December 31, 2011

MOVIES: War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

How familiar a story is War Horse? So familiar that you could begin the movie with an old-fashioned soap opera-style voice over: "In today's remake of Lassie Come Home, the role of Lassie will be played by a horse."

That horse is Joey, who's raised and trained by Albert, and oh, how they love one another. But then World War I comes along, and Albert's father is forced to sell Joey to the military in order to save the family farm.

So it's off to France for poor Joey, who gets to live out every WWI movie cliche you can think of -- he hauls artillery, gets captured by the Germans, hides out in a French windmill. He's even rescued from No Man's Land in one of those scenes where a British soldier and a German soldier venture timidly out under flag of truce in order to save the horse, because goddamm it, Joey is just that special.

Making Joey the protagonist of the movie has the odd effect of making War Horse a movie that is utterly disinterested in who wins the war. English, German, who cares as long as Joey survives? Albert's nearly blinded by mustard gas, but that's not important; we have to worry about Joey's injured leg.

And if you're annoyed by the anthropomorphizing of animals, then you're going to hate this movie, in which Joey sacrifices himself for his horsey BFF and is treated as though he has the full range of human emotions.

It seems almost silly to comment on the human beings here, but there are some pleasant performances to be found. Emily Watson and Peter Mullan ooze devotion as Albert's parents; Niels Arestrup is all grandfatherly concern as a French jam-maker; David Thewlis brings comic mustache-twirling villainy as the evil landlord.

If you enjoy old-fashioned sentimentality, then you'll love War Horse. But Steven Spielberg is working so hard to create an old fashioned John Ford experience, without adding anything new to the mix, that you might as well just go to Netflix and watch an actual Ford movie.

MOVIES: Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

Shame made me angrier than any movie has in a long time. It presents itself as a bold story of sexual addiction, which is merely an idea it uses to tell an utterly conventional story that reinforces the most Puritan strain of American sexual morality.

In the world of Shame, the only acceptable sex is that found within a monogamous long-term relationship, and even that is only allowed in moderation. Frequent sex, sex with multiple partners, or sexual activity entered into for physical pleasure (as opposed to emotional bonding) is to be condemned in the harshest terms.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is the movie's protagonist, and because he is attractive enough to pick up women easily, and wealthy enough to hire prostitutes when he likes -- and above all else, because he has lots of sex -- he must be miserably unhappy and incapable of any basic human decency.

His sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives for a visit, and though it's clear that he has her own emotional problems, the blame for her choices and the things that happen to her is placed squarely at Brandon's feet, because y'know, he's a slut.

One particularly offensive moment: Late in the movie, Brandon is put through a "long dark night of the soul" moment, during which he sinks ever deeper into compulsively self-destructive behavior. How does director/co-writer Steve McQueen choose to tell us that Brandon has gone as low as he can go? Why, with a visit to a gay sex club, of course, because nothing's more degrading than that.

Even beyond the movie's ghastly Puritanism, it's just not that well made. McQueen is fond of slow and static moments, apparently thinking there's something profound about them. Take, for instance, Mulligan's 5-minute rendition of "New York, New York," an optimistic anthem that she slogs through as if it were a suicide note; or the long, long, looooooong shot of Fassbender jogging through Manhattan in the middle of the night.

Awful, offensive, insulting, cheap movie. Run from it as fast as your little legs will carry you.

December 30, 2011

MOVIES: A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

A Dangerous Method is a somewhat aimless ramble through a few years in the lives of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a woman who begins as Jung's patient before becoming Freud's, and ultimately becoming their colleague in psychotherapy.

Fassbender and Mortensen give blandly competent performances, both speaking in the slightly formal, vaguely English-accented tones that signify "cultured European" in Hollywood movies.

Knightley, by contrast, is anything but bland, especially in the first twenty minutes of the movie, when the character is at her most disturbed. It's a festival of tics as Knightley jerks and shrieks and chokes her words out through clenched teeth, with an attempted Russian accent that veers unpredictably from nonexistent to full-on Boris Badenov. It is without a doubt the most embarassing performance of the year.

The movie can't make up its mind what story it wants to tell. At first, it looks like it's going to be the story of Jung curing Spielrein of her sexual neuroses, then it turns into a romance between the two, then it's the story of the disintegration of the Freud/Jung relationship. And none of the stories are very interesting.

MOVIES: Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia, 2011)

Glenn Close has been trying to get Albert Nobbs made for 30 years, since playing the role in a stage version of the story. It's the story of a woman living as a man in 19th-century Dublin. Albert has been Albert for so long that he doesn't even remember the name he was born with; he took on a male identity in order to survive financially after being orphaned in his early teens.

The movie is beautifully appointed, with lovely sets and costumes, and the period details are spot on. I found that it took a few minutes to adjust to the Irish accents, but eventually got used to it.

The problem with the movie is what I think of "Boys Don't Cry Syndrome." That is, because Glenn Close is not for a second convincing as a man, you leave the movie thinking not so much about Albert's plight as about the fact that everyone else in Dublin is a frickin' idiot for not catching on.

To be sure, Albert Nobbs has a huge advantage over Boys Don't Cry in that Glenn Close, unlike Hilary Swank, can act. As wrong as she is for the role physically, the rest of the performance is excellent. Albert's pain and fear of being discovered are palpable, and his hope of finding a happy ending with one of the hotel's maids (Mia Wasikowska) is contagious, even though we know how unlikely it is.

Doing a much better job with the male drag is Janet McTeer as Hubert, a woman living under similar circumstances. (The sheer coincidence of these two winding up employed by the same Dublin hotel does not bear much scrutiny.) McTeer is very believable as a man, to the extent that in a scene where Albert and Hubert decide (for the first time in many years) to put on dresses, she actually looks like a man in drag.

Not anything you need to rush out and see, but worth catching when it hits cable or Netflix.

December 29, 2011

MOVIES: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)

You don't expect much from the fourth installment of an action franchise, but this one's a terrific popcorn flick. There are a couple of great action sequences, and a story that holds together reasonably well and provides stakes high enough to hold our attention.

No one is called on for any great acting, to be sure, but Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, and Paula Patton are pretty to look at and fight well, and Simon Pegg provides effective comic relief.

The movie's high points are both set in Dubai -- the much-promoted sequences in which Cruise climbs the outside of the Burj Dubai tower, and an even better chase scene set during a dust storm.

Lots of fun, and a very pleasant surprise.

MOVIES: The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

If you come to The Adventures of Tintin with a pre-existing fondness for the characters, you may enjoy the movie; if not, I think you're going to find them flat and uninteresting, and the story predictably simple.

On the plus side, these are the best CGI humans we've seen yet, only occasionally slipping into creepy "uncanny valley" territory; it's helped by the fact that they're not quite going for photorealism, and the characters retain just a little bit of cartoonishness (there are a lot of enormous noses). Some of the action sequences are exciting, and John Williams' score is a lively rouser in much the same style as his Raiders work.

But the characters are paper-thin, given one characteristic apiece, at most. Tintin is intrepid; Thomson and Thompson are bumbling incompetents; Haddock is a drunk (and the movie treats that as a joke in an offensive way). They're cardboard cutouts being pushed around the world in service of a story that's not very interesting, and it doesn't add up to very much.

December 26, 2011

MOVIES: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011)

There are some interesting things to be found here, notably a couple of fine supporting performances, but the movie is done in by some lazy screenwriting choices and a horrible lead performance.

Here's a screenwriting challenge for you: Your central character is a young child; his parents are important characters, but they have relatively little screen time. You need to be sure, despite their limited time in the movie, that they make a strong impact and come across as likable, devoted parents.

You could work hard on writing their few scenes to give them those characteristics, or you could take the lazy way out, as screenwriter Eric Roth and director Stephen Daldry have done: cast Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock in the roles, and let the audience's affection for those actors do the work for you.

Similarly lazy, and bordering on vulgar and offensive, is the use of 9/11 as the movie's generic tragedy. The movie centers on a child's attempt to cope with the death of his father; for plot purposes, that death could have come about in just about any way imaginable. Admittedly, this one can't be blamed on Roth and Daldry; Jonathan Safran Foer's novel takes the hit for this choice.

Oskar, the child at the center of the film, is played by Thomas Horn, who is making his acting debut after having been spotted by the producers on Jeopardy! He is painfully bad, particularly in the more emotional moments. The movie relies heavily on his voice-over narration (another bit of screenwriting laziness), and he delivers every line with the same ponderous solemnity.

There are two marvelous supporting performances that almost make the movie worth seeing. Jeffrey Wright plays one of the many people who cross paths with Oskar during the film; one of the movie's worst moments, a particularly vile bit of cheap tear-jerking, is the monologue Oskar addresses to Wright. The marvel is that Wright, simply by sitting there and listening with absolute attention, sincerity, and conviction, comes damn close to making the scene bearable. It is a spectacular reminder that acting is much more than what you're doing when you're delivering lines.

Even better is Max von Sydow, who doesn't get to deliver any lines at all; his character has suffered trauma of his own, and as a result, he does not speak. But when he arrives about halfway through the movie, he is the first character who feels like an actual person, and the strength of his performance elevates Horn almost to believability.

But even with such solid support, Horn isn't capable of the performance this movie needs, and since he is the indisputable star of the movie, it collapses around him. Even with a better actor in the lead, though, I don't think the movie works, and I'd still be offended by its use of a national tragedy in so cavalier a way.

MOVIES: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

I have not read John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, though after seeing this adaptation, I'd like to. It seems fairly clear that there's an interesting story being told, but in condensing it down to 2 hours, so much detail has been lost that the result is a confusing muddle.

Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a recently ousted British intelligence agent who's brought back for a secret mission. It's the early 70s, the Cold War is in full swing, and there is apparently a Russian mole at the very top of the organization. Smiley is tasked with finding him.

There's a marvelous cast of actors here. Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, David Dencik, and Colin Firth are Smiley's four principal suspects; Benedict Cumberbatch is his young assistant; Tom Hardy is an unpredictably rebellious agent; John Hurt is the former director of British intelligence.

But the screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan condenses the story so tightly that every single line of dialogue is freighted with significance. You barely have time to breathe here (and don't even think about taking a restroom break); if you miss a small detail in the first five minutes, you're likely to spend the rest of the movie confused by everything that happens.

You have to remove some detail when you turn a novel into a movie, but there are limits, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy goes well beyond them. You can't shrink a novel, especially a complex espionage tale, down to a haiku and expect anyone to make sense of the results.

MOVIES: Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)

A child has been assaulted, and a group of well-meaning but rather clueless adults come together (in the absence of both the perpetrator and the victim) to argue about what would be a just resolution. Hmmm....what might have attracted Roman Polanski to such a story?

Carnage, based on Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage, is a talky bore, marred by miscasting, loathsome characters, and a story that simply isn't all that interesting.

The setting is the New York apartment of Michael and Penelope (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), whose son has been attacked by another boy; the assailant's parents, Alan and Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), have agreed to a meeting to discuss the situation.

And the next 79 minutes (yes, the movie's that short, which is mercy in this case) are utterly predictable, as the veneer of polite civility breaks down (especially once the booze is broken out), and the four find themselves shrieking sub-Albee insults and accusations at one another.

Waltz comes off the best of the four, with a vicious icy politeness that never quite fades and does nothing to disguise the fact that he's the most ruthless of the four, and the one who's least interested in being there.

Foster is badly miscast. There needs to be a sharp class distinction between the couples, I think, with Foster and Reilly being more nouveau riche than the other couple, who come from older money; Foster feels as if she'd be far more comfortable in Winslet's role. Reilly is somewhat better suited to his role, though he lacks the physical menace that I think the part needs. (James Gandolfini played the role on Broadway, and Matt Dillon was originallly announced for the part in the movie; either would have been an improvement.)

But ultimately, the problem is that there's no story here to hold our attention; it's just four people in a room being nasty to one another. The movie's message doesn't seem to go any deeper than "people are bastards, especially when they're pretending not to be."

MOVIES: Young Adult (Ivan Reitman, 2011)

Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a writer of factory-line young adult novels in the Sweet Valley High mode whose career is about to come to an end; her series is being discontinued, as no one much cares about teenage romance these days unless there are vampires involved.

Even without that blow, Mavis would be a bit of a mess; she's a serious drunk who's never really left adolescence. So when she discovers that her old high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have just had a baby, that somehow triggers in her the conviction that he really does still love her, and she just needs to go remind him of that.

Once Mavis arrives in her old home town, she winds up spending much of her time with Matt (Patton Oswalt), another former classmate. They hadn't been close in high school, and they only meet now because they happen to be at the same bar.

The performances are good. Theron is to be commended for her absolute commitment to Mavis's loathsomeness; there's not an ounce of typical movie star "you must love me" in the performance. And over the last few years while no one was really paying attention, Oswalt has turned into quite a good actor, and he's the best thing about the movie; he's nursing his own high school wounds (literal and metaphoric) in ways that are only slightly more adult than Mavis, and he's perhaps the most immature voice of reason the movies have ever seen.

But Diablo Cody's script falls flat. You wouldn't expect from these characters the same sort of whiplash-inducing pop culture references that you got in Juno, but what we get in its place is a steady drip of nastiness and cruelty. Despite the best attempt of all involved, it's hard to make that either funny or entertaining. This is the first Reitman movie that's left me feeling sort of meh.

December 11, 2011

MOVIES: Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

Coriolanus is not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, and I think this was the first time I'd seen a Shakespeare movie without having first read the play, or at least a summary of the story. So I was a little nervous about whether I'd be able to follow things, but Ralph Fiennes has assembled such a good cast that even if you don't follow every single line, the gist and emotional thrust of the scene always comes through, and the story's very easy to follow.

Fiennes has updated the story to the present day, and we begin in "a place calling itself Rome," which is not quite our Rome. The opening scenes feel rather like Shakespeare's take on the 99%/1% political rhetoric of our day; the masses are starving, and there are riots throughout Rome, notably at the Central Grain Depot. The people place the blame largely on Gaius Martius (Fiennes), a general who holds the masses in contempt.

Martius leads a successful defense against an invasion from the neighboring Volscians, with his principal victory coming at the city of Corioles; for this victory, the Senate confers on him the honorific "Coriolanus." They are prepared to name Martius the new consul -- ruler of the city -- but tradition requires that their choice be ratified by the people, and Martius's inability (and unwillingness) to communicate with them leads to serious conflict.

The cast includes Gerard Butler as Martius's longtime rival, the Volscian general Aufidius; Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, Volumnia; and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain as his wife, Virgilia. Best of all is Brian Cox as Martius's principal political ally, the senator Menenius, who is particularly delightful in the early going, when he's the ultimate glad-handing schmoozer; he's just as good, though, when his story moves into darker territory.

Coriolanus is a marvelous war story, a tale of a man brought down by his pride and snobbery, and if it's not quite as compelling a story as those of the major tragedies, Fiennes makes as entertaining a movie of it as one could want.

MOVIES: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

What is a mother to do when she finds herself raising a child that she doesn't like very much, a child who she comes to believe may be so evil as to be unworthy of love at all? That's the dilemma facing Eva (Tilda Swinton) in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a chilly and impressionistic look at a woman coping with her own sense of responsibility after her teenage son kills several of his high school classmates.

Director Lynne Ramsay fragments the story, jumping back and forth in time, giving us tiny pieces of information and trusting us to put them together. And as we do, the real horror of Eva's situation begins to sink in: Her son hasn't been warped by bad parenting; he's simply a budding sociopath from day one.

And we get to watch him grow up, with three different actors playing the role. Kudos to Ramsay and casting director Billy Hopkins for finding three kids who look enough alike to be convincing, and for getting such creepy, affectless performances from all three -- Rocky Duer as the world's most malevolent toddler, Jasper Newell as a willfully bratty pre-teen, and Ezra Miller (who gets the most screen time of the three) as the teenaged Kevin.

It's Swinton's movie, though, and she's very good here, struggling to cope not only with her son, but with a husband (John C. Reilly, whose amiable doofus shtick is put to good use) who doesn't see the problem, and with a marriage that's disintegrating under the strain.

Sadly, the movie is not up to the level of the performances from Swinton and Miller. Ramsay's hopscotching through time feels somewhat aimless, and gets tiring after a while; it begins to feel as if Ramsay is withholding information not for any particular storytelling purpose, but merely for the sake of being artsy and cryptic. Worth seeing, though, for the strength of the central performances.

A note to those of you in Los Angeles: The movie's having a one-week Oscar qualifying run here (it'll re-open more widely in January), at the Silent Movie on Fairfax. That's an odd choice for such a run, and it's not a good place to see a movie. It's a cramped room with ancient, uncomfortable seating, a tiny screen, and a terrible sound system. It's currently used mostly for eccentric repertory screenings at night, and rarely does regular runs of first-run films. Unless you really feel compelled to see the movie right now, I'd wait to see it in a real theater in January.

December 08, 2011

BOOKS: 11/22/63, Stephen King (2011)

A time-travel tale in which a Maine high-school teacher goes back to try and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Well, eventually, he does that, but not until King has spent nearly 300 pages on an entirely unrelated trip to the past. It's not until 400 pages in that Lee Harvey Oswald makes his first appearance, and we're still only halfway through the book.

Lord knows King can tell an entertaining story, and this book is no exception. But he's now become so popular and famous that he's not required to submit to editing, and apparently has no interest in editing himself. The bloat here is terrible. There's some fancy technobabble at the end about the cumulative impact of all these trips to the past, but by that point, it comes off as only an attempt to justify his lazy refusal to edit.

At half the length, this could have been one of the year's best books. Not great literature, certainly, but a wonderful, breezy time travel tale. At 840 pages, it's mostly a sad example of an author who's become too big to be disciplined anymore.

BOOKS: When She Woke, Hillary Jordan (2011)

Here we have a near-future reimagining of The Scarlet Letter. It is also, though you won't see these dreaded words on the book or in any of its advertising, a science fiction novel.

A sexually transmitted plague has greatly reduced global fertility, and contributed to the rise of theocratic government in much of the United States. Abortion is banned in most states, and our protagonist, Hannah Payne, has just been convicted of murder for having an abortion. Her punishment is to be Chromed -- to have her skin color medically altered so that she is instantly visible and recognizable as a murderer. (Murderers become red, sex offenders blue, relatively minor offenses yellow, and so on.)

Thanks to Chroming, the prison system has been largely shut down, with only the most violent and dangerous offenders being jailed; people like Hannah are simply released into society to make their way as best they can, which isn't easy, given that Chromes (especially Reds and Blues) are social pariahs.

Jordan doesn't give us all that much plot; Hannah spends some time at a religious halfway house before finding her way to an Underground Railroad of sorts that helps Chromes get to Canada, where Chroming is viewed with horror. Instead, the novel is a cautionary "if this goes on" tale, giving us a glimpse into a world in which government and religion have become closely intertwined.

The notion of Chroming is the most interesting thing in the book, and it raises a lot of fascinating questions and possible stories that are beyond Jordan's scope here. I would love to see Jordan return to this world for more novels, but given how carefully the book's publicity has avoided the science fiction label, I don't expect that to happen. "Literary" authors, after all, don't stoop to writing sequels and creating franchises.

December 06, 2011

TV: catching up on some new stuff

A bunch of new stuff I hadn't gotten around to posting about yet:

I Hate My Teenage Daughter (Fox, Wed 9:30)

(or: When Bad Sitcoms Happen to Good Actors, Part I)

Finally, we get what is officially the last new show of the Fall 2011 season, and what is certainly one of its least impressive efforts. Jamie Pressly and Katie Finneran star as best friends, both of whom were social outcasts in high school. They want desperately for their daughters to have a happier teenage experience than they did, but are horrified to see the girls becoming precisely the same sort of spoiled brats who made their own lives so miserable. Pressly and Finneran are both marvelous comic actresses, and my god, they're giving it everything they've got, trying desperately to pull laughs out of nowhere. But talent only goes so far when there's no material to support it, and there's not a joke to be found anywhere.

The Exes (TV Land, Wed 10:30)

(or: When Bad Sitcoms Happen to Good Actors, Part II)TV Land's latest attempt to find a companion piece for Hot in Cleveland is a step up from Teenage Daughter, but it only rises as far as amiable blandness. In what has quickly become TV Land style, the cast is mostly made up of actors you remember from previous sitcom work. Kristen Johnston stars as Holly, a divorce attorney who sets up her newly-single clients in need of new homes as roommates in the apartment across the hall from her own. As we begin, the apartment is occupied by ladies' man Phil (Donald Faison, getting to stretch the most from his old image) and inert lump Haskell (Wayne Knight, adding to his resume of vaguely creepy slobs).

They're about to be joined by new roomie Stuart (David Alan Basche, who's been playing second banana roles on flop sitcoms for a decade now; you'll know the face, even if you don't know the name), who seems to be a recent graduate from the Felix Unger School of Roommate Annoyance.

Again, the material isn't up to the level of the cast, though the characters are more likable than those of Teenage Daughter (but then, a crippling migraine is more likable than those characters). This one might be worth checking in on in a few weeks to see if it's gotten its bearings yet. (And I think the show's one relative unknown, Kelly Stables, will eventually go on to better things; she's got the charm and timing of a young Sarah Jessica Parker.)

Would You Rather? With Graham Norton (BBC America, Sat 11)

The British panel show is a distinctive genre that's never really quite caught on in American television. A host poses questions or discussion topics to a panel of celebrities, who are expected to answer in delightfully witty style (a touch of bawdiness is always welcome, too). The host may award points for the best answers, and a winner may be named at the end, but the scorekeeping is always distinctly secondary to the banter, the spontaneous one-liners, and the general sense of jolly conviviality. What's My Line and the early versions of To Tell the Truth had some of the spirit, but they weren't as witty, and they took the game far too seriously; Hollywood Squares had the right sense of humor, but everything was scripted, and the improvisational nature of the thing is a key factor. The genre's had more success here in radio, where Wait Wait Don't Tell Me is a fine example of the form.

As part of BBC America's first ventures into original programming for its American audience (as opposed to programming imported from the UK), we're being offered this panel show, hosted by Graham Norton, whose chat show is a staple on the network. Here, he has a panel of four celebrities -- that is to say, one person you've heard of and three B-level standup comics -- to whom he poses a series of "would you rather" questions, such as "Would you rather spend the rest of your life with the voice of Darth Vader, or with the voice of Alvin the Chipmunk?"

The best of these shows rely heavily on the interplay among the regular panelists, who learn how to riff off one another and how to set up one another's jokes. Obviously, in the early stages of the show, that chemistry doesn't exist yet, so the show's going to be heavily reliant from week to week on how well that week's guests improvise. Based on the first two episodes, it'll be a bit of a bumpy ride for a while, but Norton's a charmingly naughty host. Hardly essentially viewing, but mildly amusing if you've nothing better to do on a Saturday night.

November 30, 2011

MOVIES: Rampart (Oren Moverman, 2011)

There is corruption and evil in the world. Now that you know this, you have no need to see Rampart.

The movie's getting a one-week release here in LA as a long-shot Oscar bid for Woody Harrelson, who stars as a corrupt cop. It's set in 1999, at the height of the corruption scandal in the Rampart Division of the LAPD. Harrelson is a detective working out of Rampart who's caught on tape beating a guy nearly to death; he suspects that the presence of the video camera (they weren't yet part of every single cell phone in the world) is too big a coincidence, and that he's been set up by the department to distract the media from the bigger, more complicated Rampart scandal. That might be true, but the problem he has in making that case is that he really is a hateful, loathsome, incredibly corrupt cop.

There's a large cast of terrific actors surrounding Harrelson -- Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube -- but none of them have been given anything to do that might distract from Harrelson's hamming it up. He's evil, by god, and so determined for us to know it that he's a mere mustache twirl from being Snidely Whiplash.

Not worth your time.

MOVIES: Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

When I first heard that Martin Scorsese was making a family film, I couldn't help but remember Bette Midler's response to the 1973 megaflop Lost Horizon: "I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical!" The thought of a Scorsese kid's flick triggers the same sort of disconnect, a mix of morbid curiosity and vague "this can't be a good idea" dread.

Sadly, the dread is justified, because Hugo is, even in its better first half, an uneven mess. Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo Cabret, an orphan living in the walls of a Paris train station, where he tends to the clocks and avoids being discovered by the station's inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a tyrant who lives to send orphans to the orphanage.

Hugo's late father left him a mechanical man which he is trying to repair, believing that it will deliver a final message from his father. He gets help from Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of the man who runs the station's toy store (Ben Kingsley).

And up to that point, when it's just a kid's adventure movie, Hugo isn't terrible. Scorsese's visual flair comes through in some lovely shots, and there are some nice supporting performances among the background characters (Christopher Lee is charming as a kindly librarian). But Butterfield lacks charm or charisma, and he and Moretz feel like 21st-century kids playing dressup in 1920s clothes; the slapstick bits for Baron Cohen are badly timed and not funny; and Kingsley's grumpy grandpa is a familiar one-note bore.

And when the mechanical man gets repaired and turns out to be connected to early film pioneer Georges Melies, the movie stops being even mildly entertaining, turning into a long series of lectures and public service announcements about silent film history and the importance of film preservation.

Film history and preservation have long been important issues to Scorsese, but better he should have simply made a good documentary about Melies than to bury a bad one inside this movie, a didactic "family" film that will likely bore kids and parents alike.

November 29, 2011

MOVIES: The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

The holidays are here, and with them, the arrival of the year's designated Oscar Movies. You know the type -- serious drama with just a touch of humor, big movie star, important subject, everything perfectly respectable and slightly on the stodgy side.

As a perfect exemplar of the form, I give you The Descendants, with George Clooney as a man whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident, and doesn't have long to live. He's already stressed out about how he's going to raise his two daughters on his own ("I'm the backup parent," he says in the overly long voice-over narration that begins the movie) when he learns that before the accident, his wife had been cheating on him.

The performances are generally good, with the standouts being Shailene Woodley as the older daughter; Robert Forster as Clooney's father-in-law; and Judy Greer (why is she not a huge star already?), who has a small role, but gets every second of it just right.

But there's something polite and tepid about the movie, especially coming from director Alexander Payne, who seems to have sanded off all of the rough edginess we've come to expect from him. The Descendants is skillfully crafted, and you'll probably enjoy it, but you'll never be surprised by it, and you know exactly what you're going to get from it before it even starts. It is this year's The King's Speech, which means it's probably going to win the Oscar.

MOVIES: The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius, 2011)

The Artist is a black-and-white silent film about the death of silent film. It's equal parts Singin' in the Rain and A Star Is Born, with homages along the way to everything from Citizen Kane to Vertigo, and it's one of the best movies of the year.

It opens in 1927, when George Valentin (Dujardin) is the biggest movie star in the world. But sound is about to change the movies, and George has no interest in what he sees as gimmickry. Making the adjustment more easily is Peppy Miller (Bejo), who has clawed her way up from extra to leading lady, and replaced George in the public's eye.

Their relationship is the heart of the story, and the two are absolutely charming, both individually and together. Dujardin plays George as sort of a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, and even when his characters are at their most roguish, you understand why audiences love him. Bejo is more of an "America's Sweetheart" type, almost cloyingly sweet at moments, but her intense warmth and large, expressive eyes cut through the treacle whenever it threatens to become overwhelming.

They dominate the movie, but there are nice small turns from John Goodman as a studio executive, James Cromwell as George's manservant, and Penelope Ann Miller as George's increasingly neglected wife.

The Artist uses its throwback style in delightful and surprising ways (the black-and-white lighting is gorgeously done), Ludovic Bource's score hits all the right emotional notes without ever resorting to mere Mickey Mousing. It's a joyful wonder of a movie.

November 28, 2011

MOVIES: The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)

The Muppets asks a simple question: -- Are simple things like song and laughter still relevant in our cold, cynical age? -- and answers it with a resounding "Hell, yes!"

As we open, Gary and Mary (Jason Segel and Amy Adams) are on their way to Los Angeles to celebrate their tenth anniversary of dating; they're accompanied by Gary's brother Walter (a puppet), a lifelong Muppet fan who can't wait to visit the Muppet Studios. Alas, the studios have fallen on hard times, and are about to be torn down by oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) unless Walter can convince the Muppets to re-unite for a fund-raising telethon to save the place.

The movie does drag a bit in the middle, and there are one or two subplots too many; as much as I love her, I think Amy Adams' character could have been written out entirely without losing much. But the musical numbers are delightful (well, mostly; I'm not sure that Cooper's rap number was a good idea); the "getting the band back together" sequence is great fun; and the movie's final act, in which the Muppets take the stage to do what they do best, had me grinning from ear to ear.

As in every Muppet movie, there are a variety of celebrity cameos, spanning the generations from Rico Rodriguez to Mickey Rooney; Jim Parsons' beautifully conceived appearance gets one of the movie's biggest laughs. But the heart of the movie is, of course, the Muppets themselves, and those marvelous characters have such warmth and charm that you can't help but smile when they're on screen.

It takes a few minutes to get used to the absence of the voices of Frank Oz and the late Jim Henson (Eric Jacobson's Fozzie is particularly problematic), but when Kermit breaks into "The Rainbow Connection," or when Camilla and her fellow chickens take the stage for their big number, those concerns melt away.

BOOKS: Out of Oz, Gregory Maguire (2011)

After the mild disappointments of Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men, this fourth volume brings the "Wicked Years" series to a satisfying conclusion.

The principal surviving characters from the first three volumes return -- Glinda; Elphaba's son, Liir, and his wife, Candle; the Lion Brrr (who doesn't much appreciate the whole "Cowardly" thing) -- and they spend much of the book wandering around Oz, trying to protect the Grimmerie, the immensely powerful book of magic that may be the key to ending the civil war between Munchkinland and the rest of Oz.

The major new character is Liir and Candle's daughter, Rain, who as the female descendant of Elphaba -- hereditary government in Oz is matriarchal -- is also being hunted by both sides. And there are return appearances by a few characters who've been absent from the scene for some time.

The book takes place over the course of ten years or so, and Maguire's not always as clear as he could be about indicating how much time has passed since we last saw character X. He's also a bit too fond of winking references to Judy Garland and the 1939 movie, as though Dorothy and Judy Garland were one and the same; a reference to the Emerald City being overrun by Dorothy impersonators was a bit much, for instance.

But the plot lines left dangling from earlier volumes are mostly wrapped up here, and Maguire's characters are rich and convincing; I was always fond of his Glinda, and it's nice to see her get a good-sized role here.

This is billed prominently as "the final volume in The Wicked Years," which it well may be. But there is ample room for Maguire to return to Oz (perhaps under a new series name?); several of his characters are left at the beginnings of new phases in their lives which would make interesting stories, and there's an entire pre-Wicked history of Oz that could be fruitfully explored. And given the relative lack of success of his non-Oz novels, I'd be quite surprised if he doesn't eventually find some reason to get back there.

November 26, 2011

MOVIES: J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011)

J. Edgar is exactly what you'd expect a Clint Eastwood biopic to be -- overly reverent and a bit stodgy. It's salvaged, to some extent, by some fine acting.

The story jumps back and forth from the late 60s, when Hoover is dictating his memoirs to an assortment of young agents (all of them strikingly handsome), to the 20s and 30s, as we watch Hoover's version of the events in question. (The movie mostly skips over the 40s/50s.)

Leonardo DiCaprio is quite good as Hoover, though his accent does wobble a bit; he does a fine job of capturing the mix of patriotism, paranoia, and narcissism that made Hoover so dangerous when given power. Even better is Armie Hammer as his longtime companion and assistant, Clyde Tolson; Hammer is particularly strong in the movie's last act, doing a superb job of capturing the physical and vocal debilitation that followed Tolson's stroke.

Eastwood fills the movie with a lot of marvelous character actors who make strong impressions in small roles -- Stephen Root, Zach Grenier, Ken Howard, Josh Lucas, Jeffrey Donovan (as Robert Kennedy).

The movie is less coy than I'd have expected about the precise nature of the relationship between Hoover and Tolson, though Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black aren't willing to make a definitive statement that they were lovers when we have only circumstantial evidence.

The old-age makeup on DiCaprio (and on Naomi Watts, as Hoover's longtime secretary) is quite good; Hammer's is significantly less so. Eastwood has yet again scored his own film, which is yet again a mistake; his standard piano noodlings give everything the feeling of sepia-toned elegy, which is only occasionally appropriate here.

On their own, the screenplay and direction wouldn't be enough to recommend the movie, but the performances are strong enough to make it worth renting when the DVD arrives.

November 25, 2011

MOVIES: In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011)

In Time is a servicable action thriller with unexpected political timeliness. The central gimmick is that everyone stops aging at 25, but that's when the clock starts ticking; they're given one year to live for free, but any life beyond that has to be earned (or given to you). Time is literally money; some wake up scrambling for enough time to get to tomorrow, and some have centuries of inherited wealth stored up.

Given the lead time involved in making a movie, the resonance with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 1%/99% rhetoric is surely coincidental, but that doesn't stop it from occasionally feeling a bit heavy handed and clunky. Vincent Kartheiser, for instance, is saddled with a few too many speeches about how "for some to be immortal, many have to die."

Justin Timberlake can be an interesting actor in the right role, but he doesn't have quite the right charisma to be an action hero. He does have some nice moments with Amanda Seyfried, though, especially when they become the Bonnie and Clyde of time. Kartheiser gives the most interesting performance as the evil tycoon.

The movie's a perfectly nice piece of popcorn entertainment, and it will make for a pleasant afternoon in front of the TV when it gets to cable, but it's hardly something you need to rush out and see in the theater.

November 24, 2011

MOVIES: Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

OK, I know that some people are, shall we say, rather hostile to Lars von Trier these days, but Melancholia is, by a long shot, his finest work. It's the most gentle, delicate, humane movie he's ever made. Who would have thought that the frackin' apocalypse would bring out his softer side?

The movie is set at the large country estate of Claire and John (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland), and begins at the wedding reception of Claire's sister, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, who won the best actress award at Cannes for this performance) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). As the evening goes on, it becomes clear that Justine suffers from some sort of emotional disorder, and is struggling to get through the reception without giving in to her gloomy side.

During that long night, Justine spots an unfamiliar red star that turns out not to be a star at all, but the planet Melancholia, which is headed straight towards us. The second half of the movie takes place some weeks or months after the reception, when Melancholia's arrival is only days away; scientists are divided as to whether it will collide with Earth or narrowly miss.

(It would seem to me that any miss that narrow would be essentially indistinguishable from a collision in terms of the destruction that would be caused, but like Another Earth earlier this year, Melancholia is less concerned with the scientific impact of its newly discovered world than with the emotional impact.)

Performances are superb all the way around, and Dunst really is remarkable here, playing all the subtle shades of Justine's unstable emotions. There are lovely small performances from John Hurt as the sisters' randy father, Charlotte Rampling as their acerbic mother, and Udo Kier as an increasingly frazzled wedding planner.

The final moments of the movie, as the sisters wait for the end, in whatever form it may arrive, are gorgeous. It is a strangely joyful and ecstatic ending, a magical climax to a deeply moving film.

November 23, 2011

MOVIES: Tower Heist (Brett Ratner, 2011)

Ben Stiller stars as Josh, the general manager of The Tower, a high-class apartment building for New York's elite. Occupying the penthouse is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Bernie Madoff type who's just been arrested for defrauding his investors. Among those investors is the pension fund of The Tower's employees, leading Josh to head up a team of several of The Tower's employees to break into Shaw's apartment and steal the money they believe is hidden there.

The team of bungling robbers includes Matthew Broderick and Gabourey Sidibe, plus Eddie Murphy as the small-time burglar recruited to be the brains of the operation; Tea Leoni gives the movie's best performance, loose and charming, as the FBI agent on Shaw's case.

It's not a horrible movie, and there are a few amusing moments; the climactic heist scene makes good use of the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. But it's a sadly unambitious movie, and everyone involved seems to be perfectly content to have cleared the "not horrible" bar, with no thought that a little more work (or, dare I say, some rehearsal) might have actually led to a good movie.

November 22, 2011

BOOKS: Anne McCaffrey, 1925-2011

Anne McCaffrey has died. I hadn't kept up with her new writing for many years, but I adored the early Pern novels when I was in junior high and high school; along with the Heinlein "juveniles," they were my introduction to science fiction. R.I.P.

MOVIES: Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011)

Having read several glowing reviews of Margin Call, I went in with fairly high expectations. I left utterly baffled at the praise the movie's been getting.

It's the story of a Lehman-esque brokerage firm, and the long night in which they discover that the mortgage-based securities they've been peddling are so financially unstable that they could easily bankrupt the firm at any moment.

There's a large ensemble cast with a strange mix of fine actors doing their usual good work (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci), B-level stars and up-and-comers who mostly hold their own (Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto), and some less talented folks who are painfully out of their depths in such strong company (Simon Baker, Penn Badgley, Demi Moore).

The script, which is so desperately aiming for Mamet territory, lacks the wit and the crispness (not to mention the several dozen "fuck"s) needed to be even bad Mamet. Tucci delivers a monologue about a bridge, for instance, that's filled with long strings of memorized numbers and statistics -- people just don't talk like that. And the movie is filled with speeches like that, clunky, stagey clods of text that seem to have been translated into English from some other language by someone who doesn't speak either very well.

November 15, 2011

BOOKS: All Men of Genius, Lev AC Rosen (2011)

Lev AC Rosen's All Men of Genius is an odd mashup of Twelfth Night and The Importance of Being Earnest set in a steampunk Victorian London.

Violet Adams wishes to study science at Illyria College, but Duke Ernest only accepts male students, so she disguises herself as her twin brother Ashton in order to gain admission. Once she's there, she finds herself falling in love with the Duke, while simultaneously fending off the attentions of his ward, Cecily; the Duke also finds himself mysteriously drawn to "Ashton," which confuses him mightily, as he has never had any tendencies to inversion before.

(Yes, "inversion," that charmingly antiquated term for homosexuality. I suspect that the characters' generally tolerant attitudes towards inversion are somewhat out of keeping for the era, but then, they are scientists and therefore relatively well educated.)

The plot derives principally from Shakespeare, with the Wilde influence limited mostly to tossing in the character names here and there; Duke Ernest's late father, for instance, was Duke Algernon, and Illyria's faculty includes Professors Prism, Bunburry, and Bracknell. And with a plot as solid and time-tested as that of Twelfth Night, it's hard to go too wrong; the most boring parts of the story are those things added by Rosen, like the army of evil robots hidden in Illyria's labyrinthian basement.

It's also hard, however, to do anything too surprising when you're mostly playing out Shakespeare's story beat for beat; you know that "Ashton's" nemesis, Malcolm Volio, is in for a world of romantic humiliation, and that Violet and Duke Ernest will find happiness in the end.

But Rosen's version of the story is not without charm; his prose is not distinctive or memorable, perhaps, but neither is it ever particularly ungraceful. All Men of Genius is far from essential reading, but if you've always thought that what Twelfth Night really needed was some killer robots, this will make you very happy indeed.

November 13, 2011

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, Nov 13 (Ravel/Dubugnon/Rachmaninoff)

Semyon Bychkov, conductor; Katia and Marielle Labeque, pianos

The program:
  • Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole (2-piano version)
  • Dubugnon: Battlefield Concerto for Two Pianos and Double Orchestra
  • Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
A friend asked me after the last Philharmonic concert I saw what I thought of Gustavo Dudamel, and that question was still on my mind during today's concert. I found myself thinking about how the Rachmaninoff might have been different under Dudamel than it was in Bychkov's hands.

And the things that stood out for me in today's performance were not the same types of things that I normally notice in a Dudamel concert. Today I noticed the careful calibration of dynamics, especially in long crescendos and decrescendos; the impeccable balance of melody, countermelody, and accompaniment; the rubato passages with just enough give to walk right up to schmaltz without ever tipping into it. Ask me to sum up each composer in one word, and I'd say that where Dudamel is visceral, Bychkov is precise. (Which is not to suggest, of course, that either conductor lacks the other quality.) If I could only have one of the two on a regular basis, I think I'd prefer Dudamel, but I certainly enjoyed Bychkov's Rachmaninoff very much.

As for the rest of the concert, the Labeque sisters opened the program without the orchestra; the Ravel was performed very nicely, but I go to Philharmonic concerts because I want to hear the orchestra, not for 15 minutes of unaccompanied piano.

Dubugnon's concerto had its world premiere at this weekend's concerts, and I don't think it's going to have a long life. It is not an encouraging sign, I think, when the composer describes his themes as "jingles," as Dubugnon did in his pre-concert talk, and his concerto reached just about the level of depth and subtlety that word might lead you to expect.

Dubugnon divides his orchestra in half. Each orchestra has a small, but complete complement of strings; one orchestra gets the high winds and brass (and an electric bass), and the other gets the low. The orchestras and their respective pianists get separate musical themes, with which they battle back and forth -- the piece is a musical depiction of a military battle -- until the "peace and reconciliations" movement late in the piece, when the two sets of forces begin to trade and share musical materials.

The piece is flashy and pleasant enough to listen to as it goes along, and certainly the performance was everything a composer could wish for in a premiere. But I think everything the piece has to offer is sitting right on the surface, and never had the feeling that repeated hearings would reveal anything more.

November 07, 2011

BOOKS: Machine of Death, ed. North/Bennardo/Malki! (2011)

Machine of Death is an anthology inspired by this comic. Imagine a machine that takes a drop of blood, then spits out a piece of paper that tells you how you will die. No dates, mind you, and not many details. And the machine is prone to vagueness and ambiguity. If your paper says SUICIDE, for instance, you're not necessarily going to kill yourself; you might be one of the casualties of a suicide bomber.

Some predictions are less inherently vague than others, of course. A prediction like TORN APART AND DEVOURED BY LIONS doesn't seem to leave much room for interpretation, and as one character says, "I'm not likely to be hit crossing the street by a runaway colon cancer, am I?"

The 34 stories collected here are each titled with the printout from one prediction slip, usually that of the story's protagonist. There's been no effort on the part of the editors to place the stories into a single world, and different stories imagine very different societal reactions to the existence of the machine. In some, everyone is tested at birth; in others, the test is a teenage rite of passage akin to getting your driver's license.

Some of the stories are quite funny. Alexander Danner's "Aneurysm" tells of a man who finds a way to escape his ex-wife's horrid party games; Camille Alexa's "Flaming Marshmallow" reminds us that teenage cliques and peer pressure will adapt to any new circumstance.

But there's a wide range of moods -- the poignance of Pelotard's "Nothing," the heartbreak of Dalisa Chaponda's "While Trying to Save Another," the existential angst of John Chernega's "Almond," the remarkably concise resignation of Brian Quinlan's "HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle."

Editors Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki! (the "!" is not a typo; that's how Malki! spells his name) are working on a second collection of Machine of Death stories, and I'm looking forward to it. I wouldn't have imagined that so many variations could be rung on a theme that seems, at first glance, rather limited.

November 04, 2011

MOVIES: Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has broken away from the communal farm where she's been living -- the movie never uses the word "cult," but it would certainly be appropriate -- and is staying with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy). She's been on that farm for several years, and is having trouble readjusting to life away from its charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). Her behavior's not always appropriate, and she's clearly been deeply affected by whatever happened to her during her years away.

Durkin's movie jumps back and forth between the farm and Lucy's lakeside summer home, gradually filling in the pieces of the puzzle. At the same time, it's painting Martha as so emotionally and psychologically unstable that we're not entirely sure how to take those farm scenes; if these are supposed to be Martha's memories of what happened, how much can we trust them, given her obvious psychological damage?

The movie increasingly plays on that ambiguity and on Martha's distrust and paranoia, teasing us with hints of resolution that it ultimately refuses to provide; the last half-hour or so, and the final scene in particular, are a frustrating exercise where we're never quite sure what Martha's seeing, or if she really is seeing what she thinks she's seeing.

Despite my irritation with the ending, I'd recommend the movie, because the performances are quite good. Olsen (who is, as I believe I am obliged to mention at some point, the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) creates a very convincing portrait of a woman on the verge of complete emotional collapse, and in the earliest farm scenes, gives us a strong enough glimpse of who Martha once was that we can easily see the extent of her deterioration. Paulson is nearly as good as Lucy, who wants desperately to help but finds it nearly impossible to understand what the problem actually is; Hawkes oozes creepy charm and menace.

MOVIES: Puss in Boots (Chris Miller, 2011)

The Shrek sidekick gets his own movie, a nifty western tale with moments of surprising emotional depth.

Antonio Banderas provides the voice of Puss, an outlaw on the run who falls in with the femme fatale Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and her associate Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). Puss and Humpty have a history, and neither entirely trusts the other, but they agree to work together with Kitty in a plot to get hold of the magic beans and steal the golden goose at the top of the beanstalk.

The voice talent is mostly very good -- Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris are also on hand as Jack and Jill -- though the weak link is Galifianakis, who doesn't have his physicality to help sell the performance, and doesn't provide quite enough vocal energy. (The character looks remarkable, though, a creepy egg-child who is simultaneously riveting and repulsive.)

The jokes are funny, and less pop-culture-of-the-moment than those in the Shrek movies; they mostly avoid the obvious, and find interesting new twists on some of the things that are expected. The one catnip joke, for instance, is the best line in the movie. And kudos to Henry Jackman, whose Latin-flavored score is charming and witty.

November 03, 2011

BOOKS: Very Bad Men, Harry Dolan (2011)

Seventeen years ago, five men attempted a bank robbery in Michigan. One was killed, one got away, and three were arrested and send to prison. They're all out now, and someone is killing them. The killer's rather proud of his work, going so far as to leave a manuscript confessing to the first killing outside the office door of David Loogan, editor of a small mystery magazine whose girlfriend Elizabeth happens to be a detective on the Ann Arbor police force.

As David and Elizabeth try to figure out, through her official channels and his less official ones, who the killer is and what his motives might be, they wind their way deeper into a complicated case involving an ambitious tabloid reporter, a Senate campaign, and two generations of family secrets.

Dolan has a large cast of characters and a complicated plot here, and he does a marvelous job of keeping the narrative clear. The twists, turns, and revelations do start to pile on a bit too thick in the final act, perhaps, but you won't be confused by any of it. The characters are interesting and convincing, and the mystery is cleverly plotted, with one clue ingeniously revealed through a combination of two elements you wouldn't expect to play a significant role in such a story: grammar and synasthesia.

November 02, 2011

TV: Allen Gregory (Fox, Sun 8:30)

The latest addition to Fox's Sunday animation lineup, and what a mess it is.

Allen Gregory DeLongpre (voiced by Jonah Hill, who also produces the show) is an obnoxiously precocious 7-year-old who wears nothing but suits, looks down on everyone, and believes himself to be the most important person in any room. When his gay dads face some sort of financial crisis, he is no longer able to be home-schooled and forced to attend public school, where he does not fit in very well.

That isn't an inherently awful premise, but for the show to work, we would have to have some reason to root for Allen Gregory, and we don't; he's utterly loathsome. But then, in this show, everyone treats everyone else with contempt, and there's not a single decent human being to be found. Allen Gregory and dad Richard (French Stewart) heap abuse on younger, hunkier dad Jeremy (Nat Faxon); the school superintendent (Will Forte) dumps on the principal (Renee Taylor); everyone dumps on Allen Gregory's adopted Cambodian sister. The only person Allen Gregory likes is the principal, a morbidly obese elderly woman with whom he falls instantly in love, declaring that they are destined to spend their lives in bliss together.

An odd quirk of the casting/drawing of the characters to mention: Richard looks and sounds so much like Community's Dean Pelton that I was sure he must be voiced by Jim Rash, who plays that character; Rash happens to be the writing partner of Faxon, who voices the other dad. Rash and Faxon don't appear to be involved in the writing of this show, so I guess it's just a coincidence.

The visual style of the animation is sleek and attractive (and Jeremy is pretty darned hot, as animated characters go), but that is the only thing the show has to offer, and it's not enough to make me want to spend any more time with these horrid people.

October 31, 2011

BOOKS: Dominance, Will Lavender (2011)

Lavender crams an awful lot of story into this book. Here's the setup:

We alternate between two time frames. Fifteen years ago, Alex was one of nine literature students taking a special night class taught by the renowned Richard Aldiss; he's teaching by TV feed from prison, having been convicted of murdering two of his students. Aldiss's class, he tells the students, will lead them to the answer to one of the great modern literary mysteries: the identity of "Paul Fallows," the pseudonym used by an author who wrote two brilliant novels before his death. No one has ever been able to figure out who Fallows really was.

Alex quickly figures out that the mystery of Paul Fallows is closely tied to the murders for which Aldiss has been convicted, and that she can't solve one riddle without solving both. Which -- and this is hardly a spoiler, since Lavender tells you this very early on -- she does, becoming a hero in the literary world for solving the Fallows mystery, and not so much a hero for getting Aldiss freed from prison.

Jump to the future, where someone has started killing members of that special class, in precisely the same way that those two students were killed so many years ago. Could Aldiss have done it after all? Did Fallows ever really die? Is one of Alex's classmates a murderer?

So there's a lot going on here. Too much, really, and by trying to stuff two novels' worth of story into one not particularly thick book, Lavender can't give either piece of the puzzle the attention it deserves. Everything is rushed, and clues fall with loud thuds instead of being gracefully planted along the way. There's no time for character development beyond a few broad strokes, and since no one really has much personality, it's hard to care very much when any of them are killed off. The identity of the killer is painfully obvious -- the Rule of the Unnecessary Character will serve you well here -- and there's a final cutesy twist of ambiguity that's meant to make us rethink the entire resolution we've just been given, but only annoys.

(Which, it seems to me, misses the whole point of the mystery novel. The appeal for most mystery readers, I think, is that we get to see justice done, to see evil punished. When you follow "and the killer was caught, and the good people lived happily ever after" with "or did they?," you rob us of that basic element of the genre.)

Lavender certainly has ideas and imagination to spare. If he can learn to pare them down to more manageable size, he might write a pretty good book some day.

October 29, 2011

TV: Grimm (NBC, Fri 9)

The second fairy tale inspired show of the new season, this one focusing on the dark, scary side of things.

Portland police detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) has begun to see strange things, like monstrous faces on random passersby. His aunt Marie (Kate Burton) arrives in town to tell him that she's dying of cancer, and that with her death, the family gift/curse will be passed to him. Nick's family are Grimms, people with the ability to see the monsters who live among us for what they are, and it is their responsibility to hunt and kill those monsters.

So what we have is a supernatural police procedural, in which Nick will be tracking down a different fairy tale monster each week, with the help of his partner Hank (Russell Hornsby); the show will presumably milk much dramatic tension from Nick's having to get Hank's help without telling him about his Grimm-ness or the things he can see. Also helping Nick will be Eddie (Silas Weir Mitchell, bringing the show its only burst of charm and energy), a reformed "big bad wolf" (not, mind you, the big bad wolf) who stays on the side of good through "a strict regimen of diet, exercise, and Pilates.'

Now, I have always preferred the whimsical side of the fairy tale to the dark and scary side, so it's to be expected that I much preferred Once Upon a Time to this show. But I can imagine a show focusing on the darker side that had more wit and more cleverness in the way it uses its fairy tale tropes. This is just another in the long series of "cop shows with a twist" we're getting in recent years; it's Law & Order: Fairy Tales Unit. And when a show's formula is already starting to feel stale and predictable before the first episode is over, it's hard to be very optimistic.

October 26, 2011

BOOKS: Happily Ever After (John Klima, ed., 2011)

Here we have an anthology of fairy-tale retellings. It's a reprint anthology with only one story original to this book (and about half of the stories come from the superb Datlow/Windling series of fairy-tale books from about 20 years ago), but the stories are well chosen and it's an entertaining overview of the last two decades in fairy tales.

I particularly liked Josh Rountree's "Chasing America," which places Paul Bunyan against some mythic moments in American culture/history; Wil McCarthy's high-tech Alice update, "He Died That Day, in Thirty Years;" and Robert J. Howe's "Pinocchio's Diary" (the one original story), which brings some of the more disturbing subtext of the original closer to the surface without ever quite making anything explicit.

Hit-to-miss ratio is very high here; I only found two or three outright clunkers. Worst of the bunch are Paul Di Filippo's "Ailoura," a Puss in Boots variation that ends by suggesting both bestiality and incest (ick); and Robert Coover's ponderous, glum Pied Piper sequel, "The Return of the Dark Children."

October 23, 2011

TV: Boss (Starz, Fri 10)

Starz takes a shot at serious drama with Boss. Kelsey Grammer stars as Tom Kane, mayor of Chicago, and in the opening scene, he is learning that he has Lewy-Body disease, which combines all the worst aspects of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. He probably has 3-5 years to live, and will likely lose control of mind and body within a year or two. That news makes Kane determined to accomplish as much as possible while he still can, and to leave as big a legacy as possible.

There's a fine supporting cast, including Connie Nielsen as Kane's wife, Kathleen Robertson and Martin Donovan as his political aides, Jeff Hephner and Francis Guinan as candidates for governor, and Troy Garity as an investigative reporter. But it's Grammer's show, and he's terrific, in a performance that will remind you what a fine dramatic actor he is; not once during the first episode did I feel like I was watching Mayor Frasier Crane.

It's an entertaining political drama that is about the workings and process of politics more than it is about political issues, and that isn't afraid to be wonky; it appears that the principal political subplot is going to be about eminent domain, of all things, as Kane fights to begin construction on an expansion at O'Hare Airport. Some of the subplots don't come into focus very well yet; Kane's estranged daughter (Hannah Ware), an Episcopalian priest who runs a free clinic, seems particularly adrift from the central story at this point.

What's interesting is that the medical story that opens the series is not all that important. Some of Kane's behavior is driven by it -- we see him arranging to get black-market meds in an attempt to keep his condition a secret -- and it makes him an even more driven man than he would normally be, but I'd be perfectly happy if this were just a political drama about the scheming and conniving of a healthy Tom Kane. The show itself is not quite up to the level of Grammer's star turn, but there's enough there to keep me watching for a while to see what develops.

TV: Once Upon a Time (ABC, Sun 8)

Once Upon a Time is the first of this season's "what if fairy tales were real" shows (Grimm arrives on Friday night), and it's created by two of the writers from Lost.

The Lost influence can certainly be seen in the show's parallel story-telling. We begin at the wedding of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), at the end of which the Evil Queen (Lana Parilla) bursts in and announces to the assembled crowd -- basically, every fairy tale character you can think of -- that she is going to bring down a horrible curse upon them all, exiling them to the most horrible place imaginable, a place with no happy endings.

Meanwhile, in our world, bail bondsman Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) gets an unexpected visit from 10-year-old Henry (Jared Gilmore), who announces that he is the son she gave up for adoption, and begs her to come home with him. "Home" turns out to be the quiant little village of Storybrooke, Maine. Henry claims that everyone in Storybrooke actually is a fairy tale character (but doesn't know it), as is Emma, and that it is her destiny to break the spell and return them all to their home.

Casting of the lead roles is excellent. Morrison plays tough very well, but also has enough vulnerability that you can understand why she's drawn to Henry despite thinking that the kid is crazy. Goodwin is, both physically and temperamentally, as fine a choice as you could make for Snow White. Gilmore (the most recent Bobby Draper from Mad Men) has self-assurance and wisdom that never cross the line into creepy, and it's not until the pilot is over that you think to wonder how it is that Henry is the only one who knows what's really going on.

There are a few too many cutesy in-jokes for Lost fans -- the Queen disappears in a very Smoke Monster-y puff; several references to The Numbers; a scene that begins on a close-up of an opening eye -- and I hope the writers will get over their "remember us?" cleverness and stop doing that.

The show's tone is a delicate balance of earnest sincerity and slight campiness, and keeping those things in proportion will be one of the bigger challenges as the show continues. But the pilot is an absolute delight; I haven't seen a drama pilot that pleased me this much since Pushing Daisies.

October 21, 2011

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, Oct 21 (Adams / Chapela / Prokofiev)

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor; Johannes Moser, electric cello

The program:
  • Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine
  • Chapela: Magnetar
  • Prokofiev: Symphony #5
The highlight of the night was the Prokofiev, in which Dudamel emphasized the jittery tension of the piece. There was a constant striving for serenity that was never quite reached. Melodies were too brittle and angular (and everyone kept interrupting everyone else, anyway), chords and harmonic progressions were just a little too off-kilter, for calm to ever be attained. And always, there were the bass instruments -- double basses, tuba and trombones, contrabassoon and bass clarinet -- serving as harbingers of doom, grumbling out their ominous warnings. It was like spending 40 minutes in the chase scene of a paranoid thriller. And the mood of it stuck with me after the concert; I was looking over my shoulder all the way home. It was a marvelous performance, and I was particularly struck by the beautifully played clarinet solo in the 4th movement, a jerking little tune that bounces from high to low and back.

Enrico Chapela's Magnetar, getting its world premiere in this weekend's concerts, is a concerto for electric cello. The instrument is shaped like a cello, though only about half as thick, and there's no body to it, just a frame with a vertical board only wide enough to attach the strings. On the back of that board are the inputs for the sound cables. The sound goes into a computer where it is processed and altered in various ways, some of which are controlled by the computer, responding in real time to the cellist, and some of which are controlled by the cellist via several foot pedals. Chapela's inspiration lies in the fact that the e-cello is an electromagnetic instrument, so he wanted to write about the largest magnets he could find. That turned out to be magnetars, giant neutron stars that emit periodic bursts of magnetic energy.

The concerto is in three movements, which Chapela describes as "fast, slow, and brutal," and for the most part, he uses the electronic effects very cleverly. The third movement opens with a cello blast that has the distortion you'd expect from an electric guitar, and the Phil (especially the percussion section) is flat-out rocking behind Moser. There's a jazzy interlude where the cello trades wah-wah riffs with a wah-wah muted trumpet. Best of all is a delightful moment when the clarinet and brass suddenly become a swing band, and I found myself thinking "now, I know there's no saxophone in that orchestra" for about 20 seconds before realizing that the cello was doing a fine imitation of an alto sax's timbre.

The piece doesn't always work; the cadenza at the end of the first movement is a bit too blip-bleep-bloopy in the style of some early electronic movement, and Chapela's a bit too pleased with his own naughtiness in the rock and jazz moments. But on the whole, it's an entertaining piece, and I'd like to hear more of Chapela's music.

The opener was from John Adams, and I will confess that I have a blind spot where his music is concerned. But Short Ride is indeed short, no more than five minutes, and for that length of time, it's not actively unpleasant; it's Adams' usual bright and shiny chuggachuggachugga. I just wish it added up to more than bright and shiny.

If you're in San Francisco, Dudamel and the Philharmonic will be at Davies Hall on Sunday night with this program. Worth going just for the Prokofiev.

MOVIES: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as Curtis, an Ohio laborer who's beginning to frazzle under the economic stress of the day. That stress is manifesting itself in horrifying nightmares, usually beginning with intense storms of brown, oily water, and ending when Curtis or his loved ones are violently attacked.

The dreams would be bad enough, but Curtis can't shake the feeling that these apocalyptic visions are premonitions of some horror to come, and he's self-aware enough to be even more scared by that feeling than he is by the dreams. Curtis's mother, after all (Kathy Baker, absolutely perfect in her one small scene), has been in assisted living since being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was roughly the age that Curtis is now.

And so Curtis slowly disintegrates, becoming obsessed with enlarging an old storm shelter in his backyard, an expense that infuriates his wife (Jessica Chastain, continuing this spectacular breakthrough year she's having), who doesn't understand what's wrong with her husband.

Michael Shannon is an actor I haven't been particularly fond of in the past, but he's remarkable here; Curtis is not a hugely talkative man, but Shannon conveys volumes with a furrowed brow or a shrug. Look at the anguish he's enduring, for instance, in a late scene where he's desperately looking for the courage to do what his wife needs him to do; it's painful to watch him fight against his own terror.

I wish the movie had ended about five minutes earlier; the final scene is an attempt at eerie ambiguity that comes off instead as artsy and pretentious in precisely the way that the movie has so skillfully avoided to that point. But the rest of the movie is so beautifully made, and such a deeply resonant allegory about the economic and social anxieties we're living with these days, that I have no qualms about recommending it with great enthusiasm.

MOVIES: The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, 2011)

Almodovar revisits many of his familiar themes -- beautiful women in jeopardy, complicated parent/child relationships, twisted sexuality, overheated melodrama -- in The Skin I Live In, his take on the mad-scientist movie. Antonio Banderas stars as Robert, a plastic surgeon who works from his remote estate outside Toledo. His clients like the privacy, and there are suggestions that Robert has occasionally taken advantage of the isolation to perform surgeries where the paperwork is, shall we say, not entirely in order.

As the movie opens, there is only one patient in residence. Vera (Elena Anaya) is a lovely woman who does a lot of yoga and usually wears nothing but a skintight body stocking. She is, for unknown reasons, locked in her room, and tended to by Robert and his maid, Marilia (Marisa Paredes).

Suddenly, we get a "six years earlier" caption, and we're introduced to Vicente (Jan Cornet), a young window dresser who is flirting with a pretty co-worker just a bit too persistently. The rest of the movie is spent filling in that six-year gap and explaining how Vicente's story ties in with that of Robert and Vera.

The mad scientist element brings some freshness to the story, and as ever with Almodovar, the plot twists are gloriously loopy. This doesn't rank with the very best Almodovar (I'd put Volver and Bad Education at the top of the list), but it's a lot of fun.

October 19, 2011

TV: Man Up! (ABC, Tue 8:30)

Here we have the companion to Tim Allen's Last Man Standing in ABC's "Hour of the Oppressed White Heterosexual Male." About all I can say for Man Up! is that it's less egregiously offensive than Last Man Standing.

It's the story of three guys in their early 30s who are insecure because they aren't sure what it means to be A Man today. They're not helped by the women in their lives, who are all castrating harpies, determined to convince them that they aren't men. Says one wife, "Your grandfather fought in World War II. Your father fought in Vietnam. You play video games and use pomegranate body wash. You're man-ish."

There is only one bright spot in the show, and that's Henry Simmons, playing the new beau of the ex-wife of one of our trio. There's nothing terribly original about what Simmons is doing. It is, in fact, so derivative that you feel like the director told him, "We wanted the Old Spice guy and couldn't get him, so do that, OK?," but Simmons is doing a very good copy of Isaiah Mustafa's shtick, so confident in his manliness that he sails right past arrogant and somehow comes out again at charming. It's a performance completely at odds with the rest of the show tonally, but when Simmons exits the episode, I'd have rather followed him and watched the show he thinks he's in than been stuck with the show he's actually in.

October 17, 2011

BOOKS: What Language Is, John McWhorter (2011)

What's unusual is not when a language is frighteningly complicated, but when it isn't.

That's the conclusion McWhorter reaches in this entertaining and fascinating study of languages and their innate complexity. It is, McWhorter claims, the natural tendency of languages to grow more complicated and intricate with time, to accumulate grammatical oddities and inexplicable requirements that seem to make no sense, mostly because of the ways they've changed in the centuries since they were introduced.

What's the best way to simplify your language? Empire. Go out and conquer a lot of new citizens, preferably from lots of different places with lots of different languages of their own. All of those new people trying to learn your language -- and to learn it as adults, who have a much harder time learning languages than children do -- will inevitably make lots of mistakes, and those mistakes will consistently lean towards simplifying the language and making it more regular. Get a critical mass of new adult learners, and those changes will take hold even among the population of native speakers. McWhorter uses the Persian language as his illustration, and calls this process the "Persian conversion."

And it's a process that most of us have seen a clear example of, because Black English is a classic example of a Persian conversion. Lots of African slaves from different places, trying to learn English as adults -- from a historical/linguistic perspective, it would have been bizarre if something like Black English hadn't been created. McWhorter points out that many of the grammatical features of Black English -- things that may sound like grammatical errors to speakers of Standard English -- are in fact part of the natural grammar of the 18th and 19th century rural British immigrants from whom the slaves would have heard most of their English. (Most slaves, after all, spent more time with the relatively uneducated indentured servants than they did with the educated slave owners.)

What does a language look like that hasn't gone through the simplification of a Persian conversion? Well, it looks like (to pick one example among McWhorter's many) Navajo, a language that is so spectacularly complicated that it has no such thing as a regular verb. It's so difficult to learn that linguists use "Navajo" in sentences the way the rest of us use "rocket science": "You had problems with this language? C'mon, it's not exactly Navajo, y'know."

McWhorter also talks about the distinctive challenges faced by people who use languages in which the written form has remained fossilized as it was centuries ago, while the spoken form has continued to evolve. In most of these places, the written form is considered the "real" language, so much so that some people don't even consider what they're speaking to be anything more than slang. This privileging of the written word is something of an oddity, given that only about 3% of the world's languages even exist in a significant written form.

In lesser hands, this book could be a stodgy, academic look at esoterica of interest only to a handful of linguists, but McWhorter has a great gift for making his subject matter accessible, interesting, and entertaining.

MOVIES: The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

Engrossing political drama with a top-notch cast.

Ryan Gosling is the media advisor to a top Democratic presidential candidate (George Clooney), who is presented as a very Obama-esque figure, who is inspiring genuine devotion and excitement in even hardened professionals like Gosling. Gosling reports to campaign manager Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is worried about the upcoming Ohio primary, which Clooney needs to win to sew up the nomination.

The campaign of the principal opponent is managed by Paul Giamatti, who isn't buying Clooney's uplifting message, and wants to steal Gosling away to his side of the race. But politics is a dirty game, and it's not hard to predict that this is going to be the story of Gosling's disillusionment as he realizes that even the best men can't help but be corrupted by politics.

The cast is superb from top to bottom, and Gosling cements his position as one of the best leading men of his generation, completely holding his own against heavy hitters Clooney, Hoffman, and Giamatti, all of whom are in fine form. Evan Rachel Wood is also very good as a campaign intern with high-powered relatives. In smaller roles, Marisa Tomei is a tough-as-nails New York Times reporter, Jeffrey Wright is a third candidate, who knows just how much difference his endorsement will make, and Gregory Itzin makes a very big impact in two small scenes as the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

The screenplay, by Clooney and Grant Heslov, occasionally reveals its stage origins (based on a play by Beau Willimon); you can easily identify the moments where the intermissions would be, as the action pauses for a short musical interlude over a few dramatic silent closeups. But making Clooney's inspiring governor a presence in the story was a good idea (in the play, he's entirely an offstage character), as it gives us a better idea of why Gosling has become so devoted as to lose his political common sense and objectivity.