"Idol": The good, the bland and the buoyantly bizarre

Hey, these "American Idol" judges should make up their minds.

They keep telling contestants to choose the right song and make it their own. Tonight, Nick Mitchell did all of that.

He chose exactly the song for him -- the big, broad, over-the-top show tune, "And I Am Telling You." He made it his own, so much so that I doubt anyone will want it back.

The judges shrugged, mostly, but let's give Mitchell credit. To do what he does -- a sort of parody of every oversized performance -- takes the right moves. He chose beautifully. The singing was a D; the rest of the performance was a solid A.

Here are some of my other comments: Please add yours:

1) It will be interesting to see Allison Iraheta and Alexis Grace in the next round. Both are teens who make good use of red hair dye. Both sing with a big, confident sound. The only difference is that Grace (who advanced last week) can also talk; Iraheta seemed confused by that prospect.

2) It was a chaotic night for right arms. Jesse Landseth's right arm was bare, her left was covered. Megan Joy Corkrey's right was wildly deorated in full-color tatoos; her left was unadorned.

3) Still, the night's best limbs, right or left, belonged to Janine Vaile. Her legs received so much praise that I thought they were going to get their own phone-in number.

4) Both Landseth and Corkrey are appealing talents, but I think they finished just short of the night's top three.

5) It also would have been nice to see Matt Breitzke in the final 12. This guy -- a beefy welder and a dad -- would be a neat match for Michael Sarver, who's already in the final 12.

6) My own should-and-will are identical. The three people I'm rooting for are also the ones I feel will make it: Iraheta will be the top female. Adam Lambert -- who seems sort of like Zach Efron's scary Goth cousin -- will be the top male. Kris Allen, a sleeper with a strong voice and boyish good looks, will finish third. We'll see.


The Oscars -- a fun time

It's been a fun night, watching the Academy Awards. Here are some of my comments, as the show goes on:

-- Good news: Baz Luhrmann created that spectacular number, celebrating the return of the movie musical. Luhrmann's touch -- in "Moulin Rouge," "Romeo and Juliet," "Australia" and more -- is masterful. This was a grand moment.

-- Bad news: Five presenters for one awards? That's approximately four too many.

-- Good: Hugh Jackman can really deliver a song, including the clever ones written about the best-movie nominees. That may have been the best song ever to use the word "excrement."

-- Bad: Forget the music and Jackman may have had the fewest jokes of any host in modern Oscar history.

-- Good: Fortunately, lots of other people made jokes. The bit by Steve Martin and Tina Fey was one of the best ever.

-- Bad: Martin wasn't the host. He should be, every year.

-- Good: The "Slumdog Millionaire" songs were beautifully presented. Great dancing and choreographer, in a limited space.

-- The bad: Lots of dull acceptance speeches. Don't these people think about it in advance?

-- The good: An occasional great speech. It was wonderful to hear the guy talk about growing up in Utah, then moving to the more-open world of San Francisco. Now he's written an Oscar-winning script about Harvey Milk, who helped spur the gay-rights movement.

-- The bad: Kate Winslet, a great actress, is still a so-so speech-giver. After her two bad Golden Globe speeches, I had her on my no-more-awards list. I rescinded that because of the brilliance of her performance in "The Reader"; she was better this time, but I might put her back on the list.

-- The good: For Michigan people, it's good to know that Andrea Meditch, the new MSU faculty member, had a weekend sweep. "Man on Wire" -- she was one of the six producers -- was named best documentary at the Oscars and at the Independent Spirit awards. That's a pretty good weekend.

-- The great: Hey, Robert De Niro really is a funny guy. His speech about Sean Penn (like De Niro, a great actor) was delightful.

-- Also: There was a lot of talk about Mickey Rourke winning best-actor. Penn won and included a little Rourke tribute. I didn't see these two films, but any victory by Penn is a good thing.

-- And finally: "Slumdog Millionaire" is best picture, as it should be. Yes, "Benjamin Button" is a meticulously well-crafted film. Still, nothing matches the ragged, eccentric, wild brilliance of "Slumdog." One movie ranged from a kid soaked in excrement to a joyous Bollywood number. This is the creative zest that marks an Oscar.



Let's talk Oscars

The Academy Awards are Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), so let's talk about them. Also, please check and comment on my previous three blogs, all about "American Idol":

1) The new Oscar producers are out-and-out loony. (You'd tell me if these were too harsh, wouldn't you?) They won't say who the presenters will be; they don't even want the presenters to walk the red carpet. This is sort of like good show business, but the opposite.

2) Hugh Jackman was an excellent Tonys host. Now he's hosting the Oscars, which is another matter. Yes, he's smart, handsome and Australian, all of which are good things. Still, he's no Steve Martin.

3) Steve Martin should be the host. Or Jon Stewart. Or Chris Rock.

4) "Benjamin Button" is a terrific movie -- big, ambitious, precisely crafted. Still, it can't match the sheer, ragged energy of "Slumdog Millionaire," which will get the best-picture Oscar.

5) Fortunately, that leaves room in all the acting categories. I may have some thoughts on that tonight, because I'm heading out now to see Kate Winslett in "The Reader." I'll finish this later.

 6) I'm back from "The Reader" and I see what the buzz was about. No, the film isn't quite up to the level of its best-picture nomination; it's extremely good, without being great. (The same is true of "Frost/Nixon.") But Winslet's performance is superb. Alongside the master of understatement (Ralph Fiennes), she has topped his art; she needs only the tiniest moves to create rich emotions. I have to agree with Ben Mankiewicz, co-host of the syndicated "At the Movies," who told me flatly that Winslet is "the best actor in the world, man or woman." I also have some rather eccentric remarks, but they might be spoilers for people who don't know about the "Reader" plot. I'll put them at the end, with a spoiler alert.

7) Mankiewicz is also delighted that Mickey Rourke is now considered a slight favorite to win as best actor. It would be a Hollywood touch -- a worn-out, self-destructed actor triumphing for playing a worn-out, self-destructed wrestler.

8) People in Michigan should pay attention to the documentary-feature category. Two of the five nominees -- "Man on Wire" and "Encounters at the Bottom of the World" -- were produced by Andrea Meditch, Michigan State University's new faculty member. She's not one of the people who would get the Oscar, but she's still one of the producers; she'll be at the ceremony Sunday, ready to celebrate.

9) Now for the extra Winslet comments. If you want to avoid hearing plot details, quit reading now.

10) Winslet should go down in history as the person who included the most nudity in an Oscar-winning role. Such contributions are too often forgotten. (Jason Segal wasn't even nominated this year, despite his full-frontal role in "Forgetting Elizabeth Marshall.") Much nudity AND much talent. Moviegoers are grateful.

11) As Ricky Gervais pointed out at the Golden Globes, he predicted this well in advance. In a hilarious scene in HBO's "Extras," he had Winslet play a parody of herself, vulgarly insisting that she was doing a Holocaust film so she could get a bleeping Oscar. Now that is about to come true.

12) OK, I'm temporarily removing my ban against any Winslet awards. (I instituted it when she managed to give TWO awful acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes.) I'll give her one more chance, but this is it. Remember, Kate: You're not up there to please a dozen or so actors and agents and such; you're talking to the world. Quit thanking people, say something cogent and leave with your Oscar. You deserve it.

"Idol" finalists: The same guy twice

A strange thing seemed to happen, as viewers chose the first three finalists for "American Idol":
In a way, they chose the same person twice.
Danny Gokey and Michael Sarver come from opposite parts of the country, 1,100 miles apart, but they have much in common. "We definitely are kind of attuned to each other ... We pray together," Sarver said today (Thursday).
Both men are church worship leaders. Both have done much of their singing in religious settings. Both talk of marriage as a key factor in their lives.
"My wife is my absolute best friend," Sarver said. "If she died, I can't imagine how I'd be able to get up in the morning."
Gokey's wife, the former Sophia Martinez, died in July, during surgery for a congenital heart ailment. "She was spunky and so cute and she just had a little attitude," Gokey said.
Both men blossomed as church-music leaders, but Sarver said his singing began before that. When he was 11, "a family situation" -- he won't be specific -- brought pain. "I found joy in music and I found peace."
He also found praise. He sang for his family, in church and in bigger youth-group settings. "I've sung in auditoriums and arenas, but never in clubs or bars."
Gokey also succeeded with Christian music. That grew, he said, eight years ago when he joined Faith Builders. He's been a worship leader at churches in his home town of Milwaukee and in Beloit, Wis.
"American Idol" quickly latched onto both men, featuring them often. It loved reminding people that the beefy Sarver is an oil-field roughneck from Jasper, Texas, with two kids. That's definitely helped get votes, he granted. "The hard-working American (image) is part of the appeal."
And Gokey granted that sympathy has tied into his appeal. "There's no way to avoid it," he said. "It's only been seven months since she passed. This is who I am."
The other person boosted into the final 12 comes from a different musical world.
Alexis Grace grew up in Memphis, home of the blues. "When you grew up listening to it all the time, that's what you're used to," she said.
Now this tiny person -- Grace said she's almost, but not quite, 5-foot and 100 pounds -- has a big, bluesy voice. "My dad and I are in a band together," she said.
She's an experienced singer who changed her look since the auditions. Gokey merely changes his glasses. He has several he hasn't been allowed to wear, he said, because the brand logos are visible.

"Idol": No surprises; no problem

Sometimes, it's good when "American Idol" doesn't have a surprise.

Chris Daughtry, Tamyra Gray and LaToya London each finishing only fourth? Jasmine Trias and Nikki McKibbin finishing third? Michael Johns and Carly Smithson being bounced early? Those were surprises, and nasty ones.

By comparison, tonight's results show was sort of what was expected. I'd predicted that Danny Gokey would top the men and Alexis Grace would top the women, with Anoop Desai finishing third; but I'd said Michael Sarver could get that last spot. Sarver did, in a tight one; according to what Ryan Seacrest said tonight, he edged Desai by less than one-percent of the votes.

There were no real surprises, but we should note that:

1) Tatiana Del Toro, lost in her private dreamland, seemed shocked that she wasn't advancing. Maybe she wasn't paying attention.

2) Gokey had switched to fancier glasses. Does that count in the clothing budget?

3) Shortly after going with fun, multi-hued hair, Grace covered it up with a fedora. Hey, why not give the hat to a bad-hair person?

4) The show proved again that this tiny stage, for its preliminary rounds, really can't hold a 12-person production number.

5) Sarver quit his habit of switching his microphone hand with maddening frequency.

6) A long commercial string was interrupted by -- well, sort of a commercial for the "Idol" exhibit at Disney World.

7) This may not be a year for electric personalities. Tatiana is gone; so -- after a rather awful performance Tuesday -- is Jackie Tohn.

8) Producers had to feel bad about this: Their two prettiest people, Casey Carlson and Desai, are both out.

9) Then again, there will still be a second-chance round, when three rejects will be added to the final 12. I'm guessing Desai will be back.

10) And the producers have got to be tickled with the fact that, so far, each finalist has an interesting story. There's a widower, a former teen mom and a burly oil roughneck with a wife and two kids. It will be interesting to watch them.