Monday, October 28, 2013

Saturday Night Live: The Ed Norton episode

Watching Ed Norton jump through the hoops required of an SNL guest host with such aplomb
led me to ponder the differences between a great host and a popular one.

In the great AND popular host category, Christopher Walken, Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin and Jon Hamm have managed to kill it on stage and earn enthusiastic invitations to return simply by virtue of being great actors. In a second category of popular hosts are people like Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan (who, thanks to a three-year sting in the mid-aughts, is almost a five-timer), Miley Cyrus, and Justin Timberlake (I'm aware I'm in the minority in thinking he's not that special as an SNL host. I'm not saying he's bad, but can we agree he gets A LOT of praise) who often get glowing reviews if they don't mess up.

In the midst of all this, I was thinking about how even though Ed Norton did a great job unlikely he'll ever get the attention for a great hosting job that someone like Justin Timberlake does even when he does a mediocre job. It's a shame because I think it's more impressive and fun watching a primarily dramatic actor do a redneck accent or an overexcited virgin than watching a popular teen idol marginally succeed at his quest to be liked by a youthful demographic who already likes him or her.

Outside of Norton, this week was notable for me in that it gave the opportunity for the three underused repertory cast members to shine: Aidy Bryant successfully avoided her go-to valley girl character for a whopping three sketches. Maybe she does have some range after all.
Similarly Jay Pharoah carried a sketch without resorting to doing an impression, and Pedrad (who did shine a lot in her first 4 seasons but hasn't had a lot to do this season) got the lead role in a character-based sketch. Pedrad excels at off-beat original characters similar to Kristen Wiig but thanks to the writing staff's restraint, Pedrad hasn't gotten the chance to run any of them into the ground.

In my opinion, the best sketch of the night was the "12 Days a Slave" parody. It was pointed, sharp, and full of odd moments of humor throughout. Hardly fifteen seconds went by without a solid joke.

I think sometimes SNL can be overly comfortable with regional stereotypes which is why the  exterminators sketch left a sour taste in my mouth. The sketch also failed because it didn't develop any of its three comedic concepts (1 People having a meeting  rudely interrupted, 2 Eccentric exterminators, and 3 Diabolically smart possums) well enough for any of the three angles to be

I thought the sketch about warning about the dangers of strangers was another big hit for me and had a good kernel of truth as I always felt like elementary school health and safety classes taught information that could be easily challenged (i.e. say no to weed, etc). The props department must have been lazy to not come up with any large desks.

I don't understand why the sketch about the virgin waiters was called "Ruth's Chris." Is that a reference to "Ruth's Crisp Steak House"?  Why do they need a brand name of a restaurant (who might or might not be comfortable with being used in a sketch) for the audience to associate that type of waiter with. I had a similar complaint about Target Lady (as in: Does Target, in particular, have crazy cashiers? If Target isn't specifically being satirized, why use the name?). Although it got humor from a couple crude places, I appreciated the enthusiasm of the quartet of virgin waiters. With over half (3/5 to be exact) of SNL's cast having been there for less than two years, it seems like the writers are trying to mix and match their 15 sketch actors as much as possible so that they might find some chemistry in the group.

Taran Killam's quasi-digital short took too long to get to its first joke although it seemed kind of sad which isn't a good thing if there's not a comic level to that sadness.

The Wes Anderson film, although very culturally specific, was wonderfully constructed. It was the kind of sketch you can watch multiple times and pick up something on new each repeated viewing.

The Rain Man parody looked good in concept but, unfortunately, didn't escalate anywhere. It's an example of a sketch that probably could have been improved if it went through another pass.

On the whole though, this was the kind of episode that was worthwhile thanks to Norton and cast members stepping it up.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Some Notes on the Great Gatsby

My original entry on the Great Gatsby was complete with visuals, videos and a full multi-paragraph review but unfortunately the Blogger software mysteriously deleted it. The moral of the story? Wordpress is the answer.

In any case, here is an early draft of that review:
  • A product from Baz Luhrmann, the film was certainly guilty of what TV Tropes ( calls anachronism stew. The clearest examples of this are that much of the diagetic sound track would not have rap music and the costumes would not have been as revealing. This is an unusual case of anachronism stew, however, because it's how the film is marketed:"Come see Great Gatsby with Baz Luhrmann! Watch what happens when Baz Luhrmann mixes up a 1920's story with 21st century sensibilities and various trappings of all historic eras in between." Thus, every historic inaccuracy isn't so much a gaff but an artistic choice which makes the critical viewing experience a lot different. If you're not intimately familiar with the 1920's, it's an instinctual trust that what you're watching is inaccurate.
  • In reality, the soundtrack isn't as obnoxious as the trailer made it out to be with a screeching rendition of "Happy Together" combined with out-of-place rap music turned up to eleven. There's maybe two or three rap songs, a nicely reworked "Crazy in Love" (music director Jay-Z felt the need to plug his wife), and a U2 song but also a full orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue and an appropriately placed jazz trumpet. If anything the fast-paced editing was the main culprit for distraction. 
  • This film also narrowly beats out the Da Vinci Code for laziest use of stock footage I've ever seen in a film. It was fortunately used in such small doses that anyone hardly remembers
  • I imagine the audience score (80% of moviegoers in exit polls liked it as opposed to 50% of critics) was so high because the trailer and Baz Luhrmann's reputation were sufficient enough to steer anyone away who might give the film a thumbs down. In other words, Great Gatsby should be measured more on box office receipts because it already narrowed its audience with a polarizing preview. Previews are not supposed to be polarizing as they are generally created by film studios and not the director and those studios tend to like the widest audience possible. I imagine it was an inadvertent effect. 
  • Leo DiCaprio has had some of the best film performances of the last decade and deserves any role he wants, every one of the 51 times he said "Old Sport," I felt he just lacked the presence and gravity to carry it. While he is in his mid-to-late-30s, he plays around 30 which is a bit young for the part. I'm not suggesting Robert Redford is a better actor than Leo DiCaprio, but he looked exactly how Gatsby should as spelled out in the novel: A little older, broad-shouldered, aristocratic, distinguished. 
  • The hypervisual style of Baz Luhrmann can be wonderful at times and not work at others. The use of color in certain sequences (like Nick's first party) was especially wonderful in that your eye was drawn to the different colors on every flapper's dress. The tea party seemed like a slightly sunnier version of a Tim Burton film. The junkyard where Isla Fisher's garage was located was depicted as a bleak landscape that evoked more questions than answers and there was probably some symbolic reason as to why some post-apocalyptic landscape would exist between Great Neck, Long Island and Manhattan (if I'm not mistaken Flushing Meadows exists between those two cities, it's a very nice park). I don't suspect anyone thinks there's some consistent visual motif to the whole movie but rather just a lot of nifty things to look at..
  • I don't understand why Gatsby drove at super sonic speeds. I suppose at a certain point, the only explanation is that it's a Baz Luhrmann film but I imagine a car in the 1920's was probably going 30 miles per hour at best. 
  • On a somewhat related note: I have some cousins who live in Great Neck, New York which is what West and East End are a stand-in for. If you look on Google Earth you can see why the towns have those names. My cousins even showed me a house off in the woods that was supposedly the inspiration for Gatsby's mansion
  • Speaking of the mansion, I thought it was a plot hole that Gatsby would have a whole army of manservants. Maybe, he just contracted them for the parties. Wasn't he a humongous recluse?
  • Hello, Elizabeth Debicki! I will keep my eye out for your future filmography as you stole the show here

Why is American Horror Story's bizarreness acceptable guilty pleasure watching?

American Horror Story came out of the gate this fall as one of the most anticipated programs. Especially in a weak fall pilot season like this, I knew AHS would be either godawful or massively engaging and that executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk would leave little middle ground.

The first season of American Horror Story had a certain set of complex rules regarding ghostdom in an extremely unlucky house where nearly everyone who lived on the premises gets murdered and then some. As someone who's not ordinarily a horror fan, the show took me to some dark and freaky places with a certain melodramatic aura characteristic of Murphy's style and that lent ambiance.

The second season, Asylum, was rife with grand potential. On top of being a period piece set in a really intriguing place (a 1950's sanitarium is the kind of thing you'd drop everything to see a History Channel documentary of), the show offered some highly intriguing castings: Jessica Lange as a sadist nun, Sarah Paulson as a steel-willed reporter (anything but her insufferable Studio 60 "comedienne" was a nice turn for her) , Joseph Fiennes as a monsignor, Chloe Sevigny being on TV at all, Zach Quinto as a court-appointed psychiatrist - and pretty much every actor delivered.

The show had a good villain in Jessica Lange's nun who would institute her reign of terror unchecked and a decent wild card in James Cromwell's Nazi doctor, but soon pretty much everyone started turning evil to the point where the show had about seven too many villains and to say that the balance between antagonists and protagonists was off would be a massive understatement. Suddenly, Lily Rabe was possessed by the devil, Zach Quinto (who, for the first time in recent memory, stood a chance of playing a good guy on TV) got possessed by his Sylar character from Heroes, there were aliens and mutant bears (I really wish either lions or tigers were included into the plot so that I could add an "oh my" at the end), and Joseph Fiennes' monsignor became guilty by association because he supported Cromwell's Nazi experiments. At least I think he did. After a while, I stopped keeping track. Was I really supposed to?

At some point the plot became secondary to the proverbial song and dance of the horror genre (hopefully that wasn't too lazy of a Glee reference) and Falchuk and Murphy were clearly having too much fun playing around to pay attention to the important details.

A message board commenter (thsholiver) I came across today wrote:
"I don't know about everyone else, but I at least watch the show for the batshit insanity, and any plot they can work in that doesn't get in the way of that is just a bonus."

The problem is that as the plot drifts down the list of priorities in AHS's storytelling kit, the show gets more and more forgettable. I remember last season for a few strong performances, and a random hodgepodge of standout scenes. Surely, the show benefits from Jessica Lange's "Name Game" Youtube clip but it would be nice if the actual plot was one of its strong points.

What's worse is that the show has such great potential with plots and characters. This season, the show takes place in New Orleans at a school for the witches. I'm not into True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Twilight (I don't even know if witches are in those shows so this could be an awful analogy, sorry) or whatever the hot show about supernatural teenagers is these days, but I AM interested to see a story about hormonal-crazed supernatural witches in the hands of Murphy, Falchuk and a stellar cast of Tessa Farminga, Sara Paulson, Jessica Lange, Gabourey Sidibe, Lily Rabe, and Kathy Bates.

And the show got off to a great start. But then there was a ridiculous plot in which Evan Peters's dead body parts are sewn together with that of other bodies in the morgue by a Tessa Farminga's Zoe who only knew him 15 minutes. The romantic notion of Zoe wanting to bring a guy you briefly fell in love with to life wasn't the problem so much that she thought it would be a good idea to sneak into a morgue and bring her quasi-boyfriend back to life by sewing his head and other dead body parts together.

If that wasn't enough, this week Gabourey Sidibe's character had sex with a minotaur this week. Trust me, if you didn't see the episode or don't know what I'm talking about here, it's as weird as you would have imagined.

The show is rougly 80% solid story plotting and 20% some errant writer just throwing weird shit into the script to see how much he can get away. In other words, the plot is starting to get derailed by that 20% batshit insanity and, even worse,  I'm starting to get the feeling that batshit insanity is going to start winning the day over a solid plot from here on out. How is that going to be memorable?

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Notes on the SNL Miley Cyrus episode

Despite the fact that Miley Cyrus has always been a weak actress and is now a walking punchline on top of that, the show found a way to work around her. SNL is most impressive when it shows it can be host-proof.

Still, the episode had three sketches that were so seriously misguided, one has to question if the head writing staff has really got it together. Forty sketches are written every week and it's the job of the head writers (there are two sharing the position this year) to select the 10-12 best among that lot. Many disgruntled cast members (Janeane Garofalo, Chris Elliott, and Norm McDonald) have all said in interviews that a lot of the best sketches don't get picked.

The three sketches that left me scratching my head:
-I love Vanessa Bayer but the poetry sketch didn't have a strong lead character or any clearly-delineated punchline.
-The Kyle Mooney sketch operated under the weird assumption that someone would want to have sex with Miley Cyrus. Does the show not understand that people kind of see her as hideous with her new
haircut, tattoos, and general demeanor? They should have saved that skit for another guest star. It was also odd that there were very few jokes in that sketch. The "she's like 100 years old" line was just kind of bizarre. It seemed like a kind of humorous bit Andy Samberg would do in a digital shorts sketch but he would tip it more towards the bizarre jokey side so people would get that it was an oddball character. I think Kyle Mooney will have trouble finding his place on SNL.
-The cheer squad sketch lacked any actual hard jokes. Was the biggest reveal supposed to be that the alien was dancing to the beat? It was kind of funny in a low-key kind of way and the more talented actresses in the bunch-Vanessa Bayer and Kate McKinnon-did what they could to turn their bit parts into something kind of funny. Bayer's enthusiasm in delivering the line "I got held back" and McKinnon imbuing that bit of physicality in her introduction as Dakota Flanning both were smile-worthy though not entirely laugh worthy

The definite highlights to me were the casting session sketch and the Piers Morgan talk show sketch. Simple winning ideas. I also loved the Good Morning Miami with the hosts who hate each other. It had a nice rhythm to it and there was much humor to be mined from the brief promos. The racist Foley artist is someone they could develop a character around.

Some other notes:
-What was up with Miley Cyrus's dress in the opening montage. It rivaled her VMA attire for classlessness. I was too distracted by her midriff showing lawyerish pants suit to pay attention to the monologue, sorry.

-Vanessa Bayer still kills as Miley Cyrus and Jacob the Bar Mitzvah boy even though those sketches are probably soon approaching expiration.

-Nasim Pedrad plays Ariana Huffington well but isn't it kind of a weakness that she's becoming best known for an impression that another cast member (short-lived Michaela Watkins) already made famous?

-I think of the five new white guys, Beck Bennett is still the hardest to pick out. I really marvel at mother nature for creating a man with a face so indistinct. Was he Clinton? I think they need to put name tags for all the new cast members. Or insert a nice CGI arrow in post-production that follows the newbies around with their names overhead

-On another note, people point him out Beck Bennett as the guy from the AT&T commercials, but why don't people refer to Kyle Mooney as the Xfinity Comcast commercials and those pop up more often.

-Noel Wells played three characters in the first ten minutes of the show and she's ranked behind five other women in seniority. Who's she sleeping with and/or blackmailing among the exec producers? No just kidding, I love her so far, but it's a pretty alarming ascendency.

-Taran Killam is in so many sketches, it's fairly obvious he's basically the only guy writers trust to deliver at this point. It likely sets up a very lofty expectation at this point. Can he compare with Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman, Fred Armisen, Jon Lovitz, Will Forte, Jimmy Fallon, Dana Carvey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and Bill Hader who were all MVPs (which I'll loosely define as someone who got the majority of the screen time) at various seasons of the show? Is he deserving of a supporting nomination at the Emmys like Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, and Bill Hader have gotten in recent years? Discussions very much worth having.

-Aidy Bryant is basically playing the same "Valley Girl" character in most of her sketches. In the poetry sketch, she basically was the same character as the "Girlfriends" talk show in mannerism and accent. I thought she had the opportunity to break out with a spot-on impression of Rebel Wilson but she didn't have any lines except for "yeah" in agreement with Kenan Thompson's Steve Harvey.