March 29, 2012

BOOKS: The Mirage, Matt Ruff (2012)

Matt Ruff's The Mirage starts off as alternate history, takes a detour into fantastic thriller, and ends by veering into a Middle Eastern version of magic realism.

In Ruff's world, most of what we think of as the Middle East is the United Arab States, while North America comprises a patchwork of fundamentalist Christian theocratic states -- the Christian States of America, the Pentecostal Gilead Heartland, the Kingdom of Mississippi, and so on. The novel begins on November 9, 2001, when Christian terrorists fly two jets into the Tigris & Euphrates Towers in Baghdad.

(The date, of course, is chosen to give Ruff a date of 11/9, a reversal of our 9/11. But don't most countries in that part of the world use the European dating convention -- dd/mm -- as opposed to the American mm/dd? That would make Nov 9 just another 9/11. A minor point, but mildly grating.)

At first, it looks as if Ruff is going to be content with this straightforward reversal, getting easy laughs from the new roles of various familiar players in the region. Saddam Hussein is a Baghdad gangster; Osama bin Laden heads the UAS Senate Intelligence Committee. But fairly quickly, it becomes clear that Ruff is playing a more complicated game. (Sadly, even the teaser on the book flap gives away too much of the plot, in my opinion.)

Some of the characters eventually make their way to America, where figures from our side of history also begin to appear. For some reason, Ruff avoide using the names of American elected officials. Non-politicians and cabinet officers appear under their own names (David Koresh and Donald Rumsfeld, for instance), but both Presidents Bush are unnamed (though their identities are obvious) in their brief appearances, and while Dick Cheney has a more substantial role (he's the head of the CIA of the Republic of Texas), he's referred to only by his nickname: the Quail Hunter.

When we finally find out what's really happening, the identity of the responsible power is a lovely touch, an unexpected nod to the literary heritage of the Middle East. And the brief epilogue, in which the main characters face an unexpected new challenge, is powerfully moving and bittersweet.

I had been a bit nervous about this one; the premise seemed like an easy setup for a cheap, jokey bit of role reversal. But the story Ruff gives us is more than that, and his principal characters are complex and likable people. A pleasant surprise.

March 28, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: Our Personal Idols

Tonight, the wannabes take on songs by their own personal idols, so we'll get a chance to see if any of them have a sense of music history that goes back any earlier than junior high. We also get trios from the singers, as part of Fox's quiet acknowledgement that they have nothing else worth airing, so they have to keep padding Idol to two hours.

The rundown (which will ignore the trios, since they aren't supposed to be considered as part of the competition):

Colton, "Everything" -- Colton tells us this is a "worship song," which apparently means a song with lyrics vague enough that they could be about Jesus or about the pretty girl he's stalking because he doesn't dare talk to her after algebra class. Either way, it's not a very interesting song; the vagueness of the lyrics melds with the generic tune to create a big heap of bland. And the performance doesn't do much to help; it's very low energy, which is part of why the enunciation is mushy all the way through. Ending the song by faling to his knees was a cynically brilliant move, though; the judges aren't going to offend America by criticizing a guy who just ended by praying to Jesus.

Skylar, "Gunpowder and Lead" -- Her enunciation continues to be sloppy, which is a particular problem when you're trying to tell a story. She doesn't have the mood of the song quite right; she's chipper and feisty where bloodthirsty anger is called for. She's also too young for the song; when she sings about "what little girls are made of," we shouldn't be able to take the phrase quite so literally. At least there's some energy and life to the performance.

Heejun, 'A Song for You" -- By far the best thing he's done yet. Still some serious problems -- there's often too much air in his sound for him to sustain the pitches (and note that he's chopping in half what are already fairly short phrases), and he's shouting the loud notes more than he is singing them -- but it's a big improvement.

Hollie, "Jesus, Take the Wheel" -- I get that they have to edit songs for time, but cutting out the part about losing control of the car sucks the meat out of the song; very bad editing choice. Aside from that, a good performance, with more dynamic range than Hollie's given us the last couple of weeks. She taps into the right vein of emotionally manipulative schlock (which I do not mean as a pejorative) for the song. Final note was a bit wobbly on pitch, though.

DeAndre, "Sometimes I Cry" -- This is not a style I much care for; falsetto should be a condiment, not an entree. To return to tonight's common theme, it's much harder to enunciate clearly in falsetto, and DeAndre does have some problems there. On the other hand, his pitch is generally quite good, which is also difficult in falsetto, so that's a plus. This sort of R&B ballad seems to be his comfort zone, and I think I'd enjoy hearing him sing one in a lower register.

Jessica, "Sweet Dreams" -- Breathing in the middle of a word? Almost never a good thing. Breathing in the middle of a word when it causes confusion about your meaning, for instance, "beautiful night (breathe) mare"? Inexcusable. Aside from that, yeah, she's got a lovely voice (though she often gets carried away with the vibrato), but there's not much going on emotionally in this performance. It's pretty to listen to, but you won't remember it by the time the show's over.

Phillip, "Still Raining" -- I don't know that he should be smiling quite so broadly as he sings "I watch my world slowly slipping away," but that's about the biggest thing that's wrong with it. It's not a great performance, but it's very good, and on a night marked by mediocrity, that's enough to put him near the top of the heap.

Joshua, "Without You" -- And that's how you do a magic trick, boys and girls. Aside from a slightly odd pinched vowel sound on the "you" of "without you," this was marvelous. And whatever the tears at the end were about, they aren't going to hurt him with the voting public.

Elise, "Whole Lotta Love" -- Finally, we find out what Elise does well. Given the theme nights, it's not something she's likely to get many more opportunities to do, and rocker chicks have not traditionally done all that well on Idol, but I'm glad she's had this chance to show off her talent at its best.

For the night: Joshua, Elise, Phillip, Jessica, DeAndre, Hollie, Heejun, Skylar, Colton.

For the season: Joshua, Jessica, Hollie, Skylar, Phillip, Colton, Elise, DeAndre, Heejun.

Let's send home: It feels cruel to say so after he's had his best night, but Heejun is still well behind the pack. I suspect that the voters think more in terms of week-to-week, though, and I would be nervous if I were Skylar.

March 27, 2012

MOVIES: 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2012)

21 Jump Street is neither an ambitious nor a sophisticated movie, and it has the highest dick-sucking jokes per minute ratio of any Hollywood movie in the last decade, which keeps me from offering a wholehearted recommendation. But though its goals are limited, it meets them fully, and the movie's a surprisingly entertaining buddy-cop comedy.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as two young cops who are so incompetent that they manage to botch up bike patrol; not knowing what else to do with them, the boss assigns them to the Jump Street program, "an old program from the 80s that's being revived because no one around here can think of any new ideas." They're sent undercover as high school students to bust a drug ring.

The two had gone to high school together, where Hill was a painfully awkward nerd and Tatum a popular jock, and they're surprised to find that those old roles don't seem to apply anymore. Nerds are chic; jocks are mocked for their stupidity; caring about things like the environment is cool.

The movie carries that reversal into its plotting; there is an obligatory love interest (nicely played by Brie Larson), but she's paired with Hill, not Tatum. But the relationship that really matters is between the two guys, who find their working relationship strained by the case before making up at the end.

Hill's been doing lowbrow comedy for years now, but it's relatively new for Tatum, and he's quite good at it, cheerfully poking fun at his own image as a none-too-bright hunk. There are also good performances from Dave Franco (James's younger brother) as the school's drug kingpin and Ice Cube, who gets to send up every "angry black captain" cliche, complete with a speech about the fact that the role is a cliche.

If it weren't for the movie's persistent and slightly creepy obsession with gay sex as the worst imaginable degradation, I'd be enthusiastically recommending it. As it is, I think the good outweighs the bad, but I wouldn't blame you if the homophobia kept you away.

March 26, 2012

BOOKS: Lightspeed: Year One, John Joseph Adams (ed.)

Lightspeed is an online science fiction magazine, and this is a collection of the 48 short stories published during its first year. It's a mixture of originals and reprints, and editor John Joseph Adams's taste matches mine remarkably well; there are only one or two outright clunkers in the collection, and a surprisingly high numbers of really good stories. Authors are a mix of respected veterans -- Orson Scott Card, George R.R. Martin, Stephen King, Nancy Kress -- and quickly rising stars like Catherynne Valente, Charles Yu, and Nnedi Okorafor. If I enjoyed reading online at any length, this collection would have me subscribing to Lightspeed, and I'm eagerly looking forward to next year's volume.

MOVIES: Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass, 2012)

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a shambling story of a family whose members are all facing small-scale emotional crises on the same day. It's not a major movie, but it's appealing in a low-key way, and has a fine cast that elevates the material as much as possible.

Jason Segal is Jeff, a 30-year-old pothead who still lives in his mother's basement; his older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), seems to have his act together, but his wife, Carol (Judy Greer), feels neglected, and their marriage is on the verge of collapse.

Meanwhile, their mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) is getting through another boring day as a cubicle drone, trying to figure out which of her co-workers is sending her anonymous text messages claiming to be her secret admirer. She's kept apart from the other principal cast members until the end of the story, and her plotline is the least interesting part of the movie.

But when Helms and Segal are on screen together, wandering around Baton Rouge trying to figure out if Carol is having an affair, they're remarkably convincing brothers, and their relationship is terrifically entertaining. Segal is particularly good, and is becoming a master of using his height and size to comic effect.

I do wish the movie had made better use of its setting; if you're going to bother going outside the usual NY/LA/Chicago settings to a more distinctive place, it would be nice to give us a feel for that place instead of letting it feel like just another boring suburban wasteland.

Certainly nothing you have to rush to the multiplex to see (though it would be nice to show support for a movie that's aimed at a higher intellectual level than Franchise XIV: The Return of the Son of the Bride of Wolverine), but it was a pleasant 90 minutes.

MOVIES: The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

As much publicity as the movie's gotten, I'm assuming everyone knows at least the basic outlines of the setup, and won't waste time with plot details. The good news first: The movie's very well made, aside from a few cheap-looking effects, and it's almost perfectly cast. The exception would be Donald Sutherland, who is underpaying a bit too much as President Snow; I'm not saying he needs to be twiring his mustache, but the characters from the Capitol are supposed to be a bit larger than life, and there should be at least a hint of the hissable melodrama villain in the character.

But Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly tough and vulnerable as Katniss, Josh Hutcherson (despite an unfortunate blond dye job) makes an adorable romantic interest, Woody Harrelson is appropriately dissolute as Haymitch, and Elizabeth Banks glitters with just the right sharp edges as Effie.

The problem is that the movie emphasizes all of the book's flaws -- the deus ex machina rules changes during the Games, the way Katniss is allowed to evade moral responsibility for those she kills (note that all of her killings are directly in self-defense or in defense of her allies; she never kills simply to advance her position in the game).

But most sharply, the movie makes it impossible to ignore the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of the story. Suzanne Collins gives us a condemnation of a society that would present as entertainment a sport in which its children are forced to kill as another, but her condemnation takes the form of just such an entertainment.

That hypocrisy is somewhat more tolerable in the book because what we read is not seen in the mind's eye as sharply as what we really see; the book doesn't force us to actually look at the violence and the deaths. Prose allows us to maintain a certain distance that film does not. And to some extent, Collins could make the argument that she was criticizing the excesses of another medium.

But put the story on screen, and suddenly it's all too clear that The Hunger Games is precisely what it condemns; the presentation of kids killing kids for our amusement. And as adapted by Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross, the screenplay isn't sophisticated enough to address that issue; it's not really even interested in doing so. It hopes that filming the worst of the violence so frenetically that we don't ever get a direct look at it will keep us from focusing on the horror of what's being presented.

So, a very mixed reaction here. The movie's a fine piece of craft on almost every level, but it's morally bankrupt, neither willing nor able to examine its own hypocrisy.

March 25, 2012

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, Mar 25 (Strauss/Aho/Sibelius)

Osmo Vänskä, conductor; Martin Fröst , clarinet
The program:
  • Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier
  • Aho: Clarinet Concerto
  • Sibelius: Symphony #6
I am not a big fan of opera. As much as I enjoy choral music, I never developed a taste for the trained classical solo voice, so opera and art song are not my favorite genres. As for Richard Strauss, I tend to find his pieces pleasant, and think how much more so they'd be at half the length. So if I'm going to be exposed to Strauss opera, a 20-minute orchestral suite is probably the best way to do it. And this was a pleasant suite, filled with gooey Viennese waltzes, lush strings, and dramatic brass fanfares. I wouldn't say I'm a Strauss convert, but better this than Also Sprach Zarathustra.

The highlight of the concerto was Kalevi Aho's clarinet concerto, which premiered in 2005 and is still getting performed seven years later, a fairly remarkable feat for contemporary music. It is a dazzling virtuoso showpiece, and Martin Fröst is entirely up to the challenge. The piece calls for rapid trills and tremolos, swooping glissandi covering the full range of the instruments, multiphonic techniques allowing the clarinet to produce two notes at once, and Fröst does all of these things with apparent ease. During the pre-concert talk,  Fröst talked about having had relatively little collaboration with Aho; they spoke once early in the process, then the score arrived several months later.  Fröst told Aho that some of what he'd written was unplayable and would need to be revised; Aho told him that this was the concerto and he'd have to figure it out, which he did.

Fröst is also a compelling stage presence, a slim blond in a black jacket with epaulets and white piping, equal parts Pied Piper, John Philip Sousa, and Sgt. Pepper. And he is not a park-and-play soloist; within his square yard of the stage, he's constantly moving, swaying and dancing back and forth.

Aho uses a relatively small orchestra by contemporary standards -- single winds and a tiny percussion section, with no particularly exotic instruments -- and the clarinet really is the star here. I often find myself noticing unusual orchestral effects when I listen to new music, but there was very little of that here (though there were some lovely quiet chords for xylophone and vibes in the Epilogo (Misterioso) that concludes the piece).

Is there anything more to the concerto than a showpiece for a brilliant soloist? I don't know, but even if that's all it is, it's a heck of a lot of fun on that level.

After intermission came the Sibelius Sixth symphony, which is a strange, restless piece. It feels at times like a "Music Minus One" version of a symphony, giving us all of the background and underpinning with none of the melodies; when melodies do occasionally pop up, they barely stick around long enough to be heard and registered, much less developed in any way. Movements seem to begin in medias res and end abruptly, as if Sibelius had suddenly gotten tired of writing.

The symphony is not without its charms, but those charms lean more to the intellectual than the visceral; this is not, I think, a symphony that people will fall in love with on first hearing. It certainly doesn't leap onto my list of favorite music. It's possible, I suppose, that there was something wrong with the performance and that the symphony is more ingratiating than it seemed today, but given the talent of the Philharmonic and Vänskä, and the skill with the rest of today's concert was played, it seems more likely that this symphony is just a prickly odd duck.

March 21, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: Billy Joel

It's Billy Joel night, for the first time since season 2. Joel's songs are usually about very specific characters, and tonight will be not only a singing challenge, but an acting one as well. And what more logical choice could there be for a mentor on Billy Joel night than...Diddy? But he's very supportive, with a strong understanding of the emotional throughlines, and he's a nice complement to Jimmy's musical advice.

The rundown:

DeAndre, "Only the Good Die Young" -- It's fun and perky and energetic, but it's missing the element of danger and edge that makes the song so seductive. There's nothing of the bad boy in this performance (though he almost finds it on "the sinners have much more fun"); rather than being the boy your mother warned you about, DeAndre is the nice boy your mother always hoped you'll date.

Erika, "New York State of Mind" -- Quite lovely, powerful and soulful. Not quite the kind of performance that sends chills down the spine, but by far her best work yet, and it should certainly be enough to keep her around for another week. And goodness, the show's new style consultant Tommy Hilifiger isn't going to be bashful about making big changes, is he?

Joshua, "She's Got a Way" -- The strengths of this song, I think, are its simplicity and its delicacy. It's not a song that stands up well under all the melisma and the full go-to-church treatment. So, some markdown just on the question of taste. And perhaps because the style and the song don't match, I'm not getting a strong emotional connection. Bad song selection, but I'm not sure which Joel song would have been a better fit.

Skylar, "Shameless" -- Pleasant, though not particularly memorable. Some of the low notes in the verse are getting lost, which is consistently a problem for her; not sure if she's choosing the wrong keys or she just doesn't have as wide a range as the other singers. And since we're now apparently supposed to care more about style, I think that jacket/dress combo draws focus to her hips in a very unflattering way. (Hey, I haven't watched 11 seasons of Project Runway for nothing.)

Elise, "Vienna" -- She's relying far too much on the rasp in her voice to give it character that it doesn't otherwise have, and the effect is monotonous after a while. The final bars -- those last two repetitions of "Vienna waits for you" -- are painful, a strange mix of screechy falsetto, off-key runs, and growls that don't work at all.

Phillip, "Movin' Out" -- At least he's pretty. The arrangement didn't work and the performance was devoid of personality. An utter flop. (And the judges are crazy on this one.)

Hollie, "Honesty" -- Some pitch problems, and she frequently pulls the mike away from her mouth before the note is actually finished. But the biggest problem is that this just isn't a big belty anthem; it's a rueful meditation. Her approach to the song is so wrong that it gets in the way of noticing the things she does well.

Heejun, "My Life" -- Well, that was unexpected. After two weeks of breathy ballads, it's a relief to see that there is actually a voice in there. It's not an especially pretty voice, though, the pitch is all over the place., and he hasn't quite learned the lyrics. As for the shtick -- the fake-out opening, the mike twirling -- that's just embarrassing. He's still not a good singer, but at least he's willing to take some chances and shake things up a bit.

Jessica, "Everybody Has a Dream" -- That last run of ultra-high notes was impressive, and lord knows she can hit the big money notes for days. But there's so much vibrato and melisma in parts of the chorus that I still don't actually know what her dream is. You must communicate the text. You must communicate the text. You must communicate the text. If you don't do that, you have failed.

Colton, "Piano Man" -- The quieter verses in the lower register are especially nice here, and even when he goes up the octave for the high stuff, it's still mostly fine. But there are spots where that yodel-y yelp-y crack slips into his voice; it's not a pretty sound to begin with, and it's particularly out of place in this song. Still, this is easily the best of the night.

For the night: Colton, Erika, Jessica, Joshua, DeAndre, Hollie, Skylar, Heejun, Elise, Phillip.

For the season: Joshua, Jessica, Hollie, Erika, Skylar, Colton, DeAndre, Phillip, Elise, Heejun.

Let's send home: Heejun has now demonstrated that he can't really sing ballads or up-tempo. His comic relief has outlived its usefulness.

March 14, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: Songs from birth years

The oldest song in the batch comes from 1983. (Well, that's not really true, since several of tonight's songs are older than their singers, but they're slipping in because of cover versions dating from the singer's birth year.) This means that I was graduated from high school before any of this year's contestants were born. I am now officially old.

So crank up the volume a notch or two, because This! is the rundown:

Philip, "Hard to Handle" --It's an entirely serviceable performance, nothing terribly wrong with it, but nothing I'm going to remember for long, either. What I am struck by is the mismatch between the song and his singer; the pretty face and the bright smile and the polo shirt don't quite fit the bluesy song, and the effect is weirdly distracting. Not complaining, mind you, because it is a very pretty face indeed, but I wonder if we'll see him get an image overhaul as the season goes on.

Jessica, "Turn the Beat Around" -- It wouldn't be fair to expect her to match last week's performance every week, but this is a bigger letdown than I'd hoped for. She doesn't need to work this hard, or to shout this much. Some of those high notes are coming out with a lot of harsh rasp that is clearly not intended. The rappish sections are cleanly enunciated, which is a nice change from most Idol versions of the song, but they don't have the crisp percussive quality they need. (As the judges comment, Jennifer nails the exact problem -- her vibrato doesn't suit the song well.)

Heejun, "Right Here Waiting" -- There's a lot of air in the sound, which means that by the end of the phrase, he's running out of it, and since the high notes tend to come at the ends of the phrases in this song, they are almost always under pitch. The chorus is a bit better, because he's singing full voice, but even here, his breath control is weak enough that he's not able to get through complete phrases without breathing (and the phrases aren't that long). At his best, he has a pretty voice, but his technical problems don't allow him to stay at his best for more than a few notes at a time.

Elise, "Let's Stay Together" -- The sleepy lounge-act opening verse doesn't work at all. Things improve when we hit the chorus and the horns kick in, but this really isn't a song that shows off a singer's technical ability. It's about style and attitude and sexiness, and Elise isn't bringing any of those things to the party. Yeah, the notes are pretty much all there, and she's throwing in the obligatory runs, but it all feels a bit lazy and sloppy.

DeAndre, "Endless Love" -- Mostly pretty, in a bland kind of way, but those falsetto notes are not pleasant; they're thin and pinched and always just under pitch. And emotionally, it's the most passionless rendition of the song I've ever heard. I don't believe this is an endless love; hell, I barely believe that it's a good one night stand. He's lucky that it's been such a weak night so far; on a good night, this performance would get him sent home.

Shannon, "One Sweet Day" -- Jimmy and are right that her voice gets tight when she tries to belt, and even when she's not belting, there's nothing interesting or distinctive about her. She'd probably win her high school talent show, but she doesn't belong on Idol. And it's not a very interesting song, either.

Colton, "Broken Heart" -- This certainly suits his voice better than Stevie Wonder did, though I'm still driven nuts by the way his voice breaks in strange places. Good performance, nothing special. Conventional wisdom would say that he'll be hurt in the voting by the choice of so obscure a song; I'm skeptical that there's any validity to the idea.

Erika, "Heaven" -- Nice; in comparison to what we've been getting tonight, very nice. Some of the low notes are a bit off pitch, and I shudder to think what's going to happen when she has to sing anything that requires agility with a voice that heavy, but this was pleasant.

And at this point, we get the dismissal of Jermaine due to outstanding arrest warrants that he hadn't told the producers about. It is handled in as tasteful and dignified a manner as one could reasonbly expect from Idol, but it is significant that Ryan tells us that the lowest vote-getter tomorrow night will be "at risk for elimination," not that s/he will be eliminated. We're probably looking at someone getting a free pass because of Jermaine's disqualification.

Skylar, "Love Sneaking Up On You" -- Some of the low notes at the beginning are getting lost, and her enunciation is sloppy; the actual words are getting buried in rasp and twang. It's very powerful rasp and twang, to be sure, and not unpleasant to listen to, but the goal of singing is to communicate, and if we can't tell what you're saying, you're not communicating.

Joshua, "When a Man Loves a Woman" -- Ooh, hell, yes! He even got away with the cheesy taking-off-the-jacket move. Those high notes coming back into the last verse were impeccable, and there's not really much to complain about anywhere. Best of the night so far by seventeen or eighteen miles. (I worry a bit, though, because he reminds me a lot of Jacob Lusk, who had a similar style and went home far too early last season.)

Hollie, "Power of Love" -- There's not much to the song but an excuse to stand and belt for 90 seconds, and she certainly does that in impressive fashion. But we know from last week that she's capable of more subtle singing than this, and I hope she won't turn into this year's Siobhan Magnus, getting more obsessed every week with the big notes until we're bored and have forgotten why we liked her in the first place.

For the night: Joshua, Hollie, Erika, Phillip, Colton, Skylar, Jessica, DeAndre, Heejun, Shannon, Elise.

For the season: Joshua, Hollie, Skylar, Jessica, Phillip, Erica, Colton, Elise, DeAndre, Shannon, Heejun.

Let's send home: Assuming we send anyone home at alll, that is, which seems unlikely. About the only other option they have to stretch the season a week would be not to do a double elimination the week after the judges' save, but then they're screwed if the judges never use the save. But if we do send someone home, it should be either Elise or Heejun.

March 13, 2012

MOVIES: The Lorax (Chris Renaud & Kyle Balda, 2012)

I didn't have the highest expectations for The Lorax. It's not one of Dr. Seuss's better books, filled with didactic preaching, and trying to pad even his good books to feature length has never worked. (The only really good Seuss film: the Chuck Jones How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and it's only 26 minutes long.)

But lord, I didn't expect it to be this bad. The voice acting is either bland (Taylor Swift, Zac Efron, Ed Helms) or wildly inappropriate (Danny DeVito as the lovable, cuddly Lorax?); the animation is unattractive; and the songs that have been added to the story are aggressively ugly.

And if the "Yay! Environment!" preaching of the book wasn't smug enough for you, the movie adds a layer of "Boo! Businessmen!" sanctimony. Worst of all, the warmth and whimsy that mark Seuss's work are entirely absent from the movie. A total mess.

MOVIES: Friends With Kids (Jennifer Westfeldt, 2012)

Writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt can't entire escape the pitfalls and cliches of romantic comedy in Friends With Kids, but she comes close enough to make the movie a pleasant surprise.

Westfeldt and Adam Scott are Julie and Jason, best friends who aren't romantically interested in one another (no, really, they're not, and they will tell you so at the drop of a hat), but decide to have a baby and share custody. Their married friends (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd, Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm -- lord help us, it's a Bridesmaids reunion) think this is a crazy idea.

For a time, it looks as if Julie and Jason have indeed found a way to have it all -- adorable kid, co-parenting with their best friend, and a great new romantic interest for each of them (Edward Burns and Megan Fox, respectively) -- but alas, the love that has always been there between them inevitably rears its ugly head to complicate things.

The central problem of romantic comedy is always the same: We know these people belong together, and it gets annoying to watch the movie keep throwing artificial obstacles in their path. There's some of that here, certainly, but the primary obstacle is simply the longevity of their friendship, and the idea that they've fallen so firmly into "the friend zone" that they can't even imagine being romantically involved is more plausibility than the delaying tactics of the average romantic comedy.

The final act, with the reconciliation and uniting of the two, is the weakest part of the movie (and the final line is perhaps the ugliest and least romantic bit of dialogue in movie history), but even it's better than usual, and the first 80% of the movie is terrific.

Westfeldt and Scott are immensely charming; the supporting couples are very funny, particularly Wiig and Rudolph; Burns is more likable and attractive than he's been in years. Westfeldt's script is smart and observant, and the relationships of the married couples feel unusually real.

Very much worth seeing, especially in the winter wasteland of the current movie offerings.

BOOKS: Trail of the Spellmans, Lisa Lutz (2012)

Fifth in the comic mystery series about a dysfunctional San Francisco family of private investigators.

"Mystery" is perhaps a bit of an overstatement where these books are concerned; the plots are almost an afterthought, serving mostly as a loose framework on which to hang Lutz's light, fluffy tales of affectionate family squabbling. That said, there are some significant changes in the lives of the Spellmans this time around -- two new members of the Spellman family, a non-Spellman addition to the household, romantic and business upheavals -- and the family is as charming as ever. The clients and cases, such as they are, are amusing, and you needn't fear that your brain will be overtaxed along the way.

Like the other books in the series, it's a breezy little bonbon. A nice, tasty, banana-flavored bonbon.

March 08, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: Whitney Houston/Stevie Wonder

Well, damn if they didn't suck me back in.

I was ready to give up on Idol this year. There were just too many things that weren't working about the show, notably the lazy lack of useful criticism from the judges, and the rut the show's voters have gotten into with Nice White Boy winners.

But my roommate talked me into watching the top 13 last night, and there was enough talent to grab me again. The judges seemed to be making at least some effort to offer meaningful commentary, Mary J. Blige was a fine mentor, and there are some good singers on hand. But if this season becomes a long march to the coronation of Nice White Boy Phillip Phillips, who seems to be the obvious front-runner even before I've heard any of them sing a note, then I will be annoyed. Quite annoyed, I say.

We begin with a twist: It's boys vs. girls, mostly because the show wants to do a Whitney Houston tribute without forcing the boys to sing "I'm Every Woman" or "All the Man That I Need." So the girls get Whitney and the boys get Stevie Wonder, the public votes for a loser on each side, and the judges pick between the two. This is the voting format used by So You Think You Can Dance and The X Factor for most of their seasons, and it's a smart way to keep talented people in the running if they have a bad week, or if the public simply gets it wrong. I suspect that Idol will find excuses to do something similar two or three more times this season, and won't be at all surprised if it becomes a permanent part of the structure next season.

Since the competition is really in separate brackets tonight, I'll do the rundown accordingly. And since it's my first time hearing any of the singers, the reactions may be a little longer than usual. First, the gentlemen take on Stevie Wonder:

Joshua, "I Wish" -- That James Brown rasp in the voice doesn't feel as if it comes quite naturally to him, and I hope he's not damaging his throat. Entertaining, energetic performance, though, and all the dancing and running about doesn't leave him short of breath. From the judges' comments, I gather that this is a departure for him, and that he's been more of a balladeer so far; I look forward to hearing that side of him.

Jermaine, "Knocks Me Off My Feet" -- Lovely voice, but the pop music world seems relatively uninterested in deep-voiced men these days. (Let's hope he makes it to Disco Night, though; we'll finally have someone who can pull off a nice Barry White number.) One of the challenges for large men is moving gracefully, and he hasn't quite got that down; he always seems to be in search of someone to tackle.

Colton, "Lately" -- His voice keeps breaking in odd places where I don't think he means for it to break; it's like he's been possessed by the spirit of a really bad yodeler. Even when it's not cracking, it's not a pretty voice; it's thin and nasal. And why is there a giant Q*Bert board on the display screen behind him?

Deandre, "Master Blaster" -- The stairs have been conveniently color-coded in red, green, and yellow for us, just in case we didn't pick up on the reggae beat. Steven makes the perfect comparison, saying that he's this year's Naima. Remember Naima? Hyperactive woman with a really grating voice whose weird dance moves kept her around for three or four weeks last year? Yeah, that sounds about right -- three or four weeks.

Heejun, "All In Love Is Fair" -- OK, a bit of armchair shrinkery here. This guy has a weirdly ambivalent attitude towards his own ethnicity; he's joking about it, but in a way that would be terribly racist coming from someone else -- the grandma's accent joke, the noodle jokes, the constant bowing. From my limited experience as a performer, I know that you're never going to be comfortable expressing yourself until you're comfortable being yourself, and he's clearly not. As for the singing, the high notes are frequently a bit under pitch, and the whole thing seems a bit tentative; it's often all breath with no support behind it. He won't be around long.

Jeremy, "Ribbon in the Sky" -- What's with all those strange little hand gestures when he's standing at the mike? Maybe they're meant to distract us from his voice, which is a whiny, reedy thing that never quite gets up to the high notes for which he's aiming. The moment of falsetto near the end is particularly weak and unpleasant.

Phillip, "Superstition" -- I like the effect he's going for -- sort of a swampy, CCR-does-Stevie thing. But the sound mix is a bit off, and his voice is occasionally buried by the band. When we can hear him, his enunciation is on the sloppy side. Certainly good enough to keep him around for another week.

For the night in the Stevie bracket: Joshua, Jermaine, Phillip, Deandre, Heejun, Colton, Jeremy.

Next, the ladies tackle Whitney Houston:

Elise, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" -- Mary J. gets at the problem here; the delivery needs a precision that Elise lacks; she's sliding between notes that ought to be more crisply delineated, especially in the verses. I like the huskiness of her voice, though, and it'll be interesting to hear her on material that's more within her comfort zone.

Erika, "I Believe in You and Me" -- How thoughtful of her to dress for the Coca-Cola interview segment in a gown of Coca-Cola red! It's not a particularly exciting or memorable performance, but I like her tone. I'd like to hear her tackle something by Karen Carpenter.

(And how is it that Idol has never had a Carpenters night? Surely Richard would be willing to drive in from Thousand Oaks for a mentoring gig.)

Shannon, "I Have Nothing" -- The song is simply too big for her. Pleasant enough in the quiet verses, but she's at sea on those big choruses. Her mike technique is part of the problem; on those repeated "nothing! nothing!" phrases, she's pulling the mike away from her face.

(At this point, I'm starting to notice that everyone is simply towering over Ryan this year. Where did they hold auditions? Santa Fe, Cleveland, and Beanstalk City?)

Skylar, "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" -- I'd never have thought of this as a country song, but now I really want to hear a full-on country version of it. I like her; she can do the quiet simplicity of a good country singer, but she's also got the big flashy belt and runs of a pop diva. She could be around for a while.

Hollie, "All the Man That I Need" -- Oh my goodness, yes. That big note at the end is spectacular, and her voice is lovely, some sort of glorious cross between Kristin Chenoweth, Dusty Springfield, and Brenda Lee. I like her.

Jessica, "I Will Always Love You" -- This song is like the Mt. Everest of Idol challenges, and holy crap, did she nail it. If I were going to be very nitpicky, I would say that her voice got just a bit heavier than I'd like on the middle verse, but this was as close to perfect as an Idol performance gets. One odd physical thing: At the ends of phrases, when she's emphasizing a note with a little extra vibrato, the vibrato also comes out in the ring finger of her mike hand, which does its own little wobbly vibrato. That might suggest that something undesirable is happening -- vocal effort shouldn't be reflected elsewhere in the body like that -- but hey, the sound is great, and if she's not suffereing any vocal pain, I'm not going to tell her to change anything.

For the night in the Whitney bracket:  Jessica, Hollie, Skylar, Erika, Elise, Shannon.

The gut reaction is that the women are a far stronger group than the men, but it's hard to say to what extent that's an artifact of their being given such different material. Whitney's songs require a big voice, certainly, but beyond that, they're not generally terribly difficult; and any woman who's made it this far into the competition should have a big enough voice to handle them. Stevie's songs, on the other hand, really are difficult, with wide-ranging melodies, unexpected intervals, and tricky rhythms. The men may have come off worse simply because they faced a tougher challenge.

For the night overall: Jessica, Hollie, Skylar, Joshua, Jermaine, Phillip, Erika, Elise, Deandre, Shannon, Heejun, Colton, Jeremy.

Let's send home: Shannon should certainly be the woman up for elimination, and I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the bottom three men alongside her. At this point, there's still plenty of cannon fodder to be eliminated, and it doesn't matter terribly which of the bottom group goes home when. But Jeremy really was pretty awful, wasn't he?

March 03, 2012

TV: Awake (NBC, Thu 10)

Mike Britten (Jason Isaacs) is a cop who's recently survived an automobile accident, and now finds himself caught between two realities, switching between the two whenever he goes to sleep. In one reality, his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) has survived the crash and his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) has died; in the other reality, Rex has survived and Laura has died.

That sounds a bit complicated, but one of the marvelous things about Awake is how clearly it lays out that premise; the first five minutes are a model of storytelling. The show uses color to help differentiate the two realities -- there's a lot of cool green in the Hannah reality and warmer reds in the Rex reality.

In each universe, he's got a partner (Wilmer Valderrama, unrecognizable from That 70s Show without the accent and haircut, in the green reality, and Steve Harris in the red), and a therapist (B.D. Wong in green, Cherry Jones in red) who's trying to help him adjust not only to his bereavement, but to his conviction that both worlds are, in fact, real.

We can certainly understand why he wants to believe that -- if both are real, then at least he gets to keep both members of his family, even if in separate worlds -- just as we understand why both therapists are convinced that it's an elaborate coping mechanism.

But something real seems to be happening, because as Mike works on different police cases in the two worlds, there starts to be bleed-over between the two, little bits of information that pop up in both cases, helping Mike to solve both.

This is one of those impressive pilots that leaves you wondering how on earth they carry this story forward for a full season, much less for a multi-year run. But this cast is superb (and Laura Innes will be joining in later weeks, apparently as the chief of police), and the show does a terrific job of dealing with its complicated structure; it's always clear when we've switched realities and which one we're in.

The question is whether or not the writers will feel compelled to explain everything. I'd be perfectly happy if they didn't; the show is entirely compelling as a metaphor for how we handle bereavement and a character study on one man living an unusual life. From the teaser scenes we got at the end of the episode, though, it seems clear that there's going to be some sort of elaborate conspiracy to explain everything, and I'm slightly worried about how that will play out.

The show may sound more depressing than it really is. Yes, there's sadness to it; Mike has lost a family member in each reality, after all, and his wife and son are grieving those losses without the escape valve that Mike has. But the show has been smart enough to begin the action some weeks or months after the action, at a point where Mike and his family are beginning to move on with their lives, finding ways to cope with the absence of the person who's gone.

I don't know if this show can be sustained in the long run, but it's gotten off to a strong enough start that I will be perfectly happy to watch it for however long it can keep up the juggling act.