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Tom Neven

Tom Neven has written for, among other publications, The Washington Post, The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Writer's Digest, Time-Life, and First Things. He's a Marine Corps veteran and lives with his wife of 30-plus years, Colette, in the Tampa Bay area.
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Ice Age 4: A Floe Too Far

Friday, July 13th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

We go to movies presumably to enjoy a good story. Yes, the writing is important, as are the acting, cinematography, score, set design — all the myriad things that must work together in service of the story. They are but tools intended for a larger purpose. Of course, too often one or more tools fail or the filmmakers put too much emphasis on them and forget the story altogether.

That seems to be the case with Ice Age: Continental Drift, the fourth installment of the Ice Age franchise by Blue Sky Studios. Terrific computer animation in digital 3D renders crisp detail in the animals’ fur and performs a virtuoso dance of light and shadow on ice and water.

But the movie feels overstuffed with way too many barely developed characters. The story could easily have been cut by a third and its building blocks could have been more artfully arranged. The film feels workmanlike, adequate but lacking zest. While the earlier installments had the obligatory subtext about doing the right thing and the importance of working together, the lessons in Continental Drift feel forced. Yes, kids, it’s important to obey your parents, value your friends, and not get caught up in the wrong crowd — good lessons all, but they come with the subtlety of an elbow to the ribs.

As with the first three Ice Ages, there are plenty of sight gags and pratfalls along the way with the usual gross-out jokes. And as always, Scrat the proto rat is the best part of these stories, with his Gilligan-like ability to blow a sure thing and a single-mindedness that makes Wile E. Coyote look positively ambivalent.

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9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets From Jeopardy

Thursday, June 28th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

Last time, we looked at some of the secrets to winning on Jeopardy. But knowing how to win means nothing if you can’t get on the show. How do I try out for Jeopardy? What should I expect when I get there? What happens during show tapings?

A lot goes on before a contestant ever sets foot on the Jeopardy sound stage in Los Angeles, and once there a lot happens that viewers never see on their TV screens. Here’s a look at a few of those behind-the-scenes secrets.

9. The Highest Hurdle

You can have a head stuffed full of trivia, but if you can’t get on the game, it’s not doing you a whole lot of good short of impressing (or boring) your friends. The first problem is getting the attention of the Jeopardy producers.

In years past, the Jeopardy crew conducted contestant searches in major cities around the country. Local network affiliates announced the upcoming search, urging viewers to send in a postcard with their contact information. Potential contestants were then chosen by random from those cards, meaning the highest hurdle had nothing to do with your Jeopardy skills; it was, quite literally, a matter of luck.

I thought myself clever for sending in 10 cards. I found out later than some people sent more than a hundred. Yet on the first try they chose my card. I received a phone call telling me to report to a certain hotel ballroom at the appointed time to take the first portion of the tryout, a written test.

These days, the random postcards are dispensed with and you can take the test online at the Be a Contestant page on the Jeopardy web site — but only when they announce a contestant search, which is only a few times a year. Still, this method gives you much better odds than hoping your card is pulled from the pile.

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8 Secrets to Winning on Jeopardy

Thursday, June 14th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

Night after night you watch Jeopardy on TV, shouting out answers and making exasperated noises as a contestant misses something obvious, gives a boneheaded answer, or makes a foolish bet on a Daily Double.

It looks easy from the comfort of your living room, but it’s a lot harder in the studio. I know, I’ve been there. You not only have the pressure of performing in front of an audience of millions, but you’re up against two other living, breathing contestants who want to win just as much as you do.

While the game has changed a bit in the 20 years since I was a Jeopardy champ — the dollar amounts were lower then and there were no celebrity clue-givers — the game has remained essentially the same. So, is there a secret to winning on TV’s longest running quiz show?

Here are a few things to consider if you want to try out for Jeopardy. (While the game’s premise is that they give the answer and the player gives the question, for simplicity’s sake I’m just going to refer to the clue being the question and the player giving the answer.)

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American Idol: Prophecy Fulfilled

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

This year's final two American Idols, Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips

So the utterly predictable happened. Phillip Phillips, herein known as P2, is the Season 11 American Idol champ. As predictable as a giant nose zit at prom time, P2 was propelled over the finish line by millions of teenyboppers and cougars with flames bursting from their cell phone speed dials.

I won’t belabor P2’s lack of singing ability other than to say he agrees, as he observed last Thursday with Jay Leno: “As everyone knows with me, it’s not about the singing.” I’m glad he agrees.

The last performance night saw Jessica Sanchez singing the daylights out of everything and P2 doing his usual hipster Mumble Pop bit. Why he chose his atrocious cover of Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” as his best performance to repeat will remain one of life’s enduring mysteries. If he had chosen his audition version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” I would have said great choice. I was at first intrigued with P2 based on that—I attributed the less than stellar singing to nerves—but as the season went on, I grew tired of his one-note parade and especially tired of the high praise from judges who really should have (and probably do) know better.

But the third and last song for each was telling. This was the song they would personally choose to be their first single if they won the contest. (Allegedly. More on that in a bit.) After wowing us all season with her powerful, clear vocals, Jessica chose “Change Nothing” written by Jaden Michaels, Joleen Belle and Harry Sommerdahl. Um, no. This was her last chance to impress the judges and the fans, and she chose a really blah song. The judges didn’t like it, and neither did Jessica, apparently. How much a role the producers played in this will probably remain an Ultra Double-Dog Secret for all time, because it sounds like Jessica wanted to do something more urban, more “me,” as she put it. How much did Jessica’s relative lack of maturity play in her giving in to what the producers wanted?

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This Memorial Day We Remember

Monday, May 28th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor those Americans who have given their lives in war. You might not know this from the newspaper or TV, though. The holiday seems to have become another excuse to sleep in and for retailers to sell everything from dryers to bed sheets. In fact, Memorial Day should be May 31, but since that’s a Thursday this year, the government moved it up so we could all enjoy a long weekend.

If you’re ever near Washington, D.C., be sure to stop by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Maya Lin’s elegiac wall is perfect, despite the controversy that erupted when her design was announced in the early 1980s. In fact, the two sculptures added to it to “balance” it out—overly literal figures of male and female soldiers — actually detract from the deep symbolism of Lin’s elegant design. Visitors leave mementos at the base of the wall that are deeply meaningful only to the person whose name is on the wall and the person who left it. In addition to the usual flowers, teddy bears, and uniform items, one time I saw a 45-rpm record of “Devil in a Blue Dress” by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. What did that song mean to whomever left it? Which name on the wall was it intended for? It was a haunting sight, that simple black disc propped forlornly against the base of the wall.

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American Idol: Accidentally Telling the Truth

Monday, May 21st, 2012 - by Tom Neven

Joshua Ledet, Jessica Sanchez, and Phillip Phillips

It’s not about whether you hit the notes or not, if the passion is there. —Steven Tyler, giving away the game in a rare (semi-) honest review of Phillip Phillips’ singing.

In a moment of perhaps unintentional candor, American Idol judge Steven Tyler committed a gaffe, defined as accidentally telling the truth. Phillip Phillips’ performance of an overblown 1970s power ballad, Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” proved, as usual, that he can’t sing. He sat, inert, on his stool, straining and struggling to hit even the limited high notes in this song. The performance was so boring that, at one point, I thought he was going to fall into a deep sleep and topple off the stool. On the final note, he grimaced and strained as his voice wandered around like a drunk trying to hit the urinal, finally settling on more or less the right spot but not before leaving a mess all over the floor. He’d been assigned the song by mentor-in-chief Jimmy Iovine, and at first I though that he’d been sabotaged, given a song that was sure to sink him.

And then what happened? The judges gave him a standing ovation. What!? Did they hear the same performance I did? They lauded him for his passion. Passion? He slept-walked through it. They said he’d had a “moment”—whatever that is. (I’ve had similar “moments” after a night of heavy drinking.) And then came Tyler’s bit of truth-telling. Yeah, you didn’t hit the notes. You rarely do. But, hey, this is only a singing competition. Let’s make up some bogus excuse about “passion” to make sure this year’s American Idol ends like so many others, with a mediocre WGWG (White Guy With Guitar) beating out some truly talented singers. On results night, the only suspense was whether Jessica Sanchez or Joshua Ledet would be the sacrificial lamb. Alas, it was Joshua.

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American Idol: Alien Conspiracy Edition

Monday, May 14th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

Possible explanation of disconnect between what American Idol judges hear and what the TV audience hears.

So I have this theory: Every time Phillip Phillips performs something happens between what the judges hear in the auditorium and what gets broadcast to the rest of the world. They hear genius. I hear crap. Maybe aliens intercept the signal as it’s broadcast and distort it, perhaps a test of our broadcast capabilities presaging an intergalactic invasion. Maybe the signal gets sucked into a rift in the space-time continuum and comes out completely distorted by the time it reaches my TV set.

Even Phillip says his band mates at home criticize his performances, calling his rendition of The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” pretty rough. Yet there were the judges, praising it high and low. This week, after Phillip tortured CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” in a way that would make even a Spanish Inquisitor retch, Steven Tyler reached into his book of “Sayings That Seem Kinda Profound Until You Think About It” and said that Phillip “is living proof that the road to success is always under construction.” In Phillip’s case they’re tearing up a perfectly good road to put in sewer lines. The only explanation of Tyler’s judgment is imminent alien invasion or a universe coming apart at the seams.

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American Idol: Skylar’s Last Roundup

Monday, May 7th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

Skylar Laine misunderstands CCR's "Fortunate Son" on her way to being booted off Idol.

As American Idol moved into its Final 5 round, the voting pattern over the past weeks showed that it could still be anyone’s game. Hollie Cavanagh has come into her own over the past two weeks and really hit the sweet spot last Wednesday with her cover of Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High” and Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love.” Jessica Sanchez remained her usual super-talented self, covering another Tina Turner hit, “Proud Mary,” and Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful”—minus the grimaces and contortions. Joshua Ledet found his groove bringing back the old Motown R&B sound with his cover of The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and nailed the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” with only about 15 minutes’ work—after never having heard the song before. (Celebrity mentor Little Steven Van Zandt was blown away.)

And, per expectations, Phillip Phillips turned in two wretched performances. Three, actually, if you count his half of a duet with Joshua on The Righeous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” in which he was unable to hit a single note in the song, despite much flexing and grimacing. (At least when Joe Cocker grimaces, he hits the notes.) Phillip took The Box Tops’ “The Letter” and rendered it basically unrecognizable, leaving the usually voluble Steven Tyler searching for words: “Bad news: I miss the melody. Good news: You get away with it.”

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Another One Bites the Dust on American Idol

Monday, April 30th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

The contestants perform with Queen musicians Roger Taylor and Brian May.

So last week, speaking in the context of singers with big voices, I warned never to cover Freddie Mercury unless you have the goods. The diabolical American Idol producers must have been thinking the same thing: last week was Queen Week. Each of the remaining six contestants had to cover one Queen song, and we got to find out who had the goods and who didn’t.

Dave Matthews wannabe Phillip Phillips.

Had the Goods:

  • Jessica Sanchez sounded great on the non-rocking half of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The rocking half, not so much. (It was a weird arrangement to start with. The scary Jessica face floating on the screen behind her didn’t help.)
  • Skylar Laine slayed “The Show Must Go On”— if you can get over the twang on a song that didn’t call for twang. No, the show must not go owe-won.
  • Joshua Ledet sang a crazy-good rendition of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
  • Hollie Cavanagh did a passable job on “Save Me,” but perhaps there was something Freudian in her song choice.

And who failed to deliver?

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American Idol: And Then There Were Six

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

Colton Dixon, looking like a cross somewhere between 1985 Billy Idol on MTV and 'Spider-Man' on Broadway, according to mentor Jimmy Iovine.

I can’t open every post about American Idol with the word shock in it, so I’m at a bit of a loss to explain last week’s finale, with heartthrob Colton Dixon sent packing.

Last week I confidently predicted that cute guys, this year represented by Colton Dixon and Phillip Phillips (ahem, cute white guys), tend to do well on AI. So what were both doing in the bottom-three vote-getters last week, a first for both?

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American Idol: Which of the Top Seven Will Go Tonight?

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 - by Tom Neven

Season 11 Top Seven

So, shocker of shocker, the single best singer ever on all 11 seasons of American Idol, Jessica Sanchez, garnered the lowest number of votes last week and remains on the show only through the judges’ save.

Quelle surprise! America consistently gets it wrong as the number of contestants dwindles. Year after year, singers with true talent fall by the wayside and marginal talents advance. Think about it: how many Idol winners have gone on to major careers? Kelly Clarkson (Season 1), Carrie Underwood (Season 4), and last year’s Scotty McCreery. That’s about it. Most other winners faded back into obscurity. Lee DeWyze, anyone?

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