The Game on Top of the Game in High Flying Bird

There’s hardly a basketball dribbled in High Flying Bird, director Steven Soderbergh’s new iPhone-shot Netflix film. Its entire story takes place in the middle of a lockout, which is not a typical way to present a sports movie, to say the least. There are no montages of teammates coming together to overcome the odds. There’s no big game at the end to send us out on an emotional high. Hoosiers, this is not.

High Flying Bird may not become a classic basketball film, but it has a lot on its mind. Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney are much more interested in labor negotiations than buzzer-beaters. Their story of a basketball agent that tries to upend the system defies sports movie convention in thoughtful and revolutionary ways, leading us to consider how capitalism and sport intersect.

Set during a labor dispute between the owners and players, High Flying Bird follows Ray Burke (Andre Holland), a high-profile sports agent that maneuvers to give the players more control over the game. However, Ray’s rookie client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), just wants to get back on the court. Instead of actual basketball, we witness the off-court negotiations between Ray, players’ association president Myra (Sonja Sohn), and the owners, led by smug, obscenely wealthy New York owner David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan).

If this all sounds a little dry, don’t worry. The execution here is totally compelling, from the brisk, lively dialogue to the engaging performances. McCraney, who won an Oscar for Moonlight, has fashioned a sharp script that is full of ideas. It’s essentially a stagy actor’s showcase, littered with monologues masquerading as conversation. It will demand repeated viewings just so you can understand everything that McCraney wants to say.

Andre Holland is utterly convincing and charismatic as a quick-witted sports agent with big plans. He’s the kind of likable actor that makes you wonder why he hasn’t been the lead in a dozen movies by now. Perhaps best known as Kevin in Moonlight, you never lose interest in what Holland is doing on screen, and that’s even more true in High Flying Bird. An executive producer on the film, Holland brought the idea to Soderbergh after working with him on the Cinemax TV show The Knick. One of the best things about this film is that you can sense that everyone making it was passionate about the project.

In the other roles, MacLachlan makes for an inspired choice as a stand-in for Knicks owner James Dolan. He avoids playing the part as a straight-up villain, but you don’t for a second think that he has the players’ best interests in mind. His empty lecture about the team as a “family” rightfully falls on deaf ears. In High Flying Bird and in real-life professional sports, the owners usually only refer to their players as such when they can sniff out a power shift. Rising star Zazie Beetz (Atlanta, Deadpool 2) plays Sam, Ray’s ambitious former assistant. Just like Holland, Beetz is extremely adept at creating magnetic and empathetic personalities. Sam may play a small role, but as the film unfolds you start to see what Ray sees in her.

To be sure, there are plot mechanics in High Flying Bird that don’t quite come together. Ray’s master plan is never completely clear and some of the supporting characters don’t feel fully fleshed out. The story is maybe a little too wonky for its own good, as it eschews pulse-raising action on the court. Some of the best sports movies have done something similar, such as Moneyball and Jerry Maguire, but High Flying Bird is its own distinct animal, narratively and visually.

This is Soderbergh’s second film shot on an iPhone, after Unsane, last year’s psychological thriller starring Claire Foy. In almost real time, you can see him working out how to best use this low-budget technology. A smartphone camera gives you a sense of immediacy because it captures everything in focus. For this reason, Unsane possessed an urgent and unsettling visual palette, as you questioned the main character’s sanity. However, the iPhone struggles in low light, which was a problem for a film often set at night or in the dark corners of a hospital.

Soderbergh utilizes the iPhone to greater effect for High Flying Bird, which takes place mostly during the daytime or under the bright fluorescents of a gym. The shots of New York City look surprisingly vibrant for a smartphone. On occasion, Soderbergh allows the frame to shake when someone slaps a table or makes a sudden movement, which could threaten to take you out of the story, or it could be a reminder that he’s using disruptive technology to make a movie about disrupting the system. Soderbergh is always up to something, isn’t he?

High Flying Bird is extremely of the moment — and not just because it’s shot with an iPhone. The last NBA lockout was in 2011 and wiped out 16 games from the regular season. In the NBA, superstar players have more control than ever about where they play, but discontent reigns among the players’ association as owners get richer but claim to be strapped for cash. There’s growing pessimism across professional sports that more lockouts could be coming in the near future.

In the film, Spence, a youth basketball coach played by Bill Duke, says that the owners invented “a game on top of a game” to control their employees. Not often do you see a sports movie speak so plainly unromantic about the business of sports, but it’s quite refreshing. Later, an impromptu one-on-one game between the rookie Erick and his rival teammate goes viral, leading Ray to set up subsequent games between NBA stars across the country. This circumvents the system the owners have in place because they no longer have control over their product, which forces MacLachlan’s David and the other owners to the table, suddenly willing to listen to the players’ demands. This could could actually happen if there were another lockout. With the rise of social media, the players could conceivably create their own league that draws buzz and revenue. Would this be in their best interest? That’s a whole other discussion.

It makes sense that a film that uses a lockout to explore labor relations would leave us not with a game-winning three, but a suggestion for further reading. The last scene implores the audience to continue hashing out these issues of employee vs. employer beyond the movie, particularly as it relates to race. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a Netflix basketball movie shot on an iPhone to be so cerebral and revolutionary, but High Flying Bird can’t stop thinking about the game on top of the game.


Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman Through 5 of His Best Performances

It’s been five years since we lost one of the great actors of the last quarter century. At just 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away in February 2014, leaving behind a litany of indelible roles. Hoffman was a titanic performer, equally captivating as an Oscar-worthy lead or as an electric supporting player. Every character he ever played felt truly alive. I mean, has anyone ever described a PSH performance as inert, lifeless, or flat?

In order to appreciate Hoffman on the five-year anniversary of his passing and to better understand what made him so good, I broke down five of his most memorable performances. This is not a top five, but a few of the roles that I think showed why he was born to perform.

Capote (Truman Capote)

Following his untimely passing, famous spy fiction novelist John le Carre recalled with working with Hoffman on the set of A Most Wanted Man, which was being adapted from le Carre’s source novel with Hoffman as the lead. Unsurprisingly, le Carre reminisced in typically eloquent fashion:

Whenever he left the room, you were afraid you’d seen the last of him. And if that sounds like wisdom after the event, it isn’t. Philip was burning himself out before your eyes. Nobody could live at his pace and stay the course, and in bursts of startling intimacy he needed you to know it.

I thought of his Oscar-winning work as famous writer Truman Capote in 2005’s Capote when I read that. Here was an actor “burning himself out” on screen in “bursts of startling intimacy” while disappearing into a peculiar and complex real-life figure.

Universally praised upon release, Hoffman would roll to his only Academy Award for his mesmerizing performance. Many critics pointed out that Hoffman was not so much imitating Capote as channeling him. Sure, he nails Capote’s mannerisms and high-pitched voice, as many a good actor could do, but his performance is more than that. Hoffman is able to fully embody his subject so deeply that you forget Philip Seymour Hoffman the person is even there. The greatest strength of the film is that rather than simply present Capote’s reporting on the crime from his perspective, Hoffman dares to peer into his character’s morally compromised soul. It’s the kind of accomplished and fearless acting that, despite the trophies it garnered, has become almost underrated.

Doubt (Father Flynn)

Doubt has not endured in the cultural imagination since its release ten years ago, but it’s one of the true actor showcases of this century. Originally written for the stage, playwright John Patrick Shanley adapted his own play for the screen. The story is set in a 1960s Catholic high school and concerns a principal (Meryl Streep) that accuses Hoffman’s Father Flynn of pedophilia. Streep, Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis are all given a chance to dig into their parts, which lead to all four getting Oscar-nominated. It’s riveting to watch these talents share the screen together, but it’s Hoffman that continually draws your attention.

His Father Flynn is charming and seemingly noble, but I was reminded of the creeps and cynics Hoffman has played in other movies, which gave his performance in Doubt a suspicious undercurrent. By the film’s design and due to Hoffman’s work here and elsewhere, you simply don’t trust Flynn even though there is no compromising evidence at hand.

As in all of his roles, every little gesture and movement feels natural and considered. It’s only near the end that he finally explodes with anger and bluster at Streep’s accusations and drive to remove him from the school. Initially, I thought Hoffman’s performance was a little too theatrical for an intimate drama. As I considered it, though, it seemed exactly how a man in Father Flynn’s position would act. His position of power has been questioned as the guilt of his past actions haunt him. Plus, Flynn’s incredulous behavior contrasts well with the quiet subtlety of Streep and Adams’ nuns. It makes sense that Hoffman leans into the stagy nature of Doubt as the film enters its final stretch. He rises to meet the tenor of the material.

Mission: Impossible III (Owen Davian)

Hoffman’s IMdB reads like a list of some of the great movies of the past 20-plus years: Almost Famous, The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, 25th Hour, Moneyball, The Master. Again and again, he made brilliant films even more brilliant. But he was also capable of elevating average material. Grantland’s PSH obituary put it well: “He was better than a lot of the movies he was in; it’s an occupational hazard when you’re astonishingly good at everything.”

Not that Mission: Impossible III is a bad movie, by any means. It’s an extremely effective action flick with breathtaking set pieces and a mostly convincing emotional core. However, if you replaced Hoffman with an average actor, the story isn’t half as compelling. What’s amazing is that he had just won an Oscar for Capote mere months before M:I III hit theaters. As ruthless weapons dealer Owen Davian, PSH revels in getting to play what he never had before: a black-hearted villain.

He’s utterly terrifying in this role, playing Davian with a cruel deadpan stillness that sends chills. Instead of making him a campy maniac, Hoffman portrays him as a sadist that treats the act of inflicting pain on others like a stroll to the mailbox. It’s not often an action movie villain is this enthralling to watch. Of course, it helps that Tom Cruise is the perfect counterpoint to Hoffman. The handsome and athletic Ethan Hunt is everything that Davian is not, which makes the scenes they share crackle with intensity. In fact, there’s a whole sequence where Hunt disguises himself as Davian, in effect giving Hoffman the chance to play Tom Cruise playing him. It’s a clever bit of writing that Hoffman runs with, allowing him to flash his approximation of that famous Cruise charm, if only for a moment.

What are Davian’s motives in M:I III, exactly? Don’t ask me. He’s after something called the “rabbit’s foot,” which is really just director J.J. Abrams’ MacGuffin to keep the plot moving. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Hoffman is scary good as the villain in a movie that would otherwise come close to outright silliness. You come away from this performance with the realization that he can impress in just about anything.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (Freddie Miles)

The cast of The Talented Mr. Ripley featured some true big-screen stars in Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Matt Damon. But somehow it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman that holds your attention amidst this attractive and talented crew. PSH is compulsively watchable as Freddie Miles, and while his screen time is low, he clearly enhances an already fascinating film.

Writer-director Anthony Minghella’s underrated movie about sociopath Tom Ripley (Damon) will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It’s a superb psychological thriller that deserves more present-day adoration. Ripley has been sent to Italy to bring back rich playboy Dickie Greenleaf (Law), but ends up becoming obsessed with Dickie’s life. Hoffman plays Dickie’s friend Freddie, who suavely strides onto the scene to disrupt Ripley’s future with Dickie. You’d think it’d be a bit of a stretch to buy Hoffman as a preppy womanizer, considering so many of his roles have been the opposite, but, as usual, he’s utterly believable in whatever direction he pours his efforts.

As Freddie, the Princeton-educated world-traveler, Hoffman is strangely magnetic. His line readings (“Tommy, how’s the peeping?”) and physicality (the way he stares down Ripley while listening to music in the record store) reveal that he is a real nuisance for Ripley, who views Freddie as an obstacle to his happiness with Dickie. Hoffman is always making interesting little moves on camera, and this scene at the piano — that carefree flick of his wrist — is no different. Hoffman is drawing your eyes whenever he shows up.

At this point in his career, Hoffman had hardly played any of what would become his most famous characters. Still, The Talented Mr. Ripley is an excellent early example of how he could show up for a couple minutes at a time and steal scenes from some of our great actors.

The Master (Lancaster Dodd)

An entire book could be written about the extraordinary working relationship between Hoffman and Paul Thomas Anderson. At the time of his death in 2014, PSH had appeared in five of PTA’s six films. Anderson first became fascinated with Hoffman back in 1992, when the latter’s career was just getting started: “When I saw him for the first time in Scent of a Woman, I just knew what true love was. I knew what love at first sight was. It was the strangest feeling sitting in a movie theater and thinking, ‘He’s for me and I’m for him.” With that, the spark of a perfect match was lit.

Most of Hoffman’s roles for Anderson were either one-scene bit parts or supporting characters. But they were all unforgettable. Anderson clearly allowed Hoffman the space to go nuts with his characters. In Hard Eight, PTA’s remarkable first feature, Hoffman plays Young Craps Player, an obnoxious buffoon that makes an ass of himself in front of Philip Baker Hall’s Sydney. If you saw Hard Eight in theaters in 1996, I’m sure you watched that scene and immediately wondered, “Who was that??” Anderson let Hoffman, mostly an unknown at that time, iso on screen for a few minutes. It proved Hoffman was capable of creating an instantly memorable character out of a single scene. Hoffman would appear in a similar role in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love several years later, hilariously berating Adam Sandler on the phone (“SHUT SHUT SHUT…”). In Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Hoffman had more character to work with, drawing vulnerable and empathetic performances out of key supporting parts.

It wasn’t until 2012 that Anderson finally gave Hoffman a co-lead in one of his creations. It was Christmas come early for cinephiles when it was first announced that he was teaming up with PTA and Joaquin Phoenix to make a film about Scientology. However, one of the best parts about The Master, and Hoffman’s performance in it, is that it’s not a straight retelling of the origin story of that cult, just as Hoffman isn’t doing a straight impression of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Instead, they tell their story in an off-kilter way that may confound on first watch, but only feels deeper and richer with repeated viewings. For my money, it’s Hoffman’s best work. He plays the Hubbard stand-in Lancaster Dodd with true gravitas. You can absolutely see why this man has generated such a fervent following, but Hoffman also allows you to witness the cracks in the facade. Despite his natural resemblance to Hubbard, Hoffman sports a powerful mustache to differentiate his character from the real-life inspiration, and he’s admitted his performance is just as much Orson Welles as it is Hubbard.

The most brilliant scenes of this transcendent film are when Hoffman and Phoenix are simply interacting in a room. As these two giant talents collide, Hoffman arrests us when playing intensely quiet or thunderously loud, as he did throughout his career. In the “processing” scene, Hoffman keeps his voice low and his body language still as he subjects Phoenix’s vulgar alcoholic Freddie Quell to interrogation. Later, Hoffman’s voice rises to a sudden roar as a frustrated Dodd snaps at a party guest’s rational inquiry.

Near the end, Dodd unexpectedly serenades Quell, softly singing the romantic “Slow Boat to China” right as the two say their permanent goodbyes. As in almost every Hoffman character, there is a heavy darkness right near the surface. Considering how his life ended, it’s quite emotional to watch this scene and this magnificent performance again. It’s the sight of a brilliant actor doing what he was born to do.

If I Had An Orchard’s Best Film, TV, and Music of 2018

Last year I combined my favorite movies, TV shows, and music from the year into one post. Why? Well, for one, it’s easier than trying to assemble three separate posts with a top 10 list for films, shows, and albums. Second, it allows me to prioritize which pieces of culture meant the most to me that year. So I’m doing it again for 2018.

These are not necessarily ranked by what was the greatest achievement this year. It’s more about what stuck with me the most, what left the biggest mark. Some years the movies or TV might be more impactful than the music, or vice versa. 2018 was a down year for popular music, as the big artists either sat out or delivered mediocre work, although there was still plenty of gems to discover; you just had to look a little harder. However, this was a fantastic year for cinema (there’s five movies in my top ten here), as I was left agape at that medium’s power in a world that is increasingly streaming-friendly. Enough summary though — let’s get to my 20 favorite things from pop culture this year. My full top 10 lists are at the bottom.

  1. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty

I was not a fan of Father John Misty’s bloated, pretentious Pure Comedy from 2017, so it was a delight to be back on the Father John bandwagon this year with God’s Favorite Customer, which features more sonic variety and raw emotion. In many ways, this album can be seen as a course-correction to Pure Comedy. There are gorgeous melodies all over this album that aren’t just Josh Tillman sitting at a piano — although there are some of those too (“The Palace” and “The Songwriter” are terrific). “Disappointing Diamonds…” and “Mr. Tillman” bring back that breezy Father John sound that we fell in love with, while his clever wordplay remains intact (“Must have been in the poem zone” is the most amusing line of the year). Best of all, God’s Favorite Customer is less concerned with diagnosing the world’s problems (which could come off a tad condescending), and more of a witty probe of Tillman’s own psyche.

  1. Hope Downs – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

These Australian indie rockers know how to make pleasing rock that refuses to drag. Hope Downs, their endlessly listenable debut LP, clocks in at just 35 minutes. “Mainland”, “Bellarine”, and “The Hammer” are probably the catchiest, but there’s not a single track worth skipping here. Rolling Blackouts made the best music this year for when the sky is blue and your windows are rolled down.

  1. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Back in grade school, someone convinced our entire class that Mr. Rogers was a retired Navy SEAL with dozens of confirmed kills. Apparently he wore those long sleeve cardigans because he was hiding the many, many tattoos that covered his arms. Well, none of that turned out to be true, but it’s telling that everyone believed it. Back then, and especially today, Fred Rogers seemed too good to be true; he just had to be hiding something behind that soft smile. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? posits that the gentle, friendly, generous man we all watched on TV was exactly that in his personal life. It’s clear he cared deeply about children and about displaying kindness to all, which can seem weird in a cynical, ironic culture. Near the end of this life-affirming documentary, I found myself incredibly moved by the portrait of Mr. Rogers that it had drawn. This humble, unassuming, and sincere man seemed like the most radical person I’d ever laid eyes on.

  1. Killing Eve

When you let actors really sink their teeth into a meaty part, you get a show like Killing Eve. Actress and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge made a show that spread like wildfire through word-of-mouth this year. Not only was this BBC America product imbued with globe-hopping panache, but Waller-Bridge wrote brilliant roles for her two leads. Newcomer Jodie Comer plays the assassin Villanelle, while Sandra Oh is the titular Eve, an MI5 officer both fascinated and repulsed by Comer’s psychopath. Both actresses have an absolute ball playing with this dynamic and the show is incredibly easy to love. It was probably the most fun I had watching TV this year.

  1. A Quiet Place

In 10 years, after the release of the awful sequel A Quiet Place 5: Still Quiet, I predict we will look back with immense fondness for the original A Quiet Place. This movie has such a phenomenal premise and was so successful this year, that I can’t imagine how Hollywood won’t wring the life out of it with an increasingly inert horror franchise. John Krasinski’s creature feature is incredibly fun and frightening, but it’s also grounded in his (and his wife Emily Blunt’s) personal parental anxieties that mothers and fathers around the world can relate to. With hardly any dialogue and very little score, all the actors, and Blunt in particular, are able to emote fear, panic, love, and more with just their body language and facial expressions. This is such an original achievement that it will no doubt try to be copied endlessly for years to come.

  1. Black Panther: The Album – Kendrick Lamar

Even in a year without a traditional release from Kendrick Lamar, we get treated to his terrific soundtrack for one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time. Black Panther: The Album is a best-case scenario for when one artist controls a compilation album (think Kanye’s mediocre Cruel Summer). Kendrick isn’t on every track, but he’s the unifying creative force here. This is by no means his best ever work, due to the fact that a Marvel blockbuster needs a certain amount of accessibility. Still, the production throughout is marvelous, from the R&B songs (“All The Stars”, “The Ways”) to the harder rap tracks (“X”, “Paramedic!”, “King’s Dead”).

It’s not surprising Kendrick was able to bring in some of the hottest names in hip-hop and R&B, but it is incredible that all this talent on one record doesn’t turn into a mess. Familiar faces like SZA, 2 Chainz, Khalid, and The Weeknd are here, but so are lesser known acts like SOB x RBE and Yugen Blakrok. All along it’s Kendrick’s vision that keeps things humming. We’re left with a gorgeous and thrilling soundtrack to an epic, culture-shaping movie. That doesn’t happen everyday.

  1. Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects was the rare show that made you feel like you were dwelling in the same oppressively humid environment as its characters. Set in rural Missouri, this miniseries possessed such an evocative atmosphere that you were likely to feel beads of sweat form on your forehead and a need to pour yourself a stiff glass of whiskey like everyone on screen.

HBO really brought in the talent for this one. Adapted from author Gillian Flynn’s novel, she and Marti Noxon create a screenplay that works effectively as a murder mystery and a psychological probe of its damaged characters. Director Jean-Marc Vallee returns to HBO after last year’s successful adaptation of another novel, Big Little Lies, to deliver possibly his best work yet. His mastery of the tone and emotion of material that could turn into ridiculous camp in the wrong hands made for a fever dream you could get lost in.

Amy Adams is typically stellar in the lead role and Eliza Scanlen, who plays her mysterious sister, is a name to remember. That last scene is one of the most unforgettable endings in recent memory.

  1. DAYTONA – Pusha T

Pusha T often gets knocked for only rapping about one thing. Just like an author that exclusively writes crime novels, King Push has stayed in the same lane for his entire career. He raps about drugs and making money from drugs. And he does it better than anyone.

While Pusha hasn’t typically been the subject of mainstream conversation during his impressive career, he proved himself to be as savvy and imposing as ever during his high-profile beef with Drake this year. And, oh yeah, he released a fantastic record in 2018 as well, with all seven tracks produced by Kanye West. It’s not surprising that Pusha rapping over Kanye beats is pure bliss. At just 21 minutes long, DAYTONA is a concise and lethal album. Over Kanye’s delicious sample-heavy loops, Push remains true to who he’s been his entire career: Hip-hop’s preeminent crime novelist.

  1. Wild Wild Country

Netflix’s documentary series on a truly unbelievable chain of events in 1980s Oregon had me riveted over its six hours. Brothers Maclain and Chapman Way direct Wild Wild Country with attention to detail and just the right amount of style. Against a killer soundtrack and fascinating archival footage, they take you through the story of how a controversial Indian guru built a cult community in the Oregon desert before eventually taking over a nearby town. As things turn increasingly dark and bizarre, the Way brothers show us how religion, government, celebrity, power, and freedom crash together in America. You’ll be scratching your head wondering why you’ve never heard this story before.

  1. Widows

If you’d always wanted a prestige Oscar-minted filmmaker to go for broke on a heist movie, 2018 gave you your wish. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) co-wrote and directed his version of a crime genre picture with Widows. With an utterly stacked cast (literally too many good actors to mention here — look it up), Widows is both somber and invigorating. It’s a big Hollywood movie made by a director with more on his mind than just entertainment. Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox’s marketing team dropped the ball, because the movie had limited impact at the box office when it should have been a must-see. Still, Widows seems like the kind of film built to stand the test of time.

  1. If Beale Street Could Talk

How do you follow up a modern masterpiece and Best Picture winner? There’s no right answer, but writer-director Barry Jenkins may have done it better than anyone. Adapting a James Baldwin novel that functions equally well as a love story and social critique, Jenkins continues to refine his storytelling and visual skills even after a historic success like Moonlight. From the lush score to the eye-pleasing colors, this is a drop-dead gorgeous film. It also helps that If Beale Street Could Talk is filled with actors that bring plenty of life. Stephan James and Kiki Layne are utterly convincing as the central couple (you really feel they are meant for each other), while Regina King delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as a strong-willed and emotionally wrecked mother. Melancholy has hardly looked so beautiful as it does in this film.

  1. Lush – Snail Mail

Snail Mail’s Lindsay Jordan is only 19, which is both obvious and shocking when you listen to Lush. Obvious, because she sings of heartbreak and unrequited love from a young person’s perspective. Shocking, because of the maturity and honesty on display in her lyrics, as well as her abundant talent for crafting a killer indie rock song. Whether it’s an upbeat singalong like “Full Control” or “Pristine” or a more relaxed track like “Let’s Find An Out”, Jordan is more than capable of making the superb Lush sound anthemic and introspective at the same time.

  1. First Man

It’s perhaps the quietest, least triumphant movie ever made about a Great American Moment, but First Man still soars. Once again, director Damien Chazelle has created something both old-fashioned and innovative. Venturing out to space after the magical jazz-musical successes of Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle forces us to realize the unimaginable cost of going to the moon by placing us inside the cockpit and the domestic lives of the astronauts that worked so hard to achieve our national dreams. Ryan Gosling is withdrawn and stern as Neil Armstrong, transforming a history book figure into flesh and blood, and Claire Foy is the emotional center of the film as his wife Janet. It’s a technical marvel (especially the climactic IMAX scene on the moon), as well as a momentous and resonant story.

  1. Homecoming

The creators of Amazon’s Homecoming pulled off a magic trick here. They took ten podcast episodes and made one of the most visually inventive shows that TV has ever seen. Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) directed all ten episodes with imagination and originality. Of course, he took his cues from 1970s paranoid thrillers to create the world of this mysterious conspiracy show, using the framing, camera techniques, and scores of those classics.

We can’t forget about Homecoming’s performances. Julia Roberts, an up-and-coming actress in her first role on TV, is splendid here, as she tamps down that natural Roberts charisma for a performance far more complex. Stephan James, Bobby Cannavale, and Shea Whigham are perfectly cast, giving highly memorable performances opposite a star like Roberts. This is a show that lodged itself in my psyche and refused to leave.

  1. Yolk in the Fur – Wild Pink

After an enjoyable self-titled debut last year, Wild Pink leveled up in a hurry in 2018. Essentially, their sound became widescreen and epic. They take their cues from Springsteen and Petty, as well as present-day heartland rock group The War on Drugs. Still, Wild Pink retains an idiosyncratic streak due to lead singer John Ross’ understated vocals and lyrical specificity (Tumblr, Uber, and a ouija board are referenced at different points). There’s something a little off-kilter about this band that sets them apart. “Lake Erie” and “There Is a Ledger” are the standouts, but the whole album feels like it’s optimistically reaching for peace and serenity in pessimistic times. Wild Pink is a band coming into their element in real time.

  1. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves

The most pleasant surprise of my year was pressing play on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour for the first time — and then subsequently returning to it time and again as the months passed. I was only peripherally aware of Musgraves as one of many mainstream female country artists, so I was blindsided when she released what would become my favorite album of the year. On this soon-to-be classic, she plays with genre in enjoyable ways, as Golden Hour’s brilliant production melds laid-back country-pop with disco (“High Horse”) and psychedelic folk (“Oh, What A World”).

As an often cynical person, certain lyrics that seemed a little corny and cliched at first became powerful with repeated listens. She’s not ironic or detached here, just infectiously sincere and open-hearted, welcoming life’s joys with wonder and awe. Musgraves was getting married around the time she was making the record, and you can hear that both in her warm and intimate lyrics and her lovely and crystalline voice.

Golden Hour is an album that I revisited throughout the changing seasons. In warmer weather, it made me want to venture outside and enjoy the sun on my face. During the winter, it has gone down like a soothing mug of hot tea. That’s a sign of music that will live on.

  1. A Star Is Born

When A Star Is Born’s intoxicating trailer dropped earlier this year on a hyperbolic, meme-crazed internet, many wondered if this would be the best movie of all-time or the worst. What was so exciting in that moment is that we really had no idea if Bradley Cooper’s massive gamble to remake a melodramatic Hollywood story was going to be an equally massive success or a career-damaging failure. While A Star Is Born is clearly not the best or worst movie ever, we can now comfortably say the end product was much closer to the former.

Against all probability, this movie just works. It beckons you to come along for the ride and entertains and moves you to no end. Yes, it teeters precariously on the edge of ridiculousness and melodrama. Yes, believability is strained at times. Ultimately, none of that matters when there are moments as exhilarating and indelible as Ally’s (Lady Gaga) first time on stage with Jackson (Cooper). Cooper’s directorial vision and performance are now career-defining and Gaga’s turn as that rising star will be referred to for decades (and might even bag her an Oscar). This type of art, both mainstream crowd-pleasing and technically impressive, doesn’t come around all that often. It seems we’ve decided to cherish it while it’s here.

  1. Atlanta (S2)

One of the great joys of 2018 was sitting down for a new episode of Atlanta. As the first scene opened up, there was just no predicting what you were about to watch. Each installment contained ideas that could be parsed for days. Money, class, race, celebrity — it was all on the table and more. But the emotion Donald Glover and co. brings to the show is special as well. In a single episode, Atlanta can range from surreal to melancholy to hilarious to devastating to terrifying to exhilarating.

The most memorable episode was the brilliant, upsetting “Teddy Perkins,” but “Helen” and “Woods” also provided a spotlight for bravura drama and character development. Director Hiro Murai continued to give the show its unique visual sense and the cast of Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield, and Zazie Beetz were marvelous again (plus, we are treated to some truly amusing cameos from Katt Williams, Michael Vick (!), and “Drake”). Remarkably, Atlanta Robbin’ Season somehow topped what came before in delightfully unexpected ways.

  1. Roma

In describing his very personal masterpiece, filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron described the camera in Roma as a ghost from the future observing events of the past. Throughout the film we follow a domestic worker named Cleo as she goes about her quotidian daily tasks caring for an upper middle class Mexican family. In stark black-and-white the camera patiently tracks with her as we see the increasingly dramatic events of her life, allowing us to feel as if we are silent witnesses from almost 50 years in the future.

You try to go into a wildly hyped film like Roma with fair expectations, but that’s impossible. In the opening minutes my disappointment grew as I found myself restlessly waiting for the movie to become a modern classic. That is no way to watch a film. As the story continued to slowly unfold at its own pace, I let Roma immerse me in its setting, tone, and rhythm. As it washed over me, the accumulation of its moments became extremely powerful by the end. Cuaron is painting his childhood memory on screen in an almost unprecedented way here, leading to a remarkable clarity of image and emotion. Roma examines the personal and the societal in wondrous ways, making the film feel both intimate and epic, like only the timeless classics of cinema history can.

  1. First Reformed

Weighty, propulsive, and masterful, no film this year imprinted itself on me like First Reformed. Paul Schrader’s anguished and cerebral drama of a deeply troubled pastor is structured like a thriller, but contains a spellbinding amount of psychological complexity. Ethan Hawke is at his restrained best as Rev. Ernst Toller here, and he’s probably never been better. His character unravels physically, emotionally, and spiritually before our eyes, as he deals with the effects of sin, loss, and climate change. It’s a mostly bleak vision of our broken world, but rarely have spiritual issues — faith and doubt, hope and despair — been rendered on screen with this much depth and feeling. And the ending is one that could be examined for ages.

Full Lists

Top 10 Films

  1. First Reformed
  2. Roma
  3. A Star Is Born
  4. First Man
  5. If Beale Street Could Talk
  6. Widows
  7. A Quiet Place
  8. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
  9. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
  10. Isle of Dogs

Top 10 TV Shows

  1. Atlanta (S2)
  2. Homecoming
  3. Wild Wild Country
  4. Sharp Objects
  5. Killing Eve
  6. Barry
  7. GLOW (S2)
  8. The Americans (S6)
  9. Narcos: Mexico
  10. The Good Place (S3)

Top 10 Albums

  1. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves
  2. Yolk in the Fur – Wild Pink
  3. Lush – Snail Mail
  4. DAYTONA – Pusha T
  5. Black Panther: The Album – Kendrick Lamar
  6. Hope Downs – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
  7. God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty
  8. 7 – Beach House
  9. EVERYTHING IS LOVE – The Carters
  10. Mt. Joy – Mt. Joy

Capsule Review: Widows

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that, write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that — let’s get to it.

Widows is an exceedingly rare gem. This kind of smart crime film has been squeezed out of theaters in recent years, and it’s even rarer to see an Oscar-decorated filmmaker step into this genre. With Widows, writer-director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) has fashioned a thrilling mainstream heist movie with plenty on its mind.

This is maybe the slowest, most contemplative heist film ever — and I mean that as a compliment. There are action movie thrills and twists, of course, but they are few and far between. Instead, McQueen lets his outstanding cast cook while he explores broad social themes. Widows impressively ponders Big Ideas like (deep breath) race, gender, religion, power, political corruption, gun ownership, police brutality, and more. For the most part, it avoids feeling bloated.

Widows marks a departure for McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn. McQueen’s first three films — Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave — form a sort of trilogy about suffering. In his latest, he’s depicting grief, a different kind of suffering, but Widows still moves at three times the speed of his previous work. It’s fascinating to watch him go from a prestige Best Picture winner to something this accessible.

Flynn usually writes novels and screenplays about broken and self-destructive women, like Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) in this year’s HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, or sociopathic villains, like Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne. Here the women of Widows (while criminals) are not wrestling against some inner darkness, but taking desperate action to survive after their brutal husbands left them holding the bag.

Those titular widows lead a ridiculously stacked cast. You may not be too familiar with Elizabeth Debicki or Cynthia Erivo, but they are giving us empathetic performances in limited screen time. You’re paying strict attention whenever they are present. Ditto for the men in supporting roles here. Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, and Robert Duvall are all significant talents that are handed smaller parts that are interesting nonetheless. However, the actor that steals the show is Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out). His cold-blooded mob enforcer is legitimately one of the most terrifying figures I’ve seen on screen in recent years.

Holding it all together is the great Viola Davis. To pull off a film with such a sprawling narrative and character count, you need someone with the gravitas to center it all. Davis has this in spades. She plays Veronica Rawlings, widow to Neeson’s renowned criminal, with a masterful mix of strength, vulnerability, and drive. On the surface, Veronica is severe and tough, but in other moments, Davis shows us the cracks as Veronica reckons with her husband’s actions. It’s a performance that only a handful of actresses are capable of.

Not quite everything works in this movie. There’s a couple scenes that strain the believability of such a gritty film, and the flashback police shooting near the end feels shoehorned in for modern-day relevance. Even if Widows bites off a little more than it can chew, I’d still take it over most crime movies this decade. McQueen and Co. are somehow able to provide heist movie adrenaline without sacrificing a compelling and thoughtful story.

See it if you like: Crime films that strive to transcend their genre. Widows contains some of the epic sweep of Heat with a dash of twisty plot thrown in.

Capsule Review: Sorry to Bother You

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that, write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that — let’s get to it.

This is a case where we’ve reached the limits of the capsule review. Sorry to Bother You is the kind of film you do not want to try to write about in less than 500 words, but I’m going to do it anyway. There’s enough ideas and plot developments and style choices packed into this thing to last a thousand thinkpieces. I’ll just offer up whatever thoughts I can distill at the moment.

In case you haven’t heard, Sorry to Bother You is bizarre, absurd, unique, and fully entertaining. It’s hilarious and not all of the jokes even land. It’s punk satire that goes after some of the biggest institutions in our country, and I’m not even sure it all comes together that well, but man, is it a blast.

First-time writer-director Boots Riley has cast his film incredibly well. Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out) plays Cassius Green, a telemarketer that adopts his “white voice” in order to get ahead at his job. When he’s promoted upstairs, Green gets sucked into a humanity-threatening conspiracy while his friends protest for organized labor outside. Stanfield is a deeply reserved and interior actor, which makes him well-suited to be the grounded centerpiece of such a wild, unhinged movie. As amoral tech-bro king Steve Lift, Armie Hammer couldn’t be a more perfect fit for such a role; he’s a deranged, coked-up, pistol-waving Winkelvoss brother here. Filling out this cast of actors you’d watch in anything is Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, and Jermaine Fowler.

Riley filled Sorry to Bother You with provocative, progressive ideas set in a capitalist dystopia. Race, class, and socioeconomic status clash in wildly colorful ways. It’s the furthest thing from subtle, with certain themes pointed to overtly, like code switching, white voice, late capitalism, selling out, corporate greed, finding meaning in modern life, and many more. We don’t have enough time to cover half of it.

It’s a pretty crazy ride even before you reach the cinematic acid trip that is the third act. Part of me thinks it’s too ridiculous of a left turn, and yet, another part of me thinks it’s the only way to end a movie like this. Don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling anything. I will just say that we need more movies like this and more filmmakers that aren’t afraid to let it rip. As a result, Riley has created one of the boldest and most original films in recent years.

See it if you like: Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Even these comparisons don’t feel exactly right, but it’s the closest I could come up with.

Capsule Review: First Man

Ryan Gosling in First Man

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that, write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that — let’s get to it.

In a GQ cover story on First Man, writer Daniel Riley points out that the film’s version of the Apollo 11 moon landing could very well become the “definitive, superseding account in the minds of many Americans.” Kind of like how if you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, those are the images you have in your head of D-Day. Or Titanic for the sinking of the Titanic. Or Apollo 13 for that failed near-disaster mission. (As far as I know, astronaut Jim Lovell looks exactly like Tom Hanks.) For director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling (who plays Neil Armstrong), it had to be a daunting task creating the audiovisual experience of man’s first trip to the moon that will be imprinted on the public consciousness.

I’d say they landed the Eagle with aplomb. First Man is an intimate and immersive look at both Neil Armstrong’s life and how we were able to get a crew of astronauts all the way to the moon’s surface in 1969. Chazelle’s movie is stern and tight-lipped, much like its protagonist. Gosling’s performance as the iconic Armstrong is perfectly restrained and tightly wound due to the death of his two-year-old daughter several years before Apollo 11, which the film postulates was a motivating force for Armstrong in his drive to make history in such an ambitious but perilous way. Even with this emotional heft, however, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to find the film a tad cold because of how closely it mirrors Gosling’s performance. This is no triumphant “U-S-A!” picture.

And yet, I found it moving all the same. Claire Foy can be thanked for much of this, as she impressively brings Neil’s wife Janet Armstrong to life. It’s a smaller role, but feels very authentic to what an astronaut’s wife must have gone through: the all-too-common funerals and the creeping notion that your loved one could be next. As for the rest of the cast, it’s a That Guy all-star team: Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, among others. He may be too famous to be a That Guy, but Kyle Chandler is great as always here.

Already the youngest Best Director winner ever, Chazelle finds a new way to shoot a space movie on First Man. During the flight sequences, he keeps us locked inside that claustrophobic cockpit, only occasionally allowing us to breathe with a wide shot. The shuttle launches are white-knuckle, hair-raising experiences where literally everything shakes onscreen, as if you’re right there next to Armstrong. It makes you consider how crazy we had to be to pull this off 50 years ago. And please, Academy, give whoever designed the impeccable sound here an award or three. You can hear every quaking piece of metal as the astronauts hurtle through the sky in these fragile tin cans.

While most of the film is shot in 16mm shaky-cam and extreme close-up, the moon sequence (shot with IMAX cameras) is absolutely stunning. When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin open up the hatch, all the sound is stripped away and we are left with what Aldrin famously called that “magnificent desolation.” Moments like this are exactly why we go to the movies.

Capsule Review: 22 July

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that, write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that — let’s get to it.

You want to watch the first 30 or so minutes of 22 July through your fingers. It’s that harrowing and horribly realistic in its depiction of the deadly 2011 attack in Norway, where a far-right-wing terrorist murdered 77 people by setting off a bomb in Oslo and then gunning down dozens of teenagers at a summer camp on the island of Utoya.

The director is Paul Greengrass, who has made a career out of turning hardly believable headlines into authentic shaky cam recreations. Besides helming three of the Bourne movies, Greengrass has brought to life the Bloody Sunday massacre (Bloody Sunday), the 2009 Somali pirate hijacking (Captain Phillips), and the 9/11 terror attacks (United 93).

United 93 was effective and moving and Captain Phillips was tight, suspenseful, and probably his best film (thanks to Mr. Tom Hanks), but with 22 July it feels like Greengrass’ niche is starting to drag.

From the opening scenes, we get straight to the gruesome carnage instead of establishing any backstory. This has a disorienting effect that I’m not sure is a good thing. However, Greengrass clearly has other ideas on his mind besides accurately rendering the attacks. He’s more interested in showing us the traumatic aftermath, as the second half of the film settles into more of a heavy drama as opposed to the barely watchable horror of the first half. Unfortunately, there’s not much to propel the plot forward, and 22 July ends up as an overlong, if well-intentioned, courtroom and physical recovery drama.

One smaller issue that bugged me was the fact that Greengrass had his Norwegian cast speak English. For a film that is otherwise a painfully accurate portrayal, that felt like a curious decision. This, and the way Greengrass has written his film, leaves 22 July’s actors without much to play off. You’re not left with many memorable performances, which tends to be the case in all of his movies, unless you have the star wattage of a Matt Damon or a Tom Hanks.

Worst of all, as the film ends, it’s not entirely clear why it was worth witnessing those violent events in the first place.

Capsule Review: BlacKkKlansman

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that — write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that. Let’s get to it.

For a time such as this, we need Spike Lee. The man behind provocative, conversation-sparking films like Do the Right Thing and The 25th Hour is a natural fit for our present-day racial and political chaos. Going into his latest, BlacKkKlansman, I was waiting to be bowled over by a powerful statement from a master. Instead, I found a funny and entertaining movie that in the end is really kind of a mess.

This crazy true story of a black Colorado Springs police officer infiltrating the KKK in the early 1970s is depicted on screen humorously and playfully at first. John David Washington (Denzel’s son) plays officer Ron Stallworth with delightful comedic timing and Adam Driver is excellent as usual as a Jewish undercover cop that pretends to be Stallworth in person at Klan meetups. The uncomfortable laughs continue throughout most of the movie as the KKK are revealed to be backwoods idiots spewing ridiculous hate-filled rhetoric. You can’t help but enjoy watching this outrageous story play out.

While it may be exceedingly watchable, the last third of BlacKkKlansman strains plot believability. Why is Stallworth, the only black officer in the city, assigned to security detail for KKK Grand Wizard David Duke? There were at least three or four times in the last 45 minutes that I was left scratching my head at the actions and motivations of these characters. Tonally, BlacKkKlansman isn’t much clearer, as it veers from buddy cop comedy to serious detective procedural to furious political drama.

In reviews, critics have described BlacKkKlansman as thought-provoking and challenging. But is it really? Most of what I saw was just an easy repudiation of white supremacists like Duke and bigots like President Trump. There is zero subtlety in their skewering. It’s thuddingly obvious in connecting America’s racist past to its present. People who see this movie are already in agreement on the evils of a racist ideology. There is not much that will cause viewers to reflect on their own biases or their own role in where our society is right now.

The very end of this movie has surely got people talking, as incendiary images from the 2017 Charlottesville protest and ensuing violence are intended to be a powerful and sobering coda. After watching a film where the racists ultimately get some level of comeuppance, this felt disjointed to me. The ending seemed too tacked on — and it actually was, as the movie was already finished filming when Charlottesville happened.

This probably isn’t the best film to do a shorter review on, because there is plenty more to say. I am certainly glad Spike is making work like this and I hope people see BlacKkKlansman, I just expected a more artful offering from him, one that wasn’t so clumsy in its storytelling and obvious in its message.

Steve Carell’s Brilliance on The Office Is Encapsulated in “Dinner Party”

If you listen to the creators and cast members of The Office talk about their time on the show, you will hear a repetitive theme: Steve Carell is a comedic genius. In the Rolling Stone oral history of one of the show’s best episodes “Dinner Party,” you see pretty clearly that they are in awe of Carell.

The director of the episode Paul Feig, who also created Freaks and Geeks and directed Bridesmaids, had this to say: “[The cast] were just laughing so hard and going, like, “God, this guy is such a fucking genius.” John Krasinski, who famously played camera-mugging wisecracker Jim Halpert, said: “Sometimes Steve would get frustrated when we couldn’t keep it together because he didn’t think he was as funny as we thought he was and also he’s more professional than all of us.”

The U.S. version of The Office simply doesn’t work if Carell isn’t as brilliant as he is as Michael Scott. Upon rewatch of “Dinner Party,” the excruciatingly hilarious episode where Michael and Jan have Jim, Pam, Andy, and Angela over for a never-ending dinner party in hell, you see what makes Carell as Michael one of the all-time great TV performances.

When The Office premiered in 2005, Carell’s career was just lifting off. Previously only really known from his stint on The Daily Show, he played Brick in Will Ferrell’s instant comedy classic Anchorman in 2004. The next year, he truly entered the cultural consciousness when The Office aired in March and he starred in The 40-Year-Old Virgin in August. By the time “Dinner Party” aired during The Office’s fourth season in 2008, Carell had proven himself one of TV’s most talented comedy actors, winning a Golden Globe and getting nominated for multiple Emmys.

Carell cut his improv teeth in the early 90s performing with Chicago’s famous comedy troupe The Second City (Stephen Colbert was his understudy at the time). It’s always tricky sussing out the improv from the written parts of a scripted comedy show, but The Office was famous for its willingness to let its actors play. In “Dinner Party,” Carell and Melora Hardin (Jan) are having the time of their lives going at each other’s throats. Michael and Jan’s relationship turns into a plane crash as the episode goes on — horrifying, but impossible to look away from the nosedive. The tension and awkwardness in watching these two interact is almost unbearable. While Jan closes her eyes and sways to her former assistant’s song (which was clearly written about losing his virginity to Jan, a fact everyone besides Michael quickly realizes), Michael uncomfortably fidgets in his seat. Carell is letting us know that Michael is maybe not as oblivious as he often seems.

One of the key scenes that required Carell to improv was when Michael and Jan are discussing having children in front of the entire party, which leads to perhaps the episode’s most memorable moment: “Snip, snap! Snip, snap! Snip, snap!” What makes “Dinner Party” a classic in The Office canon is that there is a weight and darkness behind the laughs. Feig recalls how Carell came up with the “snip, snap” line to cut through the heaviness of the scene:

“We shot that exchange, like, four or five times, and it was really good but it was superheavy. I remember we were all like, “This is a little . . . this isn’t as fun as we wanted it to be.” So I went over to Steve and said, “It’s awesome, we just need to make it a little more fun.” And so that was the take that’s in when he said, “Snip-snap, snip-snap, snip-snap.” That all came out of Steve being such an amazing actor and going, like, “OK, I know how to take it and make it Michael craziness.”

Beyond the improv, that scene also displays Carell’s ability to slay the room with a line reading. When Michael says, “You have no IDEA the physical toll that three vasectomies can have on a person!” the way he emphasizes “vasectomies” just kills me. This also goes for earlier in the episode when he takes a sip of wine, smacks his lips a little, and then notes that it has an “oaky afterbirth.”

Carell’s comedic timing is perfect in this episode, especially when showing off his tiny plasma TV to Jim and Pam, the scene that makes me laugh the hardest every time.

You get a glimpse into how awful Michael’s life is with Jan that the best thing about their home life is his crap 12” TV that he has to stand in the middle of the room to see. When he “folds” it into the wall, it moves about an inch. Then Carell tops off the cringe-inducing hilarity by putting out his hands and exclaiming “I love this TV!” You might wonder how the cast made it through scenes like this, and the answer, at least for this one, is that they didn’t. Krasinski reported in the oral history that if they started cracking up while filming they could usually come back. This one was different: “On that one, he couldn’t come back. There was something in the room there that was like an untamed animal, and we were just getting demolished by laughter.”

Of course, in an ensemble comedy you don’t do it alone, so props has to be given to Melora Hardin as Jan, who is more than a worthy sparring partner here for Carell. Whether she’s throwing shade at Pam or literally throwing a Dundie at Michael’s cherished plasma TV, Hardin deserves much of the credit for why this episode works so well.

Both Carell and Hardin are so adept at the improvisational elements of The Office and able to fully inhabit their characters. When they are screaming at each other near the end, you feel just like their dinner guests: It seems so real that you just want to get out of there.

Capsule Review: Game Night

It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that — write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that. Let’s get to it.

Here we have the R-rated comedy that we desperately need more of. If Hollywood released a movie as funny, twisty, and enjoyable as Game Night every month, the movie business would be in much better shape. But therein lies the problem: Game Night is secretly kind of hard to pull off. Co-directors John Francis Daley (Sam from Freaks and Geeks!) and Jonathan Goldstein have to strike just the right balance between comedy and action, or, more specifically, between jokes and set pieces. You tip too far one way and your work comes off so jokey that the action scenes don’t carry any weight, or you tip the other way and your movie so implausible that the jokes don’t land amidst all the ridiculous fight scenes.

It also helps when you have a cast that is as inherently watchable as this one. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams come ready to play as the couple whose over-competitiveness would make Kobe blush. Jesse Plemons, Lamorne Morris (what up, Winston!), and Billy Magnussen are all given enough to do in limited screen time. And Kyle Chandler is allowed to go against type as Bateman’s hot-shot asshole brother. It’s a thrill to see Chandler, who has played government agents and football coaches for years, in this kind of role.

Let’s be honest though: Game Night is extremely inessential. There’s no big themes tackled here beyond What if Jesse Plemons were the creepiest cop ever. Still, it’s a great time. The action sequences are shot with verve and spontaneity. There’s a wild long take where the camera follows a game of keep-away with a Faberge egg. Plus, most of the jokes land resoundingly and everything feels loose enough that it seems like just about anything could happen toward the end of Game Night. This kind of unpredictable and delightful entertainment should be welcomed with open arms.

See it if you like: Semi-raunchy, action-y comedies like 21 Jump Street and Horrible Bosses (where Daley and Goldstein have a writing credit).