Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Best Film Ensembles of All Time Part III: 11-20 Adam's List

This is Part III of a series in which Adam Spector of Adam's Rib and I count down out top 50 film ensembles of all time. Part I is here and Part II is here. Because Adam and I went into so much detail, we split this entry into two with the other entry here.

Adam's List
11. The Sting 12. Dazed and Confused 13. Do the Right Thing 14. Eight Men Out 15. Fast Times at Tidgemont High 16. American Graffiti 17. Short Cuts 18. Glengarry Glen Ross 19. Prince of the City 20. The Royal Tenenbaums

 Orrin's Response:

In your attempts to disqualify certain films from my list for not being ensemble films, you make an interesting point. While we've both pointed to films with ensembles we admire (Dead Poets Society or Back to the Future fall into this category), the ensemble film itself is a genre of sorts both in how it's presented to the audiences and how those audiences look for familiar conventions (for example, the skillful spreading out of a narrative over several characters) within those films. 

Put in more commercial terms, an ensemble film is also how a movie is sold: Look at the posters to Grand Budapest Hotel or Emilio Estevez's Bobby and the main message is "look at how many stars we were able to get into one picture!"

I would argue that the "ensemble film" angle is pretty much the only reason anyone could possibly have gotten excited about the 2012 film The Avengers (or any of its subsequent sequels and pseudo-sequels) and why it's the fifth highest grossing film ever

Part of what we've applauded is bold ways of going about casting (in commercial terms, we can call this a gimmick although I don't think it deserves the pejorative connotation). Salt of the Earth used actual miners, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 used actual ex-convicts, Around the World in 80 Days loaded the cast with cameos, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (and Stephen Soderbergh's Informant also tried this) used a who's who of comic actors, but as you point out in the latter case, just putting in those people on screen doesn't equal great results.

An example is Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee's bold approach (or gimmick) was having a full cast loaded with more black people than I imagine audiences even knew of at the time. I imagine it was just Denzel Washington, (Lawrence Fishburne who worked with Spike Lee on his last film), Ossie Davis and that guy who won an Oscar for An Officer and aGentleman were the only black people audiences could name at the time, and he showed one could fill a great film with a dozen or so black actors all turning excellent performances. He even took a chance on his own sister and it worked! What's more, there's a lot of texture and color in all of the parts which must have been a game changer. And that's not to mention the humanizing turn of Danny Aiello.

Prince of the City, similarly, is a bold achievement in casting. It condensed a highly detailed police case with an incredibly dense source material, Robert Daley's 1978 account of an informant in the police department responsible for 52 indictments. The fact that the final screenplay has over 100 speaking parts must be a big deal as it's mentioned on both TCM and IMDB's trivia section (and pretty much any review of the movie if you google "over 100 speaking parts" "prince of the city"). But at the risk of offending the Sidney Lumet estate (and you for graciously lending me the DVD), this is another case where bold casting doesn't necessarily equal a great ensemble in my opinion. I don't really need to argue this through quantitative means because I got all the evidence I need when I went over to the IMDB page to write about the actors and couldn't remember any of them except for the ones I already knew (all three of them). All I remember about this film a mere three weeks after watching it is Jerry Orbauch has a sinister smile and that Bob Balaban is in the film with an inordinate amount of hair. And I'll go a step further and posit that because the ensemble fails, the film fails as a whole to justify its 3-hour running time (something that admittedly tries my patience more with home viewing). The film needed some of the color that say Danny Aiello or Ossie Davis bought to their parts.

A great example of a supporting role that adds color is in my favorite Coen Brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Charles Durning delivers a larger-than-life performance that plays on our imagination of Southern populist archetypes as Pappy O'Daniel. It was because of that performance that whenever I see Durning in a film's opening credits, I get a tinge of anticipation over what he will do. That's how character actors and ensemble pieces serve as gateways to other films. It's how Prince and the City (at least for me) failed to introduce me to a single intriguing actor, but how I started to get intrigued enough to decide to give The Sting a try. 

I'm glad I did because there are a million great things about both the film and its ensemble. Chief among them, Robert Shaw is a terrifying villain. His physical embodiment of the part was so masterful, that I half-believed he trained himself not to blink. It also helps that Charles Dierkop mirrors the gravity of his presence so well as a personal bodygyard. I also think it's interesting to note that Eileen Brennan is downright oozing with sexiness here and this is only seven years removed from her role in Private Benjamin where she's largely an asexual and menacing counterpoint to the happy-go-lucky troops under her command. There's also Robert Earl Jones in a part that treats race as such a non-issue, it almost feels like the part could have been written for a white person. I suppose that's good? But appropriately enough, this is largely about the lead and that's Robert Redford. I always found it odd that Paul Newman and Robert Redford are two actors of roughly equivalent caliber yet Paul Newman has nine Oscar nominations and Redford has one. I just looked it up and it's apparently this movie that Redford has his only Oscar nomination which is fitting since he really steals the show. His character is a guy who has to project confidence for a living, but Redford imbues the role with a definite sense of anxiety layered underneath and that adds a much needed sense of tension.

Lastly, Eight Men Out: I like this plenty as a movie, but I think I love it as an ensemble pick. It just looks so ridiculous on paper: Sherriff Pepper (the silliest character bar-none in the entire JamesBond series) as a baseball commissioner? You have rising stars Charlie Sheen and John Cusack in your cast but you're going to relegate them to supporting roles while having a nobody (D.B. Sweeney) as Shoeless Joe Jackson (the only character I knew of from this chapter in history)? Turns it out it's a far more interesting film to make Joe Jackson more of an uninteresting accessory and honing in on John Cusack as the main character because his character of Buck Weaver did actually have the free agency to at least decide something while Jackson sat on the fence. It's thematically appropriate to have the more charismatic actor steal the thunder. They don't have much Charlie Sheen here but after watching some episodes of Two and a Half Men, I don't mind never seeing that guy act again, though I found it a puzzling from a commercial perspective. Michael Rooker also is a striking image as first baseman Chick Gandil because he has the body type of a jock which is why it's understandable he might not have been cast in much else.

The other actor that I felt glued to here was David Strathairn who is perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in Good Night and Good Luck but who I have come to know on a weekly basis from the SyFy series Alphas (which made my top ten a few years ago) where he plays a Professor X type. It was really surreal to see him play a youthful athletic type and I was really impressed.
I didn't get around to watching Short Cuts, but, hey I've seen seven Robert Altman films at this point, and while I like his style just fine, I couldn't get myself to watch another one of his films because I know so much what to expect. To use a Passover reference, let me ask you the manishtana of movie questions (and feel free to imagine the voice of an 8-year old singing these words): "Why is this Robert Altman film different from all other Robert Altman films?, from all other Robert Altman films?"

The other film I never got around to watching was Dazed and Confused? Are you sure you're not confusing that with Slackers? They seem like the exact same thing?

Adam's response:
There’s nothing wrong with all-star casts in and of themselves, but like anything their worth depends on how they are used.  In 1974, Sidney Lumet directed Murder on the Orient Express, which came earlier on my list.  That worked because the actors although stars were right for their parts and served the story.  However, there were other films in that era, such as The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and other disaster movies, where as you noted the all-star cats didn’t really add much and were more of a marketing gimmick.  Some later Woody Allen films, such as To Rome with Love, felt the same way.   It can be used to mask a mediocre story or production.

By contrast, filling the screen with unknown actors, especially if they are indigenous to that area, can lend a film authenticity.  For example, I recently saw Tanna, set on the remote Pacific Coast Island of that name, where the roles were played by members of a local tribe.  That may be an extreme example, but for Matewan, also earlier on my list, John Sayles said that he cast many actors from areas of West Virginia similar to where the film was set.      

That brings us to Prince of the City, on which we will likely never agree. Lumet cast many unknown New York theater actors.  Many of them were not heard from again in any major way, but I don’t think that takes away from their performances.  For that movie and for those roles they succeeded.   Together, they all successfully portrayed an insular world gradually closing in.    Treat Williams didn’t become the major star he seemed destined to be at one point.   Still here he has both the cockiness and vulnerability to be the tragic hero the film needs.    And the film was not without standouts, including Orbach who fit as a tough sarcastic New York cop so well he would return to it often for the rest of his life, Lindsay Crouse, and the aforementioned James Tolkan.

So let me move to where we do agree.  The Coen Brothers are masters at finding the right actors to bring color to supporting roles.  It started with their first film, Blood Simple, with M. Emmet Walsh as the greedy private eye.    They worked with Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, John Carroll Lynch, Peter Stomare, Ben Gazzara, Jon Polito, Tim Blake Nelson, and so many other That Guy actors.  You could argue that they cast their films like no one else.  Charles Durning in O, Brother Where Art Thou?, as you noted, has fun with Southern archetypes.  He did the same thing in The Muppet Movie as the villain, Doc Hopper.   
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The truth is that Durning is a true supporting actor who made the leading men, and the films, better, whether it was George Clooney in O, Brother Where Art Thou?, Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, or even the Muppets.  I am glad that he led you to The Sting, which was his big break.   Ironically, The Sting is often grouped together with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as both were directed by Gorge Roy Hill, and of course featured Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  But those two films are very different.  Butch Cassidy is a true buddy movie centering on the two title characters.  The Sting, as you noted, has so much more than the two stars.  Someday I need to go back and see more of Robert Shaw’s films, as I have only seen him in four.  The physical embodiment you speak of is both Shaw’s talent and a happy accident.  Shortly before filming Shaw hurt his knee playing tennis.  With little alternative, Shaw made the limp part of the character, which somehow added to the menace.  Besides the actors you note, there’s also Harold Gould, who steals every scene as the elegant Kid Twist, and Ray Walston who performs verbal gymnastics as the fake race announcer.     You had an insightful take on Redford, projecting confidence but with anxiety layered underneath.  He did the same in The Candidate and All the President’s Men.  

John Sayles excelled at ensemble casting, and I could have included much more of his films than I did.  Eight Men Out was such a nuanced, complex take on the Black Sox scandal that it could have only worked with a wide range of talented actors.  Sayles has never relied on star power, and it’s no accident that he relegated Sheen to the background while Sweeney and Cusack did more of the heavy lifting. Before this Cusack had been doing mostly teen films.  Clearly Sayles saw something in him that others missed.  Cusack’s final monologue perfectly captures Buck Weaver’s love for the game and the bitterness at the way he was treated.  Sayles discovered Strathairn and cast him several times.  It looked like Strathairn might become a leading man after Good Night and Good Luck but you get the sense that he prefers to let others have the spotlight.  
Source: AMC.com
Let’s close with your two questions (we need two more to fully merit your Ma Nishtana reference, but there’s one more entry left).  Short Cuts certainly shared the ensemble DNA of many of Altman’s signature films, Nashville in particular.   I included this because each smaller story could have worked as its own film, largely on the strength of the acting.  Altman combines stars such as Jack Lemmon, some of his usual suspects, such as Lily Tomlin and Lyle Lovett, with character actors and others who later Jason Leigh pulls off playing a phone sex line worker getting a caller off while simultaneously taking care of her young kids which such aplomb that it should have gotten her an Oscar nomination 22 years before she finally got one.  

Finally, while Richard Linklater directed both Slacker and Dazed and Confused, both are set in the Austin era, and both feature excellent ensembles, they are not very similar. The former, as noted earlier, goes from one set of characters to the next, never to return.  The latter is more of an American Graffiti type ensemble film, where the characters have their own adventures but they all connect.  Dazed and Confused created the Matthew McConaughey persona while also providing an early showcase for Ben Affleck and Parker Posey.   Linklater filled out the cast with up-and-coming character actors, including Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Joey Lauren Adams, Rory Cochrane and Wiley Wiggins.    Give it a chance.

Best Film Ensembles of All Time Part III: 11-20 Orrin's list

This is Part III of a series in which Adam Spector of Adam's Rib and I count down out top 50 film ensembles of all time. Part I is here and Part II is here. Because Adam and I went into so much detail, we split this entry into two with the other entry here.

Orrin’s List: 20. X-Men 19. Key Largo 18. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World 17. Double Indemnity 16. Bridge on the River Kwai 15. Back to the Future 14. The Great Escape 13. North by Northwest 12. Dead Poets' Society 11. Judgment at Nuremberg

Adam's Response:
Orrin, now that are getting near the home stretch, I’m going movie by movie to make sure each one gets the attention it deserves.  Here’s your #11-20: 

11. Judgment at Nuremberg – You mentioned that you had reservations about the film, specifically how Montgomery Clift took advantage of Clift’s condition by casting him as the mentally disabled castration victim.  Certainly when you watch his performance, you can’t help but thinking of Clift’s 
real life struggles (with alcoholism and mental degeneration following an accident), but I disagree that Clift was somehow exploited.  When director Stanley Kramer offered him the part, Clift offered to do it for nothing.  He ended up agreeing to the minimum salary.  Clift often missed his lines, but Kramer told him he could ad-lib, and frequently reassured him.  According to a Clift biography, Spencer Tracy told him “Just look into my eyes and do it.  You’re a great actor and you understand this guy.  Stanley doesn’t care if you throw aside the precise lines.   Just do it.  Do it into my eyes and you’ll be magnificent.”  Clift did just that, focusing on Tracy during his performance.  Not only was Clift not exploited, but his castmates had his back, another way of demonstrating a strong ensemble.  Clift garnered his last Oscar nomination for this role.  Maximillian Schell was largely unknown in America going into the film but won the Oscar.  In fact this is one of the rare films with two Best Actor nominations: Schell and Tracy.  Throw in Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, Richard Widmark, and a young William Shatner, and this film truly belongs on your list.  I may like your selection more than you do and am only upset that I didn’t include it.             

12. Dead Poets Society – An ensemble piece disguised as a star vehicle.  The film’s marketing focused solely on Robin Williams, as though this was a prep school version of Good Morning Vietnam. Williams is charismatic and funny, but the real stars here are the young men, led by Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles and a young Ethan Hawke.  These actors have a comfort and ease with each other that lends to their believability as classmates.   When I saw this in 1989 I didn’t realize that Norman Lloyd, who played the draconian headmaster, had worked in the Mercury Theater for Orson Welles and then later acted in two Hitchcock films.  Speaking of Hitchcock . . .  

13. North by Northwest – Ensembles don’t come to mind when considering Hitchcock’s films.  Many of them have characters who find themselves isolated, often only interacting with a small number of people.  North by Northwest may be an exception, even though the film’s signature scene is Cary Grant by himself running away from the plane.  Grant’s scenes with Eva Marie Saint sizzle with sexual chemistry.  James Mason serves as almost a mirror image of Grant, as though they were raised by the same parents but one turned bad.  Martin Landau gives his evil henchman so much more than what is on the page, even implying that he may be secretly in love with his boss.  Leo G. Carroll plays an American spymaster as the model of British efficiency.  Joyce Carroll Landis steals every scene she’s in as the overbearing, clueless mother (“Are you trying to kill my son?”)  Kudos, Orrin for digging deeper on this

14. The Great Escape – This is closer to what you traditionally think of as an ensemble film.  Effective mix of American (Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson) and UK (Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum) fitting for a World War II movie.

15. Back to the Future – Another one where I had to look twice, since I usually just think of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.  Still it’s Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson and Thomas F. Wilson who were funny and authentic as younger and older versions of the same character.  Wilson set the standard for playing mean, dumb bullies.  When Chuck Berry died earlier this year I also remembered Harry Waters, Jr. fine turn as Chuck’s fictional cousin Marvin Berry.   

16. Bridge on the River Kwai – This must be the World War II related section of your list, between this The Great Escape, and Nuremberg.  The film stands as a brilliant depiction of the madness that comes from war.  Still even though there’s a huge cast, the only ones that stand out are William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, and of course Alec Guinness.  Guinness certainly deserved his Best Actor Oscar.  His scenes with Hayakawa work in part because they both let you see the grudging respect their characters have for each other underneath the enmity.  Just because it’s a great movie doesn’t always mean it has exceptional ensemble work.  

17. Double Indemnity – Case in point.  To this day, one of the archetype film noirs.  Exquisitely plotted, with crackling, biting dialogue.  Wilder is an underrated visual director, using light and shadow here to create an atmosphere of intrigue and eventually dread.   Still, I don’t remember anyone in the film besides Barbara Stanwyck, Fred McMurray, and Edward G. Robinson.   Yes, they are all at the top of their game.  Stanwyck remains the femme fatale that others are measured against.  But three standouts does not an ensemble make.    If we did that, why not Sleuth, with just Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine?  

18. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World – The film that proves that just because an ensemble looks promising on paper doesn’t make it work on the screen.    It’s a Who’s Who of the top 50s and 60s comedic talent: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, etc.  Plus Spencer Tracy.  Too bad the story doesn’t give them much to do that’s actually funny.  The film is freaking 3 hours and I maybe laughed twice during that time.  They don’t seem to work that well with each other either.    Also, how can you cast the Three Stooges and not have them do anything?  There’s a reason Stanley Kramer didn’t direct a comedy before or since. 
19. Key Largo – You rebounded with this pick.  The confined space where most of the story happens tightens the pressure and brings out the best in the fine cast.   This was the last Bogie-Bacall film, and is less focused on those two then their prior three.  Seeing Bogart and Edward G. Robinson go toe to toe is a treat.  Lionel Barrymore gives the film dignity and moral weight.  But it was Claire Trevor that won an Oscar.  She excelled at playing women weighed down by bad luck and bad choices. 
20. X-Men (2000) – A superhero movie here?  Yes, and it belongs.  Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen bring dramatic heft and gravitas to Professor X and Magneto.  Hugh Jackman became a star overnight through this film.  Then add in Anna Paquin (who already won an Oscar), and Halle Berry, win one who would soon.  Much of the fun comes from the byplay among the mutants.  Jackman and James Marsden have terrific chemistry as frenemies vying for Jean Grey’s love.  Among the humans, Bruce Davison, one of the most underrated character actors around, brings heart and vulnerability to what could have been a standard villain role.  Unlike some of the future installments where some of the actors got lost or overlooked, this one gave all of the key players moments to shine.
Orrin's Response:
Adam, you nailed my reasoning in many instances.

Dead Poets Society is not just about how well the film accomplishes the difficult feat of creating a young group of actors in chemistry, but think of how impressive it is to have  simultaneously discovered Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles and Robert Sean Leonard while they were all in their late teens. Similarly, you're correct that Key Largo for me is about the greatest of different generations sharing the screen as much as it is about the classic Bocall-Bogart and Bogart-Edward G. Robinson pairings at their best. While I’m in agreement with the critical consensus that this isn’t the best Bogart-Bacall pairing or the best gangster movie of all time, it’s a great film and holds a special place in my heart (my grandparents lived not too far from the hotel where this film is set) and I’m glad you share an appreciation.

I think we also agree that Hitchcock doesn't always have a focus on acting--the documentary Hitchcock/ Truffaut emphasized that he wasn't particularly fond of listening to or collaborating with actors-- but North by Northwest is archetypal as far as I'm concerned: Eva Marie Saint is the empowered beauty (more Halle Berry than Britt Ekland if we were to go for a James Bond analogy), Martin Laundau (a personal favorite) is the most memorable of henchmen, Cary Grant's abilities at reactive physical comedy made him the best of Hitchcock's fish-out-of-water heroes, and James Mason is so denobair as the villain.

As for some of the ones you disapprove of:
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The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that earns a place this high on my list because of the performances of four actors: William Holden, as far as I’m concerned, is the most exciting actor of his generation (and if I ever contradict this in past or future discussions, you have permission to beat me with a cane). Every leading man from Jimmy Stewart to Henry Fonda to Gregory Peck had a certain screen persona that they used to carry them through most of their movies with the occasional variation (like Henry Fonda in How the West Was Won).  Holden had leading man charisma but you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to get with him. To see him acting alongside Mr. Chameleon himself, Alec Guinness (in a very focused role, no less), is quite a treat. Additionally, Geoffrey Horne plays a green-eyed private with a palpable sense of fear and naiveté about killing another person. In an epic war movie (particularly one with a British styling), I’ve never seen a character like this: Typically, soldiers are just about marching onwards and forwards for the Queen and all that. Lastly, how can you not appreciate Sessue Hayakawa?  As someone who’s always talking about minority representation (along with nearly everyone else in film criticism), there’s a great deal of history of East Asians treated abysmally on screen that’s been overlooked. What’s more Hayakawa wasn’t a foreign import who had great success in Asian cinema (like Ken Watanabe or Michelle Yeoh) before coming to Hollywood. He had been acting in films since 1914 and experienced a lot of the casting bigotry first hand. He is tremendous here alongside Guinness.

Back to the Future is primarily about the fact that the five leads--Christopher Lloyd, Michael J Fox, Thomas Wilson, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover-- all do great, great work here that, as far as I know, has never been matched in any of their respective careers (although Wilson has a couple great stand-up clips). Whether you’re next greatest film ranges from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Howard the Duck (sorry Lea Thompson for bringing that up), I get the sense that Robert Zemeckis really took the care to pick the absolute best actors for these parts. Evidence of this meticulousness is also reflected by how sacrificed much of the wiggle room in their budget by replacing Eric Stoltz after filming had commenced.

Credit: Q104 Cleveland
As for Double Indemnity and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, I’ll just concede they were bad picks because your arguments were strong enough to convince me otherwise. I remember Jean Heather and Tom Powers as the rest of the Dietrichson clan in Double Indemnity and the shady underworld figures that populate film noirs, but maybe you’re right that it’s too reliant on just those three people. I think that Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson are all extraordinary here, but maybe we should try to have a minimum of four here (you don’t want to exclude, say, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, do you?), and to be fair, Robinson and Stanwyck are great in A LOT of films. I think it’s a pretty awesome achievement that Kramer was able to get all those comic actors in one movie, but you make a good point that he doesn’t necessarily utilize that dearth of talent other than simply putting them in bit roles.

Let me close out with a couple additional questions: X-Men is a film I picked because not just the actors are great, but because it feels like a turning point to comic-book/superhero movies being taken seriously and that is precisely because of the ensemble. To me, the difference between putting say Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando in Superman and Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, and Patrick Stewart in X-Men is that, in the latter, the actors were taking their parts as seriously as a prestige film. Perhaps you might have a bigger familiarity with tent pole movies than myself. Is that an accurate assessment?

Adam's Last Words:
Orrin, I was critical of some of your picks, but not Back to the Future.  In fact, I agree with every point you made.   I was merely stating that I did not immediately think of it as an ensemble film.  When I saw it on your list, I looked back through a different lens, past Fox and Lloyd.  With Glover, Wilson, and Thompson, even smaller bits by James Tolkan as the uptight principal (“Slacker!”) and Harry Waters, Jr, who I mentioned before, this truly belongs.  

With The Bridge on the River Kwai, Horne’s performance did not register for me the way it did for you.  However, I am on board with Holden, who you will see later on my list.  Holden was a more modern leading man, perfect for the 1950s.  He would seem one way on the surface, but always had something going on underneath.  Holden had a certain mischievous charm that blended perfectly into a more weathered, worn performance when needed.  

Intriguing question about X-Men.  Certainly before Stewart and McKellen you had big name stars in comic book movies.  Besides Brando and Hackman, you had Jack Nicholson, Tommy Lee Jones, etc.  In many cases they were playing self-aware villains who were having fun and they acted accordingly.  Yes, Stewart and McKellen played their roles as if they were serious dramatic parts, and that’s in part because they were written that way.  Professor X is part teacher, part civil rights leader, while Magneto sees himself not as a bad guy but as a freedom fighter.  That’s not to take anything away from their performances.   They helped pave the way for the Dark Knight series.    

Credit: Yogadork.com

You have a valid point about Wes Anderson’s work, which are all fine ensemble pieces.  You can make a case for any one of them, and I wouldn’t argue.  In fact, it may be too much of a good thing, where to avoid taking all of them and having it be a huge chunk of the list, I stuck to one.  Granted, that’s not solid logic, and you could justifiably ask me why I picked more than one from other directors but not Anderson.  All of his films have wide ranging ensembles, and he has developed a stellar stock company over the years (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston).  I picked The Royal Tenenbuams for two reasons.  First, it features Gene Hackman’s last iconic performance.    Second, it had the widest and deepest cast.  Not just the big stars, although it had plenty of those – Huston, Murray, Wilson, Danny Glover, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow.  Also lesser known actors such as Anderson mainstay Kumar Pallana.  He performed when he was younger and then Anderson (re)discovered him in his 70s.   Pallana conveyed a sense of having seen everything, while also displaying terrific deadpan comic timing. 

Monday, November 06, 2017

The Orville: Majority Rules Review

This show pretty much falls under “What were they thinking!?” and rather than engage with  it years later on a podcast like “How Did This Get Made” or Nathan Rabin’s “Year of Flops” it’s hard to deny how interesting it is to watch a train wreck as It’s happening. The show’s main crime (other than critics having it out for Seth MacFarlane) is not putting enough jokes in what is supposed to be a comedy. There are also echoes of mirroring Star Trek way too closely but I’ll call BS on that-Galaxy Quest, the occasional Saturday Night Live skit, Thank God You’re Here and 10 Items or Less (off the top of my head) all had pretty exact Star Trek parodies,  and no one cared whether it mirrored the source material too closely.

But yes: The show is mostly boring and oddly focused on a bickering domestic couple at the center without being unaware that they are getting tired. At the same time, it’s kind of nice to re-imagine a version of Starfleet where people will get drunk and pull pranks on each other. The distant cordiality between the seven principals on TNG, and the exponentially greater emotional distance between the senior staff and everyone else on the ship, made for an extremely stuffy adventure.   And hey, Penny Johnson, who was great on Deep Space Nine is here and she’s not awful here.

I’ve skipped over a couple of the episodes but I caught this week (mostly because it was on) and I’d call it the best possible scenario this show could hope for. In other words, it was mildly good. While I think criticism that the show is too close a clone to Star Trek are missing the point of parody, it doesn’t exactly help that this week’s plot has an awful lot in common with the Black Mirror episode starring Dallas Bryce Howard in which society becomes dangerously over reliant on the kind of peer approval enforced through social media channels today. Then again, it was my favorite Black Mirror episode so I was willing to see someone else’s take on it.

In this episode, a crewman named John (I have no idea his rank or position other than sitting on the bridge and pressing buttons, sorry) and some of his fellow crewmates (who all coincidentally happen to be senior staff members) travel down to some version of 21st Century Earth (equally absurd now as it was in the original series) and Jon gets in trouble for grinding on a statue. It’s worth mentioning, if for no other reason than Seth MacFarlane gets a frat-boy reputation, that it would be an overgeneralization to call the grand statue humping emblematic of the show’s lowbrow ethos : It just happens to be a major plot point this week, and it’s kind of funny when you consider that I could never in a million years picture anyone from The Next Generation humping a statue (though it might be a fun twitter poll: Which TNG member came the closest to statue-humping behavior?).

Anyhow, John has to go on one of those public apology tours or he risks a full-frontal lobotomy if he can’t convince the public of the sincerity of his apology on an apology tour. Once again, many of the laughs are genuine because John is so detached from any expectations of sensible behavior or even common sense when going about such a delicate situation. It’s the basis of good parody and when well-done, it’s funny. The show is such a trainwreck that it’s only decently funny, but it was worth my hour.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency Review: First Two Episodes of Season 2

Source: Salon

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency might have gotten unfavorable "the book was better" comparisons, it might have gotten lost in the shuffle, or critics pain didn't like it, but this was one of my favorite shows last year. It was wonderfully bizarre, the characters were outlandish and well-cast (they strike me as inhabiting a universe where everyone’s just a little out of tune, like the types who pop up in TerryGilliam films) and the serialized plot built towards something. But this series is more anthology-like, so it’s really a more a question of whether lightning can strike twice than a continued interest.
Slogging into a serial drama like this can be a reminder that (at least for me), the early episodes can be like homework. You need to absorb the information of seeing and characters before you can properly enjoy those elements intermingling. With this show, we're not at the proverbial drop point in the roller coaster, but it’s getting close.
Dirk Gently desperately needs some forward progress. Like Dwight of The Office successfully demonstrated and Dina on Superstore is failing to do, there’s nothing particularly pleasant about watching an annoying character continue their irritating ways without gradually becoming aware of how annoying they are. We see Todd bending towards Dirk, but that doesn’t fully break the illusion that Dirk is getting any less useless. At the same time, Douglas Adams’ work is rooted in exposing the ridiculousness in our world (or, rather, a slightly off-center fantasical version of it) and Dirk solving crimes while doing godawful detective work is one of those oxymorons this kind of material thrives on. 
Elijah Wood’s screen persona is that of a blank slate a la Tobey MaGuire: His go-to acting move is reacting with wide-eyed wonder with a little more frustration laced in. Elijah Wood has two things characters in his situation ordinarily aren't saddled with: A hint of a stable relationship (with Farrah) and a definitive goal (searching for his sister). Both of these are positive developments. 

There's also Dustin Mulligan (Schitt's Creek) who was an airhead last season is now apparently running some top-secret prison torture operation to extract information out of Dirk Gentley. The other leftover is the holistic assassin Bart (Fiona Dourif) who sounds a lot like Jerry Lewis. There was a certain novelty to her in the first season but it's going to wear thin soon.

So far, it’s hard to tell what’s going on but this is a series that takes relishes in taking a while to connect the dots. I can barely remember anything plot-wise except the character work. The two stand-out characters that keep things interesting so far are an oddball police officer who somehow see things on the same bizarre spectrum of causality as Dirk; and Suzy, who is a submissive housewife and secretary to a white trash husband and corrupt boss that is suddenly on the grips of getting some superpowers.