Wednesday, December 13, 2017

My Week in TV: Mom, American Dad, Orville, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

 Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (AMC)-First three episodes
Step aside, all other shows about stand-up. You think a stand-up comedian playing themselves as a sad sick is novel? You think going all the way back to the 1970s is novel, you schlemiel Ari Gaynor show ( Try an Ashkenazi Jewish 1950’s housewife who kvetches her way to stardom, with Lenny Bruce as a side character, and dialogue stylized courtesy of Amy Sherman-Pallanido (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads) and then come back to me. Raise your hand if you didn’t even know stand-up comedy existed in 1958…my point exactly!

This show is all that and a bag of matzah brie. Yes, it’s a little heavy on the Ashkenazi Jewish stereotypes (and by, the way, mazels to Tony Shalhoub on your recent conversion to Hollywood Judaism, was Alfred Molina taken?) but it also has an endearing cultural specificity and a strong cast. While the show is about comedians, it’s very comfortable with its dramatic beats. The stakes are high – the protagonist goes from being excited about landing the rabbi for Yom Kippur to losing her husband, her home, and getting arrested in the span of a few days—and the episodes so far end on icy cliff-hangers.

The show is feminist but not in a way that hits you over the head but it has more leeway to do so without being cloying as a period piece. There’s less debate that gender norms were pretty crappy in this era, so it’s more easily read as an examination of this decade in all its facets. More so, it’s a testament to the pluck of a woman trying to do something extraordinary when pressed in from all sides. The electric Alex Bornstein (Mad TV, Family Guy) also does great work here.

The Mick (Fox)-The Teacher
Sabrina has a crush on her teacher. Because this is Sabrina, we know she’s going to go after him like she owns him. Because it’s The Mick, we know something disastrous in a boundary-pushing way is going to happen from Point A to Point B. Because a great comedy is about subverting expectations, I can admit to being thrown for a couple big curves.

In this case, Mickey tries to stop Sabrina by wagging her finger at the teacher but he seduces her. That this happens before the episode’s first commercial break is the cleverness of the episode. It’s no longer a sexless comedy of errors (although I’ve often read that ALL screwball comedies are primarily based on romantic attraction without sex) but rather a game of Mickey trying to rub it in Sabrina’s face that she had sex with her teacher and using everything at her disposal to get the teacher to admit it. That and it’s a comedy about a crazy ex-girlfriend from the POV of the confused teacher. The episode also demonstrates the growing rapport between Mick and Sabrina: We’re past the phase where Sabrina thinks she can simply roll her eyes past her aunt’s existence.

The B-plot involves Chip paying Jimmy $200 to enhance his reputation after he gets listed #42 out of 50 among the hottest guys in his grade. The idea of Jimmy charging $200 to a child when he’s living rent-free in his great-grandmother’s mansion for no discernable reason (being an occasional sex partner of Mickey doesn’t seem like enough) just cracks me up. As I said last week, Jimmy adds to the humor of the show but he functionally serves no point in the Moing/Pemberbrook household.

Mom (CBS)-Fancy Crackers and Giant WomenIf a show like “Superstore” can attain semi-respectability by portraying working class people, that audience needs to check out “Mom.” Detailing the comings and goings of an AA group and a mother-daughter pair (Allison Janney as Bonnie and Anna Faris as Christy) within that group, it’s truly about people who have a long way to go before they can achieve relative normalcy.

Case in point: Christy has to apply for law school but the application fees are so high, Bonnie has to cut the internet bill. Sizeable plot holes abound: If the price of an application is going to bankrupt Christy, how big of a hit will the cost of law school be? Do law schools have financial need applications?

I’m personally most curious what most of us would do in the neighbor’s (character actress Amy Hill) shoes if my landlord explained to me that they had to forgo internet for such a noble cause, I’d like to hope most of us would be charitable and just fork it over. The show often asks us to critically examine the lack of breaks that befall people in this echelon of society.

The other plot is all about Jill (Emmy winner Jaime Pressly) and her new weight gain, which has now segued from an excuse for a bunch of fat jokes into an actual emotional moment. Jill is now aware that she’s put on weight. I’m not sure the show handled it particularly delicately, but what’s more pressing to me is the whether the actual line jokes of this show are up there with the rest of golden age TV standards for humor. This show has very sophisticated character work for a multicamera sitcom and the format allows the show to aim for zingy one-liners in a way that single camera comedies would be more reluctant to pull off, but I wonder if those zingy one-liners don’t have room for improvements. 

American Dad (Fox)-The Long Bomb, The Bitching Race, A Nice Night for a Drive, Casino Normale
Since purchasing an episode on a whim last week, I started rediscovering this show and realizing it’s a pretty dependable source of sophisticated humor although it still tends to live or die by the episode.
The “Nice Night for a Driver” sounded like a knight rider parody but was more a retread of the Klauss-Stan relationship. Stan started out as a flanderized aloof unemotional dad who openly disliked certain members of his family (Hailey, Klauss, Roger) but has gradually come around on Hailey (“Long Bomb” is a wonderful example of this) while considering Roger a worthy foil. Klauss is still an outliar for the family but it’s nice they occasionally have a bonding episode.
“The Bitching Race” was a surprisingly enjoyable half-hour despite the curious fact that I’ve never seen the source of the parody “The Amazing Race.” It follows classic sitcom tropes of an aloof dad learning to be more intuitive to his family. It’s ironic that Sean O’Neal, in an essay on the mothership, called Home Improvement (the godfather of the aloof dad sitcom trope) casually misogynistic when shows like American Dad generally have character arcs that spin the other way.
“The Long Bomb” mixes action and humor adeptly enough that I think it’s fair to say Seth MacFarlane doesn’t get enough credit for. The characters introduced solely for this episode – the singing guy on the trapeze, Johnny Concussion, etc—reminds me of one weakness of this show: By being overly dependent on Roger (in an interview, the show runners mentioned they realized the potential of the show when they figured Roger could be the guest star of the week), the show doesn’t have as many recurring characters as some of its cartoon cohorts which requires too much comic buildup for many of the characters we see each week.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (BBC)-Little Guy Black Hair
Watching season two is kind of like when my dad attempts a humorous anecdote at a party or other family gathering. Because he’s my dad and I have a good relationship with him, I want his story to succeed but I also am cringing with embarrassment when he tries to be funny.

DGHDA is undeniably ambitious but when it falls flat—when the female deputy who wears her hat backwards (honest to God, I made a solid effort to look up her name) overemotes, or when someone in the realm of normality has to react to the weirdness of Bart or Dirk-- there’s a cringe to bear. The show can feel tonally jarring, especially now that Dirk and Todd are being thrown into a fantasy novel this season (or as Todd aptly puts it “a murder acid-trip ren-fair nightmare”). There’s also a far-off blackwing plot which provides little of interest unless guys in military outfits speaking in conceptual techno-babble (to borrow a Star Trek term) is your thing.

But lo and behold! Dirk ties everything together in this episode with a rousing speech that pieces together all the disparate parts of the season thus far. About 90% of our “huh?” questions have been solved at this point and the explanation (that Windemoor was dreamed up by telekinetic traumatized kid a few decades back) is actually quite groovy. If only they peppered in the hints a bit more heavily, I might have been more invested at this point, but this hasn’t been the worst investment of a season I’ve had this year. The core commitment of the show to abstractist absurdity is still there. Plus, the growth of Todd as a friend to Dirk and a sibling/caretaker of Amanda has been quite sweet.

The Orville (Fox)-New Dimensions

The last time I reviewed this show was an episode in which John LaMarr (aka the token black guy) got into trouble with the local populance of a social media obsessed planet for humping a statue (honestly, it wasn’t as crude as it sounded). I thought it was the high point of the troubled series to date and went over to the AV Club and one other site’s review of the episode and people couldn’t get over how dumb it was that Lamarr would go out and hump a statue, and my main reaction is: What show did you think you were watching?!

This show has mostly been muddled in its execution, but when it does work, it shows that Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its air of stuffiness, is pretty ripe for mockery. MacFarlane gets a lot of crap from the critical community but he clearly has an intelligent voice and I can see this as a platform that tells solid science fiction stories with a nice comic distance from the TNG format. At the same time, if it were cancelled tomorrow, I wouldn’t lose any sleep.

This week’s episode is another John LaMarr episode and I know I’d be the laughing stock of the critical community if I were writing this for a Rotten Tomato-accredited site, but the episode actually had some salient dramatic moments: LaMarr’s speech about how it’s his responsibility that the group screwed up and that makes him not a leader was actually a powerful and insightful. I’m still not saying this is a good show, but credit where credit is due.

It’s also worth mentioning that they somehow managed to snag Norm McDonald to play the part of a (I’m not making this up) ball of slime who’s up for the position of chief engineer. I can’t ever say McDonald is miscast in anything, so it’s a plus.

This is also a good episode if you’ve gotten tired of Adrianne Palicki’s character being walked all over by the Captain for cheating on her once. Why are these two in a toxic relationship with each other?

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Themes of all 2017 Films I've Seen To Date

All films, even schlock, have thematic messages. In that spirit, I'm challenging myself to see if I can draw out three themes from every film I've watched in 2017. Incidentally, this is also my ranking of these films from best to worst.

1.       Florida Project-Invisibility of the lower class; lower class stretches across color lines; incredible and unexpected capability of children to maintain innocence

2.       Baby Driver-Possibility of redemption; neither criminals nor life in general can be trusted rendering future planning pointless; nature vs nurture (Baby’s influenced by being raised by a deaf man and having no parents, yet has natural ability)

3.       Big Sick-Religious tradition vs. decisions about marriage are never easy; effect of family/parents is inescapable; power of camaraderie/comedy to combat suffering

4.       Dinner with Beatriz-Capitalism as inevitable enemy of good; complicitness vs obedience of social mores; female intuition vs. capitalist-based thought

5.       American Made-The universality and thinness of the American Dream, draconian nature of American bureaucracy; opportunity favors the bold (and perhaps a better chance at fortune as the original proverb states)

6.       Beguiled-Sexuality as a legitimate danger to youthful development; underlying violence behind sexuality; emasculation

7.       Lost City of Z-The pursuit of new knowledge can be worth even more than human life; challenging the Euro-centric view of the third world; sacrifice of greatness (in this case, in terms of being a husband and father)

8.       Murder on the Orient Express-Illegal isn’t always wrong; the ripple effect of an evil act (one man’s kidnapping destroyed so many lives); Inevitability of being caught for a crime (more of a fictional trope than real life)

9.       Logan Lucky-Creating your own luck in the face of socio-economic expectations;  Karma/morally relative universe; challenging red-state stereotypes

10.   Mudbound-Prejudice is cyclic and inherited like poverty; war buddies as a metaphor of understanding through shared experience; the scarring effect of racial hostility

11.   Wind River-Invisibility of Native Americans; the danger of male sexual aggression when left unchecked; Community can be adopted and that can be good

12.   Dunkirk-War makes human life fragile; war as a time and place that creates heroes for those who step up; honoring the greatness of those who fought and contributed to the war effort (if these themes don’t strike you as very complex, it also should be noted, I didn’t think Dunkirk had much to say outside of special effects)

13.   Circle-Beware of utopia; the costs to emotional connection in living your life online; the addictive nature of sharing yourself and the dangerous consequences 

14.   Wonder Wheel-Love and morality are two different spheres (taken to its logical conclusion, Allen argues in favor of wronging someone if you’re following your heart); the promise of a better future as a driving force to get one through the day (it worked positively for Humpty and Carolina and led to Carolina’s downfall); love and jealousy being intertwined

15.   Cars III-How a heroic figure deals with aging; self-determination vs corporate interests; power of self-belief in victory

16.   Wonder Woman-Women as keepers of security; fruitlessness of war; maturation through the classic odyssey (as in leaving your homeland and going into the unknown a la Homer’s epic)

17.   Deidra and Laney Rob a Train-The increase in pressure to succeed when you’re in poverty; the cyclical nature of poverty vs the power of family (in this film, sticking together as a family and being supportive helps them fight poverty); legally wrong vs morally wrong

18.   The House-Legally wrong vs morally wrong; the stifling financial burden placed on the American middle class; the thrill of illegality

19.   Colossal-He who brings peace to himself brings peace to all the universe (quoting a Hebrew prayer); cross-culture cultural consumption as an alien force; redemption

20.   Little Hours-Destructive libido can appear in women as well as men; questioning whether human sexual suppression has matured throughout history; be careful what you wish for  

21.   Get Out-The limits of white allies to the black rights movement; the reduction of blacks in the genre; the American black experience being fundamentally different than the white experience through perception of others

22.   Kong Skull Island-The dangers of the militaristic mindset; the essential goodness of nature (even though, in this case, it’s presented through laughable means); human inclination to fear nature when it’s large and foreboding

23.   Atomic Blonde-The capability of the female as action hero; betrayal as part of human nature; war begets cynicism

24.   How to be a Latin Lover-Valuing love for your family (of birth) over romantic goals; value of sincerity in courting; don’t be defined by age

25.   The Great Wall-Challenging history from a Euro-centric view; contributions of both genders in war; positive power of cultural assimilation (the Matt Damon hero is empowered in war through learning Chinese ways of warfare)

26.   The Discovery-Dark side of scientific progress; possibility of love in dark times; genius is blind (the man who invented the afterlife couldn’t foresee the effects)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Better off Ted: The Importance of Communicationizing

A typo on a company-wide memo dictates that “Employees must NOW insult each other” and off we go to a relatively simple concept that produces a great breeding ground for humor and displays the way this show can juggle humor at multiple levels. This might possibly be my favorite episode of the show not just because it’s the most hilarious at the dialogue level, but because the jokes serve the screwball comedy between Linda and Ted that’s the heart of the show. The slow moving collision of Ted and Linda romantically was stretched out for the entire run of the series and in the interim, the two enjoyed a sweet platonic rapport.

Mirroring these two is the platonic report of Phil and Lem as oddballs in relationship to the world around them. Watching these two conquer humor using math (The sheer volume of wonderful quotes from this episode is so staggering I’d be here all day if I listed every one but let’s just go with this: “Math my friend, she’s always been there for you” “If she ever took physical form, I’d leave my wife and marry her” “Stand in line, my friend”) is priceless.

Speaking of memos, Veronica Palmer starts to feel guilt over the fact that she was promoted to her current position at the expense of another employee, Walter, (Chris Parnell, who was a go-to for guest star roles in the late aughts), whose life has gone downhill as a result. It’s when speaking about this guilt that we see Veronica so devoid of emotions that she comes off as a psychopath. It’s a character trajectory similar in nature to Dennis Reynolds on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and it’s played equally as well here. Veronica’s attempts at an apology lead to guilt sex and just when you start to feel sorry for her (which is pretty immediately), you know that when the time comes to break up with him, she’s going to tear him to pieces with her trademark iciness. Surprisingly, she shows him a little mercy with a nice little corner office. Who knows if Walter (who seems incompetent and only made progress with Veronica because she was guilty) deserves a promotion to a better office, but one of the themes of the show is humanity vs bureaucracy and it’s a nice little touch that Veronica chose to do something oddly human.

The cast has a solid core of five but they rotate in and out characters as needed for the episode. In addition to Chris Parnell, there’s also the shy bespectacled Asian Debbie and the HR lady. They’re all funny characters who gracefully made their marks and exited (at least, as far as I know) but one hopes if the show went past two seasons, we might have seen a return of these guys in an expanded universe sort of way.

Speaking of the “what ifs” if this show continued past two seasons, it’s interesting to wonder if Ted might have gotten more developed as a comic creation. Let me preface this by saying that A) Jay Harrington has done some good work (particularly on “Benched”) as a comic actor and B) the straight man can often be a thankless role. However, there’s some room to be the straight man and add to the comedy (think Dave Foley in “Newsradio”) and there’s some room for improvement here (I know I sound like a kindergarten teacher, sorry).

It’s also interesting to note that all four women in this episode have had or have an unstoppable attraction to Ted. The HR lady drops her guard almost instantly; Debbie apparently is shy because she is tongue-tied in sexual frustration over Ted; Linda has the resolve to intellectually challenge Ted but she never has the resolve to ever pretend she’s not attracted to him; and while Veronica isn’t making googly eyes at Ted, she’s never been emotional anyway. It’s almost as if being superhot is his main character trait (although one could argue that A LOT of women have been painted this way in sitcom TV).

Also, when you stop to think about it, the way Ted doesn’t even acknowledge Debbie’s awkward burst of “WILL YOU GO OUT WITH ME” is kind of cruel. She probably won’t open her mouth in meetings for another year or two out of shame. Poor Debbie.

Star Trek Discovery Episode Review: Lethe

Since experiencing Star Wars fandom firsthand with the audience disappointment in the prequels, I’ve always felt a strange sense of sympathy for George Lucas whose rabid fan base jump on his later mistakes without seeming to appreciate that their whole obsession would never exist without George Lucas in the first place.

Who knows what would have happened to Gene Roddenberry if he lived past 1991?

Perhaps, it takes an outsider to the phenomenon to admit that his original vision seems outdated, na├»ve, and somewhat thin. Like any pop culture phenomenon that’s had a few reinventions, the Star Trek brand has gone in several directions at once, yet even a quality stand-alone film like Star Trek (and for the record, I like both sequels) can be derided by fans of the original simply because it’s different from the (perhaps unrealistically optimistic) version they’re attached to. What those fans might take for granted (let’s assume there’s some heavy overlap between the JJ Abrams series haters and Discovery cynics) is that Star Trek was dying before 2009. Enterprise was a massive flop, Voyager massively overstayed its welcome, and not all reboots were sure things. The series was dying for a new angle.

Discovery does have the same ambition behind it, but perhaps it aims a bit too much for the dark side and although I haven’t seen BSG, it does seem derivative of something else which cheapens the reinvention. An analogy is that some people felt Daniel Craig’s James Bond, while a solid reinvention, was too much a flavor of the moment by borrowing from Jason Bourne. Personally, I’m not sure how much of a need I have for Star Trek in comparison to the version of me in the 1990’s that gobbled up DS9 and gave Voyager a solid chance. For now, I’m taking it episode by episode rather than committing to a full season.

It’s possible that “Lethe” was the one that will hook me. It’s the first time a cliffhanger occurred that made me want to know what’s next. For a long time, Star Trek was a show that relied on the same molds (the curious outsider, the family man or woman, the by-the-book officers, the Captain who wrestles with morality the most) and there’s a lot of new here.

The lower deck angle with Sylvia is getting progressively better but the senior staff isn’t particularly present outside of Saru and Stamentz, considering Burnham is sort of a highly trusted temp at this point. There is a guy in sick bay who Stamentz was sort of hate-flirting with, but I’m not sure if he’s THE doctor or just a doctor. Because of that, it’s nice that we have a new crew member in Ash Tyler (either the actor or the character’s name, I’m too lazy to look it up now) join.
There’s also a sexy sex scene which hit me completely by surprise: I didn’t get a sexual vibe from those two (won’t spoil it) at all. There’s still a disconnect between how interesting the show thinks Lorca is and how interesting he actually is but provided the right story arc, it’s possible he could carry the show. What’s interesting to note is that Lorca might be pretty low on the anti-hero scale because his redeeming qualities are mostly about how he might win the war in a Machiavellian way and viewers at home might not care that much about winning a war as it seems hostilities with other alien races are fairly constant in the Star Trek universe. Why didn't Picard or Sisko compromise their principles completely if it was an option for Lorca?

Dirk Gentley's Holistic Detective Agency: Start of Season 2

This show 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 Terry Gilliam 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.

So far, I have no idea what to expect and the exposition is more like homework. You need to absorb the information of seeing and characters before you can them intermingle, but then again that's standard (at least for me). We're not at the proverbial drop point in the roller coaster, but it’s getting close.

Dirk Gentley 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.

So far, it’s hard to tell what’s going on and this is a series that 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.

Futureman: Natal Attraction Review

This loopy time travel comedy doesn’t reach the levels of dumb absurdity that the recently cancelled Adam Paley vehicle “Making History” reached, but apples to oranges. This show comes to us via Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg so it’s got its share of sophomoric stupidity along with a typical Seth Rogenesque hero-an aimless schlub of a man child- at the center. On the other hand the show has its moments and is versed in genre conventions at a level that’s more Dan Harmon than what you’d expect from Rogen and Goldberg.

This week, Josh Futterman relives the icky stuff from "Back to the Future" as he encounters his mom and dad at the party where they meet and tries to not get in the way but ends up causing more damage through his oedipal sex appeal a la Marty McFly. Without spoiling things, this episode really crosses a moral line into grossness. Whether it’s pushing the envelope or just being gross for the sake of gross is a fine line that separates frattish humor from comedy with a universal appeal. In this case, it’s a close call: At least Josh is a strong enough comic character (mostly through an intriguing mix of blank idiocy and occasional competence) to pull off such moments.
What makes things a bit lighter is that the "fun" part of this episode is presaged by the more plot-important part of Futterman convincing Kronish to change his path.
In the interim, Wolfe falls in love with the 1980’s and somehow becomes a rock star (I would’ve rewatched or at least read a synopsis to figure out how exactly this happened but is there a point?) and Tiger hatches a plan to get to him by recruiting some die hard teenage fans. Tiger and Wolfe are both defined by being hard-as-nails which means that the highest comic potential is with their interaction with some of the past’s softer figures of which tweeny bopper fans fall at the lower end of the totem pole. Eliza trying to turn the teens into a dystopic army is fun but they don’t stick with the premise too long.

Lady Dynamite: Season 2 Review

Last year, I found this one of the most multi-layered and deep comedies of the year (it was my #4 overall). Maria Bamford is unhinged in a way that is both beautifully raw and leads to the possibility that anything can happen. She is not just a great stand-up comic but one whose stage persona (she does voices, she establishes personality very quickly) translates very easily into a TV show. This season’s lost a little edge from last year on the humor front.
Last year, a lot of the fun and bizarre came from the great premises and trickled down in all sorts of great ways down to the dialogue level. Some of the last year's premises includ Maria Bamford dating an extremely ambiguously bisexual person who thought he had license to cheat on a monogamous boyfriend while a talking dog (who sounds like Warner Herzog and is still a running gag here) tries to talk her into not giving up her body so easily; trying on a classy-sounding voice for an entire episode because a new love interest is only attracted to her that way (a plot that is sold by Bamford’s god-like voice over agility) and becoming a spokeswoman for a multinational corp and “doing good” by cheerily educating Mexican people on avoiding the evils of unionizing.
For comparison, there’s another friend plot involving assistant (Lennon Parham) who Maria's new boyfriend (a very un-Hollywoodish Olafur Darri Olaffson) alienates during a night of karaoke bowling. The karaoke bowling is just as bad as it sounds as Parham sings Bob Marley while bowling and gets so caught up in the signing that she throws the ball across several lanes. It’s a wonderful sight gag. It’s followed up in the next episode by a wonderfully awkward scene in which Paul Scheer plays Gayle, a possibly transgender shaman/lawyer who makes Maria and her boyfriend do absurd things in a coffee shop as a sign of redemption. Both these moments are hilarious, but those might be the only two things I’ll remember a week from now and last season was wall-to-wall funny.

Other episodes include an “am I ready for commitment” episode at the start and an overbearing mother episode that are both just too typical to have flown in the first season. The best stand-alone episode stars Judy Greer as an accountant who reveals a financial discrepancy that results in a bounced check to Burt Ben Bacharach (Fred Melamed) who reacts with the sort of quiet panic that makes his character priceless. It’s a nice little mini-mystery but it’s not wall-to-wall funny which is what defines most of this season's shortcomings.
Maybe I was just setting myself up for high expectations?

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Greatest Film Ensembles of All Time Part V: Adam and Orrin count down Their Top 10

This is the final installment 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 and here you will find Parts III and IV. Thanks for reading everyone, it was a labor of love (Note: This post will be updated and edited as we go)


Murder on the Orient Express

Finally, we arrive at  . . . THE TOP TEN.  First your list Orrin.  You have some staples here, half of which are on my list, while others made me rethink old assumptions.  Unfortunately, I can’t make a strong case against any of them.     

10. Chicago (2002) – Much of the media attention with Chicago focused on how it was bringing back the musical. But it didn’t take too long for the actors to garner the recognition they deserved.  Catherine Zeta-Jones won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, while Renee Zellweger, Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly all garnered nominations. Zeta-Jones’s extensive background in musical theater shines through in her numbers.  Zellweger does not have the same chops as Zeta-Jones, but holds attention by subverting her good girl persona.  Latifah, although she appears sparingly, makes the most of her brassy singing voice.  Reilly, as he often does, plays the everyman to perfection.  You will see him in my top ten.  Richard Gere was a disappointment, especially because the sleazy lawyer part was originally offered to John Travolta.  Not only would Travolta have fit the part to a tee, but few actors in the last 40 years could dance onscreen as thrillingly as he did.  Gere nailed the shifty charm of the lawyer, but you could see the director, Rob Marshall having to work around his limited dancing ability.       

Orrin’s response: An interesting alternative take with Travolta substituting for Gere, but the part wasn’t about natural ability but rather razzle-dazzling your way around it. To some degree, my favorite ensembles are coinciding with my favorite films of all time, and Chicago certainly wouldn’t rank that high (though it is a great film), but I do believe lightning really struck with this ensemble all the way down to all the cell block tango girls (more Lucy Liu please!) and Taye Diggs as the announcer. I also think it was no accident that this film was credited with bringing the ensemble back because Zellweger really conjures that kind of classic era leading lady spunk (albeit a little darker) as do Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah.

9. A Prairie Home Companion -- #39 on my list.  As we have noted earlier, Robert Altman defined his work with wide and deep ensembles.  You will see another film of his on my top
 How fitting that Altman’s swan song, which hit theaters only a few months before his death, had such a strong cast even by his high standards:  Meryl Streep, Kevin Kilne, Tommy Lee Jones, (Altman regular) Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly (back-to-back on your list), and Virginia Madsen.  And of course Garrison Keillor playing himself.  The ensemble succeeds not through its star power but in the effortless way they all gel, as if they had been a stock company working together for years.  The radio series succeeded through wit and warmth, but also through familiarity.  Lake Wobegon was a place we all felt we knew.  Keillor’s screenplay, Altman’s steady hand, and the immense group of actors carried over that familiarity on screen.

Orrin’s Response: Honestly, Meryl Streep here was my favorite performances of the entire year in any category, and it wasn’t even among her 20+ nominations. The Streep-Tomlin-Lohan clan felt very authentically Minnesotan which went a long way towards mixing in with the Garrison Keillor vibe.  When we discussed our first Robert Altman entry on the list (The Player), we discussed how he had a stock company of players that served him well, but looking at how Prairie Home Companion and Nashville only have one actor in common and how he’s made ensemble films work with entirely different cast lists, it says a lot about how Altman can manage great ensembles regardless of who’s in them.  I wrote about Robert Altman and the film as his last on ScreenPrism

8. From Here to Eternity – Not on my list but it certainly could have been.  A very eclectic mix including actors with classical training such as Deborah Kerr, largely self-taught actors such as Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra, and Method-trained Montgomery Clift.  Ernest Borgnine steals every scene he’s in as the brutal Sgt. “Fatso.” Donna Reed played against her wholesome image by portraying a “hostess” (a prostitute in the book).  One of a small number of films to get a nomination in all four acting categories, with Sinatra and Reed winning for Supporting Actor and Actress.

Orrin’s response: Like Grand Hotel, it certainly helps that From Here to Eternity is among my dozen favorite films of all-time or so.  Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift are among the most magnetic stars of their generation, so this is a great introduction on these two. Similarly, there’s a younger generation who probably only knows Frank Sinatra as a singer or Deborah Kerr as the stuffy lady from The King and I. They would do well to see this film as well.

7.  Star Wars – When I saw this on your list, I had to pause for a second.  Star Wars is part of my DNA, having been my favorite film since I was four years old.  I have written about it extensively:  (,,,,  Yet I never considered it an ensemble piece, perhaps in part because I focused on the story and the special effects.  Perhaps it’s also because the cast discussions would range from disdaining the film (Alec Guinness) to playfully joking about the film (everyone else).  When I did think about the actors, it was often on one performance, such as Carrie Fisher.   You including Star Wars made me take a different look at a film I know so well.  Guinness gave Obi Wan Kenobi the gravitas needed to make you believe in the Force and the Jedi.  The interplay among Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill propel the film’s second act.   James Earl Jones’s deep, threatening voice fills the screen as Darth Vader, complementing Peter Cushing as the more traditional villain.  You never see Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewie) or Kenny Baker, but their physical performances should not be overlooked.   So, yes, this most certainly belongs on the list.

Orrin’s Response:
I’ve had many debates with friends over whether Kenny Baker is an actor or more of an earlier version of a motion capture stand-in, and I’m not well-acquainted on Anthony Daniels’ involvement to know I it was just a human with robot paint or a man in a costume, but those two do make a cute pair. But I was really thinking about the actual live actors in the film here. I would count Billy Dee Williams in this entry as well, but the main five or six actors- Fisher, Guinness, Hamill, Ford, Cushing, and James Earl Jones-really combine a great mix of old and new enthusiasm. The formula for the Star Wars prequels and the JJ Abrams-led sequels copied the same formula-- combining unknown and known, procuring talent on both sides of the pond—with varying degrees of success.
6. Grand Hotel -- #34 on my list.  We noted this film earlier, which is arguably the signature ensemble film of the classic studio era.  Maybe someday we’ll get a prequel to “Feud” about how Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford clashed on set.   

Part of the idea of a great ensemble is the idea of balancing out the parts with a deft touch. I think Grand Hotel is the epitome of such an effort. The storylines are all beautifully told in their own way (whether tragic, tragicomic, or dramatic in a life-affirming sense). It is a bit disorienting watching Joan Crawford in Feud as a diva while watching her here as the counter-diva to Greta Garbo.

5. Singin’ in the Rain – Another film that I had to reconsider, as I immediately think of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.  But then I realized I was falling into an easy trap: just thinking of the film as a musical, when it’s also a brilliant comedy.  Many of the laughs come from Jean Hagen as the tin-voiced diva Lina Limont. Not only was she very funny, but she actually dubbed her singing voice for Reynolds who was playing the actress dubbing Limont.  Add in Cyd Charisse and Rita Moreno (nine years before West Side Story), and you have a strong ensemble.  Maybe higher than I would rank it in this category, but good choice.

Orrin’s Response: A good sign of your higher level of devotion to Star Wars than me is your online post mourning Carrie Fisher’s passing whereas I felt the loss of Debbie Reynolds significantly more. Going through her filmography or watching her in interviews or just looking at backstage photos, Reynolds struck me as someone who was specifically made for the MGM musical era.  She struck me as a compulsive performer and I couldn’t think of anything more fitting for her outsize personality than seeing Singing in the Rain become appreciated as the greatest American film musical in history. It’s not just Reynolds but it’s a tribute to O’Connor, Kelly, and Hagan as the archetypical sidekick, leading man, and villainess respectively. Of course Cyd Charisse is just an added bonus.

4. Doubt (2008) – We debated earlier about how many actors it takes to qualify as an ensemble.  If a film garners four acting nominations, it qualifies.  The best part is that many of the scenes are simple two character dialogue. When Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn square off, you can feel Meryl Streep and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman playing off each other, making each other better.  The same goes for the brilliant, understated scene between Streep and Viola Davis.  The latter got one of the Oscar noms despite only ten minutes of screen time, because she made those minutes count.  There’s not much you know on paper about Davis’s character.  Davis fills in the backstory of a woman who has had to make sacrifices and tough choices living in a segregated world. 

3. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) -- #18 on my list.  This film had to have a brilliant ensemble, or it would have failed miserably.    David Mamet’s script is like red meat for actors, and boy do they chew on it.   As with Doubt, the actors’ performances build off each other.  Al Pacino had the showier role, doing monologues in a way only he could.  Alec Baldwin’s cool contempt embodying capitalism at its cruelest, made the “Always be closing” scene into an iconic film moment.  However, its Jack Lemmon’s haunting work, as the has-been who doesn’t realize his time is up, that has the most staying power.  James Foley’s claustrophobic direction echoes Lumet’s work in 12 Angry Men, a film from earlier in your list, and squeezes the most out of one of the most talented cats ever assembled.  

Orrin’s Response: With Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin on one side and Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Al Pacino on the other, this film feels like the best of two generations meeting in the middle. Also worth noting, a poll on best ensembles I did reveals 12 Angry Men as the second best ensemble film of all time.

2.   Murder on the Orient Express (1974) -- #36 on my list.  Very timely choice with the remake on the way.  As we have discussed earlier, this is one of the times where the “all-star” cast succeeded.  The stars fit their parts, not the other way around.  Sidney Lumet offered Ingrid Bergman the bigger part of Princess Dragomiroff, but Bergman wisely insisted that she play the nanny, even though she has little screen time.   History proved Bergman right as she won Best Supporting Actress.  Bergman’s decision exemplifies the focus on character among the whole cast.  Kenneth Branagh’s team has some massive shoes to fill.    

Orrin’s Response: I honestly have no idea why Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar over Wendy Hiller, Rachel Roberts or Lauren Bacall, but that’s part of what makes this film a great ensemble. It’s full of scene stealers. On top of the very solid reasoning you provide about how the cast fits their parts to a T, it’s a great film to introduce anyone wanting to be introduced to the classics as so many great actors of note come here.  The other thing I want to note here is that the ensemble isn’t just about fitting a lot of actors under a single marquee and having them live up to their performances. It’s also about a capable lead. We can talk about Hiller, Roberts, Bacall, Sean Connery, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave and all the other stars BUT this film wouldn’t be considered a classic if Albert Finney didn’t make the lead such an engaging character to follow. When Kenneth Branagh chewed the scenery on the extremely recent release in some parts, you had more appreciation of the way Finney did this literary character such justice.

1. Network -- #5 on my list.  Sidney Lumet again.  Maybe he never received enough credit as an actor’s director. William Holden, who we have discussed earlier, keeps the film grounded no matter how fantastical it gets by the end.   He and Faye Dunaway have very different styles, but this works perfectly, as their characters come from opposite vantage points.  Their scenes together manage to be romantic, funny, and in the end sad.    We all remember Peter Finch as the “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale, but Beale’s post breakdown mania works because Finch was also convincing as the pre-breakdown Beale, a beaten-down shell of a once principled newsman.    Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight only have one scene apiece, but their riveting work completely commands the screen.  Straight won an Oscar despite appearing for just five minutes.  Like any great ensemble, the lesser known actors also distinguish themselves, particularly Marlene Whitfield as the underground revolutionary Lauren Hobbs, and Arthur Burghardt as the terrorist leader “the Great” Ahmad Kahn.  My #1 also happens to be a 70s film starring Robert Duvall.
Beatrice Straight, Network

Orrin's Response: No disagreements here. You perfectly summarized everything I love about this film and it's cast. As I previously said, William Holden was arguably the most exciting actor of his era and this is his swan song. 


1. The Godfather (1972)-I was kind of hoping for a bold, original, and surprising choice from you but I always had a feeling you might pick a classic and it’s hard to debate this film. Marlon Brando’s role here has been caricatured quite a bit (several characters from Analyze This, Dom Pigeon from Animaniacs’ Goodfeathers sketch and the DomBot from Futurama all come to mind) so it’s hard to even remember the original from the copycats. I don’t know which of the three sons struck you the most, but watching James Caan in that film, you wished he had a better career. Sure, he was great in “Misery” but it seems Kathy Bates got all the credit. I’ll write a bit more in your sequel entry.

2. Pulp Fiction (1994)-Pulp Fiction is quite possibly the definitive film of the 1990s and I’ve never seen a poll of that decade in film that has Pulp Fiction lower than three. 

However, I did a poll on best film ensembles that did rank Reservoir Dogs ahead of Pulp Fiction (as you recall, my only Tarantino film in the top 50 is Django Unchained for the way the characters and actors fit so perfectly)  and that makes a lot more sense to me. Pulp Fiction has pairings and concurrent stories whereas Reservoir Dogs really casts the scrappiest of character actors while also having a tighter more theatrical series of interactions between the same group of people throughout.

In a recent Hollywood Roundtable interview, Quentin Tarantino talked about directing a theatrical version of The Hateful Eight when he retires from directing, and that makes a lot of sense, because Tarantino’s stories are highly theatrical and moving his narratives away from an arena that are defined by special effects, would really do service to his dialogue. I feel like films like Diner (ironically, Tarantino got early comparisons to Levinson when he was starting out) or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff with group scenes can really thrive in an ensemble sense and that’s what Reservoir Dogs is.

I suppose it also makes a difference for me that I’ve never particularly been attached to any of the actors in the film.  Uma Thurman seems cold and off-putting across several genres (although to be fair, I hear she takes the badass babe trope to a new level in Kill Bill).

John Travolta seems a little weird and has significantly watered down his brand by being in nearly every bad action film I saw in the late 90s and early 00s. This is significant because by I first watched Pulp Fiction in a film class in 2002 after enduring some bad Travolta films so “Travolta in an action film again” was not a great tagline.

Samuel L. Jackson is widely respected as a great character and I like him but I don’t love him the way I would, say Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti or Lawrence Fishburne.

Lastly, I have tons of appreciation for Bruce Willis for his taste in directors. When it was easy for him to just act in action films, he took risks to work under Terry Gilliam and M. Night Shyamalan. However, I think it’s only with Wes Anderson and Moonrise Kingdom did I feel like he was really doing something different and that was nearly two decades after Pulp Fiction

As I debated with you in Big Lebowski/Fargo and Citizen Kane/Magnificent Ambersons, I wonder if you’re conflating the better film with the better ensemble.

3. Airplane (1980)- You’re number one choice was disappointingly unoriginal but I have to give you credit for surprising me quite a bit with your fondness for comedy and Richard Linklater films in particular (I never hear you discussing that director)

This is ironic since I had extremely high placement for Airport which this film as a parody of. When watching the recent John Lithgow television comedy Trial and Error, there was a woman with a minor role (a psychic jury member) who I instantly recognized because she had such a distinctive flalr: Apparently her name was Julie Hagerty and I remember her well because she made a strong impression with Airplane. She was appealing enough to make the love story work, but she also sold the absurdity like a straight man (or woman in this case).

Honestly, I can’t remember anyone else in the film (except Leslie Nielsen and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) but I invite you to educate me on all the other stand outs.

4, Nashville (1975)-Considering no other director is as synonymous with the ensemble film, I think it’s fitting to include an Altman film in the top 5, and this film is as rich as Murder on the Orient Express (the film I consider the gold standard)  with great character  actors which. I could see a good argument for people calling it the greatest ensemble film ever. Is there a single unheralded actor from that decade who isn’t in the film in a meaningful way? A few people on my poll said this was the greatest ensemble film of all time and I’m not surprised.

5, Network (1976)-I had it as my #1 and you articulated the film’s brilliance so well I didn’t even feelt he need to elaborate on it.

6, The Usual Suspects (1995)-This is my favorite surprise of yours in the top 10. While this film currently ranks #27 all-time on IMDB, I still feel like it’s often forgotten in the shuffle.

Like a great ensemble film, it has a lot of group scenes and group interplay between a number of actors who are all on relatively equal footing.

I was too young to watch Kevin Spacey’s films in 1995 but Damien Bona’s essential book Inside Oscar 2 talked about Spacey being rewarded for the Oscar this year because he was breaking out with four pretty high-profile roles in a single year. He was either the lead or the one with the showiest role in Usual Suspects, The Ref, Seven, and Swimming with the Sharks (similar to how Patricia Clarkson got the National Board of Review award in 2003 not just for Pieces of April, but Dogville and the Station Agent as well). Having watched all these films in retrospect, I can only imagine the cumulative effect.  Even a relatively unambitious film like The Ref-in which Dennis Leary kidnaps a family and gets caught up in their melodrama-seems like high theater in Kevin Spacey’s hands.

Still, I think Spacey isn’t just part of  part of a whole in what gives “Usual Suspects” it’s status as a great ensemble film and not. The late great Pete Postlethwaite does some great work here but I think it’s the criminals- Kevin Pollack, Gabriel Bryne, Benicio Del Toro, one of the other Baldwin brothers, and Spacey in flashbacks -- who does the heavy lifting.

7. The Godfather, Part II (1974) Godfather Part II stands defiantly on many Best of Lists as the only sequel. It was the only sequel to be included on AFI’s top 100 list despite the fact that Empire Strikes Back is often considered one of the 4 or 5 best films of the 1980’s and the one that really took the franchise to a deeper level. Perhaps, inclusion of The Godfather II is a way of sending a message that sequels aren’t always derivative. I’ve only seen the first and about half of the third, so I’m not in a position to comment (and bring on the “You’ve Never Seen _____! How Dare you” comments) but perhaps the best way to compare the two is to talk about the differences in cast lists.

The original has Marlon Brando and Al Pacino as the main characters with John Cazale and James Caan as the two other sons with Talia Shire, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton in big roles. Other sizable parts go to Gianni Russo, Al Lettieri, Tony Giorgio, and Abe Vigoda.

The sequel’s biggest subtraction is Marlon Brando and greatest addition is Robert De Niro as the biggest editions. Michael V Gazzo (no idea who he is) and Lee Strasberg (perhaps the best acting instructor of all time) also garnered academy award nominations. Going down further on the list, we see the great Danny Aiello (who had an extensive theater career and had scene-stealing performances in The Professional and Do The Right Thing) and Bruno Kirby who is best known for comedic rules in the 80s including a lighter take on the mob drama in The Freshman, which was ironically one of Marlon Brando’s last roles.

8. Boogie Nights (1997)-Never saw this one. But I’m about as familiar with it as one can be for not having seen the film because the characters and lines have been referenced so often. The scene in which Philip Seymour Hoffman tries to seduce Mark Wahlberg’s character (and I even know his name: Dirk Diggler) because it was played on a VH1 special and parodied by the CollegeHumor YouTube series. So as someone who’s familiar with the film in one sense and not the more important sense (having actually watched it), I can completely see the reasoning behind it. Besides, all you have to do is look at the list of cast names. The two greatest character actors of the 2000s, John C Reilly (whose comedic talents were not really known to the public until 2006 with Talladega Nights) and Philip Seymour Hoffman along with Don Cheadle and William H. Macy (who would probably land in most people’s top ten). Julianne Moore is among the singularly most talented actresses of her generation and Mark Wahlberg seems like what must have been quite a risk at the time and it worked.

I have little familiarity with Burt Reynolds movies from the 80s like Smokey and the Bandit but I’m aware he had a sizeable niche in moviedom during that time period and it must also have been a nice moment for his fans to see him get nominated for Oscar and BAFTA that year and win a Golden Globe.

9. Casablanca (1942)-Since word space is at a premium, let’s skip this one since we know it’s a classic.

10. Almost Famous (2000)-My favorite thing about this film’s ensemble is all of the hidden gems you might not have realized on first viewing. Zooey Deschannel is underpromoted here as the protagonist’s sister and, considering her reputation as the reigning queen of quirkiness, it’s kind of odd seeing a film where the Manic Pixie Dream Girl role goes to someone other than her in Kate Hudson. While Hudson does very well with the part, I often wonder if Deschannel could have run with it even more if she had the career clout to command a bigger role when this film was cast. But if I was ever convinced that a director went back into a time machine and snagged a bunch of actors who he wanted to work with before their asking prices were too high, check out all the smaller parts: We have Noah Taylor, Rain Wilson, and Jay Baruchel, Michael Angarano (The Knick), Jimmy Fallon, Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), and even podcaster Marc Maron.My favorite performance, however, is Frances McDormand and I would even argue that, more than anyone else, she makes this film great in a way that Cameron Crowe’s later works (I wrote an essay for this at ScreenPrism here) were bogged down from accomplishing because he tends to write the same kinds of characters over and over and that includes overly flighty female characters (see Susan Sarandon’s bizarre yet forgettable performance in Elizabethtown for evidence of how he writes mother  characters). As the film is semi-autobiographical, Crowe modelled the role after her mother and when Crowe’s mother visited the set, Cameron  tried to keep McDormand and Mrs. Crowe from interacting so his actress wouldn’t be tainted by the real-life subject. He was unsuccessful in preventing the two from lunching together, but I have a feeling it didn’t matter, because McDormand had a pretty firm viewpoint of how she wanted to play the character in a way that seems more McDormandesque than Cameron Crowe

Lastly, it’s worth noting that good ensembles often (but not always) are anchored by a solid center. Patrick Fugit felt like much more than a child actor here and while he didn’t follow any trajectoty from child actor to star, he’s still a working actor. We could make a pun here and say he’s alrost famous, but I believe that Fugit is doing what he wants to do.

The Godfather at #1 might not be the most original choice, but I stand by it.  Like Network, your #1 pick and my #5, The Godfather is a classic that’s remained in the public discourse since its release.  The Godfather remains a master class of casting in both the larger and the smaller roles.  Brando’s performance has been parodied, even by himself in The Freshman, but never equaled.  Look past the mannerisms and see how, as Don Corleone, Brando listens to the other actors.  The Don is constantly evaluating and sizing up who is talking to him. 

The other leads became stars from this movie, almost as a group.  Coppola believed in rehearsal and had the actors get to know each other and eat dinners together before and during shooting.  The cast has an ease and naturalness with each other, particularly James Caan, John Cazale, Al Pacino and Talia Shire as the Corleone sons and daughter.   Pacino gives Michael Corleone a consistent steeliness, while also evolving his character from the outsider to the ruthless heir apparent.  His performance in the restaurant before Michael shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey is a textbook example of conveying everything while saying nothing. 

What sets this film apart, is that every single actor who isn’t an extra makes an impression.  In the opening scene Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera grabs the audience just through him telling a story to the Don.  The hurt, anger and frustration illustrate why people came to the Don in the first place.  And Corsitto is only in one more scene.  But he’s not alone.  Whether it’s Al Lettieri as the scheming Sollozzo, John Marley as the crass Jack Woltz, or Alex Rocco as the doomed Moe Greene, they all stand out.  I could name ten other examples easily.   Maybe it’s not the most original choice, but it’s the only choice for me.

I could say many of the same things about The Godfather, Part II.  Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, and Lee Strasberg all create vivid characters that add to the tapestry.  Robert De Niro, as the younger Don Corleone, somehow manages to echo Brando while also making the character his own.  John Cazale builds off what he started in the first film.  Cazale, who died young and only made five films, was so well respected by his fellow actors largely because he was unafraid to play weak men.   Poor Fredo is not any stronger here, but Cazale explodes with impotent rage.  His “cards on the table scene” and attempted reconciliation Michael becomes so heartbreaking mostly because Cazale finds the humanity and even the sweetness in this pathetic character.

Your initial criticism of Pulp Fiction was that it did not have the same dynamic as Reservoir Dogs, or The Hateful Eight for that matter, where you have a large group in a small space.  I have nothing against Reservoir Dogs, which could have easily been on my list.  Yes, having the same group of people interact with each other most of the movie can certainly demonstrate an effective ensemble, but it’s far from the only way.  Pulp Fiction has many different pairings, and while the whole cast may not be in the room at the same time, you can say that about may other films on both our lists.  Travolta may not have had a great career for the past 15 years, but so what?   He has brilliant chemistry with both Samuel L.  Jackson and Uma Thurman, and the fact that he can dance plays dividends in the iconic Jack Rabbit Slims scene.  Christopher Walken has one scene, which is just him telling a story into the camera, but you can’t take your eyes off him.  Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are so much fun as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny that you almost wish they had their own movie.  Harvey Keitel is the epitome of cool as the wolf, and you already addressed Willis. 

Still, when my friends and I saw the film for the first time, we could not stop talking about Jackson.  He commands every scene he is in, with an unrivaled power and intensity.  As Jules, Jackson can be funny in a conversational way.  But when he has to “get in character” you can see how Jules can dominate and intimidate through sheer personality.  

If you do want to look at Pulp Fiction through an ensemble lens, rewatch the Mexican standoff in the diner.  The characters played by Jackson, Travolta, Roth and Plummer are all in different places.  Yet the four actors gel perfectly, playing off each other and effortlessly guiding the scene to where it needs to go while revealing something about each person. 
We are on more common ground with  Airplane!, and thankfully so.   The film remains one of the most relevant examples for how fine ensemble work is not relegated to “serious” movies.   You noted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Leslie Nielsen.  The latter completely reinvented his career, paving the way for The Naked Gun.  Many others also played off their personas to great laughs.  Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges played their roles completely straight, with Bridges laying the groundwork for his work in the Hot Shots! movies.  But the capper is Barbara Billingsley, the mom from “Leave it to Beaver,” the picture of white bread wholesomeness, announcing “I speak jive” and then doing just that.

For the sake of time and sanity, I’m not going to cover the films where we essentially agree, although it’s interesting you focus on Deschanel in Almost Famous.  Reportedly she auditioned for the Penny Lane role.  It’s hard to argue with Crowe’s decision, given the fine work that Kate Hudson turned in.  And we could be thankful that Crowe still saw something in Deschanel, who turned what could have been a stock big sister character into a vibrant force.  I just saw Frances McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.  The maternal ferocity she brought to her character there was as if she had taken what she had done in Almost Famous and cranked it up to 11. 

Orrin, please see Boogie Nights.  Right now.   Paul Thomas Anderson is a great admirer of Altman, which is evident in the casting and performances here.    You touched on Reilly and Hoffman.  I’ll add four other of our best character actors, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Melora Walters and Alfred Molina.  Anderson got Reynolds to go to depths he hasn’t been to either before or since.    I had hoped it would be the start of a second act for Reynolds.  While that wasn’t to be, it does not take away from his work in this film.  Wahlberg was a risk as you noted, still known more for his underwear ads and “Marky Mark” than his acting, but he had a strange innocence that lent itself to Dirk Diggler.  You’re right about Moore, who makes average films better and good films phenomenal.   You can’t be an authority on ensembles and not see this film. 

You asked me what I learned Orrin.  Compiling my list, reviewing yours, and our discussion helped me better understand that there’s no one formula for a great film ensemble.  Movies with a big sprawling cast certainly lend themselves to being viewed through an ensemble lens.  That’s even truer with directors such as Robert Altman or Wes Anderson, for whom ensembles are a calling card.  Some of your picks in particular illustrated that even a smaller group, if talented enough and in the right hands, can be just as memorable.  Together we also showed how ensembles in genre pictures, including comedy sci-fi and fantasy should not be overlooked.  For example, you helped me reexamine two of my favorites, Star Wars and Back to the Future, and realize that, in addition to the storytelling and special effects, both featured a fine cast of actors. 

As we have covered, an all-star cast does not always lead to fine ensemble work. The determining factor is not how famous the actors are, but how they serve the story and the characters and how they work with each other. So many directors have said that casting is the toughest part about making movies, that if you have the right actors for the right parts, the other work becomes so much easier.  Working on this project with you has given me a small glimpse of how fragile the casting process is, how one wrong selection can derail a movie.  But when done with care and bravery casting can reap untold dividends.  Thank you Orrin.  Until the next time.