December 31, 2012

MOVIES: Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012)

It's the year of the Hitchcock biopic, with this following close on the heels of HBO's The Girl. This movie has, at least potentially, a more interesting story than HBO's "pervy old guy harasses pretty young actress," but doesn't do enough with it.

The bulk of Hitchcock focuses on Hitchcock's effort to make Psycho despite the studio's reluctance, and that part of the story is the strongest. Scarlett Johansson makes a reasonably convincing Janet Leigh, and Jessica Biel has a few nice moments as Vera Miles, warning Leigh about Hitchcock's tendency to get obsessive about his leading ladies.

But Anthony Hopkins is never a very convincing Hitchcock; strictly in terms of the impersonation, Toby Jones did a better job in The Girl. And the movie wastes a lot of time on silly subplots like the relationship between Hitchcock's wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), and a writer friend (Danny Huston) with whom she's collaborating; neither Mirren nor Huston gives us an interesting enough character to care about, so we don't much care about Hitchcock's suspicion that they're having an affair.. Even worse are the scenes in which Hitchcock has imaginary conversation with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the man on whom Psycho is loosely based.

It's a perfectly competent movie, and it's never painfully unpleasant to watch, but it's a bit superficial, and never digs deep enough into its characters to be compelling watching.

December 30, 2012

MOVIES: Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)

Life of Pi is a gorgeously photographed movie, and one of the few I've ever seen that made me wish I were able to watch movies in 3D, because I think it would be even more spectacular in that format.

Unfortunately, that is the only nice thing I can say about the movie, which is a treacly fable that explicitly promises to "make [us] believe in God," then yanks the rug out from underneath us by revealing itself to be simply a pretty lie covering up a mundane tale of human cruelty and brutality. (Which, come to think it, actually is a pretty good summary of many religious myths, so maybe the movie is accomplishing its goal after all.)

The bulk of the movie is spent with young Pi (Suraj Sharma, making his acting debut) on a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The tiger is a CGI creation, and its scenes are never quite convincing, because Sharma doesn't have the talent or the experience to convince us that it's really there, or that he's genuinely afraid. In fairness, there are plenty of more experienced actors who don't do that very well, either, but it's an awfully tough thing to demand of a rookie.

Sharma's inexperience is only highlighted by the movie's framing device, in which the adult Pi is played by the very fine Irrfan Khan, who is telling his tale of survival to a writer (the character is a nonentity, existing only to recite variations on "and then what happened,?" and Rafe Spall is adequate to the role's limited demands). Khan brings vastly more life and richness to the role than Sharma does, and does so despite the fact that he's saddled with the worst of the movie's spiritual psychobabble.

If you feel you must see the movie, you really should see it while it's still in theaters (unless you have a really amazing home theater system); the visuals will lose a lot shrunk down to TV size. But good as they are, those visuals were not enough to make up for the dishonest sentiment, New Age twaddle, and sanctimony of the story.

MOVIES: Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

What do you need to know about Skyfall? Not much, beyond the fact that it's a Bond movie. Yeah, it's a fairly good Bond movie, as such things go, but it's just as painfully misogynistic as the series has always been, and (with one striking exception) the characters are as flat and uninteresting as ever.

Daniel Craig's limited talents are perfect for the role of Bond; the character is supposed to be stoic, so the immobility of Craig's angular wood-block face doesn't do too much damage. Javier Bardem is the principal bad guy, and he has apparently taken the lesson from his work in No Country for Old Men that a bad haircut is a substitute for actually playing a character.

Judi Dench gives the movie's only real performance as M, and she's delightful, bringing to the role an emotional truth and complexity that are neither required nor deserved by so otherwise dull a movie. Noemie Harris has some appealing moments as one of Bond's spy colleagues, but she's undercut by Bond's inability to treat any woman under the age of 50 as a human being instead of as a sex object, and by a final punchline about her identity.

The best thing in the movie is Roger Deakins' cinematography, which is absolutely gorgeous; the sequence set in Singapore is particularly impressive.

If the shallow characters and empty sexism of Bond movies are your cup of tea, you'll no doubt enjoy this very much. But all of the hype proclaiming that this is a good movie even when judged against non-Bond movies is wildly undeserved.

December 10, 2012

MOVIES: Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012)

After spending far too many years lost in the uncanny valley of CGI animation, Zemeckis makes a fine return to live action.

Denzel Washington stars as airline pilot "Whip" Whitaker, who is flying a short hop from Orlando to Atlanta when there's a horrifying disaster. There's mechanical failure in the middle of a storm, which may or may not have been exacerbated by Whip's reckless flying as he attempted to avoid the storm. Whip makes an audacious series of manuevers and manages to land the plane in an open field. His heroism is mitigated not only by his recklessness, but by the fact that he's drunk and high on cocaine. To add to the moral ambiguity, there's the possibility that Whip's miraculous landing was aided by his intoxication; a sober pilot might never have attempted such a crazy save.

That's the setup for a story that we've certainly seen before: the redemption and salvation of an addict, aided (of course) by the love of a good woman. And even more than usual, the religious overtones of "redemption and salvation" are fully intended; there is a strong undercurrent of Christian morality in the movie. One of the flight attendants has been trying for years to get Whip to join her at church; the co-pilot is a devout "will you pray with me" type; the passengers on the plane are always always always referred to as "102 souls," as opposed to "people" or "passengers."

There are a few too many moments in which Zemeckis and writer John Gatins give in to the cliches of the genre. Whip's love interest is an addict with a heart of gold (that they found the restraint not to actually make her a hooker is a small miracle), very nicely played by Kelly Reilly. The choice of classic pop/rock songs on the soundtrack are frequently painfully obvious -- "Ain't No Sunshine" during the obligatory pouring the booze down the sink; "Sympathy for the Devil" as John Goodman makes his first entrance as Whip's dealer.

But there is enough that works about the movie to make it successful despite the familiarity of the story. The plane crash is a spectacular action sequence, a thrilling and terrifying scene with impeccable special effects work. Supporting performances from Reilly, Goodman, Don Cheadle, and Bruce Greenwood are strong.

And at the center of the movie is Washington, delivering one of his very best performances. Whip is so accustomed to lying and hiding his drinking that it's not until fairly late in the movie, in a sequence where he actually has sobered up, that we realize in retrospect how hard he's been working to maintain that illusion of normalcy. It's beautifully detailed work.

Very much worth seeing, though obviously not for those with fear-of-flying issues.

BOOKS: The Sound and the Noise, Nate Silver (2012)

Nate Silver's The Sound and the Noise is an overview of the art and science of making predictions -- why we're so often bad at it, how we're learning to get better, and why it's such a hard thing to do in the first place.

There is less here than you might expect about politics and polling, the fields in which Silver has become famous. Instead, Silver looks at what we know and have learned about predictions in areas like climate change, baseball, earthquakes, poker, the stock market, and weather forecasts.

In some areas, our ability to make good predictions has gotten much better in recent decades; we are able to predict the weather (for the next week or so, anyway) far more accurately. In other areas -- earthquake prediction, for instance -- we are least learning to acknowledge that we are very far away from being able to make accurate predictions, and accepting that fact is a sort of progress in its own right. And in some areas -- the stock market, or political punditry -- even if some experts continue to claim that they can predict the future, the evidence suggests that they'd be just as well off flipping a coin.

Silver's style is smart but accessible, and when he does dive deeper into statistics than readers might be comfortable with, he's very good at explaining the concepts and tests he's using. This is an entertaining and useful book on a fascinating topic.

December 04, 2012

MOVIES: The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012)

The Sessions is a very good TV movie-of-the-week, elevated to that level by its two lead performances.

It's based on the life of Mark O'Brien (played here by John Hawkes), who at the time of these events was in his late 30s. He had polio as a child, and spent most of his day in an iron lung, but longed to have at least one sexual relationship. Enter sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt); the movie is about their therapy sessions and the relationship that develops between them.

Hawkes and Hunt are both fine. I've never known anyone with polio, so I can't speak to how accurate Hawkes' portrayal is, but it feels right, especially the voice -- thin, airy, speaking in short phrases with frequent pauses for breath. Hunt is obliged to play many of her scenes in the nude, and her comfort with that makes it less awkward than it might be.

The movie does, however, suffer from the usual movie double standard about nudity. Hunt is frequently shown in full-body shots; we never see Hawkes below the waist. It's coy and distracting. The other movie cliche that keeps the movie from rising out of TV territory is the notion that disabled people are special, spiritual beings, and that just to be in their presence will make you a better person and move you in ways you've never known.

Hawkes and Hunt are worth seeing, but you won't miss anything by waiting for DVD or cable to see them.

MOVIES: Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

Oh, where to begin with the problems of Anna Karenina?

We could start with the absurd melodrama of the plot, which asks us to accept that a man can fall in love with a single glance, and that he can win the woman with a bit of charming obsessive stalking.

Then there's the staging conceit, which is that we're watching the actors perform the story in an abandoned theater. There's no audience; in fact, the seats have been torn out, and that space is used by the actors as a playing area. We see stagehands wheeling furniture around; curtains and backdrops are raised and lowered; the musicians providing the score stroll through the scene.

This gimmick is eventually moved to the background, and we get scenes filmed at other sets and exteriors, but the first 15 minutes or so are very faithful to the theatrical notion, and it damages the movie badly. Watching actors make a mad dash across the backstage area just in time to enter through a door that wasn't there five seconds earlier lends an air of madcap farce that doesn't suit Tolstoy, and the movie never quite recovers from that misstep.

And finally, there's the casting. As Anna, Keira Knightley plays every scene as if it's the climax of the movie; her emotions are dialed up to 11 throughout, which is both inappropriate and exhausting to watch; by the time we reach the final scenes, which should be heartbreaking, they just play as more of Anna's histrionics. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky is a blond surfer dude, a not-so-bright undergrad dressing up in his great-grandfather's clothes. Jude Law's Karenin is a bland nonentity (and the decision to borrow James Lipton's facial hair for the role was ill-advised). There are two good performances in smaller roles: Matthew Macfadyen plays Oblonsky with a nicely understated sense of humor, and Olivia Williams is chilly and regal as Countess Vronsky.

There is an occasional lovely moment. The first dance between Anna and Vronsky is beautifully staged and filmed, with the other dancers choreographed in a way that emphasizes the passion and romance of the moment. A scene in which Karenin tears up a note from his wife and throws the shreds into the air, with their falling around him marking the beginning of a larger snowfall, is a creative use of the theatrical conceit. But those moments come too rarely, and they can't make up for the overwrought performances or the silly romantic cliches of the story. A spectacular disaster.

December 03, 2012

BOOKS: The Blank Wall, Elisabeth Sanxzy Holding (1947)

This one has a story strong enough that it's been adapted for the movies twice -- in 1949 as The Reckless Moment, with Joan Bennett and James Mason; and in 2001 as The Deep End, with Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic. (The latter was a somewhat looser adaptation.)

It's set late in World War II, when Lucia Holley is on the verge of collapse from trying to manage the household on her own (her husband is in Europe). The news that her teenage daughter has begun dating an older man doesn't help her mental state, and she starts trying to figure out a way to get him out of Bea's life. Things go wrong (as they so inevitably do in suspense novels), and suddenly Lucia's got a corpse on her hands and a death to be covered up.

Holding doesn't waste time on extraneous detail, but everything she does tell you is useful; her characters are crisply and quickly drawn, and her story moves briskly and logically from point A to point B.

Social attitudes of the day are, of course, present, but the casual sexism and racism of the late 40s are not so offensive here as to be distracting, as they can be in some novels of the era. In fact, the only real eyebrow-raising moment for me was in a moment that was surely intended to show that Lucia was, for her era, fairly enlightened -- a scene in which Lucia is surprised to realize that her housekeeper Sibyl is an actual person! With dreams and a life of her own that go beyond doing Lucia's grocery shopping! (We still occasionally get that type of scene these days, though it's more likely to be about the Hispanic nanny or gardener than the African-American housekeeper, and it always strikes me as terribly condescending.)

Can't say that I'll be rushing out to read more Holding (though there's plenty out there; her books seem to be reprinted every 15 or 20 years), but The Blank Wall is a taut and effective thriller that holds up surprisingly well after more than sixty years.

MOVIES: Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012)

Silver Linings Playbook is a strangely unbalanced movie, with its best performance entirely dominating the fim.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat, who's coming home after eight months in a psychiatric institution, hoping to win back his wife. Given that he was hospitalized for nearly beating her lover to death, this seems unlikely, but a strong grasp on reality isn't really part of Pat's emotional toolbox. He's bipolar, tends to go off his meds, and has problems with impulse control.

About twenty minutes in, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman with emotional issues of her own, and here is where the movie goes a bit out of whack. The problem is that while the rest of the cast is fine, Lawrence is superb, so much so that the balance of the film is thrown off; what should be a story about two people beginning to find emotional peace with one another becomes a story about a really interesting young woman and the relatively boring people in her life. It's like watching Meryl Streep take the stage with the South Podunk Amateur Theatrical Society.

And it's not as if the people fading in Lawrence's wake are untalented hacks; Pat's parents are played by Robert De Niro, who is more subtle and understated than he's been in years, and Jacki Weaver, who is a warmly supportive presence; and there's sharp supporting work from John Ortiz, Julia Stiles, and Chris Tucker. But once Tiffany enters the movie, she's the only thing you care about. Lawrence is riveting; every gesture, every silent reaction, every line reading feels fresh and right, and communicates about twenty-seven different things at once.

David O. Russell's screenplay (from Matthew Quick's novel) is smart and funny, and less prone than movies of this genre often are to present Pat's and Tiffany's symptoms as charming quirks for our amusement rather than as the serious problems that they are. Definitely worth seeing, and I find it hard to imagine that the holiday movies will bring a better performance than Lawrence's.

November 30, 2012

MOVIES: Cloud Atlas (Lana and Andy Wachowski & Tom Tykwer, 2012)

I had very mixed reaction this one, an adaptation of David Mitchell's novel in which six stories are interwoven to tell a cosmic story of souls recurring throughout time, facing similar obstacles in periods ranging from the 1840s to a post-apocalyptic 24th century.

Most of the principal actors play roles in each story, which I think was a mistake; it took the recurring souls notion which had been fairly subtle and metaphorical in the book and made it overly literal. It also meant that each casting decisions was more consequential; one actor who's not up to the rest of the cast doesn't just sink one chunk of the movie, but two or three. (Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess were particularly noticable weak links throughout.) And it became a distraction, since you're spending so much time looking to see where Tom Hanks or Hugh Grant is going to pop up in each new story that you're not really paying attention to the story.

That said, some of the multi-performances were better than others. Jim Broadbent was, to be sure, aided by the fact that he wasn't asked to depart much from his actual age, gender, and ethnicity, but he was the most consistently entertaining actor in the movie. Hugo Weaving mostly played variations on his usual evil corporate drone, but somewhat surprisingly managed to pull off a comic drag turn; and Doona Bae's brief appearance as a Hispanic dog owner was one of the few radical transformations that was even remotely convincing. Jim Sturgess in bad Asian makeup, on the other hand, wasn't much of an improvement on Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Tom Hanks' brief appearance as a London gangster was laughable.

The individual stories are mostly moderately entertaining, though they tend to bog down in their biggest action moments -- chases through San Francisco and "New Seoul" are surprisingly tedious -- and each one goes through nearly as many "oh god, I thought it was over" moments as the last Lord of the Rings movie. The overall effect of the six stories, though, is a muddled mess, with a lot of vague woo-woo philosophy about interconnectedness and our responsibility for one another that never gets clarified into a clear vision.

This is probably as good a version of the novel as we could hope for, but it's a novel that would probably have been left unfilmed.

November 29, 2012

MOVIES: Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Lincoln makes the wise choice to focus on one specific incident, rather than give us the full life. Our focus is January 1865, and Lincoln's attempt to get the 13th Amendment, which would ban slavery, passed by the House of Representatives.

Daniel Day-Lewis is not one of my favorite actors. I often find him terribly wooden, but his performance here is marvelous, and his face more expressive than I remember it ever being. He handles the period-ish dialogue (by Tony Kushner) very well; a monologue in which he explains his legal dilemma to his cabinet is particularly nicely done.

He's surrounded by a fine array of character actors -- if he's a 40ish/50ish "Hey, It's That Guy", he's probably in this movie -- the most prominent of which is Tommy Lee Jones as the House's most vocal abolitionist. There are equally fine performances, large and small, from David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward; David Costabile as Stevens's chief lieutenant; Lee Pace as the leader of the anti-amendment forces; and in the closest thing the movie has to comic relief, James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as a Huey, Dewey, and Louie trio of proto-lobbyists who have been tasked by Lincoln with securing sufficient Democratic votes to pass the amendment.

You know you have an embarrassment of acting riches when Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, and Dakin Matthews are afterthoughts. And in one of the few female roles, S. Epatha Merkerson only has one scene, and isn't asked to do much more than read the text of the amendment, but she manages to make that a remarkably moving moment.

Not all of the performances work. I can understand why the inherent neediness of Sally Field would make her seem a good choice to play the emotionally vulnerable Mary Todd Lincoln, but her performance is a bit too "May I have another Oscar, please?" for my taste. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn't terrible, but he isn't given anything interesting to do as the Lincolns' oldest son.

Worst thing in the movie is John Williams' faux-Copland score, which trowels on the emotion so thickly as to relieve the viewer from any responsibility to ever have his own actual response. And the coda in which we leap forward to Lincoln's assassination was unnecessary, and filmed in a way that I thought tastefully exploited the grief of a child.

But for a movie which is devoted to the political minutiae of getting a bill passed, Lincoln is surprisingly involving, and the two and a half hours pass quickly.

BOOKS: Every Day, David Levithan (2012)

Here we have yet another SF novel that dare not admit to being one. You won't see the words "science fiction" or "fantasy" in any of the book's marketing or advertising, and I don't think I've seen it in any of the reviews, but what else are we to call a novel that presents an entirely new form of human life?

Our central character is A, who is 16 and lives in Maryland. Each morning, A wakes up in the body of a different person; over the years, it has become A's philosophy to get through the day with as little interference in the host's life as possible, in hopes of leaving that person able to continue life relatively undisrupted. But then A falls in love with Rihanna, the girlfriend of that day's host, eventually telling her the truth about this disjointed life, and trying to spend as much time with her as possible
And when you never know how far apart you're going to be from your beloved the next day, that's a challenge. A is limited geographically, never moving enormous distances from one host to the next, but even a 2 or 3 hour drive can be impractical when you're 16, especially if today's "you" doesn't own a car. Or doesn't get along with her parents. Or has a drug problem.

Levithan does a nice job of exploring the complications of this life, and of finding new surprises for A (what's it like to spend consecutive days as identical twins?). The story is a charming romance with an ending that is both hopeful and bittersweet.

November 05, 2012

MOVIES: Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012)

Disney's animated film Wreck-It Ralph is set inside the world of video games, where Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the bad guy in the "Fix-It Felix" game. Ralph wrecks the building, Felix (Jack McBrayer) fixes the building. That's how it's been every day for 30 years, and Ralph is starting to get tired of being the bad guy.

His quest to become a good guy takes Ralph into some of the arcade's other games. In "Hero's Duty," a violent alien-killing game, he joins the troops of Sgt. Calhoun (a perfectly cast Jane Lynch), a tough commander who can't figure out why one of her soldiers suddenly seems so incompetent.

We spend much of the movie inside "Sugar Rush," a candy-themed race-car game, where we meet Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a little girl who dreams of taking part in the game's daily races, but is constantly thwarted by the ruling King Candy (Alan Tudyk). The candy puns and jokes fly fast and furious in this part of the movie (there's a quick Oreo joke that is one of the movie's highlights), but they never overwhelm the story.

And a surprisingly compelling story it is, too; writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston have given all of the main characters goals that are big enough to keep us involved in their quests, and those stakes are elevated by genuine danger, because if you die outside your own game, you don't regenerate. Things that seem at first to be simple throwaway gags come back later in the movie to pay off in beautiful ways.

The animation is skillful, and the mix of different game/animation styles is effectively played for laughs; watch the reaction of 8-bit Felix when he gets his first look at high-definition Calhoun. And the voice performances are terrific. I was very pleasantly surprised by Silverman, who I usually find unbearable; she's toned down her usual obnoxiousness to just the right level for the cloyingly cute Vanellope.

Wreck-It Ralph is preceded by an animated short, which has not been the norm in recent years for Disney's non-Pixar releases. It's called "Paperman," and it's a sweet bit of romantic magical realism, in mostly black and white (with one crucial pop of red) and without dialogue. The main character has a marvelously expressive face, and it's a charming short.

BOOKS: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling (2012)

Rowling's first novel for adults is the story of a small British town that has mostly kept a lid on the conflicts that simmer among its citizens. But when a member of the Town Council dies, and an election is called for his replacement, all that simmering tension comes bursting to the surface, and little Pagford is thrown into turmoil.

There are about twenty principal characters here, which is too many; Rowling doesn't have time to give any of them more than one or two quickly sketched character traits. Her adolescent characters are, if anything, better developed and more rounded than their parents; perhaps all those years of writing teenaged characters in the Harry Potter books helped.

Even worse than their flimsiness, though, is their loathsomeness. There's not a single admirable character to be found; they are all small, petty, mean people. It's as if Rowling somehow got the impression that yeah, all that stuff about the kids and magic was nice, but what we really wanted was a book about a village full of Dursleys. It's true that loathesome people can make for good entertainment, but Rowling isn't going for the sort of dark comedy in which she might get away with that. The Casual Vacancy is intended as amiable, light drama with the occasional heartwarming smile, and that requires at least one character we'd like to spend time with.

The plot's not much better than the characters. The first time a council campaign is sabotaged by a family member, it's mildly amusing, but when it happens a second time, and a third, in precisely the same way, that's too implausible a coincidence to hold up. And after 450 pages of light village banter, the final 50 pages aim for a tragic ending that doesn't work and isn't earned, mostly because the character around whose death it's built has been little more than a prop to that point, and we've been given no reason to care about his fate.

Even in its very best moments -- there's an extended sequence at a birthday party that works well -- The Casual Vacancy is never more than mildly interesting, and those very best moments are few and far between.

Harry Potter 8, please?

November 04, 2012

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, November 4

Marin Alsop, conductor
Joshua Roman, cello
Michael Ward-Bergeman, hyper-accordion
Jamey Haddad, Keita Ogawa, percussion

The program:
  • Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra
  • Golijov: Azul
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6 ("Pathetique")
When I was a kid growing up in northern Vermont, the local TV station (hello, WCAX-TV, Channel 3!) had a Sunday morning interview show called You Can Quote Me. It was sort of the Vermont version of Meet the Press, and its opening theme music was 30 seconds or so of a big, cheerful, brassy march. It sounded nothing like the country music my parents played, or the top 40 radio I listened to; it was exciting in a completely different way, and I loved it. That teensy little bit of music -- which was, of course, an excerpt from the third movement of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony -- was my introduction to the world of classical music, so I was happy today to hear the piece live for the first time. And a fine performance it was, too. Alsop was particularly good at capturing the many contrasts of the piece -- its extremes of dynamics, its movement-to-movement mood swings.

The concert opened with Barber's Second Essay, which was a perfectly pleasant ten minutes, but didn't strike me as a particularly memorable piece of music.

For memorable, you had to turn to Golijov's cello concerto, Azul, which was a spectacular delight. Golijov's inspirations come, as they often do, from all over the place, but the most notable device here is derived from Baroque music. The cello is the principal soloist, but he's not entirely on his own; he's accompanied by two percussionists and a hyper-accordion (an accordion which is amplified and occasionally has its sound digitally altered) who form what Golijov calls a "21st-century continuo."

When the concerto opens, with a movement called Paz sulfurica, the cello is playing long melodic lines built around a three-note motif that seems to be constantly seeking, but never finding, resolution. You hear some of the ecstatic melancholy of Jewish liturgical music. The second movement, Silencio, reveals more of the concerto's Baroque influence; it's a passacaglia of sorts, with the cello playing variations over a repeated harmonic progression.

The third movement, Transit, serves as a cadenza for the continuo group, and it starts off in the same Baroque mood, with the cello playing rocking motifs reminiscent of Bach's cello suites. The accordion slips in with chugging chords, and the percussion explodes into a rhythmic frenzy, and suddenly Bach is fronting the happiest little polka band in South America. It's a glorious, deliriously happy moment, and the quartet made the very most of it.

The yearning motif from the opening returns in the fourth movement, Yrushalem, but it's finally given a resolution, an ending, and it becomes a gorgeous song. The piece ends with a short double coda (Pulsar and Shooting Stars), climaxing in a series of falling glissandos; the accordion has been altered so that it's not really producing pitch, just a breathy sigh, and as the rest of the orchestra fades away, the final sound we hear is one last long, slow exhale from the accordion.

It's a magnificent piece, and the audience seemed to adore it; there was far less rustling and coughing than is the norm at Disney Hall, and the continuo players were given enthusiastic ovations. There doesn't appear to have been a recording yet, which is a shame; I would certainly welcome the opportunity to hear the piece again.

November 02, 2012

TV: Malibu Country (ABC, Fri 8:30)

And the fall TV rollout finally comes to an end
Reba (who has apparently abandoned "McEntire" for one-name billing) stars as Reba McKenzie, who gave up a promising career in country music to support her husband, who is also a singer. But now he's been caught cheating, and after the divorce, she's moved to Malibu in hopes of re-starting her career.

She's brought along her mother, Lily Mae (Lily Tomlin), who quickly takes a liking to Southern California's medical marijuana lollipops; and her teenage kids, Cash and June (Justin Prentice and Juliette Angelo). There's a perky trophy wife next door (Sara Rue, who has lost a heckuva lot of weight in the years since I last remember noticing her) with a gay son who becomes June's new best pal; and there's the obligatory sassy gay secretary (Jai Rodriguez, devoid of the charm he had during his Queer Eye years, and badly hamming up the Latin accent) at the record company where Reba is trying to be noticed.

The writing is bland and not terribly funny, but Reba, Tomlin, and Rue are doing their damnedest to sell it, and there are moments when they almost get away with it. Rue is rather miscast -- she's too smart a presence to be playing the big-boobed bimbo -- but she brings the character more life and sparkle than the script does. Tomlin has relaxed nicely into seniorhood, and is having a blast playing most of her scenes in a marijuana haze.

And Reba has charm and personality to spare. She doesn't have the widest acting range in the world, or a sophisticated style, but she's learned to do this sort of old-fashioned sitcom acting quite well, and delivers her punchlines with crisp timing.

Rodriguez is an embarrassing stereotype, and the kids are generic bland TV kids, but the three primary actresses occasionally come so close to making this mediocrity work that you'll find yourself longing to see them reunited in a better show.

October 29, 2012

MOVIES: Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

Argo is a solidly crafted movie with fine performances, an interesting story well told, and a crisp, clean style that transitions nicely from the Hollywood satire of the first half to the nail-biting suspense of the second half. Best of all, it's an awards-friendly movie that never feels like it exists only to win awards (contrast, for interest, The King's Speech).

The setting is Tehran, where six Americans have escaped during the Iranian capture of the American embassy, and are now holed up in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Ben Affleck (who also directed the movie) stars as a CIA exfiltration specialist who comes up with a scheme to smuggle them out of Iran by passing them off as members of a Canadian film crew scouting exotic Iranian locations for a science-fiction film.

The cast is superb. Affleck is a stalwart leading man, determined and convinced that he can make his wacky plan work; John Goodman and Alan Arkin provide the necessary comic relief as the Hollywood insiders; Victor Garber, as the Canadian ambassador, captures both the willingness to help and the increasing frustration with the bind in which he and his nation have been placed; and there are a lot of recognizable faces -- Bryan Cranston, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler -- in smaller roles. I particularly enjoyed the performance of relatively unknown Scoot McNairy, playing the hostage who is the most skeptical about Affleck's plan, and who winds up playing a key role in its success.

It's always a challenge to generate excitement and suspense in a "based on a true story" movie, when we know how everything turns out, but Affleck has pulled it off. The second half of the movie, especially the final airport sequence, is genuinely thrilling and terrifying.

MOVIES: Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012)

What can you say about a movie in which Christopher Walken plays the least crazy person on screen? In which a pair of men commit suicide by slitting their own threats, and it plays as a brutally funny punchline? In which Tom Waits carries a fluffy bunny with him everywhere he goes?

The movie is Seven Psychopaths, and what I can say about it is that it's one of the funniest movies of the year. It's a comedy about small time Los Angeles crooks accidentally get on the bad side of a slightly bigger crook. It is extremely violent and bloody, but in a Tarantino-esque over-the-top way that is so far removed from reality that it crosses the line from gross to sickly funny.

Colin Farrell is a struggling screenwriter, whose best friend (Sam Rockwell) works with Christopher Walken, running a dog-napping scam; Rockwell kidnaps the dogs, and Walken returns them a few days later, collecting the rewards. The problems begin when they take Bonny, the beloved Shih Tzu of gangster Woody Harrelson.

The screenplay Farrell is struggling with is called Seven Psychopaths, and as the movie goes along, the movie we're watching and the movie Farrell's writing gradually become more and more caught up in a delightful tangle of meta. Martin McDonagh's dialogue crackles with wit and energy (an opening conversation in which two hitmen try to remember which famous person was shot through the eye is among the highlights).

Rockwell is the standout, playing a guy whose veneer of sanity slowly cracks throughout the movie; Walken has a smaller, less showy role, but gets plenty of laughs, and who can resist the thought of Walken wandering the desert on a peyote trip muttering about hallucinogens?

This is McDonagh's followup to In Bruges, and it serves as confirmation that he's one of the most entertaining writers and directors working today.

October 14, 2012

TV: Arrow (CW, Wed 8)

With the departure of Smallville, the CW attempts to fill its superhero gap with Arrow, based on DC's Green Arrow character.

We're introduced to Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) with a quick backstory: After a shipwreck that killed his father and several others, Oliver somehow survived for five years on an isolated island before being rescued and going home to Starling City. Oliver has returned with a purpose. He transforms the basement of one of his father's old warehouses into his laboratory/training center/Arrow-Cave, designs himself a sharp green hoodie, and sets out to bring down the corrupt men of Starling City with his trusty bow and arrow.

(And that "Arrow-Cave" reference, though not explicity made in the show, is very much in keeping with the character's roots. The Green Arrow was meant to be an updated take on Batman -- non-superpowered billionaire hero fighting corruption, teenage sidekick, and in the original comic books, there actually was an Arrow-Cave and an Arrow-Car.)

No one suspects that Oliver is the Arrow, largely because the pre-shipwreck Oliver was a callow playboy; his best friend, Tommy (Colin Donnell), still is, which makes it easy for Oliver to slip back into the old role. Teenage sister Thea (Willa Holland) is a bit more suspicious (in another homage to the original comics, her nickname is Speedy, which was the name of the Green Arrow's teenage Robin analogue).

The other principal character is Oliver's ex-girlfriend Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy); turns out that one of the girls who died in the shipwreck, and with whom Oliver was cheating on Laurel, was her sister. Awk-ward! And of course, the head cop in town (Paul Blackthorne) just happens be to the Lances' father.

Throughout the pilot, we get teasing hints that the shipwreck may not have been entirely accidental, and it seems unlikely that Stephen really was alone on that island; both mommy (Susanna Thompson) and dead daddy (Jamey Sheridan) may have been in on whatever was really going on. It seems likely that we will eventually get around to island-year flashbacks. (Just in case we aren't picking up on those hints, there's a Lost reference in the early going to remind us what mysterious places TV islands can be.)

The cast is likable, and particular attention must be paid to the spectacularly well-conditioned torso of Stephen Amell; there is a certain entertainment value just in watching those abs as he goes through his workout routine, which includes the most challenging set of pullups I've ever seen. But he's not just a pretty body; he's got the right tone of slightly absurd sincerity, which is often where superhero projects fall apart.

As is always true whenever a show sets up this much potential mythology-building in the first episode, I worry about how well that story will be dished out. But it's an entertaining first hour, and I'm intrigued enough to give the show another week or two.

October 13, 2012

TV: Emily Owens, M.D. (CW, Tue 9)

Premieres on Tuesday night; first episode is available now at the CW website.

Emily Owens, M.D. is an attempt to stretch the CW brand a bit beyond teenage girls by making a hospital show, but only a mild attempt, since it's a very CW version of a hospital show. Mamie Gummer stars as Emily, who arrives at Denver General Hospital as a first-year surgical intern to find that her fellow first-years include her medical school crush Will (Justin Hartley) and her high school nemesis Cassandra (Aja Naomi King). They're all there to work with Dr. Gina Bandari (Necar Zadegan), a skilled and innovative surgeon who prefers brusque intimidation as a management style.

A hospital, we are explicitly told in Emily's voice-over narration, is just like high school; the doctors can be divided into jocks, stoners, mean girls, and so on. Emily would like to be one of the cool kids, and the show combines standard medical procedural with light becoming-an-adult drama.

Mamie Gummer has immense charm and charisma. She does well with both the dramatic and the comic moments, and sells Emily's mix of professional skill and personal insecurity convincingly. The fact that she is Meryl Streep's daughter is surely something of a millstone that she is sick of carrying around her neck at this point, but it should be mentioned, if only to keep you from spending the entire hour with a nagging "who is it she reminds me of" at the back of your head.

The other characters are given a bit more depth than you might expect, and the relationships are developed more quickly and in surprising ways. Cassandra isn't just the nasty bitch, though she is that (and she takes some pride in the fact); Will isn't reduced to a source of unresolved "will they or won't they" tension.

Emily Owens, M.D. isn't a particularly deep or sophisticated show, but it does have a surprising bright charm and it's pleasant, easy watching. It's smartly paired with Hart of Dixie, which is the CW version of Northern Exposure; both are light, breezy entertainment, and the worst you can say about either is that they occasionally feel like the TV version of training wheels, helping the CW tween/teen audience get used to watching shows about grownups.

TV: Chicago Fire (NBC, Wed 10)

Every year, during the fall TV premiere season, I watch at least the first episode of everything the networks have to offer. But I allow myself one "life is too damn short" moment each year, one show that I can give up on before even that first episode is through. This year, that honor goes to NBC's Chicago Fire, the latest from producer Dick Wolf.

There's a reason that cops, doctors, and lawyers are the holy trinity of TV occupations. They have the opportunity for interesting new stories every week, and those stories involve other people -- suspects and victims, patients and loved ones, plaintiffs and defendants.

But firemen fight fire. It's an impersonal force, and that's not all that much variety between fires. Chicago Fire tries to get a bit of personal drama into the stories by placing the show in a firehouse that has not only a truck unit, but also a rescue squad of paramedics, two squads who don't get along.

Those squads are headed by Matthew Casey (Jesse Spencer, doing an atrocious American accent) and Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney), a pair of macho assholes who are distinguished primarily by the fact that Spencer's blond and Kinney's brunette. Similarly, the two essentially interchangeable paramedics are played by blond Lauren German and African-American Monica Raymund.

Eamonn Walker has a strong authority as the station commander, but his role is (like that of all black police/fire chiefs) limited to scolding his underlings. There's a cute young newbie (Charlie Barnett) whose function is to listen to all of the "here's how we do things" exposition.

But ultimately, it's a fire fighting procedural. The characters aren't interesting, and it's hard to see how they're going to tell stories that amount to anything more than "fire bad."

TV: Beauty and the Beast (CW, Thu 9)

CW's new version of Beauty and the Beast is a mess.

The heroine this time is NYPD's Cat Chandler (Kristin Kreuk), who was driven to become a cop after seeing her mother killed by thugs. While investigating the murder of a young woman (because this is TV, and the only people who are ever murdered on TV are beautiful young women), she comes across the DNA of Vincent Keller, a young doctor who was supposedly killed in Afghanistan in 2002.

Vincent (Jay Ryan) is, surprise surprise, the show's "Beast." This being the CW, "Beast" does not mean the lion-faced monster played by Ron Perlman in the 80s version of the show; "Beast" means a strikingly handsome young man with a scar on one cheek. Vincent was part of a Top Seekrit "make a super-soldier" project gone bad, and when his adrenaline levels get too high, he becomes an uncontrollable killing machine. He somehow escaped the government's attempt to kill everyone involved in the program and now lives in hiding in a grungy warehouse with a nerdy roommate (Austin Basis) who is the only one who knows his secret.

So Vincent's backstory is like a mix of The Bourne Identity and The Incredible Hulk, and it turns out that he's been using his berserker tendencies as a vigilante, killing off bad guys (so toss in a little Dexter, too) and saving their intended victims.

Neither Kreuk nor Ryan brings anything to their role beyond striking beauty (admittedly, they do bring lots of that), and the story is a hodgepodge of poorly-worn influences and cheesy cliches. (Vincent was, it turns out, the guy who saved Cat when her mother was killed, and it is strongly suggested that this will be part of some underlying conspiracy at the heart of the show.)

The CW has given the show as good a time slot as they've got, following The Vampire Diaries, but I don't think it's going to help. Beauty and the Beast is a poorly written, poorly acted, tedious bore, and the pleasures of looking at Kreuk and/or Ryan (depending on your preferences) are not enough to keep people watching.

October 12, 2012

TV: Nashville (ABC, Wed 10)

There's a fine line between entertaining soap opera and cheesy mess, and the pilot of Nashville stays mostly on the right side of it.

A tip of the hat to Slate's Troy Patterson for finding the perfect summary of the show: Y'All About Eve. Connie Britton stars as country legend Rayna James, who is equal parts Faith Hill and Reba McEntire; she's reached the age where she's having trouble getting radio airplay for her new album, and ticket sales for her new tour aren't what they should be.

The record label has a solution in mind, though -- Rayna should join on as "co-headliner" of Juliette Barnes' tour. Juliette (played with delicious diva bitchiness by Hayden Panettiere) is the hot young thing of the country world, an Auto-Tuned country-pop star who makes Taylor Swift look like Loretta Lynn. Rayna is not amused at the thought of playing opening act to so tacky an ingenue.

She may not have a choice, though, because her husband Teddy (Eric Close, whose bland prettiness is perfect for the role) has gone through some unspecified financial hard times, so retirement isn't really an option. Teddy's frustration, in turn, makes him a perfect sockpuppet for Rayna's powerful businessman father (Powers Boothe, gloriously villainous, and one mustache twirl away from a full-on Snidely Whiplash impression), who wants Teddy to run for mayor. There are also an assortment of young singers and songwriters who aren't terribly well distinguished from one another in the pilot, but there's time for that.

The show's biggest challenge will be to keep the quality of the music up, and that'll be harder here than in TV's other quasi-musicals. Glee will never run out of cheery pop songs, and certain types of Broadway music lend themselves to the easy pastiche that Smash does so well. But country isn't easily faked. It's either good or it's crap, and country fans are very discerning, and don't have a lot of patience for crap. Lose them, and Nashville tanks in a hurry.

The music in the pilot is promising. Everyone's doing their own singing, and they're all either solid performers or being skillfully helped in the studio; the fact that I don't know who's getting helped is a sign that the help is being applied with taste and subtlety. The presence of T-Bone Burnett as music director is an encouraging sign.

I'm not quite as deliriously giddy about the show as most of the critics are, but if it can stay on the right side of the cheese line and keep the music quality high, it'll be a diverting amusement.

October 02, 2012

BOOKS: The Woman Who Died a Lot, Jasper Fforde (2012)

Seventh in the Thursday Next series.

As is generally the case with Fforde, much of the plot would sound absolutely baffling in summary, and this is not a series that's easy to jump into mid-stream; the world that Fforde has built is, while spectacularly consistent in its internal logic, intricate enough and filled with enough running jokes that it's easier to start from the beginning. (But they're all delightful books, so you absolutely should go back to the beginning and start with The Eyre Affair.)

When we open, we find Thursday in retirement, or at least semi-retirement, from her career as one of the officers policing the Bookworld, that reality in which all fictional characters live. She's accepted what should be a cushy job as Swindon's new librarian, but even there, she finds herself caught up in the evil schemes of Jack Schitt from Goliath Industries.

Fforde is fond of structuring the Next novels around what appear to be multiple unrelated plotlines that are ingeniously tied together in the final chapters; among the plot elements this time are the paradoxes of time travel, the fondness of dodos for The Dukes of Hazzard, the 13th-century manuscript Bonkeing Kinges for Pleasure and Profite, and a good old-fashioned smiting (straight from the Hand of God Himself!).

Fforde's Next novels are funny and fizzy and filled with logic that is dazzlingly precise in its silliness, and this one is no exception. Another solid addition to the series.

October 01, 2012

TV: 666 Park Avenue (ABC, Sun 10)

Henry and Jane (Dave Annale and Rachael Taylor) are young New York professionals in need of a little extra income, so they hire on as resident managers of the Drake apartment building. Owners Gavin and Olivia (Terry O'Quinn and Vanessa L. Williams) aren't just your run-of-the-mill evil landlords, though; they're making evil deals with their tenants, granting everyone's fondest wishes. And all you have to pay is your soul. Mwhahahahaha.

How on earth do you cast O'Quinn and Williams, two of TV's best at portraying deliciously seductive malevolence, as Mr. and Mrs. Satan, and wind up with a show this boring? The effects are too cheap to be scary; it's not witty enough to be good camp; and Taylor and Annable are the blandest young leads imaginable.

There's no subtlety in the show's portrayal of the evil landlords, none of the "are they or aren't they" that might have given the show some suspense; it's clear within the first five minutes that they're in the business of dealing for people's souls. The writing is so flat that even an actor as skilled as O'Quinn can't bring any charm or subtlety to it; Williams provides the hour's only minor flashes of intelligence or humor, but they aren't enough to save the show. A disaster on all counts.

September 30, 2012

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, Sep 30

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

The program:
  • Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
  • Stucky: Symphony (world premiere)
  • Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Today at Disney Hall, it was a tale of two ovations.

We opened with Ravel. It's a very pretty piece, and it was very nicely played, but it's nothing but pretty, and it's the same brand of pretty throughout. It's like staring at pastel pink for six minutes. OK, fine, that's nice, what else can you do for me?

Then on to the premiere of Stucky's symphony. (It's a co-commission with the New York Philharmonic, who will perform it in November.) It's a 20-minute piece in four movements performed without break: Introduction and Hymn - Outcry - Flying - Hymn and Reconciliation.

It's not a piece about melody; there's not a memorable tune to be found. There are a handful of striking textural and color moments -- repeated sequences of long, slow brass notes that gradually build into grand chords; a charming brief passage for skittering mallet percussion -- and I didn't dislike the piece, but there was nothing that made me want to hear it again.

And Ovation #1 suggested that the audience felt pretty much the same way. A few people stood when Stucky came to the stage, but it was a polite and perfunctory ovation by LA Phil standards. This is an audience that is usually very generous to new music, and I've never seen a new work receive so tepid a reaction.

I did enjoy Stucky talking about the symphony in a pre-concert talk. He suggested that though you could hear it as a Mahler-esque hero's journey which might have been inspired by events in his own life, that wasn't a particularly useful way to think about music. "It's not my job as an artist to read you my diary," he said (paraphrasing from memory), "It's my job to put you in a musical landscape to which you can have your own emotional reaction, which may not be the same as your neighbor's."

After intermission, The Rite of Spring (and don't ask me why the Phil gives us the Ravel title in French and the Stravinsky in English, but it does). This was one of Esa-Pekka Salonen's signature pieces during his years in Los Angeles, so in taking it on, Dudamel is making something of a "this is my orchestra now" statement. (Stucky was a resident composer during Salonen's tenure, so there's another tieback for you.)

I don't think I've listened to the piece since my college music history classes, and I've never heard it live. It is an overwhelming experience, and today's performance was spectacular. It's the loud, banging, "primitive" rhythmic passages that people remember, but I thought the Philharmonic was particularly good in the quieter passages, and the winds made a particularly strong impression.

And the ovation at the end of this piece? Immediate, universal, thunderous, and by far the longest ovation I've seen at Disney Hall. Those who played key solo passages were acknowleged with extra bursts of noise, and the principal timpanist (the piece uses two) got the loudest cheers of all.

MOVIES: Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012)

Genndy Tartakovsky has had a successful career in TV animation -- he was the creator of Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack -- and now he makes his movie debut with Hotel Transylvania. It's a project that's gone through multiple directors and false starts, so it's probably not the pure product of Tartakovsky's vision, but it's still recognizable as his style.

The Hotel Transylvania was built by Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler, taking his voice into a deeper register than usual) as a refuge for monsters, a place where they could be safe from humans. His daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) is celebrating her 118th birthday, and all of Dracula's monster friends have shown up for a big birthday bash before he reluctantly lets her go out to explore the world on her own. But when a cute young human backpacker (Andy Samberg) stumbles into the place, the place is put in turmoil.

All your monster favorites are here, and a fairly impressive cast of names has been hired to voice them. Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon are Mr. and Mrs. Wolfman, Kevin James and Fran Drescher are the Frankensteins, David Spade is The Invisible Man, Jon Lovitz is Quasimodo (the hotel's chef), Ceelo Green is The Mummy. Some of them are better used than others -- Drescher is reduced to the obvious gag of whining about how LOOOOOOOOUD humans are, with such anNNNNNNOOOOOOOOYYYYing voices -- but on the whole, they bring the right kind of energy to the movie.

The story's not remotely surprising. Backpacker Jonathan and Mavis fall in love, forcing all of the monsters to deal with their anti-human prejudice, with happy endings for one and all. There is one nice touch near the end, when the monsters get to find out how they are really viewed by the modern world.

But if the movie's a bit flat on the story side, it's a visual delight. Tartokovsky's style is to cram the frame full; his sets and backgrounds are far more detailed than in most animation, and there are some marvelous crowd scenes with a lot of individually detailed characters. Dracula is a lovely creation, gliding silently through the corridors in his cape, with slender legs supporting a Superman torso.

Jonathan's arrival scene is a particular highlight, as is a Jonathan/Dracula chase through the hotel on flying banquet tables. I could have done without the cheesy pop song at the end of the movie, but when the cast includes Gomez and Green, it was probably inevitable (and hey! Monsters got Auto-Tune!).

If you enjoy animation for the art side of things, there's enough to see here that it's worth catching on the big screen. If you're just wanting to entertain the kids, you could just as easily wait for DVD or cable.

September 29, 2012

MOVIES: Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)

Looper opens in 2044, and Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains the premise very quickly: "Time travel hasn't been invented yet, but in the future, it will have been." And it will almost immediately be made illegal. And as we know from the good folks at the National Time Travel Association, when time travel is outlawed, only outlaws will have time travel.

And the outlaws of 2074 use that time travel to take care of pesky people who need killing. They send them back to 2044, handcuffed and hooded, where someone like Joe - an assassin known as a Looper -- is waiting to instantly shoot them and dispose of the body. No body for the cops to find in 2074, and even if the body's found in 2044, it won't match anyone.

The problems start when one of Joe's victims arrives unhooded, and turns out to be the older version of himself (Old Joe, as the credits identify him, is played by Bruce Willis). Joe's surprise lasts just long enough for Old Joe to get away, and this is Not a Good Thing.

So Joe's hunting for Old Joe; Old Joe, for reasons of his own, is hunting for someone who will in 30 years be a major crimelord; and Joe's boss Abe (a terrific performance from Jeff Daniels) is hunting for both of them.

Gordon-Levitt and Willis are both very good here, and the prosthetics that have been used to make Gordon-Levitt a plausible younger Willis are excellent. There are also fine performances from Emily Blunt as a farmer who winds up sheltering Joe, and Pierce Gagnon as her preternaturally wise, slightly creepy 5-year-old son.

The plot logic is as good here as I've ever seen in a time travel movie, with only one small nagging plot inconsistency that I wanted an explanation for. Writer-director Rian Johnson tells the story very clearly, and I think that even those who sometimes have problems with time travel stories will be able to follow this one easily.

One caveat: Those who are particularly bothered by violence involving children will find some scenes difficult going.

TV: Made in Jersey (CBS, Fri 9)

Let me acknowledge right up front that I have a soft spot for courtroom drama, and so I am probably being far more generous to Made in Jersey than the show deserves.

Because, let's face it, the show's central character, Martina Garretti (played by British actress Janet Montgomery), is a very broad collection of Joisey stereotypes; in the first episode, she helps to win cases through her knowledge of trashy fashion, manicures, and cheap hair bleach. She's a young lawyer who has managed to parlay several good years in the Trenton D.A's office into a job with a posh New York firm, where her hair, outfits, and accent make it difficult for her colleagues to take her seriously.

But she's got street smarts, and working with River Brody (Felix Solis), the firm's investigator, she helps find the evidence to clear a client of murder charges. There are a few clever twists in the evidence along the way, including a moment when her teenage niece hears something in a voice mail message that no one else can hear (because, y'know, the Jersey girls get strength from those ginormous close-knit families).

From looking at the CBS website, it appears that several cast changes were made after this pilot was filmed, but the cast does include Kyle MacLachlan as the head of the firm; Toni Trucks as as Martina's secretary, who can only be described as sassy; Stephanie March as a snotty colleague who looks down her nose at Martina; and Donna Murphy as Martina's mother.

Montgomery is the show's greatest strength, and when she's given a better project than this, I think she's going to be a big star. She's warm, funny, and likable, and gives off just the right mix of intelligence, common sense, and creativity. MacLachlan seems a bit out of place, but that may just be because he's played so many comic roles lately, parts in which he sends up his square-jawed image, that it's a bit hard to take that jaw at (as it were) face value when he's playing it straight.

I'm not going to claim that Made in Jersey is a great show, but it's a genre I love, and I'll watch for another week or two, if only to see how the cast changes play out, and whether Montgomery can bring a bit more depth to her character.

September 28, 2012

TV: Elementary (CBS, Thu 10)

CBS gives us another take on Sherlock Holmes with Elementary, in which Holmes and Watson help the police solve crimes in present-day New York.

The backstory differs from that of Arthur Conan Doyle (as does pretty much everything else). Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is fresh out of rehab, and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is the "sober companion" hired by his father to live with him for six weeks, helping him transition back to life in the regular world. Holmes is a consultant to the New York Police Department, working with Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn, hoping that this year's Thursday-at-10 cop show lasts longer than last year's Prime Suspect).

I don't have any strong objection to the idea of making Watson female, but a change that big has to have some dramatic purpose, and it has none here. It's not enough to have one scene in which a person of interest opens up to Watson (and not to Holmes) because they're both women.

There's also a serious imbalance in terms of acting styles here. Miller is playing Holmes's quirks to the hilt; it's a performance filled with eccentric tics and vocal mannerisms. As if to be sure we notice everything Miller's doing, Liu and Quinn are underplaying everything, fading so far into the background that they barely register. And the show's sound mix is atrocious. Some scenes sound just fine, and others (particularly any scene between Miller and Liu) have the dialogue mixed so low that it can't be heard.

But CBS knows its audience, and despite the show's flaws, Elementary is right on brand and fits well as a follow-up to Person of Interest.

September 27, 2012

TV: The Neighbors (ABC, Wed 8:30)

The Neighbors has gotten a lot of very bad critical buzz, with the general consensus being that it is the year's worst new sitcom. So I went in with rather low expectations. But damn if I didn't laugh.

It's the story of Debbie and Marty Weaver (Jami Gertz and Lenny Venito), who move into a New Jersey gated community to find that all of their neighbors are aliens from the planet Zabvron who have been stranded here for ten years.

All of the Zabvronians have adopted the names of human athletes ("in tribute to your finest physical specimens"), and the Weavers' next-door neighbors are Larry Bird (Simon Templeman), the community's leader, and his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye). (Their kids are Reggie Jackson and Dick Butkus.)

The Neighbors has a quality that is rare on TV these days: It is unabashedly, proudly silly. Templeman and Olagundoye throw themselves into their roles with abandon, embracing the stilted language that is English, Zabvronian style, and having great fun with awkward body language.

Is it a great sitcom? No, far from it, and it's entirely possile that the reason we don't see much silly on TV is that silly doesn't sustain well over multiple weeks. But we've already seen at least one worse sitcom debut this year (that would be Guys With Kids), and I thought The Neighbors was a weirdly charming little surprise.

September 26, 2012

TV: Vegas (CBS, Tue 10)

Vegas is a perfectly adequate CBS police procedural that will fit in just fine with the NCIS shows on Tuesday night. The sole novel element is that this one's a period piece, set in 1960 Las Vegas.

Vegas is only just beginning to grow into Sin City, and in anticipation, the mob is starting to move in. Vincent Savino (Michael Chiklis) has been sent by the Chicago mob to guard their interests, working out of the Savoy casino.

Meanwhile cattle rancher Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) is asked to serve as acting sheriff and solve the murder of the governor's niece, who just happens to work at the Savoy, and whose body has been found dumped in the desert outside the city. (There actually was a real Ralph Lamb, who served as sheriff of Las Vegas for almost 20 years, though the circumstances of his getting the job are entirely fictionalized here.)

Ralph quickly assembles the CBS-required team of loyal assistants, in this case his brother (Jason O'Mara) and son (Taylor Handley), and you can pretty much predict the beats from there. By the time it's over, Ralph's been appointed the new sheriff, and it's clear that he and Vincent will represent good and evil, fighting for the soul of the new Vegas.

Quaid and Chiklis are very good in their roles (though Quaid is about 25 years older than the real Ralph Lamb was), and Carrie-Anne Moss gets surprising mileage from never smiling as the assistant district attorney. In what is likely to be a recurring role, the always reliable Michael O'Neill plays the mayor, who was Ralph's commanding officer during the war.

Were this a cable drama, I would be hopeful that we were in for a drama about the ambiguous nature of good and evil, and the fine line that often separates them. But this is CBS, so I don't expect the show to be any more than a case-of-the-week procedural, with perhaps some small element of ongoing story as Ralph investigates the disappearance of the previous sheriff.

Not a show I'm likely to return to, but if you enjoy the predictably comforting ritual of the crime formula, and a lot of people do, then this show will make you perfectly happy.

BOOKS: Heading Out to Wonderful (Robert Goolrick, 2012)

Heading Out to Wonderful is Robert Goolrick's second novel, and I don't know when I've seen such a severe shift in tone between an author's first two books.

Back in 2009, A Reliable Wife was a divisive book among my circle of reading friends, a delirious fever dream of conniving and romantic obsession. Some found its brash melodrama and coincidences too over-the-top; some (me included) were fascinated by its giddy loopiness.

And now, we get Heading Out to Wonderful, another story of obsessive desire. It's just as passionate, just as erotically charged, but in a much cooler way. Where A Reliable Wife boils over with the overheated melodrama and contrivances of opera (both soap and grand), Heading Out to Wonderful simmers with the low, slow heat of an Appalachian ballad.

It's 1948, and Charlie Beale has just arrived in sleepy Brownsburg, Virginia, which is "the kind of town that had only one of everything it had, and a lot of things it didn't have at all." Charlie is in his late 30s and finally looking to settle down; he's a charming man, and quickly accepted as a well liked member of the community. He falls in love with the wrong woman, the beautiful young Sylvan Glass, who dreams of Hollywood, glamour, and the movies, and who has essentially been sold by her family into a marriage to the town's richest man.

There is inevitably collateral damage in such affairs, and Goolrick gives us a marvelous array of characters whose lives are changed along the way. There's Claudie Wiley, the gifted black seamstress who sews for Sylvan the dresses of her dreams; Sam Haislett, the 5-year-old son of Charlie's boss, who will be asked to keep far too many secrets; and the Reverend Lewis Shadwell, who ministers to Brownsburg's black community.

The novel is a slow, inexorable march to tragedy, and when that tragedy arrives, it's incredibly powerful; there's a crushing sadness and a desperate longing to go back and find some way to avoid what was, in retrospect, inevitable.

Highly recommended, and even if you were among those who didn't care for A Reliable Wife, you should give this one a try.