April 25, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: Queen/Singers' choice

It's Queen night, which has produced some scary results in the past, as the singers search for the theatricallity and flamboyance of Freddie Mercury. The second round tonight is wide open, which should allow everyone to find something they can do well. But we've been led down that path of false optimism many times before, haven't we?

The rundown:

Round One: Queen

Jessica, "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- This song will never work on Idol because it has to be chopped to bits to fit the time limit; it's like "Good Vibrations," in that all of those shifts in tempo and mood are very carefully put together, and if you take out even one piece, the Jenga tower collapses. As for the performance, Jessica is too poised and elegant for this song; she's singing it too prettily, with no rough edges (and unusually, a couple of high notes that are a little flat). Has anyone ever sung "just killed a man" less convincingly?

Skylar, "The Show Must Go On" -- On the whole, very good. The bridge is the weak spot, where she gives in to her tendency to sloppy enunciation, but the rest of the song works quite well. She's finding a nice balance between her natural country twang and a harder rock edge that's particularly effective in the opening verse. Skylar's been frustratingly inconsistent this season, but when she's on, she's good enough to win the whole thing.

Joshua, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" -- Disastrously bad song choice. I like Joshua, but even at his best, he leans to the overwrought, and this is one of the most laid-back Queen songs I can think of; style and singer clash even more badly here than they did with Jessica earlier in the show. And it's not as if there aren't plenty of Queen songs that would lend themselves to Joshua's oversized performance style; this round should have been a gimme for him.

Elise, "I Want It All"-- She's perfectly at home in the style. It's an energetic and entertaining performance. It's not as memorable or exciting as her "Whole Lotta Love" from a few weeks back, but on a night when the frontrunners are struggling, this ought to be enough to keep her around for another week.

Phillip, "Fat Bottomed Girls" -- On the choral stuff in the choruses, he's always just a hair behind every one else, and the pitches at the ends of phrases tend to drop off instead of being sustained to the end of the note. And the more I hear of him, the more creeped out I am by the artifice of his voice; he comes off to me as if he's playing the role of a Southern blues singer (and playing it way too broadly) instead as if he actually is one.

Hollie, "Save Me" -- The verse leaves me with the odd sensation that someone is playing with the volume control on her microphone; she leaps from loud to quiet and back from note to note, making it hard to follow the lyrics. Beyond that, it's a standard Hollie performance; it's nice, and she'd be the easy winner at her high school talent show, but she's not at the same level as the other contestants. She gets credit, though, for smartly choosing a song that didn't require her to rock too hard.

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

Round Two: Singers' choice

Jessica, "Dance With My Father" -- As an acting teacher of mine once said, "If you cry, the audience won't." This song requires a delicate touch; it's inherently sentimental, and you need to just sing it and get out of the way. What you cannot do is milk the emotion; take the slightest step in that direction, and it's going to feel overdone and gooey. And Jessica doesn't just take a slight step towards milking; she's filling the entire damn dairy case.

Skylar, "Tattoos on This Town" -- I don't care for the song; it's a strange bit of imagery. Our romance and our escapades are like tattoos on the town, which means what? Everyone will find us vaguely embarassing and wish they could get rid of us in twenty years? The performance is distinctly meh; competent, a bit bland, instantly forgettable.

Joshua, "Ready for Love" -- That downward run at the end of the song? Viciously difficult, and impeccably in tune. A few too many runs and frills for my taste, but this was beautifully sung, and I particularly liked the beginning, a nice reminder that emotion can be quiet.

Elise, "Bold as Love" -- Something clicks for me during this performance, and I think I'm beginning to understand where Elise's style comes from, why her enunciation can go from weirdly overprecise to incomprehensible mush within the same phrase: She's not so much a pop singer as she is a jazz singer, and she thinks of her voice as just another instrument in the mix. She's less interested in the words as such than she is in words as pure sound, and if eliding a few consonants here and there will give her the effect she wants, then so be it. Aside from that epiphany, the performance doesn't do much for me; it's rather boring.

Phillip, "The Stone" -- The first half of that was the most natural and unaffected I think he's ever sounded; unfortunately, we can't quite hear what he's saying because he's not mixed loud enough. The song is a strange choice, though, an absolute snooze that shows off nothing of a singer's skill or range. At this point in the competition, yawns are not the reaction you need to be generating.

Hollie, "The Climb" -- Perfect song choice. The big notes were, as they usually are with Hollie, impressive, and she did a better job than usual of modulating her voice so that even the quieter moments worked well. Pitch was steady, which itself is a significant achievement for Hollie. Her best moment since she made such a good impression on Whitney night at the beginning of the season.

For Round Two: Joshua, Hollie, Jessica, Skylar, Phillip, Elise

For the night: Hollie, Skylar, Joshua, Elise, Jessica, Phillip. No one put together two good songs, and Joshua managed the nifty feat of giving both the best and the worst performance of the night.

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

Let's send home: As has been true for a while now, it ought to be Phillip. I'd put my money on Elise, though.

April 24, 2012

MOVIES: We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti, 2011/US 2012)

The Italian comedy Habemus Papam (being released in the US as We Have a Pope) starts off looking like a sharp, biting satire. The Catholic cardinals have gathered to elect a new pope, and as the camera pans across the room, we hear the thoughts of several cardinals. They're thinking as one: "Please, Lord, not me."

After several ballots, longshot candidate Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is elected, and as he is about to be revealed to the crowd waiting outside the Conclave, he breaks down. "I can't do this," he says, and flees the room. In desperation, the Cardinals bring in a therapist (Nanni Moretti, who also directed) to help Melville get through his panic.

And then the movie turns to sentimental mush. Melville escapes from the Vatican and spends a few days wandering through Rome, trying to get a grip on his fear; the few cardinals who know of Melville's disappearance try to keep the secret from the other cardinals, while putting the best possible face on the new pope's refusal to appear; the doctor, who is not allowed to leave until the pope is announced, organizes a volleyball tournament to help the cardinals pass the time. It's syrupy sweet and cloying, and the bite of the first ten minutes is entirely gone.

The movie largely avoids the serious issues that are raised by Melville's breakdown, or any of the challenges facing the Catholic Church that might make the papacy an unappealing career challenge. Such things are addressed only very briefly in the movie's final scene, which takes a sudden turn for the grim and bleak. Had the movie maintained the satiric tone of its opening, that ending might have worked. But coming after an hour of "oh, isn't he a nice old man" goo, it's too abrupt a shift in tone.

Piccoli is an endearing presence, and Moretti has a few interesting "what have I gotten myself into" moments. But the movie can't make up its mind what kind of story it wants to tell, and as a result it winds up telling none of them very well.

MOVIES: The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012)

I am not generally a big fan of horror movies, especially in recent years, when it seems to me that they've too often become less about scaring the audience and more about disgusting the audience with massive amounts of blood and extreme gore. But I had heard such good things about The Cabin in the Woods, and am a big enough fan of Joss Whedon, that I thought I'd give it a shot.

And it's fabulous.

It is very much a movie that you shouldn't know too much about before you head in, and I'm being very careful here not to give away things that should be surprises. We start with a familiar scenario, and some rather archetypal characters. Five college buddies who can be (and in fact, pretty explicitly are) quickly summed up as the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the brain (Jesse Williams), the stoner (Fran Kranz), the good girl (Kristen Connolly), and the bad girl (Anna Hutchison) take off for a weekend vacation at a remote cabin. It will come as no surprise that things go horribly wrong.

It will also come as no surprise that on the way there, they meet a menacing old hillbilly (Tim de Zarn, milking his cliche for all it's worth) who utters cryptic warnings of doom, or that there are a pair of governmental authority figures (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) who provide the kids with no help whatsoever.

The movie's not without its share of blood and gore, especially in the final act, when all hell really breaks loose, but the gore isn't the point of the movie. Whedon and co-writer Drew Goddard (who also directed the movie) have something more complicated in mind than you might expect from the obvious cliches and stock characters, which are often subverted or presented in unexpected ways. (The obligatory "not quite dead yet" moment is a delightful surprise.) They get right to the point, too; the major twist of the film is in large part revealed in the very first scene, and the rest of the movie gradually fills in the details.

The movie is also funny. Whitfield and Jenkins work together with the ease and timing of people who've shared an office for years; Kranz (who Whedon fans will remember from Dollhouse has a marvelous loose rhythm as the group's pothead; Sigourney Weaver, who has a key small role, gets huge laughs with some impeccable line readings ("we work with what we have").

Smart, funny, genuinely scary -- what more could you want? The Cabin in the Woods is a spectacular surprise.

BOOKS: Eminent Outlaws, Christopher Bram (2012)

Here we have a fine overview of gay American literature. To be precise; it's about gay male literature; Bram acknowledges that his focus is specifically on male authors, both because he wanted to narrow the focus, and because he feels less familiar with lesbian literature, which "needs its own historian." As Bram also acknowledges, this is by no means a complete history of gay literature; he focuses on the authors who played the largest roles in the cultural history.

Unlike some books of this kind, Bram's survey does not focus only on novelists. And how could it? You can't tell the story of gay literature in America without including the playwrights -- Williams, Albee, Crowley, Kushner -- or the poets -- Ginsberg, O'Hara, Merrill, Doty.

But of course, we get the novelists as well. The opening chapters focus on writers like Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood, and James Baldwin, who were writing before there was such a thing as gay literature.

Bram's story progresses through the beginnings of the gay rights movement to 1978, which he calls "the annus mirabilis of gay fiction," when four major novels were published: Edmund White's Nocturnes for the King of Naples, Larry Kramer's Faggots, Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance, and Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.

(And my god, how wonderful it is to read someone who takes Maupin seriously as a writer instead of dismissing him as a mere purveyor of fluff. Bram gives Maupin the full credit he deserves for the depth of his characterizations, his nimble plotting, and his gift for dialogue. And he makes a strong enough case for The Night Listener as Maupin's best work that I'm tempted to go back and read it again.)

Bram tracks the effects of AIDS on gay literature in the 80s, and the way that the field changed after the mid-90s, as the disease became more manageable as a chronic condition and less of a death sentence.

And through it all, there's Gore Vidal, whose 1948 The City and the Pillar was among the first American novels about gay people, and who continues to be a significant essayist to this day. He would never accept being identified as a gay author, of course, having always insisted that "there are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts."

Bram is clear in his introduction that he is not attempting to create a canon of essential works or authors. But if you were looking for such a canon, you could do worse than to focus on the works and authors highlighted in Eminent Outlaws. It's a lively history of gay literature, and how it has both changed and been changed by the culture around it.

April 18, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: Now & Then

The top seven come back for a second round after last week's save, and they're in for a long night, boys and girls, tackling two songs each in "Now & Then" night. It's going to be a night so crowded with music that we don't have time to bring in a guest mentor, and that the mention of Dick Clark's death feels a trifle rushed and perfunctory. The themes are wide open, so everyone should be able to find songs that show them off well. Let's see...

The rundown:

Round One: 21st-century hits

Hollie, "Rolling in the Deep" -- Not surprising that she'd arrange the song to start with the big anthemic chorus, since that's the part that suits her voice best. And doing so gets her off to a strong start, which seems to boost her confidence, because even the relatively quiet verses sound better than usual, more in tune and with a fierce passion that we haven't seen from her in a while.

Colton, "Bad Romance" -- Some of the low notes are too low for him, and I'm not convinced that the song really works with the rock arrangement. It's Colton doing what Colton does, and it's a competent performance, but not a very interesting one.

Elise, "No One" -- It's an odd stylistic hodgepodge of a performance, with her rock growl slipping in occasionally where it doesn't really belong, and some strangely over-articulated phrases ("try tooo dee-ny"). From moment to moment, it's attractive enough, but it never comes together into a cohesive whole.

Phillip, "U Got It Bad" -- The slightly smirky grin, the half-closed eyes, the "aw, c'mon, you know I'm cute" smugness, the voice that sounds like a bad imitation of Bleeding Gums Murphy -- those things have been background annoyances in Phillip's previous performances, but they're all turned on full blast for this one, and the effect is unbearable. I hated every second of this.

Jessica, "Fallin'" -- Her technique is truly astonishing, and her singing is perfectly suited to the song, with just the right amount of ornamentation, always tastefully applied. But every week, I find it harder to believe there's a human soul in there anywhere. The craft is so impeccable that I want to love her performances more than I do.

Skylar, "Born This Way" -- The tone is all wrong; what should be joyous affirmation becomes angry and petulant. She's shouting the entire thing instead of singing it, and slipping back into her old habits of sloppy enunciation. A stronger rhythm section and a more defined beat would help the arrangement, too. A disappointment after a couple of strong weeks.

Joshua, "I Believe" -- Those last few notes were a bizarre mushy combination of groaning; I couldn't even tell if they were supposed to be words, much less what words they might have been. But everything before that was quite good; the verse was especially lovely, powerful without being screamed or forced.

For Round One: Hollie, Joshua, Jessica, Colton, Skylar, Elise, Phillip.

Round Two: Soul Train classics

Hollie, "Son of a Preacher Man" -- Part of what made Dusty Springfield such a special singer was that she could take her enormous voice and turn it into something laidback and sultry. Hollie can't do that; her voice is big, but aggressively so, and she's not capable of modulating the aggression very much. This song needs the seductive appeal of a European sports car; Hollie's barrelling at us with a steamroller.

Colton, "September" -- Well, he certainly knows who he is musically, and he's going to do his best to fit every song into his "I want to join Coldplay when I grow up" mold, no matter how poorly it fits. And lord, does this one fit poorly. The arrangement sucks all the joy out of the song, leaving nothing but Colton's whiny voice piercing like a poisoned dart into our very souls.

Elise, "Let's Get It On" -- If you're going to sing "Let's Get It On," you have to sing it in a key that allows you to sing the words "let's get it on" loudly enough for us to hear them. And while Elise may have many musical skills, seduction is not, I fear, among them. That was like discovering that the main attraction at the strip club is your pastor.

Phillip, "In the Midnight Hour"-- Remember how much I hated Phillip in Round One? This makes me long for those halcyon days. I need a large bottle of ear bleach to get this out of my head. The smarmy grin, the Cosby-esque affected growl, the twinkliness that's completely at odds with the song. No. No. Please, no more.

Jessica, "Try a Little Tenderness" -- Jessica's at her best with songs that require pinpoint precision; this calls for more spontaneity, and needs to feel rough around the edges. And god love her, she's trying, but it's coming off as an utterly precise imitation of the right style instead of actually being the right style. It's not awful -- she's too skilled for that -- but it falls flat and feels (in every possible sense of the word) soulless.

Skylar, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- Another musical expression of anger, but it suits the song this time, and it's not only angry, it's also playful and surprisingly funny in spots (love the inflection and articulation on "I must say"). The country reinterpretation works, and it's a high point in a weak round.

Joshua, "A Change Is Gonna Come" -- It's a very good performance. If it feels a little disappointing, it's probably just that it seemed like such a perfect combination of singer and song that I was hoping for -- maybe even expecting -- brilliance, which is hardly a fair burden to dump on anyone.

For Round Two: Joshua, Skylar, Jessica, Hollie, Elise, Colton, Phillip.

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

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

Let's send home: I'd be so happy if it were Phillip, but I expect it to be Elise.

BOOKS: Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard (2011)

You might not think there'd be much point to a book about James Garfield. His was the second-shortest Presidency, after all, at a mere 200 days, and almost half of that was spent in his death bed after being shot by Charles Guiteau. But Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic makes the story of Garfield's assassination more interesting than I'd ever have expected it to be.

Garfield was the savior of a sharply divided Republican party in 1880; his nomination speech for one of the declared candidates was so riveting that a deadlocked convention eventually turned to him as its nominee, very much against his wishes. He was a fine candidate with surprisingly broad appeal in a nation still suffering from the aftermath of the Civil War; he was a strong supporter of civil rights for black Americans, and an advocate of creating a civil service system instead of handing out every government position to one's cronies.

Guiteau was a lunatic, convinced that he was a power player in Republican politics who had played a great role in getting Garfield elected, and thought he should in exchange be given the ambassadorship to France. When he was inexplicably (to his mind, at least) passed over for the job, he could see no solution but to kill the President, for which he expected to be hailed as a hero and rewarded by Garfield's successor.

The tragedy of Garfield's death is that 20 years later, he almost certainly would have survived. There would have been X-ray technology, allowing his doctors to locate the bullet and to see that it could be left where it was without doing further damage. The principles of antiseptic medicine, recently articulated by British surgeon James Lister, would have taken hold in American medicine.

But in 1880, there were no X-rays, and American doctors not only didn't take Lister's ideas seriously, they thought those ideas were foolish, maybe even dangerous. Garfield's doctors, desperate to find the bullet that lay somewhere in his abdomen, thought nothing of poking into the wound with their bare fingers while he lay on a filthy mattress on the floor of the train station where he was shot. It was the infections, not the bullet wound, that eventually killed him. This was so clearly the case that Guiteau's lawyers briefly considered arguing that he wasn't responsible for Garfield's death and that the blame should fall entirely on the doctors' malpractice.

There are marvelous characters floating around the background of the story. Alexander Graham Bell works frantically to develop a metal detector strong enough to find the bullet within the President's body. Garfield's physician, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, refuses to let anyone else near the president. (The "D," improbably enough, is for "Doctor," which was his given name.) Vice President Chester Arthur, a little-respected political hack (sort of a 19th-century Sarah Palin, but with even less experience) who is on the ticket only out of the desire to placate a powerful Senator, is horrified when he and his patron are suspected of being involved in the assassination.

Garfield has become one of the blurry group of minor presidents we don't often think about, but Millard makes a strong case that his assassination was a great loss, and he might have gone on to achieve important things; if nothing else, he would likely have been a tremendously unifying leader during the difficult Reconstruction era. It's a marvelous story, an obscure corner of American history which Millard uncovers for us in fine style. The writing is crisp and clear, and the parallel stories of Garfield and Guiteau draw sharp portraits of both men.

April 17, 2012

MOVIES: Footnote (Joseph Cedar, 2011/US 2012)

The Israeli film Footnote was one of last year's Best Foreign Film nominees. It opens on Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), a Talmudic scholar who is something like the Susan Lucci of his field; he's been nominated for the Israel Prize more than a dozen times over the last twenty years, but has never won. Part of that can be written off to his choice of research subjects -- he has devoted his life to analyzing the tiniest minutiae of historical textual changes -- but it seems also to be the result of Eliezer's prickly and combative personality.

Eliezer's son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), has entered into the same field of study, but targets his work to "sexier" issues within the field, and is already receiving a warmer reception from his colleagues than his father ever did. The rivalry and resentment between the two is unspoken, but it runs very deep.

The story kicks into gear when Eliezer receives a call with the unexpected news that he has finally won the Israel Prize. The ramifications of that phone call only increase the tensions between the Professors Shkolnik.

As dry and academic as the subject matter may seem, Footnote is a very funny movie. There are some marvelous comic set pieces -- a carefully choreographed meeting of seven scholars in an office too small to hold them, a thrilling montage of one man finding the answer to a personal crisis by doing the most important textual analysis of his life (Amit Poznansky's score is particularly effective in that scene).

The movie benefits from terrific casting of the two leads; both characers have moments when they are entirely sympathetic and moments when they behave despicably. Both performances are largely internal; neither man is particularly communicative or expressive, and it's largely left to their families and colleagues to read between the lines. (Now that I think of it, I don't remember a single scene in which they speak directly to one another.)

There's a brief scene in which the family attends a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, and the movie shares with that musical the idea that God is capable of being a rather nasty prankster, and that a big part of life is how we deal with the cosmic jokes He throws at us. It's a delightful movie, well worth seeking out if it makes its way to your city.

MOVIES: The Three Stooges (Peter & Bobby Farrelly, 2012)

I don't think that I've ever sat through a single one of the orignal Three Stooges shorts. I've seen bits and pieces here and there, and it always seemed like a particularly brutal form of slapstick, with too much eye-poking and face-slapping for my taste.

So what on earth took me to see the Farrelly brothers' attempt to restart the franchise with a full-length movie? (Which is, logically enough, called The Three Stooges.) It was mostly the appeal of the supporting cast -- Jane Lynch as Mother Superior, Sofia Vergara and Craig Bierko as the principal villains, and (for some reason, this was the most amusing draw for me) Larry David in full habit as Sister Mary Mengele.

You will have gathered from those Mothers and Sisters that there are lots of nuns in the movie. It's structured as a series of three shorts, but the overarching story is the quest of Larry, Moe, and Curly (played here by Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos, and Will Sasso, respectively) to raise enough money to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up.

What most surprised me about the movie is that once you get past the comic violence (and yes, there's a lot of it, and it's occasionally piled on to the point where it becomes unpleasant to sit through), there's a sweetness at the core. As much as these three enjoy pounding on one another, they do care about each other, and the poking and slapping almost comes to feel like a weird expression of that affection.

The bond among the three is so strong that when Moe is separated from the group in the third act, things start to drag. Larry and Curly are less interesting without Moe, and even though the movie's done a clever job of finding precisely the right people to serve as Moe's new companions, his shtick doesn't work as well with other people. (I won't give away that particular punchline, but the minor celebrites who become Moe's new companions are very smartly chosen for their own idiocy.)

The comedy here is, not surprisingly, very broad and not remotely subtle. Some scenes go a bit too far or drag on too long -- a diaper-changing sequence in a hospital maternity ward does both -- but there are some clever punchlines and bits of physical comedy. Will Sasso, as Curly, is a particularly skilled physical clown.

Now if you were never a Stooges person to begin with, this movie isn't going to change your mind. And if you're of the belief that the Stooges are such legendary comic icons that to even attempt re-casting them is blasphemy, then you probably won't enjoy this. (Though I think that reaction is silly; it's not as if the original Stooges were doing anything but clever repackaging of some fairly standard comic archetypes.)

But if you have a soft spot for the Stooges' brand of frenetic slapstick, shameless puns, and nonstop mayhem, then this is a perfectly acceptable variation on the formula. It's by no stretch a brilliant movie, but it's not trying to be. Its aims are low, and it meets them in surprisingly warm fashion.

April 11, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: 2010s songs

Songs from the current decade tonight, and since I'm wildly out of touch with current music, it's going to be an evening of songs I don't know. (It also turns into an evening of Idol saluting its own, with songs from Kellie Pickler and Kelly Clarkson, and a brief appearance from Fantasia.) That unfamiliarity can have its advantages, of course, in that the singers get to be heard entirely on their own merits without being compared to anyone else. Let's see if they can live up to that challenge, shall we?

The rundown:

Skylar, "Didn't You Know How Much I Loved You"-- The song has a range that is just barely too wide for Skylar; she's slightly straining for both the lowest notes in the verse and the highest notes in the chorus. But aside from that small problem, the song is precisely her style, and it's a solid performance with no glaring errors, and the lyrics are almost all comprehensible.

Colton, "Love the Way You Lie" -- Very nice. A bit mush-mouthed in spots, but the emotional connection to the material is solid, and he's using his falsetto more tastefully than usual.

(An interesting psychological note: When Rihanna sings this song, it seems to me unmistakably about a physically abusive relationship; when a guy sings it, that barely comes to mind, and it seems to be just another song about a difficult emotional relationship. Is that strictly a gender thing, I wonder, or is it because we already knew about Rihanna's abuse at the hands of Chris Brown when this song was released?)

Jessica, "Stuttering" -- The performance is what I'm beginning to think is all we can expect from Jessica -- technically impeccable, but rather chilly and emotionless. The runs and frills are well executed, and every note is precisely in place, but there's not much personality to go with them.

Joshua, "Runaway Baby" -- I'd like a bit more menace and sexuality in the performance, but he certainly knows how to work a stage, and he's the best showman in the bunch. There's a lot of lyrics to be quickly gotten through here, and he's articulating them (mostly) cleanly while doing a lot of energetic running about the stage. Very entertaining.

Hollie, "Perfect" -- Jimmy and Akon are right, I think, that Hollie hasn't yet made that jump from talented amateur to pro. It shows in little things like the way she'll pull the microphone away from her mouth before the notes are finished, or her continuing struggles with pitch. On the plus side, the first half of the song was a bit more subtle than usual, and was less off-key than she usually is in that register. Those big notes at the end were marvelous, and with two or three more years of experience, the rest of her voice may eventually catch up to them.

Phillip, "Give a Little More" -- There's something weirdly insincere about this perfomance. Part of it is that broad smile, which creeps in on the most inappropriate lyrics; part of it is the growl, which feels more like a cheesy affectation tonight than it has in the past. His voice disappears almost entirely on a couple of attempted falsetto notes. He's not going anywhere, because he's pretty, but he's starting to feel like a one-trick pony to me.

Elise, "You and I" -- The song suits her voice really well, and she even almost manages to make that repetitive chorus ("you and I, you and I, you and I...") interesting. It's a very good performance, and one of the few tonight in which some personality shines through; she's sly and sexy and utterly charming.

For the night: Elise, Joshua, Colton, Jessica, Skylar, Hollie, Phillip. Nothing really brilliant tonight, but nothing that was completely ghastly, either; it was a night than ranged from OK to very good.

For the season: Joshua, Skylar, Jessica, Colton, Hollie, Elise, Phillip. In my book, Joshua's a good step ahead of the pack, mostly because he's been the most consistent, without a really bad week yet. The rest of the group is fairly tightly bunched.

Let's send home: In a perfect world, Phillip. Realistically, I think it's likely to be Hollie.

MOVIES: Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2012)

It's been 14 years since Whit Stillman's last film. After a series of abandoned projects and financial struggles, he's back with Damsels in Distress, and it's not nearly at the level of his fine work in the 90s.

The setting is Seven Oaks College, where a group of young women headed by Violet (Greta Gerwig) run the campus Suicide Prevention Center; Violet's philosophy is that dancing -- tap dancing, in particular, but all forms of popular dance, really -- is the key to boosting the spirits of the suicidal. The new girl on campus is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who isn't terribly convinced by Violet's theories, but joins her group anyway.

We follow the romantic misadventures of the four, watch as Violet attempts to singlehandedly create a new "international dance craze," and learn about the sexual quirks of the Cathars. But mostly, I'm afraid, we sit in astonishment at how heavy, leaden, and plodding the movie is, with none of the lightness or charm that marked Stillman's earlier work.

That's largely due to casting. Stillman's dialogue is fizzy stuff that needs to fly with the lightness and speed of screwball comedy, and no one here has the right touch. Gerwig is the worst of the bunch, and since she's at the center of the movie, we're in trouble all the way through. Adam Brody comes closest to the proper style, and Megalyn Echikunwoke gets more laughs than the script deserves with her repeated chastisement of men for being "a playboy, an operator type."

There are a few jokes that work -- a riff on whether "Xavier" is spelled with an X or a Z that turns into the sad story of the forgotten Xorro, a warning sign at the Prevention Center that "donuts and coffee are for the suicidal ONLY!"

But there are too few of them, and even they don't muster much more than mild smiles. By the time we get to the final dance number, we're no longer capable of being charmed, even if the number were up to the job of doing so.

April 04, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: 1980s songs

It's 80s night, which means some songs I might actually remember! Yay! Gwen Stefani's a rather odd choice of mentor for that decade; she and No Doubt didn't really break through until the mid-90s. We are also padding out the hour with 80s duets, which since they aren't part of the competition, I will cheerfully ignore (aside from noting that almost everyone sounds better in their duets than they do in their solo numbers).

DeAndre, "I Like It" -- I find his voice much more appealing down in its regular range, especially since he's having serious pitch problems with the falsetto tonight. But the performance is lackluster, with no enthusiasm or excitement, and his dancing is a lethargic stomp from side to side that feels like a horrible forced march.

Elise, "I Want to Know What Love Is" -- What happened to the rocker chick who wailed through Led Zeppelin last week? Her body's been taken over by a creepy lounge singer who's so stiff (especially in the verse) that I fear a bone will snap if she moves too fast. This didn't work on any level.

Phillip, "That's All" -- He's sliding in and out of the top notes of each phrase ("I could say BLACK... tell me it's DAY..." instead of actually hitting them on pitch (or even hitting any single note at all), and as soon as he stops playing the guitar on the bridge, he goes consistently flat. It also feels to me as if he's taking it just a hair too fast, and working harder to get some of those quicker syllables in than he should be. Pleasant enough, but not his best.

Joshua, "If You Don't Know Me By Now" -- The opening verse was marvelous, and the performance had more grit than we usually get from Joshua, which was very effective. As the choruses went on, though, it started to feel like self-parody, as Joshua took us to church one more time. Yes, the ruffles and flourishes are impressive, but he's forgetting that these things are ornamentation, and that there needs to be an actual melody line somewhere in the mix, too.

Jessica, "How Will I Know" -- This is a pop song. It's a very good pop song, but it's just a pop song. It should be delivered casually, as if it's just being tossed off. (It can't actually be just tossed off -- a lot of work goes into doing it right -- but that is the magic of the great pop singer.) And Jessica is Singing Every Damn Note of it as if it were the Queen of the Night's aria. The big sustained note at the end? It's a lovely note, but it's got nothing to do with this song.

Hollie, "Flashdance (What a Feeling)" -- Much the same problem as Jessica, complete with an equally inappropriate and unnecessary final note. But even beyond that, Hollie isn't capable of the lightness and delicacy it takes to sing something even at this tempo, which isn't all that fast. Give her a big ballad that she can belt her way through, and she's marvelous; anything that calls for more subtlety than that, though, and she flounders.

Colton, "Time After Time" -- One mark of a great song is its ability to fit into a wide range of styles, and the rock edge works very nicely here. There's a lot less of that yelpy yodel in Colton's voice this week, which is a very good thing. His style isn't my cup of tea, but this is a very good performance.

Skylar, "Wind Beneath My Wings" -- WOW moment, indeed. Passionate, intense, fully connected to the song. And rather surprisingly for Skylar, every syllable could be understood. Her best performance yet by a wide margin.

For the night: Skylar, Colton, Joshua, Phillip, Jessica, DeAndre, Hollie, Elise.

For the season: Joshua, Skylar, Jessica, Hollie, Colton, Phillip, DeAndre, Elise.

Let's send home: Elise.

MOVIES: Mirror Mirror (Tarsem Singh, 2012)

I will no doubt be raked over the coals for this one, if only because it is so chic these days to loathe anything involving Julia Roberts, but Mirror Mirror isn't bad. Not great, but a pleasant enough movie with a few real strengths.

Chief among those strengths is the visual sense of director Tarsem Singh. The sets and locations are gorgeous; there are some clever bits of stunt work, often involving the seven dwarves, who are (in this version of the story) a gang of thieving bandits; Eiko Ishioka's costumes are spectacular (they are, I think, the year's first obvious Oscar nominee).

The tone is uneven, wobbling between a lush romantic love story and a snarky pomo meta-telling of the familiar tale. Julia Roberts as the evil Queen lands solidly on the snarky side, and she dishes her zingers and one-liners with great joy. (Her very casting is a bit of meta; surely the role of an aging queen who fears losing her crown to someone younger and prettier must have resonated with her.)

On the romantic side is Lily Collins as Snow White; she's a lovely actress, sort of an Audrey Hepburn with massive eyebrows. But she's not just pretty; she pulls off the action scenes reasonably well, and sells the love story.

Bridging the two sides of the movie is Armie Hammer, giving the movie's best performance as Prince Alcott. He is, of course, ridiculously good looking -- it's a running joke that he frequently pops up shirtless, and hey, better him than Nathan Lane -- and shows a nice knack here for letting his looks be the butt of the joke. He's given what could be the most embarrassing bit of physical comedy, involving a love potion, and makes it work on the strength of his charisma and enthusiasm.

I don't want to oversell the movie. The jokes don't always land; the dwarves are given so little personality as to be indistinguishable; and Lane, as the queen's chief toady, does his usual shtick, which is starting to wear a bit thin. But this is far from the disaster that the buzz might have led you to expect.

April 03, 2012

MOVIES: Bully (Lee Hirsch, 2012)

Bully is a documentary which follows a year in the life of five children who are victims of bullying. To be precise, it's about three children and the families of two others, who have committed suicide as a result of bullying.

It's not a visually sophisticated movie. Director Lee Hirsch is content to simply point the camera and turn it on, and the movie is mostly a series of talking heads. But when you've got stories as inherently emotional and tragic as this, you don't need to much more than point and shoot to get moving results.

What really hits me in the movie is the overwhelming tendency to blame the victim. The schools certainly do this; we see one principal actually scolding a child for not shaking hands and forgiving his bully. "Don't you see that not shaking hands is hurtful," she says, "and it makes you just like him?" One set of parents -- and these are probably the most supportive parents we see -- tell their son that the bullying would stop if he'd just fight back. Even after they are shown just how badly their son is being treated (the filmmakers realized that the parents had no idea, and felt compelled to show them some of their footage), these parents still think that the problem is that their son "can't fit in," which is to say that it's his fault.

The most depressing thing about the movie is that it offers not a shred of hope that the problem can be solved. We see scenes from a national day of anti-bullying rallies, and there are a lot of young faces in the crowd, but those kids aren't the problem. And as the movie shows us repeatedly, the schools are absolutely unwilling to even acknowledge that there is a problem, much less to do anything about it.

(The cynic in me argues that this is because the purpose of the American school system long ago ceased to be education; the goal these days is dehumanization, to break people down, remove any traces of individuality, and turn children into compliant cogs for the machine. Bullying does all of those things more effectively than anything that school administrators could ever dream of; it's not a bug, it's a feature.)

If you're a reasonably aware person, Bully isn't going to tell you anything you don't already know about the scope of the problem; what's new here is the gloomy sense you get of its absolute intractability.

BOOKS: Heart of a Killer, David Rosenfelt (2012)

We start off with an interesting legal story, but Rosenfelt buries it under a silly thriller and an unfortunate choice of narrative tone.

Sheryl Harrison has more than 20 years left on the prison sentence she's serving for killing her husband, a crime which she has never denied committing. Her teenage daughter has a bad heart and a rare blood type, and Sheryl wants to be allowed to donate her heart to save her daughter; the state of New Jersey is understandably reluctant to let one of its inmates kill herself, no matter how noble her motive.

Her lawyer, Jamie Wagner, has been content to coast along in the middle of the pack at a large law firm, but finds himself actually caring about this case. It seems his only hope of getting Sheryl what she wants is to prove that someone else actually committed the murder, thus freeing Sheryl from prison.

But then along comes a ridiculous story about domestic terrorists with whom Sheryl's husband was somehow involved -- I never did quite make sense of the connection, and I'm pretty good about following complicated plots -- and the book goes rapidly to pot. It's not helped by Jamie's narrative voice, which is smirkier and more wisecracking than the relatively serious story can bear. (Rosenfelt's best known books are a series of dog-centered legal dramas; I haven't read them, but given the dogs, I assume they're a bit lighter than this, and that such a smirky tone would probably be more at home there.

Promising start, but ultimately a disappointment, and I wouldn't recommend it.