May 24, 2012

BOOKS: How to Sharpen Pencils, David Rees (2012)

David Rees is best known for his clip-art comic Get Your War On. But when he's not busy cut-and-pasting, he has a sideline business as an artisanal pencil sharpener. This is not a joke; send him a #2 pencil and $12.50, and he will personally sharpen your pencil and return it to you. That makes him the obvious choice to write the much-needed manual How to Sharpen Pencils, which is precisely as its subtitle advertises, "A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening."

Now, you might think that pencil sharpening is a trivial topic, requiring no more than a brief pamphlet to cover in depth. But O, my friend, you would be wrong! Rees's manual is roughly 200 pages long, and every page is filled with valuable information. There are chapters devoted to the many methods of sharpening --pocketknife, pocket sharpener, hand-crank sharpeners (both single and double burr), electric sharpener (this chapter is particularly entertaining). Rees also covers important ancillary topics, with chapters on mechanical pencils, the psychology of pencil sharpening, and sharpening for children. From the psychology chapter comes this useful tip on "the live pencil-sharpening experience":
Any professional pencil sharpener worth his or her salt will have road stories about hecklers and unforgiving customers who seem incapable of accepting that every pencil is different, and some will carry scooped collars or other irregularities to their grave. We must not be discouraged by obnoxious reactions to our craft; instead, record any wounding taunts or sarcastic remarks in your log along with a physical description of their authors. Then commission a comedian or bartender to compose witty responses and mail them to the offending party.

Rees has given us a book that is simultaneously the practical how-to guide it claims to be -- you really will learn all you need to know about pencil sharpening -- and an extraordinary parody of such guides. It's a masterful study in tone, 200 pages of impeccably controlled straight-faced strangeness, growing ever more absurd so gradually you barely notice it, until you're more than ready for a final chapter on "How to Sharpen a Pencil With Your Mind."

May 23, 2012

MOVIES: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, 2012)

Here we have a piece of absolute formula, elevated to watchability by a terrific cast of veteran British actors.

A group of older Brits (among them Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Maggie Smith, and Penelope Wilton) decide to spend their retirement at the titular hotel in Jaipur, India, which is advertised as a spectacular retirement resort for the "elderly and beautiful." It turns out to be rather a dump, badly mismanaged by a young man with more dreams than sense (Dev Patel).

India turns out to be more of a culture shock than they had expected, and they struggle to varying degrees to adapt to the noise, crowds, smells, and food. But in the end, India changes them all (as you surely knew it would), and they find ways to adapt and enjoy their new circumstances. Even the idiot manager finds a way to make a success of his business.

The British cast is top-notch, and their performances are the only reason to see the movie. (Dev Patel? Not so much, and all of his subplots are tedious bores that bring the movie screeching to a halt.)

If you're a fan of any of these actors, and you can't find anything else you're excited about at the multiplex, this will keep you mildly amused for a couple of hours. But you won't be missing anything if you wait for cable or DVD.

And a final comment on one particular plot point, which you may skip if you like, since it's mildly spoiler-y:

May 22, 2012

MUSIC: American Idol 2012: The Finale!

And so it comes down to Phillip and Jessica, neither of whom deserves to win the season (that would be Joshua). I'd go so far as to argue that neither of them deserves to be in the finals at all (I'd happily take Skylar as a more deserving runner-up).

But Phillip and Jessica are what we've got, and as we head into the final night, it seems likely that Phillip is going to complete his march to the title, because Idol voters can't bring themselves to vote for anyone other than a nonthreateningly cute white guy with a guitar. (Not to mention that Phillip is from the south, and southerners have an even better Idol track record than WGWGs.)

Let's see if there are any surprises waiting for us. Perhaps Jessica will discover an emotional core. Perhaps Phillip will complete his slow journey to finding a voice of his own. Perhaps the greatest miracle of all will happen, and an Idol coronation anthem will be a decent song!

The rundown:

Round One: Simon Fuller's choice

Jessica, "I Have Nothing" -- It's a very good Jessica performance -- technically flawless, but lacking in emotional life. It's a smart choice on Fuller's part, because the song itself is well enough written and structured -- big notes in the right spots, crescendos at the right moments -- that any skillful performance is going to carry a certain emotional force whether the singer provides it or not. But in the hands of a great singer, it's a heartbreaker, and as Jessica delivers it, it's not. (And "a great singer" doesn't have to mean Whitney. Chris Colfer gave a more moving performance of the song on Glee a few weeks back.)

Phillip, "Stand By Me" -- It's pleasant enough, but there's something lazy about it -- the sliding in and out of notes instead of hitting pitches square on and sustaining them; phrasing that seems entirely unconcerned with where the beat actually is; the energy level that's so far beyond laid-back it borders on narcolepsy. The song isn't as simple as it looks, and for me, it works best when it's more precise and less sloppy.

Round One goes to Jessica, but not by an overwhelming margin.

Round Two: Singer's favorite performance

Jessica, "The Prayer" -- Especially in the lower register at the beginning of the song, Jessica's enunciation is unusually weak here, which makes it even harder than usual to hear the performance as anything more than a series of very pretty notes. And some of them, to be honest, aren't that pretty; there are a couple of high notes at the very end (on "place" and "grace") that are rather shrill. Not one of her stronger moments.

Phillip, "Movin' Out" -- I didn't care for this version of the song the first time we heard it, and it hasn't grown on me any. Even by Phillip's standards, the melodic and rhythmic liberties he's taking are so extreme that it's barely recognizable as the same song; it's as if he's just borrowed the Billy Joel lyrics and set them to music of his own. (If it weren't for the lady playing the soprano sax riff, it would be entirely unrecognizable.)

Round Two goes to Jessica, but she doesn't win it so much as Phillip hands it to her on a silver platter.

Round Three: Coronation anthem

Jessica, "Change Nothing" -- Not much of a song, but the performance is very nice, for the most part, though a few of the lyrics are lost in the first few lines. It shows off the other challenge of being a 16-year-old with a huge voice, though. When Jessica tries to sing songs that are as mature as her voice, she doesn't have the experience or the skill to pull them off emotionally, but when she's given a younger-feeling teen love song like this, her voice feels too big for it. The song would be more suited to a diva with a smaller voice -- Taylor Swift, maybe. It's an awkward period in the development of certain singers (and one more reason that Idol really should bump the minimum age back up to at least 18).

Phillip, "Home" -- That may have been the best song any Idol finalist has ever been handed on finale night, and it's perfectly suited to Phillip's style. His weird little tics are almost entirely gone, and he's just singing. It's simple, clean, quiet singing, and it's absolutely lovely. It is, by a mile, the best performance he's given this season, and if there were any doubt that he's going to win, that wiped it out.

Round Three to Phillip by a landslide.

Which means the night goes to Phillip. And since Jessica was going to overcome the structural disadvantage of being a girl from California going up against a cute southern boy only by smashing his face into the ground (musically speaking), that means Phillip is going to win tomorrow night, and it's not even going to be close. 

MUSIC: American Idol 2012: year-end awards

With the finals coming up tonight, it's time for the annual look back at the best and worst of the season. As always, only performances from the top 13 on are considered -- nothing from the various audition rounds or the semi-finals.

Best performance: Joshua, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"
Runner-up: Jessica, "I Will Always Love You"

Worst performance: Phillip, "U Got It Bad"
Runner-up: Joshua, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"

Voted off too soon: Joshua
Runner-up: Erika

Lasted too long: Phillip
Runner-up: Heejun

Most disappointing: Hollie. Even granted that I was somewhat overenthusiastic about her performance on Whitney night, she still took a large leap backward after that first week, and never really found her confidence or her footing again.

Most pleasant surprise: Skylar. She was never terrible, but she improved steadily throughout the season (particularly in the area of enunciation), and delivered some marvelous performances along the way. She'd have been a worthy finalist.

BOOKS: The Comedy Is Finished, Donald E. Westlake (2012)

I am not normally a fan of books that arrive after the author's death, heavily promoted as "the great lost novel." In my experience, if an author didn't publish the book while they were alive, it was because he recognized that it wasn't worth publishing, and its arrival now is simply the widow/estate trying to cash in.

But Donald E. Westlake always struck me as an author with more than his share of integrity, so despite the dreaded "great lost novel" bit, I picked up The Comedy Is Finished. And while it's not Westlake at his best, it's not bad.

There's a brief note at the beginning explaining that the book was written in the early 80s, and Westlake decided not to publish it because Scorsese's King of Comedy had just been released, and the two coincidentally share a central plot point. After Westlake's death, a friend who had been given a copy of the manuscript dug it out, and arrangements were made with Westlake's literary estate to publish the book.

The common plot point is the kidnapping of a veteran comedian, though Westlake and Scorsese do very different things with the idea. Westlake's novel is set in 1977, and his central character is Koo Davis, who got his start in radio, had a mildly successful movie career in the 40s, and is generally thought of as a national treasure, in no small part because of his tireless work with the USO. (Bob Hope is the obvious inspiration, though the two men share nothing beyond that broad career outline and a vaudevillian's sense of humor.)

Davis is kidnapped by five leftover 60s radicals calling themselves the People's Revolutionary Army. They aren't very good at crime, unfortunately, which only makes the situation even more frightening for Koo. It would be one thing to be kidnapped by a band of disciplined, skilled thugs; but these people are constantly bickering, making stupid mistakes, and arguing about whether or not they should just kill him now and get it over with.

Westlake was a master at the details of criminal plots, and at coming up with ingenious ways for everything to slowly go wrong, both for the criminals and (occasionally) for the cops. His characters aren't stupid, but like most of us, they don't always think through things as thoroughly as they should. The suspense builds beautifully, and the fact that we're seeing both sides of events -- the cops and the FBI trying to figure out where Koo is, and the kidnappers trying to hold it together -- only increases the tension.

This is minor Westlake, certainly, and a bit dated in spots, but even minor Westlake is still pretty entertaining stuff.

May 17, 2012

MOVIES: The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)

For two-thirds of the way, The Avengers is an unusually entertaining comic-book movie. Writer/director Joss Whedon has always had a knack for writing about groups of misfits forced to work together, and the part of the movie in which the team is assembled works the best.

The characters aren't deep, but most of the actors bring just the right energy to them -- Chris Evans' square-jawed wholesomeness as Captain America, Robert Downey's arrogance as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth's ability to deliver Thor's pompous, archaic dialogue with a straight face.

And in the first half of the movie, when most of the action scenes are fights among the Avengers, the personality clashes work very well. But then the invading alien army shows up, and the last act is the standard loud, frantic, blow-it-up-real-good action movie, which I found significantly less interesting (though even this part of the movie is somewhat better than the standard for the genre).

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow aren't given as much to do, and their characters aren't as well-developed. But the most problematic character is the Hulk, and for all the reasons that the Hulk has always been a problem.

Mark Ruffalo's performance as Bruce Banner is quite good, but the movie tries to have it both ways on whether or not the appearance of the Hulk is volitional or not. For most of the movie, we're told that the transformation into the Hulk is something that happens to Banner, and that anyone in the room at the time is going to be the victim of the Hulk's undirected rage. But then the final battle arrives, and suddenly Banner is in control of the transformation and the Hulk is channelling his anger towards specifically chosen targets.

Worth seeing for the first two acts, when the movie is a banter-y bit of character comedy disguised as a superhero flick, even though the movie falls closer to the ordinary when it finally becomes a superhero flick.

May 16, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: Judge's choice / Idol's choice / Jimmy's choice

It's the traditional final three "choice" night. It's not quite as much fun with Jimmy Iovine as it used to be with the Dessicated Corpse of Clive Davis, but this is often one of the best nights of the year, as the would-be Idols have to submit to the choices of people with actual experience in the industry. Tonight is also the night for hometown visits, which shows Idol at its most sappily sentimental. Let's hope the performances outweigh the sap.
The rundown:

Round One -- Judge's choice:

Joshua, "I'd Rather Go Blind" -- Marvelous. The style is right; the technique is impeccable; the emotion comes through loud and clear. Most important, it never feels like work. And because he's having fun, so are we.

Jessica, "My All" -- A lot of little technique problems. The low notes are hard to hear, and what we can hear, we can't understand. She doesn't have the breath control to get through the long phrases, or enough experience to avoid gasping into the mike. When she's this quiet, her upper register gets slightly pinched. Even worse, she looks scared and stiff, which only emphasizes her tendency to seem robotic and emotionless.

Phillip, "Beggin'" -- The song is so intensely uninteresting that it's hard to feel like there's anything to judge. Yeah, I guess it was in tune, and it was less affected than Phillip can be at his worst. But he brought nothing interesting, memorable, or distinctive to the performance. It was elevator music.

For Round One: Joshua, Jessica, Phillip.

Round Two -- Idol's choice:

Joshua, "Imagine" -- I like the relative restraint of it; there's enough ornamention and R&B frills that it's recognizable as a Joshua performance, but they never get in the way of the song's message. It's not as thrilling as Joshua can be when he's truly in his wheelhouse, but it's entertaining, believable, and sincere.

Jessica, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" -- When she can belt, she sounds fine (though the big note at the end was uncharacteristically wobbly); when she tries for quiet, restraint, or subtlety, she's less effective. And even at her best, there's something plastic and Miss California about it, a wall that keeps her emotions locked away where we can't see them.

Phillip, "Disease" -- That was as good as Phillip's been all season. In the last two or three weeks, he's finally finding a voice that feels like his, instead of something he stole from an asthmatic blues singer. This was comfortable and relaxed; at his best, Phillip's advantage over the other two (aside from being another White Guy With a Guitar) is that he feels the most contemporary.

For Round Two: Phillip, Joshua, Jessica.

Round Three -- Jimmy's choice:

Joshua, "No More Drama" -- And here we see why Joshua sticks to the classics: They've got substance that this song doesn't. When you go crazy at the end of "Man's World," you've already built something that can stand up to that level of decorative singing; doing the same thing to this song is like piling the ornaments from the Rockefeller Plaza tree onto Charlie Brown's sorry twig. The performance is fine; it feels a little hollow only because the song isn't that good. (And is that piano part borrowed from "Nadia's Theme," or is that my imagination?)

Jessica, "I'll Be There" -- Very smart choice from Jimmy. The youth and innocence of this song suit her so much better than the Grand Diva stuff she chooses for herself, and most of the song lies right in her sweet spot. The B section -- "I'll be there to comfort you" -- is pitched lower, and her voice takes on a heaviness that doesn't quite suit the song. She's more restrained than usual, and that simplicity works for her. I liked this very much.

Phillip, "We've Got Tonight" -- That didn't quite work. I've gotten so used to Phillip's quirky phrasing and melodic liberties that when he actually sings a song in a more straightforward manner, it feels terribly stiff and (to conjure up the ghost of Simon Cowell) karaoke. He seems nervous and uncomfortable without his guitar, and has no idea what to do with his left hand. The song is well suited to his voice, and I suspect that if he'd had more time to learn it, we would have gotten something interesting, but this fell flat.

For Round Three: Jessica, Joshua, Phillip.

For the night: Joshua, Jessica, Phillip.

For the season: Joshua, Jessica, Phillip.

Let's send home: It should be Phillip. I will be mildly disappointed, but not terribly surprised, if it's Jessica. I will be extremely disappointed if it's Joshua.

May 09, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: California Dreaming / Songs We Wish We Wrote

Another pair of vague open-ended themes. It seems to me that the themes have been less restrictive this year; there've been a pair of specific artist nights (Whitney/Stevie, Billy Joel), but none of the genre nights we used to get. Theoretically, I suppose that allows everyone to be at their best each week, but I don't think the number of great performances has been any higher, or the number of disasters any lower. Bring back disco and country and showtunes!


Phillip, "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" -- Aside from some quirky phrasing on "comin' down on a sunny day," this is less affected than Phillip has ever been, and it's a smart song choice, since his tone is in the same ballpark as Fogerty's. And when you get rid of the smirk and the overly bluesy inflections, he's a mildly pleasant singer. He's not much more than that, but even that is an improvement over what he's been for most of the season.

Hollie, "Faithfully" -- This is a song about being on the road too long, struggling with the stress that separation puts on a relationship. It takes a certain amount of life experience, of world-weariness, to understand what that's like, and Hollie doesn't convey any of that. The notes are pretty enough, but that's all they are -- a long series of pretty notes, with no emotional significance or meaning. She might as well be singing about potato chips.

Joshua, "You Raise Me Up" -- The stylistic conversion from Groban's bland pop works very well; it's as if the song had always been waiting for an organ and a gospel choir. Joshua's performance is, as always, technically impeccable and entertaining. I fear that he's falling into a stylistic rut, though, and I think he needs to do something wildly unexpected.

Jessica, "Steal Away" -- Sultry and raspy aren't Jessica's strengths. The pop up to head voice (on the word "late") never quite gets all the way up to pitch. And while I wouldn't argue that Jessica should be restricted to songs about puppies and rainbows, there is something unnerving and creepy about this performance coming from a 16-year-old; if nothing else, it'll lock up the dirty old man vote.

For Round One: Joshua, Phillip, Jessica, Hollie.


Phillip, "Volcano" -- I feel like we're finally starting to see who Phillip really is as a singer behind all those layers of shtick he hides behind. This is really nice. I appreciate the fact that he's not oversinging, and is willing to trust the song to stand on its own without having to work so hard to sell it. I still don't think he's a particularly interesting singer, but I can at least begin to understand what the judges might have seen in him.

Hollie, "I Can't Make You Love Me" -- How dull was that performance? So dull that I was more interested in the set (What was up with that runway of vaguely satanic yellow lights?). There was nothing there. Low notes were inaudible, and the song had the emotional life of tofu. (Which, for the record, is even more boring than potato chips.)

Joshua, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" -- When he's spitting out the words through clenched teeth ("but it wouldn't mean nothing"), I'm literally giggling at how much fun this is. I'm still curious to know what he can do outside the classic R&B groove, but when he's on, watching him work within that groove is an absolute delight. (And I like the touch of the all-female band.)

Jessica, "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" -- Her technique is truly formidable. So is her preparation; she's listened to enough great singers that she knows how to use that technique to deliver a spectacular simulation of anger and passion and fear of abandonment. And when she learns how to make those emotions real, instead of merely lifelike, she will have people tearing their hearts out with this song, instead of just marveling at her breath control and precise timing.

For Round Two: Joshua, Jessica, Phillip, Hollie

For the night: Joshua, Jessica, Phillip, Hollie

For the season: Joshua, Jessica, Hollie, Phillip

Let's send home: Even after his best night of the season, I still think Phillip's a step behind the rest of the pack, but Hollie's blandness is likely to end her run.

May 05, 2012

BOOKS: The Rook, Daniel O'Malley (2012)

We open on a woman waking in a London park. She's surrounded by dead bodies, all wearing latex gloves, and she can't remember who she is or how she got there. Fortunately, she finds in her coat pocket a letter from her pre-amnesia self, which answers some of her questions. She is (the letter explains) Myfanwy Thomas, and she is a Rook, a high-ranking official in the Chequy, the secret spy organization tasked with protecting the British Empire from supernatural threats. And someone in the Chequy is trying to kill her.

From that premise, O'Malley spins a delightful comic thriller that reads like Douglas Adams' version of a James Bond novel (with just a touch of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure).

To avoid the potential confusion of a story involving two versions of the same person, O'Malley quickly establishes the convention that "Thomas" is the pre-amnesia operative and "Myfanwy" is our post-amnesia protagonist. Thomas, having been pre-warned by several psychics that she would be having her memory wiped, has left a series of letters and dossiers to give Myfanwy the information she will need to find the traitor.

And there are lots of colorful suspects to choose from, as you'd expect in an organization dominated by those with assorted strange powers. Might the culprit be Lady Farrier, an aristocrat who visits Myfanwy's dreams for night-time conferences? Her fellow Rook, Gestalt, a person whose mind is shared by four bodies? What about the disconcertingly agile Chevalier Gubbins?

The horrors Myfanwy and the Chequy face along the way manage to be genuinely scary while being just off-center enough to be funny -- the dreaded purple fungus, the malevolent flesh cube, the legendary psychic duck. Myfanwy's struggle to keep anyone from realizing that she's lost her memory also provides both suspense and giggles. Both narrators -- we alternate between Myfanwy's adventures and excerpts from Thomas's letters, which provide Myfanwy (and us) with necessary background -- are smart, tough action heroes, and it's fun to watch the subtle ways in which they aren't quite the same person.

I loved this book, and am happy that O'Malley has created a world which provides ample opportunities for further books, should he choose to write them. (Please?)

MOVIES: Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2012)

Here we have a rather odd duck in terms of form, a mix of dark comedy and documentary. It's the true story -- and since the events are a matter of public record, I'm going to be somewhat less spoiler-cautious than usual -- of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), an assistant funeral director who is one of the most beloved men in Carthage, Texas. It is Bernie's custom to pay follow-up visits on the town's bereaved after the funerals, and on one such visit, he befriends Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a cranky widow who may be the least beloved person in town.

No one much likes Marjorie; even her family haven't spoken to her in years (and that includes the sister who lives in the same town). But she takes a liking to Bernie, and the two begin spending a great deal of time together -- going to concerts, traveling around the world on expensive vacations (Mr. Nugent had made a fortune in oil).

Ultimately, though, Marjorie's inherent nastiness wins out, and she gets more and more demanding, expecting Bernie to be at her beck and call. He reaches his breaking point and kills her, then manages to keep anyone in town from finding out she's dead for nine months. That's when Matthew McConaughey enters the story as the district attorney saddled with the task of convicting the town's most popular resident of killing its most hated.

In addition to the fictional telling of the story, Linklater has gone to Carthage to interview the locals about the case, and nearly half of the movie is made up of their running commentary on the events. These scenes aren't specifically identified as documentary; it feels more like a particularly colorful group of unknown actors playing a sort of Greek chorus.

That type of footage can, in the wrong hands, can come off as condescending -- "oh, aren't these yokels colorful" -- but Linklater almost always avoids that, in part because the people he's put on screen are so likable and charming, and their interviews are skillfully edited into the movie. The locals often provide a sharp punchline at just the moment it's needed to break the tension, and some of them have such natural charisma that you'd almost like to see them in movies of their own.

Jack Black is terrific in the leading role, in a gentler and more charming performance than we're used to from him. And it really is his movie to carry; MacLaine and McConaughey are both fine, but their roles are relatively small.

Bernie is a strange movie, and I occasionally found myself wishing it were slightly less subdued and more energetic. But Black is delightful, the locals are a well-used storytelling device, and I was entertained throughout.

MOVIES: The Pirates! Band of Misfits (Peter Lord & Jeff Newitt, 2012)

This is not among the very best animation from Aardman, certainly nowhere near the level of the Wallace and Gromit movies, but it's a mildly amusing movie that'll keep the kids entertained.

Hugh Grant provides the voice of the Pirate Captain, who wants desperately to win the 1837 Pirate of the Year award. But he's been trying for twenty years, and is always outclassed by the truly great pirates; all he's ever won is a ribbon for Best Anecdote About a Squid.

This year, though, an unexpected encounter with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) just might provide the Captain with the booty he needs to win the award, if only he can outsmart the nemesis of all pirates: Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). The key is the Captain's beloved Polly, who is wanted by both Darwin and Victoria, and who is most definitely not your ordinary parrot.

The stop-motion animation is charming, though occasionally rather busy; there's a lot going on in the backgrounds (I liked the pub sign that advertises Urchin Tossing and Cockney Baiting every Sunday). Some of the action sequences are quite spectacular, and must have been extraordinarily time-consuming to do in stop-motion. The plot is a bit thin, and the humor comes more often from sight gags and puns than from character.

Probably not something you need to rush to the theater for unless you're a particular fan of Aardman, but it'll be a pleasant enough way to pass 90 minutes when it gets to cable.

MOVIES: Think Like a Man (Tim Story, 2012)

This is perhaps the most viciously cynical movie I've ever seen. It's inspired by Steve Harvey's self-help book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, which purports to tell women how men think in relationships, and how to use that knowledge to manipulate their men into being the boyfriends/husbands they've always wanted.

The movie tells the stories of several couples, primarily from the male point of view. The women are all using Harvey's book -- Harvey pops up in fictional talk-show clips to read key passages -- and getting the men to behave "correctly." Eventually, the men stumble onto the book, and begin using their discovery ("We know they're using the book, but they don't know we know!") to manipulate the women.

In other words, there's not the slightest shred of actual romance in any of these relationships; everyone is merely trying to con their partner instead of being honest with them. (One of the men in the group is happily married; significantly, that relationship remains entirely off-screen and we never see the wife.)

The formula for this sort of movie requires that all of the characters simultaneously realize "Oh my goodness, I really do love him/her" so that we can get several ostensibly moving reconciliation scenes. But since none of these relationships were ever built on real emotions, these scenes play as the cheapest form of audience manipulation.

The cast (who will go unnamed, because none of them are to blame for this vile mess) is talented and likable, and they're trying awfully hard, but the material is so depressingly insincere, especially in its final act, that no actor in the world is talented enough to make it convincing.

May 03, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: 60s/British night

A day late with this week's rundown for personal reasons. As I sit down to watch the show on the DVR, they've just announced the winner on the East Coast, but I promise that I've scrupulously avoided reading anything about last night's show, so you're getting my opinions unfiltered through anyone else's perspective. Just in case you cared.

Tonight, a round of music from the 60s, and a round of British music, so the obvious mentor is... Steven Van Zandt? Well, he's in his 60s, so maybe that's the logic. A pair of very broad themes, which should provide ample opportunities for all.

The rundown:

Round 1: the 1960s

Hollie, "River Deep - Mountain High" -- Hollie's getting very smart about her song choices. This one plays solidly to her strengths, as it can mostly be belted and doesn't require huge amounts of subtlety. Still, there are problems. The "do" of "do I love you" is inaudible both times; she's pushing so hard that she's out of air by the end of the first chorus; and the performance plays as an animatronic simulation of excitement instead of the real thing.

Phillip, "The Letter" -- Thank heavens for the animated rain of letters behind him, or we might never have known what the song was about. Anyway: It's an odd mismatch of energy levels, with the band wailing away as if they've still got energy to spare from Hollie's performance, and Phillip delivering his usual laidback vocals. Combine his low-key approach with some fairly significant alterations to the rhythm and melody, and it feels a bit as if he's just been handed the sheet music and he doesn't sight read very well.

Skylar, "Fortunate Son" -- Enunciation continues to be Skylar's biggest flaw, and about a third of this is complete gibberish. But as always, it's energetic and she knows how to work a crowd. And goodness knows she certainly seems passionately committed to whatever it is she's singing about. (It's one of the CCR songs that I don't know, but from the lyrics that did come through, I gather that it's sort of a Vietnam-era analogue to the Occupy movement, with Skylar as one of the 99%. Sound right?)

Jessica, "Proud Mary" -- Really? A whole frackin' decade to pick from and she picks this? Look, Jessica can sell a ballad as well as anyone, but this sort of up-tempo number is all wrong for her, especially when it calls on her to be sexy. What should be aggressive prancing across the stage is instead tentative mincing, and her backup dancers are more interesting than she is. Jessica keeps slipping in the ranks, and it's due to lousy song choice as much as anything.

Joshua, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" -- Good solid performance. Not going to make anyone forget the original, but there were no glaring problems. He's got the voice, he knows how to play to an audience, and he almost always chooses the right song. He's the most consistent performer in the bunch.

For Round 1: Joshua, Hollie, Skylar, Jessica, Phillip.

Round 2: British music

Hollie, "Bleeding Love" -- Two problems here, one technical and one emotional. Technically, Hollie needs to find a middle ground between her big full-voiced belt and her tiny little head voice; the transitions between the two are jarring and abrupt. Emotionally, she doesn't project vulnerability well. In part, that's a natural consequence of having such a large voice; she's going to have to work harder than most on showing a softer side. (But it can be done! Listen to, for instance, Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry" -- huge voice that'll break your heart.)

Phillip, "Time of the Season" -- He's got no falsetto. Those high notes in the chorus are thin, barely audible, and only tangentially related to the correct pitch. Which is a shame, because aside from that, this is the best performance Phillip has given in weeks. His just-this-side-of-lazy vocals sort of work, the slipping and sliding in and out of notes seems to suit the song, and even the "yeah, I'm sexy" smirk is somewhat appropriate here.

Skylar, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" -- She gets a little overwrought in the last few bars, but the verse is gorgeous, an impeccable fusion of the original with Skylar's country sensibilities. Best thing we've heard tonight.

Jessica, "You Are So Beautiful" -- Clearly, this is more in Jessica's wheelhouse than her first song was, and it's a prettyy performance. Even at her best, though, there's a Barbie-ish plastic quality to Jessica; if she could get some personality to go along with all that technique, she'd be formidable. The arrangement was a touch on the slow side, I thought; just a bit more forward motion would have helped.

(British? Really? A song written and originally recorded by Billy Preston? Not as egregious a cheat as we got the last time Idol did a British night, when "Tell Him" was allowed to sneak through, but c'mon.)

Joshua, "To Love Somebody" -- The sort of performance that Joshua can deliver in his sleep -- a slow burn through the verse, take the chorus up an octave, and go to church at the end. Unfortunately, it kinda felt as if he was doing it in his sleep; there was something a bit rote and predictable about it. Yeah, the technique is formidable, but there was an emptiness behind it this time. (Nothing awful enough to make him the Ken to Jessica's Barbie, I hasten to add.)

For Round 2: Skylar, Joshua, Jessica, Hollie, Phillip.

For the night: Skylar, Joshua, Jessica, Hollie, Phillip.

For the season: Joshua, Skylar, Hollie, Jessica, Phillip.

Let's send home: Phllip's been at the bottom of my list for a month now. Can we please send him home? (I will not be surprised, however, if either Jessica or Hollie goes instead.)