Scott Tobias

Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.

Though Tobias received a formal education at the University Of Georgia and the University Of Miami, his film education was mostly extracurricular. As a child, he would draw pictures on strips of construction paper and run them through the slats on the saloon doors separating the dining room from the kitchen. As an undergraduate, he would rearrange his class schedule in order to spend long afternoons watching classic films on the 7th floor of the UGA library. He cut his teeth writing review for student newspapers (first review: a pan of the Burt Reynolds comedy Cop and a Half) and started freelancing for the A.V. Club in early 1999.

Tobias currently resides in Chicago, where he shares a too-small apartment with his wife, his daughter, two warring cats and the pug who agitates them.

Since American Pie reconfigured Porky's 20 years ago, the modern sex comedy has abided by a tacit formula. Call it the sweetness-to-raunch ratio. It would be completely unacceptable for comedies about woefully inexperienced dudes to be only about their single-minded pursuit of gratification, so it has to be cut with material about friendship or the tender feelings they can access in vulnerable moments. And age is the key factor: the younger the dudes, the more sweetness required.

The "law of the instrument," sometimes referred to as "Maslow's hammer," is a theory of cognitive bias that's summed up in this useful expression: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

In the interview clip that opens Mike Wallace is Here, a documentary about the legendarily feisty 60 Minutes interrogator, Bill O'Reilly is shown a clip where he berates his guests, telling most of them to "shut up." To Wallace, this is evidence that O'Reilly is more an Op-ed columnist than a journalist, interested in other voices only as a means to assert his own. O'Reilly gives two telling, if contradictory, responses at once: "You're a dinosaur," he says. And then "You're the driving force behind my career."

Hamlet has been sliced and diced dozens of different ways on screen, from the hidebound classicism of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh's versions to Ethan Hawke giving the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in the "Action" section of a Blockbuster Video. But the play is malleable only so long as Shakespeare's language and plotting are preserved, because tinkering with the greatest work in Western literature is dangerous business, like staring directly into the sun.

If Hollywood studios are content to cannibalize the vaults in search of new hits, the first thing they should remember is why the original films were hits in the first place. For all the bells and whistles that went along with the original 1997 Men in Black, with its cutting-edge alien effects, the reason it works is extremely old-fashioned, rooted in an effective cross-pollination between fish-out-of-water comedy and mismatched buddy comedy.

When the Russian rock musical Leto premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it arrived without its director, Kirill Serebrennikov, who was arrested for embezzling about $2 million in state money intended for the avant-garde theater he operates. The arts community in Moscow widely contends that the charges are politically motivated, part of a crackdown on creative freedoms orchestrated by Vladimir Putin and other government officials.

In one of his earliest (and best) films, the 1974 cult musical Phantom of the Paradise, director Brian De Palma conjured a self-fulfilling prophecy, telling the story of an artist whose personal vision is co-opted and commercialized by industry star-makers while he's doomed to haunt the rafters.

Here's the scam that Penny Rust, a small-time con artist played by Rebel Wilson, runs in the opening scene of The Hustle: A sleazy bro walks into a bar, expecting to meet a beautiful, buxom woman he has spent a month courting on a dating app. Instead, he's greeted by Penny, who introduces herself as the woman's sister and makes up some cockamamie story about how her sister is really flat-chested but needs only $500 to get the augmentation to become the stunner he expected. And she takes Venmo if it's convenient to him.

There are two fantasies at play in Long Shot, a political rom-com about a scruffy, unemployed journalist and his unlikely relationship with the glamorous Secretary of State who used to be his babysitter. The first is more or less the same formula its star, Seth Rogen, rode to stardom over a decade ago in Knocked Up, in which he played the unfortunate half of a one-night stand that leads to pregnancy and a deeper commitment to a more attractive, responsible, career-oriented woman.

Released in 1895, the Lumière brothers' "Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon" is generally credited as the first motion picture ever made, and it's exactly what the title suggests: A 46-second static shot of workers leaving a factory. There have been claims of its significance as the basis for a realist or documentary tradition in cinema, but it was more simply a technical demonstration of what would evolve into the great art form of the 20th century and beyond. The development of film as a storytelling medium would take a little time.

The films of Alex Ross Perry thrive on discord, whether their rancor is couched in the high-falutin' language and privilege of literary comedy, as in Listen Up Philip, or festering in the hothouse confinement of Queen of Earth. Even Perry's last film, the uncharacteristically subdued slice-of-life Golden Exits, positioned itself as a subtle challenge for audiences to get on its wavelength.

There's so much to admire about Us, Jordan Peele's muscular follow-up to Get Out, that it's worth appreciating what Peele does when the ebb-and-flow of horror tension reaches low tide. Many of the most celebrated horror maestros are hailed for their big, atmospheric set-pieces, but getting to those moments can often feel like crude narrative patchwork, the listless verses before a killer chorus.

During the first eight years of a 20-year filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi has been unable to leave the country, but he keeps pushing his creative limits, proving the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. His first film under the ban, cagily titled This is Not a Film, was produced under house arrest and smuggled to Cannes on a flash drive embedded in a birthday cake.

A sort of Look Who's Talking for grown-ups, Nancy Meyers' hit 2000 romantic comedy What Women Want now feels like a turn-of-the-millennium relic, recalling a time when Mel Gibson's smirking machismo was considered cute, like an office project worth undertaking. And the end result of that project was Gibson's character, an advertising executive, learning to understand women so he could better sell products to them.

There's a charming little subset of heist films about elderly men pulling off bank jobs, often out of boredom, and the authorities struggling to reconcile these crafty old geezers with the much younger hoodlums they might have expected. Just last year, Robert Redford evoked his Sundance Kid days by playing a genteel stickup artist in The Old Man & the Gun.

Framed through a narrow crack in an adjacent doorway, the opening scene of The Heiresses, a subtle and perceptive character study from Paraguay, plays out from the perspective of a middle-aged woman as strangers pick their way through her dining room. Many of the items are for sale, due to a financial crisis that's threatening her upper-class lifestyle, and the first-person camera seems to quake with anxiety.

In the early-to-mid 2000s, mainstream horror was dominated by series like Saw, Hostel, and Final Destination, each telling stories of torture and mechanized death that mostly repulsed critics, but reflected the darkening mood of the country more than other studio films dared. Look past their can-you-top-this grisliness and they tap into the common fear that young people have no control over their own destiny, that they've given themselves over to some faceless, malevolent force that's really pulling the strings.

There's a scene in Stan & Ollie when Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, a legendary comic duo approaching the end of the line, stare up at a large marquee poster of the new Abbott & Costello vehicle, entitled Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. The year is 1953, nearly two decades since Laurel & Hardy peaked in Hollywood with slapstick classics like Sons of the Desert and Way Out West, and now they're touring through second-rate venues and dodgy flophouses across England.

Mankind has split the atom, sent a man to the moon, and now, in arguably its most unlikely achievement, it has produced a watchable Transformers movie.

When movies go wrong, it usually happens gradually, a slow devolution borne of a series of missteps or a conceit that couldn't be sustained over the long haul. With Ben is Back, the shift is remarkably sudden, like Wile E. Coyote speeding off the edge of a cliff, hovering for just a second, and then plummeting into the canyon below.

A normal way for fans to appreciate Edgar Wright's 2004 zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead is to watch it again and perhaps discover a few grace notes they missed the first or second or third time around. But there's something to be said for considering it through the prism of slavish imitator like Anna and the Apocalypse, a Scottish genre mash-up that plays like a piece of fan art, only with a musical component added.

In Ralph Breaks the Internet, a hyperconnected sequel to the animated hit Wreck-It Ralph, the possibilities of a Disney/Star Wars/Marvel crossover are breathlessly celebrated while fragile masculinity threatens to destroy the world. Cultural anthologists of the future will require no carbon dating to recognize this film as extremely 2018.

When reflecting on the thwarted ambitions of Gary Hart, a Democratic candidate for President in 1984 and 1988, two moments immediately spring to mind. The first is a primary debate in 1984, when the eventual nominee, Walter Mondale, waved off a string of generalities Hart was making about small business and encouraging entrepreneurship: "When I hear your new ideas," Mondale said, "I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef'?," referring to the then-ubiquitous Wendy's commercial campaign.

If Joseph Kahn's Bodied were a stand-up comedian, it would probably describe itself as "politically incorrect" or "an equal-opportunity offender," and you might be inclined to go bottoms-up on the two-drink minimum and beeline for the exit. Kahn and screenwriter Alex Larsen, better known in the hip-hop community as Kid Twist, have designed the film as a comprehensive provocation, blowing up racial and gender stereotypes through a fusillade of tasteless one-liners. It's juvenile. It's irritating.

Since Donald Trump was elected president, there's been a pandemic of newspaper pieces in which a reporter sits down at a Midwest diner, polls a gaggle of older white voters about the latest Trump provocation, and comes away with the not-so-shocking conclusion that they're still in firm support. What's missing from these drive-by features is any deeper sense of how its subjects actually live or how they interact with their communities, so they're defined entirely by their red-state intransigence.

In the political world, the term "astroturfing" refers to a protest movement that's made to appear like an organic expression of grassroots anger, but reveals itself to be bankrolled by deep-pocketed organizations. (It's derived from AstroTurf, the synthetic carpeting that stands in for natural grass in some sporting venues.) Though the term has been abused by partisans and conspiracists inclined to slag political adversaries as paid protestors, it's still an evocative shorthand for faux-authenticity, the "fuzzy concrete" that stands in for the brilliant green emerging from the soil.

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins has only made three features in 20 years, but each one feels like the work of someone who has continued to chip away at her screenplay the entire time — adding details, refining characters, getting everything just so. All three are about families on the edge: Her 1998 debut, Slums of Beverly Hills, follows a teenager (Natasha Lyonne) whose nomadic single father moves her and her brothers from one run-down apartment to another within the same elite school district.

There's a powerful juvenile allure to the raunchy puppets in The Happytime Murders, just as there was in cruder predecessors like Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles or Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police. After all, children who grew up on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and their own collections of plush lovies cross a short bridge to adolescence, when they learn all the swear words and obscure sexual maneuvers in the lexicon.

The following baseball terms apply to The Catcher Was a Spy, a modestly appointed biopic about Moe Berg, a major-league-catcher-turned-OSS-agent during World War II: "Down the middle," "a can of corn," "passed ball," "below the Mendoza line," "designated for assignment."

In other words, it's a consistent underachiever, as washed-out and terminally mediocre as Berg himself was at the end of his long stint in the majors. Or, to quote a favorite schoolyard taunt: We want a catcher, not a belly scratcher. And there's an abundance of belly scratching going on in this film.

With Judd Apatow's 2005 phenomenon The 40-Year-Old Virgin becoming a teenager later this summer, it's entirely fitting that its theme of arrested adolescence continues to dominate studio comedies, despite the third-act assurance in every one of them that, yes, it's perhaps time to grow up and put away childish things. And yet here comes Tag, a hit-or-miss goof about middle-aged men still engaged in a playground battle royale, clinging to their lost youth like a cached beer keg at the end of the night.

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