July 22, 2012

TV: Sullivan & Son (TBS, Thu 10)

Sullivan & Son wants to be a 21st-century Cheers. It's not. The show saddles a fine cast with material so dismal that it can't be salvaged.

Co-creator Steve Byrne stars as Steve Sullivan, New York corporate lawyer who decides to buy the family bar when his parents (Dan Lauria and Jodi Long) decide to retire. His snooty girlfriend is appalled at the thought of moving to Pittsburgh, leaving Steve free to start dating his old sweetheart Melanie (Valerie Azlynn). His sister Susan (Vivian Bang) is horrified to have him back home again, believing that he was always the favorite.

The bar's regulars include Steve's best friend Owen (Owen Benjamin); Owen's mom, cougar/lush Carol (Christine Ebersole); and the lovable old racist Hank (Brian Doyle-Murray).

The jokes are mostly creaky old ethnic and drunk jokes; a lot of mileage is gotten out of Long as the scary Korean dragon lady, and Doyle-Murray has to deliver a wretched monologue about how he's learned to accept the changes to the bar as different groups have moved into the neighborhood, "but at least we've kept out the Mexicans!"

Doyle-Murray is so damned good, though, that he almost manages to pull off even a speech that awful; Ebersole works similar miracles with her paper-thin boozy slut. Long and Lauria are convincing as a couple whose marriage is equal parts love and irritation. Byrne is blandly amiable, which is about all one expects from the island of sanity in a sitcom sea of lunacy.

It's a very likable and incredibly talented cast, but the material is so far beneath them that Sullivan & Son isn't remotely worth your time.

July 21, 2012

BOOKS: Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce (2012)

The woods near Tara Martin's village have always been a mysterious place. Some would say haunted, some would say enchanted, but strange things happen there. But it's still a shock when 16-year-old Tara disappears without a trace from those woods. It's even more of a shock when she turns up at her parents' door 20 years later, seeming to have barely aged a day.

The mystery of what happened to Tara is at the heart of Graham Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale, a lovely novel that combines fairy tale tropes with magical realism and outright fantasy.

Tara's story is farfetched, to say the least. She claims that a man on a white horse took her away to another world, and that she's only been gone for six months. Her parents aren't convinced, but are so thrilled to have her back that they're not going to press the issue. Her brother, Peter, on the other hand, will have none of it; he arranges for Tara to see a psychiatrist, and his own family begins to feel the strain caused by Tara's reappearance.

Most profoundly affected, perhaps, is Tara's old boyfriend, Richie; though nothing was ever proven, most of the locals have assumed for 20 years that Richie was responsible for Tara's disappearance, and the cloud of suspicion has made it difficult for him to get on with life.

Joyce tells the story from multiple points of view, and each of his narrators has a distinctive and convincing voice. He's taken a variety of familiar storytelling motifs and re-imagined them, combining them in ways that make them new and fresh. His prose is clean and spare, never getting in the way of the story or drawing attention to itself. It's a marvelous book.

TV: Political Animals (USA, Sun 10)

Once upon a time, we would have called USA's Political Animals a miniseries, but that word has fallen out of favor, so now it's a "limited series event." And if the first episode is any guide, we're in for a delightfully trashy six-week fantasia on Hilary Clinton.

Oh, they're calling her Elaine Barish (played by Sigourney Weaver), but look at the fictional resume -- former First Lady whose husband was wildly popular despite his sex scandals, who now serves as Secretary of State in the administration of the man who defeated her in her own bid for the presidency -- and it's impossible not to see Hilary.

There are a few cosmetic differences. Elaine Barish divorced President Bud Hammond (Ciaran Hinds) after losing the nomination, and they have two sons instead of a daughter. The good son, Douglas (James Wolk), works as his mother's chief of staff; the troubled son, T.J. (Sebastian Stan), grew up as the first openly gay kid in the White House, and now struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.

The cast also includes Adrian Pasdar as the new president; Ellen Burstyn, hamming it up in style as Elaine's boozy mother; and Carla Gugino as a political reporter who has a long history of being sharply critical of Elaine. (The scenes between Gugino and Weaver are the best parts of the show; TV rarely gives us two ambitious women talking about their careers and the price they pay for them. "Never call a bitch a bitch," Weaver advises. "Us bitches hate that.")

The show's created by Greg Berlanti, who brought you Brothers and Sisters, and there are similar elements of the family soap here. Douglas is engaged to marry a pretty young woman with an eating disorder; Bud's dating a sexy TV star; T.J. wants his parents to invest in his nightclub (because where better for a guy with booze and drug problems to work than in a nightclub?).

And some of that carries over to the political family, as well. We get the sense that the vice president (Dylan Baker) is none too bright; Elaine doesn't get along well with the president's chief of staff (Roger Bart).

But this isn't meant to be a serious look at the workings of the American political system; it's meant to be wildly goofy soap opera, and as such, it's great fun. The cast is uniformly top notch (with the mild caveat that Hinds never does quite get a grip on a consistent Southern accent), and there are enough plot twists at the end of the episode to bring me back for the full six weeks.

July 19, 2012

BOOKS: The Uncertain Places, Lisa Goldstein (2011)

Lisa Goldstein's The Uncertain Places is a marvelous 100-page novella, followed by 130 pages of less good follow-up to bring it to novel length.

The setting is northern California in the early 1970s, where Berkeley student Will Taylor has just been introduced to the Feierabend family, a mother and three sisters who own a vineyard in the Napa Valley. Will falls hard for Livvy, but their relationship becomes complicated when she falls into a mysterious sleep.

The rest of the family doesn't seem as shocked by this as Will is; they've actually been expecting it. The Feierabends are, it turns out, the central figures in a fairy tale that the Grimms never published, and Livvy's sleep (which is to last seven years) is part of a family curse in exchange for which they are blessed with luck and good fortune.

Will's attempt to free Livvy from the curse is the focus of the first half of the novel, and if you stop reading on page 101, when he says "I bet you thought the story would end there," you will have been told a nearly perfect tale.

I looked forward to continuing, because I generally enjoy stories about what comes after "happily ever after," but in this case, I felt somewhat let down. Goldstein stretches the tale into a second generation of the family, introduces a variety of new (less interesting) characters who know bits and pieces of the Feierabends' story, and spends way too much time in the realm of those fairies who placed the curse.

It's not that the second half of the novel is poorly written or uninteresting; it's a pretty good story with some clever twists and uses of fairy tale tropes. But in comparison to the brilliance of those first hundred pages, there's definitely a slump towards the sluggish and the pedestrian.

It may just be that Goldstein has trouble writing endings; I thought that the final chapters of her Dark Cities Underground fell a bit flat, too. I liked that book, though, and even the weaker half of this one is worth your while.

(I see from her Wikipedia entry that she's written several other novels. Anyone familiar enough with her work to recommend any of them in particular?)

July 13, 2012

MOVIES: Ted (Seth MacFarlane, 2012)

Ted suffers from the basic problem that you see in most of MacFarlane's work -- the next big punchline is always more important than the story -- but it's more coherently plotted than, for instance, the average episode of Family Guy, and the jokes are funny enough often enough to make the movie a lot of fun.

Mark Wahlberg stars as John, a guy in his mid-30s who's never quite finished growing up. In part, that's because he still lives with his teddy bear, Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), who came to life one night after 8-year-old John's wish came true. The two of them share an apartment with John's girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), whose patience with this unorthodox arrangement is starting to wear thin.

The relationship between John and Ted is the best part of the movie, and the effects work makes Ted a remarkably convincing character. An angry brawl between the two of them is a highlight of the movie. Other characters are less successful. Kunis isn't a natural comedian; Joel McHale's romantic rival is a bit one-note; and Giovanni Ribisi dials the creepy a couple of notches too high for the tone of the movie. The movie also features what is surely the most unlikely celebrity cameo of the year, from someone who's slipped so far into obscurity that he barely even still qualifies as a celebrity.

This is a Seth MacFarlane project, so the jokes are often vulgar, tasteless, and offensive, but I laughed a lot. Not great cinema, but terrific entertainment.

BOOKS: Year One, Rob Reid (2012)

I'm pretty sure that it is now illegal to review a comic science fiction novel without referring to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but let's face it, Rob Reid's Year Zero doesn't run screaming from the comparison.

Seems that for the last 30 years or so, Earth music has been all the rage in the rest of the galaxy -- it turns out to be the one thing humanity is spectacularly good at -- and almost every sentient being carries with him a complete jukebox of all of our music. (And talk about space-saving: It's encoded directly into their DNA!)

But galactic legal codes require that artistic products be dealt with as they are dealt with on their home world; if a planet's theatrical works are presented in outdoor amphitheaters, then other planets are obliged to present them the same way.

And that's a problem, because under Earth's laws, every alien has committed an extraordinary amount of music piracy. They've stolen so much music that to pay the fines they owe would bankrupt the rest of the galaxy, which the rest of the galaxy isn't too keen on, and the only way out they can see is to simply destroy us.

Some of them would like to avoid doing so, and so Frampton and Carly arrive in the offices of Nick Carter, a junior attorney specializing in entertainment law. (Why him, and not someone higher up? They assumed he was the Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys, and couldn't pass up the chance to meet him.) Nick and the aliens have only a short time to find a legal solution that will save the planet.

Reid's novel is certainly more tightly plotted than Adams ever was; the Hitchhiker books generally had no more plot that was absolutely necessary as a framework on which to hang the digressions and the bizarre anecdotes about alien life. But the tone is similar -- light and breezy, enjoying its own silliness, not taking anything too seriously. Reid builds on his premise in surprising ways, carrying the idea to all of its logical (and not-so-logical) conclusions.

It's a fun book, and certainly the most entertaining novel you'll ever read about copyright law.

July 12, 2012

MOVIES: Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

Here's the problem: Stripping isn't sexy. Sexy requires at least some small level of intimacy, and you can't achieve that when you're on a stage shaking your ass for a screaming audience of 50 or 60 people. And since stripping isn't sexy, Magic Mike isn't sexy. And Magic Mike is very much being sold as sexy, marketed to women as a chance to see some prime slabs of beefcake.

(And, yes, marketed to gay men, too. But they're a small slice of the movie's target audience. If gay men were enough to make a movie a hit, Showgirls would be the new Avatar.)

The movie is being sold to its audiences, in fact, in precisely the same way that the movie's strippers are being sold to their audience. So in the way the movie treats that audience, we get a strong sense of how Soderbergh and his colleagues feel about us, the folks watching this movie. And it's not pretty.

The audience at Xquisite, the strip club run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), where Mike (Channing Tatum) is the star attraction, is portrayed as drunken sorority girls, lonely housewives who can't keep their husband's interest, and pathetic losers too ugly to get a man of their own. Most of the movie's dance sequences feature an audience member brought up onto the stage, and in one of the movie's ugliest moments, one of the strippers throws out his back trying to lift one of the women, because she's just so damn fat. (She's not a Hollywood-thin waif, certainly, but neither is she morbidly obese; she's an ordinary-sized woman.)

The audience is being told -- and by extension, we are being told -- that we are sad and pathetic losers for having come here in search of sexy, and that we are even more stupid for having expected to find it.

The story is predictable; the acting is minimal (Channing Tatum was more interesting than this in 21 Jump Street); and the level of "but they're all straight, no really, they are, we swear" defensiveness is enough to choke you. This is a sad, sleazy little movie with nothing but contempt for its audience.

MOVIES: Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2012)

Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz isn't quite at the level of her directing debut, Away From Her, but it's a very good movie with three terrific central performances.

Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen are Margot and Lou, a couple nearing their fifth anniversary; they're struggling a bit with the transition from the passion of the early years to the cozy domesticity of the middle years. Neither one is willing to admit that there's a problem, and they're trying frantically to pretend that they still have the romantic fire they had as newlyweds, but we can see how hard they're working to make that fire happen.

So when Margot meets the charming Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a business trip, and he turns out to have just moved into the house across the street, she finds herself torn between loyalty to Lou and the temptation of something new and exciting. It's not a comfortable place for her to be; "I don't like being in between things," she tells Daniel (the dialogue is occasionally a bit clunkingly obvious, especially in the early going). Throw in Margot's apparent inability to ever be genuinely happy, and it's clear that this mess isn't going to end well for anyone.

There are a few problems with the movie. Margot and Lou seem to have an awfully nice home, given that she's a struggling writer and he's a cookbook author. Daniel's quirky charm is painted on rather too thick (not only is he an artist, but he supports himself by pulling tourists around the city in a rickshaw). And Sarah Silverman is (as always) a waste of time in her small role as Daniel's troubled sister.

But there are some spectacular moments to be found -- a verbal seduction scene in which Daniel has Margot melting in her seat without a single touch (and to be honest, I was wiping my own brow a bit), a falling-in-love scene set to "Video Killed the Radio Star." And the actors are marvelous. Rogen doesn't get a role this serious very often, and he rises to the challenge; Kirby is more than just a pretty face (though he certainly is that); and both men are entirely compelling as they struggle to please a woman who's too indecisive to know what she wants.

And Williams adds to her quickly growing list of remarkable performances. Passive is a hard thing for most actors to play, because it's not a very likable quality, but Williams is entirely willing not to be liked. Margot is not someone who takes charge of her life; she is someone to whom life happens. Williams brings her so vividly to life that by the end of the movie, it doesn't really matter whether the plot leaves her with Lou or Daniel; the tragedy of her life is that she's never going to be happy, no matter who she's with.

July 11, 2012

MOVIES: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild was the Grand Jury Prize winner at this year's Sundance festival, and the buzz surrounding the film has been deafening ever since. I got a bit nervous, though, when the trailers started coming out; they made it look as if the movie were going to be a Malick-esque exercise in poetic style over substance. While the movie does have a fair amount of over-the-top "look how pretty!" nonsense, there is an actual story (sort of) and characters to follow, so it's not a full-on Malick-style bore.

That's not to say that the movie has anything like a linear plot; it's a meandering, episodic look at life in The Bathtub, an impoverished community on a low-lying island off the coast of New Orleans, where 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). There is a massive storm on the way, Wink has taken ill, and Hushpuppy sets out in search of her mother, who she has been told "swam away" when Hushpuppy was a baby. And the whole thing is punctuated by Hushpuppy's fantasies about the melting of the ice caps leading to the return of the aurochs, the giant beasts who dominated the world before the Ice Age.

It's hard to see those aurochs without being reminded of the equally pointless dinosaurs from The Tree of Life, and they call attention to the similarities between the movies, both of which attempt to mash together the intimate story of one family with grander, more cosmic concerns. But director Benh Zeitlin pays more attention to his characters than Malick does, allowing them to become people instead of mere archetypes.

At the center of the movie is the remarkable Quvenzhané Wallis (that's kwa-VEN-zhuh-NAY), who was 6 when the movie was filmed, and who is on screen for almost the entire film. At that age, it's hard to tell how much of what we're seeing is acting talent, how much is the ability to follow directions really well, and how much is pure charisma. Whatever it is, Wallis holds the screen completely, and she has a ferocious personality.

She even survives the rather overwrought narration that she's been given, which is ponderous and so ridiculously poetic that it makes Shakespeare look like Tom Clancy. She's such a potent force that I was carried through the movie's sillier flights of artistic fancy solely by the desire to see what happens to her next.

So yeah, the movie's a bit of a mess, and there are moments that simply don't work, but it is a wildly creative and ballsy mess that takes more chances in any single scene than six months' output from the Hollywood studios.

BOOKS: He Stopped Loving Her Today, Jack Isenhour (2011)

George Jones recorded "He Stopped Loving Her Today" in 1980, and it's generally considered one of the great country records. Isenhour gives us the "pretty-much totally true story" of how it came to be.

It was a song that no one thought would be a hit -- too morbid and gloomy -- and the recording process was painful. Jones in 1980 was at the depths of his problems with booze and cocaine and couldn't learn the song (he kept trying to sing it to the tune of "Help Me Make It Through the Night"); when he did finally get the tune down, it turned out that although he could sing just fine while drunk, he couldn't handle the spoken verse at all.

Purists complained that the record wasn't country at all (those violins! the background singers! a freakin' woodblock, for chrissake!), which Isenhour uses as the jumping-off point for a terrific discussion of authenticity in country music, and the perpetual "those confounded kids today don't know what real country music sounds like" grumbling of fans.

We also get a crash course in the history of country music, a look inside the economics of Nashville songwriters and session musicians, and an exploration of why the live performance is so often disappointing when compared to the record.

Isenhour's style is casual and friendly, more so than you'd expect from a university press, but the book is solidly researched, filled with unlikely (but relevant) cultural references ranging from Milli Vanilli to Charles Wuorinen. It's a charming, lively, thoroughly entertaining book.

July 05, 2012

MUSIC: 2012-13 LA Philharmonic season

So, the subscriber brochure for ordering single tickets to concerts outside my subscription arrived, and I've placed my order. I've got tickets for a dozen concerts, and my season looks like this:

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Stucky: New work (world premiere)
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps

Dudamel, conductor; Netia Jones, video/director
Ravel: Mother Goose (complete, with video)
Knussen: Where the Wild Things Are (with video)

Robin Ticciati, conductor; Lars Vogt, piano
Liadov: The Enchanted Lake
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #2
Sibelius: Symphony #2

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor: Lynn Harrell, cello
Haydn: Symphony #6 ("Le matin")
Haydn: Cello Concerto in C
Albeniz/Frühbeck de Burgos: Suite Española
Ravel: Bolero

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; David Fray, piano; Gerald Finley, baritone
Salonen: Nyx (West Coast premiere)
Schumann: Piano Concerto
Lutosławski: Les espaces du sommeil
Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel

Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; Martin Grubinger, percussion
Tan Dun: Percussion Concerto (US premiere)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4

Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor; Midori, violin
Kodály: Háry János Suite
Eötvös: Violin Concerto (world premiere)
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Dudamel, conductor; Gil Shaham, violin
Wagner: Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung
Brahms: Violin Concerto
Schumann: Symphony #3 ("Rhenish")

Dudamel, conductor
Vivier: Zipangu
Debussy: La mer
Stravinsky: The Firebird (complete)

David Robertson, conductor; Orli Shaham, piano
Britten: Four Sea Interludes
Mackey: Stumble to Grace (West Coast premiere)
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

(Looking at Mackey's website, it appears that his piano concerto for Shaham has been renamed since the Phil printed its schedule, and is now called Learning Curve.)

conductor as yet unannounced; Cameron Carpenter
This concert is part of the Phil's "Brooklyn Festival;" program not determined in full, but will include:
Hearne: New work (world premiere)
Copland: Organ Symphony

Dudamel, conductor
Penderecki: Ciaccona
Mozart: Sinfonia concertante, K. 297b
Mendelssohn: Symphony #5 ("Reformation")

(I think I got all those accents and diacritics right...)

I am particularly looking forward to the new pieces from Stucky and Mackey, having liked what I've heard from them at previous Philharmonic concerts; Mackey's violin concerto Beautiful Passing was a highlight of the 2010-11 season. And I am always a sucker for a new percussion concerto.

Though I'm not a fan of the Phil's increasing inclusion of operas in its season -- if I wanted to hear opera, I'd be subscribing to the LA Opera, thank you -- I adore Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and have long been curious to hear the operatic version.

Throw in a few warhorses of which I'm fond -- Firebird, Pictures, Le sacre, the Sea Interludes -- and it should be a fun year. Of course, as I always do, I'll miss some of these along the way as other stuff comes up, but these are better spaced out than my seasons often are, so there won't be any spots where I think "oh god, another concert this weekend? that's the third in a row."