October 20, 2013

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic, October 20

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Anssi Karttunen, cello
women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale

The program:
  • Debussy: Nocturnes
  • Lindberg: Cello Concerto #2 (world premiere)
  • Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
I have come to the conclusion that Debussy is a composer whose music I'm simply never going to connect to. It's well-crafted, and it's pretty, but for me, it's a very monotonous pretty, like staring at a canvas in eighteen impeccably chosen shades of beige, and it washes over me without making any real impression.

The Nocturnes are a bit more interesting than the other Debussy I've heard, I will admit. There are moments in the Fêtes movement that caught my ear, particularly a long crescendo that begins with timpani, harp, and brass, and the use of the women's chorus in the Sirènes movement is often lovely.

Magnus Lindberg's new cello concerto uses a small orchestra by contemporary standards -- double winds and horns; a single trumpet and trombone; no tuba, harp, keyboards, or percussion. The orchestral writing is dominated by the strings, though the brass have a few nice moments; they have a particularly lovely moment as the orchestra re-enters after the cadenza, playing a series of burnished dark chords.

It would, I think, take two or three more hearings to get a good grasp on how the concerto is put together. Those additional hearings would allow me to understand the piece better, and there are parts of it that I could even come to like; I doubt, though, that it would ever be a piece that I would love.

The highlight of the program was the Bartók, which I like to think of "Sugar Plum Fairies in Hell." It's a piece that mixes creepiness and brutality in fascinating ways, and Salonen brought out both in spectacular fashion. The percussionists were in fine form today, as they so often are, and the opening of the third movement was a highlight; the timpani playing blooping glissandos while the xylophone repeats a single note so insistently that you start to forget it's a pitched instrument and begin to hear it almost as a woodblock.

TV: Reign (Thu 9, CW)

It's 1557, and 15-year-old Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Adelaide Kane), is being shipped off to the French court to prepare for her eventual marriage to Prince Francis (Toby Regbo), a marriage which was arranged when they were six. But politics have changed in the last decade, and the French royals are no longer convinced that an alliance with Scotland is in their best interest. Mary is thrown into complicated intrigue and plotting for which nothing in life has prepared her.

The one person who seems to be entirely on her side is Francis' illegitimate half-brother, Sebastian (Torrance Coombs), known as Bash. Despite being a bastard, he is the favorite son of King Henry II (Alan Van Sprang), which is an immense annoyance to Queen Catherine (Megan Follows). Catherine is most definitely not on Mary's side, especially after her counselor, Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland), tells her that according to his visions, Mary will literally be the death of Francis.

If you're looking to Reign for accurate history, you will be disappointed; Nostradamus was about 20 years older than the dashing young man we see here, and Bash is entirely a fictional creation. And since this is the CW, everyone is young and pretty -- bordering on interchangeably so in some cases, notably Mary's ladies-in-waiting -- and the focus is at least as much on everyone's love life as it is on international politics.

But if you're looking for a swoony, romantic fantasia on the life of the young Mary, Queen of Scots, then this might be just the thing. It's surprisingly well made; costumes and sets are reasonably stylish by broadcast TV standards; and while none of the actors are doing award-worthy work here, no one is embarrassingly awful, and Follows has a few nice moments as the show's reigning bitch/diva.

I have no idea whether this will appeal to the CW's young audience or not, but the CW is a network that doesn't generally produce a lot of backup shows, so it's likely to last for at least a few months.

October 17, 2013

BOOKS: Talking Hands, Margalit Fox (2007)

Imagine a group of children raised in isolation, whose caretakers do not speak to them, and who have no access to any spoken language. What sort of language would they develop among themselves, and what would it tell us about the way languages are created, or about the innate human instinct for language?

Obviously, this is not an experiment one could ever actually do, which is why linguists jokingly refer to it as "the forbidden experiment." But occasionally, circumstances arise that provide conditions as close to the forbidden experiment as one is ever likely to see, and Margalit Fox's Talking Hands follows a group of linguists as they explore one such rarity.

Al-Sayyid is an isolated village in Israel with a population of about 3,500 and an unusually high rate of genetically inherited deafness; one in 25 residents are deaf (1 in 1,000 is the typical rate). Because of their isolation, the villagers have developed their own sign language, and nearly everyone speaks it, whether they're deaf or not.

It's a new language -- the current generation of children is only the third generation to use it -- which makes it an ideal topic for study into how languages are created and developed. But the team is pressed for time, because the village becomes less isolated with every generation, and bits of Israeli and Arabic Sign Languages are already creeping into the language of those children; it's a bit of a challenge to find kids whose local language is still pure.

It wasn't that long ago, Fox tells us, that studying the sign language of Al-Sayyid would have been considered a waste of time, because sign languages weren't thought to be real languages at all. They were considered merely glorified pantomime, with none of the linguistic subtlety or complexity of spoken language. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that linguists began to realize that sign languages had their own syntax, grammar, and complex rules; and that they were every bit as thoroughly developed as spoken languages were.

Fox alternates between chapters showing the team of linguists at work, collecting data from the people of Al-Sayyid; and chapters on the history of sign language in general, with a focus on how our understanding of such languages has changed and deepend in the last fifty years.

I was particularly fascinated by a chapter on how strokes impact sign language. To oversimplify a bit, we know that language ability is controlled by the left side of the brain, and that dealing with spatial relationships is mostly controlled by the right side of the brain. Given that sign languages are almost always highly organized in space -- a sign made in front of the body might not mean the same thing as the same sign made to one side, for instance -- what happens to the ability to use sign language when a stroke injures one side or the other of the brain?

Fox has degrees in linguistics herself, and does a very good job of discussing the subject in layman's terms. I was fascinated by the history and the details about how sign languages work, and I enjoyed the book very much.

October 13, 2013

TV: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (Thu 8, ABC)

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is a sort of spinoff from Once Upon a Time, but only just barely; it's a spinoff of concept, rather than of characters. Once again, we're following familiar storybook characters on their travels between their worlds and this one. There's a very brief prologue set in Storybrooke, the village from the original series, just to establish that the shows share the same continuity, but the producers have said that the shows will be independent of one another, and they don't plan to do major crossovers.

We begin with Alice, just returning from her famous visit to Wonderland, and immediately thrown into an asylum when she tells her father of her adventures. Jump forward a few years, and Alice is now a young woman whose doctors are convinced that she's lying (and therefore still delusional) when she tells them that she no longer believes that she went to another land.

She's rescued from the asylum in the nick of time by the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow), who take her back to Wonderland. When she learns that Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), the genie with whom she fell in love during her original visit (which somehow never made it into Lewis Carroll's telling of the tale), might not be dead after all, she sets out on a quest to find him.

If you're thinking that you don't remember any genies in Wonderland, well, this is sort of a hybrid between Alice and the Disney version of Aladdin. The genie Jafar (Naveen Andrews) is one of the show's principal villains, teaming up with the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) in a plot to capture Alice for some as yet unknown reason.

The show looks marvelous, and its fantasy landscapes are very different from those of the original Once Upon a Time. Much of it is CGI, and the integration of the actors into the virtual sets is occasionally a bit clunky, but there are beautiful images like the Red Queen's castle, which looks as if it's been cobbled together from a giant chess set.

Casting is generally solid. Andrews is an ideal choice for Jafar; and Lowe, Socha, and Gadiot are attractive leads (the show is none too subtle about the love triangle that must inevitably develop). As the Red Queen, Rigby is the weak link, aiming for the same camp glory that Lana Parilla hits in the parent show, and not quite getting there.

Lithgow's voice performance is less manic than I'd have expected, but it works. Voice casting is one of the show's strengths, with Keith David providing a deliciously sinister Cheshire Cat; Iggy Pop only has a very brief appearance in the first episode as the Caterpillar, but seems like an interesting choice.

My hunch is that this show will burn out and fizzle from special to merely competent even faster than the original did, but it's only scheduled as a 13-episode season, and it should have enough juice to stay entertaining for at least that long.

October 11, 2013

TV: The Tomorrow People (Wed 9, CW)

As long as teenagers feel powerless and put upon, there will be a market for stories about powerful teenagers, which explains why The Tomorrow People is a concept that will not die. It started as a British series in the 1970s; a 90s version was co-produced with Nickelodeon; and in the 2000s, there were new episodes produced as radio plays to be sold on CD. And now, always on the lookout for material about beautiful young people, the CW has gotten its hands on the premise.

That premise centers on a group of young people who have taken the next step in human evolution and developed powers -- telepathy, teleportation, and telekinesis. (The special effects on the teleportation and telekinesis parts of that are really ugly.) Our hero, Stephen (Robbie Amell), is just discovering his powers, and is recruited by the local Mod Squad-esque group of shiny happy Homo Superiors -- blond hunk John (Luke Mitchell), Asian nerd Russell (Aaron Yoo), and hot babe Cara (Peyton List). Yes, those are reductionist character descriptions, but they give the characters more depth than the show does.

There is, of course, a government agency called Ultra, which is out to find and recruit other kids with powers and use them as weapons to capture and destroy the good kids with powers; this is the kind of show where one can reliably expect bombshell revelations every sweeps period to upend your notion of whether Ultra or the Mod Squad are the good guys. Ultra is headed by Dr. Jedikiah Price (the fine character actor Mark Pellegrino, bringing to the show the only shreds of subtlety it possesses).

Did I mention that Dr. Price just happens to be Stephen's uncle? (Yes, he's Uncle Jed; someone wasn't thinking about the TV-history overtones of that name choice.) Because Stephen's long-vanished father (Uncle Jed's brother) was a Tomorrow Person himself (though Uncle Jed is not), and had greater powers than any of them, and if Stephen has his father's powers, he could be the Moses of the Tomorrow People, leading them to the promised land of safety, and oh god, it's all just so stale and familiar and it makes my head hurt and somebody make it stop, please, please make it stop...

The young people are pretty to look at; Robbie Amell is the cousin of Arrow star Stephen Amell, which makes Wednesday the Amell Family FunTime Revue on the CW. Pellegrino is always entertaining, and if she's ever given anything to do, Sarah Clark might bring something interesting to the role of Stephen's mother.

And I suppose that if you're seventeen and haven't already seen 8,000 different versions of this story, it might even feel fresh enough to keep you entertained. But if you're any older than that, I can't imagine what The Tomorrow People has to offer you.

October 08, 2013

BOOKS: Three Graves Full, Jamie Mason (2013)

Jason Getty is not a man who grabs life by the horns and lives with gusto; he is a man who watches as life happens to him. He has had precisely one moment of assertiveness in his life, a confrontation with a con man that wound up with Jason burying a body in the backyard. A year later, he's just beginning to get over his paranoia about being discovered when landscapers turn up not one, but two bodies on his property. And neither of them is the body that Jason put there.

Mason eventually fills us in on how all three of the bodies got there, and tells her story through multiple points of view -- Jason, the people left behind by the assorted corpses, the cops investigating the whole mess. They're all distinct, vivid characters with lots of personality. Mason even gets away with making "volunteer police dog" Tessa a point-of-view character, with logic and motivations that feel perfectly dog-like.

Almost half of the book takes place on a single night, a long, bleakly hilarious series of disastrous meetings that bring together all of the book's characters in a frantic chase through the countryside. It's a magnificently planned sequence, reminiscent of Hitchcock in the way that complications pile upon complications. Everyone is struggling desperately to escape their situation, and every tiny decision only pushes them deeper into it.

This is dark comedy at its best; none of the characters are wholly sympathetic or wholly evil, and there are a lot of delightful moments where you realize that you're queasily cheering for someone to get away with doing something horrible. Mason's prose is smart and witty, filled with unexpected turns of phrase and sharp observations.

Highly recommended, and all the more impressive for being a first novel.

October 05, 2013

TV: The Millers (Thu 8:30, CBS)

Do you remember this song from about 20 years back?

"Justified and Ancient" was a disposable piece of dance music featuring guest vocals from Tammy Wynette. The lyrics were utter nonsense about a couple of guys driving around in an ice cream truck, heading for MooMoo Land, but Wynette brought to the song the same absolute conviction that she'd brought to her finest country songs. And by god, somehow she made you care about that damned ice cream truck.

Margo Martindale is doing the same thing in The Millers, taking material that barely rises to the level of marginal and making it weirdly compelling through sheer force of personality.

The central character here is Nathan Miller (Will Arnett), who is finally forced to tell his parents (Martindale and Beau Bridges) that he and his wife have divorced. The news inspires Bridges to announce that he wants a divorce himself; when the dust settles, Dad's moved in with Nathan's sister and brother-in-law (Jayma Mays and Nelson Franklin), and Mom's moved in with Nathan.

The rest of the cast are fine, and they are all worthy of better material than this, but Martindale is performing acting miracles. She's given fart jokes, and overbearing mother jokes, and ball-busting wife jokes; she's asked to re-create the classic dance scene from Dirty Dancing, and somehow, she makes it all work and gets laughs with every single bit of it.

The show is created by Greg Garcia, who has done marvelous things with unpromising premises in the past (My Name Is Earl, Raising Hope); the hope that he might be able to bring the writing up to snuff, combined with Martindale's astounding comic magic, will be enough to keep me watching, much to my surprise.

TV: Sean Saves the World (Thu 9, NBC)

Thursday night seems to be this year's designated night for returning comic TV stars -- Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams premiered last week, and now Sean Hayes is back in Sean Saves the World. He plays Sean, a single father whose 14-year-old daughter (Samantha Isler) has just moved in with him after his ex-wife has moved out of town; he gets child care help from his hyper-critical mother (Linda Lavin).

Half the show is set in Sean's office, where he and his co-workers (Megan Hilty and Echo Kellum) are coping with an eccentric new boss (Thomas Lennon, giving the most uncomfortably creepy performance I've ever seen in a sitcom).

The workplace stuff is better than the home stuff, but neither is very good, and Hayes is the weak link in the show; the loud, broad comedy that worked for him as a supporting character on Will & Grace is overbearing and abrasive from a leading man. There's an occasional funny line from Kellum or Lavin, but they can't make up for the awfulness of Hayes.

TV: Super Fun Night (Wed 9:30, ABC)

Super Fun Night is an uneven mix of socializing-pals comedy and workplace comedy, created and written by Rebel Wilson, who also stars. She's Kimmie Boubier, a young lawyer who hangs out with her two best friends (Lauren Ash and Liza Lapira) for a weekly "Super Fun Night." The show juggles those stories with Kimmie's work life, where she has a crush on one co-worker (Kevin Bishop), and a rivalry with the office dragon lady (Kate Jenkinson).

Wilson is doing the role with an American accent, and she's spending so much mental energy into it that she loses the spontaneity that is her greatest strength as an actress. I do admire the way she hurls herself into every joke with total commitment, and she may be even more willing to use her own size as a comic weapon than Melissa McCarthy.

But the material here isn't terribly interesting or novel; the pilot is centered around Kimmie's attempt to get over her stage fright by singing at a piano bar, and we've heard most of the jokes before. Super Fun Night isn't an awful sitcom, and there's nothing to object to, but there's nothing that's going to bring me back for a second episode, either.