October 26, 2010

BOOKS: One Day, David Nicholls (2010/UK 2009)

The 20-year relationship of Dexter and Emma, which we watch by dropping in on them every July 15, beginning with their first meeting. It's an entertaining story, and Nicholls uses his narrative conceit very cleverly, but there is one major flaw that might ruin the book for you.

That flaw is what Roger Ebert calls an "idiot plot;" that is, a story that would be wrapped up in ten minutes if any of the characters were not complete idiots. In this case, it's clear to us by the end of, say, chapter 2 that Dex and Em are meant to be together, and each of them realizes it even sooner than that. But neither of them ever bothers to say "I love you" to the other (or even "I like you a lot and I think we should start dating"), and so we're dragged through a decade or more of watching the two pine miserably away for one another. Each time circumstances put them in danger of actually connecting romantically, Nicholls forces one of them to jump through some foolish hoop to plant yet another obstacle in their way.

But on the plus side, the characters are immensely likable and vividly drawn, and Nicholls tells his story with great warmth and humor. The final chapters are particularly strong, and the ending is much more moving than I had expected from so relatively frothy a confection. That ending, I think, tipped the balance for me, and got me past my annoyance with the idiot plot to the point where I can mildly recommend the book, but with a strong caveat that your mileage may vary.

October 18, 2010

October 17, 2010

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, October 17 (Messiaen)

Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila-symphonie is not a work to be tackled lightly. It's a gargantuan piece -- 78 minutes, in today's performance -- for an enormous orchestra, and requires virtuoso soloists on the piano and the ondes martenot. (The what?, you may be asking. I'll get to that.) It's a work of passionate, almost crazed intensity, a wild attempt to depict the whole experience of human love, from the spiritual to the carnal.

And when it's done well, as it certainly was in this performance, it's an exhilirating thrill ride.

Messiaen calls for a very large orchestra, with triple winds and brass, a large percussion section, and an array of keyboard instruments -- celesta, glockenspiel (an odd little keyboard version that looked like a very small harpsichord), piano, and ondes martenot. The ondes is an electronic instrument that can be played from the keyboard to produce separate, distinct notes (but only one note at a time, no chords), or by sliding a ring along a metal rod at the front of the keyboard to produce swooping glissandos. It's got a 7-octave range with a less piercing tone than that of the theremin, and more timbral variation, created mostly through the use of multiple speakers, each of which filters the sound differently. Today's ondes soloist, Cynthia Millar, is the reigning queen of the instrument, and has performed the Turangalila more than 100 times; her fellow soloist, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, is also a long-time devotee of the work.

It's not a work that follows traditional symphonic structure. There is a sort of development section late in the work, but the music is largely built around the layering of contrasting ideas, rhythms, and timbres. The low brass blares a series of portentous chords; as they fade away, you start to hear the flurrying dance that the strings have been playing all along; and above it all, the piano chirps away in a variety of imitation birdsongs. (Birdsongs were one of Messiaen's obsessions; his business card described him as a "composer/ornithologist.")

The things that stick with me when I hear unfamiliar music for the first time tend to be unusual moments of orchestral color, and there are some lovely ones here. The piano frequently plays in unison with the celesta and glockenspiel, giving it a brighter, more tinkly sound; a solo clarinet becomes even more hollow and hooty when doubled by the ondes. Messiaen has a particularly interesting way of combining unpitched percussion with the piano. A single woodblock, for instance, will clatter out a rhythm as the piano plays a melody to match, with the two balanced in such a way that the timbre of the woodblock dominates; it creates the illusion that one woodblock is playing a full melodic phrase.

The final seconds of the work are striking. The orchestra builds and builds to a thrilling climax, and at the moment when you expect that last little bit of oomph to hit, that little exclamation point on the final instant, the music instead fades away in an instant. It's as if all that joy, that passion, that delirious ecstasy is just too much to be sustained; it can only implode. It's a magical effect.

This was the first concert I'd heard under Gustavo Dudamel, and he's great fun to watch. He's very lively on the podium, but his energy never detracts from the absolute clarity of his beat and his tempos (and in this work, tempos are changing all the time, both abruptly and through drawn-out ritardando passages). The orchestra clearly loves him, and it's exciting to think how good he could become if he's this good at 29.

This was a concert I won't forget for a long time, an absolutely spectacular afternoon, and the audience responded with a standing ovation that lasted for nearly ten minutes.

October 16, 2010

MOVIES: Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010)

To his credit, Clint Eastwood attempts in Hereafter to do several things he's never tried before as a director; unfortunately, he doesn't do any of them very well. The big effects scene that opens the movie looks distinctly low-budget, and the Babel-style bringing together of mulitple storylines is handled in particularly clumsy fashion.

Worst of all, Eastwood attempts (briefly) to give us a glimpse of the afterlife. There are a lot of ways for a director to do that, but all of them call for a visual poetry that Eastwood's prosaic style simply can't provide.

The actors do what they can, but Peter Morgan's script is unusually heavy-handed, wrapping them all in a lead blanket of somber earnestness. Cecile de France is pretty, but an emotional blank as a French journalist; retired psychic Matt Damon has the wounded sincerity cranked up to full blast; George and Frankie McLaren, as London twins struck by tragedy, are the worst sort of child actors, coasting on simpering cuteness. The best impressions are made by supporting players -- Steven Schirippa as a cheerful cooking instructor, Jenifer Lewis as a frantic grieving mother.

As has become his habit, Eastwood scores the movie himself, and you will grow very tired of the plinking little piano theme that accompanies the movie's sadder moments (of which there are a lot).

You don't expect a movie about how we cope with death to be full of laughs, but there's not so much as a smile to break the unrelenting gloom. (Bryce Dallas Howard tries to bring some comic energy to her role as Damon's romantic interest; it doesn't work at all, but at least she's trying.) Hereafter is a movie desperately in need of a sense of humor to break through its hermetic seal of righteous sincerity.

October 09, 2010

MOVIES: Secretariat (Randall Wallace, 2010)

There is not a single moment in Secretariat that will surprise you. That's not just because we all know the story (spoiler alert: the horse wins), but because the obligatory plot points of the Inspirational Sports Movie are ticked off with all the solemn predictability of the Stations of the Cross.

There are a lot of problems here. The dialogue is often hopelessly hackneyed and the movie is weighted down with the same sort of fuzzy, soft-focus Christianity that worked so well in selling The Blind Side last year. John Malkovich is badly miscast; just because he has a reputation for playing eccentrics doesn't mean he's the right choice for every eccentric, and he's not very convincing as a French-Canadian horse-training dandy. (His accent when he slips into French, for instance, is terrible, and it's certainly not the distinctive French-Canadian accent.)

That said, Diane Lane is very good as Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, and there's a charming supporting performance from Margo Martindale as the Chenery family secretary. And when that horse comes barrelling down the track, the movie is undeniably exciting. You could easily wait for the DVD; Secretariat certainly isn't a great movie, but if you're in the mood for this sort of thing, it's an awfully effective one in spite of itself.

October 08, 2010

BOOKS: The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes (2007)

Here's a weirdly loopy knockoff of every Victorian genre you can think of, with a few other styles and eras thrown in for good measure. It's equal parts Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, Jewish mysticism, and German expressionism; and it manages to be both genuinely frightening and very funny.

It's the story of Edward Moon, a stage magician who frequently assists the London police in their investigations. This time, he and his sidekick, The Somnambulist (a 7-foot-tall, mute, milk-guzzling, apparently unkillable fellow), are investigating the mysterious deaths of two actors, which lead them into a conspiracy involving deformed prostitutes, the bum who lives outside Moon's theater, the poetry of the recently deceased (or is he?) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the power of Love.

The opening had me hooked, one of those "Hello, I'm your unreliable narrator" things that I love so:
Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.

Yet I cannot be held wholy accountable for its failings. I have good reason for presenting you with so sensational and unlikely an account.

It is all true. Every word of what follows actually happened, and I am merely the journalist, the humble Boswell, who has set it down. You'll have realised by now that I am new to this business of storytelling, that I lack the skill of an expert, that I am without any ability to enthral the reader, to beguile with narrative tricks or charm with sleight of hand.

And the rest of the book more than lives up to the promise of that opening. It's a darkly hilarious mishmash of genres that carefully balances its spectacular horror elements (which really are immensely creepy, particularly in the elaborate battle at the climax) with a gently mocking, affectionately parodic tone. It's Sherlock Holmes meets Wes Craven, Doctor Who meets Edgar Allan Poe -- and it's a fabulously odd piece of entertainment.

October 04, 2010

MOVIES: Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)

The words "teenage comedy" do not exactly give the average moviegoer great cause for optimism these days, but Easy A is an exception. It's a smart, funny movie that doesn't stoop to vulgarity for its jokes, and that allows its characters to be likable and flawed.

Our heroine is Olive (Emma Stone), who tells her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka), that she's lost her virginity to a college man. She hasn't, and that lie leads to another, and another, until Olive suddenly realizes she's lied her way into an image as the school slut. She finds herself even more outcast than before, and Marianne (Amanda Bynes), leader of the school's Christian student group, makes it her mission to get Olive expelled for her behavior.

Olive's currently reading The Scarlet Letter in English class (good lord, are schools still foisting that musty old thing on kids?), and can't help but draw parallels between her own persecution and that of Hester Prynne; she decides to embrace her new image, to the extent of sewing a bright red A on all of her clothes. That, of course, only makes matters worse, and Olive's lies begin to have unfortunate impacts on those around her.

Emma Stone is fabulous as Olive; she's absolutely charming, very funny, and manages to stay likable even in the character's most irritating smart-aleck moments. She's surrounded by a solid cast of supporting players, especially in the adult roles. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci steal all of their scenes as her neo-hippie parents; Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow have fine moments as two of Olive's teachers.

Easy A has some of the same bittersweet humor and insight into teenagers that the best John Hughes movies had, and if some of the plot points stretch credulity to its limits -- a high school where people are shocked that someone's had sex? a world in which someone as likable and sexy as Emma Stone is among the ignored and unpopular? -- well, that's the nature of the genre. Make those small leaps, though, and you're in for a pleasant surprise that'll make you laugh a lot.

MOVIES: The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

I have never been a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg, mostly because he keeps playing roles that don't seem to suit him well. He's a chilly movie presence, not terribly likable, who seems to be a very smart person, yet he keeps playing lovably bumbling, rather inarticulate guys, and it's simply not convincing. But finally, in The Social Network, he's used correctly, playing Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, who is both whip-smart and utterly unlikable, and it's a spectacularly good performance.

It's true of any biographical movie, of course, that the actor is never actually playing Famous Person X so much as he's playing "Famous Person X," a version of the real thing whose personality has been shaped and edited for dramatic purposes, but that seems to be particularly true here. The book on which Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is partly based (different interviews with Fincher and Sorkin will tell you different things about the extent to which the book was the source) is an unusually unreliable work of "nonfiction," and both Zuckerberg and the PR folks at Facebook have made it clear that they don't think this version of the story is very accurate.

But setting aside historical accuracy, and judging the finished product solely as a movie, it's top-notch work. The cast spits out Sorkin's famously dense dialogue as it they've been doing it all their lives, and the performances are consistently fine. Eisenberg dominates the movie as Zuckerberg, whose inability to make or sustain friendships doesn't stop him from creating what has become the world's largest social networking site (if the movie has a serious flaw, it lies in pounding this irony home much harder than is necessary); he oozes arrogance and condescension, looking down on everyone he meets. Andrew Garfield, as Mark's best friend, who will ultimately be betrayed, gets all the layers right -- the giddy optimism as Facebook takes off, the immense patience required to be friends with someone so socially inept as Mark, the devastation when he realizes that he's been left behind.

Justin Timberlake turns on all of his considerable charm as Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley golden boy who seduces Mark with dreams of angel investors, venture capital, and someday being a billionaire; it's the liveliest performance in the movie, and should finally put an end to the idea that Timberlake only gets cast in movies for his name value. He's a seriously talented actor. Armie Hammer does fine work (with the help of some seamless technical wizardry) as both of the Winklevoss twins, patrician jocks who may have given Zuckerberg the ideas that he would eventually turn into Facebook; he gets to deliver some of Sorkin's best droll punchlines, and does so with great elegance and style.

I'm a bit baffled by the considerable chatter about the movie as some sort of era-defining document; for all of its flaws, it seems to me that the documentary Catfish says more about how we live in the Facebook era than The Social Network does. And of course, it must be taken with a massive grain of salt -- maybe a whole lick of it -- rather than as an accurate historical portrayal. But it gives us superb portrayals of interesting characters, and a sharp, crisply written story. It's a wildly entertaining movie.