Monday, October 5, 2015

Top 5 Favorite Batman Villains

I could write for pages about pretty much every single Batman villain, because they are quite simply the best. Without thinking too hard about it, I jotted down the first five villains I could think of when I thought of "favorite characters." And then, again without thinking too hard, I put them in the order least to most. It's definitely a crowded list. Certainly at least the top tier, all warrant a spot on the best-of. But these five are characters I find particularly fascinating, and in some ways I identify with. And that's not so disturbing to say when you remember that the most successful and "coolest" of Batman's villains are those that may (and often do) operate as extensions of Batman's own psyche. They represent the darkest incarnations of his own personality. Where Batman represents order and restraint, Joker represents his release and need for chaos; Riddler is Bruce's obsession with riddles and his intellect; the Penguin, and even Hush, came from families of wealth and influence, but had no grounding in reality and morality; Bane is bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter, all things that Bruce prides himself on being superior in to his foes.

So, here it is. For better or worse, my Top 5 Favorite Batman Villains.

5.) Harley Quinn
Real Name: Dr. Harleen Quinzel
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - Variations of Joker's clown/jester persona though she has branched off into her own aesthetic since her debut. She's a proficient combatant, and favors heavy melee weapons, like her trademark baseball bat and giant hammer. Harley's madness has mostly been expressed through her wardrobe, which has changed extensively with each progressive incarnation. Some have been viewed as overly (and needlessly) sexual but I think those are beside the point. Again, I view them solely as an expression of her madness, and some of that is wrapped up in her own sexual identity.

I love Harley, and I definitely love that she's managed to grow into her own persona apart from The Joker. That all certainly still informs her character, but it no longer defines her solely. I think in many ways they've managed to do things with the character that they may be hesitant to do with The Joker because of his status as an icon. Harley's got a bit more chameleon qualities to her. And that's true for her character too. Like I said, the external expression of herself is part of her finding an identity amidst an already very-colorful world.

The best interpretations of Harley also preserve her abilities as a doctor, as a psychologist. The concept of a character who has slipped into psychopathy despite knowing all the signs and dangers is way more interesting to me than someone who has always been crazy. Certainly, she's likely always had that potential pre-Harley, but to have that unlocked and then to watch her journey and progression into darkness while again, being someone trained to see those warning signs and red flags is beautifully tragic. Like all the best dysfunctional relationships, I feel terrible for Harley who loves a man that will never truly love her back, but I also just want Harley to be loved if that's what she wants. There's also something quietly disturbing about Harley, who is more dangerous to other people because she is not solely focused on the Batman like The Joker is.

Pictured here, I like the Harley costume from Arkham Knight. Another good one is the Injustice Regime version. And of course, you can't go wrong with the old-school, Animated Series jester version. Her recent run in Suicide Squad and her own solo books are proving the character's growing popularity.

4.) The Joker
Real Name: ???
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - The Joker ostensibly has no powers, but his deep insanity and psychopathy often seems to push his system into withstanding unspeakable amounts of punishment and he has occasionally shown feats of strength and durability and has gone toe-to-toe with Batman several times. Though he seems to be all chaos and bedlam, some find him to be extremely cunning and clever. I also have a personal theory that Joker's real superpower is timing (like, impeccable comic timing).

Even if you don't love The Joker, he's like The Beatles. You have to respect him. He's Batman's most popular villain, one of his most enduring, and at various points throughout his tenure has been both the most entertaining and the most frightening.

People hate clowns, it's just a fact of life. And regardless of how ridiculous an incarnation of the Joker can be, it still manages to frighten you deep down. There's something delightfully insane about Cesar Romero not shaving his mustache underneath the white make-up. It makes the character just a hint more disturbing. I grew up on Mark Hamill's Joker which will always be the best for me, but we've been gifted with awesome interpretations many times over. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger both added menace and nuance to a role so disturbing it warrants consideration that it's best to leave this character up to the limitless expanses of comic book imagination, rather than burdening a real person to portray the embodiment of true psychopathy.

At his best, Joker is the worst. Throughout his long history it's been interpreted as mindless mayhem or extremely calculated ruthlessness hazed by a fog of idiocy. Is he so insane he's a genius, or is he masking genius intellect by feigning insanity? Either way works for me. What I love at the end of it all is the "locked in immortal combat" aspect of his and Batman's relationship. Why does one not simply kill the other? Because it completes the journey for both of them. Batman removing the Joker removes his purpose, Joker killing Batman removes his.

It's hard to un-seat some of the enduringly popular stories focusing on the Joker, like The Killing Joke, but most recently, the New 52's slow-burn of his re-introduction (at the launch, Joker escaped Arkham not before having his face cut off and left nailed to a wall) where he returned to reclaim his face (and wore the disgusting, decomposing thing strapped to his scarry, scarry facial remains) and set up the fantastic Death of the Family storyline. It was well worth the wait, and that along with Endgame, has made Joker the scariest he's been in years. And of course, you can't go wrong with the Arkham games, where he is once again voiced by Mark Hamill.

My favorite alternate Joker voices though, (Troy Baker kind of doesn't count since he's doing a straight send-up of Hamill's, although it is flawless) would be John DiMaggio's turn in Under the Red Hood, Kevin Michael Richardson's Joker from The Batman, and for a more subdued, creepy take, I like both Brent Spiner's from Young Justice, and Michael Emerson's from The Dark Knight Returns.

Art credit to: Sherwood-Art
3.) Talia Al Ghul
Alias: Leviathan
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - An incredibly accomplished assassin and hand-to-hand combatant, who is not afraid to use lethal force. She has on and off been head of the League of Assassins and has headed Leviathan for a while. Talia has also been romantically involved with Bruce Wayne/Batman over the years, to the point that she is the mother of the fourth Robin, Damian Wayne.

There's something so intriguing to me about Talia being one of the only women Bruce has ever loved. Selina often fills that role but there never feels like there's any pay-off with that relationship, it just feels like it goes on forever. Talia and Bruce however, are both manipulated by her father at various times (see: Arkham City for my favorite encapsulation of that relationship) and Damian adds an extra element of complexity to their relationship. Talia is what Batman could be if he adjusted his morality somewhat. If he one day decided that he knew exactly what was best for everyone, he could rule a network (like Batman Inc.) and the world with his moral code and ensure everyone's safety. But at the end of the day, Bruce has a heart, Talia does not.

Which is what fascinates me about Talia, in that she is lacking that moral compass, but still believes in her own cause. She believes more in the importance of vengeance, of control, of superiority of mind and body. It doesn't make her all that different from Bruce, but her morality is what drives them apart. Damian even says it himself: though he has his mother's upbringing and training, he now has his father as his partner, and that has made all the difference to the fourth Robin.

I love Talia, and I honestly think she was done a disservice with the movie Dark Knight Rises. From the beginning, she should have been a clear threat and not a last-minute swerve for the audience, most of whom already saw it coming anyway. It also did a disservice to Bane's character, but that's a different story. It was a complicated, thorough plan to be sure, highlighting her deception skills, but we never see her skills as a combatant, and that's where the deadly combination is: that she has her father's abilities of deception as well as the League's deadly assassin technique. I do hope a better version of the character comes along, but for now, Batman Inc. brings her story arc to completion.

2.) The Riddler
Real Name: Edward Nigma
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - The early villains tend to suffer from being extremely gimmick-heavy, and Riddler may be one of the longer-suffering. At best, he is creator of complex mind-games and puzzles leading into Jigsaw-level death traps (like in the Arkham games), at worst he is a flop-sweaty knock-off of the Joker, whose obsessive compulsive disorder drives him to leave complex riddles at scenes of the crimes that Batman solves and lead to his eventual undoing (like in the Adam West-era Batman). But Riddler is a genius-level intellect, and he mirrors Batman in a lot of ways, one being that he is constantly his own worst enemy, whether it be his crippling need for perfection or his crippling need to constantly prove himself.

I think it's become intrinsic to the character that he inevitably fails, and it is also self-inflicted. Riddler's more grounded psychopathy and descent into madness has always made him distinct for me from the Joker and I'm glad that more modern interpretations have treated them as such. Being thought of as a knock-off though has allowed for some fascinating interpretations of the character, like a handicapped arms dealer, a Gothic, more lethal version, and my favorite, the Arkham series' complicated puzzle-maker, obsessed with proving his intellectual superiority to Batman. He's also one of the villains that works as an ally, even reforming entirely from a life of crime for a period. He proves extremely helpful because of intelligence and intuition of the human mind.

Like I said, Wally Wingert's voice acting of the character is what really brought it to life. From Arkham Asylum to the end in Knight, he brought out more layered aspects of the character and made me love him. I just wanted to see him get it in the end, because he was such a pain in the ass. Riddler's struggle to rise from second best is something everyone can relate to, and that's what has made the character stand the test of time.

1.) Mr. Freeze
Real Name: Victor Fries
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - Like the Riddler, many of Freeze's early crimes revolved around "cold" and "ice" themed capers, but over the years his suit has also granted him enhanced strength and durability as well as the ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures, putting those who would challenge him on his own turf at a distinct disadvantage. Freeze, like Batman, is driven by the "death" of a loved one, in this case his wife Nora, who is preserved forever in a block of ice until a cure for her terminal disease can be found. Freeze is incapable of letting her go, and many of his crimes are driven by the injustice he has felt by a system that neglects him and her. All of Freeze's weapons remain ice-themed, but with decidedly more deadly consequences and implications than they once did.

It really speaks to the specific generation of Batman you grew up in when you analyze one's favorite villains. Talia being the exception that was used a bit more sparingly, my first 5 were all exceptionally done in the Batman animated series from WB. Freeze was an especially tragic character and given real dramatic weight by his voice portrayal by Michael Ansara.

We were also the perfect generation for the Arkham series of games, again where all five of these villains have great portrayals and great voice actors. Maurice LaMarche outdoes himself on a truly great Freeze and of course, Freeze has the best boss battle of the entire series, where Batman is forced to change his plan of attack on every single offensive strike. It's really in the upper echelon of boss battles, and I highly recommend it for video game players who've missed out on it previously.

Freeze stands as one of my most favorite villains because he has one of the more realistic downfalls. It's not so hard to believe that love drove an individual mad, because we've seen the lengths people in love go to for the one they hold most dear. As the Joker is fond of saying, everyone's just one bad day away from insanity. Freeze has taken a lifetime there.

There you have it. Who are your favorites in the Rogues Gallery? Anybody on the lower tiers you are particularly fond of? I'm a huge fan of The Ventriloquist and Calendar Man.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, Christopher Reeve!

Decades later, still the most iconic performance of Superman of all time, Christopher Reeve humanized the Man of Tomorrow in a way that still often eludes comic book writers (leading them to do wildly incomprehensible things, like stripping him of his powers entirely) and has made it difficult for filmmakers to bring the original Cape into a modern context (evidenced by Man Of Steel to make a more critically positive impact, even though I, as did most pre-M.O.S. fans of Superman, loved the interpretation).

But for me, there's not many others who can claim a link so strongly to a character, especially a comic book one, like Reeve did for Superman. Critics and fans alike will argue endlessly over the best live-action Batman (Keaton, West, or Bale, take your pick), while everyone is pretty unanimous on his animated counterpart (the great Kevin Conroy. Also, Joker is pretty much unanimously spoken for in Mark Hamill). Spider-Man may eventually favor Andrew Garfield overall, but it's hard to disconnect entirely from a well-acted Tobey Maguire. And we're already getting another one soon. The Incredible Hulk's had three excellent actors portray him on the big screen. We have two different generations of Professor Xavier and Magneto. Routh, Reeves, Cain, Welling, and Cavill... all pretty great in the role of the Last Son of Krypton, but Christopher Reeve was just something special.

I argue that the portrayal stands the test of time, especially if you stick to the first two films. He's the squeakiest-clean of all the heroes, but he's never grating, he's never too much. Some of his powers are a bit out there, but the thing is, you can hate that, but you can't fault Reeve; he grounds it unquestionably by bringing that same hope and passion that Superman is known for, the real qualities he should be celebrated for, instead of ridiculed for.

Last year at Comic-Con, they had the 1989 Batman costume and the 1978 Superman costume side-by-side at a display. I was heartbroken thinking about how that version of Batman/Superman would never be. Reeve was a talented actor, and got to be the first real person to bring a larger-than-life hero to the big screen, arguably the largest of them all. And the most difficult of them all.

How do you make people care about an alien who is nigh-on invincible?

You play him like Christopher Reeve.

Happy Birthday, sir. Thank you for everything.

P.S., for non-Superman film buffs, I'd recommend The Bostonians and Somewhere in Time, for some strong Reeve roles. Also, a personal favorite of mine, Noises Off. Reeve holds his own against comedic greats like John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Carol Burnett, and Michael Caine.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Congrats, Mr. Colbert!

Can something be absolutely what you expected, while also being completely, pleasantly unexpected? Anyway, that's how I felt about Stephen Colbert's very first Late Show. I'm so excited for him, and in a weird way, I'm incredibly proud of him. I was always a fan of his on the Daily Show, and watched the Colbert Report from its very beginning. It's a huge deal to come after Letterman, but Colbert did everything in stride. It was all there, and it all just felt right, from the music to the comedy to the interviews. Oh yeah, that's right! You don't realize how badly late night has been missing a good interviewer. With Letterman gone, that's also a huge void. But Colbert is the master, flawlessly moving from George Clooney to Jeb Bush in a single night.

Also, there's a unique fuzzy feels to seeing the host of Late Show and the host of Tonight briefly interact, cordially. A little bit of a historical moment there. All in all, it's wonderful to see the host whom I think will now anchor all late night, combining the class, wit, and charm in its comedy that it needs.

Congrats, Mr. Colbert!

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Theatrical Confession...

My friends tend to think of me as overly zealous about things that I love, and I tend to love a lot of things. Even if it’s a terrible horror movie, even if it’s trashy reality television, I will find a reason to love it, and love the fuck out of it. Of course even for me there are things that I absolutely detest, and things that I am sorely disappointed by, but I have always given things a chance. My favorite drama on television for years was Desperate Housewives, which always elicited the same reaction: “Really!?” Yes, really. Did you ever watch it? “Well, no, it just doesn’t look like it’s for me.” Then you my friend, are missing out. It’s some of the cheesiest cheese out there, but it also has moments of true mystery, as well as several legitimately outstanding performances (looking at you, Felicity Huffman).
So you can name pretty much any work of visual art and I’ve seen at least an episode or part of it. I also try my best to see something the way serious fans of it tell me I should (“Watch these movies in this order!” or “Sit and watch season 6 first, that’s when it’s really at its best.”) and I always do my best to watch at least part of it independently of other people. Some things I have to reserve judgment on, like a season-long mystery on a TV show, I won’t judge until I’ve gotten to its conclusion, or such as a musical, because I’ve often listened to the recording long before I see it live on stage.
Speaking of musicals! There is a musical that is almost universally beloved by musical theatre fans the world over, throughout all of Christendom. It is a masterfully written work by a master craftsman at his very best, it is clever and subversive, while also being a well-suited representation of its genre, something that I love (Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, etc.) and the basis of any good musical: it has lovely, meaningful music.
ALL THAT BEING SAID, I just simply cannot bring myself to be excited about it. And it is, like I said, something that is beloved, and dare I say sacred among groups of friends. It is quoted to me constantly, its music is sung constantly to me, I’ve seen it performed in bits and pieces many times over the years, as senior projects or directing scenes, I’ve seen productions of it both professional and amateur, and I’ve sat and analyzed it to death with critics and fans alike. It is one of those pieces that I know in my heart of hearts (and even the outer hearts) is good, is fantastic, but it just doesn’t satisfy me emotionally, creatively. I have never been able to put my finger on it, I have never been able to articulate exactly why it doesn’t appeal to me, all I can say is that for whatever reason, there is some gaping hole in my imaginary list of requirements that fails to get ticked off. I thought perhaps by analyzing what gripes me about the show, maybe I can arrive at a more solid conclusion. So to that end, the musical that everyone just loves but I cannot care less about is Into the Woods.

There are a number of ways to tackle this analysis. There are its merits as a show (against itself, in a bubble), in comparison with Sondheim’s other works (against the canon, as it were), in comparison with other similar work (against its place in pop culture), and against my own criteria and thoughts (against the subjectivity of its audience).
Starting with its own merits, Into the Woods like I already said is an absolutely solid show. Sondheim has a real talent for keeping his music upbeat and moving, even when they’re just exposition. The Prologue is one of the single longest sequences in a show of his, but it doesn’t even occur to you that it’s 10 minutes until you reach the end. There’s multiple examples like this throughout, both Midnights, A Very Nice Prince, Any Moment, Agony… All rather expositional, but nonetheless exciting. Of course there are numbers that I feel are unnecessary, as with most musicals. Although with the way the show is structured, mostly sung-through, it’s more that there are sequences of music that I don’t think are necessary to advance the story.
I love Giants in the Sky, I used it as an audition song for a couple years, Moments in the Woods is fantastic, as is I Know Things Now, and representative of the show’s central lessons about growing up. No One is Alone and Last Midnight are also great. Agony is honestly hit or miss to me, if it’s not handled well, or if it’s overblown, I’m not such a fan of No More or even The Witch’s Lament (I think Stay With Me is better characterization).
I think it’s a fun use of characters we are familiar with, characters that are one-dimensional and really just plot devices for the lessons of the fairy tale being told. The real star of it all is the Baker and the Bakers’ Wife, with the Witch being not far behind.
But on its own, there are some problems. I think the plot elements are extremely convoluted taken at face value. The Witch is dealing with a curse of her own and so has to deal with the Baker and his Wife to reverse their curse? Why are there so many steps to this? What is the purpose of the Mysterious Man? Why are we given a brief moment with a character that makes no sense only to have it revealed that he’s the father, only to have that then taken away just as quickly? One of Sondheim’s many talents is juggling multiple characters, but even with his abilities, some of the storylines fall short. Dramatically, Little Red and Jack aren’t brought to a complete arc the way Cinderella is. Cinderella is one way at the beginning of the show, is granted that life that she desired, realizes it was not what she wanted, and learns to be happy on her own. Little Red’s character development in I Know Things Now has a lot to do with sexual metaphor, and that never plays a role again. She simply becomes a harsher personality for her troubles. Jack, for lack of a better characterization, is an idiot, and remains an idiot throughout, and regardless of what everyone lands on in Your Fault, it’s Jack’s fault. Come on, guys. It’s Jack’s fault, without a doubt.
I also do have a problem with its running time. It’s a three-hour (often plus) show. And I really don’t think it has to be. There are other shows that are just as long and I’m not saying they all warrant that run-time and Into the Woods doesn’t, but I think it does work against it more than others. I think people going in not knowing what to expect and hearing it’s fairy tales, I don’t think anyone’s expecting a three hour runtime. There are several steps added to every single storyline that don’t really need to be there. Why are there two giants? Doesn’t work alright with one with some rewrite? If Rapunzel isn’t the hair as gold as corn, why is she necessary to this story? Neither her nor the Witch complete the intended arc of their relationship. Rapunzel dies in rebellion, though through no fault of her own (unlike the Baker’s Wife who dies out of karmic retribution) and the Witch doesn’t change because of the death. I don’t really need Cinderella’s (or anyone’s for that matter) fairy tale retold to me as is if nothing is added to it. The Baker being added to Jack and Red’s stories justifies their retelling, but the Prince searching for Cinderella carries no emotional weight. We’ve already seen that done, there’s nothing added to it. And the movie highlighted again the lack of need for the Narrator. I was fine without that presence in the story.
Pulling back a bit, in terms of Sondheim’s anthology in general, I think everyone generally agrees his major period is from Company (1970) until Assassins (1990). Funny Thing lies outside that, but that’s fine. Sondheim has many times over taken material not thought suitable for musicals, and turned them into some of our most iconic. Sweeney Todd and Assassins are Sondheim at his darkest. Merrily We Roll Along and Follies deal with show business at its most difficult. Company and A Little Night Music are Sondheim at his most intimate. Pacific Overtures is so different and unexpected. Sunday in the Park With George is one of the most perfect intersections of art, music, life, and theatre. All of them are rather unexpectedly good musical sources. Sweeney Todd is about a murderous barber and a cannibalistic secret. Assassins is about some of America’s most irredeemable murderers and attempted murderers. All of them include at least one difficult, complex protagonist.
Against the oeuvre of work, Into the Woods, for me, feels the least ambitious. Even as a subversion of fairy tales, it’s still using fairy tales as its base, which is relatively easy in comparison to say, a difficult marriage or the westernization of a xenophobic country. It’s neither incredibly unexpected nor original. If you want incredibly staged violence and passion behind it, watch Sweeney Todd. I find the violence and darkness in Into the Woods completely unnecessary. If you want unexpected and intimate character arcs, go for Merrily or Night Music. You want an unexpected set of stories coming from a basic source material, go with Sunday or Assassins. I think against Sondheim’s other work, it rather pales. I’m not the biggest music nerd out there so I don’t have this analyzed to a science, but for my ears there’s more interesting musical structures in his other works. Assassins is more melodic, as is Follies, as is Sunday. Sweeney Todd is far more complex.

Which leads me into the next macro-point that I touched on a bit earlier, in that in terms of pop culture, it’s just not that striking of a result to me. The first of two that most quickly comes to mind in comparison of similar material is a graphic novel series called Fables, which is an intricately told, deeply layered drama told with the same basic premise: what happens after happily ever after? The series has really interesting character arcs to it, and manages to change genres seamlessly based on the breadth of its source material (characters range from Aesop’s fables to Hans Christian Andersen, to 1,001 Nights, to Mother Goose and everything in between). For the most part, my problem might be that Into the Woods plays it extremely safe with its cast. Their decisions and branching narratives are binary (this or that) and nothing pulls from that far out of left field. It’s all rather straightforward. Mind you, one of my problems with the stagings of the show is that many of its outlandish elements aren’t handled particularly well. The revival, making Milky White an actual person, is an inspired choice, but everyone handles the Giant and the Giant’s Wife just about the same, Cinderella’s mother and Rapunzel are handled the same (often out of the same tower structure), while the only major effect worth waiting for (most of the time) is the Witch’s transformation. Again, the movie helped play up the spectacle of it all. Using these larger than life characters and settings while have it all be pretty subdued on stage is disappointing. The movie opened that up. We got to see the real expanse of the forest, there felt like more urgency because of the actual presence of a giant (although that all still came up a bit short for me), we got to see “actual” birds attack the step-sisters, real horses, the transformation was spectacular. The only thing that made it a weird show was Johnny Depp’s wolf. Why wasn’t he a CGI wolf voiced by Depp? It stuck out as the most “theater-y” thing to do. Suddenly, we were in that Mary Martin Peter Pan movie where you can see the strings, and the sets are all clearly sets. Everything else though, really helped in enhancing the make believe and the magic of the fairy tales we were witnessing. But everything stays completely limited in the musical, whereas in this graphic novel series we get to see characters explored like they are real people. These are extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and they are treated as such.
My other example is Wreck-It Ralph. Again, familiar characters or character types in unexpected stories. And their lives take turns for the worse before they become better. And it isn’t to say that I needed Into the Woods to end more hopefully, I think it is one of Sondheim’s happier endings, but the journeys feel more complete in Ralph. Ralph, and even Felix, along with the other main characters that the story revolves around, make journeys throughout and grow as characters. Nobody feels treated like they’re a plot device unless they are in fact a plot device. We also get to see a fully realized world unrestricted by the stage. And yes, I get all that rhetoric about the stage sometimes leaving those gaps for the audience’s imaginations to fill in. Believe me, I played video games in my childhood from throughout the late 80s and early 90s. You needed a lot of imagination to imagine you were playing Star Wars when all you saw were vector lines. But there’s a lot that Into the Woods is asking of me without showing much. There’s so much of this world that we miss out on because they simply can’t do it. Perhaps some of it, you could argue, is not necessary to the plot, but then I argue that it’s then not necessary to use these characters.
The Baker and the Baker’s Wife, again, are the most interesting part of this whole show to me. A show could be made to service them, with original characters, echoes of their inspirations perhaps, but not necessary. Why is it necessary to include Jack, or Little Red? Couldn’t we just have the beanstalk all the same, a vengeful giant come to earth all the same, a voracious wolf having taken human victims all the same, without ever seeing these characters and their worlds? The beauty of Ralph is that we get to see each of these worlds, so much so that it feels like there’s dozens more stories to tell and we might never be finished telling all the stories.

Which leads me to my own final thoughts and reactions to the piece. There just isn’t much for me to grab onto emotionally in the whole show, for whatever reason. I love the Baker and his Wife, but I’m not as invested in them as I feel I should be. I’m not made to care about them just because I’m told they have a curse placed on them. It’s why in Beauty and the Beast, Belle is the focus, and not the Beast. I’m told he is cursed at the beginning but that doesn’t make me have sympathy for that character, that character has to earn it. Belle earns it organically, because she tells us her desires at the top. The Baker and his Wife lack that sympathy for me. And the other characters who have a chance at gaining the audience’s sympathy, are simply not the main characters. Cinderella again is the closest, and I think she possesses the most complete journey. Red and Jack do not grow up, and we don’t see the lessons impact them the same way that it does Cinderella. For me, we get more sympathy from her than we do the Bakers. If someone were to tell me this is actually a story about Cinderella’s journey from neglected to wishes fulfilled, to realizing the realities of marriage, to exercising her freedom, to becoming a part of a family out of choice, then I would believe you. But it is presented as the story of a Baker and his Wife who will stop at nothing to have a child, which includes deceiving a boy, stealing from a girl, ripping hair from a stranger, and killing a cow.
I also have a huge problem with consequences in the proceedings of the story. The Witch gets everything she wants. Yes, she loses Rapunzel, but I don’t think there’s enough done to humanize her to a point where I care. She locked up this girl in a tower and forbade her from ever seeing the outside world. The first chance that girl got for freedom, she rejected her, and rightfully so. What tyrant expects sympathy for that? But she gets her beauty and magic back and disappears at the end, without really learning a lesson. The Baker’s Wife also has a tryst in the forest that goes unaddressed for the remainder of the show. She gets seduced by the Prince and sleeps with him in the forest, then dies. Like I said, there is karmic justice there, but the Baker goes on believing in a woman who never strayed from his side. It’s just a weird circumstance. It seems like Cinderella learns the identity of the “other woman” her Prince sleeps with, but in some productions I’ve seen it’s unclear if the Baker ever actually learns of it. I don’t think he does. Along with the Baker’s Wife and Rapunzel, Jack’s Mom, the Bakers’ dad, and TWO giants are dead at the end of the show. And none of their deaths are particularly emotionally difficult. Perhaps it is partly the lack of real emotional stakes, and a problem of juggling way too many stories simultaneously.

Every time I see this show, I want to like it. When I sat down to watch the movie, I admit that I liked it more than any production I’d seen. When I watch Bernadette Peters as the Witch, I want to like the show on the emotional level that she moves me. But it just doesn’t. I think it’s overly long without the emotional payoff it deserves, with characters who don’t learn as much as they should, used in ways that I think lack imagination. And now it’s time to leave the Woods.

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!


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 felt like an ending when it could have been a new 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.


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.