January 26, 2012

BOOKS: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley (2011)

Fourth in the Flavia de Luce series.

Our setting is Buckshaw, a somewhat rundown British country estate in the years after WWII, where Colonel de Luce lives with his three daughters. The youngest is 11-year-old Flavia, a budding chemist (with a particular interest in poisons) who finds herself caught up in the many murders that plague the small village of Bishop's Lacey.

In this one, it's Christmas 1950, and the Colonel hopes to stave off the tax collector for a few months by renting out Buckshaw to a film crew, among whom is the legendary actress Phyllis Wyvern. There is, of course, a murder -- strangulation with a piece of film -- and a locked-house element this time around, as nearly the entire village is snowed in at Buckshaw.

As is typical for this series, the mystery itself is pleasantly entertaining. I continue to wish, though, that Flavia were a few years older; even by the standards of literary precocious children, she's a bit hard to believe as an 11-year-old. (And Bradley blunders, I think, in the other direction on an issue of age this time, with a subplot about Flavia setting out to prove whether or not Father Christmas really does come down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Surely an 11-year-old is too old to still believe in Father Christmas, especially an 11-year-old who is as passionately devoted to reason and critical thinking as Flavia is.)

What makes the series work is style and atmosphere: the slowly fading genteel aristocracy of the de Luce family, the comic relief of the servants, the Christie-esque coziness of the setting. There's nothing in this volume that would be confusing to a series newcomer, so you needn't feel that you have to start at the beginning.

January 23, 2012

BOOKS: Humiliation, Wayne Koestenbaum (2011)

For 20 years now, Wayne Koestenbaum has been writing books that combine literary criticism, memoir, and essay. His books are all, regardless of their ostensible topic, very much about him and his obsessions; when he hits upon a particularly interesting obsession, the results can be fascinating. I liked, for instance, The Queen's Throat, an exploration of the relationship between gay men and opera; and his book on Jackie Onassis, Jackie Under My Skin, had some intriguing moments.

In his newest book, he shares with us his lifelong fascination with humiliation, both his own and that of others. And because he is now a Prestigious Academic Intellectual Person, and because people will pay him to do things like this, he shares every single fucking thought he has ever had on the subject. Humiliation, I must report, is not a subject that can sustain a reader's interest for 184 pages.

Koestenbaum's style is very free-assocative, which often leads him to make awkward and uncomfortable juxtapositions -- from the sexual abuse of slaves to Alec Baldwin's infamous berating of his daughter, from the tragedy at Chappaquiddick to Koestenbaum's own restroom cruising experiences. To his credit, he is aware of how awkward these moments are, and there is a lot of "am I being overly crass to leap from A to B?" in the book, but if you're smart enough to ask the question, how can you not be smart enough to realize that the answer is yes?

The book's not entirely without merit; there are some lovely insights and beautifully written paragraphs, some thoughts that made me stop for a moment to think. But when your subject is humiliation, and your habit is to relate everything you write to yourself, you will inevitably find yourself writing long lists of your own humiliating moments, as Koestenbaum does (taking up most of the last 20 pages of the book). The book becomes an exercise in creepy oversharing, a highfalutin' academic episode of Oprah, in which we learn far more about Koestenbaum than we have any right (or any desire) to know. It is embarrassing stuff to read, and I can't help but think that it is (what else?) humiliating for him to have it all on display to the world. And that may, in a ghastly masochistic way, be the point of the whole damn book.

January 22, 2012

MOVIES: Best Films of 2011

It was a year filled with movies that I liked, but not offering very many that I loved without reservation. The top two this year are a mile ahead of the rest of the pack.

Starting with #10 and counting down to #1:

  • Tabloid -- documentary as farce, in which Joyce McKinney narrates her own delusional fantasies of romantic heroism.
  • Midnight in Paris -- Woody Allen's fascination with the paradoxical appeal/danger of nostalgia takes center stage, in a movie that is impeccably cast; Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, and Michael Sheen are all perfect choices for their parts.
  • Pariah -- a relatively familiar coming-out story in some ways, but we haven't gotten the lesbian version of the story nearly as often, or the African-American version. A calm, melancholy tale of simple courage and dignity.
  • Rango -- a deliriously goofy homage to a wide range of Hollywood movies and traditions, with a fresh, distinctive animated style, and a terrifically creepy villain in Bill Nighy's Rattlesnake Jake.
  • The Skin I Live In -- Almodovar mixes many of his favorite motifs -- women in jeopardy, wild melodrama, twisted sexuality -- with the Frankenstein story to spectacularly entertaining effect.
  • Take Shelter -- not only a powerful allegory about the economic and social anxieties of the moment, but a dark nightmare about a man slowly losing his grip on reality.
  • The Artist -- yes, the story's fluffy and light, but there's nothing wrong with fluff when it's this precisely crafted. The most joyful movie of the year.
  • Weekend -- the year's best love story, and the year's best acting duo. Tom Cullen and Chris New bring remarkable spontaneity to their unexpected whirlwind romance.
  • A Separation -- it's a legal thriller, it's a family drama, it's a glimpse inside Iranian society -- and it does all of those things extremely well. There are no easy answers, no clear-cut heroes or villains to be found here -- only complicated people, struggling with complicated problems in ways that we can always empathize with.
And the year's best movie:
  • Melancholia -- the gentlest, most humane movie Lars von Trier has ever made; a movie that finds thrilling joy and magical ecstasy in the apocalypse.

MOVIES: Best of 2011 -- Actor

The runners-up:
  • Tom Cullen, Weekend
  • Paul Giamatti, Win/Win
  • Brendan Gleeson, The Guard
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50
  • William Shimell, Certified Copy
The nominees:
  • Demian Bichir, A Better Life -- one man, quietly struggling for an honorable way to survive; a performance that never pushes too hard for effect.
  • Jean Dujardin, The Artist -- a superb physical performance that reaches the heights of joy and the depths of despair, and is never anything but utterly convincing.
  • Peyman Maadi, A Separation -- from the first scene, Nader is terrified that his life is about to collapse in front of him; everything that follows is rooted in that panic and desperation
  • Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris -- the best use that's ever been made of Wilson's inherent sadness
The winner:
  • Michael Shannon, Take Shelter -- a performance largely of gestures; Shannon says more with a raised eyebrow or a shrug than other actors say in a three-minute speech. Which is more terrifying: the possibility that his apocalyptic visions are real, or the possibility that he's simply going mad?

MOVIES: Best of 2011 -- Actress

The runners-up (and there are only four; the pickin' was slim this year):
  • Sareh Bayat, A Separation
  • Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
  • Elizabeth Olson, Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
The nominees:
  • Berenice Bejo, The Artist -- a smile that brightens the room, some perfectly played physical comedy, moving emotional moments -- what more could you want?
  • Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground -- the pain is palpable as Farmiga struggles with the realization that she is losing the faith which has always sustained her.
  • Adepero Oduye, Pariah -- the joy of first love, the pain of watching a marriage disintegrate, the fear that secrets will be discovered -- all of these things feel fresh again in Oduye's quiet performance.
  • Yun Jung-hee, Poetry -- another very quiet and understated performance, capturing the struggle of a woman to find her own voice, and a way through her moral labyrinth, in a society that doesn't take women (especially old women) very seriously.
The winner:
  • Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia -- the smiles in the opening scenes can't hide the terrifying knowledge that her demons are back; this is as good a portrait of crippling depression as we've ever seen.

MOVIES: Best of 2011 -- Supporting Actor

The runners-up:

  • Jonah Hill, Moneyball
  • Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk About Kevin
  • Seth Rogen, 50/50
  • Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris
  • Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The nominees:

  • Albert Brooks, Drive -- cast against type, Brooks is a revelation as a psychopathic gentleman mobster who mixes courtliness and sadism.
  • Armie Hammer, J. Edgar -- from the twinkly-eyed romantic of the young Tolson to the physical and mental struggles of the older, post-stroke Tolson, Hammer gets the details just right.
  • Patton Oswalt, Young Adult -- a gloriously immature voice of reason whose history of nursing his own wounds makes him uniquely able to call out Charlize Theron's Mavis on her own bullshit.
  • Christopher Plummer, Beginners -- a fine performance buried in a sentimental slog of a movie; Plummer's joy and thrill at finally exploring his real identity are contagious.
The winner:

  • Brian Cox, Coriolanus -- the ultimate glad-handed schmoozing politician, trying desperately to pass on his skills to a stiff, unpopular protege before tragedy strikes.

MOVIES: Best of 2011 -- Supporting Actress

The runners-up:
  • Elle Fanning, Super 8
  • Sarah Paulson, Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus
  • Octavia Spencer, The Help
  • Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
The nominees:
  • Jessica Chastain, The Help -- the best of her work in a remarkable year was found here, in a performance that was both broadly comic and subtly heartbreaking.
  • Viola Davis, The Help -- yes, I said supporting; the movie is about Emma Stone's personal growth, and the maids are merely props to that story. But Davis made Aibileen the most fully rounded, richly human prop a movie could want.
  • Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs -- the best performance in a dull movie (that will be a theme this year, folks); McTeer's cross-dressing was convincing in a way that Glenn Close's never was.
  • Kim Wayans, Pariah -- Audrey is so cruel a mother that we can't ever really sympathize with her, but Wayans does help us to understand the fears that control her.
And the winner:
  • Dagmara Dominczyk, Higher Ground -- a lively, delightful performance that becomes something very different (but equally fine) when Annika's circumstances change abruptly midway through the movie.

MOVIES: Best of 2011

The January DVD catch-up marathon proved to be a disappointment, with almost nothing that was worth sitting all the way through, so I'll get my lists out today, ahead of Tuesday's Oscar nominations. Only likely/possible nominees I haven't seen in the major categories are Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn, and Nick Nolte in Warrior.

January 19, 2012

BOOKS: Tag Man, Archer Mayor (2011)

22nd in Mayor's series of police procedurals about Joe Gunther and the Vermont Bureau of Investigation.

The finer homes of Brattleboro are being burglarized. The burglar isn't particularly menacing, as burglars go; he does no property damage, and there's nothing stolen except a few bites of the priciest food in the fridge. His signature is the Post-It note he leaves on his victims' bedside tables: "Tag! You're It," for which the local press has dubbed him the Tag Man.

Relatively harmless the Tag Man may be, but still, burglary is burglary, and the members of the Brattleboro Police Department would like to track him down. And when he stumbles into evidence of the more serious crimes committed by some of the wealthy folks he visits, the police may be the least of the Tag Man's problems.

Gunther and his colleagues are marvelous characters; the ongoing stories of their lives will have more resonance for those who've followed the series from the beginning, but Mayor skillfully lays in the background details so that the novice can follow those parts of the story. The crime story is, as usual, top-notch, and the multiple strands of the story are carefully woven together for a terrific climax. Mayor continues to be one of our best (and most underrated) writers of police thrillers.

January 17, 2012

TV: Alcatraz (Fox, Mon 9)

The premise is irresistible. The closing of the prison on Alcatraz in 1963 had nothing to do with budget cuts, but was caused by the mysterious disappearance of the 302 men (prisoners and guards) who were there at the time. Now, 50 years later, they've started reappearing in San Francisco, seemingly no older than when they vanished.

Their appearances are being investigated by a four-member team. Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) is the federal agent who won't answer anyone else's questions; he's assisted by Lucy (Parminder Nagra). Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) is the San Francisco cop who's brought into the operation, and who has her own family connections to Alcatraz; her fellow newbie on the team is Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, essentially reprising his Lost role as Hurley, with a little bit of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy thrown in), a local Alcatraz scholar, with the careers, crimes, and MOs of every prisoner at his fingertips.

(Is it just me, or does this collection of characters/actors sound vaguely Fringe-like? Jones in the Anna Torv role of the pretty blonde cop; Garcia in the Joshua Jackson role of the ordinary guy caught up in the whole thing; Neill in the John Noble role of the old guy who knows more than he lets on; Nagra in the Jasika Nicole role of the smart/geeky/ethnic sidekick/assistant.)

As a weekly-bad-guy police procedural, the show's OK (it appears that the title of each episode will be the name of that week's returning criminal); Madsen and Soto are an appealing team (though Garcia's doing most of the work in terms of chemistry), and they do some reasonably clever detective work.

But in the long run, the show will succeed or fail on the pacing of the larger story. Where have the "63s" been for 50 years? Why haven't they aged? Who's behind this? And how much does Hauser know, anyway? J.J. Abrams' shows have, in the past, tended to flounder a bit at the beginning. It was a year or two before Fringe really settled into its alternate-universe mythology; Lost often seemed to be killing time until a firm end date was set for the show.

I felt like we got enough information in the first two hours to keep me interested. We learn about Hauser's and Madsen's connections to Alcatraz's past, and there's a terrific last-minute bombshell involving Lucy that raises both tantalizing questions and intriguing possibilities. Like most serialized shows, this could fall completely apart at any moment, but so far, I'm intrigued, and I'll keep my fingers crossed.

MOVIES: Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011)

Pina is a likely Best Documentary Oscar nominee this year, and has an outside shot at also being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. It's about the work of choreographer Pina Bausch, who died in 2009, shortly after filming began.

What Pina does -- almost the only thing it does -- is show us Bausch's dances. Four of them are presented, not quite in full, but in substantial excerpts, and there are interludes filmed in the public spaces of Wuppertal, Germany (where her company is based) with her dancers doing brief passages from other dances.

We get occasional talking-head commentary from Bausch's dancers and colleagues; Wenders chooses to present them sitting in front of a dark screen, not actually speaking, as we listen to their pre-recorded comments. But if you don't know anything about Bausch, you won't learn it from those commenters, because the movie isn't interested in giving you the facts. We don't learn how long she's been doing this, why she's considered an important figure, or what differentiates her work from that of her peers.

I found that frustrating, because I know nothing about modern dance, and I would have enjoyed some background or historical context useful. I liked watching the dance, but I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd been given some understanding of what I was seeing.

The things that did strike me as (maybe?) unusual were that Bausch doesn't retire her dancers the second they stop being young and pretty; one of the major works we see, in fact, is specifically for dancers over 65. (At least, one version of it is; there's a second version for teenagers, and the film cuts back and forth between the two.)

She also seems to like to put lots of stuff on the stage. Her dance to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring requires that the stage be covered in several inches of dirt; Vollmond fills half the stage with a giant rock, behind which is a waterfall; and Cafe Mueller clutters the stage with chairs and tables.

If you enjoy modern dance, you'll surely enjoy Pina, even though you'll be frustrated by the fact that it's all visuals and no information; if you know enough about it to know why Pina Bausch matters, you'll probably enjoy it even more.

January 16, 2012

TV: The Revolution (ABC daytime)

In its ongoing attempt to fill its entire daytime schedule into clones of The View, ABC today premiered The Revolution, in which a panel of five hosts help women transform themselves.

The better known members of the show's panel are Ty Pennington (Remember when he was on Trading Spaces and he was really cute? Now he looks like beef jerky brought to life) and Tim Gunn; they are responsible for, respectively, decor and fashion. They're joined by Harley Pasternak (fitness and nutrition), Dr. Jennifer Ashton (who is always addressed as "Dr. Jennifer," and is responsible for health), and Tiffanie Davis Henry (self-help and mental health).

Each week, the show focuses on a different "hero," a woman who has turned herself over to the show for a five-month process of transformation. The first week actually has a pair of heroes, sisters who want to lose weight and develop lives that are more independent of one another. Each day of the week follows one month of the hero's process, with the reveal of the fully transformed woman on Friday.

That makes it hard to judge the show in certain ways. One of the strengths of The View (and of its food-centric clone The Chew) is the interaction among the regular panelists. But there's less of that on this show, which tends to be divided into segments featuring one host at a time -- Tim's "Timtervention" fashion segment, an exercise segment with Harley, and so on.

And since much of today's episode, which introduces us to the Harris sisters and follows their first month of progress, was filmed four months ago, the hosts haven't yet had a lot of time to develop much chemistry even when they do work together. It'll be interesting to see if they feel more like a team on Friday's episode, which will have been filmed more recently. The first few months of the show may have a very odd weekly structure -- awkward group interaction on Monday, progressing daily to lively team on Friday. (I'm not quite interested enough to watch a full week to see how this dynamic progresses, but I do plan to catch Friday's show to see if the group's interaction is noticably changed.)

Even if the group chemistry improves, though, this strikes me as by far the least interesting of ABC's panel shows; the individual elements are all things that are being done better on other shows. Much will depend, of course, on how well cast the weekly heros are and on how well the show can develop the audience's interest in them. But it seems like it's going to be largely the same show every week, and not a terribly compelling one. It may simply be that I find the pop culture/gossip of The View and the food chat of The Chew more interesting than the personal transformation on display here, and those who enjoy this sort of psychodrama may find The Revolution absolutely delightful.

January 13, 2012

TV: Rob (CBS, Thu 8:30)

Rob Schneider stars as Rob (never an encouraging sign when the lead actor can't be trusted to remember a name that's not his own), who has just married Maggie (Claudia Bassols) after a quick 6-week relationship. Maggie is significantly younger and more attractive (in standard sitcom fashion), and is nervous about introducing Rob to her large Mexican family.

That's the setup for half an hour of ethnic jokes that I thought had gone out of fashion 30 years ago (Oh, look! The Mexicans like the guacamole!). Maggie's parents are played by Cheech Marin and Diana Maria Riva, and it is their sheer skill and determination that produces the few laughs to be found here.

We also meet Uncle Hector (Eugenio Derbez), who seems to be up to something shady in the garage and keeps hitting Rob up for a "loan" of $7,200; and Abuelita (Lupe Ontiveros), who speaks only Spanish (and doesn't say much even in that language) and has turned her bedroom into a shrine to her late husband.

(And why would you bother to hire an insanely talented actress like Lupe Ontiveros if you're not going to allow her to speak, or to get laughs, or to do much of anything but shuffle around the house in a tattered robe?)

Now, you could make a funny show about a nervous white guy who's not particularly close to his family, and his struggles to deal with his in-laws, both in terms of their close-knit nature (to him, bizarre clinginess) and the culture shock of the ethnic difference. But to do that, you'd have to rise above cheap Mexican cliches (Rob on entering a crowded room, filled with Maggie's extended family: "I feel like I'm at a Julio Iglesias concert."), tired henpecked husband routines (with both Schneider and Marin as the victims), and offensive sex jokes (Rob's caught looking as if he wants to rape Abuelita! Ho, ho, ho!).

Even if this sounds like something that might appeal to you, I wouldn't bother getting attached; it's not going to be around for long.

TV: Are You There, Chelsea? (NBC, Tue 8:30)

This is another in this year's wave of comedies that claim to be edgy because the people being vulgar in them are women (see also 2 Broke Girls, Bridesmaids, Whitney...), this one based on the comic essays/memoirs of Chelsea Handler. The title is a dumbed-down for TV dilution of Handler's book title Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea.

Laura Prepon plays Chelsea, who waits tables at a New York bar, drinks a lot, has a lot of sex, and talks a lot about drinking and having sex. Prepon is a likable actress, maybe even too likable for this part; her version of Chelsea is a little too sunny and not quite as cynical as the show wants her to be.

The supporting cast features Chelsea's best friend (Ali Wong), who is supposedly extra funny because she's a vulgar Asian woman; the hunky bartender (Jake McDorman); the little person barback (Mark Povinelli) -- little people are apparently a comic fixation for Handler -- and her father (longtime sitcom veteran Lenny Clarke, who deserves better than this). Each of those characters has precisely one character trait -- Asian, hunk, short, dad. Even for the first episode of a sitcom, they're thinly written.

Chelsea's sister, Sloane, will also make occasional appearances; she is, confusingly enough, played by the real Chelsea Handler, wearing a brunette wig and doing a bad Parker Posey impression.

The show's best character is Chelsea's new roommate, Dee Dee, played by Lauren Lapkus with a lively, weird spin on the Phoebe Buffay "is she crazy or just stupid?" type. Dee Dee is a virgin, and it's interesting that neither she nor Chelsea appears to be particularly judgmental about the other's lifestyle; slightly puzzled, perhaps, but ultimately just writing it off to different people making different choices.

There is an occasional good joke here, most of them so far for Dee Dee, and though their characters are underwritten, I think most of the supporting cast has the potential to be interesting. If the writers can flesh out the characters and find the right comic wavelength for the non-Dee Dee cast members, this could become something interesting. It's never going to be sophisticated humor, and a certain number of the jokes are always going to be built around how many euphemisms Chelsea can find for her vagina, but there is -- maybe -- some potential.

January 12, 2012

BOOKS: Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt (2011)

By coincidence, my second book in a row built around taking a big idea as far as it will go. Drew Magary's The Postmortal pulled off that trick very nicely; Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods did not.

DeWitt's big idea is this: In a lot of large companies, the hard-driving alpha males who hold most of the executive spots are, in part because of the same hard-driving alphaness that makes them top executives, among the employees most prone to commit acts of sexual harassment. So what if you could defuse their levels of sexual tension by providing them with an on-the-job way to get their jollies?

Thus, the "lightning rods" are created; they're women who are legitimately employed by a company as secretaries or IT people or whatever, but who agree, for a significant bonus in pay, to provide (and the premise really is this crude) a convenient hole when a guy needs something to fuck. The gimmick is that the lightning rod service is to be entirely anonymous. The company agrees to turn over the majority of its staffing to the lightning rod agency, and thus doesn't know which of its employees are also serving as lightning rods; and the sexual encounters happen through a hole in the wall that allows each participant to see only the lower half of the other's body.

There is an occasional clever or amusing extrapolation from this idea (how do you maintain the program's anonymity at a small midwestern company when its first black female employee wants in on the lightning rod pay bonus?), but mostly the book is cheap, smirky, juvenile smut.

January 11, 2012

BOOKS: The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011)

The Postmortal is set in our near future after a cure for aging is developed. Doesn't mean you can't die, mind you -- you can still be shot, or fall of a bridge, or get cancer -- but you won't get any older and you won't die of old age.

Magary does a fine job of exploring the possible social and political fallout of such a cure. There are new religious cults to deal with; new legal structures surrounding marriage and divorce are developed (not to mention the redefinitions of "life sentence"); pregnancy becomes taboo (because with fewer people dying, the world's resources are strained as it is); and inevitably, a new government bureaucracy arises to deal with the postmortal who decide they've lived long enough and are ready to die.

The best thing about the book is that it does a lot of things well. It's a smart extrapolation of one idea and its consequences; it's a creepy apocalyptic thriller; and it is very funny, in a dry and dark way. And Magary builds the story well; the consequences of living in a post-cure world don't all appear at once, but instead build up and develop over time. Things are worse after forty years than they are after ten, in ways that are entirely sensible and logical.

If there's a serious flaw, it may be that the narrator doesn't seem to mature much as the book progresses; the 89-year-old at the end of the book feels about the same as the 29-year-old who gets the cure at the beginning. You could, I suppose, argue that aging is an integral part of maturing, and that if the physical self doesn't age, neither will the emotional self. But even that potential problem didn't really strike me as I was reading the book, which I enjoyed as a surprisingly smart piece of light entertainment.

January 10, 2012

MOVIES: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)

There have been studies showing that people will interpret a blank facial expression very differently depending on the context in which it's shown. Greta Garbo was famously asked to make her face as expressionless as possible for the final shot of Queen Christina. In Drive, Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn set out to find out if blank and expressionless can sustain an entire movie. The answer, sadly, is no.

Gosling -- his character is never named, and identified in the credits only as "Driver" -- plays a movie stunt driver who occasionally hires himself out as getaway driver for bank robbers and small-time crooks. He also works at a garage owned by an old friend (Bryan Cranston) who has connections to local mob bosses Bernie and Izzy (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman).

The movie takes a sudden turn when a getaway gig goes very wrong, and suddenly it's Killapalooza 2011, with shootings, stabbings, slashings, and stompings. The violence is intense and makes a strong visceral impact, though I suspect we don't actually see as much gore as we think we're seeing at the moment.

Gosling's performance -- if you can call it that -- consists of staring blankly ahead, saying as little as possible, and occasionally exploding in a frenzied burst of violence. Driver isn't a character; he's an impassive slab of stoicism. The only interesting acting in the movie comes from likely Oscar nominee Albert Brooks, playing very much against type as a gentlemanly thuggish gangster; it's a lovely, dry performance, and the movie would have benefited greatly from more of the understatement and wit Brooks brings to it.

MOVIES: Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2011)

Bill Cunningham New York is an entertaining documentary about the veteran fashion photographer. For fifty years, Cunningham has been documenting fashion in New York. His focus has included the obvious runway shows and society galas, but he's perhaps best known for his weekly New York Times "On the Street" feature, for which he assembles 20 or 30 candid shots taken that week built around some trend he's spotted -- picture frame collars, men in skirts, denim.

Taking those candid photos is how Cunningham spends most of his days, getting around the city on his bicycle and photographing whatever catches his eye. For some, being seen in an outfit interesting enough to get Cunningham's attention is a badge of honor.

Many of those photographed for "On the Street," though, don't even know they've been photographed until they see the picture in the paper. While it's true that there is no legal expectation of privacy on a public street, the stealth photography of ordinary people does make me a bit queasy ethically. The movie only briefly addresses that issue, with Cunningham arguing that he's different from the paparazzi in that he's not chasing celebrities; his photography is done quietly and discreetly, and he's always more interested in the clothes than in the people wearing them.

Cunningham is a charming eccentric who has, as one of his colleagues says, "never taken a cruel picture," and he's a delightful personality to build a movie around. Bill Cunningham New York is a sweet little bonbon of a movie.

January 06, 2012

BOOKS: The Night Strangers, Chris Bohjalian (2011)

Shortly after taking off from Burlington, Vermont, pilot Chip Linton is forced to land his plane in Lake Champlain; thirty-nine are killed. It wasn't Chip's fault, but that doesn't relieve his guilt and depression. Hoping for a fresh start, Chip relocates his family from Philadelphia to upstate New Hampshire.

The social life of Bethel is dominated by a circle of "herbalists" who spend hours in their greenhouses, growing a variety of plants, common and obscure, culinary and medicinal. As a group, these women take a disquieting interest in Chip's ten-year-old twin daughters.

And what on earth is that mysterious door in the basement of the Lintons' new home, and why has it been so securely bolted shut (with thirty-nine bolts exactly)?

This is a departure for Bohjalian, who frequently focuses on some hot-button social or legal issue (midwifery, transgender people, interracial adoption, etc.), but here gives us a creepy tale of ghosts and haunted houses. It still reads like Bohjalian -- the prose is elegant and graceful without being stuffy, and the characters are beautifully and precisely detailed -- but it's Bohjalian's Stephen King novel. (Except that it's better than King, because Bohjalian knows how to edit himself instead of blathering on for 800 pages or more.)

The ending will infuriate some; I appreciated the fact that it was less tidy and predictable than I'd expected. Those who are bothered by children-in-peril stories should probably avoid; otherwise, happily recommended.

January 02, 2012

MOVIES: A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

This Iranian film is widely considered to be one of the front runners for this year's Foreign Film Oscar, and it is a fine piece of work.

It begins with a couple seated before a judge, asking him to resolve their dispute. Simin (Leila Hatami) has finally gotten visa papers that would allow the family to leave Iran, but Nader (Peyman Maadi) refuses to leave, as he is the sole caregiver for his father, who has Alzheimer's. Nader is not contesting Simin's request for a divorce; the sticking point is custody of the couple's ten-year-old daughter. Since they cannot agree on that issue, the judge refuses to grant their divorce.

Simin moves back to her mother's home, and Nader is forced to hire a woman to tend to his father during the day. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) finds the job more demanding than expected, and suggests that her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) could take over for her.

That sounds like a lot of plot, but it's only the first few minutes of the movie, and things haven't even begun to get complicated yet. The two couples eventually find themselves caught up in a painful legal battle in which gender, religion, and economic class all play key roles.

Those social issues are always present, and we're constantly being reminded of their impact on the story, but not in a heavy-handed way. The story comes first, and it will grab you and hold your attention from the opening scene.

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi doesn't give us an obvious rooting interest, and he does everything he can to maintain the ambiguity of the story. Scenes cut off just before important events; the questions that characters ask one another frequently go unanswered; almost everyone is eventually proven to be lying about something.

You can't easily lump A Separation into any particular genre; it's equal parts detective story, courtroon drama (in an Iranian way, which has a very different feel than an American proceeding would), and family drama. It's a movie in which we empathize with all of the main characters, even as we wince at the awful decisions they're making.

January 01, 2012

Happy New Year!

...and for those who might be looking forward to a year-end top ten movie list, it will, as is my custom, not be here for another few weeks. January is a dead month for worthwhile new releases, which makes it a fine time to catch up on DVD with some of the year's movies that I missed the first time around. There will always be something that I've missed, no matter when I put a list together, but giving myself a DVD month lets me feel at least a little more complete.

MOVIES: The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)

The Iron Lady gives us Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. It is a skillful impression; you would expect no less from Streep. Unfortunately, as we should have guessed after her similar Julia Child performance, you should also expect no more than mere impression. The voice and accent, the hair, the pearls, the physical tics -- all are there -- but there's no soul, no personality. I left the movie having learned a bit about recent British history, but having learned nothing about Thatcher.

The framing device gives us Thatcher in the present day (the old-age makeup is superb); she lives alone, though she is often visited by her hallucinations of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). She hasn't entirely slipped into senility, but the lucid moments are increasingly rare. It is through her memories that we view the key moments of her career -- her entry into politics, her image makeover at the hands of consultants, her election as Prime Minister, the Falklands war -- which means that the version of history that we get is very pro-Thatcher. The movie doesn't avoid the fact that she was a controversial leader, but the arguments against her are kept very much in the background, and the movie argues that they are rooted not in politics, but in sexism.

The only particularly interesting performance in the movie comes from Harry Lloyd, who is utterly charming in his few scenes as the young Denis Thatcher (Streep and Broadbent take over the roles in roughly 1960, when Margaret is about 35).

I know that I am in a small minority where Streep is concerned. I think she's a far better comic actress than a dramatic one. In comedy, she can be delightfully spontaneous and unpredictable; in dramatic roles, I can always see how carefully every choice is being made -- breathe here and emphasize that syllable and let the voice quiver just so -- which is both distracting and annoying. If you are (like most) a fan of her dramatic work, you will probably enjoy this performance and movie more than I did.

MOVIES: Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)

Pariah is the debut feature film from writer/director Dee Rees, and it's a remarkably confident first effort. It's the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old African-American girl who is coming to terms with her lesbianism. Her mother (Kim Wayans) suspects and does not approve; her father (Charles Parnell) is doing his best to avoid the subject. That's just one of the many stresses that is slowly destroying their marriage.

The performances are very good. Oduye, who is in her early 30s, is entirely convincing playing half her age. It's a difficult role, because Alike is very reserved and a bit shy, so Oduye has to say a lot with facial expressions, but every thought shines through.

Wayans reportedly lobbied very hard to get this role, wanting to prove that she was more than just a comic actress, and she does fine work. Audrey is the obvious villain of the piece, and while we can't really sympathize with her at any point, Wayans does make clear the fears that dominate her life -- loss of both her husband and her daughter.

There are, I think, a few specific cultural details that flew over my head because I am neither black, lesbian, nor young, but the bigger themes are universal -- the pain of a marriage in collapse, the rush of first love, the fear that secrets will be discovered. A fine movie, and I look forward to seeing what Rees does next.