A temporary home and repository for television and film critic Daniel Fienberg, formerly of HitFix.com and Zap2it.com and one half of The Firewall & Iceberg Podcast.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Director: Robert Luketic
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 51
In a Nutshell: I want to get this out of the way, because it's a stumbling block in my brain. Ben Mezrich's non-fiction account of this story, "Bringing Down the House" is about a group of geeks from MIT who win a lot of money counting cards as a team in Las Vegas. Until two-thirds of the way through the book all of the members of the card counting team are part-or-all-Asian. So Hollywood adapts Mezrich's book and it's about two attractive white kids flirting.
Don't worry. I'm gonna ramble more about race (and maybe the movie) after the bump.
None of it would bother me except that it isn't just a casual observation in the book that every member of the core counting team is a minority and that the addition of two white folks to the mix is actually a major groundswell. It's a major plotpoint. There are points being made both about how Asians make up a higher proportion of casino high-rollers (not in the movie, where they're even absent in the backgrounds of shots, as our mostly white team keeps sitting down at high-roller tables being played at by a mostly white clientele), but also about how the mostly white pit crews and casino managers treat or notice Asians (and Asians of different genders differently as well). It's not an accident.
Hollywood here would say "But there aren't any marketable Asian actors of the right age and type to play the right role." First off, bullshit. Second off, find one. "21" was never going to be sold on its star-power. I don't care if the teenage girls loved "Across the Universe," Jim Sturgess isn't going to put butts in the seats for this movie. And, if we're being frank, does anybody think that Kate Bosworth has an iota of box office pull? You already have producer Kevin Spacey playing a character described in the book as "dark-skinned -- either Persian or Latino." Let Spacey be our required big-name white replacement. At that point, I'd have gone to the cast of Justin Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow" and cherry-picked a half-dozen of its lead actors, or else gone to Lin's casting director and said, "We're too stupid and racially blinded to cast our own movie, please help us." There are no bankable young Asian actors or actresses in Hollywood? This movie should have been a perfect chance to find one or two or three young Asian actors with talent and looks and put them at the head of a vehicle that really sells itself. But somebody must have been terrified by the idea of having to sell "21" with actual Asian stars to audiences in Des Moines.
My other concern would be that the producers cast either Sturgess or Bosworth in their role and then subsequently determined that that one move required casting another white actor for a potential romantic pairing. Perish the thought that Sturgess should get it on with an Asian girl or that an Asian dude would have simulated sex with Kate Bosworth. If black-on-white romance is still something that barely happens in studio movies without it being discussed, yellow-on-white romance is far, far, far less common still.
Sorry to get to amped up about this. But seriously, I kid. There are totally two or three Asians with speaking lines in this movie. Huzzah. Progress! Obviously Hollywood doesn't have a race problem! I mean, the industry has B.D. Wong! And yes, there was a TV movie about Marco Polo last year which co-starred Brian Dennehy as Kublai Khan. No, Hollywood doesn't have a race problem.
The screenplay by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb really just uses "Bringing Down the House" as a starting point, even though Mezrich's book is mighty cinematic without augmentation. So maybe it was Steinfeld and Loeb who decided they wanted to tell a whiter story than Mezrich had, what with Mezrich being hampered by "The Truth."
Mezrich and his book get a "based on" credit, but it's an obligatory credit and I figure Mezrich can watch the movie with some satisfaction knowing that NOTHING that's wrong here is his fault.
I don't wanna make it sound like Mezrich's book is some sort of sacred masterpiece of investigative journalism or anything. It's just a wicked fun pageturner. On one hand, it's a slight psychological portrait of its main character -- who doesn't have an iota in common with the movie's protagonist -- but it may be just as much a slight anthropological study of Las Vegas and the relationship between the people who live there and work in the wide variety of service industries and the people who come to visit all assuming that they're going to beat the system.
Steinfeld and Loeb have just reduced the story even more into to a simple Faustian tale. Sturgess' Ben is a genius, but he's also a townie and a nerd. His life appears to lack glamour and it also lacks the money necessary for him to progress onto Harvard Med. So when he gets his deal from The Devil (embodied by Spacey, who reads every line of dialogue with a brilliantly forked tongue), he jumps on board. Will the glitz be everything he dreamed of? Duh. Will he get carried away and lose everything he once held dear? Duh. Will he come to realize, like every ill-fated dreamer since Dorothy Gale that if he ever goes looking for his heart's desire again, he won't look any further than his own back yard? Well of course. The movie has been so conventionalized that nothing is surprising or fresh.
Because the villains in Mezrich's book are unseen agents of a P.I. firm, the screenwriters have whipped up a fictionalized main villain, a part the casting director didn't hesitate to go ethnic with. So Larry Fishburne pops up every once in a while to glower and complain about facial recognition software. Thanks to the presence of that character, "21" is able to have a conclusion that includes a rip-roaring and ludicrous chase scene as the movie deteriorates into silliness.
Since the movie is all about a sort of surface gloss, director Robert Luketic is in comfortable territory. Since "Legally Blonde," Luketic has never met an explanatory montage he didn't like and "21" is one voice-over, soundtrack-fueled montage after another. As a result, the pacing rarely lags. Luketic also does a decent job of visualizing the blackjack tactics and trying to make it possible for really dumb viewers to get the basics of card counting. Or to believe that they understand the basics.
Led by Russell Carpenter's cinematography, the movie captures some recognizable aspects of both Boston in the winter and the sensation of playing blackjack in Vegas til dawn and stumbling out into the light and being confused by where the time (and money) went. The movie is rated PG-13 and every bit of its depiction of Vegas feels sanitized and prettied up, but just as Hollywood would rather have bland white kids on the screen, they'd like for bland teenagers to be able to plunk down their money, even if it reduces Vegas to a place where nobody ever swears and the strippers dance fully clothed.
I don't want to discuss Sturgess only in terms of his absence of ethnicity. I should also mention his absence of personality. He combines the blandest, most earnest aspects of Wes Bentley and Jake Gyllenhaal into an attractive package that barely registers. In some scenes he's try to do a Boston accent, while in others he's just struggling to cover his British accent. Neither the Boston nor American accent is very good.
As for Bosworth, this is the sexiest I've found her since "Blue Crush," probably. But the best part of her character is that the writers haven't attempting to give her a single line of dialogue to defend her position as another MIT genius. It's a true relief that she never has to prove her IQ to anybody, because that could have been funny. Carpenter does a marvelous job of photographing her, so that even if some of the actors look believably like they might have spend a Boston winter out of the sun in the library, she looks like she never forgot to moisturize.
Is there any reason why Aaron Yoo, comic relief and then oddly absent Choi, couldn't have played the lead role in this movie?
Or why Liza Lapira couldn't have been the female lead?
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
NetflixWatch: "My Kid Could Paint That"
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Fine Print Rating (Out of 100): 79
In a Nutshell: For most film critics, the easiest reviews to write are for the best and the worst films. You can use the words "awesome" and "brilliant" and "sucks" and "dreadful" over and over again, you can use flowery language to say the film is the best one since, well, the last great film you happened to see, or the worst thing you've seen since you stepped on a kitty tragically back when you were 10.
But there's a vast middle ground that gets a bit troubling, things that you're ambivalent on. About 90 percent of the things in that middle ground are just "Meh" films with "Meh" ambitions and "Meh" executions. But then there are the ones where you're at war with yourself as to how to approach them, films that you liked, despite your best instincts not to or that you hated, despite a begrudging admiration for many aspects. You sit down at your computer and you have a conversation in writing and merely finding a way to express your bisected reaction can feel like a triumph. But readers of reviews don't want fence-straddling. They want "Yes, it's worth your 10 bucks" or "Don't go to the theaters, but Netflix it" or "If you pass the director on the street, trip him." Hemming and hawing leads to more hemming and hawing, which leads to intellectual discussion and that benefits nobody.
And that's also the theme of Amir Bar-Lev's "My Kid Could Paint That," a frequently brilliant polemic that irks some of the same sort of viewers who hated the finale of "The Sopranos," people who say, if I dedicate "X" amount of my time to something, I expect a definitive payoff.
Follow through after the bump for my full review...
There are many ways a present-tense, verite-style documentary filmmaker can approach a subject matter.
You can start without a your story and say "Whatever happens, that's my movie." So you start by following five or six inner city Chicago basketball players and eventually you stick with the two whose lives are so dramatic no screenwriter in Hollywood could have made it up. And it works.
You can start with one idea and say, "We're making this movie, but if the story changes, we can change with it." That way you're making a concert film about the Rolling Stones, but when the Hell's Angels kill an audience member, you're prepared to make your movie something bigger than it was before.
You can start with one idea and say "I'm going to ride this pony til it dies and I've got blinders on to anything else." That's why Michael Moore's films bug me so much, often. He's all about surprising viewers and surprising his subjects, but he's incapable of being surprised or enlightened himself. He knows the answer before he begins.
But I kinda prefer the documentaries where the filmmakers begin thinking their story is simple, discover complications and then struggle to reconcile the point for which they started with the new direction. In this category, I'd put recent films like "Capturing the Friedmans" or "Fog of War," in which Errol Morris' desire to crucify Robert McNamara is thrown off by the unexpected moments where the guy starts making disturbing sense.
Sorry. That got rambling. With "My Kid Could Paint That," Bar-Lev heads up to Binghamton, New York to follow the bizarre media sensation around Marla Olmstead, a four-year-old girl whose messy paintings are being hailed as masterpieces and selling for thousands of dollars.
His story: Modern art is a weirdly subjective thing. Who decides what constitutes art? Is it aesthetic? Commercial? It's a fine angle, albeit reductive and overly intellectual. Sit down with a couple artists, with a couple egg-head reviewers and scholars. Have them look at Marla's paintings and go "If somebody determines it's art, it's art." If that had been the only story, nobody would ever have seen or heard of "My Kid Could Paint That."
The event that spins the story on its pivot is a "60 Minutes II" story that accused Marla's father, a frustrated former jock and current artist of either coaching her painting or of doctoring the paintings and improving them. The "60 Minutes II" report isn't particularly good journalism, sorry Charlie Rose. Its only real purpose is the creation of doubt, stopping short of answers itself. But it ends the honeymoon for the Olmsteads and leaves Bar-Lev unsure what he's movie is about.
And he remains unsure until the end. Is his job to go from impartial documentarian to investigative reporter? Is he supposed to be a part of the Olmstead family or part of the media machine that wants to bring him down? Is he the man the Olmsteads should want to be truthful with and open up to, or is he supposed to be a crusader himself and crush the family if that's what the story requires? Bar-Lev wavers with every second, putting much of his struggle on-camera, going from outside observer to co-subject of his own film. One can imagine an original version of the doc where he planned to edit out his voice and his shadow and his presence, to simulate objectivity, but in the new version, he's nearly as important as Marla so he's regularly heard and occasionally turns the camera on himself.
Some viewers will find that irksome. It isn't just that Bar-Lev is a bit smarmy and self-satisfied with the story he finds himself in the middle of. He knows darned well when his little project transforms from something that would have played on PBS to a theatrical release, but to my mind his own unspoken recognition of his film's commercial potential matches perfectly with Marla's story. In the beginning, he doesn't know who he's making the film for, it's for anybody would would possibly watch. Then in the middle he's making the film for the fans of muckraking expose mysteries, but then by the end, he's making the movie for himself.
But I've read some reviews saying that he was exploiting the Olmsteads, which is nonsense. The parents were welcoming the exploitation and Marla is marvelously oblivious. But then there are a few more critics who say he owes it to the viewer to take a side, to close the movie with "Marla Olmstead is a fraud and should be burned at the stake" or "Marla Olmstead is a genius and should be exhibited at MoCA" or even a return to his initial thesis, "Marla Olmstead likes pretty colors and abstract forms, but what does that mean?"
But the movie isn't finally about those things. It's about how artists can present shades of gray. It's about editing. It's about inclusion and exclusion of information. It's about how long you leave the camera running to get an unforced reaction. It's about how you tell a story with limited access. It's about how you tell a story when your ostensible subject is a shy little girl who hasn't reached a Dakota Fanning level of precocity (and hopefully will never have to).
While it made a big splash at Sundance and was purchased by Sony Pictures Classics, "My Kid Could Paint That" never got a chance at the box office. It never played in more than 20 theaters and its domestic gross stands at $231,574, per BoxOfficeMojo. I never saw an ad for it or any promotion at all and facing all of those Iraq documentaries, it was never really in the discussion for the documentary Oscar.
With a running time of just over 80 minutes, "My Kid Could Paint That" is ideal for DVD, because one of the supplemental materials, a 30 minute combination of outtakes and after-the-fact footage, is the rare featurette that actually improves the movie you just watch. Some of the best footage is seeing the real people involved dealing with their depiction in the movie, seeing that the Olmsteads felt betrayed. But the best part is seeing the hints at different, more facile directions Bar-Lev could have gone. There are interviews with people from the Binghamton community who are conveniently and stereotypically baffled by the town's pint-sized celebrity. There's a bitter feminist artist who mocks Marla and derides her application for an art show because it doesn't speak to the female experience. It's all the stuff that would have had to support the movie if the "60 Minutes II" report hadn't come out. It's just another level of the storyteller's struggle.
Anyway, it's been too long since I posted something that wasn't a repurposed "Idol" recap from Zap2it. So I'm going to post this now.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
"American Idol" 03/25 The Top 10 Perform
Singer: RAMIELE MALUBAY
Song: "Hearts Alone"
My Take: The producers have apparently tired of Ramiele's so-so brand of party karaoke, giving her the Opening Slot of Death this week and dressing her in The High Waisted Shorts of Death. Tonight's secondary theme, of course, is making viewers like me feel wicked old. I remember when this song when playing on the radio. It was in tune back then. Tonight? It's mostly flat. And sometimes sharp. And generally shouted. And delivered without an iota of movement on the stage. The conspiracy theorists will think this entire performance was part of the ongoing conspiracy to keep Kristy Lee Cook around. I just think Ramiele hasn't been very good since the first week of the Top 24.
Tinker, Evers and Simon Say Randy implies that it wasn't the right song choice and that Ramiele being under the weather isn't really an excuse. Paula, who also sounds like she's also sick, is glad that America has heard her sing, praising her bravery. Let's discuss Paula's black elbow-high gloves and bejeweled bracelets. OK. Fine. Let's not. Simon, feeling generous, doesn't think it was as bad as Randy did. He adds that since Ramiele skated last week after a bad week, this week should be OK as well. Ryan accuses Randy of being too harsh tonight.
Singer: JASON CASTRO
My Take: Happy Birthday, Jason. Never has my favorite Stoner Muppet appeared more frantically guided by his unseen puppeteer. His hands strum wildly across his guitar, rarely making music, but at least steering the rhythm. The lyrics are all mumbled and I seem to recall the Sting version having a melody instead of just a high nasal hum. Once again, Jason isn't singing a song that's nearly complicated enough to justify the raised brows, pursed lips and clenched eyelids. They have coaches on this show and if they could sort of teach Carmen Rasmusen how not to bleat like a goat, surely they can show Jason how not to wince and mug.
Tinker, Evers and Simon Say Randy loves the song and loves the Spanish touch, but he's still waiting to see that breakout vocal performance. For Paula, the lack of vocal range is Jason staying true to who he is. Simon, though, demands that Jason takes this more seriously, comparing it to somebody busking outside of a subway station. We warns him that he won't win if he doesn't do something more. Ryan asks Jason if he's taking it seriously. Jason replies, "Yeah." He asks why Simon might get a different impression. Jason replies, "Uh... I dunno."
Singer: SYESHA MERCADO
Song: "If I Were Your Woman"
My Take: Yes, Syesha. We've heard your baby cry before. Last time it was creepy and interesting. Now? Tired of it. Last week's somewhat over-praised version of "Yesterday" may have given Syesha the mistaken impression that she has a diva's voice, which she doesn't. The bigger the notes are, the more she sounds like she's shouting. For the most part, though, the song has been properly arranged to keep her right on the threshold of yelling, leading to a nice, solid vocal. I think there's an upbeat side to her that works better than this, that would show off her personality.
Tinker, Evers and Simon Say Randy says this was the best he's ever heard her sing, cheering that "We've got another competitor in the competition." Paula says this is the moment that Syesha flipped it and that she's now the dark horse. This time, Simon says that the end part wasn't as good as Randy thought it was.
Song: "If Only For One Night"
My Take: After his first audition I said that Chikezie was giving me a Skinny Velvet Teddybear vibe, so I like the idea of him doing a Luther-by-way-of-Ruben cover. Chikezie has so much more range than the three singers who came before him. He has a smooth falsetto and rich low tones and his voice can work with anything. Does it work best with ballads? Probably not. Somehow the cheesiness inherent in Chikezie's wide-open approach to entertaining seemed less evident and more genuine with his more up-tempo Beatles performances the past two weeks. Just to get a better overall sense, I turned away from my TV and I absolutely enjoyed what I heard. I couldn't say that about Ramiele or Jason.
Tinker, Evers and Simon Say Randy thinks Chikezie was too old school, not hip and cool. Paula disagrees, raving that Chikezie's a throwback. Simon is right that the performance was cheesy, but at least he credits Chikezie with singing it well. He misses Chikezie's personality.
Singer: BROOKE WHITE
Song: "Every Breath You Take"
My Take: Brooke blunders the start of her song, pauses and starts over, but most people at home are probably going, "Doesn't she look so pretty with her hair straightened and isn't her mom a babe?" and didn't even notice. It's an appropriate song choice for a singer whose fans are right on the verge of getting stalker-ish. Credit Brooke for not letting her early stumble entirely throw her off, but I'm not sure she's hearing the piano properly, because she's trying to unnecessarily yell over it. It gets worse when the band joins her and she's suddenly trying to be heard over even more music. After last week, I doubt we'll never see her move again and it's great that she's able to make a song about stalking sound so sweet.
Tinker, Evers and Simon Say Randy loves the professionalism of her restart, but he isn't so enthusiastic about the song's second half. Brooke pats him on the head and assures him that it's OK to criticize her. Paula's pleased that Brooke has her own niche. Brooke pats her on the head and reassures her that it's OK to worship her. Simon thinks it would have been cooler without the band accompaniment. He's sure she'll be around for another week, though. Brooke pats him on the head and assures him that if voted back she'll gladly perform. Is everybody repeating how brave Brooke was for starting over as way of slamming lyric-botcher Presumptive American Idol Winner David Archuleta?
For the full recap, head over to Zap2it's It Happened Last Night blog...
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
"American Idol" 03/18 Beatles Again?
Since last week's Lennon-McCartney Night was so successful -- I'm not being sarcastic there, though I know it's hard to tell sometimes -- it's back to the well once more on Tuesday (March 18) night's American Idol, with a Beatles theme. Would lightning strike twice or would the second time on the huge Idol stage not be the charm? Let's find out, shall we?
Singer: AMANDA OVERMYER
Song: "Back in the USSR"
My Take: Mommy, what's the USSR? I'm very glad that Amanda isn't rockin' the striped black-n-white pants this week, opting for a tight vest and straight-forward jeans instead. From the beginning, this is a more mumbly performance from Amanda. This isn't an Archuleta situation where she's unsure of the words. She just doesn't decide they matter until at least the half-way point, but since a disheartening percentage of the American Idol audience couldn't tell you what "U.S.S.R." means anyway, that isn't a disaster. The light show is lively, Amanda makes solid use of the stage, she rarely ventures outside of her limited vocal comfort zone and the audience seems happy. I'd have preferred to hear her do "Helter Skelter" or any number of later, edgier Beatles tunes, but I didn't get a vote.
The Lion, Scarecrow and Simon Say: Randy thinks it was the perfect song choice, but he only gives her a 7-out-of-10 for the pitchy beginning. Paula calls Amanda "the quintessential, authentic who-you-are." Was that another Horton Hears a Who plug? For Simon, it was what it was. He's decided to get tired Amanda. This is the part where he tells Amanda to mix things up. Then next week she changes things up and Simon says, "No no no, I didn't see any of you in that song at all." "Ballads are boring," Amanda scoffs.
Singer: KRISTY LEE COOK
Song: "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"
My Take: Last week was a hilarious disaster for Kristy, a disaster I mostly blamed on the arrangement of the song. But the Idol producers like Kristy (or like being able to torture her on elimination night), so she gets to take viewers through her personal photo album -- She loves horses and dogs... Love her, America! -- before her clip package. If she made "Eight Days a Week" too fast last week, she went the opposite direction tonight, turning "You've Got To Hide Love Away" into a slowed down country power ballad. It isn't inherently a bad strategy, but did the arranger of the song ever listen to Kristy's voice? She doesn't have a very good low register and the song keeps dipping into deep notes where she vanishes entirely. It moves high at the end and she does, predictably, sound better. Why is it that Chikezie found a way to take the Beatles down a country path last week, but Kristy's clueless?
The Lion, Scarecrow and Simon Say: Randy doesn't like the arrangement and wanted more melody. Paula thinks this is the best Kristy's ever looked -- and in a short skirt and cowboy boots she's bound to be matching somebody's fetish -- but still calls it "safe" and "good." Simon comments that she isn't a good performer, prescribing hypnosis and describing her as musical wallpaper. He cautions that she's only memorable when she's terrible. Kristy warns Simon that she can blow him out of his socks. Ummm...
Singer: PRESUMPTIVE AMERICA IDOL WINNER DAVID ARCHULETA
Song: "The Long and Winding Road"
My Take: I guess if you had a blunder like Presumptive American Idol Winner David Archuleta did last week, it's better not to ignore how bad you were, so David's entire clip package is dedicated to how much he stunk. So much for that theory about how you have to have a short memory in this business. In his spare time, David appears to have been cutting his own hair. He now looks spectacularly elfin. Or maybe like a leprechaun for St. Patrick's Day? He's got the lyrics down this week, looking relieved and ever-so-humble at the end. I'm not going to argue with the basic vocals, but it's another uber-serious, mega-sincere performance from David. Would anybody like to see some evidence that he's having fun with this?
The Lion, Scarecrow and Simon Say: Randy requests that we check it out, baby. "David Archuleta's brought the hotness back to his game," he yells. For Paula, it was his most exciting and wonderful performance, raving about his ability to rise above adversity. I'm sorry, but one bad performance isn't "adversity." Ask one of the performers who have spent a decade living hand-to-mouth to try to make a living about "adversity," OK Simon calls him amazing and raves that it was a master class.
Singer: MICHAEL JOHNS
Song: "A Day in the Life"
My Take: Can we agree that Ryan's awkward product plug for iPhones and then Coke was disgusting? Anything that makes me sorry for Ryan is bad. The arrangement is initially so sleepy that the only time I perk up is when Michael mangles his attempted falsetto. Even when the song picks up and the camera starts spinning around Michael in nauseating fashion, it's a lackluster cover of what is, I agree, one of the Beatles' finest moments. Something's wrong with Michael, because this shouldn't have been so hard. The indiscriminate audience cheers, but Michael looks chagrinned.
The Lion, Scarecrow and Simon Say: Randy wants to see more of Michael's big old voice, closing with "It wasn't one of your good ones." Paula attributes tonight's problems to their earpieces and makes sure that viewers know Michael was spectacular in rehearsal. Simon says it was a mess, comparing him negatively to David. In a brilliant moment, Ryan asks a sheepish Michael to show the camera his earpiece. The problem? He's not wearing an earpiece. Michael makes the sympathy play by saying that the song was a favorite of a deceased friend.
Singer: BROOKE WHITE
Song: "Here Comes the Sun"
My Take: I believe Brooke just described her performance of "Let It Be" as one of the greatest moments in the history of the world. Brooke has a sunny yellow dress on and she has an orange sun rising on the screen behind her. I get it. The sun's coming. Where? Here. But without a guitar or piano, she's laughably unsure about what to do on stage. I find myself thinking of Abigail Breslin's performance in Little Miss Sunshine as Brooke does a goofy little spin and occasionally waves her arms wildly, like Big Bird on acid. Why doesn't she make a big sun with her arms and start wiggling her fingers like she's making rays? She looks beautiful, but spastic. She ends with a close-up grin so cloying it may give millions of viewers diabetes.
The Lion, Scarecrow and Simon Say: Randy describes the performance as "awkward," as Brooke quickly apologizes for her spin and admits that moving isn't really her thing. Paula can't help but smile. She starts rambling about Brooke's low-notes. Simon says it was terrible. "It was wet," he says cryptically. Naturally, Brooke takes criticism like a gracious, sunny fairy. It's the most sincere acceptance of of criticism in the show's history. I half-expect Brooke to come down and pat Randy, Paula and Simon on their heads. Brooke is treating the judges and America like we're her children and she's our nanny.
For the full recap, head over to Zap2it's It Happened Last Night blog.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
'American Idol' 03/11 Top 12 Perform Lennon-McCartney
After many years of threatening to secure the Beatles catalogue, Tuesday (March 11) night's episode finally sees American Idol tapping into the Lennon-McCartney songbook. It's the start of the Top 12. There's a new credit sequence (lots of scary close-ups of pop singing avatars). There's a new stage (big and, um, big). But what about the singers and their interpretations of some of the finest compositions of the past 50 years?
Singer: SYESHA MERCADO
Song: "Got To Get You Into My Life"
My Take: This theme night is really dangerous, because these are great songs, so great that even Simon probably knows them. Syesha's accompanied by a lot of brass from the newly elevated band and the arrangement is fairly jazzy (closer to the Earth Wind & Fire cover than the original). That means that much of the melody has been entirely changed. The problem for me? I, um, like the melody of this song. It's been made more rhythmically complicated than vocally, which is fortunate since Syesha starts off well out-of-tune. I guess she delivers on what's asked of her -- a little sass and generally sticking with the pace -- without standing out.
Ford, GM and Simon Say: Randy identifies the Earth, Wind & Fire arrangement and tells her that she was over-thinking and while he liked a lot of it, it was just aight. Paula says Syesha found the pitch in the middle and sounded great from there. Simon thought it was better than aight, but he warns her to get over her nervousness.
Song: "She's a Woman"
My Take: Chikezie's just about the last contestant you'd expect to show up accompanied by a banjo player, wearing a sweater vest and going all honky-tonk and bluegrass-flavored. He starts off nasally, but when the song goes a little lower, he fantastic and the more rock-infused the arrangement gets, the more Chikezie improves. I think this arrangement is probably very true to what Lennon and McCartney were doing at that stage in that career, borrowing and adapting American traditional music and seeing Chikezie bring it full-circle is great fun to watch. More than anything, Chikezie uses every inch of the expanded stage. Chikezie was in danger last week, but a performance this memorable ought to keep him secure for a week or two.
Ford, GM and Simon Say: Randy was thoroughly entertained. He thought the arrangement was dope, raving "Chikezie smashed it." Paula rather cogently says he started off in O Brother Where Art Thou territory. She's all praise for his risk-taking. Simon's surprised to agree with his comrades. Chikezie is bouncing around the stage like Cuba Gooding Jr. on Oscar night.
Singer: RAMIELE MALUBAY
Song: "In My Life"
My Take: This is my Bubie Ida's favorite Beatles song, one that the family manages to sing at nearly every gathering in her presence. So basically, I hear "In My Life" and I think of birthday parties and my Cousin Ellen doing harmony and Ramiele doesn't do anything to change my perception. She sticks to the melody and can't seem to escape the over-singing rut she's been in for the past couple weeks. Thought she pushes some of the notes, she sounds pure and in-tune throughout, but this was the wrong performance to put after Chikezie.
Ford, GM and Simon Say: Randy calls it both pretty and pretty boring. Paula leads with praise for Ramiele's appearance, which is always a bad sign. She calls it pretty safe and tells Ramiele to stop holding back. I'm on the verge of praising how sober Paula seems tonight, she ends with, "The whole world needs to see what we hear in your voice." Simon says he was bored to tears and that he expects better from her.
Singer: JASON CASTRO
Song: "If I Fell"
My Take: Back on his guitar, seated on a stool, Jason looks mighty tiny in the middle of the huge new stage. The song is understated and sweet and Jason's well-equipped to deliver understated and sweet. He's pretty good at making the most of his limitations. He falters, though, when he tries to show that he has more range. He goes into a falsetto at near-random points in the song and every time he hits that falsetto, he closes his eyes, curls his lips and makes an "I'm singing mighty high!" face (not to be confused with his usual "I'm mighty high!" face). Jason is very much the college senior who takes his guitar to the freshman common rooms because he knows it makes the dewy-eyed coeds go weak at the knees. How far will those dewy-eyed coeds take Jason in this competition?
Ford, GM and Simon Say: It was one of Randy's favorite songs and so he wasn't sure Jason needed so many falsetto touches. Jason's exactly the sort of singer who makes Paula swoon. She says she feels his heart and that the audience feels his heart. Simon compares it to a "student in a bedroom at midnight." I think my analogy is better, but whatever. Simon isn't sure that Jason will have made the same impact this week as he made with "Halleluyah" last week
Singer: CARLY SMITHSON
Song: "Come Together"
My Take: I liked the version of Carly we saw with Ryan tonight. She seemed loose and funny for the first time since this show started. Carly brings an entirely different tone to "Come Together" than what fans of the Beatles or even Aerosmith versions are accustomed to. I quite approve the difference right up until the end when Carly goes into her trademark yelling. Even if I wish that she'd delivered just a bit less intensity at the end (perhaps she should have traded some to Ramiele), I can't dispute that this is a much more confident Carly than we'd seen in past weeks, almost giving the sensation that she decided to go on auto-pilot until the Top 12. She's locked in and ready to go now, though. From my couch, it sounds like the most rapturous crowd response of the evening.
Ford, GM and Simon Say: Randy calls her strong, confident and stellar. Paula thinks she was already watching a star. For the first time, Simon thinks Carly chose a song that lived up to her ability. Then, in an effort to make this feel like a competition, Simon compares Carly to Kelly Clarkson.
Singer: DAVID COOK
Song: "Eleanor Rigby"
My Take: Oooh, did you hear the way David used "quasi" in his clip package? He really does love words. I'm not sure if David's version of "Eleanor Rigby" is more glam or grunge and what his jacket with the up-turned collar has to do with either. He's left his guitar behind this week, but he gets a huge assist from the band, which provides a wall of sound, as it were. David keeps throwing back his head and reveling in the flashing lights like he's having a tremendous time pretending to be a rock god. And it's a part he's now played well for two straight weeks, sounding great even on the big power notes. David's still a bit too smarmy for me to like him yet, but I'm growing to really respect him.
Ford, GM and Simon Say: Randy thinks David proved you can rock out on Idol. Paula wants to make it clear that there's more than one horse in this race and he's her favorite dark horse. Simon thought it was brilliant. "If the show remains a talent competition rather than a popularity competition, you actually could win this entire show," Simon announces. Tonight's theme? David Archuleta doesn't have this sucker in the bag.
For the full recap (or the second half, at least), head over to Zap2it's It Happened Last Night blog.
And, as always, permit me to plug Zap2it's Guide to American Idol.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
'American Idol' 03/05 Top Eight Women Perform
If you were a Hillary Clinton groupie, Tuesday was Ladies Night, but if you're an American Idol fan, the Women didn't come out to play until Wednesday (March 5). Last week, the '70s proved quite the challenge for the Top 10 Idol Women. Would the Top Eight do any better with the '80s?
Singer: ASIA'H EPPERSON
Song: "I Wanna Dance With Somebody"
My Take: Asia'H kicks off '80s Night with Whitney. It's a high energy number and after having her rear kicked by a power ballad last week, Asia'H is back in her comfort zone this week. This is about as simple as Whitney gets and it's still too big for Asia'H, but she succeeds in getting the crowd -- or at least Paula -- up and moving. Asia'H is a cheerleader, a bubbly and infectiously fun performer. She isn't about singing and watching her this week was fun.
Blossom, Bubbles and Simon Say: Yes, Randy. We know you recorded with Whitney. Randy thinks it was hot and that Asia'H proved she deserves to be here. Paula thinks she nailed it. Simon's not so enthusiastic, saying that "at best it was second-rate Whitney." Asia'H says, with proper humility, that she she's perfectly happy to be second-rate Whitney. Simon's right in pointing out that Asia'H didn't really grab the last note.
Singer: KADY MALLOY
Song: "Who Wants to Live Forever"
My Take: As my buddy Sepinwall points out, "My Prerogative" was an '80s song, but Britney Spears did an appropriately breath-y version a few years ago. If Kady goes home without ever having done a full song as Britney, it will be a tragedy of Idol-tragedy-level proportions (I don't wanna overstate the tragedy or anything). This is another awful song choice for Kady, who seems to have no concept at all of what will inspire viewers to vote for her. The answer? Something poppy and tarty, something Haley Scarnato would have done last year, completely with a Scarnato-ready outfit. Some of the early notes in her Queen cover are painful to listen to, even if she eventually improves. She may have a bigger voice than Asia'H, but she also isn't a balladeer. She ends nicely, but this really isn't what she needed after verging on elimination last week. She's hot and young and bubbly on tape, but she hasn't showcased that side of her personality at all.
Blossom, Bubbles and Simon Say: Randy thinks she did a pretty good job, but he doesn't completely understand the choice. Paula thinks this was Kady's best performance to date, praising the tenderness and softness in her voice. Simon agrees that it was last week, but he years to see her become less of a robot. Kady does a cute version of The Robot which shows, as always, her more appealing side. Simon forecasts that Kady may be in trouble and then snaps at Ryan when the host asks for clarification.
Singer: AMANDA OVERMYER
Song: "Hate Myself For Loving You"
My Take: After a shrieky and dreadful performance last week, Amanda's on more solid footing this week with Joan Jett. I like her on the verses, where she balances the shouting and singing fairly well, but she gets lost on the chorus, letting the backing singers carry her more than a singer with her set of lungs should really ever do. Stylistically, she looks much softer this week and with her skunk-streaks pushed back, she's prettier and less scary than she was last week. This is a welcome comeback, even if I'm not completely on board.
Blossom, Bubbles and Simon Say: Randy's totally pleased and says this is who she should be. Paula thinks Amanda's face is beautiful and says that she's still in love with her. Simon calls it fantastic, that it was the perfect song and she nailed it. He's overstating his praise, but the best part is when Simon mocks Amanda into smiling. No, her grin isn't comfortable, but it's still endearing.
Singer: CARLY SMITHSON
Song: "I Drove All Night"
My Take: While it requires me to admit that we watch The Pussycat Dolls Present Girlicious around the office, we were just discussing the other day at work that Cyndi Lauper is an underappreciated vocalist. Carly yells a bit more than Cyndi probably would have (but just as much as Celine Dion does), but she mostly does the song justice. Since shouting is seemingly inevitable for Carly, she needs to learn to do it without looking like she's screaming. She closes her eyes, wrinkles her nose, bares her teeth and generally looks constipated. There's never any doubt when the big notes are coming, because Carly has to squeeze them out. She's almost like a mime, a loud mime.
Blossom, Bubbles and Simon Say: Randy thinks that Carly keeps smashing it out every week. His praise for her is always overboard. Paula compares her to a dependable dog. Paula's telling everybody that they're in their niche. Simon, though, says that Carly's better than the song.
And for the full recap, head over to Zap2it's It Happened Last Night blog.
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
'American Idol' 03/04 Top Eight Men Perform
Tuesday (March 4) marks one of the most important nights of the electoral process. No, silly, not the Texas and Ohio primaries. It's the start of the final week of gender segregation on American Idol, before we integrate into the Top 12. How did The '80s treat the Top Eight Men?
Singer: LUKE MENARD
Song: "Wake Me Up [Before You Go-Go]"
My Take: Does Luke not understand that a big part of Wham's popularity (by "a big part," I mean "nearly all") was based on George Michael's charisma and performance flair? Luke seems to think that the world just loves a lilting falsetto. Vocally he's inoffensive and whiny, but his stage presence is dreadful. If you can't get the audience clapping along to this particular song, you're not even good enough to share the stage with Snoopy at Knott's Berry Farm and Luke is satisfied with standing in place and smiling. Only Luke could make me wish Robbie Carrico were still around.
Flora, Meriweather and Simon Say: Randy asks if he had a good time. Luke agrees that he did. Randy determines that he "kind of got it together in the end," minor corniness aside. Paula makes some icky reference to George Michael's shorts and says that she loves Luke's instrument. "I thought it was weak, a bit girly," says Simon, who adds that Luke has no chance of winning, much less making it to the Top 12.
Singer: DAVID ARCHULETA
Song: "Another Day in Paradise"
My Take: Or as I like to refer to him, "Presumptive American Idol Winner David Archuleta." At this stage in the game, we haven't had a winner so predetermined since Fantasia and Carrie Underwood basically ran the tables in Seasons Three and Four. Unless this David has also been stripping at gay clubs, I think he's going to be mighty hard to derail. Certainly as long as he sticks to ultra-serious issue-oriented ballads, how can anybody insult him? But let me try: Why did David bother with the piano? Did he play more than two notes? Talk about not-worth-the-effort. He should almost be penalized for misusing the prop. David's vocals are ultra-earnest and unremarkable, taking the least ambitious path through this Phil Collins standard. He's dull, but better-than-Menard.
Flora, Meriweather and Simon Say: Randy says this was like watching a concert, though it didn't show off David's "vocal prowess." Randy calls David on pitch problems -- Uh-oh, he's gonna get hate mail! -- but Paula loved this sign that David isn't a robot, that his imperfections prove his perfections. Yeah. That's what they prove. Simon warns David that he wants to avoid being gloomy. Simon asks to see David's fun side. David makes a plea on behalf of the homeless worldwide.
Singer: DANNY NORIEGA
Song: "Tainted Love"
My Take: First off, does anybody honestly believe that being tripped at the movie was Danny's most embarrassing moment? I sure don't. Second of all, has there every been a more fabulously campy performance in American Idol history than Danny's cover of Soft Cell? That's not necessarily meant as a compliment, but Danny's work tonight will certainly mobilize his fanbase. Sashaying around the stage with purple hair, a matching purple shirt, uncomfortably tight pants and the same gray-and-black scarf that seems to be making its rounds of the Idol men, Danny's husky whisper is either hilariously brilliant or just hilarious. This is the best performance of "Tainted Love" Hannah Montana could possibly give.
Flora, Meriweather and Simon Say: Randy's got a mixed review. He says Danny started a bit rough, but that he sold it by the end. Danny vows to be more confident in the future. Paula loves that Danny has a sensitive side to him and a spicy side also. She says that he looks fabulous, but tells him to lose the purple streaks. Simon thought it was horrible, "absolutely useless." Amidst much eye-rolling, Danny literally brushes Simon's words (or a symbolic representation of them) from his shoulder.
Singer: DAVID HERNANDEZ
Song: "It's All Coming Back to Me Now"
My Take: Hmmm... Despite a really strong performance last week, David Hernandez was probably suffering from low name recognition. The good news? Everybody knows who he is now. The bad news? Everybody mostly knows him as "that guy who gave lapdances to other men for money." I've never believed that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but if that's the case, this is a big boon for David. Meanwhile, I have my doubts that David's most embarrassing moment ever really involved a booger. It's not a very engaged performance from David, who refuses to embrace Meatloaf's inherent cheese. I don't know that Mr. Loaf should ever be taken quite this seriously, but beyond a few sharp notes, it's a fine vocal turn.
Flora, Meriweather and Simon Say: Randy liked the song choice, but thought David overshot some of the notes. Paula thinks David's finding his groove and getting into his niche. She compliments his vocals. David expresses his love. Simon says he prefers David as a Soul Man, but that he's 100 percent secured his place in the Top 12. We'll see about that.
For the full recap, check out Zap2it's It Happened Last Night blog.
And, as always, I write lots about Idol over at Zap2it's Guide to American Idol.