Friday, April 23, 2010

Look for The Nines

Let me preface this post by saying this: you are about to hear me at my most fanboyish.

Some time last year, I stumbled upon a review in an old issue of Entertainment Weekly for a movie called The Nines. I had never heard of the movie, but it starred Ryan Reynolds (my favorite actor) and Melissa McCarthy of Samantha Who? (Spoiler Alert: expect a Samantha post sometime in the near future), so I decided to pick it up.

If you've read my old Favorite Films blog post (check it out here: ), you'll know that I'm a fan of The Nines, but that small description isn't enough to describe all the nuances and metaphysics of this truly amazing film.

I'll say this first, though: despite all the gushing that is forthcoming, The Nines isn't a perfect film. There are small failures, but they're all forgivable, because they're all byproducts of the film's ambition.

Now, onto the gushing. (SPOILER ALERT! If you've never seen it but wanna remain surprised, don't read this.) That ambition is why this film is so phenomenal. Director John August takes the most risks and chances within one 90-minute film I've ever seen. Utilizing a miniscule cast of three each in three different roles (Reynolds is the star, with McCarthy and the fantastic Hope Davis of In Treatment's second season supporting him), plus the much better than her sister Elle Fanning in a small part that might actually be the most mystifing of them all.

The conceit is this: what if there were beings with god-like powers that, in effect, could control the universe while simultaneously coexisting in it? Reynolds' character, known as 'G,' is one of these. He's a Nine, a name derived from his place of power. As McCarthy's first character, Margaret, explains it, if a true god is a ten on a one to ten scale, G is a nine. Davis also plays a Nine, presumably named 'S' (since, like Reynolds' character names all start with G, hers all start with S), hellbent on removing him from the worlds he has created and returning to a nonhuman existence. 'M,' McCarthy's character, is a human (a Seven; koalas are Eights, naturally) who exhibits Nine-like behaviors and is, in part, a personification of G's desire to stay in his created worlds.

The story takes place in three parts and three different universes. The first and second universes are actually somehow linked, while the third universe is actually a "real life" version of the television show prominently featured in the second universe.

(If you didn't notice earlier, SPOILER ALERT. It's about to get really spoilery.)

The first universe sees G's first alter ego, Gary, a popular television actor whose wife leaves him, get placed under house arrest after unintentionally burning down his own house while drunk. There's a certain level of eerieness to the whole affair, with notes that Gary didn't write but are somehow in his own handwriting showing up, barking coming from nowhere, and the protagonist seeing shadows of someone who looks suspiciously like himself.

He meets the next door neighbor, Sarah (Davis), who openly flirts with him and even gets him to break his order to be alone in the house, which leads to a ridiculous but awesome rendition of Peggy Lee's late '60s fatalistic tune "Is That All There Is?" as she seduces him. However, things don't end well, which leads Gary to go on a drunken escapade and run-in with Fanning's Noelle character, a mute who seemingly only talks in sign language, leads him to becoming roommates with Margaret, his PR handler.

Over time, after several references to the number nine, Gary grows suspicious of Margaret and almost takes Sarah's offer of help. Ultimately, Margaret explains to Gary what he is: a Nine, a semiultimate being with the power to "create a world on a whim." He learns that he is not one being, but several existing at the same time. In a fit of disbelief, he breaks his house arrest barrier and accidentally destroys the universe. (Which should make anyone on house arrest think twice about breaking it. I'm looking at you, Martha Stewart circa 2005.)

The second part, perhaps the best part, depicts Gavin (Reynolds again), a television writer, working on a pilot for a show called Knowing, something of a Lost-esque show. He casts Melissa McCarthy (played by, er, Melissa McCarthy) as the lead, which goes sour when she tests poorly. The studio executive, Susan (Davis), appears to be helping Gavin, but eventually, it is revealed that she has been trying to separate he and Melissa, just as Sarah was trying to separate Gary and Margaret.

It should be noted that this part also has a musical performance from McCarthy, singing the old Oliver! number "As Long As He Needs Me." Strangely enough, though The Nines isn't a musical, its two musical performances are highlights of the film. However, less should be said about this one than "Is That All There Is?" because McCarthy, really through no fault of her own, doesn't put in the emotion she should into this performance. August made a bad choice here: though McCarthy actually has a lovely voice and the song is a classic, it just doesn't fit the scene very well.

After a hostile showdown with Susan in a hotel lobby that even has a callback to "Is That All There Is?" Gavin storms out and begins to yell at the cameras following him around for a reality show based on the drama around making the pilot. However, as a woman we find to be more than familiar (she was in the first part as well) tells him, there are no cameras. He's been imagining them. Suddenly, sevens begin hovering above everyone around him, with a nine hovering above him. It is this that leads to the "game" being quit by an unknown gamer, which leads into the third universe.

In the final part, Gabriel (you guessed it, Reynolds) and his wife, Mary (McCarthy, naturally) are stranded with their daughter, Noelle, in the middle of the forest after their Prius' starter dies. (Environmentalism is fun, kiddies, until you're left stranded because your hybrid dies.) Mary stays with their mute daughter, Noelle (yes, the same Noelle from the other two parts), while Gabriel searches for help and runs into Sierra, Davis' final characterization and S' final incarnation.

This part is actually the pilot that was being filmed in the second part, which should throw the audience for even more psychological and metaphysical loops. How was G acting as Gabriel in the pilot while still being Gavin the writer? You could also ask how Gavin and Gary coexisted in the same house without ever seeing each other beyond a small shadow, after all. G's existence in all universes while none of the universes exist at once is only one of the huge obstacles facing anyone who wants to fully understand this wonderfully frustrating (or frustratingly wonderful?) film.

S stages an intervention for G, spiking his water with GHB and attempting to get him to return to being a Nine and leave the human existence behind. After 90 versions of the universe and 4,000 years playing human, S makes his peace with M and decides to return to Nine-dom. He breaks the green yarn bracelet we saw G making in the first scene, and the universe melts away.

As a parting gift for M, G leaves her in the best of all possible worlds, with Noelle as her (non-mute) daughter, her real-life husband, Ben Falcone, who appeared in part two, married to her, and living in Gavin/Gabriel's home.

It's a movie you can't watch only once and will keep you guessing every time. One of my greatest questions, however, is this: who is the "good" guy and who is the "bad" guy? Obviously, M and S are supposed to be one or the other. Since 'G' would seem to signify God, you would have to imagine that 'M' and 'S' stand for similar titles. Would 'S' be Satan? Her behaviors would certainly lend themselves to being a dark figure, but as we find out at the end, she's actually trying to help G, not harm him. Would the 'S' be for Seraphim, then? And does that make M the evil one? Is her keeping G in his created universe an act of malice? Or is 'M' supposed to stand for Madonna? Or Mary? It's all so frustrating it can make your head spin.

I can't seem to talk about the film without talking in circles, so I'm really just going to stick to what I know best: the acting, the writing, and then a special note about Davis' musical performance.

The acting is equally matched, with Reynolds doing some of his best work. McCarthy brings a charm to every part she plays, but in the first part especially, she absolutely shines. Used to playing opposite quirky women (Lauren Graham's Lorelai Gilmore, Christina Applegate's Samantha Newly), McCarthy is a formidable opponent for Davis, standing by her man no matter what incarnation he's currently in. And Davis is a wonder in her three roles, bringing a power and ferocity to each that is almost undeniable.

The writing is very good. Amazingly so, actually, considering the difficult task of continually teasing the audience without revealing too much. It does leave several unanswered questions, and it feels somewhat as though August didn't check the parts against each other to make sure everything was explained. But that's just a byproduct of his ambition, as mentioned earlier, so it's forgivable.

A quick thought about "Is That All There Is?" There's no doubt the song is fatalistic (horrifyingly so), with lyrics like "I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire. I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was over, I said to myself, 'Is that all there is to a fire? Is that all there is?'" So why does Sarah sing it to Gary? I think it's supposed to reflect her inhumanity and his as well. For them, there are no wonders in this world. They create the wonders. That boredom is what causes Gary to keep resetting and restarting the worlds. That's my best guess, anyway. It's an incredibly intriguing performance.

If you've gotten to this point in the blog post, chances are either A) you've seen The Nines, or B) you just had the entire movie spoiled for you. Don't let either situation stop you from watching it again. It's a fantastic movie that will keep you continually guessing until the end and long afterwards. In a world where copycat movies like "The Losers," "The A-Team," and "The Expendables," all of which are, um, the exact same film, dreck like "Killers," and endless sequels like the upcoming fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" can be made and everyone goes to see them, no questions asked, it's sad to see a movie like The Nines get ignored.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Long As They Can See The Light

UPDATE: I took out one particular comment out, specifically calling Austin American-Statesman reporter Dale Roe an idiot. Honestly, anyone who has the time to come to a lowly little blog like mine and comment (and compliment my writing, to boot) is no idiot in my book!

In all honesty, I apologize for that comment and to anyone who was offended. I consider myself to be good-spirited while blogging, and should not have jumped to conclusions. (But seriously, I have a Statesman reporter commenting on this tiny blog of mine! That's awesome!)

A few weeks ago, I wrote that I felt this season of American Idol was in serious jeopardy after beyond-underwhelming semifinals shows and few standout talents beyond frontrunners Crystal Bowersox and Siobhan Magnus.

What a difference a few weeks makes.

This week's episode of Idol, in which the Top 9 performed the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, was one of the highest rated ever according to absolutely must-read Idol site Coming in at an average 59.7 point score, the Lennon/McCartney episode is ranked No. 8 in the database of every Idol episode. It also came far ahead of either Lennon/McCartney episode in season 7, and the first of those is considered among the top Idol episodes ever with some critics (though the numbers indicate that those critics' memories aren't quite accurate).

This week, contestants Casey James, Tim Urban, and Katie Stevens all had their highest-rated performances in the live shows, with the former, James, the clear favorite of the episode and the latter, Stevens, having a moment similar to season 7 third-place finisher Syesha Mercado's performance of "Yesterday," another Lennon/McCartney song. Stevens' powerful, pitch-perfect vocal on "Let It Be" was my personal favorite of the night, even if the numbers don't agree (she would have come in 3rd as far as's ratings are concerned, behind James and Bowersox, but in front of Magnus).

Even contestants who hit lows didn't come close to their lowest. Lee DeWyze, Andrew Garcia, Michael Lynche, and Aaron Kelly were more "average" than "terrible," and Lynche's performance, plus his phenomenal reprise of his signature "This Woman's Work" on Wednesday, saved him from elimination thanks to the one-time-use Judges' Save.

In fact, each week of Idol season 9 has actually signaled a trend upwards since the first week of semifinals, save the Billboard #1's week, which was very, very, very low (average WNTS rating: 41, ouch). However, with the theme changing from "Teen Idols" about halfway through the week, it seems as though that particular disaster was an exception, not the rule. (Though I will forever treasure that week for giving me Garcia's tragic performance of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" in which he helpfully pointed at his ear on the word "heard" so as to let the audience at home know which bodily orifice deals with his sense of hearing. Thanks, Andrew, for that anatomy lesson.)

But I truly think this season is on its way up, and while it won't be the highest-rated season ever, it will be one of the most enjoyable. A few notes for each contestant, as well as the judges, Ryan Seacrest, and the show on the whole, on making it even more enjoyable, follow.

The Frontrunner: Crystal Bowersox
Bowersox no longer needs to prove to anyone how good she is. She's delivered nothing but stellar performances for seven straight weeks, her lowest coming in at a 78 (higher than most contestants' highest performances!) and her highest for a sexy, sultry version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's (you read that right: sexy CCR) "Long As I Can See The Light." Personally, my favorite Bowersox was "Midnight Train to Georgia" on piano, as opposed to her trusty guitar.

What Bowersox must do now is something so completely out of the box that everyone steps back and says "Hey!" It need not even be a particularly good performance, though something tells me that everything she sings turns to gold. "Mad World" showed us last season how dramatically restrained Adam Lambert could be--something like an acoustic "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" or knocking something current out of the park, something like when Nathaniel Rogers did "Disturbia" during last season's Hollywood week. But more performances that are technically good but not showstopping, and we could see a Melinda Doolittle-style backlash brewing for Bowersox.

Signature Tune: "Long As I Can See The Light"
Weak Point: "Come Together*"

*Not from a statistical standpoint: that'd be "Hand In My Pocket." But it wasn't the most original performance, and something of a half-baked one.

The Wild Card: Siobhan Magnus
Name the most iconic performance this season. How many of you said "Paint It Black*," by none other than Magnus? Not surprising, considering her interpretation so veered off of the original Rolling Stones recording and became something iconic all its own. Her vocal may not have been steady the whole time, but it was powerful, dramatic, interesting, and, yes, showstopping. And her high note, first introduced to us on "Think," was beautifully done.

However, Magnus needs to make sure she always picks the right song. True, she's done it almost every time. But the two times she didn't, with Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire," it really hurt her. Making standards all kinds of brilliant works for her, and this week's "Across the Universe" was no exception. And the emotion she showed in talking about her sisters was a huge humanizer, making her relatable for the audience. Trust me, that's half the battle.

Signature Tune: "Paint It Black"
Weak Point: "Through the Fire"

*"Paint It, Black" is the actual title of "Paint It Black," but the Rolling Stones have made it clear that the comma was unintentional and added by their record label. So I won't use it.

The Unsure Rocker: Lee DeWyze
I get a little frustrated when talking about DeWyze, because I feel that this guy has so much potential but doesn't realize it. All of his performances have been lacking in confidence, even though some of them have been pretty good. R&B week's "Treat Her Like a Lady" was amazing, actually.

So when he finally gains some confidence, what does he do? Have a bagpipe player come out during "Hey Jude," all the while acting like a cocky asshole. He was back to his worrywart self on results night, facing being in the Bottom 3, but it was a major turnoff. He needs to learn to moderate himself.

Signature Tune: "Treat Her Like a Lady"
Weak Point: "Hey Jude"

The Consistent One: Casey James
I want to like James. I really do. I can appreciate how well he sang (technically) on this week's "Jealous Guy," or how good he was the first week out on "Heaven" when everyone else was still struggling. I also like that he's been ridiculously consistent all season, always scoring in the same small range.

But James needs to learn that he needs all the performances to be "Jealous Guys." Actually, they need to be better. He needs to convince the audience that he has a personality behind his chiseled chest, long blond hair, and electric guitar skills. Not only that, but he needs to prove that he could be a contemporary artist today. I just don't think that's the case right now.

Signature Tune: "Jealous Guy"
Weak Point: "I Don't Want to Be"

The Saved: Michael Lynche
I will be the first to say I was rooting (quite hard actually) for the judges to save Lynche this past week. I think that there are so many more that deserve to go home before him, and I applaud that he took a real risk with "Eleanor Rigby" this week, even if it wasn't technically a brilliant performance. And his "This Woman's Work" is up there next to Maxwell's famous cover of the Kate Bush song.

What Lynche really needs to work on is not letting his "lovable" personality grate on people. For some reason, despite really strong performances like "Work" and India.Arie's "Ready for Love," Lynche just isn't connecting with the audience enough to bolster his ratings above a relatively low 79. And he was technically eliminated this week; thank goodness for the Judges' Save. Something isn't working with Lynche, so I hope he figures out what he needs to change to really turn it on. Because it needs to happen fast. Like, this week. Remember, two are going home this week.

Signature Tune: "This Woman's Work"
Weak Point: "This Love"

The Starlet in the Making: Katie Stevens
Stevens has never been my favorite, but this week, she won me over hard. Her "Let It Be" was beautiful, she had a couple of great personality moments, and she proved that she does indeed belong in this crop.

But she needs to step it up if she wants to keep that momentum going. She needs more moments like "Be" every week, and she needs to prove that she is just as good as the two other women in the Top 9. Which she isn't, of course, but she just needs to fake it.

And Katie, sweetheart? Don't cover a Kelly Clarkson song if you don't have the vocal chops for it. In fact, just don't cover a Clarkson. She's the standard-bearer for Idol, and all others should stay the hell away from her impressive catalog.

Signature Tune: "Let It Be"
Weak Point: "Breakaway"

The Ragamuffins: Andrew Garcia, Tim Urban, Aaron Kelly
With nine left, only six really deserve to be there. These are the three that don't. They all have ratings that fall below or at 40 on, and none have had a very impressive moment (I don't count proper identification of body parts as a "moment," Garcia). In fact, Garcia and Kelly have mostly skated by on the judges' sometimes superfluous praise of mediocre performances. Urban has skated by because he's the singing equivalent of that puppy you found on the side of the road when you were four and your mommy wouldn't let you keep. He's what you want, but also what you can't have. (That's because he probably has rabies, kids.)

If any of these three want to survive past this week (always a possibility that two of them will, but at least one will be caught up in the double elimination), they need to get better. Fast. Do something different, like gender-swapping a song, or going way outside their comfort zone. But none of these three can win. And I'm sick of bloggers perpetuating's theory that Urban can win the competition. He can't. It didn't happen with Sanjaya Malakar, it didn't happen with Kristy Lee Cook, and it didn't happen with John Stevens. He won't win. It won't happen. Don't get nuts. It may not go to Bowersox or Magnus, but then it'll go to DeWyze or James. Urban has absolutely no shot at the title, and neither does Garcia. Nor Kelly.

The show on the whole needs to keep the themes relevant, and pick themes where the songs will actually get cleared (Teen Idols to Billboard #1s was a bit of a disaster, after all). The judges are doing all right, considering their usual incompetence. After all, Ellen DeGeneres isn't Heidi Klum, Kara DioGuardi isn't Nina Garcia, Simon Cowell isn't Michael Kors, and Randy Jackson isn't that rotating guest judge no one listens to. (Oh, wait, yes, he is.) But Simon needs to wake up, Ellen needs to learn to balance the funny and the constructive (something she seems to be learning every week), Kara needs to stick to her actually incredibly intelligent critiques and stop flirting with Simon, and Randy...needs to hush.

Same for Ryan Seacrest. I don't know of one person that actually likes him, to be frank. He's a placeholder, albeit a better than average one, but his showdowns with Simon this season have been ridiculous. He needs to leave himself out of the proceedings.

I'm actually excited to see where Idol goes from here. If you've stopped watching because you think it's gotten unwatchable, tune back in. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rated S for Swell.

I've become so lazy in my blogging, guys. Seriously, Oscar season ends, and the blogging just tapers off. It's very sad.

I don't blog about music much, primarily because most of the stuff I really enjoy (which actually is pretty varied, as you're about to see), most people hear about way too often anyway. But I'm going to take a crack at blogging about music this week to talk about two albums that I really enjoy from start to finish, which is rare in this single-based world.

The first is an older album: The Swell Season, by, appropriately enough, The Swell Season. The members of the group, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are perhaps best known for their film Once and the Academy Award-winning song from the film, "Falling Slowly." The beautifully orchestrated anthem about new love is exactly what made me seek out the soundtrack to Once, but because of a price disparity, I instead bought The Swell Season, the group's official debut album, which featured many of the same songs. I'm glad I made the choice I did. The album has very few low watermarks ("Leave" and "The Moon" are the only tracks I generally skip when listening to the album), and its high points are pretty incredible.

There's something soulfully stirring about The Swell Season's instrumentation and vocals. My fondness for the violin is a great fit for The Swell Season, as the emotionally evocative instrument is used beautifully here, especially on "Falling Slowly" and the band's titular track, the instrumental "The Swell Season." If you're looking for a strong vocal from Hansard, you can't find anything better than "When Your Mind's Made Up," one of the more quick-paced choruses on the album. "Drown Out" and "Lies" are both painful melodies that use the piano and violin to great effect. But nothing is better than the Irglova-centric "Alone Apart," which uses every strong suit of The Swell Season's, including a stirring melody and a beautifully evocative vocal. It's the highlight of the album.

In a very different genre, Rihanna, the pop princess from Barbados, released her rock-tinged album Rated R late last year to critical and commercial success. It is her darkest effort yet, and, I would say concomitantly, her best.

It's no secret that Rihanna had a domestic abuse scandal with her boyfriend Chris Brown early last year. While none of the songs directly address the abuse (though the haunting "Russian Roulette" gets pretty damn close), all of the songs are tinged with a dark tone and a maturity rare for Top 40 music.

Your mileage may vary as to your favorite song, because the songs themselves are so disparate in style. If you like a slinky, almost Latin flavor, "Te Amo" is the song for you. If you're looking for a brilliant gangster anthem, check out "G4L." For a hard rock kiss-off featuring no less than Slash on guitar, take a listen to "Rockstar 101." Then there's the stirring "Cold Case Love," the "Take a Bow"-esque "Stupid in Love," and the absolutely hilarious "Rude Boy." My personal favorite is either the creepy album opener "Mad House," the hard-hitting "Wait Your Turn," or "Roulette," a masterpiece unto itself. The best part of "R," however, is that it listens so beautifully as a whole.

These are two albums that anyone can find highlights in, but if you're going to download certain tracks, you can't go wrong with:

- "Alone Apart," the stirring love song
- "Falling Slowly," the Oscar-winning anthem
- "Drown Out," the haunting violin-focused song
- "G4L," the hard-pumping gangster anthem
- "Russian Roulette," the beautifully composed song of lost love
- "Wait Your Turn," a hard-hitting pop ditty