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Monday, March 23, 2015

Peter and Alice

When I was younger, I was obsessed with the story of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. It is one of the stories that persists though, so I know I am not the only one.

But a land full of adventure, fun, friends, and no responsibility except to play all day. Peter to me represented everything good and even important about childhood. It was important to pretend, to take advantage of seeming immortality, to never shy away from an adventure.

There was something enamoring about being a child forever. Youth, childlike wonder, curiosity, imagination, never taking things too seriously, everything being a big deal, these are all desirable qualities to an extent. Adulthood was scary. It was big, it was unknown, in it we faced things like death, growing old, heartbreak, stress, unhappiness, forgetting. Adults were pirates. They were unhappy, out-of-touch, and found us annoying because they were jealous.

I compared myself a lot to Peter Pan, as did my friends, and my context in the world informed that, certainly. Why would Peter Pan ever want to leave a situation where he is only encouraged and enabled. Peter Pan never had to mature because he was never in a situation where he was forced to change and adapt. Even his demons were familiar ones: Captain Hook was a predictable foe. A great rival in physical prowess and mature cunning, but he, like all of Neverland, was part of something that Peter had a hand in creating. Neverland is Peter's own domain, and everything is as challenging, as exciting, but also as comforting as it needs to be for him to be happy.

There in Neverland, Peter is adored for how he is, he looks after everyone, and he can seemingly do no wrong, even when he acts less than inspiring. Peter is that ideal state before the Fall of Man, before the Wilderness. Peter is that blinking moment just before we realize we have to move on.

As a kid, I hated Alice. Persistent, proper, argumentative, contrary... Alice was every know-it-all in school I knew. But Alice represented that moment just after the blink, just after we've realized childhood has passed us by. Alice was a woman's mind in a child's body, and she was slowly coming to terms with the fact that while she, like all maturing children still had lingering desires to shirk adulthood, her maturity was showing through, and she was looking to the skies for more than stars.

Still, she fled. The moment after that blink is very much a denial. No one is immediately accepting of the inevitable. Our defiance comes from our childhood as well. We're told 'no' so often that it eventually becomes a challenge. Suddenly, the hot stove is not something to be feared, but something to be overcome. Alice fled, and her repeated attempts to overcome the childlike world she wished to remain in were meeting headlong with her increasing sense of responsibility and much more importantly, her burgeoning sense of self.

Peter already has his self-worth, he knows what a valuable commodity he is, albeit in a very limited circle. What happens when the circle crumbles? What happens when the status quo changes?

For Alice, she herself shattered the status quo. She was the one who rejected Wonderland. It was a place of frightening illogicality and impertinence. It was children flustered by an adult unable to play by the rules. Alice was the adult. Wonderland was the childhood she was leaving behind. For all his bravery and happy thoughts, Alice is a hero, Peter has yet to come to terms with his place in the world.

It's Alice realizing she has power within herself to alter the world around her and that she is a being of her own agency. She creates herself. She returns to the world, stepping back through the looking glass, to control her own destiny.

For Peter, at least within the context of the play or the main story itself, he ends the story much the same as he started. He starts a brand new cycle with a new girl he whisks away to Neverland. He might be doomed to repeat it indefinitely,
But I like to believe the continuity of the movie, Hook.
Because Peter finds the opposite journey to Alice, and it makes sense with his character too.
Where Alice has to find it within herself to leave Wonderland, Peter has to find it outside of himself because Neverland is also a part of him and his own psyche.
Some people may be confused or balk at the idea that Peter's happiness is not within, but what I mean to say is that in terms of the story, Peter's self-worth is already realized; he is admired, respected, loved, but his only responsibility is to himself. His capabilities are needed elsewhere.

All those things that were scary about adulthood suddenly don't seem so bad. Peter falls in love and realizes he wants to be a father. He experiences the real versions of all the feelings he once had. He earns respect rather than creates it, he begins to care for others instead of desiring to lead them. He realizes responsibility is important. He recognizes what happens when these childlike qualities are taken to dangerous extremes.

People see hope and love as forces for good, but they can become negative in extreme. So too are Peter's qualities. Qualities he shares with Captain Hook, the embodiment of an out-of-touch overseer surrounded by people he believes love him but only fear him. Peter is what Captain Hook was before that blink. Captain Hook after all is the adult who refuses responsibility and it glares because he aged.

The qualities of Alice that bothered me so much as a kid I now realize were shared with the Queen of Hearts. Stubbornness, bluntness, argumentativeness. The Queen is Alice of a darker timeline. I think Alice can see this too. If her own sense of ability and determination were not awakened, she becomes Queen, a figure alone, in charge, feared rather than loved.

But both Alice and Peter confront their demons. They may parallel our villains, but they are not them. Our heroes are always better than our villains, because that's how we need our stories to be. And because it is not too late. Peter at the brink of the blink, and Alice moments after, can arrive on the path to avoiding being victims of circumstance. They acknowledge their own victimization. That's the problem actually with refusing adulthood: children are taken advantage of, because they don't know better. You can corrupt youth, you can leak into their formative brains. They may spend years undoing the damage if they even realize there is any.
It takes a change of scene to illuminate these perspectives. It takes flying back to the real world, or climbing out of the rabbit hole. It takes a real kiss, not a thimble, or blowing those cards away instead of submitting to playing the croquet game, to understand how the real world operates and how the real world respects you and loves you in a way that is different than what you cultivated on your own or what you insisted on holding onto past its expiration.

Some of those childlike qualities we have to maintain. Don't lose your curiosity. Don't stop insisting that things should be just because they should be. But adulthood isn't so bad either. We become part of something bigger, we pass on our knowledge and wisdom down the line. It's understanding that balance of both, because we have the villains of our stories to remind us what happens when we fall short of that balance. We insist on the fantasy and exist in denial like Hook, or we alienate those around us isolating ourselves in authority, like the Queen.

Both Peter and Alice journey to find themselves in better places. Alice by a journey within. Peter, perhaps like the title character in the Truman Show, journeys out of Neverland once and for all and after some adjustment probably nervously at first, finds himself as well.

The game is over, but there are greater adventures ahead. Real ones.
The mirror is shattered. The fairy dust has settled.

Peter and Alice grew up.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The children are our future...

There is a thought I have every so often about my days as a father when they finally do arrive. Like many of the thoughts I have, it's simultaneously fascinating, repulsive, egotistical, and breathtaking all at once.

Regardless of whether I have a daughter or a son, at some point, I am going to have to walk another human being through the trauma and scars of a relationship begun in love that ends in shambles, or an unrequited love that ends in more questions than answers.

I'm almost confident in the idea that at some point one of my kid's relationships will greatly mirror one of my more dramatic ones and it will be a difficult pill to swallow. Some aspect of it will be similar enough. And none of those aspects are redeeming. I have been in a position where I have broken hearts, and it wasn't easy, and there was a fight (probably multiple), and I hated myself for it. I have also been on the other side, feeling my heart break, feeling that person slip away, and blaming myself for it.

There was a play I saw once where two characters were discussing what kind of children they'd want to have if they ever became fathers. One hoped to have a daughter, because a son always grows to be their father. The other hoped to have a son, because a daughter grows to be the memory of your sins. It's essentially the same, and what it means for you as a parent is that at some point you will be reminded of your own failed relationship.

This isn't some epic indictment of endless psychological cycles (or psychles, as I call them) and I don't mean to imply that all children always end up being the same as their parents. I'm much more about the little moments. I'm much more about imagining the day my daughter comes home and tells me she had to end it with some guy for being too much. And I'll inevitably think of myself in that boy's place for one moment, recalling the moment I was broken up with for the same reason. But now I have to be supportive of her. I don't want some guy smothering my daughter if she doesn't want it. And suddenly, I understand the shortcomings of my younger self. It's just one of those seemingly innocuous, perspective-altering moments.

Of course your daughter is different from that girl who broke your heart, just as your son will act differently in a relationship than you did. But similarities will ultimately arise, and some people are better at handling these recognized or perceived patterns than others. I'm more about the moment that it happens, though. A pattern seeming similar doesn't mean the result will always be the same. Every relationship is different, and the two people involved are different from the two who were involved in your own.

But there is a small part of me that welcomes the moment of my son telling me he's dating someone, and is now having some legitimate feelings for someone else and he doesn't know what to do, because he's now arrived in a situation where someone is going to get hurt. It could be him, it could be one of the people he now has feelings for.
Some people will look at that situation, and they have very clear answers. They have very strong, definitive opinions about how to live your life. "Don't leave a stable relationship for something new that seems exciting." / "If you're feeling these things for someone else, it means your current relationship is not as strong as you think." / "You shouldn't be pursuing any kind of relationships with anyone right now, that's not your priority."
All of these people can't be wrong, but they can't all be right, either. They all have different answers. And you're the only one who knows what's right.
But you're going to get the twinge. That moment where you have the answer for your son, simply because you were in the same situation once before.

It'll be the same with your daughter. Your daughter will end up in a triangle, just like you were. And I've been all three points of a triangle, and none of them are particularly pleasant. And you'll feel that moment of guilt for your daughter, because you either once put a girl like her through something like this, or went through this with someone, or two people went and carried this on behind your back.
But you're going to sit with her, and you'll cry with her, maybe you'll talk about it, maybe you won't.

But the moment will linger nonetheless. You'll feel as helpless as you did then, because this moment is as important to your kid as it was to you back then. Love is important, and it's dangerous. And yeah, we move on and we heal, but for me, it remains to be seen if I'll ever be able to say I'm totally okay. But you'll hug them, and tell them it's okay to not be totally okay.

As sad as I may make it sound, I actually cannot wait. As more distance as come, I've grown fond of those memories, and sometimes I do get a bit sad, but there's not so much investment in that feeling anymore. It's much more along the lines of, "Gosh, what a kid." And soon, I'll get to say the same thing in admiration for a son or daughter who makes those bold choices, gets hurt in the process, and becomes stronger and better for it. Our mistakes may live with us forever, but they do not have to haunt us.

As much as our children are the future, they're also very much our past.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How does one predict the future?

These eventual manned missions to Mars may be the most pioneering effort we've had in the last few centuries or even will have in the next few decades. The prospects of life spreading throughout the universe are something to be optimistic about. People who worry about us destroying another planet given the opportunity are being cynical in my opinion. If we have a chance to distribute an overwhelming population to other places then yes in all likelihood all the planetary populations will balloon exponentially as they did here, but we would also have a more significant amount of resources and a required level of organization that would likely allow all inhabited systems to prosper together.

I do think we're moving toward a more harmonized humanity, both because life expectancy is rising to biblical levels (anyone see that NatGeo cover with the baby? The baby that's going to be really old?) and because we just gotta. Gay marriage has to be a thing, because eventually there's going to be many, many gay people. There's so many letters in LGBT now all across the spectrum. Women are speaking up more for themselves than ever before and media and what-not are taking notice and taking them seriously. Racism is a hot topic like it should've been all along but is coming to light because of recent events. Important issues are changing because people are realizing corporations aren't more powerful than we are as a collective. Weed legalization is a potential economy saver rather than a distant what-if. It may take a bit, but I feel like the next few generations are the ones who going to be fixing all the mistakes of the baby boomers, of gen-y, of even us 90s kids and millennials who seem lazy and unambitious but they have big ideas and big opinions. Future generations aren't just inheriting the Earth, they're likely inheriting the universe.

The Mars One mission is going to be a pioneering achievement, like I said. But the prospect that makes me anxious, the thing that would keep me from it even if I were qualified, is predicting my own death. It's not so specific as soothsayers and star signs, but it is a bit like signing your own cause of death.

I know, I know, it's not the cause, but it is the last thing I get to do. I'm sure there's more nuanced itineraries to be checkmarked once we land and make camp, you know, the usual: collecting dust, testing for water, moving rocks from one side of the planet to the other, watching the sunset...
But the last thing you get to do in your life is "go to Mars."
Yes, it's quite a fantastical finale note on which to end.
But it really does feel final. So final.
And so definite.

I've talked with people who would prefer to know the time, place, and manner of their death. They need to know the destination. They need to know where the path takes them. Others will argue that takes the fun out of life and I'm inclined to agree. It's one of the only aspects my life that I'd prefer quite a bit of unpredictability. If you knew exactly how, when, and where you were going to die, wouldn't that change your way of living irrevocably? Wouldn't you avoid whatever was going to kill you or enjoy it differently because you knew eventually it was going to kill you?
Wouldn't you begin to dread and mourn your death months or years before it happened?
Is that worse than the unknowable inevitable, the impending doom that could happen at any moment as it is?
To me, it is.

I fail to appreciate the burden of that knowledge. It would alter my outlook and interaction for the rest of my time on the Earth. I greatly prefer death as a concept now. We only know that it's going to happen, but other than that it's anybody's guess. It makes every moment sweeter. It makes every day we wake up to another day all the better. It makes every memory important.

It is, or I think it should be, an incredibly alarming idea to be given a task that you know is going to be your last one. You know before you leave that you are not coming back to Earth. You're not going to see it again, save for one last time as you leave it on a ship. They seem to be looking for loners or people with few connections and interpersonal relationships, which makes sense because the idea of having to say good-bye to my loved ones is unfathomable to me. In fact, the videos of the candidates I've watched almost seem to be glad to leave Earth and its people behind. They're more than ready to die out there because the prospect of staying on Earth for the rest of their lives with its inhabitants is intolerable.

Mars is very likely in our future, but someone has to pave to get us there. Someone has to do it. Someone has to be the first people on the Red Planet. But sealing my fate in such a way is so definitive, it would inform the rest of my life from here on out.

Then again, if I knew I this was how I was going to die, it'd be pretty easy to avoid going to Mars until I was ready.

Maybe that's how I'll live to be 120.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The 77th Academy Awards, Ten Years Later

Tonight are the Oscars, and I always have a lot of fun with this particular Blog post, wherein I analyze the year’s nominees and other major movies from a decade ago and see how everything stands the test of time. Last year, we covered 2003 in film, culminating with the 76th Annual Academy Awards.

I’ve held the belief for years that naming the Best Picture of any given year immediately after the year’s over is a bit soon to call it. In the moment, a movie may seem like the strongest contender, but years later (in this case, the minimum is ten years later) a winner here and there seems curiously out of place amongst the best pictures of all time. Everyone’s prime example of this is Saving Private Ryan not being a Best Picture winner. In 1998, that honor inappropriately went to Shakespeare in Love. Even then, it was a pretty curious choice. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare in Love. In terms of replay value, it’s much easier to sit down and casually enjoy a viewing of Shakespeare in Love than Private Ryan. But in terms of quality, and even in terms of standing the test of time, you have a mostly embellished historical fiction about artistry with a love story at its heart, while on the other hand you have quite possibly the best movie adaptation of the second World War that is at the heart a family drama, while being entirely engrossing and even painful in its cinematography and editing.

Another big error for me comes from 1989, when Driving Miss Daisy took the top prize. Just reading the names of the other four nominees is enough to give anyone pause nearly 3 decades later: up against Field of Dreams, My Left Foot, Dead Poets Society, and Born on the Fourth of July. I don’t know if I like Platoon or Fourth better, but it’s certainly up there. I love Field of Dreams as compared to Bull Durham, and My Left Foot is crazy moving and special. Dead Poets Society is one of my favorite movies of all time. Driving Miss Daisy, while having some very serious issues at its heart, it’s rather bland and inoffensive, serviceable, but nothing terribly ambitious like its contenders.
So throughout this post, I revisit the five nominees of the 77th Annual Academy Awards for Best Picture, and see how the eventual winner stands the test of time. I’ll also look at some of the highest-grossing films of the year for 2004 and see if any of them deserved contention, as well as some other notable films.

As a bonus at the end, I’ll also quickly gloss over the nominees from twenty years ago and see how everything stands there!

Ready?

2004 was a year of blockbuster sequels, the first year of the new millennium to not include a Lord of the Rings entry. But that didn’t mean other franchises weren’t there to take its place. Animated films and big budget action flicks were the order of the day, a few were comedies, and the Oscar bait stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, not every deserving movie was even acknowledged in the fray.

Of the final five, the range of genres is pretty well represented. We start with Sideways, featuring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, and Virigina Madsen. An intimate comedy-drama, Sideways focused on the relationship of Giamatti and Church’s characters on their final getaway before Church’s entry to wedded life. Spirited performances by the cast and an intimate setting lend itself to a strong character study with the dialogue understated and the arcs never verging into too broad, which is a credit to the awesome acting of the cast. Ultimately though, Sideways is mostly forgettable. A cute movie in a forest of louder, more audacious candidates.

The most audacious of those candidates, I would argue is Finding Neverland. Personally, one of my favorite movies of all time, the incomparable Johnny Depp plays author JM Barrie to perfection, alongside Kate Winslet, who brings strength and dignity to a rather thankless role as the mother of the Llewelyn Davies. Freddie Highmore shows some amazing prowess and control as the loose cannon brother of the four, Peter, namesake of the boy who never grew up. The drama, with bits of magical realism owing mostly to the imagination of the film’s central character, makes for But in terms of musical biopics, and biopics in general, Ray stands head and shoulders above the rest, mostly
because of Jamie Foxx’s near-flawless rendition of the legendary Ray Charles. Like I said, it’s way heavier and honest than Finding Neverland is with JM Barrie’s life, which had its fair share of darker moments that tend to get glossed over in the proceedings of most exploring the origins of Peter Pan. Ray however, journeys into the psyche of a tortured artist, a genius, a man far from perfect, and one of those explorations that asks us to see if we can separate and appreciate the man’s artistry while accepting that he lived with darkness for much of his life, literally and figuratively.

The remaining entries of course stay on the darker side. The
Aviator, another biopic, examines the life of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes played by Leonardo DiCaprio. While DiCaprio is a great actor and none of his performances have been particularly awful, I do still think he gets nominated for his more lackluster performances. Aviator is fine, but I prefer his Catch Me If You Can (which was not nominated), Blood Diamond is fine but forgettable, and he should have been nominated for The Departed instead that same year, Titanic is better than What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Aviator charts Hughes’ descent into madness as he increasingly becomes more reclusive, paranoid, and delusional. DiCaprio’s performance is something to behold and while, like I said, I prefer Catch Me If You Can as a performance by DiCaprio, but it doesn’t take anything away from Aviator. It’s a strong and brilliant portrayal, but Foxx’s Ray is more tortured, and Depp’s Barrie is full of more interesting quirk.

That brings us to our eventual winner of the year, Million Dollar Baby. Quite frankly, a darkhorse to win the top prize, with Sideways taking the majority of the “lesser” awards, and Aviator picking up the remainder (including Best Director… something that happens a curious amount more than it should, with the two awards being split, including that previously mentioned curious anomaly of Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan, with Spielberg winning the director credit). Usually the Golden Globes et al more or less predict the outcome of the Oscars. Controversial perhaps most of all for its ending, the late-entry nominee took everyone rather off-guard. It was unexpectedly good, dramatic, and clean. I personally find it to be one of Eastwood’s strongest efforts, it’s a marvelous showcase of talent for both he and Hilary Swank, and despite the criticism of its ending, I find it to be dramatically earned and appropriate. While personally, I would’ve loved to see Finding Neverland or Ray win, it makes sense to give it to Million Dollar Baby.

Ten years later for me, that’s still the movie that sticks the most from that year. Ray’s music outshines any picture of his life, and I very rarely find enough merit to award a “star vehicle” with best movie (my complaint of King’s Speech, which is all Colin Firth). (Foxx’s Best Actor win however, is more than well-deserved.) Finding Neverland’s ultimate strength and what I find most appealing is perhaps its downfall: it never quite reaches the emotional depths or the urgency of Million Dollar, Aviator, or Ray. Even Sideways, mitigated by its comedic sets, earns its share of dramatic weight.

Outside of the final five, were there any other films deserving of attention?


Most immediately, the comparison to Sideways is brought up to Closer: a four-person drama adaptation split two girls and two guys about relationships
and intimacy. I think Closer is the superior movie, and not simply because I love the play so much. Also, the cast just in comparison is top-notch: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law…four actors I consider with the utmost respect. Closer went ignored by the Academy and I think incorrectly. It could’ve made the final five over Sideways easily. The other immediate comparison is Annette Bening’s star turn in Being Julia, also set in a bygone England, also about the theater. There’s certainly a part of it that once again goes beyond the emotional depths of Finding Neverland to portray the struggling psyche of an artist. I think this one gets forgotten about a lot too, especially as a late entry, and getting overshadowed by movies like Closer and Million Dollar Baby.

It’s a little surprising to me that both Man on Fire and Ladykillers went un-nominated, though the Academy tends to avoid remakes. Still, Denzel in Man on
Fire is worth the price of admission alone, and Ladykillers is top-notch Coens, who have gained more notoriety in terms of the Academy in recent years. Less surprising to me but still surprising to some was Kill Bill Vol. 2 being overlooked. Personally, I prefer part 1, with more urgency and more storytelling told through action rather than overwrought monologues. The only true comedy that I really felt warranted some merit was Shaun of the Dead. There was no way it could have won, but simultaneously encapsulating and subverting an entire genre is one mean feat, and Simon Pegg handles it wonderfully. In terms of period pieces, the two that stand out most for me are Troy, which could have perhaps earned Eric Bana a supporting actor nomination, but it couldn’t have gone for the top prize, not with so many compelling dramas in the running. The other is Passion of the Christ. Subtitled movies occasionally make it
to the top 5 but the truly horrifying (I won’t say realistic, I’ll just say gruesome) depiction of the last days of Jesus Christ are eventually tough to stomach. It’s uncomfortable to watch and there is little dramatic payoff to the gore. I think even as a Christian, the weight of
the journey seems lost. I never understand the conflict inside the character of Jesus, I never understand the catharsis of the moment. It’s a well-made movie, but I feel it’s essentially lacking the necessary drama. It’s practically just torture porn.







In terms of the franchises, arguably the strongest of the respective anthologies came out: Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. For both, featuring the perfect mix of storytelling, matured acting, action, and fun, they became some of the highest-grossing movies of the year. Spider-Man 2 still works emotionally and dramatically. Prisoner of Azkaban hasn’t aged quite as well (especially with the trio of kids improving vastly as the series continued) but is fun nonetheless. We may never see another franchise like Lord of the Rings get Oscar nods, and Spider-Man 2 and PoA may have been the closest we’ll get.

Over in the animation department, two other high-grossing entries warrant mention, with The Incredibles from PIXAR continuing a proud tradition of strong animated features, both comedically and dramatically. Shrek 2 was also the strongest entry of its franchise, and for a time was the highest-grossing
animated film of all time. I think PIXAR has stronger possibilities for nominations (Up, Wall-E, Toy Story 3) and I’ve yet to meet a DreamWorks movie I think is moving enough to warrant such an honor, so we’ll move on.

The remaining four movies overlooked from the year, two big budget: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which cinematically was stimulating, but ultimately lacking in pretty much everything else (interesting characters, compelling plot, moving arcs); and Hotel Rwanda, suffering mostly from its pace. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was an unexpectedly good movie forgotten because of its early entry into the year, I think again features an amazing performance by Kate Winslet, and when is the Academy going to accept that Jim Carrey is a fantastically moving actor?! This would’ve been another one of my choices. Finally, Garden State featured a strong performance by Zach Braff, an expectedly strong Portman, but ultimately remembered more for its soundtrack, which has proven to be more moving than the movie itself, which I think tends to be heavyhanded in its symbolism.


So, had I had my way? Ray, Aviator, Million Dollar Baby keep their spots. Eternal Sunshine and Closer would’ve taken the other top two. I think Million Dollar Baby keeps its Oscar, though. As much as I love Finding Neverland, it just feels out of place. Taylor Hackford helming Ray or Scorese covering Aviator I think warrant the Director award more than Eastwood. Foxx as Ray is unbeatable. I question Swank’s Best Female Actor (Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake or Annette Bening), but both Supporting Actors can stay as is.

Quickly, revisiting 1994, and what a year it was. Forrest Gump, for those who haven’t seen it recently, does not hold up well. A meandering pace, borderline melodramatic interpretations of characters, and a wooden script keep this as one of the worst Best Picture winners for me. It was against Tarantino’s unbelievable Pulp Fiction, Redford’s Quiz Show, and The Shawshank Redemption, which is everything Forrest Gump is attempting to be as an Oscar movie: dramatic, introverted, conflicted, and nuanced. Needless to say, I cannot believe Forrest won over Shawshank. Some people don’t find this award as egregious, I find it almost unforgiveable. Also, Lion King was amazing, guys.

Anyway, that’s it from me. Agree? Disagree? They say hindsight is 20/20 are the Oscars as in dispute, or does everything seem business as usual? Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

SNL40 Feels Like an Ending When It Could Have Been a Beginning

I am about to express an opinion that may prove to be unpopular, and it feels like I’m in college again, sitting with a friend who just did a terrible monologue for an audition and has asked me how I honestly thought it went. It feels like I’m burning a bridge before I even cross it. But a part of me believes I am not the only who felt this way, and that it should be okay to talk about something like this if need be.

I did not like Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special.

Overall.

Of course, there were parts I absolutely loved. There were parts that landed.
But, like a typical SNL episode of the last 40 years, it had strong moments, just overall was simply an acceptable offering. There’s a reality to SNL that we as its audience never really talk about. It’s the fact that SNL traditionally does not feature strong episodes. Instead, the talented cast will often entrench themselves into one or two highlight sketches. Weekend Update is always consistently strong, and then maybe once in a while there’s a breakout sketch from the late spot, like Wayne’s World. But in a show that often features closer to 10 or 11 sketches, that’s not a great average. Of course, the other sketches will contain some highlight lines or performances but for the most part, my original point still stands: you won’t find people naming off their favorite episodes. You will find people who gravitate toward certain sketches. You will have people acknowledge that when certain people host it elevated a lot of the sketches (like Justin Timberlake) but it’s rare to find an overall solid episode, with every sketch a hit.

And you know what, that’s fine. In fact, it should be expected. I think that people who rag on the show’s declining quality since its inception are ignorant of this fact. You watch every week not because you hope it’ll finally be better. You watch every week to see those one or two standout sketches, and maybe you’ll be surprised along the way. There are performers that you will stick around for because they’re the feature. For me, it was Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen, and later on Bill Hader. If it was their character holding together the proceedings, I’d stick out a lackluster sketch just because their performances were consistently transcendent.

SNL40 felt much like a drawn out episode: some sure-fire highlights, but overall a forgettable, forced affair. Frankly, a lot of its booking simply boggled my mind. And with its extensive runtime, I find that even harder to believe that it was put together so inconsistently.

Let me start by saying I do give major kudos for everyone attempting to put together an actual episode. They could have gotten by with simple intros to montages of clips and be done with it. Personally, if they had gone that route, I would’ve liked to see something more linear, with the original cast introducing the first five or six years of the show, talking briefly about it, and then throwing to the montage. The entire original cast was there, yet we never once saw them together onstage, which was incredibly disappointing. They don’t talk about those 5 years without Lorne much on the show (although they did reference quite a bit during this special) but I would’ve liked to see some of the cast from that era reunited on the stage, especially with both Piscopo and Murphy present for the first time in ages.

But the unfortunate part of this 3-hour+ runtime was that every segment felt interminably long. Even more solid offerings wore out their welcomes a bit. It was marvelous to see Celebrity Jeopardy again, a staple of the 90s/00s when I most watched SNL. I welcomed all the random switching to get more celebrity impressions in there, and ultimately my problem with it was that it didn’t go far enough. On a night when practically every single performer is available to you, I wanted to see more highlights from the sketch. Absent were Amy Poehler’s Sharon Osbourne, any of Fallon’s impressions, any of Dana Carvey’s impressions, and they’d already squandered a straight use of Tom Hanks. The Californians sketch featured a tacked on Total Bastard Airlines reprisal with David Spade and Cecily Strong that they cut off anyway. I continually found myself asking why, on a night with a three-hour runtime are they still pressed for time. They seemingly cut off Dana Carvey’s Choppin’ Broccoli by Derek Stevens during the musical number. Everyone was very brief and stilted in their introduction of segments and during their acknowledgements. Both Seinfeld and Murphy (though I have to believe the latter was a callback bit) seemed to be done and the crew anticipated their segments being longer.

One thing a couple friends said to me was that the special was pure fan-service, and I don’t even know if it was that. I’m a huge fan of the Californians, but what an incredibly out of place sketch on this night. Weekend Update featured the three female anchors of the segment’s history (it should be four, but they seemingly have swept Cecily Strong’s brief run under the rug) and three of its strongest performers in Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Jane Curtin yet their timing was off, their jokes were flat, and they just didn’t seem that into it. When Curtin mused, “This is fun, I wish we didn’t have to stop,” I sadly felt the opposite. Nothing warranted the existence of this, and I found the celebrities as their favorite Update characters just dumb. You still have a plethora of performers who have done notable Update characters at your disposal, it didn’t do me any service to see Melissa McCarthy trotted out to do Matt Foley or Emma Stone as Rosanne Rosannadanna. In fact, quite the opposite. Those characters’ original performers are no longer with us, and I’d like to believe those characters went with them. It almost felt disrespectful to me.

Even the montages felt incredibly rushed and thrown together. It was flashes of memories, bits from segments we no longer remember the context of, and mostly silent appearances from hilarious cast members all set to music that overpowered the clips. At this point, I think a more effective use of the legacy of SNL would be to highlight some of the more memorable moments, and play those clips in entirety. With a three-hour runtime, in place of overly long sketches written to the cameos of the scenes instead of the characters we fell in love with, we could have seen some of the more important sketches from history. I mean, they didn’t even play the Michael O’Donoghue/John Belushi ESL sketch in its entirety, breaking the rhythm of Chevy Chase’s appearance in it. You couldn’t spare two more seconds to preserve Chaes’s entrance into that scene? You couldn’t somehow acknowledge that this was the very first thing audiences saw the show do in 1975? There have been some incredible moments that truly emphasize how special the show is, and that it’s live and unpredictable. They showed the highlight of the Coffee Talk when Barbra Streisand randomly showed up, but I think the build-up of that sketch is what makes that moment, and we never get to see it in its entirety, despite how often it makes its way into the show’s highlight reels.

And perhaps that’s the other problem of this show. There was no ground previously untreaded here. We’ve seen a Weekend Update tribute before, we’ve seen a tribute to the women, to those who have passed on, to the athletes who appear on the show, the political figures who appear on the show, the musicians, montages of commercials, montages of celebrity walk-ons during the cast member’s impression of them, the digital shorts and filmed segments of the show, even my idea of cast members throwing to important clips has been done, particularly at the 25th anniversary special. My complaint here I guess is that as fan-service it’s redundant. I know all these things, and my friends know all these things. If you’ve seen the other specials before (and I’ve watched the 25th anniversary countless times) then you’ve seen these clips before. It’s a little like how I feel with origin stories for superhero movies. I wasn’t the least bit sad in the Spider-Man reboot when Uncle Ben died this time. I’ve seen it so many times.

You know what ground really has never been acknowledged, and they even made fun of that fact? The writers. The list of writers for that show reads almost as famously as the cast. Michael O’Donoghue, Bob Odenkirk, Conan O’Brien, Larry David, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, John Mulaney, Al Franken, Don Novello, Alan Zweibel, Paula Pell, Patrick O’Brien, Heather Anne Campbell, Steve Higgins, Max Brooks, Jack Handey, Jim Downey, Robert Smigel, Tim Herlihy, Stephen Colbert, Lauren Kightlinger, Jay Mohr, Sarah Silverman, Herb Sargent, Whitney Brown, Rich Hall, Mary Gross… Seinfeld highlighted this fact during his segment, and yet they still weren’t acknowledged. My question: during this Q&A segment (incidentally a recycled bit from the 25th, with Tom Hanks in place of Seinfeld) why weren’t the members of the audience asking Seinfeld questions the writers? The idea of Mulaney, Higgins, Smigel, and Franken all verbally sparring with Seinfeld like Larry David did is a delicious concept. As it was, the segment was fine, but played out better in its first incarnation (bolstered by appearances by Christopher Walken and Victoria Jackson).

Maybe in place of these interminably long sketches written to cameos, there could have been some sort of feature sketches from the casts of different eras. Hey, you guys from roughly this era, pick like 3 favorite sketches. You’re gonna talk about them on the air for a bit, and then we’ll show it. Maybe not in its entirety, but the majority of it, you know? The problem with a lot of the montages was that without context, they are not funny, and for a remarkably long-lasting show that created such remarkably indelible characters, with remarkably funny segments, this show was remarkably devoid of genuine laughs. It’s a symptom of the show’s shift of emphasis over the years, where things are written to the celebrity cameos, and celebrities are shoe-horned into segments they don’t belong, often being unnecessarily added to a legacy character (like when Chris Martin or Gwenyth Paltrow were added to the Garth and Kat segment. WAIT A MINUTE, Martin and Paltrow!? Aww, how sad). And these “new” sketches (the Californians chief among them, but also that hosting segment near the top of the show) was written with so many walk-ons, instead of relying on the strength of writing and character, that everything fell flat and wore out its welcome.


Was it all bad? Of course not. A lot of it just felt awkward. It felt like when the Tony’s or the Golden Globes go wrong.

But there were some amazing moments. Keith Richards introducing Paul McCartney. I know a lot of younger fans may not grasp the irony of that moment. But you got a Rolling Stone to introduce a Beatle on live television. That’s just fantastic.

Chris Rock talking about Eddie Murphy was electric, and Rock seemed to be one of the only performers comfortable with standing out there on that stage being himself. New cast member Pete Davidson standing alongside Leslie Jones did not fare so well later on in the show (I mean, Jones was fantastic, Davidson looked uncomfortable). Kevin Nealon, Norm MacDonald, Seth Meyers, and Colin Quinn introducing Chevy Chase were also uncomfortable (although that’s always been MacDonald’s bit, but Meyers attempting to diffuse the tension didn’t seem to go over well). It’s too bad that Murphy’s return was not as triumphant as Rock built it up to be. It would have been truly special to hear some humor come from the normally now-reserved Murphy, but he didn’t say much and the segment ended awkwardly. As did the Update segment, introducing Chevy Chase. A lot of younger fans again may not realize that it’s been 30 odd years since Murphy was on that stage, and it’s been a good few since Chase was banned from the show, so to have them both back and make such reserved appearances is rather unfortunate.

What’s also unfortunate is that one thing the show managed to do, perhaps inadvertently, was highlight the age and the passing of time for a lot of the performers. One friend brought up the grim idea that the decision was made to do a 40-year celebration, because many people might not make it to 50. Looking at some of the performers last night while I watched, I was not moved to think any of them are going to die soon (God forbid) but they all looked much older, and moved much changed from years past. There was something incredibly sad about Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd descending the steps as the Blues Brothers, arm-in-arm, and proceeding into a pretty low-key performance as what was decades ago the most electric musical performance on the show. Chase looked even older than he had on Community. Curtin looked older than I’d remembered her. Even “younger” performers looked older than I’d remembered: a remarkable Jim Carrey looks like Ace Ventura’s father, Alec Baldwin’s hair has gone a bit gray, Seinfeld and Darrell Hammond, and even Quinn, Nealon, and even Meyers and Pohler, look more mature than the kids they once were on the show in years past. All comic heroes of mine, I was reminded of the passage of time, and as much as I hate to think it, there may have been some truth to my friend’s words.

One person who has aged extremely gracefully (not to say the previously mentioned have not aged well) is Laraine Newman, who was extremely spirited in her appearances. Another is Bill Murray. While looking much older as expected, Murray I think gave the standout performance of the evening, belting out the previously unreleased love song from JAWS. It was fantastic getting to see him reunited with Paul Shaffer. This was an example of playing on nostalgia done correctly. In fact, a lot of that musical montage was quite good. From Martin Short and Maya Rudolph’s Beyonce (both always top notch) introducing everyone, to Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer reprising Bobbi and Marty Culp, to the aforementioned Murray as Nick Winters. A couple of the others were mostly miss, but I think overall that segment was fantastic.

Another segment that worked was when Andy Samberg got to produce another Digital Short for the occasion, and joining him was Adam Sandler, to sing about when people have broke on the show and laughed during a sketch. The revelation at the end that the melody was Simply the Best by Tina Turner was great.

And finally of the sketches, the one that surprised me the most, which should come as no surprise, was Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprising Wayne and Garth. My whole thing about comics aging did not apply here. The two appeared ageless, unchanged, and slipped easily right back into these characters as if they’d never left the late spot on the show. The Top Ten list was the perfect mix of nostalgia, banter, catchphrase, running joke, and congratulation to the show’s achievements.

The musical performances were also great. McCartney and Simon are still on top of their games. Say what you will about Kanye as a person, but as a performer, he’s surprisingly moving. Same goes for Miley, who seemed a bit out of place on the show, but gave an awesome performance as well.

The in memoriam was also wonderful. Classy, dignified, and I was appreciative of the crew and staff getting acknowledgements as well. You could also hear people in the audience saying their names when they’d come up and that was very moving to me. I’ve always gotten the impression that it’s such a family there, and the crew is so important to any production. Also, the running joke of Jon Lovitz dying was hilarious. His reactions were great. As classy and dignified as the segment was, I thought the closing jokes were wonderful.

What the show was sorely missing for me was something new. SNL has a long-lasting legacy and if it were to end tomorrow, it would still be remembered forever. It’s truly touched so many people, and influenced so many comedians to get into comedy and changed the direction of comedy for years not just on TV but in film and all media. But I think they hung back for this special. When The Simpsons Movie came out, they pulled out all the stops. They didn’t just hang back on nostalgia, they gave us a new, longer, ambitious episode. They gave us top-notch comedy, a fun, zany plot, and succeeded in giving back some of the characters’ hearts (Lisa and Homer in particular). In short, they insisted on their own relevancy by going above and beyond what they needed to do. What the SNL40 special failed to do for me, in my mind, was insist on its own relevancy. A few sketches here and there have pushed the envelope again, and many fail to make air. The show doesn’t always need to be edgy, dangerous, envelope-pushing, but it does need to not become so self-referential and recycled that it comes to exist purely in a bubble of nostalgia and celebrity cameos. I think SNL40 could have been their chance to highlight the next generation, to have the current cast meet some of their heroes, to maybe generate some new material with the unlimited and amazing abilities of almost every talented performer and writer on hand. The one glimpse of that was Cecily Strong paired with David Spade as the TBA flight attendants. The live audience seemed to miss her amazing lines. She was great! She was suddenly holding her own with David Spade, a man who made his career on barbs and snipes like this. There needed to be more of that. There simply wasn’t enough. The current cast was either non-existent, or playing bit parts while the more recognized work-horses of the show were given prominence. That’s all well and good, but for the show’s legacy to continue to shine, these work-horses should have been given something more to do with the next generation. Not enough passing of the torch was had, and SNL seemed comfortable with its legacy as it stands, not needing to add anything new. It could have been kind of a new beginning for SNL, with the enormity of its legacy backing it, but they didn’t grasp the opportunity.


Solid music, a stand-out appearance by Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Chris Rock, Laraine Newman, and Maya Rudolph, a strong opening number from Fallon and Timberlake, a great digital short, and a surprisingly strong closing sketch. That’s a pretty strong average episode of the show. If Weekend Update had worked better, it’d be an above-average episode. But it wasn’t an average episode. It was supposed to be a celebration of 40 years. It felt like what should have been an ending, but a combination of its rushed nature, its crammed cameos, and SNL’s repeated celebration of itself over the years made this somehow feel less special than it could have been. So even as an ending it didn’t work. I hope SNL continues to run for many years to come. I hope that this night inspires the upcoming generation of the cast to strive and push for something new and make the show what it has been for the better part of these 40 years. I hope that while it could’ve been more evident in the special’s proceedings, I hope it is taken as a new beginning for the show. And finally, I hope somehow, it inspired one more kid out there somewhere to be a comedian, as the show once did for me, many years ago, way past my bedtime, laughing at gods and giants of comedy.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Unseen Footage's Double Feature: Dumb and Dumber

Still on a bit of a hiatus, but meanwhile, the podcast plugs on. We're going to be changing some of the way we do the episodes so I'm excited about that in the New Year.

But anyway, I really love this episode, and the conversations Claire and I have for this one. So enjoy!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Gone Fishin'

For personal reasons, nothing too serious...

Be back in 2015, folks.