Aaron Sorkin

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006) s01e01

I wish I were taking a rhetoric class so I could write a paper on whether “Studio 60” aged badly or poorly. I’ve never taken rhetoric and I’ve also never been great at first draft word choice so I’m not sure if that joke’s accurate but I will say it’s about as funny as anything on “Studio 60”’s first episode. I don’t have Amanda Peet or Steven Weber delivering it, so it’s more in the Matthew Perry arena.

But the point of “Studio 60” isn’t to be funny. It’s about the very serious business of being funny. And it doesn’t age well. It doesn’t not hold up—the pilot is just as good as its ever been in the places where it’s good and its got the problems just where it’s always had them—the second half is uneven, starting with the awkward introduction to the “Big Three” of the show-in-the-show’s Friday night sketch comedy program (Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, and Nate Corddry). Then we get Matthew Perry playing the Aaron Sorkin wonder man and he’s not great at it.

But back to it not aging well for a second—one of the things Perry’s so upset about is the network putting the “flag over the network bug” but also the network bug in the first place.

Remember TV before the network bug in the bottom right? Barely, right? There’s a whole generation who doesn’t. Was Aaron Sorkin really mad about networking branding? And the Donald Trump joke isn’t even as bad as realizing Sorkin’s trying to both sides evangelical Christians with Paulson’s devout Christian but we have found out they really are just a couple sheets short of a Klan rally. Aaron Sorkin’s not a futurist or a political scientist, though… given 2016, it turns out neither of those disciplines are worth much.

Anyway.

What Sorkin does do well is his idealized version of the television industry, where upstart Peet can come in and convince Weber they can get rich off being classy. After sketch show producer Judd Hirsch—who can’t be based on Lorne Michaels because Lorne Michaels never made an actually good show—has his “mad as hell” moment on the air, new network president Peet brings back fired but now super successful Perry and Bradley Whitford (it’s a trip, no pun, seeing Whitford stumbling to find his co-lead cred in the show) to prove TV can still be relevant and good.

Just like it was when Edward R. Murrow used the “Jack Benny” show to take down McCarthy. Or when John Belushi’s Samurai Futaba brought the end to Vietnam.

Peet and Weber are great. Paulson’s interesting. Perry’s likable if you like Perry and Whitford’s likable if you like Whitford, though neither of them are particularly good here. And Perry’s hair is goofy.

Nice guest spots from Wendy Phillips, Donna Murphy, and Felicity Huffman.

Timothy Busfield is excellent as the director. He’s kind of the protagonist of the episode. Or at least the constant; he’s waiting to get fired for leaving Hirsch on the air.

Sorkin’s script is full of love of the craft of television making—I mean, control room director idolatry—and when it’s Hirsch, Peet, and Weber’s show it’s smooth sailing. Rockier when Perry takes the helm but it’s such an expensive… classy production it can’t not succeed as a pilot.

Though, disclaimer, I’ve liked Matthew Perry since the eighties so I’m biased. But it’s worth watching for Peet and Weber on their acting alone.

Steve Jobs (2015, Danny Boyle)

Steve Jobs is unexpected. It is a parody of itself, it is a parody of being an “Oscar-worthy” biopic about a topical, zeitgeist figure. Down to having Seth Rogen in a dramatic part. Steve Jobs feels very conscious. In Michael Fassbender’s Jobs, the film gets to create a world where Steve Jobs doesn’t just get to act like a movie star, he gets to look like one too. Director Boyle, cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler, editor Elliot Graham, they embrace the artificiality of it all. Because Aaron Sorkin’s script isn’t a screenplay as much as a filmed stage play, the performance is part of it. The casting is part of it.

Just getting it out there–Rogen’s good. Boyle’s a good enough director, Sorkin’s a good enough writer, they can turn Rogen’s inability to actually act into an asset. Rogen’s so disarming, one really does believe he can do math (and all the other stuff Steve Wozniak can do). It’s a strange performance and Fassbender plays off it a little differently than any other in the film.

Every actor has a different style. Fassbender treats the whole thing as a metamorphosis without every determining whether he’s going from caterpillar to butterfly or butterfly to something else. There’s a weight to the role. Fassbender’s this perfect Aaron Sorkin lead–abrasive but almost always right, condescending but strangely earnest–and Boyle just sits back and watches him go, watches him play off the other actors, who are doing different things.

Kate Winslet’s got this big performance. It’s supporting, but it’s another perfect Sorkin character. Except Winslet’s got her own performance going on, her own understanding of the character. It’s a very different approach than Rogen gets. The film’s about its actors and how they perform the script. Just Sorking walking and talking-style; everyone popping in like it’s A Christmas Carol to tell Ebenezer Jobs how he still hasn’t figured it out yet.

Great supporting performances from Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston.

It’s an understated, strange, wonderful film. Boyle and Sorkin get along like Capra and Riskin, Fassbender and Winslet are phenomenal. Steve Jobs is magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Walter Isaacson; director of photography, Alwin H. Küchler; edited by Elliot Graham; music by Daniel Pemberton; production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas; produced by Boyle, Guymon Casady, Christian Colson, Mark Gordon and Scott Rudin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), Kate Winslet (Joanna Hoffman), Seth Rogen (Steve Wozniak), Jeff Daniels (John Sculley), Michael Stuhlbarg (Andy Hertzfeld), Katherine Waterston (Chrisann Brennan), Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo & Perla Haney-Jardine (Lisa Brennan) and Sarah Snook (Andy Cunningham).


Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller)

Moneyball is the traditional American sports movie with all the excitement sucked out of the accomplishment. The excitement isn’t gone because of the story–about how the Oakland A’s applied a statistical theory to how to win baseball games, but more because director Miller wants to make sure everyone is paying attention to the symbolism in his filmmaking.

Miller’s style is generic, competent important mainstream filmmaking. He has a minimalist Mychael Danna, he has a big movie star (Brad Pitt) playing a guy who didn’t make it, he has a cast-against-type sidekick for Pitt (Jonah Hill), he’s even got Robin Wright as Pitt’s ex-wife. I didn’t realize she was in the cast, but when her single scene came on, I knew it was her before she got a close-up. Why? Because Moneyball is that type of movie.

And the first hour, maybe hour and a half, moves beautifully. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay makes everything–all the baseball business, all the statistics–nicely digestible. It’s a very smooth film for that first ninety minutes, with some great editing from Christopher Tellefsen.

But then Miller realizes he’s making an American sports movie and so he has to do his variation on the big game moment. But because Moneyball isn’t “just” a sports movie, everything goes on and on and on after that moment. It meanders when it needs to come together and the ending is way too obvious.

Still, it’s perfectly acceptable mainstream “thinking” movie stuff.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bennett Miller; written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on a story by Stan Chervin and the book by Michael Lewis; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe), Robin Wright (Sharon), Chris Pratt (Scott Hatteberg) and Stephen Bishop (David Justice).


Walk and Talk the Vote (2012, Michael Mayers)

Walk and Talk the Vote reunites the “West Wing” cast–including Martin Sheen as President Bartlet, which I wasn’t expecting, but a lot of it feels like it could have just been impersonators.

The only time the commercial–for Mary McCormack’s sister, Bridget Mary McCormack–gets any energy is when characters are actually talking to each other and the actors are visibly getting in rhythm with each other. It happens especially with Allison Janney and Bradley Whitford and a little with Sheen and Lily Tomlin. Poor Richard Schiff, who doesn’t talk with anyone so much as at them, looks a little lost.

Also lost are Joshua Malina and Janel Moloney. They literally disappear after their initial appearance.

It’s a neat idea and not a bad commercial to encourage people to vote the non-partisan portion of the ballot, but John Cockrell’s script is really forced.

Whitford and Janney save it.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mayers; screenplay by John Cockrell, inspired by a television show created by Aaron Sorkin; director of photography, Mayers; edited by Greg Arata; music by Kyle Newmaster; produced by Mary McCormack and Michael Morris.

Starring Allison Janney (C.J. Cregg), Janel Moloney (Donna Moss), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman), Mary McCormack (Kate Harper), Joshua Malina (Will Bailey), Melissa Fitzgerald (Carol Fitzpatrick), Lily Tomlin (Deborah Fiderer) and Martin Sheen as the President.


Malice (1993, Harold Becker)

Malice starts relatively okay, but it’s got a terribly flawed first half. Until the point Bill Pullman takes over as lead character, especially as Alec Baldwin and Nicole Kidman are spiraling through their lawsuit, it seems like Malice is going to be a well-produced disaster. It’s well-made, reasonably well-directed–Becker does a good job for the most part, but he has some really poor setups–and well-written. As it started, I wondered who was going to have written it… Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank (which is probably why I queued it). It’s got a good Jerry Goldsmith score, lovely cinematography… Pullman’s good, Bebe Neuwirth is good, Alec Baldwin has some good scenes. Why would it, had the story not focused on Pullman, have been such an unmitigated disaster?

Nicole Kidman gives one of the singularly worst performances of the 1990s, though probably not the worst of her career. Hearing her speak lovely Sorkin dialogue makes the ears bleed. After a while, someone caught on, because they were using her hair to express emotion. It’s astounding and proof the Hollywood star machine has never gone away (because there’s no reason Kidman should have gotten as far as Malice in her career without a critic calling her laugh-out-loud funny).

But once it switches gears and follows Pullman–the scenes with Pullman and Neuwirth really help and, along with the production value, make the movie–it turns into a revisionist Hitchcock. It’s like a modern Suspicion with Bill Pullman as Joan Fontaine. And Nicole Kidman is one of the tires on the car at the end of Suspicion.

Anyway.

The film has an unnecessary thriller element added to the first half (because it’s not really a thriller) and it’s an afterthought, even when watching. When the mystery gets near being resolved–after giving Gwyneth Paltrow a well-acted cameo–I’d forgotten it was a subplot. Thrillers tend to be geared towards first viewings. Repeat viewings either reveal one is just an immersive story without anything going for it besides the final resolution or if it’s one with some more content to it. Malice, very surprisingly, turns out to be one with some more content.

Anne Bancroft’s small role alone probably justifies a second viewing, but Baldwin’s character is actually rather complicated and there are some very interesting scenes near the beginning, considering the ending, which carry some weight. There’s also that Pullman and Neuwirth chemistry.

Malice would be a lot better if Pullman and Neuwirth’s names came first. It’d also benefit from a longer running time and a female actor in Kidman’s role who could believably sit in a cafe in the background of an action movie during a chase scene, remaining onscreen for a quarter of a second.

But, I suppose, Kidman’s atrocious performance is a testament to Malice’s qualities.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Harold Becker; screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, from a story by Sorkin and Jonas McCord; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by David Bretherton; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designed by Philip Harrison; produced by Rachel Pfeffer, Charles Mulvehill and Becker; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Bill Pullman (Andy Safian), Nicole Kidman (Tracy Kennsinger), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Jed Hill), Bebe Neuwirth (Det. Dana Harris), George C. Scott (Dr. Martin Kessler), Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kennsinger), Peter Gallagher (Atty. Dennis Riley), Josef Sommer (Atty. Lester Adams), Tobin Bell (Earl Leemus), William Duff-Griffin (Dr. George Sullivan), Debrah Farentino (Nurse Tanya), Gwyneth Paltrow (Paula Bell), David Bowe (Dr. Matthew Robertson) and Diana Bellamy (Ms. Worthington).


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