Saturday, April 28, 2007

MovieWatch: "Fracture"

Director: Greg Hoblit
Fien Print Rating: Dunno. 70 for the first 2/3rds and then 30 for the rest? I refuse to do the math.
In a Nutshell: As my moviegoing companion observed when we left "Fracture," the problem with a movie where everybody raves about the twists and turns is that you sit through the duration attempting to anticipate the wackiest way the movie could reverse itself. In the case of "Fracture," director Greg Hoblit weaves a tense puzzle for at least 90 minutes before the script by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers lets the entire movie down with an ending the pretty much betrays the tone of the rest of the movie.

"Fracture" is an endearingly dated movie, a cat-and-mouse thriller with no interest in "CSI"-style technology or actual legal machinations. Beautifully shot on Los Angeles locations by Kramer Morgenthau, "Fracture" could have been produced in the early '90s with Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman in the leads or in the late '60s with Paul Newman and, I dunno, Laurence Olivier in the leads and not a word of the script would have needed to change. The point of the piece is watching the two actors go head to head and Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins have an immense amount of fun elevating the material. Hopkins stretches only slightly beyond his Hannibal Lectre persona, but it's been a while since he displayed this kind of scenery-chewing villainy, while Gosling adds a twitchy Method-y flair to a character who might have been painfully flat in the hypothetical Tom Cruise version.

As a director, Hoblit's gifts have always been very closely tied to the quality his scripts. When the script is good, he can make good movies ("Primal Fear" and to a lesser degree "Frequency"). When the script is bad ("Fallen") or dull ("Hart's War"), he doesn't elevate it. Here, he throws around every visual trick in the book -- haunting and implausible reflections, off-beat lighting, surveillance style camera angles, fluid and lengthy shots in party and courtroom scenes -- and he's able to provide distractions from the story's gaps. I suppose there's a much longer cut of the movie in which Rosamund Pike's character and her relationship with the central hotshot attorney makes sense (Thanksgiving dinner?!?!?). And the legal twist at the end was both painfully obvious (in that I figured it was the direction things would go in the most predictable way possible) and, as I did a bit of research on the Internet, entirely invalid in any court of law in the United States, as probably a screenwriter could have researched in the same way I did.

Oh and does anybody have an exact sense of what accent Anthony Hopkins is doing here? It occasionally sounds Irish, sometimes American and sometimes just like Hopkins' normal speaking tone. I was distracted by the wide array of different voices in the movie. Gosling is doing Oklahoma-by-way-of-Atlanta. Pike is doing erratic generic American, ditto with Embeth Davidtz. And I don't know what Fiona Shaw is up to.

As a rule, though, I try to endorse films that can find room in their ensembles for so many character actors I like, including David Strathairn, Bob Gunton, Xander Berkeley and Cliff Curtis.

Friday, April 27, 2007

MovieWatch: "Spider-Man 3"

"Spider-Man 3"
Director: Sam Raimi
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 59
In a Nutshell: Most folks seem to be on cell phone plans with roll-over minutes these days, but I miss the days back before roll-over, those days when you'd get random calls out of the blue from high school or college friends who'd pretty much come out and say "Yeah, I had a few extra minutes this month, so I thought I'd call you." I mean, if they didn't use the minutes, that time was just wasted and they'd never get it back, so they scraped the bottom of their address book barrel just to make sure that Ma Bell didn't win.

That there is a convoluted way of leading to this observation: Sam Raimi directs "Spider-Man 3" like the franchise's cell phone plan doesn't include roll-over minutes. Raimi, who always insisted that he was done after three movies, seems to sense the franchise's expiration date as he throws new characters and villains up on the screen with an abandon that's initially exhilarating, but eventually becomes reckless. There's an audience out there that will probably be quite satisfied by the very real thrills that Raimi lays out -- they're saying that this is the most expensive movie ever made (until they say the same darned thing about "Pirates of the Caribbean 3") and it's pretty much up on the screen (and probably in what I imagine to be copious deleted scenes for the DVD). The special effects are tremendous and two or three of the set pieces easily outstrip anything from those first two blockbuster films.

There's a bigger audience, I suspect, that will be able to see through how flimsy Raimi's narrative house-of-cards really is. The movie has three main villains, two main love triangles and yet Raimi still tries to find the time for Kirsten Dunst to get two different musical numbers. While juggling all of those big action beats and the inevitable heroic duality emotionalism, Raimi makes an effort to tie up every emotional loose thread from the first movie (it's a bit like the second movie didn't happen). It all feels like he knew (hoped?) he wouldn't have to do this again a fourth time. If he'd known that he had one more "Spider-Man" in him, perhaps there'd have been time to do justice to everything. There will be inevitable damning comparisons to the similarly over-extended "Batman Forever." Let's not go overboard. Raimi is too good a filmmaker for that to happen, but he also should have been too good to think this uneven film was a good capper to his franchise.

[I've been *really* vague so far, eh? I haven't spoiled anything. After the jump, I'll go into a bit more details on what worked and didn't work for me. I still won't be spoiling much, but some...]

Still with me? Good.

What Works: Although the digital construction of Sandman makes the character look a *bit* too much like he's made of Dippin' Dots, the character's birth -- forming from a huge pile of sand -- is a gorgeous moment, complimented by Christopher Young's fine score. I also liked the character that Raimi finds in Thomas Hayden Church's face so much that I wished the movie was actually about Flint Marko/Sandman, rather than making him into only the villain of the movie's middle act. I approved of Topher Grace's work as Eddie Brock, seemingly Peter Parker's less fortunate double. I wished that Eddie had been introduced as a character in the movie, had his resentment of Peter set up, but then left the arrival of Venom for a fourth movie in which that character could have been the main villain, rather than an obstacle for the third act. To be fair, I liked the movie's first act as much as anything in the franchise. New Goblin and Sandman should have been sufficient adversaries to carry an entire film on their own. Interestingly, despite all of the bad guys, the most harrowing scene in the piece doesn't feature any of the big villains. It's just Spidey trying to save occupants of a skyscraper from an out-of-control construction crane.

What Fails: I've been to enough comic conventions to know two things: Venom is a character loved and despised in equal measure, while everybody who remembers her loved Gwen Stacy. Comic purists aren't likely to be happy with the way either character is treated here, with Gwen getting truly stiffed. If you didn't know how important Gwen was to the Spidey mythology, you'd think she was just a random character who pops in and out of this sequel and never makes an impression. It's not Bryce Dallas Howard's fault and it's great to see that freed from the responsibility of being M. Night Shyamalan's anemic, ultra-serious alter ego, she's absolutely radiant. But she's wasted. Also wasted? James Cromwell, Bill Nunn, Dylan Baker, Theresa Russell and Elizabeth Banks. By pure force of personality J.K. Simmons is memorable. Good for him. Oh and Rosemary Harris' Aunt May is so badly tied into the rest of the movie that I wanted to nap whenever she arrived.

On a side note, the best part of my "Spider-Man 3" experience was actually the Diddy Riese ice cream sandwich I grabbed across the street from the Westwood theater that housed the screening. There was a 35 minute line to recover cell phones after the movie, so I went across the street and grabbed a scoop of peanut butter ice cream between two white chocolate chip cookies. Yum. The price is up to $1.25. It's about the best deal in the world.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Day No Pigs Would Die on "Idol"

For the second time in "Idol" history and the first time since the not-so-glory year of Corey Clark, it was an elimination night without an elimination.

It was obvious from pretty early on that there wouldn't be any way to spend two hours urging people at home to donate money to crying African orphans and then make a smooth segue into "Oh yeah and Chris, the time has come to make you an 'American Idol' orphan." So they just said that this week's vote total -- more than 70 million -- will be combined with next week's totals and two people will be eliminated. Now that will be an "Idol" first.

I can't figure out who benefits from this non-elimination. If you trust DialIdol (Heck, they got last week's results right, ending a season-long slump), Chris Richardson was going home, though it was within the margin of error. Out of 70 million votes, though, it's possible that Chris' distance behind the fifth place finisher could possibly have been a lot of votes, particularly if next week's tally goes closer to 38 million. So I think we can safely guess that Chris has a lot of work to do, or at least his fans do.

On the other hand, Jordin can probably phone in her performance next week. After the most excessively overpraised performance in recent memory (Yes, I liked her a lot, but Randy's "Best 'Idol' vocal in the show's history" comment was hyperbolic to an annoying extreme) Jordin was the only person outside of the margin of error last week according to DialIdol. She was the dominant first place performer, if you trust their stats. Since all she has to avoid doing is finishing fifth or sixth cumulatively, she can probably afford to take a nap next Tuesday night. Randy will probably be amazed at how well she was able to nap for a 17-year-old.

You can check out my full minute-by-minute recap of Wednesday's Idol Gives Back over at Zap2it, including my explanation for how I overcame my guilt over making fun of the show's unquestionable altruism. A hint: It involved making a donation.

Overall, the show probably could have been worse. Kelly Clarkson and Annie Lennox gave the best of the performances, while Carrie Underwood's lip-synching filmed package was the worst. My favorite moments were the bit featuring The Simpsons and the "Stayin' Alive" Ford commercial, which reaffirmed the utter brilliance of Hugh Laurie and Helen Mirren. Without a doubt, the lowlight was Celine Dion's performance with Zombie Elvis, which was every bit as awful as that would sound. The show was oppressively manipulative and there were certainly too many shots of malnourished children and crying children and children dying of AIDS. On the other hand, through the show's East Coast airing, the Idol Gives Back project had collected more than $30 million. That's a figure that's impossible to undersell. Assuming that the money makes it where it's supposed to go, this was a good thing for "Idol" to do and they should feel proud.

Oh and if you want to see something really disgusting, check out the website for a group called "Special Guests." They're already up in arms because several of the organizations likely to receive money from Idol Gives Back include teaching women about reproductive health on their agendas (we're talking "fringe" organizations like UNICEF). They've now decided that "Idol" supports pro-choice groups and therefore is evil. I'm still searching the group's site to find where they've given tens of millions of dollars to poverty relief of any kind. I'll let you know if you find it.

And now, back to watching my DVDs of "Beverly Hills, 90210: Season Two." I think that things are about to get good for that Scott kid!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"American Idol" 04/24 -- The Top Six and the Invisible Bono

Tuesday (April 24) night's American Idol is glutted with infomercials, nods to the show's benevolent corporate sponsors and unnerving footage of Simon acting caring, but as the start of the Idol Gives Back event, I'm inclined to just let it be.

For the past few weeks, American Idol has been averaging between 30 and 40 million, but how great would it be to see this week's show pull in 50 million votes or more to make Rupert Murdoch shell out that whole $5 million he's offering?

Vote early and often based on these performances:

Singer: Chris Richardson
Song: "Change the World"
My Take: Even Eric Clapton uses a head-y voice on this song, so I personally wouldn't have recommended it to Chris, especially after last week's debate about the merits of nasal singing as a stylistic choice. He's not as bad as I feared. Yes, it's a bit twee and it's amazing that nobody has taught the kid about singing from his diaphragm (the change when he stands up versus his constricted sitting voice is shocking), but there's a sweetness to it. He's not great either, as I'm struck by how much of the song's power comes entirely from the sincerity Clapton brings to the original. Chris has turned down the smarm, but tonight will probably be a night of performances where all of the work has gone into looking serious, rather than any deep personal connections.
Linc, Julie and Simon Say: Randy implies that Chris is in it to win it. Paula raves about Chris' journey (from awful the past couple weeks to so-so this week?) and says this is really exciting. After last week's eyeroll fiasco (for which he was in no way responsible), it'll be a while before Simon feels comfortable criticizing Chris. Simon claims to have thought it was sexier and more soulful than usual. I somehow missed the sexiness in his "Save the World" message.

Singer: Melinda Doolittle
Song: "There Will Come a Day"
My Take: Another relatively contemporary song for Melinda and a second straight week choosing a country artist. Just close your eyes and listen to how Melinda is modulating her voice to sing with the backing chorus and the band, rather than trying to compete or getting lost. Her polish is outrageous and you'd be hard-pressed to find more than a half-dozen current charting artists who can complete with how much she can do so effortlessly. The fact that we rarely see Melinda struggle will be her downfall eventually. Idol viewers love a journey, while Melinda couldn't have burst from Simon's head any more fully formed.
Linc, Julie and Simon Say: Randy urges Melinda and viewers at home to check it out. He finds her so dope and then he notes correctly that Melinda is here. Who am I to argue. Paula's struck by how magical Melinda is. Simon goes back to the old "vocal masterclass" well, saying that Melinda made it her own completely.

Singer: Blake Lewis
Song: "Imagine"
My Take: Am I asking too much if I inquire as to whether there were any available inspirational songs that get more specific than these (admittedly classic) ultra-broad Miss America-style anthems? Everybody's going about their evening's work with the same eyes-wide, jaw-slack expression as if that's the only way of displaying feeling. Melinda did a bit better, but Blake puts me to sleep. He couldn't add less to this rendition. There isn't even a hint of Blake. Just as Chris was Ersatz Clapton, this is barely Ersatz Lennon.
Linc, Julie and Simon Say: It was only OK for Randy. Paula, though, thinks this is the first time they've seen Blake's sensitive side. That's bunk. Simon says it was flat, but praises Blake for singing with sincerity. Tonight's following that old Conrad Birdie classic "You've Gotta Be Sincere" (which was meant as a cynical reflection on pop music, but they're taking it at face value here).

Head over to Zap2it for the rest of my recap, to find out what I thought of LaKisha, Phil and Jordin...

Monday, April 23, 2007

NetflixWatch: "13 Tzameti"

"13 Tzameti"
Director: Gela Babluani
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 38
In a Nutshell: One of the toasts of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival (it won the juried World Cinema prize), "13 Tzameti" never got much of a theatrical release and after finally catching up with it, I can tell why. It's a movie for audiences who like their French films gritty, their story-telling padded and their irony simplistic. In short, it's the perfect movie for uninquisitive geeks and, apparently, IMDB messageboard posters (Yes, I understand that there's a wee bit of overlap there).

"13 Tzameti" is Gela Babluani's feature directing debut, but although its running time is only 90 minutes, the film could be cut to 17 minutes tomorrow without losing a bit of character dimension, plot complexity or overall nuance. At either length, it's a one-sick-joke movie: Poor people (immigrants, in particular) in France are so desperate that they'd engage in death games to free their families from debt, while the rich are so desensitized to their plight and so callous that they'd treat those death games like modern gladiatorial combat or reality TV, as a spectator sport or another way to make money. That's pretty shocking stuff if you haven't seen "Battle Royale," or "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" or "Running Man" or "10th Victim" or "Series 7" or any of the literally dozens of films, books and TV shows that have mined very similar territory with a more complicated social compass. "13 Tzameti" is like "La Haine" with more plot contrivance, less filmmaking savvy and less intelligence. So actually it's nothing like "La Haine" except that it's in artsy black-and-white.

[I'm gonna go into a little more depth after the jump for people who have seen the movie or don't care about having anything spoiled.]

There's an undeniable tension to "13 Tzameti," though it's caused by two things, the tension and Babluani's noticeable amateurism as a filmmaker. Russian Roulette is tense stuff, duh. If people are pointing guns at each other, yelling and then firing, that's going to generate a certain amount of audience concern, even if it's impossible to care about any of the characters (the leading man, George Babluani, is without craft or affect as an actor, which I found distancing rather than intriguing). Nothing the director does enhances that tension, quite the opposite. The movie is clumsily directed, with black-and-white photography serving as an artificial proxy for real moodiness.

That there are no characters isn't worth criticizing. The generic anonymity of the piece is supposed to be part of its charm. At that point, then, why isn't the ostensible hero killed 45 minutes in? That would be the truly subversive approach, to go full-on "Psycho" and relieve the audience of the cardboard cut-out they've been tolerating for the first act and just go on to alternative players in the game, maybe find an interesting one.

And as for the ending [which I'm gonna spoil here...], it's dark in the most predictable of ways and in a way that has no connection to the rest of the film. The "widowed" brother shoots him? Yawn. I guess that saved Babluani the trouble of thinking about a better ending. A *truly* nihilistic and bleak ending would have had the brother sitting down next to our "hero" on the train, pointing the gun at him and saying "There's another game starting tomorrow. Are you ready to play again... Brother?"

Mostly, I just keep being struck over and over again by how brilliant a film "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is. In the "People pushed to virtual suicide for the entertainment of the masses" genre, it's still tops...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sanjaya, Buehrle, 'Gilmore Girls' and More

Sure, I'm shocked that the unsinkable Sanjaya Malakar has been sunk, but at this exact second I'm even more surprised that Mark Buehrle just pitched a no-hitter for the White Sox.

How strange is that? Well, Buehrle has lead the American League in hits allowed for the past two consecutive seasons and finished second the two years before that. I'll let the Elias Sports Bureau tell me how impressive an achievement that was. It's here that I'd quickly like to salute MLB for selling the Extra Innings baseball package to OnDemand and allowing me to watch both my Red Sox games as well as the last three or four innings of no-hitters by Mark Buehrle when I happen to notice such things are in progress.

But anyway, Sanjaya... Sepinwall put it best with his e-mail subject line reading "Time to put the VFTW people on suicide watch, methinks." All season long the "Idol" producers have been telling reporters that VoteFortheWorst adherents don't amount to a hill of beans, nor do those pathetic Howard Stern fans doing his bidding. Sanjaya Malakar did basically exactly as well as John Stevens and Scott Savol. He worse than Jasmine Trias and Nikki McKibbin and R.J. Helton, but better than a bit better than Kevin Covais. Bad people make it through every single year and they make it a certain distance every single year and anybody implying that Sanjaya was any different or more damning to the show's credibility than previous untalented people is just lazy.

[This post is getting long, so follow the click through link, because after the bump, I talk about why I'm gonna miss Sanjaya, why "Gilmore Girls" should end and why I'm seem to responsible for everything going wrong with America.]

Not enough people are going to stand up for Sanjaya, so I will. As a singer, he was laughable. As an entertainer, he was embarrassing. But as a laughable and embarrassing performer, he was entertaining. That's more than I can say for Phil Stacey and, since I'm pretty much sick of his shtick at this point, that's more than I can say for Chris Richardson. It's almost more than I can say for LaKisha Jones, who at this point would be better served by being semi-shockingly eliminated this week, rather than delivering two or three more subpar performances and no longer being lamented. Thus, as I said over on my Zap2it recap, I'd have almost preferred to keep Sanjaya around for two or three more weeks, though only if I were given a contractual obligation that he wouldn't actually win. I wanted to hear him do an inspirational song next week. I wanted to see him work with guest mentor Grand Wizard Theodore on Old Skool Hip Hop Night. Phil won't be nearly as funny and nor with Chris or LaKisha.

But I guess there's something to getting out while you're ahead (this is a bad transition, because Sanjaya was never really ahead)... That's something I urge Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel to think about before they commit to another season of "Gilmore Girls."

I was watching Tuesday night's episode and it felt like a Stepford version of the show I used to love. The dialogue was fast and the pop culture references flew, but it was never even vaguely clever. It relied heavily on life-in-transition symbolism (I GET WHAT THE MAZE STOOD FOR, DO YOU THINK WE'RE ALL BRAIN DAMAGED?!?!?), but it never had a second of heart. At a Zap2it lunch yesterday, though, we all agreed that as long as the "Gilmore Girls" is on the air, we aren't going to quit on it. We're going to keep watching until the bitter end. But why must we get bitter? Yes, I feel bad for Alexis and Lauren, because neither one will ever get a part this good again. That's not an insult to either of their skills, but it's the truth. The problem is that what they're currently working with isn't the same material they were working with two or three seasons ago. It isn't any good at all. If Lauren Graham has the choice between "Gilmore Girls" of this caliber and collecting a paycheck as the sassy hot wife or girlfriend, I can understand why she'd want to go for the money. I wouldn't blame her for a second.

Anyway, I know that was a weirdly grafted on post-script, but what's the point of blogging if you can't make weird transitions.

Want another? House and Cuddy? I don't know if I want that to happen. Cameron and Chase? I don't need that to happen either. Maybe I'm not a good "House" 'shipper, but I'm content with simmering House/Cameron tension any and all consummated passions between anybody on the show move us into "Grey's Anatomy" territory and I already watch that once a week. Don't need it twice. Oh and last night's case? Bad idea. I'm not in favor of spending an episode watching children in pain and torment if the only payoff is a cheap joke about penis enhancement.

Do I have anything else? Well, if Felix Hernandez is actually seriously injured, several of my fantasy baseball teams are going to have a fire sale this weekend, because I'm done.

Oh and the "highlight" of my day: A commenter on my Zap2it "Idol" recap from Tuesday accused me of being partially responsible for the Virginia Tech shootings, saying that I'm part of a culture that values snark and mean-spiritedness over peace, love and understanding.


With that...

Good night and good luck...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"American Idol" 04/17 -- The Top Seven and the Corpse McBride

What were the odds of Tax Day and Country Night coinciding? All I needed to make Tuesday (April 17) complete was a dentist appointment. Throw in the fact that American Idol got rid of one of its more viable country performers last week (Good bye to Haley Scarnato and Haley Scarnato's legs).

A nod of respect, quickly, to Idol for beginning Tuesday's performance episode with a recognition of those impacted by the Virgina Tech tragedy.

Now, on to the performances:

Singer: Phil Stacey
Song: "Where the Blacktop Ends"
My Take: Phil was already in danger and getting stuck with the opening slot on Monday may only contribute to his downfall. This genre isn't ill-suited to Phil's voice and though the song offers no real challenge, he handles it without the strain that we heard last week. Accused of being too serious (read: threatening and creepy-looking) in past weeks, Phil has a light touch and plays to the crowd, and on Country Night, anything that doesn't cause me pain is a win. The judges rave, but within seconds of his finish, I've forgotten everything about Phil tonight, which is bad news for show-openers.
Manny, Moe and Simon Say: Randy says that it was hot and that Phil could have a career in country music. Paula agrees that this is a good genre for him. "Well it's only taken 10 weeks, Phil," says Simon, who agrees that the song and style were all quite respectable.

Singer: Jordin Sparks
Song: "Broken Wing"
My Take: Guest mentor Martina McBride tells Jordin to just stand in place and sing, which is pretty dull advice, if you ask me. Does that mean I can't blame Jordin for coming across like a stone pillar (in an unflattering high waisted dress) tonight? It's not an accident, though. Jordin begins slow and expressionless and opens up as she goes, building to an expression of freedom and relief by the end. I'm just going to assume that that's the narrative of the song as well, in which case, nicely played. Jordin also sounds like a studio recording artist, delivering pure notes and clear diction, even throwing in a bit of a twang. She's impressive without being showy.
Manny, Moe and Simon Say: Randy thinks it was a difficult song to sing, but that she was da bomb. Paula loved how Jordin told the story. Simon announces that for the first time, he thinks she can win. He's a little late to the program here. I believe we can all agree that Jordin is pretty much the favorite at this point.

Singer: Sanjaya Malakar
Song: "Let's Give 'Em Something To Talk About"
My Take: It's Country Night, so Sanjaya is rocking a funny bandana. It's a funny song choice, because when I like of Bonnie Raitt covers, Sanjaya immediately comes to mind. It's every bit as funny as we've come to expect from Sanjaya. He wanders through the crowd, plays around with background singers and even tries a few woefully anemic runs. He mostly isn't painful to listen to, just thin, negligible and utterly without vocal personality. He makes me a bit nervous, but that may just be carry-over from watching Dice-K try to work out of a bases-loaded jam.
Manny, Moe and Simon Say: Randy, insisting that he merely aspires to keep it real, and calls it bland and boring. Paula notes that Sanjaya thrives on adversity, which is meant as neither a compliment nor an insult. Simon calls it "utterly horrendous," comparing it to the season's worst auditions. Simon also warns that the joke is pretty much up. Will America take heed?

Singer: LaKisha Jones
Song: "Jesus Take the Wheel"
My Take: It's one of those rare instances of an Idol contender singing a song written for an Idol winner. I give LaKisha credit for not cheating the theme and for wearing a dress that makes her look good without scaring me with her cleavage. Maybe she should have tried to cheat the theme a little more, because LaKisha's voice is bigger than Carrie Underwood's and she never lets us forget it, oversinging the heck out of the song that's really less about wailing than touch. Maybe she felt it too much? The runs and bellowing are showy, but they detract from the overall performance.
Manny, Moe and Simon Say: Randy asks her to check it out and repeats her name a number of times. He notes pitch problems and says it wasn't his favorite vocal. The crowd disagrees with Randy, but Paula agrees and calls her for shouting. "It's like eating a hamburger for breakfast, you know it doesn't go together," Simon says and warns that LaKisha's losing momentum.

For the rest of the recap, including the evening's best non-Jordin performance and worst non-Sanjaya performance, head over to my Zap2it recap...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

MovieWatch: "The Hoax"

"The Hoax"
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 68
In a Nutshell: If former Red Sox first baseman Dave Stapleton is remembered, it's for two things: In Game Six of the 1986 World Series, John McNamara opted not to bring Stapleton in as a defensive replacement in the 9th inning to allow Bill Buckner to celebrate the Series win. Oops. Stapleton's other claim to fame is that he's the only major leaguer in history to play at least seven seasons with his batting average dropping each successive season. Why do I mention that? Because since 1993, Lasse Hallstrom's feature film credits have been "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "The Cider House Rules," "Chocolat," "The Shipping News," "An Unfinished Life" and "Casanova," a nearly Stapletonian rate of career decline. [Encyclopedic film fans will recognize that I left out "Something to Talk About," which came between "Grape" and "Cider House" in chronology, but not quality and therefore I'm pretending it never happened.]

Lasse Hallstrom's Stapleton-esque regression thankfully comes to an end with his new film "The Hoax," a smart, solidly constructed historical dramedy featuring one of the two or three best performances of Richard Gere's career ("Internal Affairs" is tops in my book, if anybody cares) and an award-worthy turn by Alfred Molina. The thing Hallstrom can't help is that he's following some great films. Jonathan Demme already made the definitive Howard Hughes semi-hoax movie ("Melvin & Howard") and Orson Welles already made the definitive Clifford Irving movie ("F for Fake") and this terrain is all too similar to George Clooney and Charlie Kaufman's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." So while I respected what a study and straight-forward job Hallstrom did here, I kept thinking that with a director possessed of more daring, "The Hoax" could have been a late-year Oscar contender instead of a mid-spring orphan.

The film requires a sense of bittersweet, loopy whimsy that Hallstrom absolutely used to possess (perhaps going back to "My Life as a Dog"), but the moment "The Hoax" requires Hallstrom to be his most nimble is when he starts taking everything too seriously. In its first half, "The Hoax" rides on Clifford Irving (Gere) and Dick Susskind's (Molina) giddy amazement that they're in the process of pulling off a hoax of outrageous proportions. Irving's rise as a fast-talking snake oil salesman who can't believe everything he's getting away with is the most likeable Gere has ever been. In the second half, as Irving's grasp on reality begins to slip, Gere stays compelling (though I'm still not sure whether or not he's trying a New York accent), but Hallstrom's touch becomes leaden and annoyingly literal. Hallstrom allows for no ambiguity whatsoever in the facts of the case or of Irving's character, which is the dull way out. It was here that I wanted Kaufman's version of the story (though William Wheeler's script is admirable).

"The Hoax" features the supporting cast of every NYC indie ever made, including Hope Davis (excellent), Stanley Tucci (distractingly unbald), Marcia Gay Harden (sporting the latest in a string of BROAD accents) and Julie Delpy (beautifully under-clothed, but annoyingly under-used).

Is it just me, or is 2007 already starting off as a far better year for movies than 2006? Or is this just an evil tease before the Summer of Sequels begins?

NetflixWatch: "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints"

"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints"
Director: Dito Montiel
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 65
In a Nutshell: Dito Montiel isn't a trained filmmaker, nor is he a polished storyteller, which proves to be both a boon and a disadvantage to his first film, "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," based on his own memoir. On some level the film can be easily slotted into the coming-of-age-in-NYC genre, but it manages not to feel entirely like a rehash of "Mean Streets" largely because Montiel doesn't come out of that tradition. My understanding is that the book is about Montiel's life in music, an aspect almost completely elided from the movie, which is a series of memories, only slightly connected, from the year leading up to the writer-director's departure from his friends and family in Queens. Because Montiel isn't a conventional storyteller, the movie isn't exactly about what it's structured to be about -- the events that force young Dito's (Shia TheBeef) exit from Queens and make it hard for old Dito's (Robert Downey Jr.) return are underplayed. There are two tragedies mentioned early in the movie that don't spark any emotional reaction when they occur, but this isn't a "The Way My First Interactions With Death Changed Me" memoir. It's more "Glimpses From a Life Left Behind," and Montiel is just experimental enough to use his new medium to capture the scattershot memories of youth -- Dialogue plays out of synch, key scenes seem to be edited out, important relationships are just accepted, but not explained. The movie doesn't have the feel of reality -- it's too aesthetically contrived for that -- but it has the tone of reality.

The present tense part of the story is frustrating and distracting, an unnecessary framing device that implies more of a straight-forward narrative arc than the movie delivers. As flawlessly twitchy as Robert Downey Jr. may be, there isn't a shred of Shia TheBeef's version of the character in the modern Dito. Rosario Dawson pops up for two scenes, preaches a little, but doesn't contribute much. And Chazz Palminteri and Diane Wiest, wonderful in the 1986 flashbacks, are burdened by shoddy old age makeup in the present. Then, as ridiculous as the Shia-to-Downey aging process may have been, the idea that Channing Tatum aged into the film's Final Act "Look Who We Dug Up" guest star was really more than I could take and I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it.

While Steven Spielberg may be convinced that TheBeef is a star (and the early box office for "Disturbia" implies that he may be right), I have a sense that "A Guide For Recognizing Your Saints" will probably be best remembered for the early performance by Channing Tatum. Having only seen him previously in "Step Up," I don't know that he's an actor, but he's one thing that TheBeef isn't -- he's a big screen presence, dynamic and impossible to take your eyes off of at times.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

'Idol' Results 04/11: America Finds a Cure for Haley-tosis

OK. This really upsets me. Last season, everybody was all cutesy in saying that fans of Katherine McPhee had caught the McPheever (or McPhever). Why did it take me until this week to realize that fans of Haley Scarnato has developed a bad case of Haley-tosis? If only I'd realized this a month or two ago, there could have been guys in the audience with signs reading "Kiss me -- I have Haley-tosis." But nooo... Now I have this pointless brainwave and it's too late.

Above, you'll notice a picture of Haley Scarnato's short-shorts. I cut the picture for my Zap2it "Idol" recap, which covers the events leading up to Haley's departure from this season's "American Idol." I use the short-shorts image to represent Haley. The English major in me calls it synecdoche, but the comics reader in me compares it to the way Garry Trudeau has let feathers and waffles stand in for reason presidents.

Is it a coincidence or irony that in this week, when the "Idol" contestants were mentored by that paragon of style-over-substance Jennifer Lopez, the contestant who went home was the most aesthetically pleasing?


I have very little to say about this, though faithful readers know that I've been a devoted Haley booster all season. It's not that I think Haley can sing, but it isn't like she *can't* sing. She just made the correct decision when we reached the Top 12 that her only chance of survival was based on marketing her attractiveness over her talent.

Haley was never going to win and I didn't want her to win, but as long as we still have Phil and Sanjaya, I'd just like to state a preference for Haley. Is that so wrong? It would have been semi-ironic for Sanjaya to go home after giving his best performance of the competition, but I wish I knew what's keeping Phil around. He also isn't horrible or anything, but he main hook is that he's the slightly creepy, bald family man. Is that what teenage girls today are looking for?

And next week is Country Week, which is going to be just awful for fading leaders Melinda and LaKisha, but probably would have been "great" for Haley.

Oh well. I doubt the pain here will stay with me for very long.

And can we just say now that Jordin and Blake are heading for the Finals? You can sense it. It's in the air.

'Friday Night Lights' Finale: Lengthy Thoughts

It's looking fairly likely that in some form or another NBC will bring "Friday Night Lights" back next season, so I'm not going to get all sobby about how Wednesday (April 11) night's season finale could possibly be the show's series finale. I'm just going to knock on wood and refuse to accept that NBC will let a show this good get away.

I've seen the finale and I'm gonna attempt some sort of posting hocus pocus so that people don't have to see spoilers without clicking through. But I do wanna talk a little bit about the episode, why it disappointed me and why I still loved it anyway.

The "Friday Night Lights" finale was, most simply, a darned fine piece of network television which had the misfortune of falling so soon after the "Mud Bowl" episode (2007's finest hour of network TV to date) and after the "Best Laid Plans" episode, which ought to serve as the Emmy nomination tape for stars Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.

Titled "State," the finale is a rushed affair. You'd say that NBC owed the series a two-hour finale, but what with the show's ratings, NBC doesn't actually owe it anything. Regardless, the show's creative team deserved a two-hour finale and they're left with the unenviable task of tying up a season's worth of plotlines, of forcing a satisfying resolution upon the whole thing just in case the unthinkable happens.

The facet of the episode that suffers worst, alas, is the climactic football game, the Texas State Championship. As we critics have told you over and over again, this show has never really been about football and since the Peter Berg-directed premiere, the episodes have shied away from extensive pigskin action. As a result, it's seemed as if every single game this season has hinged on the Panthers coming from behind thanks to a perfectly orchestrated trick play. To some degree that's reflected how tenuous this team's success has been, but it's gotten cheesy at times. The Championship game represents the worst of that. Worse than the coming from behind and the trick play, though, is the fact that the game has to be taken care of so swiftly that it has no dramatic momentum whatsoever. The Panthers are behind routed at halftime and in the second half they rout the other team. There's no sense that anything has changed, no sense of how our established heroes have changed and, because we never met a single active defensive player for the Panthers, no awareness that the defense toughened up in the second half. It's momentum-less.

The result of the game is flat-out wrong. The team lost in the book, they lost in the movie and darnit they had to lose on the TV show. That's just the way it's supposed to work. The season was about the journey this team took over the course of the fall, the adversity they had to overcome, the tragedies and trials that touched every single one of them. What they would have gained in losing, in bring the team together and bringing the town together, was far more important than anything they gained in winning, particularly since I don't understand how they won. Was Coach Taylor's halftime speech *that* good? Nah. The ending of Buzz Bissinger's book wasn't dramatic enough, so Peter Berg created a more dramatic ending for the movie. I'd have been perfectly happy seeing Berg's ending recycled or letting the writers find a different creative way to end things, but they didn't. Actually, I'd bet they had an ending with Dillon losing, but things got rewritten either because of doubt on their part or the network's part, but I'd love to see that ending. Even the recent dud of a "Bad News Bears" remake knew not to have the Bears win the big game, knew that that wasn't what the movie was supposed to be about.

The finale had a few too many of the conventional elements that have plagued lesser episodes this season. I, for example, didn't need Jason Street to suddenly become Vince Lombardi and that's not a plotline I want to see carried through next year. And while I love the friendship between Landry (frequent series MVP Jessie Plemons) and Tyra (Adrianne Palicki, improving with every episode), I don't buy a romance between them for a second and that's not a plotline I'd want to see carried through next year.

The finale was at its best when it continued the maturation of several characters who looked like pure cliches in the pilot. How much have Giaus Charles' Smash and Brad Leland's Buddy Garrity grown over the season? Well, they seem like people now, darned near as real as Matt-and-Julie and Coach-and-Coach's Wife, the two best couplings on TV, bar none. And how remarkable is the chemistry between Chandler and Britton? They played the pregnancy subplot beautifully, but I kept thinking how awful that stunt could have seemed in lesser hands. With these two? I got misty eyed when Coach smiled that "Get out of here!" smile to Mrs. Coach.

So much singing has been done about "FNL" this season that it's almost impossible to find unsung heroes, but let me mention a few: Kevin Rankin, who will always be the bumbling RA from "Undeclared" to me, was an anchor for the season-long arc involving Street's partial recovery and he kept me from excessively grousing at just how fast Street became a world class Murderball player. Then there's Alexandra Holden, who has totally shed the stigma of being a dull "Friends" love interest (Ross's inappropriate teacher-student romance) to become just about the sweetest, coolest tattoo artist in the word on "FNL." I've even liked Brooke Langton as Riggin's MILF neighbor, though I'm not likely to forgive her for romancing the head scab in "The Replacements." Nearly everybody who has entered the "FNL" universe has served a purpose and been an asset. That's amazing.

If NBC chooses to cancel "Friday Night Lights," I'm not going to be one of those people who blames the network. Fans probably shouldn't expect much interest from the network for petitions or mini-footballs or whatever "Save This Show" campaigns get lost. Guess what? NBC knows that the people who watch "Friday Night Lights" really like it. The network is aware that critics have been beating their drums from September through April without stopping. The network is also aware that ratings have showed no sign of going up, not even an iota. NBC has moved "FNL" around its schedule trying to find the right time slot. It's promoted the heck out of the show with a variety of different campaigns. And guess what? Still nothing. The people to blame for the failure of "FNL" are TV viewers, the sheep who never even sampled the show and will probably be complaining next fall about how there's nothing on TV that the whole family can watch together.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"American Idol" 04/10/07 -- Top 8 Perform Vaguely Latin Songs

Bringing in Jennifer Lopez to mentor contestants for a singing competition would be like America's Next Top Model welcoming Anna Kournikova as a guest advisor, or George Foreman stopping by to teach the gang on Top Chef. Sure, J-Lo has been known to do something resembling singing, but it's pretty far down the list of things she does well, below dancing and "acting," but perhaps a smidge above TV producing (Yeah, South Beach, I'm talkin' about you).

And yet, here's J-Lo on Tuesday (April 10) night's American Idol, giving advice to eight superior vocalists (Yup, I'm even including Sanjaya) on the theme of Latin Music (a subject the Bronx-born singer only recently learned about herself).

Sarcasm aside, tonight's performances:

Singer: Melinda Doolittle
Song: "Sway"
My Take: No, this song was not a tribute to former Idol non-favorite Jose "Sway" Penala, but it was another chance for Melinda to subvert a theme to go in the direction of a sound that's decades old (the seminal Dean Martin recording is circa 1954). Melinda's voice is, as always, flawless, but J-Lo told us that this week's theme is all about passion, which is where Melinda goes a little flat. She seems to confuse "Squinting" with "Being Sexy," which is a fairly common mistake, particularly on Idol. Despite the lyrics, she contributes very little swaying to the actual performance. Only if I turn away from my TV does Melinda truly deliver.
Roosevelt, Stalin and Simon Say: Randy asks people to check him out and warns that this wasn't her best, but still solid. Paula found it sultry and smooth. Last week, if you'll recall, Simon said he was worried that they wouldn't get to say anything bad about Melinda this season, so naturally he begins, "It had to happen, Melinda. I didn't like it." He says that at this stage, Melinda needs the "Wow!" factor and even calls it lazy and wooden. He's so clearly going for pointless criticism that it's impossible to take him seriously. Melinda smartly observes that Simon wanted to say something bad and she's glad he got the chance. In my opinion, she disagrees without seeming cocky. Others will disagree.

Singer: LaKisha Jones
Song: "Conga"
My Take: I suspect I'm being unduly mean if I describe LaKisha as looking a bit like a Human Lava Lamp this week, right? Sigh. There's a lot of undulation is all I'm saying, a lot of rippling flesh, if that's your cup of tea. This song is a bit of an answer to the critics who say that LaKisha's only mode is to stand still and bellow. She has some problems projecting on the faster parts of the song and her dancing is, as promised, just a little limited, but she shows a different side. It's not her best side, but it's different.
Roosevelt, Stalin and Simon Say: Randy raves that LaKisha was having fun and that she made it her own. Paula, however, thought it was a safe performance. LaKisha disagrees with Paula, but Simon thinks it was a performance song, but not a singing song.

Singer: Chris Richardson
Song: "Smooth"
My Take: Nice of J-Lo to credit Rob Thomas with the vocals on this one, but not the lyrics and melody, which he wrote, as if that might strip "Smooth" of its Latin bona fides. This is the least nasally Chris has sounded all season, from which one could certainly infer that J-Lo is a brilliant musical mentor. What it really means is that Chris has picked a song in a lower register, which was a smart idea, because I was starting to get sick of his standard twang. He gets to be all high and whiny at the end, but it's a very restrained and largely successful vocal.
Roosevelt, Stalin and Simon Say: Randy liked that Chris did his thing. Paula thought it was hot and calls Chris sexy. It wasn't best vocal Simon has ever heard, but he preferred it to LaKisha and Melinda.

Singer: "Haley Scarnato"
Song: "Turn the Beat Around"
My Take: Just like I don't actually know if Haley can sing, I have no idea if she has rhythm. But she does want to keep reminding us about her legs. It's back to short-shorts for the season's designated morsel of eye-candy. You'd think Haley might have some new moves to show off on Latin Night, but she's pretty much fallen into a one-note rut -- She struts around in high heels, wiggles her shoulders, shimmies her chest and smiles broadly. Haley tries finding a few big power notes, but gets drowned out by the band, which at least means she was in tune. The lyrics are mumbled throughout, but it's not like the original is a model of clarity and enunciation.
Roosevelt, Stalin and Simon Say: Randy thought it was karaoke. Paula thinks Haley had fun. Simon endorses Haley's Clothing Depletion strategy, as does the cameraman, who lovingly pans from shoes to hair. Simon complains, then, about the vocals being rushed. Haley resists the temptation to tell Simon to stop sexually harassing her.

If you want to know how much Sanjaya rocked, you'll have to check out my full recap over at Zap2it.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

MovieWatch: "Killer of Sheep"

"Killer of Sheep"
Director: Charles Burnett
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): NA
In a Nutshell: So I kept telling people all week that my big plan for the weekend involved getting out to the NuArt and seeing Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep," and to a person, everybody I mentioned this to said, "Oh, that's that movie about the killer sheep from New Zealand?" (or some variant joke about literally killer sheep). That, of course, is the reason why I had to get out to see it, the reason I ended up seeing it by myself and the reason I'm not bothering to give the film my standard Fien Print Rating.

"Killer of Sheep" is just a movie that people ought to see and while I don't mean that watching Burnett's 1978 UCLA thesis film is like taking medicine, it's a lot harder to evaluate the movie on the basis of what it *is* than on the basis of what it *represents*. If you approach it on the same level you'd approach, say, "Grindhouse," you might whine about the muddled soundtrack, the non-existent narrative or an assortment of performances that often don't even reach the level of amateurish (and therefore aren't naturalistic either). But "Killer of Sheep" is an utterly unique piece of American cinema, the kind of amorphous tone poem of a movie that even the people obviously influenced by Burnett -- Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Julie Dash, David Gordon Green -- haven't *truly* attempted to follow in his footsteps. "Killer of Sheep" is more Cassavetes than Cassavetes and more neo-realism than most works of Italian neo-realism. Even Burnett has imposed greater narrative constraints on himself in subsequent films ("To Sleep with Anger," "The Glass Shield"). So "Killer of Sheep" is unique.

All you have to know is that you've never seen anything like "Killer of Sheep" before. Set in Watts in the mid-70s, it's like an anti-blaxploitation movie, in which the hoods and criminals are pushed to the background and the focus is on one beaten-down family man (Henry G. Sanders) who works in a slaughterhouse and has, at least according to his wife, simply stopped smiling. But the movie finds light, humane, bittersweet humor in even the deepest valleys of these characters' lives -- a paycheck that turns into an ill-fated replacement motor, a car trip to the racetrack to bet on a sure thing. And despite a budget that must have been pocket change, Burnett brings understated black-and-white beauty to every close-up and to every moment -- a couple dancing to a single record track, the somtimes violent games that kids play. The film's soundtrack of standards and pop tunes from the time are part of why "Killer of Sheep" was unable to get theatrical release previously, but it also adds to its timelessness.

I'm doing an awful job of explaining the reasons for appreciating this movie, which is probably why I opted out of giving it a rating. It's just a movie worth seeing if you ever have the opportunity, since opportunities to see it are few and far between.

Friday, April 06, 2007

MovieWatch: "Grindhouse"

Directors: Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez
Fien Print Ratings (out of 100): "Planet Terror" (64), "Deathproof" (70)
In a Nutshell: It's hard to think of a moviegoing experience more context-dependent than "Grindhouse," Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's new double-bill, which is less a cohesive cinematic effort than a loving tribute to a certain way of seeing movie. I guess I figured I was gunning for irony by going to see "Grindhouse" at Century City's AMC 15, a brand-spanking-new theater that the chain describes as its new flagship. It's just inevitably and invariably wrong to watch a movie like "Grindhouse" in stadium seating with surround sound and plush comfy chairs. But I'm sure I'd have been able to easily overcome those flaws if the crowd hadn't blown goats. Yeah, if you were in the 2:45 show this afternoon at the AMC Century City 15, odds are you suck. Sorry. It's just true.

"Grindhouse" is a movie you've gotta see with several hundred of your closest, most like-minded friends, people willing to embrace the movie on its merits, to laugh at the cornball dialogue and stilted acting, to express vocal distaste (in a good way) at the outrageous gore and to cheer when a chick with a machine gun for a leg blasts into the air and turns dozens of zombies into goo in a single motion. During Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," there was occasional audience engagement -- laughter here and there, periodic hoots. During Tarantino's "Deathproof"? Near-total silence. A couple chuckles. Half-hearted applause at the end. And, I don't wanna be additionally judgemental, but an awful lot of people took bathroom breaks at the intermission rather than watching the faux trailers by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. I know that 3:12 is a long slog for an afternoon at the movies, but come on... I'm gonna assume that the crowd I saw this with will prove to be the exception, rather than the rule, because I thought "Grindhouse" worked pretty nicely.

My crowd probably won't be the only one to find "Planet Terror" to be the more obvious audience-pleaser. There have been so many zombie movies in recent years that it's a bit redundant, really, hardly resurrecting a genre at all. Plus, Rodriguez mined similar territory in "The Faculty." But familiarity didn't keep me from being properly grossed out by Greg Nicotero's makeup/effects, nor did it keep me from adoring several utterly gonzo performances, particularly Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer (Not a stripper! There's a difference!) named Cherry, who becomes cinema's sexiest amputee ever. Also excellent (in that she understands the campy style of the film) is Marley Shelton, whose comic gifts always surprise me because of how bad she's been utilized by Hollywood. Michael Biehn, Freddy Rodriguez and -- shockingly! -- Fergie (or "Stacy Ferguson") also get it.

You don't need any outside knowledge to be amused by "Planet Terror," but "Deathproof" doesn't work as well if you don't vaguely know "Vanishing Point" or "Two-Lane Blacktop" or "Gone in 60 Seconds" (the original). While Rodriguez has no particular authorial stamp besides his ability to work fast and wear countless hats, Tarantino's cinematic fingerprints are all over "Deathproof" so completely that it's a dual homage to both '70s driving B-movies and just to himself. It's talky, vulgar and tremendously entertaining, especially in its second half. It's also made with a skill that nearly defeats the purpose and certainly amplifies Rodriguez's calculated amateurism. Tarantino gets Tarantino-ready performances (not the same as good performances) from folks like Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who can't act but still manages to seem magnetic.

As an actor, Tarantino is a needless distraction in both films. Looking puffy and balding, he's begun to resemble a less-talented Randy Quaid. And I'm sure that Tarantino is a fan of "The Last Detail," so he should probably just be casting Quaid instead.

[While I'm on the subject of Tarantino, may I temporarily digress: Is anybody ready for Tarantino to make a real movie again? I know that sounds elitist, but seriously. "Kill Bill" was supposed to be a little lark he made to have fun with Uma Thurman. "Grindhouse" was supposed to be a little short-film he made to have fun with Rodriguez. Meanwhile, the maturing filmmaker behind "Jackie Brown" seems afraid to make another movie in that direction. It's not that I don't think Tarantino should be able to make whatever frivolous larks he wants to, but "Grindhouse" isn't a movie, its mutual masturbation between two filmmaker/geeks and their geeky followers, an exercise in substance-free post-modernism that Tarantino transcends (because he has that ability) and Rodriguez doesn't. It's entertaining and I'd rather have this than anymore "Hills Have Eyes" remakes, but couldn't Tarantino mix things up? I mean, you don't see a master filmmaker like Martin Scorsese wasting his prime years on remakes and recycled genre movies. Ha! I kill me.]

My favorite of the fake trailers was Wright's "Don't," though I also really laughed at a fake trailer *before* the movie for Rob Zombie's "Halloween." Oh. That one was real? Why, Rob? WHY?!?

Anyway, my apologies for the length of this post.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Quick Thoughts on Gina Getting Sanjayaed from "Idol"

Gina Glocksen was eliminated from "American Idol" on Wednesday (April 4) night, but who cares about *that* really?

Reuters leads its "Idol" elimination story with the most important fact: Sanjaya Malakar is still around. The Associated Press' main "Idol" story focuses a bit on Gina, but it's already queued up behind a much more amusing report from New Delhi about how true Indians (dot, not feather) have yet to embrace Sanjaya.


And both stories make it clear that *some* "Idol" fans fear that if Sanjaya stays in the competition any long, the show will lose all credibility. Chortle. We *are* talking about the same "American Idol" right? The show where Nikki McKibbin, Justin Guarini and R.J. Helton beat Tamyra Gray in the first season? The show where goat-voiced Carmen Rasmussen, tone-deaf John Stevens, Rose Bowl star Matt Rogers, future movie star Kevin Covais and flower-in-her-hair Vegas star Jasmine Trias had runs of varying lengths? It happens every season. Democracy is weird. Get over it.

The vitriol for Sanjaya is based largely on talent, or lack thereof. I don't question that. But none of those previous "Idol" debacles stirred anywhere near the outrage Sanjaya is generating. People who pay no attention to the show know that they're supposed to care that Sanjaya is destroying "American Idol" (and, truth be told, the show's ratings are sliding, albeit not so badly that anybody will complain yet). But very few people are reporting on the not-so-vaguely racist component to the anti-Sanjaya hatred. Sanjaya's name is easy to spell, both first and last. It's 100% phonetic, yet Internet messageboard detractors take endless pleasure in spelling it wrong, pretending not to be able to spell it, or purposely calling him "Sanjay," because that's a name for other self-mocking Indians in pop culture. While Jasmine's "Idol" run prompted talk of a Hawaiian conspiracy, nobody worried about Middle American white folks banding together to vote for Kevin (or that a weird French-Canadian voting bloc somehow assumed he was one of them because of his last name). But with Sanjaya, the same recycled jokes about "I think switchboard operators in India are voting for him" keep popping up, with every poster thinking they're being clever. Morons. Heck, Sanjaya's half-Italian, but nobody has suggested a Papist conspiracy yet, have they? The Italian side of him isn't notable enough to be mentioned, apparently. Regardless, though, there's something about Sanjaya that makes him more threatening to simple-minded "Idol" fans than other equally bad dilettantes before him.

Sanjaya is going forward because he generates both love and hate. Brandon, Stephanie, Chris Sligh and now Gina are going home for not generating sufficient quantities of either. If Gina could have done the Johnny Rotten version of "My Way" and lurched around the stage in high boots and a scooped out top this week, she'd probably have stayed. The judges made it clear to her over and over again that that was what they expected of her, that they required her to provide the musical diversity that they hadn't bothered to bring into the competition this season. It didn't matter that she was just a cut-rate Storm Large from "Rock Star." That's what Simon, Randy and Paula needed her to be. They didn't need her to be a bland, but competent singer of bittersweetly hopeful Charlie Chaplin ballad. And her punishment for failing to meet their expectations was elimination. Say what you will about Sanjaya or Haley Scarnato, but if the judges have expected them to deliver weekly doses of Freak Show and Eye Candy, they're delivering.

On the bright side, next week's show should be an utter train-wreck. Our gang is ill-suited for Latin Night to begin with, but what improvements could musically challenged guest mentor Jennifer Lopez possibly provide? Or maybe J-Lo will just ask each of the "Idol" contestants for singing advice? Will Haley just sing in a bikini and be done with it? Will Sanjaya decide to do "She Bangs" and confirm his slump into William Hung-hood? And how many licks *does* it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?

The world may never know.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

MovieWatch: "Hot Fuzz"

"Hot Fuzz"
Director: Edgar Wright
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 75
In a Nutshell: The reason why so many of today's cinematic parodies -- your "Scary Movies" and "Date Movies" and "Epic Movies" -- suck isn't actually so surprising: The people making them are inept filmmakers with absolutely no cinematic gifts or affection for the genres they're parodying. That's pretty simple, eh? They have only vapid irony and idiotic contempt for films that must have struck a chord with viewers in the first place, or else they wouldn't have been worth mocking. The reason why "Shaun of the Dead" and the upcoming "Hot Fuzz" are so very good is that the man who directed them, Edgar Wright, is a truly talented artist and so while "Shaun" and "Fuzz" could be easily pigeon-holed as zombie and Michael Bay parodies, they'tr movies that are capable of standing on their own merits not just as comedies, but as frightening gore flicks and glossy action flicks respectively. The only thing that would keep me from making some grand statement about Edgar Wright's gifts is that both of his features *are* feats of mimicry, but I don't doubt for a second that when he gets around to doing more stand-alone films, he'll be able to deliver. It isn't *just* mimicry. It's emulation as well and "Hot Fuzz" shows growth from "Shaun," so it's all encouraging.

You don't have to have seen "Wicker Man," "Point Break," "Bad Boys 2," "Die Hard," "The Omen" or any of the other literally dozens of movies that get nods in "Hot Fuzz." There's physical comedy (co-star Nick Frost does fat-guy stumbles with the best of them), fun with language (Wright and star/co-writer Simon Pegg have enough throw-away and background jokes for a dozen viewings), a running gag with a goose, grand guignol gore and general foul fun (heh -- and *fowl* fun) aplenty. There are cameos by a daunting assortment of familiar British faces including larger parts for Oscar winner Jim Broadbent and My Favorite Bond Timothy Dalton, both having a ball. But even if you're not being amused (which means your sense of humor is at fault), Wright has taken the Michael Bay playbook and stolen all the best quick-cuts and jarring angles. Edited with precision and wit by Chris Dickens and scored by action veteran David Arnold, "Hot Fuzz" actually has some thrilling action scenes that work on their own and *then* make you laugh.

By my figuring "Hot Fuzz" is at least 10 minutes too long, possibly 15, with the biggest lag coming at around the half-way point. But at 121 minutes, it's still shorter than most of the bloated epics it's lampooning and it's climax is absurdly great. To say that this is the movie "Reno 911! Miami" wanted to be is damning "Hot Fuzz" with less than faint praise. It's the funniest movie I've seen in a long, long time.

Wright has long been attached to the big screen version of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel franchise "Scott Pilgrim." As much as I love that comic (I'm looking forward to "Scott Pilgrim 4" more than "Harry Potter 7"), I think it's in good hands.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

"American Idol" 04/03/07 -- Final 9 Perform Classics

How is this night different from all other nights?

Well, the pundits are all wondering about the Passover Effect, and what impact thousands of prematurely truncated Seders will have on the voting results following Tuesday (April 3) night's Tony Bennett-mentored Classics Night on American Idol.

The performances:

Singer: Blake Lewis
Song: "Mack the Knife"
My Take (The Wise Son): Tony Bennett's advice to Blake probably could have been taken more to heart: Pay attention to the lyrics, man. Blake is occasionally sharp, but the problem with the performance isn't his smooth vocals, it's how little engagement he has with the lyrics. He's just twirling around (mimicking Mack going 'round the corner, I suppose), making wavy gestures with his hands as he swoons his way to a song about murder, rape and violence. The opening verse of the song, of course, discusses the teeth of a shark, which must be the reason why Blake keeps opening his mouth extra wide, devouring the camera like chum.
The Wicked Son, The Simple Son and Simon Say: Randy thinks it was a perfect song for his cool jazz vibe. Paula says he's a hep-cat and that he personified pizzazz. Simon gives Blake 7-out-of-10, but gives the band an eight.

Singer: Phil Stacey
Song: "Night and Day"
My Take (The Wise Son): You have to massage every word, every note to make this song work and Phil's vocal tone is superb. But somebody failed to take Bennett's advice and add a little beat to the song, a little pep. Phil's interpretation is disconcerting in its intensity and gravity. With Phil's perfectly backlit ears, half-closed eyes and polished head, the lyrics become more of a threat then I'd prefer them to.
The Wicked Son, The Simple Son and Simon Say: Randy tells Phil that he didn't feel the passion (this after raving about raving about Blake's bubblegum spin on a serial killer). Paula compares Phil to a young Frank Sinatra. Simon is incredulous and asks which Frank Sinatra she's referring to. "I think it had all the joy of somebody singing in a funeral parlor," Simon says.

Singer: Melinda Doolittle
Song: "I've Got Rhythm"
My Take (The Wise Son): Since this week's theme is pretty much served up on a silver platter for Melinda, I'll skip quickly to my salute to the Idol stylist for several steps in the right direction. I liked the side-bangs and it turns out that a bit of a low neckline is a good thing. As for the performance? As Melinda's song asks, who could ask for anything more? Just compare her to how vocally safe Blake and Phil were and it's embarrassing. She could have torn both of their songs to bits (in a good way), but if they even looked at her sheet music, they'd go whimper in the corner.
The Wicked Son, The Simple Son and Simon Say: Randy appreciates that Melinda gives America a vocal lesson every week. Paula calls it a masterclass. Then she rambles about things Melinda has in addition to rhythm. Simon thought the first half of the song was cabaret, but that the second half was great. He worries that they may not ever be able to criticize her.

Singer: Chris Richardson
Song: "Don't Get Around Much Anymore"
My Take (The Wise Son): Oye. Don't go rehearsing with Tony Bennett if you haven't don't your homework, Chris. He's got the lyrics down tonight, at least. I like his semi-twangy interpretation of the song and I get the sense that he's getting into the spirit of the evening's storytelling. His phrasing is precise and considered and his stage-craft is tailored to the song itself.
The Wicked Son, The Simple Son and Simon Say: Randy says he blew it out, with a vengeance. Paula praises Chris for not compromising his artistic integrity. Simon found it believable and that he made it kind of hip.

Singer: Jordin Sparks
Song: "On a Clear Day"
My Take (The Wise Son): Jordin's not quite in time with the band at the beginning, but she finds her way to catch up. It's a fairly straight-forward showcase, another female performance that puts the men to shame with its range and vocal purity. Chris was good, but between Chris' consistent nasal rasp (sometimes effective, other times not) and Jordin's ability to adapt to every song and genre? It's no contest.
The Wicked Son, The Simple Son and Simon Say: Randy calls her da bomb and blurts, "I'm like what?!?! She's hot, America!" With Simon giggling to the side, Paula calls Jordin a magnet of joy. Simon liked the way she sounded, but cautions that she didn't make it young and current.

But what did I think of the lovely Haley Scarnato and the hilarious Sanjaya Malakar? Check out my full recap over at Zap2it.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Netflix Watch: "Rocky Balboa"

"Rocky Balboa"
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Fien Print Rating: 60
In a Nutshell: Every bomb has a nuclear half-life and the half-life of "Rocky V" appears to have been more than 16 years and even that may not have been nearly enough time to clear out memories of the stilted supporting performances by Sage Stallone and Tommy Morrison. "Rocky V" was so rank that "Rocky Balboa" comes across as a near-masterpiece in comparison.

For my money, "Rocky Balboa" is no "Rocky IV." I mean, in "Rocky IV," Rocky single-handedly ends the Cold War and stops the finest killing machine the Soviet Empire was capable of creating. Here, he just goes into the ring with a soft heavyweight champ (Antonio Tarver) and manages to finally douse his fire down below (Ew). It's a better end for the franchise than "Rocky V," because writer-director Stallone has decided to just go back to the roots -- Rocky as a mumbling underdog, fighting only for himself. The movie's scale is intimate and it contains so many shout-outs to the first movie (still a classic, no matter what the haters might try to tell you) that it's hard not to feel good will.

Stallone's tendency is to write and direct as if the viewers have taken as many shots to the head as the main character. If redundant fortune cookie speeches about self-actualization were cut in half, "Rocky Balboa" probably could have had a running time of 45 minutes. Then perhaps Stallone could have found time to develop his various subplots. I'm fine with resurrecting the Little Marie character from the first movie (I wonder if Stallone offered the part back to Jodi Letizia, the original Marie, before going with Geraldine Hughes, who never really feels organically Philly-bred), but no real purpose was served in Rocky befriending Marie's half-Jamaican kid Steps except for to show Rocky looking for yet another son-by-proxy. Here, his actual son has become Milo Ventimiglia (Sage Stallone played the role in the fifth movie, but was replaced, which is probably semi-ironic) and they're chilly towards each other, but thanks to a single "Gotta Fly Now" montage, they become closer than ever.

Ventimiglia's only a minor acting upgrade over Sage Stallone, just as Tarver is barely an upgrade over Morrison. And it's a bit funny that Burt Ward actually got an Oscar nomination for his performance in the first movie, because his Paulie has become progressively more annoying with each film. The DVD's cut scenes are full of Young over-acting.

The DVD package includes an alternate ending to the film and to the climactic Dixon-Balboa bout. Stallone, always smarter than most people give him credit for, picked the right ending, the only ending the franchise possibly could have had.