July 30, 2011

MOVIES: Crazy Stupid Love (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, 2011)

For most of its length, Crazy Stupid Love is a better than average romantic comedy, and while it does fall somewhat into predictability in the last half-hour, it's still worth seeing.

Steve Carell stars as Cal, and the movie opens as his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), announces that she wants a divorce. Before long, Cal's hanging out at the neighborhood bar, where the local ladies' man, Jacob (Ryan Gosling), takes pity on him and adopts him for a fashion/personality makeover. Before long, Cal's taking home a different woman every night, all the while pining for Emily.

There's a lot of pining going on in this movie; the one girl Jacob can't pick up at the bar is, of course, the one who most intrigues him. That's Hannah (Emma Stone), who's slowly coming to the realization that she doesn't really love her schlumpy boyfriend (Josh Groban, surprisingly effective in a small role). Cal's 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is in love with his baby-sitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who is in turn crushing on Cal.

Not everything in the movie works -- there's an obligatory Brawl of Misunderstanding when all the male characters come together late in the movie, and the Robbie/Jessica/Cal storyline plays out in a queasy way, with a particularly icky final scene. But there are a lot of wonderful scenes here, and given the strength of this cast (Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei are also effective in small roles), I was rather surprised that the best moments feature Carell.

One mark of a good actor is that he makes his co-stars look good, and almost everyone in this movie has their best moments in scenes with Carell. A barroom chat in which Cal explains why he can't be truly happy that Jacob's found true love, a father-son catch with Robbie, an awkward car ride with Emily after she asks for a divorce -- Carell shines in all of these scenes. He's funny without mugging, and he makes the serious moments work, too.

If you like romantic comedy, you'll certainly want to see this, and it's good enough that you might enjoy it if even if that's not your genre of choice.

July 27, 2011

MOVIES: Project Nim (James Marsh, 2011)

This documentary tells the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimp who was the subject of a linguistics experiment in the early 1970s. As an infant, Nim was placed in the home of a New York family, who were instructed to treat him as they would a human baby; the goal was to teach him sign language and see if he could learn to actually communicate.

The project seemed to go reasonably well at first, but as Nim got older (larger, stronger, less adorable, more dangerous), he was shuttled from person to person and from facility to facility. His early years in such close contact with humans made it difficult to adopt to life among other chimps.

It's a fascinating story, and if nothing else, you should come out of it freed of the desire to anthropomorphize animals; Project Nim makes it clear that pretending that animals are people is good for neither the animals nor the people involved. And yet, it's a hard habit to break; even the people who were most closely involved with Nim are describing what happened to him as "betrayal," or talking about his "forgiving" nature, words that simply have no meaning in an animal mind.

A sad story, and an important cautionary tale.

July 26, 2011

MOVIES: Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011)

Here's one of this year's award-winning films from the Sundance Film Festival. It's the story of Rhoda (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the movie with director Mike Cahill), a high school senior who is responsible for a fatal car crash; John (William Mapother), who loses his wife and child in that crash; and the relationship that develops between them.

There's also the story of the discovery of a new planet, which appears to be an exact duplicate of ours and comes to be known as Earth 2. From our brief radio communications with Earth 2, it appears to be not merely a duplicate of the planet itself, but something very close to a duplicate of everything -- the same nations, languages, people -- which leads to much speculation along the lines of "I wonder if the other me has made the same choices/mistakes I did."

That SF story is very much in the background, though, serving mostly as clumsy metaphorical background to Rhoda and John's more personal story. The movie is so uninterested in Earth 2 as a real scientific event that it ignores the basics; Earth 2, for instance, continues to get closer to Earth throughout the movie, and by the end it dwarfs the moon in the night sky. That would have extraordinary gravitational, tidal, and climatological consequences, all of which are utterly ignored.

The movie's an uneven mess. There are certainly memorable scenes and images -- the moment of first contact with Earth 2 is a striking model of how one can make a big impact very simply -- and Marling and Mapother give solid performances. But the movie's not nearly as profound as it thinks it is -- its metaphors are far too clunky and muddled -- and Cahill is far too in love with Marling's face; the movie is filled with long, lingering closeups on her for no particular reason.

Wait for cable/DVD.

July 25, 2011

MOVIES: Tabloid (Errol Morris, 2011)

Morris's latest documentary gives us the story of Joyce McKinney, who became the center of a British tabloid scandal in the 1970s. As she tells the story, her boyfriend disappeared, and she hired a private investigator, who tracked him to London. When she arrived there, she found that he'd been kidnapped by the Mormon Church and was being brainwashed him; she rescued him and took him to the English countryside for a romantic weekend, but he was eventually re-captured by the Mormons.

As the reporters who covered the story at the time tell it -- and their grasp on reality does seem rather more firm than hers -- the young man was doing his Mormon missionary stint in London when Joyce arrived and kidnapped him. She took him off to the cottage, tied him to the bed, and forced herself on him for several days before he finally escaped. She managed to get out of the country before being charged with anything, but the story was prominently featured in the tabloids for months. Depending on the day of the week and which paper you'd picked up, Joyce was either an innocent victim or a sexual predator with a tawdry past.

Morris allows McKinney to tell most of the story herself, and she's a spectacularly entertaining figure. She is still convinced (or at least she certainly seems to be) that she is a tragic romantic heroine, robbed of her one true love by an evil cult. One could argue that Morris is exploiting a delusional woman here (and McKinney has shown up at several screenings to complain about the way she's depicted in the film), but surely after 40 years, McKinney is at least aware enough to know that most people dispute her version of events; if she chooses to put herself on display anyway, I have a hard time blaming the director for how she comes across.

Tabloid is a lively, funny movie. Recommended.

MOVIES: Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)

Virtue is a lot harder for an actor to play than vice, which is part of what makes Chris Evans' performance in Captain America such a delight. Evans plays Steve Rogers, a kid who desperately wants to enlist in the military during World War II, but keeps getting rejected for not being up to military standards. (The CGI that's used to make Evans look short and scrawny is very impressive.) He's recruited by a military scientist (Stanley Tucci, having a ball with an appropriately comic-book German accent and Einstein hair) for an experimental project that turns him into a tall, muscular super-soldier who will become Captain America. (And I do mean muscular. As in yummy yummy yummy I want that for Christmas.)

Steve/Captain America is all virtue. He's kind, sensible, intelligent, charming, polite, and above all, decent in a way that seems to have gone out of fashion these days. (It's going to be very interesting to see the character in the current era when The Avengers arrives next summer.) He's a guy who could easily come across as a simpering goody-two-shoes, someone we'd all instantly hate, but Evans makes him both believable and likable. It's a performance that won't get nearly the attention it deserves.

On the villain side, the movie makes the smart move of avoiding all the potential poor-taste pitfalls of making Hitler the bad guy in a silly comic book movie by creating a secondary threat. Hugo Weaving plays the German scientist who has broken away from Hitler's research team to create his own private army, and Toby Jones is perfectly sycophantic as his chief henchman. Also giving fine performances are Tommy Lee Jones, deliciously droll as Captain America's commanding officer, and Hayley Atwell, all feistiness and spunk as a British intelligence officer who becomes Steve's romantic interest.

The effects are well done, the period look of the movie is right on target, and the action scenes are thrilling; a climactic scene set on Weaving's airplane hits just the right note of giddy comic-book implausibility. You even get a top-notch song as part of a sequence in which Captain America is forced to tour with a USO troupe to sell war bonds. Alan Menken wrote "Star Spangled Man," and it is a precise evocation of the 40s musical style; I wouldn't be surprised to see it on Oscar's Best Song list.

If you enjoy this sort of movie at all, Captain America is a must-see.

July 13, 2011

TV: Emmy nomination predictions

I'm not normally into the psychic thing, but what the heck, everyone else seems to be taking a stab, so here's my guess as to what we're going to hear when nominations are announced tomorrow morning (along with some parenthetical thoughts about who I'd really like to see get in). I should note that omissions from my list of preferences doesn't necessarily mean that I think actor X is untalented or undeserving; it more likely means that the show just isn't one I watch regularly.

  • The Big C
  • Hot in Cleveland
  • Modern Family
  • The Office
  • Parks & Recreation
  • 30 Rock
(I'd like to see The Big Bang Theory, Community, and Episodes get in; I'd drop The Big C, The Office, and Parks & Rec to make room for them.)

  • Toni Collette, The United States of Tara
  • Courtney Cox, Cougar Town
  • Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
  • Tina Fey, 30 Rock
  • Laura Linney, The Big C
  • Amy Poehler, Parks & Recreation
(I'd prefer Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory), Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope), and Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) over Collette, Falco, and Linney. Yeah, I know, Plimpton doesn't belong in this category, but that's how weak the field is.)

  • Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
  • Steve Carell, The Office
  • Matt LeBlanc, Episodes
  • Joel McHale, Community
  • Matthew Morrison, Glee
  • Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
I'd add Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory) and Zachary Levi (Chuck); I'd drop Carell and Morrison.

  • Ty Burrell, Modern Family
  • Chris Colfer, Glee
  • Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family
  • Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
  • Ed O'Neill, Modern Family
  • Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family
(I'd only keep three of the Modern Family guys, dropping Ferguson along with Colfer and Harris; to take their slots, I'd add Garret Dillahunt (Raising Hope), Donald Glover (Community), Stephen Mangan (Episodes).)

  • Julie Bowen, Modern Family
  • Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock
  • Jane Lynch, Glee
  • Sofia Vergara, Modern Family
  • Betty White, Hot in Cleveland
  • Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live
(Add Tamsin Grieg (Episodes), Melissa Rauch (The Big Bang Theory), and Naya Rivera (Glee); drop Krakowski, Lynch, and Wiig.)

  • Big Love
  • Boardwalk Empire
  • Dexter
  • The Good Wife
  • Justified
  • Mad Men
(Let's cut Big Love and let's add Game of Thrones.)

  • Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire
  • Jon Hamm, Mad Men
  • Jeremy Irons, The Borgias
  • Peter Krause, Parenthood
  • Hugh Laurie, House
  • Timothy Olyphant, Justified
(Cut Buscemi and Irons; add Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) and Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice).)

  • Kathy Bates, Harry's Law
  • Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
  • Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
  • Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
  • Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
  • Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer
(I'd add Mireille Enos (despite the serious flaws of The Killing), Sally Field (still doing fine work on Brothers & Sisters), and Anna Torv (Fringe); cut Bates, Britton, and Hargitay.)

  • Andre Braugher, Men of a Certain Age
  • Alan Cumming, The Good Wife
  • Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
  • John Noble, Fringe
  • Michael Pitt, Boardwalk Empire
  • John Slattery, Mad Men
(I'd add Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) and Brent Sexton (The Killing) over Braugher and Pitt.)

  • Christine Baranski, The Good Wife
  • Michelle Forbes, The Killing
  • Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
  • Margo Martindale, Justified
  • Kelly McDonald, Boardwalk Empire
  • Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife
(I'd add Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men), dropping Martindale and McDonald.)

July 12, 2011

BOOKS: Among Others, Jo Walton (2011)

By all rights, I should hate this book. Just look at all the things it's got going against it:
  • It's a novel in the form of a teenager's diary. Even worse, it's in the form of a "how tragic to be a misunderstood genius like me" diary.
  • It's set mostly at an English boarding school for girls.
  • It's got frackin' fairies in it.
  • What you would expect to be the principal action of the book -- the heroine's world-saving battle against her evil mother's attempt to become a world-dominating dark witch, a battle in which the heroine is seriously disabled and her twin sister killed -- happens offstage, before the book even begins. (There is a second battle with the evil mother near the end of the book, but it's remarkably brief and anticlimactic.)
Given all that, it's a miracle that I finished the book, and I can't figure out what it is that kept me reading. There's no plot to speak of and no particularly interesting characters, and Walton's prose style is functional, but not compelling or distinctive in any way.

Our heroine is Mori, a Welsh girl who's left home to live with the father she barely knows; he's packed her off to boarding school. She's unhappy there; she can't take part in athletics or other school activities, doesn't fit in with the other girls, and (worst of all) the few fairies there are in this part of England are nothing like the Welsh fairies she's used to.

What joy Mori does have in life comes from books, and she spends a lot of time droning on about how wonderful this book or that book is, or how excited she is to have made new friends at the library's science fiction book club. (She's not even allowed to enjoy that small pleasure without burying it in guilt; she's afraid that these people haven't come into her life willingly, but have been forced into it by a minor spell she cast.)

Maybe it's the librarian in me, unable to hate anyone who loves books (especially SF books) as much as Mori and Walton clearly do, that kept me reading. Maybe it was the belief that surely something had to actually happen eventually. I can't quite figure it out. It's a strange book, and though I can't exactly recommend it, I didn't loathe it the way I would expect to loathe a book with all the above-mentioned bullet points. How's that for inconclusive ambivalence for you?

July 10, 2011

MOVIES: A Better Life (Chris Weitz, 2011)

A Better Life is sort of a Los Angeles take on the classic Italian film Bicycle Thieves. The central character is Carlos (Demian Bichir), an illegal immigrant who works as a gardener in Los Angeles; he lives with his 14-year-old son, Luis (Jose Julian, making his acting debut), who is solidly in the middle of his sullen years.

Carlos's boss is ready to retire, and wants to sell his truck and tools to Carlos so that he can take over the business. Carlos borrows money from his sister; on his first day as an independent businessman, the truck and tools are stolen. That sends Carlos and Luis on a trek through Los Angeles, desperately searching for the truck, which will make the difference between ruin and a shot at financial advancement.

We don't very often see movies set in cities in which the main characters rely on public transit to get around, and this movie does a marvelous job of showing just how large the city is, and how long it takes to get around it on the bus.

Among other things, this is a movie about honor and the desire to do the right thing; Carlos and Luis have very different ideas about how to handle certain situations, and one of the most interesting things in the middle section of the movie is watching how they negotiate difficult ethical moments. The story's got a few too many cliches -- we know that Carlos and Luis will learn to respect one another and heal their frayed relationship as they go about their search -- but the performances are good enough to keep the movie entertaining.

Bichir, a Mexican movie star best known here for a supporting role on Weeds, is excellent. It's a quiet, understated performance, and Bichir never overplays a moment or pushes for dramatic effect. Julian is a bit less steady, and his inexperience occasionally shows, but he does nice work showing Luis's increasing understanding of and respect for his father.

July 05, 2011

MOVIES: The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, 2010/US 2011)

The Trip is slightly under two hours long, and it's been edited down from a six-hour British TV series for the American movie market. It stars actor/comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as "themselves," and finds them taking a week-long road trip to visit the finest restaurants of rural northern England. Most scenes are set either in the car or at a dinner table, and much of the dialogue is improvised. You could think of it as something like a British My Dinner With Andre, if Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn had been neurotic, career-obsessed, vaguely depressed bores incapable of going more than five minutes without doing another bad impression.

And, oh my friends, there are a lot of bad impressions in this movie. Steve and Rob think nothing of spending ten minutes or so arguing over whose Michael Caine is better, or trading random Woody Allen punchlines. Rob is so obsessed with impressions that he can't even get through phone sex with his wife without slipping into Hugh Grant. (How do we know it's Hugh Grant? Because Rob is thoughtful enough to tell us so; we'd never have guessed it otherwise.)

There is an occasional flash of wit and cleverness, most notably, there's a marvelous riff on period war dramas and their obligatory inspiring speeches of period war dramas ("And now, to bed, for tomorrow we rise at dawn!") And when the two visit the homes of great poets, we occasionally get a lovely reading of poetry (marred somewhat, of course, by Rob's insistsence on reading it in the voice of Ian McKellen).

But there aren't enough of those moments to make up for the generally aimless meandering of the thing. There's a reason that movie scripts are written out in advance; very few people are interesting or funny enough on their own to hold anyone's attention for two hours. Sadly, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are no exception.

MOVIES: Cars 2 (John Lasseter & Brad Lewis, 2011)

Until now, I don't think you'd have found much disagreement with the idea that Cars was the worst of the Pixar movies, and by a fairly wide margin. But with the arrival of Cars 2, we have a new contender for that title.

Cars 2 finds race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) back home in Radiator Springs, looking forward to a few weeks of rest and relaxation. That doesn't last long, though, as he allows a pompous Italian car (John Turturro, doing an overly broad accent that's a bit too close to that of Tony Shalhoub's returning minor character) to goad him into taking part in an international series of races. That gets the sequel out of bucolic Americana and into a series of new settings -- Tokyo, London, Paris, the Italian Riviera -- which isn't a bad idea.

What is a bad idea is putting Lightning's sidekick, Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), at the center of the story. Mater tags along with Lightning -- the first time he's been allowed to do so -- and while in Tokyo, he is mistaken by a pair of British spies (Emily Mortimer and an impeccably cast Michael Caine) for their American contact. He must be a spy, they reason, because no one could actually be that stupid. The spy story itself is a convoluted mess about an international conspiracy of Big Oil companies and clunker cars to discredit alternative fuels, which is where Lightning works his way back into the story, as his races are being sponsored by an alt-fuel mogul (Eddie Izzard).

As ever with Pixar, the movie looks spectacular. An opening Bond-esque action sequence is gorgeously done, and the new settings are wonderful to see. The London scenes that close the movie are especially beautiful, bordering on photorealism; there are moments when you'd swear these cartoon cars were driving through actual London streets. And the physical details of giving cars faces continue to be creative; Caine's Finn McMissile, for instance, has a grille in the shape of a perfect slim mustache (very David Niven).

But the story is such a confusing muddle, and Mater so horribly unappealing a character -- stupidity is not, in and of itself, funny -- that the impeccable art work goes to waste. Which Cars movie is worse? It's not even a tough call. The original Cars was merely a disappointing failure to live up to Pixar's high standards; Cars 2 is aggressively bad.