Saturday, February 28, 2009

Locke Spoilers Ahoy


Second excellent "Lost" in as many weeks, and in the real world outside the show has returned to its comfortable cultural equilibrium. At the beginning of the season it seemed like ABC was doing everything in its power to reach first-season viewers who'd abandoned ship somewhere along the way. Ratings would suggest that the effort didn't take, and the show is back to being obsessed about by those who bought in a long time ago and avoided by all else. Even friends of mine who've never watched it seem afraid to begin.

Well, it is definitely worth watching. I'd say it's even worth the investment of taking the time to absorb all of the first three seasons, even with the parent network running spoon-feeding recap specials on a week-to-week basis. What's particularly distinctive about "Lost" right now is the way it's subtly, necessarily, and yet surprisingly changed its question-to-answer ratio. We know stuff for sure now! In the first season there was complete confusion about how many distinctive groups were operating on the island -- a more complicated question than it seemed then because of the island's flavorful history and its habit of bringing people from different times into the same space. But now we have a filled-in timeline with some understanding of the Dharma Initiative, the Others, the pseudo-Others (folks like Ben and Juliet recruited from the outside world for some reason or another), Team Rousseau, the freighter folk, and the two now three distinct groups of plane crash survivors.

So the major questions of seasons four and five have involved powers outside the island, and the picture has grown clearer: Widmore planted the fake plane and hired Lt. Daniels to follow the Oceanic 6 around, Ben killed Locke and Abbadon and sent the authorities (?) after Kate's baby. Locke, figuring out that Christian Shephard was aboard Flight 815 as a corpse and very much alive afterward on the island, resolved to die as the only means of bringing Jack on board with is plan to return. (Which worked great. Watching the Season 3 finale again right after the new episode shed a whole new light on it, and also reminded me I don't give enough credit to the cast of "Lost" for continually having to emotionally react to things that haven't happened yet.) Ben talked out Locke out of suicide just to string him along enough to extract one vital piece of information and then killed him in cold blood. I love Ben. He's so much smarter than everyone else on the show.

And everywhere loose ends come together: Locke's one chance at love in the real world has an endpoint now, or at least a tombstone. (Very possibly faked by Widmore's people, but a good catch by the writers to have Locke at least explore the possiblity before committing himself to die for the island.) Walt having been used as a pawn for a time but never actually committing himself voluntarily to island's intrigues is free to live off of it with Locke's blessing; his father was compromised (obviously) and had to return there to die. Or the polar bears in Tunisia. You have to be hip to a number of minor points of "Lost" mythology for that one to scan: the Dharma Initiative used polar bears for experiments, for some reason. There's a wheel on the island that sends things to Tunisia. The recently deceased Charlotte Lewis found a polar bear skeleton there on an excavation. So when you see Locke lying on the ground in the desert with a camera pointing at him (one not there when Ben emerged at the same point three years beforehand), you know exactly what's going on. And who put the camera there? Well, either Widmore or Ben. In an earlier era the writers would have left that hanging just to increase confusion for its own sake. Nowadays, two scenes later Widmore himself admits to placing the surveillance.

The other thing that would have been terribly confusing a few seasons ago about the "Jeremy Bentham" episode is the means by which the Oceanic 6 survivors left the plane. The survivors of the new crash, who meet Locke on the beach (they weren't really given a lot of time to play it, because like the show needs yet another faction's agenda at this point, but imagine from their perspective the extreme weirdness of a guy coming out of the ocean, claiming to be both back from the dead and utterly unsurprised about where he is now), actually crashed. Some saw Hurley, Jack, Sun, Sayid, or Kate disappearing.

This shouldn't be confusing now! That group was in a lifeboat just a little off the coast of the island when Ben turned the freeze-wheel for the first time. They were between the freighter and the shore. Jin was in the water immediately adjacent to the freighter (thus further away from the island than the lifeboat group) and we've already seen that the time jumps, prefaced by a blinding flash of light, affect Jin along with Sawyer, Juliet, Locke and the others who were left behind when Jack and the others escape. Therefore, within a certain range of the island (Locke after leaving stopped being affected by time shifts) those who were present when the island first "vanished" will be subject to the flashes. A flash occurred when the plane was within range, and that brings us to where are now.

What happened to Lapidus, the pilot? Logic suggests he must have disappeared as well. That would explain why the plane crashed, if not how he got back to the beach (the passenger to whom Locke spoke said the pilot was with their group but had left). But notably, Ben did not arrive on the island in a flash like the other established characters. He crashed with the plane. He wasn't supposed to be on the plane (they were supposed to recreate the original flight and Ben watched 815 go down from the island) and he didn't know about the Looking Glass station (he fooled Locke into thinking he could return without dying to get that information). He isn't affected by the flashy time shifts because he was the one who started them, by turning the wheel. When the force that gave Jin, Sawyer, Faraday, and everyone else the Billy Pilgrims did its thing, Ben was already in Tunisia.

So... we have the heroes of the Oceanic crash reunited, but skipping in time along with what remains of the freighter group (including probably Lapidus). We have Ben, having gamed the system and gotten back to the island even though it's possible he was telling the truth when he told Locke earlier that the process of "hiding" the island would cost him the ability to return. Ben lies consistently and reflexively, but only when it is in his best interest to do so. Although it certainly would have swayed Locke to help Ben get to the Orchid station if he thought that doing so would get the little troll out of his life for good, for all we know at the time Ben could have believed it to be true. If Locke and everyone else who was on or near the island shortly after Ben left via freeze wheel is still skipping in time, Ben is going to have a lot of time alone and unsupervised with a terrified and paranoid new plane crash group.

So... you can actually tell where they're going with this, for the first time in forever. But that's fine. Having watched it on a week-to-week since the beginning of Season Two, I can say that "Lost" is more fun right now that in has been at any point during that time. The path is all laid out, but only if you've absorbed and are willing to continue re-viewing and studying many old episodes. Instead of rewarding obsession with more confusion, they're paying off the trainspotters from here on out. On behalf of the rest of my kind, I'm very grateful to the "Lost" brain trust.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

All of You Kids Are Stupid

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

It's going to get better. It has to get better. Only one more week of this.

Going back to the three rounds of 12/wild card/finals format of a few years back has really made the first two live "Idol" shows this year suck. First I thought it was too big a field of semifinalists, and that's part of it. But there's also a serious momentum effect. Each week for three weeks we're seeing every singer for the first time on the big stage. Many of them we're literally seeing for the first time. Instead of the show improving as the chaff gets cut out and the smarter, more talented contestants benefit from getting into a routine and absorbing constructive criticism, we're seeing three weeks of nerves, desperation, and false feelings of invulnerability.

One of the things I learned quickly when I started watching "American Idol" is that the competitors are universally incapable of learning from the experiences of others. Most of them claim to be big fans of the show, viewers since the first season, but none of them seem to think this wealth of past history applies to them in the very least. It's not a tough concept people: song choice. Yes, the very phrase has been worn down to meaningless by Randy and Paula's habitual use of it as a evasion. But they do harp on it all the time.

I mean, these kids have had photo sessions and plenty of camera time by now. They've been interviewed for hours and been given pointed, coherent advice by the two and three-quarters of real music business expert the judges represent. They should know how the producers want to sell them by now. The singer who came off best in Wednesday night's broadcast was the pink-banged, deeply vacant 16-year-old Allison Iraheta, who doesn't seem to quite know where she is most of the time. The performer who stole the night was the uncommon "Norman Gentle," who embraced what got him to the dance which such elan that he might have screwed it up by giving his vocals such short shrift. After that it was a cavalcade of the wrong songs for the wrong singers, most to all of the parties guilty of their selection defending their stupid choices to the bitter end. Matt Breitzke's being too much of a meathead to not know that Tonic's three-chord "If You Could Only See" is a loser song is one level of obliviousness. The good musicians who actually selected their songs with a particular "Idol" strategy in mind, and whiffed completed, are a higher one. Meanwhile I thought the judges hated needlessly on the best pure vocal of the evening and were outright dissembling in their opinions on the marketable, but disappointing, Megan Corkrey and Adam Lambert.

Jasmine Murray Hey, it was a rough night. Let's start positive: Jasmine's a beauty. She also danced convincingly and confidently. She did not sell it very hard, but she picked a song that was at least in the right ballpark for her style. She did have a lot of pitch issues at the extremes of her range, particularly the low end. Her voice lacks force, with nowhere to go from the clear but thin place at which she began. Her finish was rather weak and it's always better to build steam than to collapse at the finish line. Kai Kalama likely ended his "Idol" run with a similar last-stanza blown fuse. 6

Matt Giraud Dueling-pianos guy, seen intermittently in the audition and Hollywood shows. A white-boy soul merchant, with a bit of theatricality, Giraud had the first really brutal song pick of the evening with the current Coldplay single "Viva La Vida." It was cynical and naive, impressively. I know the "Billboard Top 100" theme was as vague as can be, but Giraud seemed like he was trying to game the system with a song that's still popular and in people's heads right now. But even so he misgauged his appeal badly. His Andrew Ridgeley leather jacket was 80's lame. His runs, melody digressions, and "yeah yeah yeah" ad libs fit a simple song carried largely by its instrumental hook worse than the jacket fit him. He also kept popping on the mic (holding it too close to his face), which is surprising for a stage performer. I guess it's different playing and singing into a fixed mic than holding one in your hands. Lots of male contestants tonight, from Matt to Kai to Kris, talked about getting back to playing an instrument if given a chance. Were the contestants not allowed to play an instrument this first time out? Will we be told if so? If that's the case it's another big black mark against the format. You can't give the kids who auditioned basically as singer-players no chance to bring their guitar or piano onstage. This goes for last week's wild card hopeful Stephen Fowler too. 4

Jeanine Vailes Don't remember much about her, from this show or beforehand. I feel for the kids of today, listening to the crappy ProTools pop that passes for mainstream rock in the last ten years -- Tonic, Train, Maroon 5, all in one show, yikes. Plus the first Michael Jackson record they had when they were really little was Bad or Dangerous and not Thriller, which is just sad. David Cook was a Thriller kid and it's going to be a shame when the "Idol" age limit pushes our generation out. Jeanine did "This Love," terrible song. Her higher range was better than her lower, but neither was good. It was a song that gave her no opportunity to express any personal style, just singing along to the radio in the shower essentially, and rather than making a significant rearrangement or changing key she just kind of jumped octaves at random to whatever was comfortable. A more cynical criticism might be that by choosing a song by a super-white band she missed the chance to solidify the base of her potential voting bloc. The fact is, she was off-pitch for about half of the song, catching a groove in the middle but really running off the rails when she began desperately stacking up runs at the close. 5

Nick "Norman Gentle" Mitchell I don't know how exactly to apply my somewhat arbitrary but to me meaningful numerical rating system here. See, what I try to do is use the number to just give an as-objective-as-possible summation of the technical quality of the vocal, absent all deep strategy factors. Thus, a 10 would be a studio quality vocal or damn near it, and a 5 would be about what you or I (well, maybe not me, I'm not a hugely gifted singer but I have been a semiprofessional musician for more than ten years and at least know what I'm not good enough to sing and when I'm not in key) -- let's just say a totally average random American -- could do if we'd heard the song a couple of times and had a sheet with the lyrics in front of us. So on that scale you'd have to give Norman like a 6. Nick Mitchell, the man behind the legend, is a capable singer -- not special, but he knows when he's in key -- who weighed his options and decided to go for broke with his sometimes-funny character. And he pretty much hit jackpot, giving one of the most unique and hilarious stage crawls in "Idol" history. It was hysterical, and he stayed cool and in character for his judging. He's sealed his legend for sure, even if he never makes it back for another week. But I don't think he's completely undeserving. His vocal got lost and never came back as his performance grew more kinetic but he can sing well if he's concentrating on it. And what is the objective of "American Idol" anyhow? To find a regular American kid who can sell records. "Weird Al" and the Bloodhound Gang count as commercial artists. So to score "Norman" on the performance, well... it'd be a nine, or even a ten. It was balls-to-the-wall fearless and over the top. He got louder applause even than Adam "Randy Says I'm Just Like All the Things That Young Teen Girls Like" Lambert. He brought the house down. But a nine or a ten or an eight even, given the night's competition, would suggest that it would be a total travesty if Mitchell/"Gentle" wasn't a top-three vote-getter. I don't think that's so. But if there aren't three real singers all of whom it would be heresy to roll in favor of Norman, you got to put him through. 7

Allison Iraheta Allison, all of sixteen, seems genuinely afraid of Ryan Seacrest (never a good sign, but he was mean to Norman Gentle) and has all the natural grace in front of the camera of Dee Dee Ramone in the film Rock and Roll High School. When she's not singing that is. When she is, Allison is too sheltered to realize that she's awesome. That is why despite tackling the nearly impossible "Alone," which Carly Smithson rode with her teeth clenched and her jaw gritted like a mechanical bull, she seemed barely straining. All right, she could have strained a bit -- she had a ton of correctable pitch errors in there, on which she got a free pass from the judges. She might not have the attention span or the stamina to run long in this game, but man is she an unspoiled talent. Her voice cracked on some of the high notes, but she hit a lot of them -- with an instrument like that, and some decent coaching (where's David Archuleta's dad, quick) she could go from "dark horse" to contender to favorite rapidly. 7

Kris Allen Dude, you're from Arkansas. You play the acoustic guitar. You look like a goy Jakob Dylan. You don't choose a Michael Jackson song. Wrong! Allen's performance was like that multiethnic cover band I once saw at Epcot Center -- broad, inoffensive, and totally without soul. The judges telling you to show some introspection doesn't mean to choose a song literally about introspection, you ninny! If Allen had to do this song, couldn't he have repurposed it to a style less at loggerheads with his vibe? At least something with the real instruments more prominent in the mix, or an acoustic guitar? The season of the bizarro song choice rolls on. I'm pretty terrified for next week. Lots of noise on the mic from this guy, too -- maybe they should stop disqualifying people who know how to perform in front of an audience. 5

Megan Joy Corkrey Beautiful, very tattooed Megan got a love train from the judges, who were kind of off-model tonight. Simon shocked me by digging Kris Allen. But it's not fair to to harp on some people for being constantly out of pitch and not others, and the whole second half of Corkrey's "Put Your Records On" was screechy. She also danced half-heartedly and arrhythmically, shades of Amanda Overmyer. This song was sung by like 30 girls during the audition shows and we're all sick of it. Maybe it was just getting bleak with even Paula harshing on some of the earlier contestants, in her own fashion. They had to praise someone. Megan, being a "package artist" as Kara so dearly loves to say, was a good enough choice. Why did they put another woman on the judges' panel if she was going to do the same thing as the male judges do from time to time, give girls the thumbs up merely for being hot numbers, only Kara's blunt enough to outright state her reasoning? That ain't very feminist. But come on, do you want to hear Megan sing again, or Norman Gentle? I've got to say Norman! 4

Matt Breitzke Matt's a welder. Blue-collar, yes, but not quite as quaint as Michael the Oil-Drillin' Man Sarver. Breitzke is also balder and heavier. No way there's room for both in the Top 12. I think they're going to end up with the wrong one, though. Breitzke is a better singer than Sarver (of last week's show) but he picked "If You Could Only See," a dumb three-chord song by a one-hit wonder. A lot of times people pick good songs that they just aren't suited for, but I have little sympathy for people who defend the artistic excellence of Tonic. And also... it didn't suit him, since he's a crooner and not a big rock singer. He crooned throughout even though the band was cuing him to bark and growl and although he was not out of pitch much it just sounded amateurish. A lower-key treatment, even of that awful song, could have presented him in a much better light. The quiet part at the very beginning was by far the best part of Breitzke's performance. 6

Jesse Langseth This one didn't make any sense to me at all. Jesse's very lovely, dressed sharp (a sweater kinda like Thirteen from "House" would wear around the apartment), and sang a great deal better than any of the other girls, Allison included. But the judges just couldn't find anything nice to say, all four of 'em. Yeah, she picked an easy melody, but what's wrong with that? Aren't all the judges saying when they say "pick the right song" is pick a song that you can sing well? Jesse showed soul with some deliberate blue notes, a risky choice in that it's hard for anyone not closely attuned to tell the difference. And why all the rush to condemn cool? Since when is cool bad? Portishead and Garbage sold a lot of records with girl singers sounding cool bordering on bored. Not to mention Mazzy Star. Jesse is way more interesting and way more talented than the show's packaging would lead you to believe. I wonder if she did porn or something. 8

Kai Kalama Man, this season. Kai had it all laid out for him, being the exact right combination the producers like for male finalists: exotic, good but not great voice, passable musical skills, hunky, great name, great hair. But I think our man got some bad advice from the judges, or misinterpreted the advice he got. "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" might be a good audition song, but I don't think it's suited for the big stage in the modern era, unless you get railroaded into it by a theme night or something. The vocal was very last-generation, the band defaulted into bland Oscar orchestra mode, and Kai tried his best to give a pleading, emotionally engaged vocal when that's not really his bread and butter. What's wrong with mysterious? Seriously, "American Idol," first you announce cool isn't cool, then you try and sell us that wide-eyed, earnest, and eager to please is sexier than dark, brooding, and taciturn? It's trying to take us back to Pat Boone's America one telephone vote at a time. Ever heard of Prince, or Michael Stipe? Evidently not. Not that I am saying Kai is either of those guys. In desperation, perhaps, Kalama just dive-bombed the ending, which cost him an extra point. The rest was just generic, not bad. 6

Mishvonna Henson Another song-choice brain lock, another wreck. Next year, rock history counselors for these kids, seriously. I'm available. I don't really loathe Train as much as Tonic or Maroon 5 -- they're up another tier, right around zero on the musical correctness scale, neither particularly good nor actively brain-damaging (compare: Van Halen versus Van Hagar for example. And footnote to Tim Midgett). But the trouble with "Drops of Jupiter" is that it's not a singer's song, and the sad attempts of Henson to replicate all of Pat Monahan's distracting little vocal tics really sank her. Every single falsetto note she tried was a thud. It sounded like she was fudging the lyrics even though she wasn't -- also probably Monahan's fault, those metaphors don't make any sense. But weird thing, even as she was following Monahan's in-verse ad-libs hiccup for hiccup she went rogue on the more difficult bridge and started deviating in all directions from the melody to spontaneous harmonic transitions that might have been easier for her sing but completely lost her her footing within the song. Henson was confident on stage and lovely, but she doesn't play as her young age (18) and isn't much of a singer. Once again the band defaulted to the karaoke machine track; they're as off their game this season as everybody. The only thing that seems a major boost from seasons 6 & 7 is the hugely raised coherence and usefulness of Paula. Did not see that coming. 4

Adam Lambert The bizarre night couldn't have ended more appropriately. Adam, much feted in the early going, got the always-flattering end of the night slot and his wife didn't even die (as far as we know). Define insanity: doing the same thing and expecting different results. Adam did the same thing as Matt, Jasmine, Kris, Matt, Kai, and Mishavonna. He picked the wrong song. Oh, boy, and did he ever. Adam said he picked the Stones' "Satisfaction" because he "loved the melody." Dude. It's Mick Jagger singing. There is no melody. I feel like Dr. Mephesto after this show -- the judges could not stop fawning over Adam, who was disastrous for the early verses and then just started making random piercing noises for 75 seconds or so. Yes, his vocal range is great. But he has absolutely no idea what to do with it, and no sense of himself as a pop artist, because he's not one. He's a high school theater diva. That's nothing to be ashamed of, and with his talent and hard work he could absolutely make a career out of it. But I don't want him on "Idol" ripping apart songs I love and having the judges eating out of his hand. It makes me feel icky. It's not that you can't successfully rework "Satisfaction" (ahem: Devo!), it's just that you can't rework it this way. If they made a Stones musical, it would sound like this. For the sake of what little belief I have left in rock and roll's rebel spirit, let that never happen. And may fate and the voters slay Adam as soon as they can. 5

Super weird night. Paula was more on target than Kara for the most part, except with regards to Kris Allen where Kara was the only judge who felt the way I did. Anyone else feel the producers put way more effort in the lighting and editing when Danny Gokey and then Adam Lambert were closing their respective shows? That hardly seems fair. And also, the recap at the end of the show when the phone lines were about to open showed Nick Mitchell during one of the rare bits of his performance where he was either singing tolerably well or doing something hysterical. That seems unfair, also. I think this season for lack of any positive things to speculate about so far is going to give birth to lots of conspiracy theories. I'm excited for the wild card show just to see who gets selected and who gets the biggest push from the producers.

Okay, decision time. Well, here is the big question. Were three singers clearly so good that rewarding Mitchell for at least making us curious about what Norman Gentle might do for an encore would be wrong? You know what, on my scorecard, no. I didn't like any of the other male singers at all. Trouble is, Adam Lambert is producers' pet and is going on in a walk. I really think Allison Iraheta and Jesse Langseth both earned their way forward. And at this point we can only take three. Well, I'm not trying to serve justice, I'm trying to predict the results. Langseth will go down, thanks to posthypnotic suggestion from the judges, Lambert and Iraheta will be leading vote-getters, and for lack of a better third option Norman Gentle will indeed fight his way into the finals. Can you believe it! If you're a Gentle hater, here's another chance to curse the new format. No way he'd get through three semifinal shows if he had to sing every week, right? If he's top-three this week that means he's just two more wins away from the tour. Oh, dude, that tears it, people are totally going to vote for him just for that reason. Norman Gentle in the top ten, America!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

They Robbed Us of Jackman

81st Annual Academy Awards

I probably wouldn't have watched the Oscars telecast at all -- hell, I didn't see any of these movies, except for Wall-E -- but some film friends were out of town for the live broadcast and I taped it for them. I'm mulling over the idea that between Netflix and those wonderful buck-a-movie machines at McDonald's, I might actually get around to seeing all the major category-nominated movies this year. Or also I might get one-third of the way through The Reader and decide that I would rather spend my time watching movies that are fun to watch. Or "The Wire" from the beginning, again. I'm not a movie guy, I'm a TV guy. It is what it is. Also, the NBA playoffs are coming up, and between that and "Idol" I might just lay off entirely on fictional stuff in which I'm not already invested.

Pretty much every storyline from the Oscars was overshadowed in my mind by the news that Andy Richter is going to be a regular on the new "Tonight Show" with Conan. That is an entertainment atom bomb. I haven't watched hardly a moment of a late-night talk show since Andy left "Late Night" when I was in college. I didn't watch or care about Conan's last "Late Night" and I had no plans to watch the new show. Now I will, because I love Andy like a milkshake. And I've talked to like three other people who feel exactly the same way! I knew there had to be a silver lining to the cancellation of "Andy Barker, P.I." And "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." And "Quintuplets." I wonder if Donnie, Chareth, Rocky, and Emmett will be in the studio audience for the premiere.

The Oscars telecast was as usual, a mixed bag. For some reason even though they make a massive effort every year to keep the thing moving along, they have some huge blind spots when it comes to what needs to be cut. The orchestral performances of the overtures to each of the films nominated for music awards? Totally extraneous. They didn't even do a good job of showing the visuals to which each score was performed, which seems like missing the point. Like I want to watch a bunch of anonymous L.A. session violin players saw away at tone poems for ten minutes. The musical number with Beyonce was irrelevant and tedious, save for Zac Efron's flop sweat. And his hat falling off because his hair was so greasy! Radical.

More stuff I hated: The clips shown throughout from movies that weren't nominated for anything. We really need to take time during a four-hour broadcast to acknowledge Kung Fu Panda and Hancock? The setup for the acting awards, with five former winners per trophy engaging in a classic Hollywood flurry of fawning self-congratulation, gave me a sudden priorly unfelt empathy for John Walker Lindh. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about myopic, decadent Americans and their movie stars.

The Paul Millsap award for being described as underrated for so long that he's now overrated goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman in a walk. Dude, I'm so over you, with your Serious Artist knit cap (who wears a hat to the Oscars?), perma-smirk, and your tented fingers. Like Mission Impossible III didn't totally suck ass. Please go away now.

Bill Maher didn't strike the right tone with his self-promoting introduction for the documentary awards but in the post-show breakdowns I think he's taken way too much abuse. Maher's current crusade, against organized religion, isn't very popular but isn't any less valid a cause than Sean Penn and the screenwriter from Milk's gay rights kick or even Jerry's Kids. Maher's right, religious fanatics do way more harm than good and Hollywood is still way too ambivalent about taking on the endless fountains of hatred spewed by the far-right elements of all the western world's major religions. Rather than seeming bitter and flogging his own Religulous so hard Maher could have connected his point to one of the films actually being celebrated on the evening (like Doubt) or even given a shred of evidence than he had seen any of the documentaries that were nominated. A lot of people are hating on Maher for making his presentation of somebody else's award about him, but being selected to appear onstage during the Oscars is in and of itself a form of validation. You can't give a guy like Maher a podium and expect him not to keep doing the very same thing that got him invited to the dance in the first place.

Like Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix bit during the Best Cinematography presentation. Yes, it might have been the very tiny least bit disrespectful to the winner of what the Oscars still justifiably treat as a major award, but it was funny. The acceptance speeches by the technical award winners are always death, so let's just accept it and roll with it. It's not like the guys who win don't benefit at all besides a few seconds of big-Nielsen share screen time. Anyway, way to not just take up space like Jennifer Aniston or condescendingly mail it in like Will Smith, Ben. Tropic Thunder will be remembered and enjoyed a lot longer than all this year's prestige pictures, save probably Slumdog.

I liked the front row of seats being right against the front of the stage, but the seating chart was ridiculous. You had award winners having to sprint down from the balcony as to maximize the star power in the HD-friendly front rows. (Speaking of which, they totally showed Zach Braff during Hugh Jackman's big "I'm Wolverine" singing climax. That was hilarious.) I know it's important that Americans see Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at least every hour on the hour, but they couldn't have found a floor seat for the wacky French stuntman from Man on Wire? That guy was pure distilled visual entertainment! Speaking of which, for a guy who's not that famous and certainly isn't that beautiful, Judd Apatow sure had a great seat. A billion dollars in box office from a string of movies that cost $30 mil or less to make will do that for you.

Oh, it's sad that I'm just getting to it (and it reflects how poorly the telecast utilized him), but Jackman was fantastic. No Billy Crystal mugging, none of the hemmed-in, out-of-his-element restraint that plagued Jon Stewart, and a minimum of excruciating Bruce Vilanch jokes. (Although the "I'm an Australian... playing an Australian... in a movie called Australia" line in the opening monologue was a doozy.) Jackman's effortlessly timed falls and rolls during the dance sequences gave the telecast some of the timeless feel that the Oscars usually assume they carry by default. I wish they'd given him a little more to do, although cheers to nixing the time-consuming practice of having the host introduce all of the presenters. As for the other nostalgia trips, not so much. I understand what they were trying to do during the "In Memoriam" sequence, keeping things going with a live song by Queen Latifah to prevent applause for a famous actor roaring over and then dying out awkwardly during the recognition of an unknown film editor. From a lot of the comments I read people were unhappy that the cuts to Queen and the audience kept them from even being able to see the honored dead. This didn't play as badly in HD but I can see how it would be a problem for people with outdated sets.

The clip packages from old movies seemed more random and extraneous than usual this year, perhaps because some of the more obvious fat from Oscars past has already been trimmed. Even the clips cut to reflect shared themes between this year's Best Picture nominees and past winners could have been done by anybody with YouTube and a Macbook. They didn't need all the replays from old acceptance speeches any either. Like any actor's acceptance speech is any different from any other's. What was weird -- and what has been observed elsewhere -- is how very little the show used clips from this year's nominees. That was a bit odd.

It wasn't until I read about it after the fact that I realized that the order of the awards presentations, and the way some of them were done (Steve Martin and Tina Fey reading stage directions, very weird, although Martin was hilarious -- remember when he was in movies?) was supposed to follow the process of making a movie from script to screen. That didn't scan at all. Also, why shove the writing awards to the very top? You know the winner's going to be a good writer! Dustin Lance Black's emotional, beautifully stated acceptance speech for his script from Milk's win was the best of the evening, and yet it came well before the coveted Best Animated Short award. Lame.

Seth Rogen and James Franco -- absolutely hilarious. Funnier than Pineapple Express. Too bad this came out too late for the DVD. And if Ben Stiller unjustly stole the cinematographers' moment in the sun, Rogen, Franco, and Apatow gave it right back with their inspired use of Janusz Kaminski. How do you suppose that went down? Do you think the Academy told Rogen and Franco they'd be presenting with Steven Spielberg's right-hand man, or do you think Apatow and Rogen sat down to write a bit and said, "Man, we just have to use Janusz Kaminski!" Oh, now that I look into it, it appears that Kaminski and Apatow are working together on Funny People. That's a bit of a letdown. I would prefer to think that out of the blue Rogen said, "Janusz Kaminski. It has to be Janusz Kaminski."

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Nuge Would Have Been Better

Fox via DVR

The second episode of Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse," aired Friday, was an improvement on the crummy pilot. It wasn't fantastic, and it still lacked any hint of the utterly original dialogue that usually defines Whedon's shows, but it was at least entertaining. A lot of backstory was forced into the episode through the use of flashbacks that didn't match at all with the present-day story, which had Eliza Dushku's Echo being hunted by a hardbodied maniac with a bow and arrow. The flashbacks focused on how Harry Lennix's character came to work for the Dollhouse and was assigned as Echo's handler. They also revealed the origin of the makeup scars Amy Acker wore in the pilot, a mystery that lasted all of two episodes. I understand that Joss was bummed by not getting to use any of the mythology he had cooked up for "Firefly," but this is ridiculous.

The main story of the episode, the Most Dangerous Game riff, was fun in a trashy sort of way. My dad always used to enjoy the "La Femme Nikita" cable series and he would like this particular version of "Dollhouse" -- hot, sweaty chick kicks ass. Check, check, and check. It's also interesting that "Dollhouse" has unusual rules for a network action series. Echo just flat-out kills the hunter guy in cold blood. Most shows wouldn't let their heroine go that far, although the fact that Echo has no memory of anything she does has a wet fuse effect on this intriguing wrinkle.

Although it was clunky, my hopes are raised a little. A lot of the problems with the show can be attributed to the fact that Fox tampered with the original pilot a great deal, not having learned their lesson on "Firefly." It stands to reason that much of the backstory that was crammed awkwardly into this slight but otherwise enjoyable episode is that after the pilot was cut back to an hour it had to go somewhere. Writer Steven DeKnight ("Buffy," "Angel," "Smallville") was more natural at the spy stuff than Joss was for the pilot, but the one thing that could have passed for a joke was brutal. Honestly, what is the deal with the lack of humor? Just because the subjects of "Dollhouse" are empty vessels with no souls doesn't mean its viewers all are. A bigger problem going forward could be how the flat the cast is. I don't like any of the regulars except for Dushku and Lennix, Acker is miscast, and the guest stars have been knee-jerk typecast and unmemorable.

I mean, come on, they made an episode about a psycho stalking a babe through the outback with a bow and arrow, and they passed up the opportunity to cast Ted Nugent? That's just foolish.

Not Burning Down But Perhaps Leaning in the Wind

Fox via DVR

No matter how astray the plotting and the distribution of screen time for the regulars go, there are still details that will keep me loving "House" forever. There aren't many characters on TV who can make me crack up for an entire commercial break with a mere "hmrmph" and half-raise of a finger, but Robert Sean Leonard's Wilson is one of them. Wilson and Cuddy's little House-management strategy meetings have become the show's equivalent of Dr. Claw plotting to foil Inspector Gadget.

With too many supporting characters vying for storyline time, the show has gotten some balance back by focusing on the bizarre codependency between its big three. Lisa Edelstein and Wilson are getting good stuff, with Cuddy's adoption and Wilson's new awareness/complicity in his encouragement of House. But the battle for scenes between Chase, Cameron, Kutner, Thirteen, and Taub is hurting all of their characters. Omar Epps' Foreman found the right level after the fourth-season reshuffling fairly quickly -- the purpose and role of his character has always been to serve as House's shadow and intellectual rival, and the writers rapidly made that more or less his official job. But everybody else is getting screwed. And what's more, the formula part of each episode -- the interactions between the diagnostic team, the patient, and their family -- is getting short shrift. "House" gets away with being a bit of a cookie-cutter show in most of its non-event episodes because the characters are so strong. The strength of the formula is such that you don't notice it until you start hitting a run of episodes like we have now where the sick people hardly have room for lines with all the "Degrassi" interdating and double-crossing going on.

Thirteen is getting way too much screen time, which actually isn't fair to Olivia Wilde because she's not all that bad. Longtime fans resent the hell out of her character not because of anything about her but because her big role is perceived as boxing out Chase and Cameron. Kal Penn's Kutner remains a cipher -- he's the butt of everybody else's jokes, and once or twice it's implied that he has an inclination towards the medically bizarre but that notion and his personal life remain entirely unexplored. Peter Jacobsen, the dark horse from the fourth-season reality show competition that selected House's new three assistants, surprisingly has been the most compelling of the group. Taub is the only grown-up in the building most episodes, and his underplayed marriage problems and low-key sense of humor provide a nice human-sized anchor for the massively overblown misadventures of the rest of the regulars. If he, Thirteen, and Kutner were getting rotating subplots on a basically equal basis, he might be more appreciated.

The spanner in the works is the ghostlike presence of Jesse Spencer and Jennifer Morrison, still in the main credits but with absolutely nothing to do. They're the rare television actors who most definitely don't want out of their long-term contracts (seven years is the industry standard when folks sign on for a pilot, which is why so many shows end up shutting down after seven seasons) but there just isn't enough running time in the average commercial-stuffed episode of "House" to justify the use of all these regulars. Frankly, it was tough from the beginning, since Hugh Laurie's lead is so compelling. During the first three seasons before the big shake-up, Cuddy, Wilson, and Chase all went through periods where they were being glaringly underused.

So what happens now? "House" conspiracy theorists say that Thirteen, a Huntington's patient, will die as soon as the end of this season. That would clear the decks for Cameron, exiled to the ER, to return to House's team. Chase, a surgeon, feels less extraneous than Cameron does at this point and he could stay in that role. What's more, now that he's free of House he's become his own man, stubbly, sarcastic, and kind of awesome. With the addition of scenes detailing the relationship of those two -- particularly with Cameron working closely with House again -- the doctors' light use in seasons four and five could all make sense in the long run.

The writers also have to give Kutner a juicy, multiple episode plotline as soon as they can get Thirteen's drama out of the way. Kal Penn deserves it as he's a bigger star than Wilde or Jacobsen and he's been a good sport about being the comic relief guy thus far. After his relationship with Thirteen (ridiculous at first, but kind of growing on me) is resolved, Foreman can go on the back burner for a while. And they should keep using Taub exactly as they have, except to perhaps mix him up with more of the cast rather than having he and Kutner as the dynamic duo week after week. I can't remember a non-montage that had both Taub and Chase in it, and you'd think they'd have an interesting dynamic, the plastic surgeon and the ridiculously good-looking guy.

Oh, and I know I'm complaining about there being too many characters already, but they should bring back Michael Weston's Lucas as a steady recurring character. "House" has never had any open-ended recurring characters, just arcs, and Weston's dynamic with Laurie is fabulous. Also, every single one of the regulars is a medical doctor, and one of the signature bits of artistic license that "House" gets away with is the fact that nurses and hospital technicians are treated as total nonentities. A civilian perspective might be nice once in a while. I have an idea for a "House" spec script told from the perspective of three or four nurses who have been serially abused by the doc over the years. I need to do some research to find the right wacky medical condition around which to frame it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Built a Little Empire

My Name Is Bruce
DVD via Redbox

Nearly every role Bruce Campbell has ever had gets name-checked at some point or another during My Name Is Bruce, large or small, which is impressive since the movie is barely an hour long. The film that gets the most play, though, isn't any of the Evil Dead or Spider-Man movies. With a T-shirt, several posters, and the only line of dialogue regarding one of Campbell's other pictures that isn't negative, Bubba Ho-Tep is the leader in the clubhouse.

That makes for an interesting contrast. My Name is a film that from start to finish hangs its hat entirely on the onscreen persona that Campbell created in the Evil Dead films and maintained through "Xena," "Brisco County," The Man with the Screaming Brain, "Burn Notice," basically everything he's been in that was longer than a cameo. Even in his minor bits in Sam Raimi's big-budget movies, the point of his presence is never the role but the actor. Bubba Ho-Tep, an incredibly weird film that's easier to appreciate afterwards than enjoy while you're watching it, is the glaring exception. For that movie, Campbell wore tons of prosthetics and affected a voice not his own to play an elderly Elvis Presley. He was acting in that movie, not just doing his schtick. He should do that more often.

Bubba was a unique viewing experience because of how committed it was to its story. The plot description makes it sound like a wacky horror comedy, but it was anything but. It was about a geriatric Elvis and an old black guy who thinks he's JFK fighting a thousand-year old mummy, but... it was actually about that. The point of the film wasn't to comment about Elvis impersonators, or the mummy genre, or the lately doughy Campbell's loss of potency as an action hero, or anything else external to the story. It was a character study about what Elvis might actually be like if he was alive, had an inflamed prostate, and had to fight a mummy. An absolutely bizarre movie. But at the same time, it had something kind of pure about it, and the dedication of its director, writer, and actors to take each scene completely at face value qualifies it without reservation as art.

My Name Is Bruce, by roaring contrast, relies entirely on external qualities to justify its existence. Campbell's loutish, rubbery antihero figure (Ash in the Evil Dead movies) is applied to himself for the first time. Rather than playing the same character that he plays all the time with different names and costumes, Campbell plays himself as the character he plays all the time. This is less interesting than it sounds. The Evil Dead movies developed from shock horror (the first one) to splatter comedy (the sequel) to comedy/fantasy/adventure (Army of Darkness) basically by accident, as what was received to be good by the filmmakers from the last movie in the sequence got reinforced in the next one.

In the original, Campbell had to carry the picture because by not too long into it the rest of the cast turned into makeup- and blood-covered killing machines. Since he was a nonprofessional being directed by nonprofessionals, he played the role all wrong for a horror movie survivor -- dense, obnoxious, loud, with excessive hand gestures and bug-eyed pronouncements. The horror genre was already kind of desperate for new ideas in 1981, and the over-the-top gorefest that Sam Raimi and his buddies had intended to make ended up more famous for its goofy hero. They even changed the title upon release to reflect the unintentional shift in focus. It was The Book of the Dead while they were shooting, but became the more smirking The Evil Dead in theaters.

And the rest is history, if you're the sort of historian who attends "Star Trek" conventions on the regular. Over the last 25 years Campbell has become a professional at performing a persona that he stumbled upon essentially by accident. He's gracious enough about it on the whole, but there's always a little bit of melancholy buried in the numerous self-deprecating comments in his DVD commentaries and his autobiography (If Chins Could Kill, with the again self-undercutting subtitle Confessions of a B Movie Actor). The real Bruce Campbell isn't so much of a jerk that he would ever repudiate his past work, insult his many devoted fans, or even stop making movies where he rolls out the Ash persona yet again. (As My Name Is Bruce represents in exaggerated fashion, he's hardly in the position to go turning down work.) But there is a bit of a sadness to him. That's what makes you wish he took on real challenges like Bubba Ho-Tep on a more regular basis. There's a lot of road not taken there, for a guy who in his signature role wore a chainsaw arm. He could have been The Phantom!

My Name Is Bruce was written by Campbell fan Mark Verheiden and directed by the man himself; in it you'll see veterans of past Bruce triumphs (don't worry if you don't recognize them because they'll point it out to you themselves) and Ted Raimi in no less than three different roles, two of which are deeply culturally offensive. Verheiden knows the catalog backwards and forwards, even the obscure stuff like Maniac Cop and Lunatics: A Love Story. He tends to treat punchlines like Zapp Brannigan does pickup lines. He throws as many out as quickly as he possibly can, and doesn't leave any space in there for the audience to potentially react positively or otherwise. This sort of suits Campbell as an actor, but not really as a director. A lot of My Name just looks crappy. It's lit like a frathouse basement, the proportions often seem wrong in some scenes as if they're using the wrong lens for the depth of field, and it's framed and edited with less feel than the movies Sam Raimi was directing Campbell in when they were 14.

The monster that the fictionalized Campbell is called upon to fight is particularly laughable -- it looks a lot like the witch my mom keeps in the basement for Halloween. That witch consists of a cloak, a hat, a mask, and some lights to go behind the eyes so they have a spooky glow. The monster in My Name Is Bruce was assembled it appears on the same budget, except it also has a long white beard (because it's a Chinese monster). Generally when they were making "X-Files" episodes and due to the crunch of the production schedule didn't have time to realize their monster of the week was a hairy rubber suit with some goo-goo eyeballs glued on until it was too late, they had some tricks to fall back on. Quick cuts, shadows, rapid pans, fisheye lenses, what have you. All of these techniques are lost on director Campbell, who keeps showing the monster full-on. It just looks hilariously bad, but it's not the kind of hilariousness that the film is deliberately attempting.

Besides Raimi, Campbell's most obvious filmmaking influence is Mel Brooks. He keeps taking scenes way beyond their logical conclusions, as in one early scene where "Bruce" smashes up his trailer drinking the last drops of every liquor bottle in the place, then pratfalls to the floor and starts pouring whiskey in his mouth from a dog bowl. He shows more instinct for subtle humor, such as it can be said to exist in a film like this one. The quick scene detailing a day's work on the set of Cave Alien 2 is particularly, painfully, accurate. If you look carefully you can see a hand popping into the frame to throw more goo on our hero. There's also a very funny 1800's newsprint gag (a giant headline regarding a spelling bee, with a tiny item in the corner "100 Chinese die in mine accident") that makes its point much better and much faster than Ted Raimi's long and painful following performance as a squinting, 'r'- and 'l'-confusing Asian stereotype.

Or take the ballad -- My Name Is Bruce begins with the folksinging McCain brothers, who also have supporting roles in the film, performing a little ditty explaining the back story of the bean curd-loving, decapitation-happy Guan-Di. It's a funny scene, particularly the way they finish the song, pause, and then make eye contact with each other. So no problems there, but then they repeat the same scene, and the same song, four more times throughout the course of the already-short picture. It stops being funny, quickly.

The cast is pretty terrible, largely on purpose. There are a few exceptions. As the Campbell fan who unleashes the monster and then goes to fetch his hero to fight it, Taylor Sharpe talks almost entirely in lines from other Bruce films. He has some good stuff early on but once Campbell arrives in Gold Lick, Oregon to battle Guan-Di the movie kind of forgets about him. As the love interest, Grace Thorsen is quite good -- the one pro in a field full of Campbell and Raimi's buddies from Michigan. She can't do anything with the alarmingly bad romantic writing and an absolutely brutal physical "comedy" dance sequence, but good for the filmmakers for finding someone believable for the only real human character in the script.

My Name Is Bruce is an abominably bad movie, but it doesn't lack for laughs. More unintentional than planned, perhaps, but if you've at least internalized the Evil Dead trilogy you're going to find stuff to giggle at in here. Sadly, it was kind of more fun to watch than Bubba Ho-Tep, even though in every regard Bubba was a better made, acted, and directed picture. The trouble with having a role you're born to play is until you die you're expected to keep playing it. Hey, it worked for Shatner.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

On Second Thought, Let's Cancel All the Shows


Wow, what a marvelous, sinus-clearing, ass-kicker of a "Lost" episode that was. "316" was so good, I think, that in retrospect it's a shame they didn't use it as the season premiere. It would have muddled the chronology somewhat, and left for later the major question of what happened to the island after it blinked out of existence at the end of the prior season, but I believe it would have been worth it. Unlike the actual fifth-season premiere, this episode set up a format and questions to be followed for the rest of the season. And for the first time since the redeeming third-season finale, it gave you that uncommon "Lost" adrenaline kick. The one you first got towards the end of the second half of the pilot, when Sayid and Shannon figured out that the French signal had been repeating for sixteen years. The one when Locke and Boone uncovered the hatch for the first time. When Michael plugged Ana Lucia. It's a nice natural high, isn't it?

It's so pleasing during the middle of such a crummy television season to have a show firing on all cylinders the way "Lost" is right now. In between being annoyed by slumps for "American Idol" and "Heroes" and even "House," being depressed by likely cancellations for "Life On Mars" and (just plain) "Life," and being both annoyed and depressed by "Dollhouse" being both terrible and likely to be canceled, having one network popular-entertainment piece that's really clicking is doubly appreciated. So many great moments from this one, it's hard to not just recap the whole thing: the utterly daffy Foucault's Pendulum room with the great Fionnula Flangan, Desmond's sudden outburst of spine, Ben battered and covered in blood, Locke's uncharacteristically levelheaded suicide note, Hurley buying out every empty seat on the plane to try and save innocent lives, all the parallels overt and subtle to the original Flight 815. And Frank Lapidus! Holy crap, that's some TV.

"Lost" is super good right now because 1) it's just completely embraced its crazy science fiction/comic book underpinnings, always evident in the background, but now driving the show with a gleeful lack of restraint about moving forward rapidly and shamelessness about being occasionally goofy. Note the aforementioned crazy pendulum map room, which was part "Prisoner," part H.G. Wells, and part Final Fantasy VII. (And note also Hurley in the airport reading Y the Last Man by current "Lost" writer Bryan K. Vaughan.) Then 2) perhaps not quite as important except to the extent that it feeds back into 1) there's an end date in sight. You don't have to hold on to any cards when you know which hand is the last one.

"Lost" is so good now that maybe we should make it a regular practice of successful shows announcing their termination date two, three seasons beforehand. If Daniel Faraday could somehow send us back in time to the late 90's, we could introduce this concept to some executives at Fox and save everybody involved with "The X-Files" a lot of embarrassment. "How I Met Your Mother" seems to battle cancellation on a midseason-to-midseason basis, but once it gets to syndication and starts reaching some of the many who have been sleeping on it, it would help the shape of that show if they said, "OK, Season 8 is the absolute limit, he gets married and computer-morphs into Bob Saget in the last episode no matter what."

"American Idol" shouldn't actually plan for its cancellation (which would be foolish as even in decline it's the most massive property in television short of the NFL) but it should threaten each year's contestants with the possibility. "I'm sorry," Simon could say behind the judges' table in the middle of a show, "I'm sorry, Tatiana, but you were so atrocious that we've lost all faith in the ability of our show to sell records. We're not only sending you home, but we're canceling the show. As of this moment. No one will win this season, and no one will ever get a chance to be American Idol again. Because of you. Think about that for the rest of your life." For a phenomenon like "Idol," it would only be appropriate for the show to die as it lived, toying with the emotions of fragile, self-deluded teenagers. Then everybody in the swayers' choir in front of the stage could whack Ryan Seacrest with sticks until candy came out.

If Joss Whedon wants to save face with "Dollhouse" it might be wise to announce right now that it was always intended to be a 15-episode miniseries. Fox would likely counter by giving it the axe after four (that's about as many as "Drive" got), but it would certainly goose DVD sales. I'd also like sometime in the next fall season for one producer to announce their show's planned obsolescence before the pilot airs. It'd be the most exciting thing to happen to a failed pilot since David Lynch made Mulholland Drive.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Changing the Rules Confuses Everyone

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

They like to change the rules on "American Idol" every season, in an attempt to correct the perceived weaknesses of the year before and to make sure that no matter what happens we hear the same four Whitney Houston songs over and over and over again. This year, instead of splitting the semifinalists up into male and female groups and winnowing down from there, there are three mixed groups of twelve. Three from each show go through, and then there will be a wild card show where twelve losers from the first group of three shows will get a second chance. This is needlessly confusing, utterly defeats contestant momentum, and is quite possibly as fixed as the 2006 NBA Finals. In short, it's the exact forward (backward) thinking that has kept "Idol" such a ratings juggernaut for so long. If you don't like the way they're doing it this year, wait for next season. It'll change.

The biggest argument against 36 finalists instead of 24 that I can think of is that even in a field of 24 the judges have trouble finding enough talent. Tuesday, there were a number of singers -- a majority of singers -- who simply had no business making it this far along. The ghastly, whispery pitch errors of a Stevie Wright ought to be something that gets exposed at the very least by Hollywood week. What exactly is it the producers are looking for, if it's not kids who can carry a tune? Maybe it's "package artists," which is the euphemism Kara uses for "hot girls." With the overhyped Danny "Dead Wife" Gokey, it's a heart-tugging storyline. "If you don't buy my 19 Records debut, it's like you're killing my wife... again!"

What they should really be looking for is kids who can follow instructions -- they should have drawn more heavily on the Salt Lake City auditions. The judges have all but laid out instructions for their pet favorites, and even when it's simple as "slut it up," the contenders have trouble comprehending. Two alleged country singers crashed and burned because they didn't have the self-preservation instincts to tell the band to knock it off with the cheese-metal/Leftoverture electric guitars. Seemingly everybody picked warmed-over Top 40 pablum already humped dry by "Idol" wannabes past, to the extent that Tatiana Del Toro's Whitney rehash actually sounded good in context. In short, the long-awaited beginning to the real "Idol" season sucked the big one. I feel dirty, exhausted, and manipulated. Just like a real pop star in training! Let's move on to the performances.

Jackie Tohn Quick, which made Jackie seem cheaper, her stretch pants-and-sneakers ensemble or her comically broad (affected) Queens accent? Jackie almost certainly was familiarized with Elvis's "A Little Less Conversation" by the popular Junkie XL dance remix of a few years back, and yet she let the band take her back beyond her birth year with a lame disco arrangement. When she was actually singing instead of yelling, Tohn sounded hoarse. She lost pitch for the second verse inclusive and the slow, hip-hop/soul intro was snore-worthy. Overall it had that timeless drunk girl on a cruise ship quality and I was surprised the judges were as gentle on her as they were. 5

Ricky Braddy Massively forgettable, except for his complete inability to hold the microphone steady and his tendency to choke and gasp through each long run. Braddy moved, dressed, and sounded old-fashioned, which is nearly always death on "Idol." Odd since the most reliable voting bloc is women forty and up, but there you have it. Braddy was musically on target more than most on the evening but he swung and missed on most of his falsetto notes. It seemed like Braddy might be better suited to a country style, and he's certainly a better vocalist than the two declared country artists of the evening. But he did "A Song for You" in a straight cabaret fashion and under the old rules at least, that sort of thing rarely plays on "American Idol" for big votes. Particularly among the men. I wouldn't take a second look at him for the wild card show, although there will almost certainly be less gifted vocalists in that field. 7

Alexis Grace Grace benefited from being surrounded by forgettable or worse singers in the early section of the evening's running order. She's one of the more beautiful females in the field and her classy, flapper-like look really suited her, pink streaks and all. I would really like to hear her sing a jazz ballad. She doesn't lack for individual style in a women's field that seems short on it, and that's with particular emphasis on the nature of her vocals, which are raspy without being unmusical in an Amanda Overmyer kind of way. If Grace's "Never Really Loved a Man" was her giving her absolute all, I don't know where she goes from here. Her voice doesn't quite have the magical extra gear that the truly gifted all have. I couldn't help but thinking while she was moving to her climax that Melinda Doolittle wouldn't have left a dry seat in the house on that number. Grace doesn't have that kind of electricity. Perhaps she could grow into it. It might have hurt her ability to soar somewhat that she was ahead of the beat for pretty much the whole song. Props for picking a tune with a bit of a syncopated rhythm, but several demerits for not actually singing along to that rhythm. She's way too young to have a kid. 8

Brent Keith There are a lot more hunky guys in the semifinal group this year, as opposed to the goofy assortment of Chris Slighs and Danny Noriegas we usually get. I have nothing in principle against good-looking men, but they seem as a group to be even worse than the good-looking women at taking charge of their musical destinies. Keith was prepared to sing "Hicktown" and sing it well -- you could see him mentally loading up for each line, and his connection to the song's subject was honest if misplaced. The trouble was that the band absolutely killed him with a wack metal-guitar arrangement that overpowered Keith's modest vocals and made his twang sound confused instead of appropriate. Brent lost pitch obviously and badly for one line in the second verse when he tried to drop down to his bass register -- a technique, by the way, that you just have to have as a male country singer -- but his troubles with the melody elsewhere I largely attributed to the band's ugly off-night. On more than one occasion they just completely blew the singer away, which they're usually commendably good at avoiding. The same vocal over an acoustic arrangement might have been way better. I don't think Keith's tune was as forgettable as the judges made it out to be, but it certainly wasn't memorable for the right reasons. 7

Stevie Wright In her interview bit, Wright's real-girl skin and figure had me recalling Jordin Sparks at this time last season. But then she sang. There was no saving her then. Wright was whisper-weak at the beginning of "You Belong With Me" and never really found the pitch even when she did manage to open up and sing properly. Once she got a bit of a head of steam her stage moves above the waist weren't all that bad, but she kept shuffling from foot to foot with the recognizable gait of a deer in the headlights. Stevie's big debut was so dreadful I couldn't imagine what the judges saw in her that let her make it through even this far. Under the old format, where only one male and one female got sent home each week, she'd have a chance to carry through on viewer sympathy. With this season's rules she's got a fork sticking out of her. 4

Anoop Desai Expectations were high for Anoop, because he's the very picture of what "American Idol" is all about when it works. He's a fresh-faced, regular-looking kid with a ton of talent. His first live performance was a bit of a puzzler, with an incompletely transposed Monica hit ("Angel of Mine") serving as a rather downbeat introduction to the big stage. Desai gave a good pep talk about keeping the energy level high during his intro, but then he did a slow jam, and one in a rather inert arrangement that barely let him stretch out his considerable vocal chops. He's a bit stiff onstage but it's not for lack of confidence; both his presence and his dress style should grow a little more colorful as he moves on. With the other guys on the evening (with the partial exception of Danny Gokey, for whom it's become impossible to separate the manipulation from the talent) you got the idea that you weren't going to get much better out of them. Anoop barely scraped the surface and he should be settling in for a long run where his potential emerges as his self-confidence soars. If he's going to be one of the favorites, he should act like it. More cocky swagger is my main suggestion for his ongoing development. 8

Casey Carlson With little Stevie, you just didn't know what the heck the judges were thinking. For Casey, things were much simpler. She's very pretty, and she wears little hats! She's far more likely than her fellow flop-sweating predecessor to be heard from again, if only in the Maxim magazine context. Casey is clearly dumber than pond water, because she picked "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." First of all: I hate that song. Boy, do I hate that song. Second of all: Among songs that I hate, "Every Little Thing She Does" is one of the most difficult to sing well, having as it does multiple modulations plus another key change, a double-time section, and lyrics that don't fit the melody in that time-honored Gordon Sumner fashion. Throw that in with the fact that nobody likes it when you change gender pronouns in a cover song, and Carlson was doomed to fail. She had more brutal blue notes than anyone else on the night (although with Stevie it was hard to say since you couldn't hear her) and any time her weak little kitten voice got more than a fifth away from her teensy comfort zone it might as well have been a dog whistle for all the correlation it had to pitch. Her stage moves were clunky, her facial expressions awkward, and she got less and less cute with every second of performance. By the end of it she was a hideous sweaty mess. Quite atrocious, really. The expansion to 36 has been an utter fiasco on the basis of this night. 2

Michael Sarver I bag on "Idol" contestants for their massively swelled egos and lack of perspective all the time. So what am I going to say bad about Michael Sarver, the oil-driller? Well, he could stand to be less modest, grateful, and mature. He threw himself into his dancing like a guy just pleased to be given an opportunity, and his humility and grace made him stick out among the Tatiana Del Toros like a big gush of oil springing from one of those things Sarver works on. The judges liked his change-of-pace attitude so much that Simon made a direct appeal for votes on his behalf. Too bad Sarver was the second guy of the evening to be utterly crushed by a crappy performance from the band. The metal guitar was back, for another country song, and Sarver never connected to the pitch of "I Don't Want to Be," quite possibly because he couldn't hear clearly. He has some grit and character in his voice but if by some miracle he lives on he has to choose his material (and hold back the band's 'roid rage) flawlessly. Every time he finished a line in the verses with the word "other" it seemed as if he was rushing it, as if he'd left it until the last minute. Again, you can blame the band for playing too fast, but the contestants have to take responsibility for telling the band in rehearsal when they're sucking out loud. That's part of the game. 5

Ann Marie Boskovitch Another gratuitously horrible song choice, from a girl with the right mixture of looks and mild vocal talent to make a Kristy Lee Cook run in another universe. What a hugely stupid pick of "Natural Woman." I mean, not only does everyone in the universe know that song, most people know two or three different versions. Ann Marie could have sang it better than she'd ever sang anything in her entire life, and it still would have paled next to the universal cultural memory of Aretha's version, not to mention Carole King's. I mean, you're a skinny white girl with a halfway decent voice for a Sheryl Crow tribute band. Are you dumber than a can of paint? Don't touch "Natural Woman," you flipping idiot. Boskovitch did OK I guess, although I was too busy raging at her stupidity to notice all of her pitch errors. She was obviously miles more talented than Casey or Stevie, which makes her massive idiocy that much more unforgivable. Pick almost any other song and you're golden, since the only female singer better was Tatiana who almost everybody hates. But no. 6

Stephen Fowler Bummer for the stylin', likable Stephen, who lost his confidence with an audition-round slip-up and never recovered. His "Rock With You" was utterly undistinguished. Fowler has a more naturally sexy voice than any of the other guys who sang Tuesday, but he picked a song that is rendered sterile by its immortal association to a singer whose sexuality everyone finds too creepy to think about. Stephen didn't pick the right key for the song and sounded drab and off-pitch for most of it, then he overcorrected by piling on the runs at the very end. He's more musical than any of the other dudes, save maybe Danny, but that just made his weak showing so much more the pity. Like Anoop, he could have absolutely seized the night by the throat and made it his own, but unlike Anoop, he didn't get massive amounts of play in the early shows and can't coast. A sensible choice for the wild card show, since the perception is he's the guy with nine lives. 7

Tatiana Del Toro She's crazy, possibly dangerous, and poison to the hopes of all who cross her path. Can she be stopped? Tatiana, she of the manic laugh and monstrously swelled self-worth, fell into a fortuitous double-bluff situation when everyone else in the night's competition picked songs even worse than she did. "Saving All My Love" ought to be right near the top of the heap of Whitney, Celine, and Mariah songs when "Idol" belatedly puts together its "never again" song list. But... but... but... against all odds Tatiana sang her little malicious heart out, almost completely nailing a very difficult melody. She was a bit raspy at points and fluffed one of the high notes, but by the low standards of the rest of the night's ladies she was very nearly perfect. People might not still vote for her because they're afraid she's going to fly into their houses on her broomstick and eat their babies. I almost think, maybe it's better for all of us if she's on "Idol" where there's cameras keeping tabs on her at all times. 9

Danny "Dead Wife" Gokey Danny's performance of the Mariah Carey warhorse "Hero" was more or less impossible to judge on its own merits. See, his wife died. If you don't vote for him and then buy his record, you are basically a horrible person. So with that in mind it's tough to critique him neutrally. He looks a lot better without his glasses, as the results from his first glamour photo session bear out. I wonder if the "Idol" stylists are afraid to drop a hint because without the glasses, we might possibly forget that he's the dead wife guy. Gokey like Anoop has raw talent to spare, but it's hard to see how he'll ever get any better if the nonstop dead wife love train from the judges doesn't slow down. His technique is not good, as his breathing often gets ragged and he keeps opening and closing his throat like he's drinking a glass of water. On the other hand you can't really knock him for leaving anything on the table, like so many of the other promising voices on a disappointing night. The producers gave him the cherry last-of-the-night slot basically inviting him to spill his guts out all over the shiny "Idol" stage and he picked up the ball and ran with it. He even gave the most darling little nonspecific speech about life after loss. Many others with living spouses were not so wise. Plus, with nearly everyone else making such lobotomized song choices, Danny and "Hero" came out seeming an inspired pair. The judges sure couldn't knock him for lacking a connection to that one, even if the melody's transposition to a male register played as about 75% shouting. He is an absolute stone cold lead pipe cinch to be one of the leading vote-getters. 8

No way Danny "Dead Wife" doesn't cruise until at least the Top 10. Beside him, I like Alexis Grace and Anoop Desai. For wild card consideration, I give you Stephen Fowler and Oil Guy. Ann Marie is a possibility as well, mostly based on her audition clips. As for Tatiana, I think she's just engendered way too much ill will among the voting public to survive a format that seems deliberately reorganized to keep her ilk out. She may have a bright future ahead of herself as Secretary of State. Or Queen of Scotland.

We Kill Your Shows

"Life on Mars"

I've watched two more episodes of ABC's thoughtful, witty "Life on Mars" and I'm almost convinced that it's doomed. This is a show that has an attention to period detail that puts the almost willfully anachronistic "That 70's Show" to shame. The most recent installment, with Cheyenne Jackson as B-list glam rocker Sebastian Grace, was like a love letter to the seedy side of the decade's music. It had everything from a groupie's wistful dad quoting Bad Company to Chris the Rookie (Jonathan Murphy) imagining flying saucers while dosed on acid. Riffing on Almost Famous and throwing in a delicious Bowie-scored sequence where the time-traveling hero (Jason O'Mara) begs the space aliens to take him home, "Life on Mars" has just continuously impressed since I added it to the season pass list a month ago.

What I like best about the show -- and I'm going to have to compare it against the BBC original, once I get through "The Wire" on my Netflix queue -- is the way that anything is possible. That's not the most elegant or original way of putting it, but "Mars" doesn't have rules. If Sam (O'Mara) sees little tiny robots emerging from a suicide victim's bloodstream, the viewer must consider the possibility that the dead guy had little tiny robots in his blood. When Detective Skelton first saw the UFO's coming over the hill, even though the director didn't cheat and showed him drinking from a grape juice bottle supplied by Jackson's untrustworthy Grace beforehand, for at least a half-second you had to consider the possibility that he was in fact being abducted by aliens.

The fact that something pointedly insane could happen at any moment is brought into relief by how detailed the 70's-era observations are. Grace's band was done just beautifully, from the imperfections in their stage makeup to the authenticity of their (fictional) one hit, "The Last Planet I Kissed." The interplay between Sam and his love interest entered the series with a sitcom plot but has quickly gone somewhere else, as Sam's modern post-feminist attitudes make him the shrinking violet to Maggie Siff's raging id.

The show's style matches the show's premise -- it's a perfectly put-together puzzle with one obviously wrong piece. The random weirdness wouldn't work if the believability of the setting wasn't otherwise so carefully constructed, and all of the period references would be self-indulgent if there wasn't so obvious and contemporary a submerged line running through it. All this and Wally Shawn! Since it rewards close attention and asks far more of the viewer than the average episode of, say, "NCIS," I'm almost positive "Life on Mars" will never see a second season. Watch it while you can.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Curb Your Robot

Fox via DVR

Watching the lazy writing and glossy-eyed performances of Joss Whedon's disappointing new Fox pilot, "Dollhouse," I kept thinking about the "South Park" episode where Cartman dresses as a robot and goes to Hollywood with Butters. A.W.E.S.O.M.-O gets waylaid by some big-time movie suits and they compel him to spit out movie ideas, all of which involve Adam Sandler. It doesn't take a large leap of the imagination to picture the development meeting between Whedon -- J.O.S.S.O.M.-O -- and Fox that led to "Dollhouse" getting greenlit in this mold. "Eliza Dushku... plays a hot chick... who is married to a psychic monkey." "Eliza Dushku... plays a beautiful woman... who eats a hot sauce that gives her superpowers." "Eliza Dushku... is a curvy babe... who works in a top-secret cross between a laboratory and a day spa where they program people's memories."

Almost no thought past the one-sentence pitch has gone into "Dollhouse," which gets tedious well before the end of its first broadcast hour. There's absolutely no evidence of the wit and snark that makes Whedon's dialogue so singular; either Fox demanded it be re-written out or Whedon cynically withheld it after what happened to his last network project, the overrated (but charming) Fox Friday night flop "Firefly." As it is the channel has a perfect pairing for its other Friday night action drama, the equally empty and pointless "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." Dushku and "Terminator" starlet Summer Glau even spent the occasion of the "Dollhouse" premiere trying to outdo each other brutally misreading Fox promo cards.

Whedon's work when it succeeds is always based on character development; the plot-heavy, rather impenetrable "Firefly" didn't find its stride until too far along. Even then it was always the writer's goal to try and portray the crew of the Serenity as a warped surrogate family, no different than the supporting cores around the leads of "Buffy" and "Angel." Both shows managed to cross-appeal to male fantasy fans and female soapers (and the like) by packing a healthy dose of running relationship angst alongside the monster-of-the-week episode plots. One reason "Angel" never quite matched the ratings nor the zeitgeist appeal of its parent series was that the more adult, less histrionic interpersonal shadings of the spinoff weren't as easy to follow.

"Dollhouse" cuts itself off from the very beginning with a premise that simply isn't friendly to Whedon's storytelling style or Dushku's strengths as an actress, such as they are. Dushku's Echo is an empty carton, a overripe peel waiting for a needle to come along and fill her with fruit. She's best between missions, when she wanders around HQ in a spaghetti-string tank top looking utterly vacant and confused. It's the role she was born to play! Unfortunately, as soon as boy genius scientist Topher Brink (Fran Kranz, who gets most of the good philosophical speeches but is still by his very nature an unpleasant character) shoots her full of personality mojo Dushku is forced to play against type, as actual complete adult people, and things get messy. Harry Lennix plays her handler, who would be fired by now if this wasn't a TV show, and Amy Acker is around but mostly wasted as a staff doctor who might (judging by her scars) be a former operative.

This is all kind of silly, but Whedon's script misses the opportunity to make the goofiness work to his advantage. Too many of his actors have been instructed to play it straight, and many are simply miscast -- Olivia Williams doesn't carry herself with the proper authority to play the organization's ruthless leader, and as the federal agent investigating the Dollhouse (with a possible personal connection to Echo) Tahmoh Pennikett looks and acts like he could be one of the hunky empty vessels himself. Maybe he is!

Fans of Whedon's early work will find nothing to hang on to here, since the premise lends itself mostly to pro forma set pieces and witless speeches about individual responsibility. There's very close to no humor at all and there's certainly none of the crunchy wordplay that made "Buffy" and "Firefly" such breaks from the TV norm. Even if it weren't for the premise that essentially hits reset on her personality every 20 minutes, Dushku isn't the caliber of actress to carry a show this flimsy on her own (the unwatchable "Tru Calling" seems not to have convinced folk), but on the plus side, she's definitely still hot enough to revive her signature character once this piece of junk gets cancelled. Bring on the Faith spinoff, Joss! And for heaven's sake do it for TNT and not network, where you might actually have a chance to do more than 15 episodes and have them not utterly suck.

This Week in "Lost": Destiny Hurts, A Lot


Great title for the "Lost" episode this week -- "This Place Is Death." Not quite as instantly poetic and apropos as the "Deadwood" classic "Tell Your God to Ready for Blood," but in that echelon. And a good title for an episode just packed with juicy death, from Jin's faked one to the very really ones of Locke, Charlotte, and the non-pregnant portion of Team French People.

I liked everything having to do with Jin's brief time-traveling detour through Rousseau's backstory. I liked the casting on the young, pregnant Danielle (she looked just like a half-and-half mixture of her older, crazier self and her beautiful doomed daughter), I liked how quickly the island made mincemeat of the the pathetic, disorganized French guys (less than a month, judging by Young Rousseau's pregnancy padding). I liked the additional insight into the always muddled Rousseau character, whose future craziness was much explained by the sudden introduction into her hormonal late pregnancy of death-dealing smoke monsters, jabbering Koreans, and severed limbs.

The other thing "This Place" delivered on was the parallel behavior of the island's present and past leaders, Locke and Ben. Locke's sense of humor, not much in evidence for the past season and change, seems to have returned with a renewed sense of singularity of purpose. He's a great guy when he knows what his place in the world is, Locke, but his faith is so weak. It only takes one flash of light and a busted arm and he's all confused and angry again. Ben, meanwhile, seems more exasperated than anything else back in the real world -- he knows it's useless to fight the will of the island/destiny, and it's just a matter of time before the Oceanic 6 all fall in line and do his bidding. As such it must be somewhat exhausting for him to constantly have his life threatened. Like Michael in "Meet Kevin Johnson," he probably can't die until his mission is completed. As such, who could blame him for almost yawning in the face of pistol-wielding Sun or threat-throwing Sayid?

It remains to be seen whether we've seen the last of Rebecca Mader's Charlotte, but if she's a done concern as far as the principal storyline goes, she's the biggest victim thus far of Season Four's strike-shortened status. We never got a clear idea of what her motivations were, and most if not all of her backstory was left for her deathbed speech. I'll have to go back and watch the classic Season 3 Ben's Origins episode to see whether Charlotte as a child made an appearance. I seem to have a half-clear memory of a British-accented little girl in there somewhere but I may be inventing it.

Other things: Loved Sawyer's tearful embrace of the presumed-dead Jin, somewhere in time on the island -- Sawyer's such a big softy. I was bummed when they didn't even wait a whole episode to "reveal" that Locke/Ben's contact in the real world is indeed Faraday's mother. I guess I wouldn't have looked all that smart guessing so since it was pretty obvious. I'm still not buying Sun as a ruthless businesswoman/pistol-packer -- too much earlier trenchwork was laid establishing her as the personification of gentle love, like the episode where she frets for an entire day about losing her wedding ring. It's weird seeing Jack as an essentially passive actor in most of the action thus far this season when he was quite the opposite up until now. Does the island hate musicians? Charlie and the French violinist sure took it on the chin.

So far the season has been much as I'd expected, with bits of (not unimportant) backstory being filled in as the main narrative moves efficiently toward the Six's return to the island. I think the big X-factor that could step in and make things less predictable at this point is Faraday. Already shown to be somewhat unstable before his girlfriend's passing (and before he even got to the island, see "The Constant"), he has an understanding of the island's mechanisms and a tendency to try and cheat the rules. He could make things very difficult, if he chose to do so. One of the best things about "Lost"'s comeback in the last two seasons is Jeremy Davies' big role in it. He's a terrific actor, rather underseen since Saving Private Ryan, and this is a signature role for him. His trademark filthy tie gives Faraday a Halloween-costume recognizability and Davies has seized the opportunity with some wild-eyed, inspired performing. He's not British, did you know? I could have sworn he was but he isn't.