The Unicorn (2019)

In some ways, I feel as if I were a little spoiled by the efficiency of this year’s quirky Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers, in which two friends run a business that helps strangers break up with their romantic partners in exchange for cash. That film starts with the titular business already in operation so that it can immediately launch into the gags set up by its ludicrous premise, wasting no time on justifying the scenario with a first-act backstory. I was nostalgic for that efficiency during The Unicorn, which spends almost a third of its runtime struggling to set up a very simple comedic premise: a young California couple attempts to save their flailing relationship by orchestrating a late-night threesome. Following the Breaker Upperers model, The Unicorn would already start with the couple on the hunt for the perfect partner to open them up sexually & romantically, so that it could pack in more blunderous shenanigans as they desperately attempt to actualize their fantasy. The backstory of how they arrived at the delusion that a threesome is a cure-all for their trust & communication issues could easily fit in a flashback or a single-scene set-up. At the very least, we don’t need a half-hour of setup before we launch into a premise already concisely teased in the title.

Still, even if it’s not the most efficient or structurally creative comedy around, The Unicorn is still about as funny & charming as you’d expect from a One Crazy Night comedy featuring a bunch of UCB & SNL regulars in bit roles, which I mean as a compliment. LA comedy scenesters Lauren Lapkus & Nick Rutherford star as the threesome-seeking couple, a pair of neurotic indoor kids who pretend to be far more social & adventurous than what they’re truly comfortable with. Familiar faces like Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and (beloved to me because of the trash gem Truth or Dare?) Lucy Hale pop up like Whack-a-Moles as the couple disastrously attempts to sleep their way cross Palm Springs as a means of saving their stalled relationship. Fueled by an ungodly quantity of hard liquor, these episodic challenges to the boundaries of their sexual comfort do drudge up some genuinely moving relationship-dynamics drama – à la similar LA indie comedies like Band Aid, Duck Butter, and The Overnight. Mostly, though, they’re an excuse for talented comedic performers to riff in uncomfortable sexual scenarios – creating audience tension for the jokesters to release. Luckily, the cast is very funny and easily carries what could potentially be a thin premise for a feature film – especially considering how well behaved the movie is structurally.

Shot, directed, and sometimes soundtracked by the Schwartzman/Rooney clan, you can occasionally feel artsy, Wes Andersonian aesthetics coloring this low-key indie sex comedy, but they mostly color between the lines. Beside the careful, old-fashioned build before launching into the premise, the film also falls into a common screenwriting trap that always drives me mad in conventional comedies. After the inevitable Third Act Fight between Lapkus & Rutherford, both participants are prompted to say “I’m sorry” in reconciliation, even though the girlfriend has clearly done nothing wrong and only the dude needs to apologize. It a frustratingly common trope, especially considering the other ways the film is conscious of challenging traditional comedic gender dynamics. The sincere bisexual experimentation, negotiation of terms before play, and constant checking in for consent are all refreshing to see sneak into a vanilla sex comedy this structurally conventional, so it’s a little disappointing to see it bookended by such familiar automatic-screenwriting-template decisions. I don’t want to sound like too much of a grump here, though. The movie is very funny, surprisingly sweet, and admirably open-minded for a comedy this conventional. If nothing else, the line “I’m glad we stopped before you did something you didn’t want to do” is remarkable considering the format in a way I doubt I’ll encounter again any time soon. Any complaints I have about its execution are likely just a side effect of finding something more to say about this simple, familiar pleasure other than “It’s funny.”

-Brandon Ledet

The Evolution of The Lonely Island Sports Movie

It’s been three years since The Lonely Island (Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg) released their latest commercial-bomb-turned-cult–classic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and that 2010s update to Walk Hard pop music biopic parody finally has its follow-up. While Popstar mocked the modern “concert documentaries” (read: feature length infomercials) of acts like Justin Bieber & One Direction as an excuse to stage ZAZ-style gags & The Lonely Island’s classic music video sketches, the group’s latest release adopts an even flimsier format to do the same: the visual album. Self-described as “a visual poem” and surprise-dropped on Netflix in a Beyoncé-evoking distribution strategy, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is pure Lonely Island goofballery. It’s difficult to tell if its visual album format is meant to be a joke at the expense of hubristic projects like Lemonade & Dirty Computer or more of a self-deprecating joke at the expense of The Lonely Island themselves for even attempting to pull off such a loftily minded project in the first place. Either way, its’ a brilliant move that not only updates their cinematic sensibilities to a more modern version of pop music media, but also removes two barriers that tend to stand in the way of what makes them so enjoyable to watch: the necessity of a plot to justify a feature-length film & the necessity of box office success to pay their producers’ bills. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience isn’t as successful or as substantial of a work as Popstar, but it is one that further suggests that these very silly boys have finally reached a new sense of ambition & efficiency in their craft. It’s also an accomplishment that they’ve been building towards for years, if you consider the earlier, more restrained sports mockumentaries of their past as trial runs.

Appropriately enough, The Lonely Island’s cinematic career started with a feature-length sports narrative. While still producing Digital Shorts for SNL, the trio of pop music parodists delivered their first delightful box office bomb with 2007’s Hot Rod. While not quite as formally daring or riotously funny as Popstar (or even Jorma Taccone’s other SNL-era feature, MacGruber, for that matter), Hot Rod is still pretty damn hilarious from start to finish. It was the first instance when I can recall genuinely enjoying Andy Samberg beyond his usefulness as someone who makes Joanna Newsom laugh. Playing an overgrown man-child who wants to be a daredevil just like his deceased father, Samberg’s general mode in Hot Rod is slapstick comedy and it’s classically funny on a Three Stooges level as a result. Often missing jumps on his dirtbike & puking from the pain, Samberg’s titular Rod is far from the Evel Knievel Jr. he imagines himself to be. There’s a lot of solid humor derived from the disparity between Rod’s confidence & his actual abilities, which allows you to have a good laugh at his expense even when he drowns, catches fire, or explodes. That’s an interesting subversion of the traditional underdog sports story, but it’s still one that plays its comedic beats relatively safely. The premise is mostly grounded in reality yet is careful not to resemble any real-life public figures too closely (not even Knievel). Its structure remains true to the traditional sports movie narrative too, even if its greatest strengths rely on long strings of non-sequitur gags. For instance, most of the film boasts a killer 80s synthpop soundtrack, but towards the climax when Rod’s crew has their inevitable third-act falling-out, the score suddenly switches to melodramatic string arrangements – effectively poking fun at its own necessity to transform into A Real Movie at the last minute. With more filmmaking experience under their belts & more celebrity star power backing up their audacity, their sports movies parodies only strengthened from there.

At this point in The Lonely Island’s career timeline, Hot Rod’s timid SNL Movie comedy template feels more like a one-off anomaly than an early wind-up for what Bash Brothers delivers. If anything, Bash Brothers feel like it’s the final film in a trilogy of sports parodies that Lonely Island initially produced for HBO, mostly as a creative outlet for Samberg. At a half-hour a piece, Samberg’s sports mockumentaries Tour de Pharmacy (2017) & 7 Days in Hell (2015) are the earliest telegraphs of where the Lonely Island crew would eventually go with Bash Brothers. Respectively tackling the real-life sports world controversies of doping in cycling & angry outbursts in tennis, Tour de Pharmacy & 7 Days in Hell fearlessly make fun of some of the biggest scandals in sports history (short of the O.J. Simpson murder trial) in violent jabs of ZAZ-style chaos. What’s most amazing about them is that they invite the real-life sports celebrities involved in those scandals to participate in their own mockery. John McEnroe drops by 7 Days in Hell to poke fun at a fictional “bad boy of tennis” (played by Samberg, naturally) whose antics with sex, drugs, and physical violence result in a deadly Wimbledon match that drags on for a solid week, disrupting & disgracing a once-reputable sport. Serena Williams also pops by as a talking head, even through the media’s policing of her own supposed emotional outbursts is much more unreasonable than McEnroe’s. In Tour de Pharmacy, Lance Armstrong talks at length about how every single cyclist who competes in the Tour de France is aided by illegal substances, directly recalling his own downfall in a very public doping scandal. Wrestler-turned-comedian John Cena also appears as a steroids-enraged monster in the film, tangentially poking fun at the WWE’s own history with performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, both projects are still packed with the juvenile non-sequiturs & physical comedy gags that have been constant to Samberg’s sense of humor, now emboldened to be more sexually explicit than ever before thanks to the freedom of HBO – resulting in bisexual orgies, unconventional prostate stimulation, and characters high-fiving during cunnilingus. It’s the bravery of connecting those very silly gags to very real publicity crises for sports figures who are participating along with the creators that feels new & mildly transgressive.

As daring as it may be to trivialize real-life sports controversies in such a flippantly silly way, those two HBO productions still feel somewhat formally restricted. It wasn’t until Samberg rejoined with Schaffer & Taccone post-Popstar that his sports cinema mockery really hit is pinnacle, just a few weeks ago. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience makes full use of all The Lonely Island’s best cinematic qualities: the music video sketch comedy of their SNL days, the rise-and-fall (and fall and fall) sports narrative of Hot Rod, the gross-out sex gags of MacGruber, the shameless evisceration of real-life sports scandals from Sandberg’s HBO mockumentaries and, finally, the chaotic disregard for traditional structure of Popstar. The Netflix-hosted half-hour comedy special wastes no time mocking the steroids abuse scandal that plagued the 1989 World Series run of the real-life “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGuire & Jose Conseco. The very first verse Samberg raps in this “visual poem” (read: loose collection of music videos) references steroids abuse, a theme that’s reinforced over & over again in the group’s usual 80s-era Beastie Boys cadence with lines like “I never finish sex because I’m so juiced out” and “Stab the needle in my ass until I am rich.” The genius of adapting this mockery to a visual album medium is that is allows the boys to go full-goof 100% of the time, packing in as many music video sketches as they please, unburdened by the necessity of a coherent plot. As funny as Samberg’s HBO specials were, they’re still fairly grounded mockumentaries that parody the tones & structure of many HBO Films productions of the past. Hot Rod is even more beholden to classic cinematic templates, falling well within the boundaries of a typical SNL movie even if its individual gags are specific to The Lonely Island’s sensibilities. While Bash Brothers can easily be seen as a swipe at the hubris of the visual album format, it ultimately just proves the point that it’s a genius, unrestrained medium that brings out the best #purecinema potential of any popstar who dares to utilize it – even incredibly silly parodists with a fetish for traditional sports narratives.

The Unauthorized Bash Bothers Experience feels like an epiphanic moment within The Lonely Island’s cinematic output, a culminating achievement in the sports movie template that they’ve been trying to crack open for more than a decade now. Of course, I wish that feature-length comedies like Popstar & MacGruber were more successful as theatrical gambles, but I am glad that these very silly boys have finally found a more viable niche for their sports movie parodies. I’m also glad to see these comedy nerds continue to take the piss out of our deeply flawed sports gods of yesteryear – an achievement that’s only make doubly fascinating by those gods’ participatory amusement in their own mockery.

-Brandon Ledet

Life of the Party (2018)

In official terms, there hasn’t been an SNL Movie since MacGruber (perhaps the artistic height of the medium) tragically died in the theaters in 2010. Long gone are the days where recurring, one-note Saturday Night Live characters like Stuart Smalley & Mary Katherine Gallagher were allowed to carry a feature-length comedy on their own. The modern SNL movie is a low-key affair, manifesting in pictures like Popstar, Sisters, and Ghostbusters (2016), where the cast is stacked with chummy SNL vets, but the premise was born outside the show. Melissa McCarthy movies are an even more rarified breed within that modern tradition, as McCarthy herself was never quite an official member of the Saturday Night Live cast. She may have hosted & cameoed so many times on the show that she seems like a natural extension of the staff and she may have started her comedy career in The Groundlings with professional besties Kristen Wiig & Maya Rudolph, but McCarthy is an SNL guest player at best (like Steve Martin in the 1970s). What’s curious about that is the way her own comedy features (especially the ones she’s collaborated on with husband/fellow Groundlings-vet Ben Falcone) feel like the lowkey, unofficial SNL comedies that most closely recall the brand’s 1990s “Every recurring character gets a movie!” heyday. Reinforced by the presence of SNL vets Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, and (current cast member) Heidi Gardner, the latest McCarthy-Falcone joint feels exactly like the 1990s model for the SNL Movie, only with the absurdity turned slightly down to make room for saccharine sentimentality (something McCarthy can’t help but bring to the screen between her violent bursts of slapstick). That comedic aesthetic is a kind of risk, as the classic SNL Movie is only beloved by a hopelessly dorky few, but I personally find it to be an endearing comfort, a return to the sweetly dumb movies I was raised on out of brand loyalty to SNL as an institution.

Playing a Midwestern 90s Mom character I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s been whipping out since The Groundlings, McCarthy stars as a middle-aged divorcee who enrolls back in college to finish a degree she abandoned for the sake of her family. As she crashes the frat & sorority party scene also inhabited by her college-senior daughter, the movie doesn’t shy away from its unavoidable similarities to the Roger Dangerfield classic Back to School. The relentless barrage of party sequences & studying montages almost make Life of the Party feel like another McCarthy-helmed, gender-flipped remake. That bawdy Dangerfield irreverence & fish-out-of-water social humor is also contrasted against a striking amount of sentimentality, however, as the movie focuses more on McCarthy’s inner journey as a woman who’s tired of being an emotional doormat than it does on her daughter’s initial horror at her presence (not to mention her sex drive). For the most part, she fits right in with the younger students, even being inducted into their sorority house as an honorary sister and finding herself a young boy-toy to wear out in the bedroom. Life of the Party is overlong, burdened by an inspo-pop soundtrack, and generally suffers from an improvisational looseness that should have spent a little more time simmering in the editing room, but I think most audiences’ biggest hurdle will be reconciling that overly earnest tone with expectations of gag-a-minute slapstick. This is a much more labored, sentimental piece than either Tammy or The Boss, the previous two McCarthy-Falcone collabs, but its sweetness isn’t necessarily a mood-killer if you’re willing to accept it as an essential part of the movie’s fabric. I still think the hedonistic, low-class excess of Tammy is the couple’s greatest collaboration to date, but Life of the Party’s warm blanket of Midwestern Mom energy has a charm of its own.

If you can withstand the crushing weight of its Hallmark sentimentality, Life of the Party also offers the simple joy of women being afforded space to be funny. In addition to the always-reliable McCarthy & Maya Rudolph, who bring a middle-aged severity to out-of-nowhere slapstick gags of explosions & crotch-shots, the movie also allows plenty of screentime for promising lesser-knowns. Heidi Gardner recalls the same nu-metal & mall goth battiness she often brings to her SNL sketches as McCarthy’s shut-in roommate. Gillian Jacobs (who should be starring in her own wide-release features by now) often runs away with the movie as coma survivor & sorority sister who drifts through life in an anarchic haze. There are many tonally sloppy reaction shots in Life of the Party that director Falcone should have paid much more attention to in the editing room, but Jacobs manages to turn her own into an art form, acting as an element of dazed chaos even when idling in the background. Her Love costar Jessie Ennis also shows promise as a relative newcomer, operating with a wide-eyed derangement as a sorority sister who wants to fit in at any cost. The way these women rally around McCarthy’s new-lease-on-life mom is so sweet it borders on surreality, affording Life of the Party a sustained, low-key joy even when specific jokes don’t land or a labored party sequence drags on into a tequila-drenched eternity. The joys of Life of the Party’s slapstick & absurdism require a patience with its saccharine earnestness & editing room looseness, especially in a year where we’ve seen that sweet/raunchy balance achieved so expertly in Blockers. I’m more than willing to put in the effort for this endearing of talent (especially from too-rarely-seen performers like Gardner & Jacobs), something I’m long familiar with as someone who was comedically raised on the SNL Movie in its heyday. I haven’t quite fallen for a McCarthy-Falcone joint with full enthusiasm since Tammy, but as long as they keep making them I’ll likely keep enjoying them. I’ve got to get my SNL Movie fix somewhere and I just don’t see a Laura Parsons or Chris Kirkpatrick movie arriving anytime soon, no matter how badly I want them.

-Brandon Ledet

Brigsby Bear (2017)

There was a time before DVRs, streaming, and even VCRs when watching television was a more communal activity. The idea of a “water cooler show” that everyone discusses in the days after it airs is still alive & well, but in the early days of broadcast viewing there was a more distinct cultural phenomenon of everyone watching the same show at once. When I was a kid my two religious appointment-viewing shows were The Simpsons & Saturday Night Live, two cultural behemoths that shaped my comedic brain while simultaneously doing the same for snarky kids & juvenile adults everywhere who I virtually shared a television set with, but never met. Brigsby Bear taps into that exact communal phenomenon and turns it into a horror show. What if there weren’t millions of other people watching The Simpsons at the exact same time as me? What if, in fact, I was the entirety of the show’s intended audience? What if instead of it being a show meant to entertain a massive amount of people it was instead produced as propaganda to warp my (and only my) developing mind? In Brigsby Bear, the answers to these questions are darkly funny & informed by awkward, whimsical quirk, but also lead to some fairly earnest, heartbreaking discoveries about abuse, therapy, community, and art.

SNL’s Kyle Mooney stars as the victim of such an elaborate betrayal, a thirty-something man-child who was raised as the sole superfan of the fictional television show The Brigsby Bear Adventures. The show, which chronicles the space-traveling adventures of its titular bear, was meant to raise him from when he was a small child until his current state as an emotionally stunted adult. As a result, it has the appearance of Teletubbies or Barney style kids’ television with the complex lore of a sci-fi series that has lasted hundreds of episodes over the course of decades. Along with enforcing propaganda about “only trusting your family unit” and how “curiosity is an unnatural emotion,” the show also teaches him increasingly complex math problems & provides a window of mental escape within his horrifically insular surroundings. Beginning where Room winds up in its third act, Mooney’s over-sheltered protagonist ends his lifelong confinement to a small space where television is his only contact with the outside world to explore a new world where “everything is really very big.” The problem is that in order to be integrated into a larger, more conventional society, he must leave behind his memorabilia altar to the almighty Brigsby and adjust to a new life where a show that only he’s ever seen is no longer being produced on a weekly basis; he’ll never know how The Brigsby Bear Adventures ends. His only choice, then, is to complete Brigsby’s character arc himself in a final, self-produced movie that will satisfactorily conclude the only story he (and only he) has ever cared about once & for all.

If Brigsby Bear were made in the snarkier days of the Gen-X 90s, it would be unbearably sarcastic & mean. Although it’s a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars an animatronic bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, it’s instead remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. Along with Mooney (who co-wrote the screenplay), Brigsby Bear features several sketch comedy performers (Matt Walsh, Andy Samberg, Beck Bennett) who somehow sidestep snark to hold their own dramatically with more traditionally earnest players like Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, and Mark Hammill. Only Tim Heidecker is allowed to fully ham it up in his single scene cameo as an objectively shitty action star. Everyone else plays the material straight, allowing the absurdity of the scenario to speak for itself. Mooney anchors the film by adjusting the socially awkward, overgrown teens he usually plays in sketches to convey a hurt, scared man-child who is unsure how to adjust to the expanse of the modern world, so he buries himself in his work, recalling outsider art projects like Marwencol or Henry Darger’s Realms of the Unreal. By crudely learning the art of filmmaking so he can complete the fictional saga of a space alien bear wizard, he finds his own place in society, making friends & learning to cope with an unbelievably tough adjustment along the way. It’s just as touching as it is strange.

I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that Brigsby Bear manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself. Regardless of how it was created to manipulate a single viewer/victim, its existence could only do the world good. Like an inverse of the haunted VHS tapes of The Ring, everyone who watches The Brigsby Bear Adventures is emotionally brought to life and I sorely wish I could count myself among them.

-Brandon Ledet

An Evening with Richard Kelly: A Southland Tales (2007) Q&A


“No film is every really finished, just abandoned by the filmmaker.”

This is the philosophy, or rather one of the facets of the real-life and filmmaking philosophies, of Richard Kelly. In something of a MotM miracle, I received an email last week advising that Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse would be hosting a screening of Kelly’s 2007 opus Southland Tales, with an introduction by the director and a Q&A following the film. As discussed in our email roundtable, I was a fan of Donnie Darko when it was first brought to my attention in 2003, when a DVD of the film was passed around like wildfire at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. Although time and distance (and a strong wave of hype backlash as the film caught on outside of the cult scene) have dulled my teenage enthusiasm for the film, my interest in Kelly’s work was piqued again by our viewing of The Box, a film I didn’t love but haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I never got the chance to see Southland Tales before this past Sunday, but I’m glad that my first viewing experience was on the big screen and not limited to the comparatively tiny television in my living room.

What’s the film about? I’ll try to be as succinct as I can: Southland Tales takes place in an alternate 2008, where post-9/11 paranoia and the overreach of infringement upon civil liberties that followed that incident has been further exacerbated by a nuclear attack on American soil (Texas, to be precise). The draft has been reinstated, interstate travel is extremely restricted, and citizens are heavily monitored via the use of information network USIdent and the deployment of heavily militarized Urban Pacification Units, which seem to have taken the place of standard police forces. The Republican Party, most notably represented by Texas Senator and potential VP Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) and his wife, NSA Deputy Director cum USIdent overlord Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), is seeking to swing California to the red in order to ensure the continued power of USIdent and the party. Popular action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), the husband of the Frosts’ daughter Madeleine (Mandy Moore), has recently awoken in the desert with amnesia; he makes his way into the arms of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a psychic porn star seeking to expand her media and merchandise empires through diversification. Krysta has recently completed a screenplay entitled The Power, which foretells the end of the world.

Elsewhere, the underground liberal forces of the Neo-Marxists oppose the Republican Party (this entire group is composed almost entirely of former SNL cast members, including but not limited to Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, and Cheri Oteri). Their current plan involves staging a racially-motivated police shooting committed by haunted veteran Roland Taverner posing as his twin brother Ronald (Seann William Scott), an UPU officer; the intention is to have this captured on film by Boxer during a ride-along for research purposes, then use the footage to discredit Bush’s apparent successors. Their machinations are held in check by a series of double-crosses that undermine their ability to take any real political action. Elsewhere elsewhere, the wizard Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has invented both a device that uses the power of the ocean to generate wireless electricity as well as several injectable liquids of various colors that are used as drugs for both recreational and psychic purposes. He and his band of assorted cronies (Bai Ling, Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubinsten, and Beth Grant) move throughout the various factions at play, gaining political power and prestige while well aware that the alternative energy source that they have created could bring about the end of humanity. And all of this is narrated by Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a former movie star whose face was disfigured by friendly fire in Iraq after he was drafted. And, hey, if you were starting to think any of this was too straightforward, don’t worry; there are also stable time loops, predestination paradoxes, mistaken identities, and all the other Kelly elements you’ve come to know and, perhaps, love. Plus a lip-synch music video.

Part multimedia experiment, part time travel film, part jeremiad prophecy of the dangers of unchecked rightwing expansion into surveillance and homeland policing, part philosophy lecture, but mostly a political satire, Southland Tales has been called many things: unwatchable, convoluted, pretentious, and incomprehensible. For my money, however, the film (and its expanded materials, which I hesitate to call “supplementary” given that they were always intended to be part of the experience) is simply too ambitious to ever have any kind of mainstream penetration, even on the level that Darko did. There’s also been a lot of name-calling and assumptions with regards to Kelly’s ego and affectations of intellectualism, even from those of us here at Swampflix; in person, however, Kelly comes across as approachable, well-spoken, thoughtful, and shy (and he’s a total babe as well– look up a picture or two if you haven’t already done yourself this great service; those triceps are poppin’). Kelly directed this film when he was twenty-nine; that’s my age, and all I have to show for a life is a stack of unopened mail and a heap of student loan debt that I’ll finish paying off seven years after I’m dead– if I’m lucky.

In case you weren’t aware, Southland was originally envisioned as the final three chapters in a six-chapter arc, with the first three components released as graphic novels (Kelly said that when these materials, which were not quite complete at the time of the Cannes premiere, were given to the press, they sneered). There is a certain feeling of incompleteness that can be felt in the film as a result, but this is not the same thing as saying that the film is, as Kelly said in his introduction, “unfinished.” There’s certainly an element of that in play in the theatrical version that was screened, but I didn’t find it as distracting as others have. He discussed the nature of the release of the film, the way that certain visual effects were never quite completed due to the fact that the money for said polishing was to have come from one studio that held the international distribution rights, but there were issues with the domestic distributor. It’s all information that you can find elsewhere, I’m sure, so I won’t get into it here. There were some new tidbits that were shared in the Q&A that I’ll share here, though.

Why is Janeane Garofalo in the final scene? In the earlier, longer version of the film that was screened at Cannes, there is an additional subplot in which Garofalo plays a general who is engaged in a Dungeons & Dragons game with veteran Simon Theory (Kevin Smith) and a couple of other characters, with that game serving as an additional metaphorical layer to the events of the film, just line the screenplay for The Power. (I did see a credit for a D&D consultant in the final credits, which confused me until this was explained.)

Was this movie inspired by Brazil? Yes, Kelly loves Brazil.

Where did the character names come from? Kelly discussed that there’s a music to character names, and described how some come from more obvious sources (like the Robert Frost-quoting Senator Bobby Frost), and some a bit more obscure from sources both historical (like the von Westphalen family, whose true allegiances are obvious from the outset for those who know Jenny von Westphalen was the wife of Karl Marx), and literary (the Taverners share their surname with Jason Taverner, protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which shares a rightwing autocratic dictatorship with Southland). So, like many of the references to extratextual real-world works that we mentioned in The Box discussion, they’re present less because Kelly wants to prove how smart he is and more because he thinks we’re all on his level, which is a compliment more than anything else.

Why so many Saturday Night Live actors? Besides the aforementioned Poehler, Oteri, Dunn, and Garofalo, other SNL alums include Jon Lovitz and John Larroquette. I really liked Kelly’s answer to this question; when we talk about political satire, at least in America, SNL is the troupe that is on the cutting edge of that discussion.

Is the recurring theme of free will versus predestination representative of a personal philosophy or just something that Kelly finds intriguing to play with on film? This was my question, and was admittedly a little longer in the actual asking (which involved referencing the Job-like structure of The Box and eschatological nature of Southland, leading Richard Kelly to compliment me personally, so take that, world!), but Kelly stated that this was something that he thinks about a lot, that humans beings are often bandied about by forces outside of their control, and how much agency any of us have at all (one audience member asked about Krysta Now’s agency in regards to the film, but I missed the answer to that one trying to calm myself enough to ask my question). Kelly had previously mentioned that Southland was intended to be a cathartic film experience; given that the themes of the film boil down to the idea that salvation comes from forgiving the self, which is an entirely internal emotional journey, I think that this could be reflective of that idea. Forgiving one’s self, like Taverner does in the film’s final moments, removes the external elements of predestination and is purely an act of personal decision, and through that comes real existential relief.

Whatever happened to the Norma Lewis prosthetic foot prop? This one I had to ask for Britnee, per her final thoughts on The Box. As it turns out, Kelly’s father, who really did work on the Mars Viking Lander project, did something similar for Kelly’s mother, whose own foot was disfigured, not unlike Norma’s. As for the prop, Kelly said he would have to make some calls to be absolutely certain, but he’s pretty sure it’s in a props warehouse in Boston.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how the film works as a literary adaptation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ghostbusters (2016), Popstar (2016) and the Outsourcing of the Modern SNL Movie


People tend to get overly nostalgic about Saturday Night Live, typically looking back to the supposed “golden years” of the show (an era that can shift around by decades depending on who you’re asking) in order to knock its most current, supposedly subpar season, whichever year they’re complaining. The truth is that the show might struggle a little here or there, but has overall been consistent in its quality in a way the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia can significantly alter. SNL generally produces a few great sketches on a weekly basis in one of comedy’s most demanding writing rooms (James Franco’s Saturday Night documentary is a good glimpse of that punishing rhythm if you’re interested). These sketches often define their current era’s height of comedic performance & off-the-cuff writing, but just as often appear among enough failure & filler to greatly soften their in-the-moment impact. Looking back at past seasons of the show allow you to remember the great work & forget the filler, constructing a false reality where the show was ever perfect or firing on all cylinders (and I’m saying this about a series I love dearly & never miss). One of the things that helps foster this skewed perception is many of the performers’ post-show fame. It’s easy to look back & think SNL was so much better when Will Ferrell or Bill Murray were on instead of these no-name nobodies they’re currently working with, but the show is where those comedians cut their teeth & made a name for themselves in the first place. The truth is that they suffered just as much public scrutiny & just as many comedic missteps in their own day, but came out the other end of the show’s star-making machine all the better for it.

One of the ways the SNL star-maker machine used to work was in movie production. The franchise’s first film, The Blues Brothers, was an outrageous hit that helped make its stars Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi insanely popular in the early 1980s. The brand’s follow-up, Wayne’s World, had the same effect on the careers of Dan Carvey & Mike Myers and has gradually become a near-universally well-regarded comedy despite its inherent stoner-minded silliness. Things got much stranger in the mid to late 90s. When SNL movies like Coneheads & It’s Pat critically & financially sank the franchise’s box office reputation, the SNL movie seemed to shift focus from defining pop culture to developing the strengths of its performers. The late 90s run of A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, and The Ladies Man in particular play like movie star training wheels for the show’s performers (not unlike WWE productions like 12 Rounds & See No Evil). They’re low-stakes pictures aimed to help a future generation of comedic giants define their on-screen presence in a halfway point between a comedy sketch & a feature length character study. It’s easy to see, for instance, the beginnings of Will Ferrell’s future schtick, later defined in films like Step Brothers & Talladega Nights, beginning to form in his early roles as a club-hopping airhead in Roxbury or Jesus Christ himself in Superstar. The latest movie in SNL’s official sketch-to-silver-screen catalog (and my personal favorite to date), 2010’s MacGruber, seemed to be a similar incubator for comedic madman Will Forte, whose onscreen work gets weirder & more prominent every passing year.

It’s been six years since MacGruber and it’s unlikely that there are many sketch-to-film characters currently in development (not that I would necessarily be opposed to a Stefon or Olya Povlatsky movie), but that doesn’t mean the SNL movie is currently dead as a format. This hasn’t been the longest gap between SNL pictures by any stretch; there was a full decade separating both The Blues Brothers & Wayne’s World and The Ladies Man & MacGruber. It has been interesting, though, that in this most recent time span there’s been plenty of comedies I’d readily classify as “unofficial” SNL movies. Official SNL productions are traditionally helmed by the showrunner Lorne Michaels & have some sort of character connection to a recurring sketch from the show. Unofficial SNL movies, to me, exist solely in the casting. As a life-long fan of the show, I get incongruously excited when a comedy features a long list of SNL players, especially when I wasn’t expecting their participation. It happened, for example, in recent works like Inside Out, Skeleton Twins, and Zoolander 2 (which was a great showcase for Kyle Mooney in particular). Adam Sandler, for instance, has built a career around including as many of his SNL collaborators as possible in his own productions, which admittedly often disappoint in quality & basic human decency. Sometimes even his unofficial SNL movies can win me over, though. I doubt I’d have enjoyed an Adam Sandler children’s cartoon, horror comedy or otherwise, without a long list of SNL collaborators tagging along, but I gotta admit this long list of Not Ready for Prime Time Players brought too much joy to my heart for me to sour on Sandler’s Hotel Transylvania 2: Sandler, Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Dana Carvey, Chris Kattan, Jon Lovitz, Robert Smigel, Chris Parnell, and oft-recurring host Steve Buscemi as a CGI werewolf. Similarly, the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Sisters got me stoked last Christmas with this delicious SNL lineup: Fey, Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, Kate McKinnon, and Chris Parnell. Moynihan in particular was allowed to steal the show in his role as the world’s worst amateur comedian and it got me excited about where his big screen career will eventually go, which is exactly what an SNL movie should be doing, undercover or not. That brings me to this summer’s undercover SNL movies: Popstar & Ghostbusters.

On its own, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is enough to make me feel as if the modern SNL movie is being officially outsourced to powers outside Lorne Michaels’s reach. Andy Samberg’s comedy troupe The Lonely Island are lifelong friends with roots much deeper than Samberg’s 2000s stint on the sketch comedy show. However, their “Digital Shorts” music parody bits are what made the troupe famous and now they have an entire This is Spinal Tap-style comedy built around the gimmick in Popstar. The Lonely Island’s first feature film, Hot Rod, included enough SNL collaborators to qualify as an undercover SNL movie, but that movie’s followup, Popstar, is even more ambitious in its inclusion of past personalities form the series: Samberg, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Jimmy Fallon, Steve Higgins, Will Forte, Sarah Silverman, and a fully-utilized Tim Meadows, which is particularly a rare treat. Not only has the Saturday Night Live roll call gotten even longer, but the film itself is an extension of a gimmick that was developed on the television series into a feature length narrative. The world was introduced to these pop star clowns on Saturday Night Live in songs like “I’m on a Boat” & “Jack Sparrow” and now their parody of pop music hedonism is on display in movie theaters without the SNL or Lorne Michaels brands stamped on it in any official way.

The modern, undercover SNL movie formula isn’t merely content with hjacking past sketches from the show, either. It’s now also infiltrating past works with only a small connection to the series. Early SNL staples Dan Aykroyd & Bill Murray received top billing in the 1984 horror comedy Ghostbusters, but they were the only two cast members involved with the movie, which had about as much to do with SNL as the Chris Farley, David Spade buddy comedies of the mid-90s, maybe even less. Compare that to the undercover SNL movie ensemble Paul Feig & casting director Allison Jones have delivered in the recent Ghostbusters remake. When they just comprised half of the main cast in the original property, all four of the Ghostbusters are SNL players in the 2016 version: Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and honorary cast member (through regular, fully-committed hosting gigs) Melissa McCarthy. They’re also backed up by the bit role roster of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Higgins, and Cecily Strong. More convincing yet, the movie is proving to be something of a star-maker for the consistently funny McKinnon, who’s been up there with Strong, Bryant, Moynihan, and Taran Killiam as one of the most essential backbone pieces of the show’s current cast. If Ghostbusters did nothing more than promote & develop Kate McKinnon’s screen presence, it would already have done its job, as that’s the best post-Coneheads titles like Superstar & Roxbury ever hoped for.

Ghostbusters does accomplish more than that, though. It’s an all-around hilarious, well-made popcorn flick that’s actually visually striking in its play with aspect ratios in its large format release (ghosts, lasers, lighting, and such spill over the letterbox border to enhance the film’s 3D effects), a kind of ambition I don’t normally anticipate from a summertime comedy, much less a reboot. Popstar is equally successful in its humor & ambition, bringing the Walk Hard brand of pop music cinema parody into the 2010s by tackling the Justin Bieber & One Direction style of “concert documentaries” that have been released since that modern John C. Reilly classic (which featured a few SNL contributors of its own). Two of the best summertime comedies of 2016 boast strong SNL roots, but don’t openly display the series’s brand. Meanwhile, Lorne Michaels supports smaller projects from his sketch comedy children, like the Hader-Armisen series Documentary Now or Maya Rudolph’s various attempts to launch a successful variety show of her own. In the six years since MacGruber left the theaters Michaels has shown little interest in pushing for a project like Riblet: The Movie or One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy: The Male-Driven Comedy. I would totally be down for either of those features, being a huge sucker for the brand (a Tonkerbell movie could work too while we’re at it), but I’m proud to see undercover SNL movies like Popstar & Ghostbusters fill that void in the long-running sketch series’s current theatrical absence. I doubt we’ve seen the end of the official SNL sketch-to-big-screen movie, but it’s been great to see the younger cast find their own collaborative space at the movies in the meantime. Especially Kate McKinnon. Everyone throw all of your money directly at Kate McKinnon. Now.

-Brandon Ledet

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)




Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is doing dismal numbers at the box office right now, but so did the cult classic comedy it most closely resembles: Walk Hard – The Dewey Cox Story. The Judd Apatow-penned John C. Reilly comedy Walk Hard applied ZAZ-style spoofery to the musician’s biopic genre and wound up covering the entire history of rock & roll from its blues origins to its Vegas crooner swan song. Popstar picks up exactly where Walk Hard leaves off, mixing ZAZ spoofery with a Spinal Tap documentary format to skewer the modern state of pop music as it has developed since Walk Hard‘s release nearly a decade ago. It’s a shame both of these films failed to make waves financially (Popstar‘s seemingly complete lack of advertising couldn’t have helped there), but they do promise to hold onto a more significant longevity among their respective comedy nerd fandoms. Case in point, just look to the other The Lonely Island film that failed at the box office & found a second life among dedicated fans, Hot Rod. Popstar is just as funny as Hot Rod & just as primed for repetitive viewings, so there’s no doubt in my mind it’ll get the same cult comedy treatment as that militantly goofy title in the long run.

The really interesting thing about that lack of immediate financial success, though, is the way it plays directly into Popstar‘s plot. In the film former SNL player Andy Samberg embodies a versatile stand-in popstar archetype that covers enough ground to resemble any popstar of note you could name from Kanye to Bieber to Skrillex to whoever. Samberg’s titular popstar struggles to repeat past success with a solo record & tour that only do a fraction of the numbers landed on his hit releases. Over the course of the film he learns to put past grudges & current hubris behind him & give the people what they want: a cash-in reunion of the Beastie Boys-esqe pop group that first made him famous. In a lot of ways Popstar itself is Samberg’s way of giving the people what they want. Presuming that Hot Rod didn’t make as much money as it could have because its delightfully moronic daredevil subject matter isn’t exactly what audiences would expect from a The Lonely Island movie, Samberg & company return to their roots here to construct a full-length version of what made their SNL sketches & comedy albums popular decade ago: pop music parody. According to the film’s fantasy version of this well-deserved cash-in, they should be making absurd amounts of money right now, but that’s not exactly how things are working out despite the product being on-point.

Box office numbers & middling reviews aside, Popstar stands as Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date. His deeply silly magnum opus lovingly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop landscape. The film nails the feel of modern pop documentaries in terms of style coopting the on-screen text & social media illustration of titles like Amy along with talking head “interviews” with folks like Nas, Questlove, and Pharrell, the exact kind of contributors you’re likely to see pop up in films like Fresh Dressed. Popstar builds a solid, believable base to hang its gags upon & that in-the-know confidence allows the humor to go as broad or as absurd as it needs to in any particular moment without throwing the audience off track. You’re never entirely shaken by a throwaway gag like a baby playing drums like Neil Peart or an artist responsible for the “brilliance” of catchphrases like “#doinkdedoink” having the self-confidence to declare the Mona Lisa “an overrated piece of shit” because the movie is well-calibrated enough to support those kinds of over-the-top indulgences. The format, the character, his world, and our own pop music terrain all back up each ridiculous gag Samberg throws at the wall,  making the film out to be an efficient little comedy machine in comparison to the sprawling, Apatow-dominated landscape comedic cinema’s been exploring to death in recent years. There’s certainly loose improv afoot in Popstar, but it’s arranged & edited into highly functioning efficiency.

I don’t think I’d call Popstar my favorite comedy of the year so far (it’s got the looming presences of Hail, Caesar!, The Mermaid, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, The Nice Guys and The Bronze to deal with there), but I do think it outshines its closest comparison point in recent months: Zoolander 2. My main complaint with Zoolander 2, a movie I quite enjoyed, was that it gets “a little exasperating in its never-ending list of cameos & bit roles […] The film is overstuffed with both celebrity cameos & SNL vets dropping in for a dumb joke or two.” Popstar somehow adopts that exact cameo-saturated format & makes it work like gangbusters. It’s impossible to review this film without name dropping some of the musicians (RZA, Usher, A$AP Rocky, Arcade Fire, etc.) & comedians (Sarah Silverman, Eric Andre, Bill Hader, an actually-utilized Tim Meadows, etc.) involved, but their presence is actually necessary for the format to work instead of being distracting & dilutive the way they were in Stiller’s film.

Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop music’s current state of ridiculousness from EDM DJ laziness to the devastation of a negative Pitchfork review, to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to U2’s invasive album release snafu. Celebrity obsession & absurd acts of cartoonish hubris play right into that surreally vapid world, so Samberg has established a work here where needless cameos &  unhinged silliness are a necessity just as much as they’re an indulgence. Long after the lack of critical or box office buzz are forgotten, Popstar might just stand as Samberg’s greatest to work, the most efficient application of his distinct sense of humor put to record.

-Brandon Ledet

A Night at the Roxbury (1998)




My favorite soundtrack for kitchen work is a genre of music I like to call “Gay 90s”. Long forgotten pop acts like La Bouche, The Real McCoy, Snap!, and C&C Music Factory are great motivation for a stressful service industry shift & I’ve been relying on them for moral support a great deal lately. That’s why it felt like an appropriate time to revisit A Night at the Roxbury, a sublimely dumb comedy about a pair of club-hopping airheads who survive on a strict diet of tacky suits, Gay 90s club music, and bad cologne. I have fond memories of this movie from when I was a kid & I’m sure I’m not alone there, but it’s far from the universally loved Saturday Night Live-related properties like Wayne’s World or Tommy Boy or even the recent cult-inductee MacGruber. It’s tempting to say that the film was way ahead of its time, given how much costar Will Ferrell’s comedic stylings have become part of the cultural zeitgeist in the last decade (while Chris Kattan has been left behind & forgotten), but the truth is that the movie is so 90s it hurts. If you squint at A Night at the Roxbury the right way it can be seen as a Step Brothers prototype with a much  healthier family dynamic, but I’m not sure  that prescient element is strong enough to overshadow how much of the film is mired in 90s SNL & Gay 90s dance music – two things I happen to love very much.

The problem a lot of SNL sketches-turned-movies have is that they have no idea how to establish a sense of purpose. Recurring SNL sketches can sometimes feel stretched a little thin at two-to-five minute intervals, so the idea of sustaining these properties for full-length film can often be disastrous. A Night at the Roxbury is off to a worrisome start when it recreates its SNL sketch origins in its entirety in the opening two minutes of its runtime . . . which then leaves the question of just what the hell it’s going to do with the remaining 80. You can’t just build an entire film around two gross club rats bopping their heads to Haddaway’s “What is Love?“, right? The film provides some necessary background information its protagonists were missing, like a name (The Butabi Brothers), jobs (they work at their dad’s “fake plant store”), short-term goals (getting laid), and longterm aspirations (opening a dance club where the outside looks like the inside of a typical club & vice versa). There’s also a little tinkering with the sketches’ basic premise, where the brothers imply that they’re cokeheads & bimbos, by making them out to be wholesome virgins. For the most part, though, A Night at the Roxbury succeeds in expanding its limited origins by structuring the plot as a traditional love story. It just so happens that the love is shared between two brothers instead of two potential sex partners.

Of course, the film is more commendable as an irreverent comedy & a 90s time capsule than it is for its narrative strengths. From the brothers’ voguing-while-driving tendencies to the beach butts to Dan Hedaya (the dad from Clueless) playing a father figure to a throwaway line about “dancing The Macarena with Donald Trump”, the movie is an incredibly inclusive collection of the era’s trashiest calling cards. There’s also some completely purposeless irreverence in humorous details like washed-up actor Richard Grieco’s role as washed-up actor Richard Grieco and in random asides like the line “Yeah, yeah, yeah Joanie Loves Chachi, but does Chachi give a flying fuck about Joanie?” What’s most impressive, though, is how these elements are mixed into an oddly sad platonic love story about two over-primped buffoons who desperately want to pick up women but don’t know at all how to interact with them on a personal, intimate level. In that way, considering all of A Night at the Roxbury‘s irreverent humor, 90s time capsule charms, and oddly sad platonic love story the movie works kinda comfortably as a masculine equivalent to Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, another comedy that’s earned a lot of goodwill simply through the passage of time.

As far as the film works as an onscreen version of Gay 90s Dance Music: The Movie, it’s pretty much everything I wanted it to be. La Bouche & all my old friends were there, including a bunch of hit-makers I had completely forgotten: No Mercy, Ace of Base, Amber, etc. There’s also six instances of Haddaway’s “What is Love?” playing in the film (once as elevator music), which felt like the perfect amount, considering how essential it was to the comedy sketch source material. The next time I’m jamming at work to LaBouche or The Real McCoy I’ll now have a very specific set of images to accompany the music, as well as a pretty easy to nail head-bob dance move. I couldn’t have asked for more.

-Brandon Ledet


Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)


three star

I’m usually pretty harsh on the kind of computer-animated children’s features that’re flimsy excuses for ensemble casts to earn a relatively easy paycheck doing voiceover work. I am, however, also very weak to the powers of pandering. For all of the Madagascar 2‘s, Angry Birds: The Movie‘s, and Minions films I’ve skipped (and will be skipping) over there’s always one or two CGI animations that drag me to the theater. I checked out Pixar’s Inside Out earlier this year, for instance, because its inner-world design looked fascinating in a dream-logic kind of way. That, however, was actually a pretty good movie. What’s much more shameful is that I couldn’t resist the recent Adam Sandler cartoon Hotel Transylvania 2. By all accounts Hotel Transylvania 2 is the exact kind of hokey CGI ensemble cast animation dreck I typically avoid. Still, I was too weak-willed to pass up a famous monsters-themed comedy featuring several SNL alumni, not to mention Steve Buscemi as a werewolf & Mel Brooks as an aging Borscht Belt Dracula. I am admittedly powerless against that formula, regardless of the film’s quality.

It’s hard to say for sure if Hotel Transylvania 2 is better or worse than its predecessor. Its lack of ambition in terms of storytelling are pretty much on par with the first film, which was centered on a *gasp* human being winning his way into the heart of Dracula’s daughter & finding his place in a social circle consisting entirely of famous monsters. That small bit of world-building already taken care of, the second film at least has a lot less leg work to do, which is a blessing. There are some interesting ideas at play here about how the young lovebirds are treated as a “mixed couple” in both of human & monster societies (despite both being blindingly white) and the ways their first child together struggles to find a sense of identity in one of the two worlds. The rest of the film is sort of a loose jumble of disconnected thoughts on gentrification, social media addiction, a Luddite’s place in the modern world, and so on. The race metaphor in the human-monster relations is half-cooked at best and doesn’t amount to much more than ludicrous statements like, “Maybe you’ve let humans into your hotel, Dad, but I don’t think you’ve let them into your heart.” Whatever. Let’s be honest, I was mostly there for the former SNL staff & the monster-themed puns, something that the film was obviously also more invested in as well.

As far as former-SNL cast members go, Hotel Transylvania 2 hosts voice performances from the likes of Adam Sandler (duh), Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, Dana Carvey, Chris Katan, David Spade, Chris Parnell, and Jon Lovitz. The movie was also co-written by TV Funhouse creator/all-around comedy genius Robert Smigel (not putting in his best work, but still). That’s not even mentioning contributions from non-SNL comedians Nick Offerman, Megan Mullalley, Rob Riggle, Keegan-Michael Key, Steve Buscemi, and, of course, Mel Brooks. As these things generally go, it’s a fantastic cast put to minimally effective use. The movie may be monster-themed, but it definitely tends more towards cute than scary. The bats look like kittens & a baby vampire with bright red curls for hair isn’t likely to appear in any child’s nightmares. The most horrific the film gets is in the (humorously) blank expressions of the hotel’s zombie staff. I appreciated a couple of the film’s isolated punchlines, like a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” that goes, “Suffer, suffer, scream in pain. You will never breathe again,” calling back to the first film’s “Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s gonna bite the head off a bird.” For the most part, though, the jokes are worth maybe an occasional light chuckle (whenever they’re not vaguely homophobic, an unsavory line of humor Sandler can’t seem to resist even in his children’s media). Even the decades-old Al Lewis travesty Grampire: My Grandpa is a Vampire has a better grasp on portmanteau than this film’s less satisfying concoction “Vampa”. It’s no matter. I got what I wanted out of Hotel Transylvania 2: former SNL staff, hokey monster puns, and a werewolf Steve Buscemi. If that’s not enough to hold your interest for a feature (and it really shouldn’t be; I’m weak), I highly recommend instead tracking down the much-superior-in-every-way 2012 Laika production ParaNorman for all of your animated monster movie needs.

-Brandon Ledet

Saturday Night (2010)


three star

One of my all-time favorite pop culture documents is Live From New York, the oral history of Saturday Night Live. It’s an impressively thorough work that traces the grueling writer’s room structure of the sketch comedy institution back to the coked-out shenanigans of the 1970s. The absurdly late hours & rapid-fire turnaround that give the show’s more gloriously inane moments their loopy, “Why would someone even write that?” absurdity seem like a very peculiar business practice, but make total sense when considered in the context of their 1970s origins. Over the three decades of SNL covered in the book, not much changes institutionally. The show is like a river that only gradually shifts its course as a constant supply of fresh faces flow through it.

In case you are interested in how SNL functions, but can’t be bothered with the ~700 page task of Live From New York, James Franco has your back. His 2010 documentary Saturday Night was seven years behind the definitive oral history, but is much more easily digestible and covers much of the same territory. The premise is simple: Franco films the one-week cycle of the production a single SNL episode. On the starting Monday, the writers & cast cram into Lorne Michaels’ office to pitch seeds of ideas for sketches that could possibly be developed that week. As the days roll on the crew develops around 50 sketches that get torn down & rebuilt through a series of table readings, producers’ meetings and live rehearsals. They frantically grasp at sketch comedy straws & avoid sleep like the plague with only the faint promise that something they develop makes the live broadcast. After a single day of rest it’s Monday again and they’re pitching sketch ideas for the next SNL host. It’s a punishing/fascinating creative process that may be a hangover of the 70s party scene when rampant drug use could get you through the ordeal, but it’s one that pays off with some of the more bizarre realized ideas on broadcast television for four decades running.

Saturday Night starts with its most amusing moments. It’s genuinely delightful to watch the wheels turn in writers’ & performers’ heads when they’re excited about getting to work on an infant sketch idea. The fun fades a bit as the work gets more difficult, the frustration involved with the detailed logistics of developing a sketch on full display for the camera. Franco’s choice to film a week John Malkovich hosted pays dividends, as his subject is an endlessly fascinating personality even when just standing around idling as the SNL machine swirls around him. Cast members like Bill Hader & Will Forte also carry the film a long way, especially early in the creative process when they’re frantically riffing or selecting fart noises from a sound board. There are a few moments when Franco’s personality becomes intrusive, like a frustratingly useless scene involving Hader’s dressing room mirror & the intentionally conspicuous absence of Amy Poehler, but for the most part he pulls the film off with a calm, low-key tone that benefits the laborious process he documents. Saturday Night is a great companion piece to the more definitive Live From New York book. There are less mind-blowing anecdotes & juicy gossip than in the whopping oral history, but the film brings the day-to-day logistics of the pop culture institution’s unfathomable workload into vivid focus.

Saturday Night is currently streaming on Hulu.

-Brandon Ledet