April 28, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: Rat Pack night

The Rat Pack serve as this year's excuse for a night of standards, and Jamie Foxx is brought out to serve as the most unexpected mentor in Idol history. This is normally the week when we begin to get two songs from each contestant, but in an unspoken acknowledgement of the show's inability to manage time this season, we're still getting only one song each.

The rundown:

Kris, "The Way You Look Tonight" -- Kris has a natural, intimate quality that suits him well tonight, and the performance isn't bad overall, though his phrasing is occasionally strange (why would you breathe after the word "just" in "just thinking of you" instead of before?) and his enunciation is still sloppy. The up-tempo section in the middle is a mistake, though, especially the painful falsetto note that leads into it.

Allison, "Someone to Watch Over Me" -- I had been worried about Allison tonight, but she made a good song choice and pulled it off very nicely. Like much of her material, it's not really a 17-year-old's song -- it's about the fear that one is running out of time to find love, after all -- but Allison's preternatural maturity allows her to get away with it. No serious technical flaws, and while it's not a brilliant piece of interpretive singing, it'll do.

Matt, "My Funny Valentine" -- Foxx tries desperately to get Matt to sing full voice instead of falsetto, and he's right; those are Matt's best moments in the song. But his pitch is off throughout (he frequently hits a pitch badly and finds his way to it by the end), he's throwing in too many pointless ruffles and flourishes, and the moments when he does go to falsetto are terribly unattractive, especially at the very end of the song. (Simon's praise of this is one of his rare moments of lunacy.)

Danny, "Come Rain or Come Shine" -- Remember how all of Taylor Hicks' bluesy riffs started off seeming so fresh and original, and by the end of the season were revealed to be a very limited batch of cheesy affectations? Meet Taylor II. It's not a horrible performance, it's just never an interesting one, and the further into the song we get, the sillier and more overblown it gets.

Adam, "Feeling Good" -- An unusual song choice, not only because it has nothing to do with the Rat Pack, but because it is perhaps the most cursed song in Idol lore, having led to the elimination of two contestants in one night (Leslie and A.J., semifinals, two years ago). As for Adam's take on the song, it's his best performance yet, if only because he's actually singing much of it instead of screaming the entire thing at us. The big note at the end is held way too long, to the point where it starts to feel like Sideshow Bob and the rakes, and there's a terrible unplanned raspy moment when he drops out of it. Still, it's the first performance Adam's given that I genuinely enjoyed.

For the night: Adam (!), Allison, Kris, Danny, Matt.

For the season: Allison, Kris, Danny, Matt, Adam.

Deserving to be sent home: Adam earns himself a reprieve this week, so let's send Matt packing.

April 21, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: Disco night

After last week's surprising waste of the Judges' Save on Matt, the top seven return for a night of disco songs. Everyone's a little desperate, knowing that two will be sent home this week, and we wind up with a night of unexpected arrangements and performances that are, even when they don't quite work, more interesting than we might have predicted.

The rundown:

Lil, "I'm Every Woman" -- Remember Lakisha from two seasons back? Fabulous voice, but no emotional connection to the songs or to the audience? That's who Lil reminds me of as she delivers the least interesting of the many Idol versions of this song. And I've always thought this was a bad Idol song; there's not much melody, and the backup singers do too much of the work.

Kris, "She Works Hard for the Money" -- Very nicely done, though Kris's enunciation is particularly sloppy tonight. The arrangement is clever and effective, and Kris manages to give the song his own style without making it unrecognizable or destroying it entirely.

Danny, "September" -- It almost hurts to watch him lumbering across the stage. On the other hand, it doesn't sound too bad; it's less forced than usual, and I'm surprised at how well he's hitting the high notes. It's not a great performance, and it has the tentative feel of something he's not quite sure he's got memorized yet, but it'll keep him around for another week.

Allison, "Hot Stuff" -- Oh, dear. Nothing about that worked. The arrangement, the outfit, the staging, the song choice -- all of it just wrong. It's the first time that she's come across as a kid singing material that's too old for her. Given the surprising frequency with which she's wound up in the bottom three, I fear that she's in big trouble after that performance.

Adam, "If I Can't Have You" -- His pitch is unusually shaky tonight, and in spots his enunciation is so nonexistent that I'd swear he was mocking us ("If I caaaaaaaaayuuuuuuuhh"). There are moments, though, when he drops into his lowest register, that I hear for the first time a voice that I'd be curious to hear more of; those few notes are far more attractive than the high-pitched shrieking that he so enjoys.

Matt, "Stayin' Alive" -- Big kudos just for getting out all the syllables in comprehensible fashion. The performance was better than I'd have expected, not that I'm going to remember it in the morning. And someone needs to club him upside the head with a great big No More Falsetto Stick; the last five seconds were painful.

Anoop, "Dim All the Lights" -- When the repeated line in the song is "gonna dance the night away," it would be nice if the arrangement felt like something you could, I dunno, dance to; this felt more like something that would be playing quietly in the background of a birthing class. It was pretty and well sung, I suppose, but the performance and the song were so utterly at odds that it landed with a thud.

For the night: Kris, Danny, Matt, Adam, Lil, Anoop, Allison.

For the season: Kris, Anoop, Danny, Alllison, Lil, Matt, Adam.

Should go home: Since it's a given that Adam isn't going anywhere, I'll have to say Lil and Matt. But with two going home, I expect a surprise, and I fear for Allison.

April 20, 2009

BOOKS: A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick (2009)

It's a cold Wisconsin day in October 1907, and Ralph Truitt waits for the train that will bring Catherine Land, the woman who has answered his newspaper advertisement searching for "a reliable wife." It's clear almost immediately that both Ralph and Catherine are strong-willed people, and that each has an agenda that goes beyond a simple arranged marriage. But affairs of the heart never go quite as one plans them, even when one doesn't actually plan to involve the heart at all.

Goolrick's novel is a wildly overheated tale of passion, lust, vengeance, conniving, and longing. The story is almost too loopy to be believed, built as it is on a series of wild coincidences, and Goolrick's prose leans to the absurdly melodramatic. (Remembering a perfect childhood day, Catherine thinks, "The sun set every day. It could not be that it would set in splendor only once in her lifetime.") But the three principal characters -- Ralph and Catherine are eventually joined in Wisconsin by the piano-playing cad from St. Louis, Tony Moretti -- are so vividly drawn, and their emotional lives so real despite Goolrick's excesses, that A Reliable Wife kept me turning the pages. It can be an infuriating novel, and there will be moments when you want to toss it across the room, but there's something weirdly compelling in its delirium, and I'm glad to have read it.

April 14, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: songs from movies

Quentin Tarantino is our mentor tonight, and the results are a wildly mixed bag, with performances tending to the extremes.

The rundown:

Allison, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" -- Not her best performance, though I'm still impressed with how smoothly she gets from her lower register (heck, she's a female Idol contestant; I'm impressed that she has a lower register) to her upper. There's nothing terribly wrong here; there's just nothing terribly interesting, either (to be sure, that's partly the fault of the song). It's a forgettable piece of work.

Anoop, "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" -- Well, damn if Tarantino hasn't managed to push Anoop at least part of the way from Cute Little Boy to Romantic Lead. If he could sing like this every week, he'd be a threat to win this thing. It's a passionate, intense performance; the only thing I'd change is the cheesy pointing to the audience on the final "you."

Adam, "Born to Be Wild" -- Even I must grant that Adam is a showman, and if all I had to do was watch this performance, I'd be dazzled by it. Unfortunately, I also have to listen to it, which means being assaulted by that ugly high-pitched shriek. And the gasping for breath is getting worse every week; the first verse is particularly bad.

Matt, "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman" -- PItch is iffy throughout, with one especially nasty falsetto note in the bridge. Ultimately, Matt falls to the same pitfall that took down Allison -- there's nothing of interest in the song, and all the effort in the world can't make it seem that there is.

Danny, "Endless Love" -- The harp makes for an effective arrangement, and it's a fine performance. The belting doesn't come across quite so much as shouting as it often can with Danny, and whether it's because of Tarantino's advice or not, he does seem to be more emotionally connected with the material and the audience. (Losing the glasses? Big mistake; it's the one thing we remember about him.)

Kris, "Falling Slowly" -- Oh, that hurt to watch -- the most plodding, uninvolved, lifeless performance of this song I can imagine. The beginning was pitched too low for Kris, and even when he got into a more comfortable register, there was never any energy or spark to it. It was just a limp series of notes.

Lil, "The Rose" -- Lovely voice, and not the slightest idea what she ought to do with it. None of those runs and riffs and melodic alterations worked at all; they were just plugged in because they might sound impressive. It was a taste-free performance.

For the night: Anoop, Danny, Allison, Adam, Matt, Lil, Kris.

For the season: Anoop, Allison, Danny, Kris, Lil, Matt, Adam.

Should go home: Should be Adam, but won't be; either Lil or Matt would be the next best choice.

April 07, 2009

MUSIC: American Idol 09: songs from birth years

It's an early 80s festival tonight (except for Allison, the baby of the group), as the wannabes offer songs from the year they were born. It is a painfully mediocre night of bizarre arrangements and uninteresting performances.

Danny, "Stand By Me" -- That slow opening verse is horrible, and completely disconnected from the up-tempo stuff that follows. And beyond the awful arrangement (which is most certainly not "the Mickey Gilley version," Gilley having been part of the early 80s "urban cowboy" movement), Danny's not in good voice tonight; he sounds pinched and strained. It's one of Danny's worst performances.

(And on that whole Mickey Gilley thing, I don't care if there was a cover version, this is not a song from 1980, and Danny ought not have been allowed to cheat the theme so blatantly.)

Kris, "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" -- Another very odd arrangement, all jazzy drums and brass that don't suit the song at all. Given that, I suppose there's nothing horribly wrong with the performance -- no glaring sour notes or anything -- but I didn't find it very interesting or effective.

Lil, "What's Love Got to Do With It" -- The verse and the bridge are quite nice, understated and relatively subtle. But then we plow into those choruses, and it's all Great Big Sledgehammer Notes (a couple of which are badly out of tune). Lil desperately needs to find a way to turn on the power without turning off the humanity.

Anoop, "True Colors" -- Finally, an arrangement that works reasonably well. But poor Anoop is so busy making soulful goo-goo eyes at us that he's forgetting to sing; his pitch is wobbly, his enunciation is sloppy, and oy, that awful falsetto note at the end! (What is it with the male contestants wanting to show off their weak falsetto registers this year?)

Scott, "The Search Is Over" -- It was bad enough when Scott was doing polite, tepid performances of polite, tepid music, but this? It's not as if Survivor is Led Zeppelin or anything, but the song does demand some edge; we just got more polite and tepid. And his pitch is terrible throughout; I winced when he went into the final chorus, where those high notes were disastrous. Please send him home, America.

Allison, "I Can't Make You Love Me" -- Talk about dumb luck, that the perfect Allison song just happens to come from her birth year. I'm particularly impressed by how smoothly she transitions from her lower register to her upper, and that she doesn't overuse the upper register; other singers we've heard would have insisted on belting an entire chorus.

Matt, "Part Time Lover" -- Well, that was a mess. The goopy slow intro, the odd little interjections of falsetto, the jazz riffs at the end, the unpleasantly nasal tone of Matt's voice throughout -- nothing about that worked. About all I can say for it is that it was minimally better than Scott.

Adam, "Mad World" -- He's gasping frantically for breath between phrases, and his strangled chipmunk upper register is painfully unattractive. And the attack on that final note is wildly out of tune, though he does eventually wrangle the note into place. Even without the technical problems, it's not a very memorable song or performance.

For the night: Allison, Lil, Kris, Anoop, Danny, Adam, Matt, Scott.

For the season: Allison, Kris, Anoop, Danny, Lil, Matt, Adam, Scott.

Deserving the trip home: Scott.

April 05, 2009

MOVIES: Duplicity (Tony Gilroy, 2009)

I am a sucker for movies about double-crosses, con games, and back-stabbing who-do-you-trust mind games, so Duplicity was right up my alley. It's certainly not the best movie of its type, but it's a breezy bit of entertainment.

Clive Owen and Julia Roberts star as Ray and Claire, former government spies (she's ex-CIA; he's ex-MI6) who decide to team up and pull a con of their own in order to make enough money to retire together; their primary obstacle is that despite their love, neither of them can quite get past their professional paranoia to completely trust the other.

The nature of the con is the weakest part of the movie; Ray and Claire get themselves hired by the corporate security departments of competing conglomerates, figuring that they can somehow steal the hot new product which the companies are fighting to bring to market. The scam never really does make sense, and the moment at the end when it's revealed that Character X has really been pulling the strings all along is particularly implausible here. (That's always the hardest part of the story to get past the audience, because the pieces never quite fall into place as neatly as they would have had to.)

The movie's other significant problem is that Julia Roberts is slightly miscast. The thing that makes her such a huge movie star is her rare combination of glamour and accessibility; despite the looks and the charisma, we somehow feel that we know her. We trust Julia Roberts, which makes her not quite the right choice for a movie where no one trusts anyone. It's not a movie-killing flaw, because what Duplicity is mostly about is the fun of watching two glamorous movie stars toss off snappy banter against a series of fabulous international backdrops, and on that level, Roberts is more than adequate. But if you imagine the role played by someone whose sexuality has an edge of danger, a hint of menace (which Owen does bring to his role) -- say, Catherine Zeta-Jones -- you get an idea of how the movie could have been just that much sharper and crisper.

Still, the movie's strengths outweigh its small flaws. Gilroy's writing is clever; there's a nice bit where the same passage of dialogue recurs at least four or five times, and we figure out more about what's really happening each time we hear it. The supporting cast is very good; RIck Worthy and Kathleen Chalfant make strong impressions as members of Owen's corporate security team, Carrie Preston gives a charming, amusing performance as a corporate travel agent who gets caught up in Owen's scheming, and there's typically solid work from Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as the dueling corporate bosses. The international locations look marvelous (Robert Elswit is the cinematographer), and James Newton Howard contributes a score with a lively retro feel.

Granted, I'm predisposed to like this kind of story, and those who aren't fans of such things may enjoy the movie less than I did, but I thought it was a smooth-moving, slick diversion.