Tuesday, January 30, 2007

American Idol in New York City--C. Crumpet Swank Weighs In

You know the infomercial for the Ionic Breeze, the expensive but useless air purifier? Envision the moment when the perky middle-aged hostess, when shown the wonders of the machine for ostensibly the first time, exclaims, “I loooooooove the Ionic Breeze?” That’s how I felt about the New York Idol auditions, albeit sincerely. I looooooooved them! It was two hours of undiluted viewing pleasure. The producers/editors finally got it right—it was a perfect mix of talents & no-talents, elation & disappointment, eye-candy & the blinding, plus freaks, geeks and hot chicks from Jersey, all topped with that extravagant, frosted-tip crown of aquanetted glory known as Carole Bayer Sager’s hairdo. I honestly don’t know if there has ever been an audition episode so entertaining and so multi-faceted in terms of both talent and emotion. Like I said, I looooooooved New York!

Let’s begin with Miss Col—I mean Miss Sager. If I had a quarter for every person who said aloud, “Why is Joan Collins judging American Idol this week?” when the episode began I estimate my 2007 income would be hovering in the 1.25 million dollar range (pretty good since we’re not even through the first month of the year!). Here’s the math: 30 million viewers. Half are ignorant kids who don’t know who Joan is. Of the 15 million adults, surely one third were shocked by the resemblance; hence, 5 million quarters = 1.25 mil.

The thing is, I don’t know if Carole would appreciate the comparison, since Joan is after all 14 years older. Nevertheless, she looks more like Joan than Joan’s own sister, Jackie! Preliminary reports in Entertainment Weekly suggested that Carole was a weak presence at the auditions, and that it would be a struggle to find airable footage of her comments since they were so minimal and unenlightening. I don’t know why the producer quoted in the EW article said such a thing, because Carole, while not an out-on-a-limb type of judge, certainly contributed to the proceedings, and, moreover, seemed thoroughly attentive, which is more than can be said for Paula on those occasions when she looks bored (or is that drugged?). I was thrown for a loop, however, when during one clip Carole suddenly had morphed into Olivia Newton John. It was very disturbing.

Now, on to the contestants! This week I’ll take them chronologically—

Ian Benardo: scrawny NY jew fag diva. That may not be PC, but that is certainly the persona he is seeking to cultivate in his quest to embody superstardom. I guess he figures there is no one claiming that spot in the pantheon of media sensations currently (was there ever?), and when you think about it, he’s right. I just don’t know how marketable that is. Also, he thinks he’s far wittier than he actually is, which is off-putting, but I have to say I really did enjoy his rendition of "Gloria." It was funny. Even Laura Branigan, R.I.P., would have smiled, I’m sure.

Sarah Burgess: This girl looked like Katharine McPhee’s even younger, sweeter sister and had the small-town spunk, naivete, and emotional availability of Kellie Pickler. I liked her performance a great deal. While she doesn’t have a showy voice or incredible range, I liked the clear tone and admired her interpretive abilities. It was cool how she sang "Call Me" in a jazzy way—I was beguiled. Add to this her pluck and beauty and she definitely deserved to go to Hollywood. Will her nerves be a problem though in the long run?

Ashanti Johnson: This was difficult to watch. Here is Ashanti with an impressive voice (and a newly slimmed physique), but the judges had already sent her to Hollywood twice before and were not inclined to do so again unless she brought something extraordinary to the table. What she delivered was a sonically astute rendition of Minnie Ripperton’s dog whistle classic, "Loving You." But the performance was an uncomfortable mix of polished singing and faux emotion, the latter of which turned the judges off. They also said her song choice was old-fashioned, which I didn’t quite get, because "Loving You" is from 1970s and yet they love it when people sing classic Aretha from ten years before. Hell, the judges sent John “Red” Stevens and Kevin “Chicken Little” Covais to the Top 24 and those two are the epitome of old-fashioned in terms of both material and delivery.

All four judges seemed to agree that Ashanti had an excellent voice, but not the charisma needed to be the American Idol (as if Carrie Underwood has any charisma!). They thought her talents were more appropriate for Broadway, and did not consider it an offense to classify it as such. Let’s just say Ashanti did not feel the same way. American Idol was her destiny and she consequently launched into an articulate plea for another chance to make it to Hollywood. This girl was not only confident of her abilities, but was 100% convinced that “America would love me!” if only the judges would give us plebs the opportunity to admire her.

Her protracted implorations achieved nothing, however. Indeed, the judges looked not only unmoved but decidedly uncomfortable. Her pleas were hard to swallow; even Simon kept his trap shut for most of it. Indeed, it was perhaps the single most uncomfortable audition I’ve witnessed on Idol as it was such a bizarre mix of talent and not-to-be opportunity. I knew what the judges were going through--I didn’t know whether to root for Ashanti or be annoyed with her. Most everyone I’ve since talked to were annoyed with her, that’s for sure.

Certainly she seemed convinced that Idol was her only avenue to creative and commercial success. I’m not sure why she seemed opposed to any other vehicle by which to become an accomplished, remunerated singer. Carole tried in vain to assure her that Broadway was a good fit, but Ashanti would have none of it. It was like American Idol or perish, as far as she was concerned. I think this lack of perspective is partly what turned people off so much, the judges included.

Also, I would venture to guess that no one will ever get a third ticket to Hollywood during the run of this show. A second ticket means a chance for redemption and everyone loves giving someone a second chance when there’s promise and commitment in the recipient, but third chances…nah! Benefactors’ attitudes do an about-face—if you’ve gotten two chances, you’ve gotten your fair share. See also: baseball; CA penal code; etc. And so Ashanti Johnson was sent on her way, defeated and despondent. Thank God the producers did not linger on her after she left the audition room; it would have been painful to watch, I’m sure.

Antonella/Amanda, The Jersey Girls: I will love seeing footage of these two in Hollywood, to ascertain how their relationship will handle the competition. Amanda will be cut early on. She has a reasonably good voice, but her delivery is fully “cabaret,” in Simon’s sense of the word (and that is not a compliment). Also, she is attractive, but not in any exceptional way. Then we have Antonella, who while not as confident perhaps, has it all over her friend. Antonella is tall and drop-dead gorgeous in an unassuming way. She’s like the lesbian love-child of Eva Mendes and Cindy Crawford. Add to this a relaxed and nicely shaded voice with good range and interpretive skills and you’ve got a perfect candidate for the Top Ten. The only contestant more attractive in the history of Idol is Becky from Season 5, who was the first contestant eliminated in the semifinals, but she didn’t have the pipes that Antonella does.

Jenry Bejarano: Imagine if Henry and Antonella hit it off in Hollywood? Their lovechild might very well be the most attractive baby of the new millennium. Jenry is so perfect looking it’s almost unsettling. Even had he sucked, it was priceless watching the looks on Paula and Carole’s faces when her entered the room and after he sang. Their eyes grew ultra-keen with the confines of my 27 inch TV. Close-ups of Paula showed extreme lust, fully palpable. If desire were scented, surely she was stinking up the room.

And then of course, Jenry could sing. Could really sing. His voice, while not terribly distinctive, had tremendous power and control. It would be criminal if he didn’t end up in the Top Ten, given the combination of looks and talent. The fact that he is only 16 makes the combination all the more tantalizing. He’s the total package prematurely--like he jumped forth from the head of Zeus.
It will also be fun watching his short, Bolivian adoptive family root for him. They seem entirely supportive and stoked!

Sarah Goldberg: Surely this girl is crazy, certifiably so. Talent-less, deluded and brimming with hostility. I would love to know what her clinical diagnosis would be. Her quest was to become the first American Idol who couldn’t sing, to turn the show into something completely different—the vocal training odyssey of someone who is tone-deaf—was inspired but entirely hopeless. Post-audition she claimed to have made many friends in the holding room. It would have been nice to hear their opinion of her, because to me, her mental cracks seemed pretty obvious.

Porcelana Portino: Remember how much I loved the New York auditions in general? Well, I loooooooved Porcelana Portino. First of all, how can you not love a girl with a name like that? It’s better than Fantasia Barrino any day of the week. Also, I love the irony that it is the name of this rough and tough chick. Plus, it’s incredibly Italian and she’s very New York and the two just go together like Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese. I also admired the way she trained all year for this audition physically, mentally and vocally. I liked that she looked trashy and we expected a terrible audition, and then lo and behold, out came a confident performer and strong, unique voice. Rock on, Porcelana! The girl has charisma. I hope to see her go far in the competition. I have two concerns, though: 1.) Her voice struck me as an acquired taste. I really liked its throaty quality, but I can see others not warming to it. 2.) She seems really sexed up when she sings; she needs to be careful about overdoing it. She is the anti-Lisa Tucker. It is my sincere hope that Porcelana makes it to the Top 24, so I can vote for her!

Jory Steinberg: A girl from Canada who lives in Santa Monica but traveled to New York for auditions. Huh? And why all the footage devoted to her talking about her multiple meetings with royalty without the producers providing any kind of context? Is her father an ambassador? Then again, who cares? Her rendition of Tina Arena’s Chains started out kind of boring but then she really blew it out of the park. She can clearly sing, but just didn’t click with me on an overall level. Perhaps that will change, as it did last year with Ayla Brown, who I grew to like more and more each week. Also, this girl is Simon’s type—a long-haired brunette with a strong, unmannered voice.

Rachel Zevita: Dawn Weiner has been resurrected in the form of Rachel Zevita. I wanted to like her total conviction in her ability to sing, but just couldn’t because she was so annoying otherwise, flouncing around her in her rainbow rags and limp, long hair declaring her suitability as the next Idol. Someone who thinks she’s more sophisticated than she is—yuck. Someone who can turn smug on a dime—yuck. Someone who proudly studies opera, but is convinced she’s more versatile than being a mere opera singer—yuck.

However, I do have to give her points for a particular retort to Simon. The judges had asked her to sing three different styles of music to get a better sense of her voice.She complied and sang three snippets of reasonably accomplished vocals--wildly divergent not only in terms of genre, but also interpretation. Simon complained that the “true” Rachel never came through, that she was like a multiple personality and wasn’t defined enough to be right for the competition. Rachel immediately and firmly reminded him that the show demands the finalists sing in a different style every week, and that it wouldn’t be a problem because “I can sing anything.” And so Simon shut up. Nice chutzpah on Rachel’s part…but too much chutzpah over the course of the audition process could be grating. I don’t think she will make it to the Top 24.

Julie Isadora Furman: This girl, while not as off-her-rocker as Sarah Goldberg, was also not “all there.” Her yelping, pseudo-orgasmic, frequently unintelligible rendition of Lady Marmalade was totally bizarre. At first it seemed it was intended as a joke, but apparently not. The post-rejection footage showed Julie/Isadora to be genuinely upset at her dismissal. The semi-stupor of Isadora—I ask you, is that her baseline personality, the result of being trapped in a three-day audition process for naught, or purely from the rejection? Ryan couldn’t get a handle on it, nor could I.
I suspect this girl attends or attended my Alma Mater, Sarah Lawrence College.

In closing, it as been reported that Randy may be pulling in some favors to score a Mariah Carey-themed night. Given she has just come off a tremendous comeback, I’m sure she’ll be up for it, as she will not feel it stigmatizing in the let’s-trot-out-Barry-Manilow sort of way.

Here are some other ideas for artist-themed nights when the competition finally heats up:
The music of:
  • Cher (of course!)
  • Heart
  • Blondie
  • The Eagles
  • Linda Ronstadt

Each of these artists has a diverse enough sound and a wide and well-known repertoire, so there would be plenty of choices for the contestants when selecting songs. Recent mega-artists like Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, etc., have had a huge number of hits, but stylistically are very narrow, which makes them somewhat less appropriate.

Read More......

Thursday, January 25, 2007

American Idol: From Memphis to New York to Jumping the Shark?

If you look at the Jump the Shark page for American Idol, you'll see a wide array of posts. Some say the show never jumped the shark; some say it jumped way back when Tamyra Gray was booted. So far only one person says the show jumped when it began to make fun of people with disabilities. But I might have to second that emotion.

There were a lot of low points for me this week. I didn't enjoy watching Ashanti Johnson beg and plead for a 3rd trip to Hollywood, where she'd failed twice before. This bit went on far too long, and we had no context since they didn't show old footage of her Hollywood stints. I was slightly amused by Isadora Furman's orgasmic vocal stylings, but a prolonged interview with her made me sad when she seemed mentally imbalanced and declared she'd been at the audition for 3 days. Three days is a lot of time for the show to suck from someone's life while leading them on through prelminary audition rounds to think they have a great chance to make it. It's just mean.
Then there was Sarah Goldberg, who warbled "Dreaming of You" by Selena and appeared to have a completely skewed sense of reality as she went on a prolonged rant and admitted she couldnt sing but suggested that the judges could train her. Unless she's a brilliant actress, she's clearly mentally ill. Isn't this abusive behavior? Watching this show is akin to paying 25 cents to see the Bearded Lady and the Seal Boy at a freak show. Check out Sarah's hopeful mid-auditions posts on the USA Today Idol Chatter blog.

The show is supposed to be an emotional roller coaster, and the acceptable kind of heartbreak is that of Nakia Claiborne. Nakia was a ball of energy as she waited to audition. She radiated positivity, and I desperately wanted this jolly, four-eyed chubbette to make it to Hollywood. Her audition started off okay, with an uptempo "Dancing in the Streets." But then the judges asked her to sing a ballad, and the weaknesses of her voice became evident. She must be the light of her church choir, but that's the level where she should remain. As the rejections rained down from the judges, Nakia visibly shrank into herself. She paused at the doorway and pleaded, saying that many folks at home were rooting for her and she couldn't bear to disappoint them. The outcome didn't change, and hard as it was, it was the right verdict. These moments remind us that the show is really looking for an exceptional talent and that being sweet and fun just isn't enough. Hey, that's show business.

Amid all the sadness, there were some moments of joy this week. I loved Sundance Head, who Simon said "blew Taylor out of the park". I predict he'll go far. Sean Michel, who resembled Fidel Castro, surprised us all with a great voice, and I can't wait to see how he mixes with the other kids in Hollywood. Back-up singer Melinda Doolittle has an awesome voice but lacks confidence. She's very likable, and I think people will relate to her and root for her. Porcelana Patino, representin' Queens, probably doesn't have the voice to go far, but she can be an idol for Wendy O. Williams fans. Rachel Zevitz, a dead ringer for Dawn Weiner, showed she could sing pop as well as opera. Jenry Bejarno looks like a male model and has stage presence and a Yamin-esque bond with his mom. Jennifer Chapton, I hereby order you to hand over your title of "The Hotness" to Jenry.

And there was one bad audition I really loved - Ian Benardo. When Simon kicked him out, he asked if he could see Simon's working visa. His heavy NYC accent turned "All Night Long" into "Auwl Night Luong", and I'll never hear the suong the same way again.

Read More......

Seattle Auditions: American Idol or American Cripple?

C. Crumpet Swank weighs in...

The much ballyhooed "freaks in Seattle" that we've been hearing about for the last few weeks of American Idol promotion came to full fruition last night. The promises trumpeted on the radio were more than kept. Indeed, where on Earth does one begin with this motley crew?

Why not with the fear-inducing? Steven Thoen (a.k.a. "Red") and Nicholas Zitzmann were downright scary in a serial killer sort of way. I envision them joining forces, as part of an Idol-rejectee pact, with Red as the brawn and Nick as the brains--a demented duo terrorizing greater Seatlle in a series of dastardly murders a la Saw.

Nicholas is probably pretty harmless, but he had a weird intensity and was clearly a social cripple of sorts. It didn't help that he all but obliterated the charms of Unchained Melody, ulullating his way through it like a near-asphyxiated llama. Red was tuneless, but likewise intense, and clearly without much intelligence. He also had an awkward, defensive posture--you could hear his hinges creaking as he approached that state of being known as unhinged. Again, these are the types of characters that lend the audition sequences, for better or worse, a carnivalesque feel in the earliest stages of the competition.

After last night's cavalcade of kooks it appears that as far as the producers are concerned the motherlode of all footage is atrocious singing coupled with homely looks and lack of social awareness. How can we not conclude this when, once again, the auditions we saw were far more weighted towards the inept than the talented? I suppose one could argue that bad auditions far outstrip the good (which is why out of 100,000+ contestants only 125 or so are invited to Hollywood), but then again, we are tuning in for a talent competition, not a no-talent competition, right?

There is a proverbial line to be crossed, however, and last night it might very well have been breached, namely in the extensive footage of Kenneth Briggs and Jonathon Jayne. These two boys bonded in the green room (a camaraderie seemingly encouraged by Ryan--perhaps with ulterior motives?) and we were privy to their poor auditions in their entirety. Visually, Kenneth's chances were hampered from the get-go; he looked like had some sort of birth defect. It was hard not to dwell on his mis-shaped skull, protruding ears, and buggy eyes. Matters were not helped by his lame rendition of Tearining Up My Heart. It was almost poignant, though. His well-thought out, but sad-sack choreography; his spirited, but pathetic vocal; his alarming looks--this guy is the closet thing to William Hung, since Mr. She-Bangs himself. Perhaps Kenneth will be able to parlay his abject failure on Idol into something lucrative as well. He certainly has an optimistic outlook. When Simon focused a bit too much on the unenviability of Kenneth's appearance, the young man stood up for himself and it was a moment of self-gallantry that was a joy to behold.

Turns out my suspicions about birth defects were true (Kenneth suffers from Aarskog Syndrome), which begs the question--should the producers parade such woebegone contestants in front of us for our mirthful appreciation (or is that disdain)? In a way it's an insult, the producers baiting us, so sure are they of our willingness to deride contestants like Kenneth. I think the laugh will be on the execs, however, because I think they are underestimating the character of the viewing public.

It is this underestimation that most probably fueled the decision to air Jonathon's footage. Portly Jonathon, who doesn't look fat, but rather looks like he's wearing a fat suit, operated in and out of the audition in a glazed, lisping fog that at worst is mild retardation, at best Asperger's Syndrome or some like autistic state. For my money, his audition should never have been shown. Even though the judges were polite, and Jonathon accepted his dismissal calmly, the damage was done in terms of the show's credibility as regards its intentions. Why show us this type of encounter? To what good? For what insight? Perhaps the producers are testing the water and plan a spin-off called American Cripple, where the physically and mentally disadvantaged compete in skill areas that are beyond their abilities?

The producers need to realize that there is a difference between encouraging us to snicker at the Jonathon/Kenneth's of the world vs. the likes of Jennifer Chapton. You do remember, Jennifer, right? The one who looks like the misbegotten love-child of Liev Schrieber and Miss Edie, the Egg-Lady of John Waters fame? Jennifer's voice wasn't terrible--it was perhaps serviceable--but it was trapped in a needless tangle of poorly executed melismatic riffs that she thought made her sound Mariah-like. Yet what made her so damn appalling was the pure hideousness of her manner. Now, lest you think I am being cruel, I will preface my venom with an aknoweldgement that Jennifer, for all I know, may be the sweetest girl in the world--a principled dove, generous and golden-hearted. Trouble is, all we saw was a crass, harshly-painted, poorly-spoken harridan of girl. A guttersnipe, if you will.

Big tits, little tits, I don't care what size you have--I have no preference--but forgive me for laughing when you are a member of the little-itty-bitty-titty-committee and you bosom your way around the room as if you work at Hooters. If your large, ungainly nose comes perilously close to touching your upper lip, don't exacerbate the problem by garish lipstick and thick lip-liner. Also, learn to accept criticism graciously, whether you agree with it or not. This rule goes hand in hand with, Do not sputter grammatically horrendous refutations, e.g., "You dough no nothin' 'bout music," ad nauseam, until you have to be told to shut up. Do not confuse an A&R exec's skill with his singing ability; they need not correspond ("Simon, you nevah cut a record!"). Do not assert, unironically, that your nickname is The Hotness, when you are, quite unanimously, the furthest thing from it. This girl was so full of herself with so little reason, it was truly astonishing. She was vain, ugly, dumb, and aggressive. Certainly no idol of any sort, and one can only hope, not intrinsically American. It was hard not to want to kick Miss Chapton in the face and hope for a better outcome.

And so I found myself delighted by Darwin (oh the irony!) Misha Reedy who was a total fruitcake, but a decidedly sweet and delicious one at that. Darwin (like her namesake) seemed to be operating on a different mental plane than anyone else in the room. She was totally goofy in appearance, speech and sense of humor--a prime target for a make-over, but the more I have thought about her, the more I like her just the way she is, unaplogetically herself--owing, no doubt, to her Mom, whose similarly discombobulated psyche and appearance we were likewise treated to. Darwin's voice was not good, but her spirit was great!

[Her lack of a bra, however, was a serious offense. When one's pendulosity factor is on par with a well-endowed 74-year-old, one mustn't walk around with one's continental shelf left to its own devices. No one wants to see the hanging gardens of Babylon resurrected and we only end up feeling embarassed for you (especially when you clumsily smack your contestant number to your breasts, like a label to a side of ham). Mom Reedy, get your girl to Bloomingdale's. They will do a professional brassiere fitting for free.]

And now, some parting glances--

ANNA KEARNS, a.k.a. Amazonia. I liked her moves a lot, but her voice, although good, wasn't anything special. I'm hoping she can rev it up in Hollywood. And why didn't they show us for more than a millisecond (in the commercial preview) of Anna and Paula standing beside each other? I'd use that as wallpaper.

BLAKE LEWIS, a.k.a. Beat Box Boy. He had a lot of charisma and was an impressive beat-boxer, but his voice was good and not much more. Can he bring more to the table than what we saw in the first audition?

MELISSA "CARLENE" STAVROS. Baby definitely has some back (and much elsewhere!), but did all appendages no favor by sausaging them in pink hosiery. Instead of Carlene, I wanted to call her Kielbasa. Nevertheless, I thought she was totally charming. She was clearly having a good time, and I admired how when Randy requested Sir-Mix-a-Lot, she didn't hesitate for even half a second, launching in to a lusty, swivelling rendition of that most famous "ass" song. You go, girl! Moreover, I thought her voice was decent; certainly not the voice of a finalist, but at least as good as Blake Lewis's. Further proof that looks count more in the assessment of the female contestants.

JORDIN SPARKS. Everybody seems to think she's all that and a bag of chips, but I didn't bite. Her voice was strong, but unexceptional, and her look for me was of that pleasant and non-descript ethnically-vague variety that gets chicer by the day. Plus, she loses major points for that deliberate misspelling in her first name. There is no "i" in Jordin, honey.

Until next time, may your house be full of juicy dog noses...

Read More......

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sympathy for the Bush Baby

There was a lot of build-up about the Seattle American Idol auditions being the worst ever, and this 2-hour freak show lived up to the hype. The first misguided youth was Jennifer Chapton, who called herself “The Hotness” without a hint of irony and who responded to Simon’s criticism with ebonics-infused nonsensical retorts.

Of the Seattle wack pack, the standouts were Darwin “Mischa” Reedy and her mom, who conjured up images from Grey Gardens. It’s hard to say if the amply-endowed Mischa’s failure to wear a bra or her failure to sing in tune doomed her audition, but there was something strangely fascinating about this pair. I think they deserve their own reality show.

The show did cross the meanness line in its treatment of new BFFs Jonathan Jayne and Kenneth Briggs. The rotund, genial Jonathan seemed a little slow, and Kenneth had eyes that bugged out of his head. Simon told Kenneth he looked like a bush baby, which was really uncalled for. A news story about Kenneth's grandma's outrage over his treatment mentions that Kenneth has a disease called Aarskog Syndrome. It’s one thing to berate people for auditioning when they can’t carry a tune, or even for being overweight which is something they could theoretically control, but since when is mocking people for their birth defects acceptable behavior? Still, Kenneth and Jonathan may have the last laugh. they've already appeared on Jimmy Kimmel's show, and they’ll likely parlay their humiliation-based fame into a free trip to LA and appearance on the grand finale.

There were a few bright lights. Rudy Cardenas sang “Open Arms” capably. Brother and sister Shyamali and Sanjaya Malakar had a cute rivalry/camaraderie, and it will be fun to see how they progress during Hollywood week. Blake Lewis beat-boxed his way to a golden ticket, and fresh-faced, talented Jordin Sparks seemed to have the total package.

I think four hours of bad auditions this week was a bit much for all of us. It’s no wonder Rosie, Larry King and others raised the alarm flag. I guess I’d prefer a little more balance between the showcasing of the good and the bad, and a lot less of the ugly.

Read More......

Alone With Her

Sometimes the setting in which you watch a movie makes all the difference in its effectiveness. For example, I vividly recall watching Witchboard as a teen alone in my house at night, and it was terrifying. When I watched it again recently, I found myself laughing more than being scared and marvelling at how I could have been scared by a Tawny Kitaen film.

So last night, I watched a screener of Alone With Her at home alone with my dog. The movie concerns a girl who lives alone with her dog who is stalked by a surveillance expert. Understandably, my setting contributed to my being utterly creeped-out.

But I think this film will work no matter where it's watched. It really takes the killer's POV to the extreme, and director Eric Nicholas devises creative expressions for the subjective camera. The film is a very 21st century update on the first film to ever horrify us by letting us see through the killer's eyes - Peeping Tom.

Colin Hanks plays Doug, a shy loner and surveillance geek. Doug randomly picks a victim, Amy (Ana Claudia Talancon), when he spots her alone in a park with her dog, crying quietly as she watches a couple making out. He immediately begins to follow her and seizes an opportunity to break into her apartment, where he plants spy cams in every room including the bathroom. Our view of the action as it unfolds comes only through these cameras. We learn about Amy's life in all its intimate details - her masturbation technique, her confessions to her best friend, her loneliness. There are many nifty shots, including the POV from a camera Doug hides in a gym bag when he follows Amy, complete with a zippered border on the shots. Doug gradually gets to know Amy, by pretending to have common interests, conveniently showing up at the coffeehouse she frequents, and helping her when she's in trouble. A friendship develops which fills us with more anxiety, as Amy grows to trust him and lets him into her apartment and into her life.

It would have been nice to learn more about the killer, but the film's faithfulness to its storytelling doesn't allow for that. It's also a little unclear why he fixates on Amy. She's cute but doesn't seem particularly interesting as a character. Hanks does a good job walking the line between nice guy/creep, but Talancon doesn't do much to elevate her character beyond a horror movie damsel in distress. So, while the film doesn't really break new ground in terms of its narrative, it's definitely good for some creepy thrills, especially if you're a girl with a dog watching it in the house alone at night.

Read More......

Friday, January 19, 2007

Idol Day One:The Search for a Sniglet

C. Crumpet Swank weighs in...

As much as I typically enjoy the audition segments of American Idol, something seemed not quite right with the first installment of this year's edition. At the start of the episode I wasn't sure if the producers were setting up the "makeover artist"--the young girl who makes suburban Midwestern gals "look like supermodels" (her words not mine, and not entirely accurate, by the way)--for a tremendous crash and burn or to launch the show on a positive note if she were to reveal a truly lovely voice and get her ticket to Hollywood. This girl was painfully earnest, genuinely sweet, and perhaps not very bright. She was like Kellie Pickler's less shapely, and less attractive cousin by marriage. This girl had genuine belief (if not killer ambition) regarding her singing, and the situation was made all the more poignant by her avowed love of Jewel, the guest judge. Indeed, the song she prepped was You Were Meant for Me, Jewel's biggest hit.

And so I braced myself…and the sweet-hearted mall make-up artist sang. What came out wasn't terrible, but it wasn't terribly good either. Her singing was very mannered, somewhat aping the vocal quirks Jewel employs, but without the natural skill or ease. Indeed, she tried very hard, but instead of succeeding, came across as an overly self-conscious singer, even though she wasn't the least bit self-conscious as a person. It was a cruel irony.

The judges tried to let her down easy, but you could tell this girl's dream was crushed. Not only crushed, but crushed ten feet in front of her favorite singer no less (and, of course, in front of thirty million Americans). But wait, it gets even better (or worse) depending on your point of view. When this young lady came out of the audition room and broke the bad news to her family, it was as if the cameras were literally itching for a nervous breakdown. There were even stretches of silence--virtually unheard of in our hyper-edited prime-time world--because the producers clearly wanted to wrench every bit of disappointment, disbelief, and desolation from this girl's whirl through the Idol machine. It certainly didn't make me feel good watching this reverse-coronation and I question why the producers, with over 10,000 Minneapolis contestants, felt obliged to showcase this girl's battered dreams as not only the first audition of the evening, but of the entire season, and to spend an inordinate amount of time focused on every element of it. It struck me as cynical and slightly vicious. I daresay even Simon would object to the way it was used to frame the episode and season. I must give props to the young lady, however, as she eventually composed herself and graciously added some final comments which demonstrated inner strength and a laudable poise which I hadn't expected.

Alas, Minneapolis coughed up few notable performers. Despite my tremendous excitement about the return of Idol, I have to admit the two hours of auditions dragged on a bit. Halfway through I thought, why aren't they showing us more good performers instead of all these crappy ones? But when at the end of the episode they revealed that only 17 people were sent on to Hollywood, out of 10,000, I had my answer--there just weren't enough to go around. In reality we probably saw 8 or 9 of the Hollywood-bound, which is actually more than half who got golden tickets. The powers-that-be didn’t (and probably wisely so) show us clips of all those going forth, because they want to keep some surprises among the ranks duiring Hollywood Week next month.

Now, regarding some of those with whom we shared time last night--remember sniglets? Sure you do, sniglets were a series of "new" words coined in the late 80s to name things previously unnamed but universally understood. The season premiere of Idol has convinced me, more than ever, that the show has begat the need for a sniglet, one to classify those auditioners who:

  1. have no discernible talent (none!) for singing/dancing/performing,
  2. but who are convinced otherwise
  3. and are furious--you can see the rage flickering in their eyes--with the judges for suggesting otherwise
  4. and express this rage post-audition with poor grammar, flustered faces, and liberal slashes of profanity

Four qualifications to fall under that sniglet, but oh how so many contestants do. Like the mumbly teenager who said, with the utmost conviction (albeit almost unintelligibly), that his vocal range was comparable to Mariah Carey, and then proceeded forth in a tuneless dirge; suddenly left the room for some water to refresh himself; and returned and resumed the dirge. And attempted two or three other tunes in the same flat, tuneless, horrible, mess. He easily fulfilled all four qualifications in my yet-to-be coined sniglet. So too the 16-year-old boy who purported to be an excellent singer, dancer and juggler and quickly showed us that he was none of the above; indeed, not remotely competent as a singer or dancer and possessed of juggling skills not quite the envy of a fourth-grade, first-year juggling student. When he charged out of the room, I honestly feared he was going to harm someone. He then burst into tears and his dumpy. big-banged female relative quietly assured him to disregard the judges,that he would still be famous, as was his wont. It was really pathetic, but an experience somehow so very different from the girl with marginal talent who opened the show. This boy was so awkward and socially inept, in addition to his total lack of performing skill, that I wasn't moved by his plight at all. I didn't even feel pity. More like scorn, scorn for the combination of his complete self-delusion, social irredeemability and misplaced anger. Does this make me a meanie? I'm not sure, but my feeling toward such a sniglet-type feels nothing like the discomfort and self-questioning I experienced at the beginning of the show witnessing Miss Makeover's deracination.

And Big Brenna! That was a frightful affair. I wanted to like her, truly, I did. I hoped she was going to sing wonderfully, although I hardly suspected so. It was hard not to root for someone who was so clearly an Idol devotee (watcher of not only American Idol, but also of Pop Idol [UK], Canadian Idol and Moldavian Idol! She also seemed to have a good sense of humor in her chit-chat with Ryan, but whenever she opened her mouth in front of the judges...goodness gracious! She absolutely trashed Under Pressure, and I thought, surely this is stunt--she's a huge fan and is acting wacky so that she can actually be on the show (I think Jewel suspected the same), but post-audition it seemed as if her effort was serious in intention. As Whitney Houston would say, that's whack! I literally gasped when, as a means of defending her performance, she maintained that she had a degree in vocal performance. That can only mean one thing--who cares who the next Idol is going to be? I want to know what college pimped Brenna and for how much? Because if that was the best singing she could offer after completing a four-year degree in vocal performance, someone's tenure needs to be revoked.

Where was the sunshine in Minneapolis? Well, there was cutie Matt Sato who had the best male voice-- lush, warm, genuinely emotive--on display during the premiere. And he seems to know how to control it, which is always important, of course. He’s also handsome aside from the spots on his face. I could not tell if it was acne or unfortunately placed moles. If the former, he needs to get some Proactiv pronto; if the latter he needs to get himself to the cosmetic surgeon. Cindy Crawford, Madonna and Marilyn Monroe have shown that there’s nothing wrong with a strategic facial mole, but one smack dab on the tips of their noses wouldn’t have flown, I’m sure.

Denise Jackson had a warm, gracious personality and a strong, impressive voice. She will be of course helped by her crack-baby backstory, but even without pity points for that, her voice seemed impressive enough for her to justly earn a berth in the competition. The performance we saw was a bit overemphatic vocally, and it will remain to be seen whether she can ratchet down the intensity a bit, which she will need to do to excel across genres.

Sarah Krueger, who sang Over the Rainbow was effortlessly impressive, but it all seemed a tad polished and she was a little too reserved personality-wise for my tastes. She seems like a McPhee type, but not as pretty. No doubt about it, she earned her ticket to Hollywood, but I’m wondering if she’s a little too slick for her own good.

The military girl—I liked the tone of her voice better than anybody else, but I’m not convinced she has adequate control over her instrument, as they say. I was in total agreement with the judges—she started off amazingly, and then faltered. I would love to see her get it together since there’s no vanity there, and she seems very nice in the best sense of the word. A woman of honor, in more ways than one. I’m definitely rooting for her. And besides, there should always be at least one smokey-voiced gal in the finals (like Camille Velasco or Lindsay Cardinale in past seasons). What’s interesting too, is that the smokey voice usually goes with a seductive type, and this girl is anything but that, and I fancy the irony.

And who did I like the best—well, call me a typical male, but I really liked the South American girl who fled to America at 15 and is chasing her dream. She’s a real charmer. Clearly, she’s not going to have the strongest voice on the show and her accent is going to get in the way, but she had a real genuine exuberance, was entirely comfortable in front of the camera (eat that Carrie Underwood!), and had a clear, charming voice quite up to snuff. Add to this great looks, a killer body and a by-the-bootstraps back-story and you’ve got quite a candidate. I liked her rendition of Call Me, and her Hips Don’t Lie was literally as good as Shakira’s With the right material and some accent control she could have some staying power, a la Vonzell Solomon. And the underdog champion in me always likes to root for the person who doesn’t have the technically best voice, but compensates in a plethora of other ways. This is where we all acknowledge that our beloved Paula Abdul and Taylor Hicks are themselves beneficiaries of such all-around trooperism in any frank assessment of their own success as singers.

Read More......

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Idol Returns and Subjects Jewel to Foolish Games

American Idol is back! I am so excited to devote 4 hours of my life this week to seeing a few dreams nurtured and many more crushed. Apparently it's easier to find a needle in a haystack or Prince at the Golden Globes than to find new talent in Minneapolis. Out of 10,000 contestants, only 17 made it through to Hollywood.

As for the talented, the most promising would seem to be Sarah Krueger, who had a pleasant voice and an amazing head of brown curls, and Denise "Crack Baby" Jackson, who had a harder luck story than Fantasia's and the chutzpah to take on the Jennifer Holliday/Jennifer Hudson "And I Am Telling You" song from Dreamgirls. I also liked Matt Sato, a shy kid with a strong voice and a big zit on his nose. After he got his golden ticket, he phoned his unsupportive mother who had begrudged him his show choir funding and didn't drive him to the audition. She was finally happy for him, and he choked back tears and said, "She's proud of me." I must admit I got a little verklempt. There were also two military people who made it through. Apparently wearing a military uniform to an Idol audition works almost as well as wearing one to a taping of The Price is Right.

There was something a bit off about Dayna Dooley, whose boss funded her trip to audition and accompanied her after she had failed the LA audition. Simon and Randy had visions of boss/secretary porno movies in their head until the genial, harmless-seeming boss was brought into the room. Still, the way Dayna sang "Fever" to her boss made me just as suspicious as Simon. In the end, the judges decided she was attractive but not talented enough for the next round.

There were many trainwrecks. Brenna Kyner resembled Ozzy in the mid-80s, sported a tattoo designed by her Idol Ace Young, and screeched her way through "Under Pressure." Charles Moody sang an opera song while dressed as Apollo Creed. My favorite was Trista Giese who did an bizarre impression of the Cowardly Lion. She was hurt when Simon rejected her and even refused to keep the poster she made for the judges. "You guys are cold," guest judge Jewel said. Remember, Jewel once recorded a song called "I'm Sensitive." Judging Idol may not be a good fit for her, and she wasn't much of a value add. I wonder if she will write any poetry about this experience. Dischord and rhyme, anyone?

Read More......

Monday, January 15, 2007

Golden Globes Live Blog

The West Coast Golden Globes live blog starts here in a few minutes...I hope the celebs are busy getting good and drunk.

8:02 PM - From the star-filled International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton...things kick off with George Clooney presenting Best Supporting Actress to Jennifer Hudson. Nice speech and I'm glad to see her win. I notice American Idol wasn't part of her acceptance speech. Should Beyonce get an acting award for getting teary eyed?

8:06 PM - Justin Timberlake presents Best Song to Prince, who's not there, so JT pretends to be as short as Prince and says thanks on his behalf. There goes his chance at getting his vocals on a Prince-penned song like "Sugar Walls" or "Manic Monday".

8:11 PM - Miss Golden Globe is introduced. It's Lorraine Nicholson, daughter of Jack Nicholson and Rebecca Broussard. It was her conception that broke up Jack and Anjelica. She's a beautiful girl, and Jack looks very much the proud papa. Jeremy Irons wins for best supporting actor in a TV series and seems to have borrowed his wardrobe from Pirates of the Carribbean.

8:26 PM - What's harder to find - someone who cares what the Hollywood Foreign Press guy has to say, or Renee Zelwegger's eyes?

8:33 - Hugh Laurie wins for House. I've never seen his show so I can't judge, but I was hoping Bill Paxton or Michael C. Hall would win. Still, Hugh gets points for an amusing speech, especially the gag about wishing designers would have offered him a free acceptance speech.

8:42 PM - If Charlie Sheen lets his hair grow a little longer, he could play Robert Smith in a Cure biopic.

8:46 PM - Cars wins Best Animated Film, a new category for the Globes. The director Steve Lassiter (left) is rather, um, animated.

8:47 PM - Yay! Meryl Streep wins for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. I doubt she'll be able to beat Helen or Dame Judy on Oscar night but she definitely deserved some recognition for her great performance in The Devil Wears Prada. She was able to humanize a character that was completely cartoonish in the book. This was the rare exception where the movie was way better than the book, largely due to the acting (and the wardrobe helped, too). Nice speech, too, and plea for wider distribution of little films.

9:02 PM - Eddie Murphy wins Best Supporting Actor. As a Jack fan, I'm disappointed, but I guess Jack has enough awards. I need to see Dreamgirls. I spy Prince in the crowd. Was he stuck in traffic when his name was called earlier? Or was he in the toilet like Christine Lahti?

9:11 PM - Reese Witherspoon is sitting dangerously close to Jack. He will surely offer to help her rebound from Ryan. Nice to see Bill Nighy and Helen Mirren win awards.

9:18 PM - It looks like Cameron Diaz has a toilet brush tucked into her dress. Why do so many of these up-dos look sloppy? I wish they'd show scenes from these nominated movies instead of trailers.

9:23 PM - Another odd couple - Jack Nicholson and Sean Combs - aka Proud Daddy and Puff Daddy. Glad to see Alec Baldwin win.

9:31 PM - It's mildly surprising to see Ugly Betty win Best TV Comedy. I would have voted for The Office, but my ballot must have gotten lost in the mail.

9:38 PM - Clint picks up the Best Foreign Film award for Letters from Iwo Jima and quips "You don't know what this does for my confidence", aping Jennifer Hudson's speech.

9:46 PM - Mystery solved courtesy of Hugh Grant. Prince was stuck in traffic. How very LA! Now he gets to take a bow. America Ferarra wins Best Actress in a Comedy TV Series. Nice speech, and if you haven't seen Real Women Have Curves, rent it.

9:58 PM - Tom Hanks presents the Cecil B. Demille award to Warren Beatty. Warren looks very squinty. The montage is a bit long and so is the speech, but good crack about getting Arnold to become a Democrat.

10:24 PM - Martin Scorsese wins Best Director. Let's hope this is an indicator he'll finally win the big one and stop being the Susan Lucci of the Oscars.

10:27 PM - Reese Witherspoon joins tonight's club of Actresses with Messy Hair as she presents Best Actor in a Comedy to Sacha Baron Cohen. He's actually a good-looking guy - what a difference a moustache can make. Not surprisingly, he gets the Golden Globe for funniest speech of the night for his detailed recounting of his nude wrestling scene and thanking every American who hasn't sued him.

10:37 PM - Dreamgirls wins Best Comedy or Musical. Nothing surprising there, except that I have nothing negative to say about J. Lo's appearance - nice hair and classy dress.

10:43 PM - The Cox-Arquettes present Best TV Series - Drama to Grey's Anatomy. Philip Seymour Hoffman in a Borat moustache presents Best Actress in a Dramatic Motion Picture to the richly deserving Helen Mirren for The Queen. I just watched this movie for the second time last night and I was again impressed by her performance. She manages to convey so much while keeping a stiff upper lip.

10:52 PM - Forest Whitaker wins Best Actor in a Drama, beating out Leo who was nominated twice in this category. He's speechless. He's got a great body of work, so I'm glad to see him get some recognition.

11:00 PM - Alec Baldwin claps sarcastically for Arnold. Babel wins. Could it be this year's Crash?

The show ends, just a few minutes late.
I guess this makes Dreamgirls and Babel the Oscar frontrunners for Best Picture. I have to say the Globes were short on drunken hijinks this year, but long on close-ups and references to Jack, and that's entertaining for me at least.

Read More......

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Alpha Dog

See Alpha Dog and your doubts about Justin Timberlake's acting ability should go bye, bye, bye. Playing the most likable of a gang of punk kid drug dealers, Timberlake is the human center of the film. He can move convincingly from joking around to the threat of violence in seconds. Sure, one never quite forgets that's Justin covered in fake tattoos, but given more time, I think we will be able to accept him in a variety of roles.

Alpha Dog recounts a disturbing true story about a kidnapping that goes awry. Johnny True Love (Emile Hirsch), the leader of a youth drug dealing gang, decides on a whim to motivate his deadbeat client Jake (a riveting Ben Foster) by kidnapping Jake's 15-year-old brother, Zack. One of Johnny's henchmen, Frankie (Timberlake) is charged with keeping the boy hidden until Johnny can either get the money Jake owes him or figure out another way to resolve the situation. Frankie takes Zack to his dad's house in Palm Springs for several days of partying. While Frankie and Zack become friends, Johnny begins to realize the repercussions of this kidnapping and the lack of an easy way out. Tension escalates as the film builds to a violent conclusion.

In some ways, Alpha Dog is just a retread of familiar "youth gone wild" territory. It would be hard to top River's Edge or the work of Larry Clark in that genre, and this film could have been pitched as "Bully meets Porky's". Zack's fun Palm Springs holiday, in which he smokes a lot of weed, gets drunk, and loses his virginity to not one but two hotties in a swimming pool, is entertaining, but an overwhelming sense of dread hangs over the film. Numerous witnesses look the other way as the kidnapping escalates, leaving the viewer with a sense of hopelessness.

Director Nick Cassavetes, known for heavy-handed films like John Q and The Notebook, had to add a moral to this story, and his message is that the apathetic and self-absorbed parents are to blame for the amoral kids. Bruce Willis is pretty flat as Johnny's dad, but then maybe that's the point. Sharon Stone is better as Zack's overprotective mother, but she is saddled with a ridiculous fat suit for some of the film, which was unnecessary and distracting. The set design, highlighted by antiseptic Palm Springs homes filled with modern furniture, conveys the emptiness of the characters' lives and the coldness of the affluent families.

The acting of the film's young stars is universally excellent and makes the film worth a look. Ben Foster nearly steals the film, with a visceral performance as a violent tweaker. One rampage involves him breaking into Johnny's house and taking a dump on his living room carpet. There is also a devastating scene where he loses his telemarketing job because his boss realizes he's high. His affection for his brother keeps him from being cartoonish. Sean Hatosy is believable as a pathetic hanger-on, Anton Yelchin conveys Zack's wonderment well, and Emile Hirsch embodies a quiet vacuousness as he grapples with terminal indecision as Johnny. All that, plus Harry Dean Stanton as a horny crony of Johnny's dad, a vision of the future for these thugged-out kids.

As this depressing yet engrossing film reminds us: the kids aren't all right.

Read More......