Thursday, March 26, 2009

"American Idol": Motown Week

First, I gotta say: I loves me some Smokey Robinson. Sure, he wasn't the most hands-on mentor I've ever seen (Randy Travis was probably more effective last week), but he was delightfully warm and encouraging to all the contestants, and extremely un-divalike for a legend. He just seems like a cool, down-to-earth guy who hasn't let his legacy go to his head. (Not sure I can say the same for Berry Gordy...but eh, he's entitled to a little self-importance.)

The clip of the Idols visiting Hitsville made me oddly sad...I think it's hard not to look at Detroit and think of the contrast between its rich cultural history and its rapid decay in the last couple of decades. One can't help wishing something could revive it and make it a thriving, happenin' place again, yet there seems to be a fatally pervasive sense - outside Detroit, if not within it - that its best days are in the past. Still, there's no doubt it's left its mark, even if the city itself is becoming a ghost of its former self.

I've never yet seen Motown Week on Idol, so the theme had some freshness for me that it may not have had for anyone who's been watching since Season 1. My overall impression? Well, there was ADAM...and then there was everyone else. From top to bottom:

In his own class

ADAM took on Smokey's own "Tracks of My Tears," and delivered it so beautifully he drew a standing O from Smokey himself. (And from Kara, but who cares about Kara.) I'd have given him one, too. He sang almost the whole thing in falsetto, and while it wasn't a perfect vocal, it was still gorgeous. More importantly, he poured such emotional intensity into the song that you could see he'd totally given himself over to it. I have to agree with Simon - this was the best performance of the night. Didn't care so much for the slicked-back lounge lizard look, though.

Also liked

My boyz, aka KRIS and ANOOP: These two are my pets. They share certain similarities - sweet, pleasant voices, bright puppy-dog eyes and engaging personalities - and they both did well tonight, Kris with Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is" and Anoop with Smokey and the Miracles' "Ooh Baby Baby." Now here's the thing - I think Kris is hitting his stride, while Anoop's still finding his. Kris already looks very comfortable on stage, esp. with his guitar, and I love that relaxed, modest vibe of his that Simon suggests he needs to change. Simon's got a point - Kris probably needs to show a little more edge in order to have a real shot at making the top tier. But I'm not sure that's who he is, and I like him as he is. Anoop, meanwhile, doesn't look quite as at ease on stage as Kris, but I also sense he has more room to grow and improve. That is, if America keeps him in long enough and he learns quickly enough. He's got a lovely voice and very expressive phrasing; he just needs to watch for the occasional bum notes and integrate his musicianship into his stagemanship.

ALLISON IRAHETA ("Papa Was a Rolling Stone"): She really is precocious, and in my opinion the best of the girls who are left (uh yeah, all three of them). She's got a voice of steel (in a good way), and she finally got a song that worked for it. But please, judges, can we stop with the "omg she's only SIXTEEN!" already? Kara was especially over the top with her praise. I have to say that while Kara does make comments I sometimes agree with, I'm starting to find her tone and delivery a mite irritating. It's all so very Dramatic with a capital "D." However, at least she's not busting out crayons and coloring books and drawing mustaches on her fellow judges. Are Simon and Paula hitting the same bottle during commercial breaks?

MATT GIRAUD ("Let's Get It On"): I think Matt may be shaping up to be the show's come-from-behind contestant, not unlike David Cook from last year...except that he's nothing like David Cook. Don't get me wrong, I think Matty is talented, and his rendition of "Let's Get It On" was vocally solid, even though his stage presence still needs work when he's not behind a piano. I just happen to like Anoop and Kris better. At least for now.


DANNY GOKEY ("Get Ready" - The Temptations): The song suits his voice. But he was just so goofy on stage it was really distracting. Note to Danny: you do not have rhythm. You dance like a white boy, which is not something you want to play up during Motown Week.

LIL ROUNDS ("Heatwave" - Martha & the Vandellas): I feel like I say the same thing about Lil every week. She's a good singer. But we've seen so many singers in her mold on "Idol," and she's not as good as the best of them. She didn't do anything with this song - it was the opposite of "fresh" (sorry, Paula). And I don't think she's one of the best singers in the competition (sorry, Simon). The wardrobe, makeup and hair people did a great job making her look like Diana Ross, though.

SCOTT MCINTYRE ("Can't Hurry Love" - The Supremes): PPPink pants! Oh, my eyes! Scott's got a sweet, pleasant voice, too, but it's weaker than the other guys', and this arrangement was awful - cheesy, loungey and old-fashioned. The funny thing is I can see Scott's general musical style appealing to a certain segment of the record-buying population. But he's not going to win, or even come close to winning, if this is his idea of making a song his own.


MICHAEL SARVER ("Ain't Too Proud to Beg" - The Temptations): Multiple rank notes, esp. at the end, and what's with the stupid grin? The song's about begging your woman to take you back, fool. Not bad for karaoke, but bad for anything else.

MEGAN JOY ("For Once in My Life" - Stevie Wonder): Oh, Megan. I think I'm going to have to quit you and your kooky charm. That was terrible. So out of tune, so shouty, no phrasing to speak of...By far the worst performance of the night. Someone spare Stevie from ever having to hear that, even if he is guest performing at the results show tomorrow.

Elimination predictions

Bottom 3: Megan, Michael, and Scott
Leaving this week: Either Megan or Michael

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Duplicity"'s little secret: It's all about trust


directed and written by Tony Gilroy
starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti

Clive and Julia. Julia and Clive. They go together like wine and cheese, or martinis and olives—the perfect blend of astringency and richness, tart and smooth. I say this as an emphatic non-fan of Julia Roberts who only liked her in one movie previously; not coincidentally, it was “Closer,” the first in which she co-starred with Clive. While their chemistry in that exquisitely stylized downer was perhaps a tad too acidic for most palates, here, in the exquisitely stylized upper of “Duplicity,” it carries just enough zing to be a real crowd-pleaser.

Half heist film, half screwball comedy, “Duplicity” is all adult entertainment of the non-pornographic variety. Oh, there’s sex all right, and lots of it—but the vast majority of it either takes place offscreen or crackles in the air between its two protagonists. In that sense, it’s a throwback not to a particular era, but to several eras; in fact, the movie it may be most reminiscent of is the delightful 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” which had a similar layering of retro and contemporary sensibilities. Director Tony Gilroy, coming fresh off his multiple Oscar-nominated “Michael Clayton,” pulls a Steven Soderbergh in shifting nimbly from existential despair to existential hilarity: here, the deep-laid plans of corporate behemoths become the stuff of high-wire capers, with our two stars playing jetsetting spies for two rival Big Pharma companies locked in a market share death-match that we’re supposed to take about as seriously as the slo-mo fisticuffs that break out between their CEOs (well played by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) in the film’s deliriously tongue-in-cheek opening sequence.

There’s less overt scratching and clawing between Claire (Roberts) and Ray (Owen), but over the course of the film they eye each other, if anything, even more warily than their respective employers. From the outset it’s clear that they may (or may not) be working together and that they have a history, albeit one that seems to be constantly shifting under the viewers’ feet. As with all movies in this genre, there are several twists before we discover who has the upper hand, and the final twist may not sit well with some viewers. But then, as with all movies in this genre, the plot isn’t really the point; it’s the style, rhythm, and vicarious enjoyment we get out of seeing all of its players in motion. On these terms, “Duplicity” is a success. At the same time, the slightly worn, but still potent, air of glamour that surrounds its two main players give it a fuller, mellower flavor than its broad outlines might suggest.

Indeed, for all its comedic trappings, the film seems to be aiming for a measure of emotional resonance in its focus on Ray and Claire. If sophistication, to a modernist sensibility, is the trick of hiding complex design behind an appearance of simplicity, then “Duplicity” is just the opposite: a movie that looks sophisticated but is fundamentally simple at its core. At its most basic level, it’s about trust in a relationship—in particular, the tension between, on the one hand, the need for trust and on the other, the addictive thrill of a good adversarial dynamic. One senses—nowhere more strongly than in the final scene—that complete trust between these two might have a deflationary or even, dare I say it, detumescent effect on their romance. This is an idea that Gilroy only plays with, probably because it doesn’t quite fit within the framework of the film. Still, it’s just enough to add a little weight to an otherwise prototypically airy exercise in old-school Hollywood escapism. And that alone is enough to make it stand out.


Note: My review of "The Class" is also FINALLY up.

Friday, March 20, 2009

R.I.P. Natasha Richardson

After the much greater shock of her accident and horrifically sudden, tragic death, it came as a smaller shock to me to realize that I've never actually seen Natasha Richardson act, either on screen or on stage. And yet she was an actress I always instantly recognized and automatically accorded a high level of respect. Maybe it was her pedigree - after all, it's hard for anyone interested in film or theater to be unaware that she was the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, niece of Lynn Redgrave, and wife of Liam Neeson. Maybe it was her vague resemblance to Emma Thompson (with a sprinkling of Kim Cattrall). But more than that, I think it was the air she projected - an air of elegance, grounded by humor and humanity, that seemed entirely consistent with what I read and knew about her. Natasha, in a word, had class, a quality that's as rare as it is undervalued. May her family find solace for their grief in each other, and in the well wishes of her admirers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"American Idol": GOO Night, aka Country Night

No, I'm not slagging on country music - I mean GOO as in Grand Ole Opry, cause that's the theme of the week. I was out last night and for some reason my DVR did not record the episode, curses! Luckily I was able to watch all the performance vids online (thank you, MJ's blog). Here are my thoughts:

The Standouts:

ANOOP brings it back, yay! Very soulful and expressive performance of "You're Always On My Mind" - and after a slightly breathy, tentative beginning he finally showed he has the vocal chops to stick with the best of 'em.

KRIS is now my pick for dark horse. Pretty tone, pretty face, and I love his low-key singer-songwriter vibe. He looks sort of like a cross between David Archuleta and Jason Castro, but his facial expressions and musical style remind me more of Castro. Better voice, though, IMHO, as shown in his really lovely delivery of "To Make You Feel My Love."

ADAM's take on "Ring of Fire" was...interesting (esp. when viewed after several drinks, heh heh). I think I kind of loved it because it was so out there. But I also think Simon's right that it probably made a good chunk of AI viewers want to throw their TV sets out the window. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash has gotta be either rolling or laughing in his grave - I hope the latter. I would love to have seen Randy Travis's face immediately after hearing that interpretation for the first time. Seems like a nice guy, and a good mentor, but he looked like he was still recovering from the shock.

There's something there:

MEGAN (Patsy Cline, "Walking After Midnight"): You can hear the flu in her voice this week, yet I continue to find it intriguing, even if her enunciation is strange and her body movements even stranger. She's got the jazzy thing going on, a real throwback feel that might not, alas, appeal to America at large. OTOH America likes the pretty, and she's awfully pretty. Ugly dress tonight, though. And she shouldn't be so smiley singing that song.

ALLISON (Patti Loveless, "Blame it on Her Heart"): This girl is adorable and has got mad pipes, but something about this didn't quite work for me. Generally agreed with Simon's assessment. (Oh, and hey, crowd? "Precocious" is NOT an insult!) And am terrified that Kara's "you can sing the alphabet" is going to be this year's replacement for Randy's phonebook.

MATT GIRAUD (Carrie Underwood, "So Small"): Once again I'm biased by the fact that I don't like the song Matt chose. And yet once again he sounds the most current of the group to me, like someone who might already be on the radio. I just don't like his *voice* as much as I do some of the other guys'. I think he has a very limited vocal range. But I also think he may end up becoming one of the frontrunners, esp. if Adam ends up becoming too over-the-top for the AI audience.


LIL ROUNDS (Martina McBride, "Independence Day"): Ok but boring, just like last week. I did, however, appreciate that she tried to "honor" the genre (hey, that rhymes, almost) and *not* bust out another Whitneyized "I Will Always Love You." Randy: you are an idiot. Simon: ditto, for a different reason. There's something more than a little condescending and ridiculous about insisting someone's name is an abbreviation when it's not. She's not Lil Kim, yo.

DANNY GOKEY (Carrie Underwood, "Jesus Takes the Wheel"): Enter the preacher! That song choice is bound to win a lot of votes and alienate others. As a lapsed Catholic-turned-agnostic, I don't care that he sang about Jesus, but musically it's not that great a song and I thought his delivery was just so-so. And why the hell was he wearing a white parka? He looked like a marshmallow.

SCOTT MCINTYRE (Martina McBride, "Wild Angels"): Innocuous. Also less memorable than Simon and Paula's stupid bickering. That is not a good sign. But he's a dear.

ALEXIS GRACE (Dolly Parton, "Jolene"): At least she didn't smile through the damn thing like Brooke White did last year. Alexis is talented, but I think her voice is, well, smaller than she thinks it is. She always seems to be trying too hard to make it sound bigger, which in turn seems to have negative effects on her pitch.

MICHAEL SARVER (Garth Brooks, "Ain't Goin' Down Till the Sun Comes Up"): Does this song even have a melody? And I'm with Simon - I couldn't understand a word, though to be fair, I'm really bad at picking up lyrics generally. But still - a terrible song choice.

Post-elimination thoughts:

I predicted one of the girls would be eliminated tonight, and lo and behold, I was right. Poor Alexis - she was never one of my favorites, but it sounds like they really jerked her chain with that whole "judges' save" BS. So let me get this straight: if you're one of the bottom two, you can now look forward to either being told by the judges that they're not even considering saving you (i.e., forget it, you’re not one of our pets) or being tortured for five minutes longer with “well, maybeeee you are one of our pets, but prove you’re worth it!” That’s effing sadistic, even for Idol. I almost never watch results shows, and now I have even less reason to watch them.

Next week: Motown! This should be right up the alley of half the contestants, but we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"American Idol" S8 Finals Begin With Michael Jackson Week

Another spring, another season of "American Idol," and another set of tweaks to make it the best season evah. A fourth judge! Return of the wild card that was used in seasons 1 and 2! An extra finalist! Tonight was the first episode of Season 8 that I watched all the way through (I never start doing that until top 12, or in this case, top 13), but from what I gather from various online sources, the behind-the-scenes manipulation of "Idol" is at an all-time high. In particular, it sounds like the judges have a lot more power this year in determining who stays and who goes. More on that as the season unfolds.

The finals kicked off with Michael Jackson week, another instance of "Idol" picking a theme centered on a singer whom the judges ordinarily love to tell the contestants they can never and should never touch. (Aside: didn't you just love how 90% of the brief montage of his career showed barely any glimpse of post-1990 Jacko? Hardly surprising, but still, when you think about it, really sad.) Last year it was Mariah Carey. And like Mariah week last year, MJ week wasn't the train wreck I was expecting it to be. At the same time, there weren't really any standouts, either. Certainly nothing at the level of Season 7 winner David Cook's showstopper performance of "Billie Jean," which the season 8 kids were smart enough not to try to emulate. The most memorable aspect of this year's batch of finalists, thus far, seems to be their back stories - is it just me, or is "Idol" pouring on the sentimental syrup especially heavily this year?

That said, it's still early in the season, I did see glimmerings of musical promise here and there, and there's time enough for someone to break from the pack...that is, if the Powers That Be don't interfere in some way!

My take on the top 13, in performing order:

LIL ROUNDS ("The Way You Make Me Feel"): Mom of three cute kids, family displaced by tornado. You see the heartstring-pulling is starting early, and show's just warming up. Lil's vocals were solid. They were also wildly overpraised. Have to say I agree with Simon about the outfit - between her and Paula, I didn't know where to look. Ruffles, meet feathers; feathers, meet ruffles. This girl is clearly marked by TPTB to go far, but I'm reserving judgment.

SCOTT THE BLIND DUDE ("Keep the Faith"): Ahem, what did I just say about heartstring-pulling? Likable guy nonetheless, and I have a soft spot for pianists. Pleasant tone to his voice, but falters a bit on high notes. Not crazy about the song, though that might just be because I didn't recognize it. LOL at Simon's comment "it's fine being artistic, just not on this show." Way to tell it, Simon!

DANNY GOKEY ("P.Y.T."): Going into tonight, I knew that this guy (1) is one of the early favorites to win, and (2) lost his wife recently, a fact that the show has been milking for all it's worth. There was no milking in evidence tonight, however - only a lot of selling of Danny as a wholesome, churchgoing midwesterner - so I was able to enjoy his performance without feeling overly manipulated. And enjoy it I did. He has a soulful, gravelly voice - got a little shouty in spots, and Simon's right about his dancing, but I think he did connect with the audience. Shades of Taylor Hicks? I didn't watch Season 5, so I'm just guessing based on what I've heard about TH.

MICHAEL SARVER ("You Are Not Alone"): Oil rigger with a dimpled chin and cute kids; singing for the big time has always been his dream! Looks a little like a Super Size version of Chris O'Donnell. Has a nice voice, and sang with feeling, but artistically (yes, Simon, ARTISTICALLY) blah. He just didn't make me sit up and take notice. I see him as a mid-packer at best.

JASMINE MURRAY (Jackson Five's "I'll Be There"): Preternaturally poised, pressed, and polished 17-year-old. Attractive family. Has vocal talent, but she got a little pitchy and overall wasn't very memorable. Maybe needs some time - as in years - to develop musically. I think her days on "Idol" are numbered.

KRIS ALLEN ("Remember the Time"): Oh my, what a cutie pie. Another wholesome churchgoing midwesterner. I like the tone of his voice, though he went off-key several times. Needs to tone down the gesturing when he's not playing the guitar - just looks awkward. I was amused by his wife's total bitchface at Simon's suggestion that Kris shouldn't have revealed her this early in the game. Agreed with Paula that he's "adorable-sexy." Don't know if that will be enough to keep him in the running.

ALLISON IRAHETA ("Give it to Me"): Ok, one of my pet peeves is when TV shows provide subtitles for people who are CLEARLY SPEAKING COMPREHENSIBLE ENGLISH! Like Allison's Salvadorean parents. Allison appears to be this year's designated rocker chick, and has the smoky, husky voice to prove it. How does a 16-year-old sound like that? Didn't particularly like the song she chose and thought she oversang it in places, but I hope we see more of her. She's the opposite of this season's other teenager, the super-polished Jasmine, in that she's rougher around the edges, a little awkward, a little quirky (did you catch her comment about not cutting herself?), yet shows far more raw potential.

ANOOP DESAI ("Beat It"): As with Danny, I went into tonight knowing a little bit already about Anoop. I knew he was a UNC Chapel Hill student and a cappella king (dude reminds me of guys I went to college with, in a good way), and I'd watched his original audition online and really liked it. So I'll admit I was biased in his favor. Still, I have to say the judges were waaaaaaay too harsh on him tonight. It wasn't a great performance, but it certainly wasn't "horrible" or "stupid." I think the basic problem is "Beat It" is just not a good vocal showcase. Also, "Noopdawg"'s lower register needs work. I hope he does come back next week because I genuinely believe he can do better. But he definitely needs to step it up.

JORGE NUNEZ ("Never Can Say Goodbye"): My least favorite performance of the night, though Jorge seems like a sweet kid. Pitchy, loungey, oversung. At least they didn't subtitle him. (Oh, but they did it to his brother in the pre-perf clip!) Poor song choice may have been what undid him - if in fact the song was his choice. Interestingly, when Paula asked him why he picked that song, he sounded for a second like he was saying it was forced on him. Which wouldn't surprise me in the least. If you don't think the "Idol" producers stack the deck for and against certain contestants, well, just continue to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

MEGAN CORKREY (Jackson Five's "Rockin' Robin"): Pretty blond mom with an ugly arm-sleeve tattoo and a very distinctive, love-it-or-hate-it quality to her voice. Sort of scratchy, sort of jazzy, sort of bluesy, sort of country. I'm kind of digging this, even with the loopy "caws" she throws in at the end. She's different, in a way I find intriguing, at least for now. I sense I'm in the minority. I hope she survives this week.

ADAM LAMBERT ("Black or White"): Oh, I love this song! And I like Adam. But I'm not loving this performance. Adam's another contestant I know to be widely considered a frontrunner and producers' fav, and the judges' comments prove it. They were practically having orgasms over him tonight, which I found largely undeserved. Vocally, he started off well, then went off-pitch at the bridge and really off-pitch at the end. However, there's no doubt he can work the stage like a pro, partly because he kind of is a pro - he's had a lot of musical theater experience, including a major role in the LA run of "Wicked." I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do in the coming weeks, but I'm not on board the Adam love train just yet. Though he's quite pretty to look at, in his emo/glam/theater-boy way.

MATT GIRAUD ("Human Nature"): Another pianist and soulful white boy. He looks stupid in a hat; glad he ditched it before getting on stage. I don't love this song, but he sang it well, except for the overuse of the falsetto at the end. There's something about him I find faintly annoying, yet of all the contestants, he's the one who sounds most pop-friendly and radio-ready to me. I think he could be a dark horse.

ALEXIS GRACE ("Dirty Diana"): Another pretty blond mom who gets weepy when talking about her adorable kid. (I'm a tad disturbed that one of the first words that little girl learned would be "Seacrest," but her "Seacrest out" was just too cute for words.) And like Megan, Alexis sounds kind of jazzy/bluesy, but in a more conventional way. Her "Diana" wasn't bad. Not great, either. Pitchy in spots, made up for it with a lot of energy.

So there you have it, folks. I'm not going to call anyone a "best" or "worst" of the night, because I didn't feel strongly enough about any of them to award any titles. I will say that I thought Adam was overrated and Anoop was underrated, but I'd like to see them both next week, along with Danny, Matt Giraud, Megan, Allison...and Kris Allen for the eye candy. (Actually, I like his voice, too.) The rest I can take or leave.

ETA: Just realized I haven't said anything about Kara Dioguardi, the new judge. I don't have much to say about her, truth to tell. I don't think "Idol" needed a fourth judge, but she doesn't especially bug me. Yet.

ETA 3/11/09: Also just realized I never made predictions on who was going to get kicked. It ended up being Jasmine and Jorge. (Double elimination, y'all.) Can't say I'm even mildly surprised or disappointed by either of these departures. Still, good luck to them both.