A24 Double Feature: The Florida Project and The Killing of A Sacred Deer

The Florida Project

What do you do when a film whistles just past you?

The Florida Project, director Sean Baker’s tale of the disaffected and forgotten poor on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, is by all means a work of raw and honest beauty, something wonderful and deeply humanist in a way that absolutely deserves to be as celebrated as I can imagine this film will be.

Yet I must confess that something didn’t quite hit right for me about this, didn’t take that extra step from being a great made film into be something truly special. The Florida Project is a wonderful movie, yes, but what’s missing?

It’s not the cast, for sure. It’s a largely unknown/non-professional cast minus a few familiar faces, most notably Willem Dafoe playing the manager of the motel our main characters live in.

The story revolves around children, Brooklynn Prince playing a young girl named Moonee is our star, and yet all of them feel only as affected as children do. The performances don’t have that child actor showiness, but they still retain the artificiality that children naturally have, trying to figure out words and posturings they don’t know how to use just yet. Prince is particularly extraordinary, the perfect eyes to a world of wonder.

It revolves around the adults who raise them too. Their actors are all equally extraordinary. Newcomer Bria Vinaite, playing Moonee’s mom, is a powerhouse standing right alongside Willem Dafoe, giving maybe his most likeable performance ever. These are people who feel real in their quiet desperation, in the need to just get by day by day.

All of that is thanks to the filmmaking of Sean Baker, quickly becoming one of our best filmmakers telling stories of the forgotten people. The Florida Project really is a gorgeous-looking film, finding the wonder that children must in these dirty and dilapidated urban places. There’s an honesty to it that never loses a belief in the humanity.

The film is funny and charming and really deeply affecting in how much it loves and believes in the misfits that occupy its frames. Baker knows what it means to actually care about these people like few filmmakers do, never coming down to the level of tourist.

I mean all these nice things, truly. But I want to throw back to the film Sean Baker did right before The Florida Project for a quick point of comparison.

Tangerine, his iPhone-shot film about two transgender prostitutes (Alexandra and Sin-dee) in LA during Christmas, has a moment at the very end of the film where Alexandra takes off her wig and offers it to Sin-dee while she’s cleaning her own. It’s a raw and very vulnerable and beautiful moment, something so specific and such a moment of human kindness that feels like it peels back the layer of film artifice and feels like you’re watching this real moment of kindness.

The Florida Project never really has that. There’s a similarly honest feeling to the whole film, but never the moment that really digs down to be honest and raw. And it leaves the whole film feeling as though it tells an honest story in an artificial way. Never finding that moment where it can get real. Perhaps that’s where it just barely misses my heart.

Grade: B+

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It’s rare for any year to yield a film as divisive and distancing and engrossing and fascinating and sickening as mother! It’s even rarer for a film to yield two films that you walk out of imagining that there’s a very real chance 95% of the audience hated it. But that’s 2017 for you.

While The Killing of a Sacred Deer is certainly not as jaw-droppingly audacious as Darren Aronofsky’s middle-finger masterpiece, it’s something just as difficult and insane to grapple with, something mythological and terrifying and confusing.

It’s hard to quite grasp what happens. Colin Farrell is Steven, a successful doctor married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), an equally successful doctor, with two children. Steven has also befriended a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). The two have a past that seems to revolve around the death of Martin’s father as Steven operated on him.

Martin seems to blame Steven for it, and for not marrying his mother (Alicia Silverstone) and giving him a family, and chooses to take his revenge. Steven must kill one of his family or they will all succumb to a mysterious illness that may or may not be caused by Martin. It’s unclear.

An off-putting enough premise, but filtered through the Yorgos Lanthimos (director of The Lobster) lens it becomes something truly bizarre. The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to eschew human belief and action totally, turning them into living embodiment of the avatars of narrative. Lanthimos characters are bizarre and stiff, like a robot pretending to be human, and it makes an off-putting story into something bizarre and hypnotic.

It helps that Lanthimos has such an incredible grasp and control of what he wants to do that it keeps all that from spiraling out of control. That bizarre detachment of his character is his whole world, something perfect and pristine in arrangement and design, terrifying in its coldness and threatened by somebody who is all willingness to tear the perfection down.

Farrell and Kidman are great in this film, no surprise. Kidman is having a banner year and Farrell is having a late-career renaissance, Lanthimos’ ability to pull really reserved and mannered and complex characters out of him contributing to that. But the real surprise is Keoghan, playing perhaps the most terrifying villain of the year. He somehow manages to make his very presence unnerving, yet its hard to understand the true nature of his evil. He is something twisted and unknowable, all the scary for what we imagine he must be thinking as what is revealed.

Lanthimos has created something uneasy, something so pitch black that terror and comedy feel intertwined in the sheer ambiguous insanity of a work like this. He leaves no questions answered and seems to revel in making his viewer actively uncomfortable. A slightly-dragging second act notwithstanding, Lanthimos manages to keep such thrall over this bizarre world that you don’t mind how little he does to solve it, you suspect that was never the point.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is perhaps one of the most deeply unsettling things you’ll see this year (besides the aforementioned mother!). Its actual value is certainly going to be evaluated on a personal basis but undeniable is that Lanthimos swings for the fences to create something truly dark, truly disturbing, and truly worth watching.

Grade: A

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Murder on the Orient Express is a delightful but adequate retelling of an old tale

On one hand, Murder on the Orient Express is a story so basic with an ending so known at this point that I don’t even have to summarize what’s going on because basically everyone else knows and because of that it makes impossible to justify doing yet another big budget version.

On the other hand, Kenneth Branagh’s mustache has a mustache.

Sooooo…

At a fundamental level, Murder on the Orient Express really only ever amounts to a Kenneth Branagh vanity project that some famous folks agreed to come along on. Branagh wanted to play Hercule Poirot, 20th Century Fox wanted a live-action fall 4-quadrant hit, and everyone else wanted a paycheck.

But you know, there have absolutely been worse reasons to make a movie.

I think it’s become apparent I’m of two minds on this movie, a kind of weird split drawn between my critic brain and the lizard part of my brain that just wants to be entertained. So let’s argue between them.

I said that this was a vanity project for Branagh to play Hercule Poirot and Murder on the Orient Express fundamentally conveys what must have so deeply appealed to him about playing it. Branagh’s Poirot is an absolute and total delight to watch. Not just the mustache (which is truly something else), but the absolute exacting confidence with which he plays the character. It steers away from the antisocial genius portrayals of characters like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and makes him someone simply too connected with humanity and able to see deep into it, someone too connected with the rights and wrongs and hearts of the world. He’s the best thing by a mile and carries the movie at basically all times.

But you know, a Branagh vanity project doesn’t necessarily mean he has to do everything, not at his level. Branagh also directs Murder on the Orient Express and he certainly does able work, especially with his actors, always a specialty for a director like Branagh. But outside of some great landscape shots (thanks to the 65mm he shoots on), the film feels just too inert and stagy. It’s big-budget but it seems like it just allowed them to use a lot of CGI and green-screen to make a film that’s directed around people in a false background, a train that never actually exists or becomes a location for this story. A director who might have not needed to spend so much time in front of the camera may have been a better hand for this one.

But hey, it’s not all about Branagh. This is a cast of great actors and most of them are having a good enough time to keep watchable. Michelle Pfeiffer is having a hell of a comeback year and she’s definitely the stand-out in this one, but plenty of props deserved to the cast for putting in the effort here.

It’s just a shame that they don’t really have more to work with. The biggest problem here is that with a known quantity story like Murder on Orient Express, it’s really gonna live or die on the substance of the characters leading you through the subterfuge to make you forget you know the answer.

Yet minus Pfeiffer, no one really gets too much substance. A few big scenes here and there, but I’d be hard-pressed to recall anything about them besides the plot movements they go through. It’s hard to stand out when you’ve just not got much to work with. It’s all fine and enjoyable in the moment, but nothing leaves an impression.

Also Johnny Depp continues to be just slightly too much at any given time and Leslie Odom Jr. and Olivia Colman are both great actors who are criminally underserved in this movie.

But speaking of the already-known plot, I will say that even if the characters don’t quite nail it, screenwriter Michael Green handles the narrative fairly well. The twists and turns all feel fairly natural and the lack of audience clues feel like a feature (only Poirot can piece it together) rather than an accident. It’s easy enough to follow along and enjoyable enough to watch. It’s old-fashioned and slow in just the right way, along for a ride but never feeling overly modern in a way a story like this should be.

Though, you know, maybe there should have been some updates. Outside of a lesson about justice, it feels like the thematics here are never really dug into or updated in any real way. There’s honestly just nothing new here. The film brings up race a few times but throws it right out the door about halfway through. No real new ideas or morals or stories are injected into the text, it’s too faithful for all that.

After all that, what do I end up actually thinking of Murder on the Orient Express? It’s got great actors, but no real characters for them to play. An engaging plot that we already know with the ability to make you forget you know it but nothing under the surface to find new. A vanity project that maybe was a little too vain.

I think it all amounts to something perfectly enjoyable but nothing special. A rainy Sunday afternoon, a half-watched TBS movie while you’re preparing dinner, and a pretty agreeable movie for everyone to see during the holidays.

I had a good time! I liked it! But there’s the talent here to aspire to more.

Grade: B-

 

 

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 5: Tiffany Haddish gives the show a much-needed shot in the arm

How’s the Cold Open?

What? Is this a Cold Open…without Trump? It’s a legitimate goddamned miracle.

My guess is that given some recent PR shitstorm they felt it best for Alec to take a week off and let some heat die down so that other people can actually get some attention for once.

Namely, McKinnon’s Sessions, which has steadily evolved into one of the more effective parodies with McKinnon playing Sessions as a creepy contorted goblin of a man. It’s one of those impressions that’s accurate that it gets down into the core of who the man is, not just working through his mannerisms.

We’ve also got Roy Moore (Mikey Day) who’s just pretty much doing a Southern guy in his “naughty little cowboy” outfit and using the things that Judge Moore actually said and believed to horrify us. Like the fact that he diddled teenagers. Let’s be clear about that: Roy Moore diddled teenagers. I am from Alabama, he’s been a monster for years, and he diddled teenagers.

Which should make it clear that I do wish that they would have drilled down harder. This is definitely more edged than any other political cold open has been this season, but I think a little more opening up Roy Moore and his connection with the GOP might have made this more interesting before switching into the more ridiculous Sessions monologue.

This is the sort of thing (following up on last week) that I’d like to see more. Harder-edged, less recitation of the news and more mocking of the news.

Who’s Hosting?

Tiffany Haddish was the undeniable highlight of Girls Trip, the kind of breakout performance that launched Melissa McCarthy’s career back at Bridesmaids and should launch Haddish’s the same way.

She’s really great in this episode, the kind of host that can really help a flagging season by injecting a lot of energy into a show. She’s clearly a little shaky (most stand-ups are doing live performance) but she’s so enthusiastic and so much fun to watch that she ends up papering over most of this.

It’s the kind of thing where you just remember that she could have been in the cast and weep for what might have been.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Tiffany Haddish Monologue”

Stand-up hosting always makes for the best monologues. Besides the fact that they’re the most adept at making jokes for a few minutes at a time to a crowd, it also just feels the most natural. Haddish is kind of introducing us to her style here with shoutouts to the foster system she came up in (which honestly is amazing and I didn’t know that) and gives us a taste of her confident and high-energy performing, which really ended up being what this season’s been needing. Plus she’s just damned funny here.

“Message from the DNC”

This is the other sort of thing I’d like to see more often out of SNL.

Look, I’m a leftist (quelle surprise) and I have some hardcore fucking issues with the DNC. And I understand that there’s not exactly a vanguard party coming along anytime soon to flush everything out and rebuild in my vision, so the DNC’s gotta be the framework to work in. It means that I believe there’s absolutely a need for organizations friendly to them to start addressing their issues and start angling them towards a future actually capable of reversing the massive and horrifying system issues neoliberalism and the hard right has inflicted on this country.

All this is to say is that, yeah, it’s heartening to see something like SNL take a swing at the DNC and connect. Their stagnant leadership base, the poor decision-making, and the overwhelming sense of doom that hangs over those politicians at all times is really smartly handled. Also, Strong does a great Feinstein and it’s always good to see the return of Sudekis’ Biden.

“Beck and Kyle”

The ongoing story of the great Leslie Jones/Kyle Mooney romance is one of the best recurring sketches introduced into the show last year, a dramedy blending just past the point of absurdity with a lot of surprisingly strong acting out of the cast here. This time we’ve got Bennett, introducing his jealousy at losing the attention of his long-time friend. Bennett is one of this show’s most enjoyable actors and he really sells the jealousy and the weirdness here. But Colin Jost might end up being the real star, leaning into his 80s-frat-dude persona and being really enjoyable here. Even better is him getting punched at the end by Mooney, Bennett, Jones, Haddish and even Lorne. It’s just a great little Lonely Island-ish gag.

“The Dolphin That Learned To Speak”

There is almost no way to explain this sketch that gets across how bizarre it is that they did it. The filmmaking here, emulating the documentary look, is surprisingly strong and the second the gag hits, they manage to escalate it perfectly. This is just good writing and, again, absolutely insane that they did it.

“Whiskers R We With Tiffany Haddish”

“Whiskers R We” is the kind of fun, little bizarre sketch that it seems they can do over and over again to fill time at the end of a show and will almost always work. It’s got that great little live element of trying to deal with the cats (especially that one that clearly didn’t want to be there) and the weird flirtatiousness between the two that McKinnon underplays so well. It’s just good fun.

“The Last Black Unicorn”

While the sketch was just a little too slack at times, a problem a lot of the sketches tonight had, it was really saved by the energy of Haddish and Jones together. The slow spiral down Bryant’s character’s life is really enjoyable and there’s just something about how committed everyone is that really makes the sketch work.

Almost!

For the sketches that just barely work or just barely don’t work.

“Tournament Fighter”

In case you’re wondering this one just barely works. The pacing is really slack and I don’t think it ever builds up to the right big conclusion that it needed to. But Haddish’s energy is really infectious here, Kenan Thompson is an MVP of underplaying here, and I also just do appreciate the production value they’re trying to put in there. I wish it had hit a little harder, but they are trying.

What Didn’t Work?

“The Lion King Auditions”

Look, there are some really strong impressions here. By which I mean Mikey Day is doing a pretty solid John Oliver and I like Beck Bennett’s Nick Offerman and holy shit Heidi Gardner’s Kristen Schaal is the most dead-on impression that I have no clue what you would do with. But otherwise, none of the impressions are very deep and there’s not too much of a joke here.

“Get Woke With Tamika”

I really like this one as a concept, giving Leslie Jones her own Brian Fellows-esque talk show sketch. There’s some really great choices here (those sponsors) and I see how this could have been a great idea. But the execution just feels weirdly slack and it goes on way too long. Maybe they should give this one another shot.

Weekend Update!

This is definitely one of the best performances out of Jost and Che this season. The two were flying fast and furious and the jokes were generally nailing it. From the “naughty little cowboy outfit” of Roy Moore to Bob Marshall being so reviling of Danica Roem that he “refused to get within 8 points of her” to “President Miss Thing” being catty towards Kim Jong Un, Jost and Che had a strong rhythm that made it all work.

They even hit the sexual harassment stuff really, hitting three shots at SNL mainstay Louis C.K. when “everyone you’ve ever heard of is now a sex monster” and directly saying that “maybe someone who always jokes about masturbating wasn’t joking about masturbating.” It’s gonna be hard for the show to figure this out as it continues to become widespread enough to hit close to home and at least they’re trying. This is a show that has, as a rule, never been pointed, finding its pointedness is going to get hard.

Two correspondents this week, both really phenomenal comedic performances.

Strong’s Claire from HR is the one more likely to get shared around, her tornado of exasperation somehow perfectly selling everything to be felt about the current moment. There’s a lot of great lines (“14, but you’re gay now so hooray how brave” is a fucking brutal one) but that glancing

“This is you…”

“That’s me?”

“Well, it’s all of you.”

just hits so nicely without a laugh. This is just a phenomenal bit of comedy from Strong, one of this show’s best performers, that feels perfectly enraged and chaotic and exasperated in the way everything about the last few weeks and the sexual harassment/assault enema should feel.

On a much lighter note, Kenan Thompson’s LaVar Ball is just a show of how great Thompson is as a performer. He just owns the room the second he comes in and he’s so much fun to watch here. It’s even fun to watch him break because it really is so rare. That reading of “rotisserie” is A+.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

No.

MVPs!

I’m actually going with Kenan based on how much he’s working to sell the sketches tonight. He’s playing straight man here and reacting in a way that makes a lot of Haddish’s energy actually hit. And then he gets LaVar Ball as a way to show how much fun he is when he goes big.

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

Final Thoughts!

Exactly the kind of episode this show needed right now. It’s a little sloppy still, but the energy is so much better and it actually feels like the show has some wind under it. Haddish was a great anchor for the show to get a little energy and a lot of the pre-taped material helped to show everybody off. It’s still a transition season, but hopefully this helps push them through into who works.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Tiffany Haddish
  2. Kumail Nanjiani
  3. Gal Gadot
  4. Ryan Gosling
  5. Larry David

Next Week: Chance The Rapper!

Thor: Ragnarok is an absolute delight

Taika Waititi is a genius and the fact that it took Hollywood so long to give him a large budget and free reign is a mistake that can only be rectified by giving him both of those things in the years to come.

This isn’t so much a statement inspired by Thor: Ragnarok as a statement that would have been true basically no matter what else he had done. But Thor: Ragnarok does provide central proof to my thesis being a film that sails in simply how much of a delight it is. A psychedelic, candy-coated heavy metal fantasia with a surprising layer under the surface, it’s just refreshing to sit back and have something to really enjoy. It’s still Marvel, yes, but it’s Marvel with a little extra spice.

Picking up after Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron set Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on a journey through space searching for the Infinity Stones and leaving behind his home on Asgard. In his absence, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken on the identity of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and is ruling Asgard.

Thor’s return to Asgard exposes Loki and also sets Hela (Cate Blanchett) on a war-path to retake Asgard and conquer the universe. And also sets Thor and Loki adrift in space to land on the planet of Sakaar, a world ruled by the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor must fight his way off the planet with the help of the roguish Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who has no interest in helping, and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who ended up on this planet in the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron and became the champion of the Gladiator games, so that he can save the people of Asgard.

You can’t talk about a film like this without talking about in the context of the larger franchise around it first and foremost. Thor: Ragnarok stands apart a little bit, as the Thor franchise sort of always has. Thor has never been the most connected character, if mostly because like the Guardians of the Galaxy his adventures take place far away from Earth.

But Thor: Ragnarok connects with its surrounding universe in slightly more substantive ways than the last two have. Not so much in plot threads (all of that’s pretty well-explained for any third movie in a trilogy in part of a massive mega-franchise), but in those nice little references that get a little extra “oomph” with their callbacks.

Take the first moment that Loki sees the Hulk in this movie, not knowing that he is the Grandmaster’s champion. Hiddleston’s sheer stomach-dropping terror is a great little touch to cut back to (considering we know what happened the last time he ran into the Hulk…)

and there’s an extra little oomph later on when Loki cheers after Hulk does the same thing to his brother. Not only for the repeat, but because we know the relationship that has been developed between Loki and Thor, that Loki feels Thor was always somewhat sheltered from the things Loki had to deal with.

There’s also storytelling that works because we’ve gotten to know these characters for so long. In the first Marvel film directed by a person of color, Thor: Ragnarok manages to seat a pretty fascinating little discussion of the legacies of imperialism and colonialism and the way our history paints over them. Hela is imperialism personified, Odin shoving her and her blood-thirsty ways under the rug and literally covering up the history of their conquest.

But it works so well because we know this world, we’ve gotten to know Odin as the kindly old father-king and we know the glowing utopia of peaceful warriors. Seeing how it was built, seeing the horrors needed to build it only has the impact because we had the history.

Thor: Ragnarok is full of those little touches, little shout-outs that feels based in the world they’ve been building. Not alienating in its density, but just character moments and jokes that work because there’s some history behind them. Think more TV show, less movie franchise.

Which could be insulting, but Thor: Ragnarok definitely isn’t scaled like a TV show. On the contrary, Thor: Ragnarok perhaps smartly scales things up bigger than the Thor films have up until now. Mainly by trading its Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones influences for Jack Kirby, heavy metal album covers, and Heavy Metal.

While Asgard keeps its Rivendell look, a massive chunk of this film takes place in the candy-colored twisting Sakaar, filled with bizarre creatures (think Guardians of the Galaxy aliens) and towering structures. The costumes are more colorful and elaborate and the world feels more packed with detail, it’s a welcome injection of psychedelia into a franchise that’s often struggled with its identity.

It also helps that it turns out the amazing work Taika Waititi has done on a smaller scale really does translate to blockbuster filmmaking. His control of the image on the smaller scale translates to a splash-page ability on the big screen that makes a few really great compositions (there’s a shot of Thor flying across a lava planet chased by a dragon that is just *mwah*) in a franchise that often lacks visual distinction.

But more important is Waititi’s control over his actors and their chemistry and relationships. Thor: Ragnarok runs directly up to the line of comedy and it seems to let many of the long-running actors spread their wings more than anyone else.

None more than Chris Hemsworth, a comedic actor in a leading action hero’s body. Getting the chance to play a more overtly comedic character creates a more natural performance for Hemsworth and one that feels like he’s not trying so hard to occupy whoever this person is and out of that flows a much more natural conception of things like his royalty or his strength. But it also helps Anthony Hopkins, who finally feels like he’s not phoning it in, and Tom Hiddleston, who locks into the idea that it’s super funny when dignified people have comedy to them. It’s funny when a guy falls down a manhole, it’s funnier when that guy is wearing a monocle.

It’s the new supporting cast that really makes Waititi’s work stand out though. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is an unabashed show-stealer, playing the fallen warrior as a Han Solo-type, slowly regaining her belief in anything. It’s pure swagger from the moment she walks on screen and Thompson’s screen magnetism is never more on display than in her brilliant opening scene.

You’ve also got the great Cate Blanchett playing Marvel villain by way of Gloria Swanson which honestly stirred up all kinds of feelings in me. She’s only slightly surpassed in her scene devouring by Goldblum’s Grandmaster, playing as much Goldblum as he can. Karl Urban does a great turn as the morally conflicted Skurge and I also absolutely must give a shout-out to Waititi himself as Korg, the quietest revolutionary.

Thor: Ragnarok is simply a firework, a burst of fun and excitement and visual delight (with a few caveats, that Norway scene oof). So worth escaping into, so worth the attention that Taika Waititi has always deserved.

Grade: A-

 

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 4: Larry David leads a show that feels lost

How’s the Cold Open?

We’ll hit up top with the standard points I make at pretty much every Cold Open now:

  • Baldwin’s Trump is just every other Presidential impression now, reciting the news.
  • If Baldwin’s Trump is just reciting the news, there’s no reason for Alec Baldwin to be playing him.
  • A new Trump could inject some new blood.
  • Baldwin’s Trump is getting tired.
  • Trump impressions should not feel tired on a show of this prominence.

Okay, great.

Instead, I want to point out a good, which is Bennett’s Mike Pence, which shows maybe how SNL needs to start handling Trump (and not just by having Bennett play him). Pence here is an actual clear character at this point, one pushed slightly past the point of absurdity to become recognizable.

Let’s take Pence wearing a suit in the shower. It’s based in some real thing about Pence, his…monastic sexual ethics. It’s then ratcheted up (“I’m not married to the water”) and delivered in a way that feels like part impression, part character work. It turns Pence into someone creepy and repressed and Bennett sells that exact idea.

In other words, it’s interesting to watch. It makes something substantive out of the material far more than just “Pence did a thing.” Maybe it helps that Pence seems to be keeping his head down and there isn’t stuff from the news to pull about him, but that’s the approach that feels more incisive.

Who’s Hosting?

Larry David is a comedy legend and he doesn’t need to be here. If anyone had done one of the things he’d done, they’d be in the comedy canon. With David’s career, he’s hanging out over on SNL (a show he started out writing for before never getting anything on air) mostly for old-age kicks.

Which means that while his above-it-all-ness really can be fun, it also means he’s not essentially leading the show, more a curmudgeonly ensemble player. The last episode had such great material that his approach was moving along with a fun episode. Here, the material is much weaker and while he’s having fun, he’s not guiding the show.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Beers”

While Good Neighbor (Bennett and Mooney) have a nasty tendency of getting cut, it’s always a delight when their sketches actually show up in the show. Their weird deconstructive parody of 90s Sitcoms always feels like a way to introduce a direct mainline of surrealism and this one sure enough does. That ending is maybe one of the best laugh-out-loud shocks SNL has done since “Goodbye Mr. Bunting.”

“Career Retrospective”

This is one of those that took me a couple watches, but I’ve ended up coming around on it. The quickly changing virtues in language is fairly ripe for parody and this one is just ridiculous enough to be funny. It also works due to the reactions of the people around him at the Gala. Aidy Bryant is probably running the best reactions here.

I’m Not Touching This One

“Larry David Monologue”

Look, I know this one is controversial. I know I’m not equipped to say things about that controversy. So I’m leaving it here.

What Didn’t Work?

“The Baby Step”

The joke here is solid (Larry David doesn’t want to participate in a frankly humiliating sketch) and it’s so close to working that I feel weird having it here. But I think it partially comes down to having just no joke outside of Larry David’s refusal to participate. It never falls apart because of that, it never builds on that, it just feels like a cut-in to something that’s dumb that they’re taking dead serious. Look at “Jack Sparrow” for a similar premise (guest derailing something taken seriously) and how that one works.

“The Price Is Right Celebrity Edition”

The never-ending search for something that can be the new Celebrity Jeopardy (without ever really getting why that worked) continues with The Price is Right. They at least come close here, but none of the impressions really end up sailing here. The best is Chris Redd doing a surprisingly able Lil’ Wayne and actually getting to play the joke against Kenan’s straight man.

“Fresh Takes”

Honestly, I get the premise here, but the structure is just so limp and listless that I feel like it never ended up really working. It feels like too much of this is playing to dead air both between the performers and to the audience. It’s a sketch that just kind of piles up in a crash.

“New Wife”

While there is pleasure in a sketch that makes someone like Larry David break (this is still one of my favorite SNL videos), I just wish it was around for a better sketch. They’re just not sure what the actual idea here is, what the joke is that ended up making him break was. McKinnon does a great job underplaying here, but the main thrust of the sketch never feels like it comes into focus to make it work.

“Press Conference”

This just reminds me of Melaninade last year. I get that Sarah Sanders isn’t as much of a character as Spicer was, but you could try. Aidy is having fun here, but this just feels limp and confusing, a Variety show thing rather than a sketch or a joke.

Weekend Update!

As the Trump administration material chugs along, it’s become increasingly clear that Michael Che is the better equipped to take it all on. There’s an exasperated directness to his handling of the horrors of Trump that just feels more direct that Jost’s square thing.  His rant about how tired he is of all this really works, his looseness feels raw rather out of a lack of practice.

Three correspondents, this was a real correspondent-heavy week. We’ll start off the top with Leslie Jones’ segment with the World Series-winning Houston Astros. It’s not much at all, not even as much fun as last year’s World Series segments. It’s just a thing. The other two are way better.

First, let’s talk the return of Moffatt and Day’s Eric and Don Jr. The two Trump sons are definitely not the most accurate characterizations (Don Jr. seeming to be a real-life total moron where Day plays him as Patrick Bateman) but the characters really work here (reference my earlier talk on Mike Pence). Day and Moffatt’s comedic chemistry is so good and that’s half of what sells this. The other half is Moffatt’s physical work, that moment with Fun Dip is next level good facial expression.

Then, let’s talk maybe the winner of the whole night. Heidi Gardner’s “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever.” They’ve done this kind of character before (One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy comes to mind), but holy shit Gardner may be better at it than basically everyone. Not only is the writing great (the catchphrases and the way she twists in) but Gardner’s performance is so so dead-on. She’s so funny, she’s so committed, and she takes control of the whole situation the second she comes in. It’s the good shit, Gardner may have had her break out moment tonight (as the show looks for someone to inevitably become the next big star once McKinnon leaves in the next couple years)

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah. Though Miley Cyrus showed up in a few extra sketches tonight.

MVPs!

On a show without a lot of real winners, Gardner’s Weekend Update correspondent was the most unabashed success. It was the kind of home run a young performer needs and getting it in her 4th week is particularly impressive.

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

Final Thoughts!

It’s a pretty middling week, nothing absolutely awful but even the successes (outside of Weekend Update) felt like they were barely pulling themselves over the top. This episode felt like a lot of muddled and confused writing not helping an increasingly strong cast of performers. This show needs something to help kick its writer’s room in the ass soon.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Kumail Nanjiani
  2. Gal Gadot
  3. Ryan Gosling
  4. Larry David

Next Week: Tiffany Haddish!

Oscars Watch 2018: Playing the Fiddle While Rome Burns: Best Picture

Boy, there is a lot of…news out there today. Everything is generally awful and terrible and brutish and nasty.

So, we’re going to go to something that doesn’t matter at all in the hopes of distracting you, me, and everyone else.

That’s right, it’s OSCAR SEASON!!!

Now, I’m gonna preface all this with the reason for the subtitle. To some degree, I’m acknowledging that I’m playing into a lot of the power games that created a lot of the current situation in Hollywood. Weinstein made his name, his money, and his influence off this game.

This is not some grand statement. On the contrary, I’m a F-list blogger with no influence, no reach, and no real ultimate meaning. It’s simply my own personal way of knowing what I’m doing and hoping to wrest some personal control of these narratives from people like that.

I’m looking at the Oscars this year as a post-Moonlight thing. An avenue to now boost smaller and more important movies that may not have gotten the chance. This is a way to celebrate films on a scale that there are few chances to and we deserve to make our own narrative. Yes, there is and always will be needs to be right and there are certain caveats I must always make with these articles. I’m looking to be technically correct, not morally, whether I like it or not.

But there’s narratives to create and I’m going to create them.

So, without further adieu, let’s give last year’s disclaimer:

We’re talking, of course, about the Academy Awards here. The Oscars, if you’re nasty. It may not be for a few months, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it now.

“But Brandon,” you don’t say but I pretend you do, “how can you have a discussion about these movies? Not only have you only seen two, but most of them haven’t even been officially released?”

You sweet summer child.

Fun fact about the Academy Awards: They’re rarely about the actual movies. They’re about how movies are perceived and make the voters feel. As long as the movie has a reasonably strong critical reception (unless you’re Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), the appearance of quality and importance is enough. Plus, thanks to the Festival circuit, we can already see the conversations that are being had around it, so waiting for them to come out isn’t necessary. This is shot-calling, not criticism.

The Awards are also about the quality of the campaign! Did the studio put the movie in front of enough people with a clear enough case?  Does the studio have the connections and the infrastructure to really get their case out there? Being good means nothing if nobody knows it.

And let’s give our categories. Sure Things, Incredibly Likely, Possibly, and No-Go. I also keep the general rule that there has to be something from it out there for me to include it. Reviews or trailers, something to make it possible to keep an eye on things.

The rumors around The Post are enough to make sure I do that.

The big story this year is the lack of any frontrunner and the absolute wealth of possible runners. It’s a year that the Festivals and Studios are producing a lot of very good movies, a lot of stuff that people are really liking even if a good chunk of it is somewhat divisive. But that divisiveness is meaning that there’s nothing universally agreeable.

Remember that by this point last year Moonlight was already out and La La Land was tearing it up over in festival land. The tea leaves were there for those two to read, but nothing is so big right now. Nothing is tearing up festivals the same way something usually does and it’s likely going to come down to the compromise candidate that everyone is reasonably positive about.

Sure Things

Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Call Me By Your Name
Three Billboards Outside, Ebbing Missouri
Darkest Hour
Get Out

Dunkirk and Darkest Hour may hold the rare distinction of being the first pair of movies about the same event ever nominated in the same year. There’s a few years with pairs of WW2 movies or pairs of movies set in the same era (1998 had a pair of each) but Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are both set during the Battle of Dunkirk, just from different ends.

Nolan is with the soldiers in a film that is heart-stoppingly realistic and jaw-droppingly shot. Wright takes the fight back to Parliament with Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill battling for his place of power and the rallying of his nation. Darkest Hour is classic Oscar material, a chamber piece about a great man, and Dunkirk is functionally a Robert Bresson film by way of Nolan’s tech-wizardry, by no means an Oscar piece. But the sheer scale and skill at play here makes both a lock with Nolan’s Dunkirk more seizing of the imagination than anyone expected.

The Shape of Water is honestly an unexpected success. Del Toro’s recent adoption of his Spanish language style into his English language output yielded the great Crimson Peak but seemed doomed to alienate all but the critical audience. But The Shape of Water is apparently a warm, romantic/sexy story that seems to be connecting with every audience that sees it as an impressive American fairytale. As a longtime fan, I’m thrilled.

Call Me By Your Name was always kind of destined to look like this year’s Moonlight, a story of queer desire and longing with lush and gorgeous filmmaking. But that’s a flattening that doesn’t quite go into Moonlight and apparently doesn’t quite go into Call Me By Your Name with its parental dynamics and the Armie Hammer factor (the most underrated actor working). This film has had its praises sung since January and there seems to be no stopping on this train. And hey, any film with a Sufjan Stevens soundtrack is worthy of an Oscar in my opinion.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri joins Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water in making this year the year of finally recognizing people who’ve done great work and have had no Awards success until now. Martin McDonagh’s foul-mouthed and darkly hilarious films have been an underseen delight for years and Three Billboards seems to be the film that’ll finally get him some attention. His dynamite actors, his profanely brilliant dialogue, and his steady portrayal of place seems to all come to the forefront here and have gotten this movie the attention he’s always deserved.

Get Out is perhaps the film of the year. No film passed into popular refrain quicker, no film became a bigger hit culturally (and few financially), and no film feels more desperately of its moment. No film has felt like it so tapped into the conversation around race, class, and culture so quickly. Peele’s Get Out is a vital and visceral piece of filmmaking that absolutely can and should be in the awards conversation. Best Picture must include movies like this.

Incredibly Likely

Lady Bird
The Florida Project
Phantom Thread
Battle of the Sexes
The Big Sick

A24 is riding hot after winning for Moonlight last year. A young studio turning the little movie that could into the little movie that did. They’re now an official player and they’ve come out 2017 with a few runners now that they’ve got the connections to run an actual field this time around.

Their two best players are Lady Bird and The Florida Project. Lady Bird is the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, a somewhat autobiographical picture about a teen girl in the early 90s. The film is one of the big darlings of the critical set right now and Gerwig is a Hollywood favorite that could definitely get this film the early attention. The Florida Project is from Sean Baker, director of the wonderful Tangerine, about the lives of the poor and displaced in a Florida hotel. Willem Dafoe’s against-type performance and the great leading performance of child actress Brooklynn Prince got this thing the attention, but Baker’s very humanistic eye got this thing the love. I didn’t necessarily fall head-over-heels for it, but this is certainly the kind of movie that deserves the Awards talk.

Phantom Thread has a lot going for it. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson, in the conversation for our best living director. It’s Daniel Day-Lewis, in the conversation for our best living actor. It’s a surprisingly respectable looking period piece about high-fashion and passion in 50’s London, which could help people make a connection with PTA’s increasingly difficult films. The only reason it’s not assured is a late release date and a lot of secrecy around it (combined with a dynamo filmmaker and a difficult potential subject makes me think Silence) and the rumors that this may be a real high-class 50 Shades. This is a surprisingly sex-heavy year, but still not sure how that goes over.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of big-swing crowd pleaser that could absolutely find a way to wriggle in easily, especially with its stars and its performances and its 2016-election parallels that can and will be played up. I don’t really care for this one overall, but it’s easy to understand how this one will move into the race.

The Big Sick is another big-swing crowd pleaser that could make it in for all the reasons that Battle of the Sexes could, minus its direct political relevance and adding the true story behind it. This one I’ll admit that I have much more attachment to, given my admiration for Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, and the sweetness and skill with which this story is told means it should absolutely get a shot at the Oscars.

Possibly

I, Tonya
Mudbound
The Disaster Artist
Logan/Wonder Woman
Molly’s Game

I, Tonya is definitely a late-game and somewhat surprising addition to this race. It really exploded out of TIFF and landed in the lap of young distributor NEON. While it’s going to remain to be seen how NEON gets a handle on Oscar campaigns, a big and flashy movie like this with starpower and star performances certainly holds the chance of giving some hooks in.

Mudbound certainly stacks up as the prime sort of Oscar contender. A film about race in post-war America from Dee Rees, whose film Pariah you should absolutely see, that should end up having some resonance, especially after raves out of Sundance. But Netflix is a biq q-mark. Hollywood is no fan of the upstart challenger and there’s a lot of legitimate issues with the way Netflix promotes and throws up the middle finger to theaters. Will the business side overcome the movie?

The Disaster Artist is my personal pick for this year’s dark horse. A Hollywood tale about the love of filmmaking running a surprisingly smart campaign (that billboard) with apparently a career-best performance out of James Franco. I could see this one doing surprisingly well if A24 plays their cards right.

Every year we have the conversation about when/if one of these big superhero blockbusters is going to make it into the Best Picture race. This year has maybe presented the two best shots at it with Logan and Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is the one that feels of its moment and of its time and its critical success has been a surprise for the otherwise-reviled DC Film universe. Logan is a much darker/weightier film than Wonder Woman which may give it the edge in the “respectability” race, though it certainly wasn’t the smash hit that a superhero film is going to need to be to break in here.

Molly’s Game is just here because with a Best Actress/Supporting Actor/Screenplay line-up possible, it certainly needs to be in the conversation. The Academy loves Sorkin.

No-Go

Wind River
Wonder Wheel
All The Money in the World

Weinstein. Allen. (as of today) Spacey. These names are gonna poison these movies.

mother!/The Killing of A Sacred Deer
Breathe
The Greatest Showman

I adored mother! and am fairly certain I have positive feelings about The Killing of A Sacred Deer, but these are two movies for which the word “divisive” was made. mother! got an F Cinemascore for a reason. I can’t see enough people wanting to vote for these.

Breathe is the kind of tear-jerker that tried for the attention but it pretty much fell flat on its face. No box office, no critical love, nothin’.

The Greatest Showman is trying for a little of that La La Land but my god it looks and sounds embarrassing for everyone involved. I hope I’m wrong, but…

Current Category Guess:

Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Call Me By Your Name
Three Billboards Outside, Ebbing Missouri
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Florida Project
Phantom Thread
The Big Sick

Real Life: Battle of the Sexes and Stronger

It’s officially Oscar season and with Oscar season comes…BIOPICS.

That’s right, biopics! Stories about real people told by people who are mostly way better looking than real people. I’m on record as a biopic skeptic, often a way to give the least cinematic form of storytelling, relying on the poignancy of real life to avoid selling anything like an actual movie.

But it’s important to always go in open-minded. So, that being said, let’s talk about two prestige-y biopics. Battle of the Sexes, telling the story of the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and Stronger, the story of Jeff Bauman and his recovery after being caught in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing.

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes definitely comes in as the most high-key biopic. A story that seizes on our national conversation and even presents a reversal of one of the more important historical moments where the slovenly clown who’s not taking this seriously actually gets beaten. The kind of thing that seems destined to light up the critical thinkpieces about how gosh-darned important this movie is and get all the Oscar attention based on just how relevant the whole thing is.

In other words, it’s the kind of movie that’s maybe more deserving of a more deft and interesting handling than Battle of the Sexes gets here.

This is not declaring incompetency. On the contrary, there are many competent elements. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy have put together a film that clearly hits its marks, finds its emotional beats, and helps the story understand its context and write its legend.

Its performances are also strong. Emma Stone does a top-notch job as Billie Jean King, though a little more substance or outside perspective of the character (in other words, shooting for a movie that isn’t a crowd pleaser) could have actually made for a more worthy performance (it’s not better than her La La Land performance, are you people insane). Steve Carrell certainly nails what he’s going for and the supporting cast, especially Andrea Riseborough as Billie Jean’s hairdresser and lover Marilyn, are strong and evocative of their period.

There’s even some things it does well. Though coated with a thick layer of biopic gloss and crowd-pleasing primer, the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn is genuinely affecting and well-portrayed and the chemistry between them feels real.

Sadly, real or well-portrayed is not an operating word for the rest of it. Battle of the Sexes creaks under the weight of everything it’s carrying to the screen.

Its biggest issue is, well, half of it. The Billie Jean King stuff generally works to the same degree that the Bobby Riggs stuff generally doesn’t. The movie feels the need to humanize him and understand his perspective, rather than just having him function as the movie’s heel. But Riggs’ story is not anywhere near as interesting or driving as King’s and it leaves the movie bloated. A movie that would be willing to challenge or villainize a real person like Riggs would be more interesting than one that has to have him be a nice guy, deep down.

And beyond that, Dayton and Faris carry that bloat into how they handle the rest of the film. It’s a listless, too shiny, too slick film. You can admire it but it’s not letting you grasp on, there’s no sweat or blood in it. Battle of the Sexes ends up being largely pretty formless, hitting its beats and being unwilling to pull underneath into anything but the biggest emotions. The forward momentum is not there, it just drifts until it’s time for a big moment and then keeps drifting.

It’s a movie that keeps going for the easy hit, with plenty of accurately primitive dialogue. But it never manages to find the point where it can actually peel underneath any of that, find any real insight. It’s unwilling to actually confront anything and instead just lets it all please its audience, nothing more than nice.

Grade: C

Stronger

If there’s a world record for the biggest gulf between two film handlings of the same event, it must go to Patriots’ Day and Stronger.

For every bit Patriots’ Day is a jingoistic, exploitative, and brutish film, Stronger is thoughtful and weary and tender. An exposed nerve of a movie with a specific experience of Boston that grounds the movie hard, Stronger is a rare sort of biopic that’s willing to elide the easy successes for something rawer and ultimately far more satisfying.

David Gordon Green returns from the wilderness on this one, coming back to his more dramatic and lean and meaningful years. Green has maybe never been more careful and thoughtful, diving deep into his characters willing to show them not as simple heroes, but as people who have dimensions. He chooses not to focus on big moments, but on the moments of pain that come in between.

It’s hard to imagine any other director approaching Stronger with the kind of grace and tact he does. I keep coming back to a scene set early on in Jeff Bauman’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) recovery. It’s the first changing of his bandages on his amputated legs. The shot is held entirely over his shoulder, his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) at one side and the doctors at the other, with his legs just out of focus. It’s a certain sort of surreality, not quite grasping what’s happening, but giving us just enough tactility of the pain and the hopelessness of imagining the regularity of going through this over and over again.

It’s some of the best direction of this year and Stronger is chock-full of these great little moments, these little shadings that really make the movie work. Even down to the decision to not focus on chasing down the Tsarnevs, to glide through the actual bombing and only return to it in terms of how it affects this person. It’s not about the Bombing as some great unifying moment of Boston, it’s about what treating the event like that does to someone, about becoming an emblem of something that you don’t want to ever think about. It’s how we make ordinary people into heroes who were never ready to be a hero.

In a way, it’s the antithesis of all these sort of biopics, small where others are large, personal where others are archetypal, and grounding where others elevate.

It also helps that Stronger is anchored by two of the finest actors working. Gyllenhaal does simply incredible work here, his Bauman is willing to go dark and selfish places while retaining a completely fundamental sense of decency. Maslany is the movie’s secret weapon though, Maslany digging deep in and managing to create her own very 3-dimensional person in a movie that could have easily not give her that space.

Stronger does drag a little and is willing to get a little too into the biopic weeds towards the latter part of its second act, but there’s so much absolutely good around it that you can’t let it get you down too much. Stronger is a truly one-of-a-kind movie, a biopic willing to actually try and dig down and tell a story about people rather than legends.

Grade: A-

 

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