Friday, November 23, 2012

An Afternoon with Lincoln

There are many reasons why I love this time of year.  I love the feeling of putting on a thick, comfy turtleneck sweater and sipping hot chocolate.  I love waking up on cold Saturdays to spend the day coaching my incredible speech team.  I love that peppermint is used to flavor everything from coffee to ice cream.  And I love the fact that there is suddenly a glut of great movies to track down and see.

Granted, the demands of work don't often leave me with a lot of time to go see movies.  Since the start of the school year, I've only had time to go to the movies once -- stealing away the weekend after my birthday to go see the brilliant Argo.  (Seriously, Ben Affleck is an incredible director.)  With a long holiday weekend, though, comes the opportunity to carve out a little time to hit the multiplex rather than the Black Friday sales. (Of course, I DID spend a little time carving out some deals, too.)  Today, while the masses were pushing and shoving their way to cheap video games and high def tv's, I spent a couple hours with Abraham Lincoln.

Going in, I expected greatness.  When Steven Spielberg puts his mind to it, he is capable of great filmmaking.    Sure, there are times when he indulges his more sentimental side and times when his impulse for film as spectacle outweighs his impulse for film as art.  There are definitely times when Spielberg's desire to make films of great importance yield preachy, treacly works where entertainment is lost in the sermon.  At his best, though, Spielberg can walk the line between art and entertainment in a masterful way unlike many other directors out there.  Fortunately, Lincoln shows Spielberg at his very best.

Part of the success of the film lies in the choice made by Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner to eschew the trappings of the standard biopic.  We don't get shots of young Lincoln splitting rails or stealing Mary Todd away from future political rival Stephen Douglass.  Instead, the film begins in the last months of Lincoln's life.  With the end of the Civil War clearly in sight and the Southern states poised to return to the Union, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis in a spectacular performance) realizes the window is quickly closing during which he can pass the 13th Amendment which will end slavery.  The film tracks the backroom deals that Lincoln, his staff, and his allies in Congress (led by Tommy Lee Jones as crusading abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens) used to win the 2/3 vote necessary to amend the constitution before a Confederate delegation can arrive in Washington to negotiate the terms of surrender.  At the same time, Lincoln faces his own personal issues with his emotionally turbulent wife Mary (Sally Field) and the desires of his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to join his contemporaries in the war effort rather than wasting away in college.

There is so much to love about the film.  Let's start with the performances.  Much has been written already about Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, so there's not a lot I can add to the deafening praise other than to say that it is a completely brilliant performance.  Day-Lewis completely immerses himself in the role and creates a Lincoln who is part political strategist/part civil rights crusader/part folksy professor.  I could have spent hours just listening to his Lincoln tell stories.  There is a beautiful blend of gravitas and humor to this Lincoln that gives us both the legend as well as the man.  If Day-Lewis doesn't win the Oscar for this, I can't wait to see the performance that beats him because it will surely be breathtaking.  Also sure to be Oscar nominees (if not winners) are Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field who turn in the best work of their careers.  They are surrounded by a veritable smorgasbord of "Oh, that guy is in this?"  James Spader, Bruce McGill, Lee Pace, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson are among the many supporting actors who create what has to be the strongest ensemble in years.

Kushner's script gives this cast a lot of meat to chew on and rich characters to develop.  It can't be easy to create suspense in a biopic.  Ideally, the audience all knows how things turn out, and yet there I was biting my lip with anxiety, wondering if the vote to end slavery would actually come out in Lincoln's favor.  Yes, intellectually I knew it did.  I know my American history and my constitution.  And yet I found myself tallying right along with Mary Todd Lincoln as the number of needed "ayes" left dwindled down.  I love, too, that Kushner and Spielberg sidestepped the "big moments."  We don't get the Gettysburg Address beyond a couple starry-eyed soldiers reciting it to Lincoln, who seems a bit uncomfortable with the celebrity adoration.  We don't get the assassination or even the collective grief following Lincoln's death.  We get private moments or alternative views, learning of Lincoln's shooting through his young son Tad.  What I loved about this approach is that the script assumed its audience's intelligence, assumed we knew the details of the assassination and the other "big moments" in Lincoln's life.  It's so refreshing to not have Hollywood pander for once.

Spielberg's attention to detail, as always, dazzles.  Even in his worst films, you can't deny the guy has an eye for truth and accuracy.  The art direction is gorgeous, even when portraying the often grimy reality of every day life in 1865.  Historically accurate recreations of Lincoln's office, White House rooms, and Congressional chambers and offices immerse the viewer in this world.  It is a beautiful film in every sense of the word whether we're seeing beautiful White House quarters or grim battlefields.

There's a reason why this film is already being spoken of with such reverence and leads many critics' lists for top Oscar contenders.  It is proof that great American filmmaking is still possible, that movies can still mean something more than blowing stuff up or keeping the kids entertained.  Spielberg doesn't need gimmicks or 3D glasses to enthrall.  He just needs Abraham Lincoln.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

We Have Nothing to Fear ....

Last Friday morning, I woke up with a lot on my mind.  It was the final day of speech camp, an intense three-day workshop an alum and I had set up to prepare my team for the upcoming season.  It was opening night of the summer one acts my Drama kids and I had been working on all summer.  I had a field trip the next day to take my Drama kids to see The Pirates of Penzance.  One thing I knew for sure about my weekend was that I would be unable to see The Dark Knight Rises, and I was bummed.  I have recently come to terms with the fact that I love superhero movies, a fact I'd kind of shrugged off before but which gets harder and harder to dismiss with the increased Hollywood output of some pretty amazing comic book superhero films.  Out of all superheroes, I love Batman the best -- a love that goes back to my childhood and watching Adam West, to my late adolescence and Michael Keaton, and to adulthood and Christian Bale.  I've seen every Batman movie on opening weekend (except for the Adam West version from the 60's due to the whole not being born thing), so it was disappointing to miss out on this final installment of a trilogy that renewed my love for the Caped Crusader.  But I reminded myself of the whole "grown up responsibilities" thing and consoled myself with the fact that seeing it Tuesday afternoon would mean a less crowded auditorium and cheaper ticket price.

As I was getting ready to go to speech camp, I did the same thing I do every morning when I'm getting ready for work -- I turned on CNN.  Within seconds, the horror of what had happened early Friday morning in Aurora, Colorado.  I struggled to process what I was hearing.  Who would do such a thing? Who would walk into a theatre and just open fire on people who were there to just watch a movie?  I thought about how excited the people in the theatre must have been as the lights dimmed and that Warner Brothers logo appeared on the screen and how confused they must have been when the attack started and how scared they must have been as the events unfolded.  In my mind, I kept seeing my local theatre and imagining the scene unfolding in the auditorium where I've seen so many films. To say I was horrified would be an understatement.

Over the course of the weekend, more stories from the attack came to light and left my mind reeling.  I won't lie -- as much as I rolled my eyes when I saw people on Facebook expressing fear of going to the movies in light of what happened in Colorado, I was a little nervous myself this morning when I woke up.  It wasn't that I was afraid of an attack happening here in my little town.  It was more the idea that the peace and sanctity that I associate with movies was shattered.  The movies had always been a place of escape, where I could experience any range of things -- romance, adventure, terror, triumph, but it was a place where I could experience those things safely and vicariously.  When James Holmes walked through the emergency exit with his arsenal and opened fire on the innocent audience, he stripped away the vicarious and brought the horror of our world into the sanctuary.  He let us know that there was no place where we were truly safe anymore.  When the notice came on screen reminding us to check for our emergency exits and to exit safely should the need arise, I thought of those people in Colorado.  The film features several scenes of villains storming crowds and innocent people coming to face to face with horrific violence.  I imagined those scenes playing out behind Holmes's rampage (as reports indicate it took quite some time for the film to be turned off in that auditorium).

Instead of being scared, though, I grew angry.  I am angry the actions of one sad, sick little man are casting a pall over the art of storytelling.  I am angry that my stomach dropped a little when Bane blew up the football field rather than thrilling in the spectacle of an intense scene.  I am angry that future film releases are being sent back to bay for fear that their dediting epiction of violence may be deemed insensitive or "too soon", as is the case with the upcoming Gangster Squad, a film that features a pivotal movie theatre shootout that will likely be excised from the film even though Entertainment Weekly refers to it as a "key scene."  I am angry that DC Comics is pushing back the release of Batman Incorporated because, as artist Chris Burnham said on Twitter, "There's a specific scene that made DC and the whole Bat-team say, 'Yikes.'  Too close for comfort."  I am angry that a pretty spectacular film (and The Dark Knight Rises is a pretty spectacular film) will probably forever have this shadow of senseless violence over it.

What James Holmes wanted to do last Friday morning was strike fear into hearts.  What we need to do now is channel that fear into anger and defiance.  Don't let him and other lunatics like him take away our art -- whether it's film or music or literature.  Don't let ourselves cower to the tyranny of fear.  There is a scene in The Dark Knight Rises that rang powerfully with me today -- Bane has reduced Gotham to a sort of anarchistic police state (if that makes any sense).  The Gotham police force gathers together and begins marching toward Bane's headquarters, marching into a situation that is sure to be dangerous, that may likely resuilt in their death, and yet they do so courageously, defiantly, proudly.  Now is the time for moviegoers and concertgoers and readers to be courageous, defiant, and proud.  Don't cower in fear but reclaim what is ours and embrace our arts even when they force us to confront some scary things, whether it's real-world violence or yet another Tyler Perry movie.  That movie theatre is ours -- never forget that.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Discerning Eyes of an Adult

A couple weeks ago, my sis and I were watching a Saturday Night Live re-run featuring One Direction as the musical guest.  I'm not overly familiar with their work, but having spent two weeks teaching theatre at College for Kids, I know that they are considered pretty dreamy amongst the tween set.  As I watched these boys do their thing, I was kind of struck by how rather unspectacular they were.  I turned to my sis and said, "Is it just me, or are these guys not all that cute?

My sis sagely replied, "Go back and look at the New Kids on the Block ... with the discerning eyes of an adult."  (When I pointed out that I was in college during NKOTB mania and therefore never fell victim to their alleged allure, she amended her comment to Duran Duran.)

This summer has actually been a bit surreal in terms of my kid passions colliding with my adult sensibilities.  I've discovered several "retro" channels lurking in the midst of my digital cable packages that have allowed me to take jaunts down memory row with some shows that have held special places in my memory.  And filtered through the "discerning eyes of an adult," these shows are entirely new experiences -- for better and for worse.

Batman:  I can remember giddily sitting down weekday afternoons to watch Batman on WFLD-Chicago.  It was bright, colorful fun to six-year-old me.  Now?  Well, first of all, I can't help but be distracted by the sort of pervy undertones of the Bruce Wayne/Dick Grayson relationship.  (I mean, to become Robin, the kid has to slide down a pole labelled "Dick."  Think about that for a second and tell me there isn't something sort of weird about that.)   The writing is stilted, the acting painful, the design work shoddy, the plots formulaic.  I still watch it, but I watch it in more of a Mystery Science Theatre kind of way rather than with that love I felt as a kid.

Family Affair:  Unwatchable when you know the fate of Buffy.

That Girl: Ann Marie seems a bit dim.  How did she ever survive living on her own in New York City when she barely seems capable of dressing herself in the morning?  And I suspect Donald is using her as a beard.

The Brady Bunch: Um, the Brady kids are douches.  Seriously!  Marcia is a snotty bitch.  For all her insecurity, Jan isn't much better.  Cindy....well, Cindy is sweet but I think Mike and Carol might want to get her tested for some learning disabilities.  Greg is an arrogant jerk.  Bobby is a total weasel.  The only decent one is Peter who seems resigned to being the lone nice guy surrounded by these narcissistic jags  he calls "family."

Mork and Mindy:  Robin Williams's mugging makes this unbearable.  What seemed hilarious when I was eight seems self-indulgent to a 40-year-old who spends a fair portion of her career working with comic actors and helping them learn to straddle the line between funny and over the top.  Clearly, Robin never had such a teacher -- or he was a really poor student.

Facts of Life:  After watching an episode where Natalie and Tootie are vying to play Nellie Forbush in South Pacific (at an all girl's school.....did Jo play Emil?) following auditions that would have left my music director and I struggling not to either laugh or cry, I decided it was time to turn the channel.

Of course, some things hold up better than you might expect.  There are the classics that have stood the test of time -- I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore are deserving of their legendary status.  The first episode of Three's Company is pretty beautifully constructed (although the "smear the queer" kind of humor that is employed -- particularly by Mr. Roper -- throughout the rest of the series can be a bit offensive to more enlightened 21st century audiences).  Get Smart, too, remains hilarious and, while campy, not nearly as mired down by datedness as you might think.  Laverne and Shirley may render watching 2 Broke Girls impossible this fall because Max and Caroline have NOTHING on those two brewery workers.  WKRP is even better than I remembered, although the layout of the station's offices makes absolutely zero architectural sense.  (Seriously, there are windows everywhere!)

There is something sad, of course, for seeing behind the curtain of these shows that held such treasured spots in my pop culture memory, but there is also something sort of comforting.  I've grown up, and I owe a lot to those shows that led me to seek better and smarter entertainment.  These shows taught me things that I didn't necessarily realize when I was a kid -- how to be independent, how to get along with others, how to be kind and generous.  They also filled my childhood with a lot of laughter.  With many of these shows, I make a conscious decision when I sit down to watch.  I turn off my adult filter and spend a half hour giggling at the lunacy and ignoring the inner eye rolls that inevitably come when Adam West says something dripping (now) with double entendre or when Jan Brady shows up with that hideous wig at Lucy Winters's party.  And then I click into my DVR and appease my more sophisticated tastes with the latest episode of The Newsroom.  Don't let your adult tastes kill the childlike joy of these old shows.  Surrender to the silly and ignore the logical flaws that riddle the shows....and maybe forget you read this post.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Mento Becomes the Manatee

I am a high school drama director.  Well, that is one of many hats I wear throughout the course of my days, but it's a part of my job that brings tremendous reward.  I love watching my students bring life to the words on a page, watching them grow over the course of a production or over the course of their four years with me.  Sometimes, I think that those moments when my kids are on the stage and I am standing at the foot of the stage guiding them through a tricky scene are when I am at my best not just as a teacher but as a human being.  Not to get all Drew Barrymore up in here, but there really is something magical about kids in the arts, and the relationships I get to forge with them inspire me daily.  We have seen each other at our best, and yes, we have seen each other at our worst, but the bonds that are forged in our little (well, not so little) Drama Club are pretty incredible.

And I am their fearless leader.

Most of the time.

A few days after our spring musical closed, my music director came to me with a proposition.  Our regional office of education had received a grant that funded before and after school programs to reach out to kids both at risk and kids who just needed something to do during those time periods.  As summer approached, the program director wanted to spin the program off into a summer program to keep kids connected to the school during the off months.  A hypothetical idea that had been floated when he sent an inquiry email out to the faculty mentioned theatre.  I saw the email and, to be honest, deleted it.  I had just finished a pretty solid nine months of directing and coaching speech.  I needed a break.  I was looking forward to a summer off for the first time in several years -- no outside teaching, no acting, nothing.  My music director saw this proposal, though, and was intrigued.  He wanted to do some sort of summer theatre program.  My initial reaction?  "Absolutely not."  Like I said, I was pretty wiped out.  Add to it the fact that, to be honest, I wasn't quite ready to do theatre without my group of seniors who were graduating.  I was dead set against this whole thing.

And then I thought about it.  I thought about how much I love working with my students, how much fun it could be to do theatre with them without the added "burden" of homework and lesson planning.  Within a couple hours, I was standing in front of my music director and saying, "I'm in."  We came up with the idea of doing two one acts -- I would direct one, and he would direct the other.  And then he floated another idea -- what if we did THREE one acts with the third show being directed by a student and starring.... the two of us?  He was itching to act, and I have to admit I was, too.  (I try to do some sort of acting once a year to kind of keep those muscles from atrophying, and the deadline was approaching for me to get onstage again.)  We immediately decided that my assistant director, a young woman who has been my AD for the past four shows I've directed, was the only logical choice for this gig.  Luckily, she said yes AND was agreeable to us presenting her with a show that was already cast ... with her teachers.  

And so I've spent the past month directing six of my Drama Club kids in Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare and appearing onstage as Susan in Durang's short Funeral Parlor.  Directing Actor's Nightmare has been on my personal wish list for years, and having the opportunity to work on it with six pretty tremendous kids was a dream come true.  I loved watching them find different shades to the absurdity.  I gave them a lot of freedom to explore and craft their characters, a freedom they took to heart.  I had one girl come to me and ask me if it would be okay for the actress she was playing to have a Southern accent whenever she wasn't playing a character.  I had another boy come to me with some ideas for his character's costume based on research he had done.  Every day was a new adventure for us.

And then when that rehearsal was over, it was time to take off my director's hat and become an actor.  I will not lie -- the first rehearsal with my student as my director was a little intimidating.  Suddenly, I had to walk the walk and do all the things I always tell my kids to do -- cheat out, listen actively, project, be fearless.  I had to put it all on display.  What if I didn't have it?  What if I revealed myself to be one of those people who couldn't do and so had to resort to teaching?  

Once I got over those fears, the experience became a bit surreal.  It was weird to stand on the stage that my kids had stood on and getting that sense of joining in the legacy of our program as a participant and not just the director.  Add to it the fact that at times, it was sort of like being directed by ... well.... me.   My young AD/Director has only ever worked with one director -- me.  What she knows about the creation of a show came from working with me.  She used my vocabulary, she employed a lot of my style, and as an actor, it was pretty darn cool.  There was also nothing quite like the pride that comes from seeing someone you have mentored over the years blossom into a confident, thoughtful leader in her own right.  Getting to be in her first show was an honor that I know I will cherish. 

Tonight was our performance, and it brought some new fears, particularly when the lights came up and the front row was filled with my students -- past and present.  I looked to the wings and saw several of the kids who had been in the other one acts standing in the wings to watch the show.  No pressure!  But then I heard the words I've said to so many kids over the past several years and knew that now was the time to walk the walk and to "go all in."  

When people roll their eyes and ask me how I can stand working with teenagers all day, my answer lies in moments like these when, to quote Tracy Jordan, "the mento becomes the manatee."  This summer was filled with those moments -- seeing new leaders for our program emerge, watching a director be born, witnessing torches being passed and accepted.  There aren't many jobs where you get to experience things like that.  Many of my peers were a bit horrified that I was giving up my summer to direct yet another show, and yet, when push comes to shove, I know that there was nowhere else I would rather spend my summer than in that auditorium with those kids.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Beatles: The Great Social Uniter

Earlier this week, my nerdy need to demonstrate my grasp of useless trivia reared its ugly head.  Because I knew the date of the Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan (February 9, 1964), I won two tickets to see a Beatles cover band that was playing here in town.  What else was I going to do on a Saturday night?

As my sis and I took our seats, we looked around and kind of marveled at variety of people assembled in this one place.  There were the fan girls wearing their Beatles t-shirts and who seemed so excited that I kind of wondered if anyone had told them that the guys about to take the stage were not the REAL Beatles.  There was a large number of senior citizens, which seemed weird until I pointed out that the original Beatles fans are all eligible for social security.  I mean, Sir Paul did just turn 70.  There were hipsters, aging hipsters (a category my sister danced around placing me in), little kids there with parents (including one adorable little girl who spent most of the show dancing in the aisle), and my favorite concert-goer -- the obnoxious drunk.

This diversity is a testament to the music of the Beatles.  Can you imagine that kind of diversity at a Justin Bieber cover band concert?  It's not unusual, though, to find Beatles fans of any age.  As a music lover, I've always just kind of thought of the Beatles as a band you had to love if you love music if only out of appreciation for what they did to push music to develop.  They were musical auteurs, taking ownership in their music the way no other pop/rock acts ever had before.  They experimented with sound.  They played with orchestration and instrumentation.  They wrote these lyrics that had depth and poetry.  The band made their debut on Ed Sullivan in 1964 and were kaput by 1970.  What they accomplished musically in those six years is kind of mindblowing.  As I said to my sis during intermission last night, it's sort of incredible to realize that the band that recorded "She Loves You" would eventually produce songs as gorgeous and sophisticated as "A Day in the Life" or "The Long and Winding Road."  (My sis, of course, pointed out that drugs probably helped the process along, which made me wonder what would happen if someone kidnapped Justin Bieber and dosed him with some really crazy acid.....)

It's easy to take for granted the miraculous growth of the Beatles, particularly for people like me who have never lived in a Beatles-less world and yet have never lived in a world where the Beatles were still together.  (I'm really too young to even remember living in a world where it was possible that the Beatles could reunite -- I was 10 when John Lennon died.)  It's easy to kind of shrug them off and cling to one of the bands that rode the Beatles' coattails over to America.  For example, I always include the Rolling Stones on my top five band list but rarely include the Beatles, and yet every song that was played last night brought a smile to my face as a voice in my head gushed, "I love this song."  If spending an evening with a bunch of old guys in questionable wigs (but lovely costumes) did nothing else, it reconnected me with those songs and the memories attached to them -- and gave me the opportunity to twist and shout with a bunch of very excited elderly women.  That alone was a priceless Saturday night.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Idol, We Have a Problem

I didn't blog about Wednesday's Idol, mostly because my Thursday was just jam-packed, and by the time I could have sat down to write, it was time to actually watch the elimination episode. I went into last night's episode thinking that Hollie Cavanagh was likely on the way home. There was no doubt in my mind that she gave the weakest performance of the night. While I'm not a huge fan of Joshua or Jessica, I thought they were likely safe and that Hollie would be joined in the bottom three by Skylar (there is a real risk in going first, especially when the night is as solid as Wednesday's was) and (sadly) Phillip. When a group formed on the right side of the stage with Hollie, Phillip, and Colton, I honestly thought, "Yeah, that bottom three makes sense." Colton's performance of "Love the Way You Lie Part III" was okay but not particularly exciting. Colton seems rather content to float in the middle and never seems to really PUSH himself the way I think he could. Plus, his mushy articulation is really starting to seem affected and annoying. (Sorry ... I'm a speech teacher/coach!)

When Ryan announced that the bottom three was, instead, Joshua, Jessica, and Elise, the first thing I said was, "They're using the save tonight." There was no doubt in my mind that the judges would keep any of those three around. While Elise's performance wasn't the best of the night, it was strong enough to make a case that she should stick around. Yes, she's been a bottom three dweller for a couple weeks, but there's no denying the chick is terrific. Steven pretty much let the cat out of the bag before the announcement that Jessica had received the lowest number of votes; he told Ryan flat out that they were using the save. Boom!

What last night did -- other than giving Idol the shocking jolt elimination my sis argues it needed (and she's right on that -- we need those shockers to get the phone lines humming again) -- was prove that there are some real problems in the Idol machine, and they are problems that I'm not sure can be easily fixed.

PROBLEM #1: Teenage girls vote with their....hearts.
Look at how last night played out. You had a top four that consisted of two very cute guys, a perky little blonde underdog who'd been kind of brutalized the night before, and a country ass kicker with whom many girls out there can identify pretty powerfully. It seems pretty clearly understood that the majority of Idol votes tend to come from young girls. They're the ones spending hours power dialing and flooding the Internet to vote for the hottie or defend the honor of the girl who nearly cried onstage.

Teenaged girls also don't always respond well to a perceived perfection in someone else. I work with teenaged girls every single day. Nothing will turn a girl on you faster than doing well. I've seen friendships fall apart when one girl gets a boy's attention or when one girl gets a lead part in a show while her friend is cast in the chorus. In Jessica Sanchez, you have a pretty, skinny, crazy talented girl who probably is loathed by a lot of girls who deem her "stuck up." They'll vote for Hollie or Skylar (who seem either flawed or at least relatable to them) over Jessica any day of the week.

PROBLEM #2: Teenaged girls don't always have the best taste in music
Once again, last night, you had a top four that gave the demographic what they wanted. You had Hollie singing a Pink anthem of empowerment. Girls love empowerment anthems. You had Colton singing a love song that was JUST sexy enough to make them feel funny in their no-no places but not sexy enough to be creepy. You had Skylar singing a kickin' country tune. (Girls like country music.) You had Phillip being just really cute.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, you had Jessica singing a song that was waaaaay too old for her, Joshua singing a song that could easily be played over the closing credits of Mad Men, and Elise rocking out. Girls don't like soul music unless it's autotuned by Rihanna. Had Joshua done one of Bruno Mars's more romantic songs (like "Grenade" or "It Will Rain"), he might have had a stronger chance of escaping the bottom three. Girls don't respond well to female rockers -- which is interesting considering what is more empowering than a chick rocking out? If you look at the history of the show, especially over the course of the past couple seasons (particularly since this run of cute guy winners has taken over), strong females don't play well on this show -- Carly Smithson, Allison Iraheta, Haley Reinhart were all incredible performers who probably should have made a stronger run at the title before getting kicked out waay too soon.

PROBLEM #3: Girls don't like other girls
This probably feeds into number one and the whole jealousy thing, but man, girls can really hate on each other! It's been years since an American Idol winner was female, and isn't it sort of telling that the last female winner was Jordin Sparks, who was this totally relatable, not-at-all perfect teenaged girl? Crystal Bowersox made it to the finale but lost to the cute paint salesman. Lauren Alaina made it to the finale last year but (mercifully.... I think) lost to the cute baseball player. Jessica, Hollie, Elise, and Skylar should all be a little nervous, particularly with two very cute guys still hanging around (and Joshua is pretty cute, too).

It kind of makes you wonder what's happened to Idol. Look at the first couple seasons of the show. Do you think Kelly Clarkson could win now, especially if she was still going up against the undeniably adorable Justin Guarini? Would the teen girl demographic allow Ruben to beat Clay? Could Fantasia or Carrie have carried the day? Good Lord, what about Taylor Hicks?!?!? Jimmy keeps telling us that the finale is going to come down to Jessica and Joshua, and on sheer talent alone, he's probably right, but neither Jessica nor Joshua seem to sing music that appeals to that teen girl market. Their voices and song selections skew much older to songs that are not things girls are clamoring to download on iTunes the next morning. It's becoming less and less like a true TALENT competition and more like a beauty pageant or Teen Choice Awards race. The problem then becomes that Idol loses its credibility and allows itself to become a joke -- more than it is already.

Is there a solution? I don't know. Somehow, Idol has to find a way to get more adults to vote, to get people with actual incomes to start deciding who gets to release the albums and who doesn't. Of course, it's easy for me to sit here and point that finger, but I'll be honest with you -- I've not voted once this season. Not once.

I'm part of the problem.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Gag Me With an Idol

Last night was 80's night on Idol. I know over the past few years I have railed against the show for asking these kids to present themselves as current, viable, contemporary artists while forcing them to sing songs older than their parents, and yet, for some reason, 80's Night seemed less ridiculous to me than some of the other anciently themed nights. Perhaps it's because the 80's seemed like a time when music really started niche-ing itself a little more clearly, where the roots of so much of our own contemporary pop music can be found. There seems to be a wealth of styles and options, and for the most part, the Idols embraced that rather nicely.

Not that there weren't mis-steps (oh, little Hollie!), but there were some moments that definitely had be a little more excited than I've been lately. Of course, some of the reactions I had verge wildly from what the judges saw and felt, but for the most part, this seems like a pretty tough competition.

The rankings....

1. Phillip Phillips Yes, Skylar closed out the night in a really lovely, powerful fashion, but seriously, it was "Wind Beneath My Freakin' Wings." Who COULDN'T hit that out of the ballpark? What I loved about Phillip's performance was that he took a song that people may recognize but a song that's not necessarily a huge part of our pop culture landscape (although "That's All" by Genesis is a song I've always absolutely adored), added just enough of his own flavor, and gave a killer performance. When you factor in his amazing duet with Elise on "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," there's no denying this kid is the shizz. "That's All" became this empassioned, almost creepy song of betrayal that left me more than a little unsettled. As my sis said during the bridge, "Yeah, they'll be together 'til the end because he's going to freakin' KILL HER!" I know the judges want us to invest in a Jessica-Joshua finale, but come on! Phillip is definitely the more viable contemporary artist up there because he's ACTUALLY AN ARTIST rather than a really good karaoke singer. (Yeah, I said it!)
2. Skylar Laine Yes, Skylar was good. She was gorgeous. But again, "Wind Beneath My Wings...." SIGH!
3. Colton Dixon I'm not going to lie. Colton's appeal is waning for me. He seems like he might be a little arrogant. He seems like he's trying just a little too hard. It doesn't help that I've never been a huge fan of "Time After Time" (GASP! I KNOW!), although I did think it was classy for Colton to ignore Ryan's question about his new dye job to give props to the artists whose arrangement for the song he stole. Also, is it just me or is Colton's enunciation borderline drunken vagrant?
4. DeAndre Brackensick I know -- shocker! But I have to say that I thought DeAndre's performance was pretty decent. It helps that he didn't sing the entire song in his falsetto range, allowing his lower range to really shine. Seriously, if this kid had a little time, he could be a superstar, but he needs time for his voice to marinate -- time he's not going to get on this show. Had DeAndre entered this competition as a 21 year old, he'd be poised to become the next Justin Timberlake. As it is, he's probably going to be one of those "Oh, yeah! THAT guy!" types of guys.
5. Joshua Ledet You know, I get that Joshua is talented. I get his voice is amazing. But good Lord! It's just so MUCH! I get a little tired of the screaming and the wailing and the vocal gymnastics. Where does that fit in in today's market? WHERE!!?!?!? (Props, though, to the person brave enough to break into the local country club and steal the arm chair that was used to create Joshua's blazer last night.)
6. Elise Testone Bad song choice. Plain and simple. I had big hopes for Elise on 80's Night. Good Lord. There are SO many amazing female artists from the 80's to tackle -- Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Pat Benetar, Lita Ford, Heart. And yet there was poor Elise taking on Foreigner's treacly "I Wanna Know What Love Is." Snooze. She had some pitch issues. She had some performance issues. Here's hoping her amazing duet with Phillip will save her because that was hot!
7. Jessica Sanchez It's time to call shenanigans on this one. I thought Jessica's performance of "How Will I Know?" was pretty terrible. There were all sorts of pitch issues -- issues that were NEVER called on her. When even your backup singers are giving you the stink eye for hitting wonky notes, you know you're in trouble, and yet all we heard last night from Randy and the gang was how brilliant Jessica was. Please!
8. Hollie Cavanagh And then there was poor little Hollie, pitch issues flying left and right as she wiggled her way around the stage in her little flapper dress trying to inject something interesting into "Flashdance (What a Feeling)". Oh, I was feeling something all right -- embarrassment for this poor, sweet little girl who is now SO out of her element. SIGH! Bye bye, Hollie. I don't think there's anything that can save you now -- not even Jane Fonda's old costume from 9 to 5 that you were forced to wear for your painful duet with DeAndre.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Idol Reflections

Obviously, I've been a little lax in my Idol blogging lately. I've even missed a week or two while in the throes of launching the musical and subsequently recovering from my Post Traumatic Show Disorder that followed striking our set. I'm bummed I missed Billy Joel week; Billy is probably one of my all-time favorite singers. But I'm back. I did tune in last week to watch the Idols be mentored by the amazing Stevie Nicks, but I didn't have a chance to reflect promptly enough to weigh in on who I thought would be sent home. (I did kind of figure it would be HeeJun...for real!)

I'm not going to lie; I've been feeling my Idol passion waning a bit lately. Maybe it's being inundated by so many other singing shows. Maybe it's the formula finally getting a bit stale. Maybe it's having the reminder last fall of just how much I missed Simon Cowell and resent how watered down the judging has become in the hands of Randy, JLo, and Steven. In all honest, ten years is a long time to follow one show, particularly one that offers no real original content from week to week outside of wondering what songs people will sing. I mean, at least with The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, there's something truly DIFFERENT every week. Well, generally different.

And yet, I can't just quit Idol. I stick around despite the fact that I sometimes find myself bored, that I often fast forward through the critiques, and I don't feel the same passion that I once felt sitting on the living room floor of my old apartment watching Kelly Clarkson become a star.

With all that being said, there is definitely something to be said for this season. The show has, of late, done a good job striving for some variety. That doesn't mean the winners have displayed such variety, but we've had weeks of covering a musical spectrum. Creativity seems to get a little bit more play as the blander elements of the competition get picked off a little sooner. There are several performers that I like quite a bit on the current season, several performers that I could imagine downloading . The problem, of course, is that those more creative elements don't often survive to the finale ... and don't land those dreamed-of record deals.

Of the eight left, here is how I would rank them. This doesn't mean that my top choices are necessarily going to win, but it does mean that I think they DESERVE to win. It's up to America, and we all know America's taste can be pretty suspect.

1. Phillip Phillips -- I know Phillip probably can't win. He's probably too niche, but damn, that kid is amazing. The way that he's able to massage melodies and turn every song he sings into his own very groovy tune is incredible. Of all the performers, he's the one I look forward to the most because I know it's going to be entertaining and unique.
2. Elise Testone I have a long history of supporting the chick rockers. Okay, maybe that's not 100% true. I was a passionate Allison Iraheta fan. Had I watched that season, I would have been all about Carly Smithson. It did, admittedly, take me a long time to warm to Haley Reinhart last year. I'm not making that mistake again. If Elise's powerhouse take on "Whole Lotta Love" didn't rock your freakin' socks off last week, then you maybe need to call a doctor and make sure that you are actually in possession of a beating heart. Again, we know that the odds are against women in this competition, and they seem to be even more stacked against women who rock rather than women who sing treacly ballads. But this chick deserves to go the distance (or at least crack the top five).
3. Colton Dixon -- Okay, I'm sticking by my prediction from a couple weeks ago. This guy is going to win. The narrative is being perfectly laid out for us. The problem is that Colton feels just so darn safe and predictable at this point. I wasn't particularly enthused by his Lifehouse song last weekend. I'm a little nervous by that choice. We'll see if he's able to finally embrace that inner Lambert and be the exciting performer that I think lurks inside him.
4. Jessica Sanchez -- A lot of critics are pointing to Jessica as the big chance for women to finally reclaim a title. I'll be honest -- I'm not convinced. I thought her performance of "Beautiful Nightmare" last week was labored and a bit self-indulgent. I'd like to see her try something other than a big ballad and show some real grit and soul. Otherwise, she's just a tiny version of Pia Toscano.
5. Skylar Laine -- I like Skylar. I don't particularly like country music, but there's something about Skylar's spunk and spirit that makes me smile every week. I kind of like how she sings every song like she's freakin' MAD at it. She won't win, but she'll be entertaining, and isn't that just as important as anything else?
6. Joshua Ledet -- I don't get Joshua either. Like Jessica, I just feel like he's trying too hard. I thought his "Without You" was kind of bland and despite his tears, a bit soulless. Give me Kelly Clarkson's version any day! When he starts screaming and jumping around, I just kind of tune out.
7. Hollie Cavanaugh -- See above -- boring, soulless. Cute isn't enough.
8. DeAndre Brackensack -- There's no denying this kid is cute. He's ADORABLE! But man, the falsetto thing is really tired. It's not impressive to sing an entire song up in that falsetto range. The sad thing, too, is that when DeAndre goes down into "normal" range, there's a beautiful richness to his voice that gets lost when he goes to vocal outer space. I can understand girls voting for him like crazy, but this one trick pony really kind of needs to go home....soon.

Monday, March 26, 2012

I'm Alive ... No, Really!

Hello, friends.

I bet you thought I'd dropped off the face of the earth. At times over the course of the past couple weeks, it has certainly felt that way. For the past several weeks, I've pretty much lived at work. After spending a full day teaching America's youth to love literature (or at least fake it well enough on the test), I would then turn around and spend several more hours directing our spring musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. To say that it was an incredible experience would be an understatement.

The show is a bit of a monster to launch. We had a cast of roughly 25 kids (and ended up with another 20 or so more working backstage in some capacity), a beast of a set that included building working elevator doors (thank God for my amazing student technical director who designed the doors, put in countless hours to make them work, and, oh, yeah, also played the freakin' lead in the show -- a part that, more than once, I feared might be the end of this poor kid), tons of music and dance, and pushed a lot of my kids to their absolute limits. There were many nights driving home at 10 or 11 where I thought to myself, "What the heck have I done?" There were times when I worried I was asking too much of all of us. There were times when I thought maybe the time had finally come when it WOULDN'T all come together.

But you know what? It did. As we went into tech week, I found myself sitting in our auditorium watching magic happen and thinking, once again, that I have the best damn job in the world. I get to spend hours with these amazing kids who are so funny and smart and passionate, kids who repeatedly go above and beyond in their dedication. I get a front row seat to see them find a confidence and poise that elude others their age. I get to know these kids in a way their other teachers never do. I see them at their best and, yes, I see them at their worst. We laugh together, cry together, even every now and then yell at each other, but it all comes together in the service of this art form that unifies us all. As happy as I am when a show comes to an end (those 15-hour days take their toll on you when you hit 40!), there is also a depression that sets in as I yearn for those late nights, those "a-ha" moments, and those times working with these kids who, for some reason, seem to respect me even after seeing me in the throes of exhaustion so extreme that it takes me five minutes to answer a simple question.

And so forgive me for letting my Idol commentary lapse. I've been dealing with my OWN idols -- kids who are in it NOT for the fame or the glory or the chance to bask in a little Glow by J.Lo, and the transition to post-show life has taken a little longer than I thought. Fear not, friends. I'll be back in the saddle again this week, ready to roll my eyes and make snarky comments, but a part of me will wish I was still at World Wide Wickets if only for a little while longer.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Idol Quickie

Crazy busy day as tech week for our spring musical looms, so I don't have time to sit and dissect last night's performance. Obviously, there were some killer performances -- Jessica and Phillip in particular, although I can't leave out Skylar and Colton -- and some performances that made me want to kill -- Shannon. I like the change up for tonight with the lowest boy and lowest girl facing off and the judges deciding their fate (someone spent the fall watching episodes of The X-Factor, no?). While my sis thinks the judges will likely send a boy home to create balance, I'm not sure which boy was bad enough to merit going home while there were several girls who were quite disappointing, including one of my favorites, Elise Testone. I thought Shannon and Erika gave the weakest performances of the night and are definite candidates for elimination. As for the lowest guy? I would say that honor probably goes to Jeremy Rosado who's really only in the competition by the grace of JLo and who has yet to give a singing performance as compelling as his emotional breakdown last week when he was staring elimination in the face. Between Shannon, Erika, and Jeremy, I would argue that Shannon should be the one sent home since she failed to nail a single one of the big moments in "I Have Nothing."

PS -- Dear Idol, can you please stop dressing these girls like pageant contestants? Between Shannon's hideous white number in the semi-final and Erika's nasty red thing last night, I'm beginning to wonder if you've hired one of those Toddlers and Tiaras moms to be your stylist this season. YIKES.

PPS -- Mary J. Blige, I love you. My sis and I would like a little pocket Mary J. who will bounce joyfully for us whenever we do something good. (It's also nice to see that someone worthy inherited Whitney's shoulder bounce move. I guess Bobbi Kristina didn't get the ENTIRE Houston estate.)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ladies Night

I have a crazy busy day, but I wanted to post a little something about last night's Idol, which was pretty darn disappointing. It felt more like some B-level county fair pageant than a nationally-televised talent competition with millions of dollars at stake. By the time Shannon Magrane came out in her floor length white gown singing some song about lighting candles (putting American Idol in danger of becoming Christian Idol), I was just about ready to check out.

Thank God for Brett Butler-doppleganger Elise Testone who came out and closed the night with a mighty rendition of Adele's "One and Only" and proved that there is something to be said for letting ADULTS enter this competition. The poise and control that Elise showed put the teenaged girls to shame. Look at the power of Elise's performance and then check out the wild, angry flailing trying to pass itself off as passion in little Skylar Laine's "Stay With Me." Night and freakin' day!

(BTW -- Does anyone else think Adele is the Whitney Houston of the 21st Century -- the diva that every girl worships and wants to emulate but whose music should really not be put in the hands of amateur voices?)

The sad thing is that five of these chicks are guaranteed to make the cut -- even though coming up with the five is tough. This means that some guys from the night before (who, despite my complaints of how dated it was, was significantly stronger than the nasally pitch fest we endured last night) will not move on while, say, Hollie Cavanaugh could.

For real.

So who do I think will make it? Well.....

1. Elise Testone This is the no-brainer of the night. Not only did she give the absolute best performance of the night, but she also had the pimp spot. Voters' memories are slim. My bet is the most of the five who move on will be from the second hour of the show.
2. Jessica Sanchez Yeah, Jessica had some issues here and there with her rendition of "Love You I Do," but she showed a lot of spunk and was honestly second only to Elise in terms of powerful performances. She lacks Elise's control, but spending a little time with the Idol vocal coaches could turn Jessica into a really terrific performer.
3. Skylar Laine You have to have a country girl in the Idol finals. It's kind of the law of the land. Look it up. Of the country girls who performed last night, Skylar was hands down the best. I'm not sure why she sings every song as if she's so freakin' angry at it that she is about to go all Chris Brown on it, but there is definitely something sort of entertaining about that energy she has. (Idol producers really screwed poor little Baylie Brown by making her go after Skylar. Anyone would look anemic after Skylar's pummeling of "Stay With Me," but then to have it be the wimpy "Amazed"? Baylie is DOOMED!)
4. Hallie Day These last two spots are tough. I thought Hallie's "Feelin' Good" started out beautifully and ended beautifully, and the producers gave her some gorgeous close-ups. She has great stage presence. Sure, there were some wonky notes in the middle, but the end and the beginning may be enough to make up for it.
5. Hollie Cavanaugh I'm not sure I'm a huge fan of waif-like little Hollie, but she had some lovely moments in her "Reflection" that may be enough to save her. Maybe....

Wild Cards: I would guess at least one judge will give a wild card spot to one of the girls if only to protect the show from charges that women don't stand a chance in the competition anymore. I would guess that the leading contenders would likely be Jen Hirsch (who had the misfortune of going early in the night AND doing the same song as Elise Testone) or maybe Shannon Magrane (and seriously...I CANNOT take a season of treacly Christian ballads. If that's the direction this show goes, Idol and I are done ... and this time, I mean it!!)

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Idol '78

Okay, I'm talking to the Gen X-ers out there (and older). Do you guys remember the episode of The Love Boat when the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders showed up on the boat? It was a very special episode -- one of the best episodes ever.

Last night's episode of American Idol kind of reminded me of that -- not because it was the best episode ever but because it kind of felt like an episode of the Love Boat from about 1978. With a couple exceptions, things just felt ... dated. I kept waiting for Ryan Seacrest to walk onstage accompanied by the lovely Julie McCoy, who would tell you about all the cool activities planned, while Isaac mixed us a swingin' mai tai. You had Reed Grimm's Ledo Deck take on "Moves Like Jagger." There was Adam Brock's 70s soul-ified "Think." DeAndre Brackensick threw out a falsetto-heavy version of Earth, Wind, and Fire's "Reasons." You had little Eban Frankowitz stripping all the grit and pain from Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain" so that it became an Up With People number. By the end of the night, we had added covers of the Jackson 5, Luther Vandross, and Cyndi Lauper, to name just a few of the moldy oldies trotted out for our enjoyment. And the sad thing is that the performers got to pick their own songs. THEY PICKED THIS STUFF!!!

Thank God for Colton Dixon who gave us a Paramore song that actually felt like something that might be on the radio now. Thank God for Phillip Phillips who took Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" and reinvented it for a modern audience. (He's getting the Dave Matthews label, but I also get a nice, healthy Keller Williams vibe from this cat.)

The thing is that there wasn't necessarily anything inherently BAD about last night's performances. In fact, many of them were downright good. They were just downright dated. If American Idol is seeking a relevant artist (a word that Stevie and JLo kept trotting out all night between stints where all three demonstrated how much they had learned at the LA Reid School of Appreciative Music Listening), then they are in trouble if Colton and Phillip aren't voted in. If it's a season of moldy oldies, the show is in trouble.

And maybe it's appropriate. Idol is now the veteran music program. As The Voice and The X-Factor trot out big, splashy production numbers and spinning chairs and songs performed in boxing rings, Idol starts to seem downright conservative and old fogey. If the show wants to stay relevant itself, it needs to push its artists to be relevant. Let them be gay (gasp!), let them tell their stories of redemption through the healing power of music, let them be odd and complicated and passionate. Don't let them die with the music in them!

With that said, here's how I think the voting is going to pan out. My understanding is that America gets to vote through five guys and the judges will pick wild cards from both the men and women to give us a top 13. (Not a superstitious bunch, those Idol producers, eh?) So these are the men I think have been saved by America:

1. Colton Dixon I'm sticking with my prediction that this guy is your winner this year. He's young, he's exciting, he's a "safe" (read: straight) Adam Lambert. I think Colton has a lot up his sleeve that will keep us watching ever week. (PS, though, hate the skunk stripe, bro.)

2. Phillip Phillips Again, this is a guy that's going to keep us entertained. Between his audition "Thriller" to last night's "In the Air Tonight," this guy is a cooler, chiller version of David Cook who will come out there and make every song his own. He's gotta be a sure thing, right? RIGHT?!?!?

3. Chase Likens This one kind of kills me to say since it's a country artist, and I'm sure we all remember my breakdown at the country finale Idol foisted on us last season. As my sis pointed out last night, though, Chase was the only country artist on stage last night. While I didn't particularly like his song (something called "Storm Warning"), his voice itself was pretty decent. And he's cute. And there's a HUGE demographic of tween country fans just looking for a cute new guy to crush on. SIGH! Chase won't make it far (says the woman who predicted Scotty McCreery would crash and burn...), but he surely garnered a lot of votes last night.
4. Joshua Ledet Joshua probably gave the best performance last night with Jennifer Hudson's "You Pulled Me Through." It was pretty damn electric. It might have felt a touch dated (What happened to those big, bombastic soul daddies??), but there was a power and restraint there that was mesmerizing to watch. This guy could solve Idol's "black guy" problem and actually be someone who could go the distance.
5. Jermaine Jones This one, I'm less certain of. It helps that Jermaine has the whole "saved by the judges" story. It helps that he went last. It helps that he has a good voice. (Although between Creighton Fraker trotting out "True Colors" and Jermaine doing "Dance with My Father", I was pretty miserable. Those are two songs I hate more than anything ... well more than anything except No Doubt's "Don't Speak." If one of the girls pulls that crap out tonight, I'm going to start to think maybe Idol is gunning for me, trying to drive me into the arms of Adam Levine -- yes, please! -- and Cee-Lo.) Jermaine also seems like a genuinely decent guy for whom being on that stage was a dream come true. As he finished last night and basked in the applause from the audience, I said to my sis, "You know -- that's what American Idol is supposed to be about" -- giving an average yet talented person a shot at the spotlight. I'm thinking America had the same thought last night.

Candidates for Wild Card Spots:
DeAndre Brackensick
I didn't necessarily swoon over him, but apparently the judges thought he was brilliant. He's pretty to look at. That might be enough.

Heejun Han My boy gave one of the weakest performances last night, but a lot of that stemmed from a weak song choice. The judges were keen to point out that he was brilliant despite the song he chose, and they might give him another shot at redemption if American memories don't extend back to the audition rounds....and his adorable cowboy hatred.

Reed Grimm Again, Reed is creative and interesting (the drums are getting a bit old, though, bro) and could give Idol a little cool cred. A little.

The ladies take the stage tonight, featuring three -- count 'em, three! -- country chicks and a buncha chicks who think that a bluesy voice will get them farther than third place. Should be fun!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

It's Super Bowl Sunday for Film Nerds

It's one of my favorite nights of the year -- Oscar Night! Tonight, I'll hunker down with my ballot and bask as Hollywood gives itself a pat on the collective back, a night when Hollywood pretends like smart, independent films are its main objective, and try to forget that movies like Transformers and Jack & Jill exist. For a movie nerd like me, it's like Christmas because I, too, get to pretend that I live in a world where people flock to see films like The Artist more than cheesy goo fests like The Vow.

Of course, Oscar night has posed some challenges to me the past couple years. Thanks to -- stop me if you think you've heard this one before -- my packed work schedule and the fact that my local multiplex would rather show Ghost Rider on multiple screens than bring in a smaller film like The Descendants, it's gotten harder for me to see films nominated for best picture, particularly since it often would involve having to drive an hour or more away to find a theatre showing the film I need to track down. And yet, I still get excited as the ceremony draws closer. I still read as many articles as I can about the nominated films. And I still make my own predictions even though I haven't seen as many of the nominees as I'd like.

With that said, here are both my predictions for tonight as well as the nominees I would vote for if I had the chance. (BTW -- Spoilers may be included below, so read at your own risk.)

Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse
Who will win?: The industry wisdom seems to be that The Artist has this one in the bag. It's a great film, and it's refreshing that a silent, black and white movie can still garner attention in today's landscape filled with explosions and cgi-magic. For the first thirty minutes or so of the film, I thought it was more of a Singin' in the Rain knockoff, but as the film progressed, I felt the story progressed into more of a treatise on our chaotic world. The scene where George Valentin has his noise-filled dream yet is unable to make a noise himself was incredibly moving, and there's no doubt that Jean Dujardin's portrayal of a man facing down the reality of becoming a dinosaur in a world moving on without him is powerful, made even more so in that it is done completely without sound. (And how heartbreaking is the end of the film when we do finally hear Valentin speak in his thick French accent and realize that there is no way he'd be able to have a successful acting career in talking pictures?) Yes, I know The Artist is a pretentious and hypocritical choice, but when has Hollywood ever been anything but pretentious and hypocritical?
How I would vote: As much as I liked The Artist, it wasn't my favorite of the films nominated this year. (I should note that I have seen all of the nominees for best picture except War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.) I thought The Tree of Life was a bit obnoxious, though beautiful to look at. I really liked Moneyball and Midnight in Paris -- films that managed to be both smart and entertaining, a rare commodity in Hollywood some days. I found Hugo absolutely lovely, and The Help was a terrific adaptation of a book I really liked. If I were voting, though, I'd go with The Descendants. This was a spectacular film -- funny, moving, beautifully acted, beautifully written, skillfully directed. I could spend hours talking about how many incredible moments exist in this film. I love how Alexander Payne played with the power of silence in key moments such as the one where little Scottie finds out her mother is going to die or the final scene where Matt and his daughters scatter his wife's ashes in the ocean. I love the depth given to each character, particularly stoner boyfriend Sid. And any movie that makes you believe that a woman would actually cheat on George Clooney with Matthew Lillard is working some pretty powerful magic. Unfortunately, the Academy rarely recognizes films like this as Best Picture, and it's too bad because this is truly a brilliant piece of cinema.

Best Actor
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Who will win? This may be the most contested race of the night as Clooney and Dujardin face off. Clooney has won the Golden Globe and the National Board of Review. Dujardin has won the BAFTA, a Golden Globe (The Artist was nominated in the comedy category, The Descendants in drama), Independent Spirit, and the Screen Actors Guild as well as taking Best Actor at Cannes. When you list off the awards, Dujardin has the edge until you factor in that this is Hollywood voting and Clooney is their king. When you consider that this is probably the best acting performance Clooney has ever turned in, and you have to give the edge to Clooney over Dujardin.
How I would vote: I'd go with Clooney, too. There is a complexity to the work Clooney turns in here that needs to be recognized. There isn't a false moment for a second that Clooney is onscreen in The Descendants. Yes, Dujardin's work was moving, but Clooney's was brilliant.

Best Actress
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Who will win? Streep was kind of a shocker winner at the Golden Globes since critics pretty much decided last summer that Davis would sweep the awards season with her nuanced portrayal of Aibeleen in The Help. I still think it's Davis's to lose tonight. Of course Meryl Streep is brilliant in The Iron Lady -- something I can say without having even seen The Iron Lady. I mean, it's Meryl Streep. Not being brilliant isn't part of her vocabulary. There's no surprise, no revelation in Meryl being brilliant. Viola Davis, though, has rarely been on lists of "great contemporary actresses", so the fact that she brought such depth and tenderness to her work in The Help is surprising and revelatory and can make Hollywood feel like they're discovering something new.
How I would vote: I'd go with Davis, too, although I really loved Rooney Mara's work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I'm sure that the day has to eventually come where Michelle Williams will be more than just an indy darling but a certified star.

Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Who will win? Christopher Plummer -- no question. I've not seen any of the nominees outside of Jonah Hill, so I can't really comment one way or the other as to whether Plummer's frontrunner status is earned or based more in sentimentality, but the dude has pretty much swept the circuit this season, so why should tonight be any different?
How I would vote: Again, I've only seen Moneyball, so I don't know how I would vote. I will say that Jonah Hill's work was really terrific in Moneyball, and it's unfortunate that he seems to be gravitating to more junk films like 21 Jump Street rather than pursuing more serious work like Moneyball.

Best Supporting Actress
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Who will win? This is Spencer's to lose. Her work in The Help was absolutely gorgeous. She gave Minnie such life and depth, life and depth that wasn't always apparent on the page. Here's hoping this lands her more work because Hollywood needs her.
How I would vote: First of all, it's criminal that Shailene Woodley's name is not on this list. Her work in The Descendants was more subtle and nuanced than anyone who had ever watched The Secret Life of the American Teenager would ever think possible. Guys, Amy Jurgens can act!! With Woodley's absence from this list, yes, the easy vote would be for Octavia Spencer, but my personal vote would go with Melissa McCarthy. In a perfect world, the Oscars would recognize that a good comedy can be just as worthy of award recognition as a good drama. The work that McCarthy gave in Bridesmaids was brilliant -- fearless, hilarious, and full of heart. The film itself should have been nominated for best picture, but a win here would be a chance to recognize one of the best films of 2011.

Other predictions:
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicious, The Artist (even though I think Alexander Payne turned in the best directed film of the year).
Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris -- the most inventive script of the year. I think this will be one area where The Artist won't dominate if only in that it's hard to recognize the script of a film without dialogue. (I'm not going to lie, though -- I'm totally rooting for Kristen Wiig here!)
Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, The Descendants -- This is where films like The Descendants get their proverbial bone. Look at the history -- some of the great films of the past couple decades have not won best picture but have won a screenplay award -- Sling Blade, LA Confidential, Sideways, The Social Network --many of them films that SHOULD have won Best Picture. (It's even more obvious when you look at the list of Original Screenplay winners.) This is definitely the best script of the year, although props have to be given to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin for making Moneyball, which is essentially a movie about economics and baseball statistics an engrossing and entertaining film.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Idoling Away

Fear not, friends. My relationship with American Idol is still going strong despite my complete silence on the season thus far. There are several reasons for the lack of commentary. Part of it has to do with my crazy busy schedule that has me working 12-14 hour days and sometimes not catching an episode of Idol until days after its aired when I am able to curl up with my DVR and play catch-up. Part of it has to do with my general ennui where the audition episodes are concerned. The formulaic nature of those first weeks (combined with the fact that multiple episodes air each week) can make it difficult to get too enthused. You fall for a seemingly promising contestant and then never see him/her again save for perhaps a "walk of shame" shot as he/she gets booted out of Hollywood. (I'm looking at you, Ramiro Garcia!) So while I've been watching as faithfully as I can (and I have seen every episode -- just not on the night its aired!), I haven't had the time or the will to focus much in terms of blogging.

I'm sure I'll have much more delightful things to say all season long (and I'll do my best to be timely), but for now...... my predictions for the top 12 based on who is still standing as of the Las Vegas episode (predictions made with the assumption of gender parity in the top 12 -- and listed in no particular order):

1. Baylie Brown -- I remember Baylie from a couple seasons ago and how she was screwed over in Hollywood by nasty Antonella Barba. Baylie is much more polished and assured than she was back in those days and could give Idol the country sweetheart it seems to crave every season (since Carrie).
2. Jen Hirsch -- Right now, Jen is my favorite chick of the lot. That being said, it seems like the odds of a woman winning Idol right now are pretty slim. The tweens are controlling the phone lines, and I can't imagine 13-year-old girls burning up the wires for Jen, who skews much older. Jen needs to hope that the cougars who helped give David Cook his victory over David Archuletta decide it's time for some Girl Power and rally behind the very cool Jen.
3. Hallie Day -- Okay, I keep getting Hallie and Baylie confused every time I see them on the screen, and yet once I tell the two apart, I always tend to like them both. We could be looking at a blond heavy final group of girls here, but the blondes seem to have a slight talent edge this year.
4. Lauren Grey -- I always kind of forget who Lauren is until she sings, and then I'm like, "Oh, yeah. I like that chick." If she can make it to the next stage, that voice may be enough to make voters remember her.
5. Shannon Magrane -- Shannon's amazing performance of "Wonderful World" during Hollywood Week has kept her in my mind even though she's not been highlighted a ton so far this season.
6. Courtney Williams -- I'm not a huge fan of Courtney, but anyone's better than dreadful Brielle Von Hugel -- she of the big ego and the nasty stage mother. Besides, if Idol has taught us anything, it's that it's about "casting" the show, and what would Idol be without a good soul diva? She won't get very far, but she's still a necessary component.
7. Adam Brock -- He's one of my favorites that we've seen so far this season. His jam session with Steven Tyler was the stuff of legends. When you factor in that he reminds me of a less greasy version of Josh Krajcik (from The X-Factor), you have a winner in Mel's eyes.
8. Colton Dixon -- He's definitely getting the story treatment -- rejected last year, had to be cajoled into auditioning while accompanying his sister, his breakdown when his sister was booted from Las's the kind of stuff Idol legends are made of. Right now, Colton might be my pick to win the whole damn thing.
9. Heejun Han -- This guy is clearly the breakout star of the season so far. His disdain for cowboy tyrant Richie Lawson was absolutely priceless -- and has led to the frequent use of "talking craps" about people Chez Mel.
10. Philip Philips -- Phil was my early pick for ultimate winner after his awesome "Thriller" audition in the first episode. I'm not sure if that's still the case (love me some Jen Hirsch ... and see my comments about Colton Dixon!), but the guy is adorable and has been flying just close enough to the radar to maintain a nice trajectory into the top 12.
11. Reed Grimm -- I don't know if he's this season's Casey (as J.Lo dubbed him), but there's something about this guy that I really like. I hope for some Casey/Haley-esque duets between Reed and Jen. Now THAT would be sizzling!
12. Neco Starr -- This is going to sound awful, but....they need a black guy in the top 12, and Neco is my favorite of the ones still standing.

I'm sure there will be surprises along the way, shocking eliminations (I'll be fine as long as Phil, Jen, and Heejun are safe!), and breakouts that seem to come from nowhere, but those are the Idols who have either caught my fancy or seem to be getting the star treatment so far.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


My generation has lost another one of the heroes of its youth, and while there are plenty of accolades all over the Internet, there is also a lot of backlash, criticizing those paying tribute for canonizing a troubled celebrity who doesn't deserve said-sainthood.


There is no denying Whitney Houston was a troubled soul who made a host of poor decisions in her sadly brief life. Her drug abuse effectively destroyed her legendary voice, and she became yet another butt of the pop culture joke thanks to reality television and interview sound bites. To be frank, I hadn't given much thought to Whitney in quite some time outside of the smile that typically spreads across my face whenever I stumble across her music on the radio.

So why, while driving an activity bus full of teenagers home last night from a speech meet, when I was told about Whitney's death, did I break down in tears? And I'm talking ugly tears.

I'm 40. That's a tough transition to make in your life. My generation is hitting the big 4-0 in a much different way than I think our parents did. There's a youthfulness to this generation that seems to be holding on. My friends still go to concerts, wear pretty stylish clothes, and generally have decided that growing old doesn't have to mean growing up. So when we get these reminders of our own mortality, it can rattle us. For a lot of us, yes, we knew about Whitney's drugs and problems, but when we thought of Whitney Houston, we thought of that cute, smiling young woman asking us how she would know if he really loved her? We thought of that gorgeous closeup of her in the "I Will Always Love You" video, a song a lot of us loved but would never actually claim. To lose one of those icons of our youth is a reminder that youth is actually fleeting and that the time will come when more and more of our heroes will be lost to us. Our pop culture heroes have largely grown old with us. We didn't lose our heroes in droves the way our parents did when they lost Jimi, Janis, and Morrison in the span of about a year. Yeah, we lost Kurt and River young, but look at how many of our heroes are now pushing (or passed) 50 -- Madonna, Bono, Eddie, the Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys. We've gotten used to the idea that our icons will always be with us -- until they aren't.

Gen-X woke up this morning to a world without Whitney, and the day is going to come when we're going to say good-bye to more and more of those artists who created the soundtrack to our high school and college years. So yes, we practice a little revisionist history on a day like today and hearken back to a time when we were tooling around in our family station wagons blasting "Saving All My Love for You" and thinking that those moments were going to last forever and that we'd always have Whitney to score the important moments of our lives -- our first slow dance, our first breakup, that night driving up and down Main Street staving off boredom with people we thought would be our friends forever. For us, those moments seem like yesterday, but Whitney's death shows us that the years have indeed passed and will continue to pass.

RIP, Whitney. We will always love you.