All posts by Brandon Wagner

War for the Planet of the Apes is a coronation for the best modern blockbuster franchise

For Matt Reeves, it’s all about the eyes.

It’s a rare accomplishment to have a film this large and this wrapped up in decades of backstory and expectations feel like so intimate and so desperately emotional, clinging on to hope and despair and fear and triumph.

It’s because of the eyes. The surprisingly emotive digital eyes that peer deep into the souls of creatures that exist as a pair of pajamas and thousands of hours of computer rendering. It’s the hardest thing to do creating digital characters, to get their eyes right. Yet in every moment, Reeves finds something real inside them. The slow examination of ape and man that reveals an internal life that cuts deep into the heart.

This has always been the strength of the Planet of the Apes revival, starting with Wyatt’s Rise and moving into Reeves’ Dawn, to find surprising depth and excitement inside films that didn’t demand either. In War, all of this comes to the final fruition in its best incarnation yet, capping a trilogy in one of the most unequivocally emotional and bleak and dazzling films of the summer.

Picking up roughly two years after Dawn, the apes and humans are locked in a fierce war for the planet, no one gaining ground with pyrrhic victory after pyrrhic victory. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has not been seen in some time, but his presence still terrifies the human forces, led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

An attack by the Colonel devastates the Ape camp as they prepare to leave for a new home, which sets Caesar down a dark path of revenge and directly towards what will almost certainly be the final showdown for whether this becomes the Planet of the Apes.

That’s right, our protagonists’ end goal is to wipe out humanity, or at least not stop the decline of the remnant. It’s deeply fascinating that we have a major studio picture that is so unabashedly misanthropic, or at the very least getting the audience to root against itself.

We do all hate humanity a little bit right now, so I can’t blame an audience for giving into those impulses. But it also comes from the work Matt Reeves does with his main apes and the work that the motion capture artists do with their performance as well.

While they all blow me away, from Steve Zahn’s impossibly endearing Bad Ape (I want to give away very little, but he’s an absolute delight) to Michael Adamthwaite’s gentle and powerful Luca to Karin Konoval’s wise Maurice, it’s Serkis’ Caesar that is the beating heart of this franchise and the most core to its success. While Gollum may be his most iconic role, Caesar will undoubtedly go down as his best.

Serkis’ Caesar is a deeply flawed leader, one of great intelligence and strength and one of short temper and loyalty-driven misjudgements. You understand the loyalty he inspires and the pain that drives every wrong step. You see it in his eyes, the rage that overcomes him and in the pain he just barely keeps under the surface.

It’s Serkis that puts all that there, a delicate art in combination with the VFX artists that map in on top of a truly brilliant performance. It’s Reeves who captures it perfectly, every look and every longing for something better and for a people who could possibly have the world they imagined.

I focus so deeply on the character because they are what drive War for the Planet of the Apes. As large-scale as this movie is, this is a movie that is all about the relationships between its character, the conflicts that they are driven into.

Harrelson’s Colonel is the perfect catalyst in that sort of scenario, a man so passionate and so utterly convinced that he’s doing the only logical thing. The flip of Caesar, where his rage feels like its consumed him so deeply he can no longer even recognize its existence. Harrelson chews scenery, but it is with purpose.

Colonel is also the perfect villain for what this movie ultimately is. He’s not a general, he’s a wild card, a killer reveling in his sadism. And this ultimately isn’t a war movie, despite its name.

Okay, well, it is. But it’s less The Longest Day and more The Great Escape, a picture about what war does to people when they aren’t directly on the battlefield and how people navigate tragedy and captivity.

It’s also less a war and more a Western, traveling throughout the landscapes of the Wild West that is now the whole of America on horseback, the young savage girl joining them, the conflict between man and nature writ large.

But all of this is best understood in the story this trilogy has been telling. Our de-evolution and the evolution of a species that can and does replace us. Seeing Caesar come into his own as a leader and lead his people to the promised land. There’s a weight of history, a character who has struggled for years. A journey of rising and falling that is given its final meaning.

War for the Planet of the Apes is simply the most of its trilogy. It’s the most emotional, the most amusing, the most thrilling, the most thoughtful, and so much more. It’s stunning to see a film this big that roots against humanity, that is willing to go so quiet for so long, that is willing to be so reliant on its effects beyond just set pieces.

It’s a towering testament to how you can fuse art and entertainment. It’s an affirmation of the talent of everyone involved. It’s an elegy to a blockbuster franchise that stands head-and-shoulders above almost all its competition.

Grade: A

My Review For Transformers: [Insert Subtitle Here]

This is the introduction, penned with a heavy resignation that we’re having to talk about yet another Transformers movie. An acknowledgement that we know how much money these things make, but a veiled statement that their popularity puts them beneath us, as if on the face of it this extraordinarily popular franchise is necessarily different from the other extraordinarily popular franchises that have received breathless praise.

This is the thesis paragraph, leading into a discussion of why this is yet another terrible Transformers movie in terminology that I’ve slightly modulated for about 4 different movies at this point. This may include whatever particular hang-ups I have ranging from (but not limited to:)

  • Michael Bay
    • His busy directorial style
    • His simplistic storytelling
    • His objectification of women
  • General issues with blockbuster filmmaking and the studio system
  • Poor writing and story structure
  • Bad actors/actors slumming
  • Design problems
  • Attachment to the Transformers franchise (non-movie)

I’ll use any combination of these things and maybe throw in a reference to what the last Transformers move I liked/saw was and then also say something disparaging about Age of Extinction. 

Time for the summary paragraph. This one will be entirely tongue in cheek, a reference to the fact that at this point Transformers may not be capable of creating a coherent or sensible story and still maintain its mythology. A few asides and gawps at a truly bizarre story that amounts to “Robots have problems with Other Robots and Humans have problems with those Other Robots.” But it’s also because I hate summarizing a story I liked, much less one I disliked.

Which seems like a good way to transition into the part where I talk about Michael Bay. I’ll talk about how much I love The Rock or Pain & Gain in a way that makes it clear I don’t quite understand the connection between those movies and his more disliked films.

Here I’ll praise Michael Bay, a cliche about how you definitely get what you paid for seeing his movie. Discussing the spectacle, and maybe dusting off that cliche about how you still get the giant robot fights that you expect (though I’ll throw in how Pacific Rim was better).

Here I’ll make fun of Michael Bay. Using some material I cribbed from Tony Zhou most likely, I’ll discuss how Bayhem makes it near impossible to follow the visuals of this film and how it doesn’t matter that giant robots are fighting if you can’t see what the hell is going on.

Now it’s time to get in a further discussion of the weirdness of the plot, segueing out of some joke about how I have no idea what I saw. I’ll throw some praise towards one of the weird elements (Cogman/Hopkins) so I can properly join in on Film Twitter jokes later. But I’ll also talk about some of the bizarre decisions (King Arthur stuff) so I can join in on those jokes as well.

But mostly, this discussion will be talking about how it makes no sense and how hours later I’ve retained nothing, mostly to cover for the fact that I refuse to take notes. Words like nonsense and phrases like garbage fire will be thrown out. At this point I’ll reveal that the thing that was heavily marketed was only in the movie for like five minutes (Optimus Prime being evil) and it’s ridiculous, mostly because I have a film degree and not a marketing degree.

Hell, now seems as good a time as any to also discuss the actors I didn’t throw praise to so I seem even handed. They’re all terrible, of course. Most of my ire is reserved for the completely unbelievable lead (Mark Wahlberg). But I’ll throw some at this movie’s chosen woman (Laura Haddock) for this film and I’ll discuss her objectification (she has something to do this time around) mostly so I can make sure I get the woke points even though I really suck at talking about this stuff. There’s also some weird cameos that are worth mentioning (Stanley Tucci as Merlin, Steve Buscemi as a robot).

Well, at this point, I’ve run out of anything to talk about so I’ll pretend I planned to reach the conclusion at this point. Another summary of what’s terrible and why I dread the next entry in this franchise even though I secretly salivate at the chance to be mean to the next one of these. A few more digs and then a conclusion that I think works as a mic drop.

Grade: Not a total failure, but something that seems sufficiently negative

The Book of Henry is one of the most profoundly infuriating experiences ever had in a theater

There is literally no way to talk about this movie without spoilers, but trust me, you need to know.

There’s a point during this movie where I definitely lost the potential of making friends in the theater. At a point that was either 40 minutes in or halfway to the end of eternity, The Book of Henry’s titular Henry (Jaeden Liberher) dies.

Keep in mind, the death of a main character is a difficult thing for any movie to pull off. You’re essentially asking an audience to side with someone and find more meaning in their death than in their continued life. That’s why disease weepies are never really about the person dying. But still, if you’re going to kill off the person the movie is about, you have to earn it, make sure there is some deeper meaning.

Up until this point, Henry has basically been a cartoon character, a caricature of intelligence that only ever exists in the contrived imagination of hack screenwriters. Endearing because the filmmakers shove your face in him and force your acclimation.

So, of course, he’s killed 40 minutes into the movie. In a long, overly hard-to-watch sequence. Because that’s earned. Because that’s exactly what the movie needs. Because it doesn’t just feel like a puppet master making you dance on your strings.

It’s not just that he died that likely made the lovely couple next to me look askance. It’s that this character who the filmmakers are trying to force us to love dies in a FUCKING PIETA POSE IN THE ARMS OF HIS MOTHER. Oh, are you unfamiliar?

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IT’S ALMOST EXACTLY LIKE THIS. THAT’S RIGHT. OUR PRECOCIOUS FUCKING SHERLOCK DIES LIKE THE LORD AND SAVIOR OF ALL HUMANITY. Which is of course when I started repeatedly muttering “fuck you” under my breath.

Now, this may seem minor and unfocused. But it’s exactly the problem with The Book Of Henry, exactly the reason why this is so ABSOLUTELY fucking awful as a film, exactly the reason that director Colin Trevorrow is having his head put on a pike over this one.

The Book of Henry is such a fundamentally awful movie because The Book Of Henry doesn’t want to earn a goddamned thing from you. It pulls your strings at every turn and pushes and pulls and manipulates rather than actually drawing or fleshing out any of the decisions it makes. There are skilled filmmakers who can do that, but without that ability, not a turn is justified and what is laid bare is a movie fundamentally bizarre and off-putting. Too dark for its whimsy, too whimsical for its darkness.

Up until the death of Henry, it’s been something of an all-too-whimsical family movie. A supernaturally intelligent young boy runs the house while his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) follows his every instruction and works a day job to keep a little bit of normality around. There’s also a younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) around to be cute I guess.

Before his death, Henry also begins to take interest in a tragedy happening right next door. Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being sexually abused by her step-father Glenn (Dean Norris), who is also the powerful and well-respected Police Commissioner.

After Henry’s death, Henry leaves behind a book for his mother with a detailed plan to kill Glenn. So, that’s the back half of this movie.

No description is quite so bizarre as seeing it unfold though. Nothing can quite convey the jarring tonal shifts, the supernatural abilities Henry is gifted with that defy even the basic tenants of narrative logic (how does he sneak out when we see the systems go off another time? In what world can a child’s reactions see that far ahead?), Sarah Silverman’s boob tattoo, or the fact that the movie may end with HENRY’S ASHES BEING SPREAD OVER A TALENT SHOW AUDIENCE.

Not for sure. It’s implied.

Now to be sure, much of this can be attributed to the script. Gregg Hurwitz’s script attempts to plot out four different films in genre and tone and narrative and manages to bungle the transition between every single one of them. The structure is collapsed at every moment, reading something like the overly ambitious try of a Sophomore in a Screenwriting class.

All of that was possible to navigate, or at least reorient, was it not for the captain at the helm. My feelings on Jurassic World were decidedly negative and much of it was for reasons that, after seeing this movie, become increasingly apparent should be laid squarely at the feet of Colin Trevorrow.

In another era, Trevorrow would be a salesman of elixirs, ran out of town each step by angry folk who realize his remedies don’t work. He’s not just a hack, he’s a huckster and a clumsy one at that.

The Book Of Henry collapses on his total inability to actually tell a story or sell an image. Rather, every moment is a naked manipulation, an unearned push-in or moment of whimsy. He has nothing to say, so his directorial style is to push reactions to hope that you never notice how bad our soulless or wrong what he’s doing is.

It’s the instinct that wallpapered over a brutal murder of a woman who’d done nothing wrong by bringing back an old franchise stalwart or blaring the Jurassic Park theme song. It’s not that he’s uninterested in compassionate or human storytelling, it seems that he’s fundamentally incapable of it but is so absolutely manipulative that he’s somehow managed to fail upward, each film he’s made steadily worse than the last.

Which bodes well for STAR WARS EPISODE IX: HOLY SHIT THIS THING IS FUCKED.

I wish there was something redemptive here, some shard of hope to pull from the wreckage and hold onto. There isn’t. The actors are playing characters animated largely from scraps of ideas and stitched together. There are no human reactions because there is no sense of what humanity is in this film, just raw attempts at stimulating nerve reactions.

The Book Of Henry irritates me so much because it’s the worst instinct of America filmmaking. It’s all reaction, all forgettable emotion sweeping you along through errant action. This is a bad film being pushed by a conman. No amount of Jacob Tremblay’s tears should have you forget that.

Grade: F

It Comes At Night asks what will scare us the most come the End of the World

It’s a bit of a cliche to talk about movies about the Final Days in terms of how “they reveal the real monster/virus/nuclear holocaust to be man,” especially after The Walking Dead repeatedly beat the idea into the ground with a barbed-wire baseball bat over the course of 7 steadily more interminable seasons.

Yet still, I feel like it’s worth bringing up when discussing director Trey Edward Shults’ new film from A24, It Comes At Night. Let it not be because I am a walking cliche, but because I cannot think of any film in quite some time that so embodies that ethos. Not only in the fact that there is no monster (which is sure to irritate many an unsuspecting theatergoer), but for the fact that it has such an uncompromisingly bleak view of what we will do when the chips come down, and the terror that the family unit can wreak.

Set sometime after a plague has devastated humanity, a family – father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) hidden away in a remote cabin in the woods buries their infected grandfather. One night, a man (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house, seeking supplies from a house he says he believed to be uninhabited (if you believe him).

Paul takes the man captive and then lets the man, Will, bring his family, Kim (Riley Keough) and Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), back to their house to survive together. But being trapped in a desperate scenario makes for darker impulses.

It Comes At Night is almost certainly not the movie the marketing is selling or even that the title is selling. Implied in the images of desiccated men with blackened eyes and ominous doors and shadowy woods is that there is some monster lurking and an “IT” that comes at night, a zombie or a vampire or something that can be defeated to beat back the darkness.

The groans and moans I heard exiting the theater likely ties into the precise lack of any of that. It Comes At Night is ultimately more deeply unsettling than frightening, its scares eliciting gut-wrenching rather than adrenaline-raising.

But based on Shults’ previous film Krisha, that should be no surprise. Krisha was something of a horror film in this vein, a creeping dread set in around when its lead would eventually fail her family.

Ultimately, It Comes At Night is in the same vein. A film of family horror, where the shading of the relationships is the animating force, slowly pushing the dynamics to their breaking point and seeing what’s left after the devastation. Where its trust and the lack thereof is what destroys everyone.

There’s something more fully formed in Shults’ nihilism here. In fact, in general, It Comes At Night is impressive for seeing the massive leaps forward Shults has taken in the things that animate him as a filmmaker. That nihilism is at the core, a fundamental distrust in the nature of humanity and his belief that people will ultimately let each other down, is fully formed here. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not that’s a good thing, but that is the impulse that electrifies It Comes At Night, a sort of sighing resignation that we will ultimately eat each other and maybe we deserve it.

It Comes At Night has also pushed forward from a filmmaking perspective. Krisha felt like an excessive ape of his mentor Terrence Malick, It Comes At Night alters that free-floating camera into something more meditative and focused. It maintains the ethereal beauty and the glide, but it’s absolutely willing to lock and linger now, putting emphasis on stares and glances and the stoic faces.

Shults’ filmmaking is the painting here, his writing keeping a tight and twisty narrative that tends towards ambiguity (occasionally to the film’s detriment) but being largely serviceable. Perhaps the biggest inconsistency here is acting.

Edgerton is great, even if he’s basically doing the same performance he does every time. Ejogo is great, but she doesn’t get much to do, same goes for Keough. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is truly great, given the most complex character and absolutely knocking out of the park. Christopher Abbott is…serviceable. Not actively bad, but seems just kind of lost in a character that’s more about hiding things than revealing anything.

But It Comes At Night’s successes far far outweigh those failures. It’s a portrait of the end, a dark and nihilistic twist on the idea that during the Apocalypse, we will be more dangerous to ourselves than anyone or anything else.

Grade: B+

Oh thank Hera: Wonder Woman is a resounding, unabashed, and joyous success

It is perhaps fully impossible to ever truly overstate the feeling of relief that washed over me when the credits of Wonder Woman rolled. My animus towards and deep disappointment in the DCEU thus far is thoroughly well documented. I mean, I’ve detailed the fuck out of it.

But I speak so frequently and so passionately because I really do truly care for these characters. My attachment to this franchise has been something like a parent whose child makes a wrong step at every conceivable measure, hoping that they will eventually correct the path and get things right.

This time, they got it right.

Wonder Woman, the fourth entry in the nascent DCEU, is the first truly unabashed success. There is no rationalization required, no dense sorting through half-formed ideas given fullness. This is a great movie about a true hero, the first of these movies truly cast in the DC Comics mold. It’s funny, romantic, exciting, and a clarion call not only for what this franchise could be, but for another way forward for superhero cinema.

Wonder Woman is framed in the modern day, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) receiving the original plate of the photo from Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, a photo in her full regalia from a long-ago war.

This flashes us back to Diana’s childhood on the island of Themyscira, the only child on the island and the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). She’s an Amazon, a group of warrior women created by the Greek Gods. She’s trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) and becomes the fiercest among them, wielding a power no one fully understands.

Their idyllic world shatters when Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island with a battalion of German soldiers following behind. Man’s World has erupted in the War to End All Wars, which Diana believes can only be at the hands of Ares, the God of War. So she leaves the island with Captain Trevor to kill Ares and save the world.

It feels only appropriate to begin assessing this movie at the top, looking at Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot has been a low-grade charmer for years, her role as Gisele in the Fast & Furious franchise being a particular scene stealer, and Wonder Woman proves how ready she is to launch to the top of Hollywood.

Gadot turns out an incredible lead performance here. There’s a grace and a kindness underlying an undoubtedly powerful warrior, an emblem of peace through strength. Gadot is particularly adept in this movie at pulling you into her perspective, at filtering the film through her eyes. It’s the off-kilter way she engages, the enthusiasm in just the wrong places and the confusion in just the right ways. She stands tall as a hero, poised to move to the top of the Hollywood Ass-Kicker list.

But it isn’t just Gadot’s performance. Affleck does a bang-up job playing Batman after all. It’s the character they’ve crafted. For the first time, Wonder Woman gives us a hero in the truest DC mold, an emblem of something greater, an ideal that pushes against a darker world.

all-star

Diana here stands for something greater, for a love that can conquer the darkest impulses of humanity, for a hope that one day war can end. Diana uses her strength, but it’s as a peacemaker, as a hero that truly believes that humanity is good and can be made better. It’s not the flawed heroes of the Marvel Universe, but a representative of more, a God that stands above and charts a way forward.

Wonder Woman and the eponymous character both revel in striving towards something better. That’s what has set DC apart and can continue to set it apart, if it continues to use it right. It isn’t as though this film doesn’t engage in the philosophizing that has marked films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Rather, it understands that there can be fun while you prod those questions, a movie that thrills you and uses those thrills to dig in deep. We understand Diana’s belief in doing good because we see the people she saves, but also because we feel the joy and adrenaline along with her.

That is, I believe, thanks to director Patty Jenkins. Consider this quote from a New York Times interview:

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

Perhaps no mission statement better embodies the successes of what we see on screen.

Consider (keeping in mind the work screenwriter Allan Heinberg did) the film’s central romance, between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor. Romance in superhero films is often, to put it mildly, begrudgingly trotted out to please some executive trying to meet 4 quadrants.

Wonder Woman has perhaps one of the most successful on-screen romances in any superhero film. Much of that is helped by Pine, who does an absolutely phenomenal job as the noble but compromised Trevor, and his chemistry with Gadot. The two have a crackling banter that feels like a great screwball comedy and it’s easy to see what they might see in each other.

But it works because of that mission of sincerity and that thematic motivating belief that love can and will do good in the world. It informs the romance and gives it the space it needs to breathe in the movie. I can think of few movies that would indulge so many quiet and melancholy moments in this romance, or that would allow moments so unabashedly silly in the same space. But Jenkins’ sincere belief gives their love room to breathe and it makes it work.

That belief extends throughout the film. It’s that sincerity that makes everything work emotionally. Everything resonates, everything feels real, Wonder Woman goes for broke and it hits so often that it can wallpaper over any flaws.

I could of course pick at a few scabs. The third act indulges in plenty of weightless CGI battling, I wish it had been allowed to really make its own visual palette, the slo-mo can be a little much, and it takes a little too long to really get cooking at the beginning.

I say all that knowing there are small things littering the film to praise as well. The supporting cast, from Lucy Davis’ delightful Etta Candy to Ewen Bremner’s charming and sad Charlie to Saïd Taghmaoui’s roguish Sameer to Elena Anaya’s cackling Dr. Poison, fills out the margins of the film in a way few superhero films indulge. The action is phenomenal, a sequence set in the No Man’s Land of a Belgian battlefield is a total all-timer.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score must also be singled out. An old-school, sweeping score of a kind you hear less and less since the Zimmer style became popular, it really helps drive these moments home.

But I can’t throw too much shade, because Zimmer did help write the Wonder Woman theme, a recurring guitar riff that showed up in Batman v. Superman to announce Wonder Woman’s arrival, and here shows simply how great it is to have a theme for a character. When that guitar riff enters during that No Man’s Land sequence, you’re damn near ready to jump out of your chair cheering. That’s a theme song.

In my eyes, Wonder Woman is simply the best traditional superhero movie in some time. Its belief in do-gooding, its thoughts on what that can mean, its great performance, its unabashed joy in superheroics are such a breath of fresh air. This is a victory, a story that finally lets a DC Comics character come to life, and be who they are and what they stand for.

Grade: A

Saturday Night Live Season 42: Final Thoughts

It was a season for the books. The sort of big record-setter that only ever comes to SNL at cost to the whole country. With the Trumpian parade and his loud screeds against the show, more eyeballs were tuned than ever. I’ll discuss a little bit about all of that later on, but I just want to give some shout-outs and jeers for a season of solid performing and writing buoyed by an intense up and down schedule with a darker world around them.

The Good

Best Cold Open

“VP Debate Cold Open” – Lin Manuel-Miranda

While I must admit that over the course of this season, Baldwin’s Trump began to tire me, this is the Cold Open where he still held the most power and seemed the most lively as a performer and as a piece of satire. Focused before he became overly focused and tired out, this is about as good as Baldwin’s Trump impression ever got.

Plus, this material was perhaps the most potent of the whole electoral season. God, remember when we thought this was the end of Trump’s campaign? How sad and naive we were. Cecily Strong’s anchor here is such a great straight woman, her dawning horror is just pitched so damned well, the audio gags well put together. This is solid sketch work, which can be all too rare in the Cold Opens.

Top 5 Sketches Worth Watching

5) “Wells for Boys” – Emma Stone

To be honest, this sketch is 90% here for Emma Stone’s “Everything is for you. And this ONE THING is for him” line reading. She deserved the Oscar for that one, let’s be real.

But also because this is just a great and sweet little sketch. Actually kind of nuanced and sensitive in its portrayals of sensitive and thoughtful kids, it also mines those specific things for laughs. This is just an enjoyable and kind sketch, a little too rare.

4) “Birthday Clown” – Louis C.K.

Plagiarism accusations aside, this one just feels so specific to C.K.’s sensibilities in a way that really works for SNL. Moynihan’s awkward birthday clown interacting with C.K.’s sadsack feels real without ever losing the humor underneath. It’s such a bizarre escalation and the delivery from everyone is just perfect. Plus, any sketch that ends on a joke this dark should absolutely be recognized.

3) “Black Jeopardy with Tom Hanks” – Tom Hanks

I was tempted to put this in the Politics category, but honestly, that feels like underselling how strong of a piece of satire this is, how well-pitched it is as both a piece of comedy and a piece of commentary.

Essentially a sketch on how the divisions between people aren’t quite as clear as we might make them, how class may mean more than we give it credit for for the groups that it puts people in, and how we have more common ground than we think. Plus, there’s simply some amazing comedic timing and writing and Hanks’ performance is pitched so perfectly on the high-wire that it’s much of what sells the sketch from being either preachy or misguided.

2) “Totino’s with Kristen Stewart” – Kristen Stewart

The Super Bowl Totino’s commercials have quietly become the show’s best recurring sketch, an annual frame around which to stretch whatever conceptual weirdness they can put onto Vanessa Bayer’s nameless wife (realizing now that she’ll be gone, and this is perhaps the best ending for the Trilogy of Totino’s).

This one works almost because it’s played so straight. The cinematography is legitimately gorgeous, pulling on French cinema techniques, and the music is beautiful. The chemistry between Bayer and Stewart is real and the joke isn’t “lesbians” but the juxtaposition between the passionate scene and the mundanity going on right next to it, plus the use of Totino’s Pizza Rolls in lovemaking. It’s just an incredibly clever concept put together very well, a sort of audacious weirdness with heart.

1) “Haunted Elevator (ft. David S. Pumpkins)” – Tom Hanks

If you’re surprised I’m putting this here, you’ve not been paying attention to my reviews.

The Haunted Elevator and its bizarre denizen David S. Pumpkins is everything I love in comedy. A bizarre character that forces a meta examination of the premise. Specific detail that continually escalates. A deadpan confrontation with an increasingly strange world. All wrapped up in that weird-ass Spirit Halloween Pumpkin suit. I don’t think I’ve had any sketch this year pop into my head quite as often, and for that, David S. Pumpkins and his B-Boy skeletons take the top spot.

Any questions?

Best Political Sketch

“Sean Spicer Press Conference” – Kristen Stewart

While Baldwin’s Trump may have loomed a little larger in the zeitgeist, no one captured the spirit of the Trump administration better than Melissa McCarthy’s anarchic and riotously funny performance as Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Equal parts aggressive and stupid, McCarthy’s Spicer occupies this weird place of incompetence and insanity that seems such a perfect fit for ripping this Administration. Spicer seems more indicative of the bizarre zone we live in since the beginning of Year Zero. Plus, McCarthy gets more laughs out of this sketch than some whole episodes, it’s a truly dazzling feat of comedic performance.

Best Weirdo Sketch

“Sectionals” – Louis C.K.

The best weirdo sketches should feel like you can’t imagine who the hell thought of this, and you can’t imagine why they put it out there, but you’re glad they did.

“Sectionals” is precisely that, such a weird concept that you can barely imagine the thought process that led to a sketch like this and performed with such an anti-comedy bent that it feels more Adult Swim than SNL. Just a fun and truly bizarre piece of comedy.

Best Mood Piece

“Love and Leslie” – Dave Chappelle

My favorite recurring “Not quite comedy” bit this season was the romance between Leslie Jones and Kyle Mooney, so it only feels fitting to recognize where it all began.

The reason this recurring bit has worked is because Mooney and Jones feel like they have a legitimate chemistry, like their romance is actually real, just exaggerated. The bits have a great continuity, weaving the story together slowly and elaborately, and they usually manage to pull at least one great punchline out of the surprisingly sweet proceedings. Again, I’d like to put all three here, but this is the one that kicked it off, and the one that showed what Leslie Jones could do for the show.

Best Weekend Update Correspondent

Bruce Chandling (Kyle Mooney)

We can never have enough Bruce Chandling. Mooney’s bizarre, sad stand-up comic is a character that almost no one else has ever gone to well of before, something that hews very close to the alt-comedy circles many of the new performers are coming up through.

The Bad

Worst Sketch

“Honda Robotics”  – Emily Blunt

Holy fuck is this bad.

I’m a defender of this show (obviously) but this is the sketch that I imagine every parody is playing on and that most of the detractors think of when they think SNL. Just painfully lame and unbearably long and pointless and confusing and just an awful few minutes to watch. Is this a product placement sketch? They should ask for their money back.

Recurring Sketch We Should Never See Again

“Celebrity Family Feud”

This sketch just doesn’t work any time they’ve done it. An attempt to replicate “Celebrity Jeopardy” is admirable, but that sketch had jokes and ideas beyond the impressions. This one is always just a parade of impressions, some good and some very much not. I get that it’s here because people love those impressions, but my god it’s such a drag to see pulled out time and time again.

Worst Cold Open

“Hallelujah Cold Open” – Dwayne Johnson

Just…uhhh…what?

The Cast

Cast MVP

Beck Bennett

While Kate McKinnon is still the most talented performer on this cast, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Beck Bennett is right on her heels, becoming an increasingly powerful presence both as a comedic actor and as a sheer raw generator of laughs, playing utility in almost every sketch he can show up in and doing amazing things with the lead when he can. While he’s not quite gifted with a breakout character yet, Bennett stands to have a tenure like Bill Hader’s, always useful and always funny.

Host MVP

Kristen Stewart

I really honestly didn’t expect Stewart to be my favorite host of this season. But her bizarre energy took the whole show off-kilter in the best way, made for a looser stranger show and one rather unlike the other ones last season. Great hosts run with the flow, but some of the most memorable alter it, and that’s certainly what Stewart did here.

Most Improved Cast Member

Leslie Jones

Jones was (perhaps unfairly) maligned in the first days of her time on SNL. She didn’t come up through much of a performance background, so her sketch work was undeniably sloppy, often stopping sketches cold for flubbed line readings or missed cues.

But this year, Jones has become a force to be reckoned with on the show. While the writers still don’t quite know what to do with her, she’s certainly come into her own, making the most out of her stage sketches and then killing it in the filmed ones, where she really gets to show off her talents. It’s become a pleasure to see Jones feature in a filmed sketch, where you know at the very least, she’s gonna do something interesting.

Most Likely To Succeed (on SNL)

Mikey Day

Day is the one new cast member that made his utility known from Day One, an easy transition given that he was a writer and already performing for the Martin Short/Maya Rudolph variety show. He’s easily slotted into the role that Taran Killam had on the show, as the sort of ur-generic white guy. He’ll be here for a while.

Best Impression

Vladimir Putin – Beck Bennett

I wanted to avoid doing any impressions of non cast-members, so sorry Melissa McCarthy.

I chose Bennett’s Putin because as an impression, it seems like the fullest character, the one most accurate to the spirit of the original person. Bennett’s Putin is just kind of a crazy idea (poor guy must miss carbs), and Bennett is clearly having so much fun with him, that’s it’s just infectious to watch. It gets at some central sinister nature just barely cloaked beneath a layer of performative masculinity.

Final Thoughts

Season Ranking:

  1. Tom Hanks
  2. Dave Chappelle
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Dwayne Johnson
  7. Emma Stone
  8. Aziz Ansari
  9. Chris Pine
  10. Melissa McCarthy
  11. Scarlett Johansson
  12. Alec Baldwin
  13. Kristen Wiig
  14. Margot Robbie
  15. Casey Affleck
  16. Benedict Cumberbatch
  17. John Cena
  18. Felicity Jones
  19. Octavia Spencer
  20. Emily Blunt
  21. Jimmy Fallon

Reflection:

This season of SNL, when it goes down in the next edition of Live From New York, is going to be defined by two things.

One is being weirdly on the forefront of the Trump era. Our Man-Child-Sultanate is particularly obsessed with both his media perception and his rejection by the wealthy institutions of New York. Given that SNL is a wealthy media institution of New York, it’s ripe for him to give SO many fucks about what it thinks of him, especially as something he once thought was his friend (remember that controversial hosting gig? Yeah).

So, his early attacks on the show and on Baldwin’s impression, as well as the continued attacks on the rest of his administration (including apparently making Spicer and Bannon’s jobs just a little bit harder), put the show weirdly on the forefront of #TheResistance in a way that it was never comfortable with.

I hashtag because the particular attachment to SNL is part of the performatively liberal resistance, the resistance that’s about cultural signifiers and lame jokes over political action. SNL slides in alongside RT’d memes and Drumpf jokes, surface level and never digging underneath to the root issues. About appearing resistant without the engagement with systems, without the real rage or resistance.

Which is not an attack on SNL. Actual political satire has never been SNL‘s function, it became a part of the show because young angry comics love to make fun of the Powers That Be, and that’s what this show started out as and has always been. That surface level engagement has been the point, making a show of it without ever going below. It engages with politics insofar as they can make them funny.

Part of why Baldwin’s Trump hasn’t worked and why the satire and their engagement with the broader world around them can misfire is because we’re getting to the point where politics are funnier than the jokes we can make. Trump is a rolling comedy routine, The Stupidest Man in America is now President, what joke can you make that he won’t top, what thing can you have him do that he won’t do sillier the next day? For the love of god, this picture exists:

orb-1495396537-compressed
I DO NOT BLASPHEME THE ORB. ALL GLORY TO THE ORB.

What the fuck can Baldwin do that’s weirder? SNL can’t top reality, and it’s why they’ve done better and better this season with they choose to disengage from it.

The other thing that has defined this season is the choice to move towards virality, taking of the former all-eyes-on-me. That stands to be a problem for the purpose of SNL because what it’s meant is trotting out the celebrity impressionists at every opportunity.

Right now, Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Sean Spicer, key satirical figures, are being played by non-cast members. Trump and Spicer have sketches revolve around them. We’re supposed to be incubating the cast members, and yet the cast members are not important to the show.

This is gonna be a problem. As this cast starts to cycle out after being relatively stable, you’re facing a deep bench with no real stars. McKinnon will eliminate most of the starpower in this cast when she leaves, and I’m struggling to find (even among people I really like) who will take the center of gravity in the show.

SNL is at a moment where it needs to be building its reserves, and it’s focusing on its splashy cameos. This misses the scrappy nature of SNL and it’s frankly boring. I know these famous people are talented, surprise me with new talent.

The cast should be the center and when the sitting Presidential Impersonator isn’t a cast member, that’s a problem.

This show has never had more raw talent and never had more eyeballs on it. I really hope I can see that be used, and I hope it can shed the mantle put onto it.

See you all at Season 43.

If we’re all still around.

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Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 21: Dwayne Johnson gives a strong ending to an eventful year

So…yeah, all that happened.

Perhaps no season of SNL since the season of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin has felt so relevant and so unsure of its place in the firm, huge spotlight. More thoughts are to come, but this is a season of big questions and big transitions, and a season that’ll likely go on the books as one of its most important.

How’s the Cold Open?

Though perhaps this sketch stands in one of the weirdest moments of that importance nexus.

Look, it’s not a funny sketch. It’s deliberately not set up with jokes. I don’t even know if I like the concept, this seems like a weird angle to take, the show just kind of throwing up an equal time shrug of the shoulders. But it’s designed for everyone to see.

Maybe it’s just a remembering how weird all of this was? The administration that launched SNL back into relevance taking stock of the whole moment? I mean, not that I ever need to hear anyone but Jeff Buckley do “Hallelujah” again, but maybe that’s the purpose.

This is unfocused mostly because this whole bit just confuses me. Is it a goodbye to Baldwin’s Trump? He’s been rumored to leave, which I think would be good for the show, ultimately. He’s become more of a recitation than a performance lately, a new guy might give the show a kick in the pants satirically.

I wish I had more to say but I just earnestly can’t fathom the intentions here.

Who’s Hosting?

The third person to join the Five-Timers Club, Dwayne Johnson is one of those guys who increasingly seems like a totally natural fit for SNL. A consummate performer who throws himself 100% into anything he does, he’s a natural fit for a show as big as SNL. Combine that with a gift for comedic underplaying (see: This whole show) and Johnson is exactly up my alley for an SNL host.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“World’s Most Evil Invention”

Like it’s most direct predecessor “Canteen Boy Goes Camping,” I kind of have to imagine this isn’t a sketch for everyone. As in, not for people who have anything resembling good comedic taste.

(Un)Luckily, I don’t. A dark central joke played masterfully by everyone here, with Johnson’s muted performance against everyone else’s exasperated shock, gets huge laughs for those who will take them. This sketch may also feature one of the darkest jokes in SNL‘s history. I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t already seen it, so know that the center of the sketch is a “child molesting robot” and just let it go from there.

“Enhancement Drug”

If Dwayne Johnson was a host made for me, then the writers knew appropriately enough to write sketches seemingly made just for me. “Enhancement Drug” is one of those sketches with an increasingly unhinged world being built and a totally deadpan explanation of that world. You know, think “Welcome to Night Vale.” Put together well and the slow-build through Johnson’s delivery and the cutting is awesome.

Hail Satan.

“WWE Promo Shoot 2”

A sequel to this work of beauty from a couple years back (and part of this show’s heavy featuring of departing Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer tonight), it’s basically the same sketch as the first time around, just new increasingly embarrassing or unnerving details revealed about his life. While nothing is quite as dark or insane as the first one, the sheer psychological terror Koko unleashes on Mutt is well-tuned for our amusement. Again, it’s the underplaying, the idea that Johnson seemingly has no idea the insanity he’s spewing, that makes it so funny.

“Rap Song”

A short, solid “Parade of Weirdoes” sketch that is almost entirely here for …

DAVID

S.

PIMPKINS

We need nothing else.

“Cartier Ad”

Vanessa Bayer’s specialty has always been digging into very specific archetypes. Not creating characters (though she can do that), but understanding types of people and blowing them up to proper comedic proportions. She digs into the trophy girlfriend of privilege here perfectly, turning her character into the center of the commercial gag here. There’s such a specific character here that it really works.

“Wingman”

Just a great little weird, quick performance piece that I like more than thing is actually good. Kinda rapid-fire with Beck Bennett’s dumb guy charisma really selling the verbal loops of the sketch.

“Scorpio”

This one just makes me giggle in a way I can’t quite explain. I think it’s his totally earnest flattery at being told how good his work is and how much they seem to honestly like it. There’s just something kind of nice about this one, and hey, that costume does actually look pretty dope.

“RKO Movie Set”

Why the fuck not? This is just so earnest and bizarre and goofy that the fact that it’s an extended fart joke fades into the background pretty quickly. I was laughing.

“Dwayne Johnson Five-Timers Monologue”

I won’t get political here, but we must radicalize Dwayne Johnson to Leftist politics for the good of this country.

What Didn’t Work?

“Gemma w/ Dwayne Johnson 2”

I’ll give this Gemma sketch props since it’s the only one since the first that gets that this sketch was written for a guy like Dwayne Johnson, and uses him. The gag still pretty much ran out the first time, so not much positive to report here.

“Senior Video”

Apparently the goodbye sketch for Moynihan and Bayer (though their Weekend Update appearances did that much more effectively), it’s a shame they got such a lame one to send them off. Kind of an abruptly ended fizzle of a sketch that built to no joke and said almost nothing.

Weekend Update!

There’s a degree to which Jost and Che just kind of have to throw their hands in the air this week. No joke is more insane than this week’s actual twelve-ring-fuckery-pile-up, no jab more cutting than things that people actually did. A few good punches (“President-for-now Trump”) were given and it appears that Update has pretty much found its line on attacking Trump, pulling above him for mockery. It works, and the groove that Jost and Che have settled into really does work.

But Update this week really wasn’t about the anchors. It was a wave good-bye to the two long-time performers.

Bayer got to do a character introduced last week, Dawn Lazarus, that reminded us how talented she is on the technical side. That barrelling through barely legible spoken-English is brilliant work and her ability to play anything with a straight face is gonna be sorely missed.

Moynihan brought back Drunk Uncle, his most famous creation. A few good malapropisms, some non-PC ranting, just like old times. It’s a reminder of the sheer commanding force Moynihan was on this show and how much he can get a laugh out of just a look.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah.

MVPs!

I’m giving Moynihan and Bayer an MVP point to wave goodbye to two of the quiet pillars of this cast over the last few years. They’d deserve it even without them saying goodbye, as both nailed their performances across a series of sketches, with Bayer killing it in the Cartier ad and Moynihan turning out great gags in the Wingman and WWE Promo Shoot ads.

Also a point for Zamata, who got shafted by this show for the whole time and then didn’t even get a chance to actually say goodbye.

Beck Bennett – 4
Cecily Strong – 3

Bobby Moynihan – 3
Kate McKinnon – 2
Mikey Day – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 2
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kyle Mooney – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Sasheer Zamata – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

At the end of the season, they’re fortunate enough to end on one I really like. Johnson’s talent blended with a lot of Bayer and Moynihan’s to produce a rippingly funny, deadpan, and goofy show. A solid note to end on for a season that’s had a long journey to take us through.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Dwayne Johnson
  7. Emma Stone
  8. Aziz Ansari
  9. Chris Pine
  10. Melissa McCarthy
  11. Scarlett Johansson
  12. Alec Baldwin
  13. Kristen Wiig
  14. Margot Robbie
  15. Casey Affleck
  16. Benedict Cumberbatch
  17. John Cena
  18. Felicity Jones
  19. Octavia Spencer
  20. Emily Blunt
  21. Jimmy Fallon

Tomorrow: A Season 42 wrap-up with the Best and Worst!