Saturday, February 28, 2015

Other People's Writing

* Amidst all of the “Parks & Recreation” celebration this past week, the mood was darkened by the news that writer Harris Wittles passed away of an apparent drug overdose.  Aziz Ansari commemorated his friend with this wonderful tribute, and there is no doubt the world lost a unique comic voice far too soon.

* Sticking with the general Amy Poehler theme, Uproxx’s Chloe Schildhause has an oral history about the creation of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

* Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine to a New Yorker profile of Ricky Jay from 1993.  There is no better way to fall down a YouTube hole than to get watching old Ricky Jay routines.  The fact that he’s repeating the same tricks and even the patter in modern performances as he did them 30 years ago is actually perhaps the most impressive part — this guy is a total pro.  Check out the Ricky Jay documentary currently airing on Netflix for more, including another telling of his legendary “block of ice” trick.

* Another New Yorker piece, this one by Reeves Wiedeman just a couple of weeks ago, about a competition between people trying to be “the last man” to avoid knowledge of who won the Super Bowl.  I love that amusingly silly stuff like this exists in the world, and if the Super Bowl ever ends up fitting two teams I hate, I might consider doing this.  Like, if last year’s game had been Ravens/Cowboys, I might’ve just moved to a small cabin in northern Ontario for several months and lived off the land like Ron Swanson.

* The marketing concepts being the Cleveland Browns’ SUPER-EXTENSIVE rebranding is revealed by Grantland’s Brian Phillips.  My poor dad…he became a Browns fan back when he was a kid, which started out great for him since this was right in Jim Brown’s heyday, but the last 50 or so years have been pretty thin.  I still think that the only time I’ve ever seen my father legitimately irate was when Ernest Byner fumbled that ball at the goal line.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Conan On Grindr

From the people who brought you "Conan On Tinder," it's "Conan On Grindr!"  It's quite similar, except with a G and extra R rather than a T and E, and also with Billy Eichner instead of Dave Franco.  Frankly, Billy adds a lot more yelling to the co-star role.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Big Birdman

Win or lose at the Oscars, "Birdman" has already achieved the far greater honour of being spoofed on Sesame Street.  Fun fact, my pal Kyle and his family were out to dinner a couple of years ago and his daughter was playing with her Big Bird doll.  An older gentleman noticed this, came over to the table and (to the amazement of all) began speaking in a perfect Big Bird voice.  Sure enough, it was Caroll Spinney.

(I'm using the 'brushes with greatness' tag even though it wasn't MY celebrity encounter, but still, only one degree of separation away.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The 2014 Markademy Awards

Now that Neil Patrick Harris is hosting the Academy Awards, he can finally say he’s done it all in the hosting world.  Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, World Magic Awards and, of course, the Markademy Awards back in 2008.  Who can forget his legend…wait for it…dary “Mark Is Bald” opening musical number?  (Oh that rascally NPH, what a card!)  That’s just another example of how the Markademy Awards is always on the cutting edge of awards shows.  Put it this way…Kanye West has never disputed any of my results.  He just reads this post and nods, saying “As much as I love Beyonce, Mark is accurate as usual!”  That’s right, he actually says that aloud, even though he’s in an empty room.  Come on, it cannot surprise you to learn that Kanye talks to himself.

Without further self-aggrandizement, let’s get onto the awards!

Actual Oscar nominees: Robert Duvall/The Judge, Ethan Hawke/Boyhood, Edward Norton/Birdman, Mark Ruffalo/Foxcatcher, JK Simmons/Whiplash
Should win: Simmons
Will win: Simmons

Alterna-ballot: Riz Ahmed/Nightcrawler, Dave Bautista/Guardians Of The Galaxy, Jason Clarke/Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Nelsan Ellis/Get On Up
My ballot: Ahmed, Hawke, Norton, Ruffalo, Simmons
My winner: J.K. Simmons

There are a few slam-dunk choices in this year’s Academy Award race, and the Michael Jordan-from-the-foul-line of the bunch is Simmons’ inevitable Oscar for “Whiplash.”  People were talking up Simmons as a likely winner from the moment people first saw his instant classic role as the sociopathic Terrence Fletcher, and he’s never really been challenged, racking up virtually every precursor trophy during awards season.  It’s one of those borderline category-cheat cases where you could very easily argue that Fletcher is a co-lead role — since Ethan Hawke is here for an easy comparison, it’s like how he was supporting in “Training Day” while Denzel was the lead, despite the fact that Hawke actually has more screentime in the movie.

Still, I’ll happily co-sign a Simmons win because he was so good, and honestly, the Supporting category was created for actors like him.  He’s the poster boy for those veteran performers who have been around for years, played every role big and small, been in great movies and stinkers, yet he’s always good in everything and seems to be universally respected by his peers.

It’s a sign of just how great Simmons was that he’s been so dominant despite a very strong field of nominees — Robert Duvall is a pity vote that didn’t deserve to be here but c’mon, it’s Robert Duvall, I’m sure he was still probably pretty good in the role.  The field was so strong, in fact, that my alterna-ballot only has four other names rather than the usual five.  (My pick to take Duvall’s spot was the unknown Riz Ahmed, who almost stole the show in Nightcrawler as the innocent foil to crazy-ass Jake Gyllenhaal.)  There sadly wasn’t room for Dave “Batista” Bautista in the mix, and he would’ve fit right in alongside J. Jonah Jameson, the current Hulk and the old Hulk.  If only Eric Bana had done something good this year, we could’ve had all three movie Hulks hanging out in the Supporting Actor category!   

Actual nominees: Patricia Arquette/Boyhood, Laura Dern/Wild, Keira Knightley/The Imitation Game, Emma Stone/Birdman, Meryl Streep/Into The Woods
Should win: Arquette
Will win: Arquette

Alterna-ballot: Marion Bailey/Mr. Turner, Jessica Chastain/Interstellar, Carrie Coon/Gone Girl, Faye Marsay/Pride, Tilda Swinton/Snowpiercer
My ballot: Arquette, Bailey, Chastain, Stone, Swinton
My winner: Tilda Swinton

Controversy!  Now, Arquette has a shelf full of supporting actress trophies due to her rampage through the critics’ awards, and she’s almost as big a lock to win the trophy on Oscar night as Simmons or the upcoming Best Actress choice.  That being said, I’m giving the nod to longtime Markademy Awards favourite Tilda “~~~” Swinton under the Smilex gas rule.  Swinton in “Snowpiercer” alone wouldn’t have done it, but Snowpiercer combined with her role in “Only Lovers Left Alive” and, what the hell, even her brief cameo in “Grand Budapest Hotel” is enough for a lethal combination for award-worthiness.  Essentially, I’m punishing Arquette for not being in more movies last year, which is stupid but it’s my awards show, so it’s my rules!

Also, let’s be clear, Swinton was hilarious in the very weird Snowpiercer, and in many years that performance alone would’ve gotten her the duke.  I feel like Swinton is becoming the artsy, androgynous version of Bill Murray, where you could tell me she’s taken on any role or is involved in any situation (like, say, sleeping through a performance art piece) and I’d believe it.  My god, now I really want to see a movie where Murray and Swinton team up to solve crimes.  I want to watch that movie on a loop for the rest of my life.

Most of my alternate choices top the Academy’s field, which includes Keira Knightley’s nothing role, Laura Dern’s fine but nothing-special performance and the Obligatory Meryl Streep nomination.  (I love Streep as much as the next film buff, but this was not one of her more notable roles.)  I’m fine with Stone’s nomination, and it could be argued that she’s already won the unofficial “iconic film image of the year” due to the last scene of Birdman, though my friend Kyle will fight you to the death arguing about how stupid he felt that ending was. 

Actual nominees: Steve Carell/Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper/American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch/The Imitation Game, Michael Keaton/Birdman, Eddie Redmayne/The Theory Of Everything
Should win: Keaton
Will win: Keaton or Redmayne

Alterna-ballot: Chadwick Boseman/Get On Up, Brendan Gleeson/Calvary, Jake Gyllenhaal/Nightcrawler, Tom Hardy/Locke, David Oyelowo/Selma
My ballot: Boseman, Gleeson, Gyllenhaal, Keaton, Redmayne
My winner: Chadwick Boseman

Finally, an acting category that will provide genuine suspense on Oscar night!  In one of the true oddities of the season, as Birdman has made a surge in the Best Picture race over the last month, Keaton’s seemingly-locked status as the Best Actor frontrunner has apparently fallen behind Redmayne.  You’d think that Keaton would be the one riding the wave if Academy voters were really as behind Birdman as they allegedly are, yet it’s Redmayne gaining steam.  It’s really a battle of two Oscar tropes — the “veteran actor in the role of a lifetime as a washed-up actor” versus “new young star playing a famous person with a disability.”  Redmayne, cliches aside, really was pretty extraordinary as Stephen Hawking, and despite my major problems with the movie itself, I can’t be upset if he ends up winning.

Except…Keaton was so damn good!  The other four nominees are playing real people, and I’d argue that Keaton’s role as Riggan Thompson is essentially playing a real person as well.  He’s playing himself, or, more accurately, Keaton is playing the pop culture perception of himself as a weirdo best remembered for a superhero role.  It’s such a perfect match that if any other had played the role, everyone would’ve said “that guy is just playing Michael Keaton.”  He does a terrific job of twisting and spoofing his own persona as well as making Riggan into his own unique man, and the performance is a great validation for everyone who felt Keaton has been a bit of an untapped talent for all these years.  This is what actually might end up hurting Keaton a bit, ironically — this isn’t a Julianne Moore or Jeff Bridges situation where an actor is a multi-time nominee and feels overdue for a win.  Keaton might join Bill Murray (Lost In Translation) or Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) in the bin as major nominees who made Academy voters think “wow, good for them for finally getting that one elevated role…but we’re still voting for the person with the more traditional Oscar role.”  If Eddie Redmayne was Sean Penn, I’d say Keaton has no shot.

As great as Keaton was, however, he still doesn’t win the Markademy Award.  It’s interesting in this year of so many biopic nominees that most of them were playing real people who weren’t really well-known to the general public; most people are only learning about John du Pont, Chris Kyle and Alan Turing through these films.  James Brown, however, is one of the most well-known figures of the 20th century.  How the hell do you play James Brown without the performance falling back into a parody of his iconic mannerisms, yet also capturing enough of those mannerisms to recognizably pass as the man himself, YET ALSO somehow managing to harness some of his unmatched charisma and stage presence?  Despite this degree of difficulty, Chadwick Boseman pulled it off.  He didn’t try to copy Brown vocally (that would’ve been asking too much) but during the recreated live performances in “Get On Up,” Boseman throws so much passion and power into being on stage that the lip-syncing is not even kind of an issue.

I’m a little stunned Boseman didn’t gain more —- or, virtually any — traction during awards season for his phenomenal performance, though at least it got him a plum role in the Marvel movies.  Paycheck time! 

Actual nominees: Marion Cotillard/Two Days One Night, Felicity Jones/The Theory Of Everything, Julianne Moore/Still Alice, Rosamund Pike/Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon/Wild
Should win: Pike
Will win: Moore

Alterna-ballot: Rose Byrne/Neighbours, Lisa Loven Kongsli/Force Majeure, Tilda Swinton/Only Lovers Left Alive
My ballot: Cotillard, Loven Kongsli, Moore, Pike, Witherspoon
My winner: Rosamund Pike

Another foregone conclusion of a category.  I mentioned earlier how Simmons has been the Oscar frontrunner for months, but Julianne Moore has seemingly had this one in the bag since the film was announced.  It’s as if everyone in Hollywood, en masse, finally decided that it was ridiculous she hasn’t won an Oscar yet and decided to remedy the problem immediately.  All that was left was for Moore to not be terrible in the role, and it’s like that would ever happen, so with one more great performance in the bank, Moore will finally get her overdue Academy Award.  “Still Alice” is as hard to watch as any film this year, just a gut-puncher that (to its credit) keeps going for 25 minutes after its would-be “happy ending” point.

You can make a case that Moore should have three Oscars already,* so I don’t think anyone is crying too much over her inevitable win even if her performance might’ve been third-best of the bunch.  Cotillard and Witherspoon have Oscars already, Jones is just happy to be there and Pike…well, okay, Pike should be winning this.  This is one of those situations where past Oscar mistakes beget “make-up” awards in the the future that just create more mistakes.  In a thin year for lead female roles, there’s little doubt that Pike created the most indelible one of the bunch, and had “Gone Girl” generated any traction with the Academy whatsoever, she might’ve had an outside shot at an upset.

* = as good as Kim Basinger genuinely was in “L.A. Confidential,” Basinger-over-Moore still looks and feels wrong as a result all these years later.  So that’s one supporting actress trophy for “Boogie Nights,” and you can argue Moore should’ve won Best Actress in 2002 for “Far From Heaven” instead of Nicole Kidman winning for “The Hours.”  (Which also co-starred Moore, and you can argue she could’ve won Supporting over category-fraud Catherine Zeta-Jones from “Chicago” that year, though if we’re picking alternate winners, Meryl Streep in “Adaptation” is my clear winner for 2002.)

Actual nominees: Wes Anderson/The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu/Birdman, Richard Linklater/Boyhood, Bennett Miller/Foxcatcher, Morten Tyldum/The Imitation Game
Should win: Linklater
Will win: Gonzalez Inarritu

Alterna-ballot: Damien Chazelle/Whiplash, Ana DuVernay/Selma, David Fincher/Gone Girl, Bong Joon-ho/Snowpiercer, Ruben Ostlund/Force Majeure
My ballot: Chazelle, Gonzalez Inarritu, Linklater, Miller, Ostlund
My winner: Richard Linklater

As mentioned, Birdman has made a surprising late surge into the pole position, and one of the cornerstones of that surge was AGI’s victory at the Directors’ Guild Awards.  The DGA winner almost always matches up with the Best Director winner, so you have to consider Inarritu the favourite on Oscar night….except I wonder if this is a case where you can see why the larger Academy pool might make a break from the directors.  Linklater’s story of spending 12 years shooting “Boyhood” in piecemeal fashion is a pretty great narrative, and I can see Academy voters in general having a larger respect for that than Inarritu’s more conventional “I made a great movie” narrative, as unique a film as Birdman is.  The narrative worked on me, that’s for sure; imagine all the care and planning that went into this 12-year process* and yet it’s the genius of both Linklater’s style and the film itself that it all looks as easy as the passage of time itself.

* = it was recently revealed that Linklater basically just told Ethan Hawke at some point that “if I happen to die, you’re taking over as director and finishing it.”

I’m also pulling for Linklater a bit more since this might end up being his only real chance at an Oscar, and he deserves some recognition for his low-key brilliance over the years.  Inarritu is the type of filmmaker who seems likely to keep making Oscarish movies in the future, so he’ll probably get more kicks at the can, perhaps even as soon as next year if “The Revenant” lives up to expectations.  I’d hardly be upset at an AGI win since he’s a terrific filmmaker and he made a great movie, yet I feel this should be Linklater’s moment.

Actual nominees: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory Of Everything, Whiplash
Should win: Birdman
Will win: Birdman or Boyhood

This year’s underwhelming nominee crop is giving me major 2011 flashbacks.  You have the few genuinely great films (Birdman, Boyhood, Whiplash vs. The Artist, Midnight In Paris, Hugo) that includes the likely winner, the one very good film (Selma vs. Moneyball), some real “meh” nominees (American Sniper, Imitation Game, Grand Budapest Hotel vs. The Descendants, The Help) and then the complete stinkers whose presence in any Best Picture list is a joke (Theory Of Everything vs. War Horse, Tree Of Life, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close).  I guess this year has fewer outright stinkers than 2011 but even still, the Academy didn’t exactly outdo itself with this weak crop.

Also like 2011, the Markademy Award list for Best Picture is also thin.  Only five movies passed my self-imposed bar of the “best” of the year, making for my smallest Best Picture field since 2006.  (Even 2011 had six nominees.)  This was also an odd year since, by and large, I enjoyed a lot more big-studio blockbusters than I did smaller indie-type movies.  Marvel had its best year yet quality-wise, the Planet Of The Apes franchise continues to be hugely underrated, and even the bi-annual Tom Cruise action movie ended up being a classic.

And yet tying both together is that the Oscars’ Best Picture and the Markademy Award Best Picture might end up with the same film.  This is a rarity — only two movies (Silence Of The Lambs and Unforgiven) have achieved the rare Academy/Markademy Best Picture double.  “Birdman” has a strong chance to join that illustrious list, which is something I wouldn’t have thought possible even six weeks ago when “Boyhood” was still seen as the major favourite.

So how and why is this weird, claustrophobic little dark comedy poised to win Best Picture?  Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised, given how the classic backstage drama has long been a staple of Oscar night, going all the way back to the second Best Picture winner ever, “Broadway Melody.”  (Also one of the worst winners ever, but I digress.)  The actual production-within-a-production in “Birdman” doesn’t seem particularly plagued aside from, y’know, the fact that half the cast seems to be having some level of emotional crisis, but still, Oscar voters always love a good story about creative types dealing with the burdens of being creative.

I’d call it naval-gazing were it not for the fact that “Birdman” is a great movie.  Inarritu’s clever decision to shoot the film to look like one take* and with the ever-present jazz drumming score just ratcheted up the tension and kept the momentum at a fever pitch.  The performances are great, the story is great, the idea is great and maybe timely (minus the social media stuff, which already feels tacked-on) given how comic book movies are taking over Hollywood, and sorry Kyle, but I liked the ending.  Given how loosely the film deals with reality, the ending also enforces the fact that the whole thing could simply be Riggan’s delusion and the film is just his gradual descent into madness.

* = longtime Markademy Award favourite Emmanuel Lubezki finally won a hugely overdue cinematography Oscar last year for “Gravity” and it looks like he’ll get another for his Birdman work this year.

Interesting thing I didn’t realize until a recent Mark Harris article — have we been calling this film by the wrong title for months?  The full title is “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance),” and as Harris points out, the placement of those parentheses is really weird.  Firstly, if Inarritu had actually titled it “The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance,” there’s no way this movie would have half the traction it has, since that title is just too pretentious for words.  Secondly, given the themes of Riggan Thompson’s split personality, “Birdman Or” works as a title just unto itself.  It also would’ve led to Don Cherry seeing this movie and then angrily walking out when he realized it wasn’t a Bobby Orr biopic.

So with Birdman on top, here are the five movies that made the cut as the Markademy Award nominees for 2014….

1. Birdman
2. Force Majeure
3. Edge Of Tomorrow
4. Boyhood
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The other candidates….

You probably haven’t seen or even heard of “Force Majeure,” a really interesting Swedish film that hinges on one particular moment in a family’s life and how they all react to it.  It’s both a really dark comedy and a genuine psychological profile, and it will inevitably lead to a discussion with your spouse or loved one if you see it together.  (One of my favourite aspects of Force Majeure was that such a scene is actually in the movie, when the other couple learns of Ebba and Tomas’ issue and they end up in a big argument themselves.)

“Edge Of Tomorrow” unquestionably should’ve been titled “Live, Die, Repeat.”  Let’s get that out of the way right now.  Beyond the title issue, this easily takes the title of most surprisingly awesome movie of the year.  “Groundhog Day as an action movie” is a great concept, Emily Blunt is the best and you have Tom Cruise in A-plus form in his classic role as a douchebag who learns some valuable lessons by the end of the film.  And given the movie’s structure, his character transformation is a lot more believable here than it is in, say, 40% of his other movies with this same arc.

How can I praise “Boyhood” in a way that hasn’t already been expressed by virtually every film critic in the world?  If it doesn’t win Best Picture, I feel like this might be a result that future generations might look back on as a mistake, despite the fact that Birdman is a great movie unto itself.  (If any of the other six nominees win, it’s DEFINITELY a mistake.)  Boyhood is the rare movie that kind of defies imitation, since it’s not like it’ll inspire a bunch of copycat films that are also shot over years and years.  It just depends on whether Boyhood’s idea and semi-universal story will stand the test of time…which is kind of ironic given how that’s the whole point.  Frankly, I think the casting people deserve a special award just because after 12 years, the kid grew up to actually look like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette could’ve been his parents.

It was yet another huge year for the Marvel cinematic universe, and I literally mean ‘universe’ since “Guardians Of The Galaxy” proving that even D-list space comic heroes can be turned into box office gold.  I also mean ‘universe’ in the figurative sense since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is the biggest game-changer towards keeping all of these films tied together in a narrative sense.  It’s also quite possible to enjoy Cap 2 if you’ve never seen any of the other Marvel movies…put it this way, my parents recently saw it on a plane and loved it.

Those are the five that were just good enough to crack my Best Picture list, and here are the 22 other films that were also very good and well worth checking out.

6. Snowpiercer
7. The Lego Movie
8. Foxcatcher
9. Whiplash
10. Dear White People
11. The One I Love
12. Guardians Of The Galaxy
13. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
14. Gone Girl
15. Pride
16. Nightcrawler
17. Selma
18. Interstellar
19. Life Of Crime
20. Top Five
21. Coherence
22. Calvary
23. Wild
24. They Came Together
25. Blue Ruin
26. Only Lovers Left Alive
27. Big Hero 6

And finally, here’s that Markademy Award crowd favourite, the Scenes of the Year!  A great scene or moment can come from any movie, good or bad, and here are the ones that are likely to best stick with me for years to come.

22. Scudder matter-of-factly talks down a knife-wielding weirdo (A Walk Among The Tombstones)
21. Sandra turns the radio up (Two Days, One Night)
20. The Kings’ home, the night before the march (Selma)
19. Andre visits his old friends (Top Five)
18. Riggen locks himself out of the theatre (Birdman)
17. Rama fights the Assassin (The Raid 2: Berandal)
16. Maggie and Milo lip-sync "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" (The Skeleton Twins)
15. The reveal of just how much is left of Alex Murphy (Robocop)
14. Laura invites Riggan up the stairs (Birdman)
13. Jerry Seinfeld's cameo (Top Five)
12. Rama fights Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man (The Raid 2: Berandal)
11. Cliff and Hefina make some sandwiches (Pride)
10. Groot and his fireflies (Guardians Of The Galaxy)
9. Doc sees the baby's picture (Inherent Vice)
8. Basically any of the "live" performances (Get On Up)
7. You can say that again!/Tell me about it! (They Came Together)
6. Quicksilver takes care of the Pentagon guards (X-Men: Days Of Future Past)
5. The list of upcoming sequels (22 Jump Street)
4. The classroom car (Snowpiercer)
3. Ebba, Tomas, Mats and Fanni have dinner (Force Majeure)
2. Cooper sees the videos from home (Interstellar)
1. Andrew plays "Caravan" and then just keeps going (Whiplash)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The 43 Best SNL Cast Members

In honour of SNL’s 40th anniversary, I felt it was time to update my old list of the best cast members in the show’s history.  My old list was written only 2.5 years ago, yet looking back on it, I cringed.  2012 Mark was a fool!  Perhaps my favourite part of the old list was the Facebook comment from my friend Carm, who was worried that I’d included Nancy Walls since she hated her on the show.  Of all people, Nancy freakin’ Walls was your most-hated cast member?  She was on SNL for a grand total of one season!  She was so inoffensive!

Anyway, with an extra 30 months of wisdom behind me, here’s the new list.  To recap the rules, my main criteria point was judging people solely by how funny they were on SNL — and only SNL, not on anything they did before or after they were cast members, whether they became one of my favourites (i.e. Amy Poehler) or vanished into obscurity (far too many to name).  Other factors were length of tenure in the cast, comic versatility and, to be nit-picky, choosing people who were actually officially in ‘the cast.’  This means no multi-time hosts who seemed like virtual cast members, or well-known performers on the show who were only “featured players” (so no Al Franken, who otherwise would’ve made the cut).  Why did I stop at 43?  Well, that’s just the number that felt right to me.  If you have a favourite cast member that’s not here, just pretend they were number #44.

Before, we get to the list proper, let's get to the honourable mentions, or as I call it, "The Rest."  These are the people I at least considered putting on the list…

Rachel Dratch, David Spade, Taran Killam, Laraine Newman, Nasim Pedrad, Tracy Morgan, Robin Duke, Julia Sweeney, Chevy Chase, Michael McKean, David Koechner, Dennis Miller, Rob Schneider, Molly Shannon, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mark McKinney

To avoid explanations on why they weren’t considered: Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, Maya Rudolph.  They’re all big names who seem like odd omissions, yet to me, on SNL they seemed less like quality sketch performers than did giggly pals in a ninth-grade talent show.  Rudolph was actually on the 2012 list but in hindsight, I might’ve just been temporarily swayed by her recent hosting appearance (which was genuinely very good) as opposed to her eight years on the show (which weren’t).  Poehler’s first season was great and it was all downhill from there, though thanks to “Parks & Recreation,” I now adore her.  I used to describe Fallon as either the most overrated SNLer or the biggest waste of talent ever, but after a few years of the Tonight Show, his true ceiling might be “Hey, Remember The 90’s?” talking head rather than an actual, y’know, comedian.

And with that out of the way, onto the list!  Interestingly, the last list was 44 people, so I’m clearly getting pickier in my old age.

43. Chris Kattan
42. Rich Hall
41. Fred Armisen
40. Darrell Hammond
39. Cecily Strong
38. Vanessa Bayer
37. Adam Sandler
36. Mary Gross
35. Bobby Moynihan
34. Cheri Oteri
33. Kevin Nealon
32. Tim Kazurinsky
31. Jon Lovitz
30. Nora Dunn
29. Kenan Thompson
28. Tim Meadows
27. Christopher Guest
26. Harry Shearer
25. Martin Short
24. Billy Crystal
23. Kristen Wiig
22. Kate McKinnon
21. Tina Fey
20. Andy Samberg
19. Dana Carvey
18. Norm Macdonald
17. Jason Sudeikis
16. Will Forte
15. Chris Parnell
14. Mike Myers
13. Joe Piscopo
12. Ana Gasteyer
11. Jan Hooks
10. Jane Curtin
9. John Belushi
8. Bill Murray
7. Bill Hader
6. Dan Aykroyd
5. Gilda Radner
4. Chris Farley
3. Phil Hartman
2. Eddie Murphy
1. Will Ferrell

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Macbeth (Shakespeare Re-Read #13)

My trek through Shakespeare’s dramatic catalogue is mostly being done at random, with a few significant exceptions.  “Julius Caesar” and “Antony & Cleopatra” went consecutively, fitting the actual order of events in Antony’s life.  (Likewise, when I get to the history plays, I’ll be reading them in chronological order.)  I have a few plays specifically picked out to be the last three of the 38, though at the rate I’m getting through these, this trio might not be revealed until around 2021.  “Twelfth Night,” naturally, had to be the twelfth play on my list, and “Macbeth” almost as fittingly had to be thirteenth.  What better fit than to put the so-called cursed play* tied together with the cursed number?  To cap it all off, I re-read the play on Friday the 13th, so by this point I’m basically just mocking fate and inviting a meteor to strike me dead or something.

* = In keeping with the unlucky spirit, I’ll also be henceforth referring to the play as ‘The Scottish Tragedy’ or just ‘TST.’  This is less out of superstition than it is trying to avoid confusion between the play’s title and the actual character Macbeth.

It’s ironic that The Scottish Tragedy is the Shakespeare play so tied to the concept of bad luck when Macbeth isn’t a man undone by misfortune but rather overwhelmed by destiny.  It’s almost a version of the paradox that lies at the heart of many a time-travel story; can the future be altered, or is it written in stone and all of one’s actions are merely the lead-up to what “actually happens.”  (As in, Macbeth is the catalyst that makes the future possible, a la Bruce Willis in “Twelve Monkeys.”)  Keep in mind that the witches are only telling prophecies — Macbeth is the one who makes the leap to thinking that he actually has to take an active role in making his promised future happen.  He’s a soldier, a natural man of action, so his mind just assumes that he must kill Duncan himself to become the king, whereas if he’d just sat back and waited (no matter how unlikely a path to the throne may seem) he might have become king anyway, just like how he basically fell ass-backward into being Thane of Cawdor. 

I found the beginning of Act II, Scene i interesting since it seems like Banquo is similarly troubled by the witches’ prophecy.  He and Macbeth promising to discuss the matter in the future is particularly interesting, as had Macbeth not already put a plan in motion to assassinate King Duncan, I wonder if Banquo considers the murder himself in order to ensure that his future generations rule Scotland.  If Banquo harbours such dark thoughts, however, he has nobody to nurture them — he’s spending his time with the seemingly endless number of hearty Scottish thanes that populate the cast, as well as his good-natured son Fleance. 

Macbeth, on the other hand, has his embers of treachery brought to flame by Lady Macbeth.  Let’s take a moment to bask in the phrase “embers of treachery” for a second (wordplay, brilliant) before diving into this thoroughly messed-up marriage.  If there was ever a prequel I wish Shakespeare had written, it was a story that explains what the Macbeths were like prior to the events of The Scottish Tragedy.  We first meet Lady Macbeth when she’s reading his husband’s account of his meeting with the witches, so we get precious little sense of their relationship outside of their shared plot to kill Duncan.  Where Macbeth hems and haws about becoming a traitor, Lady Macbeth is basically just “welp, the witches said so, let’s get on with the regicide!”  Has her dismay at his perceived lack of ambition always been part of their marriage?  Or, to flip things around, is Lady Macbeth just an enabler rather than the driving force that inspires Macbeth’s treachery?  This would perhaps tie into the later events of the play, when she is ruined by guilt over his actions whereas Macbeth seems to grimly embrace being a tyrant.    

It’s interesting and, truth be told, somewhat sexist that Lady Macbeth is considered one of Shakespeare’s great villains while Macbeth gets off somewhat scot-free (or Scottish-free!…uh, this wordplay was less brilliant) as just the titular “tragic figure.”  There might actually be more evidence of my enabler theory, as she can’t bring herself to stab Duncan, indicating that Lady Macbeth might be all talk and ultimately isn’t willing to cross the line.  (This isn’t an Iago-esque “you do it so I can stay blameless” tactic, Lady Macbeth simply couldn’t bring herself to do it.)  That’s another one of those turning-point moments in the play, as had Macbeth also not already stabbed Duncan, I wonder if they would’ve just called the whole thing off or if Lady Macbeth would’ve again ripped him for being a coward as she did in Act I, Scene vii.

Consider that Lady Macbeth, unlike several wife characters in Shakespeare’s plays, isn’t even given the benefit of her own name.  She is just “Lady Macbeth,” forever defined throughout literary history only in connection to her husband.  The two are never entirely on the same page, as either you have Macbeth resisting the temptation to kill Duncan and Lady Macbeth egging him on, or, as things evolve throughout the play, eventually she’s the one who is horrified while he goes fully mad.  She exists only as the corrective to what Macbeth is *not* doing, whether it’s going along with an assassination or acting properly at a royal banquet. 

We see the flip between the husband and wife really take place in the scene with Macbeth and the murderers, as Macbeth seems to be taking a page from his lady’s book in convincing (or maybe just outright tricking) the killers that Banquo is responsible for their poor lot in life.  I’d never noticed this aspect of the play before, reading the Scottish Tragedy for the first time in well over a decade — are these guys really assassins?  They’re cited in the cast list only as ‘murderers’ and they’re paid for their work, though Macbeth still feels the need to induce some personal animosity between they and Banquo.  Is this Macbeth trying to convince them that Banquo needs to die, or is he still trying to convince himself?   

Let’s go back to I.vii for a second since it also invokes one of the much-debated hidden plotlines of the play, which is the curious case of the Macbeths’ child.  Lady Macbeth mentions having nursed a child before, which begs the question of where exactly young Macbeth Jr. or cute little Beth Macbeth is during the course of this play.  Some argue the child is simply never mentioned, which makes little sense, while others believe that the child has died prior to the events of the play, which goes a long way to explaining the Macbeths’ ambition.  Children are the most standard way of leaving a legacy in the world, but if their child is gone (and, carrying along that implication, they can’t have another) then the Macbeth legacy shall have to be the throne of Scotland. 

This adds another layer to Macbeth’s desire to kill Banquo and Fleance in III.i, as Macbeth isn’t just responding to the witches’ prophecy, he’s also doing it out of bitterness for his own situation as an heirless ruler.  Going back to the time-travel/predestination thing, it’s also telling that this is where Macbeth is actively trying to change the witches’ vision of the future rather than embracing it.*  He doesn’t realize that the three murderers are literally destined to fail in their mission to assassinate Fleance.**  This doesn’t stop Macbeth from adopting child-killing as his signature move, as he kills both Macduff’s children and Young Siward.  Macbeth is both metaphorically and literally trying to destroy the future.

* = and then he immediately goes back to fully believing that the witches’ next set of prophecies (from IV.i) are all foolproof, which immediately breaks him when Macduff reveals that he was a C-section baby.  Given that Macbeth literally compares himself to Mark Antony at one point, I wonder if this was Shakespeare’s clever way of having Macbeth undone just as Antony ultimately was by defeated by Caesar Augustus.

** = For some reason, I’ve always thought the line was “Fly Fleance, fly!”, perhaps influenced by the fact that my buddy Dave has actually uttered this line in reference to any case where we need to make a quick exit.  It’s actually “Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!”  Thanks for nothing, Dave!

I’ve always loved the theory that Macbeth himself was the seemingly redundant “third murderer” in the Banquo plot, hiding in a mask to do the deed himself since he was already too paranoid to entrust the task to someone else.  It makes no logical sense, of course, since the very next scene has Macbeth being getting the report from the first murderer and being disheartened by the news of Fleance’s escape, but still, it’s just fun to make up reasons for some of these occasional purposeless tertiary characters in Shakespeare’s plays.  Maybe future generations will one day argue over the meaning of, say, Steven in ’The Room’ as they do the purpose of the third murderer.

Macbeth as the third murderer would almost make sense just because it would fit into how unusually character-centric this is for a Shakespearean work.  While the play has the usual large array of characters in major to minor parts, virtually all of them are interchangeable, as the large majority of the focus is directly on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  Banquo gets a bit of colour, you have the one scene in England with Malcolm and Macduff that’s meant to humanize both men as the ideal ones to take Macbeth down, Lady Macduff gets a juicy scene, the Porter gets his one bit of comic relief….besides that, as noted earlier, most of the supporting cast is comprised of decent Scottish noblemen, none of whom really stand out.  This is fully the Macbeths’ story.  It’s a short*, compact cautionary tale of how ambition can instantly lead someone awry.  As noted theatre director Gregory Doran put it, this is a play where “if anyone had time to think, the events wouldn’t happen.”

* = literally so, it’s one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays.  The initial version may have been even shorter, to the point that it is widely assumed that Shakespeare collaborator Thomas Middleton adapted the play for the First Folio by beefing up the later scenes involving the witches.  Amusingly, Middleton also added a couple of songs from one of his own earlier plays about witches, which is a hilarious dick move.  This would be like if Jay Z died tomorrow and someone asked Kanye to finish producing some unreleased tracks, leading Kanye to add one of his own samples to every song just to get extra royalties.  I wonder if Thomas Middleton thought Beck should’ve won that Grammy.

TST has always been one of my favourites, ever since I first read this play back in the twelfth grade.  I was always amused by how our high school so blatantly ramped things up with the Shakespeare curriculum.  You went from the funny mistaken-identity comedy (Twelfth Night) in Grade 10 to the teen angst suicide tragedy (Romeo & Juliet) in Grade 11 and then right into this violent Scottish bloodbath the next year.  Finally, seniors got either King Lear or Hamlet to top their high school Shakespearean-ce off with some royal family drama.  Good times!

And a final note about Macb…uh, the Scottish Tragedy being the 13th play in line.  I thought about holding this entry off until the new film adaptation is released later this year, though it was just too much longer to wait.  Needless to say, I’m fired up about this movie.  Marion Cotillard, my favourite actress, as Lady Macbeth?  Michael F. Assbender as Macbeth?  Take all my money, Hollywood!



13. Pericles
12. The Taming Of The Shrew
11. Antony & Cleopatra
10. Much Ado About Nothing
9. Coriolanus
8. The Two Gentlemen Of Verona
7. The Comedy Of Errors
6. The Winter's Tale
5. A Midsummer Night's Dream
4. Julius Caesar
3. Macbeth
2. Twelfth Night
1. Othello

My New Year's resolution for 2012 was to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  2012 has long since ended, but still, onward and upward.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here are a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William goddamn Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Mark The Hufflepuff

Every time I take one of those "which Hogwarts house are you?" online quizzes, I always end up in Hufflepuff.  Uh oh.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Random Nonsense

See, I just want a good Spider-Man movie.  That’s all.  Of the five (five!) Spidey movies made over the last 14 freakin’ years, only one (Spider-Man 2) has actually fully lived up to its potential and delivered the kind of film that nine-year-old Mark always dreamed of seeing made about his favourite comic book hero.  At this point, I have far more confidence that Marvel will be able to deliver another one of those films to me than I do that Sony will somehow strike gold again.

The other by-products of an explicit Spider-Man/Marvel Cinematic Universe (such as Spidey in future Avengers movies, or Spidey as part of the ‘Civil War’ storyline that will comprise the third Captain America film) are just gravy.  I wanna see my great Spider-Man movie!  Come on!  I’m a grown man who still refers to him as Spidey!  Make this happen, Marvel!  Stay the hell out of the creative decisions, Sony, and just sit back and count the money as it rolls in!

It’s probably for the best that I never became a professional wrestler.  I’d run into too many logistical problems trying to cut a promo.

“The first thing I want to be done, is to get that piece of crap out of my ring. Don't just get him out of the ring, get him out of the WWF because I've proved son, without a shadow of a doubt, you ain't got what it takes anymore! You sit there and you thump your Bible and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16.  Mark 3:16 says…uh, Mark 3:16 says ‘These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter).’ “

“Are you threatening to rename Jake Roberts?”

“Um, yeah!  That’s right!  Call him Peter……..’The Cheater’ Roberts instead!”

“This suddenly became a lot less intimidating.”

“Shut up!  You’re a mean poo-poo head!  *gestures to the crowd* You’re ALLLLLLL mean poo-poo heads!”

And then I’d just run backstage crying, probably tripping and falling over something along the way.

There are a lot of great things about ’Better Call Saul,’ ranging from a plum role for the heavily underrated Michael McKean to just simply being back in the Breaking Badverse version of Albuquerque.  The show also allowed me to wonder: do I know anyone in the witness protection program?  You know, various people from work, or random acquaintances or something — what if I only know their “second life,” so to speak, and this is their cover identity after a background that involves god knows what?  It’s probably not a good sign that I can think of a half-dozen people off the top of my head who could easily have a shady past.

I won’t going to see the 50 Shades Of Grey movie since, y’know, obviously, yet I always enjoy reading about how a film production ends up being an absolute train wreck.  Case in point, this piece by Gawker’s Kelly Conaboy about how the movie’s press tour literally couldn’t be going worse since a) the two stars, Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, clearly don’t like each other and b) they also clearly don’t think the movie is any good, in part due to the lack of chemistry and in (larger) part because the novel was such claptrap to begin with.*

* = It’s possible that this is just an elaborate marketing campaign based around the fact that anyone would be embarrassed to be seen actually reading ’50 Shades Of Grey,’ with the logic being that “Don’t worry folks, let’s all share in our collective embarrassment!  Even the actors are ashamed!”  If there’s really some Pete Campbell-type who came up with that idea, I hope he reads this post and sadly nods while then surfing back to Craigslist to check for job postings.

While I don’t care if the 50 Shades movie fails, I do worry that it’ll ruin the careers of everyone involved since I actually like Dakota Johnson.  I’m one of the few who watched “Ben & Kate,” her fantastic but short-lived sitcom with Nat Faxon in 2012, and she was terrific in that role.  Maybe that’s the problem; Johnson’s talent is in comedy whereas the 50 Shades people require her to be toned-down, dramatic and, I dunno, open to being whipped or bound or whatever the hell happens in that book.  Clearly the answer here was to make the 50 Shades adaptation into an outright farce, with Faxon as the rich weirdo instead of Dornan.  And then instead of the sex stuff, just make them brother and sister trying to adjust to living together.  And cast Lucy Punch as a friend.  Essentially, just make a Ben & Kate movie, Hollywood.

Aiden Gillen and Alexis Denisof should star together in a movie called “Our Fake Accents Sound More Natural Than Our Actual Speaking Voices.”  The title needs some work, admittedly.  Ironically, it doesn’t sound natural enough.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Western Funk

I have never been prouder of my alma mater, and I'm saying that only slightly tongue-in-cheek since this must've taken a hell of a lot of choreography.  If the school did more cool stuff like this, I might actually listen to those fundraiser calls instead of laughing and hanging up the phone.  It almost makes me wish I'd lived in residence instead of living at home with my parents and enjoying free meals, a clean room, not living with strangers....hmm, on-campus life is for suckers.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Curse Reversed!

The curse is over!  My family’s longstanding jinx with regards to our purchase of NFL apparel may have been officially lifted forever.  The reasoning is simple — my mom got a Patriots toque for Christmas, and sure enough, they won the Super Bowl.  It may have required some divine retribution in the form of a baffling play-call from the Seahawks, but still, perhaps Pete Carroll also has some curse hanging over him.  (Presumably Jim Harbaugh’s voodoo doll finally became operational.)

Now, technically, my Packers and my brother’s Ravens have both won championships since I wrote that post in July 2010, so you could argue that our family’s curse has been broken twice over.  Yet still, we hadn’t received any new Green Bay or Baltimore stuff immediately prior to those Super Bowl wins, whereas my mom’s toque was brand new.  Also, it’s only fitting that she be the one to officially put the curse to rest given that her Patriots’ gear torment really fueled my belief in the curse, given how her getting a Tom Brady jersey in January 2008 immediately led to a) the Pats blowing their perfect season in the Super Bowl and b) Brady blowing out his knee in the 2008 season opener.  Amusingly, she put that jersey in a drawer out of disgust and hasn’t worn it since.

Talk about playing with fandom karma fire, however.  During the second half of the game, she TURNED THE CHANNEL to watch Downton Abbey!  Turned the channel with her favourite team in the Super Bowl!  Maggie Smith vs. Tom Brady is admittedly a real tossup but still!  She claimed it was because she was worried about them losing and couldn’t bear to watch, but my god, sometimes as a fan you just have to tough it out. 

Unless…the turn to Downton Abbey actually saved the Patriots.  After all, it was Olde England and New England.  Plus, nothing says Downton Abbey like a butler, and who was the player who notched that game-clinching interception?  Malcolm Butler.  I rest my case.