Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Comin' to America...n Idol: Neil Diamond! Speed dating version!

Well, that was a strange show. Extremely disjointed, and at times surreal - particularly whenever Paula opened her mouth, even more so than usual. And great fodder for conspiracy theorists.

Over on the "American Idol" forums at Television Without Pity, a site that's the equivalent of crack for analytically minded television viewers, there's a lively conspiracy-minded discussion thread called "The Grassy Knoll" (the term has something to do with the JFK assassination, I believe) that turns on the premise that "American Idol" is completely rigged by the producers. The idea is that each season the producers designate a favorite to win, "The Chosen One" (aka TCO), and do their damnedest to push TCO and to manipulate the public into voting for him/her and to weed out the competitors in an order that makes for maximum drama (read: ratings and media buzz!). Have you ever noticed that disclaimer that flashes on the screen at the very end of the show? Probably not, but in a nutshell, it basically says that the producers have every right to do what they want with the show, votes or no votes. According to the "knollers," this year's TCO initially seemed to be David Archuleta, but the TPTB have also been putting a strong second-half push behind David Cook such that he has become either "TCRU" (the chosen runner-up) or, just possibly, the new TCO. (Some knollers even believe that Cook was TCO all along, with Archuleta acting merely as a decoy.)

Until tonight, I was partly on the knoll to the extent that I can see the producers clearly have their favorites every year and have shown it in their favoritism, from the editing of the clips of the contestants that get aired (making some look better or smarter or goofier or more conceited than others) to such subtle but powerful factors as styling, lighting, and even performance order. Hardcore knollers, however, have gone so far as to opine that the manipulation extends to coaching the judges in advance how to critique the contestants, and possibly even lying about the actual voting results to achieve the outcome they want. I've always been a little skeptical that the show is that canned. However, after Paula's weird flub tonight with respect to Jason Castro, I'm not sure. Either she was high as a kite (not unlikely: she was especially incoherent, even for her, throughout the night), or she accidentally read preordained comments for a second performance that hadn't happened yet. Or both. You could see how flummoxed Seacrest was, and the incident would have been hilarious if it hadn't also been rather disturbing in its implications. As for the other judges, their comments - especially Randy's - telegraphed extreme pimping of both Davids for a David-David finale, and extreme railroading of Jason, to the point that even though I'm a Cookhead and not a Castrophile, I got irritated. Way to show show much of this show is scripted, TPTB!

But tonight was supposed to be about Neil Diamond, right? I guess. I don't think that aspect of it was at all well managed, either. We didn't get to see much of Neil, who seemed like a nice, courtly gentleman but totally softballed all the contestants in his comments, and the performances - particularly the first round - felt way too short. Maybe his songs don't lend themselves to such ruthless cutting; regardless, the whole thing felt very rushed and discombobulated, and I think the performances suffered as a result. Moreover, ALL THE CONTESTANTS HAD SERIOUS PITCH ISSUES. Yes, every single one of them, and being a rather pitch-sensitive listener, I found it kind of painful. A couple managed to transcend this. Others did not.

Ok, the rundown:

JASON CASTRO got a raw deal tonight, more so than he deserved. TPTB either really, REALLY want him gone or are trying reverse psychology to motivate his fans to vote. Setting that aside, I thought his first song, "Forever in Blue Jeans," started out well - he sounded surprisingly good in his lower register, and less breathy than usual - but about midway through I got bored. Even though it was only a minute and a half long. That may be more the song than him, though I can't help thinking a better performer would have been able to sell it. As for his second song, "September Morn," it sounded lounge-y and amateurish, and much more out of tune. Maybe at that point he figured TPTB are going to get him booted whatever it takes, so why even bother anymore? Can't say I blame him if so.

DAVID COOK proved once again he's by far the smartest and most mature contestant left in the game, wisely choosing lesser known and stylistically contrasting ND songs. I was happy to see a return of the guitar - both electric and acoustic! - though less happy at the emo-ish hair and terrible wardrobe choices. The first number, "I'm Alive," was so short it almost didn't register, but I liked how he brought the grit to his voice without going out of tune. Then came the love ballad-y "All I Really Need Is You," which on first viewing sounded so "pitchy" to me that I winced the whole way through it and then winced further through the judges' fulsome praise. But afterwards I watched it again. And again. And again. And I now think this may be one of my favorite DC performances to date, off-key notes and bad hair and all. He went from the raspy edge of "I'm Alive" to a melting wistfulness, and put his soul into the song without turning it into a total sapfest. "AIRNIY" was in my opinion better than "Always Be My Baby," better than "Music of the Night," and at least as good as "Little Sparrow," though YMMV. As for his pitch issues, they make me think of a quote by the wife of the famous pianist Artur Rubinstein: that she would need a basket to catch all of the wrong notes from each of his performances. The point is that the wrong notes didn't matter, because his artistry transcended them. Presumptuous as it may be to compare David Cook to Rubinstein, I have a similar feeling about him. His performances are never technically perfect, but they more than make up for it in musical and emotional expressiveness.

BROOKE WHITE pulled it together - somewhat - after last week's near meltdown, and still managed to deliver an absolutely meh-tastic pair of performances. She looked like she was strenuously trying to "have fun" with "I'm a Believer," and only succeeded in scaring me a little with her forced cheeriness. She was more comfortable with "I Am, I Said" - being at the piano may have helped - yet for the umpteenth time, I got nuthin' emotionally from her. She was smiling again, when for pete's sake, this is a song about deep loneliness! First "Jolene," now this...She's the exact opposite of David Cook: where he puts soul (and perhaps a little too much angst) into formerly upbeat songs, she doesn't seem to know the meaning of either soul or angst, and shows not a trace of it in her singing. And she still squeaks when she jumps more than four notes. (Also, honey, I know Neil told you to change the lyrics, but I'm willing to bet you the sandwich you desperately need to eat that the rents in LA are not lower than those in Arizona.)

DAVID ARCHULETA, after a brief flirtation with "Cook-ing" his song last week, went back to Archieland, predictably chose the two most sung, most known, most obvious songs in the ND canon, and poured Archie syrup all over them. Dear boy, as a Red Sox fan I must tell you that you do not sing "Sweet Caroline" that way. Ever. And it's just disturbing hearing the words "touching me, touching you" coming from your mouth, since you still look all of twelve years old. As for "Coming to America," the smooth glaze was less obviously incongruous. However, the glaze also cracked (literally: maybe DaArch hasn't hit puberty yet after all). There were definitely more pitch problems than usual, which detracts from his appeal more than it does the other contestants'. Still, I'm sure the iffy notes will put hardly a dent in his fan base. Loved Simon's snark on the song choice - totally reminiscent of his double-edged compliment to Kristy Lee Cook for picking "God Bless the U.S.A."

SYESHA MERCADO gets no respect, other than the very pointed hints from the judges that she should hie herself to Broadway, stat. She looked lovely and, aside from occasional pitch issues, sang well tonight. She always does; it's putting a distinctive mark on the song that's the problem. I find her more appealing when she goes uptempo - she put a little R&Bish groove into her second song, "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime," which I quite enjoyed. By contrast, the first song, "Hello Again," did nothing for me, mainly because she spent so much of it showing off her high notes, which, as I've mentioned before, are the least interesting part of her vocals. They're not bad; they're just generic. She needs songs with more swing and bounce. I hope she gets a chance at them, because in this final five, she's slowly becoming my second favorite, though a very distant one. I still don't like her personality (she doesn't seem very bright, at least the way she presents herself on the show), but I do think that she's got far more skills and polish than at least two of her remaining competitors.

BEST OF THE NIGHT: While, it was a weird night as I said, hands down, my favorite, David Cook.

WORST: On balance, Brooke was worse than Jason - by a hair. Jason at least shows a smidgen more personality and emotion when he sings.

BOTTOM 2: Syesha has had fanbase problems, but Dial Idol is showing her at the top, even above David Cook. Maybe she inherited a lot of Carly's fans. So I say Jason and Brooke, which is as it should be.

GOING HOME: Please let it be Brooke. I've officially given up on her ever wowing me.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Webber Action on "Idol"

As an unabashed Broadway fan who's slightly more abashed at her soft spot for Andrew Lloyd Webber, I have to admit I was looking forward to this week ever since I heard Sir Andrew – or is it Lord Andrew – was going to be an "AI" mentor. I dare say I'm one of the few, as I suspect most "Idol" watchers have little use for musicals, while most musical theater lovers seem to despise ALW – for bombast, triteness, treacliness, you name it. (Aside: Why must Webber always be a guilty pleasure for a musical lover? It's roughly the equivalent of a classical music buff secretly loving Tchaikovsky. Also, are there any Sondheim lovers who love ALW, too? I’m convinced there aren't. I myself am not sufficiently acquainted with Sondheim's work to be one.) I can’t say I’m exactly a Webberhead, though like many girls, I went through a Phantom of the Opera phase in junior high, from which I never completely recovered. In fact, Phantom is the only musical of his that I know really well. However, I have liked quite a few, though by no means all, of the bits of his other musicals I've heard or seen.

While opinions may vary on his music, there's little doubt that ALW proved an intelligent and effective mentor to most of the top six, if the clips they showed were any indicator. I liked how he kept bringing each contestant back to the meaning of the song, placing it in the context of the overall musical, and I thought most of his suggestions were spot-on. I also enjoyed his dry British wit and turn of phrase. (Come on, how often do you hear the word "glamourpuss" these days?) But at the end of the day, even his coaching couldn't make certain square pegs (cough)Jason(cough)Brooke fit into the round holes of his repertoire, though there were others who benefited greatly from his advice.

THE RUNDOWN (in performance order):

SYESHA MERCADO led off with the only song on the list I didn't recognize, "One Rock and Roll Too Many" from Starlight Express, and absolutely nailed it. Go Syesha! And go me! Earlier in the day, as I was thinking about how the contestants would fare with Sir Andrew, I predicted that Syesha and David C would shine the brightest and surprise the most people. And look how right I was. In Syesha's case, I remember reading somewhere that the judges had said of her that she was more like an actress who happened to sing very well than a true singer, and remember thinking I agreed. It followed logically that she would be more at home with a Broadway theme, which would compel her to act and project a persona other than herself. And boy, was I right. Clad in a sleek red dress that accented her, uh, personal assets, she slinked and shimmied and sang the hell out of her jazzy number, wresting praise from even the Broadway-allergic Simon. What was best about her performance was that, for once, she really seemed to be enjoying herself, an element that always seemed missing before.

JASON CASTRO had a tough act to follow, and alas, wasn't helped by choosing "Memory" (from Cats), a belters' favorite and one of the most worn chestnuts in the ALW collection. I couldn't help but chortle at Sir Andrew's reaction to Jason, whom he clearly could make nothing of; I'm sure he's never seen the like of that kid before, as dreadheaded Jack Johnson-y guitar-strummers don't in the normal course of affairs cross paths with Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Alas, the disjunct showed in Jason's performance. I didn't think it was quite the "train wreck" that Randy proclaimed it to be (btw, Randy really seems to have his claws out for Jason), but it was hard to watch him struggle so hard in such futility. While his vocals weren't notably worse than in past weeks - though he seemed to be having particular difficulties controlling his breathing - the difference lay in the fact that he couldn't make the song his own. He tried - oh how earnestly he tried - and failed. It was like watching a beached fish flap desperately on the shore.

BROOKE WHITE was another one I had to give an "A" for effort but, at best, a C+ for execution. It's too bad, because I think she had the potential to do much better. She was wise enough to pick a song that wouldn't strain her range ("You Must Love Me" from the movie version of Evita, written specifically for Madonna's equally limited range), though I applauded ALW for pointing out that Brooke clearly had no idea what the song really meant and for helping her understand something of the intense pain that it was meant to convey. You could practically see the light bulb go off in her head. And she really did try to translate that into her performance; tonight was the first night in a while I could sense real emotion working through. The false start, however, did her no favors (not the first time she's done that, and not very professional, as Paula pointed out with uncharacteristic curtness). And, as with Jason, the whole thing came across as at once painfully labored and wildly ill-suited to her vocal style, despite her best efforts. At least this time she kept her mouth shut during the judges' comments, though she still looked a bit pouty.

DAVID ARCHULETA pulled a bit of a "Big David" in rearranging the old-fashioned lyric "Think of Me" (from Phantom) into a slightly uptempo, boy band-ish pop song. Have to say he didn't do a half-bad job with the transformation, though I couldn't help feeling like it had a, well, trivializing effect on the song. (Cue legions of ALW haters proclaiming "Song was already trivial!") His vocals, as always, were smooth and lovely. But I swear the kids looks younger, not older, every week. Oh, and more kudos to ALW for calling him on keeping his eyes shut through 80% of his songs! You could see him fighting the impulse tonight, which was pretty funny.

CARLY SMITHSON rocked out with "Superstar" from Jesus Christ Superstar, a song I secretly hoped David C would do though I knew he wouldn't. I think ALW's instincts, in persuading her to take that song rather than the uberromantic "All I Ask of You," were correct, even if they seemed as influenced by her tattoos as the quality of her voice. (But he's right on the latter; her voice is hard rather than tender; bronze rather than silver.) She brought a lot of energy and verve to it, and, like Syesha, seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself on stage. However, I don't think her vocals were quite as good as Syesha's, especially in her upper range: as Simon said, it got a bit "shouty." I'm actually less concerned by that than I am about how certain segments of the "AI" voting population not familiar with JCS might react to lyrics like "Jesus Christ, / Superstar, / Do you think you're what they say you are?"

DAVID COOK's secret weapon, which only Cookheads like myself were probably aware of, was the fact that he has serious roots in musical theater: he was a theater geek in high school, and even went to college on a musical theater scholarship, though he didn't stick with it. So I was unusually confident going into this week that he would, contrary to common expectation, be all over the material and would shatter the stereotype of him as a wannabe rocker. Score two for me! IMO, only someone with his experience could successfully take on the one ALW song that's been sung more ad nauseum than "Memory" - i.e., "The Music of the Night." First off, let me say that a long time ago, I liked that song. Then after hearing it performed more times than I can count - I even had to accompany someone singing it on the piano - I renounced it forever; I now call it "the endless song" and actually skip over the track whenever I listen to Phantom. So when I heard that David C was singing the Endless Song, I wasn't best pleased, and was a little nervous about some of the high notes. I needn't have worried. It wasn't the most virtuosic performance of "MoN" I've ever heard, but he avoided the trap of being compared to previous Phantoms, especially Michael Crawford, by infusing the song with a husky tenderness that's entirely absent in the original version. He sang it straight (except for the signature rocker note at the very end), yet still made it quintessentially DC, complete with soulful DC glances and gestures. And he hit the high notes! In Randy's words, molten hot, baby.

How funny was it that this week David A should be the one to "tweak" his song, while DC played it straight with his? But that's what I Iove so much about this season. Just when you think you've pegged any of the contestants, they can turn around and surprise you. Still waiting for Brooke to do that, though her time to do so may have just run out.

BEST OF THE NIGHT: Syesha edges out David C, but both were definitely a cut above the rest

WORST: Erhem, it's a toss-up between Jason and Brooke

BOTTOM 3: Brooke, Jason, and Carly

GOING HOME: I'm going to go out on a limb and say Carly. She and Syesha seem to be the contestants who are most dependent on voters of no allegiance rather than established fan bases, and I think Syesha did better than her tonight. Plus, there's the Christian contingent to consider (see above), though I really hope Sir Andrew's advice on song choice doesn't unwittingly become the reason she goes home.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Let's have a luau, "Idol"ators: Mariah's here!

I shuddered a little when I first heard that this week on "American Idol" was going to be all Mariah Carey all the time. I bear no ill will towards the lady - I'm only vaguely familiar with a handful of her songs - but what I do know about her is that no aspiring female singer should ever try to compete with her crazy vocal gymnastics, and no male singer, to my knowledge, ever tries. Under these circumstances, I couldn't imagine how her repertoire was going to make anyone sound good.

Well, the idols didn't altogether prove me wrong. But what was interesting to me about tonight's programme was how much it brought out the stylistic differences between the contestants - and also how much it highlighted their respective strengths and weaknesses. Also, Mariah herself surprised me. Apart from the rather homely little dog she brought along with her (for the record, I love little dogs), she was very un-divaesque. Though I didn't buy her whole "just think of me as some ordinary shmoe listening to you sing" (yeah right, you're Mariah f---ing Carey), overall she came across as unexpectedly relaxed and down-to-earth, and seemed to be genuinely interested in working with the "Top 7," if not quite as cuddly and sunshiny as Dolly P.

So here's the rundown - in PERFORMANCE ORDER, not ranking.

DAVID ARCHULETA led off with "When You Believe," originally a duet recorded by Mariah and Whitney Houston for the animated film "Prince of Egypt." (Man, can't believe that was already a decade ago.) The song is DULL, DULL, DULL and Da Arch didn't make it any less so. And that is all I have to say about that.

Judges sure overpraised him, though, even more so than usual.

CARLY SMITHSON followed, singing "Without You." She was looking pretty sexy tonight (whoa cleavage) and more self-possessed than usual. I think her session with Mariah must have boosted her confidence a bit, since Mariah clearly likes her. Not her best performance, however, IMHO. I'm with Randy on her sounding a little uncertain, even a little breathy, in the beginning; I don't agree, however, that it got better once she opened up into the "power part." She seemed to be singing at rather than to her audience, and the whole thing sounded too...labored. I like Carly - loved the shout-out to dear departed Michael Johns - and I respect her talent, but on stage she just doesn't always come together for me. (Beatles ref involuntary.)

SYESHA MERCADO finally avoided Obvious Land this week in choosing an obscure Mariah song, "Vanishing," and delivered another solid vocal. As far as I can tell, this girl has never had a bad or even an "off" performance. Then why is she not more popular, and why is the praise for her - from the judges, from Dolly, from Mariah - always so tempered? Over and over again the impression she seems to make on others, not just me, is that she's very good, but somehow not a star or a standout. One criticism I've read about her is that she insists on trying songs that are too "big" for her pipes. I don't completely agree - girl can belt - but it's true that I like her better when she's not working it to the max, and the diva songs may not be the ones best suited to her voice, however well they may fit her temperament. Re: the latter, I don't see a prima donna so much as a mannequin, from her model-like posture to her fixed pearly-white grin. She doesn't seem quite human. Every week I find myself wishing I could combine Carly's personality with Syesha's voice. Then I'd have a female contestant I could support wholeheartedly. As it is, each of the girls in the competition has a quality or two I like, but none the total package.

BROOKE WHITE wore an unusual amount of un-Brooke-like glitter (ah, Glitter) and looked quite lovely, but was obviously out of her element in Mariahland. I love how the "AI" mentors - Dolly, and now Mariah - are always talking about how "genuine" Brooke is, because I'm sure it's true and yet it always sounds like code to me for "which makes up for the fact that she's one of the weakest vocalists." She does what she can, she clearly has a good ear and understanding of her own, er, "wheelhouse" (to quote Randy), but she and Mariah mix like milk and wine...which is to say, not at all. Her rendition of "Hero" was, I'm sorry to say, downright painful. Her pitch wavered and squeaked slightly with the jumps, and she seemed to be constantly fighting for breaths as she stretched the limits of her range. Accompanyng herself on the piano didn't seem to keep her very well anchored, either - the whole tempo felt rushed, like she couldn't wait to get to the end. (Good on Paula for calling that - woman's not as flaky as viewers make her out to be.) And it looks like Brooke has, indeed, taken over Ramiele's role as the resident pouter of this year's Idols. I find it annoying.

Side note: Simon evidently remembers those Wendy's commercials from the '80s. Seriously, though, that whole "where's the beef"/bun/condiments riff got kind of out of hand. Between that and Randy's luau comment after Jason's performance, it makes me wonder if the judges get hungry during the show and whether that affects their judging.

KRISTY LEE COOK, like Syesha, chose a lesser known Mariah song ("Forever") and gave it, per her usual, a countryish twang (Simon called it "whiny"). I've always secretly preferred her to Brooke, and I really do think that she, unlike Brooke, has been stepping it up as the competition goes on - though I'm in the minority who was not at all impressed by her Martina McBride number last week. This week she didn't get much love from the judges, but gets more from me. While she was a little out of tune in her lower register, where the melodic line soared she infused her vocals with real feeling and warmth. Not the most artistically interesting or technically impressive performance of the night, but in my opinion one of the most approachable and appealing. She's getting the girl next door thing down, and it seems to be helping her.

DAVID COOK scored the ultimate pre-performance "WTF?" with his song choice, "Always Be My Baby." (Hell, he got a wtf out of Mariah herself.) Ah, David, my David. How could you know that that is the one and only Mariah song I love, and my signature karaoke number? And leave it to you to pick the one song in Mariah's bag that I (and I'm sure anyone else who thought of it) felt absolutely certain you wouldn't come near. My feelings about what you did with it are mixed, mainly, I believe, because the original is so special to me, and I can't quite accept it being turned into a stalker-ish emo anthem. But the very fact that you even saw and heard that in the ultimate '90s bubble-gum upbeat pop love song proves you are some kind of genius. Vocals weren't bad, either, though the lower range doesn't play to your strengths. And you sure know how to make love to the camera. Not complaining about any of that, and delighted that your performance went over so well. Loved the quizzical look on your face as Simon went from "karaoke hell" to "breath of fresh air" - it was clear you caught his drift a beat before the studio audience did. Also delighted that your brother Adam (the one with brain cancer) was able to attend and see you in all your glory, and that "AI" didn't make a big schloopy fuss over his being there - hopefully they won't at tomorrow's results show, either. And those tears in your eyes? Looked real. That does it: David Cook must win this thing. I have decreed it.

JASON CASTRO is starting to grow on me. I still think he, along with Brooke, has one of the weaker voices in the competition. But he's shown real skill in taking on songs in genres that seem completely ill suited to him and making them fit his vocal style. And the fact that he could do that in Mariah Week, with "I Don't Wanna Cry," and make the result even mildly appealing suggests that he may, in fact, be the true dark horse of the competition, especially now that Michael Johns is out. His performance, coming directly after Cook's, also underscored why the men seem to have the edge this year. It's not that the men are better vocalists than the women; they're not. Rather, they seem to have a much clearer sense of themselves as musicians (well, except David I-have-a-scary-stage-dad Archuleta). They know what works for them, and therefore convey more personality that fans can recognize and support.

To a lesser extent, this is also why Carly and Syesha aren't miles ahead of Kristy and Brooke: even though the former are far superior vocally, the latter seem to have better-defined musical identities. It remains to be seen whether musical self-definition outlasts pure vocal chops in this competition, though there's a good chance both will fall to the almighty power of the Cute.

BEST IN SHOW: For creativity and ballsiness - David Cook. For pure vocals - Syesha.

WORST: Brooke, and I also think it's time for her to go. She's just out of her depth now.

BOTTOM 3: All women. I think Kristy will escape the stools this week.

GOING HOME: Tough call - I think Brooke, though really, I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the women go.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

No "A.I." Recap This Week (but a comment nonetheless)

Ah, "Idol Gives Back" week...Worthy enterprise or corporate P.R. time, or perhaps both? I won't venture into that discussion, at least not tonight. But having missed this week's Top 8 showdown, I have to say if there was a week I'd want to miss, this was it. Because the theme was - prepare gag reflex now - "inspirational" songs. And from what I can gather from the online chatter, I didn't miss much in the way of musical high notes (pardon the pun).

What I did miss, by all accounts, was the crash-and-burn of David Cook, my favorite and now the only A.I. contestant who's ever moved me to pick up the phone and vote for him...without even having seen the show! So you might say I was "inspired" this week, all right, but not for the right reason: according to the busy-signal-measuring pundits at Dial Idol, he was and still is in very real danger of falling into the bottom 3 this week. Say it ain't so! I did manage to see his performance tonight (courtesy of youtube), and I can say with a perfectly straight face that it wasn't anywhere NEAR as bad as everyone seems to be making it out to be. True, the song he did - "Innocent" by Our Lady Peace, one of David's favorite bands - probably wasn't the best choice for him (for once), because much of it is in a lower register that caused some pitch problems. But he's too good a musician to make a real hatchet job of any song, and he certainly didn't with this one. Unfortunately, America doesn't seem to see it my way. I feel like he set a bar too high for himself with his past performances, such that with each new one it's like everyone's expecting him to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Inevitable, I suppose, that he should stumble at least once, and get punished far too harshly for it.

What worries me more, in a way, than the possibility of him getting voted off is that tonight, once again, he wasn't giving off that energy and vibrancy that characterized his best performances. Perhaps he simply suspected the song wouldn't take; perhaps he'd had a bad rehearsal. Yet one also has to wonder if the stress isn't getting to him, when combined with his high blood pressure and his brother's cancer and who knows what else. I want him to continue on the show, obviously, and win it if possible, but I also just want to see a return of his joie de vivre. I hope he can channel it again, for his own personal mental and emotional health no less than his "Idol" viability.

So, good vibes to David C...and here's hoping I can prevent myself from twitching too much between now and elimination night...Figures that this would be the week we have to wait an extra day for results.

Monday, April 07, 2008

R.I.P. Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston passed away yesterday at the age of 84. Screen god, public face of NRA, my first movie-star crush, he represented many (and frequently conflicting) things to many people...yet no man conveyed such a clear and powerful sense of a unified self.

There's certainly been no lack of response to his passing, and not all of it has been kind. I personally have little to no affinity with his political views, and I was squarely in the camp that found no fault with Michael Moore's (in)famous "ambush" of the old gentleman in "Bowling for Columbine." Yet I cleave to the old-fashioned belief that a man's death accords a decent period of respect - as much for his loved ones as for himself - and a fair-minded recognition of his accomplishments. And Heston's were considerable. The peerless Self-Styled Siren offers a characteristically perceptive and beautifully written tribute to Heston's best work. I can hardly improve on her analysis; for my part, all I can offer is a snapshot of Heston's impact on me.

I believe, though I am not positive, that my first acquaintance with Heston was in "The Big Country," an underrated 1958 western starring Gregory Peck that happens to be one of my favorite movies - a preference I'm proud to share with the Siren. I went into "The Big Country" already knowing that I adored Gregory Peck, and the film certainly fortified that attachment. But I also couldn't help noticing Heston as Steve Leech, the surly foreman who spends the better part of the movie smouldering with silent resentment towards the stranger who's laid claim to the woman Steve loves. His smouldering was sexy, even as his open insolence towards my beloved Peck made me angry. But as Steve's opinion of Peck's character shifts from envy and contempt to grudging respect - with the help of a great fight scene (prefaced by a magnificent and totally gratuitous shot of a shirtless, sleeping Heston) - it's reflected in Heston's expression, even his body language. You can see the uncertainty creep into his demeanor and carriage, perhaps nowhere more tellingly - if obliquely - than in the moment when, for the first time in his life, Steve goes against his adoptive father's orders. In the end, loyalty wins the day, but in place of his once coolly measuring gaze, we now see the mark of reflection and a half-sheepish resignation.

Not all of this registered with a first viewing; while I loved "The Big Country" instantaneously, only after seeing it several times did I come to appreciate the film's many nuances, including Heston's performance. But even before I reached that point, I'd already experienced another William Wyler film that elevated Heston to a whole new plane in my consciousness. I'm referring, of course, to the mother of all pious epics with subversive undercurrents, "Ben-Hur." As the titular protagonist, Heston acts like one completely unaware of those subversive undercurrents - whether or not he in fact was unaware is open to debate - but for purposes of the film's dramatic tension, it actually works. Judah Ben-Hur is, after all, a character wholly devoid of irony, though the victim of a larger cosmic irony. Into his overdetermined but, to me, still beautiful narrative arc (must be that Catholic school upbringing) from Old Testament revenge to New Testament forgiveness, Heston brought a driving force and energy that made him more than a simple moral archetype or Biblical action-man. Once again he managed to make suppressed fury remarkably sexy, and its transcendence heroic yet humbing.

I still remember one pivotal scene in which Judah, hovering on the cusp between his old, vengeful self and his future redeemed self, confronts Esther for having lied to him about his mother and sister. Before he addresses her, he's watching her from above, knowing she's been to see them. And in that look he directs at her - full of seething, conflicting emotions, with rage working its way to the surface - there is something a little menacing, but also, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty damn hot. No one could seethe like Heston. In his most signature roles (from "Touch of Evil" to "Planet of the Apes"), there was always an undercurrent of anger - righteous, of course - beneath that chiselled integrity, anger that fell just short of brutality, and Heston had a gift for making it oddly, loin-stirringly compelling.

Once past leading-man age, Heston showed some willingness to poke fun at the myth of Heston, one trivial example being his cameo in "True Lies," which some saw as something of a torch-passing to his late-20th century successor, Arnold Governator. Unfortunately, such ventures fell in the shadow of the principal public role that came to dominate his later years: president of the NRA, whose most quoted line came back to haunt gun-control advocates everywhere. Then came the debacle of "Bowling for Columbine" and the affliction of Alzheimer's: If Heston ever reevaluated any of his convictions, the world never saw it.

Ultimately, however, there's every reason to believe that Heston's screen work, and not his political work, will be the legacy that survives him the longest. He, arguably more than any other actor of his generation, embodied a peculiarly American ideal of the heroic struggle. Bathed in deifying light yet edged in existential darkness, enfolded in an intensity that sometimes verged on madness, he represented something of a transitional point between the weary stoicism of John Wayne and Gary Cooper and the despairing excess of Marlon Brando (Heston's exact contemporary, I believe) and those who followed in Brando's footsteps. One of the last of the old school of movie stars, Heston was the hero who could inspire both trust and fear in the hearts of men - and women - everywhere.

"Stop-Loss" meanders through the quagmire


directed by Kimberly Peirce
starring Ryan Philippe, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ciaran Hinds in yet another throw-away bit part

Ostensibly a war movie, “Stop-Loss” is really, at its heart, a troubled youth movie. Stripped down to the essentials, it's the story of a group of boy-men who lose their bearings, morally and psychologically, and wander in a fog seeking to reestablish them. In attempting to trace their restless, ultimately futile quest, the film unfortunately loses its bearings as well. In the end, it’s less effective as a narrative than a portait of displaced souls.

War is, of course, the trigger behind that displacement, and “Stop-Loss” begins well with what looks like grainy home video footage of the principal characters – all young soldiers in Iraq – relaxing in their off-duty hours before shifting to a bloody standoff in Tikrit that kills some and leaves the rest scarred, both literally and figuratively. Their leader, Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Philippe), seems the most self-composed of the group afterwards, but the events that unfold suggest otherwise.

Cut to the return of Brandon, best friend Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and their pal Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to their Texas hometown, where they’re given a full-on hero’s welcome. It’s all over, or should be. But there are early warning signs, even before the initial euphoria has faded—spasms of violence, frenzied delusions that aren’t completely alcohol-derived—that the war hasn’t loosened its grip on them. Apart from a rambling public speech at their homecoming parade, Brandon at first seems to be the only one holding it together—until he's notified that he’s been stop-lossed (i.e., compelled to extend his service) for another tour in Iraq. In a matter of minutes he goes from incredulous to awol, rapidly decamping with no clear goal other than to avoid what he knows just ain’t right. Eventually, he formulates a plan to drive to Washington, D.C., in the vague hope that he can convince his state senator to intercede on his behalf. For reasons that are never made clear, Steve’s fiancée, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), agrees to drive him.

Because Brandon’s plan seems so half-assed and ill-conceived, and because “Stop-Loss” at this point turns into an unlikely road trip movie, it inevitably begins to lose momentum. An aimless, almost desultory feel sets in, which isn’t helped by several “false” endings that bring to mind, weirdly, “The Return of the King” (only there at least I knew to expect them since I’d read the book). There are, however, gripping, if somewhat obvious moments along the way – as when Brandon, confronted with some street thugs, hallucinates that he is back in combat – and some deeply poignant ones. Perhaps the best of the latter is Brandon’s visit to one of his fellow soldiers, Rico Rodriguez (a very good Victor Rasuk), in a veterans’ rehab hospital. Rico, who was blinded and badly maimed in the Tikrit, appears not to have lost any of his cheery, cheeky spirit. That is, until Brandon moves to leave and the camera lingers for a beat on Rico’s scarred face. The expression that remains will haunt you for days.

Director Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) isn’t shy about probing into the inner pain of her characters, though she also preserves a respectful distance from them that gives the film an unexpectedly restrained, almost muted tone. The actors follow her lead by studiously avoiding anything that smacks of melodrama. Philippe and Tatum are solidly believable, if a bit too pretty, as men whose sense of moral order has been completely upended, and Philippe further manages to convey the innermost doubts that beset Brandon about his own conduct, both past and present, as a soldier. Gordon-Levitt, however, delivers the most nuanced performance as Tommy, who of the three friends seems the angriest and the most disoriented from the return to civilian life. Among the other supporting characters, Cornish acquits herself well as the long-suffering but surprisingly tough-minded woman who’s stood perhaps a shade too long by her man, while the magnificent Ciarán Hinds, for the second time this year (first time was in “There Will Be Blood”), is utterly squandered as Brandon’s perplexed and grieving father.

Still, for the most part it’s a strong and well-utilized cast, though one that’s hampered by the fitfulness of the narrative pacing and the lack of imagination in some of the writing. With a little tightening and more judicious editing, “Stop-Loss” could have been an indisputably good, if not great, film; as it is, it’s only intermittently effective. That said, there’s no denying it’s heartfelt, and its sincerity shines through its flaws.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Recap: Idols Do Dolly Proud; R.I.P. Jules Dassin

I've never been a country music fan, but I've always liked Dolly Parton. She's clearly a very gifted singer and songwriter, and has always struck me as being one of the few stars who is totally comfortable in her own skin - a trait I admire. Plus her one-liners crack me up. So I found myself looking forward to "Dolly week" on "American Idol," even though I knew I wouldn't be familiar with most of the songs. And I'm happy to report that she proved a successful coach, because all the performances ranged from decent to excellent. There were no mind-blowing moments on the level of David Cook's "Billie Jean" last week, but there were no cringe-inducing ones, either. For the most part, the kids did really well.

So instead of ranking them, I'm just going to take them in the order they performed.

BROOKE WHITE started off the show with "Jolene." She did ok with an old chestnut, and seemed comfortable rocking that guitar, but I agree with Simon that she didn't show any real emotional connection to the song. At least not the right one. She smiled too much and didn't even try to dig into the pain that lies at its core. Also, please, Brooke, don't start pouting at the judge's comments. We already get enough of that from Ramiele.

DAVID COOK looked yummy tonight (the stylists are doing a great job slowly improving his hair) and was in full non-rocker mode singing his own - yes, HIS OWN, haters! - arrangement of "Little Sparrow." Very smart choice: he knew better than to try to top "Billie Jean," choosing instead to dial it down and go in a completely different direction, showing a David the "AI" audience hasn't seen before - spare yet soulful, introspective, nice falsetto (though one muffed note near the end). Not showy, but I don't think he needed to be, though it may have been too understated to put him at the top of Dial Idol this week. At least this week you can bet there will be no BS from rock groups complaining his cover ripped off their cover. To those jokers, all I have to say is you haven't got even a ghost of a claim against either him or Fox. Trust me, I'm a lawyer.

RAMIELE MALUBAY's "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" was mercifully better than last week's train wreck. She really does have a pretty voice - there's a delicacy to its texture and tone that I like - but she just hasn't got the personality or the training to grab hold of the songs and make them her own. She fared better with this one because it was lighter, though I detected some pitchy notes. Overall, pretty good, but, as Simon indicated, not memorable.

JASON CASTRO has never been my cup of tea, but I was actually digging his version of "Travelling Through." There was something almost James Taylor-ish about it. For once in my life I found myself agreeing with Paula and disagreeing with Simon. I think the song *did* suit Jason's voice and style, and he seemed to be having fun grooving to it. Still don't think he deserves to be in the top 3 or maybe even the top 5, but I understood his appeal for the first time tonight.

CARLY SMITHSON finally scored a home run with "Here You Come Again" after hitting only doubles these past several weeks. Great control, great inflection, and the star quality that's been missing lately. She smiled a little too much, too, but her voice did have a trace of tenderness and vulnerability that Brooke's didn't. I thought Simon's comment on her appearance was totally unwarranted. In my opinion she looked good, at least from the waist up; not so keen on the tight red pants. But Carly's actually a rather attractive girl, with lovely eyes and an engaging smile, and her tattoo doesn't bother me. (Aside: Simon said "blow you out of your seats." Hee. Taking a page out of Kristy Lee's script, Simon?)

DAVID ARCHULETA didn't wow me as much as he did the judges and the screaming tweeners in the audience, but there's no denying that his rendition of "Smoky Mountain Memories" showcased his greatest asset: the astounding purity of his tone. I think Paula made a comment to that effect. (I can't believe I'm agreeing with Paula at least as much as I am with Simon, but she was actually mostly on target tonight.) He did have one or two noticeably flat notes, however, and whenever I see him I can't help thinking of a ventriloquist's dummy...Some mean but funny spirit posted side-by-side pictures of the two online, and ever since seeing that I haven't been able to shake the resemblance from my mind.

KRISTY LEE COOK was obviously in her element with "Coat of Many Colors," and it showed. As Randy said, country's her wheelhouse. But as Simon pointed out (hmm, I seem to be parroting the judges a lot tonight), it wasn't really a standout performance. It didn't help her case that she seemed miffed that Dolly wasn't more impressed. (And honey, don't diss your own mom: not endearing.) Her snarky "thank you, Simon" might not go over so well in some quarters, either. Still, she's probably safe, at least from elimination, if not from the bottom three.

SYESHA MERCADO went for the big fat obvious with "I Will Always Love You," and sang it very well...but perhaps not well enough. I understand why she did what she did, i.e., start out with the intimate original version and then segue into the Whitney showboat version - but I wish she hadn't. She totally set herself up for the "you're no Whitney" knockdown from Simon, and then looked majorly, murderously pissed when he said it. Also, was it just me, or was her glory note a little flat? It was still pretty impressive; it may not be enough to keep her around.

MICHAEL JOHNS showed last week's comeback was no fluke by one-upping it with "It's All Wrong, But It's All Right." His was one of the best performances of the night, bringing a much-needed bluesy edge to his voice that was extremely sexy and emphasized his maturity as both a man and a performer. If he keeps this up, he will be the contender everyone apparently thought he was back in Hollywood week.

BEST OF THE NIGHT: Tie between David C, Carly, and MIchael Johns.

BOTTOM 3: Really hard to say, as no one completely flopped and everyone with the possible exception of Syesha seems to have secured their fan base by now. Right now, I'll guess Syesha, Ramiele, and MAYBE Brooke. (Jason's fans presumably got a wakeup call from last week and dialed and texted their little fingers off for him.) I haven't figured out where Chikezie's votes most likely went, if anywhere. Damn, this handicapping is as tricky as the Presidential primaries!

GOING HOME TOMORROW: Probably Syesha, for the reasons stated above.

Update: There have been reports that David Cook was rushed to the hospital immediately after the show for heart palpitations and high blood pressure, and has since been released. Word on the street (i.e., online) is that he has been under a lot of stress, not just from the show but also for personal reasons: his brother Adam has cancer and apparently hasn't been doing well lately.

The sources of this story are not the most reliable, to put it mildly, but it does seem to be true that DC was briefly hospitalized tonight. It would explain why he seemed a little more subdued than usual tonight: I mean, he sang beautifully, but he just didn't exude the intense energy and joy of performing he usually does. I thought maybe that was a stylistic choice on his part, in keeping with the song he chose, but now I think he was just barely holding it together. Kudos to him for performing as well as he did. As I've said before, this guy is a total pro. I don't even know him and didn't know of his existence until a month ago, but he's already moved me so much as an artist and a person that I extend my heartfelt wishes for his good health and that of his family.


In other news, R.I.P. Jules Dassin, creator of THE template for that tried-and-true genre, the heist film, and movies starring Melina Mercouri. The L.A. Times has a pretty good obituary of the director, an American-turned-expat after he was blacklisted for his Communist sympathies. Still haven't seen any of his films, but this reminds me to put "Rififi" on my Netflix list.