February 26, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: semi-finals, week 2

A day late due to being ill last night, and our second batch of wannabes aren't offering much to make me feel better. It's a night in which no one seems to be shooting any higher than "meh," and most of them are failing to reach that level.

The rundown:

Jasmine, "Love Song" -- Well, the last note was pretty. The rest was a collection of pitch problems and wretched enunciation; if I hadn't known the song was called "Love Song," I'm not sure I'd have understood any of what she was saying. Lovely girl, and not without charisma, but this isn't a performance to move her on.

Matt G, "Viva la Vida" -- The core of the sound disappears when he sings quietly, and everything gets very breathy. His falsetto isn't pretty to hear (or to see, for that matter; it scrunches up his face even worse than his usual squint). And as the judges note, it's an odd song choice for the his voice.

Jeanine, "This Love" -- Odd song choices seem to be a theme so far; she gives the chorus a slight smoothness that could be very effective elsewhere, but here only serves to flatten the song and rob of its punch. And she's working awfully hard for the mediocre results she's getting.

Nick, "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" -- You know, at least it took a few weeks before Sanjaya started milking his own ineptness for votes; this guy is an insincere buffoon going in. "Norman" certainly doesn't deserve to be kept around, and his presence is an insult to all of the contestants who were cut without getting this far. The biggest shame of it all is that I think Nick might actually be able to sing.

Allison, "Alone" -- Finally, someone chooses the right song. She's not going to make anyone forget Ann Wilson, but it's a fairly good performance, and she goes from quiet to belt with relative grace and ease. She's rough around the edges, but when the night is going this badly, this might get her through to the finals.

Kris, "Man in the Mirror" -- Pleasant, in a bland karaoke kinda way. There's nothing glaringly wrong with it, and there are occasional hints that he's capable of something better. He looks awkward as hell, though, leaping about the stage and pumping his fist, and needs to tone that stuff way down. (The judges are far kinder to him than he deserves.)

Megan, "Put Your Records On" -- I hear a lot of Corinne Bailey Rae in the performance, and I'm not sure whether that's because Megan's imitating her or because the song is so quirky in its rhythms and melodies that there's no other way to approach it. She's got a pretty voice, though like Kris, she will need a lot of work on stage presence; watching those arms churning at her side is a little scary.

Matt B, "If You Could Only See" -- Working a little bit of the Chris Daughtry vibe, to moderately good effect. He doesn't ever deliver the real rock belt that the song seems to be building to, and that lack of power will likely hurt him in the long run if he survives.

Jesse, "Bette Davis Eyes" -- Maybe it's just bad eye makeup, but she looks terribly pained when she sings. It's a harmless, competent performance, but it never becomes anything more than that.

Kai, "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" -- There's far too much vibrato in the money note at the end, but otherwise this isn't bad. The biggest problem is just that the original is such a classic that nearly anyone who does it can't help but instantly pale in comparison.

Mishavonna, "Drops of Jupiter" -- Hate the song, which is the sort of pretentious twaddle that stoned 19-year-olds think is really deep. As for the performance, it's yet another in the evening's long parade of minimally competent, adequate, unexciting songs.

Adam, "Satisfaction" -- Well, those years in musical theater have paid off; he certainly knows how to command a stage. Yes, he is, as the taped intro had suggested, a bit too big and theatrical, but it's a solid performance, and he should easily go through to the finals.

Deserving the top three spots: Adam, Allison, Megan.

Deserving of a second chance on Wild Card Night: If I'm feeling generous, Mishavonna, Matt B, and Kai, but only if I'm feeling generous.

February 22, 2009

MOVIES: Oscar catch-up

Yes, I've been a very bad blogger, and haven't kept up with posting about all of the movies I've seen this month. So, before, the Oscars show begins, a quick catch-up post about some of the nominees.

I didn't care for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I admired the technical accomplishments immensely, but was rarely emotionally engaged by the movie. Two exceptions: the scenes with Pitt and Tilda Swinton in that Russian hotel kitchen, and the meditation on coincidence leading up to Daisy's accident. And that shot of Pitt on the sailboat is the most stunning and iconic image of male beauty I've ever seen.

I was struck by the fact that the movie only allows Benjamin and Daisy to be happily united as a couple for that brief period when both are physically young and beautiful. As long as Benjamin still looks old, one or the other offers an excuse to keep them apart; once Daisy ages into her mid-40s, Benjamin's gone like a shot (and given a conveniently altruistic-sounding excuse for his departure).

I enjoyed The Reader much more, and I hadn't expected to. My cynicism meter was on high alert going on -- Winslet and Fiennes in a Holocaust movie produced by Harvey Weinstein? This was so obviously an Important Oscar Movie that it couldn't possibly be any good. But the movie works, largely on the strength of fine performances from Winslet and David Kross (who was sadly neglected during awards season). And the makeup -- good old-fashioned makeup -- that's used to age Winslet's character 30 years is far more convincing than all of the high-tech digital wizardry that's inflicted on Brad Pitt in Button.

And thanks to iTunes, I've seen 9 of the 10 nominated short films. The live-action shorts aren't a particularly strong field, but I did very much like "The Pig," which finds an interesting frame for its story of religious values in conflict. I'd bet on "Toyland" to win, though; it's set in WWII-era Germany, and "Toyland" is the answer of a young single mother to her son when he asks where all of his Jewish friends are disappearing to.

The animated films I've seen ("La Maison en Petits Cubes" isn't available for online viewing anywhere that I can find) are a very strong field. Even the slightest of the group, "Oktapodi," is an amusing bit of CGI about octopuses in love. "This Way Up" is the very British story of one coffin's difficult journey to a funeral; "Presto" is the rabbit-vs-magician short that played in theaters with WALL-E.

Best of the field, though, is "Lavatory/Lovestory," in which a men's room attendant finds her humdrum life interrupted by the unexpected possibility of romance. The animation is very simple -- black and white pencil drawings (with occasional well-timed bursts of color) that reminded of children's author Syd Hoff -- but extraordinarily communicative.

February 17, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: semi-finals, week 1

And at least, the season begins in earnest after the pointless cruelty of the audition shows and the pointless time-wasting of Hollywood Week.

On the whole, I'm not happy with the new semi-final format (which is actually the old semi-final format, used during the first few years of the show). It allows mediocre singers to slip into the finals with one unusually strong performance, where the previous format required singers to put together three good weeks to make the final 12. To be sure, the previous format allowed good singers to get cut based on one unusually weak performance, but that will still happen here, and any singer who can't get through a three-week semi-final without cracking probably doesn't deserve to be a finalist anyway.

The new format also takes away our chance to become familiar with the contestants over the three-week period; by the time the finals had begun, we had heard three full performances from each finalist, and (if the singers were smart) there was a good chance we'd heard them in a range of styles. Now, we'll head into the finals having heard each singer once -- maybe twice, for those who get in via Wild Card Night -- and it'll have been a month since we heard the singers who make it to the finals tonight.

Finally, 36 semifinalists is too many. We've never had 24 semifinalists who were good enough to make the finals, so why do we need to increase the number? This new format would work just as well with three weeks of 8 as with three weeks of 12. (Ah, but then, the competition show would only be one hour long instead of two, and we can't ask Fox to give up three hours of Idol airtime.)

There is one plus: We have at least the potential to get away from the rigid gender balance that was required of the final 12 under the previous format. If eight or nine of the best twelve singers are of the same gender, then that's what we should get, rather than the artificial 6-6 requirement. I'm sure that the judges will be under some pressure to even out the genders with their Wild Card choices (the judges, not the public, will choose the three winners from Wild Card night), but at least we aren't locked in to the 6 boys/6 girls thing.

So, the rundown for the night:

Jackie, "A Little Less Conversation" -- It's an interesting bluesy version of the song, especially at the beginning, but she gets shoutier as she progresses and doesn't quite have the voice to pull off the Joplin shtick. And the brief kittenish interlude in the bridge doesn't work at all. The judges are right, though, when they comment on well she controls the stage.

Ricky, "A Song for You" -- Too much melisma (an unusual comment for a male contestant), and his voice is too thick and throaty for my taste. Still, his intonation is superb and his range impressive, with some very nice falsetto work at the end. A very good performance.

Alexis, "Never Loved a Man" -- Let's face it, looks matter. And if you're a tiny pale-skinned blonde girl, you're going to have a hard time being taken seriously as an R&B belter unless you're amazingly good. This was amazingly good. She's got power without shrieking or loss of control; the voice is solid at high or low volume.

Brent, "Hick Town" -- Idol is primarily a show about pop and rock music. A country singer can survive on this show, but he's got to be better than this (and he's got to choose more interesting material, especially in this format where you get only one chance to make an impression). You can hear performances like this from every bar band in Texas on a Friday night. Bye, bye, Brent.

Stevie, "You Belong With Me" -- She's right that the song's youthful energy suits her, but her pitch is never quite in place and she loses power entirely in her lower register, getting very breathy. She also chooses to breathe in odd places, mid-phrase, sometimes even mid-word.

Anoop, "Angel of Mine" -- Pitch problems throughout, and his high notes don't impress the way Ricky's did, sounding slightly pinched. It might be good enough to at least get him through to Wild Card Night, though. The adorable factor will certainly help; I could just melt in those eyes. (I am, however, already sick to death of the "Anoop Dogg" nickname.)

Casey, "Every Little Thing He Does" -- It's not as if The Police are Iron Maiden or anything, but this song does need a bit more of a rock edge than she can bring; it's like the Muzak version. It's harmless and pleasant enough, though her voice does get unpleasantly harsh when she tries to hit the big, long, belty notes.

Michael, "I Don't Wanna Be" -- One shot to impress, and this is the song he picks? It doesn't offer any opportunity for a singer to really shine. It's a dull song, and the performance isn't much better; Michael's utter lack of charisma isn't helping.

Ann Marie, "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" -- A few small pitch problems, but a spectacular voice, and she finds a way to sell the song without trying to sound like an Aretha clone. One of the better performances of the night, and I am surprised at how negative the judges' comments are.

Stephen, "Rock With You" -- A very dutiful, restrained performance, with none of the joy or abandon the song needs. And the big long high note that's meant to impress us wobbles all over the place. This isn't going to get him to the finals.

Tatiana, "Saving All My Love For You" -- Not horrible, though she has a tendency to push awfully hard, and the lyrics are mostly lost in mush (and no, I don't think that's just her accent). Maybe she slips through to Wild Card Night, but I doubt it.

Danny, "Hero" -- Best of the night, by a long shot. Simon's right that the other judges are going a bit overboard, but only Alexis has come close to this level of performance tonight.

Deserving of the top three spots: Danny, Alexis, Ricky.

Deserving of a second chance on Wild Card Night: Anoop, Ann Marie.

February 08, 2009

TV: RuPaul's Drag Race (Logo, Mon 10)

Yet another Project Runway knockoff, and something of a mixed bag.

RuPaul is our host, and he's on a quest to find "America's next drag superstar." Nine contestants arrive, and they are greeted by RuPaul (in drag) on a video monitor, where he is being filmed in the softest focus we've seen on TV in years. After the welcome message is finished, RuPaul, now out of drag in a natty suit, walks in to present the first challenge. (That's right; RuPaul has cast himself as both Tim and Heidi.)

It's a tough one, too, considering the amount of time and money that top drag artists put into their outfits. They are provided with an assortment of ghastly thrift store rejects and told to assemble a fabulous outfit. "And because we know how important the right accessories can be," RuPaul tells the contestants, "we went to the dollar store and bought a whole bunch of crap."

That sort of irreverence is one of the show's strengths, and RuPaul is entertaining as the host/mentor/judge (he's back in drag, and back out of focus, in his role as judge). And yes, I do mean THE judge. Though there is a judging panel who join him in commenting on the challenge results -- Project Runway's Santino Rice is a regular judge, and legendary costume designer Bob Mackie is the guest judge for the first show -- they get no say in the final judgment. "I have consulted with our judges, my lawyer, and my housekeeper," says RuPaul, "but the final decision is mine alone."

The final runway segment in which we see how successfully the contestants have met the challenge is by far the show's greatest weakness; the production values plummet, with the room being far too brightly lit and the editing far too frantic for us to get a good luck at the outfits. But the contestants are a fine mix of personalities and styles; there's the chic elegance of Bebe Zahara Benet, the highly stylized punk/Goth look of Nina Flowers, and the creepy Bette Davis features of Tammie Brown.

Will you enjoy the show? It's certainly an uneven mess, but in its best moments it manages to simultaneously parody and pay loving homage to the Runway genre, and the personalities of RuPaul and his contestants are enough to keep me watching.