Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sign #1 that the World May Not End: Battleship Sinks at the Box Office

        On the Monday of last week, when announcing the weekend box office results, newspaper style sections and entertainment websites all had the words Avengers crushes Battleship or some variant thereof splashed across their headlines. More specifically, despite having been in theaters for three weeks, Joss Whedon’s superhero phenomenon had outlasted Peter Berg’s Transformer-like action tentpole to retain its spot atop the box office, earning a whopping 30 million dollars more than the latter, which had to settle for second place. This news wasn’t exactly unexpected, considering the hysteria that has surrounded Avengers since its release (at this rate, it’s likely to surpass The Dark Knight in all-time domestic grosses), but I still couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief upon seeing it.

        No, I haven’t seen Battleship, and frankly, I don’t plan on doing so unless I’m stranded at home one day with a hundred-degree fever. But this blog post/rant/tentative expression of hope has nothing to do with the film’s quality; for all I know, it could actually be the rousing, engaging, and emotionally complex action war picture that Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum claims it to be, though I somehow can’t bring myself to believe her (I like you, Lisa, and your reviews are exquisitely written, but there’s no way you can be “depressed” by The Avengers and have no problem whatsoever with Battleship).  I don’t normally take pleasure in the misfortune of others (or maybe I do), and I’m sure tons of people worked their asses off on this movie and deserve their paychecks, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the failure of Battleship gives me a smidgeon of hope for the future of human civilization.

        At the end of the day, the fact is that no matter how fun or surprisingly well-made Battleship is, it’s still a $200 million movie based on a fifty-year-old board game. Is Hollywood really so creatively drained that it needs to create movies out of board games? Or is it just so lazy that it no longer considers plot an essential element of storytelling? Transformers may be a hollow, cacophonous mess of a franchise, as insubstantial as the CGI explosions that seem to encompass its entirety, but at least you could argue that it’s based on a TV show with an actual narrative.

Not that you can’t still turn it into an incoherent jumble of giant robots beating the [metal] out of each other

        In other words, Battleship is Transformers, minus even the pretense of wanting to be a legitimate movie. This isn’t art or entertainment: it’s a commodity. Why else would the trailer proudly declare, “From Hasbro, the company that brought you Transformers” instead of, “From the director of Hancock and Friday Night Lights” like most movie trailers? Regardless of whether Battleship happens to succeed as an escapist action spectacle (and, according to Rotten Tomatoes, 66% of critics say it doesn’t), it probably isn’t a stretch to say that few people behind the scenes give a damn about the actual quality of the film, as long as it vomits out a boatload of cash (pun intended) from unsuspecting international audiences – apparently, homicidal aliens and deafening explosions are universal, whereas genuine human emotion is not.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Summer Fodder for Bookworms

            Summer has arrived, in spirit if not in reality. It’s a season of lazy afternoons spent sipping lemonade by the swimming pool or, if you’re more like me, spent shoving handfuls of salty popcorn in your mouth while watching the latest epic blockbuster in a crowded, bustling mall theater. Summer is also that time of the year when people start looking for good beach reads. So, without further ado, here is my personal list of must-read books for anyone with a little leisure time on his or her hands:

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The Plot: A fictionalized account of a group of soldiers’ experiences during the Vietnam War
Why You Should Read It: O’Brien’s book is an eye-opener, stunning in its thoughtfulness and emotional honesty and the vividness with which it depicts the realities of war. A classic of war literature.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Plot: 14 year old Susie Salmon watches from beyond the grave as her family and friends confront the aftermath of her murder.
Why You Should Read It: Forget Peter Jackson’s failed cinematic adaptation. Alice Sebold nimbly mixes genres – horror, fantasy, domestic/family drama, mystery – and delves into the minds of her wonderfully complex and surprisingly relatable characters. Her writing lends the story a unique, ethereal beauty.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The Plot: Frank and April Wheeler dream of breaking out of their settled and seemingly idyllic yet unfulfilling lives in 1950’s suburbia.
Why You Should Read It: Richard Yate’s portrayal of suburban ennui still feels startlingly relevant, even though it was published fifty years ago. His protagonists are stubbornly flawed yet painfully, heartbreakingly empathetic, and their struggles will resonate with anyone who has ever feared that this is it.

Big If by Mark Costello
The Plot: A Secret Service agent returns to her hometown during a campaign stop for the Vice President of the United States, whom she helps protect.
Why You Should Read It: Buoyed by slick, acerbic prose and memorable characters, Costello’s part satire/part character study offers a sharp and insightful commentary on post-9/11 paranoia and disillusionment.

Dirt Music by Tim Winton
The Plot: The discontented, young housewife of a well-respected fisherman in a small Australian town becomes intrigued by a secretive but emotionally damaged loner.
Why You Should Read It: That premise likely sounds utterly dull and cliché, but trust me, this book is anything but. Tim Winton brilliantly captures both the stark, rugged beauty of the Australian landscape and the distinct culture of the people living there, and the relationships that form between the three central characters are far more nuanced and compelling than one might expect from a love-triangle romance.
One Day by David Nicholls
The Plot: A When Harry Met Sally-esque romance that follows the relationship between its hero and heroine as it evolves over twenty years, checking in on them on the same day each year
Why You Should Read It: It’s that rare romance that feels less like a Cinderella story and more like something that might actually happen in real life. Thanks to his witty, endlessly perceptive prose, Nicholls actually makes us care about his couple and is unafraid of showing them at their most vulnerable and desperate. One Day is as much about facing disappointment, missed opportunities and loss as it is about finding love and happiness.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Plot: A romance involving a man who jumps through time and the ordinary woman he falls in love with
Why You Should Read It: Yes, this is another romance, but like in One Day, the energetic, heartfelt writing elevates it far above your standard Nicholas Sparks sapfest. Henry and Clare make a thoroughly winning couple, and Niffenegger mines them for extraordinary emotional depth, turning what could have been a trite melodrama into one of the most exuberant, poignant love stories I’ve ever read.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Plot: Three generations of women are all affected by the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs. Dalloway.
Why You Should Read It: Cunningham is a master of words, capable of transforming the most mundane acts into moments of transcendent beauty and importance. This intimate, graceful character study won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
London Boulevard by Ken Bruen
The Plot: Just released from prison, a criminal takes a job working for a reclusive, once-great stage actresses and attempts to leave behind his violent past and his old life in London’s criminal underworld.
Why You Should Read It: Filled with idiosyncratic and delightfully memorable characters, Ken Bruen’s twisted, darkly comic take on the story from Billy Wilder’s classic film Sunset Boulevard simmers with gritty realism and zips along with exhilarating ease.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Plot: A mysterious, young girl is the possible savior of humanity after a vampire-like virus infects the human population and ends modern society as we know it.
Why You Should Read It: Epic and ambitious in scope without ever losing sight of the humans at its center, this thriller is alternately terrifying and tender. Cronin proves adept at not only juggling a vast ensemble of characters, but also at sustaining suspense over a jaw-dropping number of pages (876, to be exact); even the most seemingly tranquil moments are laced with tension. Apocalyptic fiction at its most visceral and chilling.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Plot: In a world where disease is a thing of the past, thanks to the use of clones as organ donors, three students at the elite school of Hailsham in the England countryside grow up and must face harsh truths about the nature of their existence and their future.
Why You Should Read It: Brimming with intelligence and compassion, this sci-fi coming-of-age story moves at a meditative pace that almost lulls the reader into a false sense of security before delivering an emotional gut-punch of an ending. It’s a quietly devastating read, and Ishiguro’s ideas and characters will linger in your mind long after the final page has been turned.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
The Plot: A series of vignettes and interlocking stories that all help paint a portrait of New York City in 1974, the year Philippe Petit walked across a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center
Why You Should Read It: McCann displays great empathy for his characters, who come from all walks of life and each manage to make an impact no matter how brief their appearance within the book is. Weaving the disparate storylines together with impressive subtlety and poise, he explores the fragility and power of human connection.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fanboys and girls, you can finally breathe


     I’ll confess that I had reservations about The Avengers: the Marvel superhero movies have been a mixed bag for me so far, and the notion of a big-budget action spectacle centered on not just one but six protagonists, all of whom should theoretically get an equal amount of attention, sounded like a formula for disaster. At best, I assumed that it would be a fun slice of escapism that critics would treat with a mix of condescension and grudging acceptance. At worst, it would be the most ambitious fiasco since… well, John Carter, though that had the benefit of low expectations. If The Avengers was anything but the cinematic equivalent of a walk-off grand slam in Game 7 of the World Series, blood would surely be spilled.
         To my – and no doubt other people’s – relief, neither of those predictions turned out to be right. Not only is The Avengers a blast to watch, an explosive mix of humor, angst and awesome fight scenes, but it’s also maybe one of the best superhero movies of all-time. Take notes, Hollywood: this is how you make a summer blockbuster. Despite clocking in at approximately two-and-a-half hours, The Avengers never fails to mesmerize, barreling headlong into the chaos like an enraged Hulk loose in Manhattan yet also giving its numerous heroes sufficient room to breathe and flex their ridiculously chiseled muscles. This is a ticking time bomb of a movie. Each scene brims with energy, an exhilarating, carefree vivacity that would probably be overwhelming if not for those little moments of unexpected pathos strewn here and there that leave you breathless. Joss Whedon, the geek idol whose previous credits include beloved cult TV shows Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, displays astonishing dexterity as he juggles over-the-top action set pieces with incisive, often self-deprecating banter and emotional turmoil. He treats the material at once with ironic self-awareness and the utmost respect, indulging the so-called fanboys without pandering to them, winking at the absurdity while making his passion for the characters and their stories palpable. There lies the key to first-rate superhero movies, something few directors seem to have realized: they may have godlike powers, but deep down, superheroes are still human (well, Thor is technically an actual god, but you get my point). Whedon refuses to glorify his characters, showing them in all their messy imperfections and weaknesses so that they feel less like the flat archetypes that often dominate superhero movies than like real people.
        Nonetheless, the star of The Avengers is its phenomenal cast. If there’s one thing that has remained consistent throughout the Marvel movies, it’s the acting; The Incredible Hulk was saved single-handedly from utter mediocrity by Edward Norton’s compelling performance, and even Iron Man 2 had Scarlett Johansson kicking ass and Sam Rockwell devouring scenery. You might think that stuffing so much (good-looking) talent into one 143-minute movie would be overkill, like forcing a pack of wolves to share one rabbit. On the contrary, the acting is what truly elevates The Avengers above “just another superhero movie”, what makes it so compulsively watchable. Watching the actors – Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston – together onscreen is a positively mind-blowing experience. As a group, their chemistry is fiery enough to light a small city, and as individuals, they alternately ooze charisma and vulnerability. I was particularly impressed by Johannson, who manages to exude feminist empowerment while fighting in a body-hugging leather suit, and Hiddleston, he of the startlingly expressive eyes and deliciously smug smirk, though it seems unfair to pick and choose when you have a cast as uniformly wonderful as this one. This is ensemble acting at its finest.

        That said, I did have a few relatively minor problems. Given the fact that the majority of the movie does such a great job of balancing the action, comedy and drama, I found the climax a tad underwhelming. As pretentious as it sounds, I wish Whedon had supplemented the epic, CGI-heavy, property damage-laden battle sequence (which was thrilling, don’t get me wrong) with something more intimate and emotionally resonant. It seems like a letdown to spend over two hours building these character arcs, only to leave many of them dangling at the end. Judging from the audience reaction at my screening, though, most people didn’t have an issue with this. Also, a familiarity with or a fondness for the previous Marvel films is preferable since The Avengers assumes that viewers already have some sort of relationship with the characters.

         In two months, the Internet will inevitably be filled with debates over whether The Avengers is better than The Dark Knight Rises (The Amazing Spider-Man might join them, but to be honest, that one doesn’t have the same level of anticipation as the others). And, if you’ll allow me to be cynical for a second, those debates will inevitably boil down to this: The Dark Knight Rises is the serious, gritty one about timely political issues, whereas The Avengers is the fun, lighthearted one about shit blowing up. Although both of those descriptions are accurate to some extent, they do a disservice to both movies. Counter to popular opinion, it’s entirely possible to like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films as pure entertainment rather than profound social commentaries, and The Avengers deserves to be taken more seriously than run-of-the-mill escapist fluff. It may not have the thematic depth of The Dark Knight, but The Avengers is arguably just as revolutionary. Here, bigger does not equal better; on the contrary, Whedon proves (once again) that even the noisiest, flashiest, most heavily hyped extravaganza needs a soul beneath its lavish suit of armor. For, more than any other superhero movie, The Avengers is a movie about superheroes and why we can’t live without them, even though we might scoff at them: especially in our post-9/11 world of constant anxiety, they provide a comforting dose of old-fashioned values, hope for salvation from the anarchy. Superheroes aren’t here to save us from monsters, it says. They’re here to save us from ourselves.

This is Not an Avengers Review.

            I really wanted to write an Avengers review. Really. I did. But “review” implies some level of criticism, and frankly I’m so far through the biased spectrum and out the other end that any attempt at critique is pretty much hopeless. I made it as far as three thoughtful paragraphs in before devolving into the written equivalent of rolling around on the floor, curling up in a corner, and babbling manically to myself. So I said screw it and just wrote what came to mind. Proceed with caution: what follows will be an unhealthy mixture of blood, sweat, tears, and possibly saliva. 
Spoiler Free!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Avenging Blockbuster Thespians

           The recent release of The Avengers was important for many reasons. Rabidly anticipated by millions of fanboys and fangirls around the world, Joss Whedon’s superhero extravaganza kicked off the summer with a bang, earning an astounding $207.4 million weekend gross, an all-time domestic box office record that made it the first movie ever to earn over $200 million in its opening weekend. It raised the bar for a summer already bursting with high expectations.

 All these movies in the same season? Plus this? The movie gods have truly blessed us.

             Avengers’ success is not just about the numbers, though. To start with, it was a pretty damn great movie, one of the precious few to actually live up to all the hype surrounding it. Going in, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: awesome one-liners, a shitload of special effects and explosions, perhaps some psychological angst thrown in here and there and a bombastic, grand score courtesy of Alan Silvestri. Yet, I was surprised by the one thing that stuck with me most as I exited the buzzing, sold-out theater: the acting. As enjoyable and kick-ass as the action and humor were, what I think elevated the film from being merely serviceable to being genuinely good was the quality of the cast and the devotion paid to character development by both the actors and writer/director Joss Whedon.

             Marvel superhero movies are generally thought to be ridiculous, “mindless” fun, particularly compared to the moody grimness of, say, the new Batman films. They’re essentially your prototypical summer blockbusters, but despite this reputation, the best ones (which, along with The Avengers, are, I think, the first Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger) work not because they flaunt the most eye-popping weaponry or feature the greatest amount of property damage, but because they cut through all that noise and build substantial, nuanced characters.

            One of the most daunting issues facing The Avengers was the task of giving a decent amount of screentime to each of its six (seven, if you count Loki) lead characters. Luckily for us, they managed to pull it off, in part thanks to some smart writing and direction from Whedon and a pretty hefty running time. However, the majority of the credit, I feel, belongs to the charismatic and flat-out talented ensemble cast. From Robert Downey Jr. to Scarlett Johansson, each actor gives you a real sense of his or her character’s background and personality and the inner psychological and emotional turmoil they’re all experiencing throughout the movie. Whether it’s Chris Evans conveying Cap’s loneliness and disillusionment through distant, vaguely clouded gray eyes, Mark Ruffalo wringing his hands as the withdrawn, mild-mannered Bruce Banner or Tom Hiddleston perfecting a self-satisfied smirk as Loki, the movie’s diabolical yet bizarrely sympathetic villain, they masterfully but effortlessly anchor a story that might otherwise have gotten lost in over-the-top cartoonishness. Furthermore, their chemistry as a group is undeniable.

             Of course, The Avengers isn’t the first blockbuster to feature quality acting. Though many seem to consider actors and characters as nothing more than props to accessorize massive action sequences, high-budget franchise movies that boast strong acting are not nearly as rare as it might seem. To name a few relatively recent examples, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight, Inception, the Harry Potter films and the Star Trek reboot all featured performances as commendable as those in any quiet art house drama.

              Accolades for these performances, however, are far and few in-between.  There seems to be a feeling, at least within critics or more serious film-lovers circles, that these actors, like the movies they star in, are somehow unworthy of prestige or genuine critical praise. Of the twenty performances nominated for an Oscar this past year, only five (Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids and Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer, all for The Help) were for movies that grossed over $100 million, and none came from films that could even remotely be considered special effects-heavy. It was the same case, minus Rooney Mara, with the Screen Actors Guild awards, that annual celebration of thespians that somehow comes off as even more self-congratulatory than the zillion other awards ceremonies; with only an occasional exception, the most a summer blockbuster can hope for is a nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble. The last time any actor got serious awards consideration for a mainstream summer blockbuster was Christoph Waltz for the indelible role of Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds in 2009 (and, granted, he got a lot of consideration), though if that’s still a bit too artsy for you, you’d have to go back to 2008 with Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight.

              Individual performances in action- or special effects-oriented movies only seem to receive recognition under special circumstances. Ledger’s Oscar, of course, came posthumously, and as much as he still would’ve deserved it, it’s depressingly easy to imagine that he wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much attention if he had still been alive. Christoph Waltz portrayed a Nazi, and everyone knows the Academy and all those other institutions that hand out awards at the end of each year are suckers for anything Holocaust-related.

Except, maybe, this.

               Standout performances in blockbusters are treated as rarities, worthy of praise despite their genre and the movie’s use of visual effects.

               Imagine a world, though, where Andy Serkis getting an Oscar campaign for his performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers wouldn’t generate articles like this one (as thought-provoking as it is), where Alan Rickman’s work as Snape in Harry Potter wouldn’t be automatically dismissed just because he’s waving a wand and the cast of The Avengers would have just as good a chance as the cast of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Abraham Lincoln biopic at garnering a SAG Best Ensemble Cast nomination. I, for one, don’t think that sounds too bad.

Monday, May 7, 2012

In It to Bore Us to Death

        I watch Mad Men. I also watch American Idol.

        Well, that sounds like an unholy combination if there ever was one. But before you start bombarding me with accusations about how I’m contributing to the pitiful state of modern-day network TV or whatever, I will say this: I’m as worried as the next person about the continuing popularity of reality TV as opposed to scripted programming, and I regularly mourn the fact that more people watch The Bachelor than, say, Fringe or Community. In fact, American Idol is the only reality show that I have ever watched regularly and voluntarily, and even then, I watch it fully aware of the fact that, even at its best, it’s not much more than bizarrely addictive escapism. Still, who am I to deny people something that they enjoy? Besides, I’m one of those few, loyal viewers that compelled Fox to flush logic down the toilet like a dead insect and give Fringe the fifth season it so richly deserves, so I think I’m entitled to one guilty pleasure.

 At least we’re not watching kids murder each other for entertainment, right?

        There was a time, though, when I didn’t feel that guilty about watching American Idol (admittedly, even now, I would rather watch it than many scripted shows (*cough* Glee *cough*), but that’s beside the point). At the height of its popularity during the mid-‘00s, Idol was a genuine cultural phenomenon, the kind of show that people talked about at the dinner table or the water cooler for days afterward. It was dumb and shamelessly gaudy, but somehow, it mattered.  Season 5, the show’s most-watched season to date, averaged 30.6 viewers per episode, an audience that most shows nowadays can only dream of due to the increasingly fragmented nature of modern television, and it really felt as though the entire nation watched Taylor Hicks win the coveted trophy (and subsequently flung their remotes at the TV). Whether you loved or hated them, the three original judges – Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy “The Dawg” Jackson – had an undeniable influence on pop culture; even people who actively avoided the show knew who they were. And more to the point, during its heyday, Idol was actually entertaining to watch, even if it was only as escapist fluff.

        My personal source of nostalgia, the season against which all other seasons are compared and the one that reminds me why I watched the show in the first place, is season 7, the year scruffy, soulful rocker David Cook won. It may not have been the most popular or even the most exciting, but for me, season 7 will most likely always be the high point of Idol. How can I forget the wonder of hearing 17 year old runner-up David Archuleta croon John Lennon’s “Imagine” for the first time? Or the outrage I felt after finding out that Michael Johns had inexplicably been voted out in eight place? Or the pure joy of seeing David C. win it all and somehow make a song that contains the words “magic rainbows” not sound the least bit corny? And no matter what anyone else says, my favorite Idol duets will always be David A. and David C.’s “Hero” and Michael Johns and Carly Smithson’s “The Letter”, both of which were performed during the season 7 finale. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t started reading online blogs yet, but for some reason, the 7th season felt more real than the most recent seasons. The contestants seemed nice, charismatic and honest (just watch this); the judges gave actual criticism; and most of all, the music mattered more than the politics. David Cook and David Archuleta became the top 2 because they were both amazing singers in their own way and deserved to win, not because of their race, religion, looks or demographic.

 Besides, if it was based on looks, he would have gotten farther than 8th place.

        Then, something changed. The problem isn’t that the past four winners have all been WGWG (White Guys With Guitars), though it is more than a little disturbing that five years have gone by since a woman or a minority last won; as long as the person is a good singer and an entertaining performer, I don’t care what gender or race he is. The real problem is that for the past two (or even three, though season 9 was so boring and forgettable that it doesn’t merit much consideration) seasons, contestants have been routinely rewarded for playing it safe and being as predictable as possible.  Maybe it’s the fault of the contestants themselves: whereas in season 7, the vast majority of the 12 finalists were over the age of 20, the show has recently skewered toward younger contestants with such severity that this season’s Elise Testone has consistently been called a “grandma” despite being the ripe old age of 28. I have nothing against young people (and it feels weird to be criticizing people for being young when they’re about my age), but with youth also comes a lack of experience. In season 7, most of the contestants clearly knew what they were doing and cared deeply about having a future career in music, but many of the contestants in the past few seasons seem sadly clueless and, frankly, inept. They’re awkward performers and lackluster interview subjects, and perhaps most importantly, they have no idea how to choose a song. Very few contestants bother to try anything new, and when they do, it’s usually at the judges’ prompting.

        Speaking of which, the judges are terrible. Not until I suffered through two seasons of listening to Randy blabber on about how “you were kinda sorta pitchy, dude”, Steven Tyler call everyone beautiful and J.Lo forget the names of classic songs, did I realize how good the original judges were. Paula may have been ditzy and borderline incoherent, but at least she was entertainingly so, unlike all three of the current judges, who are just exasperating. Randy actually critiqued people instead of randomly dropping names of his various celebrity acquaintances and hollering about people being “in it to win it”. Simon was, well , Simon. I can’t help but wonder how these past couple of seasons would have gone if they’d had even an ounce of that judge’s brutal, if occasionally callous, honesty. I’d like to say that Haley Reinhart or maybe James Durbin would have won season 10 instead of Scotty McCreery, though Simon clearly couldn’t stop Lee DeWyze from winning the previous season, and in fact, Simon went on record saying that Scotty was his favorite contestant of the season (to which I say, really?). Even worse than the new judges’ apparent inability to form complete sentences is their blatant hypocrisy. Time and time again, they urge certain contestants to “change it up” while they tell others, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, which is just about the stupidest advice I’ve ever heard (well, other than criticizing Elise Testone for choosing “Bold as Love”, a song that “nobody has heard of”, even though it’s Jimi fucking Hendrix). 

        At the end of the day, though, the fact is that if they had been in the current season, David Cook would probably have risked elimination for talking back to the judges (apparently, it’s rude to defend yourself), and Michael Johns would have been criticized for doing “Light My Fire” by The Doors because the song is too artsy. And I can’t even imagine someone nowadays giving a performance like this one. Recently, contestants have been continuously rewarded for safeness and punished for risk-taking. Last season, Pia Toscano was infamously booted off after following the judges’ advice and shunning her usual ballads in favor of the up-tempo “River Deep, Mountain High”, and a couple weeks ago, Colton Dixon, an openly devout Christian, followed up his impeccable cover of “Love the Way You Lie” by taking on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and a radically altered version of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” and got subsequently ousted. In a post-elimination interview, Colton blamed his decision to do Lady Gaga as his fatal misstep, saying that it alienated his core audience. Normally, I’d complain about this, but sadly, it’s not hard to believe that he’s right: he dared to break out of his image as a stereotypical, wholesome Christian, and voters responded by abandoning him. Essentially, they’re saying that you’re safe as long as you play the game and don’t stray outside your comfort zone. It’s a shame because although “Bad Romance” may not be Colton’s technically best performance, it was ambitious and surprising and made me clap with maniacal glee.  I want to see more of that on Idol (and this).

Screw you, America. This was awesome.

        I can pretty much already predict how this season is going to turn out: Dave Matthews impersonator Phillip Phillips (another WGWG) is going to win, even though – to put it bluntly – he can’t sing a melody to save his life, and I’m going to swear that I’m officially done with the show because what’s the point anymore? And yet, come January, I’m going to be watching performances on YouTube and getting invested in yet another contestant who will inevitably fail to live up to my expectations. Congratulations, Idol. You win.

Picture References: