Sunday, February 27, 2011

It's Oscar-tastic!

Until this weekend, I will admit I wasn't all that focused on the Oscars this year. Heck, I hadn't even bothered to make my yearly nominations predictions. I know a huge part of that apathy came from the fact that January and February are probably my busiest months of work -- teaching, coaching, directing, work days that are sometimes 10-12 hours long six days a week. There is no time in there to see movies. Add to it the fact that my local multiplex often doesn't get a lot of the Oscar-nominated films (The King's Speech has yet to show up in town), and it becomes harder and harder to get enthused about movies I don't have the time or opportunity to see.

The King's Speech thing really started to get to me this week. I was certain that it would show up in town in time for the Oscar's. I was positive. I mean, it's one of the two frontrunners for best picture, it's grossed over $100million -- surely that would earn it a screen here in town, right? I mean, Black Swan was here for two weeks in January, and The King's Speech is certainly more middle America friendly than Black Swan, right? RIGHT!?!?!? Well, apparently not.

As longtime readers may know, I have this sort of streak going. It's probably more accurately referred to as an obsession -- and that obsession is seeing the winner of Best Picture BEFORE it actually wins Best Picture. I have had brushes with near failure. There was near catastrophic win of Brokeback Mountain several years ago. I had not seen Brokeback Mountain. (I actually hadn't seen ANY of the nominees that year.) I just hadn't had the time during speech season to see it the two weekends it was in town. I approached Oscar night having not seen the frontrunner. I was devastated. I consoled myself that afternoon by renting Crash, a movie that had been nominated but surely wasn't going to win, right? WRONG! I can remember breaking down in tears when Crash won as I realized that I had kept the streak alive by pure accident, and it was in that moment that I became determined to keep it alive for as long as I could.

And so yesterday, overwhelmed with the horror of realizing that a streak that is approaching its 25th year could be nearing its end all because my stupid local multiplex decides that the people of my town would rather see Big Momma's House 48 rather than The King's Speech, I did something rash. I scoured the internet and found a source to watch not only The King's Speech but also several other Oscar nominated films. I've spent the past day curled up in my den watching terrific films and honestly enter tonight's broadcast more knowledgeable about the nominated films and performances than I have in probably 15 years (back when I had nothing but time to travel all over the area catching Oscar movies -- sometimes seeing two or three in one day).

So with that caveat, here are my picks for tonight's ceremony.

Best Original Screenplay
Another Year
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech

Should Win: Inception
Will Win: The King's Speech
Tough call here. I've seen all of the above except Another Year. I love Mike Leigh's work, but I think this pool is too strong for Leigh to sneak in here. I was crazy about The Fighter, but I'm not sure the script is why I loved the movie as much as I did. The Kids Are All Right may be too subtle for a win here. So I see this as a race between The King's Speech and Inception. If I had a vote, I'd probably cast it for Inception, which I thought was a fascinating, creative, intelligent film, but my gut tells me that The King's Speech is going to take this one. I just don't think the Academy is looking to reward Christopher Nolan for much of anything tonight. With the Best Picture race coming down to a showdown between The King's Speech and The Social Network, I also think that screenplay becomes a way to reward both films.

Best Adapted Screenplay
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Will Win/Should Win: The Social Network
I've only seen three of the movies nominated here (although I'm going to try to fit 127 Hours in later this afternoon after a meeting I have to go to in a bit). The thing is that the reason why The Social Network works so beautifully is because of Aaron Sorkin's script. I'll talk later about how I think the King's Speech/Social Network showdown will go, but I think this is the one place where the Academy HAS to recognize The Social Network. It is the only movie where I sat and marvelled at the writing more than the acting or directing or art design. It is a brilliant, brilliant piece of writing that was able to turn what was essentially an intellectual exercise into gripping, powerful filmmaking.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Should Win: Hailee Steinfeld
Will Win: Melissa Leo
Tonight, a lot of the acting categories are going to come down to races between actors who turn in tremendous, thoughtful work steeped in subtlety and actors who turn in tremendous, powerful work steeped in, well, acting. This is the first category where the subtle take on the powerhouses. This is not to take a thing from the work of, say, Amy Adams or Melissa Leo. I thought both turned in amazing performances where they completely transformed into these characters, the kinds of characters actors would kill to land. Melissa Leo, in particular, is amazing as this tough, gritty mama bear whose desire for success blinds her to her own faults as well as those of her son. She transformed herself into this Massachusetts tigress. And yet, truth be told, I was more impressed with the acting turned in by Helena Bonham Carter and Hailee Steinfeld. Bonham Carter had a relatively thankless role that largely asked her to look on with love and support while Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush hit home run after home run. It was so lovely, though, to see the Helena Bonham Carter I used to idolize come back. I can remember watching A Room with a View countless times in high school and counting Helena Bonham Carter as one of my favorite actors. And then she went all weird and Tim Burton-y, and I kind of lost her. Seeing her here was a reminder of the beautiful, subtle actress she was and still is. In another year, I think she would be a frontrunner. So why do I place my hypothetical vote with Steinfeld? First of all, the kid is, like, 14 years old and carries an entire movie on her tiny little shoulders. Her Mattie Ross is the heart and soul of True Grit. She not only holds her own against Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon; she kind of makes you forget they're even in the movie. The maturity and grace she gives Mattie while still maintaining that childlike idealism is a stunning achievement. And yet I think the Academy is more likely to go with Leo's fierce performance (which is honestly truer to the idea of a "supporting role") than Steinfeld's quietly nuanced performance (which is really a lead role). Here's hoping this is just the beginning of tremendous work from Steinfeld. (And that maybe the rumors are true that she's a leading contender to play Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games!)

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

Should Win: Geoffrey Rush and Christian Bale
Will Win: Christian Bale
In a perfect world, tonight's Best Supporting Actor race would end in a tie. Like Best Supporting Actress, this is a race between immersion and subtlety. There is no denying Christian Bale is brilliant in The Fighter. I've struggled with Bale over the years. He's one of those actors that I largely never quite got why people were so crazy about him. I thought his Batman was weak, his John Connor was lazy, and his other work largely rather showboaty. He seems like he falls back on a lot of the same techniques and seems like a bit of a d-bag off screen. After watching The Fighter, though, I get Christian Bale. I was blown away by his work which was filled with tremendous heart. I particularly loved the scene at the very end where he's talking with Micky and this crack in his voice....beautiful. I will be thrilled to see him win tonight. And yet, there is also no denying the brilliance of Geoffrey Rush. For all the praise that (rightfully) gets heaped on Colin Firth for this film, you just can't overlook the role that Rush plays in getting Firth to that place. This is acting teamwork in action. The scene towards the end where King George is giving his speech with silent coaching from Rush's Lionel moved me to tears. Even telling my sis about it this morning over breakfast had me choking up. I know that the Academy will likely reward Bale, and I am okay with that, but I will still hope for the tie that would give Rush his moment of glory and recognition as well.

Best Actress
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Should Win: Annette Bening
Will Win: Natalie Portman
Poor Annette Bening. Seriously. When in the world is this woman going to get the recognition she deserves? She has turned in Oscar-worthy performances again and again, and every single time, she gets shafted. She should have won for The Grifters in 1991. Nope, she lost to Whoopi Goldberg. (Anyone else think maybe the Academy regrets that one just a little?) She should have won for American Beauty in 1999. Nope. She lost to Hillary Swank for being brave enough to stick some tube socks down her pants. She should have won in 2004 for Being Julia. Nope. She lost AGAIN to Swank for playing a lady boxer. And now this year.... her performance in The Kids Are All Right is magnificent in its subtlety. More than once, I felt like I was sitting in the living room of this woman and watching her actual life. And yet once again this year, Bening will probably go home empty handed. I don't want to take anything away from Natalie Portman. I think she's a fine, gifted young actress. I was not, however, all that crazy about Black Swan nor was I as mesmerized by Portman's performance as critics led me to believe I would be. Frankly, I thought she was a little over the top in spots, and while I understand that over the top acting is sort of the trademark of a Darren Aronofsky film, it doesn't mean I have to like it. Unfortunately, I may be in a very small minority that was not blown away by Portman and the film itself, so I know that my hope that Annette Bening will finally get the recognition she's deserved for 20+ years is probably futile and that it will be Portman's turn to snatch the Oscar away from Bening's grasping fingertips this year.

Best Actor
Javier Barden, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

Will Win/Should Win: Colin Firth

I'm going to start out by saying that I think Colin Firth was robbed last year. Don't get me wrong; I loved Jeff Bridges's performance in Crazy Heart, but the work that Firth did in A Single Man was a masterclass in acting. It was stunning, painful, funny, and struck a much more powerful nerve in me as a viewer than Bridges did in Crazy Heart. Obviously, I understand how Bridges won as it was a tremendous performance and the man was due. I just think Firth was the stronger performance of last year. Luckily, Firth turned around and knocked another grand slam in The King's Speech. What a magnificent performance! Is it as strong as his work in A Single Man? Maybe not, but a lot of that probably has to do more with the fact that his work in A Single Man was slightly more accessible to an audience. We could relate more powerfully to the themes at play there -- the loss and its accompanying grief was raw and terrifically moving. This year and this performance as yet another George doesn't quite have the same personal resonance, but it's still an incredible performance. The levels he gave George VI were real and powerful. The heart he gave the character was touching. I think I particularly liked the scenes between George VI and his young daughters and the way he was able to create a relatable family life in this very unrelatable existence. Tremendous stuff, and it will be such a joy to see Colin Firth finally get the recognition he deserves.

Best Director
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
David O. Russell, The Fighter
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David Fincher, The Social Network
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit

Will/Should Win: David Fincher.
First things first, I am not a fan of Darren Aronofsky's work. I think it's pretentious and weird for the sake of being weird -- and not in that delightful way that early David Lynch work was. I did not enjoy Black Swan and frankly thought it was lazy at times in terms of its characterizations and directing choices made. The other movies on this list -- I either loved or really enjoyed. I didn't quite latch on to True Grit the way a lot of other people have, but that may have more to do with the fact that I'm not generally a big fan of Westerns. I loved the Coen sensibility at play, though, and liked the film a lot. I just didn't love it the way I've loved other Coen films. As much as I loved The Fighter (and I really did), I think that film is a triumph of acting more than anything else. I would say the same is true of The King's Speech (and I'll talk more about that later). As a director, yes, of course I know that the director is instrumental in acting triumphs, but I also think that there is much more at play when considering Best Director, and terrific acting isn't enough. In any other year, I think that either Russell or Hooper would be locks for this win because they created truly terrific, powerful, moving films. Unfortunately, they are up against David Fincher this year who turned in stunning film. Sorkin's script gave meat to what is essentially a film about intellectual property rights and creation. Fincher's directing gave the script bones and form and an element of excitement and suspense. The fact that Christopher Nolan's name is missing from this list makes this a lock, in my mind, for Fincher because no one else turned in a film this year with the same level of energy and creativity, that challenged the audience while still entertaining the audience. Fincher is one of the most daring and exciting directors working today; it's time to recognize that now rather than waiting until his career has lost that spark and award a lesser film later down the road. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Scorcese...and you know it.)

Best Film
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Should Win: The Social Network
Will Win: The King's Speech
It's 1994 all over again. Friends, take a walk back with me to that time when we wore flannel, listened to Pearl Jam, drank Crystal Pepsi, and drove our Geos to the local cinema to see ... well, it kind of depended. On one screen, there was Forrest Gump, a sweet little film about a, well, retarded guy and his crazy misadventures through American history. It was all the stuff that Oscar loves -- mental or physical challenges, life affirming, and full of heart. On the other screen, you had Pulp Fiction, a gritty, in your face film about gangsters and the molls who love them. It felt full of life and vibrance and would become one of the most important films of the 1990's, influencing countless films over the course of the years that followed. When Oscar season rolled around, it was a battle between Old Cinema and New Cinema as Forrest and Jenny squared off against Vincent and Jules for the title. And of course, Old Cinema won out and Forrest Gump was named Best Picture and Quentin Tarentino went home with a screenplay award for his effort. Looking back now, doesn't it seem a bit ridiculous that Forrest Gump would beat Pulp Fiction? I mean, seriously! Which movie has more power and resonates more deeply now? I quite enjoyed Forrest Gump when it came out, but I didn't flock back to the theatre to see it again and again the way I did with Pulp Fiction. (If memory serves, I saw it six times in the theatre and bought it on video the day it came out.) This year, I think we have the same situation. In one corner, you have The King's Speech. It is a great, great film, and it is the kind of movie Oscar loves -- beautifully acted, steeped in history, inspiring, and just enough English accents to make voters feel smart and sophisticated. I don't want to take anything away from the film's win because it is a gorgeous film, but I maintain as I did above in the Best Director category that it is a triumph of acting more than anything else. The reason why that film resonates is that there are three incredibly strong performances at the center of the film that give it heart and soul. Is good acting enough to win Best Picture? Tonight, it might be, but it shouldn't be. Let's take a look at the other corner where you have The Social Network. This is a film that is of the moment, a picture postcard of a moment in our contemporary history that will have power for years to come. It is the Network, the All the President's Men of our time. But never forget that as tremendous as those films are, they lost to a little picture called Rocky -- a movie about triumph in the face of adversity. (Okay, I know Rocky doesn't technically triumph -- we always forget that Rocky loses at the end of the first film.) While The Fighter might seem like the spoiler option in this scenario, I think the added pedigree (and accents -- don't forget the accents) of The King's Speech will allow it to slide in there and take home the award. Fincher's Best Director and Sorkin's Best Screenplay awards will let the Academy recognize the achievement that The Social Network is but still let it cling to its Old Cinema sensibility by awarding the big dog to The King's Speech.

Check back in tomorrow to see how I fare. I've got the Chez Mel house pool to win again for the, oh, millionth year in a row, so.....

Happy viewing, friends!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Idol Chatter

After reading this article about a teacher who was fired for complaining about her students in her blog, I've decided to keep things relatively pop culture related for a little while. I've never used this blog to complain about my students and usually spend my "work posts" waxing rhapsodic about how much I love my students and love my job, but why tempt fate, right?

With that said, onto the Idol chatter....

After missing the epic cliffhanger of JLo breaking down and declaring she couldn't do "this" anymore (this following the shocking elimination of Chris Medina), I sat down to watch Thursday night's episode with an enormous chip on my shoulder. If there's anything I hate, it's missing a classic diva breakdown. I'll never quite forgive myself for missing the night Paula critiqued a performance BEFORE it happened, and now, I've missed JLo seemingly threatening to walk. Darnit!! (Watching my language from here on out, too...)

Instead of JLo drama, I got roughly two hours of lame psych outs ("I hate to tell you...that you're staying in the competition...") and minimal drama. Really, the only really nailbiting moment of the night came when there were three guys left for one spot left and the three guys in question were Justin Bieber's chubby Southern doppleganger Jacee Badeaux, the kick-buttedly named (and coiffed) Colton Dixon, and one of my personal favorites so far this season, future star of the Broadway revival of Godspell, Brett Lowenstern. My money was on Brett. There is something about that kid that really touches my heart. He seems like such a sweet, kind soul, the kind of kid I would love to have in the classroom. Yeah, I know that the music business will probably destroy this gentle guy, but darnit, I love him and his amazing voice. My sis had her money on Colton Dixon and pointed to the fact that, of the three kids sitting in those chairs facing the judges, Colton was probably the most marketable. I was thrilled, then, when Brett was the one to get the ticket to the next round, although I do kind of feel like Colton maybe got the shaft. (And judging from the look on Colton's face when Brett sweetly threw his arms around both losers and said, "We're all winners!", he thought so, too. Memo to Brett: you need to check out the definition of "winner" in the dictionary, sweetie. Neither Colton nor Jacee are winners in the technical sense of term since they have tickets to go back to waiting tables and napping through study hall and YOU have a ticket to Hollywood. Just saying...)

As Ryan rattled off the names of the top 24, both my sister and I noted the high number of strong male contenders and the equally high numbers of women we'd never heard of and who seemed utterly disposable. My sis referred to the girls as "Red Shirts." My Trekker fans will certainly know what this means, but for those of you who are not as nerd savvy as my sis, on Star Trek, when Captain Kirk would assemble a team to go investigate some strange new planet, you always knew who was going to die based on who was wearing red shirts. The point with these women, then, is that many of them are basically being set up to die (in a figurative sense of the word, although wouldn't it be cool if Ryan Seacrest looked at someone and said, "You're not going home, sweetheart. You're going to die" and then pulled out a sword and stabbed some young Idol? Am I the only one who would think that rocked? Yeah? Okay, then. Fine! Be that way!!) It does seem, though, that the young women with whom we spent the most time leading up to Thursday night's elimination round are largely gone while many of the men left have gotten a lot of screentime and have well-developed backstories and narratives working in their favor. I had heard that Idol was eliminating the gender equity approach to the finals this year (although the format of next week's voting doesn't seem to support this rumor), but it sure seems like it's going to be another banner year for the guys while the girls flounder around on their high heels and short skirts.

So who will we spend the next several months voting for (and, in my case, both mocking and celebrating)? Here are my predictions (which are predicated on the assumption that six men and six women will be allowed to proceed):

The Ladies
Lauren Alaina: The judges love this chick and have been pimping her big time since she walked into the Nashville audition. She also has probably the most screentime so far of the ladies, and that plays a huge part in how people vote. We vote for the ones we know, and man, do we know Lauren.
Julie Zorrilla: Julie has also had a lot of screentime and may be the most talented girl in the competition. (Sorry, Lauren) She also has that sort of perky adorableness that people love.
Karen Rodriguez: I'm a fan of Karen, and I love the idea of Idol getting a more multi-ethnic look this year with the inclusion of someone who is not only Latina but is willing to embrace her ethnicity. Her Spanish-language performance was pretty stunning. Add to it a spunky character, and she has America's Sweetheart written all over her.
Thia Megia: I'm not a big fan of Thia's. I find her voice affected (although my sis wonders if it's not an ESL thing....if her weird articulation when she sings comes from English maybe not being her first language). She's one of the younguns still left around, though, and I could see America latching onto her especially if she nails her performance next week.
Rachel Zevita: Okay, I will admit this one is more my HOPE than what I really think will happen, but there's something really satisfying to Rachel's narrative -- the girl who was rejected in Hollywood has now triumphantly returned. Plus, I like Rachel's jazzy vibe that seems to come from a genuine sort of place despite her young years.
Naima Adedapo: Again, this is more of a hopeful pick. I think Naima could bring a really cool vibe to the finals this year and be the sort of spoiler that could shake things up. Idol has struggled in the past couple years with women of color, and Naima could be the one who ends that struggle.

The Men
Casey Abrams: Not only is Casey my favorite contestant this year, he might be my favorite contestant of all-time. I am rocking a hard core crush on this guy who can seemingly do absolutely anything. I can't imagine this season without him, and I hope his recent trip to the hospital is a minor stumble in his triumphant race to the finale in May.
Jacob Lusk: If Idol has struggled with women of color lately, it has downright failed with men of color. Since Ruben Studdard's win in season two, no black man has seemed a legitimate contender for the title. Yeah, there have been some talented guys -- George Huff, Anwar Robinson, Mike Lynche -- but I don't think anyone really thought these guys were going to actually win the whole thing. I don't, however, have a hard time imagining a Casey-Jacob finale. My only worry is that Jacob seems, um, overly excitable and that the excitement of advancing beyond next week just might cause the guy to explode mid-happy dance.
Tim Halperin: Tim LOOKS like an American Idol. Think of the past several years' winners -- David Cook. Kris Allen. Lee Dewyze. Now look at a picture of Tim Halperin. Yeah... I know. There has to be a "safe" heartthrob who can appeal to both the tween girls who text until their fingers bleed as well as the mom's who are speed dialing between picking the kids up at soccer practice and fixing them their Hamburger Helper. Tim might be just what the doctor ordered. (Or maybe Paul McDonald, who might be a little cuter....)
James Durbin: You've gotta have a rocker, and this year, it looks like James is the guy. His What Would Adam Lambert Do schtick is already growing tiresome, though, but the fact that the guy is rocking a good backstory may be enough to keep him going, especially since we lost this year's King of the Sob Story in Chris Medina. James just might have to suffice.
Jovanny Barreto: Is is bad I'm picking Jovanny because he kind of reminds me of a former student of mine? Well, too bad, because I'm picking him!
Brett Lowenstern Come on! You've gotta have this kid in the finals if only to see the major meltdown he'll have as the eliminations become more and more shocking and emotional!!

Of course, if the producers go forward with gender equity, my list above means that we lose some incredibly talented men -- like Stefano Langone , Robbie Rosen, and Paul McDonald -- not to mention talented men that I don't particularly like, such as Jordan Dorsey and Clint Jun Gamboa. (Sorry, guys, you were both d-bags during group day. I don't forgive too easily!!) I also still have a hard time imagining that Scotty McCreery can last much longer. It's not that I don't like the kid -- I do. It's just that pesky versatility thing that the structure of this show seems to demand. You can't sing Randy Travis and Garth Brooks every week, son. I would happily sacrifice, say, a Thia Megia or even Rachel Zevita if it meant keeping Robbie Rosen or Paul McDonald around.

Oscar predictions will be up tomorrow afternoon sometime. I'm going to spend the rest of the weekend before tomorrow night trying to cram in as many Oscar movies as I can. Let's keep my streak alive!!!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sorry, Folks

Because of some sort of HD/DVR glitch, I did not see last night's American Idol. I am beyond ticked! I mean, Idol in Vegas and I don't see it happen?!?!? WHAT THE WHAT!?!?!??!

I've spent this afternoon trying to find it online with no success, and so . . . .

No blog today except for this whining little ditty about the lameness of HD/DVR glitches that give you an hour of blackness instead of the hour of delicious Vegas/Beatles confection you'd longed for all day.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Another Fifty (or so) Bite the Dust

Dear American Idol producers, I have been a fan of this show from day one. With the exception of the hiatus we took from each other after the elimination of Melinda Doolittle (seriously, that one still kills me inside), I have been loyal, steadfast, and true. If only you were as passionate about me (and my fellow fans) as I am about you.... Here's the thing, Idol. You had a tremendous opportunity last night to get people really pumped about the next level of competition. You had roughly 100 talented performers take the stage and half of them earned tickets to go perform in Vegas next week. And yet, you chose to devote only an hour to the auditions that earned them those tickets. After sitting through the two hour pressure cooker that was Group Night, I think that America has EARNED a little more, even if it's just a chance to get to see some of our favorites shine...or stumble. I'll admit that we got some TREMENDOUS performances (which I'll get into later), but we also had some people slip through without a second of coverage last night (or any night). For example, we know that James Durbin made it through, but we didn't get any coverage. His was one of the top sob stories of the audition rounds, so wouldn't seeing him nail his final Hollywood performance make his story that much more powerful?

There was a lot of head scratching last night as we caught glimpses of those who had survived Hollywood. Scotty McCreary, while giving us one of the best botched lyrics of all time ("Nuts of Wonder" ... I want a t-shirt that says that...and I don't even have ... well, you get the idea), is one such head scratcher. I still question Scotty's versatility and how in the world he'll manage on, say, Michael Jackson night. (Think back to the nightmare that was Josh Gracin on Bee Gees Night all those years ago...I'm thinking that is nothing compared to a Scotty version of "Beat It.") I also kind of question the motives behind allowing Ashley Sullivan to stay in the competition for another round. Seriously, the girl is mentally unstable. I fear for her...truly. I don't think she can handle this pressure cooker, and I really worry that she will snap. Sure, that will make for some great television, but at some point, shouldn't the mental health and well being of a person outweigh the entertainment factor of witnessing a total meltdown on national television. Okay, yeah, I see their point. Welcome, Ashley!

In my mind, last night belonged to two guys -- Casey Abrams and Jacob Lusk. What can I say but "HOLY CRAP!" Those two were AMAZING. Casey's rendition of "Georgia on My Mind", accompanied by a stand-up bass, was truly inspired and mesmerizing. I am a sucker for jazz-infused pop, and that was absolutely gorgeous -- it managed to reinvent the song while still remain true to the original at the same time. This guy is definitely one to watch.

Jacob Lusk...where the heck did this guy come from? His group day audition earned him a spot on my "watch list", but it in no way prepared me for what he delivered last night. His version of "God Bless the Child" gave me goosebumps. Without a doubt, it was the best Hollywood audition I have ever witnessed and MAY be the best American Idol performance I've ever witnessed period. It's most definitely up there with Fantasia's "Summertime" or Melinda Doolittle's "My Funny Valentine." (Two of my all-time favorite Idol performances.)

Thankfully, most of my power 10 from yesterday made it through to the next round; although we didn't get any footage of Naima Adedapo or James Durbin, we know they advanced. As did many of the people on my "I know they will but I'm not putting them on my list because I'm not buying the hype yet" list. I have to continue to say that I don't quite get the love shoved towards Lauren Alaina and Jacee Badeaux. I thought both were a little on the weak and even boring side, especially when you had so much other talent onstage that completely outshone them both. I have to say, too, that the fact that both Lauren and Jacee are so young is probably a factor. They need some time to "get" the power they're working and really develop it into something more meaningful. I kind of feel like both of them are going through the motions, and while they're going through the motions quite well, a little life under their belts could really make them powerhouses. Idol is not doing either of these kids a favor by pushing them into the competition at this point, no matter how good or cute they are, and it's frustrating to watch and realize how heavily these kids are getting promoted, making their presence in the top 10 seem like as close to a sure thing as there is in this show.

And so I remain the loyal but frustrated viewer, wishing that Idol would just make some sense once in a while but knowing that part of my love and loyalty stems from the very things that frustrate me so.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Group Up

American Idol -- the more things change, the more things stay the same. Yes, we have new judges, but they still pull some of the same old gimmicks (like the fake out "Both rows are going through!"), utter the same critiques ("You know you were a little pitchy, right?"), and lord over the room like kings and queens. Seriously, if you removed Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez from the equation last night, was anything really THAT different for the presentation of Group Day, the day the contestants dread but the people at home LOVE because it is amped-up drama like you've never seen. Oh, sure, the producers threw some contemporary music in there (Love you, Bruno Mars!) to shake things up -- which I find ironic since that will most likely be the LAST time we hear any contemporary music coming from these kids for the next three months. But for the most part, it could have been just about any season of Idol last night with the rehash of the same old dramas.

And yet, I ate it up like it was a giant bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream (which, interestingly enough, I was also eating while watching the mayhem in Hollywood.)

Last night, we had the usual -- group rivalry, exhaustion, divas, forgotten lyrics, complete and total emotional breakdowns. We had the elimination of some favorites but no indication as to why. I mean, let me hear Emily Ann Reed's performance so I can decide if it's okay to be mad she's been eliminated. We had the tantrums, like Devyn Rush begging to be let back in to plead her case to the judges. (I have to say, Devyn at least had a point. The judges said that past performances WERE being taken into consideration, and all we'd seen from Devyn before last night had been tremendously strong. I also didn't think last night's performance from her was all that bad. How do you justify eliminating a Devyn Rush, who was a bit over the top, and keep the truly insane Jacqueline Dunford, who seemed to me to be the very definition of a train wreck audition as she butched "Fuuuc-get You"? Add to it that Devyn was in the same group as Carson Higgins, who DID make it through, and was so clearly over the top that it sort of pained me to watch, and yeah, I think Devyn has a right to be a little confused.

Okay, Train Wreck of the Night was probably Tiffany Rios who wandered aimlessly in search of a group only to face rejection after rejection, prompted by her bitchy comment before singing earlier. Once she stole a partner from another group, the two of them gave one of the WORST Hollywood Week performances I've ever seen as they sang notes that I'm not sure exist in nature and most definitely do not exist in Beyonce's "Irreplaceable." Second place goes to the clearly emotionally unbalanced Ashley Sullivan. Ashley looked about five seconds away from slitting her wrists the night before the group performances. She was so emotionally ravaged that she decided to quit the competition, only to have her boyfriend (clearly thinking he'd hoped on a potential gravy train) talk her back in. (And bravo to the girls in her group for welcoming her back with such love and dignity. I don't know if I would have been that cool. Truth.) Ashley is saved from winning the TWN award mostly because, when the time came to actually perform, she nailed it and performed like a champ. Of course, as soon as she learned she was moving on, she seriously looked like someone was about to die from being, perhaps, squeezed to death. For someone who wants to bring a little Liza to American Idol, Ashley needs to develop that thick diva skin or she will be completely destroyed. I worry for her. Seriously.

Some of my favorites did not survive last night, and I'm definitely disappointed that we won't be hearing more from Emily Ann Reed, Adrienne Beasly, and Rob Bolin (who was a victim of the exhaustion/forgotten lyrics syndrome, although why HIS improvised lyrics for "F*** You" were deemed inexcusable but Jacee Badeaux's same approach when he forgot the lyrics to "Mercy" gave him a free pass is sort of beyond me other than the Jacee is young and lovable and Rob is old and not marketable...oh, ha, yeah, I just answered that question.) But there are definitely some performers we saw last night that have me jazzed for what lies ahead over the course of the next several weeks, if not months. And so I'm going to institute here my first ranking for this season. Here are the ten performers (in no particular order) who are still in it that excite me the most right now.

1. Naima Adedapo 2. Casey Abrams 3. Caleb Hawley 4. Chris Medina 5. Brett Lowenstern 6. James Durbin 7. Karen Rodriguez 8. Jacob Lusk 9. Denise Jackson 10. Frances Coontz (although this may have more to do with her cool glasses and potentially naughty last name than anything else).

Likely contenders that I don't particularly relish seeing: To be honest, I have a hard time imagining that we won't see a run for the top ten by Lauren Alaina (whom I want to like. She reminds me so much of a former student, but there's just something about her ... maybe it was that willingness to pretty much give Steven Tyler a lap dance ... that seems just so self-serving.... maybe with time, I'll warm up to her, if only to honor Lexi, the student that she reminds me of), Jacee Badeaux, one of the obnoxious kids with the stage moms from hell (no comment on those ladies. I wouldn't want to be on their bad side, that's for darn sure!), and Jordan Dorsey (who came across like the biggest diva douchebag in the history of American Idol last night. Here's hoping he pulls a Mario Vasquez and drops out early to pursue his career rather than unleash that dickery on innocent people much longer).

Tonight will narrow things down and surely give us the emergence of some previously unmentioned superstar in the making, but for now, I think the folks listed above have a lot of top
ten potential.

Who WON'T make it? I think anyone putting money on another Ashley Sullivan meltdown should start making reservations for a pricey steak dinner, because I am telling you, that chick is unstable. There is no way that girl can handle the rigors of the competition much longer. I also see a short stint for the sweet but lacking in versatility Scotty McCreary (sweetie, that voice worked for Randy Travis once upon a time, but do you really think pop radio is going to cotton to that sound in 2011? Um, no.), Jacqueline Dunford (pedal it somewhere else, honey), and Chelsee Oaks (who gets less impressive to me with each performance. Plus, I'll be honest, I thought she came across a little bitchy last night when she kept insisting that she and Rob would NOT EVER be getting back together right after the poor guy had been eliminated from the competition. Way to kick a guy when he's down, Chels). I also predict that at least ONE of "The Minors" will be heading home, because it will be hilarious to see one of those stage moms "Oh, Hell No"ing her way out of the Kodak. And the producers know how to make memorable moments, if nothing else. (And I'm not sure there IS much else they know.)

Hey, did White House Intern Molly Swenson DeWolf make it through??? What about that adorable John Wayne?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hooray for Hollywood

And now we get to the part of Idol where it really gets good.

But first . . . .

One more night of audition footage, this time from San Francisco. I'll admit, after last week's mediocrity, I was not particularly psyched about sitting through another hour of auditions, but San Francisco proved interesting on several levels.

First of all, we finally saw the emergence of the New Paula Abdul in Jennifer Lopez. Granted, J.Lo is opting to play Paula a bit more lucidly, more like season one Paula, when there was just a shot of rum in that Coke cup in front of her rather than just a whole bottle of rum with a splash of Coke. (Love you, Paula. Seriously, girl, straight up love you. Tee hee. See what I did there?) But when Jenny from the Block started talking to people about their beautiful spirits (rather than commenting on their hideous voices), I sat back with a satisfied smile and thought, "Oh, Idol, we're going to be just fine."

To make things even better, we see Steven Tyler assuming the port of Mars, er, place of Simon Cowell. A more caustic side of my future lovah came out as he didn't hold back in his criticism. Nor was he afraid to try a little psychological torture as he told one particularly awful singer that he was great only to say, "No, just kidding, man. That was awful!" Like Mrs. Gigli, though, Steven is putting his own spin on it -- playing Simon Cowell with a little bit of a drugged-out bliss about him. It's charming. I'm really looking forward to performance weeks to see how these two develop their new characters.

San Francisco also gave us two of my favorite performers we've seen so far. I love love LOVE Emily Anne Reed, the girl whose house burned down seemingly moments before her audition. Emily has this awesome quality to her voice that's sort of Macy Grey meets Billie Holiday with this great indie/folkie vibe added on top of it. Why Steven initially voted against her after her performance of "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" is beyond me. This girl is Megan Corkery but, well, genuine. Never for a second did Emily Anne's voice feel affected. You only had to hear her talk to know that she would sound exactly like that when she sang. I'm totally rooting for her to make the top 10.

My other favorite performer was the victim of the audition "pimp spot." Not only was James Durbin the last S.F. audition we saw, he was the last audition we saw period before launching into Hollywood week. Like most pimp spot auditioners, James had a sob story -- his involving a dead dad, Tourette's, Aspberger's, and struggling to support a young family. After the tears, I was so not expecting James to come in and just ROCK. First, he did this amazing riff on "You Shook Me," and then, after asking permission from the man himself, launched into an incredible "Dream On" that had Steven closing his eyes with this look on his face that said, "That's how that song should sound, man." Again, I think James has a really good shot to go far in this competition. He reminded me a lot of Adam Lambert, only a more "palatable" version of Lambert (in other words, straight, cuter, and with a better story to sell -- the producers must have been flipping out when this kid stepped in front of them!).

One quick question before I move on: Is tragedy a prerequisite to having singing talent? Or does singing talent make you a tragedy magnet? Seriously. I'm just curious. All these kids have these horror stories that it just makes me wonder if "normal" people can ever stand a chance of stardom when the worse thing that's ever happened to them is a C in geometry class.

So now we're in Hollywood. Honestly, this was a time when I felt like Idol could have given us two hours. I never understand why they tend to short change Hollywood week so much since there is so much potential for drama here as well as the guarantee that many of the singers are going to be quite good. Of course, we got the montage of people veering wildly off key or forgetting lyrics, but it was frustrating that we only followed a few select people. There were other people in those lines that went through or didn't go through to the next round, and I would have liked to have heard more from them beyond just being told that this person made it or didn't. Remind us of who these kids are. Give us a rooting interest in more than just a couple! The drama they did give us? Well....sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. When an entire row included people who've been given a lot of coverage so far, you kind of knew they would all be safe. You knew Chris Medina would get through if only because America would go ballistic if he didn't at this point. I will admit there was a certain perverse satisfaction in Jacqueline Dunford making it through but douchebag boyfriend Nick Fink (appropriate name!) getting sent home. You could see on her face that question of how long would she have to stick by this loser before it would be appropriate for her to dump him. After he defiantly sang his way up the aisle after the judges refused to give him a second chance (good for them!), you kind of sensed that maybe the answer to that question was "the sooner, the better." The look on her face was priceless! I wonder if that shot of her texting alone in the "holding room" was her dumping him ... or telling her best friend about how she planned to dump him ASAP.

Next week will bring us the "dreaded" group performances. (Dreaded only by the contestants! For viewers at home, it's pure gold, baby!) I would assume, too, that we'll get things winnowed down to the top 24 (or 36 or however big the pool will be from which we'll draw our top 12). I don't know about anyone else, but I'm excited for the real fun to begin and to see how America responds to these kids.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Idol Giveth . . .

. . . and Idol taketh away.

We had a really great first week of auditions. We had a really good second week of auditions. And then we had last week. Sigh! Very little of what we saw last week was even remotely memorable. It's not that the talent we saw in Austin and Los Angeles was all that bad. It's just that it wasn't all that memorable. Los Angeles itself seemed more mired in just really awful displaces of self-delusion more than anything else, and the genuine talent we did see seemed to benefit more from not being hideous than actually being good.

Instead of letting talent shine, Idol fell back on gimmicks and shenanigans so that I can't particularly remember much about, say, Courtney Penry outside of the fact that she does a chicken impression and is obsessively in love with Ryan Seacrest. (Oh, Courtney, you're in for a life full of romantic disappointment, sweetie.) We had the love story of Jacqueline Dunford and Nick Fink who made themselves memorable via extremely creepy PDA (and who were not nearly as interesting or talented as divorced lovebirds Chelsee Oaks and Rob Bolin from the Nashville auditions). There was Casey Arthur who seemed really cool but was kind of lost in the shuffle of the week. Of all the auditioners we saw, Casey may be the only one who has a shot because of his unique sensibility. Here's hoping he doesn't get lost in the Hollywood Shuffle.

Los Angeles was even more of a challenge if only because the talent seemed to have taken a holiday and this allowed producers to focus on more and more train wrecks. We got to see some crazy woman chase Randy through the studio. Yeah. We got some freak show of a dude who claimed to have produced a compilation CD featuring Chaka Khan. In terms of talent, though...meh. Karen Rodriguez, the myspace auditioner, had the look of someone who will make it to the semifinals but not make the cut for the top 12. Same with brothers Mark and Aaron Gutierrez (although I think Mark was definitely the cuter and more talented of the two and might have a better chance were it not for the fact that producers will surely opt to play this out as a brother story rather than a talented substitute teacher story).

What the lack of anything truly memorable from last week says, though, is that Idol may need to continue to examine its product. Why does each city need to have its own audition episode, particularly if things were as sparse in LA as we were led to believe? Again, why not focus on the talent and let us get to know these auditioners, particularly those fated to make it to the semifinals? Why continue to reward the freak shows and relegate the talent to montages and sob stories?

We have more auditions this week and then we're finally off to Hollywood where at least we'll be faced with more talent than freak. We hope.

PS -- Yes, I saw the commercial for The X-Factor. I wept. You know, just when you think you're over Simon, there he is in all of his v-neck glory to remind you of just what you've been missing. Don't get me wrong. I love the tenor of the new judging panel. I'm mad about Steven Tyler. But yes, I miss the cranky Brit a little bit more than I'd like to admit.