After the news broke that Usher and Shakira are set to substitute for Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera on Season 4 of The Voice, I sat down to watch last night’s episode with a keen sense of separation anxiety. With Cee Lo and Christina officially leaving, are we about to enter whatever the opposite of a honeymoon period is? (I don’t know its name, but it involves lots of crying and throwing your former loved one’s possessions out of fifth-story windows.)
I grow even more nervous when Cee Lo’s first talking head interview features him looking suspiciously normal in a simple black sweater — with neither a pair of ostentatious glasses nor an exotic pet to be seen. Don’t give up on us yet, Papa Bear.
The auditions begin with Trevanne Howell, an exasperatingly gorgeous single mom from the Bronx. At 33, Trevanne is a relative ancient among The Voice’s disproportionately young class of cadets.
She bites off a big mouthful of Whitney with “I Have Nothing,” but it proves to be more than she can chew. Despite her general competence, I’m not moved — and neither are the judges. Christina gives Trevanne credit for an “ambitious” choice of song, but correctly points out that nerves had left her voice a little shaky.
Trevanne’s Result: Team Nobody
Next up is Collin McLoughlin — not, tragically, Kyle MacLachlan, as my Dale Cooper-loving ears originally encouraged me to believe. Collin dropped out of a graduate-level business program at NYU to pursue singing, much to his parents’ dismay. Mr. and Mrs. McLoughlin do admit that they’d finally feel validated about Collin’s choice if even one of the coaches would turn around for him. So, no pressure there, kiddo.
Collin radiates a mellow, coffeehouse vibe on the Yusuf Islam née Cat Stevens classic “Wild World,” accompanying himself on guitar (at this rate, a contestant could sing while simply holding a guitar and I’d still be impressed).
Well, Mama and Papa Collin can consider themselves triple-validated: three judges vie for their son’s allegiance. He chooses Adam, who proclaims Collin to be one of the “purest” singers ever on the show.
Collin’s Result: Team Adam
Born prematurely, 17-year-old Joselyn Rivera suffered from neurological problems in early childhood. When she turned five, a doctor “prescribed music” — hours of singing karaoke every day seemingly sped up her cognitive development. This is a touching story and all, but “prescribed music?” I’m not convinced that this was a real doctor and not an under-medicated stranger, equipped with a stolen prescription pad and a plastic Playskool stethoscope.
Joselyn offers a lively version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” leaving the judges impressed with how “flawlessly” she nails the high notes.
Joselyn’s Result: Team Christina
It’s a bold move to go by only your first name, an even bolder move when you share that name with a beloved celebrity, and a bolder move still when that celebrity is a dog: meet Benji, a former race car driver. His “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” demonstrates self-possession and a “dynamic range” (Adam), though I personally didn’t care much for his overwrought take on a song that’s best left understated.
But Cee Lo, Adam, and Blake are all enthralled, particularly when it comes to Benji’s capacity for screaming. (Fun fact: it’s extremely loud inside race cars, and that’s actually just Benji’s normal speaking voice.)
Benji’s Result: Team Adam
If Trevanne is our (would-be) cast grandma, Lorraine Ferro, at a youthful 52, is buried somewhere in its fossil record.
Vivacious, adorable Lorraine — a voice, performance, and songwriting coach — has the energy of a woman half her age, but is dressed in as many different prints as she is years old. Backstage footage shows her line dancing with what appear to be adult female twins dressed in identical, blue sequined tops, but this, naturally, goes unexplained.
Lorraine covers Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper,” because there ain’t nothing a 20-year-old can do that a 52-year-old can’t do 2.6 times better. The performance exhibits her vocal power, as well as her decades of experience, but the exaggerated raspiness of her voice seems more appropriate for musical theater than pop.
Sadly, the judges don’t turn for Lorraine. It’s too bad; I was kind of hoping to watch this cougar devour Mackenzie Bourg alive.
Lorraine’s Result: Team Nobody
The evening’s last contestant, Mycle Wastman, lost both his parents as a child, and the grandfather who raised him passed away only weeks before his blind audition. Oof.
His gorgeous, smooth rendition of “Let’s Stay Together” is one of my favorite performances I’ve seen this season, proving an incredible vocal range. Cee Lo — no relation to Reverend Al — tells Mycle he’s “more excited about him than anyone else today,” and sways him away from Team Adam with his soul cred.
Mycle’s Result: Team Cee Lo
In the episode’s final backstage moments, Cee Lo sensually strips to his undershirt with no apparent provocation, to the horror and amusement of his fellow coaches. My earlier fears have been assuaged: the Lady Killer is here to stay.
The Voice returns on Monday at 8 for another night of blind auditions. I intend to spend the coming week curled up to a freeze-frame of Blake Shelton tenderly embracing his ACM Award.
Tweet me @mollyfitz while I get it cued up on my TiVo.
[Image Credit: NBC]
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.