November 30, 2011

MOVIES: Rampart (Oren Moverman, 2011)

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

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

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

Not worth your time.

MOVIES: Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 29, 2011

MOVIES: The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

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

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

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

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

MOVIES: The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius, 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

November 28, 2011

MOVIES: The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

BOOKS: Out of Oz, Gregory Maguire (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 26, 2011

MOVIES: J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 25, 2011

MOVIES: In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011)

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

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

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

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

November 24, 2011

MOVIES: Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 23, 2011

MOVIES: Tower Heist (Brett Ratner, 2011)

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

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

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

November 22, 2011

BOOKS: Anne McCaffrey, 1925-2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 13, 2011

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

Semyon Bychkov, conductor; Katia and Marielle Labeque, pianos

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 07, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 04, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

MOVIES: Puss in Boots (Chris Miller, 2011)

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

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

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

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

November 03, 2011

BOOKS: Very Bad Men, Harry Dolan (2011)

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

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

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

November 02, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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