Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Day at the Arcade Expo

I've driven to Palm Springs from LA many times, and often stopped in Banning to visit Hadley's Fruit Orchards for one of their famous date shakes, but I had no idea that the town also housed an incredible Museum of Pinball that was the site of last weekend's Arcade Expo. It's a 40,000 square foot facility situated on 18 acres with 800 pinball and arcade games! The Arcade Expo was a 3-day celebration of pinball and vintage arcade games, with live music, food and drink, vendors, and panel discussions. We were just there for the first day - Friday.  Admission was $35 for one day, including unlimited free play on the games, or $100 for all 3 days. We got a groupon that saved us half off the daily admission. 

Upon arrival, we spent some time in the pinball room which was a giant warehouse-sized space housing hundreds of @ 500 pinball machines.  You can see the full list of pinball and arcade games here.  Unlike many arcades, the room was laid out with plenty of space in the aisles to allow for comfortable game play. Machines were arranged by decade so a stroll through the space took us on a tour of pinball history.  They had some of the latest machines like Metallica and AC/DC. They even had an "adults only" room that had a couple machines with adult themes like The Sopranos and Sexy Girl, and black lighting.  The back corner was reserved for a weekend-long pinball tournament called "It Never Drains in Southern California" and there were monitors above the machines so spectators could watch the competitors.  They had Hercules - the largest pinball machine ever produced, and Joust - a two-player game that was set up like a cocktail arcade table where both players could play at the same time.  

Another large room housed all the video games and vendors with video game memorabilia. We talked to the guy at the Intellivision booth and checked out the new all-in-one Intellivision machine with all the games built in (and those same shitty controllers!).  We had a blast roaming the arcade and playing Dig Dug, Kick!, Breakout, Dragon's Lair and many other games from our misspent youth.  It brought me back to the days my mom would drop me off at Showbiz Pizza with a roll of quarters and go do her shopping. Would any parent leave a 10 year old in an arcade unattended these days? We got sucked into Magical Tetris Challenge - a tetris game with Disney characters where both players play at the same time. I said we couldn't stop until I won a game and it took me about 45 minutes to pull that off. 

Elsewhere on the museum grounds, there was a food court with burgers, hot dogs, pupusas, and craft beer (including Centipede IPA).  We visited a shooting gallery with gun-oriented video games.  There was a popular tent that housed pinball vendors and some of the hottest new games including The Walking Dead, KISS, Game of Thrones, WWE Wrestling, and, um, Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons.  After seeing so many degrading images of women in the clutches of demons or being rescued by Conan the Barbarian types on all the vintage pinball machines, it was disappointing to see that we haven't in fact come a long way, baby, when it comes to representation in pinball.  It's a male-dominated hobby and this is supposed to be kitschy humor.  Here's an article with more info on the controversy around this Whoa Nellie! machine.  

The day passed quickly. We had a drink in the cocktail lounge but were disappointed that the vintage pong cocktail table machine wasn't working. There quite a few machines not working, but many volunteer techs were there fixing them as quick as they could, so by the time we walked by again, they'd be working. Dave had a rum drink served in a coconut - a fun take on the "ball" theme of the day. We would have hung out in the bar longer, but there was a huge vintage bowling game that was super loud and took up a lot of space in the small bar.


At 9:00 PM, we went to the theater room for a presentation by Walter Day, founder of the Twin Galaxies arcade and related organization that is the authority for video game competitions and world record validation, and Billy Mitchell, world record holder and super villain as portrayed in The King of Kong.  I was surprised at how tall Billy was, although I guess a couple of inches come from his hair. They answered audience questions. Billy said he hasn't seen any of the movies he appears in, which surprised me. He hadn't seen King of Kong although he's one of the main players in it, and he hadn't seen Pixels, where Peter Dinklage plays a villain that looks a heckuva lot like Billy. I would think curiosity would get the better of him.  

Billy showed a short film about Zack Hample, who is best known as a baseball collector but also holds some video game records including Super Breakout and Arkanoid. I was interested as a baseball fan but the video had no content at all about his video game prowess so it seemed an odd choice to show. Billy said the point was that if you could be obsessed and great at catching foul balls and home run balls and become the best in the country at it, that was the same type of dedication you needed to master a video game and be able to play Centipede for 47 hours straight as he had done. They started to show another short film about video game designers, and we went back to gaming.

Later, we ran into Billy and I asked if we could take a photo.  He posed for pics with me and Dave and also gave me a box of cookies that I suppose some fan had given him. We debated on the way home if we should eat the cookies or not. If someone felt he was a true villain, perhaps they added ex-lax.  Dave ate a few cookies without any negative effects.  I didn't find Billy to be at all villainous in person. He was gracious in answering fan questions and posing for pics.  I believe he was at the event the whole weekend, participating in panels and doing more screenings.  

The crowd got larger as the night wore on, and there were DJs spinning 80s tunes in the video game room. The evening DJ did a "name the TV or movie theme song" game with the crowd and kept everyone having fun.  There was also live music in the beer garden area. We saw Timon Marmex - a guy dressed kind of like Dr. Who playing a synth. It was quirky but didn't hold our attention - plus it was damn cold even with the heaters they had set up. Because of the cold, we didn't check out the Starcade - an outdoor gaming area where you could play video games and look at the stars - but it's a cool idea and would be great in summer. 

I wish the Museum of Pinball was open all the time, but the owner feels he doesn't have the ability to staff it and keep all the games running. I think it would draw a lot of tourists who are visiting Palm Springs or the nearby Casino Morongo and outlet mall in Cabazon, just as the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas draws tourists from the Strip.  I would definitely go back to play again. We were there for 8 hours but the time flew by, and I didn't manage to beat Dave at Dig Dug so we have unfinished business.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

American Idol: The Final Auditions!

This was the final Auditions show ever! The judges couldn't tell anyone to try again next year. San Francisco was the location, and it proved fruitful.

The Good

Jessica Cabral - Jessica's parents came from Brazil and were musicians. She's a worship music director - we've had a lot of those this season. She's got a beautiful voice, nice control of it, too. Harry said he would be shocked if she didn't make it far and J Lo said she reminded her of Kelly. 

Brian Dale Brown - He's a big goofball who has auditioned 10 times. He did Scooby doo and Keith Urban impressions and sang "Unchained Melody". I thought it was a no for sure because he was so hammy, but the judges thought if he could tone it down he could be good. I'm stunned they sent him to Hollywood. I guess they think the tense Hollywood Week will need some comic relief.

Melany Huber - She's only 17 but has recently battled stage 3 Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and has lost her hair. She had a tough time with chemo but now is cancer free and feels like she wants to go for it in life. She sang "Talking to the Moon" by Bruno Mars with a lot of emotion. J Lo said she naturally emotes. 

Rachel Karryn, Caroline Byrne, Bianca Espinal - These three were accompanied on guitar by grandfather, brother, dad respectively. A montage showed they all made it.

Chynna Sherrod - She sang "One Last Time" by Arianna Grande. She had a strong presence, lots of feeling, nice banter with the judges. She's very likable.

Lillian Glanton - She's from a poultry farm. She sang an original called "Country Boyfriend", and it was a clever song, Harry thought she was not good enough, but Keith and J Lo sent her through to Hollywood. She took a selfie with the judges. I thought she was cute and reminiscent of Kellie Pickler. 

Kacye Haynes - He is recently sober and has found solace in music. He sang "Brother" by NeedToBreathe. It was a split decision with Keith saying no. He's handsome, has a good vibe. Harry said he reminded him of both John Bon Jovi and Bono. 

Zach Person - He sang "Next Door Neighbor Blues" by Gary Clark Jr. He has a unique voice, but I didn't find it that ear pleasing. The judges loved his originality and confidence, but I think America may not be that into it. He's more of a niche personality.

Colette Lush - That's her real name and she has long red hair. She sang "Who's Loving You" by Jackson 5.  J Lo said she feels like Carrie Underwood just walked in. It seemed easy and natural. The judges expect her to go far and I do too, if American can overlook its ginger prejudice.

Avalon Young - She's a tomboy, wearing baggy t-shirt and ripped jeans. She was named for the song "Avalon" by Roxy Music and has the words tattooed on her arm. She sang "XO" by Beyonce, and the judges found her very original. She reminded me of Edie Brickell - cute, with a nice folksy vibe. 

Usen Isong - His parents are from Nigeria and he's a background actor but ready to move to the forefront. He sang "Not the Only One" by Sam Smith. He's got a big voice and fun personality. 

Jaci Butler - Her 3 bandmates live with her and her parents. Their band theme is black and green and they have black and green facepaint. She has lime green hair. She sang "It'll Rain" by Bruno Mars. I thought it was kind of average but the judges liked it. She does have a likable personality and she's something different. 

Stephany Negrete - She's a beautiful girl. She looked perfect - wore a great outfit, long straight hair reminiscent of 70s Cher and perfect makeup. She sang "Who's Loving You" by Jackson 5 - a popular choice this season.  J Lo observed that she was thinking too much about hitting the notes and not about the words, but all 3 judges felt she was talented enough to go to Hollywood.

Manny Torres - The final audition ever! He's Puerto Rican so he had J Lo on his side immediately. He sang "This Love" by Maroon 5. He's got a cute personality and big voice. 

The Bad

Cody Ostrenga - He's a three-time world champion western mounted Horse rider, which is a sport where you ride horses at speeds up to 45 mph and shoot at targets as you go. But he's also a belly dancer. He sang "Proud Mary" and danced. Judges said he was entertaining but his voice wasn't good enough. Well, at least we learned about a new sport. 

Gina Naomi Baez - She sang "Lips are Moving". She brought her dog Tinkerbell and they had matching outfits - blue dresses with yellow stars. It just wasn't very special, but she was devastated when the judges said no.

Justin Sullivan - He is obsessed with Kelly Clarkson and even wears T-shirts that say "Mr. Clarkson" on the back. He sang a Kelly song: "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger." The judges felt it had some moments but wasn't good enough. I think the judges were being too kind to this Kelly stalker. 

Next week - the top 190 head to Hollywood! 

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

American Idol: Auditions from All Over America

Tonight's episode skipped around again from Denver to Little Rock to Atlanta to Philly, etc.  

The Good

Miranda "Poh" Scott - Her sister Shi made the Top 24 last year, and she wanted to get out of her shadow. She sang "Fairy Tale" by Sara Bareilles and the judges loved her husky voice and confidence. She reminded me a bit of Amy Winehouse, just in the voice, not the persona. She's the one Keith is still thinking about at the end of the day. 

Amelia Eisenhauer - This ginger lass brought her fiddle which delighted Keith. She sang "Many Rivers" by Annie Lennox and revealed a big voice. She's quirky. She sings in a family band and brought a samurai sword with her but chose to leave it out of the audition room. She has some geeky appeal.

Joy Dove - This big, bubbly gal was so hyper that I thought she would fail, but she delivered a fun rendition of "Jambalaya" that Harry couldn't resist.  J Lo said she was envious of her big voice.

Mackenzie Bourg - This cutie has the same birthday as Harry and he's from Louisiana. He performed a medley of songs by the judges, and the judges ate it up. He has John Mayer type looks, bookish and sweet. He should go far. 

Jenna Renae - This pretty gal in a fedora played the piano and the judges found her soulful. I felt she overacted a bit in terms of emotion and gave too many meaningful looks.

Adam Lasher - He revealed a unique take on "Knocking on Heaven's Door." He made it to Hollywood last year, but this year he's back to try again with a more clean cut look. He's a cool dude, but maybe a bit cocky. 

Emily Brooke - She made it to Hollywood last year at age 15, but judges felt she needed to develop her gift more. She sang "Careless" by RaeLynn. I felt she had a Taylor Swift vibe. The judges felt she had improved a lot since last year. Harry found her the most memorable of the day.

The Bad

Andrew and Aaron Birdwell -  These brothers are self-proclaimed nerds who like board games. They perform a strange duet that Keith calls "a Gregorian acid trip" and Harry calls "a Gregorian can't."

Mario Bonds - Mario is outgoing and likable. He had a degenerative eye disease and went blind at age 10, struggled with behavior issues and is now on solid footing. He sang Natalie Cole's "Inseparable." He had talent but the performance was kinda heavy handed, and pitchy in places. Judges said they love him as a person but he's not good enough for the show. He cried. This was hard to watch. I felt he might have been good enough to go to Hollywood, but he probably wouldn't have made it out of there. 

Only one more night of auditions to go...

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Friday, January 15, 2016

American Idol: Still More Denver and Little Rock Auditions

Tonight we got 2 hours of auditions from Little Rock and Denver. We also saw some auditions from those cities last week. I think I preferred the old format when an episode was devoted to one city. It gave you more of a feel for that part of the country. Tonight, they skipped around so much that I couldn't keep track of who was auditioning where. 

The Good

Amber Lynn - She sang the Allen Stone song "Unaware." J Lo said she had a lot of soul. She was accompanied by her friend James the 8th on guitar, and she convinced him to audition too.

James the 8th - He sang "Sun Comes Up" by John Legend. His contorted face was a bit hard to watch, but he demonstrated a soulful voice and made it through. He's the 8th generation in his family to have the same name, hence the catchy nickname "James the 8th."

Chris "CJ" Johnson - He's a professional musician with some cool tattoos that Keith complimented. He sang Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True" and put a lot of swagger and soul into it. He's one of my favorites so far. 

Ethan Kuntz - This kid from Nashville, AR was so sweet and polite that he called the judges sir and ma'am. I have to overlook the fact that his family breeds dogs because I like everything else about him. He sang "Stormy Monday" by The Allman Brothers - an odd choice for a 15-year-old. He definitely has the blues and a big voice to match. Harry didn't think he was ready but Keith and J Lo put him through to Hollywood.  

Mary Williams - She loves horses and sparkly clothes. She's a world champion mule rider. She has a classic country voice, but Keith felt it was missing the feeling that Tammy Wynette put into the song. Harry and J felt all the feels and gave her a golden ticket. 

Terrian - She's from North Memphis and talked about growing up in a rough neighborhood, yet she sang "Happy" by Pharrell. She's stylish and pretty and reminded me of Lauryn Hill.

Thomas Stringfellow - His family takes in foster kids, and he dedicated his quest for gold to them. This cutie sang "Give me Love" by Ed Sheeran. He has a mellow poise about him, with boy band looks. 

Tywan "Tank" Jackson - They showed this heavy guy dancing in the crowd and I thought it was going to be a bad audition for sure. I was totally wrong. He sang "Superstar" by Luther Vandross and wowed the judges. And before he sang he did a little dance routine, so J Lo pointed out he was out of breath when he sang yet still revealed an amazing voice.  Roll on, Tank!

John Wayne Schulz - He auditioned in season 10 and was in a run off with Scotty McCreary but lost. Perhaps it was meant to be, as he got to spend his mom's final months with her since he wasn't on the show. She passed away from cancer. This tall country hunk sang "The Dance" by Garth Brooks but didn't make it sound cliched.  I expect he'll do well. 

Jordyn Simone - She's 15, but the judges think she looks 25. She sang "Who's Loving You" by The Jackson 5. She's a sweet girl and J Lo thinks she's special.

Kassy Levels and Rhea Raj - 2 pretty ladies who made it to Hollywood but we only saw snippets of their auditions. 

Jake Dillon - He is 23, got married at 18, has 2 kids, and works as a plumber's apprentice. He sang "Danny's Song" by Kenny Loggins, and I would have given him a golden ticket just for the excellent song choice. Why don't more people audition with the light rock sounds of the 70s? The song seemed autobiographical and he sang it with feeling. Inexplicably, Harry said he wasn't special enough. Thankfully, J Lo and Keith disagreed.  

Ashley Lilinoe - Her name was a shortened version of her super-long Hawaiian name. She sauntered in and sang that old Idol chestnut "Black Velvet." J Lo said no but Keith and Harry, no doubt blinded by her beauty, put her through to Hollywood. 

Andrew Nazarbekian - Born in NYC, he grew up in Moscow. He sang "Make You Feel My Love" by Adele. He has a nice voice but I found him kind of awkward. 

Elvie Shane - This Kentucky dude overcame a rough past of drug use thanks to the support of his wife Mandy. He took on her 5 year old son, and he wants to make it big for them. He sang "House of the Rising Sun" and revealed amazing range and presence. He's got a cool name too. Harry said he might steal his name. 

The Bad

Emily Wears - She's an auctioneer from Iowa, who dazzles the judges with a tongue twister she learned in auction school. But her voice isn't as impressive. 

Xavier Soller - He's a emcee for the Denver Nuggets, who sets up a basketball game for the judges. J Lo makes a basket despite her tight dress. Unfortunately, Xavier fouled out due to his singing voice. 

Leann "Blue" McIsaac - She's a singing nomad, with blue hair and a lot of piercings and unique look. After hearing her story of living in the jungle in Hawaii, J Lo said she could never live outside. Harry replied, "You could build a shelter out of all your assistants." Zing! Blue made up a song for the judges using their names and key words they gave her. Keith said she's creative but her voice isn't good enough. So it's on the road again for Blue...

Leah Harbert - She said she was taught to sing by listening to her Britney Spears cassette over and over. She performed "Chain of Fools" by Aretha in a very affected manner that was painful to watch.  

There did find a lot of good talent in Denver and Little Rock. 2 hours is a long haul, but Harry's sense of humor made it tolerable.  

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

American Idol: Philadelphia Auditions

Philadelphia didn't prove to have too many contestants who are gonna fly now to Hollywood...but there were a few gems. Clay Aiken was a guest judge and he radiated smugness.  At least this episode was only an hour compared to last week's 2-hour slogs. 

The Good

Gianna Isabella - Her mom is Brenda K Starr! J Lo knew her mom back in the day because they trained at the same dance studio, and they reunited after the audition. Gianna is 15, cute, and delivered a powerful rendition of "House of the Rising Sun"

Isaac Cole - A cute farm boy who seems perfect for a country boy band. He said he can sing an a capella song or a guitar song and the judges tell him to do whichever he'd like. He then said,  "I'm gonna do my acapella song with my guitar." Keith thought he was not quite ready but said yes anyway. Isaac assured him that he is a fast learner. J Lo found herself still thinking about Isaac at the end of the day and wondering if he could be Top Ten. 

Sara Sturm - This energetic 17-year-old began the audition by chatting about her job waitressing at a breakfast place called Great Eggspectations.  She sang "Lips are Moving" by Megan Trainor.  Keith liked her confidence. I found her likable but probably forgettable.

Jenn Blosil -  She came across like a very spacey girl, like something was slightly off kilter about her. She looks like an awkward Michelle Pfeiffer. She played piano and sang "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons in a way that reminded me of Alanis. Harry said he is surprised she can sing, after her weird intro.  J Lo felt she was watching an artist. I felt like I was watching someone who was interesting but too weird to go far in the populist competition.

Harrison Cohen - This cute 17 year old brought his "foxy grandpa" who couldn't get over how many cute girls were there to audition.  Harrison sang "No Time" - an original song about his experiences with the ladies. J Lo felt it was a great pop song.  I agree it was a catchy song, but I thought his voice was unremarkable.  

John Arthur Greene - This hunky guy had one of the saddest stories in Idol history. He accidentally shot and killed his brother when they were kids. John performs in Matilda on Broadway, and his voice didn't really grab me but it was decent. Judges were split with Harry saying no but Keith and J Lo saying yes.  

The Bad

Derek Huffman - He sang "Angel" by Shaggy and brought his boom box for accompaniment. The judges laughed at him. After his rejection, he inexplicably removed his shirt and said he supposed they weren't ready for a real entertainer and just want another Adam Lambert.  

Ellis Banks - Elis wore a sparkly doo rag that he referred to as a "Jesus head piece" and he gave them to all 3 judges. He also wore a bejeweled speedo and a robe. He performed "Born this Way" by Lady Gaga, and he certainly is one of her monsters. 

I thought the most interesting thing about tonight's show was Keith's "Star" T-shirt that looked like half the logo of the old Stardust casino. Anyone know where I can get one? As for this group, I'll be rooting for Gianna, but I won't be surprised if Isaac and John Arthur make it to the semi-finals.  

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

American Idol: The Little Rock and San Francisco Auditions

The January 7 episode showed the auditions that took place in Little Rock and San Francisco. The mother lode of talent proved to be in Little Rock.

The Good

Cameron Richard -  A cajun kid who overcame a cleft palate, he sang "Give Me Love" by Ed Sheeran. J Lo loved the voice and passion. Something about his tone annoyed me. Not sure he'll get out of Hollywood Week. 

Daniel Farmer - A student from Memphis, he declared he wanted to seduce J Lo.  The build up made it seem like he would bomb, but he showed a lot of vocal control when he sang D'Angelo's "How Does It Feel." J Lo felt he was funny and sexy. I think he needs to ditch the grinding and tone down the antics.

Dalton Rapattoni - Wow, I found my new Idol crush! Dalton is a vocal coach at the School of Rock in Dallas. He was super cute with his big blue eyes, eyeliner and flowered Doc Martens. He sang "Phantom of the Opera" and played guitar, delivering a unique arrangement. Even Harry Connick Jr had to admit - "That guy was pretty."  He looked like a new wave boy and definitely has teen idol potential. 

La'Porsha Renae - She has an amazing afro and a voice that's just as big. She brought her baby to the audition and has escaped an abusive relationship. She sang "Creep" by Radiohead and put her own spin on it. She reminds me of Macy Gray. Harry called her "an assassin with runs."

Trent Harmon - He grew up on a farm that features its own farm-to-table restaurant. He sang "Unaware" by Allen Stone. The judges annoyingly talked through the beginning of his audition, expressing their disbelief that the country boy is actually an R&B signer. Harry said it was his favorite audition so far. I wasn't that blown away but he's good. 

Brook Sample - This waitress from Tucson couldn't have been more irritating. They did a montage of her saying "Sorry" over and over while flubbing her interview segments. She sang "Cold Day in July" by The Dixie Chicks. Her nerves subsided when she sang, and the judges liked her. Harry told her she needs to stop apologizing, I hope she listens. Overuse of Sorry is really a very typical self-sabotaging habit for women.

Olivia Rox - A cute girl whose parents are musicians. She sang "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars. She's likable and cute, with pink highlights in her hair, but I think she may be overshadowed by the larger voices in the competition. 

Jessica Clark, Ameet Kanon, and Kayla Mickelson - These 3 were in a quick montage demonstrating that a lot of talented women were making it to Hollywood.

Melanie Tierce - This was a weird audition. Harry interrupted it by walking out after she sang a few notes, saying it was a yes from him but he needed a break. Keith got choked up. Harry returned to say it was one of best auditions in his 3 years. I don't like the tendency of these judges to interrupt or talk over the contestants. 

Malie Delgado - She was Miss Alaska 2014 and is a radio morning show personality. She did a Gretchen Wilson song and showed that she was confident and likable. Judges felt she was already a star. 

Brandyn Burnette - He played piano and sang an original song called "Lost." He's a cute kid from St Louis, who reminded me a bit of Bruno Mars. Harry snuck up and hugged him while he sang the final notes. Ryan Seacrest was filling in for Harry who was on yet another break, so Brandyn ended up getting 4 yes votes. 

Kyrsti Jewel - Her family are idol groupies who have attended TV tapings and who for some reason still use a VCR and have a videocassette library of all the Idol shows through the years (come on, the show doesn't go back THAT far!). Lee DeWyze gave her a pep talk before she went in. The girl can really belt. I may have to forgive the weird spelling of her name.  

Tristan McIntosh - They saved the most heartwarming audition for last. Tristan's mom is deployed overseas. She is only 15, but she displayed great maturity and talent, playing piano and singing "Why Baby Why" by Mickey Guyton. She's a pretty girl and J Lo pointed out her resemblance to Alicia Keyes, both in looks and in heart. Harry read an email from her mom and she started to cry and then they brought her mom out to surprise her. Keith cried. Everyone watching at home cried. J Lo said she might win.

The Bad

Again, there was very little focus on bad auditions, and I'm glad. 

Maddie McAllister - A cute girl who brought her state fair chicken to her audition and declared, "My chickens have the biggest breasts in Arkansas."  She is only 16 and the judges felt she needed more practice.

Sarah Hayes - This girl seemed like she had a good voice but she was totally discombobulated. She sang "Hero" by Bonnie Tyler but quickly forgot the lyrics. She tried "Invincible" and stopped herself and apologized. Harry wanted to put her through anyway and, in a rare moment of self-awareness, blamed himself and the other judges for goofing around with her too much at the start of the audition, but the Keith and J Lo said no.  I don't think she could have handled the pressure.  

This episode got me excited as some definite talent was revealed.  Plus Dalton is so dreamy! 

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

American Idol: The Atlanta and Denver Auditions

I watched the first 10 seasons of American Idol and blogged about most of them, and then I just lost interest. Simon was always the big draw to me, and it seemed like nobody was keeping it real after he left.  But I decided to come back for the fifteenth and final season, as much for the retrospective nuggets they'll give us as for the thrill of discovering new talent.  

The first episode showed auditions in Denver and Atlanta.  The judging triumvirate of Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban is back.  Many former idols came back to participate as preliminary judges. Taylor Hicks seemed to get into it the most - jamming with contestants and advising the girl with the cello that perhaps she should consider the harmonica.  I will always have a soft spot for Taylor - he's my favorite winner.  Constantine is my favorite runner up. So with that being said, you can take my opinions with a grain of salt as they aren't as knowledgeable as Simon Cowell's and I'm likely to fall for whoever is the best lounge singer. 

The Good

  • Michelle Marie - There was something very endearing about this 15-year-old super fan who sang "Blue" by Lee Ann Rimes. She has braces and her outfit resembled a Disney princess. 
  • Josiah Siska - Johnny Cash fan Josiah sang one of my favorites - "Ghostriders in the Sky" and Harry Connick added some creepy ambiance.  It's not clear to me if he can do more than be a Johnny Cash impersonator.
  • Lindita - She is a personal trainer who lost 150 pounds before her audition.  J Lo said, "She sings like a heavy girl," proving the adage about the fat girl inside always being there in the newly thin body. Lindita has an amazing voice and should go far in the competition, plus she only has one name so that must mean she's destined for stardom.
  • Lee Jean - Cute kid - his older brother died in a accident, so he has a good story. I'm not sure he has the vocals to get out of Hollywood week. 
  • Jeneve Rose Mitchell - This girl is a hoot, with her cello and cowboy hat. Her family lives on a farm that is off the grid, yet her father seemed very familiar with the judges and the show format. Do they show it at the local saloon? 
  • Sonika Vaid - She is the beautiful daughter of Indian immigrants, likable, with a very pure voice. Harry said he thinks she could win. I don't disagree. 
  • Reanna Molinaro - She's a wacky cop who handcuffs Harry per his request. Once the silliness was over, she revealed a nice voice, but I can't say it really stood out. 
  • Shevonne Philidor - 6th time auditioning, and this time she made it! Not a huge voice but an interesting look
  • Kory Wheeler - 2nd time auditioning, and this time he made it! A likable singer/songwriter type.
  • Laurel Wright - 2nd time auditioning and this time she made it. Very pretty girl who says she came in with improved confidence.
  • Joshua Wicker - He's church music director who brought his pregnant wife to garner some oohs and ahhs. He didn't need the pregnant wife, because his vocal was quite unique and the judges were impressed. 
  • Jordan and Alex Sasser - They are a couple who are worship leaders and brought their baby. Alex sang first and played a pink ukelele. She was a bit quiet and seemed nervous and didn't make it. Jordan went next and revealed he was a big Celine Dion fan. He belted out "It's All Coming Back to Me" and got a ticket to Hollywood. Afterward, Alex cried, sought the family spotlight and blamed Jordan for dancing with the baby in a way that distracted the judges from her performance. Here's hoping the marriage survives this!
  • Kerry Courtney - His mom died of cancer when he was a teen. He sings a Death Cab for Cutie song, while making crazy twitchy faces. The judges loved it. J Lo said it was "super quirky and dark" while noting it might be too dark for America. I think this may be the case, but if he bathes and grooms himself a bit better, he could actually be a very handsome kid.
  • Shelby Z - A zaftig small town hairdresser, she reminded me of the women on Hee Haw who would sing "you'll never hear one of us repeating gossip, so you better be sure and listen close the first time." She sang "Last Night" by Carrie Underwood and revealed a very powerful voice that was shouty at times but always impressive.

The Bad
  • Billy Bob Evett - a very heavy country boy who kind of looked like a Campbell's Soup kid. Keith Urban sang along as Billy Bob was auditioning, which was annoying. He had pitch problems.
  • Joseph Kohlruss - a very confident, opera singer type who also had pitch problems and was not a good fit for the show
  • Sylvia Lee Walker - This Southern girl talked a mile a minute. She's 16 but in college because she skipped grades but sometimes she goes home to the family farm where she has a show goat named Jim. She did a yodeling song but had pitch problems that couldn't be overcome. 

I was relieved that they showed very few bad auditions. In the past seasons I'd watched, it seemed like they were really getting off on shattering people's ill-conceived dreams.  There was a cameo by Kanye West pretending to audition and rapping "Goldigger" to J-Lo, while a very pregnant Kim Kardashian waited in the wings talking to family friend / KUWTK producer Ryan Seacrest.  This reminded me of one of the Idol tapings I attended many years ago, where Kris, Kim and Khloe Kardashian were in the audience, getting a lot of attention from Ryan, before their show had taken over the world. 

This was an entertaining episode with some promising new talent, so I'll keep watching. 

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Friday, January 08, 2016

Star Wars: My Crush on Harrison Ford Reawakens

I have now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice and I place it as my third favorite film in the Saga (Empire is first, A New Hope is second).  Those of you who find that blasphemous can stop reading now.  Those of you who haven’t seen the new film should stop reading to, as this will be full of spoilers.

My Star Wars fandom is somewhat more than casual, yet somewhat below obsessive.  As a kid, I had some of the toys, the trading cards, iron-on t-shirts. I was 5 years old when A New Hope came out - it was the formative filmgoing experience of my childhood. I consider myself very lucky to be born at the right time for that to wow me. As a pre-teen, I developed a crush on Harrison Ford around Empire and Jedi, so I had a lot of posters and pin-ups on my bedroom wall (and even the ceiling - see pic below).  I saw the original films multiple times in the theater and bought the VHS tapes and then DVDs.  I didn't like the prequels. For me the humor, good writing and acting of the original trilogy was missing in the prequels. I only watched them once. The drama of these films was lessened since we all knew the outcome would be Anakin becoming Darth Vader. In my mid-30s, I met my boyfriend Dave who is a very big fan and that has made my fandom grow to where I again have a lot of Star Wars t-shirts and even attended the Star Wars Celebration last year in Anaheim.  

So I was really eager to see the new film. We got tickets for a midday screening on the Friday it opened, and we saw it in 3D at the Rave cinema in Westchester. As we took our reserved seats, we were a bit concerned as there were parents with 2 children under age 5 seated behind us and the little boy was kicking Dave's seat.  And then as they were arranging themselves, the mom accidentally dumped part of her bag of popcorn on Dave's head. We had a bad feeling about this. We got worried our experience might be compromised, yet the show was close to sold out so there was nowhere to move. The mom apologized profusely and got the little boy to stop kicking the seat.  As the movie rolled, the kids sometimes blurted out questions and were occasionally afraid, but in the end, they were so happy and excited.  I went up to the parents after the movie and told them how much I enjoyed sitting in front of the kids. It really made me remember being 5 and seeing A New Hope with my parents and the excitement I felt.  Between that memory and seeing the aged trio of Hamill, Ford, and Fisher on the screen - well, it just felt like the Circle of Life.  I was a bit verklempt.

I didn't want to criticize the film at all after the first viewing. I just wanted to bask in the emotions it brought up and the joy I felt. As the days passed, I read reviews and talked about it more with friends, and then we went back for a second viewing this week, about 2 weeks after the film opened. This time we saw it in Dolby Vision at the El Capitan- Disney’s flagship theater in Hollywood.  We went to a late show on a Tuesday night and there were only about 20 people in the theater. The El Capitan also has some models and costumes in the basement. They are worth a look, if only to prove that Carrie Fisher isn't fat - her outfit is very petite.  There's also some cool life size Lego figures of Kylo Ren, Rey, and BB8 in the lobby. Before the show there's a laser light saber show that had some hokey charm, kind of like a Waltzing Waters show. The sound and picture were amazing here, but the theater was overly air conditioned to the point of being uncomfortable. I wished for a tauntaun sleeping bag. The staff member I spoke to about it said they are having trouble regulating the temperature because the new projector is much hotter than the old one. Still, I would recommend seeing the film here for the quality projection and the overall experience - just bundle up.

It is Harrison Ford that makes this film. He is the force that binds it together.  When he and Leia reunite, I cried. When he died, I sobbed.  I felt like I rediscovered my crush on him, although he's in his 70s now.  We had a long cooling-off period, Harrison and I. Fifteen years ago, I even wrote this scathing article about him called "Note to Harrison Ford: You Can Go Back to Making Bookshelves Now" in which I suggested he might prefer puttering around his workshop and rediscovering carpentry (the way he made a living before hitting it big with Star Wars), since he was picking such terrible movie projects and basically phoning in the performances (Six Days Seven Nights, Hollywood Homicide, What Lies Beneath, etc). 

Force Awakens rediscovers the sense of humor and goofiness of the original films and gives Harrison a solid script to work with. Thank you, Lawrence Kasdan! Empire is my favorite film because of his writing, and once again here we have dialogue that is believable and fully developed characters to deliver it.  The new heroes - Finn and Rey - are both multi-dimensional. I found myself rooting for them and wanting to know more about them. And their possible romance is intriguing as well.  As in Empire, not all goes well for our heroes and we are left with many questions, leaving us eager for the next installment.

Another thing I loved was all the new creatures and the use of practical effects.  I can't get into films that have too much CGI - it makes me disconnect. Some of the CGI really worked here, however, particularly the character of Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o). She had a lot of warmth and humor to her, although her saloon was far too reminiscent of the original cantina.  A CGI character that didn't work as well is Snoke, who reminded me of a cartoonish Harry Potter villain. The Emperor was much creepier.

In general, I was disappointed that so much of the film was a retread of the earlier films - yet another Death Star with a fatal flaw, a mission beginning on a desert planet with a droid with an important message that must be delivered to the Rebels, another wintry planet, another forest planet, a place that looks like Coruscant but isn't, etc.  It's too bad the originality of the new characters couldn't carry over into more original situations.  It would also have been nice to see C3PO and R2D2 get more use, although C3PO’s opening line about his red arm really cracked me up. There was missed opportunity for more comedy if there had been more interactions between the old droids and BB8.

In my first viewing, I wasn't really impressed with Kylo Ren.  I had trouble thinking of Adam Driver as anyone but his character in Girls.  He does bring the same sense of awkwardness to this role.  Upon thinking about it more and after the second viewing, I actually really like this villain because he is conflicted and neurotic. I love his tantrum scene and his conversation with his grandpa’s helmet. When he commits patricide, it's shocking and powerful.  

Unfortunately, I don't feel Han's death got the respectful treatment it deserved.  They should have let Chewie mourn more and embrace Leia when he sees her - instead he walks right by and she hugs Rey who she has never met. Chewie is involved in a lot of action and has a bigger role than in past films, yet he is robbed of an opportunity to show true grief.  I suppose it's always possible Han didn't die and is hanging from a vent somewhere, like Luke did at the bottom of Cloud City. A girl can dream.

Why do I place Force Awakens above Return of the Jedi? Well, it’s a close call, as I do love Jedi. For me, Jedi lost momentum once the Han Solo rescue was completed. I loved Jabba’s palace and the creatures there and the sail barge action. I thought the ewoks were cute, but I can understand why hard core fans hate them. Clearly, they paved the way for Jar Jar Binks. I found myself not that interested in another Death Star space battle. And Harrison Ford didn’t seem interested either. It’s no secret he asked George to kill off his character in that film. He had so many other opportunities at that point in his career and he really seemed like he would rather be doing them. And since he was my main attraction in the films, I felt it and it kept me at a bit of a distance when watching Jedi. In Force Awakens, he seems happy to be there and reenergized by the role and the good dialogue he gets to deliver. It feels like he has come to terms with the importance of these films in his life and all our lives and he wants this one to succeed. He was even so much more relaxed in his interviews promoting this film, like he’s at peace with the universe. He had to have more fun with this film than he did with Kingdom of a Crystal Skull - and so do we all!

The John Williams score is strong as one would expect. Rey's Theme is the standout track for me.  The opening crawl and fanfare gave me chills. There's a lot of fun easter eggs for hard core fans, like the reappearance of the remote and the chess game on the Falcon. Fun is really the word for the movie - it may lack the depth of A New Hope and Empire - but it's damn fun! There’s so much action and such a fast pace. BB8 is just a happy fun ball. How adorable was it when he went down the stairs? I even find myself wanting a remote control BB8. He's just so cute and clever too.  

It's unlikely to happen, but I'd love to see Harrison Ford get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He conveys so much with his glances and crooked smile. He radiates class and gravitas when he says, "It's true. All of it." And we can see his tender side in his interactions with Leia (I wish she had more to do). We remember all the fun he brought to the saga through his humorous lines, like when he tells Finn that "women always know the truth", and even in the silly fight with the gangs and the monsters when he's taken the Falcon onto his freighter.  It’s tough to picture the next film being as strong without him being at the center. I know he has signed on to be in the next film, but it’s unclear what that will mean. It might be a brief cameo like Mark Hamill’s in this film.

My parents saw A New Hope before taking me to see it, to make sure it wouldn't be too scary. My mom skipped the second viewing and just let my dad take me. She said the only thing she liked about the film was Han Solo, that he was pretty cute.  And by the time Empire came out, I agreed with her. Our shared crush on Harrison Ford was something that we had in common, even in my teen years when it seemed we didn’t have anything else in common. My parents have passed on, but after seeing this film I found myself thinking about them and feeling grateful that they introduced me to Star Wars. I think my mom would still think Han Solo was pretty cute - and so do I.  

For Generation X, this is the saga of our lives, so it's quite emotional to come back to it and see the original actors again. I am willing to forgive a lot of plot holes for an experience that is so rich and nostalgic, yet fresh and well-crafted too.  

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