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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
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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

Lady Bird is a beautiful and true movie

The praise for Lady Bird deserves to start with a single detail. At two points during the movie, the song “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band plays as part of integral emotional moments. It’s a bonding for Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), something that gets them into the same emotional space. It’s not just what a perfect period detail that is, but what it says about the ethos of this movie.

Dave Matthews Band is not cool. Steven Hyden talks about this at length a little more (I’m pulling this idea from him but it stood out so much I had to repurpose), but Dave Matthews Band is not the kind of band that associates with having the kind of music taste that people in teen indie movies want to have, usually opting for the references points of what people in their 30s think is cool.

But it’s absolutely the kind of music a character like Lady Bird would be into in that year in that time. Lady Bird chooses to make sure its main character feels real rather than turning her into some icon of cool, to find a reality that grounds her rather than an attempt to impress the aesthetic.

With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig hasn’t necessarily blazed a new path, but simply made an exemplary version of a classic story by sticking to what feels real to her, by sticking to a rawer truth. The result ends up being a supremely confident debut, a warm film with a ton of life and a keen eye for those little human interactions.

Lady Bird follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), known as “Lady Bird” the name she gave to herself. It’s a coming of age story in Sacramento in Lady Bird’s senior year, 2002-03. Lady Bird wants nothing more than to get out of Sacramento and to the East, to New York where she thinks culture is, and away from her overbearing mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

And that’s your premise. Gerwig wanted a picture in the mold of The 400 Blows or Boyhood and in movies like that, the premise by necessity needs to be thin. You need room to expand and breathe and find all the little tangents that life goes down. Coming-of-age is a genre that functions as collage, all the little bits pulling together into a larger snapshot.

It’s about the people, first and foremost. Lady Bird is really great about capturing the deep flaws within people who are fundamentally good, not ever letting it diminish who they are and still letting what shines about them shine, both through writing and performance.

Saoirse Ronan takes the lead here and continues to prove that she’s one of the best young Hollywood stars. Her Lady Bird performance ranges from deliberately affected, trying to be something she’s not (a side-splitting moment as she tries to slide up on Lucas Hedges’ Danny), to achingly raw, cutting through the problems of teenagedom and learning who you are with a single question. It’s a truly great performance, one I hope gets the proper attention come Awards time.

But just as good is the character on the page she’s given. Lady Bird is the kind of character only the best coming-of-age movies fine. She’s absolutely nuanced, an intelligent and thoughtful girl capable of being cutting and selfish. Navigating the line is difficult, but Lady Bird never strays into her being unlikable or unrealistically good. She’s a person, Gerwig has created someone who feels real and who helps us understand the navigation of a difficult time in life. It’s not that it’s not angst, but it’s the kind of angst people actually feel.

You could easily write similarly about everyone in this movie, there’s a deep bench of extraordinarily well-written characters performed by great actors. Lucas Hedges has an Oscar in his future, let me tell you.

The other one who deserves to be singled out is Laurie Metcalf, playing Lady Bird’s mother Marion. In a way, this is her story too. Marion is coming to grips with her child moving on and with the difficulty of realizing that you have no way to actually grapple with the person your child is becoming. Metcalf does such a wonderful job of letting everything bubble just under the surface, of layering all her lines with the subtext and giving a really knock-out performance.

It’s easiest to talk about all the dramatic elements here, all the realizations and the grappling and the good and bad people. But Lady Bird succeeds because it weaves a warm sense of humor into the whole proceedings. Always good-natured and always ebullient, think the contributions that Greta Gerwig made to the work of Noah Baumbach without his inherent darker cynicism. There’s a lot of great little moments and asides, those that make you smile and those that make you sink into your seat knowing the horrifying embarrassment from your own life that you can map onto the experience.

Look, I’m just saying that I also tried to feel smart by reading a copy of The People’s History of the United States in high school and I didn’t get that shit until last year. So I feel you Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

And hey, Gerwig’s handling of all this is helped by the fact that Lady Bird is an incredibly finely made picture. A film that is handsomely shot, well-edited, and absolutely drenched in great period detail (given that we can now make movies in periods I lived through).

I also just have to appreciate any movie honest about financial struggle. Not making it a point, not showing “one bad day poverty” as some deep lamentation or some noble endeavor. Just there, just a part of it, just an extra obstacle to pushing through the month. Having grown up that way, I really appreciate the way Lady Bird conveys it.

Lady Bird is the kind of film that makes you excited to see the next one from an artist. A film that’s absolutely lovely, wonderfully true, a film that feels so specific that everyone can relate.

Grade: A

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 6: Chance the Rapper charms his way through a solid episode

How’s the Cold Open?

Another week off from Baldwin’s Trump is another week in which I don’t have to complain about it, so let’s all be grateful for that.

Instead, we get Moffatt and Day’s Eric and Don Jr. which I could honestly watch every week. Day and Moffat’s comedic chemistry is pretty delightful and the double act of “God’s Perfect Manchild with Patrick Bateman” is the most comedically potent parody of any of the Trump associates. Moffatt’s wondrous reactions are near perfect.

The conceit of a meeting with Julian Assange is pretty thin here, McKinnon playing Assange with a barely there accent and taking a back seat pretty quickly. It’s all about the increasingly popular Eric and Don Jr. impression and the great characterizations there (the relationship between them is almost genuinely kind of sweet). Also, that Minions backpack is just too good.

There’s also something really nice about making fun of these people for being legitimate morons, not devious masterminds. Like the real world, these are people playing at being way more brilliant than they are.

Who’s Hosting?

Chance the Rapper is such a positive and charismatic musician that I’m shocked it took as long as it did for him to get in front of the camera. Having essentially gotten a test audition with a couple sketch appearances during last year’s Casey Affleck show, Chance takes the hosting gig with as much aplomb as Tiffany Haddish did last week.

Hell, perhaps even more. Chance is a shockingly polished performer here, hitting every role with as much precision and charisma as in his music with a lot of extra game and goofiness. He goes big, he goes small. If the universe is just, this should mark a recurring performer for SNL as big as Timberlake.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Rap History”

This is a sketch where the production value of it is really what helps sell the joke. Now, be clear, this is a great piece of writing and performance. Chris Redd repeatedly sliding in with “a little bit of crack in it” as well as the name DJ Grand Wizard Karate are both comedic masterstrokes. But the largely serious appearances of Common and Questlove as well as the great costuming and aged videos really make it feel like this particularly bizarre chapter from the history of Hip-Hop.

“Sports Announcer”

This one is perhaps the best show-off for Chance all night. It’s a pretty solid bit of bewilderment, never over-the-top, just wringing the comedic potential of someone in a situation they know absolutely nothing about. The ability of the writing to make everything around him sound completely impenetrable with Chance’s smart underplaying just really has this sketch singing.

“Wayne Thanksgiving”

The disproportionate socio-economic effect of The Batman is a pretty well-worn joke among comic book fans, but it’s still pretty fun to see it come up in the mainstream. Bennett’s increasingly embarrassed Bruce Wayne is the centerpiece here, but I love how everyone tells basically the same story (he broke his jaw in 3 places!). Just kind of a solidly goofy sketch that doesn’t have that “Fellow Kids” vibe a lot of SNL geek culture sketches have.

“Family Feud: Harvey Family Thanksgiving”

I’m usually not a big fan of the Celebrity Family Feud sketches, but regular Family Feud ones here really tend to work, a usually solid premise anchored by Thompson’s greatly enjoyable Steve Harvey impression. Even if you can kind of tell where this is going, Chance’s performance deserves to give you the little surprise of his back story. There’s also a wonderful Forrest Gump reference that had me rolling on the floor.

“Come Back, Barack”

Kind of a sequel to last year’s “Jingle Barack,” “Come Back, Barack” is another sketch that really works on how good the production is. The R&B song here hits all those tropes (the “I want you back, baby” song) so dead-on and all three of the performers (Chance, Kenan, and Redd) have such great comedic chemistry that it feels like an actual lost R&B group. I also love the little twist it takes during the spoken-word breakdown.

“Porn Pizza Delivery”

Hey, it’s been a while since we’ve seen this one! Bryant’s delightfully clueless child against the deliberately bizarre porn actors will never not make me laugh, Heidi Gardner fills into this one incredibly well. And man, Chance is just an absolute delight in everything he does tonight.

Almost!

“Chance-giving Monologue”

This one is almost there. The song falls apart a little bit towards the end, but Chance has such cheer and skill that he sells it well past where it needs to. Musical monologues only make sense when the performer is a musician.

“Career Day”

This one has an adorable sort of energy with those right little dark touches that make a sketch like this fun, but I think it ends up riding on the same joke too long without ever deepening it and you end up just feeling like “I get it.”

Weekend Update!

Another week, another person accused of sexual assault associated with SNL that they have to address. Again, Weekend Update remains the place to do it and Jost and Che hit right up top and hit a few jokes on it. No excusing, even if they did use it as a pivot to talk about Trump’s own hypocrisy. But they’re hitting pretty hard lately with some actual good jokes. It’s just nice when Jost and Che’s chemistry is actually backed up by some solid writing.

An extended Weekend Update brought us three correspondents this week.

We’ve got McKinnon bringing back her breakout Jeff Sessions. Sessions is basically non-human at this point, a possum wearing person skin. Seeing her twist her way around the shady lies and attempted folksy charm of Sessions is always a delight and the increasingly disturbing details added to his body and his character have given this character a little more life than you might expect.

After that is Kyle Mooney’s Bruce Chandling, who is definitely an acquired taste, an anti-comedy character on a show that definitely doesn’t indulge in that all too often. But fortunately I’ve acquired that taste. The sublime confidence in terrible material going into deep despair is so suited to Mooney’s awkwardness that Chandling is a welcome delight.

Finally, a Pete Davidson bit, a little different this time for having Jost along for the ride. The bit is about the different reactions Davidson and Jost’s home of Staten Island have to their career, and the interplay is actually pretty sharp here, two young guys, one clean-cut and one very much not. There’s something that SNL could do with that. It’s a solidly charming bit.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

They gave Eminem a Prince spot, so seemed worth giving it a shot. The new stuff still doesn’t work for me as much and there’s something that always amuses me about rappers with big symphonic backing. Probably because of this:

MVPs!

I’m gonna give Redd the shout-out. It’s always difficult for a new player to break-in and it was really impressive how much face-time he got this episode. Redd and Thompson seem to be a potent combo and he seems to vibe with the hosts well. Plus he’s just a great performer.

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

Final Thoughts!

This is one of those episodes that while nothing really stood out, everything was delightful and really solidly written. Production and writing and performance were all fairly tight, the slack that tended to really tended to hurt the early part of this season seems gone. It also helped that Chance the Rapper hosted his ass off.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

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

Next Time: Saoirse Ronan joins U2 on the single most Irish episode of SNL ever.

Justice League is a flawed and enjoyable-enough crossing of the finish line for the DC Film Universe

Far be it from me to ever give a movie too much slack, but it’s a minor miracle that Justice League isn’t a total 12-car pile-up. After all, this is a movie that had at least 2 major creative sharp turns during the course of it with the critical failure (albeit commercial success) of Batman v. Superman and the tragedy-laced departure of director Zack Snyder to be replaced by Joss Whedon, two directors who could not have styles more worlds apart. Had it been an absolute mess, we could have simply sighed, understood, and moved on.

So again, let reiterate the petite miracle that Justice League kinda works. It is by no means a rousing success. There’s enough flawed narrative and weirdly bad CGI to make sure that this falls just short of managing to come in for a smooth landing or even a landing where it doesn’t take some damage. But a better-than-expected set of characters and a more resonant thematic work helps make Justice League something that you can at least see steering towards a much better place, finally.

Picking up in the wake of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, the world has fallen into chaos. Its beacon of hope-

By the way, let’s take a brief early sidebar. In this film’s attempt to essentially right the ship of DC state, one of its most jarring (but very welcome) choices is to not only change the character of Superman, but to pretend that was how we always was. He’s not the controversial, complicated (like your bad high school boyfriend), and feared figure of Batman v. Superman. He’s a corny, charming and human hero that the world mourns deeply and falls apart without. I get the need to reboot without rebooting and I’m certainly happy they did it, but it is odd.

has gone out and darkness looms overhead. That darkness is in the form of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a general of Apokolips who has come to terraform in its vision. Standing in his way is Batman (Ben Affleck), who’s figured out the invasion is coming, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who knows the power of this ancient enemy.

Together, the two must recruit other superpowered individuals across the globe. From Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a troubled loner seeking solitude, to The Flash (Ezra Miller), an eager young man hoping to get his father (Billy Crudup), to Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former football star who was stitched back together with mechanical enhancements after a devastating accident.

Our scrappy group of heroes is perhaps the best thing about this movie. Of our returning (that I can talk about), Gadot has such a star quality, a charismatic screen presence who’s enrapturing to follow, and her Wonder Woman is a very classical sort of superhero, with shades of that fundamental decency and belief in good that Christopher Reeve had. Affleck’s Batman is still sadly underdeveloped, but he gets more room to breathe with the ability to make a dry joke or two and lighten the character up just a little bit.

But hey, you knew that. It’s the new ones you came to see, so let’s just run down them.

Ezra Miller has been a star on the rise since Perks of Being a Wallflower and here you see what he can do in a bigger picture. He gets to play a Spider-Man role, a young hero in awe of the adults around him trying to figure out his place. The effects for him could use some work down the road, but there’s an exciting quality to a superhero who doesn’t come in ready to fight, playing more with nervous energy than many of the characters around him have.

Momoa is functionally playing Aquaman at his bro-est, think a Zack Snyder version of The Brave and the Bold’s cheesy, over-the-top-at-all-times Aquaman. It’s an enjoyable enough performance, though underdeveloped given that he’s the reluctant member, filling in a role that Batman often plays in team-ups like this. If they given him more room with his place in Atlantis, we might really see something interesting.

Fisher is the newest actor here, so naturally anything he’s gonna do is the biggest surprise. Fisher is actually really good here, giving Cyborg a little more substance than the Frankenstein monster he’s written as. There’s a cool, calm relaxed assurance to his character, something I wasn’t expecting but that Fisher really sells.

And perhaps most importantly, Justice League gets a team dynamic right. While Steppenwolf may not necessarily be the threat the movie needs (is he really that much more powerful than Ares?), there’s a sensible dynamic that brings them together. If The Avengers are a team of the personally flawed who had to get over themselves, then the Justice League (never called that in the movie) are a team of the tragic who have to move on. Each of them has lost something and they have allowed it for too long to consume them who need to save a world that has lost something and been consumed by it.

Justice League is essentially a movie about how those around us can help us move through tragedy. How the depths of despair can be escaped with a hand reaching down.

It’s a shame how much it gets right because the disastrous production got just enough wrong to keep it from really succeeding as it should be able to.

Steppenwolf may rank as one of the worst comic book movie villains period, down around Malekith the Accursed or Enchantress. His motivations are completely muddled, his threat is unclear, and the mythology behind him is only glancingly referenced, avoiding the substance an obscure villain like Steppenwolf would need. The lack of physical presence from Steppenwolf is noticeable too, an all-CGI character might be fine…

If it wasn’t for the weirdly terrible effects work in this film. I get that reshoots likely forced a lot of quick fixes, but the sheer amount of CGI might also come some way towards explaining why none of it felt focused on. Terrible green-screen, a lot of clearly visible actor replacements, maybe one of the most jarring human effects I’ve ever seen, and Steppenwolf himself looks plasticky and fake, like someone’s having an action figure fight the Justice League. Cyborg also falls victim to this from time to time, his design is just too busy to really look good. There’s a very substandard quality to something that takes up so much of this movie.

Which’d be fine if this film worked well narratively. To its credit, Justice League fixed Batman v Superman‘s pacing problems. This is a snappy, fast-paced narrative that’s always got something happening. The problem is that it’s got it happening way too fast. The jump from moment to moment can be jarring, much of the actual machinations don’t hold up to much scrutiny (I’m sure), and there’s a lot of introductions to people that only matter for a scene.

We’re given an early moment to a terrorist group led by Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) that Wonder Woman defeats. They get introduction, a monologue, and a whole action sequence and then are unceremoniously dropped without any explanation of why they got that much time. There’s multiple things like this throughout the film that just don’t work.

Plus your mileage will absolutely vary on the mechanics of the writing. Between Terrio and Whedon, the dialogue is…corny. This one feels like a Saturday morning cartoon more than anything else, and not necessarily the Bruce Timm cartoons. Your enjoyment of this film is really going to depend on how the film’s sense of humor works for you and how much you can get over some clunkers.

I’ll say this much. I could vibe on Justice League‘s sense of humor and the clunkers didn’t bother me much. There’s an entertainment value to this movie that works, character moments and beats and sequences that really do soar and get the fist pumping. This is the worst superhero movie this year, but it’s more the fault of the quality of the rest rather than simply the issues here.

Justice League is an enjoyable enough ride and one that steers the DC ship in the right direction. It feels like a purge of the universe that came before it and the creation of one that may be far more sustainable. One more full of heroes that want to do good and a world that is worth saving.

Objective: C
Subjective: B