Jeff’s Wacky SNL Review: Adam Driver/Halsey

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

It’s the first SNL of 2020. We diddddd it!

So in the spirit of moving forward, I’m going to take a moment to look back. When I first started writing up SNL episode recap/reviews, I would usually watch some of the episode as it aired live (typically until around Update) and then go to bed and watch the rest on Sunday morning. But as I got older, I realized that I tended to get tired at nighttime and preferred going to bed before the show started and thus I would watch it all on Sunday morning. But this time, I got back in my old groove and watched the first couple sketches before tucking in for the night (though slightly DVR-delayed). I didn’t feel too tired, and the Australian Open was on, so I decided to roll with how I was feeling. Just so you know. Also, I had a milkshake while watching. I really had a hankering for one!

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‘The Rise of Skywalker’ is Frustrating and Deeply Satisfying – It’s So Great to Be Alive!

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CREDIT: Lucasfilm

This whole review discusses plot points in detail, so … spoiler warningggggggggggg!!!

I guess J.J. Abrams isn’t the one to cure Star Wars of its reputation for clunky and/or imaginative dialogue. So many of the lines in The Rise of Skywalker are variations of “Go! Go! Go!” or “I love my friends.” Except for C-3PO. Man, that guy is golden! Does Anthony Daniels write his own dialogue? I would like to nominate 3PO for Most Consistently Charming Character in Franchise Movie History. I mean, quips like “You didn’t say my name, sir, but I’m all right” – how can one droid bless us so much?!

I liked The Rise of Skywalker more than I didn’t. But for a movie that I like (love even!), there sure are a lot of elements that drove me  batty! And some of them could have been just fine (or brilliant even) if they had been carried out a little differently. I’ll get to the big one in a bit, but first off, why is the first hour or so of this movie a hunt for a McGuffin? When characters are on the run in Star Wars, their purpose is clear and meaningful. It’s not just a hunt for a whatever device. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt so McGuffin-y if the danger weren’t dispatched so easily…

Speaking of, I’m fine with the “death” of Chewbacca turning out to be a bait and switch, but maybe give us at least five minutes to think that he might have actually died, so that it can resonate when we discover that he’s actually fine. Similarly, I think it’s perfectly okay that C-3PO’s memory wipe isn’t permanent, but let’s draw out some more mileage of the recovery of those memories. I’m sure they can easily get a tight five out of R2-D2 catching him up to speed.

Now for the big Big BIG one: I suspect that J.J. Abrams had decided that Rey was Palpatine’s granddaughter when he made The Force Awakens. But since he didn’t convey that explicitly, that left The Last Jedi free to say that her parents were nobodies. So Skywalker combines both origins, which tracks logically enough, but changes the message. Rey rejecting her Sith parentage is resonant, though it’s not as unique a message as the idea that powerful Jedi can come from anywhere. That message isn’t refuted, but it’s not underscored as much as I suspect would have been beneficial. So if JJ was married to the Palpatine-Rey connection, what if he were to instead make it a King Herod situation, wherein Palpatine senses Rey’s remarkable power and becomes dead set on hunting her down and either recruiting her or destroying her?

Hey, here’s another question I have: what did Finn need to tell Rey? My suspicion was that it was a confession of love, since he was obviously so smitten with her when they first met, and I think they’ve always been great together. But then he had possible sparks with Rose and then he has a connection with Jannah (not to mention Poe, although any romance there was only ever speculative). Meanwhile, Rey and Kylo Ben are getting ever closer to form that dyad. So maybe I misread what Finn needed to say. But whatever it was, it was clearly important to him, and it just never came up again! Why not add 30 seconds for some unburdening?

But for all those miscues, I am massively satisfied by the ending, particularly Rey declaring herself a Skywalker and the entire trilogy-wide resolution of her arc. When all those Jedi voices reach out to her, it’s transcendent. Why not have more moments like that?! But what we got is enough to leave me happy, and The Last Jedi‘s contribution of the conviction that great Jedi can come from anywhere remains intact. And the aesthetic Star Wars qualities like droids beeping and Babu Frick tinkering are as lovely as ever.

TL;DR: increase the bleep-bloops and good kind of mystical woo-doo, decrease the bad kind of mystical woo-woo.

‘The Report’ Details the Long Slog Towards Exposing Torture

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CREDIT: Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Jake Silberman, Matthew Rhys, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Dominic Fumusa, Corey Stoll

Director: Scott Z. Burns

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: R for Depictions of Torture

Release Date: November 15, 2019 (Limited)

There’s a moment in The Report that might be what most viewers remember it for, in which the 2012 hunt-for-Osama bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty is called out and basically scoffed at for implying that torture led to valuable intel in the war on terrorism. Despite this apparent antagonism, The Report and Zero Dark Thirty work well as companion pieces, offering somewhat parallel stories in the defining geopolitical conflict of the twenty-first century. I believe that the message of Zero Dark regarding the efficacy of torture is more complicated than any binary interpretation, and I actually think that the people behind The Report would agree, at least in terms of the existence of complications in the world. When a narrative is about a real-life group of people poring over thousands of government documents for months on end, you tend to find that the answers aren’t always quite so straightforward. But two things remain clear: torture is bad, and the people deserve to know that it happened.

The primary document sifter is Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who was working as a Senate staffer for California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) while he investigated the CIA’s systematic use of torture in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The job is thuddingly labor-intensive, but Daniel is fully devoted to the task, and besides, the real challenge for him is getting this information out to the public over the protests of the forces who would prefer it be as redacted as possible or just completely hidden. The Report serves the entertainment value of presenting someone doing his job supremely competently, but it is also a bit of a slog. It is not exactly fun to spend so much time in windowless basements with Daniel, and his co-workers let him know that it’s not so great for him either. But for the good of mankind, this information needed to get out one way or the other. And if this story needed to be jazzed up into a big-screen adventure for people to become more aware of this miscarriage of decency, then The Report ought to be considered a succcess at least on that score.

The Report is Recommended If You Like: The truth being made public

Grade: 3000 of 5000 Documents

Movie Review: ‘The Dead Don’t Die,’ And Neither Does the Droll Energy in Jim Jarmusch’s Zombie Goof-Off

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CREDIT: Abbot Genser/Focus Features

Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, Austin Butler, Eszter Balint, Luka Sabbat, Larry Fessenden

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Ironic, But Visceral Zombie Violence

Release Date: June 14, 2019 (Limited)

Sometime around 2010, it was determined that it was every filmmaker’s God-given right to make their very own zombie movie. In the case of Jim Jarmusch, he was divinely matched with The Dead Don’t Die, a droll, occasionally fourth wall-breaking portrait of ravaged-by-the-undead small town life patrolled by Police Officers Bill Murray and Adam Driver. In a post-Shaun of the Dead world, The Dead Don’t Die is far from necessary, but it is sufficiently diverting. It adds an environmental wrinkle to the zombie mythos, as fracking is implied to be the culprit behind the upending of nature. If Jarmusch is crying out for us to protect the Earth, that warning is perhaps a little too late, considering how disastrous climate change has already become. But that’s no big deal (for the movie, that is – the planet is screwed), as he seems to have more goofball ideas on his mind anyway.

The zombie blood and guts are sufficiently hardcore, with the bodily fluids as wet and unleashed as the dialogue is dry and bottled-up. But the main attraction are not the ghouls so much as the characters and their unique ways of being human and/or inhuman. That is to say, while Tilda Swinton has badass sword skills as the town’s new undertaker, it’s more amusing that she gets to lean into a hardcore Scottish persona. This is the type of movie in which Selena Gomez tells Caleb Landry Jones, “Your film knowledge is impressive,” after he mentions some pretty basic info about George Romero, and then Larry Fessenden refers to Gomez and her friends who are passing through town as “hipsters from the city” and “hipsters with their irony” (the odds seem to be that they’re from Cleveland). If that sounds hilarious to you, you know who you are, and you can expect to mostly be satisfied, though you may (or may not) have issues with the shaggy, shambling plot structure.

The Dead Don’t Die is Recommended If You Like: Remaining at an ironic remove, but not being too-cool-for-school about it

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Diner Coffee Pots

This Is a Movie Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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CREDIT: Amazon Studios

As the movie with perhaps the most tortured backstory in the history of cinema, it is unsurprising that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote incorporates plenty of elements about the difficulty of mounting a massive production. Of course, as it revolves around a man who is convinced that he is actually Cervantes’ title adventurer after starring in an adaptation of the novel, it was always going to be somewhat meta. I don’t think Terry Gilliam taps into anything especially uniquely profound in this regard, but it does feel like he is facing the plain truth right in its face. I have made a few short films myself, and I have a brother and plenty of friends who have worked in film and TV, so I understand the instinct to incorporate what’s going in your life into the films you make. Thus, in the end, this whole quixotic endeavor feels oddly comforting to me.

I give The Man Who Killed Don Quixote A Hug and a Lullaby.

SNL Review September 29, 2018: Adam Driver/Kanye West

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CREDIT: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC

This post was originally published on News Cult in September 2018.

Love It

Kyle’s New Look – Considering who was in the building, it looked like we were about to get a sequel to the landmark Kyle vs. Kanye as the latest short from Mr. Mooney began. But while the behind-the-scenes saga takes a different route this time, it is no less welcome. In an episode all about Pete Davidson’s summer, the high point comes via Kyle’s copycat tactic. Wendy Williams as his choice of celebrity boo is inspired, and small details like the way Heidi Gardner eats a banana fill in the scenery nicely. But I am left to wonder how this sketch might have been different if original musical guest choice Ariana Grande had been around to provide her reaction.

Domenico’s Coffee – Burger King disguising its cup of joe as the upscale “Domenico’s” to fool unsuspecting customers obviously calls to mind the classic Colombian coffee crystals filmed piece in which Chris Farley completely loses his mind. But this time around it’s a somewhat different tack, instead targeting faux-upscale coffee snob arrogance. It’s right up Cecily Strong’s grotesque character alley, and Adam Driver’s intensity matches up quite well. Their threats once they realize the ruse are awfully silly, but also scary in their sincerity.

In an Update dominated up top by the Kavanaugh hearings, Michael and Colin are more straightforward than they have ever been, and we are the better for it…Kate McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg is enough to brighten up any day.

Keep It

Kavanaugh Senate Hearing – The typical SNL cold open tackles the major political news of the week, which can grow tiresome, so I always enjoy when the show switches up the routine. But there was no avoiding the major development this time, but luckily (for comedy’s sake), the alarming Brett Kavanaugh hearings allow for a somewhat different cast of characters than the usual recent political insanity we’ve had to endure. It doesn’t necessarily make for a great sketch, but it’s a decent one, and I’ll take the “Lindsey Graham auditioning for regional production of The Crucible” joke to the bank.

Adam Driver’s Monologue is a small idea about small talk, but Driver is amusing when he’s angry. And also Pete Davidson had an interesting summer…The “adults don’t know how to play video games” shtick is as old as video games, but at least the Fortnite sketch adds some backstory involving a real dad/stepdad rivalry…I would guess Rad Times at Frat U was inspired by Brett Kavanaugh’s schooltime secrets, although the focus is a bit wayward. But it still works as a solid takedown of blowout party movies…Leslie Jones’ “impression” of Serena Williams is actually sort of impressive in a verbatim sort of way, and Colin’s insistence that it won’t work actually fits as a dramatic counterpoint…I hope that Pete Davidson talked to his fiancee before he discussed how his summer was (he probably did)…Once we meet old school oil baron Abraham H. Parnassus, the Career Day sketch hits exactly the beats we expect, but it’s committed character work from Driver…The League of the South Meeting‘s premise that Vermont is some kind of white people paradise is kind of clever, but I’m most amused by the ruling that they CAN pick black players for their fantasy football teams.

Leave It

No Leave It sketches in a solid premiere episode.

Adam Driver

On a scale of “omnipresent host” to “host getting lost in the background,” Adam Driver is not really either extreme. He has some lead characters, and he wholly commits in a way that justifies his booking despite not being an obvious choice for a season premiere. But it kind of feels like the actual host of this episode was Pete Davidson’s birthday.

Kanye West

On a scale of Kanye the Visionary to Kanye the Inexplicable, we definitely leaned toward the latter this episode. Seriously, does anyone understand why he and Lil Pump chose to dress as Perrier and Fiji, respectively? Although, hey, I can’t say I wasn’t amused. But besides the wacky artistic choices, there’s also the MAGA of it all, which I don’t think there will ever be a satisfying answer for, so we might as well seek serenity for something that’s beyond our control.

Letter Grades:

Kavanaugh Senate Hearing – B-

Adam Driver’s Monologue – B-

Fortnite – B-

Kyle’s New Look – B+

Domenico’s Coffee (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – A-

Rad Times at Frat U – B

Kanye West ft. Lil Pump performs “I Love It” – B

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B+
Ruth Bader Ginsburg – B
Leslie Jones as “Serena Williams” – B-
Pete Davidson – B-

Career Day – B-

Kanye West ft. Teyana Taylor performs “We Got Love” – B

League of the South Meeting – B-

Kanye West ft. Kid Cudi and 070 Shake performs “Ghost Town” – ???

This Is a Movie Review: A Wild Real-Life KKK Infiltration Makes ‘BlacKkKlansman’ an Essential Spike Lee Joint

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkönen, Ryan Eggold, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Robert John Burke, Corey Hawkins

Director: Spike Lee

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Incendiary Language and Images, Plus a Few Outbursts of Violence

Release Date: August 10, 2018

Going undercover is the most nerve-wracking work I can possibly imagine. Living in a constant state of dishonesty causes so many problems. Maybe this is one type of lying that can be justified morally, but that does not mean it is without consequences. It warps your sense of self and tears at the seams of all your close relationships. I have never had to go undercover myself, and thank God, because watching it in movies is stressful enough. The undercover experiences of Jewish Colorado Springs detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) only serve to confirm this perception. But the approach of his black partner, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), reveals that at least one person is built to handle the cognitive dissonance of going undercover.

Stallworth and Zimmerman’s infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan is the electrifying and infuriatingly relevant story of BlacKkKlansman, one of the most crowd-pleasing and just plain best joints in Spike Lee’s career. My main reaction to this flick is that if the real Stallworth is anything like the way Washington plays him, then he is one of the most righteously insane people who has ever lived. This is the first black officer in the history of the Colorado Springs police department, and his instinct when he sees a classified ad in the newspaper for the KKK is to contact them for more information. Furthermore, he treats his phone conversations with David Duke (Topher Grace) as an opportunity to pull off a long con to prove to the notorious grand wizard that he is not so adept at telling apart the races as he thinks he is. Stallworth’s actions may put himself and his fellow officers in the line of cross-burning fire, and Zimmerman calls him out for treating what should be a job as a crusade. But when unabashed racism is still delivering deadly violence to its targets, bold action is required to keep people safe.

Lee, of course, does not shy away from the rotting, anti-humanist message at the core of the KKK, but directly calling it out for what it is can still be a lot of fun. The entirety of Stallworth’s dialogue seems designed to inspire the dual reactions of “Can you believe what he’s saying?” and “That’s probably exactly what we need to hear, though.” “With the right white man, we can do anything” might very well be the slogan of American as filtered through the lens of Spike Lee. The KKK members are also a hoot without hiding their despicableness, with Grace seamlessly capturing the banality of evil and Alec Baldwin cameoing as a bumbling propagandist. Laura Harrier is just as essential as a Black Student Union leader who Ron becomes romantically involved with. Their discussions about blaxploitation and where the soul of fighting for justice should lie are the stuff of geeky film buffs’ delight. If you’re looking to have a fun time, seeing BlacKkKlansman is a great option, but Lee makes sure to unequivocally remind us of what we’re fighting for by including a coda of real-life footage from the 2017 Charlottesville riots. The historical passage of time in America is in many ways not so linear, and Lee is doing his best to capture it like lightning.

BlacKkKlansman is Recommended If You Like: Malcolm X, Chi-Raq, American Hustle

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Crank Calls

This Is a Movie Review: Steven Soderbergh and the ‘Logan Lucky’ Crew Pull Off a Heist at the Biggest Race of the Year

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Credit: Claudette Barius / Fingerprint Releasing | Bleecker Street

This review was originally published on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes, Dwight Yoakam, Seth MacFarlane, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Improvised Explosives and Slapstick Violence, Often Involving a Prosthetic

Release Date: August 18, 2017

If you follow the sports world, you will have noticed lately the several examples of the wonders that taking significant time off does towards extending a career. Roger Federer and Serena Williams, perhaps the two greatest tennis players of all time, have taken months-long breaks and at ages 36 and 35, respectively (ancient by athletic standards), they are still somehow in the primes of their careers. The physicality of sports and filmmaking are not exactly the same, but both can be similarly taxing. So while it is right to question the accuracy of Steven Soderbergh’s claim that he was retiring from directing, it is not right to question the wisdom of what he was actually doing, i.e., taking a nice, long, relaxing break, as Logan Lucky is the type of film that you make only when you are bursting with energy.

Logan is Soderbergh’s first directorial effort since 2013’s Side Effects and the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, but in premise, it most obviously brings to mind his Ocean’s trilogy. Recently unemployed West Virginia coal miner Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) recruits his one-armed Iraq War vet bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough), along with incarcerated bleached-blonde demolitions expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and Joe’s supposed computer expert brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), to rob the cash deposits at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600, the longest annual race on the NASCAR calendar. So it is basically a hillbilly Ocean’s 11 (Logan’s 6, if you will), and that connection is referenced head-on with a sneakily well-timed joke. Now, don’t let that description fool you into thinking that this film looks down on the people that populate it. Its particular strength is how thoroughly and empathetically each character is rendered, despite their colorful personalities offering an easy temptation for stereotypes.

Accordingly, every actor is given plenty of opportunities to stretch, with Soderbergh guiding them along to their best instincts. Keough shines in her accounting of the West Virginia highway system, Driver is wholly convincing with his unassuming one-armed bartending prowess, Seth MacFarlane is Snidely Whiplash-levels ridiculous as a luxuriously coiffed, arrogant driver, Farrah Mackenzie (as Jimmy’s young daughter Sadie) charms enough to somehow make pageant culture a little less nauseating than usual, and when Special Agent Hilary Swank shows up, she makes an all-business demeanor just as much fun as criminality. But the biggest praise is rightfully reserved for Craig, who is delightfully unhinged in the friendliest way possible, as well as Dwight Yoakam, as a warden whose loss of control of his prison amazingly involves the most hilarious taking to task of George R.R. Martin I have ever witnessed.

The conflict of heist movies is such that their cool vibes always goad you into rooting for the criminals. While these robbers typically are not violent, and often target the most powerful and greediest, they are in fact still criminals. The fact that these are just movies should be enough to remove any feelings of moral crisis. But in case you want more than that, there is a Robin Hood-style resolution. Your mileage may vary on what that means in terms of ethical implications, but there is no doubt that it contributes to the good vibes.

Logan Lucky is Recommended If You Like: Heist Films, Southern-Fried Flavor, Feeling Pumped When You Walk Out of the Theater

Grade: 4 out of 5 Painted Cockroaches

This Is a Movie Review: Silence

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silence-issey-ogata

Does Silence need to drag on so portentously throughout its middle third? Probably, at least to achieve its goal of being as tortuous as what its protagonists undergo. Not exactly as torturous, obviously, but that is the tone it is going for. It may not be pleasant, but that is the goal. Perhaps it could have been both painful AND exciting if Liam Neeson had returned earlier. His scenes really get the film cooking. They are, after all, when Silence really grapples with its essential question of how best to sacrifice oneself to be a good Catholic, or a good leader, or a good person, and if those overlap.

I give Silence 20 Minutes out of 161 of Unexpected Humor.

This Is a Movie Review: Paterson

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paterson-adam-driver

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie the English Bulldog

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: R for Language Apparently, But I Don’t Remember Anything Particularly Harsh

Release Date: December 28, 2016 (Limited)

In Paterson, the latest from director Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers), Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson in Paterson, NJ who writes poetry in between his routes. Maybe that sounds way boring to you, or maybe it sounds very lovely. Either way, this film will most likely not change your mind. But I urge those who are skeptical to give it a chance. The multiplex culture of cinema dictates that high-intensity action must be going on at all times, which relegates films like Paterson to a ghetto in which they can only be appreciated by “arthouse” nerds. But any living human being can find value in taking the time to appreciate the rhythms of daily life as realized by Jarmusch and Driver.

In addition to driving his routes and writing his verses, Paterson spends his days at home with his supportive wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who encourages him to publish his poems. (It helps a great deal that we can actually agree with Laura in regards to the high quality of her husband’s literary skills.) He also walks his bulldog Marvin to a local bar and gets a drink alongside some crazy characters. They are not sitcom-grade stereotypes, but real people, you know? But some sitcom-worthy shenanigans do go down, y’all.

Driver’s intense sensitivity (or is that sensitive intensity?) anchors the whole proceedings. As much as I believe in the power of reflective, low-stakes cinema in and of itself, it requires an especially magnetic actor to be particularly worthwhile. Driver is proving himself to be the type of performer who can make anything compelling. What he can accomplish just by listening is evident when he has a chance encounter with a Japanese tourist who also loves poetry. That scene is the apotheosis of Paterson’s entire purpose.

A final note: special recognition must be given to Nellie, the later canine actor who portrays Marvin in a gender-bending performance that was good enough to win the Palm Dog Award at the last Cannes Film Festival.

Paterson is Recommended If You Like: Free Verse

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sensitive Man Poems

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