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.