April 27, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: Carole King

There's been surprisingly little of Carole King on American Idol, and most of the songs we're hearing tonight are making their Idol debut. And we're padding to 90 minutes by adding duets, a rather blunt admission that Fox has nothing else worth putting on the air.

The rundown:

Jacob, "Oh No Not My Baby" -- After a few weeks of relative restraint, Jacob's cutting loose tonight, with elaborate riffs and a very impressive Big Long Note. But it's all icing and no cake; I'm left awed by the technique but wondering "what was the song about again?" (And that outfit makes him look like the ringmaster at a really cheap circus.)

Lauren, "Where You Lead" -- Dunno if it was meeting Miley Cyrus or the shock of Kenny's smart question ("Have you ever gone for the note and not hit it?"), but something's given Lauren a massive confidence boost tonight. She looks more comfortable than she ever has, and sounds terrific. The arrangement is smartly updated, and the song suits her well. Very fine indeed.

Casey/Haley, "I Feel the Earth Move" -- Who would have expected that Haley would come off better in this pairing? Casey's harmony lines are out of tune, and when he's got the lead, he's shouting so much that he sounds like a parody version of himself. On the other hand, the song fits Haley's voice quite nicely, and though it's taken her most of the season to do it, she finallly seems to be figuring out who she really is as a singer.

Scotty, "You've Got a Friend" -- The arrangement is a disaster; the song needs a bit more rhythmic kick to propel it, and Scotty's drowning in that syrupy sea of strings. Pick up the tempo a bit and replace the easy-listening strings with some fiddles and a steel guitar, and this might work, but as it is, it's a ghastly mess.

James, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" -- One very badly placed breath ("...or just a mo (gasp) ment's pleasure..."), but otherwise, this is really lovely. The opening verse sung a cappella is excellent.

Lauren/Scotty, "Up on the Roof" -- The arrangement is clearly in her key, not his, and he's having to strain particularly hard on his harmony lines. They're both a bit on the bland side here, which is a step up from his solo number and a step down from hers.

Casey, "Hi-De-Ho" -- It's beginning to be a guessing game as to which Casey is going to show up each week. On a good night, we get the tasteful, bluesy Casey; on a bad night -- like this one -- we get the gratingly mannered Casey. As he did in his duet, he sounds like his own evil twin.

Haley, "Beautiful" -- She's better than she was a month ago, but the improvement isn't big enough or fast enough to put her back into the race. This performance is OK, I suppose -- better in the rocking chorus than in the flowing verses -- but not terribly interesting or memorable.

Jacob/James, "I'm Into Something Good" -- Individually, they sound fine; but when they sing together, neither is making any effort to blend with the other, and their wildly different tones grate against each other very badly.

It's been a very uneven night, with terrific highs and horrid lows, but nothing that shook up the standings too badly.

For the night: Lauren, James, Jacob, Haley, Casey, Scotty.

For the season: Lauren, Jacob, James, Casey, Haley, Scotty.

Let's send home: Scotty's finally worn out his welcome, I'm afraid. I would not be surprised, though (or too disappointed), to see Haley get the boot.

April 26, 2011

BOOKS: Heads You Lose, Lisa Lutz & David Hayward (2011)

It's two, two, two books in one!

In a brief editor's note, we are told that Lutz and Hayward agreed to collaborate on this novel, writing alternate chapters. They would do no advance plotting, and neither was allowed to change the plot developments the other had added to the story. Each occasionally comments on the other's chapters in footnotes, and at the end of each chapter, we get to read a brief exchange of notes between them. That situation is complicated by the fact that Lutz and Hayward were once romantically involved; their relationship appears to have ended rather badly, and it is strongly suggested that the end was brought about by their last attempt at collaboration.

A serious quibble here: No advance plotting for a murder mystery? Even for a fictional setup, it stretches credulity that any authors would think they could pull that off successfully.

But that's the conceit, and the Lutz/Hayward relationship is always present in the background as we read the mystery they've concocted, which is set in northern California, where 20ish brother and sister Paul and Lacey are rather aimlessly drifting through life in a small town. Paul grows pot; Lacey works at the local coffeeshop; each has quiet dreams of getting out of this place. When a headless corpse turns up on their property, they can't exactly call the cops -- all those pot plants, you know -- so they move the body to someplace where they figure it will be found fairly quickly. But things go awry, and it's not long before Paul and Lacey are working to solve the crime themselves.

As the professional relationship between Lutz and Hayward begins to fray, and their footnotes and chapter notes become more hostile, the sibling relationship between Paul and Lacey shows some strain, too, with each wondering if the other might be involved in the murder. The rule about not undoing the other author's plot points goes out the window; one character dies, turns out not to be dead after all, and dies again in consecutive chapters.

Given the "no pre-planning" rule, it's not surprising that the mystery rambles a bit (and let's face it, tight plotting was not one of the strengths of Lutz's novels about the Spellman family), but it does so in an amiable enough fashion, and it's fun to watch the authors take increasingly vicious pot shots at each other in their chapters. (Lutz frequently complains that Hayward uses too many obscure words; his response to those complains is the single best joke in the book.)

Heads You Lose isn't going to win any awards, and it's not at the level of Lutz's earlier work (it's Hayward's first novel), but it's an amusing piece of fluff.

April 23, 2011

MOVIES: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock, 2011)

Morgan Spurlock's latest documentary, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, explores product placement through a sort of immersion technique. The movie is entirely funded by product placement, and much of the movie consists of Spurlock's meetings with potential corporate sponsors about how they might be promoted in the movie. The movie winds up with an official car, an offical airline, an official hotel, etc., and the three largest sponsors get actual 30-second commercials (starring Spurlock) during the film.

I'm choosing not to name any of those sponsors; after all, Spurlock may be getting paid to plug the hell out of them, but I'm not. The largest sponsor paid a million dollars for above-the-title placement; the actual full title of the movie is (Sponsor Name) Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

In addition to meetings with sponsors, Spurlock talks to brand consultants (his own brand is identified as "mindful/playful," and many of the brands he targets as participants fall into the same general type), lawyers, consumer advocates (Ralph Nader shows up to scowl and mutter about how doomed we all are), and media critics. A few directors talk about their own experiences with product placement; Quentin Tarantino says he's never done much of it, mostly because he keeps getting turned down.

Spurlock approaches the subject in his usual style; he's the uninformed, curious layman, inviting us along as he discovers what goes into product placement. To be sure, there's a certain disingenuousness in that style -- Spurlock knows exactly what message he wants to send -- but as populist documentarians go, I find Spurlock's droll, laidback presentation more appealing than Michael Moore's angry polemicist.

Any company willing to take part in a project like this has to have at least some sense of humor about itself, and Spurlock deftly walks a fine line between plugging and gently teasing his sponsors. Part of his success there derives from the fact that a lot of the teasing seems self-directed; there's a slight "can you believe I have to do this nonsense?" wink in his most blatant plugs. The plugs don't end on screen, by the way; when I bought my ticket, I was handed a small assortment of samples and coupons from some of the movie's sponsors.

If you're a reasonably aware moviegoer, I don't think Spurlock is going to tell you anything you don't already know, but we don't normally get so close a view of the process. And with Spurlock as a guide, I had a lot of fun watching the sausage being made.

April 21, 2011

BOOKS: My Year of Flops, Nathan Rabin (2010)

At The Onion's A.V. Club, Rabin has specialized in reviews of the misunderstood, the disappointing, and the disastrous. "My Year of Flops" began as a twice-weekly, year-long project to explore the most reviled commercial disasters cinema has to offer. (The series has continued past that first year, though it appears less frequently.)

Here, fifty of those explorations -- fifteen of them appearing here for the first time -- are gathered for cheerfully snarky re-evaluation, and each is given a final label of either Failure, Fiasco, and Secret Success. The difference between a mere Failure and a Fiasco is summed up in a quote from the first film in this book, Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown:

A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fee-ass-coe, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because. It. Didn't. Happen. To. Them.
Obviously, there's going to be a certain amount of gleeful nastiness and cheap shots here, but Rabin goes into his reappraisals with a genuinely open mind; he wants to find something good in these movies, and often does. Among his "Secret Success" finds -- movies that are better than their reputation would suggest, or that at least offer some good reason to sit through them -- we find Robert Altman's O.C. and Stiggs, the Steve Martin-Bernadette Peters version of Pennies from Heaven (I was a little surprised to find that one in the book at all, actually; I thought it had a solid critiical reputation), The Rocketeer, and Joe Versus the Volcano.

But even the Failures and Fiascos are described in such affectionate terms that I find myself wanting to see them (or see them again, in some cases). Who could resist Paint Your Wagon, "a three-hour-long movie where Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin sang and danced and were married to the same woman yet seemed kind of into each other," or Scenes from a Mall, which features one of Woody Allen's few appearances in a movie directed by someone else, and Bette Midler as his wife? And I really should finally get around to seeing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, or to a second viewing of the spectacularly weird The Apple.

Rabin has a knack for summing up a movie's problems in concise fashion. He describes Rent, for instance as "a musical about Gen Xers, the most cynical and sarcastic generation known to man, that's wholly devoid of cynicism and sarcasm." Of the ghastly miscasting of Lucille Ball in Mame, he helpfully observes that "it's never an encouraging sign when a choreographer's main concern is his leading lady throwing out a hip."

His style is light and droll, and he knows enough about movies and how they work (or don't) that you never feel as if he's being mean just for the sake of being mean. There's serious critical analysis going on behind all the jokes.

April 20, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: 21st century songs

Another wide-open theme, about which there's not much to say but this: I shall have harsh words for anyone who picks a song from the year 2000, which (as all right-thinking people know) was the last year of the 20th century, and not the first year of the 21st. Shall we away?

The rundown:

The Rejects, "So What" -- We're padding the top seven to ninety minutes (remember when the top ten took only an hour?) and so we get this. It is not a good idea, and it is not a good performance We sent these people away for a reason, you know. Paul seems to be particularly lost in a style not his own.

Scotty, "Swingin'" -- Well, "harsh words for a song from 2000" looks rather quaint in the face of this theme cheat, a song that's ten years older than Scotty is. As for the performance? Scotty's got a natural flirty quality on stage; he doesn't need to try to flirt with us as he's doing here. The extra effort makes him seem less naturally charming and more "keep your daughter away from that creepy McCreery boy."

James, "Uprising" -- Love the arrangement; those pounding drums are very effective. But some of those big rock-boy high notes are a little shrill and out of tune tonight, and when James drops into his lower register for the verses, he's hard to hear and his enunciation is a bit weak. It's a spectacular bit of theater, though.

Haley, "Rolling in the Deep" -- Very good song choice that suits her raspy tone quite well; those yodel-y little breaks into head voice are nicely done. By far her best performance, and the first time I've felt like we were hearing Haley instead of some character she was putting on.

Jacob, "Dance With My Father" -- You can hear in the first few lines that the emotion is getting to him; his voice is a little thicker than usual, and he's running out of breath in a way that he doesn't normally do. But once he hits the chorus, he's gotten a grip on it, and it's a lovely performance, quite moving. There's not much to say about Jacob at this point; he's reliably and consistently very good.

Casey, "Harder to Breathe" -- This is crappy songwriting; the lyrics are crammed in with utter disregard for where the stress is going to fall (most egregiously on "...finALly clear..."). The performance is fine, though it's not anything that I'll remember for very long.

Stefano, "Closer" -- Stefano's strength is in the long, silky phrases, and the choppiness of this one ("I. Just. Can't. Stop...") doesn't suit him well. It's also a song that's not well-suited to Idol performance; there are a lot of overlapping layers, and on stage, we're left with Stefano wailing wordless "oh"s and "ah"s while the chorus carries the lyrics.

Lauren, "Born to Fly" -- Another smart song choice; the youthful energy and optimism of the song suit her very well. There's nothing glaringly wrong with the performance, and it should keep her around for another week, but it's not exciting in any way, and she really does have to kick it up a notch if she wants to win this thing.

We're down to that point in the competition where we don't expect many genuinely awful performances, and there weren't any tonight. But while it's true that the remaining field (and the season as a whole) has had a higher base level of competence than most previous years, we have yet to see any truly breathtaking moments. It's still a tightly bunched group, and things are wide open for someone to break free from the pack with a goosebump moment. Haley helped herself the most tonight, and Scotty continued his long slow decline into irrelevancy.

For the night: Jacob, Haley, James, Lauren, Casey, Scotty, Stefano.

For the season: Jacob, Lauren, James, Casey, Stefano, Scotty, Haley.

Let's send home: While it wasn't quite enough to move her off the bottom of my list, Haley deserves a reprieve for her best performance thus far, so it's gotta be either Stefano or Scotty.

April 19, 2011

MOVIES: Rio (Carlos Saldanha, 2011)

Here we have the story of Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg), a Brazilian blue macaw who's captured by smugglers and winds up living in Minnesota with his owner, Linda (Leslie Mann). They are visited one day by Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), who tells Linda that Blu is the last male of his species, and they need to take him back to Brazil in the hopes that he will mate with the last female.

That female is Jewel (Anne Hathaway), who's not remotely interested in nerdy little Blu. (How nerdy is he? He's never even learned to fly.) But when they are captured by smugglers (which must feel practically routine to Blu at this point), they have to work together to escape.

The voice cast also includes George Lopez, will.i.am, and Jamie Foxx as Brazilian birds who get involved in the quest; Jemaine Clement as a villainous cockatoo who aids the smugglers; and Tracy Morgan as a bulldog with a serious drool problem. Most of the cast fails to bring the level of energy that good voice acting requires; animated characters, no matter how well done, are less expressive than live people, and the voice acting has to be somewhat exaggerated to compensate. Clement comes off best, throwing himself into Nigel's evil scheming with wild abandon.

The story is a bit bland and predictable; it's quickly obvious how the parallel love stories (bird and human) are going to play out. That's not necessarily a bad thing in a kid's movie, but Rio lacks the smartness that makes a movie like Rango work on different levels for kids and parents.

The movie is at its best in its most elaborate scenes, when it gives in to the riot of color that Brazil offers. There's an opening musical number set in the jungle that is to birds what The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea" was to fish; Foxx and will.i.am get a few musical moments of their own; and a chase scene through an elaborate parade captures the exuberant joy of Carnaval.

A mixed bag, but your kids will enjoy it, and there's enough to keep you mildly entertained, too.

BOOKS: Deadly Choices, Paul A. Offit (2011)

A few weeks, I very much enjoyed Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, a look at how our scientific illiteracy makes it easy for drug companies and the media to scare us with various non-existent medical crises; among Goldacre's targets was the incompetent and fraudulent science behind the anti-vaccine movement. Offit's book deals with that movement at greater length, and while he doesn't ignore the dismal "science" that's behind it, he focuses just as much on its history and politics.

It shouldn't be surprising that there have been anti-vaccine activists for just as long as there have been vaccines; the phrase "conscientious objector" actually derives from the anti-vaccine movement of late-19th-century England, and was only later used for those protesting military service.

(An interesting pop-culture artifact of the anti-vaccine movement: The Raggedy Ann doll, whose designer modeled it after his daughter, whose death he blamed on smallpox vaccine. The doll's floppy limbs mimic her symptoms.)

And the tactics of the anti-vaccine crowd have been remarkably similar from one era to another. Discredit the science; malign the motives of doctors; claim that vaccines are dangerous, unnatural, or a violation of God's will. The most dramatic change in the modern movement is the role of lawyers and money.

Offit also provides very good explanations of how we're all put at risk by unvaccinated children, and of what a difference mandatory vaccination makes. He offers as one dramatic example the case of Texarkana, a city that sits on the Texas-Arkansas border, which suffered a measles outbreak in 1970. At the time, Arkansas required children to be vaccinated before entering school and Texas did not. Of the 633 measles cases in Texarkana, 608 were on the Texas side of the city.

Is there any hope? Offit sees only three ways out, and acknowledges that one of them -- ending religious and philosophical exemptions to mandatory vaccination laws -- is unlikely to happen in the current political and legal climate. He clings to the hope that Americans will somehow come to their senses and begin to trust their doctors again.

I find it hard to be that optimistic; we've reached a point where parents are putting their faith in Jenny McCarthy over, say, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and I fear that Offit's third way out -- the most pessimistic -- is the most likely. And that way out begins with massive outbreaks of childhood diseases that once seemed nearly wiped out: mumps, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough. I'm afraid that a lot of parents will have to suffer, and a lot of children will have to die, to shock America back into its senses on this issue.

Offit explains the problem clearly, and lays out the science involved in a way that shouldn't be beyond most readers. This is an important, passionate book about a growing public health crisis; sadly, those who most need to hear its message will probably never read it.

April 17, 2011

the semi-regular Sunday link-o-rama

The Straight Dope, Cecil Adams: What are the legal implications of getting a tattoo of your favorite team's logo?

Future of Film, Chris Dorr: Could subscriptions and memberships save movie theaters?

A pair of thoughtful commentaries on recent movies: At Mirror, Kartina Richardson on Certified Copy; at Asking the Wrong Questions, Abigail Nussbaum on Source Code.

Making Light, Teresa Nielsen Hayden (and her commenters) on Transnistrian Infundibulators and publishing genres.

At the Los Angeles Times, Meghan Daum explains how Sarah Palin avoids the criticism she deserves.

And let's close with this, which gets away with a bit more tugging at the heartstrings than I usually like:

April 13, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Movie songs

After the year's obligatory shocking departure -- we'll miss you, Pia -- we return for a night of songs from the movies, continuing (as promised) the year's series of theme nights that leave plenty of room for everyone to find something appropriate.

The rundown:

Paul, "Old Time Rock and Roll" -- I still don't like his voice, and I wish he would stop bounding about the stage like an anorexic hobbit in a Nudie suit. But lord knows he's got personality to burn, and he's having so much fun that it's hard to completely hate him.

Lauren, "The Climb" -- She's learning fast, isn't she? Smart song selection that falls right into her stylistic strike zone, and a good solid performance; she also seems to be more relaxed on stage every week. Not a goosebump moment, but I'm now at the point where I wouldn't be surprised to get one from her eventually.

Stefano, "End of the Road" -- Pretty enough voice, but the boy's got all the star quality of a brick.

Scotty, "I Cross My Heart" -- I  wish he'd stuck with "Everybody's Talkin';" that would at least have had the potential to be surprising. This isn't much of a song, and Scotty doesn't do much to elevate it. It's an adequate performance, but there's nothing interesting about it.

Casey, "Nature Boy" -- Casey at his most eccentric, both in song choice and performance. The vocal is more oddly mannered than usual, with lots of distracting "ah" puffs at the end-ah of every phrase-ah. Pitch was a bit wobbly in spots. I'm not sure that performance gets many votes from the tween girls who dominate the voting.

Haley, "Call Me" -- We're four or five words into the song before she's even close to the right pitches, and even once she settles into the notes, it's not pretty. It's another of Haley's bad-cabaret performances. I still don't think we know (or that she knows) who Haley really is as a performer; all of her songs feel like the work of a bad actor playing a role.

Jacob, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" -- Oddly lifeless; given this combination of singer and song, there should have been goosebumps on goosebumps by the end of it. That sustained climb on the last three notes was quite nicely done, though.

James, "Heavy Metal" -- Well, it's not my thing and I won't be rushing out to buy his record, but it was very well done, and certainly the most energetic and passionate performance of the night.

The top half of the field remains very tightly bunched, with Lauren moving up a bit; Scotty continues his slow slide into the back half of the pack, and Paul finally escapes the basement.

For the night: Lauren, James, Jacob, Paul, Casey, Scotty, Stefano, Haley.

For the season: Jacob, Casey, Lauren, James, Scotty, Stefano, Paul, Haley.

Let's send home: It ought to be Haley, and given the "let's send all the women home first" trend of the season, that wouldn't be a surprising outcome. But I'd also be worried if I were Jacob, because we're entering the part of the season beyond which black men tend not to survive, or Casey, because I don't think Idol voters respond well to weird.

April 06, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Another relatively wide-open theme that leaves no excuse for anyone not to find an appropriate song. But as we all know, that's no guarantee of good times ahead. Cross your fingers, everyone!

The rundown:

Jacob, "Man in the Mirror" -- When he's restrained, as he is in the opening verse, I adore Jacob. But then we get to the chorus and for about 20 seconds, there's just too much of everything happening all at once. Including some pelvic moves that seemed a bit odd coming from someone who couldn't bring himself to sing "Let's Get It On." (And I think his comment about how if he didn't survive, it was because we weren't ready to look in the mirror could really hurt him.)

Haley, "Piece of My Heart" -- Well, that was enthusiastic. And I suppose that of all the personalities she's tried on this season, that was probably the most convincing of the bunch. But this is the third week in a row that she's tried to be sexy, and it's so not working; she simply doesn't come off as the libidinous libertine she wants to be. She's a girl playing dressup in her skanky aunt's clothes, and it's kind of icky.

Casey, "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" -- What is with Casey's compulsion to put unnecessary little vocal fillips at the very end of the song? That's twice in a row he's done that. When it's working, leave well enough alone; you don't want the audience's last memory to be of wincing at your cheesy "artistic" touches. Aside from that goofy glissando, a really solid performance.

Lauren, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" -- Her best work yet. She's relaxed and confident, and her phrasing is beautifully comfortable and natural. This can be a very big song, and I like that she isn't pushing beyond her limits to make it that; she's molding the song to suit her abilities without distorting it beyond recognition. An unexpected pleasure.

James, 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps" -- The "oh, that's right, I'm a rocker" tag destroys the mood he's tried to establish in the rest of the song, but it's also the first moment that's sounded any good. His pitch is shaky throughout, and it gets worse the quieter he gets. There's also no connection to the words; I can understand them all, but they feel like just a chain of random words with no story or emotional throughline behind them.

Scotty, "That's All Right, Mama" -- To hear him talk about how "rock" he's going to be, you'd think he were tackling Black Sabbath instead of Elvis. This isn't rock (nor, despite that unfortunate little bit of deedle-dee-ing, is it scatted jazz), it's up-tempo country, and not a very interesting bit, I'm afraid. It's starting to look like Scotty really is the one trick pony some feared he might be, and when he doesn't get to relax, flirt, and hit those low notes, there's not much there.

Pia, "River Deep - Mountain High" -- She's got that in her, and she's been singing pretty little ballads all these weeks? That opening verse was spectacular. Maybe things flagged a bit when she hit the chorus, and there were one or two notes not quite in tune, but that had more life, more energy, more fun than anything we've seen all season. Damn.

Stefano, "When a Man Loves a Woman" -- An erratic little enigma, our Stefano. That full-on belt is gorgeous; it cuts through everything around it without being harsh or piercing. And he seems solidly connected to the song this week, too. But I continue to think that his technique isn't well developed, and that reveals itself when he gets quiet; there are a few closeups tonight where you can see the knot in his forehead right at the top of his nose. He's not going to be consistently good -- either from week to week, or from start to finish of a single song -- until he figures out what's wrong and fixes it, and that's a bigger project than Idol will give him time for.

Paul, "Folsom Prison Blues" -- That almost sort of worked, in a very weird way. Jimmy and Will.I.Am were right to tell him to go crazy with it, and channeling his manic energy into the voice instead of into his feet gave him a fuller tone than he usually has. There were only one or two moments when he slipped into the wispy breathiness that he's so often prone to. I still don't like his voice, but this was at least interesting.

And it was a night of surprises, with the best performances coming from unlikely quarters -- Pia and Lauren helped themselves tonight -- and some of the favorites falling short -- Scotty and James slipped badly.

For the night: Pia, Lauren, Casey, Jacob, Stefano, Paul, Scotty, Haley, James.

For the season: Pia, Casey, Jacob, James, Lauren, Scotty, Stefano, Haley, Paul.

Let's send home: Despite a better than usual effort tonight, Paul is still the most deserving. I would put my money on Haley or Jacob, though.

April 05, 2011

MOVIES: In a Better World (Susanne Bier, 2010/US 2011)

Here we have this year's winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar. That's not surprising, because it is precisely the sort of well-made, bland, do-good movie that ofen wins that award. What is surprising is to see such a piece of claptrap from Bier, whose early movies have risen above their more melodramatic elements (I very much liked her Brothers and After the Wedding); this one wallows in them.

The principal characters are two 12-year-old boys. Elias (Markus Rygaard) is the sort of boy who would be bullied in any school -- small, frail, wears braces, vaguely pathetic -- but suddenly finds himself with a defender in the form of Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), who has recently moved to Denmark from London after the death of his mother.

Elias's parents are separated, probably on the way to divorcing, mostly because of the strain put on the relationship by Anton's (Mikael Persbrandt) frequent, long trips to Africa, where he provides medical service to small villages. Christian's father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), is struggling to cope with his son, whose typical adolescent sullenness is dangerously exacerbated by his grief.

Anton's work in Africa provides a subplot, and it's here that Bier lays on the symbolism and the parallels with a trowel. As the boys debate how best to deal with evil in their own world (or at least, what passes for evil when you're 12), Anton is faced with the decision of whether or not to treat the local warlord. The moral equivalence Bier draws between a man who slaughters pregnant women for sport and a playground bully is inappropriate enough that it left a sour taste in my mouth.

The Danish side of the movie isn't terrible, and Nielsen is remarkably good as Christian, caught up in the grip of emotions and compulsions that he can neither understand nor control. But the African story is condescending in the extreme, with the villagers and the landscape filmed as if they were completely alien. And the way that Bier uses the stories to comment on one another is heavy handed enough to be distasteful.

But everyone gets a comforting ending, and the audience is reassured that their Western pacifist values are always correct, so you get to walk away with a nice warm feeling in your heart. Bier is a talented director, and she's done far better work than this; it's rather a shame that she'd win the Oscar for a movie that's such a piece of sticky pablum.

April 04, 2011

MOVIES: Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)

After the success of Moon, Jones gets the chance to work with a bigger budget and bigger stars, and turns out a smart popcorn thriller.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Coulter Stevens, who is fresh from the field in Afghanistan when he wakes on a Chicago commuter train. He's not sure how he got there, and he can't understand why Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the woman seated opposite him, keeps calling him "Sean." He's even more confused when he looks in the mirror and sees someone else's face. There's a sudden explosion and Coulter finds himself back in uniform, in a tiny bunker where an officer on a monitor (Vera Farmiga) is giving him orders.

Jones smartly lets the audience share in Coulter's disorientation at the beginning of the movie, but we -- and he -- gradually piece together that his mind is being sent back into the body of Sean Fentriss, a commuter who happened to be on a train that was blown up by a terrorist. There's nothing that can be done about that crime now, but the military has learned that the bomber has plans for a bigger explosion, and Coulter's mission is to find the bomber on the train so that the second bomb can be stopped. But since Coulter can only occupy Sean's mind for the last eight minutes of his life, it's going to take several trips back to that train to complete the mission.

It's Groundhog Day meets Quantum Leap (and the latter debt is nicely acknowledged with a small bit of casting), and Jones does a nice job of working within the limitations of his story. We make at least eight or nine trips back to that commuter train, and it's entertaining to see how each one plays out differently as Coulter carries the knowledge gained on each trip into successive ones.

As he did in Moon, Jones makes the most of a limited number of claustrophobic sets, and it's interesting that both movies raise questions of identity, and focus on men who've been assigned jobs under circumstances they don't entirely understand. Gyllenhaal is very good here, playing his train variations with charm and wit, and his bunker scenes with finely calibrated frustration and anger. The rest of the cast isn't asked to do much heavy lifting, though Jeffrey Wright has some nice moments as Farmiga's commanding officer, a sort of comic-military turn on the standard Mad Scientist.

This works very well as a simple action flick, but it's also a very intelligent movie, and more thoughtful than the advertising might suggest.

MOVIES: Potiche (Francois Ozon, 2010/US 2011)

In French, a potiche is a vase with purely decorative value, and the word is slang for (roughly) "trophy wife."

And that's the role Suzannne Pujol (Catherine Denueve) finds herself in as the movie opens. It's 1977, and her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), is running the family umbrella factory (founded by her father) into the ground, angering the workers with his tyrannical ways and provoking strikes at every turn. (Do you suppose the umbrellas are an homage of sorts to Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg?)

But when Robert is hospitalized, Suzanne is forced to step outside the home and take over. Her common sense and good nature make her a natural leader, and she resolves the union problems with surprising ease, setting up a power struggle when Robert returns.

Throw in Gerard Depardieu as the local mayor/member of Parliament (and Suzanne's former one-day fling), Judith Godreche as the Pujols' conservative daughter, and Jeremie Renier as their artistic son, and you've got all the makings for a breezy little comedy.

Unfortunately, the jokes barely reach even the limited depth that "breezy" would suggest. Ozon never goes beyond the broadest sitcom strokes, and he is content to skim the surface of what could be a more complicated and interesting story. The cast is fine; Deneuve is as lovely and charming as ever, and Luchini blusters and fumes effectively. There are a few amusing moments, but Potiche mostly feels like a series of missed opportunities.

BOOKS: The Native Star, M. K. Hobson (2010)

Continuing my journey through this year's Nebula-nominated novels, we come to this odd hodgepodge of Harlequin romance, historical fiction, and fantasy. (I hasten to add that "Harlequin" is not meant to be pejorative, merely descriptive; it's a genre that isn't my cup of tea, but a lot of people enjoy it, and I try very hard not to be a genre snob.)

It's about a decade after the Civil War, and Emily Edwards is a witch in a small northern California town. Her business is slowly dwindling because people are buying newfangled patent magics instead of coming to her. There is another magician in town -- the arrogant warlock Dreadnought Stanton (yes, "Dreadnought"), who comes from New York and clearly looks down on Emily and her unsophisticated, untrained magic. But when Emily finds herself in possession of a mysterious magical artifact, she is forced to accept Stanton's company on a dangerous journey to find Professor Mirabilis, who may be the only one who can save her from the artifact's power.

Hobson's strong suit here is in her characters, who are admittedly marching through the standard romance plot -- they hate one another before realizing they're madly in love -- but are more fully rounded than we normally get in this sort of romance.

Where she falls short is in plotting, and she often falls into the obvious trap for tales of magic and fantasy; new magic tricks and new forms of wonder can be hauled onstage whenever the plot requires, whether or not there's been any mention of them before. When Emily and Stanton find themselves stranded in the midwest, for instance, unable to continue their journey to New York by train, what should turn up out of nowhere but a flying machine? It's awfully convenient, and we'd been given no earlier hint that such a thing existed. (And we're two-thirds of the way through the book at that point, so it's not as if Hobson hadn't had the chance to mention it somewhere along the way.)

There is an epilogue that exists primarily to let us know that there will be a sequel, and I hold out some hope that the second book could be much better than the first. If Hobson has now laid out all of her groundwork and magical rules, then the second book might have fewer annoying deus ex machina moments. Of course, it's possible that she'll just keep making shit up as she goes along, in which case the second book is likely to be precisely what The Native Star is -- a frustrating disappointment with occasional flashes of potential.