Movies: All Is True, My Cousin Vinny, Yesterday
TV: Good Omens
Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
This is Mark Millar's 2003 comic miniseries that posits a brilliant "what if?" scenario: what if baby Kal-El, dispatched from his doomed homeworld in a tiny alien vessel, crash-landed on Earth, on a small family farm... in Ukraine?¹ ²
What I love about the comic is how it leaps past your expectations. Sure, you hear that setup, and you imagine Superman averting disasters in Kiev and Moscow, and standing up for Russian ideals, and then (if you're me) your imagination kind of trails off. The book, instead, dives deep, like it's playing out an endless Patton Oswalt comic-culture filibuster, sketching out changes to geopolitics, to the lives of well-known DC characters, to just how it feels to be a human being in this alternate universe.
You go into it feeling like it's going to be a piece of sketch comedy, and then you quickly realize that, no, Mr. Millar is building a cathedral.
All Is True
This is the 2018 comedy that stars Kenneth Brannagh as William Shakespeare, when he returns to Stratford-upon-Avon after the Globe, and his theatrical career, have gone up in smoke.
So let's be 100% honest here: there is no way this movie really needs to exist. From the artistic side, there is no passion behind the story construction. Nobody had something they desperately needed to say, and realized that a historical fantasia about Shakespeare's declining years was just the only way to do it. Likewise, the market was not clamoring desperately for a treatment of this subject matter.
The movie is, instead, solid indulgence. It's for Shakespeare nerds who would think, yeah, it would be neat to explore this even-shadowier-than-usual part of the Bard's life. It's for the viewer who thinks a hazy autumnal scene with an aging Shakespeare idly trailing his hand across a stand of wheat is, in and of itself, worth watching. It's for people who think, "Brannagh as Shakespeare talking to Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton and they quote sonnets to each other NO I DON'T CARE IF IT'S IRRELEVANT TO THE PLOT SIGN ME UP."
Like Mr. Elton's now-ancient comedy Blackadder, a lot of the pleasure is just watching the story wander through historical facts and figures you already know. There's a contentment in the recognition.
The movie does an admirable job weaving a meaningful story through the dozen or so facts we *do* know about Shakespeare's post-career life. There is a mystery to be resolved, and secrets people hold, and relationships that grow more and more strained. Granted, that core story has maybe a half-hour of screentime. The movie wisely wanders away from it, indulging in pretty, neatly-balanced shots of the estate, and Shakespeare being sarcastically witty (in again a vaguely Blackadder way) to visitors, and Ben Jonson coming by for a cameo and chat.
And it does a nice job of capturing a sense of Stratford-upon-Avon in the early 17ᵗʰ century — the grime in the city proper contrasting with the idyllic outer estates; the rising Puritan strain clashing with the more relaxed traditional gentry; the claustrophobic, small-town, everyone-watching-everyone feel of it all.
Mr. Elton does the best job I can imagine with the spec of "invent a story about Shakespeare's post-career life". But again, there's just no reason for it to be. It does find some thematic weight to the oppression of women in that society, though the movie never really makes up its mind to be *about* that theme. Instead, it feels very much *about* that indulgence: getting to imagine Shakespeare in his twilight years, and getting to imagine him, at least in some ways, happy.
I liked the movie. I've been kind of walking away from theater myself this year, so I suppose it hit me where I live, a bit. But there's no reason to see it unless you're a bit obsessive about Shakespeare yourself.
My Cousin Vinny
This is the 1990 comedy that stars Joe Pesci as a neophyte lawyer from Brooklyn who defends his cousin against a murder charge in Alabama.
This movie is known now for one thing: the shocking Supporting Actress win at the Oscars for Marisa Tomei, who plays Pesci's girlfriend. People *hate* that she won, or use it as a punching bag, claiming it's one of the Academy's worst and most perplexing decisions. There are even conspiracy theories that the announcer read the wrong name. For a certain type of Man On the Internet, making fun of Tomei's win is a trifecta: they get to dismiss a woman, from an immigrant group, who was in a comedy.³
I'd never seen this movie, and I circled back to it after hearing it referenced on Opening Arguments, a podcast that does legal analysis on news stories. That might seem like an odd combination, but after watching the movie, it makes sense: this is a comedy about judicial procedure.
And that should not work at all. That should not be the core of a mainstream film comedy.
And yet there they all, patiently building the movie around it. Okay, the two kids get falsely arrested for murder. Okay, the only guy they can get to help them out is the titular "cousin Vinny" from Brooklyn. And okay, he's never tried a case in his life — but everybody in Alabama is ready to railroad a couple out-of-towners into the electric chair, so he literally has to figure out how to be a trial lawyer in a matter of days, or these likeable-ish ciphers at the center of the story will fry.
And then they build the characters around that as well. They do a fine job with Vinny Gambini, making him as unlike a conventional lawyer as possible — lower-class background, thick Brooklyn accent, and so on — but giving him the skills that he needs to be good at it. And there, the movie really shines. I've seen so many movies that try to convince us a character is smart, usually by "screenwriter cheating" — i.e., Sherlock basically guesses the right answer from sparse evidence that has a number of plausible explanations, and we're supposed to marvel at his (almost always "his") genius.
But here, they play it much more fair. We watch him haggle with a redneck who stiffed Mona out of her winnings at pool, and he plays every step of that intelligently. He negotiates out the deal to get the money back. He identifies every trick the pool player uses to try and stiff *him* on the payment. They also do a great scene where Mona and Vinny bicker about leaving the water dripping in the bathroom, which veers into what I reckon is an attempt at impeaching an expert witness. (And also foreplay?)
True, some of the other characterization is of the "tell don't show" school, with Vinny talking about a judge seeing promise in him, or with Bill (the Ralph Maccio character) telling a story of him cross-examining a stage magician. But ultimately, you buy that Vinny can do good work in the courtroom. He just needs a chance.
And then they get the audience emotionally invested in that. Again, the two kids are ciphers, and the threat to them never has much impact on the audience. But when the film drops the comedy for one scene — just Vinny talking about how that aforementioned judge saw potential in him — it's powerfully affecting. Mr. Pesci acts it very well, telegraphing the warmth and insecurity under Vinny's bravado. Suddenly all you want is for Vinny to win this case.
(They also pin whether Mona will marry him or leave him on the outcome of the case — that's really just gravy by then, as far as raising the stakes goes.)
Suddenly all the abstruse legal procedures are fun hurdles for Vinny to take on. And seeing him finally find his feet, and bring his natural argumentative qualities to bear on everyone in the courtroom, is really satisfying.
The movie isn't perfect, of course. The resolution of the court case is total deus ex machina — a fun payoff for Ms. Tomei's performance, and excitingly written, but screenplay-wise it all kinda comes out of nowhere. I could have done without, well, *all* of the gay-panic humor. And frankly, the whole idea of "a corrupt judicial system is happily sending a couple of innocents to their deaths"... those of us who had the privilege of finding that funny thirty years ago are, I hope, a bit more chastened now.
Still, it's refreshing to see an 80s comedy (yes, it was released in 1990, but it feels, at all points, much more like nineteen-eighty-ten) just doing its thing. It's not trying to build up a franchise. It's not a vehicle for Judd Apatow's friends to do lazy improv. Nothing splashy or spectacular happens here. It just gets in, tells its story, gets some laughs, gets out. It's a solid three-star movie that saves its over-the-top effort for quietly getting the legal details right.
This is Danny Boyle's 2019 romantic comedy where a struggling singer-songwriter suddenly becomes the only person on earth that remembers the career and works of the Beatles.
So: this is what cineaste neckbeards call a "high-concept" movie — it's got a big, splashy idea behind it, something that grabs people's attention in an elevator pitch and summarizes concisely in a logline.
And these high-concept movies tend to get structured a particular way. On the one hand, there's the wild, out-there concept you haven't seen before. We explore its consequences. We explore how to express it in film grammar. And it's the thing we came there to see. And then on the other hand, there's a very conventional, trope-y, genre-y storyline. The splashy concept gives us the big moments of the trailer, and the memorable set-pieces of the show. The bog-standard storyline gives the movie its plot, and makes it something other than a highlight reel of "wouldn't it be neat?" explorations of the premise. The high concept provides things that are novel — the trope plot balances it out with things that are familiar.
So, I dunno, consider Chicken Run. The splashy novelty is that it's a stop-motion animated film about talking chickens. The trope-y storyline is that it's basically The Great Escape, or any number of well-worn prison-jailbreak stories.
I suppose this is one reason why "it's <x> meets <y> is such a time-honored elevator pitch: many movies have a unique high concept that doesn't inherently create a story with emotional stakes, so they have to be married to a traditional storyline that will create a plot we can care about.
And so it is with Yesterday. The splashy bit is that first sentence I wrote up above (struggling musician, Beatles, global amnesia). The conventional storyline has writer Richard Curtis serving up a calm, pleasantly predictable rom-com that's, in retrospect, so Richard Curtis that it hurts. There's the coterie of wacky friends. There's a couple that's kept apart not by coincidence but by long-standing relationship problems that evoke a kind of grown-up ennui. There's a bombastic admission-of-feelings speech that resolves it. There's witty dialog throughout.⁴ Even if you haven't seen it, you've seen it. It's reliably fun.
And so that sturdy, well-worn rom-com plot becomes an emotional through-line that keeps you paying attention to all the splashier things. It's wonderful to watch Jack play "Yesterday" for the first time for a group of friends who have never heard it, or anything like it. It's great to watch him record in a little hometown studio. And then it dives into a parody of the music industry — it feels kinda "drawn without reference", and has little to say besides "shallow showbiz people are unpleasant", but it gives Kate McKinnon a chance to play another delightful over-the-top grotesque.
There were just two moments that will really stick with me from the "music plot". And this is where we go into spoilers.
First, there is the confrontation between the two mysterious Beatles fans who follow him around the globe. They do a great fake-out, making us think that these people will expose him (setting up the expectation — the paranoia, really — with a clunky-but-effective dream sequence). But the moment they thank him for bringing these songs back into the world... that hit me right in the gut. It reminds you that we aren't just capitalist cogs clawing at each other for more money — we are capable of caring instead about bringing beauty and happiness into the world.
And second, of course, the John Lennon⁵ scene. That one made me cry, even as I watched how it was patiently manipulating the audience, and could see how close-to-incidental it was to the plot. I didn't care. Afterwards, I thought "but he was kind of an asshole. He beat his wife, right?" And then I thought more about it: that he stopped doing that, and regretted it terribly. He went through all the madness of Beatlemania, then the acrimonious end of the band, and massive problems with drug addiction. And after it all, he seemed to figure out how to be good, and how to be happy. Then he got shot dead. Forty-odd years later, I guess that still hurts.
So: a solid little romcom with a couple of breathtaking moments. Well worth watching on my flight to Chicago.
This is the TV-miniseries adaptation of the novel of the same name by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It features a demon and an angel trying to thwart their bosses' plans to bring about Armageddon.
I have perhaps the most sacrilegious take on Good Omens, guaranteed to irritate fans and non-fans alike: this was alright, but they should really do a second season.
This is antithetical to everything this production stood for. It exists to do right by the memory of Terry Pratchett, the novel's co-writer, who is now dead. Per the terms of his will, he had a vintage steamroller crush the hard drive containing his unfinished novels. Late in the season, the show introduces an item that could prompt a second season and then promptly has its characters decide that the right thing to do is to burn it.
I can think of few other shows that so clearly do. not. want. a second season.⁶
So why am I arguing for it?
It's all down to what the show does well, and what the show does poorly.
The best thing about the show is the central pair of characters. Aziriphale and Crowley are just perfect. Michael Sheen does one of the best genre performances I've seen in years. And beyond that, it was very moving for me: Aziriphale is basically my self-image put onscreen, and it's rare that we get to see a character like that be heroic, and valuable, and loved. In a more ordinary show, he'd be comic relief — at best an ineffectual contrast to a more traditionally-masculine hero. For his part, David Tennant is wonderful at playing not just "a demon", not just "how Neil Gaiman would write a demon", but rather "how Neil Gaiman would write a demon back when he was in his late twenties", but still adding nuance and emotional depth to the part that wasn't necessarily in the novel.
So they've got those performances.
They've also got tone and style for days. You can watch twenty frames of this show and know exactly what show it is. A lot of Sir Terry's humor comes through in the production, as does his warm humanism. The world-building is scattered but inventive, and the shaggy lack of cohesion is part of its charm.
This is a setup where a great TV show can happen.
But it does a lot of things badly.
Most notably, there are just some basic screenwriting whiffs. There are scenes that don't have any apparent connection to the overall story. Characters talk to themselves for long stretches, because the scene can't get across what it needs to via action.⁷ There's an over-reliance on voiceover — often because the script on its own can't successfully tell the story, but often it's entirely superfluous, adding neither clarity nor character to the proceedings.
Other, less obvious flaws lurk within. There's an overfondness for linear narration: say, showing us the whole history of Aziriphale and Crowley first off, instead of showing us their relationship and *then* backing into the backstory once we're interested.⁸ Characters who are not Aziraphale or Crowley tend to be thinly written — you get one-note grotesques like Shadwell, or near-complete ciphers like Adam's friends.⁹ The series is pretty white-dude-heavy, and feels a bit clumsy with its female characters. It resolves its core question — "Will the Armageddon happen?" — and then dithers around for another hour, tying up loose ends and attenuating the power of its conclusion.
And on a deeper level, it doesn't seem to have much of anything to say. There's nothing wrong with that — and criticizing it along these lines does feel a bit like blaming a dog for not being good at calculus — but I watched this after finishing season three of The Good Place. Telling a story about the afterlife and theology and *not* using it to grapple with any philosophy beyond "people are not all-good, not all-bad, and basically nice" feels like a missed opportunity.
You tally it all up, and you have to conclude that, either because of Gaiman's inexperience as a showrunner, or because of (unavoidable) extreme fealty to the source material — probably both — this is not a well-written show.
However it's a very well-*imagined* show. And this is intriguing. Television usually goes the other way: lots of bland, unnecessary premises, in neutral and ordinary worlds, but written with absolutely rock-solid professionalism. ("They're cops... investigating cases... and the storytelling is, y'know, fine, I guess.") You rarely get a show like this, where the voice is so absolutely present, but the nuts and bolts aren't screwed together right.
A second season could, perversely, do right by its source material. It wouldn't be beholden to what happened in the book, so it could tell a story that works on television. It could give Gaiman another go at showrunning with, no doubt, a more secure handle on the job. And it could stay true to the spirit of his collaboration with Pratchett without getting lost in the details. Basically, we've now seen the "Sorcerer's Stone" of Good Omens — I bet Gaiman's got a "Prisoner of Azkaban" in him.
But a second season will never happen. And even if it did, Gaiman wouldn't be on-board.
So we're left with these eight episodes — a very interesting, if clumsy, curiosity. Good on them for getting it made at all.
For next week: watching Star Wars: Rebels on DVD, and the second season of The Tick on streaming; reading some Spanish-language comics; still catching up on podcasts.
A brief side note: I started watching Money Heist (La Casa De Papel) on netflix. I gave up after three episodes. It seemed like a very straightforward heist story with nothing to really hold my interest — life is too short for very competent takes on very well-worn genres. I'm switching gears and watching Club de Cuervos instead.
¹ My impulse is always to say 'the Ukraine', but recent news coverage has convinced me it's just 'Ukraine'.
² I read this in Spanish translation, so I'm sure I missed some nuance in it, and I'll keep my commentary a little brief.
³ I'm sure for some film critics, spitting that sort of vitriol is the only way they can come.
⁴ "I've had an idea, a terrible, terrible idea" felt like it'd be right at home in Blackadder, which Mr. Curtis co-wrote.
⁵ Played by an uncredited Robert Carlyle, of all people?
⁶ The Prisoner, maybe? Neon Genesis Evangelion?
⁷ The "Crowley chastises his plants" scene manages to hit the exacta and do both at once.
⁸ "BUT FIRST LET US TELL YOU THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF <XXX>", before getting to the <xxx>, is one of the true hallmarks of a bad sci-fi script.
⁹ Though Jon Hamm manages to make something of Gabriel, with a combination of movie-star charisma and unequalled enthusiasm for the source material.