All posts by Brandon Wagner

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 can’t be the enduring classic the original is.

For a large part, that’s based in the impossibly different approach the two films take to their world. Not just in the actual material, but in the process that got it there.

Blade Runner had cut after cut, a formative legend that eventually pulled some grand truth out of raw material. Blade Runner 2049 arrived fully formed on the back of three decades of legacy-making. Blade Runner is a film that was forced into ambiguity, its questions more important and more formative than the answers it gave. Blade Runner 2049 is founded in its directness, barreling forward into a world in the hope of unraveling its mysteries.

Blade Runner is a sci-fi film told with detective flair. Blade Runner 2049 is a mystery story told with a sci-fi thought process. The former can leave threads for years, the latter must leave only its reactions.

But despite all this, let it not be said that Blade Runner 2049 is not a staggering and extraordinary work of cinema. Few films could come in with such personal attachment for me and such difficult mountains to surmount and end up creating something that feels as real and vital and alive and as ahead of its moment as the original did, even if it only expands where the original created.

Part of the reason I chose to wait to write this review was because I needed a while to let the initial reaction wear off, the other because I wanted enough time to actually be able to safely talk about some details of what happened. This is a film that has a lot to uncover.

K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, a cop specifically designated to hunt down the superhuman slave-clones known as replicants, in LA in the year 2049. K is also a replicant himself, tasked specifically with turning in his own kind.

A job hunting down runaway replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) puts K on the trail of a possible replicant child, a child that turns the world around as replicants become capable of reproduction. But K is by no means the only one interested as creator of the current, more compliant replicants, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), stays on K’s trail, sending his badass assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) after him as K follows the obscured trail to the truth.

There’s almost no way to begin talking about Blade Runner 2049 without talking about its visuals. There’s a lot underneath them, but Blade Runner 2049 is undeniably one of the most striking works of cinematic visualization put out in theaters in sometime. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have joined to create something that I imagine looks like what every blockbuster will in about 5 years.

It’s not just Villeneuve’s able visual direction, tight and focused and maintaining an almost supreme control over its pace where the extreme length (for a blockbuster) feels absolutely deliberate and unfurling.

It’s not just Deakin’s camera work, deep and inky shadows unveiling and unfurling its world and brilliant neon illuminating a cold and unforgiving air. The natural and clever lighting creating something magical and aching and impossible.

It’s not just Dennis Gassner and Renee April’s production and costume design, real and advanced and functional and just as tangible as ever despite its scale and its distance from our own world.

It’s not just the special effects work, the ingenious holograms, the unnerving de-agings, the ads in the background sprinkling information.

It’s all of those things. Blade Runner 2049 is a stack of visual wizards doing the best work they’ve ever done, creating something ahead of its time and something that makes the loudest and best possible argument for seeing a movie on the big screen that anything ever has. To say nothing of the need to hear this thing on the big screen, one of the loudest movies I’ve ever heard sure, but one where every sound only heightens the envelopment of this movie.

Was it just the technical work, Blade Runner 2049 would earn the praise many have given. But to earn the praise I’m going to give, it’s also the story being told by the people who are telling it.

Villeneuve begun his career looking at the worst of humanity, its violence and its repression. Prisoners about tragedy, Enemy about control. Arrival seems to have signaled a possible shift for the filmmaker, a turn to something (while keeping his icy brutality) more about humanity. Arrival was about what it means for us to communicate as humans with each other.

Blade Runner 2049 is down to that very fundamental question…what is humanity anyway? It’s the same question Blade Runner asked, of course. But 2049 wants to attack it from a direct angle, interrogate what specifically divides us between the human and non-human, whether there is a difference, and whether it matters.

2049 turns things we identify as human and gives them a sheen of technological separation. One of the best cyber-sex scenes since her turns sex into something both recognizable and advanced beyond our years, asking what point this became that very human act.

Again, to ask, what is our humanity, what makes it ours? If the original was Biblical, Roy Batty a Lucifer tempting towards a better world, then 2049 is Nabokov asking what meaning these things have that we give them and Kafka asking what barriers we’ve set up to divide ourselves from the inhuman world.

Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have done all this in a script that still manages to function well on its narrative level. Every twist and turn is in service of that larger thematic and the stories we tell about these people, but it’s strong enough to keep you engrossed and difficult enough to force you to peel underneath the surface to find what’s going on. It’s remarkable this kind of storytelling, deliberately poetic and meditative, was in a studio film and in a blockbuster framework. Fancher, Green, and Villeneuve have created something beautiful and bold on the kind of scale few get to.

Its cast does remarkable work. More than Blade Runner, it’s the female cast that gets to stand out and drive its narrative. Ana de Armas gives a hypnotic performance as K’s girlfriend Joi, pushing and prodding him to ask questions of himself. Sylvia Hoeks gives a performance worthy of every henchman from Blade Runner, badass and cool and yet somehow petulant, like she’s going after K to be the best. And points to Mackenzie Davis for making the most of a short few scenes and reminding us why we need to see way more of her.

This also may be one of Ryan Gosling’s best performances. He’s given a complex character, a cold and difficult person who does hunger to reach for something more, who believes in a possibility that he’s greater. Gosling uses that great star persona (cool, calm, collected with rage willing to burst through) with just hints of the humanity appearing underneath that he’s so good at in other roles (see: The Big Short, La La Land).

Blade Runner 2049 has its flaws, yes. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score just doesn’t feel as apt or deft as the now-legendary Vangelis score. And Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace feels sewed on from another movie. Not bad but just not of a piece with the rest of the film.

But for someone who holds the original as one of the greatest films ever made, Blade Runner 2049 is as worthy a sequel as I can imagine. An expansion of the universe, a new story being told in a new way by a new storyteller using the same world looked at through new eyes. It joins films like Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road as a filmmaker carving out a new path through a classic.

Grade: A

 

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Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 3: Kumail Najiani stands above a bizarrely muddled episode

How’s the Cold Open?

Look, I’ve said everything I can say about these at this point. Baldwin’s Trump is limp at this point, any hint of vitality just totally drained through repetition and the fact that he was definitely never supposed to be playing the character this long. They’ve tried to move into the idea that this is just what it is now, think every other Presidential impersonator, but Baldwin’s not got a quite deep enough take for that.

The stuff with Pence is kind of funny even if the timing feels really off. I wish we could go a little deeper into Bennett’s Pence, just as kind of unnerving and creepy as the real thing.

SNL has got to find a way to inject a new energy into these, they’ve got four years and they’re already running out of steam with a character more ripe for mockery than ever.

Who’s Hosting?

Kumail Nanjiani is one of comedy’s brightest lights, a guy with movie star presence, character actor specificity, and podcaster endearingness and openness and weirdness. His turn in The Big Sick shows his potential as a leading man and I hope getting his chance here makes him into a star.

He’s great in this show, even when the material around him isn’t. His great underplaying and connection with the performers around him shows an old hand and the kind of guy who VERY clearly could have been a cast member. If the show had given him more to do, he would have made a much clearer place as the best of this season so far. He still is, but it could have been clearer.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Kellywise”

Something of a sequel to the Kellyanne Conway/Fatal Attraction sketch, this time placing McKinnon’s Conway into IT as a clown dredging the media into the sewers with her (a surprisingly apt metaphor). McKinnon’s Conway has definitely evolved as a character since the early days of the “put-upon babysitter” and crossing that more sinister interpretation with McKinnon’s surprisingly apt impression of Skarsgard’s Pennywise to create a character that’s surprisingly unnerving and pulls off laughs and a couple startles. The cinematography here is also just great, how good has the craft gotten on these pre-written sketches as of late? A smarter core and some great performances make for a great sketch.

“Bank Breakers”

While my sympathies towards game show sketches may be different than most (I love ’em), this is still a seriously solid one. The great situation it puts Kumail’s character in is really elevated by his perfect exasperation at the whole situation. Strong underplays really well and while I wish there had been a twist here, I do love this thing’s slow pushing in of the knife.

“Customer Service”

Julio Torres is one of this show’s most quiet all-stars, a writer of sweet and bizarre and quiet sketches that get laughs and pull on the heartstrings in just the right way. After being the Gosling episode MVP for “Papyrus,” “Customer Service” comes along and becomes something quiet and lovely in an episode that didn’t tend towards those things. Strong’s Melania as a prisoner of Donald feels more accurate than those choices for any other woman and the connection between her and Kumail’s character really does feel genuine. Give this man a TV show/movie/whatever and I’ll be there.

“Kumail Nanjiani Standup Monologue”

For those of you who aren’t all-in on podcasts or haven’t had the pleasure, Kumail Nanjiani is a truly phenomenal stand-up and I’m thrilled to see him get a chance to show that on such a national stage. A unique and deeply funny voice, Nanjiani’s speaking on Islamophobia is a bold routine and I hope this motivates to get out and watch his stand-up.

What?

This week, I don’t know if the stuff so much didn’t work as just left me sitting there baffled.

“Nursing Home”

There’s one really solid joke here. McKinnon’s bizarre wordless grandma versus the description of her sexual proclivities to her shocked descendants. Nanjiani’s very cavalier doctor gives an extra layer of absurdity that never quite covers it all. But there was a bizarre looseness to the sketch and a problem with endings that seemed to carry through the whole night. Just couldn’t ever quite get off the ground rather than crashing.

“Hotel Check-In”

As a piece of writing, a less-good version of the far more specific and bizarre version of this sketch that Louis C.K. did a couple years back. As a piece of performance, Nanjiani basically doing his recurring character from Portlandia carried this through really strongly. And at least it had an actual ending, even if it just felt like a lesser version of what we’ve seen.

“Film Panel”

Ehh, I’m not quite sure we should have another Debette Goldry. As much fun as McKinnon has with the character, the writing and the reaction just feels too muted to work at this point and this is a character that can’t be coming in with expectations, it only works when unexpected. It’s smart to use this for the Weinstein stuff, but it feels like the point of the sketch (it’s nothing compared to the old days) feels tone-deaf when the details of Weinstein’s harassment rings loudly in everyone’s ears right now. It’s showing how little change there has been, a sketch like this misses the point. I know the show feels the need to address it, but this wasn’t the best way.

“Office Halloween Party”

A sketch with bizarre energy for its placement in the show. This is a 10-to-1 that was up at the top, maybe the first thing that really derailed this show’s momentum. I really like the low-key reactions and the monotone work, but the premise just never finds its twist or its timing and it ends up just feeling like a trip than a strut.

Weekend Update!

The continuing evolution of Che and Jost into clapter machines moves along unabated here. They go after Weinstein pretty hard here, getting a few fairly solid shots off (Jost’s joke about the alternative to a cushy sex rehab “Yeah it’s a prison” is particularly strong) and Che’s later rant about Trump’s use of the Christmas culture wars is on-point. While SNL has always had a weirdly mushy politics to avoid pissing anyone off, Trump is such an easy target that it’s focused these anchors in a way they’ve really needed. Che’s sloppiness feels passionate, Jost’s blandness feels deliberate.

One correspondent tonight, Strong bringing in new character Ivana Trump, Donald’s wife from back in his 80s-heyday (*sigh* well, first heyday). Strong’s character work is really strong here, carving out a different take than Jan Hooks’, and plenty of great details even if Ivana is a minor player right now. Strong is maybe one of the better character players on the show right now, and considering they lost two of their best, it’s needed.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did!

P!nk puts on a good show!

MVPs!

Between her great work in the Bank Breakers sketch, her Ivana Trump character, and her ability to play along better than anyone else tonight, it’s Cecily for the MVP tonight. One of the show’s best actors and one of its most important assets, it’s gonna be harder to lose her than we would think.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Cecily Strong – 1

Final Thoughts!

Boy this show feels limp transitioning back from a big season, doesn’t it? It always tends to be weak coming back from an election, having had all the attention focused on them and having blown through a whole lot of ideas because of that. Plus as the show moves into the transition to its next cast (McKinnon is the center and it’s clear we’re hitting the time for most of the cast to make their move), the show’s obviously got a lot ahead of it.

So maybe that’s why this one feels so sloppy. No one quite knows what’s happening, the cast is enthusiastic if messy. A lot of talent is flying around and it doesn’t feel focused. Nanjiani is a great host, but would have been even better with a more energized cast. Hopefully the break can whip them into shape and Larry David can bring them some good shit.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Kumail Nanjiani
  2. Gal Gadot
  3. Ryan Gosling

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 2: Gal Gadot plays the straight woman all night

How’s the Cold Open?

The SNL after a tragedy is always a weird thing, something so visible and so of its moment is always gonna feel the need to address what’s happened and yet it’s never not gonna feel weird for something so goofy (which will have a sketch about tiny mice mocking a lady for being poor later on) to be addressing a mass shooting like this. Yet it’s what we live in now, where you just have to learn how to talk about these things and move on.

This is a relatively classy way, letting Jason Alden perform and retake some narrative around him and also pay tribute to the late, great Tom Petty. A solid, kind, and evocative way to deal with a tragic event.

Who’s Hosting?

Gal Gadot has been a charming screen presence ever since she first popped up in the Fast and Furious franchise, but she’s the kind of actress who can have issues on SNL. Game and eager, but more adept at the physical parts of acting than wrapping around the dialogue. Gadot also has little live acting experience and the accent could have made things tricky.

Gadot is certainly eager and game, which is most of hosting, but the show honestly doesn’t give her much to do. Unlike most hosts, Gadot is never given the chance to really cut loose or play the comic character. She’s the reaction or the straight woman in every sketch and when she does get to be the comic character, she’s really low-key (such as in her Jenner performance).

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“First Date:

This is definitely one of those sketches that feels like a weird premise being held back from the 90s, but with OJ in the news, I guess now is as good a time as any to use it. This one is sold entirely on Kenan’s skillful comic underplaying of OJ here and the great little comedy of errors stacking that the writing does here. A solid premise and performance that uses OJ as a shortcut rather than a whole joke, the kind of sketch that tends to be rare.

“Safelite”

Honestly, if we’re gonna do these heavy product placement sketches, let’s make the companies regret doing ’em. Beck does great work with his bald goateed creep and the steady escalation honestly feels almost too real to be funny, tipping just past into the point of absurdity. This is a dark sketch, like the White Castle one from last season, and I’m all for it.

“Themyscira”

A thin premise (and what appears to be an apology to Kate McKinnon for all those Last Call sketches) is pretty much buoyed by Aidy Bryant and McKinnon’s delightful energy here. It has the same weird “Fellow Kids” quality that applies every time they do a sketch using some popular genre series, but again, Bryant and McKinnon are just having so much goshdarned fun I can’t help but enjoy this one.

“E! New Lineup”

I’m actually a sucker for these fake show sketches (Powerful Sluts of Miami is such a great title) and this is a fairly solid one, some solid easy pitches the show manages to hit. Gadot’s Kendall Jenner is surprisingly accurate and Chris Redd’s Kanye impression that doesn’t say a thing feels more dead-on than Pharaoh’s vocalized Kanye. Doesn’t overstay its welcome either.  New cast member Luke Null actually getting a chance to show off too.

“The Chosen One”

Pete Davidson’s recurring character, the moron teen that everyone has big plans for (may not be the actual name), is one of the most low-key successful recurring characters on this show. Even if it’s pretty much the same joke every time, there’s something that feels infinitely malleable about the performance and everyone’s reactions to him that get funnier the bigger this gets. Suffice to say, the very serious and big fantasy world being reliant on this idiot is pretty funny.

What Didn’t Work?

“Mirage”

Kind of a silly sketch, but really just hammers home the same joke without ever finding another angle to mine something fresh out of it. Just too thin to be really that great.

“The Maiden and The Mice”

Like a more innocent version of those sex fiend elf sketches, this one has pretty much the same amount of laughs that like…the 5th or 6th version of that sketch did. It doesn’t know what the joke is, doesn’t know what it’s mocking, just not sure at all what’s really happening outside of the fact that they know how to do this shrinky effect.

“Espionage”

A lesser version of the Surveillance sketch from Wonder Woman co-star Chris Pine’s episode, this one didn’t have the same goofy innocence that one did, this one ended up more like an attempt to connect two disparate sketch ideas, forcing the events that they’re seeing to do more work than just their reactions to it.

“The Naomi Show”

This one ends up kinda feeling like a lesser version of a sketch that a lot of different shows have tried at one point or another, the “Maury” parody with an excessively strange character. The host is not usually the straight-woman, it’s weird to slot Gadot in here. But while Gardner is certainly going for it here and Bryant is giving just as much oomph to her performance, this one just feels like a fizzle.

“Gal Gadot Monologue”

There’s just not much to say here, cute concept, doesn’t amount to much.

Weekend Update!

This was an Update that went for a lot of Clapter (applause for truth-telling over comic punch) as Che and Jost largely spent their joke segments going for gun control. It’s passionate for sure and the raw confidence and attitude is certainly a different look for them. Jost and Che might consider seeing how they could turn it into a different tone as they found some stronger jokes in going bold and direct and avoiding the muddled politics that SNL is often rightfully accused of.

Two old standbys round out Weekend Update. I’ll confess that I don’t much cared for McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s the sort of broad comic character that McKinnon can do better than and feels way more like an early ’00s piece than of the modern era. There was something delightful post-election, but outside of that it feels bland. Here, you know the joke, there’s not much more to it.

Davidson makes a pretty bold admission on air (his Borderline diagnosis), Davidson as the show’s open and honest presence has been a good niche for him and he gets some solid jokes here.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah.

I’m still mad at Sam Smith for winning that Oscar. Such bullshit.

MVPs!

Tonight, Aidy Bryant by and away runs away with the show. In a show that leans towards the low-key, she manages to buoy a couple sketches with some very loud, very strong energy and is just an all-out delight to watch in this episode.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1

Final Thoughts!

Honestly, I think putting Gadot in all straight-woman roles tonight was a mistake. It made for a show that didn’t feel anywhere near goofy enough and kept its energy too low to lift off the ground. It’s a benefit for that energy that the show was more about weird premises than anything else as it suited a lot of that listless energy. But a few strong ones don’t take away from how sleepy this one was.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Gal Gadot
  2. Ryan Gosling

All You Need To Know About Blade Runner 2049

There are two fundamental questions everyone is ultimately going into Blade Runner 2049 with. One is the same question that everyone asks about every other movie: Do I need to see it?

The answer is simply enough, yes. I’ve chosen to tell you about this movie in this way because Blade Runner 2049 is perhaps one of the most surprise-packed major blockbusters in some time. There are twists and spoilers loaded in the very framework of this film. If you see it, read as little as you can about the film. The trailers, the original, and the shorts are all you really need.

What lies behind the veil of mystery is one of the most breathtaking achievements of big-budget sci-fi visualization in years. Blade Runner 2049, with Denis Villeneuve at the helm and Roger Deakins lensing, is absolutely jaw-dropping to look at like few films have ever been. Every frame is incredible, shadows deep and revealing the motion, color deeply saturating, and light glowing. There are visual ideas I can’t believe I haven’t thought of and special effects I couldn’t believe they pulled off. This is possibly the best work out of Deakins for a man who does nothing but excellence. And let it not just be Deakins. The production design, the costumes, the sound, the special effects work, every moment is incredible.

But it’s not just the visual work. Blade Runner 2049 is a tight and engrossing detective story with a surprisingly strong heart at its core. The cast pulls (largely) great performances, including out of some actors who’ve been coasting for a bit. A great narrative told beautifully is always worth getting out to the theater.

The other question? Does it live up to the cult classic original?

The original is one of my favorite films ever made, so I have enough authority here for it to matter when I say it absolutely does.

It’s not better, but that’s a tall order for any film to achieve. Especially because this is an entirely different sort of film, less ambiguous than the original, more unfolding a sci-fi flavored detective story than a detective-flavored sci-fi story. It asks and answers more directly, expands on a world rather than creates it, and comes from an entirely different conception of a future tradition.

But Blade Runner 2049 is in every way worthy of the original even after all these years. It stands firmly alongside films like Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road as one that takes its original and makes something just as rich and fascinating as its predecessor.

See it this weekend, give support to a film this huge and ambitious and simply stunning. We’ll talk Monday.

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 1: Ryan Gosling giggles as the cast shakes the rust off

And we’re back! After a summer that was funny in only a dark “Hahahaha the nuclear blast is coming right for us” sort of way, can SNL make us laugh? Can Ryan Gosling’s ridiculously handsome face giggling at everything make us smile? Can Alec Baldwin’s Trump find something interesting?

How’s the Cold Open?

Well…maybe not.

Look, I’m on record as of last season that whatever was enjoyable about Alec Baldwin playing President Trump early on in the season has been sucked out of the room as SNL turns him into every other recurring character, a cheap set of point scoring parodies of the most difficult man to parody in the country.

And this sketch didn’t necessarily prove me wrong.

A summer of bizarre choices and decisions and statements provided plenty of ripe ground for the direct mockery and psychological examination that the Trump administration requires. I mean, The Mooch alone.

But this one never managed to find the energy. Trump’s feud with the San Juan mayor (Melissa Villasenor) is played with an air of “Can you believe this?” that seems to undersell the more general reaction and lose a pointedness to the comedy. The cavalcade of firings largely exists as a throwaway line. Not a whole lot of laugh lines, just a lot of limp jokes.

McKinnon’s Sessions injects a little extra energy into the sketch, a bizarre Little Rascals-esque take on everyone’s least favorite Alabamian. With her weird drawl and possibly monster teeth, it’s at least more off-kilter.

Overall, a bit of a blunder to start the season off.

Season Premiere Update!

Who’s in? Who’s out?

Who’s out this season are two long-timers and a short-timer who never got served like she should have. Announced was Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer leaving, both invaluable show presences and both definitely missed in this season’s premiere. Moynihan was a relentless presence, an out-sized performer who had little dignity in the best of ways. Bayer honed in hard on her characters, was one of the few who could bring a character back and wring the same laughs out of them each time. Unfortunately, departing alongside them was Sasheer Zamata, an actress with a gift for reaction on par with Kenan Thompson, and who never got her due on the show.

Who’s in? Well, for once, SNL took three out and put three back in. The most notable of the three is Chris Redd, who turned a memorable supporting role as Hunter the Hungry in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and is the kind of committed and consummate performer who could do great here when he finds his groove (and was already getting some laughs from me). Also joining the cast is Heidi Gardner, a Groundlings graduate and voice actress, and Luke Null, an iO Theater mainstay known for his musical comedy.

Who’s Hosting?

Ryan Gosling is a fun sort of host, the host whose entire appeal seems to be how an actor who’s famous for being as stoic and serious as he is (to be fair, the man can indulge in light-heart and comedy with the best of them) is being so goofy and so unable to keep his shit together. There’s a certain level of endearing to how much time Gosling spends breaking in these sketches, never mugging, but earnestly so amused by what’s going on around him that he can’t stop laughing.

And on a related note, he’s also such a great actor that he’s the kind of guy who can really mine laughs out of performance, even with thin premises.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Papyrus”

Case in point. Of course, for true comic effect, it really helps to put him in a sketch where he’s not live.

Basically a sketch where one small Tweets-worth of joke (literally) is pulled out to its emotional conclusion, Gosling really sells his extended breakdown over the font of the logo for Avatar. The heightened drama of it is hilarious and the moody filmmaking really helps to tie a bow on the best sketch of the night.

“The Fliplets”

I don’t know who else this one was for, but I loved the hell out of it. Day and Moffat have become a very strong asset for SNL, especially as a pair, so their weird “we could probably be siblings” chemistry has been a surprising delight. This one takes it and ratchets up the insanity just a bit, producing this weird bit of sibling disaffection. It’s also a chance for Gosling to really show off his comedy acting chops, leaning hard into the intensity in a fantastic little dark monologue there at the end.

Kinda?

“Dive Bar”

I don’t know how much this one has what one might call a point. Just seems like a weird costumes and weird voices sketch with a refrain that breaks up the acts, but I laughed! It’s so go-for-broke bizarre and all that great specificity (Kenan’s constant refrain about his good jeans) finds something enjoyable even if it isn’t anything but a series of non-sequitur.

“Another Close Encounter”

Look, it was one thing when they brought her back as a recurring character for other hosts, the magic was that Gosling’s cracking up was so unexpected and McKinnon seemed to be deliberately encouraging it. This is SNL trying to make lightning strike twice and I don’t know if it’s a great idea. Sure they do it and McKinnon is never more a comic tour de force than in sketches like this (being a sketch center of gravity works better for her than someone like Wiig), but it just feels lazy to do the repeat.

“Ryan Gosling’s Jazz Monologue”

Look, if we’re gonna do musical sketches, this is my kind of musical sketch. I don’t know if it really is a funny joke, but Gosling’s ridiculous commitment ends up really selling the whole bit.

“N’Erlins.”

What Didn’t Work?

“Italian Restaurant”

Again, we’re retreading ground (this is basically the Chris Farley coffee commercial or the Blue River Dog Food) but it just feels a little too sloppy to match up to those. Besides Gosling’s horrible cue-card face in this one, the product placement nature of the sketch ends up leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

“Henrietta & The Fugitive”

I’m gonna be real…I’m not totally sure what this is. Way too long, seemingly totally dramatic except for that angle of “She’s a big chicken,” and just too slack to ever really sell the premise in the right way. A weird sketch that feels like they were just out of ideas is never a great thing for a show this early in the season.

“Levi’s Wokes”

I just can’t for the life of me tell what the direction of this sketch is. Who is it mocking? Is it making fun of social justice terminology? Is it making fun of brands co-opting that terminology to sell products? Who’s the point here? It’s possibly a sketch SNL really shouldn’t be doing, it’s possibly a great piece of satire. But it’s too unpointed to work.

Weekend Update!

Jost and Che are perhaps the least out of practice in this whole cast, having done Weekend Update over the summer. So they’re already in normal form, though the partnership felt a little unbalanced tonight. Jost was fine, but none of the material ever really punched hard. Che on the other hand was on fire. Though neither got off a great joke, Che unleashed a pretty nice angry rant and there’s something cathartic about hearing him whip off “You cheap cracker” at Trump.

Our correspondents were both solid if unspectacular. McKinnon’s Merkel seems to have lost some of her luster as a character under Trump, less the outsider but not quite leaning into the terrified change in the world order. So it’s mostly shoehorning in the older jokes. Moffat’s Guy Who Just Bought a Boat is an older concept (Mr. Subliminal) but it’s so dead-on and well-performed that it’s watching, even if this is maybe the last time it’ll be funny.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did!

Jay-Z gave a solid set of performances, the confessional rawness of the second one something you just don’t see on SNL very often.

MVPs!

Let’s just let this one go to Kate McKinnon. No one else was so consistently enjoyable to watch, and her centerpiece in the Alien Abduction sketch is still a reminder of how good she is. Her becoming the center of the sketch never feels selfish, just an anchored assurance that everyone around her can play off.

Final Thoughts!

A rough start. I get it, that’s pretty normal. Shaking the rust off is needed, but there was a little more rust than normal. Gosling is an enjoyable performer, but one not ready enough for live TV to anchor a show like this. More misses than hits, let’s see how that continues.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Ryan Gosling

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is exactly the sequel you’d expect (and that’s the problem)

A genuine surprise is pretty rare in studio filmmaking, we pretty much know what’s gonna succeed and what’s not from a mile out. But Kingsman: The Secret Service was an incredibly obscure comic book adaptation R-rated action film with the biggest stars being its antagonist (Samuel L. Jackson) and someone would have never fit anyone’s idea of an action star (Colin Firth). It was also counterprogramming, intended only to pull some viewers away from 50 Shades of Grey.

Yet its impossibly slick and kinetic filmmaking combined with a naughty sense of humor that, though it often muddled its point or parody, made the film connect with a surprisingly large audience and stick in the culture just slightly longer than I’m sure anyone expected.

So, when a movie works unexpectedly, business demands a sequel. And the only thing most filmmakers can ever think of for a sequel like this? A one-off that’s all of the sudden gotta be a franchise? Go bigger, give ’em more. More of the surprises, more of the action, more of the emotions.

But Kingsman: The Golden Circle is perhaps the best show of why that isn’t by any means a one-size fits all solution. Its predecessor’s greatest delight was its surprise and Kingsman: The Golden Circle ends up with few surprises. Vaughn’s filmmaking remains as entertaining as ever, but it’s all around a film that’s already shown its hand and ends up only giving the same versions of tricks that don’t work as well any more.

Hot off saving the world, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has well-settled into his groove as an agent of the Kingsman. Kicking ass, saving folks, and trying to keep his relationship with Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) moving forward.

Then the headquarters of the Kingsman are destroyed, most of the agents killed, by a mysterious drug lord known as Poppy (Julianne Moore). Eggsy and tech wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) seek help from the Statesman, the American counterparts of the Kingsman led by Champagne (Jeff Bridges), in order to track her down and take their revenge.

Let’s start out easily by praising what does work about this movie. If you’re already down with Matthew Vaughn’s action style, this has gobs and gobs of great action. Vaughn films his fight sequences like our eye is part of the action, the camera swinging and pushing and panning along with the choreography, creating a uniquely kinetic and thrilling look to the action, always coherent and never dull. Nothing ever quite tops the first movie (it’s really missing Sofia Boutella’s Gazelle as well as anything as balls-to-the-wall as the Church Shootout) but there’s still plenty to get excited by.

Kingsman also still has a remarkable knack for casting. Egerton has settled very comfortably into a leading man position and the development of Mark Strong in this movie is an absolute delight. Julianne Moore has also clearly never been having more fun and Pedro Pascal manages to find the most surprisingly nuanced take on a character in this movie. Kingsman: The Golden Circle, even though it underuses most of its cast, is loaded to the brim with actors who are clearly having the time of their lives.

So Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t lose track of its surface pleasures. Slick, stylish, and a lot of fun to watch. The problem is that all those surface pleasures are used to coat over film that’s bursting at the seams, there’s too much and its threatening the structural integrity of what’s going on here.

It’s not so much that the film is overstuffed in the traditional sense, there’s no more going on here than any other spy flick or even the last Kingsman. Rather, it’s that what’s going on feels so heightened and the film’s not properly calibrated to handle it and so it spins off into dull desensitization over insane thrills.

Think Die Another Day, possibly the most infamous Bond entry. The ridiculousness of what’s going on (Elton John has a supporting role as himself, Poppy is an evil 50s housewife living in a theme park, John Denver plays a major emotional undercurrent in a very British film, a major spy thing requires Eggsy to fingerblast a girl) never feels properly grounded. Some vague father/son stuff (Colin Firth’s Harry returns and his recovery from his being shot in the head is fairly rushed) and a muddled politic (we’ll return here in a second) are all we get to keep this movie grounded and without a stronger narrative or emotional structure keeping it together, it spins off into insanity.

The further issue is how underbaked its new elements are. For a movie that clearly feels intended to move forward a franchise, the worldbuilding feels slight or secondary. The Statesman are introduced, given a cursory explanation, but we get little sense of their history or operations. They seem more like parody, an excessively masculine American version of an excessively British masculine organization. Which is possibly interesting, had anything about them been developed.

The organization, and most of the new elements on the whole, feel much like Channing Tatum’s appearance in this film. Playing Agent Tequila (all agents of the Statesman are named after Liquors), Tatum was much hyped, only appears briefly, and ends up playing little to no role in the actual proceedings, though he is set up to end up playing a larger role later.

With its returning elements feeling too big and its new elements feeling too small, it ends up putting Kingsman: The Golden Circle in a weirdly listless place. At two-and-a-half hours, any movie would struggle to put up that much time. But without anything keeping the propulsive momentum moving (read: keeping the viewer interested), it just ends up feeling surprisingly dull, a whole lot of noise that ultimately ends up amounting to nothing.

Except for its weird politics (see, told you). This franchise has had a penchant for presenting liberal causes as the causes of its villains (climate change, drug legalization) and presented any (small-d) democratic or personal political belief on a range from naive to cynical to villainous. The only people of valour are the representatives of a certain form of hierarchical or entrenched masculinity or those who serve a similar system.

Yet the film (and its predecessor) also spends a lot of time pointing out the flaws in their aristocratic control and in their beliefs in the world. The entire previous film was about wresting control from the aristocracy for a working class. It’s hard to know what beliefs are held by the film, maybe a secret set of Tory allegiances(?), and it speaks to the just entirely too muddled direction of this film.

It’s a shame because Kingsman had potential to be a vital and exciting action franchise. But it seems to have leap-frogged the good parts of its cinematic predecessors growing as franchises and gone straight to the most annoying parts.

Grade: C

mother!

It’s gonna have to go without saying but…spoilers.

Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way. It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?

Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror

Do you think God stays in heaven because he too, lives in fear of what he’s created?

Steve Buscemi, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams

 

Is humanity good for creation? Who is at fault for our destruction of all that we touch, is it God? Something greater, something lesser?

Ask mother!, Darren Aronosfsky’s singular new work, and he’ll try to give you answers. No, Yes and Yes.

Or maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s talking about his personal pain, the pain of being a filmmaker or an artist. Maybe it’s an environmental screed. Or maybe it’s a gritty reboot of The Giving Tree, nothing so existential but a pan to selfishness.

Perhaps rarest of all for a film put on 2500 screens, mother! refuses to give the easiest answers to what it is. It’s refused to give the easy hooks into the story and it’s been absolutely willing to piss off as much of its audience as it pleases. Few films have seemed so divisive. Even among those who love it, this is a film that can produce 10 separate interpretations among 9 separate people, all totally valid and all getting to some part of the truth of this film.

That’s the absolutely incredible thing about mother! This is a livewire movie, one that divides and one that lights up conversation almost entirely through its mere existence. A film that’s gonna be a lot of things to a lot of people, a legitimately provocative and incredible work of art.

Summary of this film is almost pointless, almost takes away from the pleasures of it. But the demand is made for anything else I’m about to write to make sense. A couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) live in a house in the middle of nowhere, a paradise for Him (Bardem) to create and for mother (Lawrence) to rebuild.

Then, a disruption. A Man (Ed Harris) comes by and stays the night. Shortly thereafter, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) joins him. They outstay their welcome. They transgress and are asked to leave. Then their children come in, two brothers (Domnhall and Brian Gleeson). One kills the other.

If you’re like me, this is about the point you start figuring out exactly what the fuck is happening here.

mother! builds on the work Aronofsky was doing in Noah or The Fountain but in perhaps its fullest form yet. This is Aronofsky’s retelling of Genesis and the decline of creation that ended up following.

Yet, it must also be understood that this is not a retelling of the Bible that exists in the mainstream consciousness. As Noah did, mother! pulls on an older tradition. The tradition of Gnosticism and how it related to Christianity.

To be honest, it’s a difficult tradition to explain. But understanding a few key points helps to illuminate what mother! is doing.

In Gnosticism, matter itself is evil, the human body is sinful by its very existence (which is why Christianity held it as a heresy, given how it would invalidate the sinless nature of Christ by the virtue of his existence in a physical body. And on the flipside, if Christ’s body wasn’t human, then his sacrifice would not have the same foundational nature in Christianity). So, in other words, Gnosticism holds human existence as inherently sinful and its goal as transcending with the divine spark in humanity.

The other key thing to know is that in Gnosticism, God is not necessarily a monotheistic and unified entity. There is a supreme and perfect divinity and a demiurge, a flawed creator being that made the material world and trapped the divine inside the sinful material. We experience two aspects of God.

Through this lens, mother! becomes a retelling of Christian belief through this pessimistic and dark view of the divine. mother and Him are both God, mother the perfect creator in terror of the corruption of the divine Eden by the flawed demiurge that is Him.

Through this lens, our sin is inherent from our first entry and our very corruption of creation itself. Adam and Eve chose to sin because they were material (there is no temptation in this version, the Man and the Woman commit the sin on their own volition) and Cain slew Abel for his selfish needs.

Every attempt we have to get closer to the Divine is flawed. Him cannot create. He’s a poet and a famous one, but he cannot write. Until mother forces the inspiration, his part of the divine, and he’s able to breach some creation he makes that is perfect and beautiful. A poem released to the world that attracts enormous success, a manager who comes to take care of his newfound fame (Kristen Wiig), and admirers who come to his home.

And tear it apart. And war. And start a faith that executes and tears things apart.

In that Gnostic ideal, we cannot attain the divine, we can’t even come close. We can only corrupt it, we can destroy each other for it. We corrupt the divine through our very attempt to engage with it, we corrupt any part of its creation.

mother is pregnant. She wants a child, it’s all she wants. She’s finally given one. When it’s born, Him demands it from her to give to his admirers. mother refuses until Him takes it. Among his followers, it’s killed and devoured to become part of something greater.

In what is, and I’ve never actually had to use this one for a movie, a blasphemous image, it posits that Christ is a creation of the divine torn apart by humanity. It turns communion into cannibalism…a fraught image to say the least.

In the end, mother destroys the admirers, burning creation down. Yet Him takes her heart from her and makes one last attempt to create the world again. The Demiurge takes the divine and traps it in a material world again.

It’s an unequivocally dark idea of humanity. That we cannot and will not ever be a part of the divine and that the Demiurge, the God that we would worship and can be known, must be condemned for our creation. Outside of something like True Detective‘s pulling on Thomas Ligotti, few mainstream works have ever been so damning of us, that we can only destroy ourselves and only be evil.

Yet that’s not where this ends. My review could have been about this as an allegory for the creative process, where mother is the muse that Him, Aronofsky himself, allows to be ruined and torn apart because he cannot separate himself from adoration. His works destroyed and devoured by being taken from Him and his muse only because he seeks to please us.

By the way, that doesn’t put us in a better light, just so we’re clear.

mother! is an absolutely brutal and unexpected and shocking piece of art, the kind of art that’s hard to find on this scale, put in front of this many eyes, or made this much a centerpiece of discussion.

I’ve spent so much on a discussion of what this film exactly is (to summarize: a retelling of Christianity through a Gnostic lens that condemns God for humanity’s creation) that I haven’t talked much about it as a film.

Aronofsky is one of my favorite filmmakers and it shouldn’t surprise to say that he continues to be exceptional here. His control over the tone of this film is supreme, at equal parts deadly serious and yet letting the black comedy of a film like this simmer under the surface. Laughing and gasping at this film are equally valid reactions. It conjures beautiful imagery when it needs to but lets the overwhelming sense of horror and dread overwhelm the film as it goes on. It’s a movie with no music, but the sounds of the environment turned up to the rafters.

He extracts fascinating performances from his actors. Lawrence abandons her usual lead for something passive and off-guard, subject to the whims of the evil around her. Bardem is terrifying and Pfeiffer is a true masterwork of simmering resentment.

mother! is the kind of film that comes along once in a while. Not wholly unique, Aronofsky is pulling on the traditions of Luis Bunuel here. But the kind of work that is bold and powerful and terrifying and shocking and that refuses to leave you whether you love it or hate it.

There are few films that have felt so much like a work of art, few films that have felt so destined for conversation in film culture and academic halls from the first viewings, few films that feel like they’ll burn you just by touching. Few films that feel like you’re actually going to have a fucking conversation about it.

mother! is a film that everyone should see, but I can’t guarantee anyone will like. Because it hates you.

Grade: A+