Wednesday, February 27, 2008

'American Idol' 02/27 Top 10 Women Perform

Welcome back to American Idol, where saying you want to decapitate a 16-year-old boy and leave his bloody skull dangling from your rearview mirror is a compliment and a sign of thoughtfully conceived judging. Which of the Top 10 Idol Women will prove deserving of becoming disembodied automotive ornamentation on Wednesday night?

Song: "Crazy on You"
My Take: Already the women are making smarter song choices than the men did in Tuesday's lackluster show. Dipping into the Heart catalogue was a good move for Carly, though she gets a little shrill on some of the higher parts. After failing as a torch singer last week, Carly's closer to her comfort zone as a rocker. You know what Carly does more than anything, though? She reminds me how spectacular the Sisters Wilson are. This isn't the sort of cover that makes you forget that somebody'll always have done it better.
Jack, Chrissy and Simon Say: It started off rough for Randy, a little pitchy, but she found herself by the middle for an aight performance. Paula can tell Carly loves Heart. Paula loves heart too. In jars. On her desk. Simon, unsure why Carly's panting, doesn't think she's connected with the right song, that none of the girls can touch her vocally. He's just waiting for her to have her moment. Carly was bad last week and she's fine this week, but I'd feel better about her if the judges weren't required to over-plug her at every opportunity.

Song: "Me and Mr[s] Jones"
My Take: This is a fabulous song that's designed for a male with a deep, soulful voice and it's been rearranged blandly for Syesha, pushing the verse to a high place where her voice is at its least interesting. When it gets to the chorus, she finds herself, but there isn't enough of that. She comes across as sweet, not sassy.
Jack, Chrissy and Simon Say: Randy didn't like the song choice, advising her to give it what she's got. Paula would like to cut Syesha into bits, wrap her in colorful paper and give her to children at Halloween as the ultimate treat, but only on the louder notes. Simon found it a bit indulgent and says that the gender-bending choice was a silly thing for her to have attempted.

Song: "You're So Vain"
My Take: Yes, I compared Brooke to Carly Simon in my recap last week. It wasn't exactly a stretch as comparisons go and now it seems downright obvious. Brooke's cover is straight-forward, familiar and well-interpreted, though it opens up the door for a discussion of how we feel about people doing carbon copy remakes of songs first performed by singer-songwriters. But that's another issue. Her voice sounds strong and well-matched. As for the guitar, Brooke starts playing, but it ends up on her lap for the middle. She picks it up again at the end, but at no point is it musically necessary for the performance, since the melody is being driven by the guitarist in the band. It's just something superfluous she's doing that makes her appear to have a reason to be sitting on a stool.
Jack, Chrissy and Simon Say: Randy thought it was a great song choice, but he asks if the song was intended for Simon. Paula would like to put Brooke's head on a pike and put that pike in the middle of town square, so that her song choices can inspire everybody forever. Simon absolutely loved it. He is, indeed, so vain and he suspects that the song is about him, doesn't he? Doesn't he?

Song: "Don't Leave Me This Way"
My Take: After emphasizing one of her favorite aspects of Filipino culture -- Polynesian dancing -- Ramiele digs into another Filipino stand-by this week: Karaoke. When you hear the judges criticize karaoke performances, this is what they mean. She's just up there mouthing the words, staying in tune, bopping around looking like she's trying to make her good time appear infectious. There's nothing of her personality or tone to the performance, which there was last week.
Jack, Chrissy and Simon Say: It was only OK for Randy, who wonders why she didn't pick a doper record. Paula would like to cook Ramiele in a red wine reduction with seasonal vegetables and serve her at a dinner party, so that all of her friends can appreciate her fine flavors, but this week she doesn't feel like Ramiele got to perform her magic. Simon compares it to a ghastly wedding performance. He says Ramiele's still one of the top two or three female vocalists.

Song: "You're No Good"
My Take: After looking wan and tired last week and sounding that way too, Kristy looks great this week. But why do I feel nothing coming from her performance? The song is supposed to be scolding and scalding and Kristy just smiles and shakes. I may be wrong, but I recall a stern power to the Linda Ronstadt arrangement of the song that Kristy seems to be doing. Did I mention Kristy looks super? Because she does, in her tight, shimmery silver top.
Jack, Chrissy and Simon Say: Randy says it was a 100 percent improvement, but he's still waiting for her breakout moment. Paula, also relieved at Kristy's return to form, would like to stretch her out on a medieval rack, so that in addition to singing, she can also compete in the WNBA. Simon doesn't know how to label Kristy, but that she has real potential. He advises her to go more clearly in a country direction.

For the rest of the recap, head over to Zap2it's It Happened Last Night blog

And folks are always encouraged to check out Zap2it's Guide to American Idol.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

'American Idol' 02/26 Top 10 Men Perform

After a week battling through the flu, I think I'm working at 65 to 70 percent as Tuesday (Feb. 26) night's American Idol performance episode begins. As I learned from Paula Abdul, though, you can't use poor health as an excuse. You have to go out there and be yourself (or somebody very like you), expose your true colors to the world and paint every doorknob with the flavor of your dreams. The results for the Top 10 Idol men will follow...

Song: "Go You Your Own Way"
My Take: I'm not saying that men shouldn't sing Fleetwood Mac, but this is a poor choice for Michael. After his "I love sport!" pre-song clip, everything feels too casual, too taken-for-granted tonight. Some of it has something do with his relentless rocking/bouncing around the stage, which is making me seasick. More problematic is the fact that Michael is sharp throughout each chorus. He sort of strolls through each verse, but in the process of trying to sell the familiar part to the audience, he pushes much too hard. There was no '70s rock anthem to which he could have done more assertive justice?
Yacko, Dot and Simon Say: Randy kind of liked it, but wanted Michael to let go. Paula thinks he's doubly consistent, that he's "already there." Simon thinks it was his weakest performance, coasting along. Simon didn't like the song choice, but Paula insists it was directed at the women. Then never mind my criticism, readers. Ladies love sharp notes.

Song: "I Just Want To Be Your Everything"
My Take: Poor Jason, shocked by the discovery that being on American Idol isn't just about making music. He's compensating by making double-music, whipping out the guitar again this week. He's letting the backing vocalists do the hardest, highest notes on this Andy Gibb cover, which feels like cheating to me. It's an easy song if you only do the easy part. Really, he exhibited a range of maybe four or five notes. Last week the guitar was a helpful prop. This week it was a crutch.
Yacko, Dot and Simon Say: Randy's concerned that this is a vocal competition and that the guitar was carrying him, calling it "cute" and "charming." Paula thinks it was a clever choice, but she wants to see him put aside the guitar next week. Simon thought the song was too schmaltzy and that he didn't do himself any favors.

Song: "Killer Queen"
My Take: Luke is better with this song than last week's bland track, because Queen lets him show off some more theatrical vocals. I'm not sure his falsetto is really good enough to carry an entire song and Luke's vocal range doesn't let him have much back and forth even when the notes get lower. Performance-wise, Luke doesn't have a clue what to do without six or seven guys behind him on stage, so most of his effort is put into smiling and trying to remember the lyrics, rather than having any fun with the song's wordplay.
Yacko, Dot and Simon Say: Randy raves about the degree of difficulty, saying he's closer to his vibe. Paula says it was the perfect song and that this is why she fought to get Luke in the Top 24. "You are always going to be judged with the original and the trouble is that the singer of that song had charisma and personality and you didn't," Simon says. Luke's just happy somebody liked him.

Song: "Hot-Blooded"
My Take: Robbie's going to have to protest his rock credentials as long as he's on the show, Constantine-style. At least he doesn't have a Bo Bice embarrassing him each week. He does a decent pop vocal on a Foreigner song that probably requires more vocal rawness than he possesses. There's no rasp or edge to his voice at all and this song seems to require something like that to be properly sold. Here's my argument: Robbie can say he's rock-n-roll if he wants to and that's his prerogative. Rock-n-roll can be in his hair and in his scruff and in his jeans and in his drag-racing car. Rock-n-roll can be in his flippin' soul. But it isn't in his voice and he'd go further in this competition if he played to his actual strengths rather than what he views as the embodiment of his essence.
Yacko, Dot and Simon Say: Randy says that there are different types of rock, but he isn't sure if any of them were on display, that Robbie didn't have enough "UNGNGN!" Paula says nobody knows who you are but you. Then she says he played it safe and that he lost his character, which is her way of saying she didn't buy the song on him. Randy adds that Rock is an attitude and Robbie agrees. Simon thought the vocal was OK.

For the full recap, head over to Zap2it's It Happened Last Night blog.

And, as always, check out Zap2it's Guide to American Idol.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Last Minute 2008 Oscar Predictions

Hey gang. Last year, I did my Oscar picks over five or six days, looking at every single category and making fearless predictions. I don't remember how well I did, which much have meant that I didn't do very well. I remember when I succeed.

This year, I'm keeping it short and sweet. Only the Big Eight categories.

That doesn't mean I won't have emotional investments elsewhere. I would love to see the confusion to follow a Roderick Jaynes editing win. I would celebrate the humiliation of the Academy giving an award to "Norbit." I want Dario Marianelli to win for his "Atonement" score and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova to win for "Falling Slowly."


Follow through after the bump for what predictions I chose to make...

Click through...


Dark Horse: There's a lot of support in many categories for "Ratatouille" and if the Academy feels like throwing a coronation party for Brad Bird, he could sneak in with a win.

Should Win/ Will Win: Sorry, but I still like Diablo Cody and I still like her script for "Juno." I'm not gonna play idiotic "backlash" games and I'm not going to make a stupid joke about her stripping past. For the love Pete, guys, don't misrepresent the story: She stripped so she could write about stripping and because she thought it would be a funny thing to do. Maybe if more Hollywood screenwriters took time to have real occupations (or even funny joke occupations) they'd writing more interesting scripts. Just a suggestion.


Dark Horse: If Ronald Harwood doesn't win for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," this overrated experimental film won't win anything. I wouldn't find that at all sad, but maybe the Oscar voters would.

Should Win: I would love to see what Sarah Polley would say if she won for "Away From Her." That would be spectacular and a nice validation of her gifts.

Will Win: The Coens did a marvelous and literal adaptation of "No Country For Old Men." Good for them.


Dark Horse: All over the Net, folks who do this stuff for a living are going out on a limb and predicting Tilda Swinton will win for "Michael Clayton," which is a cute sort of hypocrisy. For months the Oscar pundits blather about predictive evidence, about bellwether awards and guilds and critics groups. But now many of those folks are predicting Swinton and all for the exact same reason: "Michael Clayton" isn't going to win anything else and Oscar likes spreading the wealth. And if every Oscar voters does, indeed, decide to think exactly like an online Oscar pundit, I agree with this choice. Swinton's very good and it would be career recognition.

Should Win: Bad accents are tough to overcome and Amy Ryan's accent in "Gone Baby Gone" is often a problem. But I rewatched the movie a couple weeks ago and was blown away by her performance. The first time I watched, I was appreciative, but I confess I didn't think it was award-worthy. I do now.

Will Win: Rudy Dee, who allegedly appears in "Gone Baby Gone," but is most certainly worth of recognition for one of the most important careers in the entertainment industry. Honor Dee and you honor six decades of struggle and questing for equality. You honor Ossie Davis too. And, heck, you honor a somewhat well-respected movie that made more money at the box office than any best picture nominee other than "Juno." If you honor Cate Blanchett, it's just a way of saying, "Hey, way to play another famous person, Cate."


Dark Horse: If the Golden Globes would have gone with Casey Affleck, it wouldn't have been a massive upset. Welcoming young stars into the club is what the Globes do. Welcoming old stars into the club is what the Oscars do. That why the dark horse here is Hal Holbrook.

Should Win/Will Win: I can't see Javier Bardem losing for "No Country for Old Men," nor can I see any reason not to be completely content with that possibility. As embodiments of shaded malevolence go, Bardem's performance may be the best of its type since Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs." Hopkins won best actor. Bardem probably had more screentime, but he'd got supporting in the bag.


Dark Horse: I know it's the predictable answer, but Ellen Page is the dark-horse here. I'd feel more confident in her chances if she'd pulled off a single head-to-head upset against somebody in this category during the award season. But she didn't. Even her Indie Spirit win on Saturday came against a weird field that included Sienna Miller and Parker Posey.

Should Win: It's time for Laura Linney to have an Oscar and in an ideal world, she'll get it soon, when she deserves it, rather than a few years down the road when she resorts to playing a woman with a wasting disease. Her performance in "The Savages" is never award-baiting (Away with you, Marion Cotillard), it's just good.

Will Win: I have no problems with Julie Christie winning. She was good in her movie and she'll thank Sarah Polley and Gordon Pinsent. That would be just ducky.


Dark Horse: It's important to keep patting George Clooney on the head whenever he does good things. Otherwise, he'll do another "Batman" movie. And his performance was far from my problem with "Michael Clayton."

Should Win: I've said this enough times already: The best male acting performance of the year was Viggo Mortensen's in "Eastern Promises." Frankly, I'm just glad it was nominated at all.

Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis acts the roof off in "There Will Be Blood." In think he *even* plays a character in a movie. But mostly, he ACTS. He hasn't had an Oscar for 20 years. Might as well give him another. No harm.


Dark Horse: How about if the Oscar voters decide that after giving best screenplay, best picture and best editing to the Brothers Coen, they just decide they're tired of 'em? And they decide to reward Paul Thomas Anderson for orchestrating the tremendous weirdness of "There Will Be Blood"? That would be wacky.

Should Win/Will Win: Even if something weird happens and a different film wins Best Picture somehow, I can't see the Coens not earning a well-deserved first best actor trophy for their first officially credited directing collaboration.


Dark Horse: There's only "Juno" and even that requires pointless rationalization. Every meaningful Hollywood guild has given its top prize to "No Country." But if Academy voters are like regular filmgoers (historically, they only occasionally have been), then maybe they go with their hearts. Maybe they say "Look, we resisted the temptation to go with 'Little Miss Sunshine last year, but this year we're trusting our hearts." It would be a huge upset, obviously, not in the least because "Juno" would then take best picture probably as one of only two wins.

Should Win/ Will Win: I finally finished my Best Films of 2007 list yesterday and "No Country" was my top choice. I'd be really pleased to see the best picture Oscar go to the movie I thought was the best of the year. That probably hasn't happened since... dunno... "Schindler's List"?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Belated Top 10 Films of 2007: Part II

[Inevitable apologies for the show unveiling (and... er... writing) of the second part of this list. People have commented, IMed and asked doubting that the second half of the list was ever going to exist at all.

Mea Culpa.

Flua Culpa in the case of this week. After five days of being barely able to leave my couch, I'm finally back to maybe 50%. I've contemplated taking HGH or steroids to get me back to blogging faster, but I want to make it clear that I wouldn't have been trying to give myself any competitive edge. I'd just have been trying to help the team.

I still have increasingly dim hopes of doing a truncated Oscars prediction post also, but don't hold your breath.]

In case you've forgotten...

9)"The Bourne Ultimatum"
8)"There Will Be Blood"
7)"The Lookout"
6)"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Follow through after the bump for my Top 10. It's predictable. It's almost certainly gonna be shorter than usual. I'm sick and lazy.

Click through...

5) "Once" (dir. John Carney) - There's a weird thing about "Once" that I have trouble explaining. It goes like this: Usually when I adore what's obviously a no-budget first film, I say "Boy, I can't wait to see what that director's going to do next," but despite loving "Once," I'm not bursting at the seams to see John Carney's next film. This is based on the completely unfair perception that I had walking out of the movie that "Once" was the product less of Carney's writing and directing and more of pure alchemy, that Carney's great stroke of genius was putting Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in front of the camera together. And resisting a traditional happy ending. I also don't know if I ever need to see Hansard and Irglova acting again, as honest and unaffected as their performances are. It's not a launching pad to other movies. "Once" is an 85-minute romantic, musical gem of a movie. I wouldn't add anything, polish anything or change anything to it. Is that weird?

4) "Atonement" (dir. Joe Wright) -- I guess my feelings for "Once" are no weirder than some folks already find my intense warmth for a certain breed of very classical, fairly British, epic filmmaking. I take no shame in my appreciation for Anthony Minghella's BIGGER works (I prefer "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Cold Mountain" to "The English Patient," though). I take no shame in owning and appreciating "Casablanca" and "Gone With the Wind." Viewing the word through a constant prism of irony doesn't preclude the ability to occasionally appreciate a masterful piece of earnest cinema. That's what "Atonement" is. If you put together a checklist of every technical aspect that goes into great filmmaking, it gets a mark in every category. The performances (with Saoirse Ronan as a well-deserved standout) are wonderful, as are the costumes, production design, cinematography, score and editing. Director Joe Wright shows that the camera control that elevated "Pride & Prejudice" wasn't just beginner's luck. The story problems that the movie suffers from are, I think, mostly a product of a difficult-to-adapt source material. Could I have felt a smidge more emotional pull at the end? I guess so. But I felt enough. This sort of filmmaking is done so very rarely and it's done badly so frequently that you want to honor the "Atonements" so that you aren't stuck with dozens more "Memoirs of a Geishas."

3) Judd Apatow FunPack: "Knocked Up" (Apatow)/ "Superbad" (Greg Mottola) -- Sorry for the cheat here. It happens. "Superbad" and "Knocked Up" were both the summer's best blockbusters and the year's best comedies and if any two films more permanently imprinted on the pop culture landscape this year, I don't know what they were. The remarkable thing is that despite outgrossing "Superbad," "Knocked Up" has probably taken a backseat in the collective consciousness, with the thousands upon thousands of teens now using "McLovin'" as their IM and message board handles. My feelings about the two films remain unchanged. Perhaps because Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl are just better actors, I buy the sweetness at the core of "Knocked Up" more than the last act attempt to grow a heart on the part of "Superbad." And yet "Superbad" almost certainly delivers more laughs, as it doesn't relent to soft-headedness until the last 10 minutes, while Apatow's self-directed effort starts pulling punches around half-way.

2) "Zodiac" (dir. David Fincher) -- When I first sketched out a hypothetical list at the end of last year (yes, I've been procrastinating for a long time), "Zodiac" came in at No. 10. Then I watched Fincher's director's cut on DVD. None of the additions were big, but a second viewing moved the film up to No. 5. Then I watched wealth of bonus features, which clarified and explained Fincher's vision and his maniacal attention to detail and it was all I could do to keep "Zodiac" out of the top spot. It joins "All the President's Men" as one of the greatest thrillers ever made about a professional process, treating the job of being a police officer or a journalist with so much respect that it can't give in to the normal beats that we would expect from a serial killer movie. Robert Downey Jr. was screwed out of a supporting actor nomination, though the entire cast is excellent. And Harris Savides' cinematography is some of the finest use of digital photography yet to make it to the big screen (right up there with the lensing of "Collateral," if you ask me). This is a film with a stature that's only going to grow and grow and in a decade people will be blown away that the members of the Academy saw fit to give "Zodiac" ZERO Oscar nominations.

1) "No Country For Old Men" (dir. The Brothers Coen) -- My favorite Coen Brothers movie remains "Miller's Crossing," but someday soon it'll be great to set aside an evening and watch "Blood Simple," "Fargo" and "No Country For Old Men" all in a row to soak up how the Coen Brothers have so totally reshaped the contemporary crime thriller. Not enough has really been made of how literal an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel this actually is. But as cinematic as McCarthy's novel was, the easiest thing for a filmmaker to do is to screw up a good book. The hardest thing is to fully realize that original potential. I wrote a lot about the movie and the book and the allegedly unresolved ending and all that other stuff that has some viewers all atwitter back when I first saw it. No movie got a higher rating from me last year, so nothing else had any chance of being No. 1 on my list. This one was easy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

'American Idol' 02/20 Top 12 Women Perform

There has been much talk of a flu bug decimating the American Idol women this week. Is our shared infirmity going to make me more generous to Wednesday's (Feb. 20) performances from the Top 12 American Idol Women? Or am I going to blame them for infecting me at last week's Idol party? We'll see... As Ryan Seacrest says, the show must go on.

Song: "Rescue Me"
My Take: Enough already with Kristy Lee's barrel horse. In her Idol season, Carrie Underwood would often seemingly take weeks off, letting her role be played by Robo Carrie. I don't know if Kristy Lee has a Real Carrie in her, but she certainly has Robo Carrie down. She's a solid and experienced performer. Her wrinkled nose says "I'm naughty," while her raised eyebrows say "But I'm innocent, too." And her torn, stone-washed jeans say "I'm stuck in 1988." Vocally there isn't much to the performance. It's slight and the only thing I'll remember is that at least she didn't do "Amazing Grace" again..
Ron, Hermione and Simon Say: It wasn't her best performance for Randy, who calls it rough around the edges. Paula says that being sick is a good excuse, but she warns Kristy not to let circumstances get her down. Simon thinks the song didn't suit her and he calls Kristy robotic as well.

Song: "I Say a Little Prayer"
My Take: I think it's funny that Joanne wants to make it clear that even though she's a plus-sized African-American woman, it's acceptable for her to have the voice of a skinny white girl. No argument here. She flubs a lyric early on and it takes her a while to recover her baring. Joanne eventually rediscovers the melody, but the pacing of the song causes her trouble as well. Her voice is just a bit shrill for me.
Ron, Hermione and Simon Say: Randy blames nerves for her rough start. Paula's doing a lot of rationalizing tonight, telling Joanne that she needs to pull it together. Simon didn't like it at all. "What you just did there was a very average cabaret version of a cabaret song," he says. Joanne's dad looks ready to kill Simon. Joanne looks like she's having trouble standing up.

Song: "More Today Than Yesterday"
My Take: All Alaina wants for her upcoming birthday is your vote and a nice pair of shoes. Kudos to Alaina for not seeing like a preternaturally mature 16-year-old girl. Nope. She's just a teenage girl. This is a more vocally interesting arrangement than the version that Chikezie did last night. It starts off dreamy and there are places where she's a bit sharp, but she's the first vocalist of the night not to look or sound like she's in a coma. She's not showy, but it's a simple and strong performance.
Ron, Hermione and Simon Say: Randy says that once she got started, it was like goin' on. Paula thinks she nailed it, loving the ending in particular. "I think you're very good," says Simon, who doesn't know the song and gets even more confused when Paula starts mumbling about Spiral Staircase.

Song: "Baby Please Don't Go"
My Take: I respect Amanda's determination not to cover Janis Joplin anymore, though I think there were directions I might have preferred to see her take this theme. Amanda's facing one of the most aggressive musical arrangements I've ever heard on Idol, all guitars and drumming. It's amazing she's able to stand out at all. There isn't much melodically to the song, but she makes the most with what she's got. Her scatting lacks fluidity, but her voice is fantastic. I've said it before and I'll say it again: American Idol has never had a female rock vocalist like Amanda.
Ron, Hermione and Simon Say: Randy loves her trousers and the whole performance. Paula says Amanda isn't a one-trick pony and she loves every bit of her. "I think you stand out in the crowd," Simon says of yet another song that he's never heard before.

Song: "Where the Boys Are"
My Take: Amy really needs to be marketing herself as young, sexy and brassy, not as a singer of dated torch songs. She's dreadfully unsure of the melody and the song becomes a droning bore. There would have been some Idol seasons in which Amy could have coasted as The Hot Girl for a few weeks, but this is such a uniformly attractive group that she's probably doomed already
Ron, Hermione and Simon Say: Randy accuses her of "scooping up to the notes." Paula says the camera loves her, but that the nerves and a poor song choice got to her. "You looked great, but you didn't sound great," Simon says.

Song: "Happy Together"
My Take: This is a more traditional version of the Golden Grahams theme than the one David Cook did last night. She doesn't have quite the voice for it, but Brooke aesthetically has something Carly Simon-esque about her. She was much more memorable in Hollywood with her keyboard and she's going to have to work to shake free of being That Perky Girl With the Dimples and the Sunny Disposition. That's not bad now, but it won't work long-term. If this season doesn't work out for them. Brooke and David Archuleta could hit the road in some sort of Osmond-style stage show.
Ron, Hermione and Simon Say: It started rough for Randy, but she worked it out, that she got "her slaying" on. Paula thinks Brooke has her own thing. Wait. What's that thing? I'm missing it. "There are times tonight that I feel like I'm in some commercial for washing up liquid," Simon says cryptically. He's disappointed that Brooke isn't heading to the dark side just yet. Ryan likes commercials for washing up liquids.

Check out the full flu-addled recap...

And check out all of my Idol coverage at Zap2it's Guide to American Idol.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"American Idol" 02/19 Top 12 Men Perform

"People are saying that this year's talent is the best yet," host Ryan Seacrest says, kicking off Tuesday (Feb. 19) night's performances by the season's American Idol Top 12 Men. I guess that's why I'm weathering the flu to perform my recapping duties. If I miss somebody, it's 'cuz I went into a coma.

Song: "In The Midnight Hour"
My Take: It's an odd gospel-inflected arrangement of the song and David looks to be getting a big dose of reverb, which actually helps his tone. Some of the affectations that bugged me from David's audition footage is absent here. There's no grunting or excessive falsetto. Until the end, he resists the urge to oversing (though he mangles that last note). He also resists the urge to move his feet once he gets to the middle of the stage.
Randy, Paula and Simon (witty name swapping to start tomorrow) say: Randy was "Like yo" and says he fell apart a bit at the end, but that it was still a good start to the night. The competition is on, Randy helpfully informs us. Paula calls his vocals brilliant and his vibrato perfect. It was better than Simon expected, though he urges David to loosen up a bit and to be distinct.

Song: "I Love You More Today than Yesterday"
My Take: We can only assume that Chikezie got sick of people pronouncing his last name as "Easy" and dropped it entirely. What color would we say Chikezie's suit is? And how much weight has he lost? The Chikezie we met in San Diego was playfully round. I'm not sure I'd even recognize this guy. I think he's lost 10 pounds since the Idol party last Thursday. Meanwhile, if I seem to be getting distracted by external factors, there's a reason. Nothing Chikezie does is good enough or bad enough to draw my attention -- he's got better stage presence than David, but his vocals fall short.
Randy, Paula and Simon (witty name swapping to start tomorrow) say: We made it to the second performance of the year before Randy whips out his first "It was aight." He accuses Chikezie of being old-fashioned. Chikezie's come a long way and he's here, Paula opines, in one of those statements that you couldn't disagree with even if you wanted to. Chikezie's weight-loss earns near-tears from Paula. Simon calls him "Jacuzzi" and says he absolutely hated the whole performance. "To be honest with you, this could have been something we filmed 40 years ago," Simon says. Chikezie tries correcting Simon's understanding of his performance. Talking back to Simon at this stage in the competition is never a good idea.

Song: "Happy Together"
My Take: Even after the elimination of his soul patch, David's fashion style looks to be "hobo chic." He's singing my favorite Golden Grahams theme. The arrangement is initially spacey and eventually rock-y and David does better in the latter mode. He's trying to do the Constantine eye-flirt, getting all squinty whenever the camera comes in his direction. David is the night's first singer to have to fight to compete with the band, but after getting downed out in the middle, he comes through OK. Is anybody going to point out that David's floppy hair is a comb-over and he's nearly bald underneath?
Randy, Paula and Simon (witty name swapping to start tomorrow) say: It was a little weird for Randy at first, but he worked it out. Paula calls it worthy of great praise. Simon thought he shouted in the middle, but that he almost made the arrangement of the song believable.

Song: "Moon River"
My Take: Jason Yeager seems to have a 15-year-old son. Even if the kid is really eight or nine, it only reinforces my feeling that Jason is a middle-aged man in a competition that values youth and he doesn't help matter by doing the most old-fashioned rendition of "Moon River" imaginable. We've had three straight attempts to rearrange the '60s songs in different contexts, but Jason goes straight-up Andy Williams, which isn't surprising for a guy who's been making his living in Branson. The tooth-y smile and welcoming arm gestures are pure schmaltz and Jason descends into a near-whisper by the end.
Randy, Paula and Simon (witty name swapping to start tomorrow) say: Randy says that all the guys can blow, but that Jason's concentration wavered. Paula did her first ballet recital to "Moon River," so it's got sentimental value. "I bought my first puppy to that song," says Simon before calling very "cruise ship," warning that it will confuse younger viewers. "You're like a dependable old dog, aren't you?" Simon asks. Jason is mighty gracious when it comes to the criticism.

Song: "One"
My Take: Robbie is 26, but he's an old 26. He looks like a man in his second or third act. "One" is a change-of-pace song more than a piece to prove your rocker credentials, no matter what Robbie's bandana, pocket chain, and leather wristlets might be trying to argue. It's like he's auditioning to play the role of Bo Bice in a road show version of Idol and he thinks the key to winning the part is wearing sufficient flair. Robbie has some pacing problems with the band, but doesn't make any dramatic vocal gaffes.
Randy, Paula and Simon (witty name swapping to start tomorrow) say: Randy says it's a nice one and had him rocking out. Paula thinks it was a prefect song. Simon says it's the night's first current performance. Simon isn't sure how authentic he is.

Song: "Shop Around"
My Take: Say this for David Archuleta -- he doesn't look like he's an old man. I'm not sure I'd have recommended this as a song choice, but David is instantly more memorable than the four -- Five? Six? Three? I've already begun to tune them out -- men who preceded him. He has good camera awareness and plays to the audience without seeming cloying. He doesn't show very much vocal range and he has some rough high notes toward the end, but does anybody honestly believe this guy isn't going to be around through May? Maybe by that time we'll see if he performs every song with the same semi-robotic enthusiasm.
Randy, Paula and Simon (witty name swapping to start tomorrow) say: Randy thought that was really brilliant and mature. "I'm like yo, this kid is ready to go," Randy says. Paula thought the song choice was brave and bold. "When you've got it, you've got it," Simon says. David's "Oh shucks" stuttering will get tired in a hurry, but for now it looks genuine.

But wait... This feels like only half a recap! Check out the full version over at Zap2it.

And if you want some indication of why I've been neglectful to this blog, check out Zap2it's Guide to American Idol.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

MovieWatch: "Jumper"

Director: Doug Liman
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 27
In a Nutshell: I'm having a weekend of appendix movies.

I mean "appendix" in the vestigial organ sense, rather than the "thing at the end of a book" sense.

On Friday night, I watched "The Invasion" from Netflix. For at least an hour, I was convinced that "The Invasion" had gotten a really bum rap when it opened in August to dismissive reviews and minimal box office. Yes, it was another remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" that the world didn't necessarily need, but it was made with an effective chilly alienation and the tension was developing effectively. I even liked Nicole Kidman's performance, if only because she's become an absolute master at playing semi-Stepford women. Then, in the last 30 minutes, the movie suddenly becomes a jumbled mess of poorly staged chase scenes and sequences which visually don't match with the style of the rest of the movie. Even if I hadn't know that the movie was, indeed, directed first by Oliver Hirschbiegel and was then essentially redirected by James McTeigue, I'd have figured it was directed by two people. I *think* I liked Hirschbiegel's version and was offended by the inter-splicing of McTeigue's, but since I quite enjoyed "V for Vendetta," it's possible that it was the other way around.

Either way, the good work of "The Invasion" is eventually undone by the vestigial traces of another movie poking out at the edges.

The same is true of "Jumper," though Doug Liman's movie has almost none of that good work and it totally overpowered by the sense that it's trying to be a half-dozen different failed movies at once.

Follow through after the bump for a full review...

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There are three credited screenwriters on "Jumper," bringing Steven Gould's book to the big screen. David Goyer ("Batman Begins"), Jim Uhls ("Fight Club") and Simon Kinberg ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith") have all done good work before and it's somewhat possible that individually they all did good drafts of a "Jumper" script, but the final result is filmmaking through a blender.

Doug Liman can't be blameless in this mess, though his track record is the main reason I went to see the movie in the first place. "Swingers," "Go," "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" all have places in my DVD collection, as does the pilot to "The O.C." I'd say the guy has probably built up enough good faith to weather "Jumper," particularly since it seems on its way to opening solidly, the wastefulness of "Jumper" is near epic.

The stories of the production are part of the public record. Liman was going to direct a relatively expensive adaptation of the book with a cast of relative unknowns. The studio wanted a name to sell the movie and in came the black hole of charisma known as Hayden Christensen [Did George Lucas destroy the guy from "Shattered Glass" and even "Life as a House" forever?]. Then, already into shooting, Liman decided he wanted a new romantic lead and in came Rachel Bilson. The movie is just glutted with actors, characters and trace subplots that must have been from an earlier script, from an earlier version of the movie.

The premise is basic, cool and completely unexplained. Young David has a near-death experience and discovers he can teleport. The end. He leaves his old life and goes off to another one, fueled by the cash he makes breaking into banks. Fair enough. That's fun stuff and it ought to open the door for a wealth of subtext about approaching young adulthood and the initial sense that your world is suddenly without boundaries followed by the inevitable realization that with freedom comes responsibility and that you really can't go anywhere and do anything as you may once have fantasized. That theme, which HAD to have run through one of the three versions of the script, is almost nowhere to be found in the final "Jumper," which is all plot. Jumper David is on the run from Samuel Jackson, who's out to kill him (and has no character to speak of other than that). Period.

As befits a movie about people capable of jumping through space without the actual process of physical travel, "Jumper" skips from event to event without any requirements of logic. In order for three-quarters of the movie to make a bit of sense, you have to accept that the main character -- having just had a white-haired Samuel L. Jackson break into his home, expose his secret, kick his butt and sent him scurrying off into the world as a refugee -- would find that the perfect time to go back to him hometown to rekindle affections with the girl he regretted leaving years earlier. Then you have to accept that, after carrying around the guilt of perhaps being at least partly responsible for the death of her classmate, said girl would greet said boy with romantic interest and enthusiasm and make no mention of the eight years he'd vanished. Once you've gone that far, you'd have even less trouble dealing with his decision, less than a day after his run-in with Sam Jack, to whisk his lady love off to Rome for hotel nookie and an illicit tour of the Coliseum.

A casting note: I was thrown into a weird loop right from the beginning, when Young Hayden Christensen is played by Max Thieriot, who looks a lot like Christensen and appeared to be 16 or 17, but young Rachel Bilson is played by AnnaSophia Robb, who looks 13 or 14. Then, since Christensen doesn't appear much older than 21 or 22 himself, I was barely sure how much time had passed (eight years, according to the dialogue) or how old the characters were and whether they were supposed to be peers, since Bilson comes across as much more mature than Christensen on screen. It's really just a mess.

Bilson was a late addition to the cast and given just how little of a character she has to play, it's almost mind-boggling to imagine how much worse the entire movie would have felt with a less charming leading lady. She acting opposite a brick wall -- Christensen is affectless to a Keanu-esque degree -- and reciting banal dialogue in a part that might as well not even have a name, but she's still adorable and impressively capable of getting laughs straight-lines.

She deserves to be in a better movie as does Jamie Bell, playing a more experienced jumper with a personal vendetta. Unless I'm misremembering, Bell's character arc is never resolved and in a sequel, Christensen could probably be jettisoned, leaving the action to good ol' Billy Elliot.

If Bilson and Bell deserve a better movie, Diane Lane pops up seemingly out of a different movie entirely. Her presence is spoiled in the opening credits, where she gets a "with" credit. She appears thrice -- once in a flashback, once in an unexplained plot contrivance and once for unmotivated exposition (along with a distracting cameo from the Little Boy From "Panic Room" [Kristen Stewart]). The character serves no purpose to the narrative and there's no reason why an actress of Lane's Oscar nominated caliber needed to be playing the part.

Then again, she's not alone. In a career characterized by an eagerness to do any role whatsoever for money, this may be the worst role Jackson has ever taken. He has white hair. That's it. Hand's up if you were craving a Mace Windu/ Anakin Skywalker reunion? Didn't think so.

On a technical level, "Jumper" looks fine and Barry Peterson's cinematography does a fine job of capturing the amount of Rupert Murdoch's money that Liman was wasting on location work. Tokyo? Cairo? Rome? London? For all it served the film, they could have shot on a green screen and CGIed in Mars.

The CGI jumping effects start out interesting, but since the physics of jumping are never explored, I wondered why the characters caused variable damage to the places they were jumping to and from. And the film's money shot -- the double-decker bus flipping in the middle of the desert -- is thrown away like it's no more important than Jar Jar Binks.

Sigh. I went back to the movies for *this*?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Belated Top 10 Films of 2007: Part I

Since 2006 was the only year that I spent as a full-time, see-every-movie film critic, that was the only year that I felt any inclination to deliver a Top 10 list in an orderly, end-of-year fashion. I all other years, I've accepted that just because a year reaches its end doesn't mean I've seen enough films from the year in question to put together a viable list.

Sometimes you're holding out for good movies, but other years you're wading through piles of awful DVDs that you're only watching so that you can feel you've given adequate time to the year's cinematic breadth and depth.

In this year's case, I was holding off until I'd seen "300." And I was holding off on "300" until I had a TV up to the task of doing minor justice to the movie. Having decided that my new 42" Vizio would do that job, I finally made it through "300" the other day and while it won't make my Top 10 list, it was a necessary speedbump.

Lists like this are a bit silly because if you're a regular or even semi-regular reader, you know what movie will be No. 1. If it's Roger Ebert composing the list and he's given 4 stars to 50 different movies this year, it's tough to know which one is going to be No. 1 ("Juno," in this year's case). But my ridiculous 100-point system is a spoiler.

But if No. 1 was easy, No. 10 was really a pain in my butt. I had many more films worthy of being No. 10 than I had of being No. 5 and the difference between No. 10 and No. 5 is completely negligible. Distinction-without-a-difference aside, I *did* put the movies in some sort of order and I only cheated with a single tie.

Follow through past the bump for the first half of my Top 10. The second half will follow when it's completed...

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No.10-20 (in no particular order): "Juno," "Breach," "Hot Fuzz," "Sunshine," "The Orphanage," "Away From Here," "Ratatouille," "Gone Baby Gone," "Eastern Promises" and, at No. 11, "3:10 to Yuma."

10) "Waitress" (dir. Adrienne Shelley) -- As "Waitress" became one of the few indie hits of the summer, the dark and sarcastic side of me (*yes* there is another side) reckoned that if Adrienne Shelly hadn't died tragically, nobody ever would have noticed the movie at all, that its success was somewhat ghoulish. That was part of what kept me from seeing "Waitress" in theaters. Having finally caught up with the movie, which is contrived and slight at times, but irresistible as a whole, I guess it's something that people saw the movie at all and that audiences were able to appreciate, however briefly and however late, that Shelly was, indeed, a gifted storyteller and an potentially impressive filmmaker. Shelly's gifts as a screenwriter exceed her abilities as a visual filmmaker and the "Waitress" script wildly cute and genuine and distinctive, but she also had a gift with actors and the performance by Keri Russell is as winning as they come. I would have loved to have seen Shelley's script and the performances by Russell and Andy Griffith get more Oscar attention than they did.

9) "The Bourne Ultimatum" (dir. Peter Greengrass) -- I still think that "Supremacy" and "Identity" are both better "Bourne" films than this summer's "Ultimatum." The attempts to close out certain mysteries from Jason Bourne's past are a bit clumsy, as is the weird/shocking revelation about Bourne's past with the character played by Julia Stiles. But I've watched "Ultimatum" twice now on DVD (once for the commentary) and the Waterloo Station game of cat-and-mouse, the chase through Tangiers and the maneuvering through Manhattan remain every bit as viscerally magnificent as they were in the theater. The set pieces in the first two movies are equally resilient, which is part of why I'd be happy for them to keep making a new "Bourne" film every four or five years, whenever Matt Damon -- so assertive, so subtle -- needs the money.

8) "There Will Be Blood" (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) -- This is a weird one, because "TWBB" came perilously close to not making my Top 10 at all. Then, though, having decided to put it in at No. 10, I started playing a game of "Are you honestly going to try to say 'Film A' is better than 'TWBB'?" That started a process wherein "TWBB" crept up my list. Well, the creep stops here. With "TWBB," the question comes down to the gap between how much I respected the movie and how much I really appreciated it. Perhaps the thing I liked most about Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" is that it was a movie where the ambitions were positively bursting from the seams of a 90-minute comedy. With things like "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood," though, Anderson seems determined first to expand the movie to a length that justifies his thematic scope and then to underline the thematic score just to justify the length. What I'm saying is that "TWBB" is a massive movie, so Shakespearean or Biblical in its tragic scale that every line of dialogue is thuddingly subtextual (GREED!!! AMBITION!!! FAITH!!! MILKSHAKES!!!) and every actor shouts every line in case you didn't get the point. Daniel Day-Lewis is great, but it's not a performance that lets you discover its greatness in small steps. He arrives snorting and popping blood vessels and letting every line of dialogue rip from someplace deep inside. He sets the tone for every shot of the movie, for good and semi-ill.

7) "The Lookout" (dir. Scott Frank) -- I went back and watched "The Lookout" on DVD to make sure that I wasn't just particularly susceptible to its brand of densely plotted Midwestern noir when I saw it back in the spring. It played with a bit less power than I initially remembered, but that was only enough to push it out of my Top 5. Some viewers were disappointed by "The Lookout" and many critics were disappointed because it didn't deliver quite enough twists and turns in its final act. Nothing that happened was really shocking. Unlike, say, the movie above it on this list, "The Lookout" is a movie that keeps its intentions and its urges muted. For me, "The Lookout" was a character study in which the heist was incidental and treated as such. Joseph Gordon Levitt has now has "Mysterious Skin," "Brick" and this film hit theaters in consecutive years and it's hard to think of a young actor who has developed a comparable body of work with less mainstream media hype (stories about "Stop Loss" will STILL probably call Levitt the kid from "Third Rock"). I also liked the "Lookout" performances from Matthew Goode, Jeff Daniels and Isla Fisher. This may be the biggest oddball choice in my Top 10, but I think this is a movie that viewers will discover down the road at some point and I look forward to seeing Scott Frank try his hand at directing again.

6) "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (dir. Andrew Dominik) -- Dominik is obviously stealing from the Early Terrence Malick Playbook here, while missing one fact: "Badlands" was 95 minutes, "Days of Heaven" was 94 minutes and it takes nearly two hours to even recite the title of "Assassination." I kid, but "Assassination" could have held to its status as the most gorgeously shot film of 2007 (my cinematography Oscar goes to Roger Deakins), could have maintained its twisty character portrait of both celebrity and celebrity obsession (Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are marvelous) and could have remained lyrical, haunting and tragic with a run-time of at least 30 minutes less than its theatrical 160 minute duration. A shorter version certainly would have made my Top 5 and maybe would have challenged for the top spot. I think you could, in fact, have lost 30 minutes without losing the great supporting work by folks like Paul Schneider, Garret Dillahunt, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner and Sam Rockwell. This wasn't a movie that over-estimated its worth, only miscalculated the best way to accentuate that worth. It's a very, very good movie that could have been great. For the purposes of this list, though, it's one to treasure.

Stay tuned for the Top 5. It'll probably appear by the end of the weekend. Knock on wood.