Thursday, May 21, 2009

I'm on vacation

in London, which means I missed the "American Idol" finale - both performance and results. However, I have it DVR'd and may try to post something on it early next week.

Congrats to Kris Allen - possibly the unlikeliest "Idol" winner ever, and yet not really when you look more closely at the trajectory of his victory and of "Idol" history. More on that later.

Hugs and kisses to David Cook for what I've no doubt was a courageous and heartfelt performance last night. Don't know if they mentioned it on the show, but the song he sang was written with his brother in mind, who very recently passed away from brain cancer.

See y'all back stateside!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Star Trek" Carves Out New Frontier; "Soloist" is Really a Duet


directed by J.J. Abrams
starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Eric Bana, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Winona Ryder, and, of course, Leonard Nimoy

Will the newly rebooted “Star Trek” live long and prosper? That’s hard to say after just one movie and one opening weekend, but early word of mouth and box office returns bode well for the health of the once-moribund franchise. And justifiably so – because this “Star Trek,” simply put, is a hell of a lot of fun.

This is true whether you’re a Trekkie/Trekker, an occasional “Star Trek” watcher, or a “Star Trek” avoider. Director J.J. Abrams, by his own admission, once belonged to the last category. Yet his take on the “Trek” origins story treads that delicate line between showing respect to the die-hard fans and offering something to appeal to the average Joe or Jane who might know that Spock is the pointy-eared dude, but not much more. His trick is to focus on the dynamic between the central characters while using action (and lots of it!) to help map out how that dynamic might have developed.

The result is a movie that sometimes feels a bit like a “Star Wars”-ized “Star Trek,” from its early view of young Kirk (Chris Pine) as a cocky, impetuous farm boy with a dormant heroic streak, to a later scene on an icy world that bears a surely-not-accidental resemblance to the planet Hoth from “The Empire Strikes Back.” Consistent with the new MO, the pacing is sharper than it’s been in any “Star Trek” film that I can remember (admittedly, I haven’t seen all or even most of them). The opening—in which we’re introduced to the villain, a “very troubled Romulan” named Nero (Eric Bana, without hair and with Maori-like tattoos, and still oddly hot), and the sequence of events that literally set Kirk’s life in motion—is riveting, if occasionally verging on melodrama. The film then fast-forwards seven or eight years to show Kirk and Spock as little boys, and though these parts provide a welcome breather, they also feel unnecessary and heavy-handed—especially with respect to Kirk. But if nothing else, they confirm that this “Star Trek” will be primarily about the future captain of the Enterprise and his future CO.

Which is just fine, given that the original “Star Trek” at its most basic, stripped-down level, was always the Kirk-Spock show: much of its drive came from watching how the man of action both chafed against and complemented the man (er, Vulcan) of reflection. The new movie posits that these two, in their initial encounters, were hostile and at cross-purposes—hardly a groundbreaking notion, given their contrasting temperaments. More intriguingly, however, it also suggests that the personality of the Spock we know—unruffled, unemotional, and coolly logical—was the product of conscious choice and struggle rather than pure nature, a point underlined by early scenes between young Spock (played as a young man by Zachary Quinto, aka Sylar on “Heroes”) and his Vulcan father (Ben Cross) and human mother (Winona Ryder, who appears just long enough to make me nostalgic for the ’90s). Quinto is excellent as a Spock-still-in-formation, and Pine acquits himself well with a character who’s inherently less conflicted and thus less interesting. Both have some flat lines to get past, especially in the early going, but do a good job quickly establishing their characters so that what comes out of their mouth soon ceases to sound hammy or stilted.

“Star Trek” also introduces the rest of the key crew members of the Enterprise, including McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), “Scotty” (Simon Pegg), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Pegg is a hoot, despite a relatively late entrance; the others, partly because they’re given considerably less back story than Kirk and Spock, are merely serviceable, though credible in their respective parts. Adding gravitas to this youthful group are Bruce Greenwood as a noble if thinly sketched surrogate father-figure to Kirk, and none other than Leonard Nimoy himself as Spock from the distant future. For yes, there is a time travel element to the movie’s plot, which, without revealing too much, seems designed to soothe long-time fans by flashing a symbolic seal of approval from one of “Star Trek”’s most iconic figures while simultaneously giving the filmmakers free rein in all future installments to reinvent the entire history of the Enterprise. It’s a bold move, and a smart one in principle, if not perfect in execution; the time travel storyline is about as logical as these things usually go, which is to say not very (though no more illogical than the time-shifting on Abrams’ “Lost”).

My sense, though, is that Trekkies who see the new movie may be less concerned by the up-ending of canonical narrative than the subtler subversion of the fundamental ethos of “Star Trek.” Despite being fairly jam-packed with “Trek” references and allusions, the movie isn’t very Trek-ish in temperament. As noted, there’s a great deal of action, some of it pretty superfluous—at least two or three set pieces could and probably should have been cut without any adverse effect—but more importantly, there’s hardly any pause for the philosophical reflection that made up so much of Gene Roddenberry’s conception of the series, except to the extent such reflection directly advances the character development of Kirk and Spock. This means fewer homilies, which is not a bad thing, but it also means less of the meditative quality that distinguished “Star Trek” from other sci-fi franchises. One of the friends I saw the movie with, much more of a Trek fan than I ever was, remarked afterwards, “It was good, but it wasn’t Star Trek.” Therein lies the rub. Here’s hoping that Abrams will be able, in future movies, to recover a little more of the spirit that made “Star Trek” unique while continuing to pump in the new life it’s so sorely needed.


Also saw:


directed by Joe Wright
starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Lisa Gay Hamilton

If you’ve seen the previews for “The Soloist,” you might be forgiven for lumping it in with a whole genre of movies that I call “music = inspiration” movies, wherein a disadvantaged protagonist overcomes great adversity through talent, determination, and sheer love of music (or dancing, in the other variant of the formula, and sometimes other art forms) and ends with a triumphant final performance in front of a rapturous audience. Well, despite all appearances, “The Soloist” is not that kind of movie. Rather, it’s a movie about the unlikely bond that forms between Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), a columnist for the L.A. Times, and a homeless schizophrenic (Jamie Foxx) he discovers one day on the streets of Los Angeles, playing a battered violin with a purity of tone that catches Lopez's attention. The journalist learns that the musician’s name is Nathaniel Ayers, and on further investigation discovers that Nathaniel was once a Beethoven-loving cello prodigy who made it as far as Juilliard before the demons took over his mind. Intrigued, Lopez not only writes about him in his column but also tries to help get Nathaniel off the streets and closer to the music he loves—with mixed results.

“The Soloist” is based on a true story, which the real-life Lopez wrote a book about, and here is where I have to admit the intrusion of my own personal prejudices. Because I am a fan of Steve Lopez, and Mr. Downey, to put it bluntly, is no Steve Lopez. Obviously, the portrayal of a living person shouldn’t be judged primarily, if at all, by its resemblance to the original, and Downey’s take on Lopez owes as much to the script as to his own interpretation. And if the filmmakers choose to turn the laconic, agreeable, and by all accounts socially well adjusted (and happily married) Lopez into a jittery, tightly wound, divorced loner, that choice should by judged on its own terms, i.e., how well it works within the context of the film.

The thing is, it does and it doesn’t. It’s clear that the object behind the changes was to offer the beginnings of an answer to why Lopez should be so drawn to someone like Ayers, and to suggest that the “soloist” of the movie is as much Lopez as Ayers, if not more so. And Downey’s too gifted and conscientious an actor not to put his usual conviction into that interpretation – frankly, he’s good at playing loners with obsessive streaks. Besides, anything that gives Catherine Keener (as the screen Lopez’s ex-wife) a part of any significance can’t be altogether ill-advised. But there’s something a bit too pat about the movie’s easy psychologizing of Lopez’s attitude towards his protégé and his ultimate journey to self-awareness. Also, the moments when he loses it with Nathaniel feel artificial, as if they were inserted to heighten the dramatic tension.

Foxx fares better with his character (or maybe I just think so because I only know Ayers through Lopez), and manages to evoke the ravages of mental illness convincingly without devolving into look-at-me-Oscar showboating. Indeed, both his performance and the movie are a tad too understated to be real Oscar bait, which might be why “The Soloist” was released this spring. That’s not to say the film’s entirely successful in its treatment of Nathaniel, as it tends to retreat into a kind of arty remoteness in its depiction of his breakdowns. We never really do penetrate the wall that surrounds him, but then again, perhaps we’re never really supposed to, given that this is Lopez’s story of how he was impacted by Nathaniel. True, Wright seems to gesture occasionally towards some larger social observations on the horrors of homelessness and the ethical dilemmas of treating those who are clearly ill but don’t want to be treated. Certainly some of the movie’s most memorable images are the long tracking shots (a Wright trademark) of the desolation and violence, tempered by moments of humanity, of LA’s skid row as seen from the outsider Lopez’s perspective. But at its core, “The Soloist” is most effective as a story of friendship between a columnist and his troubled subject. For all its imperfections, it’s a well-intentioned and thoughtfully executed study of the complicated shadings of a relationship that grows out of one man’s desire to both use and help another.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"American Idol": Top 3 Show Their True Colors

Could it be? Could it be that the final outcome of "Idol" this year is not written? Or are the powers that be merely toying with us and reeling us in by dangling the hope that there might be a legitimate challenge to the Adam Lambert-Danny Gokey showdown?

Well, if so, they succeeded. Tonight wasn't the best top 3 night evah, but it was much more evenly matched (and judged - relatively speaking) than I was expecting it to be. And as a result, I still have hope that an Adam-Danny finale (1) is not inevitable, and, at the same time (2) would not be completely unbearable. That said, based both on tonight's performances and on the season as a whole, I'm rooting for an Adam-Kris finale...and my favorite is still Kris.

Kris really is the dark horse, and other than being delectably cute (a factor I certainly don't underestimate) he's in many ways the anti-Idol: quiet, unassuming, subtle rather than showy, and married. He's all about the music, and not at all about the surrounding fluff and BS. Nevertheless, the fact that he made it to top 3 proves that you don't have to have a big voice or big personality to go far on "Idol" as long as you're likable and, more importantly, can make a song resonate with viewers. It's a path that was already partially paved by previous contestants like last year's Brooke White and Jason Castro, except Kris has been a stronger performer and musician than both of them (at least on the Idol stage) and has additionally demonstrated a David Cook-like skill for arranging songs and making them fit him. He probably won't win, but he deserves a place in that finale.

Ok, off soapbox and back to the actual recap.

In years past, the top three have traditionally sung three songs apiece: one chosen by the producers, one by the judges, and one by the contestant. This year, for no reason I can perceive other than the fact that there are now four judges who don't know when to shut up and that the producers felt the need to insert a segment on Idol Gives Back that felt totally out of place (why not put it on the results show?), the program was shortened to two songs each - judges' choice and contestant's choice. Way to go, show. Oh, and judges: GROW UP. We want to see and hear the Idols sing, not you all bickering and hitting and pawing each other and acting like a bunch of kindergartners. What a waste of everyone's time. You know things are at a pretty pass when Randy seems like the only mature adult at that table.

As usual, the judges threw roses and kisses at Adam and all but declared him the winner, or at least a lock for the final two. As between Danny and Kris, however, they were a bit less biased than their usual wont. Just a bit. I choose to believe it's because even they couldn't deny the awesomeness of Mr. Allen.


DANNY opened the joint with "Dance Little Sister" by Terence Trent D'Arby. Paula picked it for him. He didn't know it. Neither did I, so I'm willing to cut him slack. It was ok - certainly better than the earsplitting disaster that was last week's "Dream On." The song was better suited to his voice, and he did bring the energy. But it wasn't otherwise very memorable, other than for the terrible dancing, which I have to give (grudging) props to Kara for pointing out. And he gave too much talkback in response to criticism. There's a lot of pretty virulent antipathy on the Internet towards Danny (whom I've seen unkindly dubbed Hokey Gokey, Jokey Gokey, and Dokey Gokey), which I don't share; I just think he's socially awkward and musically nowhere near the level of either of his two remaining competitors - or, for that matter, several of the contestants he's beaten to this point.

KRIS followed with One Republic's "Apologize," chosen by Randy and Kara. I've never liked this song, but I thought he sang it well and with feeling. Frankly, I think Kris is underrated as a vocalist. Sure, he doesn't have huge pipes or a crazy range, but his tone is very pure and pleasant. Unlike Paula, I didn't hear a loud bum note, though his falsetto was a little weak. And while I get what Kara was saying about rearranging the song (a point Simon seemed to be willfully misunderstanding), I think doing this one straight, and on the piano, more effectively set off what he did with his second song.

ADAM got U2's "One," courtesy of Simon, and boy did Simon look smug about that. Truthfully? "One" isn't my favorite U2 song, yet even so, I didn't love this arrangement. It combined, not very comfortably, Adam's two modes - stripped down ballad and rock wail - the first of which I love, the second I only like in the proper context. And I didn't think this was the proper context for the latter; it felt shoehorned in, and I agreed with Randy (something I've been doing a lot of this season, surprisingly) that it ended up losing the melodic line. Opening was gorgeous, though.


DANNY chose Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful." Textbook Danny - gravelly crooning followed by a buildup to a loud, gutbusting climax - but he did it well this time. Very solid and heartfelt. Not much nuance. I'm getting tired of hearing Randy say "you can really sing!" and Simon saying that this is a singing competition. If it were really a singing competition, why isn't Allison still in the mix?

KRIS did a Krisification of Kanye West's "Heartless," and it was brilliant - exactly what he needed to do to stay alive in this competition. I'm not familiar with the Fray cover of the song so I don't want to give him too much credit for originality, but I'm still extremely impressed that he managed to make a frickin' Kanye West rap melodic and make it sound like, well, Kris. My one quibble was that he seemed to be smiling too much for a song that purports to be about (I think) a guy getting his heart broken by some cold beeyotch. But it was fresh and engaging, and miracle of miracles, the judges actually gave him credit! Is it paranoid to suspect a hidden agenda? Ah, never mind - I'll take it.

ADAM closed out the night (doesn't he always?) with "Crying," perhaps to school Danny on how Aerosmith SHOULD be done? He seems like too nice a guy for such a deliberate poke in the eye, but that's essentially what this performance was. Adam may be the only contestant in the history of "Idol" who really can do Steven Tyler justice. The rock wail, here, was well placed. And yet...and yet...once again, the performance left me admiring but cold. When he's in rock-god mode, Adam fails to touch me the way that someone like Kris does. And was it me, or was Simon essentially begging viewers to vote for him? That, combined with comments by the other judges and Ryan to the effect about the closeness of the race makes me wonder if this thing might not be in the bag for Adam after all. Or maybe the producers are just trying to drum up suspense so that we'll continue to tune in.

ELIMINATION PREDICTION: Before tonight, I'd have said Kris, unreservedly (and sadly), and I still think his fanbase might be outmuscled by the Danny and Adam contingents. But now I'm not so sure. Damn you show, for making me care, despite all your machinations, manipulations, and sheer ineptitude this season!

Just when I think I'm out...they pull me back in. Oh well, only one more week of this circus. With any luck, Kris will still be in it. And if not - he's still the winner in my eyes.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Happy Cinco de Mayo = No A.I. Recap

A late night at work (boo), followed by a late night margarita with friends (yay) in celebration of Mexico's most famous drinking holiday, precluded a timely viewing of Rock Week with the top 4 "American Idol" contestants. But without having even seen tonight's show, I can predict the following:

-Adam was treated like a god
-Danny was given more credit than he deserved
-Kris and Allison were given less credit than they deserved
-Either Kris or Allison will be leaving tomorrow. Which will make me very sad - esp. if it's Kris.

What's even sadder is just how transparent the show's machinations have become - to the point that I have no doubt at least 75% of what I just wrote above was, in fact, accurate. All I can say is if Kris gets voted off this week, I may not even bother to watch the rest of the season. It's just not worth it to me anymore.

On a more somber, but also more inspiring, Idol-related note, it appears that season 7 winner David Cook recently lost his older brother, Adam, to brain cancer. From what I can tell, the writing had been on the wall for quite a while, but the end finally came at the same time David was scheduled to run a 5K to raise money for cancer research. Like the mensch he is, DC still ran and was more than gracious afterwards in acknowledging both his own loss and the support he'd received. Here's a video of his speech that just about broke my heart.

Such a class act. He'll always be my American Idol.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Summer Movie Preview

By this time of year, every year, my thoughts as a moviegoer are always the same: summer can’t get here soon enough. For most movie lovers, spring is the bleakest season—a dreary, drawn-out four-month period in which Hollywood’s back-shelf merchandise floods the theaters and abandoned prestige pics go to die. Thankfully, the drought invariably ends with the arrival of the first blockbuster of the year, even if it equally invariably involves a franchise hero swimming against a tidal wave of special effects. After all, the formula doesn’t preordain a bad movie, as last year’s “Iron Man” proved.

This year, I suppose the credit for drought-breaker technically belongs to “Wolverine.” However, much as I love Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, and “Friday Night Lights”’ Taylor Kitsch (aka Tim Riggins), the tepid buzz and mostly negative critical reception have already made the “X Men” spinoff look more like a false start. For me, the true summer kickoff flick is the new, retooled “Star Trek,” which opens this week. But the rest of the summer offers a promising and eclectic mix of entertainment, and perhaps most surprisingly, much of it appears to be clustered in August—usually the doldrums for summer movies. On the downside, June looks rather dry, unless the “Transformers” sequel or “Land of the Lost”is the highlight of your summer. Let’s just say they ain’t mine.

In order of opening date, here are my top ten most anticipated summer movies:

“It” director J.J. Abrams attempts to add some hipness factor to a famously un-hip franchise that’s lately been in real danger of sputtering out. His method includes taking the story back to the salad days of the crew of the Enterprise, injecting new blood in the form of a young, up-and-coming cast (including Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Karl Urban, and Zoe Saldana, though also, apparently, Eric Bana, Winona Ryder, and the venerable Leonard Nimoy himself), and generally adding a “Star Wars”-ish vibe to the plot and character development that shows where Abrams’ true fanboyishness resides. As a moderate fan of “Star Trek” (though I’m more of a Next Generation gal) and a much stronger fan of “Star Wars” (Episodes IV-VI only, thank you), I can’t help but be intrigued. And I know I’m not the only one.

I’m a little concerned that this caper film starring Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, my bb Mark Ruffalo, and Rinko Kinkuchi, written and directed by the guy behind “Brick”— doesn't it seem like a winner from that description?—was originally supposed to come out last fall. A delayed release is never, ever a good sign. OTOH, it’s sometimes more reflective of a studio’s lack of faith in the film’s marketability than the actual quality of the product. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing because I really want this movie to be good.

UP (May 29)
I’m tickled by the idea of a house being tied to balloons and floating away to South America. And how many movies for kids do you see that are focused on crotchety old men? If anyone can make it work, it’s the genius pool at Pixar. I have faith.

Probably the movie I’m most looking forward to this summer. The Depression-era cops-and-robbers tale is based on the true story of bank robber John Dillinger, is directed by Michael Mann, and stars Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as the clean-cut FBI agent who tracks him down. With that pedigree, I’m sold. Billy Crudup also appears as J. Edgar Hoover(!), and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard has a role as Dillinger’s love interest.

As someone who’s read the entire Harry Potter series multiple times, I’ve had ambivalent feelings, at best, about the movies—that is, until the last one, “Order of the Phoenix,” which I quite liked. I’m encouraged by the fact that the same director who did “Phoenix,” David Yates, is helming the pivotal sixth installment. I don’t know whether to be encouraged by the fact that The Half-Blood Prince is one of the best books of the series, as I generally find an inverse relationship between how much I love a book and how much I love its screen adaptation.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (July 17)
A quirky portrait of a relationship between two twentysomethings played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, this film is already being billed as an “Annie Hall” for the Generation Y set. I don’t know much about the director, Marc Webb. But just the idea of a JGL-Zooey pairing puts a smile on my face—I can’t imagine them being anything less than charming together.

JULIE & JULIA (August 7)
Meryl Streep and Amy Adams star, respectively, as the redoubtable Julia Child and Julie Powell, a young woman who undertook all 500+ recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and then wrote a bestselling book about the experience. Doesn’t sound exactly ready-made for cinema, and I have my doubts about director Nora Ephron (though I’ll always have “When Harry Met Sally”), but I adore Meryl, Amy, and good stories about good cooking. So I’ll bite.

Ang Lee once again brings his unerring outsider’s eye to a slice of peculiarly American culture—but this time he's in comedic mode. And while today’s moviegoers may associate the director more with such epic-dramatic fare as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Lust/Caution,” and, of course, “Brokeback Mountain,” anyone who’s seen the delightful “Sense & Sensibility” or his even earlier Taiwanese sex comedies (“The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink Man Woman”) can attest that Lee has a wonderful flair for comedy. Stars Comedy Central’s Demetri Martin and an impressive array of supporting talent, including Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Emile Hirsch, and Paul Dano. Can’t wait!

Based on one of the most riveting, genuinely (and uncheesily) romantic novels I’ve read in a long time, starring yummy Eric Bana as the male lead—what’s not to like about “The Time Traveler’s Wife”? Well, for one, I’m disappointed that Gus van Sant dropped out of directing the film, and for another, I’m not crazy about the casting of Rachel MacAdams as the heroine, Clare (though she does have sweeping-romance cred from “The Notebook,” I suppose). But this is a terrific story, and if the film does any kind of justice to the book, I’ll be there on opening night.

POST GRAD (August 21)
Alexis Bledel channels all the angst of recent college grads everywhere who have to move back home while they Find Themselves. Nothing new in the material here, as far as I can tell. But the movie also stars Zach Gilford (“Friday Night Lights”) as the friend who has a crush on Bledel's character, and I just can’t resist the idea of Rory Gilmore and Matt Saracen together. They might even give Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel a run for their money for the title of Cutest Couple of the Summer.

I’ll also be eyeing the reviews for “Easy Virtue” (while I’m not convinced Jessica Biel belongs in a Noel Coward farce, Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth surely do); “Whatever Works” (if the combo of Woody Allen and Larry David don’t drive me screaming to the hills); “Bruno” (my favorite Sacha Baron Cohen character); “Departures” (the Japanese film that beat out both “The Class” and “Waltz With Bashir” for Best Foreign Film Oscar this year); “Ponyo” (Miyazaki’s latest flight of fancy); and “Inglourious Basterds” (the title alone annoys me, but I can never quite count out Quentin Tarantino). And I just may seek out a guilty pleasure or two in the form of, say, “Dance Flick,” the Wayans Brothers’ latest exercise in spoofery, or “The Ugly Truth”(I like Katherine Heigl, and Gerard Butler cracks me up in the previews). But if do, I’ll certainly be ignoring those reviews.

What are you looking forward to seeing this summer?