February 27, 2011

what's so funny 'bout peace, link, and understanding

A short list this week:

At NPR, Andy Trudeau gives his annual overview of this year's Oscar-nominated film scores.

Slate's Timothy Noah reports on a recent study which seems to prove that independent films are more likely to be rated R than studio films, which are more likely to get the audience-friendly PG-13.

Shady Characters is an interesting new blog devoted to the history of punctuation marks.

Love this tote bag.

February 26, 2011

MOVIES: 2010 Oscar-nominated animated shorts

This is a slightly stronger field than the live-action group, but even here, there's nothing really dazzling.

The one you've probably seen is "Day & Night," the Pixar short that played with Toy Story 3. It doesn't seem quite as substantial on second viewing, but it's still a charmer, and I admire the clever mix of UPA-style character animation and very modern digital work.

"Madagascar, carnet de voyage" (Madagascar: Travel Journal) is an impressionistic voyage through Madagascar, with each scene presented as a page from a scrapbook coming to life. There are multiple animation styles and media, and it's quite lovely to look at.

"The Gruffalo" is the longest of the bunch -- almost half an hour -- and it wears out its welcome long before it's done. The hero is a mouse, outsmarting the animals who want to eat him. The impressive voice cast (Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt) can't hide the fact that the story's very repetitious, or that the hero mouse is such a smug little bastard that I was rooting for him to just get eaten already.

"Let's Pollute" is done in the style of 60s educational filmstrips -- perky music, overly enthusiastic narrator, etc. -- and tells the story of how Americans have become the excellent polluters we are today, while reminding us that we can do even better. It's only got the one joke, but it doesn't milk it for too long (it's only six minutes), and some of the punchlines are terrific.

"The Lost Thing" comes from Australia, and tells of a young boy who finds a mysterious thing (creature? machine?) on the beach, then helps it find its home. It's got a sweet melancholy, and it nails its ending better than any of the other entries, with final lines of narration that capture just the right mood.

Because the animated films are relatively brief, the program was padded out with a pair of non-nominated shorts. The German film "Urs" has a distinctive visual style, something like 3D woodcuts come to life, and some striking mountain landscapes. But the story is a muddled mess, and the visuals weren't enough to hold my interest for ten minutes.

"The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" is instantly recognizable as a Bill Plympton film, and it's a hilarious look at a calf who's desperate to be accepted by the Happy Burger plant. There's a great parody of the action-movie training montage, and the moment when the cow realizes that he has perhaps not thought through all the implications of his career choice is magnificently done. I'd have rather had this in the final five than "The Gruffalo," and might have even dumped "Day & Night" or "Madagascar" for it.

But since "The Cow" isn't among the actual nominees,  I'd cast my ballot for "The Lost Thing." I'd bet on either "The Gruffalo" or "Madagascar" to win it, though.

MOVIES: 2010 Oscar-nominated live-action shorts

This struck me as a rather lackluster field compared to previous years, with only one real standout. Most of the shorts had serious problems either establishing or maintaning a consistent tone.

The show opened with "The Confession," in which we meet Sam, who is so nice a boy that he's worried he won't have anything to tell the priest at his upcoming first confession. Sam's friend comes up with a plan for Sam to do something confession-worthy, and things inevitably spiral out of control. The movie is walking the boundaries of dark comedy all the way, but I think the series of tragic errors goes one step too far, tipping it from dark comedy to tragedy.

"Wish 143" is about a 16-year-old with terminal cancer who is visited by one of those foundations that makes dying kids' last wishes come true. They aren't quite sure how to cope, though, when his last wish is to lose his virginity. Like "The Confession," the tone is a bit wobbly, but the final scene, in which the boy does wind up in bed with a woman, is very nicely played.

"The Crush" gives us a 10-year-old suffering from intense jealousy when he learns that his teacher is engaged to be married. Here, the problem is that the movie doesn't go far enough at the end; it gets right to the edge of a fabulous dark comic ending, and goes all mushy instead.

"Na Wewe" means "you too" in Kirundi, one of the languages spoken in Burundi, where a pair of Belgian diplomats find themselves caught up in the war between the Tutsis and the Hutus in the '90s. This one is a total mess, trying to milk comedy out of guerrilla warfare and child soldiers, and its punchline is a weak bilingual pun.

"God of Love" is the clear class of the field. It's a black-and-white film with something of a mid-period Woody Allen vibe, and tells the story of Raymond, a nebbishy dart-throwing jazz singer. Raymond is in love with his drummer, but she only has eyes for their guitarist (who happens to be Raymond's best friend). It's very funny and charming, and Raymond's awkward attempts at courtship are delightful. ("Would you like to hear a poem I wrote for you? It's nine pages long, and it's in Portuguese...")

This is always a hard category in which to pick a winner, and none of the five would surprise me. Force me to bet, and I'd probably go with "The Crush," but "God of Love" deserves it.

February 20, 2011

you always hurt the one you link

A terrific series of articles and blog posts on the current state of online TV criticism began at Slate with Josh Levin's article on Alan Sepinwall and the role of the fan-critic. The conversation continued with responses from James Poniewozik at Time, Myles McNutt at Cultural Learnings, and Sepinwall himself. And critics Maureen Ryan and Ryan McGee continue the discussion in the latest episode of their Talking TV podcast, joined by McNutt, and Noel Murray of The AV Club.

At Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz wonders if Glee can be saved.

Annie Lowrey at Slate explains federal deficit and debt by reducing the numbers to the scale of a typical household budget.

How old is Ikea, anyway?

Clark Whelton on the newest dialect of English: Vagueness.

And we close with a look at the perils of computer-generated captioning:

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, February 20 (Smetana/Schumann/Dvořák)

Lionel Bringuier, conductor; Gautier Capuçon, cello

The program:
  • Smetana, The Moldau
  • Schumann, Cello Concerto
  • Dvořák, Symphony #5
I don't know that I have anything particularly interesting to say about today's music, but the performances were skillful and entertaining; the scherzo and finale of the Dvořák were particularly delightful, with lots of charming passages for the winds and some terrific showy moments for the brass.

It was a concert led by very young men. The cello soloist, Gautier Capuçon, is 29, and conductor Lionel Bringuier is only 24 (and already in his 4th season as the Philharmonic's Associate Conductor).

Watching Bringuier conduct is a very different experience from watching Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel is a larger than life figure, exploding so powerfully with energy that it seems the podium can barely contain him. His gestures are large and sweeping; you feel as if he's trying to physically push the emotion into the musicians. Bringuier, is more understated; his gestures are more compact and efficient, no bigger than necessary. He moves with supple grace; his arms have such fluidity that he sometimes seems to have no elbows.

To be sure, part of the difference is in the repertoire I've seen each man conduct; today's program doesn't call for the sort of overheated passion that the Turangalila requires. And Bringuier's calmer style doesn't keep him from getting thrilling moments out of the orchestra; the passage in The Moldau that's meant to depict the Rapids of St. John was tremendously exciting, and the Dvořák finale was a rousing crowd-pleaser.

This was certainly the warhorsiest concert I've attended in a long time, and that in itself was interesting; it helped me to clarify why it is that I enjoy more unusual and contemporary music.

I don't specifically remember hearing any of the specific pieces on today's program before, but the harmonic and musical language is very familiar to me. I enjoyed the music, but was rarely surprised by it. Its pleasures are, for me at least, smaller -- a delightful melody, an unexpected moment in the spotlight for the clarinets, a thrilling climax. That has its own appeal, and I find it very comforting.

But newer music is more likely to surprise me with novel combinations of instruments, surprising harmonic progressions, unusual timbres, and given the choice between comfort and surprise, I'll usually prefer surprise.

MOVIES: 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts

Well, what a gloomy bunch of films this is! Long, too; each of the five films comes in just under the 40-minute time limit, so we were given a ten-minute intermission after the third film.

"Killing in the Name" is the story of a Jordanian man whose wedding reception was underway when a suicide bomber hit the hotel. He has since become an anti-terrorism activist, attempting to persuade other Muslims to renounce violence.

"Sun Come Up" is about some of the world's first environmental refugees. Carteret Island, in Papua New Guinea, is being lost to the rising seas; the tides come in so far now that land once used for crops is now a salty desert. Their government lacks either the ability or the interest to help the Carterets relocate, so they send a delegation to the nearest island, begging for land on which they can relocate before they starve to death.

The environment is also the subject of "The Warriors of Quigang," about a small Chinese village whose residents struggle against government indifference and corruption to close down the chemical plant that has been dumping toxic chemicals for the last 30 years.

"Poster Girl" is a profile of an American woman whose service in Iraq has left her with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. The biggest problem with the film is that we never get a good sense of what she was like before her service, so we're tempted to assume that the angry, fearful, hostile woman we're seeing is who she's always been, and it's sometimes difficult to empathize with her.

"Strangers No More" is the only moment of uplift in the collection, and unfortunately, it's a festival of cliche. It's the story of a Tel Aviv school for children of refugees; there are students from 48 different countries. The movie pounds on all of the predictable points -- brotherhood, the inherent saintliness and lack of prejudice found in children, the "we must help them, so that they can make a better world" idealism.

After the intermission, as a way to make sure that no one missed any of the documentaries because they were in the restroom or grabbing snacks, we got to see the animated short "Sensology." It's abstract black-and-white animation timed to a group of even more abstract jazz pieces for piano and bass. It's not very interesting animation, and it's even less interesting music; it was a waste of six minutes.

If I were voting, I'd go with "Sun Comes Up," but if I were betting, I'd put my money on "Strangers No More" to win; it's the most optimistic film of the bunch, which usually helps, and it's filled with adorable children. Hard to bet against that.

February 16, 2011

BOOKS: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin (2010)

As boys, Larry and Silas were friends. For a short time, anyway. That friendship ended abruptly in a fury caused by bad parenting, teenage naivete, and the unavoidable complications of race in 1970s Mississippi (Larry is white; Silas is black).

Now the men are in their early 40s, both still living in the same small town. Silas has become a member of the local police force. Larry has spent 20 years under the suspicion that he killed a young woman, though her body was never found and he has always maintained his innocence. He is a social pariah. So when another young woman disappears, Larry is the obvious suspect, and the two men find their lives intersecting again.

The strength of Franklin's novel is his setting. His small-town Mississippi is vividly described, and the sense of just how much race still matters is overwhelming. The characters, especially Silas, are sharply developed. The story is less successful; one of the big plot twists is rather hackneyed, and it's telegraphed far too early.

The strengths outweigh the weaknesses, though, and this is a very entertaining novel. It's one of this year's Edgar nominees in the Best Novel category; I've read four of the six, and I'd place this a respectable second behind Tana French's Faithful Place.

February 14, 2011

TV: a quick catching up

So, a variety of new shows last week, and I don't have a lot to say about any of them, so let's just do a quick zip through them:

Jennifer Beals is the new police commissioner in Chicago, and is determined to use her power to bring down the city's corrupt politicians, chief among them city councilman Delroy Lindo. Jason Clarke, who was Beals' partner during her days on the street, is appointed to head up her unofficial task force (because the council won't support an official one) to do just that. The principals are all very appealing, as is Matt Lauria as Clarke's eager young partner. (One does wonder who's naming these characters, though; the three principal men are named Jarek (Clake), Ronin (Lindo), and Caleb (Lauria), none of which are your run-of-the-mill first names for men their age.)

The ongoing battle against the evil councilman will, it seems, be balanced against police case-of-the-week stories, and that serialized element might be interesting enough to keep me watching even though I'm not a huge fan of cop shows.

TRAFFIC LIGHT (Fox, Tue 9:30)
Yet another sitcom about three guys and their relationships. One's a single horndog; one's just moved in with his girlfriend; one's been married for six years. (And yes, there is an awkward monologue at the end of the pilot comparing these statuses to green/yellow/red traffic lights.) None of the characters are particularly likable or loathsome, and the show never generates more than a mild chuckle. It is a show that will inspire, at most, mild enthusiasm or mild distaste; there's not enough substance to it to inspire a more vigorous response in either direction.

BAR KARMA (Current, Fri 10)
I believe this is the first attempt at scripted programming from Current, the Al Gore-owned channel that's better known for news and current affairs programming (and as the newly announced home for Keith Olbermann). The gimmick here is that the show's creators have outsourced the writing; you can go to a website and propose story lines and plot twists, or you can vote yes or no on other people's suggestions; the writing staff will create the episodes based on the winning ideas.

The show is set in a mysterious bar, a karmic way station where the bartender and waitress are responsible for helping people make the right choices at crucial turning points. The pilot was filled with too much new-age-y mumbo jumbo for my taste, but perhaps once the setup's out of the way, that will take a back seat to actual storytelling.

Best thing about the show is William Sanderson as the bartender; even if you don't recognize the name, you probably know the face (maybe from True Blood, Deadwood, or Newhart), and he's always a welcome presence. Can't say I'm wildly enthusiastic about the show, but The Roommate liked it a lot, so I'll probably watch another episode or two to see where it goes.

BOOKS: World's Greatest Sleuth!, Steve Hockensmith (2010)

Fifth volume in the Holmes on the Range mystery series.

Gustav ("Old Red") and Otto ("Big Red") Amlingmeyer find themselves in Chicago this time, for the1893 Columbian Exposition. With the recent publication of the final Sherlock Holmes story, in which Dr. Watson reports the death of Holmes, several magazine publishers have come together for a "World's Greatest Sleuth" contest; each has a detective whose exploits they publish, and each wants his detective to be given the de facto title of successor to Holmes.

The big city is alien territory to the brothers, but they agree to take part in the competition, which consists of a series of daily scavenger hunts with riddles for clues. This isn't real sleuthing, Gustav grumbles, but when one of the publishers turns up dead, the Amlingmeyers and their rivals suddenly have a real mystery on their hands.

The other detectives Hockensmith has created are a delightful assortment of characters. There's a stuffy Brit who naturally considers himself the only true heir to Holmes, an eccentric Frenchman who comes across as sort of a precursor to Hercule Poirot (yes, I know, Poirot was Belgian, not French), a street-smart New York private eye, and (returning from earlier volumes) the lovely Diana Corvus, working with a partner whom Gustav and Otto are not so happy to see.

As always in this series, Hockensmith does a marvelous job of giving us interesting historical details, and Big Red's narrative voice has just enough hint of the period to feel accurate without being so archaic as to be impenetrable. The style is light and breezy, with an entertaining mix of suspense and humor. The mystery is compelling, and the red herrings are cleverly deployed. This is another solid entry in an absolutely charming series.

February 06, 2011

a groovy kind of link

Slant's "The House Next Door" brings us Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard in a terrific, lengthy discussion of True Grit.

At Refinery29, Kristian Laliberte points us to a Valentine's gift that will, perhaps, not be appropriate for every couple.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic announces its 2011-12 season, featuring a complete cycle of Mahler's symphonies. (I'm sure that'll thrill some, but as for me, yuck.)

At The Washington Post, Hank Steuver on The Good Wife and the dying art (at least on network TV) on long-term storytelling.

And let's close with Steve Reich's minimalist landmark "Clapping Music," as interpreted by Miss Angie Dickinson and Mr. Lee Marvin:

February 03, 2011

BOOKS: In Search of Mercy, Michael Ayoob (2010)

For 25 years, the Private Eye Writers of America and St. Martin's Press have sponsored the Best First Private Eye Novel competition. The PWA's interest is obvious; I assume that St. Martin's gets first crack at publishing the winners, as they've done with this, the 2009 winner.

The novel has some of the feel of a traditional hard-boiled, noir-esque private eye, though its hero is younger than usual for the genre. Dexter Bolzjak is 25, and is still recovering from the two events that have come to dominate his life. As a high school senior, Dexter was a star hockey player, until the night he choked and lost his team the state championship; later that night, he was kidnapped and tortured by four particularly demented fans. Those events have not only destroyed Dexter's confidence, but he's also dealing with some serious post-traumatic stress. As a resort, he's never accomplished much, and scrapes by on his job at a produce warehouse.

All of which would make him a fairly unlikely candidate to take on a missing-persons search, but that's what he's asked to do by Lou Kashon, an elderly drunk who's rapidly dying of cancer, and longs to see the love of his life once more before he dies. She won't be easy to find; she vanished imore than 40 years ago and hasn't been seen since. And it's not as if people haven't been looking, because Lou's vanished love is Mercy Carnahan, who had been a huge star in the late 40s and early 50s, and continues to have a loyal cult of worshippers.

Ayoob does a nice job of capturing his working-class Pittsburgh setting, and his descriptions of Mercy's career and her glamorous appeal are good enough that I found myself wanting to see her movies. The resolution of the mystery wasn't quite satisfying, but Dexter and Lou are appealing characters, and I'd be happy to see Dexter return in another book.

I was bothered, though, by the chapter in which Ayoob takes us back to the night of Dexter's capture and torture, which he describes in excessive detail. We've already gotten the gist of what happened, certainly enough to understand Dexter's reaction to it; the blow-by-blow is gratuitous and out of place. And I'm not normally particularly disturbed by such things, so I would guess that those who are more sensitive will find it very tough going.