The Sing-Off: Week 9 Recap

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Ranking the performances from week eight and nine.

1) Let’s Get It On – Pentatonix

Pentatonix has gotten this reputation for being these really talented robots – they always have a trick up their sleeve, some vocal moment that will shock you into mouth-agape stupor or blissful cheering. They ride the remix, the breakdown, the unexpected pause… so what a blessing it is to have this performance now and be able to say, “This is good for any song, even without any club remix tricks… This is good for any time period, not just 2011… This is good for any performance, not just an acapella performance… This is a great performance!”

From that make-love-now clarion call at the beginning of the song – “Wah, Wah, Wah, Wahhhh!” – this cover didn’t try to do anything that wouldn’t have been in Marvin Gaye’s playbook back in the ‘70s. But it did everything in that playbook perfectly. Once again the most astounding thing about this group is not the remix tendency or even Scott’s incredible lead vocals. It’s that you would never believe this group had just five members if it wasn’t right in front of your eyes. Plug in you headphones and listen to the audio – you hear a chamber choir!

2) Born To Be Wild – Pentatonix

The gun trick has been done before, yes. Pause. Chik-chik. “Guns!” But it gets me every time, and Pentatonix utilizes it, and every other trick it pulls here, with such gusto, and such attitude. Yeah, they feel like they’re from the future, which could create a certain sheen, a distance – like lamination – over their songs, but it never feels that way does it. They dig right to the heart of the song, and reinvent it from the inside out. This cover had the attitude of the time it came from inexplicably enough, and it managed that without ever feeling like dinner theatre. It was straight-up raw emotion, something which Pentatonix brings week after week to every genre like it’s, you know, no big deal.

3) Here We Go Again – Urban Method

To be clear, Urban Method took a huge risk with this. If you think, “Whatever, it’s just a trashy ‘80s song, the judges wouldn’t have cared as long as it was good…” recall that Pentatonix only negative critiques of the competition came on a trashy Ke$ha song where they just changed up the first verse by adding a melody where there wasn’t one. So, this was not a sure shot, especially considering Urban Method took an entire song here, threw it out and basically started from scratch. Heck they wrote a rap. They could have gotten crucified by the judges!

But, aha… What they came up with was a soulful and depressing blues track where an anthem of ridiculous ego and excess once stood. Urban Method found something, and it was right of Ben to point out that he liked what Urban Method found better than what Whitesnake created.

4) Every Little Thing – Vocal Point (Eliminated)

This was Vocal Point’s most ambitious arrangement since “The Way You Look Tonight.” For me, it started rough, but rarely has a group won me over more effectively as a song went on. This song built perfectly, and, by the time the remix kicked in, I was ready to give Vocal Point full kudos for this. That would have been if these white kids had simply stood still the whole time. But they moved! My, did they move! This was a wonderful, inventive and enthusiastic performance that should have (but didn’t) kept Vocal Point in the competition.

5) Stuck Like Glue – Pentatonix

One thing Pentatonix had not been yet was adorable. For such a small group, these five kids can put so much intensity on the stage. “Chill” is not how you would describe them. But if this group is usually a hit of some hard stuff at the club, this was a nice apple cider or eggnog – it was smooth, simple and delightful. And it was fun. There are two clear vocal mistakes during this performance that hold this one back for me (honestly it was the first time I’d heard this group be out-of-tune even a little) but I can’t take away what was a fun, innocent performance of a song I love from this incredible group.

6) It’s Your Thing – Urban Method

Two chords. One paragraph of lyrics. So what do you do?

Well, because there was so much room to do whatever, Urban Method got to show off a strength they haven’t shown since “Dance to the Music” – real-sounding instruments. Urban Method prides themselves on sounding like a producer’s sound panel, but what impresses me more is the relish these session musicians get from being… session musicians. Lay down an instrumental for these cats, and you get a fun, brisk performance which makes me wonder why they want so badly to be known for their bleeps and bloops.

7) Midnight Train to Georgia – Dartmouth Aires

For once the guys in the Aires just stood still and got out of Michael’s way. The result? My favorite Aires performance besides the brilliant Queen medley, which leveraged the theatrical tendency of this group so well. I didn’t hear the pitch issues the judge’s pointed out. I just heard Michael’s splendid vocal. I’ve done a complete 180 on him. I now crave his voice. It’s like sandpaper yes, but it is such a controlled and wonderful instrument – Michael uses its roughness for good and not evil. All the Aires had to do was go “Woo Woo!” and get out of the way… and for once, they did.

8) Need You Now – Afro Blue

This performance could have been better, especially considering this is a group that gave us genre redefining interpretations of pop songs earlier in this competition. Afro-Blue has entered a legendary funk (and not the funky kind), but this raw, emotional performance did enough to bring the Blue high enough in the judge’s graces even when it seemed they had already blown their chances. They now find themselves in the final four, where they really shouldn’t be. They essentially need to pretend this pleasant take on “Need You Now” was their last performance and build on that, or they’re doomed.

9) Dream On – Delilah (Eliminated)

There’s something to be said for a magic moment. Michael’s solo during “Somebody to Love” had everyone who watches the Sing-Off in rapture. That was a moment. We’re suckers for a moment.

Amy reaching that “moment” we all wait for in “Dream On” – the Steven Tyler octave – was indeed filled with a certain mystique that you just can’t explain with the equation “pretty girl + musical shrieking + fan,” because something about what Amy did here transcends all that was put into it. What came out doesn’t weigh the same. Something special was added in.

That being said… Delilah’s magic moment came about the same time as Michael’s incredible kneel-back on “Somebody to Love.” What the Aires did that week was keep the momentum going by releasing some of that pressure and then building it again so that, in fact, the best moment is that moment where Michael waits tossing that famous run and then coos it out just a bit slower then you’d expect. It airmails chills right to you doorstep every time, no question. Delilah missed that boat. They should have had a better, or at least an equal, second moment. Instead they basically tap-danced and riffed until the cane pulled them off the stage. Bad form.

10) Life Is a Highway – Vocal Point (Eliminated)

This is the first performance I don’t have much to say about. It’s just good, right? It is a bit fast, yes, and Pentatonix totally stole their car-starting thunder by doing a motorcycle to open the show, but this never gets in the way of a nice, clean interpretation of a corny but popular Rascal Flatts song we all know from that movie with the talking cars that wasn’t as good as all the other Pixar movies. A solid B+ based on the killer key change alone.

11) Knocks You Down – Urban Method

This was an ambitious performance for Urban Method, who I feel finally turned in a convincing contemporary performance that convinced me they can at least keep pace with Pentatonix. The Method had some neat tricks here (the flat-line and a nice ride to the top on one chorus, for instance) and the rap breaks actually impressed me quite a bit. Am I looking at a deserving runner-up here? Will I be forced to admit that rapapella is a thing? Because I won’t do it.

12) OMG – Pentatonix

The more I listen to this performance, the more it grows on me, but my first reaction still stands. This is by far the weakest performance by Pentatonix on this show. That is a very high “low,” I’ll grant you, but I was actually really turned off by this performance. The chords sounded too compressed at times, the tempo shifted too much for my liking, and Scott, who I was starting to expect was immortal, definitely went flat a few times. I know I’ll listen to this thirty times by tomorrow and I’ll love it, but let the record show that other groups did much better than the Texans during the contemporary R&B round, which is a round they should have owned!

13) Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy) – Dartmouth Aires

Ah, the Aires back in old Airey form. Jumping, smiling and joking. At least it was somewhat called for this time. No it’s not the gallivanting that got me. It was the doubled solo. I know it’s in the original, but the lower part felt unnecessary here, and no one could keep up with Michael. So instead of letting Michael let loose, we got a breathy baritone part that brought the arrangement down in my opinion.

14) If I Die Young – Delilah (Eliminated)

I’m not a perfect pitch guy or anything, but I’m pretty good at hearing wrong pitches. When I hear wrong ones, I have a pretty visceral reaction. So, considering I hear pitch pretty darn well, I fail to see where this was an elimination-garnering performance. I found it in tune and pleasant, even a little moving. The judges pointed out major pitch problems on the harmonies, but I did not hear them. I think Delilah could have strived for a higher bar here, but I can’t fault them for the bar they chose – they sang it well.

15) We’re Not Gonna Take It – Dartmouth Aires

The Aires aren’t as good when they think it’s a joke. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a lot of fun but it was never a joke. You could tell that was because a lot of these kids grew up worshipping Queen. Quiet Riot on the other hand… Honestly, Urban Method paid Whitesnake a much bigger compliment by throwing out their arrangement completely and doing something for themselves, and they did themselves a much bigger favor. This parody performance was middling at best, and the choir moment felt unnecessary rather then inspired.

16) Ignition – Dartmouth Aires

This performance just confused me, as did new soloist Xavier. Some good moments. Some moments that I was indifferent to. The whole kooky thing was back and it kind of turned me off. I think there was a better song out there for these guys.

17) You Really Got Me – Vocal Point (Eliminated)

The judges saw this as cute. Where they saw cute, I saw cloying. See, to sing this right, you kind of have to sing it bad, and Vocal Point got that. But they didn’t do that in a way that made me happy. It left me cold.

18) We Belong Together – Afro Blue

Too slow. That’s the big problem here. It felt sleepy, like Afro Blue was up to its old tricks, but they were afraid to do it up to speed. I think it was an intentionally subdued performance, but we instead got a whole of exposed lattice-work where we wanted a finished work.

19) Before He Cheats – Urban Method

Alright, so I get the whole female empowerment thing going on in Urban Method. They’ve found themselves, it’s nice, yay… And I’ve really started to enjoy them some of the time. But this was just shrieky 70% of the time. And uninspired the other 30%. Am I the only one who thought this? If so, I will shut up and move this into the top ten.

20) Ain’t To Proud To Beg – Vocal Point (Eliminated)

This was by no means a bad performance. It was also by no means a good performance. Ben’s second solo didn’t get him any further with the judges than his first, and a second visit to the bottom two for this group proved fatal unfortunately.

21) Best of My Love – Afro Blue

So it wasn’t just me right? This was a mess, yeah? I thought so.

22) American Girl – Afro Blue

Song choice is a huge part of staying alive in this competition. Let’s just agree that this was the worst possible choice for this group. The group never liked the song and so they layered a bunch of cheesecake, the National Anthem and their kitchen sink on it to compensate. And it’s still stuck in my head. It hurts.

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Discovering Again after a week off…

   I’ve been away from the blog for a week now, though it should be noted that I haven’t been away from the computer for a week and I most definitely haven’t been away from pop culture for a week.

   Part of my absence can be explained by a simple fact: I had a hella busy week at work and when I came home, I didn’t even want to look at my computer. I put it in a corner facing away from me and told it not to make a peep while I watched my stories.

   But another part of it was that, after a hectic month of horror movies – and an even more hectic month of writing about horror movies (and you should expect a suitable wrap up to the “Discovering Fear” series coming later this week) – I was kind of burned out. But towards the end of this past weekend, I found myself both unable to reach for the computer and put something down for the blog while simultaneously really missing the blog a lot. So now I’m back, and I wanted to make sure to put down some of the things that made an impression on me while I was away:

  • “Glee” aired two episode’s while I was away. One was pretty good. One was probably the most frivolous, inessential the hour has aired yet. The saga continues with this show. Which show is this? Is it the cluttered satire that wants so bad to get up in everyone’s grill about issues and be crrrrazy?!?!?!? Or is it this sweet little Midwest drama with a heart of gold? Sometimes it works best when it takes a little bit of both and mixes them together, but there are a few things the producers should be noticing by now. 1) The best episode’s do not include Sue. Period. 2) The best episode’s do not include crazy plot contrivances meant to incentivize fake drama like a second glee club or Quinn’s horrible anti-Shelby crusade. 3) The best episodes are almost never about exclusion. They are about inclusion, but in a subtle way, not a “Born This Way” way. 4) The best episode’s almost never pander to iTunes with the exception of “Don’t Stop Believing” which no one would have believed would have been a big-seller anyway. 5) Sadly enough, lately, the best episodes and the best moments have very little to do with New Directions proper. (By the way, I think that name is a little outdated by now. Perhaps “Kind of Familiar Directions Repeated Ad Nauseum”. Or, better yet “Aimlessness.”)  “Pot of Gold” commits every crime in the book. It is aimless, insulting, Sue-heavy and asks us to care deeply about a choir we haven’t had a stake in for along time. It has the most inessential musical number this show has seen since Rachel and Puck sang “Need You Now” to the football players for no apparent reason. (Seriously Blaine said “We all seem down, Ima sing a Katy Perry song!” and I about flipped out at the television.) It preaches exclusivity and it is mean-spirited. And it features the three dumbest “Glee” plots we have on the books currently – the absurd Quinn-Shelby-Puck love triangle (ew…), Sue’s run for Congress, and the second glee club. Fortunately “Glee” recovered with “First Time,” an episode that seemed to remember that this is a show with characters and not talking Legos you can jam into each other to make fun plots. Where “Pot of Gold” was callous and snarky, “First Time” was sweet, thoughtful, and used music intelligently. It also had no Sue, no second Glee club and no Shelby-destruction. At one point Rachel even asked all the girls to come together and ignore the fact there was another club so they could all give her advice. When you have to have your characters explicitly ask you to ignore plot points that are stupidly driving wedges in your show, you know something must be wrong. Right? “Glee” writers? Are you listening? Sigh.
  • The A.V. Club has started a new season of TV Club Classic. I’ve been following Entertainment Weekly for years, but I didn’t come to the A.V. Club until about a year ago when the 4th season of Mad Men premiered and I realized that there are a lot of sites out there that do way better recaps and pop culture criticism then my beloved EW. And so, as the A.V. Club bites into some new old shows, I’m going along for the ride. It’s a lot of fun to start from the beginning with shows you know pretty well. One thing I’m really loving is starting the first season of “Survivor.” I was 11 when “Survivor” premiered. I don’t think I watched the first episode or two, but as the season went on, I, along with most of America, got caught up in the show. I remember watching it with my family and rooting for, of all people, Gervase. (I think it’s because, even today, Gervase reminds me, with his big frame, shaved head, and determined scowl, of Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning, who was my guy growing up.) “Survivor” was one of my first television experiences where I felt like I was staying up to watch something that all the cool older people liked. (It turns out that, since I was watching old Looney Tunes shorts when I wasn’t watching “Survivor,” I was already watching what all the really cool older people liked.)
  • I’ve also been catching up with the first seasons of “Scrubs” and “Cheers” on Netflix in accordance with new TV Club features on both shows. These were probably my two favorite comedies growing up. I think we all like to be too hip to be square, but I am pretty ready to admit I can be sort of square. I can be totally square, and so I’ve always seen J.D. as a special sort of kin. I am sincere and goofy like J.D., quicker with a hug then with snark. That bond helped me to stick with “Scrubs” long after most people inexplicably decided it always sucked. I am left to wonder how a show that is so enjoyable to watch and that changed the game so much is always left off the list of essential shows from the past decade. (No, not even I watched the ABC season.) Sacred Heart Hospital (and Cheers, thanks to Nick at Nite) have always felt like a strange home away from home for me. Watching them now from the beginning feels like a homecoming of sorts..
  • Hell on Wheels: No network has had a stranger year than AMC. NBC is in the middle of some surreal nightmare, and yet nothing compares to the wild ride AMC has taken in the year since “Rubicon,” its third dramatic series, premiered. It’s been a series of diminishing returns ever since, and now people have grown extremely weary of a network that was once universally worshipped for going all of two for two. (In retrospect, that may have been too soon, yeah?) Since everyone overhyped “The Killing” and then hated it, and everyone overhyped “The Walking Dead” and then hated themselves for overhyping it, I think “Hell on Wheels” now gets to bare the brunt of a critical backlash which this show’s producers, writers, cast and crew did not create and don’t really deserve. And so I think “Hell on Wheels” is being dramatically underhyped as part of an overall trend I think we’re seeing with quality television this decade. We all gorged out so much during the last decade, which was television’s “golden age,” that we now approach anything that looks and feels like “Hell on Wheels” or “Boardwalk Empire” with a wary eye. We’re full. We want a mint. These shows are like a giant tiramisu we’re getting gratis. You’re doing too much AMC and HBO – I can barely get up out of this chair after how much “Breaking Bad” and “Sopranos” you gave me. I think we’re criticizing the cooks in the kitchen for not knowing how to pace their meals rather then taking show’s on a case by case basis, and a really great show is going to slip under the radar. Is “Hell on Wheels” that show? Hell if I know at this point, but its probably way better then a lot of the feedback on the show is leading you to believe. It’s entertaining, dramatic and tense in a fun way and while I think there’s still a lot of stuff to work out with, say, the character Common is playing and how on-the-nose he is, this show is heading in the right direction and not the wrong one. (Note: I could be totally wrong.) I’m searching desperately for the second episode online since “Hell on Wheels” airs at the same time as “Pan Am,” and I gots to watch my Pan Am.
  • Page Eight: I really enjoyed this British spy drama even though I was at times baffled by it. I saw it last Sunday when it aired on PBS during the “Masterpiece: Contemporary” slot. I don’t know whether I’d call “Page Eight” a masterpiece (which is, I guess, more a criticism of the entire idea of a “Masterpiece: Contemerary” programming block… like, shouldn’t we wait a bit… at least a year?) but I found it suitably moody and diverting and liked the way that every word dripped with so much dire meaning and import. And that every word was so charmingly British. It was kind of fun to watch a movie where the bad guys are bad guys because they work with that dreaded menace across the sea… the Americans! Yuck, Americans. Nice change of pace that. I thought Bill Nighy was great in this but I think I agree with the two major complaints here: the B-plot about a next-door neighbor looking for closure on her brother’s death never fit into the story very well no matter how cleanly it tied in at the end, and the ending seemed unsuitable considering the stakes that had been set up. Both of these things tied into a desire on the part of “Page Eight” to be a little bit cooler and more sophisticated than your average spy thriller, but it made the pacing feel strange. One other thing that threw me – I thought this was going to be a miniseries just based on past experience with PBS. About an hour and fifteen minutes in I realized this would not be the case, and this threw me for a huge loop. Just thought I’d throw that in…
  • Speaking of PBS, I am loving the new PBS miniseries called “America in Primetime.” Each week, the show focuses on a different television “type” – the independent woman for instance, or the misfit – and riffs on that type for an hour. This sounds like a really strange way to structure a series like this but it works oh so well. Me praising this is either a sign of really great taste or a sign that I’ve gone really far down the rabbit hole with my TV obsession. You decide.
  • Last night there was a joke on “The Simpsons” where Lisa plays a game, styled after “Guitar Hero” called “Marching Band.” I laughed really hard at this because it is so true. Eight years in marching band summed up by those writers for me in thirty seconds. So “The Simpsons” can still tell a joke people…
  • I actually thought last night’s episode of “Family Guy” was really smart and really funny. (And yes a little controversial since it all banks on erasing 9/11 which is still a bit more then taboo ten years on.) The entire thirty minutes is basically a way for the show to comment on how much it’s changed since it premiered and how people view it now. This could have been a nightmare scenario, but Seth McFarlane handled it deftly. I’ve now used the words “Seth McFarlane,” “Family Guy,” “smart,” “funny,” and “deftly” all in the same paragraph so you either really hate me right now or you don’t. I feel like I’m revealing a lot about myself in this format.
  • While I’m on a Fox kick – “Allen Gregory”… yes, it’s still finding its footing but based on last night’s episode alone – in which Allen’s father makes it so boys can only ask boys to the school dance, you know, just because… – it’s not the disaster I thought it would be . It reminded me a good deal of a show people would say it should not remind me of, which is “The Critic.” So I don’t hate “Allen Gregory,” and it barely even registered to me that it was Jonah Hill doing the voice, even though I knew it going in. So this is me complimenting the show and hoping it becomes the sort of off-beat, well-animated comedy I see hiding in there.
  • My favorite moment of the week: The “Kiss From a Rose” montage on “Community.” Absurdity piled on top of absurdity until I couldn’t breathe anymore. The moment I broke: when the hitchhiker who claimed to be Jesus sang about drinking blood. I just lost it. By the way, Allen Gregory’s father Richard and Dean Pelton are like the same character. They even sound liked they’re played by the same guy, though they’re not. (Jim Rash plays the Dean and French Stewart voices Richard.)

The Sing-Off: Week 7 Recap

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   This recap is a bit late, and will be a bit abbreviated, because I’ve still got Halloween on the brain and I was busy focusing on the “Discovering Fear” series, which is wrapping up soon.

   I considered skipping the week… but I couldn’t do that. Not to my “Sing-Off.” This was actually a great week for the show, and so I wanted to make sure that, for the record, I gave shout-outs to the groups that deserve them.

   Rather then format this as a beginning to end thing like I usually do, Ill just briefly run down in the performances in order of whether they’re a “Must-See,” “For Fans Only,” or whether it would just be best if you “Don’t Bother.” This will best reflect my post-“Sing-Off” ritual, which consists to adding the best songs of the week to Sing-Off playlist and playing them over and over again until I either become a better musician or ears bleed.

Must-See

   I have repeated over and over that I think Pentatonix is the best thing to happen to the “Sing-Off,” and that the Dartmouth Aires are probably my least favorite group ever on this show in spite of the fact that are very talented. Imagine my surprise, then, when – on a week where Pentatonix gave yet another mind-shattering performance – I tell you that the best performance of the week, the best performance of the competition so far, heck, maybe even the best “Sing-Off” performance period, came not from the pioneering Texans, but from the irritating Ivy League theatre kids that have stepped all over my last nerve.

   This has been coming on for a while. Each week, I’ve grown a little fonder of the Aires, but I still had been given no reason to actually root for them. “Pinball Wizard” and “Club Can’t Handle Me” had been fine, but neither had gotten the group over my self-imposed hurdle – I couldn’t bring myself to admit these guys could really entertain because they were just trying so darn hard. They wanted so badly to put on a show, but they weren’t showmen. They were just loud. Michael yells. Clark kicks. Yay?

   And then this happened:

   This ability to get to the heart of song and dig inside and pull out its still-beating heart – this group has always had this ability, but they haven’t yet shown it on the stage. They’ve just smiled a whole lot. Note the progression of this performance. The boys channel all their manic energy into a nearly flawless take on the middle-section of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which suits them perfectly, but they save the fireworks for “Somebody To Love.” Is their version of a firework more smiles? Is it another high-kick?

   No. It is an astounding version of the Queen classic that understands every “moment” that Freddie Mercury imbued that song with, delivered in such a way that draws every single shiver and gasp out of a live audience. Notice Shawn unable to restrain himself as Michael dips down and sings to the heavens. That’s a rock star move. Look at the way Sara grabs Shawn as Michael prepares to deliver the songs “money” run – “Somebody tooooooooo… loooooove.” The audience can’t restrain itself after that. And the last note was devine.

   Consider me a Michael convert – I finally understand what the big deal about his raspy, overly-emotive voice is. As for the Aires, I’m going to wait one more week to see if this really is a group of theatre guys that I can believe in.

 

   The other must-see performance comes courtesy of perennial front-runner Pentatonix. This performance didn’t give me chills like “Love Lockdown,” but it rewards multiple listens. Some of the effects Kevin is doing to make this sound like a club remix… frankly they don’t sound human. Like I question whether there’s going to have a scandal during finals week where it’s revealed that the sixth member of Pentatonix is a little sound-effect robot that Kevin keeps in his pocket. 

   This medley is a flawless compendium of Britney attitude. Compare it to the shoddy “Glee” episode and you see how brilliant this group as at bringing musical moments to life. Two shout-outs:

  • The belly-dance break was such a musically playful moment. For a second I wondered, “Where are they going with this?” before I realized they were still riffing on “Toxic.”
  • The dub-step breakdown. I’ve seen a lot of Youtube videos lately which basically have the same punchline: dub-step is really loud, and if you aren’t hearing that all-important beat, it just sounds like noise. Avi and Kevin make the dub-step beat work in an incredible feat of coordination. They deserve all the praise they get.

For Fans only

   The first choice is really for anyone who enjoys music and fun. This was by far the best opening the show has ever done. It avoided the show’s consistent problem with these 80-person choirs. One or two soloists who don’t fit the part always ruin it for everybody. This medley of “This is Halloween,” Werewolves of London,” and “Ghostbusters” had three times the soloists… and everyone of them fit their part perfectly. The attitude here is perfect, and I love that the show loved the cricket sound so much that they jammed it in here.

   Next, we have the Yellowjackets taking on Billy Joel. I don’t think this performance was perfect, but in no way do I think it earned them a ticket back to Rochester.

   Urban Method deserved the axe, but the Yellowjackets got it instead. Thankfully, they took the whole affair with a light-heart and gave the best swan-song performance this show has ever seen. In recent episodes the swan-song has become something of a joke – a holdover from the time when the show needed to fill time because there were only eight groups. The Yellowjackets, by changing the lyrics and calling out the network, put a fun, inventive spin on saying goodbye that made me excited once again to see what groups might do as they walk out the door.

   Committed came back for a slot all to themselves, and while I didn’t like this performance on first listen, I find myself really digging it when I listened to it with headphones in. Many of the groups old tricks are here, and they sound as revelatory as ever. My question: Chris Brown? Really?

   Delilah killed it 2/3 of the time this week, which is good. They’re making a legitimate case for their reentry into the fold. I like them I do. Unfortunately they are one of many groups this week to suffer from a a weak female soloist on their second song. “Delilah” has some strong soloists in that girl-power army, but blonde girl with a doofy voice is not one of them. Also, “No One” would have been a better choice. That being said: this a group of very pretty girls, and they looked extremely fetching this week. On the other two Alicia Keys’ songs, their vocals more then matched the ferocity of their style choices.

   Lastly in this category, we have Vocal Point. I hesitated about putting them here. I really didn’t care for their take on Elvis very much, but I do think it’s a worthwhile listen. For me, the first song is a wash. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is a gorgeous melody and I think I can admit they do it justice here without me being totally in love with their interpretation. As with “Jump Jive n’ Wail” this group does up-tempo well, so their “Jailhouse Rock” ricks in all the right ways.

Don’t bother

   It pains me to say this: Afro-Blue kind of sucked this week. Part of this is me not knowing Janet Jackson at all. I though I knew Janet Jackson; when they said Janet Jackson, I was like “Of course I know Janet Jackson, fool.” But then I realized I could not only not hum a Janet Jackson melody, I couldn’t even name a song. That being said, I liked the first number a lot. I didn’t need to know these songs – I just needed them to sound good. Then things got a bit too crazy. The scat solo seemed sudden and out-of-place. The swing section smelled of desperation. And Afro-Blue fell victim to the bug that seemed to being around this week: they had one female soloist who really stunk. White girl got praised by the judges, but I can confirm after repeated spins of this medley – she is off-key, her voice is nasally, and she has no swagger. I know she can do great harmony, I’ve heard her accompanist many a time and thought she was a valuable sixth (wo)man on this team. But every time she steps out for a solo I know I’m not going to like it, and she proves me right every time. Unfortunately, this jazzy medley probably isn’t worth your time unless you’re a completest.

   Afro-Blue was spared from the bottom spot by a truly uninspired decision from Urban Method, who I guess made a noble and brave stand but just ended up looking foolish for it.  Here’s the story: last week the group got mildly criticized for the female soloists not bringing enough heat on the chorus of “Airplanes.” Urban Method made it their mission to prove their girls could take center stage and blow the judges away with a Rihanna medley. How nice! Their problem: the girls really aren’t that good and Urban Method blew another opportunity to really bring the hip-hop (no Biggie, no Eminem, no Kanye?) so that they could show the judges their female singers are as average as the judge’s might have faintly suspected. Why confirm their suspicions? I don’t think Urban Method is that special, but the judges do. Why? Because of rapper Mike. So let Mike rap. Give the judge’s what they want. Instead, the group pushed Mike to the back and made this week’s performance a meta-commentary on team unity and girl power. And it was kind of hard to watch. My guess: they’ll be going home next.

Discovering Fear Part 12–An All Hallow’s Horror Mini-Marathon

   The following report is based on found web camera footage. The subject, aged 22, watched three of the scariest movies he could find on the Internet on relatively short notice so he could write about them for his “blog.” No one has seen him since…

   (This is because it’s only been one day since the film was made and the subject has not yet left his room since seeing said horror cinema classics, but if you would prefer to think that this is because the subject died, that’s cool too.)

00:00:00 – The footage begins. The subject is queuing up Sam Raimi’s 1982 cult classic “The Evil Dead” on Netflix after much agonizing over whether it would make the cut for this epic Halloween marathon.

00:05:00 – The subject’s eyes are glazing over because the acting is so darn bad. The subject understands that “acting” in the classical sense is not what “The Evil Dead” is about, but, with this being the case, he wishes he could see some evil or some dead already.

00:10:00 – The subject appreciates how scary a porch bench swinging errantly in the wrong direction can be. Every thud that the porch swing makes against the side of the cabin makes him regret any mean thing he said about “The Evil Dead” during the car ride scene. A lot. Please don’t hurt him, bench.

00:15:00 – The subject thinks these kids are kind of annoying, especially that jerk-face Scott, but likes Cheryl, with whom he feels an instant connection upon seeing her sketching artistically, being a third wheel, and being totally creeped out by things that would creep normal people out. The subject hopes Scott and not Cheryl dies first.

00:25:00 – The look on the subject’s face says this: “Good news: Cheryl isn’t dead yet! Yay. The bad news: She’s being RAPED BY TREES! AHHHHHH!” (The subject has not been outside yet because he is now terrified of grabby trees who can’t keep their branches to themselves.)

00:30:00 – The subject thinks that the way Cheryl keeps calling Ash “Ashley” seems rather emasculating, which he thinks is kind of cool for the narrative arc of the movie, because it allows the character of Ash to kind of earn his way into a more masculine position rather then positing from the outset that he is some sort of survivor superhero. We are just assuming this is what the subject is thinking. Based on the expression on his face, he could still be thinking “OMG,TREE RAPE!”

00:36:50 – The subject says aloud, “That’s not where that pencil should go…” He is right. That is in fact not where pencils belong.

00:43:40 – The subject still thinks Scott is a terrible jerk-face who deserves whatever he gets from his now demonic girlfriend who got like three lines in this whole movie. Yet she still had time to take her top off. “Oh horror movies…” thinks the subject.

00:45:00 – Ash knows very well that the only way to kill his demon friends is to dismember them; the creepy voice dude in the tape recorder explicitly told him so. And yet he seems rather hesitant to go this route in spite of holding a giant axe. The subject finds this both adorable and frustrating.

00:51:00 – Cheryl gets raped by a tree; she turns. The subject gets that. Linda gets stabbed by a little pencil and she turns? Really? Why? The subject just saw Scott get scratched and clawed to hell and he’s fine. For his part, Ash will continue passive-aggressively standing in corners until it’s his turn to play.

00:56:52 – Ash has finally left his corner and broken the contact barrier, which of course involved slapping his girlfriend. The subject can’t imagine this is doing very much good, but appreciates that this might be cathartic in some way for Ash. Also, “We’re gonna get you, we’re gonna get you, not another peep, time to go to sleep…” Oh, hello nightmares!

01:05:00 – The subject wonders what Ash doesn’t understand about dismemberment. Of course that hand was going to come up out of that grave. This foreknowledge did not make the subject jump any less.

01:08:55 – The movie says it sends Ash down into the basement to fetch “a box of shells”,” not that the gun will do any good unless its got a bayonet attachment. The real reason Ash goes down to the basement is to make the subject cry; a hand could reach up through that staircase at any time, the blood-bath, the blood in the light-bulb, the blood on the projector lens, the music, and then, not that this should matter after all that other blood, Ash stepping in a blood puddle before he enters the FINAL SHOWDOWN. It has worked. The subject is a mess.

01:15:00 – In the most telgraphed yet still scary scene ever: door… hands… duh… By the way, the subject doesn’t like Cheryl anymore. She should die fo’ real. Now.

01:21:10 – And the award for most drawn-out make-up effects sequence ever goes to… Sam Raimi for the “Evil Dead!” The subject wishes Sam congratulations on his fortuitous victory. It’s all redeemed by that last rousing chorus of “Join us… Join us… Join us…” The subject will not in fact be joining them at any time, ever. He has resolved against it quite thoroughly.

01:30:00 – Netflix does not have “The Blair Witch Project,” so the subject pulls the film up through… less legal means. This taboo offense will probably get the subject killed later on, if you’re keeping track.

1:31:00 – Before starting the movie, the subject goes to his Facebook wall and reads the high-larious recommendation from his dedicated friend Ryan. “If you have the strength of will necessary to not huff about the camera the whole time, I recommend The Blair Witch Project. You have to turn the lights off and buy into it (which, I like to think, means pretending you’re the County Sheriff… who found the video camera, washed into view by the morning’s rain, and its videocassette as you hiked through Maryland’s Black Hills while re-investigating the last known location of three kids who went missing over a year ago; you’ve just spent forty-five minutes driving back to the station with the tape resting, loudly, in the passenger seat of your cruiser, and, now, you’ve settled down to watch it in the dark interrogation room [it’s the only one with a VCR] of your deserted – as it’s after five – precinct house), but, if you do, it’ll give you nightmares. But, then, I lived in Loxahatchee when I saw it. Might be different for you. Watch it anyway.”

01:32:00 – The subject chuckles. That Ryan is a funny guy. The subject does none of the things he has been ordered to do in a despicably disrespectful move that will surely mark the subject for another even more gruesome death. Here are the ways the subject blatantly disobeys Ryan’s orders: the lights are on; the subject does not pretend to be an officer of the law; and he will totally huff about the camera the whole time.

01:35:00 – “Man this camera-work sucks!” the subject complains, cheekily.

01:40:00 – The subject contemplates that it can’t be good that these kids are lost already. Also, the subject would not be friends with these people even if they gave him money and roasted Vienna sausages. Is he supposed to relate to these people? They seem like doofuses.

01:50:00 – They are still lost. The dudes are being really mean to Heather, who was way overconfident in her hiking skills and went off-map and keeps defending herself in a whiny, grating way that hurts my soul. Yeah, she totally deserves it.

02:10:00 – The subject, who cannot stand another scene where Heather hears something menacing that won’t come out of the stupid computer speakers, is losing patience with the movie. He pauses it and goes to get a slice of pumpkin pie from the kitchen. He even says to know one in particular “I’ll be right back.” The man with a machete hiding in the pantry decides not kill the subject yet. He will give the subject one more chance to redeem himself.

02:11:00 – The subject insults the camera again. The man in the pantry resolves to definitely kill the subject when he comes in for another slice of pie. That’ll show him.

02:40:00 – The subject finds the apology scene genuinely touching and the calls of help from Josh genuinely terrifying. He admits he didn’t like the movie very much, but that he definitely would have liked it more if he’d taken Ryan’s advice, turned the lights out, bought the conceit, and watched a cut of the film that wasn’t of such low-quality, being all pixelated and stuff. This show of humility may earn the subject another chance at life.

03:00:00 – The subject starts “The Exorcist” on Netflix. He has been dreading this moment since the beginning of his horror movie project. Flashback: “The Exorcist” was supposed to be the first movie he watched. Netflix malfunctioned. The subject got upset at his computer and watched “The Thing” on his iPad instead. This is like that moment when the car won’t start. Foreshadowing. Now, a month later, it is time for the FINAL SHOWDOWN! In the present: The credits roll. The subject is ready for a mind-blowing opening scene. Let’s go!

03:38:00 – The subject is rather frank about the following fact: the first thirty-eight minutes of this movie suck. Up until the moment when Regan crashes the piano party by ruining the carpet with her urine, this movie is a slow, kind-of stodgy mess. There’s a reason no one ever talks about the scenes filmed in Iraq, or the fact that Chris is an actress whose filming an anti-war protest movie, or Karras’s early scenes with his mother. You can tell this movie’s based on a really long novel told from too many perspectives. The subject thinks there are one or two interesting moments (Burt calling Karl a Nazi, Regan controlling the Ouija Board) but overall – and he can’t believe he’s about to say this – “Scary Movie 2” had the right idea when it started with the piano room scene. Yes that’s right, he just praised “Scary Movie 2” and dissed “The Exorcist.” The subject is definitely going to die. Yep.

03:39:00 – By the way, peeing on the carpet is just the kind of disturbing visual that really kicks this movie in to gear right when it needs it. The subject is ready for a ride.

03:46:00 – Needles! Needles! Blood coming from needles! The subject doesn’t like needles. Or blood. Kind of queasy. Ick! Director William Freidkin knew exactly what he was doing here. Props to him.

04:02:10 – It’s now officially Halloween! On a side note,the subject is kind of glad that this has become a murder “mystery.” It adds the right momentum in the second act, even though he’s not sure Burt the director was a character we really cared too much about.

04:14:20 – Here we go… Whoa! The subject is pretty sure you are not supposed to do that with a crucifix… and he will not “lick” you, Regan. Ewww.

04:15:30 – This movie’s greatest feat outside of the incredible-to-this-day Regan effects: getting us to believe that a strong secular character like Chris would be so harried that she would turn in desperation to a priest, and then getting us to laugh at how completely incredulous that priest is that a woman is asking him for an exorcism in 1972. The subject thinks this scene is great.

04:30:00 – That recording that turns out to be backwards English – the subject shivers through that entire monologue. It’s the contrast between soft and loud and high pitch and low pitch. If that nonsense was recited in a creepy monotone, it wouldn’t work, but the contrast is genuinely unsettling. The subject jumps with Karras when the phone rings.

04:34:00 – The subject is actually a little shocked that the iconic image of Father Merrin standing in front of the fog-shrouded apartment does not have the “Tubular Bells” theme playing over it.This image has always appeared in the subject’s head with that song in the background, so its even eerier to hear silence. By the way: “MERRRRRINNNN! MERRRRINNN!” Shudder.

04:38:00 – In spite of the first forty minutes of this film being slow and nonsensical, the subject really cares about these characters now. Max Von Sydow does an amazing job as Father Merrin in the four scenes he gets. The subject can not believe he was only forty-four when he played this part. Old age make-up can frequently blow chunks. I would never have believed the man playing Merrin was under sixty. This is the film’s most convincing make-up job.

04:40:00 – There are two “pea soup” scenes that get a lot of play forty years later – the two that involve Regan spitting up on the priests. There is a third scene, and this is the scene which makes a huge impression on the subject. Rather then projectile soup, this scene smartly has the pea soup ooze out smoothly onto a brightly contrasting purple cloth, which is just as disturbing.

04:42:00 – Yeah, the subject is pretty sure the head shouldn’t be able to go that way…

04:47:29 – The most disturbing image I’ve seen all month:

Exorcist

   This whole movie, this whole month, was worth it for this moment, which freaks the subject out. Regan making Father Karras see his dead mother in that room; what a beautiful and terrifying picture this is.

04:54:40: The last rights. A terrific cinematic moment. The film earns this scene. Everything that happens from this point on is icing on the cake. All that matters are those shaking hands.

05:00:00: The subject shuts off Netflix. He has done it. He has survived his trial by fire, and he has grown from it. The happy music plays as the credits begin to roll. But the vague memories of all he has seen over the past five hours – tree rape, incredible gore, crucifix masturbation, and umm… piles of rocks – still leaves the subject shaken. Before he can lie down to sleep peacefully, he rolls out of bed and turns on the bathroom light. It will keep him safe tonight, keep him secure. He sighs contentedly. And then a knife slashes into his back. It tears into his spine and the subject falls to the floor in a mangled heap, cracking his head open on the toilet and the side of the bathtub on the way down. (The subject has a really small bathroom!)

   Out of the shower steps the menacing figure who has done the deed. A man in a mask. He tears off the mask and laughs. It is Ryan. How did he get here all the way from Tallahassee? It doesn’t matter. The subject should have listened to his funny and profound Facebook message. Ryan kicks the subject’s body and throws the knife at him as he walks away thinking what a great quippy Facebook status this will make. He eats the last slice of pumpkin pie as the subject dies a horrible death.

   Then the subject turns into a zombie!

05:00:01 Just kidding…. Zombies aren’t real. He turns into a werewolf… Happy Halloween!

Discovering Fear Part 11–“The Wicker Man”

Wicker1   “The Wicker Man” has a pretty strong following for a cult movie. The vocal support behind it from those who love it is definitely strong enough to reach the ears of the uninitiated (like myself) who have never seen it and who might not want to see it because they are only aware that the Nicolas Cage remake was one of the worst movies ever made.

   You know what they never mention? This movie is a freaking musical!

   If I told you there was a straight-up serious horror movie out there, with shocking twists and spooky atmosphere and wierdo characters and everything, and then I also told you that it had about seven song breaks in it where characters sing and dance and Wicker_2make merry, you wouldn’t believe me. If you did believe that such a movie could possibly exist, you would probably think it was utter rubbish. If I told you that it’s freaking great, you would think that maybe I’d lost my mind after watching horror movies all month.

   But I swear to you, “The Wicker Man,” is a delightful British musical with jaunty “Scottish folk music” (all the music was written especially for the film, though it is written to sound as if it has been around for centuries) and great character moments during extended musical interludes and, oh yeah, MURDERRRRRRR!!! This a smash-Wicker3bang detective story, an interesting and complex message film, a tale of intrigue, and a wonderful quirky small-town drama that just goes to prove that, even in British cinema, if a bunch of people grow up in complete and total isolation, they’re totally going to want to kill you.

Wicker4

Discovering Fear Part 10: “Poltergeist”

They’re Here

   They’re here, Carol-Ann? Are they? Well, send them back!

   I think that for the most part I’ve been going through the motions this month, watching horror movie after horror movie, operating under the happy delusion that – because I hadn’t really been scared by any of the movies I’d seen, dismissing one after another as “scary enough” – maybe I’d, without my knowing it, grown up to be scared-proof. As a kid I was this whimpering, little coward, leaving my closet light on for weeks after I read something that frightened me in a “Goosebumps.” But, at 22, I had become this strong, strapping, horror-movie loving lad, a man who laughs in the face of impending cinematic danger. Ho ho, ha ha!

   And then the last thirty minutes of “Poltergeist” happened. If I had to put my level of fright on a scale of 1-10, than “Blacula” never breached a 1.5. “The Fly” got to about a 5. “The Thing” to maybe a 7. At its scariest moments, “Ghost Story” got to maybe an 8, mostly because the lights were off and I was all worked up. The climax of “Poltergeist” got me to a full-on ten. Granted, as a kid, I could get to 13 or 14, but a 10 was still pretty ridiculous. I was sitting bolt upright, my arms wrapped around me, gasping “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…” over and over.

   “Poltergeist” tricked me. I watched it on AMC, and I got through most of the movie with moderate scares (the tree, the mirror-scene), right up to the point where the movie seems clearly to be over. Commercials throw off your perception of this. I accepted, as the family peacefully readied to move out of their haunted house, that the movie was over. Carol-Ann was safe. Their were no loose ends to tie up. I had no reason to disbelieve the movie when it announced proudly that “This house is clean.”

   But I was upset. I was almost certain that “Poltergeist” had a scary clown scene. I was almost positive, and this movie had a clown, but it hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary.

   This is how certain I was that the movie was over: I was getting visibly angry at AMC for editing out the movie’s most famous scene to make it fit in their time slot. I was swearing off ever watching AMC again. I thought this was a travesty.

   And then, as I though these angry, righteous thoughts, the movie kept going. Mom put the kids to bed, she got in the bath, and then… this happened…

   And from there, it was just delirium. Ghost rape. Spider ghost. Corpses in the pool. Corpses popping from the ground. The house shattering into a black hole of it’s own making.

   My eyes popped. This was relentless. The movie, which had been a fairly restrained family drama which treated specters and the afterlife with a mix of Speilbergian wonder and a little bit of the menace of “Jaws,” suddenly lost its mind and skeletons (real skeletons!) were just floating into view, getting their deadness all over our protagonists. I could barely watch.

   It was awesome! I’m so glad I got to be that scared. Some may question that it was “Poltergeist” that elicited that reaction from me. After all, though this movie does get pretty insane, it must be said that not a single person dies in this film. Not even the black guy! (So now we’re at Convention 1, Black Guys 3, so yay!) But this film deals heavily in depth, and it handles dark stuff with a deft, light touch that I just loved.

   This was, by an inch, the favorite of the horror movies I watched this month, both because it scared me the most and because it moved me the most. What do you think? Have you ever seen “Poltergeist?” Am I a wimp for liking it? Or did it freak you out too?

Discovering Fear Part 9: “The Fly”

    I try to start every one of these posts off with some clever anecdote. How did I come about this film? How does it fit into the larger scope of my project or, pretentiously enough, into my life? It can get a bit tiring contextualizing everything, swaddling it in a blanket of introductory paragraphs and personal anecdotes. Perhaps sometimes it’s okay to simply enjoy something without such profound context?

   For a while now I’ve been struggling to come up with that context for “The Fly.” I don’t think I have one other then that, in the course of doing what I’ve been doing, I watched it and it was mind-meltingly awesome. It was late at night. I was glad to find it was on Netflix. I found it to be both disgusting and beautiful in equal measure and I would absolutely watch it again and again. I’m not sure what else there is to say here.

   I think Jeff Goldblum gets a bad rap these days. He is an eccentric character, that’s for sure, and since everyone’s seen his shtick in “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day,” that eccentricity is easy to make fun of. I’ve always liked him unabashedly without the ironic overtones. Seeing “The Fly” made me feel good about that choice. Goldblum is astounding in this movie. Director David Cronenberg perfectly utilizes Goldblum’s unique style of geek chic. Seth Brundle is a sweet eccentric, a tragic overreacher who loses his humanity without really meaning too. His romantic rival, Stathis Borans, steals all the qualities we normally attribute to the mad scientist who creates a monster because he foolishly misunderstands the way the world is supposed to work. Stathis is creepy, perverted, egomaniacal, a voyeur, and he just looks like he’d have a great evil laugh.

  Yet Stathis gets to survive the film in tact (I mean, minus a horribly mutilated arm and leg and a bit of a knock on his ego). And sweet, unassuming Seth Brundle – who is, we realize as both we the audience and Veronica Qualfe (Geena Davis) fall in love with him, capable of so much love and compassion in spite of his incredible naiveté – turns into this horrifying creature, all pockmarked skin and matted hair, and we have to watch as he comes to term with the fact that he is losing touch with his own humanity. Really, he has to come to terms with the fact that “Seth Brundle” ceased to exist the moment he was disintegrated in the first telepod. What appeared in the second telepod was not Brundle – in that pod, we saw the birth of Brundlefly, a new creature that imitated Brundle at first, but which, over time, matured into a horrifying mix of man and fly that mirrored externally what was brewing inside our erstwhile protagonist’s mutating skin – a genetic stew that was never meant to exist. 

   In a way, Seth doesn’t deserve what happens to him. Cronenberg knows that. It is why the affecting deterioration of both Seth and of his budding relationship with the beautiful Veronica works so well as a vehicle for fear of disease and aging. No one asks to get cancer. No one deserves the ordeal of AIDS. And no one can avoid forever the possibility that, with time, they might forget who they once were and become someone else, in mind and body, entirely. “The Fly” plays on these fears, the fears that even if we are kind and don’t deserve it, our bodies and minds may betray us and we may may have to ask the ones we love to do the unthinkable – we may have to ask them to run from us before we harm them even more; we may have to ask them to put us out of our misery; we may have to ask them to carry on with a disease we have given them without meaning to, even after we are gone (there is nothing scarier in this movie then the notion that Veronica is pregnant with something that could, depending on when conception happened, be a perfectly healthy baby, the perfect imitation of sweet Seth, or could be a horrible fly mutation that might disembowel and infect the lovely Geena Davis from within her own womb. Shudder…)

   I have never experienced these things in my own relatively uneventful life, thank heavens, and so coming up with some funny or profound anecdote about how “The Fly” relates to my life any more than that it is a movie I saw which scared the bejeesus out of me would seem disingenuous. It would be reaching. It wouldn’t feel right as a writer or as a human, in some way, you know? I, like anyone else, have a fear of disease and aging; of losing control of my body; of losing control of my mind. None of us wants that to be us – but it could be us. So let’s not make this overly personal, eh?

   “The Fly” works and holds up to this day because it can be personal to anyone. Love a grandparent? A mother? A father? A significant other or child? What would you do if something like this happened? What would you do if it began happening to you? Would you “be afraid… be very afraid…” If you’re human, you would.

 

 

   I leave you with some incredible behind the scenes features I found on YouTube. Some takeaways. Special effects artist Chris Walas put on a career-defining show in this movie that still astounds.

   Geena Davis was hot in 1986, and she makes that horrible ‘80s hair work for her like no one else I’ve ever seen. (Seriously, when I woke up this morning, “Teen Witch,” which came out in 1989, was on ABC Family. It was like a frizzy, artfully sculpted nightmare.)

   This movie’s pretty gory. I’m not sure I could handle the rest of David Cronenberg’s body horror oeuvre. I’m still getting over some of the imagery in this movie. (yes I saw the monkey-cat deleted scene. That’s just not right, man.)

“Laugh On!” : Today I’m Discovering Television’s Best Night

“Community” is my favorite show on television right now. Hands down. It brings me joy every week and I can’t wait to see tonight’s Halloween episode – it looks like a classic.

“Community” is on NBC on Thursday night, a night which also features “Parks and Recreation,” a show I must get into but haven’t yet, “The Office,” which still has some tricks up its sleeves, and “Prime Suspect,” which I think is neat little show more people should watch. (I am ignoring “Whitney” because if I say her name two more times, she will come through my bathroom mirror and tell a joke about her female parts, and nobody wants that, right?)

   Thursday night on NBC is the stuff of legends. Many of television’s greatest comedies – “Seinfeld,” “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” “30 Rock” –  have aired on that hallowed night, and I still watch it (or at least part of it) with bated breath. (Or at least it’s bated until it is released in a torrent of laughter. Abed and Troy slay me!)

But! NBC’s Must-See-Television block is not the best night on television anymore. No.

There is a night on television that you truly must see before you see Must-See Thursday Night. I am just starting to discover it and it is bringing me such joy. What night is that?

Laugh On

ABC on Wednesday night is like this beautiful, hallowed Elysian Field of laughter and escape. Look, I work now, and so something that previously was not really a part of my life – coming home and feeling like I can find some sort of escape by laughing at or marveling at the spectacle on my television – now feels like this really fulfilling mission. It’s not one that’s easy to write about, but, as the fall season has kicked into gear, it’s become one of my more consistent and enjoyable rituals. Wednesday night is my night to blow off some stress, to laugh, to relax and enjoy. I really need it. I think it’s kind of wonderful in it’s own Gosh-I-feel-like-I’m-fifty-saying-this kind of way.

Not that the shows on ABC are dumb. Not at all.

Suburgatory1   Suburgatory is sharply satirical, and it just started so it still has a lot of time to sharpen its blade. I loved the Halloween episode last night, especially because it’s B-plot mirrored my own quest to let down my guard and get scared. Jeremy Sisto asking Cheryl Hines which movie to pop in, “The Exorcist,” Rosemary’s Baby,” or “The Omen” had me gasping with recognition and laughing.

Revenge1   And it takes a lot of time and intelligence to craft something as viscerally gratifying as “Revenge,” which is admittedly not a comedy… it is even better. It is the best example of smart, escapist television that both captures the imagination and provides easy, big aimed-at-the-gut thrills to come along in many years. Probably since early “Grey’s.” (I’m still pulling for you “Pan-Am.” Please, don’t get cancelled!) REVENNNNGE!!!

   As for the other comedies: “The Middle” is decidedly, and intentionally, middle-brow, getting just enough in there to please just about everyone. Who couldn’t love silly Sue Heck? Who, I ask! While I still prefer to start out my Wednesday night with “Up All Night” over on NBC, I love the characters on “The Middle” and I think it is the perfect easy-access show to lead you into the mile-a-minute heavyweights that come later in the evening. (You know what a horrible easy-access lead-in is? My beloved “Community.” Watching “Community” first is like eating monkey brains as an appetizer. Can we get something to ramp up to this please?)

Those heavyweights are, in my opinion, simply brilliant. “Modern Family” is a show which I am just catching on to now, and I know I need to go back and catch it from the beginning. Because I haven’t been watching for three years, I guess I have the fortune of not yet finding Cam and Mitchell shrill and unbearable yet, so what I see is this perfectly orchestrated comedy symphony. Seriously how do they fit all those plot-lines into 22 minutes? How do they make them all lock together? Are they gods?

Happy1   Even more impressive is “Happy Endings,” or the that show no one watched that stole Damon Wayans Jr. back from “The New Girl” after the pilot. Or at least that’s how me and my unenlightened friends referred to it. I’m going to let you in on a secret: as it turns out, “Happy Endings” is the best show on television you are not watching. (If you are watching it, like me, then you get a gold star!) It may very well be the best network show on television right now. Seriously where did this show come from? It made a late season premiere last year. No one cared. It ended pretty well, apparently. Some people cared. And then, over the summer, it’s like the writers said, “Hey, you want to do the best comedy on television?” And everyone involved was just like, “Ohhhhh, oh yeah, let’s do that! That’s brilliant!”

And they are. So watch it. Watch this entire night. I think it’s incredible how quickly ABC has assembled this night into the funniest, and most fun, night on television. Three years ago, none of this existed. Even last year, it was just “Modern Family,” the soon-to-return “Cougar Town” and the ho-hum “The Middle.” That was a lot, but it lacked depth. And now… now, Wednesday night is an impenetrable fortress of comedy and escapism, a blissful single-camera wonderland, without a Whitney Cummings in sight. (Dammit, I said her name again, now I only have one left. Yikes.)

Discovering Fear Part 8: “Ghost Story”

Ghost1

   You’re trolling for good scary movies you should watch for your blog-thing. Looking for recommendations wherever you can find them. Who steps up? Your mother, surprisingly, rather eagerly hands over a list of suggestions. She tells you that, if you really are planning on watching horror movies all month (she has a hard time believing it since she was the one who had to comfort you that time that “Final Destination 2” traumatized you for months and made you afraid of – of all things – log trucks), there is this great scary movie from 1980 starring, of all people, Fred Astaire…

   Yes, this guy…

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   Astaire. America’s cuddliest dancing fool. Big ears, ever-present smile, legs like turbines. Really?!? But your mother swears by it.

   Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that your mother might be exaggerating a little bit. She might even be trying to protect you in her own motherly way. “Oh no honey, don’t watch ‘The Exorcist,’ this Fred Astaire movie’s wayyyy scarier!” Sure… Thanks Mom.

    You would be forgiven, ultimately, for assuming, perhaps, that this is the dignified, G-rated tale of a benevolent grandpa ghost with a mean waltz and tap in his repertoire; trouble is, he just can’t find his way into the light. Awww. A feel good movie, light on scares. (This is what I assumed. I think the way I would have described my perception of this movie before seeing it would have been… snuggly…)

   You would be forgiven for believing these things – in fact they’re rather sensible deductions, you clever boy (or girl) – but you would also be really, really wrong.

   This is an unrelenting R-rated film with gruesome effects, nudity, sex (and lots of it), betrayal, and, yes, also Fred Astaire being cuddly and relatively benevolent, which is pretty much the only thing that gets him through this movie alive… and was pretty much the only thing that got me through this movie alive.

A Film About Memory Lost To Memory

Ghost2   There’s a reason you’ve never heard of “Ghost Story,” but it’s hard to put a finger on it. Keep in mind, this is probably one of the better-made horror films that time forgot. This is no trash-bin affair. It’s also not too stodgy – it manages to be deeply unsettling to this day. It frequently hits it’s sweet spot. It is based on a best-seller. This was a major prestige affair. It features the last performances of three Hollywood legends. It grossed an incredibly high amount. It was nominated for a Saturn Award for horror. And yet, no one talks about it today.

   I’ve talked quite a bit about legacy in these posts – the films I have been watching are largely the film’s I have been watching because, over the years, through cultural acceptance, they have become the standard syllabus for anyone who is trying to get into horror films (except for Blacula probably). Many films that were failures upon release – like “The Thing” – have become unimpeachable classics, the pillar on which this syllabus is built. Other, films, successes upon their release, have been essentially lost to time. I think my mother may be the only person I have ever met who would have recommended “Ghost Story” to me. I think if you were to ask 1,000 people to recommend 100 horror movies to you, 2 might list “Ghost Story.” And yet I’m kind of glad that my mother happened to be one of them, because I think it was a very enlightening experience to watch a rather good film that has, over time, gone the opposite way of “The Thing” – it has fallen out of the horror canon.

   Why might this be? It is based on a book which is considered a modern horror classic. The film is pretty well cast, and, I can personally attest, very scary in spite of the fact that it has dated quite a bit. (I watched this one with the lights off – half the movie had me falling asleep, the other half of the movie had me checking behind my back for corpses hidden from my view by the darkness. In other words, when this film wants to scare, it can!)

   There are two reasons I think this film has become lost to the back-alleys of our collective film memory. The first deals with this exact issue: memory. Most of the horror films that sit atop the horror canon, the films that horror fans put up in the gallery to show off when other people come over for dinner, were way ahead of their time. “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” “The Thing” – these are all forward-looking affairs, even if they are set in the past.

   “Ghost Story” is inherently the opposite. It says it in the title – this is about sitting down and remembering an old story we had all tried to forget. This film is all about foggy remembrances of times gone by. Compounding on this, “Ghost Story” has the strange misfortune of being one the only film’s I’ve ever seen – or know of, for that matter – to feature, as its protagonists, a group of septuagenarians. (I can think of two fairly recent films – Another Year and R.E.D. Neither are horror movies though.)

   It’s a bold move in its own way – it’s nice to see a horror movies that isn’t about a bunch of promiscuous twenty-somethings for a change! But this movie is about a group of old guys with walkers who, as we find out once were a bunch of promiscuous twenty-somethings, which takes some of the novelty away. More then that, this movie is about the problems of 80 year-old fathers and their 40 year-old sons, which sounds like it should be timeless, but instead plays very much as a Greatest Generation vs. Baby Boomer, WWII vs. Vietnam thing in this film. So, what I’m saying is, it’s not very relevant today. This movie is the opposite forward-looking. It was stuck in reverse back in 1980. Today, it seems fair to call it a relic.

   The other problem is that, while this story is scary in all the right places and mellow in all the right places, it gets all the right places all mixed up. It’s like trying to put a really great puzzle together after your five year-old cousin has torn it all apart and eaten three of the pieces. This is a story poorly told. It has all the right parts, but when you watch the movie you find yourself actively wondering why the director decided to put the parts together in this particular way. You wonder this because this particular way is disengaging and boring – it’s sending you all the wrong signals considering you’re supposed to have your heart in your throat.

   Ghost story is essentially “I Know What You Did Last Century.” Four ambitious young men all play a part in accidentally killing a mysterious young woman they loved. Fifty year later, that woman is back and she is haunting the sons of their alpha male. One son falls for this woman but gets out of the relationship before things get really back. Another son is not so lucky. Once he is dead it is only so long before the spirit of this woman scorned begins tormenting the four old men who ended her life. And torment ensues.

   This story makes perfect sense. Now take every sentence and completely rearrange it. The film starts with the second son’s death. Then torment. Then the first son tells of his relationship with the woman in a forty minute long flashback. Then the old men, in another flashback, reveal who this woman really is and how they helped to create her. I get that these are ghost stories but… why not tell this story linearly?

   I know it builds suspense to hold out on the mystery of who this demonic spirit is… but the spirit herself is scary enough, and she is not scary because I don’t know how she died. The “ghost story” format of this movie does not build the suspense it thinks it’s building. It just ends up scattershot. And so it loses some of it’s appeal. A ghost story can be very scary, but if your friend keeps stopping and starting and going off on digressions that don’t make sense, it’s his fault that he’s ruining the story. The filmmakers ruin a fairly good ghost story in “Ghost Story.” It’s why time forgot it, but it’s nice to remember that a film like this one exists so we can learn from it… and enjoy it when the filmmakers let us.

Extra Innings

  • That being said, I was terrified through much of this movie, particularly a pretty strong stretch about halfway through. The effects are not masterful, but they do their job and, with the lights out in my room, I know I had to keep stopping the film to check if I was still alone. It was a fun feeling in its own strange way.
  • Two things that kill me about this movie: The first is that the ghost explicitly says she needs the son to take her to his hometown. She can’t get there on her own. The first son does not take her. The second son, who totally would have taken her… she shoves him out a window! And then she shows up in town anyway! What the hell? The second thing hurt me even more. The lawyer character, as an old man, has an accent. A British accent. Fine. People in New England have British accents, I accept that. But… In the flashback, none of the young men have a British accent. What? It took me forever to figure out who was who. I mean there are logical reasons why a young American man would grow up to be an 80 year old man with an accent… but… the movie isn’t going there. This was just lazy casting!
  • No black guys. Sigh.

The Sing-Off: Week 6 Recap

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Are there two things that could run more counter than the shiny, happy spectacle of young kids singing a capella – essentially getting their nerd on –and hip-hop music? Granted, “The Sing-Off is trying its darndest to give voices-only singing some more “cred,” and hip-hop has done everything it can to become as shiny and artificial a spectacle as covering pop songs with all-voices is… but still, it does seem like a capella and hip-hop are coming from two different sides of the road, and I’m not sure I’ll be convinced of their meeting place on “The Sing-Off” by the end of this programming block. We shall see…

The opening number gives me some hope. This number, B.O.B’s “Beautiful Girls,” seemed hesitant at first, like it didn’t want to take off, but it did anyway. It left behind a few soloists that couldn’t handle this song’s arrival at the stratosphere, but for the most part, the entire ensemble made this the best group performance we’ve seen on The Sing-Off stage for weeks. The right song choice, the right arrangement, and the right soloists. Thank goodness.

Nick is a bit heavier with the praise then I am. Nick says they took us to the streets with that B.O.B ditty. They took us to the streets Nick? Really? Did they? Did they, really? I know B.O.B is on a street when he sings the song in the video, but… maybe a little too far, Nick.

The show wants to let us know how serious this new “Sing-Off” twist is; its as legit as hip-hop music is! You see, tonight, the two bottom groups will have to sing against each other on the same song – Nelly’s “Just A Dream” – and the loser is out. I think this is maybe a more fair way to decide at this stage who goes home, and I think it’s definitely a fair way to fill the last twenty minutes considering how much gamesmanship this could add to this friendly competition, but all I’m thinking as this video is explaining this twist to me is this: You mean Pentatonix and Afro-Blue did arrangements of this song and there’s like 0% chance I’m going to get to hear them?!? Dammit. You’re teasing me, Sing-Off!

Part 1

Dartmouth Aires. My expectation: “Club Can’t Handle Me” seems fitting I guess. It’s a raucous, look-at-me! kind of song. This is a very racous group. I don’t see how this could go wrong. Yet they are very nervous as they wait to take the stage. I guess I could see why. These guys are all theater, no street. The only street they would be comfortable on is Broadway, so…

Definite tuning issues, especially in the build at the end. The rapping was… awkward. And I personally can’t stand the lead soloist, Michael’s, vocals. (Listening to them later, I’ve warmed up to them a little but… not a whole lot.) I felt like the song was too fast and I was missing the middle voices. All that being said… This was a pretty good performance. It got over a rough start to really rock when it needed to rock, and so the breakdown had the desired effect. I would absolutely put this on my Sing-Off playlist and listen to this again. Will this put them in the conversation for front-runner status? No, but it won’t threaten their position as a safe middle-of-the-pack choice.

I do believe that Afro-Blue is the only group tackling something tonight that is definitively old-school, a stone-cold classic – the Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly.” I am literally drooling thinking about what sort of amazing things the geniuses in Afro-Blue might be able to do with a great recording like this one. In a twist, Roberta Flack is an alumnus of their school, so this means even more to them.

(May I say how still utterly shocking it is that Afro-Blue was in the bottom two last week? Ugh!!!! Back to your regularly scheduled programming.)

So you know I think this group was perfect. We’ll skip past that. What do I think makes the difference this time? What made this arrangement work so well was that it was just an ounce slower then you might have thought it should have been, and so it had time to marinate in some more patented Afro-Blue complex harmonies and the absolute silk that is Christine’s voice. Also, Reggie, the bass, gets the MVP award week after week because his moving bass lines are absolutely perfect encapsulations of how subtle movement in music – especially jazz as opposed to pop – can captivate your ear, keep you moving through a song, and create that hook that keeps you coming back for more. Reggie is that hook. Go Reggie!

The Collective is probably going home tonight – that’s my prediction as I watch their video. This is not a risky bet. And, on top of all that, I feel like they’re playing it safe with the most popular, most current song being performed tonight, “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull and Ne-Yo, which is split pretty evenly between crooning and rapping. I think it’s exactly the kind of safe, simple choice (like “Rolling in the Deep”) that will expose their weird arranging tendencies and get them booted.

Yep they took a song that wasn’t supposed to be exposed to this much pressure and added way to much frosting and harmony and sprinkles and unnecessary ruckus to it. Rather then stripping the song down – this isn’t a super simple song, it has a few different complex elements to it – they adorned it with so much fluff that it confused me and turned me off. Essentially they crashed the ship. This was a very shouty performance, I couldn’t understand the rap, and the semi-salsa beat threw me off. I think this group has been making quite a statement for why they should stick around up until now, but with this mess, they will definitely end up in the bottom two this week.

Vocal Point is dedicating this performance to Ben’s father. It is a brave move while also being pretty safe. It’s brave because their rather intentionally running counter to the spirit of this week. They are pretty dramatically altering the arrangement to make it suit them so that they can get their emotions across unhindered. That’s brave. But they get a free pass because it is all being done so they can appropriately express themselves. It’s safe because… who’s going to eliminate them on an “In Memorium” performance? No one.

That being said, I was surprised by how honest the judges were. It’s true, this was Vocal Point at their emotional best, but at their technical worst. There were major key and tempo issues on this song and I didn’t appreciate some of the melodic changes the group made to keep this in their comfort zone. Ben’s verses were gorgeous and moving, but the choruses were awkward. But this week I’ll give them a free pass, and the judges will as well.

Part 2

Urban Method… this week was made for them. Literally, I think they’re trying to goose this group by picking this theme; this show has been unbelievably kind to Urban Method. That being said, if Urban Method fails, they’re pretty much done. And they already get negative points for chickening out of a Tupac joint and going instead with the Hayley Williams-led “Airplanes,” which is just about the least urban thing this group could have done.

Mrrr. It’s so… good. But not great. I feel like Urban Method will never cross that threshold and make me realize what’s special about them. That’s the thing: they can’t convince me they’re special. “California Love” might have convinced me, but they played it safe, and what did we get – a perfectly acceptable, shouty performance with great bass and kinda-weak female vocals. So we’re back to Week 1 with this group. This was a little more playfulthan Week 1, and I appreciate that, but still, that’s negative progress. I think they’re still a favorite, but I personally and tired of them.

Know who I’m not tired of? Pentatonix! I am a total Pentatonix fanboy. I feel like they could do anything at this point.They’re on a legendary tear, and I hope to god that tear doesn’t stop here.

It won’t. That performance of “Love Lockdown” by Kanye was filthy! It was, as Ben put it, “mean.” It was “primal.” It was, according to Sean, “cold.” It was pretty much any adjective you can think of because it covered every good connotation of every word – positive or negative – we have. This performance was good, and it was baaaaaaaaaad.

   What’s so impressive is that Pentatonix can go from the most cheerful, retro, artificial performance one week to this sort of visceral, from-the-gut, organically angry place this week and you appreciate both sides of the coin – each song is its own wonderful journey, but you can also see it as this mission that this group is on. Every decision this group makes is so meticulous. This is the only group I can say that every fist-pump, every step, every harmony is thought out and comes across to the audience as an intentional message. And this week’s message was scary. Pentatonix was uncompromising on stage. They took no prisoners because if they had prisoners, they would have killed them. Scott growled with a purpose, and the looks on Kevin’s and Ari’s faces… well, they weren’t acting angry, they were actually angry. Two minutes after the song was over, Kevin was still frowning. That’s how much this performance took both the group and their audience away. What a great moment on The Sing-Off stage.

Delilah has been really weak in the past few weeks, and I really think they pulled out a legitimately very good performance here (not great, but close) that will do a great service to them and finally reminds me what I loved about this group going into Week 3 once upon a time. They started out rough, no doubt, but I feel like they pulled out a performance that I would want to hear again. So good for them, I do want the girls to stay in this competition and keep all these silly boys at bay.

The Yellowjackets might be in trouble (I doubt it, I think Delilah will end up in the bottom two, but I’m trying to create drama here so you keep reading… so shoot me!). The judges did not like their performance of Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On” (a song I love) as much as I did. To be fair I heard different problems from the ones the judges pointed out – the Yellowjackets had some major breath control issues, and so I heard some disquieting gaps in the chorus because the stagger-breathing wasn’t working out. I also heard a pretty big stumble on the rap (though color me shocked that Jamal chose the hardest of the verses – the double-time verse – so props for that). All in all, though, I think that this group’s earnest performance was a high-quality and enjoyable one. I‘ll concede that the Jackets will always be more one-note than, say, a chameleon like Pentatonix, but I don’t know that that’s the biggest crime we’re seeing on this stage.

But alas… the judges have pointed out the Yellowjackets’ crime as heinous enough to earn them a place in the bottom two. Shocker! But I can almost guarantee they’re safe since The Collective’s take on “Just A Dream” was actively bad. It hurt me. The Yellowjackets version won’t assuage any fears about this group’s dynamic-phobia but it was, like… in tune and… made sense? So the Jackets have that over The Collective.

Ben seriously chose The Collective? Really? Anyway, Sara and Shawn picked the Yellowjackets, and all is right with the world.

So let’s take inventory of who’s left in “The Sing-Off”:

To do this I will, in my continuing quest to marry the disparate threads of arcane pop culture like singing competitions and monster movies with sporting competitions, compare the top 7 groups with the top 7 teams in the latest BCS rankings. What will the… *shoo-shoo-shoo* future… bring?

The Contenders

Who is #1 LSU? The top dawg is clearly Pentatonix. They are flawless and methodical. When they get out there, the audience sounds like Death Valley during a night game. A perfect team, full of intensity, seemingly flawless. Might they trip up? Anyone could, but it sure seems hard to believe that a unit this tightly wound could come apart.

Who is #2 Alabama? Call me crazy, but I don’t think that both Afro-Blue and Pentatonix will make it to the finals. I’m not just saying that to make this stupid metaphor work. I firmly believe that a safer group – like Vocal Point or the Yellowjackets – will play the “worthwhile opponent” in the final matchup while one of the genius groups sits on the sideline, scorned by the judges. Here’s what I’m saying: Afro-Blue, the less flashy of the two groups, has shown some chinks in their armor, but, even worse, the judges have been actively looking for them, trying to keep this group back with the rest of the pack while letting Pentatonix fly away. Afro-Blue is in danger of falling out of this competition just so the judge’s can keep expectations from getting to high – I worry about it every time I see the judge’s not fully willing to commit to this group. Afro-Blue is a little too special for this competition. But if Pentatonix stumbles (unlikely, but it could happen) expect Afro-Blue to get the super-group spot in the finals.

The Wannabe Contender

Who is #3 Oklahoma State? Urban Method is flashy and fly, but does anyone actually think that, when it comes time to face another team in a grudge match, they can prove themselves to be anything other then above-average? They’re being sold as a frontrunner, but don’t buy the hype.

The Underdogs

Who is #4 Boise State? Clean-cut and earnest Midwesterners who keep chipping away at America’s cold hearts with one great performance after another, one great story after another. Dawww! But, let’s face it, Vocal Point doesn’t come from a major conference – they make a great third fiddle in the year-end polls, but no one’s ever going to put them in the winner’s circle based on charm alone. They sing easy songs, have an easy-going dynamic and rarely challenge themselves with a truly formidable foe. The judges like to see a tougher road to the finals. Vocal POint will keep singing great, but soon their great won’t be good enough.

Who is #5 Clemson? Like Clemson, the Dartmouth Aires are on a hot-streak right now. They’re adorable in their own “look at us” kind of way, they have momentum, they’re maybe a bit overenthusiastic (okay wayyyy to overenthusiastic), but they’re likable for sure. And they’re going to stumble. The Aires are the only college group to not hit a stumbling block yet, and its nice to imagine they’ll ride that clean record into the finals, but lets face it: it’s unlikely. The Aires are going to stretch too far at exactly the wrong time, and The Yellowjackets, who had their problems earlier, will eclipse them.

The Outliers

Who is #6 Stanford? Of all the guy groups, who are all starting to blend together as the week’s go on rather than grow more distinct (seriously, there’s little gap between 4, 5 and 6 here), the Yellowjackets have the most recognizable faces. They’re getting a reputation as a sort of bland contender without many highs or lows, but what they do have is a Heisman candidate in Jamal, who is a judge’s favorite. They also have a secret weapon in Aaron, the angel voiced tenor. I expect them to rocket to the top in this competition and play the winner of the Pentatonix-Afro-Blue showdown in a rather lopsided final. The Jackets will have a fun time in the finals, but they don’t stand a chance against a real heavyweight. (And yes, this means I’m picking Stanford to lose to either LSU or Alabama.)

Who is #7 Oregon? Delilah has a mark in the loss column already, and that rough patch is going to make it impossible for them to claw their way back into the finals. They’ll finish a safe, respectable fifth in the polls, but there is too much consistent talent ahead of them to reward a group that faltered so clearly in the early week’s of the season. They’re pretty yes (got to love those ever-changing uniforms) but this is a competition, and Delilah have essentially played themselves out of it even though they’re still in the competition.