Ashton Jones: Right talent, wrong song


"I'm going to start following up on Diana Ross," Ashton Jones told one interviewer recently, "because I'm told that I look like her."

Hey, it's lucky she doesn't look like Tiny Tim; she might have sung "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

Jones -- the first person in this year's "American Idol" to be ousted by viewers -- succumbed to a common fate: Raised on Southern church singing, she instead on Wednesday sang a bland pop song (Ross' "When You Tell Me That You Love Me").

Judges told her it was the wrong song to show off her voice. So tonight -- when viewers voted her out and judges had one more chance to spare her -- she sang the Ross song again.

I'm still surprised that Lauren Alaina -- my pick to go home -- wasn't even in the final three. Instead, those spots went to Haley Reinhart (whose "Blue" was good, but not great), Karen Rodriguez and Jones.

I'm more surprised that "Idol" contestants so often keep strong church voices confined to bland pop songs.

Still, Jones is an interesting person -- once a 15-year-old runaway, reportedly, who became a Nashville store manager by day and award-winning singer by night. We'll hear more about her, quite soon. On Friday, I resume the habit of catching a weekly conference call with the ousted contestant; I'll be back by mid-afternoon with a quick-turnaround account of that session.

 

"Idol": OK, now let's get serious


"American Idol" has finally reached the good part, trimming someone each week. That means it has my full attention; a few comments about Wednesday's show and then a prediction:

1) Going country is perilous, for a basic reason: Many of the most popular songs don't show off the singer. Carrie Underwood was wise enough to go with powerhouse Martina McBride songs; Kellie Pickler was almost ousted the night she sang a pleasantly forgettable song about running off and leaving the soap in a bucket. That's the problem Lauren Alaina had tonight; her choice ("Any Man of Mine") did nothing to show off her vocal talent.

2) Also, her dress made a cute, 16-year-old cheerleader look like a plump misfit.

3) I thought the other two country choices were shaky, too, but no one else agreed. The judges liked Haley Reinhart's "Blue"; the audience loves anything Scotty McCreery does. I agree that he's a terrific talent, but "The River" didn't really show him off.

4) Speaking of GREAT talent, Jacob Lusk is out-of-this-world good. So is Pia Toscano, when tackling a drop-dead ballad like tonight's "All By Myself." And Casey Abrams, a gifted instrumentalist, showed he can growl and scream in fine style.

5) Also, this is a year for gifted guys who can reach the high notes at just the right times. In addition to Lusk, that trend is led by James Durbin and Stefano Langone.

6) I still don't get Paul McDonald, but the judges and the viewers do. I must admit that he brings freshness and originality. His dance style alone is a revelation.

7) Speaking of dance, that's Naima Adedapo's field. She's a college grad with a dance major, now teaching hip hop and African dance. The problem is that tonight's song didn't do enough to show off her vocal side.

8) It was a gutty move for Toscano to sing Celine; Randy Jackson has always warned against that, but this time approved.

9) And it was gutty for Thia Megia to sing "Smile." The last person to do that was Gina Glockson in 2007; the next night, she was voted out and found herself, for the farewell tune, singing: "Smile, though your heart is breaking ..." That won't happen to Thia, who gave the song freshness and passion.

10) Now my prediction: At the bottom of the voting will be Lauren Alaina, Naima Adedapo and Paul McDonald; Lauren will go home, a talented teen who stumbled by choosing the wrong country song. 

 

Miley wins me over -- again


Show business is full of vacant teens -- pretty and hollow and shaped by cynical grown-ups. Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, however, are not among them.

So it was surprising to see the sketch in tonight's "Saturday Night Live." It was another round of "The Miley Cyrus" show, repeating the false assumption that Cyrus is a no-talent ditz. And guesting was a clueless Bieber (played by the real Miley Cyrus, this week's host).

For the record, Cyrus and Bieber are smart self-starters who took their careers in their own hands early. In serious acting roles -- Cyrus in "Last Song," Bieber on "CSI" -- they were solid and restrained.

I give Cyrus credit for hosting a show that has maligned her ... and for going along with the gag. It happened to be one of the best "SNL" outings, highlighted by Seth Meyer's sensational Charlie Sheen rant.

The rant ended with tigers resenting Sheen's statement that he behaves this way because he has tiger blood. Hey, Meyer said, tigers are full of it and they don't act that way; if they want a hot female they have to chase one down. They don't just call a service and have it send over a couple of them. 

Oscars: Being right is nice; having fun would be better


A few Oscar thoughts:

1) OK, it is nice to be right. This year, I predicted nine categories -- picture, director, scripts (2), acting (four) and animated feature -- and got them all.

2) Still, it would have been nice to have more fun watching the show. There were some clever filmed bits, but other laughs were sparse.

3) The biggest problems were the acceptance speeches. Mostly, they were just lists of names.

4) So we should just be glad "King's English" won, because its people gave speeches that went beyond lists. There was white-haired writer David Seidler, fulfilling his dad's prediction that he would be a late bloomer. And director Tom Hooper, telling how he found this idea when his mother was invited to a reading of an unproduced play. And Colin Firth, of course, being both regal and funny. I preferred "The Social Network" and "Winter's Bone," but I'm glad the Oscars went to a few people who know how to give an acceptance speech.

Movie awards -- Oscar and its mate


In my normal, reasonable moments, I say the logical thing:

"The Social Network" is the year's best movie and it will almost (but not quite) win big Sunday at the Academy Awards. "The King's Speech" and its star (Colin Firth) will win for best picture and actor. Natalie Portman will deservedly get best actress for "Black Swan" and "The Fighter" will get both supporting awards. "Social Network" will settle for an Oscar for Aaron Sorkin's script.

There are times, however, when I have second thoughts about who deserves to win. Maybe the magnificent little "Winter's Bone" is the best picture; maybe its star, Jennifer Lawrence, is the best actress.

Shot on a micro-budget for $2 million, "Winter's Bone" catches the rich textures of a violent and impoverished world in which people have their own strong sense of right, wrong and decency. It's the kind of movie you remember long afterward.

At least, "Winter's Bone" has two chances this weekend -- the Independent Spirit awards on Saturday and the Academy Awards on Sunday. Here's a story I sent to papers, about the Spirit awards:

By MIKE HUGHES

Each year, two opposite movie awards
share a weekend.

The Oscars have big budgets and
gorgeous gowns. The Independent Spirit Awards have something else.

“Independent film is more of a pure
art form,” said Joel McHale, who hosts the Spirit ceremony.

Those awards are for films with budgets
of less than $20 million – sometimes much less. “Winter's Bone”
cost $2 million – a tenth of the Spirit limit … a hundredth of
“Inception” or “Avatar.”

That's independent filmmaking, McHale
said. “You are more constricted by money, but less constricted in
your art.” And sometimes, these two worlds merge.

Look at this year's five Spirit
best-feature nominees and you'll see four – “Black Swan,” “127
Hours,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Winter's Bone – among
the 10 Oscar nominees for best picture.

Then check the six Spirit nominees for
female lead: There are all five Oscar nominees for best actress.

(In both cases, the lone exception
involves the comedy “Greenberg.” It has Spirit nominations for
best feature and for its female lead, Greta Gerwig.)

On slim budgets, people make movies
that are simultaneously Oscar-worthy and Spirit-worthy. “Black
Swan” – an artful film about a troubled ballerina – has
approached $100 million at the box office, with Natalie Portman
dominating best-actress awards. “It's kind of crazy how good it
is,” McHale said.

And “Winter's Bone” may be the
ultimate example. With that tiny budget, director (and co-writer)
Debra Granik filmed in Ozark locations of Missouri where the novel
was set. She used local buildings, clothes and, often, people. “The
little girl actually lives on the property in the movie,” McHale
said.

Some of its actors have TV credits.
Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes, both Oscar nominees, were the
daughter on “The Bill Engvall Show” and Sol on “Deadwood.”

Mostly, though, the actors are unknowns
– just as the setting is. “Winter's Bone” describes a violent
rural world that still has its own strong moral code and decency.
Within it, a teen (Lawrence) tries to find her dad – or prove he's
dead – because he put up their home for bail.

“It's a world most Americans are
unaware of,” McHale said. “I cried at the end. It was one of the
best and sweetest moments I have seen.”

His job description, however, doesn't
include weeping. McHale – star of NBC's “Community” and E's
“Soup” – will be there to be funny. “Most of it will be in
Spanish, just as a challenge,” he joked. “There will be an
opening (filmed) sketch …. Hopefully, there will be no major
injuries.”

Some people will emerge with awards.
The next day, they'll try for more at the Oscars.

– Independent Spirit Awards

– 10 p.m. to about 12:15 a.m.,
Independent Film Channel (generally via satellite or digital cable)

– Best feature: “Black Swan,”
“127 Hours,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Winter's Bone,”
“Greenberg”

– Female lead: Natalie Portman,
“Black Swan”; Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter's Bone”; Annette
Bening, “The Kids Are All Right”; Nicole Kidman, “Rabbit Hole”;
Michelle Williams, “Blue Valentine”; Greta Gerwig, “Greenberg.”

– Male lead: James Franco, “127
Hours”; Ben Stiller, “Greenberg”; Aaron Eckhart, “Rabbit
Hole”; John Reilly, “Cyrus”; Ronald Bronstein, “Daddy
Longlegs.”

– Also: Categories for directors,
scripts, cinematography, foreign films (“The King's Speech” is
nominated), first features, low-budget films (under $500,000) and
more. See www.spiritawards.com.