June 30, 2012

MOVIES: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012, Lorene Scafaria)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is, I'm afraid, not a good movie. It's a romantic comedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, set against the backdrop of the apocalypse. Yes, the apocalypse, because that's always funny. A giant asteroid is on its way to smash into the planet, and the final attempt to blow it up has failed, leaving humanity with but three weeks to live.

Carell is Dodge, a meek insurance salesman whose wife left him some weeks ago, when the asteroid was first discovered. Knightley is Penny, a mildly depressive young woman who has missed the last flight back to England and will not get to spend the final days with her family. They meet cute and set off on a road trip; he promises that if she'll take him to see his high school sweetheart, he'll take her to a pilot who can get her back to England.

Much of the movie is a two-hander for Carell and Knightley, and they don't have much chemistry. They aren't helped by the fact that they're both fairly low-energy characters -- she suffers from "hypersomnia," so she sleeps a lot and doesn't have much pizzazz even when she's awake -- so the movie only really comes alive when someone else enters the story.

Some of those bit performances are quite nice -- Derek Luke as one of Penny's old boyfriends, Mark Moses as a cable news anchor, Martin Sheen as Dodge's pilot, Gillian Jacobs and TJ Miller as perky restaurant staff -- but none of those characters are in the movie for more than five minutes or so, then we're back to plodding along with Dodge and Penny.

There are some nice details in the background, as we see the different ways people try to cope with their impending doom. A slightly manic human resources guy asks the few people who've bothered to come to work if anyone wants to be the new CFO; a maid can't understand why her employer tells her not to come to work any more ("You're firing me?").

The apocalypse doesn't have to be handled in grand operatic fashion, as it is in (for example) Melancholia, but if you're going to go small and intimate with it, you have to give us compelling characters, and Seeking a Friend doesn't. Skip this, and in its place, rent the 1998 Canadian film Last Night, a quiet tale of Earth's last six hours.

June 29, 2012

TV: Anger Management (FX, Thu 9:30)

FX has been advertising its new Charlie Sheen sitcom Anger Management for weeks now, with a campaign built around Sheen's own image. It's not as if that's a new stunt for Sheen; his characters have been rooted in his public persona -- the reckless rogue, the lovable rascal, the charming womanizer -- going back at least as far as Major League.

But the last year has been a rough one for Sheen, with his behavior going beyond reckless to frighteningly self-destructive, leading to his unceremonious dumping from Two and a Half Men. So how do you build a comedy around a guy whose public reputation borders on toxic? If you're FX, you clean him up as much as possible and present the nicest possible version of Charlie Sheen that you can create. The sad truth, though, is the nicest possible Charlie Sheen is still a pretty loathesome guy.

Anger Management borrows its title (and not much more) from the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson movie. Sheen stars as Charlie Goodson, a former minor-league baseball player whose anger issues ruined his one shot at the majors; he went back to school and now works as an anger management counselor. This sets up a sort of Bob Newhart Show vibe, in which we follow Charlie's personal life and his professional life (conveniently, and cheaply, he does his therapy sessions in his living room, requiring only one set).

Regardless of how you feel about Sheen and his personal issues, he's a talented and successful sitcom actor. He carried Spin City for two years after the departure of Michael J. Fox, and until his personal life fell apart, did fine work on Two and a Half Men. He's got a nice deadpan delivery, and gives as good a reaction shot as anyone on TV.

And he's surrounded by a talented cast, including veterans like Barry Corbin (the obligatory grumpy old man in the therapy group), Brett Butler (Charlie's bartender), Michael Boatman (the next-door neighbor), Selma Blair (Charlie's best friend, his own therapist, and his occasional lover), and Shawnee Smith (his ex-wife).

You will notice a lot of female names in that list; this version of the Charlie Sheen character has better relationships with women than any previous version. He gets along well with his ex and their teenage daughter; he has a reasonably mature relationship with his pal/therapist (by Sheen standards, at least); he and his bartender have a nice friendly bantering relationship. Yeah, he's still chasing the hot chicks and flirting with every cutie who crosses his path, but hey, that's just Charlie! and for the most part, it's marginally less vulgar and tacky than it's been in Sheen's other work.

But "for the most part," unfortunately, isn't "always," and when the show does go sleazy, as it did in the second episode of last night's two-episode premiere, it becomes the most viciously misogynistic thing I've seen on television. That episode is centered around Kerri Kenney as a woman who had once been Charlie's "slumpbuster" -- a baseball superstition says that you get out of a hitting slump by sleeping wth the ugliest woman you can find -- and every joke in the episode is built around her unattractiveness or her stupidity. It's an entire half hour that's nothing but variations on "she's a stupid pig," and it completely destroyed the goodwill that the first episode had earned.

It's a shame, because there's a lot of talent here. The actors are talented, and while the writing isn't brilliant or surprising, it plays to Sheen's strenghts and will surely keep his fans happy. Anger Management isn't a particularly ambitious show -- it doesn't attempt the formal innovation of Community or even Modern Family -- and if you remember producer Bruce Helford's earlier sitcoms, which starred people like Drew Carey and Norm McDonald, then you have a good idea what you're getting here. It's an old-fashioned style that calls for a fairly predictable setup-punchline "ba DUM bum" rhythm; the cast delivers the material well enough that you can almost forget that it's B-grade shtick at best.

But there is an ugliness at the core of the show that, at the risk of delving into armchair psychology, may be the ugliness at the core of Sheen himself. Try as hard as he might, he can't resist turning the show into an exercise in the degradation of others.

June 25, 2012

MOVIES: Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012)

Brave breaks some new ground for Pixar. It's their first movie with a female lead character (and in fact, all of the most important characters are women), their first venture into Disney's princess territory, and their first fairy tale. It's also a much darker movie than the pre-release advertising has suggested.

The setting is Scotland, where Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is rebelling against Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson); poor King Fergus (Billy Connolly) is caught in the middle, wanting both of the women in his life to be happy. It's as realistic a look at mother-daughter relationships as we've gotten from any movie in quite some time; the anger and hostility that flare up are sharp and painful.

And Merida only gets angrier when Elinor informs her that the eldest sons of the three local lords (the lords are voiced by Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane, and Craig Ferguson, in delightful small performances) are coming to compete for her hand in marriage. She refuses to cooperate, finds a loophole, and flees into the forest.

That's where the movie takes some unexpected turns. Without giving too much away, let's just say that there is a witch (Julie Walters) and a spell that -- surprise, surprise -- does not have the expected results, changing the relationship between Merida and her mother in ways that test them both.

The elements of the story are all familiar from various fairy tales, but they're combined here in interesting ways, and directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman aren't afraid to let the story get very dark. There's a thrilling hunt scene set on a dark, rainy night that is genuinely frightening and suspenseful. I wouldn't take very small children to the movie; there were a few at the theater when I saw the movie on Saturday, and there was a fair amount of terrified wailing at certain moments.

There's also the obligatory comic relief, of course. Billy Connolly is delightful as King Fergus, trying frantically to hold things together as the fights between his wife and daughter grow increasingly more heated. Merida's small brothers, triplets who wander the castle causing mischief, are quite funny, not over-used, and given an important role in the story at just the right moment. The witch's shtick occasionally ventures just a bit too close to Shrek-like pop culture jokes, but her scenes are relatively brief.

This is a fine return to form after the horrid Cars 2. And the movie's preceded by the lovely short "La Luna," which was nominated for an Oscar last year; it's a charmer about a young boy entering the family business, finding his own way to do things while honoring his father's and grandfather's traditions.

TV: The Newsroom (HBO, Sun 10)

So, Aaron Sorkin is back. And The Newsroom has everything you expect from Sorkin -- rapid-fire dialogue, much of it delivered while walking; a rosily idealistic view of what the media should be; stellar actors (and Dev Patel, but let's just pretend he isn't there, OK?). What it also has are the familiar -- by now, perhaps overly familiar -- Sorkin character types; a weird focus on exactly the wrong side of the story; and a narrative choice that only emphasizes Sorkin's tendency to smugness.

We're backstage again, as we usually are with Sorkin, this time in the world of cable news. Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is an amiable anchorman, content to present the blandest, least offensive news show possible. He's "the Jay Leno of news," we're told, and it's not a compliment. But then he snaps at a college student who asks him "why is America the greatest country in the world" -- short answer: it's not, though this is Sorkin, so the answer isn't short, but is instead an operatic rant -- and after being suspended for a few weeks, returns to find that the staff of his show has mostly deserted him for the network's rising young star.

He also finds that his boss, Charlie (Sam Waterston), head of the news division, has hired a new executive producer for his show. She's MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), and Will is not happy, because they have A Past. But it seems that Charlie and MacKenzie have been inspired by Will's moment of honest ranting to overhaul his news program into what cable news should be -- passionate, devoted to the truth, committed to in-depth reporting of the stories that matter, and willing to ignore the celebrity gossip and trivia of the day.

Those three principal characters fall neatly into the types that we've seen Sorkin use of his other successful shows, Sports Night and The West Wing. (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip deviated a bit more from his standard types, which may be one of the reasons it never quite worked.) Will is solidly in the Peter Krause/Bradley Whitford tradition -- talented, filled with integrity, but capable of being abrasive to the point that no one wants to work with him. MacKenzie is the Felicity Huffman/Allison Janney figure -- strong, forceful career woman who will be all work and no nonsense right up to the moment when Sorkin decides to have her go to pieces over some utterly silly plot point. And Charlie is the Robert Guillaume/John Spencer grownup -- cheerful, avuncular, good-hearted, and capable of breaking out the big stompy foot when it's required.

(The line between Peter Krause in Sports Night and Daniels' Will McAvoy is even more direct when you realize that both characters are at least partly inspired by Keith Olbermann.)

The actors are superb -- the supporting cast includes Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., Thomas Sadoski, and Olivia Munn (and though she's not in the premiere, Jane Fonda will have a recurring role as the network's owner) -- and it's marvelous to hear Sorkin's dialogue on TV again. The first episode is terrifically entertaining, and completely successful as drama.

As social/political/cultural commentary, though, it's less successful because of one specific storytelling choice. Rather than set the show in the fictional present, and use fictional news stories as his backdrop, Sorkin sets the show in the recent past, and has his reporters covering real news stories.

The premiere is set on the day of the explosion on the Blackwater Horizon oil rig. That explosion happened in the early afternoon; by the time the evening news shows went on that night, less than six hours had passed. The explosion was reported on most networks, but as a short piece late in the show, and the focus was on the search-and-rescue mission.

It would be several days or weeks before it sank in that there were problems with capping the well and that this was going to be a major environmental disaster. But with the benefit of two years of hindsight, Sorkin has his team of crack reporters go on the air that night with a full hour devoted to the story. They've got a statement from BP acknowledging that they don't know how to cap the well; an on-air spokesman from Halliburton discussing the flawed tests of the substance that was supposed to have capped it automatically; a phone interview with the government inspector who most recently inspected the well (not credited, but I'm pretty sure that was Jesse Eisenberg's voice on the phone) -- stuff that it wouldn't have occurred to anyone to get on day one, and that they wouldn't have been able to get if it had occurred to them.

If Sorkin wants to use his show to argue that cable news sucks, and to present a vision of how it could be better, that's fine; it's a perfectly legitimate use of the airtime he's been given. But to present a vision that is completely unattainable is emphatically not fine; it's a narrative stacking of the deck that unfairly makes real cable news look even worse than it is. It's like scolding a child for getting an 85 on a 100-point spelling test instead of getting 237.

(If you want to argue that the right mix of lucky breaks and flukes could have gotten that kind of reporting on day one of the story, you're stretching the laws of coincidence beyond even their most generous fictional levels of plausibility, but I might be willing to let you get away with it. ONCE. If McAvoy and his team pull off this kind of reporting every week, it will be a serious problem with the show.)

I also think that in a world where there really are no news networks or anchors this idealistic, presenting the case of a bunch of execs who care less about ratings than about journalism is a bit silly. The real world scenario that reporters are more often faced with is even worse: Doing real journalism when the boss wants to spend ten minutes reading Thurber stories, or giggling over Gerard Depardieu pissing on an airplane, or mixing cocktails (Keith Olbermann, Anderson Cooper, and Rachel Maddow, respectively, have wasted time on their "news" programs on such drivel). That would be just as compelling a story, and far more relevant to the world we actually live in.

But despite those flaws, the story's constructed well, and when Daniels, Mortimer, and Waterston rip into that Sorkin dialogue? Oh, it's almost as good as being back in the Bartlet White House.

June 21, 2012

TV: The Soul Man (TV Land, Wed 10)

TV Land has had mixed luck with its attempts to create new sitcoms that feel old-fashioned enough to sit alongside the repeats that are still the network's primary fare. Their most successful attempts, to my mind -- the very good Hot in Cleveland and the improving The Exes -- are those that feature the stars from those old shows, people who understand the rhythms of retro sitcoms well enough to make the material seem better than it is.

But put someone without that kind of experience, or without much acting experience at all, in the lead, and the weakness of the writing overwhelms the show. So it's probably not surprising that this Hot in Cleveland spinoff built around Cedric the Entertainer doesn't work very well; Cedric doesn't have the experience or the natural skill to elevate the pedestrian material he's given.

Cedric plays Boyce "The Voice" Ballentine, a former R&B star who's just moved from Cleveland to his home town of St. Louis to take over his father's church. His wife and daughter (Niecy Nash and Jazz Raycole) aren't happy about the move, and his father (John Beasley) is having trouble relinquishing control of the church.

Even if this type of sitcom were still in style, The Soul Man would be a weak example of the genre, because Cedric is such a nonentity at the center of the show. He's not much of an actor; he doesn't know how to get laughs; and when we finally hear him sing, it's inconceivable that he was ever a successful singer.

He's surrounded by some talent. Nash and Beasley get some laughs, as does Wesley Jonathan as Boyce's slacker brother, but this is written as a one-man show -- literally, in many scenes where Boyce chats with God -- and Cedric isn't up to carrying the load.

BOOKS: Redshirts, John Scalzi (2012)

Anyone who's ever watched Star Trek should be familiar with the folks in the title of Scalzi's new novel. But for the non-Trekkies: Whenever Captain Kirk and the starship Enterprise arrived at some unknown planet, he would lead a small team down to the surface. He'd usually take a couple of his top officers, and they'd be joined by some poor ensign, wearing the red shirt of the enlisted man. Guess which one is getting killed by the Slime Monsters of Vorgon Beta VI? Fans began to refer to these sacrificial ensigns as "redshirts."

Scalzi gives us a look at a Trek-like world from the redshirts' point of view. Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union, which explores space seeking new life and doing interplanetary diplomacy. Andy and his fellow newbies quickly realize that, even for an exploratory ship, the Intrepid has a remarkably high death rate among the junior members of its crew. It's so high, in fact, that some of the slightly-less-junior crewmen have begun avoiding the captain entirely, for fear of being assigned to a landing party.

Scalzi's take on the dangerous life of the redshirts is a comic delight, and he takes great pleasure in skewering all the conventions of this particular SF subgenre -- the cheesy dialogue, the scientific illiteracy, the cardboard-thin characters. When Andy and his friends finally do figure out what's really going on aboard the Intrepid, the answer is both absolutely inevitable and wildly audacious.

And that answer sets up the even better second half of the novel, in which the redshirts try to stop their own ongoing slaughter. Scalzi follows his premise to its laughably illogical conclusions, and even manages to impose a warped sort of scientific rigor on a fictional universe that never had much of it to begin with.

As a bonus, the last quarter of the book is made up of three "codas," short stories which briefly follow three of the novel's minor characters and look at how their lives were changed by the story -- turning the novel's extras into protagonists, as it were. These codas give Scalzi a chance to show off a wider emotional range than the novel itself allows, and they bring the book to a sweet and poignant end.

June 18, 2012

MOVIES: Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, 2012)

Rock of Ages is not a good movie, but it is bad in fascinating ways. It's a movie that comes achingly close to being a deliciously cheesy entertainment, but at nearly every point where a choice had to be made -- casting, writing, directing -- I found myself wincing as the wrong choice was made again.

There are a dozen short essays waiting to be written about this movie. We could ask why Hollywood persists in casting musicals with movie stars who can sing a little instead of with singers (and when we do get singers in this movie, they're not rock singers). We could talk about the differences in performing styles between rock and musical theatre, and how the clash between the two makes the successful "rock musical" an impossible dream.

We could wonder whether it will ever again be possible to watch a Tom Cruise performance without reading it as commentary on Cruise's own persona/image. (Cruise actually gives the best performance in the movie, a sly and witty take on a guy desperately clinging to his celebrity. And he pulls off the singing, too; if he's auto-tuned, it's done well enough that it isn't noticable.) Or we could snicker at the movie's insistence that 80s rock is somehow more authentic, less a product of the music industry factory, than other pop music of its era.

The story is paper-thin, centered on the bland coupling of Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough, both trying to make it in LA as singers in 1987, as the hair-metal era is coming to an end. (Hough's character is named Sherrie Christian, so that we can get a performance of "Sister Christian;" "Oh Sherrie" must have been cut from the film fairly late, because you  occasionally hear bits of it in the underscore.) They both work at the Bourbon Room, a Sunset Strip club managed by Alec Baldwin and his assistant Russell Brand.

You've also got Malin Akerman as a Rolling Stone reporter (she gets the "remove glasses, let down hair, my god you're beautiful!" moment), Mary J. Blige as a good-hearted strip club manager, Catherine Zeta-Jones as an anti-rock crusader, Paul Giamatti as a sleazy manager/agent, and of course, Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, the biggest name in rock. None of them are asked to deliver any more than a one-note performance, and (with the exception of Cruise) that's all any of them give.

The music is a collection of 80s rock standards, but they're so badly chopped up and mashed together that most of them don't survive, and they're sung by people with no understanding of the proper vocal style. The simplest performances have the most impact -- Zeta-Jones leading her army of church women in "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" (which she sells convincingly, despite not even remotely being a rock singer), a not terribly well sung but spectacularly unexpected version of "Can't Fight This Feeling" (about which saying more would be a cruel piece of spoilage).

The movie never quite works, but I'm glad to have seen it; I'll take an interesting failure over run-of-the-mill dull any day.

TV: Dallas (TNT, Wed 9)

Did we need a revival of Dallas? Probably not, but if we were going to get one, this isn't bad. And "revival" is the word for it. This is not a post-modern ironic update or a reboot; this is a straightforward continuation, picking up with the characters as if they'd simply been on a 20-year-long summer hiatus.

Three of the original cast are back as regulars -- Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy as brothers JR and Bobby, and Linda Gray as JR's ex-wife Sue Ellen -- and others will pop up occasionally throughout the season. Joining that older generation as Bobby's new wife Ann is Brenda Strong. (Victoria Principal, who used to play Bobby's wife Pamela, has retired from acting; the show's references to Pamela are carefully written to imply that she is dead, but there's just enough wiggle room for her to pop up should Principal ever be so inclined.)

We also get a new generation of younger Ewings; Josh Henderson is JR's son John Ross and Jesse Metcalfe is Bobby's adopted son (and much is made of the whole adopted thing, with lots of "You're no Ewing" dialogue) Christopher.

The storylines are pure soap opera, as they always were. Bobby's been diagnosed with cancer; Sue Ellen wants to run for governor; and JR's in a nursing home, apparently suffering from such severe depression that he doesn't even respond or make conversation.

Christopher, who works in alternative energy, is about to marry Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo); John Ross is dating Elena (Jordana Brewster), daughter of the cook at Southfork and formely Christopher's girlfriend. John Ross has discovered a vast oil reserve beneath Southfork, but the family ranch is controlled by the dictates of the late Miss Ellie, whose will strictly forbids drilling.

That sets up the obligatory intrafamily squabbling and scheming, in which everyone's got a hidden agenda and there are more double and triple crosses than you can keep track of.

If you liked the original Dallas, there's no reason you won't like this. Even though he's no longer the lead, Hagman still dominates the show, falling back into the role with ease, just as gleefully manipulative and devious as ever. (And his eyebrows have grown into spectacular presences all by themselves; they're practically able to deliver dialogue.)

The younger generation of actors don't quite keep up with their elders -- the two young men come off worse than their female costars -- but that may simply be a matter of them needing time to get used to the show's style, which is resolutely old-fashioned compared to today's soaps. By the end of the season, I'd expect them to be better meshed into the mix as the acting generations adapt to one another and the writers learn how to better mix their styles.

Not a show I'm going to follow, but a surprisingly credible revival.

June 12, 2012

MOVIES: Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012)

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.

That ad actually appeared in the classified section of a small magazine for outdoorsmen in the late 90s. It turned out to be a space-filler made up by the editor, but the movie Safety Not Guaranteed jumps off from the idea that the ad is real.

Jeff (Jake Johnson) is a reporter from Seattle Magazine who convinces his boss to let him investigate the ad, maybe get an interview with whoever placed it and find out what he's up to. He's sent off to rural Washington with two interns (Seattle Magazine must be doing better than most print mags these days), the timid Arnua (Karan Soni) and Darius (Aubrey Plaza), who is your standard indie film cooler-than-thou chick.
Jeff's attempt to contact Kenneth (Mark Duplass) goes very badly, so it's Darius who winds up applying for the job of time-travel sidekick, and she's just strange enough herself to be on Kenneth's eccentric wavelength. That sets up what looks like a fairly standard story -- are these two people going to fall in love, despite their mutual suspicion (and her fear that he may be a complete lunatic)?

But the movie takes odd twists along the way, and even in the moments when it winds up where you thought it would, it usually finds surprising ways to get there. There's a nice subplot involving Jeff and his old high-school sweetheart (meeting her again was the only reason he was really interested in the story to begin with), and some nice comedy involving the group attempt to help Arnau lose his virginity. (That's a plotline that often winds up getting really icky, and it stays surprisingly sweet here.)

The four principal performances are all fine, but it's the relationship between Plaza and Duplass that makes the movie work. By the time the movie takes its final twist, which just might be the most surprising of them all, you'll be hoping that time travel really does exist.

MOVIES: Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, & Conrad Vernon, 2012)

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted does a nice job of putting its characters in a new situation and giving them some amusing new friends. It's a pleasant movie.

Our four heroes -- Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer -- remember when Friends was still on, and David Schwimmer didn't look quite so much like the odd man out in that lineup of bigger names?) -- find themselves in Monte Carlo, still trying to get back to their home at the zoo in Central Park.

A determined animal control officer (Frances McDormand, doing a magnificently broad Fronnnnnch accent, and even getting to sing "Je ne regrette rien") is after them, and they're forced to join up with a decidedly low-rent circus in order to get away.

That's where we meet our other new characters. There's Vitaly, the bitter, melancholy Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston); Gia, the sexy jaguar (Jessica Chastain, because you're not allowed to make a movie anymore without her); and Stefano, the friendly, dimwitted sea lion (Martin Short, much funnier as a disembodied voice than he ever is when he's actually on screen).

There's nothing terribly surprising or innovative here, but the jokes are reasonably funny, the voice performances are great fun (especially McDormand), the characters are given a bit more depth than you might expect, and there are a few lovely moments of animation, most notably an abstract representation of the circus's performance, set to Katy Perry's "Firework." The grand climax would be a fitting end for the series, but there's certainly room to go on to round 4 (and judging from the box office take, that seems likely).

June 11, 2012

TV: Bunheads (ABC Family, Mon 9)

It's almost inevitable that Bunheads is going to be compared to Gilmore Girls, and Amy Sherman-Palladino, who created both shows, isn't exactly running away from the comparisons. You've got a tall, leggy, long-haired brunette; Kelly Bishop as a matriarch with whom the lead is in conflict; a charmingly quaint small town -- it's practically Gilmore West.

Our central character this time is Michelle (Sutton Foster), a Vegas showgirl whose hopes of a more traditional dance career are starting to slip away; after one particularly bad audition, she gets drunk and winds up marrying Hubbell Flowers (Alan Ruck), a businessman who's been buying her gifts for months.

Hubbell takes her home to Paradise, a quaint little town on the California coast where he lives with his mother, Fanny (Bishop). Fanny is also a dancer, who once had a promising ballet career until she got pregnant; now she runs Paradise's dance studio. It will come as no shock that Fanny and Michelle don't hit it off, or that the show is filled with Sherman-Palladino's trademark rapid-fire banter (and Sutton Foster delivers it every bit as well as Lauren Graham ever did).

We also meet four of Fanny's students, teenage girls who aren't given much more than quickly sketched personalities in the first episode, but who have room and potential to develop into an interesting group. And I've no doubt that Paradise will prove to be just as filled with colorful characters as Stars Hollow was.

The Michelle/Fanny relationship is the most interesting part of the show, and there's a plot twist at the end of the episode that suggests that's what Sherman-Palladino wants to focus on. But the core ABC Family demographic is teen girls, so I suspect there's going to be pressure to push those four students more to the center of the series. If not, it will be interesting to see if the network's core audience will follow a show about adult women.

Very pleasant first episode, good enough to draw me back for another few weeks to see what happens next.

BOOKS: The Lifespan of a Fact, John D'Agata & Jim Fingal (2012)

The background: In 2003, Harper's rejected an essay D'Agata had written about the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager, on the grounds that there were too many factual inaccuracies. He later sold the essay to The Believer, which assigned Fingal as fact-checker for the piece; the fact-checking process took several years, and The Believer finally published a version of the essay in 2010. (During that time, D'Agata worked parts of the essay into his book About a Mountain.) Now, here's D'Agata's original version of the essay, annotated at great length by his conversations, discussions, and arguments with Fingal over the factual details of the piece.

And a wild batch of conversations those are, too. D'Agata refuses to call what he writes "nonfiction," insisting that the fiction/nonfiction divide is a false binary imposed by the publishing industry. He insists that he writes "essays," and traces the word "essay" back to its French meaning -- "attempt." His writing, he insists, is an attempt to make sense of what has happened, to impose meaning on it, and that meaning is neither dependent on nor particularly interested in the specific factual details.

Fingal takes the purist's stance: If you're going to say these things happened, then by god, they'd better have happened. There are times when he comes across as being nitpicky for the sake of being nitpicky, such as when he complains that a fleet of delivery vans which D'Agata describes as purple are actually pink. D'Agata counters that the difference between purple and pink is pretty slim, that the two beats of "purple" made the sentence flow better, and that the readers would neither notice the difference nor care if they did.

But there are larger inaccuracies and questions where D'Agata is on significantly shakier ground. Did X actually say the things that X is quoted as saying? Does X actually exist?

All of this would be interesting enough, but things get even more complicated if you venture outside the book to read the interviews in which D'Agata and Fingal acknowledge that the dialogue presented here is not, as we are told, the dialogue that occurred during the Believer fact-checking process. It is their reconstruction of that dialogue, edited and organized for narrative and dramatic effect.

In other words, it bears precisely the same relationship to the reality of their process as D'Agata's essay does to the reality of Levi Presley's suicide. And in agreeing to participate in this reconstructed version of reality, Fingal is conceding the argument, accepting D'Agata's view that the facts are less important than the emotional impact one can gain from manipulating them. D'Agata and Fingal argue that truth is less important than what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness." The difference is that Colbert has always understood that "truthiness" is a joke, not a legitimate approach to reporting real events.

June 04, 2012

MOVIES: Men in Black 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012)

Men in Black 3 isn't bad. It gets off to a good start and ends well, with a pair of entertaining action sequences, but sags a bit in the middle.

The opening finds Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escaping from the ultra-secure prison where he's been held for forty years, ever since being captured by the Men in Black -- more specifically, by Agent K, who's still working for the MIB all these years later. K, of course, is Tommy Lee Jones's character, and he's as crusty and taciturn as ever, causing no end of frustrated amusement to his partner J (Will Smith).

But K suddenly disappears, and everyone else at MIB claims he's been dead for forty years; only J has the memory to figure out that Boris has gone back in time to kill K before K can capture him. To save his partner, J follows Boris back in time to the first manned moon launch, and finds himself working with the young Agent K (Josh Brolin).

Brolin's performance is one of the movie's highlights. The story is smart enough to let young K be a slightly different personality than present-day K (and the reasons for that change are part of the story), which means Brolin gets to be a little looser while still doing a terrific impression of Jones. (Because let's face it, Tommy Lee Jones as K is so tightly wound that any normal person attempting to duplicate him could be seriously injured.)

Also strong is Michael Stuhlbarg, playing an alien who helps J and K during their trip to the 60s. Griffin has the gift/curse of seeing all the possible futures at any given moment, and his worry about which one is actually coming is both quite funny and surprisingly poignant.

Less successful is Clement as Boris. The character isn't terribly interesting, and Clement's voice has been electronically altered (at least, I assume it's being altered; I don't think he could actually be speaking like that) to make it unusually growly and harsh. It's not pleasant to listen to, and it's often hard to understand.

But the final action sequence, set at Cape Canaveral, is exciting, and even if you can see the final big plot twist coming way too early, it's still fairly effective.

Better than the average Part 3 of any series, and moderately entertaining dumb fun.

MOVIES: Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

I had hoped that working with some new actors might break Anderson out of the overly decorated, hermetically sealed world his movies have increasingly occcupied. But alas, despite the presence of a fine cast, Moonrise Kingdom is one more claustrophobic journey up Anderson's ass, and it's the last one I'll be willing to take.

The movie is the story of Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilmore and Kara Hayward), 12-year-olds living on a small island somewhere off the coast of New England. It's 1965, and the two of them have decided to run away together. (They haven't thought much about where they're running to, what with being on an island and all, but then, they are only 12.)

The adults who set out to find them include Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam's scout master (Edward Norton), and the local sheriff (Bruce Willis). And because Sam is an orphan, there's also a bureaucrat (Tilda Swinton) on hand, a woman so efficient that she has dispensed with even her own name; she's addressed only as "Social Services."

Swinton's performance is quite lovely; she's got a crisp humor that brings the movie to life during her brief moments on screen. Had the rest of the cast matched her tone and energy, the movie could have been delightful. But everyone is so mannered and stiff that they cease to be people, and become mere objects to be positioned in Anderson's oh-so-precise visual compositions.

There are scattered moments in the movie that work splendidly -- a brief conversation between Murray and McDormand about the hurt they've caused one another, a beautifully staged church production of Britten's Noye's Fludde -- but the relationship between the two kids cripples the movie. It's creepily over-sexualized, and that's only made worse by the fact that he looks younger than his age and she looks older than hers.

I did like Alexandre Desplat's score, which is primarily supplemented by the unlikely combination of Britten and Hank Williams. But the movie as a whole is so mannered, so antiseptic, so pressed under glass, that no life can escape from it. There was a time when Wes Anderson was one of our most promising directors; now, he's just one of our most depressingly predictable.

BOOKS: Flagrant Conduct, Dale Carpenter (2012)

The state of gay rights in the United States is changing so rapidly that we forget sometimes how recently major advances were made. It was only in 2003, for instance, that the Supreme Court struck down state bans on sodomy in the case of Lawrence v. Texas. Dale Carpenter's book Flagrant Conduct looks at how that case came to the Supreme Court, and how it was won. It's a fine piece of journalism, and it's entertaining reading.

John Lawrence and Tyson Garner were arrested by Harris County (TX) police officers in 1998 when they were discovered having sex in the bedroom of Lawrence's apartment. They'd been summoned by a pissed-off friend of Garner's, who had reported "a crazy black man waving a gun around." Texas was among the states that still had sodomy laws on the books, and its law specifically targeted gay sex; anal and oral sex was perfectly legal for heterosexuals.

Lawrence and Garner were nobody's idea of the dream clients for such a case. They were lower-middle class, an interracial couple separated by about 25 years in age, not in a long-term relationship (not much more than casual acquiantances, really, and Carpenter makes a strong case that it's unlikely they were even having sex in the first place) -- not at all the pair of handsome, charming men with perfect smiles that you'd love to have representing you. But cases of people being arrested in their home for violation of such laws were so rare that when news of the case got into the Houston gay rights community, they knew this was as good a case as they were ever likely to get.

And everyone involved understood that; one of the fascinating parts of watching the case make its way through the Harris County and Texas courts is the way in which judges and prosecutors help the case along; there were half a dozen people along the way, and had any one of them declined to prosecute or decided to throw the case out of court, it never would have reached the Supreme Court. In one case, the judge and prosecuting attorney agreed to a last-minute request from the defense to increase the amount that Lawrence and Garner were being fined (the charge was a misdemeanor under Texas law, carrying no jail time) so that the fine would be above the minimum threshold required for an appeal.

Carpenter never suggests that anyone was actually trying to throw the case, but the legal mismatch when the case did arrive at the Supreme Court was striking. The defense had quickly been taken over by the activist community, who hired the best civil rights attorneys in the country to argue the case; Texas was represented by the Harris County district attorney, who had never argued before the Supreme Court, and had hired no outside lawyers to assist him in his preparation.

The Supreme Court overturned sodomy bans by a 6-3 vote, and were it not for the idiosyncratic legal philosophy of Clarence Thomas, it might have been an even bigger win. Thomas wrote his own dissent in which he said he thought the law was foolish, and that he would vote to overturn it were he a legislator, but that he could not vote to overturn it as a Justice because he could find no Constitutional grounds on which to do so. (Thomas is a strict literalist, and doesn't go along with the notion that privacy is protected by the Constitution.)

Carpenter brings his characters to life in a vivid fashion, particularly John Lawrence, whose increasing politicization is one of the book's more interesting subplots. He does a particularly fine job of describing the arguments before the Supreme Court, and of analyzing how the Justices' questions reveal their thinking.