Sunday, December 19, 2004

Live From New York...

Sorry about that last bitch - this was the post that I was intending to make in the first place today. I am a big fan of Saturday Night Live. I have to say that I prefer the newer ones, simply because I'm of the right age to understand the impersonations and pop culture jokes a fair bit more than the old ones in the 1970s. Sure, there are still the classic skits that make sense even now, but there are a few that are rendered incomprehensible due to the generation gap. I'd say I've been watching SNL for about five years, and I've come to a conclusion about the hosts and the quality of the show. Now, again, these rules don't apply to everyone, just a fairly large percentage.

With the celebrities that host the show every week, I've noticed that there are two kinds of hosts. There are the participating hosts and there are the reacting hosts. They aren't necessarily based on whether the host is a musician or an actor or a comedian, and sometimes aren't even dependant on whether the celebrity has a history of being funny on television.
The reacting hosts are the hosts that aren't funny. They may be funny on their respective shows or their CDs, but they are the ones that tend to bring the show down. The reason I call them reacting hosts is because that is what they spend the majority of their skits doing: they play the straight man, the so-called "normal person" who reacts (hence the name) to the crazy characters played by the SNL performers. They may have a few half-hearted funny skits, but reacting is what they spend most of their time doing.

The participating hosts are the hosts that are the most entertaining, the ones that make the show worth watching. They do not simply stand by and let the SNL guys take the spotlight - they often participate in the craziness, and sometimes even come up with a hilarious character of their own. Let's put it this way, in Cheri O'Teri's "Simmah Down!" skit, the reacting host would be the offended person who's on the receiving end of her "Simmah Down!", and the participating host would be the lady's manager behind the counter, giving their own classic rendition of "Simmah Down!" (Tobey Maguire's "Donna Summer" gag is an example.)

Sometimes the reacting host isn't always bad - sometimes they get the short shrift, but the main reason that a host is reacting is this: they aren't funny on live TV. However, the skits aren't the only indication that this particular episode that you're watching is going to be sub-par. Here are a few indicators of bad hosts:

1. They star as "themselves" in skits: This is a prime factor in whether they are bad or not. With "fake talk show skits " like the "I'm Just Keeding!" guy and the "Prince Show", the participating (ie: good) hosts usually do impressions of some other celeb. However, the bad hosts are forced to play themselves because they can't be funny otherwise - they have to squeeze laughs out of the fact that they are playing themselves and doing weird things "as themselves". Sad examples of this would be Colin Firth, Jennifer Aniston and Robert DeNiro. Exceptions to the rule would be Ben Affleck's classic skit where he spars with a mentally retarded man while filming Gigli.

2. They're not the centre of their opening monologues: This is a good indicator - it tells you straight off the bat who's going to be taking centre stage in the skits later on. The awesome Sir Ian McKellan did an entire monologue by himself with no help from others, Steve Martin was the centre of an entire musical number, and Ben Affleck had the hilarious T-Shirt joke about how he couldn't profit off of the "Bennifer" name because the branded T-shirts arrived after he and JLo broke up. Even Christina Aguilera sang one of her songs acapella (let's see Ashlee Simpson do that!). Examples of how this goes wrong would be Cameron Diaz's monologue - where her talented ass-shaking was upstaged completely by Will Ferrell's "ass choreographer" character, or Reverand Al Sharpton's bit when he was pushed aside by Tracy Morgan's impression of him.

3. "Featuring a Cartoon by Robert Smigel": The reason they show animations? Because that means less time for a bad celebrity to make an ass out of him/herself.
Remember what I said at the beginning that a host's hilarity factor has little to do with fame, or whether they are funny in other shows? This holds true - here are some examples of horrible hosts:

Jennifer Aniston and Megan Mullaly - I know! They're hilarious on Friends and Will & Grace! Why not here? Well, Jennifer falls prey to the "look at me I'm funny just because I'm Jennifer Aniston" attitude, and Megan Mullaly basically rips off her character from W&G for every skit. Dullsville!

Halle Berry - We don't care that you won an Oscar. Your skit about the Quickie Pills does nothing except reveal to us that you must have a really good sex life, because you're really bad at faking an orgasm.

Colin Firth - Don't make fun of Jude Law! That doesn't make us laugh, that makes us angry!
Al Gore - have you people even seen him on TV? Why would you want him to bring that vibe to SNL?

Now, the good thing about good hosts is that sometimes they surprise you. They come out of nowhere, waving their arms and pitching their voices in ways you never thought possible. Some of these people made me groan when I heard they would be hosting - but they quickly changed my mind with their surprising talents.

Justin Timberlake - 6 words: "Bring it on down to Omeletteville!" I thought you'd be some stuck-up person who used his "Justin Timberlake" persona to phone it in. You didn't! You danced in an omelette costume to "I'm a Slave 4 U!" You blasted Michael Bolton and Jessica Simpson! You said "I was only partially diddled" and "We need another napkin - this one's on FIRE!" with a straight face, and yeah, you did have to hide your face to keep from giggling over Jimmy Fallon's "Brothers Gibb Political Talk Show" skit, but we forgive you because Jimmy Fallon laughs at his own jokes, too.

Sir Ian McKellan - I didn't even know you were gay until this show! Your "Hot Air Ballon Inspector" skit was pure comedy gold, you gave two nerds an orgasm by "imitating" Gandalf from LOTR and then promptly disappointed them with your "horrible" rendition of Magneto from X-Men. You seared Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench with one blow and then promptly did what millions of women have longed to do - catch Jimmy Fallon helplessly by surprise by turning what was meant to be a harmless peck on the cheek into a French kiss that Jimmy will never forget.

Elijah Wood - I guess something about the Lord of the Rings films makes actor's reading to try new things. Your "Soprano Choir Boy" performance is one that I will always remember at Christmas time, and your imitation of Boy George is almost disturbing in its accuracy. You also added some new life to Chris Kattan's tired "Old Vegas Comedian" gig, even if you did look like Screech from Saved by the Bell, only with better '80s clothes.

Jack Black - my dad keeps mistaking you for Meat Loaf, and you only added to his confusion with the brilliant "New Birthday Song" gag that roasts Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf's love for long, complicated, and "epic" song styles. You skewered fairy tales as the monster who "doesn't want a fair maiden, but a slutty older woman because she knows more", and then potheads with your "High Times Investigative Reporter" skit. Way to go! You met all expectations!

Ben Affleck - If your next high-profile relationship pans out, if your latest big-budget film goes down the crapper, if your career seems totally washed up - fear not. You will always be welcome at Rockefellar Center. The fantastic turn-around on Jimmy Fallon's last "Boston" skit - as the recurring macho character who turns out, at the very end, to be gay, or as Dan, Dan, the Garbage Man who schools Jimmy Fallon's repulsive "Shock Jock" - you can turn even old, dead skits into gold - at least while you're in them. You are not afraid to make fun of yourself - and that is a must for good hosting.

Did you think we'd really forget you? Never! The Holy Quadrulogy of SNL Hosts - Steve Martin, John Goodman, Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks. There isn't enough space to congradulate you for all the good hosting you have done. You are integral to SNL culture. Three cheers!

Walking Through a Weepy Wonderland 2: Revenge of the Ornaments!

Hello there. I know you, dear readers, have probably thought that after many parental admonitions, I would stop burdening you with tearful accounts of my progenitors' transgressions. Not so! Of course, the whole disastrous affair is partly my fault as well, and I know they are decent parents at the end of the day, but I'm only telling you these things now so that I don't have to remind you later and spoil my bitching. One can never bitch properly if one takes the blame.

Every year, we go through the same Christmas ritual - the week before Christmas, we set up our fake tree (it spares the environment, saves us money, and no pine needles need be cleaned afterwards), fill our 5-track CD player with our five favourite Christmas CDs and set it on Spiral (plays song #1 from the first CD, than #1 from the second CD, etc. etc.), and put up all our decorations. We use none of those glass balls, and our candy canes are always secreted on the space of the branches close to the trunk so that we can't get at them until Christmas is over.

Our ornaments tend to be a mixture of wooden miniature toys - wooden angels, wooden figures of Santa playing various musical instruments, rocking horses, boys on drums, the odd eccentric decorations that we receive as gifts from friends and relations - the fat ballerina, the heart-shaped mirror with my name scrawled on it in long-hardened glitter gel, the red and white felt birds in tiny golden cages (although the white one had long fallen off its perch), and old handmade ones that are wretched, but too dear to us to throw away - my sisters' laminated construction paper stars with their first-grade photos on them, along with numerous figures made out of various kinds of uncooked, spray-painted pasta.

I love going about the whole affair - listening (and often singing along to) the Christmas music, while hanging out with my family and joking while we convert an artificial representation of a pagan symbol into an artificial representation of a Christian symbol with our various knickknacks suspended on gold thread. There were years when Mum wouldn't do it, or when Sister One or Sister Two had a hissy fit and removed her presence from the activities, but I could never remember a year when I didn't help. I'm sure during the early years of my childhood development (ages 11 months - five years) I may have been a little reluctant to offer my decorative services in favour of running away and hiding, or else trying to pull the tree down around my ears, but once my mind could grasp the meaning of the word "tradition", I like to believe that I was wholeheartedly devoted to it.

Count this year out, then. Today, Sister One had a belt exam for Tai Kwon Do (she's moving up from green striped to solid green, apparently) in a town that is about half an hour away from our own. Loyal parents that they were, Mum and Dad agreed to drive and spectate the entire 3-hour event (I passed - I had to study, an activity which, er, I will begin to do shortly. I promise.). We were all rather late risers, so at 10:30, everyone realized they had to hurry and get showered, dressed, and decorate the tree before Mum, Dad and Sister One (I wasn't sure if Sister Two would be going) had to leave for the exam. We rushed to our respective showers, but Mum got to hers first, than Sister One, so I had to wait. While in my room, I heard someone start playing Christmas music downstairs. I grew rather suspicious (and rightly so), but I clung to my (now proven to be wrong) assumption that my family, who were aware of my devotion to this annual activity (yet another wrong assumption) would alert me to any early commencement of decoration.

Of course, after waiting through two showers, I had my own, got dressed, and went downstairs - to discover the entire tree was finished. My family had not waited. My family had done it all without me. Oh, they'd left "a few" decorations for me to add as a paltry consolation - six of the cheapest ornaments we had, that were gaudy enough to give my family members pause as to where, exactly, they could put them without attracting any undue attention to them. Don't get me wrong. After much thought, I'm not really angry at my parents for doing this. They had very little time before they had to leave. They couldn't wait for everyone to start. They assumed that I'd respond to the Christmas music the way Pavlov's dog responded to the bell and that any absence on my part was entirely of my own choosing. And they had, after all, thought they'd told everyone to start while Mother had her shower first.

I'm just surprised. Surprised that they'd think I would refuse to participate in such a wonderful activity without giving any discernable reason. What if I had fallen on my head and been knocked unconscious in my bedroom? They should have checked! Surprised that they'd think I would be perfectly mollified by the "honour" of being able to put six - only six! - of the ornaments on the tree, after everyone else had finished (although, given the ridiculous alternative - taking all of the decorations down and starting again at a later time that was convenient to everybody - I can be a little tolerant of that). Surprised that they would not remember my enthusiasm for the holidays of previous years. They've known me for eighteen years! How - how could they just have forgotten that? I was especially surprised when they had the gall to suggest (after I'd made the only response I thought was appropriate at the time for such a nasty discovery - bursting into tears and fleeing to my room) that I'd ruined the whole experience for everyone. My reaction was bad, yes, and it wasn't entirely their fault - but knowing that isn't suddenly going to make me any less miserable. I am miserable. I didn't get to decorate the tree. Granted, it was due to a miscommunication on my part (what Mother said: "Everyone have a shower, and start decorating the tree!" What I heard: "Everyone have a shower, so we can start decorating the tree!"), but knowing that it's my fault and that there's nothing I can do about it doesn't fix anything. The tree is finished - and not by me. How's any of this supposed to make me feel any better?

For some reason, my parents expect me to be happy now. But I'm not. Christmas 2004 is officially tainted for me now, because I will never be able to look at that tree without remembering that I didn't get to help with it. I think God was trying to spite me today, because Sister One's Tamagotchis (little virtual pets that programed to know the date and time) started making Christmas trees of their own on their tiny square screens - while mine made a poo, and not a Christmas Poo either. Bah! Humbug!

In conclusion, however, I want to get one thing straight. I don't hate my parents. They're wonderful people. This whole thing was made out of a huge mistake and miscommunication. I don't even really blame my parents for this. The main reason for writing this is that it makes me feel better - and I needed an outlet to articulately express my misery at having missed this holiday treat.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Barbie kicks Disney's Ass!

Still weeping a little over that little Canadian Tire commerical...*sigh* And now I've taken up a habit of forgetting my purse at Christmas parties, very annoying. Sisters One and Two have acquired the hobby of tormenting me, citing my "retardedness" as a perfectly legitimate reason for their disgraceful actions, regardless of where we might be at the moment, like church. They're sinful little heretics, but I love them for Mother's sake. I can't understand what she sees in them, other than half of her genes that, in my opinion, are wasted on them.

Getting back to news...As most of you, dear readers, have already figured out by now, I'm a child a heart. Being "a child at heart" is, actually, a rather flimsy excuse for being immature, or retaining an interest in things that are intended to be childish. I'm not talking about anime (it is not always intended for children...if you screened a copy of Ninja Scroll in front of a crowd of five-year-olds you would scar them for life and doubtless have them packed off to Child Services), but I am talking about American animation in general.

While a few shows attempt to aim for older set through sly in-jokes (Animaniacs, Fairly OddParents, the "Beat-Alls" episode of Powerpuff Girls) or just plain weirdness (how, exactly, do pineapples get under the sea? And why would sponges live in them, much less wear pants?), there are very few that were not initially intended to entertain children. That is much the same with American animated movies.

I like to flatter myself by telling people that I grew up in the Golden Age of Walt Disney - or at least, the Golden Resurrection of Walt Disney. Born in 1986, I was just the right age to enjoy The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King without causing my parents to roll their eyes and mutter about how they won't buy the DVDs because they would be a "bad investment for my life". However, recently, most animated movies for kids have, in my opinion at least, dropped in quality. Walt Disney, after being briefly resurrected in the '90s, died again, horribly. This is for several reasons, which I shall explain:

1) They got rid of the music - one of the best qualities of The Lion King was the African music. They managed to keep the toes tapping while not having to resort to Broadway numbers every time. Disney movies have consistantly been nominated by the Academy Awards for original music, why would they slaughter that golden goose in favour of cheesy background music? Look at Tarzan and Treasure Planet. The Goo-Goo Dolls and Phil Collins have both produced good music, where they're writing it for radio. It just makes the movies dull, what's wrong with them singing?

2) Too many famous people. This doesn't only apply to Disney films - Sinbad was also a blaring example. The good animated movies were mostly voiced by irrecognizable actors from TV or radio, with maybe one or two noticeable celebrities to make it funny. Robin Williams was in Aladdin. Eddie Murphy was in Mulan. What other powerful, A-list personality was in those films? The thing with too many famous people, is that they already have a Star Persona, something I learned about in Film Studies. Each actor with a Star Persona has an emotional, personal, psychological baggage that they carry into each movie. George Clooney is smug. Julia Roberts is cheerful and loves to laugh. Johnny Depp is weird and ooky - and sexy at the same time. Even hidden behind technicolour characters, people will still recognize those people, and their Star Persona taints the animated film that is intended for children. Adults can't watch the film with an open mind. They're not watching Sinbad go through an adventure, they're watching Brad Pitt do a series of animated stunts in a recording studio. Shrek 2 is a bit of an exception, but that's mainly because this movie breaks the next rule even more.

3) Too many pop culture references. You know, people still watch Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White. They still appreciate the magic and excellent music and storytelling. Why? Because they're timeless. Putting a pop culture reference in a movie is the same as putting an expiration date on it. Same with music - nobody I know can listen to Prince's Party Like It's 1999 without giggling. Shrek did a little bit of that, but it mostly stayed with skewering fairy tales and Disney films. Shrek 2, however, falls into the pit of Going Overboard. There were hundreds of pop culture jokes and asides and in-jokes in that film. Sure, people laugh now (even I did) and maybe they will in the next ten years - but fifty years from now, no one's going to understand it or enjoy as much as we did, and that's is a mistake. Pop-culture may be the animator's way to get adults to like a film - but they're going to die first. Why not cater to the future instead?

4) Poo has always been funny to the younger set, but the adult animators and filmmakers used to be too polite to mention it. Now they throw it in our face. That's another downfall of animated films - and children's movies in general. Farts. C'mon, say it with me. Farts! Poo! Pee! Hee hee! Boobies! What the hell is wrong with you people? Children have always giggled over sex and poo jokes - I have, my sisters have, my parents did when they were young. They've done it before kids movies ever started exploiting it for humour. Making movies about it just encourages it, instead of letting them grow up and discover the hard way that poo and farts are stinky, and boobies are only really appreciated once you reach a certain age.

Now, let me get to my final point. Some of you with children may be aware of this. Barbie, that slim blonde do-it-all doll (who recently dumped her boyfriend Ken of 40 years for an Australian surfer named Blaine) has been starring in films. No, no, not for theatres, direct to DVD. They've been based on popular stories and fairy-tales that have not yet been captured by Disney's lawyers. The Swan Princess, the Princess and the Pauper, Barbie and the Nutcracker. Now, I'm not ashamed (okay yes, I am a little ashamed) to admit that I've watched the Nutcracker one all the way through, and a bit of the Princess and the Pauper. They're better than Disney. Modern-day Disney, anyway.

The animation, which is Computer-Generated and uses motion-capture technology along with the Toronto Ballet Company, is decent, even if all the houses and dresses and carriages are pink. The storytelling is fine, childish yes, but in a way that encourages breathing room and growth without attempting to catargorize childhood into tight little boxes of Thinks Poo is Funny, Likes Jokes that Talk About Other Movies, and Wants to Buy Our Toys. Well, maybe not the last one. The tall blonde main character may be called Annabelle, or Clara, or Odette - but everyone knows it's old Barbara underneath. While the first two films (Swan and Nutcracker) didn't use musical numbers, they pulled up the proper music from the corresponding ballets and had them produced by the London Symphony Orchestra instead of some dork's computer. And from what I've briefly heard of Pauper's songs, they aren't half bad. At least they're not Phil Collins.

They're colourful and interesting, and they don't force children to stay children with poo jokes, but they don't force them to be adults with in-jokes. They're finely balanced and it's obvious that a lot of work and effort was put into these films. If I had a daughter, I would much rather plug in Barbie and the Nutcracker than waste both of our lives watching Home on the Range or Sinbad.

By the by, before you comment, movies produced by Disney and PIXAR don't count as Disney. They're too good, and ten bucks says that Toy Story III, which is presently being made by Disney without PIXAR's genius, will be relegated to the bargain bin along with The Little Mermaid II and The Hunchback of Notre Dame II (what's that sound? Oh yes - Hans Christian Anderson and Victor Huge spinning in their graves!)

Friday, December 10, 2004

Walking Through a Weepy Wonderland...

'Tis the season, dear readers. I have recently been discharged from University in preparation for the inevitable finals, the end of term, and Christmas. I am firmly of the belief that I have everything in order, school-wise, to be able to study steadily during this week while still taking leisurely advantage of the sudden excess of free time that has been bestowed upon me.

Also, finally, it has snowed in my city, and it looks like the white stuff is here to stay, thank God. You Americans ever wonder why Canadians are so polite? How do you think we keep warm in the winter? Yes, through the heat of our fiery repressed rage! To take out our anger about the Vatican or the re-election of George W Bush and his long-lost brother Ralph Klein, we don't bitch to the media (or most of us don't, anyway) or have long, perilous riots outside of the Legislature, or go bomb another country, we put it to good use on our sidewalks and driveways, to scour off the layers of snow and ice! Yes, rage - while not morally safe, it is both available and affordable at all times, and doesn't burn through the ozone layer.

While I certainly feel less vengeful (I have shoveled the driveway twice this week already), some other emotion has started to take a hold of me. Over the recent years, I have noticed a strange apathy towards Christmas come over me during the holiday season - for some reason, I couldn't bring myself to feel as excited about it as I used to. This year, I noticed a happy return to the anticipation of yore - I was already feeling the half-pleasurable-half-uncomfortable tug in my gut that I usually experience only on Christmas Eve or when I am complimented expressly by my relatives - as early as November. While I felt happy that I could undergo the same masochistic pleasure that every young child feels as Christmas draws near - the painful desire to have Christmas be now while at the same time not yet because the waiting was so much fun - it seemed to burst some other, ill-defined emotional dam that had previously kept my less desirable feelings in check.

It all started when I saw a commercial on TV for Canadian Tire. In it, a child asked his father how Santa was going to come and give them presents when they didn't have a fireplace. The father replied that Santa would figure it out because he was very clever. However, while the parents are shopping at Canadian Tire for gifts, the child weeps, "Santa's not coming because we don't have a fireplace!" while screen shows the boy's nightmare of seeing an empty tree. I don't believe in Santa, nor do I approve of his work ethic (The elves work all year round, all you do is drive the sleigh - stop being so damn full of yourself!), but somehow, I just felt so incredibly depressed. Tears welled up in my eyes for the child who "didn't have a fireplace" (the parents acquiesce to his wishes by buying a fireplace - which sort of reminds me of that story of the mom who sold her father's ghost on Ebay because her child was convinced he was haunting the house), and I came close to sobbing. Why? I had no emotional connection to the advertisement, heck, I can barely write about it now without tearing up.

What was worse, was that my newfound sensitivity to all things cute or attempting to cute was not limited solely to misinformed children with fears that they aren't going to get what they wanted because they are greedy little bastards at heart. I was forced to sniffle into my sleeve during a Telus commercial! The one where the chameleons have a stampede with the cowboy music and duel with the piglet who has a cellphone! What could possibly be important or significant or depressing about a pig who doesn't want to share?? Chameleons have no feelings! Damn you, Babe! Damn you!

I am really going to have to get a hold on my feelings once more - because I don't want to have to explain to my parents why I'm weeping over Snoop Dogg's incompetence with fabric softener or the Honeybee's unrequited love for Honey-Nut Cheerios.