggested as overlooked here is Katey Sagal, but since Sons of Anarchy never appealed to me, I can offer no opinion on the question. Still, she couldn't be any duller than Mariska Hargitay, could she?)

Andre Braugher, Men of a Certain Age
Michael Emerson, Lost
Terry O'Quinn, Lost
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
Martin Short, Damages
John Slattery, Mad Men

WILL WIN: Braugher
SHOULD HAVE MADE THE LIST: Enver Gjokaj, Dollhouse (who didn't even submit his name for consideration)

Christine Baranski, The Good Wife
Rose Byrne, Damages
Sharon Gless, Burn Notice
Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife

SHOULD WIN: Hendricks
SHOULD HAVE MADE THE LIST: Lisa Edelstein, House

August 24, 2010

BOOKS: Pennterra, Judith Moffett (1987)

Earth has nearly destroyed itself -- we're never told the details -- and a small group of Quaker colonists has made its way to a planet they call Pennterra. It's a beautiful planet, and while humans can't eat the local flora or fauna, their own plants and animals grow well there.

It's a difficult life, though, in large part because of the restrictions placed on them by the native sentients, the hrossa. The hrossa insist that the humans must limit themselves to one small valley, that they may not use any heavy machinery, and that they must not allow their population to increase significantly above their original numbers.

A new group of colonists has just arrived, though -- they left before hearing the Quakers' "Don't send anyone else" transmissions -- and this group is far less willing to put up with the hrossan restrictions. They certainly don't believe the warning that violations of these rules will lead to their destruction -- not through any act of violence on the part of the hrossa, but destruction caused by the planet itself.

It's a promising setup, with lots of opportunity for conflict and misunderstanding among the planet's three communities. And Moffett makes the most of it, creating a society and ecology that are wildly different from our own, and showing us how human and hrossa change one another.

The prudish should be warned that sex and sexuality play a large part in the plot; one of our characters is the first human to go through puberty on Pennterra, which turns out to have some unusual psychological implications. While Moffett isn't sexually graphic, there are some goings-on that might shock a few even today, and must certainly have raised eyebrows 25 years ago. But they're presented as reasonable, understandable developments, given the background she's established, and none of it is meant as mere titillation.

Pennterra is a smart and provocative novel that offers a lot to think about, but never becomes so didactic or idea-heavy that it ceases to entertain.

August 16, 2010

MOVIES: Salt (Phillip Noyce, 2010)

This review is a bit more spoiler-y than usual, but it's not as if there's really all that much to spoil in what is a fairly standard Hollywood action flick.

The setup, which you're no doubt familiar with from the trailers and ads, is a clever one. CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is interviewing a Russian defector who claims that a Russian spy, who has been living in the US under deep cover for years, will kill the Russian president tomorrow at the funeral of the American vice-president in New York City. The name of that spy: Evelyn Salt. Salt protests that this is nonsense, but she runs as soon as she gets the chance.

This being a Hollywood movie, and Angelina Jolie being the star, we know that Salt will eventually be revealed to be a good guy after all. But one of the movie's biggest surprises, and one of the things I most liked about it, is how long it sustains the ambiguity about whether Salt is or is not a Russian spy, and whose side she's really on. Even the movie's climax is less heroically redemptive than usual, leaving Salt as more of an anti-hero than a hero (and even more blatantly than usual setting up a sequel).

What works in the movie? Jolie, above all else. Even during the first half of the movie, when Salt is doing horrible things and we're being led to believe that she actually is working for the Russians, she is still somehow a character; we're rooting for her to get away with things we shouldn't want her to get away with. Credit for that goes almost entirely to Jolie, who does such a good job of establishing Salt in the opening scenes as someone we like and want to trust that we are willing to stick with her even as the movie calls upon her to perform far more heinous acts than we're accustomed to from even our most morally ambiguous action heroes.

The action scenes are also terrific. An early freeway chase in which Salt leaps from the roof of one moving vehicle to another (several times) is a thrill, and the scene at the vice president's funeral is cleverly staged and imagined.

There are a few moments that strain credibility. I'm pretty sure that you can't actually use a cop and a taser to drive a car in quite the way that Salt does during one chase (though it does make an amusing scene), and the movie's makeup is sometimes less than compelling (Jolie as a blonde? Almost always a bad idea), becoming laughable in a short scene where we're expected to believe that Salt is convincingly passing as a man.

And there's one glaring plot hole near the end (and this really is a bit of a spoiler if you haven't seen the movie, so you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph): After the battle between Salt and Winter (and was I the only one who couldn't stop thinking "you can't fight in here; this is the War Room" through that whole scene?), when Salt is arrested and the Secret Service escort the President away, why doesn't the President tell anyone that it was Winter who shot everyone and knocked him out? There was an easy fix available; I don't know that I'd have found it convincing, but I'd have gone along with a simple line of dialogue like "the President has regained consciousness, but has no memory of what happened in there." But then we wouldn't have gotten the nifty strangulation of Winter, I guess.

If you're not into the Hollywood "that blowed up real good" genre, this may not be for you. But as such things go, I thought the unusually prolonged attempt to sustain some ambiguity about the protagonist's morality and the unbridled star power of Jolie made it a fine piece of summer popcorn entertainment.

August 09, 2010

MOVIES: Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2010)

I had mixed feelings about this one. There are some fine performances and a nice eye for Depression-era period detail, but the story is structured in a clumsy fashion, and it lumbers along so badly that I'd recommend waiting for cable/DVD.

Robert Duvall stars as Felix Bush, a notorious hermit who has lived on his own for 40 years or so; the locals have turned him into a monstrous bogeyman, telling stories to one another about the horrible things he's done that led to his isolation. He comes into town one day and asks funeral director Bill Murray to arrange a "funeral party," at which everyone is invited to tell their stories about him, and he'd like to have that party now, while he's still alive.

It becomes clear fairly quickly that Felix is hiding a secret, and that he's throwing this party in the hopes that someone will tell the story he can't bring himself to tell about what really happened 40 years ago. (I'm not sure who he expects to tell the story, since everyone else who was present at the time is long since dead, but we're not encouraged to think about that too much.)

The actors generally do good work, though Duvall is unfortunately at his worst in the big monologue, which reeks of "Look, Ma, I'm acting!" Murray continues to amaze me with how much he conveys without seeming to do much of anything, and Lucas Black is utterly charming as Murray's assistant, who struggles with the ethics of throwing a funeral party for the living. Sissy Spacek's role as Felix's old flame is rather underwritten, though she's lovely to watch in the few scenes she does get; and the reliably fine Bill Cobbs has some nice moments as another old friend who is reluctant to take part in Felix's party.

But the movie is built to lead inexorably to Duvall's big monologue; no one's actions feel organic, and nothing is allowed to be said (or, more often, not said) unless it will move the story in that direction. It's the clunkiest screenplay I've seen in a long time, ticking off the obvious beats to its Big Finish, and you can surely find a better way to spend your movie dollars.