February 26, 2012

MOVIES: Gambit (Ronald Neame, 1966)

I was led to this one by Drew McWeeny's glowing review from earlier in the week, and McWeeny's right; Gambit is an absolute delight.

I really shouldn't say much about the plot beyond the bare bones of the setup. Michael Caine is a burglar plotting to steal a sculpture from Middle Eastern art collector Herbert Lom; he recruits dancer Shirley MacLaine to help him, believing that her uncanny resemblance to Lom's late wife will provide the finishing touch to his plan.

The three central performances are all terrific, but special notice must go to MacLaine, who holds our attention for the first half hour entirely through perfect reactions and physical acting, because her character doesn't utter a word in all that time. When she finally does speak, we begin to realize that Gambit isn't just about characters conning one another; it's about how cleverly the movie can fool us in the audience.

Some of the movie's portrayal of its Middle Eastern characters is a bit broad and cartoonish by today's standards, though never, I think, actually racist or offensive; in fact, some of that broadness is done for specific effect, to tell us something about how its characters think of one another. Similarly, while one would probably not cast MacLaine as a Eurasian these days, it's not a huge part of who the character is, and the makeup is far more subtle and gracefully done than, for instance, the ghastly offensiveness of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The Coen brothers have a remake due later this year with Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, and Alan Rickman in the Caine, MacLaine, and Lom roles. McWeeny reports that the story plays out very differently, so there's no need to avoid seeing the original for fear of having the new one spoiled for you. And with Caine and Lom as the cleverest of adversaries, and MacLaine proving to be both funny and sexy (and remarkably limber), you really should see Gambit.

February 24, 2012

BOOKS: In the Lion's Mouth, Michael Flynn (2011)

Spiral Arm series, #3. (My thoughts on the first two volumes here.)

An entertaining story of spies and intrigue, which you might think of as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Interplanetary Assassin.

In Flynn's universe, there are two rival interplanetary alliances, each with its own set of spies/security forces; think of each as a cross between the CIA and squads of Navy SEALs. The United League has the Hounds; the Confederation has the Shadows. This novel takes place among the Shadows, and follows the efforts of some to rebel against Those of Name, the mysterious figures who oversee them.

Series protagonist Donovan, the scarred man, was once a Shadow, and the rebels want him to join their cause, believing that he has knowledge which will aid them. But Donovan's scars are psychological as well as physical, and it's not clear whether he will be able to remember what they need; it's not entirely certain, in fact, that he's actually the man they think he is. And in any event, he wants nothing to do with the Shadows and their civil war.

As is often true with stories of this sort, there are a lot of characters, and loyalties and alliances are often unclear and shifting. Flynn makes it easy to keep track of everyone, though, in part though his delightfully memorable names; the language of his far-future universe has shreds of every culture and language from old Earth spread throughout it, giving us characters like Manluis Metataxis, Domino Tight, Ravn Olafsdottir, and Pendragon Jones. Certainly easier to remember those than it would be to keep track of Bob, Phil, Joan, and Dave.

Flynn wraps up the main story by the end of the novel, but Donovan's ultimate fate is left up in the air, and another volume will clearly be required to tie up those loose ends. It seems likely that the next volume will have larger roles for two characters who play relatively small parts in this one, the Hound Bridget ban and her daughter, the harper Mearana, and that will be a good thing. Looking forward to it already.

February 22, 2012

BOOKS: Firebird, Jack McDevitt (2011)

Sixth in the Alex Benedict series. (My takes on some earlier volumes here and here.)

Our hero is Alex Benedict, antiquities dealer. And when the story's set roughly 9000 years in the future and man has established colonies on dozens of other planets, there are a lot of antiquities in which to deal. This time around, he's being asked to handle the estate auction of physicist Christopher Robin, who disappeared mysteriously forty years ago. Robin's work was often at the very edges of accepted science, and he explored ideas that many of his colleagues didn't take seriously, such as finding a way to travel between parallel universes.

The auction revives the public fascination with Robin and his baffling disappearance (that revival being fostered by Alex, who knows that it will drive up the auction prices), and leads Alex and his associate, Chase (who narrates the story; she is the Watson to Alex's Holmes), to begin investigating what actually did happen to Robin.  That investigation leads to a series of unexplained appearances of unidentified spacecraft, a trip to a planet where humanity was killed off by natural disaster, and a political controversy surrounding the sentience of the artificial intelligences that run most people's homes and ships.

As always, I'm struck by the coziness of McDevitt's future. Nine thousand years from now, and there's apparently been relative stability in human culture for all that time. There's certainly been no great cataclysmic disaster that destroys the knowledge base; Shakespeare's plays and Stravinsky's ballets are still being performed. And for all the high-tech advances -- interstellar travel and AIs that tend to your daily scheduling and routine business -- events often play out through simple conversations in someone's living room.

McDevitt's style is simple and straightforward, and his characters, while perhaps not the richest creations in the genre, are pleasant people to spend time with. McDevitt's novels are rarely dazzling or surprising, but they are reliably solid entertainment, and Firebird is no exception.

It is also one of this year's Nebula-nominated novels, which were announced earlier this week. Of that group, I've read two already: China Mieville's Embassytown and Jo Walton's Among Others. I will probably skip over N.K. Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods, which is the third volume of a series in which I could barely get through the first. That leaves Kameron Hurley's God's War and Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique, both of which are on my to-do list.

February 20, 2012

a tiny bunch of links

Motion Captured: Drew McWeeny watches To Kill a Mockingbird with his young sons.

Wondering what might be coming to TV this fall? The Hollywood Reporter provides a handy-dandy (and frequently updated) list of pilots in the works.

Shakesville: Melissa McEwan on the Dan Savage campaign to redefine "santorum."

And since everybody's doing it, let's close with yet another cover of the hot song of the moment:

February 19, 2012

TV: Melissa Harris-Perry (MSNBC, Sat/Sun 10 am Eastern)

Melissa Harris-Perry has been a regular contributor and occasional guest host on MSNBC, particularly on Rachel Maddow's show, for a few years now. Now MSNBC has given her a show of her own, which airs for 2 hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It's something of a cross between Maddow's show (though MHP's style is quite different from Maddow's) and Meet the Press, in which Harris-Perry introduces segments on various news stories in the MSNBC style that is equal parts straight reporting and commentary (the dividing line between the two is always clear), then brings out guests for a panel discussion of those issues.

Harris-Perry is an academic, a professor at Tulane, and that shows in her style; the tone of her introductory segments is occasionally a bit lecturing, and I wish she were bolder in challenging her more conservative guests. But she's got a delightful dry sense of humor, and her background and professional experience leads her to book guests who we don't often see on the Sunday talk shows. They are both more likely to be academics and less likely to be white men.

Harris-Perry covers politics, but she often views events of the moment from a historical perspective, where "historical" is not limited to the last five years; she's very interested in the question of "how did we get here," and exploring how a given event resonates with our history, or what turning points led us to this moment.

She also seems to have a strong interest in the places where politics intersects with broader pop culture; the panel discussion on Saturday's show of the cultural significance of Whitney Houston, and her sometimes controversial place in the African-American musical world, was the best thing I saw in the long week of Celebrity Funeral Porn. 

She also shows a willingness to discuss religion in a more serious way than cable news usually does. (It's possible that was simply driven by the news events of the week, but I don't think so.) Today's panel, for instance, included the first female president of Union Theological Seminary, an African-American female professor of religious studies, and a male Asian-American constitutional law professor for a wide-ranging discussion of the contraception controversy, the week's developments in marriage equality, and the elevation of several new Catholic cardinals.

I make note of the gender and ethnicity of those panelists because Harris-Perry herself makes note of it. She is fonder of identity politics than I am; to the extent that this leads her to bring us a wider mix of voices, that's a good thing. But she seems to believe that men and women will, solely by nature of their gender, see certain issues differently (or similarly for race); she takes the Mars/Venus thing far too seriously for my liking. She made a point, for instance, of noting with pride that there were no white men in that panel discussion of religion; I certainly don't have any objection to the absence of white men (and lord knows that the exclusion of other voices has often led to absurd moments like this week's Congressional hearing on contraception at which no women testified), but neither do I think that their absence is anything to take particular pride in.

At two hours, the show feels long, and I wouldn't mind seeing it trimmed to a tight 60 or 90 minutes. It's also on quite early on the west coast, so it's something that I'll record and skim through later in the day to catch the most interesting bits. But I have long been a fan of Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm delighted to see her distinctive voice given a regular outlet.

February 12, 2012

MOVIES: 2011 Oscar-nominated shorts (live-action/animated)

It's been seven or eight years now, I think, that these theatrical programs of the nominated shorts have been playing, and you start to see certain themes and patterns that the Academy voters apparently like, especially in the live-action films.

This year's "Irish fable about the morality of childhood," for instance, is "Pentecost," in which a young altar boy makes an embarrassing mistake and is given a chance to redeem himself during a particularly important Mass. I thought the movie trivialized religion in a mildly offensive way, fairly explicitly declaring the Mass to be no more important than a sporting event, and I found the protagonist's final act to be entirely unprepared and unmotivated.

The "aren't third world children adorable" slot goes this year to "Raju," about a German couple who have come to India to adopt a 4-year-old boy. Raju goes missing while shopping with his new father in a local bazaar, leading to some unsettling revelations. This is less cloyingly sweet than most of the kid-centered films in this category tend to be, but again, character motivation was problematic, particularly from the wife.

There's often a short which features big-time feature-film level talent slumming in the world of shorts; this year, director Terry George and star Ciaran Hinds bring us "The Shore." Two Irish men who were best friends in their youth meet for the first time after 25 years of estrangement. It's the most skillfully made of the group, but it's also the longest, and could have used a trim from its 30 minutes.

You can almost always count on an American entry for the broadest humor, as is true of "Time Freak," the tale of a schlub who dreams of using his time machine to visit ancient Rome, but instead gets caught up in trying to get the mundane exchanges of daily life right -- a visit to the dry cleaner, a meeeting with a potential girlfriend. Amusing, but slight; it's rather like an 11-minute version of Primer, but with coherent storytelling and a sense of humor.

Finally, the "lonely old Scandinavian prepares to die" slot is filled by Norway's "Tuba Atlantic," in which Oskar spends the last week of his life in the company of an enthusiastic young woman who is trying to earn her "Angel of Death" wings so that he can help other people at the end of their lives; he spends much of his time devising more and more ingenious ways to kill off the local seagulls. It is the best of a weak lot.

Should win: "Tuba Atlantic."
Will win: "The Shore."

The animated films this year are a stronger lot, and if you can only see one of the two programs, it's the one to see.

"Dimanche/Sunday" is the story of a small boy in a small town, being bored to pieces on a typical Sunday. Breakfast with the parents, church, dinner at Grandma's with the extended family of aunts and uncles -- none of it holds his attention, especially since he always seems to be the only child in the room. The animation is done in very simple, child-like drawings, and the sense of perspective is often exaggerated -- notice how large the trains are as they pass through town.

"A Morning Stroll" tells a simple story -- a New Yorker has a strange encounter with a chicken -- three times, each time in the animation style (or the imagined style) of a different era. The 1959 version is done in marvelous stick figures, so minimally drawn that they border on the abstract; the 2009 version is contemporary CGI. The 2059 version imagines an unhappy future, and gets a bit too gory for my taste.

"Wild Life" is set in the early 20th century, and follows the life of a young British dandy who has come to Alberta, Canada, where he fancies himself a cowboy rancher. The animation is in a style that doesn't generally interest me much, looking like oil paintings come to life, and while it is impeccably and beautifully done, it's a lot of beauty applied to a rather slight story.

"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" is about a Buster Keaton-esque young man who is swept away by a storm (very, very, VERY Wizard of Oz) to a magical land where his only company is a library of flying books. It's meant to be a tale about the joy of reading, and the ways in which books can carry us away. It's a bit surreal for my taste, though there are moments in it that I like very much.

Pixar's "La Luna," which you'll be able to see in theaters this summer preceding Brave, is the story of two janitors (of a sort) working the night shift with their young apprentice, who learns to do the job in his own way while still being respectful to his mentors. It's absolutely charming, and it is by far the best of the lot.

Should win: "La Luna."
Will Win: "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore."

Because the animated shorts don't make a full-length program, we got four additional non-nominated films from the shortlist, most of which were beautifully animated, but rather slight on story. "Nullarbor" is the story of two drivers in conflict on Australia's longest, straightest stretch of desert highway. "Amazonia" is the struggle to survive in the jungle food chain, with a punchline that doesn't quite pay off. "The Hybrid Union" gives us robots racing, for no apparent reason, through an endless desert.

Best of the also-rans was "Skylight," which is presented in the style of an old-fashioned educational film about penguins (complete with the frame occasionally slipping off center and jittery sound), but ultimately proves to have more contemporary issues on its mind. The very final image takes the joke one step too far, but that's my only complaint, and I'd happily have had this among the nominees over "Wild Life" or "A Morning Stroll."

February 06, 2012

TV: Smash (NBC, Mon 10)

Unless you've been in a cave for the last three months, you've seen the ads and billboards and posters for Smash, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a musical about Marilyn Monroe. The show premieres tonight, but NBC has made the first episode available all over the internet, and I finally got around to watching it. It's a very strong hour.

The story is familiar enough -- a backstage musical about dueling divas -- but it's smartly written, with entertaining original songs, and (mostly) very well cast.

My major reservation about the cast is Katharine McPhee, about whom I remain slightly skeptical. She's a good pop singer, but doesn't really have (or at least, doesn't get to show in the first episode) a Broadway voice; and I'm not sure yet she has the acting chops for the role.

Megan Hilty, who plays McPhee's principal rival for the role of Marilyn Monroe, has a thankless role; she's playing the slightly older actress who has lots of Broadway experience, but has never landed the leading role that would make her a star. Hilty has to suggest both great talent and a lack of star power, and playing a character who lacks charisma while letting your own charisma hold the audience's interest is a hard thing for an actor to pull off.

There are a couple of subplots that already feel like they're going to get boring very quickly. Songwriter Julia (Debra Messing) and her husband want to adopt a baby; her partner Tom (Christian Borle) has an ambitious "All About Eve"-style assistant (Jaime Cepero).

But the main storyline is compelling, and the musical numbers are delightful. The lines between realistic presentations and full-on fantasy productions are clearly drawn, and it's always clear why we're switching from one to the other (messing up that distinction is one of my pet peeves about Glee).

The show doesn't take time to explain every Broadway insider detail; it's not quite as "throw you in the deep end" immersive as, say, HBO's Luck, but it does assume that you have a little bit of background knowledge and that you're smart enough to figure out what you don't know.

This is a very promising beginning. Please please please let the show live up to that promise.

MOVIES: Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012)

Chronicle is, in essence, another superhero origin story, but its characters feel more realistic than we usually get in such tales, as do their reactions to their new powers.

After three teenage boys in Seattle find a glowing artifact in a cave, they develop telekinesis. Being fairly average kids, their first thoughts are not of battling evil or saving the world; instead, they use their power for pranks and fun.

As the boys explore their powers, they become inseparable friends, which is a new experience for Andrew, who's always been a misfit; even as a senior, he's still the primary target of his school's bullies. Throw in a dying mother and an abusive drunken father, and it's not surprising that Andrew has a lot of barely repressed anger at the world. Andrew also has the strongest telekinetic gift of the three, and it's not long before that anger is no longer quite so repressed.

The movie is filmed in "found footage" style -- Andrew carries a video camera with him everywhere he goes -- which can often get really annoying, with all the jittery hand-held camera work, but director Josh Trank finds a clever way around that. As Andrew's powers grow, he simply floats the camera wherever he wants it, which allows it to be more stable (and even to provide tracking/dolly shots).

The movie does a very good job of mixing its special effects with its low-budget look, and the characters are better written and more rounded than you'd expect from this sort of movie; I especially appreciated the fact that the quarterback/class president/popular kid is, for a change, not an asshole, but the nicest one of the group. Performances from the cast of relative unknowns are consistently good.

There's a bit of a fumble in the last twenty minutes or so, when the movie suddenly goes overboard on the CGI effects and loses track of its subtle character development, but as a whole, it's very much worth seeing.

February 01, 2012

BOOKS: As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber (2009)

I don't read a lot of sports books, but I do enjoy books that take a look inside some odd little cultural corner, so I liked this book about professional baseball umpires.

It's a hard way to make a living. Like the players, umpires have to work their way up through the minor leagues, where the living conditions are tough and the pay is low. But once they make it to the pros, umpires are there until they choose to retire; only in the most extraordinary circumstances would an umpire be demoted or fired. So there are, in a good year, only two or three opening for new umpires to be promoted to the majors.

The world of the umpire is an insular one; one of Weber's recurring themes is how unwilling the umpires generally are to say anything more than vague generalities about their job, their working conditions, or any of the controversies of the profession. Fortunately, he earns the trust of enough people to get some good interviews.

It's also a fairly lonely way to make a living. Umpires don't get much attention until they make a mistake, and no one ever leaves the park talking about how well the umpires called the game. Even Major League Baseball itself doesn't seem to have much respect for them; they complain, for instance, that the World Series program can't even find a page to list the umpires (and being assigned to work the World Series is a very big deal).

Weber visits one of the two recognized umpire training schools, spends most of a year on the road talking to umpires, and even gets to umpire an intrasquad spring training game. It's an entertaining read and a solid piece of reporting.