April 30, 2008

MOVIES: Baby Mama (Michael McCullers, 2008)

The ample comic talents of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler go to waste here, thanks to a predictable script that takes a disastrous wrong turn midway through.

Fey stars as Kate, a high-powered corporate executive who finds herself suddenly longing for a child. When her gynecologist tells her she'll be unable to conceive, she turns to an agency that matches mothers and surrogates. She's paired with Angie (Poehler), a crude, uneducated (though far from stupid) woman who has turned to surrogacy for the money.

The first half of the movie is the best part, as Kate and Angie struggle to cooperate, and find that they have more in common than it seemed. Had the movie stayed on that track, turning into a sort of female Odd Couple, it still wouldn't have been a great movie, but it would have been a better one. Unfortunately, there is a plot twist that turns the two into adversaries. Their chemistry is the best thing about the movie, so keeping them separate for a long stretch isn't a good idea.

They're surrounded by a solid supporting cast. Sigourney Weaver gives us yet another variation on her corporate bitch persona as the owner of the surrogate placement agency; Steve Martin gets some great laughs as Kate's new-age boss; Greg Kinnear plays yet another blandly pleasant love interest without becoming too bland himself.

And at the heart of the movie, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are so good together that I could almost (but not quite) recommend the movie just for the two of them. Here's hoping they get the chance to work together again in better material.

BOOKS: Missing Witness, Gordon Campbell (2007)

Edgar nominated in the Best First Novel category.

The premise is a mystery warhorse: Two people are seen entering a room; shots are heard; the two people leave the room, leaving behind a murdered third person. It's clear that one of the two is a murderer, but with no witnesses, it's impossible to prove which, allowing each of the two to use the other to get an acquittal on the grounds of reasonable doubt. In Campbell's nifty courtroom drama, the two are Rita Eddington and her 12-year-old daughter, Miranda; and the murder victim is husband and father Travis Eddington.

Campbell does a marvelous job of finding new twists on this familiar setup. Some of it feels like legal double-talk -- what are the odds that the same law firm (the same lawyers, even) would be allowed to defend both Rita and Miranda? -- but Campbell gets through those bits with style and panache enough that you almost feel guilty for noticing the unlikeliness of it.

The setting is unusual -- 1973 Phoenix -- the characters are memorable, and the ethical quandaries are doozies. The courtroom scenes are suspenseful and entertaining, and the puzzle of who's really guilty plays out fairly, with ample clues for the sharp reader.

Not a groundbreaking novel, but a solidly written piece of entertainment. I enjoyed it greatly.

April 29, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: Neil Diamond songbook

Two songs each for the Idols tonight, so it's a good thing that our guest mentor has such a large catalogue to choose from. Unfortunately, there's not a single memorable performance in the bunch, and there are a few flat-out disasters, making for the most mediocre night of the season thus far.

The rundown:

Jason: "Forever in Blue Jeans" / "September Morn" -- I do like the sound of his lower register at the beginning of the first song. But with every week, the limitations of his thin, whiny voice become more apparent, and it's more obvious that his appeal is based in his charm and in the joy he takes from performing. Remove those things, and you wind up with his version of "September Morn" (or "September Moan," as he pronounces it), which is perhaps the most listless, apathetic performance in Idol history.

David C: "I'm Alive" / "All I Really Need Is You" -- These are the least distinctive, most generic performances David has given. They're both reasonably well sung and pleasant enough to listen to, aside from his terribly sloppy enunciation -- at least a third of the words are utterly incomprehensible -- but neither is particularly interesting or even remotely memorable.

Brooke, "I'm a Believer" / "I Am I Said" -- Brooke has the biggest gap in quality between performances this evening. "I'm a Believer" is disastrous; even with her adjustments to the melody, it's pitched too low for her, and her earnest sincerity doesn't work well with cheerful up-tempo material. It's a performance that you could hear on open mike night at any coffee house. "I Am I Said" is better; at least it's in the right register for her, and she's connecting a bit better to the emotion of the song (though even in that department, she's not doing as well as she was in the early weeks). And even if it was Diamond's idea, replacing "New York" with "Arizona" doesn't fit rhythmically or lyrically, as it makes nonsense of the "between two shores" line.

David A, "Sweet Caroline" / "America" -- "Sweet Caroline" doesn't find David in good form; his voice seems unusually thick, heavy, and sluggish. Maybe it's just that he's trying so hard to sound mature enough for the song; his efforts, alas, are in vain, and we're left with a boy struggling to sing a man's song. "America" goes a bit better, aside from one nasty pubescent break in the voice, but Li'l Archie is beginning to bore me.

Syesha, "Hello Again" / "Thank the Lord for the Night Time" -- Her success last week has certainly boosted Syesha's confidence; she's in charge of the stage in a way she hadn't been before, and she's projecting far more personality than we normally get from her. But there's something undefined, not quite focused about that energy. These songs call for different emotional energy -- a sort of awestruck joy at having found love in "Hello Again," a naughty playfulness in "Night Time" -- and what we get from Syesha in both is the same "Hi! I'm Syesha! I'm really happy to be here!" enthusiasm. Still, she's the best of the lot on a weak night.

For the night: Syesha, David C, David A, Brooke, Jason.

For the season: Syesha, David C, David A, Jason, Brooke.

Deserving to go home: Should be Brooke, but the fact that she had one marginally decent performance will save her, and we'll say farewell (without much regret) to Jason, who didn't even have that.

MOVIES: The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, 2008)

Superb movie, with a fine performance by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins, getting a rare change at a leading role.

You're most likely to know Jenkins from Six Feet Under, where he played the dead father of the Fisher family. Here, he's Walter Vale, a Connecticut college professor who's reached late middle age without ever finding anything in life to be excited about. His marriage might have fulfilled that purpose at one point, but since his wife's death, he's buried himself in lackluster teaching of his Intro to Economics course -- updating the syllabus means changing "2006" to "2007" on the first page -- and vague attempts to finish the book he's been writing for years. Walter is none too pleased, therefore, when he's ordered to New York to present a paper on behalf of an ill colleague.

He's kept an apartment in New York for many years, though he hasn't visited it recently. It's still a surprise, though, to find a young couple living there as if it were their apartment. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zaineb (Danai Gurira) are immigrants (from Syria and Senegal, respectively) who live on the income from Zaineb's hand-crafted jewelry; they clearly have nowhere else to go, and Walter offers to let them stay.

The outline of the plot from this point may sound overly familiar -- another story in which an uptight, repressed WASP learns to live from the free-spirited minority -- and it could easily have turned into a gooey sentimental mess of feel-good liberalism; to his credit, writer-director McCarthy finds surprising moments in the story. Even if the movie does go pretty much where we expect it to, it doesn't always take the route we expect.

The other principal member of the cast is Haim Abbass, who plays Tarek's mother, and small supporting roles are filled by superb New York actors like Michael Cumpsty, Richard Kind, and Marion Seldes; all are top-notch. Haaz Sleiman is particularly appealing, bringing such warmth to Tarek that it's easy to see how even an emotional stiff like Walter can't help but melt in his presence.

The movie deals with political issues -- we eventually learn that Tarek and Zaineb are in the United States illegally -- but doesn't take a stand on either side of the issue, aside from noting the rather obvious fact that the immigration and deportation system we've concocted is a bureaucratic nightmare. What I enjoyed most, though, is the notion of music as a cross-cultural bridge: Tarek teaches Walter to play the djembe (it's never commented on that it's the Syrian Tarek, not the Senegalese Zaineb, who plays this African drum); Walter and Tarek's mother bond over classical piano and Broadway musicals.

One of the best movies of the year so far. Absolutely recommended with great enthusiasm.

April 28, 2008

MOVIES: Young at Heart (Stephen Walker, 2007)

The Young at Heart Chorus, of Northampton, Massachusetts, is made up of about two dozen singers, each of them at least 70 years old; their repertoire consists on contemporary pop and rock songs by Sonic Youth, Coldplay, and David Bowie (to name a few). Walker's documentary follows the chorus through the seven weeks of rehearsals that lead up to a sold-out concert. It's a reasonably entertaining movie, but Walker gets none of the credit; the movie's strengths exist despite him, not because of him.

What do I mean by that? Well, the movie's most effective moments, those that pack the biggest punch, would exist no matter who were making the movie; when the chorus is informed that one of its members has just died, for instance, a 4-year-old with a video camera couldn't fail to capture the emotion of that moment. The moments where Walker's directorial touch is in evidence, on the other hand, are without fail the clumsiest and meanest moments.

Take, for instance, the chorus's struggle to learn the song "Yes We Can Can." It's a tricky chorus, with odd rhythms and phrases that never repeat in quite the way you expect them to. I've known professional choristers who would take some time to memorize that chorus. But when the Young at Heart singers struggle with it, Walker frames their difficulty as a collective senior moment. His condescension to his subjects also shows up in an adolescent snickering tone whenever any of the singers dares to suggest that their interest in romance and sex didn't end when they hit 35.

Worst of all is one of the most viciously cruel editing choices I've ever seen in a movie. As we watch one of the singers being placed in an ambulance for transport from the hospital to a convalescent home, Walker's soundtrack is the chorus's rendition of a Talking Heads song: "We're on the road to nowhere..."

Despite Walker's nastiness, the decency and likability of the Young at Heart members shines through. Eileen Hall, the oldest member at 92, is a lovable flirt; Fred Knittle impresses with his quiet strength and dignity (and his rendition of Coldplay's "Fix You" is, for many reasons, the musical highlight of the movie). The members of the chorus survive Walker's mean-spiritedness, and the movie is worth seeing for them.

April 27, 2008

MOVIES: In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

After winning a Best Short Film Oscar a few years back, writer-director McDonagh makes a terrific feature film debut.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell star as Ken and Ray, hitmen lying low after a badly botched job. Their boss has sent them to Bruges, a Belgian city with lots of gorgeous medieval architecture. Ken is enjoying the vacation and the sightseeing, but Ray is bored and eager to get back to London.

The movie is largely a two-hander for Gleeson and Farrell, and both are very good. Gleeson is a charmer here, a warm and avuncular figure who genuinely cares for his younger protege, but the movie's real surprise is Farrell. He hasn't done a lot of comedy in his career, and it's a delight to see how funny he can be. There are also entertaining supporting performances from Ralph Fiennes (another actor who should do more comedy) as Ken and Ray's boss, and Jordan Prentice as an actor making a movie in Bruges.

At first, In Bruges feels like just another Tarantino-style buddy flick (albeit a very good one). The movie deepens as it goes along, though, becoming a surprisingly moving meditation on guilt, responsibility, and atonement. One of the marvels of the movie is how adroitly it handles its many shifts in tone. We zoom from slapstick to tragedy, sometimes getting both in the same moment, and none of it ever feels out of place. McDonagh's script is also a strong point, with characters popping in and out at just the right moments, and all of the stray loose ends of the plot being tied together very neatly at the end.

Highly recommended.

April 22, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: Andrew Lloyd Webber songbook

I admit that I was not looking forward to this evening. I think that most of Lloyd Webber's songs are utter dreck (next year, I want a Stephen Sondheim night, damn it!), and that the few redeemable ones are made so only by the strength of Tim Rice's lyrics. But let's face it, after the vapidity of Mariah Carey week, even Lloyd Webber's music starts to sound pretty good. Even better news is that Lord Andrew turns out to be a surprisingly effective mentor, getting reasonably good performances from most of his charges.

The rundown:

Syesha, "One Rock & Roll Too Many" -- The song doesn't stand on its own particularly well; the lyrics are insanely repetitious, and it's not entirely clear what the hell it's about. But my lord, look at Syesha go; she's funny and warm and sexy. She's packed more personality into this performance than we've seen from her all season, flirting with the band and strutting across the stage like it's her own private playground. Oh, there are a few small pitch problems after the key change, but when the performance is this much fun, who cares?

Jason, "Memory" -- All of the cats from Cats must be hanging around backstage, and Jason must be allergic; just listen to the poor boy gasping for breath between phrases (and during phrases, and in the middle of words...). He's clearly not in his element here, he's nervous and tentative throughout -- the bridge is particularly painful to watch and hear -- and the performance is a disaster. Lord Andrew seems to have expected as much, introducing Jason by saying (in essence), "I wash my hands of this one; whatever he does, it's not my fault."

Brooke, "You Must Love Me" -- When she bobbled the beginning of "Every Breath You Take" a few weeks back, it came across as somehow endearing; doing it a second time just looks sloppy and unprofessional. To her credit, she gets a bit more power out of her voice than usual, and doesn't sound quite as strained doing so as she often does. But like Jason, her voice simply isn't big enough for this type of music, and despite Lloyd Webber's attempts at coaching, she still doesn't seem to get the point of the song; her usual emotional connection to the song and to the audience is entirely missing.

David A, "Think of Me" -- The re-imagining of the song as a boy-band-esque pop ballad is quite effective -- so much so, in fact, that you're almost distracted from the problems with David's performance. The low notes are too low, and the words in those phrases simply get lost. The big problem, though, is that the performance just isn't very interesting. Yes, the notes are on pitch, and yes, all the young girls in the audience are screaming, but there's not much personality behind the notes, and very little sense that David understands what he's singing about.

Carly, "Superstar" -- Lord Andrew earns his keep for the night in the moment when he gets Carly to switch from "All I Ask of You" to "Superstar." It's absolutely the right song for her, and she seems more comfortable and relaxed on stage than ever before. She also seems less defensive and angry, which may simply be a matter of her makeup being much less heavy than it was in earlier weeks. Some of the high notes in the chorus are just a bit strained, but that's not entirely inappropriate to this song, and she makes it work very nicely.

David C, "Music of the Night" -- Who would have guessed that David Cook would give us the most traditionally Broadway performance of the night? It's a very uneven performance, to be sure, with a lot of pitch problems, especially in the quiet breathy passages of the verses. But the bridge ("Close your eyes...") is lovely, and the big money note at the end of that section is a magnificent thing indeed. The bombastic ending that they've tacked on doesn't work, but to do the final note as written would eat up most of his allotted two minutes.

For the night: Syesha, Carly, David C, David A, Brooke, Jason.

For the season: Syesha, Carly, David C, David A, Jason, Brooke.

Deserving to go home: Either Jason or Brooke.

April 16, 2008

BOOKS: A Clue for the Puzzle Lady, Parnell Hall (1999)

First in the Puzzle Lady mystery series.

Bakerhaven, Connecticut, is a sleepy little suburb, so it's big news when the body of a young woman is found in the cemetery. There's a cryptic note attached to the body -- "(4) D -- line (5)" -- which the police chief thinks might be a crossword puzzle clue, so he turns for help to Bakerhaven's newest resident, Cora Felton. Cora is the sweet grandmotherly lady whose face smiles out from hundreds of newspapers that publish the "Puzzle Lady" crossword puzzle column.

Turns out, though -- and this might be considered a minor spoiler -- that Cora doesn't actually write the column; her niece, Sherry, is the real puzzle expert, but Cora's kindly visage is more marketable. The attempts of Sherry and Cora to keep this fact a secret are clearly going to be one of the running jokes of the Puzzle Lady series, which is why I don't feel too bad about giving it away here.

Not only is Cora not really the Puzzle Lady, she's not really the kindly grandmother she appears to be. She's a multiply-divorced, heavy drinking, cranky old broad -- more Elaine Stritch than Angela Lansbury -- who is unkind and abusive to everyone, especially Sherry. She's so unpleasant, in fact, that I am unlikely to return for further volumes of the Puzzle Lady series.

And that's a shame, because there is a lot to like here. The relationship between Sherry and local reporter Aaron is entertaining, and their love-you/hate-you banter comes closer to classic screwball than most such attempts. The murder mystery is entertaining, and I liked the way that Hall flirts with annoying the reader by making his series of crossword clues ridiculously easy, then makes that very simplicity a key clue to the solving of the mystery.

Hall has two other ongoing mystery series, and his skills as a writer and a plotter are good enough that I might check them out to see what he can do with a less detestable protagonist.

April 15, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: Mariah Carey songbook

Mariah Carey takes a turn as mentor, and the Idols struggle with a songbook that's not very interesting and not especially varied, making for a dull evening.

The rundown:

David A, "When You Believe" -- Inspirational hooey again. It's not like I expect him to come out and do a "Whores on Crack" medley, but he's dug himself into a deeper rut than any contestant on the show. As for the performance, it's all melisma; he lets the backup singers take the melody for half the chorus while he wails away, delivering a rendition that's all garnish and no steak.

Carly, "Without You" -- She seems less angry and much warmer than usual, especially at the beginning of the song, where (unlike Randy) I love the sound of her lower register. The pyrotechnics do overshadow the emotion a bit at the end of the song, but at least when she starts wailing, she does so in tune.

Syesha, "Vanishing" -- Her best Big Diva performance yet; it's very well controlled, with a fine display of range, both in terms of pitch and dynamics. She doesn't overdo the melisma, and there's enough actual singing in there that it doesn't feel like it's just feathers and sequins.

Brooke, "Hero" -- It's not her best vocal; there are more pitch problems than usual, and when she tries to show off a little more power at the bridge, the strain is audible. I usually like Brooke with just a piano, but this really needs a bigger build than the piano alone can give, and Brooke's voice isn't big enough to provide it, either; the band might have made the performance seem less malnourished.

Kristy, "Forever" -- Country and R&B are closer cousins than is generally acknowledged, and the arrangement here has an understated country feel, with a hint of steel guitar. Kristy's not forcing the vocal, and it's very nicely sung. She's made the smartest song choices of the group over the last few weeks, and it's doing her a world of good.

David C, "Always Be My Baby"-- Paula says this "could be in a movie soundtrack right now," and I suppose she's right, if the movie has a scene where the creepy guy hacks the cheerleader to death with an axe. David's "make it emo" routine is getting boring, and it doesn't work on every song; here, all it's done is turned a lovely statement of undying love into an unpleasant stalker anthem.

Jason, "I Don't Wanna Cry" -- The attempt to stretch is a valiant one, but Jason's vibe is just too damned sunny and mellow for him to get away with a heartbreak song. He's not in peak form vocally tonight; the falsetto at the end is particularly unattractive.

For the night (and a weak night it was): Syesha, Carly, Kristy, David C, Jason, David A, Brooke.

For the season: Carly, Syesha, David C, Kristy, Jason, David A, Brooke.

Deserving the ticket home: It's a tightly packed bunch; no one's running away with the competition at the top or bottom end. It should probably be Brooke who leaves this week, but I wouldn't be crushed to see Kristy, Jason, or David A go home. (Not that I expect David A to go, of course; his teenybopper/grandma fanbase will keep him around until the finals.)

April 09, 2008

BOOKS: As Dog Is My Witness, Jeffrey Cohen (2005)

Third volume -- the first I've read -- in the Aaron Tucker mystery series.

Aaron is a freelance writer in suburban New Jersey, juggling the challenges of writing and family. Family is a bit trickier than usual because Aaron's 12-year-old son Ethan has Asperger's Syndrome, a developmental disorder related to autism. It seems clear that educating the reader about the realities and challenges of AS is one of Cohen's aims in this series, and for the most part, he does a good job of integrating that material into the storytelling without doing too much lecturing.

In this volume, Aaron is called on by the head of the local AS support group to investigate a murder case in which another young man with AS is the principal suspect. Aaron and his friend are skeptical that Justin Fowler could have committed the crime; his Asperger's is severe enough that he doesn't really have the organizational skills to plan a murder, or strong enough emotional reactions to most people to have any motive.

Cohen's tone is light and breezy, and the jokes aren't always as funny as he thinks they are; you can hear the "ba-DUM-bum" after too many of the punchlines. The storyline in this installment strains credibility when Aaron decides to take Ethan along on his investigation, and shatters credibility entirely when Ethan turns out to be a crack investigator with a knack for asking precisely the right questions.

Still, the characters are appealing and the mystery is an interesting one. It's not a strong enough effort that I'll pick up other volumes in the series, but it was a moderately amusing diversion.

April 08, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: inspirational songs

As it was during the week of last year's Idol Gives Back event, the theme is inspirational songs. Somehow, the show has managed to scrape up eight such songs that David Archuleta hasn't already sung this season; unfortunately, most of the performances aren't all that inspiring.

The rundown:

Michael, "Dream On" -- One of these things is not like the other: black jeans, white t-shirt, leather vest, paisley ascot. Why bother to pick on Michael's wardrobe? Well, because tonight it's kinder than anything I might say about his performance. His attempts at Tyler-esque shrieking high notes are flat-out ugly. The performance as a whole is -- and I don't often use this word because the judges so overuse it -- bad karaoke.

Syesha, "I Believe" -- Syesha's falling into the "she's good, but she's no" wasteland. Last week, she was good, but she was no Whitney; this week, good, but no Fantasia. For all of her talent, there's something generic about Syesha; you get the feeling that there are young women in 100 black churches in south-central Los Angeles who could deliver exactly the same performance that she does.

Jason, "Over the Rainbow" -- The song choice suits him perfectly, and it's very nicely sung. I'm driven to distraction by the mangling of the lyrics, but if memory serves, that comes directly from the Iz version of the song that he's performing, so it's hard to penalize Jason for that.

Kristy, "Anyway" -- The song is a maudlin mess (you could point to it if asked why so many people hate country music), but it's right over the plate for Kristy, and she knocks it out of the park, delivering one of her best performances. One does wonder, though, about the wisdom of any Idol contestant choosing to sing potentially self-fulfillingly prophetic lines as "tomorrow they'll forget you ever sang."

David C, "Innocent" -- I don't think we've heard much of David's lower register before, and here's hoping we won't hear much of it again; it's a thick, unattractive sound that only emphasizes his tendency to sloppy enunciation. The falsetto notes at the end of the first verse are also badly out of tune; this is a disappointing performance.

Carly, "The Show Must Go On" -- Purely in terms of voice, Carly is the best singer left in the competition, but I do wish she didn't always look so desperate and angry when she sings. The judges are right to note that she's oversinging badly, especially at the end of the song, when she entirely loses control of the big notes.

David A, "Angels" -- After a few relatively mediocre weeks, David was in desperate need of a comeback, and I think he got it tonight. There were a few pitch problems, and some sloppy enunciation in spots, but on the whole it was a solid performance that will satisfy his fans immensely.

Brooke, "You've Got a Friend" -- Another home-plate song choice, and as usual, Brooke's emotional connection to the material is solid. She's undercut a bit by the arrangement, though; those syrupy strings don't play well against the raspiness and edge in her voice.

For the night: Jason, David A, Kristy, Brooke, Carly, Syesha, David C, Michael.

For the season: Carly, David C, Syesha, Jason, Kristy, Brooke, David A, Michael.

Deserving to go home: It really should be Michael, but I suspect that Carly and Kristy are in more danger than he is.

April 01, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: Dolly Parton songbook

Dolly may not rank among the great Idol mentors -- she's not exactly offering much in the way of constructive criticism -- but she is certainly warm and supportive, and the singers seem delighted to be working with her. Unfortunately, warm and supportive isn't enough to help many of the singers, who don't seem to understand that more than any other music, country is about emotional communication.

The rundown:

Brooke, "Jolene" -- The instrumentation is spare, always a plus for Brooke, whose voice tends to get buried by the full band. Her singing is a bit more forceful than usual, too, which is a nice change. But this is really not a song to show off a singer's range, and for the first time, she seems utterly disconnected from the emotion of the song, wearing a broad, goofy grin for a song about obsession, paranoia, and jealousy.

David C, "Little Sparrow" -- Maybe it's just that I don't know this song as well as I know the other songs David has sung, but I'm strongly struck tonight by the sloppiness of his enunciation ("trust" begins with a T, not a D), and he's not always quite hitting the high notes he's aiming for. Still, there's a remarkable emotional force to the performance that is quite compelling, and I'm riveted throughout.

Ramiele, "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" -- The bouncy arrangement is completely at odds with the song, which is bittersweet and melancholy. As ever, Ramiele is gasping for breath in the strangest places, and with no emotional connection to the song, she's giving me no reason to pay attention and nothing to hold my interest. (A shame, because this is one of my favorite of Dolly's songs; I particularly recommend Joan Osborne's version.)

Jason, "Travelin' Thru" -- A livelier performance than Jason usually gives, which he needed to do in order to break out of his rut. Unfortunately, in trying to deliver a vocal with a little more oomph, all he manages to do is show off precisely how limited his voice really is. He's lovely to listen to within a very narrow range of material, and even this performance is pleasant enough, but he's not powerful or versatile enough to ever have a real career.

Carly, "Here You Come Again" -- The spare arrangement is very effective, and would have been even more so had she omitted the Semi-Obligatory Power Note at the end of the song. Carly's performances are always technically superb, but sometimes -- like tonight -- that technical proficiency borders on chilliness.

David A, "Smoky Mountain Memories" -- The judges adored this performance, and certainly from a technical standpoint, it's the best David has sounded in weeks. But he's far too young and naive to be singing this song; he hasn't lived or suffered enough to understand the sense of loss and displacement that's called for. There are songs in Dolly's songbook that would be appropriate for a 17-year-old kid; this isn't one of them.

Kristy, "Coat of Many Colors" -- Clearly, Kristy is far more comfortable with country music than any of the other contestants, and she has a lovely voice that is ideally suited to this song. But there's something dutiful and overly respectful about the performance; she's presenting it as if it's a museum piece.

Syesha, "I Will Always Love You" -- Brooke could have done the understated Dolly half of the song better, and Ramiele might have outdone her on the belt-y Whitney half, but no one in the competition could have gotten away with this Frankenversion of the song as well as Syesha. If neither half of the song is great, both are very good, and bless her heart for not overdoing the melismatic flourishes at the end.

Michael, "It's All Wrong But It's All Right" -- Love the bluesy arrangement, and Michael's vocal is one of his best; the falsetto note at the end is especially fine. But a guy this handsome singing this song in this style should have me horny by the time he's done, and Michael doesn't. Michael Johns: Charisma-free since 1978.

For the night: David C, Syesha, Carly, David A, Michael, Kristy, Jason, Brooke, Ramiele.

For the season: Carly, David C, Syesha, Brooke, David A, Jason, Michael, Kristy, Ramiele.

Deserving the ticket home: Ramiele. Really, this time I'm serious, for the love of god, please send Ramiele home.