The Music of Mariah

March 30, 2008

Despite having her critics, Mariah Carey is the best-selling female artist of all time. Her voice — spanning five octaves, almost an entire piano — has sold more than 160 million records in two decades. Along the way, she’s been through the highs and lows of the music business; in 2001 alone, she signed a record deal worth $80 mill and then suffered an infamous public meltdown when her first feature film (Glitter) failed to bring in a twentieth of that in the box office. Her album of the same name was the worst of her career.

Now, seven short years later, Mariah is about to return with E=MC2 — her eleventh full-length release and the sequel to The Emancipation of Mimi, 2005’s best-selling album. But in a career so bogged down by giant numbers, Carey is currently chasing perhaps the smallest figure of her career: one.

As of now, Mariah has seventeen Billboard #1s to her name, just one shy of Elvis and three shy of the Beatles. The lead single from E=MC2 — “Touch My Body” — is holding strong atop iTunes, almost guaranteeing a rise from #15 on the Billboard Hot 100. And with a team of producers almost identical to the staff from her first Mimi album, we must just see history made before the year’s end. So I’ve decided to take a run through Mariah’s historic career, profiling each of her #1s since “Vision of Love” topped the charts in 1990. And while this column could quickly turn into a diatribe disparaging Carey for lacking the talent of Elvis or the Fab Four, let’s not forget that’s she’s cowritten 16 of these 17 singles.

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WHAP Reviews: 21

March 29, 2008

When I read Bringing Down the House years ago, long before I could think about placing a bet in Las Vegas, it was the type of book that you knew while reading was going to become a major motion picture. As difficult as crafting a movie around a blackjack table would be, this was the story about a group of kids — college students — beating casinos that thrive on vice by outsmarting them. Bringing Down the House is an amazing tale, with twists and turns that put the characters on the run as they attempt to make money at any casino they can before being blacklisted.

I promised myself though, when I saw a preview for “21”, that I wouldn’t compare the book to the movie. It isn’t fair. I tried to compare the movie “Kite Runner” to the book in December, and realized that the book is too juicy for a 2-hour film. The same problem exists here, so you have to give the screenwriters their opportunity to highlight, emphasize and embellish upon what they think the key aspects to the story are.

The story, simply, is that at MIT in the early 90s, a professor began using his position to recruit the most intelligent mathematicians on campus to join a blackjack team. Using a team format, the group would count cards, and the leader would sit down when the deck was most favorable, and bet larger amounts. Over time, if uncaught, the team technique is unbeatable by casinos — it gives the players a huge advantage. The team is comprised of spotters that sit at a table and play the minimum, not focusing much on winning or losing but merely playing to keep the count alive, and then calling in the leader when the table is hot. The leader needs to count cards, vary his bet amounts to win the most, play optimal strategy and attempt to stay unsuspicious. After all, casinos don’t like losing money.

At the center of both the book and the movie is the best of the MIT’s findings, a money-starved genius born to count cards. In real life, he’s Jeff Ma, founder of ProTrade Sports. In the book, he’s Kevin Lewis. In the movie, he’s Ben Campbell, played by Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”). Campbell is a Harvard Med dreamer, but with the cost of $300,000 seemingly impossible, his dream seems to be slipping through his fingers. That is until his favorite professor (Kevin Spacey) and dream girl (Kate Bosworth) recruit him into their team.

If having read the book gives me any advantage, it’s to see up close the decisions made by the screenwriters. Their focuses were, most notably: to establish Campbell as a legitimate boy genius, to focus on the double life that attending class and spending secret weekends in Las Vegas invokes, to trace the path of the relationship between Campbell and his dream girl, and to focus on the man/group of men trying to stop them. Focusing on these elements limits the twists and turns of the plot, giving us a singular struggle between Campbell’s team, their professor’s ego and the casino’s resilience.

For blackjack players, and most notably those familiar at all with the premise of counting cards, the movie seems to hyperbolize. The idea of a hot deck — when counting indicates the table is in favor of the players, rather than the casino — is used far too often, and no alternative is posed. In reality, a cold deck happens as often as a hot deck, and most of the time, the count hangs in the middle with the casino retaining their small percentile advantage. However, in the vein of keeping things interesting — a task when we’re talking about a card game — the movie doesn’t acknowledge that sometimes the Campbells of the world have to wait a long time for their proper shot.

However, I don’t think this is a movie for blackjack players. It’s a movie for people that don’t gamble, people that think gambling is stupid. It is designed to have that shock effect — wait, we’re supposed to say, blackjack is beatable? In that demographic, of course, is a lot of women, as any trip to a Las Vegas casino will find more men than women. It’s for that reason that the storyline between Campbell and Jill Taylor (Bosworth) is made very substantial. Campbell undergoes a personality change when the money starts rolling in — and who wouldn’t? — and suddenly approaching his dream girl (who has become his co-worker) is no problem.

I’ve read a few reviews that have notably attacked the chemistry between Sturgess and Bosworth. That didn’t really strike me here — and Bosworth said in an interview that they became really close friends, so much so that they couldn’t do their love scene without getting really drunk — but Sturgess does have some issues working with other actors on screen. A couple times, his reactions with his two nerdy friends at MIT wasn’t convincing, but most notably, his chemistry with the character that played his mother was very strange. At first, we see her in the local bar celebrating Ben’s birthday with a cake. But she seems far more like a favorite aunt than a mother until a selfless gesture in the middle of the movie reveals her character. However, at no point does their relationship feel authentic, and I might be picking up on the problems that many people had with Sturgess/Bosworth by identifying this potential weakness in his arsenal.

However, outside of Sturgess’ mediocre performance — not bad, but not great — are some solid supporting performances. Laurence Fishburne, the man in charge of finding card counters, and Kevin Spacey are predictably great. Josh Gad does his best Jonah Hill impression as the movie’s comedic talent, and does a nice job. Actually, “21” is a dramatic story wrapped in a comedic screenplay, and the interplay works better than, say, “The Kingdom” did in 2007. Las Vegas is supposed to be fun, after all.

We’re told, usually, that working with your friends is a bad idea. Mixing relationships with work is a quick way to end a friendship. “21” doesn’t say that. It says mixing work with people you don’t know leaves open the possibility of working with a person that shouldn’t be trusted. In the end, it’s a movie about the importance that trust and friendship plays in a work environment.

That’s not exactly what Bringing Down the House was about, and for that reason, thousands that read the book will be disappointed by “21”. It’s divergence, though, also makes this movie far more a success than I anticipated. And success on a mass appeal will make the investors — notably Spacey as co-producer — happy people.

American Idol: Top 10

March 25, 2008

To audition for American Idol, you need to be between 16 and 29 years old. That explains why we’ve had a past winner age 17 — Season 6’s Jordan Sparks — as well as one pushing thirty — Taylor Hicks from the year before. This season, the spread of ages across contestants is wide: the youngest by three years is David Archuleta, born in 1990; the oldest, by more than four years, is Michael Johns, who will turn 30 later this year. So FOX decided to turn tonight into “Birth Year” night, where each contestant will sing an anthem from his or her year of birth. To my knowledge, this is the first time that AmIdol has tried this theme — and if tonight’s song selections are any indication, it will be the last.

That said, the beauty of an open night like this one is that the theme doesn’t play into anyone’s strength. It’s not Bon Jovi night, for example, where David Cook would shine; nor is it Mariah Carey night (coming soon), where most of the remaining women will gain an edge over the men. So click below for a note-by-note recap of tonight’s talent, as well as final predictions for who’s screwed come Wednesday night.

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American Idol Top 10: Preview

March 24, 2008

I love Lennon and McCartney just as much as the next guy, but two weeks of amateurish Beatles tunes on American Idol was the definition of overkill. So for this week, the producers over at FOX have managed to come up with Idol‘s most creative musical theme yet: songs from your birth year.

For some, this is an advantage. Syesha Mercado, for example, happens to be born the same year that Whitney Houston released her massively success Whitney album — meaning that Syesha has her pick of pop songs perfect for her vocal range. But for others, like 29 year-old Michael Johns, song selection might get sticky. (Johns has 1978, when disco was ending, hair metal was just starting and a little band named Journey — hasn’t Paula worked with them?…or maybe Randy? — was smack dab in the middle of a career that wouldn’t be validated until Laguna Beach, Family Guy and the Chicago White Sox played the hell out of “Don’t Stop Believin'” almost 30 years later.)

So to prepare for Tuesday night’s Idol, I’ve made some choices as to which songs our 10 remaining contestants might choose. After the jump, check out the songs I want to hear, the songs I’d absolutely advise against, and the songs we’ll probably hear tomorrow night.

UPDATE: Below are the song choices for tonight. Somehow no one picked Journey, but I still got a few right. As for the others…I think the contestants got it wrong. Especially you, Kristy Lee.

Michael Johns: “We Are the Champions,” Queen (1978)
David Cook: “Billie Jean,” Michael Jackson (1983)
Carly Smithson: “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Bonnie Tyler (1983)
Brooke White: “Every Breath You Take,” The Police (1983)
Kristy Lee Cook: “God Bless the USA,” Lee Greenwood (1984)
Chikezie: “If Only For One Night,” Luther Vandross (1985)
Jason Castro: “Fragile,” Sting (1987)
Ramiele Malubay: “Alone,” Heart (1987)
Syesha Mercado: “If I Were Your Woman,” Stephanie Mills (1987)
David Archuleta: “You’re the Voice,” David Foster & Jeff Pescetto (1990)

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Bryan’s Diatribes Against Pop Culture: Mariah, v. 2008

March 24, 2008

I was flying home from vacation on Saturday, via AirTran — an underrated little airline (good people, not much in way of amenities, but on time both ways) — and hooked into AirTran’s one special gift to their customers: XM Radio access for the entirety of the flight. So, being a good pop culture writer like I am — who am I kidding, I’m a horrible pop culture blogger, much less writer — I turned to XM Radio’s “Top 20 on 20”, which, while a good station for a 15-minute car ride, is not great for a 3-hour flight, in which Miley Cyrus’ friend tells her that “She’s just being Miley” about 27 times.

But not even Miley’s hit could get on my nerves as much as XM Radio’s, and perhaps iTunes and Billboard’s but I’m far too lazy to look (horrible pop culture blogger, check), Mariah Carey’s new hit, “Touch My Body”. Now, as much as any heterosexual, early twenties male can be, I actually like Mariah. She has pipes, she has a body, and well, she has pipes and a body. And hey, if you can’t listen to “Hero” as a guilty pleasure, you’re just not being honest with yourself.

“Touch My Body” is, though, an abomination of music. I normally don’t make much fuss about music, because it’s an industry for a whole that I rarely understand. I like rap so I don’t bitch about that like half of the world’s population, but for the most part, I believe the Top 40 has become a place for the lowest common denominator, and “Touch My Body” is almost certainly Lowest Common Mariah. It is, if nothing else, Mariah attempting to prove that she can hang with the newer, hotter versions of herself. It’s a song we could excuse Rihanna for, but Mariah post-psychotic behavior is a more difficult pill to swallow.

Mariah Trying to Be Hip, Example 1: “If there’s a camera up in here / Then I’d best not catch this flick / On YouTube (YouTube)”. I am also too lazy to look up if Mariah wrote this, but I’m guessing not, because I’m guessing she found out about YouTube about a month ago. She’s still watching that video of the bear falling out of the trampoline, I hear, and c’mon, that video is so YouTube Beta.

Mariah Trying to Be Hip, Example 2: “I know you got that fever for me / Hundred and two / And boy I know I feel the same / My temperature’s through the roof”. Um, what? The first part reminded me of my mother badgering me about the specifics of my fever in middle school as we debated whether or not I should go to school. And then Mariah attempts to bring the metaphor full circle by acknowledging her own fever? Lame.

But nothing beats, and I’m sure you’ve heard it by now:

“‘Cause if you run your mouth and brag / About this secret rendezvous / I will hunt you down”. If anything, this is certainly Mariah trying to be hip. I mean, tell me that lyric isn’t the result of Mariah watching Isla Fisher in “Wedding Crashers” (“‘Cause I’d find you…”). Now Isla’s still, in 2008, cute and sane and I would like to touch her body, so her laughing sadistically about stalking me would be OK. Mariah, who is clinically insane, should hardly be allowed to talk about hunting people down without heading back to therapy.

And we should hardly have to be subjected to it.

WHAP at the Movies: Funny Games

March 24, 2008

The trailer is incredible.  But every critic everywhere is saying the same thing, “Whatever movies you choose to see in 2008, DO NOT SEE FUNNY GAMES.”  But then again, the film has a 7.2 rating on IMDB.  What’s our take?  Read on…

Funny Gamesis an American shot-for-shot remake of the 1997 Austrian film of the same name.  Michael Haneke, who is highly praised for his 2005 film Cache, is the writer and director of both the original Funny Games and its American counterpart. 

This film has been ripped apart by every critic who has seen it.  On Ebert and Roeper, Richard Roeper had this to say of the movie:

“The fact that it features fine performances, talented direction and some moments of genuine suspense only makes the end product that much more appalling.”

And to Richard I have to say:  Ummm….I think that was the point.

Funny Games is not just a movie; it is a critique of American culture.  It is a response to the violent movies that have become ever so popular as of late: the Hostels and the Saws.  But what is most impressive about this, is that the original film was made in 1997, long before American cinematic gore was in full force.

And Michael Haneke is not just a director; he is a manipulator.  All throughout Funny Games, a flick that depicts an upper class family (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Devon Gearhart) taken hostage in their own vacation home by two young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet), Haneke knows exactly what the audience is yearning for.  He knows that we are going to cheer for the good guys.  He knows that after watching a family being tortured for over an hour, the viewer is dying to see them fightback, to see Michael Pitt or Brady Corbet’s guts smeared across the screen.  He knows this, and after what seems like forever, he gives it to us.  And I will say this without spoiling what happens, when the family finally is able to retaliate I was flooded with great relief.  I found myself my smiling at the violence of the moment captured on screen.  During this scene someone in the audience actually pumped his fist into the air and cried, “YEAH!”  But Haneke gives us this joy only to take it away moments later.  He wants us to be angry and reflect on how happy we had been during that moment.

Although the film is a violent one, most of the actual violence happens off screen.  Haneke lets the viewer hear the screams and moans of the victims, but he does not let us see them during the moments of injury.  Instead, he turns the camera somewhere else, often to an on-looker in the family, and let’s us watch in horror their expressions.  This places an incredible amount of importance on the movie’s three victims–Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Devon Gearhart–and each of them deliver.  And Haneke does not just let us be spectators to the carnage, he invites us to be apart of it.  Four times in the movie Michael Pitt turns to the camera, each time making the audience no longer feel as an on-looker, but something that is closer in resemblence to an accomplice. 

Funny Games is a movie that toils with your insides and fucks with your head.  You will know the ending before it comes, but like the family it depicts, you will not want to believe it. 

And the critics are right to dislike the movie.  There is nothing to like about watching a family brutally tortured for the better part of two hours.  But they are wrong to pan it.  Haneke is making a point.  He is asking us why it is so wrong to show violence when deep down inside we are yearning for it.  He is asking us, as a culture, to look in the mirror and question our fascination with torture and gore.  His style is unique and distinct.  The violence in this movie is sudden and random and more often than not, it is not shown.  Instead we shown what is important: the everlasting effects of violence.  And for that Haneke, I admire you.           

Upon Second Viewing: Jon’s Top 5

March 23, 2008

Since Bryan posted earlier today on the irrelevance of seeing a movie a second time, I feel obligated to defend my stance on “the second view” — that it matters, just as much if not more so than the first viewing of a film. To me, watching a movie another time — usually at home, as opposed the first theatrical viewing — is absolutely intregral to my overall opinion of the film at hand. We’ve all walked out of a movie theatre completely overwhelmed, confused or speechless at something we’ve just seen; in those cases, as well as the cases where we think we’ve seen all there is to see from a film, a second viewing is necessary to elucidate details that might alter our impression of the film. It’s a second chance for the director, for the actors, even for the writers.

The reason for this, at least according to me, is that no one truly goes into a first filmic viewing without something in the back of his mind. (And I’m talking about Oscar-worthy pics here, not Tyler Perry movies-du-jour.) When I went into There Will Be Blood, for example, I was so enthused by the critical hype of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance that I ignored much of the brilliant directing, cinematography and plot just to focus on the nuances of his performance. Similarly, when I saw both No Country and Atonement, I had read so much about their endings that I spent the better part of two hours anxiously awaiting a finale — when it would come, where it would come, why it would come, and so on. It’s much easier to appreciate a film, I’ve learned, when you know from the getgo exactly where you’re going.

Looking back on November through January, the only film of the Oscar 5 that I had no expectations going into was Juno. For that reason, it didn’t budge in the second version of my year-end Top 5 — which I’m about to reveal after the jump. But first, to remind folks where I had the films after just one viewing, here is my original Top 5 from exactly one month ago:

(1) No Country for Old Men
(2) Michael Clayton
(3) Juno
(4) Away From Her
(5) Eastern Promises

That my new list incorporates each one of the Oscar 5 is somewhat of a minor miracle: by now, I’ve seen a slue of good-to-great films from 2007, including Gone Baby Gone, Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James and even La Vie en Rose. To be fair, I’ve also rewatched Away From Her and Eastern Promises: as for the former, it fell off my year-end list just like Julie Christie fell off the Academy’s Best Actress radar, though I still stand by it as a phenomenal piece of art; as for the latter, including Eastern Promises in my original Top 5 was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. (And I paid $9.50 to see Semi-Pro.)

So click below for my new Top 5 — unless, of course, you haven’t seen the films.

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