November 30, 2012

MOVIES: Cloud Atlas (Lana and Andy Wachowski & Tom Tykwer, 2012)

I had very mixed reaction this one, an adaptation of David Mitchell's novel in which six stories are interwoven to tell a cosmic story of souls recurring throughout time, facing similar obstacles in periods ranging from the 1840s to a post-apocalyptic 24th century.

Most of the principal actors play roles in each story, which I think was a mistake; it took the recurring souls notion which had been fairly subtle and metaphorical in the book and made it overly literal. It also meant that each casting decisions was more consequential; one actor who's not up to the rest of the cast doesn't just sink one chunk of the movie, but two or three. (Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess were particularly noticable weak links throughout.) And it became a distraction, since you're spending so much time looking to see where Tom Hanks or Hugh Grant is going to pop up in each new story that you're not really paying attention to the story.

That said, some of the multi-performances were better than others. Jim Broadbent was, to be sure, aided by the fact that he wasn't asked to depart much from his actual age, gender, and ethnicity, but he was the most consistently entertaining actor in the movie. Hugo Weaving mostly played variations on his usual evil corporate drone, but somewhat surprisingly managed to pull off a comic drag turn; and Doona Bae's brief appearance as a Hispanic dog owner was one of the few radical transformations that was even remotely convincing. Jim Sturgess in bad Asian makeup, on the other hand, wasn't much of an improvement on Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Tom Hanks' brief appearance as a London gangster was laughable.

The individual stories are mostly moderately entertaining, though they tend to bog down in their biggest action moments -- chases through San Francisco and "New Seoul" are surprisingly tedious -- and each one goes through nearly as many "oh god, I thought it was over" moments as the last Lord of the Rings movie. The overall effect of the six stories, though, is a muddled mess, with a lot of vague woo-woo philosophy about interconnectedness and our responsibility for one another that never gets clarified into a clear vision.

This is probably as good a version of the novel as we could hope for, but it's a novel that would probably have been left unfilmed.

November 29, 2012

MOVIES: Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Lincoln makes the wise choice to focus on one specific incident, rather than give us the full life. Our focus is January 1865, and Lincoln's attempt to get the 13th Amendment, which would ban slavery, passed by the House of Representatives.

Daniel Day-Lewis is not one of my favorite actors. I often find him terribly wooden, but his performance here is marvelous, and his face more expressive than I remember it ever being. He handles the period-ish dialogue (by Tony Kushner) very well; a monologue in which he explains his legal dilemma to his cabinet is particularly nicely done.

He's surrounded by a fine array of character actors -- if he's a 40ish/50ish "Hey, It's That Guy", he's probably in this movie -- the most prominent of which is Tommy Lee Jones as the House's most vocal abolitionist. There are equally fine performances, large and small, from David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward; David Costabile as Stevens's chief lieutenant; Lee Pace as the leader of the anti-amendment forces; and in the closest thing the movie has to comic relief, James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as a Huey, Dewey, and Louie trio of proto-lobbyists who have been tasked by Lincoln with securing sufficient Democratic votes to pass the amendment.

You know you have an embarrassment of acting riches when Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, and Dakin Matthews are afterthoughts. And in one of the few female roles, S. Epatha Merkerson only has one scene, and isn't asked to do much more than read the text of the amendment, but she manages to make that a remarkably moving moment.

Not all of the performances work. I can understand why the inherent neediness of Sally Field would make her seem a good choice to play the emotionally vulnerable Mary Todd Lincoln, but her performance is a bit too "May I have another Oscar, please?" for my taste. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn't terrible, but he isn't given anything interesting to do as the Lincolns' oldest son.

Worst thing in the movie is John Williams' faux-Copland score, which trowels on the emotion so thickly as to relieve the viewer from any responsibility to ever have his own actual response. And the coda in which we leap forward to Lincoln's assassination was unnecessary, and filmed in a way that I thought tastefully exploited the grief of a child.

But for a movie which is devoted to the political minutiae of getting a bill passed, Lincoln is surprisingly involving, and the two and a half hours pass quickly.

BOOKS: Every Day, David Levithan (2012)

Here we have yet another SF novel that dare not admit to being one. You won't see the words "science fiction" or "fantasy" in any of the book's marketing or advertising, and I don't think I've seen it in any of the reviews, but what else are we to call a novel that presents an entirely new form of human life?

Our central character is A, who is 16 and lives in Maryland. Each morning, A wakes up in the body of a different person; over the years, it has become A's philosophy to get through the day with as little interference in the host's life as possible, in hopes of leaving that person able to continue life relatively undisrupted. But then A falls in love with Rihanna, the girlfriend of that day's host, eventually telling her the truth about this disjointed life, and trying to spend as much time with her as possible
And when you never know how far apart you're going to be from your beloved the next day, that's a challenge. A is limited geographically, never moving enormous distances from one host to the next, but even a 2 or 3 hour drive can be impractical when you're 16, especially if today's "you" doesn't own a car. Or doesn't get along with her parents. Or has a drug problem.

Levithan does a nice job of exploring the complications of this life, and of finding new surprises for A (what's it like to spend consecutive days as identical twins?). The story is a charming romance with an ending that is both hopeful and bittersweet.

November 05, 2012

MOVIES: Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012)

Disney's animated film Wreck-It Ralph is set inside the world of video games, where Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the bad guy in the "Fix-It Felix" game. Ralph wrecks the building, Felix (Jack McBrayer) fixes the building. That's how it's been every day for 30 years, and Ralph is starting to get tired of being the bad guy.

His quest to become a good guy takes Ralph into some of the arcade's other games. In "Hero's Duty," a violent alien-killing game, he joins the troops of Sgt. Calhoun (a perfectly cast Jane Lynch), a tough commander who can't figure out why one of her soldiers suddenly seems so incompetent.

We spend much of the movie inside "Sugar Rush," a candy-themed race-car game, where we meet Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a little girl who dreams of taking part in the game's daily races, but is constantly thwarted by the ruling King Candy (Alan Tudyk). The candy puns and jokes fly fast and furious in this part of the movie (there's a quick Oreo joke that is one of the movie's highlights), but they never overwhelm the story.

And a surprisingly compelling story it is, too; writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston have given all of the main characters goals that are big enough to keep us involved in their quests, and those stakes are elevated by genuine danger, because if you die outside your own game, you don't regenerate. Things that seem at first to be simple throwaway gags come back later in the movie to pay off in beautiful ways.

The animation is skillful, and the mix of different game/animation styles is effectively played for laughs; watch the reaction of 8-bit Felix when he gets his first look at high-definition Calhoun. And the voice performances are terrific. I was very pleasantly surprised by Silverman, who I usually find unbearable; she's toned down her usual obnoxiousness to just the right level for the cloyingly cute Vanellope.

Wreck-It Ralph is preceded by an animated short, which has not been the norm in recent years for Disney's non-Pixar releases. It's called "Paperman," and it's a sweet bit of romantic magical realism, in mostly black and white (with one crucial pop of red) and without dialogue. The main character has a marvelously expressive face, and it's a charming short.

BOOKS: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling (2012)

Rowling's first novel for adults is the story of a small British town that has mostly kept a lid on the conflicts that simmer among its citizens. But when a member of the Town Council dies, and an election is called for his replacement, all that simmering tension comes bursting to the surface, and little Pagford is thrown into turmoil.

There are about twenty principal characters here, which is too many; Rowling doesn't have time to give any of them more than one or two quickly sketched character traits. Her adolescent characters are, if anything, better developed and more rounded than their parents; perhaps all those years of writing teenaged characters in the Harry Potter books helped.

Even worse than their flimsiness, though, is their loathsomeness. There's not a single admirable character to be found; they are all small, petty, mean people. It's as if Rowling somehow got the impression that yeah, all that stuff about the kids and magic was nice, but what we really wanted was a book about a village full of Dursleys. It's true that loathesome people can make for good entertainment, but Rowling isn't going for the sort of dark comedy in which she might get away with that. The Casual Vacancy is intended as amiable, light drama with the occasional heartwarming smile, and that requires at least one character we'd like to spend time with.

The plot's not much better than the characters. The first time a council campaign is sabotaged by a family member, it's mildly amusing, but when it happens a second time, and a third, in precisely the same way, that's too implausible a coincidence to hold up. And after 450 pages of light village banter, the final 50 pages aim for a tragic ending that doesn't work and isn't earned, mostly because the character around whose death it's built has been little more than a prop to that point, and we've been given no reason to care about his fate.

Even in its very best moments -- there's an extended sequence at a birthday party that works well -- The Casual Vacancy is never more than mildly interesting, and those very best moments are few and far between.

Harry Potter 8, please?

November 04, 2012

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, November 4

Marin Alsop, conductor
Joshua Roman, cello
Michael Ward-Bergeman, hyper-accordion
Jamey Haddad, Keita Ogawa, percussion

The program:
  • Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra
  • Golijov: Azul
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6 ("Pathetique")
When I was a kid growing up in northern Vermont, the local TV station (hello, WCAX-TV, Channel 3!) had a Sunday morning interview show called You Can Quote Me. It was sort of the Vermont version of Meet the Press, and its opening theme music was 30 seconds or so of a big, cheerful, brassy march. It sounded nothing like the country music my parents played, or the top 40 radio I listened to; it was exciting in a completely different way, and I loved it. That teensy little bit of music -- which was, of course, an excerpt from the third movement of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony -- was my introduction to the world of classical music, so I was happy today to hear the piece live for the first time. And a fine performance it was, too. Alsop was particularly good at capturing the many contrasts of the piece -- its extremes of dynamics, its movement-to-movement mood swings.

The concert opened with Barber's Second Essay, which was a perfectly pleasant ten minutes, but didn't strike me as a particularly memorable piece of music.

For memorable, you had to turn to Golijov's cello concerto, Azul, which was a spectacular delight. Golijov's inspirations come, as they often do, from all over the place, but the most notable device here is derived from Baroque music. The cello is the principal soloist, but he's not entirely on his own; he's accompanied by two percussionists and a hyper-accordion (an accordion which is amplified and occasionally has its sound digitally altered) who form what Golijov calls a "21st-century continuo."

When the concerto opens, with a movement called Paz sulfurica, the cello is playing long melodic lines built around a three-note motif that seems to be constantly seeking, but never finding, resolution. You hear some of the ecstatic melancholy of Jewish liturgical music. The second movement, Silencio, reveals more of the concerto's Baroque influence; it's a passacaglia of sorts, with the cello playing variations over a repeated harmonic progression.

The third movement, Transit, serves as a cadenza for the continuo group, and it starts off in the same Baroque mood, with the cello playing rocking motifs reminiscent of Bach's cello suites. The accordion slips in with chugging chords, and the percussion explodes into a rhythmic frenzy, and suddenly Bach is fronting the happiest little polka band in South America. It's a glorious, deliriously happy moment, and the quartet made the very most of it.

The yearning motif from the opening returns in the fourth movement, Yrushalem, but it's finally given a resolution, an ending, and it becomes a gorgeous song. The piece ends with a short double coda (Pulsar and Shooting Stars), climaxing in a series of falling glissandos; the accordion has been altered so that it's not really producing pitch, just a breathy sigh, and as the rest of the orchestra fades away, the final sound we hear is one last long, slow exhale from the accordion.

It's a magnificent piece, and the audience seemed to adore it; there was far less rustling and coughing than is the norm at Disney Hall, and the continuo players were given enthusiastic ovations. There doesn't appear to have been a recording yet, which is a shame; I would certainly welcome the opportunity to hear the piece again.

November 02, 2012

TV: Malibu Country (ABC, Fri 8:30)

And the fall TV rollout finally comes to an end
Reba (who has apparently abandoned "McEntire" for one-name billing) stars as Reba McKenzie, who gave up a promising career in country music to support her husband, who is also a singer. But now he's been caught cheating, and after the divorce, she's moved to Malibu in hopes of re-starting her career.

She's brought along her mother, Lily Mae (Lily Tomlin), who quickly takes a liking to Southern California's medical marijuana lollipops; and her teenage kids, Cash and June (Justin Prentice and Juliette Angelo). There's a perky trophy wife next door (Sara Rue, who has lost a heckuva lot of weight in the years since I last remember noticing her) with a gay son who becomes June's new best pal; and there's the obligatory sassy gay secretary (Jai Rodriguez, devoid of the charm he had during his Queer Eye years, and badly hamming up the Latin accent) at the record company where Reba is trying to be noticed.

The writing is bland and not terribly funny, but Reba, Tomlin, and Rue are doing their damnedest to sell it, and there are moments when they almost get away with it. Rue is rather miscast -- she's too smart a presence to be playing the big-boobed bimbo -- but she brings the character more life and sparkle than the script does. Tomlin has relaxed nicely into seniorhood, and is having a blast playing most of her scenes in a marijuana haze.

And Reba has charm and personality to spare. She doesn't have the widest acting range in the world, or a sophisticated style, but she's learned to do this sort of old-fashioned sitcom acting quite well, and delivers her punchlines with crisp timing.

Rodriguez is an embarrassing stereotype, and the kids are generic bland TV kids, but the three primary actresses occasionally come so close to making this mediocrity work that you'll find yourself longing to see them reunited in a better show.