Sunday, April 14, 2024

Ragtime (1981) review


Between his two Oscar wins for One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest and Amadeus, Milos Forman created this gem that has been criminally under-looked among period pieces of the 1980s.

The source novel intertwined icons of the era like Harry Houdini, Jacob Riis, Booker T Washington, and Sigmund Freud; lesser-known figures like Evelyn Keys and Stanford White who were intertwined in a scandal that captured national attention; and fictitious characters.

In the film, the focus shifts from Evelyn Keys (Elizabeth McGovern) to a radical brother of an upper-class family (Brad Dourif), to ragtime piano player Coleman Walker Jr. (Henry Rollins Jr.) whose encounter with a racist fire chief (Kenneth McMillan) pushes him over the edge to commit a terrorist attack. It's a great ensemble piece that pulls into and out of focus, with a number of interesting characters that meander into and out of the main story, and often create their own interesting tangents.

In particular, a character solely named Father (James Olson) is an interesting litmus test for our modern-day views on allyship. He disapproves of adopting Coleman's daughter (from their domestic help played by a then-unknown Debbie Allen) when he first discovers her, and he's clearly established as the yin to his enthusiastically revolutionary brother-in-law's yang, or his more compassionate wife. At the same time, he's never anything less than respectful to his black colleagues, and makes a leap of faith when it matters. Similar depth is given to a lot of the characters here, and that's what makes this film such a thought-provoking one.

Like Amadeus, the film is one of the most visually ornate films I've seen.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

Palm Royale: An Anti-Hero for the Soapy Period Drama

 


Credit: Apple Studios

Kristen Wiig stars as social climber Maxine in this soapy melodrama about a woman’s attempt at being a social climber in the jet set age of the 1960s.

In the opening pre-credits scene, Maxine scales the wall of the prestigious Palm Royale country club and falls over the other side like a clumsy burglar. It’s an apt metaphor for a social climber who is willing to surrender any level of dignity for her prize.

In the first scene after the credits (which, sidenote, are award-worthy in their own right) Maxine slyly makes her way to the jet setters equivalent of a mean girls club to try to ingratiate herself into their conversation. Her genteel southern charm and agreement with everything they say marks her off as suspicious. 

After queen bee Evelyn (Allison Janney) spurns her encroachment, Maxine gets desperate enough to risk life and limb by crashing her car in front of mean girl Dinah (Leslie Bibb) just to get into a conversation with her. And this is the first episode alone. 

She’s clearly a desperate woman for social status. When Dinah asks her why she would want to be accepted into this club so badly, Maxine technically gives an answer but it’s never particularly satisfactory. This is a running motif: In-universe, the other characters are aware of how strange it is for Maxine to so desperately want to be part of a club that likely doesn’t want her so badly.

It’s eventually revealed that Maxine has some big financial stakes: She’s in debt, and her rich in-law hasn’t yet left her estate. But still, her obsession with high society is still left somewhat enigmatic to the viewer. It’s likely that the intention is to make Maxine’s motivations to be the series’ proverbial rosebud (to borrow a Citizen Kane reference).

What’s clear is that Maxine is not particularly sympathetic. Evelyn’s step-daughter Linda Shaw, who can see through high society’s flaws (although she might be a little too liberal for some audience tastes) might be more in line with reality and heroism. Maxine, on the other hand, is an anti-hero. Even if she never reaches the depths of the villains of Killing Eve, Breaking Bad, The Americans, or Boardwalk Empire, she is pretty singularly focused for grift among morals. 

The negative might be that the stakes will never reach that high in this arena of country club intrigue. The whole saga is framed by a gunshot (so maybe a total body count of one?) and Maxine’s goal is merely to be the head of the charity ball. Sure, there might be intrigue in the detours en route and how low the character will sink to, but the main route of conflict is only appealing to people who want the soap.

Maxine’s tunnel vision is also cringey in the manner of Laura Dern’s protagonist, Amy Jellicoe, in the wonderfully cringey show Enlightened. But again, Jellicoe, has bigger goals (corporate corruption) and pressures that wasn’t of her own making. Maxine’s crusade is basically against some gossipy housewives who won’t let her be part of their club.

Still, it’s hard to predict where this show will go to an extent and that makes it watchable. It’s also got an excellent period feel (the late 60s), and is careful not to overemphasize “hey this is a period show!” Ricky Martin and Laura Dern are also excellent in their supporting roles.


Sunday, March 31, 2024

Miracle Club Is a Celebration of Older Stars but It's a Fine Character Drama

Recent films like 80 for Brady and Book Club provide a joyous context with which to watch screen legends get meaty roles and have fun playing together. Who knew that, say, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen, knew of each other, and liked acting alongside one another. Aww cute!

The downside is that because these are the filmic equivalent of reunion tours, these types of films (as well as Wild Hogs, Old Dogs, and Last Vegas on the male end) are devoid of conflict.

A couple of Maggie Smith films I’ve recently seen- Ladies in Lavender opposite Judi Dench, and The Miracle Club opposite Laura Linney and Kathy Bates – deal with meaty conflict. It’s a film about the aftermath abortion and Catholic guilt in Ireland. This is what almost every Irish film is about, minus the ones that are about the IRA and the civil war. Magdalene Sisters, Vera Drake, and Philomena are examples. In all seriousness, it was a pretty big tragedy (unless you’re a “Christian” blogger or a pandering right-wing lawmaker) wherein Irish society would often ship away pregnant unmarried women to convents to avoid family shame. The women would have the babies and give them up for adoption.

The film opens with Maggie Smith, Agnes O’Casey, and Kathy Bates (inexplicably sporting a full Irish brogue) as Irishwomen joyfully singing karaoke in what appears to be an Irish wake for their departed friend. The trio is taken aback when a stoic Laura Linney enters (thankfully not donning an Irish accent). She’s the daughter of the deceased and has been estranged for the past 40 years. She exchanges some terse words with Maggie Smith in a textbook case of passive-aggressive “I’ll pay for the funeral” ---- “No, I’ll pay for the funeral” one-upmanship.

We soon learn that Laura Linney was a teenage preggo who was sent to the States (thank god, because again, Linney didn’t have to do an accent), but the twist is that Maggie’s son was doing the impregnating. Maggie’s son was in love with her and wanted to follow Laura, but Maggie warned her it was a trap and Laura was just using her lady parts to ensnare him into a life of domesticity. Maggie’s son ended up living an unhappy life and committing suicide in guilt. In the interim, Agnes O’Casey, the youngest member of the karaoke trio, also has guilt of her own because she unsuccessfully tried to abort her baby in the bath tub and he survived but is developmentally disabled. So we got ourselves a double dramatic dose of abortion trauma.

One of the women has won a grand prize in a Church raffle for a vacation for four for some sort of spiritual spa in France. Nitpick time: Spas are spas and they rarely have a spiritual element to them. However, it does set the stage (albeit a little artificially) for a road trip element of reluctant bedfellows : If Laura stayed away for 40 years, you’d think she would never voluntarily spend time with her former best friend and the women who destroyed her true shot at love. But, the tickets were entered in the raffle before the death of Laura’s mom, and the priest (Irish stalwart Stephen Rhea) encourages Laura to redeem her mom’s ticket anyway. If you can get past both those dues-ex-machinas (oh yes, and Kathy Bates’ Irish accent), then that’s the most suspension of disbelief you’ll have to do.

The rest of the film is a well-developed relationship drama that skillfully confronts trauma and the culture’s changing social mores. The trailer advertises The Miracle Club as a feel-good film that might be indistinguishable from 2003's other "Old Stars Putting on a Last Hurrah" genre entries. But this is a film with dark spots that create a much richer sweetness at the end.

Note: The convention is to generally refer to characters in review by their character names and list actor names in parenthesis on first reference. I thought I'd try something different this time.



 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

15 Actors Most Overdue for Oscar

1. Ralph Fiennes — Longtime cinephile's favorite online publication The Film Experience often refers to him as the best actor of his generation not to win. In addition to his two nominations in the 90s, he also was a great lead in another Best Picture nominee in Quiz Show. In the 00s, he garnered buzz in Constant Gardener, and the trifecta of Reader/In Bruges/Duchess (which might have split votes) in 2008, in addition to infusing one of the decade’s big franchises with Voldemort. He also got in on the Hannibal action in Red Dragon. In the 2010s, his output lessened. He likely was the most inventive Wes Anderson protagonist ever put to film in Grand Budapest Hotel (sorry Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore) and was quietly brilliant in The Dig a bit more recently.

2. Bradley Cooper -- While finishing a distant third in this past year's Oscar race, Cooper is well-known to have education bona fides (he went to an elite school) and to be a serious actor with a capital S. His streak of 3 straight nominations from 2012-2014 shows and 5 total shows that he's managed to break through at the top of wish lists by now. He’s getting so immersive (and possibly desperate) that he might pull a more extreme stunt like Revenant and get himself eaten by a bear.


3.  Paul Giamatti — I think the voters and media got a taste of how good the possibility of “And the Oscar Goes to Paul Giamatti” would have sounded. That he does not like a conventional leading man has worked in his favor as he is very much an ordinary man in the same way that Dustin Hoffman and Ernest Borgnine captured our imaginations.

4. Harvey Keitel — With luminaries like James Caan, Ned Beatty, and Danny Aiello tragically gone, he might be the last of the greatest generation of character actors who changed acting in the 1970s. Like Bill Nighy or Bruce Dern with recent norms, it might never be too late

5. Daniel Craig — Sean Connery won an Oscar for James Bond, but Craig had a far wider range and showed before and after Bond that he was willing to take risky roles, like Truman Capote’s lover in Infamous or a detective whose idiosyncrasies seemingly are modeled after Foghorn Leghorn. There are a ton of great roles in between in Craig’s filmography and his turns as Bond and LeBlanc make him a more marketable figure than, say, Colin Firth.

6. Johnny Depp — I’m not sure I’d cast him on a film because his drunken and difficult on-set behavior has become quite legendary (exacerbated through accounts at the Amber Heard trial), but to the degree that he would get cast, he’s never less than brilliant and superbly inventive. That can’t be denied.

7. Hugh Jackman — A convincing musical lead is hard to deny like his work in Les Miserables or Greatest Showman (a fan favorite, didn’t go so well with critics on the left). With his popularity with the Wolverine roles, and his range of work like The Front Runner or The Fountain, it’s not far-fetched at all that in a given year, he might have the best performance of the year. If it’s close, I have faith that the extremely amicable Jackman could get the award by doing well on the awards circuit

8. Benedict Cumberbatch — I tend to think best actors should be a little on the older side, and after Casey Affleck and Rami Malek, I’m happiest with actors winning the lead award over, say, 40, which is why Adam Driver seems a bit young for me (he’s 39, and nowhere near due). Cumberbatch might be there at 48. Damn, how the time has flown. He’s been superb in movies dating quite a while, and even if he doesn’t have a gazillion nominations, he does have an Emmy, and he’s the kind of guy you know could nail any future challenging role. He has been in 5 Best Picture nominees (War HorseImitation Game12 Years a SlaveAtonement1917), so his filmography is solid, even if his roles in a couple of his pictures were small.

9. Ed Norton — An actor’s actor, Norton has had some great break-out roles in the 90s, and has acted in a wide range (he even directed a romantic comedy). Motherless Brooklyn (his second directorial film) and his role in the Glass Onion show he’s still pretty ambitious.

10. Liam Neeson — His batting average of noticeable performance to regular performance is low considering how prolific he is, but he’s pretty beloved, and he has an excuse for acting in so many movies (it helps him get over his wife’s death). The probability that he has another brilliant performance like Kinsey or Schindler’s List shouldn’t be that far out of reach.

11. Eddie Murphy — The degree to which he held up SNL and the film industry in the 1980s can’t be underestimated. If you want to give a comic star an award, Murphy would be a good choice. The problem is that there isn’t that often a role like Dolemite is My Name or Dreamgirls.

12. Michael Fassbender — In 2011, he broke out with simultaneous plaudits for Shame, Dangerous MethodX-Men, and Jane Eyre all at once. He got two nominations in the next four years and I think he’s still growing strong. He’d be on the newer end of nominees.

13. Jon Hamm — The leading man on Mad Men fits the mold of a leading man very easily and I’m often thinking he’d be a good lead whenever I armchair cast a film idea I think of in my head.

14. Steve Martin — Hard to think of a more beloved legend in comedy. Roles like 2005’s Shopgirl show he can do something big if he gets the right role. He’s retiring soon, so he can market such a win as his swan song.

15. Richard Gere — This 75-year-old actor has had roles in key films in the 1970s (Days of Heaven), 1980s (Officer and a Gentleman), 1990s (Pretty WomanPrimal Fear), 2000s (UnfaithfulChicagoAmelia), and 2010s (Arbitrage). He’s never been the preeminent of his generation and he’s never had the hot streak of a lot of great movies in a row, but his filmography stretches back a ways. With a good role, I don’t see why he wouldn’t be cheered as a consummate screen icon.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Movie Dialogue: Poor Things

 I have rich conversations about films every day. I figure today, I can just transpose one of them word for word here. I haven't yet checked with the friend over permission to use her name, so I'll just label her as friend. We used to write for the same publication.



Friend: Well, I watched Poor Things

Me: What'd you think?

Friend: I was disappointed

Me: Why?

Friend: It was too male gazey. Like some things shouldn't be lamp shaded.

Me: It definitely felt extremely voyeuristic. What did you mean by lamp shading

Friend: Like, it's bad these men want to exploit the "women-child" and then the director show it gratuitously. Basically, when a director or narrative says "I know I'm doing this thing, I am calling attention to it so we all know it's happening", that still doesn't chance that he's gratuitous.


Me: I can see that. I think it helps that Emma Stone was very enthusiastic about this acting exploration and seemed to be working with the director on this vision from interviews I've heard. Some guy I don't much care for said I don't trust straight males to shoot those scenes, and that's just plain discriminatory and disenfranchises the women and others who might have also been a partner in the art.

Friend: I think they could have gotten the poihnt across with much less gratuity. Sure, but women can be complicit in these things. I'm not erasing her involvement! She was there!

Me: And Emma hasn't historically been a nymphomaniac who loves to bear all in movies. I'd read interviews with her, she loved the acting challenge. I found Willem DeFoe's face and the metal bubbles he formed to be the grossest part.

Friend: No issues with her acting. She was very good, as was Ruffalo and the others. See, I'm usually worse with body horror but it wasn't that bad for me.

Me: What did you think of Ramy Yousef's attraction to her?

Friend: It was the most honest

Me: Do you think it was pedophilia? I thought it was shallow at the very least. But yeah, he was a good guy

Friend: Still gross. And he recognized that it was wrong.

Me: At the start of the movie, when he said he was in love with her or attracted to her. I was like "she has the IQ of a lower level primate." How can you be attracted to her other than her looks?

Friend: Yeah exactly. But that's like The Fifth Element or Splash or any of those born sexy yesterday movies. It's a squicky trope.

Me: So maybe he's insincere when he's like "I'm in love with her." Oooohhh, good connection!

Friend: But I liked that he seemed almost relieved at the end. Like, oh good, she's caught up. And he was happy to go along with whatever she wanted.

Me: I mean, I think if the movie has its disturbing elements, it's also what I'm looking for. I think the movie is a think-y one where we can debate a lot.

Friend: Yeah, like honestly removing the sex scenes would have made it a Top Ten for me, easy. Maybe even my fave of the year. And I'm not a prude, honestly!

Me: And it had some very funny moments. I loved the scene where Mark Ruffalo tried to push that woman off the edge of the ship. Whoever that actress was, who was just humorously going along with the man wanting to kill her, she was so enchanting.

Friend: Yes, the whole boat sequence was great. I think the Alexandria bit was too short though. I like that the movie (and book, I suppose) could have gone in such a different direction.

Me: I didn't like that element, because the shot of Alexandria was so CGI-heavy. Aesthetically, that was a part of the movie that took me out of it a lot.

Friend: I can see that. I mean more about what it was trying to say.

Me: How so?

Friend: Rich people are self-centered and they just throw money at poor people and then don't think about it anymore, like "my work here is done."

Me: And it was imperfect? I think that's where the film is great because it leaves room for debate. There is tremendous thematic depth over how to grow, how to be happy, how to give. You have to give credit for the film for being thematically ambitious. I think the film was also largely positive about prostitution, she was in control of the situations, she was voluntarily there, and learning and empowering herself from it.

Friend: I do appreciate the presentation of sex work and the reclamation of power in that regard.

Me: It's a rosy picture of prostitution outside of, say, Amsterdam. I'm curious if it's an overly rosy picture of prostitution in the period in which the film was taking place.

Friend: Thematically again very rich, but I think undermined itself with the gratuity and graphicness of the sex. Even if it had saved all the sex until that prostitution sequence, that would have been better.

Me: I agree a little too. I thought some of the sex was gross but I also heard it was supposed to be gross and unglamorous.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

What I'm Watching Spring '24 Part 1: Manhunt, Irreverent, Tourist, Clone High, Resident Alien


Manhunt (Apple)-First Two Episodes-Living in DC, it's extremely exciting to see this story dramatized as I've interacted with Ford's Theater and landmarks involving Samuel Mudd, Mary Surratt, and John Wilkes Booth. It's very much living history here as park rangers at Ford's Theater have held opposing views on different tours I've been on as to the guilt of Samuel Mudd. Through two episodes, it's solid although a little crusty like a standard period piece. The ensemble might be a little too overloaded with parts for clarity and it's a disservice to the story that Seward's assassination attempt is given such short shrift. Also, Patton Oswalt is so goddamn funny in everything that it's hard to take him in a serious role.

The Tourist (Netflix)-Season 1-A version of Memento set in the Australian outback with an Irishman (Jamie Doorman) who awakens in an Australian hospital without his memory, an eager-beaver cop lady on the bottom of the totem pool, a steamy former lover as a sidekick, and a wonderfully idiosyncratic hitman (Olaffur Dari Olaffson, an THE Icelandic emblem). It's set up to be a black comedy and things get intriguing until the penultimate episode of the first season when it gets to be reality-bending. I'll just say that narrative threads that are coherent from start to finish are more my cup of tea. The final episode in the 6-episode run not only gets the train back on the tracks, but adds new elements to the mix: A character improbably dies, two characters learn to not suck at their jobs, a new romance is teased, an abusive relationship ends. I won't spoil which character fits into which box in the previous sentence, but I'm excited for season 2.

*SEASON 2 JUST RELEASED THIS PAST MONTH*

Irreverent (Peacock)-Season 1- Like The Tourist, this is set in Australia with a fish-out-of-water plot. A drifter with mob affiliations steals the mob's money and runs off to Australia. He is improbably burglarized by a pastor sitting next to him on a flight who treads the fine line between friendly and nosy (incomparable character actor PJ Byrne). The pastor is an oddity in that he did one horrible thing (stole a man's life and identity) and is a man of the cloth, but seems oddly blase about it. However, there's no other way to drive the plot forward so I'll allow it.

For his part, the criminal learns to adapt and eventually comes to terms that the money might not be coming in a cross between Waiting for Godot and Doc Hollywood (this small Australia town is populated by charmingly provincial people). There's a quiet sense of profundity in its short run. More importantly, there's an escalation of events and a palpable sense of danger, is gripping enough for a good binge.

Clone High (HBO Max)-Season 3-Clone High is a paradox in that it's a relic from an age with lax PC limitations, and that the show is built around mocking some pretty sacred cows. The show was cancelled, before the age of cancel culture, in the early 2000s by a pretty extreme act: Members of India's parliament staged a hunger strike over the depiction of Gandhi (one they heard about second-hand through a magazine) while Indian citizens staged a threatening protest outside Viacom's Indian headquarters. So they pulled Gandhi. Considering how strongly that demographic spoke, and how little they usually protest, I think it's not cowardly at all to pull Gandhi. But the problem is that nearly every character -- Cleopatra, JFK (who has living relatives), Harriett Tubman, Frida Kahlo, Confucious, Jesus, the Buddha, Christopher Columbus, Catherine the Great, Betsy Ross -- is extremely likely to offend someone.

As a result, it feels like they toned down everyone's outrageousness and that neutered the show substantially. Three of the four new characters are personality-less, the remaining one (Topher Bus) has some funny beats but he's underused, and Cleopatra is reduced to being arm candy to Frida. I don't mind JFK reforming to be less of a jerk, but he objectively has fewer funny lines, and he's far more subservient to JFK in an unconvincing friendships.

It's base level is so funny, that I'd hardly stop watching, but the new characters of Season 2 added nothing. Season 3 does boast a few positives. While the rotating door of relationships dilutes the popular kids' affections, the bleacher creatures (clones of historic villains apparently make great actors) are a true delight. Season 3 also has a great villain in Bloody Mary as a manic pixie dream girl (lamp shaded heavily), and Candide and Scudworth solidify semi-evil schemes of their own.

Resident Alien (SyFy)-Season 4- Loving this, although the hierarchy between Harry and Linda Hamilton's organization remains a little unclear, and Ben being abducted seems to really throw one too many wrenches in the fire. I'm loving the further involvement of D'Arcy in the plot.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Did the Controversial Host Shane Gillis Succeed on SNL?


Shane Gillis was fired five years ago from SNL before he was able to appear on a single episode of the show. I don’t like or dislike him, but I’ve watched with intense fascination at the internet chatter since he was first announced to host the February 24th show.

His presence is the perfect geopolitical chokepoint upon which cancel culture, political correctness, and capitalism comes into play.

When analyzing this episode, there are two things at play.

One is where he first in the whole culture wars narratives. Was it a backwards or offensive move? The second is along the lines of whether he was talented enough to merit a spot on the show and whether he delivered on that end.

Most of those entertainment journalists who have covered the shane Gillis controversy have a lifetime of advocating from an extremely social justice warrior based perspective. The writing staffs at sites like Indiewire, Rogerebert, The A.V. Club, Slate, and Vox (which did a particularly scathing piece on him) are full of people who have spent their writing careers as a platform to boost and protect the margianalized, so they will come at it from a certain angle.

As I’ve said beforeSNL is an institution because it has maintained credibility as an institution. Part of that institutional practice (AKA whatever goes on in Lorne Michael’s head) is that the show includes voices from every side of the aisle. The show would completely lose its edge if it didn’t, and comedy has to push the envelope. The same boundary-pushing attitude that allowed them to hire queer comedians like Terry Sweeney, Kate McKinnon, Punkie Johnson, and Bowie Yang, or body-positive comedians like Aidy Bryant, is the same kind of ethos that would allow for the invitations for people like Dave Chapelle and Gillis to host.

Some might call this an annoying habit of courting controversy, as Judy Berman writes for Time. This is not an illegitimate claim: Art and commerce can’t be divorced from each other, either. One can also make the case that when SNL makes bookings outside the realm of entertainment voices, it can negatively affect the world like Elon Musk and Donald Trump. However, people like Gillis simply are people who present ideas. Audiences shouldn’t be afraid of those ideas being voiced out loud on TV. The kinds of people who don’t like whatever they think Shane Gillis represents (more on that later) have plenty of avenues to voice that, and many powerful allies in the media who will pick up that baton.

As for what Shane Gillis represents, he is very likely a democrat (or at the very least apolitical), even if his defining moment in the public sphere to audiences who aren’t comedy nerds was as an example of cancel culture.

The idea that Shane Gillis has grown as a person and reconciled is one reason that he has become more palatable.

While one can always judge the sincerity of the apologies or the growth of Shane Gillis, there’s a habit of hashtag warriors to judge apologies as insincere no matter what. So I’m inclined to give Gillis the benefit of the doubt. As any couples therapist or workplace conflict mediator can tell you, it’s never a helpful to try to measure the sincerity of apologizes and assume what’s in the person’s head when they make it. It’s very much an act of projection with celebrity culture that today’s followers of celebrity feel they can act out these complicated mental states through their celebrity scapegoat of the week.

In recent interviews, Gillis has mentioned attempts to detach himself as a poster boy for Conservative fans, friendships with figures such as Andrew Yang, and that he’s trying hard to not use offensive language (the thing that first got him in trouble).

To a zoomer, this seems laughable. They likely have been raised in places with zero policies towards offensive language and have been trained to villainize minor slights as hate speech. Again, this is not so much an indication that Shane Gillis is horrible, but that generational differences can train us to not recognize the growth in another person if they’re so far behind us on (our own self-defined) bell curves.

It’s helpful to recognize that Shane Gillis’s attempts to be a decent person will still be judged by anyone on the internet who think he’s a good enough ally. We are free to judge him as bigoted, but that might not be the most accurate view of who he is if we’re not careful with context. On the contrary, there has been audience pressure for him over the last five years to lean into stereotypes and offensiveness. Many comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Aziz Ansari, and especially Louis C.K. have gone harsher into attack mode at woke audiences after they’ve been cancelled. For his part, Gillis at least deserves credit for sticking to his funny bone.

As for whether the episode was a failure, there were sketches that might have been seen as problematic. There was a sketch with misguided employees who didn’t understand sexual harrassment in a meeting with H.R.

It played off the image that Gillis was politically backwards. At the same time, Gillis didn’t play the only character in the sketch with questionable morals. The sketch never condoned anyone’s wrong-headed views, and it’s target squared with the voices of reason in the HR characters (Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman). The main comic premise was how frustrating sexual harrassment seminars must be for the presenters. It’s a fairly soft space in which to make edgy jokes since the audience is clearly on the right side of the moral equation.

The sketches varied in terms of offense. One sketch premise involved Jamaican accents and some might have found the cultural appropriation aspect unfunny when Shane Gillis couldn’t stop himself from speaking in a Jamaican accent. However, if that criticism is widespread (I haven’t seen anything in the reviews so far), I’d maintain that it comes from criticizing comedy without context. Here, the comic premise wasn’t about how a Jamaican patois sounds funny. Instead, it’s about the awkwardness of a White man in a Jamaican Church.

This school of criticism of judging comedy without context has been pretty prevalent since around 2015. As someone who’s not a fan of people overusing “cultural appropriation” or “white savior” criticisms, it’s extremely refreshing for Shane Gillis to be on the show skirting the line of political correctness.

However, it should be noted that all of this is moot because SNL is never written by the host of the week. Everything said in sketches was heavily scripted by a writing room that's heavily staffed with female and queer writers. In the last decade, female writers Sudi Green, Allison Gates, Anna Drezen, and Sarah Schneider have all held head writer positions on the show and the non-binary writer Celeste Yim got promoted to writing supervisor. Three of this season’s new hires — KC Shornima, Asha Ward, and Auguste White — are women of color as well.

Last season, this Try Guys sketch was heavily criticized for brushing off the power dynamics in a buzzworthy internet conflict (a semi-famous content creator being fired from one of YouTube’s big channels for cheating on his wife). It later came out that one of the writers of the sketch (Will Stephen) went to college with the content creator in question. What the media didn’t focus on as much was that the sketch was also written by Celeste Yim and Bowen Yang as well. It’s easy to pass the show’s more offensive moments onto the least margianalized writer (Stephen is White) but SNL has always been a group effort.

The only think that Shane really did as Shane was his monologue. In my opinion, this was underwhelming, which seems to echo much of the internet reaction. In that sense, he might have “bombed” but that is different than being deliberately offensive in an Andrew Dice Clay kind of way.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for all the hooplah around the episode and preceding hype, I found the experience of Shane Gillis highly cathartic. Rather than witness the divisive impulses of cancel culture, I watched a guy clean up his reputation, be accepted by his peers and have them make art together. I believe the generation below me thrives on criticism, but collaboration and happy endings warms my heart more.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, 2020)




It’s kind of funny how the press tries to portray Spike Lee as a provocateur more than he is. The way the media has portrayed it, Spike Lee,is at a near-constant war with film makers: He has amassed various beefs over the years: With Steven Soderbergh (for beating him at Cannes with Sex Lies and Videotape back in 1989), Clint Eastwood (for not putting enough black people in his Letters from Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers companion movies), Driving Miss Daisy, Green Book, and the Oscars So White Movement, and probably more. In reality, Spike Lee saves most of his trash talking for the Knicks court. If you look at the actual quotes, he’s a very classy individual who seems to have a great camaraderie and respect with most of his fellow film makers.

The degree that Spike Lee really responds to White art is really through his work.  Da 5 Bloods has a film with a lot to say about the Black experience in war, and even then it’s not a film that feels exclusively for a Black audience.

It’s a war film about four Vietnam veterans (played by character actors Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clark Peters, and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who return to the war zone years later to recover some lost goal. Joining them is one of the soldiers’ sons (Jonothan Majors) who acts as an audience surrogate. There’s an aura of celebration like friends at a reunion, but come on, this is a war movie:  The fa├žade is quickly broken by revelations of post-war economic hardship and PTSD.

Like Platoon, Bridge on the River Kwai, or Apocalypse Now, this film turns tragic as the crew is immersed into psychologically and physically hellish situations. The main actor, Paul (Delroy Lindo in what might be an Oscar-bait part), loses his mind, and survival is far from guaranteed for any of them.

Perhaps, this is even more tragic than those other films  in that these veterans have been through this before; it was clearly a difficult experience (as evidenced by the haunting of the 5th blood); and they decided to undergo a mission through the Vietnamese jungle again. Were they misinformed about how much those jungles would be guarded by Vietnamese and mercenaries? Were they deluding themselves into thinking this would be easy? Maybe the tragic reality (and subtle economic commentary) is that they needed the gold that badly.

Either way, getting invested in these people’s lives means you will be hit by the senseless of how it ends, but that’s par for the course of a war movie. In other words, it’s an affecting film and a rich one.