Wednesday, May 28, 2008

R.I.P. Sydney Pollack

Director, producer, and Hollywood heavyweight Sydney Pollack passed away yesterday at the age of 73, after succumbing to pancreatic cancer. (I never even knew he had cancer; when did this happen?) He was the embodiment of what some like to call "old school" Hollywood, and may have been one of its last champions.

I haven't seen the films that Pollack is most likely to be remembered for 50 years from now ("The Way We Were," "Tootsie," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," "Three Days of the Condor"), and those of his films that I have seen - "Out of Africa" and lesser efforts like "The Firm," "Sabrina," and "The Interpreter" - frankly didn't impress me (though "Sabrina" is a favorite of my father, who prefers it - sacrilege! - to the Billy Wilder/Audrey Hepburn original). Nonetheless, even his weaker ventures were clearly the work of an old-school craftsman of considerable taste and intelligence, qualities reflected as much in Pollack's record as a producer ("The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Sense and Sensibility," "The Quiet American," "Michael Clayton," to name just a few I've really, really liked) and actor (he was superb in "Michael Clayton") as his directorial oeuvre. Whatever his function, the movies he was involved in were movies made for grownups. In this he was kindred spirits with the recently-deceased Anthony Mingella, two of whose films he also produced or executive-produced ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Cold Mountain").

A.O. Scott has a thoughtful assessment of Pollack's legacy, in which he compares Pollack's directorial style to that of William Wyler. I tend to think Wyler was the superior director, but Scott does make a reasonable argument - which has also been voiced by others - that the two shared a self-subsuming, star-dependent approach to filmmaking that was the antithesis of the auteurism of the '60s and '70s, and that has been fading from the modern cinematic landscape:

The old A pictures, made for mass appeal and Oscar glory, no longer have the industry cachet or cultural impact they used to. The studios send their specialty divisions out in search of awards on the relative cheap, while action franchises, raunchy comedies and family-friendly animation bring in the big money and attract the heavy investments.

There are exceptions, from time to time, movies that try to steer between the art house and the lowest common denominator in the great Hollywood middle-brow tradition. Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” a tale of corporate malfeasance with a smart script, a few murders and George Clooney’s charisma, may be the best recent example. It’s hardly an accident that Mr. Pollack’s name appears in the credits twice, as a producer and as a member of the cast.

It would be nice if “Michael Clayton” turned out not to be an anomaly but rather a sign that the old mainstream has not entirely run dry. And I hope that there are at least aspiring filmmakers and producers out there who dream of being the next Sydney Pollack.

Amen to that.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones Sees Reds; "Prince Caspian" Suffers Growing Pains


directed by Steven Spielberg
starring Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent

Indiana Jones...I always knew some day you’d come walking back through my door. I never doubted that. Something made it inevitable.

–Marion Ravenwood, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Like a good friend, visiting after a long absence, who still knows your home and your habits of old, Indiana Jones slips back into his franchise as comfortably as he dons the trademark fedora—older, undoubtedly, and a little worse for the wear, but still hardy, and still with a roguish twinkle in his eye. Has it really been almost two decades since we last tried to keep up with the Joneses? The newest installment of Indy's adventures deserves credit for managing at once to comment on that fact with suitably deadpan wit and at the same time to make us feel like hardly any time has passed at all.

Set in 1957, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” opens with a new villain in town: the Nazis have given way to the Soviets, led by the formidable female colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, in full statuesque mode with a faintly S&M-ish edge). Spalko, hell bent on collecting archeological objects with paranormal powers—for Commie mind control purposes, natch—attempts to conscript Prof. Henry Jones, Jr. to aid her in her quest. After an opening standoff in a top secret U.S. government compound (which should look familiar to anyone who’s seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), Indy spends the rest of the movie in a cat-and-mouse pursuit with Spalko & co that eventually hones in on the titular crystal skull and a mysterious lost city in Peru that may or may not be the original El Dorado. Along the way, he picks up an outspoken but spunky, knife-wielding young greaser called “Mutt” (Shia LaBeouf), an old scholarly colleague (a practically unrecognizable John Hurt) driven loony by the skull’s powers, another colleague (Ray Winstone) who may or may not be double crossing them, and, of course, the lovely Marion (a seemingly ageless Karen Allen), Indy’s ex-flame from the “Raiders” days.

Par for the course in an Indy movie, in between breathless chase and hand-to-hand fighting sequences (which serve as a reminder that no one but Spielberg can direct an action scene with his mix of energy, fluidity and playfulness) there’s a lot of faux-historical, archeological and linguistic mumbo-jumbo that takes on a pleasantly familiar, if somewhat rusty feel, as do the winding trails, deep ravines, cobwebby tombs, and secret passageways that lead our adventurers closer to their ultimate destination. There isn’t quite as much in-joking as there was in “The Last Crusade,” but there are bits of homage to the earlier films sprinkled throughout, from a quick glimpse of a particular crate in the government compound to a rather silly jungle scene involving an extremely large snake, to an exchange of looks between Mutt and Indy—one gleeful, the other disapproving—and the latter’s muttering of “Intolerable!” under his breath as they speed along on Mutt’s motorcycle. That last wink and nod, taken together with Mutt’s nickname, is a huge tipoff (at least for anyone who’s seen “The Last Crusade” as many times as I have) as to a major plot point that’s already predictable enough as it is.

All this is cake for the die-hard fan. But “KCS” is no mere exercise in Indy nostalgia, in that it embraces a totally different cultural context and zeitgeist from the earlier movies. If the original trilogy took on the pace and rhythm of the action-adventure serials of the 1930s, “KCS,” with its references to Communists, the Reds scare, double agents, mind control, the paranormal, and (in the film’s most hilarious sequence) nuclear testing, has the feel of a ’50s film, albeit a somewhat zany and disjointed one, with what look like outtakes of “Grease” thrown in for good measure and comic value. It’s important to understand this background as the film ultimately ventures into territory that some viewers may be tempted to dismiss as “not Indiana Jones” and that, to be honest, isn’t really explored to any degree of depth or precision.

For the movie, to be sure, has its flaws. The plotting is looser and more muddled than that of its predecessors; some scenes could definitely have been axed, and some of the characters are severely underwritten: only Indy and Mutt really emerge as fully dimensional human beings. But the great accomplishment of “KCS” is how seamlessly it brings Indiana Jones into a new era even as it salutes his past experience. Harrison Ford is clearly enjoying the return to his most iconic role, and though his Indy may be more grizzled and move a bit more slowly than he used to, he’s still the man schooled in hard knocks, who can both throw and receive a mean punch, and withal a sentimental softy under that gruff, tough facade. One of the film’s more charming moments is Indy’s giddy, half-dancing delight when he sees Marion again for the first time in twenty years.

Further bridging the gap between “then” and “now,” of course, is Indy’s new protégé, who quickly proves to have more than a spark of Indy’s pluck and gumption. LaBeouf is likable and engaging as Mutt, even if his swaggering bravado doesn’t exactly evoke Brando. Is the young pup the next Indy in training? Looking at the long term, it’s hard to tell. But “KCS” goes out of its way to suggest, in a slyly humorous final moment, that rumors of any imminent torch-passing may be greatly exaggerated. As long as our favorite globetrotting professor is still alive and ambulatory, he’s still Indiana Jones for both his times and ours. And “KCS,” if nothing else, is fresh proof of why that’s a good thing. It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.


Also saw:


directed by Andrew Adamson
starring the kids from the first Narnia movie, Ben Barnes, Peter Dinklage, others

Even more so than its predecessor ("The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"), "Prince Caspian" walks a tenuous line between family-friendly entertainment filled with cute kids and talking animals and fierce, battle-rific epic fantasy in the vein of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The film takes C.S. Lewis' rather placid, largely drama-free original story of the Pevensies' first return to Narnia and liberally adds narrative complications, tensions between characters, ethnic shadings, and fighting and infighting fit to sustain a Jacobean drama. The result is a much darker and more brutal tale than that imagined by Lewis, albeit one that shows not a drop of bloodshed. That feeling of being caught between two phases is also, interestingly, reflected in the young actors, who seem to be making their way through adolescence, and yet are constantly thrown either up against or together with the older, clearly adult Prince Caspian (played by 27-year-old Ben Barnes).

That's not to say the revamping is ineffective, exactly. It succeeds in drumming up a level of suspense that never existed in the book, and adds a measure of gravitas that was entirely missing from the spotless, almost plastic quality of the first movie. There's one particularly haunting scene in "Caspian" (admittedly, this *was* in the book) in which Tilda Swinton briefly reappears as the spirit of the White Witch and in the course of less than five minutes proceeds to outact every other person in the movie while creating an atmosphere of suspended dread. The film's main problem is how tonally to reconcile the disparate elements of a political plot involving a murderous, treacherous usurper to the throne and a woodland tale of friendly, dispossessed talking badgers and mice. This, to be both fair and frank, is a problem inherited directly from the source. The difference, which is not necessarily to Lewis's credit, is that except for a few very brief scenes, the murderous usurper never appears long enough in the book to register as a serious threat. In his onscreen incarnation, he does, and as a consequence this "Prince Caspian" may be a little too intense for young children while remaining a little too bloodless for the LOTR-loving crowd.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

David Cook is Our American Idol!!!


For once, America (and/or American Idol) got it right. I'm not even going to waste energy wondering whether or not this was the producers' game plan all along. All that matters, now, is that the right man won tonight.

Kudos to Archuleta, though, for being a total class act as the runner-up. Kid's got talent, no doubt about it; I wish him the very best in his future career.

Not enough time or energy to do a full recap of tonight's typically bloated and schizophrenic season finale, with all its superfluous product placement and promotion and its weird juxtaposition of musical styles, so I'll just make some random observations roughly in the order they occurred to me:

-Randy seems to have raided Captain Kangaroo's closet. Ryan Seacrest is burnt orange. And was anyone else afraid Paula's dress was going to suffer a wardrobe malfunction at any moment?
-Mike Myers, I love ya from "Austin Powers," but your new movie looks crappier and crappier the more I see of it. Cook's "wtf" faces and Archie catching the shaving cream were hilarious, though.
-I'm still unimpressed by Jason Castro's "Hallelujah." But I have to say he really does sound nice in his lower range. He should stay there.
-Syesha, as usual, looks gorgeous, esp. in the Donna Summers number. She has a disgustingly perfect body. Underwhelmed by the duet with Seal, though.
-Could Amanda Overmyer look more miserable than she did on stage tonight? Everyone else looked like they were having fun.
-Carly and Michael Johns in excellent voice tonight. "The Letter" was awesome. Good to have you back, guys!!
-Jimmy Kimmel can be funny. Just apparently not on anything related to "American Idol." Although he did remind us of Paula's moment of clairvoyance, heh.
-David Cook and ZZ Top? Um, ok. Actually, that was pretty hot. Archie and One Republic: not so much.
-Ditto for those Guitar Hero "Risky Business"-inspired ads. Wishing Cook's shirt was a little shorter, and grateful that Archie was wearing boxers. A perv I may be; a pedophile I'm not.
-Graham Nash and Brooke White sound pretty good together. Nice to see Brooke relaxed and smiling.
-Wow, there really is a male version of Hannah Montana. Only they're a band. And are they really brothers? Argh, these kids are making me nostalgic for Hanson. Since when does "other half" rhyme with "broken glass"?
-Renaldo and the USC Trojans: I want those five minutes of my life back. There's a REASON I don't watch the early round bad auditions, ok?
-Gladys Knight deserves better Pips than the Stiller-Jack Black-Downey, Jr. stooges. Although Downey, unlike the other two, looks like he has something resembling rhythm. But who the hell is going to pay to download this lame attempt at humor, even if it's going to charity?
-Jordin's voice sounds pinched and strained. Carrie U's sounds off-pitch, though maybe that's just the song. Neither of their songs is doing anything for me, sorry.
-The lyrics to "Father Figure" sound funny coming from the boys. Naked preacher teacher, what?
-George Michael still has a surprisingly good voice, even for having a cold. But man, that ballad is so drippy. (Sorry, GM fans!) Maybe this is Archuleta in 25 years? He could certainly do worse!
-Simon apologizes to David C, and what do you know, he sounds sincere. Ryan mentions the 12 million vote differential again...that just seems like an unnecessary dig at this point. It's going to be a tough enough moment for the runner-up as it is...
-Cookie wins!! COOKIE IS THE AMERICAN IDOL! WOOHOO!!! Aw, he's crying....and aw, he and his family are so sweet.
-I can't believe the words "magic rainbow" just came out of David Cook's mouth. Man, this song is even worse than the ones from yesterday. But who cares, he's singing it! He won! He won! And look how he's hugging and supporting Archie. Those two are adorable together.

I've never been so ridiculously happy for someone I don't know and am unlikely ever to meet. But I know I'm not the only one, and I'm not ashamed. This is the only proper conclusion to a great story: the story of a personable, majorly talented guy who wanted to make a career out of music, worked his butt off to make it happen, and then serendipitously found his way to a level of fame and national exposure he could hardly have imagined in his wildest dreams.

Sometimes happy endings do happen to the right people. David Cook is one of them.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"American Idol" S7 Finale: The Battle of the Davids

The title of this post should be "What the BLEEP do I know?"

So much for thinking I'd finally figured out the "Idol" agenda this year. Simon's abrupt about-face on David Cook has forced me back to the conclusion that after all, the show's Powers That Be still want Archuleta to win. Or do they? Interestingly, Randy "molten hot phonebook" Jackson was much more even-handed between the Davids this week than he has been lately - except at the very end, where he all but crowned Archie Idol - and Paula, of course, gave both Davids equal love. It was essentially Simon who declared Archie the runaway (or "knockout") winner. Why?

(Aside: I hope the show never, ever again does a boxing motif for its finale. That was just...beyond cheesy. Though it did give me a laugh to hear Archuleta announced as "100 lbs soaking wet," and then see him practically swimming in that blue robe. But I was more embarrassed for Cook, even though he made a more credible boxer than David A.)

I have three different theories for Simon's 180, and I can't decide which is the most likely:

1. He was told by the higher-ups to pull back on praise for Cook and prop up Archie - either to make a victory by Archie seem more valid, or to throw off those who have been complaining the show has been rigged for Cook.

2. He was, of his own volition, deliberately messing with us viewers - either to generate uncertainty about the outcome, or to motivate Cook's supporters to vote like crazy. (And if Dial Idol is at all accurate, he may have accomplished the latter.)

3. He was being honest, and was genuinely disappointed by Cook's performance.

Whichever it is, he certainly didn't seem happy about the role he had to play. He looked quite glum by the show's end. (though his expression was nothing to Cook's, which hurt my heart.) Ultimately, we can only hope that the voters didn't play "Simon says" but trusted their own instincts (and that their votes actually count). Because, contrary to Simon's verdict, there was no knockout. This contest came down, or should have come down, to subjective preferences regarding the type of vocal artist each individual voter would rather listen to - not some clear differential in ability. They both brought it tonight, and they both deserved to be there.

That said, I couldn't help thinking that tonight's show really encapsulated, over the course of the three songs, the respective arcs of the two Davids throughout this season. Every time someone referred to them as two "men," or when Paula chirped "May the best man win," my first reflexive thought was, "There's only one man left standing in this competition, and it isn't Archuleta." I mean no insult: Archie is a sweet, adorable boy and an undeniably talented singer gifted with a golden voice. He started out that way, and he finished that way, and to be fair, he finished at the top of his game. But something much more important happened with the other David over the last three months: As a performer, as a musician, he matured into a man. And this was in full evidence tonight. He seemed less concerned with winning than showing the audience the kind of artist he had become - and, in my book, he succeeded.


ROUND 1: Clive's Choice (Clive Davis's exact position in the "Idol" hierarchy has always been fuzzy to me, but my understanding is he's a bigwig at Sony/BMG who previously had a lead role in producing the "Idol" winners' albums)

DAVID C: U2, "Still Haven't Found What I"m Looking For"

This is my favorite song off The Joshua Tree, and I am unfortunately in the camp that believes only U2 can & should do U2 songs. DC's performance was perfectly respectable, serviceable, workmanlike...and didn't really do anything for me. Perhaps there was no way it could, but he also seemed to be holding back in some way instead of fully embracing the song's greatness. Your mileage may vary.

DAVID A: Elton John, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me"

Very good, though I don't know if this was, per judges, his best performance. Lots of energy, solid vocals, and a looser and more animated demeanor than Cook. I'll go with Simon on this: round 1 to Archuleta.

ROUND 2: Dreary Drivelly Dreck, aka songwriting contest winner...sort of. This year the contestants got to choose their songs from the top 10. I still think they need to get rid of this awful, awful institution.

DAVID C: "Dream Big" (with electric guitar)

Rocked out on the guitar, complete with raspy vocals. Amazingly, I sorta, kinda, almost liked this. He made it move. Simon was overly harsh, Randy actually fair. Have the stars realigned?

DAVID A: "In This Moment"

Pure treacle. My attention drifted less than halfway through - not a good sign. I guess it was a better showcase for Archie's vocal gymnastics, but a better song?! Hell's no. I don't know what Simon's been smoking - for my money, round 2 goes to Cook; he actually kept me awake and not wanting to skip this portion of the competition.

ROUND 3: Contestants' Choice

DAVID C: Collective Soul, "The World I Know" (with acoustic guitar)

Wow...just wow. This is a man singing. Subtle, understated, yet beautifully emotive and poignant. Of course, as such, not a "winner" for Simon. Whatever, Simon. This was the perfect note for DC to end on: not rocking, not glory noting, but simply reflecting on the vagaries of life with the hard-earned wisdom of someone who's been through more than most his age have experienced. The ending, in particular, was exquisite. Maybe I'm biased because the song rings all my '90s nostalgia bells, but let's put it this way: I liked the song when Collective Soul did it; David Cook made me love it. I think I might have a new favorite Cook performance, and I'm glad it was his last one in the competition. It proved his mettle as an artist.

DAVID A: John Lennon, "Imagine"

Through the first mellifluous phrase or two, I caught myself thinking, "Shit, Archie's going to win this." But then the song went on, and he loaded on the melisma and threw in waaaaaaay more runs than I remembered from the first time he performed it, and I got annoyed. After the delicacy of Cook's stripped-down interpretation of Collective Soul, all of Archie's embellishments on Lennon just seemed...vulgar. While I can understand why the casual viewer might be seduced by the sheer beauty of his voice into agreeing with Simon's declaration of KO, I'll have to respectfully disagree...and hope that I'm not in the minority.

Tomorrow night's results will be a real nail-biter, which I'm beginning to think was the true intention behind all the perplexing pimping and depimping of each David. I doubt tonight will have changed the minds of any fans of either David, so the outcome may in fact turn on the uncommitted and the viewers who just tuned in for the finale. I fear that David A's charms, bolstered by Simon's praise, may be more immediately accessible to the latter. But, to quote David C's last song, "hope still lingers on."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Idol" Nears End With Penultimate Week. Are We Theeeeeere Yet?

It's around about this time every year on "American Idol" that the three contestants left standing often show signs of fatigue, both vocal and psychological, and/or performing stagnation. It's no wonder, given how many weeks they've been going full steam as others have dropped by the wayside, and the unlikelihood that any of them have any truly new tricks to pull out of their bag. But I think this is the first year that I, too, am finding myself feeling serious "Idol" fatigue - possibly because I'm almost unhealthily invested in one of the contestants and therefore much more closely monitoring the draining effects of the show.

Perhaps for the same reason, this is also the first year I'm finding myself increasingly frustrated with "AI"'s format, which has changed since the first season, and not for the better. What happened to the days when the performance nights at this stage of the competition were 90 minutes long, giving the contestants a little more room to do their two or three songs without chopping them down beyond recognition? And why at this point, when the top three have most likely taxed almost every vocal chord and used every ounce of reserve energy they possess, send them "home for a day," where they're expected to meet and greet, field crowds and perform several songs in addition to the three songs they have to learn, arrange, rehearse, record (for the studio versions), and perform for the next show and whatever awful group song and Ford pimpmercial are on for the results show? The strain was showing in all of the top three tonight - especially, I'm sorry to say, my personal favorite, David Cook, though he managed to impress me anyway.

But above all, why must the show be so damn scripted? This, I think, has gotten worse, both over the lifetime of the show and over the course of this particular season. Even without the Paula "I thought you sang twice!" debacle of a few weeks ago, TPTB's gunning for a double-D finale has gone from transparent to naked (as in avert-your-eyes-from-embarrassment naked). The judges are the most obvious sign of the show's agenda. In one corner, Randy Jackson for little David. In the other, Simon Cowell for big David. In no one's corner: Paula, whose main task tonight appears to have been to push poor Syesha off the "Idol" bus - with a helping hand from Simon. Almost equally obvious, to my mind, is that the TPTB have switched from David A to David C as their favored winner. I was never sure of this before, but the song choices tonight, together with the judges' feedback, confirmed it. This is the week that the top three each perform one song picked by one of the judges, one song picked by the producers, and one song of their own choice. Personally? I didn't like any of the song choices, including the contestants'. But the assignment of the judges' and producers' songs was certainly eyebrow-raising. Guess who got the best "showcase" songs? Guess who got the "auto-pilot" songs? Guess who got the most forgettable song of the night? Yep.

Under these inauspicious circumstances, the kids did as well as they could. There were some very good, even sublime moments. But there was also a whole lot of blah, a whole lot of BS from the judges, and too many wonky notes from my David. Sigh.


DAVID ARCHULETA went first, fourth, and seventh.

Paula's choice: Billy Joel, "And So it Goes."
David's choice: Chris Brown, "With You"
Producers' choice: Dan Fogelberg, "Longer"

I really like this kid's voice, and his tone rang as pure and true as always. His breathing sounded labored, however, and he's gone back to closing his eyes more than half the time. And the songs all sort of ran together, despite being very different songs. The Billy Joel sounded pretty, but was more of the same old, same old. "With You," his attempt at something more contemporary, didn't make him sound any cooler or hipper, and in terms of dance moves, say he's no Chris Brown would be an understatement. He did look like he was having a bit more fun, I'll give him that. But it didn't transfer over to me. Randy's one useful comment of the night pointed out the incongruity of hearing words like "my boo" out of little Archie's mouth. As if to compensate for that, the last song was a total snoozer, though that wasn't Archie's fault; indeed, the fact the producers chose that for him is what makes me think he has indeed been dethoned as the "chosen one" in favor of Cook.

SYESHA MERCADO went second, fifth, and eighth.

Randy's choice: Alicia Keys, "If I Ain't Got You"
Syesha's choice: Peggy Lee, "Fever"
Producers' choice: Gia Farrell, "Hit Me Up"

Vocally, much better than last week: more controlled, less pitchy, and less shrieky. But on her first song she went back to sounding like an understudy for Alicia Keys - solid, not distinctive - while on her second, her vampy theatrical schtick started to feel a little shopworn, or maybe just overworked. And what was with that chair act? Oddly, the song that may be her downfall was also the most forgettable of the three - that awful producers' choice. I'd never heard "Hit Me Up" before, and I don't care to hear it ever again, though I don't know if I'd even recognize it if I did. Drearily uninspired pap, probably unsalvageable, so probably not Syesha's fault that it was her weakest performance of the night (though still not bad). To complete the sandbagging, we have Paula - Paula! the nice judge! - basically telling her she isn't making the finale. I also laughed when Randy earlier, meaning to praise her, said something like "that's why you're here at #3!" Uh, yeah, Randy. Could you make it more obvious? Looks like Paula isn't the only one who reads ahead in the script.

Poor Syesha. As Jason Castro might have told you, the "Idol" bus stops for no man - or woman, either, no matter how beautiful or talented. You did look gorgeous tonight, girl.

DAVID COOK went third, sixth, and last.

Simon's choice: Roberta Flack, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (originally written by someone else, I forget who)
David's choice: Switchfoot, "Dare You to Move"
Producers' choice: Aerosmith, "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" (written by Diane Warren), aka "that damn ARMAGEDDON song"

The "Face" song: another potential snoozer, which I give full credit to DC for making seem alive and current. While I wasn't quite as over the moon about it as Simon apparently was (now who's "smug," Simon?), after a slightly wavering start it smoothed out and became quite lyrically beautiful and emotionally engaging. Unfortunately, I think it took a lot out of him vocally, because his second song, already suffering from overchopping, was all over the place pitchwise, and got tonelessly shouty in the chorus. Fortunately. whether by sheer force of will or something else, he got it back together - just barely - for that damn "Armageddon" song. It's no coincidence, I'm sure, the producers gave him such a crowd-pleaser to end the show with, and although I didn't care for the arrangement, I admired the way he pushed through his obvious fatigue and gave it his all. It wasn't a barn-burner, but it was valiant and vocally solid...apart from the last note, which started out off-key and which he couldn't seem to sustain like I know he can.

I maintain that DC is musically light years ahead of the others and has long since earned his place in the finale. But vocally, he struggled a bit tonight, and Simon's pimping was pretty over the top. Paula, apart from her "see you in the finals!" (all the more obnoxious coming after her dismissal of Syesha), actually gave better comments than Simon, esp. w/r/t the unfortunate truncating of "Dare You to Move." These performances really need to be allowed more than a minute and a half apiece. Particularly for Cook, who approaches his more organically than the others.

BEST/WORST OF THE NIGHT: I actually think they all came out about the same overall, whatever the judges would like us to believe. Cook's "Face" song was the most artistically mature performance (surprise!) and probably the standout of the night, but it was, alas, balanced out by his subpar Switchfoot song. The other two were more consistent across the board, but less interesting.

GOING HOME: I think Syesha's number is up, at least if TPTB have anything to say about it (which, let's face it, they will).

Here's hoping the final two manage to get some quality REST time between now and next week. They've certainly earned it, and their performances will only be the better for it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Iron Man" is solid; "My Blueberry Nights" over sweet, but lingers


directed by Jon Favreau
starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard

Somewhere in the annals of Hollywood, there must be a memo inked in blood dictating that every summer kick off with an expensive major-studio blockbuster full of bangs and booms. That much is certain. It’s equally certain the memo doesn’t specify anything regarding the quality of said blockbuster—so moviegoers starving for hearty popcorn fare after the lean months of spring must count their blessings when the inaugural Big Boom Boom Flick is actually, you know, good. I’m happy to report that we got lucky this year with “Iron Man,” Marvel Studios’ first venture into creative ownership of films based on its comic book properties. Marvel Studios is no doubt happy, too.

Despite its kid-friendly trappings, “Iron Man” is a superhero movie for adults. Sure, there are enough shiny happy gadgets, state-of-the-art visual effects, and pulse-quickening action sequences to charm anyone ages 8 and up, but these aren’t ultimately the most memorable aspects of the film. Nor is the plot, which is a pretty standard origins narrative, minus the tortured angst of crimefighters like Spidey and Batman, or misfits like the X-Men and the Ang Lee version of the Hulk. Sure, Iron Man (alter ego Tony Stark, billionaire and soon-to-be-ex-arms manufacturer) suffers a bit of angst of his own: in fact, unlike those other soul-searchers, he ends up hunting down and destroying...his own works, after discovering what evil uses the world’s villains are making of them. But director Jon Favreau (who also cameos as one of Stark’s bodyguards) doesn’t make too much symbolic hay out of this little turn and self-discovery. Stark gets there on his own time – not ours – and leaves it behind him to pursue his newfound mission in life. That businesslike attitude gives the film a refreshingly jaunty tone, with just the subtlest undertone of gravity, that’s rare in this age of introspective superheroes. Why so serious, indeed.

Of course that balanced tone owes as much to the deep dark eyes and half-sardonic, half-earnest aplomb of Robert Downey, Jr. as it does to Favreau’s direction. Downey is Iron Man, and it’s hard to imagine who else could have so deftly portrayed the transition from prodigy-turned-wastrel to chastened man seeking redemption through a new chapter in his career. Hell, it’s practically Downey’s own biography as an actor, cast in comic book terms, and in his understated way he sells the transformation more convincingly than a more conventionally compelling leading man ever could have done. He also preserves the merest whisper of melancholy that suggests – but only suggests – the loneliness of a man who has everything, including friends and allies, yet still walks by himself.

Except he doesn’t really, as long as Ms. Pepper Potts is in the house. Gwyneth Paltrow, returning to the big screen after an extended maternal leave, is a pure delight as Unflappable Man’s unflappable assistant, and brings a fresh and timely reminder of just how good an actress she can be even in a small part. The sparks she strikes with Downey are deliberately, and successfully, reminiscent of the romantic dynamic of those classic ‘30s screwball comedies, even if the dialogue isn’t quite as snappy. And she wears her rather stock role so wittily and gracefully that even her requisite submission to damsel-in-distress mode seems less pathetic than it would in lesser hands. (It helps, of course, that she’s not splayed helplessly across some giant web.) The gleaming red-and-gold flying man may be the hook that draws us into the movie, but it’s the sight of his heart (literally) in the hands of his girl Friday that keeps us there to the end.


Also saw:


directed by Wong Kar-Wai
starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman

Was it Woody Allen who said, about sex, that even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good? Well, that’s pretty much how I feel about Wong Kar-Wai’s films, and his latest just proves the point. “My Blueberry Nights,” Wong’s first film in English, premiered at Cannes last year to decidedly cool reviews, and its reception following its U.S. release hasn’t been appreciably warmer. And truth be told, it isn’t one of his stronger films. Yet there’s something so hypnotically beautiful and distinctive about the style and tone of Wong’s filmmaking that it’s still an irresistible treat to watch.

“Blueberry,” in addition to being Wong’s English language debut, marks the acting debut of the Queen of Mellow, singer-songwriter Norah Jones. (She also sings one of the songs on the soundtrack, which, per WKW tradition, is exquisitely haunting and features a lot of soul - from Ry Cooder to Otis Redding to Cat Power, who also cameos.) Jones stars as Elizabeth, a young woman who, searching for a boyfriend gone astray, anxiously materializes one day at a hole-in-the-wall New York diner run by a displaced Brit named Jeremy (Jude Law), only to receive confirmation of her man’s infidelity. Disconsolate, she takes to haunting Jeremy’s diner in the wee hours, receiving only pie and (chaste) sympathy from its proprietor, before setting out on a cross-country pilgrimage with no clearly discernible objective. We see her working as a waitress and bartender in Memphis, where she observes a despairing lover soaking himself in alcohol (David Strathairn) and the brittle, defiant woman who done him wrong (Rachel Weisz); later, we find her waitressing again in a low-rent casino in Nevada, where she runs into a professional gambler and strenuously free spirit played with hammy zest by Natalie Portman. And finally, not to give too much away, we see her come full circle to revisit the source of her heartbreak.

Jones acquits herself respectably enough: though she’s initially rather affectless as the supposedly distraught lover, as the movie flows on it becomes clear that Elizabeth isn’t so much an active lead as an empty vessel for the emotions of those she encounters, a part for which Jones’s beautiful, still, quietly inquiring face is perfect. She’s certainly less grating than Weisz, who looks gorgeous but can’t transcend the one-note shrillness of her character. Still, by the time Portman rolls around it's become obvious that her poker queen is urgently necessary—not because the character is the least bit convincing, but because she at least injects a welcome jolt of energy into this increasingly lackadaisical tale of lost love and the need to Move On.

Narrative focus has never been Wong’s strong suit, and “Blueberry”’s meandering comes across as particularly aimless, as the ending of Elizabeth’s journey is telegraphed too broadly and too early on to be in any real doubt. Yet there’s still a good deal of leisurely pleasure to be had on the way, despite—or perhaps because of—Wong’s extremely stylized vision of America, which feels out of time (the appearance of a cell phone, late in the movie, is downright jarring) and unmoored from any specific geography, yet true to the universe of his Hong Kong films. His stamp is on the look and feel of every frame of the film, from the inky shadows to the vivid juxtaposition of both contrasting and complementary colors (there’s a particularly interesting interplay between red and blue that could probably fuel several dissertations), certain oblique camera angles, and recurring motifs such as a passing overhead train in the night, all of which serve to enhance one of his pet themes: lonely souls searching—at times desperately, at times merely wistfully—to connect. It isn’t as effectively presented here, mainly because most of the characters seem more like tropes or ciphers (or in the case of Jeremy, outright fantasies) than actual people, but it still evokes a fragile mood of longing that only he could capture. If the final treatment of “Blueberry”’s lonelyhearts (well, at least the ones we care most about) ultimately feels way too pat and sweet for a WKW joint, it bears reflecting that in any other hands, this material would have dissolved into utter treacle, with a harsh artificial aftertaste. In Wong’s, it’s more likely to linger delicately on like a distant, still pleasant memory of blueberry pie.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

More Rollin' than Rockin' through "Idol" Top 4 Week

Before I begin, a caveat may be in order: since I grew up listening almost exclusively to classical music, with a slight shift in high school and college to female singer-songwriters of the Lilith Fair variety, my knowledge of the history of rock music is EXTREMELY spotty. It's a gap I've been trying to fill over the years, but there are still many, many iconic artists that I'm only vaguely familiar with, if at all.

For this reason, I came into this week's "American Idol" with almost no frame of reference for most of the songs, which were selected from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's list of 500 songs most influential on the genre. I'm not sure whether my ignorance gave me an advantage or a disadvantage as a listener. However, it didn't take much background to realize very quickly that each of the Final Four chose songs (two apiece) that fell more or less within their "wheelhouse," to quote Randy, though with, um, varying degrees of success. Oh, and in case you didn't get the memo from last week, the show's powers that be Could Not Have Made it Clearer that they want Jason Castro outa there, like, yesterday. It's to the point where I feel genuinely bad for the boy, even though I never thought he belonged in the top five, let alone the top three. Nonetheless, I think tonight's performances confirmed why a David-David matchup, however overmanipulated an outcome it may be, is really the only truly satisfying finale to this season.

Ok, now to the rundown.

DAVID COOK went first with Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" and followed up in the second round with "Baba O'Riley" (aka the "teenage wasteland" song) by The Who. The first wasn't familiar to me at all: even though Duran Duran was at the height of its popularity when I was growing up, it was before I was of an age to buy records (yes, it was still records back then, and tape cassettes!). So again, bearing in mind that I have no idea what the original is supposed to sound like, I thought Cook was vocally solid but lacking something - conviction? energy? I got the impression that he picked the song for strategic reasons without actually liking it that much. Or maybe he was just nervous and restrained because he knows this is the week Chris Daughtry got shock-booted in season 5. If you watched the recaps at the end, where they play clips from the contestants' dress rehearsal rather than the live show, you could tell even in those passing seconds that he put a lot more oomph in the rehearsal and then, for whatever reason, held back in the final cut. Of course, this being Cook, even his "B" game is better than many others' "A" game. And "Baba O'Riley" was gorgeous - though it really needed about 30 more seconds to build and develop to a proper climax. Abrupt ending aside, I can't get over how versatile this guy's voice is, and how astronomically more mature an artist he is than the other contestants. If there's any justice in the "AI" universe he has to win, or at least make the final two. Unfortunately, as he himself acknowledged, expectations have been raised ridiculously high for him - the more so this week since it's, you know, rock & roll week! (though in truth, he is really more of an emo/pop rock type than a true "rocker.")

SYESHA MERCADO threw it all out there tonight...yet neither song quite worked for me. I've always liked her voice, but tonight was the first night I found myself agreeing with the critics who say it isn't as strong as she seems to think it is. Dammit, girl, doing a Tina Turner impression (with "Proud Mary") is asking for as much of a smackdown, which Simon predictably delivered, as belting Aretha! Her upper register went off the rails a bit and she seemed to be trying too hard to channel TT in the dancing. It felt...amateurish. Her second performance, of Sam Cooke's "Change is Gonna Come," was better, but still too belt-y and not, at the end of the day, all that memorable. Also, her comments made it sound like she was analogizing her time on "A.I." to the struggles of the civil rights movement(!) which just flat-out annoyed me. Way to sound more narcissistic than ever, Sy! To be fair, her tears seemed genuine - unless that's just the actress in her coming out, and I'm not quite hardened enough cynic to assume that - and may move some people to vote for her.

JASON CASTRO got raked over the coals by the judges for karaoke-ing his way through Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" and the other Bob (Dylan)'s "Mr. Tambourine Man." I wasn't surprised, but I was a little taken aback at their vehemence because Jason's performances tonight didn't seem especially bad for him...which is to say, like all of his performances they were easy on the ears but vocally limited and not in the same league as the other contestants. Sure, "Sheriff" wasn't all that, and maybe was a little subpar even for him - though I thought Simon was unnecessarily harsh - but I actually mildly enjoyed the Dylan song. Of course, I may have been overly generous because I again, ahem, have never heard the original "Tambourine Man" and didn't even notice Jason had forgotten some of the lyrics until he pointed it out himself. And I certainly don't think he deserves to outlast the others, especially not either of the Davids...My point is only that it's weird to me that the judges should praise him to the high heavens one week for something like the (IMO) vastly overrated "Hallelujah" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (sorry Jas, you're no Iz), and then tear him down the next for something that's not, to my ears, markedly worse. Oh well. Jason aka "Bob Marley, man!" looks like he can stand the pillorying and not take it personally. Spacey he may be, but I don't think he's stupid. He has to know at some level that most of this is just BS shaped by the producers' agenda. At least Paula was kind (and coherent!), though she owes him that much after last week's debacle.

DAVID ARCHULETA, after treading water the last several weeks and getting overpraised by the judges (esp. Randy) for it, finally earned his high marks tonight with his best performance, hands down, since he made top 12. His first song, "Stand By Me," was the perfect song choice for him, and he owned it. Not only was his tonal purity on full display, he looked more confident and comfortable on stage than he has in weeks. It was obvious that he loves the song and was really, really enjoying singing it and connecting with the audience. Then, closing out the night, his take on "Love Me Tender" was very sweet and expressively sung, though his falsetto didn't quite come through and I can't get over the disconnect of a 12-year-old (ok, I know he's 17, but seriously? have you looked at him?) trying to get inside an Elvis love song. Does not compute. I'm not trying to deny the beauty of his voice or his natural musicality. I just wish he, or rather his stupid stage dad, had given himself a few more years to develop further as an artist and a human being before coming out on "Idol."

Still, of this lot, he's clearly the only one who comes anywhere close to David Cook in terms of overall vocal and musical ability, and may in fact beat him since he is pretty adorable in a pet-me kind of way and this is, at the end of the day, a popularity contest. As it is, I'm still pulling for a David-David final 2.

BEST OF THE NIGHT: Overall, counting both songs, I have to give it to Archuleta. That said, DC's "Baba O'Riley" was my favorite performance of the night.

WORST: Sorry, Jason.

GOING HOME: Probably JCas, though he does have a pretty rabid fan base that Syesha doesn't seem to (though maybe hers just doesn't have a big online presence).

The only one I'm positive isn't in any danger of going home is Archie. The specter of Daughtry still looms large, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about Cook's consistent excellence possibly being overshadowed by Archie's home run, Castro's implosion, and Syesha's teary-eyed invocation of the civil rights movement. However, given how overwhelmingly the deck has been stacked against JCas this week, I'm inclined to think David C is at this point more in danger of getting Melinda-ed (see season 6) than Daughtried. The difference is that even at her best I always found Melinda kind of dull (though technically irreproachable), while DC has the "it" factor coming out of his ears, even if he seems to have turned it down a little these past couple of weeks.

So if tomorrow's elimination goes as expected, I think this season is shaping up to be more like Season 4 - in fact eerily so, right down to how I feel about the contenders: a presumptive frontrunner (Carrie/Archie) who has the best pure vocals but very little stage presence, a strong "rocker" challenger with the best performance chops (Bo/Cook), and a dark horse with a pretty voice, face, and body, but not enough firepower to be more than an also-ran (Vonzell/Syesha). Except that while Bo was my favorite, I wasn't obsessively invested in him the way I am in Cook. Also, I liked Vonzell a lot more than I do Syesha, though personality may have had something to do with that (Vonzell was a total sweetheart, Sy not so much, though she's been showing more of a human side recently).

All right, enough rehashing of past seasons. Season 7, this is your now. Lylee out.