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.

October 16, 2011

MOVIES: Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

I left the theater thinking that Moneyball was a perfectly nice movie -- maybe even a very good one -- but a bit baffled by the level of awards buzz it's already getting.

Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane (not Billy Bean, mind you, whose role in baseball history is rather different), general manager of the Oakland A's; as the movie opens, they are being knocked out of the 2001 playoffs in the first round. Beane is determined to do better, and hires a new assistant who he thinks may have the answer.

Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, acquitting himself nicely in a role without a single fart or vomit joke) believes that baseball has placed too much value on the wrong things. To win games, he argues, you have to score runs; to score runs, you have to get men on base. Look for the players who get on base the most often, and you'll win games, even if those players aren't taken seriously when evaluated by more conventional methods. In fact, Brand argues, such an approach is perfect for a relatively poor team like the A's, because the players it will lead you to can likely be obtained at bargain prices.

(This is rather an oversimplification of the "moneyball" approach, as described in the Michael Lewis book on which the movie is based, but that was probably necessary for dramatic purposes, and the point is still made that Beane and his assistants were trying something wildly out of the mainstream.)

And we're off, as Beane and Brand try to build a team with an approach that their scouts don't understand and the team's field manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), thinks is utterly foolish. Howe seems to be right at first, as the team gets off to such a disastrous start in the 2002 season that Beane is at risk of losing his own job.

This is a sports movie, however, and Brad Pitt is a movie star, so it will come as no surprise (even if you don't remember how the A's 2002 season turned out) that the team turns things around in dramatic fashion, that Beane wins Howe over to his view of things, and that Beane becomes a star GM in the process, being offered great gobs of money to take his approach to other teams.

But here's the thing: The 2002 A's won a grand total of one more game in the regular season than the 2001 A's had done, and they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round again. That's what all the fuss was about? It's hard to imagine that Oakland fans left that last game thinking, "Hooray! We got exactly the same results as last year, but spent way less!"

It's not that Moneyball isn't entertaining. Pitt is settling comfortably into middle age, and has the look of a former athlete; the movie does a nice job of establishing that Beane has his own reasons for not trusting the traditional scouting system. Hill gives a performance that should get him opportunities beyond the braindead comedies that have been his specialty, and Hoffman does his usual skillful job of glowering and harrumphing about. There are nice turns from a variety of actors in small roles as the various players, and Kerris Dorsey is charming as Pitt's daughter.

But the movie does go on a bit long, and is essentially just another "triumph of the underdog" movie. There's not a lot here that we haven't seen before, and though it's certainly done with great skill and professionalism, there's rarely any real surprise to be found in it.

MOVIES: 50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011)

50/50 has gotten a lot of attention for managing to be a funny movie about cancer, but I'd argue that the more impressive feat is that it manages to make Seth Rogen charming and likable.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (rock solid as usual) stars as Adam, who is diagnosed at 27 with a rare form of spinal cancer, and the movie follows him through chemotherapy and surgery. He's got a solid support network -- best friend Kyle (Rogen), overbearing but well-intentioned mom Diane (Anjelica Huston, making a big impression with relatively little screen time), and a young counselor-in-training (Anna Kendrick, finding the endearing side of being minimally competent).

There are also nice supporting performances from Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as two of Adam's fellow chemo patients, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Adam's girlfriend. (Howard is, I think, in desperate need of a non-Evil Bitch role, and fast, before she's completely typecast.)

The comedy works because it never feels like writer Will Reiser is just going for the jokes; they all build naturally out of who the characters are and what they're going through -- Adam's attempt to hide his fear, Kyle's desire to be supportive and helpful, Diane's feeling shut out of Adam's life. There's also an understanding that some moments can't support jokes, and the movie pulls off its more serious scenes very well without getting too melodramatic or tear-jerky.

October 13, 2011

BOOKS: Ready Player One, Ernest Cline (2011)

The world of 2044 is on the verge of collapse, and most people spend their time hooked into the OASIS, which is a massive virtual reality playground where you can visit your favorite fantasy worlds, go to school, meet your friends (who may or may not be people you've ever met face-to-face) in virtual restaurants (or clubs, or chat rooms...). The popularity of virtual reality means that the entire world is in mourning when James Halliday, inventor of the OASIS, dies.

Halliday has one last surprise up his sleeve, though. In a videotaped will, he announces that hidden somewhere in the OASIS is a series of complicated puzzles, and that the first to find and solve them all will inherit his multi-billion dollar estate, which includes ownership of the OASIS. Cline's novel follows high school student Wade on his quest to find and solve Halliday's puzzles, the answers to which are rooted in Halliday's love of the 80s pop culture he grew up on.

It's a reasonably entertaining story, and Cline's vision of the OASIS, of lives spent in virtual reality, is fascinating. But I suspect that most of what I liked about the book was the opportunity to stroll down memory lane, playing "spot the reference" with the pop culture of my own teen years. If you're a child of the 80s, you might enjoy this; if you aren't, I don't think it'll have much to offer you.

October 12, 2011

MOVIES: Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Weekend tells the story of a weekend-long conversation between two gay men who meet at a bar on Friday night; in tone, you might think of it as a gay Before Sunrise.

Russell (Tom Cullen) is an introverted, semi-closeted lifeguard; Glen (Chris New) is a chatty artist. The serious talk begins when the men wake up the next morning, and Glen wants to tape Russell talking about their evening; he says the recording is for an art project on gay sexuality. That conversation opens the floodgates to a wide-ranging discussion of gay marriage, coming out stories, and the importance (or lack thereof) of longterm relationships. There's clearly a strong attraction between the two, both physically and emotionally, but there are a host of obstacles making a serious relationship unlikely.

The two principal actors are both terrific; Cullen is particularly good as the quieter of the two men, finding ways to let his silence speak more clearly than words. Haigh's dialogue has an improvisational quality; and while the specifics of these conversations will certainly be familiar to any gay man, the topics of love and intimacy are universal. The language is blunt, and there is one sex scene that's more graphic than any Hollywood scene between two men would ever be, but is roughly equivalent to the hetero scenes you'd see in an R-rated movie.

BOOKS: Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson (2011)

Christine has amnesia. Any new memories she makes during the day are lost when she sleeps, and memories from earlier in her life are erratic, coming and going unpredictably. So every morning, Christine wakes up with a man she doesn't recognize, who patiently explains that he is her husband, Ben, and tells her that this has been her life for more than 20 years now, ever since the car accident.

But Ben doesn't know that Christine has begun seeing a new doctor, or that on the doctor's advice, she's been keeping a journal. The doctor phones every day to remind her who he is, and where she's hidden her journal; he thinks that writing down her daily experiences will help her to develop and retain new memories. As Watson's novel opens, Christine has gone through what is apparently her morning ritual with Ben, and is sitting down to read her journal. On the first page, below the neatly written "Journal of Christine Lucas," she is horrified to see written in frantic bold letters, "Don't trust Ben."

That's a pretty nifty setup for a thriller, and though the payoff doesn't quite live up to the premise (I'm not sure any payoff could), the book is still a fine piece of entertainment. I particularly like the way Watson uses Christine's amnesia to subvert some of the basic expectations of mystery writing. Normally, for instance, when some apparently irrelevant detail is repeated for the third or fourth time, we readers can say, "Aha! That must be a clue!," but here, everything has to be repeated over and over because Christine has to learn it all from scratch with each new day.

And Watson does a nice job of laying the groundwork for the big twist at the end, slowly ratcheting up the tension until the final confrontation. Is that twist as surprising as it ought to be? Well, no; you're likely to see it coming long before the end of the book. But it's a well written scene, and it delivers enough emotion that I'm willing to forgive the mild failure in the suspense department. A very promising first novel.

October 11, 2011

TV: Last Man Standing (ABC, Tue 8)

Tim Allen, Nancy Travis, and Hector Elizondo are three talented people, which makes one wonder how it is possible to build a sitcom around them and not get a single laugh.

Allen plays Mike, who supervises catalog shoots for Outdoor Man, a mail-order company selling outdoor gear. But catalog sales are declining, and his boss (Elizondo) can no longer afford to send him off to Alaska and Costa Rica for expensive photo shoots, so he is charged with finding a way to boost the company's anemic web presence.

This is good news for his wife (Travis), who's just gotten a promotion and will have to work extra hours (it's a sign of how unimportant a character she is that we are never told what her job actually is), meaning that Mike will have to step up and help out with their three daughters (20-ish single mom, boy-obsesed teen, jock tween).

So, we're in very similar territory to Allen's old Home Improvement, with the exception that Tim Taylor's cluelessness was well-meaning and likable, where Mike's is aggressively assholish. He tosses off causal sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and general loathing of the modern world.

This is an awful mess of a show, and it's baffling that anyone thought it was funny enough to put on TV.

TV: Reed Between the Lines (BET, Tue 10)

Here we have a serviceable, though not very exciting, family comedy that is very clearly and deliberately in the mold of The Cosby Show. Mom and Dad are New York professionals Alex and Carla Reed (he's a college professor, she's a psychiatrist) with three adorable kids (boy/girl twins in early teens and a cute little girl). Their house is even laid out almost exactly like the Huxtables' -- door, stairs, sofa, kitchen all in the same place.

The resemblance is only emphasized by the casting of Malcolm Jamal-Warner as the father. He co-stars opposite Tracee Ellis Reed, and they have a similar warm chemistry to that of Cosby and Phylicia Rashad, albeit at a much lower level of skill.

And "lower level" is, I'm afraid, the dominant phrase for the show. It's all perfectly competent; Reed and Jamal-Warner are likable enough; the kids are cute. But if you're going to so obviously invite comparison to The Cosby Show, a classic of its type, then perfectly competent isn't going to cut it.

October 10, 2011

TV: Enlightened (HBO, Mon 9:30)

Enlightened may be from HBO, but it feels kind of like the comedies Showtime's been doing in recent years, with a not-quite-middle-aged actress struggling with  an emotional/physical crisis in a show that's never really laugh-out-loud funny.

This one gives us Laura Dern as Amy, who we meet in the midst of a nervous breakdown at work. After an ill-advised fling with her boss, she's being transferred to another, less prestigious division, and isn't taking the news well.

Cut to Hawaii, where Amy is attending some sort of New Age-y meditation/therapy retreat. She's writing in a journal, she's gone off her anti-depression meds, and she seems immensely calmer. So much so that when she returns home, no one knows quite what to make of her. Her mother (Diane Ladd, who happens to be Dern's real mother) and ex-husband (Luke Wilson) are both skeptical of the new Amy. Amy even manages to get re-hired by her old company, though we don't yet know what her new position will be.

It would be easy to laugh at Amy, but I think co-creators Dern and Mike White are after something more complicated than just another "let's make fun of the New Agers" joke. Amy's transformation seems to be genuine and sincere, and I think that as we watch her struggle to face the world in a more open-minded, less judgmental fashion, Enlightened is challenging us: Can we give Amy the same benefit of the doubt without giving in to the easy, reflexive, cheap laughs at her expense? This one could be very interesting.

October 06, 2011

BOOKS: Plugged, Eoin Colfer (2011)

After much success with his Artemis Fowl series of novels for young adults (which I've not read), Colfer makes the move to adult fiction with this oddball crime caper.

(We should note that, jacket text to the contrary, this isn't Colfer's first venture into adult fiction; there was his unfortunate attempt to cash in on the corpse of Douglas Adams by continuing the Hitchhiker's Guide series. But the less said of that, the better. Let's just say that this is Colfer's first adult novel based entirely on his own ideas.)

Colfer gives us a comic crime caper about Daniel MacEvoy, an Irish ex-military man working as a bouncer in a sleazy New Jersey strip club. When people around Daniel start dying -- the stripper he has a not-so-secret thing for, his hair transplant doctor/best friend -- he finds himself suspect #1, and is forced to use his military training in ingenious ways to get out of the mess.

The tone is a bit offputting; Colfer's trying to make Daniel a lovable thug, sort of a more violent version of Donald Westlake's lovable thief Dortmunder. But the amped-up violence doesn't mix well with the humor, and Daniel comes across as just a bit too unstable; I felt like he wasn't resorting to violence in desperation so much as he was happy to have an excuse for it.

Not a horrible book, and it has some nice moments along the way, but it never really takes off. I'll be curious to see if Colfer gets any better with his next effort, or if this is really the best he can do.

BOOKS: The Guilty Plea, Robert Rotenberg (2011)

Followup to Rotenberg's Old City Hall, which I liked very much. I say "followup" and not sequel, because there's really no significant plot connection between the two books. They share a few characters, but the small bits of backstory from the first book that you might want to know are very skillfully worked into the narrative; you won't feel lost at all if you pick up this one without having read the first.

This is another courtroom drama set in Toronto, and our murder victim this time is Terrance Wyler, youngest son of a prominent family. He's found stabbed to death in his kitchen on the morning that his divorce trial is scheduled to begin; when Samantha, his soon-to-be ex-wife, shows up at her lawyer's office shortly thereafter carrying a bloody knife wrapped in a kitchen towel, the police and prosecutors have every reason to expect a simple and speedy resolution.

But what kind of a book would that make? No, Rotenberg has plenty of twists in turn for his characters, and lots of new suspects to meet along the way. There's the Hollywood beauty queen with whom Terrance was having an affair; ditto for Samantha and the teenaged boy next door. Terrance has a pair of older brothers who've never quite forgiven him for his (failed) attempt to break away from the family business. And what about the mysterious librarian from the small town where Samantha grew up?

The characters are more fully dimensional than we generally get in this sort of story, and Rotenberg has a nice knack for knowing how and when to toss in a bit of comic relief along the way. If the final whodunit revelation feels a bit implausible, it has at least been fully and fairly prepared for, so doesn't come as a total shock.

A good, solid piece of entertainment.

October 05, 2011

TV: American Horror Story (FX, Wed 10)

Here's the latest from producer Ryan Murphy, and in some ways, it is weirdly reminiscent of Murphy's other current success, Glee. That is to say, it's an ambitious, overstuffed, tonally inconsistent, occasionally brilliant mess that throws everything at the wall in the hopes that something will stick.

Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton are Ben and Vivien Harmon, and their marriage has been under great strain; they lost a baby (stillborn at seven months), and a few months later, Vivien caught Ben in bed with one of his students. Now, a year later, they're moving to Los Angeles for a fresh start, and their new home has a lot of unpleasant history, including the murder-suicide deaths of the most recent occupants.

McDermott is a psychologist who's seeing patients in his home; among them is Tate (Evan Peters), a boy with violent fantasies. He quickly becomes friends with the Harmons' daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), who's having problems settling into her new school.

Throw in the elderly maid (Frances Conroy) who Dan, and only Dan, sees as a hot young bombshell (Alexandra Breckinridge); the snoopy neighbor (Jessica Lange) who seems to have escaped from a bad Southern Gothic novel; and her daughter (Jamie Brewer), who has Down syndrome and a habit of telling everyone who moves in that "you're going to die in there," and you've got a wildly overheated mix of horror cliches.

The cast members seem to be acting in several different shows. Britton is doing realistic psychological dramas; Farmiga and Peters are straight out of 90210: Psych Ward; and Lange is camping it up like her life depends on it. Of all the shows on display, Lange's is the one I'd like to see more of; the delicious menace in her voice when she threatens Conroy ("Don't make me kill you again") had me giggling with delight.

But moments like that come far too rarely, and the show's utter inability to settle on one style or tone makes it a struggle to sit through. For horror aficionados and completists only, I'm afraid.

October 02, 2011

TV: Homeland (Showtime, Sun 10)

Very strong start for this one.

Damian Lewis plays an American POW who's rescued after eight years of captivity in Iraq; Claire Danes is the CIA analyst who suspects that he might have been turned by his captors, and is plotting some sort of terrorist attack in the US. She has a somewhat spotty work history, causing at least one international incident that got her removed from field work and put behind a desk, so her superiors aren't taking her concerns seriously.

I like the ambiguity of the principal characters; we have ample reason to believe that Lewis isn't telling the entire truth, but we also understand that Danes's history of instability (of various sorts) makes her not entirely reliable.

Fine performances from Danes and Lewis, as well as Mandy Patinkin as Danes's CIA mentor and closest confidant, and Morena Baccarin as Lewis's wife.

TV: How to Be a Gentleman (CBS, Thu 8:30)

What a mess.

"How to Be a Gentleman" is the column that Andrew (David Hornsby) writes for an Esquire-ish mens' magazine. It's devoted to the old-fashioned finer virtues of elegance and refinement. But when Andrew's editor (Dave Foley) informs that the magazine's been sold to new owners who want to move it a few notches down the classy ladder ("they've decided to increase readership by appealing to people who don't read"), Andrew is at a loss.

A series of sitcom coincidences bring Andrew back into touch with Bert (Kevin Dillon), who had been his high school bully and now works as a personal trainer. It's not long before Andrew realizes that Bert is the answer to his writing challenge, and we're set up for a series in which Bert teaches Andrew how to be a dude and Andrew teaches Bert how to be a gentleman; it's an Odd Couple for the new millennium.

There are a lot of problems here. The writing is flat and unfunny, wasting a lot of fine comic actors in supporting roles (Mary Lynn Rajskub and Rhys Darby as Andrew's sister and her husband; Nancy Lenehan as Andrew's mother). But worst of all are the two lead actors, who are both incredibly irritating. In Dillon's case, I'll put most of the blame on the conception of the character, who is written as such a bullying asshole that no actor could make him likable or funny.

But the problems with Andrew lie mostly at Hornsby's feet. One can be a gentleman without being a simpering priss, but Hornsby plays the character as someone who longs for the days of valets and ascots, and he's affected a speaking voice that is painfully whiny and petulant. By the end of the episode, hell, I wanted to give the little twit a noogie or two.

This is an absolute disaster, without doubt the worst new sitcom of the year so far.

TV: Suburgatory (ABC, Wed 8:30)

Tessa (Jane Levy) is a New York girl, so she's not happy when her father George (Jeremy Sisto) decides to move the two of them to the suburbs for a more wholesome life. But by the end of the first episode, she's found a potential new best friend and just maybe the mother figure she's been missing, and the suburbs are starting to look not so bad after all.

That's a fairly standard setup for a sitcom, but this one looks to be a particularly good exploration of familiar ideas. Levy is a tremendously likable lead, capable of being a sullen, resentful kid while retaining our sympathy; Sisto is clearly having a terrific time getting to play comedy for a change, and if he hasn't yet figured out quite how to tone down his innate "hello, my name is Jeremy and I'll be your stalker this evening" creepiness, I think he's headed in that direction.

The new best friend Jane (Allie Grant) and bitchy rival Dalia (Carly Chaikin) are thinner characters than the leads, but you can't develop everyone to their fullest in thirty minutes. And the other principal supporting player, Dalia's mother Dallas (Cheryl Hines), is a terrific character. At first glance, she's a shallow Real Housewife type, only interested in big hair, botox, and tight shorts, but Hines gives her more depth than you'd expect, and her relationship with Tessa is likely to be the most interesting thing in the show. Dallas has begun to realize that she's turned her own daughter into just another beauty-obsessed brat, so she's fascinated by Tessa, who's smart and sarcastic and not remotely interested in those suburban cliches. Watching how these two change one another could be great fun.

There's a lot of potential here, and it's been given a time slot (between The Middle and Modern Family) that should be a good fit.