Thursday, May 31, 2012

How long until Christmas? I CANNOT WAIT!!

Oh. Emm. Gee.

This apparently hit the internet in the last few days, but I just saw it this morning. By this, I mean the first official trailer for the movie adaptation of one of my favorite musicals of all time, Les Miserables, scheduled to be released on Christmas Day this year.

Starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Thenardier and his wife, the movie is directed by Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech). British actress Samantha Barks, who played Eponine in London, plays Eponine in the film, and thank goodness, as there were rumors Taylor Swift(!) was being considered for the role.

Chills, I tell you. I got chills. And you know I'm buying tickets in advance and seeing the first show on Christmas Day. Because that's what Jewish Christmas is all about anyway.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: "Canada" by Richard Ford

"First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later."

With those words, Richard Ford's weighty but superb new book, Canada, begins. Fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons, and his twin sister, Berner, are living in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960. Their father, Bev, was an affable Air Force pilot with ambition and dreams that were as wide-open as his personality, while their mother, Neeva, is his complete opposite: intelligent, sarcastic, fiercely devoted to hoping her children have a better life than the one she felt forced into. After Bev leaves the Air Force, he bounces from job to job, and finds himself embroiled in criminal scheme after criminal scheme, although he considers himself more of a middleman than a criminal. And when one scheme goes awry, Bev and Neeva decide to rob a bank in a small North Dakota town. Of course, their seemingly foolproof plan doesn't work out in the end, and the two are arrested, leaving Dell and Berner alone.

After Berner runs away rather than face the prospects ahead of her, Dell is spirited away by a friend of his mother's to a drab, prairie town in Saskatchewan, across the Canadian border. There Dell becomes the ward (of sorts) of Arthur Remlinger, an enigmatic, moody, and quirky American who owns a run-down hotel. While Dell tries to figure out what his life will become in Canada, and hopes that Remlinger will be the key to a brighter future, he starts to realize that Remlinger, much like his parents, is not the person he thinks he is. And as Dell is used as a pawn in Remlinger's efforts to protect himself, it is another moment that sets Dell on a path toward a life different than the one he imagined for himself, one in which he realizes he is the only person he can count on.

Like the Montana and Saskatchewan landscapes in the book, Canada is a bleak story. But while you know from the very first lines of the book about the bank robbery and murders that will take place, Richard Ford unfurls the plot little by little. This is a very introspective story, as Dell is disappointed by those in whom he puts his faith and trust, but it is ultimately hopeful as well, because he is able to take these life-changing moments in stride. Ford is a fantastic storyteller and no stranger to books in which the main character is faced with crisis after crisis, yet Canada is never a chore to read. I found myself marveling at Ford's language and wondering exactly how he would tie all of the ends of his story together. The book has a lot of weight (and it is about 450 pages) but it is both compelling and well-written.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: "13 Million Dollar Pop" by David Levien

Indianapolis private investigator Frank Behr returns in this outstanding third installment of David Levien's series of mystery/thrillers. One night in an underground parking lot, working executive protection detail for multimillionaire businessman Bernard "Bernie Cool" Kolodnik, Frank and his wealthy client are attacked by automatic gunfire. Pinned behind the door of an armored vehicle, Frank returns fire and is able to keep his client protected. While he is hailed as a hero, and receives thanks from a grateful Kolodnik—Frank can't help but investigate the incident himself, and he doesn't understand why the police aren't making more of an effort to figure things out. And when Kolodnik is appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate shortly after the attack, everyone around him is in a hurry to pretend the incident never happened.

As Frank digs deeper into the circumstances surrounding the attack, he finds evidence of crooked business deals and layers of betrayal, and he comes face to face with one very angry and lethal hitman. But the more he investigates, the more danger he finds himself in, danger that has repercussions that affect his very pregnant girlfriend, Susan, and others in his life. Yet Frank is unable to shake his need to find answers, no matter what the consequences.

I am a big fan of David Levien's Frank Behr novels, and 13 Million Dollar Pop is a fantastic addition to the series. Frank is a very complicated and conflicted character, and you empathize with him even as you wonder if he is doing the right thing by pursuing the investigation. Levien definitely keeps you guessing as to how the plot will unfold, and the action is taut and fast-paced. If the book reads like it should be made into a movie, it's partially because Levien is also a screenwriter and director, but that doesn't mean the book isn't well-written. This is a series you shouldn't miss, and Frank Behr is a character who you won't forget.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Review: "The Invitation" by Anne Cherian

Frances, Jay, Lali, and Vikram met as undergraduates at UCLA. All four had come to the U.S. from India, each from a different walk of life, to pursue some version of the American dream. All four expected to be tremendous successes in life and have even more successful children. Frances and Jay, who met during college, married shortly after graduation and had three children while Frances sold real estate and Jay worked in management. Lali married an American cardiologist and the two had one son, and Vikram founded his own successful computer company and never stopped pursuing his desire to have colossal success.

Twenty-five years later, Vikram has invited his old friends to attend a party celebrating his son Nikhil's graduation from MIT. And while Jay, Frances, and Lali decide to attend the party more out of curiosity than anything else, none of their lives have been as smooth as they believe Vikram's is. Frances, who abandoned the pursuit of her PhD when she started having children, now sells real estate, although she hasn't sold a house in more than a year, Jay's middle-management job isn't quite what he imagined he'd be doing, and their oldest daughter is failing 11th grade. Lali's marriage is struggling as her husband begins to explore his neglected Jewish roots, and her son decides he wants to take a year off from college. And while Vikram is mostly concerned with the appearance of success, his son is not interested in pursuing the path Vikram feels he should. As the four prepare for the party and then meet at Vikram's mansion in Newport Beach, they need to decide how much truth they'll divulge to their friends, not realizing how the truth reveals itself in ways you never expect.

The plot of The Invitation is certainly familiar, but Anne Cherian's adept storytelling hooks you quickly and immerses you in each of the characters' lives and struggles. I felt like Cherian did a good job in trying not to have her characters adhere to cultural stereotypes, although you see how easy it is to slip back into old habits. Ultimately, however, the story veered a bit into melodramatic territory, which I felt undercut the book's effectiveness. I think Cherian is a very good writer, but it seemed to me that she lost a little steam as the book neared its end, although it is still an enjoyable read.

AI Recap: Taking the Title "Home"...

Another season of American Idol is one for the history books, and I, for one, am thrilled Phillip Phillips was crowned the Season 11 winner. While I don't always agree with what happens on this show, I felt nearly the entire season that he put his own twist on everything he performed, and it was a twist I particularly loved. It was sad that his health has gotten to the point where he was barely in the show except for the beginning and the end (he is scheduled to go home to Georgia and have kidney surgery after his publicity obligations are done), so he probably wasn't able to enjoy the moment as much as he would have liked to. And how could you not love that the season ended both with a bang (of confetti that apparently was attracted to people's mouths) and a whimper, as Phillip was so overcome with emotion that he was unable to finish his "coronation" performance of his inaugural single, Home?

Despite my happiness with the show's end result, last night's finale consisted of about 102 minutes of wretched excess, with maybe 25 minutes of genuinely solid or funny entertainment. But people keep slogging through the schlock-fest year after year, so who can blame Nigel and his cohorts for extending the show? Clearly it was the ticket for celebrities like Lisa Rinna and Harry Hamlin, Dean Cain (who must be Superman, because he actually was appearing on Don't Trust the B-- in Apartment 23 that night), Jane Lynch (a regular), and my beloved Mary Murphy. (Woo hoo! So You Think You Can Dance starts tonight!)

The show set a world record, apparently, with 132 million votes being cast Tuesday night. (I'm guilty of a number of text and phone votes myself...) Could you imagine if we allowed teens and tweens to vote for President, either by text or internet? We'd have a record number of votes...and we'd elect presidents who could play the guitar. Everybody wins!! (Sorry, President Obama, singing Al Green just doesn't cut it anymore.)

We opened with the top 12 (sans Jessica and Phillip) performing Bruno Mars' Runaway Baby, a far less entertaining version than Joshua's Top 7 performance during the season. It was good to see Elise, Erika, Colton, Skylar, and Hollie back on the stage (and that's as far as I'll go), although Joshua probably should steer clear of trying a split next time. Jessica and Phillip were introduced next, and in the tradition of previous finales, both wore all white, although Phillip went with the white henley t-shirt this time.

My joke in a recap a few weeks ago about someone on the production team owing John Fogerty money (because CCR songs were performed two successive weeks) might be more real than I thought, because here he was, performing with Phillip! The duo revisited Have You Ever Seen the Rain, which Phillip sang a few weeks ago, and then broke into a rollicking version of Bad Moon Rising, which Carrie Underwood was seen rocking out to in the audience.

Joshua was up next, singing Elton John's Take Me to the Pilot, a song which mostly consists of the lyrics "Take me to the pilot, lead me to the chamber, take me to the pilot, I am but a stranger, nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah..." Then he introduced "one of the biggest inspirations of my life," namely, Season 3 winner Fantasia. I don't know what frightened me more, her skintight, sequined catsuit with leg cutouts or her Morticia Addams wig, but the two of them singing this song with their own special brand of holleration was a little much after a few minutes. When the leg of Fantasia's catsuit got caught on a chair (the two took to roaming the audience and shrieking), they cut to commercial. (My favorite part of this number was the frightened look on Scotty McCreery's face when Fantasia came near him.)

The top 12 ladies sang a Chaka Khan (Chaka Khan!) medley next. Erika and Elise did a funky job with Ain't Nobody, followed by a less successful rendition of Through the Fire from Shannon and Skylar (a twang doesn't work here), and then Hollie and Jessica teamed up for a verse of I'm Every Woman before Ms. Khan herself descended from the stairs wearing her own sequined catsuit. (Fantasia, keep the picture of Chaka Khan on your mirror the next time you plan to leave the house in the outfit you wore last night.) I've noticed that much of I'm Every Woman also is just a lot of vocal emoting, and the cacophony of voices didn't quite help, nor did Ms. Khan's treating the girls like they were backup singers.

Ford finished its season-long product placement with a tribute music video (remember when Phillip used to be in the Ford Music Videos?) and then Ford and Ryan went all Oprah, with "You get a car! And you get a car!" (Cars were given to Jessica and Phillip's music mentors, and then each of them also received a new car.)

Rihanna crawled out of a laser light show straight from the barely seen Tron sequel to sing Where Have You Been?, sporting dreadlocks that made her resemble last year's contestant, Naima Adedaipo. Wouldn't it be nice if we just had performers connected to the show in some way, or at least performing with contestants? For me (for you), this was unnecessary, despite Randy's pandering standing ovation.

Next up, Skylar sang Turn on the Radio with her idol, Reba McEntire. This was a fun performance and their voices blended well together. Reba looks pretty fantastic and looked happy to be there. Ooh, look, it's last year's runner-up, Lauren Alaina, who actually performed this song last season! It's so nice to see everyone coming home. Jessica got a solo opportunity next, reprising (down to the dress she wore) one of her signature performances from this season, I Will Always Love You. Stellar as always.

The top 12 guys (minus Phillip) treated us to a Neil Diamond medley next. It was slightly amusing to hear Heejun's broken English singing America, but the rest of the medley was lackluster, even if Joshua tried to rouse the crowd by shrieking through I'm A Believer. And then the legend himself, Mr. Neil Diamond, descended the stairs (s-l-o-w-l-y, but he is 71) to (as a Facebook friend put it) speak Sweet Caroline, with the guys singing the chorus, complete with the Fenway Park "so good, so good, so good" punctuations.

Probably the funniest moment of the night was a segment they produced to spoof Randy's constant "You could sing the phone book" refrain through the seasons, with the contestants donning choir robes and singing phone numbers and advertisements from the fake phone book. (Loved the line, "That's a spicy bratwurst," when they were singing an advertisement.) When Joshua pretended to go over the top (in a non-Steven way), Skylar shook her head and said, "Every time!"

We spent a good deal of the telecast wondering where J.Lo was, since she wasn't sitting at the judges' table. And then we got our answer: she was going to perform for the third(!) time this season, this time two songs, Goin' In (from yet another sequel to Step Up that doesn't star Channing Tatum) and Follow the Leader. It's good at this point she doesn't care who realizes she's lip syncing. She was a little more dressed than during her last performance, sporting a baseball cap and sparkly pajama-type things. I honestly can't believe she's considering not coming back next season. Where else would she get the promotional platform she does on the show?

Ryan introduced Season 3 runner-up Diana DeGarmo (now sporting brown hair and a significant amount of plastic surgery for a nearly 25-year-old) and her real-life boyfriend, Season 5 contestant Ace Young (whose hair might be longer than Diana's), and called them up onstage. After Ryan feigned interest in their lives for 30 seconds, Ace then got down on one knee and proposed to Diana. It was a sweet, romantic proposal, and Ace even got choked up (I know he played the lead in Hair on Broadway, but I don't think he's that good of an actor), although the romance quotient was slightly diminished when he plugged his jeweler. Diana seemed very surprised and emotional, and naturally, said yes. (I wonder if Julianne Hough got angry that she wasn't the first person proposed to on American Idol. Ooh, scary thought. Almost as scary as when Ryan referred to Randy's wife. Someone married him?)

Hollie descended into dramatic fog to sing You'll Never Walk Alone, and was joined onstage by Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks, who sang that song during her season. And as the smoke cleared, Ryan reminded us that we had lost another music legend, Robin Gibb, so what better way to pay homage than to have the top 12 guys sing a Bee Gees medley? Joshua tried nobly on To Love Somebody, but the performances of How Do You Mend a Broken Heart and How Deep Is Your Love kind of, well, flatlined. (And with his jacket and his hair during this performance, Colton resembled Suze Orman.)

Jessica then had the opportunity to duet on And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going with Tony Award winner Jennifer Holliday, who originated the role of Effie in Dreamgirls. Many times during the song I worried that Jennifer was going to unhinge her jaw and swallow Jessica whole. But all of the emotion that Jennifer brought to the performance pushed Jessica's performance to greater heights. It also proved once again that Jessica is at her best when she's interpreting someone else's songs.
And the constant parade of performances continued, with Aerosmith's turn to take the stage. (Glad that Joe Perry has fully gotten over his disapproval of Steven taking the judging gig.)

Just a few minutes left, kids. Jessica and Phillip sang Up Where We Belong (sung coincidentally by Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice during the Season 4 finale), and it was clear that Phillip really wasn't feeling well, because he sat on a stool during the entire performance. Then Ryan invited them both onstage, where they thanked everyone involved with the show, the fans, etc., and then Edward Boddington, the dapper founder of Telescope, which counts the votes, verified the whole 132 million figure and then patted Nigel on the back.

It was time for Ryan to announce the big news, and surprisingly, he didn't toss it to a commercial before revealing that Phillip was the winner. Ever the opportunist, Heejun rushed Phillip to congratulate him, although clearly they have a close relationship. Scotty brought up Phillip's guitar and the new trophy they've been giving out, and Phillip started to sing his first single, Home. He got through about a verse when he was overcome with emotion (not to mention the confetti), and after struggling through tears onstage, took off his guitar and walked down to hug his family. It was a tremendously moving moment, and one you knew was completely genuine.

Of course, there are a lot of grumblers out there who have lamented whether a female singer will ever be able to win this show again given the lock young men seem to have on the title. (Two men have won on the two seasons of The Voice as well.) As I said yesterday, there's no disputing Jessica's talent, and I'm sure she'll have an amazing career, but I feel like the emotion and fun and passion Phillip brought to his performances outshone the technical qualities Jessica brought to the table. I certainly hope that Phillip has more success than the last few winners, to prove to the naysayers he has more depth than a simple "White guy with guitar."

And that's a wrap. Thanks for joining me on this journey, folks. I plan to start recapping So You Think You Can Dance once everybody gets to Hollywood, so I hope you'll check those recaps out!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Willy Wonka fans, time to tap into your life savings...

Those of you who know me well are aware that my favorite movie of all time is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The original, with Gene Wilder—not the unnecessary remake with Johnny Depp. I remember watching the movie numerous times as a young child, but while attending summer camp in 1981, I contracted the chicken pox, so I spent almost seven days in the camp infirmary. In the early days of VCRs (remember those?), the infirmary only had a few videotapes for us to watch—Grease, Meatballs, The Sound of Music and, blissfully, Willy Wonka. During those seven days I must have watched that movie 50-60 times—my fellow infirmary residents and I even acted out many of the musical numbers.

I still watch the movie from time to time and know it by heart; my senior quote was a line from the movie, "We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams." I have the soundtrack on my iPod. And I'll admit that one of my greatest moments was meeting Diana Sowle, the actress who played Charlie's mother, while I was working at Suncoast Motion Picture Company in Washington, D.C.-area shopping mall in 1991. (We were, in fact, showing the movie at that moment, and she walked in the store and nonchalantly said, "That's me." I nearly died.)

So when my friend and colleague (and fellow Willy Wonka fan) Sean shared this announcement with me, about an upcoming auction of memorabilia from the movie, I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to have unlimited disposable income to pick some of this stuff up?"

A number of items are up for auction, but here are two of the most notable:

First, the iconic costume worn by Gene Wilder during the movie. The costume consists of a flamboyant purple velvet frock coat, wool & camelhair slacks, off-white shirt, distinctive purple and violet lamé vest with floral design, and a satin bow tie. They're expecting this to garner between $80,000 and $120,000! (What a hit I'd be in my office with this outfit!)

The second item is one of only two existing, screen-used Everlasting Gobstoppers. This one was owned by Julie Dawn Cole, who played the insufferably spoiled Veruca Salt. ("Daddy, I want an Everlasting Gobstopper now! I want an Everlasting Gobstopper right away!") It is expected to be sold for $20,000-$30,000. (You can also own the Golden Egg, screen used by Julie Dawn Cole during the "I Want it Now" musical number, also expected to fetch between $20,000 and $30,000.)

Sure, it's not realistic to desire this memorabilia, but I figure if Michael Jackson could have owned The Elephant Man's bones, why not own an Everlasting Gobstopper?

Oompa loompa doompa de doo, I got another puzzle for you...

AI Recap: "It's in the Hands of the Universe, Now..."

And here we are, kids. Live from the Nokia Theater, it's time for "the tightest finale in Idol history." According to our nattily attired Ryan, this is a battle between "the 21-year-old pawnshop worker and the 16-year-old powerhouse, it's guy vs. girl, east vs. west, unique artist vs. talented mimic." (Oh, wait. Ryan didn't say the last one. My bad.) J.Lo came dressed for battle in a one-sleeved, black sequined top that could have easily been worn by a member of the Borg from Star Trek. (Resistance is futile.)

For the first and only time all season, the show ran an hour. (Boy, I had forgotten what it was like when they ran the show with no silly filler.) The contestants sang one song "chosen" by Simon Fuller, pick one of their favorite performances from the season, and then sing the single they'd release if they win. Phillip won the coin toss, so he chose to sing second, leaving "the pride of Chula Vista, California" to sing first.

Simon Fuller "picked" I Have Nothing for Jessica's first song. Wow, there's an original choice. Not only has Jessica already sang Whitney Houston this season, but this song has been performed on the show more times than the judges gave Joshua standing ovations. (Seriously. Trenyce sang it in Season 2, Leah LaBelle and Jennifer Hudson sang it in Season 3, Vonzell Solomon sang it in Season 4, Katharine McPhee sang it in Season 5, LaKisha Jones sang it in Season 6, heck, even Shannon Magrane sang it earlier this season.) She sounded good and hit some terrific notes, although she lost her tempo at the end and rushed through some of the lyrics. In a strange change, the judges wouldn't be asked to give feedback until both contestants performed.

For Phillip's first song, Simon "chose" Ben E. King's Stand By Me, previously performed by Bo Bice in Season 4, David Archuleta in Season 7, and Danny Gokey in Season 8. I really enjoyed this performance—I thought he changed up the melody in some really effective ways, and the entire song fit really nicely with his voice.

After both contestants left the stage, Ryan approached the judges and said, "Let's gossip," asking for them to call the winner of Round 1. J.Lo took about 90 seconds to explain that it was a tough choice between a singer with power and nuance and a modern-day crooner who was authentic, so it really depended upon what America wanted. Randy wasn't so indecisive, calling Round 1 easily for Jessica. When the show returned from commercial, J.Lo said she "seconded the motion" that Jessica won the round. Steven was in a daze.

Jason Derulo showed up next to sing the new song they had been threatening us with promoting the entire season. (It would have been nice if Jason's girlfriend, Jordin Sparks, could have sung with him, as that would have given the song slightly more relevancy.) The whole segment was sponsored by Coca-Cola, yet basically Jason sang the song sitting on a folding chair in the middle of a blank stage. Maybe I should drink some more Diet Coke if times are that tough that they can't afford scenery?

For her second song, Jessica chose to reprise her Top 25 performance, The Prayer. I thought she tried far too many runs in the very beginning of the song, but vocally, she sounded powerful, pure, and lovely. Phillip revisited his Billy Joel week performance, Movin' Out (Anthony's Song). Interestingly enough, being the gigantic Billy Joel fan that I am, I really didn't like his rendition when he originally performed it during the season, but this time I felt he brought a swagger and a deeper tone to the performance. (As always, he plays so well against the energy of the band.)

Steven roused himself to say something about Phillip being a good egg, but "you have to either hatch or go bad, and although he hatched some," he called Round 2 for Jessica. Randy disagreed, saying it was "a complete dead heat," while J.Lo said Phillip won the second round, because while she had seen Jessica perform similarly many times, this was "an authentic Phillip Phillips performance."

Which brings us to the contestants' final songs, the first single the winner will release. Jessica's song was a pop monstrosity called Change Nothing, which, like everything else she has sung this season, was a little more adult than she is. It also wasn't in the right key for her, as at times she struggled with her lower register, and the chorus was a wee bit sharp. Ultimately the song proved Jessica's strengths and weaknesses—she's a tremendously talented singer who can mold her voice to fit different styles and sing like other big voices, but when it comes to setting an individual style for herself, she's just not capable.

This time, the judges gave feedback directly after the performances, and they all agreed they didn't like the song. Randy said that Jessica has "urban swagger, like Beyonce," and needs a single that isn't a straight pop ballad, although she "brought the song to life." J.Lo said that while she "sang the song really well," it wasn't a song she'd choose for Jessica to record. She then advised Jessica, "When you go to make your record—and you're going to make many records—you need to be able to say of a song, 'It's not me,' or 'It's me and I can put a cool kind of twist on it.'" Steven told Jessica, "I know how good you sing and so do millions of other people, but that song didn't show off your voice or take us where you have so many times before." Now many on the interwebs again are alleging Jessica was sabotaged. But herein lies the proof she wasn't. She told Ryan she agreed with the judges and wanted to do something a little more urban, "But this is the finale, so I picked a song that could show off my voice. When I make a record—if I do—I'll definitely want to do something different." So there. She picked the song herself, conspiracy theorists.

Phillip's potential single is a little ditty called Home. It definitely (as name-dropper Randy would attest to in his feedback) has a Mumford & Sons-type feel, with a Coldplay's Paradise-type refrain of "oh's." Phillip was totally in the groove during this song, and at one point during the performance he was accompanied by a marching band, which was super cool and in no way as over the top as it sounds. I thought it was one of the best finale songs I've seen performed and one I will (hopefully) play over and over and over again. And when the song ended, Phillip looked around at the 70,000 people in the Nokia Theater and muttered a shy "Wow" out of the corner of his mouth. This and the emotions he showed during his homecoming demonstrate to me that he is still the humble guy he was when he started, despite J.Lo's flirting and young girls screaming his name.

The judges gave him a standing ovation and Randy was even cheering. He said, "Dude, I loved the song, I loved you. It was the best performance of the night, with that Mumford & Sons/Fleet Foxes vibe to it. It was brilliant. Genius." J.Lo said the song was "like nothing I've ever heard on the radio, and it was so different I honestly can't think of anything like it." Interestingly, Steven was fully awake at this point, and said, "By virtue of your vulnerability and style, you've made the world your home, my friend." He talked about hearing Paul Simon and "other ungodlike [sic] creatures" in Phillip's vocals and then proclaimed, "You were perfect tonight. I think you're the man." (This, of course, despite his earlier assessment that Jessica won Rounds 1 and 2.)

With a few minutes left I thought Ryan would ask the judges to further manipulate the results the way Nigel wanted call a winner, but instead he gave each finalist the opportunity to say something to each other. Jessica called Phillip "such an amazing performer, which is why he's here, and I'm so glad to be in this moment with him." Phillip mumbled that "I'm not good at talking in front of millions of people staring at me," but he called Jessica, "an absolutely amazing singer, one of the best I've ever heard, especially at 16. She has a huge future ahead of her."

With that, "It's in the hands of the universe, now," Ryan proclaimed. (Umm, way to stay humble, Seacrest.) Then last year's winner, Scotty McCountry (umm, McCreery) came out to sing Please Remember Me,, the song they've played all season when contestants have been eliminated. They were supposed to show a montage of the season, but the camera crew must have been asleep by then, because we kept seeing the montage on the jumbo screen without close-ups, and instead were treated to side-shots of Scotty and his band. Not the crew's finest few minutes.

So, what do you think will happen tonight? Other than 110 minutes of filler and lots of footage of Heejun preening, that is. (I wish there was someone out there who was as funny as Heejun thinks he is. Does he think his making stank faces into the camera is appealing in any way?) It will be nice to see some of the contestants perform duets and group numbers with celebrities—anyone think Mary J. Blige might show up to duet with Joshua?

In the end, I feel like Phillip has demonstrated far better what kind of artist he will be than Jessica has. There's no denying her amazing voice, and she'll certainly have a career, but as Simon Cowell used to say, "This isn't just a singing competition." Believe me, if it was, we would have seen several different contestants in the top 13 than we did. While Phillip has never been in the bottom two or three before, I just don't know if he'll win, because I think the show desperately wants someone other than another "White guy with guitar" to win for the fifth season in a row. But I'll definitely be disappointed if Jessica wins.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A t-shirt worthy of death threats?

I know that sports fans take victory pretty seriously, and often don't handle defeat well, not to mention when people needle their teams. But sometimes people take things a little too far.

Case in point: this t-shirt, which was being sold by a company called Warpaint Clothing.

But first, a little history lesson for those of you unfamiliar with the NBA. Before the 2008-2009 NBA season, the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Oklahoma City Thunder. (This happened only after the new Oklahoma City-based owners failed to find public funding to construct a new arena in the Seattle area.) The SuperSonics played rather poorly in recent years, although in earlier days the franchise won the NBA championship in 1979. And now, as the Thunder, the team is headed to the Western Finals, where if they beat the San Antonio Spurs, they'll be in contention for the championship once again.

Oklahoma City isn't known as a sports city, so you can understand the excitement about the Thunder's amazing run this season. So given the smack sports fans like to spread, wouldn't you expect a snarky t-shirt like this to be sold? (Everything gets sold on the internet. Remember, this is the same country in which a company sold Trayvon Martin targets.)

But the wounds are still fresh for Seattle fans, apparently, which isn't too surprising, considering that Baltimore football fans are still bitter about the Colts leaving for Indianapolis, even though the Ravens have been pretty successful through the years.

While the bitterness may be understandable, the reaction from Seattle fans is not: Warpaint Clothing personnel reported they were receiving death threats because of the shirt.

Say it with me now: death threats. Over a t-shirt. Needless to say, Warpaint announced it would no longer sell the t-shirt because of the response they had received.

Did I miss something? Have we experienced some sort of Freaky Friday-like switch with Iran or Iraq all of a sudden, so now people feel that producing a t-shirt is worthy of death? What's next, stoning adulterers or cutting off the hands of thieves? Does the anonymity of the internet incubate this type of behavior, or has the rage level in our country ratcheted up to such a level that even t-shirts mocking the loss of a basketball franchise provokes this kind of anger?

Whatever the cause, this is becoming a dangerous problem. While you wouldn't expect a person sitting behind their computer threatening people who do things they don't like with death would actually do something, who knows what could trigger actual violence?

All I know is, I'd love to see the Miami Heat walk away without a championship for another year, and if Duke's men's basketball team never made it past the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament, that would be fine with me. (And don't get me started about Roger Federer and Tiger Woods.) But that being said, I don't plan to threaten Coach K or King James with death...voodoo dolls are more than satisfactory. (Note to the authorities monitoring this blog: that's a joke.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

When sexy doesn't quite work...

Thanks to kenneth in the (212) for pointing me toward this!

From comes a countdown of The 19 Most Hilariously Failed Attempts at Sexy Album Covers. From Adam Lambert and Prince to John Travolta and Whitesnake, and lots of bands I've never heard of before, this list literally made me laugh out loud. Check out these album covers and you'll absolutely wonder, "What were they thinking?"

For example, here's #16, Prince's Lovesexy:
Says Cracked, "Is it just us, or is Prince is the only person who looks less manly when he's not wearing lady clothes? See, this is why Prince is a national treasure who we will deeply miss when he's gone; he's the one man on Earth who has heard the phrase, 'Hey, buddy, we'd be less uncomfortable over here if you'd put on a ruffled lace shirt and a pair of assless crushed velvet bell bottoms.'"

Check out the full list and see if you actually ever owned any of these.

Book Review: "I Suck at Girls" by Justin Halpern

Building on the success of his Twitter feed, best-selling book, and short-lived television series, Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern is back to reflect on his lack of success with women, which he can trace back to an early age. When he takes his father out to lunch to confide that he is planning to propose to his girlfriend of four years, Justin's father replies (as only he can), "You've been dating her for four years. It ain't like you found a parallel f--king universe."

Eventually, his father recommends that Justin take a day before proposing to reflect on his life, his relationships with women, and his future, to ensure he is making the right decision. Which leads him to reminisce a life lived both pursuing the attention of the opposite sex and fleeing it, from traumatizing a female classmate he liked by drawing her an inappropriate picture to stealing pornographic pictures from a cave where homeless people lived and burying them in his backyard, from being the last of his friends to lose his virginity to acknowledging the risks associated with actually committing yourself to a relationship. And of course, many of these vignettes are punctuated with advice or commentary by his always-to-the-point father.

The adventures of the adolescent male approaching adulthood have been seen so many times before, in books, movies, and television shows. Parts of this book made me absolutely laugh out loud, but I realized that when Justin's father wasn't in the story, it felt much more like just another coming-of-age tale. And the interesting thing is that although I didn't read Sh*t My Dad Says, having seen commercials for the television show, I couldn't help but picture William Shatner every time Justin's father spoke, which almost made the story more amusing. Halpern writes in a very humorous and self-deprecating style, and this is definitely a fun and very quick read.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

With allies like these...

Not a bad looking duo, eh?

Former rugby player and straight ally Ben Cohen started The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation to raise awareness of the long-term, damaging effects of bullying, and funding those doing real-world work to stop it. Cohen's foundation stands up against bullying regardless of to whom it happens, although it pays particular attention to bullying suffered by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Removing homophobia from the sports world is also central to the Foundation's mission. (All this empathy and he looks like this. Wow.)

At an event this week, Cohen discussed how proud he is of his work with international partners Microsoft and Nike, as well as Wicked the Musical, to ending the abusive pandemic. And he recently posted the above picture of him and Prince Harry, who is an ardent supporter of Cohen's work. (Princess Diana would have been proud of her son.)

Their aesthetic appeal notwithstanding, it's amazing to see a former professional athlete in a sport like rugby—and a heterosexual athlete at that—take a stand against bullying and advocate for the eradication of homophobia in sports. And it's equally gratifying to see someone in the public eye as much as Prince Harry be willing to publicly support this effort, too.

Hopefully others will follow their example. And they don't even have to be this handsome!

One terrific example to follow...

With all of the news coverage about professional athletes fighting with each other and getting in trouble with the law, the Washington Redskins' new rookie quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III (aka RGIII) truly stands out. Not only does he come across as an incredibly thoughtful, intelligent, and funny young man, he seems truly appreciative of the opportunities he is getting. To me, that is pretty incredible, considering this is a recent college graduate picked second overall in the NFL draft, who will be the starting quarterback for a football team desperately hoping its luck will turn around.

Imagine if young children start looking up to athletes like RGIII rather than those committing DUIs, bringing weapons to their stadium, or getting arrested for assault! (And how can you not admire an athlete who likes crazy socks?)

RGIII appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno earlier this week and really wowed both Leno and House's Hugh Laurie, who also was a guest on the show. The two talked about his high school days, proposing to his fiancé, and he even demonstrated another talent. I thought he was really impressive. In case you missed it, take a look at Washington's newest star:

Book Review: "The Cranes Dance" by Meg Howrey

Kate Crane is a soloist in a famed New York ballet company. She's never quite achieved true fame, but she is well-respected and has the opportunity to dance many featured roles in a number of ballets. Her younger sister, Gwen, also a ballet dancer in the same company, quickly eclipsed Kate in terms of talent and stardom, but after injuring herself and suffering a bit of a breakdown, Gwen has returned to their childhood home in Michigan. Gwen's absence gives Kate the opportunity to dance outside of her sister's shadow, but it also leaves her alone with her own thoughts of guilt, for recognizing Gwen's symptoms long ago but not getting her the help she needed, as well as her own obsessions of perfection. "At some point you did something perfectly and now your whole life is a search to re-create that," Kate said at one point in the book.

The Cranes Dance follows Kate as she starts getting the chance to play a more prominent role in the ballet company as she struggles with an injury of her own, as well as questioning about her talent and her own mental toughness. Her relationships with her friends and mentors are fraught with unspoken tension caused by one issue or another, and she finds herself torn between wanting Gwen to recover and return to New York City, and not wanting to have to be her sister's keeper any longer. This book gives a warts-and-all glimpse into the ballet world, the different personalities that occupy it, and the passions that drive it. (Meg Howrey was once a professional dancer, so her authenticity rings true.)

I really enjoyed this book because it was more than just a story about a ballet company—it is a story about relationships, a story about battling your demons and coming to terms with your own strengths and weaknesses, and a story about how you can find yourself simultaneously needing and resenting the same person. Kate's voice is at times humorous, sarcastic, needy, sad, hopeful, and passionate, and Howrey juggles all of those emotions quite well. Kate and Gwen's relationship is a very complex one, and Howrey straddles a fine line between who did the hurting and who wound up hurt. It's a very enjoyable and compelling read, and I'd highly recommend Howrey's first book, Blind Sight, which I loved last year, and included it on my list of the best books I read in 2011.

Friday, May 18, 2012

AI Recap: No! More Drama!

Well, I was expecting a surprise on last night's results show, but I'll admit this wasn't what I thought would happen. Despite 13 standing ovations, countless raves from the judges and Jimmy Iovine (as well as celebrities like India.Arie and Percy Sledge), and some of the most memorable and dynamic performances the show has seen in 11 seasons, Joshua Ledet was sent home just short of the finale, leaving allegedly nearly eliminated Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips to battle it out for the Season 11 title.

How did this happen? Kieran, did you slip something into Ryan's results envelope before you dimmed the lights? I guess I shouldn't be surprised—I had a feeling Phillip, who had never been in the bottom two or three despite a few shaky performances, would make it, but given Jessica's less-than-stellar performances on Wednesday night, I really thought it would be an all-male finale. But now, it's anyone's guess.

The show had more padding than a pageant contestant's swimsuit (believe me, I know of what I speak), since they're still greedily occupying an hour's worth of time for five minutes of programming. So we were treated to the three finalists' rendition of Earth, Wind, and Fire's Got to Get You Into My Life which was heavy on toe-tapping vocals and light on blended harmonies, a Ford Music Video to Benny Benassi/Skrillex's Cinema (once again, sans Phillip), and a double dose of shilling for Ice Age 3, which I might boycott on principle. (If they air a Ford Music Video next week, will it just feature Jessica alone?)

Lisa Marie Presley barely roused herself to mouth the words to her new single, You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, which sadly, isn't a remake of the Bachman Turner Overdrive hit. Her band looked like the cast of the original Dark Shadows, and I swear one of her guitarists was wearing a hat Dick Van Dyke sported while singing Chim Chim Cheree in Mary Poppins.

Ryan stopped to talk to Jimmy, Rita Wilson, and songwriter Carole Bayer Sager (to whom the years and Botox have not been kind) to speak about Donna Summer's passing away yesterday. Once again, the other contestants in the top 13 were seated behind Jimmy, and we were treated to infinitely more Heejun face time than I needed. Why do you keep putting him on the aisle, Nigel? He isn't funny.

Adam Lambert performed his new song, We Never Close Our Eyes. You gotta love a guy who coordinates his earrings, his nail polish, and his shirt. (All fluorescent yellow, BTW.) And it was good to see the return of the "Eve Loves Adam" signs from Season 8. Who knew Nigel saved the signs in his basement?

And then it was time for the results. Randy called the contestants "three of the best we've ever had," and said each had a big career in front of them. J.Lo said, "to lose any of you will be heartbreaking," and commented that this season was the first time "she felt connected to all three finalists." (Take that, Haley Reinhart.) And Steven commended each of the finalists for their "courage to have a dream, because without a dream, you can't have a dream." (You can't make this s--t up, I swear.)

Kieran dimmed the lights, and Ryan announced (to the shock of nearly everyone) that Jessica was the first contestant into the finale. Which left Ebony and Ivory, Adam Levine and Usher, and then Ryan told Phillip he had made it into the finale. Interestingly enough, J.Lo's first reaction was to applaud wildly for Phillip, and then she realized she needed to be sad about Joshua's elimination. And as you'd expect, Joshua slayed his farewell song, It's A Man's Man's Man's World, and even brought his mama up on stage with him.

While it certainly would seem that Phillip is a lock for the title, especially since the "white guy with guitar" has now won the last four consecutive seasons, I wouldn't count Jessica out. I just hope it's a good finale, since I've kind of roped myself into recapping it after throwing a temper tantrum and skipping last year's. If I have to hear how old Jessica is, or endure the recounting of the farce that she was actually eliminated her save by the judges, it may send me over the top. And not in a Steven way.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

RIP, Donna Summer: We Loved to Love You, Baby

If there was any irony in the announcement of Donna Summer's death earlier today, it was that I heard about it not on the radio, but through Facebook. But no matter how I found out the news, I was incredibly saddened that another musical figure from my youth, whose music and presence evoked many memories of growing up, had lost her battle with cancer at age 63.

I don't know exactly when Donna Summer's music came into my life, but I remember playing my parents' Donna Summer Live and More album (remember those?) over and over again in the 1970s. When her On the Radio (one of my three favorite Donna Summer songs) album was released, I remember my friend Lisa had the above poster that came with the album (or at least one similar to the above picture) hanging in her basement. (It might still be there, I'm not sure.)

And the hits kept coming—Dim All the Lights (another one of my all-time favorites), I Feel Love, Love to Love You Baby, No More Tears (Enough is Enough), and, of course, the ultimate Donna Summer song that they used to play to end every sweet 16 party I went to, Last Dance. (It wasn't until I got a bit older that I realized MacArthur Park was a song about a cake left out in the rain (who knew?) and that Bad Girls wasn't just a song about girls who are bad, it's a song about prostitutes. I was a naïve child, what can I say?)

While the 1970s and early 1980s were undoubtedly her most famous days, it was good to see her not be a total casualty of the death of disco, returning to the charts with She Works Hard for the Money in 1984 and This Time I Know It's For Real in 1989. (And of course, I loved her part in Musical Youth's mid-80s hit, Pass the Dutchie.)

We were fortunate to have seen her in concert twice over the last 5-6 years, and both times her voice was in top-notch form and she put on a terrific show, albeit with a huge number of costume changes! And each time she performed, she was tremendously grateful for the reception her music (both old and new) received from the crowd. And that happiness, that gratitude, that amazement at being appreciated, is one way I'll always remember her.

So now that you've danced the last dance, thank you, Donna, for all of the music you gave us. I know my life wouldn't have been the same without it.

AI Recap: Where Do You Go After Over the Top?

A few hours before last night's show, rumors began surfacing that J.Lo was thinking of not returning as a judge next year. (Maybe we shouldn't even call them judges. Maybe we could just call them "cheerleaders," or perhaps even "perfectly scripted automatons." Probably too much for Ryan to say, huh?) Whether there is truth to this story or just a rumor planted by Nigel Lythgoe to compete with X-Factor's signing of Britney Spears and Demi Lovato (both known for their singing) as judges earlier this week, J.Lo was dressed for nothing but business, in a tailored pantsuit. (I think Steven wore the same one in black, actually.) And Randy wore a t-shirt that I could have sworn said "Yo," but I think it said "Boy."

Anyway, it's just one week to the finale. Who will make it to the Nokia Theater, and who will fall victim to the manipulative powers of Nigel Lythgoe short of their dreams, joining Nikki McKibbin, Kimberley Locke, Jasmine Trias, Vonzell Solomon, Elliott Yamin, Melinda Doolittle (sob), Syesha Mercado, Danny Gokey, Casey James, and Haley Reinhart as third-place finishers? There were times when it seemed clearly obvious who the judges were backing, and times when it was as clear as some of Steven's similes and metaphors.

The contestants sang three songs—one was "chosen" by the judges, one they chose themselves, and one Uncle Jimmy chose for them. All in all, it was a pretty good night, with a lot of what we've seen from the top three many times this season.

Joshua was first to sing, and Randy chose his song. In the brilliant words of the Dawg, "Why broke what isn't fixed?" And after correcting that misstatement, he said he chose Etta James' I'd Rather Be Blind (otherwise known as I'd Rather Go Blind). Ironically, this is one of Jessica's 200 or so songs she had up on YouTube before the season began. Randy explained that he chose this song for Joshua because he is a throwback to the music of old. Joshua's jacket looked like one of the samples you'd find in a tailor's shop to demonstrate alterations, since the stitching was exposed, and he wore a red wide-collared shirt with a red flower in his lapel, and to complete the throwback feel, he used an old-timey handheld microphone. I thought this was a really good performance but I'm starting to feel a lot of Joshua's songs blur together. Much like Jessica's growling and Skylar's freak-outs, I think Joshua's "losing himself" needs to be used sparingly. So much of this song was Joshua singing things like, "Baby...b-b-b-b-b-b-b-baby," and while there's no denying his exceptional talent, Joshua shouldn't get as much credit as he does for doing the same thing week after week. The judges gave him a standing ovation (although J.Lo was slow to rise). Steven called the performance "surreal, another Joshua moment," and said, "Out of 70,000, there's only one American Idol, and you sang like that tonight." J.Lo explained that the judges weren't sure what song to choose for him and wondered if they should choose something more modern, but then decided to "feed you what we knew you'd give back," and she told him he "brought the house down." Randy called him a "classic stylist," and said that he hopes Joshua will be able to bring that throwback style to modern R&B.

For Jessica, J.Lo chose one of her favorite songs, Mariah Carey's My All, because she thought it would give people the chance to hear "tenderness" in her vocals. I felt like Jessica was about a half-note off for most of the song, and her lower register isn't as appealing to listen to. (And don't even get me started about how the hot guitarist accompanying her had more emotional attachment to the song than she did.) All of that notwithstanding, what were J.Lo and the judges thinking giving 16-year-old home-schooled Jessica a song with the lyrics, "I'd give my all to have just one more night with you, I'd risk my life to feel your body next to mine"? Randy reminded us that he works with Mariah and she's "his girl," and called Jessica's performance "absolutely beautiful" and "the perfect song." He also went back to the hyperbole well, calling it "one of the best times a Mariah song has been sung on a singing show." (Puh-lease.) Steven said that when Jessica sings she "makes people hang on your every word," and warned her to "get ready for encores." He then said, "In another crazy way, you'll be the last one standing." Ryan made a big deal about this statement, asking Steven if he was predicting the winner, totally forgetting (as did everyone else) that he told Joshua he sang like the American Idol just a few moments ago. (Some conspiracy theorists on the internet have said that Jessica had a sore throat but no one mentioned it on the show, and felt that J.Lo sabotaged her with her song choice.)

And then it was Phillip's turn. Steven chose Madcon's Beggin' (based on a song from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), because "it's got that melody we're always trying to drag him to sing." (For those of you talking about sabotage, here is the original song. Joshua gets Etta James, Jessica gets Mariah Carey, and Phillip gets Madcon? Did they have trouble clearing Andrea Bocelli?) I thought he did a terrific job, and despite what the judges said, he actually hewed pretty close to the original melody, while throwing in some typical Phillipsian twists. (Ooh, I made a new word, just like Randy does!) Steven waxed poetic, telling him it was "beautiful to watch him unfold in the spotlight," and then said, "When you're facing the sun, the shadows fall behind you." He also told Phillip that if he writes his own songs, he could be a new Bruce Springsteen. Randy called it a "Phil Phillips concert," and said that Phillip has been "so in the zone since Day 1." He then proclaimed, "You are who you are, and we love you!"

Ever the imp, Ryan pressed the judges into declaring a winner of Round 1. He pointed out that only Joshua got a standing ovation so he wondered if that meant he was the clear-cut winner. Randy stammered a bit and then said that because Joshua "vocally did his thing at the end," he had the slight edge. But J.Lo said although she loved Joshua and Jessica, she said Phillip won the first round. And Steven said nothing.

Leading into Round 2—songs the contestants chose for themselves—was footage from each of the finalists' hometown visits. Joshua clearly had fun back home in Louisiana; it's amazing how much he resembles Fantasia in his goofy mannerisms. (My favorite quote from his homecoming was when he said, "They're acting like I'm Barack Obama!") Joshua chose Imagine, which David Archuleta sang quite well in Season 7. I expected a choir and Joshua at full bombast, but he was a little more restrained with this performance, although he wailed toward the end. Again, he was terrific vocally, but it didn't wow me. Steven called it "another 'thank you God' performance," while J.Lo praised its "pulled back and controlled" nature. She also praised both his voice and his performance ability. Randy asked Joshua why he chose the song, and he explained that he heard it on the radio and was touched by the lyrics. (I, for one, thought it was interesting that a preacher's son would be touched by a song with lyrics like "and no religion, too," but I guess he's more open minded than I am.) The Dawg then called it "another just stellar performance," saying Joshua "digs deep into every song."

Jessica's return to Chula Vista, California included a stop at her original audition spot, and a concert on the USS Midway. She told Ryan that she had very few friends and so it was nice to have "guys chasing after my car." Not one to resist an opportunity to pander, Jessica chose to sing I Don't Want to Miss a Thing by (of course) Aerosmith. (Josh Gracin sang this song in Season 2, Lindsay Cardinale sang it in Season 4, Antonella Barba sang it in Season 6, David Cook sang it in Season 7, Allison Iraheta sang it in Season 8, Aaron Kelly sang it in Season 9, and Lauren Alaina duetted with Steven at the end of her audition last year.) She botched the lyrics in the first line, and while the song was good, it just wasn't great, especially the wobbly big note she hit at the end. Steven gave her a lone standing ovation and said she "took a great song and made it greater." The judges told Jessica this was the first time Steven has said anything positive about those who sing his songs. (They forgot his duet with Lauren last season.) Randy said it started slow, but when she hit the big note, "Dude, you delivered, man. I'm like, yo!"

Surprisingly (and, I'll admit, a little adorably), Phillip was the most emotional during his homecoming. Plus he had a dish at his favorite Mexican restaurant named for him. (That is fame, IMHO.) He sang Matchbox 20's Disease, and it was a fun, laid back, Jack Johnson-ish performance. Exactly the type of song I'd love to listen to on my iPod. (I liked the saxophone and conga drum accompaniment.) The judges weren't impressed; J.Lo started her feedback with "Sweetie...", the equivalent of "You look beautiful." Steven called it a typical Phillip performance, but said, "You don't have a disease, you've caught the bug." Randy tried to fake everyone out, by asking Steven and J.Lo to acknowledge they didn't like the performance, and then saying, "It's weird, you know, how we often disagree...but this time we agree. I didn't like it either!" (Phillip clearly was prepared for the sabotage, and he just laughed.)

It was nice to see all of this season's finalists, but they spent way too much time focused on Heejun. Plus, Erika dyed her hair back to blonde again.

Jimmy chose Mary J. Blige's No More Drama for Joshua, because he felt Joshua "needed another moment" like his James Brown performance last week. He took to the stage wearing a jacket with shiny studded epaulet-type things (thus ends my fashion analysis) and he definitely performed this really well, bringing some of the histrionics of Mary J. Blige's original performance of the song to his rendition. At one point he tore his jacket off, and his earpiece came out, but he didn't lose a beat. I just thought it was a little too much, well, drama. Again, there's no denying his talent and his absolute charisma. I just don't know if I can handle him screaming at me all the time. The judges again praised his performance as well as his vocals, and Steven said that watching Joshua "I felt the last 40 years of the music business." (Yeah, like Steven can remember the last 40 years?)

For Jessica, Jimmy finally backed up his criticism of her choosing songs that were too mature for her by giving her The Jackson 5's I'll Be There. Don't even get me started on the blatant product placement shilling they did to reveal Jessica's assigned song. The truth is, she looked the most comfortable and youthful on stage that she ever has. (Heck, there was even a Ferris wheel silhouetted in the background. Fun=youthful.) I just didn't feel the song gave her much room to shine vocally. Steven, of course, said it was the "perfect song and the perfect voice," while J.Lo claimed she sounded like a young Michael Jackson. (J.Lo did say, however, that Jessica "could have used Jermaine during one part of the song.") Randy thought it was just okay, because there "never was a moment moment" for her. He also said he would have preferred if Jessica leaned closer to the Mariah Carey version. He called it "ok, not oh, my God."

Jimmy chose Bob Seger's We've Got Tonight for Phillip, because he thought the song would appeal to his legions of female fans, as well as male fans. (I loved how Jimmy nearly tripped off the stairs while talking to Ryan; perhaps it was all the bad vibes Heejun and others were sending his way.) They brought the string section out for this performance, and I thought Phillip combined both his gravelly tone and his sensitive side in this song, to great results. (He also inexplicably kept rubbing his upper thigh, so he either was nervous or totally conscious of what he was doing.) Randy and Steven stood, then J.Lo got up. Randy called it "the perfect song at the perfect time," and claimed it was Phillip's best performance ever on the show. (I don't agree; and the camera caught Erika Van Pelt shaking her head no in the audience.) He also called this "a giant moment," and said he was "in it to win it!!" J.Lo said she bet 20 million girls imagined he was singing to them, and called it, "sweet, beautiful, like a lullaby."

I honestly don't know what will happen tonight. My prediction is a Joshua/Phillip finale, but there's a possibility that Jessica could sneak in there. I don't think she deserves a spot in the finale based on her performances last night, but if the voting on this show was truly ever about performance, I'd be shocked. I believe Phillip's safety is the only definite thing, but then again, Danny Gokey had never been in the bottom three, and then he was eliminated at this point. let's hope the speed-dialing tweens and teens keep Phillip safe!!

And that did it. No more pontificating from the judges, it was all left to the voters, which always makes me shudder. Tonight, Lisa Marie Presley and Adam Lambert (now there's a combination) perform. And someone's heart will get broken. I just hope it's not mine.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain

Wow. Sometimes a book just knocks you for a loop when you're not expecting it. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is one of those books. I almost didn't read it because the early reviews I had seen, while immensely superlative, made me believe this was a book about soldiers at war. And while soldiers, and their war, play a big part in the book, at its heart this is a story about a young soldier confronting the realities of the world, his family, brotherhood, and love, all for the first time.

During the war in Iraq, the men of Bravo Squad engage in a fierce firefight with insurgents at Al-Ansakar Canal, and two men lose their lives. A Fox News reporter embedded with the squad catches the entire nearly four-minute battle and broadcasts it to the world, and the Bravo Squad are hailed as American heroes. They are immediately flown back to America, where for two weeks they are sent on a victory tour around the nation, meeting President Bush and other political figures, as well as celebrities and average American citizens, most of whom express their gratitude for the sacrifice the soldiers are making. Nineteen-year-old Texas native Billy Lynn was recognized for his heroic efforts, and a Hollywood producer is pursuing the possibility of turning the Bravo Squad's heroism into a movie. A significant portion of the book takes place when the soldiers will participate in the halftime show during the Thanksgiving NFL game at Texas Stadium. In just a few hours, Billy will struggle with what their actions during wartime really meant to the world, whether he wants to go back to Iraq (the squad is scheduled to return to serve out the remainder of their deployment), and how love and family motivate him. He'll also come face to face for the first time with the glibness of Hollywood people.

I felt that so much of this book was brilliantly told and utterly captivating. Billy is a fascinating character, as are some of his fellow soldiers, and the way Ben Fountain lets their story unfold is fantastic. This book emphasizes the realities of war and how it affects those involved, as well as those who watch from the sidelines, but it never proselytizes. When the book ended, I was surprised at how disappointed I was, because I wanted more of their story. I want to know what happens once the soldiers return to Iraq. But perhaps it's better to make up my own ending than be disappointed. All in all, I thought this was an outstanding and truly affecting book.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Book Review: "When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man" by Nick Dybek

Loyalty Island in Washington State is ruled by the sea. Every fall, boats captained and crewed by Loyalty Islanders sail from the Olympic Peninsula up to the Bering Sea to spend the winter catching king crab. This is the industry that keeps the town and its businesses running, even as the threat of death at sea hangs over everyone. For Cal, whose father captains one of the boats, the sea and Alaska seem almost as mythical as the pirate stories his father used to tell him—but he also knows how the sea strains his parents' marriage, both when it keeps his father away, and when it brings him home.

The Gaunt family has owned the shipping fleet for several generations, but when John Gaunt suddenly dies, leaving the business in his estranged son Richard's hands, the future of Loyalty Island lies in the balance. Richard seems all-too-determined to sell the fleet, which would have major effects on the livelihood of not just those who work the boats, but those who run the town businesses as well. And when Cal discovers that his father may have taken a drastic step to save their way of life, he is forced to make a difficult choice—and determining which is the right choice is harder than anything he has ever had to do.

Nick Dybek's fantastic first novel, Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, is a powerful story about relationships, about loyalty between fathers and sons, and about how the things that get left unsaid sometimes hurt more than things that are said. Dybek does a terrific job depicting characters who are forced to make choices we might not approve of, but we do understand their motivation to do so. While some of the details of the story Dybek leaves a little too vague for me, I found myself marveling over his use of language and the poetry of some of his sentences. This is a great read, and I hope this is the start of a long literary career for Nick Dybek.

AI Recap: It's the Climb (And the Fall)...

Last night's results show was probably the least predictable since surprise third-place finisher Syesha Mercado was eliminated, making way for the David Cook-David Archuleta dream final touted through most of Season 7. Our perrrfect little sprite with the big voice couldn't overtake the decision to throw her overboard the talent and fanbases of Joshua, Phillip (or "Double P," as a tie-less and oh-so-street Ryan called him), and Jessica. But unlike the shaking, crying, paler Hollie who auditioned in Season 10 (they love showing that footage now after initially hiding the fact that she had come oh-so-close to making it last year), the Hollie who sang her trademark song The Climb in farewell last night was the picture of calm, even as those around her both legitimately (and over-dramatically) fell apart.

But before Kieran dims the lights on this recap, let's run through the highlights. We were reminded ad infinitum that every contestant wants the chance to be a "hometown hero"—the opportunity to fly home on a private jet, visit your old (or current, in Jessica's case) high school, maybe even kiss some babies. And Ryan demonstrated his own heroics as he announced everyone in the theater would get tickets to a stop on the Season 11 tour. (It's not quite like being in Oprah's audience, but it's something.)

We got a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Ford Music Video, this week to (naturally) J.Lo's Feeling So Good. I guess Phillip's health is so fragile that he gets a pass on the videos every week. Interesting...

Ryan called each contestant up under the guise of learning the results, only to send them back to the couch. Oh, and Jimmy weighed in on everyone's performances, because when better to make after-the-fact insulting comments than when people are at their most emotionally vulnerable, and you're hiding in a studio? Jimmy continued the whole "Phillip is suddenly an artist" arc, which leads me to believe he's worried Phillip will win and needs to get on board, because while Phillip was really good Wednesday night, I don't know that both performances were appreciably better than anything he's done this season.

On Joshua, Jimmy said that his performance of You Raise Me Up "let him down," because it didn't show off a different side of his voice. But he ran out of adjectives when describing It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World (or, as musical expert Randy would call it, When A Man Loves a Woman), saying, "How do we find an original song good enough for his album? Why not just do this song?"

Jessica, Jimmy said, "lets the rabbit out of the hat too often" when she growls, as everyone knows when she'll do it, and he didn't think "impersonating a blues singer" (singing Etta James' Steal Away) was a smart move. But the same tricks were perfectly appropriate for And I Am Telling You, which he called, "flawless." And allegedly Tommy Mottola (who, were reminded, discovered our very own J.Lo and someone called Mariah Carey) emailed Jimmy to say of Jessica, "I'm going to her first concert. She's the real deal."

And Hollie? "All of the concerns I have about Hollie—the over-singing, the over-dramatization—seemed to work for Journey's Faithfully, because it's a dramatic song. It kinda worked. So I can sort of see why Randy said she was peaking at the right time. But sadly it was in the wrong direction," Jimmy said. And that wasn't all. He claimed to have decided not to counsel the contestants on their song choices this season but he had real concerns about Hollie taking on I Can't Make You Love Me, and "when she hit the opera button, she crashed and burned and lost out to the three other singers." How'd you like to hear all of that about yourself? Think Hollie was already packed?

Season 7 champ David Cook (love him), sporting a short faux-hawky haircut, sang The Last Song I'll Write for You, which is another fantastic song. And then, the "matriarch of our family" took the stage in a low-cut leotard-like thing to mouth the words to her song Dance Again and grind against lots of bare-chested male dancers. (This performance was fun for the whole family, I'd wager a guess.) The mistress of the double-stick tape performed feats of gravity with several near-wardrobe malfunctions. And one of the hot dancers' jobs is to pick confetti out of her hair at the end of the performance. Now how does that make her a diva? She even threw in a vintage Diana Ross, "I love you" at the end of the performance.

Because we still had time to kill, Ryan asked the judges about each contestant. Most notable from this everyone-is-amazing, best-singing-ever-anywhere segment was when J.Lo said that Hollie's making it onto Season 11 and doing so well "was a moment for both of us" (Hollie and J.Lo) because J.Lo was her champion. And Steven said that Phillip wouldn't be a "one and done," but would have a long career, "no matter what happens."

Then Kieran dimmed those lights and Ryan revealed that the first person in the Top 3...was a girl...from...Chula Vista, California! It's Jessica!!

And who do you think was next? The pride...of (somewhere in) Louisiana...Joshua Ledet!

Which left us with Phillip and Hollie. At this point some notable upsets have occurred, Ryan reminded us. Daughtry. Durbin. But not this time, as it was revealed that after nearly 70 million votes, Phillip would be headed home to Georgia for nachos and tacos, and Hollie was headed home on the Megabus. While she couldn't hear the start of her song, she sounded fantastic and worked the stage with the composure of a champ, while we were treated to the dewy-eyed near-tears of J.Lo (or is that called sweat?), the actual emotional crying of Hollie's BFF, Joshua, and the (for the second night in a row) single tear of Jessica. (Good adjustment to her microprocessor this week, wouldn't you say?) But my favorite part was when they cut to Phillip as Hollie finished singing, and you could see he was about to sing along with her, when he realized the footage of him mouthing the words to a Miley Cyrus song was a YouTube video away.

Will the producers be able to stop the Double P juggernaut in favor of the Joshua-Jessica final they've craved since they pretended to eliminate saved Jessica several weeks ago? If Phillip gets a song for the producers' choice round like Hit Me Up, that spells doom...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

AI Recap: California Schemin'

American Idol has long been known for the judges reinforcing whatever decisions the producers make. Sometimes it works—Scotty and Lauren being touted as the final two for weeks before it actually happened, or the judges cooling their praise of Crystal Bowersox and Melinda Doolittle in favor of Lee DeWyze and Jordin Sparks—and sometimes it doesn't, like when the judges treated Kris Allen as if he didn't belong in the Season 8 finals with Adam Lambert. Last night was another page in the manipulative script, and everyone hit the notes they were supposed to on last night's show—including the judges.

It's two weeks 'til the finale, and Steven is clearly having hair issues, looking like he came in from his lunch break on a rainy day and just decided to put his hair up. (I almost expected to see a pencil holding it together.) J.Lo looked terrific, channeling her Selena days, and Randy sported a crazy pink plaid jacket and half-plaid tie that should have been left at Churchill Downs. (And I guess they abandoned the whole Tommy Hilfiger-as-stylist idea, because there's no way that Joshua's crazy cowl-neck t-shirt came from the men's department.)

The first round of songs fell under the theme "California Dreamin'," which Ryan explained as songs sung by bands or artists from California, or songs about California. The second round was called "Songs I Wish I Wrote," or songs that the contestants have been performing for years on YouTube inspired the contestants. I guess I kinda like the less-restrictive themes, but what's next? Songs with the word "the" in them?

Phillip got the slot of doom this week, and chose to sing CCR's Have You Ever Seen the Rain for his "California Dreamin'" song. (Two weeks in a row for a CCR song—someone must owe John Fogerty some money.) He mentioned that his brother thought last week's rendition of Time of the Season was "pretty rough" (wow, more insightful than the judges were) so he wanted to do better this week. And I thought he did. The song fit his voice perfectly, and sounded a little more gravelly than the Shouty McShoutypants groove he often falls into. He also looked like he was having a great time singing the song, despite the surfing safari graphics going on behind him. (Umm, isn't the song about rain? Did I miss a surfing metaphor?) J.Lo mentioned that Phillip's voice had a "Joe Cocker quality I haven't heard before." (Clearly J.Lo has been entertaining her Fifty Shades of Grey fantasies about Phillip during his performances, because the Joe Cocker quality—and even the movements—have been there since the beginning.) Randy said it was rough at the start (but "Phillip knows about this because we have that kind of relationship, you know?"), but once he started smiling and hitting the chorus, it was great. He reminded Phillip to "remember to have fun and everyone else will, too."

Prior to his second song of the night, Damien Rice's Volcano, Ryan tried to trot out the sympathy vote asked Phillip how his health has been, and Phillip shut him down fairly quickly with an "I'm alright." Jimmy was blown away by Phillip's performance during the mentoring session, saying it was the first time he saw him as the artist he is going to be, and compared him to a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. Phillip poked fun at that, saying, "Jimmy compared me to a butterfly. I guess he thinks I'm beautiful." I will admit to becoming a shameless fanboy of Phillip's during this performance. Between his super-poised vocals, the backup singer, and the cellist (the show went all out on the string section last night), this was phenomenal. If he performs like this for the next two weeks, I have no problem with him winning. Steven said, "I could hear the musician in you," and mentioned that, "I could listen to this song on headphones over and over." J.Lo said that "very few people could have pulled that off on a competition show like this," and called it "one of the most beautiful and poignant performances ever." (I think the judges are going way overboard with the "best ever" labels this season. If everything is the best ever, let's just give everyone a recording contract and go home, ok?) And in Randy's words, "So, yo, that's what's up right there." He called it one of Phillip's best performances of the season (that I'll agree with) and said that sometimes "a simple statement has great volume." (Another one for the fortune cookie line.)

After narrowly escaping elimination yet again last week, Hollie chose to take on Journey's Faithfully. With nothing but the open road behind her (at least that's what the graphic looked like), she used the full range of her voice on this song, from the lower register at the start (which I really love) to her powerful belting the "oh oh oh's" at the end. Randy said she is "peaking at the right time, slaying us week after week." (For Randy, history is only two or three weeks long.) He mentioned (because you know he couldn't resist) that Journey is special to his heart because he has "spent a lot of time with them, and Steve Perry is one of the greatest singers in the world, ever," and Hollie did Steve proud. By the way, "Hollie wants to take this, dawg. Hollie wants to have it!" J.Lo was emotional because she considers Hollie her pet project, having encouraged her to come back and try again after being eliminated last season, and said it was wonderful watching her blossom. Continuing with our gardening theme, Steven said that "creativity is a delicate flower you can make bloom with positive affirmations like Jennifer has given you," and called her song choice, "over the top." (Maybe J.Lo encouraged Hollie last year, but she's been one of her biggest critics this year, giving her far more criticism than almost anyone else on the show, so she's not so much the gardener who cared a lot.)

Hollie chose Bonnie Raitt's I Can't Make You Love Me for her second song. (This was Carrie Underwood's audition song in Season 4, Constantine Maroulis showed us his tender side with the song, also in Season 4, and Allison Iraheta sang this in Season 8.) Just before Hollie performed, she got to see Jimmy say, "The problem with Hollie is she brings no emotion to her performances," and then he said, "She's a dark horse. She needs to do amazing, not just okay." He also cautioned her not to oversing the song. I thought she did it well, and tried to bring some real emotion into her performance. It wasn't her typical belting ballad, and I liked that she was willing to take a risk instead of singing a song she's been singing for 10 or so years. But the judges didn't like it. J.Lo criticized her vibrato, and then had the nerve to tell her she shouldn't sing the song without having had heartbreaks. (But it was fine for Jessica to sing songs like that.) Randy said this was a great song for a different type of singer, and said the song gave Hollie no real moments, calling it "the wrong choice at the wrong time." I said this last week, and I'll say it again. The judges want Phillip, Jessica, and Joshua in the final three. J.Lo even said it last week, that those three were the top three. So I knew they'd do what they could to sabotage Hollie's chances this week, and sadly, she didn't help herself. But she is the only contestant that had to hear Jimmy's criticism of her before her performance. I just wish the judges would play fair.

Ryan promised us an "emotional" performance from Joshua, who chose Josh Groban's You Raise Me Up for his California song, and dedicated the performance to his father. (This was a popular song this week in reality singing competitions, as Chris Mann, a finalist on The Voice, sang it as well.) He was surrounded by the Joshua Ledet choir, and sang the song on a platform which—wait for it—raised up. I thought it was just ok, honestly. He is a brilliant singer but I like him better when he's less restrained and gospel-y. J.Lo called it "another great performance" and said she "loved the drama," while Steven said Joshua "sang his tush off" and then added, "Courage is fear that said its prayers. You've said your prayers and the world is accepting you like nobody's business." (Sometimes you just want to look at Steven and say, "Huh?") Randy called him "an amazing artist with a ginormous career ahead" (I love it when Randy uses his "made-up" words, don't you?) and then admitted surprise that Joshua sang this song with a choir. Has the man never seen another performance of this song on any other show? (Oh, wait. It's Randy. His comments don't make sense. I keep forgetting.)

For his second song, Joshua took on James Brown's It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World. Holy wow. Honestly, while I feel like the judges overpraise him sometimes, I have never seen anything like this performance. Just absolutely incredible and worth the title right there. And well worth yet another standing ovation. Steven said, "Neither man nor woman has sung with that compassion [sic] on this show before." J.Lo started speaking Spanish, and then said, "People at home probably thought they had seen everything you have to give. They were wrong." She even called the performance "sickening." Randy called the performance "one of the best performances on any singing show ever." I can't say I disagree. How can I agree twice with Randy in one night?

And then, in the pimp spot, came Jessica. She said, "I can't do anything but sing," as we were treated to videos of some of her performances from when she was a robot child. (Including a rendition of And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going. Hmmm.) She sang Etta James' Steal Away, and really played up the bluesy, growly aspects of the song. (Jimmy, what about her singing songs that were too old for her? And did you think her pants were too tight?) Steven said he's currently "doing" an Etta James song, and said that Jessica's song "showed another side of your voice." Randy said it was hard to believe she was "16 and singing Etta James," but (wait for it) "you could sing the phone book." (Do you think it's too old for her? All those names and numbers...)

She trotted out And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going for her second song. (I guess it's nice to sing a song you've practiced once or 8 million times.) Jimmy said during her mentoring session that "I've gotten the chance to see a lot of things in my life, but I'll always remember seeing Jessica sing this song." Seriously? Might that have been a bit too much? (Tamyra Gray sang this during Season 1, and LaKisha Jones sang it in Season 6.) There's no denying Jessica's voice or her power, but I felt as if every move, every gesture, every growl was utterly calculated and practiced. I didn't feel that there was any spontaneous emotion in the song. (The single tear that rolled down her face while the judges were giving her feedback was a nice touch.) The judges gave her a standing ovation, much as you knew they would, and called it "another winning performance." And Randy sealed the evening's script by saying, "Between Joshua's last performance, this song, and Phillip tonight, this show has been amazing." (No mention of Hollie whatsoever, despite Randy's earlier praise for her first song.)

BTW, we also were treated to two duets—Joshua and Phillip singing Maroon5's This Love (which turned out much better than their duet last week) and Jessica and Hollie's rendition of Eternal Flame by The Bangles. (Hollie sounded great on this song, Jessica sounded horrible, but instead of praising Hollie, Randy ripped the whole thing apart and the judges didn't acknowledge Hollie at all.) The interplay between Joshua and Phillip was very funny, particularly when J.Lo called it an "unexpected treat, like a duet of Adam Levine and Usher," and Phillip said, "I'm Usher?" Ryan also said the two now had a bromance going on and were known as "Jillip."

Oh yeah, and there was an extended plug for the film version of Rock of Ages (I may be the only one who hated that musical), featuring director Adam Shankman and one of the film's stars, "the young Julianne Hough." Ryan even tried a marriage proposal fakeout with Julianne, saying, "Can I ask you a question? Would you...please give this letter I wrote to Tom Cruise? I've been a fan of his since Cocktail." Julianne hit right back, saying, "Is that the letter we wrote together last night?"

But in the end...there are four contestants and only three spots for the homecoming. Short of "another Idol shocker," Hollie is going home tonight. (I'd imagine Nigel already has her bags packed.) Look for Jimmy to trash her repeatedly during tonight's show. Oh, and there's someone named Jennifer Lopez performing. Anybody heard of her?