Well, the good news is that the live auditions are finally over. The bad news is that about 100 innocent souls who spent weeks (months?) riding the high of their first audition, thinking they had real, megastar-worthy talent, will have their dreams squashed and never be seen nor nor heard from again. Glass half full! For the sake of full disclosure, I must say that I attended X Factor bootcamp last year, and can confirm that it's a hot, bloody mess. It's the judges and some publicists and a few (lucky?) reporters sitting in a giant auditorium for 16 hours, as countless stressed beyond belief singers belt out R&B hits in the bathrooms, in the hallways, just everywhere. It's like the final moments before opening night of a Lima, Ohio high school musical on meth. There's crying, there's panic, there's judges needing to take a million breaks. It's also kind of boring, because hearing 120 auditions in one day is a lot. Anyway, let's put the Simon Cowell "that's enough" hand up on my rambling and do this thing.
The episode opened up with an at-home montage of the singers that will probably end up making it to the judges' house round, because why would they waste our time? 17-year-old Willie Jones was feeling the nerves in Shreveport, Louisiana, as was 18-year old rocker chick Jennel Garcia in Rochester, Mass. "It's time to grow up," she said. Totally! X Factor bootcamp auditions are right up there with going to college, realizing that boys aren't very nice after you sleep with them, and buying your first car. We all go through it.
We also saw 39-year-old Vino Allen, who I think took the subway to Miami, in New York, and the Cali bros from Emblem3 surfing in Huntington Beach. That's some X Factor juxtaposition for you. Then there was the adorable gay Jason Brock, sexy vocal coach Tara Simon, next-Whitney candidate Diamond White, InTENsity survivor Arin Ray, and bullying victim/ugly-cry aficionado Jillian Jensen. "It's your time now," Jillian's mom ugly-cried. "Do it!"
That's what's so sad about this — each and every one of these contestants, at least the ones under 30, think it's "their time." Because they're young, they're innocent, they haven't been exposed to the gentle indifference of the universe just yet. For many of them, today will be that day — the day they discover that life is chaos, and no matter how much they pray, God simply does not care if they win — even if they were bullied in high school, or share a room with 27 siblings. The world is not the delicious oyster described by their pre-recession-era parents, it's more like a rancid salad prawn that you just have to tolerate. First you have to accept the crappy-ass prawn, then you can go on an existential quest to find meaning and order within the prawn. Did that metaphor make sense? No, it did not. Either way, I hate seeing devastated people on TV. Then why do you recap a singing competition show, you ask? Because I'm trying to sort out my prawn, that's why.
Anywho, the cattle arrived in Miami, and we were treated to a montage of sexy youngsters gettin' their tan on at their luxury resort. Suspiciously, the morbidly obese wheelchair-bound pastor was not included in this shot. Hmmm. Once inside the arena, we were told that half of the contestants would go home by the end of the night. There were currently 120, so in case you're not into the maths, that means 60 dreams would be broken that day.
Next: People sing, people go home. CeCe Frey wins best bitch-face.
First up was 13-year-old cutie pie Diamond White. She sang "I Have Nothing" by Whitney Houston, and my new favorite person ever CeCe Frey looked like she wanted to cut a b***h. It was that good. 21-year-old single mom Paige Thomas admitted that she was afraid to follow that act. But alas, she did't have to. We breezed through probably 50 auditions, and again were only given approximately three seconds with Sister C, who I still think sound pretty good. But according to Britney Spears' face, I am wrong:
We saw a few more rando auditions before the infectiously enthusiastic Jason Brock killed it again, which briefly thawed my icy hard heart. Ditto for middle schooler Carly Rose Sonenclar, who really freaked out that (I'm sorry) AWFUL little girl who sang "Tomorrow" last week. You know, the one with the pigtails and the pink and the sparkles and the alcoholism in ten years.
22-year-old Jessica Espinoza, who wowed the judges with her version of Pink's "Nobody Knows" during the live auditions, was clearly very nervous — and Demi Lovato wasn't helping. "You are one of the only people in this competition that I remembered their first and last name," Demi announced. ("F*** you," replied everybody else.) Pressure! Jessica sang that Whitney/Mariah song from the 1998 animated flick The Prince of Egypt, and this time judges' reactions were less enthusiastic: Britney made her signature stink face, and Demi claimed to be disappointed. "She wasn't as good as I remember," Demi whispered to her cohorts. Ouch! This just goes to show, yet again, that the wrong song choice can ruin everything.
Jennel Garcia, who I still think is our front-runner, showed up on stage wearing what I think was the same fringe-tastic, totally age-inappropriate outfit from her first audition. Her second audition was great, if a bit oversexed. "Crazy sex appeal," said the judges. They were right — I mean, just look at Simon's face:
Also, to get a sense of how the female competition felt about her performance, please see HBIC CeCe Frey:
Next up was Josh Krajcik Vino Allen, who sang beautifully and wowed everyone but Britney. Then we were treated to a montage of sadness, as Johnny Maxwell forgot his lyrics, Jordyn Foley — the "Annie" reject — sang horrifically, and Manny Acosta just blew it. Same goes for Trevor Moran, the fresh-faced youngster who sang "I'm Sexy and I Know It" last week. Aw. I expected great things for him.
But wait, it gets worse: A 12-year-old boy forgot the lyrics and melody to "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and just totally broke down, and the cameras followed him for an insanely insensitive amount of time. "My nerves took over," he said as he stood there, petrified. "I want my mom," he later cried offstage. Oh my God, this is totally the Rachel Crow-cident of 2012. He should probably go to Jillian Jensen for some advice, as every kid he goes to school with will see this, and kids are jerks.
On a lighter note, Emblem3 were confident to the point of laughing at every boy band that went before them, and then they had the nads to come out and sing their take on the freaking Goo Goo Dolls, who just so happen to be one of the worst bands of all time. Demi LOVED their performance, and Simon said that "the guy in the hat" was by far the best singer. Bet he's feeling pretty good about himself tonight. Before Tara Simon hit the stage, we were shown this weird clip of her dancing on a pole and just generally trying to be sexy, and then she showed up wearing a completely unflattering leopard-print dress. She writhed around on stage and vamped her way through "Somebody to Love" and Britney and Demi were... not impressed:
Finally, it came time for what's going to end up being the big, bodacious bootcamp battle of 2012: Paige Thomas versus the aforementioned CeCe Frey. Both girls picked Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," but one was significantly more confident in her abilities than the other. "This is my jam, and I'm going to go out there and work it," said CeCe. "The pressure just makes me perform that much better." It's on! From my perspective, Paige — who went first — struggled a little with the high notes, but it was still a good audition. "The only thing that could potentially get in her way is a comparison to another performer who looks similar," mused L.A. Reid.
That's so funny! Because, conveniently, here she comes — CeCe, whose confidence on a scale from one to ten was at a 25 (her words), came out and proudly announced that she too would be singing Whitney. "OOOOOHHHHH" said everybody. Sing-off! CeCe ultimately sang it better, in my opinion. Her voice had more... texture to it, and she didn't falter at all on the high notes. "One of you actually nailed it," Simon said. He never told us which one, but CeCe had an inkling. "I'm about to bring the CeCe thunder here at bootcamp," she said. Okay.
Then, unceremoniously, it was time for cuts. They played the Requiem For a Dream song while the judges made their choices, which shows you exactly what kind of show X Factor is — a modern-day incarnation of the theatre of the absurd. X Factor cuts are heroin-addict levels of serious. So they split the contestants into three groups, and you know the rejects knew they were doomed as soon as they saw that they were with the kid who forgot the lyrics to "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and cried. The first group had Jennel, Jason Brock, Diamond White, and Paige Thomas, so you knew they would be safe. Simon did his usual "it's bad news" schtick, but I don't even think they fell for it. So 2002, Simon. Group B had Jessica Espinoza, and also that "Annie" girl, so it was a no. Britney was crying, "I'm Sexy and I Know It" Trevor Moran was crying, and it sucked. It always sucks. But X Factor would never end on a bad note (hah), so out came Group C, with CeCe Frey, the morbidly obese guy (Freddie Combs), Johnny Maxwell, Tara Simon and Jillian Jensen. They all went through, and the world would remain their oyster for at least another day.
Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna
[PHOTO CREDIT: FOX]
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Most drug movies glamorize the use and/or distribution of narcotics before telling the ugly truth about the addiction or jail time that follows and the shady figures that inhabit society’s underbelly. Taking characters from point A to point B and finally to their lowest point is a formulaic but effective storyline that shows how substance abuse destroys lives. It worked for Blow Scarface and The Basketball Diaries but in Limitless director Neil Burger ignores that successful blueprint and essentially says “Do drugs kids! They’ll help you! And don’t worry it’ll all work out in the end!”
Of course a more familiar narrative precedes this self-serving unorthodox conclusion and it could’ve worked if Burger navigated the story with more focus. The film begins when struggling novelist and all around slob Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) who has a permanent case of writer’s block runs into his drug-peddling-ex-brother-in-law in Manhattan (what are the odds?) This slimy fellow gives him an experimental pill called NZT that clears its users mind and helps them focus. When he ingests it his long-gestating novel is completed in a matter of hours and his grimy apartment is made-over to look like a room at the Ritz Carlton. The pace of the picture picks up quickly as Eddie climbs New York City’s social and corporate ladders acquiring wealth power women and the attention of greedy entrepreneurs ruthless gangsters and assassins who want the drug themselves.
The high-concept premise presented storytelling potential as expansive as the title suggests but Limitless is hampered by a series of discrepancies that render it silly and disjointed. Some of the smaller ones are relatively insignificant and won’t hinder the experience but others (such as the lethal effects of the drug which conveniently don’t apply to our protagonist) defy the internal logic that screenwriter Leslie Dixon sets up. It’s also hard to ignore how useless a handful of the sub-plots are. Abbie Cornish’s character starts out as motivation for Cooper’s but her relevance lessens as the stakes are raised and Eddie slips further into the worlds of finance and crime. The same can be said of the Russian gangster whose arc begins when he lends Eddie some capital for an investment and ends in a pulpy bloodbath. Burger leads you to believe that these side-stories will have greater impact on the bottom line but by the time the film wraps it becomes clear that they’ve collectively convoluted the plot.
It is however entirely possible that the filmmakers’ goal was to make a movie that mimics the incoherent mind-bending state that hallucinogens induce and in that sense Limitless works. Burger builds on that idea by visualizing the effects of NZT with unusual camera techniques including abrupt changes in color editing tricks that revisit the action in reverse (sort of) and a great time/spatial elapsing effect that literally pulls the viewer through Eddie’s lengthy drug coma. The dizzying display of surreal imagery is the films greatest gimmick designed to draw your attention away from its weaknesses.
At its core Limitless is about excess: excess of knowledge power money etc. and fittingly excess is one of its biggest problems. The filmmakers force too much upon their movie from unnecessary fight scenes to sexual encounters with metropolitan socialites that ironically water down its potency instead of giving it more edginess. Like any drug it starts out as something refreshing and stimulating but when you come down you’re stuck wondering where the last few hours went.
Poor Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow). Some years back her parents and brother were slaughtered by Richard Fenton (Jonathan Schaech) a teacher who had developed a psychotic fixation on her. Richard went to an insane asylum but he broke out and now he’s back in town just in time for Prom Night where he resumes his pursuit of Donna and knocks off some of her friends for good measure. Bringing up the rear is dogged Detective Winn (Idris Elba) desperately trying to nail Fenton as the body count mounts. Sooner or later--and it’s much later unfortunately--Donna will come face to face with Fenton one last time. With characters as one-dimensional and dumb as these there’s not much the cast can do except stand around in their prom outfits waiting to get killed off. As the deranged killer Schaech stares glares and skulks around. Leading lady Snow widens her eyes and worries accordingly throughout while Elba tries to inject a little intensity into the stock role of the cop on the case. Working from a bad screenplay by J.S. Cardone first-time helmer Nelson McCormick displays little enthusiasm--either for the genre or for this particular film. The scare tactics are hackneyed and usually involve characters surprising each other--a gag that gets really old really quickly. When one character mutters “This is getting silly. Enough already ” we couldn’t agree more. And we’d add “boring” to that statement. It should be noted however that there’s an awfully high body count for a film rated PG-13 even if the film isn’t as bloody as one might expect. McCormick and Cardone have re-teamed on the upcoming remake of The Stepfather and if their collaboration here is any indication horror fans may have reason to be afraid--very afraid.
In the beginning of the Dark Ages the warlords of England are brutally kept in line by the Irish King Donnchadh (David O'Hara). Tristan (James Franco) has grown up hating the Irish for killing his family and has made a strong allegiance to father figure Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) while Isolde (Sophia Myles) Donnchadh's daughter has grown up under her father’s thumb. After a fierce battle that leaves Tristan near death he washes up on Irish soil and is nursed secretly back to health by Isolde who tells him she’s someone else. The two fall madly in love but Tristan must return to England before he’s discovered. Meanwhile Donnchadh decides to stage a tournament between all the champions of England with his daughter as the prize. Tristan ends up winning the princess' hand for Lord Marke but is horrified to find out she’s his own true love. Tristan and Isolde now must suppress their love for the sake of peace and the future of England. But despite their best efforts to stay apart the lovers are driven inexorably together. Despite the fact that Franco (Spider-Man) and Myles (Underworld) look lovely rolling around on the ground in romantic trysts and gazing forlornly at one another you don’t necessarily feel any heat between them. That seems to be mostly the fault of Franco who plays the young Tristan far too stoically. We understand he’s a tortured soul torn between duty and love with his eyes perpetually half-filled with tears. But couldn’t he have shown a little more passion (and while he’s at it washed his hair)? The luminous Myles is better at showing her burning desire but she too is left many times sad and weepy. Only Sewell (Legend of Zorro) who is usually delegated to playing bad guys shows any kind of raw emotion as he first falls genuinely in love with his bride--and then is betrayed by her and the only son he ever knew. He’d probably make a great King Arthur. As the Celtic myth of Tristan and Isolde predates the Arthurian legend as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet you can easily see how those two more famous stories were possibly formed. Tristan & Isolde is a classic story of forbidden passion set against political upheaval as well as a tale about a tragic love triangle. Producers Ridley and Tony Scott had been fascinated with the legend for many years and finally got the opportunity to bring it to the big screen. Ridley however who directed last summer’s medieval fare Kingdom of Heaven wisely chose to hand over the directing reins to Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) who adequately paints a picture of a time when chaos reigned. Maybe Tristan & Isolde is not as compelling or romantic as the king of them all Braveheart but it is certainly far more accessible than say Kingdom of Heaven. Sorry Ridley.
Based on the life of New York City police detective Vincent LaMarca City by the Sea vacillates between a true-crime mystery and a family drama. As Vincent (De Niro) investigates the murder of a Long Beach N.Y. drug dealer it becomes painfully clear that his estranged son junkie Joey (James Franco) known on the street as Joey Nova is the prime suspect. Vincent is of course taken off the case but when his partner is killed while pursuing Joey the search becomes the Long Beach police department's top priority--and saving his son from a police department eager for cop-killer blood becomes Vincent's. The fact that Vincent discovers that he has a grandson Angelo doesn't help the situation especially when Joey's supposedly clean ex-junkie girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) leaves the kid at Vincent's apartment when she goes to buy cigarettes and fails to return. Vincent who's always defined himself against his criminal father finds himself forced to decide whether he's a cop or a father and grandfather first a quandary that naturally leads to some pretty compelling if slightly melodramatic scenes for De Niro. Interestingly despite the somber subject matter and the dramatic tone the film still manages a few lighthearted moments which really save it from the pitfalls of its own seriousness.
Sometimes a great cast can make even a mediocre film good and that's what happens in City by the Sea. Even though the dialogue they're given to work with isn't always completely natural--in fact sometimes it's downright contrived--the cast still manages to create a compelling final product. You just can't go wrong with De Niro as a hardened streetwise emotionally distant cop and he makes everyone opposite him look great especially relative newcomer Franco (whose performance as a young James Dean in TNT's James Dean earned him some critical kudos of his own). The young actor swaggers onto the scene like a very young Bob Dylan a hollow-body vintage guitar slung across his back. Of course he's selling it for drugs not heading for a gig. Patti LuPone really sinks her teeth--and catty claws--into her role as LaMarca's bitter ex-wife creating some of the film's most dynamic scenes while Frances McDormand lends her subtly expressive style to the most emotional moments as De Niro's sometime girlfriend Michelle.
Director Michael Caton-Jones delves into the dark side of his imagination with images of a desolate Long Beach: graffiti-covered walls crumbling casinos and a rickety boardwalk--all the detritus of a once-thriving tourist destination. In this grim setting Joey wanders virtually empty streets and beaches where as a child he played happily; meanwhile in Manhattan Vincent is wandering his streets in much the same way. It's an interesting device Caton-Jones uses to show the similarities between the two men and it's as effective at establishing their relationship as the relatively few scenes they have together. At moments like this when the film is making its emotional impact visually it shines; unfortunately City by the Sea relies a little too often on its average dialogue and does a little too much telling and not enough showing.