TV

American Idol: Week #8, The Top Seven

It's Crystal and then everyone else. We still have five weeks to go before we can crown her, so it makes sense to quote Crystal's own words: What's the point?

Dear god, this show is still on. And I hate to be the one to say it, but we still have five more weeks. You now get the feeling that folks are sticking with the show only because they're waiting to watch Glee. In any case, seven contestants remain, down to six tomorrow night after a special episode, Idol Gives Back and Boots Off Michael Lynche. This season has been rocky, to say the least, and watching the final seven line up for the evening's show provided a sinking feeling. The cuts of Katelyn Epperly, Alex Lambert, Lilly Scott, etc., are really starting to come back and hurt.

Thankfully, we keep getting off-stage scuttlebutt every few days, and what rocked Idol Nation this week? Crystalgate! Word spread that Bowersox, the clear frontrunner, wanted to abruptly quit the show (“What's the point?” she cried), but she was talked off the ledge by Ryan Seacrest (“You'll be able to buy your mom a house!” he pleaded). No mention of the episode on Tuesday's show, but the story did take attention away from Kara's ongoing quest to be publicly nude. (First her bikini stunt on the show last year, then a Maxim spread a few weeks back, now the Allure “Nude Issue”). Tonight's guest coach was Alicia Keys, who mentored the kids on the supremely vague theme, “inspirational songs”, the lamest producer's move in a season full of them. Here's what went down.

Casey James led off the show with a jazz-blues run through Fleetwood Mac's “Don't Stop”, pushing a Gregg Allman growl about as hard as we've heard. Last week, it had become clear that Casey does the same thing every week, which is sinking Casey's overall stock. There isn't a whole lot Casey can do about it, however, given his limitations as a vocalist. He hasn't sung a single song all season without his guitar, so the judges' pleas for Casey to break out of his rut will be in vain. The judges, by the way, have run out of things to say (and trust me, I understand their plight), but this week they were especially useless. Ellen for example, offered, “It has to be great, and it wasn't great”. You could see Casey thinking, “Thanks, comedienne, I'll work on it”.

Lee Dewyze. We actually saw a slightly different side to Lee this week, and we also learned that Alicia Keys was unfamiliar with “The Boxer”. I very much hated the change Lee made to the melody on the first line; trying to improve on a Paul Simon melody is like deciding one of Monet's water lillies needs touching up. Any version of “The Boxer” has a chance of being lovely, but Lee's rendition wasn't terribly moving. Still, the judges came unglued, with Simon offering what might have been his most effusive praise all season long. It's clear that the judges would like to see a Crystal/Lee faceoff in the finals, which is starting to look very likely.

Tim Urban. How do you solve a problem like Turbo? The judges backed off the kudos for Timmy, even though his version of the Goo Goo Dolls' “Better Days” was pretty much the same caliber that earned Tim admiration from the judges in the last few weeks. The producers/judges have probably played it about right, encouraging voters to keep Tim around as it has been good for the overall show, but having him reach the final five would be embarrassing. This week, he sang a song that fits him, but he resembled a singer in one of those mega-churches that have rock bands instead of choirs. Will the Turbine Engine continue to run? One more week?

Aaron Kelly. When Seacrest announced that he had survived the cut last week, he acted scared shitless, like he couldn't bear to face one more Yoda joke backstage. But tonight, A. Kelly stepped up and sang R. Kelly's “I Believe I Can Fly” almost like a man. He was clearly trying to really bring it, singing hard and pulling out every vocal trick in his bag. He also looked about as good as he can, refreshingly free of bad hair gimmicks. Hard to believe: This song came out in '96, and Aaron remembers singing it in pre-school.

Siobhan Margus. Marg has gone downhill faster than Lindsey Vonn. This week, she came out dressed like a forest-pixie strumpet. The two-voice thing was back—heavy on the mike-abusing over-enunciation and heavy breathing—for a version of the Whitney/Mariah duet “When You Believe”. I liked her better than the judges, who are doing their best to do away with her, which might put her in trouble on Wednesday. Also killing her: Her assertive, philosophical windbaggery after Ryan's questions. Her friends in the audience, however, remain awesome—this week, she apparently brought a group of deranged soccer rioters.

Michael Lynche. Big Mike held on to the guitar this week, flanked by a string ensemble, for Chad Kroeger's “Hero”, a song that everyone hates. It was cluttered, overwrought, post-grunge drivel that didn't do Michael any favors. In fact, since voters already passed on Mike two weeks ago, it's hard to imagine he's going to generate enough support this week to avoid the bottom of the heap.

Crystal Bowersox. Okay, wait—did you see that? Crystal broke down bawling at the end of “People Get Ready” during the live performance, but then when they played back the recap medley of the evening's peformance clips, it was a totally different tears-free ending. Huh? What is much clearer is that Crystal's dominance over this field is obvious and increasing. She's the only contestant whose performances feel like watching a genuine pro, not someone auditioning and hanging on for dear life. It's Crystal and then everyone else. We still have five weeks to go before we can crown her, so it makes sense to quote Crystal's own words: What's the point?

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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