May 29, 2008

The inimitable StinkyLulu is hosting Madeline Kahn Appreciation Day today, and there are sure to be all sorts of insightful and entertaining commemorations. So you should stop on by and check it out, why don'cha?

May 20, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: The Finals!

It's the second all-male final in Idol history, and going in, it looks to be the closest final since Clay & Ruben. But it won't look that way coming out.

The rundown:

We begin by establishing an uncomfortable boxing metaphor that will be clubbed into the ground all evening, as a boxing announcer introduces David "Sugarfoot" Cook and David "Baby Face" Archuleta, both wearing robes and boxing gloves, and both looking really embarrassed by such foolishness.

For Round 1, the barely mobile body of Clive Davis is wheeled out to make the song selections; he's joined by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who will offer advice to the singers throughout the evening. As much as I enjoy making fun of Clive, I am happy to see him back, as I think he is a master of picking the right songs for Idol contestants. (I maintain that Diana DeGarmo wouldn't have been a finalist but for Clive assigning her "Don't Cry Out Loud.")

Clive has chosen "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" for Cook, and it's a terrific choice. The first voice is goosebump-y good, and though Cook can't maintain that level throughout -- his enunciantion, as it so often does, gets a bit mushy when the drums kick in for the second verse -- it's a terrific performance. There's a silly bit of showoff gliding on the final note, but that's in the grand Idol tradition of pointless codas.

For Archuleta, Clive picks "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me;" it's the right type of song for his style and for the sound of his voice. The problem is that Archuleta's a 17-year-old kid, and (if the horror stories about his overprotective stage dad are any indication) a sheltered one at that, so when a song comes along that's all about relationships, romance, other people, or emotion of any sort, he's at a loss. The song is a series of very pretty notes, but it's emotionally vapid.

Round one to Cook.

Round two: Instead of making both singers tackle the same insipid anthem, they've been allowed to choose their favorite from the top ten finalists in the Idol songwriting contest. This is, I assume, at least partly a reaction to last year's finals, when the sappy ballad chosen was so far out of Blake's comfort zone that he never stood a chance.

Cook has chosen "Dream Big," which is slightly less sappy than any Official Idol Anthem (OIA) from years past (or maybe it's just that he's giving it a bit more rock edge than any OIA has ever had), but it's still a remarkably bland song, and Cook can't do much to salvage it. He's at his best in the chorus; he's mushmouthed as ever on the verses.

Archuleta chooses "In This Moment," which sounds much more like a typical OIA. It's an adequate performance, but Archuleta looks (as he does all night) so tense and uncomfortable that he's having trouble selling the song convincingly. When the key line of the song is "I want to be in this moment," you have to actually look happy to be there; Archuleta looks like he'd rather be having a root canal.

Round two is a draw of dullness.

Round three is introduced, as all rounds have been, with comments from sportscaster Jim Lampley, who's helping to pound us over the head with that boxing metaphor. "The first two rounds may be about boxing," he tells us, "but the last round is always a fight." Anyone who can explain what the hell that means is smarter than I am.

The singers have been given free choice for the final round, and Cook chooses Collective Soul's "The World I Know." It is a god-awful performance. There are two pretty falsetto notes at the very end of the song, but he could have been singing in Greek for all of the lyrics that could be understood. I almost began to wonder if Cook is trying to lose this competition; he's never been as incomprehensible as this before.

Archuleta opts to return to a song from earlier in the season, giving us a second performance of "Imagine." The song isn't really the uplifting inspirational ballad that he thinks it is, but he manages to sell it as one (omitting the "imagine no religion" verse makes the task a lot easier). There's a bit too much frill and frippery for my taste -- this song works better the more simply it's sung -- but clearly, the audience and the judges love it.

Round three to Archuleta.

For the night, the winner -- largely on the basis of song choice -- is Archuleta, and though I think Cook has been the more consistent performer throughout the season, his performances tonight were weak enough that what should have been a close vote will likely be an Archuleta landslide.

BOOKS: Rolling Thunder, John Varley (2008)

Third in the Garcia family series.

Red Thunder gave us the adventures of Manny Garcia, one of the first men to land on Mars; Red Lightning was the story of his son, Ray Strickland-Garcia, a Martian (that's a human resident of Mars, not an alien indigenous to Mars) hotelier who gets caught up in the political intrigue after a (not entirely) natural disaster strikes Earth.

For this volume, we leap forward one more generation; our heroine is Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond. (Any more volumes/generations, and the last name will be too long to fit on a single page.) Yes, Podkayne, like in the Heinlein novel; that first generation of Martians got caught up in the whole "we are Martians!" thing. You know how it is.

And Poddy takes after the typical Heinlein heroine in more than just name.She's tall, smart, strikingly beautiful, and talented in multiple fields, though her specialty is music. It's as a singer, in fact, that she joins the Martian Navy, touring with her band to give morale-boosting concerts at remote outposts.

Now when you travel to remote military outposts on planets and moons that are still essentially untamed and incapable of supporting human life, some nasty shit can happen. Like, for instance, the mountainous life-forms of Europa suddenly erupting from the surface of the moon and flying through space to Earth.

What are they up to? Can we communicate with them? Will humanity survive? It's a good old-fashioned setup, Poddy's a likable character, and Varley's always an entertaining writer. But Poddy is oddly removed from the action; while those mountains are flying to (and landing on) Earth, Poddy is off stage, and doesn't return until the action is largely played out. And when faced with a crisis at the end of the book, which you'd expect to lead to the most creative and dazzling solution, Varley instead allows his characters to duck the issue, essentially just running away from it.

Rolling Thunder is fun from moment to moment, and I think those who enjoyed the first two volumes in the series (both of which I do recommend) will like this one, too. But if there's a fourth volume, and there's certainly plenty of room left for one, I hope that the plotting will return to the tautness of those earlier volumes.

May 19, 2008

MOVIES: Roman de gare (Claude Lelouch, 2007/US 2008)

The title doesn't translate precisely into English, but "airport novel" would have something of the same flavor.

Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) is an author of such novels -- thrillers with very little literary ambition --and we meet her in a police station where she is the prime suspect in a murder. She begins to tell the story of the events that led up to that death (claiming to be entirely innocent, of course), a story from which she is strangely absent for a very long time.

That story begins on a rainy night when a serial killer known as "the Magician" has escaped from a Paris prison. Pierre (Dominique Pinon) has stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere, and we are given ample hints that he might be The Magician. A young couple has a frantic argument at the service station, and the man drives off, stranding Huguette (Audrey Dana). The couple had been on their way to visit Huguette's family, so that they could meet her fiance for the first time. Pierre offers to give her a ride, and eventually agrees to pose as her fiance.

Is Pierre The Magician, or is he (as he claims) Judith Ralitzer's secretary, and secretly the author of her most successful novels? And given that we're being told this story by a novelist, how much of it can be believed on any level? (The fact that Judith is the writer of cheap thrillers allows Lalouche to have great fun wallowing in some of the genre's cliches.)

The twists and turns aren't quite as clever as they might be, and there are a few spots where the storytelling drags a bit -- Pierre and Huguette take an awfully long time driving to her family's farm -- but there's enough style and wit here to keep the movie entertaining, and Pinon is particularly fine, bringing a creepy ambiguity to Pierre that keeps us wondering what he's really up to.

May 18, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08 (end-of-year awards)

And so, as expected for the last month or so, we're headed into the Battle of the Davids. My hunch is that the Official American Idol Anthem will decide the winner. The Anthem is always a gooey inspirational ballad, and that has been David Archuleta's specialty this year. David Cook won't struggle with the song as badly as Blake did last year -- he's a much better singer than Blake was -- but drippy sentiment doesn't come naturally to Cook, and that will be just enough to give Archuleta a squeaker of a victory.

But before we get there, it's time for the annual year-end awards. Only performances from the top 12 on are considered; the semifinalists aren't included.

Best performance: David A, "Stand By Me"
Runner-up: David C, "Billie Jean"
It is worth noting that there wasn't a single truly great performance this year; nothing to match the best of previous seasons.

Worst performance: Jason, "September Morn"
Runner-up: Ramiele, "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind"

Voted off too soon: Carly
Runner-up: Chikezie

Lasted too long: Amanda

Most disappointing: Brooke, who was so good in the semifinals and had a terrific first round in the finals with "Let It Be," but proved to have no versatility and a case of the nerves that got visibly worse every week.

Most pleasant surprise: David Cook, whose rock reimaginings occasionally felt a bit repetitious, but were still a fresh sound for Idol, and an unexpected treat from someone who originally seemed like a solid middle-of-the-pack contestant.

May 14, 2008

MOVIES: Then She Found Me (Helen Hunt, 2008)

Helen Hunt is star, producer, director, and co-writer of this movie, adapted from Elinor Lipman's novel.

Hunt plays April Epner, a woman in her late 30s who suddenly finds her life falling apart. She's been dumped by nebbishy husband Ben (Matthew Broderick); her beloved mother Trudy (Lynn Cohen) has just died; and local TV celebrity Bernice (Bette Midler) has just revealed that she is April's birth mother. As if that's not enough, her biological clock is kicking in big time -- she desperately wants a child -- which she fears will scare off Frank (Colin Firth), the father of one of her elementary school students, with whom she's entering into a new relationship.

It's soap opera and nothing but, but Lipman's novel has a breezy enough comic tone and narrative voice to lighten the weight of the story. Hunt's adaptation loses that lightness entirely, and sinks under its own drabness. Hunt plays April in one of those performances that we're supposed to think of as brave -- little or no makeup, no flashy hairdos or wardrobe -- but she only looks weary and haggard, as if director-Hunt has been putting actress-Hunt through too many long days on the set. The movie itself has the same drab look and feel, like a particularly low-budget Lifetime movie.

The only burst of energy the movie gets is from Midler, who gives a relatively subdued performance (by Bette Midler standards) and still has more zing and pop than anyone else in the cast; I love her explanation to April of her youthful inexperience: "He told me I had a perfect body, and I was too young and innocent to know that he was right." Broderick is even blander than usual; Firth's ultra-decent Good Guy routine is rapidly becoming a cliche that he desperately needs to escape.

Not recommended.

May 13, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: choice night

You'd think that once we were down to the final three, we could maybe count on getting at least one really exciting or interesting or memorable performance out of the evening. But no, we get a sadly lackluster evening of forgettable blandness.

The rundown:

Round 1: Judges' choice

David A, "And So It Goes," chosen by Paula -- The a cappella opening is impressive, and all of the notes throughout are lovely. But the performance is even more emotionally empty than usual for David, who shows no understanding of what the song's about. Paula calls him "a storyteller;" Paula is crazy. (The evening will be filled with moments that will grab the attention of the conspiracy-minded who believe that the producers are trying to manipulate the vote. Note that the sorority girls in the front rows have been instructed not to wave their arms during this ballad, so as not to distract us from David.)

Syesha, "If I Ain't Got You," chosen by Randy -- It's a solid, tasteful performance, but it's lacking in pizzazz; there's not much personality to it. It is perhaps emblematic of Syesha's artistic failings that when asked why she's peaking at this point in the season, she puts on a phony voice to tell us that she's started to "be myself, you know." (Conspiracy moment #2: Randy tells her that her impressive run late in the season is why she's "standing there number three.")

David C, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," chosen by Simon -- The only really interesting choice of the round. It's pitched a bit too high for David in the quiet opening section, where his falsetto feels terribly forced, but the gradual addition of a rock beat works nicely, and the build to the big notes at the end is very impressive.

Round 1 results: Cook, Archuleta, Syesha

Round 2: Singers' choice

David A, "With You" -- Li'l Archie is so not an R&B/hip-hop singer, and he's not very convincing when he sings love songs, so this is a dreadfully dull performance. There's not much wrong with it technically (though his enunciation is unusually sloppy), but it's never interesting and I've forgotten it almost before it's over.

Syesha, "Fever" -- It's fun and theatrical, and I love the arrangement which has some nice retro touches (the baritone sax is fabulous) but still feels contemporary. Simon calls a "lame cabaret performance," which is a bit harsh -- there's nothing lame about it -- and Paula notes correctly that it doesn't really tell us much about who Syesha is as a performer.

David C, "Dare You to Move" -- The dullest song of the night. It's David's usual shtick, and it sounds like almost every performance he's given. I literally cannot understand a word he says in the chorus. A ghastly performance.

Round 2 results: Syesha, Archuleta, Cook.

Round 3: Producers' choice

David A, "Longer" -- David looks terribly tired here, and there's a pained expression on his face throughout. It's a love song, for heaven's sake, at least make the effort to look happy. His visible unhappiness -- with the song, with the way the night is going, with the backstage drama surrounding his dad, who knows? -- is so extreme that it distracted me from the singing; I had to rewind and listen again without looking to realize that it was, like many of David's performances, very pretty and very forgettable.

Syesha, "Hit Me Up" -- Conspiracy moment #3: The producers give Syesha a number that is entirely about personality. There's nothing of interest in the melody or the lyrics; it's purely about slinky and sexy. Syesha does her damnedest, but she can't make the song interesting, and she doesn't have enough charisma to make the performance interesting, either.

David C, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" -- In contrast, the producers have given David a big, fat, juicy pitch over the middle of the plate. The first half of the song is particularly well done; the transition from string quartet to rock band is a bit awkward, and David sounds a bit strained in the rock half. Still, it's enough to win the round.

Round 3 results: Cook, Syesha, Archuleta

For the night: Cook, Syesha, Archuleta

For the season: Cook, Syesha, Archuleta

Deserving to go home: Archuleta, but that's not going to happen; we're going to get the all-David final that the show's been pushing for the last two months.

MOVIES: Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh, 2007)

Second film adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's twisty mystery play.

The first version (oddly enough, not yet available on DVD) came in 1972, and gave us Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as Andrew Wyke and Milo Tindle, who become entangled in a deadly battle of wits when Milo visits Andrew in an attempt to persuade Andrew to give his wife a divorce so that she can run away with Milo.

For the new version, Michael Caine swaps roles to play Andrew, with Jude Law stepping in as Milo. Harold Pinter's screenplay keeps the bare bones of Shaffer's original, though there are a few substantial revisions, especially in the third act, which takes the subterranean homoeroticism of the original and makes it overt. This is not to the benefit of the movie, I don't think; as viciously as the men have been dueling for the first hour of the film, it stretches plausibility to have them suddenly outright flirting with one another.

Another big change -- the look of the movie. Olivier's Andrew lived in a cozy country home, cluttered with overstuffed furniture and an enormous collection of windup dolls and toys. In contrast, Caine's Andrew lives in an austere high-tech mansion, sparsely furnished and lit in cool blue, every inch monitored by security cameras.

Caine does fine work as Andrew, a sly conniver who relishes this duel with Milo; Andrew is a writer of mystery novels, after all, and this battle is essentially a chance to test his skills in real time. Law isn't quite at the same level, but has some nice moments as Milo; he's the more desperate of the two men, and it's easier to see the wheels spinning as he tries to keep up with Andrew. (As for Milo's most surprising moment, early in the second act -- which I'm trying not to give away here -- I watched the movie with a friend who wasn't familiar with the story, so didn't know what was coming, and Law fooled him completely in that sequence.)

The new Sleuth isn't an awful movie; it'll certainly keep you entertained. But its strongest effect on me was to make me want to see the original again.

May 12, 2008

MOVIES: Redbelt (David Mamet, 2008)

Not the best of Mamet's elaborate con-game stories, but not entirely without merit.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Mike Terry, owner of an LA martial-arts school specializing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (which is, apparently, not the same thing as Japanese jujitsu). Mike is a skilled fighter himself, and has been asked many times to take part in pay-per-view martial arts extravaganzas run by a sleazy promoter (Ricky Jay); he is, however, a deeply idealistic man, and has no interest in sullying his talent on such tacky events. As a result, the school is almost always on the verge of financial crisis.

Attempting to describe the plot at all would be futile, and any attempt would give too much away that should be surprising; it's a complex (though never hard to follow) story involving a naive young attorney (Emily Mortimer), Mike's materialistic wife (Alice Braga) and her bar-owner brother (Rodrigo Santoro), an aging action movie star (Tim Allen), and his shady manager (Joe Mantegna). As is customary in Mamet's con games, surface gestures hide deeper motives and trustworthiness is in short supply.

There are certain problems that almost always arise in con game movies. The biggest of them is that they rely to a tremendous extent on coincidence, or on the villain's ability to predict with perfect accuracy how everyone else will react to a specific situation. The best con game stories -- and I'd include Mamet's movies House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner among them -- juggle their narrative balls swiftly and gracefully enough that you don't really notice those flaws under you're leaving the theater, trying to figure out how all of that happened. That's not the case here; you're aware of the narrative gaps as they arise. Further, the final ten minutes of the movie are a plotting nightmare, a mess of unmotivated behavior and confusing action.

Still, the performances are fine. Chiwetel Ejiofor has the challenge of playing an essentially decent man without coming off as annoyingly sanctimonious, and he does that very well. Tim Allen is surprisingly effective in his small role, so much so that this could be the first step towards reinventing himself as a serious dramatic actor. Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna and Ricky Jay do precisely what they always do in Mamet films, and they are irreplaceable. (One of Mamet's other regulars, his wife Rebecca Pidgeon, is also on hand; fortunately, hers is a very small role, and she's not around long enough to ruin the movie as she often does.)

Not a great movie, but the things that do work work very well indeed, making it worth catching on cable or DVD.

May 11, 2008

MOVIES: Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)

Standard-issue comic book adaptation, elevated only slightly by the presence of Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role.

Downey is Tony Stark, wealthy playboy and chief developer for the arms manufacturing company founded by his father. While visiting Afghanistan to demonstrate his newest weapon to the soldiers there, he's taken prisoner by local rebels who order him to build one of his missiles for them. (They are apparently very stupid rebels, who don't understand that one needs a factory and high-tech equipment to build such things.)

Instead, Stark builds a crude suit of armor which he uses to escape. The experience brings him to an epiphany in which he realizes that the weapons trade is Evil, and that he must atone for his sins, which he does by perfecting that armored suit -- essentially turning himself into a weapon (a contradiction that the movie never acknowledges, much less deals with).

Downey is very good as Stark, especially in the first part of the movie, when he gets to play the dissolute layabout; after he goes through his transformation and turns into the world's most self-righteous prig, the character is a lot less likable, and even Downey can't do much to salvage him. (And for me, at least, the parallels between Stark's story of redemption and Downey's own career, which have been pounded to death in the movie's publicity campaign, make the movie feel a bit too much like Downey's own personal psychodrama.)

The rest of the cast is made up of talented actors, wasted in cliche roles -- Gwyneth Paltrow as the Girl Friday, Jeff Bridges as the Evil Industrialist (we know he's Evil because he has a shaved head), and Terrence Howard as the Black Best Friend. There are relatively few action sequences for a comic-book movie -- probably a good idea, because every time Stark gets into the Iron Man suit, you lose all of the communicative force of Downey's face -- and they aren't very interesting or original.

There's a brief scene after the credits (and my lord, these are long credits) that makes it clear that a sequel of some sorts is already in the works; it was probably inevitable, given the movie's success, but I can't say I'm excited by the thought.

May 08, 2008

BOOKS: In the Woods, Tana French (2007)

This year's winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Twenty years ago, three children disappeared in the woods near their homes on the outskirts of Dublin. After several hours of searching, Adam Robert Ryan was found; he was essentially unharmed, though his shoes and socks were filled with blood, and he was clinging so tightly to a tree that he had to be pried loose. He didn't speak a word for two weeks, and never remembered any of what had happened to him that day; the other two children were never found.

Today, Rob Ryan is a member of the murder squad on the Dublin police force. His partner, Cassie, is the only one of his colleagues who knows about that childhood experience, which is why no one objects when Rob is assigned to the case of a new child murder in those same woods.

This is a very fine book. The characters and relationships are fully drawn, the suspense of the police work is terrifically exciting, and the writing is lovely to read. Take, for instance, these paragraphs from early in the book:
What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover's ultimate Möbius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.

This is my job, and you don't go into it -- or if you do, you don't last -- without some natural affinity for its priorities and demands. What I am telling you, before I begin my story, is this -- two things: I crave truth. And I lie.

Best of all, the relationships among the characters actually effect the way they do their jobs. There is a magnificent scene late in the book which finds Cassie interrogating the principal suspect while Rob and their boss listen in; the complexities of what Cassie is saying to the suspect, what she's really saying to Rob, and what she's not saying to their boss are intricate and beautifully played out.
This is not just an excellent police thriller; it's an excellent novel, even for people who think they don't like police thrillers. Recommended without reservation.

May 06, 2008

MUSIC: American Idol 08: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Even if the singers didn't have access to all 500 songs on the Hall of Fame's list of songs that shaped rock'n'roll, they surely had a wide enough choice that there was no excuse for poor song selection or bad performances tonight. Sadly, though, while some of the would-be Idols lived up to their potential with some of the year's best numbers, there were also a pair of clunkers that made it clear who's the weakest of the pack.

The rundown:

David C: "Hungry Like the Wolf" / "Baba O'Riley" -- All those songs to choose from, and David picks Duran Duran? It's not his best performance; he's oversinging, making his voice unpleasantly harsh, and his enunciation is particularly bad. Voice and enunciation both improve significantly on the second song, but it's not a very interesting song to begin with, and David does nothing to make it so. I'm reminded of the disastrous attempts various Idols have made to sing Rolling Stones songs, which inevitably teach us that what we love isn't the song; it's Mick Jagger's personality, stage presence, and performance. Same thing with The Who, it seems.

Syesha, "Proud Mary" / "A Change Is Gonna Come" -- Syesha is, by far, the best singer left in the competition -- spectacular voice, great versatility, superb technique -- and I always enjoy listening to her sing. But I'm still not sure I know who Syesha really is as a singer. She's giving a fine series of performances, but I always feels as if she's playing someone else. Tonight, we got Syesha in the roles of Tina Turner and Sam Cooke. That's not to suggest that she's merely doing impersonations -- she's not -- but there is something of Syesha that she's still holding back. It'll be fascinating to see the finals (should she make it that far) when she's given the Official American Idol Anthem and has to sing a song that hasn't been done by someone else already.

Jason, "I Shot the Sheriff" / "Mr. Tambourine Man" -- A pair of disastrous performances. To be sure, there is a bit more power and force to Jason's voice than usual, particularly in his first number, but the effort of putting it there takes away what little breath control he has, forcing him into even choppier phrasing than usual. He badly bobbles the lyrics on "Tambourine," and the coda that's been attached to the song is stupid and unnecessary, even by the standards of stupid unnecessary Idol codas.

David A, "Stand By Me" / "Love Me Tender" -- David has seemed a bit complacent in recent weeks, coasting on his teenybopper appeal without really putting in a lot of effort. But not tonight. His "Stand By Me" is a superb song selection that suits his voice beautifully; he sings it with grace and ease, even playing with the audience ("all you beautiful girls") in a way he's never done before. This is the first performance of the year that I might actually go to iTunes and buy. "Love Me Tender" isn't quite as good, and he relies a bit too heavily on his soulful eyes to get across the romantic intensity that he can't quite communicate vocally. Further, if you're going to tinker with the melody to give yourself a showy money note, as David does (the second appearance of "...ALL my dreams fulfill..."), then by golly, you had better hit that note instead of falling flat. That's a quibble, though, as David is clearly the class act of the evening.

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

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

Should go home: Unquestionably Jason.