Monday, January 31, 2011

The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right (directed by Lisa Cholodenko) is a light family drama that trades heavily on the novelty that the main characters are a married lesbian couple living an upper-middle class life. The story doesn't rise above the level of a television sitcom, although some of the romantic comedy was deemed overt enough to garner an “R” rating. The actors are fine and portray pleasing characters. Certainly we need positive examples of lesbian couples in American films, although it’s embarrassing that this has to be said at all.

The story never went anywhere new or particularly interesting, and instead it relies almost entirely on the appealing nature of the characters. That’s not enough.

There was another family drama released in 2010, Please Give (directed by Nicole Holofcener), that was more involving, went unexpected places, and gave viewers more to think about.  The Academy would have done well to nominate Please Give instead of The Kids Are All Right.

Related link:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The King's Speech

The King’s Speech (directed by Tom Hooper) is a solid, well-made film, with exceptional performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. It hits all the right emotional notes. It establishes a strong sense of time and place.

It can be summed up simply: King George VI employs and becomes friends with an unconventional speech therapist as he attempts to overcome a severe stutter. The story takes place in the years leading up to World War II.

What the film lacks is heft. The scope is self-consciously small against a large background. The only risk is embarrassment. Any actual danger is at a distant remove. Still, the film is like an old sweater. It’s quite comfortable.

Related link:
Oscar nominees for Best Picture for films from 2010

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Oscar Nominees for Best Picture for 2010 films

Nominees for Best Picture Oscar for films from 2010:

Black Swan (capsule review)
The Fighter (capsule review)
Inception (capsule review)
The Kids Are All Right (capsule review)
The King's Speech (capsule review)
127 Hours (capsule review)
The Social Network (capsule review)
Toy Story 3
True Grit (capsule review)
Winter's Bone

I haven’t been knocked out by the greatness of any of the nominees that I have seen for 2010.  Several of the films are firmly in the “good” category. Last year I was much more enthusiastic about The Hurt Locker and Bright Star. The Hurt Locker actually won the Best Picture Oscar last year, which is unusual, since the Academy typically picks films that I don’t have much appreciation for. Closer to form, the Academy was blind to Bright Star, which was equally as brilliant as (and completely different from) The Hurt Locker, leaving it off the best picture nominations list entirely.

My plan is to write short reviews of each of the nominees, adding links here as each review is added. I haven’t seen three of these. Perhaps I will be able to add those in time.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shaun Tan named on Oscar shortlist

Aussiecon 4 souvenir book

Shaun Tan was named an Oscar nominee in the animated short film category this morning, for The Lost Thing, which he co-directed with Andrew Ruhemann. The film is based on Tan’s book The Lost Thing (2004).

I had the pleasure of hearing Tan’s Artist Guest of Honor presentation at Aussiecon 4 (the World Science Fiction Convention) in Melbourne this past August and can attest that Tan is a charming and accomplished individual with an amazing range of vision and expression, from the dystopian to the humorous. His "Lost Thing" character was featured on the cover of the Aussiecon 4 souvenir book (pictured) provided to members of the convention.

Related links:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bathroom sex, again?

An irritating Hollywood cliché that needs to stop is bathroom sex. The couple, who have likely just met, duck into a public restroom for frenzied sex. I know what this is supposed to communicate: the impulsiveness of the characters, as they are caught up in the sexual arousal of the moment.  It shows how spontaneous the characters are and how in their aroused state they can’t possibly wait, or take the time to get a room. It worked for me as a Hollywood scriptwriting shorthand the first time I saw it in a movie, and maybe it worked the second time, too. Now that I’ve seen it a dozen times or more, it says something different. It says the screenwriter, or whoever added the scene, is lazy and unwilling to create a new scene, a less generic scene, a scene that will show us something we didn’t know about these particular characters. The bathroom sex scene overlooks the reality of what it is like to be inside a public men’s restroom in the United States. More on that in a moment.

The Social Network is currently winning a considerable amount of critical acclaim (Best Picture: LA Film Critics Association, NY Film Critics Circle, National Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review; Best Picture – Drama: The Golden Globes; etc.). The SF Strangelove capsule review: the opening scene where a fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) has a conversation with his girlfriend and she abruptly breaks up with him is well-done. Credit goes to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. The remainder of the film never recaptures this level of interest or energy and is lifeless by comparison. If this movie is about the founding of internet phenomenon Facebook, it left most of my questions unanswered. The corporate shenanigans that are portrayed offer little drama.

The Social Network, alas, has a “sex in a public bathroom” scene. It’s a two-for-one scene with two couples in adjacent stalls. Here, I am compelled to describe why this scene is unlikely and unappealing. The public restroom habits of the United States male make frenzied activity hazardous. Since the floor and most other surfaces will be wet with a generous coating of urine, the fancy footwork these sex scenes require would risk a fall, resulting in a concussion or other serious injury. If the amorous couple survives this hazard then, truly, the sights and smells of the male public restroom will be more than sufficient to quell their ardor. The United States male has not learned the courtesy of flushing when he is done. This problem becomes additive, until with time the amount of waste material is no longer flushable and any attempt to do so will cause it to overflow across the floor. The odors and visual impact of the male public restroom are powerful enough to extinguish any thought of sex, sending even the stout-hearted reeling, fleeing from the sensory assault.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

BSFA Awards shortlists announced

The British Science Fiction Association has announced their awards shortlists for work from 2010.

Best Novel shortlist:
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit)
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes  (Angry Robot)
The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)

The Windup Girl first appeared in the US in 2009 and in Britain in 2010.  The Restoration Game and Lightborn have yet to be published in the US. Zoo City and The Dervish House were available in both the US and Britain in 2010.

Other categories are Best Short Fiction, Best Non-fiction, and Best Art. These shortlists are available at the BSFA website. The non-fiction category, curiously, has a novel and a podcast. The first time either has appeared in the BSFA non-fiction shortlist I suspect. I haven't read the "non-fiction" novel, Red Plenty, which has not been published in the US. The podcast, I can vouch, is worthwhile: Notes from Coode Street, which has been mentioned several times on this blog. The winners will be announced at Eastercon in April. For additional commentary visit the Torque Control article.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New arrivals in today's mail

Two books that were much anticipated (by me) arrived today: Among Others by Jo Walton and Home Fires by Gene Wolfe, one author I have not read at novel length before and the other I have read many books indeed. They already have been much discussed by critics and editors in the field. Both are listed by as being available on 18 January 2011, today. Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe spent a good part of Episode 30 of the Notes from Coode Street Podcast discussing and praising Among Others. Strahan and Wolfe have also mentioned Home Fires over several episodes as one of the major novels of the year. They've even given it the nickname "Home Fries."

Related links:
Gary K. Wolfe reviews Among Others by Jo Walton
Notes from Coode Street Podcast

Philip K. Dick Award shortlist announced

The short list for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award has been announced. The nominees, published in 2010, are as follows:

Yarn by Jon Armstrong (Night Shade Books)
Chill by Elizabeth Bear (Ballantine Books/Spectra)
The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden Bell (Henry Holt & Co.)
Song of Scarabaeus by Sara Creasy (Eos)
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder (Pyr)
Harmony by Project Itoh, translated by Alexander O. Smith (Haikasoru)
State of Decay by James Knapp (Roc)

Philip K. Dick Award  is presented for “distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States.” In other words, for authors who don’t get enough respect to get their books published in hardcover. Philip K. Dick’s novels, usually published first in paperback, provided the author with a meager living. The winner will be announced at Norwescon in April.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Best TV of 2010

Best series television of 2010 (in alphabetical order):
Breaking Bad (AMC): The best pure drama. Dark stories. Bleak sense of humor. Well written, well acted.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central): At its best, the most essential show on television. It deconstructs the news with insight and humor.
Fringe (Fox): The best science fiction show on television. What started as an X-Files retread has found its own way. One improvement on the original: it has story arcs that actually go somewhere.
The Pacific (HBO miniseries): A bookend to the Band of Brothers miniseries. Harrowing and very human.
Sherlock (BBC via PBS) An update of Sherlock Holmes set in the modern day. Surprisingly successful. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a creditable Holmes.
Treme (HBO): The most satisfying new series of the year. Excellent ensemble acting. Filled with the music, sights and sounds of New Orleans.
United States of Tara (Showtime): A surprisingly uplifting portrayal of a family whose mother has dissociative identity disorder. Toni Collette plays the title character and all of her alter egos. A tour de force.
30 Rock (NBC): Funny and rapid fire. Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin are unstable comedic dynamite.

Next best:  
Being Human (BBC America): Appealing actors playing a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost. Stories are uneven in quality.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO): Well-crafted and a visual treat. Stories are a bit predictable.
Friday Night Lights (NBC): Perhaps the best family drama on TV.  It has a weakness for the sentimental.
Justified (FX): An adaptation of Elmore Leonard.  The main character is well-played by Timothy Olyphant.  Sometimes the lawman stories feel routine.
Louie (FX): A wicked sense of humor. If only he was a little less self-satisfied.
Rescue Me (FX): Reveals a lot about male bonding and male humor. Self-indulgent by definition.
Rubicon (AMC): Fascinating look inside the intelligence industrial complex. Filled with paranoia and betrayal. The story went flat toward the end.

These are genre-related shows (fantasy, science fiction, horror) that I wanted to like. Alas.
The Walking Dead (AMC): Started strong, then the cracks started showing: bad acting, weak stories, and uneven pacing.
Caprica (Syfy): The story went from too slow the first season to over-condensed this season.  It had several story-threads with potential. By the end I found it hard to care about any of them.
True Blood (HBO): The amped up sex and violence seems to have replaced interesting stories.
Lost (ABC): Went from puzzling and entertaining to silly and embarrassing.

The trend for series to become shorter continued. A season of 10 episodes is becoming common on cable and broadcast TV. Seasons of six or eight episodes are not unusual. The Sherlock series had only three episodes, although that is a BBC import. I don’t think this is a bad thing. Too many long seasons are padded out with endless filler, making shows unwatchable.  In many ways I believe the miniseries, with enough time to tell a novel-length story, along with a beginning, middle, and end, is the ideal form for television.

There was the usual turnover. Rubicon arrived and departed. Lost overstayed its welcome and is gone. Caprica was canceled and the remaining unaired episodes were burned off in a marathon January 4. New shows were Justified, LouieSherlock, Treme, and The Walking Dead, with Treme the best of these.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Best SF books 2010 list mania

Website io9 has a list of best 15 speculative fiction books for 2010. Curiously it includes The Windup Girl (2009) published in the prior year. Apparently, it's just too good to ignore no matter what year it came out. It's a sturdy enough list, and sent me to look up a couple titles I hadn't heard of.

More varied and more exhaustive, is the Strange Horizons compilation of 26 reviewers presenting their best of 2010. There are a lot of interesting reading suggestions here.

If year's best lists aren't enough, is inviting readers to vote for the best science fiction and fantasy novels of the past decade (their decade has 11 years, go figure). Over at Strange Horizons, Niall Harrison recapitulates the best of the decade results and adds his own picks. His list overlaps with only one title in the results: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke. I've only read six on the Harrison list and I already like it better than the results.

Edited to add: Gwenda Bond offers a mostly young-adult oriented Top Ten for 2010, more evidence of the strength of this growing segment of the genre.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Truer Grit

True Grit (2010), directors Ethan Coen and Joel Coen: A good solid western with excellent storytelling, crisply told and unsentimental. The acting is fine throughout, especially 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. The ending is extremely well-measured.

True Grit (1969), director Henry Hathaway: Here the acting is bad, especially Kim Darby and Glen Campbell. John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn is over the top, cuddly and sentimental. Reaction shots go on too long. Musical cues are ham-handed. The ending goes off the rails. The 1969 version is completely superseded by the 2010 version.

Side-by-side these two movies make a stark contrast, a wonderful case study for a film class.