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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 23, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Browns, Idol, "Food Court Musical"

I go to Tyler Perry movies prepared to like them, and with Meet the Browns I was not disappointed. This story of a poor single mom in Chicago who gets invited to the funeral of a father she never met is touching and funny by turns.

Like all of Tyler Perry's movies, it is infused with Christian values, and even as it shows compassion for women caught in the trap of husbandless, fatherless family life, it also urges and affirms the role of men who stand up and take care of their responsibilities.

And the performances are delightful. Since Perry's dialogue is often so on-the-nose that it could easily be annoying or cloying, it is vital to the success of his movies that he have actors whose sincerity is so intense that it rides right over the clunky moments -- and in Meet the Browns he does.

No one is surprised when Angela Bassett turns in a brilliant performance; the real surprise is that she is in this movie. Perry's films have not depended on black-actor star power in the past, but it's good to see established actors like Bassett taking part in his films.

Lance Gross (known for his role on House of Payne) is heart-throbbingly good as Angela Bassett's son Michael. Rick Fox, who will be recognizable from many TV roles, is convincing as the good-guy coach whose motives are repeatedly misunderstood.

And the whole array of supporting actors that populate Tyler Perry's movies are out in force and full talent, creating a hilarious yet loving community.

David Mann, as Leroy Brown, and Jenifer Lewis, as Vera, are given two of Perry's trademark scene-stealing roles, the hilarious clowns of the movie. And I'm choosing the right word when I say "clowns," because, like the clowns of the Elizabethan stage, they are given free reign to do what they do and win their laughs, without any particular relevancy to the story.

Tyler Perry's own scene-stealers, Madea and Joe, are in the movie, too, but barely -- if you're thinking of going in order to have a Madea-fest, think again -- the scene they're in barely rises above a cameo and has no relevancy to the plot.

I go to Tyler Perry movies prepared to like them, but also prepared to overlook some fundamental flaws. Still, the flaws are there, and in this movie particularly.

Perry seems unable to notice when he's got a great story element and can do something with it. For instance, one character sustains an injury. The circumstances would have been perfect to motivate Angela Bassett's character to get her family to the Georgia Town where her wacky relatives live.

But Perry does nothing with it. Nothing! The character is injured, and the next thing we know, he's better. So many missed opportunities!

My teenage daughter said it best: "You know exactly what's going to happen, and then it happens."

Because the performances are so good, and because Perry knows what's funny, and because we care about the characters, we keep going and enjoy the movie. But it could have been so much better.

The problem is the inevitable one -- it afflicted and afflicts Woody Allen, too. It's that producer/writer/director/actor credit that Tyler Perry gets. (Woody Allen doesn't get "producer" but he still controls everything). That means there ain't nobody involved in the movie who has the power or even the right to say, "Mr. Perry, this aspect of the script is not yet ready for film. Go back and work on it some more."

So I'll say it, here and now: Mr. Perry, you are fantastically rich because you have a dead-on eye and ear for the stories of the African-American community, and yet you put on shows that also work for white audiences, especially audiences that share the Christian values of that community.

We want you to succeed! We want your movies to go on and on!

But we also want you to get better. We want you to grow as an artist, to learn the aspects of your craft that you have not yet learned.

Right now, your success is blinding you to the imperfections of your work. Get humble and recognize that even rich, successful play- and filmmakers have things they can learn. And then learn them!

We'll be there, paying you money and enjoying every step you take along that road.

*

This season of American Idol has been a great one so far; the judges keep proclaiming it the most talented cast ever, and they're right. Most of the contestants in previous years would not have made it onto the stage with the kids who are performing for us now.

Of course, some of the annoyances continue. The phony Ryan vs. Simon sparring is tedious beyond belief. Nobody believes it, it wastes time, and it damages the show for Ryan to show such disrespect for the dominant judge.

Simon needs to stop taking pointless jabs at Paula. She is who she is, and without his noticing it, she has become a sharp adviser of the kids. She is far more articulate than Randy, yet she is the inevitable target of what Simon thinks is teasing, but what comes across as the same kind of contempt that Ryan has been showing to Simon.

Cut it out, you boneheads! The performers are the show, and it is the substance of your remarks, not your relationships with each other, that we tune in to see!

In fact, the biggest frustration for me this year has been how inarticulate Simon Cowell is. After he makes his deliberately shocking statement ("That was horrendous"), it's his job to then explain why so the kids can learn.

For instance, he repeatedly told Robbie Carrico that he was "inauthentic." But what can you do with "criticism" like that? Carrico needed to be told what he was doing that made him seem that way, and no one even attempted to articulate it to him. So he got more frustrated, and less likeable, while he had no way to change the problem.

The problem was that Carrico was trying to sing serious rock songs while sucking up to the audience with smiles and cheeriness. Serious rock is sung as if you are angry or in pain. Amanda Overmyer and David Cook get it and sang accordingly; so did Chris Daughtry in a previous year. I bet that if somebody had explained to Carrico that he needed to stop smiling during songs of heartbreak or rage, he'd have done better and perhaps lasted longer.

At the same time, it's been exciting to watch performers like David Cook really grow. He was annoying and boring at first, but now he's top-notch. Though, as Simon very helpfully pointed out to him, he's now smug -- he shows us that he's very much aware of how cool he's become.

In the first flush of really getting it, it's natural that he should be happy about what he's learned (and believe me, he did not arrive in this competition knowing it); but what he doesn't understand yet is that this is the first step, not the final one. Plenty of one-hit wonders have known what he now knows. There's still a long way to go.

I was sorry to see Amanda Overmyer leave the show, because she was the first of the performers whose album I wanted to own. Since she's not part of the tour, I hope she'll be contractually free in a short time to put out an album of anguished rock, including a few Janis Joplin songs.

Overmyer is also the performer who seems to have had the clearest idea of who she is and what she wants to do with her music. She works within a narrow range -- but inside that range, she's terrific. I think she's going to recover splendidly from having been axed and I hope we hear from her again.

I will also miss David Hernandez. He was one of the best of this group. I don't think he was dropped specifically because of the revelation of his years as a stripper in front of mostly-male audiences. Nobody was punishing him.

Instead, a revelation like that takes some of the bloom off the rose. When Brooke White or Jason Castro give a lousy performance -- which both have done -- residual enthusiasm and personal liking win them enough votes to carry them through that bad week.

But Hernandez, who is a far better vocalist and performer than either of them, lost that even-if-he's-bad-this-week loyalty. He wasn't thrown off the show; he just wasn't carried through a bad week.

These kids are in a cauldron and the heat turns up every week. Some of them are stretching and growing to meet the challenge. Some of them are not, and week after week we watch them flounder more and more.

Kristy Lee Cook seems to be a cool, together person, and she has been plagued by voice-damaging illness. But she is also out of her league on this stage and she has not broken through and shown any growth.

Ramiele Malubay is cute as a button, and the judges keep talking about her big vocal talent, but I haven't heard it yet.

Jason Castro simply doesn't belong on that stage. I keep waiting to hear him break out in a rendition of the theme from Welcome Back, Kotter. But he's likeable. That only gets you so far.

Brooke White is a charmer and seems to be a genuinely good person. When she agreed with the judges that her performance in the yellow dress was awkward and bad, it was so absolutely real that instead of losing votes she probably gained more!

What is frustrating about that bad performance is that I know she was being told that she needed to loosen up her image. Wear a costume that's a little more "free," she was told. But she is a naturally modest person and she felt naked on the stage that night. She was trembling.

I hope she's learned not to take the advice of fools who think sex is what sells music. It will never work for her. Modest clothing and utter sincerity are a far better mix for her than trying to be something she's not.

Much as I like her, though, White's skills as a singer are limited. She does not have a strong voice and so she can't compete that way. Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King are her models, but she is not as good a singer as any of them.

We'll be sorry to see her go, but I have yet to hear her do a performance that I would want a recording of.

Michael Johns also has terrific sincerity and a limited voice. Everything depends on his choosing songs, not that he admires, but that he can mean when he sings them. Everyone likes him -- but, again, he has not yet sung a song that I wanted to listen to again for the voice alone.

If you need to see the face in order to enjoy the performance, it's very hard to have a career as a recording artist. But I think that Johns can do it, if he stops trying to oversing -- it won't be loudness that works for him, it will be reality.

Syesha Mercado is by far the prettiest Idol contestant I can recall, and she really does have a huge voice. But I suspect she has spent her life winning people over with that gorgeous smile; now it's time to see her sing a song from deep in her heart.

Chikezie's breakthrough a few weeks ago was thrilling. From being awkward and terrified he was suddenly in charge of his own performance and it was great. Unfortunately, the following week, instead of getting inside the song and making it real, he did a pale imitation of his performance the week before.

You can't imitate yourself. You have to repeat the process that worked before and discover what will make this song work. Still, I have hopes for Chikezie. He could make it to the final two yet!

The Beatles' catalogue nearly wrecked David Archuleta. It showed how young he was. He didn't know these songs. He didn't know what to do with them. But after a disastrous, lyric-forgetting, phony-stair-routine week, he bounced back and was wonderful the week after. The kid can learn.

There are those who think Archuleta is coasting through on his sweetness and absolute cuteness, but those who think that are wrong. This kid is the real thing. When I close my eyes and listen to him he is every bit as good. I would like to own recordings of most of his performances; only Cook, Overmyer, Chikezie, and Hernandez have had any performances at the level Archuleta reaches week after week.

I can't imagine any of the others beating this kid. But then, I've thought that before about performers who were then axed three weeks before the end.

Finally we come to Carly Smithson. I have never detested a contestant before; usually I just feel sorry for them. This kid, alas, has been seriously overpraised by the judges, and she believes the flattery. She thinks she is the best thing on that stage, and it shows.

If it were true, then maybe she could go ahead and win. But the judges are wrong. She is not that good. I have heard one performance from her that was worth the time spent on it, and then I had to close my eyes to bear it.

She is, quite simply, unbearable to watch. Great performers love the audience; Smithson loves only herself and we can see it. It's not her fault that her mouth is amazing ugly when she sings; it is her fault that she is incapable of connecting with anything but herself.

The last week I saw before writing this, she was in the bottom three. Her performance the week before was wretched, but no worse than some who were safe. Why was she in the bottom three despite the talent the judges keep touting?

Because we don't like her. And we're right not to like her. When Simon was trying to tell her why her performance didn't work, she shut him down and talked over him. But what was appalling -- what made me loathe her -- was the smarmy, self-serving way she appointed herself spokesperson for all the others.

We've been through so much, I wanted to sing something that expressed our struggle, yadda yadda yadda. It made my skin crawl.

And then, last week, when she was in the bottom three, it was the first time her surprise looked real. Up to now, she has always been safe -- and made a great show of being relieved. Now we know what real surprise looks like on her face. Even then, she was absolutely sure she wouldn't go home.

But in the hugging and such afterward, it was instructive to watch how she managed to put herself in the center of every shot. When she's faking affection for other people, she always has an eye to the camera.

We see you, Ms. Smithson. We know what you are. And since you are quite talented, you might just make it -- naked ambition does work in the music biz.

At the same time, I don't believe you'll even make it to the finals of American Idol. Because on this show, while the most important thing is vocal performance, you also have to be a reasonably bearable human being. And nothing about your performances or your other on-camera behavior suggests that we would enjoy spending thirty seconds in your company.

Don't worry. Simon and Randy are faunching to record you. You'll have your shot whether you win or not. But I wouldn't go to the effort to take the plastic off a CD of yours.

*

If you haven't seen it yet, go online and watch "Food Court Musical," done by a group called "Improv Everywhere."

The idea is that people in a mall food court suddenly find themselves in the middle of a musical comedy number. Cameras are in place to observe the reaction of the inadvertent audience.

Of course, like much musical comedy, the performances are sorely lacking -- you won't be seeing great stage work. But it's adequate, and because of the situation, it's delightful.

Go to VideoWired.com and search for number 3716428369. Or if you're reading this online, go straight to it.


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