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.

September 25, 2012

TV: Partners (CBS, Mon 8:30)

The creators of the new CBS sitcom Partners would very much like you to remember that they are the creators of Will & Grace. They would not so much like you to remember that they are also the creators of Shit My Dad Says. And given that the central characters in this show are a pair of architects who've been best friends since childhood, they'd also prefer that you not remember (not that anyone does) the 1995 Fox sitcom Partners, in which Jon Cryer and Tate Donovan played a pair of architects who've been best friends since childhood. (Weirdly enough, it aired in the same Monday 8:30 timeslot as the new show, and most episodes were, like this pilot, directed by James Burrows.)

There is, of course, one big difference between this new show and the Cryer-Donovan show: One of these partners is gay. He's Louis (Michael Urie); his straight pal is Joe (David Krumholtz). Their relationship, and their respective relationships with their domestic partners, are the focus of the show. Louis's boyfriend is Wyatt (Brandon Routh), a Mennonite nurse (why Mennonite? who  knows?); Louis is embarrassed that Wyatt is "only" a nurse, and tells everyone that he's actually a Jewish doctor. Joe's fiancee is Ali (Sophia Bush), who is not given much personality in the pilot beyond "hello, aren't I pretty."

There are two obvious problems with the show, one relatively minor and perhaps reparable, one more serious and potentially crippling. The minor problem is that Brandon Routh hasn't done a lot of comedy, and his timing is consistently off. That can be learned, at least to some extent, and the other three actors are good enough to carry and cover for him for a while.

The bigger problem is that Louis, as written, is loathesome. He's selfish, narcissistic, greedy, inconsiderate -- it's inexplicable why anyone would still be friends with him at all. The fault doesn't lie with Michael Urie, who is playing the hell out of what he's been given; the fault is with the writing.

And even beyond Louis, the writing is on the lazy side overall. The guys' Latina assistant is introduced with a bad West Side Story joke from Louis, to which she responds, "Gay gay gay, joke joke joke. I will cut you." Wyatt is currently working in the cardiac unit, apparently only so that he can wear a heart pin and make repeated jokes about "having a heart on."

There are good things here. Krumholtz is charming and immensely likable; Bush isn't going to win any Emmys, but she's better than a lot of actresses in similar "the girl" roles. Despite Routh's comic clunkiness, he is a warm and charismatic presence; and Urie is working so hard that you sometimes laugh at his loathesomeness despite yourself.

If (and I fear that this is a very big if) the writers can tone Louis down a notch, can bring his self-absorption down to the point where it's less cruel and more amusing -- to make the obvious comparison, if they can bring him down to the level of Will & Grace's Jack -- the show could be a perfectly fine sitcom. It's utterly conventional (and it is, I suppose, a sign of social progress that I can say that about a show with a gay couple among its characters), and is never going to break any new ground, but it could last a few years. If Louis remains as horrifying as he is, though, this won't be back for year two.

MOVIES: Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012)

Arbitrage is currently in limited release, and also available on many VOD systems. It's an adequate crime thriller, elevated by a couple of fine performances.

Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a hedge fund manager who's got it all -- a successful company that's about to be bought in a big-money merger; beautiful wife (Susan Sarandon), daughter (Brit Marling), and mistress (Laetitia Casta); the respect of the business and philanthropic worlds.

And then there's a horrible accident, someone dies, and everything starts to crumble around him. The merger's on the verge of falling through because of Robert's financial hanky-panky, discovered by his daughter (who is the firm's CFO); Sarandon finds out about Casta; and Robert's likely to be arrested for murder.

The story's fairly predictable from that point on, but Gere does very nice work as a powerful man who can't quite figure out why this problem won't just go away, and there's a strong supporting performance from Nate Parker as a young family friend who gets more caught up than he'd expected in Robert's problems. Sarandon is mostly wasted in a nothing role, Marling continues to be prettier than she is talented (and she's not all that pretty), and Tim Roth's performance as a police detective is too big for the movie.

Far from essential viewing, and probably not going to get enough attention to put Gere in contention for an Oscar nomination, but Gere and Parker are good enough that you might enjoy the movie if you've got an evening with nothing better to do. I can't recommend that you pay full movie-ticket price for it, but it'll play perfectly well on TV, and VOD's cheaper than the theater.

September 24, 2012

...ripped from the headlines...

From this headline, to be specific:
New Zealand Man Gets Eel Stuck Up His Butt
Which, me being me, inspired the following (which I offer with all appropriate apologies to Harry Warren and Jack Brooks. And what the heck, to Dean Martin, too):

When you sit on an eel
And he bites, so you squeal
That's a moray!
When he crawls up your ass
So you can't pass your gas
That's a moray!

Feel him squirm
Wriggles like a worm
Hope he won't stay perm-
'Nently up there
You dumb nut
Shoulda clamped it shut
When you plopped your butt
In that beach chair
(Next time, take care)

Sit on a snake
With a big double take
That's a moray!
When you can't get him out
And you scream and you shout
From the pain
When he's crawled up your hole
Which was never your goal on this fo-o-ray
Though you pray, there he'll stay
And in Auckland, they'll say
That's a moray!

MOVIES: Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs, 2012)

Every year, there's a movie or two that escapes from the gay film festival circuit to get a limited release in the art-house circuit. Occasionally, these movies are worth seeing; last year's Weekend, for instance, was marvelous, and you should seek it out if you haven't seen it.

But more often, those escaped films are like this year's example, Keep the Lights On, which has very little to say and can't find an interesting way to say it. If you are surprised to learn that addiction is an awful thing, or that it is difficult to maintain a meaningful romantic relationship with a crackhead, you may find the movie more insightful than I did; if none of that comes as news to you, you're in for a long 100 minutes.

Thure Lindhardt gives the closest thing the movie has to a decent performance as Erik, a documentary filmmaker (we get no idea how he actually supports himself) who falls for handsome young lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth). It's clear from the beginning of the relationship that Paul's drug use and drinking are going to be an issue, but as Paul spirals deeper into addiction, with repeated visits to rehab clinics that he never takes very seriously, Erik can't bring himself cut his losses and ditch the guy.

I mean, sure, addiction is a disease and addicts are not entirely responsible for their behavior, but still, those around them aren't responsible for it, either, and it's neither kind nor realistic to expect them to put their own lives on hold waiting for the addict to find the strength he needs to get better.

So what we're left with is a story about a guy who's sick and shows no interest in even trying to get better, and a guy who's perfectly willing to martyr himself and ruin his own life because of someone else's illness, which means that we've got no one sympathetic enough to care about. I don't necessarily need to like the protagonist of a movie, but unlikable, stupid, and naively self-sacrificing is more than I can put up with.

Don't bother. Just go to Netflix and stream Weekend instead.

TV: The Mob Doctor (Fox, Mon 9)

Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro) is a hot-shot surgical intern who's paying off her brother's debts to the Chicago mob. She's expected to provide medical service whenever a local mobster has the sort of injuries for which going to the hospital might be a bad idea.

This places her in great moral dilemmas, such as when the mob wants her to kill the government witness whose heart surgery she'll be performing. But moral dilemmas appear to be Grace's stock in trade; the pilot also finds her lying to the father of a teenage girl about the operation she's having, because Grace is afraid the father will react badly to his daughter's pregnancy. (The show is careful to spell out -- repeatedly -- that it's an ectopic pregnancy, because god forbid we should think that anyone might have an abortion if there was no medical risk involved in the pregnancy.)

Grace also doesn't get along well with fellow resident Olivia Wilcox (Jamie Lee Kirchner), or with chief of surgery Stafford White (Zeljko Ivanek); were it not for her boyfriend Brett (Zach Gilford), she wouldn't have any friends in the hospital.

There are hints here of something interesting, moments when Grace is almost allowed to be flat-out unlikable, a rare female antihero. But then the writers remember that they're on network TV and not cable, and they immediately do something to soften the character and take the rough edges off. If The Mob Doctor had had the courage of its convictions, it might have been something interesting. But in watering Grace down into a tepidly inoffensive character, the show's creators have sucked all the life from the show and left behind nothing worth watching.

Spiro is a strong lead, and Ivanek is always entertaining. But Kirchner's rival is a cartoon Mean Girl, and Gilford brings so little personality to his role that he might as well not be there. A strong contender for the first cancellation of the year.

September 21, 2012

BOOKS: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Matthew Dicks (2012)

This is an absolutely charming and unexpectedly moving novel, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The narrator is Budo, who has been alive for five years, an unusually long lifespan for an imaginary friend. Budo clarifies for us that despite the whole "imaginary" thing, he is very much real. Yes, he's created by the imagination of 8-year-old Max, who is the only person who can see or hear him, but the fact that his existence is tethered to Max's belief in him doesn't mean he's not real.

That inability to interact with the real world, though, is a tremendous obstacle when Max finds himself in danger, and only Budo knows what's happened to him. Saving Max is even more difficult because Max is autistic, and doesn't entirely comprehend that he's in danger at all. Budo's fight to overcome his own limitations, and those of Max, is marvelously entertaining; his conversations with other imaginary friends (they can all talk to one another) are among the book's highlights.

The jacket blurbs refer to both Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Emma Donoghue's Room, which are good points of comparison. Dicks's novel is less emotionally brutal than Room can be, in large part because the principal villain is given motives that we can understand, even if we can't condone the resulting behavior. And the book is less twee and precious than the (IMHO) vastly overpraised Curious Incident; letting Budo narrate instead of Max helps greatly, as it avoids direct recreation of the autistic mind, which is a difficult thing to pull off.

I might complain that Max's behavior in the final chapters is out of character, more overtly brave and heroic than we'd have expected he could be, but given the goodwill Dicks has built up in the rest of the book, I'm willing to accept his explanation as plausible enough for fiction.

The ending is sad and sweet, and brings the book to just the right close. This is a wonderful, wonderful novel.

September 19, 2012

BOOKS: Alphabetter Juice, Roy Blount Jr. (2012)

Alphabetter Juice is Roy Blount, Jr.'s followup to Alphabet Juice, another collection of musings, thoughts, and speculations about the words, sounds, and letters that make up the English language.

One of Blount's recurring themes is his notion that some words are "sonicky," his coinage for words that, while not strictly onomatopoeic, have some aural or kinesthetic link between word and meaning. He often pulls together lists of words that begin or end with similar sounds, noting that even though they aren't all linked etymologically, there is a sort of psychological link among them, and he argues that this link has to do with the sounds involved.

For instance (and I'm assembling these lists from memory, so they may not exactly correspond to Blount's, but these are the types of connections he makes:

  • fly, flit, flutter, float, flake, fluff, flee -- lightness, airiness, wafting
  • glint, glittler, gleam, glow, glad, glory, glisten, gloss, glitz -- brightness, cheer, shininess
  • grump, grouch, grime, gravel, grease, grudge, grit -- pessimism, uncleanliness
These aren't universal rules, of course, and you can find exceptions to each (flop, gloom, grin). It would be interesting to team Blount up with some professional linguists and explore whether such patterns exist in Finnish or Russian or Urdu.

(As I look at those exceptions, it occurs to me that the "op" part of "flop" is just as sonicky as the "fl" part. Drop, stop, glop, topple -- there's a common feeling of weight and things coming to an end, which would make "flop" about as sonicky as a word can get. The "fl" wants to soar, and the "op" brings it crashing to earth.)

Blount also offers interesting tidbits of etymology and usage history, takes the occasional curmudgeonly stand on matters of language (he continues to oppose "hopefully" where "I hope" would be more precise, and hoorah for him, say I), and tells entertaining anecdotes about such things as author tours and salmon fishing.

The book (like its predecessor) is an amiable meander through the fields of language; Blount's attention will wander from "naked as a jaybird" to the redundancy of "tuna fish" to Jay-Z to George M. Cohan in a span of three pages. He's a charming companion and a gifted raconteur, and if his speculations might not hold up to the rigor of academic linguistics, they gave me something interesting to think about.

September 18, 2012

MOVIES: Premium Rush (David Koepp, 2012)

Premium Rush is an tidy, efficient little movie which generates thrills in a relatively realistic fashion, which is to say that nothing blows up the whole way through
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, a Manhattan bike messenger. He's just trying to make his last delivery of the day, but dirty cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) wants the package that Wilee's carrying, and doesn't much care what he has to do to get it.

The movie bogs down a bit whenever it gets too involved in the actual plot -- it would have been better to simply let the package be a pure McGuffin instead of explaining it -- but the bike/chase scenes are exciting, and beautifully photographed so that you often feel as if you're zipping through the city streets yourself.

The movie doesn't call for any heavy lifting in the acting department, but Gordon-Levitt's earnest confusion and panic are entertaining and convincing, and Shannon is gloriously over the top as the bad guy, hamming it up in grand style.

Hollywood movies usually come in only two levels of action: zero and mega-franchise-explode-a-rama. This movie strikes a pleasant middle ground. It's not trying to dazzle you with insane levels of gratuitous violence or ginormous explosions, but it does exactly what it sets out to do, and it's a lot of fun.

September 17, 2012

TV: Guys With Kids (NBC, Wed 8:30)

The title alone is probably enough to tell you whether you'll like Guys With Kids. If you're thinking "Oh, yeah, that'll be good, 'cause guys don't know anything about parenting!," then you'll love it. If, on the other hand, you're thinking "Oh god, please not another show based on reductionist gender cliches and 'men are stupid' jokes," then you'll hate it. (And hey, really? You actually think in phrases like "reductionist gender cliches"? Gee, you must be fun at parties...)

Because that title, Guys With Kids, really is all there is to the show. It's guys! And they have kids! And they can't figure out how to live life like real guys, because the kids keep getting in the way! You're laughing already, aren't you?

There are three guys. Anthony Anderson is a stay-at-home dad with four kids. An actual line of dialogue: "I'm a stay-at-home dad with four kids. Do you know what I do all day? I stay at home! With four kids!" He's married to Tempesst Bledsoe, who works doing god-knows-what outside the home. Jesse Bradford is a divorced dad, whose ex-wife (Erinn Hayes) is a shrill, castrating bitch; I choose those words very carefully, with full awareness of how harsh they are, because this character is a walking recruiting poster for the National He-Man Woman Haters Club. And Zach Cregger has the "traditional" marriage; he works (again, the actual nature of anyone's job is never mentioned) while wife Jamie-Lynn Sigler stays home with the baby.

The children are all young enough that they aren't so much characters as props; Anderson's oldest are old enough to speak, but aren't allowed to do so beyond an occasional offscreen "we're causing trouble over here, Daddy" shriek.

The characters are thinner than crepe paper; the situations overly familiar (I've got a hot date, but it's my weekend with the baby! Whatever shall I do?); and I didn't laugh once. Guys With Kids is a show with no ambition, and it fails to reach even the painfully low bar it sets for itself.

BOOKS: One Last Thing Before I Go, Jonathan Tropper (2012)

Here we have one week in the life of Drew Silver. Silver (as everyone calls him) was briefly sort of famous -- the drummer for a one-hit rock band -- but things have gone downhill ever since that brief moment of glory. The band's lead singer went on to massive solo success; his ex-wife is about to marry a guy so nice that Silver can't even bring himself to dislike him; he hasn't really had a relationship with his daughter in years; and he's holed up a sorry little apartment in a building that has because the town's unofficial Home for Sad Divorced Men.

All of which means that when Silver learns he needs emergency heart surgery to save his life, he's inclined to pass; after all, there's not really much of a life to save, is there? This decision does not sit well with Silver's family or with his sort-of friends (his fellow divorced guys with whom he spends most days just lounging by the pool at the apartment complex), and the novel is largely a battle of wills between Silver and everyone else, with the world arguing that Silver should live and Silver looking desperately for one good reason to bother doing so. It is occasionally a bit of a mystery as to why some of these people are so determined to keep Silver alive, since as he himself admits, he really is a bit of a schmuck, and most people's lives seem to improve the moment he leaves them.

This all sounds like the makings for a rather glum tale, but Silver is self-aware enough to recognize the bleak humor of his situation, and Tropper puts enough comic twists on events to keep it from ever becoming unbearably dark. Silver's daughter, Casey, is particularly useful in this regard; she's inherited her father's sardonic, dry view of the world, but is young enough that those tendencies haven't yet begun withering into cynicism.

The novel isn't as broadly funny as Tropper's last book, This Is Where I Leave You (a fabulous book), which also milks the humor from a bleak situation -- the slow collapse of a man's life during a week of sitting shiva for his father. The humor here is more understated and subtle, and the storytelling is calmer. But the characters are vivid, the emotions ring true, and I enjoyed the book a great deal.

September 16, 2012

TV: Last Resort (ABC, Thu 8)

Premieres on September 27; the first episode is currently available at Yahoo.

The Colorado is an American submarine that's just completed a rescue of several Navy SEALs when they receive an order to fire four nuclear missiles on Pakistan. There are some procedural irregularities in the orders, and when Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) and his executive officer Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) request confirmation, they are fired on by an American warship.

A lot happens in this first hour, and there's a fair amount of military jargon, but the gist of events is always clear, and the activity doesn't come at the expense of character development. The first half hour, as the crew tries to make sense of its puzzling orders, is particularly well done, and does a fine job of building tension.

There's a large ensemble cast (the sub's crew is 150, after all), and it's sometimes a little hard to tell people apart; the standard problem of military dramas pops up -- lots of fit young men with short haircuts (not that I have any objection to fit young men, mind you, regardless of hairstyle) -- but is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the crew is very diverse.

From that large group, it seems likely that the central figures will include Lt. Grace Shepard (Daisy Betts), an admiral's daughter fighting to be respected in a male-dominated culture; Joseph Prosser (Robert Patrick), a senior officer who seems likely to be in frequent conflict with Chaplin and Kendal; defense contractor Kylie Sinclair (Autumn Reeser); James King (Daniel Lissing), one of the rescued SEALs, who seems to know more than he'll admit about what's really going on; and Julian Serrat (Sahr Ngaujah), the local strongman on a small island which houses a NATO observation post.

The casting is very good; Braugher and Speedman have an instantly believable working relationship, and both convey the necessary authority. Betts manages the tricky problem of confronting her sexist colleagues in a way that comes across as assertive but not bitchy (and she's helped by the fact that the character's well written). Nguajah's role is potentially problematic, and could come off as a cheap tropical gangster cliche if not carefully handled, but my first impression is that he's up to the challenge.

Whether the show can sustain this level is an open question, of course; there's always the risk that it winds up chasing its own mythology in circles. But even if it does, the first episode is a darned good hour of TV, and well worth your time.

MOVIES: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

The Master is an extraordinarily dense movie, and I think I'm going to be digesting it for a few days; I may even go back and see it again, which I very rarely do. It is not the Scientology expose that some of the rumors might have led you to expect, though there are certainly similarities between the movie's Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a movement called "The Cause," and L. Ron Hubbard.

The movie's other central figure is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran suffering from what we would now call PTSD who winds up in Dodd's orbit; he's tightly wound, sexually obsessed, and prone to violence. Dodd adopts Freddie as his "protege and guinea pig" with an eye towards using his new theories -- a mix of psychoanalysis, exercises that seem to be lifted from bad acting classes, and past-life hypnotic regression -- to help Freddie find serenity.

Phoenix is astonishing here, and I find it hard to imagine that I'll see a better performance this year; Hoffman is also very fine, and this deserves to be the first movie since Amadeus to receive two Best Actor Oscar nominations. (But I'll bet the studio wimps out and pushes Hoffman for supporting.)

The movie is visually stunning; Jonny Greenwood's score is a fascinating mix of thick string chords and clattering percussion; and you'll hear a performance of "Slow Boat to China" that I'm still trying to make sense of. I'm not sure I entirely get the movie yet, but I'm certain that it's worth getting.

September 07, 2012

MOVIES: Summer Movie Report Card

Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience has invited other bloggers to fill out his Summer Moviie Report Card, a series of questions about the cinematic season just concluded. So, here goes:

Best Movie I Saw This Summer
Ruby Sparks -- a smart romantic comedy with a pair of terrific leading performances from Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, building to a final confrontation between the two that will rip your gut out.

Thing I Actually Learned (at summer movie camp)
Never assume you know the full range of someone's talent. Hope Springs reminded me that Tommy Lee Jones can be funny; Celeste and Jesse Forever taught me that Andy Samberg can act; ParaNorman gave me a sweet and lovable Elaine Stritch.

Major Summer Crush
ParaNorman's Mitch, whose magnificently cantilevered torso -- massive shoulders and pecs over a Barbie-doll waist -- is a glorious work of structural engineering. And the casual revelation that Mitch is gay (surely a first for an animated film?) is the icing on the cake.

Moment I ♥ So Much I Thought My Heart Would Burst
Luke Kirby sitting in a coffee shop with Michelle Williams, sweet-talking and seducing her so thoroughly and completely that I was melting in my seat in Take This Waltz.

Princess Merida, Katniss or Hawkeye?
Merida. Best hair and best movie. What more do you need to know?

If Only "Hulk" Had Smashed...
The robot home-health aide from Robot & Frank, preferably with Peter Sarsgaard inside it. Maybe that would discourage any other actors from automatically going to their calm, laid-back HAL voice whenever they're cast as a robot.

Rank the Magic Mike strippers
Oh, lord, must I? Yes, they're all very pretty boys, but the problem with the movie is that stripping isn't sexy; it lacks the intimacy that sexiness requires. If I must, put Matt Bomer on the top, the rest in a big heap in the middle (and if you'd just toss me into that heap, I wouldn't complain too loudly), and the leathery Matthew McConaughey so far down that he's on the tenth page of a one-page list.

At Least The Theater Was Air Conditioned
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which badly misuses both Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, and combines rom-com and apocalypse so clumsily that the apocalypse starts to look mighty inviting.

Best Old Movie I Saw For the First Time This Summer
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Jane Russell's "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?," surely the gayest musical number ever filmed; the glorious Technicolor, especially vivid in "Diamond's Are a Girl's Best Friend," with Marilyn's pinkpinkpink gown against that tomato-red set; the strange assortment of men, from quirky old Brit Charles Coburn to milquetoast Tommy Noonan to that creepily precocious little kid -- it's old-fashioned glamour of a sort Hollywood doesn't even attempt anymore.

Line Reading That Stuck in My Head...
Mark Wahlberg's virtuosic run of white trash girls' names in Ted.

TV: The Mindy Project (Fox, Tue 9:30)

First episode currently available for preview online; premieres September 25.

I don't watch The Office, so I'm not terribly familiar with Mindy Kaling, who stars as Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a gynecologist struggling to balance work and romance. Chris Messina is her obnoxious colleague Danny, who is unusually crude and sexist even by sitcom standards; Ed Weeks is Jeremy, another doctor and occasional romantic interest for Mindy. Not given much to do in the pilot are Anna Camp as the best friend and Stephen Tobolowsky as the boss.

Romantic comedy and sitcom don't mix well here, and Mindy is so professionally irresponsible and unappealingly neurotic that it's hard to work up much sympathy for her in either of the show's two worlds. If they can make her a more appealing character, this show could be a good pairing with New Girl, and it would certainly be nice to have a successful show with a non-white lead character, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

MOVIES: The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy, 2012)

Matt Damon's Jason Bourne is gone from this fourth installment in the series, so the first half-hour is filled with a lot of frantic exposition that creates a new character -- Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross -- with some sort of vague and confusing connection to the government program that created Bourne. (If you're not completely up on the backstory from the first three Bourne movies, you're going to be lost for most of that, I fear.)

All you really need to know is that Edward Norton wants to shut down the program that created Cross and several other super-spies, and that shutdown will involve killing all of those spies. That sets Cross on the run with Rachel Weisz; he's sort of kidnapped her, because she's a doctor who can help him get hold of the medicine he needs to maintain his super-skills.

Renner handles the action stuff reasonably well, but his character lacks the "who am I?" hook of Jason Bourne, and Renner doesn't involve us emotionally or give us any reason to care about Aaron Cross. Edward Norton is visibly unhappy to be in this movie; you feel like he'd rather have his neck in the guillotine.

Worst of all, Tony Gilroy doesn't shoot action sequences nearly as well as either Doug Liman or Paul Greengrass, his predecessors in this franchise. There's a long, long, loooooong chase scene through Manila, and the first half of the scene (the part before the motorcycles get involved) is impossible to follow, because we have no idea where the characters are in relation to one another.

The Bourne movies were never great art, but they were reasonably entertaining action flicks; when they lost their central character, the franchise should have come to an end. Sadly, the only real Bourne legacy will be this movie, a sad attempt to make a few more bucks.

September 06, 2012

TV: Ben and Kate (Fox, Tue 8:30)

First episode currently available for preview online; premieres September 25.

Ben and Kate is yet another show about how men are incapable of growing up and accepting adult responsibility. Kate's the little sister who had to grow up fast when she got pregnant; her daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, less annoyingly precocious than most TV tykes) is now 5. Ben's the big brother who never grew up at all, and has spent the last few years popping in and out of Kate's life, showing up mostly when he's in the middle of a crisis.

The first episode introduces us to this family and their best friends, Ben's pal Tommy (Echo Kellum) and Kate's best friend BJ (Lucy Punch); he's black and she's British, which by Fox standards makes this a very diverse cast. By the end of the pilot, we've established the premise -- Ben moves in to help Kate raise her daughter -- and set up what is clearly going to be a familiar story about a goofy manboy learning responsibility from a child. The cast is appealing enough that they might be able to over the blah-ness of that setup, but I'm not wildly optimistic.

MOVIES: The Campaign (Jay Roach, 2012)

Jay Roach has made some sharp movies about politics for HBO -- Recount and Game Change -- so I was hopeful that The Campaign would be a sharp, biting satire of contemporary political campaigns. But the jokes we get are either overly familiar or so far removed from reality to have any satiric edge.

Will Ferrell is a North Carolina congressman whose district becomes a target of the billionaire Motch brothers (even that simple a joke would be funnier if the Koch brothers pronounced their name "Kotch" instead of "Koke"); they choose as their candidate a bumbling local played by Zach Galifianakis and assign a ruthless campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) to whip him into shape.

Ferrell's not doing anything here he doesn't done to better effect in other movies; John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd have some mildly amusing moments as the scheming brothers; and Galifianakis still isn't funny.

A waste of time.

September 05, 2012

TV: Revolution (NBC, Mon 10)

First episode currently available for preview online; premieres September 17.

Revolution comes from J.J. Abrams, which means there's an elaborate backstory to be doled out in little pieces, with a cliffhanger or a plot twist to be dropped at the end of each episode. Given Abrams' track record, it's anyone's guess as to whether the mythology will be compelling enough to hold our attention in the long run, but his shows are usually good for one entertaining season.

We open in the present day, or something close to it. Ben Matheson (Tim Guinee) arrives home one evening, looking a bit frantic, and tells his wife Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) that "it's about to happen." He makes a panicked phone call to his brother Miles (Billy Burke), a Marine in South Carolina, and tells him "it's going to go out." The conversation is interrupted by a blackout.

But not just any blackout, mind you. This one takes out electricity, car engines, computers, even batteries -- and they don't come back on. Cut to opening credits and jump forward fifteen years, and the Mathesons are now living in a peaceful little village a few miles outside of Chicago. Their quiet day is interrupted by the arrival of soldiers from the militia of General Monroe, led by Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito), who have been searching for the Matheson brothers, and announce that they are taking Ben into custody.

All hell breaks loose, and when it's over, the village is forced to send a search party to Chicago to find Miles. The party is not the usual group of Manly Men we'd expect from this sort of show; instead, it's Ben's 19-year-old daughter Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), the middle-aged town doctor (a woman whose name I never caught), and roly-poly ex-computer geek Aaron (Zak Orth).

There are a lot of mysteries established in the first episode. Do the Matheson brothers know something about what caused the blackout, and maybe even how to end it? Who is General Monroe, and what's his connection to the Mathesons? What's the mysterious pendant that Ben gives to Aaron, saying that it must be kept out of Monroe's hands at all cost?

And in the last five minutes, we get the answer (or at least a piece of it) to one of the questions, and a handful of new plot twists and questions to keep us occupied, and to suggest that there's more to the blackout than meets the eye.

The show will probably fall apart in the second season in a crash the likes of which we haven't seen since Heroes, but there are a lot of fine actors involved (even if you don't recognize some of those names, the faces will probably be familiar), and I've no doubt that they're going into it with at least enough plot figured out to keep it fun for the first season.

MOVIES: Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier, 2012)

Robot & Frank is a resoundingly mediocre movie with one excellent performance buried in it.

That performance comes from Frank Langella, who plays Frank, an elderly retired burglar who lives alone in upstate New York. His son (James Marsden) visits once a week; his daughter (Liv Tyler) is a globe-trotting do-gooder who writes grant proposals to help "the sad, beautiful people of Turkmenistan." Frank occasionally drops into town to flirt with the librarian (Susan Sarandon), but is otherwise something of a hermit.

His son, worried that Frank's memory lapses are worsening to the point that his father can no longer care for himself, buys a home health care robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard in the blandly polite monotone that has been the standard "I'm a machine" voice ever since HAL). Frank resists, but ultimately finds that the robot really is helpful, in ways that neither he nor his son would ever have anticipated.

Langella is delightful here, getting all the subtle nuances of Frank's decline into early senility, his recovery as the robot provides mental and emotional stimulation, and his joy at realizing that his life may not be entirely over yet.

But he's the only interesting thing in the movie, in which the other actors are dull (well, Jeremy Sisto has an amusing moment or two in his small role as the local sheriff) and the story filled with predictable cliches. The script can't decide how serious Frank's memory problems really are, which sets up one of the most absurd third-act plot twists I've ever seen.

Langella is good enough that he'll hold your interest when the movie shows up on cable, but the movie is flimsy enough that I wouldn't recommend you actually pay money to see it.

September 04, 2012

TV: The New Normal (NBC, Tue 9:30)

Several of this year's new series currently have their first episode available for preview at their network's websites; this show premieres on September 11. (EDIT/Sep 7: Last minute schedule change from NBC: The pilot will actually air on Monday, September 10, with a new episode in the show's regular Tuesday timeslot on the 11th.)

The New Normal is the latest from Ryan Murphy, which usually means a show that's going to shoot its creative wad in the first season before falling completely to hell in season 2. Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells star as David and Bryan, a gay couple who decide that they want a baby. Their surrogate mother, Goldie (Georgia King), has a daughter of her own (Bebe Wood) and a foul-mouthed bigoted grandmother (Ellen Barkin) who is meant to be the equivalent of Glee's Sue Sylvester, getting laughs with un-PC "did she really say that?" comments.

Bartha and Rannells are a very appealing couple, and King and Wood have a nice mother-daughter relationship. If the show keeps the focus on those characters, it could be pleasantly entertaining. The danger, though, lies in the likelihood that they'll overdo it with Barkin (or with Nene Leakes, who has a small role as Bryan's sharp-tongued sassy assistant); I suspect we'll be sick of those characters, and accordingly of the show, by Thanksgiving.

MOVIES: Searching for Sugar Man (2012, Malik Bendjelloul)

Too many of the reviews of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man have given away too much of the story, which is a shame, because the movie is (among other things) a delightful study in the art of knowing how and when to reveal information.

The opening scene sets up all you really should know about the movie. We meet Steve Segerman, a South African record store owner who tells us about his love of Rodriguez, an obscure Dylanesque American singer-songwriter who released two albums in the early 1970s. The albums vanished without notice in the US, but bootleg copies were popular in South Africa, where some of the songs became anthems for the growing anti-apartheid movement.

The mystery, Segerman tells us, is what ever became of Rodriguez; there are reports of a horrific on-stage suicide, but beyond that, there's no information anywhere about the man. That sets Segerman and a journalist friend on a quest to find out whatever happened to Rodriguez, and their search is the story of the movie.

It's a wonderfully entertaining story, filled with suspense, unexpected plot twists, shocking revelations, and a tremendously moving ending. Very highly recommended.