Welcome to Charlotte, North Carolina, the secret race car capital of the U.S. and the home of the constructive communication meltdown. Yep, you read that right.
From minute one of the Charlotte episode, it would seem that the producers of American Idol are brushing up on their storytelling techniques. Starting the episode in media res, or in the middle of things a knock-down dragout fight so big, they had to bring the guys from TMZ in to explain it is our introduction to our first stop in the Southern U.S. We don't immediately find out what made Nigel Lythgoe come through the set waving his arms and commanding everyone to go home, but we soon will... dunh dunh dunh.
Luckily for you, I'm not a fan of saving the good stuff for chronological order, so let's talk about this meltdown, shall we? Sure, North Carolina is home to a lot of Idol winners like Scotty McCreery and Fantasia Barrino, so we should probably on the lookout for the person who could take it all this year, but that fight! It's commanding my brain and no amount of Scotty waltzing around the racetrack in Charlotte, running into long-lost middle school friends, can distract me.
The day starts off as cheerful as can be, and Keith in particular is happy and chipper, goofing around with Nicki before delivering the kiss of death to the panel. "This is going to be good," he says. Yeah, good for us at home, not so good for y'all, Keith. After lunch, the judges are all a little testy, even Keith who's apparently tired of being dismissed as just "the country guy." When sweet blondie Summer Cunningham is dumb enough to disparage country in front of Keith, saying she's "done the country thing" and she's now seeking "something with a little more soul." Big mistake, little lady. But at the same time, who'd have thought it would be Keith's ego that set this whole thing in motion? It is, and Keith is instantly annoyed, likening the girl's innocent, yet flippant commentary to a professional insult. "It's like saying I did the brain surgeon thing," he says. Whoa, Keith. We get it, Country music is an intricate profession that requires hard work and dedication. It's not brain surgery though, my friend, no matter which way you angle the scalpel.
That's where Mariah and Randy come in, helping to ease the tension by helping young Summer, who sang "Lean on Me" with an unmistakable country music staple: the (young) LeAnn Rimes yodel. (That age distinction is essential. Have you seen that woman's Twitter lately?) They give the girl a "yes" and send her through to Hollywood on what seems like the condition that she not fight her natural knack for country and stop trying to become the next Adele. Why else would she sing so country and still insist she's more "soul"? We can hear you, lady, and you're no soul singer.
Randy and Mariah do their best to mentor this little lady, but it doesn't sit right with Nicki, who's tired of all this country music talk. If it's not about Taylor Swift loving "Super Bass" it's not for her, and she sits in her corner of the panel like a petulant, sleepy child until Mariah asks her to speak. "I didn't know we needed to have a country debate," she says. Nicki is miffed that her fellow judges (but "not you, Keith") are "picking apart" contestants and telling them what they'd be best suited for when she'd rather let love rule and have everyone do whatever they want in a creative free-for-all, which is nice in theory, but not in practice. Randy, who's been in the business for 30 years and makes a point of reminding Nicki of that, knows a thing or two about coaxing a good artist onto the right path. But it's that "30 years" comment that sends Nicki, the youngest voice on the panel, into a fit. It's the last straw and her apparently fragile ego is crushed, shutting down production for the day and leaving a crowd of confused auditioners like refugees in the bowels of the racetrack facilties.
This is the Idol the episode seems to want us to believe we've signed up for. But it's only a fraction of what the new panel has to offer, and frankly, it only adds to their effectiveness as an entertaining, yet informative entitity.
Immediately after the meltdown, we return and we're suddenly in a TMZ-sponsored zombie movie/breakup video about how production shut down. Yeah, we got that. Drama, drama, drama. But when we finally return to the contestants and meet Navy Reserve member Brandy Hamilton , a sweet little singer who lights up the room and has what Mariah calls "pippity pow," she leaves the room with her ticket to Hollywood, saying "Please don't fight, it makes me sad." It touches Nicki and has an almost cleansing effect; and for the rest of the episode, the judges just work, so well in fact, that I might even be willing to use the words "adorable" and "Nicki Minaj" in the same sentence. Mariah even starts making an effort to make sure Nicki knows any insult thrown at a contestant's hat doesn't pertain to Nicki's glorious collection. It's almost like magic.
But things weren't even all that bad before the cleansing fight. Well, they weren't bad on the judges' side of the table. Keith and Nicki were sharing trail mix like two best friends on their first school field trip to the Natural History Museum, but the producers brought on the gauntlet of weirdos. That's a surefire way to may anyone a little grumpy.
First up is Naomi Morris, a fashionista from Charlotte who makes her own clothes. She's wearing a spiky bra under a blazer like a Mad Max character on a job interview, but Nicki loves it and gives her a nickname: "Omi." It's a good thing the only binding thing about these meetings is that three "yeses" equal a ticket to Hollywood, because Nicki's nicknames aren't exactly star-makers. Surprise, surprise, Omi can't really carry a tune. The great thing about the way the judges react is that while Nicki feigns sickness and Mariah can't even look at the girl, once they recover, they're actually quite sweet, making sure to praise her for what she's doing right: designing her own clothes. The moment's overshadowed a tad by Mariah's comment that Omi's spiky gold bra wouldn't fit Nicki, but it's there. These judges are good value.
Moving right along, we meet Joel Nemoyer, a 20-year-old who likes to sing while laying down, a technique he learned by watching Chris Daughtry that one time during a mentoring session on Idol. Of course he's awful, but at least he got that controversial viewpoint out there: yep, Nicki looks like cotton candy with her pink hair piled on top of her head. Move along now.
A brief respite comes courtesy of Brian Rittenberry a 27-year-old from Georgia who's married to a cancer survivor, who happens to be the cutest Keith Urban fan there is. While Brian makes his wife's case to the country singer, Ryan Seacrest is outside asking her about her "hall pass situation" with Keith. Don't worry, it's cute. Just trust me on that. Ryan brings her into the room as Brian finishes singing "Let it Be" and earns four "yeses," and the moment is somehow not all that obnoxious. It's quick, and Mrs. Brian isn't screaming or losing her mind in order to get 15 seconds on television. She's just sweet and grateful and super proud of her sweet, singing husband. Okay, she's also pretty stoked about getting to hug Keith. That too. This is how an Idol sob story should work.
If there's a cinematic alchemy award to be given this year director Bill Condon deserves to take it home after magically turning the tedious Twilight franchise into entertainment gold. 2011's Part 1 was a horror camp romp that turned the supernatural love triangle — the naval gazing trio of Bella Edward and Jacob — on its head. Breaking Dawn - Part 2 continues the madcap exploration of a world populated by vampires and werewolves mining even more comedy thrills and genuine character moments out of conceit than ever before. The film occasionally sidesteps back into Edward and Bella's meandering romance (an evident hurdle of author Stephenie Meyer's source material) but the duller moments are overshadowed by the movie's nimble pace and playful attitude. Breaking Dawn - Part 2 will elicit laughs aplenty — but thankfully they're all on purpose.
Part 2 picks up immediately following the events of the first film Bella (Kristen Stewart) having been turned into a vampire by Edward (Robert Pattinson) to save her life after the torturous delivery of her half-human half-vampire child Renesmee. She awakes to discover super senses heightened agility increased strength… and a thirst for blood. One dead cougar later Bella and the gang are able to focus on the real troubles ahead: Renesmee is rapidly growing (think Jack) and vampiric overlords The Volturi perceive her a threat to vampiric secrecy. Knowing the Volturi will travel to Forks WA to kill the young girl (a 10-year-old just a month after being born) The Cullens amass an army of bloodsucking friends to end the oppression once and for all.
Packed with an absurd amount of backstory and mythology-twisting plot points (some vampires can shoot lightning now?) Condon and series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg mine revel in the beefed up ensemble of Breaking Dawn - Part 2 and thanks to a wildly funny cast it never feels like pointless deviation. Along with the usual suspects Lee Pace adds swagger to the series as a grungy alt-rock vampire Noel Fisher appears as a hilarious over-the-top battle-ready Russian coven member and Michael Sheen returns has Volturi head honcho Aro and steels the show. Flamboyant diabolical and a steady stream of maniacal laughter Sheen owns Condon's high camp vision for Twilight and he lights up the screen. There are a few throw away nations of vampires — the oddly stereotypical Egyptian and Amazonians sects are there mostly there to off-set the extreme whiteness — but the actors involved bring liveliness to a franchise known for being soulless. Even Stewart Pattinson and Taylor Lautner give personal bests in this installment — a scene between Bella and her dad Charlie (Billy Burke) is genuinely heartfelt while Jacob's overprotective hero schtick finally lands.
Whereas Breaking Dawn - Part 1 stuck mostly to the personal story relying on the intimate moments as Bella and Edward took the big plunge into marriage and sex Part 2 paints with broader strokes and Condon has a ball. Delving into the history of the vampires and the vampire world outside Forks is Pandora's Box for the director. One scene where we learn why kids scare the heck of the Volturi captures a scope of medieval epics — along with the bloodshed. Twilight might be known for its sexual moments but Breaking Dawn - Part 2 will go down for its abundance of decapitations. The big set piece in the finale is something to behold both in the craftsmanship of the spectacle and in its bizarre nature.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 had the audience hooting hollering and even gasping as it twisted and turned to the final moments. There's little doubt that even the biggest naysayer of the franchise would do the same. No irony here: the conclusion of Twilight is a blast.
While recent animated blockbusters have aimed to viewers of all ages starting with fantastical concepts and breathtaking visuals but tackling complex emotional issues along the way Ice Age: Continental Drift is crafted especially for the wee ones — and it works. Venturing back to prehistoric times once again the fourth Ice Age film paints broad strokes on the theme of familial relationships throwing in plenty of physical comedy along the way. The movie isn't that far off from one of the many Land Before Time direct-to-video sequels: not particularly innovative or necessary but harmless thrilling fun for anyone with a sense of humor. Unless they have a particular distaste for wooly mammoths the kids will love it.
Ice Age: Continental Drift continues to snowball its cartoon roster bringing back the original film's trio (Ray Romano as Manny the Mammoth Denis Leary as Diego the Sabertooth Tiger and John Leguizamo as Sid the Sloth) new faces acquired over the course of the franchise (Queen Latifah as Manny's wife Ellie) and a handful of new characters to spice things up everyone from Nicki Minaj as Manny's daughter Steffie to Wanda Sykes as Sid's wily grandma. The whole gang is living a pleasant existence as a herd with Manny's biggest problem being playing overbearing dad to the rebellious daughter. Teen mammoths they always want to go out and play by the waterfall! Whippersnappers.
The main thrust of the film comes when Scratch the Rat (whose silent comedy routines in the vein of Tex Avery/WB cartoons continue to be the series highlight) accidentally cracks the singular continent Pangea into the world we know today. Manny Diego and Sid find themselves stranded on an iceberg once again forced on a road trip journey of survival. The rest of the herd embarks to meet them giving Steffie time to realize the true meaning of friendship with help from her mole pal Louis (Josh Gad).
The ham-handed lessons may drag for those who've passed Kindergarten but Ice Age: Continental Drift is a lot of fun when the main gang crosses paths with a group of villainous pirates. (Back then monkeys rabbits and seals were hitting the high seas together pillaging via boat-shaped icebergs. Obviously.) Quickly Ice Age becomes an old school pirate adventure complete with maritime navigation buried treasure and sword fights. Gut (Peter Dinklage) an evil ape with a deadly... fingernail leads the evil-doers who pose an entertaining threat for the familiar bunch. Jennifer Lopez pops by as Gut's second-in-command Shira the White Tiger and the film's two cats have a chase scene that should rouse even the most apathetic adults. Hearing Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) belt out a pirate shanty may be worth the price of admission alone.
With solid action (that doesn't need the 3D addition) cartoony animation and gags out the wazoo Ice Age: Continental Drift is entertainment to enjoy with the whole family. Revelatory? Not quite. Until we get a feature length silent film of Scratch's acorn pursuit we may never see a "classic" Ice Age film but Continental Drift keeps it together long enough to tell a simple story with delightful flare that should hold attention spans of any length. Massive amounts of sugar not even required.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
A billionaire TV producer (Robert Mammone) has a great idea for a reality show that he wants to put on the Internet and his goal is to beat the 40 million Super Bowl audience. He has compiled a crack team of young hip and immoral tech geeks directed by Goldman (Rick Hoffman) and puts cameras throughout a remote island where former prisoners are going to kill each other while audiences watch after shelling out the pay-per-view fee. The location is done on a remote secret island and the death row prisoners are bought from prisons around the world with the promise that the survivor gets to walk free. Among the contestants are a rogue Aussie named McStarley (Vinnie Jones) a martial arts expert (Masa Yamaguchi) a husband-and-wife team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz) a monstrous killer who doesn't do much more than grunt (Nathan Jones) and others known only as The Italian The German and other monikers quickly forgotten. Enter the sole American Jack Conrad (Steve Austin) who's in a South American prison for some obscure reason and is recognized on TV by his wife (Madeleine West) who tries to save him. However it looks like Conrad is pretty good at helping himself. Don't expect the acting to be much more evolved than what could be seen among the World Wrestling Entertainment superstars especially since many of them were plucked from the ring to star in this morality tale. But Austin (who had in a strong cameo in Adam Sandler's Longest Yard) proves he has a sense of humor as well as strength. Vinnie Jones is ridiculously over-the-top as the Aussie who's the hand-picked winner of this game shown setting up alliances Survivor style only to turn on them later. The supporting cast are refreshingly entertaining but one-note caricatures both in the contest and running the contest. It's obvious that they aren't going to be around long but the actors do milk their tiny roles for every bit of attention they can get. Rick Hoffman as the brilliant camera mastermind of the project is both whiny sniveling and mean-spirited so when he joins some of the rest of the crew and suddenly develops a backbone and a conscience he ends up stealing the movie with his acerbic humor. But it's the understated American hero Conrad who holds a mirror up to the people who like to watch this stuff. Director Scott Wiper who co-wrote this story has also acted in similar movies like this (A Better Way to Die). It’s obvious he knows what he’s doing with The Condemned and develops a sense of voyeuristic angst like those of us who can't keep our eyes off a train wreck. Like the darkly subversive Belgian film Man Bites Dog the camera crew remains safely distant and remote until the reality directly involves them. Then the crew wonders "What the hell are we doing?" while the audience might be thinking "What the hell are we watching?" Much like Series 7: The Contenders Rollerball and other movies which show a dark and bloody near future this kind of reality doesn't seem too far away and maybe proves that movies which provide this type of gladiator spectacle target a certain segment of the human population who need to blow off steam.