Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Only 7 Christmas Songs I Can Stand Anymore

As I've gotten older, I've had to face one inevitable fact: I've grown less and less warm to Christmas music. It's not that I hate it, I don't have that strong of a feeling toward it, but I've just found that years removed from being a kid, I've found less and less Christmas music to be excited about.

I love really alternative stuff, that's always fun. Punk Rock Christmas, James Brown's, Elvis', and Motown's Christmas Albums are all really awesome. And who doesn't love Feliz Navidad? Once? (Not more than once.)

But the majority of the time, I just haven't bothered putting Christmas music back on my iPod at this time of year (I didn't do it all this year) and I've managed to avoid any stores or areas where they're blasting carols.

I still find a lot of the religious music moving, surprisingly. But it has to be done especially well. Too often, I find singers emoting way too much on a song as simple as Little Drummer Boy or The First Noel. Just sing the song. I'm sure the Lord would've preferred to sleep anyway.
(But if you want to hear a really good religious song done well, find Whitney Houston's Go Tell It On the Mountain. And then go tell it on a mountain how much you love it.)

Here's The Only 7 Christmas Songs I Can Stand Anymore (Even Though I Cheated a Bit)

1.) All I Want for Christmas Is You - Love Actually
Move aside Mariah Carey, because I prefer Olivia Olson's joyous, more innocent version of the song. The fact that the scene is one of many great scenes in this ridiculous movie makes it even more special.
This song actually leads me to talk about the entire soundtrack, which is awesome. It's not a traditional "Christmas" album, but it's romantic, it's uplifting, and it's upbeat. What more do you want from a Christmas album?
I do make a couple replacements... "Christmas is All Around" is kind of an annoying song, so I replaced it with the audio of the opening scene I lifted straight from the movie, complete with my favorite Billy Mack (played by Bill Nighy) quote: "Oh! Fuck wank bugger shitting arse head and hole!" And I replace the heartbreaking track of Joni Mitchell singing "Both Sides Now" with a live version of the same song. It's amazing. And on the song Hugh Grant dances to ("Jump" by the Pointer Sisters) I add in the radio DJ's message before the post, and I splice in the bit of dialogue he has with his assistant, before the music cuts back in (which doesn't happen in the movie, but I thought was funny).
And if a guy ever says he hates Love Actually, it's because he has no soul. 

2.) Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree - Home Alone
It's a pretty definitive Christmas album if ever there was one, composed by one of the masters of cinematic scores, John Williams.
Now, there are three albums to be aware of: the first movie's soundtrack, the second movie's, and a Home Alone Christmas album combining highlight holiday songs from both movies. More of my favorites exist on the first movie's soundtrack though, but incidentally, Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" is only an in-movie sound cue and not included on the soundtrack, so I added it in, because out of everything, that's actually my favorite song in this whole movie.
There is admittedly one other change I make to the soundtrack on my iPod, and it's "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", because I just love Judy Garland's version and prefer it to Mel Torme's, used in the movie.
I would've changed "Carol of the Bells" too, but this is a really great version, and I have a separate version that also makes this list.
Other than that, enjoy Williams' awesome score!

3.) O Tannenbaum - A Charlie Brown Christmas
There's three things I can't imagine a Christmas without: the Coca Cola Bears, the Christmas Story marathon, and Charlie Brown. The Vince Guaraldi Trio capture perfectly not only Christmas joy, but the spirit of the Peanuts perfectly.
You can hear hints of Charlie Brown sound cues throughout, and there's a lot of great tracks, but this one that opens the Christmas special, is absolutely my favorite. Anytime a classic get remixed tastefully, I'm always in favor of.
Anytime I hear this soundtrack though, I can immediately see every scene from the Charlie Brown Christmas special crystal clear. It's a testament to how good the Trio is.
People also point to Linus as the most inoffensive evangelist of all time, with his retelling of the Christmas story, and even though he points to Jesus as the reason for the season, we can all take from that what Jesus really stood for: kindness, peace, and love.
I do make one change to the soundtrack though: I substitute the instrumental "Christmas Song" for Nat King Cole's version. Because you also can't have Christmas without Nat King Cole's "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." (So that's four things. Whoops.)

4.) Don't Save It All For Christmas Day - Clay Aiken
The schlockiest holiday song I have on my list is this cover of Celine Dion's Christmas song by American Idol season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken.
Like any Christmas song, the message is incredibly simple, and it's not overdone here. Sung live, Aiken really powers out the key change note and it's awe-inspiring. On the recording, it's a little more subdued, but by no means less impressive.
The thing that separates Aiken from Celine for me too is that I believe Aiken when he sings it. I believe him when he sings anything. There's an inherent sincerity to his voice that Celine, for all her power and bravado, often misses for me.
I can forgive the corny lyrics and sappy, saccharine ideology if only because Clay's voice carries absolute conviction that almost makes me say, "Oh, of course, why didn't I think of doing this sooner!?"

5.) Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24 - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
When I talk about remixing old songs into something new and awesome, this is the end all, be all. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra's medley is an epic version of "Carol of the Bells." Mixed in is "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", and it's entirely instrumental. There's mostly no bells though, because it's taken over by an impressive string section (electric guitars, violins, and the like) and drums and if you see it live, an amazing light disply.
I like my Christmases cozy and intimate too, but every once in a while, you just need a truly epic and bombastic anthem to get behind and this is it right here. I've heard other attempts to modernize other songs and they're mostly hit or miss, but this one is right on the mark.

6.) Batman Returns Soundtrack
Now, this one is a bit more of a personal call for me, your mileage may very.
I love Nightmare Before Christmas, but it makes far more sense to listen to that at Halloween for me. There's just not enough of it that's Christmas enough for me, with the exception of "Making Christmas" (of which, I really love the Rise Against cover for the Nightmare Revisited soundtrack. Marilyn Manson sings "This Is Halloween" so, that should be enough argument for you to download it already).
But Danny Elfman still gets representation on the list here, because much like how the Vince Guaraldi Trio found the intersection of Christmas and the Peanuts, Elfman finds a way to combine Gotham's most ruthless vigilante with a bright and shiny holiday. Of course, there's nothing shiny and happy about a Batman-based Christmas soundtrack, but like I said, this is a pretty personal call for me.
When I was a kid, Batman Returns was the predominant version of Batman I had (The Animated Series was just starting to make a name for itself) and I had already seen the original Batman movie. But this one, set at Christmas, and with a really excellent SNES game to accompany it, immediately sends me back to childhood.
I can clearly feel the carpet beneath my numb feet as I knelt in front of the glow of the television, playing through Batman Returns which had much of the same soundtrack as the movie.
In particular, the "Fight Against the Circus" and "Wild Ride / Rooftops" evokes enough Christmas spirit to me, along with a sense of Batman adventure, and is completely Elfman-esque, reminding me of both Beetlejuice and Nightmare.  
Again, your mileage may vary, but if you're looking for an interesting, off-beat Christmas album, I think you won't be disappointed with the greatness of this instrumental.

7.) Joy to the World - Glenn Close, Placido Domingo
And finally, a little old-school traditional Christmas song of the religious nature never hurt anyone.
Especially if it's one of the Three Tenors and frikkin' Glenn Close knockin' the roof off the joint.
I don't enjoy many of the religious songs anymore, like I said, but other than "Whitney's Go Tell It On the Mountain" (and also Julie Andrews' "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", if you like), this is probably all you need.
Domingo sings the first verse, Close plays it close to the vest in the second, and then they both just let it rip on the final verse. There's back-phrasing, belting, and bravado like you've never heard. Backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, the result is astronomical.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Disney's New Renaissance, Part 2: Are We In the New Golden Age?

In my first entry, I discussed some of the reasons the Renaissance was such an effective period of moviemaking and animation. Summed up, it was a time of ambitious, fearless projects, with strong, relateable protagonists, enhanced by a caliber writing teams creating signature songs for a host of dynamic supporting casts voiced by talented actors. It's a challenge to make all of that come together for a single movie, the fact that it easily managed that several times in a row speaks also to the amazing faith of executives (Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Ron Miller) who wanted the animation department to survive, having been very special to Walt himself, and giving Disney some of its most timeless characters.
In this second part of my two-part talk, I want to go into the current set of films, and discuss each of them more in-depth in terms of their Renaissance counterparts.

The creative team behind this current string of movies is certainly worthy of accolade, and the movies themselves are certainly noteworthy, but like I said in the first entry, I hesitate to declare a new Renaissance so readily, so immediately. I understand current society's need and want to have immediate feedback and make each moment so historically important so we can be a part of something and feel a part of something wide-reaching. While the revival movies are certainly wonderful, I think some time and distance is going to be necessary to judge these movies fairly. Remember, the Renaissance movies are now all close to 30 years old and they're still classics years later. I'm not saying that these current movies won't be regarded as classics 30 years from now, but I do want to see how they make a name for themselves after the initial flurry settles down.

The Beginning of the New Beginning: The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Based on the story "The Frog Princess" which itself is based on Grimm's "The Frog Prince", and one of three from the current era based in fairy tale (also common among the three is the fact that their titles change throughout production).
Princess and the Frog marked a return to traditional animation as well as animated musicals similar to what we'd gotten used to in the Renaissance.
Similar as well was the fact that Disney Animation was again facing lackluster movies and low critical and financial returns.
Treasure Planet had been an overblown dud, Brother Bear was mostly unimpressive, both Home on the Range and Chicken Little were seen as failures, and Meet the Robinsons and Bolt were only modest successes.
The New Orleans-set story of a waitress dreaming to own a restaurant and the poor prince turned frog out of a Voodoo curse had a lot going for it: Ron Clements and John Musker had worked through the Renaissance and were directing for this movie.
The strongest parts of the cast are Anika Noni Rose playing Tiana (billed as the canon's first black Disney princess), Jenifer Lewis as Mama Odie, and Keith David as The Shadow Man. David's strong and seductively powerful character also had one of the best villain songs in a while: "Friends on the Other Side", and Mama Odie was a wonderful guide, with an equall strong "Dig a Little Deeper", full of great sight gags, and some awesome lyric.
Also of strong note is Jim Cummings, in one of my favorite vocal performances from him ever, as Ray the firefly. A lot of soul and a lot of love is in his character, and it's actually the more effective love story of the movie to me.
I have some personal feelings about the message that's being put forth by the movie itself due to the choices they make, but that aside, there's a lot to praise: some of the animation sequences are throwbacks to Emperor's New Groove, the ambitious jazz-inspired music of New Orleans pervades much of the sound and helps elevate the story. For once, it feels like a true "American fairy tale" and that's quite an accomplishment.
The first movie to compare it against is The Little Mermaid. What sets the Renaissance apart from the Revival is this immediate comparison: the movie that kicks off the Renaissance is a true fantasy about a mermaid from an undersea kingdom. The movie that initiates the Revival is immediately more relateable without suspending disbelief: a New Orleans waitress who dreams of owning a restaurant? Substitute the location and the dream and you've got every young kid. But both Ariel and Tiana have a dream of something more and it makes us care about the character and get behind them in a big way.
The obvious comparison is to Tiana's counterparts who are fellow minority princesses: Jasmine in Aladdin, along with Mulan, and Pocahontas. In this comparison, I find Tiana almost unique. Jasmine and Pocahontas are both defiant of their fathers and Mulan takes matters into her own hands to protect her father. While an absent father figure is nothing new to Disney movies, a child fulfilling a promise to a parent is something decidedly non-Disney.
I also enjoy the comparison to the non-Disney Swan Princess, which was a little sadder and more meandering in tone and pace respectively, so I enjoyed how Princess and the Frog moved much more.
Tiana's one of the better-developed characters from Disney of recent memory, not just among the princesses and so I think in this case, she gets the edge over the Renaissance, but overall, the movie lacks a bit of magic from that era, though the "friends on the other side" are truly frightening.

A New Kind of Princess: Tangled (2010)
2010 signaled the transition toward computer animation being utilized more permanently (Winnie the Pooh a year later would be done in traditional animation again) with this Rapunzel adaptation which was actually a blend of both styles.
Tangled, though I find the name objectionable on an aesthetic level, was a more familiar throwback to the Renaissance, with an interesting and quirky Princess and Menken provided the music.
The cast, while a bit unorthodox, was quite effective: Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, Zachary Levi as Flynn, and Donna Murphy as Mother Gothel.
What set apart the Renaissance princesses were quirky personalities and subtle subversions of the expected stereotype. Tiana was self-made and Rapunzel was quite adventurous and independent. Moore brought a wonderful enthusiasm to her.
I also love the interesting villain of Mother Gothel, who initially seems like only a protective mother, concerned for her daughter's well-being. And even though the audience knows better, I always enjoy when it's not immediately obvious to the characters in the story why a character is evil. It's a solid surprise that makes them fall even further in the hero's eyes and is the mark of a strongly-written villain character.
Pasqual is also my favorite non-speaking animal supporting character in quite some time.
I compare Tangled most readily to Jasmine as well, someone cooped up, locked away from regular life. She also draws close comparisons to Belle, another bookworm. While I love the music and the animation was lovely, it's hard for me to take this over Jasmine and Belle, my two cartoon crushes when I was a kid. Sorry, Revival.

An Old-School Tribute: Winnie the Pooh (2011)
Everything about a new Winnie the Pooh screamed nostalgia. It's hard to compare the new movie to anything from the Renaissance since most of Pooh and Friends' adventures took place pre-that period.
I prefer much of The Many Adventures but what I'm proud of this Winnie the Pooh movie for not attempting to make a new style of Winnie the Pooh movie, like how they were puppets on Playhouse Disney for a while.
While it was extremely disconcerting hearing almost all new voices on all the characters (except the incomparable Jim Cummings still playing Pooh and Tigger), I thought they were all wonderful, particularly Craig Ferguson's Owl, but everyone made me feel right at home again in the Hundred Acre Wood. The formula for a Winnie the Pooh movie remains entirely unaltered, and surprisingly, the formula still works. While I award the movies based on the merits of their ambitions, Pooh stands quite considerably apart: strikingly traditional, and while maybe occasionally predictable, still refreshing in its familiar-feeling jokes and beats.
It felt like the movie was grossly under-marketed, with the exception of the wonderfully touching trailer, set to Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know". And it's an underrated movie, immediately drawing comparisons for me to Rescuers Down Under, whose marketing got pulled once it failed to do well on its opening weekend.
I loved the old-school throwback, though I do prefer the original voices, who just got the characters more, and the stories are unforgettable in the original Many Adventures.
But on one merit alone, I find this whole franchise truly amazing: for decades I've managed to say the name of the character "Pooh" without feeling weird.

Renewed Confidence: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Ralph marks a unique turnaround in the Disney/Pixar unofficial competition: Wreck-It Ralph, made in a Pixar style, was a Disney movie that outperformed Pixar's actual outing, Brave, which had a decidedly Disney feel to it.
In a Freaky Friday sort of situation where they switched with each other, it was Disney that reigned supreme.
Being a non-musical entry, the film most immediately compares to the Renaissance's Rescuers Down Under, and while I have infinite love for the mice and that John Candy-voiced Albatross, I have to give the tip of the hat to Ralph.
One thing that Pixar is especially good at is world-building. In addition to fantastic stories, you are introduced to an entire world with its own set of rules and laws, a sense of hierarchy and tradition, and customs and culture. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and The Incredibles are among my highest-rated. There are new kinds of physics introduced, along with environments and philosophies that we as the audience understand because the characters are so clear about them without ever feeling like they're front-loading exposition on us. The characters are vaguely human in this way. The Monsters and the ants of A Bug's Life are factory workers, clocking in, taking breaks, organizing under middle management. Nemo goes to school and his first day includes a class field trip. Wall-E's backstory is dark and while it could have easily been much preachier, easily manages to avoid that pitfall.
The arcade world of Wreck-It Ralph is littered with pop culture references for the video game crowd, both serious and casual, as well as those who grew up in the 80's, 90's, or 00's. But it's governed by specific laws and by-laws that make the world unique. Being based in an arcade of different games allows the sets to be diverse and see so many different, unique aspects of a single world.
For all of its dynamic characters, the worlds of Toy Story are remarkably static, with 1 consisting mostly of Andy's bedroom and some of the house (with a third act in Sid's much more evil room). While 2 has a much more expansive detour to the Toy Barn, the airport, and again Andy's house, it revolves mostly around Al's apartment. And 3 is contained almost entirely within the preschool, with many of the sets similar (the Butterfly room is really only a different color from the Caterpillar room). Many of the other Pixar movies are the same. The worlds are well-developed, but very self-contained. With Ralph, I feel there are quite literally worlds of possibilities and we only got to see a small handful of them (Ralph and Felix's, the race track candy world of Sugar Rush, and the tension-filled first person shooter Hero's Duty, along with the wonderful Grand Central Terminal, where all the video games intersect through the power cords).
Ralph manages to contain both a well-established dynamic world and easily compelling characters, from John C. Reilly's Wreck-It Ralph, to Sarah Silverman's glitchy Vanellope, and Jack McBrayer's Felix and Jane Lynch's Sergeant Calhoun. Even Alan Tudyk's Ed Wynn impression for the Candy King is remarkable, and is another example of a subtly brilliant villain. His speech to Ralph that ends the second act had me fooled and I still didn't think he was the villain of the piece.
Vanellope's character is effectively the "princess" of the piece and she and Lynch's Calhoun easily subvert the Disney Princess trope. Both are strong-willed, independent women and both admirable female role models to me.
I can't think of an immediate comparison from the Renaissance era to match Wreck-It, it stands decidedly on its own, though the Pixar comparison is more apt. It succeeds on levels that only Pixar was once thought capable of, and in many ways it is superior to some of Pixar's weaker entries (I'd rank it above Bug's Life and there's a part of me that ties it closely with Monsters Inc., so I don't know who edges out whom).

Approaching Excellence: Frozen (2013)
And now we reach the instigator of this entire discussion, this years' Frozen. 
Again, going back to Broadway for its roots, the songs were composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who previously did music for Winnie the Pooh and the stage version of Finding Nemo) and her husband Robert Lopez, who is responsible for two Tony Award-winning musicals: Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, and most of its cast are Broadway veterans: Idina Menzel, Santino Fontana, Josh Gad, and Jonathan Groff.
An unexpected surprise is Kristen Bell as the lead, who, like Mandy Moore, brought a wonderful personality out of her character Anna. She's so earnest and quirky, it makes for a wonderful combination.
What is really curious about the marketing of the film was that they were focusing mostly on Josh Gad's character of the snowman, Olaf. It seemed like they were trying to market something similar to Aladdin's Genie, or Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa. I wasn't sure what the intent was, but the fact that it was about sisters, or the magical powers of Elsa would have been enough to bring people to this film. If anything, I wasn't looking forward to it initially because of the push of Olaf (who is actually way more cool in the full-length film than he is in the commercials). Frozen is a perfect reestablishment of the status quo. Much like Shawn of the Dead simultaneously parodied zombie movies while also creating a legitimately awesome zombie movie, Frozen makes fun of some of the Disney tropes while also wonderfully subverting them and making them feel new. "Love at first sight", and "an act of true love" are both given new meaning. A sister dynamic has never been used in a Disney film animated before. Most of the male and female heroes are decidedly solo acts, either orphans or only children, or a miserable combination of both. It's very interesting to have a Disney movie focusing on a sister act, which makes me love it.
Of course, the music is wonderful, particularly Elsa's solo "Let It Go", and there's strong echoes of Idina Menzel's previous performance as Elphaba in Wicked. There's actually a lot of parallels: a daughter who's powers make her an outcast and set her apart from her non-magic sister who feels neglected and underappreciated, and when she is finally allowed to use her powers it leads to misunderstandings with the "common folk."

That said, I think Frozen is the most fully realized piece of this new Revival era, which compares it to Beauty and the Beast (which also features a powerful, misunderstood outcast). But the Renaissance was faster in that turnaround, with it starting with Little Mermaid in '89, and hitting full-stride by '91, it's taken the Revival twice as long.
This is more a comment on just how good Frozen is rather than how weak the rest of this Revival is. They are all arguably good, but that only goes so far. Are we seeing an improvement in the Disney Animated product overall? Definitely. These last few movies have been the highest-rated and most financially successful animated movies Disney has produced (without Pixar) in a couple decades.
I'm still hesitant to call it a new Renaissance, but there is definitely a reinvigorated energy in the product. With continuing to hire smart composers and songwriters, excellent and unexpected voice casting, and strong stories bolstered by dynamic protagonists (and with John Lasseter now at the helm of animation) I think we're well on our way to seeing something approaching the marvelous films of the Renaissance era. Until then, let's all just enjoy the ride, shall we?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Disney's New Renaissance, Part 1: The Original Golden Age

A couple nights ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Disney's Frozen.
I'm rather enamored of Disney right now, having also recently seen Saving Mr. Banks, the decidedly Disney-fied version of the events that led to the creation of the beloved Mary Poppins.
An interesting discussion that has arisen both online and amongst friends of mine is whether or not Disney is entering its second Renaissance. It's quite an ambitious declaration. After all, the Disney Renaissance is not lightly named; it is one of the most commercially, critically, and financially successful string of animated movies Disney ever produced as an animation studio.
Does the presumption hold some merit? Is it too early to tell? Is the claim even valid? Well, to answer the questions about the current Renaissance, one has to travel back in time, to when it all started.

Disney's Return to Excellence - The Origin Stories of The Renaissance
It took a lion, a genie, a beast,
a warrior, a hunchback, a mermaid,
a princess, a hunchback, and a demi-god
to save a mouse.
Walt Disney Animation was floundering after both Roy and Walt had passed away and the films made under the new regime were generally regarded as lackluster and uninspired. Probably the worst of these was The Black Cauldron, which failed to impress entirely (though I've never had a problem with it) though some of them are pretty middling efforts as compared with the pioneering gems Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. 
It was the modest successes of The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit that gave the animation department enough executive goodwill to produce some more ambitious projects.
Around this time, the infamous Don Bluth incident occurred, where Bluth, a lead animator with Disney, walked out with 11 other animators to start his own studio. In this period, Bluth was taking it hard to Disney.
Great Mouse Detective opened opposite Bluth's An American Tail and was out-performed
and Oliver & Company couldn't beat the record-breaking Land Before Time.

The first entry of the Renaissance was about a protagonist wanting, as many of them would end up wanting, something more.
The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, and signaled a return to form for Disney Animation. It was the first collaboration of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and set many other tenets of the Renaissance films as well. It also was the first effort to outperform Bluth and All Dogs Go To Heaven.
Second was The Rescuers Down Under, which people tend to forget about as part of the Renaissance for several reasons. It being a non-musical hinders its inclusion, but it warrants quite a bit of merit for being the first (and thus far only) theatrically released sequel to a Disney animated movie and would've been a bigger box office success had it not been for the fact that it was opening on the same holiday weekend as a mammoth holiday hit: Home Alone.
Many argue the Renaissance hit full-stride with 1991's Beauty and the Beast and I'm inclined to agree. It was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Aladdin hit just a year later and the praise was not unlike Pixar's successful run of critically acclaimed hits.

The unfortunate passing of Howard Ashman did not hinder the quality, because it led to Tim Rice joining up, and that paved the way for...
The Lion King in 1994. It and Pocahontas started production at the same time, and it was believed behind-the-scenes to be the less prestigious of the two. While Pocahontas was no slouch by any means, (though it is the lowest reviewed of the era) it was the unlikely Lion King that went on to become the most successful film of the era, the highest-grossing hand-animated film of all time, and the only animated film made by Disney Animation on the list of top 50 highest-grossing films ever.

Both Pocahontas in 1995 and 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame had music provided by Menken and Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz, and may be the darkest entry of the Renaissance.
Hercules in 1997 was vibrant and bright and restored a lot of the younger demographic that had been lost by Hunchback.
Mulan in 1998 and Tarzan in 1999 close out the era with two strong stories and two compelling protagonists and some strong music, Mulan by Jerry Goldsmith, Matthew Wilder, and David Zippel, and then Tarzan by Mark Mancina and Phil Collins.

What made the Renaissance work?
The Renaissance was not something they were aware of as it was happening, which is the only reason I hesitate to immediately name this the revival of that period, even though Disney is posting the highest reviews it has in over a decade, or pretty much since this very period.

But there were things evident back then that tied all the movies together and made it such a bright period of creativity and possibility. What elements specifically made the era so fun?

Diversity of Sources
If you take a look at the period prior to the Renaissance, it's affectionately called "The British cycle" and most of the stories are based on famous British fairy tales: Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Robin Hood, Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Toad (Mr. Ichabod Crane belongs to the States), 101 Dalmatians, Sword in the Stone, Aristocrats, and even The Rescuers all came from the Isles, and inexplicably, The Great Mouse Detective was an American story idea based in England, and Oliver & Company of course, based on the British novel by Dickens, was set in the States.

The Renaissance had a number of sources, and a number of inspirations.
Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were both fairy tales, the former by Hans Christian Andersen, the latter a French fairy tale; Tarzan was based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, Rescuers Down Under was an original sequel based on the original British novels, Aladdin is an Arabian fairy tale, Hercules is Greek myth (ironically with gospel-based music), Mulan is Chinese legend, Hunchback is a French novel, and Pocahontas was based on the life of the titular character.

The Lion King is unique as an original story, though its basis in Hamlet is pretty obvious. And of course, it draws on African music and culture for some inspiration of it setting.
It makes for some really interesting stories when the sources become less homogeneous and it allows for some very different characters that more audiences can relate to. As Disney's reach and audience became much more international, the protagonists and supporting characters and even the villains had to diversify. It's also easier to have that with stories that various cultures are familiar with.

The Renaissance, unlike the period that preceded it, was ambitious in terms resetting the status quo. The first trend that was bucked was the idea of what constitutes a Disney Princess. Belle was a reader, Jasmine wanted life outside the palace, and she, Pocahontas and Ariel wanted to be able to think for themselves. Mulan was very much the same, and she was even delving into the ideals of feminism and equality. Miss Bianca, Esmeralda, and Meg were all very sure of themselves and confident, self-styled women. Jane was an explorer and unafraid of going it alone.

And the men had a strong showing as well: Aladdin the adventurer, Tarzan the world's first parkour expert, Quasimoto (who can't relate to the guy who feels constantly outcast?), Hercules, the Genie...
As much as I don't want it to become a feminism debate, there is an obvious need (imagined or not) for movie promoters to sell to either "boys" or "girls". The recent example of Tangled makes it pretty obvious that executives still see them as separate demographics. Flynn and his horse were marketed towards boys to get them to come see a Rapunzel flick. But the Rapunzel character's pretty good too (but we'll get to that later) and every movie of the Renaissance managed to play to both sides of the gender line without patronizing either. Basically, kids growing up each found a character they could relate to. As a 90s kid, I could attest to this. I have a deep personal connection to the Renaissance, which maybe gives me a bit of "nostalgia fog" when trying to judge these movies fairly against the current crop of movies. Nonetheless, were there other elements that helped capture the magic that eluded Disney Animation for two decades?

Howard Ashman
It is a credit to all the songwriters of this period that the Renaissance might be most remembered for its music. But in particular, with Howard Ashman providing lyrics for the first few movies, earning award nominations and wins for his movies.
There is a reason that Disney movies are often seen as animated Broadway musicals, because the teams that wrote them were so engrossed in musical theatre themselves.
Also, it's because the characters had so much heart, and that is after all what most defines musical theatre characters. We cared about the characters because they cared so much about the world around them.
Ashman in particular was able to effectively convey want and need in concise and clever lyric, even managing subtle exposition without it ever feeling like we were being background filled-in.
When Ashman passed, Beauty and the Beast was dedicated to him:
To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991."

True Love, but Other Important Lessons Too
Of course, true love doesn't go away, not for Disney. It's always a staple of their movies. But how it's presented is always different and some of it is successful, some of it isn't. I talk about it at length in a previous Blog entry.

There are also other important things Disney taught us during this time, and what makes it really special is that this period is especially good at not being preachy about their lessons. They're simple, but incredibly subtle.
Aladdin's is be yourself. Mulan told us to never give up on something we believe in. Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Hunchback taught us to appreciate the world around us. Lion King was much in line with Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility.

The characters all found love along the way, but they weren't really looking for it.
Sure, everything was love at first sight, it always is. But the Renaissance found a way to suspend disbelief and make the characters come from a real enough place that we bought it all.

The Voices
It may seem like a fairly obvious point, but celebrity voice casting hadn't really been done until Aladdin, and it made for some really excellent vocal performances.
Would these movies have been the same? See how many of these names you recognize and if you can remember whom they played during the Renaissance:
Rosie O'Donnell
Glenn Close
Brian Blessed
Eddie Murphy
Nathan Lane
Rowan Atkinson
James Earl Jones
Matthew Broderick
Whoopi Goldberg
Jonathan Taylor Thomas
Cheech Marin
Jim Cummings
Gilbert Gottfried
Frank Welker
Lea Salonga
Jerry Orbach
Angela Lansbury
David Ogden Stiers
Mel Gibson
Tom Hulce
Jason Alexander
Kevin Kline
Demi Moore
Danny DeVito
James Woods
George C. Scott
Bob Newhart
Eva Gabor
and John Candy

Monday, December 16, 2013

Gorilla Position: WWE's TLC Pay-Per-View: History Is Made

Last night was the TLC Pay-Per-View which, unlike the Hell in the Cell, has more or less managed to remain relatively stable despite the overall product's striving for a G-rating. The brutality of TLC is markedly different from that of Hell in a Cell.

This year started with some really good PPV's, starting with the excellent Royal Rumble, where CM Punk ended his historic reign as WWE Champion. Then WrestleMania 29 was solid, if mostly predictable: Undertaker beat Punk, Triple H beat Lesnar, and Cena going over The Rock to take the championship from him. Extreme Rules was good, not great, although I thought the Lesnar/Triple H cage match was better than their WM29 match. Payback was devoted mostly to a Three Stages of Hell between Cena and Ryback, that I actually was thoroughly entertained by, your mileage may vary. And the Money in the Bank ladder matches were very strong, featuring all-star casts for both the Heavyweight Championship and the WWE Championship.

But it was SummerSlam, originally one of the four biggest Pay Per Views, that set off a string of lackluster shows that included terribly hyped matches, dusty booking swerves that served no purpose, and a lot of unsatisfied customers.
At Night of Champions, Orton, who cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to take the championship from Bryan just seconds after he won it, was defeated by Bryan, taking back the championship, who was then stripped of it the very next night.
At Battleground, (which replaced Over the Limit) Bryan and Orton were both knocked out by Big Show for some reason, and the title was vacated.
At Hell in a Cell, Orton defeated Bryan in the Cell, because Shawn Michaels as guest referee interfered and cost Bryan the match.
At Survivor Series, Bryan teamed up with Punk and they took on the Wyatt Family while Orton and Big Show had the most boring main event ever.

You have to pay 60 dollars each to see these shows. And none of the undercard matches were worth the price of admission.
The SummerSlam ending was unexpected and it was disappointing because the fact that Bryan had just pinned Cena clean was diluted by Orton cashing in. Fine, I thought. It's going to be a Bryan-chasing-the-championship storyline for a bit, that's interesting, I like it.
But Night of Champions barely a month later featured Bryan getting immediate comeuppance in a rushed and meaningless ending, rendered even more meaningless by the antics of the following night when he was stripped of the championship because of a fast count. There was no sense of justice, and then there was even less sense of victory.
Battleground was a waste of everyone's time and everyone was rightly pissed off about the ending, or lack thereof, to this show. Why had Big Show become involved in the title picture, why was setting up to Orton and Big Show, a match we've seen countless times, and why was Bryan not getting what he deserved?
Hell in a Cell's ending made absolutely no sense. There's no way for Bryan to get proper revenge because Michaels is retired. He would have to come back to action for Bryan and he to have a proper blow-off to this feud they seemingly wanted to start between former mentor and student.
And Survivor Series was as horrible as everyone predicted it would be. Big Show vs. Orton in the main event was slow and predictable. Everything else on the card was pretty much the same, and even the bright spots were not enough to save a show, mostly because they were saved by cast aside main eventers like Punk and Bryan.

But anyway, TLC, standing for Tables, Ladders & Chairs, despite only featuring one of the titular matches (and not featuring any other gimmick matches) was, while not revolutionary or overwhelmingly exciting, a step in the right direction: solid matches with solid storytelling, not relying on screwy finishes or non-wrestling meddling, and some long-term booking decisions that benefited everyone involved.

I know a lot of people were predicting TLC ending with one champion, and that that one champion might be Triple H, and the poster certainly lent itself to that theory, prominently featuring Triple H front and center, with the two champions who were actually competing inserted on the sides.
I won't spoil it now, but I'm glad to say that it didn't come to fruition, although I felt uneasy about it happening all throughout Orton and Cena's match. 
When they started using the moniker "Champion of Champions" during promos, that's when I started thinking seriously about the theory, because it would go with Triple H's other moniker: King of Kings.
Pre-Show: Dolph Ziggler VS. Fandango; R-Truth VS. Brodus Clay; The Miz VS. Kofi Kingston
Three massive wastes of time, despite pretty talented mid-carders involved.
Ziggler, once a World Champion coming off one of the hottest Money in the Bank cash-ins ever, has been relegated to the pre-show of a second-tier PPV.
Fandango, a legitimately talented wrestler with a flair for the dramatic and an ability to make the lamest possible gimmick ever work, who was once pushed from a surprise upset over Chris Jericho at WrestleMania29, has been off the radar for what seems like forever.
The match did nothing for either man.

R-Truth, whom I'm not as sick of as everyone else in the wrestling community seems to be, stole a victory from a distracted Brodus Clay. The only intriguing part about this match is a possible heel turn and new gimmick from what could soon be the former Funkosaurus.

The Miz and Kofi Kingston collided once more in what feels like their 800th match, and I didn't even bother to watch it.

Divas Champion AJ Lee VS. Natalya

You know when you stay for the Divas match and not for Miz and Kofi, you've got something special on your hands.
While I thought the hype around the match was more talk than actual excitement, there was still a level of unpredictability to this confrontation.
Lee is a great champion, and they're starting to highlight that she has one of the longer reigns of recent memory. Natalya managed to show herself to be a legitimate challenger. There were no weird gimmicks, just solid wrestling and old-school interference from the bodyguard at ringside. Tamina is going to get involved with this championship feud at some point and I predict it's going to be her that takes the belt from AJ, but until then...
This match was an awesome Divas conflict, with some great work from both competitors. It was a good amount of time and actually a very exciting match.

Intercontinental Champion Big E. Langston VS. Damien Sandow
Langston, who took the IC belt from Curtis Axel on RAW, is a force to be reckoned with. He's an old-school big man, and it's refreshing to see that kind of match being worked again in the WWE. Sandow took some hard hits and it would be nice to see him get his reward at some point. That said, a great match, and probably one we're likely to see down the road for bigger gold from these two young superstars as they delve further into their respective careers. Langston is a big man, no denying. But Sandow is no slouch, and in fact, watching them, I thought Sandow's one of the better believable match-ups for Big E.

3-on-1 Handicap Matches:
Daniel Bryan VS. The Wyatt Family: Luke Harper, Eric Rowan, Bray Wyatt
CM Punk VS. The Shield: Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and US Champion Dean Ambrose
First off, these matches would have been more appropriate under the Survivor Series moniker. It's much more about survival, and the fact that they didn't even add in chairs or tables to the match made it feel very detached from the proceedings.
Second, having BOTH matches on a single card feels redundant. One of them could have had help in some form, or what about having both of them against the six of them.
Third, having both on the card lends itself to only one story: one of them is going to pull off a miracle, and the other is going to be overwhelmed by the numbers game. They both can't win, because that's just ridiculous, and they both can't lose because that's what everyone would expect to happen in real life. In real life, one guy's not gonna beat three guys in a fight.
The key to an effective handicap match is the storytelling of the wrestlers, and luckily, we have some very good storytellers at the helm of these matches. Did they pull them off?

Punk and The Shield opened the show proper, and it was a great way to kick off. Punk is smart and wily. He's very cunning, but he's facing three very cunning foes.
I loved seeing Punk's psychology at work. He was trying to keep a great distance from the Shield's corner and tried to keep whoever he had as isolated as possible. He conserved energy, and tried to keep the Shield off-balance to see if they'd make a mistake and strike when they were vulnerable.
Over the past few weeks, with Reigns catch Punk with the Spear, it made sense that Punk was more aware and ready to avoid it, and it led to Reigns sending himself over the announce table when he missed the Spear on the outside, dropping the enforcer out of the Shield's numbers.
It was the Spear again that led to the Shield's defeat, with Punk avoiding a second Spear inside the ring and Reigns inadvertently taking Ambrose out instead.
A split is on the horizon, but I enjoyed the match not being booked by a crumbling Shield, but instead by justified accidents.
Punk looked smart because of it, and the Shield look no less strong because of it.
I give it 7/10

By virtue of going first, I could tell Bryan was going to lose his match.
But again, it was the storytelling at work here that made the match outstanding for me.
The Wyatts were sufficiently creepy, and Harper and Rowan dominated as the giants they are. Then Wyatt himself got involved and creeped everyone out with his upside-down crab walk, after which the audience chanted "That was creepy!" in the "This is awesome!" voice.
Bryan got in a flurry of offense, much like he did in the Money in the Bank match where he took out his fellow competitors before being taken out by Orton.
Anyway, Bryan gave a valiant effort but of course fell short. But I thought the ending was booked smart. Bryan kept himself from getting overwhelmed and with slower, bigger opponents, it made it look a lot easier than in the Punk/Shield conflict, and then Wyatt was booked to take the win, which was good since Wyatt himself has been booked rather poorly his last few matches.
I give it 8/10

Fatal Four-Way Match: Tag Team Champions The Rhodes Bros. VS. The Real Americans VS. Rey Mysterio and Big Show VS. Ryback and Curtis Axel

While WWE would have you believe, and even a lot of fans believe, that the Tag Team division is revitalized and is stronger than it has been in years, I want everyone to take note of the fact that as talented as I believe all these performers are, this match was made up of eight essentially failed singles competitors.
Failed is a bit of a broad term.
Big Show and Mysterio are attractions at this point in their careers. They don't have much singles life left in them but as a tag team they make sense.
Goldust, while certainly in one of the best runs of his career is also on the far side of his singles run.
Cody has failed to main event, as has Jack Swagger, Antonio Cesaro, and Ryback. Swagger, Rhodes, Ryback, and Axel have also been given main event opportunities and failed to deliver. Basically, these are four teams born out of necessity rather than being real tag teams. These teams are far cries from The Hart Foundation, the Rockers, Demoltion, and the Legion of Doom.

Alright, that aside. This was very much the match of the night. I would've enjoyed adding in a gimmick of chairs or ladders or something (THIS IS TLC, AFTER ALL) but whatever.
I thought having the finish be the two face teams was a little odd, but I actually liked the sensitive booking of Big Show, readying Goldust before the final fight, shaking hands with the Rhodes Brothers following the match, and much appreciation was given to Rey who looked absolutely destroyed following the match, clearly he's no longer in prime fighting condition.
Swagger, Cesaro, and Ryback and Axel also looked incredibly strong despite being taken out first and second from the match.
The crowd loved it, most importantly, chanting, "This is awesome!" as Mysterio joined the fray, and that is what let's me give this the match of the night. Booking both heel teams to lose aside, I give it 9/10.

Championship Unification Match: World Heavyweight Champion John Cena VS. WWE Champion Randy Orton in a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs Match
There was certainly a big match feel to the proceedings, and the promo videos definitely make you feel something important is about to go down. But the promo videos always do that. If the matches always lived up to the promos WWE makes then there'd be no problems or complaints ever.

There's no denying how big Cena and Orton are and have become since their days in Ruthless Aggression and the Brand Extension. I respect them both as athletes and wrestlers, though I've never been a particular fan of either. Orton's wrestling ability outweighs his lackluster charisma and on the flip side, Cena's dangerously good promos and abilities on the mic make up for his limitations in the ring, much like Hulk Hogan. He's a legitimately strong and athletic guy too, and I respect the hell out of him for trying out things he wouldn't normally do.

But the Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match has a very rich legacy behind it and this could very well be one of the most underwhelming and most disappointing in a line of consistently amazing and breathtaking matches.
The problem is you have two of the most important superstars facing off in one of the most dangerous matches of all time. What truly dangerous spots can you do?
The other problem is Orton has no experience with a TLC match and Cena, as I said, always willing to try new things, he's not particularly well-versed in TLC spots. He's no Edge. Edge managed to walk Undertaker through a TLC match despite Undertaker never having performed one. But Cena wasn't going to be able to do that with Orton and that was quickly obvious.
There were no interesting ladder spots, the chair use was pretty typical of a regular match, and there were two big table spots:
One was disappointing, because it was just Orton falling off the apron onto a table on the outside.
The other was supposed to be the finale, with Cena going through a table he had set up in the corner from the top of the ladder. Cena and Orton botched the spot, with Cena smacking his face on the bottom of the table and laying out until Orton, who couldn't think on his feet to do anything better (despite having plenty more time in the broadcast) made a slow climb up the ladder and gingerly removed the belts, the most disappointing ending to a pretty safe TLC match.
I'm also not happy that they redid the CM Punk handcuffs spot, and it played out in more or less the same fashion, with the exception of the botched table spot that followed.
Match rating: 6/10. Interesting, but mostly disappointing.

So for better or worse, your undisputed, unified, WWE World Heavyweight Champion is The Viper, Randy Orton.

Going into WrestleMania season, I think the most deserving of taking the new championship at WrestleMania is of course Daniel Bryan, so it's likely he'll win the Royal Rumble to set that up. Barring that storyline, I'm not really sure what direction the championship scene will head into if they decide not to go with Bryan's redemption and justice fulfillment.
Orton's a boring champion and the crowd, who is normally pretty polarized by Cena, was much more firmly in his corner than they were in Orton's.
I'm not looking forward to Orton VS. Bryan again, even if a definitive ending at WM is planned, but it could very well be Punk who instead goes into the title picture (maybe he wins the Rumble or the Chamber? And down the road, maybe the indy wrestling circuit gets a dream championship bout between Punk and challenger Daniel Bryan?)
As for Cena, his rematch will most likely come at the Rumble after which I'm hoping it's about time we had Cena against Undertaker at WM30 (that is, if the Hogan rumors turn out to be false).
I said earlier that I thought TLC was a better Pay-Per-View than the last few, despite an underwhelming finale. And I still stand by that statement. A disappointing ending is still an ending, which is more than can be said for the previous PPVs. While none of the matches felt particularly special, they were well-worked, and the crowd got behind the IC and Tag Team matches especially. For the last Pay-Per-View of the year, it wasn't a bang, but it definitely wasn't a whimper either.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Who's a Who? -- The 7 Time Lords of Fantasy and Fiction

Quite possibly the most niche of cult pop culture icons, Doctor Who, like the titular character, has found success many times over throughout a career that spans several decades, half a century now. While the show sustains a strong viewership, both in Britain and abroad, it remains decidedly non-mainstream, and despite multiple re-airings, re-cappings, and fans willing to talk about it, it remains a difficult culture to join. Like comic books or other long-running series, the sheer volume of work one has to take in to acquire a taste for it is daunting. I understand people's resistance to it, or lack of understanding of the hype. I love certain parts of it, though I've never considered myself a full-fledged Doctor Who fan.

That being said, I think if you only ever watch one season, watch Christopher Eccleston's single season as the Ninth Doctor. He's rough and tumble, charming, and dryly British. His regeneration at the season end is also the best. The absolute best. Like, I'm gonna write it on my tombstone, best.

I had a conversation with my roommate about who else in fiction might be a Time Lord. It was a pretty cool discussion, with a lot of names from all over the universe thrown in. I wanted to see if I could put together an absolutely solid list of individuals with strong candidacy for Time Lordship.

Of course, I know there are canonical limitations to this article, such as the fact that the Time Lords are of a single race of aliens. But whatever, your MOM'S a single race of aliens.
Along with that, even the ones I ultimately chose don't meet every single requirement, but the theorizing is fun.
Setting that aside, my prerequisites were fulfilling at least two of the following criteria:
- There needs to be some sort of longevity to the character. Not necessarily evidence of a recorded regeneration (although a couple are definitely implied with almost all these characters). So, many cartoon characters meet this criteria, being ageless which is why they're mostly disqualified barring two of my choices who fall under a couple other universes.
- The character possesses something similar to a TARDIS. Again, this has to be inherently different from cartoon characters' Hammerspace, which is a different dimension, and not a device to travel in or through.
- The character is more than a mere time traveler. Many characters from fiction simply possess a time machine but that doesn't give them complete dominion over the time-space continuum. H.G. Wells' Time Traveler, Doc Brown, etc.
- The character does not possess other powers beyond the usefulness of a Time Lord. I made an exception for two of my picks actually, but characters like Merlin or Harry Potter are already wizards, far beyond the need of being a Time Lord.
- I also eliminated comic book characters entirely. One is a comic strips icon, but not comic books. Superman, Batman, Wolverine, etc., all possess the longevity of a Time Lord but their various incarnations are the results of multiple writers and multiple perspectives of those writers. Additionally, they also possess many more powers than a Time Lord.
- Implied characteristics of the Doctor are also taken into account: eccentric dress, articulate, a sense of adventure, resourcefulness, a wisdom beyond their years, and so on.

So here are My Seven Time Lords:

James Bond
To remember the six names I use this pneumonic device:
Can Lizards Mate Directly Below Canopies?
(Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, Craig)
The reveal in Skyfall did little to quell the already-popular theory of Agent 007 being a Time Lord.
The central idea is that "James Bond" and the 00-Agent distinction of '7' is something handed down to an elite agent when his predecessor gets too old to continue their effectiveness.
But the theory expands when adding in the idea that he is a Time Lord.
I mean, it makes sense. All the Bonds share similar qualities and characteristics despite never aging beyond their peak years.
Bond is also infinitely resourceful, while always incredibly calm and in control. A couple of the personalities are more suave (Brosnan's and Connery's), a couple are more rough and surly (Dalton's and Craig's), and some are much funnier (Moore's).
Bond lacks a TARDIS though, although he does have the most obvious evidence for regeneration.
Among the less obvious characteristics, Bond also possesses fierce amounts of loyalty, quite a bit of technological know-how, and a slight lack of manners when it comes to facing danger.
It's a better explanation to me than anything else I've heard for justifying Bond's longevity throughout the series.

Mary Poppins
A spoonful of sugar helps the time travel sickness go away!
Bert makes quite the companion, doesn't he?
One of the other popular theoretical Time Lords is the magical nanny, Mary Poppins.
I love the theory personally, and it fits for me, pretty perfectly.
She lacks a regeneration, but of all the Time Lords, I also do believe she'd be the most capable of long-lasting incarnations.
She could very well be on her first, still!
Something tells me her umbrella parrot functions as both companion and Sonic Screwdriver hidden in the handle.
She most likely reprogrammed it to use for flight since she lacks a visible means of flight.
Her carpet bag though, famously stores everything she needs to turn any interior space into her own.
It's much bigger on the inside, managing a full-size mirror and a floor lamp, among other things.
She's helpful, shows up exactly when needed (Bert says when the winds change), resourceful (everything's a song too), and she loves adventure (sure, just jump into a painting).

Her eccentric clothing also lends itself to a Time Lord, particularly linking her to the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth incarnations, known for their odd clothing choices. She even has her own odd scarf, and look at that hat!


Snoopy first appeared in the Peanuts comic strip in 1950 and was around all the way to the end. While never considered the main character, he made enough of an impression with the audience that he endured much like the Fonz or Urkel, but of course cooler than either one (which isn't hard in Urkel's case).
He originally appeared more doglike in appearance and demeanor, meaning there's a possibility he's already experienced a regeneration, and attained more humanity in the process. While he never speaks, his thoughts and writing suggest a very smart cookie indeed, and there's a definite possibility that his sense of adventure is not necessarily based only in his imagination. Perhaps an older regeneration loved planes, and held a rivalry with the Red Baron?
Snoopy's companion is pretty obvious: the loveable Woodstock.
And it is his dog house that is the most curious. Multiple references are made to the fact that it is far bigger inside than it is on the outside, including a bathroom, gymnasium, a rec room, and enough wall space to hang a Van Gogh.
Snoopy's also got a fierce sense of loyalty as well as a resourcefulness. His less redeeming qualities are also rather Doctor-like: can occasionally be rude, once in a while prefers to run from a battle than engage in direct confrontation, and although he may be outsmarted sometimes he always gets the last laugh.
Snoopy, along with my next choice, I see as semi-retired Time Lords, or at least in Snoopy's case, he sees the necessity of staying with the extremely needy Charlie Brown (perhaps himself an aging Time Lord...?)

Oscar the Grouch

On a street as weird and as colorful and eventful as Sesame Street, no one would really notice a retired Time Lord. Especially if he was mad, because this wasn't where he intended to land since 1969.
In his first appearance, he was orange, so there's a good chance he has at least one regeneration under his belt already.
Also, everyone would just stay away and never really take a good look inside if all that was ever posted on his TARDIS... I mean, trashcan... "Scram" and "Trash." But references have been made to it also being larger on the inside, complete with a spiral staircase to the opening at the top.
Oscar's companion is up for debate, but Big Bird would even him out, and they have been described as friends on several occasions. For the first few years of the show too, Oscar and Big Bird were the only two official "Muppets" on the Street itself...almost as if they'd landed there...

Ms. Frizzle

This, along with my next pick, may be the most controversial, in that their meeting of criteria is a little flimsy, but it's hard to deny the real power behind the Magic School Bus, Ms. Frizzle's combined Sonic Screwdriver and TARDIS.
The limits of where the M.S.B. could go were limited only by the endless possibilities of education. Frizzle was odd, eccentric, and while she obviously traveled with a whole cadre of her homeroom students, her most consistent companion was Liz the class lizard (or it might be a tiny Triceratops?)
Frizzle's sense of adventure and desire to teach qualify her as a Time Lord, with many destinations throughout the book and TV series contained in the past, or in exotic, faraway locations.
The bus of course, was more than a bus, functioning as a plane, submarine, and a shrunken exploration machine, among others.
There's also a small fringe theory out there suggesting Ms. Frizzle is a late incarnation of Mary Poppins' Time Lord...


Not every Time Lord can be a source of good. And I thought the ultimate evil character to portray the sixth Time Lord, "the fallen one," would be Pinhead, the main antagonist of the Hellraiser series.
Pinhead is seemingly immortal and is exceedingly articulate and smart. His TARDIS would be one of the more miniature versions, with the Lament Configuration, the most famous of Lemarchand's boxes, able to traverse all the dimensions of time and space where Pinhead can literally...raise...hell...
It's Pinhead's smarts that make him an obvious candidate for me. The Time Lords are scientifically advanced, masters of engineering, well-read, and well-cultured.
He travels with a small entourage of companions too, and I'm working off the theory that his Sonic Screwdriver is within his own head, held together by the namesake cranial protrusions.
Later movies give him a human past that he has forgotten about, and something tells me he was raised as a human in a prior incarnation.


It stands to reason that the hero and protagonist of the Legend of Zelda possesses all the right stuff to be the seventh Time Lord on my list.
Link's shared characteristics with the good Doctor are all pretty evident: enthusiasm, resourcefulness, loyalty, courage, and thoughtfulness.
His companions are numerous: Epona, Midna, Navi, and even the Princess Zelda both as herself and as the pirate Tetra.
And while he has remained essentially the same since his debut three decades ago, the character has remained the same age with essentially the same demeanor throughout countless eons of Hyrule. He has also assisted in other lands when he is needed: Labrynna, Holodrum, Koholint, and Termina have also witnessed the heroics of Link.
He has many monikers: Hero of Winds, Hero of Seasons, and most importantly, the Hero of Time. It is stated in Hyrule legend that whoever controls the Master Sword and the Ocarina of Time controls time itself and Link makes full of use that, showing up exactly when he's needed at whatever moment in time he is needed. He may be a man of few words, but his companions more than make up for the silent protagonist. Based on animation style alone, Link is somewhere around his ninth or tenth incarnation now, and with the blessings of the gods and the mystical fairies, he may have life beyond the cycle of the Time Lords.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The L Train Drinking Game, or Transportation Inebriation

Following the previous night's Justin Guarini debacle, I had expected last night's train ride home from NCT to be more subdued, less eventful, I wanted to catch a quick nap on my long train ride home. At 1:35, I walked down to the L platform at 14th and 8th, walked to the second to last cart which was quite empty, save for two people who were already napping too. Good cart, I thought. I settled in on an end seat, got comfortable, and turned on my music. The train was to depart in 4 minutes.

But at 1 minute to go, it was as if Pandora's Box of Subway Horrors was released into our cart.
First, an overly interactive, elderly gentlemen talking to himself. Only enough for us to open our eyes momentarily before returning to our own worlds.
Then a couple got on, they didn't look like they had been drinking, the guy looked sleepy, then I realized he looked like he'd drunk too much. As more people were getting on our car, he began to spit...and then came the familiar sound of vomit hitting the floor. A space formed around him immediately, with people migrating to the ends of the car.
Then the crazy, drunk, homeless guy got on. And he decided to sit right in front of the couple, regardless of the puddle of vomit he was standing in. "What's wrong with him!? What's wrong with him!?" he decided to scream repeatedly.
Then the guy with the harmonica got on. And he was also drunk. Because in between harmonica verses he decided to complain about the state of cleanliness of New York City. He kept pointing at the vomit puddle also at his feet.

I moved to a different car, along with several other people absolutely bewildered at how everything could have changed in just a minute's span. But it did open up the idea of a drinking game...

Take 1 Shot for each of these unless otherwise noted.
These are based on just stuff that I've managed to witness, of course. New York's subway is a forest of numerous possibilities.

- A homeless person is on the train when you board.
         - Take two shots: A homeless person boards the train after you board the train.
- The homeless person sitting in the corner of the car wakes up as the train pulls into the station and everyone boards.
         - Take 2: The homeless person stays asleep. He's settled in for the night. That trash bag is at       optimum temperatures.
- The homeless person is awake and is talking to himself.
         - Take an additional shot if he is talking to himself in such a way that it looks like he's yelling at someone else...who isn't there.
- Take 3 shots if: The homeless person does something completely unexpected, such as exposes himself, yells at an actual person (most likely with racial epithets), or pulls out a lighter for some reason. Take a bonus shot if he starts ballroom dancing.
- If you're sitting in the "two-seater" at the end of the car, and a homeless person boards the train and yells at you to move because that's "their spot," take a shot each for you and the person you're with.

- "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I promise not to take up too much of your time..."
- "...it's my turn to get money for food tonight..."
- "...I do not have the opportunity to go and look for a job without putting my family in a worse situation..."
- Take an additional shot for if they have a dog.
- Take an additional shot for if they are in a wheelchair.

- Someone boards the train to leave a flyer or small piece of paper with each person.
          - 2 shots for: "I'm deaf."
          - 2 shots for them leaving it directly in someone's lap.
          - 2 shots for someone running after them, yelling to get their attention, to make a donation.

- Someone boards the train selling candy.
- 2 Shots: Someone boards the train selling magazines.
- 4 Shots: Someone boards the train selling phones.

- Someone boards the train yelling about Jesus.
          - 2 shots for the person sitting down and talking to someone one-on-one about Jesus.
- Someone boards the train yelling about the environment.
          - 2 shots if someone yells back, "Fuck the environment."

- Someone boards the train who is going to throw up.
- They throw up on the train.
- They throw up on the tracks at each station the train stops at.
- That person is with friends who are making fun of him.
          - 2 shots for friends who are apologizing for him.
- His friends help him off.
          - His friends make him walk it off.
- The person is a girl and is with friends.
          - 2 shots for the person being a girl and is with a guy.
          - 3 shots if you can discern that this is their first date.
- The person falls over while throwing up.
- The people who initially experience the incident will immediately clear the area. But take a shot for each person who crosses through or past it, stopping momentarily to understand why no one is sitting near this person.

- Someone boards the train and does some pull-ups on the upper handrails.
- Someone boards the train and does some leg exercises while sitting.
- Someone with headphones on gets way too into the song they're listening to.
- Someone with headphones does a few casual exercises to the song they're listening to while using the vertical pole.
- Someone turns on music on their phone or whatever and doesn't have headphones. They sit back and listen to it and enjoy it as if they were on headphones, though.

- Someone is sleeping on the bench.
- Someone is sleeping UNDER the bench.

- Food on the floor.
- Perfectly good food is abandoned on the floor.
- Pizza slice on the floor.
            - 2 shots for a whole pizza.

- Person with a musical instrument.
           - 1 shot for harmonica.
           - 1 shot for guitar.
           - 1 shot for any kind of percussion instrument.
           - 2 shots for keyboard
           - 2 shots for drumset
           - 2 shots for saxophone
           - 3 shots for brass or woodwind instrument.
           - 3 shots for melodica, bagpipes, or an instrument that I don't know the name of, but it's a keyboard with a wind apparatus attached to it.

- And of course, just fuckin' finish a bottle if you ever hear the phrase...

Friday, December 6, 2013

My thought process as I stand looking at someone whom I believe to be Justin Guarini

The following is my inner dialogue as I try to establish whether this guy I'm looking at talking to his friends on the L train bound for Brooklyn is in fact season 1's runner-up of FOX's American Idol, Justin Guarini.

That guy looks like Justin Guarini.

He has Justin Guarini's facial features.

Is he the right age for Justin Guarini?

I think this is Justin Guarini.

No, I really think this is Justin Guarini.

Am I racist for thinking this is Justin Guarini?

Is Justin Guarini a race that I can be racist toward?

Is Justin Guarini a mixed-race person?

Is that racist to say? I feel like 'mixed-race' just sounds racist.

Can blackish be a term without it being offensive?

This guy looks blackish.

His hair is curly; it looks like what it would look like if you cut Justin Guarini's hair.

Justin cut his hair once and he came back to American Idol. I don't remember what it looked like.

I know this isn't racist, but is it along the same sort of thinking to think that just because this guy's hair kinda looks like Justin Guarini's hair short, that this would be Justin Guarini?

He looks really young. Maybe it's not him, only because this guys seems to look really young for how old Justin Guarini should look now.

How old does Kelly Clarkson look? Women age better than men, right? Or is it the other way around? Does Kelly Clarkson specifically age better than Justin Guarini?

Is Kelly Clarkson a good role model for young women?

Justin to Kelly was pretty bad.

Justin Guarini's performance of "Let's Stay Together" was all I could think of when I saw Obama sing "Let's Stay Together."

Is THAT racist?

He's standing now. He's tall enough to be Justin Guarini. I also think he's old enough to be Justin Guarini. He's not too young; he's just aged really well. I mean, he was a star for a while.

Oh yeah, he was a star for a while...

He was famous.

He was like one of the first reality TV stars.

Now he's not. Now he's sitting on the L Train headed into Brooklyn with me and all these New Yorkers. Is he from New York? Did he move to New York? What happened to Justin Guarini?

How sad if this is Justin Guarini. I liked him. There wasn't much to not like about Justin Guarini. He wasn't gonna win Idol, but he certainly wasn't offensively bad in any way. But this is just what happens, I guess. Maybe this is why we shouldn't invest so much hate and ill-will toward TV personalities who have no business being famous. Because it doesn't take much time before those people are gone from the public eye, are removed from the social consciousness, and excised from the pop culture frame of reference. And then they return to their normal lives, their lives from before they were famous, though never quite the same because they had their moment in the sun. If this is really Justin Guarini, how long did it take for him to no longer be recognized on the street? No one even bothers to look at him now, save for one young man who's trying not to look like he's staring and is arguing with himself about whether or not this is actually him.

Does it make him sad that he's no longer recognized? Or is he somewhat okay with this passage of time, with his new place in the universe? What is a has-been really, but someone who once had something that most of us can say we never even had?

Is there something to be said about everyone's own inevitable slide into irrelevance, the ownership of the world never resting for too long with any single generation, the torch relay's faces blurring together in an endless line of features and expressions?

It doesn't matter now whether or not objectively this is Justin Guarini, because my own mind has been made up and in eight stops I've crafted his entire rise and fall, and to me he was the once-great Justin Guarini, a swooner and crooner, a goofy kid in a paisley shirt with a silky voice. In one more stop, he is gone. He steps off the train and out of my life, much as he did to me a decade ago on television.

And I try to watch him for as long as I can, to see if someone else maybe recognizes him from the foggy recesses of their mind, or maybe even to see if he realizes I'm looking at him, the argument and narrative within written all over my face, and he pauses briefly to cast a knowing glance at me as if to say, "Yeah, I know you know."

But no such glance is exchanged and at Lorimer, he disembarks, and my last thought for him is, "I hope Justin Guarini knows what a horrible train the G is."