All posts by Brandon Wagner

My Tribute to Moviepass

It seems common knowledge these days that Moviepass, the company that charged a pittance to see a movie every single day, was something of a scam. Yet, as it begins to pass, let’s be clear about what kind of scam it was.

It was the Robin Hood of tech scams. No blood-sucking Theranos or bafflingly conceived Juicero, Moviepass took from its swiss-cheese-brained venture capitalist investors and a series of fooled folks who thought they’d be in on the ground floor of the future (in a way they were) and redistributed their income to the deserving masses who simply wanted to see films.

We could poke holes in their business plan, but whatever could go wrong with a company that loses money when their service is used more than twice a month? Or what could be possibly be wrong about the assumption that people are willing to go to the movies about as much as they go to the gym? And who gives a shit? They did a public good and as they let out their slow death rattle and deny that the ship is sinking, they deserve a tribute.

I had the service for 3.5 years, from about February 2015 to August 2018. I’ve paid everything from $7.95 to $45 a month. I went through every single fuckup and innovation and finally got too frustrated with my inability to see a single movie in Atlanta, Georgia.

In that time, I saw 204 movies with Moviepass. That’s about 69 (nice) movies a year. The average for my demographic is 6.5 (I too walk out of movies, I get it). This should give you a rough idea of what something like Moviepass did for the cinematic experience and what a company not run by beautiful morons could do.

Because I’m an insane person, I of course, ranked them, listed in descending order from worst to best.

 

204 The Book of Henry
203 Jurassic World
202 The Snowman
201 Hacksaw Ridge
200 Entourage
199 Fantastic Four
198 Tulip Fever
197 Pixels
196 American Pastoral
195 Chappie
194 Alice Through the Looking Glass
193 Ratchet and Clank
192 Live by Night
191 Wilson
190 Masterminds
189 Suicide Squad
188 Ready Player One
187 The Dark Tower
186 Aloha
185 Sing
184 The Circle
183 Baywatch
182 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
181 Transformers: The Last Knight
180 X-Men: Apocalypse
179 Warcraft
178 Bad Santa 2
177 Downsizing
176 The Birth of a Nation
175 Independence Day: Resurgence
174 The Greatest Showman
173 Beauty and the Beast (2017)
172 Wrinkle in Time
171 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
170 Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them
169 Detroit
168 Florence Foster Jenkins
167 Pan
166 Justice League
165 Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
164 Jupiter Ascending
163 The Legend of Tarzan
162 The Light Between Oceans
161 Jason Bourne
160 Hardcore Henry
159 Money Monster
158 The Infiltrator
157 Leap!
156 Now You See Me 2
155 Assassin’s Creed
154 San Andreas
153 Kingsman: The Golden Circle
152 Ted 2
151 Storks
150 Ride Along 2
149 Battle of the Sexes
148 The Free State of Jones
147 Me Before You
146 Darkest Hour
145 Murder on the Orient Express
144 Snowden
143 Free Fire
142 Early Man
141 The Beguiled
140 Sully
139 Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
138 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
137 Southpaw
136 A Monster Calls
135 Spectre
134 Central Intelligence
133 The Fate of the Furious
132 Sisters
131 Miss Sloane
130 Frank and Lola
129 Denial
128 Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
127 The Post
126 Café Society
125 I, Tonya
124 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Out of the Shadows
123 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
122 Ricki and the Flash
121 Minions
120 The Accountant
119 Antman and the Wasp
118 The Good Dinosaur
117 We Are Your Friends
116 American Ultra
115 Tomorrowland
114 Landline
113 The Florida Project
112 The Magnificent Seven
111 Vacation
110 Wind River
109 Dope
108 Trainwreck
107 The BFG
106 Nerve
105 Sleeping With Other People
104 Ingrid Goes West
103 Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
102 Power Rangers
101 Kong: Skull Island
100 Alien: Covenant
99 Finding Dory
98 Spy
97 The D Train
96 Blockers
95 The Walk
94 The Red Turtle
93 Star Trek Beyond
92 While We’re Young
91 Spiderman: Homecoming
90 Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
89 Sausage Party
88 Hidden Figures
87 The Eagle Huntress
86 Fences
85 The Shallows
84 A Quiet Place
83 Room
82 Moana
81 Ant-Man
80 Paper Towns
79 Atomic Blonde
78 The Neon Demon
77 T2: Trainspotting
76 Split
75 Neighbors 2
74 The Diary of A Teenager Girl
73 It Comes at Night
72 IT
71 Straight Outta Compton
70 Zootopia
69 Isle of Dogs
68 The Purge: Election Year
67 10 Cloverfield Lane
66 Doctor Strange
65 Krampus
64 The Lego Batman Movie
63 The Killing of a Sacred Deer
62 American Honey
61 Lion
60 Upgrade
59 45 Years
58 Hell or High Water
57 Game Night
56 Furious 7
55 Captain America: Civil War
54 Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2
53 Wonder Woman
52 Thor: Ragnarok
51 Bridge of Spies
50 It Follows
49 Good Time
48 Stronger
47 The End of the Tour
46 War for the Planet of the Apes
45 Eighth Grade
44 Nocturnal Animals
43 Paddington
42 Sing Street
41 Inside Out
40 Spotlight
39 The Edge of Seventeen
38 Logan Lucky
37 Mistress America
36 Star Wars: The Last Jedi
35 Magic Mike XXL
34 Jackie
33 Green Room
32 The Man from UNCLE
31 Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
30 Personal Shopper
29 The Nice Guys
28 The Lost City of Z
27 Brooklyn
26 Brigsby Bear
25 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
24 Manchester by the Sea
23 Hereditary
22 Arrival
21 Baby Driver
20 I Am Not Your Negro
19 Ex Machina
18 Get Out
17 Pete’s Dragon
16 Carol
15 Logan
14 Creed
13 Your Name
12 Paddington 2
11 Annihilation
10 Call Me by Your Name
9 Blade Runner 2049
8 You Were Never Really Here
7 A Ghost Story
6 Phantom Thread
5 First Reformed
4 Mother!
3 Sorry to Bother You
2 Mad Max: Fury Road
1 Moonlight and La La Land

That’s right, I copped out. Deal with it.

Advertisements

Should You See?: ANNIHILATION

Trailer

(Quick note: This trailer is definitely not representative of the style of the film, though certainly of the feel. It’s a slower film than this presents and the stuff you see is even creepier and weirder in the actual film proper.)

Who’s This For?

Sci-Fi aficionados, anyone who wants to support strange and unique big budget filmmaking, anyone who really liked Ex Machina, fans of Andrei Tarkovsky, people who want to see something legitimately new on screen.

Who’s Gonna Be Turned Off?

Most general audiences, any fans of the book who expect total devotion, anyone who expected a traditional horror or thriller flick, anyone who’s not ready for a slow flick, anyone who’s watching right before bed

My Feelings!

It’s important first and foremost for those introduced to this through Jeff Vandermeer’s brilliant book to understand that this is ABSOLUTELY in no way similar to the book. While it maintains the spirit of discovery and wonder and terror, the film takes an entirely different narrative direction. One that is equal parts easier to grasp narratively as it is harder and scarier to grasp thematically and more disturbing in its imagery. This is not guaranteed to be loved by those who loved the book, but I think anyone who enjoyed that will enjoy this movie as well.

The actual movie itself is a rare sort of achievement. Seeing it makes it very easy to understand why Paramount was so nervous about its release (especially after their insanely ambitious and artistically brilliant mother! so famously crashed last year [not before becoming my favorite film of 2017]). This is not an easy or pleasing film. It is ambiguous and difficult to comprehend and disturbing in a way few major films ever are.

The best comparison (beyond things like Stalker that this film directly cribs on or Arrival that this film shares a space with) is the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is infused in this film through the depiction of things that should not or could not be. Annihilation is filled with images of creatures and places and phenomenon that seem wrong, like their existence is a challenge to humanity. Terror in this film comes from trying to wrap your brain around how something might exist and the rejection of the forms that you see.

It is to director/writer Alex Garland’s credit that I can legitimately say that there are things in this film that I have not seen before, even a few things I actually don’t have the vocabulary to describe. Think the end of 2001, an ending this film’s last 20-30 minutes sits comfortably alongside. Garland’s incredibly steady hand (influenced heavily by Tarkovsky) keeps things carefully trained and unfolding just slowly enough to wrap your head around before you get a new challenge that plunges you deeper in. You may be confused, but you’re never lost, and that’s the sign of the great work Garland does here.

This is not a character-based movie, these characters exist as archetypes inside a world that’s engulfing them. There is no character development, they exist to serve a larger purpose. The cast does amazing with that, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gina Rodriguez being marked as particular standouts. But if you’re seeking grand heroes, it’s gonna be hard to discover how little they matter but as vectors to something stranger and grander than they are.

This is maybe the best set of visual effects I’ve seen in a movie in sometime. What’s created feels natural to the world without ever looking obviously CGI’d while still maintaining just enough distance from reality. Kudos to the SFX and Production Design and Camera teams all around on this one, this is an impressive world they’ve created and some of what’s here still lingers with me.

Should You See It? 

Yes.

I think it’s worth supporting any film made on this scale with this budget and this many ideas in its head. You want more things that are new and weird and fantastic? It requires your dollars. Moreover, it’s worth showing Paramount that things like this don’t have to be relegated to Netflix.

But beyond that, it’s worth it as long as you know what you’re getting going in. You’re getting something difficult and disturbing and divisive. Something that’s new to fans of the book and even newer to the general audiences coming in fresh. A whole lot of folks are gonna stream out hating this movie and you may be one of them.

But if you’re not, you get one of the most singular, jaw-dropping, chilling and mind-blowing cinematic experiences of the year so far. You get new images and new thoughts. You get something that will leave its print on you long after you’ve left the theater.

Grade: A+

 

The 15 Best Films of 2017

The most important question that any film must ask itself and that any filmgoer must ask themselves is “Why?” Why tell this story in this way? Why did I leave my house to go see this specific story being told? Why did I like that, why did I find that important to my life, why did I keep thinking about it? Why this film, this year?

For 2017, I had a fairly simple criteria. The “why” had to be “Because no one else could tell this story.” I looked for films that felt unique and exceptional. I looked for films that went above and tried to reach beyond what is to what could be. I looked for escapism in fantastic worlds, intense thoughts, and deep emotions. I looked for films to transport me to another world, to another mind. I looked for films that took a swing to land among the stars. These 15 did that.

15) Brigsby Bear

Creativity can and should be an act of kindness. Sharing some part of ourselves with the world around us is both asking for empathy and attempting to provide it. It’s a way of understanding the world and trying to work out our part in it, it’s that core belief that undergirds Brigsby Bear and makes it such a wonderfully remarkable little achievement.

Your mileage will of course depend on how much of writer/star Kyle Mooney’s anti-comedy shtick you can bear. There’s an awkwardness that feels genuine to every part of his interaction, a knowledge of how those truly isolated from society feel trying to interact with it, but it can be painful to watch someone on screen going through those growing pains.

But that’s what works about the film. It understands those growing pains as universal and finds the specificity in its bizarre little alternate world. The titular Brigsby Bear is a work of surprising cleverness and its steady outward growth and development provides a constant delight. It’s also rare that a year can boast two great Mark Hamill performances, but that’s what this film is good enough to give us.

Brigsby Bear is for people who don’t quite fit in anywhere but want to show people where they do.

14) Your Name.

The next Miyazaki is kind of a reductive term in Japanese animation (like calling anyone the next Disney), but let’s just say that I think Makoto Shinkai at least deserves the chance to carve the same path that Miyazaki had.

While he’s well into his career by now (and has made many great piece of animation), Your Name is the first movie that really stands to prove the great future potential of Shinkai. A fully realized and gorgeous work that feels like an old genre (body swap) made wholly original (now that would be telling), you see clearly why this film was the smash in Japan that it was.

It’s a rare accomplishment to write a story that goes from the intimate to the truly epic without ever feeling like it’s taking a wrong step. A tale across space and time that never loses sight of what’s on the ground, the snapshot of a time in your life where every possibility lays before you and you have no idea, where you uncover a world that’s larger than you could ever imagine.

Your Name tells a story we all feel on a scale we could only imagine.

13) Personal Shopper

Grief is an ever-changing process. It is something that no one can move through the same way, that no one has the same experience, but it is something that we must move through.

Personal Shopper shows one process of grief. Yours may not involve texting with a hostile-ish ghost, beautiful designer dresses, or being a medium. But Olivier Assayas’ haunting meditation is deeply recognizable in raw experience, in trying to move past something that has its claws dug into you, how to understand a loss that you haven’t reconciled with.

It helps that it has an all-timer of a performance by Kristen Stewart at its core. It’s important to never forget how much she’s turned her career around since the awkward early-20 something years to develop into one of our finest actresses. There’s an envelopment of the character, an internalization that she moves through in her own specific way to create something dazzling. She’s not creating the character, she is the character.

Personal Shopper moves through grieving in a way that makes us all understand.

12) Logan

America is heading towards collapse. We imagine it’ll look like The Road or maybe Escape from New York, but I know we won’t be that lucky. It’s more horrifying to imagine a world where things get steadily worse, but history keeps moving on. Humanity gets replaced, things get more desperate, the tentacles of control seize us without us knowing, the marginalized are shoved off.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate darkness at the core of Logan that has made it so resonant. James Mangold’s sweaty, fever-dream send-off to Hugh Jackman’s defining character posits a future where technology has increased late-capitalist desperation and where our own prejudice ends up swallowing up society whole. Jackman wears the weight of all that and the decades of violence that he has committed into his best performance, every moment and motion is a new agony informed by old pains.

Yet despite all that sorrow, Logan is at its best in the moments where it slows down. The moments of family, where Logan and Stewart’s Xavier get to just talk or enjoy a moment with Laura, Logan’s ersatz daughter. It’s a movie of atmosphere, willing to wear the weight of generations on its sweat-soaked shoulders.

Logan is a look into a future that we can prevent and a goodbye to the past we can learn from.

11) Colossal

It’s kind of rare that a movie ages well within the year it comes out. But as Hollywood had its dark underbelly turned up, Colossal‘s story of male entitlement and putting the pieces back together loomed larger and larger, much like the monsters contained within its movie.

Now, it is safe to say that no movie handled the Me Too moment (or pre-handled the moment) with more off-kilter wit or fun than Colossal did. Writer/Director Nacho Vigolando reamed a lot of bizarre humor out of Anne Hathaway’s exemplary performance and the increasingly strange situation she finds herself in. He manages to explore the actual sci-fi ramifications (she did technically kill people!) without ever feeling like it’s getting too lost in though, a deft handling of a difficult tone.

It’s that ability to handle tone that becomes more and more important as the film goes on, as Sudekis’ Oscar begins to become a more sinister presence and the film becomes a good v. evil story where one side is every dude who ever said the phrase “ethics in gaming journalism.”

Colossal is a story just a few months ahead of its time that’s funnier and weirder than it has any right to be.

10) Baby Driver

As a resident of Atlanta, I spend SO much time these days watching my city play anything but itself. It’s New York, it’s L.A., it’s Lagos. It’s hard to ignore that the Chinese restaurant that was down the street from me for 3 years has suddenly picked up and moved to Portland, Oregon. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you Edgar Wright for letting Atlanta be fucking Atlanta and showing the whole world why this is the coolest city.

Of course, it helps that the rest of Baby Driver is about as cool as movies get. Edgar Wright has carved a breathless blast of high-energy cinema, slick as a 70s Steve McQueen and singular as 60s French auteur. Baby Driver has every beat of film cut to a perfectly curated soundtrack, every bit of action designed like fine clockwork.

No film this year felt so alive and exciting and like a shot in the arm for popular cinema. Elgort’s Baby is gonna be in the heads of every young film fan getting behind the wheel for the first time.

Baby Driver is the kind of film that makes it a little more dangerous to drive down I-85, blasting “Bellbottoms” and trying not to get caught by the law.

9) The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro probably has done more for my love of film than anyone else. There’s a part of me that will always be the kid meeting him during the promotion for Hellboy in awe and just a little confusion.

But it’s the slow delve into his filmography and his love of monsters that pushed me forward. Del Toro is a filmmaker of supreme empathy, seeing the good and the beautiful in the grotesque. The Shape of Water is in someways the ultimate fulfillment of this, a movie where the outcast and the monster is the object of empathy and the beautiful lover and the man of society is the twisted murderer.

A film borne of a young boy wondering why Creature from the Black Lagoon didn’t end up with the damsel ending up with the monster, The Shape of Water certainly makes some bold choices (including the one you’re wondering about). But the magic of the film is that it helps you understand all of those choices, believe in them, and become enveloped in them.

The Shape of Water believes in the good of monsters and the beauty of their love.

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 8: James Franco

How’s the Cold Open?

Oh my god…what’s this? A Cold Open that doesn’t feature Baldwin’s or even any political figure parodies? It’s political, yes, that’s what this slot pretty much is. But I want to give it points just for ACTUALLY being something different.

Plus the fact that it’s a pretty solid comedic concept. Kids saying things beyond their years is always kinda funny, and it is funny to think about how children are processing this news cycle. This is pretty much a “Kenan Reacts” sketch and definitely a rough few moments (live performances with kids are always a difficult prospect) come along with that, but I’m honestly just happy they tried something new.

Who’s Hosting?

James Franco is one of those guys who’s just so utilitarian and eager that of course he’s a returning and good SNL host. He’s absolutely committed to everything here that it kind of gets you over how amused with himself he always is. There’s an endearingness to his breaking that’s more along the lines of Gosling than Fallon.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Spelling Bee”

People working out their dark secrets through mundane shit is extremely my comedic jam. James Franco gives a great performance as a tightly, wound ball of neuroses unveiling for all the world to see at a spelling bee. Just kudos all around on this one, even if Franco could stand to keep it together a little more at the end and if the writing could have used a little more variation in structure.

“Za”

Like the last, another bit that pretty much rests on James Franco’s commitment to the bits this evening, going all in on that Za/Sa distinction. Thompson’s judge keeps it going well and Gardner is exactly the straight woman this sketch needed. But Franco’s the star here, a perfectly absurd twister.

“Christmas Charity”

A crib on an Arrested Development joke, sure. But “Christmas Charity” is just well-made enough and changes its joke at just the right time to sell exactly what it needs to. Cecily Strong is doing particularly great work here, a great Christmas sketch.

“Scrudge”

I appreciate Beck and Kyle getting their pre-filmed bits earlier and earlier in the show. A way better Christmas Carol riff than last week, Scrooge as that asshole who always happens to be around a group of friends. Bennett is doing phenomenal work here and those great and specific bits of assholery work so well.

What Didn’t Work?

“Sexual Harassment Charlie”

Woof, this is just a total whiff of a sketch. It’s hard to find what the point is here, honestly. Half the possibilities are offensive, the other half are bland and boring. Thompson and Franco are working their asses off trying to sell it, especially as Charlie gets more and more disturbing with what he does. But it’s an overlong sketch that never feels like it has the right idea about it, just confusing morass.

“Reunion”

In case you’re wondering what the plan for Heidi Gardner is, this should fill you in. This is the exact kind of sketch that Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon started out making their bones on, these weird specific character pieces. While this one doesn’t quite work, the rhythms are a little off and there’s no real jokes, Gardner’s carving her place out early.

“Gift Wrap Counter”

A gross-out sketch is always fun for SNL, but Franco is not the actor for it. He’s too goofy and too amused by what’s going on to anchor the chaos in the middle of a sketch like this. Being game is good, but you need more than that for a gory sketch to sell.

“James Franco Audience Question Monologue”

His celebrity friends dropping in had to be expected, but there’s more cameos than laughs in this one. Also, good on you, Jonah Hill.

Weekend Update!

Nothing too hard-hitting this week honestly. Che and Jost are as good as usual, but the material felt a little slacker than one might have expected. The handling of Franken didn’t quite sit right, seeming like it was playing as a “why do the Democrats have to be the good guys?” without really peeling and working with that like they needed to. No great zingers either. Just an energetic if poorly written week, like the rest of the show.

Two correspondents this week. Cathy Anne is a returning delight, the kind of character who seems to always feel just a little fresh no matter what they do with her. Great work from Strong here, the point on Doug Jones actually playing fairly salient. The other is Che’s riff on “White Like Me.” While I’m not entirely sure this sketch finds and makes its point, as a piece of comedic absurdity, it kind of works. Che’s ability to sell his gruff and excessively masculine self as a white lady is a great conceit and Che really goes hard with it. I just wish it felt more pointed or focused. Still, kudos on Weekend Update for taking the extra shot.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did! It was cool! I should listen to SZA!

MVPs!

I’m gonna give this to Kenan tonight. It’s an absolute pleasure when he really goes for it and he seems to be going really big this season. Trying to end on a good note?

Cecily Strong – 2
Kenan Thompson – 2
Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Heidi Gardner –
1
Chris Redd – 1

Final Thoughts!

An uneven week mostly bolstered by Franco’s charisma and energy. A lot of sketches that seem to muddle their way to the point, but plenty of energy and goofiness in the stuff that does work.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Chance the Rapper
  2. Tiffany Haddish
  3. Saoirse Ronan
  4. Kumail Nanjiani
  5. Gal Gadot
  6. James Franco
  7. Ryan Gosling
  8. Larry David

The Shape Of Water

Guillermo del Toro believes in the good of monsters.

There’s always been a beauty through which del Toro filters the grotesque and macabre. Through his eye, these creatures from the depths and horrors from beyond have an elegance and sense of awe that make them something more than a terror. They are animals or they are spirits and they have pain.

That warmth of spirit comes to the forefront in The Shape of Water, del Toro’s love-letter to Creature from the Black Lagoon and the mythologies and genres he grew up with. Anchored by incredible performance, technical brilliance, and a wealth of head and heart, The Shape of Water is a magical fairytale of a movie about people on the margins of society.

Set in the midst of the Cold War, government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings The Asset (Doug Jones), an amphibious humanoid creature, into a dark government research facility. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who spends her nights working at the facility alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her days sleeping and spending time with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa finds a strange connection with The Asset, one that goes deeper than anyone could have imagined.

I don’t want to go much further, this movie takes more delightful and interesting turns than anyone might have expected but let me drop one fairly major story note. Not so much a spoiler, but something that will help you understand where it’s coming from.

They fuck.

The lady and the fish guy fuck.

I tell you almost entirely so you can understand what this story is. It’s a lovely fairytale, something beautiful and otherwordly. But it’s a frank story about things like desire and love and what it means to be human (or not).

This is, perhaps more than del Toro has ever been, a film that feels free creatively. It’s a film that, despite maybe being his smallest, feels like his grandest in thematic vision.

You have a story of those on the margins. A woman who cannot speak can only listen to the voices around her. A gay man seeking to find affection, a black woman who no one will listen to, and something beyond human that can’t communicate either. A story of those people shoved to the side and told they aren’t human, given voice and allowed to make their story.

It’s also a story of love and romance, but one without the sanded off edges. This is a film with and about sex. Elisa is a woman who has desires that are communicated frankly from early on in the film. It’s about centering those desires and understanding how someone can interact with that, how desperately we long for affection that understands us.

It’s about that darkness coursing under the American history, the people we shoved into the underclass and the swath of destruction we cut across the land. The people who tried their best to stop it and were killed along the way.

This is a story about so much and it would be easy to get muddled and get lost in all the threads crossing and weaving. Yet del Toro is an absolutely talented enough director to weave into a tale that feels primal and real.

His world is characteristically gorgeous. While one of the least fantastic locations his film has been set in, it’s made with the same level of grimy detail and tangibility that his others have. The Asset is an incredible piece of design, even pulling off of Abe Sapien as it does, it’s still a distinctive and living creature that Doug Jones flawlessly inhabits.

The performance all around is incredible. It’s worth instantly reiterating that Doug Jones is an incredible creature performer and Michael Shannon plays a terrifying monster just as well, inhabiting an all-American man pushed to the edge, something too real to not be scary. Spencer and Jenkins also turn out great performances, Jenkins’ kindly friend a particular highlight.

But this is Sally Hawkins’ movie and she FUCKING nails it. Not a word is spoken (minus a brief and lovely jaunt into a fantasy) but she conveys everything through her smile and her body language and the touch she gives others. She embodies a deep well of life experience and gives character to every motion. It’s a beautiful performance, an absolutely incredible character from an actress who’s made it clear time and time again how good she is.

Honestly, I’ve talked enough, The Shape of Water is a movie that exists in the theater. It’s a beautiful, honest and vital piece of cinema from one of the great living filmmakers. It’s worth letting it wash over you, the world of wonder and the world of monsters.

Grade: A

 

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 7: Saoirse Ronan charms a night that gets better as it goes along

INTRO

How’s the Cold Open?

Holy fuck this is bad.

It’s hard to talk week after week about how bored I am by Baldwin’s Trump and I not only appreciated the break but was sure that I would have warmer feelings when he returned.

But even if I did, one of the most obvious and irritating pieces of writing that they’ve come up with in sometime would have dashed all those quickly. I mean, look, Trump Christmas Carol is a premise so blatantly obvious as to be hackwork just do it, much less to do it totally earnestly without any real subversion.

It’s made all the worse by the sketch playing it as standard and woefully obvious recitation of “things Trump has done and said” in order to reach for clapter. That Conway “I got so drunk I told the truth line” or that Clinton “Lock Him Up” has no real comedy basis and no joke to it and within the sketch land like a wet thud, even if McKinnon is doing her best to sell it.

It’s just a broad and clunkily written sketch. It feels like all the worst SNL political tendencies in one sketch, buoyed by a fairly lazy impression. It’s like the sketch someone would write to make fun of the show, nothing hits, overly broad, doesn’t know how to end, and ultimately pointless and reassuring with no comedy.

Who’s Hosting?

Saorise Ronan is one of our finest young actresses, one destined for an Oscar shortly enough and one who I may not have suspected to be so ready for the SNL stage. But the same self-assured confidence of performance that makes her so great on film is what makes her work here. Ronan manages to never feel out of place or nervous and she’s actually acting and selling bits of comedy based on her performance. She’s game and really talented with this and I hope to see more of her doing comedy and more of her on SNL.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Welcome to Hell”

This is undoubtedly the sketch that’s going to have the most life outside of this episode and for good reason. The Ladies of SNL Music Video has been a mark of quality and a recurring sketch onto itself and this one is a fairly smart handling of the sexual harassment stuff. It’s centering reaction of the women and contrasting the bright bubblegum pop of the song and video to the real horrors described, stacking and building in just the right way and using the production design here so well. It’s a lot of fun and even if it could have used a little more energy, this is another great music video.

“Floribama Shore”

We should maybe be a little concerned about the increasing dropping of “Live” from SNL, but we can get to that later. This is a solid send-up of the mining of “middle-class affecting the lower-class reality show” that MTV found working around Jersey Shore. Great characters and details (Quartney, “Benghazi Truther in the Streets,” damn Aidy Bryant really owned this one) and the inclusion of Chris Redd’s sane person in the middle of the whole thing may be the funniest gag of the whole night (that shot of him packing in the middle of the party). And look at Luke Null getting a moment (more on him later).

“The Race”

Beck and Kyle sketches are this show’s truest and most consistent delight, the talent and the specificity are just so good. This is another example, a short that’s half sports-parody and half-80s pastiche parody that spirals so wacky that telling you out of context would just spoil it. Greta Gerwig cameoing is also real fun, she should host.

“Bachelor Auction”

Chad is one of the most odd recurring characters on this show, no voice and no backstory and no conceit but Davidson playing the dumbest possible version of himself. The joke is that everyone is ridiculously magnetically attracted to him for reasons they aren’t quite sure of themselves. This is the first live version but it absolutely plays right,

“Return Counter”

This is a “Parade of Weirdos” sketch and a fairly effective one. Like the Floribama Shore sketch, it’s just about getting those great little details in, what people think and do. McKinnon is probably the best of these at the end, even if Strong is definitely giving it the most effort in this one and is definitely my favorite by a mile.

“American Girl Store”

Mikey Day is getting good at finding these recurring bits, isn’t he? “Distracting Guy in the News Report” (I’m sure it has an actual name) is always a fun one and even if this one is a little more obvious, Day is playing it well and Ronan is underplaying so nicely.

Huh…

“Aer Lingus”

I’m not quite sure what’s going on here. I honestly laughed really hard for reasons I don’t understand. It’s slightly too surreal to just be “Irish jokes” and it definitely just kind of ends, but there’s such a great oddball quality to this one.

What Didn’t Work?

“Late for Class”

Woof. Let’s talk about this one for a second.

Clearly intended to try to give new castmember Luke Null a chance, it’s a really bold choice. A sketch that’s supposed to give no laughs for two minutes so that it can pull up at the end and turn things around and mine how uncomfortable the beginning of the sketch was.

But it doesn’t work. First, the fact that you’ve already bombed and set the audience against the sketch leads to some mild titters among the crowd when it turns around and a hostile atmosphere for the rest of the performance.

But I also think Luke Null doesn’t play it right. He overacts, hitting it too hard, feeling like he isn’t necessarily threading the needle between funny and uncomfortable. Which is hard, I get it, but it’s still what he’s being asked to do.

I feel bad that he took such a hard challenge, but it’s not a fun look to start him out with. Nothing he can do that Mikey Day or Alex Moffatt or Beck Bennett can’t.

“Saoirse Ronan Monologue”

$20 bucks if the monologue isn’t about her name.

It is? Then I got 20 bucks.

Weekend Update!

Boy, Jost and Che have really turned it around. Or the writers have at least. Che may have been weirdly a little off tonight, but there was plenty of great hits on the continuing sexual harassment scandals (comparing it to the Powerball numbers), Roy Moore (segueing out of the creepy YouTube kids videos), and hitting against the tax bill passed in the wee hours of the night. No all-timers, but a lot of strong hits.

Two correspondents this week.

Mikey Day and Leslie Jones return as the sexually adventurous married couple. It’s threaded and performed well with Day letting the passive-aggressive resentment sink in as Jones bashfulness occasionally gives way to her intense desires. Plus the “Stop Whining, Sandwich Boy” is such a good gag.

McKinnon adds another world leader to her repertoire with British PM (for now) Theresa May. While McKinnon plays her with the same able and nimble performance that she does Clinton, Merkel, Ginsburg, and others. But it doesn’t work with May, personally.

McKinnon’s specialty with these characters is taking straitlaced lady world leaders and creating an interesting and funny character out of them. Ginsburg as an insult comic, Merkel as a nerdy high school girl with a lot of crushes, Clinton as power-mad and ruthlessly competent. In other words, people who aren’t terribly funny becoming funny.

The problem is that Theresa May is a hysterical figure. Not intentionally, no. She’s an Armando Iannucci character, someone who believes they’re the only smart person in the room but proceeds to trip over their dicks all the way down the stairs. The person who called a snap election with a double-digit lead and proceeded to lose all of that and her majority to THE ABSOLUTE BOY/JEREMY FUCKING CORBYN and had to ally with insane Scottish reactionaries to barely cling to power as most of her party is waiting desperately to desert her. The character they’ve put together here is just not as funny or comedically interesting as the real person.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did not!

I haven’t heard the new album yet and wanted to wait.

MVPs!

Cecily Strong had a strong night, really going for it at a lot of turns, including stealing K-Mart straight from under the feet of every one else. Just a good solid night for a great performer.

Cecily Strong – 2
Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Heidi Gardner –
1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Chris Redd – 1

Final Thoughts!

A nice week! Saoirse Ronan is a great host anchoring a lot of strong performance-based sketches. “Welcome To Hell” is definitely going to have some legs here, but a lot of strong stuff here! A few duds, but nothing bringing down the night too much.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Chance the Rapper
  2. Tiffany Haddish
  3. Saoirse Ronan
  4. Kumail Nanjiani
  5. Gal Gadot
  6. Ryan Gosling
  7. Larry David

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

It would be improper of me to chide a bird for flying or to mock them for having feathers. It’s simply endemic to who they are, being a bird and all. But on the other hand, if a bird had ended up underwater and was trying to fly through it, we might pause to consider whether or not this was the best approach.

Martin McDonagh is a crackling wit of a screenwriter and a surprisingly effective director. He exists with that sort of Sorkin-esque style where he crafts a singular voice through which his dark, ribald sense of humor and profane dialogue flows through all of his character, creating a unified vision of misanthropic worlds comprised of people who swear at their families.

This exact approach is why In Bruges felt so fresh and Seven Psychopaths felt so fun and why Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri felt so much like slipping ass-first onto concrete during a victory lap.

Three Billboards is the most serious story McDonagh has told yet. The story of small-town Ebbing, Missouri and a mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). Hayes lost her daughter, Angela, in a brutal murder and the police have come no closer to solving, no closer to bringing her justice.

So she puts a little pressure on and puts up three billboards. “RAPED WHILE DYING” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS” “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is the popular Chief of Police and he’s obviously not exactly thrilled about that sentiment being directed his way, especially as he’s dying and would like to end on a good note. Fortunately for him, most of the town is on his side, especially his second-in-command Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a controversial figure given his torture of a black man. But Mildred won’t back off.

Before I get into this, it is absolutely worth acknowledging that on every technical level, Three Billboards is the kind of success through which I absolutely understand why I’m the outlier here.

McDonagh’s penchant for directing actors has never shined through more than here. Much attention has been paid to Frances McDormand and even more attention is due. It’s a tour-de-force performance that kind of orbits the whole film around her gravity, all coiled rage ready to burst and lash out and leave just a raw, sad vulnerability at its core. She gets great moment after great moment from her dressing down a priest to a tender monologue to a deer that reminds her of her deceased daughter.

But Sam Rockwell is perhaps the secret weapon and surprise of the movie. It’s certainly a controversial figure, and we’ll discuss more of him later on. But Rockwell fills out the character so well, giving him such a heart and never excusing what he does, turning Dixon into a scumbag trying to do something decent for once in his fucking life.

McDonagh orients these great performances around a tightly constructed ensemble in a fairly tightly constructed film. It takes a few nice turns and keeps the drama moving along at a solid clip, reminding much of McDonagh’s theater background. But it’s not all just theater, Three Billboards really manages to pull off some gorgeous framing and shots, a lot of great quiet Middle America landscapes and great blocking of relationships between people.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri really is a great work of filmmaking and in a vacuum, it absolutely makes sense why McDonagh took on this story. A story of justice and mourning in America feels deeply relevant.

But…let me put forth…I don’t know if McDonagh’s style necessarily hits the story in the right way.

There is always a line between a story being told and the storyteller telling it. The best can absolutely merge themselves with any story. The best can also make any story told with their tongue. But even the best shouldn’t tell every story. Not every story should be told through every tongue, not every story translates properly.

McDonagh’s storytelling, his hyper-verbose and profane style, feels distancing from the raw emotion here and the difficult moral navigation. Far from stories of criminals and hitmen, the stories of real people make McDonagh’s style feel distant from humanity. It stands out more than ever that people just don’t talk like this. Which is fine, film is not and shouldn’t be reality.

When you tell a story that does strive for such reality though, it stands out when you distance yourself. You become an avatar of screenwriting contrivance, every moment standing out because it what technically is supposed to be there. The ugliness and sloppiness of real life feels lost here, such a dark story told by such a wicked wit.

It’s a movie that must show a mother half-joking that she hopes her daughter gets raped shortly before she does to give her a sense of guilt. It’s a movie where characters are complicated but their thoughts aren’t as to keep out of the way of the plot and of the style. Mildred has a streak of defiance, but her ideas about justice swing towards the point of the film. Dixon is a momma’s boy, but everything falls in line with what he does.

Three Billboards feels up and down like a contrivance, an attempt to make something McDonagh’s style is comfortable with without ever straining his emotional range or straining his thematic range.

Postscript thought:

Let me also add on a quick thought about Peter Dinklage’s character. Dinklage’s character has been on both sides of the discussion, an attack on the “Nice Guy” and the only decent person in the movie getting shit on at every single step. While I think it’s a rare misstep of characterization in this movie (McDonagh is ruthlessly clear on most of these), its bigger issue is how unnecessary this feels and how much he stands out. It’s a case of midget joke after midget joke with absolutely no nuance or purpose to it. There’s plenty of other moment where they point out how these folks are “un-PC,” a rare sort of meanness to a movie that doesn’t need it. In Bruges played it similarly right, here it feels like beating a dead horse.

That contrivance is perhaps what has so ended up grating about Dixon’s character to so many people. Trying to redeem a man who tortured black people would work in a movie that was maybe less darkly comic or had more complex ideas going on. But the contrivance here bends the arcs the wrong way, it makes Dixon’s redemption feel hollow, an idea rather than a fully implemented arc. Rockwell did a great job with a character that needs more work.

That’s what ends up being so disappointing about Three Billboards for me. It feels like a film that has all the best intentions and is so well-made and it ends up so misconceived. McDonagh is a talented filmmaker who swung at the wrong target here, not the storyteller who should tell this.

Grade: C