Creating Change

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mr. Incredible

Brad Bird insisted upon making his own kind of animated film, one with complex, mature themes that didn't kowtow to pre-adolescent audiences. After two decades of toiling in relative obscurity, his determination has paid off.

The Incredibles features no talking animals, anthropomorphic teacups or toys that come to life. Instead its stars are a super-powered husband and wife suffering mid-life crises who cannot work because -- in this overly litigious society -- their superhero derring-do has been deemed too risky.

"I think there might have been some anxiety on [the studio's] part in the early days," the 48-year-old writer / director admits.

The executives at Pixar needn't have worried. The Incredibles, the sort of superhero film in which a character named Elastigirl worries that her costume doesn't flatter her middle-aged hips, has earned more than $225 million while reminding Bird's fellow animators that their work doesn't always have to be aimed at kids.

Few of Bird's peers seem surprised; after all, his resume includes work for Disney, Steven Spielberg and The Simpsons, as well as writing and directing credits for The Iron Giant, a 1999, eco-friendly animated film. Perhaps it is as fellow Pixar director John Lasseter told the Deseret Morning News: Bird spent too many years "like a thoroughbred horse harnessed to a broken plow."

Still, Bird insists he's no genius. "My thinking was, this is a movie I really wanted to see," he said on the same day that The Incredibles was nominated for a Golden Globe as best comedy or musical. "That is my first criteria when making a movie, 'Do I want to see it?' "

-- Chris Kaltenbach

Revolutionary Spirit

Darin Atwater may be too personable and soft-spoken, not to mention too superbly tailored, to be taken for a revolutionary. But make no mistake -- this remarkably talented 34-year-old is shaking up the local music landscape.

Atwater launched his Soulful Symphony -- a core of about 90 African-American instrumentalists and singers, drawn from Washington to New York -- back in 2000. But this year the organization moved boldly into the spotlight, thanks to a new association with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; its first permanent home, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; and a big move toward solid financial footing, with the help of a $300,000, three-year challenge grant from the Eddie and C. Sylvia Brown Family Foundation. (So far, only about 20 percent of that challenge has been met, but it's a start.)

Some of the Soulful Symphony's concerts will feature BSO members. And, as the BSO's new composer-in-residence, Atwater will enliven that orchestra's offerings.

"This may seem like a novelty act," he says, "but I don't think that's what this is. It's about adding to the cultural landscape of the nation from an African-American perspective."

The Soulful Symphony can appeal to people of all backgrounds and musical interests; credit that to Atwater's creativity and openness. He clearly made a difference in the community this year, and he'll be putting a fresh spin on the music scene for some time to come.

-- Tim Smith

Resuscitating Drama

If this was the year that drama on network television was reborn, its midwife was Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs. ABC's senior vice president for drama development was a driving force behind Desperate Housewives and Lost, TV's two hottest new series. The shows take major risks in subject matter and format, and their success has opened the door to new drama pilots just when many feared the networks would drown in reality TV.

Patmore-Gibbs played a crucial role in this change for the better. Before helping launch the two series this fall at Disney-owned ABC, she was head of drama series at the Disney production company, Touchstone, which developed both shows.

"Desperate and Lost were very different animals," says Patmore-Gibbs. In the former, a prime-time soap opera about the chaotic inner lives of four neighbors supposedly living the good suburban life, "creator Marc Cherry had something to say about women and relationships and child rearing that felt very contemporary and relevant."

The idea for Lost, on the other hand, came from Lloyd Braun, then chairman of ABC who was intrigued by the film Castaway and the CBS series Survivor. Touchstone last year asked J.J. Abrams (Alias) and Damon Lindeloff, to give it a try. They created the series about the survivors of a plane crash.

"The two shows have liberated us as studio and network executives," Patmore-Gibbs says. "They really have widened our playing field. ...

"The idea that people are really hungry for things that are intelligent, entertaining and, most of all, distinctive inspires us to take more chances."

-- David Zurawik

Hail the Conquering Heroine

With delicate features and balletic grace, Ziyi Zhang is changing the face of the martial-arts heroine.

In the process, she's on the verge of becoming the first Chinese actress to achieve superstar status in the United States. At 25, she's already starred in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's Hero, last summer's surprise smash. Now she is garnering raves for her performance in Yimou's coming House of Flying Daggers.

Zhang's soft beauty, which has landed her on "most-beautiful" lists in magazines on three continents, has set a new standard for female martial-arts warriors, replacing the sinewy grace and steely countenances of women like Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh. And if the Motion Picture Academy is seriously looking for an actress worthy of an Oscar in 2004, they need look no further than Zhang's performance in House of Flying Daggers as a warrior in an unlikely love triangle.

Success in American films seems just around the corner; Zhang already has co-starred in Jackie Chan's Rush Hour 2. Next year, she's set to appear in Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha, in which she'll be able to use the English she's been studying the past few years.

"I never dreamed of working in Hollywood movies," she recently told the Orange County Register, "because Hollywood seemed so far away. But now that I'm here, I like it, and I want to stay."

-- Chris Kaltenbach

Moody's Blues

Even if his writing is known for its grim outlook, novelist Rick Moody couldn't have foreseen that he would become one of the most derided figures in the literary arts in 2004. Especially because he didn't even publish a book this year.

A New Republic essay in July began with these words: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." His year didn't get much better. Moody, the 43-year old author of The Ice Storm, chaired the panel that picked the finalists (and ultimate winner) of this year's National Book Award for fiction. When the committee announced that its five nominees were all obscure women writers from New York City, whose total readership wouldn't fill a small lecture hall, the ridicule began.

How could the committee put forward a bunch of nobodies with books lacking in sweep and broad appeal? How especially, during a year in which such luminaries as Philip Roth, John Updike and Tom Wolfe, all produced major novels?

Forget that a year ago, many critics lambasted the National Book Foundation -- whose award it is -- for pandering to the marketplace by giving its lifetime achievement prize to Stephen King. A year later, Moody and his panel of five were lacerated for doing the opposite.

However one assesses the literary merits of the nominated works -- and eventual winning book, The News From Paraguay, by Lily Tuck -- Moody and his fellow judges at least stood for the notion that perhaps literature should not be judged by its ranking on Amazon.com.

-- Michael Ollove

The Power of the Photograph

The grainy snapshot shows a wretched man standing atop a box with wires attached to his body and a hood thrown over his head. The caption identifies him as an Iraqi in the custody of American soldiers at the notorious Iraqi prison known as Abu Ghraib. It is one of the most shocking pictures of the year, and since it was first seen in April, it has been reproduced in newspapers and broadcast by TV networks. But the image wasn't made by a professional photojournalist or network cameraman. Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II of the 372nd Military Police Company, identified by the Army as the person who took the picture, had no credentials as a photographer. And he never intended his images to become public.

Until his identity as a guard at Abu Ghraib became known, Frederick was an anonymous amateur photographer -- and a participant in the activities he recorded -- who took pictures with the offhand enthusiasm of a tourist snapping souvenirs for a photo album. His photograph and others like it focused a harsh spotlight on allegations of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers and civilian advisors, actions that the International Committee of the Red Cross had documented and privately condemned. In October, Frederick was court-martialed, found guilty of charges including conspiracy, dereliction of duty, assault and committing an indecent act, and sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the abuse. Other members of his unit already have been sentenced or are awaiting trial.

Though gruesome photographs of earlier wars and atrocities have been taken by soldiers in the field or by other witnesses, never before have the images been disseminated so broadly so quickly. No publicist had an opportunity to edit the Abu Ghraib photographs; that they so clearly were the work of amateurs lent them more credibility, not less. They have a grisly counterpoint in the videotapes made by Iraqi insurgents of themselves beheading hostages.

Amateur photographers have affected the course of history before. In 1963, Abraham Zapruder, a businessman who purchased an 8 mm home movie camera to film his grandchildren, made what became the world's most famous amateur movie when he found himself a witness to President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Zapruder was filming the president's motorcade as it passed through Dallas' Dealy Plaza. His lens captured Kennedy being shot on a blurry, 26-second strip of film.

The 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police was videotaped by a horrified bystander and later broadcast on national TV, provoking a public outcry over police brutality. The King tape led to criminal proceedings against the officers -- and, a year later, to riots in Los Angeles when a jury acquitted the accused of all charges.

The Abu Ghraib photographs, grainy, hastily shot, poorly lit and composed, remind us again of the power of an image -- even one created without forethought by an amateur.

-- Glenn McNatt

Rescuing History

When a prominent historic building on Charles Street came up for auction a year ago, Charles Duff wasn't about to let it be torn down for a parking lot. He assembled a group of Mount Vernon residents and property owners who share his preservation-oriented vision for revitalizing Midtown, and they pooled their money to submit the winning bid, heading off any threat of demolition.

That grassroots effort, involving the old MacGilli-vray's pharmacy building at Charles and Read streets, marks one of the first cases in recent Baltimore history in which local preservationists didn't wring their hands about a pending danger to a historically significant building. Instead of reacting to events, this group took control, planned ahead and put their money where their convictions were.

Today, the 1867 MacGillivray's building is being renovated by Duff's organization, the Midtown Development Corp. It will contain an upscale wine store called Spirits of Mount Vernon, due to open this spring, and six apartments above. The restored structure will add life to the street and residents to the neighborhood. Even more importantly, it will be a reminder that good things can happen to historic neighborhoods -- when people see themselves as agents of change with the power to make a difference.

-- Edward Gunts

He's Got the Crunk

Lil' Jon -- the shades, the dreadlocks, the platinum teeth fronts, the ever-present rhinestone-encrusted goblet or "pimp cup" -- was inescapable this year. When comedian Dave Chappelle parodied the rapper-producer's signature outbursts ("Yeaaahhh!," "What?," "Okaaayyy!") in a series of hilarious skits on his wildly popular Chappelle's Show, Jon's profile rocketed.

But those of us hip to the Southern-derived rap style called "crunk" -- an exhilarating, kinetic fusion of club beats and imaginative, whizzing keyboard lines -- already knew of its king, whose real name is Jonathan Smith. The former Atlanta DJ took his riotous music all the way to the top of the pop charts this year with such ubiquitous smashes as Usher's "Yeah!" and Ciara's "Goodies," two of the most thrilling and successful singles of 2004.

Other hits produced by Jon this year include the adrenaline-pumping "Neva Eva" by Trillville and the sexually frank "Freek-A-Leek" by Petey Pablo.

The artist's latest album with his collective, The Eastside Boyz, is called Crunk Juice. It's the follow-up to 2003's double-platinum Kings of Crunk, which featured the instant club classic and massive hit, "Get Low." With all the heavy news of 2004, it was great to have Lil' Jon around, providing the beats that got the nation crunked.

-- Rashod Ollison

Deliciously Raw 'Rose'

On paper, the pairing seemed a little strange, potentially disastrous: Country queen Loretta Lynn and garage punk wonder Jack White of the White Stripes together? On a record? But the partnership produced perhaps the best country album of the year: Van Lear Rose. A critical success, it proved that 70-year-old Lynn is still at the peak of her powers -- singing with soulful vigor and writing solid songs with fine, journalistic detail. (She wrote all 13 cuts on the CD.)

White, 29, infused just the right amount of rock energy, giving Lynn's sound an attractive edge. He insisted on recording first takes to retain the rawness of the country legend's performances. And the results are enthralling, including such highlights as the title track, "Family Tree." This year, Lynn rose above the rest, bringing warmth and gritty, creative narratives back to country music -- something the genre had been missing for a while.

-- Rashod Ollison

Leading Man, Redefined

In Alexander Payne's offbeat film, Sideways, Paul Giamatti plays an unpublished, painfully divorced writer on a trip through California wine country. He's paunchy, balding, jowly. His emotional range defaults between sardonic snippiness and blubbering despair. Much of the time he's like A.A. Milne's depressed donkey, Eeyore, but with a smart mouth and a pent-up sex drive.

Yet his voice proves musically seductive, as mellow and nuanced as Yo Yo Ma's cello. And beneath that thinned-out pate are glowing eyes -- riveting when they're alert, alarming when they turn inward, uproarious when they pop out of his skull.

Giamatti gives this guy a deep (if skewed) humanity that transcends his interpersonal incompetence and sexual befuddlement. So it's supremely satisfying that even after repeated missteps, this sad-sack novelist gets the right girl anyway (the glorious Virginia Madsen).

Sideways is like the funny love story Woody Allen never quite pulled off, not even in Annie Hall: the one where the bright, tricky personalities pair off and discover that their quirks fulfill each other. Giamatti redefines the romantic hero, physically and spiritually -- and gives male and female audiences alike real hope for second and third acts in literature and life.

-- Michael Sragow

Puppets in a Grown-Up World

Avenue Q -- a small-scale musical that uses puppets and live actors to tell the stories of twentysomethings living in an outer borough of New York -- was the surprise winner at this year's Tony Awards. But that wasn't the show's only surprising development. To explore some of the ground Avenue Q has broken, we interviewed its star, a puppet named Princeton (and his able handler, John Tartaglia).

Princeton, your show seems to be attracting a younger, hipper audience to Broadway. How do you do it?

We deal with a lot of issues that people my age are dealing with everyday -- issues of homelessness, of racism, of homosexuality, of cheating relationships. A lot of people our age grew up with [Sesame Street-style] puppets.

Do you think the show will generate new audiences for Broadway shows?

One of the best things I hear after the show is when people tell me it's their first Broadway show, or that they never wanted to see a musical but this is their first. So I hope we are bringing people to Broadway who've never come before.

Avenue Q has broken tradition by skipping a national tour in favor of an exclusive, open-ended engagement in Las Vegas, beginning on Labor Day. Are you afraid you might develop a gambling problem?

Kind of. ... Maybe I'll use Monopoly money.

How has your life changed since the show won the Tony?

I got a nicer rack to hang on, and they finally punched holes in the plastic bag I'm stored in, so life is getting better.

-- J.Wynn Rousuck

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