May 31, 2010

TV: 100 Questions (NBC, Thu 8:30)

NBC's dumping this sitcom into the summer TV wasteland, suggesting that even they don't expect it to find much of an audience, and they're probably right. But it's not the absolute disaster that might lead you to expect.

The premise is interesting: Each episode begins with Charlotte (Sophie Winkleman) in the office of a dating service, where her "dating counselor" (Michael Benjamin Washington) is giving her the 100-question personality test that will allow them to find her "soulmate." Each question (which is the title of that week's episode) triggers a lengthy answer from Charlotte in the form of a story about her and her friends, and that story makes up the episode, before the final scene returns us to Charlotte and the counselor.

The supporting cast isn't terribly well developed yet, though that's not unusual after only one episode. They are a Friends-esque bunch of attractive 30-somethings. Jill (Colette Wolfe) is the tramp; Leslie (Smith Cho) is slightly ditzy, and a bit insecure about dating after the recent end of a long relationship; Mike (Christopher Moynihan, who also created the show) is the blandest of the group so far; and Wayne (David Walton) is the charming ladies' man. They're a likable group, and they work well together; Cho makes a particularly good impression, and has a nifty way of putting an odd spin on a punchline.

But the writing isn't up to the level of the cast. It's not dismally bad, mind you, just sort of bland and uninspired. And at a time when the sitcom is making a creative resurgence, bland and uninspired aren't going to keep a show around for very long. I'll give the show another week or two in hopes that the writing might somehow improve to the level the cast deserves, but I'm not particularly optimistic.

MOVIES: Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)

Exit Through the Gift Shop starts as one movie before detouring into an entirely different story midway through, and it's entirely possible that the entire things is an elaborate hoax. Whatever is really happening -- and the very definition of words like "really happening" is a large part of what the movie's about -- it's a fascinating, hilarious commentary on the modern art scene.

The movie focuses on the relationship between Banksy and Thierry Guetta. Banksy is England's most famous "street artist," the currently trendy label for practitioners of graffiti and other creative endeavors that sit at the intersection of vandalism and art. Guetta has been following Los Angeles street artists with his videocamera, with vague ideas about making a documentary about the street art scene (despite having no experience or prior interest in filmmaking).

The two men eventually meet, and for a time, Banksy is amused by Guetta's near-obsessive devotion to his project (and to Banksy himself). But eventually, as much to get rid of him as anything, Banksy sends Guetta back to Los Angeles with the suggestion that he should be making art of his own and maybe "put on a little show." And suddenly, we're in an entirely different movie, a cautionary tale about how easily the modern art world can be conned into thinking that it's seeing something important.

Because with a well-timed cover story in an LA newspaper and a few generous quotes from Banksy and his friends, Guetta -- now calling himself "Mister Brainwash" -- is suddenly the toast of the city's art world, and his debut exhibition is drawing enormous crowds. Banksy, meanwhile, looks on in apparent horror at the Frankenstein monster he has helped to create.

Now, all of that would be interesting enough, but there has been much speculation that Guetta isn't exactly who the movie presents him as, and that he may actually be another creation of Banksy (some of the rumors go so far as to suggest that he actually is Banksy, who's never been caught on camera), and that everything we're seeing is simply Banksy's most elaborate art project, an enormous commentary on the role of hype in modern art. Certainly Guetta is almost too colorful a character to be believed -- a French native with giant sideburns, an Inspector Clouseau accent, and an all-too-convenient penchant for carrying his videocamera everywhere (and an even more convenient backstory to explain that quirk).

So are we watching a documentary or a hoax? Is Guetta/Mister Brainwash an artistic discovery, or a participant in a brilliant con game? Either way, the movie's a terrific piece of entertainment, as we watch Guetta and his team of assistants put together a massive art show despite his own incompetence, and listen to Banksy's viciously dry commentary on the increasingly out-of-control whirlwind.

MOVIES: Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, 2000)

After seeing Andersson's You, the Living last fall (a movie that I liked very much), I wanted to go back and see this earlier movie.

They're certainly the work of the same director -- the same visual style, with an unmoving camera; the same bleak, gray city; the same series of vignettes in lieu of plot -- and you'll enjoy (or hate) them both in about the same amount.

If anything, the setting for Songs is even bleaker than that of Living, as Andersson's unnamed gray city is in the grip of an unspecified economic crisis, and people seem to be fleeing the city, causing unbreakable traffic jams in some neighborhoods. We have a protagonist of sorts (though still nothing that really adds up to a plot) -- a furniture salesman who has torched his own store, and struggles to bear up under the steadily increasing weight of daily existence.

It's a comic nightmare in which the apocalypse may not have arrived just yet, but it seems to be just around the corner, and the sense of dread gives us moments that are horrific, hilarious, and poignant, often in the same instant. Imagine a collaboration between Ingmar Bergman and Charlie Chaplin, and you start to get a sense of Andersson's sensibility.

May 26, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: year-end awards

As we head into tonight's 2-hour "goodbye, Simon" festival (and, oh yeah, they'll be naming a winner, too), let's look back at the best and worst of the season. As always, only the singers and performances from the top 12 on are eligible.

Best performance: Crystal, "Up to the Mountain"
Runner-up: Andrew, "Forever"

Worst performance: Tim, "Under My Thumb"
Runner-up: new judge Ellen DeGeneres, who was just as dithering as Paula, nearly as incoherent as Kara, and even more blandly useless than Randy

Voted off too soon: Katie, who was finally coming into her own when she got the ax
Runner-up: Paige, who got laryngitis at just the wrong moment
(And if we were considering non-finalists here, I'd have to mention Alex Lambert, who really did deserve a spot in the top 12)

Lasted too long: Tim, who milked the "such a nice boy" vote for all it was worth
Runner-up: Andrew, whose one bit of shtick wasn't really all that interesting

Most disappointing: Siobhan, who dazzled in the semifinals, then caught up in her own hype and insisted on shrieking her way to a big climax every week

Most pleasant surprise: No winner; there were no pleasant surprises this season

May 25, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: The Final Showdown!

And at last, we've come to the end of a rather lackluster season, and it's hard to muster up any more enthusiasm than to say that Lee and Crystal are the least objectionable of the bunch. Can either of them generate any actual excitement on the final night? Let's find out...

The rundown:

Round One: The singers choose their favorite song from the season.

Lee, "The Boxer" -- It's got a bit more energy than it did the first time around, but that's mostly due to the larger band, I think; Lee's vocal is still rather listless and blah. On the plus side, he's more consistently in tune than usual.

Crystal, "Me and Bobby McGee" -- When 2/3 of your lyrics are "na na na na na," it's hard to do much more than sing a bunch of pretty notes, and Crystal does that, I suppose, but aside from an unexpected little moment of yodel, it's not a terribly interesting performance.

Round One to Crystal, whose "na na na" was at least more energetic than Lee's "lie la lie." Neither one has made much of a case for themself, though.

Round Two: Simon Fuller chooses a song for each contestant.

Lee, "Everybody Hurts" -- Very smart song choice that suits Lee's voice beautifully. And it's a solid performance for the most part. There are a few moments when he's shouting rather than singing, which increases the rasp in his voice to an unpleasant level, but it's certainly a huge improvement over his opening number.

Crystal, "Black Velvet" -- In the final two or three notes, we finally got a hint of the subtlety and the sultriness that would have been much appreciated throughout the song. Instead, Crystal chose to belt the whole damn thing, walloping us upside the head with a Stompy Footed Big Voice holler. Ow.

Round Two to Lee, but mostly because Crystal handed it to him.

Round Three: The first single, and oh joy! We've gotten rid of the annual nightmare that is the Official American Idol Anthem.

Lee, "Beautiful Day" -- Technically, this is his best performance of the night -- he's pretty much on pitch throughout, and the rasp is under control -- but still, there's no real emotional force or passion behind it, and the notes just land there, limp and unexciting.

Crystal, "Up to the Mountain" -- Well, if you're going to pull the season's best performance out of your pocket, I suppose this is the time to do it. That was an absolutely marvelous moment, impeccably controlled and deeply moving.

Round Three to Crystal in a landslide.

For the night: Crystal, on the strength of the final number.

And the winner is: The conventional wisdom over the last couple of weeks seems to have shifted from Crystal to Lee, if only because Lee's thought to be more likely to pick up more of Casey's votes. I don't buy it, though. I think Crystal wins, but it'll be close.

May 24, 2010

BOOKS: Sports From Hell, Rick Reilly (2010)

Sports journalist Rick Reilly sets off on an international quest to find the world's dumbest athletic competition.

Only one major sport makes the cut -- baseball, which Reilly describes as "more boring than Amish porn." Well, two, maybe, depending on whether you consider women's pro football to be a major sport.

But generally, Reilly's targets are more obscure. There's the World Sauna Championship, in which Finns (all of the serious contenders are Finns) compete to see who can sit in a 261-degree room the longest; chess boxing, which alternates rounds of boxing with intervals of chess, the winner being the first to either checkmate or knock out his opponent; and an entire chapter on collegiate drinking games, for which Reilly goes to Las Vegas for the World Series of Beer Pong.

Reilly's tone is breezy and comic, which is generally effective, though there are a few spots where it falls flat. He ends his chapter on the Angola (Louisiana) Prison Rodeo with a few quotes from the father of a young woman who was murdered by one of the rodeo's participants, raising the issue of whether it's appropriate for prisons to be providing this sort of entertainment (with cash prizes, no less) for convicted rapists and murderers, but Reilly's transition to that question is so abrupt, and the time spent on it so brief, that it would probably have been less insensitive to simply ignore the question. And a chapter on nude bicycling begins with a long digression on how difficult it is to be a sports reporter and have to interview (ick) naked men, in which Reilly comes across as rather homophobic. He does a much better job, though, when dealing with the question of lesbianism in women's pro football and how team dynamics are altered when team members are sleeping together (or even worse, when they suddenly aren't any more).

Despite those few brief sour spots, the book is a reasonably amusing look at the varieties of human competition, and if you've ever wanted to pay a brief visit to the world championship of Rock-Paper-Scissors, or watch as grown men drop live ferrets down their pants (while wearing no underwear), this is the book for you.

MOVIES: Just Wright (Sanaa Hamri, 2010)

At a time when the dominant tone in American comedy is that of embarrassment and humiliation, it's a refreshing surprise to see a romantic comedy in which nobody gets punched, nobody trips over anything, and nobody falls face first into a lake or a mud puddle or a pile of pig shit. Just Wright is a simple, low-key story about two nice people falling in love.

Queen Latifah stars as Leslie, a physical therapist who meets Scott McKnight (Common) at a gas station one night. Scott is the star player for the New Jersey Nets. (I am told by friends who are more into sports than I am that the notion of the Nets as a playoff-caliber team is the movie's funniest joke.) Scott only has eyes for Leslie's gold-digging friend, Morgan (a nice comic turn from Paula Patton). But when Scott suffers a career-threatening injury and needs a good physical therapist...well, you can see where this is going.

And it's true that Just Wright isn't a particularly novel or surprisingly movie, but Latifah is so extraordinarily likable that she easily carries you through the movie's weaker moments. Common isn't up to her level as an actor (and he's a good six or seven inches too short to be convincing as an NBA star), but this is a smart choice of role for a rapper making the transition to acting; he's not asked to do much heavy dramatic lifting, he can largely coast on his innate charm, and he's surrounded by a supporting cast (including Pam Grier, Phylicia Rashad, and James Pickens Jr.) who know how to make him look good.

Just Wright isn't an important movie, and it's not going to make anyone's top ten list at the end of the year, but it's a pleasantly understated and well crafted piece of entertainment, and I had fun watching it.

May 18, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Contestants'/Judges' Choice

The rundown:

For round one, the singers choose their own song, and their performances turn out to be crystalizations of the strengths and weaknesses they've shown all season.

Casey, "OK, It's Alright WIth Me" -- Give the guy freedom to pick any song, and he chooses this? At a moment when he really needs to make an impression, he goes with something that's not very challenging, not very exciting, and not very interesting. It is, in fact, Casey in a nutshell: Everything is OK and alright, but rarely is anything any more than that.

Crystal, "Come to My Window" -- A solid performance; Crystal has certainly been the most consistent of the remaining contestants. I can't remember, though, when we've ever had a contestant get this far in the competition whose stylistic range was so narrow. There's a sameness to her performances, and they start to blur together in my mind. I'm rarely disappointed by Crystal, but I'm even more rarely surprised.

Lee, "Simple Man" -- In the quieter moments, this is quite a lovely performance; but when Lee gets loud, his voice takes on an ugly, harsh rasp and his pitch starts to get shaky. He's been an uneven mess of a performer all season, and this gave us both sides of Lee. When he's good, you can imagine him winning this thing in a landslide; when he's bad, you wonder why he wasn't sent home three or four weeks ago.

For round two, the judges choose a song for each contestant.

Casey, "Daughters" -- He needed a terrific performance to have any shot at the finals, and this wasn't it. He was unusually mush-mouthed, mumbling most of the lyrics (maybe he hadn't really learned them yet?), and his unfortunate goat-bleat vibrato reared its head at a few moments.

Crystal, "Maybe I'm Amazed" -- I suppose there's no graceful way to rewrite the "maybe I'm a man" passage, but it does make the song sound a bit odd coming from a woman. Aside from that, most of the song is shouted rather than sung; she doesn't sound so much amazed as she does angry. Not Crystal's best moment.

Lee, "Hallelujah" -- The first verse was lovely indeed, but by the end, Lee was screaming at us, ends of phrases were just dropping away (in both pitch and volume), and I just wanted it to be over.

For the night: Lee (but this is not so much a "best" award as a "least disappointing"), Crystal, Casey.

For the season: Crystal, Lee, Casey.

Let's send home: Casey. And then let's hope that the good Lee turns up for the finals; if he does, it'll be a reasonably competitive night.

BOOKS: Contested Will, James Shapiro (2010)

A slightly different take on the "Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?" controversy.

Shapiro isn't particularly interested in the arguments for or against Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford (though it's clear that he believes Shakespeare really was Shakespeare); instead, he presents a history of the debate.

It was nearly two centuries after Shakespeare's death before the arguments began, and Shapiro suggests that it all started with a 1790 edition of Shakespeare's complete works edited by Edmond Malone, who was one of the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholars of his day. Rather than present the plays by type -- comedies, tragedies, and so on -- as had been the tradition before, Malone attempted to arrange them chronologically, which meant that he needed to figure out the order in which they'd been written. No one had ever attempted that before, and Malone based much of his ordering on his own conjectures about which lines and events in the plays were topical references to historical events. Even more perilously, he attempted to date specific sonnets by cross-referencing the emotional states of the poems' speakers to specific events in Shakespeare's own life.

Once you head down the road of assuming that things in the work are references to Shakespeare's life, Shapiro argues, it's nearly impossible not to take the next step, and assume that everything in the plays must have some grounding in Shakespeare's life and education; and from there, it's a simple step to arguing that Shakespeare couldn't have written X because he didn't know enough about the law (or sailing, or high society, etc., etc.).

From there, Shapiro presents the history of the two major contenders to be the "real" Shakespeare -- Francis Bacon, who dominated the debate in the 19th century (Mark Twain was a Baconian), and the Earl of Oxford, who became the trendy favorite in the early 20th century (Sigmund Freud was a prominent believer in Oxford).

Why does it matter? Ultimately, Shapiro argues, the debate over who wrote Shakespeare is a debate over what we believe literature to be. If we believe (as Twain did, among others) that great literature can only come from the author's personal experience and history, then the claims of Bacon and Oxford are understandably appealing. But in accepting that notion, we deny the power of the human mind to create worlds that never were and to imagine things which it has never known. Believing that Shakespeare the man was incapable of being Shakespeare the poet is a sadly limiting view of humanity, one which denies the existence of genius and creativity.

Shapiro does a fine job of presenting what could be dry literary arguments in a lively style, and I very much enjoyed his overview of the debate.

May 17, 2010

BOOKS: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley (2009)

Reasonably entertaining mystery novel, the biggest flaw of which is its implausible heroine.

Our setting is Buckshaw, an English country estate that is home to the de Luce family. Colonel de Luce is a veteran of World War II (the book is set in 1950), and a widowed father to three daughters. A dead bird is found at the door one summer afternoon, with a postage stamp impaled on its beak; shortly thereafter, the youngest de Luce daughter, 11-year-old Flavia, discovers a man in the garden and witnesses his final breath.

Flavia is our narrator and detective, and if you're thinking that an 11-year-old setting out to solve a murder is a bit of a stretch, well, you're right. It boggles the imagination that no one -- not her father, not her older sisters, not even the policemen investigating the case -- ever tells Flavia to butt out; Flavia's ingenuity and deductive reasoning skills also seem rather far-fetched for a child her age.

But the mystery at the heart of the book is a good one; the plot is well thought-out and the clues are fairly placed (although Bradley has to get a bit Dickensian with some of his character names in order to make certain clues work). The period setting, while not strictly necessary, allows for a few nice details -- one possible suspect might have committed the murder without remembering it, as he suffers from what was then known as "shell shock," which we would now call post-traumatic stress.

I even liked Flavia as a character, for the most part; her sibling rivalry with older sisters Ophelia and Daphne is amusing and believable, and she's an endearing child. But she's just too young to be convincing as the detective in a murder mystery. A second volume in the series was published this year (The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag), and Bradley's storytelling is strong enough that I might pick it up. I hope that he's jumped forward a few years, though; even making Flavia as old as 15 or 16 would go a long way towards making her a more plausible heroine.

May 11, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Movie Music

Jamie Foxx is the mentor for movie night, and his advice usually boils down to "make contact with the audience;" good advice, as far as it goes, but it doesn't address any of the real problems with any of tonight's performances. We also get duets, which are presented as bonus numbers -- no voting phone numbers attached to them -- and they're both more interesting than any of the solo numbers.

The rundown:

Lee, "Kiss from a Rose" -- Lee is the most maddeningly inconsistent of the remaining contestants, so after having seen him do so well last week, I probably shouldn't be surprised that he doesn't quite have it tonight. He's mumbling some of the words badly enough to make me think he doesn't really know them, and his pitch is weak, especially on the more angular phrases ("...did you know / when it snows..."). And some of the falsetto notes are just plain ugly.

Michael, "Will You Be There" -- Not a great song choice, I don't think; more than half of it is call-and-response stuff, which can get an audience excited, but doesn't do much to show off the singer. It doesn't give Michael any chance to build or to go anywhere, and the performance is somewhat lifeless. On the plus side, the first couple of lines are in a lower part of Michael's register than we usually hear, and he sound marvelous down there.

Crystal & Lee, "Falling Slowly" -- The song suits them very well, and I like the slightly harder edge they're giving it. I'm not wild about the way they're breaking up the phrases in the verses, with the two trading off words mid-phrase. They both sound great here, but she's coming off slightly better than he is, mostly because he's still having a few scattered pitch problems.

Casey, "Mrs. Robinson" -- It's very pretty, and I like the scaled-down intimacy. What's missing is any sense of what Casey thinks of the material (or of Mrs. Robinson). The song doesn't require the sarcastic bite of the original -- it could work with a sort of sincere vulnerability -- but there's got to be some discernible attitude there; all Casey is giving us is pretty notes.

Crystal, "I'm Alright" -- The song's an entertaining little piece of fluff, and she's burying it under enough weight to crush "The House of the Rising Sun." The vocals, taken strictly as vocals, are well done, but her interpretation is so insanely disconnected from the song that the performance fails entirely. It doesn't even work as camp.

Michael & Casey, "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman" -- An uneven pairing here, which may be due to the song as much as anything; it suits Casey much better than Michael, and we get one of Casey's better performances from it. The subject matter should work for Michael, and he gives it his all, but the sort of Latin tinge doesn't work terribly well with his voice or inflections.

For the night: Casey, Michael, Lee, Crystal (but "Falling Slowly" was the only real high spot of the night)

For the season: Casey, Michael, Crystal, Lee

Let's send home: It's a very tightly bunched field at this point, but Lee's inconsistency makes him the weakest of the pack.

May 04, 2010

MUSIC: American Idol 2010: Frank Sinatra

Sinatra's music is alien territory for most of the remaining singers, so they can use all the help they can get. And they get more than the usual mentoring from Harry Connick Jr, who not only does the standard sessions with each singer, but writes the arrangements and leads the band as well.

The rundown:

Aaron, "Fly Me to the Moon" -- Pitch is a bit wobbly throughout, but he seems unusually confident, and there's a lot more personality coming through than usual. It's a more grownup performance than his norm, and entertaining despite the flaws.

Casey, "Blue Skies" -- Oh, that didn't work at all. Pitch was consistently bad, and (Connick's opinion notwithstanding) a bluesy vibe with no connection to the lyrics is not enough to sell the piece. It was flat and lifeless, and you could see how badly Casey missed his guitar.

Crystal, "Summer Wind" -- Quite nice. A bit too much gasping between phrases, and the sound mix has the band just a shade too loud, but the singing has a nice swing to it, and it's a sultrier, more seductive side of Crystal than we normally see.

Michael, "The Way You Look Tonight" -- The opening verse is gorgeous; it falls a bit flat once the band kicks in, but it's still a very good performance, sweet and tender. Michael's biggest problem, though, continues to be his enunciation, which is very poor tonight.

Lee, "That's Life" -- Fabulous. Well sung, emotionally real, with just the right amount of swagger and balls. A mile ahead of anyone else tonight.

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

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

Let's send home: It's time for Aaron to go home and let the grownups fight to the finish.

May 02, 2010

MOVIES: 44 Inch Chest (Malcolm Venville, 2009/US 2010)

There's not much to 44 Inch Chest, really. Five guys sit in a room, waiting for one of their group to decide the fate of a sixth. But when the five guys are Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Stephen Dillane, John Hurt, and Tom Wilkinson, you don't really need much more than that to hold my attention.

Winstone's wife (Joanne Whalley) has been cheating on him, and he and his associates have kidnapped her young lover; we spend most of the movie in the dilapidated flat where they encourage a devastated Winstone to take action and do what must be done.

The movie's written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, who also wrote Sexy Beast, so the dialogue is very entertaining. Nearly ever actor gets at least one spectacular speech -- McShane clarifying how his approach to sex and romance differs from Winstone's; Hurt telling the story of Samson and Delilah, illustrated by scenes from the Victor Mature film; Winstone explaining to their prisoner what it takes to make a marriage work -- and the interplay among them is magnificent; they're completely believable as a group of old friends.

There are some fantasy/nightmare sequences that don't quite work, and the last 20 minutes of the movie is a letdown compared to the first hour. But that first hour is so damned good that the movie is absolutely worth catching on DVD or cable.