Ugly Betty

Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Nine episodes into the first season.

Where to start with Ugly Betty? The Americanized telanovela about an unglamorous assistant at a hyperglamorous magazine is a tangle of contradictions. It’s both frivolous and sincere, farcically broad one moment and surprisingly delicate the next, cheerfully divorced from reality and then ready to examine issues of class, for example, that most purportedly “serious” dramas don’t touch. To focus solely on Ugly Betty’s charming silliness would belie its depth, but to concentrate on its heavier, more provocative elements would also misrepresent the show.

That weird, contradictory chemistry of goofy camp and earnest thoughtfulness is what makes Ugly Betty so interesting. It doesn’t always work—sometimes a scene tilts too far in one direction or the other—but when it does work, Ugly Betty contradicts its own name.

Happy Thanksgiving

Sean and I are spending Thanksgiving with his family in South Carolina, so for the next few days, I won’t have much to post in my “cultural diary of my life in New York.”

Casino Royale

In theaters.

James Bond isn’t just a spy; he’s a killer. Before I saw Casino Royale, I had never really thought about that. Previous Bond movies and actors make the character so smooth and debonair that one never really considers the blood (however guilty and megalomanic) on his hands. Not a drop of red stains the crisp white shirt of his tux.

Casino Royale and actor Daniel Craig reimagine Bond by making the British superspy not so much cool as cold, delivering barbed double entendres rather than playful ones and taking as much pleasure in a succesful hit as a sexual conquest. The contrast between old Bond and new is striking—and perhaps not to everyone’s taste—but it brilliantly reinvigorates the stale franchise.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC. Eight episodes into the first season.

I don’t like Aaron Sorkin, perhaps the most overrated writer working on television. I don’t like his self-conscious banter. I don’t like the condescension with which he writes women. I don’t like the way most of his male characters are obvious stand-ins for Sorkin himself. I don’t like his idealization of political naiveté or his self-righteous Luddism or his shameless grandstanding.

That pomposity was more tolerable (and Sorkin’s other weaknesses somewhat less pronounced) on The West Wing, where the presidential subject matter made grandiosity excusable, even appropriate on occasion. I’m not immune, for example, to the power of the second season’s Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes, which earn their emotional punch with truly thoughtful, beautiful writing. More often, however, Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue (not to mention the fine actors delivering it) disguises shallow reasoning and inconsistently drawn characters. Is it more interesting that much of the drivel on TV? Well, yes, but that doesn’t make Sorkin the screenwriting god that some make him out to be.

Sorkin’s triumphant return to television (after being fired from The West Wing for—apparently—one too many tardy scripts) is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, an embarrassingly masturbatory, self-congratulatory show about just how Challenging and Consequential and Socially Significant writing for television is. Sorkin has become so arrogant, so lacking in self-awareness, that in the pilot, when the Heroic Writer sweeps in to revive a sketch comedy show that has lapsed into mediocrity, a tremulous little production assistant actually asks, “Are you coming to save us?” How can you not roll your eyes at that? Sorkin thinks he’s single-handedly saving us from cultural decay, and he’s doing so by giving us this ham-handed excuse for a drama.

Stranger Than Fiction

In theaters.

Perhaps I should begin this review by acknowledging that I’m a sucker for this sort of metatextual film, tweaking the distinction between fiction and reality. I am, after all, the sort of person whose idea of introspection is to imagine how an omniscient narrator might describe me. When something bad happens to me, my first consolation is the thought that I can turn it into a good story, and when I’m angry, I tend to say biting things I don’t mean due to my longstanding, secret desire to play the villain in a Jane Austen novel. Needless to say, I adored the premise of Stranger Than Fiction, the tale of a man with a narrator stuck in his head, from the moment I heard it.

To his credit, though, screenwriter Zach Helm has more in mind than an archly clever play on fictional constructs. Although the film, directed with subtle polish by Marc Forster, never loses its gentle playfulness, it sincerely grapples with philosophy (and not just postmodernism), and it treats its characters with real heart, not ironic detachment. In retrospect, I don’t think it achieves all of its considerable ambitions—this is a movie trying to be a high-concept comedy, a romance, an allegory, and a metaphysical treatise all at once—but it has moments of real beauty, the kind you only get when you’re trying to say something True.


In theaters.

The preview for Babel is a small work of art, flashing striking images of Morocco, Japan, and Mexico as a narrator tells us the Biblical story of Babel. God resented human efforts to build a tower to the heavens, so God cursed the people, creating language barriers to keep them from ever again uniting in such an ambitious project.

The story serves as a prelude to the movie’s interlocking tales of individuals immersed in cultures foreign to them. An American man, vacationing in north Africa, struggles to get medical attention for his wife, badly wounded by a stray bullet. A deaf Japanese teenager, alienated from the hearing world, flounders in her attempts to connect with people around her. A Latina nanny encounters trouble crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with her young, white charges in tow. A rural Muslim family plunges into the abyss of international politics with terrible consequences.

Objectively speaking, Babel presents merely a butterfly-flaps-its-wings chain of events, the fragile links of which become apparent over the course of the nonchronological film. I’m not sure whether Babel truly amounts to much more than that contrivance, but it certainly feels like more. The cast is universally strong, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the storytelling is beautifully empathetic toward each character.

Voices and Visionaries: New York Celebrates Steve Reich at 70

The Los Angeles Master Chorale at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, October 28.

I attended this concert a week ago, and I’m still fussing over my blog entry. Writing about music is so difficult that for a while, I was tempted not to post anything about it. Ultimately, my obsessive-compulsively tendencies won out, though, so here I am trying to bring shape to my thoughts about Steve Reich’s music.

The concert opened with Reich’s iconic 1972 composition Clapping Music, with the composer himself as one of the clappers. This is the sort of music I associate most with Reich: a highly rhythmic work that holds intellectual interest but, for me at least, little emotional appeal. I follow the lines as the two performers move out of and into phase with each other. That progression is interesting and certainly innovative for the time—Reich is considered one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century—but it only engages my head.

I admit I didn’t know much of Reich’s work beyond such early minimalism, so I had no idea that the two choral works on the program, Tehillim (1981) and You Are (Variations) (2004), were going to be so engrossing. More fluid, more expansive, and more passionate, they captured my imagination, not just my intellect.