April 27, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Shania Twain

Country music is often a stumbling block for the Idol wannabes, but going in to the evening, you'd think this batch might be better suited than most to handle the theme; you might point to Michael and Siobhan as potential weak links, but everyone else ought to be able to do reasonably well. Does it work out that way?

The rundown:

Lee, "You're Still the One" -- I am driven to distraction by the way he's breaking up those phrases in the chorus ("You're still the one I dream. Of."), and unfortunately, that's the most interesting thing about the performance. It's tepid, harmless, bland, (insert your own synonym for "dull"), and forgettable.

Michael, "It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing" -- The low notes on those dips in the chorus tend to disappear ("it ONLY hurts WHEN I'M breathing," and so on), but aside from that, this was very nice. Michael does better than anyone in this year's crop at showing vulnerability, and his emotional connection to the material was solid.

Casey, "Don't" -- I don't think we've really heard Casey in this upper part of his register before, and I like the power and the clarity he has there. (There are moments, oddly enough, when I'm strongly reminded of Huey Lewis.) It's a lovely performance, though it could have used a bit more emotional oomph.

Crystal, "No One Needs to Know" -- This is the most chipper bit of pop I think we've gotten from Crystal, and she seems a bit out of her comfort zone; she hasn't lightened the natural darkness in her voice enough to be convincing singing something this perky. It's not an awful performance, and the high notes at the end are beautifully sung; it's just not up to her usual standard.

Aaron, "You've Got a Way" -- He's a talented kid surrounded by talented grownups. Three, four years down the road, he might turn into something special; right now, watching Aaron is like watching the winner of a good high school talent show. The money note at the end was strong, though, and might be enough to save him for one more week. (Plus, he'll pick up a lot of "vote for the nice young boy" votes now that Tim's gone.)

Siobhan, "Any Man of Mine" -- She's on the wrong track right from the start, when she's all pretty and breathy sounding. This song demands a toughness, a core of steel; you have to believe that any man who doesn't live up to her standards is going to be kicked out on his ass, and Siobhan never seems capable of such a thing. Plus, again with the big shrieking notes at the end? Oy.

For the night: Casey, Michael, Crystal, Lee, Aaron, Siobhan.

For the season: Crystal, Casey, Michael, Lee, Aaron, Siobhan.

Let's send home: Siobhan had some good moments early on, but it's been one disappointment after another for weeks now.

April 20, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Inspirational Songs

Alicia Keys is our mentor for the annual night of inspirational songs, and she doesn't inspire much greatness in her pupils. It's as mediocre a night as Idol has ever given us, with only one performance that rises at all above the blandly adequate.

Casey, "Don't Stop" -- Pleasant. Competent. Boring. He desperately needs to find a way to bring some excitement to his performance, to have (as Simon would say) a "moment." He can coast into the top 2 or 3 with this kind of blandness, but it'll take more personality than this to win it.

Lee, "The Boxer" -- The arrangement doesn't quite work, I don't think; it drains the energy out of the song, and shout as hard as he may, Lee doesn't manage to put any back into it. A singer should never seem to be working as hard as Lee is here; it's tiring to watch him.

Tim, "Better Days" -- He's making smarter song choices lately, and finally figuring out that simpler works better for him. But there are a few very sour notes along the way, and he might as well be singing in Esperanto for the lack of emotion in the song.

Aaron, "I Believe I Can Fly" -- He sounds nervous; there's more vibrato than usual, and he's not always in control of it. Not to mention all the notes that start off in tune and drift sharp or flat before they end. Throw in the fact that this is a godawful cheesy nightmare of a song, and it's not a pretty picture.

(Is anyone feeling inspired yet? Yeah, me neither.)

Siobhan, "When You Believe" -- The beginning and end are better than she's been in weeks, as Good Siobhan shows up -- quiet, understated, simple -- but she can't resist the temptation to let Evil Siobhan out for about twenty seconds of ugly bellowing midway through. Still, it's better than anything else we've heard tonight.

(On a side note, "I love the song" needs to be removed from the vocabulary of all would-be Idols. "I love the song" is not a good reason to sing anything. I happen to love the Queen of the Night's Aria from The Magic Flute, but I'm damned sure no one wants to hear me sing it.)

Michael, "Hero" -- This wasn't awful, but it's a bit much of a stylistic stretch for him; he's too mellow to pass for a rocker. He's not helped any by those red lights, which are terribly unflattering.

Crystal, "People Get Ready" -- Very nice performance, and it would have been even with the unnecessary crying theatrics at the end, but that's what will convince people that it was a brilliant performance (which it wasn't).

For the night: Crystal, Siobhan, Michael, Casey, Lee, Tim, Aaron.

For the season: Crystal, Casey, Michael, Aaron, Siobhan, Lee, Tim.

Let's send home: Tim. For the love of whatever deity you hold dear, it must be Tim.

April 19, 2010

MOVIES: The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella, 2009)

Benjamin (Ricardo Darin) is a recently retired attorney who can't shake his obsession with a murder case he was involved in 25 years ago. He's now trying to write a novel based on that case, and the movie jumps back and forth between his original investigation in the mid '70s, and his current attempt to tie up the unsettling loose ends of the case. In parallel, we get the story of Benjamin's relationship with Irene (Soledad Villamil), who had been his boss in the past and is now a good friend; he's always been in love with her, but never had the nerve to do anything about it.

It was a mild surprise when The Secret in Their Eyes won the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, but it really shouldn't have been. It's a solid, old-fashioned bit of storytelling that gives Academy voters everything they like -- an entertaining story, a bit of romance, some droll comic relief, an ending that raises some interesting questions. To be sure, it's less ambitious than fellow nominees A Prophet and The White Ribbon, but what it set out to do, it does very skillfully.

Darin is a terrific leading man, with a droopy, sleepy face vaguely reminiscent of Al Pacino; he does a fine job of making clear how Benjamin's obsession with this case ties in with his own thwarted desires and unfulfilled romantic dreams. There's also an excellent comic turn from Guillermo Francella as one of Benjamin's colleagues, who is both a sharp-eyed investigator and a hopeless drunk.

There's one small subplot that I suspect resonates far more strongly for Argentinian audiences who lived through the Isabel Peron government of the 1970s. For those who (like me) are not up on their Argentinian history, what comes through is that there is government corruption at very high levels, and that the existence of such corruption doesn't really surprise anyone; that is more than enough to drive the plot where it needs to go.

The final half-hour, in which secrets are revealed and confessions are made, drags just a bit, but the revelation of the villain's ultimate fate is a haunting moment that raises questions about how far one man should go for justice when the justice system refuses to provide it.

April 18, 2010

MUSIC: Southwest Chamber Music, April 17

Chamber music isn't really my cup of tea; I've always preferred large forces to small. But after a couple of years when some persistent minor medical problems have kept me from getting out as much as I'd liked, it was nice to go to any concert again, and the ticket was a freebie, so what the heck. And it turned out to be a very entertaining evening of music.

Southwest Chamber Music (SCM) is one of Los Angeles' most respected ensembles, winner of two Grammy awards, and this concert is part of the Ascending Dragon Music Festival, a cultural exchange with Vietnamese musicians and composers, sponsored by the US State Department. SCM spent two weeks in Vietnam last month, performing in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and this weekend began the US part of the festival.

You know you're in for an evening of contemporary music when the elder statesman on the program is Claude Debussy, whose Danse sacree et danse profane opened the program. It's scored for harp and strings (a standard quartet, plus a double bass), and the "sacred" half of the piece is all about textural contrasts -- the strings playing long, slow, unison lines as the harp interjects ringing chords; the contrast between the violins' quickly fading pizzicato and the more resonant plucked notes of the harp -- creating music that feels ancient. The "profane" half is a charming waltz, in which the harp blends into more conventional string ensemble writing, with lusher harmonies and graceful, flowing lines.

We returned to a similar ensemble later in the program for Nugyen Thien Dao's Au dessus du vent (Above the wind), for solo harp and strings. The strings here create an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere of keening microtonal clusters and long, slow glissandos; against that wailing, the harp plays jagged fragments of melody. Harpist Alison Bjorkedal is called on to pluck the strings with something that looks like a giant guitar pick, which creates a much sharper, louder attack than the usual finger plucking; she also sometimes jiggles a metal rod between strings, which produces a buzzing noise like a swarm of angry bumblebees. This was the US premiere of the piece (one of three such premieres on the program), and it's the piece that I would most like to hear again.

The other Vietnamese piece on the program (also a US premiere) was Va Nhat Tan's Pho (Street), a collection of fragments meant evoke the crowded city streets of Vietnam. It was a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting moods -- a rustic dance, honking winds that sounded almost like traffic -- with sections frequently separated by short solo interludes for the dan bau, a traditional Vietnamese instrument.

The dan bau is a single-stringed instrument (here's the best photo I could find of one, at the bottom of the page) with a range of about 3 octaves; it's plucked, and pitch is controlled through careful use of harmonics. It is traditionally an acoustic instrument, but I believe we were hearing an electric dan bau; I can't imagine that an acoustic plucked string would be quite so loud. The tone is piercing and dark, something of a cross between a theremin and a steel guitar. You don't get the long glissandos you'd hear from a theremin, but there is a lot of note bending. And somehow, it makes everything going on around it sound like an excerpt from a Morricone spaghetti western score.

The dan bau returned at the end of the program in Alexandra du Bois' Within Earth, Wood Grows. It's much more a part of the ensemble here than it is in Tan's piece, and it's often used to add unusual color to the traditional Western instruments. There's a lovely passage, for instance, where the ensemble plays above a series of block chords from the piano, with the top note of each chord doubled by the dan bau.

I found du Bois' piece the least interesting of the night, but in fairness, it's been a while since I tried to absorb this much new music in one night, and my ears may have simply been too tuckered to give the piece the full attention it deserved. Certainly there were lovely moments in the piece, and she does have a knack for pairing instruments in unexpected ways.

The program also included Toro Takemitsu's Archipelago S; SCM's director, Jeff von der Schmidt, explained that when he began the discussions that led to this cultural exchange program, his Vietnamese counterpart specifically asked that Takemitsu be included somewhere, as he is Asia's most important composer. The piece is scored for three on-stage groups of instruments and two solo clarinets in the balcony on either side of the hall; they represent, Takemitsu says, five islands which he imagines calling to one another across great distances. Unfortunately, the stage at the Colburn School's Zipper Hall is not quite large enough to allow for much spatial or sonic separation of the three groups, and so the sounds aren't quite as differentiated as I think they're supposed to be; everything just seems to be coming from the same place.

The performances were excellent throughout, with particularly fine work in the Debussy and Dao pieces. There are two more weekends of performances in the Ascending Dragon festival (schedule and program information here), and I would recommend them if your tastes include any combination of chamber, modern, or Asian music.

April 13, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Elvis

Adam Lambert is our mentor for Elvis night, and somewhat to my surprise, he is making more of an effort than many mentors to offer constructive criticism. Most of his advice, however, takes one of two forms -- be more dramatic and find some way to change the song -- advice which boils down to "be more like me." What we wind up with is a rather tepid night, with no real disasters but a lot of mediocrity, and the best performances coming from unexpected quarters.

Crystal, "Saved" -- We haven't heard much up-tepo from Crystal, and it proves to be a weak spot, as her enunciation is incredibly sloppy and lazy. The attitude is fine, but above all else, singing is about communication, and you don't communicate anything if you can't be understood.

Andrew, "Hound Dog" -- At his best, there's a gentle breathiness to Andrew's voice that's quite appealing, but it doesn't work well with this kind of angry scolding song. He knows that, I think, and he's working very hard to put more force and power into his volume, but it's sounding painfully forced and unnatural.

Tim, "Can't Help Falling in Love" -- There were some pretty moments, and this was far better than his usual. But the pitch was erratic, and what should have been lovely long phrases were chopped to bits because he can't sustain the phrases ("falling in love GASP with GASP you").

Lee, "A Little Less Conversation" -- It's too close to shouting instead of singing, and it never gathers much energy. Lee also has a bad tendency to pull away from the mike before a phrase is over. It's a sleepy, bland performance, too lethargic to be interesting.

Aaron, "Blue Suede Shoes" -- That's the first time I've believed that there was a grownup lurking in there somewhere. It was fun and playful, and it's the first performance tonight to come anywhere near the right swaggering attitude.

Siobhan, "Suspicious Minds" -- The opening is far too pretty and silky, with none of the tension and paranoia the song demands; the ending is, as usual for Siobhan, all about big, flashy notes instead of anything that might actually be in the lyrics. She's rapidly becoming one of the biggest disappointments in Idol history.

Michael, 'In the Ghetto" -- It's lovely singing, but he's taking it with such rhythmic freedom that it never develops any momentum; it just seems to stop and start with no particular logic. And that last little bit of melisma is horribly overdone.

Katie, "Baby, What You Want Me to Do" -- Fabulous. That throatiness really works for her on a song like this, and she's selling the hell out of it. By far her best performance, sassy and exciting.

Casey, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" -- OK, but not memorable. Very much in the Joe BarBand thing that Casey is prone to falling into, with no spark of personality to take it beyond the competent.

For the night: Katie, Aaron, Tim, Michael, Crystal, Casey, Andrew, Lee, Siobhan

For the season: Crystal, Casey, Michael, Andrew, Katie, Aaron, Lee, Siobhan, Tim

Let's send home: Well, despite his relatively good performance tonight, Tim, of course; that goes without saying at this point. And though she started the season so well, I must sadly conclude that Siobhan has emptied her limited bag of tricks.

April 08, 2010

BOOKS: The Spellmans Strike Again, Lisa Lutz (2010)

Fourth, and (sadly) final, volume in the Spellman series.

I commented on the first two volumes (here and here), and have essentially the same reaction to this one. Lutz's characters, a family of private eyes, are delightful, and Izzy is a lively and entertaining narrator; the plotting is thin at best, serving as little more than a lightweight framework for the amusing anecdotes and conversations among the family members and their friends; and overall, the strength of the digressions outweighs the weakness in the plotting.

Among the story threads weaving through this one: Isabel's attempt to bring down a rival PI; a missing persons case that requires one of Isabel's actor friends to go undercover as a valet; Mom's blackmail of Izzy in an attempt to get her to dump her Irish bartender boyfriend; and teenage Rae's legal volunteer work on behalf of a man who may have been wrongly imprisoned.

The supporting characters are also as much fun as ever. The bizarre sort-of-a-triangle relationship among Izzy, Rae, and their cop friend Henry takes some unusual turns; Izzy's elderly friend, Morty, continues to offer advice and criticism, despite having moved to Florida; and Izzy's actor friends, a gay couple, find themselves unusually stressed out when one of them takes his undercover valet role a bit too seriously.

It's the final volume in the series, so a lot of ongoing relationships are neatly tied up; by the end of the book, all of the Spellman kids are romantically happy, at least for the time being. I think the series could have gone on for a few more volumes without getting stale, and I hope that Lutz might return to the Spellmans someday, perhaps to tell stories from other family members' point of view. Imagine a sequel about Rae's first year of college, or a flashback to the days when Mom and Dad were more actively working as investigators themselves, while trying to raise three difficult children.

But at least we have these four books, and even if the plotting isn't as elegant or as tight as I'd like, the Spellmans are a charming family, and I've enjoyed spending time with them.

April 06, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Lennon/McCartney

The Lennon/McCartney songbook gives us a pretty good night, where even the bad performances are bad in more interesting ways than usual. Plus: Bagpipes! and a didgeridoo! I'd argue that the reason we got better performances this week than we did on (for instance) Rolling Stones night is simply that these are much better songs, and it's much easier to give a good perfomance when you've got good material.

The rundown:

Aaron, "The Long and Winding Road" -- A few pitch problems, and his voice seems a bit rough tonight; the last note has an odd rasp to it, as if he's got a frog in his throat. The stateliness of the song doesn't suit him well, either, and the whole thing drags a bit.

Katie, "Let It Be" -- Very nice surprise. Quiet and understated, and when she does build, she resists the temptation to get bigger than her voice can handle. It's a carefully controlled performance, and it's by far her best of the season.

Andrew, "Can't Buy Me Love" -- His voice and persona are so laid-back that when he tries to rock, even as mildly as this, it feels awkward; it's like seeing a toddler in a leather jacket. No glaring technical flaws, but not a good match of singer and style.

Michael, "Eleanor Rigby" -- Way too overwrought for my taste, and the vocal didn't work well with the arrangement. He's got a powerful voice, and that certainly came through, but he heaped more drama on the song that it can hold.

(On a side note, we have got to get rid of this backstage camera and interview nonsense. Let the singers have a few moments to themselves after they perform, for god's sake.)

Crystal, "Come Together" -- A lot of syllables are getting lost when she turns her head away from the mike; that's less of a problem than it might be with another song, because 90% of these lyrics are gibberish, anyway. And that makes this a pretty crappy song choice, because it doesn't give the singer much to do, and by golly, "not much" is precisely what Crystal does with it. Blah.

Tim, "All My Loving" -- It's as good as he's ever been -- pleasant and competently sung -- and it's still duller than a broken pencil. He's entirely devoid of charisma, and though he's pretty to look at, there's nothing that makes you want to hear any more of him.

Casey, "Jealous Guy" -- I love the simplicity of the arrangement, and the song suits him beautifully. There are a couple of times that his vibrato gets a bit too wobbly when he really belts a note, but on the whole, this is a marvelous performance.

Siobhan, "Across the Universe" -- Well, it was very pretty singing, aside from that one unnecessary note of yelling near the end. But it was so somber and weighty, as if she were singing German art songs. Very odd performance and arrangement that didn't really work.

Lee, "Hey Jude" -- Let's just ignore the bagpipes for a moment, shall we? Lee is falling back into his old tendency to push a bit harder than he should, which turns the rasp in his voice into something very harsh and unpleasant. So it's not a great performance to begin with, and then out come the bagpipes, which send the whole thing careening into a horrible pit of godawfulness.

For the night: Casey, Katie, Andrew, Crystal, Aaron, Michael, Siobhan, Tim, Lee

For the season: Crystal (but her lead is dwindling with every passing week), Casey, Michael, Andrew, Siobhan, Katie, Aaron, Lee, Tim

Let's send home: Tim has deserved to go home for the last few weeks, but if you wanted to argue that a performance as horrific as Lee's must be punished, I'd be hard pressed to argue with you.

April 05, 2010

MOVIES: The Eclipse (Conor McPherson, 2010)

Michael (Ciaran Hinds) is a widower living in a small Irish town, still struggling to adapt to life without his wife. He's volunteering, as he always does, for the town's annual literary festival -- running errands, shuttling authors from hotel to convention room to banquet, and so on -- when he meets Lena (Iben Hjejle), who writes about ghosts.

This is an odd coincidence, because Michael thinks he might have been seeing a ghost lately; oddly enough, it is not his wife who's presence he's sensing. Michael and Lena spend time together; he gives her a tour of local attractions, and they strike up a close friendship.

And well... that's about it. The Eclipse winds up an uneasy mix of ghost story and character study, with not quite enough good scares to make a good ghost story and too many of them to let you get deeply involved in the characters. Hinds and Hjejle are both fine, and Aidan Quinn has a nice comic supporting role as a pretentious American author who expects everyone's attention (expecially Lena's) to be on him at all times, but the movie never quite decides what it wants to be, and is therefore vaguely unsatisfying on all fronts.

April 04, 2010

MOVIES: The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey, 2009)

Last year's most surprising Oscar nominee finally gets a full-fledged release, and while the story is a bit on the dull side, the animation is gorgeous, and well worth seeing in a theater.

The story is that of the Book of Kells, the legendary Irish illuminated manuscript -- that is, a book from the days before printing presses, when each page had to be painstakingly lettered and illustrated by hand by talented calligraphers and artists. Our hero is Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), who will eventually be the artist who completes the Book of Kells. But when we meet him, he's just a boy, living at the abbey run by his uncle, the Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), a stern man who is obsessed with fortifying the abbey against the expected attack of the Norsemen. Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives at the abbey from Iona, recently destroyed in a Norse attack, and he carries with him the Book of Iona, which will become the Book of Kells. The other major character is the fairy Aisling (Christen Mooney), who will be Brendan's guide and protector during his forbidden journeys into the forest to gather dye-making supplies for Aidan.

The story never takes off in an interesting way, so the interest here is all in the visuals; fortunately, they are spectacular. There is, of course, a heavy influence from Irish and Celtic art. Look at a snowy battle scene, for instance, where the snowflakes are not the six-pointed crystals we're used to; instead, they are a flurry of various miniature Celtic knots. There's also, I think, the influence of Japanese woodcuts, most obviously in the movement of waves during some brief ocean scenes, but more generally in the way that foreground and background layers interact.

I'd also be willing to bet that the directors are fans of Genndy Tartakovsky's work; I see a lot of his TV series Samurai Jack in the way these relatively flat and angular characters move, and in the way that bad guys are often first seen (or only seen) as looming shadows.

There are beautiful details scattered throughout -- the play of dappled light on Brendan's cloak as he strolls through the forest on a sunny afternoon; the glowing red eyes in the mist that reveal themselves as a menacing pack of wolves; the fluidity of Aisling's long white hair, which serves to emphasize her otherworldliness. The color scheme is dominated by bright greens and earthy browns, which makes the vivid red and white of that snowy battle even more striking.

It's easy to see why the animators who nominated The Secret of Kells were so impressed; it's gorgeous hand-drawn animation with a distinctive style that you'd never mistake for Disney. It's also easy to see why the movie wound up an also-ran in the competition; its flat story keeps from being as rewarding or complete an experience as Up or Coraline, which were the cream of last year's animated crop. Despite that flaw, the look of the movie is so striking and memorable that I'd recommend the movie to any fan of animation.

TV: Miami Medical (CBS, Fri 10)

Trauma surgeons, says nurse Tuck Brody (Omar Gooding), are the rock stars of medicine, and the trauma surgeons of Miami Medical are the Rolling Stones. A Stones concert is a better analogy for the show than he realizes, I'm afraid: There's undeniably a great deal of talent involved, but you're not going to see anything you wouldn't have seen twenty years ago.

Take, for instance, the standard lineup of doctors we're given. Matt Proctor (Jeremy Northam) is the dashing Brit who heads the team; he's a Gulf War vet who's given up a lucrative private practice to do trauma work. Chris "Dr. C" Deleo (Mike Vogel) is the young, slightly reckless hunk who lives for the thrill of high-risk surgery. Eva Zambrano (Lana Parrilla) is the workaholic, and Serena Warren (Elisabeth Harnois) is fresh out of med school, and trying not to crack under the pressure. And that pressure can overwhelm you at any time, as we learn in the first five minutes, when team leader William Rayner (guest star Andre Braugher) breaks down and walks out of the hospital, stripping off all his clothes as he goes.

The patients in the first episode are also fairly standard issue. The team is dealing with the fallout from a gas explosion -- trying to save a pregnant woman and her unborn child, fighting to keep a burn victim alive long enough for a farewell visit from his fiancee, reattaching the severed hand of a man who saved a little girl. The resolution of the burn victim's story is slightly novel, with a high-tech twist we wouldn't have seen in previous decades, but aside from that, there's not a surprising moment to be found here.

The actors are likable, and the show zips along without giving you too much time to reflect on the worst bits of dialogue. But it all feels terribly familiar; even the quick shots of sunny Miami that introduce each act feel borrowed from Burn Notice. The folks who have the most to celebrate with the arrival of Miami Medical, I suspect, are the cast and crew of Numbers, whose chances for another season in this Friday night time slot just went way up, because this show certainly isn't going to last long enough to take its place.