Archive for the ‘Sexiest People Alive’ category

SwanShadow Gives Thanks, Volume 15: Crystal Turkey Edition

November 22, 2018

As unlikely as it seems, this post marks the 15th anniversary of my yearly Thanksgiving Day blog entry. Given that crystal is the traditional gift for a 15th anniversary, I will attempt herein to be as transparent, sparkling, and multifaceted as possible.

Those of you (and you know who you are) who’ve kept up with these posts over the years know that I have many, many people and things in my life for which I am thankful. I don’t take that responsibility of gratitude lightly. I earnestly, honestly appreciate how blessed my life is.

When I roll over the side of the bed every morning, even when that effort comes accompanied by the creaks and crackles of advancing age, I am grateful that I have two feet to stand on, and legs that support the standing. I know there are millions of people in the world who can’t get out of bed and would give anything to do so. And, as I go about my day, I am thankful that I have a comfortable home, clean clothes, abundant food and water, work I enjoy, the entertainment of a companion animal, and the love of a life partner. I know there are millions of people who have few, or none, of these, and would sacrifice anything they do have to possess that which they do not. I am not better, or more deserving, than they. I am merely more fortunate. Again, I don’t take that for granted.

And especially when I find myself living in a state where entire communities have been consumed by disastrous wildfires over the past year-plus, robbing people of every material possession and a lifetime of treasured memories…

I take none of this for granted.

Because I have far more things to be thankful for than I can enumerate, on Thanksgiving Day it’s been my custom these past 15 years to focus my gratitude on a list of just 26 items, one for each letter of the alphabet. Some items on the list are trivial (indeed, some are literally that). Others are profound. All stand in the place of many, many others that I simply haven’t time in one day to name. It’s just my way of acknowledging how deeply moved in soul and spirit I am when I pause to consider how rich my life is, even in those countless moments when I feel poorly within.

With all that said, on Thanksgiving Day 2018, here are the things for which I’m giving thanks.

Air. In our part of the world, it’s easy to forget about air — we have it fresh and without limit… until an event like the fire that destroyed Paradise, California clouds the atmosphere with toxic fumes and ash for days on end, even for those of us living a couple hundred miles from the event. After breathing soot for two weeks, today’s clean air (courtesy of our first rains in months) gives us NorCal residents something extra special to celebrate.

Bob Almond. My comic art collection began in earnest almost simultaneously with these annual posts, 15 years ago. During that time, one artist’s work has come to be represented in my galleries far more frequently than any other — more than 50 times, at last count. It might be easy to miss that, however, because Bob Almond toils as an inker, an embellisher of other artists’ pencil drawings. Bob’s unique ability to meld his ink lines with a broad variety of styles — always enhancing, never imposing or interfering — gives me the confidence to keep putting projects in his capable hands, knowing that the art will always return to me better than when it left. And, as founder of the Inkwell Awards, Bob labors tirelessly to gain recognition and appreciation for other practitioners of his craft — artists whose work often goes unnoticed, but is indispensable to the art form we call comics.

Confetti. I play quite a few online trivia games (although fewer all the time, it seems, as some of the upstarts have gone or are going out of the picture). I have the most fun playing the Facebook-based Confetti every weeknight. Confetti’s distinction is that it allows one to play in concert with one’s Facebook friends, seeing their responses to each question in real time and benefiting from their collective wisdom. Assuming, of course, that one has smart friends. I just happen to be lucky that way.

Doctor Who. Until this season, I haven’t been a regular viewer of Doctor Who, the venerable BBC science fiction series, since the days of the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker in the 1970s. When the show was revived several years back, I sampled an episode or two of each new incarnation of the Doctor, but was never drawn back into steady attendance. Then came the Thirteenth Doctor, played with charm and spunk (and a goofy-to-American-ears Yorkshire accent) by Jodie Whittaker, the first female actor to be cast as the Time Lord. In the Doctor’s own phrase, “Brilliant!”

Egg foo young. Yes, I know, it’s not real Chinese cuisine. But sometimes, I just gotta have it. It’s probably the gravy.

Freddie Mercury. I have yet to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the recent biopic starring Rami Malek as the legendary front man of Queen. Part of my reluctance is the reviews. The greater part, though, is my fear that nothing could compare with the reality of Freddie, perhaps the most uniquely talented performer in rock history, and one whose music and memory means so much to me.

Garlic. Can’t cook without it. Okay, maybe breakfast. But not after that.

Hawaiian Airlines. Truly the friendliest airline in the skies. You’d be friendly too if every one of your round trips ended in Hawaii. At the Pirate Queen’s insistence, I got a new credit card this year that earns Hawaiian Airlines flying miles. Maybe one of these years I’ll earn enough miles to just stay.

Infinity War. Every time I think the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone about as far as it can go, Kevin Feige and company find a whole new way to turn things up past 11. Coming in hot on the heels of Black Panther — quite possibly, the greatest superhero film ever made, and one that could have dominated this Thanksgiving list had I not decided not to be quite so obvious — Avengers: Infinity War raised the stakes and broke our hearts by taking our Panther (and several other Marvel headliners, including Spider-Man and Doctor Strange) away. The sequel can’t get here fast enough. (Also, Black Panther 2.)

Journalists. I’ve never practiced the trade — the closest I came was my years as an online film reviewer — but I trained at university as a journalist. I value the talent and commitment of those who tell the true stories within our world, and deliver the news even when those in power would undermine and even physically thwart them. Now more than ever, we need legitimate journalism, and we all need to support those outlets and individuals determined to publish the truth.

Kansas. This summer, the Pirate Queen and I spent a weekend in Central California centered around a concert by the classic rock band Kansas. This was the fourth time I’ve seen Kansas live — the first was on my 19th birthday, at the Cow Palace — but the first time in more than 20 years. I still love the music. Kansas is the only significant American band to focus largely on progressive rock for the majority of its career (yeah, I know, Styx — but they were only prog-ish, and at that, only sometimes). Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe not… but who cares? All we are is dust in the wind.

Lutron. One of the many things I love about our little abode here at Pirates Cove is the auto-dimming LED light fixtures, manufactured by a company named Lutron about whom I know nothing. Great lights, though.

Marriage. In the words of a certain Impressive Clergyman, “Mawwiage is what bwings us togevvah today.” In May, The Daughter entered into vows with The Son-In-Law. It was a beautiful day, and they still seem totally happy together six months later. I’m glad she found someone special to share her heart and her life with (and he does indeed seem like a great guy). I’m glad that the Pirate Queen and I found each other, too. Ain’t love grand?

Notability. An essential tool in my everyday working life — I import all of my scripts into it, where I can annotate and mark them up as I will. I also use it for note-taking in workshops and sessions, and for general brainstorming. If you can use a high-quality document markup / notation tool with a wealth of functionality, I highly recommend Notability. (Not a paid endorsement. Just a satisfied customer.)

Outrigger Reef Waikiki. We stayed here on this year’s trip to Oahu, and it immediately became our new favorite hotel on the island. Centrally located on Waikiki Beach, the Outrigger Reef offered a ton of features that we liked: unmatched location, warm hospitality that personifies aloha, first-rate beach access, a reliable breakfast venue, super-convenient layout that minimizes walking (something that can’t be said of many large resort hotels), great pool, live music nightly, and a Starbucks. I almost hate to mention it here, because now you people will fill it up the next time we want to stay there.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco has presented a couple of exhibitions in recent years featuring the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an association of 19th-century British artists and writers. This year’s show afforded the opportunity to see a number of stunning paintings by the Brotherhood’s leading lights: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. I’m always impressed by art that keeps me thinking about it for days after I’ve seen it. The Pre-Raphaelites and their acolytes accomplish that.

Quizmasters. Having written a few quizzes for LearnedLeague and elsewhere, and played thousands more, I’m acutely aware of how difficult it is to compose top-shelf trivia questions and answers. I’m in awe of people — including LearnedLeague Commissioner Thorsten A. Integrity and newly inducted Trivia Hall of Fame member Paul Paquet — who manage to do it consistently over long periods of time.

Radio. As some of you know, I was a radio disc jockey in a previous life. Thanks in part to the SiriusXM subscription that came with our new Subaru Forester, I’ve been listening to more radio of late. It’s a format that I hope never goes away.

Stan Lee. Some idolized Marvel Comics writer/editor/publisher “Stan the Man” and gave him perhaps more credit than he deserved. Others in their zeal to counteract Stan’s penchant for self-aggrandizement were perhaps too quick to denigrate his contributions. All I know is this: Stan Lee co-created (we can disagree as to what percentage) several of the most iconic characters and stories of my lifetime, including some that had a tremendous impact on my youth and beyond. I can’t say this about many people whom I never met, but I would be a dramatically different person today were it not for Stan Lee. Rest in peace, and excelsior.

Taarna. I don’t like to talk myself up, but for some years, I was among the primary resources online for information about the 1981 animated science fiction anthology film Heavy Metal. I compiled and maintained the Squidoo lens spotlighting the movie, contributed significantly to its Wikipedia entry, and wrote material about the film for several (mostly now defunct) websites. My art collection reflects my obsession, with its gallery of commissioned artworks featuring Taarna, the lead character in Heavy Metal’s concluding segment and star of its iconic poster. When Sideshow Collectibles announced early this year that they were releasing a statue of Taarna, I knew I had to own one, even though I’m not a statue collector. The Taarakian defender now upholds The Pact from a shelf in my office/studio.

Ukulele. I decided a while back that I wanted to learn to play the ukulele. This decision did not come without trepidation — I took years of guitar lessons as a youngster and never got very good at playing the guitar. (Which is a charitable way of saying that I totally sucked at playing the guitar.) I’ll probably never be very good at playing the ukulele either. But even my clumsy fretting and strumming brings me joy. That’s something, yes?

Victoria Coren Mitchell. One of the world’s best female poker players, and the presenter of one of my favorite quiz shows, Only Connect. Is there anything she can’t do?

Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. I fell in love with the Tiki Room on my first visit to Disneyland, way back in 19[mumble][mumble]. When I visited with the Pirate Queen in February of this year, I found my love unabated. It’s cheesy yet classic, dated yet timeless, silly yet charming. The performances by the lead voice actors (Wally Boag, Thurl Ravenscroft, Fulton Burley, and Ernie Newton) remain engaging, despite their broad (some might say stereotypical, and some might not be wrong) accents. There’s always at least one Audio-Animatronic character that doesn’t function quite perfectly. And yet, the moment the Tiki Room show concludes, I want to queue up again for another round. It’s one of my favorite childhood memories. Also, Dole Whip.

Xenon. It’s the noble gas used most frequently in film projection lamps. When you go to the movie theater and look at the brightly lit screen, you’re seeing xenon at work.

Yacht Rock. It’s not just a musical genre — it’s a way of life. The smooth, studio-crafted, jazz-inflected sounds of such late-’70s/early-’80s acts as Steely Dan, Toto, Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross, Al Jarreau, and the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers are my jam. (One of my jams, anyway.) Please don’t confuse true Yacht Rock with that stuff that gets played on the SiriusXM channel of the same name — most of it’s Nyacht Rock. (Hint: Jimmy Buffett is Nyacht Yacht Rock.) For the real deal, check out the pioneering 2005 web video series Yacht Rock, and Beyond Yacht Rock, the subsequent podcast hosted by connoisseurs JD Ryznar, Dave Lyons, Hunter Stair, and “Hollywood” Steve Huey.

Ziploc bags. I don’t know who invented them, or how that individual came up with the technology. But how did we ever live without them? The ones with the slider sealing mechanism? Pure engineering genius.

And as always, friend reader, I’m grateful for you. Thanks for stopping by on yet another Thanksgiving. I hope you’ve found much to be thankful for today. If you have, share some with someone who has a little less.

Peace.

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Comic Art Friday: It’s hard out here for a superheroine

December 13, 2013

In case you missed it, the upcoming Batman/Superman feature film just added a Wonder Woman.

Gal Gadot, the new face of Wonder Woman

Warner Brothers has cast Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot — that’s her, right above — as mighty Diana, warrior princess of Themyscira. No one knows yet whether Wonder Woman’s role in the movie will be major or tangential. One supposes that the publicity splash over Gadot’s hiring suggests that she’ll contribute something more than a cameo, but that’s purely speculation.

I don’t have a strong opinion about Gadot’s casting one way or the other. So far as I’m aware, I’ve never seen the erstwhile Miss Israel perform on film — she’s costarred in the three most recent iterations of the Fast and Furious franchise, but after sampling the inaugural F&F I never had any hankering for further helpings. I’m told that she can act a little. I’m willing to extend the benefit of the doubt there. From the photos and video clips I’ve checked out, Ms. Gadot looks a fair bit leaner than I’d envision Wonder Woman, but six weeks in the gym before filming could easily fix that. At five-foot-ten, she’s more than tall enough. (Heck, if Tom Cruise, who’s a few inches shorter than I am, can effectively play the towering Jack Reacher on the silver screen, a 5’10” actress certainly qualifies as Wonder Woman.)

Plus, Gadot served two years in the Israeli Defense Forces, and is an expert on military weaponry. You’re not going to hear me question whether she’s tough enough to play a superhero.

I do appreciate the fact that Warner cast someone of eastern Mediterranean ethnicity, with physical features to match, as the (presumably more or less Grecian) Amazon, rather than Hollywood’s stock northern European type. If I imagine Gadot’s headshot with Diana’s trademark ruby-starred tiara Photoshopped in, I can certainly see the face of Wonder Woman there. She definitely looks closer to my personal impression of Queen Hippolyta’s daughter than did the now-iconic Lynda Carter (who, yes, I know, is not the usual stereotype either — she’s partly of Latina heritage). At least, from the neck up.

But here’s the thing.

Why does Wonder Woman have to be a walk-on in someone else’s movie?

Why doesn’t Wonder Woman — the most prominent female superhero in comics for more than 70 years — rate her own motion picture?

Wonder Woman, pencils by Iago Maia

If you ask the folks at DC/Warner, Wonder Woman is one-third of their “Trinity,” their top tier of characters. Since 1978, the other two members of the DC Trinity — Superman and Batman — have headlined 13 theatrical motion picture releases between them, plus numerous animated TV series and telefilms. Since the cancellation of the mid-1970s Wonder Woman live-action TV program, the Amazing Amazon has appeared in the various Justice League animated series (as one character among a veritable horde of super-doers), a stand-alone animated direct-to-DVD project, and one embarrassing and ill-fated live-action TV pilot (starring Adrienne Palicki, late of Friday Night Lights) that did not result in a series. Despite rumors here and there — including a persistent one involving fan favorite writer-director-producer Joss Whedon — there’s never been a Wonder Woman movie.

And now, she’s relegated to supporting duty in a big-budget Batman/Superman team-up flick.

That’s just pitiful.

Heck, even the Hal Jordan version of Green Lantern got his own terrible movie. And Hal Jordan is lame. (Except in Green Lantern: The Animated Series, which was awesome, and never should have been cancelled.)

Which brings me to the similarly sorry case of Ms. Marvel, who’s the closest thing Marvel Comics has to a Wonder Woman archetype.

Marvel has enjoyed a spate of success in recent years producing its own movies (now as an arm of the Disney entertainment megaconglomerate), churning out one blockbuster after another featuring top-shelf heroes Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, plus their in-house supergroup, The Avengers. [Comics-to-film cognoscenti know that the ongoing Spider-Man (Sony) and X-Men (Fox) movie franchises, as well as the soon-to-be-rebooted Fantastic Four (also Fox) are the licensed product of other studios.] Marvel currently produces the live-action series Agents of SHIELD for ABC television, and has theatrical Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy features in the works. The House of Ideas recently announced that it will, over the next few years, generate four additional series to be distributed via Netflix, starring Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist, plus a miniseries featuring another superteam, The Defenders.

So where’s the love for Ms. Marvel?

Ms. Marvel, pencils by Carlos Silva

Not long ago in the comics, Marvel started a new ongoing series about Carol Danvers — who’s been Ms. Marvel for 35 years — redubbing her Captain Marvel. I know that Marvel editorial viewed this as a promotion, but I did not. Marvel has already had a long-running character named Captain Marvel. Actually, they’ve had a few; most recognizably Mar-Vell, a former soldier of the alien Kree civilization; Mar-Vell’s son, Genis-Vell, who assumed his father’s mantle after Mar-Vell’s death; and Monica Rambeau, whose tenure as Captain Marvel bridged the years between Father-Vell and Son-Vell. There have been at least three more Captain Marvels in the Marvel Universe, but you get the idea. (This of course says nothing about the original Captain Marvel, who’s still alive and kicking over at DC, but now calls himself Shazam. That’s a whole other story.)

Although she falls somewhere in the line of the Kree Captains Marvel (her powers derive from an explosion that infused her with Kree DNA), Carol’s Ms. Marvel identity has existed for the most part independently of that franchise. I would wager that there are plenty of comics fans who didn’t even know that Ms. Marvel had anything at all to do with Marvel’s Captain Marvel, so distinct an entity has she become in her own right. Foisting the Captain Marvel nom de guerre on Carol lessens her, in my opinion, to being just another knockoff of a male superhero, when over the past several decades she had evolved into far, far more than that.

And, like Wonder Woman, she still can’t get a movie deal.

Which I think sucks, quite frankly.

Both of these great heroines and role models deserve better, as do their fans. Your Uncle Swan included.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

I have a power ring; I’m just wearing it as a belt

November 17, 2010

Once again, I get robbed.

This year, People Magazine passes me over for its annual Sexiest Man Alive honor in favor of Ryan Reynolds, whose chief claims to fame include (a) portraying comic book superhero Green Lantern (the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, for those of you sufficiently comics-savvy to know that the title of Green Lantern applies to literally dozens of characters in the DC Comics universe) in the upcoming motion picture; and (b) being Mr. Scarlett Johansson.

Okay, so I’m not an alien-tech-equipped superhero, and frankly, I don’t think Ms. Johansson is my type. (Nor, doubtless, I hers.) But just once, you’d think People Magazine could show a little love to those millions of portly middle-aged gentlemen whose sexiness derives, not from matinee-idol looks which, let’s be honest, will need to be propped up with surgery and Botox in a decade or so, but from that most potent of sexual engines: the brain.

Experience and cunning trump chiseled cheekbones and washboard abdominals any time, ladies. Just sayin’.

Can I get a witness?

The Swan Tunes In: Justified

March 24, 2010

I’m a notoriously tough hombre to convince of anything, but after a mere two episodes, I’m ready to say this straight out…

Justified is the best show on television right now.

The words “right now” are key to the above sentence, because TV’s best drama (and, not coincidentally, another FX series), Sons of Anarchy, is presently on hiatus. When Sons returns, it will give Justified a worthy challenge. Although, the nature of things being what it is, I’m guessing that FX will work it so that Justified will have completed its first season by the time Sons resurfaces for its fourth. No point in cluttering up the schedule with too much great TV.

In one key measure, Justified already surpasses Sons of Anarchy — its focus on one exceptionally conceived character. Sons, an ensemble drama with a ginormous cast, has a boatload of players and personalities to deal with each week, and its ostensible lead character, motorcycle gang leader Jackson “Jax” Teller, is rarely the most interesting element in the show. Justified has done a terrific job of populating its supporting cast, but they’re exactly that — supporting cast. Everything hinges on the man at the center of the action (and of almost every scene): Raylan Givens, Deputy United States Marshal, played to understated perfection by Timothy Olyphant.

The character of Raylan — adapted for TV from a trio of short stories by legendary thriller scribe Elmore Leonard — is a pastiche of several disparate elements. He’s one part Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (the cop whose philosophy is “Shooting’s all right, as long as the right people get shot”), one part Dennis Weaver’s McCloud (the Stetson-wearing, smarter-than-he-looks walking anachronism), and one part Tommy Lee Jones’s relentless Sam Gerard (from the films The Fugitive and U.S. Marshals). There’s also a lot in Raylan that’s pure Elmore Leonard, especially his penchant for pithy dialogue. Leonard can be a difficult author to translate to the screen, and to television in particular, but the creative team behind Justified hits all of the right notes, at least so far.

Here’s the set-up. While posted to the Marshal Service’s Miami field office (where his cowboy hat and boots make him as inconspicuous as a McDonald’s on the moon), Raylan’s latest gunning down of a suspect earns him a swift reassignment to a faraway jurisdiction — Harlan County, Kentucky, where Raylan was born and raised. (I wondered at first why the Marshals Service would maintain a presence in this hillbilly backwater. The reason became clear in the second episode: there’s a federal prison there — the U.S. Penitentiary at Big Sandy.) Raylan is less than enthused about his new station — he’d sworn when he left Harlan that he’d never return — but he accepts his medicine with wry resignation.

Moving to Harlan reunites Raylan with an old acquaintance, no-nonsense Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), and provides him a pair of junior associates, former Army Ranger Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) and tightly wound Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel). The move also places Raylan in uncomfortably close proximity to his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and his high school girlfriend Ava (Joelle Carter), who’s since married the brother of Raylan’s childhood pal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), now a small-time thug running a white supremacist gang. Raylan’s first case in his new/old digs brings him into conflict with Boyd, who thinks he may have an edge on his former friend, but is proven wrong. (“If you make me pull, I’ll put you down,” Raylan warns Boyd, who eventually makes him pull and gets put down, albeit not fatally.)

Justified works for two reasons. First, the writing (initially by Graham Yost, who developed the series with input from Elmore Leonard) is stellar. Second, Timothy Olyphant owns the lead role, taking a character that could veer off into shallow caricature and making him multilayered, conflicted, and believably human. Olyphant’s Raylan is no superman — he’s tough, cool, and beyond competent at what he does, but he gets outmaneuvered by the bad guys at times (even though he wins in the end) and is guilty of occasional grotesque lapses in judgment (while transporting a prisoner, Raylan lets the felon drive while he surfs the ‘Net on his iPhone, resulting in predictable misfortune). Most importantly for television, Olyphant makes Raylan compelling and likable, guaranteeing that viewers will keep tuning in to see what he does next.

(And — speaking strictly from a disinterested heterosexual male perspective, mind you — I suspect that many female audience members will find Mr. Olyphant easy on the eyes.)

Clearly, two episodes do not a Hall of Fame series make. It remains to be seen whether Olyphant, Yost and company can maintain — and continue to elevate — the high level of quality they’ve established to this point. The show is going to need to flesh out its remaining characters, who at this point are little better than names, faces, and attitudes. It also needs to find ways to keep Raylan’s off-the-job life interesting once the “hometown boy returns” storyline plays out.

But I’ll say this: I can’t recall the last time I enjoyed two hours of scripted television as much as I enjoyed the first two episodes of Justified. The creators of this show have bought themselves a ton of good will with their opening salvo. Now we’ll see whether they’ll build on it, or burn it.

Justified airs on FX Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. Your Uncle Swan gives it nine tailfeathers out of a possible ten, just in case he needs a feather to fan himself with when the action gets heated. If you like tough, hard-boiled drama, you should check it out.

(Caveat: As FX’s series often do, Justified pushes the envelope of adult content — language, violence, etc. — as far as basic cable and the FCC will permit. You’ve been warned.)

Idol 2010: Your Top 12 finalists, America

March 16, 2010

When last we left those crazy kids on American Idol, there were twice as many of them. Now that we’re down to the Top 12, let’s see how the competition has shaped up.

First off, my prognosticating skills positively reek this season. In forecasting the six female singers who’d make it this far, I batted a meager .500 — which would be a stupendous batting average, actually, if this were Major League Baseball, which it isn’t. I guessed correctly that we’d still have Crystal Bowersox, Siobhan Magnus, and Katie Stevens with us. I’m somewhat, yet not entirely, surprised that Paige Miles has survived. I am flabbergasted to still be looking at Didi Benami, and especially Lacey Brown, whom I thought should have been one of the first eliminations.

I did slightly better with the male contestants, accurately choosing four of the final six: Casey James, Lee Dewyze, Andrew Garcia, and Michael “Big Mike” Lynche. That the cute but out-of-his-depth Aaron Kelly has pulled enough votes out of America’s grandmas and tweens to get to this level doesn’t shock me. That Tim Urban — who has the least talent of any contestant of either gender, possibly in the history of the series — hasn’t yet been shown the door is less a surprise than it is a crime against civilization.

Of the people who have gotten the boot, the greatest disappointment for me was Lilly Scott, whose hippie-chic coffeehouse style made her, at the very least, interesting. That latter word I’d also have applied to Todrick Hall, who wasn’t the best singer in the bunch, but had a certain flamboyance (in the literal, not the encoded, sense of the term) that made him stand out. But… life moves on.

That said, here’s how I’m ranking the chances of the dozen left standing.

12. Tim Urban. Hokey smoke, Bullwinkle — how did this guy get this far? Perhaps the most ironic point about young Mr. Urban is his name, given that he’s about as urban as I am hillbilly, which is to say, not much at all. Unfortunately for viewers, Tim consistently attempts to prove this irony — for example, by attempting a reggae version of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” If you’re going to pull off a Rasta-inflected treatment of a bluesy rocker, I think you might have actually wanted to have met a Jamaican.

11. Lacey Brown. Not only can the girl not sing a lick, but everything about her screams “fraud,” from her stagy mannerisms to her clunky, melodramatic phrasing. Should have been sent back to Denny’s with a name badge and a book of order tickets weeks ago.

10. Didi Benami. My opinion of Didi hasn’t changed one iota since we discussed her with the Top 24. I find her affected cheerleader personality grating, and her singing, while not dreadful, is merely ordinary. I suspect that she’ll place higher than tenth, but these are my numbers, and that’s the one I’m giving her.

9. Paige Miles. Paige has a ton of voice, and one of these years, she might be capable of using it effectively. Right now, she’s just a cheerful kid playing with a big, dangerous toy.

8. Aaron Kelly. Randy Jackson was off his nut when he compared Aaron to Justin Timberlake — except for the fact that, as I observed a while back, Aaron would fit perfectly in a remake of The Mickey Mouse Club, where Justin (along with Britney, Christina, J.C., Ryan, and a gaggle of their peers) got started. In terms of talent, Aaron’s more like the Jonas Brother who got cut from the varsity squad. Nice try, son.

7. Katie Stevens. It’s almost a shame that Idol‘s producers put Katie through to the main cast this year. If she came back in a couple of years with some seasoning, a little maturity, and a smattering of life experience, she might be a real contender. At 17, she looks like an overgrown veteran of Toddlers and Tiaras. Or Katharine McPhee’s baby sister.

6. Casey James. Bucky Covington, The Sequel. Coasting on flowing locks and scruffy charm. He’s all hat and no cattle. Kara lusts for him, though, and the ladies will enjoy gawking at him for yet a while longer.

5. Andrew Garcia. I’m probably the only person in America outside of the immediate Garcia family who rates Andrew this high. The fact is, despite his struggles in recent weeks, I like the unique quality of his voice. Someone once said that his greatest treasures were words he left unspoken. I’m guessing that Andrew wishes he’d left unsung that acoustic cover of “Straight Up” from Hollywood Week, because he’s been trying — and mostly failing — to live up to it ever since. If the guy who busted out that transcendent performance ever resurfaces, Andrew could soar to this height. If not, he’ll be eliminated. Soon.

4. Lee Dewyze. I sense that the folks at 19 Entertainment would like to see Lee erupt into the next Chris Daughtry. Frankly, I don’t think he’s got Daughtry’s ability, or — just as significantly — Daughtry’s self-assurance. Lee has solid potential, but his nerves and inner demons stand in his way. Being able to do it is one thing. Being able to bring it with moxie and fire on a ginormous stage with a live audience and millions of people staring through their television screens is another kettle of fish entirely. I don’t think Lee’s kept his bait warm.

3. Big Mike Lynche. Kara DioGuardi said on Jay Leno’s show last night that she thinks Big Mike will win this season. He’s certainly fun to watch — although, to be frank, I don’t think his voice is all that special — and he’s a great story, what with the loving wife and the adorable newborn at home. It’s possible that the two ladies ahead of him may end up splitting a lot of the same voting demographic, and Mike could slip past them. I’m just not convinced yet that America wants another Ruben Studdard.

2. Siobhan Magnus. Let’s put it right out there: This chick is seven kinds of weird. But underlying the bizarre fashion sense, the nose ring, the odd facial expressions, and the ditzy-kooky Cyndi Lauperesque personality, she has two things that I admire: a terrific singing voice, and her own genuine style. I never know exactly what Siobhan is going to do from one week to the next, but I’m always positive that it will be worth watching, and hearing. I don’t know what a Siobhan Magnus record album would sound like, but I know it would be entertaining.

1. Crystal Bowersox. I believed the first time I heard her sing that Crystal would win Idol this year. Nothing I’ve heard since has altered that early opinion. Crystal knows exactly what her musical niche is, and she’s eminently comfortable inhabiting it. She may be the most complete performer, right out of the gate, that Idol has ever embraced. Which may be the one challenge that could derail Crystal — the audience’s sense that she’s not growing or changing much from one week to the next. Now, that worked once — Taylor Hicks brought a singular kind of talent to the Idol party in Season Five, and rode pretty much the same pony he came in on all the way to the title. Taylor’s lack of popular success in the years since, however, shows how quickly the public tires of a one-trick pony, even if the trick is a good one. Crystal would be well advised to whip out a new trick now and then, just so the audience doesn’t get bored.

That’s how I’m seeing it thus far. But as noted, I’ve been wrong before. Recently.

A couple of additional observations…

New judge Ellen DeGeneres has added an entertaining element to the show. Ellen’s natural likability overcomes the (often glaringly evident) fact that she doesn’t know music from a performing or technical perspective. Then again, neither do most of the people casting votes, so Ellen often speaks for them. If it were up to me, I’d rather have experts offering the commentary, but this is TV, after all.

Idol has been remarkably free of controversy this season. While it’s true that there are a number of suspect performers left in the Top 12, it’s equally true that none of the people dismissed in the first half of the competition represented a tragic injustice. What that means for viewers is a lack of suspense. Unless some contestant unleashes a supernova of musical brilliance heretofore unhinted, Idol 2010 should come down to a playoff between Crystal and Siobhan, with either Lee or Big Mike a distant third.

We’ll update once again when the field has been pared to the final few.

SwanShadow… out.

What it was, was Oscar

March 8, 2010

Congratulations! We survived another Oscarcast. Observations follow.

At least it wasn’t Ray Milland and Rosey Grier: The two-headed host — Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin — turned out to be a dreadful idea. Not because either was terrible, but because they simply didn’t work smoothly and effectively together. I don’t know whether Martin and Baldwin were poorly rehearsed, or just suffering from awkward chemistry. One host or the other would have been adequate, if not especially scintillating — Martin hosted the awards solo in 2000 and 2002, in not-particularly-memorable fashion — but the combination fell flat.

The sound of one man yawning: None of the major awards turned out to be a huge surprise, unless you really thought the Academy was going to pass up a chance to stick it to notoriously unpopular James “King of the World” Cameron by honoring his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and her magnum opus. The favorites in each of the big categories triumphed.

Double the displeasure: Expanding the Best Picture category to ten nominees was, as expected, a pointless drag on the production. No one really thought that there were more than five real contenders; namely, the films represented in the Best Director category — the victorious The Hurt Locker, Avatar, and dark horses Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. Padding the show with twice as many introductory film clips merely took up air space.

Up with people: In a refreshing change, all four of the acting winners gave engaging, entertaining speeches. (I can’t prove it with verified test results, but I suspect that Jeff Bridges’s Dude-esque ramble may have been… what shall we say… chemically enhanced.) Equally refreshing, all four were people that most viewers would be glad to see win.

Sore loser: Quentin Tarantino, who looked as though Kathryn Bigelow had vomited in his lap when she won Best Director and he didn’t. I dig your films, QT, but your sportsmanship sucks.

Spare me the song and dance: We didn’t have to sit through performances of each of the Best Song hopefuls this year. A welcome omission, because seriously, when was the last time all five of the nominated songs were actually good? On the other hand, someone thought it made sense to stage an elaborate interpretive dance number incorporating music from the Original Score nominees. (Funny, I didn’t realize there was breakdancing in Sherlock Holmes.) Redeeming the moment, winning composer Michael Giacchino (Up) gave one of the night’s best acceptance speeches, encouraging young people to pursue their creative impulses and not allow naysayers to convince them that they’re wasting their time.

Didn’t work: The trend, continued from last year’s Oscarcast, of having each of the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees regaled with a speech by another celebrity. With the rare exception of an unexpected star turn by someone like Oprah Winfrey (who feted Gabourey Sidibe, nominated for Precious), these fawning tributes only serve to make both audience and nominees uncomfortable.

Worked, in kind of an off-kilter way: The tribute to recently deceased writer-director John Hughes, which culminated in the appearance onstage of numerous actors and actresses who became stars via Hughes’s legendary run of hit films in the 1980s. Cool to see these folks together in one place, but man… are we all getting old, or what?

Speaking of getting old: I understand why they do it, but I grow annoyed with the increasing insertion into the Oscarcast of no-talent young stars with no genuine cinematic credibility (i.e., the ubiquitous Miley Cyrus), just to draw in the teen audience. Uncle Oscar says: Get off my lawn, you meddling kids.

The death of me: I’m always curious to see who gets tagged with what I call the “Dead People Gig,” introducing the memorial segment honoring movie folks who’ve shuffled off this mortal coil since the last Oscar ceremony. This year, it was Demi Moore pulling double-death duty (she was also one of the participants in the John Hughes tribute). James Taylor performed an acoustic rendition of “In My Life” while the clips rolled. For once, there was no moment of shock generated by the appearance of someone I didn’t know had died. Interestingly, Michael Jackson — whose filmography consists basically of The Wiz — made the cut, while Farrah Fawcett — mostly known for TV work, but she did make several films, including such “classics” as Logan’s Run and Saturn 3 — missed.

Fashion forward: Oscars 2010 proved rather low-key on the sartorial front. Understated glamour was the norm this year, so there were fewer what in the name of Vera Wang was THAT? moments on the red carpet than at previous Oscarcasts. The most egregious offenders were Sarah Jessica Parker, whose strapless gown came equipped with an enormous silver breastplate that resembled a leftover centerpiece from an office Christmas party, and Charlize Theron, wearing what looked like two pink-frosted cinnamon rolls stuck to her bosom. Best-dressed of the evening included several of the usual suspects — Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Queen Latifah. Jennifer Lopez’s lovely pink dress would have gained high honors, if not for its ridiculous train. Likewise, Best Actress winner Sandra Bullock lost points for her garish lipstick.

The voice of choice: As she did last year, voice actress Gina Tuttle contributed a pleasant and unobtrusive announcing job. And if Gina ever gets tired of that gig, Oscar producers… I’m in the book.

Idol 2010: Your Top 12 guys, America

February 25, 2010

In yesterday’s post, we examined the 12 female competitors comprising the feminine half of this season’s cast of American Idol. Today, it’s time to smell the testosterone. As in our previous list, we’ll give you the performers in order of their initial appearance in this round, as well as noting the song each presented.

Twelve men trod the stage. Who will survive the first cut?

It could be…

Todrick Hall (“Since You’ve Been Gone”) — It was a good thing Seacrest told us at the beginning what the song was, or I wouldn’t have had a clue. Todrick’s an exciting performer, and he’s a decent enough singer, but this shot practically defined self-indulgence — shouty and spasmodic just for the sake of being “unique.” Nevertheless, the night would have many lower points than this. Take, for instance…

Aaron Kelly (“Here Comes Goodbye”) — Aaron can sing a little, but he’s as nervous as a goat at a Jamaican cookout. This is another of those cases, like Katie Stevens among this year’s girls, where I’d rather be hearing this individual’s fully developed talent two or three years from now, instead of a kid struggling to make the giant leap today. Right now, Aaron would make a cute Mouseketeer if Disney revived The Mickey Mouse Club. Beyond that? I predict a career in casual footwear. Which is more than I can say for…

Jermaine Sellers (“Get Here”) — To quote the often incoherent Randy Jackson of previous seasons, “That was all pitchy and weird, dawg.” As several of the judges noted, this was a peculiar choice of song for a guy with Jermaine’s voice. I’m not sure what he was trying to accomplish with this twisted rendition, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he did not, in fact, accomplish whatever it was. Because if this is actually how he hoped this would sound? Ouch. But not nearly as ouch as…

Tim Urban (“Apologize”) — Good googily goop… what was that? Oh, yes — this was the guy they brought back from elimination after some other kid got booted from the Top 24. If this is the best Tim can do, the producers should have checked out whether someone — anyone — else was available. Or maybe they should have just gone with 11 male singers and a bye week. Or something. Because this was eleven kinds of wretched. Tim needs to “Apologize” to everyone who watched this episode. Including…

Joe Muñoz (“You And I Both”): Did he sing? I must have dozed off. Neither awful enough nor good enough to keep me awake. Next! Unless next means…

Tyler Grady (“American Woman”): Now this was awful enough to keep frozen corpses awake. Tyler reminded me of a kid on his 21st birthday getting his first drunk on in a karaoke bar after watching a dozen episodes of That ’70s Show. If there’s small justice in the world, he’ll be one of Thursday’s first cuts. If there’s large justice, he’ll be one of the first cuts, and get kicked hard in the seat of the pants on his way out of the studio. Perhaps by…

Lee Dewyze (“Chasing Cars”): There were some seriously off-key notes in Lee’s performance, and yet, there was something about the overall effect that I rather enjoyed. Unlike the judges, who see Lee as the new David Cook, I see Lee as the new Elliott Yamin — not because he sounds like Elliott (he doesn’t, at all), but because he’s a diamond in the rough who has the potential to blossom and grow, and really develop into something special as the season goes along. Assuming that he gets the opportunity, instead of…

John Park (“God Bless The Child”): God bless us all for enduring this. I fully expected Billie Holiday to rise from the grave and smack John to the floor with her skeletal, zombified hand. You have to have soul — and preferably, old lived-in soul — to sing this song. John’s a kid from the ‘burbs with a nice voice. But for sultry jazz? Just… no. Which brings us to…

Mike Lynche (“This Love”): A odd song choice for Big Mike, but he made this work fine. As Ellen Degeneres pointed out, he threw in a few off-pitch moments, but it was a fun, charming, likable performance. Do I want to hear several more like this one? Probably not. After all, we already had Ruben Studdard. And I also thought we already had…

Alex Lambert (“Wonderful World”): Isn’t this the same dude who finished in second place last year? Oh… different A. Lambert. That A. Lambert, bizarre as he was, had at least a smidgen of talent and personality. This A. Lambert, not so much. I’m sure he’s a pleasant kid, but he’s nervous and awkward and dances as though he needs directions to the men’s room, desperately. There’s the door, junior — close it on your way out. And take that mullet with you. Speaking of hair, here come the abundant tresses of…

Casey James (“Heaven”): Although he’s not a country singer, Casey reminds me physically of Bucky Covington from a few seasons back. I’m trying not to allow that unfortunate resemblance to prejudice me against him. (Kara DioGuardi slobbering lustfully all over him every time he comes out doesn’t help, either. Get a grip on your biological clock, Cougar Town.) He’s an engaging performer, and easily the most comfortable on stage among all of the men, but his voice is — alas — merely adequate. It’s clear that the producers want him to succeed, and in the face of a mediocre male cast, he probably will. Probably even longer than…

Andrew Garcia (“Sugar, We’re Going Down”): When Andrew broke out an acoustic rewrite of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” during Hollywood Week, I thought to myself, “Now here’s something interesting.” I didn’t like his acoustic rewrite of Fall Out Boy quite so much, but still, I found it more pleasantly ear-catching than almost anything else that preceded it. I hope Andrew’s got something in his bag of tricks besides acoustic rewrites, though, because he’s ridden that horse about as far as it will run.

Simon Cowell recently predicted that a female contestant will win Idol this season. I’m predicting that he’s right, because the guys didn’t impress me in their first time out. Several of them, truth to tell, need to be sent packing posthaste. Since only two get the boot this week, the fastest exits should be granted to some combination of Tim, Tyler, Alex, and Jermaine.

When we reach the halfway point of the competition, your Uncle Swan believes you’ll be stuck with these six gentlemen, like ’em or don’t: Casey, Lee, Andrew, Mike, Todrick, and… (do I have to pick six? yes, because I said I would, darn it) maybe Joe. Not one of them will make the final pairing, which will deliver 100% hot girl-on-girl action to decide American Idol 2010.

Six weeks from now, we’ll find out whether I have any idea what I’m talking about.

SwanShadow…out!