"Idol," basketball, Motown, more

This is a joyous week around Michigan, for lots of reasons. (If you're reading this from outside Michigan, just skip the first one; the rest is about "American Idol.")

1) The Michigan State University women had their sharp upset of top-seeded Duke. Lauren Aitch came off the bench to play superbly -- 16 pounts and a fierce approach that ignited a sleepy game. At one point, this was a 47-47 deadlock; somehow, it turned into a 63-49 rout. The crowd was ecstatic.

2) This is Motown week on "American Idol." The show is always at its best when doing Motown music; that's when Ricky Minor and his band soar. Now -- helping celebrate Motown's 50th anniversary -- Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy will both be around for the show (one night later than usual) at 8 p.m. Wednesday (March 25) and 9 p.m. Thursday (March 26).

The only bad part is that Alexis Grace, a terrific singer, won't be around for it. She was ousted last week, finishing 11th and just missing a slot on the "Idol" tour. Here's the story I wrote after a phone interview:

 On the day after being ousted from "American Idol," some contestants offer a cheery image.
Not Alexis Grace. "I never imagined going home this early," she said by phone.
Judges had often praised her gritty, bluesy voice and some people saw her as a top contender. Instead, she stumbled during country week.
"I feel like I let my state down," said Grace, who is from Memphis, Tenn. "I'm from the South and we're suppose to sing country well; I think I do."
But there was the question of which song to sing. Grace, 21, considered doing something current from Carrie Underwood, but decided against it because two others were doing Underwood tunes.
Instead, she sang "Jolene," a Dolly Parton hit from 1974. "I felt like everyone knows 'Jolene' and it's such a pretty song," she said.
Judges disapproved and said Grace had lost her edge. Going into Wednesday's show, she said she felt she would be in the bottom three among viewer votes, but didn't expect to be last.
When she was, she had one last chance to sing for the judges and change their minds. This time, her "Jolene" did sound bluesier, but Grace said that wasn't on purpose. "That was just what I was feeling."
She cried backstage, then went back to the "Idol" mansion "and packed all my bags and packed my 30 pairs of shoes."
It was the second straight year that a woman with a bluesy voice finished 11th, just missing a chance to tour with the top 10. Last year, it was Amanda Overmyer.
The difference is that Grace simply doesn't look the part. Just under 5-foot and 100 pounds, she initially surprised judges with her voice. "It was, 'You don't look like you can sing like that,'" she said.
On their suggestion, she changed to a hip look, including pink highlights in her hair. The color may change, she said, "but I'll definitely keep the edgy look."
The rest is indefinite. She'll go back to Memphis, where her boyfriend and her daughter are. She hopes to sing there and do some recording, with a style that's "Joss Stone mixed with Carrie Underwood and with Sheryl Crow."

Too much of a good thing

Life seems to know only two modes -- nothing to do and way, way too much to do.

Right now, we're in that second phase in Lansing, Mich., when three basketball tournaments and a film festival collide. First, two notes:

1) If you don't live near Lansing, please bear with me; this particular blog is local. I'll be back to "American Idol" and such soon.

2) If you do live around here, things still aren't over. Coming up:

-- Another game in the women's NCAA tournament, Tuesday (March 24) at the Breslin Center, this time with Michigan State University playing powerhouse Duke. Despite zillion-to-one odds against MSU, it will be fun; Sunday's game was.

-- More from the film festival, with movies at Celebration Cinema through Thursday. (I've heard great things about Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg," which shows at 6:30 p.m. today, March 23.) Also, the movie "Garrison Keillor: The Man on The Radio in the Red Shoes" is Wednesday at the Hannah Community Center; the Wilco movie "Ashes of American Flags" is 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 1281 of MSU's Anthony Hall. Check www.elff.com.

-- And more basketball to come. Next weekend, peope will be torn between watching MSU men (now in the sweet 16) on TV and high school guys at the Breslin Center -- plus interactive basketball fun across the street at the Jenison Fieldhouse, where Magic Johnson once reigned.

Life is fun in its too busy mode and Sunday was wild. There, a stunned crowd saw MSU fall behind to Middle Tennessee State 27-12, then became energized by a spectacular comeback and 60-59 win. A few comments:

1) Why isn't it "Central Tennessee"? When you say "Middle Tennessee," it sounds like "Middle Earth." You expect Hobbits.

2) For way too long, MSU coach Suzy Merchant's entire game plan seemed to be to wish Allyssa DeHaan were a different person. Merchant had DeHaan (the nation's tallest woman player, at 6-foot-9) guarding Alysha Clark (the nation's highest woman scorer at 27.3 points a game). It was a mismatch, but not in ways you would expect. DeHaan had a 10-inch edge and blocked six shots, but Clark was way too quick and slick for her, scoring 25 points in the first half alone. She finished with 34, finally contained by Aisha Jefferson. Among other things, Jefferson took three charges from Clark, the last one fouling her out.

3) I'm afraid I have to agree with the late Al McGuire, who said offensive fouls should be charged to a team's total, but should not to an individual's five-foul limit. His argument was that those fouls happen disproportionately to the game's best players, because they're the ones with the ball. I agreed with him the night Magic Johnson fouled out at MSU on a charge; I guess I have to agree after the charges by Clark (an amazing player) saved MSU.

4) MSU has so many turnovers because too many of it players diddle around offensively. Their game seems too passive, sort of waiting for something bad too happen. The team desperately needs the extra energy that comes when Keane and Aitch enter. Among the starters, only Jefferson and Cetera Washington were doing much.

5) I'm sorry, but my mind works this way sometimes. The arena announcer said, "Washington and Jefferson back in the game for MSU." I could only think, 'What? Adams couldn't make it?"

6) The game was great fun, though. I'll see you there Tuesday.





A brief thought

I just saw a CNN item that said there's a current increase in vasectomies, particularly among people in the financial industry. That's an interesting coincidence, because I was ready to advocate mandatory vasectomies for some people in the financial industry.

The world of independent films

In a nation built with independent spirit, we have a fondness for independent films. But what, exactly, is indie filmmaking?

"It's finding yourself on the phone at strange hours, begging relatives for money," said Nicholas Pallos, who made the short, "Neither Here Nor There."

Patrick VandeBussche, who made the short "Six Impossible Things," has an alternate definition: "Any movie that leaves the crew and director in pain all the time is independent filmmaking."

Or maybe that's too easy. Chopper Bernet -- who has ranged from acting in "Terminator 3" to producing, directing and starring in "The Twenty" -- assures us that life is fair: "I've worked on $200 million movies and there's a lot of pain and suffering there, too."

They happened to be talking at the East Lansing Film Festival, but their comments could apply to any film fest anywhere. (For a visit to another kind of film, please check my previous blog on Sean Astin and "The Color of Magic," which reaches TV on Sunday, March 22.)

There are huge problems involved with working on a limited budget. That's true whether you're talking about Josh Lowman's witty, $7,000 short, "We Are Crossan'wich," or Tim Kirlman's "Loggerheads," a $500,000 character drama with Bonnie Hunt, Tess Harper and Chris Sarandon in supporting roles.

Still, there's a joy to being in control of the final project. "You can say, 'I want that wall yellow, now," Lowman said.

Adds Kirkman: "You can kill anyone, just like that. And you can give birth."

You can make a movie that has the joy of individual creativity. But can you then get people to see it?

In a high-tech world, it's easier and cheaper to make films -- for good or bad. "Every moron is making a movie now and most of them are terrible," said Timothy Jeffrey, who wrote and directed the movie "You Are Here."

Those technical changes can make it easier in some ways. Filmmakers use the Internet to enter dozens of festivals at once. And to get their films to Web sites and bloggers who do serious reviews. And to tease and advertise, dangling bits of their films onto YouTube and other Web sites.

Still, they are competing in a Web world that sometimes specializes in cute kittens and babies. "YouTube was great at first," said Ken Gayton, who made the comedy "The Truth About Average Guys."

The Web is still helpful if you use it right, said Lowman, who deals with such things in his day job in advertising. "I'm on Twitter and Facebook and I have a Web site for my film ... but I have no idea where this is headed ... It's just like the wild West right now."

It is, at least, a world where individual artistry can thrive. Things are worse in the big-studio world.

Jeffrey recalls one studio executive who chastised him for writing the script for a small movie, saying "I need you to write a $70 million film."

VandeBussche sees many things wrong with the studio world: "Hollywood is run by old white guys ... They're a bunch of sexist white guys who don't like women and have their heads in the 20s."

Then again, there are inequities that are difficult to explain. This 13-person panel of independent filmmakers included 11 white guys, an Asian guy and a black guy; life can be oddly out-of-balance.

For all of the complexities, however, there is a pay-off. People end up with real movies -- individual, idiosyncratic, interesting.

Lowman spent a year crafting a quirky short that he hoped was funny. "Then you show it in front of 150 people and hear all that laughter." The pain of filmmaking suddenly becomes worth it.











Sean Astin, fantasy hero

The fantasy world has special status for former Hobbits.
New roles appear; new opportunities beckon. Just ask Sean Astin, who played Samwise Gamgee in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.
Astin currently stars in "The Color of Magic," an interesting oddity that airs from 7-11 p.m. Sunday (March 22) on the network called Ion. He had already met its witty author, Terry Pratchett, four years ago.
That was when Astin was in one of his favorite places, New Zealand, to film the mini-series "Hercules." Paul Telfer, who played Herc, began talking about how Pratchett was coming to Auckland for a book-signing.
"Paul said, 'You've got to meet this guy; he's an amazing writer,'" Astin recalled. "We went down there and stood in line."
That's when word got to Pratchett. "He got so excited that there was a Hobbit in line," Astin said.
They had a long talk; then Astin began digging into Pratchett's "Discworld" novels.
His reaction: "The feeling just came through my spirit right away: 'They're going to make a movie about this. It's going to be an English production and I won't get to be in it.'"
For a while, he was right: The first "Discworld" film (the Christmas-themed "Hogfather") had no role for Astin. The second, however, has the perfect one.
Astin plays Twoflower, the first and only tourist in Discworld. He arrives with enthusiasm, camera and a trunk full of gold coins.
That gold -- worth very little in his own land -- seems to attract a lot of attention. Fortunately, the trunk has a mind (and legs) of its own.
Soon, Twoflower is being guided by Rincewind (David Jason), who has flunked out after 40 years in wizardry school. This happens just as the world is being menaced by the ambitious Trymon (Tim Curry).
This is fantasy that kids will savor, but it's done with a wink to grown-ups. That's the Pratchett style, Astin said. "He's looking at the audience and saying, 'I know what you know.'"
Working on "Magic" or "Rings" put him alongside classic talent. "Most of the English actors have such strong theater experience," Astin said.
He asks them a lot of questions; occasionally, he's surprised to be asked something about his own films. "If someone is in his 40's, chances are he's seem 'The Goonies' at some time."
When that movie came out, Astin was only 14, descended from Hollywood elite. His mother, Patty Duke, is an Oscar-winner and a former Screen Actors Guild president.
He's also descended from fantasy elite: His de facto father, John Astin, was the witty "Addams Family" star.
The real break came with "Lord of the Rings"; his oldest daughter, now 12, spent much of her pre-school time amid the beauty of New Zealand.
More sci-fi has followed -- "Jermiah," "Masters of Science Fiction," "Hercules," "The Color of Magic." The latter two were produced by Robert Halmi, now in his mid-80s. "Halmi's just a down-to-Earth guy, very serious, who has built up this amazing library of films."
Shooting "Magic" felt like "Rings," with one key difference. "I weighed 198 pounds then," Astin said. "Now I'm 165."
Astin, 5-foot-6, had put on the extra weight to play the chubby Samwise. It was a small sacrifice, to be able to spend the rest of his life as a former Hobbit.