Thursday, March 26, 2009

Goin' Back to Hitsville

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

We've gotten to a recognizable point in the "American Idol" season where there's really only one completely talentless person left (Megan Joy and her voodoo warble). So it's not terribly surprising when an evening of average to good performances comes over on a softball theme night. Here's the thing we know for sure. There aren't any "alternative" candidates in the field this year. There's no one the least weird, interesting, or original who also has talent, someone for the adults among us to anticipate and root for every week. Except, maybe, Adam Lambert, who is interesting and original but also delusional and totally untutored. Lambert is the producers' pet, which is makes it hard for him to get behind. But there isn't anyone else in the cast who has the wits, or the stones, to try and do something radical with their source material any week, let alone every week as Adam has done.

Yes, sometimes he's truly terrible. But with his "Tracks of My Tears" this week, he entered another zone. His massive range and power was working for him rather than against him this time, and his untracked ambition served him well on an evening when everyone else was terrified to mix it up with an arrangement while Smokey Robinson was in the audience. No one picked a song that was even a little obscure, because there's nobody in this field who has that kind of creative confidence. This could get tiresome over the next two months.

But on the other hand, the broad theme was revealing in other ways. It was astonished how average a singer Lil Rounds seeemed when she was taken even the least tiny bit out of her comfort zone. On the other hand, Allison Iraheta continues to rip apart everything she touches. Matt Giraud is ruinously obsessed with marketing himself and has all the wrong instincts. Kris Allen and Michael Sarver will never become anything more than what they are. Anoop has talent to spare but is always going to struggle with star power. Danny Gokey shouts everything, Scott MacIntyre is a great piano player but not a singer or much of a distinctive artist, and Megan at this rate will need to strip down to two band-aids and a cup if she expects to make the finals. So whom does that leave? Adam, unfortunately. He's been awful more often than not, but he does fit the vague description of what the show is looking for better than anyone else. A showdown between Adam and Allison, Mr. Style vs. Little Ms. Chops, would be very interesting. And also probably a walk; Allison has been in the bottom three already and Adam already has a waiting list for concert tickets. Now he just has to not do anything stupid, like tip off the preteen girls he's not really playing for their team.

Matt Giraud Poor, dumb Matt just can't get out of his own way, which is too bad because I think he's genuinely a better singer than Kris Allen or Danny Gokey -- he just keeps trying to force a signature moment with songs that are too big, too distinctive, or in this case, too sexy for him. Matt had one good idea, beginning his "Let's Get It On" at the piano and then standing up when the band kicked in. In a season a little light on showmanship the one-eyed dueling piano player could be king. But something just never clicks for Matt, and in this case it was an overly reverent rehashing of Marvin Gaye's numerous vocal tics, matched with a few wooden all-Giraud ad libs, that took a bedroom song to the library and ended up in effect just like all of Matt's other songs. Forced, too earnest by half, and most troublingly, uncool. Although it wasn't all that impressive, he did sing a hard song very well on a night that most took on easy melodies. His falsetto wasn't always quite on point but otherwise he showed off his underrated range well. I think that just singing a song like "Let's Get It On" very well isn't enough, though, it's one of the tunes on which you either have to go for broke or pick something else. 8

Kris Allen Kris Allen's "How Sweet It Is" drew comparisons to James Taylor from the judges, but I was more reminded of Chris Klein's tone-deaf attempts in the first American Pie movie. Look, Kris is great-looking, he's affable enough, he can grow facial hair way more convincingly than I could at his age. But he's no kind of musician. His singing cycles affectations depending on which genre it is he's taking on each week, and his guitar playing is completely worthless and terrible. Unlike Scott MacIntyre, who's a bona fide piano player, Kris just knows a couple of chords and his random two bars of stabbing before the sound guy simply mixes his instrument out are becoming a weekly feature. Why? He looks better and moves better without the guitar, and it's possible he could show more on vocals if he wasn't bothering. It's hardly as if he has an ironclad identity that attaches him to the guitar -- he hardly has an identity at all. At this point in the competition that's a terrible sign. Michael Sarver is in the precise same boat as Kris right now, only he's less good-looking and not as good of a singer, so that alone ought to keep Allen safe right up until the week after Sarver goes back to the oil derricks. 7

Scott MacIntyre I have a lot of respect for Scott, who has gotten bolder with his homemade arrangements and piano excursions as his run on "Idol" has gone deeper. But I no longer really look forward to his turns, because I think we've pretty much seen all he has to offer. Scott's a very good musician but his singing voice really isn't good enough to hang with the Adams and Allisons and even the Dannys of this field. It's a shame because you can hear in his committed performances all of the interesting ideas he has. He just misses the big crescendos with his voice, and pretty consistently at this point. If you could put his brain, except for the part that doesn't interpret information from his eyes right, into Adam's body, then you might have something. Scott got criticized by the judges for picking a song that was too easy ("Can't Hurry Love") but Kris got love for picking one that was easier. 6

Megan Joy Megan sounded better than last week, since she wasn't sick, but she's still lasted way longer than musical logic would demand. Megan hits the front of about fifty percent of her notes flat; less than half the time, she slides up to the right note. If she employed the technique consistently, it would be style, but she doesn't, so I think it's safe to say that she just sucks. What was especially bad about her "For Once in My Life" was that she also tried some soaring high notes and those didn't slide anywhere, they wobbled all over the place, and with an even lower success percentage than her low phrases. Megan is the only "Idol" contestant left this year who often reminds me of someone trying to sing a song they don't know in Rock Band on expert and failing. For what it's worth, although it was technically disastrous I liked Megan's style more than usual this time. It was a signature performance for her, whatever that means. The judges really let her have it, which was weird to me because I thought she'd been this bad or worse every other time she's sung so far. Why now do the knives come out? I guess there are a few people who are less popular with the voters than she but at least we know now that when she does go the judges won't waste a save on her. 5

Anoop Desai Anoop kind of got lured on to the rocks by Smokey Robinson; he seemed humbled and almost reverent in the great man's presence, which was a welcome change after the half-asleep Anoop of the last several shows. But then he decided to do "Ooh Baby Baby," which was ambitious and a little unwise. Anoop has wonderful range, but his chief strength as a vocalist is the fine sustain on his notes in the upper register of his comfort zone. "Ooh Baby Baby" isn't in anyone's comfort zone, skipping from verses below where Anoop would ideally like to start to superhuman falsetto. For the most part Desai had the notes, but it's awfully hard to stay in key in your falsetto head voice and maintain a level of personal expression at the same time. (That's part of what made Lambert's "Tracks of My Tears," later on, so impressive.) While in pitch Anoop was straining just to stay there, and you could hear a lot of gasping and popping on the microphone. It probably works best in Anoop's long-term interests to have a real technical wrestling match like this under his belt, but he needs to get back to moving around pronto. 7

Michael Sarver It was kind of sad watching Michael rush and huff his way through "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." It simply wasn't meant to be, although he might have raised his odds a little bit by slowing it down at least a little and grafting some country elements on to it -- that would have made his rapid-fire transitions into the chroruses sound a little more at home. He needed to do something to personalize the number because allowing the band to default to karaoke mode invited deeply unflattering comparisons. As it was it was average and forgettable, though not without its charming moments -- Michael's no "Idol" champion, but there have been less qualified finalists over the years. Trouble is you can't sing "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and not win people over, and Sarver wasn't winning anybody with that interpretation. Average and forgettable, but not unpleasant. An ideal "Idol" epitaph for Michael, who's got to be the chalk to go tonight. 5

Lil Rounds This was the big shocker on the night for me. Lil tends to impersonate Mary J. Blige on everything, but even to do that requires rare talent. When it came time to deliver in a different style, I figured she'd have the goods to carry over. Not so much. Lil's "Heatwave" was a near-disaster. If it had come a week or two later in the competition, it might have been a killer. She managed to put in some virtuoso work near the end to save a lot of the glaringly blue beginning third, but she sounded harsh throughout. It's the worst we've seen her on the show by a wide margin, and that sudden jarring shift in quality might hurt her disproportionately. Her status as a possible big winner is shaken, in my mind. Can she avoid ever having to get out of her comfort zone again? It's hard to say that she can if the fairly small leap from Mary J. to 60's R&B is a complete puzzler. 6

Adam Lambert Adam is still way too fond of himself and his Sophomore Spring Play dress-up ensembles, but for the first time in ages he let the song call the shots instead of trying to flamboyantly redefine a classic for the Adam Era. He still overreaches theatrically from time to time but for the most part his "The Tracks of My Tears" was a bold new level of not sucking for Lambert, who desecrated "Ring of Fire" just a week ago. He didn't try to hump the song to death, and that in itself was so refreshing that he went up a few notches in my personal estimation. It was quite a beautiful and affecting use of his authentic talent, in fact. His expressiveness in his falsetto notes put Anoop Desai to shame. It was also the most interesting reimagination of the night by far, arguably the only real reimagination -- Scott MacIntyre went out of his way to make "Can't Hurry Love" sound white, but Phil Collins had already done most of the leg work for him. Still pretty surprised by how emotional of a performance it was from a guy who comes across as a bit of an ice queen -- perhaps Adam does have a soul after all. 9

Danny Gokey Male co-favorite Danny has the best efforts of the production team behind him -- it's amazing how the stage lights up with 3D effects and adoring flattering yellows for Danny, while Allison Iraheta sings in front of a white sheet in a single puke-green spotlight. But Danny's vocals are becoming like the special effects, lots of movement and bright colors but very little real excitement. Danny is convincing as an inspirational figure, but not so much as a party-hearty floor-filler, and his "Get Ready" showed momentum-killing detachment from the subject matter. And vaguely musical shouting is his only real vocal weapon, whether he's doing a ballad or a rocker. I'm bored of him. 6

Allison Iraheta Allison didn't quite process all of the lyrics for "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," and it's too bad, because it kept me from giving her a rare 10. But I'm happy to save it for a later date, but Allison is quickly establishing herself as the only "Idol" contender with stage-transcending, once-a-generation talent. My goodness, she really can sing anything. She's powerful but she doesn't press the accelerator all the way down on every note, she has unteachable instincts (and a valuable sense of humor) when it comes to dirtying up a phrase here and there, and she has a look and style that's she's comfortable with without having to need to tinker with it every time out. In short she's a natural, and the sort of singer "Idol" loved to promote... for the first two seasons. This season, the less authentic, but far more marketable (and coachable) Adam is the guy. It'll be funny to see how the producers and judges conspire to torpedo the unflappable Allison, who seems barely aware of her surroundings most of the time. She was helpful enough to point out this week that Simon had drawn a mustache on Paula with a crayon when the audience couldn't see, in a little scene that could well have been concocted to make her appear more fully conscious. Maybe 19 thinks she's more marketable than I think they do. 9

Michael Sarver, everybody? Seems kind of obvious, although there are more cute boys around than cute girls to split the vote. Megan might go out for that reason. I think she's been interesting enough to keep voters loyal -- and she's consistently worn less clothes each and every time on stage, which is key. Michael on the other hand is more generic than Megan, who's uniquely bad, and thus I feel more likely to slip out of people's phone-voting memories.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Watched This Movie

Never Back Down
Starz via On Demand

I was expecting to flip on Never Back Down, a formula sports movie designed to catch a hold of the rising mixed martial arts bandwagon, until I fell asleep. I stayed awake for the whole thing! I even watched the credits, to figure out what was the deal with the Lee Ranaldo vocals on one song in the film's otherwise execrable soundtrack. (The Sonic Youth guitarist was a guest on a track by the UK's Cribs.) The movie works for what it is by casting actors as opposed to athletes and not letting any obligatory scene (The Ice Breaking with the Love Interest, Tension Mounting with Your Parent(s), Tension Mounting with Your Mentor, Vaguely Homoerotic Training Montage with Your Floppy Sidekick) run any longer than a few moments.

Director Jeff Wadlow employs lots of handheld shots and the most up-to-date digital editing technology to make an inexpensively made picture look flashy and exciting. He also gets better-than-genre support cast, like Lelie Hope from "24" as the mom and Djimon Hounsou from Gladiator as the trainer. There's even a sort of sly point being made by the filmmakers in the way that this quickie cash-in movie builds so much of its plot on get-famous-quick modern technology: everybody has iPhones and is watching fights replayed on YouTube seconds later.

Amber Heard, who also played Seth Rogen's cursory love interest in Pineapple Express, is quite terrible as the babe, but the rest of the kids are pretty good. Sean Faris is an amiable lead, Evan Peters is lovable as the sidekick, and the sculpted Cam Gigandet nearly steals the picture in the Val Kilmer golden boy baddie role. I also like the inclusion of a younger brother character (Wyatt Smith) who's a preteen tennis prodigy. The idea that the same competitive spirit runs through the gentlemen's game and the bare-knuckle brawls is obvious but effective, and it gives the film a precipitating event (the kid brother gets an academy scholarship, causing the family to move) that's both modern and surprisingly nuanced for a Karate Kid remake.

The somewhat stylized dialogue isn't believable, but it's the right choice for the material. Better you suspect the writing is a little too smart for the characters than be bored by how stupid they both are. The habit of random spectators to conveniently yell out the names of the various wrestling holds as they happen is stupid, but maybe necessary to solidify the tie-in to the UFC brand. I've only ever watched a handful of MMA bouts but I doubt highly that any serious coach would ever tell his charges, "You've got to mix it up. It's mixed martial arts!"

This is the first movie I ever remember seeing that openly identified itself as being set in Orlando. That's a weird first.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Beyond the Valley of the Dollhouse

Fox via DVR

I'm still hanging on with "Dollhouse," but just barely. The show has problems. Fran Kranz's Topher character is a petulant, obnoxious, spoiled ass, but by necessity he's a central part of every episode. Dichen Lachman, as Sierra, is so much better than the lead that it's got to be getting on flagship cheesecake/producer credit-bearing Eliza Dushku's last nerve -- and unfortunately the concept of the show is such that they occasionally end up playing the same role, which makes the unflattering comparison plain. Plus, recent episodes have torn big holes in my pet Amy Acker-is-Alpha theory, and I hate it when things go awry with my theories.

"Gray Hour," the first episode to be more than merely pretty to look at, was also the episode where both Dushku and Lachman got passes at a safecracker named Taffy. Lachman in her few scenes, particularly on the heels of the previous episode where she played a pigtailed, backpack-wearing pop fan, made you wish the show would just give up on Dushku's Echo and see what Sierra was up to each week instead. The pop star episode was otherwise utter garbage, with dreadful guest performances and a "CSI"-level flatlining plot twist. It's painful to see Joss Whedon associated with this stuff, as even the poorer early-season "Buffy" and "Angel" episodes had isolated great scenes and keeper performances.

Dushku is supposed to be a different person each week, but in reality she only has two modes -- when she's not "running a program," she's like a child actor having trouble reading her lines, and when she is, she's like a C-list TV actress having trouble reading her lines. "True Believer," an episode recasting her as a blind cult follower, seemed designed to demonstrate Eliza's range after four pretty similar action yarns (and the one where she was the backup dancer, which amounted to the same thing since she was randomly given preconscious kung fu skills). Only she muffed it, badly, flirting with all of the male cultists in the manner of a drunk teenager hitting on an Amish guy for a bet. At least her rack is still magnificent. And I don't feel at all sexist saying so because she reminds us herself in dialogue every couple of personas.

"Man on the Street," the first episode to be written by Whedon himself since the pilot, was positioned as the one where the mythology deepened and the show's hidden depth became more evident. Only it was kind of a mess, on several levels -- the random documentary-style interviews were pretentious and served no narrative purpose, a theoretically comic scene with Patton Oswalt was bad enough to make you wonder if Joss has misplaced his muse ("threw the Kindle at them," ugh), and the finale predictably revealed one of the few remaining recurring characters not already exposed as a robot as... another robot. What's worse, in the installment meant to more fully reveal his overarching vision for the series as a whole, Whedon used his leading lady as a bit player, leaning on the more capable Lennix and Penikett instead.

It's not entirely loyalty to the Mutant Enemy brand that has kept me hanging on. As promised, the show has started to open up a larger mythology after the shallow first few episodes. Harry Lennix is somewhat shunted to the side in his modified Watcher role but I like the way he still shows his compassion for Echo in all of her various guises. Liza Lapira, who plays Topher's overqualified, put-upon assistant, is quite attractive and impressively has significant credits from both the most mainstream show I watch regularly ("NCIS") and arguably the most transgressive ("Dexter"). "Dollhouse" has a self-conscious level of diversity. Perhaps he's making up for the lily-white "Buffy," or the "Angel" writers' infuriating inability (despite being quite at home writing convincing demons and 1000-year-old vampires) to create believable dialogue for black characters, but Joss has overloaded this show with hard-to-spell names from around the world. Tahmoh Pennikett is native Canadian, Lachman is Tibetan-Australian, Enver Gjokaj Albanian-American, Lapira Filipino/Spanish/Chinese. And yet all of these actors can manage multiple accents while Dushku has never managed to completely erase her Back Bay roots in any role she's ever played.

I like the developing Alpha mystery. I like the eerie, Japanese horror-like idea of Echo being remotely deactivated, being returned to a fetal state in the middle of a sophisticated operation. (The balance of terror between psychology and technology on this show is very Kiyoshi Kurosawa.) I like the possibility however remote that when Alpha comes back to headquarters he will eviscerate Topher in the most graphic, unpleasant, and protracted manner possible, such that the fines Fox will incur will double those "Family Guy" gets. But something about the show overall just rubs me the wrong way, and I don't think there's any amount of retooling that can be done that will get the bad taste out of my mouth.

The trouble is, what is the theme here? What's the overarching metaphor? Joss Whedon wouldn't make a series without one, but what he's saying here is cynical and more than a little self-pitying. How can you not watch the show and see Topher as a stand-in for the creator, a comic book geek who grew up to live out his fantasies of turning hot girls into superheroes? And the way the show loves to spread around ambiguity about who is and who isn't an "active" bothers me. Is the FBI agent? Is the doctor? Is the security guy? What about the senator? Hell, what if they're all robots? "Buffy" had a subtext so simple and obvious it was brilliant: High school (then, later, young adulthood) is hell. "Angel" was a little more convoluted, but with how it ended Whedon made it clear that his core theme was redemption, and how it is a process rather than an endpoint. "Firefly" was more basic, hokey even: Your family is whomever you go home to. But now we have "Dollhouse" and the theme is: Everybody's a robot.

That's a sucky theme. I'm not a robot! We all are compromised by the institutions in which we choose to participate, but we don't have to join a particular institution or any institution at all. (My thinking on "Dollhouse," oddly, is influenced a lot by all the reading I've been doing lately about "The Wire," and particular the Omar character -- the maverick, the guy who opts out and doesn't play by anybody's rules.) Joss seems to be making a whole show out of his anger about how "Firefly" got the shaft, and how none of his many master plans for big-budget superhero franchises have panned out. That's really lame, partly because he should be grateful to have the opportunity to make multimillion-dollar-budgeted movies and TV shows of any kind, and partly because the whole Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog thing illustrated (again) that Whedon is one of the few artists out there working in film and television who could conceivably opt out of the whole studio system and market his work directly on DVD to his huge fanbase. Maybe for his next series, he could just put all the episodes up on a website somewhere and charge whatever people were willing to pay, as Radiohead did with In Rainbows. Of course, the economies of scale are different, I don't know if he'd meet his budget.

Yeah, Fox dicked with "Firefly" something awful, and rumors abound that the same thing is happening to "Dollhouse." But Joss didn't have to make another show with Fox, and he chose to anyway. That may or may not have something to do with the fact that Eliza Dushku had her own development deal with the network and wanted to work with Whedon again. After all the movie franchises he's walked off of and bridges he's burned, Joss might not draw enough water these days to get a network show on the air based on his star power alone. But frankly, even as a devoted fan who will insist to my grandchildren that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was the greatest TV show there ever was, I'm getting sick of his whole act. Most people don't get to make big-screen conclusions to their failed 17-episode series. Joss is incredibly lucky to have the fans he has, even if his talent earned them in the first place. Starting to act like Eric Cartman every time things don't go exactly his way isn't fair to those fans who just want to see him making the best stuff possible, and to see that material reaching a larger audience so that it might have the chance of filling out more than one gift set of DVD's someday.

"Screw you guys, I'm going home."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sadly, No Segel Wang

I Love You, Man
In the theater (second time in 2009)

I don't go out to the movies very often, because I'm cheap and I would much rather buy a previously viewed DVD for eight bucks than see a film once for ten. But I do tend to go in clusters (often facilitated by theater gift cards, which I had kicking around still from Christmas and my birthday), and I do tend to go to a certain kind of movie. Last year I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Iron ManThe Dark Knight, Sex and the City, and Pineapple Express. So broadly, we have three categories -- big event movies that you have to see on the big screen, new installments in established comedy franchises, and stuff my girlfriend wants to see.

Watchmen last time out -- that was an event movie. And I'm glad that I saw it on the big screen, even if the definitive version for me as a longtime fan of the graphic novel will likely be the three-hour-plus DVD director's cut. I saw all of the Lord of the Rings movies in the theaters too. As for my comedy franchises, assuming we treat everything Judd Apatow makes as essentially one continuing series with the same small group of actors checking in and out as their schedules allow, I'm not too sure about Funny People. Caught the trailer right before I Love You, Man, and  it looks like a tailor-made jump the shark moment, the gross-out comedy director aiming for poignance and relevance and hitting boring and preachy. Also: If Paul Thomas Anderson couldn't wring a reasonable dramatic performance out of Adam Sandler, no one can. The man cannot act! He does funny voices! It's not the same thing at all!

As long as we're reviewing previews, count me out when it comes to J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. For a bold new direction for a fading franchise, it seems like wallowing in the minutiae of the backstory of the original series (and incorrectly at that) is exactly the wrong idea. Aren't most people who are of prime moviegoing age who still care about "Star Trek" fans of "The Next Generation" anyway? And the trailer seems to fixate on dumb, outdated elements of the overly romanticized 60's series. Sulu is Asian, so he is a master sword fighter! Scotty has a funny accent! Uhura is still black! Also, Zachary Quinto might look quite a bit like a young Spock, but his voice is completely wrong. Nimoy's gravelly authority made that role, but Quinto's wispy effeminacy (while perfect for Sylar's serial-killer detachment) is totally wrong for the greatest science officer in the history of the Federation. The silver lining is, when and if this film bombs colossally, the profile of "Trek" might be tarnished to the degree that Paramount might be humbled enough to give Ron Moore, Ira Behr, Manny Coto, or one of the numerous other brilliant former "Trek" writers they've needlessly alienated in the past free reign to do a new series on cable. The massive blind spot the company has with this new reboot is incomprehensible -- "Star Trek" is a TV show! A TV show! Its movie spinoffs were at best watchable (Wrath of Khan, Voyage Home, First Contact) and usually way worse than that (all of the other ones, except for bits of III and VI). Character development and currently relevant allegory are the two constants when "Star Trek" works and both are more suited to the small screen. Looks like what we're getting instead is a lot of CGI, pandering fan service, and hours of wooden dialogue. Are we sure George Lucas wasn't called in to consult on this?

Okay, so because I'm rapidly in danger of making this post more about "Star Trek" than the movie I just came home from -- I Love You, Man. Pretty solid movie. No credited Apatow involvement, although the movie feels like an extension of the brand. There's familiar faces you're happy to see in just about every scene, from the Australian-hating fruit vendor from "Flight of the Conchords" to Joy from "My Name Is Earl" to Joe Lo Truglio and Thomas Lennon from "The State" to Jon Favreau. Karen from "The Office" plays Paul Rudd's fiancee in the movie, and J.K. Simmons (Juno, the Spider-Man films) and Jane Curtin ("SNL," "Third Rock") are his parents. And Andy Samberg is his brother! Just about everybody in this movie seems like they would be amazing to have lunch with, and I thought that even before I checked the cast list and saw that Carla Gallo had a scene I missed somehow. I've had a crush on Carla Gallo since the original run of "Undeclared." Nice to see she's getting work, and even if her role here has a number in it it's a more dignified credit than the ones she got for Superbad, 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Sarah Marshall.

Although in tone and structure it's a romantic comedy through and through, watching I Love You, Man is kind of refreshing because it's not completely obvious where things will go. The relationship between Rudd's Peter and Rashida Jones' Zooey is never in that much danger, and the screenwriters don't feel the need to force conflicts where there aren't any. For a second it seems like Segel's character might turn out to be evil and manipulative, like The Cable Guy, and you get worried. Almost immediately the movie shows you his heart is in the right place. The brilliant thing about Apatow's movies (and let me note for the record that this movie was directed by John Hamburg and written by Hamburg and Larry Levin, although if I had to guess I'd say Jason Segel did a ton of uncredited work on the writing, since his character is so specific to his particular brand of offbeat) is the way he inverts the usual Idiot Plot formula of the standard Hollywood rom-com. Most romantic comedies are built around the two lovers failing to connect for a reason that's really stupid. If one or the other would sit down and explain the complications rationally to the other, there would be no movie. But in Apatow's movies, and this one too, it's not failure to communicate that gets the characters in hot water. It's communicating too much. That's truer to life, and it's why the formula keeps working.

Rudd is playing to his strengths here as a straight guy who's simply more comfortable around women, and his improvisations around the theme -- his character is genetically incapable of inventing a decent nickname, for example -- are natural and funny. In Knocked Up he played the slightly more mature role model for Seth Rogen's Peter Pan character, and here he plays a guy who's too mature, too polite. He needs Segel's assistance to cut loose, be cool, jam out to Rush, and stick up for his own needs every once in a while. Psychologically it's not a complex dynamic, and not a terribly original one, either, but I Love You, Man is effective because it doesn't force anything. The leads aren't complete wrecks at the beginning and perfect happy functional humans by the end. When Rudd tries to set up Segel with his wife's obligatory single friend, it's a complete disaster. A similar situation exists with Favreau's character, the husband of Zooey's other best friend (Jaime Pressly). In most movies of this type, the romantic lead has storybook relationships with everybody in his circle -- the in-laws, the neighbors, the parents. Here, though, Rudd and Favreau just hate each other, and it's both refreshing and hilarious.

One of the other things I really loved about the movie was the performance of Thomas Lennon. Lennon hasn't been in a bunch of small roles lately like his "State" castmates Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, and Michael Ian Black; he's an extremely intense, somewhat discomfiting performer whose commitment to characters is both his biggest strength and biggest weakness. Anyone who's a fan of "Reno 911!" knows what I'm talking about. He's like a method comedian, and I imagine kind of a bear to work with if the circumstances aren't perfect. He takes what had to be a bit part on the page and ends up the movie's funniest running joke. Samberg, on the other hand, is an actor whose appeal I have never understood. He's miscast as Peter's gay brother and fades into the woodwork fairly quickly.

I have always suspected the only reason the terrible Saving Silverman got made is because its stars really wanted to hang out with Neil Diamond. It's possible given the amount of their music that's used in I Love You, Man that this movie only exists because Segel and Rudd really wanted to geek out on Rush. I'm okay with that. Rush are awesome; I've been annoying my girlfriend for months now trying to get perfect scores on all the Moving Pictures tracks on the Rock Band drums, and now perhaps she has some insight as to why. Rush made Jason Segel a star, in a way; no one who's seen his dry ice-enhanced drum performance of "Tom Sawyer" from "Freaks and Geeks" will ever forget it. The only bad thing about watching him and Rudd thrashing through "Limelight" was the pain of recalling Nick Andopolis's disastrous audition scene. That was the magic of "Freaks and Geeks": the high school show so good (and so accurate) that no one who has seen it ever wants to watch it again.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Crazy Island Reports


For a week or so there, I thought I had the endgame for "Lost" all mapped out in my head, but now I don't know which way is up again. That's what the stakes are like for network TV's best drama right now: every episode is like a whole earlier season unto itself, with the rules changing on a commercial break-to-commercial break basis. It's dizzying, and certain actors work better than others as compasses. There are larger concerns for our core group of plane crash survivors (including one elite set that's now made it through two wrecks, sort of), but the little question that's really bugging me is: What happened to Faraday? The one guy who seemed to have any concrete knowledge of what the hell was going on, and the narrative conveniently managed to misplace him. Perfect.

Here's what I just have no answer for: Why did Sun not vanish and reappear in the 70's from Flight 316, like everybody else (save Ben, which makes sense since he left the island before the time jump-precipitating incident)? Does it have something to do with Jin's wedding ring? I can't figure it out. I thought I had an ironclad theory as to the behavior of the island in this one particular instance, but it's all out the window now.

Eliminating Faraday, and empowering Sawyer as the leader by default of the remaining Dharma imposters, makes for high drama. Sawyer doesn't have any idea what his next move is most of the time -- his speech at the end of "Namaste" to Jack regarding the doctor's leadership on the island three years prior was laced with irony -- and with the incomplete information he has regarding the probably not final demise of John Locke he could lead everyone to ruin. There's also the oddball pairing of Sawyer and Juliet to complicate matters, three years of mutual hostility worn away to relatively functional couplehood and undone in all of three seconds with Kate's return to the island. Elizabeth Mitchell gets too little credit for her role in the "Lost" ensemble, I think, because her character wasn't introduced in a particularly sympathetic light (during the dreary early portion of Season Three, when our heroes literally and the plot figuratively were locked in cages) and her tendency to keep winding up as a consolation prize. Her nuanced take on Juliet's reintroduction to Kate was beautifully played, layers upon layers of mistrust couched in a few icy lines.

Will I ever come to feel the same way about Ken Leung's Miles Straume? Given the shortest end of the stick among the freighter folk when Season 4 became strike-truncated, Miles has served as annoying neighbor-type comic relief for Season 5 thus far. His never-quite-articulated ability to commune with the dead only seems to come up when the writers remember about it. I've always liked Leung, who was memorable without being obtrusive in a supporting cop role in the first Saw. I don't think that the "Lost" producers would have kept him around this long if they didn't have something significant in store for him.

Also under-recognized: The "Lost" hair and makeup people. It's amazing how they keep track of so many different hairstyles and costume changes as the scripts become so complicated that they leave the actors in the dust. Jeff Fahey's Lapidus looks like a totally different guy three years on, with a distinguished airline pilot style instead of his crazy-explorer look from last season. Daniel Dae Kim's hair gets longer for every word of English Jin acquires. (I'm tickled doubly now that Kim, a native English speaker, has to affect a halting accent while Yunjin Kim, who grew up speaking Korean, as Sun has all these long speeches and ball-busting competitions with heavyweights like Ben and Widmore.) Jack and Kate have distinctive "new timeline" hair. Only Hurley looks pretty much the same, which is not insignificant -- every now and then, somebody likes to play the "the whole thing is Hurley's delusion" card, and keeping Jorge Garcia's look the same keeps that red herring alive.

Again, with Sawyer in charge, it's impossible to predict what will happen next. With Jack making the decisions, things followed a pattern -- Miles hit the nail right on the head when he talked about going back to the beach and then leaving it again being more or less the only things these lamebrained castaways ever do. Hard not to recall some earlier conflicts when Sawyer made the knee-jerk, possibly unnecessary decision to treat Sayid like a prisoner. Is Sayid the Hostile who turns Young Ben to the other side? Wouldn't that be great? After watching the last two episodes, "LaFleur" and "Namaste," I realized I needed to watch the classic late third-season "The Man Behind the Curtain" for the nth time. That's Ben's origin episode. This time, I want to see the first appearance of Horace Goodspeed (Doug Hutchison), the head Dharma honcho on the island in the late 70's.

I'm pretty sure "Namaste" marks the first time we've seen the scientist character played by François Chau and identified variably as Marvin Candle, Edgar Halliwax, Mark Wickmund, and (as in this case) Pierre Chang in person, as opposed to on a Dharma Initiative training film. It's interesting that he really exists, as I've read at least a few theories out there saying he was everything from a ghost to Jacob to a computer program. Maybe there's a bunch of him? I don't know what the advantage of having numerous aliases in a small, close-knit society like the Dharmas would be. Of course, at least some of the stations involved isolating and misinforming their staff.

If the island had power rankings, Sawyer would be way up while Jack and Sayid would be in the doldrums. Ben has been more or less unshakable from his position in the top spot since first he appeared on the show midway through the second season, as he is roughly eight billion times smarter than everybody else on the show combined. Sun is the big riser this week for having the good sense to brain Ben with a solid piece of wood the first he turned his back on her. Don't trust Ben! Ben is pure evil! Even as a little kid who looks like Chris Mintz-Plasse! Jack, Locke, Sayid, and many stronger men have trusted him even for a second, and all to their peril! It ought to be open policy with all the plane crash survivors (either one) to knock Ben unconscious every time he starts to speak. I'd maybe go so far as to suggest killing him, but I'm pretty sure he can't be killed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Adam Lambert Must Pay

Yikes! Country night was interesting this year, as it always is. There were more than a few safe choices -- every week it seems no matter what the genre is a few balls roll into the beauty-pageant "American Idol" gutter -- and some pleasant surprises. But a night that continued a trend of massive improvement since the semifinals was marred by one of the ugliest battles between an unstoppable force and an immovable object in contest history. Adam Lambert's abuse of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" was so jaw-droppingly bad that it simply cannot go unpunished. The judges have been finding new positions in which to contort to praise Adam every week, and the inflated praise has finally popped Adam's ego balloon. His Boy George/Bond villainess harem croon was like torture.

Otherwise, it went pretty chalk -- good ol' boy Michael Sarver was the most in his element, big voices like Lil, Allison, and Anoop proved able to adapt, Danny continued to be the most successfully manipulative and Matt Giraud the least, and Megan Joy was at once terrible, mildly offensive, and strangely compelling. I'll spoil the ending for you now: Adam has to go. has to! This evil cannot be allowed to stand!

Michael Sarver The judges entered a bizarro world about a half-season ago where they assumed they had the ability to reshape reality with their own critiques. They love to criticize contestants who don't have sufficient it factor for picking easy songs or making lots of pitch mistakes -- while praising contestants who do, for picking easy songs and making lot of pitch mistakes. I felt bad for Michael, who picked a fast, crowd-pleasing song with a ton of words, sort of Garth Brooks' answer to "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and only missed about two of them while he was slapping his harmonica player on the back. Michael was dead on target in that a big part of country music is having a good time, and I had a better time while he was singing than anybody else on the night. The judges might not be hip to it but what's commercial among male country singers right now is a lot of hunky guys who aren't great singers but deliver witty songs well with a lot of personality. Michael Sarver could be the next Trace Adkins, for all they know. 9

Allison Iraheta It could have gone either way for Allison, who's a rock belter at heart but a skilled enough singer to more than fake it in other styles. She did a little bit of both for country night. Her instincts betrayed her at times, as she didn't really sync up to the beat in the slow part and she was off on more of her power notes than in past performances. She's getting more coherent in her interview clips, probably after long hours of laborious coaching. I love her raw power and her prospects for continued success in a thin eighth-season "Idol" field. 7

Kris Allen I don't have much of a bead on Kris, flying under the radar for most of the season so far. He has bad luck choosing when to set aside his guitar and when to pick it up again. I think he might have found more of a connection to his number this week if he'd played it solo accompanying himself, as doing "To Make You Feel My Love" with the band in karaoke-CD mode sounded very sappy. Although his look and vibe are street-busker authentic, his voice does play well in the pop ballad idiom. If you saw the brilliant recent "South Park" with the Jonas Brothers, Kris has some of the same marketability -- a stealthy, wholesome way of selling sex to tween girls. If he goes that way, he won't have to become a better singer. He was flat and guttural on his low notes and his falsetto was pretty weak, atonal, and pathetic. 7

Lil Rounds Lil is either pretty bad at playing the "Idol" political game, or quite brilliant. She seems to keep slightly missing her target, which gives her a place to go from here in the weeks to come. Other real great voices of past seasons have peaked too early, from Jennifer Hudson to Melinda Doolittle. I thought Lil could have done worse than "Independence Day," although in parts it approached cruise-ship territory. She let her instrument do the work over a very bland backing, which is the safe play. Her verses never quite gelled but she was in her usual fine form for the heavy-lifting section. 8

Adam Lambert Adam sneered at Randy Travis and leered at the girls in the pit, piled the foundation on in big scabby cakes and just sucked all of the heart out of "Ring of Fire." It's funny, if Adam had taken a straightforward approach and just tried to sing the song a little like the Man in Black, it might have been a shocker highlight. He's got range to spare and he's certainly no stranger to drama. But instead, he pulled some sitar-lite lounge arrangement off a "music for strippers" website and wailed ghoulishly (and in no relation to pitch). Dress sense and attitude go a long way in "Idol," but the line has to be drawn somewhere. The line must be drawn here! Here and no further! 1

Scott MacIntyre Apparently Scott spends every waking moment of his unsupervised "Idol" time painstakingly working out his own arrangements. That's charming, but is it really helping his cause any? He seems to have pretty Utah music tastes, and let me tell you Scott, Hollywood ain't Utah. Maybe he should let the experts do the arranging, and spend that extra time sleeping, or practicing his vocals, or shopping for sunglasses. Scott's unique problem with stage presence has a simple solution -- he just needs to hold on to his piano for dear life. His "Wild Angels" was earnest enough, if a bit broad, and I liked his musical ideas. His execution however was wanting. 6

Alexis Grace Alexis's dress was short enough to be a nightgown, but apparently it wasn't low-cut enough for the judges. Kara and Paula were all over her to dirty it up. Like for a single week she can't put on a classy outfit? Alexis did "Jolene," a great song, but not one to approach lightly. I don't know if she came off as insincere exactly but perhaps a bit defensive. It was technically solid, but I didn't ache for her, and if you're going to sing a weeper like that, you can't leave a dry eye in the house. The performance itself was safe, but it was the kind of song that really exposes lack of commitment. 8

Danny Gokey Danny knows where he's coming from. How can you root for the guy who has the dead wife and a song for Jesus in his heart? Danny has no level of pandering to which he won't sink, but as prolonged exposure reveals more of his weaknesses, it may not be enough to sustain him. His verses on "Jesus Take the Wheel" were goony and poorly sung, and his cracked yelling for the choruses was not at all special. He's beyond average on stage... but with enviable intangibles. 5

Anoop Desai Anoop seemed nonchalant in his semifinal and first final-round performances, but it's funny how the difference between lazy and crafty can all boil down to song choice. "Always on My Mind" is one those melodies so powerful that it transcends genre, and Anoop was definitely in no danger of drawing comparisons to Willie Nelson. He brought the goods with a solidly melodic, confident performance that was a fine showcase for Anoop's soulful side and his voice's natural presence and sustain. By dressing more casual and keeping his profile low, Anoop made his song choice a sort of apology to his "Idol" fanbase for taking things too lightly earlier on. Now he's going to be around for awhile, assuming he works this hard every time out. 8

Megan Joy Now without the awkward "Corkrey," Megan is that least little bit more commercial -- and still can't really sing a lick. Her "Walking After Midnight" had so many tics and hiccups that it was sort of its own little work of art. I usually hate Megan, but even though she was doing a Caribbean accent for some reason and her "jazz" accents were minstrel show-level, it was at the very least distinctive. Her falsetto leaps were fifty-fifty, and her out-of-control tremolo was awful-sounding (but kind of impressive). She was suffering from the flu, Ryan Seacrest was careful to disclose. 4

Matt Giraud Matt is obsessed with being commercial, only he's too naive to exercise this desire in any kind of constructive way. His Coldplay thing was his low point so far, but he's always in danger of screwing himself over. As a bar pianist and soul merchant, it seems like his connection to and knowledge of music ought to go deeper. He did look very slick in a three-piece suit, but he didn't put enough of his own stamp on "So Small" and his final high note was woefully off. I really think that he's more talented than he's shown, but he has a little bit of a tiny idea in his head of how to sell himself and it's throwing him off. He'd be better off if his head was completely empty of conscious thought, like Allison. 7

Adam goes. He has to. Maybe if I feel it strongly enough it will come to pass.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Books About UFO's

In the theater (first time in 2009)

I saw Zack Snyder's competent Watchmen adaptation on Friday night and I've been trying to think of the proper angle from which to approach writing about it ever since. Like the director's 300, it's not a particularly cerebral film. He lines up the characters, he goes through the story, and he's not particularly interested in ambiguities or loose ends. Perhaps Snyder's economical approach is the only one possible: more ambitious directors like Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass have been attached to Watchmen projects but this is the one that actually got filmed.

Snyder has a nice fallback position because the rich psychological lives of the characters was the principal selling point of Alan Moore's graphic novel; he doesn't have to get into Nite Owl's impotence or The Comedian's sadism because readers of the book know all about that already. The director is careful about not having anyone act out of character, and he uses casting cleverly to nudge viewers' minds in the right direction. Patrick Wilson (from Hard Candy) is a perfect Nite Owl and Matthew Goode (The Lookout) seems appropriately impressed by himself in his limited screen time as Ozymandias. Brit Goode starts out affecting an American accent but by the end of the movie is doing a broad Charlton Heston "classical" delivery, which is something the comic book obviously never got the chance to consider and is something given the character's obsession with antiquity that makes perfect sense.

There's not much else added to the movie that wasn't done first and more authoritatively in the book. Rorshach is still crazy, Dr. Manhattan is still naked and blue, and the Silk Spectres still have boobs. Snyder does change the visualization of the ending (if not the effect), which serves only to make the whole thing wrap up neatly, rather than crawling with lingering questions and possible contradictions the way the comics did. By playing it safe clinging to the major beats of the story, I think Snyder has made a movie that's completely impossible to appreciate for people who haven't read the comic. Although his dedication to recreating entire compositions from the book will make the film fun on DVD for Moore fanboys, none of the mysteries and easter eggs in the Watchmen movie are its own -- they're all just borrowed from the source material.

I'm glad they made it, just as I was kind of detached in my enjoyment when they made the Lord of the Rings films -- maybe the movies didn't come close to the book, but they certainly drummed up a lot of interest in that world. The Peter Jackon trilogy did a lot better than Watchmen does at getting some of the non-narrative flavor of the original, but then again, he had seven hours of running time to work with and even more on DVD. At under three hours, it's extraordinary that Watchmen can be followed at all. Part of me wishes that I could see it again without such intimate knowledge of the graphic novel, to see whether I could tell what was going on. (My girlfriend was completely befuddled, but she's one of those Facebook generation people who has trouble following the plots of "Big Bang Theory" episodes.)

It is nice though that Comic-Con type culture has pervaded the mainstream to the extent that a $200 million adaptation of a cult series is not an uncommon risk for a mainstream studio these days. Apparently the contracts of all the Watchmen actors (and Malin Akerman) have sequel clauses. I don't know if the lawyers who drafted those contracts have read the book, but the slavish devotion to the original demonstrated by the filmmakers in this instance makes me curious about how they would possibly try and invent an entire original sequel given the wholesale lack of original ideas in the first film.

It is very cool that we have comic book movies for grown-ups nowadays, a few misbegotten sequels to the side. Watchmen the movie doesn't pull punches. When The Comedian is attempting to force his attentions on the first Silk Spectre, we see a closeup of his crotch and the unmistakable sound of stretching rubber. Dr. Manhattan's penis swings around in full view most of the time just as it did in the comic, and it's not gratuitous -- an important aspect of the character is that he still holds on to these certain vestiges of humanity even though they have no further purpose or meaning for him. What we're still waiting to see is a director who combines the technical skills of Snyder with the independent creative vision of an Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman or Frank Miller. Until then, movies like Sin City and Watchmen are like watching a really good cover band -- it's a good time, but the people who deserve most of the credit are the original songwriters.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Truth in Advertising

Rachel Getting Married
DVD via DVD Play

I'm trying to slog through all the major Oscar-nominated films at this time this year, and we're off to a moderately rousing start. The Visitor, though quiet, was lovely and its lead performance was completely worthy of the Best Actor nomination it garnered. I'm going to give Best Original Screenplay loser In Bruges another shot here in a second. But first: Rachel Getting Married.

This turned out to be a great early choice for my "see all the nominated movies or else get bored and stop" challenge. For a couple of reasons. First, it's a beautiful-looking movie, lit like a thesis class and directed with masterly control by Jonathan Demme, patron saint of the neverending handheld tracking shot. Demme, among other movies you have may have seen, directed the miraculous Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, one of the very small handful of films I watch upwards of ten times a year and enjoy a bit more each time. (Actually, that and The Big Lebowski might be the whole list. Must remember to keep count this year.) Roger Ebert's annoyingly perceptive review notes how the camera's perspective behaves like a guest at a real wedding, pausing on certain unidentified but familiar faces and circling around to show who else is present but not speaking.

Demme's movie is a bit of a smorgasbord. You can watch the central plot, which is satisfying if a little heavy and bland by itself. You can sample the music of all different kinds that is such a constant presence -- Rachel's wedding has live klezmer, reggae toasting, New Orleans jazz, hip-hop, Tunde Adebimpe, Indian chants, and Robyn Hitchcock -- and makes its own possibly contradictory statements about the film's imagery. You could go through like a season of "The Wire" and try to learn every single character's name and their function, because this is the sort of movie where even people with few or no lines have precisely defined roles. You could try to watch Anne Hathaway's bathtub scene in slo-mo to catch a glimpse of her nipples, although it'd be an inefficient use of your time since she was so free with the girls in Havoc and Brokeback Mountain. I just mention it as another example of the richness of Rachel Getting Married. It's a film with a lot to offer.

The one sort of concern I had while viewing the film had to do with its newfound status as Hathaway's Oscar picture. She didn't win, but on the whole the ceremony played like a "welcome to the A-list, baby" coronation. She got a cameo in Hugh Jackman's opening number that brought the house down, and of all the subjects of the "former winner delivers effusive praise" speeches given for the presentation of the acting awards, Hathaway received the biggest fawning double-barreled blast. The only trouble is, she has to win in the next few years or else she'll get paranoid and start making only prestige (i.e., money-losing) pictures. Then the Academy will have to throw her a bone and reward her an statuette she hasn't earned just so she'll go back to being profitable. Not that I am suggesting that this is anything like what happened to Kate Winslet this year, beating out our girl Anne for Best Actress for a supporting role in a movie few saw and nobody liked.

The trouble is, while Hathaway is certainly the lead in Rachel Getting Married, her character and her struggles are hardly the entire point of the film. Jenny Lumet's script gives Hathaway's Kym a pretty typical Hollywood drug addiction, complete with an overdramatic precipitating event (a car wreck that kills a family member) and a bunch of codependent relations who fill in roles like subheadings in a psychology textbook. There's the mother whose unresolved feelings of guilt cause her to shut the rest out, the overcompensating father who tries to give double the love to the kids who remain, and the bitter "good" sister (that'd be Rachel) who has become as paranoid as the addict. They all fight with each other, a lot (Debra Winger and Hathaway exchange blows to the face, closed-fist punches not slaps, at one point), and then they hug and they cry. If that makes it sound kind of like Ordinary People with nuptials, so be it. I'll say it again, the mere plot is incidental to Demme's accomplishment here.

If this wasn't as intelligent a movie as it is, it would make the plot its whole point. Kym's self-destructiveness would somehow endanger Rachel's wedding to Sidney (Adebimpe) and the sisters would have to Come to Terms with Things after Kym saved the ceremony at the last minute. That would be garbage. There's never any question that Sidney and Rachel are getting hitched, the movie doesn't kid itself that Kym and Rachel are going to work out their problems with their mother in a weekend, and instead of an extended climax of more shouting the film glides to a close with an extended montage of music, bright colors, smiling faces, and constant movement.

The point is that love and marriage (and death and divorce) renew families; if Kym and Rachel will never have their brother Ethan back, or their mother back the way she was before he died, now they are lucky enough to have the gentle, decent Sidney (Adebimpe's body language in his scenes with Hathaway, even though the two exchange no lines, is note-perfect) in addition to his radiant younger sister, loyal best friends, and the 45 or so musicians that seem to follow them all around caravan-style. As the movie builds towards this highly visual finish, the director changes gears and switches from a very tight, naturally lit, realistic palette to a far more gauzy, old-Hollywood pastel feel. The transition is accomplished by way of the cleansing bath scene (which does have an artistic purpose beyond nipples), which has the metaphorical effect of fogging up the camera's lens for the wedding sequence.

During the musical numbers at the reception, the outfits of everyone on the dance floor match the style being played even as that genre keeps changing, which is ridiculous given the huge variety of costumes and cultures we now to be in attendance. It's poetic license, which wouldn't have been possible or appropriate at any point in Rachel Getting Married short of the end. I don't have a big problem with that, but at a certain point Demme does go past overboard with the wanton multiculturalism -- it's an interracial wedding with bridesmaids in Indian dress, Jewish toasts, Robyn Hitchcock jamming with gypsies and their bouzoukis. Where did they hold this magical wedding, Connecticut or Sesame Street?

I don't know whether anyone else is going to have my experience watching the movie, where I got started expecting to focus primarily on Hathaway (she's good) only to realize about 25 minutes in that I was totally watching it wrong -- I should have been looking in the margins for Sidney's sister and the girls' father's second wife and the Asian-American groomsman who can't hold his liquor and sort of looks like Masuka from "Dexter" only isn't.

Marketing the movie as Hathaway's big breakthrough into the realm of serious actressdom is a disservice to the many other talented people who worked so hard to make the movie as good as it is, not least of all Lumet and Demme. The box art has a huge zoom of the star in close-up and two other figures in the background, the bride and her father. A cover that was truer to the spirit and the message of Rachel Getting Married would have a huge group of people smiling and shimmying on the dance floor, including Kym and Rachel but with no one in particular in focus. Everyone doing their own thing, having a good time being together, maybe leaning a little bit on the person next to them for a moment if they lose their balance, but mostly just doing their best to keep upright.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gradually It Gets Better

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

I didn't want to do two "Idol" posts in a row, but the only other thing I watched in the interim was ten minutes of In Bruges, and then I fell asleep. Warm milk and films about Belgium are better than Ambien.

"Idol" had a lot to answer for going into the first episode with the Final 13. In an attempt (I think) to improve the diversity and the marketability of the contending group, they toyed with the semifinal format endlessly. They often seemed to be making up the rules as they were going along, which is annoying to viewers of any competition -- ask any NFL fan. But that is over now, and you have to give it to them that the quality across the board of the singers in the first finals round show was vastly improved from the semifinals. It was also better than the first big-stage shows from the last two seasons, because under the midseason format people who weren't good but had fanbases kept cruising and the beginning of the finals didn't seem like all of that sharp a distinction from the end of the semis. It couldn't have been more night and day this time around. Of the finalists only Megan Corkrey flat-out sucks at singing. I wonder how long she'll hang around... probably a while.

Michael Jackson night? Great idea. Michael Jackson night for the very first show of the finals? Bad idea. We're still figuring out what to make of these contestants, most of whom we are seeing for only the second or third full-length performances. It wasn't quite fair to any of the finalists to ask them to do anything as mega-exposed and distinctive as Jacko's back catalog. They're not established enough to take a risk with a bold new interpretation, but there's not a lot of room for them to express their personalities within the songs as they were made famous. Outright mendacious analysis from the judges made things even more hard to follow. Anoop got hammered for singing "Beat It" well while Adam was lauded for singing "Black or White" badly. The judges dished it out for contestants who picked songs that weren't famous enough and songs that were too famous. Isn't the point of having a Michael Jackson theme that his songs are so well-loved? Why tease the theme then not let anyone sing any of the famous songs? The show's stated logic and the actual behind-the-scenes machinations of the producers couldn't be any further distinct.

Lil Rounds This was one of the few shockers of the night. Lil was brutally poor. I thought she was too talented to ever be this bad, like a Melinda Doolittle who would catch a tough theme every now and then and post an 8 instead of a 9 or a 10. But Lil's "The Way You Make Me Feel" was dreadful-sounding, not at all the recognizable product of one of the few real goosepimple-raising talents of "Idol" season eight. She had no fathomable connection to the song and sounded it. She seemed melodically and rhythmically adrift and frequently started shouting instead of singing, which is something you expect from Adam (in fact, it's all you expect from Adam) but not Lil. Her asymmetrical outfit was also very hideous. Can the fact that Lil is impervious to criticism from the rapidly marginalizing judges fool all of the voters all of the time? I don't know. She can afford this kind of so-so showing once, but I feel like all of the hype has gone to Lil's head. She doesn't think she has to try hard, or at least she didn't think she had to try hard this time. It was a chance for the buzzworthiest "Idol" hopeful of the new season to kick off a redemptive finals phase in style, and Lil completely flubbed it. She was way below her ability level, so far that she even sounded crummy by the standards of the average "Idol" contestant. If she becomes a shocker voting casualty tomorrow, I don't think anybody can say she didn't deserve it. 6

Scott MacIntyre Scott's trajectory has been unusual, which is reason enough to root for him. He started out seeming like the most shameless of several heart-tugging stories the "Idol" editors forced upon us during the audition rounds. Then he kept singing, and kept hanging on to sing some more. Suddenly, he doesn't seem at all out of place as an "Idol" finalist or even as a potential winner. His voice is fine -- above-average, though capable of an occasional leap to greatness like his huge high note in "Keep the Faith." But his conviction and his musicality are just miles ahead of everybody else's, and it doesn't hurt anything that he's the most talented instrumentalist they've had around for this long since instruments entered the picture last season. He learned to play this song on the piano this week, and look how composed and professional he seemed as opposed to Kris Allen's random, inaudible guitar strumming. It might have been more interesting to see Scott apply his musical know-how to developing a signature new arrangement for a song less innately suited to his style. That was one of the other opportunities missed when the producers elected to move Jackson night right to the front of the finals schedule. Another would have been bringing back Danny Gokey's best buddy from the Hollywood shows and having the two of them sing "The Girl Is Mine" together. 9

Danny Gokey Danny seemed a lot less relevant and a lot more desperate singing a song not explicitly referencing the continuing deceased state of his young wife. He did "P.Y.T.," which is kind of a minor song, and made it goony and populist in a sort of low-rent Taylor Hicks fashion. The producers' unrestrained enthusiasm for Lil and Adam, I understand. She's got a huge voice and preternatural confidence onstage, and he looks like Robert Pattinson meets Fall Out Boy, only he knows how to apply his own eyeliner. But Danny? I just don't get it. Assuming sympathy alone is enough to get millions of women to buy his record, who's going to listen to it more than once? Danny is the worst offender in a cast full of shouters and damningly his delivery didn't alter any going from a power ballad to an up-tempo dance number. His dance moves themselves, it should be noted, were wedding-reception quality. I do respect Danny for pressing his huge advantage regarding camera time early on during the season. No one has forgotten who he is, and that's job one for an "Idol" wannabe at this stage. Still, he garbled most of the lyrics until he reached the chorus and while I don't completely hate his voice, it's always more accurate to classify his performances as "energetic" as opposed to "good." Somebody's got to get with him on the art of proper breathing, too, as he was huffing and puffing by the end and looked like he was going to pass out while doing the postmortem with Seacrest. 7

Michael Sarver A better storyline than a singer, Sarver has gotten to the point where he just sounds like a guppy in a pond full of piranhas. The end of the road can not be far off. It was sad, because you couldn't ignore how much he was giving in his "You Are Not Alone" -- he was bleeding to make the song pop for us. But he just wasn't good enough. He had lots of long sustained blue notes. Even when he is in key, I don't think his voice has that phantom, indefinable quality of originality that a star's simply must have. Scott MacIntyre has it, David Cook had it for sure, Michael is just a well put-together sack full of bland. I hope he gets by this week because it would be sad if he got sent home on a night when he did his absolute best and a lot of more talented singers didn't even try to offer theirs. 5

Jasmine Murray Jasmine reminds me a lot of Syesha Mercado, who I kept dissing for the better part of a season until she was one of the last handful of contestants standing. Syesha had a lot more personality, though. They're similar in that they both have voices that aren't immediately arresting but have more to them than they often show. Jasmine's "I'll Be There" was really quite lovely, probably the best pure vocal of the evening and surely the best she's done on "Idol" so far. She took a less is more approach to her outfit and stage moves too and was so much the better for it. Technically good singers with a lack of flash don't fare well in the peculiar "Idol" format. Jasmine's lack of "it" factor (where "it" translates as "embarrassing, fawning and inaccurate praise from all four judges regardless of performance quality each week") makes her an elimination target. She was miles better than Lil last night, but she's in real danger while Lil isn't in any. That's pretty lame. Whenever Jasmine gets the boot, the singer right ahead of her in the voting who gets to stay at her expense probably won't be anywhere near as deserving. 8

Kris Allen Another typical "American Idol" contestant, Kris proved unable to bear the burden of two contradictory demands upon his person for MJ night. First, he had to use his guitar, because the judges more or less told him so when he went though the last time without it. Second, he had to do a Michael Jackson song. Kris is a good enough singer and comely enough that he could have sang "Remember the Time" exactly as he did, only without wearing and sort of playing a guitar while doing so, and it would have put him safely towards the upper middle of the voting pack. But he brought out the acoustic guitar, which looked awkward and sounded all wrong, for the second or two it took the master "Idol" soundman to simply turn off its feed. That's called forcing it, bro. The trouble is if you go back and listen to his vocal without watching, it sounds good. Could have been better if he wasn't mucking about with the guitar, but not bad. You watch it again, though, and the whole thing feels wrong. It would be bizarre were he to get voted off here, because after four weeks of semifinals and a month of buildup to those, we still haven't seen exactly what it was in Kris that the judges saw in the first place. Maybe it was all the soul patch. I don't know myself. 7

Allison Iraheta Allison might have peaked too early, but a rapid flameout may have been all we could of expected from someone who only occasionally seems to display the behavior of a conscious human. She could be on "Dollhouse," she's so completely vacant one moment and screaming diva the next. She and Eliza Dushku should do promos together. Allison's voice is reminiscent at times of Melissa Etheridge's, although unfortunately she shares Etheridge's tendency to make any two melodies she sings sound like the same song. I liked her modified Farrah hair quite a bit. It's going to get difficult quickly to find new things to say about her if she lasts more than a couple of weeks. At the very least you could say that she's consistent. And that alone among all of those left standing, you know precisely what an Allison Iraheta debut album would sound like. That album probably wouldn't have between-song snippets of her pricelessly useless extemporaneous speaking, but for its sake as a souvenir it sure should. 8

Anoop Desai I expected going into the live shows that I would become a big Anoop guy, but it never really came together. He seems a little lazy, to tell you the truth, and while you can't deny him his passion for music, you can question whether the particular music he is passionate about is crappy or not. I sort of liked his "Beat It." It was an impossible song to take on given its famousness and yet Anoop walked the line between paying homage and inserting his own touches as well as it could be managed. Even his jacket and some of his stage moves seemed like little misremembered tributes, in a way that none of his competitors were savvy enough to manage. But the bad part is, with such an easy melody there wasn't any excuse for all the mistakes Desai made. I wouldn't be surprised if he went home tomorrow; I wouldn't be surprised if he was top two. This guy is shifty that way. 7

Jorge Nuñez Jorge was one of the singers least affected by the theme, as he picked a tune unfamiliar to me that showcased his pure pop and Latin elements in the desirable ratio. I wonder if his choices for the night were narrowed by the high number of Jackson songs that depend on very fast, staccato English lyrics. That's not really his thing. Thankfully for Jorge going forward, most of the beloved numbers in the "Idol" songbook don't require any language comprehension skills at all, just moist eyes and vibrato. Some contestants benefit from boosts in confidence level more than others. The new, smarmy Jorge didn't sing as convincingly well as he did during the semis and his manner with the judges was a lot less ingratiating. I don't want to call him a contender yet, but I think he has more left to show us. 8

Megan Corkrey Comparisons to Kristy Lee Cook are inevitable with Megan. She's smoking hot, but she can't sing, just like Kristy Lee. She obviously has smarter handlers because it took Kristy Lee down to, like, the final seven before she realized her T&A was her only selling quality and started wearing hand towels in lieu of skirts. Megan dressed extra slutty and did all she could with "Rockin' Robin," which was very little. At least by picking something Michael could sing perfectly as a preteen she didn't overextended herself. I don't what happened to her granola-eating, soul-singer, Joan Osborne quality but it seems to have gone the way of Norman Gentle and Tatiana Del Toro: couldn't make it to the finals. Pitchwise she was simply awful and her vocal even when in key only seemed there as an excuse for her to be on stage displaying her other assets. With her looks, she could become judge-proof, but if she can't even do a halfway mediocre "Rockin' Robin" there isn't that much chance of her not face-planting more obviously some week soon. You know, I would kind of like to see that. Vote for Megan! 3

Adam Lambert You thought Sanjaya was bad? Adam's "Satisfaction" was sort of a subjective thing, you could see people enjoying it or hating it and you could construct an argument either way. But his "Black and White" was atrocious. To begin with, "Black and White" isn't really a song, it was just one piece of the massive multimedia blitz that surrounded Jackson's early-90's "comeback" with his Dangerous album. You probably remember the long-form video, where he beat up the car at the end (memorably parodied by Phil Collins of all people in a great Genesis clip). The song, like the video, is just a mishmash of a bunch of things perceived to be commercial at the time, like Slash, synthesized wood-block percussion sounds, and multiculturalism. In that sense it was perfect for Adam Lambert, the "Idol" contestant of the moment. Great attitude! Great look! Great vibe! Absolutely no musical acumen? Not important! See, Adam doesn't really sing songs, he just yells them, as loudly and as theatrically as he possibly can. Once in a while he gets lucky and sounds really great, but I'm not wholly convinced that this is a repeatable phenomenon. A few of his huge reaches Tuesday were swing-for-the-fences-and-fall-flat-on-your-face whiffs. Lambert's overdramatic approach to... everything got old five weeks ago. His added inducements to the crowd were forced, hokey, and insincere. I will have plenty of time to think of more ways to describe how much I don't like Adam because his crocodile tears while the judges heaped unwarranted praise upon him punched his ticket for the next two months. 4

Matt Giraud This goes to show how much I know. I don't really dig Matt Giraud that much -- I don't know if he'll have enough chances to erase the memory of that misbegotten effort to cross Coldplay and the New Radicals. But, I will say that of the performers from Tuesday night's "Idol" show, he was the one who seemed the most like a currently relevant commercial artist to me. That's not entirely a compliment. Giraud is shallow and predictable, and his voice tops out at pleasant. But I can totally see people buying tickets to see him in concert and paying $35 for a t-shirt to prove they were there. He's not original, he resembles a bunch of other white guys with no balls who dress like Marvin Gaye and can't hold their necks still while they're singing. But there are a bunch of guys just like that who are selling lots of records right now, so there's your winning "Idol" formula, Matt Giraud. He picked "Human Nature," and did himself a huge favor right there. That's a great song and one that's relatively lightly remembered given its status as a massive hit single from the bestselling album of all time. The song was pretty much in Matt's wheelhouse and he carried it off, although I don't know whether it was necessary for him to take some focus off the vocal by playing piano. Matt's an entertainer, not a serious musician, and his instrument isn't like an extension of his body the way it is for Scott MacIntyre. If Matt were to be a successful touring artist after his "Idol" spell, I doubt he'd spent much if any time on stage behind a keyboard. MacIntyre obviously would -- that's your litmus test. 8

Alexis Grace I try not to overdo it with this sort of stuff, but... man, Alexis looked hot. She looked amazingly hot. She's five feet tall and like two-thirds legs. Her figure is extraordinary for a young mother. Her stiletto heels and tight all-black getup completely erased all of my memories of whatever Megan Corkrey was wearing. Too bad she had to sing, too. Alexis seems like she's one of those folks who can sing just fine when they know the song really, really well, but not enough of a practiced musician to work up new material on a deadline. I suspected as much. She sort of hovered around tune for most of the number, but at the expense of all of her personal expression and style... frankly, I kind of tuned out and watched her legs for the second half of it. I don't regret my decision. 5

Two go home this week, since the judges randomly selected 13 finalists instead of 12. That makes things a little easier, I guess. The two who most obviously don't belong in this group are Michael and Megan. I guess Megan could get by at the expense of somebody like Jasmine or Kris but this early on I like to give America the benefit of the doubt and figure that they can tell when someone is on key less than half of the time. They had the chance to vote for her once before and she didn't get through, recall.

Monday, March 9, 2009

That Wasn't Wild

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

The wild-card "American Idol" show was such a bummer. The judges picked who got to compete and then the judges picked who went through to the finals. Why even have the show at all? It feels like the rug was pulled out from under me and my prognosticating service, which is why I may be a little tardy with these reviews. It seems useless to write about all of these people that already have no chance of going on but what the heck. Let's give them one more quarter second of fame!

Jesse Langseth I was pulling for Jesse after the judges pooh-poohed her performance of "Bette Davis Eyes" for not having enough notes in it. She did "Tell Me Something Good," which was another good song choice for her smokey voice, and she put a lot of sex appeal into it. She handled the song's rhythm, which is out of beat with the melody, adroitly. Jesse never really absorbed the judges' advice to be more gymnastic with her voice, and she may have shared too much of the spotlight with the backing singers. She didn't end with much of a swooping grace note and although I enjoyed both of her performances I can see how she failed to fit the pyrotechnic mold of female "Idol" favorites past. 7

Matt Giraud Matt got raked over the coals for a lame attempt to instill soul in a Coldplay song last time out. So here he went, in overly labored fashion, in the opposite direction, doing a soul song in a self-consciously "soul" fashion. At least he can follow instructions, unlike so many other contestants who chose to ignore direct commands. I didn't like his defensive hat and scarf combo. His voice is pleasant enough but his growls and ad libs belie his goony stage-entertainer background. I still don't have a finger on whether he's any good or not yet, but we'll get at least one more chance to see since the judges seem to really be fans. 8

Megan Corkrey I suspect that Megan might be one of those singers "Idol" dredges up every now and then who sounds just great as long as she's doing something in her narrow comfort zone and then collapses the minute she's forced by a theme to try something different. She hasn't sounded anywhere near perfect even on two songs right in her wheelhouse in the semifinal show and then in the wild card round. She did the annoying "Black Horse and Cherry Tree," one of those songs that was chemically manufactured into a hit single by the use of an idiotically simple repeated riff and lots and lots of ProTools work. She sounded more confident than her first time on stage but still had glitches aplenty, and her big finish note was horrible. The judges love her -- she's a package artist. 7

Von Smith The pointy-haired guy. I wonder if it drips in the lights. It must, right? That would explain why he looked so sweaty. Von sang "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" and it was one of the sort of performances that was more common on "Idol" back in the day: utterly traditional, technically solid, completely without any kind of star power or commercial quality. His voice was bland, his outfit was bland, and it seemed dated and more like an audition than a commanding stage performance. Paula had a rare astute comment in that she perceived that Von was over-thinking his performance. He has plenty of time to think about it now. 8

Jasmine Murray Jasmine's "My Reflection" was far more of a star-making effort than her first attempt. She was solid for the most part on a lot of big notes, if it was a bit drippy a song choice. Some of the judges were harping on her pitch problems but I didn't hear as many as they apparently did. It's not surprising how the average quality of the performances increased for this wild card show, since all the singers were handpicked, it was a win-or-go-home situation, and everyone had been given at least one good chewing-out by this point. Why couldn't every show (save the very first one) have been like this? Jasmine is through, part for the sake of balancing the field, part on potential. 8

Ricky Braddy All these white guys keep singing Stevie Wonder, and no matter how well or badly they do... they ain't Stevie. Seems like there are a lot of more manageable role models for the Rickys and Matts of the world, from Alex Chilton to Steve Winwood. But anyway, between all the covers and the actual blind guy, they have to get the real deal as a mentor this season. Ricky's "Superstitious" bordered on shouting at points. He has good pipes and was melodically convincing, but not visually so; he simply didn't move or work the camera with the requisite authority to be a true soulman. He had some good and bad notes with his falsetto. On one of the first three shows it could have been a standout, but it was too lumpy to win in a stronger field. 7

Tatiana Del Toro I was secretly rooting for the Puerto Rican firebrand to shriek her way into the finals, where her peculiar brand of menace and self-pity might have brought on a whole new level of love-hate phone voting psychology. Dimly Tatiana chose to merely repeat her first-time choice of "Saving All My Love" and although it kind of made sense given her profile (no self-preservation instinct whatsoever) it was an utterly self-defeating move. She didn't even sing it as well the second time. It's too bad. She was one of the better pure singers in the Top 36 -- and easily the most telegenic contestant of all Season 8. 8

Anoop Desai I didn't think Anoop even had to sing. The fix was in for him from the beginning, which might explain how little effort the talented but inert Desai put into both of his semifinal-round numbers. "My Prerogative" was the song Anoop got the most props for during the Hollywood auditions, so he broke it out here with the full band. It wasn't a flat-out repeat like Tatiana's but it was a pretty obvious move. You have to wonder whether Anoop has the competitive edge, or the attention span, to last long in the finals with people as good as he is who care a lot more. He was bringing the heat with powerful high, sustained notes at the end. Although he still hasn't hit one out of the park yet he certainly has the capability to do so. I think that's what the judges were thinking about with at least some of the folks they sent through -- Anoop and Matt and maybe Jasmine could pitch a perfect game one night. Megan, not so much. But she's got the package. 8

A very solid, fun night, easily the best since the live shows started a month ago. The shorter running time makes all the difference because the proportion of singing time to noncommercial filler is so much higher. I think we can all agree at this point that they bungled the semifinals but I have hope going forward. I don't have any huge favorites in the field but there are a higher than usual number of completely unpredictable ones. That will keep us guessing and scratching our heads when the theme shows start.

Ranking the final 13:
1. Lil: She has the producers in her pocket and the only WMD of a voice in the field.
2. Danny: Dead wife. Dead wife. Dead wife.
3. Alexis: Beautiful, and will stand out as even more original with female belters alongside.
4. Adam: Judge's favorite has a lot left to prove about musical knowledge, skill and taste.
5. Anoop: Back in a big way. Has to appear to want it more, but best male singer in group.
6. Allison: Huge voice, very small personality. May want to hire publicist right now.
7. Scott: Can't belt with Adam and Danny but way more interesting. Needs to find current vibe.
8. Jorge: Great voice, adorable eyebrows, needs to prove he's not dumb just because of accent.
9. Matt: Good enough to hang around for a while once it's only 1 elimination a week.
10. Megan: Never got what judges saw in her, is toast when they get to Latin or Standards.
11. Kris: Cutie could move up quick with the right song -- and the right outfit.
12. Michael: Well, at least he's got another week or two's vacation from the oil rig.
13. Jasmine: Prove me wrong, Jasmine! Prove me wrong!